Friday, September 24, 2021

Life's uncertain, eat dessert first.

When I was a college student, there was a pub-like place at the edge of campus where my parents would sometimes take me on weekends when they'd visit. They had a vast glass case full of cakes of all sorts, and I loved going there, not for the food, but for the treats; in fact, the menu they'd hand you had the desserts listed first. And their motto, printed on every napkin, was "Life is Uncertain: Eat Dessert First."

I've been thinking a lot about that recently, for a lot of reasons: a while ago, one of my best friends from college -- with whom I was woefully incommunicative -- effectively dropped dead when his heart stopped beating, and in a stroke of amazing luck, it started again, but now he has a pacemaker. And then there's the whole pandemic, which finally motivated me and my husband to write our wills, because we realized that it's actually possible that both of us might die at the same time.

And then the other night, my daughter confessed to me that she doesn't like to be alone at night, because she starts, in her words, "remembering that I'm a person. And people die ... but I don't want to die, and I don't want YOU to die."

Deep existential thoughts for a ten year old.

We talked a lot that night, in the dark, lying side by side in her bed, about how it's true, people die, and it would be wrong of me to deny that, or even to promise her that I will live a long life. Because the truth is that none of us know. And thinking about that IS scary. I tried not to tell her how often I worry about this, too: that my miracle child will leave me, that I won’t have had enough time. We talked about how children who are diagnosed with terminal illnesses sometimes have to come to terms with that, too, and how incredibly unfair that feels. We did not talk about pregnancy loss, but we’ve talked about it before, and she knows that this is there too, the specter in the background.

And then we talked about how people sometimes deal with the uncertainty of life and death, with the help of religion, with the help of community, and with the humanistic approach of just making the most of as many moments as we can, remembering that we are human and celebrating it, rather than worrying about it.

Basically, eating dessert first.

This week was my son's fifteenth birthday. He's now taller than I am, and he'll be driving before I know it (he's taking driver's ed in school this year), and he has a lot to say that I don't always agree with. My daughter is starting to show the signs of growing up, too. It's a lot. It all reminds me that I'm a person. So I'm trying to get to the band competitions, and go for walks with them, and listen and play and talk, knowing that I don't have forever, even if I don't always get it right and do my share of yelling and don't always remember that it matters. Because given what we don't know, it's the most any of us can do.

Chocolate Cake

3/4 c. vegetable oil plus more for greasing pans
3/4 c. unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch-process) plus more for dusting pans
1 c. water
3/4 c. well-stirred canned unsweetened coconut milk
3 large eggs, warmed in shell in warm water 5 minutes
1 1/2 t. vanilla extract
2 c. all-purpose flour
1 3/4 c. sugar
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
3/4 t. salt

Heat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Oil pans and line bottoms with rounds of parchment, then dust sides only with cocoa powder, knocking out excess.

Whisk together water, coconut milk, 3/4 cup oil, eggs, and vanilla in a bowl until well blended and smooth.

Sift together flour, sugar, 3/4 cup cocoa powder, baking powder and soda, and salt into a large bowl. Add wet ingredients to flour mixture and whisk until smooth.

Divide batter between pans, and bake until a tester comes out clean and layers just begin to pull away from side of pans, 25 to 30 minutes.

Cool cake layers in pans on a rack 30 minutes, then run a thin knife around edge of pans and invert cakes onto rack. Remove parchment and cool completely.

Frost with your favorite frosting ... I like white, because it makes for a nice contrast.




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Wednesday, May 5, 2021

No One Teaches You

(still editing this. But publishing it anyway.)

Last week, we lost a student in my college. I knew the person only a little bit, but the staff, our students, our community has all been devastated by this incalculable, unimaginable loss, which comes during a time of so much other loss, on top of the stress of the end of the term, not to mention a year in which systemic racism has been a constant conversation and many people are re-living traumas on a regular basis. It has just all been so much.

I debated whether to tell the small part of the student's story that I know, the window into what happened over the span of just a few days, and the awful feeling in my stomach when I knew in my gut what I didn't want to know in my head, but decided that it is not my story to tell. What is my story to tell, though, is that this past week has made me so grateful for the ALI community that I met through his blog.

There are no words that can offer any comfort to a parent who has lost their only child. This isn't how it's supposed to go; you're supposed to have children (multiple children), and live a long happy life to see them grow up and have their children. That's the story we are told.

