Wednesday, December 23, 2015

O Holy Night: Darkness and Light

The church was always dim for the late Mass prelude on Christmas Eve.  Red candles burned in glass lanterns surrounded by pine boughs along the windows, the sanctuary lit only by small warm overhead lights.  We would take a seat towards the front, where we could see, though there was little to see; just to hear.  The organ always played first, a voluntary that started with a single note trill, a call out of the darkness.  There was something about the dimness that made the music even more magical, and I always found myself a little disappointed when they turned up the house lights to begin the service, looking forward to the moment when they'd turn them off again and hand out candles for "Silent Night."

And maybe that dimness, that acknowledgement of the darkness, is why I've always loved the winter solstice.

On a whim, I decided to go to my yoga teacher's solstice workshop, to mark the passing of the the darkest days, to find my body on the mat again.  She runs a class like this one every year, a candlelit affair with live kirtan and lots of savasana.  It's the sort of thing that feels luxurious when you have children at home and cookies to be baked and email to respond to and a thousand other reasons you can't go.

In truth, it had been a long time since I made time for a yoga class in general.  I let life get in the way; I don't get home in time for the evening class; I prioritize time with my children; I tell myself that it's better to get a run in on the weekends and burn some calories than to go sit still and reconnect with myself. None of these are very good excuses.  I could make time if I tried hard enough.

I  signed up online at the very last minute, and drove in the dark past home a different way than I usually go, along back county roads, past farms and small neighborhoods outlined in the pinpricks of Christmas lights.

I was early, not overly so, but enough to make small talk with others who had come for class, women who asked me warmly where I'd been, how my kids were, how work was; who told me that it was good to see me again. It was like coming home, almost, to people who didn't judge me for leaving. Which made it even funnier that when I parted the curtain to enter the studio and set up my mat, my teacher's face appeared on the other side.  "You can't come in," she said, smiling.  "Seriously?" I responded, worried that she was taunting me for missing class for so long.  "Yes, seriously!" she said, face still laughing, pulling the curtains closed behind her.  I returned to the bright chatter, waiting for her to tell us to come in, wondering what could be waiting on the other side.

When she finally called us over to begin the class, she explained that she wanted us to enter the space of darkness together, in silence, without our mats (she had set up mats for us already, across the entire floor to allow us to move as we needed to), to come with nothing.  And as we walked in together, I knew that she'd been right, to let us mark this solemnly, with the absence of sound and light.

We sat, cross-legged, as she asked us to imagine going into a dark forest, the trees closing in overheard, the scent of pine and soil and moss thick in the air, grounding ourselves through the earth. We were called deeper and deeper into the darkness, she said, deeper to the core of the forest, but without any fear; instead, she invited us to embrace the darkness, to become part of it, to dissolve into it.

When we celebrate the solstice, we celebrate the end of darkness, the beginning of longer days, the reemergence of life, victory over death.  But like those Christmas Eve preludes long ago, when I sat next to my father drinking in the candlelight and music, there's something about the darkness that is important and beautiful, too.  I revel in the quiet, in the dimness, just as I did when I was a child.  Sometimes, after everyone goes to bed, I'll turn off every light except for the Christmas tree, which glows in the corner.

Because without embracing the darkness, without becoming it ourselves, without going deep into the unknown, we can't see the stars.
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Monday, November 9, 2015

#Microblog Monday: Last Train Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It couldn't have been more perfect.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arborio Rice Pudding

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Cross-posted at

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#Microblog Monday: Halloween Safety and Pumpkin Muffins

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

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

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

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

To carve or not to carve? Tell us below.

Pumpkin Muffins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank You: A Parent-to-Parent Love Letter

Dear Stay-At-Home-Parent,

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, October 11, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In your pan of choice (I used a 9x13") layer meat and beans, apples and onions, Swiss chard then mashed sweet potatoes. Top with toasted walnuts.
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Thursday, October 8, 2015

Ugly Ducklings: Pumpkin Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting

My son has always been a little weird about birthdays. Some years he hasn't wanted anyone at all to attend. Some years he wants just grownups. Some years he's wanted just to take one friend, a little girl he's known since he was a toddler, to high tea. Twice, we've had a real party: once here, when I made an attempt at creating a space themed party (complete with moon rocks and jet packs), and once at a paint-your-own-pottery place, which ended up being sort of anticlimactic ("is that all?" asked one very sweet little girl when I served up the cupcakes, party coming to an end).

This year, I probably nudged him towards a real event. We don't have a house that's very conducive to parties, though. No basement, a large attic that's his room (but where you can't stand up except in the middle), small living room. And in September and October, there's no guarantee that you can do anything outside; as it was, the weekend had been threatened by the possibility of Hurricane Joaquin before it turned away from the east coast, widely skirting the midAtlantic states.

I offered up a movie, but when we started to look at the options, there was nothing much playing, and it feels weird (to me, anyway) to invite people to a movie party where you can't talk with each other. Pottery was out. Laser tag felt awkward with a group of five or six kids. Most places wanted a guarantee of ten children, and they'd charge you whether you brought those children or not. On a whim, I suggested bowling, and he seemed to warm to the idea.

There is exactly one bowling alley in our county. (There are actually no movie theaters in the county, so I guess one bowling alley is progress, but don't get me started.) It's an old family-owned place, the sort of place you might drive by and not think twice about, surrounded by dried-up overgrown weeds, adorned with large bowling pins in well-worn paint on the side of the red brick exterior. The almost-always-deserted parking lot is riddled with cracks where weeds push up through the macadam, as if re-staking their claim on the field that used to dominate the plot of land. I'd never been inside.

