Fun Times–An Irish Music Concert with Sean, Maryanne and Simon

I think I’ve mentioned our friend Simon Spalding here before. Simon’s a musician, historian, teacher and author—and an all-around awesome guy.
Simon performs both solo and with other musicians—all over the place, really, but most often in our local area. When MrH and I found out that Simon was giving an Irish music concert at a local coffeehouse with his friend and fellow musician Sean MacMahon and Sean’s daughter Maryanne MacMahon Ford Friday night, we knew we were in for a treat!
We’d planned to stop for dinner and make a full-blown date of the evening, but we were running late and only made it to the venue shortly before the concert was to begin.

The Venue: Trent River Coffee Company

The Trent River Coffee Company is a coffee shop in downtown New Bern, NC. I’ve never seen it, you understand, but it’s a really neat little place.
It’s got these uneven cement floors, and the tables and chairs are frequently rearranged for events, so that the tables are often a bit tippy. There’s a fountain to one side, turned off for performances, that I understand is populated with koi. And, though I didn’t know it until Simon mentioned it last night, there are works by local artists displayed on the walls.
The coffee is excellent, and they have tea and milkshakes as well. I’m told there are pastries, too, but I’ve never indulged.
Anyway, it’s a really nifty place, and if you’re ever in downtown New Bern, you should totally check them out.
The place was packed Friday night!
I could hear and feel people all around me and had to follow MrH carefully to avoid bumping into people who were already seated. MrH said that by the time the concert began there were at least fifty people in the audience, and for a while it looked like standing room only—but they managed to fit everybody in.
MrH parked me in what turned out to be a front-row seat and went to get our coffees.

The Concert

I really love Irish music, and this concert offered a great mix.
There were jigs, reels and hornpipes, and a waltz composed by Sean’s brother Patsy MacMahon, The Tara Waltz. Some pieces were familiar, but many were new to me. I tried to remember the names so I could look them up later, but I wasn’t very successful. Too busy enjoying!
Simon and Maryanne each sang several selections, and encouraged the audience to join in. I did know The Fields of Athenry, and was glad to join Maryanne and others in the audience in the chorus—though they might not have been as glad to have me join them!
Simon sang a very funny song, Off to California, about an Irishman who has been evicted and plans to seek his fortune in California.
There were fun or funny stories about some of the songs or the musicians’ experiences playing them, as well.
I couldn’t see who was playing what, so I’m cribbing a bit from the concert page here. Sean played the accordion. Simon played his fiddle and the octave mandolin. Maryanne played tin whistle, guitar, and bodhran. (Which, I learned, is pronounced something like “bough-run,” so I’ve been saying it wrong in my head. So the concert was educational, too!)

A Great Time, Some Great Memories

During the break between sets, MrH was hungry, so he ordered a “Gritty Kitty” milkshake. This delectable concoction consists of chocolate milk, chocolate ice cream, a shot of Irish Crème syrup and ground chocolate-covered espresso beans.
Wowza! I only had a couple of sips, because dairy and caffeine are not my friends, but that joker was goooood. If you get the chance to order one, I highly recommend it! (MrH reports that it is available with white milk and vanilla ice cream as well.)
Simon had copies of a CD he and Sean had made, and we splurged and bought one. We listened to part of it on the way home. The part we listened to was all accordion and fiddle, and I think the rest of the CD is probably the same. Very nice!
Unfortunately, the CD was a limited run and isn’t available online, so I can’t post a link to it. But! You can preview and order some of Simon’s other albums on CD or in mp3 format at his website.
I looked for a link to Sean’s music, in case he’s got any for sale, but couldn’t find one. If I find out more, I’ll try to update here.
If you’re local to the New Bern, NC area, you have an opportunity to hear Sean and Simon (and a bunch of other awesome musicians) at the Trent River Coffee Company at the Celtic Music Jam Session the second Tuesday of every month from 7-9pm.
Admission is free, though they do pass a tip jar, and you’ll definitely want to order one of the great drinks to sip while you listen. You’ll probably catch MrH and me there!
What about you? Do you like Irish music? Been to any great musical performances—Irish or otherwise—lately? Or do you perform yourself?


A Surfeit of Stuff

Lately I’ve been thinking about a lot of stuff.
As in, “Man, we have a lot of stuff.”
Stuff on the kitchen counter. Stuff on tables. Stuff on chairs. Boxes of stuff on shelves and piled on the floor. Stuff that makes it hard to put anything down and awkward to have anyone stop by.
Most of it is good stuff. Stuff we want, stuff we’ll use. But it’s getting in the way.

