Bundle of Nerves

“You’ve got some nerve,” the radiologist said to me, when it became clear that the three deep injections of painkillers were not enough to keep the nerve impacted by my bulging cervical disc from reacting to the latest onslaught of steroids.

Nerves have been on my mind this week and last, not just because of my most recent bout of nerve warfare, but also because chutzpah and cajones have been in the air and in the news.

Ira Glass thinks Mike Daisey had some nerve fabricating material for a story he performed about harsh conditions at Apple factories in China, which aired on This American Life.  In an on-air retraction, Glass expressed disappointment that Daisey lacked the nerve to fully admit he had lied.

I admit, Naomi Wolf‘s story in The Guardian, in which she accused private school elites of taking down America, touched a nerve because we are contemplating sending one of our daughters to private school and, after years of being an active public school supporter, I feel guilty about abandoning the cause and worry about being stereotyped and judged. But her sensationalism and breezy, “I’m in Ecuador, so I can’t fully respond to your comments” tone, as well as the lack of disclosure about where her kids go to school, got on my nerves.

People have told me they would have been unnerved at the prospect of telling a story on a stage in front of a group of people, as several fellow writers and I did last week, or serving as auction MC for our beloved public elementary school, as I did for the sixth and final time, last Saturday night. Our beleaguered School Board president attended the auction. I thanked him for having the nerve to fight for public education, in spite of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Daughter #2 has admitted she is nervous about attending a new school next year, where she won’t know a soul. But she and six of her classmates exhibited nerves of steel when they competed in the city-wide finals of the Seattle Public Library’s Global Reading Challenge and emerged victorious.  Why is funding for our public schools and our public libraries so often in jeopardy?

It takes some nerve, commented a reader of an article I saw posted on Facebook by an organization promoting the “rational middle” in the debate over education reform, to insinuate that people like him are extremist because they don’t agree.

The nerve of those two mommy writers, who exploited their kids by sharing stories about them, people said this week. I read one of the stories, a tongue-in-cheek account in which the mother admitted to being more upset than her daughter over the daughter’s breakup with a boyfriend.  It’s the kind of story I might have written (though you can bet I’d check with my daughter first), and I thought it was funny and sort of sweet. But a lot of people apparently thought that mother crossed the line.

I won’t apologize for the other mother, who wrote a much maligned piece in Vogue, which I haven’t read, about putting her seven-year-old daughter on a diet.  In addition to the criticism, she got a book deal.

Even French Women Who Don’t Get Fat might exclaim,  “Quel culot!”

Amanda Hesser told her audience at Seattle Arts and Lectures that the cookbook is dead. (Funny, tonight I’m making Broccoli Rabe, Potato and Rosemary pizza from her Food 52 cookbook).

Finally, we are contemplating getting a dog.  I don’t need to tell you how this might make our two beloved cats feel.

The nerve in my neck is on edge this week and I’m slowly becoming resigned to the fact that this is a chronic problem that I will just have to manage.

I can’t speak for other people whose nerves need calming, but I feel fortunate that a good roast chicken has charms that soothe the savage breast and neck.

Though Paula Wolfert, one of my favorite cookbook authors, thinks it’s nervy of Mourad Lahlou to tamper with traditional renditions of Moroccan recipes, she might change her mind after tasting his marriage of roast chicken and chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives from his cookbook, Mourad New Moroccan.

Here’s the recipe, which was posted on Martha Stewart’s website and includes a video of Mourad and Martha cooking together.  (Did you know there is no twine in Morocco?  Watch how Mourad trusses a chicken.  I will never improvise again).

I hope it thrills you all the way to your nerve endings.

Roast Chicken, Preserved Lemons, Root Vegetables

One note:  I compared the recipe Martha posted with the one in the book. They appear to be the same, with one notable exception.  Mourad recommends adding 12 Spiced Prunes to the pan for the final 15-20 minutes of roasting.  The link will take you back to Martha’s site, where she posted Mourad’s Spiced Prune recipe separately from the chicken recipe.  A warning: she omits the 1 cup of water, which should be added when you boil the prunes and flavorings.

International Comfort Food

Even though I was not allowed to listen to Pandora during my recent shot in the neck, the Pandora in my head provided a soundtrack. Lying on my stomach, held tilted down, arms immobilized underneath me, all I could think about, as the doctor drew an X to mark the spot where he would inject me (perilously close to my spinal cord), was the Neil Young song “The Needle and the Damage Done.”

Luckily, the Pandora in my doctor’s head must have been playing Pat Benatar.  He hit me with his best shot and I am grateful.

