Sunday, June 30, 2013

NaBloPoMo: Salad Days, and Warm Roasted Squash Salad with Farro and Chick Peas

"Salad days" is an idiomatic expression, referring to a youthful time, accompanied by the inexperience, enthusiasm, idealism, innocence, or indiscretion that one associates with a young person. More modern use, especially in the United States, refers to a person's heyday when somebody was at the peak of their abilities—not necessarily in that person's youth. (Wikipedia)

If I were my daughter, I'd be breaking into a tuneless rendition of the Dora the Explorer celebration song right about now: "We did it, we did it, we did it! Yay!  Lo hicimos!  We did it!  ... We posted to our blog, every day, we did it, we did it, we did it, hooray!"

And even though my husband and I mock Dora, she's got a point: the completion of this adventure is worth celebrating.  I won't pretend it was easy.  And I don't think that I could say I proved to myself, as I did last time I did NaBloPoMo last July (completely cheating, by the way, since I was on vacation for the beginning of that month and sick for another few days in the middle), that writing "naturally" begets writing.  It was a hard month to write, for many reasons, and there were days I didn't think I would come up with anything at all.

I *am* glad I persevered, though, because I feel (silly as this sounds) like I've "earned back" the right to attend BlogHer at the end of July.  Which, by the way, I'm looking forward to every bit as much as I'm looking forward to vacation with the family this week ... and possibly even more.  Though I don't plan to stop blogging any time soon, I'm not sure how much I will get to write once my new job starts, and this was a fitting way to end my time at home.

So here's a celebratory salad for you, perfect for holiday potluck parties.  Thanks for coming back here day after day and commenting, helping me make my "salad days" a reality.  See you on the flip side.

Warm Roasted Squash Salad with Farro and Chick Peas
If Heidi had thought this up, she would have made it first.  Only she didn't.  Here's to someone whom I consider one of my major inspirations in the kitchen.

3 zucchini or summer squash, washed, trimmed, cut into 1/2" cubes
1/2 large (preferably red) onion, chopped into 1/2" pieces
2 T. olive or coconut oil
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 c. farro, rinsed
1 1/2 c. water
1 14 oz can chick peas, rinsed/drained
2 T. mint/basil, finely minced
1/4 c. pepitas, toasted
feta or goat cheese to taste (optional)

Preheat oven to 450°. Place zucchini, squash, onion and garlic in a large bowl, drizzle with oil and stir until all the veggies are coated. Sprinkle on salt and pepper and stir.

Spread veggies in a single layer on a large rimmed baking sheet and roast for 30 minutes or until just browned, stirring about half way through.  Set aside to cool.

Bring farro and water to a boil in a medium pot.  (You may salt the water if you like.)  Cook 20 minutes or until most of the water is absorbed and the farro is soft and chewy.  Set aside.

Re-warm zucchini, farro, and chick peas if necessary.  In a large bowl, toss farro, zucchini, chick peas and pepitas with mint/basil.  Sprinkle with feta/goat cheese.  Salt and pepper to taste.

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Saturday, June 29, 2013

NaBloPoMo: Blades

"Hey, you know your roller blades are still down here."

It's a lazy Saturday morning; in an unusual reversal of roles, S. is the one trying to get us outside, and I am the one still in my PJs with the kids, looking at the computer and half-playing, occasionally, with Legos or a puzzle or stringing beads.

I think about this for a moment.  My ankle is healing, but it's still a little painful.  Weaker than last time.  Weak enough that I decided to fit in a few sessions of physical therapy (which, by the way, I recommend wholeheartedly: I have never had my foot soaked in a whirlpool, followed by a foot massage.  Granted, they then made me do an 45 minutes' worth of ankle exercises, which made me want to cry, but I'll take the foot massage any day).  I've been wearing a brace around here and there.  I haven't gone running since I sprained it a second time.


If there's any footwear that provides really good ankle support, it's a roller blade.  No way I could turn my ankle in plastic.  Lose some skin, maybe.  Hurt my ankle again, probably not.  And, I thought to myself, balancing on them will feel more or less like the torture exercise they put me through on Friday.  Besides, how cool would it be for the kids to see me roller blading?  Provided I didn't kill myself, of course.

I got dressed and came back downstairs, found my wrist guards stashed, conveniently, in the boot of each roller blade.  "I'm wondering if this might be a really stupid idea," I said to S. as I dusted the boots with a wet paper towel, and gathered everything together to go outside.

"Yeah, that occured to me, too," he agreed.

Great, I thought.  "Call I. down," I told him.  "He's going to want to see this." 

Still shoed, not a little apprehensive, I walked out to the curb next to my parked car, where I thought I might have a prayer of standing up.

To my surprise, it wasn't as hard as I thought.  I felt a little like Frankenstein, rising from the pavement, moaning, until I stood in tadasana in the street.  HA, I told myself.  You did it.  "Is I. watching?" I called.  Yes, there he was, grinning, one of Carl Hiassen children's books still in hand, finger tucked in as a bookmark where he would go back to reading as soon as this turned out to be as boring or silly as he thought it might be.

I took off up the street first, not wanting to have to figure out downhill and slowing down and balancing all at once.  After the first few shaky moments, I felt like I had my feet solidly under me.  The muscles in my core tightened.  My ankle felt supported.  I went faster, and faster, and ...

"AGAIN!" my daughter shouted from the sidewalk, where she pushed her stroller, running after me.  "AGAIN!"  And then, wonderingly: "Mama's just like Elmo and Oscar the Grouch!" (in her Sesame Street book about wheels and things that go).

I. grinned at me from the porch, still watching.  He did, eventually, go back to his book.  But that was because I probably spent twenty minutes feeling very proud of myself, racing up and down the street, turning in slow arcs to slow down.  Which would be boring for anyone else besides me.

Two of my neighbors drove past, slowing to a crawl as they passed me.  "I can turn, I can turn," mimicked the first one, laughing.  "What are you trying to do, kill yourself? What about your ankle?"

"It's very well supported," I assured her.  "It was S's idea."  I hesitated, pondering this.  "Then again, it was also his idea that I run for Board of Education."

She laughed again and drove off.

"Glad to see you found a way around your injury," said the second one.  "Be careful," she added, wagging her finger at me while she pulled away, smiling.

I miss running.  I don't even really like it all that much; it's just an expedient and effective form of exercise on the weekends, and I'm going back to it as soon as my ankle can handle it.  But roller blading today made me forget, for a little while, that my grey hairs show a little bit more these days; and reminded me that every once in a while it's a good idea to risk looking completely ridiculous.
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Friday, June 28, 2013

NaBloPoMo: The Stories that Make Us, and the Stories We Make

With gratitude to my book group, who provided the inspiration for today's post.

This month, my book group read Unbroken, the memoir of Louis Zamperini, Olympian track star who became a POW in WWII after surviving 43 days at sea on an open raft, following the disastrous crash of his bomber.  I won't go into too much detail about the book, in case you want to read it, but one of the things we discussed tonight was how -- if at all -- the early stories people choose to tell us about ourselves shape the people we become.

According to the book, Zamperini was quite the uncontainable little hellraiser.  When he was two, and stricken with pneumonia, he climbed out his window and ran down the street.  When he was not much older than two, he jumped from a moving train that the family had boarded to move to California.  At five, he was smoking, picking up discarded butts on the way to kindergarten.  He severed his toe as a child, impaled himself on a bamboo beam, and stole anything he could find that was edible.  Zamperini manages to pull himself out of juvenile delinquency, but those stories about him establish the character he becomes later on in the book.

