Monday, July 28, 2014

The Things We Love

She sits, rocking, for hours on end, at the corner of her wraparound porch.

Sometimes when I pass her, always in the same place, staring blankly from behind the bushes (or sleeping with her head tilted back, mouth open), I wonder if time stands still for her, wonder if that's what happens when you get to be ninety and people begin to fall away around you, or whether time speeds up, and you wonder why you're the one standing still.

Sometimes I see a spark of recognition.  Sometimes, not even that.

Her (possibly autistic) adult daughter who still lives at home attempted a yard sale a few weeks ago.  We went over and browsed, making small talk, like good neighbors should, feeling awkward, not wanting to take things, and yet also not wanting her to know how valueless we thought her treasures: the boxes of Christmas figurines, stacks of china, empty bottles that once held Avon perfume.  She tried to sell some chairs she'd found in the attic, marking the dusty broken wood with a sticker announcing "$2 each."  They were her father's.

He was the glue, perhaps, even through his wandering around the back yard, and his long absences while he talked with his old farmer friend across the street.  With him, their lives had purpose.  Make dinner, call him in.  His wife would shrill his name from the back door, again and again, until finally, his response from downhill, in the garden, or hiding in his basement, not a question but a retort: "What!"

Now, the daughter moves like a ghost, opening and closing the recycled bankers boxes stacked on the wraparound porch, avoiding her mother who admonishes her daughter from her post at the corner, both of them not daring to speak it, but anticipating the inevitable.

They will have to move.

They have family a few towns away, but the house is falling into disrepair, more than her well-intentioned local grandson can manage on his own.  The grey clapboard needs a new coat of paint, some of the shutters are missing, the wooden porch is beginning to rot.  They do what they can, sweeping and tidying, but the bushes continue to grow, and in the last big storm, a limb splintered from its trunk, making a U-shaped bend in the wires leading from the poles in the street.  The living room and kitchen boast 1930s vintage wallpaper and 1970s appliances.  There is the particular clutter of some older people, lace doilies and tables full of framed black and white pictures of handsome young men in uniform, sepia-toned women with perfectly curled hair.

We brought them food when the husband died, kept the refrigerator full for a while despite the guilt we felt when they wrote us thank you notes with every Tupperware return.  We couldn't alter the future.

And perhaps that's for the best.  We move on, we grow old, we die.  We'll share that fate: they'd lived in our house once, and there's a culture of house-swapping on our street that gives us an unusual glimpse into the future.

It's the things they loved that give me pause, though; the things in the bankers boxes on the porch that will have to go somewhere else when they leave, the things that may never find another home.  We say that the things don't matter, but they pack the boxes lovingly, nonetheless, pretending that they will open them somewhere else; we all know better.  Perhaps it's easier when you don't pack your own boxes, don't have to bid farewell to the things you loved: when you leave the task of inventory to the people who come when others go, when you don't have to watch other people decide the value of your valuables.

Or perhaps it's easier to pack them after all, to lay your things down tenderly in bubble wrap, sending them gently on their last journey, as you hope someone will send you gently on your own.

photo courtesy of flickr user Jeannie Fletcher
under a Creative Commons license
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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Hashtag Activism and Borek

Maybe I've always been a little overprotective.

But the fact of the matter is, I've always cared deeply about my students.  When I call them my students, I'm not simply being possessive; I've assumed responsibility for them, perhaps like foster children, who have been entrusted to my care for a while.  It's true that they don't all need my care, but pressed, I would probably tell you that I love them anyway.  Which may be terrible professional practice, unless you're a Freirian (maybe I am, a little).

When I started working where I am now, I was responsible for sending them off on Fulbrights: helping them to prepare competitive applications, helping them to think about what they wanted to do, helping them to dream broadly and ask larger questions, encouraging them to go out into the world and do good ambassadorial work.  Now, a year later, I have something more like my own brood, like I used to have years ago: a group of students I get to meet in freshman year, whose stories I get to hear and watch unfold through their college years.  I encourage them to go out into the world, too.

The one-off relationships were easy; a little sad, perhaps, because after that period of intense connection they'd disappear (if I did my job well), but at least I couldn't get too attached.  And I could comfort myself with the knowledge that even if they were doing academic work, they were brokering peace.  I worried about them, but not in the way that I worry about my students now.