I sent them an email, not wanting to drive an hour to the next-closest lanes, and asked about reserving a time. They took my information casually, making me wonder if they were keeping any record of my request, not asking for any deposit or credit card information. All they wanted was a head count, the day before.  It was cheap, as kids' parties go.  It seemed almost too easy. 

My son wanted pumpkin cupcakes. Not vanilla or chocolate, or even red velvet, but pumpkin. I scoured my cookbooks to find something suitable, worried about kids not liking pumpkin, worried about the high standards adults set for my baking, because I hadn't made cupcakes in a while. (This is for another post, but has anyone ever typecast you as something you no longer want to be solely identified for?)  In my zealousness, I overfilled the cups with batter, which overflowed into giant cupcakes, stuck together and stuck to the pan. I decided not to pipe, but frosted with a flat knife as liberally as I could, uncharacteristically (for me) to the edges of the cake, knowing that frosting hides all sorts of flaws. Not that most (any?) nine year olds would care about how a cupcake looks.

On the day of the party we packed up what little we had to bring with us and drove out, parking, for the first time in my memory, on the cracked macadam lot. Inside the bowling alley, it smelled like sweaty old leather and snack bars of fried food; the plastic orange bucket chairs and dingy plastic-encased computer screens looked like something out of the 70s. My husband kept laughing at the kids who would touch the screens, thinking that something would happen. It was ... retro.  And not on purpose.

But it was also bright, and friendly, and non-threatening. It was a place where kids could wander around back and forth, where you could bowl a terrible game with friends and still have a good time. Which is exactly what we did for the next two hours, adults and kids alike.  The kids organized themselves once they had a bowling order, and we asked for an additional lane next to the kids, where we laughed and joked about needing bumpers, cheering wildly when one of us bowled a good frame.

And though they weren't exactly everyone's favorite, the cupcakes, like the bowling alley, were just right once you got past appearances. Moist, not too sweet, tasting like fall.

Pumpkin Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting
from Crazy About Cupcakes by Krystina Castella

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
1 c. firmly packed light brown sugar
1/3 c. white sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
2 c. all purpose flour
2 t. baking powder
1/4 t. baking soda
1 t. cinnamon
1 t. ginger
1/2 t. nutmeg
1/8 t. cloves
1/2 t. salt
1/2 c. milk
1 1/4 c. pumpkin puree
1 t. vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line your cupcake pan.

In a large bowl (I use an electric mixter), cream together butter and sugars until fluffy (about 3-5 minutes). Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, the baking powder, the baking soda, the ground cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and salt. Add a third of the dry ingredients to the butter mixture, mix gently. Add half of the milk. Continue to mix gently, alternating dry ingredients and milk until everything is combined. Don't overmix!

Add the pumpkin puree and the vanilla extract and beat until smooth.

Fill the cupcake liners 1/2 full (seriously, don't do what I did), and bake for 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Cream Cheese Frosting

One 8 oz. package cream cheese, softened
6 T. unsalted butter, softened
3 c. confectioners’ sugar
1 T. vanilla extract

Using an electric mixer, cream together cream cheese and butter until smooth.  Slowly sift the confectioners’ sugar into the mixture, and continue beating until all lumps are gone.  Add the vanilla and mix until fully incorporated.  Add a splash of milk if you would like the mixture to be a little fluffier, and add more sugar if you'd like it to be stiffer; beat to the desired texture.
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Thursday, October 1, 2015


The day began with broken glass.

A simple accident: she carried the jar too lightly, and it slipped from her grasp, shattering and scattering across the wooden floor where she stood, barefoot, her small tender feet now framed in diamonds. I lifted her out, set her on the stairs, and as calmly as I could, asked her to go get dressed. "Don't be mad, mama," she sobbed, clinging to the railing as she backed away up to the second floor.

I wasn't, not really. I wished I hadn't been trying to get out the door on time for work, maybe. But I wasn't mad.

I swept the glass into a dustpan, appreciating the high, thin tinkling sound it made, and emptied it into the trash.

She descended again, still sniffling, and pointed out two shards of glass I'd missed. She's like that: observant.

I hugged her, picking up the bits of glass in my fingertips, and ushered her to the door.

Now, hours later, holding her hand as we waited for the doctor, I wished for the broken glass, the ease of sweeping and disposal.

She'd been playing, tripped on a playground stone, struck her chin on a stair, gouging a long deep wound in her chin that seemed to stop bleeding, but split open stubbornly in the middle, showing me parts of her I'd rather not see.

I told her to squeeze my hand, joked about having to pee (I did, really), made small talk about Halloween, and told her how brave she was.

And felt helpless.

It had been a week of helplessness. On my walk home from a meeting at the library, I'd heard sobbing through an open window. Listening felt voyeuristic, but knocking felt intrusive. I knew the woman who lived there only a little, didn't know if she was the one sobbing, didn't know what I'd offer if she opened the door anyway.

I turned up the street and resumed my pace, heart hard in my throat.

And today I'd gotten the phone call about a passing, a mother of twins, separated from a husband who felt no responsibility for his nine year old children, seemed angry to be saddled with the burden of caring for them, had already not-cared for them, continued to not-care for them, neglecting their laundry and hair and grief. They clung to each other. I offered them nothing, wishing I could take them in, knowing I couldn't give them what they'd need, which would just be presence.

So much shattered. A friend awaiting trial. A friend assaulted, coping with debilitating illness. Cancer. And on. And on.

I tried to concentrate on the small face under the tissue paper, not the sutures that were being carefully, but oh, SO slowly tied. Four, five six, seven. She was crying now, the fear finally showing. I squeezed her hand and told her I was there and said she was brave, because she was.

Maybe it wouldn't be right to sweep away the debris. Maybe sutures are the best we can do, the interventions that leave scars and stories, but brave storytellers, too.

