Tuesday, October 3, 2017


Ancient Egyptians brought skeletons to their feasts, exhorting guests to drink and make merry while they still could. American Puritans in the 17th century kept skulls as warnings to sober up and focus on the afterlife. Memento mori, the gruesome reminders were called: remember that you must die. People died suddenly, and young. They wanted to be prepared. 

Nina Riggs did not feel prepared when she learned that a small spot in her breast was malignant. Cancer ran in her family: it had taken three grandparents and several aunts, and her mother was in treatment for multiple myeloma. But Riggs was only 37. Her sons, Freddy and Benny, were eight and five; she was not ready to leave them. Merrymaking had its place, but it didn’t address her concerns. And the afterlife, if it existed, was unknowable.

That's how my review of Riggs's The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying begins. It's in the Fall Books issue of The Christian Century, and you can read the rest here for a few more days. After that, the magazine will likely put the review behind a firewall that can be breached only by paid subscribers.

It's a short review; you have time to click and read. Seize the day. Enjoy the now. That's what Riggs advises. In the words of her great-great-great-grandfather Ralph Waldo Emerson, she wanted to be "cheered with the moist, warm glittering, budding and melodious hour that takes down the narrow walls of my soul and extends its pulsation and life to the very horizon. That is morning; to cease for a bright hour to be a prisoner of this sickly body and to become as large as the World."

Reviewers don't always like the books they describe, but I loved this one.

Monday, October 2, 2017

10 reasons I'm giving up Facebook

Some of my friends use Facebook judiciously. Some, like me, spend far too much time on it. And clearly some, also like me, feel worse and worse because of what they see there.

If Facebook is making your life better, far be it from me to criticize. I suspect, however, that it is stripping joy from my life. Here are ten reasons I'm planning to stay off Facebook indefinitely.

1. Time on Facebook is time not reading books.
2. Reading about friends’ lives is great; seeing all the articles they liked, not so much.
3. The barrage of memes, games, quizzes, and “sponsored” stuff continually increases.
4. Call it “recommended for you,” it’s still an ad.
5. Facebook is a rich mine of information for marketers, scammers, thieves, and election fraudsters.
6. Facebook is an ideal platform for liars and haters.
7. Facebook widens divisions and calcifies opinions.
8. It is painful to see friends fall for propaganda from unknown or unreliable sources.
9. It is futile to point out facts to people who prefer ideology.
10. Constant attention to the president and Congress deepens depression. 

I'm hoping that, in the absence of Facebook, I'll spend more time in the physical world, having actual conversations with flesh-and-blood people. I'm hoping I'll pet more living, breathing kittens and puppies, see more sunshine on leaves and lakes, smell more fresh-baked bread, listen to more happy music.

Maybe once I’ve regained Paradise I’ll give Facebook another try: I do love hearing from far-flung friends and seeing pictures of their activities, their families, and their pets.

Meanwhile, I encourage friends and family to stay in touch via phone calls, emails, texts, and actual meet-ups. Then I might never need to imperil my soul by going back to Facebook.

Anyone for lunch?

Thursday, August 3, 2017

RIP editor Judith Jones: She brought us Anne Frank, Julia Child, and many others

[Jones & Child; photo by Boston Globe]
From yesterday's New York Times:
Judith Jones, the editor who discovered Julia Child and advanced a generation of culinary writers that revolutionized cooking and tastes in American homes, and who for a half-century edited John Updike, Anne Tyler, John Hersey and other literary lions, died on Wednesday at her summer home in Walden, Vt. She was 93.
Nearly ten years ago, I reviewed Jones's memoir, The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, in [the late] Books and Culture magazine. Her book is still available, and I highly recommend it--especially if you love books, food, and Julia Child. If you like, you can read my review here.

The NYT obit writer and I chose the same wonderful quotation to end our articles. Here's my version:
Quoting an Italian saying, "At the table one never grows old," [Jones] asks, "Isn't that reason enough to come home at the end of the day, roll up one's sleeves, fire up the stove, and start smashing the garlic?"
Garlic, known universally as the stinking rose. Gather ye garlic cloves while ye may...

Sunday, July 23, 2017

RIP Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, 30 May 2000 (more or less) - 22 July 2017

Tiggy yesterday morning
The rescue ladies weren’t sure we deserved Tiggy.