As I watch the news lately, my reaction to the violence is the world has been visceral.  I listen to NPR talk about small boys killed while playing on the beach, and even if I didn't have small children of my own, it would make me want to throw up.  I listen to the reporters from the BBC talk about being handed the personal effects of someone flying on that ill-fated Malaysian jet, and I find myself weeping.  I think about the small sparks that started world wars, and I wonder, even as I never wondered during my Cold-War childhood throughout which the spectre of global thermonuclear destruction loomed menacingly from abroad, if these sparks will be the ones to catch.

I live in a relatively protected little corner of the world.  But my students are out there.  Some of them travel out there, and some of them live out there.  One of them texted me from Norway the other day with the travel warning from the Embassy about a possible Syrian terrorist attack.  One of them is trying to figure out how to get to Israel to do senior thesis research, even though she can't land in Tel Aviv.  Some of them are from Malaysia, from the Netherlands, from Iran, from Russia, from the Ukraine.  They bring the world to my doorstep in 4D, 24/7, in a way that the radio and the internet can't.  And it's people like them--innocent civilians, young people full of promise--that are getting caught in the crossfire of misunderstanding.

In the face of that reality, my hashtag activism and my spatula feel woefully inadequate.

I'm not at BlogHer'14 this year.  Part of me is disappointed, because it's been good motivation to write and think, and it's been a useful way to meet people who are from a different tribe.  There was a session yesterday on "Deep Blogging," and I'd be curious to know (beyond what I was able to glean from the Tweetstream) what the conversation looked like there.  I think that on some issues, hashtag activism can be incredible powerful--domestic violence, boycotting of organizations that support unethical practices in their own business or among those with whom they do business.  But in matters like this?  I'm lost.  How do you intervene in a controversy that's not your own, and demand peace?  Unless you're John Kerry, how do you get people from different nations to break bread?  (Come to think of it, John Kerry isn't having such good luck, either.)  Besides worrying over the students who send you texts from faraway places, what is your role in ending this madness?  Are you supposed to watch in horror?  Post things about the way you feel to Facebook, where everyone will nod sagely and agree that yes, these things are horrible?

I made Borek the other day.  I was trying to use up some frozen phyllo, and I found some recipes online that looked worth a try.  As I dug a little deeper, I realized I'd found a dish that had been eaten on tables in many of the places in the world I worry about.  At the risk of sounding naive: I wish that some of the people in those places could sit down to one table, and realize that while everyone has a slightly different take on the dish, they were, in essence, all eating the same thing.

This dish has variants made in Turkey, Albania, Syria, Armenia, Bulgaria, Greece, Israel, Italy, Crimea, Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia, Bosnia, Algeria, Moldova, and Russia.  It's found on Jewish, Christian, and Muslim tables.

10 sheets of phyllo dough, thawed
3 T. olive oil, divided
1/2 c. skim milk
1 large egg and 2 egg yolks, divided
2 T. plain yogurt
1/2 t. salt
pinch black pepper
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped1 lb. fresh baby spinach, washed and dried
1 T. olive oil
1/4 t. salt
dash of pepper (optional)
2 T. sesame seeds 1 c. feta cheese, crumbled

Whisk 2 T. olive oil, milk, whole egg, yogurt, salt and pepper in a bowl until combined.  Set aside.

Heat 1 T. olive oil in a large pan. Add the chopped onion and saute until fragrant, 3-5 minutes. Add the spinach, salt and pepper; cover and cook over medium heat until the spinach loses most of its volume, about 5 minutes. Stir and cool for 15 minutes.

Strain the juices from the spinach, and combine it in a bowl with the feta cheese; stir gently until combined.

Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and lightly spray it with vegetable oil.  Place 2 sheets of phyllo dough on the parchment and brush it with 3 tablespoons of the milk mixture, being careful to work quickly and not tear the dough.  Repeat the process one more time.

Place 1 sheet of phyllo dough and spread the spinach-feta cheese filling evenly leaving ½ inch space on the edges and corners.

Continue with placing 2 sheets of phyllo dough and brushing it with 3 tablespoons of the milk mixture two more times, and then place the last phyllo dough on top and brush it with 2 tablespoons of the milk mixture.

Cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight.

