This category contains 17 posts

All My Skinny Friends Are Dead

This is a real quote from a real person who, when she got hungry in the middle of the night, got up to fix herself a “little plate,” and was a little proud of it, too.

Ask my dad. It was his mother.

My Grandma Bel loved to cook (as I do) and loved to eat (as I do). Too much of either of these 2 hobbies ‒ let alone both together ‒ can get you into too much trouble.

(Don’t try this at home, but she also smoked for 50 years, never exercised a day in her life, typical of women of her generation, and lived to be 87.)

Flax, fiber, and all those other ffffffffoods just make me sad. Same with those grassy drinks that taste like I fell face-down in a putting green.

Then someone sent around this photo and commentary and suddenly I felt a whole lot better.

Now, it’ll be awhile before I’m 51, but who do I want to look like when that time comes? The woman who recommends colonic irrigation, or the woman who recommends passion-fruit mousse?

Everyone in the UK knows Nigella Lawson, but she’s a different kind of food celebrity than the pompous Gordon Ramsay or the breezy Jamie Oliver or the mama’s boy ‒ in his case, that’s a compliment ‒ Raymond Blanc.

(If you don’t think you have the time or the skills to cook a French meal on a weeknight, try Chef Blanc’s Bresse Chicken with Red Wine Vinegar.)

This quote is from the forward to one of Nigella’s books: “I am not a chef. I am not even a trained or professional cook. My qualification is as an eater. I cook what I want to eat – within limits.”

Now, there are some people for whom limits, however loosely defined, work fine. How lucky is that. Then there are others (of us) who best put our formal training to use mostly by feeding other enthusiastic eaters.

Which I don’t mind at all, so come on over, prepared to eat your peas.

We don’t need to be told by President Obama to eat our peas. It’s all about how they’re prepared. Only in the UK does the waiter give you a choice between “garden peas” and “mushy peas” and people actually order the latter on purpose.

Personally, I like all vegetables, including lima beans, collard greens, and ‒ wait for it ‒ rutabagas. Okra any way but stewed. Cauliflower minus the cheese, cheese sauce, or cheese-flavored bread crumbs. (One chef friend, formerly of the Four Seasons New York, oven-roasts cauliflower and broccoli flowers with olive oil, salt, pepper, and lemon slices.)

But the world doesn’t come to an end when you eat that hamburger at the summer barbeque. As long as it’s only one ‒ hint: if you’re the BBQ operator, you’re too busy to eat ‒ and you skip the mayonnaise.

The world will, however, come to an end the moment you put one of those egg-less, cheese-less, why-bother meat impersonators on the grill. They sell a scarily similar product in the tile repair department at ACE Hardware.

I completely respect people who avoid meat for religious or health reasons, or out of social conviction. However, even if a veggie burger is labeled “healthy,” please read the ingredients carefully. In addition to vegetables and grains, you may get methylcellulose, also known as food additive E461, a non-digestible chemical emulsifier used in shampoo, toothpaste, and paint.

You may also get evaporated cane juice, which is just sugar. Actually a little sweeter than sugar, but at least it’s a real food…and thus perfectly legal for prepared foods labeled “organic” to contain it.

So, your choice is not only meat vs. vegetables, it’s also meat vs. sugar.

(Aside: I think a great solution to prison overcrowding would be to sentence convicts to being Lifetime Vegans with No Possibility of Parole. Ugh. Send me to a real jail.)

The “all my skinny friends are dead” quote was born when my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. The treatment caused her to lose a lot of weight…and her trademark fiery red hair, too, which was actually worse. Her theory was that if you have some extra weight to lose, chemotherapy or radiation doesn’t leave you looking like the emaciated woman in the photo above, Scottish TV health guru Gillian McKeith, whose best-selling strategies have been repeatedly debunked by clinical nutritionists and food scientists as phony and dangerous.

On the other hand, if you run ultra-marathons and have 8% body fat, you don’t have much leeway. (My grandma would be ultra-proud of my sister, then, who claims to run only when chased.)

Now, the possibility of getting cancer does NOT excuse any of us from being height-weight proportionate, no matter how much it hurts (and you have no idea). But in Grandma Bel’s case, diverging from the mean hurt less than usual.

And it was incredibly interesting how true her comment was, thinking back on her close circle of friends and what happened to them, versus to her, who had not only beaten back cancer, but also, despite admittedly a few too many of those “little plates…”

…lived for 20 more years afterwards.

Santa’s Sub-Contractor Meets with Demanding Customers, Stuttgart

You were just in Germany, they said. Why are those people getting twice as many gifts?

Because they’re 2 years old. TWINS.

Most of us don’t remember being 2, but our parents definitely remember. The “terrible twos,” as that phase of child development is commonly called in English, and most of us lived up to that title pretty spectacularly.

Then imagine if there had been twice as many of you.


Let’s call them Twin A (her real first initial) and Twin B (who’s actually the oldest, and never lets you forget it) ‒ are their grandparents’ only, and long-awaited, grandchildren.

That’s what I call a gift “situation.”

Since 2-year-olds are demanding about everything, especially about doing everything “by myself,” it’s not surprising that they’d be really opinionated about their Christmas lists. While 2-year-olds don’t write lists, they carry them in their heads and point to items as they see them.

“I want that one.” If the answer is no, then we try “Siiiiiiiiii!” or “Jaaaaaaaaaa,” experimenting with the volume.

Fortunately for the twins, but unfortunately for everybody else, they can demand things multiple languages. Their parents come from different countries and up until recently the family lived in yet another country…complete with a local “grandma” who adored the twins and satisfied their every whim.

Then you move home, just in time for Christmas, to twice as many adoring grandparents.

European children don’t typically watch TV, so advertisers don’t have the same opportunity to create demand for everything from ant farms to alien robots. But there are still plenty of temptations in every store, just at 2-year-old eyeball level, where somebody in Marketing got straight As in product placement.