I just wish they didn't hurt so much to watch.
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Monday, September 7, 2015

#Microblog Monday: A Change of Perspective, and the Handstand

Last summer, because the timing of the class was convenient for my schedule, I went to a yoga studio where everyone, it seemed, was able to do handstands.

It frustrated the hell out of me.

I've been practicing yoga for about ten years, on and off.  But let's face it: I'm not exactly the most diligent student.  I practice best in a community, and when I don't go to class regularly, I don't practice at home.  I am what I might call a yoga slacker.

I know that handstands aren't integral to a yoga practice.  Which made it easy for me to make lots of excuses.  "This isn't yoga."  " They're just showing off."  "They have lots of time to practice because they're stay at home moms who have nothing else to do" (this last comment based on conversations I used to overhear at the studio).

None of this changed the fact that when I went home, I felt bad about myself for not being able to do what clearly came so easily to everyone else.

It took me a year of off-and-on practice, from forearm stand to here, but with better attention to the role that my core plays in the pose, and how my feet lift just as the crown of my head lifts in tadasana, and with less fear of falling, I can now do this:

It's worth noting that I still need support to get up there (i.e., it's helpful to have a wall, just in case).  I can't stay this way for very long.  But it's been nice to discover that I'm capable of doing it after all.  It just took a little readjustment of perspective.


Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is? Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.
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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Favorite Place, and Zucchini Pesto

I've been reading student applications, in preparation for their arrival on campus.  By the time they reach me, the applications are almost like ancient history, snapshots of a distant past one year ago when applicants shone their shoes, put their best foot forward, combed their hair, turned their faces at just the right angle for the camera.  Still, they bring that history with them, much as they might want to reinvent themselves, so it's useful to know.

The questions on the Common Application haven't changed much over the past two years (though I see they're different this year), and as I read the applications, sometimes I wonder how I'd answer these questions if I had to write a college application now.  I suspect I'd find the process daunting. Too many places to fall short.

Which seems particularly obvious to me when it comes to this question: "Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?" What seems, on the surface, to be a perfectly innocuous question about tranquility is much more devious, of course, because contentment isn't necessarily peaceful; the essay demands that you demonstrate readiness for college in your choice of content (not the description of the place, of course, but the part that's about you) and proficiency in writing.  Lots of students use this question to describe their experience in competitive athletics, or in some kind of work "flow" in a lab or as they're reading.  So what does it say about me, I wonder, that I'd chose my CSA farm?

I am content with my family, too, when my daughter wriggles into my lap and tells me she's going to cuddle, or when my son tells me about his day, interrupting his stream of consciousness every fourth word with "mom?  and mom?"  But sometimes it's hard to quiet my mind there.  When I'm home I'm often thinking about other things I need to do, lunches to pack, schedules to manage, dinners to make, grocery shopping to do, laundry to fold.  Books I ought to read.

But the CSA is different; it's the one place where time stops for me.  I may be in a rush when I get there, and in a rush when I leave, but when I'm picking up vegetables, being present is effortless. I'm always, without fail, astonished by the view, the green hills that roll away to the horizon with other farms and silos and houses with acreage.  It's one of the few places where I stand still.  Sometimes, if I'm there at just the right time of day, the air is thick and bright with butterflies above the rows of zinnias and sunflowers.  As I pluck the cherry tomatoes from their vines-which come in every imaginable hue from red to yellow to purple--sweet juice bursts their skins open in the heat.  Why is it meaningful to me?  Because being present is difficult sometimes, and I'm grateful for a place that reminds me to do so even after I've left.  Because the other CSA members who've come to pick up their shares, people I've met and people I've never met, essentially share a garden and a virtual table: we are an instant and real community, which offers its members a sense of belonging with no strings attached.  My farmer greets me by name and with a broad smile.  I know the origins of my dinner, digging my heels into the soil that nourished the plans that produced my beans.  I feel connected, and quite literally, grounded.

I'm fairly certain that's not good enough for a college essay.  I wonder what the admissions committees would make of me, the me that would write that essay now.  I wonder if they'd wonder if I ought not to be applying to an ag school, or to a Buddhist monastery, or to a culinary institute, instead of to a university.

Or maybe they'd think I'm an artist, a dreamer, a lover of people, someone who cares about sustainability and nourishing the body and the spirit and the local community.

I like the second picture better.

Zucchini with Pesto

Combine in a food processor and process to a rough paste:

2 c. loosely packed basil leaves
1⁄2 c. grated Parmesan
1⁄3 c. cashews
2 medium garlic cloves, peeled

With the machine running, slowly add:

1⁄2 c. olive oil, or as needed

If the pesto seems dry (it should be a thick paste), add a little more olive oil. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.

Use immediately, or pour a very thin film of olive oil over the top, cover, and refrigerate for up to 1 week.

When you're ready to serve the dish, julienne the zucchini (I have a brand new fancy mandoline that some friends got for me to do this). Saute briefly until just crisp-tender, and toss with the pesto to warm. Serve with fresh ripe tomatoes, a crusty bread, and whatever else yells summer.
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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

(It's Not About the) Costume

On Thursday, I signed N. up for dance class.  She has been begging me to find a class for her for almost two years now, since we had to leave the "mommy and me" dance class we attended briefly when I returned to work.  She has collected hand-me-down tights and leotards and ballet slippers and tutus of all colors and persuasions, and can often be found flouncing around the house in one or the other of them, alternately performing something like "Waltz of the Flowers" and "Flashdance." When one of her friends' mothers wrote to me and offered to take N. to class along with her own daughter this year, I felt like the universe had just laid me a golden egg.