When ready to bake, heat the oven to 350 F. degrees.  Slice the borek and brush it with 1 egg; sprinkle each piece with sesame seeds.  Bake until it is golden brown, 30-35 minutes, and serve immediately.
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Wednesday, July 16, 2014


I must have been about twelve, because it was my brother's First Communion. Old enough to know better, I guess.

It was May, and the adults had all gone inside to escape the unseasonably warm and humid afternoon. Four or five of us had stayed outside, and were fooling around on the swing set. Across the yard, on the concrete slab my father had constructed around the kamado (which my father owned because a simple barbecue grill would have been too commonplace, and my father hardly ever did anything that was common), I saw it: the sangría pitcher, emptied of everything but the fruit. I don't know whose idea it was first, but someone dared someone, and it became funny for my brother to feed me drunken fruit bits while I hung there upside down on the monkey bars.

I was probably lucky I didn't choke, but that particular thought never crossed my mind on that mosquito-filled day. I was thinking, instead, about how sweet the fruit was, how refreshing, how cold, still, even though the liquid was long gone.

At some point, an adult remembered us and came outside to find out what we were doing; upon finding me, mouth full, breath ever-so-slightly alcoholic, she started laughing, and informed my father he might want to bring his pitcher inside.

My father prided himself on his sangría, and along with kamado-grilled sausage sliced on the diagonal and served with tiny colored plastic forks, it was the staple of every summer gathering at our house.  In Spain, children were permitted to drink some version of this (wine watered down with sparkling water), so we were allowed small sips, too.  As I grew up, I'd open the freezer to find large plastic sherbet containers full of fresh-squeezed Valencia oranges (with chunks of orange added), awaiting the next event. Once, after my father died, I found some orange-ice blocks in the freezer, and I spent months wondering what would become of them, now that the sangría-maker of our house was gone.

Years later, when I ran my first trip for students and faculty to New York--a trip that nearly ended in disaster because of a bus fire and two hour wait for a new bus between two exits from the Holland Tunnel--I bryought the group to the restaurant of a family friend in the Ironbound, where she poured sangría for everyone (an act to which administrators turned a blind eye that night), and to this day, former students and faculty still remember that trip, still talk--laughing--about the sangría, which was my father's recipe. I've sometimes wondered about origin of the word "sangría," which means "bloodletting"; red tint of the traditional version aside, it always seemed to me to be a violent word for something so congenial.

I don't know why it took me so long to make it myself, but the other day, going to a friend's house for a girls' night in, I decided to bring some. I made orange juice ice cubes, as my father would have done, and when they were sufficiently frozen, pulled out the pitcher that he used to mix his drinks in: the one he'd brought back from Spain. I found myself wishing I could call him, to make sure the proportions were right, to ask about varieties of apples, the size of orange slices--really, to hear him swell with pride as I mixed his recipe with a split wooden spoon, as he used to do.

After I let the orange juice ice cubes melt a bit, watching the air condense on the bottom of the pitcher, I poured myself a glass; it was exactly right, tasted like the summer of my youth. We lingered over dinner and glasses, enjoying each others' company and conversation. And the next morning, I sat contentedly at my kitchen counter, popping small bits of leftover soaked fruit into my mouth for breakfast, feeling a strange urge to hang upside down.


My father would share his recipe this way: "one third, one third, one third." Which, of course, meant nothing unless he also happened to tell you that the "thirds" were orange juice, wine, and 7up (not Sprite, and for God's sake, not diet).

Squeeze as many Valencia oranges as you can stand. Measure the juice so you know how much you have, and pour it (along with a bit of coarsely chopped orange) into an ice cube tray, preferably one that makes large cubes. Freeze well.

When the orange cubes are set, place them into a large pitcher. Add as much red wine and 7up as you had orange juice. If you don't think you'll have enough to drink, go ahead and add some orange juice (don't bother to freeze it first), with more wine and 7up.

Toss in a few Braeburn apples and at least one more orange, both coarsely chopped. Let the whole thing sit for about half an hour before serving. Taste it before you pour it for everyone else. No one will be the wiser.

