Down the Rabbit Hole


This is Tana. He is our bunny, named after the great Tana Umaga, former All Black now Auckland Blues coach. Tana adopted us last September. The previous February, a kind stranger found him injured on the road and took him to the SPCA. His injuries left him a bit handicapped. When he gets excited, his head bobbles and his back legs don’t always work properly. And he’s missing the tip of one of his ears. But because he was so dependent on his marvellous caretakers at the Wellington SPCA, he is very cuddly and gives lovely Tana kisses. He loves parsley, carrots, and — of course — KALE. He won’t touch snow peas or any kind of fruit. He doesn’t trust other bunnies, but he trusts us.

fullsizeoutput_2dbTana’s favourite way to spend the day is outside, in his Tana Tunnel. I don’t know exactly what he does there, but I think it involves a good deal of lounging and nose wiggling.

Tana’s rabbit hole — which is multicoloured and made of ripstop nylon — is his happy place.

I have spent much of the past two months down my own rabbit hole, which is not multicoloured and which is the opposite of my happy place. It is foggy, confusing, and lonely.

My slide down the rabbit hole started in October, with the death of my beloved friend, Kline Howell.

In November, there was the US presidential election, which didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped. Enough said about that.DSC_0727

Later in November, we had to euthanise our stoic and much adored Shakespeare. He was nearly 17 — a good innings for a dog. Still, our hearts broke. I was far away, in Laos. I attended his passage via FaceTime, but I didn’t get to hug him goodbye. All the photographs I took that day were out of focus.

And then there was Christmas.

1656212_10153866315413410_2806494952192573646_nChristmas, for me, is an ordeal. I didn’t always feel this way. When I was a child, my Christmases were magical. My Father the Pumpkin Scrooge was, come December, Father Christmas. He made door decorations, hung lights indoors and out, and made me some of the most wonderful Christmas gifts a little girl could wish for. And Mom baked — cookies, Christmas stollen — and sewed — stuffed animals, Barbie clothes, and all manner of Christmas decorations.


When I grew up, Christmas might have been a bit less magical, but it was no less joyful. We three spent many a Christmas Eve listening to Tony Bennet and Mel Torme holiday CDs, watching the Atlanta Cathedral Midnight Mass, and opening Christmas presents. Dad and I opened ours carefully, with our pocket knives, so as not to tear any paper. It drove Mom right round the bend.

Dad didn’t build me Christmas presents anymore, but he found strange and wonderful ones, mostly from the Nature Company Christmas catalogue. There was the giant, inflatable Egyptian Mummy. And the collection of rubber wildlife noses — duck, rabbit, pig, shark, and wolf. And the silver dolphin earrings, which I still treasure.

I treasure the giant inflatable mummy, too. Sadly, it got bit by a dog and lost its inflatableness.

And then dementia came to our family. Like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, it pointed to a future without Merry Christmases. But, unlike Mr. Scrooge, I found there was absolutely nothing I could do to change that future. There was no happy ending. When my parents died, so, for me, did Christmas.

Of course, everyone knows that some people get sad at Christmas. But until I was one of those people, I didn’t really understand how painful and lonely it is when, at a time when everyone else is full of joy and love, all you can feel is pain and loss.

I started going down my own rabbit hole to keep the joy and merriment at arm’s length.

I expected that when I moved to New Zealand, where Christmas falls in summertime and hence lacks most of the environmental triggers that I’m used to — dark nights brightened by Christmas lights, cold weather, even, occasionally, snow — it would be easier. In some ways, it is. And Simon, like me, is inclined to ignore Christmas. But Christmas is still Christmas, even in the Antipodes.

And, it turns out, in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Hanoi has Black Friday sales and a whole street devoted to nothing but Christmas decorations. Who knew?img_1644

You can’t escape Christmas music: in hotel lobbies, TV commercials, at the grocery store, even on Jesse Mulligan’s Afternoons on Radio NZ. What’s my favourite Christmas album? The ones that are packed up until next year.

So I go down my rabbit hole where joy cannot reach. No Christmas joy. But also, no joy from playing music. No joy of cooking. No joy from blogging. No joy from playing with dogs or chickens. In the rabbit hole, it is foggy and blah. No joy. No pain.

Now that Epiphany is in the rearview mirror and the New Year’s sales are coming to an end, I’m starting to poke my nose out of the rabbit hole. And there are exciting times ahead.14184447_10154527766408410_742043425423889984_n

I will pick up my accordion again.

I will sew Raggedy Anns.

I will start teaching cooking classes — watch this space.

I will keep drawing portraits, self and otherwise, to honour Kline.

I will train to run the Angkor Wat Half Marathon in December.

I will visit the Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu with my Sweetheart.raggedy-ann

I will return to Athens to celebrate my Dad’s life of teaching and scholarship.

I will let colour and joy back into my life, until next December.

Or maybe not. Maybe next December, I will learn from Tana and redecorate my rabbit hole to make it a safe, colourful, and happy place filled with music. Just not Christmas music.

Perhaps I will find a way to wish myself a very merry un-Christmas.14563481_10154663669108410_8180738672471969897_n




Losing Home

1013941_10151782344673410_1860275725_n-2My Father died last night.

Not literally. Almost every night since he died of complications from Alzheimer’s nine years ago, Dad has come to me in my dreams.

For the first few years, those visitations were more like hauntings. They were expressions of my own guilt and doubt.

I had struggled, in their declining years, to keep my parents in their home. Maybe that wasn’t the right thing to do? Maybe they’d have done better, lived longer, in managed care?

When it was obvious that they could stay home no longer, I moved them to Virginia to be closer to me. Mom first. Then I went back for Dad. After a nightmarish trip from Athens to Virginia, he spent barely 24 hours in the care home I found for him before he went to the hospital for the last time.

He’d had a heart attack, they told me. And he had a severe infection. They could put him in the cardiac intensive care unit and treat the infection and his broken heart. Or I could transfer him to Hospice for palliative care.

What did I want to do?

What did I want to do? I wanted to take him to the National Gallery of Art to visit his beloved Dutch masters. I wanted to take him to the Capital City Brew Pub for beer and eggs. I wanted to cook rouladen and Klöße for him. I wanted to follow him around Home Depot while he interviewed nails and sorted patiently through 1 x 2s looking for the most perfectly straight one. I wanted we three to watch “Pride and Prejudice” for the 1,724th time and express our joy and relief when Lizzy and Darcy finally got together.

What I didn’t want to do was make this decision.

In the end, it was hospice. Was that what Dad would have wanted? I didn’t know. We never discussed it. As we waited for the ambulance to take him from the hospital to the Hospice facility, I held his hand and told him: “I love you, Dad.”

“No you don’t,” he replied. His last words.

My brain knew he didn’t mean it. That he was ill, confused, and frightened. That he didn’t know who I was.

My heart broke.

He died a couple of weeks later. Quietly. Without another word.

In eighteen more months, my broken-hearted Mother followed him.

That’s when the dreams started. They weren’t dead, they’d been waiting for me — in a train station, in a grubby apartment, in their old house. Hungry, cold, and helpless. Night after night, I’d explain to my Dad, as he was digging in the garden or picking figs, that 400 Brookwood Drive wasn’t ours anymore. That he had to leave. That another family lived there, now.

