Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Bystander Intervention, and the Comeback

(reposted in an expanded version from Facebook)

I don't usually stop at Starbucks in the morning.  I make my own coffee, and even when I buy coffee, I prefer to get it from an independent shop.  But 1) I had to go to the post office, which is near Starbucks; 2) I had a question about a package of coffee I'd bought; 3) it was St. Patrick's Day, and I thought maybe they'd have something interesting to drink.  I'd already finished caffeine round one, and my tumbler was empty.

After deciding that nothing new was particularly appealing, I ordered a boring skim latte, made pleasantries with the cashier, paid, and went to wait at the end of the counter.  Up strode a female customer who was clearly not happy.

Barista, getting to the counter as fast as he can (he walks slowly because of a health issue): "can I help you?"

Female customer, standing with hand on hip and making a pissed off face, waving her coffee: "yeah, this tastes like water." Throws cup across the counter.

Barista, remaining calm and cheerful: "sure, let me remake that for you. What did you have?"

Customer, sneering: "Caramel Machiatto."

Me, after the barista walks away, deciding I can't watch this silently, in as kind a voice as I can muster: "You know, you could try to be a little nicer. It's not the easiest job."

Customer, now sneering at me: "You could mind your own business."

Me, agreeing: "You're right, I could. But I didn't."

Customer shouting after me, as I'm walking out the store: "I'm going to be late for work because of this ... and by the way, get a sense of fashion."


I am walking down the street towards the office, holding my coffee, wondering if I care about the customer's desperate attempt at a barb.  I love the sweater I'm wearing.  It's my most comfortable sweater.  I bought it at Urban Outfitters, ridiculously on sale, and was proud of myself for shopping, for myself, on a whim, at a store where I don't usually shop.  My pants are a hair too tight because it's winter, but you can't see that because the sweater is like a tent.  My shirt, deep forest green, is my only homage to St. Patrick's Day, not counting the shamrock socks, which you can't see because they're hidden by the old black boots, heels worn past the sole, right down to the plastic.  The heels could be colored in Sharpie, but I don't bother.

In a moment of revelation, I decide that I don't care.  And it is incredibly liberating to realize that the stupid comeback doesn't bother me.  And that while I can have sympathy for that woman, who was clearly not a happy person that morning (or maybe even at all), we can't let people walk all over other people.  For any reason.

Later, one of my students runs into me near the dining hall.  "I just have to tell you," she says, grinning, "you are a rock star.

"Huh?" I say.

"I was there this morning.  At Starbucks."

"Ohhhhh," I say, laughing. "You were there?"

She recounts the story for the people waiting in the lobby, and turns to me.  "And I thought, 'I want to be more like that.'"

I couldn't ask for a higher compliment.

But I am not a perfect person, and I also know that there are times when I should have spoken up, and didn't.


That was going to be the end of my story, but just this afternoon, I learned that in the early morning hours of March 18 (today, for those of you counting), a young black man, a junior at the University of Virginia, an Honor Committee student, a leader on campus with no criminal record, was beaten by police, requiring ten stitches to his head, when he tried to enter a bar. 

I don't care if he was presenting false ID.  There's no reason for what happened to him.

I am not going to equate standing up for a barista at Starbucks with refusing to be a bystander to racism, with questioning white privilege and doing something to level the playing field.  It is easier to say something when the stakes are lower, when all you have to worry about is someone critiquing your fashion sense.

But I want us to ask ourselves: how can we be bystanders, when injustice (both larger issues of racism and the smaller microaggressions that belie racist, classist, sexist attitudes) is not in our back yards, but on our front doorsteps?  And in the places we call home?
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Saturday, March 14, 2015


Last night, as the kids ate dumplings and sushi and sate (ordered in) at the kitchen counter, because my husband was away at the NJ Regional Science Fair, I told them that today was going to be Pi Day.  We would have pie for breakfast, and pie for dinner, and maybe even pie for lunch.  Because: pie.  Do you really need an excuse?

via flickr user Alex Cockroach under Creative Commons license
We have a whiteboard in our kitchen, mostly where we hang the calendar (now that refrigerators are no longer magnetic) and where I write down the menu for the week, but also where we scribble math problems and words and diagrams when we're trying to explain something.  My son and husband in particular love this, and will leave their problems up on the board until the dry erase marker becomes part of the whiteboard, and I have to scrub the thing with alcohol.  (Type A, remember?)  But I confess, it does come in pretty handy.

