Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Notes from a Small House: Pandemic 2020 and Vegetarian Korma

When I broke my foot nearly four weeks ago walking down the stairs, minding my own business, feeling perfectly able-bodied, I could not have known that walking would be my only escape from my house for the next four weeks, and, if we're to believe the models, even longer.

Now I am benched during a pandemic, a kind of ironic twist of fate that is requiring double patience. I have slept and worked and eaten and read on this small corner of the couch, which is sinking from my constant presence, contorting my back into postures that would make the ergonomics people at work quiver. I have just recently graduated to walking with one crutch, and I am finally managing to take some kind of a half-shower every day, which goes a long way towards making me feel like a human being.

We'd never heard the phrases "social distancing" or "flattening the curve" before just a few weeks ago, but now I've not seen other people in 3D -- besides the folks at the doctor's office -- in weeks. When Steve goes to the grocery store at the crack of dawn with a mask on, he comes home, and we wipe down everything with sanitizing wipes. At the beginning, after surgery, I was running a low grade fever, and I took my temperature constantly, sure that I'd contracted COVID-19 and would have to go to the hospital alone with a broken foot and pneumonia. Now, nearly four weeks after the surgery, I'm no longer running a fever, but every once in a while a warmth creeps over me, and my chest tightens, and I clear my throat, and feel dread.

So many people have died. There are refrigerator trucks parked outside of hospitals, makeshift morgues because there is no longer room for the bodies elsewhere.

My students are grieving a loss they can't describe, fearful and anxious for the future. They ask if we will be open in the fall, whether things will be back to normal. I can't tell them, and I tell them that I can't tell them, but that I hope so. They deserve my honesty. Advising conversations often feel a little bit like the advising conversations I had after 9/11, when everyone was raw and vulnerable and hungering for connection but unsure of what fresh hell the next day would bring.

I scroll endlessly through Facebook, trying to stop myself but unable to do so, drawn in both by the bountiful supply of information about COVID-19 and trying not to judge the memes about hunkering down with kids, or oblivious-sounding posts about rainbow painting and baking, and photographic evidence of continued lack of attention to social distancing requirements. What new hobbies are you cultivating, they ask? Old hobbies, I answer, under my breath. Anxiety. Long work days. Ignoring my kids. I feel unreasonably angry at people who are quilting and bread baking and learning to play the ukelele, at the same time as I feel deeply grateful for a job that lets me work remotely, and a job that is unlikely to lay me off any time soon. We are the fortunate ones, and I am fully aware of my privilege.

My kids are on spring break this week, after two weeks of online school, where my son sits in the office and my daughter in the playroom, earbuds in and headphones on, respectively. We are lucky that they're good students, that they're old enough to be mostly self-sufficient, and that this transition has not been as bumpy as it could have been. Still, N's favorite time of the day is her virtual meeting with her class over zoom. I's favorite time of day is when it's all over and he can go read his book on his phone; he prefers to turn off the webcam and his microphone when class is in session, in true introvert fashion. N needs physical contact; she comes over and hugs me randomly throughout the day, and I hug her back. She says this is the worst time of her life. But she doesn't cry. Neither does my son. They are, on the whole, handling this really, really well.

I did, though, this weekend, finally lost my shit, tired of being cooped up, tired of feeling like sickness is just there hovering at the doorstep, tired of convalescing and working in this small space. I had just found out my undergraduate thesis adviser had lost her life. Ironically, my bracelet from the Shiva Lingam Puja in India, over a year ago, had finally just fallen off my wrist. Shiva is known as the destroyer of evil, the light of consciousness, and the bracelet is a symbol, among other things, of protection. I wonder what evil is being destroyed, and whether this destruction we're witnessing now is the beginning of rebirth or the end of something else, whether this is a reminder to look inward. I know that there is less pollution, that the earth is changing, like when the wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone and the course of the rivers changed.  Still, I feel like I've been caught a little unprepared.

Steve has been cooking, just as he's been doing the shopping. Mostly I am putting together menus and a grocery list, a sort of amalgam of comfort food and convenience since neither one of us have time to cook during the day despite the fact that we're all here within 20 feet of the kitchen.

It's been a while since I've shared a recipe, or anything for that matter, and this one can't quite be made from just the items in your pantry because it requires fresh vegetables, but cauliflower doesn't seem to be flying off the shelves like toilet paper and beans are. And somehow there are chickpeas there when there aren't other kinds of beans. It's the first meal I made in a long time, because I managed to stand, one-crutched, in the kitchen for a whole half an hour. It was a small triumph, and it made me think of you.

Here's hoping the quarantine finds you as well as you can be, and knowing that we're all just doing the best we can.

