Baked Alaska and a Book

Recipe for A Perfect Wife

         This month’s recipe was inspired by a book.   Recipe for a Perfect Wife, by Karma Brown, is a quirky look at the lives of two newly married women living in the same suburban house sixty years apart – Nellie, a typical 50’s housewife, who is trying to get pregnant, and Alice, a reluctantly transplanted New York City writer, who is trying not to.    Told in alternating voices, Nellie 1956 and Alice 2018, with quotes of outdated advice at the beginning of each chapter and lots of 50’s recipes, it’s an interesting look at marriage, then and now.     

Link to the publishers/GoodReads review.   

       This book appealed to me because of it’s unique format, plus I thought it would nice to read about what life was like for my mother’s generation – my mother had 4 children under the age of 7 by 1960.  (It’s exhausting just thinking about that.)   The book was immensely readable, but not quite the light fluffy read I had expected.   While it started out okay, it soon took a dark turn and ended up with a strange ending.   I didn’t really like any of the characters, dishonesty seemed to be a common trait – hard to base a marriage on that, even  back then when people often didn’t know each other well before becoming engaged.    Of course the author was trying to make a point, and it would make an excellent choice for a book club discussion.   You could even make some of the 50’s recipes like Baked Alaska.   I always like it when the book club dessert matches the book club selection.   

       My recent Hermit Cookies blog, sparked a discussion about family cookbooks, Betty Crocker and Fannie Farmer being old favorites, although my mother’s bible was the Purity Flour Cookbook.   Growing up on a farm in the 60’s, my family meals were invariably our own home-grown vegetables and meat, and of course no meal was complete without a potato.    No rice or noodle casserole dishes for us, and spaghetti was simply pasta doused with a can of Campbell’s tomato soup.   My mother did not experiment with recipes like Tuna Noodle Casserole or Chicken A La King because my dad and brothers would simply not have eaten them, and I myself was a picky eater, although she did make a good meatloaf and macaroni and cheese with bread crumbs on top. 

Tuna Noodle Casserole

garnish with a layer of potato chips?

For many modern housewives that era saw the ushering in of convenience foods, instead of made from scratch.   Although we had boxed cake and brownie mixes, my mother made enough homemade pies and tarts to feed a threshing crew and just once that glorious Sixties Desert – Baked Alaska. 

Perhaps I remember this momentous event because of it’s rarity.   It was not for a special occasion, but simply on a summer evening, a couple of hours after supper to ensure that no one was too full for dessert.   If you go to all that trouble, you want to make sure your masterpiece is appreciated.

     For those of you unfamiliar, Baked Alaska is basically a mold of frozen ice cream and cake, smothered with a layer of toasted meringue.

Baked Alaska

Baked Alaska

   Although both my (2009 reissued) Purity cookbook recipe and the one in the book, call for white sponge cake and strawberry ice cream, my mothers version was reminiscent of this Martha Stewart creation, with chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream.   

Baked Alaska

It was a marvelous sight to behold, with the meringue all puffy and peaked, and who would believe you could put ice cream in the oven!   Perhaps I also remember it as chocolate cake was always my birthday choice growing up.   

      Baked Alaska can be complicated, if you want to mold it into a perfect dome shape, or use tea cups to make individual portions as in this Martha Steward recipe which calls for strawberry and vanilla gelato and of course, being Martha, she’s making the cake from scratch.   What exactly do you do with all those separated egg yolks? 

Baked Alaska

But it can also be easy if you just cut your cake and ice cream in a slab, layer it up, freeze it hard, and then smother it with meringue, as per this recipe in my mother’s 1965 version of the Purity cookbook.  

Baked Alaska

Maybe not as fancy as the dome-like creation, but wouldn’t it be the same thing?   I even wondered about using a carton of liquid egg whites but some sources said the heat from the pasteurization process would negatively affect the egg proteins.   (Cream of tartar is included as an acidic stabilizer to keep the proteins in the egg whites from sticking together thus enabling a smoother stiffer consistency.   Alternatives are lemon juice or white vinegar.)  

So, I did a grocery run yesterday and bought a carton of liquid egg whites, and decided to experiment last night, and they whipped up just fine.   I used lemon juice as I couldn’t find any Cream of Tartar at the store.

I forgot to buy cake, so I used two portions of Mug Cake mix from the pantry, not the best idea as the shape was not ideal and there wasn’t enough cake.

Baked Alaska

I froze two portions of vanilla ice cream in teacups (a la Martha above), and assembled them over the cake, and then added the meringue. 

It wasn’t bad, but plenty sweet.   I made the mistake of putting the assembled product including the meringue in the freezer for about ten minutes (as it said you could), while I cleaned up the mess, but I wouldn’t do that again, as it made the meringue hard and cold, and then it took too long to brown and by the time I took it out the ice cream was melting.   Better to just put it in the oven as soon as it’s assembled.   Of course I also stopped to take a few pictures, so that didn’t help.  