Truth be told, I'm excited about this, too. I have fond memories of my own dance school (when I'm not thinking about the clique of girls who terrorized me for being pudgy or awkward or bookish or not going to school in town), and this one is just like it: old school, no monitors to watch the class while you wait for your child, twice a year parent observations, black short-sleeved leotards and pink tights ONLY, please (of course, not in our hand-me-down pile), and seriousness about the study of the art.  I wish I could go, too; my body aches for that kind of movement sometimes.

My daughter is also excited.  I keep reminding her, because she really is a little fashionista sometimes, that it's not about the tutus, that it's really about the dance, about becoming an athlete, about learning a whole new language.  She seems to understand; I hope she understands.


For part of our honeymoon, my husband and I took a bike trip through Umbria.  The trip consisted of  a series of 30-40 mile rides through some spectacular countryside, with stops at wineries and fabulous restaurants, supported by a van that would bring you snacks and carry luggage (and you, if the need arose).  I remember being worried, upon our arrival in Perugia, that we were about to be upstaged by expert riders. That we weren't prepared for this.  And when I saw the other family get off the train with their own bikes with clip-on pedals, bags of gear, and their own personalized helmets, I nearly cried and gave up before we even got started.  But we pretty quickly realized that it was they who were outclassed; that they'd probably bought half of that stuff the week before their trip, which was why it was all so pristine.  By day two, one of the four were riding in the support van, one of them was biking alone miles behind us, and the two teenagers had lost the route (presumably on purpose, so they could make out with each other uninterrupted).

It was an important lesson, though one I find myself re-learning with embarrassing frequency.  It's not about the costume.


It goes for writing, too, doesn't it?  It doesn't matter if you have sharpened pencils, or if you've mastered the art of post promotion through social media.  It's not even about being published, or having been published.  The writers are the ones who are writing, practicing their craft.  What matters is that you put your fingers to the keyboard, and come as you are.

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Monday, August 24, 2015

#Microblog Monday: Unfamiliar

(With apologies to those of you who get squirmy about feet, because I know there are people like that out there...)
So, this happened this weekend, courtesy of N.:

N. loves nail polish.  Fingers, toes, doesn't much matter.  Last week it was blue with sparkles, but she really wanted pink, because her friend L. had pink.  For $0.99, I figured she could have pink.

I never wear anything polish, never mind hot pink toenail polish, but I couldn't resist her when she asked if she could paint my toenails, too. I doing a double-take when I look down at my feet.  Aaaah! They're pink.  Aaaaaah!  They're still pink.  It's disconcerting.

But also sort of fun.

Have you ever done something that made you look unfamiliar to yourself, temporarily?

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

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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Cool: Chocolate Chip Zucchini Cake

Did you have friends, as you were growing up, whose parents were cool?

I did.  And as the daughter of decidedly uncool parents, I made a conscious decision that I was going to try to be one of those cool parents, if I ever got the chance.

There are days when I fail miserably.  (Let's face it; there are lots of days when I'm not cool.)  But there are also days when I knock it out of the park.

It's zucchini season around here, and my kids are not exactly zucchini lovers.  They tolerate it, but like Bartleby, they'd prefer not to.

Until the zucchini cake.

I had a giant zucchini that needed a home, and I decided to make the Chocolate Chip Zucchini Cake from the Kinfolk Table that I've been eyeing since my husband bought me the book for Christmas.  I brought said cake to a poolside gathering, where it was almost completely devoured.  My son ate four pieces of it, and my daughter wolfed down her one, asking only halfway through what the green bits were.  ("Apples," I lied.  I told her the truth later, but in the moment, she didn't need to know.)

I offered the single leftover piece to my son for his camp lunchbox the next day, and he was thrilled.  When he came home, he told me how all of his friends were jealously ogling his chocolate cake for lunch; he explained, "well, it's zucchini, so it's sort of healthy.  And it's homemade, so it doesn't have lots of junk in it.  But it's still cake."

Oh yeah, I thought.  I've arrived.  I?  Am COOL.

Tonight, as I was making zucchini curry with N., she mentioned that she really doesn't like zucchini.  I reminded her of the cake.  "Well," she said definitively, suspiciously eyeing the wok where the coconut milk and curry paste were simmering, "I have a good idea!  We should be making cake!"


Chocolate Chip Zucchini Cake 

2 1/2 c. flour (about half and half white and whole wheat pastry)
1/4 c. natural cocoa powder
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 t. ground clove 
1/2 c. butter or margarine, at room temperature
1/2 c. vegetable oil
1 3/4 c. sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 c. buttermilk
1 t. vanilla
2 c. zucchini / courgette finely diced (or grated)
1/2 c. chocolate chips

 Preheat the oven to 325℉. Grease the inside of a 9 x 13" baking pan and line the base with baking paper. Combine the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon and cloves in a medium bowl and set aside.

Beat the butter or margarine, oil and sugar in a mixing bowl with an electric mixer on a medium speed until smooth, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the buttermilk and vanilla and beat until just combined.

Reduce the mixer speed to low, add half of the flour mixture, and mix for 15 seconds. Add the remaining flour mixture and beat until just incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then beat for 5 more seconds. Stir in the zucchini and half the chocolate chips. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle the top with the remaining chocolate chips.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until a tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Transfer the cake to a rack and cool completely in the pan, about 1 hour.  Devour.
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Friday, July 10, 2015

Couldn't Be Simpler (and Banana Pancakes): a Guest Post from Mr. Half Baked

S. is a man of few words.  So when he says he has some to share, I have to take him seriously.  Here's his guest post.


The lesser-known fourth law of thermodynamics states that things are always complicated, and only get more complicated as time goes on. Never simpler.  This applies to all aspects of life, such as taxes, politics, cell phones, daily kid schedules, and food rules.  Tonight wasn't looking any different.  As our weekly food shopping cycle comes a close and the refrigerator is bare, we sometimes revert to what we call "Breakfast for Dinner".  Tonight was one of those nights.   For I, this is exciting as it means scrambled eggs, one of his favorites.  For N, it's complicated and only seems to be getting more so.  As a parent, I'd like to get some eggs into her for protein.  The problem is that she doesn't like any eggs she can see and taste.  French toast used to work, but not any more, not even with the promise of maple syrup.  She wants pancakes, and she's adamant about it.  Pancakes from scratch are a lot of work, and there's really not much protein in them.  And after all the effort, she probably won't even really eat them.   Dinner is suddenly getting complicated.

