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An Ordinary Woman

( Some months ago I read a memoir by a woman who wrote obituaries for a small town newspaper in Alaska. In it , she described how she went beyond the cold hard facts —  born/ married/ career highlights/died/survived by — and tried to find the little things which truly defined the deceased. There was one life in particular that she wrote about which created a deep impression on me. It is the subject of this post. Unfortunately, I did not make a note of either the author’s name or the title of the book and have been unable to find it again at the library. What follows is from memory and ,thus, a little skimpy in detail but it doesn’t really matter.)

Her name was Hannah. I don’t know her last name but it’s unimportant. As a young girl, Hannah emigrated from Sweden sometime in the years before World War II. She was not much educated and didn’t know anyone in America but she was young and willing to work hard. She found work in the Swedish embassy in Washington D.C.as a cook and general purpose worker. She worked there for several years, built a good reputation and ,somewhere along the way, she married a partially disabled man named Carl. She was well liked at the embassy and , in the aftermath of the war, she was told of an opportunity in Alaska where an abandoned military  property was on sale, cheap. Scraping together her savings, and with the help of friends, she bought the property with the idea of converting it into a hotel. She, and Carl, then moved to Alaska.

Those first few years were hard as Hannah and Carl toiled from dawn to dusk to keep their heads above water. Money was scarce and they had to do everything themselves. They  fixed things, they painted, they cooked , they cleaned without stop. There was never any spare time but Hannah somehow found the time to plant a vegetable garden which supplied them with many of their needs. She also planted beds of flowers which transformed the building and gave it a welcoming look. Hannah had always been a good cook and the simple but abundant fare that she laid out began to attract the attention of travelers. Tourists began to  stop over, at first for the food but then for overnight stays. At times, as many as sixty  famished  guests would turn up for breakfast and Hannah would serve them all with the help of only one girl who worked part time.

Things got better but Hannah and Carl continued their frugal, hard working ways. In order to rent out every last room, they themselves slept on cots in a cramped cubbyhole just off the kitchen. Work consumed their days; there was no time for much else. They never took vacations or went on cruises. They never had time for hobbies but  Hannah had fun when she could. She had been a good skier during her childhood in Sweden and, whenever the hotel ran short of supplies, she would strap on her skis and ski over the frozen roads to the grocery store in town.

Hannah and Carl had only one indulgence. Occasionally, business was slow and rooms were vacant, they would commandeer the best room in the hotel and make the beds  with fresh linens. Then , after long hot showers, they would collapse onto the soft beds, so different from their usual cots, and sleep the deep, dreamless sleep of the weary. This one detail vividly paints a picture of them, makes them come alive in ways nothing else could.

Thus, they passed their days. Carl passed away when he was in his early seventies. Hannah sold the hotel shortly thereafter and retired, living into her late eighties. And that is their story. I did tell you Hannah was an ordinary woman. Alone in a new country, without much education, she made the most of the limited opportunities she had. As the adage goes, when life gives you a lemon, make lemonade. Her accomplishments may not seem like much, but how much more admirable is her life than those of the celebrities or the sports heroes we read about. Celebrities become famous for being notorious ( think Kim Kardashian) and sports greats are very often duds off the sports field. Hannah, on the other hand, lived an exemplary life worth emulating by all of us. Honest, genuine, industrious, simple, she achieved the modest goals she set herself.

Yes, Hannah was an ordinary woman but she lived an extra-ordinary life.

We don’t have a very large garden , just a double row of shrubs outside our front porch. But, no matter the size of a garden, there are always weeds; yesterday, I was involved with the chore of removing them. The weather was great for gardening – sunny with a slight breeze – and I stuck to the job until I thought I was done. When I stepped back and surveyed my work, however, I saw that there were still some dried leaves tangled in the bottoms of the shrubs. Determined to do a perfect job, I bent to my task again. Ten or fifteen minutes later, confident I’d gotten every last weed and dead leaf, I surveyed my handiwork… and saw that I had still missed a few in the back.

