Friday, December 30, 2011

Home Care or Just TMI

The holidays are just about over.  And they truly were holidays, particularly from the reality of diabetes.  I admit to much overindulgence and to taking a break from regular yoga and regular blood sugar testing.  But when I had trouble buttoning my pants for work this week, reality had to be faced.  I've regained weight that was carefully lost (not all, but enough).
One of the disciplines of diabetes is regular A1C testing completed just before PCP visits.  My last one had a happy result.  The next one is due in February.  But where am I now post-holiday holiday? 
Two new recent magazine subscriptions are Diabetic Cooking and Diabetes Self Management.  Oh, those were the days when my taste in magazines ran to things like People or Woman's Day. 
Inside the front cover of the holiday issue of DC is an offer for $5 off on home A1C testing -- "Finally, an easy way to track my progress, right at home."
In my case I have a feeling that it is an easy way to track my lack of progress or worse yet, my negative progress.  Anyway, I printed it out and am off this afternoon in search of 'A1C Now SELFCHECK'.   In this circumstance, I do not think that ignorance is bliss.  Next PCP visit is fast approaching in February.
It's time for some new year's resolution. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Too Blessed To Be Stressed?

Yesterday,  I was privileged to attend a Baptist funeral for the first time.  It was a bit out of my comfort zone in several ways.  First, I felt like a true minority for one of the few times in my life.  Years ago, I attended a professional seminar and was the only female present.  Yesterday, I was in the racial minority. 
It was out of my comfort zone liturgically.  The order of the service was unfamiliar and it included elements that I had never seen before.  The program titled the service, "A Home Going Celebration" and noted the deceased's date of birth as his "sunrise" and his date of death as "sunset."  Letters of condolence were read from neighboring congregations and the obituary too was read.
There was a degree of raw emotion displayed foreign to my experience of controlled and choreographed Roman Catholic funerals-- not just tears, but hard, breathtaking, loud sobbing that could best be described as wailing.   
And there were multiple preachers (not sure if this is typical).  One of them spoke in a cadence that reminded me of the way that Jesse Jackson delivers a message.  Part of his message was that "I'm too blessed to be stressed" and "I'm not disappointed because I'm anointed". 
The preachers seemed less concerned about the spiritual welfare of the deceased and more concerned about whether those of us in the congregation were saved, inviting us to accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and praying over those who accepted the invitation. 
The repetitive cadence of the "I'm too blessed to be stressed" phrase has been playing over and over again in the background of my mind, like when there is a song that I can't get out of my head.
I've been stressed lately over typical holiday dynamics and dramas; and over my over-consumption of the type of food that should be avoided but that is everywhere.   I am getting back on track; and I am blessed -- too blessed to be stressed. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Oldest Terrible Towel

On Christmas eve, my whole family watched the Pittsburgh Steelers shut out the St. Louis Rams at Heinz Field, 27-0.  Quarterbacked by hometown hero and perennial backup Charlie Batch, the Steelers provided a pleasant end to the regular season at home for the fans who were awaiting Christmas eve festivities.   Who knows what the playoff picture will bring, but it looks like home field advantage is questionable.  It is said that the Steelers are an 'old' team and I have to admit that yesterday, one of my favorite players, Hines Ward, wasn't smiling like he used to.  It could be one of his final games and one of Charlie's too.  I particularly enjoyed hearing the crowd chant 'Char-lie, Char-lie' as he engineered a win against a pretty lackluster opponent but a win nonetheless. 
As usual I took my Terrible Towel (pictured below).  But I am thinking it's time to retire this baby -- it has been with me since the late '70s and it's looking pretty old too.  Two people who have seen this antique have recently bought me new ones -- one with 'cammo' and one an Italian 'asciugamano terribile'; and I have a pink one from the October breast cancer awareness/NFL promotion. 

A woman can be dated by her hair color or style or by her fashion choices.  My Terrible Towel dates me because it is so obviously very old.  It may even be the original design.   When former Steelers announcer Myron Cope created the idea, at first he just encouraged local fans to bring a black or gold hand towel to Three Rivers Stadium to wave as a way of showing support.  One history I read said that the local department stores were miffed, because towels were typically sold as sets; and when fans bought only hand towels, the stores' inventory was out of whack. 
In what is certainly one of the more successful sports merchandising schemes ever, Myron Cope trademarked the 'Terrible Towel' and the rest is history.
There is nothing quite like the sight of thousands of people waving Terrible Towels.  The more modern versions are a more vibrant shade of gold and show well on national television not just at Steeler home games, but wherever the Steelers play since they have the strongest road following of any NFL team, courtesy of the Pittsburgh diaspora. 
I used to love listening to Myron Cope; his voice and his dialect are irreplaceable.  In addition to being a Pittsburgh and an NFL legend, Myron assured his place as a beloved son of PIttsburgh because his Terrible Towel creation is a force for good.  Proceeds from its sale go to support a school for special needs individuals.  Myron Cope signed over the trademark in 1996. 
And I love waving that old towel, at home or at the stadium.  But it's on my cranium (one of Myron's introductory queries to callers on his sports talk show was 'what's on your cranium?') that it's time for a new look. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas Cookies Past

Many families with Italian roots celebrate Christmas eve with an ethnic tradition known as the feast of the seven fishes. It was not a tradition we adopted in my Italian family. The Christmas season memory I have been processing and remembering the most this year is more like the feast of the seven cookies. I have posted elsewhere about my mom's cookie baking prowess as it manifested itself at our wedding cookie table. Her Christmas cookies were even better. My mom mustered her considerable artistic skill and her characteristic attention to detail to create dozens and dozens of cookies that could comfortably have appeared in a Martha Stewart magazine. Does anyone make cut-out cookies anymore?
I remember four particular designs that came out at Christmas - candy cane, Christmas tree, wreath and Santa Claus. She made dough in both dark gingerbread and white vanilla flavor.   She decorated those cutouts in ways that I can still see in my mind.  In the hundreds of family photos we have, there don't seem to be any pictures of these holiday delicacies.  
She dyed the icing, so that Santa's hat was red, his beard was white (and coconut on top of white icing made the 'hair' on his beard). She painted the Christmas tree and wreath designs with green icing, adding red candies as berries on the wreath and metallic looking candies as ornaments on the tree. On the candy cane, she alternated white and red icing.
Then there were the rum balls, iced anise cookies and pizzelles (chocolate and anise flavored). She boxed and plated her handiwork in a beautiful presentation and they became gifts to be offered to family and neighbors. And oh, yes for our eating pleasure at home too!  
She had a kind of cookie exchange going with my Aunt Gilda, who was also a master cookie baker.  Hers were different.  She did the roll out dough and made the horn shaped cookies stuffed with nuts or apricots. 
This Christmas I am trying to have these memories suffice.  I did not inherit the baking gene and yes, I know those carb and sugar laden delights are not good for me and they were not good for my mom either. 
So I am eating them this year in my mind only.  For sure by Christmas Day, we'll have a few (dozen) that will only be a unreasonable facsimile of what I grew up with.  And I keep telling myself this holiday season, "sugar is poison", "sugar is poison".  It's not working particularly well. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Gift Giving Emotions and Economics