The Slider Puzzle That is Our House

I’ve long maintained that we have room for all our stuff, if only it were organized and put away.
If, for instance, MrH went through his tools and the tools he inherited from his dad and the tools he inherited from his aunt, they’d be much more accessible and take up less space. Then he could get around to some of the projects he’s been wanting to do.
If we could move the big bookshelf into the dining room, we could unbox and shelve the books sitting there waiting for a shelf.
Ah, but we’d have to move the stuff against the dining room wall where we want to put the shelf. And my computer table, which has the shelf boxed in. Oh, and the boxes of stuff currently on the shelf. Because of course there are boxes of stuff on the shelf.
And we have to move the bookshelf before we can move the writing desk from the living room. And we have to move the writing desk before we can move the other shelf. Which is also covered with boxes. Andandand.
I’ve been itching to work on this, and I have—or could make—the time. But there’s a lot I can’t do without MrH.
I’m not sure I could identify all the power tools, let alone organize them. Someone else could identify the books on the shelf for me, but only MrH knows which he wants to keep and which he’s ready to let go.
Unfortunately, his time is much more limited than mine.

How Much Stuff Is Too Much Stuff?

Though the overall process has been slow going, I have been sorting what I can. This has led to a few burning questions:
Do we really need more than a dozen coffee cups? (No.)
Is there any sane reason this household has fourteen refillable soap dispensers? (Also no.)
How on earth have we managed to accumulate over eighty cookbooks? (Because reasons. Shut up.)
Apparently, somewhere along the way we’ve slipped into Too Much Stuff territory, at least in some things.
I’m a long way from becoming a minimalist, but the older I get and the more I value space over stuff, the easier it’s become to let (some) things go.
Coffee mugs and soap dispensers have been winnowed, mugs into a box destined for our church’s yard sale, soap dispensers into recycling. Our son is going to go through the cookbooks with me, though I suspect he’ll be disgusted by how many I choose to keep. Baby steps, kiddo, baby steps.
I’m ready to pass on embroidery kits I once looked forward to but now can no longer use. Some nick-knacks that, as my son so tactfully put it, “don’t fit our aesthetic” will go to the church sale along with the mugs and a box of dishes.
As I look around, I have to remind myself that the house didn’t get in this state overnight, and it won’t get straightened out overnight, either. But I want to—need to—keep chipping away at it.
What about you? Are you comfortable with the amount of stuff you have? Do you find it difficult to let certain things go, or is it easy for you to pass them on? Are you an organizer or a clutterbug?

Four Years In

So…been a little quiet on the blog lately. Okay, a lot quiet.
What generally happens is that I write a post, or most of a post, set it aside to tidy up and post a little later, and suddenly it’s several days later and my brilliant post is no longer current.
Meanwhile, I’ve yakked about whatever it was on social media, or hashed it over with MrH, satisfying my desire to talk about it and draining the urgency to post the piece.
There’s been some other stuff in the background siphoning off my drive to write, which I may or may not get around to talking about here.
But. In the meantime.
The first of this month marked my fourth anniversary of being admitted to the hospital to evict the trespasser lurking in my brain, to emerge two weeks later into a world that had faded to black.
So. What’s changed, and what hasn’t, in the intervening four years?

My Vision

By now, I think my vision has pretty much stabilized. I can’t foresee it getting any better, but I don’t expect it to get any worse.
My left eye officially has no light perception, but occasionally I seem to sense light or motionon that side. It’s not consistent, though, and it’s hard to tell how much of that is my brain helpfully filling in.
I sometimes get headaches on that side, centering in or behind the eye, and I suspect the pupil doesn’t contract as quickly or completely as it should, exposing the eye to too much light. Something to ask my optometrist about.
I’m not sure how much the vision in my right eye has improved since those early days, or if I’ve just become more adept at interpreting the patterns of light and shadow and movement that make up my vision these days. It really is like trying to puzzle out the picture on a staticky black-and-white analog TV
If the contrast and proportions are just right, I can sometimes make out simple shapes, letters or numbers. I can’t do it consistently, though, and it’s really tiring.
On the plus side, I’ve gotten so used to relying on my other senses that most of the time I do it without even thinking about it. Sometimes, when I’m describing something to someone or thinking about what a character perceives, I have to stop and remind myself that they have the superpower of vision! They can see that thing across the room!
I’ve even had a dream (just the one, so far) where my level of vision was the same in the dream as it is awake. I guess even my dreaming mind has finally internalized my blindness!