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Monday, July 14, 2014

A Potluck, and Moroccan Carrot Salad

I have started and trashed countless blog post drafts during the past two and a half months.  Somehow, everything I write feels either trivial or--when it's nontrivial--overplayed.  It's been a doozy of a summer, both in the domestic and world media and in higher education news: the shootings in Santa Barbara in June, the public conversation about sexual assaults on campus, heightened violence in the Middle East, the plane crash in Ukraine, revisited discussions about mental health on campus (which I'm sure we will continue to revisit, especially now in the wake of a very public suicide, even if he wasn't a college student), the crisis in Ferguson, the spate of articles about why people shouldn't be sending their kids to Ivy League schools (which is, at its core, a question about meaning and purpose in college and in life, and whether it's possible to educate for a soul -- which, I'll add, was a question that Plato was askingin 400 B.C.).

I feel sometimes like I'm living at the end of days, and part of me wants to pontificate about it, but part of me thinks that the world doesn't need another Cassandra, or another contributor to Modern Jackass.

This blog tends to thrive on two other ingredients, besides things to talk about--new food to photograph and thoughts from my yoga teacher--and those have not exactly been in abundance, either.  Given a schedule that gets me home at 6, or even later, I've been making meals that people around here (primarily small people) will eat without complaining or spending hours sniffing at it, and may even eat in my temporary absence.  And I've been to my regular yoga studio maybe three times this summer, two of which my regular teacher wasn't there.

Some of my blogger friends are putting old blogs to rest and starting new ones, or taking a step back from their blogs altogether to do new things (here's looking at you, Coach Kathy), or taking a step back because life has gotten complicated, or just doing new things (well, Mel is always doing new things). 

Part of me thinks I should shred this thing and start over.  The formula is great, but also incredibly limiting and time consuming to get right.

Part of me thinks I should face the fact that I'm not making enough time for this space, formula or not.

But my blog is also sort of like an old friend that I'm not ready to give up on yet.

In the past few weeks we've been inviting over some old friends and new friends, connecting the third side of mostly-formed friendship triangles, celebrating the end of summer by seeing some of the people we've meant to see all along.  Type A that I am, this entails much too anxious preparation of too much food, even though people always bring their own contributions to the feast (I did actually make a few new things that I didn't photograph because I was too busy making and serving them), Tetris-like configuration of the refrigerator, and eating leftovers for days on end.  But every time I'm sitting with our company at the end of the evening, listening to the crickets or admiring children chalking pictures on the walkway or watching the light fade from the sky, I marvel to myself how perfect it was, how I didn't need to make it difficult at all, because the company itself was more than enough.

My yoga teacher did say one thing I've been mulling over this summer, during the class I was able to get to: she said that the more advanced a student became in yoga, the more simple the yoga itself.  We begin with elaborate asana, but as we become more proficient yogis and yoginis, we don't need all of that.  The breathing is enough.  The practice of mindfulness is enough.

It seems counterintuitive, but if you think about it, that makes sense: as you grow in understanding of almost anything, you appreciate the complexity and beauty and elegance of the simplest problems.


Consider yourself invited to the end-of-summer potluck at A Half Baked Life.  If you're still reading, drop in for a bit.  Tell us what you're bringing.  Be anonymous, if that's easier.  We'll reconnect one old friend to some other old and new friends, and see what happens.  For the time being, I'll shred carrots (which are still in season at our CSA) instead of a blog.

Moroccan Carrot Salad
Adapted from herbivoracious
This is not a particularly fancy salad, but you'll appreciate the complexity of flavors.  Serve with some toasted pita and hummus, or babaghanouj if you like.

1 lb. carrots(peeled if you think you should)
1 T. olive oil
1 t. ground cumin
1 t. ground paprika
2 t. agave nectar or honey
2 - 3 T. lemon juice
1/2 t. sea salt
1 bunch fresh flat leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
Coarsely shred the carrots in a food processor or julienne them, if you're feeling ambitious. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a small skillet over a low flame; add spices and stir occasionally until the mixture darkens and turns fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool.

Pour the spiced oil over the carrots in a large bowl or container. Add the agave nectar, lemon juice, and sea salt and toss gently until the carrots are evenly coated.  Just before serving, gently stir in the parsley.
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Friday, June 27, 2014

It's Not About the Handstand, and Vegetable Phyllo Pie

It's been a while since I've gone to yoga.  I think about the sangha at my teacher's studio most Thursday nights and Sunday mornings, when I know that she's teaching the classes where I'd like to be, but my yoga practice is less active than I'd like these days; though I work well alone, I am motivated best when I'm part of something larger than myself.  Given my summer schedule, I decided to try an early morning class at a studio closer to where I work again, hoping it would inspire me to get back to my practice, even if I couldn't get back to the studio I call home.

