The case for coffee

In 1992, during a hospital stay after my diagnosis with diabetes, I was faced for the first time with a meal that, at that time, was institutionally considered nutritious: undressed turkey, steamed vegetables, a boiled potato, diet Jello. No salt, no butter, no sweets. Worst of all: no caffeine in the coffee.

Feeling all hope bleed out of me, I implored the dietician, “Could I just have one cup of real coffee? One?” (Insulin, I could deal with. But a life with no coffee?)

“Honey, have as much coffee as you like,” she said, to my great relief. “Everyone needs a vice, and this is not such a bad one.”

That’s become almost a mantra for me, and I’ve embraced coffee like a maniac. Turns out, though, it may be less a vice than a health virtue*:

  • People who drink 1-2 cups of coffee a day had an elasticity of major blood vessels around 25% higher than those who drink little or no coffee
  • Compared to not drinking coffee, at least 2 cups daily can translate to a 25% reduced risk of colon cancer, an 80% drop in liver cirrhosis risk, and nearly half the risk of gallstones
  • At least six studies indicate that people who drink coffee on a regular basis are up to 80% less likely to develop Parkinson’s disease
  • A study published in the journal Circulation looked at data on more than 83,000 women older than 24. It showed that those who drank 2 to 3 cups of coffee/day had a 19% lower risk of stroke than those who drank almost none. A Finnish study found similar results for men
*Data are from GeekStats (search term: coffee).

So now I might be looking for a new vice, one that tastes as good.

Picture-perfect coffee drunk by me at b espresso, Toronto, in August 2010.

Green tomato moment

Time really does run out. And I’m not talking about mortality — we all know that. For some things we might do or experience in life, though, a moment passes, and it is gone. The gone moment must be acknowledged.

Often I hear people saying a sentence that begins, “I coulda been a [fill in the blank].” The first time I noticed this particular construction of sentence, I was only 25 years old, and the man who said it was perhaps 40 or so and someone I worked with. Apparently, he could have been an opera singer. But he was a university development officer. Alas, though, I think he wanted us to know, and he wanted to remind himself, that there was this germ of musical potential inside him. (Interestingly, he was doing nothing to propagate this germ.)

I’m human, and I can get stuck in this thought pattern, too. I don’t dwell on not becoming a pharmacist (yup, considered that), flautist, or Boston Globe reporter, or on not reprising the Francie Nolan story. It’s more like: I could have become the kind of person who would throw the plate, sob lavishly, shout “Pick me!”, or, in a manner of speaking, dance on the table. Honestly, I don’t even know how to turn on that impulsivity switch, and I am sincere when I say that — occasionally — I wish I had become the kind of person who could.

The gone moment must be not only acknowledged, it must be acted on. One must say, “This is what I am, what I have. What will I do with this?”

Which leads me to the actual topic of this post: green tomatoes. Let’s all confront what is our garden, or our neighbor’s garden. This summer seemed to be a poor one for tomatoes. Look around and see mostly hard and green ones still hanging on the vine, with the potential, but not likelihood, of ripening into juicy red ones.

It’s October 6th. It is time to recognize the green tomatoes, pick them, and eat. Here are recipes, personally tested by me and those around me, for Green Tomato Salsa and Fried Green Tomato BLTs. Perhaps, under different conditions, they coulda been red salsa or a more basic BLT, but I dare you to say that these are not absolutely, wonderfully edible.

No nightlife, no boogie

No doubt there is nightlife and boogie in Toronto, but we didn’t find much of it. That’s probably because we — traveling with children ages 10, 14, and 17 —  weren’t looking for it.

Staples in telephone pole, Kensington Market. By Lydia.

Still, we hoped to have our own brand of fun. And we did. What follows is a handful of highlights from the Toronto leg of our summer vacation, August 10 – 15. (The Cooperstown and Niagara Falls legs are documented in a previous post.)

Leg three: Toronto, Ontario

We drove into the city on a Wednesday afternoon. Lydia, sitting in the way back, observed, “This is another one of those cities with cranes. Like Chicago.” I had to agree.

Another city of cranes.

After dragging our bags into our hotel on Yonge Street, at one time designated the longest street in the world, and feeling daunted by possibilities for What Now?, we walked blocks and blocks to Yorkville Ave. for ice cream. At Summer’s Sweet Memories, Eli and I tried their famous flavor, Toronto Pothole: almonds, marshmallows, chocolate chunks, and peanuts in chocolate ice cream. Later in the week, we went back again, for the same flavor. That was one of my good delicious vacation ideas. Continue reading

Escape from America

This summer marked our third family car trip to Canada. On occasion, we have joked darkly and said that our habit of traveling there is practice for when the U.S. reinstates the draft, and we have to hightail it north to keep Eli and perhaps the girls from compulsory service. Interestingly, during our stay in Toronto I read a biography of Jane Jacobs and learned that she and her husband moved to that same city in 1968 to keep their two sons from the draft, and she easily made it her home for the rest of her long life.

