Ottolenghi and Alison (or Cooking My Way Through Menopause)

blogmenopausal

I still remember the moment I decided to ignore the information that hormone replacement therapy during menopause could lead to increased risks for breast cancer and heart disease.

I was forty, or slightly older, with a baby and toddler, and having a hard time keeping things together.  A friend had told me about a video that was going viral on the Internet (pre-YouTube) showing a frazzled mother who had lost her keys. I’m not overstating when I say she “overreacted.”

“You might want to watch it,” hinted my friend, who is childless.

That’s when I learned about perimenopause, that undefined state that can last a decade or more, in which a woman’s hormones start going kerflooey and her emotions can get exaggerated. Superimpose that onto new motherhood. It wasn’t always pretty.

So when I saw the article about hormones and menopause, even though I knew it was important, I made the conscious decision to ignore it. “I can’t deal with menopause when I am trying to deal with perimenopause,” I decided, using the “one day at a time” strategy that experts advised for women in an enhanced hormonal state. I made the same decision about college, ignoring articles in the New York Times education supplement about student resume building and Top Ten Colleges to Watch. Views on hormone replacement therapy and college would change by the time they affected me, I reasoned, and pretty much cruised through the next ten years managing my life and my monthly symptoms just fine, with the help of some excellent dark chocolate.

theo chocolate

Lo and behold, there’s no longer any denying that in the next four years I will have to deal with both menopause and college.

Daughter #1 and I attended a presentation at her middle school entitled “High School and Beyond, Taking Charge of Your Destiny.” We learned that grades count from Day One in high school.  We learned the recommended GPAs to get into all of the colleges in Washington State, as well as some University of California schools, Stanford and MIT.  UCLA likes leaders, we were told. We left with a pocket-sized card listing the recommended college preparation steps a student should take in grades 9-12.

Around this time, my “Aunt from Redbank” (as the monthly visitor was known when my mother was growing up in New Jersey) started showing up more frequently and overstaying her welcome. Just as D#1 couldn’t escape the inevitable, neither, apparently, could I.

I turned once again to Dr. Christiane Northrup’s book The Wisdom of Menopause, which is chock full of interesting and useful medical information, but which, as I’ve mentioned before, does seem to have a not-so-hidden agenda about jettisoning husbands. I learned estrogen dominance could be the root cause of my excess bleeding and maybe even my excess belly fat (a girl can dream).

Meanwhile, Dr. Northrup advised me to contemplate who was draining my life blood from me.

J'accuse!

J’accuse!

Though I’ve mentioned I suffer from latrophobia, I actually made an appointment to see my Ob/Gyn.

The week I had to wait to see him was tough.  It’s June, a time that any mother can tell you, is crazy with end-of-year this and summer planning-that.

It’s another graduation year for our family and, though I won’t be weepy at the ceremony as I was last year and two years before that, there’s no denying that we are moving into a new phase of life and time is marching on.

To calm myself, I turned to the thing that helped me through new motherhood and perimenopause: cooking.

Unusually alone on Sunday morning and feeling under the weather, I comforted myself with a batch of shakshuka, using my standby recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi‘s wonderful vegetarian book Plenty.

Goes very well with the Sunday New York Times.

Goes very well with the Sunday New York Times.

Come Monday, the beginning of the last week in the end-of-school marathon, the week of my doctor’s appointment, graduation and a week that Jeff would be partly out of town, I found myself unable to focus on work.

So instead I focused on cooking:  My weekly batch of Early Bird granola, Lahlou Mourad’s fantastic piquillo almond dip for Daughter #2′s Global Issues celebration (I unwittingly violated the school’s “no nuts” policy, but people loved it anyway) and the “Very Full Tart” from Plenty.

tart

This soothed me in a way that no hormones or dark chocolate ever have and it got me thinking:  If Julie Powell could cook and blog her way through the “crisis” of turning 30, why couldn’t I cook and blog my way through menopause?

Maybe I’d get a book deal.

I wonder who would play me in the film?

A girl can dream.

So, just as I used to incorporate European Chicken Night into my (almost) weekly repertoire, I am hereby introducing Mostly Mediterranean Menopause Night (though I will probably keep the name to myself) featuring mostly the recipes from Yotam Ottolenghi’s three cookbooks, with some recipes from Lahlou Mourad, my Turkish friend Sureyya, Greg Malouf (author of Turquoise) and other luminaries thrown in.

Here’s the recipe for the Very Full tart, which made me feel very virtuous when I made it. I am not the only person inspired by eggplant. (To the horror of D #s 1 and 2, I sing this song and dance around the kitchen pretty much every time I make it).

It tasted great cold the next day.

Recently some friends and I took another cooking class with Sureyya. The following week, a group of us, who first met when our high school-bound kids were in kindergarten, gathered at Sureyya’s wonderful Cafe Turko, to support a friend whose husband suffered a brain injury.  Sureyya joined our group of women and laughed and talked with us.  Later, she joined me in donating food to my friend and her family.  

May peace return to Turkey.

Here is Sureyya’s recipe for Turkish Mountain Salad with Pomegranate Molasses, Red Pepper Paste and Olives:

Serves 6

1/2 onion, finely chopped

2 T green olives, chopped

1/2 cup chopped parsley

1 T red pepper paste

1/2 t salt

2 T chopped mint leaves

1/2 c chopped green pepper

2 T crumbled feta cheese

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 t cumin

2 Roma tomatoes diced

1/4 cup olive oil

1 T pomegranate molasses

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl.  Marinate for 15 minutes. Serve with warm bread.