But 2-year-olds have a big weakness that cagey adults can, and do, exploit: they’re very easily distracted.

They’re also easily distracted by things that are FREE, like Christmas lights, trees, and ornaments. (But only from a distance; you break it, you buy it.)

Then there’s chocolate, which has its very own category.

My first afternoon in Stuttgart, the twins came back from the nanny…each carrying a burlap sack, a miniature version of what Santa gave me to deliver gifts, filled with chocolates.

They just weren’t interested in hearing that it was a gift and thus you’re supposed to wait until Christmas to open it. Come on, that makes no sense. Nikolaus would never say something like that.

The burlap sacks mysteriously disappeared after the twins went to bed that night, but the next day, on a completely different topic, the grownups mentioned c-h-o-c-o-l-a-t-e. Immediately, the twins said, ”Schokolade!”

2-year-olds who don’t speak English and can’t spell in any language know exactly what we’re talking about, proving that adults are fooling themselves and should’ve given up on that spelling thing long ago.

We’re careful not to mention our plan to visit the Ritter Sport Schokoladenmuseum in Waldenbuch, at which I bought 4000g of premium chocolate, including 75% Cacao baking chocolate (note to readers who live nearby), for a grant total of 20€.

Well, 20 Euros 54 centimes, to be precise.

There are ever so many sweets in Germany anytime, but especially at Christmastime. You can’t get away from them, even if you tried. The airlines pass out chocolate bars. Twice on every flight. Hotels leave little packages of Gummi bears on your pillow, then ask you if you left them behind on purpose.

And there’s nothing that motivates 2-year-olds more than repetition…and repetitive success.

If it works on Mom & Dad once, great, but it might be a coincidence. If it works twice, the idea has definite promise. If it works on grandparents and honorary aunts, too ‒ ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.

The parental decision at hand: do we want a war now or later? Two toddlers amp’d up on sugar and hanging from the chandeliers at 23:00 when you’re dead-tired and will agree to anything, or two toddlers having a daytime screaming fit outdoors, where they have to compete with football fans and accordion music?

We’ll take Option 2, with Glühwein to go. (Since this is probably the last Christmas we might be able to convince the twins that dates are also in fact candy, that’s worth a try, too.)

For Twin A & B’s parents, who didn’t ask for the 2-for-1 family plan but after getting over the shock are really good sports about their double stroller life (and admit to having twice as much fun, on some days anyway), make it “mit Schuss” (with a shot).

So, with a “Vielen Dank” to the pilot of flight LH 1773 from Istanbul, who not only found my Blackberry, but also answered my incoming calls on his way to the airport lost & found, we’re off on the next leg of our journey, 1200 kilometers and 5 degrees Celcius away…

Syria Facebook Family Welcomes Baby Boy, Ghiath Ghiath Mattar

Life goes on in wartime and through social media activism we’ve come to share in the milestones of families in the Middle East whom we’ve never met.

Deaths (of natural causes) of elders, promises of marriage, births of children whose expectant fathers waited patiently for them, but who died before they were born.

Ghiath Mattar was one of these young men, a 25-year-old activist from Daraya. Here’s how the news unfolded this week:

Tuesday 15 Nov: Ghiath Mattar the Young man who died under torture in the Thug detention, do you remember him? his wife is in labor now… pray for her please

Wednesday 16 Nov: Urgent : Daraya “Damascus Suburbs” Ghiath never left us… he will always be in our heart. Yesterday his wife gave birth to a wonderful healthy young boy… they Called him Ghiath we promise you young Ghiath… we will not rest… until we bring who killed your father to justice

Then this morning, Thursday 17 Nov: I Could not hold my tears when i saw this photo please all welcome Ghiath Ghiath Mattar

(…because the child’s middle name is the father’s first name, regardless, for boys and girls.)

Ghiath and other little boys and girls like him, born during this the first year of protests, are the future of a free, democratic Syria, for which their loved ones ‒ approaching 4,500 citizens, no matter what the UN death toll says, stuck at 3,500 for months ‒ gave their lives.

Well-wishers posted many comments, including “precious child,” “SO beautiful mashallah,” “habibi” (my dear), a hope that he’ll grow up “dans un monde paisible, très bientôt” (in a peaceful world, soon to come), and “the most famous baby in Syria!”

Someone even nominated little Ghiath for President!

Mabrouk (congratulations), Mattar Family! Here’s Ghiath’s wife holding baby Ghiath, posted on 20 Nov.

The activist who shared this photo with us added the following note:

“My Heart breaks every time i think that this young child will never know his father …will never play with him …will never hold him…

but when i saw her Smile… i believed that the Syrian will Win this fight
and Assad will be brought to justice

Bless you Sister… bless your child… and bless your husband… may he rest in peace”

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Tundra?

Because she’s Henrietta the Eighth, my great-niece’s great great great…niece.

Who lives in rural Alaska, where there aren’t many roads, and even fewer chickens.

At first, I wanted nothing to do with Henrietta the First. It’s no secret that I dislike birds anyway and no fowl related to me was going to be wearing diapers in the house. But to prove that you can find absolutely anything on YouTube, try searching on videos with step-by-step instructions on how to make diapers for chickens.

But once Henrietta the First started proving her worth ‒ in a reproductive sort of way ‒ I started to change my mind. Although admittedly my mind was going more toward Chicken Cordon Bleu, one recipe I can confirm is not taught at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.

Henrietta the First started out as my niece’s school science project. Hatch the egg and watch it grow from a chick to a hen (or rooster). Learn responsibility by caring for the chicken: feeding it, watering it, providing shelter for it.

Which in Alaska is no small task, for any pet.

The chicken’s water freezes overnight. The chicken house insulation proves insufficient. Teenage chickens try to sneak out of the house after dark when the chicken house door freezes just slightly ajar and are held without bail under the kitchen counter while the deputy chef calls their parents.

So, Henrietta was Chicken Zero, from whom came chicken children and grandchildren, to the nth generation.

