Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sweet on Sugar

I was dismayed by an article in last week's Wall Street Journal reporting on new limits on sugar consumption recommended by the American Heart Association.
The Heart Association now says women should get no more than 100 calories, and men no more than 150 calories per day from "added" sugar, the kind found in foods you buy, or drizzled on your grapefruit, or spooned into your coffee. Not because there's anything wrong with sugar--there's no evidence that it contributes in any way to any type of disease--but because people who tend to overeat use a lot of it.

On the other hand, thin and healthy people eat a lot of it, too.  I certainly do. And I'm not the only one--humans have a natural desire for sweet things.  I nursed my three babies for a total of nine uninterrupted years, and I'm grateful that now, post-puberty, they're all allergy-free and quite slender.  But have you ever tasted breast milk? It's pucker-up sweet, and can be 17% fat.  Whole cows' milk is 3% fat.

So we humans naturally crave sweets. How many kids do you know who hate candy?

The Sugar Association, justifiably irate that its product was so arbitrarily assailed, notes in its response to the Heart Association, "Every major systematic review of the body of scientific evidence exonerates sugar as the cause of any lifestyle disease, including heart disease and obesity. In 2002, after its 3-year comprehensive review, the expert panel assembled by the Food and Nutrition Board within the Institute of Medicine at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences stated publicly that the body of scientific evidence did not support the establishment of an upper level (UL) for total or added sugars intake based on data available for dental caries, behavior, cancer, risk of obesity and risk of hyperlipidemia."

In other words, why pick on sugar?  The real problem is obesity!  Obesity is linked with cardiac problems and a raft of other health menaces. But people can get just as fat eating too many raisins or macadamia nuts as they can on sugar. The issue is consuming more calories than the body burns, not their source.  The touted "Mediterranean Diets" supposedly so healthy and life-prolonging, according to the American Heart Association itself, "contain a relatively high percentage of calories from fat. This is thought to contribute to the increasing obesity in these countries, which is becoming a concern."

I definitely agree that downing large amounts of full-sugar soft drinks, at 130 calories a pop [pun], can push one with plumpness-propensity up the girth grid.  But what do people who've internalized sugar-guilt do instead? Guzzle "diet" drinks loaded with chemicals, the long-term safety of which is unknown.  I know people who order Diet Coke with their cheesecake.  Or who sip aspartame-laced drinks all day to keep from eating.  As reported by the New York Times and CBS News, there's evidence that aspartame may be linked to increased risk of cancer. Not so with sugar.

Sugar isn't even particularly fattening. It's got 15 calories per teaspoon. (When I drink coffee, which is not every day, I take two or three teaspoons of white sugar, and a tablespoon of half-and-half.)  But sugar can make a lot of foods more palatable.  Put a teaspoon of sugar in your salad dressing with the vinegar and mustard, and it's yummy, not sharp. Sprinkle just a bit across your veggies, or in a pot of soup, with your regular seasonings to spark them up. (The Sugar Association notes that kids gladly consume a lot more protein and vitamin-rich foods when they're sweet than when they're not.) Will this make you fat? Are you kidding? At 15 calories per teaspoon?

I remember when sugar was the villain for kids, blamed for hyperactivity. That cannard went bye-bye, and now, the American Heart Association is on another anti-sugar kick.  I wish they'd just be direct rather than misleading. People are lazy and don't want to exercise; they're lazy and don't want to cook for themselves; they're lazy and don't want to stop eating their box of crackers.  When the Heart Association tried to attack fast-food outlets (meal choice of the lazy and impatient), that industry struck back effectively.  But what can the individual consumer, told not to eat sugar, do?

I'll tell you: Focus on your body's signals of hunger and satiation.  Eat only when you're hungry, and then enjoy every morsel to the fullest.  Notice as you're eating when you're getting full, and then stop.  Realize that we in this most privileged nation can have any food we want whenever we want it--and use that confidence to liberate yourself from the dictates of all the finger-wagging "authorities" in your life.  Be true to yourself, your body, and enjoy and appreciate it--and concentrate on what you can accomplish with your time and opportunities.  If you follow this simple advice, you will never be obese, and unless your genes won't let you avoid it, you'll never be even fat. This is how French women stay svelte, and how all naturally thin people stay that way.