I asked my son if he knew what pi was.  He said yes, it was a number.  I agreed that was partially right, but that it was even more magical than that.  I drew a circle, and he correctly identified both the circumference and the diameter (things I don't know if I knew when I was in third grade); I explained the pi was the ratio of the circle's circumference to its diameter ... that no matter how big or how small the circle was, you'd always get the same number, and that it goes on forever without an identifiable repeating pattern in the decimal: irrational and transcendental.  Pi helps us to describe every process, every cycle that repeats.  Pi explains waves.  Pi is the universe sticking its tongue out at us, refusing to be calculated in some way that we can pin down, but also bringing us ever closer to its understanding.

"Isn't that cool?" I said, waving my marker.

"Whoa, cool," agreed I. and N.

I wouldn't consider myself a math geek.  But pi reminds me that math is pretty amazing, that part of its beauty lies in its enigmatic nature.  I hope that I can instill some of that wonder in my kids, even if I've used it as an excuse to eat pi, or pie, for breakfast.

What's your favorite pie?  Are you a math geek?
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Monday, March 9, 2015

#Microblog Monday: Read to Me

(technically posted on Tuesday, I guess.)

This weekend, during a long drive (you'll just have to wait to find out where I went!), I listened to what I think may have been my first audiobook.

I belong to a book discussion group that reads one book a month together, and I've always read the book, scanned the physical pages, even brought it with me to meetings for reference.  I think I may have read a book on the Kindle just once; I just prefer the feel and smell of paper, being able to flip back and forth, scanning the pages for a word or a passage.  Other people in the group, people who are frequent flyers and commuters, listen to audiobooks regularly.  I just didn't think it was for me.

But the person in charge of our choice for this month picked Faulker's As I Lay Dying, and though I bought the paper copy too (somehow, I seemed not to have a copy any more, though I'm sure I read it in high school), thinking about my drive, on a whim, I downloaded the book from Audible.

I don't know if it would work as well with all books, but something about this one--between the cast of characters and frequent switch of narrators, and the poetic language that the characters use--it was absolutely the right choice.  I don't remember enjoying--or understanding--Faulkner nearly as much on the printer page as I have as it has been read to me.  Suddenly the poetry of the language became more evident than before, the pauses and ellipses more pregnant and meaningful.

On the way home from work I caught a story on NPR about audiobooks: about authors who now write for the ear, rather than the eye.   We like the intimacy of a private performance, the publishers say.  But it's something deeper, too.  After all, stories began in oral tradition.  Why wouldn't we be pulled back to our origins by the very technology that divides us from the past?

I used to read to my son every night, until he decided that he could read faster on his own than I could read to him.  Now, I read to my daughter, and sometimes, my son still wanders in, though the books are far beneath him, to listen to the story, to laugh at the voices, to cuddle with us.  He leaves reluctantly to brush his teeth, hangs around the doorway, still listening.  When I turn the light out, my daughter asks me to tell her another, to fabricate something out of the darkness.  Sometimes, I ask her to tell me one, too.  There's just something about the sound of a good story.

Do you listen to audiobooks?  Do you still read aloud?


Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is?Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.
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Sunday, March 8, 2015

Not There: On International Women's Day

Maybe I'd been living under a rock, but I'm pretty certain that the first time I heard about International Women's Day in my 30s, I thought it was an Australian thing.

No one had ever celebrated International Women's Day in my house when I was growing up, nor did anyone mention it in school.  Sure, we had Women's History Month, during which there was some discussion of Florence Nightengale and Marie Curie and Louisa May Alcott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (eventually Sally Ride made it into the top 10, too, and we had Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks for "color" when someone finally realized that our version of Women's History Month wasn't exactly inclusive).

Even now, despite the social media campaign, it doesn't seem to me that we celebrate International Women's Day in the U.S. in as public a way as some other countries do.  Which is really too bad, considering what a mess of a holiday Mother's Day has become.  Socialist origins aside, IWD is an important opportunity to remember that we still have a lot of work to do, at home and abroad.