About this time I remembered a book by David Viscott, a psychologist, the first chapter of which describes his experience weeding his vegetable patch. Every time he ” finished” the job he noted that there were still some weeds he had missed. Viewing the field from a different angle, or a different angle at which the sun hit it caused him to see it in a different light and to note what more had to be done to complete the task , to get every last weed. I don’t know the lesson that Viscott got from his experience but I know what I learnt ..Never strive for perfection in every task, particularly those mundane tasks where perfection is not critical.

Weeding involves a lot of bending and, until yesterday, I’d never realized the effort that it entails. I must have spent perhaps 30 minutes bending over and, let me tell you, my back hurt. I began to appreciate those who spent most of their day hunched over; people like  rice farmers, the women and men who transplant rice seedlings hour after hour, day after day while standing ankle deep in cold water. We, who are fortunate to have ( or to have had) white collar jobs do not often consider what it is like to do a repetitive physical job; or how little such jobs pay now that the higher paying manufacturing work has been outsourced abroad. Aside from the low pay, there is  the sheer boredom caused by such work. In the film Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin is an assembly line worker whose sole job is to tighten nuts with the help of two big spanners, one in each hand. When he leaves the factory at the end of the work day, still carrying the spanners he comes across a pretty girl whose  dress has two large decorations that look like nuts. They are strategically placed on the front of her dress and you can imagine the rest…. she flies screaming as Charlie goes after her with the spanners.

Even the act of standing throughout an 8- hour shift demands a lot. The girls at the checkout counters, the sales girls at the cosmetics counters in department stores, the post office workers who sell stamps and other sundries, are all stressed in ways we cannot imagine. Yes, we white collar workers are lucky.

While I was weeding, I glanced over at my neighbor’s garden. Not for him, the basic shrubbery that comes with the house. He recently hired a landscaper and completely re-did his garden. All in all, he now has more than 40 plants and shrubs, including two hydrangeas and four rose bushes. There are also two trees. The garden looks very nice now but I wonder what will happen with time. You see, my friend put in the garden because he very much admired his cousin’s garden and wanted to emulate it. The trouble with gardens is that they demand a lot of work. the weeds have to be removed, the bushes pruned , the mulch beds redone, and the plants watered if it does not rain for a few days or if it is very hot. It is a never-ending job and , if one doesn’t enjoy doing it, it can be a burden. My friend has never really gardened so he will probably have to hire a gardening service. A bigger problem is how the garden will look when the trees and shrubs have grown. They have been planted pretty close to each other and , in a short time, the garden will look overgrown in spite of all the pruning . No, I don’t envy my friend his garden. Several things come to mind: Too much of a good thing is bad is one . Another is Less is more.

 

When it comes to cooking, our friend V is a perfectionist. When she makes a dish, she uses exact amounts of the ingredients and follows directions religiously. When she likes an unfamiliar dish and wants to add it to her repertoire, she does her homework meticulously. She watches the dish being prepared ( more than once if necessary), taking copious notes all the while. Then she tries it out as many times as necessary until she gets it just right. Only then does the recipe become part of her collection of dishes to cook.

Needless to say, V is a very good cook. Every thing she cooks is consistently good and it is a pleasure to watch her in the kitchen. Her every movement is as if choreographed, sure-handed and economical. When she rolls out dough, it comes out a perfect circle – every time. If one were to use a protractor or a stencil, the circle could not be more perfect.

Most people cook quite differently. Whether they are good cooks or not, they almost never follow the recipe exactly or even attempt to do so. My wife and I know our way around the kitchen and , for us, a recipe is merely a guide, a rough guide. We do not –  cannot- always rely 100% on the recipe as written. Some cookbook writers  list an ingredient but omit it from the cooking directions. Other times, the quantities of some ingredients appear wrong and we use our judgment to alter  them as we think fit. It doesn’t matter how experienced or well- known  cookbook authors are; they can still make  mistakes. Recently , we were trying out a recipe from a cookbook by a woman who has written 40+ cookbooks. The photograph of the dish showed a dry curry but when we tried to replicate the dish it came out more like a soupy stew!

