The Henna Artist’s bighearted Alka Joshi on saris, plus my wedding henna

“When’s the last time you read something unapologetically pro-choice — & that’s as empowering as it is romantic? Me? Never. Can’t wait for Joshi’s next book! Wish there were more novels that discuss pro-choice issues head-on. Enchanting story set in 1950s India from women’s point of view about the choices we’re given and how much we can make with them. Audiobook narrator Sneha Mathan is marvelous!”

~ My review of The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi for Amazon and Goodreads

I absolutely adore books (after all, I’m writing two)! Whenever I finish reading an exceptional novel, I review it on Goodreads and Amazon. Sure, not all stories resonate with me. As a tender-hearted author, I know too well the blood/sweat/tears that even a crappy book demands, so I don’t review those.

Then I email the novelist to thank them for making my life more thoughtful and maybe even fun. Ditto for any audiobook performer involved. Some thank me back, and on the days my stars are truly aligned, they agree to contribute to Happiness Between Tails.

Anyone who doesn’t read The Henna Artist is missing out. Clearly it’s written by a generous spirit. Just glance through Alka’s website and Youtube channel, where she lauds other authors to the extent that poses with their books! Here she is, holding Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic as she says how grateful she is for it. Btw, I love that book too, so she’s got good taste to her credit as well lol 🙂

Bighearted author Alka Joshi lauds Bighearted author Alka Joshi lauds “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert in a video.

Allow me to digress a moment: Henna, oh, henna, you magical green powder! You enhance my hair, and you make lovely tattoos!…

Photo of da-AL's henna-tattooed hands. The day before I got married, I went to Los Angeles’ Little India for these gorgeous henna tattoos.

They’re far more forgiving than the permanent ink ones, and brides aren’t allowed to do housework until they’ve worn off…

Photo of my henna tattooed hands and feet. I needed just the right sandals to show off my enhanced tootsies!

Dusting off my photos to show you these provided an excuse to reconnect with Chris Miller, the super-talented photographer (check out her Instagram too) who was beyond kind to gift them to my sweetie and me. Back when she shot them, we both worked for the Beach Reporter, a Manhattan Beach community weekly. I reported on Hermosa Beach and, In addition to her work as an event fotog, at the time she was the publication’s photojournalist.

Wedding party photo of Khashayar and da-AL. It seems like yesterday when you’re having fun…

Back to our esteemed guest: Alka was born in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India. At the age of nine, she moved to the U.S. As a Stanford University grad, she’s worked in advertising and PR, and owned a marketing consultancy. On top of all that, she has a Creative Writing MFA from Cal Arts San Francisco. The Henna Artist is her first book. In way less than a year, it’s a huge success! The sequel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, is set for July, plus the third book in the trilogy for 2022. And — she’s an executive producer for the novel’s upcoming Miramax TV series!

Read on for her thoughts on women in India. Note that it’s not just India — unfortunately, I’ve met women architects in the U.S. who encounter discrimination here too…

Alka Joshi, author of Alka Joshi, author of “The Henna Artist” and more!…

“The Sari vs. Modern India” by Alka Joshi

In January 2019, the Architecture faculty at Ansal University in Gurgaon, just outside New Delhi, received an email from the registrar to attend a convocation.

Architecture faculty at Ansal University in Gurgaon's news bulletin board. Architecture faculty at Ansal University in Gurgaon’s news bulletin board.

It requested formal dress: “trouser, coat and tie for men” and “saris for women.”

Students wear western clothes. Students wear western clothes.

This sparked a lively, funny, albeit very polite, conversation on WhatsApp among the female faculty, who normally wear trousers, Western blouses/tops, or salwar kameez (long tunics with legging-like bottoms) most days.

“I may not wear a sari…I don’t even own one!”

“I do not even know how to wear a sari.”

“[I’m] not against saris. But at 7:30 in the morning, especially when I’m not used to it is definitely a challenge.”

“Can’t tie one at 7am and drive…and get through the day!”

“No sari. Impossible to wear and report at 7:30 in the morning.”

“Why a sari at all?”

“If the women must wear a sari, wouldn’t a *dhoti be more in sync for the men?”

*(Now mostly worn by village men, a dhoti is a white cloth from five to seven yards in length, wrapped loosely around the legs and tied in a knot at the waist. While dhotis have gone out of fashion, saris are still a mainstay of female couture for weddings, special occasions and family gatherings.)

This Adjunct Prof of Architecture chose to leave her sari (if she has one) at home. This Adjunct Prof of Architecture chose to leave her sari (if she has one) at home.

“We are all sensible enough to know what to wear. Most of us might even have worn saris to the event without being asked. But when you tell us exactly what to wear, we are going to have something to say,” laughs Monisha Sharma, associate professor. “Our Dean, who is female, told us to just look as smart as we do every day, so that’s what we’ll do.”

Associate Professor Monisha Sharma prefers a salwar kameez over a sari when she’s teaching. Associate Professor Monisha Sharma prefers a salwar kameez over a sari when she’s teaching.

In addition to teaching in the Architecture school, these women are working architects. At construction sites they are often greeted with curious expressions: Can women really be architects? Are these women here to tell us what to do?

One professor told me that she had organized a site visit to a factory for her students. When they got to the site, the founder only responded to the junior male faculty who had accompanied her, choosing not to acknowledge her at all. 