Now, please pass the sugar.

New Words Needed for Gay Spouses

I'm a stickler about words, being of the "Eats Shoots and Leaves" perspective. Punctuation, too. (Not sentence structure, obviously.) So when today's NYTimes featured a story about married lesbians calling each other "wife," I noticed.

The writer, Sarah Sarasohn, married her spouse 13 years ago. (See, they didn't need any kind of legal re-definition to do it!) But the thing that got me was that she and her mate, the other mother of the children Sarasohn bore, decided that their commitment should be a political statement rather than a personal life situation: "Using the term was about irony and politics." When first married, Sarasohn used the term to be "very in-your-face. It derailed whatever other conversation I was having because I had to explain what I meant by 'my wife.'"

Her concern at the time was that "wife" implied "servant," and that was not her intent.

Let me underscore that I am not objecting to Sarasohn's choosing a life commitment with another woman.  I have views about deeming this "marriage," though, and it's related: blurring the distinction between male and female diminishes the specificity of our language; renders the words ("wife," husband," "marriage") an amoebic goo that makes analysis of our world more difficult.  And analyzing, synthesizing, dissecting the world--ie making judgments--is the essence of intellectual pursuit.

We've already got a gender-neutral word for married partners: spouse. We've also got "partner," not as specific and not necessarily marital. But this is about preserving a descriptor for the unique combination of opposites, male and female.

Why should we preserve these distinctions?  We're just smearing into an amalgm of people anyway, flowing in and out of relationships, some of which happen to have the governmental benefits of marriage, others of which are easier from which to extricate.  Evolution and enlightenment. Broadening definitions so they're not so sex specific, or status-specific is more descriptive of the real world.  But on the other hand--why not expand the vocabulary, rather than contract it?

Perhaps there should be two new words for gay "husbands" and "wives" that more accurately reflect their own unique types of combining.  Their two-of-a-kind of uniting certainly deserves its own special language. Instead of glomming onto the old-fashioned words, the ones that since the start of the English language have meant male and female's joining, with the usual outcome of creating a new generation, gays should be creative enough to find words that reflect their own special sensitivities.  Let "marriage" remain. Then Ms. Sarasohn and other lesbians won't have to worry about the servant-like connotations that "wife" carried, or the bread-winner history that "husband" used to imply.

She and her "wouse" (woman spouse) could be just as "in-your-face" with their own word. Gay men can make a statement referring to their...well, "mouse" is taken.  We've got "domestic partners," but devise a new term for commited gay couples that isn't the gender-linked term "marriage." Leave "wife" and "husband" so we can at least have more choice in language, rather than less.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The One Essential Kitchen Appliance

The economic downturn has left no popular shopping outlet unharmed, and even Costco sends frequent coupon books and circulars.
Because the nearest Costco is about a half-hour away, I schlep over there maybe once a month, or to pick up something, like my kids' contact lenses. But perhaps like many others, I've found lately that I just don't need so much "stuff." My mind-set is more into "divest" than to purchase another cute set of dessert plates (tough for me to resist) or another top to wear (unconscionable given all the "hand-me-ups" from my daughters).

So when I flip through the circular, there's little to lure me lately. But I can't blame any business for trying, and Costco's article pitching their expensive kitchen small appliances with the slant that home cooking precludes exorbitant restaurant bills had me chuckling.  According to Costco, I'll save big (over our five Seattle kosher restaurants...) if only I purchase a stand mixer, a slow cooker, a food processor, a juicer, a pressure cooker and rice cooker.

Well, I agree on the food processor; I use my huge Cuisinart DLC-XP (a very old version) to mix bread dough, shred blocks of cheese, and whir cucumber soup every week when preparing for the 12-24 guests at our Shabbat tables. And because of Shabbat restrictions on cooking, my crock pot is required for winter soups (which start cooking before Shabbat; you leave the pot on until it's over).

But if somebody asked, "What's the most useful tool you use for cooking?" what would you say?

As I was spreading olive oil on a pan-ful of bruschetta, I realized the answer: my hands. Often better than a spatula, funnel, scoop or many types of blenders; usually the only way to accomplish my end (eg. braiding challah), I use my hands and fingers for nearly every role in food prep.  And I don't need to buy them at Costco.