Hormone replacement therapy.

Hormone replacement therapy.

Vanity: The Thyroid Chronicles, Part II

from sketchfu.com

By now you may have heard of “The Mom Stays in the Picture,” Allison Slater Tate’s manifesto that we mothers shouldn’t hide behind the camera because we are ashamed of our post-baby bodies and the ravages of aging.

“Our sons need to see how young and beautiful and human their mamas were. Our daughters need to see us vulnerable and open and just being ourselves — women, mamas, people living lives.

“When I look at pictures of my own mother, I don’t look at cellulite or hair debacles. I just see her — her kind eyes, her open-mouthed, joyful smile, her familiar clothes. That’s the mother I remember.” 

Juxtaposed with this, I read a piece on the Huffington Post on why feeling pretty after 50 is important.

What still confuses me, and what I want to explore in my thoughts, conversations and writing, is what aging gracefully means to me.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t dress a whole lot differently than I did at sixteen and, truth be told, I don’t look a whole lot different either.  So when I have to grapple with things like that roll of fat around the middle that just won’t go away

I’m not sure whether to fight it, accept it or make peace with it and figure out how to deal with it.

“It’s inevitable. You’re getting older,” sighed my Ob/Gyn.  “It may be the perfect storm of perimenopausal hormones and glycemic sensitivity,” said my new general practitioner, who spent a full hour talking with me and listening to my concerns. “Try shaving two or three hundred calories off your daily intake each day, change your exercise routine and give yourself six months to lose ten pounds.”

My first round of thyroid tests were normal and though I don’t yet have the results of my second round of blood work, I assume those tests will also be normal.

That’s a good thing.  Though I was anxious for a concrete answer to the changes in my body and rightfully vigilant of the impact of the steroid injections I’d received, I’m glad there’s nothing wrong with me and that I won’t have to be on medication for the rest of my life.

But because I’m not ready to throw in the towel when it comes to my tumultuous tummy, at the doctor’s suggestion, I became familiar with the glycemic index, which measures the impact on blood sugar levels in the body after eating certain foods. If you feel bloated after eating pasta and wonder whether the glycemic index could be the greatest thing since sliced bread, check out the glycemic index website put together by the University of Sydney, which among other things, maintains the international glycemic index database of a wide variety of foods.  Most experts agree that the number you want to pay attention to is the glycemic load, which combines both the quality and quantity of carbohydrate in one ‘number’. According to the University of Sydney, it’s the best way to predict blood glucose values of different types and amounts of food. (This blog is not meant to be the source of medical advice. If you are curious about the glycemic index or any other aspects of your health, please consult with a doctor, preferably one who will take the time to listen to your concerns).

I’m more concerned with the life index, which I define as how quickly a meal shared with others is converted to joy,  i.e. how I can have my cake and eat it too.

I knew the day we went to eat dim sum with two Chinese exchange students that lo mai gai, sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf with pork, would wreak havoc on my mid-section.  I could ill afford the Michelin look, because the next day I was scheduled for a photo shoot to obtain an author photo for my book Ruminations from the Minivan:  musings from a world grown large, then small, which is coming out soon.

We had a great time with the Chinese girls, I ate leftover lo mai gai for a mid-afternoon snack and was predictably puffy the next morning.  So I ate oatmeal for breakfast, worked out and instructed the photographer to take head shots only.

It was worth it.

Despite the warmth and easy demeanor of the photographer, I still found the photo shoot uncomfortable, especially when I looked at all the images she had taken on her digital camera and saw my many nuanced poses reflected back at me in Fifty Shades of Alison.

I hadn’t until realized until then that, unlike writing a book, promoting a book means getting into the picture instead of remaining comfortably behind the scenes, and that this is just the first of many times in the coming months that I will have to put myself out there — vanity be damned.

What saved me was a recent interview I’d had with B.J. Neblett, a fellow author who was writing a profile of me for our writers’ collective website.  The morning we met, I was unshowered and wearing an old sweatshirt of Jeff’s. B.J. didn’t care that I was scruffy. We had an enjoyable conversation, which was reflected in the flattering profile he wrote about me.

I’m not going to pretend to have given up vanity, not to be flattered when people compliment me on my youthful appearance and not to be shocked when I resemble my maternal forbears in their later years (spoiler alert – there is one poem in my new book entitled, “My Grandmother’s Thighs”). I will sporadically pay attention to the glycemic index but hopefully, as the years go by, I will scrupulously pay attention to the life index — dim sum bloating be damned.

Aging gracefully

 I had a great idea for a recipe to share with you that I thought would cleverly tie the themes in this post together.  I planned to call it “Vanity Fare.”  It comes from Dorie Greenspan‘s book Around My French Kitchen and involves slicing boneless skinless chicken breasts into strips, sauteeing them in butter and then adding a cup of creme fraiche with two LU Cinnamon Sugar cookies crumbled and mixed in.  I was going to say that when chicken breasts are sweet and creamy and comforting, nobody cares if they are pleasantly plump.

“What’s for dinner,” daughters #1 and #2 asked suspiciously (they are often suspicious when I am cooking). “Chicken with cookies!” I said, assuming they would be thrilled to have a dessert-like twist on dinner.  I was thrilled to produce such an effortless elegant meal so quickly because I had to rush off to a meeting before the meal was over. They took tentative bites and proclaimed it “too rich.”  The next day, I found some chicken wadded up in a napkin and (not very well) hidden in my office.  We had pasta that night for dinner.

