Making My Own Music

A musician by avocation, from the time I was a young child I was usually involved in some kind of music making. I’ve always loved to sing, and I can remember singing to my mother when I was quite small. At my grade school, weekly music classes the teacher played the piano as we sang British folk songs and music from Gilbert and Sullivan, typed and collected into a loose leaf notebook. Later the same teacher gave me private piano lessons. These ended after two years for two reasons: I found the practice songs to be boring and my mother, an amateur musician and child prodigy on the violin, disliked my fumbling attempts at learning the piano. She didn’t even like it when I played around on the piano keys, making my own music for myself. She would scold me for “making noise” as she called what I thought of as music.

Later I sang in various choruses at various schools and then in my church choir. To my delight one year my then husband bought me a guitar for my birthday. I began teaching myself to play. There followed a number of years playing and singing in coffee house, at hootenannies, and then professionally for parties and special occasions. I even volunteered at the local hospital, playing for the patients every week or so. My mother seemed pleased that I was following in the family musical tradition. Encouraged by her, and a poet by inclination I began to write my own songs. The melodies were simple, reminiscent of the many folk songs and hymns I had sung over the years.

Although I enjoyed playing the guitar, from the time I was a young child the idea of playing the harp had attracted me. However the many strings of the large harps looked difficult compared to the guitar and surely transporting one would be a nightmare. Then I injured my shoulder and because of the position required for me to play it, had to retire my guitar. After reading many articles on the importance of keeping the older brain alive, and disliking the recommended suggestion to do crossword puzzles, I decided to try a smaller folk harp. Searching the internet I discovered a lap harp with a playable nineteen strings and purchased it from the maker along with a book to learn from.

I spent a respectable amount of time teaching myself the initial songs and techniques. As I advanced, the lessons became increasingly difficult. I realized I was losing interest in playing. I felt frustrated and began to neglect my harp, even allowing it to get out of tune. My mother’s former diatribes from the days I used to play on the piano rather than practice my lessons had come back to haunt me. Then one day I realized I didn’t have to play actual songs, I could do ass I liked. I could just enjoy myself, making musical sounds; I could play for fun. I began to do that. Spontaneous tunes emerged in my head and then from my fingers. Now playing my harp has become a treat and the music I make from my heart has become a daily joy.

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Smiles and Frowns can Grow on You

My first husband was in the ROTC in college. After his graduation we went to El Paso to live while he attended officers’ school. My little girl took her first steps there. We lived in a small housing complex with other young families. I became friend with another of the mothers in her twenties. She was from Oklahoma. One of the first things I noticed about her was that living in that hot, dry climate had scored deep frown and squint wrinkles in her youthful skin. Seeing them I determined right then that if I was going to have wrinkles at least they would be pleasant ones, and so I trained myself to notice whenever I started to squint or frown. Then as I caught myself, I would stop.

Some research on the Internet revealed that it takes more muscles for a genuine smile than it does for a frown. Furthermore, the act of smiling exercises the facial muscles and brings more blood to nourish the cells of the face. This I turn helps make us look younger and prettier. More important, so far as I m concerned is that the act of smiling releases endorphins in the brain. These are feel good hormones that makes us feel happier. So as we do so, we smile more and so forth. This is called a positive feedback loop.

One does not always feel like smiling. Some days it seems like the whole world is conspiring to create problems for you. Now certainly you do not feel like smiling. However, you can take heart. Even a pretend smile releases he feel good endorphins. I learned this from Thicht Nhat Hahn, the well-known teacher of meditation. If you make even a small smile it will release some of those feel good endorphins and make you feel better and more like really smiling.

The subject of this column was sparked by the visit of an old and dear friend who came over recently for lunch. He told us that a little while ago when he was interviewing for a job his interviewer asked him, “Do your cheeks hurt?” He said they didn’t and asked why. “Because you never seem to stop smiling,” came the reply. He does indeed smile a lot, and he is a very happy person. I expect there is a connection there. For myself ever since I can remember I have always enjoyed smiling at people. It does make me feel good and sometimes I get a smile in return.