If I was to make it again for a crowd, I’d do the slab cake, and maybe strawberry and chocolate gelato, which isn’t as sweet.   Maybe when I can have people over again and hold a book club under the trees.   It’s so brutally hot here this week, 35 C (95 F) and 42 (106 F) with the Humidex, that any ice cream served outside would melt lickety-split.  

 Despite my love of all things vintage, especially fashion, I don’t think I would have wanted to live in the fifties –  it seemed very much a man’s world.   I posed that question to my mother, and she said – it seemed okay at the time.  Like many things, some decades are best viewed through a veil of nostalgia.     I’ll leave you with some marriage advice quotes from the book – relics from the past….    

Vintage 50's Marriage Advice

Vintage 50's Marriage Advice

Vintage 50's Marriage Advice

Vintage 50's Marriage Advice

 

Postscript:   Have you ever made Baked Alaska?

The Literary Salon: Secondhand – To Have and Have Not

Cleaning out – that’s what many of us have been doing, making productive use of our time during our COVID staycations.   No matter that there’s nowhere to take the stuff now that the dump, Goodwill and thrift stores are all closed and the whole idea of holding a garage sale is frankly horrifying.  Somehow the idea of pawing through someone else’s junk/germs is not very appealing, when even the library is quarantining returned books for 72 hours before disinfecting them for re-circulation.  I did my annual house purge back in  snowy January and the stuff is still sitting in the basement and the gardening items are still in the garage, set aside for the spring horticultural sale, long cancelled. 

    So, I wasn’t much interested, when in my first curbside pickup of library books, there was one I had ordered eons ago – Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale – by Adam Minter.     But after I had read it, I thought – where were you last winter when I needed you!      

Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage SaleSecondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

Publishers Blurb:

Decluttering. A parent’s death. Sooner or later, all of us are faced with things we no longer need or want. But when we drop our old clothes and other items off at a local donation center, where do they go? Sometimes across the country-or even halfway across the world-to people and places who find value in what we leave behind.

In Secondhand, journalist Adam Minter takes us on an unexpected adventure into the often-hidden, multibillion-dollar industry of reuse: thrift stores in the American Southwest to vintage shops in Tokyo, flea markets in Southeast Asia to used-goods enterprises in Ghana, and more. Along the way, Minter meets the fascinating people who handle-and profit from-our rising tide of discarded stuff, and asks a pressing question: In a world that craves shiny and new, is there room for it all?

Secondhand offers hopeful answers and hard truths. A history of the stuff we’ve used and a contemplation of why we keep buying more, it also reveals the marketing practices, design failures, and racial prejudices that push used items into landfills instead of new homes. Secondhand shows us that it doesn’t have to be this way, and what really needs to change to build a sustainable future free of excess stuff.

 Why I Liked it:   

This is not one of those how to declutter/reorganize/change your life  manuals, but rather it’s an eye-opening look at what really happens to the unwanted stuff you donate.   It certainly motivated me to rethink my “possession of things” in ways that those other books did not.   Maybe it’s the current COVID crises and morbid thoughts of sudden death, but really in the end, it’s all just stuff and you can’t take it with you.   So keep what you use and enjoy and get rid of the rest, and try not to buy as much in the future!

    The author, Adam Minter, has done a great deal of research into the global secondhand industry, and being himself the descendant of junkyard owners,  is well qualified to tell the tale.  He also wrote Junkyard Planet-Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade, a 2013 bestseller. 

    Much of the book involves his travel in places like Mexico, Southeast Asia and Africa – countries where the secondhand economy thrives, and where the stuff which doesn’t sell here is often destined.   That old saying, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, is true.   While there’s a widely circulated theory that by sending our clothes and electronic waste to third world countries we are harming their homegrown economies, the author debunks that myth.   While undeniably some of it does end up in the dump, much of it is recycled and repaired to be resold to people who would otherwise have nothing.   The author follows a container of discarded computers, cell phones and tube TVs to Africa and it’s thriving electronic repair shops – shops who would much rather have older recycled goods than new cheaper ones because they last longer and are made better.   In one story, Greenpeace installed a GPS tracking device on a discarded TV in a shipment bound from England to Africa and then send a reporter to reclaim it at the other end, thus proving, according to their report, that it was destined for a digital dump.  But it wasn’t – it would have been brought to a repair shop and then resold to someone who had nothing.  

     There’s a chapter on emptying the nest (professional estate cleaning  crews), secondhand clothes, wiping rags (a whole separate industry), and why appliances don’t last, (remind me to buy a Speed Queen if my thirty year old Maytag washer/dryer ever wears out).   Simple fixes such as making manufacturers release repair manuals for older models would do a lot to keep older electronics out of the dump.          

     I once donated an old 80’s radio/cassette player to the St. Vincent de Paul and the clerk thanked me as there were some seasonal workers in the store who were looking for a radio.   They were Mexican, here to help with the pepper harvest.  We smiled at each other.  I was pleased too, as when we drop things off at the thrift shop, we hope they will be reused and appreciated by someone else – if not here than perhaps in some other country.   In this world of have and have not, it’s comforting to know that sometimes happens.   