Twas the week before Christmas and much left to do!   My daughter and I were driving together today and she was having a hard time figuring out a gift for a special friend.  I too struggle with picking gifts for those close to me.  (I always remember one Christmas when JB and I were dating.  He said he did not know what to get me, so "how about a couple of shares of IBM"?) 
As an economics major, she told me that people often underestimate the value of a Christmas gift they have been given.  Barely an hour later, I picked up the Review section of this weekend's Wall Street Journal and there it was -- a headline screaming "Is it Irrational to Give Holiday Gifts?" 
Dan Arkiely draws a distinction between the rational school and the behavioral school of economics.  It is the rational school that my daughter was relating to me, and a particular study that concluded "as much as a third of the money spent on Christmas is wasted, because recipients assign a value lower than the retail price to the gifts they receive."   
But the behavioral economists know that it's not just about the dollars and cents/sense.  We want to show our love, express appreciation and thanks, make an impression and give something of value.  It's a tall order and I know that the things I pick out may fall short of those lofty goals.
More and more, I have begun to realize that the only thing of true value that can be given to those I care about is the gift of time and attention -- a shared meal, a trip, a concert, a memory of some kind.  And the thing I love most about the holidays is the opportunity to be with them.   
Years ago, JB and I were cleaning out the home of his aunt who in the last years of her life had to be in a nursing home.  She had been a public school teacher for over 40 years.   There were drawers full of Christmas 'teacher gifts' -- scarves, hats, gloves, Avon collectibles, candles.    The job of downsizing other people's stuff is one that I have done a few times now.  It's not fun and it's not pretty.
In reality, there is not much and I and those closest to me really need.  That said, who wants to have nothing to open on Christmas morning? 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Red Paint and Jesuit Humor

My friend Alice recently gave me James Martin's latest book, Between Heaven and Mirth, as a birthday gift. Years ago, my friend Karen gave me his first book, In Good Company: The Fast Track from the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.  A Jesuit priest, editor at America magazine and frequent media commentator on religious and moral issues, he is a delightful writer and a pretty funny guy.  His first book told the story of his life as a young corporate management trainee, his unhappiness in the midst of a yuppie good life and his discernment of a vocation to the Jesuits.  The topic is serious.  He talks about sad things, like the death of a college classmate and his parents' separation.  But his wit and sense of humor come through, including his telephone conversation with American Express when he cancels his card just before entering the seminary or his description of a corporate boss mingling with the troops in an unconvincing way at a company picnic.  
His most recent book is an exploration of "why joy, humor and laughter are at the heart of the spiritual life."
One of the chapters is called, "I'm not funny and my life stinks".  He relates the common experience of interacting with someone whose life is a series of misfortunes, big and small and being in places where "a culture of carping and general complaining predominates."   
Then he provided an image that is resonating strongly with me this Thanksgiving season -- "searching for the drop of red paint in a white paint can.  The red represents your one problem.  You have an entire can of white paint -- let's say, a job, a roof over your head, a loving family -- and you choose instead to concentrate on the one tiny red drop -- the one thing wrong in your life"  He goes on to explain how cognitive behavioral therapy can help us to choose thoughts that are more positive, enabling us to focus on what is good and what brings us joy. 
There is a lot of Jesuit humor in the book. much of it self-deprecating.  My favorite is his description of a visit by a Jesuit superior who explains an event from the life of St. Ignatius.  It seems that he was riding on a mule and met a man on the road, also riding a mule.  The man insulted the Virgin Mary.  Ignatius was trying to decide if he should kill the man and let the mule he was riding make the decision as to whether he would take the road that would lead him to the man or away from him.  The mule turned away, sparing the man and also Ignatius of his desire to murder.  The superior concluded by remarking, "Ever since then, asses have been making decisions in the Jesuits."
A personal anecdote that demonstrates Jesuit humor:  JB and I were making conversation with Fr. Jack, director of campus ministry at the university our son attended.  JB was relating the story of our receipt of frequent solicitations by mail on behalf of a Jesuit school.  First the roof was leaking and in need of repair.  Then the van used to transport students broke down.   Then a storm damaged the grounds, uprooting trees.  Father Jack wryly commented that "perhaps they should fire the Development Director and hire a maintenance person."

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thanksgiving for Aunt Mary

My Aunt Mary, at 96, is a living lesson in how to survive. Last Sunday morning after finishing up a yoga class, I switched my phone back on to see missed calls and voice mail messages from my cousin Karen and JB. Immediately I knew that something must have happened to Aunt Mary.
In large Italian families, it is not unusual to have the last unmarried daughter stay at home to care for aging parents. Aunt Mary, one of five girls, did just that. She worked at US Steel, a career woman before it was commonplace. She not only never married, but she never even learned to drive, walking to work, taking buses to town and relying on others to drive her when she needed to get to a family event or holiday celebration.
Everybody should have an Aunt Mary.  She remembers all family birthdays, with cards and presents too.  I was the beneficiary of a great family birthday tradition as a child in which Aunt Mary gave us a dollar for every year of our life.  So getting older meant getting more dough -- and it was surely something to look forward to.
She was devoted first to her aging mother, and then to her siblings, nieces, nephews, and now great and great great nieces and nephews. 
As she and I have gotten older, I have come to realize that while all of those tangible presents and her very real presence have been such constant blessings, there is something so much more edifying about how she lives her life.
Aunt Mary lives totally in the present moment.
This is a lesson I have longed to learn.  In the firmament of magnets that have graced the face of our refrigerator over the years, this is one that can always be found and is attributed to Buddha -- "The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or to anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment, wisely and earnestly."
And so last Sunday, when Aunt Mary was taken to the hospital after a fall, she sat peacefully and was engaged in the Steeler game as we waited for the results of her X-rays.  After the ED physician said he saw nothing broken, she prepared to return home (while I am mentally obsessing about how I am going to leave her in her apartment).  It turns out she could not bear weight on her leg, so they ended up keeping her overnight.  That night and the next day when I saw her, her only seeming concern was that I remember to call her favorite bakery and order a birthday cake for my cousin Karen.  She must have told me five times to remember to get the cake and assured me that she would pay for it and asked that I get my uncle or a friend to pick it up. 
I was further reminded of her positive mental outlook when she was presented with her dinner tray of what looked to me like classically nondescript hospital food.  "Beautiful, beautiful", she kept repeating as she ate every bite of food on that tray.   Turns out her hip is broken. 
When I went to see her in the nursing home where she has gone to recover, she was waiting at the dining room table for her dinner tray to arrive. "Beautiful, beautiful", she again exclaimed, as she proceeded to consume every bite on that tray too.
She does not appear to be concerned about when or whether her hip will heal, when or whether she will be able to return to her apartment.  That is because she is not thinking about that.  She is only thinking of what in the present moment she can focus on that is positive.  She is helping me more than I am helping her right now.  Forget Buddha, watch Aunt Mary. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

What Wowed Steve Jobs At the End?

If you have not read the eulogy delivered by Mona Simpson at her brother's memorial service, it's worth taking the time to do so. (  She writes of learning at age 25 that Steve Jobs was her brother and of their relationship in three phases.  "His full life.  His illness.  His dying."   Most people with even a passing interest have learned more about Steve Jobs since his death with the extensive media coverage and the publication of his biography written by Walter Isaacson.  
I am in the most people category; he never much interested me during his lifetime, even though his IPhone is a constant companion.
She tells of his last day, observing of his breath, that it "indicated an arduous journey, some steep path, altitude.  He seemed to be climbing."  His final words?   "Monosyllables repeated three times.  Before embarking, he'd looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life's partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them.  Steve's final words were:  OH WOW.  OH WOW.  OH WOW."
When his biographer was interviewed  for 60 Minutes, Steve Kroft asked Isaacson if they had ever discussed the possibility of an afterlife.  Isaacson responded, "I remember sitting in the backyard in his garden one day and he started talking about God.  He said, "sometimes I believe in God, sometimes I don't.  I think it's 50-50 maybe.  But since I've had cancer, I've been thinking about it more.  And I find myself believing it a bit more.  I kind of -- maybe it 's cause I want to believe in an afterlife.  That when you die, it doesn't all just disappear."
Steve Jobs was a visionary.  He expanded our world and changed the way we use technology.  He created things of beauty.
It has given me comfort to know that he saw something in his final hours on earth of a beyond that is awesome and wonderful.  It had to be an afterlife that wowed even Steve Jobs. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