My Brain

It’s a lot easier to talk about the effects of my vision loss than the aftermath of my brain tumor and brain surgery, because they’re a lot more noticeable on a day-to-day basis.
Overall, I’d say I’m on a much more even keel. I’m much better able to take the long view, consider both sides of a question, and to empathize.
I’m also more susceptible to stress and can be emotionally volatile, particularly when I’m tired. I’ve learned that I have to manage how much I take on and keep from overextending myself.
Every time I think I’m completely healed, I get a little farther along and realize that nope, I still had a way to go. So even now, I’m probably still a work in progress.
I think my memory, both short-and long-term, has improved dramatically. I don’t remember everything, but I’m consistently impressed by my ability to dredge up long-forgotten names, factoids and incidents, or to recall exactly the ten-digit phone number I’ve just dialed.

My Life

The past year has felt like one big plateau, full of roadblocks and frustrations.
It seemed like whatever I’d done on my own, I couldn’t keep moving forward because I needed help with one tiny part of the process I was working on. I felt lonely and bored, trapped at home either by lack of funds or lack of people to do things with. Writing had hit a dead-end wall, and on the rare occasions I had an idea for a story or blog post, I lacked the gumption to run with it.
I think I’m moving past that now. As my friend Z wisely said, “The important thing to remember when you hit a plateau is that you’re still moving forward.”
MrH and I have moved away from some groups and tried to connect with others. I’m trying to reach out more, both to current friends and to potential ones, and to get past the feeling that when I invite someone to do something, I’m really just imposing on them to take me somewhere.
I’ve broken up with Vocational Rehabilitation. It just wasn’t working out, and going into an emotional tailspin after every encounter wasn’t productive. I plan to focus on writing, online opportunities, and (potentially) marketing my crafts, areas in which I’m fairly confident my knowledge base already exceeds theirs.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that my writing mojo, which had dwindled to a trickle, seems to have returned in full force.
Or perhaps it is a coincidence, and this upswing will give way ere long to another slide into the Slough of Despond. Either way, I’ll go there on my own terms.
Over the past year, I’ve taken a far more active role in meal planning and managing our finances, and it’s made a difference. Our grocery budget (and our eating out budget) have gone down, and I think we’re eating better. It’s taken some of the strain off MrH, a trend I want to continue!
Our younger son started his first job a couple of weeks ago, and our older son is looking. This is going to ease the strain considerably, even if they’re just putting gas in the car and paying for their own entertainment at first.

Looking Forward

As I move into Year 5 AB (After Bob or After Blindness, take your pick) there are several things I want to accomplish:

  • Write 1000 words a day, at least five days a week.
  • Submit at least one piece of writing to a paying market or contest before the end of the year.
  • Continue decluttering and organizing so that our house becomes a more pleasant place to live and work.
  • Find a place to walk at least a couple of times a week.
  • Explore new hobbies and handicrafts.
  • Find more places to go and things to do, with and without MrH.

What about you? Hit any milestones lately? Set or changed any goals? Have you taken a turn in a new direction, and how is that working out for you? Inquiring minds want to know!

University of Atlantia session #95

You may remember that back in June, MrH and I (and a couple of friends) attended the summer session of the University of Atlantia, a regional symposium of classes on all aspects of life in the European Middle Ages and Renaissance.

We gave the November session a miss, as it was way up in Maryland. But the February session was held at a community college only a couple of hours from home, which meant we could daytrip, and we weren’t about to miss it!


The University of Atlantia has its own registration system, but in the past I’ve just emailed a list of the classes I wanted to the registrar. This time, I decided to give it a whirl.

First, I had to create an account.

Clicking the link took me to a table with a list of fields to fill out – user name, first name, last name, email, all the usual stuff. Each of the fields was labeled, making the form easy to fill out using my screen reader.

The final field was for a captcha image. Well, darn it! Was I going to have to get MrH to help me after all?

No. No, I wasn’t. A little further down there was an option for an audio captcha. And, wonder of wonders, it worked! I was in!

After that, registration was just a matter of navigating to the description of the classes I wanted and clicking the “Register” button that now appeared. Voila!

I didn’t test the system’s limitations, but MrH reports that if the class is full, you can sign up to be on the waiting list, that the system won’t let you sign up for two classes during the same time slot, and that unregistering for a class is as easy as clicking a button.

Well done, University of Atlantia!

Rags to Riches: Rag Paper Production During the Middle Ages

Unfortunately, we got a later start than we intended, and I missed the first half of this class. On the plus side, I did get the handout, which meant I could catch up on the background later, and was there for the practical demonstration.