As I drove home, I tried to think about the stories that people told me about my own childhood, about the time before I could remember.  My mother was always particularly fond of the story about my first time in an airplane, on the way to Spain to visit my relatives: as soon as they secured the cabin doors, I shouted, "OUT! OUT!"  (I was 18 months old.)  There was my tendency to bite people, mostly out of anger, but also sometimes just because I could ... and one day, apparently, my babysitter bit me back.  There was the time, in a streak of indignant self-righteousness, that I told the same babysitter I was going to throw her and her cigarettes in the garbage truck.  I was apparently famous for the exuberant phrase "Galicious!" which I used after good meals, and especially my grandma's pumpkin pie.  I helped my father with the raking and gardening.  And it's true: I am a woman who does not like to be contained, who is perhaps a little too self-righteous sometimes, and who appreciates a good dessert.

Still, I wonder: how much of that character development, as I grew older, was driven by the very stories that it claimed to reflect?

How about you?  What are the stories people have chosen to describe your youth, especially before you could do your own transcribing?  Do they describe you now?  Are you proud of those stories?  What influence have they had on you?

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Thursday, June 27, 2013

NaBloPoMo: More Things We Don't Talk About, For Nigella

On the day we moved into our current house, I was wearing a sweatshirt from a university women's retreat at which I'd been invited to speak just a few months before.  My neighbor, who was at the time the director of the county domestic violence agency, noticed this, sized me up, and decided that she was going to get me on her board of trustees.

She did, actually, and I served for a few years, through the birth of my son, and until the worst of my pregnancy losses, when I decided that I need to focus just on me for a little while.  And I learned a lot during those years about abuse, about assumptions, and about our power to make change.

I live in a county that is fairly wealthy and homogenous (white).  And domestic violence is more or less invisible.  Or at least, most people I talk with here don't have a good sense of the scope of the problem.

I no longer have the most current statistics, but I can tell you that most estimates agree: 1 in 4 people will experience domestic abuse in her (and in some cases, his) lifetime.  I can tell you that in my county, a high percentage of victims are wealthy, educated white women.  I can tell you that the more suburban and sprawling a place is, the more likely it is that neighbors will never notice, and the less likely it is that a spouse can get away.  I can tell you that the wounds are not always visible, because they are financial, psychological: abusers can control their victims by controlling the purse-strings, or by berating them, or by doing any other number of other awful things.

I can tell you that almost one year ago, a friend of mine and co-founder of my working moms group, who was a highly successful clinical research trial manager for a major pharmaceutical company, was found dead in an Atlantic City hotel room, with her two children--ages 3 and 5--trying to wake her up, and that until then, many of us didn't even know that the police had been called to investigate incidences of violence at her house.  I can tell you that she was one of the most well-put-together, speak-your-mind women I knew, and while her husband was hardly ever there when we were around, she seemed to have mastered the single-parenting lifestyle of someone with a spouse who works long hours.  I can tell you that some of us spent months wondering whether her death was really an accident (as the prosecutor claimed it was), or whether her husband had found a way to hurt her even after she'd left him; wondering what we could have done differently, blaming ourselves--as unreasonable as we knew that was--for the loss of her life.  (Did you know that over 70 percent of domestic violence murders happen after the victim has ended the relationship, after she's gotten out, because then the abuser has nothing left to lose?  I didn't, until last year.)

I can tell you that another friend of mine--the sole breadwinner for her family, and a manager for an environmental safety group--experienced abuse at the hands of her stay-at-home-dad husband, and though they were able to get back together again (and have a third child), I will never forget the fear in her eyes the day she dropped her kids off at my house to go to court.

This is another one of those things we don't talk about.  Because it's too private.  We don't want to intrude on what happens in people's homes.  That's their business, right?  Not ours.  We have protections in place for children, but we feel like adults can take care of themselves.  In fact, it's not even clear whether anyone who shot the photos of Nigella and her husband called to report a domestic violence issue.  We know one thing, though: they did what so many other people do in that situation.  They watched it happen.

Like racism, like sexism, like so many other things, we need to be able to talk about domestic violence.  That it doesn't have one face.  That it doesn't live in one socioeconomic community.  Do you think this isn't happening among your friends, in your family?  You are wrong.  Domestic violence doesn't live, with Chris Brown and Rhianna, in the tabloids.  It lives--quite literally-in our back yards.  We need to be able to talk with our teens about healthy relationships in a way that is honest and real.  We need people who are in unhealthy relationships to feel safe telling someone, rather than feeling like they are disappointing us if they can't fulfill the terms of their contract--in the official or unofficial sense of the word.  We need to make it clear that we will believe victims, that we will take them seriously.  We need to show them that they will be treated with dignity and compassion.  That this is not for them to figure out alone.  That it happens, and that they are not the only ones, that they should not feel ashamed.

I don't know where Nigella will go from here.  I wish that she hadn't been caught that way, that someone could have reached out to her in a way that was not so public, not so potentially unsafe for her.  But I am glad, in a way, that it's gotten us to talk ... and I hope it's not the end of the conversation.

Why do you think we are so silent about domestic violence in this country?  What kinds of things do you think we can do to help victims feel safe about coming forward?
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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

NaBloPoMo: Cookies for the Library

In January, I was elected (sort of, anyway) to my town's newly-formed Friends of the Library Board. It happened in the way most things like this happen in a small town: one of my husband's co-workers, who helped to found the Friends group, knows that I frequent the library with the kids, that I have been active in other community organizations, that I tend to have a fairly well-reasoned opinion about things, and that I am a problem-solver. He approached me one day on one of his peripatetic walks through town, and asked me if I might come to one of their brainstorming meetings. I offered some suggestions, and before I knew it, he was asking me to consider serving as one of the first "at large" members of the board.

As I think I have established here before, I have a hard time saying no. And really love my little town library, which is within two blocks' walking distance of our house, and which became a great destination for hot days and rainy days with children; never mind that they often have the book I need, when the four copies theoretically available at our county mega-library have all been checked out. It's a little like Cheers there, too: go there often enough, and everyone knows your name and your kids' names, and the kinds of books you like, and all sorts of other random facts about you that only librarians and your regular checkout folks at the grocery store can figure out. They're a little like a monastic order, librarians: Keepers of the Book, keepers of your secrets, keepers--sometimes--of your guilty and not-so-guilty pleasures.

So I stood for election in an uncontested seat, and was voted in unanimously by people to whom I'd never spoken a word.

The Board is a good-hearted group of people. I am the youngest member by (I suspect) about 15 years, but that doesn't mean I have the most energy. And I admire their dedication, even if sometimes the conversation at meetings takes odd and less-productive detours.

Most of our discussions so far have focused on "friend-raising" events: ways to get the community involved and make them more aware of the library (because, it's true, some people in my town don't even know we have a library, due partly to the confusing county library system that surrounds us, but of which we are not technically a part). And there's been some discussion about a fund-raising event, because there are things our little library can use.

But tonight we advertised an "open meeting" (open to all of the Friends, that is) which would be a Q and A with the library director, complete with cookies for refreshments. (You see where this is going for me eventually, don't you?).