Both V ‘s method and ours have their advantages and disadvantages. V’s repertoire of dishes is, understandably, somewhat limited. She will not try out a new dish unless she is absolutely sure about it. Thus,  though the dishes she makes are perfect,she makes the same dishes over and over again. In the case of more adventurous cooks , like us, we are always ready to try something new. Thus, our dishes taste different each time. They may not turn out great but we know enough about cooking that it is rarely a disaster. Having to change the recipe on the fly ( either because we don’t have an ingredient or because recipe directions are iffy) is not a problem. And, I like to think, such flexibility makes us better cooks and cooking more interesting.

Recently, I was thinking about this subject and about how it applies to other aspects of daily life. There can be little doubt that, in matters other than cooking, a less rigid approach is far better. This is true both for our thoughts and our actions. As Aldous Huxley said  “ Consistency is contrary to nature, to life. The only completely consistent people are dead“. Conditions change and it behooves us to keep an open mind and change our thinking, our positions as necessary. I’m not in sympathy with those who expect a politician to be absolutely consistent over the course of an entire career. To unload on someone because what he says today is different from what he said ten or twenty years ago is ridiculous. As long as his position on an issue is not a complete flip-flop  and as long as it is dictated by a changing reality, I think such changes are perfectly OK.

When it comes to what we plan to do, a ( little) adventurousness is similarly a good thing. Otherwise, we will never try anything new, always do the same things again and again. Trying something new, whether it be a new dish at a restaurant or a new activity, can be beneficial. It makes life more interesting and , sometimes, can expand our consciousness even as it gives us pleasure. A case in point: Recently, I sang karaoke  for the first time. It came as a huge surprise, not only to my friends but to me, because I had never done such a thing. Never even tried it. My wife sings well and, for many years , we had been attending these karaoke sessions without my ever uttering a peep. I just knew I couldn’t sing and I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. Suddenly, a couple of weeks ago, I got the urge to try–after all, I couldn’t do worse than some of the others. So, I chose a song I loved, one I thought might be doable, and practiced for about a week. Then, I made my maiden attempt at singing last weekend. Surprisingly, for all my previous trepidation, I wasn’t very nervous as I took the mike.  I am not going to say that it was an unqualified success but , for a first attempt, it wasn’t half bad. I did not make an ass of myself and the experience was actually fun. If I had not put aside my fears, I would never have gotten over them.

To get back to the point I was trying to make: sometimes it is good to step out of your comfort zone and try something new. Structure is good but, occasionally, it’s important to take a chance. If you prepare well, you will not do badly,. And, in the unlikely event that you do, who cares?

June 25th is our next karaoke session and, yes, I plan to sing.

 

Twelve years ago, when my son first started work, I was concerned about his diet and how he would find the time to cook for himself. Those first two years, he regularly put in 70 hours a week at the office, sometimes even 80 or 90. There was no time to do anything much else except sleep and commute. The company did provide meals at lunchtime ( all the better to keep workers at their desks) so lunch was no problem. The rest of the time he ordered take-out food. Not the best option because it is loaded with fat, salt and sugar but, at the time, almost the only option.

How things have changed over the past few years!

Now, there are a number of firms that deliver meal-kits, or meals in a box. These kits include exact portions of meat, fish, vegetables , sauces, spices etc. along with recipe cards that tell buyers just how to use them into a satisfying and healthy meal. Generally, there are two options: three dishes / week, each serving two persons or the family plan : two dishes, each serving four people. Among the companies selling meals in a box are Blue Apron (emphasis on easy, healthy recipes), Plated ( sustainable foods), Pete’s Paleo,  Peachdish ( Southern food), and Purple Carrot ( vegan). Subscribers sign up on-line and select recipes from about 6 to 8 options each week ; the cost works out to about $ 10/ serving, about a dollar less for the family plan. Certainly advantageous to these young people, both in terms of money and time. Since all the ingredients are premeasured and prepped, it takes only about 45 minutes to cook a meal.

