The Joy of Not Cooking

img_3195The scorched and tattered shape of my cookbook tells it all and the rocky road through the many kitchens of my life verifies my deficiencies. Cooking is an innate talent. Either you’ve got it or you don’t. And I don’t.

I began as most girls of my era, thinking that cooking and other housewifely activities were the basic principles of being a worthy woman. My mom was my first role model. She toiled away each day putting out solid meals for her husband and six kids. Twelve year old me was impressed by her stamina but decided early not to follow her lead.

Throughout my adult life I’d become accustomed to the head shaking looks of sympathy when I’d show up at pot lucks with something from a deli or a bakery. I veered a bit when I mastered deviled eggs. But I was quick to squelch anyone’s hopes of expansion or improved prowess; I joked that this was the only thing I knew how to make. And I intended to keep it that way.

I had two husbands who thought they’d gotten a traditional wife with spatula at the ready; I really disappointed them. When I left, I didn’t take any pots and pans or spices. I only took my clothes, in one case, my dog and my books (no cookbooks, by the way).

I’m finally comfortable with my non-cooking ways and am okay dealing with the judgements of Martha Stewart wanna-be’s. Being retired and living alone, I only have me to please and I’m pretty happy with the creative ways I’m meeting my culinary needs. Perhaps some of my activities could qualify as real cooking but experts in haut cuisine may disagree. I’ll let you be the judge.

I haunt only certain sections of the grocery store and envelopes and boxes are the mainstay of my list. The frozen pancakes microwaved, three on a plate for 1:15, are one favorite. Oatmeal from an individual envelope is microwaved just two minutes with 2/3 cup of water.

Brats that are pre-cooked go freezer, to microwave to bun in just ninety seconds, complete with my nicely applied mustard and onion slices. Oh, but those onion slices; that means I have to visit the spooky aisles of the fresh food section. A challenge indeed.

But there are items to be picked from the fresh food section too. Plastic containers of cut cantaloupe, watermelon and strawberries and pre-made salad make my day. The deli’s complete dinners, meat, potatoes and vegetable, with one plastic encased chocolate éclair for dessert round out my list. Last stop is yogurt in single served containers. Unpacking and putting away these prizes at home gives me such a feeling of satisfaction. And I do recycle.

Perhaps my chili could be considered real cooking but I doubt it since the base ingredients also come from an envelope. I’m pretty sure that browning the meat and boiling the noodles isn’t enough to qualify as real cooking. Each batch yields six plastic containers that are snuggled up next to the other boxes in my freezer to be thawed as needed.

The apartment building where I live has a small convenience grocery store and a young woman each week sells fresh, one-serving items packaged neatly in plastic. She makes a seven layer salad to die for. No chopping done by me. The building’s monthly catered lunch is something I never miss for a complete meal cooked by someone else along with enjoyable social time and no clean-up afterwards.

Not sure what I’d do if it wasn’t for lunch with friends. Sometimes I have three of those in one week. Jane and I plan our trip to the museum around lunch. Poetry breakfast includes food. Pat and I never miss lunch after yoga, a just reward for our hard work. My menu selections often include thoughts of left overs for the evening.

Tomorrow I’m going to a movie then stopping for soup and a sandwich at the nearest deli or coffee shop. On the way home, I’ll visit the grocery store and stock up on next week’s boxes and envelopes. The joy of not cooking gives me peace and serenity. And dedication of my time to things that are lots more fun.

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Reality

In the park across the street
the soccer team plays.
Kids in orange and green t-shirts shout and cheer.
“Come on Dynamos, get your water and let’s go!”

Each day I observe
the frenzy of competition.
Moms and Dads watching,
their chairs lining the edges,

hardly noticing the ambulance coming by
and turning toward my building.|
Is it for Angie or Alice,
Howard or John?

Each day I maneuver around
The traffic jam of walkers.
Eighty and ninety year olds
pacing the building

each hallway,
each floor,
every day.

Some lonely,
some alone,
some glassy eyed.

I stare down reality.

 

 

The House of SAW

The House of SAW was a college approved private housing residence on the campus of Wisconsin State University – Oshkosh (now UW- Oshkosh) where I lived with a dozen other undergraduate students. The time was the mid 1960’s. The Vietnam War. The sexual revolution. The War on Drugs would soon be declared.

