Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sweet Talk

I've often opined that I have lots of unpopular ideas, and here is one more: I don't mind going to the dentist. In fact, I'm grateful for the opportunity to go, and even have a favorite hygienist who I think is nice and interesting and gives as close to the most painless experience you can expect while scraping tartar off my back molars. This is the type of gratitude that can only come from not having dental care while growing up. Well, that's not entirely true, I did see a children's dentist a couple times in my earliest years. The plastic blue donkey that I picked out of the "treasure chest" after my exam sat as a decoration in one of my mother's house plants for years. But after I turned about eight, I didn't see a dentist again until I was nineteen and both made the appointment and paid for it myself with my own money. I can recall the lady dentist looking at me very seriously and saying "We are going to try to save your teeth."
And although it took years and many, many appointments with different dentists, I do have all my own teeth, in all their imperfect cavity-prone glory.

Anyway, my hygienist was telling me that she could tell by my teeth that I did not grow up around here, as the area where the office was located is one of the few that had fluoride in the water thirty years ago. She said that all of the patients who grew up in that town (and growing up there is the key- fluoride in the water does nothing for adults) have really strong, healthy teeth. I thought that was fascinating.

Also, (and this is not news) sugary soft drinks are the worst for your teeth and will cause decay faster than anything else. Now, some of you know that as a child my husband was flat-out denied sugary drinks, so as an adult in rebellion, he basically has an IV drip of a certain sweet name-brand cola product which delivers a constant stream of corn syrupy goodness into his veins. After seeing the dentist the other day, I went home and informed The Mister that his nasty habit will catch up with him someday. My warning felt hollow though, as he is forty years old and not nearly as likely to get a cavity as I am. It's all so unfair. But this discussion was all very timely since I had been searching for sweet drinks to keep around the house that- and here's the rub- do not contain aspartame. You see, I am allergic to aspartame in a very horrific way. I'm not challenging its safety, but for me it is nothing short of debilitating. And every, every diet drink is filled with aspartame, even ones that are labeled "all natural." I know this because a trip to the drink aisles at the grocery store resulted in a mind-numbing odyssey of sugarless drink choices, nearly all containing my aspartame nemesis. A few did not contain the additive, but were labeled with double-talk such as "contains natural sweeteners sweetened with other natural sweeteners" which makes them somewhat suspect. Who decides what constitutes a natural sweetener anyway? And why don't you just tell me what that natural sweetener actually is?

So, am I doomed to drinking water and tea forever? Or is there something out there that actually tastes good but does not contain a weird controversial additive?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Of Folks and Foodways

You'll notice on my menus that Monday is always a leftover day. I make it a point to make a little extra when cooking our weekend meals so that I don't have to start out the week worrying about supper tonight. It's a time and energy saver.

Monday: (leftover) Meatballs, Onion pie
Tuesday: Mexican lasagna
Wednesday: leftovers
Thursday: Breaded fish sandwiches, oven fries
Friday: Pasta with cherry tomatoes and mozzarella
Saturday: A very busy day, so something quick!

And as usual, everything is served with a green salad. Over the weekend I made a chocolate cream pie for dessert. Later this week I'm going to do a retro favorite from every one's childhood- banana vanilla wafer pudding!

One moment that my husband and I repeatedly laugh over is the memory of me biting into his aunt's blueberry pie for the first time. As that taste hit my tongue, my mouth puckered inwards and my teeth practically shattered in bitterness, just as his aunt was saying "I don't hardly use any sugar, at all."
You have GOT to be kidding me, I thought. What is going on here?
As my Mister's family lined up for a slice of the aunt's coveted pie, all I could do was pawn my slice off on my husband and shake my head.
"No sugar at all? Who would brag about that? That's just sick," I told my husband in private later.
"That's how we like it," he explained. He went on to say that although he loved my baking and finds anything I make to be just delicious, there was a special spot in his family's heart for Aunt D-'s tart, sugarless, blueberry pie.