I moved to New Zealand. My brain broke. My therapist helped me gradually understand and accept that I’d done my best for them. That my parents knew just how much I loved them. That I could let go of the guilt.

And the dreams changed. Dad and Mom were still alive. Sometimes in our old house. But now they were healthy. They were happy. Somehow, Dad had survived that last illness and they were just fine. I could still visit them. Even though I lived on the other side of the world, I had a foot in two homes.

Last night, on Veteran’s Day, Dad died.

For the first time in nine years, I dreamt that my parents were dead. That I put their ashes in the columbarium at Arlington Cemetery. That I was getting on a plane and leaving my old home, once and for all.

Why now?

When my parents died, I lost my childhood home. Not the house, but the home. The warm nest of family where I always felt safe, and loved. Over the course of my adult life, I had returned home often: after my first marriage failed, after my dissertation research grant ran dry, after my suicide attempt, after 9/11, after many failed romances. I was always welcome. Always loved.

When Simon and I came to New Zealand, I left home again. I left my career and the country that had always been and, I assumed, always would be my home. I was lucky. I had a foot in two homes.

On Wednesday, all of that changed. I feel bereft. Not angry. Perhaps a bit bemused. Mostly sad.

I’ve lost another home. The home that was once mine isn’t, anymore. I don’t belong. Will I go back? Probably, to visit. But it won’t be home. It’s another country. With values I don’t understand. With public rhetoric that would break my parents’ hearts.

Not hope but anger.

Not tolerance but hate.

Not We the People, but Us versus Them.

My Father died last night.


Ich Liebe Dich


Dear Kline,

This is a love letter.

You have been an inspiration, role model, and friend since we first met way back in 1972. I was 14, and, to be honest, a gigantic pain in your ass, I fear. You were a handsome young German teacher and I was a not very promising first year German student.

The first thing I noticed about you was not that you were a gifted teacher — although you were — but that you had dreamy, bedroom eyes. One blue, one green. They were expressive, a little bit sad, but twinkled with fun and humour.

I learned so much in your classes:

How to play in a German Ooompah Band,

How to bake and decorate giant gingerbread heart cookies for Valentine’s Day,

All the words to “Mein hut, es hat drei ecke”,

How to ask Otto if the post office is open on Sunday, (“Ist die post often, Otto? Nein! Sie is am Sontag geschlossen.”)

That every poem by Heinrich Heine can be sung to the tune of “The Wabash Cannonball,”

And last but not least, that German is not hereditary and that I wasn’t going to learn it just by living in the same house as a fluent German speaker.

Because I never really cottoned on to that last one, and thus never studied nearly enough to become a German student you could be proud of, I suspect you were not heartbroken when, upon fulfilling my two-year foreign language requirement, I moved over to the Vocational wing and starting taking Graphic Arts, where I learned to operate an offset printer and develop photographic film.

They don’t have those anymore.

Not my wisest career move.

Just about that time, my mother persuaded you, Señora Howell, and your beautiful little daughter, Felicia, to join us at St. Gregory the Great Episcopal Church which, at the time, worshipped out of a God-box stored in the back corner of an Elementary School Cafeteria that smelled of butter beans. You joined us, even though, I reckon, as public school teachers, the last place you wanted to spend half your weekend was a school cafeteria!

You and Carolyn asked Mom to be Felicia’s Godmother, and we became family. Felicia was baptised on the 4th of July 1976, Mum’s 50th Birthday. It was one of her proudest moments.

And I’ve thought of you as family ever since.

I still have the cross-stitch pillow Felicia made for Mom. It was one of her treasures, and one of the few things she kept with her when she finally left the house on 400 Brookwood Drive. It occupies a place of honour in our home, now, on Grandpa Saltenberger’s rocking chair.img_0569

And I stand in awe of you to this very day because everything you ever turned your mind to, you did brilliantly.

You sang like an angel.

You cooked German food that rivalled my Mom’s, and that’s saying something.

One Christmas you made us German ornaments woven out of wheat straw that were as beautiful as any I’d ever seen. One of them was our tree topper every year. It’s with me in New Zealand. If we ever have another Christmas Tree, it will top that one, too.

You played the accordion!

And you made the most moving and beautiful art I’ve ever seen. Every time you posted new sketches to Facebook, I was stunned all over again by your gift. What a legacy you’ve left your Grandchildren through your art. The depth of your love and the beauty of your soul shine through them.

I’m grateful to own a signed print of this one, which I will cherish and think of you every time I look at it:


And none of that even touches on how much of yourselves you and Carolyn gave to the generations of students that had the good fortune to study with you and the friends and family who basked in your generosity of spirit and good fun.

Especially my parents. The German Dinner Parties you threw with Mom were among her very happiest memories. You will never know how grateful I am for the patient kindness you and Carolyn offered to Mom and Dad in their last years when it wasn’t always easy to be kind to them.CCI16122015

And I will never forget your matzo ball soup, which was a tonic to my soul every time I made the long trek down to Athens to get the mice out of the pantry and make sure my parents had more to eat than Campbell’s Pork and Beans. Whenever I make matzo ball soup, I say a little prayer thanking the gods for you.


I was already working in Washington when your first heart broke, putting you on the transplant list. But your courage was legendary.

And fortunately, your new heart was just as big, as generous, and as loving as the first one.

I am so grateful for that heart — and whoever blessed us all by giving it to you — for keeping you with us for 27 more years. I know those years were not always easy for you. But you never let it break your spirit.

Time and again you were there for me, for my parents, for your lovely (and loving) daughter and her kids, for your family and friends — for all of us.

I suppose it was only a matter of time before that generous heart grew too weak to keep you with us. When we were last together, just two weeks ago, I knew you were growing weary.

But I wasn’t ready for the news. None of us were.

Today, I am heartbroken that you have left us, but oh, so grateful to have known you.

Rest well, dear Kline. You were an angel among us.

I hope there are accordions in heaven.

Ich liebe dich.






DWV: Driving While Vegetarian

In about a month, I’m heading off on an epic solo road trip from Minneapolis to Atlanta. I’ll be visiting friends and family along the way, but I am also looking forward to the days on the road alone with my iPod loaded with audio books, the Go-Gos, and the Bangles; my camera; and my GPS. I’d love to be able to add my appetite to that list, but finding little-known culinary gems of the sort that have made Jane and Michael Stern famous is almost a lost cause for vegetarians.

Armed with a dog-eared copy of the 2nd (1980) edition of the Stern’s Roadfood, my first husband and I would take the back roads to find out-of-the way eateries, diners, and truck stops. On our honeymoon in New Orleans, the best meals we had were at Roadfood-recommended spotneworleans-snack-camelliagrill-2.jpgs: The Camellia Grill (greasy cheeseburgers sold by counter staff in white jackets and bow ties and an excuse to ride the streetcar), The Old Coffee Pot (calas cakes — sweet rice fritters), Central Grocery (muffalettas), Mother’s (the best ham Po’ Boy ever and Debris and Grits, made with the crunchy scratchings and scraps), and, of course, the magical beignet’s and chicory coffee and the Cafe du Monde.

Cafe Du Monde

Just because it is a tourist trap doesn’t mean it isn’t good!

It is testimony the to the quality of the Sterns’ picks that every one of these establishments is still going strong, 35 years later.