Being the family matriarch, a position of importance in bush Alaska society ‒ elders of both genders often receive gifts from the community for no particular occasion, but especially around this time of year ‒ saved Henrietta the First, who eventually died of natural causes, from ever “volunteering” for the chicken and dumplings, the chicken noodle soup, and the chicken fried steak (or is that steak fried chicken?)

But recently one of Henrietta’s offspring ‒ a rooster, not surprisingly ‒ went a bit too far and made a huge scratch down the side of my niece’s face (but luckily not poking her eye out), proving that little chickens, just like little people, hate going to bed and will fight you every step of the way.

My sister posted a photo of this injury on Facebook with the title “Revenge of the Chicken,” quickly comment by someone else: “Guess who’s for dinner!”

Who everyone did eat for dinner, except my niece, who refuses to eat anyone she knows.

Except for dogs, which besides companionship and tradition are essential for safety and sometimes transportation, Alaskans are pretty practical about animals. They’re on this earth for us to respect ‒ and in the wild are very much a part of Native religious beliefs ‒ but also to consume.

So, you look up from the king salmon fillet on your plate to the king salmon sculpture on your wall and don’t find this at all incongruous.

Everyone in Alaska admires moose and there’s endless art, literature, and song by Natives and non-Natives alike about these magnificent, intimidating, and ‒ make no mistake ‒ dangerous animals.

Moose basically own the place and go wherever they want, whenever they want. Click here for the Anchorage Moose Cam and see the “Moose of the Moment!”

Don’t be surprised if you walk out of baggage claim at ANC and while you’re waiting for your hotel shuttle see a moose on the island road divider right across from you, munching on grass. Some family friends were making breakfast one morning, only to look over and see a moose trying to stick his head through the kitchen window.

And finding his antlers weren’t a good fit, which was too bad, because breakfast was smelling really good. It’s no accident that the most popular children’s book in Alaska is called If You Give a Moose a Muffin…

Or, check out a photo taken on my Blackberry last night, of a moose knocking on a neighbor’s door where we’re staying (while my niece and nephew are in town to compete in the state swim meet). Guess he didn’t read the sign that says “No Solicitations.”

Anyway, those very same moose-loving Alaskans will spend days trekking and flying in unpleasant weather ‒ although my brother-in-law insists there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes ‒ looking for moose and, if they’re lucky and find one, won’t hesitate to shoot him (by law, it’s always a male), bring him home, and put every bit to a useful purpose.

You’ll hear more from, and about, Mr. Moose another day. Right now, let’s talk about Halibut Quiche with Garlic-Citrus Garnish.

Henrietta 1, Halibut 0.

What a Difference a Day Makes

Whether you’re in the oven or at the beach, you’re still roasting.

On holidays, which is any time of year we manage to be together, our family likes going to the beach while dinner is cooking. (Alternate itinerary: hiking along a ridge overlooking the beach.)

While this tradition proactively burns off a few calories, true, and does help you feel less anxious when dinner smells so ready but the timer says (sob!) 2 more hours, here’s the real reason:

You might just meet some nice people at the beach who don’t have any particular plans.

Naturally you invite the lonelies home for dinner and every holiday season thereafter receive beautiful cards with photos of their beautiful families.

This past Labor Day weekend, we went to the beach as usual, content in knowing this time someone else would surely have a grill fired up, burger accessories at the ready, and a full menu of guests.

The beach was perfectly foggy and still and there’s nothing like salt air to make everything seem right again on an end-of-summer field trip before everyone goes back to school and work…including Congress who, unlike most of us, just enjoyed a 5- or 6-week paid vacation.

Supposedly visiting their constituents in their home districts, although after checking their alibis, funny how no constituents actually saw them.

But I wonder how many of our elected officials drove home last weekend from the beach, where we should’ve looked for them in the first place, past pumpkin fields and Christmas tree farms, wondering as we did: is it just our imagination, or do these holidays keep coming on us earlier and earlier every year?

Today, the 10th anniversary of September 11th, I’m thinking: where has the decade gone?

I was driving to work that Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, when I heard the news over the radio. At first, it sounded like a replay for an anniversary piece about some other attack. Maybe the World Trade Center bombing? I scanned my memory for that date and came up empty.

Then I passed Starbucks and saw an out-of-place big-screen TV. I slammed on my brakes. Inside there were 4 baristas serving no-one and 100 customers ordering nothing.

Once we saw that infamous replay of the 2nd plane, United flight 175 from Boston to LAX, hitting the Twin Towers, any hope this was nothing more than a tragic accident was gone, overtaken by fear: at this very moment, are there more planes, circling over more cities?

Maybe even Seattle?

My colleagues and I dribbled into work, some learning about the attack for the first time, others already knowing and wandering around in a daze.

Facilities was broadcasting CNN onto movie screens in large conference rooms all over campus. Conference rooms filled with employees ‒ eerily silent, frozen in place ‒ missing meetings, phone calls, lunch, dinner…because nothing mattered except finding loved ones, and loved ones finding us.

And finding out who had done this, and why, and how in the world they’d gotten away with it.

(I didn’t realize until the next day that my family, mistakenly thinking I was on the East coast, had been trying frantically to reach me and getting voice mail.)

Then came our collective amazement ‒ and anger ‒ at how within hours of the attacks the FBI had identified all 19 perpetrators on the 4 airplanes and published detailed bios, yet somehow in all the months and years prior to 9/11 had never identified them at all, let alone as dangerous.

Despite bizarre details, telling anecdotes, and red flags just screaming for follow-ups that never happened. Right up until the very day of the attack.

(To be fair, the CIA already knew 2 of the men, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, were members of al-Qaeda with strong Islamic militant credentials, but because the CIA didn’t share that knowledge with the FBI or Immigration, known terrorists were given US visas with warm welcomes. Warm welcomes they promptly repaid by killing thousands of Americans.)

