Monday, December 2, 2013

Doing Good Works Among the Poor

The first Monday of every month, St. Anonymous UMW provides volunteers at a food pantry run by Hope Ministries, an outreach program of the United Methodist Church. It began as a project of one circle, but it began to be too much for them, so they asked for volunteers from the other circles as well. It really only takes about 5 people to do the job, which is to escort the users of the food pantry around; tell them how much of each product they can have, based on family size; help them bag groceries; weigh the groceries they have; and escort them to their cars (to make sure we get the baskets back). Food donated is weighed in and food given out is weighed, as that seems to be the best way of keeping track of how much food the pantry provides to the local recipients.

I learned on my first visit to the food pantry that the items I donate at church (when I remember)  are a drop in the bucket compared to need. Most of what is distributed comes from government programs or is bought in bulk from cash donations. What is usually availabe for a family is pasta, canned tomato sauce, rice, beans (dry or canned), whatever odds and ends people donate like cake mixes, seasonings, salad dressings, couscous, and the like, beverages, frozen meat of some kind, sometimes fresh vegetables or fruit, cereal (hot and cold), canned meats, soups, and vegetables, and bakery items. Sometimes there are cleaning supplies, toilet paper, paper towels, and baby items, but not always. 

Most people are cooperative about taking the items and amounts that we distribute, but sometimes people try to get more, or bargain, “I’m not going to take any canned carrots, so can’t I have another can of tuna?” No, because we don’t have enough tuna. I can’t blame people for asking; different families have different tastes or needs. Occasionally, however, someone gets belligerent, and as a small old lady, I am only willing to fight so hard to stick to the rules. I don’t know what it is like to be poor. I don’t know how belligerent I would get under similar circumstances. I try to remind myself of that.

Several months ago I read a blogpost online talking about the parable of the sheep and the goats:

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25: 31-40, NIV)

The author made the point that it was the “least of these” who represent Jesus in this parable. Often we say that we, the helpers, will represent Jesus to the people we are helping, but the parable makes it clear that it is the other way around. The author went on to talk about a time that either he or another person had preached a short sermon making that point for a group that was about to go out and minister to some needy people in similar circumstances. Predictably enough, when the speaker was finished, the leader of the group of volunteers said something about how the volunteers would represent Jesus to the people they were helping that day.
I try to see the people who come through the doors of Hope Ministries as representing Jesus to me, even the belligerent ones. I think about Benny (not his real name). Benny is the father of 5 or so children. He obviously has a number of issues. He has a hard time following rules and staying in line, not in a malicious way, but because he doesn’t seem to be aware of social boundaries. He learns routines and sticks to them: if he could get two bags of pasta last trip, he believes he should get 2 bags of pasta this trip even if there are only a few bags of pasta on the shelves. Benny can’t read much: he is constantly asking what the writing on the soup cans say, but he can match one can to another, so once he knows which ones are the Chicken Noodle Soup, he can find more. To me, it seems like what Benny needs is medication, a case manager, a life coach to help him learn some social rules, and some tutoring in reading. I wonder how the educational system failed him. I wonder how his children are going to make their way through the world with a parent with his disabilities. I try to see Benny as representing Jesus, and think of Jesus telling the rich young man to sell all he has and give to the poor. I have so many assets that Benny never had or will have, and would have them even if I gave away my last cent: a smarter than average brain and an early ability to read, a childhood spent in a home that was well organized and imposed limits, access to an excellent public education all the way through college. None of those benefits were earned or even chosen by me (except the college). 
The next person I help, let’s call him Chuck, is easier to deal with.  I tell him I have having a little trouble opening a bag because my eyes are watering due to an eye condition I have. “You’ll be okay,” he tells me. “God has you.” I wonder how often he tells himself and his family that.
After we are done with our stint at the food pantry, we go out to lunch together. Yes, I know. I laugh about it myself. The lunches, however, have given me a new appreciation of my sisters in UMW. I often gripe about how the younger people on my cyber-hangout, the OT, think about me only in terms of my age, but I have learned in the course of my months volunteering that I have been dismissive myself of women my own age, seeing the members of the day circles as an amorphous group of old ladies instead of a collection of intelligent and interesting women. Today one of them, B, has noticed a food pantry client with a shopping basket, not the store kind but like a tote on wheels, and says that it would be a good ministry to try to provide more people with baskets like that. 

