Monday, November 9, 2015

#Microblog Monday: Last Train Home

November is a month full of vacation days and half days at school: election day, Teacher's Convention, conferences, Thanksgiving.  As a working parent, I've resented November.  It requires juggling, finding care, trying to keep routines that we established back in September, knowing that it will all fall apart as we forget which day it is, and what special he has, and when his homework will be due.

But fall break at work this year fell on the same week as I's two day school week, so I decided to put aside my resentment to take a day off and take my son to New York.  I offered him the choice between the Cloisters and the MoMA.  He chose the MoMA.

My parents would take us into the city once or twice a year when I was growing up, and I remember it as a stressful (because it inevitably involved my parents fighting over parking and directions and plans) but magical adventure.  Once a year, we'd stand in line to see the windows decorated for Christmas, gaze in wonder at the tree at Rockefeller Center.  And some other time, if we were lucky, we'd get dressed up to get last-minute tickets to see a show.  My father, inexplicably, loved Broadway.

I discovered the museums myself, in high school, on class trips, and tried to go when I could throughout college, when I had access to the train.  I learned then to love the trip in almost as much as I loved the visit to the city itself: watching the neighborhoods change, imagining the lives of the people whose backyards opened onto the tracks.

When my son was old enough, I started to take him, too: to shows (for kids), to the Met, to the Museum of Natural History.  He loved trains as much as I did, and was always a delightful companion.

My daughter, who has less patience for long rides of any sort, and less interest in sitting still in a theater or contemplating any sort of display, made our trips the the city more complicated.  We take her along sometimes, but when we can, we go alone, just the two of us.

We arrived too early to get in to the MoMA, so we had a decadent hot chocolate and macaron breakfast at La Maison du Choclat, and then walked down towards Rockefeller Center, where to our delight, they were unloading the enormous Christmas tree from a tractor trailer with two cranes.  We gawked with the other tourists until we were too cold, and then continued our walk north back to the MoMA, where we spent the day marveling at the Picasso sculptures, and at the Applied Design exhibit, at objects where art and architecture collide.  We talked about art, and about cities, and about poverty and homelessness and the waste of so many plastic lunch bags in office buildings and the people whose job it was to put up Christmas decorations.

It couldn't have been more perfect.

On the way home, in the quiet car, gently swaying back and forth to the rhythm of the wheels on the tracks, I was reminded of a song I heard when I was sitting with my son in a cafe downtown five years ago, before his sister was born, when we used to go and get a bite to eat and watch the passersby.  On first listen, it sounds like a song describing two lovers on the last train home, but it turns out that the lyricist wrote it after a trip to New York with his mother, realizing for the first time that his mother would some day leave him, but somehow also holding time still, knowing that for the moment, that space together was enough.

I hope that someday, my son will hold on to moments like this, too, the moments when I'm exactly the parent I've always hoped I could be, when we're together on the last train home.

Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is?Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.
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Thursday, November 5, 2015


I was making small talk with a student as he got up to leave my office, as I usually do at the end of advising conversations: bookending the visit with questions whose answers make both of us human, or diffuse the tension or anxiety that comes with vulnerability.  When I asked him what he was doing for the fall break, he mentioned he was catching up on sleep, watching movies, and that he might go into the City, which in these parts means "New York."  It's not an uncommon answer, especially for international students during their first year here.

"Oh, that'll be fun," I agreed.  "What do you think you'll see?"

"The museums, maybe the Guggenheim ... probably not Ground Zero, even though I'd like to go."

It was an exclusion that begged the question: "Why not?" I asked.

"It's not a place for brown people," he said, shaking his head slowly.  "We've done enough damage.  I wouldn't want to offend anyone."

It took me off guard.  My student is from Pakistan, but as far as I'm concerned, he has as much right to Ground Zero as anyone else.  He's a gentle soul.  He's disappointed by the current political situation in his home country.  No one would be able to tell he's any different from the 3 or 4 million other people with U.S. passports who are brown (this only counting Asian "brown").  I wanted him to feel like he could pay his respects, too, and honor those lost when the towers fell.  Because that's what it would be for him: honoring them.

I told him as much: "you're not responsible.  We know that.  That site belongs to you, too."

He was skeptical.  And as he left, I wished him a good adventure, knowing that he wouldn't venture anywhere near the southern tip of Manhattan.

It made me think about other incarnations of guilt-by-association, and wonder how we can even begin to heal if we can't even return to the site of our pain, to pay our respects to the dead.
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Monday, November 2, 2015

#Microblog Monday: Food for the Dead (Arborio Rice Pudding)

Our road was thick with cars this weekend, even after the hordes of Halloween revelers departed, leaving streets littered with candy wrappers.  On Sunday, I wondered momentarily about the traffic as we walked up the block to the farmer's market before I realized: of course. All Souls Day.

