Thursday, May 20, 2021

Small Pleasures

On Tuesday I bumped into some issues of aging. I felt discouraged and trapped by the inevitably of getting older and sicker. I slept well, but woke up in much the same sad, hopeless mood. One of my first activities was reading Father Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation, which had the title, Choosing Love in a Time of Evil.  He quotes from Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning, on his experience in a Nazi concentration camp.  Frankl noted:

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision [emphasis mine], and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any person can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of them—mentally and spiritually. They may retain their human dignity even in a concentration camp. . . . It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful. . . .

I know Viktor Frankl's work well, yet it shook me up -- it reminded me that I, too, had choice. I did not need to surrender my humanity to my troubles.  

With that in mind, I went about my day, focusing on the famous glass half-full.  When depression tugged at me, I pushed it away. After dinner, I found myself shelling roasted, salted pistachios for dessert. Each nut required that I push the two dies of the shell apart and scope out the nut meats. I was chewing on my third or fourth nut when I realized that I was sublimely happy. My problems had not changed since the day before, but my perspective had opened up. If someone in a concentration camp could hold on to their humanity through troubles, then so might I. That's the theory -- but sitting in my kitchen cracking pistachios, I had some proof that I could do it. It wasn't an automatic thing. I had to make the choice. And I had to push away my unhappiness throughout the day. The work, however, allowed me to recognize the pleasure of eating some nuts. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Coronavirus: India Under the Hammer

The New York Times has run a special section devoted to the lives of those we've lost to Covid-19. Today, in the print edition, it was devoted to people in India who have died, including a young American who was living there. 

As has been true throughout the year, we have lost dynamic people whose talents were devoted to making the world safe and fun for all of us.  It brings the tragedy home.  

Several of my friends are closely connected to organizations in India that are responding to the crisis and here's their advice on organizations worthy of support. 

Nupur Chaudhury recommends these:

This org is near and dear to my heart, and I continue to do service work in honor of Daxa Patel, who passed away recently. Working with her in rural health camps was my first job out of college. They work deep in the rural areas of Gujarat and Maharashtra, and were very involved in helping displaced families during the construction of the Narmada Dam. They continue to hold my heart as I continue to work to integrate service in my life. 
You’ll see that their website is bare bones. Don’t let that deter you from donating. 
Where to donate (USBased 501c3 to accept donations ):
If you do donate through PayPal, feel free to include a note saying that you were “referred by Nupur Chaudhury” so that they know it’s a legitimate donation—they don’t have a ton of donors. 

Manav Sadna
I worked with this org in the slums of Ahmedabad, Gujarat. They work mostly with the dalit commuity, and work out of Gandhi’s old ashram.

Latha Poonamallee shared this:

If you are looking for a trustworthy grassroots organization to help rural India, I would strongly recommend Tarun Bharat Sangh in Rajasthan, India. 

I have been involved in this organization from 2001 and know them intimately. Their ground game is exemplary and they have the infrastructure to reach nooks and corners of their part of the country through their networked parallel governance organization. Their leadership is morally upstanding and you can be assured that your donations are being put to good use.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Coronavirus: A Year of Cooking with my Daughter

I love Eric Kim's piece on a year of cooking with his mother, which he called "a masterclass in Korean Home Cooking." No children would move home to learn cooking from me. Their father and stepfather did the cooking, while I happily and occasionally baked -- to great acclaim, I might add.  Paul Hollywood is my idol -- 'nuf said.

This pandemic forced me to confront this lacunae in my homemaking skills. My daughter Molly took over my food life in gentle steps, first of which was bringing me food in those days when my age group was in lockdown and we were all living in terror of the unknown. Given raw ingredients, could I make something? It was a tad grim at first. Gradually, the meat-and-potatoes recipes I'd learned at my mother's side all fell into place. Beef stew, spaghetti and meat sauce, meatloaf -- you see the pattern here.  I ventured into lentil soup and rice and sweet potatoes.  

Then we went on a vacation for two weeks and I got to cook at Molly's side. She was at the beginning of a cooking adventure.  While we were at Plum Island, meals featured the fresh produce and amazing ice cream and bread that were to be found.  Chocolate milk ice cream, fresh corn on the cob. The house we were renting was equipped with a grill, reputed to work once you got past the cranky starter. Molly insisted I work this thing -- I was ready to quit when the starter acted up, but she powered us through that. We made hamburgers and hot dogs and veggies on that grill and ate on the porch overlooking the ocean. We were satiated.  We were not afraid.

As we returned, the second wave took off, followed closely by the third wave.  We had to stay close to home.  Molly took up cooking with real seriousness.  She tried many recipes, investigated cookbooks, bought new spices.  She regularly shared what she was trying with me, by which I mean, we talked about it, as we rarely got to eat together.  We subscribe to the New York Times Cooking app, and discuss Sam Sifton's advice on a regular basis. She encouraged me to try certain recipes that she thought would be easy and satisfying.  Thanksgiving was a time for experimentation, as was Christmas.  We could only share in our small "pod," which put certain constraints on, for example, the number of pies we might bake.  The many satisfying discussions of stuffing were topped by a terrific meal.  Molly got me a Challenger bread pan for Christmas, which is one of the best presents I've ever received.  