PS.   I’ve been thinking about my garage sale stuff and wondering – if things continue in recovery mode here and we don’t get a second fall wave – if I could just put some of the stuff out at the end of the driveway on a table some Saturday afternoon with a sign, Free for a Small Donation to COVID relief fund?   That way it won’t sit in my basement until next year.   A lot of what I have is winter stuff, Christmas decorations, wreaths, sweaters, etc.   I only had a garage sale once, (advertised) and I remember people coming really early, like before I was awake!    

Vintage Casablanca poster

Vintage movie posters

French Press Coffee Maker

French Press coffee maker…used once…$35 price sticker still on…coffee not hot enough and too much hassle to clean out the grounds.

red plaid housecoat

Flannel bathrobe with fleece lining…never worn……not suitable for menopausal women….

fake flowers

from my fake flower/wreath making days…

Sparkly Christmas wreaths

Many sparkly Christmas in July things…

     

 

    

 

Lily of the Valley

Lily of the Valley is one of my favorite garden perennials – it’s delicate white flowers herald a unique fragrance which I always associate with the first days of summer.  The scent is sweet, although not overbearing like that of honeysuckle or wisteria.

Lily of the Valley

A woodland species, lily of the valley is not actually a lily but a member of the asparagus family, and is considered to be poisonous to pets and people. 

It flowers in June here in Canada, although in other countries earlier in the spring.   In France, May 1 is considered Lily of the Valley day, where vendors set up their stalls in the streets to sell bundles brought in from the countryside.    

Lily of the Valley - Janice MacLeod book

from A Paris Year – by Janice MacLeod

Lily of the Valley - Janice MacLeod book

from A Paris Year – by Janice MacLeod

I inherited my now thriving patch from a free clump given to me by a fellow gardener. 

Lily of the Valley

No social distancing here….

Warning – it is an invasive species, spread through underground rhizomes, something I always appreciate in my garden where so much withers and dies, usually from neglect.   A hardy plant, it can take care of itself, although it prefers a shady spot.

Often a favorite of bridal bouquets, like Kate Middleton’s, even a spray or two adds a delicate touch of white.

Lily of the Valley - Kate Middleton

I like to put a few springs in a bud vase and perfume my rooms. Lily of the ValleyWhile the smell may only last a few days, you can recapture the mood with scented products.   I remember wearing a fragrance by Coty called Muguet-des-bois, many years ago.   

Lily of the Valley Coty - Muguet des bois2)

Scented hand soaps are nice too – especially as we’re washing our hands so frequently – a little dose of springtime year round!

Lily of the Valley

In the language of flowers, lily of the valley means the return of happiness, perhaps a signal of sunnier days ahead. 

PS.   The third week of May, this beautiful blue flower bloomed right in front of my lily of the valley. 

Blue flower near Lily of the Valley

I don’t know what it is and don’t even remember planting it – possibly it was from the horticultural sale two years ago — but it’s unfortunate they didn’t bloom at the same time, as blue and white is always a lovely color combination.   It’s nice to know that even in this time of COVID monotony, the garden can still hold surprises.  

PS:  Speaking of old and new, I’m still on the old editor.  When I decline, not now, it allows me to continue with the old, but I’m not sure if this is a permanent thing or if I haven’t been switched yet?   Is anyone else still using the old?   I would have thought they would have migrated everyone by now?  

  

 

Hermit Cookies – A Pandemic Recipe

Since many of us are still living like good little hermits these days, I thought Hermits cookies would be a good topic for this weeks blog – which might also be my last blog for awhile depending on how well it goes with the new WordPress editor next week.  I didn’t like the new Block editor when I tried it last spring (see Blockheads post) and am not in the mood for a new learning curve.   Wordpress might think this is a good time to switch (or begin the migration as the Happiness Engineer called it), because we are all stuck at home, but call it computer fatigue or lockdown fatigue or whatever, I need less not more screen time right now.    

Back to the Hermits – Webster’s dictionary defines a hermit as:  “a) one that retires from society and lives in solitude especially for religious reasons : recluse,   b) a spiced cookie.

Hermits are an old-fashioned recipe dating back from to the mid-1800’s in North America, or even earlier, possibly originating in the hermitages of the middle ages.   They refer to any kind of spiced cookie containing dried fruit such a raisins, currants or nuts.  They may have white or brown sugar and come in either bar, square or drop cookie format.  They’re made from  ingredients you might already have in your pandemic pantry, which along with the addition of cinnamon, cloves and spices produces a soft cookie which keeps well.   Nutritionally, their sweetness comes from raisins and dates, and nuts are a good source of omega-3’s and protein. 

There are various theories about the origin of the name.   Some sources say they were called hermits because they looked like a hermit’s brown sack cloth, (the ones containing molasses).   Others say the spices become more distinct with age, making the cookies taste better if they have been hidden away like hermits for several days.   Very likely the oldest recipe goes back to the 12th or 13th century religious hermitages, where the basic ingredients would have been in common use at bakers’ tables.   The terms for those abodes— “hermite” from the Old French or “heremita,” from the medieval Latin — may have been assigned to this treat by their inhabitants.   Another possibility is that the Moravians, a German Protestant religious group known for their thin spice cookies in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, were sometimes called “herrnhutter” in German or Dutch, and that might have sounded like “hermits” to an English-speaking cook.   At any rate, they are spiced cookies based on raisins and nuts…..so let’s get to it!

