Sunday, November 25, 2012

Tastes of Thanksgivings Past

Living in the present moment is harder to do at the holidays.  There are those decorations accumulated over decades, that bring back memories of holidays past and thanks to our collection of ornaments gathered at countless vacation destinations, vacations around the world.  
And then, well, there's the food.  
This year I cooked.  Really cooked.  With help.  My daughter loves mashed potatoes and took charge of assembling an authentic version.  No skim milk, I can't believe it's not butter facsimile.  She got organic whole milk from Whole Foods, in glass bottles that have to go back to get a deposit refund.   Claiming to be "from grass fed cows on family farms", and mixed with real butter, the mashed potatoes were a hit.  
In Thanksgivings past, when I hosted dinner, I perfected the art (?) of the shortcut.  Stove Top stuffing, boxed gravy, store bought pies, and the infamous green been casserole made with canned fried onions and cream of mushroom soup (light).  
With real mashed potatoes, I vowed to be a bit more authentic this year.
Taking a literal page from the family cookbook (first edition), I made Aunt Edith's 'Zesty Corn Stuffing Balls".  I actually chopped the celery myself.  It was all worth it when my sister-in-law commented, "this stuffing tastes just like your mom's."   It brought back another holiday memory at my other sister in law's house, when she made pasta with sauce.  Upon tasting it, I said, "this sauce tastes just like my mom's".  
"I watched her make it one day and just wrote down everything she did", she said.  It was the real thing.  
Aunt Edith is gone and so is my mom.
Here's the recipe.


1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped celery
4 T butter or margarine
1 17-ounce canned cream style corn
1/2 cup water
1 t poultry seasoning
1/8 t pepper
1 8 oz. package (3 cups) herb-seasoned stuffing mix (I like the plain seasoned croutons)
3 eggs slightly beaten
1/2 cup butter or margarine, melted

In saucepan cook onion and celery in the 4 Tablespoons butter or margarine till tender but not brown.  Add corn, water, poultry seasoning and pepper.  Bring to a boil.  Pour over stuffing mix; toss together lightly.  Stir in eggs.  Shape into seven or eight balls.  Place in a 9x9x2 inch baking pan.  Pour melted butter or margarine over.  Refrigerate if desired.  Bake in 375 degree oven for 25 minutes."

I confess to two shortcuts in this recipe -- the chopped onions came from Whole Foods and I skipped shaping the stuffing into balls, just pressing the mixture into a large baking dish.

It was good -- one serving of stuffing and the real mashed potatoes were quite enough.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Roots, Wings and Tears

Years ago at a home party that my cousin held to support a woman-owned business selling art, I purchased a print that hung in our house when my children were young.  The quote on the print reflected what I thought was one of my core beliefs about parenting.  In lovely hand drawn script, it proclaimed that "There are only two lasting bequests we can leave our children.  One is roots and the other is wings."
What was I thinking??  
The nest is empty.   Really empty.  While at least one child is still in college, you can cling to the notion that you are still tending the nest.  She graduated last May.  They both have truly gotten wings and flown.  Away.  They are both seeking.  Neither seems to be settling or settling in.  My generation had a more structured road or at least an apparent path to follow. 
My two children spent their college years on different coasts; now they are about to be on different continents. 
I find myself ruminating.   Should I have spent more time on the roots part?  Should we have done less traveling and confined our vacations to places like the Jersey Shore, Lake Chatauqua or Niagara Falls?  Should I have drawn a circle on a map like the one described to me by another mother who told her children that their college options were limited to an eight hour drive from home?  
I am shoulding all over myself these days.  Should I have worked less?  Should I have been a better cook, a better housekeeper?  We live in a wonderful city.  Even the National Geographic says so.  
And what does that saying mean anyway?   Does it mean they fly away and remember where they came from?  Does it mean they come back for selected holidays and call home once a week?
I am not handling this well at all.   Intellectually I know they have to go.  And I keep reminding myself that with all of the available technology we are still connected in ways that were not possible just a generation or two ago.  My own father's father died when he was a year old and he was raised by a step mother in a hill town in Italy for reasons I have never fully understood.  She sent him to the local tailor so he could learn a skill and when he was still in his teens, kissed him goodbye and sent him off to America.  She did not see him again for two decades and then it was for the last time.  He bought her a stove and when he went back in later years, a tombstone for her grave.
I find myself wanting to talk to her.  How did you do it?   Did you cry?  Maybe that's just the way it was and she stoically sent him across the ocean in a manner that was common in that era.  There was nothing for him there and she sent him off with hope. 
I find myself reflecting on Khalil Gibran's beliefs.
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.  
They come through you but not from you,
and though they are with you and yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love, but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward, nor tarries with yesterday. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Yoga for Grieving