 I hope when my kids look at pictures of me and I’m sporting a tummy, they’ll see the kind eyes and joyful open smile of a mother who ate carbohydrates to make them happy.

Cold Feet: The Thyroid Chronicles, Part I

I’ll start by telling you that I suffer from latrophobia, fear of going to the doctor.  Though I haven’t undergone counseling to figure out the root causes, I think this fear took hold during childhood.  Growing up in a tumultuous household, I was a bedwetter, and I found it humiliating that during my annual physical, Dr. E felt compelled to “examine” my nether regions, looking, I assume, for signs of rash. In those days you didn’t question doctors and parents didn’t ask kids about their feelings.  Even though for many years, on the eve of my check-up I would parade around the house with homemade picket signs which read:

I HATE DR. E!!!!!!!

my mother didn’t pick up on my discomfort or, if she did, didn’t think it was worth alleviating.

It was the mid-1960s, after all.

(You’ll be happy to know this is one of the issues we resolved on her deathbed.  Dr. E was apparently a celebrated pediatrician and my mother thought she was acting in my best interests).

When I became an adult, I dreaded going to the doctor for a different reason:  the weigh-in.  In some crazy, retro, pre-feminist way, I managed to transform what is supposed to be a partnership caring for and maintaining my body/machine into a self-created moral test of my character.

Even though I’m older and wiser now, I still avoid going to the doctor unless I am in desperate need of a Z-pack of antibiotics, have a sports-related injury or am having my annual Pap smear or mammogram (they don’t weigh you for those).

In other words, I don’t get an annual physical.

When I first started noticing that my body seemed different, I assumed the ravages of age and perimenopause were taking hold.

Certain friends who shall remain nameless here have gained a bit of weight around the middle, many have joked about forgetfulness (including my dear friend C., who forgot to feed my cats over Labor Day weekend.  They were hungry for more than just affection when we got home). Broken nails, my friends have seen a few.  Let’s face it, we’re not as young as we used to be.

Reference material nerd that I am, earlier this year I felt compelled to purchase Dr. Christiane Northrup’s book The Wisdom of Menopause and keep it on my bedside table for a little light reading about hormonal changes. As I read through the section on mid-life weight control, something in Step Five:  Get Your Thyroid Checked jumped out at me.

Cold Feet

My feet are always cold, even in summer.  As I read through the rest of the possible signs of hypothyroidism, I realized most of them could apply to me. (It kind of reminded me of one of those quizzes in Cosmopolitan:  Ten signs that tell you he’s cheating.  By the time you finish taking the quiz, you are convinced that he is).

I added getting my thyroid checked to my mental medical to-do list, along with the colonoscopy I should have had last year, but of course, I didn’t do anything about scheduling either one of these important, potentially life-saving tests. (No, JDM, I have not had a shingles vaccine.  No, sister-in-law D., I have not had a flu shot either).

On vacation this summer, I awoke each morning, more bloated than the next.  It felt like more than an excess of tequila and tortilla chips, and, as I thought about it, the problem had been worsening for months.  Was I suffering from cellular inflammation or an overabundance of fat-accumulating hormones, such as insulin?   Was my thyroid the culprit?

Even dogs can suffer from hypothyroidism

There was only one way to find out.  Feeling very mature (in a good way), I called my Ob/Gyn’s office to schedule my annual Pap smear and mentioned that I also wanted my thyroid checked.  The young receptionist wanted to verify my insurance coverage and gave me the name of an insurance carrier we haven’t used for years.  “No,” I said.  My carrier is C**, the same one I had last year.  “You haven’t been here for three years,” she said coldly.

I felt like Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight.

I had to wait till I got home to comb through my insurance documents, call my insurance company and check all of my calendars for the past three years to prove that I had seen that doctor last year and the year before that.  When that turned out to be fruitless, I called the doctor’s office again to ask them to check my physical file.  This time the receptionist was more understanding when she informed me that there were no notes in my file after 2009.  “I know how you feel,” she said sympathetically.  “I was born the same year as you.”

I was not surprised to learn that a faulty memory is another symptom of hypothyroidism.

The plot and my waistline thicken

The weeks I had to wait for my appointment felt interminable, but I tried to make them productive.  I gave up alcohol, tried to stay away from carbohydrates and made sure to adhere to a regular exercise regime in spite of my achy joints (another symptom).

I researched doctors and made an appointment for a physical with one who looked promising (in my own latrophobic defense, apart from my Ob/Gyn, whom I have seen for seventeen years, I haven’t been able to find a doctor or a practice that impressed me with professional, high quality care).

One day while out for a run, I tried to pinpoint what had changed over the past six months to make my symptoms, especially the weight gain, worsen.  I’d started making and eating granola on a regular basis, but it seemed hard to believe a cereal mix could be so potent.  Then I remembered.  Around six months ago, after being diagnosed with a herniated cervical disc, I received two epidural steroid shots and also took oral steroids. Because I have trouble remembering things, I made a note on my iPhone to do some research.

At home, a quick search on the Internet suggested there could be a link between the steroids and my thyroid. (Searching for things on the Internet reminds me of writing high school essays: combing the available research materials for snippets of information to support my thesis).

Next week I will see my Ob/Gyn and hopefully be that much closer to figuring out what, if anything, is wrong with me.  Who knows, my symptoms might just be the normal by-products of aging, which require a change in my behavior, nothing more.

But at 51,  I think I’ve finally learned my lesson.  Now, more than ever, it’s important to stay on top of your health, if for no other reason than to have a baseline to work with if something is really wrong.  Perimenopause and menopause can cause some surprising symptoms (remember pregnancy nosebleeds?).  It’s worth talking to a doctor about them, instead of suffering in silence.