My recipe today will be from my mother’s bible of country cooking, the Purity CookBook, first published by the Purity Flour Company in 1911.  Her edition dates from 1945 and is well stained, and is in fact held together with that old Canadian standard – duct tape.  

As well as main courses and desserts, it contains a large section on canning  vegetables and making various jams and jellies.   Nothing of course is low in fat or calories as those were not deemed important back then.   When it was re-issued in 2009, I bought a copy for myself, which you can see is still in quite pristine condition. 

Purity recipe cookbook new

Here’s the recipe:

Hermit cookie recipe

Hermit recipe

This did not make 5 dozen….more like 30 cookies….

and the ingredients…nothing fancy, although this version includes dates. 

Hermit cookie ingredients

I used butter instead of shortening, and not as much, 1/3 cup.   My Allspice container said it was a mixture of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, but allspice can also be a spice (from a plant berry) on its own.   If Allspice is not in your spice rack, Google has plenty of references for substitutes, including one on one cloves, but I find cloves strong, so best not to overdo it. 

 The finished product:

Hermit cookies

My mother was not much of a cookie baker, as my dad preferred pies and cakes, so I don’t remember her making these very often when I was growing up but I always enjoyed them when she did.  (She was more likely to make peanut butter or chocolate chip).    Back in the 1990’s, I worked at a rural hospital where the dietary department still made much of the hospital food from scratch.   Hermits were often on the cafeteria menu for morning coffee break, as were scones and homemade cinnamon buns.  I hadn’t had hermits in years, so imagine my delight on seeing them at the bakery in my  local grocery store last year.   They’re baked up fresh, although from a mix ordered in, according to one of the staff, and they have regular customers, mostly older folks like me who remember them from childhood.           

Hermit cookies Of the three versions I’ve sampled, they’ve all have been a bit different, mainly in the spices department, but I think the bakery’s is the best, and probably comparable in price to homemade, ($5.49 for 12 large cookies), nuts and raisins being fairly expensive here unless you go to one of those bulk bin places.  The key is the right combination of spices.  Despite buying two dozen from the bakery, we ran out before the next grocery run, so I had to resort to making them from scratch.   Mine did not taste the same as the last time I made them but I suspect my nutmeg was too old.   That would have required a trip to the store, and I’m more like a hermit crab these days, scurrying around doing my essential errands quickly so I can return to the safety of my own home. 

Hermit crab

Stay in your home and stay safe!

We all might be getting a little crabby these days from too much sheltering in place, but a sweet treat always helps!   Remember to savor – according to the Petsmart website, hermit crabs take small bites and eat very slowly, usually at night.   Enjoy! 

Postscript:   Do you have a favorite cookbook you use or may have inherited?

 

A History Lesson – Throwback Thursday

1918 flu ladies with masks

A friend sent me this in an email so I can’t credit the source, but it’s deja vu a hundred years later.   In 1720 there was the plague, in 1820 a cholera epidemic, in 1918-20 – The Spanish Flu, and now 2020 COVID-19 Coronavirus.  It seems history repeats itself every hundred years.

Spanish flu

Spanish flu

Spanish flu

Spanish flu

The Corona Diaries – Part One

If someone had asked a few years ago when I was an exhausted stressed-out worker bee, if I would like a couple of months off, to read, write and catch up on sleep, I would have thought it was the most amazing gift.  But as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for….

Now that I’m retired and used to staying home more, my current COVID existence isn’t as dramatically different as it might be for someone accustomed to being out and about every day.   I’m coping okay so far – reading, writing, blogging, cooking, exercising, checking on my mother – but at seven weeks into lock-down, even the most contented of homebodies, may be starting to develop some degree of cabin fever. 

A friend suggested I keep a diary to record this tumultuous time.  I haven’t so far, but as my blogging topics seem to have dwindled to books and baking, (and even baking is on shaky ground now that the grocery shelves are empty of flour), perhaps a few observations about life in COVID Country might be in order.

Wheat field two (2)

A wheat field can be a beautiful thing……maybe I could grind my own flour?

And speaking of the country, it’s much easier to social distance in a rural environment than in a densely populated city like Toronto.  Our cases here in Canada reflect that, as the link below shows, with the more rural provinces, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the islands PEI and Newfoundland having far fewer cases than more densely populated Ontario and our pandemic hot spot Quebec.  As well as having more people, these provinces are home to two large international airports.  PEI and New Brunswick have had no deaths.  Saskatchewan and Manitoba have had only 6 each and have scheduled a staged re-opening.  

Link to Canada’s Pandemic Map.