Of course, we know that this story has many different and difficult endings, or at least that it unfolds in many different and difficult and sometimes tragic and devastating ways.

As a nation, as a culture, we are not very good at dealing with death. We don't like to talk about it because it reminds us that we're not immortal, hat the narrative is flawed, and we're are an optimistic country, so mortality is not something we like spending time considering. If you want proof, just look at how we dealt with the pandemic. If we were really understood and accepted mortality, maybe we would have taken more precautions collectively, looked out for each other.

On top of that, we're also not very good about talking about mental illness. While it's better than it was when I was a teenager, there are still stigmas around anxiety and depression that make it difficult for people to seek and get the treatment they need. 

So when mortality and mental illness collide, you can imagine how this goes. We come up pretty short. We want to make it go away. We don't even like to say, publicly, that this death was a suicide, because it feels like there is some shame in this act. We question ourselves, wonder what else we could have done, try to find someone or something to blame. All of this makes talking about it very hard.

Over the years, the ALI community gave me vocabulary and a way to sit with people who are grieving, people whose lives are not following the traditional script. We talk about death and loss in very public ways, we mourn together, we comfort each other, speaking the names of children we have lost. I learned the word "abide" here, even though we are rarely together in person to experience the solace of three dimensional companionship. Oddly enough, I learned here, in a space where we share words, that it's OK to not have any. I learned to sit in silence and presence.

I never want to have to have the kinds of conversations I've had last week. I don't think I've done it all right, or done enough, because those are impossible things to achieve. But I do know that I have been able to sit (virtually) in a space where I have no words, to abide (at a distance) with people who have experienced an unimaginable loss, and try my very best to simply be present, to bear witness. And I owe that to you.

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Sunday, May 2, 2021

The Empty Tub and Sri Lankan Dal

Almost a week and a half ago, I got my second vaccination. My husband is now more than two weeks out.

We've been following the CDC guidelines to the letter for the past year, masking everywhere, minimizing our exposure, reducing our grocery shopping. We sent the kids to hybrid school, so there was a risk, but there has been no in-school transmission. The kids haven't played with friends inside at all, and even when they're outside, they mask in close contact--no mater how brief--with everyone. Unfortunately, this has pretty much ruined my daughter's relationships with everyone on the street, who no longer ring our doorbell and ask her to play.

When this all started, my husband and I filled a plastic tub with two weeks' worth of nonperishable food, things that the kids could even cook if need be: pasta, beans, canned vegetables. There was extra toilet paper and tissues, cereal, applesauce and canned fruit. Flour for making bread in the breadmaker. We imagined what would happen if we both became ill, and no one else was able to come help. And for a year, the green plastic tub stayed in the corner of the kitchen, occasionally refreshed with a new box of cereal or bag of flour. Even in the corner, it was like an unspoken threat, more visible than the wills we updated in April.

This week, with a week to go until I was fully vaccinated, knowing that we wouldn't work through any of the groceries over the next week and that they'd still be around, I started to empty the tub, to put things away in cabinets where they'd normally go. The likelihood now of both my husband and me getting sick at the same time was much lower. We could get by on the things we usually keep in the pantry. It was a strange moment, exhiliarating and disorienting at the same time.

I know that we're not out of the woods. We will still mask, we will still be cautious, we know that it's not just about us but about protecting our whole community, especially given the new variants out there and the fact that right down the street in a town not far away the infection rates are still very high because people are living in much closer proximity without the privileges of protection (like the ability to work remotely) that I enjoy. The kids can't be vaccinated yet, and it's not clear when or if that will happen.

But for a moment, looking at the empty corner made me feel like maybe there is a light at the end of what has been a very dark tunnel.

Sri Lankan Dal
This is one of the recipes we discovered this past year; it's a good go-to that uses pantry staples, and is particularly warming and comforting, sort of like the lentil version of rice pudding, especially if you omit the turmeric and hot pepper, 

1 lb. red lentils
4 t. coconut oil
3 cardamom pods, cracked
1 cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves
1 large brown onion, peeled and thinly sliced
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1/2 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
2 green finger chillies, finely sliced (optional)
4 1/2 c. water
1/3 teaspoon ground turmeric (optional)
7 oz (3/4 c + 2 T.) coconut milk
1 1/2 t. sea salt

Place lentils into a sieve and wash until water runs clear. Place lentils into a large bowl, cover with water and set aside while continuing with the recipe. 