No one came for the cookies, unfortunately, besides the Board. It's still early in the life of our group, and we are struggling to build interest in the membership. I keep arguing that people won't show up to meetings unless they feel that they have a job to do, a role to play. And we are slowly creating those jobs and roles. It's too bad, really, because tonight's conversation turned to ebooks and open access computers, and I learned a lot about what's happening on the front lines of my little library's doorstep.

Like, for example, the difficulty in getting an ebook format that everyone's device can read, despite the fact that ePub is becoming more or less the industry standard. Like working with publishers who don't like to "sell" ebooks to libraries, and who will reluctantly do so sometimes on arbitrary-sounding terms, which could include things like an expiration code coded into the system: after 26 times (which, according to some publishers, is the number of times a paper book can be circulated before it begins to fall apart), the book will simply evaporate.  Like the fact that so many books get published not with publishers, and if a library wants to acquire them for a collection, they must do so under yet another set of unique terms.  Like working with aggregators (who become the middle-men, not even with publishers) to try to negotiate terms for a number of libraries and publishers together. Like the ways in which some libraries negotiate directly with large providers of ebooks (like Overdrive). The layers of complication for a library to provide ebooks to their patrons are more significant than I realized.

But the development that he is having a harder time coming to terms with, said our library director, was the expectation for libraries to provide open access computers. What does it mean, he asked us, that when the library opens in the morning, there are 15 people lined up to go in, and 12 of them go to the computers to sit down and check Facebook and listen to music? How does that fulfill the library's mission?

I speculated that just as the purpose of the humanities have changed in higher education over the past decade (shifting from the study of the "book" to the study of "texts"--or cultural productions writ broadly), so has the purpose of the library changed from circulator of books to the point of connection with the text, with information. And Facebook is as much a cultural production, a text, as The* Dubliners, even if we don't think much of its literary merit.  It's an interesting question, though, one that the library staff wrestles with on a daily basis.

Part of me wonders if libraries will ever go away, if the decline of the paper book and the barriers to creating equal access for patrons (who get varied access now according to the devices they can afford) in a BYOD world will change the face of libraries as we know them.  Or if libraries will become less about books and more about creating conversations around culture, providing centers for cultural community.  Whatever happens, I hope that they still hold meetings with the promise of cookies.

Are you a Friend of your local library?  Or just a friend?  What do you think the libraries of the future might look like?

(*thank you for the correction, (Not)Maud, watchful editorial heroine of mine.)

Chocolate Chip Cookies with Self-Rising Flour
Adapted from here, these are the cookies I made for the library's meeting tonight.  I had some self-rising flour in the cabinet, and have been working diligently to get rid of it; I finally emptied the box.

10 T. butter
1 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. turbinado sugar
1 c. self-rising flour
3/4 c. whole wheat or spelt flour
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 t. vanilla extract
1 t. baking powder
1 c. dark chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 325°F.  In a small saucepan set over medium low heat, melt butter and set aside to cool slightly.

Combine sugars and butter into a large bowl and mix well with a whisk until the sugar is mostly dissolved. Pour butter into a large bowl and stir in brown sugar and caster sugar until smooth and sugar is mostly dissolved.  Add the egg and the vanilla, and continue to mix well.

Sift flours and baking powder together into a small bowl and then gradually mix into sugar mixture until combined. Stir in chocolate chips.

Drop cookie mixture onto parchment-lined baking trays by rounded tablespoons and bake for 13 minutes or the cookies are just lightly golden.  Allow cookies to cool on trays for 3 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

NaBloPoMo: Paula Deen and Butter Chicken

Just a little more than ten years ago, I visited South Africa with a study tour from my graduate school of education.  As I've mentioned before, the purpose of our trip was to study the effects of apartheid on education; we visited schools both in Cape Town and in Johannesburg, most of which were still segregated according to the apartheid system--white, colored , Indian, black--and had obviously skewed access to economic justice that corresponded with racial identity.  Ten years and change later, while progress has been made, it's definitely slow going.  Reparations to the black community leave out those who were considered "colored."  And many argue that a new approach is necessary.  Some people in South Africa want to eliminate race talk; others think that the language of race is necessary in order to eliminate racism.

I've been thinking a lot about that visit again, after Paula Deen's recent debacle.  Though I don't consider myself a food blogger, and I don't watch the Food Network (that's my mother's job, and we don't have a TV anyway), and Paula Deen doesn't even cook the kind of food I would normally put on my table, I couldn't help following the coverage of her story as it unfolded, particularly on Twitter, where the hashtag #paulasbestdishes identified some of the most creative food-related racist slurs I've ever read.  It was, in a word, shocking.  As was Paula's testimony.  But really, I found myself wondering, why was I shocked?

When I visited South Africa, they kept telling us how impressed they were with how far we'd come since the days of Jim Crow; they kept asking us how we managed to do what we did.  What I wanted to tell them was that their discourse was actually more honest than ours.  Because we try very hard, it seems to me, not to talk about race.  Like South Africa, many people in the U.S. think that eliminating race talk, pretending that we are race-blind, will make it all better.

The reality, of course, is that we're not.  And it shouldn't be surprising to us that some celebrities act out the racism that still seethes just below the surface of our culture, or just above it, depending on where you live in the U.S. .  The only difference is that the media scrutinizes celebrities more closely, and celebrities represent the kind of people that many of us want our nation to be, rather than the complex (and sometimes disappointing) people we actually are.

One article in the NY Times described how Paula Deen's racist remarks have brought to light a long-simmering controversy among Southern chefs about the origins of Southern cooking; many of them expressed anger that Deen got rich on the recipes of slave cooks and domestic workers, and yet, the author suggested, disrespected the very people who made her success possible.  As someone who is particularly sensitive to intellectual property issues of recipes, I think they have every right to be angry.

Why do we hold celebrities to this standard (reasonable though it may be for all of us)?  Why do we pretend that we--as a nation--think racism is a crime, when we are so willing to turn a blind eye to it in so many circumstances?  How can we pretend that we have worked for and achieved justice when even SCOTUS can't come up with a stronger statement about affirmative action programs in higher education, where the effects of economic injustice (which have deep roots in racism) are often so blatant?  Or when SCOTUS strikes down section 4 of the the VRA?  Clearly we still struggle with racism as a nation, and not just in terms of black and white.  And I suspect that it would be a lot more productive to talk about the problem than pretend that Paula Deen is the only one.

Butter Chicken
Adapted from Dinner with Julie
Butter Chicken is not at all Southern, of course; it was one of the Indian dishes I first tried, somewhat paradoxically, in South Africa.  Though I don't often eat meat these days (and Bread Wine Salt makes a lovely vegetarian version of this meal with chick peas), my family enjoys it, and it's relatively easy to prepare.

1-2 T. olive oil
1 onion, halved and thinly sliced
6-8 skinless chicken thighs (with or without bone)
4-5 garlic cloves, crushed
1 T. grated fresh ginger
28 oz. can fire roasted diced tomatoes, undrained
2 T. tomato paste
4 t. chili powder
2 t. curry powder
2 t. garam masala
pinch cinnamon
3/4 cup evaporated milk
salt and pepper

Heat the oil over medium-high head in a large, heavy skillet.  Add the onions and saute, stirring often, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Push the onions to the side of the pan and add the chicken thighs, turning to just brown them on all sides. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for a minute or two, until just fragrant.

Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, chili powder, curry paste, garam masala and cinnamon and bring to a simmer.  Cover and cook for 20 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. Remove the lid and continue to cook until the sauce coats the back of a spoon.

Stir in the evaporated milk, season to taste, and serve with rice (most traditional), peas, quinoa, couscous, or whatever else you fancy.
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Monday, June 24, 2013

NaBloPoMo and Perfect Moment Monday: Born This Way

On the last Monday of each month, Lavender Luz at Write Mind Open Heart sponsors Perfect Moment Monday, a blog hop/writing prompt that offers an opportunity to notice and reflect on the "perfect moments" in our lives, rather than create them.  These moments can be ordinary, momentous, or somewhere in between.  Everyone is welcome to join.  


I went to kickboxing class today, for the first time in three weeks.  I've been nursing my sprained ankle, impatient with my healing process, spending lots of time on the elliptical and in the weight room, working out where I couldn't do too much more damage to myself.  It's my last week at the Y, before we head off to the Cape for a few days, and then our lives change, and I've been determined to do this, one last time.  Because who knows when I might be able to find time again?

I started off gently, gingerly, a little worried about re-injuring myself a third time.  I was wearing my air brace, but I knew that wouldn't make me bulletproof, and I could feel my foot making contact with the floor, knowing that this was its first impact test.  As the music began to build, I took a deep breath, and leapt forward.  And this was what was playing.

You're surprised, aren't you?  Maybe I don't seem like the Lady Gaga type.  But there is nothing quite like listening to this song*, looking yourself in the eye in the mirror, sizing up your well-wrapped hands, and throwing a double punch and a roundhouse kick at an imaginary opponent, to make you feel powerful.  (Except possibly throwing a perfect double punch and a roundhouse kick at a real opponent.  But they don't let us do that at the Y.)

I have been thinking a lot about this next chapter in my life, thinking about the transition, wondering how long it will take to find balance again, wondering if I've made the right choice, hoping that they made the right choice, too.  Worried about getting home in time to pick up my kids on the days when my husband can't.  Worried about the stupid things like "how am I going to find time to kickbox and run and do yoga?"  I have tried to stack the deck in my favor by cramming as many Perfect Moments as I can into these last few weeks with my children: pool parties, balloon launches, train rides, picnics, carousel rides, ice cream.  But the most important Perfect Moment for me this month was probably this one: kicking virtual ass with the community who has (unbeknownst to many of them, I'm sure) been my back-up for the past two years, and reassuring myself: "I'm on the right track baby, I was born this way.  ... Don't be a drag, just be a queen."

Deep breath: Bring it.

*And BONUS!  The song fits right in with the NaBloPoMo theme of Roots!
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Sunday, June 23, 2013

NaBloPoMo: The Listserve, and Truths

Back in the spring of 2012, I signed up for The Listserve. The idea of the project was to create a email list that would allow one subscriber, each day the chance to send an email to the other subscribers. No parameters, no guidelines. It sounded like an interesting experiment, so I decided to become one of the first 10,000 subscribers who got the first email.

Initially, I was concerned about how the tool would be used. What would people say when given the opportunity to say anything to 10,000 (or more ... now over 20,000) people? A lot of good could come from this list, I though. New ideas. Community. Global goodwill. Rallying around social justice projects. It could help to overcome the silo-experience of social media, where we find ourselves talking to friend lists and reading blogs and following pinterest boards full of people who are just like us. Then again, the users could send self-promoting advertisements, or worse (though I read an article saying they vet email for things like porn or viruses).

I dismissed my concerns by convincing myself that I could just delete the things that didn't matter to me, and ignore the things that were offensive.  (Though Mel posted recently in BlogHer about the complicated nature of internet bystanding, referencing Stupid Stork's post and the lively discussion happening in the comments section--if you haven't read both posts, they are worth your time.)

It turns out, though, that we're a lot less interesting than we hoped we were.  Most people seem to be posting platitudes, advice about being kind and good to yourself and making the most of life and not worrying about time and doing what you love and ... well, you get the idea.  Once in a while there's a post about a project, a new business or an experiment.  One person posted that she was going to send something, via snail mail, to everyone who replied to her; she later updated everyone, letting us know that it would probably take years.  Some have posted about nonprofits to support.  Some people just introduce themselves.  A surprising number of people seem to be untethered (in the sense that they are currently traveling, or haven't yet settled down, or are in-between places), which could be attributable to the mean age of the subscriber pool, or to the type of people who would self-select to be part of this distribution list, or to something else entirely.  Overall, though, there isn't much, if anything, that's provocative.

People tend not to use the platform to talk about their experience of being a subscriber, either, or what it's like to be the recipient of these daily messages.  I don't get much of a sense of ongoing conversation.  Which isn't terribly surprising, given the format.

But the other day, a post caught my eye.  It was from Brazil, after the protests erupted.  The author, "Stela," described a situation in which people were arrested before the manifestation for possession of vinegar, used to minimize the effects of tear gas.  She went on to talk about the protests' real meaning, that people were protesting their lack of right to protest, and added that these demonstrations were more commonplace than the reader might think, that the "police military forces are a leftover organization from the dictatorial far right military government that took over [the] country from 1964 to 1985. For 21 years, we were stripped of all individual rights, silently tortured and killed, and forced to live in fear. And considering public manifestations of citizens as terrorism was one of their excuses for it."

She ended her message encouraging readers to seek out more information; to make sure that people achieve their right to protest, that their anger and oppression is not covered up by people who are spinning it differently; to make the nation honest through the fear of exposure of its own flaws.

I don't live in Brazil.  I can't speak with any authority about what is happening there.  All I get are the headlines.  I could seek out other bloggers, but the chances of my doing so, without being specifically encouraged to do so, are pretty slim.

"Stela" makes an excellent point: the one thing that governments tend to fear is looking bad in front of international investors and entrepreneurs.  And the claim that civil rights are being violated just so that a country can "look good" for potential investors is entirely believeable, if disturbing.  And her use of The Listserve to plant that seed was, in my view, brave.  While it's unlikely that anyone is going to boycott the World Cup as a result of her message, they might be a bit more likely to read between the lines.

Which brings me to my point.  I think what I've always appreciated most about social media was its potential to bring the world to my doorstep in a larger, more immediate way.  To take a risk (which, in some countries, is admittedly to much risk), and say, "here's what it's really like for me.  Right now.  Uncensored."  It's the same power I always appreciated in the (analog?) humanities: to give me access to voices that I might not otherwise have heard, both so I can identify my own experience in them (i.e. the "support group" phenomenon) and so that I can expand the limitations of my own perspective.  As I think about what blogging has become, just a month before I head off to BlogHer, and read the tweet streams and Facebook posts about branding and parties and platforms, I worry that we've lost sight of this second piece of the potential, that we use our blogs, like the Listserve, for platitudes and introductions, or maybe for creating business and starting projects, and not for the exposure of naked and sometimes large, frightening truths to people who might not otherwise read them.  Much as I'm looking forward to meeting all kinds of bloggers, and I learned a lot from the conference last year, I hope that I get to meet a few more "Stela"s this year, bloggers who are willing to use the platform to take risks, to tell (their) truths, and to make people a little uncomfortable with their way of seeing the world.