UW-Oshkosh was a heavy fraternity and sorority campus but we wanted no part of that. We were feminist women, immensely annoyed when referred to as “girls.” One thing led to another until, during one of our many after bar-time discussions, we formally became The House of SAW. SAW meaning Several Available Women. Within a week we had a name, a wooden plaque nailed above our front door and a sweat shirt with our banner stenciled across the front. We thought our mockery, as a form of flattery, was pretty radical.

sweatshirtThe House of SAW, by today’s student housing standards, could only be called a dump! An old two story house on Algoma Boulevard just three blocks from campus at this party school known back then as ‘Little Madison.” The house parents lived in an apartment on the first floor and we girls, oops women, lived on the second. The main hallway led to the back of the house and their apartment; the open staircase led to the upstairs bedrooms. No doors separating the two floors.

houseThere were six bedrooms with bunk beds, one room had two sets and only one room was a single. My bedroom which I’m pretty sure had previously been a closet, was off the kitchen and my dresser was out in the hallway. There was less than one foot between the edge of my bed and the make-shift door. If I sat up in my top bunk I’d hit my head on the dormer. I slept there until someone left and then I could upgrade to the lower bunk or the next available room down the hall.

I wasn’t quick to grab the next available room when a vacancy occurred. Being so close to the kitchen meant I never missed any house drama or wasn’t forgotten when a last minute social opportunity popped up. Whether it was a card game, general gossip or the latest news on the boyfriend back home who was suddenly not calling, I  was where all the action was.

We only had one bathroom. No shower. Just a tub. We hung our towels on pegs behind the door in our rooms. I have no idea where I hung mine since I had no door, only a wicker, hanging partition. At least I’d escaped the cliché of beads.

kitchen-2The kitchen had two old refrigerators. Crude wooden crates were nailed to the walls where each girl, oops, woman, had one assigned shelf for canned goods and dishes. We put our name on anything we stuck into the refrigerator.  Now and then we’d have a community meal. I recall lots of Spam, casseroles and hot dogs. Bon Appetite!

kitchen-1I also remember holiday meals; Julia Child would have been aghast at our baked hot dish and store bought garlic bread. This tiny kitchen couldn’t accommodate the entire house at one time so late comers pulled their desk chair in and sat on the edges. The gift exchange was frugal since most of us were on tight budgets and supporting ourselves with part time or work-study jobs.

The landlord who lived out west came home each summer to make repairs. We wanna-be feminists were too naïve to grasp the implications that we depended on a man to clean our bathroom, our refrigerators and scrub our kitchen floor. I cringe with embarrassment recalling how we gleefully waited for Ralph to arrive and spruce up the place each year.

I’d love to have heard the kitchen table talk of our house parents, a young married couple with two small children, trying to make sense of us as they furtively checked the rules in the house parent manual.  Yes, indeed. That’s how it was.  House parents. Rules. Even a curfew.

That’s much different from today. In fact I, as a freshman, had to get permission from the college to live in private housing due to my financial limitations. I know my parents were worried that these world-wise upperclassmen would lead me astray. Oh what they didn’t know!

We, the women of the House of SAW, had a very active social life.  In keeping with our name, we launched a crusade to be available only for dates. Real dates. Not pick-ups or meet-ups. But all we needed was that one cute guy from the Union to suggest meeting at the Loft or the Rail and we were suddenly not so revolutionary after all.

Men who arrived for those seldom, real dates had to stand down in the foyer and holler up the stairway to get someone’s attention. No men were allowed on the second floor and it’s amazing how we honored that rule. Lots of making out in the downstairs hallway though.

Some of the memorable things we did included sheepshead study breaks. After supper, we’d hit the books for a while then take a break at 8:00 for a half hour of taking tricks. Several of the girls, oops women, were hard core and anyone whose played sheepshead knows how brutal that can be.

Between that and our goal to go out 69 nights in a row, it’s easy to see how I ended up on academic probation after my first semester. Since I was paying my own way, luckily my grades were mailed to me. So, my parents didn’t know anything about that either!

Most of our social life involved going to bars. This was Wisconsin, after all, and 18 was the legal age for beer. We hitchhiked to the Rail and the Loft, our two favorite beer bars out on the edge of town. We also stopped regularly at My Brother’s Place, a 21 bar conveniently located on our way home from class. The bartenders seemed not at all surprised when we showed up on our real 21st birthday, acting like the last year hadn’t happened, announcing we were there for our first legal shot and a beer.

Hard to believe how we managed our busy social lives in those heady times before cellphones, texting and answering machines. Our only phone was a white, wall- mounted model with a very long cord. Located out in the hallway, at the top of the open staircase, most phone conversations were completed while sitting at the top step. Only Jeanie and Maggie could have a truly private call since they were close enough to be able to carry the receiver into their rooms and shut the door.

The phone was answered by whoever happened to be awake or in the kitchen.  A yell down the hall alerted the lucky resident and if they weren’t around, a message was scrawled on the note pad hanging from the phone. Arrival of the monthly bill began a major operation of identifying long distance calls and dividing the basic charges.   Janette, whose name was on the bill, became more frantic as the due date approached.

loftThe House of SAW and our antics were always a vivid memory so I was excited when in 1989 we gathered for our one and only House of SAW reunion. Seven of us traveled back to Oshkosh and spent the weekend visiting familiar places. The Rail was still there. The Loft was too but it’s now an AA meeting place. I’m not sure what to think of that!