A few years later, the 9/11 Commission published a damning report. I read it ‒ all 585 pages ‒ and found it well-written, even engrossing. But a stark reality stayed with me: as long as we have at least 15 different intelligence agencies, with varying levels and traditions of secrecy, competing for funding and credit, even another disaster as devastating as 9/11 ultimately can’t and won’t prevent the intelligence community ‒ umbrella bureaucracy or no ‒ from eventually sliding back into exactly the “we-just-didn’t-connect-the-dots” situation that terrorists love.

In which they thrive.

In which, while TSA gropes kindergarteners, scrutinizes our brand choices in toothpaste, and wipes the insides of our pockets for explosives residue, young men traveling with no luggage, from countries with known terrorism risks, whose own fathers have reported them to the authorities saying they’re dangerous, can still buy one-way airplane tickets to the United States.

With cash. No questions asked.

But how a good friend of mine ‒ a European woman in her 40s, a mother of American-born children, a classical musician with performance credits on 3 continents ‒ is inexplicably on the terrorist watch list and has to go through lengthy, humiliating secondary screening anytime she flies…all because she inherited her Arab maiden name from her immigrant great-grandparents.

But today we remember those who lost their lives on 9/11, the victims who never saw it coming, and some whose last moments on this earth were filled with horror, and the rescuers who looked at it square in the face and ran toward it anyway, to whom we owe a debt of honor.

After almost 3,000 memorial services and beginnings of the World Trade Center cleanup and tragic reprisals against Americans who “looked foreign,” I remember how profoundly 9/11 stayed with us through that fall. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s took on a new sobriety, even while family and friends carved pumpkins and counted shopping days, discussing holiday menus and what’s the story with him, her, and them becoming vegan since last year?

But before all that, before I moved overseas and began traveling to places where 9/11 was a news item, not an experience, I flew to Alaska.

The first state in which the FAA opened airspace after 9/11.

See, there were tourists on fishing trips in the wild who hadn’t heard anything about the terrorists attacks and were stranded, running low on provisions, day after day wondering why their rides never showed up. Kids who never made it home after school on 9/11 ‒ because their school bus is an airplane ‒ and were being cared for by generous local families.

Remote villages dependent on air freight, who’d started pooling their food, just in case.

The day of my completely full flight westward from Anchorage, the heat went out in our plane…everywhere except in the cockpit.

The flight attendants passed out blankets, coffee, and apologies. The captain left the cockpit door open for the duration of the flight, saying he hoped some warm air would flow back to us eventually.

This, just 3 weeks after 9/11.

Alaska tradeoff analysis: break countless new federal regulations on a flight carrying your postmaster, your pastor, and 10 of your relatives, or have to explain to your child’s teacher why you let his very pregnant wife in seat 3B catch cold on her flight home from the doctor?

And that’s how Americans went on after 9/11. Prudent, but not paralyzed. Devastated, yet determined.

Walking along the beach a few days later, we joked about our family tradition and how we really hoped to meet some people to invite home for dinner, but sadly no-one except us braved the icy wind off Bristol Bay.

Even the caribou stayed home.

Afterwards, we went to the airport to pick up other members of our dinner party, friends who were flying in for the weekend from the city.

We watched their plane circle around twice. Nothing ominous, we knew; just allowing another plane to take off first and giving visitors a 2nd-chance photo op of the tundra’s fall colors.

Then we watched it land safely, and soon family and friends, gifts and groceries, laughter and love came spilling out onto the runway.

Off-Season at the Derby

I like Western states for the same reason I like aisle seats: they’re on the edge.

The problem with Kentucky, besides the fact that it’s “hotter than blazes,” announces the flight attendant as we land in Lexington, and that iced tea comes pre-sweetened, is that it’s in the middle.

(Actually, Kentucky is considered the south, but we’ll get back to that.)

I once turned down a perfectly good job…in Chicago. Respectfully, I must decline because lakes, however vast yours might be, just aren’t the same. Any time I get too far away from the ocean, I start feeling panicky.

I’m liking Lexington, Kentucky just fine, thank you…because I’m holding an onward ticket to Vancouver, British Columbia.

You already know all about my forebears’ Kentucky business endeavors. But this visit, let’s focus on the legal ones.

After all, we’re in the Bluegrass State.

Kentucky is famous for many other things besides bluegrass music, the Kentucky Derby, and its sometimes championship winning ‒ this year’s unfortunate NCAA details ‒ men’s and women’s basketball teams.

Kentucky was the first southern state to adopt the Civil Rights Act in 1966. It’s known for its Victorian architecture. It hosts the International Bar-B-Q Festival.

It manufactures the Corvette!

And maybe it’s just my imagination, but all around me are honest-truth, blue-green fields, prettily dotted with white farm houses and divided by white picket fences.

Kentucky’s motto ‒ or at least its marketing tagline ‒ is “Revere the horse,” which I take to mean revere the horse-owning, -riding, -showing lifestyle, which I find fascinating, despite having no interest in achieving it personally.

My shuttle driver Leon doesn’t own horses, either, nor does he drink or smoke, 2 other fundamental pastimes in these parts, but he more than makes up for it in Wildcats fever. In violation of his employer’s dress code, he wears a University of Kentucky jersey, just to prove his point.

I asked if he was a native Kentuckian, born and raised. Yes, ma’am, but horses are raised, he’s quick to point out. Children are brought up.

Of course.

Although Lexington is the 2nd-largest city in Kentucky, population half a million, it feels deserted in mid-summer. Anyone left in town is in the pool, or at Starbucks. Besides the upcoming Taylor Swift concert, there’s nothing much scheduled at the Rupp Arena and conferences at the business hotels are sparse.

However, there’s an important horse sale happening on Saturday, for which many prospective buyers are flying in from out of town, ready to spend more on animals listed in the Horse Classifieds than I earn in a year.

For championship-caliber equine stock, make that a lifetime.