More immediately, though, we love it: a chance to go and be somewhere different, cool, and not America without the hassles of an airport and high price of (five!) airline tickets.

Driving by Jimmy. Back seat photo by Grace.

Plus, before we cross the border, we get to drive through some nice country in Maine, Vermont, or upstate New York and visit friends and stop at some out-of-the way U.S. attractions. This was so on our recent trip through Albany, Cooperstown, and Niagara Falls, on our way to Toronto.

What follows, in this post and the next, is less a summary than an accounting of high, and a few low, lights of our August vacation. Continue reading

Potato’s first kicks

The potato plants are flourishing, and while I have wondered what’s going on underground, I would have been content to wait until the minimum growing period (70 days) had passed. But a member of my potato audience (i.e., a regular passer-by) suggested I have a look. “You might have some — whaddya call them? — new potatoes under there.” She claimed to have a farmer brother in Wisconsin and was therefore a bit of an authority on potato matters.

Persuaded, I enlisted the documentary skills of one of my staff photographers, put on some gloves, and grabbed the fork-like cultivator. Gingerly I began digging.

I clawed deeper. The only word for how I felt was expectant. Something, I hoped, had been growing invisibly for weeks, and I was eager for a sign, a fetal kick of sorts. Clump after clump of dirt rolled under the tines. All I saw was dirt and those thready roots.

No longer content to let sleeping potatoes lie, I tugged up the bushy plant itself, wondering if this would drop a little spud or two at my feet. Hmmm, no.

I went back in, like an archaeologist, easing the dirt out of the cavity, trying to feel for lumps I couldn’t see.

So suddenly that I caught my breath, a red potato rolled into view. Oh, the feeling! Here was evidence. Potato plants really do yield potatoes, and I had arranged the conditions (soil, water, sunny spot, fish meal) under which food — life sustainer! — could grow. A little sign of more to come.

I only dug the one, and then I cleaned, boiled, and ate it — floury, delicious, and mine.


Photographer: Lydia Guterman

Summer treat

This was Grace’s idea, to make our own version of a Starbucks Frappuccino®, but lighter (and cheaper). It wasn’t much of an experiment, but it worked! We based our concoction on a recipe found here, but ours is less lavish in calories and extras.

Coffee Slush

serves 2 or 3

1. Brew strong coffee. In automatic drip coffee maker, brew 1/3 c. ground coffee (we used Peet’s Major Dickason’s®) with 1 c. water. Set coffee aside to cool.

2. Make whipped cream. Whip 3 T. heavy cream (150 calories) with 1 t. SPLENDA® Sugar Blend (10 calories). Set aside.

3. Blend slush ingredients. Into a blender with an ice crusher setting, put 3/4 c. strong coffee (cooled); 1 c. 1% milk (105 calories); 2 c. ice cubes; and 2 T. SPLENDA® Sugar Blend (96 calories). Blend until smooth.

4. Serve. Divide into glasses, and divide whipped cream among them. Serve with straws or spoons. (For 2 servings, calories will be 180 each. For 3 servings, 120 each.)

Note: If you want to add chocolate or caramel syrup or more whipped cream to this, you’re on your own. In my world, the less you do to coffee, the better.

Rejection is impractical.

I recognized the handwriting on the envelope as my own. A SASE, returned to me by the editors of a literary journal. More like the interns of a literary journal.

I opened it and found a flyer for next year’s literary contest. Over and over I flipped this one-page flyer, looking for a handwritten note, saying something like, “Thanks, Jane, but no.” Wordprocessed and photocopied text is all I found.

At last I actually read the photocopy. I studied it even. Ah ha! After the announcement of next year’s contest are listed the winners of this year’s competition, which I had entered. I am not among those listed, and so I deduced that — although no text is actually addressed to me — I did not place in the contest and, furthermore, I will not be published by this journal.

Hmm, thanks a lot for the completely impersonal and oblique reply, oh literary journal. It would have been a step up, you know, to receive a form letter: “Dear Writer, We have read work. It is not right for our publication. Good luck elsewhere. Sincerely, The Editors.” In fact, I would have preferred such a direct form letter. Photocopied notices of next year’s contest are not very good communicators of the “no, thanks.”

“You know what I want?” I said to Jimmy, as we stood in our kitchen, with this blue piece of paper in my hand. “I want to learn something about my writing from the rejection letter.” Here are what might be good responses. I could even imagine a literary journal creating a form letter with check boxes. Even one of these items, checked, would teach me something about my work:

  • No thank you. This still feels like a draft to us.
  • No thank you. This doesn’t fit with our editorial vision or sensibility.
  • No thank you. Honestly, we are overloaded with stuff right now, and your essay did not grab us on the first page, so we didn’t keep reading.
  • No thank you. This is potentially really interesting, but it’s too long for what it is.
  • No thank you. We really prefer to publish the Under 40 and Fabulous Crowd, and this is not that.

