Mandelbrot, Mushy Meatloaf and WWII War Effort Recipes

My brothers don’t remember my mother’s war effort dinner: broiled baked beans, American cheese and bacon open-faced sandwiches—high in protein, low in cost. But I remember, and I loved them.

I also loved her mushy meatloaf that was more oats than meat. My brothers do recall the meatloaf and their dislike of the dish. We all remember buttered toast mixed with a soft-boiled egg when we were sick and lining up for the soup spoon-sized helpings of cod liver oil that mom gave us to keep us healthy. 

What we all remember and all love, including everyone’s children and grandchildren, is her

Mandelbrot—especially her chocolate chip variation. When she was alive, it was a treasured surprise when it arrived at college dorm rooms, newly-wed apartments, or Jewish holidays. Over the years, it was the source of hot debate with cousins. Each claimed that their mothers made the best Mandelbrot. No way! Even Aunt Jerri’s toasted almond cookies weren’t close.

The pandemic has made cooks of many of us. We’ve become shut-ins looking for a tasty treat to brighten the day. So here is to us. Share it, enjoy it, and remember GG. I do.

Mandelbrot (aka Mandel Bread)

4 cups flour

½ cup oil

1 tsp. vanilla

1 heaping tsp. baking powder

1 cup sugar

4 eggs and a pinch of salt

¼ cup orange juice or water

½ 12-ounce package of chocolate chips or chopped nuts

Sift flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl. Beat sugar and eggs in another bowl; add oil, vanilla, and liquid; beat well.

Add flour mixture a cup at a time. Mix thoroughly. Empty bowl onto a floured board and knead well. Add enough flour to make dough easy to handle. Divide dough into 8 rolls, about 1 inch high and 2 inches wide. (Rolls should be long and shaped like a hot dog roll. Don’t worry if the size is a bit different.)

Bake on a greased cookie sheet in a 350-degree oven for about 20 minutes. (Mom usually checked after 10 minutes, and then put the tray one shelf higher in the oven.) Slice rolls immediately after removing from the oven. Cookies should be about 1 inch thick.


Are My Neighbors on the Fringe?

On NPR the other morning, the commentator, a researcher on the January 6, 2021 insurrection, suggested that the data show that the majority of arrested January-6’ers hail from blue counties in the North and Midwest—counties and districts where white-run governments are increasingly becoming minority-run. He, like others who have reported similar findings, seemed surprised; however, he also interpreted the data as ominous. Ominous indeed. 

Since last January 6, podcasters, President Biden, politicians, and talking news heads have all railed against the continuing threat to democracy. But why did it take an insurrection to figure out that the threat was endemic, and that it has been festering since the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s? It’s not some uber-evangelicals or even southerners who, for the most part, have protected their white supremacy. It’s not just the white supremacists, or the anti-abortionists. They still believe in democracy. And, it’s not just the Neo-Nazis. It’s the Rust Belt factory workers whose jobs are gone, or the white family whose child did not get into the college of his/her choice because of affirmative action. It’s the white-collar worker who was passed up for promotion because of equity issues in the workplace. It’s the regular guy and gal next door who feel victimized by the success of civil rights legislation and let down by their government.

This backlash has been festering for sixty years, and now we are worried? As I said in earlier blogs, “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”

The Loss of Trust

On the Jewish holiday of Passover, Pessac, the children ask four questions. One of them is always, “Why is this night unlike all other nights?” I thought of this question as I drove to work past hundreds of cars lined up in front of a closed Sears at the local mall—their drivers waiting to be tested for COVID, hoping to be negative so that they could go to holiday events, see family, or avoid getting a shot!

It’s not the night that’s different but an entire year. No, it’s closer to two-plus years that we have suffered through not only the pandemic, but also the collateral consequences: closed malls (especially Sears and its ilk), remote learning, diminished or unavailable international and even domestic travel, and damping down critical international and human rights news to name but a few. I think that these past few unique years in my lifetime started with the presidential election of 2016, were exacerbated by the pandemic of 2020, then escalated during the 2020 presidential election and the heinous antics of Donald Trump, and even now continue into the lackluster presidency of Joe Biden.

