Monday, August 26, 2013

On (Not) Reading Carefully, and Cauliflower Soup

Long ago, I learned to tune out the talk about the demise of the humanities.  As a former English major, I couldn't help but feel like that rhetoric was a personal attack on the thing I loved best.  And while I could take the jokes from Prairie Home Companion, it was too hard to watch departments close because someone deemed them irrelevant.

And that was pretty much how it went, until the other day, when I found myself reading Jjiraffe's post about internet hoaxes, which also cited Mel's post over at BlogHer about the behavior of readers in the face of suspicious information, or moving on after a hoax has gone viral.  Both posts pose important questions about our responsibilities as writers, and even about our responsibility to behave well as readers in an online community.  But they got me thinking about what happens even before then, how we learn to read, and about the act of reading itself, about what we expect from the printed word now, whether on paper or on the screen.

Though I had a solid high school education, it wasn't until I got to college that I was systematically asked to be skeptical about information.  As far as I knew, even in high school, history was still history: sure, there were some people who were left out, but that didn't make the details any less true.  In college, though, I started to appreciate, more deeply, exactly what it meant to read critically.  I remember feeling a little overwhelmed by the responsibility.

Now, well-indoctrinated in the process of peer review, I'm a more expert judge of information quality.  While I google as well as the next person, and I don't always use google Scholar, I tend to have excellent querying techniques that get me reliable results.  I know how to quickly identify the relevant information, and separate the wheat from the chaff.

I remember the first time I had to tell a student that not everything he found on the internet was true.  He blinked, eyes wide, deer in the headlights, in disbelief.  Really?  He had to sift through this information?  And go on ... gut feeling?

Not really, I assured him then; there are standards.  But in the blogging world, the standards are pretty unstandard.

And blogs are just about ground zero for the humanities now.  Because the humanities are the study of our humanity in the making, aren't they?  How we decide to tell the stories of ourselves, our communities, our histories?  How do we process and document the human experience?  If you think about sheer numbers, it seems to me that there are more people creating these kinds of texts about lived human experience--publicly, at any rate--now than at any moment in history.

Which is exactly why we need the humanities in the first place.

The humanities teach us to read.  They teach us to read first in the literal way: the words on the page become stories, and the stories become books, and the books become chapter books, and then they become academic treatises.  But they also teach us to read other people.  To ask questions about narrators, and writing intention.  To put ourselves in the shoes of other characters, and also to put ourselves in the shoes of authors and figure out what that means.  To know that memoir and history are lenses through which we come up with our truths.  To play with the tools of language, and recognize someone else at play.  To be analytical and critical, but also to develop deep empathy and understanding.

Yes, it's reprehensible that people--bloggers--prey upon less careful readers.  Yes, it's terrible that people are exploited so that someone else can make a quick buck, or a quick reputation (which, these days, might as well be a buck anyway).  Yes, we ought to know when to click away.  But in order to make that click, we--ALL of us--engineers, historians, doctors, teachers, lawyers, economists, parents, consumers--need to know how to be careful readers.  Of everything, and everyone.  Because you can't do much science--or anything else, for that matter--if you can't really read.  And if that's not worth my education tax dollars, I don't know what is.

Cauliflower Soup
Adapted slightly from Super Natural Every Day
Even cookbooks need reading.  Like anything else, the thoughtful, critical reading of a recipe, and its re-interpretation in your own kitchen, makes it partly yours, too.  Thanks, Heidi, for an eminently readable text.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
1/2 t. salt
1 large potato, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 1/2 cups vegetable broth
14 ounces cauliflower, cut into small florets
1/4 c. white cheddar cheese, preferably sharp, grated
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/4 c. almonds, chopped and toasted

Heat the oil in a large soup pot over medium-high heat. Stir in the onion and salt. Saute until the onions soften and are starting to turn translucent, about 4 minutes.

Stir in the potato, cover, and cook for about another 4 minutes, or until potato begins to soften. Stir in the garlic, and after about 30 seconds or when it becomes fragrant, add in the broth. Bring to a boil, while allowing the potatoes to become tender, a few more minutes.

Once they are tender, add the cauliflower and continue to simmer, covered, for an additional 4 or 5 minutes, until the cauliflower is tender. Remove the pot from heat and puree the soup. If you have one of those fancy immersion blenders, this would be the time to use it. Return the soup to the saucepan and stir in about half the cheese, and the two teaspoons mustard. Add more broth if you want to thin the soup at all. Serve, sprinkling each bowl with a handful of toasted almonds.
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Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Quantification of the Self, and Eggplant Curry

I was given a FitBit, courtesy of Best Buy, for running the BlogHer 5K this year.  Lest you call me a hypocrite, let me be clear: I would have run the 5K even without the promise of swag. I was going to get out for some exercise that morning anyway, and put my re-sprained ankle to its first test.  But the FitBit did make getting out of bed at 5:30 a little easier.  And I've been wearing it ever since.  Somewhere, the leadership team of FitBit (which, by the way, has only one woman on it) is rubbing their hands together, cackling, "EXcellent."