Similarly, a female architect who was managing a project for her father’s structural engineering firm was not being consulted by the construction team until her father ordered them to talk only to her. She was, after all, the project manager and the only one who could answer their questions.

Architecture Professor in India. “At 7:30 in the morning, I don’t have time to gather and pleat a sari. It’s a lot of work!”

To someone like me, who’s been raised in the West since the age of nine, it’s surprising that the women’s reaction is not anger (that would have been my response, along with bewilderment and confusion). 

Instead, the Indian women laugh it off. “We have already made our mark in our profession,” they say. “We don’t need to hit them over the head with it.”

At the convocation, the female faculty wore Western trouser suits. Not a sari in sight.

There’s more than one way to make a statement.

Are dress codes unbiased where you work?…

Mythical Greek Inspo for Writers (Made Easy) by Dionysius

Victory of Samothrace ready for liftoff at the top of the Louvre’s entrance. By Lyokoï88 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39152792
Victory of Samothrace ready for liftoff at the top of the Louvre’s entrance. By Lyokoï88 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39152792

Melodrama, romance, intrigue, mystery, mysticism, pragmatism — oh, wait, not the last one… If you’re looking for inspiration for writing or for reading excitement, check out Greek mythology!

Goddesses and gods, mortals, the blending of both — doesn’t that sound like Stan Lee comicbook territory? Surely he sorted through ancient myths to fashion superheroines and superheroes. Star Trek and Star Wars makers must’ve too.

Admittedly the Greek tales of olden times can be challenging. Every poetically written story is jam-packed with enough intrigue to rival a binge-watch of Days of Lives, a still-running daily soap opera that first aired in 1965 and I once upon a time worked as an extra for… but that’s another story.

South Carolina blogger Dionysius has the same monicker as the multi-cultural god/superhero who oversees everything from wine to fertility and ecstasy to madness. Some argue that Dionysus the god is really Jesus. Our guest, Dionysius, created his New Classical blog “to create a new contemporary literature deeply rooted in classic literary traditions… not to repeat old and dead literary traditions, but to rediscover what is living and vibrant in them today.”

Read on for a peek into how Dionysius sees classic literature… 

Bacchus by Charles Lucy (English, 1692 - 1767). Courtesy of Wikipedia. Bacchus by Charles Lucy (English, 1692 – 1767). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A brief summary and analysis of Euripedes’s “The Bacchae” by Dionysius

Summary

Prior to the events of The Bacchae, Dionysus is born from the love affair of Zeus and the mortal Semele. When he is born, his mortal family denies that he is the son of Zeus and refuses to give him worship. Dionysus then leaves Thebes and journeys to the east, where he gathers his cult of female worshippers, the maenads. The Bacchae opens when he returns to Thebes with his maenads to take vengeance on his family. He starts by luring the Theban women, including his aunts, into the forest around Mt. Cithaeron, where they join the maenads. This angers Pentheus, the king and Agave’s (Semele’s sister) son. After Pentheus fails to arrest and subdue Dionysus and the maenads, he is lured into the forest by Dionysus’s offer to look at them. In order to watch the maenads without being noticed, Dionysus tells him that he must dress as a woman. Pentheus complies and imitates the image and mannerisms of the maenads. When he arrives, his body is torn apart by them and by his own mother. Under the spell of Dionysus, she carries his head through Thebes, parading it, thinking that it is the head of a lion she caught during a hunt. When she is made aware of what she has done and whose head she’s been carrying, she falls into grief. The drama ends with Dionysus casting her and the royal family out of Thebes.

Maenads – The Mystery of Woman

Pentheus being torn by maenads. Roman fresco from the northern wall of the triclinium in the Casa dei Vettii (VI 15,1) in Pompeii. Courtesy of Wiki: Marisa Ranieri Panetta (ed.): Pompeji. Geschichte, Kunst und Leben in der versunkenen Stadt. Belser, Stuttgart 2005, ISBN 3-7630-2266-X, p. 366 Pentheus being torn by maenads. Roman fresco from the northern wall of the triclinium in the Casa dei Vettii (VI 15,1) in Pompeii. Courtesy of Wiki: Marisa Ranieri Panetta (ed.): Pompeji. Geschichte, Kunst und Leben in der versunkenen Stadt. Belser, Stuttgart 2005, ISBN 3-7630-2266-X, p. 366

The Bacchae revolves around the mystery of difference. Particularly sexual difference and cultural difference. This is seen clearly by the depiction of Dionysus’s maenads. That they are a cult of women and that Dionysus gathered them in the east is of significance here. In The Bacchae, the feminine, or the idea of Woman, takes on the form of the unknown. Like a woman behind a veil, there is mystery, temptation, and fear associated with the maenads. This is portrayed most clearly by the way Pentheus relates to them. At first, it is with fear, responding to the maenads with force and violence. Then, when it proves that the feminine is impossible to control or subdue, when the captured maenads escape his prison and most definingly when Dionysus(posing as a young mortal priest) himself escapes, Pentheus gives in to temptation at Dionysus’s first request to take him to look at the maenads. He goes as far as to dress as a woman and imitate their dances and appearances.

The temptation that is displayed here is twofold. It is the temptation not only to satiate his desires by seeing the bodies of the women, but also and more fundamentally, to be one of the maenads and experience their enjoyment. While the first temptation fits into a traditional male standpoint of desire, what is significant about the second temptation is that he is not merely taking the maenads as an object of desire, rather his desire is to assume the subjective position of the maenads, of “Woman” and their feminine enjoyment. What is revealed here is that his anger at the maenads was all along based in his own envy of their enjoyment.