A few months ago, I injured my wrist while working out with those (stupid) heavy straight bars in a class at the gym.  Until I recovered, I couldn't even use my Cutco knives without pain. Imagine making fancy meals for a crowd and not being able to cut with a knife? (Yes, it renewed my gratitude and awe for the truly amazing, humans-only abilities of our hands.)

If you pressed me on my favorite and most useful electrical kitchen appliance, other than my Cuisinart, I'd have to $10 immersion blender.  I don't mind that it's corded. I make milkshakes in their cups, and cream soups in their pots, and whip cream in a jiffy.  I've got a hand mixer from 1970 (original box!) that works dandy, but I can't think of anything else electric that I use at all (OK; microwave oven, but I don't count that).

We're spoiled.  We've removed the "ewww!" factor from everything and now have to rent storage lockers for all the machines we "need." The reaction in the kitchen is the "slow food" movement and the rediscovery of Julia Child. In days of recession, there's a new chic-ness to cheapness, and process is once again right up there with product.

Though I wish Costco rebounding profit, on this busy Friday I've got to get back to kneading and basting and braising. We've got out-of-town guests coming...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What's on God's Mind? Not Sure...

Just in time for the Jewish month of Ellul, which is the "prep month" for the somber and even scary High Holidays, a friend brought to my attention a hilarious, primitively-animated video that asks some pretty deep questions about Christianity.

It basically questions why God would bother to come to earth if He didn't want to significantly improve life for His creatures. Having just completed a very lengthy, intensive study of the Jewish scriptures collected in the "book" of The Twelve Prophets ("Trey Assar"), which contains some pretty strange stuff, it occurred to me that some of the same questions could be asked about them. Here they are able to convey to man anything God wants us to know (and there were thousands of these guys; only timeless prophecies are preserved) and yet God just didn't want us to have some pertinent information that could have made earthly life better and easier, and more in line with what God did suggest He wants for/from us.

This time of year, Jews use the metaphor that "the King is in the Field," ie, the King (God, obviously) doesn't make His subjects come to Him in His castle; rather, He's especially accessible to those who approach, coming out to their turf. What this means for us is that our solemn accounting of our actions and our heartfelt repentances will be more graciously received. I'd also like it to mean that it's easier for us to face our own mental and psychological housecleaning.

But the big deadline is Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year, anniversary of when the first man spoke), when our fate for the coming year is determined. It's then "sealed" ten days later, on Yom Kippur. Oh, we do have through the holiday of Hoshana Rabah to really, really, really repent, and for God to modify the verdict, but the actual decision happens with the Jewish New Year, the first of the Jewish month of Tishrei, which this year synchs to the solar calendar as sundown, September 18.

So, here I am, trying to make the most of this prep month, when the shofar, or ram's horn trumpet, is blown every day to wake us out of our spiritual stupor, and questions I repress just jump in front of my face. The ones raised in the YouTube (regarding the prophets, and other issues) are mere samples of the ongoing discussion I have with the Deity.

But conveniently, I do happen to be Jewish, and questioning and delving and confusion and "breaking one's teeth" over illogic and inconsistency is the "stuff" of this religion. Our sages are known for their questions (What's bothering Rashi?) and our leaders must justify any decisions and answers they offer, based on precedent and earlier sources. The rather bothersome bottom line for me, however, is that ultimately, we humans still have too many questions that are unresolvable.

So, is it better just to give up and enjoy a secular life? Or to be agnostic and admit that yes, there could be God, but it's impossible to know for sure what He wants? Or, to seek closeness through a particular religion? I do think that God desires the flourishing of several major religions, and probably doesn't want people killing each other over doctrinal differences (eg Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence). But then again, what do I know? It's a personal thing; each individual's relationship, or lack thereof, with God is as idiosyncratic as our affinities for particular foods or hobbies or people.

But when you try to live according to Jewish law, there's no escaping the questions. Take a look at the video and let me know what you think.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Soulmates: Milton and Rose Friedman

I always cry over a good love story. Right now I'm in tears over the end of one about Rose and Milton Friedman.