It was like this, only black.
I suggest we bring it up at the next general meeting. I can search online for similar baskets, get a price, and even contect the sellers to see if  we can get a bulk rate for a large order. As I have learned from our more belligerent clients, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

So maybe I met Jesus today. If not, maybe I’ll meet him next month.

Friday, November 22, 2013


My son is back in the United States to live as of earlier this month, and is planning to come home next week for Thanksgiving. Not only that, but his girlfriend, who is from Venezuela and whom he met in London, is also now in the US after a promotion on her job, and they are both living in the same city. She and her three year old son will be coming here for Thanksgiving, too.

When I say “here”, I mean here to the city where I live. The three of them will be staying at my ex-husband’s house, which is bigger and has a room already set up for grandkid visits. That means they will be eating Thanksgiving dinner with his father, and we won’t see him until the next day.

The grown up part of me understands all this. Although we could certainly put all three of them up if need be, they will be more comfortable at his dad’s house. His stepmother has grown children, grandchildren, and extended family in the area,  and it will be much easier for them all to see Neal and his friends at Thanksgiving dinner than to make separate visits. 

The grown up part of me also feels for M, the girlfriend. If this relationship is as serious as it is beginning to seem, she may be about to acquire not just one, but two mothers-in-law. She doesn’t need to be the rope in a tug of war between us. As I keep reminding myself, this is not about me.

The not-so grown-up part of me, however, has thrown herself on the floor in a sobbing fit. “It’s not fair!” she screams. “I’m the one who brought him up. His stepfather is the one who drove a borrowed truck in the rain to get sand for a science project and carted the 5 foot in diameter model of Jupiter to school for another science assignment. I’m the nice parent, the one who didn’t beat the other one up.”

Okay, I think she is feeling a little better now. I keep feeding her ice cream, that seems to help.

Besides, the very footloose and fancy free lifestyle that makes John and me less suited for hosting big family dinners at holidays is going to be an asset in another situation. Sooner or later, M isn’t going to want to pack up a child and travel at Thanksgiving or Christmas. The parents who have kids and grandkids living nearby are going to have a conflict over whether to stay here or go and visit. Two people who have only themselves to consider, on the other hand, can easily show up at the door (after having secured a nearby hotel room) with lots of grandbaby presents. I don’t say this in a mean way. I just mean circumstances change.

In the meantime, baby Coleslaw brat, have another fudgesicle. It will make you feel better.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


“Your name is in the paper,” my husband announced to me this morning.

“Where?” I asked sleepily. He gets up earlier than I do, a habit from his working days, which theoretically at least, are supposed to resume again soon. Not soon enough for me, but soon. He handed me a long list from the classified section of people who had unclaimed property in the possession of the state treasurer’s office.

I saw that my name was listed as Coleslaw*, MD. The last time I saw my name with MD after it, instead of MS, it was on the subpoena that was issued for me last summer, that I missed getting because I was on vacation. I wondered if the list could be some kind of sting operation to attract people who had eluded subpoenas, although I had called the first business day after I got home to let the Sheriff’s office know that I was home and prepared to be served. By then they had made the obligatory three attempts and sent it back to the court. 

