Tuesday, January 18, 2011

In the Joint

Yesterday Fellow Traveler had her long-awaited consult with a non-VA oral/maxillofacial surgeon regarding her arthritis-ravaged jaw.

It was one of those mornings that just begged for a do-over. I had intended to accompany FT to this important appointment, but a relatively mild cold I've tolerated for the past week suddenly exploded in intensity, and I woke up with a raging fever and sore throat; there was no way I could go along. Then, about five minutes into FT's journey through town and toward the freeway our normally reliable Jeep began stalling whenever she slowed the car to a stop, so she was forced to turn around and carefully drive back home to switch vehicles.

I didn't see her for several hours.  Part of the plan that day was for her to come home by way of our church and help train a new volunteer on our database system; then she was going to stay for a council meeting in the evening. But a snowstorm began to build in the afternoon, and FT finally decided that it was unwise to try and navigate through the bad weather in the Prius.

By this time I was not only sick but anxious because of the increasingly bad roads, so I was relieved to see the Prius turn into our driveway. And I'd only gotten a short-form version of how the consult went over the phone, so I was eager to hear the details of the exam.

Here's the story: The good news is that the surgeon is recommending a less invasive, less dangerous operation than what was originally described to us; rather than attempting to replace the joint, he is going to realign the joint to reduce the bone-on-bone discomfort. More good news is that, while not a common surgery, this surgeon has done it enough times to be fairly confident that it will relieve FT's pain for an extended period of time.

The bad news? The benefits of the surgery won't last forever. Preparation for the surgery involves several weeks' use of a new quartet of medicines, including steroids -- something FT hates and has resisted taking in the past because of prior bad experiences -- a bite splint and a host of lifestyle restrictions. Post-surgery FT will have to have her jaws wired for six weeks. And if for some reason this surgery is not successful, the alternative -- a scary procedure -- only has a 20 percent success rate, and a high degree of danger.

FT came home exhausted, jaw pounding in pain, from her two-hour exam -- and from trying to process all the information that the surgeon had given her. I was still feverish and miserable but also trying very hard to understand exactly what this proposed surgery will entail, both in terms of the procedure itself and the necessary aftercare.

It made for a pensive evening.

FT has had so many surgeries for her RA-eaten joints that we jokingly refer to her as the Bionic Woman. Her degree of pain makes her so miserable on any given day -- her jaw swells noticeably, making it difficult for her to speak clearly -- that saying yes to something that may end that pain for at least several years, is not that difficult a decision to make.

But I worry. And I feel bad that FT -- who's already had so many joint replacements that we jokingly refer to her as the Bionic Woman -- has to go under the knife yet again. I know our life together has been blessed immeasurably these past going on five years...but there's always an undercurrent of sadness for the pain she's suffered and anxiety over the future. If this is, as Luther saw our life partnerships, a school for character, then we must be in graduate school.

Friday, January 07, 2011

A Post-Holiday Friday Five

Today is Tree-Untrimming/House Undecorating Day -- not one of LC's favorite tasks, but something that must be done. It's also the day that I, like my mom, write up a short review of our Christmas, pop it in a little envelope and add it to the box where I keep our creche.  So it's rather appropriate that this week's RevGalBlogPals' Friday Five asks us to review the past holiday season -- the good, the bad, perhaps the ugly, although I hope not.

1) What food item was one of your favorites this year - a definite keeper?
It hurts for this scratch-cooking foodie to say this, but...it was really, really nice to enjoy a Honeybaked half-ham, handily delivered to the door, this year. (I made roasted acorn squash and Brussels sprouts, and a heap of mashed potatoes.)  We'd sent a full ham dinner to one set of relatives for Christmas, got a handsome discount because of that, and decided to use the savings on ourselves. We can definitely get used to this new tradition. But we've now both had enough ham, Honeybaked or otherwise, to last us until next Christmas.

Oh -- and, after the panic about finding my old family recipes, I did discover a new and improved sour cream sugar cookie recipe. That one's a keeper.

2) Was there a meal or party or a gathering that stands out in your mind from this most recent holiday season?
Christmas Eve morning saw us at the bedside of a dying friend and neighbor; not really the gathering I'd expected or hoped to have on that day, but it was what it was; and if our presence gave our friend extra comfort in her passage into life eternal, then God bless that day.