I admit, my ideas about yoga are heavily influenced by my eight or nine years on and off at YL.  I took plenty of yoga classes before then, and I've been to other studios and worked with other teachers, but none of them made me love yoga like my current teacher's studio did.  There, they read (and teach) yoga philosophy.  They use sanskrit names for asana.  There are sadhana classes and kirtan events.  But more than anything, when I go to yoga there, I feel like I'm not just stretching my body, but using my body as a vehicle to access the mind.

Sometimes I sweat.

I should have been warned by the class description, which said something about "power" and "panache."  Or by the teacher's personal website, which prominently features a slideshow of her--displaying her concave stomach and ribs--in handstands.  Or by the studio logo, which is actually a woman in handstand, creating the letter "Y" with her legs in a split.

But uncharacteristically, I didn't notice those things.  I'd heard from a colleague that the studio was worth visiting, and from another that there was a special deal for new students, so I figured it was worth a try.

I arrived early, set out my mat, and gathered the blocks and bolster that I usually take out, to sit and center myself before the class began.  No one else seemed to be doing that, though; mostly, people were stretching, bouncing, and generally looking as if they were getting ready for a gymnastics class.  The room was stifling, because the teacher had turned on the heater (on the third day of New Jersey summer, and no, it was not advertised as "hot yoga").  We began not with mantra or breathing, as I am used to doing from classes at most other studios I've attended, but in a long-held bridge pose, which morphed into dolphin, which quickly morphed into three legged downward-facing-dog, or raised leg plank.  Every few minutes we were directed to "hop" into the air with one foot or another or both, which--it became clear--was all about preparation for handstand.  Not long into class, we spent a several minutes against the wall doing half-handstands.  And many of my classmates spent a good portion of the class in handstand, taking every suggestion to hop as a recommendation to invert.  Several times, when the teacher came to adjust me, I felt like she was pushing me to get into handstand as quickly as possible.  Unlike when my regular teacher adjusts me, which almost feels like an extension of my mind gently reminding my body of where it is and where it's trying to be, I felt myself wanting to resist her adjustments, to tell her to leave me alone.  By the end of the class I was dripping with sweat, which I guess is a good thing if what I wanted was a workout, but I didn't walk away with any thoughtfulness or insight.  There was no feeling of community; there was only, perhaps, a sense of cliquiness.  I walked away feeling like I'd been to the kind of gym that makes me hate going to the gym.

I'm sure that the studio is the right place for a lot of students.  But as I walked back to the office, making a game plan for getting clean using only the sink and hand soap, I thought: my yoga practice, such as it is, is really not about the handstand.  It's about anandam.

Sure, it's cool to be upside down.  And it's great to develop core strength.  And handstand has lots of health benefits.  If what I really wanted was to perfect my handstand, I'd be doing everything I could to make it happen.  As someone who usually tries whatever "more challenging" version of a pose my teacher offers up, I can understand the appeal.  I get it: after all, didn't I just write about trying things just to see if you could do them?  And maybe there was an element of that for some of the students in the class; I can't know that, because I'm not inside their heads.  Yes, preparation for handstand is part of my yoga practice.  But for me, there are so many more layers to yoga than that.  And spending so much of community class time trying to get into or stay in handstand (which, by the way, is the goal of every class there; I know this because I went a few times, to make sure) left me wondering where the rest of the yoga was.  While I understand why being in a community is helpful if you're working on something challenging (we do that to our seniors writing theses), here, it felt like an isolated exercise, without any larger purpose.  It was the kind of experience that makes people think that yoga is just about stretching or twisting yourself into a pretzel, that makes them give up.

At my regular studio, we end every class with the mantra: "loka samasta sukhino bhavantu," which translates roughly to "may all beings everywhere be happy and free."  No one chants: "may I have six pack abs."

I'm glad that her students have found a place and an approach that works for them.  Maybe I should have been able to get the rest of what I wanted from my inner teacher, as AmarJyothi reminds us each time she ends her classes: "Satgurunath Maharaj  ki jai.  Jagadambe Mata ki jai."  But I need more than handstand from a yoga class, and I think I'll stick with a practice, and communities, that honor purpose and divinity in a way that I can get behind.