Sadly, there is no real vegetarian equivalent of Roadfood, or of the excellent Roadfood website, for vegetarians. Roadfood does tag restaurants that are suitable for vegetarians, but most of the promising ones (at least to me) seem to be Connecticut or the Southwest. Which is great if you are in Connecticut or the Southwest, but not so great if you are driving from Minneapolis to Atlanta and are not planning a route that goes through either New Haven or Tucson. I have made a note of one recommendation that is, more or less, mostly less, along my route. It is a grilled cheese sandwich joint called Melt, on the outskirts of Cleveland, which I suppose I could justify with a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum. I can do that since Deep Purple’s (according to Simon, woefully late) induction.

When I Google “vegetarian road food”, I find lots of sites that suggest packing lots of your own carrots and celery, miso soup packets, and travel blenders. They also provide lists of things to ask when you do stop at a restaurant: is your bread vegan? Is your vegetable soup made with chicken stock? Etc. This is all excellent advice. [I can add one: don’t take prunes as a road snack. I learned that the hard way, driving across southwest Texas in 1987.] One site suggested eating only at Chinese restaurants and just ordering order tofu and broccoli. Now I love broccoli and tofu as much as the next girl . . . but . . . just kill me now.vegan-broccoli_tofu-zoom

I’ve encountered similar challenges since moving to New Zealand. There is a plant-based food community here, but it is scattered around a largely carnivorous country. It has taken some time to find sources of things like nooch (nutritional yeast — by mail order from, Bragg Liquid Aminos and Barley Malt Syrup (, tofu (the tofu man at the Riverside Market in Lower Hutt), and Jackfruit (Davis Trading in Petone). Wellington could really use a vegetarian fine dining restaurant. Right now, our choices are limited to Asian and Indian. Or things laden with hated pumpkin or kumara — or both.

So, what’s a vegetarian — and worse, a vegan — to do? There are some good resources. has an extensive listing of vegan, vegetarian, and vegetarian-friendly eateries around the world that includes brief reviews. It also includes listings of vegetarian and vegan shops and co-ops, which is really useful if you are staying in one place for a while. The reviews can be crossed referenced on Yelp or Trip Advisor for more guidance.

If you are traveling in the Southern United States, one good option is to pull off the main road, find the nearest town, and look for the meat-and-three restaurant. meat and threeYou can usually find one in the town centre, near the courthouse. It’s a lunchtime cultural experience not to be missed. Meat and three restaurants offer lunch (and occasionally dinner) plates consisting of a choice of three meat mains (say, fried chicken, country ham, and meatloaf) plus three of a fairly extensive selection of vegetable sides. In the old days, most of the vegetables would have been cooked with pork, but more and more, you’ll find plenty of meat-free choices. It might be tougher for vegans, but there should still be some options. Any good meat and three restaurant will offer a veg plate that usually involves three or five veg plus bread.

The ultimate meat and three experience can be had at The Blue Willow Inn in Social Circle, Georgia. ga_mapYou can find it here: Strictly speaking, The Blue Willow isn’t a meat and three but an all-you-can-eat buffet. But the effect is the same. It’s a little bit touristy, and a little bit Gone With the Windy. Still, this was probably my Dad’s favourite eating place in the entire universe. This was partly because they usually had fried liver and onions (belch!), but what kept him going back again and again on the least excuse was the fried green tomatoes and the grits soufflé. blue willow green tomsIf you are ever in the vicinity of Atlanta, or pretty much anywhere in the top half of Georgia, it is well worth a detour. Vegetarian or not, you can eat yourself into catatonia. Get there early, though, to make sure they still have the fried green tomatoes.

Another good option is, of course, to check out local vegan and vegetarian websites for the places you are going. The problem here, of course, is that finding a good one can be a hit or miss proposition. We need more of them.


There should be a law.

If you happen to be traveling to Bath, in the United Kingdom, you are in luck. My lovely sister-in-law, Ellie, has a local vegan website that is the Gold Standard for the art form.

It’s just the kind of local vegetarian website a funky, medium-sized city that calls itself The Coolest Little Capital in the World needs. That you, Wellington. Vegan Bath isn’t just a compilation of Yelp and Trip Advisor reviews. It is a thoughtful resource where you can learn stuff about being vegan, the history of plant-based diets, and, of course, where to go in Bath if you are a vegetarian.

I went to Bath once. It rained torrentially, the Pump House had a two hour wait, the  Roman bath was full of vile looking green water, and I didn’t see Ann Elliot and Captain Wentworth anywhere. It was a bad day.persuasion-1995-screencapture

Thanks to Vegan Bath, I can’t wait to go back and give it another go.

Well done, Ellie!





90 Things My Mother Taught Me: Part II


Today is Mum’s Birthday in our homeland, where it is yesterday, while I am already in tomorrow, where it isn’t Mum’s Birthday anymore. [Disclaimer: actually, it isn’t Mom’s birthday anywhere anymore. Thinking up 90 things took longer than I expected.]

As promised (rashly), here are the second 44 things my mother taught me, in more-or-less no particular order:

44:     If the Dawgs are behind in a football game, go into the kitchen and they will turn it around. This only worked for Mum, which earned her the nickname “the Kitchen Witch.”Dean Rusk During one of her dinner parties the Dawgs were behind in a big game (which the guests were listening to on radio, because . . . well . . . it was them Dawgs!), Former Secretary of State Dean Rusk (who was a Georgia boy and taught at UGA in his later years) politely picked up Mum’s plate, and his, and ate with her at the kitchen table. Georgia, of course, won.

This was the year UGA won the National Championship. Mum spent the entire 1980-81 football season in the kitchen, but never got the recognition she deserved. Hershal Shmershal.

43:      It is a bad idea to decorate your white dog with red and blue crepe paper for the 4th of July parade. It will rain and your dog will turn purple tie-dye.

42:      If you don’t eat it for supper tonight, you’ll get it for lunch tomorrow.

snoopy1241:      It is important to learn how to type, but only well enough to get a job. Don’t type so well that people might actually want you to do it. This was when they still had typewriters — manual ones.

40:      If a peacock falls in love with you, don’t look him in the eye, or he will follow you around all day waggling his tail feathers in your general direction.

39:      How to knit “continental style”: I didn’t know it was called continental style, Mum probably didn’t either. I just know she could knit really fast, and I can too. Mind you, I rip out a lot more than she did.

38:      Never tell people you love frogs. If you do, you will never, for the rest of your life, receive a gift that doesn’t have frogs on. Also, never tell your Aunt who lives in Milwaukee that you collect beer steins unless you really mean it. If you do, you will reach middle life with enough beer steins to open your own Ratskeller.


Thanks, Auntie June, for all the lovely steins!

37:      Flying coach to Los Angeles, then folding yourself into an overloaded, un-airconditioned Datsun 210 to keep your kid company on a three and a half day drive from Los Angeles to Athens is a supreme act of love. Knitting the same kid a gorgeous sweater in the process is even more awesome.


36:      The stripes on Raggedy Ann’s legs go round-and-round, not up-and-down.

35:      Colored towels don’t work. Actually, this one came from Dad, but it is too good to leave out, as is . . .


34:      There are no roads in Canada, and . . .

33:      You can drive to Manassas, but you can’t drive back.

