Wednesday, July 29, 2015

This is one of my favorite pieces.  I wrote it years ago, before everybody and his brother had web sites -  which is obvious as you read through the piece.  It is too long to publish anywhere except here, but I simply refuse to cut any words.  It's about a vacation, and I've published it here before. But I don't care.  Here goes:


            Although I never knew it, my family was, well, fiscally challenged.  We had a roof, food, an embarrassing car, clothing, a television, a portable dishwasher, a window air conditioner, and the finest cabinet stereo Western Auto sold.  We never, though, had a family vacation.

            As I watched “The Wonderful World of Disney” every Sunday evening on the Philco TV, the one that swiveled, I ached when I saw the whirling teacups on the Disneyland commercials.  I wanted to go to Disneyland.  I wanted to see Walt Disney as he ambled among his guests.  I wanted to walk up Main Street and run into Mickey Mouse or Snow White.  But it was not to be.
            My family never stepped foot inside Disneyland’s magical gates.
            Tip #1: Do NOT impose your childhood dreams on your child!

            When our daughter was born, I told my husband that just as important as it was for me to have a box of Kleenex in the bathroom - another luxury missed in childhood - it was also essential that we take a family vacation each year, thereby making sure that Emily lacked none of life’s little extras.
            Tip #2: Make your vacation the size of your child or children.

            When Emily was 3, I found what I thought would be the perfect family vacation - a trip to Sea World.  Kate, our babysitter, had been to San Antonio to Sea World, and had brought back Shamu lore and fantastic Sea World souvenirs.

            “Shamu,” I heard Emily say for weeks.  “Shamu.”
            So I planned.  I wrote to the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau for information.  I checked air fare and hotel rates.  I made reservations.

            We were taking Emily to, not Disneyland, but Disneyland-like Sea World in San Antonio.

            We would arrive on Friday, May 1, and leave 6 days later.  I thought we could relax for a couple of days by the pool at the hotel, then go to Sea World on Monday and Tuesday when crowds would be thin.  We could then shop on Wednesday, and head home on Thursday.  Life was good.

            Tip #3: Make a list of everything you will need for your child as you travel - and add things to do for the time you are at your vacation spot!

            Traveling with a 3-year-old was an eye-opening experience.  We took anything that might possibly appeal to Emily for the duration of the flight: her blanket, pillow, stuffed Barney, crayons, coloring book, books, and pencils – but no kitchen sink.  We also took the requisite toddler equipment: car seat, stroller, first aid kit, and bag of snacks.  Max and I crammed our clothing into one suitcase so that we’d have one fewer bag to cart around.
            Southwest Airlines’ “families with young children board first” rule is truly a lifesaver.  We managed to haul most everything on board - except for one suitcase and the stroller - and we found seats at the bulkhead, giving us extra room to spread out.

            We shared the area with a beautiful, aristocratic-looking young Hispanic woman.  Emily had never seen anyone quite so exotic, and so she spent most of the flight ignoring the crayons, books, pencils, and even Barney, in favor of staring at the woman who looked different from everyone else in her little life.

            First I tried to distract Emily, but she would have none of it.  Then I tried ordering her not to stare, but that went the way of most maternal orders.  Finally, I accepted the embarrassment, and explained to the thankfully gracious young woman that our daughter had never seen anyone so exotically glamorous.

            We spent the rest of the flight talking about San Antonio, which was her home town, and all its delights - including the Riverwalk, the zoo, Sea World, the Alamo, and the Mexican square.  I figured we couldn’t get it all done in just 5 days.

            Tip #4: Call or e-visit each destination you will be visiting during your vacation - hotel, theme park, other specific attraction - and let them know you will be coming.  Ask about typical weather for the time you’ll be there, room availability, special provisions for toddlers, including any organized activities that may be at the hotel or available to guests at the hotel, special promotions, any nearby attractions, and public transportation availability (if you do not plan to rent a car).  Make a list.  Be specific and thorough.

            After we landed, and on the way to the hotel, I saw a billboard about Sea World - Opening, it said, for the weekend season on May 1.  My heart started pounding.  Weekend?  Wasn’t Sea World like Disneyland?  Open every day of the year?  May 1 was that very day - meaning we had to go to Sea World on Saturday and Sunday or not at all.  I decided to check at the hotel for more information, including how to get there.  The billboard gave me the idea that Sea World was in the hinterlands, and we were not getting a car.  It wasn’t in the budget.

            We arrived at the hotel nervous and anxious about our plans.  True to its billing, the hotel was classic and gorgeous and big.  We checked in and were shown our room, which had, unfortunately, no real view at all.  Max and I thought that curious since the hotel and its surroundings were simply beautiful.