EMM's 10-10-10 Plan

I seem to respond better to words than pictures.  When Dr. Natalie wrote the words "Exercise 30-60 minutes each day" and then spoke the words "Exercise is not optional", I internalized those orders.   Trying to deal with the eating and minding part has been much more challenging than the moving part.   A previous blog post described the first anniversary of my exercise log; and there are already 52 entries since  beginning the second year on August 15.  
One of my favorite wake up TV shows is Morning Joe on MSNBC.  I think of it as a thinking person's show because it is funny but thought provoking (and I like Mika Brzezinski too).  Anyway, they talk sports (baseball mostly) and politics, tracking the Republican candidates and the debates.  Lately, they have been having some fun at Herman Cain's expense.  It seems that when he was in single digit popularity numbers, he did not actually have well thought out policy proposals.  So 9-9-9 was his mantra for awhile until people actually began to seriously examine its impact.  And when he tried to explain the 9% sales tax added onto already existing state and local sales taxes as apples and oranges, the resulting reaction forced him to rethink the whole 9-9-9 concept in pretty short order.
But my 10-10-10 concept has been working pretty well when I cannot get a continuous 30 minutes of exercise on some days.  It means breaking up the exercise into three 10 minute blocks.  Or it can be 10-20 or 15-15.  Today was 10-20.  Upon arriving home, I still had 20 minutes to go.  That's four times around the circle that is our neighborhood.  Done. 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

No Vacation from Too Many Choices

If you are looking for a quick getaway from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia or the DC area, consider  Bedford Springs.  It's got a lot to recommend it, especially as fall begins to re-color the landscape.  The resort is chock full of historical documents, photographs and artifacts, from the era when Bedford Springs was the edge of the frontier up through its magnificent restoration and reopening in 2007.  The spa, with its mineral baths and European trained aestheticians (I could only understand about half of what my Polish facialist said) is exquisitely appointed.  And for those of you who are golfers, they have that too. 
It was the summer White House for the only President from Pennsylvania (and the only bachelor one), James Buchanan.   Two other Presidents visited there, John Tyler and Ronald Reagan. 
Desk used by James Buchanan during his years of summering at Bedford Springs

I thought that perhaps by sitting at James Buchanan's desk, I could break my current writers block (or more specifically, a blogging block).  It's been tough to blog about my current state, which can best be described as erratically compliant and frequently off-track in the eating part of this journey.  I am moving just fine, keeping up with my exercise routine (and the fitness center at Bedford Springs is small, but adequate).  There are several blog posts in the queue, in various stages of progress.  One fact that keeps swirling in my head since I first read about it in the Canyon Ranch Magazine is that we make 200 different food decisions a day.  This comes courtesy of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and its Director, Brian Wansink.  Yes, people actually research this stuff -- and the results are actually helpful to understanding why making lasting change is so challenging.  
I understand that stopping smoking is difficult and that the urge to smoke is one of the strongest addictions to break.   But the decision is easy and it is only one decision.  Making it stick means repeating the same decision over and over again. 
But decisions about not just what to eat but about portion size come at me from all directions.  First I was skeptical about the 200 number.  Then I got to thinking.  The opportunity to make good and bad choices related to food starts from the moment I wake up until the moment I fall asleep (and occasionally in the middle of the night).   And the barrage of conflicting and confusing dietary advice compounded by vagaries of blood sugar readings added to the unpredictable nature of when and how food decisions present themselves adds up to the exhausting reality that it is possible to make 180 good decisions, and another 20 or 10 or even one that totally screw up the best laid plans.  I have learned that planning is best and that pre-controlled portion size works for me.   And beginning again and again. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Destination Walking

It's about a mile and a half from the parking lot in the Strip to Heinz Field.  One of the strategies I have been trying to use to get in exercise is destination walking -- not movement for movement's sake, but getting from point A to point B.   That's JB walking along the river.   One hour a day seems overwhelming when it's on a treadmill.   But checking out the scenery with a destination in mind and a companion sure makes it go faster.  


After a stinging 35-7 loss to the arch rival Baltimore Ravens on their home turf in last week's NFL season opener, the Pittsburgh Steelers delivered a 24-0 win at Heinz Field yesterday.   How does that happen?  I know the "any given Sunday" argument.  But the Steelers were humiliated last week and looked like they were completely unprepared for all of the tricks Baltimore pulled out of its playbook.  One of the pundits suggested that it was because the Ravens played like it was the Superbowl and the Steelers played like it was the first game of the season.  Baltimore and Joe Flacco clearly had something to prove.  During the week following, there has been much discussion about the character, preparation and the age of the team.  Yesterday, they put some of that to rest with a win, albeit against a team that was pretty bad.  And they could not convert a couple of first and goal situations.  These players are pros; they clearly go into a game thinking they can win and want to win. But what happens when they have a day like the one in Baltimore.  Their flubs, fumbles and flaws are out there for the world to see, to be dissected in print, in the blogosphere and on sports talk shows.  How do they turn it around?
Somehow they did.
I have been thinking a lot about turnarounds myself and think there is something to learn from the pros. 
Coaching must be a part of it.  I would love to be a silent bystander to have heard the message delivered by Mike Tomlin to his team last week.  And then analysis -- watching film, seeing what went wrong and making adjustments.   And practice.  And not giving up.  That's why these guys are pros. 
Watching the game on TV and in person are such different experiences.  In the stadium yesterday, the players played to the home crowd.  They sought adulation, waving their arms to the assembled fans to encourage cheers and towel waving demonstrations.  They clearly feed off the emotional energy of 66 thousand plus people. 
But they must have a fundamental belief in their ability to succeed. 
All good lessons.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Am I in Denial?

Yes, I am apparently in the throes of denial.  Following my most recent checkup and much improved A1C, my behavior could best be described as having 'fallen off the wagon'.   It has been downright awful.  The aforementioned family reunion, with its dessert table laden with 20 or so different varieties of carb and calorie filled delights, was a challenge that I did not meet particularly well. 
I had the opportunity to attend another family's 'family reunion' earlier this summer.  It was a wake-up call about the food culture differences between my family and the way other families might approach such an event.  It was a cookout --  burgers -- regular, turkey and veggie.  There were a few salads and one dessert.  Yes, truly, just one.  Dessert shells with blueberries and ice cream/cool whip.  Perfectly lovely and delicious.  The quantities of food were adequate for the numbers of people and there were healthy choices all around.
Contrast that with our most recent reunion.   There is an Italian word that was once the punch line of a commercial for something I can't remember -- ABBONDANZA.  Abundance, it seems, is the way we do food.  It you don't have a least twice as much food as you really need, then you are not really being a proper host or hostess. 
And in addition to quantity, we also have quality.  Remember I said that we had published two family cookbooks for previously family reunions?  If I close my eyes, I can recall and taste traditional family recipes like Aunt Rose's manicotti and my cousin Michele's fudge.   Carbs and sugar.  The best.
But in an effort to get myself back on track, I googled "Diabetes Back On Track" (how original).  One of the entries that appeared was a pretty direct essay about how easy it is to exist in denial.  And it is a family trait (OK, a human trait).  What I once judged my mom about is now clearly me too.  Diabetes is an insidious, slow, killer disease.   It is so easy to sacrifice long term health for short term satisfaction. 
I am only now beginning to fully realize how this is a moment by moment battle.  And it is about habits, not rules.  And how it is hard. 