Last Friday night, I attended a free 'Yoga for Grieving' class at Pittsburgh's Keystone Health Club.  It has a really cool industrial vibe, being located in an old Westinghouse Plant.  From the parking garage, the walkway into the club overlooks the vast expanse of a long-vacated manufacturing plant that once was part of the area's economic backbone.  Now it's just a lot of emptiness except for this jewel of a health club, tucked into a corner of this big open space.  Last June, I saw an ad from a local funeral home (Patrick T. Lanigan) announcing its sponsorship of this class as part of its grief support outreach.  I tucked it away, thinking that some day I would like to attend.  Since the class is only every other Friday night at 7:00 p.m., I kept missing it due to other schedule commitments. 
As part of our yoga teacher training, we are supposed to attend two classes a week.  It helps to observe different instructors and styles of yoga and to see how other studios are organized. 
With nothing better to do, I set off for East Pittsburgh directly from work.  It was not until I put the address into my smartphone that I suddenly realized that the route would take me through Braddock PA.  My parents and maternal grandparents are all buried in the Braddock Catholic Cemetery.   Probably almost a century ago, my maternal grandfather and his two brothers purchased cemetery plots on the same hillside overlooking this old industrial town.  My mother's family included talented stonemasons -- there were family monument businesses in Dravosburg and New Kensington.  The three family headstones are beautiful examples of their work.  My grandparents' is an artful representation of the Agony in the Garden.  My cousin tells a funny story that her mother did not want to be buried in Braddock, but she loved the design of the headstone.  They graciously accommodated her desire to be located in a more upscale city location, Calvary Cemetery, and replicated the exact design in what is now her final resting place. 
Thinking that visiting the cemetery was the thing to do, seeing as I was on my way to a yoga class designed to help grieving people, I arrived at the family gravesite as the sun was nearly setting in the sky. 

I always cry when visiting this place and arrived at the Keystone Commons in an appropriately grieving state of mind.  There are other blog posts on this site where I have reflected on how yoga has helped me occupy my time, mind and body at times of loss.  The class was very gentle, much of it done in a chair.   There was no conversation about loss or grief or mourning.  Just dim lights, calming music and soothing postures. 
Teaching yoga is not something I am sure I can do.  But I could do this kind of class. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

You Really Should (Visit Pittsburgh)

One of my many vices is compulsively searching travel websites.  A recent post on (which used to be, but MS and NBC have apparently divorced, at least online) was taken from  Titled, "9 places you haven't visited, but should", the article by Elissa Leibowitz Poma, listed countries (Zambia, Oman, Singapore, South Korea, Colombia and Armenia), a state park (Valley of Fire) in Nevada and two cities, Chan Chan, Peru and Pittsburgh, PA (no I am not kidding).   
I am truly unlikely to be visiting any of the aforementioned sites soon, except for the one where I make my home, Pittsburgh.
The article, like many of these travel briefs that appear in magazines and websites, provides just a few sentences on each of the nine recommendations.  And for Pittsburgh, after reminding the reader that it is no longer gritty and smoky, thanks to the demise of the steel industry, she highlights the Warhol Museum, Phipps Conservatory and the "historical funicular called the Monongahela Incline".
So, what are the other sites I would add to her list?   On a long trip back from a weekend wedding we attended in Charleston, West Virginia I came up with the following "9 places you should visit in Pittsburgh, if you haven't":

