Thursday, August 30, 2012

cardiac surgery x 2

Tomorrow is the anniversary of my first heart surgery. On August 31, 1983 I had my mitral valve, which was damaged by rheumatic fever in childhood, repaired with a Carpentier-Edward ring which, it was hoped, would keep the valve open for the rest of my life. But the rheumatic scar tissue, which had thickened the valve so that it was no longer functional, began to grow inside the ring. Nasty stuff, scar tissue.
In January, 2012 I had a second heart surgery to replace the mitral and the aortic valves with mechanical valves. That was just under nine months ago.
I don't like convalescing. I'm a bit task oriented. In the first week home from the hospital I began walking, despite the scraped snow and icy sidewalks. I wore solid, flat-soled boots. (The post-op pamphlet recommended shopping malls for these first forays into the world, but I don't like shopping malls.)
Within a month I was cycling on an exercise bike. In fact, my cardiologist recommended that I cycle and get my heart pumping hard so that it wouldn't drum so much when I was at rest. That didn't feel correct. I thought I should rest to make my heart rest. But I trust him and so I tried.
He was right. It's good to exercise your heart post-op. Show it what it's supposed to do. Assuming, of course, that you've had a good level of exercise before you had surgery. Up until my surgery in January, I was still walking every day. I didn't walk fast, I didn't walk far, but I didn't want to go into surgery with a muscle that was flabby, in addition to dysfunctional.
I was still easily tired during these first months after surgery. I took a walk and had a nap. I went to bed early. I had to be careful about lifting because of the strain that put on my chest.
In May I started back at work 2 days/wk and discovered that what tired me even more than walking was people! Within the first hour I saw more people all at once than I had in the previous four months altogether.  
In earlier posts I've complained about the clicking that resonates from my chest. Castanets on the go. I have St. Jude valves manufactured in St. Paul, Minnesota--said to be the quietest on the market. I'd hate to hear what other valves sound like. Or perhaps other people lead noisier lives. I spend a lot of time alone in a quiet room with my writing--and the clicking. Although, with time, perhaps my innards have resettled so that they cushion my heart better. The clicking sounds less intrusive. Or perhaps I'm adjusting. Like R said, the clicking is the sound of me being alive.
I'm still taking a beta blocker to keep my heart beating regularly, though the dose has recently been halved to see how well I tolerate that.
I'm now working 4 days/wk. My job at the hospital is still, by far, the most tiring activity. I should probably have a quieter job, shut up in a room away from people, but I like the people I work with and I already spend so much time alone in a room with my writing. Having a job unrelated to writing was supposed to force me to act like a social creature (of sorts) for a few hours a day.
I decided this summer to forget about the scar that bisects my chest--arrow down the cleavage. When it got hot-hot-hot, there was no way I going to wear high necklines to hide my scar from sensitive eyes who, in any case, weren't looking. The scar wasn't as livid and swollen as the scar I had in 1983--because the surgeon followed the same incision line, instead of cutting into fresh flesh. I would have thought a scar on top of a scar would make more of a mess, but apparently it makes less of a mess.
This dress is especially neat because if anyone is curious and keeps staring, I can easily unzip it to show off more. It's too bad the scar isn't straight. Maybe future cardiac surgeons will do a rotation in plastic surgery as an elective.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

letterbox edges and dreams

I don't know if this happens to other writers.
Not always, but often enough that I can say it happens, I have a dream with a letterbox edge along the bottom--as if for subtitles. Across this black edge a hand writes what's happening in the dream. Stage directions, description, lines of dialogue. It's not like a play. It's prose.
Sometimes the hand scratches out words and the scene has to start over again. A character gets axed or dialogue rewritten. The hand doesn't write quickly, but at an unhurried, flowing pace. Action happens at an ordinary pace too. The hand can keep up because it doesn't record everything, only what it decides is pertinent. Somehow--in dream reality--it all works out.
I don't think I'm the person writing the dream. I feel more like the person responsible for getting it down. When I have a dream like this, I wake feeling tired. You bet.
Since I write first draft longhand, I'm not surprised by the pen. However, I'm left-handed, and the dreams are always written with the right hand and in a script that is not mine. I can't get a good look at the hand because it's always moving, writing. Don't know if it's mine.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

cool sunglasses

I was looking through some old pictures this evening and found this one. Allow me to post it. Indulge me please. Who is this pudgy kid with the funky sunglasses? Can you see that she would grow up to be me?
Don't know who landscaped this lawn--which wasn't ours--but they could have invested in a sprinker and a hose.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

dhalpuri roti

Recently, I was so lucky as to get a lesson in how to make dhalpuri roti. My sister-in-law's family is visiting from Trinidad. I planned to arrive early enough at her house to help in the kitchen. I was late.
When we got there, her mom had just started to mix the dough. Her sister stood at the stove adding ground yellow split peas to geera--roasted cumin. Yellow split peas are called dhal.
I've tried to make this dhal mixture on my own. Every time my split peas are cooked too long and turn to mush, or not long enough and then won't grind into the moist powder you need to make these roti. The split peas should be cooked until they keep their shape but you can bite into them. Sounds easy, but I haven't managed to do it yet. When done right, the ground dhal should be light and fluffy like very fine couscous steamed just right.  
The dough for the roti was made with flour, baking powder, some yeast, and water. How much of each? Well, if you have to ask, you're not in the right kitchen.
S's mom mixed a great mass of dough in an enormous bowl, removing clumps she decided were ready to be kneaded, at which I was allowed to help.