I skipped all the rhetoric about how my mother actually had a pie business for while, and how a professional chef once told her it was the best blueberry pie he ever tasted, and how you do need some sugar in any fruit pie, and how if Aunt D- ever needed to make money she wouldn't be able to do it by baking pies. The latter is a laughable thought since my husband's aunt and uncle are comfortably retired, but you get the point. Anyway, it caused me to reflect on other traditions my Mister's family seemed to have at family suppers that were new to me, such as the lasagna.

The lasagna first appeared at a Thanksgiving meal, looking terribly out of place among the more typical offerings. I kept looking around the room trying to figure out which of his relatives were Italian, but the answer is nobody. Having only heard of having an Italian entree as a supplement to Thanksgiving from a friend with a very Italian mother, I got a real kick out of that meat-and-pasta dish appearing at family functions. And the same aunt that makes the awful pie can really make a killer lasagna.

Of course, there was plenty for my husband to get used to with my family's meals, as well. Mainly, the militant punctuality with which supper time is set. Really, it is preferable to be dead than to arrive late to my mother's house, and being dead is the only excuse for lateness. Oh, and then there is the somewhat nutty table conversation. But dessert is always sweet and errant pasta dishes never appear.

And I can be forever grateful that my husband never knew Aunt Betty. Our family has gotten a lot of multi-generational mileage out of quoting our salty Aunt Betty, she of the indelicate observation. But Aunt Betty's real talent was for cooking a meal so plain, bland, and tasteless that it was downright memorable. Aunt Betty rarely ate and didn't much care for food. That may have been the root of the problem.
"Some days, I forget to eat," she once said with craggy disdain. And a new quote was born. What can I say, she was so unlike the rest of us!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Letter from Your Great-Great Aunt

One day here at the library, a few of us were discussing what genealogy in the distant future would look like. It had occurred to me one day, as I was reading a 100+ year old newspaper in digital form, that a hundred years from now our descendants will probably be perusing a database full of old social networking pages, blogs, etc. in order to learn more about who their great-great-grandparents were and what they were like. May mercy be cast on them as they discover their ancestor's fondness for garish blog colors and hapless widgets. There is little doubt that what we put online today will play a part in future genealogy research. There are already projects underway to archive internet content. With that in mind, I started to think about what it is that I would want my descendants to know, not just about me, but what some timeless advice would be that I would want them to discover. And wouldn't that be a good idea, to write down what wisdom I would want my great-great-grandchildren (or as the case stands now, great-great-nieces and nephews) to know? So here are some things that came to mind:

When you get married, start out with a nice new house that doesn't need a lot of work. Things will be difficult enough without the hassles and stresses of a renovation job. If you can't afford a nice new house, rent until you can afford to buy one. And by "new" I don't mean it has to be newly built, I mean one that is in good enough condition that you can move in and have it the way you like.

It's nice not to have any regrets, but if you do, that's okay. It's completely normal. Just don't spend a lot of time on your laments, keep looking forward.

When praying, be sure to seek the Lord's will above everything else. Ask that He put up plenty of blocks and barriers so you can identify if something is not His will. It will save you a lot of trouble and keep you from having to guess whether you have made the right decision.

If far into the future our family is no longer rural or agrarian, find a place to plant a garden anyway. It will teach you so much. Aside from the lessons in science, it will build character and exercise your faith. The sense of accomplishment you achieve will be your reward. Also, when planting a vegetable garden, only plant things you actually like to eat.

If you see a large mass of people getting excited about something, it's probably not worth getting excited over. Don't get caught up in the hype of what "might" be or what "could" be, as no one knows the future and these things may not come to pass.

Beware of people who talk non-stop. An empty barrel makes a lot of noise.

Watch out for idols. An idol is anything you put before your relationship with God. If you can't make time for God because something else is more important, it has become an idol. Anything or anyone in your life can become an idol.

If you find yourself worrying about something but think that it is too small to take to God in prayer, then it is not worth worrying about.

Don't rely on your "Christian heritage" as insurance that you are walking with the Lord. God only has children, not grandchildren. Many people mistakenly believe that because their parents are Christians, then they must be too. It is up to you to study the Bible and forge your own convictions. No one else.

You may inherit our unfortunate metabolism, which completely gives out around age thirty. For some people, it never works right from the beginning. I'm terribly sorry about this, we all battled it, too. It seems to come from the Stoltzfus line. At least, that's where all the finger pointing leads. I hope that by the time you read this nutritional science has come up with a work-around.