The art of making paper began in China and spread to the Middle East when a group of paper-makers were captured during a war. From there, it spread to Europe.

Paper wasn’t very popular in Europe at first, as people considered it a “poor man’s substitute” for parchment or vellum. But it got a real boost with the advent of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press and came into common use.

The process of making paper by hand is very similar today. Fibers are dissolved into a slurry with water, then spread onto a screen and lifted free. The resulting wet sheet is removed from the screen and pressed between layers of “felt” – heavy cloth that absorbs water – and pressed, then allowed to dry. Sizing may be added either with the fibers or to the damp sheets.

This is definitely something I want to try, though it will have to wait until I can get my hands on the equipment. I wish I’d thought to ask if I could handle a finished (dry) sheet!

Fiber Felting and Fulling

My next class was hands-on, and probably my favorite of the day.

Wool fibers, it turns out, have a ragged cuticle, or coating, and when they are agitated, they grab on and cling to one another. This means that wool can be matted into cloth, or even sculpted into shapes.

We began with needle felting, a dry felting method which isn’t period, but is a heck of a lot of fun! Essentially, you press the fibers together and poke them with a special needle that has barbs on the tip. Repeatedly. This tangles the fibers and melds the pieces together, and is also very cathartic.

I stuck some roving (combed-out wool ready to be spun) and bits of fluff to my background material and brought home several scraps and bits to practice on. The result is very tactile – I could easily feel where the bits were stuck down and trace the shape of them – and I came away bursting with ideas for projects to make.

One word of caution: Felting needles are sharp! I pricked my fingers several times, and it really stung. The jabs didn’t bleed much, though, so there’s that.

I also got to try my hand at fulling, where you work loose fibers together in warm soapy water. The soap breaks down the lanolin on the wool and opens the cuticle so the fibers can mat together. I molded mine into a little heart, but with more fiber and a larger pan, you can make actual pieces of cloth for insoles, slippers, and even entire garments.

You can also use the technique on knitted or woven wool items to produce a thick, durable cloth.

Lunch and Convocation

This University was hosted by the Barony of Raven’s Cove, who saved us from having to go off campus by providing a delicious fundraiser lunch.

We had a choice of ham or turkey sandwich, vegetarian or ham and potato soup, choice of an apple or an orange, and two huge cookies. Oh, and water or lemonade to drink. Everything was delicious, and the portions big enough that I saved my apple for later.

Well done, Raven’s Cove!

After lunch, we went to the auditorium, where the Baron and Baroness thanked everyone involved in putting on the event and the Chancellor of the University awarded the degrees that people had earned by attending and/or teaching a certain number of classes.

Then it was off to class again!

Courtesans: Selling the Illusion of Love

I signed up for this class partly because it sounded fascinating, and partly to get background flavor for a character I’m writing.

The first thing I learned was that I really should have taken the instructor’s class on prostitution in the Middle Ages at a previous University, because it sounds as though it was full of great information. Ah, well. Another time.

The gist of it, I gather, is that prostitution was common and widely accepted for much of the Middle Ages, but at some point people began to frown on it and pass laws to restrict prostitutes to brothels, or forbid it altogether.

Enter the courtesan, who invited men into her house for parties and other entertainment and sold sex discreetly (or not so discreetly) on the side.

Courtesans especially flourished in the Italian states, where many men were attached to the Church and not allowed to marry. Courtesans were seen as luxury items, like a Lambourghini, and being able to support one was a mark of social status. They were usually not paid in money, which would have been seen as crass, but in housing, jewelry, clothing and other gifts.

Being a courtesan was often a family business, with mothers teaching daughters the secrets of the trade and selling their virginity to the highest bidder – sometimes more than once! It was also a cottage industry, with courtesans supporting many servants and hangers-on.

There was a lot more information in this two-hour class, including portraits of some of the more famous courtesans. I hope I’ve gotten everything correct, as I didn’t take notes during the class and am working from memory. If you are at all interested in this topic and have an opportunity to take the class, I highly recommend it!

Stroke in the SCA

This was my final class of the day, again two hours long.

I overlooked it on the schedule, because I thought it had to do with blows in heavy weapons fighting or fencing. But when MrH mentioned it to me and I realized it had to do with the medical condition, I switched my registration to attend it.

The instructor had a stroke at the age of 30, which was misdiagnosed at first because the ER personnel thought he was “too young to have a stroke.” When he collapsed the next day, he was admitted to the hospital for treatment, then went through rehabilitation.