The ground is shifting beneath my feet. The very air we breathe is dangerous. The last time I experienced anything close to this feeling was on a visit to South Africa in 1984, preceding the overthrow of that country’s apartheid government.

Florida Democrats are sounding alarms over what they believe is a sustained and coordinated campaign rapidly unfolding across Spanish-language media to tarnish the image of Vice President Kamala Harris. They are even more alarmed at the lack of push-back by party leaders. It feels like a setup designed to keep Kamala out of the next presidential campaign.

What’s different? I no longer trust my country.

The Gift

The old years’ worn wooden Buddha did not come to me first and, when I die, Sok Keang will have it—but more about that later.

The village, at the outer edge of Phnom Penh, was like hundreds of others in that ravaged country of Cambodia in 1992—a collection of small, impoverished houses. Actually, they were shacks, with newspapers patching the holes in the walls and roof. This house perched nervously on stilts over a large ravine; a rickety bridge stretched from the front porch to the road.

Unbeknownst to me, the interior was magical. The abode—one room with an attached shed used for cooking and a hole in the floor over the ravine for a toilet—was bare of furniture except for a slatted wooden bed, adorned only with a grimy yellow throw pillow. A few old family photographs hung precariously on the wall, along with a dilapidated teak wood spirit house—a place of honor where nature gods and the souls of departed ancestors are invited to rest.

Underneath the wooden bed was a small cigar box. Inside of it was an odd assortment of bits and pieces—some worthless paper money from the Lon Nol regime, a small curved knife, a tiger’s tooth, a few tattered photos, and a pair of broken glasses. I remembered learning that the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot first came after people who spoke French or wore glasses, because they were presumed to be intellectuals. There were also two tiny Buddha pendants—one made from aged carved ivory, the other made of time-worn wood. “These are my most-best things,” our hostess told my colleague, Bea, and me. “The Buddha will keep you safe from Pol Pot’s bullets, malaria, and tigers while you’re out in the provinces. They are yours.” She pressed the ivory Buddha firmly into my hand before turning to Bea and handing her the Buddha made of wood.

As we left, I clasped our hostess’s hand in mine, hoping to touch her strength, marveling at the fact that someone so poor could give so freely. There was a round of cheek-kissing, aw kuhns(thanks), and head bows before Bea and I made our way out and over the rickety footbridge to the street.

As I returned to the city, watching the sky above Phnom Penh turn smoky topaz, I fingered the tiny Buddha that I’d put in my pocket, tracing the etched outline of the seated figure. Her most-best things; that’s what she had said. How could I accept her “best things”—perhaps her only treasures? It was a dilemma. To her, we were Western dignitaries, people of importance, part of a UN mission to restore Cambodia to peace and prosperity. Moreover, we were guests in her home; not accepting her gifts would have meant dishonor, loss of pride. While there is joy in giving something precious, there is also an obligation to receive it as an important gift.

I was moved deeply. The gift took on an unusual meaning for me…as if I had received something primordial and essentially Khmer.

Six months later: “The weird S-hook they use for a clasp here must have opened, and the necklace fell off,” I told Bea when she arrived back at our office in Skon. Instinctively, I put my hand up to caress the missing tiny totem. “The entire village is searching for it. I’m sure they think that I’m a madwoman, but my Buddha is not to be found.”

Bea scuffled off to her room and returned with the wooden Buddha she had received early in the mission.

“It’s more important to you than it is to me,” she said matter-of-factly, with her hand outstretched.

“No, you’ll be unprotected from Pol Pot’s bullets, malaria, and tigers,” I protested―half-joking, but the momma bear in me thought how horrific it would be if something terrible happened to her. “Take it. I unfriended g-d a long time ago.” she said, averting her eyes from mine.

