The Snows of 2015

IMG_6748Well…hello, side mirror!

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Brady to Gronk…

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“Ida”

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The Oscar-winning “Ida” directed by Pawel Pawlikowski is a movie that forced me to ask myself the question, “What would I do if all was lost?”

Set in 1962 Poland, “Ida” (played by Agata Trzebuchowska) is the story of an 18-year-old, orphaned, novitiate ready to take her vows when she learns from her Aunt Wanda (played by Agata Kulesza), her only living relative, that she is Jewish. Wanda is everything Anna, (her real name is Ida), isn’t. She’s a drinking, smoking, powerful former prosecutor, and a manizer—the impure to Anna’s pure. Together, this odd couple embarks on a journey to discover their family’s past in the Holocaust.

Shot in black and white with extended long shots, the spare and reduced scenery has the effect of stripping away any distractions. We are left with a very clear view of the psychological battles each woman is waging as she comes to terms with her past. One wages externally and loudly; the other is quiet and contained. It is a haunting and heart-breaking tale and one that I will never forget.

 

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Unraveling My Childhood Asthma: Did Motherhood Cure It?

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Here’s the article I wrote for the CommonHealth Blog on WBUR about overcoming my childhood asthma.

Unraveling My Childhood Asthma: Did Motherhood Cure It?

At 18 months old, while my dad, mom, older brother and I were driving from Virginia to San Francisco for my father’s new Naval deployment, I started wheezing. The asthma attack landed me in the hospital.

Emergency room visits and hospital stays punctuated my childhood and early adulthood. I could have been a tour guide of any Intensive Care Unit: “Over on the right is a shot of adrenaline, or epinephrine — try that first. If that doesn’t work, try the nebulizer on the left and IV over there.” These visits became so routine that as I got older, I often told the doctors and nurses what medicines I needed: Prednisone. Albuterol. Theophylline. These were the mainstays, but there were many others over the years. I took them in such large doses that one time they made my blood toxic.

Circa 1970: The author, center, with her brother and mother, shortly before the discovery of her mom's fatal brain tumor. (Courtesy)
Circa 1970: The author, center, with her brother and mother, shortly before the discovery of her mom’s fatal brain tumor. (Courtesy)

Emergency was a word my family understood. My mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor when I was 3 years old; she was 28. For five years, until her death, she battled her disease in and out of the hospital, too. I went to Bethesda Naval and she went across the state to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. I don’t remember ever seeing her hospital nor do I recall her ever seeing mine.

A Motherless Child’s Stress

Asthma is a disease of the respiratory system. It is serious business. Seneca, the Roman philosopher and Stoic dedicated an essay to it, called “Asthma,” in which he said that of all the ailments he’d suffered, asthma was the worst of them all. “Doctors have nicknamed [asthma] ‘rehearsing death,’ he wrote.

But asthma also has a powerful psychological or psycho-social component; with symptoms potentially exacerbated by emotional stress. As a child, I never realized it, but looking back I see it clearly: for all my suffering, asthma distinguished me. Got me noticed. In a childhood of disorder — marked by my mother’s death, and family chaos and constant moving — my own illness provided order. It wasn’t until the birth of my first child that my symptoms truly ceased.

In my own childhood, the asthma triggers were abundant: animal dander, dust, mold, pollen, cigarette smoke, a common cold, a change in temperature, or, yes, the particular stress of an ever-shifting “home.” When I was exposed to any of this, the airways of my lungs inflamed, constricting my breath. This caused the gasping for air or wheezing sound that is asthma’s signature.

When I was in distress, everyone could see and hear me. An asthma attack is very public. When my airwaves constricted, so would I. My shoulders and back tightened and I would fold in on myself. I must have thought that by making myself small, my lungs would have less work to do. I would stay like that until help arrived.

Often help involved a round with my “Machine” — a blue, compact Maxi Mist Compressor, also known as a nebulizer. I’d wrap my lips around the mouthpiece filled with steroids and saline solution and inhale the cool medicine. Relief was usually quick.