I looked up the treasurer’s office online and discovered a link to unclaimed property. There I was indeed listed as the owner of an unclaimed check for $136. My address was listed as my former work address. I know I am the only person with my name ever associated with the place, incorrect honorific or no. I think I know how MD got associated with my name, too. Since my former employer is a rehabilitation facility for children, it accepts insurance payments from various insurers. Each year for the past several before I retired, all the therapists had to fill out forms for each insurance company giving our credentials. The forms were designed for people with medical degrees. Filling them out correctly if you were a speech pathologist or physical or occupational therapist was a chore. Yes, these companies knew what services they were being billed for. Yes, they covered those services. No, they couldn’t be bothered to rewrite their forms to make it easy for people in health related fields to fill out. So somewhere along the way I became Me, MD. 

I filed a claim on the website, which required me to fill in infomation, and then print out a form to be mailed in with a copy of my driver’s license or other government issued ID, a copy of my Social Security card or other proof of SSN, and documentary evidence that the address listed was my former address. I was kind of stuck for the last one until my husband thought to look for my last W-2 form. I also had to sign the last page and have it notarized, a detail that cost me 10 bucks.

Paying $10 to reclaim $136 sounds worthwhile, but my hunch is that this unclaimed check is really payment for services rendered by me but payable to my employer. If in the meantime, my employer dealt with the insurance company and got a new check issued to the agency itself, the check is probably worthless. Even if it is still good, simple decency suggests I ought to give them what is supposed to be their money.

On the other hand, it could be something meant for me. I hate to let it languished unclaimed, even if only because I’d keep wondering about it.

So the papers, documentary evidence and notarized signature are now in the mail, and maybe in a few weeks I will have an unexpected windfall, just in time for Christmas.

That’s kind of nice, when you think about it.

*Not Coleslaw, of course, my real name. My very unusual real name.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Cake, Finally

So how hard could it be, I ask myself. The first day of the big Opera Cake Project went well, with even the buttercream frosting that started out looking like a disaster turning out well in the end. All I needed to do was make the sponge cake, make the glaze, which was just melting chocolate and adding in the butter I had already clarified, and assembling the cake. So what could go wrong?

Where to start, where to start. Let’s start with the jelly roll pans. I needed two the same size, 10 by 15 inches. I have two of different sizes, with the smaller one being close in size to what I needed. This meant I had to bake the first layer, turn it out to cool, clean the pan, bake the second layer. Not a big problem, but I elected to eyeball the division of batter in half rather than measuring exactly how much I had. I chose poorly. The first layer was thicker than the second. Since the middle layer is actually the two ends left over when you cut a 10 by 10 inch square from the two layers you bake, that difference in thickness is not trivial. Oh, well, I had lots of ganache to balance out any unevenness.

An even bigger problem was that I forgot to add the three tablespoons of melted butter to the batter, and didn’t realize it until layer one was in the oven. I pulled it out, stirred half of the butter into the batter in the bowl and the other half into the still liquid batter in the pan. The only problem is, the batter wasn’t really half and half.

But the ganache and the filling were perfect, and then there was the espresso syrup, so there would be lots of flavor, right? As the cake cooled, I kept saying to myself, “Remember to brush the espresso syrup on each layer before you put on the filling.” 

So guess what I saw on the counter as I got ready to put the top layer on the cake? The unused the espresso syrup. At least the top layer got some. A lot.

Okay, so with the cake assembled, except for the glaze, it needed to chill for an hour (and so did I). That should have given the top layer of buttercream a chance to harden up so it wouldn’t blend with the chocolate glaze. Should have. Didn’t quite. The top of the cake looks like chocolate peanut butter.

I still have hopes for it tasting okay. The buttercream, ganche and glaze all taste delicious. They should, that’s where the almost pound of butter and almost pound of chocolate all went.

By lunchtime today, I should know.

Next time anyone hears me say, “How hard could it be,” please just shoot me.

ETA: despite all my best efforts to mess it up, the cake tasted great, kind of like tiramisu. Everyone loved it. Still not sure I'd make it again.

I need to trim the cake and move to a serving platter before I take it to the luncheon.