And finally, dear descendants, please remember that as I write this I am yet young-ish and there is plenty of wisdom out there I haven't even heard yet, let alone know about.So this is by no means a definitive list.

If you like this idea of leaving your future descendants virtual advice, feel free to use it on your own blog. I only ask that you link back to me so my descendants will know that I had an idea once in a while.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Living in the Oddest of Places

This weekend we visited with some friends who had recently completed their renovation project- a lovely old farm house with big Victorian windows. It took them almost seven long years. I thought it would be hard to see yet another set of our friends completing their home and moving forward, leaving us so far behind. I admit, it is hard to swallow sometimes. We work so hard and have so little to show for it, but it can also be encouraging to see other couples who have struggled with a house project for years that eventually comes to completion.
"Did you ever think it would be finished?" I always ask. It gives me hope to hear the inevitable answer.
"No, never." Is always the reply.
Hope lives in the oddest of places.

Before the fashionably colored paint is even dry on the wall, news of pregnancy always follows swiftly. The message is clear, Our house is done and now we will begin our family. Now we can begin our real lives.

The regrets pile up in my mind. Did we make a mistake staying here, trying to stay close to our family, in a completely unaffordable area? Should we have moved to the mid-west where we would live like kings? Or some southern state where we could have built a house? Would we make friends? Would we find a church? Would doing that have been a mistake?

The funny thing is, before I ever could have dreamed that we would own it, I used to drive by our house and think That's such a cute house. It has such potential. It could really be something. The Mister and I had just begun courting, so I knew the "for sale" sign out front would be gone by the time we were married and looking for a place to live. What I didn't know is that the sign would reappear again after an amateur house-flipper had had his inexperienced way with it. We're talking crooked walls and a kitchen floor so skewed towards one corner of the room that it could flip you over in a somersault. I still can't believe that we ended up in the house I used to drive by and think fondly about, the house that has ended up causing so much anguish and frustration. Every time my Mister pulls out a rotted beam from a wall, he can't believe the house ever stood this long.

And while it is vaguely comforting to know that every one of your friends has either reconstructed or is now in the process of renovating an old house in such disrepair that it could have been bulldozed in the blink of an eye, it does not make it any easier when you come home from work to a dirty construction site night after night. In this situation, civility lives in the oddest of places. Take, for instance, the Mr. Clean Magic Sponge. On Saturday I was feeling ambitious in my cleaning, so I got out the Mr. Clean Magic sponge and went to town on our appliances and doors. It worked very well on our back door which always has a lot of dirt from the dogs jumping on it and my husband hauling construction debris outside. In case you are wondering whether that magic sponge really works, it does a good job of getting rid of marks that won't come off with soap and water or other products. Most of my other cleaning efforts were quickly voided when the Mister started tearing out a ceiling in the living room to prepare it for a new beam. We are getting rid of the wall that separated the living room from the entrance way by the front door in an effort to open things up and make the tiny living room seem more spacious.

Then, as dirt fell from the attic on to the living room floor, I wondered why I even bother to clean anything around the house, ever. It reminds me of a story I once read where this homeless family always lived in these shacks without electricity or windows or even doors, but the mother would collect colorful glass bottles to place near a window for decoration. Perhaps it's because dignity lives in the oddest of places.

On the Table: Vegetable lasagna, strawberry rhubarb pie.

Around the Home: Finishing winter sewing (finally!) and starting on spring. With an eye on warmer weather, we shopped for a barbecue grill (and found one) and a certain man is now always mentioning "the spring construction season" which I find hilarious. Because, you know, the construction season is year round at our place.

On the Nightstand: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Journalist: Writing from the Ozarks. Long before she wrote about her pioneer girlhood in those Little House books that are so widely adored (and seem to have a special place in the hearts of conservative Christian folks), Laura was a thoroughly modern country woman. She was committed to learning, education, politics, farming, looking her best, and as a poultry expert she loved chickens more than children. No quaint prairie moments here, the true Laura would surprise many.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Interview with Amish Author Lucinda Streiker Schmidt

I'm nervous as I dial Lucinda's number. Her book, A Separate God: Journal of an Amish Girl, is creating quite a buzz. Lucinda is doing a national book tour, and her fictional story which is based on true events from her life has sold out on Amazon. She's been contacted by the Oprah show. Will she really have time for to speak to a book-loving Mennonite librarian with a modest blog? Will I be interrupting her favorite television show when I call? These are my thoughts.