We joke about the Catholic church on our street, the weekly parade of speeding SUVs in a rush to be saved, and in a rush to get to brunch afterward (no offense to my Catholic readers intended: I believe that this behavior is a particular feature of the people who go to this church).  But truth be told, even though I left the church years ago, I sort of like the proximity of this one; walking past on Sundays, I think about my father, who would never miss a service, and the weekly ritual of mass, and the children's choir, and after-church trips to the park to see the zoo and ride the miniature railroad.

I remember All Souls Day as one of those hard-to-breathe holidays, not because it affected me emotionally, but because the air in the church was heavy with incense.  My father loved incense-laced holidays.  Though I liked the drama of the incense-swinging, to me, holding my pre-adolescent breath and hoping that the smoke would clear quickly, it seemed like an oppressive way to celebrate anything, or to remember the dead.

Years later, I learned that the Day of the Dead had been previously celebrated in Mexico during the summer, and was changed by the Spanish conquerors of Mexico to November in an effort to convert the indigenous people to their beliefs and get them to celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day. The contrast between the incense-filled Catholic church and the colorful outdoor parades and altars of Mexican culture couldn't be more striking.  During my years in LA, I loved the Day of the Dead celebrations, with their parades and music and stories and food.  Now, as a veteran of loss, I'm glad to see Day of the Dead celebrations becoming more common, given what I think is our cultural ineptitude at talking about death.  We need a better language for public grief, one that doesn't wave away the holes left behind by loved ones, but brings us together over them, and lets us speak their names.

As my children and I walked to the market yesterday, noting the creative parking jobs of the larger-than-usual-crowd, I told stories about my father, joked about how he'd disapprove of my not going to church, remembered him as a talented artist, told my son that he would have been proud to have a grandson that just might be interested in architecture.  And though I didn't build an altar, I imagine that his departed spirit would have appreciated this adaptation of arroz con leche, similar perhaps in flavor to atole left for the dead in Mexican celebrations, to fuel them for the journey ahead.

Arborio Rice Pudding

1/2 cup Arborio rice
4 cups milk
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, split
3/4 teaspoon almond extract

In a large saucepan, place all the ingredients, except the almond extract.

Bring it to a gentle boil and then turn it down to a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally to keep it from sticking to the bottom, for about 30 to 40 minutes. Taste the rice to check for doneness. The rice should be very soft and plump.

Take the pudding off the heat and stir in the extract. Pour into dessert bowls and stir in some dried or fresh fruit. Serve immediately.

Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is?Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.
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Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Thin Line: Activism, Voyeurism, and Consuming Lives Online

(Cross-posted at

The other day, my news feed was full of that story.  You know which one.  The story about the black girl who was brutally dragged from desk in a high school classroom by a white uniformed police officer after refusing to get off her cell phone and leave the classroom.

I'd seen the story the previous afternoon, but I didn't want to play the clip; I knew what I'd see, and I didn't want to watch another black girl's body be treated like it wasn't even human. Part of me wondered if I had a responsibility to watch, to bear witness, to know that my privilege makes this inhumanity possible.  And then part of me thought about how I would feel if that had been my daughter, knowing that it would likely never have been my daughter (because she is white), and it made my stomach churn.

I finally ended up watching it, but not until I'd thought a lot about my role as a viewer.  I've written before about my mixed feelings towards hashtag activism: how it can become a throwaway, even with the best intentions.  And now, I realize there's something else that troubles me about the way in which we produce and consume activism on social media: it can be awfully voyeuristic.

Social media is a powerful tool for activism.  But if all we do is watch, and share, it can become a twisted form of entertainment, like rubbernecking at a car wreck.  Important images that bear witness to injustice can be diminished without deep thought, and context, and action.

An article in the New Yorker last week offered some interesting (though perhaps hardly surprising) data about bullying and bystanding online: that not only is bullying harder to escape in virtual spaces (because you can't physically walk away), but that bystanders act less often in defense of the bullied, for a variety of reasons, including: the victim is dehumanized by our computer screens, adults imagine that their comments as justified outrage instead of the kind of harassment they imagine perpetrated by children.  I wonder if similar principles are at work when we share images of people being bullied.  How does that complicate our role in the act?

Last week, I happened across an another article on social-media-as-virtual Colosseum, which argues that the vicious infighting among social activists online (which is partly designed to increase one's reach) replicates oppression:
When oppressed people watch or participate in destructive behavior toward one another in the name of social justice, in some way our values, and perhaps our pain, feel reaffirmed. We want to believe we are doing something powerful by adding our voices to already fraught conversations, and in fact we are; but at times it less the reestablishment of justice and more the reactivation of oppressive power dynamics.
Author Frank Castro explains that upvoting, doxxing, etc. -- the kinds of things we do as participant hashtag activists -- is, in the end, counterproductive to the cause.