            We immediately started checking out the premises.  The hotel had all the necessities: a café, a bar, a gift shop, and a direct connection to the Riverwalk.  It also had a beautiful Spanish tile pool, but no one was using it, perhaps because the temperature in San Antonio at midday on May 1 was about 58 degrees.

            Emily didn’t care, though, and started begging to get in the water.  I cheerfully handed that duty to Max, and I checked out the gift shop for a sweatshirt, and then the bar to calm my quickly frazzling nerves.

            While Max and Emily turned blue in the pool, I headed to the front desk to learn everything I needed to know about Sea World.  I found that it indeed was opening that day for the season: weekends only through May, just like Worlds of Fun in Kansas City.  It was miles from the hotel, but the city bus actually ran a regular route there.

            Buoyed by what I saw as a streak of luck, I went to the pool to give Max and Emily the news.  Blue-lipped and teeth chattering, they were less enthusiastic than I.

            We decided to walk to the Mexican square for an authentic Mexican dinner.  Max ordered cabrito (young goat) and Emily ordered a grilled cheese sandwich.  Grilled cheese, however, wasn’t on the menu, and we tried to make do with a cheese quesadilla.  Emily wasn’t happy.  I asked for another margarita.

            After we arrived back at the hotel, Max and I realized that, because Emily was sleeping on a love seat in our room, if she went to sleep at 8, so did we.  I made a mental note: Call every suites-only hotel chain for a list of all their hotels in the country.

            Fortunately, because of our hard travel day, and maybe because of that second margarita, I was exhausted, and sleep came quickly.

            About 2 a.m., though, we were rudely awakened by the noise of squealing tires that seemed to be coming from behind our bed.  That noise was followed by more, then more of the same.  Max decided to check the source, since neither of us relished the thought of a car’s driving through the wall into our bed.  When he returned, white-faced, he let me know about our room’s lack of a view.  Our room, along with a block of other rooms, was nestled snugly next to the parking garage.  The parking attendants, trying efficiently to shuffle cars for space, were driving pretty quickly around the garage, which caused the noise.  Would the surprises never end?

            Tip #5: If you are visiting a special attraction, or will be spending a lot of time far from your hotel room, pack a special bag specifically for that day trip before you leave home.  Be sure to include at least one change of clothing.  Then you will need only pull out that bag for the day rather than go through all your “stuff,” picking and choosing what you might need.

            Next morning, we woke, still tired, and got ready for Sea World.  Because preparing a toddler for anything takes forever, we barely made the bus that took us to Sea World, arriving at the time the gates opened.  I wanted to miss the crowds.

            Well, there weren’t any crowds, because at 10 a.m. on May 2 in San Antonio, it was about 65 degrees and cloudy.  On a bright note, though, it was The Year of the Family at Sea World, and admission was discounted.

            We arrived in time for Shamu’s first show, which, in retrospect, was a big mistake.  People who attend Shamu’s show have a choice of sitting in a “splash” zone.  That means that Shamu jumps and twists and slaps his (her?) tail on the water in a way that absolutely drenches these poor souls.  That’s probably fine in July when it’s sunny and 101 degrees, but it was definitely not appealing in May at 10 a.m. when it was cloudy and 65 degrees.  To Emily, however, getting splashed by Shamu was a necessity regardless of weather, and she loudly let us, and everyone around us, know.

            Once more, I turned water duty over to Max; I sat safely ensconced in a dry seat, while Emily got her thrills from Shamu’s splash, and Max got his thrills presumably from watching our happy child.

            After the show, we dried Emily off (we had brought no extra clothing - who knew?) and I asked her, “Emily, what do you want to do now?”

            “Go home,” she said.

            Max and I looked at each other.  “Don’t you want to go see the dolphins?”

            “No,” she replied.  “I want to go home.”

            I was raised to believe that food solved all problems. So I suggested lunch while we reconnoitered.  Eventually, Emily acquiesced to the dolphins and even some of the other displays, and when we left for the day, we agreed that a good time had been had by all.

            Tip #6: Always have a Plan B.  And a Plan C.  And D.

            My head was spinning, though, because it was Saturday.  We weren’t leaving until Thursday, and another day at Sea World was out of the question.  What, oh what, were we going to do in San Antonio with a toddler who never heard of John Wayne, David Bowie, Santa Ana, or the Alamo, and who wanted to go home?

            The next day, we explored the Riverwalk, Max and I on foot, and Emily on Max’s shoulders.  Before it started to rain, we found a restaurant that would make a grilled cheese sandwich.  And as we walked, we stumbled upon a mall with a movie theatre, and miraculously, it was showing not one, but two G-rated movies.  To this day, I kiss the feet of the producers of “Beethoven” and “Fern Gully.”  We saw “Beethoven” on Sunday and “Fern Gully” on Monday.  And we ate daily at the real restaurant - the one that fixed grilled cheese though it wasn’t on the menu.