Family Reunion

In 1973, my mom got the idea to have a family reunion of her brothers and sisters on the day before Labor Day.  The idea got legs.  This past Sunday we had the 32nd one.  We have missed a few years and some years we had a family event that was a surrogate reunion, like Aunt Rose and Uncle Ray's 50th anniversary celebration or Mary Lou and Bob's wedding. We have gathered 32 times in celebration of family on a September Sunday.   About half of the reunions were in New Castle, PA, hosted by one of my cousins in her home.   The rest were held in other PA locations, including Mars, Somerset, North Huntingdon and Indiana.  
Our reunions are mostly about reconnecting and keeping people connected.  There have been games (egg toss, badminton, sack races) and competitions (cookie bake offs, creative uses for zucchini) and group projects (a family quilt and two cookbooks) and songs ("Hello Aunt Mary" and "We are the Fredas").    We keep a 'family tree', with biographical details, up to date, thanks to one of my cousin's daughters. 
I love this family.  As previously written, growing up it was only my mom's family that I knew in any depth.  My dad's family was scattered and distant.  But on my mom's side, I have two first cousins that were born in the same year as me.  And of the 16 'first cousins', seven of us went to the same Catholic grade school and high school.  And two of my cousins married people we went to high school with.  So there is a lot of history and shared experience.
When the reunions started, it was my mom and her six siblings and their children and grandchildren.  Now my mom is gone and there are only two of her siblings left -- aged 96 and 92.   This year nearly 60 descendants of Nicola and Carina Freda gathered.  This year for me was a kind of watershed event.  The family homestead has been sold.  It was the house my grandparents bought in 1931 and it held 80 years of both memories and stuff.   I wrote and posted the reflection below on one of the display boards at this year's reunion.  
Thanks to my cousin John, a talented artist who created replicas of the family homes in Whitsett and Munhall, we can remember these special places that housed such special people.   

The Places of the Freda Family

Family histories are the stories of people and places.  In the case of the Freda Family, Nicola and Carina and their children, these stories are inextricably linked to three places on two continents – Rivisondoli, Italy, Whitsett, PA and Homestead/Munhall, PA. 

Nicola Freda was born on February 24, 1876 in Rivisondoli. 
Carina Adele Buono was born in Rivisondoli on June 28, 1881. 

Rivisondoli is in the province of l’Aquila in the Abruzzo region of Italy, southeast of Rome.  Thanks to the Internet, there is a site devoted to “leave a trace of the Rivisondolesi’s emigration in the United States, a True History that deserves of being handed down to the future generations, because they don’t forget and knows to give the just value to the work for which, supporting 
inexpressible renunciations and sacrifices, they threw the solid foundations on which it rests, for better of for worse, our today’s life.”

The website contains the “first ten recurrent last names of our country”.  One of the ten names is ‘Freda’; another is Iarussi (Aunt Irma’s maiden name).   It also includes a list compiled by the local parish priest of donations received from emigrants for the ‘Mother Church of S. Nicola’ in Rivisondoli in 1922.  That list includes the names of Angelo Freda (presumably ‘Uncle Angelo’) and Antonio Iarussi. 

Nicola (Nick) arrived through Ellis Island on January 16, 1900 via the S.S. Auguste Victoria (departed from Naples) with his brother Marco.  The date of Carina’s arrival is unknown. 

Upon arrival, Nick promptly got to work.  In his application for Railroad Retirement Benefits, he recaps his employment history beginning on January 20, 1900 as a laborer with the Union Railroad in Homestead, PA. 

He was employed by the P & L E Railroad on July 3, 1901 where he stayed until August 8, 1916.  He then returned to the
Union Rail Road
in Clairton until September 8, 1921.   The family lived in Wilson, PA – the exact dates are not certain. 

From 1921 to 1931, he returned to the P & LE as a Section Foreman in Whitsett Junction.   I remember a few stories my mom told me about Whitsett.   She said that Nonna told her when the truck arrived, she told them not to unpack it.  Nonna was apparently not impressed by the small, isolated coal mining town, having spent the early part of her married life in a more urban setting.  And the Whitsett house had an 'outhouse', not the indoor plumbing that she had in the city.

Whitsett is about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh.  Founded in1845 by Ralph C. Whitsett,Sr., the community is made up of mostly “company” houses that were built for workers that worked in a large coal mine located nearby, Banning #2. Most of the houses were ½ houses built to accommodate two families.

Now the Mon Yough Trail, part of the Great Allegheny Passage, runs through Whitsett.  The trail was built on the old lines of the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie railroad. Whitsett was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.

Then there is Homestead and the house in Munhall.    The family moved back to the Homestead area in November 1931.   This year, the house was sold. 

Homestead has seen glory days and hard times.  It was once the steel capital of the world, with U.S. Steel’s Homestead Works, ethic churches and a bustling retail core.  Today, a shopping and apartment complex called the Waterfront occupies the site of the former Homestead Works.  It also is on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Yet this reunion – of the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and yes, great-great grandchildren of Nicola and Carina is a celebration, not of place, but of family. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Grandma was an alien?

We called my maternal grandmother, Nonna (duh, it's the Italian word for grandmother).  Since my mom was the youngest of seven children, having been born when my Nonna was 40, and my mom did not get married until she was almost 30, I remember Nonna only as an old woman.
She was tiny, wiry and carried this black rubber cord called 'licorice'.  Getting licorice was not a good thing.  It meant getting your hands slapped.  She made great homemade pasta and meatballs (they were sooooo tender).  Her English was not great and we mostly communicated with her through my mom and Aunt Mary, who lived with her.
She was pretty stern -- she was not the hugging, laughing, building self-esteem type of grandmother.  I now realize that her life was not easy.  She left her mother in Italy and came to a foreign country.  She took three of her oldest children back to Italy for a visit and her oldest child died there from the flu.  Can you imagine?   I found her passport recently that showed her embarking with three children, with a notation upon her re-entry into the US that one had died.   Her husband died when my mom was a senior in high school, in 1938. 
I also found her alien registration card from 1942.  At that point, it is noted that she had lived in the United States for 35 years and 9 months.   We also found a notarized affidavit from Ann Street Radio in Homestead, attesting to the fact that her Zenith radio had its short wave coils disconnected, making "the radio completely dead and inoperative on all short wave bands." 
My brother remembers my mom telling him this story.  Apparently, my grandmother and her radio constituted a threat to national security.  What an indignity.  The Japanese, many of whom had been on American soil just as long or longer endured much worse. 
What a different life she had.  It would be so good to be able to have just one conversation with her to understand more.  Hoping to fill in some gaps in family history at the upcoming reunion. 

Sorting through Stuff: The Old (new) Scoop on Diabetes

Going through someone else's stuff is one of those paradoxical life experiences.  In Adriana Tragliani's book, "Lessons from My Grandmothers", one of their lessons is "Leave Your Children Your Values, Not Your Stuff."  
I have been on the receiving end of lots of stuff.  Between JB and me, we have inherited housefuls of stuff.   We are having a family reunion next week, and I find myself going through photos and documents that I would like to display. 
Yesterday I came across the 'PIttsburgh Bus and Trolley Guide' from 1937-1938.  It is a tiny compendium that includes the Pittsburgh Pirates schedule, lists of area parks and movie theaters, information about bus and trolley lines and yes, health information.  It is chock full of useful information like how to tell unhealthy from healthy urine and even includes a page in Polish and one in Italian for the then-dominant local ethnic population.  The primary sponsor/advertiser was the Varec Institute, which appears to be the forerunner of what we would recognize as today's retail medicine clinic.  It had daily (even Sunday!) office hours and "was organized by duly licensed physicians to provide relief from sickness at the lowest possible cost consistent with good medical treatment."
Curious about what this guide might say about our modern scourge of diabetes, I found the following:
"Acidosis and Diabetes are Twin Health Destroyers
Americans are rapidly becoming a race of Diabetics due to the excessive consumption of sweets and starches. 
We can offer prompt and permanent relief providing you will cooperate in following diet restrictions and coming regularly for office treatment and remedies.  When the patient has sugar constantly present in the urine, we have a fully developed case of diabetes.  We reserve the right to reject these advanced cases, for insulin is the proper palliative remedy and should be regulated and administered under the watchful care of your family physician."(my note -- yea -- dump the really sick people on someone else).