Milton and Rose were married 68 years, partners in every sense. They'd met in Professor Jacob Viner's 1932 Economic Theory class at the University of Chicago; she the daughter of Jewish immigrants who'd escaped their Russian village of Charterisk just ahead of World War I, settling in Portland, Oregon; he a native of Rahway, New Jersey who'd never been west of the Delaware River.

They were seated alphabetically, Rose Director next to Milton Friedman. Their romance flourished, but they waited six years to marry, on June 25, 1938, until they were confident that they could be securely self-reliant financially. It was this staunch belief in independence and initiative that echoed throughout their professional collaboration, books, articles, presentations in the field of economics that shaped generations of policy and set thousands of young people, usually without their realizing it, off to create their fortunes. They promoted freedom and options--especially in the field of school choice, and millions came to understand the value of enterprise, and its role in fostering synergy and advancement through their co-written 1980 book, later to become a 10-part PBS TV series, "Free to Choose."

When my husband was writing his new book on business, he asked me to find and transcribe a famous little musing by Milton that capsulizes the astounding impact of economic cooperation--and underscores why any impediments to such associations (eg taxes, lobbies, unions) chop the creative spirit and stifle progress.

Sitting casually in front of the camera, Milton Friedman contemplates a pencil--and the hundreds, even thousands of people whose work had a role in producing and bringing it to his hand. The illustration inspires profound gratitude for the efforts of others, and a respect for the industriousness that seeks success and reward for providing things we need and desire.

Rose, meanwhile, didn't seem to mind that her husband was more in the spotlight. According to a statement by the Friedman Foundation, "Milton acknowledged Rose as having been a crucial partner in nearly all his economic and public policy work. And, in addition to her many other accomplishments, Rose had the distinction of being the only person ever known to have won an argument against Milton Friedman."

The couple called their joint 1998 memoir "Two Lucky People." "We've had our ups and downs--the downs early, the ups later," they write, "but our love and confidence in each other was strengthened and deepened by the downs as well as by the ups." During the years, the couple was often photographed holding hands.

The love between them produced two children, Janet and David, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, as well as a banter that gives hope to all who believe love can endure. In a July, 2006 Wall Street Journal interview, the Friedmans answered reporter Tunku Varadarajan's question, "Had it helped their marriage -- [then] in its 68th year -- that they are both economists? Rose (nodding affirmatively): 'Uh-unh. But I don't argue with him . . . very much.' Milton (guffawing): 'Don't believe her! She does her share of arguing . . .' Rose (interrupting): '. . . and I'm not competitive, so I haven't tried to compete with you.' Milton (uxoriously): 'She's been very helpful in all of my work. There's nothing I've written that she hasn't gone over first.'"
At left is a photo of the couple waltzing at the news of Milton's 1976 Nobel prize.

Milton died on November 16, 2006 at 94. Rose joined him two days ago, on August 16, age 98. The conclusion of these remarkable entwined lives evokes in me the same indescribable emotion of a wedding--deep sentiment inspired by the melding of two opposites--male and female--into one superior combination. Soulmates forever.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Don't Diss JC Penney's

These are the mannequins in the window of the brand-new JC Penney store in Midtown Manhattan. Look at them.

Here's what the New York Times' "critical shopper," Cintra Wilson, says about them in her Thursday Styles piece of a few days ago: Penney's "has the most obese mannequins I have ever seen. They probably need special insulin-based epoxy injections just to make their limbs stay on. It's like a headless wax museum devoted entirely to the cast of 'Roseanne.'"

In what I consider the most needlessly cruel "review" of a retail store ever, Ms. Wilson finds two dozen ways to insult the bedrock American institution and its intrusion into the home of "the stress-thin, morbidly workaholic, Pilates-tortured Manhattan ectomorph." God forbid.

Now, I feel sorry for JC Penney's. Not just because of the mean comments, but because it's trying so hard to stay afloat. As a capitalist, I realize that only businesses that can appeal to customers and make a profit deserve to survive. But Penney's decided to take the bold move and open a Midtown store, and snobby urbanites who think the millions of customers grateful for a JC Penney's in their disparate communities are worthless ought to just button up long enough to see if the venture can succeed on its own terms.