 

 

toastThen five of us smiled brightly as we posed for a toast and a picture at the location of the House of SAW. It’s now a parking lot.

I hadn’t thought about all this for a very long time until when, in the early 1990’s, I helped my niece move into her dorm room at UWM. Her anxiety that she’d have to share her suite with two other girls was amazing. I was surprised when her mother paid the extra fee for a private room as soon as one became available.

All I could think was look what she’s missing! The closeness and the excitement of what I experienced far outweighed the comfort today’s students expect. And those times set the stage for the many wonderful girlfriend relationships I’ve developed over the years. I wouldn’t have given it up for anything.

Betty, with whom I shared one year at the House SAW is still my friend to this day. That’s amazing. And it’s also amazing how our recollections differ. But there’s one thing on which we do agree. Though the House of SAW is now a parking lot, in our memory, it will forever be that stately mansion where a group of young women learned about themselves, ventured for the first time into the adult world and had a whole lot of fun.

 

My Secret Journey

In spring 1989, following diagnosis, I returned to work at a private psychiatric hospital. I’d had a few months of on-again, off-again periods of sick leave due to exacerbation of my MS.  Then a letter appeared in my mail box inviting me to a meeting but offering no details. I’d arrived to find two other employees waiting there. We all expressed our confusion and tried, but couldn’t find, a common denominator between us since we worked in different departments.

The recently hired administrator entered the room and greeted us. This man had been specifically brought in to make the hard changes necessary for the hospital to survive. He stated that we were in dire financial straits and he was looking at creative ways to save the situation. He’d go on to offer us this wonderful opportunity. At least, that’s what he called it.

With rumors about cuts and layoffs that had been going around, we braced ourselves. I was sure I was either out of a job or would have a reduced schedule. Instead, we found what our unknown common denominator was. We each had a chronic illness which raised the spector of the much dreaded pre-existing condition.

He spoke of the higher premiums the group insurance plan had to endure because of our medical conditions. We were being offered the wonderful opportunity, his words again, to leave the company health plan and join the Wisconsin high risk insurance program. At one point he almost pleaded with us to understand how this would help the hospital survive. That was probably the most sophisticated guilt trip I’ve ever endured.

I wasn’t staying at the hospital much longer since I had only one more semester of graduate school to finish. I’d finally accepted that school and work were too much for me and I’d made arrangements for a small loan. I’d already received payment for tuition and books from DVR. So, I quit that job.

I’d given lots of thought to that decision and had worried since I’d be without health insurance for the five months until I graduated and found a new job. I reasoned that since I was a student I could use Student Health Services for minor needs. I had a disease where the only treatment was rest; the worst thing would be not being able to finish my class work. I knew I was taking a big chance.

Meantime, I’d done some research on health care coverage regarding pre-existing conditions; this gave me a new hurdle to jump in getting coverage from most employer programs. One important thing I’d learned is that larger organizations tended to ask fewer questions. Still, I was actually, by law, required to disclose and dreaded submitting to the new employee physical.

But there was also the complexity of deciding whether or not to disclose at the time of the job interview. There were several camps, some saying its best to be honest and others saying no, unless it was obvious there would be difficulty in doing the job. Quite a conundrum.  I rationalized that I was feeling really good and I was having no visible symptoms. I decided to risk it by not disclosing.

Thus began my secret journey. After graduating, I applied for a job at a large foundation and didn’t disclose. All that worry for nothing because they never directly asked any health questions. But once hired, I read carefully their requirements for covering pre-existing conditions. The manual said I needed to be employed for six months without any claims for my condition. Then I was covered. Believe me, I held my breath and watched the calendar.

I began my new job in January, 1990 and then in June 1990, the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed. After the initial relief, rather than simplifying, disclosure became an even more complex issue for me. I’d reached a place of almost complete remission and no one would have guessed there was anything going on with me. It was a relief to know I had options and now, some protection. I knew that I only had to disclose if I was asking for accommodations.

Should I or shouldn’t I was a sobering question. I felt dishonest. How to be fair to my employer and also to myself. I always had to be especially careful not to overdo or make promises I couldn’t keep. More than anything, I wanted to work, to get my life back, to be normal again.

I went on to work in some highly competitive environments and had decided I didn’t want to appear unable to keep up. I didn’t want to be seen as “disabled.” So I kept my health history a secret. Though I never disclosed to an employer, I did confide to trusted colleagues several times when it was needed, receiving support and understanding.

And there were many times throughout my work history when I had symptoms pop up. I’d take a sick day. Or, I’d do just the minimum at work and then go home to rest. That’s the great thing about having a flexible job with benefits; what do people do who don’t have that luxury. And it is a luxury.

Following diagnosis, I worked for twenty five more years in my profession, changing jobs seven times, never asking for accommodations. I retired in 2013 and look back, happy with my original decision to not disclose. I often wonder how my life would have turned out if I’d accepted the disability label instead of keeping my secret.

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