True confessions: this isn't the first time I've owned one.  My first FitBit is probably buried somewhere in the Technology Drawer (which is a fancy name for the tangled mess of thumb drives, chargers, and connective wires necessary for all of our electronic devices -- the futuristic version of my mother's Junk Drawer).  My husband and I each had one, gifts from his company, which we wore religiously; he and I competed to climb the most stairs, to walk the most steps, and to grow the tallest flower on the tiny FitBit screen.  Come to think of it, I don't think he was competing with me.  But at the time, that was irrelevant.

One day, I guess I forgot to put it back on.  Or maybe I got frustrated and fired it.  So did my husband.  And you know how it goes.  Miss a day, miss two days, and your FitBit dies a quiet death in the Technology Drawer.

This time, I'm the only one with the device, and I thought perhaps it wouldn't hold such power over me.  But I check it, tap it, intentionally take the stairs even when I'm wearing less sensible shoes, partly because I know it's counting.  And I know that I am not alone in this behavior.

We quantify ourselves in countless ways.  If you don't have a FitBit, you have an iPhone app that tracks exercise and nutrition.  Or you look at your blog stats.  Or your grades in school.  Or the number of Twitter followers you have.  Or the number of Facebook friends you've accumulated.  Or shares of your social media posts.  If you're feeling lazy, you let Klout do it for you, and though you complain about how irrelevant Klout is, you check it anyway when it sends you email about your declining score.  There is, I discovered, even a Quantified Self movement and global conference: people out there dedicated to the cause of defining ourselves by the numbers (the Measured Me site is a notable example, in which the subject is quantifying even his happiness).  Assessment is the watchword of educational institutions.  We are all counting, and accounted for, especially in a competitive environment.

I was a qualitative researcher in grad school.  I did my time in quantitative fields: an English major, I still managed to get through Calc II and Linear Algebra; I aced programming and discrete structures; I passed my quantitative methods courses with flying colors.  But I always felt like there was more to the issues than numbers, and I was relieved to discover that I could still write a respectable (in fact, award-winning!) dissertation without statistics.

It's like achieving balance in the kitchen.  Baking is a quantitative pursuit.  You can fool around with amounts of fat and flour and sugar and leavening agent, but if you fool around too much, you will guarantee yourself some flat, or mushy, or otherwise undesirable cupcakes.  So, provided you like cupcakes, quantitative work in the kitchen is important.  But if you eat only cupcakes, you're going to get sick.  Cooking things like curry or soup or stir fry, on the other hand, is qualitative.  You add some of this, and some of that, and sub in something else that you prefer, you taste it off, and voila! you have dinner.  Which is, in the end, probably better for you than cupcakes.  Unless you're Julia Child, and you're making a roux or a souffle, in which case, you're counting, but you might as well add more butter and call it a day.

The bottom line is: we need both qualitative and quantitative measures of the self.  While some measurement is important, we are not merely the sum of numbers on a FitBit, or our social media reach, or grades, or the salary we make.  It's easy to forget that, given the emphasis we place on quantifying success (see Arianna Huffington's conference on the Third Metric).  But every once in a while, it might do us good to fire the FitBit.  Even if it means that occasionally, we end up taking the elevator.

Do you quantify yourself?  What are your reactions to the Quantified Self movement?

Eggplant Curry
Play around with this.  The second time I made it, I tossed in two handfuls of green beans instead of one of the peppers.  Add a few more tomatoes.  Vary the salt.  Whatever you do, enjoy it.

3 Japanese eggplants cut into rounds or 1 medium eggplant, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 large onion, diced
4-5 medium Roma tomatoes, diced
2 T. coconut oil
1 t. cumin seeds
2 T, ginger, grated
1/8 t. turmeric powder
3/4 t. garam masala
salt to taste
1 c. coconut milk

Heat oil in a heavy stock pot. Add cumin seeds; when the seeds begin to crackle, add onion and saute until it is transparent.  Add ginger, turmeric powder and garam masala and stir for a few seconds.

Add tomatoes and stir and allow to cook until soft and mushy.

Add peppers, eggplant, and salt to taste and mix well.  Cover and allow the bell pepper and eggplant to cook on medium low heat, checking regularly to stir, making sure that there is enough liquid in the bottom of the pan, and adding a splash of water if it's too dry.

When the vegetables are soft, add coconut milk, a little at a time, and stir gently over low heat (do not boil).