Chit-chat on the plane is of horse shows, horse breeding, and horse boarding. I changed stables (or farms) to whom and why and what for.

Oh, and horse racing.

The Kentucky Derby is actually held in Louisville in early May, but Lexington is still Derby County, which is close enough….for the Derby parties!

More fashionable people than me ‒ which, let’s be honest, is everybody ‒ tend to attend the Barnstable Brown Party, the place to see and be seen on Derby Eve. Or the black-tie Julep Ball, which raises money for a cancer charity. Or the Night of Silk, if your heart’s desire is to meet one of the jockeys in person.

Here we are again, 3 months and 4,000 miles away from the British Royal Wedding, shopping for hats!

Ann Sawyer Fabulous Hats, Inc. closes daily at 5pm sharp, like most everything else in downtown Lexington. Which is enough to drive crazy anyone who’s lived in Italy, because at 5pm you’re just waking up from the afternoon “il pisolino” and haven’t decided whether to maybe think about wandering down the street for a gelato.

Take your time. Dinner’s not ‘til 9:30pm/21:30.

Since it might be awhile before I’m invited to another Royal Wedding, although I admit to scanning the London tabloids to see what Prince Harry is up to, I’m relieved to see that the hat I bought for his brother Wills’ nuptials is going to work perfectly next spring at Churchill Downs.

Ms. Sawyer is the official hat designer of the Kentucky Derby and has made hats for First Ladies, actresses, minor royalty, and wives of famous athletes, referred to in a style I thought went out in the 1950s: Mrs. “Husband’s First and Last Name.”

Her Racing Collection is a predictable assortment of Ascot contenders, low $120/high $1200, with pleasant choices in the $400-600 range. Terribly sorry, Ann, but that one you’re selling in peach for $395? I bought that identical hat in London, in blue.

For a mere 30£ ($50), including VAT.

It’s a steamy Thursday night in a town square called “Cheapside”…because it’s where African slave families were separated and the least desirable from each “shipment” ‒ the young, old, injured, and weak ‒ were auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Generations later, families of every ethnicity gather here, greeting friends and neighbors. Kids splash in the fountain. Parents drink bourbon by the glass.

From the stage, Celtic sounds of Appalachia cross musical paths with African sounds of jazz and blues. “A high lonesome sound,” bluegrass great Bill Monroe used to call it.

Then the reggae band invites the crowd to slow dance…to Kentucky’s most famous love song, and the official song of the Kentucky Derby:

“My Old Kentucky Home (Good-night)”

Listening to Mothers

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad: here’s the latest of your daily democracy wake-up calls. It’s at your own peril, this not listening to mothers.

When Syrian mothers, wives, and daughters marched in the city of Banias, demanding the release of men in their families who’d been arrested during demonstrations, 100 of the men were released the next day.

Nice sound bite for the media, but you know perfectly well that’s not nearly all of those you imprisoned, maybe less than 10% (and you’ve arrested 8,000 people to date). If you thought this would appease us, you didn’t listen very well.

Had you’d asked us, here’s what we really wanted for Syrian Mother’s Day, March 21st:

No more killing. No more brutalizing. No more justifying.

Because you know better, Bashar. We’re ashamed of you.

(Some of these men were released with injuries worthy of this sober Facebook observation: “This (photos attached) is what can happen to you in custody of the Syrian secret police for less than 24 hours.”)

Mothers took to the streets of Damascus again on Monday (despite being attacked by Assad’s security forces in Arnon Square on Saturday). Because we know once Mom gets an idea in her head, there’s just no stopping her.

Particularly when it comes to protecting her loved ones and making sure they keep on the straight and narrow, goals that aren’t mutually exclusive.

Sometimes the worst threat you can make to criminals is not that they’ll go to jail. It’s that you’ll tell their mothers ‒ or grandmothers ‒ about the bad things they did.

Because, I’m telling you, Ma’am: that there is a fate worse than death.

Questions mothers ask, even if you’re in your 30s and 40s: are you dressing warmly (take an extra fleece)? taking your vitamins (here’s a year’s supply)? being careful when you go bungee jumping, night diving, and ice climbing? (please spare me the details)

I’m not going to stop you from building that kit airplane (and test-flying it afterwards with your equally worrisome brother), but I’m going to worry about you the whole time, and that’s my prerogative.

I told you a million times growing up: Because I’m The Mom.

When you’re the mom or dad, you’ll worry, too. My dearest wish for you is that you’ll have kids exactly like yourselves, and then you’ll see why all that worrying was justified.

Mom Herting, we love you for it, despite your dearest wish probably coming true. Starting soon.

Although there are people I’d rather be a little less related to than others, I know I’ll hear from readers who lost the family lottery and have chosen their own families from among friends, colleagues, and extended others.


Bravo to my mom, who was a “chosen mom” to 11 kids who were at our house for various periods and reasons over the past 35+ years. I counted: we’re still in touch with 7 of them.

Bravo to a friend of my sister’s and mine, who recently posted some new family photos on Facebook that included a teenage girl I’d never seen before. (She and her husband are parents of toddlers.) Turns out, this teenager is the child of a child our friend’s parents took in years ago.

They’d staged an intervention and the biological mother agreed it was the best thing.

Catching kids about to be casualties of adult-created disasters, and caring for kids almost grown up, having never learned the meaning of that word, continues in our friend’s family to a 2nd generation.

Which reminds me of another mother’s funeral I attended a few years ago. When I arrived, I was ushered up to one of the front rows. Since I wasn’t family, I couldn’t figure out why.

Until I looked at all the other people sitting in those rows and realized that none of them were family, either.

We were all friends of her children, and their children. Cousins many times removed. Kids she’d taught in elementary school. One boy who’d come over for a weekend sleepover and whose mother just never came to pick him up.

So he stayed. For the duration. Come to think of it, he gave one of the eulogies.

His mother, not in quotes, had specified this seating plan in her funeral arrangements.