He received a lot of support from his friends in the SCA, and participating in the SCA again helped motivate him in his recovery.

As he discussed some of the symptoms of stroke – aphasia (difficulty with words or speech), exhaustion, confusion – I teared up, because I identified with so many of them.

Those were the things that happened to me while Bob the Brain Tumor was slowly taking over my brain. But because they set in so gradually, instead of all at once, they slipped under the radar. I had a stroke in slow motion, I thought.

A quick way to remember what to do in case of stroke is to memorize the FAST acronym. If you or someone you know experiences Facial drooping or paralysis, weakness in the Arms, or Slurred speech, then Time is of the essence – seek medical attention immediately!

The instructor offered some great tips for participating in the SCA, which I think apply to anyone with a disability: Know your limitations. Go with a friend who can help you if you need it. Have a strategy in case you need to get away or rest for a while. Accept that you may not be able to do all the things you used to, and look for new ways to be involved.

Again, there was a lot of information and I’m only hitting the high points. If you have a chance to take this class, I highly recommend it.

Afterthoughts and Notes for the Future

I had an awesome time, and I can’t wait to do University again! I almost wish there were two of me, because almost every hour there was at least one other class, often more, that I also wanted to attend.

I collected handouts for each of my classes, but will have to either get someone to read them for me, or digitize them to read on the computer. I’m thinking about printing up business cards and asking instructors if they will email me the class handouts. I don’t know if everyone will be comfortable with it, as it is their hard work they are sending off, but it’s a quick way to get the information to me in an accessible form.

My biggest problem continues to be navigating between classes. MrH and I had planned to arrive early so I could get oriented to the site, but our late start prevented that, and as the classes were in several different buildings, it might not have helped. It didn’t help, either, that it was frigid outside and I didn’t want to linger to learn my way around!

Fortunately, SCA folks are some of the friendliest and most helpful people I know. People were quick to offer to guide me from one class to another, and I could likely have made it through the entire day without MrH just by accepting their offers.

Well done, SCA!

I want to teach at a University. I could probably put together a class for stick weaving or braiding, but I think it would be great to do a class on blind people during our time period and making the Modern Middle Ages more accessible to people with visual impairment.

How about you? Does University of Atlantia sound like your kind of event? Have you learned anything exciting lately?

Talk to Me!

It was the week between Christmas and New Year, and the restaurant was hopping. I wasn’t even in the door behind MrH, struggling to get a feel for the place, when a server swooped in to hustle us to a table.

Still not really oriented, I felt along one side of the table for a chair. Finding none, I checked the next side, just as MrH helpfully pointed it out to me.

I snapped at him that I had it now, thanks. And then it happened.

From another section of the restaurant, our server called out, “If she can walk down steps, I have another table in here. I just thought that one would be easier for you.”

At first I was a little irritated. The table was fine, and I hadn’t been talking to her.

My next thought fell somewhere between irritation and amusement. My eyes don’t work, but the rest of my body is just fine. Why would she assume I might not be able to manage steps?

And then the full implication sank in.

“If she can walk down steps…” If</em? she can walk down steps.

I’m standing right here.

Rather than speaking to me, the server had spoken to MrH about me, as if I weren’t there, or weren’t a full-fledged part of the conversation, like a child or a pet.

To be fair, there are a number of reasons the server might have addressed MrH instead of me that have nothing to do with my blindness.

  • By entering first and telling her how many were in our party, MrH established himself as the de facto leader of our party.
  • Having spoken with him, the server was already engaged with him, making it logical to continue.
  • She may have thought I was expressing dissatisfaction with the table to MrH instead of her, putting him in the role of a go-between.
  • She was busy, it was easier, and she really didn’t think about it.

It may be that my anger was misplaced in this particular situation. But here’s the thing…

I get this a lot.

Our server was only the latest in a long line of people who address my sighted companion instead of me, cutting me out of the conversational loop:

  • The healthcare professionals–a surprising number of them–who ask MrH some variant of, “Can she step up on the scale?” when he’s acting as my guide.
  • Cashiers who hand my change or receipt to MrH or one of our sons when I’m out shopping with them.
  • A lady at a business function who overheard MrH describing the layout of the room to me and butted in to ask, “Does she need somewhere to sit down?”
  • The woman who, when I asked MrH for input on a project I was working on, said to him–not to me–“You could have her…”
  • People at various social functions–again, a surprising number–who strike up a conversation with MrH but don’t really include me. One couple at a business social actually waited until he stepped away from my side to slip up and ask him about my blindness and what had caused it.

