Tuesday, October 21, 2014

On Identity and Anonymity

"Hi, Justine," she called out to me as she crossed the servery.

I bit my tongue, wanting to say hello, not feeling completely certain that I knew her name, despite my efforts to remember them all.  We hadn't been introduced.  I'd tried to read her name tag countless times as she passed, without trying to seem like I was staring at her chest, and not her face.

I decided to embarrass myself.

"Tell me how to pronounce it again?" I asked.

She stopped, and covered her name tag with her hand.  "How do you think it's pronounced?"   She was baiting me, teasing me a little.  She didn't think I knew her name at all.

"V___," I guessed.  Hoping I was right.

She looked both pleased and astonished.  "Close enough," she congratulated me, nodding, "close enough."  The accent was in the wrong place, but the name was right.  Thank goodness.

I could be imagining things, but I could swear that she's smiled at me more often, and regularly calls me by my name now, which she knew without any tag required.


If there was one thing I learned from working at a large public university, it was the importance of knowing people's names.

In part, it started as a kind of parlor trick, maybe: my ability to match names and faces, to conjure last names when given first names, and vice versa.  It was fabulous at orientation, when we knew they were worrying about coming to a place where no one would ever know them, where they'd get lost.  But I quickly realized that if I knew students' names, they'd be more likely to trust me when things weren't going well.  Naming them, early on, without their prompting, meant that they mattered to me.  They were willing to be vulnerable, having established that small intimacy.


But naming is complicated, isn't it?  Because it's also possible to use someone's name to make them feel like we have power.  I bristle when people address me by my name in the middle of a conversation.  Naming me when we're already talking to each other in a dyad actually makes me feel like the other person knows me less well, not better.  Naming me several times in the course of our conversation makes me think they're either quite forgetful or trying to force intimacy on me that I probably don't want.  You're not going to sell me anything by using my name.

This complication always makes me feel a little uncomfortable in situations in which I know someone's name, but they don't know mine, particularly when the people in question are the ones who wear their names embroidered on their uniforms.  It's like built-in power for us.  We can be anonymous, but they have to have an identity.  Or, in some ways, their identity could just as well be anonymity: the nametag allows us to call them by name, and then to forget, because there is no need to remember.  All we need to do is refer to the nametag.  As if the remembering isn't important.


The master of our college prides himself on remembering students' names.  He is unusual in that sense: few people in his position make an effort to remember every student.  And they do fall more easily into conversation with him in the dining hall because he's broken the ice, because there's no need for introductions.  Or if there is, it's a hasty re-introduction.  But watching him, it's become clear to me that more than ever, so many of them need to know that you remember them not just because they are a matching face and name.  They quickly see past the parlor trick.  They yearn for something else.  They need recognition; they need relationship.  They want the I-Thou of Martin Buber.  And as good as we are at naming, unlike "friending," that takes time.  The name is really just the beginning.
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Monday, October 20, 2014

#Microblog Monday: True confessions

Even people who take pictures of food sometimes eat microwaved popcorn and peanut butter on a chopstick for dinner.

That would be what happens when your husband is away at a conference, you call the doctor and learn that there's been a cancellation and you could take your daughter to the flu clinic tonight at 6:30 and just get it over with, your son hasn't finished his homework in aftercare, and you have an hour in which to do everything before it's bedtime.*

This would be one of those times I think single parents must be heroic.

I'm pretty sure Sheryl Sandberg and Anne Marie Slaughter never eat popcorn or peanut butter on a chopstick for dinner.

(Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is? Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.)

*and thank goodness for a kind friend who is willing to rescue my daughter from day care well before closing time just in case something like a tractor trailer taking out a traffic light happens on the way home, like it did ...
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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

On Having Style, and Mediterranean Style Spaghetti Squash

Have you ever met anyone who can't hold a tune?