32:      If you are born on the 4th of July, you will always get American flags on your birthday cakes. And people will ask you if you are a Yankee Doodle Dandy. To get a birthday cakes with no red, white, and blue, you will have to leave the country. But you might still get fireworks.

31:      If you see a flash of white fur followed by a barefoot woman shaking a raw piece of bacon shouting about Russian Dumplings, it’s just Mum trying to catch the dog.


The noble, and fleet of foot,  Piroshki with Miss Peanut

30:      Don’t leave any complicated cooking until the last minute, because parties always end up with everyone in the kitchen. Besides, the whole point of inviting folks round for dinner is to enjoy their company.




29:      Make friends with old people, they have interesting stories to tell you. I’ve had several adopted Grandmas over the years and my life was richer for it. I am now an old person. I am available for adoption.

28:      Edna Shakleford will never, ever give you the recipe for her Coconut Cake to die for. Make a pitcher of martinis and get over it.

27:      Bake Christmas Stöllen because: 1) it is a family tradition; 2) they are sort of like fruitcake, but people actually like them, and 3) people will be so grateful they will give you Christmas cookies that you can, later, pretend you baked. This saves you the onerous job of baking Christmas cookies.

26:      It also helps to have two sisters who bake wonderful Christmas cookies.

25:      Janice’s nutmeg logs are the best cookie ever, closely followed by Anita’s cranberry bark, which, technically, isn’t a cookie.

24:      When the rabbit starts running around in his hutch, you have about five seconds to get the freezer door open.



23:      Your kid will get potty trained eventually. Make a pitcher of martinis and don’t stress out.Then you can smile knowingly when a visiting neighbor’s little boy walks up to you and says, proudly: “Look! I made a poo-poo” and presents his mother with a perfect turd.



22:      When your daughter declares she might want to join a convent, make a pitcher of martinis and roll with it. The phase will pass.

21:      When your daughter takes an overdose of sleeping pills and lands in a psychiatric hospital on suicide watch, hug her a lot and tell her you love her. The phase will pass.

20:      When the troop leader tells your daughter that she has to sell two cases of Girl Scout Cookies, just buy them all and put them in the freezer. Added bonus: you will have something to fall back on if the stöllen-for-Christmas cookie scam doesn’t work.


19:      When the Band Director tells your kid that she has to sell four cases of Drix, just buy them all and put them in the freezer.

18:      When your kid melts her band hat by using it as a lampshade, don’t make her feel any stupider than she already does. Try to fix it by stuffing it with newspaper, then own up to the Band Director.65272_10151352831074442_1906667689_n

17:   Don’t use your husband’s royalty check as a bookmark unless you are sure you will remember which book you marked with it.

16:      1044516_10151782269223410_365771569_nGathering about 10,000 yards of raspberry pink sating for a bridesmaid’s dress is a way to spend a weekend, but not much of one. But you do these things for your best friends, and your kid’s best friends.

15:      When stealing peas from your mother’s garden, if you tell your brother that the shells are the best part, then you get to eat all the peas.


Mom and her brother Billy, who ate all the pea pods

14:     When your husband convinces his star graduate student to partake of a martini and radish and onion sandwich binge, legendary hangovers will ensue. Be on standby with Alka-Seltzer.

13:      Major Professors can convince their students to do just about any damn stupid thing.

12: During USMC Japanese Language School reunions, legendary hangovers will ensue. You will see a side of your husband/Dad that you never even suspected. And you will have a great deal of fun.


11:      Bunion surgery really sucks. Wear sensible shoes.sensible shoes

10:      If God intended for you to walk with bunions, he wouldn’t have made teenage daughters with driver’s licenses.

9:         You can wear white shoes any damn time you want to. Particularly if they are sneakers. Especially Chucks, which are even cool in Venice.


8:         Homemade gifts are the best. No one will remember that Pet Rock they got for Christmas in 1972, but they will still have, and love, the Raggedy Ann you made them with the stripes going the wrong way, the Amish dolls you made one year, the Mother Geese (Gooses?) you made another year. You daughter will keep, and cherish the Pooh, Tigger, and Paddington Bear you made her. When she lives in New Zealand, she will think of you, and miss you, every time she sees them – worn and well loved as they are.IMG_0109

7:         Kneading bread dough is better than therapy, and cheaper.

6:         Always write Thank You notes. Right through the 1980s and 1990s, everyone who donated money to the Athens Area Emergency Food Bank got a handwritten Thank You note written by Mum. And most of them donated more money, and received more Thank You notes. Mum was gracious and generous.missions_foodbank

5:         Good people fall on hard times. No one should go hungry because they can’t afford to buy groceries. And no one should judge. It could be you next time.

4:         You can change the world with a telephone, index cards, and a roll of stamps. I’ve seen it happen. Mum did it, right from this chair:


The Command Centre


3:        Mom to Simon: “Are you sure you want to marry her? She’s trouble with a big T!”



2:         Crossword puzzles are good for your brain. CCI06072016_6







1:         You were a beautiful soul, loved by many, and you are deeply missed. Happy Birthday, Mum!


90 Things My Mother Taught Me: Part I

1044844_10151784467348410_1806859731_nIdamae Saltenberger was born on the Sesquincentennial of the United States (that’s 150 years).


Idamae with her parents, 1926

I took this photo of Idamae Saltenberger Ziemke on her 50th Birthday, which happened to be the Bicentennial of the United States.

She hated having her picture taken, which is why she has that whole Princess Diana vibe going on.

This 4th of July (Independence Day in the land of my birth . . . and hers), Idamae Saltenberger Ziemke would have celebrated her nonagintennial.

She’d be turning 90.

I miss her.

She was my Mum. She taught me everything (important) that I know.

In honour of her 90th, I thought I’d compile a list of the 90 most important things she taught me. One for each year.

It turns out that 90 is a lot of things.

So, I will make two lists: one for her New Zealand Birthday and one for her US Birthday.

Here is Part I in no particular order:

90:      Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy get together at the end of Pride and Prejudice, even the 1,723rd time you watch it.lizzie and darcy

89:      If you eat an entire box of Christmas ribbon candy in one day, you will get sick and never want to eat Christmas ribbon candy again in your entire life. ribbon candyIn fact, just looking up images of Christmas ribbon candy on Google will make you queasy 50 years later.

88:      It’s a bad idea to use soft-boiled Easter Eggs in an egg hunt.

87:      Don’t spray insecticide on the rose bushes you planted next to your husband’s fishpond. The fish will die and your husband will rip up your rose bushes.


Enter a caption


86:      Never throw out bleach bottles, you never know when you might want to make them into [fill in the blank]. Mum’s bestie, Laura Huish, allegedly wept when she had to re-home her bleach bottle collection when her family moved to North Carolina. They came to live happily in our attic where some found meaningful careers as piggy-banks.bird feeder




85:      Never throw out egg cartons. See number 86 above. egg carton penguinsThis only applies to cardboard egg cartons. The Styrofoam ones are useless, even for holding eggs.


84:      Never throw out Reader’s Digests. With a little spray paint and a styrofoam ball, they make nice Christmas angels.