What do you think of Stela's message?  Do the bloggers you read tend to write about things that surprise you, or question your ideas, or do you tend to read bloggers who produce content that makes you feel more comfortable?
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Saturday, June 22, 2013

NaBloPoMo: Playing Through Discord

My son has been musical from an early age: when he was a baby, I noticed that he would often pay better attention to me when I sang to him than when I talked to him, and as a toddler, one of the activities he liked best was the occasional family parade around the dining room table, when we would pick up random instruments and make noise together.

Now that he's older, few hours go by in our house without him breaking into improvised song.  (This is particularly hilarious when he enlists his sister to help him come up with lyrics: imagine the musical Mad Libs of a six-year-old, with a two-year-old supplier of random words.)  Last summer, he began to develop a more serious interest in the piano we'd brought from my mother's house, and his improvisations began to sound more and more like music. Finally, in October, we decided to bite the bullet and get him a professional teacher, a woman who is a concert pianist and happens to live up the street, and who is quite child-friendly.  He seems to enjoy the lessons: he practices most days without being asked to, and will often sit down at the piano several times a day just for fun, skipping ahead to read pieces he hasn't yet been assigned, and fooling around with scales and chords and testing harmonies and rhythms of his own.

Technically, I could have taught him myself.  I started taking piano lessons when I was six years old, too, and as I thumbed through my collection of sheet music one day before he started taking lessons, I discovered that I'd saved everything.

My piano teacher was not exactly someone you would call "child-friendly": a little old Mexican lady with a stern disposition and a thick accent, she would beat time like a human metronome on the top of her upright piano, which was almost taller than she was, looking at you with her half-glasses and beady eyes.  She had a long nose, like a bird: I remember having nightmares about her swooping down out of the sky with a cry that was a cross between a seagull and a crow.  Luckily for me, I was one of her better students.  I had some talent, and even when I didn't practice, my lesson would sound reasonably good.  The boy who had his lesson before me, though, was not so lucky.  "Child," she would roar in exasperation, "what are you doing?"

I decided, early on, that I never, ever wanted her to call me "Child" in that tone of voice.

My one downfall was Béla Bartók.  Bartók is an unusual character: born in Hungary, collector of folk music, a Catholic who became a Unitarian and follower of Nietzsche, an open anti-fascist in the era of fascist regimes, Bartók was a loner in many ways.  His later music especially is said to be his musical translation of his own sense of profound spiritual isolation: it is often dissonant, and always unpredictable.  I had a fairly good ear, and I just couldn't make heads or tails of it.  He wrote a series of graded pieces called Mikrokosmos, to teach his son Peter the piano, and my teacher assigned me one of those pieces every week as early as I could learn them.  I hated them: I called them "The Brown Book pieces," and refused to practice them well, so they never sounded as good as the rest of my lesson.

In retrospect, Bartók probably taught me to read music better, because I couldn't guess what was coming next.  I couldn't fake it.  The discord and unpredictable melodies made me pay better attention to the notes on the page, and ratted me out when I didn't practice.

It's an interesting thing about discord in general, isn't it?  That it's when things aren't going smoothly that we are forced to slow down, to pay attention, to become more mindful.  Which are, of course, useful skills to have when things are going well, too; it's just that we're less receptive to those reminders when we can fake it, or when we can play life by ear.  Sometimes we have to play through the discord, because we have no choice but to show up, and the experience of discord turns out to be more valuable than the easy stuff, the easy relationships, the easy career choices.

Have you ever had to play through discord?  What did you learn from the experience?
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Friday, June 21, 2013

NaBloPoMo: Relating, and Kale Salad with Avocado Dressing

Imagine that your parents and sister (and her family which include your two nephews) live within 4 miles of you and that you have, virtually, no relationship with them.
This was the excerpt, posted in Mels' Weekly Roundup, that led me to Is This What It Is (Or is it)? post on Estrangement.  Because it didn't take much for me to imagine what she might be describing.

I wouldn't say that I am estranged from my family.  We get together for major holidays and birthdays with my mother and brother, but our gathering seems more driven by Hallmark and expectations and duty than by genuine affection. I understand what she writes about your family never getting to know you, about never feeling unconditionally supported for how you thought or felt or what you wanted to do, about family suggesting that "you are too difficult, demanding, elitist, ungrateful, selfish" to want a relationship.  I understand the guilt and self-loathing, chastizing myself for being a horrible daughter for not feeling the sentiments in the Hallmark cards I read as I would search for one that would let me send good wishes without telling lies.

The other day I posted about roots and rootlessness, about my lack of knowledge about my blood grandparents.  What I didn't mention was that my father had eight other brothers and sisters, my mother two.  And that I don't really know any of them, either.

The thing is, relationships take work, and the relationships into which you are born (or where you find yourself as an adoptee) are no exception.  Being a parent doesn't give you easy automatic emotional connection to your child.  As I'm sure you all know, just because you've lived in the same house with someone doesn't mean that you understand them, or they you.  For my father, this work of relationship-building would have been complicated by the fact that his surviving family was spread over three continents, in an age before the internet connected us all instantaneously, not to mention that he left home at an early age to go to a Jesuit boarding school in France.  (We knew my two aunts in Spain, and my uncles in Guatemala and Puerto Rico, but none of them terribly well.)  For my mother, the work of relationship-building was complicated by the alcoholism of one of her brothers, and by the decision of her other brother to move, first an hour away, then to Texas.  In both cases, they chose to allow the complicatedness of relationship-building to prevent them from reaching out, and so we grew up without an extended family.

I find myself annoyed by people who take the "convenience" approach to relationship-building.  I had a former colleague who was like an aunt to my children.  After I left my job, though I reached out to her a few times, I only heard from her once.  I was astonished.  Wasn't I worth more to her?  But I should have known better.

Sometimes I think that maybe I'm like this, too.  That I find the work of relating too difficult.  On the other hand, I was the only one who kept in touch with my alcoholic uncle as he deteriorated.  I've followed friends across the country.  I can be counted on to follow up, to seek you out, to be there, as long as the relationship is not toxic to me or to my children.  My mother, on the other hand, has never once flown to Texas to see her brother.

How do you find yourself working at relationship-building, even in your own family?


I learned last summer that avocadoes make a pretty fabulous dressing.  I learned this spring the kale and farro go surprisingly well together.  I learned just recently that you can make salad out of all sorts of things thrown together, and the secrets include good olive oil, a variety of textures and shapes (crunchy, chewy, flat, round, leafy, nutty), and ingenuity.  But even salad still requires a little bit of effort.  And it's totally worth it in the end.

Kale Salad with Avocado Dressing
Inspired by Heidi Swanson's Kale Market Salad

1/3 c. scallions, chopped
1/4 t. fine grain sea salt, plus more to taste
2 T. fresh lemon juice
1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil
2 T. ripe avocado
1 1/4 t. honey, or to taste
fresh pepper to taste
1 bunch kale, destemmed, torn into pieces
1 1/3 c. cooked farro
4-5 carrots, very thinly sliced
1 avocado, cut into small cubes
1/2 c. almond slices, toasted

Using a hand blender or food processor, puree the first seven ingredients (through pepper) together until smooth. Taste, and adjust with more salt, or honey, or lemon juice.