Then there are some loving mothers who, tragically, have to bury their sons. Like Khaled Said’s mother, Laila Marzok.

Khaled Said, whose brutal, senseless murder at the hands of Egyptian police so enraged Egyptian youth that they launched a peaceful pro-democracy revolution that successfully ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak in February.

On the last night of his life, Khaled had encouraged his mother to go out and visit her sister, and she had. She came home around midnight to find him not there.

Uncharacteristically, he didn’t come home, or call. His mobile phone went directly to voice mail. Sensing something was wrong, she went down to the cafés along the seaside to look for him.

There she found his friends. She asked them whether they’d seen Khaled. They looked at her strangely.

You didn’t know? they said. He’s in the morgue.

…and she screamed and screamed, not believing.

The Egyptian police had dragged Khaled out of one of those cafés, beating him mercilessly before carrying him away. The business owners nearby had tried to intervene and in doing so had been attacked themselves.

Mrs. Marzok then went to the morgue to identify her son…and hardly recognized him. (Good news today: Dr. ElSibaei, Egypt’s top autopsy and forensic specialist, who fabricated the results of Khaled Said’s autopsy to favor the police version of events, has just been fired.)

It’s difficult to believe in a cause when you’re the one who has to lose a loved one in its defense, yet still she believes. She thinks of her son every day, and the life he could’ve had in a democratic Egypt, but she knows it’s what he would’ve wanted.

So, on Egyptian national TV, she put her arms around a young man her son’s age who will have that chance.

…and she demonstrated in Tahrir Square for 2 weeks with Khaled’s friends and peers. “I will stand with them,” she told BBC (with an English voice-over), “and be their mother.”

This is Mother’s Day season around the world. American kids, heads up: Sunday May 8th is this weekend. I’m bound to get testy emails from people whose mothers live far away and didn’t get those cards and flowers in the mail already.

Thanks for nothing, Jeanette, for posting this reminder too late.

Hey, I’m not your mother.

For expatriates in France, remember that Mother’s Day is May 29th this year and La Fête des Mères follows quickly afterward on June 7th.

No, a single gift, bouquet, and dinner will not cover both events. Do not offend your future French mother-in-law over this.

Then there are mothers who shouldn’t be mothers to anyone…like Ms. Mixon, name unknown. (There’s a good reason why she might want to be vague about that.)

In 2009, her son Lovelle shot and killed 4 Oakland, California police officers and injured a 5th…and raped 2 young women…all on the same day.

Afterwards, she marched in a vigil in his honor, at which he was called a “hero” and his killing “genocide.” Police shouldn’t have shot him because he was a good boy.

Face it, Ms. Mixon: your son was a monster. He was a one-man crime machine.

How fortunate he was stopped, permanently, before he hurt anybody else. (After his death, he was implicated by DNA for several other felonies.) Because he would’ve, and in your heart you know that.

And I think so did she.

My freshman year at university, this kindly older lady worked in the admissions office. A mothering type to students who needed help navigating the mysteries of enrollment, which turned out to be almost as difficult as getting a degree itself.

I heard that some of the staff had donated money to her son’s defense fund. He was in prison for some terrible crimes, but because everybody loved this secretary, as she called herself (although that job title had already served its time), they gave willingly.

No way could that sweet lady have a child who did any of the awful things he was accused of. Surely her son had been unfairly targeted in some cruel miscarriage of justice.

That lady was Louise Bundy. Her son’s name was Ted.

Strength for the Day

I’ve written about some sobering social issues is this blog. Child abuse. Alzheimer’s and alcoholism. Hunger, homelessness, and mental illness.

And I’m going to keep writing about issues like these, because somebody needs to and only by flying contrary to the prevailing winds of “that’s too depressing” will we ever arrive at lasting solutions.

But in Yours and Yours and Yours, I looked at the flip side and wrote about some precious gifts that, with love, we can give to each other: gifts of time, understanding, respect, patience…

…and one more gift I didn’t include because I wanted to devote this post to it: the gift of comfort.

Once there was a man, who comforted.

Once I loved his son, who didn’t love me back, so explaining how this man and I knew each other was at times awkward, even vaguely painful. But sometimes a connection transcends how and when we meet someone to begin with, to the point that, by the time history becomes ancient, it more than stands on its own.

That summer, when he was already failing, I visited him with some other people. He complimented me on my dress. Somebody else in the group joked, “Guess you’re really not that sick!” We all laughed.

That was one of the last good laughs I remember, as summer turned into fall.

He had cancer and was in terrible pain. During those last weeks, I used to visit him on Saturdays. Although he was heavily medicated and not really conscious most of the time, he recognized my voice. I’d talk to him, sing to him, sit with him on those rainy afternoons. He’d squeeze my hand.

And then tears, his and mine.

Not “you’re going to a better place.” Not “everybody’s awfully mad you’re leaving them behind.” Just comfort that begets courage that begets strength, which he’d found for himself years before in this “feel sorry for me” world and at the end of the day had always had enough to spare to comfort others, who had it better and probably just weren’t trying hard enough.

Myself included.

He was a suck-it-up guy from the suck-it-up generation, who’d seen the horrors of war only to return home to the sudden losses of loved ones. No time to dwell. Get on with it. Doing is becoming.

Thus, if comfort was “banked” in some numeric way, he’d have been more than deserving.

He was also a faithfully religious man, so I read to him sometimes, too…and talked to him about things I knew would be meaningful to him. Meaningful in the sense of remembering things and people from the past, both near and far, although I hadn’t known him for most of those days.

Sometimes religious show-offs like to talk about the “long home” and look how dramatic I can be the whole way “there,” which makes everyone around them want to urge them on a little. I believe − and he believed, too − that that’s something you settle for yourself, in the quiet and long beforehand. It has absolutely nothing to do with other people.

This much I know: comfort is, while you’re holding on, whether it’s during a dry patch or in the end game, having something – someone – to hold on to. And that’s a gift.