            On Tuesday, as we loitered about the hotel lobby because it was raining yet again, I announced to Max, “We’re going home tomorrow.  Let’s call the airlines and change the reservations.”

            “Are you nuts?  That will cost money,” he protested.

            “Actually,” I came back, “we’ll save about $20.  Yes, the airline will charge us to change our reservations.  But we’ll save a day’s hotel and a day of airport parking.  We’ll end up ahead.”

            He wasn’t convinced.

            “Okay,” I spat out.  “What do YOU propose we do for another 48 hours?  It’s still raining.”

            He headed off in the other direction.

            “Where are you going?”  I asked.

            “To pack and call Southwest.”

            We arrived home the next day, tired, $20 or so to the good, quite a bit wiser, and none the worse for the wear.

            Tip #7: “If at first you don’t succeed...” or “Practice makes perfect”.
            Regardless of how stressful that first family vacation sounds, we actually had a good time, and learned a great deal about what not to do when traveling with our adorable, high-maintenance child.

            Since then, we have braved the beaches of Sanibel Island, the San Diego zoo, Williamsburg,Virginia, even New York City with a train ride to Cooperstown thrown in.  And each vacation was better than the one before it, because we knew more about what to do and what NOT to do.

            And we did go to Disneyland.  Mr. Disney was long gone, but the whirling teacups were still there.  So were Main Street, Mickey Mouse and Snow White.  I had the time of my life, and Emily, then 5, was the perfect age for that park.  She held up like a trouper for two short days (rather than one long one!), and was so awed by her surroundings that she never asked us to buy her anything.  Oh, except the Jasmine outfit, which was out of her budget.  I still remember her standing there in the store, saying, loudly, of course.....

            But that’s another story.  And another set of Tips.

Friday, August 15, 2014

            Larry Harman and I first met in 1971 as freshmen at William Jewell College.  He was one of the cool kids, self-assured, immediately well-known, while I was more hesitant, in the background, watching from afar.  As far as I know, we were the only two kids in that class to be at Jewell on music scholarships who were not music majors.  He made a big splash in the Concert Choir; I was afraid to audition.  He was the star of the Fiji musical skit; I watched from the balcony.  But we were friends.

            As our college years passed, Terry Teachout (you’ve heard about him) and Dr. Forbis convinced me that I could sing, so eventually Larry asked me to fill in for the regular soloist in his jazz combo.  He played every Saturday night at the St. Joe Shriner’s Club, and I got my first taste of singing with a band, which I loved.

            Over the years, Larry and I have stayed in touch, because just as we were both the non-major musicians back then, we both ended up as lawyers.  He is now the Presiding Judge in Liberty (Clay County), and Max ends up appearing in front of him quite often.  Who knew?

            Well, Larry and his wife, Debbie, ran into Max and me at a party in Liberty, and he told me about his newest musical achievement – Two and a Half Tenors.  Larry had met Bryan Taylor, also a Jewell grad, but much younger, who is the music director at the Liberty United Methodist Church.  A few years ago, he asked Larry’s daughter to sing a solo.  She then convinced Larry to join the choir.

            A little after he began singing in the choir, he and Bryan did some duets.  Then Larry heard another tenor voice in the choir, that of Steve Waters.  Larry was sure that the three of them would sound good together, and so with his formidable powers of persuasion, he convinced Steve and Bryan to form a group that sings all kinds of music – Broadway show tunes, sacred music, and other classical and popular music.  Thus, Two and a Half Tenors was born!

            Larry’s musical background is pretty spectacular, but when he told me about Bryan Taylor, my eyes widened.  Bryan sings with the Kansas City Chorale, a group that won a Grammy last year and has another under its belt.  He also has sung in Carnegie Hall, currently directs the Liberty Community Chorus, and has started a group called Worship Through the Arts, which is dedicated to bringing the arts – not just music, but also dance and visual arts – to the church.  This program has sponsored contemporary Christian music groups, Kansas City’s legendary jazz singer Ida McBeth and her group, as well as regional artists, such as the Annie Moses Band, and Mark Schultz.  I admit my prior ignorance of these last two artists, but I Googled them and was quite impressed.

            Steve Waters is also a musician who not only sings, but also is a very busy piano technician, tuning pianos in Kansas City area homes, and those in schools and organizations.  Originally from a small Missouri town, he graduated from UCM with a music education degree, and directed a church choir.  He also has taught private brass lessons. 

            Rounding out the group is a most necessary party – the accompanist.  The group’s usual accompanist, Sharon Parker, is not going to be with the Tenors on Sunday, as she had to undergo some kind of surgery on her foot – which I’m sure would affect her pedaling!  Instead, Eryn Bates, yet another Jewell grad, will act as the Tenors’ accompanist.  Eryn is on the teaching staff at William Jewell, and, according to Larry, has great talent.