This Machine traveled everywhere with me. Once I started wheezing on a car drive. My dad had to pull over to a 7-11. We plugged the Machine into a socket in their storeroom. I sat on a cardboard box filled with Doritos and started breathing again.

Asthma is episodic. Mostly I breathed normally. In middle school and high school, I even rowed crew, ran track, and played tennis. Asthma is also genetic. Some of my cousins on my dad’s side had it, but no one had it like I did.

Order In A Disordered World

As the daughter of a naval officer, and without a mother, I moved 12 times as a kid into 11 different houses and six different family configurations.

Wherever I went, I took my meds, wheezed and went to the hospital. It didn’t matter if it was Aiea, Hawaii or Washington, D.C. Regardless of the coast or city, of the weather or school, I always had my inhaler, my Machine and my doctors.

In one of these homes, when I was 3 years old, my mother fainted while talking to our neighbor, Mrs. Chang, on the telephone. Mrs. Chang called her name many times. When she didn’t get a response she hurried to our house and found my mom lying on the floor unconscious. That was when the doctors discovered the astrocytoma tumor in her brain. My dad was on a destroyer in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It took him three days to get home. When he finally did, I was in the hospital, too.

This time I practically stopped breathing altogether. The doctors intubated me by way of my nose to get the air moving again in my bronchial tubes. Nasal intubation happened four more times when I was a child. I only remember one of them. I lay on a bloodstained hospital bed after waking up from the anesthesia. My nose throbbed like it had been pummeled. The rubber tube scratched the back of my throat. I bled for days.

“The scariest was the time you had to be air-bagged,” my dad said recently when I asked him about these attacks. I’d never even heard of air-bagging and had to Google it.

“You stopped breathing,” he said. This time I started breathing again not through a tube but with the help of a brown bag.

Unfortunately, my mother didn’t have a brown bag. Doctors tried radiation. They tried chemotherapy. They even opened up her skull three times to scrape out the cancer. There was usually improvement after each surgery. She’d get out of bed. She’d chat again. Her hair would begin to grow back. But the tumor held firm. It won.

Sassy Pants

I have little memory of her being well. I picture her in bed leaning against a pile of pillows. She’s wearing a brightly colored, patterned silk robe to conceal her deteriorating body. Her cheeks are puffy. Her bald head is covered with either a brown wig styled like her natural hair, but with a too-perfect gloss and bounce, or a headscarf, tied gracefully to the side. Even when my mother was at her sickest she always looked elegant, as if a dignitary might stop by at any moment. She was the wife of a rising star in the Navy, after all — a man who would eventually make Admiral.

Right before she died, she called my brother and me into her room. She had something important to tell us. “I’m going to die soon,” she said. “I love you very much and will always love you. Remember that always.” I can imagine the tears and the hugs but it’s all a blur. That is the last time I remember her alive.

Seven months after we buried her on a hill, under a tree, in Arlington National Cemetery, we left her behind and moved again. Another call to duty.

Before all that, when I used to sniff the roses in our garden, eat the not-quite-ripe tomatoes off the vines, and climb the magnolia tree outside our house in Virginia, my mom called me Sassy Pants. In a picture of her, my brother and I before cancer’s arrival, that nickname seems appropriate. We are all wearing striped shirts. My hair is brushed, shiny and pulled back in a little barrette. With my eyes sparkling and my head tilted, I look as sassy as any well-tended kid might.

But as more and more chaos swirled around me as a child—sickness, packing boxes, moving vans, new towns, new schools and new caretakers — Sassy Pants retreated. And someone less demanding and more watchful emerged.