I think something similar happens in the consumption of images and videos produced in support of social (in this case racial) justice.  And I don't think it's race-neutral.  Because aside from the fact that this never would have happened to a white girl, I don't think we would have filmed a white girl being treated this way, and I don't think it would have gone viral even if we had.  Black bodies are objects of consumption in a way that white bodies aren't.  Like siding with infighting activists, this becomes a spectator sport, reactivating the power dynamics that create the situation in the first place.  We have the privilege of viewing, knowing that many of us are safe behind computer screens.

I don't think that we should stop sharing disturbing stories.  We need those stories to be told.  But I do think that we should be more thoughtful about how we share media, understanding that what we're seeing isn't just a movie, that consuming media gives us power, and that we should wield that power carefully, in the service of justice.
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Saturday, October 24, 2015

#Microblog Monday: Halloween Safety and Pumpkin Muffins

When I was growing up, we all carved pumpkins.  If you had a pumpkin for Halloween, that's what you did with it.  You didn't paint it, you didn't cover it in glitter, you didn't stick Mr. Potato Head parts on it, you didn't do some crazy Martha Stewart Pinterest thing to it.  There were no special carving tools. You got out your kitchen knife, and you went for the jugular.  Probably you had some adult on hand to help.  But you certainly stuck your hands into the guts and pulled out the stringy seeds; even the littlest of children could do that.  I admire the intricately carved pumpkins you see more of now: people have made it into an art form.

An email came to my inbox yesterday with a host of things you could do to your pumpkin to avoid carving it, avoid the mess, avoid the seeds.  And I wondered, for the fifty billionth time, whether we're overprotecting ourselves.  So I did a little research.

It turns out that of the 4,400 injuries in Halloween 2013, half of them were pumpkin-carving-related. And a nine year study between 1997 and 2006 found that finger/hand injuries accounted for the greatest proportion of injuries on Halloween (17.6 percent), that 33.3% of those injuries were lacerations, and that children ages 10-14 sustained the greatest proportion of injuries (30.3 percent). All of which suggests to me that children who usually have things cut for them were suddenly being handed deadly weapons.  (Oh, and in case you're curious, some of those 4,400 injuries were power-tool related.  Yep, pumpkin-carving with chainsaws.  Very American)

I'd still like to believe we can do things the old-fashioned way.  I still think that we ought to make our kids de-gut the gourds.  It's like a rite of passage.  But maybe it's safer not to give them a knife, but to give them the can opener to open the pumpkin puree for making muffins.

To carve or not to carve? Tell us below.

Pumpkin Muffins

1 c.all-purpose flour
1/2 c. whole wheat flour
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/8 t. nutmeg
3/8 t. ginger
pinch of ground cloves and allspice
1 1/3 c. canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)
1/3 cup canola oil
2 large eggs
1c. + 2 T. sugar

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Put liners in 12 standard-sized muffin cups.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spice in medium bowl.

In a larger bowl, whisk together pumpkin, oil, eggs and sugar. Add dry ingredients to wet and stir until just combined. Divide batter among muffin cups (each about 3/4 full).

Bake until puffed and golden brown and wooden pick or skewer inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes.

Cool in pan on a rack five minutes, then remove from pan and cool completely.

Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is?Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.
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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Thank You: A Parent-to-Parent Love Letter

Dear Stay-At-Home-Parent,

I'm tired of the barbs I see thrown from either side.  And today, I wanted to write to say thank you for being who and where you are.

I wanted to say thank you for helping to run the PTO whose meetings I can never attend, but whose fundraisers I consistently support.  I wanted to say thank you for volunteering to be the class mom and organizing the parties to which I can send fruit platters, and from which my children bring home crafts and holiday themed pencils that they cherish.  I wanted to thank you for volunteering in the library, for organizing the Scholastic Book Fair and making sure there's a family night I can attend, for chaperoning school trips that I can't.

I wanted to say thank you for helping to get my daughter to dance class because I would never be able to pick her up from school before aftercare is over, so she'd never get to dance, which is her heart's desire, and part of what she loves best about dance class is attending it with friends like your daughter.  I wanted to say thank you for picking her up from school on the days when I know I can't get to aftercare on time, because she is learning that is takes a village to raise a child, and that she can trust lots of adults, not just me.

I wanted to say thank you for being a role model for children who can choose to become stay at home parents some day, if their finances permit, just as I am a role model for your daughter, who may choose to work outside the home.

Maybe there are times I envy you, but I also know myself well enough to know that I am where I need to be, and you are where you need to be, and maybe it would be helpful if every once in a while we were just grateful instead.

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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Typecast, and (Not Your Typical) Shepherd's Pie

I don't think it happened to me until I started baking cupcakes.  But maybe I never did anything serially until I started baking cupcakes?

