Sunday, August 24, 2008

Good as Fried Pickles

There are many the reasons why I head out of town, for a day trip:

-a nice hike in the mountains somewhere - like Hanging Rock or Stone Mountain;
-wine tasting - Chateau Morrisette, in Floyd, VA;
-picture taking opportunities - like Chinqua Penn, in Reidsville or the Mabry Mill in VA;
-just love of food - like the olive tasting at Villa Appalachia, in the Blue Ridge Parkway in VA, or the delicious trout po’ boy in Blowing Rock, at The Speckled Trout;
-boredom: just to see where roads can take me.

Sometimes might be sick people or puppies I want to visit. This was the reason for the last trip to Charlotte, on Saturday. But, we, in Romania, have a saying that would translate something like: ‘The plan at home and the one in town never match’. And most times they don’t.

I went to Charlotte to play with a sick pup, who turned out to be feeling much better that day, and I came back with a new destination for a “food day trip”.

Signs of "The Penguin"

And here’s how it happened. While there, I had lunch at The Penguin, in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood of Charlotte, and a landmark in its own right, as I was to find out. The place is small, and has tons of character, and instead of wallpaper they might as well tape all their awards on the walls – they cover pretty much every inch of wall space. Anything from “the best bbq” to “the best juke box” – they’ve won it at some point or another.

The wait was long, but you know they’re good when that happens. The food was generous in size, very inexpensive and absolutely out of this world delicious! At least by my standards.

I love places that just cook and don’t try to be fancy for the sake of being different. The bbq sandwich was simply un-messed-around with! Just smoky, sweet flavor of pig! You could distinctively taste the hours and hours of roasting, and nothing else. Not goopy with bbq sauce that completely steals the taste of the meat, like most places. The meat spoke for itself. Cole slaw just enough to accompany the flavor and not overpower it. And then … there were the fried pickles.

What an eye opener! Those – I had never had before. Nor have ever heard of! When people tell me “you can get anything deep fried in the South”, I am skeptical. But, boy, I assume, now, that you just might!

Fried pickle chips: just slices of pickles, dunked in batter and deep fried, then you dip them in ranch! Holy Heavens what an addictive dish! Plain, simple, delicious and boy, a dish that is asking for yet more and more beer! And I guess that’s what they were thinking, too, right?!

Now, as a lover of pickles and ranch and anything fried, this was easy love for me. But I tell you, even non-pickle lovers (I eat pickle spears for snacks like folks eat carrots, all right? So, trust me: I LOVE them!!), like my friend, could enjoy them just as well! I was just surprised how wonderful they tasted for such a simply made dish! Again: just plain, simple, hones-to-goodness food – "pretty", gourmet food Iron chefs eat your hearts out!

I am now on the lookout for fried pickles in Greensboro, and I only came across one place (Google, thank you!), that’s across town. Of course, I’ll try it out just to compare. Or I might start making them myself. But you’ll never forget your first. And trust me: you gotta be pretty darn good to top those!

In this ever changing, ever fast, ever over-super-seized world of ours, there is something to be said for simplicity! Now, if they had a “the best food find of the year” award or “the best food destination”, you know I’d be the first one to throw a vote in. Or maybe many!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

An Inappropriate "Thank You" Note?!

I still remember that phone call that my dad got. My mom, on the other line, she is to this day the head of a hospital lab, and she was telling him about the "awful" disease that she herself just discovered I had.

Dad was in tears. I didn't know why. All I heard him say was: "Oh, GOD! She will never be normal. No kids. Not much for food. What CAN she eat?? No life, pretty much. Who knows how long she's got?!" - I will never forget those words, and dad crying.

I didn't get to hear what mom said, and I didn't know about whom they were talking, but I knew it was not good. They had just found out about my genetic disease, and they were preparing for the worst. I had no clue what "the worst" meant, though. I was 6.

From then on, whatever I 'had' became part of my life. Became a lifestyle. I never questioned "why me". I never blamed my parents for it, although they do enough of that themselves. I just took it as it was, just like one gets used to not being a blond, nor tall, nor with antelope legs. Whatever that was, was part of me; and grew with me. Only later in life I suffered because it made me lose men I loved, and kept me from doing things I wanted to do. But that was later. And even then, I accepted my fate.