Except with my asthma. It was only my asthma that brought Sassy back out. When I was 13 years old, I was hospitalized for pneumonia. My cough ruptured my air sacs. It then collapsed my lung. I was already in bed hooked up to oxygen and IVs. To re-inflate my lung, the doctors punctured a hole in the front of my chest. They shoved a tube into the top of my lung. The pain catapulted through my back and lodged under my shoulder blade. Comfort was inconceivable. The tube connected to a burbling machine that slowly ballooned my lung. To keep up my strength, I walked the corridors of the hospital wielding this machine and its long extension cord.

After two weeks, I was fully inflated and ready to go home. But when the doctors removed the tube, air whooshed out with it. I knew something was wrong when putting on my shoes winded me. My lung had collapsed again.

This time the doctors punctured a hole in my left side, under my armpit, and shoved in a new tube.

Flash forward 32 years: I’m chatting with a psychiatrist friend of mine about psychosomatic illnesses and I start asking about asthma, and my severe and scary version of it as a child. He said the theory behind psychosomatic illness today uses the example of a three-legged stool. One leg is genetics, one is temperament and one is exposure to stress. When you have all three, you might get one sick person. But when you remove a leg, the stool can’t stand and the sickness might go away. This three-legged stool concept, also known as the biopsychosocial model, was formulated by George L. Engel a psychiatrist at the University of Rochester, who published his theory in the journal Science in 1977.

Love, Babies And Song

After my collapsed lung, the wheezing and attacks continued — through new stepmothers, new towns, new schools, new chaos. Then after college, I moved to San Francisco. I met a guy. We fell in love. I noticed that I wheezed a little less. We moved to New York City. We got married and bought an apartment. Only once did I visit the hospital — and that was when we first moved there.

When I turned 32 and was pregnant with our first child, I stopped taking medicine. I’ve wheezed a few times in the 13 years since. Doctors tell me I still have asthma. But you wouldn’t know that from my medicine cabinet. Empty.

I used to joke that the natural adrenaline needed to stay alive in New York City and not get run over by a cab cured my asthma. Or maybe it was that our apartment was dust and mold-free. Or maybe that third leg on the stool, the one of stress, wasn’t there anymore. I’ll never know.

In my last singing lesson, I had a breakthrough. For weeks, I composed myself like a classical singer with my feet firmly rooted, my body erect, and my hands at my side for maximum focus on my breath and my sound. But instead of it coming out with force, it sputtered. It was as if my breath was clenched, my air tightened. My songs were losing their resonance. And I was losing my confidence. My teacher tried everything from chanting to craniosacral adjustments. Nothing worked. My sound was inhibited, stuck in my body. Last week, she suggested I move with the music. “Throw yourself into it, do an interpretive dance. Really express yourself,” she said. As I sang the George and Ira Gershwin standard, “The Man I Love,” I swayed my body and waved my arms. The sound exploded out and something deep inside suddenly felt “untrapped” and buoyed by breath. The notes weren’t perfect but they were out there — and without a single wheeze.

Sarah Baker is a freelance writer and blogger. She lives with her husband and two children in Cambridge.

Posted in Health, Personal Essays | 4 Comments

Nature’s Resiliency

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My daughter, Anna B, took this beautiful photo. It was taken in the Mad River Valley in Vermont. It led to so many questions in our family. What’s the story behind it? How long has the truck been there? Did the tree burst through the hood? Was there a tree and the owners, possibly artists, used a crane to gently lower the truck over it?

Hmmm, who knows.

 

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Food and Fun in the Mad River Valley of Vermont

(c) Tim Albright

(c) Tim Albright

On a Tuesday in March, a Dodge Sprinter Van painted with puffy white clouds, deep blue waters, and green hills speckled with farmhouses pulls up in front of the Bridge Street Butchery in Waitsfield. The Grateful Dead pulses on the radio. The driver, Ethan Wood, owner of Wood Mountain Fish, has just driven 200 miles through a blizzard from the Boston fish pier to this little town in the Green Mountains of Vermont to make his delivery. In the back of his van, below his skis mounted on the inside, he pulls out a cooler. Nestled on ice, he has sushi-grade tuna, scallops so fresh they’re still twitching, and oysters from Martha’s Vineyard.