One of the nicest gatherings was, ironically, just one day after. You see, we had planned to have our hamfest on Christmas Day -- an intimate, even romantic meal, just the two of us. That was before FT's 90-year-old uncle called us up to invite us to their house for Christmas. Uncle was an avid fisherman back in the day, and we'd sent him and FT's aunt some salmon filets for Christmas. "We don't know how to cook these," he told us. "You two will have to come and do it for us." Which of course was just a ruse to have us come and visit them. Their own children, for various reasons, maintain minimal contact with them, so FT and I are their defacto family; we'd helped them put their Christmas decorations up around Thanksgiving, mainly to keep Auntie off the ladder, and had made them dinner that day as well. So that is where we spent Christmas Day -- squeezed around the generally unused dining room table in their tiny dining room, eating a rather simple meal; but enjoying it very much. (I did learn, however, that while Finns love beets, they do not love pickled beets; a note for next year.)

3) Were you involved in a jaw-dropper gift? Were you the giver or recipient or an on-looker?
Well, I"m pleased to say that I was a giver, a co-giver and a recipient. I was co-giver of Bananas, a humongous, ginormous stuffed gorilla we gave Miss Ruby for her birthday. We had feared that this was more an exercise in wretched excess on the part of Grandmas than a gift that Ruby would actually like -- we were even afraid that the huge ape would frighten her --  but Ruby loooooves Bananas. And her parents have taken to dressing Bananas in various themed clothing from week to week (fellow half-century fossils might remember the store mannequin in the Monkees' old TV show that was used similarly). So we're very happy Bananas made such a hit with the whole family. (And we'll just mention that, power shoppers that we are when it comes to our grandchild, we bought Bananas at a 70-percent-off store-closing discount.)

I was the jaw-dropped recipient of a Kindle, as I've mentioned elsewhere on this blog.

And I think I managed to jaw-drop my dear partner with her deluxe beginning beekeeping kit. This gift had started out as a meager purchase of a few essential beekeeping tools, as a kind of teaser/encouragement until FT could get some advice on what sort of hive and clothing to purchase. But it growed. And now all FT has to do is paint her hive (she's thinking maize and blue) and, this spring, fill it with bees. (This weekend we're going to visit with our cider-making/beekeeping friend Wally for some expert advice in this endeavor.)

4) Was there at least one moment where you experienced true worship?
I assisted for the first time on Christmas Eve -- I've never had that experience, of assisting when the church is packed to the rafters, and it was very meaningful to me; particularly assisting with distribution, being able to place the Body of Christ in so many hands, look into so many eyes and say, "...for you."  I think that was the high point of my Advent/Christmas worship experience.

That and -- as unexpected and sad as the day was -- being able to pray with our dying friend just moments before she passed on. When I did this, all my existential doubts and sadness and discomfort and other distractions swirling about in my head made way for a kind of calm certainty that I was merely a vessel for a Mystery far bigger and more profound than my puny presence, and that the Church of all ages and places was with me as I made the sign of the cross on my friend's forehead, and prayed, and read the 23rd Psalm to her. After she passed, I again found myself feeling rather awkward and incompetent as the hospice professionals took over and I tried making awkward conversation with our friend's partner and other visitors. But for a brief time I was in a special kind of sacred space.

5) What is at least one thing you want to make sure you do next year?
After my mindblowing three-day cookie-baking marathon -- next week I want to make sure that I start this project far earlier in the month. I know growing up that my mom would very often begin the weekend after Thanksgiving, and freeze the cookies until the holidays. I will also make a comprehensive list of what I need -- not only the ingredients themselves, but how much of them. And I will make the time to include my honey drop cookie recipe, another old favorite that didn't make the cut this year just because I was too tired.

BONUS: What is something you absolutely must remember to do differently... or not at all!
My attempt at incorporating a water feature into our Advent wreath was indeed beautiful and evocative -- but not very practical. Among other things, it takes a tremendous number of floating candles; the water needs to be changed regularly; and the bowl is subject to smudges and water marks. I made it; I'm glad; next year it will be different. We are thinking about going back to one real Christmas tree in the house. We miss a real tree. And -- no attempt to create an Advent blog or special Advent feature on this blog this year; not unless I get really bored and/or inspired somewhere in the middle of the Pentecost season and write it all up in advance. My relationship to Advent devotionals is much like Charlie Brown's relationship to Lucy's football -- so very tempting to undertake, but I just know it's not going to end well.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Recipe Interlude: Sour Cream Cut-Out Cookies

When we got back from our California trip, my window of opportunity for cookie-baking had been narrowed considerably -- especially considering that our cookies were mostly for export out of state.