Admittedly, my middle daughter won't even peruse the sale racks in our local JC Penney's; its reputation is that low. But truly, she's missing something. The aggressive sales ads and coupons and, frankly, reasonable prices, have lured me in often. Nowhere are there cheaper and better flat shoes that are actually cute. And they have wardrobe basics like t-shirts and underwear and even suits that can be so well-priced that I wonder how the items can be made and still produce profit.

If you're catty, and you're very fashion-conscious, and New York centric, you may just read the NYT screed and giggle. Yes, there are some nuggets that are true about JC Penney's frumpy image ("Why would this dowdy Middle American entity waddle into Midtown in its big old shorts and flip-flops without even bothering to update its ancient Helvetica Light Logo...?"), and its attempts to offer mild style at low cost ("A good 96 percent of the Penney's inventory is made of Polyester.") but some of us don't want to waste wads of money on ephemeral purchases and actually appreciate a store where there are few pretenses.

And I don't think the mannequins are fat at all.

OK, it's true, you can't find very many size 2 outfits there (ok again, I am a size 2) but I love JC Penney's, and I love wandering down to the napkin rings and table settings, always on sale, and the lingerie where fun print bras can be found for $10. I use their luggage. I like their bedding. And my beloved optometrist has his office in Penney's basement.

So there. You take Manhattan. I'll take JC Penney.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Keep Your Health Plan? Not Likely, Pres. Obama

The question was posed by a caller to my fave radio talk show: Why does Obama want everyone to be part of a massive national health care plan?

The query came as the result of the host's explanation of the dishonesty in the way Obama is presenting his complete restructuring of health insurance and care in America.

Obama says that no one will be forced to drop his health plan. But 60% of Americans, according to 2008 census data, have coverage provided by an employer. Under Obama's proposal, employers who want to continue to provide it can--costing them typically several thousand dollars per year per employee. That's why health care is considered such a great perk.

On the other hand, if they choose NOT to insure their employees, employers with annual payrolls of more than $400,000 pay a "penalty" of 8% of wages to the government under the House plan, or just $750 per worker under the Senate plan. What would an employer rather do--pay several thousand for a health package, or a fee of just $750?

Businesses who now offer their employees health care would surely dump the hassling with insurance carriers, and substantially lower their expenses by ending the insurance perk, funneling their workers into the government plan (perhaps kicking and screaming).

And this is exactly what Pres. Obama wants. In fact he needs those millions of formerly employer-covered workers to enter his vast national plan to lower costs! The larger the pool, the wider the risk is spread, the less the whole enterprise costs. And productive employees--presumably the most healthy among us--are the ones footing the bill for the disabled and those with pre-existing conditions that Obama wants taxpayers to cover. Corralling as many healthy wage-earners as possible into the system expands its base, getting the government bigger discounts from its providers of everything from medicines to nursing.

And when independent, for-profit insurers fold, as they eventually must when they can't survive against taxpayer-subsidized competitors, then the government can set prices just the way it wants to. After all, Medicare now sets prices for all sorts of services and procedures. Are they fair? You'd have to ask health care providers. I've heard that docs who still accept Medicare have to make up for losses by charging higher fees to others. One thing I do know, however, is that the huge bureaucracy created by Medicare is just a smidgen of the paperwork and frustration that would face everyone if the government took over health services for every citizen across the country.

My point is that Pres. Obama's mantra that his plan keeps "government out of health care decisions, giving you the option to keep your insurance if you're happy with it," is intentionally sneaky and wrong. With the underlying philosophy that government should not only grow, but federalize functions that have always been local and personal (education, health care), Obama does not want you to "keep your insurance if you're happy with it," and is doing everything possible to force employers who offer insurance to their workers to shift them to his national plan.

If you've got your insurance through work, and suddenly, your boss says it's not available due to government penalties or Obamacare forcing the provider out of business--what happens to your "option to keep your insurance"? And so everyone quietly enters the nationalized network, or pays extravagantly for "concierge care" from the maverick docs who buck the system.

Once nationalized programs are in place, what will young collegians do: choose careers in medicine, where their entrepreneurial zeal will be squelched by set government limits, or head into business? Ahh, but then there's that nifty "surcharge" successful go-getters will pay, as high as an extra 5.4% beyond the elevated taxes on the horizon.

