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.

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.

Shall I Compare Me to a Summer’s Fig?

If I were a real food blogger, I’d be writing about late summer Italian plums, figs and tomatoes, the last blackberry cobbler of the season, about eggplants and the fact that by late August my apple tree was already brimming with fruit as red as a seductress’ lips.

I’d be telling you that for the first summer in thirteen years, I made no jam from berries I had picked myself, but luckily was able to use Susan Herrmann Loomis’ recipe for apricot jam from her lovely book On Rue Tatin (a nice read when you are suffering from the doldrums) with the remnants of the ten-pound box of apricots I bought in Eastern Washington on the way home from a camping trip in Idaho.

I had big plans for these apricots, but a certain teenager ate most of them on the road from Quincy to Seattle.

I might mention all the terrific Mexican food we ate at the Columbia River Gorge and the fact that I got to eat at three restaurants I’d always wanted to try:  the fantastic Pok Pok in Portland, Aziza, the San Francisco restaurant owned by Mourad Lahlou, author of Mourad’s New Moroccan, one of my favorite new cookbooks this year, and the iconic Zuni Cafe, where the famed roast chicken did not disappoint. Two weeks in a row, after dining at Aziza, I made Mourad’s piquillo almond spread, a real crowd-pleaser.

I might sneak in a mention of some of the books I finally got around to reading on vacation (The Night Circus, The Tiger’s Wife and, at the behest of Daughter #1, The Hunger Games trilogy).

I could tell you that it is bittersweet to realize that with the passage of years comes the realization that I will never have enough time in a season to make all of the favorite dishes we have compiled,

especially since I can’t resist adding new favorites, such as the Garum Factory’s Avocado Salad with Pikliz.

Finally, I might point out that if you have an abundance of Italian plums or figs, you could do worse than to turn to Dorie Greenspan‘s Baking from my home to yours  for inspiration (check out her Fig Cake for Fall and Flip-Over Plum Cake) and that if you are having a big gathering of friends on Lummi Island for Labor Day, people will be impressed if you whip up a big paella (even if you think you could have done a better job seasoning it).

But I’m just a broken down hybrid mid-life blogger taking advantage of a few free minutes on this, my 51st birthday, to muse about the differences between turning 50 and 51, opportunities found and lost this summer, our family’s newfound preoccupation with hair and the fact that as I progress further and further into that undefined hormonal state known as perimenopause (and perhaps because of all my fine summer dining), I am beginning to resemble a fig and am longing for the vitality I had when I turned 50.

Today was the first day of school, so if ever there was a birthday that was not all about me, this was it.  You should see our downstairs bathroom.  It’s a mess of hair straighteners, hair product, curling irons, nail polish remover and metallic blue nail polish, some of which has spilled onto the top of the toilet bowl, where it will probably remain for eternity.

I wanted this, my friends remind me.  I wanted Daughter #1 to feel comfortable with her femininity and to embrace her beauty instead of hiding it. I love the new nightly ritual of Daughter #2, our resident fashionista, patiently straightening her sister’s hair, of watching the two of them in the bathroom at 6:30 a.m., determining how much mascara is too much, of seeing how much fun they both have with clothes.

I also want to be able to leave the house without having to factor in 45 minutes of primping every time.

Instead of a day of self-indulgence and an unbroken train of thought, my birthday (it is now the next day) ended up being about making time for other people:  a 6:30 a.m. call from my nephew, who will soon be deployed to Afghanistan and a call that interrupted my much-anticipated chance to exercise from my brother, who told me about the Bruce Springsteen concert he had just attended (he was seated next to Chris Christie).

You can take the girl out of Jersey but…

There was the farewell conversation with our elderly neighbor, who has been a part of our lives for seventeen years and is leaving her home for a retirement community, and there was teen roulette.

As anyone who has more than one child knows, a good day is one in which all of your kids are content. More often than not, if one has a good day, the other doesn’t but, like a game of roulette, no matter how you bet, there is no proven strategy for beating the odds.

I held my breath to see how the first day of school would turn out.  I didn’t have to hold it for very long, because Daughter #1 started school at 11:30 and Daughter #2 finished at 1:00.  We went out for a Starbucks refresher, which is as magical to my daughters as my breast milk used to be, and Daughter #2’s impressions of her first day of middle school at a new school came spilling out.  When we went to pick up Daughter #1 at her friend’s house, I quickly scanned her face for signs of how the day had gone.  Then off to the swimming pool for her swim team tryout, which had been a disaster the day before, and this time was a smashing success.

It was only as we sat down for sushi and Daughter #1, now a seasoned veteran of middle school, regaled us with funny stories,

that I let the psychic energy of the day dissipate and I relaxed and remembered it was my birthday.