83:      In fact, best not to throw out anything. You never know when you might need that odd sock.

sock puppets

82:      Stay on good terms with your next-door neighbours (which means gracefully accepting when they offer you some of their goat barbecue) in case your oven blows up and you’ve made Baked Alaska for your dinner party. That way, you can use their oven and arrive at the front door of your own party bearing spectacular dessert.

81:      When your husband’s graduate student and his wife turn up a week early for their dinner invitation, make a pitcher of martinis and tomato sandwiches. Everyone will have a wonderful time.

80:      Episcopalians are happy to hear the Christmas Story on the 4th of July.

79:      If you choose to turn your hair green with Sun In, you can live with the consequences until it grows out.  1001483_10151782256448410_1697737890_n

78:      Don’t ever let Uncle Chuck make Dad’s drinks. If you do, Dad will never make it to the Friday Fish Fry.

77:      There is more to dessert than chocolate.

76:      If God had meant people to be outside in Georgia in August, he wouldn’t have made air-conditioners.

75:      And if you stay out of the sun, in the air-conditioning, you won’t have any wrinkles on your 50th Birthday and you will look awesome. For that matter, you won’t have any wrinkles and will look pretty awesome on your 82nd Birthday!


Mom’s 82nd Birthday with my friends Katy and Yvonne. I was on a train in Australia, meeting my soul mate. She warned me before I left. I didn’t believe her. Silly me.

74:      You cannot hear Gordon Lightfoot sing “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” too many times. You can, however, wear the grooves off the record. I wanted us to sing it at her Memorial Service. Turns out, it’s not in the Episcopal Hymnal.Wreck-45-200x200

73:      If you are fed up with your family and decide to run away from home, remember to put on your shoes and take your purse.

72:      You can never have enough index cards.

71:      If you are going to sew yourself a swimsuit, remember to use waterproof elastic. Otherwise, your bottoms will float away the first time you jump into the pool, and you will be pretty darned embarrassed.

70:      Life is too short to bake cookies.

69:      Never use bleach on the Altar Linens, only lemon juice. Bleach makes holes in fair linen.

68:      If you say you are going to the Golden Pantry with Becky but you actually are going to “meet boys”, your mother will know. She is omnipotent.

67:      “Your Father will be so disappointed” is worse than a spanking.

66:      If you are at the beach and the steaks fall off the Hibachi into the sand, wipe them off and make another pitcher of martinis. Always gin. Always olives. Dirty (with the olive juice). No one will notice.hibachi

65:      No one has invented the garbage disposal yet. This is still true.electric-pig

64:      Ankle strap shoes are trashy.

63:      So are halter-tops.

62:      Twenty-five years from now, no one will care that you weren’t tapped for that High School sorority. Neither will you. In fact, you won’t remember what that High School sorority was.IMG_0108

61:      But you will remember that your Mum suggested you start your own secret society and call it the D.R.I.P.S., which doesn’t stand for anything. But the girls you won’t let in (because they did get tapped for that High School sorority that you can’t remember the name of) don’t know that and will think you are very mysterious.

60:      Some day, you will be grateful that your Mum fished the tear-soaked pieces of the note you got from Winston in sixth grade saying “I don’t love you no more” out of the waste basket and taped them back together.

59:      Ditto the equally tear-soaked piece of the note you got from Winston six months earlier saying “I love you. You’re Jam Up an Jelly Tight.”


A valuable historical document. Sadly, I can’t put my hands on the break-up note.

58:      Always wear clean knickers in case you get in a car accident. You don’t want to arrive at the ER in yesterday’s undies.

57:      It is extremely difficult to get a finch to eat broccoli.

56:      Always clean the windows and dry crystal glasses with newspaper. It is cheap, you only throw it away anyway, and it doesn’t leave streaks (although you might get newsprint all over you).

55:      If you accidentally pour your kid’s grape Kool-Aide into the Beef Bourguignon instead of the red wine, just make another pitcher of martinis and roll with it. (Are you detecting a pattern here?) It will taste fine and everyone will wonder what the secret ingredient is. Sort of like those little cocktail wieners with the grape jelly.

54:      You can’t have too many homegrown tomatoes, but you can have too many figs.

53:      Fortunately, Southerners love figs.

52:      Money won’t buy you friends, but fig pizzas will.

51:      The Benny Hill Show is obnoxious, but Dad loves it, so humor him.The-Benny-Hill-Show-5

50:      You don’t have to speak German to cook awesomely delicious German food.

49:      Always make Klösse with old potatoes, even if your husband insists you only make them with new potatoes (and it’s OK to sneak in a few mashed cooked potato so everything sticks together – just don’t tell Dad).

48:      And they aren’t done with they float – whatever the cookbook says. If you take them out of the water as soon as they float, you will have raw potato mush.

47:      McD’s Quarter Pounders are best with onions only.

46:      Nobody at McD’s believes that Quarter Pounder are best with onions only, so be prepared to 1) explain yourself, 2) wait so long that your French Fries have congealed and, 3) end up with a Quarter Pounder with everything but onions.

45:      You can’t flush toothbrushes down the toilet, and ceramic toilets can catch fire when attacked by a mad Professor with a blowtorch.toilet barbecue


Smells Like Victory

IMG_0111Every morning, between our first cup of coffee and “breakfast”, which is usually more like elevenses, Simon, the boys, and I go out for a morning romp. Simon feeds the pigs and alpacas, I give the chooks their morning eggshells, Shakey has a morning constitutional, CJ chases his tennis ball, and Cully does whatever Cully does.

This morning, though, CJ couldn’t find a tennis ball and then, suddenly, he disappeared into the bush. When we all came in, I detected a whiff of deja vu. Something like . . . what? Ah! I remember! The summer a possum crawled under our air conditioner condenser and died.


Filling chez Ziemke with the bouquet of road kill.


RIP Possum

We spent the night in a motel.

CJ has had a bath.

Some childhood memories, I can do without.

Music can tap into memory in a powerful way and has, for me, become a transformative outlet for my tangled emotions. Taste can trigger memories. For me, tomato sandwiches (on squishy white bread with Blue Plate Mayonnaise) will always taste like summer in Georgia. But smell alone can, almost literally, transport me back in time. It is far and away my most evocative sense, for better and worse.

The smell of bread baking always — every single time — carries me back to my Mum’s kitchen.

The smell of chlorine or coconut oil takes me back to long, lazy summers hanging around at the Green Acres Pool — and probably earning myself skin cancer.

The smell of wet wool conjures blizzards, snow forts, and wet beanies and mittens.1012852_10151784211238410_1993603695_n

And I can smell when it is going to snow.

Then there is dead possum.

And the smell of liver and onions frying. We had liver once a week until (God bless ’em) the nutritional powers-that-be declared it unfit for human consumption because of its high cholesterol. Liver and onions smell deceptively delicious when they are cooking, especially when they are cooked — as Mom always did — with bacon. I, however, was not fooled.

And fish baking.

Mom was a marvellous cook. Almost everything she touched turned to deliciousness.

With two exceptions: liver and onions, and her baked fish casserole, which replaced liver and onions night post-cholesteral consciousness raising. She layered thawed flounder fillets (which came in unappetising-looking fish bricks) with canned tomatoes, sliced onions and green peppers, and topped the whole thing with sliced lemons and breadcrumbs.It smelled like some ill-considered tex-mex cat food and tasted worse. 29-fish-fingers-rexDad claimed to like it. I think he was trying not to ruin his weekends. It was disgusting. I prayed for fish fingers. They never came. I’ve never quite recovered and still have an extremely cautious relationship with fish.

