Laundry, Labneh and Lablabi

laundryThough it may be more satisfying when life imitates art, a person can derive a certain amount of pleasure when the equation goes the other way.

Art imitated life in a big way last month the night I returned home from a day that began at 4:30 a.m. and culminated in me having my gallbladder removed. There was the surgery prep, the surgery itself, of which I blissfully remember nothing, and the day spent in the hospital doing my utmost to pee out the copious fluids retained by my body so that I could go home.


They say hospitals are the great equalizer and it’s true that once you shed your clothes, don your scrubs and present your arm to have blood drawn, you could be anybody. Looking around the waiting room in the pre-dawn hours, I detected no racial, age or socio- economic divides. Those of us slated to go under the knife sat nervously surrounded by our loved ones, who looked even more nervous than we did. When the nurse called the name of the African-American mother sitting nearby in the waiting room, whose husband had chosen that minute to run back down to the parking garage, we shared a knowing look. What was she supposed to do with her son, old enough to sit by himself for a few minutes, but perhaps nervous that his mom was having surgery?

Later, I heard that woman cracking jokes in the anesthesia corral, a jolly circular set-up where we pre-opees sat behind curtains meeting our surgeons and anesthesiologists, donning our lunch lady-like surgical caps and getting our IV portals installed, amidst the cheerful banter between staff and patients.


I’d been told that surgeons are not known for their bedside manner, and in fact, what you really want is someone with nerves of steel, not a good personality. But, having never had surgery before,  I wanted a surgeon with a stellar reputation who I’d also be comfortable with. Selecting Mr. Right gave me a taste of what online dating must be like, but with much higher stakes. I  wanted my surgeon to be interested in more than just my body; I wanted him to think of me as a person. (I’ve since been advised that it’s better for surgeons to have laser focus on the job at hand, rather than getting distracted thinking about the person they are cutting open).

Must love dogs

Must love dogs

My post-surgery hospital roommate was a well-bred woman of a certain age in the midst of what she called a “clusterfuck.” A planned procedure, for which she had fasted, had been postponed and now she was trapped hungrily alone in the hospital with no idea when her test would be conducted. “They overbooked the operating rooms,” she complained to a friend on the phone, adding, “with gallbladder surgeries.” Had the woman been younger, this would have been the perfect opportunity for her to use the “vocal fry,” the new female speech phenomenon that’s currently getting lots of attention.

“I’m dying for an iced latte,” we heard her lament to her friend, “but they won’t let me leave my room to go get one.” Despite her gallbladder-inspired resentment, we decided to be the bigger people. “Excuse me, I couldn’t help overhearing,” Jeff said gallantly, pulling away the curtain that divided us. “I’d be happy to buy you a latte.”

As the day wore on and her latte kicked in, she was cheering me on every time I attempted to pee. When finally, I’d produced enough liquid to earn my release and was triumphantly getting dressed, she spied my trusty old black Dansko sandals, which I’ve learned over the years inspire cult-like loyalty, “I have those sandals! I love them!


Women’s shoes, another great equalizer

Exhausted after a long day and loopy on medication, I returned home to test-drive my gallbladder-free digestive system with blueberry pancakes, while watching Orange is the New Black, which does a great job of illustrating prison as a great equalizer. And that, my friends, is when I laughed so hard my incisions ached, my abdominal muscles ached, everything ached but I kept on laughing anyway.

SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVEN’T YET FINISHED SEASON 3: What are the odds that the night you return home from gallbladder surgery, you’ll watch an episode featuring a back story about the illegal trading of bear gallbladders on the Chinese black market? What are the odds that the concluding scene of the show would feature a scene in which henchmen, having beaten someone to a bloody pulp, would turn to their mistress and ask, ” What else should we do to him?”

chang gallbladder

Needless to say, I appreciated my deft and gentle surgeon, who really does have a nice personality, though when I told him about this funny coincidence at my post-op visit, he said “I’m not familiar with that show.” Barring any complications, he told me we would not be seeing each other again.


In the weeks before the surgery, I’d delighted in cooking Lebanese dishes from Maureen Abood’s book Rose Water & Orange Blossoms, my pre-surgery present to myself. Can a person ever have too many Za’atar Roasted Tomatoes or too much Butter Lettuce with Walnut Vinaigrette?  I think not.