I happen to be married to one of those people, and I gave birth to another.  This came as some surprise to me, because I've been singing as long as I can remember, in more and less formal groups, and I never imagined that I'd have a child who can't sing.  (Which is not to say that she doesn't LIKE to sing.  She does, as loudly as we let her. Preferably "Let It Go" from Frozen.)

Neither husband nor child is tone-deaf; that term is reserved for the 10% of the population who really can't hear the difference between different tones (sort of like severe color-blindness), and as a result, often don't even like music because they can't tell what makes it special to everyone else.  They are what is referred to as "pitch challenged": they can hear pitch, but can't reproduce it.

I was thinking about this distinction the other day, rifling through my closet, wondering if I'd ever be able to teach myself style.

It's a lot like being pitch-challenged.  I know good style when I see it.  I can look in a J.Jill catalogue or a Pottery Barn catalogue, and think, yes, that's how I'd like to look, or how I'd like my kitchen/dining room/living room/whatever to look.  I can admire the elegance and coziness of other people's houses, or the drape of a high quality fabric on all sorts of body types.  But I feel like applying the principles of style I can observe and even describe is an entirely different matter.  In this case, I have semi-relative pitch, but it's not quite right.

Lots of things work this way, don't they?  People who know what good food tastes like, but can't manage to cook.  People who can appreciate fine art, but can't produce it (that's most of us, isn't it?).

I guess if I'm going to be saddled with any particular challenge, style isn't so bad.  I just need a personal shopper.  Or to come to terms with the fact that I'm going to end up au naturel whether I want to or not.

What's your challenge?  What can you recognize in others, but have difficulty replicating in yourself, even when you're making an effort to do so?  Style?  Pitch?  Something else entirely? 

Roasted Mediterranean Spaghetti Squash
This dish has no style.  At all.  It's not even remotely photogenic.  But it does taste pretty good.

1 spaghetti squash
1 T. + 2 t. olive oil
1 clove garlic
14 oz. can chickpeas
1/2 c. crushed tomatoes in puree
1/4 c. slivered almonds, toasted lightly
1/4 c. feta
handful of spinach

Preheat oven to 425.  Line a baking sheet with alumnium foil.  Halve squash, scoop out seeds, and brush lightly with 1 T. olive oil.  Place cut side down on prepared baking sheet and roast until browned on top and soft, about 45-55 minutes.  Remove from oven and cool for 5 minutes.

While the squash is cooling, heat the remaining 2 t. olive oil in a small saucepan.  Add garlic, saute until fragrant, and add crushed tomatoes, stirring until just warm. Add chickpeas and stir until warm.

Using a fork, remove the meat from the skin of the squash.  As you tug at it, it should come apart in strands, like spaghetti.

Toss squash with sauce, chickpeas, almonds, spinach, and feta, until spinach is just wilted.  Serve warm.
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Monday, October 13, 2014

#Microbolog Mondays: Happy Birthday (Again and Again)

I took my daughter to a birthday party at one of those bouncy house places this past weekend.  I always notice the staff at these events, and often make small talk with them about whether this job makes them think twice about parenting, but this time was a bit unusual; instead of the normal gaggle of teenage girls, the party was staffed entirely by guys: three big late-teenaged guys with pants hanging low, capturing flying pigtails and collisions on a digital camera for the birthday girl's parents and friends, muscling the party along like it was a birthday machine.

I wonder: what must it be like for a teenage boy to initiate "Happy Birthday" singing again and again for hours on end, making a fuss over other people's kids, cleaning up their half-eaten pizza and cake, wiping up spilled juice and lemonade?  (And yes, I know that for some teenage boys, this job is a perfect fit, but these guys didn't seem like they had a natural affiinity for four-year-olds.)

How many times in one day can you celebrate strangers' kids' birthdays before you start to go batshit crazy?

This post is a part of #Microblog Mondays. Whazzat? A post that is between 1 word to 8 sentences long. Head over to Stirrup Queens to join the fun. 
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Friday, October 10, 2014

What Do You Do?