Scheduling the shot had been tricky. The doctors warned me I might feel some “discomfort” afterwards and would likely be uncomfortable for a day or two, but everyone stressed the urgency of getting it done.  So I ended up having the procedure just hours before I was supposed to attend an Egyptian cooking class at The Pantry at Delancey.

I told you how much I admired journalist Annia Ciezadlo for dodging gunfire in Beirut to make sure the pasta wasn’t overcooked.  Discomfort or no discomfort, there was no way I was missing this class.

Words can’t begin to describe what a wonderful antidote it was to the clinical procedure I had endured.  If people resemble food, then teacher Sureyya Gokeri is the best bowl of sweet, spicy noodles you’ve ever tasted.

When we arrived, we were greeted with a comforting cup of sahlab, the warm, cardamom-infused “intimacy drink,” that is sold by street vendors during Middle Eastern winters.  It’s normally thickened with the starchy ground bulb of an orchid ground to powder form, but Sureyya taught us to make a version using cornstarch.

Here are some other highlights from the class:

Muhammara: Roasted Red Pepper Dip with Walnuts and Pomegranate Molasses

Fuliyya: Fava beans with Chard

Pomegranate-Glazed White Fish

Tamar Al Ghiraybah Mamoul: Date-Stuffed Semolina Cookies

And, my favorite new must-have kitchen item:

Mamoul mold

The next morning, I felt more than a little “discomfort,” but had a raging craving for Parsi Eggs, courtesy of Madhur Jaffrey, who, along with Claudia Roden, is one of my favorite cookbook authors.  And as the day wore on, and my headache and neckache intensified, I remembered Sureyya’s sahlab.  I happened to have a box of the instant stuff.

Though not as good as the real deal, it made me feel better.

I spent the rest of that blustery Seattle weekend in bed reading Ann Patchett‘s State of Wonder.  Thanks to the pain I was in, and the altered state brought about by my pain medication, I was able to intensely connect with this tale of intrigue in the Amazonian jungle. Without my contact lenses in, I could even pretend that the raccoon cavorting in my next door neighbor’s tree was really a sloth.   

When my mother was dying, I made big pots of congee, which sustained us whenever we could manage to eat.  The Thanksgiving that everyone (except me) had the stomach flu, I soothed them with bowls of chicken donburi.

We eat pho and Armenian Chicken Soup when we have colds, and Marcella Hazan’s famous tomato sauce with onions and butter over pasta when life gets to be too much.

Every culture has its version of comfort food and I’m sure I’ve just scratched the surface.

I would love to hear about your favorites.

Sometimes words can be as comforting as food, and sharing stories can be particularly nourishing.  Seattle friends, take note: On Tuesday, March 20, I will be participating in the inaugural Ballard Spoken Word Live Storytelling Event.  

I’m honored to share the stage with my fellow Ballard Writers Collective authors Joshua McNichols, Ingrid Ricks, Peggy Sturdivant and Jay Craig.  They will share ghost stories, tales of love and unexpected friends lost and found, a new way of seeing and a new take on religion.  I’ll be sharing my parenting philosophy:  “The Battle Hymn of the Jersey Mother.”

The next morning, I’m having my second epidural steroid shot.  

When my fellow performers express concerns about stage fright, I’m able to share this perspective about performing without notes in front of a live audience:

 “It’s better than a poke in the neck with a sharp needle.”

Here’s how I’ll be finding comfort afterwards:

Sureyya’s Sahlab

makes 4-6 servings

2 T cornstarch

1/2 cup water

4 cups milk

3 T sugar

1/2 t ground cardamom or 2 broken cardamom seeds

1/2 t vanilla or to taste

Claudia Roden’s recipe includes an optional 2 t of rose or orange flower water.  Sureyya mentions vanilla later in the recipe, but the copy I have neglects to give the amount in the ingredients list.


1 t ground cinnamon

1 t nutmeg

2 T chopped pistachios

1 T unsweetened, shredded coconut

Combine cornstarch and 1/2 c water in a small bowl and stir well. Add milk to a saucepan or Dutch oven over low heat.  Stir in cornstarch mixture before milk warms, stirring vigorously to prevent lumps.  Cook over very low heat, stirring continuously, until milk thickens (approximately 10 minutes).  Then, stir in sugar, cardamom, rose or orange blossom water and/or vanilla. Increase heat and let boil for two minutes.

Serve hot or warm in coffee cups. Sureyya, who is originally from Turkey, says her mother refrigerates this and the family eats it like a pudding.