  1. The Maxo Vanka murals at St. Nicholas Croatian Church in Millvale.
  2. PNC Park for a Skyblast after a Pirate Game.
  3. The Nationality Rooms at the Cathedral of Learning.
  4. Wild Rosemary Restaurant.
  5. Pamelas, preferably in Millvale.
  6. The city view from the West End Bridge.
  7. The fountain at Point State Park.
  8. The parking lots before a home Steeler game for an introduction to 'Steeler Nation'.
  9. The River Walk from the Convention Center, across the Seventh Street Bridge and along the river past both PNC Park and Heinz Field.
What's on your list of best places in the 'Burgh?  

Monday, August 27, 2012

Yoga Classes and Catholic Masses

It's been a loooooong summer vacation from this blog.    And I truly want to get back to blogging, to thinking and writing about health and wellness and to doing more about health and wellness.  This summer has been bookended by two awesome vacations, one in early summer that took me to both coasts (Maine and Northern California) with Montana in between and a late summer trek by car to the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. 

They really are smoky!
What is a vacation?   The word shares Latin roots with the words vacancy and vacate, so it has something to do with space, emptiness and openness.   While there has been frantic activity to be sure, especially in Maine and California with kids, moves and San Francisco sightseeing and visiting, there has been much quiet and solitude.   Quiet and solitude as in not doing much of anything.  In both Montana and Tennessee, there was no access to cell phones, newspapers or the Internet.  In Montana, there was no television.  So, lots of reading, thinking and sitting. 
Yet always from my childhood up to today, there is never a vacation from the obligation to attend Sunday (and post Vatican II, Saturday) Mass.  No matter where we were, we found a Catholic Church.  There was no discussion, no debating, no break.  And as a adult with a family of my own, this tradition has continued.   It has made for some challenges.  Try finding a Catholic Church in Salt Lake City or the Cayman Islands.  Since the advent of the Internet and a great website,,  the task has been made much easier.   But what wonderful memories of grand and tiny churches, in places ranging from the Brompton Oratory to Hilton Head.  And on the most recent vacation in Tennessee, the absolute luxury of two Masses (on Sunday and one for the August 15 Feast of the Assumption) that were celebrated right in our rented vacation villa, thanks to two priests who were with our group and vacationing too.   While vacations bring adventure and new places, there is something comforting about finding the universal Church wherever I go.
Lately I have added a new vacation tradition, with taking yoga classes whenever possible while on vacation.  Not as predictably found as Catholic masses and with content not nearly as consistent, I have done yoga in Puerta Vallarta, Puerto Rico, on a cruise ship and on a dude ranch in Montana. 
The photo doesn't do justice to the view from the yoga studio, but you get the idea.
(Note to fellow Yoga Teacher trainees -- the Gatlinburg Tennessee location appears to be woefully underserved.  Wedding chapels abound, but no yoga studios).  I have travel yoga memories now etched in my head, including arising from Savasana this Memorial Day weekend to gently falling snow outside in the Absaroka Mountains in Montana and to rocking on a cruise ship in choppy waters in Alaska trying to keep my balance. 
On vacation, we still eat -- we need to keep those prayer and exercise routines going too! 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Aunt Mary's Secrets of Longevity

Today is my Aunt Mary's 97th birthday.  She has outlived her four sisters (even though two of them lived into their 90s also) and I have been thinking of how her most unique personality has gotten her to this ripe old age.   So these are my thoughts on Aunt Mary's secrets of longevity. 
  1. Don't complain ever, about anything.
  2. Walk everywhere you can.
  3. Don't drive a car.
  4. Don't get married or have kids.
  5. Make friends with a bakery.
  6. Don't ever go anywhere empty handed.
  7. Correspond and especially remember the birthdays of those you love.
  8. Avoid excessive entanglements, especially with doctors.
  9. Don't worry. 
  10. Never stop getting your hair done, permed or dyed. 
  11. Don't talk about yourself.
  12. Always have something to look forward to.
  13. Don't criticize anyone, especially your family.
  14. Leave yesterday behind. 
  15. When in doubt, wear pink. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Is Yoga a Religion? (Part 2)