Like: for all of our demands to #BringBackOurGirls, there are still 230 missing.  If we really felt that they were "ours," why has our outrage or willingness to act subsided?  Like: the recently banned documentary about sexual violence in India, which is now available, thanks to the BBC.  If we don't live that experience, what do we do with information like that, beyond being voyeurs, safe behind computer screens?  Like: a recent U.N. report found that 70% of the poor are women, that one in three women is a victim of sexual or physical violence and the majority of rapes are either never reported or under-punished and that statistics are even worse for women of color, who are disproportionally victims of sexual violence, more often at the hand of white males.  What are we doing about this?  Even the U.S., seen internationally as a leader in gender equality, ranks 17th in the World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Report, and in many states, our reproductive rights are under attack.

Want to celebrate Interational Women's Day?  Here are a few suggestions:
  • Be a local activist.  Are there women in your community who are abused, who don't have enough to eat?  Find a women's shelter.  A women's support network.  Don't just write a check.  Listen to the stories of a diverse group of women.  Understand that inequality and abuse are not a third world problem.
  • Speak up for women you see being harassed.  Microaggressions happen everywhere.
  • Mentor another woman. Do you have a talent to share?  A network?  Are you an entrepreneur?  Help another woman to start a business, get a (better) job, get a (better) education.
  • Celebrate women who call out injustices.
  • Be an activist on a broader scale, domestically or internationally.  Write to your policymakers about "women's issues," and help them to realize that women's issues are everyone's issues. Beyond the personal effects of trauma, violence against women, lack of adequate child care, poor health care for women, and other issues traditionally seen as "women's issues" have a huge impact on international economies.
  • Celebrate the diversity of women's experiences.  Know that not all women are mothers.  Realize that well-intentioned and brave as it was, Patricia Arquette's Oscar acceptance comments about women fell short.  Recognize and own privilege, and realize when the dominant narrative is merely that: dominant, not all-inclusive.  See out other perspectives.  Support other ways of being woman in the world.
  • And celebrate the women in your life who have helped you to become the person you are.
  • Follow the 31 day action calendar at to find one thing you can do each day in March.  Create a habit of gender mindfulness.
What did you do for International Women's Day?
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Monday, March 2, 2015

#Microblog Monday: I've Got a Little List

"I had all sorts of ideas for next year on the way in this morning," I said.

"Well, I want to hear them while they're still fresh," he assured me.

And of course, by the time he sat down in my office just a few hours later, all of the ideas seemed stale, or wilted, or just plain ... well, half-baked.  I read them anyway, and he made kind approving noises.  Because that's the sort of person he is.

"I made a list last year," I said, "and I did everything on it."

"Really?" he said, laughing.  "Wait, let me see that."  He peered at it over the tops of his glasses, amused.

"That doesn't cover everything I did, though."

"I know it doesn't."  He's still looking at it, my list with tea stains on it, perhaps a little impressed less with the list itself than with the fact that I'd even keep such a document, given that I have almost no paper on my desk.  He's the save-er in our office; I'm the Queen of Purge.  "We should send this in for your performance appraisal."

It occurred to me that even if the list didn't have very important or large things on it, I was impressed, too.  I hadn't realized that I had such power.

I wonder, what would I be capable of doing if I simply put it on my to-do list for next year?

Learn to speak another language?

Go to yoga once a week?

Write a novel?

Does my goal-orientation only apply at work?

Do you have a little list?*

(with apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan, whose Lord High Executioner has a very different sort of list.  I couldn't help it; the song planted itself in my head as soon as I started thinking about lists.  I played Katisha in my 7th grade production of the Mikado, and I haven't yet successfully erased the libretto from my memory.)


Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is? Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.
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Friday, February 27, 2015

Tea with Strangers, and Gluten Free Morning Glory Muffins

I may have been socialized to tea by the center cabinet in my mother's kitchen, right next to the window, which always always smelled of dry goods, and contained peanut butter, measuring cups, a bag of rice, and a wide selection of Lipton and Celestial Seasonings teas.

I don't know why my mother drank tea--I suspect it was a combination of attempts at dieting, and wanting hot liquid that wasn't coffee (she was sensitive to caffeine)--but I always felt a little sophisticated when she'd make a cup for me, or better yet, when I'd make a cup for myself.  Maybe it was good marketing in those Good Housekeeping magazines that I'd flip through when my mother wasn't looking, trying to understand her.