Margaritaville doesn't sound so bad. Given the agenda of present leadership to federally provide everything we need, we won't have to wait too long for the government to replace our lost shaker of salt.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

"Julie and Julia:" Not Really About Food

Bon appetit! The ringingly melodic inflection of Julia Child is almost a self-parody, but when my friend appeared at my door today with the sing-song greeting, we collapsed into peals of knowing laughter. Last week we went to a screening of "Julie and Julia."

What a great movie. I kept hearing my friend's guffaws. She kept glancing over to see the tears sliding down my cheeks. Together, we're an extremely emotional duo.

The film is about several things: finding one's voice, one's direction, one's passion. Two loving marriages that deepen with time and communication. Actually, most of the film is about communicating, and the medium is words but also food. There's perhaps a bit too much explaining the emotional significance of ingredients and preparation, when simply watching the women's interaction with it might have better sufficed. But Julie (Amy Adams), the blogger, uses her words not to describe as a picture, but as part of the therapeutic process of conquering a task, of surmounting obstacles and meeting a deadline. Julie is a writer; Julia (Meryl Streep) is a cook, a connoisseur. Julie is self-centered, as bloggers tend to be; Julia is product centered, and because of it comes across as the better-rounded, more observant and perhaps more romanticized of the two.

After all, she lives in Paris. And revels in the locale, immersing herself in its sensual offerings. Julie lives in Queens over a pizza store and works at an insurance provider; she uses food almost as a means of negating her world.

But this film is, to me, as much about time and times as it is about the characters. I wasn't alive for post-War Paris, though when I finally came there, I was as enthralled as Julia was, wandering to all the sights in the Michelin Green Guide, a process of several weeks. But this was before cell phones and Internet and digital cameras. Long before 9-11, the event that changed America's perception of itself and thrust the film's Julie into her job filing insurance claims for its victims. The Paris of today is a changed milieu, rocked by Muslim riots, and immigrants wearing Islamic garb increasingly populating its suburbs. Julia experienced its quaint shops within the protection of a diplomatic context that allowed her to experiment luxuriously while finding her calling.

Julie lives in a time when such isolation is impossible. Competition, thanks to women's liberation, is intense and early. Julie's friends with their obnoxious cell phones and Blackberries drive her into a funk, but also motivate her--to the new, narcissistic medium of blogging--as a means to advancement. This is not about "finding something to dooooo," as Julia considers her dilettantism; it's about validating herself. Nowadays, women cannot be complete as supportive wives; we must also achieve in stellar careers. The contrast between the two women's eras struck me: Julia serendipitiously discovered her calling and was thrilled to see it develop; Julie began with a self-definition as a writer, and felt finally legitimized when her blog led to a feature in the New York Times. Of the two time periods' mindsets, Julia's is the more appealing. But I identify more with Julie's; pity.

Reviews of this movie often mention that while both women enjoy loving marriages, food provides each a menage et tois. I disagree. While Meryl Streep does a marvelous "mmmmm!", this is not a cookbook shoot or her TV show. The sights center on the women's worlds, not their pans and casseroles, and I'm glad for it, since food is intimate, involving fragrance as much as sight and taste. And most audiences consider a camera's caress of beaten egg a bit too slow.

Now, I get down and dirty with food a lot. I prepare Shabbat meals, fancy dinners and lunches for tablefuls of 12 guests, just about every week. I make challah from scratch, nearly every week. Meals start with wine, bread, soup, vegetarian main course, three side dishes and desserts...and must be prepared the day before, no last minute cooking. I laugh every year when mags feature spreads coaching Thanksgiving prep--for me, Thanksgiving's a breeze, because I can actually turn on my oven!

Julie's deadline of making 524 recipes in a year is hardly daunting to the woman who makes probably a thousand more, has complicated rules about heating them up, and serves them in her best clothes. I was lucky this week; my daughter's friend was visiting and volunteered to check the broccoli. If you know what that means, you're probably smiling.

So Julie and Julia was more about finding identity than food, the handy device that enabled the story. The ultimate question must be--whose life contained more joy? Julie's story continues, and I know little about it, but from Nora Ephron's snapshot and Meryl Streep's portrayal, I'd rather emulate Julia's gusto for life outside herself than Julie's self-centered ruminating, any day.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Thrill of the Blue Angels

Once a year, residents of the number one summer American vacation destination thrill and squeal when the sky rumbles and shrieks. They croon when the water rustles from booming churners, and sway as aerial somersaults tumble hundreds of feet nearly on their heads.