Chickpea and Cauliflower Korma

2 T coconut oil or olive oil or unsalted butter
1 T mild curry powder
2 t garam masala
1 1/2 t salt
1 c roughly chopped carrots
1 onion, peeled and roughly cut
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 (28 oz) can whole plum tomatoes  (or 2 15 oz cans fire roasted diced)
1/2 c canned coconut milk (or more if you like)
1 15-oz can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 small cauliflower, cut into bite-sized florets
1 T lemon juice
2 T chopped fresh mint or cilantro, to serve (optional)
slivered almonds, toasted, to serve (optional)

In a large pot, heat oil or butter over medium heat; add spices, salt, carrots, onion, and garlic. Sauté for 8 to 10 minutes, until onions are translucent.

Add tomatoes and coconut milk, bring to a boil, reduce to medium, cover, and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, or until vegetables are very tender. Transfer to a blender or food processor or use an immersion/stick blender directly in the pot, and puree until smooth. Add back to pot if necessary along with chickpeas, cauliflower, and lemon juice. Bring to a boil, reduce to medium, cover, and cook until cauliflower is extremely tender, about 15 minutes.

Serve hot with brown rice, basmati rice, or quinoa, and a scattering of mint or cilantro and toasted almonds.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Things I Learned in India

(with thanks to Mel, who listened to my "first draft" of this rapture quite some time ago. By PHONE. As in, I heard her VOICE. Not sure if anyone is out there any more, but what the hell ...)

A year ago, my yoga teacher, the only teacher I have ever stuck with for so long, sent an email to her mailing list. The subject line was "are you coming or what?"

To India, she meant. To a small town called Ganeshpuri, home to her teacher's guru, and his guru before him, and his guru before him: on retreat two hours outside of Mumbai for ten days.

My non-rational self said, "of course I'm coming." My rational self (too expensive, can't get away from work at that time, what about the kids, what if I get really sick or something happens to me there etc. etc.) didn't kick in until I'd asked my husband and my boss, both of whom shrugged as if it were nothing and said I should go. And by then it was too late.

Or not, because I dragged my feet making my final deposit, and dragged them again buying my plane ticket, and yet again applying for my visa. And on the night I arrived, sometime at around 1:30 in the morning India time, after being awake on and off for close to 36 hours, I found myself in tears in my room, wondering what the hell I could possibly have been thinking. I knew it would not be asana classes all day with spa food on the beach ... this was something completely different that what people tend to think of when they imagine "yoga retreat." But something had kept me from bailing.

Of course, it was an amazing trip. I wrote more (in a journal) than I've written in a long, long time. While India, especially rural India, was complicated for all of the reasons you might expect (pollution, poverty, etc.), it was also remarkably beautiful, and I felt my heart crack open. I wept at temples during arati, and during meditation and chanting, and while walking around the garden. I felt immense peace. I ate street food and drank street chai and sugarcane juice and didn't get sick. I mastered the art of using toilet paper the Indian way. I learned how to chant the alphabet in Sanskrit. I drank in the sounds of Bollywood music and mantra over the loudspeaker from the town far away; I ground dirt so deeply into my feet that I thought no amount of scrubbing would ever clean them; I breathed in the smell of earth mixed with fire and jasmine and spice; I made offerings to goddesses during a fire ceremony.

Each morning we woke at 4 am to go to the temple for the morning abishekam and arati. We stopped for chai and then walked back across the river to our retreat center for asana class, and breakfast, and two hours of spiritual studies (mantra, yoga philosophy, rituals, etc.), followed by lunch, and free time, and more spiritual studies. (Lori, I thought often of you.)

(Some) things I learned:
  • Chai is better with friends and biscuits. Chai is also better in India than anything you can get in the U.S. It's definitely the milk. Maybe I need a buffalo?
  • Namaste? That invocation of the divine in another human being? That's for real. When you pass people on the street, and you say "namaste" to everyone, you see the divine over and over again, and you see people in a way that we never bother to see each other in the U.S. It is a gift to see and to be seen like that; you feel ... connected. Like you are part of something even greater and more than you are.
  • On a related note, it is really good to get off my phone. And off social media. In person connection is more important to us than we realize.
  • First aid kits do you no good in your suitcase. You need to carry said kit with you at all times, because you'll inevitably get a blister. Fortunately, your fellow travelers together carry all of the elements of a first aid kit, and you are bandaged many times over (and in many ways) by your community.
  • I am capable of, and in fact really enjoy, being vegetarian. And though I used to pooh-pooh ayurveda, they are really on to something.
  • Kirtan makes me want to dance with abandon. I miss dancing, even though I tapdance.
  • Women carry everything. Everywhere. And usually all at once.
  • There is an inexplicable energy in the universe that buzzes through your fingertips if you sit still long enough to feel it.
  • The world is astonishingly beautiful at 4 a.m., and I am capable of rising at 4 a.m. on a regular basis to go to a temple and meditate.
  • I actually sort of like going to a temple to meditate.
  • On the flip side, I am very attached to my Self. And in the few moments I can escape it, and become expansive, I can't understand why we don't always make an effort to be this way.
  • I love to give. I find it very difficult to receive. In fact, I actively resist the gift.
  • I am capable of being where I am, instead of wanting to be somewhere else, looking ahead or behind. It is a feeling of immense contentment. I need to practice it more often.
The most wild thing I realized, as I flew home, was that it was February. And for the first time in many years, I didn't experience that inexplicable but also explicable sensation of not having enough air, or random panic in the grocery store, or the feeling of a large gorilla sitting on my chest.