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Is Yoga a Religion?

Once at the end of a Sunday morning yoga class, a woman blurted out, "This is sooo much better than church!". That memory has stuck with me. Churches struggle with how to attract young people. Young people, especially young women, flock to yoga. 
After more than three years and hundreds of classes, I remain perplexed about what yoga really is.  One thing for sure, any type of exercise that can be done lying down is inherently appealing to me.
It seems there are yoga studios popping up everywhere.  As a business opportunity, it has a pretty low barrier to entry.  Not a lot of capital investment.  Two hundred hours of training and one can become a yoga instructor.  All it takes is an empty room and some mats, blocks and blankets.  Poof, it's a yoga business.
Since anyone with some training can become an instructor, there is wide variation in the quality and content of a yoga class.  Some include chanting and esoteric discussions about yoga sutras, in studios decorated with statues of Buddha and Buddhist flags.    Others would make Jane Fonda feel right at home, with lots of  lunges, twists and aerobic level routines.  Some include meditation, with readings.  Some conclude with physical relaxation techniques, of the relax your head, relax your neck, etc, working their way through the body.  One of my oldest and funniest yoga class memories happened on a family vacation at a dude ranch in Montana.  The instructor was going through the parts of the body to relax, including a request that we relax our kidneys.
Afterwards, a physician in the class observed wryly that, "if I relaxed my kidneys, I'd pee on the floor!" 
Then there are the gurus.  While the vast majority of yoga instructors in this community are women, the 'names' in yoga are more typically men.  Rodney Yee, John Friend, Max Strom and Bikram Choudhury are just a few of those who have followings.  And Choudhury has copyrighted and franchised his approach, hence, 'Bikram' yoga was born.  
Some people claim that those who practice yoga and claim to be Christians are on the path to spiritual ruin.  The Catholic newspaper of our diocese ran an article about a local 'PraiseMoves' instructor.  I tried a couple of her classes.  The poses were given new names and the routines are liberally sprinkled with biblical passages.  She was very kind, very sincere and very convinced of the value of PM as the Christian alternative to yoga.  But PraiseMoves is a franchise too, requiring its own teacher training and certification. 
Catholic bishops and pastors have been known to ban yoga classes.  But Catholic retreat centers also offer yoga classes and yoga retreats.  I know, I attended one earlier this year taught by a Paulist priest, Father Thomas Ryan who is a Kripalu trained yoga instructor. 
In the Introduction to his book, "Prayer of Heart and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice", he explains that Kripalu was, until 1985, a Jesuit novitiate.   But the Jesuits had to downsize due to the lack of recruits.  Now, Father Ryan points out, hundreds of people reside in a celibate community, and accept a simple lifestyle under the direction of a guru.  In a further bit of irony, he notes that a mosaic of St. Ignatius Loyola looks down upon people who are largely in the 20-45 age range, a population coveted by church pastors, who largely minister to a significantly older group. 
His writings and retreats are based on integration of yoga with Christian spirituality.  He heads a Center dedicated to interfaith understanding and has apparently not been kicked out of the priesthood or  summoned to Rome for retraining.
This morning I went to Mass and then to Gentle Yoga. I'm sticking with both. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Happy Anniversary

On August 15, 2010, I started logging my exercise, nothing fancy, just using the 'notes' on my IPhone. Most experts in lifestyle change advocate writing things down, and the Weight Watchers program incorporates 'tracking'.   Tracking, either on paper or on WW etools, has never been my strong suit.  But today, I celebrate the first anniversary of my exercise log.  Back when I was first diagnosed, Dr. Natalie, in discussing exercise, said it was not optional.  Or rather, not exercising is not an option.  And so I do. 
The advantage of recording is that you have a record.. duh!   Reviewing it tells a story.  Lapses?  Sure.   But a review of the log shows 65 yoga classes and 184 walking entries.  Perfect?  No.
I am no longer seeking perfection, only consistency. 
BTW, my A1C went from 7.9 to 6.5.
Dr. Natalie is happy and so am I. 
Heading to Yoga tonight. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Church Sign Seen on Vacation

How's this for lifestyle change wisdom? Laws are never as effective as habits.

Saturday, August 6, 2011


All families must have some unique expressions.  My mother would say, when speaking of someone who was ill, that they were "doctoring".  Outside of our family unit, I never heard that phrase.  It was a bad thing, this doctoring stuff.   In her experience, no one who was feeling well would ever go the the doctor.  None of this preventive medicine or annual checkups or vaccines for my parents.  Looking back, it may have been a result of their upbringing where there would not have been doctors around.  Or perhaps because we were uninsured.  My dad was self-employed.  For him, health insurance was a luxury, not a necessity.  And going to a doctor was an expense to be avoided. 
For years I pretty much felt the same way.  Oh, having babies necessitated having a doctor.   After that, I avoided them too.  Ignorance can be bliss, at least in the short term.
Now I find that I am 'doctoring', going for things like blood work, taking pills, and having regular doctor visits.  I have one coming up on Monday with Dr. Natalie, my PCP.  Facing reality comes with these visits because while she is certainly empathetic, there is an element of judgment that comes with the inevitable reporting of numbers.  A1C, cholesterol, weight, body mass index, blood pressure, etc. I dread these visits. 
Just came home from a birthday party in the neighborhood.  Social events now have an element of dread to them as well even when they are happy occasions.  I find myself engaged in a dialogue with myself about what I should and should not eat.   If asked to name my five favorite foods, without thinking the first two would come out as birthday cake and then ice cream!     Perhaps knowing that I will face the scale on Monday morning, I managed to avoid them.  Four diet cokes and a big cup of coffee helped fill my stomach and occupy my hands.  Hoping for some better numbers this visit. 

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Maine Idea (Running Away from Rome, Part Two)

Clare says that Maine has more coastline than California. She recommended Camden as a good spot to stay for the Lobster Fest.   And Dolly recommended taking in the view of the harbor from the Camden Deli.  The photo above is trom the upper deck of the deli.  Clare didn't know about specific places to stay; I found the Maine Stay Inn through a combination of Internet and phone calls.  What a find.  
As I mentioned in Part One of the story, Maine Stay is owned by Roberta and Claudio, an Italian couple from Rome.   In a kind of reverse of Frances Mayes' search for a villa in Tuscany that resulted in finding Bramasole and Cortona, Roberta and Claudio looked for an American B&B.  Rome is now a place they visit, not live. 
It was a pleasure to chat with Roberta.  I told her that I found her story fascinating.  She explained that Roman traffic (their commuting time) and tourists (she quoted a number in the millions) made them want to make a change.  She said they had traveled all over the United States, ruled out California because of earthquakes and looked at around 30 B&Bs. 
They wanted a real home, making their search more complicated since owning a B&B often involves living "above the store."  At Maine Stay, there is a renovated barn attached and they have their own space. 
They have infused Maine Stay with paintings and prints and there are beautiful antique pieces of furniture from their home in Italy.   The picture below is one of the parlors and you get a sense of the way they have integrated their homeland in their now home. 