Pentheus never understood what the condition for this enjoyment was.

The very condition for the sublime bliss that Pentheus sought after is a primordial unity of being. An overflow of life and nature. It is because the maenads abandon their individual identities and place in the Theban social order, that they can participate in this primordial unity. Their individuality is suspended for the tribal enjoyment of dance, ritual, hunt, and fertility. They participate seamlessly with nature and become a part of the overflowing development of life. Beyond the enjoyment that Pentheus sought, the “[…] Sweet streams of honey dripping,” this condition, is also at the same time the condition for an inhuman terror. This is displayed most clearly when he is torn apart by his own mother and the other maenads.

Unseen Essence

Four Caryatids at Erechtheum Acropolis, Athens: Wikimedia Commons Four Caryatids at Erechtheum Acropolis, Athens: Wikimedia Commons

What must be remembered is that what appears as purely negative in tragedy also has a positive dimension. This is the pinnacle of Greek tragic wisdom. Why does Woman present itself as the apocalypse of man in this tragedy? It is because of an original betrayal of the feminine reality committed by the mortal family of Dionysus. By his entire family when they initially rejected him, and by Pentheus when he returned. This is what causes the breakdown of the Theban social order and the revenge of Woman.

In the same way that Woman is a constitutive element of the reality of sex, including the reality of man. The Dionysian rituals that the maenads take part in, that return to a primordial being and oneness, are constitutive of the Theban social order. It is even the root of the Theban social order. The unconscious reality of Thebes exists as the basis for its conscious and institutional realities.

It is precisely because the rituals of Dionysus exist outside of Thebes, in the rituals of the maenads on Mt. Cithaeron, that it is the base of Theban society. It is precisely because the maenads are all women whose rituals are constitutive of the male Theban social order. And it is precisely because the maenads come from the east that they constitute the western social order of Thebes. Dionysus and his cult are the external essences of Theban society. Essence, unlike appearance, is always unseen.

Dionysus of the Night

Bacchus and Ariadne by Carlo Maratta: Wikimedia Commons Bacchus and Ariadne by Carlo Maratta: Wikimedia Commons

The place that Dionysus dwells in is the contradiction between appearance and essence.

Dionysus embodies this contradiction. He is returning from the east, and yet he was born in the west. He leads a cult of women, and yet he is a man. He is divine, and yet his mother is mortal. This contradiction is like the black of night, where one thousand stars shine. The failure of his mortal family to respect it, and to respect their own essence, is what leads to the breakdown of Thebes.

Visit Dionysius at his New Classical blog, his Twitter page, and his Facebook page.

I’ve always wanted to put on a cape, stretch out my arms, take a running jump, and whoosh! — feel the wind in my face, inhale the fragrance of treetops as I soar high into the clouds. Picture me Super-da-AL or Winged Victory of Samothrace ready for liftoff at the top of the Louver’s entrance.

What superpower would you want?

Got Inner Critic(s)? Meet Annie’s and mine

Charles Schultz, the creator of “Peanuts,” did other stuff besides that comic strip. It’s said he battled his own gang of gremlins. Lucy, the psychiatrist from hell, for one…
Charles Schultz, the creator of “Peanuts,” made other work besides that comic strip. It’s said he battled his own gang of gremlins. Lucy, the psychiatrist from hell, for one. (Peanuts image courtesy of pixy.org)

My inner jerks specialize in novel writing. Inner criticizing is just the beginning — they’re outer and everywhere.

A tongue-twisting ditty to be sung to whatever tune strikes your fancy:

“Here a critic… There a critic… Everywhere a crit, critty, critical critic…”

Moreover, mine barge in with droves of friends.

Have you got any? If not, how the heck do you pull that off?

I could list mine for days and days: Why you takin’ so long with them books you keep talkin’ ‘bout? Ya really gotta do that instead of this or those things or them stuff right now? Lookie here, there’s this to do that’s way more pressing and tons more fun! You’re wasting your time, so scrap that durned project already, just quit it. What in tarnation gave you the notion you could write anything of interest to anyone but you? People are just being polite when they compliment your work, don’t you know that? Who in their right mind will want to read your novels, much less spend hard-earned cash-ola on them? Seriously, if they do, they won’t finish them. And if they finish them, they won’t talk about them. For sure, if they talk about them, they won’t say anything nice. And promotion — you gotta be kidding me! — what do you know about that?

Some days, those are the nicer things I tell myself.

Read on, and you’ll see how Annie, a blogger from the United States east coast, makes perfect sense when she encourages us to name our inner critics.

Like my own name of da-AL, mine has a hyphenated moniker. “Them” goes by “A-Holes.”

How about you? What’s your inner demon(s) named? Maybe yours and mine could meet for drinks, get really plastered together, and meantime leave us alone for a spell?

More about today’s guest: Annie is a writer of many things, including poetry. In the past, she has even earned some real money from her writing! Here’s her advice — and a question for which I have no answer but send her lots of good wishes in solving it — for all of us. She blogs about whatever she pleases, including stuff that makes her and maybe us laugh…

Annie, a blogger and professional writer, gives her inner critic the one-two punch!
Annie, a blogger and professional writer, knows how to give her inner critic the one-two punch!