Her first two years had been rough. Someone had taken her to an overcrowded Chicago animal shelter because, they said, they had “too many dogs.” When the rescue ladies found her there, she was matted and frightened and obese—a common ailment in dogs who have had poor nutrition. Spring her from the shelter, they thought, clean her up, feed her good food, give her lots of love, and she’ll make somebody a nice pet. Ten days later, she gave birth to four puppies.

Well, that solved the weight problem.

Tiggy was a good mom, so good her foster mom, Pat, thought she probably had raised puppies at least once before. And Tiggy was a good dog. Pat adored her. Whoever wanted Tiggy would have to pass a thorough inspection.

Alas, Tiggy wasn’t at her best the day we went to meet her. In just one week she had weaned her puppies, sent them off to college, and had a hysterectomy. And now Pat, her best friend, was letting strange people take her for walks around a huge and frightening pet store. “She’s a very honest dog,” Pat told us, and the hormonally challenged, terrified terrier honestly saw no reason to befriend us. “She’s probably not for us,” I said.

But for a week I couldn’t get Tiggy out of my mind. On paper she was exactly the dog we were looking for: a small but sturdy young adult female of good character. Maybe love at first sight wasn’t required. Maybe she really was the dog for us. I phoned Pat. “Probably not,” she said. “We don’t trust you. This dog needs a permanent home that is totally committed to her. She’s been tossed around enough in her short life.”

“That’s why I didn’t say yes last week,” I said. “I didn’t want to take her unless I was sure. Now I’m sure. If you’ll let us …”

Bless Pat, she let us, despite her misgivings. And Tiggy was a challenge. We named her Mrs Tiggy-Winkle after Beatrix Potter’s eponymous hedgehog, but she seemed to have no concept of names (had nobody ever called her anything?). She suffered from major separation anxiety: if we left her alone in her crate for even a few minutes, she’d get the runs. If we left her loose in the bedroom, she would try to chew down the door (at least that approach removes tartar). Car rides made her sick. She was afraid of brooms. She smelled bad. And that was just the first week.

Very soon, however, we observed small changes. She’d look up when her name was called. She’d agree to stay by herself for fifteen minutes, gradually lengthening the time she could spend on her own without panicking. She’d get excited when it was time to go for a walk (and wasn’t it always time?). The old smell of fear went away. She began offering tentative kisses.

Before our eyes she was turning into a typical little terrier—trusting, curious, impulsive, talkative, eager, playful, affectionate. She started telling us that we were, sadly, rather boring. So we brought her a lovely young cat who, we were told, enjoyed playing with dogs. Mistake! Over the course of a week or two, the two of them started dozens of games, but they couldn’t agree on the rules. Eventually the traumatized kitty found peace with a large, placid dog who never transformed into a guided missile heading straight for her.

Muffin & Tiggy, 2008
In April 2003, we changed our approach and brought her a small dog. Thus began an eleven-year symbiotic relationship. On walks, Tiggy announced every dog we passed; if the other dogs were big enough, Muffin lunged at them. At home, Tiggy learned obedience (loosely speaking) through repetition; Muffin learned by observing which of Tiggy’s actions led to treats. Together, the 12-pound miniature schnauzer mix (Tiggy) and the 10-pound toy poodle mix (Muffin) learned how to occupy the entire vast middle of a king-sized bed.

Muffin died in late 2014. By then Tiggy was 14 years old, losing her hearing, losing her teeth, and losing her compulsion to comment on every passing butterfly—but still eagerly looking forward to frequent long walks around the neighborhood.

In recent months Tiggy slept a lot. In March of this year, she had extensive dental surgery, from which she quickly recovered. But a couple of weeks ago, the problem returned. Something pathological was happening in her jaw and affecting her left eye as well. Terriers don’t like to complain, so we don’t know how much it hurt. But it was only going to get worse, and she was no longer a candidate for surgery.

With heavy hearts, we made the dreaded final appointment with her doctor. We still had a morning to spend together, so I took Tiggy for her last one-mile walk. It was a slow walk, but she enjoyed sniffing the grass (so many dogs!) and touching noses with a neighbor’s baby dachshund. Then to the office of her kindly vet where, at noon yesterday, she “gave up the ghost, and died in a good old age, an old [dog], and full of years; and was gathered to [her] people.”

Yesterday and today, we’ve been going through hundreds of photos and reminiscing about her younger days. There she is, climbing into the dishwasher to be sure every plate is well rinsed. Methodically tossing sofa and bed pillows to the floor. Playing tug-o’-war with David and doing physical therapy exercises with me. Levitating onto tables bearing unguarded food. Arranging pieces of kibble in formations that look like interrupted games of battleship. Snuggling next to many of her human friends. A good dog. An honest dog. A beloved dog.