As I felt the smooth, old wood between my fingers, I knew that this Buddha had found its way to me. In that moment, I was cloaked in Cambodia’s strength and optimism; I was transported back to the house in the village when I first arrived in country, and to the woman who had given us her best things.  

I have worn my wooden Buddha for thirty years. It’s time for it to go home. It is the giving season. I texted Sok Keang, one of my Khmer g-ddaughters, and told her that I am bequeathing her the Buddha in my will. Cambodia and Sok Keang will need that strength and optimism again.  

Roaches: A story of Reflection and Understanding

I sit studying the tiny chestnut-colored roach for a long moment, a mix of revulsion and irrational fear prickling across the back of my neck. When I see its’ antennae twitching, I realize it is studying me. We are joined in a contest to see who will move first. It stays frozen to the pale green wall, just above the white ceramic tile with its stained and yellowed grout. I tighten my hands into fists and will my foot not to tap on the floor.

I decide to concentrate on why I have such a strong emotional reaction to this tiny bug, not more than the size of a thumbnail. Unlike me, it is no threat. Packed inside my response to this tiny creature, however, is a dark abyss of fear and guilt.

Roaches have managed to sustain their species for more than 320 million years and have existed in human lore since classical antiquity. This little one, generally gregarious by nature, is probably desperate to escape and return to its multitudinous kin who, I’m certain, inhabit the warmer areas within the walls throughout the tenement building that I’m currently calling home. Like the varied immigrants who live here, roaches are popularly depicted as dirty pests and difficult to get rid of, though the great majority of the species—like the majority of immigrants—are inoffensive and live in a wide range of habitats around the world.

My roach doesn’t move, save for an occasional spasm of its antennae. The bathroom light is on, and it’s waiting for the cover of darkness to escape. Perhaps it doesn’t want me to see the doorway to its route. In any case, my fear subsides and my thoughts turn to the connection of this creature to the financial and physical poverty of the home where I’m a guest.

 My senses recreate the clash of smells in the halls at dinner time—pungent curries, savory soups, fresh bread and hot cooking oil— seeping through the thin doors of the more than fifty apartments on each floor of the eight-story building. I hear the loud scraping of furniture on the floor above being moved by its occupants from one corner to another as beds and tables are rearranged in preparation to sleep or eat in their tiny efficiency.  I think of the tinfoil sheets Sonam and her neighbors hang to protect the kitchen walls from the grease of the cooking oil that’s used to make almost everything the families in this building eat. Finally, I picture the gray streaked windows, muddied with smog from the heavily traveled city street below.

My attention returns to roaches, like this one, which are not just a synonym for poverty. They may be ubiquitous in old, run-down houses like those in this neighborhood, but they live lives parallel to the humanity that also inhabits these dwellings. Roaches have an intricate social structure involving shared shelter, social dependence, communication and kin recognition.

When Karma Woeser was born a few years ago, the family gave up the tiny room that had been used as a shrine to the Buddha and turned it into a second bedroom for the little boy. The three girls, now well out of their teens, still share the larger bedroom—leaving Sonam and her husband, Pasang, who work opposite shifts, to sleep on a couch amidst the clutter of the sitting room.

 The dining area is devoted to Karma’s toys, bikes and strollers as well as kitchen supplies. When most everyone is home, the couch and settee are heaped with many arms and legs, each set of hands holding some sort of small electronic device. The flat screen TV shows only Netflix and YouTube, as no local channels are available.

 An iPad, propped up against a book, is continuously connected to Sonam’s elderly parents’ home in Kathmandu so that anyone can chat as the urge strikes. Occasionally there is a squeal of laughter, some jostling so that an iPad or phone can be passed around and lots of elbowing before everyone gets comfortable again, using each other for warmth and connection.