All these years later, when I get a whiff of the fish monger at the Farmers’ Market, I get a pit in my tummy that says “Oh, no. Fish casserole.”

Forgive me Mom.

Now I am starting a new life, in a new home, in a new country.

My life in New Zealand is full of new smells that are building new emotional memories that will stay with me wherever I go.IMG_0236

Wee piglets. I will never forget the smell of our Wee Charlie when we first brought him home. You know how babies smell like milk? Well, Wee Charlie did, too. I know. I bottle fed him for four weeks.

Turns out bottle feeding a Kune Kune piglet is a full contact sport.

The hangi, a Maori banquet cooked in the ground — sometimes with wood, sometimes in geothermal steam vents. I’m not Maori, but the smell reminds me of family.

Rotorua, which smells like boiling mud because it is full of , well, boiling mud. And spas. What’s not to love?IMG_0825

Penguins, which, come to think of it, smell pretty much like Mom’s fish casserole.


Muddy chickens. We don’t have any sand, but there is a sunny, peaty spot where the Saltenberger girls like to take their dirt baths. It makes them smell like the earth.IMG_0429

Alpaca spit. Ok, not all smells are good. But if you smell alpaca spit once, you’ll never forget it. Shearing day is also our annual alpaca spitting contest. Domino is the undisputed champion.

Manuka smoke, which makes the bacon buttie stall at the Market almost irresistible. But, I think of the smell of wee piglet and resist. Fortunately, they also sell liquid manuka smoke, which is magical.IMG_0473

And the waiting room of the Hutt Valley DHB Mental Health Services, where I went every week for six months and where my lovely therapist introduced me to me. When I started, that room smelled like any medical waiting room, a combination of fear and anxiety. As Jane helped me, gradually, to let go of what I didn’t need — guilt, grief, insecurity, and failure — and embrace what I had left behind — my happy childhood, my inner musician and artist, the future, and kale — that scent of fear transformed into one of healing and growth.

That smells like life.

That smells like victory.


Victory Vegetables

Improvise and Overcome

008 Counting in Kiwi - Number 8 wire, that'll sort it

Kiwis take great pride in what they call their “number 8 wire” mentality. In a small, remote country peppered with small, remote communities, specialised materials can be hard to find. So, Kiwis have learned to make do. A Kiwi bloke, it is said, can fix anything with a piece of number 8 fencing wire. Kiwis are proud of their ability to improvise, adapt, and overcome.

When an earthquake knocked down Christchurch, they built a shopping mall out of shipping containers and a cathedral out of cardboard.

My Dad had a bit of the number 8 wire mentality. The wife wants a $1000.00 Tiffany lampshade for Christmas? Make one out of chicken wire and coloured glass. CCI02062016Dragged your feet until all the Christmas trees are gone (Southerners put their trees up the day after Thanksgiving)? Build one out of dowels and holly branches from the garden. The wife flushed a toothbrush down the toilet and got it stuck in the U-bend? Take the toilet out onto the driveway and melt the toothbrush with your blow torch.

Okay. That last one didn’t work out so well. Turns out ceramic toilets can catch fire. Which it did, burning for several minutes (long enough for neighbours to come gawp from far and wide) before breaking in half. Try living that down. I hear someone related that story, to gales of laughter, at Dad’s Memorial Service. Oh. Wait. That was me.

I’ve learned some things about improvising since moving to New Zealand. Cake flour not a thing? Take three tablespoons out of each cup of standard flour and replace with potato starch, then sift the hell out of it. No graham crackers? Use digestive biscuits. Chickens escaping into the primary school next door? Plastic snow fence. Broken accordion? Get a digital piano until you can find an accordion fixer — or a new accordion.

I haven’t found a way to use number 8 wire to fix an accordion.

The career you built over 25 years goes up in flames, along with your mental health and sense of self worth? Take your crazy pills and build a new self. One that you love. One that honours who you are, not who you think you should want to be.

She’ll be right.She'll be right

I came to New Zealand to be a Professor of Defence and Security Studies and a Southern Hemisphere consultant on countering violent extremism and cross-cultural communication. Three years later, I’m a fairly anonymous food blogger and brassica evangelist. I’m also an aspiring accordion virtuoso with a broken accordion accidentally finding my bliss, and myself, on a digital piano.

Some would call that a failure. I call it a rebirth.

Food and music, it turns out, are a pretty good “number 8 wire” for a broken soul.

When I was in High School, I took up the saxophone so I could play in the Stage Band (part big-band, part Dixieland, part jazz, part dance band). 1004065_10151784467223410_1185793730_n-3We played everything from World War II-era swing and Dixieland to Dave Brubeck and Frank Zappa, but I longed to learn to improvise. To take break free of the chart, fly, and make jazz magic all my own.

But I was too shy and, I thought, too female and too caucasian. I didn’t know the rules, and there must be rules. I reckoned I was too lazy and enamoured of my creature comforts to make it as a musician. In the 1970s, when I was teenager, becoming a professional chef certainly wasn’t a thing. Girls who could cook taught Home Economics. And I had this brain . . . and I could write . . . and I grew up around scholars . . . and history was in my blood.

So I followed the recipe. Played the notes that were written. Coloured inside the lines. Did what was expected of me.

White girls can’t jam.

I went to college. I got As. I earned a free ride to Graduate School. I got married. I got divorced. I got a Ph.D. I got a job at a Defense think tank. And I struggled to find ways to transform my longing to create into national security analysis. Sometimes, I almost succeeded. I hated about 50% of the work I did, felt “meh” about 40%, and loved about 10%. And, I reckoned, that was probably better than most people do. I made good money. I had amazing colleagues and friends all over the world. I did some valuable work. I traveled the world. Sometimes, as with my countering violent extremism work, I did work that made me proud and gave me joy. I don’t know if I made the world a better place, but the world made me a better person.

Then my parents got old. And they developed dementia. They weren’t eating. The house was a tip. But they didn’t want to leave.  Again, I tried to follow the recipe, play the notes that were written, colour inside the lines. To be a good daughter. To make their lives better. To make them happy.

But this time, I failed. I hadn’t saved them from the indignity of getting old. Not because I wasn’t good enough, or didn’t try hard enough, or failed to follow the rules. I failed because failure was inevitable. I know this now. My parents were never going to be as they were. Our little family was gone for good.

So, I thought, was my anchor. I spent my life following the script of the good daughter handbook; working to make my parents proud. Not because they expected it, but because I did. But now I wasn’t a daughter. From now on, whether I liked it or not, my life was an improv.

I was terrified. I was setting out on a seven-year panic attack.

Luckily, I found a new anchor. On a train. In Australia. And reader, I married him.1934126_27315433409_5243_n

And I ran away with him. To New Zealand.

Simon held me up when I broke. He pulled me away from the edge. He kept me safe. I know he was terrified, too. But he didn’t show it. Not to me.

He has supported all my various schemes to heal — through therapy, wall paper shredding, cooking, knitting, colouring books, a tattoo and an accordion.

And, oh, so much kale!

He saved my life.

