Monday, October 28, 2013

(Skeletons) in my Closet, and Roasted Kale, Sweet Potato, and Toasted Farro Salad with Maple Dressing

When I started my first full-time job fifteen years ago, I wore a tailored pantsuit to work every day.  I was the youngest in my department, young in my field nationally, and after a very brief time away, I'd returned to the university where I'd been an undergraduate; I knew I was going to fight an uphill battle to be taken seriously, and clothing was part of my arsenal.  Though no one else in my office really wore suits at the time, doing so made me feel a little more grown up, and helped me--or so I thought--to convince other people that I wasn't a student any more, despite the fact that I probably still looked like one; in hindsight, I suspect I was trying to convince myself, too.  I was frugal, choosing conservative colors and styles, investing in a few high-quality pieces from respectable brands, rather than picking up a new wardrobe every season.  Black, brown: I was the university administrator equivalent of the corporate executive.  (And don't think that the fact that these were pantsuits is lost on me; I'm sure there are issues of gender and body image to unpack here, which I will leave for another day.)  I remember once gaping at a friend's walk-in closet overflowing with multicolored fabric and leather, like a visitor from a third world country who had just stumbled into Whole Foods. 

The same went for footwear.  I owned three, maybe four pairs of shoes: sandals, sneakers, heels from Payless, and a pair of mid-calf black boots--different ones as the previous year's specimens wore thin--that I referred to fondly as my "ass-kicking boots."  I never wore the heels, because the boots, like my suits, made me feel powerful.  They offered up a solid thunk, thunk, thunk as I strode across campus, pounded out determination and purpose.  I was a woman not to be crossed.  (Never mind that I wore said black boots with suits that demanded brown.  That was irrelevant.)

Under the boots, though, were the socks.  My true colors.  Wacky, bright, daring, colorful, and unmatched to everything else I was wearing.  They were the "if only you knew" part of my wardrobe, the secret that turned the corners of my mouth upwards in the more boring meetings.  The warm and interesting and creative part of me that made me a good fit for my work in the first place.

Sometime in the late spring, before I was hired at my new job, thinking that my professional future wasn't looking terribly promising, I purged my closet.  Some of the suits--the ones that no longer fit quite right, or that hadn't been worn in a while, or that went out of style years ago, even with my generous "style" window--went out with many of the books from my graduate school years, finding new homes in other people's closets or in the windows of local consignment stores.  Mostly, I kept the socks.

When I got a job in July, I took a deep breath and bought two new conservative suits, and few other things at an upscale local consignment store under the approving eye of a good friend, and figured I was done.

Except then I noticed that people weren't all wearing suits to work every day.  And that I wanted more variation in my wardrobe than the cloak of my former ambitions allowed.  Suddenly, what was in my closet was no longer enough.  Moreover, it was fall, and I realized that summer clothes really weren't appropriate for colder weather.  I didn't want to spend a small fortune dry cleaning my wardrobe every week.  And my old suits--the ones I hadn't purged--really were pretty old.

I bought a deep purple long sleeved dress with a daring v neck.  Some uber-comfortable flowy black Wearever machine-washable pants from J.Jill.  An olive-colored soft tee, which I haven't been brave enough to de-tag yet, feeling like it was a little too much.  A scarf, which I taught myself how to tie in a few different ways.  And today, knee-high brown boots--the first ones I've ever owned.  My side of the (non-walk-in) closet is back to full--even if it does have two season's worth in one place--with less consistency than ever among the styles and fabrics on the hangers.  Unlike in those early years of my professional life, someone looking at it wouldn't be able to identify my personal style at all.  Though it's not clear that in those years, the style was mine to begin with.

Still, I find myself--a little guiltily--browsing in the consignment store, trolling for a new skirt or two.  An interesting jacket.  It's like playing with costumes to find a skin I'm comfortable in.  And what I'm comfortable in isn't the same every day.  There's a little of everything, sort of like there was in the salad I made this weekend: warm and cool, "crunchy" and tailored, sweet and tart, fruity and nutty.  It's a different kind of powerful entirely than in those first days of my first job.

How does your wardrobe express you?  Your ambitions or your contentment with where you are?  Do you feel like you have a style?