"Oh, I'm just an Amish girl from Indiana corn country," she reassures me. "You don't need to be nervous." And in seconds, when I can feel her genuine warmth and sincerity, and the nervousness is replaced by excitement. Lucinda has a lot of energy and you can tell immediately that she is a real people person. I hope it doesn't sound cliche when I say that a few minutes into the conversation it feels like I am talking to an old friend. In fact, our conversation is so harried and lively as we both could not contain sharing our common stories, thoughts and observations that it was hard to take notes and pull together an interview.

In her book, Lucinda's story is told from the viewpoint of Rachel, a young Amish woman from a good family. Rachel finds herself pregnant by her Amish boyfriend "Alan", and as is expected, marries him. As it turns out, Alan's family is deeply dysfunctional, corrupt with violence and sexual abuse.

Lucinda: The media interest has been unbelievable, I had no idea. I had such fear about writing such a candid book about a closed culture. I was especially worried that the book would cause pain to innocent victims. That still troubles me and I do worry about that.

Mennobrarian: It must have been so difficult to tell your story.

Lucinda: It sat for eighteen years on a shelf, I actually wrote it that long ago. But throughout the years a voice kept telling that me I had to do this, I had to write this and put it out there. Two years ago I took the manuscript off the shelf and told my children (now grown) "There will be repercussions for telling this story, and I want to protect you." And they said, "Mom, it's about time." I sent it off to two publishers and there was instant interest from both of them, so I chose the publisher that I felt most comfortable with. There was such a freedom in writing this book, in making my story known, and that freedom is more fully described in a second book that will be released in the Fall. Right now I'm having such fun doing book signings, my publisher calls it the "Barnes & Noble tour." The publisher really knows what they are doing and they send me to places where there is a lot of interest in the Amish, which right now is just about everywhere. Next I'm going to Sarasota, Florida-

Mennobrarian: There should be a lot of interest there! (Pinecraft)

Lucinda: Right! And I am so happy with my publisher, they have just been wonderful and I wanted God to bless this experience. God is taking the lead, and I'm just following His path for me.

Mennobrarian: Your book touches on the abuse issue, an issue that the Amish don't want to deal with in their own communities and certainly don't want the rest of the world to know about. Being Amish, your first concern must have been, "What will people think of me?"

Lucinda: You hit the nail right on the head! Anyone with an Amish heritage is deeply worried about what other people think. It is a culture of approval-seeking behavior. And I love the Amish culture, I love my people, I can see the beauty in it. But the approval seeking behavior is a problem that I dealt with for years until it eventually went away. I divorced an abusive Amish husband (and have never remarried) but I was still holding on to the darkness. The approval seeking behavior hides abuse, hides dark things, and upholds the culture of secrecy. The approval seeking behaviors also caused me to keep making unhealthy relationship choices, which is something I write about on a deeper level in my second book. Honestly, I still find myself slipping into those behaviors, and I have to catch myself.

Mennobrarian: But in a closed culture, to have that approval seeking behavior is the only way to survive.

Lucinda: It is the only way to survive.

Mennobrarian: I can feel it in the Mennonite community too, this fear of what people think. It's the drive to live up to the idea of being a "good little Mennonite girl"...

Lucinda: ....or a "good little Amish girl." And as those good little Amish and Mennonite girls, we are such enablers.

Mennobrarian: Exactly. Another reason I was really excited about your book was that I knew people would see it at the store, Amish and Mennonite women, and they would read it and maybe learn how to identify abuse and find courage to get help.

Lucinda: That was EXACTLY my reason for writing the book. I have gotten calls and e-mails from all over, people who were touched by the book. Even e-mails from women inside the Order (Amish). I have had girls who have touched me, held me, wept, and have said "Thank you for your courage to write the book." The story is one that is not unique to my community, it could be from any Amish community, anywhere. I even had a young Amish man call me and he said "Thank you so much, there has been this darkness in my culture for generations and it will kill us from the inside out."