Rice and a stack of flat bread are in bowls. Dishes and spoons, scrupulously washed a second time when taken from the cupboards, lay haphazardly on the bench that serves as a coffee table. The fragrance of sandalwood wafts through the apartment as incense smoke curls up from Buddha’s shrine, which now occupies a quarter of the sitting area. Karma complains, “Smells like bug spray.”

I am with them, and I am apart—half family member, half guest. I am mostly with them during family discussions and games or endlessly playing with Karma. I’m a guest when the next day’s chores, schedules and responsibilities are assigned. When we go to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s winning of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, still a cause de célébration twenty-seven years later, I wear clothes in colors most like a Tibetan monk’s robes, orange and magenta, but my round eyes and light hair give me away.

Tomorrow I will leave them. Sonam already insists that they call Uber to take us to the Toronto airport, although I know the family will return home by trolley and a couple of busses. Still needing to be frugal with every penny in the communal pot, the children’s lives, full of hardships, don’t appear to be much different from the pretty girl with a quick smile and flashing eyes whom I met weaving rugs at the Tibetan refugee camp in Nepal.  But they are. Gayki already has an RN degree and Tashi, the image of her mother as a young woman, is a semester away from graduating in hospitality management. Dechen, a typical college sophomore, still flounders between her passions and the practicalities of life.

The room seems brighter than when I first noticed my quiet companion. The roach has not moved, as if it’s glued to the wall. I gather a paper towel into a ball, screwing up the courage to squish it. Its antennae twitch. A signal for help? For compassion? At that moment I think of all those strident anti-immigrant comments around the world including the USA. Those who buy this rhetoric would squish this family in the same way that I’m contemplating killing this bug. So I don’t do it.

Fun fact: Roaches are a really, really, old species. They have been around on Earth for as long as 360 million years ago.

 A Christmas Story

I grew up in a time when American Jews were struggling to keep their children in the fold. The promise of Christmas presents and the total disregard for anything other than the Christmas holiday in storefronts, school breaks and media blitzes were a powerful enticement to abandon their birthright and claim Santa as their own. My father wasn’t so naïve; he could separate Santa, stockings, and Christmas trees from the celebration of Jesus’s birth. For him, hanging stockings to be filled with candy and oranges was as American as apple pie—even if sometimes the candy curiously looked a lot like Hanukah gilt (gold-wrapped chocolate coins).  Hanukah, a minor Jewish holiday at around the same time of year, was traditionally celebrated with a silver dollar from Grandpa Joe and the lighting of candles for eight nights.

Over time, Hanukah took on more significance, and now it’s in direct competition with Christmas. My father passed away, and so did his more cosmopolitan attitude toward the winter festivities. No more stockings in our house, and certainly nothing that resembled a “Hanukah bush” aka a Christmas tree. I know this because I tried to bring one home when I was a teen.

It was Christmas Eve in Miami; the one little tree left in the corner lot was dry and sad-looking. My friend Ann convinced me to take it home, and the salesperson, desperate to close up shop and begin his holiday, gave me the tree for free. Ann and I dragged it home, but it never got past the front door and my mother’s imposing crossed-arms barricade.

My family sat Shiva (Hebrew: שִׁבְעָה‎ šīvʿā, meaning “seven”), the week-long mourning period, after I married my Christian husband. I was the first to do so in the entire extended family. A terrifying omen for my Jewish family. But I was in love and looking forward to my first Christmas.

We were dirt poor and madly in love. We rented a small converted garage. It was so nasty that we had to wear rubber thongs in the shower. We bought a small tree and decorated it with homemade ornaments and lots of tinsel. Charley Brown had nothing on us. On Christmas Eve, we went to the mall and bought one present for each of us—something extravagant and expensive. Presents wrapped and placed under our tiny tree, I went to bed, sugar plum fairies dancing in my head.

Franklin unwrapped the watch with care, and I opened the jewelry box with the diamond tennis bracelet. It was a magical day.