Roasted Kale Sweet Potato Salad with Toasted Farro and Maple Dressing
I came up with this lightly dressed salad by playing with a few different recipes after the final installment of CSA kale and sweet potatoes this week, looking for something different to do with color and texture.  It tasted like fall.

2-3 medium sweet potatoes, cubed
2 teaspoons grape seed oil
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
salt to taste (and pepper if you like)
1 large head kale, center ribs removed, chopped
1-2 apples, peeled and cubed (you can roast these for a bit too if you like; I prefer them cold and crunchy, to contrast with the kale and potato)
1 c. cooked farro
pumpkin seeds, toasted

Garlic Maple Dressing
3 T. apple cider raw vinegar
1 1/2 T. maple syrup
2 T. olive oil
1 t. Dijon mustard
1 cloves garlic, minced

Toast the pumpkin seeds until golden (I use a toaster, but you could also do this in the oven or in a hot pan).

Preheat oven to 400F and set aside a baking sheet.  Spray lightly with cooking spray.

Add sweet potato, oil, cinnamon, salt on baking sheet and toss with your hands until everything is well-coated.

Roast for 30-35 minutes (stirring and rotating halfway through) or until the sweet potatoes begin to caramelize (this is important to deepen the flavor of the salad, so be patient).  When the sweet potatoes are about 5 minutes away from completion, remove from the oven, place the chopped kale on top. Return to the oven.

Meanwhile, combine vinegar, maple syrup, garlic, and mustard in a small bowl. Pour in the olive oil, whisking as you go, and set aside.

In a skillet, heat 2 t. vegetable oil. Add the farro in an even layer and cook over high heat, stirring once, until toasted, about 5 minutes.  

When kale and potatoes are done, transfer to a bowl; add apples, farro, and toasted squash seeds, and dress lightly. Serve warm.
Pin It

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Weight of Being Interesting, and Pumpkin Spice Cookies

I work at one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the world.

The students, while they do come from all over the map, both geographically and academically, are, by and large, freakishly amazing people.  They bring a wealth of experience and leadership to the table; they have collected more AP scores than anyone ought to collect; they ask intelligent, probing questions; they throw themselves into work weeks whose intensity level is far beyond what I experienced until I started studying for my quals in graduate school.

And yet, they worry about not being (interesting, smart, talented, whatever) enough.  The other day, I sat at another awards dinner, this one for juniors who had been awarded a fellowship to spend the summer after sophomore year doing something that contributed to their personal growth and exploration: one followed Che Guevara's Motorcyle Diaries travels; another apprenticed to a jewelry designer in India; another studied traditional fiddle music; another traveled in the footsteps of her grandmother who was a Holocaust survivor, and plans to collaborate on an intergenerational book; another interviewed siblings of special needs children and adults; another--a countertenor--studied Baroque music both domestically and abroad.  (And while the projects and students were not quite as polished as those at my previous dinner this month, they did make me wonder what I would do with carte blanche and $4000.) 

When all of the students had delivered their versions of "what I did with my summer vacation," the two graduate recipients of a parallel award, who spent a year on a project, stood up to give their speeches.  The first worked on women's health and health education in India, addressing everything from breastfeeding education to cancer screenings and shifting the cultural view of sick women as burdensome.  The second stood up to introduce his novel, and after some tripping over his words (affected or not, we weren't sure), and making some self-denigrating comments, said: "I forgot what being at [X] is like.  It's like ..." he gestured around the room " ... like this."

It's not the first time I've heard something along these lines.  All summer long, as I talked with students applying for fellowships, I heard from them: I'm not good enough.  So-and-so is brilliant.  I'm not really sure if my project is compelling.  I don't have grades like my roommate does.  Etc., etc., etc.

The awkward thing about being at a place where everyone is freakishly amazing is that it's hard to take a risk to do something as a mediocre novice, even--ironically enough--in the context of a fellowship that rewards your exploration of something as a mediocre novice.  And I get it: when I walk through the Common Room of our college, there is often someone at the grand piano, playing the equivalent of Rachmaninoff; it's no wonder that no one wants to venture a few bars of "Heart and Soul," and even when the room is empty, I resist the urge to sit down and work on my rusty rendition of Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu (I would never confess to these people that I played in Carnegie Hall, for fear that they might expect me to produce something impressive).