A family member recently shared a link to a 'Boston Catholic Insider' blog post about the Archdiocese offering a yoga class to staff of its headquarters.  The initial announcement of the class was made by a benefits administrator, attempting to determine interest in holding the class after hours, with fees paid directly by employees to the instructor.  The post's author is scandalized by the offer. 
He (or she) quotes no less an authority than Wikipedia, which states that "The goal of yoga, or of the person practicing yoga, is the attainment of a state of perfect spiritual insight and tranquility while meditating on the Hindu concept of divinity or Brahman.  The word is associated with meditative practices in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism."
I am here to categorically state that the goal of this person practicing yoga is to improve my physical and mental health. 
The post went on to cite writings of the now Pope, but then Cardinal Ratzinger, warning of the dangers of "Eastern" practices, including yoga.  It generated 39 pages of comment, much of it critical of yoga and the hierarchy of the Archdiocese for its apparent lack of understanding of the potential spiritual danger to which it is exposing its employees.  A later post included the text of an email message from the Vicar General of the Diocese (clearly in a higher pay grade than the benefits administrator) confirming that the Archdiocese intends to continue to pursue the yoga class as part of its health and wellness program.  These are among his comments:
"While recognizing the dangers inherent in some spiritual practices of yoga, particularly those that incorporate eastern philosophy, we are no way promoting a false religion, pagan worship, or narcissistic spirituality...I am told that many good and faithful Catholics incorporate this simple and useful form of physical exercise into their workouts.  This type of yoga is apparently also a common part of many physical therapy routines and can offer positive physical results...It is a health and wellness program..."
This second post generated more pages of comments, many of them laced with vitriol against the Vicar General, Cardinal O'Malley, the Archdiocese of Boston and both teachers and practitioners of yoga. 
I have no doubt that there are teachers and practitioners of yoga whose devotion extends to elements of it that are associated with Buddhist and Hindu traditions.  Recently I attended a session on meditation at a retreat for yoga teacher trainees.  The presenter, a trainee herself and a psychotherapist, commented that she sometimes during meditation, liked to picture herself "with my head resting in the lap of the Buddha".  Another participant in the session commented that she found herself "turning to the Rosary" during the meditation practice. 
Yoga, not unlike the Catholic Church, is a very big tent.  There is a range of teachers and styles that is literally mind-boggling.   I have previously shared in this blog my experience of attending a retreat on prayer at a Jesuit Retreat Center given by a Kripalu trained yoga instructor.
This wellness journey of mine has taken me through a Dean Ornish series called the Spectrum, in which every session began with yoga poses and one entire session was devoted to meditation and relaxation techniques shown to have a positive effect on blood sugar and overall health.   Last night I came across a Readers' Digest guide to diabetes that included photos of traditional yoga poses in a series of exercises designed to better control blood sugar.    No chanting, no discussion of sutras or chakras -- just straightforward exercises and breathing techniques that have been shown to improve health of mind and body. 
Yoga has been a positive force for health in my life and I continue to want to learn more and to perhaps show others its benefits.  Can't we all just stay calm and breathe? 