The following day, we went back to the mall and returned the watch and the bracelet. We could never afford to pay for them. Of course, the joy was not in the keeping but in the giving

The College Application

It’s that time of year when my young friends of a certain age are submitting their college essays. “Ask Dalma,” their parents say. “She’s a retired college professor and a published author. I guess they don’t know that I pay an editor to edit my blogs. I assiduously ignore the difference between a listing comma, a joining comma, a gapping comma, and a bracketing comma. However, I do know what constitutes a paragraph and proper word use.

It’s often the case that my young writers over-use the synonym function in Word, coming up with substitutes that are totally out of context. It makes for entertaining reading, albeit not informative—sort of like a spoken text message gone wrong. “I do be “wilding” myself a lot, though.” I’m still not sure what this sentence means.

While the answers to essay prompts are often cliché and uninspired, the questions some universities ask are downright banal. My sister, a retired high school teacher, laid some of the blame for poor essays on the fact that students rarely learn to answer the type of queries they most often encounter on college applications. For that matter, many in my experience don’t know how to write a complete paragraph—introduction and/or topic sentence, body or supporting sentences, transitions, and conclusion. They don’t read, so they are limited in their use of metaphors and similes.

In the end, does anyone actually read these essays?

Really!?

I Voted" Downloadable Sticker - Elections & Voting - WA Secretary of State

Recently, a television personality excoriated her audience for being ungrateful for our current president and the accomplishments thus far in his presidency. She was appalled at his low approval ratings. I have to admit that I’ve been somewhat surprised that his ratings have been so low—I’m still giving him points for being the candidate that bested our wanna-be dictator and Prince of Darkness.

In fairness, people ousted the former president but didn’t necessarily want a new one. We didn’t even get through a full campaign season before Biden was anointed the Democratic candidate. My hope was that his win could solidify the Democratic Congress and empower its members to get real work done. I also hoped his win would offer sound-minded Republicans an opportunity to do positive work for the country. Alas, our Congress is as broken as it has been for decades and, when it doesn’t function, the president gets the blame.

I admit I have been on a news diet for the past two years, but it is alarming how little positive news catches our attention. The Dems seem inept at spin and lousy at telling convincing lies! It took months to get an infrastructure bill, only to be shaved down to its bare bones. They do not own social media, and the message of their positive accomplishments is drowned out by inflation, transportation bottlenecks, gas prices—situations that the opposition tags as their endless failures.

January 6th is becoming a joke, like impeachment attempts; a balanced, just court appears to be a thing of the past! Kamala Harris has all but disappeared, and no Democratic leader has captured the imagination and hopes of mainstream America.

On my Sunday Zoom call with my siblings, the conversation sounded more like a wake than catching-up time with family. This respite from our forced separation from each other was filled with talk of sleepless nights and fear for our children and grandchildren.

We are coming up to Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving used to be a signal to begin holiday shopping and preparations and watch post-season football bowls. No more. There is no room on the store shelves for fall and Thanksgiving. Instead, images of turkeys and thoughts of thankfulness are drowned out by Black Friday ads, Christmas music, and holiday displays.

The 2022 midterm campaigns are around the corner; the 2024 presidential election cycle will follow immediately, if not before. No one out there, no matter how good he or she is, can save America by himself or herself—we shouldn’t expect a savior.

Does anyone else wonder why someone would want to be president? I wonder.

Bob II 

Anthropologists warn us not to anthropomorphize instinctual animal behavior, even when those actions seem so human. What instinct told my cat Darcy, every time I had a suitcase standing by the door waiting for an upcoming trip, to lie in wait for me under the couch and then reach her paws out, grab my ankle, and bite me? It certainly appeared to be a planned protest against my leaving her alone. Over the years that I have shared my home with parakeets, I have often observed behaviors that, if not the same as humans’, require a very different lexicon to describe it. Bob, a green budgie, and blue Dave inhabit a large flight cage. Bob, who is between 10 and 12 years old, was a member of my original pair up until last week. Young Dave, known affectionately as Dave Three, was preceded by Dave One and Dave Two.