It can, if we let it, work the same way in blogging and writing.  If you read enough freakishly amazing writers, you start to think that there's nothing much you can contribute to the conversation.  Best to leave the work of writing and thinking to those who are more talented than you, you think, those who have something important and compelling to say, and who say it in innovative and impressive ways.  Perhaps you stop writing entirely, and become a passive consumer of language, pining away, somewhere deep within you, for your lost voice.

It can even work this way in the kitchen: if you read enough recipes, you can start to wonder why you should bother coming up with something new, since it's bound not to be much good the first time around anyway, and there are probably already fifteen better versions of what you're making already out there, under contract for a cookbook.

On the other hand, you could look at it this way: if you're surrounded by enough interesting people, or if you are friends with enough fabulously talented bloggers, or if you immerse yourself in enough cookbooks, you can't help but swim in those waters eventually yourself.  While my Chopin still isn't very good, it's better than it was at the beginning of the summer, when I didn't practice it, because I wasn't inspired to do so by the freakishly amazing Rachmaninoff-players.

The pressure to be interesting can feel like a two ton boa.  But it could also be liberating, given a safe and judgment-free place to take risks.  Part of me keeps thinking I should create a "Mediocrity Hour" at my place of employment, during which everyone can try or practice at something they're not very good at.  Because we are our harshest critics, and naming a forgiving space would take some of the pressure off, allowing for the "interesting" to happen organically.  Sort of like it did in my kitchen the other night, when I was desperately craving pumpkin spice cookies, but didn't feel like starting to play with butter at 10 p.m, and didn't want to commit to anything more elaborate equipment than a bowl and a whisk.  Sure, there about a billion versions of pumpkin spice cookies out there.  But these were mine.  And I won't tell you how many of them I've eaten since they came out of the oven.

Pumpkin Spice Cookies

2 eggs (or flax egg to make it vegan)
1 c. sugar
1/2 c. canola or corn oil
1 c. canned pumpkin
1 t. vanilla
3 T. natural apple butter (no sugar added)
2 c. flour (any kind will do)
1 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
1 t. ground cinnamon
1 t. ground ginger
1/4 t. nutmeg
1/8 t. cloves
chopped toasted walnuts, optional, or anything else you think they might need

Preheat oven to 350F.

In a large bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients (from eggs through apple butter).  Sift in the dry ingredients into a small bowl and then gently fold them into the wet ingredients.  Or if you're feeling extremely lazy like I was, dump the spices into your wet ingredients, stir to mix completely dump in the flour, baking powder and soda, and salt, and mix to stir again.  Add in some nuts if you're feeling like you might want some.  Or something else: white chocolate chips, toffee bits, raisins.  Decide if you want more spice, and add it.  No one will think less of you if they are not perfect, and you can always play with the rest of the batter if the first batch isn't exactly right.

Drop by generously rounded tablespoonfuls onto parchment covered baking sheets, leaving about two inches between cookies.  Bake for 15-17 minutes, or until puffy and dry.  Cool, and store in an airtight container for just a few days, if they last that long.
Pin It

Midnight Oil

I had been up late at night a lot, working.  Mostly finishing up a large project from my previous job, but also responding to email: some of it more crisis-oriented than others.  I expect students to be up then; that's the nature of college life.  (And ideally, I would shift my schedule so that I start my day at ten, like they do.)  But I've found that in this new universe, when I send email to colleagues at midnight, or one in the morning, or sometimes even later than that, I get instantaneous responses.  Though our offices on campus are dark, I imagine us as a bright pool of electrons in the university network, still humming away as if we've never left the place.  The other day, there was a crisis in our office, and most of my colleagues were actually in the office at midnight, with students; my only excuse was that I live an hour (or, at that time of night, 45 minutes) away.

Part of me has been grateful that I'm not the only one.

Part of me has been a little amazed.  How could I ever hope to compete with these people who work just as hard as, or even harder than, I do?  I was always the one at the edge, the one with the great ideas and the initiative to see them through to fruition, the one who got shit done.  Then again, what I'm experiencing is not unlike what students experience when they arrive here: suddenly, the ones who who left everyone in the dust back home were one in hundreds just like them, or better.