Parsi Spicy Scrambled Eggs (Ekoori)

(from Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking)  Serves 4

3 T unsalted butter or vegetable oil or ghee

1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped

1/2 t peeled, finey grated ginger

1/2-1 fresh, hot green chili, finely chopped

1 T finely chopped cilanto

1/8 t ground turmeric

1/2 t ground cumin

1 small tomato, peeled and chopped

6 large eggs, lightly beaten

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Melt the butter over medium heat in a medium-sized, non-stick frying pan. Saute onion until soft.  Add ginger, chili, cilantro, turmeric, cumin and tomato.  Cook for 3-4 minutes until tomatoes are soft.  Pour in beaten eggs.  Salt and pepper lightly and scramble to desired consistency.

When Caring for Your Aging Self Takes You By Surprise

The albatross around my neck (the herniated disc between the C-6 and C-7 vertebrae) has opened me up to a plethora of new experiences.  In the past few weeks I have:  had acupuncture for the first time, courtesy of my friend Dave.  It was quite pleasant;

had my first MRI, bearable because they let me listen to Pandora.  Listening to the medley of Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was very soothing.  “Landslide,” not so much.

taken up power walking, and discovered a host of interesting radio programs to keep those walks interesting;

This is one of my new favorites, courtesy of NPR.

Most importantly, I’ve learned what it means to be a patient living with chronic pain and uncertainty.

If, as I do, you think of yourself as a healthy person who rarely needs a doctor, it can be a shock to be ushered into the world of medical procedures.  When you are used to living an active lifestyle, it can be a shock to have your activities curtailed in the short-term, and an even bigger shock to face the possibility that in the long-term, you may have to give some of them up.

You sit in the waiting room of your doctor’s office or the radiology clinic with your spouse beside you and fast forward twenty or so years to when the two of you are elderly and waiting rooms and test results and fighting with insurance companies will be the norm.  But at least you have each other.  Statistics show that approximately one-third of adults between 46 and 64 are divorced, separated, or have never been married, and that this will reshape old age.  Jane Gross, author of A Bittersweet Season, Caring for Our Aging Parents and Ourselves, who I often cite in this blog, wrote of her recent experiences with eye surgery and her realization that she couldn’t go it alone, couldn’t ask so much of her friends and needed to hire a home health aide. You can read Part I and Part II of “When I Needed Help,” courtesy of the New York Times blog, “The New Old Age.”

We live in an era in which some of us (in particular the affluent and well-educated) believe we can control our health through diet and exercise.  I certainly feel that way and, in the weeks since my diagnosis, have been trying to will the inflammation out of my body by eating every healthy, anti-inflammatory food I can get my hands on.  You can imagine how popular this has made me at dinner time.

I bet Sasha and Malia eat brown rice without complaining.

After we evaluated the MRI results with the doctor and determined that medical intervention was in order, I came to view my lack of success at curing myself naturally as some sort of moral failure on my part.  Jeff tried to talk me down. “No amount of broccoli is going to fix this.”

In that case...

Each morning, as I eat my bowl of homemade granola and non-fat Greek yogurt, I remember my grandfather, who ate Grape Nuts, prunes and skim milk every day for breakfast and continued playing tennis and swimming until the day he died.  I think about my mother, a healthy eater, who prided herself on looking, acting and feeling younger than her years, and so, was taken by surprise when terminal cancer hit.  I think about my mother-in-law, who has resisted taking medication for her osteoporosis because she fears the side effects, and my father-in-law, who has suffered from spinal stenosis for years without permanent relief.  I think about my sister-in-law, the same age as me and equally active, who has been felled by a foot injury and has no one at home to help her.

The other day, while on my walk, I ran into my friends P. and A.  We exchanged pleasantries and I told them about my herniated disc.  P, who turned 50 six months before I did, told me: “I’m on my way for a colonoscopy.” We smiled knowingly at each other.

I’m off to take my walk now and after that, Jeff will drive me to the radiology clinic, where I will have an epidural shot of steroids in the neck.  It’s a shot in the dark (actually it’s a shot involving a fluoroscope, which uses  X-rays to visualize the local anatomy and target the inflamed area, thus minimizing exposure of the rest of the body to the steroids). I’ve heard mixed results about steroid shots and you can only safely have a few of them. I am willing myself to believe that it is going to work the first time.

I want to be my young, healthy self for a while longer.

Here’s an interesting link, courtesy of the New York Times “Well” blog: “Getting Fat But Staying Fit?”