As we come to the end of this year, I find that I am a very different cook.  Mainly this shows up in how comfortable I am in my kitchen.  My pots and pans are friends.  I can throw a meal together from what I have in the refrigerator.  I can steam, boil, bake, braise, sear, grill.  I chop with ease.  It doesn't always turn out well, and that usually happens when I get too freeform.  I'm much better off with a recipe.  But some things are so clear to me that whatever variations I try they work.  At the beginning of the pandemic, I could not make a decent pot of rice and now I can.  At the beginning of the pandemic, I rarely ate green leafy vegetables of my own volition.  Now cabbage, kale, collards and spinach are friends.  I even harvested dandelions from my garden and threw them into the pot of collards I was making.  I know how to freeze and unfreeze.  I can make a shopping list.  These are good things.  

The year of cooking with my daughter has been a master class in "try it, you'll like it."

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Happy Mother's Day!

I am in the process of packing up my research team's papers, which are set to go to the archive at Columbia University.  In the midst of the stacks of old transcripts and drafts of papers was a paper bag with things that belonged to my mom, Maggie Thompson.  At the bottom of the bag were a bunch of small pieces of paper.  I went through them very carefully, like a '49er shifting for gold.  Almost all were her to-do lists.  But one small piece rewarded my efforts: it was a joke that she'd gotten on the internet, printed out, cut off the parts of the page that weren't relevant, and then folded.  How it got into the bag I don't know.  I do know that the joke was so typical of my mother's sense of humor, I had a flash of her laugh, which was a delicious feeling.  

Here's the joke.

96 year old draws a bath.  She puts one foot in and pauses.  She yells to the other sisters, "Was I getting in or out of the bath?"

The 94 year old yells, "I don't know.  I'll come up and see."  She starts up the stairs and pauses.  "Was I going up the stairs or down?"

The 92 year old is sitting at the kitchen table having tea, listening to her sisters.  She shakes her head and says, "I sure hope I never get that forgetful."  She knocks on wood for good measure.  She then yells, "I'll come up and help both of you as soon as I see who's at the door."

Happy Mother's Day to All! 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Coronavirus: The Day's Check-In Question

Check-in questions had gained traction in meetings before Covid struck, but they seem to be essential to building cohesion on Zoom. In a meeting the other day, my daughter Molly proposed the question, "What's something your family taught you to protect you from scams?"

It turns out that my family has quite a few stories and expressions on this topic. Molly mentioned my dad's saying, "You have a have a big ear to hear the big lie." I grew up knowing about and listening for the big lie. As a psychiatrist, I've cultivated my ear as my profession requires hearing what's between the lines. 

Revisiting those sayings reminded me of others. My mother loved a saying of an organized she worked with in the 1940s in Jersey City. When people were proposing preposterous ideas, he would say, "If we had cake, we could have cake and ice cream, if we had ice cream." I don't know why this saying always struck me as so happy. Perhaps because getting cake and getting ice cream always seemed possible.  

One of the expressions I am fascinated by in Kdrama is "by my side." While my image of love might be of an adoring lover gazing at the beloved's face, the image in the Kdrama is that of the lovers going through life side-by-side. "I hope you will stay by his side," Gu Jun-pyo's sister says to Geum Jan-di early in Boys over Flowers.  

It is hard to notice that this was interesting and got me thinking about so many things. That is certainly the challenge of Covid, in the slow progression of days. The experience of "excitement" has to fit my circumstances. As my mother always used to say, "Oh Lord, we are grateful for small favors." I hasten to add, she meant this ironically. But Covid has taught me to say it in a new way. "Oh Lord, we are grateful for small favors, tiny bits of joy that make this day unique."

Monday, April 26, 2021

Kdrama: Gu Jun-pyo's lunchbox

Probably the most striking change in my life during Covid is watching television, which I basically never did before and now do every day. I'm not very handy with all the controls, but my remote has a "Netflix" button. After I tired of American TV and Brit Box, I thought, "Why not try one of these kdramas Netflix is always advertising?" The rest is history, as they say. I have been thinking about my profound love of melodrama -- which these writers completely anticipate -- and how satisfying it is to worry about these fictional characters whose lives will move to the next thing in 16 or so episodes even though mine will not.  

Lately I've been caught in a love-hate relationship with Boys over Flowers. Very chaotic -- the two lovers at the center of the drama rarely had more than two calm minutes of connection before the next crisis took off. This disturbed my sleep, as you might imagine. The only saving grace was that Yoon Ji-hoo was devoted to Geum Jan-di and always showed up to her rescue (and mine). Not that he got to have the girl in the end... 