So I steeled myself for about three days of nonstop cookie baking. I went to find my tried-and-true recipes, in my mom's old cookbooks.

I couldn't find the books.

The old, tattered Betty Crocker cookie book -- not in the bookcase. Ditto the old Br'er Rabbit Molasses book. The stained spiral-bound Lutheran ladies' cookbook -- not in the bookcase.

I went to the garage office, where I still have a few boxes from our house consolidation, and tore through them looking for any old cookbooks. No luck. I came back inside and looked behind the other books in the bookcase, thinking I may have squirreled these unlovely but useful books somewhere out of public eye. Nope.


Then I vaguely remembered having a fish-or-cut-bait moment, as we cleaned out our garage that spring after I sold my house, looking at a box of battered old books and loose recipes and making an executive decision to let it all go.

This was probably a smart decision at the time. Yet now I felt sad; another connection to my mom and my roots lost. I remember my mother telling me about writing for all sorts of free cookbooks from food companies when she was a newlywed. I remembered her own handwritten recipes in a falling-apart ring binder. All gone now, I sighed.

Until I snapped out of it and reminded myself that the recipes are not lost forever. And my particular family cookie menu has found a new generation of appreciative eaters in our kids.

So I got online. I found the Betty Crocker mother lode of cookie recipes. I did general searches on other recipes. And I did it; I replicated the standard LutheranChik Family Christmas cookie plate.

Not only that -- I actually found a better sugar cookie recipe than the one I had. (Sorry, Lutheran church ladies.) The recipe I'm about to share with you makes very soft, lovely, delicate cut-out cookies. And of course they're not just for Christmas. Think about making these, say, for a sweetie on Valentine's Day, cut into hearts and iced and sprinkled with glistening sugar:

Sour Cream Cut-Out Cookies

1 C. butter 1 C. sugar 3/4 C. sour cream (light sour cream works okay but nonfat sour cream does not) 1 egg 2 tsp. baking powder 1 tsp. baking soda 1/2 tsp. salt  1 tsp. nutmeg 4 1/2 C. flour

Cream together butter and sugar. Add the sour cream, egg and the vanilla; mix well. Stir in baking powder, baking soda, salt and nutmeg. Gradually add flour until dough is too difficult to stir. Mix the rest by hand. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and roll out to 1/4 to 1/2-inch thick. Cut into desired shapes with your favorite cookie cutters. Space cookies about 1 1/2 inches apart on a greased cookie sheet. Bake for 6-8 minutes in a preheated 350-degree oven or until lightly browned at the edges. Cool completely on wire racks. Decorate as desired.

These tend to dry out quickly, so enjoy them within a few days of baking them. They can also be made ahead of time and frozen,un-iced, then thawed and decorated right before serving/giving them.

Monday, January 03, 2011

LC's Semi-Random Bible Verse of the Week

God shall crush the heads of his enemies,

and the hairy scalp of those who go on still in their wickedness. -- Psalm 68:21

This verse jumped out at me as I was reading the appointed Psalm for today's BCP Morning Prayer. I know this is no laughing matter from a theological standpoint -- there's a reason why not every verse of every Psalm makes it into the Sunday lectionary -- but you've got to love the Psalmist going all WWE on his enemies here.

I'm not sure I'm up to praying for the crushing of my enemies' hairy scalps. Public embarrassment, maybe; but not breaking their heads. Maybe that's a 21st century developed world thing.

Honeybees and Do-Bees

We have a beehive in our living room right now.

It's kind of cute. It was marketed as an "English garden hive," as opposed to the workaday boxes one sees in commercial beeyards; it is somewhat smaller than a standard hive, with a peaked roof and copper flashing, and looks like something Peter Rabbit might have hopped past on his way to the carrot patch.

With this hive came an assortment of beekeeper gear: a hat-and-veil combo; gloves with arm gaiters; a smoker; a hive tool; an instructional DVD.

I, the Christmas elf who produced this hive and kit, had  gently quizzed FT earlier in the year about her sincerity in taking up beekeeping. Are you sure? Are you sure this isn't like the dark-of-night, REM-sleep-fueled conversation you had with me several months ago when you suggested to me that an urban chicken coop might be a fun backyard project, and then the next day when I recalled that comment over breakfast you stared at me in horror: "I told you what?!..." No, FT insisted repeatedly; this isn't like the phantom egg farm; this is for real; I want to be a beekeeper.