Home recuperating in a post-op haze during the first of Seattle’s summer heat waves, I wanted to take the opportunity to cook. Dork that I am, I’ve long been looking forward to a block of unfettered time so that I could make labneh, which is basically just Greek yogurt strained so that the whey is removed, yielding what some refer to as cheese and others call dip. It really doesn’t take much attention, just time.


Maureen Abood has a recipe in her book, which goes into some detail about the different methods of straining yogurt, yielding different consistencies and products. David Lebovitz has one too and so does Food 52. I made a hybrid of the three, though omitted the lemon juice suggested by Food 52. The whey accumulating in the bottom of the bowl as the yogurt strained made a good conversation piece.

Jeff and I had recently been to a Seattle restaurant with great outdoor seating (a rarity here). When he ordered a whiskey sour, he was told somewhat pretentiously we thought, that instead of the usual egg whites you find in deluxe whiskey sours (that’s not the way our indomitable Auntie Julia taught us to make them), the restaurant made theirs with whey leftover from their homemade yogurt. He decided to have a beer instead. When it arrived, I pointed to the substantial head of foam floating on top and suggested it was revenge whey. 



While I had time on my hands, I also decided to make Lablabi, from a Wall Street Journal article I’ve been saving for the past four years. It was nurturing and good, but made me contemplate the road not taken. Recipe horder that I am, why hadn’t I been smart enough to come up with the idea of writing a weekly food blog featuring recipes I’d clipped from newspapers and magazines, like that smart and now famous Wednesday Chef?

The rest of the time I did laundry, my favorite chore, in a fruitless attempt to help Daughter #2 deal with her “floordrobe” and lay in the hammock reading.

I knew my recuperation was over the night I had to jump into the intrepid, indestructible old minivan to rescue Jeff, whose newer, fancier ride had conked out.  And just like that, life returned to normal.

In the wake of the broken foot and the gallbladder liberation, I’m feeling kind of like that minivan these days. My foot hurts, my side tweaks and… (you Jimmy Buffett fans can fill in the blank).  But as I get back into the swing of things and try to figure out what kind of exercise I can do, I’m fully confident I’ll be roaring again soon.

Elderberry Whine

Ten days shy of the second anniversary of my mother’s death, I’m sharing something controversial here — Sandra Tsing Loh‘s recent polemic in the Atlantic about caring for her aging father.

Even if you think Sandra Tsing Loh’s piece is over-the-top, that she’s self-obsessed and could use another 1,000 hours of therapy, there’s no denying the power of her emotions.

I’ve written about my own life-changing experiences with eldercare and about Jane Gross’s important book, A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents and Ourselves.

It’s a powerful subject and one that I’m glad is getting more attention.  When you are in the throes of it, caring for your aging parents, while also working, caring for your kids, your partner and yourself can be lonely, overwhelming and feel hopeless.  It helps when others share their stories and, like Jane Gross, use what we learn from each other to effect change.

Read this and weep:  Daddy Issues

I miss you, Mom (the original turkey-maker).

When Life Gives You Lemons…

One of my “day jobs” is education reporter, a role I fell into by accident.  As the mother of two school-age kids, I spend a lot of time thinking, talking and yes, complaining about public education (Jeff can attest to this.  In addition to boring people at parties with talk of fish oil, don’t get me started on the middle school math curriculum).  Because it matters so much to me, I’ve decided that in addition to volunteering in the schools, the best way for me to be part of the solution, instead of merely bitching about the problems, is to write objectively about efforts to improve our imperiled public education system and the people who are working hard to make a difference.

Some have called this the civil rights struggle of our time.

When my mother was dying and I was fighting to make sense of her convoluted Medicare coverage, I became an impassioned advocate for Medicare reform and especially for people of my generation — the sandwich generation — to educate ourselves about the harsh realities of elder care.

If all politics is local, maybe all activism is first and foremost located in our hearts.

Two years ago, I sat in a Starbucks at the Plantation Towne Square shopping mall in Florida with my childhood acquaintance and neighbor Beth.  I hadn’t seen Beth since high school, nearly thirty years before, and had only heard snippets about her life from my mother, who was the human embodiment of a social networking site long before Mark Zuckerberg’s birth, able to provide a status update on pretty much anybody from our hometown.

My mother came to visit me after the birth of my second child bearing Table Toppers, the disposable stick-on placemats that she told me Beth, a lawyer and now mother of three, had invented so that mothers trying to feed their toddlers in public places didn’t have to fret about germs.