“My Attempts to Play Nice With My Inner Critic” by Annie

Whether or not you practice mindfulness meditation, as I have for several years, you are probably familiar with the voice known as the Inner Critic. It’s that part of us that says: “I’m such a dope!” “I’ll never be what I hope to be.” “How could I have done that?” “I just don’t measure up!” “My father/mother was right/wrong about me.” “Sure, I’m doing fine, but that’s because people really don’t know that I’m winging it.” “I’m not bright enough, attractive enough, witty enough, kind enough, tall enough, thin enough, tough enough, strong enough, sensitive enough, thoughtful enough…”

You get the picture. That negative voice has long been with us, often from childhood, from societal messages, maybe from a single cruel teacher, and on and on. I was raised by two loving parents. My mother felt I could do no wrong, but I still recall my father casting a questioning eye on my report card and asking: “What’s this A-minus?” 

The origins of the Inner Critic form a complex topic that I’m barely touching on here. But I know that I’m still the A student who goes nuts when autocorrect incorrectly changes “well” to “we’ll”—and I fail to catch it! Is that worth an iota of energy or distress? Of course not.

The Inner Critic certainly interferes with the goal of mindfulness coined by Jon Kabat-Zinn: “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” Nonjudgmentally, indeed!

Several years ago, I wrote an article about mindfulness for an online women’s magazine. One of my interviewees was Sharon Salzberg, a renowned mindfulness educator and author who cofounded the highly regarded Insight Meditation Society at Barre, Massachusetts with two other giants in the field.

Salzberg’s special area of interest is lovingkindness, which begins with one’s self and then extends outward in ever larger circles to loved ones, friends, acquaintances, and the entire world.

Salzberg, who has written that her childhood troubles started her on a path that led to Buddhism in India decades ago, said she is constantly aware of her Inner Critic. How to deal with this negativity? She suggests giving your Inner Critic a name.

She named hers Lucy, after the famous Charles Schulz comic character who tells her hapless friend: “The problem with you, Charlie Brown, is that you’re you.” I asked her if I could adopt Lucy, and she agreed.

But I soon realized that borrowing someone else’s inner critic doesn’t work. I needed my own. I named her “Flibberty,” which is short for “flibbertigibbet.” That’s a Middle English term for a flighty, excessively talkative person, a gossip.

One of the reasons I’m happy with Flibberty is that although she’s a pain in the gut (that’s where I experience stress), her name includes the word “liberty.” I know I must free myself from the heavy burdens that Flibberty sometimes bestows upon me. 

Mindfulness practitioners learn that you never try to fight with these negative forces; doing so simply enlarges their impact. Rather, you seek peaceful coexistence. When Flibberty rears her officious head, I say, “Oh, there you are, Flibberty. How ya doing?” That’s generally enough to move my mind into a better place.

Lately, however, perhaps because I’m essentially housebound due to COVID-19, Flibberty has been flitting about in my vicinity quite a bit. I’d call her a “FlitBit” who’s gauging my absence of activity, rather than the reverse, but then I’d be exposing my propensity for bad puns. I’d never want to do that!

Flibberty covets my desk. She tells me I’m being ridiculous, working in such a messy space. She laughs knowingly when my TV remote won’t work because the old New Yorker magazines are piled so high on the table in front of my couch that they block the signal.

Now here’s the tricky part, and I welcome your suggestions. I often write blog posts that require research, and I type them on my computer before cutting and pasting them into my blog. I then add the printouts of my collected newspaper and magazine articles—and my printed out computer entries—to the piles of previous papers that surround me.

The piles are increasing in both numbers and height. Some are approaching the tottering stage. 

Have you heard of the Collyer brothers, who hoarded books, newspapers, and other items to such an extent that when their bodies were found, they were surrounded by 140 tons of stuff? 

I haven’t reached that level, but I do wonder whether my Inner Critic’s reminders about what I’m failing to do with my papers might actually be positive after all. So I say, “OK, Flibberty, let’s attack this pile.”

I pick up a bunch of papers, look through them, wonder what to do with them, and set them aside. And then I tell Flibberty that I appreciate her concern, I really do, and I will get to them in good time.

I feel so much better. Flibberty is quiet.

But the piles are flourishing—testimony to my diligent work. And still…

If we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, I might hire an organizer to help me through this mini-crisis. If I were bolder, I could just throw all the papers into the shredder and move on. (Never mind, Flibberty; forget what I said about being bolder.) 

And thereby hangs my dilemma. Can you, kind readers, presumably some of whom are better organized than I, provide some common-sense suggestions concerning what I do and do not need to keep for posterity? I want to ensure that the contents of my blog are intact as a legacy for my family.

Or will you encourage me to just say, “Screw it, Flibberty. We’re doing fine. We can both relax.”

In other words, am I using Flibberty as a balm—or an excuse?

Flibberty and disorder notwithstanding, my wish is that you, we, and the entire world be filled with lovingkindness…

Annie

How about you? Got an inner critic to comment on below?…

Holidays Capote-Style by da-AL

Gentle and cruel, personal and universal — writer / novelist / artist / actor / personality Truman Capote captured the holiday season to a “T”-ruman in his “A Christmas Memory.”

A lifelong bestie of another of my beloved authors, Harper Lee of “To Kill a Mockingbird” renown, Truman grew up queer during times when that wasn’t allowed. Hell, it’s still not allowed, not really despite the two-steps-forward/one-step-back strides that humanity has been making lately.