Hold it close. Pass it on.

When I got the call – one morning, very early − about the funeral arrangements, I’d been expecting it…because I’d felt somehow that gift of comfort had been passed on to me already.

Already knew I wouldn’t be making that drive. Already knew he was gone.

By the Juniper While the Moon Is Bright

Ever since I wrote You Can’t Pick Your Relatives, I’ve been getting the same 2 questions: a) We’re unclear exactly how your family got from Ireland to Kentucky, USA to Japan. Did we miss a post or two somewhere? b) What exactly is moonshine?

Happy to oblige.

Moonshine is illegal, homemade alcohol. Illegal because you were supposed to pay “whiskey tax” on it, according to verses of the most famous moonshine song, which brags: “We haven’t paid no whiskey tax since 1792.”

This was long before Prohibition (details below), but the people who made moonshine back in the late 18th century − ”My daddy, he made whiskey, my granddaddy did, too…” − were not going to let some silly little law get in the way of 5 or 6 generations of sweet tax-free income.

(Imagine if that were true today, when American exports of spirits, the majority being whisky, hit a $1 billion market value in 2007.)

Dear Inquiring Minds: bourbon is American-made whiskey, named for Bourbon County, Kentucky. We’ll call it whiskey for short.

Nowadays, there are strict regulations about how true whiskey is defined: it must be at least 51% corn, no more than 160 proof (80% of volume), aged a minimum of 2 years, with no artificial colors or flavors added. Etc., etc.

For moonshine, the rules were a little less strict.

There’s a whole genre of moonshine songs, but this is everybody’s favorite: “You’ll just lay there by the juniper (trees), while the moon is bright, and watch them jugs a-fillin’ in the pale moonlight.”

I played the guitar and we all sang, trying to remember the lyrics. Bob Dylan helped out.

The most successful drug dealers today don’t partake of their own product. My relatives definitely partook, although they favored gin − made from juniper berries − and tonic (light on the tonic) and presumably bartered their whiskey accordingly. Since you might as well cover all the social evils at once, they also grew tobacco, and partook in that with relish, too.

(Despite these questionable habits, plus never eating a single vegetable in their lives, they lived to 90 years old or so, all the while eating tomato and sugar sandwiches on white bread. For real.)

Lots of people made homemade spirits. The average housewife filled bottles of doctored wine or cider and put them in the attic or under the bed. By the end of the year, you had some nice holiday beverages handy.

People thought nothing of giving their babies a drop of whiskey for colic. Adults used it in place of Sudafed. No big deal.

The social class that emigrated from Ireland when my relatives did were the impoverished farmers. They came to the New World because there might be a better chance of controlling where your next meal was coming from…and ensuring there was a next meal.

(There were plenty of “No Irish Need Apply” signs in cities and towns around the USA, followed over the years by “No Whoever the New Immigrants Are,” who unfortunately, once they got established, visited that same unwelcoming attitude on the next group of immigrants coming behind, compared to whom they felt mighty superior.)

As a result, you did what you knew and made do with what you had. The Irish certainly knew a little something about growing potatoes, so how different could it be, growing corn? We’ve been drinking Bushmills since 1608 and we’re not about to give it up now.

Moonshine was practical because it was an early form of recycling. Everything you needed to make it was right at hand, even the equipment…which, being resourceful farming types, you could easily build yourselves with spare parts lying around.

Thus, “Get you a copper kettle, get you a copper coil
Fill it with new-made corn mash and never more you’ll toil…”

With minimal startup costs, here you have this whole new revenue stream. Wouldn’t it be ideal if this side gig turned out to be so lucrative that we could all quit our day jobs?

Farming and making moonshine were also compatible for scheduling reasons. You could rake hay during the day and lay by the juniper at night. Two shifts. Problem solved.

The government had other ideas. Here we have this relatively new country, with all kinds of new people flooding in from who knows where, and consequently all this new stuff we have to pay for. Wringing it out of the rich city guys is way too much work, so instead we’ll throw some resources at prosecuting the rural farming tax cheats.

Very likely, these Internal Revenue Service employees weren’t locals and as determined as they were to collect the tax (partly because they got a percentage of the take), the moonshiners were just as determined not to pay it. Guess who won?

This song is a proven-to-be-reliable Moonshine Producers Manual, including tips on which types of wood to use: hickory, ash, and oak. Also, tips on how not to get caught: “Don’t use no green or rotten wood, they’ll get you by the smoke.”

For goodness sake, don’t draw attention to yourself by sending up smoke signals to the tax collectors: “Yoo-hoo! Over here! Check out my operation!”

That’s not very neighborly, either, if you know what I mean.

Moonshine went the way of other small, family-owned businesses. Once Jim Beam over in Clermont started producing legal product at a reasonable price, it became the Walmart of the whiskey market in Kentucky and there wasn’t really any need or motivation to make your own.

Prohibition was a failed social experiment in the 1920s in which everybody except the US government made money, because they were trying to stop people from doing something there was just no way they were ever going to stop doing. Businessmen who ran “speakeasies” (illegal establishments where liquor was served) and “bootleggers” (who transported said goods to them) became multi-millionaires.

Eventually the powers that be realized it was preferable just to give in to sin and collect a “sin tax,” which has been funding all kinds of government programs ever since.

(Somewhere along the line, we discovered even worse sins we should be taxing, too: saturated fat and high fructose corn syrup.)

By my grandfather’s generation, the extended family was getting out of farming. They put on ties and starched white shirts, moved out of state (to California, for example), and pretended they were from somewhere else. Today, their former hometown of Golden Pond, Kentucky is known for its organic farmers markets.

I couldn’t really picture all this until I spent a weekend with my friends Andy and LeeAnn on their Georgia farm, which incidentally is not in Juniper, Mason County, Georgia. Andy’s forefathers had come over from Ireland, too, under similar circumstances. Trust both our families to arrive in a new country and immediately get into trouble.