I've been trying not to fall back into old routines and habits: obsessing over my phone, eating, living always somewhere else besides here and now. I am not proud to say that I haven't figured out how to keep a practice, though I have been doing asana every morning since I got back, and I did buy a mala after much deliberation about whether it was cultural appropriation or weird because it's a lot like a rosary and I left the Catholic church years ago because I felt so constrained by things like that.

Now, paradoxically, I have to decide: what next.

Yoga teacher training has been on my mind for nine years, since I found out I was pregnant with my daughter, and became cautiously optimistic. I can prove this: I found the post.

But there's also a spiritual studies community at my yoga studio that some of the fellow travelers have encouraged me to join.  And another trip to India next year (though that seems less likely, since it is at the same time of year again).

Votes welcome. I miss the bliss that I can see on my own face. I am a work in progress.

Om shanti.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

the #womensmarch, the #longermarch, and breakfast cookies.

On Saturday, January 21st, I woke up at 3:50 and donned my four layers of clothing so I could board a bus to Washington, D.C.

(Maybe you don't agree with me for doing so, but I hope you'll stay with me through this story. Because my thoughts on the march is complicated. Maybe yours are, too.)

I'd packed my phone, an extra battery, $100 in cash (in case I got arrested, because that ACLU recommends it), maps, information from the ACLU, some granola bars, tissues, a bandana, and health insurance cards.  I had a lunchbox with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with carrot sticks and chocolate milk for the ride home. I carried a sign to which I'd given a lot of thought.  It didn't say anything about the new administration, because I don't want to stoop to name-calling; it said, simply, "not going back."  Because I refuse to return to a time before VAWA grants, before better women's health care, before civil rights, before Title IX improved the way in which we deal with victims of sexual assault on college campuses.

I'd had some worrisome thoughts the night before, when my daughter, sobbing, told me not to leave. Though I didn't have any plan for civil disobedience, I considered what it might be like to get arrested, or tear gassed, or worse. I worried that I'd be stuck in a crowd, unable to get back to my bus in time.  But I'd kissed my children goodbye that morning as they slept, smelling sweet and drowsy, and decided that it would all be OK, that I'd be in good company, and that if I got left behind, I could figure out how to get home.

Seeing those buses in the loop of my elementary school, almost filled by 4:30, was pretty inspiring. There were kids--some my own kids' age--who were awake and helping to hand out kid-decorated brown paper bags with hand warmers and granola bars and the cookies that I'd baked and dropped off the day before.  There were teenagers at the back of the bus, where teenagers always are. I settled into a seat, made a pillow with my jacket, and closed my eyes, as the bus driver turned out the lights, pulling out of lot and bounced along into the pre-dawn.

Sometime close to 7 am, we passed the first large rest stop, and someone on the bus started cheering. I woke, startled, and looked out at a virtual sea of buses parked at the rest stop. It was, in a word, astonishing; it was the first thing that made me cry that morning.

In Delaware, we got stuck in traffic, one of our buses leaked antifreeze, and we wondered if we'd make it. I started talking to the teenagers.  "Do you think there will be any Trump supporters?" they asked.  "Maybe," I said. "Probably not a lot, but let's think about it this way: maybe someone voted for him for economic reasons, but wants to be heard on an issue related to women's health care.  Or the Violence Against Women Act. I would hope they would be welcome. For me, this event is about reminding our representatives that they work for us." They agreed, nodding thoughtfully.

Finally, at nearly 11 am, we pulled into RFK Stadium. That, too, was a powerful moment, a moment in which I got a sense of collectivity, of coming together: a sea of buses, as far as the eye could see, crossing over the bridges from every direction.  One of the women in a seat in front of me handed around a bag of pink fleece hats (not exactly pussy hats) that a friend had made, because she wanted to come, and couldn't.  I took one, and wore it, not because I wanted a pussy hat -- I'm not certain I feel I can be taken seriously in a pink hat with cat ears, though I do appreciate the humor, which is much needed -- but because I wanted to carry another woman with me. Because that's what I was there for: for women who might not have as much of a voice as I do, who might not be as fortunate as I am.  For my friend who was diagnosed with breast cancer less than a month ago and was able to get treated while it was still Stage 1. For my friend who goes to PP for mammograms because she can't afford them otherwise. For friends who have been survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. For friends who are raising children with a same-sex partner. For colleagues with PhDs who have been stopped and frisked on the commute home because they're Black. For my first generation and low income college students, some of whom come from families who voted for the new administration, and who deserve elementary and high schools that are held accountable for their students, and that support students with learning disabilities.