            The group did its first concert as a benefit for the Corbin Theatre on the Liberty Square, where Larry performs in a jazz group once a month.  For that first concert, held at Belvoir Winery in Liberty, about 100 people were on the waiting list for tickets.  The Tenors did their next concert at a larger venue – the Liberty United Methodist Church – and another 100 people were on the waiting list.  Since that time, Two and a Half Tenors have performed in many different locations, including Farris Hall in Richmond, Missouri – and soon, Sedalia! 

When Larry and I met at the party in Liberty, he played an iPhone recording of the group singing special music on Mother’s Day.  I immediately asked Larry if they would come to Sedalia to perform, and he jumped at the chance.  He says that the group loves performing, taking musical notes that are written on a piece of paper, and then transforming those inanimate objects into beauty that can touch a person’s heart.  “We love doing music,” he told me on Tuesday, as he scoped out Broadway’s sanctuary and sound system.  “Over the past couple of years, we have developed a real affection for each other, kind of like brothers – brothers who quarrel occasionally!” 

I asked him why he began the group – why he still has the desire to perform.  “My Dad was a professional musician for a while,” he said.  “My Mom walked door to door selling Avon so my sister and I could have a piano and drums and lessons. So I sing and hope they are listening. And besides,” he continued, “music happens when your emotions embrace your soul.  That’s magic."   

            I am excited to present this concert for music and arts lovers in Sedalia – and soon-to-be music lovers - and I hope that plenty of people will turn out for a special night.  The program begins at 7 and admission is free.  We will take up a “love offering” to help defray costs, and, we will also provide refreshments after the program. 

Many times, I stand back and look at the connections I have made over my lifetime and am surprised about how they weave into and out of my days.  This is one connection that I am happy to have kept, and after you hear Two and a Half Tenors, I think you will be happy about it, too.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

This has been an extraordinary weekend!  Everything began on Friday, when I discovered that I had accumulated 197 of the 214 signatures of registered voters I needed to put me on the ballot for Associate Circuit Judge as a non-partisan candidate.  That means I will be entering the race on Monday, July 28.

After that news, my good friend Kim Schroeder invited me out to dinner with her, her husband, her son, and her son's friend.  We had a great time at Colton's, and I came home to finish up some work.

Saturday morning, I woke up and got a few more signatures just to be sure, and then I actually sat in the black leather chair in our living room and watched Air Force One, one of my favorite movies, starring Harrison Ford as an "ordinary man" President.  I had just begun to watch The Parent Trap, staring Lindsey Lohan before she lost her mind (she was SO cute!), when a couple of clients showed up.  We talked about their situation and I felt lucky to be able to help them.  A little bit later, my friend from William Jewell, Judy Luxton, showed up with her brand new puppy, an English Mastiff named Finn.  Finn is seven weeks old, and he was very cute and reminded me why puppies are simply precious!

Judy was here because I had invited her to sing at Broadway Presbyterian on July 27.  I invited her to come to Sedalia on Saturday and spend the night (slumber party!) so she could sing at worship on Sunday without having to drive two hours before church.  We sat around and visited and talked, had a couple of glasses of wine, went to El Tapatio for dinner, and about 10 p.m., finally decided what she was going to sing about.  We then went to sleep to rest for the next day.

About 8:30 this morning, I got a text from a friend who said that she was coming over to sign my petition.  I hadn't seen her for a while, and so I was excited to talk to her.  I love the part of campaigning that allows me to see people and talk to them about what has been going on in their lives and with their children!  She signed, and we talked some more, and then I got ready for church.

This is where the magic started happening.

Judy and I got to church and started practicing.  The song we had decided on the night before was nothing short of spectacular.  She sang beautifully, and I played well - even though the song has five flats.  The service began, and Pastor Rob was talking directly to both Judy and me in his sermon, telling us that we needed to be "all in" for living our lives the way we were meant to live them.  That, of course, included doing music.  So when it was our turn, Judy sang her heart out, I played my fingers off, and we were stunned at the power of one little song.

I could barely see the music through the mist in my eyes.

Then we went to lunch and talked about being married.  Judy's husband was killed earlier this year, and she is still reeling from the suddenness of that change in her life.  Our discussion was frank and direct, something that I would never have expected even a year ago.  But somehow, through that shared music experience, it seemed natural to share other things in our lives that were just as natural and right as the song we gave to the congregation that morning.

Though we were having a good time, I had to leave, and so I waved good-bye to Judy, knowing that next year, we will do this again.

The reason I had to leave was that I was headed to a 65th anniversary party for the parents of my BFF (really - she and I have been friends since we were babies).  The party was at Highland Springs Country Club outside Springfield - so while Judy was heading back to Springfield, so was I - and I had bought a new dress for the occasion!