Desperate for a compromise solution, I turn to the internet and search for "recipe pancakes eggs".  Lo and behold, one of the top hits is this.  I can't believe my eyes.  Just two ingredients, eggs and bananas.  That's it.  No flour, no baking powder, no butter, no sugar, no nothing.  Two ingredients, and I have both of them.  And to top it all off, it looks like a web page that J might even read sometimes.  It has that strong female bloggy vibe.

In just minutes I have my first batch ready.  N eats her first one in record time.  I sees them and has to have a couple of them too.  They both claim that these are their new favorite food.  "Even better than marshmallows?"  "Yes, better than marshmallows."

I don't know if I believe they're actually better than marshmallows, but I'm grateful for a simple dinner.  Simple to make, simple to eat.  A rare exception to the fourth law.
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Monday, July 6, 2015

#Microblog Mondays: The Little Free Library

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

Our Friends of the Free Public Library (of which I'm a board member) built and maintains three Little Free Libraries in town, where we occasionally drop off books that people can take home, circulate ones that don't move, and clear out junk that gets left by others.

I go by at least once a week, and sometimes I wonder how people decide what to put in there, and what it says about what we think about what's good literature, or what it says about what and how we share with people we don't know.

If you had a Little Free Library in town, would you drop off the books you love, or the books you need to get rid of?  Do you give away things that mean a lot to you, or things you don't care about at all?  What are you willing to share?

What would you hope to pick up?

Do you have a Little Free Library in your town?

Also, on a somewhat related note, I need almost all of the books that are coming out here, and a short sabbatical in which I re-learn how to read, because I think I may have forgotten.  What's the best book you've read lately?  (And would it find its way into a Little Free Library, or are you hoarding it?)
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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Help, and Fresh Raspberry Muffins

I have been picking raspberries like nobody's business.  With N's help, actually.  She is an excellent picker; she doesn't want to stop until EVERY. LAST. BERRY. is in the basket, which is more or less my approach.  We make a good team, even if the berries do seem to ripen as we're standing there.

In general, I'm enjoying watching N. grow up this year.  She's becoming a thoughtful, sensitive, inquisitive young person.  This morning, as I took her for a jog, she decided to play 20 Questions What's Your Favorite (Fill in the blank), and asked me everything from "What's your favorite Italian food" to "What's your favorite princess crown color" to "What's your favorite part of your life?"  That last one took me by surprise.

I don't have answers to all of her questions.  I love that she takes me by surprise.  Quite iften she asks me thinks that make me think.

N. is also an excellent help in the kitchen.  We needed to make something quickly to use up the most recent harvest before we left for vacation, so I threw these together.  And much to my surprise, when I came down the next morning, she was eating one, having helped herself to breakfast.

She tells me that some day, she is going to do ALL of the chores in the house.  I wouldn't put it past her.

One thing's for sure though: she will know how to cook.

Fresh Raspberry Muffins

1/3 c.butter melted
3/4 c. sugar
2 eggs
1 T. lemon peel
½ c. of milk
1 t. vanilla
1 c. flour
3/4 c. whole wheat pastry flour
2 t. baking powder
2 c. fresh raspberries

Preheat oven to 375.

Melt the butter, cool slightly, and whisk together with sugar, eggs, milk, and vanilla.

Sift in the flour and baking powder and mix well.

Gently fold in the raspberries, and fill prepared muffin cups two-thirds full.  Bake for 20 to 25 minute or until just golden.

Help yourself.
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Thursday, June 25, 2015


About a week ago, we found a frog on our front porch.  Not a live frog, but a small brown plastic frog, which looked deceptively real.  We have a few prankster friends in the neighborhood, and it's not completely unusual for us to leave things on other people's doorsteps (though usually at holiday times), so we laughed at it, and agreed that we'd ask around, trying to get the culprit to confess.

It's possible that we didn't ask the right people, but no one took responsibility.  We decided to leave the frog there.  You know--guard frog.

Today, a second frog showed up on our front porch, on the opposite side of the steps.  This one it made of some heavier material, stone-like, fatter.  It was as if Frog Number One needed a friend.

Part of me is amused.  I wonder who our secret admirer could be.  I wonder why frogs instead of, say, mice.  Or beanie babies.  Or toy dinosaurs.

Another part of me finds this a little freaky.  'Fess up already, frog whisperer.  Just what are you trying to say?

Have you ever had someone leave odd things on your doorstep?  Did you find out who the culprit was?  Do you know who left frogs on my porch?

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Feeling Smart, and Chopped Thai Kale Salad

I was having lunch with a friend today, a professor (who never taught me in his own class, oddly enough), at a place that I used to love in a former life.  I'd suggested getting together; despite an event in our relationship that almost ended it, I still enjoy his company, and he's the sort of person who seems to know everything, or at least, knows enough to make it look like he knows everything.  We talked about traveling, and writing, and students, and books, and somehow--I'm still not quite sure how this happened--I ended up giving him an idea for the final text of the last large lecture course of his career.