This is not the kind of tidy show that Crash Landing on You is. This was more like the erratic brainstorming of people who just needed to find the next fix of terror for the audience. So a question like, "Why does the plutocrat Gu Jun-pyo love commoner Geum Jan-di?" can never be answered except maybe "It made good television." But there is one exchange on this topic that is helpful. She asks, "Why me? I'm not cute, or smart, or wealthy." He replies, "I have all that: I'm handsome, smart and rich. I don't need anything. So just be you." Which evades the question -- what is about her that has captivated him?

I believe the answer lies in the humble lunchbox, which shows up, by my count on five occasions, and leads me to assume that the archetype here is the Snow Queen. The frozen boy immediately recognizes the warmth Geum Jan-di exudes and sees in everything about her life the possibility to be engaged and friendly -- literally, to be warm. He wants to eat her lunch from the first time he sees her with her lunchbox. He asks her to make it for him. The first time she does, he has been dragged off by the Snow Queen. She sits waiting for him: eventually Yoon Ji-hoo arrives and takes her home. The second time they do get to picnic and he loves the lunchbox, but it is the occasion for her to say she can't take the no-holds-barred battering she is getting from his mother.  (This image is from Cooking Gallery)

An aside: She's actually not that forthright -- his mother's attacks on her friends are more than she could take so she retreats. These shows are very roundabout and key people may or may not ever know what's "really" going on. People have to have their own moral or emotional compass; alternatively, a very strong friend network will suffice and might share the news. 

The third appearance of the lunchbox is not in person, but in Geum Jan-di's recounting to the Snow Queen what her son likes. Gu Jun-pyo has been injured in an accident. As soon as he is pronounced out of danger, his mother turns to leave. His sister screams at her, "Do you know anything about your son, like what he likes to eat?" Of course she doesn't. As she walks away, she suddenly feels weak and sits down on a bench. Geum Jan-di sits down next to her and explains that Gu Jun-pyo likes to go on a picnic and have rolled eggs. Geum Jan-di smiles with deep joy at the memory. The Snow Queen, who has done her best to destroy Geum Jan-di, feels the warmth of this young woman: it is the exact moment when the ice in her heart melts.  

Gu Jun-pyo recovers from the accident but has amnesia about Geum Jan-di. The fourth appearance of the lunchbox is Geum Jan-di's effort to get him to remember her. She leaves it by his hospital bed while he is sleeping. Gu Jun-pyo recognizes the taste. Unfortunately, a snow princess (the fifth!) has snuck into the action and claims that she made it. He falls for this, of course. He likes it so much he asks her to make it again. In the fairytales this is when her falsehood would be discovered, but not here. Snow princess pulls off the deception for a bit more. This fifth appearance of the lunchbox was, for me, the most terrifying of all the terrors in the 25 episodes of the show, because snow princess would freeze Gu Jun-pyo for good. So much evil. Geum Jan-di finds the way to his heart and all ends as well as it can in kdrama, which falls short of my standard for happily ever after. And perhaps especially with this anxiety-provoking show -- can we please let these two have a couple of years of joy??? 

Back to the humble lunchbox. In another scene, Gu Jun-pyo insists that Geum Jan-di make him her special ramen. She brings it to him on fine china. He says, "Where's the lid? I want the lid." By this he means he wants to eat it from the pot, using the lid as a plate. His joy at eating it that way is world-encompassing. These small objects -- the lunchbox and the lid -- enable him to be alive in a way that is denied him in his silver-spoon world. At one point, his sister, recognizing the dilemma he is in, asks, "How far will you go?" Meaning "Will you give up all this?" The survival of his family depends on his answer, and ultimately he finds a way that is consistent with his principles. 

As my favorite reviewer noted, Boys over Flowers is rough, but ultimately I am grateful for the experience. I wish I could have watched it in 2009 with all of Korea -- it was a tad lonely to go through all this melodrama on my own, which is why I'm sharing it here! And that's a wrap! 

Friday, April 16, 2021

Coronavirus: Yellow Daffodils on a Gray Day

Yesterday it was gray and sometimes rainy.  Sitting in my kitchen, I caught a glimpse of yellow daffodils, their bright color intensified in the setting of dull skies.  It seemed to me a metaphor for what I have looked for every day in this long year of Covid-19.  A year ago, in the first shock of lockdown, I took photos every day of the lilacs that were coming into bloom.  It was, I thought then, a spiritual exercise to follow the small changes, appreciating each day's advance to full bloom, full perfume.  On the Kdramas I watch, the practice of saying "thank you" -- like the practice of saying "I'm sorry" -- is emphasized.  People say, "Thank you for getting well."  Or "Thank you for being here when I got home."  It's very much gratitude for the grace of presence.  And so yesterday I said to the daffodils, "Thank you for being here."  And as the daffodils fade, the lilacs will bloom.  I didn't know, before this year, why gardeners think so deeply about the flow of bloom and form throughout the year.  Now I know that it means that everyday there is something to remind me of hope, something that gives me a chance to say, "Thank you."