Vegetable Pie
This summer vegetable pie is full of layers.  And it's light enough for the sweatiest of days.

1 T. olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 medium red sweet pepper, chopped
2 medium zucchini, thinly sliced
1 10 oz. package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and well drained
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
12 oz. can low-fat evaporated milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 t. salt
1/4 t. freshly ground black pepper
10 sheets frozen phyllo dough (14x9-inch rectangles), thawed
Nonstick cooking spray
2 oz. feta cheese crumbles (you can also use goat cheese or ricotta)

Preheat oven to 375F.

Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet, and add the onion and pepper.  Saute for about 4 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Add zucchini; cook about 4 minutes more or just until zucchini has just started to brown. Add the spinach, garlic, and 1/4 teaspoon salt; cook for 2 minutes more.

In a small bowl combine evaporated milk, eggs, 1/4 teaspoon salt, the black pepper, and nutmeg.  Set this mixture aside.

Coat a 9-inch pie plate with cooking spray. Unfold phyllo dough. (As you work, cover the remaining phyllo dough with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out; this can happen quickly, and then you'll have broken phyllo.  Which isn't the end of the world, but does make your life more difficult.) Place the first phyllo sheet in your prepared pie plate and lightly coat it with cooking spray, gently pressing into bottom and up sides of pie plate and letting the ends hang over edges of pie plate. Repeat with the remaining phyllo sheets, placing then in a crisscross pattern. Spoon vegetable mixture evenly over phyllo; sprinkle with cheese. Pour egg mixture over your pie, and fold the overlapping ends of phyllo towards the center of pie plate. Coat the top of the phyllo with cooking spray, and gently press to hold its shape.

Bake about 40 minutes or until a knife inserted off center comes out clean. Cool for 15 minutes on a wire rack. Cut into wedges and serve warm.
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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

To See If I Could, and a Brazilian Fish Stew

Have you ever done something just to see if you could?


I don't remember how it started.  A joke, maybe, about my commute?  Thoughts of more leisurely mornings for the summer?

Whatever it was, it wasn't serious.  I do bike, and biking to work doesn't sound like a big deal, but if your commute is 25 miles long and includes some significant hills, and the last time you did 25 miles of hills was in Umbria, in a different decade of your life, it becomes a slightly bigger deal.

I'd mentioned the idea to my boss, who is a biker--meaning he thinks nothing of riding 50 or 60 miles at a time; he was amused, and said something along the lines of "well, yeah, if you really want to save the world, that's probably going to make a difference."  (Just to clarify here: this has nothing to do with impressing my boss.  I'm too old for that.)  Somehow, though, the more I thought about it, the more I needed to know: could I do it?  What would it be like?  I shopped the idea to my kids.  My son, the more rational of the two, pointed out that if I got there, I'd have to get home.

"True," I admitted.

"We could come pick you up," he offered, generously.  "But you'd have to call Daddy.  You should probably call Daddy," he added, frowning, now semi-concerned for my welfare.


Just this week, I no longer have to drop off my son in the mornings, now that he goes to camp just down the street from where my daughter is in school, so I have a lot more time to myself before I have to be in the office.  I spent the weekend waffling, asking myself (and my husband, and my kids) if I might be crazy, checking the forecast, and finally decided to give it a shot.

On Sunday night, I slept fitfully, trying to come up with a route that would be less busy and less steep.  In the morning, exhausted, I almost bagged it.  But after a quick shower, I checked my tires, packed a change of clothes and some soap for washing up in the bathroom at work, kissed the kids goodbye, strapped my pack on my bike rack, and started my morning commute by coasting down my street.

It couldn't have been a more perfect morning.  The air was cool and slightly damp, and it was almost as if someone had Photoshopped the world through the "vibrant" filter: layers of color--deep blue, and then pale yellow in a field, tall green grass along the edge, punctuated by deep purple thistles the size of my fist, and brown soil, and the black macadam.  For the first few miles, I rode in silence.

One thing I realized pretty quickly is that I rarely turn off all of my devices for two hours straight, at least when I'm alone.  It was refreshing to be listening to and looking at nothing except what was in front of me, to have a long stretch of time to get where I needed to go, and to know that if anything happened, there were about a dozen people I could call.  My mind wandered.  Has someone made an iPhone mount for bicycles?  That could be useful if you were riding around Italy, for example, with only a paper map to tell you where to go to find your hotel for the night.