And the list goes on. This doesn’t even include the people who, seeing me sitting or standing at a social event, walk on by and choose another conversational partner.

What gives?

Why isn’t anyone talking to me?

I’ve been giving this a good deal of thought, and I think there are a number of reasons, sometimes overlapping, why people choose not to talk to me or to engage my sighted companion instead.

They don’t get the right body language cues

What do you do when you’re at a party or other occasion, looking for someone to strike up a conversation with? Chances are, you look around and make eye contact. Both of you may smile or nod, and you move toward each other or introduce yourselves.

Because of my light sensitivity, my eyes are usually shielded behind dark glasses. I try to look at people who are speaking, but in a crowd, I don’t always know whether someone is speaking to me or someone nearby. I may not realize it if you hold out your hand to shake.

So it may be that people, not getting the body language that signals, “Why, yes, I’d actually love to have a conversation with you!” walk on by.

They don’t realize that I’m actively engaged in my surroundings

I feel like some people think being blind is like being swaddled in a comforter and shoved in a closet. Noises you hear are muffled and indistinct, and you can’t tell where they’re coming from. Anything out of reach is effectively invisible.

What would a person in that situation have to talk about, and how would you relate?

They mistake my blindness for other disabilities

Some people seem to think that because I can’t see, I can’t hear either, or that I’m intellectually impaired, or physically fragile. These people tend to mistake MrH or whatever sighted person I’m with for my caregiver–and, by implication, to assume that I must need one.

They haven’t dealt with a blind person before and (maybe) they’re a little intimidated.

Let’s face it. Our society doesn’t do a great job of teaching us to interact with people with disabilities. “Be polite. Don’t stare. Help them out if they need help.” Beyond that, you’re on your own.

Also, many people haven’t spent a lot of time with a blind or visually impaired person, which makes us an unknown. And the unknown is scary!

“What if I don’t know how to talk to her? What if I accidentally offend her? What if she needs help and I don’t know what to do? What if she does something weird or uncomfortable?”

Nope. Easier to step back.

They’re afraid of blindness, or even blind people.

Losing ones eyesight is a common and pervasive fear. I once ran across a survey that, if I remember correctly, found that respondants would rather lose a limb or have to use a wheelchair than lose their eyesight.

Dealing with a blind person means confronting that fear head-on, which can be daunting.

I’ve met one or two people who actually seem to be afraid of me, as if I might suddenly reach out and grab them, or as if my blindness is catching.

What to do?

I’m afraid I didn’t handle the situation in the restaurant with perfect grace. Blame it on low blood sugar and a feeling of being rushed and disoriented.

I turned to MrH and, rather too loudly, asked, “Did she just say that? ‘If she can walk down stairs’? I’m right here!”

He assured me that, yes, I certainly was, and we got out of our coats and into our seats.

When the server came to our table, she was perfectly nice. She spoke to both of us and answered our questions about the specials and menu items, took our orders, and brought our food. (Which was, by the way, delicious.) We ended up leaving a big tip, partly because the food and service had been so good, and partly because I felt like a jerk after my outburst.

I usually don’t let such situations throw me, and over the years we’ve developed some better strategies for dealing with them.

If someone asks MrH a question on my behalf, he’ll shrug and say, “ask her.” Or he’ll say to the cashier trying to hand him my items, “Those are hers.”

I like to step up to a service counter and state my business before the person on the other side can ask MrH, and at restaurants I give my order as if I’m on a par with everyone else–because I am! I’ve gotten less shy about jumping into conversations, especially if I’m already physically part of the group that’s talking.

Most people are happy to take our cues. I think they’re often just uncertain about what to do, so taking the conversational reins in a friendly manner helps them out.

In social groups, I’ve found that people I’ve talked to before are more likely to strike up a conversation with me on a subsequent occasion, and sometimes even introduce me to other friends. I’m not always good at identifying voices of people I don’t know well, but I make an effort to learn names and associate them with details. People are really flattered to be remembered!

And of course I blog and try to be active on social media. The more visible I am, the more I put myself out there, the more I normalize blindness and blind people and the less scary we become. That’s the theory, anyway!

There are some things you can do that make conversation easier for me, and I want to talk about those in an upcoming post. But honestly, the #1 thing you can do is really easy. Just step up and…

Talk to me!

Thanksgiving Memories

A day late, maybe – but that just means I have one more to remember, right?