We came home to presents, lemon tart and dog poop on the stairs.  And then, as the hair straightener came out and my daughters took up their respective positions of straightener and straightenee, we listened to Michelle Obama’s speech about hard work and personal responsibility and contributing to the well being of society.

We’re gearing up for a new school year, a new array of seasonal foods to inspire us, a new   soccer season and new books to read (including my birthday bounty:  Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson and Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi, author of Plenty, one of my favorite cookbooks this year).

All in all, it was a pretty good summer, a pretty good first day of school and a pretty good birthday.

All’s well that ends well.

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?

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.

Scentiment

Thanks to the miracle of antibiotics (which lasts for ten days, instead of eight), I’m my old, energetic self again and happy to get back to writing.  Sandra Tsing Loh gave me the perfect opening to begin a conversation on this bog about what an aunt of mine used to darkly refer to as “The Changes.”

But seriously, it’s Christmas Eve.  Does anybody really want to read or write about menopause?  I think not.

Instead I want to write in praise of sweet-smelling women.

When I was a little girl, my mother and all of the capable, well put-together women I knew each had her own distinctive scent. If you know anything about the alchemy of perfume, you’re aware that the same perfume mixes with an individual’s body chemistry to produce a unique aroma.

At holiday time and at other family gatherings, I loved breathing in the symphony of scent that was produced by a roomful of grandmothers and mothers and aunts and great-aunts. Greeting them at the door, gathering their coats and my great-grandmother’s fur stole, I’d give myself over to the mixture of scents that was my heritage, as the women of my family bustled around the kitchen to make things special.

Friends’ mothers and grandmothers had their own scent, just as their families had their own traditions.  If you complimented a women on her perfume, she’d proudly name her signature fragrance — Joy, Fracas, Diorissimo and, of course, Chanel Number 5.

My mother went through perfume phases — moving on from Jackie Kennedy-inspired French traditional elegance to freer pheromones.  Remember Charlie?  You could track the changes in social mores from the 1950s to the 1980s by the scents she wore.

These days there is less of a divide between girls and women.  I still dress pretty much the way I did when I was sixteen, in jeans and clogs and comfy sweaters.  So do most of my friends. Our kids call most of us by our first names.

So it makes me happy when my daughters identify me with my scent (these days it’s Euphoria by Calvin Klein, though I miss my more exotic past, which was accented with Samsara by Guerlain).

I hope it instills in them the same sense of trust and belonging that I so loved as a girl.

The other day we were in the mall and found ourselves in the perfume section at Nordstrom.  Though so many of the elegant touches I remember as a girl, like after-dinner mints, have faded away, you can still get perfume samples at Nordstrom.

Daughter #2 tried Chanel Number 5 and I explained its historical and cultural significance.  Then she pranced over to a display table with more contemporary scents and sprayed them on over the Chanel.

I cringed momentarily at the aromatic collision and then smiled, thinking of the joy that awaits her and her sister as they experiment with the scents that will accent their lives.

We drove home in a car that reeked with what I referred to as Katy Swift Bieber as the girls clutched their perfume samples.

I wish perfume was not just another commodity in the branding of a superstar.

Once in a while I encounter a woman who smells so good I feel compelled to  compliment her.  And once in a while someone asks me a question you don’t hear very much these days:  “What are you wearing?” and they are not wondering about my clothes.  My step mother-in-law (happy birthday ESMIL) is one of those sweet smelling women.  When she comes to visit, she unpacks her mini perfume containers and arrays them in the guest bathroom.  Her bathroom at home is similarly arrayed with beautiful glass vials. I hope she knows how happy this makes me.

There are women, such as Jane GrossDorie Greenspan, Jane Brody and Lisa Belkin, who I classify as “sweet-smelling women.”  I still have so much to learn from them.

My mother and grandmother are no longer alive to share holidays and traditions with.  Every year we make latkes to honor my grandmother and keep alive one small piece of my heritage, that can be passed on to my daughters.

And every day I wear perfume, partly for me, and partly for them, so that its scent is imprinted in their memories.

May you enjoy the sweet-smelling women in your lives during this holiday season.   If you’re so inclined, ask them about “The Changes” they’ve experienced.  And then let’s talk about it in the new year.

Happy Holidays.

The Bitch Is Back – The Atlantic

I stumbled upon this today when I was feeling blue and overwhelmed by all the holiday stuff.

It’s one of the funniest and best descriptions of perimenopause and menopause I’ve seen.  It’s worth reading if you are a “women of a certain age” or someone who loves one.

Thank you, Sandra Tsing Loh.

The Bitch Is Back – The Atlantic.