Heat the coconut oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until hot, add the cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. Stir-fry for about a minute, or until fragrant. Add the onions, cook for about 10 minutes stirring frequently, or until onions are soft and golden brown.

Next, add in the garlic, ginger and green chili, stir-fry for about 2 minutes.

Drain the lentils and place into the saucepan. Add the ground turmeric (I sort of like it without ... it tastes a bit more "homey" and sweet) and pour in water. Increase the heat and bring to a boil then turn heat to a simmer. Cook the lentils for about 20 minutes, or until soft. Once cooked pour in the coconut milk and add the sea salt to the lentils, stir and cook for a further 5 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and keep warm.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2021

The Robin's Nest


 trigger warning: pregnancy loss.

This spring, a robin started to build her nest right outside the window in our kitchen. I spend a lot of time looking out that window, since the sink is right there, and I'm doing the dishes at least twice a day, and it was fascinating to watch the process up so close.

Each day, the nest became thicker, deeper, more well-constructed. Sometimes we'd all marvel at the wonder of architecture, sometimes we'd watch the robin and wonder what she was doing as she pressed her body into the nest. "Is she laying an egg?" I asked no one in particular, aloud. I would avert my eyes, feeling like it was a private moment, but how could I not look?

The robin wasn't much of a homebody; we'd see her there occasionally, and then the nest was empty. Except one day, it wasn't. A bright blue egg, like a piece of turqoise. Astonishing, against the drab brown of the nest.

I worried about the egg. Was she spending enough time there? Was it safe? Were we too close to the window? Was the light from the kitchen too bright?

Then, one day, another egg. Then, away again. And another day, a third. Away. And finally, a fourth.

With each additional egg, my concern grew. The robin spent a lot of time away from the nest. Were the eggs warm enough? Would they be OK there? We learned that robins spend 15 minutes of every hour warming their eggs. They sleep at night.

I peeked over the windowsill carefully, never opening the window, taking stock of the robin's appearance and disappearance. After the fourth egg, it seemed to stay for a bit, hunkered down.

Except one day, when she was out, I noticed that two eggs had gone missing.

I felt my heart drop. Where were they? Eaten? Did they fall? I half wanted to go rooting around in the bush, see if I could find the eggs on the ground, replace them in the nest. But of course, I couldn't. So I pinned my hopes on the two remaning eggs, watching the robin come and go, come and go, checking to make sure that she was spending enough time warming the two precious remaining eggs.

And one day, the robin left, and didn't come back.

I have been watching the nest in vain hope ever since, the two perfect beautiful turquoise eggs that will never hatch. Was it something we did? Was the lawnmower too close and too loud? Did we walk by too many times, even at what we thought was a safe distance? I fault myself, ourselves, over and over.

My kids tell me "it's just nature, Mom." My daughter, wise, knowing that there were others before her that didn't hatch, tries to console me: "this even happens to humans." Which, of course, is exactly the problem.

I'm heartbroken. And every day, at least twice a day, ten times a day, I look at the eggs, sitting in the nest, outside my kitchen window. Reminders of the birds that will never be.

Reminders that our hearts are never quite the same.

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Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Rustic Bean Soup and a Visit to the Apocalypse

When the decision was made to bring students back to campus this semester, despite the fact that classes would still be remote, the Campus Life group developed a program that would bring staff in for occasional "rounds" to encourage student adherence to the social contract guidelines (facial coverings, social distancing, not moving furniture, limited in person gatherings, etc.). Initially, I declined to sign up for the opt-in responsibilities, thinking that I'd see students on my own terms, when I was ready, and not visit what was likely to be a petri dish of COVID. Over time, though, I started to feel like maybe I should show up. After all, it had been months since I'd really been on campus for more than a minute or two. And at some point, I thought, I'd have to go back. Better to mentally prepare myself for that moment in small doses.

My first shift the other day was scheduled close on the heels of another meeting, so I figured I'd go to campus early, take my meeting in the office, and then show up for my shift afterwards. On paper, it looked easy.

