Recall

 

Saturday afternoon.  I am over in the next county sitting in the waiting room of a giant auto dealership, waiting for one of our cars to be serviced.  We have two vehicles, completely different models and manufacturers, but both have been subject to recalls in recent months.  Lacking a mechanical bone in my body, I don’t even try to understand what electronic thingamajig has to be replaced or adjusted to avoid having our vehicle go up in flames or self-destruct in some other equally dramatic fashion.  While I’m there, they can change the oil and check our alarm system that keeps going off, at least according to our landlord.

Funny thing about recalls.  It used to be that when a product was recalled, it meant that you could return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.  While this construct continues to apply to hummus, kids’ toys, power tools and gardening equipment, somehow the concept hasn’t caught on with big ticket items like automobiles.  Giving me my money back seems like a reasonable form of demonstrating contrition for screwing up.  I’m sure the dealership isn’t thrilled about having to conduct free repairs on hundreds of cars, but presumably they are being compensated by the manufacturer.  As for me, my Saturday is now shot and there is no compensation to be found.

They have the A/C cranking at the dealership and the waiting room is freezing.  My allergies, already having kicked into overdrive (gotta love springtime), decide to have a little party at my expense while I am a captive audience.  I’m glad I remembered to bring a handkerchief.

I brought a thick book with me, but rather than improving my mind, I am allowing it to turn to mush by messing around on my phone.  The place has wifi, so what the heck.  In walks a man and his developmentally disabled teenager, who sit across from me.  Every time I cough, the boy looks straight at me and asks “Are you alright?”  His father does not admonish him.  Perhaps I am nothing but an inveterate meanie (or just an incorrigible old fart), but my thoughts are not particularly charitable at this time.  About the third or fourth time that I cough and he asks the same question, I blurt out “Yes! Are you?”

Then my mother calls.  She wants to fill me in on the blow by blow of the Chabad Seder she attended on Monday evening.  This is followed by the details of the community Seder that my sister attended over in the Bay Area.  I should mention that I have very little contact with my sisters (believe me, it’s for the best), so Mom feels compelled to fill me in on the minutia of their lives.  I roll my eyes and say “yep,” “uh-huh,” “that’s good” and “wow!” in the appropriate places.

For the uninitiated, Chabad is an Orthodox Jewish organization that specializes in outreach to Jews scattered all over the world, particularly those in remote locations where little or no Jewish life is available.  They encourage donations, but unlike other synagogues, never require anyone to pay anything to attend a Passover Seder in the spring or High Holy Day services in the fall.  Although I strongly disagree with many of their beliefs, I continue to support them and am proud of their inclusiveness in that they turn no one away, Jew or non-Jew, black or white, religious or secular, poor or rich, old or young.

I have attended several Chabad communal Seders with my parents, most recently last year.  My mother’s description of the disorganization, the bad food and the strange characters in attendance sounded exactly like what I remember.  She complained about the constant conversations that prevented her from hearing the rabbi and caused her to keep losing track of what blessing he was saying and what everyone was supposed to be eating at any particular point.  The Seder attended by my sister was no better.  Having had bariatric surgery (years ago now), she could not tolerate the food and kept having to leave the room to upchuck the bite or two she managed to get down.

I cough.  My mother asks if I have a cold.  The kid sitting across from me asks “Are you alright?”  Grrr!

My mother is fed up with the Chabad Seders but she says it’s better than sitting at home and having a Seder with just my father (who has no interest in anything religious).  However, she points out, my other sister (the one in Texas) did exactly that with her husband this year.  Instead of a big family celebration, it was just the two of them.  Next year, Mom tells me, she is making the Seder in her home.  I quickly check the date on my phone and find that it falls on a Friday night.  Yes!  I’ll be there, I tell her.  (And think to myself:  God willing.)

Who knows what will happen between this Passover and next?  Will I still be around?  Will both of my parents, who are in their eighties?  It occurs to me that it is not only cars that are recalled.