My dad was in the military until I was in my early teens, so in the years we were stationed overseas, holiday celebrations were sometimes just the four of us – Dad, Mom, my younger sister and me.

I don’t have many specific memories of those overseas celebrations, but I do remember one Thanksgiving (or was it Christmas) dinner we ate in the Army mess hall. We might have just moved, or just packed up to move, or maybe Mom wasn’t feeling well and my parents decided not to mess with an elaborate holiday dinner.

I don’t remember much detail – trays and long tables and the buzz of conversation you get when a lot of people are talking in a large, open area – but we were together and I seem to remember the food was pretty darn good and we all had a good time.

Home for the Holidays

Later, when we were back in the States, my parents would load us up in our 1968 VW minibus for the long drive from Massachusetts to Michigan, where both their families lived. My sister and I, seasoned travelers, would lounge out in the back with books or count a particular color of car or play the alphabet game to pass the miles.

One year – again, I don’t remember whether this was at Thanksgiving or Christmas – the heat pipe fell off partway into the trip. It got so cold in our little minibus that you could see your breath in the air.

Mom bundled me and my sister, still wearing our winter coats and shoes, under blankets in the back while she and my dad shivered in the front seat all the way there. She was worried about the two of us freezing, but we were snug as bugs in a rug. Needless to say, Dad fixed the heat before we began our return trip!

A Family Affair

After my dad retired we moved to Michigan, which shortened our holiday drives considerably!

We always ate Thanksgiving dinner with my dad’s family, and there were a lot of us! My grandparents, Dad’s brother and sister and their spouses, all of us cousins – nine, all told – and frequently some family friends as well. As we kids got older, there were our spouses and children as well. I It wasn’t uncommon for between twenty and thirty people to gather around folding tables for the holiday meal.

And there was food in plenty! Turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, green bean casserole and corn – the works.

My Polish grandmother made braised red cabbage, which I didn’t care for at the time. It was different! And a bit sour because it was made with vinegar! And it was different! Of course, I later moved to North Carolina, where greens are always eaten with vinegar. I suspect I’d really like Grandma’s braised red cabbage these days. I wish I had her recipe!

If we celebrated at my aunt and uncle’s in Grand Rapids, as we usually did, after dinner my parents would pack me and my sister into the car and we’d drive across town to visit my mom’s family.

Her parents had passed by this time, but there were more aunts and uncles and cousins – seven of us on this side.

Every year, my uncle would put up an elaborate, usually moving, Christmas display. This was back in the days before you could find that kind of thing on every street corner, and people would come from all around the city to see it. The entire time we were there, you’d hear cars pull up and stop to watch the display.

There’d be more food, and more talk…and talk…and talk. We cousins would wind up in the basement watching movies or playing videogames, or in my cousin’s room talking about how boring the adults were, because we were teenagers.

To be honest, I didn’t really appreciate our family gatherings as a teenager. It wasn’t that I didn’t like my family, I just didn’t see the point in being dragged halfway across the state to spend time with them.

Now, of course, I’d give anything to be able to spend time visiting and bonding with my extended family.

When I moved to North Carolina to be with my husband, I naively assumed we’d drive back and visit as my parents had. What I forgot to take into account were the economic differences between an Army officer nearing the end of his career and a young family just starting out. I have very few regrets about that move, but being so far from my extended family is chief among them.

Thanksgiving Generosity

Economics brings me to one final Thanksgiving story, a story of unexpected generosity. Time may have eroded some of the exact details, but this is the gist of it:

When our boys were young, we went through a spell of hard times. I wasn’t working, because any work I could find would have just about paid for daycare, and what MrH was making was just about – barely – paying the bills.

At one point, I lamented to a friend that it was a shame all the good deals on turkeys came now, at the end of the month, because the end of the month was usually neck-and-neck with the end of our money, and I couldn’t afford to buy one.

This wonderful lady, whose finances were probably not a whole lot better than our own, took me to Food Lion and bought us not only a turkey, but some of the trimmings.

To be clear, we were not completely without food. We would have eaten We would have eaten that Thanksgiving day, even if it was only beans and rice. But her kindness and generosity made it possible for our little family to enjoy a Thanksgiving feast – and several more meals – that we would otherwise not have had.

I’ve never forgotten that thoughtful gesture, and never ceased to be thankful for it. We’ve never been well-off in a monetary sense, and probably never will be, but we have abundant wealth in our friends.

I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving – if you celebrate Thanksgiving – this year, and if you don’t, I hope you had a wonderful Thursday. If you created any Thanksgiving memories, or have older ones you’d like to share, feel free to, er, dish in the comments.