But honestly, no part of me felt at all like this was abnormal, or undesirable.

In the middle of one of these conversations the other night, I posted on my Facebook page, something along these lines, being grateful for colleagues who made me feel like I wasn't the only nut online that late, but baffled by the competition.  A lot of people "liked" the post, or commiserated, or said something equally self-congratulatory about their own dedication.

Shortly afterward, a friend of mine posted the following question: "Why do we make a virtue of working hours that don't allow us to get enough sleep, enough play or enough time with loved ones? What true value is there in working hours that break down our mental and physical health?"

She's right, of course.  While I don't do it every night, when I do, I'm right there waving the self-congratulatory flag with everyone else.  And my kids get me up at 5:30, so I'm not exactly sleeping in.  I don't get to run during the week any more, or do any other exercise.  If I'm up sending email at 1:30, then I'm often back up at 5:45 making breakfast, and I'm out the door at 7:15.  And I'm not taking naps during the day.

How many of us are there out there, burning the midnight oil?  Why do we do it?  Do you feel like there's a expectation in our workplace culture that we are online both late and early (and, for that matter, all the time)? Do you feel like it's abnormal, or something we take for granted?  How do you draw boundaries around your work, if you work outside the home?
Pin It

Thursday, October 17, 2013

On Living Well, and Arroz con leche

When I was in graduate school--the second time around--I took a Philosophy of Education course in which we were assigned Aristotle's Ethics.  I remembered hating Aristotle from some other course, so I wasn't looking forward to revisiting it, but in my re-reading I was drawn to the concept of eudaimonia, which--often mistranslated as "happiness"--really means "doing and living well."  As I was boxing up some books to take to my new office the other day, I took Ethics off the shelf and began to thumb through it fondly, realizing, with some small degree of horror, that I ended up loving philosophy after all, and thinking that perhaps I hadn't had enough life experience to fully appreciate Aristotle when I read his work the first time.

Skimming my marginalia, I was surprised to notice how much Ethics reminded me of my study of yoga, how much living well was bound up with the activity of right intention, which Aristotle calls "virtue" (but which isn't exactly virtue as we tend to use the term now).  Most of us think of happiness as a state of consciousness, something internal, and even passive.  But the way Aristotle describes it, eudaimonia involves real, messy, being and doing in the world--even if slightly limited by the fact that his is a state-backed model of the good life.  Eudaimonia comes of habit (according to Aristotle), like the "practice" of yoga texts. Even considering right action in yoga discourages attachment to outcomes, where for Aristotle the means are oriented to the end through the process of rational thought, there are striking parallels between Ethics and the Gita.*

My yoga attendance these days has been sporadic at best; I don't get home early enough for the Thursday night class I used to take, and I try to spend my weekends being available to my kids instead of commuting to Frenchtown where other people are trying to breathe through vinyasa.  I brought my mat and yoga pants to work today, hoping to escape for an hour during lunch, which I ended up eating (in the form of an apple and a granola bar) at my desk, trying to manage a situation that was stubbornly resisting management.  Given the sort day I've been having, I felt deflated.  On the other hand, what I was doing was sort of along the lines of right intention.  It just didn't have a very physical dimension.

What we know about anatomy suggests that the mind-body connection isn't a connection at all, but is really one in the same thing: essentially, two nerves connect our bodies to our brains.  Body is mind, and mind is body--even for Aristotle, in a way.  My daughter reminds me of this constantly, (still) learning by touching everything, expressing herself (despite her advanced verbal skills) by jumping up and down or rolling around on the floor.  I could practice yoga on my own, but my best practice is in sangha, in community.  Which makes sense to me, after all; if living well is practicing right intention, then it follows that the practice of yoga, which is also about living the best life by cultivating a space for right action, entails not abstracting oneself from the world, but figuring out how to immerse oneself in all of its dimensions.  Doing yoga all the time.

Remember that Mary Oliver poem, "Rice"?
I don't want you to just sit at the table.
I don't want you just to eat, and be content.
I want you to walk into the fields
Where the water is shining, and the rice has risen.
I want you to stand there,
far from the white tablecloth.
I want you to fill your hands with mud,
like a blessing.