My mother and father begin arguing in the background.  He wants to go into town to do some shopping and she says no, it’s too late in the day already, she’s going to start dinner.  They can go tomorrow, she tells him.  No!  He doesn’t want to go tomorrow, he’s going to mow the lawn then.  Mom:  We can go before or after!  Dad:  No!  I’m too tired to go if I mow the lawn!  Mom: Okay, then we’ll go Monday!

These two have been arguing about everything for nearly 65 years.  I am amazed at how they have managed to stay together, particularly when I remember the knock-down, drag-out screaming matches they used to have when my sisters and I were kids.  The many fond memories I have of my childhood can never make up for that.  It doesn’t help that their current conduct reminds me of that past ugliness nearly every time I visit or talk with them on the phone.

And yet.  They’re my parents.  The ones who raised me.  The ones who put up with me when I was not at my finest.  And I know that they’re not going to be around forever.  I am getting old and am not in the best of health myself, so I have to laugh when I realize that I’m at the point of wondering who will go first, me or them.

Despite all I’ve been through, I know I will take it hard when they’re not around anymore.  By the same token, my father has let me know in no uncertain terms that he will never forgive me if I die before he does.  Note for a future post:  Do dead people need forgiveness?

I hope it is God’s will that we all make it long enough to attend that Seder together at my  parents’ house down in the Central Valley on March 30 of next year.  I plan to take the day off work and arrive the night before.  I can help make the sweet haroseth and then set the Seder plate by referring to the Hebrew embroidery on my grandmother’s matzah tosh (covering for the three pieces of ceremonial unleavened bread).

I tell Mom I have to hang up because the car is done.  The dealership tells me that I should replace my battery and air filter, that two of my running lights are out, and a couple of other things that sound like automotive Greek to me.  How much?  The guy punches numbers into a calculator and tells me it’ll be about $320.  Are you kidding, man?  I text my wife, who is up north with her family for Easter, to confirm that we’re not buying their bullshit.  Car guys, geez!  Shysters all, who live and die by the upsell.

I pay for the oil change and head for the door.  I cough.  “Are you alright?” says the kid, followed by an enthusiastic “bye!” as I walk out.

“Bye!” I respond.  “Have a great day!”

May all our recalls be of the automobile kind, fixable in an afternoon.

 

Passover Food Challenges

With the eight days of Passover starting Monday night, I find myself feeling a bit nostalgic.  I first led a Seder, the traditional family dinner at which we recite the story of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, at the age of six.  Neither of my parents were able to read the Hebrew and Aramaic from the Haggadah, and I had already been attending an Orthodox Jewish school for two years.  We hold two Seders, on each of the first two nights of the eight-day holiday, and I have attended at least one nearly every year of my life.

This year will be an exception.  I thought about driving four hours to visit my parents and attend a Seder at their synagogue, but that would have required me to take two to three days off work.  I could attend a communal Seder at one of the area synagogues, but even then I’d have to take at least a day off work.  The Seder can’t start until sundown, and usually lasts until well past midnight.  That makes it tough to get up for work at 4:30 in the morning.  So I will have to skip the Seder this year, although that doesn’t mean that I will “pass over Passover.”  The holiday comes with many dietary restrictions and I plan to honor as many as I am able.

As bad as I feel about not attending a Seder, the whole matzo situation makes it even worse.  Matzo is the traditional crackerlike flatbread that we eat for eight days to remind us of the unleavened bread pulled abruptly off the hot rocks of Egypt before the loaves had time to rise when the Jews were thrust out into the wilderness without a moment’s notice.  Granted, it gets old after four or five days, but I know I will miss it.  Made of only wheat and water and baked for less than seven minutes, it’s not a food for the gluten-sensitive.  Sure, I could order an expensive box of gluten-free matzo online, but it wouldn’t be made of wheat and therefore wouldn’t satisfy the ritual requirement of the mitzvah.  So what’s the point?