Check back with me in a few months to see if I’ve scheduled that colonoscopy.

This week, four diplomats were killed in Libya and my nephew was deployed to Afghanistan. As a proud former member of the Foreign Service, who served in the Near East and South Asia bureaus, my heart is with those who dedicate their lives to promoting international understanding.

In their wonderful new book Jerusalem, chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, a Jew and a Muslim who grew up in the western and eastern part of that city, talk about food’s ability to break through religious and cultural boundaries.

Twice this week I made Ottolenghi’s recipe for Figs with basil, goat cheese and pomegranate vinaigrette from his book Plenty.

Historically, figs have been revered as a symbol of peace.  I can’t think of a better thing to eat. And they’re good for you too.

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.

Toppings:

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?”

Good and Plenty

I’m not supposed to be writing this.  I’m supposed to be packing for that ski trip I told you about.

But I couldn’t resist telling you about a few good things that have come my way lately.

This is the granola I made this morning, inspired by the wonderful blog Orangette.  My horoscope for today recommended that I “make something with honey” (in 40-odd years of reading my horoscope in the morning paper, I have never been similarly advised) so maybe it was in the stars, but it took Molly Wizenberg extolling the virtues of homemade granola and providing me with a few great recipes to convert me.  The house smelled great.  Do yourself a favor — read Orangette.  And make your own granola (I haven’t yet tried the recipe you’ll find by clicking on the above link.  I used an earlier Orangette granola recipe, which Molly adapted from Nigella Lawson.  You can find it in the Orangette recipe index).

(I also made my own pancake mix, but we haven’t tasted it yet, so I’m not ready to share the recipe.  I snuck in flax seeds.  Shhhh.  Don’t tell Jeff and the girls).

While I was making the granola, I listened to a few stories from The Moth, the live storytelling project based in New York.  I learned about The Moth last week, when I was asked to participate in a Spoken Word performance on March 20, as part of the Ballard Writers Collective.  The stories I heard today were funny and touching.  I’m looking forward  hearing more from The Moth during our eight hour road trip.  (I’ll tell you more about the March 20 event later).

As you know, I’m interested in eldercare and in spreading the word anytime I hear of anything that makes life easier for the elderly and their caregivers.  This recent post from The New Old Age is just such a thing.  At a networking event this week, I met an eldercare advisor and was reminded of this growing business.  If you are caring for someone and feel overwhelmed, you can hire a consultant to help you navigate Medicare, find senior housing, etc.  Also, Jane Gross told me to tell you about her Facebook page, where she provides useful updates and information for fans of A Bittersweet Season:  Caring for Our Aging Parents and Ourselves.

Yesterday, at Costco, I found this fantastic Near East-inspired vegetarian cookbook.  I’ve read about Yotam Ottolenghi and Plenty in my cooking magazines and in The Guardian, and have even made some of his recipes, but I was unprepared for how blown away I have been by this book.   I want to cook and eat everything in it.  Tonight.  Instead of packing.

Finally, it’s no secret that there are a few places I would rather be going than skiing.  But, to paraphrase Adele in her beautiful cover of this Bob Dylan song (you can buy the live version on iTunes), I’d go to the ends of the earth for the ones I love (though eight hours in the car with a teen and pre-teen might be pushing it).

(Check out what Margaret Cho had to say in response to Karl Lagerfeld’s snipe about Adele after the Grammys. Thanks, Theo Nestor, for sharing it.)

That’s all, folks.  I’ll be diligently doing my physical therapy exercises and writing next week, and maybe even doing a little bit of skiiing too.

Happy President’s Day.

Pain in the Neck

It’s 6:30 on a Friday morning and daughter #1 and I are sniping at each other.  I want to be sure she has everything she needs for the ski bus she will take from school to Snoqualmie Summit later in the afternoon.  Skis, poles, boots, helmet, gear bag and food are all piled up by our front door, just as they are every Friday morning.  But this morning, I am bitchier than usual and daughter #1 is rolling her eyes and refusing to go through the checklist with me, though we both remember her maiden ski bus trip last year, when we packed everything except the ski boots, an omission she did not discover until she was on the mountain, ready to go.

I am bitchy because I haven’t slept for the past several nights, due to a pain in my neck.  I’d like daughter #1, who is 13 and can’t always control herself, to stop being a pain in the bleep and cut me some slack.  It doesn’t happen and we part on unfriendly terms.

Later, after I have been diagnosed with a herniated disc, pumped full of steroids and set up with a physical therapy regimen, I will have the foresight to send her a text apologizing for my bitchiness.

Still later, when she has been strapped to a backboard and rushed down the mountain in an ambulance, I will look at her texted response to my apology:  “I’m sorry I was a whiny schmuck.”   Me: “I’m glad you’re my whiny schmuck  :).”  Her:  :).

The next day we are walking companionably together in stiff-necked glory, me, whacked out on steroids and pain meds and a muscle relaxant, her, a little sore and just beginning to realize what might have been.

She tells me she dreaded making the call to us that night, knowing we would be upset.  I tell her how helpless we felt because we weren’t there to comfort her and about the confusion of receiving several truncated calls from the ski patrol, her ski instructor and a chaperone who happened to be a doctor, trying to piece together what had happened and assess her situation.  She’d fallen and somersaulted, landing on her back, while learning mogul safety, but had managed to ski herself down the mountain (good sign) before realizing she felt dizzy (bad sign).  As a precaution, she was strapped to a backboard and it was determined that she should be taken by ambulance to the emergency room.  The experts deliberated over which one, and we reacted to each possibility: the one nearest our house (good sign), the one at Seattle’s largest trauma hospital (bad sign), and finally, the one closest to the mountain (good sign).