Don't just sit at the table; fill your hands with mud.  Get down and dirty, out in the field. That's happiness.

*(Philosophy PhDs and yoga experts: go ahead, tell me where I got it wrong.)

Arroz con leche
This is a simple dessert from my childhood, which I find myself craving when the weather finally takes a turn towards fall.

4 c. milk (of your choice)
1/2 c. short-grain rice
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 t. dried orange peel
pinch salt
1/4 c. sugar
3/4 T. butter (optional)
1 t. vanilla 

Add the milk, rice, cinnamon stick, orange or lemon peel and salt to a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Immediately reduce heat to very low and simmer, stirring often and scraping bottom, for about 45 minutes.

Add the raisins and sugar and simmer for another 15 minutes. Stir often to keep from sticking to the bottom of the pot.

Remove from heat and stir in the butter and vanilla. Adjust sugar to taste and serve hot or cold, sprinkling the top with some ground cinnamon.
Pin It

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Liebster Award

My friend and writing mentor Mel, who is wise in the ways of becoming prolific, says this: one blog post at a time, no matter how brief.  Anne Lamott says that in order to write anything, you need a shitty first draft (sing it, sister).

In that interest, I'm posting my responses to Mel's Liebster award.  Thanks, Mel, for nominating me!  Hopefully I'll get around to posting something more substantive again soon.
  1. Longest you’ve ever gone without a shower.

    That would be camping.  Two days, at most.  I learned that I don't enjoy being grimy.  (Which sort of mitigates against my possible potential participation in the six-day-long outdoor orientation program for students that they run at my current place of employment.)
  2. Tell us about a recent disappointment.

    Life has been pretty good to me lately.  I was disappointed by getting a plate of couscous for dinner when what I really wanted was vegetables (because most caterers think that "vegetarian" means "pasta-eater"), but I'm not about to grouse about that, especially given that it was a free meal, and there was curry on top of said couscous, and at least it wasn't penne.  I will also not bellyache about the huge bag of hand-me-down pants I had to return to my neighbor, none of which fit because unlike her, I have curves.  I was a little disappointed to discover that the big wet spot on my daughter's carpet, which caused a patch of black mold to grow, was actually coming from inside the wall (though I'm glad that my husband cut open said wall so that the source of the water could be identified).  Not looking forward to the re-drywall process.  Maybe we could just leave it that way?  It is pretty humorous being able to see through the wall from my daughter's room into our bathroom.
  3. Tell us the person you’d most like in the car with you for a road trip.

    Any car trip that doesn't involve commuting to work sounds pretty good.  (I would take my husband; we're pretty good on the road together, since we find the same people annoying.)
  4. Which do you like better: goats or sheep?

    Goats are more interesting: they're not afraid to express their opinions, and quite literally butt heads with anyone else who gets in the way.  I think I have more respect for goats.  Yes, that's hard-coded, thanks for asking.

  5. Do you like to watch scary movies?

    Not really.  But I'm not a huge consumer of movies at all, come to think of it.  And you already know that we don't own a TV, which makes me a cultural illiterate.  Will you throw tomatoes and laugh at me if I tell you I don't really understand references to Breaking Bad?
  6. What do you call yourself when you’re talking to yourself inside your head?

    Depending on what I'm talking to myself about, I call myself anything from "genius" to "idiot."
  7. Name someone from your kindergarten class that you wonder about to this day.

    About a year or two ago, one of my classmates posted our kindergarten picture on Facebook, and tagged as many people as he could find.  The surprising thing, to me, was how little people had changed.  Sure, we were older, and greyer, and a little fatter (or skinnier).  I can't say that I loved elementary school, though, and there aren't people I really wonder about; I suspect I can guess, for the few I know nothing about (they probably don't let you have access to Facebook in jail).
  8. What is the best song for picking up your mood?

    Anything that I can belt out in the car.  And sometimes things that I can dance to with my kids.  Currently: "I'm Gonna Rock Some Tags" and "Applause."
  9. How do you organize your socks?

    Oddly enough, despite my tendency to over-organize everything, I don't organize my sock drawer.  They're packed in there in pairs, one sock stuffed inside its match to facilitate ease of retrieval.  I guess that's organization after all, isn't it ...
  10. When no one is home, do you close the bathroom door?