Mennobrarian: From the book, I can see that your family was not abusive or dysfunctional, and you have a good relationship with your father.

Lucinda: I love my family, and we did not grow up in an abusive environment at all. There was a lot of integrity and my father and I have always been close. In my second book, I also go more deeply into that relationship. He knew I was different, outspoken, and I believe that he was hopeful that by my marrying into a wealthy, powerful, and influential Amish family it would encourage me to stay Amish. My father left the community when he was young, he went to college, he's an Architect! But he returned to marry my mother, and I believe he regrets that he stayed in the community. In a strict, repressive community some of the youth thrive on that, but the ones who are critical thinkers are not able to survive it. At Christmas, I asked my dad, in German, I asked him whether he regretted coming back, wasting so much talent? He said, "I love my life with your mother." Our family is very blessed, I thank God a thousand times a day. You can see the beauty in the life he chose, his love for my mother, his farm, his land, his beautiful horses.

Mennobrarian: Have you heard of some of the new counseling and mental health facilities the Amish have opened in Pennsylvania and Ohio? What do you think of those?

Lucinda: What do you think of them?

Mennobrarian: Well, I think they could be the gateway to opening up the issue of domestic abuse in Amish communities and helping people to identify abuse and get help for it. It helps that those places are in a plain setting and the counselors speak Dutch, making people comfortable.

Lucinda: I think the same. And while I think it's commendable that these larger communities are now recognizing the issues and the culture is addressing them, those facilities are still just like the church. There will still be indoctrination and rules that don't make sense. They are dealing with an issue (domestic abuse) that was not recognized for centuries, as if it didn't exist. It is the indoctrination, the rules that make no sense and have no Biblical standing that I don't like. The Amish completely confuse religion with Christianity. I told my father so at Christmas. Jesus threw the Pharisees out of the temple. Of course, my dad expects to hear that from me.

In writing, my passion is never for the money. It never was. It is to be the voice for the women of my culture. I'm now talking to people who are interested in making a film about the book, but it's not going to reach the women who need it. What Amish woman is going to see a film?

Mennobrarian: Do you meet people with an idealized view of the Amish?

Lucinda: (Deep sigh) You have no idea, you have no idea what that does to me. I recently had a book signing at a college where all I heard from people, educated people, was a fantasy notion of what the Amish are like. BUT they have this idealized version because the Amish culture only allows people to see what they want people to see.

Mennobrarian: There is also a lot of popular Amish fiction out there right now that reinforces the idealism.

Lucinda: Yes, and those books are written by outsiders, and they have an outside perspective on who the Amish are.

Mennobrarian: It's been such fun talking to you, thank you for taking the time to let me speak with you. I look forward to meeting you someday soon.

Lucinda: Thank you! I love talking to my readers, I love all of God's children.

Then Lucinda tells me that she'd rather talk to me than Barbara Walters, which I get the feeling she should not say because with her drive and determination, she could very well end up talking to Barbara one day.

Poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open." Get ready for the coming earthquake.

Monday, February 9, 2009

My Weird Weekend

It started on Saturday morning when the phone rang very, very early. Still in bed, I did not answer it, but soon felt a little sorry that I hadn't when my husband was late coming home from work. When he did arrive home, he explained that he had accidentally grabbed a co-worker's lunch on his way out of work (thinking the bag contained some unwanted fruit he was bringing home) and didn't discover it until he was miles away from the hospital where he works. So, had to turn around to bring the lunch back. That early morning phone call was from an anxious coworker wanting her lunch.

Then, the water problems started.
"There wasn't enough hot water for a shower, what appliance are you running out here?"
"I'm not running any hot-water appliance." I was making pistachio bread for breakfast.
"Washing machine?"
"Cold water."