My friend Susan had prepared a short movie depicting the decades of her parents' marriage.  I sat and wept hot tears as I saw the pictures of not only the things that changed the world since 1948, but also her mother and father through the years.  It felt as if I were just reliving my entire life!

Another one of my good friends was at the party with her new husband.  Jo Beth's first husband died several years ago, when her daughter was in high school and her son in the fourth grade.  She raised her children alone, and then tragically lost her daughter to leukemia a few years ago.  At the same time, Larry's wife Janice was diagnosed with and succumbed to ALS.  About the time I left for Afghanistan, Larry and Jo Beth began dating, eventually married, and now are nothing short of moon-eyed for each other.  Seeing them together made me really happy.

Part of my emotional reaction at the party had to do with the fact that Hazel and Joe - Sweet Hazie and Papa Joe - spent a great deal of time contributing to my growing up.  Hazel fed me innumerable meals, and Joe gave me one of my first jobs - wrapping Christmas presents at the Five and Dime my freshman year.  I spent many a Friday night at Susan's house, listening to music, giggling, and talking about what was happening at school.  It was as if her family was my family, too.  So I watched the movie that jogged my memory about a white leather chair, a house with a pool, and two little girls who grew up and still like each other.

And now it is 10 p.m., and this magical weekend has come to an end.  I am still smiling - and weeping hot tears. But I am happy.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Jailhouse Lawyer

Court today was short, although I expected to be in there until late afternoon – the crowd was huge! Things went along swimmingly, people were doing what they were supposed to do without complaint, and then it was time for the video arraignments. That part of court can be pretty touchy – after all, the folks in jail have an audience: some like being on television in front of a crowd and do a lot to encourage laughter, and others don’t like for anyone else to hear their business.

Today, only two people were in jail awaiting arraignment. One I had never seen before, and the other was a frequent flyer, Mr. Thomas; he, in fact, is now married to the woman who stole vodka in the middle of the morning and then called me “that bitch woman judge down there.”

The newbie, Mr. Barrett, had a city charge of driving with a revoked license. The clerks had made a note on his paperwork that he, because of legal problems I knew nothing about, had what we call a “10-year denial.” This means that he probably had some convictions involving drinking and driving, and those convictions had been in close enough proximity in time so that the state would deny him the privilege of having a driver’s license for 10 years. I asked him if that note was correct; he told me it was and that he had four years left before he would be eligible for a license. He also told me that he had state charges that would keep him in jail for a while, where he had been for over a month.

I then told Mr. Barrett that if he pled guilty to his charge, I would sentence him to two days in jail, and that I would give him credit for two days her had already served. I went on to explain that his license would be suspended for another year, but that year would expire before he was eligible to get his license back.

I noticed that Mr. Thomas was nodding, and then he leaned over to the newbie and said something that was supposed to be sotto voce; however, I could hear him, the jailhouse lawyer, saying, “It’s a good deal.” And because of his prior experience, he should know.

Mr. Barrett took Mr. Thomas’s legal advice and agreed to the guilty plea with a sentence of two days, credit time served.

Then I turned to Mr. Thomas, whose city charge was having an open container (alcohol) in the city limits. It is unlawful for anyone to have an open container (alcohol) in a car or in his or her possession in a park or walking down the street or the sidewalk. I told Mr. Thomas that I hadn’t seen him in a while, and I assumed that meant he was staying out of trouble. He then told me yes, and that he also had state charges. I told him I was prepared to make him the same offer: two days, credit time served, but I needed to check on something. I turned off my microphone and started looking for the piece of information I was missing.

The two men thought that I had turned off their microphone, as well, and that I couldn’t hear them. Mr. Barrett looked at the jailer and said, “Who is she?”

The jailer replied, “She’s the judge. Judge Mitchell.”

Mr. Barrett nodded and said, “She’s nice.”

Mr. Thomas chimed in, “She’s really fair. That deal she gave you was really fair. She’s always been fair to me.”

And we had a LONG history!

By then, I had found the information I had been searching for, and turned the microphone back on, not letting them know that I had overheard their conversation. “Mr. Thomas, did you want to plead guilty and take the two days?”

He did, and I thanked him. I then said, “Well, Mr. Barrett, you did well taking your counsel’s advice today. Thank you both, gentlemen. And Mr. Thomas, I know you haven’t been in trouble, but I haven’t seen you for a while also because I went to Afghanistan for six months.”

He told me, “I know. I read it in the paper.”

He reads the paper? Who knew?

In the end, the man without a law degree reminded me that making judgments about people without evidence can lead to erroneous conclusions – and that is why judges never make up their minds about a case until all the evidence is in. Thanks, Mr. Thomas.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Home Again

I have been home for a little over a week. My job was downsized when my company lost half its contract with the State Department, and I was one of the unfortunate few who ended up without a position. Even though I really didn't want to leave Kabul, the more I thought about it, the better home sounded. The closer my departure date came, the more I felt like a horse heading home to the barn - except that I had no way to run faster. And after I arrived home, I realized that this was the best place for me to be. I was unhappy with the way things ended in Kabul, but I felt good being home.