I got to thinking, after lunch was over and I was driving home, about what made me so comfortable in conversation with him, despite the fact that I consider him much more well-read that I--a quality in others that often makes me draw inward.  And it occurred to me that there's a difference between people who are well-read and make you feel like you don't know anything, and people who are well-read and somehow still manage to make you "feel smart," to value even your crazy ideas, to look like they are listening, to leave space--real space, not just polite space--for you in the conversation.

I told him that some day if he ever needs a home for his books, as he moves out of his offices and into retirement, that I'd help him; I would love to own some of the titles on his shelves, things perhaps that I read myself long ago and gave away when I thought that they were no longer a part of my identity.  He loves this idea.  And perhaps that's just the physical manifestation of a different kind of intellectual generosity.

I am surrounded by highly intelligent people where I work, by colleagues who have gone to the most elite schools in the country and by some of the most well-known scholars of their generation.  Some of them are just that: they profess.  And yet some of them, somehow, find ways to open up space for people who are not quite the luminaries of the next generation, who can make us all feel "smart."

Who are the teachers and mentors who, over the years, opened up space in the conversation for you?

Thai Peanut Chicken and Kale Chopped Salad
This is the sort of refreshing salad that you might serve to entertain a friend for a summer afternoon conversation over a whole host of thing; it's sort of like another I posted a while ago, but different enough that it's worth posting here nonetheless.

8 c. finely chopped kale leaves (1 bunch, stems removed)
2 t. olive oil
3 c. shredded kohlrabi (you can also use cabbage here, or a mix of other crunchy vegetables, including red bell pepper)
2 c. rotisserie chicken, shredded
2 large carrots, shredded
1/2 c. roasted, salted peanuts, chopped
1/3 c. chopped fresh cilantro
3 medium green onions, sliced
1/2 cup water
1/4 c. creamy peanut butter
3 T. low-sodium soy sauce
1 T. fresh lime juice
2 t. honey
1/4 t. ground ginger (more)
1/8 t. crushed red pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
salt to taste

In a large mixing bowl, combine the kale and olive oil. Massage the olive oil into the kale with your hands 1 to 2 minutes until kale is softened slightly.

Add kohlrabi, chicken, carrots, peanuts, cilantro and green onions to the mixing bowl.

In a small saucepan, combine all the dressing ingredients (water through garlic). Whisk constantly over medium-low heat about 3 minutes or until smooth and slightly thickened. Cool dressing 10 to 15 minutes.

To serve, drizzle cooled dressing over salad and toss to combine.
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Friday, June 19, 2015

A Moment of Non-Silence

My heart is heavy tonight, as it has been since I heard the news about the shooting in South Carolina. Here we are again.  Talking.

There are a lot of writers who have already put things better than I could ever hope to do.  That this is not about mental illness; that making it so excuses--even condones--societal illness, and on the other hand, does damage to our approach to mental illness.  That it wasn't just a massacre, and that it isn't unspeakable or unthinkable; in fact, we need to speak, because without speaking these names, and this terrible crime, we have no hope of moving forward, and because someone did think long and hard about how that night would unfold.  That maybe it's time we turned the words "thug" and "terrorist" upside down, and used them where it applies.  That we might want to compare the way in which a white man who shot nine people is arrested with the way that a black man who was selling "loosies." (Then there was Jon Stewart, whose comments brought me to tears: "I am confident that by acknowledging it, by staring into that [abyss] and seeing it for what it is ... we STILL won't do jack shit.")

All of these are astute observations about deep and pervasive anti-Black sentiment in the U.S.

But nothing changes from one blog post to the next.

What if we knew that the suspect had been inspired by ISIS training to commit his terrorist act?  Why is that no different than someone who has been inspired by white supremacist movements, or even more subtle cues about white privilege and the value of black lives?

How many more people are going to have to die, just because they're black?

Why don't we wage war on the real terrorism in our own back (or front) yards?

What am I going to do about it now?
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Monday, June 15, 2015

#Microblog Monday: Passing, Privilege, and Working for (Real) Justice

My first encounter with the phenomenon of "passing" was a literary one, during a Harlem Renaissance class I took in college; we were reading Nella Larsen's novel Quicksand, which describes the friendship of two women who identify as Black, but can "pass" as White*, and Jessie Fauset's Plum Bun, in which the protagonist wrestles with the question of whether she can give up what she knows to be true about her identity just to gain social advantage.  Though I had some understanding of the complicated ways in which Blackness gets defined in the U.S., I remember thinking about how arbitrary our classifications are, and yet, how much they seemed to matter, even then, in the enlightened 1990s (!), how real they could be when we made them so.

In recent days, we've been reading a lot about Rachel Dolezal, whose story about "passing" as Black has gone viral since her reporting of false hate crimes.  It's raised a lot of questions for me again about why someone might do this (beyond "she's crazy," which would never be said about someone "passing" in the other direction), about how we claim identity and how it is imposed upon us, and about how we work for social justice.

I've been reading Claude Steele's Whistling Vivaldi recently, which is the assigned reading for our incoming freshmen this year.  The book tells the story of Steele's work on stereotype threat, which is (to do the injustice of summary) a condition of experience in which people worry about confirming negative stereotypes about their group; e.g. a Black person who is afraid of confirming that Black people aren't as intelligent, a woman who is afraid of confirming that women aren't good at math, a White person being afraid of confirming that white people are racist.  Stereotype threat, as Steele describes it, is complicated; the people most susceptible to it are the people who are actually least likely to confirm the stereotype applied to they group with which they identify under normal circumstances, but who care enough about subverting the stereotype and feel so anxious and distracted about their performance (in most cases, given some real cues from the environment) that they end up underperforming.