That was when we discovered that we no longer had hot water. The timing was awful, at best, as the Mister needed to get ready for an annual winter camping trip that he does with some friends he grew up with in youth group. There were still preparations for that to be made, and now he would have to squeeze in time to investigate the water heater, as well. By mid-afternoon it was theorized that one of the thermostats on the hot water heater had gone bad, and that was easily replaced since for some reason we had an extra one lying around. But even the new thermostat did not seem to fix things and by now it was getting late. My husband had missed his chance to ride with his friends out to the campsite, which this year was located on an island off of a remote marshy area. So now I would have to drop off the Mister in some remote swamp, and come back to a house with no hot water. I was too exhausted at the prospect to even complain about it.

And so I drove my husband down a terribly bumpy dirt road (just on the edge of no man's land) wondering along the way how I would ever find my way back home before dark. The road leading out to the marsh had puddles the size of small lakes and bumps that rivaled Appalachia. At some point, the Mister, wearing rubber hip-waders and carrying an enormous backpack, motioned for me to stop the car. He disembarked for his adventure after we worked out whether or not I should beep the horn after I have safely made it to the main road, or only if the vehicle got stuck in one of the mini-lakes.

Then, I returned home to find that not only did we have hot water, but we had instant boiling water coming out of the faucet. In fact, we only had boiling hot water or cold, but nothing in between. Well, that was better than not having hot water at all.

The next morning at church I did my yearly explaining of the winter camping trip tradition in my husband's absence, and when asked by someone how everything else was going, mentioned the broken water heater and my hopes for having it fixed. The person who asked immediately negated my concern by telling me that at least it was "a nice warm day outside" which I can only suppose they think cancels out any side effects of not being able to bathe comfortably.

It turned out that it was the thermostat in the water heater, and once my husband set it correctly, all was well. But the whole weekend had passed and I still had not found time to get a picture of me taken in an apron that my dear friend Amy made for me. Amy makes the cutest little aprons from the backs of jeans that she gets at the Goodwill, and I was so excited when she sent me one with hot pink polka dots that she felt matched my personality.
"Don't you think they match my personality?" I asked the Mister, with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
He looked like a deer in lights. It does not match how my husband sees me at all. But he managed to squeak out a "yes" anyway.

It's a great apron, Amy. Thank you!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Menu Plan Monday and Exciting News

There was a rather hilarious incident this weekend involving an antique waffle maker, which was given to me by my mother. Okay, it wasn't actually antique, it was vintage. Anyway, with the instruction book long gone, I anticipated a learning curve, but the way my mother explained it to me, it sounded very easy. Just heat it up, poor in your batter, and when the light goes off the waffles are done. Well. I heated it up, and in all its shiny chromed glory, that thing got very hot. I poured the batter in, closed the plates, and then got nervous when it started smoking. Meanwhile, the light didn't go off. I opened it back up to witness a caked-on baked-on mess that would require the waffle plates soaking overnight in the sink.

Plan B: Call customer support. (Mom)

Customer support returns my call a few hours later (long after we had finished our emergency pancake supper) and provided insider info on this waffle iron's quirks. For instance, the old teflon plates aren't really no-stick and you need to spray them well with cooking oil. And no matter what, the first waffle never turns out, but waffles made after that will be fine.

So the next day I take the batter out of the fridge and keep at it, resulting in a pile of waffley-type things that are not square in shape but still edible. Guess what my husband is having for dinner tonight?

Sunday: Pan-seared fish with spanish rice and asparagus.

Monday: leftovers

Tuesday: Crock pot corn chowder and vegetable pizza

Wednesday: Taco Macaroni and spinach salad

Thursday: leftovers

Friday: Artichoke Tuna Toss w/noodles (my husband likes this- it's not for me.)

Saturday: Husband away on annual winter camping trip- potluck with the wives

And here is the exciting news I wanted to share with you. I am working on an interview with author Lucinda Streiker-Schmidt, who has recently published her first book A Separate God: Journal of an Amish Girl. You can see the book on my Shelfari bookshelf to the right. Lucinda is so much more than an author, she is also a survivor of domestic abuse, a theme that is featured prominently in her book. It is Lucinda's hope that women will read her story and be able to recognize if they are abused and seek help for their situation. In the Amish culture, there are few to no resources for abused women. I hope to have the interview up within the next couple weeks, so just watch this space.


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