But now, I know, it’s up to me to keep going. And growing. And I’m doing it without a plan or a rule book. I’m well off the map.

I’m tracking my adventure through this blog. And I’m playing my own, improvised sound track. Thanks to my remarkable music teacher, Katie, I’m learning that when it comes to music, and life, I don’t have to learn to walk before I can run.

This white girl can jam!





Troublemakers Will Be Bard

GreshamsFor years and years,  Dad, Mum, and I would go out every Saturday on errands. These errands involved many stops, usually including the East Athens Grocery for meat (Mom: “Now, Jake, have you cleaned the pork out of your meat grinder? Jake: Oh, yes, Miss Ida. Mom: I want two pounds of this very lean round steak, run through the grinder twice. But ONLY if you have really cleaned all the pork out of the grinder. Jake: Yes, Ma’am. Mom: Because we are going to eat this ground beef raw, and I don’t want my family to get ptomaine. If they get sick, I will come back and shoot you.  Jake: Say, what?! You gonna eat this RAW?!)

Yes. The Kale Whisperer grew up eating raw beef (known in upper-crusty circles as Steak Tartare) every single Saturday night of her young life. On home-baked rye bread with sweet butter and a glass of V-8 and sauerkraut juice to wash it all down. It was magical.

Our Saturdays always finished at the McDonald’s on West Broad St. (until they built one on our side of town), which was my reward for at least pretending to be patient while Mum talked her way through one grocery store after another. Dad and I usually had two-all-beef-patties-special sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions-on a sesame seed bun. Mom always had to have a Quarter Pounder with onion only, no cheese, no ketchup. No nothin’. This wasn’t a thing at McD’s, so we had to wait, and wait. . . and wait. And about 50% of the time, her burger arrived with everything BUT onions.

On the way home, we passed Gresham’s Disco, Sports Bar, Auto Body shop and Used Car Lot. This place captured my imagination from a tender age because, for decades, it had blackened windows but for a sign that read “Troublemakers Will Be Bard.” As a lifelong sufferer of Ortographobia — the fear of spelling words incorrectly, or, more accurately, the fear of the consequences of being constitutionally incapable of spelling words correctly — I stood in awe of this brave and constant exercise in thumbing one’s nose at spelling convention. For all I know, that sign still stands. I hope it does. Next time I am in Athens, I’ll check and let you know.

Little did I know, at the tender age of 10, that the Bard would become a major force in my life. First, in my Honors English Composition class, I was required to interpret a different Shakespeare Sonnet each week. My first effort earned me a D. GASP! No one ever gave me a D. I was crushed. And determined to do better. I chained myself to the Oxford English Dictionary for the remainder of the quarter. I eaked out an A. The Professor, Charles Allen Beaument (who chewed nicotine gum elegantly), became my academic muse. He died in 2011. He was a lovely man, and an absolutely terrifying Professor.

I went on to take four more Shakespeare courses at the University of Georgia. They changed my life. Really. I would have majored in English, but I was terrified of the History of the English Language class, which was required and which, reputedly, no one ever escaped with a grade higher than a C. But my love of Shakespeare lived on. So much so that I named one of my children for the Bard.

This is Shakespeare. He was a millennium puppy, born in February 2000, at about the same time that my beautiful, neurotic, and — in the immortal words of my friend Elizabeth — not very s-m-a-r-t, Miss Peanut died, too soon, of kidney disease caused by a rough start as a burlap-bag puppy.


Miss Peanut and baby Crackerjack. 1993

Shakespeare is my hero. He and his big brother, Crackerjack,  and Peanut before him saved my life. Many times. They gave me a reason to get out of bed on the days when I was weighed down by the Black Dog. They welcomed me home from the Psych Ward without judgment. (Although Peanut made her Auntie Elizabeth pretty cross when she turned her back on me after a particularly long hospitalisation. But it’s OK. I understood.)

They made friends with all the neighbours. If I fell down the stairs and broke my neck (or, as in one case, my head), eventually, someone would miss Shakespeare, Crackerjack, or Cully, and come check that they were OK. Hopefully, before they had to eat my face to survive.

The subtitle of my Shakespeare’s biography will be: Troublemakers will be Bard. He was born with a twinkle in his eye. He ate the cover off my treasured copy of Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook.  We had words. I told him if he kept eating cookbooks, he’d have to work on his resume. So he ate the first three chapters of a history of Iraq. And all my knickers.

His main purpose in life was barking. At the UPS courier — who always gave him cookies anyway. At other dogs that had the cheek to walk on HIS sidewalk. At the pile drivers that were widening the Beltway (that was a long year). At falling leaves. At snow.

When his big brother, Crackerjack, went a bit deaf, Shakey became his hearing-ear dog. When I got home, Shakey would greet me at the door then run back upstairs to poke Crackerjack and let him it was time to come down and greet Mom.

And when Crackerjack got too old to jump up and steal food off the kitchen counter, Shakey did it for him.

Whenever I went home to visit my parents, we would reenact the weekly pilgrimage to McD’s, although usually on Sunday. We always ordered way too many french fries so that when we got home, Dad could do this:CCI24052016

My dogs were french fry bandits. They could read a McDonald’s bag at fifty paces. Somehow, they managed to wrangle our neighbours, and their surrogate parents, Pete and Anita, into the whole french fry scam. Pete and Anita were too classy for Mickey D’s. They went for Five Guys. And when they went to Five Guys, my boys always got a gift from the french fry fairy. It was like a french fry tithe.

Crackerjack crossed the rainbow bridge in May 2010, just shy of his 18th birthday.


Shakey introduces his baby brother to his namesakes: Pete and Anita McCullogh

We mourned for a while before we brought home a baby brother for Shakey. Even at the relatively advanced age of 10, Shakey was an awesome big brother. He taught Cully to play in the snow, to bark, to eat bunny poop, to find the comfiest places for naps, and to beg for french fries. 179016_10150125743403410_4104583_n

In 2012, he and his brother trustingly got into two travel kennels and took a very long plane ride to the other side of the world. They were heroes. They made the transition to rotating counterclockwise before lying down (as dogs do in the Southern Hemisphere) and being called Spoodles without a hitch.60806_10151871421913410_515350525_n

Shakey didn’t even complain . . . much. . . when we told him a piglet was coming to live in our house.


By this time we brought home yet another pesky little brother, Shakespeare was deaf and getting a bit shaky on his pins. But he was still a sport. And CJ (named for Shakespeare’s much-missed big brother, Crackerjack) has grown into his role as an attentive . . . sort of . . . younger brother.


Shakespeare is still going strong. He doesn’t bark anymore. He has said all he has to say. He’s leaving the barking to the youngsters.

He’s moving pretty slowly, but he gets where he need to be.

He loves chicken poop.

And he loves us.

Shakespeare is a still troublemaker. And he is my hero.

The Bard is The Man!

Listen to the Music

CCI28042016_2I was born with music.

My Dad was a failed music major (he didn’t want to learn violin), and an accomplished amateur church organist. Some of my earliest memories are of listening to him play the ancient pump organ in the antebellum chapel in our backyard. Later, he adopted a reed organ from a deconsecrated Catholic Church and rebuilt it in our basement. When we moved to Georgia, the organ got the master bedroom. I grew up to a soundtrack of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues.