As a country of 37 million, we have 62,000 cases and 4000 deaths (as of today May 6).   Locally, we’ve had 189 reported cases and 14 deaths, but none since April 20, out of a population base of about 100,000.   Forty of those cases and six deaths came from the same upscale retirement home, where a resident who was in contact with a church group which had traveled to Europe in March, is thought to be the seed case.   The situation in some of the nursing homes in Quebec and Ontario is so out of control that last week the government called in the army to help feed and care for residents in some the worst hit homes.  I’m extremely grateful my 94 year old mother is still living in her own home, and has her painting hobby to keep her busy. 

Was it only last summer we went to see The Tall Ships?  Who would think we would now be in such uncharted territory, trying to navigate this strange new world, where unknown danger lurks in every grocery store.  Well, you get the picture…

The Tall Ships - AMc - 2020

My mother has been painting ships.

Of course, there are things I miss – socializing, eating in restaurants, shopping.   We finally got a Homesense and Marshalls here, set to open the end of March, and I drove by it the other day and mourned all the unseen merchandise sitting there behind locked doors.  (And yes I know it’s selfish and shallow to be thinking about this when so many people are wondering how to pay their bills, but I’m thinking it all the same because shopping can be a pleasant distraction, even if you’re just looking at all the lovely things, and a little retail therapy may help to restart the economy).   By the time it’s open will we even need spring clothes….summer clothes….or will we be back into fall?    Let’s face it, we know we won’t be getting out of this any time soon.   It will be a summer of no music, art, or food festivals.  The local theater season and Canada Day celebrations have been cancelled, even the fall fairs are on hold, and if and when things do open up, will we be brave enough to go out or will we have developed agoraphobia?

Of course we can take solace in nature,

Daffodils

Even the daffodils are looking dejected….

but even your own backyard can get a little claustrophobic after awhile, especially in the hot hazy days of summer when you might wish for a cold dip in the lake.

sailboat race

Something to look forward to…

I’m also looking forward to gardening season and planting a Victory garden, especially the fresh lettuce.

romaine lettuce

Although it’s nice to have the time to do all the things you always said you’d do when you had the time……what if you don’t feel like doing them?   I have not yet resorted to spring cleaning my house – it’s dusty and the windows need cleaning but it’s still too cold outside for that.   The deck needs hosing down and while the patio furniture is out, no one has sat in it, as the whole month of April held hardly a day over 50 F.   The cool weather has extended into May with more of the same, and we may even have wet snow on Friday.    Some sunshine would be enormously cheerful.     

blue forget me nots

The pretty blue forget-me-nots are out.

I spend a lot more time on the phone these days.  In fact, I haven’t talked this much on the phone since high school, when those princess phones were all the rage….

Princess-Telephone

Sadly, I’ve also become a News Addict.  I always watched the 6pm local news, but now I must watch the 11pm National news too, and check the online paper and social media during the day for constant COVID updates.   No wonder so many of us are having COVID nightmares.   While we can distract ourselves during the day with activities, at night our brains are trying to process this constant bombardment of new information.  

I need to tune out and go back to reading before bed.  I’m thinking there may be an e-reader in my future, even though too much screen time makes my eyes sore.   I’m slowly working my way through those 18 books from the bookoutlet in January, but they’re all non-fiction and I’m dying for a good  distracting novel.   I’m hoping the library will be on the list of first places to open, that and hair salons.  (If you saw last weeks post on pandemic bangs, you’ll know why).  

My daily routine still includes mascara and under-eye concealer (otherwise I resemble a raccoon), clean but comfy clothes, and hair washed at least every 3 days.  I will not succumb to sloth….. 

I’ve been walking every day, missing just two in the past month – one where I did a 4-hour-2-grocery store marathon (does pushing an overloaded cart count for building arm muscles?) and one so windy with flurries that I just could not (April 21 – this is spring?).   There’s really no excuse not to now, as it gets me out of the house and into the fresh air.   Exercise also helps me sleep better, so I have more energy during the day to do nothing.  Plus, as I usually walk around my subdivision, I’ve met more of my neighbors, including several I worked with years ago who I never knew lived nearby.   It’s too bad we can’t have a proper visit, as we’re all social distancing of course.   

I cook more, spend less on food and eat better.   I wonder how many families have discovered just how much money can be saved by eating at home, saving restaurants for an occasional treat and not a regular occurrence.

Shrimp and Scallop Pasta

Shrimp and scallop pasta

While many of my daily routines may be the same, other things just seem bizarre – but bizarre is now the new normal.

In the past month I’ve been to the grocery store twice, the bank once, the full-service-no-way-am-I-touching-the-pumps-gas station once, and one restaurant for takeout.   The car was sluggish so I drove to the nearest city for the takeout, as it needed a good run and we were craving Swiss Chalet (rotisserie chicken).