At the Seder, we eat many traditional foods, including a green vegetable (always celery in my family) dipped in salt water, super hot horseradish, and the delicious haroseth (apples and walnuts chopped up fine, seasoned with cinnamon and a dollop of grape wine).  We drink four cups of wine or grape juice.  And then there is the dinner, which at my parents’ house always included hard boiled eggs (dipped in the salt water left over from the celery), chicken soup with matzo ball dumplings, gefilte fish (cold fish patties with salty fish jelly), homemade borscht (beet soup, usually served cold) and then meat, potatoes, carrots and dessert.  My mom usually served homemade applesauce before we put the tea on to boil and broke out the honey cake and coconut macaroons.  It’s hard to leave a Seder without being utterly stuffed.

Of course, as a vegan, I no longer eat most of these things.  And being gluten-free clearly does not help the situation.  Traditionally, on Passover we eat no bread, corn, rice, cereal, pasta, legumes or anything that might become leavened.  This means no corn, including any prepared item containing corn syrup.  It means no beans, including soybeans, which means no tofu.  In other words, most of my vegan protein sources are off-limits for the next eight days.  Most Passover desserts contain dairy, eggs or both, so those are out for vegans.  It makes an already difficult holiday just this side of bearable.

So what do observant Jews eat during Passover?  Lots of meat and fish, lots of eggs and lots of dairy.  Good luck, vegans.  We do eat fruit and some types of vegetables.  In my case, I go through many pounds of potatoes and carrots, plus some eggplant, zucchini, spinach, broccoli and mushrooms, and lots of salad.  My favorite fake burgers, made of pea protein, are out.  So is my fake cheese and anything made with vinegar (think mustard, salad dressing, pickles, olives, hot sauce).  I flavor everything with black pepper, garlic and lemon.  I eat lots of plums, apples, bananas and citrus.

In the old days, my Passover breakfast might be cottage cheese with fruit and matzo with cream cheese or fried eggs or matzo brei (pieces of matzo dipped in egg and fried).  Now, it’s potatoes.  In the old days, my Passover lunch would typically involve tuna on buttered matzo and hard boiled eggs with maybe a slice or two of tomato.  Now, it’s potatoes.  Maybe with some carrots or plain salad with lemon.  Very boring and largely protein-free.  I try to remember to eat spinach or broccoli each day, as they each contain a small amount of protein.

My mother has always referred to Passover as “a hard holiday.”  However, the difficulties are tempered by many delicious traditional foods and lots of Passover sweets.  None of those benefits accrue to those eating a vegan, gluten-free diet.  True, you can be creative, particularly if you cook.  I don’t.  I am highly fortunate that my wife is willing to boil pounds of potatoes and roast vegetables in the oven for me.

And yet here I am, with Passover not yet begun, already looking forward to the holiday being over.  I suppose I should look at the bright side.  Perhaps I will gain an improved perspective on the hardships faced by my ancestors who, having escaped slavery due to the Lord splitting the Red Sea, wandered in the desert for forty years.

Eight days seems mighty reasonable by comparison.

 

Hamantashen? Not This Year

hamentaschen

We’re just a couple of weeks away from Passover and eight days of matzo, but I’m still thinking about Purim, now a few weeks in the rear view mirror.

 Several years ago, not long after I began writing this blog, I marveled at my amazing good fortune at having hamantashen show up in the break room at work around Purim time.  I had been craving these little jam-filled triangular cookies, probably owing more to nostalgia than to their flavor.  But there I was, working out in the desert, feeling exiled to the Diaspora as only a Jew can.

I’m fairly sure I was the only Jew in our little Colorado River town, and the last thing I expected was that anyone would have ever heard of hamantashen, much less have known where to get some.  I knew I could find something resembling the prune, apricot or cherry filled treats that I associated with the reading of the biblical Book of Esther each spring, if only I had the will to make the four-hour round trip to Palm Springs or the five-hour drive to Phoenix and back.  Granted, they wouldn’t be the same as the buttery pastries I remember from Pakula’s Bakery, now long gone mainstay of my hometown of Spring Valley, New York, but any facsimile would do in a pinch.  And I felt like pinching myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming when a package of hamantashen showed up on the round table in our break room.  As if out of thin air, an answer to prayer, were they really there?  Yes, I answered with the first taste.  Supermarket variety, to be sure, but it felt like a care package from home, shlach manot.  They turned out to be a gift to the staff from a former manager, now retired, who knew nothing of Purim when she picked up some cookies at a supermarket over in Indio.  It felt like nothing short of a Purim miracle.