I feel at home anywhere an image of Venice is displayed.  My dad bought a picture of St. Mark's Square that hung over our living room sofa for as long as I can remember.  I think he got it at K-Mart; but he loved the scene.  My aunt and uncle who lived up the street had a similar one.  When we were selling my parents house, Martin rescued it from the dumpster and it now hangs in his apartment.
Roberta is stylish and energetic; Claudio is soft-spoken and gracious.  The B&B is a lot of work Roberta offered, but added, "I love it."  "Visit the gardens", she said.  When another guest asked her about the wicker furniture on the sun porch, she explained that she would be repainting it over the winter.  We stayed in the third floor suite, with two bedrooms.  Roberta had recently converted it from three separate rooms.
There were so many thoughtful touches to the Inn and the grounds.  Fresh cut flowers, homemade cookies and lemonade in the pantry, quiet gathering spaces in the gardens, books about the house and the area and hot-cooked breakfasts.   The artichoke quiche and home made granola with strawberries as well as the scones were extra special. 
It was lovely.  For more on the Inn, visit

Monday, August 1, 2011

Lobster Fest 2011

When we arrived at Friendship, Maine, Dolly was just about to set out for the dock to pick up the lobster.   She was gathering styrofoam coolers and chests and we decided to tag along.  In a kind of entourage, some of us on foot and Dolly and Brenda in the car, we made our way to a space where Arnold, the lobsterman, greeted us.  He must be a kind of local celebrity.  Dolly told him that she had purchased a photo of him just that morning during the Friendship Days celebration.  He is pictured on the dock,  with the sea and his work space as background, and the caption reads, "The Office". 
Fifty-five lobster were carried in buckets and then transferred to the coolers.  Still alive, their claws were confined by rubber bands that I was told would come in handy later as guests used them to ping each other.  I don't understand the chemical reaction that makes live lobsters look black and cooked lobsters red. 
As we were leaving, Arnold shared some pictures of a magazine photo shoot (I think he said Vogue) with gorgeous models positioned against the backdrop of Arnold's 'office'. 
In my previous post, I mentioned that Dolly hosts this annual Lobster Fest, a friend and family annual reunion of sorts.  It is the best kind of holiday, one created by a group of friends and family with its own food and traditions.  One of the guests told me that they have been gathering for 16 years and the tradition actually dates back to Dolly's late mother. 
This year, there were a few newbies like us, others who have attended sporadically and some real regulars, for whom this is an annual homecoming.  It was an eclectic mix of ages, geographies, and personalities and we had a splendid time.  Never having taken apart a whole lobster, I would have been lost but for the man at my right who showed me the proper way to extract that sweetest of seafood from the shell and how to crack its claws.  After a few minutes of chatting, I realized that the man at my right was someone I knew slightly professionally  years ago and we reconnected over lobster lessons. 
It was a joy to be part of this special group for a day and to experience a day in the Maine village called most appropriately, Friendship.  Thank you, Dolly. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Running Away From Rome (Part One)

Looking forward to leaving the sweltering heat and humidity of the 'Burgh and traveling to Maine later this week.  My friend Dolly hosts an annual lobster fest at her family home that I have been wanting to attend for years.  This year it looks like the stars have finally aligned and JB and I will get to go and eat lobster and sit on Dolly's front porch.  She grew up literally across the street from where the lobster fishermen keep their boats (or whatever the correct nautical term is) with a view of the Atlantic Ocean.  She once showed me a coffee table book by Walter Cronkite that had an aerial view of the house and her quaint Maine village.  How idyllic. 
The place I grew up in was a suburb of a steel mill town;  my childhood memories are of hearing slag trucks drive by as they carried the remnants of steel making to another suburb to form the foundation for a new shopping mall.  There was not a lot of physical beauty.  We would take occasional trips to county or state parks and vacations to Boston, where my dad lived just after he immigrated to the US.   On those trips, I caught a glimpse of what people who grow up in coastal areas experience. 
St. Augustine is quoted as saying -- "The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page."   I want to read many pages.  The book, "1,000 Places to See Before You Die: A Traveler's Life List" sits on a table in our family room. 
This week I get to go somewhere new that is listed there, Acadia National Park.  Since Clare is spending the summer in Maine, we will get to spend time with her too.  She suggested places to stay, and encouraged us to look beyond the Marriotts, at least for a few nights.  And so we have compromised and I have B&B reservations for three nights.  She further recommended Camden, Maine as a place to stay.  B & B reservations can be a little diffcult to come by for three people during Maine's high season.  After some online searching and phone calling, I found myself in conversation with a woman speaking with an accent I could not easily identify.  At first I thought it odd, since I expected to hear that distinctive Maine pronunciation that Dolly first introduced me to and that I have since come to recognize on trips to Maine with Clare. 
The B&B reservations person who happens to be the owner apologized for her difficulties and mentioned that she is Italian.  Italian??  How would an Italian end up running a B&B on the coast of Maine?  Through the joys of the Internet, I was able to read the story of an Italian couple's life in Rome, interest in US travel and decision to move to Maine.
It's pretty hard for me to understand how someone would want to leave Rome and relocate to a beautiful, yet seasonally challenging place like Maine (think sub-zero and snowed in for months on end).   
I am looking forward to meeting her and hope to post more soon about their travels and ours too. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Simple Answers to Vexing Questions

Remember the Baltimore Catechism?  Those of us of a certain age sure do.  Written in question and answer format, we were required to commit much of it to memory, so we could readily cough up the answers to questions like, "Who Made Me?".  ("God made me", is the quick, semi-automatic response).
There was brevity and clarity associated with these crisp responses; but I can't say that I have been able to resolve the more challenging questions life has presented me by pulling out and applying memorized answers.  Lately though, some similar questions and the resulting knee-jerk responses have actually been helpful in this journey to better health and well-being. 
I once read a recommendation to avoid eating (or drinking) any food or drink that your grandmother would not recognize.  That feels right--wine's OK; Mike's Hard Lemonade, probably not.   Piece of fruit, good.  A 'gotta have it' treat from Coldstone Creamery?  Don't think so. And my grandmothers likely ate pretty good stuff -- bread, pasta, vegetables, fruits.  My maternal grandmother was a wiry, trim woman.  My paternal grandmother was a bit broader and my overall build seems more to resemble hers. I have previously described my strong family history of diabetes.  So maybe the 'grandmother test' isn't the best. 
I've been thinking more about applying the 'God-Baltimore Catechism' test to the "Can/Should I Eat This?" question.  I've been asking myself, "Who Made This?"  If God did make it and it is still looks close to the way He made it, then I'm thinking it's probably fine.  So, blueberries, yes; blueberry cobbler with ice cream, no.  Fish or meat?  Hey, I think Jesus ate those!  Pasta?  That's a tough one -- it is processed.  For awhile I am taking a pass.  And chocolate?  Don't think so.