No, now that I think about it, it happened before then, too: with the web.

I was always the person people asked, because I was often the youngest in the room, and so people assumed that I had some superior aptitude (and interest) in technology. The web was in its infancy, and I'd been there in my dorm room to see it sprout out of Gopher.  Which made me an authority.

While I've always appreciated technology, for me, web design was more about an outlet for an interest in art, my lost sketchbooks, things that I dabbled in throughout elementary school.  And a love of fonts, if truth be told.  I loved how different looking words made me feel different about the words.  For someone who loves words and appreciates art, font design is like Nirvana.

So I built web pages.  The first when I was an intern in the academic services office in college; they liked the masthead so much that they made it in miniature on post-its that they distributed liberally to all incoming students.  And then another in grad school, in the grad office where they needed some help making fellowships more accessible.  And somewhere in there I had a short part-time stint in a web design company that I named, but had little interest in actually building.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm not actually very good at building web pages.  I'm better than your average technology-averse person, I guess.  I understand how to organize information; that's less about technology than it is about my obsessive type-A personality that likes everything organized.  I know how to appreciate good design, but I'm not motivated to learn programming languages.  I like the ease of drag-and-drop, as if I'm drawing or painting or making collages.

But somehow now it's a thing, especially at work: Justine builds web pages.

I resent the throwaway nature of web-page-building-assignments; in my case, where people don't spend much time on the pages, it's busywork.  A necessary evil.  No one is making important decisions about web pages.  And even I know that people don't really browse the web like they used to.  I know that all of the important information is in more ephemeral media, or more complexly designed sites that no longer feel two dimensional.  But even if the work felt more important, I hate feeling typecast about something that I don't even really want to be known for doing, or at least, known only for doing.

For a while, I was (maybe in some circles still am) also typecast as a cupcake-maker.  I was baking cupcakes regularly for friends and colleagues who appreciated them, partly for my own entertainment, and partly as a shameless attempt to win their love (that totally works, BTW).

But then came my second child, and less time, and long months of no job and no colleagues to bake for. I could have started a cupcake business, but I didn't want to be only known for that, either, really. I don't like being single dimensional.  And I couldn't claim expertise anyway; it was never like I was inventing recipes all by myself, so I could never really take full credit for development, just for execution.  After I got my new job, I baked for a while for students, but that labor of love quickly lost its lustre when I realized they were too busy and too overfed to appreciate them.  And--it seems to me, at least--I lost my touch.

The same thing happens in blogging, right?  At some point, perhaps your brand doesn't fit you as well as it used to.  But somehow, you feel sort of like you should be producing the same thing you always have, because you know that your readers come back for it.  You write the same thing, in the same way, because it's too hard to recreate yourself.  You typecast yourself.  Maybe you start to feel a little single-dimensional.

The real problem with being typecast is that (aside from the annoyance of feeling like you've been reduced to one dimension) you start to wonder what you're really good at, outside of what people tell you you're good at.  Your internal compass becomes corrupted, and it's hard to recalibrate.  You do nothing, perhaps, wondering if you should explore some long-lost talent (you used to be good at the piano, didn't you?) or take up something new (Swahili during the commute, perhaps?).  You spin, disoriented, wondering where you started, and whether it's still possible to find your way back, or if that's even what you'd want to do, anyway.

Have you ever been typecast?  Was it or is it for something you enjoyed?  Did you embrace the label or reject it?  How did it make you feel?

Sweet Potato Shepherd's Pie
Shepherd's pie is usually made with white potatoes, and usually involves ground lamb.  The original for this recipe originally had sausage, but I decided on beef and beans because we're having sausage later this week in soup.  And the apples and chard and nutty crunch are a welcome change from what you expect.

8 sweet medium sized potatoes
1 lb. ground beef
1 15 oz. can black beans, rinsed and drained
1/4 t. dried sage
4 apples, diced
1/2 onion, diced
1 bunch (4 c.) chopped swiss chard
salt & pepper to taste
5 T. butter
splash milk
1/4 cup toasted walnuts

Boil sweet potatoes until soft all the way through. Drain and return to pot. Add butter, splash of milk, and salt and pepper to taste. Feel free to add more or less milk depending on how you like it, or use olive oil instead of butter if you prefer the nutty taste. Beat until smooth then keep lid on to retain warmth.

Brown beef in a large skillet. When cooked through remove, reserving dripping in pan. Mix black beans in with the beef.

Add diced apples and onions to the sausage drippings. Cook until softened and onions are translucent. Add sage and stir until fragrant.  Remove and set aside.

Cook down Swiss chard in skillet (about 2-3 minutes).

In your pan of choice (I used a 9x13") layer meat and beans, apples and onions, Swiss chard then mashed sweet potatoes. Top with toasted walnuts.
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