I was away when Dave One passed. My daughter told me that the vet advised her to quickly replace the dead bird to prevent the remaining bird from becoming depressed. By the time I returned home from vacation, the two birds were chirping together in apparent friendship—a happy state of compatibility that continued.

However, three years later, Dave Two began to display the tell-tale signs of a sick bird: eating off the bottom of the cage, puffy and shivering, with his tail bobbing. Bob became more attentive, sitting close to her cage-mate, following him around and cooing. It was only a few weeks later that Dave Two lay dead on the cage floor. Bob was frantic—racing across the top of cage, spinning wheels incessantly, and bobbing her head until the noise continued 24 hours a day. I went to find a new Dave—a new blue Dave. Bob was in mourning, anxious and despairing.

It took the new pair a while to bond. Dave Three was bigger and very friendly—so friendly, in fact, that he would sidle up to Bob on the perch. Bob would keep moving away until she was smashed up against the bars, Dave tweeting happily next to her. Dave Three pursued, Bob evaded, and I worried that this new pair would never make a connection. Ultimately, they did link up in what appeared to be a strong bond between two happy birds. Although Dave was the noisier of the two, they played together, shared treats, and chirped.They paid no attention to me. For my part, I kept their cage clean, provided plenty of fresh water, spray millet, and new toys; I also played parakeet sounds on the laptop if I would be gone for the day. They were noisy if I was on a Zoom call and quiet at night. We were a happy threesome. The first signs of distress were misleading. Bob would cuddle up next to Dave. He would raise his wing, and she would shelter her head under it.  I read online that this was a behavior designed to protect a sick bird from predators. (How do ornithologists know that?) Bob started eating less millet and more birdseed. Dave would join her and stay close but not eat himself—in fact, he rarely left her side. Their behavior was uncharacteristic, unusual, and alarming. Bob was blown up like a puffball, and Dave had gotten thin. I was sure that Bob was dying, although she exhibited no other symptoms. A week later, I heard a thump in the middle of the night and woke up to Bob lying dead on the cage floor. Dave was on an upper perch, perfectly still; there was no frantic behavior and no noise.

My son-in-law wrapped Bob in clean paper and put her in a small box. Later, he buried Bob under a new hydrangea bush behind the house. I have lost too many friends this past couple of years. Even the loss of Bob was hard, and I was relieved to let Tim handle her death.  He said it was “a lovely ceremony.” Somehow, I doubt that there was much ceremony, but at least Bob wasn’t thrown out with the trash. For that, I’m grateful.  

I had to go to work early. Even though it was a nine-hour day, I stopped on the way home to purchase a new friend for Dave. I didn’t want him to become obsessed like Bob had been when Dave Two died.

Bob Two is more yellow than green. I think he’s a young male. He sits on a perch, occasionally lets out a chirp, but doesn’t move anywhere near Dave Three. For his part, Dave doesn’t go anywhere near Bob. They just stare at each other . . . like an arranged marriage gone wrong. I hope I did the right thing by getting a new bird so quickly. It’s problematic figuring out how to comfort a pet (more guesswork than certainty), but I figure I owe it to these two little guys to try.

Changing Seasons

Blood red and crimson (5)

Gilt gold curl and falling (7)

A sly wind blowing (5)

A chill wind across blue skies (7)

Wispy clouds scuttle (5)

We bid old friends goodbye (7)

It has been a week of sad news. Friends, robust and living large just memories ago, now lingering or dead. Covid has changed timelines, stretching distances between visits and news from days to weeks to months and even years. The person you remember no longer exists outside your mind.

As the leaves curl, turn brown, and fall, I contemplate the cycle of life and accept that these friends had reached their natural end. Their passings are not tragedies or inexplicable accidents, but the inevitable end of their journeys amongst us. I take comfort in the changing of seasons, knowing that I, too, will join the parade of souls who connect me to the history of humankind.

But…not yet!