Here in Sacramento, hamantashen are available at several retail stores.  And yet the irony is that, this Purim, I tasted none.  As it turned out, there are things other than miles that would distance me from hamantashen.  The bottom line is that when you’re vegan, gluten-free and have to watch your sugar intake, special holiday foods cannot be taken for granted, even when they are readily available.

I pondered whether, with the right ingredients and a bit of ingenuity, it might be possible to create hamantashen that would satisfy my food limitations.  Vegan margarine could easily substitute for butter, and a little oil or applesauce for an egg.  There are plenty of artificial sweeteners out there.  But what of the flour?  Could hamantashen be made of rice flour, almond flour or amaranth?

Yes! Turns out that, a fee years back, April Peveteaux over at Gluten is My Bitch posted a yummy-looking recipe for gluten-free, dairy-free hamantashen.  Sub applesauce for the eggs, bring out the Sweet ‘N Low or Splenda, use sugar-free jam for the filling, and I would venture to say we’re there. I don’t bake, but I hope someone will try it out and let me know whether it’s worth the effort.

I found another such recipe courtesy of Lisa Rose at realfoodkosher.com. She suggests using a combination of rice and almond flour and substituting coconut oil for butter.

And then I found a hamantashen recipe that is not only vegan and gluten-free, but also free of refined sugar (it calls for maple syrup), as well as this one that uses agave nectar.

Anyone want to make me some hamantashen?  Must be gluten-free and vegan.  I should have asked my mother-in-law.  She made me a batch a few years ago and they were some of the best I’ve ever eaten.

Short of homemade, however, I suppose these are my favorites, if only because I don’t have to prepare them.  At about a dollar an ounce, the price seems fairly reasonable.  The only time I ever ordered hamantashen through the mail, they came mostly broken, including more crumbs than I knew what to do with.  But those were “fresh” bakery-style, not packaged, so I suppose the result was to be expected.

I guess there’s not too much that you can’t buy online these days.  Maybe next year, eh?

In the Wee, Small Hours

When I awake in the wee hours and find that I can’t get back to sleep, I don’t tweet like President-Elect Trump. Instead, I grab my phone off my nightstand and start to draft blog posts.

Now, writing in the middle of the night can yield some interesting results. Perhaps this is because my brain is still in that muddled middle ground between sleep and wakefulness. Reading the notes of my nocturnal ramblings the next day may, at times, leave me a bit puzzled. Now why did I wake up thinking about THAT? It is just as likely that I will end up hitting “Delete” than that my disconnected thoughts will ever make it into a post.

It is probably fortunate that I am easily distracted. I will remember that I need to make a packing list for an upcoming trip and I will start on that. I will take my turn in the ten or twelve Words With Friends games that I usually have going at any given time. I will check the headlines in The New York Times.

All of these pursuits are better than lying in the dark and thinking of my sister, who just moved more than a thousand miles away for a new job and was promptly fired. Or of my twentysomething niece, who has been suffering from anorexia in Boston and is now down to a skeletal 75 pounds. Or of my octogenarian father, whose hand has gone numb and who can no longer lift his other arm without awful pain.

Such thoughts make my own problems seem decidedly small. I remind myself that everything is relative. And I count my blessings. I look forward to tearing up the interstate this week so that we can spend Thanksgiving with as many family members as possible, and celebrate my father’s 83rd birthday to boot. Instead of worrying about what we don’t have, or what we might lose, I thank God for all that we do have.

And I recite what I find to be one of the most comforting Bible passages, the 91st Psalm, and I go back to sleep. After all, I have to get up for work in a few hours.

Ready for Christmas 2015

I am looking forward to just three days of work this week followed by a four-day holiday weekend.  Our shopping is done, and yesterday we finished the wrapping.

Wrapped Gifts

Our staging area in the corner of the kitchen with some of the gifts for the nieces and nephews.