Truman Capote at 23, thanks to Wikipedia.
Truman Capote at 23, thanks to Wikipedia.

I happened upon Truman’s “A Christmas Memory” by chance. It’s part of his book, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s: a Short Novel and Three Short Stories,” the whole volume of which is mind-blowing. His print version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is nothing less than enchanting for how it captures the heartbreaking nuances of love and friendship, particularly between a gay man and a straight woman. (Incidentally, another book I adore along those same lines is “The Object of My Affection,” by Stephen McCauley. That novel as well is much more profound in print than in the film.)

Poster for "Breakfast at Tiffany's" from Wikipedia.
Poster for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” from Wikipedia.

Please don’t judge “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by its movie version. It’s stunning because of Audrey Hepburn, her iconic dress by Hubert de Givenchy, and so forth — but its racism toward Asians is deplorable. Moreover, it’s nowhere near as deep as the fabulous book. Unfortunately, Truman seems to have actively prostituted his masterpiece novella to Hollywood. Why? Was it due to his tragic and increasingly alcoholic life?

Truman Capote, four years before his too early death. Thank you Wikipedia
Truman Capote, four years before he passed away. Thank you Wikipedia.

The story in its p.r.i.n.t.e.d. form reminds me of how this whole pandemic situation has upended our holiday season, yet in some ways “righted” them. This year I’m extra thrilled that my dear ones are in good health. I’m happier for the smaller gestures. Living “sheltered-in-place,” I’m reminded that even though we can feel alone, we never really are.

Writer/novelist/artist/actor/personality Truman Capote.
Writer/novelist/artist/actor/personality Truman Capote.

No matter how poorly we feel and badly we are treated, one kindred face can make all the difference. Here in this vintage video, Truman doesn’t tell us this — his story enables us to feel it…

How are your holidays unique this year?

Guest Blog Post: Healing Pets through Dreams by Pamela Cummins

My dreams swing from weird to absurd. How about you?

Read on as Pamela Cummins, author of “The Secret Language of Dreams,” (available on her site) explains how our pets can communicate to us while we sleep…

Pamela Cummin’s kitty, Merlin.

“Cat Communicating Medical Ailment in a Dream,” by Pamela Cummins

Everyone knows that I am a Crazy Cat Lady with two spoiled cats, Merlin and Rhiannon. One morning I was wondering why one of my furry alarm cats didn’t show up. Then I discovered Merlin sitting on the couch. To my surprise, he growled at me when I attempted to pet him.

Cat owner and her white, blue eyed kitty.
Merlin with Pamela Cummins.

He was cranky the whole day. I knew that something was wrong with him; however, to my relief – he did eat a little food and used his litter box. I can communicate with my two cats (and other animals) with body language, feelings, and/or flashing pictures in each other’s minds. Alas, I was too emotional to receive any information on what the problem was.

That night I told Merlin, “If you’re not better tomorrow, you’re going to the vettie-poo.” He gave me a dirty look. Just so you know – Merlin is a vet’s worse nightmare! Which makes me dread his yearly check-up when he’s healthy. How would Merlin behave when he wasn’t feeling well?

Here’s the dream I had right before I awoke the next morning: Merlin jumped up and laid down by me. Then he showed me his spinal cord in an x-ray vision, at the bottom of his spine (by his hips) it was red and swollen.

Upon awakening, I immediately knew that Merlin’s hips were out of alignment!  Merlin was lying next to me on the bed, so I asked Merlin, “Does your hippy, hip hurt?” His response was rubbing the side of his face against my hand and licking my fingers. You may be laughing at the way I speak to Merlin, yet he understands a large vocabulary of words! Can you imagine if I didn’t pay attention to my dream and shoved him in his cat carrier for a vet trip? That would have hurt his hips even more! In a few days, Merlin was back to his usual self. Another bonus from my dream was I saved money on a vet visit, hurray!

About the author: Pamela Cummins teaches how to turn the nighttime messages of dreams can be turned into daytime wisdom. Click here for Pamela’s website.

What have your dreams told you?

Recipe: Diana’s Tiramisu by da-AL

How's about a slice of tiramisu? Here's how...
How’s about a slice of tiramisu? Here’s how…

Do angels exist in everyday life? Indeed, Cousin Diana was one. Her life was far too short, but such can be the case with the sweetest among us…

Photo of Cousin Diana.
Cousin Diana.

Years ago, when my husband and I visited her in Italy, she prepared a fantastic multi-course vegetarian meal that ended with this nirvana-inducing tiramisu. Diana Ferretti Ruberti. Upon our return to the States, Diana sent me the instructions and helped me with it over the phone.

Recipe can evoke great memories…

Born in Argentina, she moved to Italy as a teenager and later worked as a teacher, married, and raised three great kids. Diana was lovely in every way and an amazing cook!  Her son, Stefano Ruberti, generously lent us these photos of her. Diana with her husband and small children.