Usually I enjoy grocery shopping, but am finding it stressful now that it’s become a marathon event.   I have a master list, written in order of location as with most of the aisle exits blocked off and one-way arrows on the floor, the grocery store has become a maze.   If you forget the butter, you don’t want to have to backtrack to dairy through the whole store.    My cart is loaded with enough “provisions” as my dad used to call them, for two houses for 3 weeks.   I find the customers polite and patient, but some of the staff are kind of rude.   One store is very lax, a box of gloves at the entrance if you want, and social distancing stickers on the floor, Plexiglas for the cashiers, but otherwise you’re on your own.  They trust you know how to behave like a responsible adult.   At the other store, it’s command central – the deli workers are now the traffic cops at the front entrance, barking orders right and left.   They even have a portable hand wash stand outside the store.   I was told (and not very nicely), that my own disposable gloves could have COVID germs on them and could not be worn inside, I had to use theirs.  I always try to pick the line with the nicer cashiers.   Nice people tend to stay nice in a crisis, but stress can bring out the worse in the others.  

I don’t know how they decide these things but at my mother’s bank I had to stand in the vestibule, while the people accessing the ATM machine walked right by me, closely by me.   Only one person was allowed in the bank at a time.   When it was my turn, I was escorted in by the normally cheerful teller, who was obviously tired of explaining the procedure.   My bank had a better set-up, kind of like a dance routine.    The teller stands back six feet behind the plexiglass while you step up and enter your pin, then you step back six feet to the spot on the floor and let her do her stuff on the computer, then she steps back again and you step forward to take your paper.   Normally I do online banking, but Income Tax was due, (Death and Taxes being the only two certainties in life).     

I’m grateful not to be working despite those emails from the college asking if I would like to reinstate my license to help out, just send $2000 and an application form.   No thanks – I’ve done my time.   My immune system is not great, I need to stay healthy to look after my mother and when I got H1N1 (2009 swine flu) I don’t recall anyone serenading me from their balcony for my months of service.   All I remember is the complaints –  we were so swamped with Tamiflu prescriptions coming in from ER that we couldn’t get to the regular work and there was no backup staff to call in, or even any backup plan or any masks or PPE at all, which is how I got H1N1 when someone coughed in my face.   And BTW, Tamiflu, which had to be started within the first 48 hours, only shortened the duration by a day or two, it was NOT a cure, although the government was happy to provide it free to everyone and their dog.   I don’t remember ever been scared to go to work though, as it was not as contagious or as deadly (only 428 deaths in all of Canada).    My colleagues now are dealing with complaints about the 30 day limit, instituted to preserve the supply chain but in the process tripling their workload, and trying to source back-ordered drugs such Ventolin, insulin and sedatives used in ventilated patients.   If the wholesaler only sends you two when you ordered twenty, how do you decide who to give it to?   Did I mention I’m glad I’m retired?     

Like everyone else, I’m grateful for all the dedicated medical and front line workers, especially the highly trained doctors and nurses who are risking their lives fighting this beast.   But I’d also like to include the unsung heroes who never get mentioned, like respiratory therapists, X-ray technicians and the hospital cleaning staff.   Recently our provincial premier announced a $4/hour pandemic wage increase for front line health care workers and yes, he forgot the respiratory therapists and the paramedics, two groups with the highest exposure.   I also worry about the people not getting needed surgery or treatments and those too afraid to go to the ER when they need help.     

I’m not surprised many of the nursing homes are struggling with not having enough personal support workers.   It’s a chronically understaffed, unappreciated job of mostly part-time hours.   Most homes are privately owned and don’t pay full time benefits, so they wonder how it spread from place to place?   The government enforced the one worker/one home rule way too late, the damage was already done.  The sheer number of deaths in long term care institutions has been a national tragedy, a wake-up call about a system which has been underfunded and understaffed for a long time.  (While PSW’s here make from $18-23/hr, the minimum wage in Ontario is $14/hr, and $18 is considered a living wage).     

Of course I’m lucky to be retired, and not to have lost a job.   But I wonder if this isn’t a bit of a wake-up call regarding the debt levels in our society, about having it all when you really can’t afford it.   Needs vs wants.  Living within your means.   The old standard financial advice about having 3 to 6 months savings set aside for emergencies.  And I’m not talking about the working poor who live paycheck to paycheck and can never get ahead, but middle class workers with good jobs, nice houses, new cars, annual vacation trips,  who drink $5 lattes everyday but have zero savings.  But then maybe I’m old-fashioned and grew up in a different era where credit wasn’t as easily available.  Having lived through a few recessions makes you wiser.

We’re lucky to have more social safety nets here in Canada, as well as free health care.   Not just Unemployment Insurance, but a Canadian Emergency Response Benefit of  $2000/month for 4 months, which was set up in April for those laid off as the UI department could not process the number of claims in a timely fashion.  Every day our prime minister comes out of his house (where he’s been self-isolating for well over 6 weeks now as his wife tested positive), and announces another plan – the Wage Subsidy plan for business – government will pay 75% of salaries if they keep employees on up to $847 per week per employee – money for students unable to find summer jobs ($1250/month, $1750 if they have dependents, $5000 if they volunteer for a charity or do farm work) – an increase in GST and child tax credits – loans of up to $40,000.   Last week he announced they’ll be paying 75% of the rent for small businesses and also helping charities with rent who have had to postpone their fundraisers.  What will be next – subsidizing Girl Guide cookies?   While many small restaurants and shops with short cash flow may need immediate relief, other larger, more established, profitable businesses may be able to ride it out for a few months, especially if they don’t want to lose their valued employees.  (The employees at my bank said no one had been laid off, and all continue to be paid for full time hours even if their hours have been reduced).   It might have been prudent for the government to see how many people and businesses actually required help at this early stage, before making such broad based decisions.   Note the Depression went on for a whole decade of poverty and unemployment – is a few months of restrained spending worth a $300 billion bailout, even if unemployment  temporarily increases from 5% to 9%?   Many recessions over the past 30 years had at least that amount, and they all bounced back.      