As part of living my life, the best I was able, I had hundreds if not thousands of doctors' appointments all these years since that phone call. Tests after tests, that "normal" people don't do till they're 65-70-80 or never. Blood drawn every week. Month. Every three months. Every 6 months. What have you. Industrial quantities (only a mild exaggeration) of drugs, always changing, diets, etc. No cure, of course. Just meds to "prolong life", and that's about it. Just fighting the clock. Every year I add to my "resume" is a good year, to brag about to my doctors. Again: my life! I never complain about it, and unless prompted and asked, I don't talk much about it. It's so much who I am, that I almost don't think about mentioning it much to folks.

But there was a huge side effect to it all - aside from the drug-induced ones: I hate doctors! I hate going to see one, I hate their indifference, for the most part, and the way they treat you like a book chapter.Their only merit in me being alive today is that are allowed by law to write prescriptions. I have a TON of respect for pharmacists and researchers, but ... docs ... they're just scriveners with a VERY expensive degree to me. And of course, a very high rate! They are the highest paid spectators of life as it happens, have you noticed that?! And yes, I am generalizing, but trust me: I have seen enough of them to be entitled to this! I have friends who are doctors, and agree with me 100%! And of course, every rule has exceptions, so we won't touch those. But I digress...

I have doctors' appointments like some people go to the grocery store: regularly. And I mean at least 10-15 times a year. Sometimes with "regular" doctors, sometimes (more often) with "specialists".
I am not only used to them, but I also always expect the routine - as it's always the same: give me the co-pay, they shrug, they ALL say "well, *sigh*, you were dealt a bad hand, ma'am. But you LOOK great". And they send me home, with another appointment in hand, and a new combo of meds. And life goes on. And they probably built vacation homes and buy Porches for each member of their families with my money alone, as often as they see me.

So, docs don't phase me anymore. I go to them, like one goes to church, because "the wife makes them", but doesn't "really" believe, you know. But doesn't fight it, either, 'cause they want to "get some" at the end of the week.

Emotionally, I feel no one way or another about them: I don't like them much, but I always go. And I almost always do as they say. Well, this was the case, till this one last time. This last appointment finally stirred some emotion in me. Through my whole Odyssey of doctor appointments , for sooo many years, I never had to be put under - as in given anesthesia, that is... This one last test they did required that. I was terrified, almost, if anything health related can "terrify" me anymore.

A proud control freak (not really "that" proud), I never stomached the idea of total anesthesia! So, I was a little more then apprehensive that you know: I might not make the "trip back". It all went well, thanks to an Iranian anesthesiologist, that was extra careful and probably more afraid of what my body might do than I was myself.

Several days later, I get yet another surprise from this whole frightening experience and also a first for me: I have never, in my life, gotten a "thank you" note from my doctor (any of them) for being their patient... I always felt, and still do, that it might be a bit ... well... inappropriate... "Thank you for being sick"?? - How's that for a recognition?! What should my reaction/ answer be: "Well, you're welcome! I am an encyclopedia your Med School has not written yet, so now, go ahead, have at ME, and plan for your mansion in Palm Springs. You caught a real BIG one this time, you lucky bastard! " ?!

But this time, not only did I get a "thank you" from a doctor, but I did from the first one I was truly afraid to death to make an acquaintance with. And my apprehension left aside, who REALLY needs to be thanked that they were so sick they needed to be put under to do a test?! They didn't even "fix" anything by doing that!

I am still (a little more than) fuzzy on how I should feel about it. This is one of those moments when "nice" is indeed a relative term! Somehow, the fact that I am 33 and I have had to do several MRI's, and a heart cath, and an endoscopy, and a stress test, and several Doppler tests, and hundreds of EKG's and ultrasounds of all my insides, and ... I am not going to go on here... is not a "privilege" to me... I don't care how much business I am providing them, I am really not delighted to find out that they're grateful for it!