Meanwhile, at work, we are eating ourselves into a coma, courtesy of an annual event officially known as A Taste of the Holidays but which most of us refer to by its nickname, Waddle Week.  On Friday alone, I stuffed myself with fried potatoes, chips and salsa, popcorn, and fresh blackberries and raspberries.  For me at least, the pièce de résistance was the vegan cupcakes prepared by one of my coworkers.  Thank you so much, May!

All this followed our holiday luncheon on Thursday.  Although I checked in advance and knew there would not be any vegan food, I brought my own and had a grand old time eating, chatting and participating in a gift exchange with my cohorts.

While last year’s Christmas was fairly subdued at work, this year we held a holiday decorating contest that turned the entire floor into a raucous, delightful amalgam of holiday-related themes.  I present just a few for your holiday enjoyment.

International Gingerbread Lane

1

3

4

Holiday Movie Marathon

7

8

9

Candyland

10

O Christmas Tree – Our secretary’s handiwork and winner of the door contest.  Go, Linda!

Karen's Door

My cubicle wall.  Clearly, I lack the artistic abilities of my coworkers!

Peace

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!  Thanks for reading and for another wonderful year on A Map of California.

 

Images of the Past and Future

image

MADERA

I have a lot of vivid dreams. It is almost as if someone has reached deep inside my body, grabbed hold of my soul and then yanked upward violently, turning me inside out like a sweater. Thus exposed, my dreams take me to places I fear to go in the light of day.

Lately, I have dreamed several times of my father’s death. I wake grateful in the knowledge that he is very much alive, fearing the day when I shall dream of him and awake to find that he is just a memory.

My father is 82 years old and I am a grown-up who is very much aware of the circle of life. But, still.

Still.

Visiting my parents for Chanukah, I sat in their family room, reminiscing with my mother over old photographs in oversized albums that filled up her lap and spilled into mine. It seems all of us have been in a reflective mood since a childhood friend of my sister, who long ago was married to and divorced from my first cousin, was found dead in her apartment in New Jersey. No one noticed for a couple of weeks until the smell got so bad that the neighbors finally complained.

Three thousand miles away in California, we had heard not long ago that she was destitute, unemployable, abandoned by her two brothers and her two sons, and about to become homeless. No one knew what could be done for her and now no more needs to be done. I do not know how she died. Somehow, it doesn’t even seem important.

My sister in Texas calls my mother to talk about her childhood friend, now gone. My other sister broods about this while driving and plows right into the car in front of her. There is a lot of damage but no one is hurt, as the police reports say.

They’re right about the damage. I’m not so sure about the other part.

My mother serves potato latkes and she even makes one of them eggless so that her weirdo vegan son can have a taste of Chanukah. She lights the menorah and I don a kippa from a decades old bar mitzvah to recite Ha’nerot Hallalu and sing Maos Tzur, Rock of Ages.

The husband of my mom’s cousin, at the age of 84, announces that he will celebrate his “second bar mitzvah” in April. Although he is a member of three synagogues, none can book the simcha for the Shabbat corresponding to his Hebrew birthdate. And so, nearly four months out, he has begun preparing a different Torah portion than the one he chanted before family and friends 71 years ago.

My bar mitzvah photos turn up in the album that my mother and I are perusing. I look like a total dork in the bar mitzvah suit that cost a fortune and then had to be altered to fit. My father took me into Manhattan for the occasion, Barney’s at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 17th Street.

Photos of my sisters with their friends from elementary school and junior high. Mom doesn’t remember the friends’ names, but I do. The one standing outside the tent is Sharon. Yes, that was the fateful camping trip on which it rained the whole time. No, she didn’t live in our neighborhood; she lived across the street from the school and was a “walker” who didn’t have to face the ignominy of riding the bus. The one with the cat is Debbie, from when we lived in Wappingers Falls. That one is Vitor, the exchange student from Brazil. We trip merrily down Memory Lane until Mom picks up her dying cat and it pees all over her.