She tells me what it was like to be immobilized on her back in a screaming ambulance, crying, with no one but an awkward EMT to comfort her with small talk.

I tell her about rushing to the hospital, a 45 minute drive from our house, with her pajama-clad frightened younger sister in tow.  On the way, something smashed into our windshield, aimed at my heart.  “Have we been shot????” Jeff was rattled by the sudden impact.  Indeed, there is a bullet-like hole on the outside of the glass and it seems hard to believe it could have come from a rock.

By 11:00 p.m., backboard just a memory,

we are at a drive-through Krispy Kreme at a strip-mall in Issaquah laughing at the strangeness of our situation and allowing the first waves of relief to sink in, along with the sugar.

Though I am unable to turn my head toward the backseat to smile, we agree that this was the mother of all gazumps.

Daughter #2 suggests I can bog about this.  I feel a twinge of guilt over what we may be turning into.

The pharmacist calmly explained all the possible side effects of my meds.  My friend Diane, a nurse, puts it in plainer terms.  “You’re going to be bloated and bitchy and miserable.”  I already feel that way 11 days of each month, thanks to my perimenopausal PMS, which is kind of like PMS on steroids and which I have learned to manage with exercise, smoked salmon, red wine and my private reserve of dark chocolate.

I keep it on a special shelf in the freezer.

Now that I am experiencing perimenopausal PMS and am on steroids, I realize that my previous forays into moodiness were a walk in the park compared to this new dimension of craziness.  I have never suffered from chronic depression, nor have I ever taken anti-depressants.  I have a new-found empathy for those who do.

My funny family is able to make light of Mom’s ‘roid rage and Daughter #1 buys me some Doublemint gum to cool me down. But, though I stop taking the muscle relaxants after the first one, and limit the pain meds to just one at bedtime, my consciousness is altered, like a mid-life follower of Timothy Leary, though I drive a minivan instead of a magic bus.

I take a four-mile walk on a glorious sunshiny day and my iPod astutely shuffles to Katrina and the Wave to help cheer me up.

It doesn’t work.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had the intensity of feeling one experiences in middle school, when the mountains can seem more beautiful than they ever have before

yet you question your place in this world.  I have a new-found empathy for those who feel these extremes and also have to navigate the intricate social dynamics of the school lunchroom.

As the pain lessens and the meds wind down, I am regaining enough healthy perspective to understand that we dodged a number of bullets.  That fateful Friday would have been the 17th birthday of my friend Beth’s son Ian. There was a madman with a gun terrorizing a neighborhood to our north, where residents were advised to stay home behind locked doors.  There was an accident at our Sunday Farmers Market, resulting in the serious injury of a baby. I think the moon was full.

Our insurance will pay to get the windshield fixed. Daughter #1 is planning to go skiing again on Friday and I’ll be up and running again in no time. Over the years, we will re-tell the story of Daughter #1′s ambulance adventure when she comes home from college for the holidays or whenever we pass a drive-through Krispy Kreme kiosk.

In the grand scheme of things, I am grateful that in the end, this turned out to be nothing more than a pain in the neck.

Though many things can cause them, herniated discs can also be a by-product of aging. I’m grateful to my Facebook friends who stuck their necks out for me by sharing their stories and favorite remedies.  Thanks to Nancy Schatz Alton, a member of the Ballard Writers Collective and co-author of The Healthy Back Book, which jump-started my efforts to take charge of my own recovery.  Thanks to Christina Wilsdon, witty writer and animal aficionado, for suggesting Treat Your Own Neck, by Robin MacKenzie.  Thanks to my neighbor Shannon for the nightly laser treatments, to Diane for the frankness and the heating pad, and to Liz and Paul for the promise of a rotisserie chicken and cookies.

In addition to drugs, physical therapy and ergonomic office arrangements, everyone agreed that dark chocolate has charms to soothe the savage beast.   Some kindred spirits also felt that the pair of pink shoes I’ve been ogling would certainly have profound therapeutic benefits.

Finally, I haven’t felt much like eating because of the water retention, and have felt even less like cooking, which, if you know me, you know signals that my stars (not just my neck) are out of alignment.  But this morning, while thinking about anti-inflammatory, all-around good for you foods, I remembered this wonderful salad from the cookbook Turquoise: A Chef’s Travels in Turkey by Greg and Lucy Malouf.  Afiyet Olsun! (Turkish for enjoy your meal)

Green Olive, Walnut and Pomegranate Salad

3/4 cup walnuts, toasted for 5-10 minutes in a 350 degree oven.  After cooling, pour the nuts into a towel and rub well to remove skin.  Then coarsely chop

1/2 cup pitted green olives, washed and coarsely chopped

1/4 unsalted shelled pistachios, coarsely chopped

1/2 cup pomegranate seeds

2 small shallots, peeled and finely diced

1 red serrano chile, seeded and finely diced

1Tablespoon shredded flat-leaf parsley leaves

1 Tablespoon olive oil

I Tablespoon walnut oil

splash of pomegranate molasses

juice of 1/2 lemon

sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and toss gently.  Let stand five minutes before serving so flavors can meld.