I know. Ungrateful till the end, aren't I?! I guess this is a side effect of it all, too. But ask any Poker player: who is EVER grateful or resigned when they've been "dealt a bad hand" and you're allowing everyone else, but yourself, to keep gaining?! Ask them. And get back with me... Till then, I am "fuzzy" still on this letter. I think I'll frame it!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Legacy

"So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” (Shakespeare – Sonnet 18)

As most of you know, I have lost my best friend this year. Sure, I have many friends, we all do. But we all have that one person, that’s not a relative, that’s not forced by life or heredity on us, that we choose and pick our own selves to be our friend. It’s a conscious and troublesome search, but when we finally make that choice, it’s like we’ve arrived in this heaven-like place, and nothing can quite go wrong from there on out. It’s much like we must have felt like in the womb, or in mom’s arms when we were a month old! Secure, unconditional love, and acceptance! More than anything: acceptance! Just safety to be whoever we are around them, and assurance that they can return that favor as well.

He has left us on February 21st and I cannot say the pain or the emptiness that he has left with me has diminished or filled at all yet. I know, I know: it’s not been a year yet, and he was a huge presence and a great person, I need to give it time. But still.

To this day, I have moments when it doesn’t register that he is gone; it does not register that I cannot pick up the phone and call him to give him a hard time about … anything … or just talk about dogs and cats and the weather with him!

I have been playing around dialogues in my head that we would have, when we’d travel, or when we’d find the next best joint for mashed potatoes, or the next best sweet tea flavor – and they are unfortunately going to remain in my head … He loved children, and I would so have wanted to share the wonder of holding my nephew in my arms with him! He would have probably have sent a “slugger” onsie with me to Canada for him! Or even a baseball bat! Most definitely!

Every single day of my life, at one moment or another, he seems to be ever present!

And I have found out that that presence is not mine alone: his family, and many other friends have organized baseball games, and trips and opened a scholarship fund in his memory. The ones left behind have all stayed in touch, and we have been thinking of each other and him on his birthday (July 25th), we have talked about him, and exchanged stories about who he was, and how different he was for all of us, but in essence, how important to all of us! The fact that we had ever so different and diverse stories on him made us realize what a complex, multi-faceted and whole person he truly was!

This past weekend, one of his good friends (R.) organized a memorial mention of him on the baseball stadium in town. Several co-workers attended, and some of his family, as well, and his two brothers threw the first and second honorary pitches that night.

Jeff's brothers waiting for the go on the pitches

It was a beautiful night, one that even Jeff would approve of: a Southerner who hated the sun (he would argue that the sun hated him!), he would have loved the cool night we had once the sun set on the Grasshoppers Stadium (I’ll call it that, after our local team, although the name keeps changing according to whomever the sponsor bank is that year).

While the honorary pitches were thrown, the announcer went through a brief description of who Jeff was, written by his friend, R., and how you can contribute to his scholarship fund, a sport writing scholarship, with the University of Virginia, while the scoreboard showed pictures of Jeff, his black lab mix, Floyd, and of some of his passions: like The Phillies, and other baseball game pictures.

Scoreboard mention: Jeff and Floyd

It was one minute in time when my heart pretty much stopped and I felt, once again, that maybe he’s there. Baseball was his life. And his love. It was so fitting to commemorate his recent birthday during a baseball game! He’s covered The Grasshoppers numerous times, and he’s listened to the National Anthem, one of his favorite tunes, ring loud on this stadium so many times! He brought his dog to the nights where the stadium organized “bark parks”, so the dog can socialize with other dogs and so he too would be exposed to baseball, you see - maybe?!

To me, it was truly a night just for Jeff. So fitting! The best birthday present we could think of, and I am sure he would agree with that! So, thanks, R. and thanks to his family and folks who came and were there with his spirit!

I’ve had many moments like that since he’s been gone: when I went to DC this summer, when I went to his brother’s house, when I got the word that his house sold, and so forth …

I cherish and treasure those moments! It’s what I have been left with – surely, not enough - it’ll never be enough - since he’s been gone.

And in that moment I was grateful once again to Jeff! He loved harmony. He loved friendship. His dad said at some point that his family was his friends, and once you’ve become his friend, you truly felt that! You truly felt like he’d do anything for you, and will give himself whole just to make you happy.