That still leaves lots of options.  It's fresh corn season; tomatoes and cherries too.  And something is working, albeit verrrrry slowly. Down another pound this week.  Total of 10 pounds off now (pCR or post Canyon Ranch) and just over 27 in total.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Under New Management and Over .500

They're making tee-shirts now that we are at baseball's All-Star Break.  I saw one in the window of a South Side shop, with a picture of a pirate ship and '.500' printed below.  There have been attendance records set at PNC Park this summer, as both Pirate and out-of-town fans have flocked to see real live competitive baseball again.   JB and I attended a sell-out earlier this summer and saw the Bucs defeat Detroit.  It was kind of weird though.  We are used to watching away games of the Steelers and seeing Terrible Towels and hearing cheers for the Steelers, sometimes almost drowning out the home team.  It's kind of the reverse phenomenon as we see and hear fans from Detroit, or Philadelphia or Boston, as they travel to PNC Park and enjoy rooting for their home teams.    After nearly 20 years of losing, It feels good to go to a game in anticipation of the game itself and not the gorgeous views, fireworks, the bobble heads or the company. 
What's made the difference?  I am no expert.  But it must have something to do with management -- at least that is the one thing that I know has changed.  I've been noticing a sign that I drive by on the way to work for a local bar/restaurant that says "Under New Management".  Those signs used to be common.  I guess it's a way of communicating that changes have been made and we know our food or product or service hasn't been good and that something is now different.   Since they can't put up signs that say things like, "we fired the SOB that used to run this place" or "we finally have a chef that actually went to cooking school", businesses post a more benign, but clear message.  Somebody new is in charge.  And isn't that what it often takes to really turn a team or an organization around?
I like to think that maybe I am under new management too.  At least some of the time. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Al Fresco Memories

Is it true that outdoor dining makes for more satisfying and nourishing meal experiences? For me, it is. And memorable ones too. I can readily pluck recollections of meals served outdoors from my mind, recalling places, vistas, conversations, and yes, foods.
Some memories are fresh in my mind because they are so recent.  On the Friday before the 4th of July, my friend hosted an outdoor picnic.  She has a gift for assembling an eclectic mix of people and the conversation is unpredictable, interesting and fun.  That night was no different, but oh, the food.  More specifically the beef (we didn't have to ask where it was).  I had seen a recipe in the McGinnis Sisters newsletter for a grilled beef fillet, courtesy of the Barefoot Contessa herself, Ina Garten and offered to bring the beef if our expert grillmaster friend would grill it.  This baby weighed as much as a baby, and he did an amazing job of tending the grill.  The meat was sooooo tender and there was not one morsel of it left at the end of a long and leisurely meal.  It was charred on the outside, but practically melted in the mouth.  The recipe is:

Grilled Fillet of Beef with Mustard Sauce (courtesy of Ina Garten)
Ingredients (just six, not counting salt and pepper)
  • 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons of salt
  • 1 tablespoon of freshly ground pepper
  • 4 1/2 to 5 pounds fillet of beef tenderloin, trimmed and tied
  • 3/4 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • 1 tablespoon coarse mustard
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Heat charcoal or gas grill.  With lid on grill, thermometer should register 425-450 degrees.  Combine butter, salt and pepper.  Using paper towels, pat tenderloin completely dry.  Spread seasoned butter over fillet.  Place meat on hot grill and close lid tightly.  Be sure your grill temperature does not dip below 375 degrees.  For rare to medium rare, cook tenderloin approximately 30 minutes, tuning once during grilling until your instant read thermometer reaches 125 degrees.  (He did about 5 - 7 minutes longer).  Meanwhile, to make sauce: Whisk together all mustard sauce ingredients.  When fillet is done, place on a cutting board and cover with aluminum foil; allow to rest about 20 minutes.  Slice beef and serve with mustard sauce.

It's not just the recent al fresco times I recall.  I have vivid memories of dinners in an arbor with my Dad in Assisi; sitting outside a trattoria in Trastevere with Vespas and Fiats whipping by just inches from our chairs; and two dinners three years apart on the outdoor terrace at Mirabelle, looking out over the hills of Rome.
The photo above is from 2007, when Priscilla and I had an early birthday celebration for her.  The appetizers had just been served (note the portions) and the sun was still shining so the awnings were down.  Once the sun began to set, the waiter raised the awnings and we had a magnificent, magical view.  If you ever get to Rome, the view is priceless (although the food was beaucoup bucks or in the local vernacular, molti soldi).  I also remember their homemade souffles, which had to be ordered upon arrival. 

Any recommendations for local outdoor dining? 

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Letter from Canyon Ranch

A letter arrived,  postmarked June 14, return address Canyon Ranch, tag line "The Power of Possibility (r)"  It was addressed to me in my own handwriting.  I had no recall of having written it -- kind of like those postcards you fill out to yourself at the dentist office and they mail to you to remind you of your next appointment.  Whatever had I written to myself?  I procrastinated about opening it -- mostly because I thought it would contain some letter reminding me that there are things I planned to do that I have not done--you know the lose 15 pounds in 15 days types of promises to oneself.  After about a week, I peeked in the envelope and pulled out a one page document, titled, 'Commitment to Myself' and dated March 23, 2011.  On it I had written a total of 38 words.  Three statements of commitment to a healthier style and three changes that would be apparent three months out. 
I was pleasantly surprised.  Perhaps I did learn something new there about behavior change.  The commitments I made were modest -- to incorporate the recommendations for diet change and exercise and to apply my personal values.  The changes I hoped to realize have been.  They were modest also, having to do with how my clothes fit, my ability to do more challenging yoga and having lower blood sugar levels.
Every day brings challenges and there have been setbacks.  Three things I have learned so far in this journey that I talk to myself about consistently.
  1. Stay in Today (forget yesterday and don't worry about tomorrow).  There is a reason why the Lord's Prayer speaks of 'our daily bread'.  I only make positive progress when I keep myself firmly planted in the present moment.
  2. Small Changes.  Things like taking the stairs, walking to local destinations (church, coffee shop), parking a longer distance from entrances and remembering to move instead of sit when I can.
  3. Simple Pleasures.  Farmers markets and more real food (I ask myself -- "Who made this and What's in it?")  I'm beginning to prefer a more basic diet of fruits, vegetables and meats.  And wine, in very small amounts has really helped.  
Other results?  Went to Weight Watchers this morning.  Down a total of 15 pounds since the beginning of the year, nine since Canyon Ranch (and 27 since my all time high).  Not earth shattering, but my goal has always been to get 50 pounds off -- 23 more to go and eight months to go. 

Monday, July 4, 2011

From Red Lion, PA

Well, it's not Tuscany or the Napa Valley.  But this Fourth of July weekend brought a lovely, characteristically American, surprise quick trip to wine county, PA.  A dear friend from California returned unexpectedly to the area due to a death in her family and asked me to accompany her on the drive to return her daughter to York, PA.  The drive time allowed for great catch-up conversation and we reflected on family, relationships, life, health care and friendships. She arranged for us to stay overnight at the Red Lion B & B.  Most of my overnight trips are to places like Fairfield Inns or Courtyards (got to use those Marriott points!).    The B & B was lovely and the owner-couple also run a local bakery-tea room.  Dani, the wife, is an accomplished pastry chef and she prepared a great breakfast of French Toast (I nibbled); fruit cup, bacon and raspberries with cream.  The raspberries were tiny and picked from the garden outside the inn.  We were seated at an outdoor table with a couple who were in the area to attend a Mennonite wedding.  We had a delightful conversation about the wedding, and they shared stories of the ceremony (lots of a capella singing), the food (a sit-down dinner served family style) and the interaction of men and women (apparently not much).  We talked about various ethic wedding and related food customs.  It was the kind of conversation that would not spring forth at a chain hotel, where CNN blares and USA today provides reading material for isolated, silent dining.  

Before heading back so she could catch her flight, we stopped at Brown's Orchard and Farm Market in Loganville, PA; the photo captures part of their nursery operation.   Adjacent to the store is an outlet for Logan's View Winery. 
We browsed and I bought local cherries, zucchini, potatoes and three bottles of wine.  The winery is new, offering its first wines for sale in August 2009.  The grapes are grown on Brown's land and the fruit wines are made with fruit from Brown's orchards.  One of the wines is a cherry one, so I am looking forward to serving it with their cherries as a dessert.  It's a strictly grown and produced local proposition.  I picked up the Brown's newsletter and during the long PA turnpike ride home, I read it.  It was packed with information about local artists, local performances, a feature on all the employees they have named Linda, their 'pick our own' program for fruits, a farm-based summer camp and recipes.   