Upstairs, Downstairs

First week of the new year and I feel like I’m recovering from jet lag, despite the fact that I didn’t go anywhere.  I’ve been dragging myself out of bed at 6:00 a.m., am exhausted by 9:00 a.m. and brain dead by 8:00 p.m.  Though I didn’t exactly vacation during the holidays — there were special meals to prepare, houseguests to host and lots of laundry and dishes — the absence from our usual routine was refreshingly stress-free.  We slept in, watched multiple episodes of Downton Abbey and ate whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted.

No sooner did January begin, then the onslaught of emails and calendar commitments began, along with a series of professional and personal deadlines, resulting in a feeling of impending doom.

It doesn’t help that the Seattle winter rain has begun in earnest, making excursions, especially evening ones, bone-chilling and soggy.  No wonder Daughter #1 wants a cloak for her birthday.  Cloaks make venturing out in nasty weather seem dashing and romantic, not mundane and pitiful.

Let us be off to piano lessons!

Thank goodness for books.

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to finish the ever-growing stack of books on my bedside table.  Usually I have so many magazines and newspapers to read that the flow of my book reading is constantly interrupted (kind of like trying to work with the alluring distraction of email, Facebook and Linked in). I’m in a Mother-Daughter book group and a grownup book group, so am often juggling multiple tomes. Plus, I’m usually so tired by the time I crawl into bed that I tend to fall asleep with the book, newspaper or magazine on my face.

I have a pretty big stack of back issues of the New Yorker too

But while I was sick, I took to my bed for a few days and read.

Books.   One at a time, for hours at a time.  Just like I used to do when I was younger and didn’t have to contend with the competing distractions of electronics and other people.

I read Iranian-American chef Donia Bijan’s delightful memoir Maman’s Homesick Pie (and used her mother’s delicious fruit and pine nut stuffing recipe for our Christmas dinner) and finished A Tale of Two Cities, a book I hadn’t read since high school.  There is something very satisfying about reading a book with a famous first line and a famous last line, though when you try to apply these to say, the middle school experience, sometimes people don’t fully appreciate the comparison.

I read Day of Honey, journalist Annia Ciezadlo’s memoir of food, love and war (complete with recipes) in Baghdad and Beirut, which also includes such universal topics as mother-in-law clashes and spousal career clashes (as in, “I gave up my job to follow you to a war zone, I’m just beginning to establish myself as a freelancer and now you want me to leave?!”).

One of my favorite scenes in the book is Ciezadlo’s description of dodging gunfire aimed at her kitchen window to make sure the pasta wasn’t overcooked —  a woman after my own heart.

She has an especially garlicky recipe for melokeya that enticed me to buy some of the dried leaves so I can try it.

The women of Downton Abbey don’t appear to read books,  but the “upstairs” ones seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in their bedrooms resting, despite the fact that they have no jobs or household responsibilities, other than plotting and dressing for dinner.  Their bedrooms are like fortresses, impenetrable from the demands of public life.

We all know that in modern life, we are more like “downstairs” women (see paragraph one), though not as properly turned-out.

So as an experiment, and out of desperation, during the first few days of re-entry week, I tried heading upstairs to my bedroom in the early evening to “rest” with a book. (Michael Ondaatje‘s The Cat’s Table).  I’ve since decided that books will be my “upstairs” reading and magazines, newspapers and Facebook (where I get many of my ideas about what to read, courtesy of NPR, Slate, Salon, the Atlantic and my other “likes”) will be left downstairs.  The true test of this approach will come this Sunday night, when I have to forego the temptation to get into bed with the Sunday New York Times, my guilty pleasure.

Someone I know will appreciate the extra space

Work will also be upstairs, in the office, instead of downstairs at the dining room table, where’s it’s too easy to throw in a load of laundry or soak the beans for Boston Baked Beans, the first of many colonial cooking endeavors we will undertake this month, courtesy of Daughter #2 and her creative teacher Ms. P.  (I am envisioning an amusing twist on European Chicken Night, a F**k You, European Tyrants! recipe for Chicken and Wild Rice).

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.  By mid-life, we’ve had years of dueling January admonishments to eat a more healthy diet, exercise more, be more productive, but also to take time for ourselves to stop and smell the roses and unplug (see what Pico Iyer had to say in the New York Times on the joy of quiet.  I read it last Sunday night in bed).

We also know that come early February, all of this will be forgotten in the push to promote romance and expensive chocolate.

I sometimes entertain myself by imaging the editors at O magazine, fed up with devising countless different magazine covers enticing us to “live our best lives”, creating a “dummy” issue:

Don't Bother

Stick With Your Dead-End Job Till Retirement

You Can Buy Bigger Clothes in Smaller Sizes at Target

I leave you now to exercise and tackle those pesky deadlines, while the Boston Baked Beans are in the oven.

But know that tonight, when I head upstairs and take to my bed with my book, to paraphrase Sydney Carton, whose fate was far more gruesome and noble than mine will be this evening, “it is a far, far better rest that I go to…”

Blessed are the Turkey-Makers

There are serious post-holiday blog entries to be written about multi-generational interactions with family, making a difference in the world and whether you should make the same stuffing each Thanksgiving because your children and grandchildren will cherish the Proustian memories it invokes long after you are gone.

 I feel this way whenever I make sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top,

despite the fact that a certain person in my household scoffs at this paean to the Thanksgivings of my youth, even though he has a strong Proustian response to the ridges in jellied canned cranberry sauce.

I married him anyway and serve it beside the fresh stuff. (Our daughters diplomatically eat both “mom’s” and “dad’s” cranberry sauce, but let the record show that they LOVE mom’s sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top, a dish I am confident will be eaten by my great-great grandchildren, long after the desire to eat anything from a can has been bred out of the family line).