We decided to walk, instead of taking the metro, and though we dispersed quickly, one of the women on the bus stuck with me; we decided to be "buddies" for the day. Neither one of us seemed to be extroverts, but we managed to make conversation about our workplaces (she implements the ACA), children, college, choices, women's experiences, and commentary on the witty, thoughtful, diverse protest signs. Which was the sort of thing that happened all day: overhearing conversations about people who were from somewhere else, but shared some hope (or fear) for the next four years.

Just past the Capitol, we caught our first glimpse of the crowd, which stretched in every direction as far as we could see. It was hard to get a sense of scale from the middle of it, and wherever we went after a certain point, it was clear we weren't going anywhere.

By 1 p.m., we'd managed to make our way close to the stage and march starting point, and talked with people around us, trying to figure out what was going to happen when. We chatted with a group of grannies from Portland, two Latinx women from New York who hadn't told their mother where they were going (and finally caved while we where there, their mother showering us all in love in Spanish), a woman from New York who pointed out how strange it was that we were all standing so close together and weren't speaking (here we are, she said, all touching each other, and we'll never be that close again, and I don't even know your name).

At some point it became clear that the organizers had been overwhelmed by the size of the crowd and had to rethink their plans for the march because the entire route had been clogged. I was part of this historic moment, I thought.

Finally, close to 2:30, the crowd started to move, in four different directions.  We marched. Back towards the Capitol, turning the corner on to Constitution, past the Newseum, which sported a large sign celebrating First Amendment rights.  We chanted: "Tell me what democracy looks like ... THIS is what democracy looks like!" As it got closer to 3:15, we stopped and watched the march for a while from the sidelines, watched as police vans drove through with lights flashing and sirens wailing, feeling slightly worried when so many of them came by, parting the crowd, but breathing a sigh of relief as they moved on without stopping. By 3:30, we had to turn around, because we had to leave time to get back to the bus, which was leaving at 5.  I was sorry to leave, worried that perhaps too many of us would have to go early, that the numbers would dwindle and the facts about our attendance would be distorted.  As we walked back to the bus, we thanked every police person and marshal and National Guard member, and they waved us on, thanking us for coming, wishing us safe travels home.

As empowering as it was to be there in a sea of people, mostly women but also some men, there were some things that gave -- and still give -- me pause.

I kept my mouth shut, for example, when people started chanting, "Hey hey, ho ho, D-- T-- has got to go." Realistically, that's pretty unlikely, and even if it did happen, we have a Vice President and Speaker of the House that share his politics and ideology, even if they don't (though they probably do) share what I view as his unforgivable misogyny.  t's not as simple as impeachment, even if he didn't get win popular vote. And beyond that, I'm having a hard time getting on board with alienating the people who did vote for him who could work together with us for the things we both care about.  I'm not down for the name-calling that many people on "my side" are engaging in. Madonna, for example, really didn't need to say what she said on stage, even if she was protected from saying it by the First Amendment. One of my acquaintances from a mom's group from years ago--a devout evangelical Christian who was abused by her first husband and a recipient of assistance from the VAWA grants--didn't vote but has been watching the media coverage unfold, and is appalled by what she sees as action before the new administration is "given a chance." When I try to explain to her that his first chance is his cabinet selections, and that alone is worrisome, she pulls away. I feel like I need to focus on the issues (when I mentioned VAWA and Title IX, for example, she got interested and we had a good conversation), instead of starting with demonization. The more we're divided, the easier it will be for them to create a parallel version of reality. From a viral post that's making the rounds:
Increasing the separation between Trump's base (1/3 of the population) from everybody else (the remaining 2/3). By being told something that is obviously wrong—that there is no evidence for and all evidence against, that anybody with eyes can see is wrong—they are forced to pick whether they are going to believe Trump or their lying eyes. The gamble here—likely to pay off—is that they will believe Trump. This means that they will regard media outlets that report the truth as "fake news" (because otherwise they'd be forced to confront their cognitive dissonance.)
Another thing that became pretty obvious during the march was my white woman's privilege. When I bought the pink poster paper for my sign, I said something to the cashier, who was Black, along the lines of "maybe this will get me arrested."  I immediately regretted it as soon as the words were out of my mouth and realized, as she looked at me, that she probably thought I was crazy. White women in LL Bean winter coats with tortoise shell glasses don't get arrested. The march was an unprecedented crowd of people with no arrests, kindness and civility.  It was incredibly diverse, but it was largely white. Imagine what would have happened if that many Black women showed up in one space?  The police would have come in riot gear, not in yellow vests.  Our bags would have been searched. We would have been stopped.  Many of us would have been arrested, jailed, beaten.

The march also left a huge mess. Signs were discarded both at the White House and Washington Monument, and garbage heaped out of the cans and along the streets. I carried everything out that I carried in to DC that day, with the exception of a few small granola bar wrappers that I threw in a trash can that wasn't yet full. A little attentiveness could have made a big difference.