 I am going to try this one which comes from  

Watermelon-Blueberry Banana Split (Serves 4)

2 large ripe bananas, 8 scoops of watermelon (take out the seeds), 1 pint blueberries, 1/2 cup low-fat vanilla yogurt, 1/4 cup crunchy cereal nuggets or granola ( I think I will use nuts instead)

Cut the bananas crosswise in half, cut each piece lengthwise in half.  For each serving, place 2 pieces of banana against the sides of a long shallow desert dish.  Place a scoop of watermelon at each end of the dish.  Fill the center with blueberries, Stir the yogurt until smooth, spoon over the fruit.  Sprinkle with cereal nuggets or granola. 

I loved this getaway and the fact that the places we patronized were local independent businesses, made possible by American entrepreneurs (and not a McDonald's or Wal-Mart in sight).  Happy Independence Day!   

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Further Musings on Things Mediterranean

Frances Mayes, one of my favorite authors (Under the Tuscan Sun), has a new book  -- Every Day in Tuscany, Seasons of an Italian Life.  It is 20 years since she bought and restored her villa in Tuscany.  This new book has a sadness and a bittersweet reality about it.   Placi, her next door neighbor, is seriously injured.  Primo Bianchi, who was the capable restorer of her Bramasole, has died.  There is a terrorism scare, when a grenade (which turned out to be harmless) is found on her property.   And she is older now.   A grandmother who is enjoying it and thinking about passing on a legacy in words, buildings and experiences to her grandson.
I love her writing.  She has a way of putting words together that moves me, sometimes almost to tears.    Her descriptions of all things Italian and her love affair with the country and its people evoke such strong feelings because they build on and draw out insights from my own life and family.  More than that, I admire someone with the courage to so consciously create a life; and to live life.  
One of my most favorite sections of her new book involves a description of how Italians eat and drink and how it differs from Americans.  She writes, "There's no dreary talk at all about glutens, portion control, fat content or calories.  Eating in Italy made me aware of how tortured the relationship to food is in my country."
She also writes about the modest consumption of wine, and the practice of pouring water into wine, something I remember my uncle doing when I visited him.  Being drunk was an embarassment, and drining too much was simply not done.  I remember my dad telling me more than once that he was never drunk in his life.  It wasn't about drinking; it was about integrating wine into the meal, not overpowering it and not making it an end in itself. 
Her descriptions about hours spent at dinner tables reminds me of memories my dad would relate, with great fondness, of how he would do so too.  And to talk, and to eat, and to talk, and to eat.  Not overeating, not worrying about how much you were eating, just eating to live, as part of being alive. 
I would be a lot better off if I could emulate my dad's approach to food.  He would do things like scrape the icing from the top of a birthday cake.  This struck me as strange; my taste is that the icing is the best part.  And, in the summer, he would eat fruit, lots of it.  He loved figs because I think it reminded him of his youth, growing up in the Abruzzo.  He ate little meat.   He seemed to have an inherent wisdom about eating and food choices that I did not inherit.
I am tired ot thinking about counting carbs and ascribing moral qualities to food choices.  Is there a way to uncorrupt decades of screwed up eating and find a more rational voice within?   

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Italian Garden Project with Cookies Too

Playing semi-tourist at home this weekend, we saw the Pirates beat the Red Sox from great seats with a spectacular view of downtown Pittsburgh on Friday night.  We walked the North Shore pathway along the river past the casino to get to the game, since the tailgate party we attended was about a mile away from PNC Park, but on a very walkable route.  Lots of boats, people walking, dining al fresco to the sounds of a band just off the patios of the casino and even gaggles of ducks, so we had to be careful where we walked.   And on Saturday, we wandered the Strip District and the Public Market, in search of some local produce.  I had forgotten that the Italian Garden Project was sponsoring the Italian Wedding Cookie recipe exchange there on Saturday.  What a treat.  There was an accordion player, and the first song I heard was, 'Lady of Spain', one of my father's favorites.  My dad made me take accordion lessons as a young girl and I was not fond of it.  I wished I could have played the piano like my cousin.  Playing the piano seemed more American and more feminine, although I do not know where we could ever have fit a piano in our small bungalow.  JB tasted from the cookie sampling.  I am not sure where the concept of the cookie table came from; it seems more of an Italian-American than a truly Italian thing.  The photo above includes part of the cookie table from our wedding, with my dad in the background.  Most Italian sweets seem not that sweet to me and kind of dry, except for gelato which has been a highlight of all of my trips to Italy.  Somehow any version I have tasted here in the States never quite measures up to the memories.  
I love the idea of the Public Market and I hope that it survives.  The gathering space for entertainment is small, but it contributes to a piazza-type setting that just doesn't exist much in the States.  It was one of the things that my father often spoke of, the 'town square'.  It is a fixture of Italian life and he truly missed it.  The gathering in a common place, the sharing of daily life, taking the 'passegiata'.  
I had the pleasure of meeting Mary Menniti, the driving force behind the event and the Italian Garden Project.  She gave me her card which reads, "The Italian Garden Project, Nostalgia for Yesterday, Lessons for Today".   I like that -- nostalgia, but with lessons attached.  The Project has been holding monthly events, and there is another one upcoming on July 30 on tomatoes, basil and garlic.  A lesson from Saturday?  Less cookies, more greens. 
See and join in.  

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Airplane Yoga

If you have noticed a paucity of posts lately, it's because I have been traveling this month.  I love to travel; and I know that it's not just the destination that matters, but the journey. But seriously, traveling coach on US Airways is no fun. My usual m.o. is to bury myself in a book and a couple of trashy magazines.  I read "The End of Overeating" by David Kessler M.D. and found it a fascinating read about how our appetites have been manipulated by the culture, the media and food manufacturers so that our bodies and our brains are totally misguided and confused; and a great profile of the newlyweds William and Catherine in Vanity Fair and a wonderfully decadent Spa magazine that made me want to immediately plan my next getaway.   But since "moving" is part of my new m.o.,  I talked myself into experimenting with airplane seat yoga.  I have taken enough gentle yoga, including chair yoga, over the past three years that I figured I could come up with some poses that would incorporate stretching, breathing and relaxation to help me tolerate two cross-country flights.
My yoga teachers, Jen in particular, focuses always and fundamentally on the breath.  She teaches four-count breathing, although I like a five-count.  In and out, rhythmically, it is calming and creates a certain mindfulness.  These are some of the poses I came up with that created more of a relaxing physical experience to complement the escapist and sometimes mindless reading I do in flight.  (OK, the lawyer in me comes out.  I am not an expert and not a yoga teacher.  Do these at your own risk!)
While breathing,
  1. Chin to Chest
  2. Chin to Ceiling
  3. Lower Ear towards the shoulder and use your arm and your head to help with the stretch.
  4. Wrist Circles
  5. Point and Flex the Feet
  6. Spread the Toes
  7. Seated Twists, putting one arm behind your back and and looking over your shoulder, with your other arm on your knee or your armrest
  8. Mini Hip Circles
  9. Open the Tray Table, rest your head on your arms and lean forward as you exhale to get a deeper stretch
  10. Mini Cat and Cows, rolling your shoulders forward and backward
  11. Eagle arms
  12. Raise your arms overhead and stretch
  13. Slide your arms forward down your legs as you bend forward, getting a deeper stretch as you exhale
  14. Pull your bellly into your spine and your spine into your belly.
  15. And for final relaxation, put your seat back and breathe. 
The photo above is of the Napa Valley and was taken from the Wine Train.  A relaxing dinner and ride that included a memorable sunset.  Makes the coach travel worthwhile.