Dad playing the organ

There was classical music, but Dad also loved his German music (yes, complete with accordion). Heino was a particular favourite. Mom was partial to Gordon Lightfoot, especially “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which she must have played a million times.

My Uncle Chuck played piano, organ, and accordion — an instinct I seem to have inherited from him.

I grew up with the usual exposure to pop and rock, with a little country mixed in. I started playing clarinet when I was 11 and later added saxophone. I loved playing classical music, but yearned to play jazz. Dad reckoned if I ever ran away, he’d find me busking on Jackson Square in New Orleans. He’s probably right. In the end, I was either too shy, too lazy, or lacked the confidence to pursue a musical career. When I started university, I packed up the instruments. But over the years to come I explored a world of music.

As a consumer of music my taste has always been eclectic. It is easiest to explain my musical taste by identifying the music I don’t like: ABBA. I’ve told Simon that if I am ever in a vegetative state and he has to decide whether to pull the plug, he should sit by my bedside and play ABBA. If I don’t immediately wake up and tell him to turn that sh*t off, I’m gone. There. Is. No. One. Home.

Please don’t troll me. I don’t think less of you because you love ABBA. My best friend loves ABBA. My husband at least likes ABBA. My dogs would probably love ABBA if I allowed it to be played in the house. Chickens, too.

You hate Brussels Sprouts? Well I love them. There’s no accounting for taste.

I especially love various kinds of soul music, by which I mean, music that expresses the deepest elements of a people’s history, spirituality, and identity. Cajun Zydeco. Appalachian Bluegrass. Portuguese Fado. Memphis Blues. Gypsy Swing. Kletzmer. Reggae. Ska. Dixieland Jazz. New Orleans Funk. Motown. Gospel. I haven’t had much experience with Hip Hop, except in Africa, but I surely do understand its power.


These Hip Hop musicians in Senegal founded the grassroots political movement “Y’en a mare” – enough is enough — that were pivotal in bringing democratic change to their country. Music has power!

In short, If it reaches into your heart, makes you want to dance, or weep, or praise the lord, I love it.

In the aftermath of my first dance with the black dog, in the early 1990s, my Video tapes of The Color Purple and Terminator II (the one where Linda Hamilton, playing Sarah Connor, goes all gansta on a psychiatric ward), and my Wynona, Willie Nelson, Francine Reed, Lyle Lovett, Gypsy Kings, R.E.M., and k. d. Lang CDs kept me going through many a dark night.

Eventually, the clouds lifted and for the next two decades or so, I collected more and more wonderful music to love from places like Bali, Senegal, Ghana, Kenya, and New Zealand. Maori music gives me goosebumps. The Maori musician I heard playing guitar and singing “Born on the Bayou” at the Riverbank Market on Easter Saturday made me stand still and say, out loud, like a prayer, “God, I love this country!” And then I put some coin in his guitar case.


Learning drumming in Sobo Bade, Senegal

Depression is a thief. And somewhere along the line, depression stole my music. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened. It probably came on in stages. My father died and I couldn’t bear to listen to Bach. Organ music sent me into gales of tears. Normal grief? Probably.

Then, sometime after Simon and I got married, I changed divisions at the company where I worked. My new office was in the SCIF — the Special and Compartmented Information Facility, basically, a safe in which highly classified materials, discussions, and people are housed out of the reach of prying electronic eyes. Being effectively locked in my office all day, with no windows (technically, there were windows, but we weren’t allowed to open the blinds), and no access to personal electronics, meaning no iPods and no music CDs, felt like a daily flashback to the psych ward. I was in a sustained panic attack for two years.

Suddenly, music wasn’t soothing, it was searing. I quite literally couldn’t bear it. Looking back, I realise the black dog had been slowly, quietly, shadowing me just waiting for the opportunity to knock me over. We moved to New Zealand, my anxiety shot to previously unknown levels, I stopped sleeping and, eventually, my psyche crumbled under the pressure. Again, for the second time, I had to find a way to want to live.

But I didn’t, I couldn’t, turn to music. I had hundreds of CDs of music I love, and I couldn’t face them. It was as though sound, especially music, might make my head explode. Anhedonia — the inability to derive happiness from things you love — is a well known symptom of depression. But this was something else. It was as though the part of my brain that processed music had somehow been disconnected from my pleasure centres and grafted onto my fight or flight centres.

Of all the cruel things depression has ever inflicted on me, this was the worst. Even when I lost the ability to enjoy eating — and I did — I could, at least, get a positive sense of achievement by cooking for others. I find giving dinner parties is actually an excellent depression coping mechanism. Provided I could get myself to the grocery store (which wasn’t always easy because I had also developed a grocery store phobia), I knew I could chop, sauté, boil, and bake and beautiful food would ensue that my friends would happily come eat. I didn’t have to talk. They’d do the talking. I just had to provide the raw material — food, music — and a party would happen.

But no music? How do you heal in silence? I read loads of books. I worked with a wonderful, caring therapist. I took my crazy pills. I cooked. And eventually, I started this blog.

Then, one day while I was back in the states, I got it in my head that I would learn to play the accordion. The idea had been floating around in my head since I heard a local group, The Wellington Sea Shanty Society, on Radio NZ on International Talk Like a Pirate Day. I could play the accordion. After all, the accordion isn’t really music, right? My friends keep telling me that. But I’ve always loved the accordion. I even enjoyed watching Lawrence Welk with my Grandparents! So I bought a used accordion on Trade-Me for about $300.00. It was waiting for me when I got home. And I went online to find an accordion teacher.


I’m not, and probably never will be, a great accordionist. But Katie is a great teacher. One day, no so long ago, she was explaining the Circle of Fifths, or maybe it was chord progressions, and something flashed in my head. It was . . . joy! Katie gave me my music back. I think I laughed out loud. I’m sure she thought I was crazy. But then, I am.

JOY! Music and joy! I have my music back! Our “box room” now looks like the Big One has hit, with CDs strewn all over the floor, sorted into piles that mean something only to me. I found myself wanting to share my music, with Katie, with Simon, with the chickens, with anyone who will listen.

Don’t be surprised if I run up to you one day, waving a CD, or my iPod, and saying “You have to listen to this music!”

And CJ loves it when I sing! I promise you, he’s the only one who will ever love to hear me sing. My music is giving him joy.

It is as though I have five years of backed up music clamouring to be let out. My accordion has turned out to have seasonal affective disorder and all the keys have gone sticky. So until I can get a newer, less temperamental one, I’m learning on a digital piano. I’ve ordered a music journal and music staff paper. I’m not talented, but I’m most certainly enthusiastic. I have been, to quote C.S. Lewis, surprised by joy.IMG_0418

A few days ago, I got Vegan Soul Kitchen by Bryant Terry. Terry describes himself as “Alice Waters meets Melvin Van Peebles.” For each (marvellous) recipe, he includes a “suggested soundtrack” — a song or an album “to be enjoyed while cooking and eating.” He wants to “bring the culture back in agriculture.”

I’m down with that!

Music goes with food, and food goes with music. There is music I love to cook to, music I love to eat to. Music for warm summer picnics, and music for cold, windy Wellington winter nights. I want to tell you all about it!

I have my music back. I want to dance. I want to sing. I want to cook. I want to eat.

I want to listen to the music.