Tea, however, didn't strike me as a particularly social occasion until I started reading British literature, anyway, and learned that it came with cakes, and crumpets, and conversation, and convention.  I was sold.  I began to swill Earl Grey, which my English teachers brewed in a great pot in the morning if we slept over, and sweetened liberally, or doused with milk.  I loved the heady floral scent.  One year, I took my mother to high tea at the Plaza in New York as a Christmas gift.  I must have been a freshman in high school.  The gift was at least partially selfish, I'm sure.

Somewhere in graduate school, I stopped drinking tea, and started drinking coffee.  Which--let's be honest--has different connotation, doesn't it?  We drink on our own, dashing out the door, and I'll wager that when you invite someone for coffee, you meet with an agenda.  You have things to accomplish, whether you admit it or not; you simply suggest that the business you conduct will take slightly longer than usual, may be a bit more collaborative, and may be handled a bit more delicately than you might in a conference room.  Case in point: my current job is the result of a series of highly caffeinated conversations.  (For the record: tea ordered in a coffee shop as part of an invitation to "coffee" counts as coffee, not tea.)

Tea, on the other hand, involves commiseration, empathy, intimacy, and trust.  An invitation to tea sends a different message, suggests that you might linger.  You may accomplish things over tea, but only in a rather desultory, meandering way.  It may take several cups to arrive at your destination, if indeed you arrive at all.  (I remember reading Three Cups of Tea, thinking that it was a poorly titled book.)

So I was pleased to learn that some of our students have decided to host a site for Tea with Strangers.  The premise is simple: you sign up, you show up, you have a two hour conversation over tea, you meet someone (or a few people) you likely may never have met.  You probably end up talking about more than the weather.  For a generation who lives on their devices at arms length from each other, it's a huge risk.  Sort of like a blind date, but without the safety of a movie or your plate to retreat.

I made these muffins a while ago for some people I don't know all that well.  (And photographed them in the basket my colleagues gave me for my birthday.)  They're delicately-flavored enough that coffee would overpower them completely.  But they would go very well with tea.

Who will you invite to join you?

Gluten Free Morning Glory Muffins

1/2 c. raisins
1 c. King Arthur Gluten-Free Multi-Purpose Flour
1/2 c. brown sugar
1 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. ginger
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. xanthan gum
1/4 t. salt
1 c. peeled, grated carrots
1/2 c. grated apple (about 1/2 of a large apple) or1/2 c. drained crushed pineapple
1/2 c. grated coconut, sweetened or unsweetened
1/2 c. chopped walnuts
2 large eggs
1/3 c. vegetable oil
1 t.  vanilla extract
2 T. water

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly grease 10 cups of a 12-cup muffin pan, or line with 10 muffin papers.

In a small bowl, cover the raisins with hot water and set aside to plump.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, baking soda, xanthan gum and salt.  Stir in the carrots, apple or pineapple, coconut and nuts.  

In a separate bowl, beat together the eggs, oil, vanilla and water. Add to the flour mixture and stir until evenly moistened. Drain the raisins and stir them in.

Scoop the batter into the prepared wells. Don't worry if they're nearly full. 
Bake for 25 to 28 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of one muffin comes out clean.
Remove the muffins from the oven and, after 5 minutes, transfer them to a rack to cool.
Wrap any leftovers airtight and store at room temperature for several days; freeze for longer storage.
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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

In the Time of the Butterflies

We huddled together on the platform, waiting in the relentless wind, as the dark-clad scarf-wrapped crowd swelled, gradual, silent.  Shifting their feet.  We could see only their eyes.

My daughter whined softly, nesting closer, asking when the train would come.  I told her again that we would have to be patient, that all of these people were waiting, too, that the train would come, that it would be warm.  My son leaned over the tracks, peering down the tunnel, looking for the lights, stamping his feet to keep from freezing.

It seemed like hours, even for me.

Finally, the train rattled up, sounding as cold as we felt, and pshhhhhhh came to a stop, squealing a little as it did.  The crowd drew closer, gathering around the doors, which remained shut.  A tall woman in a light brown coat pushed past us, determined to be closest to the door, muttering that she wasn't going to stand in the back.  I let her go, deciding that it was easier not to protest, but saying softly, so that my children could hear: "that wasn't necessary."  We all wanted a seat, but it was hard to be angry when my ears and fingertips felt numb.