A Jabberwocky experience? No, Seafair weekend in Seattle.

Heart be still. No, keep palpitating! It's too excruciatingly exhilarating, too endlessly enthralling! Millions of people, all craning, jumping, waving and cheering, over at least a dozen square miles, at the same time, cameras snapping, video cameras whirring...

The floating bridge I-90 freeway that spans from downtown Seattle across Lake Washington is completely closed down. All along the southern-most shores of the 22-mile-long lake, terracing up on island and community hillsides, people perch, sparks of excitement binding them like timber ready to crackle.

The buzz is faint at first, growing louder. It's slow old Fat Albert Airlines, the Marines' propeller support craft that does loops and turns around the Lake, the City, the Sound, alerting the eager minions that the Blue Angels will soon appear. As the plump plane scoops low overhead, the crowds jump. We love Fat Albert, the endearing prelude so close we can throw kisses.

Fat Albert descends behind the Duwamish ridge, and it's silent as all search the skies and strain to hear and see them first. Suddenly: "Across the Lake!" Six small dots, approaching, nearly touching, promising. "There they are!"

So quick, so unified and tight, six deep blue Boeing F/A-18 Hornets with "US Navy" in yellow on their bellies, sneak up and pounce, their faster-than-the-speed-of-sound approach startling all with the thundering "zoom" rattling the sky overhead. They zip low to the lake, in unison emitting a trail of white smoke, souvenir of their ownership of the water, the heavens, and our ecstatic hearts.

Whether standing with neighbors on the crest of a hill a few blocks from home (as I was Friday for their practice), or gathered in a Seattle beach park with picnickers and bathers floating on inflatable rafts (as I was today), the childlike wonder, the joyous camaraderie perceiving and gawking at the feats and power of the Blue Angels binds Seattle in unique rapture.

We ooh, ahh, and applaud together. We leap to our feet and scream as the sextet of synchronized machines snarls mightily above, so close we are united in astonishment. We congratulate each other on being quick enough to catch them in our lenses, at keeping them within viewfinder, they dip and weave and drop and part, to altitudes so high they become nearly invisible; and skims so low we instinctively duck.

They loop in a line; they meet from divergent points and nearly collide, only to splay out, jet streaming a flower in the sky. They squiggle; they zip toward each other from opposite directions and when you fear they must explode, two shift sideways--a near miss! While five circle 'round, one twirls over and over and over until spectators are dizzy; the five return and leap straight up to the stratosphere, curling backward in a sky-flip. For more than an hour, we stand agog, turning toward sound, reeling from surprises, awed by audacity.

Though I have yet to attend Seafair's fabled Hydroplane races, I hear the powerful craft that, due to new turbo engines merely blare rather than startle. Seattleites harbor nostalgic fondness for the old days, but the adrenaline still flows at the low-slung craft that can beat 150 mph. One-fourth of residents own a boat, and many of them are moored just outside the raceway perimeter; in fact, Lake Washington is hull to hull with anchored fans seeking the perfect view.

The hydroplanes and Blue Angels are followed by the airshow, and as we drove the floating bridge home, we gaped at stunt pilots' flits, corkscrews, dives and swirls.

Seafair has its mascots, too, a swashbuckling crew that drives a wheeled facsimile of a pirate ship, sword-wielding mateys with eye-patches, bandannas, beards and a penchant for words containing R-r-r-r-r! Our daughter was driving on the I-5 freeway when the ship pulled aside and the captain bade her roll down her window. With the whiz of the freeway, he offered her free tickets to Seafair, gesturing to pull off at the next exit. She waved him on, ambivalent though many events, including the concert and fireworks, coincided with Shabbat. Rrrrrats!