What do you do when you're having a bad day she texted.  I took a nap but I don't feel much better.

I thought about it, knowing that she needed an answer, needed to know that I was out there.  I wanted to offer her something useful.  I wasn't sure if I had anything useful.  It wasn't so long ago that I would have asked that question, if I'd even been brave enough to ask that question.  Which I wasn't.

I take a walk, I suggested.  I take a deep breath.  I eat something I like.  Do something for someone else that makes them happy, which makes *me* happy.  Take pictures of things I find beautiful.  Write to a friend.  Write down what I feel, and either publish it on the internet or crumple it up and throw it away.  I listen to music that makes me feel better.  I listen to music that makes me feel worse, and then better.

I paused.  And then: What do *you* do?

Text you, she responded.  Maybe I'll try writing.

Later, I added: Maybe drink a cup of hot tea.  Something about inhaling the warm steam makes me feel better, too.

I'd always thought that I wasn't very good at mindfulness, but in that moment, looking at that list, I realized that I've gotten very good at it after all.


She'd asked me, the other day, what I like to do, too.  "Yoga, dance, baking, cooking, writing ..." It sounded like a very housewife-like answer.

"What do you write?"

"Well, I used to write poetry ... I'm not very good at fiction.  Now I write ... life essays, I guess."  I didn't want to tell her I blog.  It's too easy to find me.  If she wanted to, she would.

"Life essays."  A curious half-smile.

"It's sort of like ... it's like what you like about science research.  You like to look at small things under a microscope, and figure out how life works.  I take small things, make them larger with language, and try to figure out how they work."

I'd never thought about it that way before, but as soon as I said it, I knew it was true.


Later, I pulled up at the farm to pick up my share.  When I got out, I took a deep breath, and felt my whole body relax into the dusk.  I took out my phone, almost sent her a picture.  And this, I would say.  I do this

But even if I wanted her to feel the weight drop away, as I just had, it wouldn't have been useful advice. This wasn't something she could do.  I couldn't send her the crisp air, or the sweet smell of hay, or the chill dusk that crept over the fields.

Instead, I'm sending it to you.  Through my mindful magnifying glass.

What do you do when you're having a bad day?
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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Passport Control and Mojito Chicken Salad

My passport is about to expire.

Not that I'm going anywhere exotic in the near future (unless you count Disney, for Thanksgiving ... and yes, that's a story worthy of its own post, I suppose), but still, it's useful to have an unexpired passport.  And having one makes me think that some day, I'll get to travel again like I used to do, only this time with extremely cooperative children in tow.

I was pleased to discover that the renewal process was pretty easy for someone with unexpired documents; all I have to do is fill out a form online, and send in the form with my old passport and a photo.

I consider myself adept at Photoshop, so I probably could have found a picture of myself to adjust appropriately (they have some bizarre rules about how large your face needs to be within the two inch square of the photo), but I thought it would be even easier just to let someone else take care of it, so I didn't have to worry about finding an appropriately expressionless specimen.  So I went to CVS.  'Cause, yeah.  Drugstore photo center.

The CVS near campus is abuzz with undergraduate and faculty activity during the day.  We don't have a grocery store nearby, so they might as well be one, minus the produce.  I tried to be inconspicuous, leaning across the counter to ask the clerk whether they take passport photos, but "YEP, WE DO!" she cheered, pulling down a white screen from the ceiling with a flourish. Voila!  Passport photo studio.  I spotted one of my students looking away as she skirted down the cold remedy aisle, trying to offer me some privacy.

Some people hate having their pictures taken.  I don't actually hate it; it just makes me conscious of my crooked eyebrows and slightly uneven eyelids, which still stand as testament to the stitches I got in the fourth grade, when Richie Gustafson slammed a frisbee-filled fist into my glasses and then into my face during a frisbee football game.  But this?  Something about this felt different.