Pictures of Dad, decades younger, displaying his chest hair on the beach in Florida. Me as a teenager, with a goofy grin, holding a seashell in Myrtle Beach. My sisters, bundled up in matching hooded parkas, in the snow in front of our house. My very young looking mother in a bathing suit on a chaise lounge at the pool. Me and my grandfather at my college graduation, two months before he died.

Photographic evidence of a life so far in the past that it’s a stretch to believe it ever happened. These Polaroids could just as well be a figment cobbled together into one of my colorful dreams, more real than the real thing.

My parents are discovering that one of the hazards of aging is that everyone you know dies. Parents, siblings, friends. Live long enough and there’s no one left but you.

And as the names are erased from the paper, one by one, with only old snapshots in oversized albums remaining as a reminder, I wonder how I will manage when the very paper itself disappears and, as in my dreams, I am left with nothing but memories and black and white photographs dated AUG 65.

The Haircut

FRESNO

My father keeps telling me about how much he likes the work his barber does.  Now, Dad has very little hair left at this point, so it’s not as if I expected his barber to be a corn row connoisseur or a faux hawk aficionado.  But when he told me that his barber charges only four dollars (plus tip), I was sold.  I decided to put up with my sideburns for a couple of months in order to get my ears lowered both competently and cheaply when I headed south to visit my parents for Thanksgiving.

On Black Friday, my wife and I drove from my parents’ house out in the country to “the big city” of Fresno to get coiffed.  (Well, really so my wife could use her computer to get some work done, since there is no high-speed internet connection or wi-fi out on the rangeland where my parents call home).  My father warned me that his barber might have the day off, but that “one of the girls” would take me.

When we arrived at the shop, we were greeted with a CLOSED sign on the door.  My wife told me this would happen!

Fortunately, we had just passed an open barber shop a few blocks away.  Inside, three barbers were working away on customers while another family waited their turn.  I sat down patiently and waited about 20 minutes to be called.  This was definitely not a discount hair establishment like the place my father patronized.  A sign advertised that a regular haircut would set you back $12.  But I was there already and I just wanted to get this itchy stuff off my ears and face.  I was not about to drive around looking for someplace less expensive.

The last time that I had my hair cut back home, I told a young woman at a salon that I wanted a “3.”  For at least 20 years, I’ve been familiar with the numbering system that many barbers use.  Before I was married, I used to get a “one,” which is basically your Marine special.  Just a bit of fuzz on top.  My wife says that this style makes me “look like an escaped mental patient,” so I began leaving some hair on my noggin. I am now used to having the sideburns removed and keeping a reasonable amount of hair north of that.  Still, I thought the “3” was a bit too short.  Therefore, this time around I requested a “4.”  “You know what a 4 is, right?” the barber asked.  Yes, I assured him, I know what it is.  Upon which I blinded myself by removing my eyeglasses and hoped for the best.

The barber was a young guy who insisted that I used to be a tutor at his high school (I have never taught), urged me to get a lump on my head checked out (I explained how I obtained it forty years ago) and griped about how Heald College closed down when he had almost completed his associate’s degree and how Fresno City College wouldn’t transfer any of the credits.

I should have told him that he missed his calling.  He should have been a bartender.  I wished I had the nerve to tell him to shut up and pay attention to what he was doing.

At that point, the barber requested the details of my Thanksgiving.  “Whad you grub on?” he inquired.  I explained that my mother prepared the traditional turkey, cranberry sauce and potatoes, but that I very much enjoyed my eggplant and tofu, thank you.

“You a vegetarian?” he asked, incredulous.  I answered in the affirmative, in no mood to explain the difference between a vegetarian and a vegan.  Then he asked when was the last time I ate meat.  “About 25 years ago,” I responded, upon which he wanted to know what my last meat meal consisted of.  “I really don’t remember,” I admitted.  “It was a long time ago.”

“If it was my last time eating meat, I’d remember,” he remonstrated.  “I’d have a triple cheeseburger.  But I could never stop eating meat.”

About this time, the barber offered me my eyeglasses and I glanced in the mirror to check out the new me with a “4.”

Welcome to the Marines, son.

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