Three of the biggest advantages are: 1) No need to spend time grocery shopping, 2) No danger of excess food spoiling in the refrigerator and 3) Portion control. Servings are about 800 calories apiece, plenty enough for a meal but not excessive. When one cooks from scratch, the tendency is to buy more than what one needs. Either the excess food goes to waste or you wind up cooking and eating too much.

There are several other advantages too.  These meals are far superior to take-out food, and easier than cooking from scratch. The ingredients are high quality and the detailed instructions that come with the recipes make it easy to put a meal together. There is a lot of variety;  many of the services guarantee that recipes will not be repeated for at least a year. Cooks can also alter the recipes to their liking, by adding a little of this or a little of that. And the recipe cards can also be a guide in the future when cooking from scratch. In fact, cooking with these meal-kits often leads to a revived interest in cooking.

Nothing is perfect , however and there are some drawbacks to these meal kits. There are a few, very few, mishaps with the shipping but they are not worth bothering about. A more serious problem is that cancellations or skipping a week’s delivery have to be done well in advance; usually a week, which is not always possible. Another, which will bother the socially responsible, is that there is a lot of packaging to be garbaged each week.

For those who cannot spare the time to cook, not even 45 minutes, there are services like Munchery which provides ready made meals at about the same cost. All that buyers have to do is reheat the delivered meal for about 10 minutes.

My son also told me about another service which makes it easy to host a party. All you have to do is to specify the kind of food you want ( Thai, Chinese, Italian etc.), and the number of people expected at the party. You put out the requirements on the internet and take bids on your smartphone. Once the price and menu are agreed upon, you can sit back and relax. On the appointed day, a chef turns up and prepares the food in your kitchen. Once again, the cost works out to less than you would spend at a restaurant. Two other advantages are that since you don’t have to cook, you can spend a relaxed evening  with guests, and there is much greater leeway in selecting the food.

Yes, things are much different now; I no longer worry about my son’s diet.

When we are very young, all our thoughts are about the present and the very near future. “When can I go out to play? What will we have for dinner? Will I be able to go to the movies this weekend?” As we grow into adulthood, our thoughts are still focused on the present and the future, though they are more long term. “Where will I go to college? Whom will I marry? My career? Where will I live?” In all this time, there is little thought of the past.

When we are working and raising a family, there is not enough time to think of anything but  the present. Juggling the demands of job, home, children, commuting, and money, we are just too caught up with getting through the next day, the next crisis. If we think at all about the past, it is to think how much easier life was ” back then”.

It is only after the halfway stage of life, when the past is longer than the future, that we begin to think more and more about the past. Some call this “nostalgia” which the dictionary defines as “ a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.”  A good definition, but what exactly is it that we long for?

It seems to me there are several components to this desire and they can be characterized as follows: ( Note that these are not arranged in any particular order. They vary from person to person and from time to time)

1.A yearning for a simpler time. No one can deny that the present provides more material gratifications … but it is also much more complicated. Our role in the order of things seems much diminished. To some extent, it may be that when we were young, our personal world was more circumscribed and this led to a feeling of security.

2. The way we were. It is a feeling that hits us particularly when we look at old photographs or videos. Did I ever really look  that young ? Did I really have that much hair?Was I really so slim?  The feeling also hits us when we see others doing what we once could do, but no longer can. Playing tennis for two hours without stopping. Eating and drinking whatever we want. Returning on an intercontinental flight late on Sunday evening, going to work the next morning and putting in a full days work. Sometimes, particularly among those who defined themselves by their jobs, by what they did, there is a wish for the days when they still felt relevant.

I remember a visit to  the military academy at West Point many years ago when I was not yet forty. A pack of cadets was running laps around the track and as I saw their lean yet  muscled hard bodies and I thought what it must be like to be so young and fit. I said it out aloud without conscious thought and my mother, then in her sixties, mused” If that is what you feel, imagine what I must feel like.”