Rest in peace, little one. Or, if you’d rather, go chase a rabbit. You won’t catch it, but you can run forever. Where you have gone, there are no fences.

Friday, May 12, 2017

How to get perfect avocados nearly every time (public service announcement)

California Girl here. Been eating avocados voraciously for over 65 years. Could have started even younger: some of my grandbabies, as it happens, loved them from the get-go.

Not hard to choose. Not hard to know when ready. Do this and you'll rarely go wrong.

1. Buy only rock-hard avocados. If you need something for today's salad, get something else instead. Ripe avocados in grocery stores are almost always bruised and turning brown inside. Maybe even stringy. Yuck. Bonus tip: Trader Joe's avocados are usually the best. Often the cheapest, too.

2. Let your avocado ripen on your countertop, in a bowl, or in a fruit basket, away from direct sunlight. Sometimes it takes only a day. Sometimes it takes a week. Be patient.

3. Check your avocado daily. To do this, apply very light pressure near the stem. When you feel a little give near the stem, the avocado is ready. Don't wait until the whole avocado feels soft.

4. Eat your avocado as soon as its ready. It will keep till dinnertime, but don't wait another day. As Elvis Presley said, Tomorrow will be too late ... it's now or never.

Avocado hacks
If you wait too long and the avocado is a bit too soft inside for your taste, scoop out the meat and mash it up with a little salt and a squirt of fresh lemon or lime juice (not too much). If you like, you can add finely diced tomato, chilies, and/or jicama. Maybe that's what you'd planned to do anyway. It will be fine.

If you cut too soon, stop cutting! You'll know after the initial stab if there's too much resistance. Close up the avocado, bind its wounds with duct tape (really! I am not making this up!), and leave it to ripen another day or two. There's a good chance it will be fine.

You may also want to check this out:
"How to fix an avocado without drawing blood"

How to fix an avocado without drawing blood (public service announcement)

From what I read online, apparently a lot of people are cutting themselves wide open while merely trying to fix guacamole.

This is foolishness, folks.

I am so bad with knives that for years my husband begged me not to take a knife skills class at the community college. He was afraid he'd never see me again.

And yet, though I have eaten avocados several times a week for decades, I have never ever succumbed to the newly popular avocado hand (and by the way, the advice in that linked article about how to cut an avocado is nonsense).

Here's how to open an avocado without inflicting bodily harm.

1. Be pretty sure it's ripe, but not too ripe. If you don't know how to tell, see my post "How to get perfect avocados nearly every time."

2. Use a smallish knife--longer than a paring knife but not one of those big cleaver things. I use a cheap grocery-store knife with a 4½" blade.

3. Slice the avocado in half lengthwise, as in the picture (do not cut the pit). This is not the part of fixing an avocado that sends people to the emergency room.

4. Peel both halves, using your fingers (not the knife). It's much easier to work with a peeled avocado.

Now the plot thickens. How do you get that huge pit out? This is where people stab themselves when they only ever meant to affix the pit to the point of the knife. Resist the temptation: that's not how to do it.

5. Take the avocado half with the pit and slice it lengthwise again (do not cut the pit). You can slice it in half, or you can make a number of thinner slices. Once you have sliced it, the pit is easy to remove.

Bottom line: don't try to take the pit out of the avocado. Take the avocado off the pit.

You'll be fine.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

A healthcare system that works - is it too much to ask?

[William Blake, Pestilence, c. 1780-84]
Most of my Facebook friends are proclaiming the evils of the AHCA, the new GOP healthcare bill. I agree with them that it is at best deficient and at worst cruel, and I hope it never becomes law (Senators: do your job!).

But I fear that my AHCA-hating friends—as well as those who proclaim the evils of the ACA (Obamacare)—are ignoring the bigger picture. Whether we hate Trumpcare more than Obamacare or Obamacare more than Trumpcare, we all need to consider three things:

1. While a lot of people were helped by Obamacare, some people were hurt by it. We won't be able to fix American healthcare until we listen to their concerns.

A British friend of mine opened up a Facebook discussion about the GOP bill, inviting her American friends to comment. She got plenty of comments from supporters of Obamacare (including me). She also got comments like this: “The cost of premiums have risen dramatically, while the actual coverage is diminished.”

People posted that, under Obamacare, their healthcare insurance costs rose “by double digits,” “massively,” “astronomically,” “by 40% overnight.”