I removed my glasses (an unusual accessory for me, since I prefer to wear contact lenses), my earrings, and my scarf, and squinted at where I thought the lens might be, since I couldn't actually see it.  I ran my fingers through my hair and hoped for the best.  Click, click; and then it was over.  I donned my glasses again as she removed the memory card, put it in the photo machine, and pulled up the pictures so I could see them while they printed. My student came back down the aisle shifting from one foot to the other while the clerk rummaged behind the desk for the next step in the process.

I found myself staring into the screen at a not-very-flattering picture of middle age: colorless lips, greying frizzed hair, dark rings under my eyes, a wan look in the fluorescent drugstore light. It was like looking into a time machine.  Only the future was now.  "Do I really look like that?" I asked the clerk, feeling like a character in a Richard Russo novel.  Maybe it was my glasses?  Not enough time for my skin to tighten up in the morning?

She ignored me, going cheerfully about her business, insistent on punching out the pictures with her special two-inch puncher, despite my assurances that I was quite capable of cutting them out myself.

At last she was done making cheery small talk, and as she started to ring up my student's order, I tucked my alter ego safely into an envelope under my arm and ducked back out into the street.  Questionable accuracy of drugstore photos aside, I've noticed, lately, that despite my best intentions about diet and exercise, my body is changing shape, too: softening, sporting bulges and bumps in new places, redistributing itself.  Things that I pretended fit, once upon a time, now simply don't.  Someone told me that I should anticipate all this when I turned 40, and perhaps I did, but not really, after all.

Because honestly, that's one leg of the journey I don't think I'm quite ready for just yet, even if I do have a valid passport in hand.

Mojito Chicken Salad
adapted from The Wholesome Dish . One of the places I've always wanted to go is Cuba, where my father spent many years of his life teaching.  He never would have eaten this, but I can imagine him kicking back with a mojito on a humid Caribbean afternoon.

1/2 c. non-fat, plain Greek yogurt
1/4 c. mayonnaise
1/4 c. honey
2 T. minced fresh mint leaves
1 T. lime juice
2 t. lime zest
1/2 t. salt
4 c. shredded (or chopped) cooked chicken breast (about 1 ½ lb.)
1/2 medium red onion, chopped
3 large celery stalks, diced

In a medium bowl, whisk together the Greek yogurt, mayonnaise, honey, mint, lime juice, zest, and salt.  Cover and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Combine the chicken, red onion, and celery in a large bowl.  Toss together with mojito dressing, and serve cold on a bed of lettuce.

Pretend you're in Cuba.
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Thursday, October 2, 2014

On Getting Started

He looked miserably at the blank piece of paper in front of him.  It was even worse than it could have been, since he'd left the assignment paper at school; that, at least, had the question written on it.  This had nothing but faint blue lines, in college rule.

"I don't know what to write," he moaned, head in his hands.  Granted, an essay about how you plan to make your mark on the world is a pretty tall order for an eight year old.  Still.

"Pull yourself together," I said, uncharitably, knowing exactly how he felt.  He blew his nose and sniffled.  "Now: write the word ... tomato," I commanded.


"Tomato.  Don't look at me like that; just write it."

He demurred, scribbling the word, and then looked up.  "Why?"

"Now it's no longer a blank empty page," I told him.  "And whatever you write?  Is going to be more relevant and intelligent than the word tomato."

"That's true," he agreed, sucking his fang-like front teeth thoughtfully.

For the next half hour, we worked on a mind map: we wrote his question in the middle, and drew fractal-like arms radiating out from the center in stream-of-consciousness.  He grinned, thoroughly enjoying himself, and retreated to the back room, where he developed drafts "Tomato 2," "Tomato 3," and "Tomato 4."  I remembered what I liked about teaching writing.

By the end of it, he had an essay that hung together, that was mostly on topic, and that didn't say what I wanted it to say, but what he wanted to say.

I should follow my own advice more often.

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