Max picked me up at the airport and we went out to an early lunch at Blanc Burgers + Bottles, which is a great "burger joint" on the Plaza, and then we stopped to get a few things before heading home to Sedville, where I stopped in to see my mother and show her that I was back safe and sound. That night, we went to dinner at McGrath's, where I had a wonderful filet, and then some friends came over to watch the State of the Union address. By the time they left, I had been awake for about 24 hours.

Part of that 24 hours had been spent on a large Delta plane that took me from Dubai to Atlanta in about 14 hours. I was tired and emotional and extremely unhappy when I found that my seat would be on the very last row of the plane, which meant that I had to wait the longest to get off, and that I would be sitting close to the bathroom, where people would be traipsing over the entire flight, and where I would hear each flush of the toilet. This was about the worst news I could get at that particular time. I pleaded with the gate attendant in Dubai to try to find me a different seat. I guess she took pity on me, because she put me in a bulkhead seat, where I had plenty of room to stretch out and could easily climb over seat neighbors who might have fallen asleep.

We boarded the flight about 10:15 p.m., and took off around 11. I got comfy, thanked the gate attendant over and over for my wonderful seat, ordered a Scotch and soda, ate something, and then prepared to take my Advil PM so that I would be assured at least eight hours of sleep - leaving only about five hours to be up in the air with nothing to do. And that plan worked. But the guy next to me was REALLY serious about getting some sleep on the plane. While I had my Scotch and soda, he had two beers and three airplane bottles of Jack Daniels Black Label. He got a little cranky when the flight attendant wouldn't give him a fourth Jack Daniels, but then he ate his footlong sandwich from Subway, and then he popped an Ambien and put on his black-out eye mask. He didn't move for at least 10 hours - or at least I assume he didn't. When I woke up from my eight-hour sleep, he was out like a light, and while I watched "Argo," he was STILL asleep. I was kind of wondering whether he was still breathing, but he moved and made a noise, stopping my worry.

A word about "Argo:" Wonderful. I love movies that tell a story so well that even if the audience knows the ending, the suspense is enough to make one wring one's hands in distress. "Notorious" (Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Raines) is such a movie. No matter how many times I see it, as soon as Cary heads down to the wine cellar, my heart starts beating a little more rapidly. Well, "Argo" has that same quality. I was able to watch it on my personal screen, using my personal earbuds, knowing that I would see it more than once; Max was going to have to see it, too. Watching it, I was a wreck, glad that I was on a plane that kept me from jumping up from my seat and pacing at the back of the theater. And I knew how it ended!

After all that stress, I was ready to laugh a little, and so I watched yet another movie beginning with "A" - "Arthur," with Dudley Moore. I had not seen it in years, remembering some things about the plot, but mostly remembering that the interaction of Dudley Moore and Sir John Gielgud was nothing short of spectacularly engaging. And I had remembered right.

Even after watching those two movies, we still had 90 minutes of flying left to do! That time passed quickly, as Delta served us a third meal and coffee and tea - and wine and beer if we so chose. I suppose if I had been up for 14 hours straight without sleeping, and was still on Dubai/Kabul time, beer or wine would have been okay. That, however, was not the case, so with my breakfast, I drank a Coke for caffeine, a real Coke with sugar and calories!

We landed beautifully in Atlanta, where our first stop should have been customs and passport control. Unfortunately, however, we landed an hour early, and customs/passport control did not open for another half hour, so we were reduced to sitting on the plane until the customs people thought that opening early would be a good idea. And it was. Our flight was not the first one served by customs. By the regular opening time, hundreds of people were in the queue, and we were waiting patiently to be processed through into the good old USA. During the wait, we were surrounded with a display of huge digital photos showing America at her most beautiful - amber waves of grain, a lighthouse on a rocky shore, a lobster boil somewhere, one of Savannah's squares, and on and on. I was tired and emotional, and those pictures made me cry. I was happy to be back home.

We moved through the line quickly, and I was able to get my luggage quickly and then take it to the next check-in, where it was bound for Kansas City and HOME. It was barely 6:00 a.m., and so I headed up to a coffee shop in the Atlanta airport and had a mocha, and just sat around and watched the people go by. Everything was generally quiet, the place was clean, and the mocha was good. I reveled in being an American in America. The simple act of sitting in the airport drinking mocha made me pretty much ecstatic.