Sweet Potatoes Galore!

Last week, MrHran across a post on a Facebook group he follows. A local food bank had just received a very generous donation – an entire truckload of sweet potatoesAnyone in the community was invited to take some – “bring your own bag.”

So Friday afternoon, as Hurricane Matthew chewed its way up the coast toward us, Christoph stopped by and filled a plastic grocery bag with sweet potatoes.

The potatoes were all different sizes and a few had gotten damp, so Saturday morning I spread them on newspaper to dry and sorted them by size. The bounty:

  • 2 great big potatoes
  • 11 medium potatoes
  • 29 itty-bitty potatoes

Sunday, when the worst of the storm had passed and we were sure the power would stay on, I went looking for ways to cook this bonanza.

I was most worried about the little potatoes. I’d always been told to peel sweet potatoes, but peeling these suckers sounded like a lot of work for not much potato!

Not to worry. A Google search for “How to cook fingerling sweet potatoes” produced plenty of recipes, all of which said not to peel. Whew!

I settled on this recipe, cut up ten little potatoes and oiled and salted the slices, then hovered over the oven to turn the potatoes every few minutes as instructed. When the disks were fork-tender, I dotted the potatoes with butter and put the pan back in for another minute or two to melt the butter and blend the flavors.

It tasted amazing!

The flavor was smoky, buttery, salty, with the distinct note of sweet potatoe shining through. The skins were a bit chewy on one or two slices, but no more so than the skin of a russet potato, and I’ve eaten plenty of them in my time. In retrospect, I was probably a little zealous about turning the potatoes – next time I’ll flip less frequently.

Okay, now I knew what to do with the little potatoes. This left me with the question of what to do with the large and medium ones.

I gave a couple of the mediums to a friend, which still left us a gracious plenty!

Wednesday night I microwaved the two large potatoes until they were tender, peeled away as much of the skin as I could while they were still hot, and mashed them with a little butter. I added cinnamon, nutmeg, and a good helping of brown sugar.

The result was delicious again, in a completely different way. My son suggested that adding some milk would have resulted in a creamier texture, which is probably true, but I liked them just fine as they were. And the two potatoes were enough for the four of us, though I wouldn’t have minded a bit more.

Saving some for later

I was left with nine medium and nineteen small potatoes – and a new dilemma. I didn’t want my family to burn out on sweet potatoes ,and I didn’t want the remainder to go bad before I could use them.

The internet reports that cooked sweet potatoes can be frozen whole, in chunks or slices, or mashed (pdf). Most sources recommend treating pieces with a lemon juice or ascorbic acid solution or stirring a bit of lemon juice into mashed sweet potatoes to prevent discoloration.

Yesterday I microwaved the medium sweet potatoes in two batches, cooled them until I could pick them up easily, and peeled them. I mashed the pieces as I had the night before, with butter, cinnamon, nutmeg, ground cloves and some brown sugar

Finally, as directed, I stirred in a couple tablespoons of lemon juice. I was concerned about how this would affect the flavor, but if anything, it brightened it.

I froze most of the mashed sweet potatoes, but kept out a portion to try The Cookie Writer’s recipe for Sweet Potato Chocolate Chip Cookies.

I didn’t follow the recipe to the letter – I eyeballed the peanut butter rather than fuss with a cup, and I didn’t add maple syrup since I’d already sweetened the potatoes. The first batch baked up into round balls, so I flattened the second slightly with my fingers as I laid them out. Both baked up fine, though the balls were a little less crumbly.

The flavor was great, though the texture was soft and not what I’m used to in a cookie. Best of all, MrH got to enjoy them, since they didn’t contain any gluten.

So Many Possibilities…

This leaves nineteen tiny sweet potatoes awaiting my attention.

I’m inclined to roast them, as that worked out so well. Since the surfaces are oiled and salted, I don’t think I’d need to worry about discoloration. Or would I? Anyone know?

And that will be the end of our sweet potato bonanza. But there are so many things to try…

I’d kind of like to try candied or glazed sweet potatoes, too, and find a recipe for that mashed sweet potato casserole with crispy rice cereal and marshmallows. And sweet potato pie! I read that sweet potatoes can be substituted in recipes that call for winter squash and pumpkin, which opens up even more possibilities.

I think I’m going to need more sweet potatoes. And a bigger freezer…

What about you? Are you a sweet potato fan? Got a favorite sweet potato recipe? Feel free to, er, dish in the comments.