Years ago I did find that it was unwise to smile at strangers on the subway because they might get the wrong idea and try to follow me home. It is also true that in some societies, smiles are considered bad form and indicate something less than friendliness. An article in Wikepedia suggests that smiles may have evolved from a grimace of fear. However, perhaps this worked to make people less fearful and happier, who knows. It has been said that in our youth we have the face God gave us, and in our elder years we have the face we have given ourselves. This is a good enough reason to smile as often as possible.

Tasha Halpert

The Importance of Self Care

Teddy Bear 2

As children we are often told to be kind, to be sharing and giving, and to show our love to others by how we treat them. We are seldom told to care for or to love ourselves. I remember as a child sending for a nurse kit from Quaker Oats. It was advertised on a radio program I listened to every weekday. I liked the idea of being a nurse. It was a way to care for others, as I was told to do. After my little kit came I bandaged up my teddy bear and treated him to a hospital stay as I played nurse in my little white cap and apron.

As young people we feel invulnerable; we can go for a night without sleep and hardly notice. Unless we have allergies or some medical condition, eating whatever we like is the rule rather than the exception. We seldom need to sit and rest after exertion but can continue on as if we were made of steel. I was in my late forties when I began to realize I could no longer treat my body as if it were some kind of machine that could go on and on.

I began to notice that if I didn’t pace myself I would need to slow down or even stop in the middle of my efforts to get everything done. This bothered, even annoyed me. I didn’t like to stop. I wanted to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. Then I had a real wake-up call: I got an excruciating pain in my neck and shoulder that wouldn’t go away. It took a number of chiropractic treatments and a lot of rest before I was able to move without hurting. The experience was extremely unpleasant. I finally got the message: I had been treating my body badly, and I needed to change my attitude.

First and foremost I realized I heeded to stop and rest between efforts. I also began to notice that when I ate certain foods I was uncomfortable; when I didn’t get enough sleep I was dragging. While this annoyed me, I had to admit it was important information. I realized that while it was strong and able my body needed a different kind of attention. Rather than treat it offhandedly as a machine that just needed fuel and occasional maintenance, I needed to treat it kindly, as if it were a faithful animal that was carrying me where I needed to go. I also had to accept its messages as needs and wants rather as impediments to what I wished to do when I wished to do it.

The importance of my self care grows with each passing year. Movement I used to take for granted has become an effort. There are even things I can’t easily do at all any more. But what is more important is that I remember to do what I need to do for my comfort as well as my health: Rest between efforts, meditate, take time to sit with my feet up, put in my eye drops, drink enough water, eat enough fiber, avoid what I can no longer comfortably digest. My list could go on and on, however I’ve made my point. Self care matters. More importantly, remembering to care for myself means I can continue to care for others, and that most of all is a good reason to do so.

Tasha Halpert

A Recipe for Unexpected Guests

Spring blossoms, whiteIt makes me laugh when it gets cold after a warm day and someone says, “What’s happened to spring? It’s winter again!” That’s what spring is: a back and forth time of year. One day it’s lovely out, the next it snows. It’s difficult to make plans. Once many years ago my father decided to give an Easter egg hunt in the house he had inherited from my great aunt Alice. He invited all the members of an extended family of 12 children grown and married with children of their own, and told them all to come at one o’clock on Easter for the party. Then he went to Maine, intending to return that morning.

At eight AM that day it commenced to snow furiously. By twelve it had pretty much stopped, however my father, having been snowed in was still in Maine. I was faced with hosting a party for a large group of people I had never met not to mention hiding the eggs, providing the food, and being gracious. I called a friend and together we managed to pull off the party. I was rather put out with my father who very cavalierly said, “Oh, I knew you could handle it.”

For as long as I have known him, Stephen, like my father has been prone to spontaneously invite people over for a meal. Confident in my ability to come up with something on the spur of the moment, he doesn’t hesitate to play the host, and to be honest, I can say I have never minded. I love to cook and it gives me pleasure to provide for my friends or even for strangers who may become friends. The trick is to have certain things on hand that I can rely on to fix quickly and easily to feed two or more guests. Potatoes to bake and serve with sauce and cheese, shrimp in the freezer–a quick fix for shrimp scampi. Another is cooked rice for the following recipe.