Tiramisu Recipe

  • 8” x 8” x 2” serving dish or pan
  • 3 medium eggs, extra fresh
  • 2 cups strong coffee, either lukewarm or cold. Decaf and instant work great.
  • 1/2 teaspoon instant coffee granules to stir into pudding
  • 8 ounces mascarpone, which tastes like an amazing cross between butter and cream cheese.
  • 3.5 ounces bittersweet chocolate chunks, 72% to 99%. Grated, or knife chopped, or put the chocolate into a plastic bag and take a hammer to it.
  • 24 regular-sized ladyfingers

Optional Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons cognac or brandy
  • 1 teaspoon grated orange rind
  • unsweetened cocoa powder to dust over the final layer

Before You Begin

  1. Assembly takes anywhere between half an hour to an hour, depending on how fast you are around the kitchen. It won’t be ready to eat for another six to twelve hours, as it needs time to set in the fridge. I like to prepare it the night before, then serve it the following afternoon with milk or coffee — or wine!
  2. Review the recipe and visualize the best way to organize things.
  3. Then you’re ready to lay out ingredients and tools such as bowls, pan, whisk or mixer, and mixer or blender for pudding, stuff you’ll use to grate chocolate.
  4. Unwrap ladyfingers and put them into a separate bowl.
  5. Raw eggs are called for and chocolate melts when it’s manipulated too much, so I like to keep things cold and work steadily.

Mixing the pudding

  1. Egg whites: in a separate bowl, whip until stiff.

    Bowl of whipped egg whites.

  2. Yolks: in a separate bowl or a blender, beat in 1/2 teaspoon instant granulated coffee, mascarpone, and sugar. Now’s the time to add any “optional ingredients.”

    Egg yolks beaten with marscapone, sugar, and a little coffee.

  3. Fold egg whites with egg yolk mixture.

    Fold egg whites with egg yolk mixture.

Layering into a pan (you’ll be making 2 layers)

Layer #1

  1. One at a time, dip 12 of the ladyfingers into the coffee liquid and use them to line the bottom of the pan. It’ll take a little practice to figure out how long to let the cookies soak. Too little, and they’ll stay stiff. Too much, and they’ll dissolve. Either way, though, it’ll still be tasty.

    A lady finger being dipped into coffee.

  2. Top the cookies with half of the pudding.

    The 1st layer of cookies covered with half of the pudding.

  3. Finish the first layer by sprinkling half of the chunked chocolate over it. Now it’s time to do everything the same for the second layer.

    Finishing the first layer by sprinkling half of the chunked chocolate over it. Now it's time to do everything the same for the second layer.

Layer #2

  1. Same as above, dunk another twelve cookies in coffee and stack them over the first layer, all in the same direction as the first bunch.

    Dunking the rest of the cookies in coffee, then layering them in the same direction as the previous ones.

  2. Fold any loose sugar from the cookies into the remaining pudding, then spread everything on top.

    Covering the second layer with the remaining pudding.

  3. Complete the second layer with what’s left of the chunked chocolate. Dust with cacao powder, then cover and refrigerate at least four hours (longer is better).The second layer for the tiramisu completed with what's left of the chunked chocolate, and dusted with cacao powder, then chilled for at least 4 hours.

Serving it…

Once it has been refrigerated for at least four hours, cut it into squares — It serves 9 to 12 lucky people. If there’s any of the yummy liquid at the bottom of the pan, spoon it over pieces. Keep any leftovers refrigerated and eat them within three days. Tiramisu, once it’s set in the fridge, freezes wonderfully and is also delicious served frozen or thawed!

Tiramisu makes any day a holiday!
Tiramisu makes any day a holiday!

Does a food or special recipe remind you of a loved one?

Recipe: Butternut Squash and Cod Soup by Khashayar Parsi

Recipe: Butternut Squash and Cod Soup by Khashayar Parsi A festive bowl of Khashayar’s Butternut Squash and Cod Soup!

More time for me to write my novels, for my husband to cook marvelous meals — of course I hate the devastation of Covid-19, yet those are two ways I’ve benefitted from it. (More about the unexpected bonuses of sheltering-at-home here and here and here and a guest’s exert advice on how to deal with anxiety here.)

Soups are like smoothies on steroids — more interesting, cooling or warming, super nutritious or totally indulgent.

Every day since the pandemic began, each night is a culinary adventure. (More of Khashayar’s recipes here and here and here and here and here and here.)

Recently he made a massive pot of this — yum!!!!

Butternut Squash and Cod Soup by Khashayar Parsi

Ingredients

1 small butternut squash

1 medium onion

4 Tbs coconut oil

4 Tbs unsalted butter

1 Tbs turmeric

2 tsp ground coriander

½ tsp ground saffron

1 Tbs of white sugar

1 tsp ground black pepper

1 tsp ground chili pepper

1 quart almond milk

1 quart water

1 cup Chardonnay wine

¾ cup of white rice

16 oz cod filet (or similar)

Split the Squash lengthwise and bake the halves in a 400∞F oven for about 45 minutes or until they are softened but not browned. Let them cool just enough that you can handle them. Spoon out the seeds and peel them. Cut the butternut squash into smaller chunks and set aside.

Chop the onion and sauté in coconut oil for about 7 to 8 minutes on medium heat until lightly golden. You can use a large pot so that you can finish the soup in the same pot. Add butternut squash, butter, and all the spices. Mix well and cook for another 5 minutes.

Add rice, almond milk, and water. Bring to boil on high heat, and then let simmer on low for half an hour. Stir the pot a few times to avoid any burns. Add cod and wine and cook for another 10 minutes.

Puree the soup, adjust the seasoning, and serve in a bowl.

Garnish

Oven roast 4 cloves of garlic with skin. Peal and mix with 1 Tbs of minced ginger. Add them to ½ cup of balsamic vinegar, 1/8 cup of soy sauce, and 1 Tbs of brown sugar, and cook in a saucepan on medium heat until it thickens to the consistency of molasses.