“The least I can do is drive through a foot of snow,” said Wood, “the chefs in the Valley are amazing.” He hustles into the Butchery, a beautifully restored 1845 building, jokes with the owner Jeff Lynn, and scrambles back to his van. He has one more delivery to make and then he can hit the slopes at nearby Mad River Glen.

At first glance, the Mad River Valley might seem like just another quintessential Vermont landscape—quaint with its covered bridge and historic downtown, dramatic with its meandering river and steep mountains, picturesque with its Belted Galloway cows and round barn. It is all of these things. But there’s also something magnetic that makes people, like Wood, trek through blizzards to get to this place.

It’s partly the amazing outdoors. Skiers flock to Mad River Glen famous for its single chair and slogan, “Ski It If You Can” and nearby Sugarbush ski resort. There’s also an abundance of cross-country touring and snowshoeing. Or if sledding is your thing, you can hike with a Mad River Rocket Sled on your back, turtle-style, a mile up an unplowed mountain road, enjoy hot chocolate at the top, and cruise the longest run of your life. The summer time is just as fun with biking, hiking, and kayaking.

Beyond the Valley’s outdoor draw, though, is a serious food culture making it a culinary destination, too. There’s something tasty for everyone whether you’ve driven here for a day of skiing and a good meal or settling in for a week and cooking at home.

Take Mad Taco.  After a morning skiing, before our Sunday drives home, my family—husband and two kids, ages 11 and 13—and I hunger for a tasty burrito. Tucked away in a strip mall, next to Mehuron’s Supermarket, is the tastiest Mexican fare I have had on the east coast. Think gourmet Chipotle. Mad Taco uses only local Vermont ingredients—with the exception of avocados and other fair weather crops—for their small but inspired menu. The smoked pork belly, jalapeno, cilantro taco is a must. As is the roasted yam burrito with rice and beans, sliced avocado, pico sauce and cilantro. It’s simple but filling and flavorful. And make sure to try all of the five or six hot sauces they’re showcasing (out of over 100 they’ve created). The sauces are spicy so beware of their heat meter–each one is assigned a number with 1 the mildest and progressing to 10 the hottest. The latter might require medical assistance. The highest I have ever gotten was a six. Mad Taco is a dive but that’s part of its charm.

With so many meat and produce farms in the area, the Mad River Valley has always been a place for fresh, local ingredients. Farms like Gaylord, Neill, and Jasper Hill supply the restaurants with their cheese, beef, pork, and corn on the cob, making the quality of ingredients top-notch. The Mad River Valley also has a reputation of being a birthing ground for artisan food. Green Mountain Coffee started here as a little café in 1981.

As did American Flatbread pizza in the early 1990s, spawning frozen pizzas and out-of-state franchises. Dinner at American Flatbread is an iconic Valley experience. Housed in Lareau Farm and only open Friday and Saturday nights, you must sign up early for this popular spot. Lining up at 3:30 pm is recommended, so you’ll have to leave the slopes before they close. It’s worth it. As you sip local Lawson’s beer and wait for your Evolution Salad of sweet leaf and mesclun lettuces tossed in a ginger-tamari vinaigrette and sprinkled with Jasper Hill blue cheese, you can watch your pizza cook in their giant wood-fired clay oven. My favorites are the Punctuated Equilibrium with olives, oven-roasted sweet red peppers, and Vermont artisanal goat cheese; and the New Vermont Sausage with local pork in a homemade maple-fennel sauce baked with sundried tomatoes, caramelized onions and roasted mushrooms. Save room for the apple pie also made in the clay oven. The owner George Shenck doesn’t just make the dough; he’s also a philosopher. If you’re lucky enough to meet him ask him about his declarations on the website.