And that is how it has been since then. I have been ecstatic to cook dinner, to drink wine, to watch television, to talk to my husband, and to have friends over. I have not been ecstatic to clean house, however. All in all, my experience was a good one, but I am happy to be home again.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas Eve Miracle

The sadness that is often Christmas came crashing down on me over the past few days. I have cried and brooded, and finally I came up with a different option: several of us decided to go out to a Christmas Eve dinner that was being specially cooked in one of the local restaurants that caters to ex-pats. It was the only way I knew to make sure I was with other people so that I couldn’t look at the computer or the four walls of my little room and be so depressed that I would want to simply crawl into bed.

So we set out.

We got into our vehicle and took out over the incredibly bumpy road, as usual, full of potholes and ravines and occasionally speed bumps. The dust was overwhelming. It swirled around the moving car like the heaviest fog I have ever seen. We could see the red taillights of the cars in front of and beside us, we could see the headlights of the cars that were, as usual, headed right for us, and we could see the occasional donkey cart on the side of the road, but only as we sped past, bumping and bouncing from one rut to the other. I wondered where we were headed; because it was dark, I couldn’t see any familiar landmarks, nor could I see anything that pointed to one direction or another.

Eventually, we turned onto a piece of road that was smooth and paved, with no holes, speed bumps, or patched spots. Then again we were on a dirt road swerving to avoid big holes, hitting little ones, and occasionally moving from one side of the road to another, all the time enveloped in the shifting cloud of dust that surely could have choked our car’s engine.

Finally, we made another turn onto what turned out to be a gravel parking lot, and we got out of the car. I was looking at what every other public building in Kabul is – a fortress buttressed by walls and iron doors. This place even had a little sliding door in the iron entrance door – it looked as if it had come out of the Roaring Twenties. Someone slid the little door back, and I felt as I were supposed to whisper, “Lefty sent me.” But instead, I entered an anteroom and was searched with a hand held metal detector, and my male companions were patted down, and then we were sent through yet another set of walls and doors. We then walked through an open courtyard on a rock walk and entered a restaurant that immediately offered comfort, beauty, and twinkle lights, letting me leave the swirling, thick, stinky dust, the oppression of the heavy air, and the overwhelming paucity of my spirit, outside.

I had entered another world, one that did not include Afghanistan, or at least the Afghanistan that was responsible for yet another American’s death that very day.

Inside the lovely restaurant that could have been in Anytown, USA, we were led to our table by a young Afghan man in a Santa Claus hat that blinked on and off in red lights – “Noel,” it blinked. “Noel.” We walked past a table laden with fresh-baked breads, rolls, and breadsticks, we walked past windows that looked out onto a courtyard where some kind of shrubs or small trees were outlined in LED lights that shone almost but not quite blue, and we walked past tables that were set for the elegant prix fixe menu that was to come – every place setting with two knives, two forks, two dessert spoons, wine glass, water glass, and precisely folded white cloth napkin.

Our table was in the corner of the room, so we could see the courtyard, slightly illuminated by the lighted shrubs, waiting for warmer days so that diners could grace the tables there, and we could see the rest of the room as it began to fill up with other people anticipating the special treat that was still to come.

Another young man in another blinking hat offered us a “Christmas Cocktail;” we could choose from three options, and his offer highlighted the lack of knowledge regarding alcohol that one might expect from a Muslim country where alcohol is simply off limits. “We have,” he said, “uh, something with fruit juice and, uh, vodka, then we have margarita, and we have, I can’t remember third choice.” I really didn’t want either fruit juice or a margarita, but I certainly wasn’t going to take a chance on something that the waiter couldn’t even remember, so I took the vodka drink (rule number one: NO TEQUILA).

It wasn’t bad – Hawaiian Punch with a punch! Then we nibbled on bread sticks – twisted puff pastry sprinkled with Parmesan cheese – and a sesame seed roll while we waited for the rest of our party and then the first course. As we waited, the stress of the workday, the sadness for the killing of the day, and the discomfort over being in a war zone with helicopters chopping overhead faded ever so slightly into the distance, and then, with each passing bit of conversation, retreated even more, so that we eventually felt almost normal about being out to dinner at a restaurant.

And then dinner service began. The blinking hat waiters brought the amuse bouche: risotto with a seared scallop and slivers of asparagus. The amuse bouche is supposed to be something that just “tickles the lips” or teases the palate – not a lot of food, just a bite or so – and this dish was exactly that. The risotto was done perfectly, and the slivers of asparagus were just enough to add some color and crunch. I think the chef had sliced the scallops in half horizontally, so that the scallop in each dish was thin but flavorful – and seared to perfection. The dish was topped with thin-shaved Parmesan. Even before I tell you about the rest of the dinner, I will tell you that this was my favorite dish. I ate it all.