And this extended family of his continues to live on, even after he’s moved to a higher realm than us. This weekend, more than anything, I have felt the sense of fellowship and friendship that Jeff left behind. It’s wonderful to see how folks who would have definitely not met otherwise, coming from all sorts of walks of life, and cities and states (Raleigh, Durham, Winston, Maryland, Colorado, Greensboro) were sitting there, watching a baseball game (Jeff’s favorite, of course) and chatting and catching up, and sharing Jeff stories.

That is one of the most treasured times I have spent this year! Meaningful hugs from his family almost stopped my breath and made me tear! Every second of this Saturday night, I thanked him for those bonding moments we all shared!

One of his co-workers said at some point, half sarcastically and half caringly: “We won’t let this guy go, will we?!” – well, yeah – we won’t! Why should we?! He’s given us himself. And a great lesson of love, giving, patience and courage. And on top of everything: he’s given us each other.

We all, that we’ve been mourning his passing, have found that we are not alone. That the world is an intricate web and that we’re all connected! That nothing is ever random! He’s united us in pain as well as in laughter, when we recount endless numbers of stories about what a great friend, brother, son, co-worker, life partner he was to all of us. He’s taught us, now, in his absence, that we all can make or break each other … And so far, we’ve been making it through the tragedy of losing him because we’ve been there for one another.

Sometimes I feel guilty and selfish: I feel like through keeping him alive, we’re trying to heal ourselves from hurting so excruciatingly bad for losing him. But I think he would approve! I know he would! The one thing he was most worried about was everyone’s pain that he might cause by leaving us and how he can prevent that from happening. And if keeping him in our thoughts, prayers, activities would heal that pain, he would graciously, as ever, sign off on it!

I just wanted to say, once more, a big huge THANK YOU to Jeff: for everything he’s given us, even after he’s left us: a group of friends, and his family to call our friends, and to share memories in his name with. That is the ultimate gift, I believe, so generous and so him!

The Grasshoppers did poorly. Just like The Nationals in DC this July, for his first memorial game get-together. But like Jeff would say: “It’s just a game. There are winners and losers. Someone’s gotta be one or the other”. And off the field, in the stands, I feel like we’re all winners, because we’ve all known him. And he’s put his graceful hand print on all of us before he’s waved us “good bye”. Such a blessing!

Again, the only thing I can say is: “Thank you” – for the gift, love, inspiration, and friendship. Thank you for ... you.

A beautiful evening and night

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Being Scarlett

When I was in maybe 8th grade, which is a long, long time ago, I read Gone with the Wind.
Up to that point my parents were short of killing me or exchanging me for a stray kid (in Romania we have those!!) because I hated to read. Well, that book cured me from that hatred. And gave me a role model for the rest of my life. Pretty much.

I know it sounds corny. And I know it sounds a little girlie and childish, but Scarlett O'Hara has been my role model since 8th grade. I was in love with the woman. I was ready to imitate and incorporate every single eye lash batting and cutesy frown to get my way. I practiced for months, years maybe, how to raise just one eyebrow to let people know I am mad, or I am not getting my way. And more than anything, I have always, consciously or not, been chasing the men I cannot have!

Since that book, I have always dreamed to live in the American South ( I was in Romania when I read it, and knew no one that lived anywhere near America), to seem ever so weak and feeble but but be a tower of strength and power. And if you look back at my life, you can see some resemblance...No, I don't have her money and wealth or entrepreneurial sense, but I have her determination and I follow my dream to completion, that's for darn sure.

Lately, I have thought a lot about Scarlett. Lately, things have become too overwhelming indeed. A family trip with all the emotion packed up; tons of friends you cannot always please; a questionable and very stressful job that you cannot control; health issues you'd rather do without, but can "they" (the health issues) do without you is the question?! And so forth...

True to my Scarlett self, I have pushed through it all, stubbornly, and frowned and raised an eyebrow. And I am still here, weathering the storms of this year. I can't say I have accomplished much so far this year, but I can say I feel strong. And for the storms I cannot overcome, I can say I shoo them away with a shrug, just to keep my sanity, and tell them all to wait till tomorrow and maybe I'll have time then for them.

Even great Scarlett could not solve all the dramas in her life in one day, or several; and her famous last line has been my best friend lately. Most of the things around me, that lately have caused pain, or insecurity have been put off with a shrug till "tomorrow".