Another not-to-be-missed dinner after a day of fresh air and exercise is at Peasant restaurant on Bridge Street. The owner Chris Alberti traded equities on Wall Street for years and escaped the Twin Towers on 9/11. A few years ago he and his wife, Mary Ellen, and their five children moved from New York and started the East Warren Vineyard. They took over the space that had previously been The Green Cup—A New York Times reviewed restaurant–after its restoration from the destruction of Hurricane Irene. A few feet from the covered bridge and Mad River, the small Peasant has a majestic setting. The food, rustic in feel and leaning toward Tuscan, is simple but with depth. The Tagliatelle with Mushroom Gorgonzola Cream Sauce and the Cassoulet of White Beans, Chicken, Sausage and Pork transports you to a country kitchen in Italy or France. But the Brussels Sprout Salad with Apple, Lardons and Asiago roots you firmly in Vermont. The candlelit rooms, comfortable tables, and bar feel as if you are eating in the Alberti’s home. Considering that many members of the family work there, I guess you are.

Around the corner from Peasant, and the source of their desserts, is The Sweet Spot, home of Scout’s Honor Ice Cream and Sweet Simone’s Bakery including homemade bagels and the best cupcake I have had–gluten-free chocolate with dulce de leche frosting—light and full of flavor. This gem of a bakery has just expanded and now has a few seats. Otherwise, if the weather’s nice you can get an Espresso to go. Perfect for energizing you for a grueling bike ride over the nearby Schuss Pass Road. The Sweet Spot is owned by siblings Lisa Curtis and John Vitko. He makes the ice cream and she the pastries.

At the Bridge Street Butchery, next door, owner Jeff Lynn is busy making one of his sandwiches named after famous bridges of the world—The Brooklyn Bridge is Reuben-like, or my favorite, Storseisundet Bridge, is made with smoked salmon. If it’s the summer, get it to go. Walk two blocks north on Route 100 to Clearwater Sports. Rent a kayak for the afternoon and have a picnic on the banks of the Mad River. As you’re floating back downstream, dream of what you want for dinner. You have so many wonderful options right near by.

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Pura Vida in Costa Rica

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Where: Harmony Hotel in Nosara, Costa Rica

When: last week

Why: We were in Costa Rica stranded for three days because Jet Blue cancelled all flights. (Thank you Jet Blue.)

I went to mail a thank you letter to Adrian, our wonderful guide, at the Corcovado tent camp. His address: Sierpe de Osa, 25 Metros al Sur de la Plaza de Fútbol.

“Will my letter make it with that address?” I asked Sebastian, the concierge.

“Oh yes,” he said, “Usually the address is To the Right of the Orange Tree.”

“What if it’s been cut down,” I ask nervously.

“Oh, that would be a problem,” he says.

“But, every town we’ve been to has a school, a church, and a soccer field,” piped in the English woman also at the front desk.

“Right,” we all agreed, “the soccer field isn’t going away.”

“It’ll get there,” said Sebastian.

“It’s the Tico Pura Vida,” he said.

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The Perfect Nut

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I have eaten almonds all my life. I’ve enjoyed them sliced, slivered, and whole. I’ve had them blanched, honey-roasted, and covered in chocolate. I’ve eaten them fresh from the farmer in San Rafael, California. I’ve scooped them from a heap at the spice market in Istanbul. I’ve even tried them raw wrapped in prosciutto. But the most memorable of them all is the roasted, salted almond from Fastachi’s, owned by Souren and Susan Etyemezian, in Watertown, Massachusetts.      

These crunchy, plump, sienna-brown almonds, lightly dusted with sea salt, are perfect. They are nonpareil, size 18/20 from California. In Watertown, the Etyemezians roast them, Mediterranean-style, in small batches in a steel drum. They hand-sift them to make sure only whole nuts make it into the package. They season them with sea salt. The result is a full almond taste—not woody, bland, or bitter. My favorite way to eat them? Straight out of the bag.  $11.99/pound http://www.fastachi.com

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