Serve with rice. Or whatever strikes your fancy.
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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Supposed Tos, and Roasted Potatoes and Green Beans

I don't generally sign up for inspirational email.  In fact, I don't generally opt in to anything that will come regularly to my inbox which doesn't have direct relevance for me professionally.  But a while ago, a friend introduced me to TUT's Note from the Universe.  They were different enough, quirky enough that my interest was piqued.  And I subscribed.  Now, I'm often surprised at how apropos the messages are.  This was my message the other day:
No more "supposed tos," OK, Justine?

You're not
supposed to work harder, look better, sleep less, sell more, run faster, talk slower, be happier, stay longer, leave earlier, cook, clean, negotiate, settle, start, stop, move, try, win, shake, rattle or roll.

Other people made all that up.

    The Universe 
How many times do I make this my mantra?  I should blog more.  I should be happier.  I should be posting beautiful new photographs of food every day.  But how realistic is that, given that I now commute for almost two hours, that I do laundry every night, that I sometimes bring work home, that I'm trying to comment often on friends' blogs, that I have two children that need my attention?

It's not.

I'm not another blogger.  I'm not another working parent.  I'm not another runner or yogini.  And right now I'm not capable of coming up with new photogenic recipes.  Publishing fabulously deep blog posts every day, or even several times a week.  Leaving earlier.

Other people made that all up.

So what am I doing listening to other people?  To popular media, to Sheryl Sandberg, to other bloggers, to the more critical voices from my past?  Who don't have any basis for their claims on my behavior, my appearance, my anything?

I ran into someone we know from town today at the car show, and she was talking about her artwork winning an award at an art show.  Immediately, I caught myself.  Well, she's an artist.  She actually works at her craft.  You don't work at yours.  So how do you ever expect to win an award or get published?

Those voices get internalized pretty deeply, so that at some level, we forget that they are other people's voices, and start to think that they're our own.  Maybe, eventually, they become our own.

Realism.  This is my life the way it is right now.  All I can do is trust that I'm doing things the best way I can do them ... which is the way I've done them--at least in my own opinion--my whole life.  And remind myself when I can that there's nothing else I'm supposed to be doing, and nohow else I'm supposed to be.  Except who, and what, and where I am.

Do you have "supposed tos"?  Where did they come from?  How do you tune them out?

Roasted Potatoes and Green Beans
This is what I did with the beans and potatoes from last weeks' CSA share.  It wasn't fancy, but it was dinner.  And if you put enough garlic and salt on pretty much anything, you'll be OK.

1.5 lb. baby potatoes
1 T. olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
2 cloves garlic, minced (optional)
1 quart green beans, trimmed and halved

Preheat the oven to 450F.  Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and place it in the oven to preheat.

Toss potatoes with 1 T. olive oil, then season with salt and pepper; transfer potatoes to preheated baking sheet and roast for 15 minutes.

Toss the green beans with garlic, season with more salt and pepper. Add to the baking sheet with the potatoes.

Roast for 10 more minutes.
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Friday, August 2, 2013

Thoughts On Free Stuff (and Potato Cakes)

On the way home last night, I found myself listening to an NPR story about foraging.  I'm no stranger to the concept; I know that NPR has done reporting on it before, and I've read about it in magazines and online.  Last year, our town had a "free market" that offered goods and services, gratis, and included a small food table with delicacies made from foraged ingredients.

Foraging is sort of a contested practice.  Foragers argue that they don't eat anything that anyone else would want.  They find edible weeds in the grass, they pluck mushrooms, they pick fruit that goes unpicked by fruit tree owners who have no time to care for trees, they make pesto from stinging nettles, and they even (sometimes, though I find this utterly repulsive) eat squirrels.  The people who are trying to end the foraging movement say that foragers are vandals, thieves, and worse.

Talking with some experts, the NPR correspondent discussed the ways in which foragers in parks have actually become caretakers of their environment, and how foraging seems to make people more appreciative of what we often pass by without a second glance.  The story suggested that there might even be ways for foragers to work in the service of parks, educating people about the natural world.

I haven't ever gone hunting for my supper, and I'm unlikely to do so any time soon, much as I prefer to make my food from scratch rather than purchase it in packages or from take-out.  But the story about foraging resonated with me today because of a discussion I've been having with some other bloggers about the things that are free.

This past weekend, I attended BlogHer.  While there have been lots of great follow-up posts about networking and conference learning, there has also been a lot of controversy this year about the parties that happen on the periphery of the event, a phenomenon that's referred to as "outboarding."  Several conference attendees got their conference passes revoked for hosting these parties.