What I didn't anticipate was just how hard it would feel to walk into that office, remember where the light switches were, and sit in a chair that wasn't mine (because mine was at home, where I brought it early in the pandemic), looking at a huge double monitor setup. It felt weirdly foreign, like a space I'd never inhabited before.

But there were also weird reminders of time that stopped in its tracks. Files from students that had graduated last year. Half-completed paperwork that ended up completed online. Ghosts of the year gone by. And perhaps most bizarre, my planner, open to the date last year when we all left campus, thinking we'd be gone for two weeks. It was like returning home after the apocalypse, digging through the debris alone, lights turned off, no one else in sight.

I left that day, after my meeting, realizing that it would take a long time to feel like this space was normal again.

Rustic Tuscan Bean Soup
This was a recipe I shared with some friends early in the pandemic when the "I'm out of meals, send your recipe to ten friends" chain letter was going around. I never forward those things, but I always respond to the sender. Sort of like a voice from the future, speaking into the past.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 medium carrots, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 medium zucchini, diced
1 yellow summer squash, diced
4 cloves garlic, pressed
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 quart vegetable (or chicken) broth
2 (14 ounce) cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 (14 ounce) can no-salt-added diced tomatoes with juices
3 cups chopped kale, ribs removed
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon white sugar
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

Heat olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onions, carrots, celery, zucchini, and squash. Saute for 4 minutes.

Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, thyme and rosemary. Cook 30 seconds.

Stir in the broth, beans, and tomatoes. Bring the contents to a boil, then turn the heat down to low and add the chopped kale. Cover the pot and simmer for 15 minutes.

Use an immersion blender to partially puree the soup, leaving some chunks of beans vegetables for texture.

Add the salt, pepper, sugar, and vinegar. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.

Serve topped with Parmesan or Dubliner cheese and a side of crusty bread.

 

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Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Buy Nothing, and Korean Beef

A lot of us have been thinking about community this past year, and the importance of deep and authentic connections, beyond the transactional relationships we have more and more. I was struck by this post from the road less travelled about the ways that people lean on us from the communities we build, in the most unexpected moments.

A few weeks ago, my community started a Buy Nothing group on Facebook. Essentially, Buy Nothing groups are hyper-local gift economies where people can "gift" from abundance or loan things they have, "ask" for anything they might need, and offer "gratitude" for gifts in public ways. They believe that strong communities can lean on each other, and that the value of a gift is not just the thing itself but a human connection.

There was already a pretty active "free stuff" group in my township, where people posted all kinds of stuff. But it often felt like vultures circling, waiting for the kill. And by the time I was able to log on and see what was there, nothing was left; it was picked clean. On the giving side, I'd often leave things out for people who'd said "INTERESTED," only to have them go unclaimed for weeks. People seemed to feel no sense of responsibility and were super picky about said free items. It just left me feeling icky, even if it was sometimes a good place to get rid of stuff.

The new group had a fresh start, and some ground rules. We were encouraged to let things "simmer" so that people could have a chance at an item even if they weren't watching a page constantly. We were invited to offer gifts of time and service, rather than just stuff. It felt like a breath of fresh air.

I love decluttering, so I set to work posting things: clothing, shoes, toys, kitchenware, knick knacks. I made two Easter baskets ouf of some plastic baskets I had by adding some toys and lollipops. And I claimed stuff too: a new teakettle (which didn't require a potholder to pick it up), some new dishes (to replace the ones that have been breaking for years), some delicious biscotti, a Nespresso Vertuo coffee maker I'd been coveting (though now I have to figure out how to get cheap pods!). The other day someone arrived with a plate of Indian food as a thanks for the toy I gifted to her daughter. There's a tea round robin, circulating in an unwanted tin. A puzzle round robin is just starting.

But it's also been interesting to try to educate people about how the new group works, to remind them gently that this group is fundamentally about community. People are so stuck on the stuff. When someone says "interested" we remind them to tell us why. When posts start to speed up, we remind posters to simmer so that others have a chance. And some of us have been trying to model the kind of gifting we want to see start happening: gifting baked goods (to people who have to share with a neighbor), tutoring, offering plant cuttings, loaning out squirrel traps.

Buy Nothing is complicated; of course, it's limited by where people live, which, if you know anything about the long term effects of redlining, is racially and socioeconomically segregated. The folks who wrote the book about it do think a lot about social jusice, which gives me hope. It's the other side of the frustration I felt about so much during the pandemic. It's a small investment, I hope, in kindness.