I watched her lean impatiently from leg to leg, maybe feeling sorry for her.

"Why aren't the doors opening, mama?" asked my daughter, the words freezing and dropping to the ground as she spoke.

Hearing the small voice, the woman turned, backed up, gestured us forward.  "You go ahead," she said. "I didn't see you had the baby.  Go, it's okay."

"Oh, it's fine," I lied, holding my daughter to me, adjusting her Hello Kitty hat, making her look impossibly young, just because.

"No, no," she insisted, nudging us to the door.  "You should have a seat."

I thanked her, and moved closer to the door, which remained shut, looking at the empty seats inside and trying to imagine how warm it would be, if we ever got in.

At last, after several long moments of complete silence, the hydraulics hissed, and the doors tried to open, failed, tried again, and slid apart.  The crowd from the platform poured into the train as if a liquid, we at the front, oozing into the seats opposite the entryway.  The woman from the platform sat down next to us, realized that she'd had a seat, and said, by way of both apology and self-reassurance: "see that? We both got what we needed."

I nodded, pulling my legs in to make room for the man in the leg brace who declined my offer of a seat.

"And they wonder why I'm always late," she added, "they all live there, they don't know."

I nodded again, sympathetically, and looked away.  As we jerked forward, the kids commented on the scenery, on the fact that we were on a train, on anything that came to mind.  "She's cute," said the woman, now perhaps trying to strike up conversation.  She rummaged through her bag.  "Gotta put on my makeup," she said.  "Cause I didn't do it at home, and my boss makes us all wear it, you know," she trailed away, waving her hand dismissively, "fashion work."

"Mama," my daughter asked, watching all of this, fascinated, "what is she doing?"

"Makeup," the woman said, leaning in conspiratorially to tell her: "To make myself pretty.  You won't need any.  Not with those eyes."

"You're always pretty," my daughter replied, thoughtfully, as I'd taught her, "we're always pretty."

"Yes," I agreed, looking at the woman's slight age marks, her lovely nose, her dark eyes, her drawn caramel-colored skin with small brown pigment marks, to which she was now (unfortunately, in my opinion) applying a light powder, "she is pretty."  Because she was.

"I don't wear makeup at home," she said, "just for work.  I wouldn't do it if they didn't make me."

I wondered briefly where she worked, decided it was better not to know.

"What's your name," asked my daughter.  She does this to strangers routinely.

"Ima," said the woman.  "Can you say that?  Actually ..." she hesitated.  "Ima-coLAta.  Can you say that?  Ima-coLAta."  My daughter, under her breath, mouths this word, delighting the woman, who turns to me.  "Do you know what that means?" she asks.  "Immaculate.  I'm named after the Immaculate Conception.  Half Argentinian, half Italian."

My daughter, now mouthing the foreign word, begins thinking about other foreign words, starts to sing a counting song in Spanish, then "Una Paloma Blanca."  The woman closes her eyes.  "It's like a lullaby," she says. "You're going to put me to sleep."  She starts to line her eyes.  "Where are you going today?"

"The museum," my daughter tells her, unafraid of strangers.  "To see the butterflies."

"The butterflies," the woman responds, stopping.  "In the winter.  Yes, that will be nice, won't it.  To think about spring."

I think about the fact that we are going to spend more time on the train today than we are in the museum, wonder if my children know that this is an important part of the trip, not just the arrival, but the getting there.

"What's your favorite color?" my daughter asks.  This is another of her standard getting-to-know-you pick up lines.

"Well," woman says, thinking, "I wear a lot of black.  But I'm trying to break it up today with brown."  She looks down, fingering her coat.  "But you know," she says, pointing, "my favorite colors are really more like what you're wearing" -- she touches my daughter's bright jacket, a stand-out in the train full of dark blue and black -- "purple.  And your brother's, blue.  And your mama's is my son's favorite, orange.  He's an artist.  At Cooper.  He gets off where you will, at 9th street."

It's our stop.  Before we get off, the woman puts her arm on mine.  "Wait," she says.  "What are their names?"  I ask my daughter to answer the question, and the woman smiles.

"Goodbye, N. and I.," she says.  "Enjoy the butterflies."

You too, I think, pulling my children onto the platform.  You, too.
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