You know how steamy hot summer days in Georgia can be. Unbearable comes to mind. The only relaxing thing to do in the evening is to seek out whatever cool air might be available, which means taking the 4-wheelers out in the twilight.

We rode out into their pastures and fallow fields, across meadows, stopping every so often to smell the peaches and the damp green. Whenever we lost each other in the near darkness (possible even with headlights), we’d sing a few bars from that weekend’s theme song.

We regrouped and went up the next hill. The tiniest slope, really; little acceleration required. “Look!” says Andy, pointing.

There, in the distance, under a full Georgia moon: a stand of juniper.

Singing About Snails デンデン ムシムシ カタツムリ

When I was a baby, nobody wanted to babysit me, for love or money…because I was a terror.

I wasn’t trying to be. It’s just that it was really hot, my tummy hurt, and I wanted my mom…and because, being an only child back then, to new – and terrified – parents, I was used to getting everything I wanted.

My mom had this Japanese friend with a longsuffering mother. I’m surprised she survived my all-day, non-stop screaming marathons. She’s still living and still remembers me (even a little bit fondly, says her daughter, who talks to her every day on Skype), which just goes to show how sometimes in retrospect things seem a lot better than they actually were.

The snail song ‒ Den Den Mushi Mushi Katatsumuri ‒ is a children’s song I learned from my sweet Japanese grandmother. I can still sing it today and am tempted to download it as my ringtone. Any Japanese kid knows this song, so if you aren’t ethnically Japanese and you tell somebody you were born in Japan and they say no way, this song is your automatic “in” to the club.

デンデン ムシムシ カタツムリ
Den Den Mushi Mushi Katatsumuri (snail, snail)

お前 の 頭 は どこ に ある
Omae no atama wa dokoniaru (where’s your head? or, in verse 2, where are your eyeballs?)

角 出せ やり 出せ 頭 出せ
Tsuno dase yari dase atama dase (stick out your horns, stick out your antennae, and stick out your head!)

Basically: Knock, knock, Mr. Snail. Wake up! Come out and play!

I returned to Okinawa 沖縄県 with both of my parents for the first time since we lived there together 40 years ago.

My mom’s first remark: “It sure smells a lot better than I remember.” No doubt. There were still open sewers then, Japan’s “post-war economic miracle” never reaching quite that far south. Okinawa is a good 1,000 miles/1,600 kilometers away from the rest of the province to which it belongs, Kyushu.

So, it’s the nowhere south of nowhere, according to most Japanese.

Having spent a lot of time in Japan up north, Okinawa feels more like Southeast Asia to me. Tropical. Laid back. The safety, the modern public transit, and some of the orderliness of Japan, but with fewer crowds and less of the suffocating formality.

Nice views. Nice AC. Nice people in nice youth hostels. In short, my kind of place.

Also, if you want to live close to forever, Okinawa is known as a low-fat, low-salt, low-stress, high-happiness, high-spirituality destination. You have a 35 in 100,000 chance, the highest in the world, of living to 100.

Some historians suggest that the Japanese took over Okinawa and, despite its strategic value, almost immediately regretted it. These locals weren’t anything like us, spoke a foreign language (Hogen – so, you know, we could just summarily execute people who “pretend” not to speak Japanese), and so far haven’t “converted” easily. Short-term, we can beat them into submission, but…

Plus, they’re so far away. Who’s supposed to keep an eye on them all the time? Okinawa is comprised of 8 inhabited islands in 3 different archipelagos. That’s a lot of driving around.

To this day, Japan HQ hasn’t quite mastered that.

Okinawa’s strategic location has been the bane of its existence in 3 recent wars (World War II, Korea, and Vietnam). Oh to be right in the middle of everything for all the wrong reasons. The Defense Department calls Okinawa “The Keystone of the Pacific.” Translation: “We’re never, ever leaving.”

The local population, while dependent on the US military economically, would do just about anything to get those military bases removed, regardless of the financial consequences. (Read about the horrific crimes a few US servicemen have committed against young Okinawan schoolgirls and you’ll understand why.)

They’ve marched. They’ve petitioned. They’ve used every legal mechanism available.


In 2009, the new Japanese Premier, after humoring Okinawa with regard to the latest outrage, finally admitted in the press that the removal of US troops from Okinawa is just not realistic: for ‒ you got it ‒ “strategic reasons,” and because no place else in Japan wants them, either.

Getting to Okinawa is a lot easier than my parents remember, too, since they arrived by ship, which requires its own post. Now you fly on ANA to Narita and transfer to a commuter flight to Okinawa’s capital city of Naha…unless there’s a typhoon and you’re stuck in the smoky Prince Hotel overnight.

Zip on the monorail from the airport directly into town, get off at the Miebashi station, and before you know it, you’re eating beni-imo (紅いも ‒ Okinawan purple sweet potato) ice cream on Kokusai Street.

We took the ponderous local bus to our old neighborhood, which was easy to find on the map and my parents recognized immediately anyway. We found our old post office, where my parents mailed letters ‒ including embarrassing photos of me, no doubt ‒ to family stateside, and our old apartment, now a bowling alley. Then we walked past the new school and its massive satellite dish and across the modern-by-anyone’s-standards bridge. A miniature version of another bridge I know well, in Western France.

That’s Okinawa: what’s new is shockingly new and what’s old seems to have been left far behind in the shuffle of post-war progress. But with a Starbucks on every corner and an iPhone in every hand, plus a young, educated population with a noticeably higher level of English language confidence and proficiency than in the rest of Japan, Okinawa is finally poised for the big-time.

“Des” is from the Japanese verb “desu,” which in English sort of means “is.” You hear it on the monorail announcing the forthcoming stop. “Miebashi des,” says the recording, in that anonymously high-tech but strangely calming Japanese style. The next station is Miebashi. In ever-behind-the-curve, yet militantly-forward-thinking Okinawa, that’s the standing one-word philosophy: