Born On the Fourth of July

I love the Fourth of July. As a kid, it was always all about the fun, the games, the cook-outs, the swimming pool, and the fireworks. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized the Fourth of July was more than just a holiday. It is a way of life, and something to be celebrated every day of the year, not just on July 4th. I want to tell you a story about why I love the 4th of July. And the story begins with a little boy.

The little boy was born on a small farm in Czechoslovakia in 1927. One year later, he and his parents left their farm and traveled across the Atlantic to begin a new life in a small steel town in Western Pennsylvania and pursue the American Dream. That dream turned into a nightmare one year later when the little boy pulled a pot of scalding chicken soup over him, severely burning himself over 90% of his body.

He spent the next six months in the hospital, with his mother constantly by his side. His father worked in the steel mill, taking on as many extra shifts as he could handle in order to pay the mounting doctor and hospital bills. Every day, when his shift ended, the father walked 12 miles to the hospital to visit his wife and son. His wife would cry and complain because she didn’t understand what the doctors and nurses were trying to tell her, nor could she ask any questions. She spoke no English, and no one on the medical staff spoke Slovak.

The father did his best to comfort his wife before starting the long, lonely 12 mile walk home, crying hopelessly the entire way, overwhelmed with the burden of grief, guilt, concern over the mounting medical bills, and the horrible reality that his son might not survive. Every night, when he crossed the bridge over the Ohio River, he would stop and stare into the dark, murky water. And every night, he considered throwing himself off of the bridge and ending it all.

It was the thought of what would happen to his wife and son if he killed himself that stopped him. How would they survive? Besides, what kind of a man would abandon his wife and son in such a cold and brutal way? He was taught that a real man took care of his family. And every night, he would tear himself away from the railing of that bridge, not even bothering to wipe the tears that streamed down his face as he made his way home to the dark, cramped apartment which seemed so empty without his family. This was his daily routine for six interminable months.

Against all odds, the boy survived. But the doctors warned the parents that the boy still needed a lot of care to continue to heal, as well as a clean environment, instead of the dirty, sooty, smokey environment of the steel mills. (By this time the parents were able to understand quite a bit of English). The doctors recommended going back to Europe where the boy could recover in the clean, fresh air on the farm as well as have family support.

The boy’s parents finally decided that the woman and the boy would go back, but the man would remain in America. He would continue to work, taking extra shifts and additional odd jobs to start paying off the exorbitant medical bills and send money back to support his wife and son. In the meantime, he would pay his living expenses and try to save money to send for them when his son recovered. The father bought passage to send his family back to Europe. As he and his wife kissed goodbye, they assured each other it would only be for a short time. It took ten years.

The boy and his mother lived a good life on the farm, and the boy continued to thrive and eventually made a complete recovery from his injuries. He loved the farm, his grandparents, his cousins, and his village. He and his two best friends spent hours exploring the forests surrounding their village as well as fishing in the canals in the summer and ice skating on the lake in the winter. There was always plenty of food, and he and his mother had a very close relationship.

However, times were changing and getting extremely dangerous, especially after Germany annexed Sudetenland in 1938. When Hitler invaded Prague, it was time to get out while they still could. The boy and his mother managed to leave Czechoslovakia in late December, 1939 to be reunited with his father. The reunion was a rocky one for the boy. After spending his entire life on the farm, it was a shock to be in a highly industrialized area, be surrounded by strangers, unable to speak the language, and to live in a cramped apartment with a strange man that he didn’t really like very much but who his mother seemed to adore.

To make the situation even worse, when he started school in January of 1940, he was put in the first grade class because he didn’t speak English. There he was, a 12 year old boy who was tall for his age surrounded by a bunch of first graders. It was humiliating. The other kids made fun of him, calling him “stupid” and laughed at his clothes, which were so different from their own. The boy tried to ignore them, even though he wanted to beat the crap out of them. However, instead of using his fists, he used his head.

He took English lessons in the evenings and on weekends, and he learned very quickly. One day, when he went to school, he “accidentally” walked into the wrong classroom, the one with the kids his own age. And size. The teacher was going to send him back until she made an interesting discovery. The boy was bright. Very, very bright. She kept him in her class.

The boy thrived. Oh, he had a few mishaps along the way, including a spectacular bike wreck that almost killed him. And then there was that incident when he stole a carving knife from the kitchen to use on one of his father’s friends at a bar. But, I’ll save those stories for another day. At the age of 17, just 5 years after immigrating to America, the boy left high school to join the Navy. The boy was now a man, and he served his country proudly, and with honor.

When the man returned home, he completed high school and went to night school to better himself. He learned welding, masonry, and other useful skills while he also made time to hunt in the woods and fish in the river and lakes. He became a highly skilled welder, stonemason, and master builder. He eventually met the love of his life, got married, and built his wife a beautiful stone house to raise a family in. He raised five girls, built them a community swimming pool to grow up in, taught them how to swim, ski, become good citizens, and sent them to college. He became a pillar of his church and his community, volunteering his skills as a builder and a leader at every opportunity.

When the man turned 40, he returned to his beloved Navy and joined the US Navy Reserves as a Seabee, much to his wife’s chagrin. His wife felt it would take too much time away from the family. But the man wanted to serve his country again, to repay it for the wonderful opportunities she had given him. The man served for 25 years, retiring only because it was mandatory at age 65. When he died in November of 2010, just 19 days after losing his wife, his daughters buried him in his dress blues, because he loved his Navy and his country so much.

The man had a life well lived in a country he loved. And it could have been a much different story if he and his mother had not managed to escape Czechoslovakia on that cold December night, leaving on the last ship out of Calais before the start of the war.

That boy was my father. And that is why I celebrate the Fourth of July. That’s why I get choked up when I hear the Star Spangled Banner and God Bless America. And I always will. It’s a lesson I learned from that little boy, the one that became my dad.

Swimming With Sharks and Taking a Risk

When the movie Jaws was released in June of 1975, everyone was terrified to go in the water. It wasn’t safe. So, instead of going for a refreshing swim in the ocean, beach goers sat immobilized in the sand and sweltered in the hot sun, dreaming of the day when it would be safe to go in the water. If ever.

The following summer, people began to dip their toes in the water. After all, you can only be immobilized for so long before the desire to return to normal becomes overwhelming, and you’re willing to take a risk. Eventually, swimmers went deeper into the water, and they survived. The water was filled with happy swimmers, bobbing in the surf.

But, just when we finally forgot the horrors that lurked just below the water’s surface and began swimming again, Jaws 2 was released. Damn! It was like getting a booster shot of a syringe filled with fear, anxiety and a not so healthy dose of panic as well. Because you just never knew what was hiding in the ocean, waiting to kill you. It was safer to sit on the beach and sweat. Nothing was worth the risk of stepping into the water, not even to get your toes wet.

Fast forward to the present day. We have been through a terrible pandemic. And we have all been locked in our own homes, unable to go to school, work, the hair salon, the gym, bars, restaurants, the dentist and the eye doctor. And this was just a week or two after we were told that we had nothing to worry about. You remember, “Go out just like you normally do…..go to restaurants, bars, socialize, shop, party, and have a good time. There’s nothing to see here.” The people listened.

Then the “experts” told us that we had to stay home and were only permitted to go out for groceries and medication, or to the pot shops and liquor stores. And make sure you wash your hands. A lot. But, don’t wear a mask. Masks don’t work. The people listened, and they complied.

Two weeks later we were told to shelter in place. Just for 2 weeks. Then it would be safe to go out. Like responsible citizens, we did. Two weeks turned into 2 months. Restrictions are slowly being lifted, businesses are opening back up again (at least the ones that didn’t go under during the lock down), and we can now get our hair cut and our teeth cleaned. As long as we wear a mask. Because the “experts” have now determined that masks are mandatory. For everyone. Everywhere. Even when you go to the beach, and in the water, but they’re still not sure it’s safe to go to the beach and play in the sun. So, we should stay inside instead, just to be sure.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s time to get our feet wet. People aren’t stupid (for the most part), and staying inside isn’t healthy. Neither is isolation, especially when it’s forced. Besides, there is always something lurking beneath the surface, ready to kill you, even in the privacy and safety of our own homes. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to go back in the water. And out in the sun. Because I refuse to have the “experts” tell me that I have to live my life in fear, or that they know best. It’s time to go swimming and take a chance with the sharks.

The Eyes Have it

Making eye contact with another person is crucial to the human connection and establishing a relationship. Averting one’s eyes makes you appear suspicious, furtive, unapproachable, and even dangerous. Or it can communicate to strangers that you are insecure, vulnerable, and an easy target for perpetrators.

However, when you look someone in the eye, there is an immediate connection, and an exchange of information. Your brain processes this information, sending electrical, chemical, and hormonal signals through your body how to react. Eye contact gives you an instantaneous respond as to whether this person is a friend or foe, safe or threatening. That’s why it is so dangerous to walk around in public with your head buried in your cell phone.

First of all, it’s not safe. Second, it desensitizes you to the human experience and the human connection. Third, it’s creepy. But a few days ago I experienced something that was beyond creepy.

I went to the grocery store with my husband to pick up a few things. Much has changed in the past several weeks due to the COVID19 pandemic, and we’re all used to the masks, the social distancing, the hand washing, etc. But I wasn’t prepared for what I saw in the store that day.

Just a few days earlier, people were looking at each other, making eye contact, and even smiling at each other. The unspoken message was, “Hey, this is kind of weird, but we’re all in this together and this soon shall pass.”

But on this particular day people were social distancing, wearing their masks, and avoiding eye contact. Many of them were averting their eyes, furtively looking away and even turning their backs when another person walked by them. It was creepy, incredibly disturbing, and dehumanizing. I felt like I was in a store with a bunch of zombies, or maybe even a few mass murderers. People behaved as if each one knew that the other had a deep, dark, horrible secret that they were trying to hide. I couldn’t wait to get out of the store.

On the way out one woman stopped at the entrance to dig in her purse, creating a back log of shoppers behind her. We tried to go around her, but we were trapped. I glanced at the police officer guarding the entrance, but she turned her back on me when I looked at her. So much for guarding the store. Shoppers were trying to get in, others were trying to get out, no one was looking at each other and no one said a word. Not even an “excuse me.” It was surreal.

When we finally broke loose and made it outside I was disheartened and depressed. Is this where we are now as a society? That we are so disconnected from each other that we walk around like zombies or robots, not looking at each other and not speaking to one another?  What has happened to the human connection?

But then magic happened. As we pulled the bags out of the cart, a man walked briskly around the corner, saw us with a free cart, looked me in the eye, gave me a big smile and said, “Are you done with this?” “Yes,” I replied, “Here, let me clean it off for you.” And I whipped out my spray bottle of alcohol from my purse. He continued to smile at me, and still holding my gaze said, “Nah, I’m good!” I sprayed the cart anyway.

That man made my day. Because in that simple encounter, he lifted my spirits, and restored my faith in humanity and human dignity. All because he made eye contact with me. And gave me a smile.

Excerpt from Mara’s Garden

Recently I picked up a project I began working on about 9 years ago. It was shortly after my parents died, both of them, just 19 days apart. I wanted to write about our family and how my sisters and I grew up, in a family rich with Eastern European heritage and culture. But it was just too soon. However, when I began working on it again it began to take on a life of its own, and I realized I had to go back further in time and dig deeper, including the lives of my parents and how they grew up. Here is an excerpt from Mara’s Garden.

“I was born on July 9th, 1930, in Aliquippa, a small but thriving steel town in Western Pennsylvania on the banks of the Ohio River. My parents were both working in the garden when my mother suddenly disappeared. Since it was close to noon, my father naturally presumed she was going inside to prepare lunch. A short time later, when he went inside for his lunch, he found my mother in labor. So, instead of having lunch, he sent for the midwife, and three hours later I came into the world.

At least, this is only one version of how I was born. When I was a little girl, my older brother Brownie told me the “real” story about my birth. Brownie was three years older than me, and was always full of helpful information. It took me many years to realize that most of his information was made-up, and even longer to discover his penchant for playing tricks on me. Regarding the details of my birth, Brownie carefully explained that he himself was brought into the world by a doctor carrying a big black bag. But I came into the world into a far different way.

According to Brownie, he and my parents were walking along the bank of the Ohio River when they spotted a big, ugly fish defecating on the river bank. It was during this process that I suddenly popped out, landing squarely on top of a steaming pile of excrement. When Mama saw me, she picked me up, cleaned me off, and wrapped me in a towel. She and Tata (my father) decided to take me home to live with them and be raised as one of their own. Of course, I believed him, just as I believed everything my brother told me.

But for years, every time the subject of where babies came from came up, I would clam up and never say a word. I didn’t want another living soul to know the true story of where I had come from, and Brownie was kind enough to swear never to tell the story to anyone, and to keep my deep, dark secret between the two of us. He even went so far as to reassure me that he would never even mention it in front of our parents to spare me any embarrassment. Although Brownie could torment the hell out of me, he could also be very considerate when he wanted to be.” 

Not Your Nona’s Lasagna

I’m always on the lookout for new and interesting recipes. But when I saw a recipe for pumpkin and kale lasagna, I shuddered and moved on. However, it kept calling my name and I looked at it more closely.

It certainly intrigued me. After all, I love pumpkin, and I love lasagna. I even love kale, with certain reservations. But the recipe was loaded with heavy and calorie-laden ingredients that seemed unnecessary, and kale sauteed in garlic added to pumpkin was too much for me to even think about.

I had a few other misgivings as well, so I incorporated a few of my sneaky ninja moves, as well as substituted almond milk for whole milk to come up with something that might be palatable.

One weekend afternoon, it was time to test it. However, before tying on my apron, I warned my husband that we might be doing take-out at the last minute. We didn’t. The lasagna was delicious, and we ate the entire pan in 3 days. It’s not your typical Italian lasagna, which is why I call it “Not Your Nona’s Lasagna.”

2 15 oz cans 100% pumpkin puree

2 eggs

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

1/4 tsp black pepper

1/4 tsp sea salt

1/2 tsp white pepper

10 oz fresh baby spinach, chopped

2 TBSP butter

2 TBSP flour

2 cups unsweetened almond milk

1 tsp ground nutmeg

8 oz mozzarella cheese

1 cup Parmesan cheese

2 1/2 cups sliced almonds

About 8 ready-to-bake lasagna noodles (Or, you could boil traditional noodles, but who’s got the time)?

In a large bowl, whisk together the pumpkin, eggs, cayenne pepper, salt, and black pepper. In a small bowl, combine the mozzarella cheese with the Parmesan and mix well. Lightly spray a large baking pan with non stick spray or olive oil. Spread half of the pumpkin mixture in the bottom of the pan. Top with 1 cup sliced almonds, followed with half of the spinach, and then half of the cheese mixture. Add a layer of ready to bake lasagna noodles.

Spread the remaining pumpkin mixture over the noodles, followed with 1 cup of sliced almonds, the remaining spinach and then the rest of the cheese mixture. Add another layer of noodles.

In a sauce pan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the flour and whisk well. Slowly add the almond milk, stirring constantly until slightly thickened. Add nutmeg and white pepper, remove from heat, and pour evenly over noodles. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese to taste and remaining sliced almonds. Cover with aluminum foil. Bake in a 350 degree over for 1 hour. Enjoy!




Chicken Dijon

I was going to name this recipe after my favorite mustard, Grey Poupon, but my husband advised me not to. He said that Poupon Chicken didn’t sound very appetizing, and I guess he had a point.

After doing diligent research, I discovered that Grey Poupon is a dijon mustard and has a small amount of white wine in it. No wonder why I like it so much. I also learned that the word poupon means little baby, or baby doll. Who knew cooking could be so educational? 

I used a few of my ninja tricks to combine a few recipes, cut what I didn’t like, kept what I thought would work, used my imagination, and came up with a variation on a theme. So here it is, my Chicken Dijon, and Poupon too!

6 thinly sliced chicken breast fillets (I buy them already sliced thin. No need to pull out my sharp knives, especially if I’m in one of my moods).

1 TBSP light butter

sea salt and pepper to taste

2 TBSP chopped shallots

8 oz sliced fresh mushrooms

1 TBSP Dijon mustard (I use Grey Poupon. Of course I do).

1 cup chicken broth

1 tsp dried parsley

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Rinse the chicken and pat dry, and season with salt and pepper. In a non stick frying pan, melt the butter on low heat, then increase the cooking temperature to medium.

Cook the chicken fillets until slightly browned on each side, careful to not overcook or the chicken will be tough. Place chicken in a baking dish, cover with foil, and put in oven to keep warm.

Add the shallots to the pan and cook, stirring constantly, until soft. Add the chicken broth to the shallots and stir in mustard. Add mushrooms, parsley and cook until mushrooms are cooked thoroughly. Pour the sauce over the chicken, cover with the foil, and cook for an additional 15 minutes to blend flavors. Enjoy!

Patience, Perseverance, and Number #1 Best Seller

Patience and perseverance are two valuable principles I learned in my martial arts training. It means that our focus is on the journey, rather than the end result. And it explains why the students that come to our dojo with their primary goal of becoming a black belt are usually gone in just a few months. Because everything takes time and effort.

The same applies to every aspect of life. Focus on the journey, put in the time, the effort, and see what unfolds. That’s exactly what happened when I published my first book. I just focused on the journey, even though it was incredibly labor intensive.

When I heard that the “real work” in writing a book begins after it’s published, I found it hard to believe. After all, it took me two and a half years to write it. In reality, it actually took a lifetime, since it was the result of a culmination of life experiences, including the good, the bad, and the ugly.

When the book launched, I was delighted with the number of sales I received, as well as a few great reviews. And I was over the moon when I received two awards.

But then, sales dropped off. I spent hours of my time promoting the book, giving endless talks and presentations. I talked until my throat was raw. And I sold a few books, here and there.

It was frustrating. It was discouraging. But I never gave up, because I truly believe in my message. Patience, perseverance. Time, effort, mindset. Persistence. Incomparable stubbornness. I just knew that my target audience was out there, waiting to hear my message.

Finally, three years after the book was launched, my persistence paid off when I became a #1 Best Seller on Amazon in EIGHT categories. It was amazing. It was humbling. It was a miracle. But it took patience, perseverance, and a little help from my friends. Especially from the incomparable Polly Letofsky, who is the master of focusing on the journey. She is the first woman to ever walk around the world, and no, I am not kidding or exaggerating.

She also is the founder and owner of My Word Publishing, a company that helps newbie authors like Yours Truly get their work out into the world. And she certainly does it well. Thanks to Polly along with a healthy dose of patience, perseverance, persistence and unbelievable stubbornness, I am now a Best Selling as well as an award winning author. And, as you can see from the photo, I owe her lunch. And that’s one tab I can’t wait to pick up!

Episode #54: Awareness, Intuition, Trust, and Self-Worth

Meet Nicole Jansen, Business Breakthrough Coach and Behavior Specialist who has helped thousands of clients transform their lives and achieve extraordinary results in business. However, her greatest accomplishment is her own personal experience in overcoming adversity through quiet introspection to regain physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Download this episode to hear Nicole’s secrets in this gentle, uplifting, and enlightening interview, and how you can apply them to your own life. You do not want to miss this!

The Best Defense

As a practicing ninja, I know a thing or two about defense. Most of the time, the best defense against an attack is usually the simplest and the most obvious. Just don’t make yourself vulnerable.

It’s cold and flu season, and I’m a germaphobe. Not an over the top crazy kind of germaphobe, but a sensible kind. After all, I spent forty years working in health care, so I also know a little bit about infections, especially how to prevent them.

And it’s so simple….wash your hands. Wash them often and wash them well. You don’t need any special equipment or antibacterial soap. All you just need is mild soap and warm water.

Wash your hands before and after you eat, use the bathroom, blow your nose, sneeze, cough, touch your face, touch commonly used public surfaces, etc., or anytime you feel like you need to wash them.

And please….I am begging you on bending knee, don’t sneeze or cough into your hands. Turn your head and sneeze or cough into your elbow. I actually saw a dancer in ballet class meticulously wipe down the ballet barre with an antibacterial cloth, then promptly sneeze into her hands before touching every surface around her. Yikes!

And you might want to be careful around uncovered food in public. I know, I’m being paranoid. But I once brought freshly baked bread to a networking event and set it on the food table. A young man approached the table, sneezed into his hands, and began slicing the bread. I almost fainted.

Common sense is the best defense, and it really is so simple. Let’s all share the love but not the germs, and let’s make it through cold and season with our health and wellness intact. Here’s to your health!

Episode #53 Pelvic Health and Awareness

Margaret Woodward, one of the leading pioneers in pelvic floor physical therapy health,explains how dysfunction in the pelvic floor can result in back, knee, hip, and even neck pain, and what we can do about it.  Margaret also shares her personal story of facing her own health crisis as well as the proactive steps she took to get her life back on track. 

Download this information-packed and educational episode to learn more about pelvic dysfunction, interstitial cystitis, pelvic pain, and how you can be proactive and take charge of your health. Knowledge is power!