I attended one of these parties this year.   I confess, I was curious; I remembered watching people walk out of the hotel with bags full of swag--the likes of which I hadn't seen at the Expo, where my biggest score was a water bottle--and felt a little left out, like people had gone to a birthday party where everyone got presents, and not invited me.  Some of these bloggers were obviously going to these parties to connect with brands in a meaningful way as an extension of their conference experience, but many of them, it seemed, were going to collect free stuff. I remember feeling astonished that people could go to BlogHer and never see the inside of a single conference breakout session.  It smacked of middle school, and I hated middle school.  Still, when I was offered a ticket by a generous blogging friend who wasn't going to be able to get to Chicago, I jumped at the chance to hang with the "cool kids."

Except I also felt a little awkward about it from the beginning.  Now was one of the people who was the "insider," the one who had access to the cool free stuff that other people would covet.  I knew one person who was going to go to the party, and many other people who weren't.  I was participating in the anti-BlogHer, the exclusive un-conference.  And--in case you couldn't tell from the lack of advertisements here--I don't care much about brands.  It so happens that the party I attended didn't conflict directly with any of the official conference sessions, but that made it even more awkward, in some ways.  When I ran into people who asked me if I had plans for that night, I said, vaguely, "oh, I'm going to a thing."

A thing?

Most people I'd seen online flaunted their invitations, dropping party names like celebrities.  Why wasn't I doing that, too?

And I began to think more about what "free" really meant in that context.  I wasn't going to the party for the swag, but I was going to do something that didn't jive exactly with my values, the ones that Jory and Elisa and Lisa hold dear, too: the values of inclusivity.  Why couldn't those vendors and brands be part of the Expo?  Was the price of attendance compromising my values a little?

What do we give up in order to attend these parties?  Are we just lured by the swag?  Or do we really want to have conversations with these people?  During her keynote, Ree Drummond talked a little bit about her decisions to choose her affiliations carefully, and to maintain the integrity of her brand.  Do we give up our integrity when we promise (implicitly, even) to go proselytize on behalf of these companies in return for the stuff?  Which then, of course, isn't free at all?

I subscribe to our local Freecycle listserv, where I often post things, probably more often, even, than I pick them up.  The great thing about Freecycle is that stuff really is free.  No strings attached.  In fact, that's part of the TOS that you agree to when you become a member.  No reselling, no picking and choosing.  You offer something, and someone picks it up.  You give things away because you don't need them, and you pick them up because you do.  It's like foraging, in a way, except more community-sanctioned and organized.  And that's the way free stuff should work.  No strings attached, no guilt, no hard sell.

I don't actually want to villify the outboarders.  I'm glad that I went this year, to see what that scene was like.  I think that it's great for bloggers to connect with brands if that's their thing.  (It's not mine.)  But I don't like the feeling of exclusivity (my experience has always been that sometimes the people I don't already know turn out to be the best resources and advocates for my brand, or program, or whatever), and I don't like the feeling I get from these parties that bloggers can be so easily bought, by toys and food and alcohol.  Our opinions mean a lot, and we should be choosy about whom we represent, and how.  We are a powerful group of women who should support each other instead of excluding each other, and we should not be for sale.

I hope that there is a way to resolve some of these issues for next year, to integrate the brands that want representation, and give them equal access to everyone, and everyone equal access to them.  They might be surprised to find some diamonds in the rough--or maybe just some plain old diamonds.  As for me, I likely won't be at BlogHer, because I'll likely be at the professional association conference for my new job, where, I will add, there are no parties, and no swag.  I'll miss the networking, and the sessions that rejuvinate me as a writer.  If you go, I hope you'll do so with your eyes wide open, have an hors d'oeuvre, and think of me.

Potato Cakes
Here's a recipe that you can make from foraged ingredients, either from your cupboards, or ... somewhere else entirely.  They can be made small, as hors d'oeuvres or larger for dinner.  Why, you ask, would she take a perfectly good potato, mash it, and fry it?  Well, I counter, why would you take a perfectly good potato, boil it, chill it, and smother it in mayonnaise?

3/4 lb. Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, cut into 1" cubes
1 egg
2 T. scallions, minced
1/2 lb. ham, torn (or roasted corn or anything else you like)
salt and pepper
oil to coat the pan
2 T. flour or cornmeal

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil.  Add potatoes, boil until soft, about 10 minutes.  Drain.

Mash potatoes well, and let cool just a bit.  Add eggs and mash some more.  Add scallions and mash some more.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Roll the potato mixture into golf ball sized cakes, and flatten a bit.

When you are ready to cook, heat oil in a pan on medium heat.  Place the flour or cornmeal in a shallow bowl and roll the ham cakes in it so that they are lightly dusted.

Fry the potato cakes for about 3 or four minutes on each side, until just golden.
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