It's interesting to me that Dolezal chose to attend Howard University, a historically Black institution of higher education; at that time, she still identified openly as White, and apparently sued them for discrimination, which suggests to me that the experience was not entirely a comfortable one for her. When I started my first graduate program and began to pursue comparative American "minority" literatures (reading African American, Latino, Asian American, and Native American writers), I thought a great deal about my role as an ostensibly "White" woman in a field dominated by "non-White" scholars.  Yes, I was raised in a family that drew traditions and culture from Latin America, and yes, I had experienced racism in a comparatively minor way when I was growing up, but by the time I got to grad school, I was classified by most people as "White." Would I have any authority? Would I be able to address my privilege sufficiently as part of my work? I didn't end up writing a dissertation in English, but I suspect that if I had, I would have--even if I had written with the most pure intention and greatest sensitivity and positionality I could muster--worried about doing the hard work of contextualizing my scholarship fully enough. Perhaps that worry would have been productive, keeping me constantly mindful as a scholar. Certainly, I think that I could do it better now than I could have as a twenty-five year old.

I don't believe that what Rachel Dolezal did was right, at all.**  She was a practiced liar who fabricated all kinds of things about her childhood experience; hers was no sin of omission. And it's not even clear to me that her motivations were pure (e.g. that she did it because she wanted to work for social justice). What she did feels almost like fetishizing.  Other people have called it appropriation.  In either case, I think about the students affected by her lie, students who may have seen her as a mentor or a role model, who had the rug pulled out from under them, and wonder: how did they feel when they learned that her story was all a lie? And more deeply, did it make them wonder who they were, too, and how tenuous identity is? What does it mean to be Black?

Moreover, I'm not sure that working for social justice as a White person posing as a Black person is progress; to me, doing so simply reifies privilege. (Edited to add, recognizing Mel's point below: this approach also tries to create change without building trust, and change without a foundation in trust is shaky at best.)  Brown or black bodies can't "choose" race as Dolezal did***; that act is highly problematic, especially given the fact that she was, presumably, trying to do "the right thing."  For someone working against racism, that choice is a betrayal.

So why not work for justice as the person you are, without claiming a category?  If you are aware that your voice and experience is the dominant one, why not make a point of ensuring that other voices and experiences are heard, no matter how you may identify?

Dolezal's decision to pass, regardless of her motivation, is one answer to that question.  Why not work for justice as the person you are?  Because it's easier not to.  Because, as Angela Goffman did, you may become alienated, and no longer feel like you belong anywhere.  Because it's easier not to say anything than to worry about saying the wrong thing. Or to say the wrong thing in disguise. And in the other direction, because it's also actually possible to gain even more privilege by working as a privileged person on behalf of a group seen as "less privileged"; maybe you want to reject that privilege, too, but don't know how to do so.

Blackness in this country, as Dolezal has so clearly demonstrated, is a fraught category: constructed, and yet vital to understanding our history and fighting for a more just future. But passing doesn't begin to do any of the really difficult work. Steele's book offers a few alternative suggestions: foreground/affirm people's competence and worth; make sure that there's critical mass of everyone in the conversation, to the degree possible; and create situations in which learning (through intergroup conversations)--even if you begin with the understanding that race and gender and a host of other identity categories are constructs--becomes acceptable.  None of these are easy fixes.  And the book isn't a panacea, by any means.  But we have a mountain to climb, and it's about time we got started somewhere.

*  I use the categories of White and Black here, knowing that those categories are as complicated as the words are reductive.
**I'm not even going to get into the issues of blackface and mimicry, which have a long and terrible history in the U.S.  
*** Dolezal could stop being Black any time it really became inconvenient for her to do so, because she didn't need to do so to survive, and she may even profit from her story: perhaps, as one Tweet suggested, "the ultimate White privilege."

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Saturday, June 13, 2015

Thoughts on a Farewell

This week, I attended a memorial service for a young yogini, an artist, a gardener, a lover of beautiful things and animals.  She was my friend's sister, and I was deeply honored to be there to bear witness, to help celebrate her life and to grieve their unspeakable loss.

The service was both lovely and heartbreaking; her family and friends gathered under an outdoor pavilion at a wildflower preserve, and took turns speaking and reading poems and reflections on her life.  I wept, wishing I'd known her, too.

Somewhere in the middle of a poem, a small tanker truck pulled up in the drive behind the pavilion, to empty the portable toilets that I hadn't noticed in my walk around the perimeter before the service.  It idled there for a while, providing a grumbling background hum, until another of our friends, who is more thoughtful and considerate and take-charge than I am, got up and asked the driver to come back in an hour, because the gathering was to honor the dead.  (He did, of course.  He had no idea what he was interrupting when he drove up to do his job.)

I'd been sitting there, contemplating both the service and the truck, thinking that in a twisted way, this was appropriate: amidst the beauty and music and light, there is shit. Sometimes, a kind person comes to haul it away, but we can't pretend it's not there.  This is not to be dismissive of loss (and don't get me wrong; I was relieved that my friend asked the truck to come back later), but to know that loss and life, the darkness and light, coexist.  Those of us who survive in this world come to terms with that along the way; those of us who don't, perhaps, may imagine some more perfect ideal that the world can't deliver, or aren't ever able to see the light at all.

Later, as we clustered quietly after the service, my considerate friend asked: how do we teach our children to keep going, even through the difficult times?

My answer then was that they have to trust you.  But that's not completely right.  It's more, I think, that you try to fill their lives with as much light as possible so that they can draw on it in dark times, so that the noise of the shit truck isn't quite so loud; it's more that you let them see you dare to hope when things are hard, that you don't hide the shit in your own life entirely, but let them know that you work through it, too.  That your life is a practice.  That you don't have it all down perfectly, but it's worth trying to get it closer to beautiful.