I cannot worry about all of them anymore. I know there is a job waiting for me tomorrow. And a home. And somewhere, spread all over the world a loving family, despite all the steam we put out when we meet. For now, I know I am safe. Surely, all of it seems shaky: the economy, and paper business and thus my livelihood can be gone tomorrow, but what's the point in worrying?! No one seems to be hiring now anyway. No one seems to be hiring what I can offer, that is... And the friends will be friends, or if they're lost, they're not worth keeping, right?? So, why worry there?! And you cannot make family mad enough, because they're always there. That's a given. So, for all the things that do worry me, or do make me mad, I'll put it off to worry about it tomorrow.

It's a temporary peace - I know. But it's sooo sweet! And "after all, tomorrow is another day", isn't it?!?

It makes for a peaceful rest of the summer, I tell you!

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Just Because They Can !!

I have never claimed to be a very sophisticated human being... Never. I am very simple minded and one of those very rationalistic folks for whom white and black exist, but gray is never an option. I don't like to be lied to, and I have trouble with wishy-washy- ness and half truths. With made up excuses, too!

I find it very difficult to deal with our airline system anymore, because of all those. Everything is fun and games till everything seems like highway robbery, you know!! And I love flying... so this took a lot out of me: after my most recent trip, I really, seriously, thought of driving to Canada next time around!

You've read my rants before, when I was annoyed by the $5 charges for alcohol on international flights, and also annoyed at paying $50 for one extra pound of luggage ... Now, every time I fly I find yet another new charge to add to my spending money! It's almost like paying for the trip twice anymore. And it's getting beyond ridiculous ...

And not just the charges, but everything else: the overbooking, the delayed flights for no reason, other than "the pilot is still asleep" or "we're missing a part" ... The uncertainty of it all, the nightmare of always having to deal with "Oh, my meeting is on the 24th, so I have to leave my home town on the 22nd to make sure I make it by then..." - it's crazy! And counterproductive to all!
And this is JUST in the United Wonderful States of America!!

We claim to be the strongest economical power of the world - really?? We treat our own people, our business people who make our money like THIS?? Because our business people commute maybe more than any business people in the world! It's embarrassing!!

My family and I travel on a number of various airlines, internationally and in Northern America: Air France, Lufthansa, KLM, Canadian Air, Austrian Airlines - and we never experience more delays, more expensive tickets, and more unexpected and unjustified charges, more rude staff, more cancellations than we experience with ANY American Airline we travel with. And we typically use Delta, Northwest, United and US Airways - so, not just one.

To make this not too long, this is my complaint list this time:

We all knew about the checked luggage charges. That, to me, is unjustified and ridiculous! People have ALWAYS had checked luggage!!!! People travel for pleasure as well as for business, the customs form of any country will tell you that! If you take a 2 week vacation with two kids, there is no way in hell you're not going to have checked luggage. Especially in the winter! Especially with the restrictions for traveling with liquids on you. You'll need shampoo, and cologne, and who knows what else?? And we all expected it , always, since the beginning of times (or ... when I started traveling in 1998) to be included in the ticket. God Almighty knows: it costs enough!! To say that you're charging for checked luggage because prices of gas went up is a bunch of stinking bologna and nothing else!

Let me give you just a few numbers - as I said: I am simple minded, I can't get into fancy math here:

- my ticket to Romania used to cost $600 when I first came here, 10 year ago... After 9/11, it went up to $800 - for extra security costs... OK!
- After Katrina and The War and "gas prices going up every year", it went to $1000, and then to $1300 , and now they are $1500 - because, allegedly, gas went up! OK! So, you factored that in, right? Well, wrong!
- The weight limit for a checked luggage went down from 72 lbs to 50 lbs! "Because gas is expensive"... OK!
- Now, you're CHARGING for checked luggage ... because ... well, "gas is more expensive"...
- The food and drinks: we used to get pretzels and peanuts on North American flights (Canada included) - not anymore; can't afford it, you see?? It's the darn gas, again ...
- we still get free sodas (for now, I am sure), but if we want COFFEE ... it's $1 a cup! Beer and wine went from $5 to $7! - at least with US Air; how do you justify ALL these??? You guessed it: "gas is more expensive" - how they are related , beats the crap outta me!!!!