The dough was formed into small balls the women called loyas which were left to rest under a towel. For how long? An hour, two? I wasn't paying attention. I do know that when making dough for breads, as opposed to pastry or biscuits, you want the stretchy gluten quality in flour to develop and so you let it rest.
Now came the tricky part: stuffing the balls of dough with dhal. A loya was shaped into a dough cup, the cup stuffed with dhal. The edges of the cup were pinched together and the ball was rolled smooth again.

These balls were left to rest again--and again, I don't recall for how long. Other foods were being cooked, there was a quick shopping trip for salt cod, a few moments to spend with my favourite niece, the prospect of swimming.
The cast-iron tawah was put to heat on the stove and brushed with oil, and we began to roll out the
roti, hoping that none of the dhal inside the dough would "bust through". S's sister brushed the roti with oil and flipped it. A perfectly made roti with all the dhal sealed inside puffed as it was cooking. Here's one:
The last step was to press the roti flat again and fold it. See that large bowl on the counter? By the time we finished, it was heaped full with dhalpuri roti.
I should now have a picture of a finished dhalpuri roti on a plate, being eaten, BUT: when we sat down to eat, I was so bewitched by the spicy smells and delicious possibilities--crispy pork cutters, accras with tamarind chutney, shrimp, chicken, curry channa with aloo--that I forgot all about my camera.
Fortunately my sister-in-law always sends us home with a care package and today I took a couple of dhalpuri roti from the freezer to have with this stewed bean dish R cooked for supper. Here you can see how the roti holds dhal spiced with roasted cumin. Tender and tasty. Good!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

life invades writing / zwetschgenknoedel

People wonder how much fiction writers copy from life and how much they fabricate. What about when life mimics what you've written? You're in the middle of working on a piece, you ask a few questions, do some research, keep your eyes open--and what's this? What you're writing about happens.
No way, you cry! I'm writing about this. It was my idea first. Let life get its own. Life has got more resources. Life can branch out anywhere. Life can be sloppy. No one will accuse life of an implausible scenario.
And yet it happens. For example... I'll use an example from a few years ago.
I wanted to write a story around a character modelled on my cantankerous, pious, trouble-causing, never-forget-a-grudge, wrinkled, stumpy-legged Alpine grandmother. My fictional oma (like my real-life oma) was a staunch anti-Semite. I decided to have her meet a Jewish man whom she never realizes is Jewish. She's lonely, spending  afternoons in her granddaughter's Montreal apartment, and lo, there's this elderly European gentleman sitting on his balcony.
How do they communicate? I decided that they could, in the same way that I don't speak Yiddish but can understand the gist by recognizing words that are similar to German.
In the story, the Canadian granddaughter invites her neighbour to supper. When she brings out the Austrian dish she's prepared, he stares and tears begin to roll down his cheeks. It's a dish his Polish mother used to make while his family was still together, before they were sent to Dachau.
The meal is plum dumplings--zwetschgenknoedel. Whole plums are enclosed in a cottage cheese dough, boiled, then rolled in browned, sweetened breadcrumbs.

I'd written the story but wasn't sure if my Polish Jewish character was likely to have known about this dish. I could have made him an Austrian Jew, but if he spoke German, then my fictional oma would have discovered he was Jewish. It was important that she could communicate with him just enough to fantasize  about this pleasant elderly gentleman with the courtly European manners.
As it happens, I work in a Jewish hospital. I decided to ask the wife of a Jewish patient who was Polish about zwetschgenknoedel. I didn't use the name, assuming that she wouldn't know it as such. I described how whole fresh plums were wrapped in dough. While I talked, I wasn't looking at her but at my hands with which I was trying to demonstrate the different steps of wrapping the plums, lowering them into boiling water, rolling them in crumbs so they were nicely coated. I was hoping to convince her that once upon a time she'd seen or heard of these delicious fruit dumplings.
She still hadn't answered me, so I peeked. Tears were streaming down her cheeks.
What's wrong? I asked.
Her mother, who'd died in a concentration camp, used to make plum dumplings. She hadn't had them since. She'd forgotten all about them. I had just reminded her.
I felt badly because I hadn't wanted to make the woman cry. Though--as in my story--I marvelled that a beautiful memory could survive across the horror this woman (and the character in my story) must have experienced. That, for me, was the emotional truth of the story.
Still. It freaked me out when the woman began crying like the character in my story.