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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Monday, June 1, 2015

#Microblog Mondays: Pacer

She told me that she wanted to run last year, when she was three.  Girls in tutus, sweaty, hair streaked with bright paint: she wanted to be out there with them, not just on the porch cheering them on.  I'd said maybe.  She has always been athletic, even in utero.  It wasn't completely out of the question.

I run the route with her in the mornings sometimes, because it's a do-able distance for me in half an hour before I have to get ready to go to work.  She and I talk about important things while she's in the jogging stroller cockpit, sucking yogurt and observing the road for me: the birds, potholes, school, friends, the nature of God.

My husband registered her for the race with more faith than I had.  She didn't train for it at all.  It was going to be a hot, humid day.  She tends to be somewhat last-minute about her bathroom plans; she is, after all, only four and a half.

We talked about how it was a race, but that everyone who tries to get to the finish still wins.  That she would win.  We talked about how it was OK to listen to your body, to run when you felt like running, to walk when you felt like walking, and to ask to stop when you needed to stop.  That if it started to rain, we were going to just keep going, because we could always dry off at home.  She explained all of this to other people when she was telling them about her upcoming event, so it seemed to sink in.

I promised her than no matter what happened, I'd be there right at her side.  That we'd run the race together.

On Sunday, before we locked the door to head downtown, I asked her several times if she wanted me to bring the jogging stroller, just in case.  She declined, every time, finally getting impatient with me and telling me to stop asking.  Which I did.  She also declined the offer of a water bottle, which was unusual; water is her favorite treat.  I worried about this a little more than the lack of a stroller, but I respected her wishes.

She was probably the smallest runner, though not by much.  Her shirt, a youth size M, dangled to her knees.  I tucked it into her pink shorts as best I could, and we pulled out her ballet skirt.  I tried to swallow the lump in my throat, knowing at once that this might be one of those defining moments for her, and that she would probably surprise me.

The first wave of runners left, and she jogged forward, dancing to the music at the start line.  And then: "here we go!" I said.  Beaming, she took off.  She probably jogged for a good half mile before she walked a little, then jogged and walked alternately for another mile to the first water stop.  She was doing great, I told her.  Everyone cheered for her as she went past; I think she enjoyed the celebrity.

Then: the hill.  Hot.  She complained that she was sweaty. I agreed, telling her that I was sweaty, too. That being sweaty is how this experience works. I fed her ice chips from the water table, but I could see her face turning red. A few hundred feet behind us, I could see the police car following the last runners.  I'd never finished last before, and it surprised me that the prospect of finishing last didn't bother me so much, but I wanted to get her home before she got too hot or had to pee.  I hoisted her onto my shoulders, and we ran another mile.  I told her that I'd carry her to the next water station, that she could walk from there to the end. Down our street.  Where everyone knew her.

We jogged along, a mother-daughter totem pole, making a beeline for the hoses that people aimed into the air to cool off the runners.  Finally I put her down, as I promised, and told her that it was all down hill from here, that we'd run together to the finish.

A few yards down, she told me she was tired and wanted to go home.  I told her to hold my hand, that we were so close to the finish.  That maybe there was juice at the finish line.

This motivated her some, and she sprinted ahead for ten more yards or so, her spindly little legs shooting out from under her tutu like the cartoon Road Runner's.  We looked for more hoses.  We said hello to friends.  We made faces at each other.

Finally, we rounded the corner.  I could see the finish line in front of us.  I urged her on, and she made a face that looked exactly like a runner in agony at the end of a marathon.  I told her she could do it.  That I'd give her as much juice as she wanted.

Before she knew it, her little pink sneakers had crossed the finish line.  We hadn't even finished last.*

She studied her medal as we wandered through the crowd, looking for juice.  There wasn't any; we were too late even for the post-race bananas.

"I don't think I'm going to run this race next year," she told me.

"Why?" I asked, hoisting her back up to carry her home.

"Because I get too tired at the end."

I laughed.  "I get tired, too, love.  But you know what?  I bet if you practice, soon you'll be able to run this race without getting tired.  Soon, you'll run this race faster than I could."

She thought about this.  I could feel her chin resting on the top of my head, her body drooping. "Well, maybe next year."

I smiled.  The streets were mostly cleared of runners and families, who had collected their gear and gone home.  "And in the meantime," I told her, "as long as you want to, we'll run it together."

What I didn't tell her was that she's already my pacer.


*for the record, she crossed the finish line one second before I did.

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

For more information about Girls on the Run, visit http://www.girlsontherun.org/.
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