This time around, from my own personal travel experience, I have a whole new laundry list of complaints I want to post:

- $25 charge for each lag of my trip for a second suitcase ($50 total) - although I booked this trip WAY before the checked luggage regulations - they came in sometime in June; I booked the trip in April;
- $66 charge for the airport parking - they "forgot" to update the website with the new rate - I read there that it was only $44 for 11 days, if I park in the overflow lot... WRONG!
- I saved on the coffee I wanted because I didn't get a cup , after my flight mate paid $3 for 3 cups of Minnie-Me cups that looked like dentists' rinsing Dixie cups. And he also got the "I am NOT your servant and I don't make the rules. $1 a cup of coffee - take it or leave it" treatment from the stewardess, too! Just in those words!
- and I have experienced a new American only gem: the double and triple booking. In two of my flights (out of 4 - a 50% chance is all we can ask for in a civilized economy!) the plane was overbooked: in other words, you had 20 seats, and 25 passengers with boarding passes!

The gate folks actually came to the podium, and one time they even had printed material to post (this is an often occurrence you see) that told us that we would be rewarded a free round trip on US Airways if we gave up our boarding pass and boarded a later flight! Forget about what OUR needs were, what OUR meeting, or work schedule was like - they were asking us to "volunteer to give up the seats"... I didn't. I made the reservations in April! I think I was entitled to a seat.

And get this: I typically travel internationally to Canada, Holland, Germany, Romania - mostly ... Any of these countries offer "free" checked luggage ("free" as "included in the ticket") AND free drinks and snacks on their flights. EVEN internally, not only internationally! Even Romania !!! Gas in those countries is ALWAYS, without exception, more expensive than American gas! When I talk to my Romanian parents about $4 a gallon gas prices they laugh! Their gas has been $4 a gallon, since ours was $2.50!!!
I just got back from Canada, where the lowest is $5.20 a gallon!!!

And ALL these charges are occurring, people, when the ticket prices are rising!!!! I used to pay $800 for a trip to Europe. Now, in the off season, it's $1200!! I used to pay $300 for a trip to Canada. Now, it's $600, plus all the crap I told you before: checked luggage, weight limit, more parking and such!
I just rest my case, because I hope you get the picture...

Sure, I understand staying competitive, and market economy and cost of living - I am not a complete idiot by all means! But these are triple and double and quadruple charges for the same excuse. These are insults! What is the purpose of travel if you're expected to travel naked, with nothing but the ticket on you?! And you're expected to live on a plane, for hours on end (some trips take 3-4 hours, right?!) with no food - some layovers are as short as 15 minutes. Who has the time for the McDonald's line in 15 minutes??? These are necessities, and not commodities, when we expect our working class to commute this way!

It's become such a decadent industry this airline business... Sure, they can peel off our skin and say it's for gas as well... I mean: why not?? They already strip us of our "liquids"... America, "the Greatest" is great indeed! We must fly, or else we can't get there fast - because the territory is so vast! So, they've got us by the balls, as my ex-husband so eloquently would put it!

I am just ashamed to admit I live in a country that brags about power and sovereignty and polices the world, but cannot keep its sh^t straight when it comes to at least two basic needs: safe and affordable transportation and health care! It's such a shame!!

In my travels, I thought I have seen it all: canceled flights just because it's Tuesday, change of seats in the last minute, at the gate, just so The Police can accommodate a jailed person traveling (don't we pay taxes for their planes, and cars and such?? - who knows??), decrease of weight in the amount we can pack in the checked luggage, gratuitous rudeness, more charges for just the air we breathe ... but I am telling you: I am keeping this list open for the future! Because I ain't gonna stop flying. I might stop flying to Canada, but I can't stop flying. And I will continue to bitch, as I am sure the list will continue to grow!

People hated and judged Clinton's guts because he admitted he did something "just because he could", on a more or less personal level alone, but I see no one boycotting this bull-sh^t of travel industry that we now present to the world and to all our citizens because they're robbing us blind, just because "they can"...

Times have changed. As they always do!