In a large bowl, combine the kale with about half of the dressing and se your hands to massage the dressing and kale together until the kale appears almost slightly wilted, as if it has been blanched.  Add the farro, carrots, more dressing, and more salt, and toss again.  Add the avocados and almonds and toss gently before serving.
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Thursday, June 20, 2013

NaBloPoMo: The Trouble With (Just) Leaning In

I had hesitated to post this, but I found out recently that Sheryl Sandberg will be one of the keynote speakers at BlogHer, and I felt that it was worth putting out there.  I am looking forward to hearing what Sandberg has to say, because I hope that she will be offering a more robust and complex solution to women's marginalized space in the workforce than I feel she offered in her book.

In case you've been living under a rock, Sandberg's book Lean In talks about about why women are not as successful as men in their careers, and encourages women to stand up for themselves, take risks, sit at the table as if they believe they have something valuable to say, and "don't leave before you leave" (making conservative choices due to fear of inability to juggle everything later on down the road).  “Compared to our male colleagues, fewer of us aspire to senior positions,” she writes. The ambition gap, to which women are socialized, is to blame: “My argument is that getting rid of these internal barriers is critical to gaining power. We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today. We can start this very moment.”

Sandberg's book was probably a necessary counterpoint to Anne-Marie Slaughter's viral article about not being able to have it all, at least not the way society is currently structured.  But both women miss the boat when they talk about work ethic and work culture, without talking about the sexism that still persists in work environments everywhere.  And I'm not just talking about the sexism that has to do with bias against the competing commitments of parenting.  While I don't think that we're going to get anywhere by tearing each other down, I also think that we need to do a lot more than "lean in" if we're really going to change anything.

photo courtesy of flickr user im pastor rick
Case in point: let me tell you a little story.  I have removed names and as much identifying information as I can to protect those who were involved, but rest assured that this story is real, and that it is far from ancient history.  I know this woman.  And this is the landscape of now.


Once upon a time, there was a smart, ambitious woman.  She went to college at a reasonably good public university, paying her way almost on her own through scholarships and work-study, and earned a 4.0.  She went to graduate school with a full ride, realized that her long-term interests didn't match the program goals, and taking a leap into the unknown, left to join the workforce.  She started at the bottom of the ladder at the institution where she was a student, while attending graduate school part-time at night for another doctoral degree.  Through hard work and determination and collaboration, and the support of a female supervisor (where leaning in works?), she was promoted.  Asked, in a group of leaders at her organization, to come up with some fundraising ideas, she wrote a proposal to build a new program, which a donor endowed at a significant sum, in the millions of dollars.  She was asked if she wanted to take on the responsibility for building the program, and won accolades for her work over the next seven years.  Her program, which she ran on a shoestring budget, became one of the hallmarks of the institution, and had wide ripple effects.

All was well until she got a new boss, coincidentally, just as she was going to have her second child. She had not "scheduled" this child's arrival as she had tried to schedule previous arrivals because she had already miscarried several pregnancies, and was not longer going to let her job take priority over her body. The new boss seemed supportive of her continued contact with the program during her maternity leave and enthusiastic about her return to the division.  He insisted on taking on some of her responsibilities himself, to "ease her mind" about the program's safety.

And then, without her input, hired a brand new just-minted graduate, his former intern, to do the day to day work of the office.

And then, days after she'd had the baby, and after she had made a routine exception as she had been directed by previous supervisors, told this woman she was no longer to respond to any email without his permission.  And told her that she had an attitude problem. And then told her she was no longer permitted to respond to any email at all.  And then removed her title from her "until further notice."

Then removed her ability to make any significant financial and programmatic decisions.  Then cancelled events that she had scheduled before she left (with guest speakers) without informing her.  Then informed her that she would have to fire the student staff she'd hired and started to train for the next year.  Then hired a faculty member who had never worked with the program before to supervise her, and promoted her assistant out from under her supervision (hiring her assistant's son as his personal assistant, to seal the deal).  Then finally, informed her that she would be removing the personal effects from her office so that the new faculty supervisor could use the office whenever he was in the building.

As the months went by from the first event to the last, the woman felt increasingly isolated and anxious about opening her email, wondering what would await her.

Finally, confiding in some other female colleagues, she discovered that she was not alone.  That the same thing was happening to other women at this organization.  That other senior women had advised them to "lie back and think of England," and go home to a peach Bellini.  This was their version of "leaning in."  This was how they'd reached the glass ceiling.

She did the only thing it made sense to do at the time: she resigned.

Several others did, too.

Some didn't have this choice, and were restructured out of their jobs.

Meanwhile, her new boss rose up the ranks, hiring mostly inexperienced young men to replace the mostly female staff members who had left or who had been forced out of their positions, and was eventually promoted to a position that put him second in command at the organization.  Despite an investigation conducted by the Office of Employment Equity, despite a pending lawsuit, despite confidential union grievances, this man was given a position of immense power.  Because his behavior was, apparently, acceptable.  Laudable, even.


Friends, this is not a story about lack of ambition.  This is not a story about not "leaning in."  This is not even a story about embracing a "good enough life."  This is a story about a pervasive, sexist culture that continues to be acceptable, not just at this woman's workplace, but at many others.  This is the same culture that permits us to limit women's reproductive rights, that permits legislation of women's bodies.  This is the same culture that makes the media think they can talk about rape victims as life-ruiners, and rape perpetrators as the ruined.

Sandberg recently created in order to "encourage and support women leaning in to their ambitions."  And I think that is an important step.  We need supportive communities in order to achieve our ambitions.   But there is more work to be done.  Leaning in is not enough.  If we allow discriminatory practices and cultures -- ANYWHERE -- to continue unchecked, then regardless of their leaning, women will continue to struggle to achieve balance, or risk losing their integrity, or risk losing their careers, or risk much worse.  In too many places, the choice to "lean in," or not, doesn't even exist.

And really, all people--not just women, but every one of us--deserves better.

Have you experienced a situation in which you've been prevented from "leaning in"?  Or have you found or created a"lean in circle" like the ones Sandberg refers to?   Do you think that women are the only ones who need this kind of support?  In what ways, small or great, do you try to help others to "lean in," even if you don't consider yourself "ambitious"?
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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

NaBloPoMo: Trees, Roots, and Lentil Shepherd's Pie

My potato plant had flowered; the small potato growing on the bottom had become a real, live, larger potato.  I may have given a little whoop of joy, or done a little dance in my kitchen in its honor.  Of course, I still hadn't planted it.  So in a day or two, the flower wilted, the stalks yellowed, and it was looking much more sorry again than robust.  From the time it realized it could become a real potato plant, it has wanted to be outside, in the rain and the wind and the sun, being pollinated.  And though I care for it as best I can, I can't hope to replicate natural conditions when I'm keeping the plant suspended by four toothpicks over a glass of water by my kitchen window.

In the early 1990s, Biosphere 2 conducted its first closed mission.  Among the things they observed during that mission was that though trees in a closed system grew rapidly, they suffered from etiolation (a condition characterized by long, weak stems) and weakness caused by lack of "stress wood."  Like the stalks of my potato plant, they would grow taller and taller until finally, they'd just topple over.  It turns out that trees actually do grow stronger in response to wind, and when there is no wind--which there wasn't, during the closed system mission, just circulating air--they become long and spindly, with less well-developed root systems.