As I watched the Blue Angels, surrounded by happy families, it occurred to me that I was part of a wonderfully special spirit. Never in Los Angeles, my hometown, was there an annual community mania that bound together so many neighbors. Seattle has a sense of place, of closeness (sometimes snobbery) that is delightfully apparent. Then I got to many other cities, states--even countries--enjoy something similar? And once again, I am eminently grateful to be born here, in this beautiful land, with this luxious summer, and the connection that lifts our eyes and our hearts heavenward.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Sweltering and Suffering...Tisha b'Av in Seattle

I was thinking of writing this since Thursday, but it was far too hot to sit upstairs in front of my computer.

On Wednesday, July 29, the thermometer on my balcony, and the one showing the outside temperature when driving in my car, both read 105 degrees. For hours. The thermometer on my patio, where the sun bounces off the pavement, read 112. The official Seattle temperature that day, 103 was the hottest ever recorded. That's ever.

We do not have air conditioning in our home. The air conditioning in my car was broken, until Wednesday, when I got it fixed, costing $629. Worth every penny.

On Wednesday night, the members of my synagogue quietly filed into our non-air-conditioned building for observance of the saddest day of the Jewish year, Tisha b'Av. That's the day God designated for punishment, for sadness, and tragedies throughout history, including the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, occurred on that day. The Ninth of the Jewish lunar month of Av is a 25-hour no-food and no-drink fast culminating three weeks of mourning, increasing in intensity, during which time joyful events and even minor sources of pleasure (e.g. swimming, listening to music) are curtailed.

But the sorrow crescendo'd on the hottest day in Seattle history, when we sat on the floor in a stifling synagogue and listened to the book of Lamentations read in a low dirge. Was it perspiration or tears dripping from the solemn faces of the congregants?

Thursday, along with Jews worldwide, we donned our old clothes and non-leather shoes, and again, sat no more than about 12 inches from the floor. Summer days are gloriously long in Seattle, and our mouths could take no liquid until about nine-thirty at night. That includes brushing teeth. The prospect of no liquid while profusely perspiring was daunting.

But then I recalled twice having Tisha b'Av in Jerusalem, where summers are always sweltering. One, shortly after I was married, was spent hiking the circumference outside the walls of the Old City. We broke that fast at a restaurant called Benny's Dagim (Fish), still open. Unfortunately, the agony of Tisha b'Av lasted another two days as the water in Israel--which we had consumed by the pitcher-ful after a day of gruesome heat--contained micro-organisms that gave us the most excruciating intestinal malaise, called "shil-shul," or "the chain" (aka Monetzuma's Revenge) since its victims are chained to the toilet.

Two years ago, we again experienced Tisha b'Av in Jerusalem, walking with silent crowds converging from the streets to the kotel (Western Wall), for Jews the center of the world. It's an amazing thing to share a communal emotion in the place where the Temple once stood, since now the Mount is occupied and directed by The Supreme Muslim Council, the PLO Waqf, whose excavating of the most holy Jewish spot in the world has resulted in piles of precious debris, trucked off-site. The sense of tragedy is constant and unspoken there. The warm Tisha b'Av evening is heavy with loss.

Seattle is not accustomed to hot weather; air conditioning is considered extravagant, given that only a handful of days per year surpass 80 degrees. But on Tisha b'Av this year, we truly suffered. Well, not necessarily. A friend whose home does have the extravagance hosted our Thursday Torah class, where we learned to wish friends a "successful fast" rather than an easy one, and where I gave over an excellent piece from "Tisha b'Av To Go" issued by Yeshiva University. We ladies sat on the floor around the coffee table, lingering in the refrigerated air as long as possible.

Our house was like a sauna, so my daughter and I decided to go to the mall. No purchasing, just strolling through the air conditioning. But it's torture passing stores with big "Sale!" signs and not buying, so we endured some dripping-wet hours at home, and finally made a supermarket run to prepare for the break-fast. What they say about shopping when hungry--or thirsty--is true. I bought lettuce, cucumber, juice, milk, and seltzer water. That was it.

When the fast concluded, we drank. Those wonderful gulps that finish with a painful palate from dehydration.

And then...the weather turned. Softly, the leaves stirred on their branches. The wind-chime made a lilting melody. We sat outside in the moving, cooling air marveling at the change, from the claustrophobic thickness of enveloping heat to the soothing, gentle, more bearable warmth.

Was it a coincidence that Tisha b'Av came on the hottest day ever in Seattle? Could be...