Which is actually pretty exciting. Although we have to get cracking on ordering that most important element of the equation, namely the bees, a task that I understand needs to be done right about now for an April shipment, due to high demand and short supply. I'm anxious that this timeline is somehow going to conflict with FT's jaw surgery -- what if the bees come when she's recuperating, whacked out on painkillers and not ready to participate in the task of introducing the bees to their new digs in our back yard?

I want this to be FT's project, not mine; but I'm hoping she reconnects with our new friend Wally from a surburban apple orchard and bee yard on the outskirts of Bay City, a delightful older gentleman who, once he heard about FT's interest in bees, was ready to take her under his wing (so to speak) and share his expertise. Wally can give us the 411 about procuring our bees. I also bought FT a year's membership in the state beekeepers' association, so maybe we can find some encouragement and assistance a little closer to home as well.

So there's that, happening at our house right now.

In the meantime, we are becoming bees ourselves: do-bees at church, doing things -- generally things involving computers -- that other people can't or don't want to do. Today, for example, while I'm staying at home nursing a bad head cold, the somewhat well-er FT is at church, helping the Finance Committee switch its data over to a new computerized data management system. For my part, I'm entering data for the quarter into our online event and scheduling calendar. I sometimes feel guilty about dragging my non-Lutheran-from-home partner into the inner workings of our church; but she enjoys solving computer problems -- and, as a relative newcomer, she a certain amount of freedom to express herself and get things done that someone enmeshed in the complicated interpersonal relationships and histories of our congregation probably doesn't. One of our perpetual organizational problems is a reluctance on people's parts -- in part I think a function of our congregational demographics and local culture -- to own and execute final decisions; I remember a short-lived stint on the Evangelism Committee where a mind-numbing, hour-long handwringing session involving the purchase of customized church coffee mugs -- "I don't know what to do next...do you know what to do next?" -- was enough to make me hand in my resignation in frustration; "I am not going to waste any more hours of my life discussing how to get a picture on a coffee cup and calling that evangelism," I told the pastor.  FT, by contrast, doesn't have a problem with just doing something that needs to be done, committee be jiggered, and explaining it later...in the words of another military gal, the late Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, it's easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission.

I myself have made the commitment to volunteer in the church building one day a week. Our pastor is transitioning into a new house away from the parsonage, our longsuffering volunteer secretary is wanting and needing a break, and so a few of us are going to rotate days in the office, answering the phone and being available for any walk-in assistance. I have plenty of my own church-related tasks to keep me busy on my office day, so it gives me an opportunity to work on those without succumbing to the temptations of the home sofa office.

All of which is to say...things are buzzing around here. In a good way.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Rekindling of Desire

Let me introduce you to my favorite holiday toy:

Yes, it's true; I have succumbed to the electronic lure of the Kindle.

I've been a Kindle skeptic for a long time. There's the creepy Big Brother thing about dependency upon one company for e-books (a company that is constantly collecting personal information about customers and that has in the past deleted customer purchases, with a refund but with no cogent explanation); there's the angst about increasing the digital and informational divide even further between the technology haves and have-nots (most of the people in my church, for instance, regardless of age, have no access to the Internet or even a decent personal computer). There's the issue of longevity -- what happens to my books if I break my Kindle, or if Amazon ever decides to change its technology? And there's the issue of tactile pleasure -- sometimes there's just nothing like turning the pages of a book.

Yeah; I know. But my new Kindle is just...so...cool.

I mean -- I've already downloaded a couple dozen freebies; everything from the Iliad to The Voyage of the Beagle to a short tome on Amish gardening tips. My Kindle is wi-fi enabled, so I just book-shop right on it, 24/7, click the "buy" button (even for the freebies) and -- ka-ching! -- my book is suddenly there, ready to read. Wow.

For the past several years I've listed "reading more" as a New Year's resolution; and for the past several years that hasn't really happened. But now I find that I've already made it through one of my e-books (and learned that baking soda is a cheap and easy amendment to acid garden soil). And I'm headed for one of the Great Books now...perhaps the Epic of Gilgamesh, or the Analects.

Ooh -- shiny.