The miles fell behind me.  Somewhere in the Sourland mountains, I started to wonder if I'd made a mistake.  I pedaled as far as I could up the steepest hill, and then hopped off the bike to walk, imagining what people would think of me, hoping no one I knew was passing me by, and then deciding I didn't care.  I'd given myself two and a half hours to get to work, and if I had to walk, I'd get there.  And if I could just get up the mountain, then I could fly down it.

Which I did.  At thirty miles an hour.  In case you've never done it: it's a huge adrenaline rush.   Suddenly it was like I was back in Bevagna, spiraling down the mountain along the medieval streets, feet off the pedals, jubilant.

The road rose and fell several more times before I finally coasted into town, and up to the door of my building, where I let out a whoop of triumph.  I let myself in, washed up, changed, and returned to my office, feeling like a superhero.  Sure, I still had to get home.  But not for another seven hours.

At four, I changed back into my mostly-dry clothes, slipped my helmet on, and began the ride home.  It was warmer, but still pleasant, and now I knew what to expect, where I'd have to work and where I could let gravity pull me along.  I could always call home, and ask them to pick me up, which would be a little less awkward than asking for a ride to work.

As I pedaled along, it occurred to me that I'm a lot better at writing when I shake up my routine, or even when I'm somehow more mindful in the middle of the routine.  My husband jokes that my writing suffers when I don't go to yoga.  It makes sense: you can either live life, or let it live you.  Writing, like yoga, or like deciding to do something just to see what you're capable of, is a reflective practice.  Life doesn't live writers; writers chew life up and spit it out on paper, or in electrons.

Which doesn't mean I'm going to bike to work more often.  I just like knowing that I can.

Brazilian Fish Soup
based on the recipe at The Wanderlust Kitchen

One of the reasons I spend so much time sifting through recipes and figuring out what to do with my CSA share is that doing so makes me look at things differently.  Traveling--especially traveling off the beaten path--does the same thing. 

And yep, that's separating coconut milk.  Use the full fat kind and it might not be quite so pronounced.

1 onion, chopped, divided
1 green onion (white and green parts), chopped, divided
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and minced, divided
4 cloves garlic, minced, divided
6 T. olive oil, divided
4 T. chopped cilantro, divided
1 1/4 lb. tilapia or other white fish, cut into bite sized pieces
1 1/2 c. chopped bell pepper (a mix of red, yellow, and orange)
2 c. low-sodium broth (chicken or another light stock work best)
1 14-oz. can coconut milk
2 T. tomato paste
1 T. lemon juice
1/3 c. hearts of palm, drained and sliced
2 small tomatoes, seeded, and diced
1 1/2 T. fish sauce

Combine half of the green onion, half of the yellow onion, half of the ginger, half the cilantro, half of the garlic, and 4 T. of oil in a shallow bowl. Add the chunks of fish and toss to coat. Cover well and refrigerate for three hours (or, if you're like me and you're in a hurry, toss the fish together with the onion/ginger/garlic mixture directly in your baking pan, and let it marinate for just a little while while you're prepping your broth).

If you were patient enough to let your fish marinate, let it come to room temperature just before you begin cooking.  Preheat your oven to 350F, and place the fish in a shallow baking pan.  You won't need to oil it, because of the marinade.  Pour the lemon juice evenly over the fish, season with salt and pepper. Bake 8-12 minutes, depending on how thick your fish is.

Heat the remaining 2 T. of oil in a large Dutch oven.  Saute the remaining green and yellow onions in the pan along with the bell peppers, stirring occasionally, for about three minutes, or until they begin to soften.

Add the remaining garlic and ginger to the pan and saute for about thirty seconds, until just fragrant. Add the broth and heat to boiling, then add the coconut milk and tomato paste.  When it begins to boil, immediately lower the heat to and gently simmer.

Add the almost-cooked fish and cooking juices to the broth, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the fish is soft and tender, 5 to 7 minutes.  Add the hearts of palm and tomatoes, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes.

Stir in the fish sauce and black pepper, then serve topped with the remaining fresh cilantro.
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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Fashionistas, and Chopped Thai Salad

Hello?  Is this thing on?

Right, then.

I keep thinking that perhaps I will have something profound to say, and defer writing until that moment.  Of course, we all know that brilliance doesn't happen on demand.  And if my colleagues are all off writing books and monographs, the least I can do is see if I still have readers.