Service was good in that we were not rushed from one course to the next. So when the next course, which was the appetizer, arrived, we were almost chomping at the bit. The appetizer plate was a classic: smoked salmon, a blini (a small pancake), piped mounds of dilled cream cheese, a quenelle of caramelized onions (a little mound that has been rolled between two spoons to arrive in its final football-oid shape), three thin slices of nut bread, and a slice of pâté. My only complaint was that the pâté was not seared. I think that would have made it better.

Aside: Now I will tell on myself: When I went to New York for the first time as a junior in college, a little girl from Thayer who had been almost nowhere other than Springfield, Missouri, Mr. Harriman, our professor and arts enlightener, took a group of us to the nicest places we could imagine. We stayed at the Waldorf Astoria, we went to Broadway productions, we went to the Metropolitan Opera (where I saw Paul Newman, but that’s another story), and we ate at some fine restaurants. One of them served pâté de fois gras, which is THE pâté, the one that is goose liver. Never a liver fan, I nevertheless tasted it, and then told Mr. Harriman, probably pretty loudly, that it tasted pretty much like liverwurst. I am sure he blanched.

Anyway, though not in a fine dining establishment in New York, this pâté plate was just fine. I ate about half of the food, because I knew that we were just two courses down and four to go. I wasn’t about to miss anything, and I didn’t want to feel at the end of the meal as if I were ready to founder.

The waiter cleared our plates and then brought the main course: duck breast. This was quite a treat, although I think I would have preferred the meat a little less rare. Regardless, it was quite tasty, and it was served with sautéed mushrooms and a citrus reduction sauce – I’m pretty sure it was orange – and two vegetables that I couldn’t identify. I don’t eat turnips, but these cubed, tender but not mushy, white things could have been turnips. Another unidentifiable vegetable, although I thought it could be spiced pureed parsnips, was also on the plate. Again, I ate about half the food, because I knew more was coming.

The next course was a salad – a real salad!!! – with, according to the menu, fried reblochon. I had no idea what reblochon could be, but I assumed it was cheese, as I know that in European style dinners, salad and cheese are served at the end of the meal. I was right! The salad was comprised of Boston lettuce and slivered red bell peppers and something hot, although I couldn’t find that ingredient. The dressing was a classic vinaigrette, and it tasted SO GOOD. I haven’t had a real salad in so long; I was ecstatic and ate every bite, including the fried reblochon, which were fried cheese croutons. The outside of each was crispy and the inside of was melted to cream. They were delicious, and I hope to replicate them in my next dinner for hire. I have since investigated reblochon cheese and have found that it is a soft cow’s milk, washed-rind cheese – similar in style and texture to Brie. Three kinds of cows, and three only, produce the milk from which this kind of cheese is made. I will be looking for it when I get home.

After that course, I would have been happy to leave; however, we had two dessert courses coming. The first was listed on the menu as “Pre Dessert Colonel” and the second was “Dessert Macaron.” I had no idea what a “Colonel” is, except, of course, the obvious, and I assumed the “Mararon” was what I know as a macaroon – a chewy, coconut cookie – which would have been the perfect end to the meal. I was wrong on both accounts. The “colonel” was akin to citrus ice cream, although I think it should have been sorbet – kind of a “cleanse the palate” dish. It was sliced through with a wafer sugar cookie; I ate the whole cookie, but only a few bites of the colonel. The “macaron” was NOT a chewy coconut cookie; it was exactly what says it is: a traditional French pastry made of meringue and stuffed like an ice cream sandwich with ganache or cream. My pink, peppermint-flavored macaron was served with raspberry coulis and rosewater ice cream, and a rose petal bisected my ice cream serving. Beautiful!

After the entire meal was concluded, I was sated but not stuffed, I was full of good company and conversation, and I had completely forgotten that I was in Afghanistan. My forgetfulness came to a screeching halt, however, as we left the restaurant for our vehicle, climbed into the car that was covered with dust and mud, and went back to our home away from home over the rough, pitiful excuse for a road, passing , even late at night, people tramping through the heavy dust, all on foot, all barely off the road, their faces covered by scarves probably failing to keep the dust out of their noses and mouths, carrying babies, and going who knows where. Our way was lighted only by the half moon, stars, and headlights and taillights of other vehicles, because no street lamps illuminated our path.

Surprisingly, though, my mood did not fade with the bumpy trek back, because it was Christmas Eve, I had been out in another life with people for a few hours, and the sky was clear and crisp. And as I walked from the gate to my little room, I looked up at the bright night and could have sworn I heard voices:

. . ., “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy
which will be to all people. 11 For there is born to you this day in the city of
David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. . .13 And suddenly there was with the
angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God
in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”


Thursday, December 6, 2012


I have to sign off on my blog for the time being. Please do not worry about my safety. I am fine. I just have to discontinue my communications for the time being. I hope you miss me! You can leave me messages with the last blog post, and all of them will remain up for new viewers. I appreciate your words of support and your general support, and I will be back sometime later. Deborah Mitchell