Lately I’ve been thinking about John F. Kennedy’s famous speech – “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

While there have already been reports of abuse of the programs, (such as people enrolling their kids in the student aid program who have never worked a day in their lives), there are also those who always step up to help out.   When essential charities like the food-bank sent out a request for help, people were quick to respond.  Some health care workers are donating their bonus pay.   When the Toronto Zoo asked for help feeding the animals for six months the public donated $500,000 far in excess of the $100,000 they actually needed.   These were all public or corporate donations.  

And then there’s the CFL  – The Canadian Football League who asked the government for a $150 million handout as the football season will be cancelled, although they would settle for $30 million if it’s only delayed, not a loan mind you, no plan or promises to pay it back.   Does anyone even watch Canadian Football?   Every sports team with lost ticket revenue is waiting with baited breath to see what the answer will be…    

While all these government programs may be a necessary and welcome thing, I’m wondering who’s going to be paying for it all?   My dim recollection of Economics 101 is that you can’t just keep printing money, but maybe things have changed?   Many people don’t seem to get the connection between all the freebies and income tax.   Of course these are extraordinary circumstances, but we’re already a highly taxed nation with a high national debt load and saddling the next generation with even more debt isn’t exactly fair.   The millennials already resent us enough…(they think we had it easy, we didn’t – we just had less stuff), maybe they’d be happy to see a few of us die off.   While it may be popular to bash baby boomers, most of us didn’t start out with expensive houses either.  There was a thing called a Starter Home, a modest bungalow, and once it was paid for then you traded up.   (There was also a Starter Car – something second hand, fixed up).   Should I feel sorry for a double income couple living in a mansion who now can’t make their sky high mortgage payments?   While you might think I’m lacking in sympathy, I grew up on the poorer side of middle class, so if you’ve not had money, you’re more appreciative of  the safety net of having some in the bank for a rainy day….or a hurricane.  

One permanent outcome of this pandemic might be that people will reassess their current lifestyles and spending limits.  Will they be happier with less money but more family time?  Will working from home become the new norm?  How much stuff is really truly essential? 

It can be interesting observing people’s reactions to this crisis.   There are those who are carrying on as if everything is the same, the ostriches who seem oblivious and never turn on the news, (including the poor old man at Walmart who thought there was a sale on TP, and when told about the virus, asked if diarrhea was a symptom), the angry deniers proclaiming this is all a hoax, the protesters screaming about their rights and freedoms, and the Short-Fuse Freds who are always in a bad mood and take it out on anyone and everyone who will listen.

Our own opinions of the crisis can change over time.   Is the elderly lady with the shopping cart full of ten loaves of bread and 3 frozen apple pies, a hoarder?  In the early days, back when we thought this was just a two week quarantine, I might have said yes, but now – no – she’s just shopping for the neighbors in her seniors building.    Not sure about those pies though, they’re not good at the best of times, let alone for a Pie Pity Party. 

Older people who have the life experience of living through the Great Depression, WW2, rationing, outbreaks of scarlet fever and polio, a couple of recessions, double digit inflation and stock market crashes – have seen and survived a lot.   It seems horribly unfair that they are now dying in  nursing homes without a loved one there with them.   I feel sad for little children also, and hope their parents are able to maintain some sense of normalcy for them in these scary times.

The good news is – we’re not all going to hell for missing mass on Sunday.  The Bishop said so in the parish email cancelling all church services when “he granted the faithful dispensation from their Sunday obligation.”  Is there a Catholic alive who still believes this?   I hope they eliminate that hand shaking bit at the end permanently, worse germ spreader ever.

Even those of us who are introverts and prefer a quiet life, are in need of  some social interaction other than Zoom.   In the early days before the lock-down, I managed to avoid a screening of Parasite with subtitles, as the 300 seat theater just might be a breeding ground for the virus.   Now, with everything closed, you don’t have to make those excuses er…..decisions!  But on the flip side, we also don’t have anything to look forward to.   I’m wondering how I’ll feel after another month or two of this…and when things do open up, will the constant fear of catching it, be worse than staying home and being safe but bored.

I’ve been watching a new CTV series Transplant. – about a Syrian doctor transplanted to a Canadian ER, a world of contrast between a modern hospital and one in a war zone.   I’m also watching World on Fire – a British miniseries about WW2.   Although we may be at war with this horrible virus, we’re not in a war zone.  It’s all about perspective.  This too shall pass.   Just like Columbus, we need patience and perseverance to steer the course.  Calmer seas are ahead.  