Drizzle over the soup and add some green peas. Don’t stir in the garnish; that way, there’s an extra burst of delightful flavor and texture in each bite!

Our dear doggie is quite an enthusiastic kitchen mate, always eager to help with pre-wash and to conduct her version of composting dog-healthy scraps. Our dear doggie is quite an enthusiastic kitchen mate, always eager to help with pre-wash and to conduct her version of composting dog-healthy scraps.

What’s your most satisfying food for this season?

DIY Heaven by da-AL

Photo of my Cousin Ana's new rooster.
Cousin Ana’s Roco: Ro + Co = “rojo” (Spanish for “red”) + “colorado” (Spanish for “colored red”).

What if, despite what some writers and books tell us, there’s no afterlife? But there’s still a heaven, yet it’s one we make right here, right now. Better yet, what if it doesn’t take much to create? If easy micro-kindnesses wend far and meander back to us?

The holidays are upon us. It’s definitely not my favorite season. Not at all. It’s contrived; there’s so much expectation, manipulation…

Yet this last week turned me mushy. Not in the faux sentimental way depicted on TV and billboards targeting us to spend, spend, spend. It’s not by chance that Xmas decorations look sad in daylight. Ugh, these two months can really get on my nerves.

Back to mushiness. Years ago, when a sweet friend was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, another great friend and I pledged to do a walkathon for MS. One of those where we collected donations in advance of all the miles we planned to walk.

Walkathon day came… and… what can I say other than, the truth is not pretty? It was hot and crowded and yucky, and that was while we searched for parking. The two of us ate our sandwiches in the car and promptly drove home. Sans walking, we mailed in the monies. In my case, I’d amassed a few hundred dollars over just an hour or so of cubicle-hopping around the ad agency I temped for.

What’s stayed with me is how out of the thirty or so people I begged (please don’t ask me to attempt math here), most gave anywhere from a few to twenty dollars. A little pitched in by each person within a bunch added up very quickly!

Another personal story of how one small gesture can ripple wide, this one recent

Last April, a friend mentioned she’d begun foster parenting. It was the start of Los Angeles’ quarantine, and Covid-19 was creating a worse need than ever for people to take care of kids. (Note to self: when I am Goddess of the Universe in my next life, foster parents automatically get express tickets to heaven.) For anyone who isn’t aware, the 24/7/365 job requires half a year to get certified and pays heck, as this foster parent reveals.

My friend is Wonder Woman when it comes to embracing all that life presents. A devoted mother, wife, business owner, daughter, and more, she and her husband are now fostering an adorable baby girl with health issues and a super charming little boy with challenges too. When I mentioned to my husband what she was doing, he decided to knock on the doors of several of our neighbors who have kids. He requested whatever hand-me-downs they could spare and Voila! Over two weeks, even the friends’ friends contributed to what became quite a heap of helpful kid things!

Further confirmation that our little gestures can create a positive groundswell was in my local newspaper a couple of days ago

(And by the way, this also shows why local news is a necessity, not a luxury. Every city would benefit greatly to have a news outlet of its own.) Turns out the good deeds of a man living on the street have given rise to much more goodness. As you’ll see in this article about him, as well as this one that includes a video link, generosity small and large boomerangs all over the place and continues to add up to a whole lot of fabulous! The comments on the GoFundMe page that Bruce De Mille put together are beyond heart-melting.

All this leads me to explain these delightful pictures

Any little stray dog or innocent chick who meets my Cousin Ana has hit the sweetness jackpot! Her house is t-h-e place to go to be safe, sound, and never eaten…

Cousin Ana's chicken, Pepa, was 11 when she passed away not too long ago...
Cousin Ana’s chicken, Pepa, is 11 years young…

 

When Pepa was gone, Cousin Ana got 5 baby chicks. Here they are, 3 months old now! Surprise, one is another rooster...
When Pepa was gone, Cousin Ana got 5 baby chicks. Here they are, 3 months old now! Surprise, one is another rooster…

 

Cousin Ana's is heaven for needy little dogs! (L-R) Here's Tiky, Albert, Bella, Nike, Beethoven, Charlie. The last ones are brothers and sister.
Cousin Ana’s is heaven for needy little dogs! (L-R) Here’s Tiky, Albert, Bella, Nike, Beethoven, Charlie. The last ones are brothers and sister.

 

Beethoven loves modeling whatever Cousin Ana knits.
Beethoven loves modeling whatever Cousin Ana knits.

 

Here's Cousin Ana's Albert, on his way home from the groomer's.
Here’s Cousin Ana’s Albert, on his way home from the groomer’s.

When I try to be kind or when I see others being nice, I feel safer and happier — like heaven is here, right now.

How do you create your own heaven?

Cancer’s 3 Blessings by da-AL

Holidays and increased pandemic restrictions got you down? Hopefully, this tale of hardwon positivity will give you a boost to “keep calm and carry on.”

Cancer's 3 Blessings by da-AL

I’ve always been a writer, but before I became a novelist, I was a journalist. Years ago, a non-profit agency that helps people deal emotionally with cancer hired my business partner and me to produce a video. The afternoon we were to tape a talk-therapy group, I braced myself.

Turns out, these were no mere survivors. They were warriors committed to squeezing all the wonderfulness from every moment they had left. Those people, sick as they were, regarded cancer as a blessing.