Monday, March 5, 2012

First, Do No Harm (Ahimsa)

Part of our yoga teacher training involves participating in at least two classes a week.  We are encouraged to try different styles and teachers so that we can appreciate and learn from the diversity of instructional methods and yoga 'schools'.  Last Saturday I tried a new studio and a Yoga 1 class taught by a teacher who embraces the kundalini style. It included elements I had not seen before - not just chanting (which almost always unnerves me), but singing; a sequence that included marching in place; and quick movements accompanied by fast breathing exercises. It was different; challenging but energizing.
After class, I met a friend for coffee who lives in the same neighborhood as the studio. She had visited the same studio for a gentle yoga class, but the experience left her in pain and needing two ibuprofens.  She is very fit, but has a shoulder problem.   
When she shared that she had not previously experienced pain as part of a gentle yoga class, it reminded me of the recent New York Times article by William Broad titled 'How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body'.  He is a senior science writer for the NYT; and has a book titled, "The Science of Yoga:  The Risks and Rewards" that is soon to be published.  The article has generated a firestorm in the yoga community.  It speaks of serious injuries (strokes, yoga foot drop and back, knee and shoulder injuries) sustained by even the most careful practitioners of yoga and is critical of under qualified teachers who are oblivious to the needs of their students. 
Teaching is an awesome responsibility.   And while I keep thinking what a significant time commitment it is, the 200 hours of training required to get a yoga teaching credential pales in comparison to that required of most other professions.  I once heard that it takes 10,000 hours (or roughly five years of full-time work) to become truly proficient at a skill. 
And that 200 hours includes time studying theory, including the yoga sutras.  First committed to written form by Patanjali some 200 years A.D., the sutras present timeless principles of daily living.   One of them is called 'ahimsa'. 
Ahimsa is usually translated as non-violence.  It's an expansive concept but fundamentally it encourages us to avoid harming ourselves or others, in actions, speech or even intentions.   
It is giving me great pause as I think of the responsibility of teaching others and the potential that I may have to cause them harm by something I say or do.   And Broad's perspective is making me much more aware of the risks.  Hmmmm. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Dangers of Second Hand Sugar

After being told last year that "Sugar is Poison" by a naturopathic doctor at Canyon Ranch, I have tried to use that as a mantra when faced with a delectable dessert or the prolific office candy dishes full of chocolate treats.  Sometimes repeating the mantra to myself works, but lately more often than not, it doesn't and I succumb to what is placed in my path even if I never intended to.  I know how Eve must have felt. 
So when I saw an ABC News blog post this week with the headline, "Sugar as Dangerous as Alcohol and Tobacco?", it got my attention because of my ongoing attempt to understand my own behavior.  The post reported on an article published in the journal, Nature, in which physicians from the University of San Francisco editorialized their views that sugar should be regulated, in much the same way as alcohol and cigarettes.  They say that "supply side" restrictions have had some success in moderating behavior and preventing some of the harmful health effects of those substances.
I'm all for regulating sugar.  When I worked as a consultant to a health care foundation, our CEO had the sugared sodas removed from the office and restricted the food that could be brought in to the office -- no dumping of excess Halloween or holiday candy or celebrations of birthday parties with cakes.   "We're a health care foundation; we shouldn't be serving donuts."
It is easier to control behavior when the environment in controlled.  Much of the sugar I end up consuming is second-hand.  I eat it because it's there; somebody else put it there.
Anyway tomorrow I am off to another stay at Canyon Ranch; looking forward to a session on sugar addiction.  I need detox. 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Changing Course

One of the axioms in the quality management world is that if you do what you've always done, you get what you've always gotten.  So in an effort to get something different, I am doing something different.  Yoga has become a part of my life and I continue to be drawn to it -- but still not really understanding what "it" is. 
Teaching was part of my professional life for over two decades.  It helped me to understand what I was doing professionally, because I had to explain it to others.  So, I have enrolled in yoga teacher training so that I can add the credential RYT after my name -- and learn.
We are a group of about 20 people with incredibly diverse backgrounds.  I hope to be able to write about this experience as a way of reinforcing it.  We are required to keep a journal and I wrote the following at the end of the first class on January 15.
'Me, a yogi?  And I don't mean bear or Berra!   In the midst of a roomful of beginner students, I feel like a true beginner.  There are people here who are already teachers -- lots of lanky bodies -- no pot bellies the size of mine. 
I paid in full, not just to save the higher cost of installment payments, but to make a commitment. Time to leave today.   Time to start."