3. Times when we were happy and carefree. Summer vacations. Playing with my cousins till dark. Picking out books at the school library. Coming home in the rain and getting soaked. Railway journeys with my parents. Those were happy times or were they? The mind remembers only the good things, the happy times in the past, and it chooses to forget unhappy events. No matter. What is real now are our memories; they are all that count.

4. Places where we were happy. I often think of my grandfather’s house. Constructed of reddish laterite blocks, the expansive verandah rubbed smooth and oh so cool even in the heat of summer, set in a garden with fruit trees: mango ( 17 0f them, all different strains), jackfruit,  almond , breadfruit,  cherry ,  sapota and many , many coconut palms. I loved everything about it.The upstairs room wherever no one ever went except myself and where I found a treasure trove of old bound copies of Readers Digests from the forties ; the sand pit; lying on the cool stone of the verandah listening to the patter of the summer rain on the Mangalore tiles and watching it drip from the eaves onto the crotons and form little puddles. The last time I visited , in 1997, there was no trace of my grandfather’s house… it had been demolished by developers and in its place were multi-story apartment buildings. Inevitable, I suppose, but wrenching .

5. People we used to know and whom we miss. Not just those who have passed on but those who have moved away and out of our lives. School mates, college mates, colleagues and old friends. Even those whom we still meet  fairly regularly are different. They have changed and so have we; there is less in common now.

It helps to accept that change is constant, that we cannot live in the past. With this understanding, the past can be a source of pleasure rather than melancholy as we relive the happy times. And, of course, we have to focus on the present and  build up a store of happy memories because they are what will sustain us in the future. Today’s happenings can be a source of our future nostalgia.

 

( In a previous post, I had described Pico Iyer’s experiences with the art of stillness. While on a long flight to L.A, he noticed that the passenger in the seat next to him kept absolutely still, though alert, during the entire journey. She was a German lady from Hamburg on her way to Hawaii and she told him that being still allowed her to still be fresh when she deplaned. Definitely worth trying, I thought to myself ….)

Last week, I was on a trip to Las Vegas when I remembered my resolution. It was a good time to see if stillness would work for me. I tried , I tried really hard — for all of ten minutes —  before I gave up.

Stilling the mind is not easy, even for an experienced meditator … which I am not. After 10 minutes I fell back on my usual inflight amusements… crossword puzzles and the inflight map.

I almost never indulge in crossword puzzles– except on flights . Then, I am tethered to my seat and it’s a good way to pass the time. Not for me the inflight movie; I don’t care to watch it with headphones and on the tiny screen. Nor does the news interest me; I get enough of that elsewhere.

Of course, not just any puzzle book will do. Too many of them are difficult to handle on a plane. Small size  books with small squares. Puzzles spread over two pages, the box on one side and the clues on the facing page. Extra difficult puzzles which are frustrating rather than relaxing. Books that are difficult to open out. All these I try to avoid.

The books I prefer have decent sized lettering, the puzzles are complete on a single page, they are not too easy or too difficult and the books are easy to open out. If they are spiral bound it’s a bonus. This time, I  picked up 101 Crossword Puzzles for Dummies which meets all of the above criteria except that it is not spiral bound. In spite of the title, the puzzles are not easy ( or perhaps, this says something about me!). I spend between 20 and 30 minutes on each puzzle and, if I have not completed it I give up and look at the solution. I find that about three-fourths of the time I am able to finish a puzzle; the rest of the time I’m able to complete between 75% and 95%.

When I’ve had enough of the crosswords, I turn to the inflight map on the TV screen in front of me. This tells me where exactly the plane is at that moment, how far we have traveled , the time and distance to our destination, the outside temperature, the altitude and sundry other information. All these are source of never ending interest. Most interesting of all is the plane location  which shows which state we are currently flying over. I like to read the names of the cities on our flight path and cudgel my mind to remember what little I know about them. For instance, this time when we were flying over Nebraska and I saw the words North Platte, I remembered the North Platte River which has been characterized as “ a mile wide and inch deep.” It’s a description that can be applied to certain people and means  “ jack of all trades but master of none.” This set me thinking about other American idioms which are fresh and pithy and oh-so-descriptive.