To my mind, they were kidding either themselves or me. Nonetheless, the tears I shed behind my camera lens gave way to smiles by the session’s end. Their stories, to my amazement, had uplifted me. I left certain they were made of far sterner stuff than me.

Forward to some years later… In 2007, I was diagnosed with cancer.

To put it mildly, I was scared shi…er…witless. So freaked that I couldn’t sleep for a month. Fighting with insurance and doctors added extra hell to the nightmare.

It took me time… a long while… to understand what those people spoke of. Eventually, though, same as for them, cancer has enhanced my life.

These are only three of the many blessings that cancer imparted to me:

1. Staying focused and positive leads me to my highest self.

Round the clock, I obsessed while I waited for my illness to be categorized and quantified.

How did I get this? How to rid myself of it? How do I ensure it never touches my life again? How will my illness hurt my loved ones? How much longer until I die?

In desperation, I thought a detox could be the answer. If the lump could be sweated out, then hot yoga might do that. Insane with fear as I was, suddenly the prospect of exercising in 105-plus-degrees sounded worth trying.

It took conventional medicine (which I complimented with many alternative therapies) to resolve my cancer — but hot yoga healed me in other ways. The laser focus needed to survive those initial classes renewed my spirit. The full-length mirrors taught me as much as the instructors did.

For one thing, when I thought only of how miserable I felt, I couldn’t do any of the poses. For another, if I did them while truly experiencing a positive word such as “healthy,” “happy,” “joy,” or “love,” I fared way better. My reflection confirmed it.

2. All of us deserve to live.

You might’ve already guessed from the above, I was raised (like, I suspect, too many other little girls and children in general) to doubt and re-doubt myself…

At the height of my frustration, I decided that because I had never accomplished anything extraordinary and probably never would, I did not deserve to live.

That rocked me — clear into the second wisdom that cancer imparted. Deciding I was no better than a cockroach or a flea made me realize if they deserve to live, so do I! My ordinary mortal best is enough.

3. Sometimes happiness comes effortlessly. Sometimes I have to fight for it, but it’s worth it. Life is meant to be joyful.

Perpetual dread that the worst was near eclipsed my life. Then I had the good luck to meet a volunteer for The American Cancer Society. She’d had cancer twenty years earlier and listened patiently to what I was going through.

Then she relayed the story of someone she knew. After ten years of being cancer-free, her friend still continually waited for cancer to hit again, and this time worse. In the meantime, several of that friend’s loved ones had passed away from accidents and natural causes. The volunteer reasoned, “No one can predict the future, not when we’re going to die or from what.”

I’ve never forgotten her words, how lucky each of us is lucky for every breath we take.

What has a seemingly overwhelming challenge taught you?

8 Tips 2 Get Better Customer Service & Better Health Care by da-AL

Happy
blakeverdoornphoto.com for unsplash.com

Are you a creative person, writer, novelist, or anyone who feels like our precious time is being wasted ironing out issues with companies? I firmly believe when one consumer fights for fairness, they help all of us. With that in mind, here’s some of what works for me, especially when I’ve experienced horribly challenging times with health insurance such as the time I dealt with going through the terribleness of cancer and also when I injured my knee.

What are your tips for how to get decent service from big companies?

If your health coverage is through your employer, chances are the personnel department mediates things for you.

The rest of us like me must slug it out on our own. Before listing some of the tactics I’ve gathered which can be used anywhere and with any type of business, I owe great thanks to Obamacare.

Here in California it’s implemented as Covered California (Obamacare’s official name is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), or the Affordable Care Act (ACA) for short.) Thanks to ObamaCare, it is illegal for insurance companies to discriminate against gender and pre-existing conditions other than tobacco use. Moreover, it ensures everyone is covered.

Note to Californians: Most know Covered California subsidizes health insurance for individuals with low incomes. (Medi-Cal helps those with zero income.) Few are aware it can broker for anyone. They’re a formidable mediator with excellent customer service! Thanks to them, it was a heck of a lot easier to work out my insurance problems.

 

  1. Above all else, stay solution-oriented and tenacious.
  2. Be emphatic about what you need and why. Make sure they know how important this is to you. Don’t settle for their doing what’s easiest for them, not you.
  3. Telephoning in addition to emailing can give more immediate and thorough results. Phone when they’re least busy: early on weekdays. Barring that, after 7pm. Forget about weekends. Even if they’re open, they’re likely super busy and their decision-makers are off-duty.
  4. Don’t waste time. Again, telephoning and not leaving things to all to email is the most effective. When using the phone, the moment they start to give you the runaround, ask to speak to their supervisor. If they’re totally obtuse, hang up and redial so you might encournter someone different to speak with. Later, be sure to fill out an online grievance form.
  5. If a grievance is not rectified within 30 days, it’s easy to file a lawsuit with the state. To find out how to do this without having to pay a private lawyer, google “how to file a consumer lawsuit.” In the case of health insurance, your broker can advise you.
  6. Don’t take things personally. Stay focused. For everyone but you, it’s just business.
  7. Refuse “No.”
  8. Keep notes regarding: A) who you spoke with, B) number you dialed, date, and time of day, C) a transaction case ID number or whatever identifier they might use, i.e., a “ticket number.”

Good luck! I’m rooting for you for all our sakes! Please add your tips below…

unsplash.com blakeverdoorn.com
Thank you unsplash.com blakeverdoorn.com