While I do see the benefits of preparing one’s work for submission, this kind of rejection is totally impractical. It’s like hitting a tennis ball against the back of the school wall, again, and again, and again. Sure, it’s activity, and it seems relevant to the actual playing of tennis, but it’s not deliberate practice and it won’t get ya nowhere in the game. There’s return, but no feedback.

Jimmy said two things. “You know, you have the platform to publish the essay yourself.” He’s right, and I will.

Then he handed me a 4 x 6″ postcard he got in the mail from Starbucks. “Have this,” he said.



We’ll make you any drink you like.

I’ll take the free coffee. It’ll end up being more personalized than the blue flyer I got from the journal.

– Validation

It takes more strength to go slowly.

Said today by yoga teacher Portia. The remark had something to do with the lowering and raising of our legs, but it seemed personally applicable. Like, it’s okay that I can be a slowpoke (in writing, thinking, cooking, reacting, painting, responding, folding, driving, etc.). And that slowness might come from strength, and not a deficit.

After yoga, there was no Clover Food Truck to get my usual, so I stood in line at Goosebeary’s Food Truck instead. I ate the Mango Salad with Tofu, not quickly. Vegetarian food can be heavenly too, you know.

– Little bursts

During one sustained yoga pose (downward dog), I looked at my hands, fingers splayed on the mat. Wow, I thought. Look at you. I acknowledged them for 45 years of work. No appliance could do what they’ve done and still be so capable.

Later, lying on my back, with my legs straight and feet in the air, I looked at my bare knees and calves, and I liked them. Marvels.

My regular habit, after Wednesday yoga, is to go to the Clover Food Truck on Carleton Street and get a soy BLT, my discovery of the spring. At $5, it’s a perfect food.

Today I sat on a bench next to the parking lot, half in the sun and half out, and ate it. On the bench perpendicular to mine, a young woman and man talked about happiness, and all the pressures in the way of it. She said to him: “There are too many choices. And having to choose work you love, or a person you love, is overwhelming. I read that people are less happy when they know there is other work, or someone else out there.” He said to her: “I said to my therapist that, among all my options, the least disagreeable to me is dentistry.”

One pigeon walked on the cement pavers near my feet. Of course, pigeons do not fear us. It came closer and seemed to stand there, turning and waiting. I looked at its three-clawed feet and stick legs. Do you know they’re pink? A dark rose. The feathers are less gray than a dusky purple, with shimmers of green around the neck.

In Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, on the occasion of her son’s wedding Olive thinks about what she knows of loneliness and ruminates, too, on its antidote:

Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as “big bursts” and “little bursts.” Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous, unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well: a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee.

Or a sandwich from a truck.

On the way home, I stopped the car for a few seconds where Ames Street joins Memorial Drive. A few pedestrians passed in front of me, which made me turn my head to follow them. I saw a woman holding a toddler, still awake but slumped in her arms, the child’s head lolling on the mother’s shoulder. I remembered the slack weight of a baby against my chest: that closeness, that power. The child held out her own hand and looked at it, turning it palm down, then palm up. She closed her fingers into a little fist and looked at that, too. There was no haste in her movements. She could stare at that hand and turn it over and over, forever.

– Bleach kills bacteria.

“bleach kills bacteria”: that’s what I Googled before taking’s advice on sanitizing our clean dishes during the MWRA/Boston area water emergency that began Saturday, May 1 at 6:40pm. I found out that, indeed, bleach kills bacteria quite reliably. And seeing that we’re bathing and washing our dishes too in pond water right now (from back up supplied by the Chesnut Hill Reservoir, a kind of local goose haven), it’s possible there are some robust organisms hanging around the kitchen sink that wouldn’t mind finding a human host.

Here I am, demonstrating the dish sanitizing procedure. Take that, E. coli. You’re not welcome here no more.

Will the bleach solution also clobber the water-born parasite Giardia? I hope so, yet I am not as sure. <gulp>


Update (May 3 afternoon): Since making and posting this video, I have discovered, or been pointed to, various advice for sanitizing dishes after washing them. I’ll summarize:

  • recommends using 1/8 t. per gallon H2O and specifies no length of time for the dishes’ submersion in the bleach solution.
  • The MWRA “Consumer Fact Sheet” recommends using 1 t. bleach per gallon H2O and specifies 1 min. for the dishes’ submersion in the bleach solution.
  • Interestingly, earlier on the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection site, there was a recommendation to use 1 t. bleach per gallon H2O and a 5 min. submersion time, as a reader (Jeremy) alerted me to. I found that link again, and discovered that information has been changed, to be consistent with the MWRA’s advice. That’s good: a unified message from the government bodies safeguarding our health!

The winning method, therefore, for sanitizing clean dishes, during the boil order, is: 1 t. bleach per 1 gallon lukewarm water for 1 min. submersion.


P.S. Thanks to Jimmy Guterman for videography, and for remembering the boiling point of water: 100° C or 212° F.