And finally, along those lines, while I'm deeply grateful for all of the women who showed up this weekend, I hope that they realize we all need to keep showing up. And calling. But mostly showing up. And not just where we can wear our pink hats, or talk politely with our senators, but at Black Lives Matter marches, where darker colored bodies are vulnerable, and where the message may not be ours, but where if we are really serious about solidarity, I hope that we can stand in solidarity, putting our bodies on the line, too. And at LGBTQIA events where trans bodies are targets. And in spaces where we can talk with people who voted differently about the things we probably both care about.

Coalition building is slow. If the actions of the past 48 hours are any indication, there is much to do. But I'm glad I went. It was a good first step to remind us all that we live in a democracy, and we have a right to speak. And it was powerful to do so with so many other people, not just in D.C., but all over the country, and all over the world.  Together, may we gather the fuel we need for the longer march towards the future that belongs, in the end, to all of us.

Breakfast Cookies
(adapted from Ellie Krieger's recipe here)

3/4 c. whole-wheat pastry flour
1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 t. ground nutmeg
1/4 t. salt
2 T. unsalted butter
1/4 c. canola oil
1/4 c. light brown sugar
3 T. sugar
1 egg
1/4 c. pumpkin
1 t. vanilla extract
1/2 c. rolled oats
1/2 c. Uncle Sam's cereal
1/3 c. raisins
1/3 c. chopped walnuts, lightly toasted

Place rack in center of oven (more or less) and preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Whisk together flours, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt in a medium-sized bowl. Combine butter, oil and sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer and mix on high speed, scraping down sides if necessary, until sugars have dissolved and mixture is light in color, about 1 minute. Add egg, pumpkin puree and vanilla and beat an additional 30 seconds. Add flour mixture and beat an additional 30 seconds. Add oats, flakes, raisins and walnuts and mix over low speed just until incorporated. Dough will be slightly sticky and less cohesive than traditional cookie dough.

Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper. Using between 3 to 4 T. of batter, form a ball and place on cookie sheet. Repeat with remaining batter, leaving about 3 inches between cookies. Wet hands and use palm of hand to flatten cookies until about 1/4-inch thick. Bake for 12 minutes, until cookies are fragrant but still soft. Let cookies cool slightly, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

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Friday, January 20, 2017


On Saturday January 21, I will march for women.

I am a white married heterosexual educated woman with a full time job and health insurance who comes from a working class family, and I'm marching because I bear responsibility for protecting our collective rights and looking out for the well-being of my fellow citizens.  Even, believe it or not, for those who disagree with me.

I'm marching to speak up for every woman's right to health care and reproductive support on her own terms, for my friend who without the Affordable Care Act, would have died of ovarian cancer. 

I'm marching because my miscarriages were not a crime. 

I'm marching for my own five year old daughter's ownership of her body, to speak up against the violence women endure every day, which I see embodied as rape culture on our college campuses, and which must end. 

I'm marching in solidarity with my Muslim students, born in the U.S. to American citizen parents, who are afraid to express their deeply misunderstood religion lest they be the victims of violence.

I'm marching for my undocumented students, DREAMers who have gone on to work, to pay taxes, to contribute meaningfully as educators themselves, who have educated and supported people like them but also poor white students who go on to college, because their generosity and compassion isn't bounded by color.

I'm marching because my father was a refugee, and had he waited one more day to leave his country of origin, I would not have been alive, because he was next in line to be killed by a government who didn't like teachers.

I'm marching for my LGBTQ friends who, as loving parents in committed and long-standing relationships, endure the judgment of people who don't know them simply because of the way they love, and fear having their children taken from them.

I'm marching in solidarity with Black and Latinx and Asian and multi-racial women who have to worry every day about being targeted, and their children being targeted, by bullies and the police just because of the color of their skin.

I'm marching because Ana Grace was a beautiful little girl and the goddaughter of a college friend, and she did not deserve to die before her seventh birthday at the hands of a madman with a gun.

I'm marching because our children deserve an earth to live in, woods to go hiking and camping, uncontaminated air to breathe and water to drink.

I'm marching to send a message to the President Elect and to our elected representatives that we are united; they ignore our voices at their peril, and they have a sworn responsibility to work for all of the American people. I am marching because there has never been a more pressing need to demonstrate our unity and solidarity. I am marching because white feminism has lived in its bubble for too long.

None of us know what the future holds, but we know what we want for women, for America, and for humanity. On Saturday January 21, I will march to let the world know in no uncertain terms that I am here, I vote, and I care about women’s rights, and that women's rights are human rights are women's rights. I care about those rights regardless of a woman’s race, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, sexual identity, gender expression, economic status, age, appearance, or disability. And I am proud that many men will march with us, because equal rights benefit everyone.