Today's NaBloPoMo prompt invites us to respond to Dolly Parton's comment: "Storms make trees take deeper roots."  If I'm going by the results of the Biosphere 2 experiment, and the mini-experiment in my kitchen, it's a no-brainer.  Yes, trees need storms.  It sounds to be a lot like the old adage "that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger." But it's also complicated, isn't it?  Because "that which doesn't kill us" is a powerful qualifier.

All storms are not created equal.  I've seen first hand the destruction of a hurricane.  Sometimes the wind can be too strong, even for the oldest and most well-developed of trees.  Sometimes the rain turns solid ground to mud, or washes them away in a flash flood.  We lost many pines this year, which have--I learned--more shallow root systems, but we also lost some older hardier-looking trees that had deeper roots than I would have expected.

It's a lot like what Bjork and Bjork refer to as "desirable difficulty" in the psychology of learning: we learn best when we are challenged, but we have to be able to map the new information on to things we already know.  Interleaving also helps us to learn better in the long-term, but too much randomness makes it impossible to make connections.  Small storms benefit us most.  Taking "baby steps" towards strength makes us strongest in the end.

It's common practice to stake young trees--not all young trees, because each species is a bit different in its needs, but many kinds of young trees--at the beginning.  Sort of like people.  We don't start out subjecting young saplings to the greatest winds; nor do we subject novices to the most relentless criticism without constructive guidance.  Children who have to deal with crisis or tragedy at a very young age are most resilient when they have good support systems in place, when they are "staked" externally.  Adults aren't much different.

What I've learned over the past few years supports these observations.  When life takes a turn for the worse, we don't automatically grow deeper roots.  We need systems to withstand the wind.  We need to be able to shelter ourselves when a storm is too strong.    And we need nourishment to grow again when the storm has passed.

Lentil Shepherd's Pie
Our CSA gave us some spring carrots, and the onions are not far behind.  Though it's not technically "root vegetable" season, it's a good idea to start thinking about how I'm going to use those potatoes, so that they don't become the subject of another unnecessarily cruel experiment.

1 pound Yukon Gold or white potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon butter
3/4 teaspoon salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, divided
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely diced
1/2 cup finely diced carrot
1 tablespoon water
3/4 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 14-ounce can vegetable broth
1 1/2 cups cooked or canned (rinsed) lentils (see Tip)

Place potatoes in a large saucepan and cover with 2 inches of water. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium, partially cover and cook until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and return the potatoes to the pot. Add buttermilk, butter and 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Mash with a potato masher until mostly smooth.

While the potatoes are cooking, position rack in upper third of oven; preheat broiler. Coat four 10- to 12-ounce broiler-safe ramekins (or an 8-inch-square broiler-safe baking dish) with cooking spray. Place ramekins on a broiler-safe baking sheet.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, carrot and water. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in corn, thyme and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper; cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes. Sprinkle with flour and stir to coat. Stir in broth. Bring to a simmer; cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Stir in lentils and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes.

Divide the hot lentil mixture among the prepared ramekins (or spread in the baking dish). Top with the mashed potatoes. Broil, rotating halfway through, until the potato is lightly browned in spots, 6 to 10 minutes
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Monday, June 17, 2013

NaBloPoMo: Roots, Wings, and Chocolate Beet Cake

One of the first things a child learns in a Montessori classroom is how to use a work mat.  While selecting and unrolling a piece of carpet or fabric might seem like a trivial activity, the act of unrolling a work mat underscores one of the most important aspects of Montessori philosophy: responsibility for one's own work, and independence in its pursuit; or, more precisely, "freedom within limits."

Montessori children are taught to take their defined workspace very seriously.  The first time a teacher demonstrates this act for students, she will take the mat carefully from a bin, set it carefully on the floor or on the table.  The students who are tempted to shake the mat out in midair will be gently encouraged to follow her direction, and unroll it completely on the flat surface they have selected.  They are taught that when a mat is on the floor, they walk around it, heel-toe-heel-toe, being mindful that they don't step on it.  And when a child is done with her work, she re-rolls the mat, putting it away just as carefully as she removed it.  The Montessori work mat is a symbol of both responsibility and independence; its use, a ritual of reverence for both.

Today's NaBloPoMo writing prompt, which reminded us that "[t]he original quote about giving children roots and wings referred to the 'roots of responsibility and the wings of independence,' " was particularly apt for me, because today was my daughter's first day at the Toddler House in her Montessori school, and my first day, sort of, back to work.  I only went for a few hours, and she only went for an hour, but I found myself thinking a lot about those roots and wings, about what I've tried to give her over the past two years, and about how hard it is to watch her take this next step towards independence in the world.

As she grows older, she will ask the questions that begin with the work mat.  The questions that begin with this moment, and with every moment when she steps a little farther away.  Where do we fit into the world?   What work will we choose?  How can we try to ensure that we do good where we can, and that we not step on others' work-in-progress?

Going back to work, for me, is partially about remembering and testing the limits of my own roots and wings, too.  To whom am I responsible?  What are my contributions to the world, besides the ones I make through my children?  How do I define myself as me, in addition to the way I define myself in the context of my family?

This give-and-take, this push-and-pull, is probably the hardest thing about being a parent, and the hardest thing about being ourselves.

Which is why, at the end of the day, flying in the face of other things they will teach my daughter at her Montessori school, there will be chocolate cake on our table.

Chocolate Beet Cake
adapted from Nigella Lawson's recipe and The White Ramekins
Beets are some of the best kinds of roots there are.  Especially when paired with cocoa powder.

1 1/2 c. plain flour
2 T. baking powder
2/3 c. cocoa powder
1 c. superfine sugar
3 eggs
1/2 lb. beets
7/8 c. light olive oil or coconut oil
Preheat the oven 425F. Wash the beets, wrap them individually in aluminium foil, and place them in oven for about 45 minutes.  Let beets cool to room temperature.  When they are cool to the touch, you should be able to simply rub the skins off, and puree them in a food processor/liquidizer/blender.  Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 375F.  Spray an 8" springform pan with cooking spray.  Line the bottom with a circle of parchment cut to fit inside the pan, spray the parchment, and dust the entire inside of the pan with a very thin coating of cocoa powder.

Sift the flour, baking powder, superfine sugar and cocoa powder together in a medium bowl and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, oil and beet puree.  Fold the flour mixture into the wet mixture. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

Let the cake cool completely on a wire rack.
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Sunday, June 16, 2013

NaBloPoMo: Fathers, and Chard with Turnips

I always hated Hallmark Father's Day cards.  My dad didn't fish (not with me, anyway, except if you count that one time we went out on a half day boat trip from the Jersey Short when I was four, and my parents both spent the entire time in the bathroom ... my father for seasickness, and my mother because she was seasick and pregnant).  He did wear a tie, but never as an executive; he wore a tie to school when he wore a suit, or on Sundays, to church.  He didn't like sports.  He loved his grill, but it was a Japanese kamado grill built into a cement table that he'd laid himself ... not exactly the all-American image of the dad with his hot dogs and Coleman.  He did muck around with home improvement, but not in the way that the cards pictured it, either.  No, I remember thinking that my father didn't fit any of those cards, didn't look like the images on any of those cards (as a dark-skinned Spaniard, he was often mistaken for people who lived much closer to the Equator), and most importantly, didn't fit the sentiment of those cards.  Father's Day didn't fit us, at least, not the way everyone seemed to want us to celebrate it.