Ideas for my serious post-holiday blog entry have been bubbling to the surface like soup dumplings for the past several days and I have been looking forward to setting them down on my screen and weaving them together.

But not today.  Today I am sick in bed.  In fact, I am typing this from my bed.  If you knew me you would be shocked to hear that I am in bed, as I’m one of those people who rarely gets sick and if I do, I keep functioning at full throttle.

Years ago, I began referring to people like me as turkey- makers:  we roll up our sleeves and pitch in without being asked,

We also know how to improvise

we make chicken matzoh ball soup for sick family and friends, we volunteer as a matter of course and we sometimes forget to take care of ourselves.

Not all turkey-makers are women and not all women are turkey-makers but, just as there seems to be a gender-related pre-disposition towards watching football and waiting for pie, the same can be said about turkey-makers.

Even when I’m not sick, one of my favorite ways to spend the day is cooking and writing.  So as a way to heal myself, since there is nobody around to make or bring me soup, I’m doing just that, with intermittent stints in bed.  Here are the highlights from a day in the life of a sick turkey-maker:

6:15 a.m. – begrudgingly awaken so I can make breakfast and pack lunch for the middle-schooler, who will surely complain about the injustice of having to get up so early after four days off from school.

7:30 a.m. – eye the butternut squash that did not get used during Thanksgiving weekend and peruse my many recipes for butternut squash soup.  Though I am sorely tempted by one I have not yet tried – Butternut Soup with Pear, Cider and Vanilla Bean from Molly Wizenberg’s book A Homemade Life, we have no cider and the goal is to avoid a trip to the store.  Instead I settle on the butternut squash soup from The Vineyard Kitchen by Maria Helm Sinskey.  If you are looking for holiday gifts, I recommend this seasonally-organized collection of recipes that always seem to turn out well.  I also recommend Molly’s book, for the stories as well as the recipes, and her charming blog Orangette.

9:15 a.m. – buoyed by the fact that daughter #2 woke up and got ready for school without a fuss, I head off to aerobics class with plenty of tissues in my pocket.

9:45 a.m. – back home again after realizing that jumping jacks, throbbing heads and runny noses are an unfortunate combination.  I throw the butternut squash in the oven and get into bed with the Sunday New York Times and a mug of Darjeeling tea.

10:45 a.m. – I’m out of bed, the squash is out of the oven and I decide to finally get around to making the ginger molasses pumpkin bread from Food 52 that I’d meant to have on hand for our holiday houseguests. I’m hoping that this can be my new go-to pumpkin bread to replace Joan Mondale‘s pumpkin bread recipe that was given to me when I moved to Washington, DC in 1982.   I go back to bed with my computer.

11ish  a.m. – As the spicy smell of the pumpkin bread makes its way upstairs and manages to penetrate my blocked nasal passages, I feel as comforted as if there were a Jewish grandmother in the house.  The long-forgotten country- western song I’m My Own Grandpa comes to mind when I remember that I am both patient and nurse.

11:45 a.m. – The Food 52 recipe comments warn that determining the “doneness” of the pumpkin cake is deceptive and it is easily undercooked.  I leave it in for fifteen extra minutes and peel and slice the squash.

12ish p.m. – While the bread cools I make a package of instant Tom Yom soup bought and kept on hand for just such an occasion.  I notice the noodles are green and are made with morohetya, which I have never heard of.  I have a hunch, which is confirmed, that morohetya is another word for melokheya, also known as Egyptian spinach, and the eponymous garlicky soup, which is one of Egypt’s most popular national dishes and one of the world’s best soups.  I wish I had some now. (You’ll find two different recipes by clicking on the related links).

12:30 p.m. – My husband, who has many fine qualities despite his appalling taste in cranberry sauce, calls to say hi and when he realizes I am sick suggests I stop cooking and take care of myself. I partially follow his advice and call S., now fully recovered from  pneumonia, and ask her to bring daughter #1 to tonight’s soccer tournament game at the other end of town at rush hour.  I feel better already.

I’m pretty sure the pumpkin bread is overcooked.

Here’s where things get tricky for a sick turkey-maker. I got so involved in cooking and writing that I forgot to go back to bed.  The kids will be home soon, I still have to make the butternut squash soup and the biscuits I’d planned to go with them, which I forgot to tell you about and which may be overly ambitious, even for me.  I also need to put together the graphics and links for this post and manage to get some rest so I can head out into the world tomorrow and be a productive member of society.

But I don’t want to leave you without a recipe. Before we had kids and had to ration our cooking of spicy foods, our favorite recipe to cure almost all ailments was Armenian Chicken and Lentil Soup with Dried Apricots.  We used to keep a supply on hand in the freezer all winter in Tupperware containers labeled ACS. I think I got the recipe from the Washington Post in 1994 or so.  The bit of recipe sleuthing I just did (instead of going back to bed) indicates that this recipe may have come from a book called Chicken Soup Cookbook by Janet Hazen.

And in case you were worried, I managed to salvage the pumpkin bread by spreading it with Peach Preserves with Vanilla and Bourbon, made by Deluxe Foods and purchased at our very own Ballard Sunday Farmer’s Market.  Check out their website for holiday gift ideas (they ship) and places to purchase.

For all the turkey- makers out there, this one’s for you.