    I don't like locking myself in to windowless spaces, just in general.  I'm more likely to close the door if there's a window.
I'm supposed to nominate seven more people.  Let's turn this on its head a bit: go ahead and answer any of the questions you'd like in the comments ... and ask one of your own!  Then visit the commenter before you, and leave a comment on their blog!
Pin It

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Seduction, and Roasted Sweet Potato, Squash, and Pear Soup

Though it's already mid-October, it felt like the first night of fall: a slight crispness to the air, perhaps even the scent of wood and leaves--the sort of weather that makes me walk faster, with a more determined step. It's been easy to notice the earlier darkness in my office, which becomes a little cave-like towards the end of the afternoon, illuminated by the same small lamp that I brought home from my office two years ago; as we walked across campus, it felt like people were scattering everywhere to gather in similar cozy spaces.

There is a lot of eating together here, and I was headed to dinner, for the third time in just over a week, this time to an awards banquet celebrating the "best freshmen and sophomores," whatever that might mean. I've been to about a hundred award events in my life, but still, somehow, I wasn't prepared for this: the round tables in a softly lit wood-paneled library (the first on campus), glass vases full of delicately orange-tinted roses, which matched the orange-brown iced tea already set at everyone's place, and the orange-paper wrapped books where each student was to sit, and even the bright orange mango-gelatine-topped custards which circled the centerpieces.

This? I thought--this is another planet.

Soon after we sat down, steaming bowls of deep orange butternut squash soup arrived. My first spoonful was like the culinary translation of the warm, intimate atmosphere in the library, a space to shelter from the gathering dusk.

I made small talk with the students, asking them about their activities on campus, about their research, about their homes, feeling a little uninteresting, myself. The names of the awardees were read, and I settled into my chair to listen to the speaker, the author of the book that was given to all of the awardees as their prize. And the atmosphere shifted.

He talked about Mozart, about grace and beauty, about the way in which Mozart manipulated music as its own language to communicate something more ethereal, about tension and letting go. As he played passages from some of the pieces I've known my whole life, I watched him shape sound in the air with his hands, leaning forward in my chair, my own fingers itching to play, finding myself nodding, Yes, of course; that's exactly how it's done. Just as it would be in poetry.

I don't know how many of the students felt as I felt that night, in the glow of the library, with soup and Mozart and mango dessert, suspended in time and space; I couldn't help but notice how differently intimate the intellectual community is from my own former roots, and I wonder what I would have turned out like, if I'd been a student here. The warm pool of light in my office is its metonym; I gravitate towards it, away from the darkness. I understand better what they mean when they talk about the "Bubble," now, I think: despite the tug of my children at home, I find myself wanting to stay here late into the night, too, holed up with these people, learning everything, drinking it in.

It is, in a word, seductive.

It's not all warm orange soup, of course. There are difficult conversations with struggling students, mis- and missed communications, challenges of technology. But I'm growing roots here. And I hope my children don't mind my being waylaid by the Siren's song too much.

Roasted Sweet Potato and Winter Squash Soup with Pears and Sage

3 lbs of sweet potatoes, washed, peeled and chopped
2 c. winter squash (butternut or other), cut into 1" cubes
1 T. butter
1 T. olive oil
6 fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
1/2 t. cardamom
1/2 t. garam masala
1 large onion, diced
6 pears, washed, cored, peeled and chopped
8 c. vegetable broth
1 c. white wine
2 T. real maple syrup
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400; toss the squash and potatoes in just a little bit of olive oil and roast until beginning to caramelize, about 40 minutes.

Melt butter and olive oil over medium heat in a large stockpot. Add the sage leaves and fry them gently just until they become fragrant. Add the cardamom and garam masala, and stir for a minute or two. Add onion, potatoes, squash, and pears. Sauté for about 8-10 minutes or until the potatoes start to soften a bit. Add the broth, cover, and simmer for about 20 minutes over low heat. Remove the lid, stir, and add the wine. Using a hand immersion blender, blend the soup until creamy. Taste to adjust seasonings. Serve sprinkled with some toasted nuts, or a sage leaf. And with more wine. And maybe a baguette.
Pin It
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...