I also marvel at the sizes of the various states. Those out west are huge and take a long time to fly over but, east of Ohio, it seems like we pass over the states in a flash. This time, I got to thinking about how casually we accept the wonder of airplane travel. One of my friends told me that, when he came to the U.S in 1959, sea travel was the only option. It took him weeks for a journey that we now accomplish in less than a day. Thinking over the changes that I have seen my lifetime leads me to consider what travel was like in bygone days. I have read that, in the 18th century, it took travelers three days to travel by horse and carriage from New York City to Philadelphia, a distance of about 90 miles that we now do in less than two hours by car. The size of the western states also causes me to reflect on  the pioneers who settled the west. It must have been a hellish journey for them in their Conestoga wagons, plagued by heat or extreme cold, always under the threat of attack by Indians or by outlaws, always worried about their supplies of food and water. Too few Americans, whether they are native-born or immigrants, think about their history or care about it. But let me not go off on a rant….

I find that, at the end of a five or six hour flight I am still quite fresh. Longer than that, it can be a problem because of the cramped seating, the meals which arrive at strange times, the incessant journeys to the toilet by oneself and others in the same row, and the need to reset one’s internal clock.

I wish I could  still my mind as Pico Iyer describes, but it is not something I can do. Perhaps if I work at it. For now, I am perfectly happy with my crossword puzzles and  inflight maps, thank you.

 

These too are Sports

I enjoyed watching the Masters Golf tournament on TV last weekend. I don’t always watch golf but the Masters in a class by itself in terms of visual appeal. The venerable clubhouse, the pristine fairways and the manicured greens are a sight for sore eyes. And then there is the golf itself. I was rooting for Jordan Spaeth as I have been since he first burst on the golf scene and it appeared he had this one in the bag until he faltered with victory in sight. In the course of two holes, he went from being  six strokes in front to three strokes behind. But even his collapse did not detract from my enjoyment of the game.

There are those who claim that golf is not a” real” sport.” These critics sniff that” Golfers don’t have to run or jump, and the ball they hit is stationary!” Maybe so, but that doesn’t mean it is any less of a sport. In my book, a sport ( as distinguished from a game or a pastime) is a contest of skill or strength that attracts spectators. A game, on the other hand, is of interest only to the participants e.g rummy, mahjongg and all board games. A pastime is generally a solitary activity, a ” pass time” e.g bouncing a ball against a wall, playing solitaire etc. These may not be the dictionary meanings of the words but they work for me.

The idea that sports have to include running or jumping or hitting a ball coming at you at 90 miles an hour is not something I subscribe to. Golf does not require any of these but it does involve skills, both physical and mental. It takes physical strength and skill to muscle the golf ball 300 yards down the fairway, to dig oneself out of a bunker or to sink a putt on a wickedly rolling green. And it requires probably more mental fortitude than any other sport. Every shot is a potential pitfall and , in the case of pro golf, tens of thousands may be riding on that next shot.

Another sport that is often derided as a parlor game is table tennis or ” ping pong” as it is  condescendingly called. Yes, ping pong is a parlor game but table tennis is a sport. To know the truth of this, you should watch a competitive match being played by good players. YouTube has any number of videos including world championships and European championships. The lightning quick reflexes and the agility displayed by these top class players are unbelievable.

As with everything, one does not appreciate the difficulty of a sport until one tries to play it oneself. I  found that out when I tried hitting a bucket of balls at the driving range. Try as I did, I simply could not get the ball to go where I wanted and the longest drive I managed was 125 yards and that only once. As for putting, I understand how it can frustrate duffers so much that they fling their putter into a pond.

No one can convince me that golf and table tennis are not sports.

Golden Ripples

About Food, Travel, Sports , Books and other fun things

47 Japanese Farms: Japan Through The Eyes of Its Rural Communities -- 47日本の農園

A journey through 47 prefectures to capture the stories of Japan's farmers and rural communities

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