Armenian Chicken and Lentil Soup with Dried Apricots

1 large onion, diced

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons sesame seeds

2 teaspoons each ground mace and cayenne pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup dried red lentils, sorted and washed

12 cups chicken stock

1/2 cup minced, dried apricots

2 cups shredded cooked chicken

1/2 cup lemon juice

salt, pepper to taste

In a heavy-bottomed 6-quart saucepan, cook onion, garlic, sesame seeds and spices in olive oil over moderate heat for 5-7 minutes, stirring frequently.  Add lentils, chicken stock and apricots and bring to as boil over high heat.  Reduce heat to moderate and cook 40-50 minutes, until lentils are very tender. Add chicken and lemon juice and cook 5 minutes longer.  Season with salt and pepper and serve.

A well-loved recipe

The Last Word on Fish Oil

My husband Jeff is probably relieved that I have found a venue out of his earshot, where I can get fish oil out of my system, so to speak. (Actually, you want fish oil in your system, but I’m getting to that).

I admit that I have become a colossal bore when it comes to fish oil.  Urged by a sports medicine doctor to take prescription fish oil (Lovaza) to ease my achy knees, improve my addled memory and generally make me a happy person, I grew suspicious and began researching prescription versus non-prescription fish oil supplements to see if the prescription version had merits beyond benefiting the pharmaceutical industry. I can wax poetic about EPA and DHA concentration levels, fishy burps and the significance of FDA approval, and rant that I have found nothing conclusive to justify the expense of Lovaza, save the zealous glint in my doctor’s eyes.

Those of you on the far side of 40 may have noticed that at parties and soccer fields, the talk among your peers has become decidedly geriatric. It starts out innocently enough – a guy tells you he pulled his groin playing soccer; a woman says she has “hip issues” when she runs.  Before too long, men stop playing basketball, women take up yoga and everyone you know has either had knee surgery or knows someone who knows someone who has.

We used to mock H., one of the more eccentric among our circle of friends, for quoting his cholesterol numbers every time we got together (he was an early adopter).  Soon, however, the talk among our more mainstream acquaintances turned from sports medicine to LDL (bad) and HDL (good) cholesterol ratios.  Nobody talked about sex, music or movies anymore.

It was Jeff’s bad luck that at parties, often when he joined a conversation-in-progress, the speaker would be holding forth on arterial plaque, custom orthotic shoe inserts, Vitamin D and, eventually in my case, fish oil.  A person might wonder, if this is what we’re discussing over drinks when we’re in our 40s, what will we be talking about when we are in our 70s?

My obsession with fish oil probably has its roots in the early years of our courtship when, eager to fit in, I sat uncomplainingly in the Lafuma recliner belonging to our friend Jerry, a legendary Lummi Island reefnet salmon fisherman, and feigned interest while he repeatedly showed a video of a reefnet gear pulling in a big catch.  Jerry’s house, which has been extended so far that it nearly sits on the road median, offers a prime view of the reefnet gears on Legoe Bay.

 Reefnetting is an ancient, environmentally-friendly form of salmon fishing.  Jeff had spent his teenage summers reefnetting on Lummi Island as part of Jerry’s crew, and had formed lasting friendships and lasting memories as a result.

Chilko, Adams, Horsefly…  These are some of the tributaries of the Fraser River (British Columbia’s longest river and the chief Pacific salmon spawning grounds in North America outside of Alaska) for which salmon runs are named. The river plays host to all five species of salmon which, after birth, migrate to the Pacific Ocean, eventually returning to their native streams to spawn and die. In any given year, scores of different salmon runs, with millions of salmon, return home. Jeff can still recite many of the dominant runs in order and remembers the early Stuarts of 1981, the 1983 Horsefly Run and the overall consistency of an Adams run.

Eager to see a salmon run in action, our family has made two fish forays to British Columbia in recent years:  to Chilko Lake, near the Chilko and Chilkotin Rivers (we traveled with ROAM, a Canadian boutique adventure travel company founded by the ever-entertaining Brian McCutcheon), where we observed bears in their natural habitat, feasting on salmon (bear photos are by Denise Greenberg),

and to the Adams River, where we witnessed the largest sockeye salmon run in a century.

Every year at Labor Day we gather on Lummi island with Jerry, our reefnetting friends, past and present, and all of our families.  If the fishing is open, Jeff will make a guest appearance to fish with Steve, Karen, Jim and Mark.  Later in the evening, we’ll enjoy salmon roe and crisp wine with Bob and Rachel, at the old reefnetter “ghetto,” on the deck of the house they have restored that used to belong to eccentric fisherman Will Wright.  Inevitably, there will be a full-on multi-generational salmon feast with Jerry, Sue, and assorted Andersons, Nesbits, Wrights and Moans.

Our kids are probably tired of hearing tales from the glory days, when Jeff, Michael, Peter and Craig became friends on Jerry’s gear, finding it hard to picture these now-graying men, who talk about their cholesterol*, as teenagers discovering their independence through fishing.

*Jeff wants you to know that he does not talk about his cholesterol

Our collective connection to fish feels far removed from those translucent golden horse pills in a bottle.

Still, these days, while Jeff is out reefnetting, I can sit beside Jerry in a Lafuma recliner and drone on about fish oil. Jerry gives me a run for my money and can recite from memory the concentration levels in all of the major over-the-counter brands.

In mid-September we received a visit in Seattle from Karen, with a broom in tow. As a crew member (albeit a guest one), she wanted Jeff to participate in a broom-signing ceremony to commemorate catching over 100,000 pounds of humpy salmon during the 2011 season.

I still don’t know if there’s something “fishy” about Lovaza or whether fish oil (prescription or over-the-counter) is the miracle supplement its fans claim it is.

The only thing I know for sure is that fish can be the glue that holds people together.

Lummi Island sunset