Chinese fried rice works wonders as a quick meal. Of course you must have the simple ingredients on hand. The secret of this dish is that it must be made with leftover rice. Very quick to fix, it is popular with most. To serve four, use a cup of cooked rice per person, one egg, half a cup of frozen peas, half cup of chopped onion, half a cup of chopped celery, and 2 Tablespoons soy sauce or Dr. Bronner’s Mineral broth. If you have any leftover chicken, or extra firm tofu chop a half a cup of that too. 2 or 3 sliced garlic cloves and 2 or 3 Tablespoons ginger in thin strips is good too.

Take a half a cup large or extra large shrimp per person from the freezer, and thaw briefly in warm water. Peel if necessary and line up on a cookie sheet. Bake at 425 for 5 or so minutes. Scramble the egg without any extra liquid and fry in some oil or butter. Set aside. In a large frying pan, sauté the ginger, garlic, onion and celery in oil until transparent. Stir in the rice and cook 5 minutes stirring. Add the peas, the egg, broken up, tofu, chicken and shrimp. Stir in the soy sauce and cook 5 more minutes stirring occasionally. Voila, Dinner is served.

Thrifty Ways

clothes-in-closetWhen I was a child a friend of my mother’s gave me the dresses that that her twins had outgrown. Because they were dressed alike, I had to wear two of whatever came my way. In the days when I was growing up, thrift meant making do with what was available. Aside from the fact that while my family had enough, they weren’t exactly wealthy, there was a war on and many things, including clothing and shoes were rationed.

In addition, in the years that followed, my mother had to stretch what my father earned to cover the needs of the three more children born after I turned eight years old. I remember how excited I was when in my sixteenth year I got a pair of Bermuda shorts. They were newly fashionable and I felt very special to have a pair. Although they were wool, I wore them all that summer and for a number of summers after that. For a long time they were my only pair.

Growing up in a thrifty household inclined me toward a thrifty lifestyle as an adult. When I was raising my own family of five children I had to stretch our food dollars to try to nourish as well as please my family. I learned all kinds of tricks to make inexpensive cuts of meat palatable and I baked cookies by the dozen so the children would have treats. Home made was far less expensive than store bought. My sewing machine hummed as I made dresses for my daughters and even some outfits for my sons when they were small.

Judging from the advertisements I see today, thrift is not especially fashionable. Bargains, of course are. However what is considered a bargain by some standards is not by others. When I was growing up the annual church fair rummage sales held in local churches were the best places to find inexpensive, serviceable garments. My mother was a faithful customer.

I do not remember there being consignment shops or other places one could find good second hand clothing when I was a child. When we got together I introduced Stephen to consignment and thrift store shopping, and he embraced it happily. I find it more fun to shop that way because you never know what you will find and the prices are far more reasonable than what other stores charge.

Over the years, I have amassed a wonderful collection of clothing. Much of it has come from consignment or thrift stores, the rest from sales. Certain garments have endured the test of time and I wear them joyfully in the appropriate season. Others get rotated back into the mainstream to be discovered by someone else who enjoys saving money by shopping wisely. What is especially nice for me is that now I can have a number of pairs of shorts for the price I would pay for one bought new, or a cashmere sweater that someone has passed on, at a fraction of the cost in a regular store. Perhaps this is a kind of payback for the days when I wore the twins’ hand me down dresses over and over again.

Tasha Halpert

An Easter Basket of Memories

Rabbit in Cabbage 2On Easter my family usually went to dinner with Great Aunt Alice. Until my sister was born when I was 8, I was always the only child present. Aunt Alice had several toys she would bring out to amuse me. One was a little truck loaded with colorful blocks. They had letters, numbers and pictures on them. Even now I can see that red and yellow toy with a string to pull it by. The bed of the truck was loaded with the blocks, and I was always careful to put them back when it was time to go upstairs to dinner.

The other toy was a very special, ancient rabbit that lived inside a head of cloth lettuce. When it was wound–only adults were allowed to do that, and the golden knob on the side was pulled out, the rabbit head would emerge, extend itself and turn. Its ears would rise into the air. Then it would chew on the small piece of cloth lettuce in its mouth. When it finished, it would retract into the cloth lettuce with a little snap as the ears went back against its head.