To be honest, though I’d always liked Beth, I wasn’t interested in hearing about her innovation and applauding her entrepreneurial spirit.  I was in the full throes of an identity crisis that had stemmed from leaving my prestigious international career to be a stay-at-home mother.  Unlike Beth, I hadn’t crafted a creative new identity that merged my professional skills with my new role as parent. I didn’t want to be reminded that there were other women who, after giving birth, had managed to find fulfilling ways to blend career and family.

I came to Florida to care for my mother, who was scheduled for some outpatient surgery. But when I got there, her condition was much worse than I expected.  Our relationship, which had been strained over the years, was awkward, and so to make her feel better and to pass the time, I let her tell me about people we knew in common, including Beth, who lived nearby.  There had been a tragedy, my mother said.  Beth’s oldest son had contracted leukemia at age 11 and hadn’t survived.

I think it was more than cabin fever that led me to break free of my mother and arrange to meet Beth for coffee.

We sat across from each other and commented on how much we both resembled our mothers.  Beth’s chipper high school class president demeanor now had a careworn veneer, but I noticed she also had her mother’s softness and warm, quiet eyes — qualities I had always admired.

We caught each other up on our lives and the people we knew in common, and then we talked, mother-to-mother, about the unspeakable loss she had suffered.  It wasn’t the cancer that had killed Ian, Beth explained, it was the treatment.  Ian had been diagnosed with T-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) , a form of cancer that can have a 75-80% recovery rate. But his immune system had been so compromised by the toxic cancer treatment, that, though cancer-free at the time, he was unable to survive the meningitis he had contracted while the “cure” was underway.

Along with frustration over the futility of Ian’s death, Beth and her husband Brad were haunted by Ian’s own feelings about his treatment, which had been painful, isolating and humiliating.  Ian often asked why the “cure” had to hurt so much.

“After Ian died, I felt like I was going through the motions as a parent,” Beth admitted.  “Before his death I had thrown myself into parenting, yet I hadn’t been able to prevent something terrible from happening or been able to shield Ian from pain.  Afterwards, it was hard to get excited about birthday parties and school events for my other two sons.”

But Beth is a more than a turkey-maker, she’s a lemonade-maker. She and her family threw themselves into another innovative, entrepreneurial project — the creation of the I Care I Cure Childhood Cancer Foundation, which raises awareness and money to fund gentler treatments for childhood cancer. To date, the foundation and its partners have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for cutting-edge, targeted therapies for pediatric cancer.

In addition to its ongoing fundraising, the Florida-based foundation hosts a 5K run and family fun day, so that activism can be a family affair. The fifth annual event will be held on February 12.  There is also a network of I Care I Cure Service Clubs for kids across the country, to share Ian’s commitment to community service with his peers, and new efforts to develop teen service learning projects.  You can learn more about these opportunities on the foundation’s website and/or “like” it on Facebook.

Three months after Beth and I met for coffee, my mother died and a year after that, Beth lost her mother. We live on opposite sides of the country and probably won’t ever see each other again.  Since I don’t have my mother to keep me up-to-date, I’ll have to rely on Facebook to follow Beth’s activities.

There’s a saying that books broaden your perspective because they enable you to lead a thousand lives different than your own. The same can be true of your encounters with other people.  I’m grateful for what I learned from my mid-life reacquaintance with Beth, just as I’m grateful every time I get to interview someone for an article and learn what motivates them.  We can’t always and don’t always want to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.  But we can listen to them share their experiences.

I’ve had a recent bump in readership and subscribers and I want to thank you all. Through this blog I have reconnected with old friends and have made new ones too.  One such person is Ken Rivard, who with his wife Jody Adams, writes the wonderful food blog The Garum Factory.  During my musings about the feasibility of mid-life activism, Ken, who I think of as a wise older brother, commented, “I think the hardest thing, the older you get, is to shake yourself out of the habitual rut of your own life, your own perceptions, etc. and remember when the world was wide open.”         .    

When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.  When the situation is not so drastic, say on a gray weekend morning when you are waiting for snow, do yourself a favor and make these Lemon-Bay Scones with Currants, courtesy of the Garum Factory.  When you look at the recipe, you might initially be daunted by the effort involved in making and freezing bay leaf and Meyer Lemon-infused brown butter.  Don’t be.  It sounds harder and more time-consuming than it actually is.  And, like activism, once you set your mind to it, you’ll be glad you did.