But that's no guarantee that they--or that anyone whose lives we touch--will learn that lesson.  Some of us are taunted by demons and darkness that others can't vanquish. All we can do is offer a safe place for people to be understood and to give voice to their deepest fears and dark thoughts, to love them as relentlessly as we are able, to offer them light, and to hold them as close as they will let us, hoping that we don't have to say farewell too soon.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Something Old, Something New: Lentil Salad with Halloumi

We picked up our first CSA share of the season on Sunday, and I brought it home with some mix of trepidation and joy.  I confess, I've been enjoying creative experimentation with food less than I used to, because sometimes it feels like too much work without enough external positive reinforcement: my daughter doesn't really like anything that isn't noodles / black beans / fish sticks / plain chicken / broccoli / corn tortillas / fruit / marshmallows, my son eats everything indiscriminately (with some complaining when it's particularly offensive), and my husband would be perfectly happy with pasta and bread and eggs and a slab of steak for every meal.

Still, I feel duty-bound to bring the field to the family table, even if I've been short on photograph-worthy creative ideas to cook them.

I know enough about the nuanced shape of the season now to know what to expect when, and I could have predicted the first share with ease: kale, some spicy arugula, young lettuce, kohlrabi, spinach. Peas and strawberries if we were lucky (which we were; those are already gone, eaten just-picked from the cartons).

There's something reassuring about being that close to the earth, about knowing what grows when. About being able to predict the coming of the next share, even if you can't predict the success of the crop.  And there's something reinvigorating about trying to come up with some new interpretation of familiar texts.  Trying to read the same vegetables in different ways.  The spinach will appear every spring and every fall, but what does that mean for my dinner plate?

My CSA both offers the comfort of the familiar and demands that I shake myself out of old patterns. And even if it's risky business presenting my family with halloumi (which none of us particularly liked, myself included), even if those experimentation muscles feel tight, it feels good to flex them.

Lentil Salad with Halloumi
Adapted from In My Red Kitchen

1 c. lentils (French/Le Puy)
2 T. olive oil
1 T. lemon juice
2 t. honey
salt to taste
2.5 oz spinach or arugula
1 cucumber, halved and sliced (English is probably best, but I peeled and seeded a regular one)
1/2 small red onion, diced
8 oz. halloumi
1 T. olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400.

Rinse the lentils and bring to a boil in plenty of water.  Reduce the heat to low and cook uncovered for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until just tender.

Meanwhile, line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and drizzle with olive oil.  Cut the halloumi in bite-sized pieces and bake in olive oil until golden brown, about 10 minutes, turning occasionally.

Whisk together olive oil, lemon juice, honey, and salt to taste.

Drain the lentils and stir in the vinaigrette.

Add the spinach, onion and cucumber and stir to combine.

Serve the halloumi on top of the lentil salad.
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Monday, June 8, 2015

#Microblog Monday: Easy, and Six Minute (Vegan) Chocolate Cake

Just before I left for grad school in LA, I bought the Billie Holiday Decca Masters albums. They were a constant companion during those years, especially during the more languid days of July and August; there's nothing quite like hearing Billie croon "Summertime" when you're sitting in a bathtub full of ice water.

I've always loved that aria, despite its origins in the racist Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess. Billie takes a Dixieland approach in her swing-your-hips version; Ella's is pensive, falling somewhere between spiritual and dirge; and perhaps most recently, Annie Lennox, in her inimitable weighty, clear contralto, makes it glow like liquid glass.

A few weekends ago, we were sitting out in the back yard with some friends, watching the kids play for what seemed like hours with water cannons and bubbles, eating guacamole and drinking margaritas, and I found myself thinking that song, feeling like the "livin'" really was easy, luxuriating in that thought as the conversation and children hummed around me.  And yesterday, walking home with my daughter from the park where we'd met a friend by chance and gone wading in the brook, toes bare, I heard it in my head again.  Un-ignorable.

We had plans to go canoeing this afternoon, but discovered when we got to the reservoir that they're now enforcing the rule about no more than three people to a canoe.  So we drove to the small reservoir beach on a whim, where the kids dug happily in the sand for an hour, running back and forth to the water, getting their clothes wet, making friends and reshaping the landscape together with their small hands.  We sat on the concrete wall, just watching them, soaking in the sun, making circles in the sand with our toes, appreciating the breeze.

Summertime.  The livin' is easy.  Let it be so.  Let the rest go.  For just a little while, anyway.

Six Minute (Vegan) Chocolate Cake
(adapted from the Moosewood Restaurant)
I made this cake for dessert on the night when our friends came over a few weeks ago.  It's a cake that epitomizes easy; it doesn't even require greasing the pan.  The only down side is that it's not always extractable in neat slices, but if you're feeling that unfussy, you might as well just sit down with the whole damn thing and dig in with a spoon.

1 1/2 c. unbleached white flour
1/3 c. cocoa powder
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
1 c. sugar
1/2 c. vegetable oil
1 c. cold water or coffee (I recommend coffee)
2 t. vanilla extract
2 T. cider vinegar
generous handful of bittersweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 375.

Sift the flour, cocoa, soda, salt, and sugar directly into 8 or 9 inch cake pan.

In the measuring cup, measure and mix together the oil, cold water or coffee, and vanilla.  No need to dirty another bowl with this process.

Pour the liquid ingredients into the baking pan and mix the batter with a fork or a small whisk. Toss in the chips and mix some more.  When you've incorporated them, add the vinegar and stir quickly until it's more or less evenly mixed in. There will be interesting swirls in the batter as the baking soda and vinegar react.  (Don't overthink the distribution chocolate chips.  Easy, remember?)

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes (until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with moist, fudgy crumbs) and set aside to cool.  Serve with fresh strawberries, or dusted with powdered sugar, or glazed, or with vanilla ice cream, or just plain.
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