We're winding down the school year here, making the transition from school to summer camp.  My daughter now dresses in her bathing suit in the mornings, and we have the pleasure of slathering her (or spraying her if she doesn't move fast enough) with sunscreen before she leaves.  My son will join her in the ritualistic anointing on Monday morning, and I can say with some authority that we're not looking forward to sunscreening two kids in the morning.  If I could make an extra lunch, or do extra laundry, to avoid this, I think I'd be willing. (Parents' collective, anyone?)

My daughter, who has long cared a lot about her clothes (despite the fact that her closet is stocked with hand-me-downs), had taken caring to new heights.  She refuses to dress in shorts (opting almost exclusively for dresses), is in love with her pink jelly flip-flop-sandals (wants nothing to do with the more sensible sneakers and water shoes), and had a complete meltdown the other morning about wearing a particular mismatched not-skirty-enough bathing suit.  That particular scene was accompanied by screams so bloodcurdling we're still shocked that DYFS didn't come knocking that morning.  I feel like I spend such an inordinate amount of time trying to talk N. out of attaching importance to her clothes, and that I might as well be tilting at windmills, but what's a parent of an image-conscious young girl to do, when it feels like these are the opportunities for foundational lessons in self-confidence?  Why do I need to tell her, in response to her demands for clothing compliments, that she is always beautiful, even when she's naked?  Am I unnecessarily overthinking my messaging?

That same morning, my son informed me that he needed a pink shirt to wear to before-and-after-care, because all of the classes had been assigned a color of the rainbow for spirit day.  I had known vaguely about this, but was wilfully ignoring it because a) he's there for barely three hours during the day, and b) ... pink? I tried to talk him out of it, find a shirt that was multicolored; he was nonplussed.

Battling one child over clothing (we literally had to hold her upside down to get a bathing suit on her, and don't even ask me how we applied the sunscreen) left me feeling pummelled, and I caved, assuring him that if we could get out the door early, and if he promised the he would wear it again after today, I would take him to Walmart and look for a pink Tshirt.

My mother would have told me to go jump in a lake, I thought.

"Pink is my second favorite color," he assured me, confidently.

I was surprised by how easy it was to find a pink shirt in the boys' section.  He grabbed it triumphantly.

At the checkout, I found myself worried that he'd be teased at school, and tried to think of something preemptively constructive to say.  I had nothing.

In the car, I told him to stick his blue shirt in the bottom of his backback, since we weren't going back hom.  I didn't tell him that his friends might tease him (because maybe they wouldn't).  Instead, I looked in the rearview mirror.  "You look good in pink," I said.  Because he does. 

"Of course," he replied.  "Because it's my second favorite color."

I have been thinking a lot about gender conventions, given the impending changes to Title IX policy at universities, the recent shooting in Santa Barbara, the federal government's monitoring of the way universities are responding to sexual assault.   I think about how much there is to teach my kids about being in the world in a way that is kind and nonjudgmental while also helping them to protect themselves against people who didn't learn those things, and I know that it's going to be a lot harder than trying to get a bathing suit onto a trenchant preschooler.

Do you find yourself overthinking these lessons?  Or am I the only one?

Chopped Thai Salad
We make this kind of salad on hot days when we're running late, we're mentally tapped out,, and it's too much work to do anything else.  The variations are endless: Greek, Italian, Thai, Japanese ... the only rule is that everything has to be small enough so that a representative biteful fits well on your fork.

1/3 c. canola oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 T. low sodium soy sauce
2 T. white distilled vinegar
2 T. honey
2 t. sesame oil
2 T. lime juice
1 t. grated lime peel 5-6 cups baby kale
3 large carrots
2 bell peppers (1 red, 1 yellow)
1 c. cilantro leaves
3 green onions
3/4 c. roasted cashews, minced

Whisk together ingredients from oil through lime peel in a measuring cup or small bowl. Taste and adjust to fit your preferences.

Chop the kale, carrots, peppers, cilantro leaves, and green onions.  If you have a Cuisinart, toss the carrots and peppers in there with the "shred" disc, and save yourself some chopping time.

Toss the vegetables with cashews in a large bowl until well combined. Drizzle with the dressing, toss gently a few times, and serve immediately.
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