Do you have a local Buy Nothing group?

Korean Beef
Among the "asks" on our Buy Nothing group was for easy recipes. This was, oddly enough posted by another member, and I connected with her because it's one that my daughter happened to find and like, too.

1/4 cup low sodium soy sauce*
2 teaspoons light brown sugar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
cooking spray
1 pound 93% lean ground beef
1/4 cup chopped yellow onion
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger
3 cups cooked brown rice
1 small sliced cucumber, skin on
2 tablespoons Gochujang, or more if desired*
1/2 tablespoon sesame seeds, plus more for topping
2 sliced scallions, white and green parts

Combine the soy sauce, 2 T water, brown sugar, sesame oil and red pepper flakes in a small bowl.
Heat a large deep nonstick skillet over high heat, spray with oil and add the ground beef. Cook, breaking the meat up with a wooden spoon until cooked through, about 5 minutes.

Add the onion, garlic and ginger and cook 1 minute.
Pour the sauce over the beef, cover and simmer on low heat 10 minutes.

To assemble the bowls, place 3/4 cup rice in each bowl, top with scant 2/3 cup beef, cucumbers, Gochujong, sesame seeds and scallions.

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Monday, March 22, 2021

Vaccines, and Beans (Gigantes Plaki): On Investing in Kindness

Disclaimer: I know this is going to be controversial. Bear with me.

My FB feed has been full, lately, of people getting vaccinated.

This is a really good thing, because vaccines in arms are good for everyone, except my feeds are also full of people who are older, or immunocompromised, or are in some way more vulnerable to COVID-19, and can't get an appointment, or don't know how. 

The underlying deeply uncomfortable truth--which I tested by posting to FB innocently asking if I might be missing something or should I be ignoring the message to wait my turn, and was rewarded by people PMing me both to encourage me to cut in line and sending me tips for getting that elusive appointment--is that some currently non-eligible people are getting vaccine appointments before people who are more vulnerable, know this, and don't care. As someone responded to my post, "it's like the Hunger Games."

Some of this has to do with a lack of faith in the government to be effective (which, to be honest, it is NOT;  the patchwork systems in place to connect people with vaccines are a mess in NJ, to say the least). Some of it is just "every man for himself." All of this has gotten me thinking a lot about what I've observed about human behavior during the pandemic, from the hoarding of toilet paper to the refusal to wear masks to protect others to vaccine "hunting." (And yes, that's really what it's called.)

In the U.S., for better or worse, we invest in individuals; we reward competition, cunning, and greed. That's what gets people ahead. The first people in line get the most toilet paper. Honestly, it's been very tempting to game the system and schedule my appointment, even though I'm not eligible right now.

Where is the opportunity for us to cultivate and invest in kindness? In generosity? In gratitude? How do we build a culture that truly believes that there's enough for everyone, and where you don't have to be first? There are "angel" vaccination sites, people who are staying up until 4 a.m. to get vaccine appointments for people when they "drop," but even they are reporting that people are demanding appointments from them.

I used to bring this dish to our local community race and diversity potluck conversations, pre-pandemic. It doesn't cost much, it feeds a lot of people, and it's nutritious and easy to make. The cool thing about potlucks is that you almost always have more leftovers than you started with, even if people come without having brought anything. People like potlucks; you're bound to discover some tasty dish you didn't realize your neighbor had, and people like showing off their best recipes. What if we had approached this pandemic more like a potluck than a race? How much more toilet paper would there have been at the beginning, and how much more of everything would we all have right now?

Greek Gigantes

1 pound dry gigantes beans, soaked overnight
2 medium yellow onions, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 (14.5-ounce) cans no-salt-added diced tomatoes
2 cups vegetarian chicken broth (or water)
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
fresh dill (optional)
Crusty bread, black pepper, and more olive oil for serving

Boil the beans for 10 minutes. (OK, I confess sometimes I skip even this step.)

Place all of the ingredients in the bowl of a large slow cooker. Cook for 4-6 hours on high, or 8-10 hours on low. Taste and add more salt as needed.
Serve with toasted crusty bread. Garnish with freshly ground black pepper and a drizzle of olive oil, and with a sprinkle, on each bowl, of fresh dill.

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