They told about huge premiums—$9000 a year for a single person, $19,200 for a family—with deductibles almost as high as the premiums. “One middle-income person could easily spend $20k before being reimbursed,” someone wrote.

Many family physicians relocated, people said. Insurers shut down, care became less accessible, and confusion reigned. “I’ve spent literally dozens of hours on the phone fighting for care that was promised and then roadblocked,” one man wrote. “It’s a mess.”

These commenters may not know that the average cost of health insurance premiums actually rose considerably less after Obamacare went into effect than in the preceding decade.

They may not realize that the low-cost insurance they had before Obamacare probably did not cover the full cost of catastrophic illnesses, would have gotten increasingly expensive as they got older, and would have bumped them if they ever put in a major claim.

What they do know is that they can't afford healthcare insurance and often can't even find healthcare providers. That's a national disgrace. They need compassion, not lectures about the virtues of Obamacare.

The second thing we all need to remember is this:

2. If people are suffering under Obamacare, they are likely to suffer even more under Trumpcare. We won't be able to fix American healthcare until we recognize that change does not equal improvement.

Under the current GOP plan, some people will be able to save money. They can choose to go without insurance altogether, or they can buy a cheap plan that will help them with minor problems but leave them high and dry if major problems strike. Young and healthy people and people with limited incomes may find one of these options attractive. They may not realize that being uninsured or underinsured could cost them their homes, their credit rating, and even their lives.

Under the current GOP plan, Medicaid, one of the most successful plans for insuring the poor, will be cut back. Once again people will go to hospital emergency rooms for primary medical care (the most expensive possible approach), or will skip it altogether. Insured people may not care if uninsured people die prematurely, but they should at least worry about public health if inadequate healthcare leads to uncontrolled epidemics.

Under the current GOP plan, since a fair number of healthy people will choose to be un- or under-insured, premiums for the rest of us are sure to rise. Even if everybody chose to be insured, premiums would rise, because the GOP still believes, against all evidence, that competition among healthcare providers will contain costs.

Only one group of Americans will be sure to benefit from the GOP plan. "While the Affordable Care Act raised taxes on the rich to subsidize health insurance for the poor, the repeal-and-replace bill passed by House Republicans would redistribute hundreds of billions of dollars in the opposite direction. It would deliver a sizable tax cut to the rich, while reducing government subsidies for Medicaid recipients and those buying coverage on the individual market" (Scott Horsley, NPR, May 4).

Yes, I believe that Obama improved America's healthcare and that Trump will make it worse—but that's not my point. American healthcare was badly flawed before Obamacare, is badly flawed with Obamacare, and will be badly flawed under Trumpcare. It's not all that important to know which system is the very worst. What's vitally important is to come up with a system that works.

3. Our choices are not limited to Trumpcare and Obamacare. Why can't we scrap both plans and come up with something really good?

There are so many models we could choose from, if only we'd pay attention to healthcare systems in other nations.

Do our legislators know that the U.S. spends far more per person on healthcare than Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, or the U.K.—and yet in every one of those nations, people live longer, have less infant mortality, have fewer seniors with two or more chronic conditions, and have less obesity than we Americans do? And that they achieve these results in spite of the fact that in 10 of those 12 nations, more people are daily smokers than in America, and that in all 12 nations, the population is older?

Do our legislators know that in the U.S., for every dollar spent on healthcare we spend only 56 cents on other social programs, whereas in the other 12 countries, for every dollar spent on healthcare they spend between $1.00 and $1.88 on social programs? (You can check these statistics and learn even more fascinating facts about healthcare in other nations here.) Read my post about how healthcare (primarily intervention after a health problem has occurred) is more expensive but less effective than social services (primarily services that may prevent health problems) in keeping a nation healthy. Why are we doing things backwards?

Why aren't our legislators studying the healthcare systems of these 12 nations?

Why don't they notice that the other countries vary widely in how they finance healthcare—some by single payer, some by private insurance, some by a combination—but they all limit what providers can charge?

Why don't they notice that the other countries differ widely in who provides the care—some through the government, some through private providers, some through a combination—but they all provide it to everybody?

Why don't they consider the evidence that social spending prevents illness and therefore lowers treatment costs while improving effectiveness?

Why don't they imitate some system that has already been proven effective, rather than constantly trying to tweak a malfunctioning system that has never manged to keep costs down and has never provided healthcare for all?

And if our lawmakers are incapable of coming up with a satisfactory healthcare system, why do we keep voting for them?