I thought of that rabbit when I was contemplating what I would write for this column. I wish I had it now. I remember my children being shown it when they were little. Though I don’t know if they remember it the way I do. I loved patting it. It was covered in soft, white actual fur. It did not play music or do anything more than just that. I believe it had been in the family at least since my Great Aunt was a child. when I was contemplating my column and it leapt vividly into my mind as though I had seen it yesterday.

Once we arrived and took off our coats, the adults stood around and drank cocktails, while I had ginger ale. Aunt Alice, who favored simple appetizers, always served a plate of peanut butter on crackers and there were also nuts in a bowl. Too young to read, I sat on the big rug and played with the blocks. Dinner was served upstairs in a large dining room. The oval mahogany table gleamed with silver and cut glass. The platters and bowls of food were brought in by women in black uniforms with white aprons. There was usually soup, then a roast and vegetables, and finally, dessert, followed by fingerbowls to dip fingers into and cloth napkins to dry them with. My treat would be the chocolates for after dinner, something we never had at home. My mother did not think it was healthy to eat candy and never bought it.

Time is a strange accordion. It can compress decades into years, and years into moments. I can see so clearly the large thick rug I sat on to play with the alphabet blocks and watch again the white bunny with the pink glass eyes rising up out of the faded green cloth leaves. It looks so real as it turns its head, the ears rise into the air and it chews on its bit of green cloth. I can feel again the soft fur as I pat the head and the ears, stiff with wire beneath the fur. What was only yesterday has added itself to now creating an Easter basket of memories for me to enjoy.

 

 

 

 

 

Recipes Can Be Useful by Tasha Halpert

Kitchen ImplementsSometimes I use recipes, sometimes not. I have loved to cook ever since I was a small child when I made up mud and berry pies and added dandelion fluff for decoration. I had a spot in the lilac grove on one side of our yard where I kept my play dishes and utensils. When the wind blew, the boards for shelves I stuck between the branches would fall to the ground along with my dishes. That was a most unsatisfactory pantry. I did not learn to cook with real food until after I was married. . My mother did not allow me to make anything but salads and brownies. She did not consider me responsible enough for meal preparation.

These days in my kitchen a heavy magnet holds a collection of recipes to my refrigerator. There are always more of them than I can reasonably expect to attempt. Some, when I go over them as I must do from time to time will prove too time consuming. Others will require ingredients I don’t have on hand or want to invest in. Still, when I first saw them I had considered making them, and might even have done so were I inspired to.

Every few months, when the collection is beginning to outgrow the magnet I go through it. Then I discard those that, while they seemed tempting no longer appeal to me. Then I generally pull out one or two of the remaining ones to try. Some will become great favorites and get written into my spiral recipe notebook or pressed into the pages of a loose-leaf notebook that holds the recipes I have accumulated over the years. I truly enjoy cooking and like many who do, have collected recipes for most of my adult life. I also create my own recipes for that spiral notebook.

My husband and I are fond of garlic. One day I invented this recipe for fried eggs that is now a real staple. Melt a tablespoon of butter in a frying pan over medium heat. Cover the bottom with three or four large sliced garlic cloves. Turn the heat down to medium low and break in three or four large eggs. Place fresh basil, cilantro, or in a pinch parsley leaves over the eggs. Cook until whites are firm. Carefully divide and turn eggs over. Cover with slices of your favorite cheese. Take from heat and cover. Let cheese melt, then serve to two.

Mushrooms and eggs go beautifully together for supper. Beat three or four eggs with two tablespoons of water. (Using water greatly enhances their flavor.) Add fresh herbs to taste, or even dried ones. I like tarragon, thyme is lovely, as is parsley or sage. Add a half a cup of cheddar or Swiss cheese squares to the eggs. Melt a tablespoon of butter over medium heat. Slice in 4 or 5 mushrooms of medium size. They should cover the bottom of the pan. stir and turn until they render up their juice and are cooked through. Add and melt another tablespoon or so of butter. Pour the egg and cheese mixture over the mushrooms. Turn gently as eggs cook until they are done and serve to two.