Trimmed up, ready to go

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Not the Aria, Yet

Remember my post about opera cake? The one in which I reminded myself that people go to school to learn to make cakes like that and then decided to bake one, anyway? I finally have an occasion to make one, coming up on Saturday. We are having our UMW general meeting and annual membership meeting, and Day’s End Circle (me and my posse) have to bring desserts.

I have already been heavily involved in the upcoming meeting in that I volunteered myself to find a speaker. I found a historical interpreter who has worked on bus tours for the riverboats that come down the Mississippi and who is charging us what I consider a modest sum to speak to us in character and demonstrate how women dressed in the 1800’s. Nonetheless, as there aren’t too many of us in circle, I felt like I needed to contribute a dessert as well, and what better time to tackle the opera cake? (Other than after I finish cooking school, the pastry division.)

To review: the cake consists of three layers of almond sponge cake, each brushed with espresso syrup, then filled with coffee buttercream alternating with chocolate ganache, and topped with more buttercream and a chocolate glaze. Altogether it uses almost a pound of butter and 14 ounces of bittersweet chocolate. 

So today I did the shopping and then made the items that can be made in advance: the espresso syrup, clarified butter for the chocolate glaze, the chocolate ganache, and the buttercream frosting.

The syrup, butter, and ganache were easy. I had never clarified butter before, but the ghee I buy at the Indian store is too salty for baking, and it wasn’t hard to do myself. Sugar syrup and ganache I have made before.

I’ve made buttercream frosting before, too, but this is not your standard cream-butter-and-confectioner’s-sugar-then-add-flavoring-and-milk frosting. No, this one starts out with boiling sugar, water and vanilla to 255 degrees Fahrenheit (the hard ball stage) then letting it cool slightly while beating one egg plus a yolk. However long slightly is, I seem to have exceeded it, because when it came time to pour the syrup in a slow stream into the beaten eggs, I soon found I was scraping up a powdery mixture and beating it into the eggs instead. Things didn’t look much more promising when I added the dissolved espresso powder. The next step was to beat in 14 tablespoons of room temperature butter, one tablespoon at a time. I think the room temperature they had in mind was a lot cooler than my house, because the butter was rapidly becoming soupy as I frantically cut and tossed.

I reminded myself of Backup Plan One: make a batch of ordinary vanilla buttercream frosting with espresso powder tossed in for flavoring. (Backup Plan Two was buying a can of some appropriate looking frosting at the Winn-Dixie.)

As I was watching the dismal failure congeal under the beaters something strange began to happen. Bits of pale, fluffy looking peaks began to appear in the unpromising mess. Pretty soon, half of the mess began looking like frosting, and then the whole thing looked glossy and held soft peaks.

It worked!

So tomorrow I need to grind two cups of blanched almonds, make two 15” x 10” sponge cakes (to be cut into two 10 x 10 inch squares plus two 5 by 10 inch squares which together become the middle layer), make the chocolate glaze, and assemble the whole thing.

Now, how hard can that be?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Death and the Devil

The day after we saw Mount Rushmore, we went to the Devils Tower in Wyoming in the morning and Deadwood in the afternoon.

The Devils Tower is really misnamed. It was known as Bear’s Lodge by the tribes who lived in the area, and given the name Devils Tower by a later explorer. To this day it remains a sacred worship site to the Native American tribes of the region, and prayer cloths can be seen tied to the trees.

John by a big rock

Prayer Cloth

Deadwood was an interesting historic town that reminded me in many ways of Eureka Springs and Jackson, Wyoming. We saw a reenactment of Wild Bill Hickok’s death and a small museum that was quite informative about local history.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Skulls, Bones, and Minerals

After seeing the Crazy Horse Memorial, we went back to Rapid City to find the Museum of Geology at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.  It was a small museum that packed a big punch: large dinosaur fossils, skeletons of more recent fauna, and a section on minerals that included a US flag made of red, white, and blue minerals.