This march is not a march of sore losers. This is not about who happens to be in office. We're not trying to turn back the clock; in fact, if anything, we are looking ahead to determine the course of history. I hope that you will stand with us, to protect the rights and the freedoms that have defined us as a people.
"The other day I was saying, I always try to do a little converting when I'm in jail. And when we were in jail in Birmingham the other day, the white wardens and all enjoyed coming around the cell to talk about the race problem. And they were showing us where we were so wrong demonstrating. And they were showing us where segregation was so right. And they were showing us where intermarriage was so wrong. So I would get to preaching, and we would get to talking—calmly, because they wanted to talk about it. And then we got down one day to the point—that was the second or third day—to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, 'Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. [laughter] You're just as poor as Negroes.' And I said, 'You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. (Yes) And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you're so poor you can't send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march.' 
                                               -Martin Luther King, "The Drum Major Instinct" 
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Friday, January 6, 2017

The Cutthroat Cookie Exchange

Not counting college, I've moved five times in my adult life.  Though I would still classify myself as an introvert, moving has taught me a lot over the years about making new connections, and now that I'm older, I care more about putting down roots and making a difference in my community.

Since we moved to our house in June, I've gotten to know the neighbors, and I joined (I use that term loosely) a group that meets to talk about race and diversity.  Before we arrived, I made sure I was on as many Facebook community groups as possible, so I could start to get to know the people in town. But it's slow.

Sometime back in November, the woman who runs the race and diversity conversation and another woman I didn't know posted something on a community group about cookies.  They joked good-naturedly about preparation, and I asked whether they were talking about a cookie exchange. They confirmed, and went on about their smack talk.

A few days later, I saw a post calling for bakers for the 2nd annual "Cutthroat Cookie Competition." So this was the "exchange" they'd been posting about. Suddenly, I was finding them more intimidating; these people were serious. I posted something about being interested but not wanting to be squashed, and the woman reassured me that it was all in good fun: two hours of conversation, wine, and good company while the judges made their decisions.  After days of self-deprecation, I decided that I'd give it a shot and enter; the worst that could happen was that I'd bring cookies no one liked, but that I'd get to take home a bunch of delicious treats that other people had made, and I'd get to meet some new people.

The four categories for the contest were "Best Looking," "Best Tasting," "Most Original," and "Best in Show."  Not knowing what I was up against, I decided not to aim for Best Tasting or Best Looking (because really, who has time for that?!), and tried to find a recipe that might have a shot at Most Original.

I tried a few recipes, and fed samples to a few select family members and friends. The Mexican Chocolate cookies were good, and soft, but not terribly interesting.  The Cranberry Lime Shortbreads were somehow lacking.  My last attempt, the Three Wisemen's Treasures, which entailed curry, cardamom, pecans, and dates, were ... weird.  But they made 74 cookies, and time was running out. I needed to bring 63 with me.  My taste testers agreed that they were odd, but the flavor was good, and the consistency appealing.  I waffled, and almost sent the last batch to work with my husband. Finally, not wanting to bake any more, I decided to bag it and bring them.

I got turned around somehow en route, and headed the wrong way, getting upset that I was going to be late to an event where I knew one or two other people.  Way to make a bad first impression. Before I knew it, there were blue and red flashing lights behind me.  I pulled over, distraught, and the police officer walked up.  "Ma'am," he said, "do you know why I pulled you over?"

"I was going 30 ... I didn't realize it was a school zone ... I was just slowing down ... I'm ... I'm ... I'm on my way to a COOKIE EXCHANGE," I sobbed, thinking and I not even going to win this stupid contest.

He walked away, checking my ID, decided that I was a nut, and after about ten minutes left me with a ticket before sending me back on my way.  Now I was really late.

I walked in, and found an impressive spread of cookies that had already arrived, in every conceivable form: chai shortbreads, chocolate dipped macaroons, several different kinds of maracons, lovely sugar cookies, sandwiches that must have taken hours, frosted thumbprints. In the kitchen there was a table full of wine and things to nibble on, and the hostess welcomed everyone as they filtered through the doorway.  I put my cookies with the rest, found the two people I knew, and relaxed into the conversation, which was really the reason I'd ended up committing in the first place.

It was a delightful two hours, despite the "cutthroat" judging happening in a clandestine room on the other side of the house (with judges including a local popular bakery owner, the principal of the middle school, and two critical husbands), and the occasional ribbing and teasing.  In the corner of the couch, last year's reigning champion sat nursing her adorable baby, and wearing an ostentatious-looking crown. I met several people I'd seen online, got to know a fellow kindergarten parent who knew one of my students and has ended up with my daughter's Daisy troop, and in general reassured myself that that I really did like this community.

Finally, as the hour grew late, they drew us together for door prizes and announcements of the winners. I didn't win a single door prize: no measuring cups, or spoons, or towels.  I toyed with packing my things away and leaving before anyone noticed.

They announced the winners in the Best Looking (the meticulously frosted thumbprint) and Best Tasting (one of the macarons, with runner up a matcha green tea cookie). I felt my heart beat a little faster when they called Most Original, but they called the name of a woman I'd started to get to know at my daughter's ballet class, and who just started taking adult tap with me.  I was disappointed, but glad that at least I knew the person who won.

"And finally," they said, "the grand prize!"  Everyone gasped as the owner of the local popular bakery lugged out a professional KitchenAid mixer that she'd donated and placed it in the middle of the floor, where it parted the crowd like Moses.