The Tall Ships - AMc - 2020

PS.  If you have your health, and food and shelter, family and friends,  sprinkled liberally with books, music and nature – then you have everything you need.

PS.  My apologies for the length…..if anyone’s still reading.  Hopefully there won’t be Part Two.    I’ll leave you with an oldie but goodie…

Song of the Day:  Duke Ellington – Don’t Get Around Much Anymore

 

 

 

#April in Paris, #Pandemic Bangs – Wordless Wednesday

Let your photo(s) tell your story.

Pandemic Bangs -April in Paris

My neighbor made me a mask which happened to coordinate with my French striped top….so it’s time for my annual Parisian blog.

Pandemic Bangs

A mask can be useful as a guide when cutting your own pandemic bangs – just cut straight across, a quarter inch above the mask.

April in Paris - Macron

You cannot however eat a macaron wearing a mask….

Coffee

or sip a cafe creme….but you can save money on red lipstick.

Pandemic Bangs

Or you can just let your bangs grow and go out on Halloween as Cousin It!

 

The Literary Salon – On Edge

On Edge - book - Andrea Petersen

We’re all on edge these days.   We live in anxious times and the new worries associated with COVID-19 have made things much worse in a very short period of time.   It seems only yesterday that life was normal and going to a store or restaurant wasn’t a dangerous activity which could cost you your life.   I drafted this blog a month ago before the current crisis exploded, but perhaps it is even more timely today.   This months’ literary pick is by Andrea Petersen, a Wall Street Journal reporter, who has lived with chronic anxiety her entire life.  

On Edge: A Journey Through AnxietyOn Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety by Andrea Petersen

 

 

 

The Publisher’s Blurb:

A celebrated science and health reporter offers a wry, honest account of living with anxiety.

A racing heart. Difficulty breathing. Overwhelming dread. Andrea Petersen was first diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at the age of twenty, but she later realized that she had been experiencing panic attacks since childhood. With time her symptoms multiplied. She agonized over every odd physical sensation. She developed fears of driving on highways, going to movie theaters, even licking envelopes. Although having a name for her condition was an enormous relief, it was only the beginning of a journey to understand and master it—one that took her from psychiatrists’ offices to yoga retreats to the Appalachian Trail.

Woven into Petersen’s personal story is a fascinating look at the biology of anxiety and the groundbreaking research that might point the way to new treatments. She compares psychoactive drugs to non-drug treatments, including biofeedback and exposure therapy. And she explores the role that genetics and the environment play in mental illness, visiting top neuro-scientists and tracing her family history—from her grandmother, who, plagued by paranoia, once tried to burn down her own house, to her young daughter, in whom Petersen sees shades of herself.

Brave and empowering, this is essential reading for anyone who knows what it means to live on edge.

About the Author:    Andrea Petersen is a contributing writer at The Wall Street Journal, where she reports on psychology, health and travel.  During her 18 years as a staff reporter and editor at the Journal, Andrea has covered a wide variety of beats including telecommunications, pharmaceuticals and aging.    On Edge – A Journey Through Anxiety is her first book.

Why I Liked It:

This was one of my bookoutlet bargains, an online site where you can spend hours just browsing, and in this case I was trying to get my basket to $100 so I could get $40 off.   Certainly I’ve known and counselled many patients about the benefits and side effects of the drugs which are often prescribed in the treatment of anxiety, but I’ve never read a memoir about what it’s like to live with it day after day, so I found this book to be an interesting read. 

While most of us think of anxiety as a sporadic or episodic condition associated with a specific event, (like COVID-19), this book delves into what it’s like to live with chronic anxiety disorder.  Patients with.generalized anxiety disorder worry even if there isn’t anything concrete to worry about, as the mind of a patient struggling with GAD can always find something to catastrophize about!   Despite her many low points, the author has led a very successful life,  although her boss at the Wall Street Journal was unaware of her struggles until the book was about to be published.  Worriers can often excel at masking their condition.  She was also fortunate in having a supportive family and friends who understood her condition.   I liked how the author’s history was woven into the various chapters on drugs, cognitive behavioral therapy, research and genetics, so it was a personal story and not just a recounting of scientific research. 

The fight or flight heightened response is an evolutionary adaptation for survival, left over from the caveman days, when our worries were of sabre-toothed tigers and where to find the next meal.   While we in modern times may have new and different things to worry about, like is it safe to go to the grocery store, it’s amazing how adaptable the human mind can be to the new normal, and how it can rise above a current catastrophe and find a way forward.    Something to remember in these, the worst of times.   

PS.   There are many non-drug coping mechanisms that can help soothe an anxious mind and stop the cycle, number one of which is distraction.    Keeping your mind occupied with something creative can be a wonderful distraction, and if you can’t shut your mind off at night, then I find getting up and reading to be a good activity, preferably a non-fiction book.    Basically, any mindless activity such as gardening, painting or reorganizing something is also wonderfully blissful.  What is your coping mechanism for dealing with anxiety in these crazy times?