Hormones Hit the Big Time

Wading through my post-vacation stack of newspapers, I found an article entitled “All the Rage” in T, the New York Times style magazine.  It was not a description of spring fashion trends.  Written by Ayelet Waldman, it was an account of how PMS exacerbates her bipolar disorder.

You may remember Waldman, wife of author Michael Chabon, for her controversial 2005 Modern Love essay, in which she admitted that she loved her husband more than her four kids.  Since then, she’s had some fun playing agent provacateur among the mommy set, most recently in her memoir, Bad Mother.  In a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross after the book came out,  Waldman acknowledged that her bipolar disorder may have led to some inappropriate moments of “oversharing.”

At the risk of oversharing myself (since I do not have bipolar disorder, I don’t have a handy excuse), I should tell you that recently I enticed Jeff with a “come hither” look to see the latest additions to my bedtime reading.

Not this:

or this:

But this:

and this:

Ooh, baby.

An avid appreciator of reference materials, I bought these books as a way to take control of my health.  Sadly, after a hopeful healing trend, my neck recovery hit a downward trajectory, probably because of hours at my laptop revising my book manuscript and one wimpy afternoon of skiing during our recent trip to the Canadian Okanagan (the photo above is the view from our condo at the Big White ski resort). There are MRIs and acupuncture and cortisone shots in my future.

I bought the menopause book for research.  I’d skimmed Christiane Northrup’s seminal work ten years ago, around the time perimenopause-like symptoms first debuted in my body. (At the ripe age of 40, I had a baby and a toddler to care for, so sheer fatigue may have trumped hormones as the culprit behind my mood swings and frustrations.)  At the time, I was put off by Northrup’s thesis that menopause is an opportunity for shedding extraneous burdens, and especially her suggestion that sometimes these burdens included husbands.

Though I’m still not interested in shedding my husband (after all, who else would appreciate the humor I found in my choice of boudoir reading?), this time around, the book warranted a closer look for its recommendations on mid-life weight control, reasons to have your thyroid checked and the physiological foundations of menopause.

My friends and I have been furtively comparing notes about symptoms we’ve been experiencing that may or may not be due to the impending “changes,” and we share a similar sense of bewilderment about these changes, not unlike how our daughters feel and felt about menstruation.

Menarche of the penguins

If you live in Seattle and have had children go through puberty, you’ve likely heard about an invaluable resource, commonly referred to as “that class.”  “That class” is actually one component of the Great Conversations program offered at Seattle Children’s Hospital, which offers classes and presentations on puberty, sexuality, parenting and other topics relating to adolescence.

In 1988, nurse Julie Metzger developed “For Girls Only,”as a fun, informal way for mothers and daughters to discuss puberty.  “For Boys Only,” geared towards fathers and sons, followed in 1992 and is taught by Dr. Rob Lehman.   Both classes have been a Seattle rite-of-passage ever since, and Julie is warm, funny, supportive and very, very informative.

 Remembering how much fun it was to sit among a roomful of girls and women shouting “penis!,” my friends and I wished Julie would offer a class “For Women Only,” so we could talk freely about hot flashes and cold libidos, sleep disorders, forgetfulness and overall bitchiness and maybe even do some shouting.

“You are not the first or even the 100th to ask this same question,” Julie told me.   “That says something right there about the need, doesn’t it?”

The other night, my family and I watched an episode of Modern Family with a plot line devoted to PMS.  The fact that hormones have made it to primetime TV (the final frontier?) as well a style magazine tells me that, just as our generation of women turned mothering into endless fodder for books, magazine articles, movies and TV shows, we may be on the verge of a menopausal renaissance.  There will be “bad girls,” like Ayelet Waldman and Sandra Tsing Loh, who refuse to “go gently into the good night,” good girls like Christiane Northrup, who remind us (after we’ve shedded the excess baggage) to take our flax seeds, and the French, who put everyone to shame.

Meanwhile, the rest of us will scratch our heads, eat our yams and dark chocolate and hope that, as the topic of menopause gains traction in American society, the discussion doesn’t become a version of the “Mommy wars.”

All those flying legs of lamb could be dangerous.

Julie Metzger and Rob Lehman have just published a new book for pre-teens: Will Puberty Last My Whole Life? a collection of questions they have been asked in over 25 years of running “that class.”  The book is available at independent book stores and on Amazon.com

I’m interesting in hearing your take on menopause.  Are there books or other resources you’ve found invaluable?  Have you found an entertaining, yet informative way to tackle the topic with your peers?