"Wow," I whispered to the person next to me. "I could use that.  I think the motor on mine is going."  "Nice prize, isn't it?" she agreed.  I tuned out a little, caring but also not caring who they winner might be, and reassured that the one shot I had was lost.

"And the winner of the title Best in Show is ... " pausing dramatically, "THREE WISEMEN'S TREASURES!"

I blinked, and looked around, waiting for someone else to step forward.  Wait a minute, I thought.  Holy shit.  That's ME.

I bumbled to the center of the room, hands to my mouth, starting to cry. As they walked towards me with the crown, and placed it on my head, I'll be damned if I didn't feel like Miss America herself.  (If you want more pictures of the event, they're here. It's pretty entertaining. You'll be able to tell when I show up.)

I stood there as people took pictures, hugging the bakery owner, laughing and crying in disbelief.  There were some more announcements, which I had trouble parsing, and before I knew it, everyone was dissipating, taking boxes to pack away their share to bring home.

Honestly, I felt guilty taking cookies home when I'd won such an amazing prize. I felt guilty taking a mug with the sponsoring local community website home. I felt guilty not cleaning up. I felt guilty winning a KitchenAid mixer, when I'd gone not thinking I'd win anything at all. There were so many really good cookies there.  Why me?  With my wacky curry cookie?

Sometimes it feels silly to care about baking, which doesn't seem like a very important thing, given the state that the world is in, and the ways in which I feel helpless (no matter how many phone calls I make to my representatives) in the face of what looks like impending disaster. But damn, it was nice to be recognized for doing something I thought I used to be good at doing, and had finally started doing again in my new kitchen, after a long, long hiatus. It was nice to get to know some new people, to connect with a community.  Which is maybe where we all have to start, anyway, to solve the larger problems that face us.

Three Wisemen's Treasures
(with thanks to Jane Mathews of Franksville, WI, who created the original, though it no longer seems linkable online. Honestly, I don't know if I'll make these again, because they were a little odd.  But let me know if YOU do.)

½ c. butter, room temperature
½ c. margarine, room temperature
1 c. packed brown sugar
1 c. sugar
2 eggs
2 t. vanilla
3 c. flour
1 t. baking powder
½ t. baking soda
½ t. salt
1 ½ - 2 t. sweet curry powder
½ t. ground cardamom
¾ c. chopped, toasted pecans
¾ c. chopped dates
1/3 c.chopped crystallized ginger

2 cups sifted powdered sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
2 to 5 teaspoons milk (as needed for glaze consistency)
Finely chopped pecans and dates for decoration (2 to 3 tablespoons of each)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In a large bowl, cream butter, margarine and sugars. Add eggs and vanilla and beat until mixed. Sift dry ingredients into a separate bowl and add to creamed mixture one-third at a time. Stir in pecans, ginger and dates.

Using a 1-inch scoop, drop dough 2 inches apart onto parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake in preheated oven 10 to 13 minutes, until golden. Cool on racks. When cool, mix together powdered sugar, cardamom and milk and drizzle glaze onto cookies. Top with chopped dates and pecans.

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Monday, October 24, 2016

Microblog Monday: Ask Again Later

Magic 8-Balls fall into the same category for me as Easy Bake Ovens: things I desperately wanted as a child but never had, because my parents found them frivolous.

Being the control freak that I am, maybe it's not surprising that I needed certainty from an early age, even if I knew, deep down, that it was unachieveable.  (There's something telling about the fact that the first appearance of a Magic 8-Ball was in a 1940 Three Stooges short, as if to say that seeing into the future is the stuff of slapstick.  And yet, only a few years later, the son of a clairvoyant filed a patent for the real thing, which drew the attention of Brunswick Billiards in 1950, and became the toy we all know and love.  I guess I'm not the only one who wants answers?)

Before we left Flemington, when I was out running with my daughter in the jogging stroller, I noticed a box of discarded toys at the curb.  And there, on the very top, was a Magic 8-Ball.

I picked it up, because I thought it would be fun for N. to play with as I was running (teaching her how to ask the right kinds of questions was a little challenging), and because, let's be honest, I wanted it for my office, where students often ask me questions that demand I have some ability to peer into the future.

I'd never noticed just how ingeniously the Magic 8-Ball mirrors our own inclinations.  Dreamers and optimists ask the Magic 8-Ball for things that they hope will happen, and 50% of the time, the 8-Ball responds with affirmation; 25% of the time, it responds with uncertainty (which might as well be hope); and 25% of the time, just to make it seem like chance is as work, it responds in the negative. Do pessimists ask pessimistically-phrased questions, I wonder? Some people (Mike Dooley of TUT.com among them) would say we create the future we imagine.  The Magic 8-Ball would seem to agree.

One of my colleagues comes to check the Magic 8-Ball every day. She shakes it, but doesn't ask a question; she just looks for a general approach to the day.

Over the past few years, the world has seemed more and more unknown, unfathomable, unpredictable, precarious.  I don't know if that's because I'm older, and my world is wider, and I know more about how plans go awry; or because everything is shared so instantaneously that we feel the small ripples in the space-time continuum that we never felt before; or because the world itself is changing and becoming unpredictable.  I worry for the future: I worry about the rift between people in our nation that this presidential election has made painfully evident, I worry about the safety of my children (especially my daughter), I worry about refugees and immigrants, I worry about terrorism.  I hardly know what to ask the Magic 8-Ball, but I worry that when I do, it will say: Reply hazy try again.

Maybe it's the "try again" part I should focus on. Because really, that's the only certainty we have, isn't it?

This weekend I went to yoga at my old studio, and the focus of our practice was the story of Hanuman, devotee of the god Rama, who goes looking for Rama's love Sita, just as we go to look for truth.  What we find, through the practice of yoga--through not looking ahead but looking within, by staying still--is that the truth is always known, though just temporarily forgotten.  Something about this version of seeking and knowing feels more comforting, somehow, than shaking the Magic 8-Ball.

Did you ever have a Magic 8-Ball?  Would you want to see into the future if you could?

Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is? Read Mel's inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.
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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Homecoming, and Cinnamon Apple Cake

I stand in the kitchen, spoon deep in the batter. My oven is on, not for the first time, but for the first time that involves cake.  Tomorrow, I'd be pulling extra chairs into a living room that is now big enough to fit my entire book group.

There is something about the light, the space, the countertop filled with apples and flour and cinnamon and sugar, that makes me feel like yes, this is home.  And I am me again.  Not that I'd lost myself, exactly, but that a part of me had been missing.

There is room to dance in my kitchen now, too.  My daughter bops up and down as she pours ingredients together.   We turn up the music, and it echoes, partly because there are no rugs, partly because we may need more furniture.  It doesn't seem to bother anyone.

I don't have the right pan for this recipe, but I'm making do with a Bundt pan, and I don't worry about how things will turn out.

Two days later, I am cooking dinner, and it occurs to me that maybe we have enough for friends.  So I invite them over, on a whim.  They come, bearing wine, and guacamole, and chips.  What started as dinner becomes a party.

Two weeks later, after dinner, there are neighbor children in our yard, in the playhouse, chasing each other with flashlights, on a weeknight.  I lose track of them in the darkness, only to realize that they've reappeared on the other side of the house.  They flow in and out like water, as if they've been there all along.  When they have to go home for dinner, inexplicably, there are other neighbor children that replace them, having let themselves in, or come in with one of mine, appearing out of nowhere and entirely comfortable and welcome; they tumble upstairs where they are laughing and playing.

At some point, before children, after my own childhood, I imagined a parenthood like this, having a place where children come after school and eat cookies, but somehow a place that is also compatible with a full time job, a home that smells like baking cinnamon and sugar, where food is homemade when it can be.

Our house is not perfect.  There is a man in my bathroom today who has ripped out the shower walls because the crack in the floor led us to mold in the walls, in the insulation.  The doors don't all close all the way.  Things stick. Wood is rotten.  There were parts put together hastily.

Our house is not perfect.  I yell at my kids in the morning to move faster, try to motivate my son to work harder at his piano and trombone, sometimes feels like I'm juggling a schedule for our busy family that doesn't allow me time to grow or learn anything new.

Our house is not perfect.  I watch the news too much, and despair about Syria and the election and hurricanes and poverty and racism and senseless killing of people who never deserved to die.

But our house smells like apples and cinnamon sometimes, and it's warm, and children play there and feel welcome without being invited, and friends come, and we can be spontaneous, and there is space for everyone, and there are moments when this house feels like home.

Cinnamon Apple Cake
The recipe is originally Smitten Kitchen's, though it also seems, if you read the comments on that post, to belong to everyone.  I almost didn't try it because I didn't have the right pan, but I thought it worth a shot, given that it had worked for so many others.  I've since bought a tube pan, and they both work fine. I love bulletproof recipes.

6 apples, peeled, cored, chopped into 1" chunks
1 T. cinnamon
5 T. sugar
2 3/4 c. flour
1 T. baking powder
1 t. salt
1 c. vegetable oil (or other oil of your choice)
2 c. granulated sugar
1/4 c. orange juice
2 1/2 t. vanilla extract
4 large eggs

Heat oven to 350 degrees. If you have a tube pan, grease it; I used a Bundt pan.

Toss the apples with cinnamon and 5 T. sugar; set aside.

Stir together the dry ingredients (through salt) in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together wet ingredients (through eggs). Gently fold wet ingredients completely into dry ones (don't overmix!).

Pour half of batter into prepared pan. Spread half of apples (and their juices) over it. Pour the remaining batter over the apples and arrange the remaining apples on top. Bake for 1 to 1.5 hours, or until a tester comes out clean. (I started at the shorter end and kept going until the batter under the apples was dry.)

Cool completely before running knife between cake and pan, and unmolding onto a platter.
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