And now, it doesn't really fit my husband, either.  He does fish, but he only wears a tie in extreme circumstances (important meeting at work).  He doesn't follow sports.  He mucks around with home improvement and with our grill, but not in the way that those things are pictured.

What I noticed today on Facebook was the variety of ways people were describing fathers.  And the wide variety of ways people were choosing to celebrate their fathers, their children, their grandfathers.  Not everyone went to a restaurant, or felt pressured to buy flowers.  A lot of people were doing things with their dads, spending time with them in a way that was active, hands-on.  And though I never resolved my own complicated relationship with my dad, I was glad to see so many people openly ditching the Hallmark depiction of the holiday.

Why, I wonder, are we so bound by the conventions of Mother's Day, then?

Turnips and Chard
This is a CSA meal that even my father would have eaten; the secret, of course, is the handful of ham thrown in.   Inspired by Cooking in Sens.

6 hakurei turnips, cut into cubes
1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
1 cup cooked ham, coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 cups chard leaves, chopped
2 bay leaves
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper

Brown the turnip cubes in the olive oil.  Add the ham and garlic, then cook until the garlic is aromatic.  Add the chard, bay leaves, vinegar, salt and pepper, then cover and steam for 4-5 minutes.
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Saturday, June 15, 2013

NaBloPoMo: Thoughts on Impermanent Art

My daughter got her first body painting today, and I suspect that it won't be her last.  My son was slow to agree to the face-painting rage, but even he agreed last summer, and has been transformed a few times since then.

The artist who painted N's arm today is just that: an artist.  She's not just someone who paints faces in the same way that everyone else paints faces.  People become her living canvases.  Not all sparkly butterflies are the same.   (This piece, for example, is just astounding.)

Watching her, I found myself thinking about how selfless her work was.  How painting people with impermanent paint, children especially (who are bound to wipe it off or sweat it off or do who knows what to the paint before it all comes off in one soapy rinse), is art that doesn't last.  My friend C, who happened to be there with us, and who does elaborate cake decoration for fun, said that she'd discussed this with the artist, and they both like this impermanent approach to filling the world with beauty that becomes, in some way, consumed, and then vanishes.

Given our penchant for putting artwork in museums or behind glass in private collections or in any other number of protected spaces, or even putting things on the internet (where they never really go away, even if we delete them), this is so interesting to me.  So much beautiful cake, gone in a matter of minutes, destroyed the moment we slice into it.  So many breathtaking faces (and other body parts), returned to their natural state at the next shower.

Have you ever had your face (or any other body part) painted with temporary body paint?  (I'm not counting tattoos here).  Have you ever eaten a really beautiful cake or an artistically presented meal?  How do you feel about impermanent art?
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Friday, June 14, 2013

NaBloPoMo: Why I Love the Wawa

It is 10:30 at night.  My children are in bed.  My husband is in bed.  I am in my PJs, wrapped in an oversized fluffy bathrobe, procrastinating writing.

I wander to the kitchen, rummage in the cabinets.  No dried mango, no almonds.  Popcorn?  No.  Peanut butter?  Not quite what I'm looking for.

I open the refrigerator.  Leftover bean soup, strawberries.  Celery.  Hummus.  Carrots, red pepper.  Condiments.  Cheese and other things that my children eat.

In a single practiced movement, I close the refrigerator and open the freezer.  More vegetables.  Edamame.  Hot dogs.  Gluten free fish sticks.  A loaf of bread.  Lots of ice.

In the rush of cold air that escapes, it comes to me: I need ice cream.

Because I live in a part of New Jersey that doesn't think grocery stores need to be open 24 hours, our stores are already closed.  And I would never show up at my grocery store dressed like this.  Because people at my grocery store?  Actually know who I am.  Some of them by name.  This is the down side of living in a small town: your cashier can judge you by your groceries.  Usually my cart is filled with produce and paper goods and laundry detergent.  Stocking up on Haagen Daasz?  Might earn me a raised eyebrow.  Showing up in my lime green coffee-cup-print lounge pants?  May make people think twice about electing me to the board of ed.  (See?  You're looking at me funny already too, aren't you.)

The solution is clearly Wawa.

Have you not heard of Wawa?  Let me tell you, young grasshopper.  Wawa is a chain of convenience stores/gas stations that operate from NJ to PA to DE, but seem to cluster in central and southern NJ.  They are synonymous with coffee around here, though they do compete with Quick Check (and, to a lesser extent, 7-Eleven).

Here's what I love about Wawa: opt-out anonymity.  At the Wawa, you could show up every morning for the same cup of coffee, and unless you strike up a conversation with the cashier, they will never know your name.  No forest-green-clad barista will ever ask you if you want your usual.  And if you show up irregularly for, say, a pint of ice cream, wearing your lime green coffee-cup-print pajamas, chances are by the next time you see that person, they will have forgotten you completely.  I don't think I've ever seen the same checkout person twice.  Which either doesn't say a lot for the Wawa's retention of cashiers, or which suggests something more positive about the length of time between my visits to the Wawa.

When we moved here, my husband said that he wanted to find a place where we could be "regulars."  I know what he means: a family restaurant where you practically have reserved seating when you walk in the door, and you are greeted by the staff by name.  I also think it's important, though, to have somewhere to hide in public.

Do you have a place where you're a "regular"?  Or a place where you go to be anonymous?
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Thursday, June 13, 2013

NaBloPoMo: Vacation, All I Ever Wanted, and Thai Beef Salad

At the beginning of July, we will be joining my husband's stepmother's family for a few days on Cape Cod.  They've been going there for over 50 years, renting the same three cottages, eating at the same restaurants, building and destroying sand castles with the same grains of sand, combing the same stretch of beach for shells and digging for the same hermit crabs.  The sand shifts, the tides ebb and flow, the elements shape and reshape the coastline, and the cottages become more windswept with the years, but generally speaking, it's a place you go where you don't expect much to be different.

This is astounding to me, going to the same place every summer for fifty years.  We were lucky enough to have time and funds for a vacation, too, when I was growing up, but it was always somewhere different.  Often, we were visiting family: we would travel to Spain and spend ten days covering the countryside at a breakneck pace by car, from Vittoria to Madrid to Granada; or we would spend a week in Puerto Rico near my uncle's school, visiting the rainforest and the beach and the old city.  Twice we somehow came into a loaner condominium in Mexico (that was the year my brother pretended to drop his bathing suit off of the 15th floor balcony and nearly gave my mother a heart attack), once we went to a resort in the Dominican Republic (where I ate more coconut buns than were good for anyone).  We took a Canyonlands bus tour with forty mostly-senior-citizens (great scenery, but less-than-ideal social situation for a teenager) and spent a few days in Colonial Williamsburg.  We made the obligatory pilgrimage to Disney when I was a tweenager, the summer when my younger brother--already too jaded to really appreciate Disney anyway--had broken his leg.  Once we spent two weeks at two different rented houses in Myrtle Beach: that was the vacation when my father shaved the beard that was practically part of his face, and I got bitten by a crab that a girl named Julie and I caught using a questionable quality crab trap and a nasty chicken bone.  And then there was the summer we actually did rent a house in Cape Cod, though it was far from the beach, which we only went to twice anyway, and I found myself wondering why we didn't just stay home and take day trips to the beach like we would have done in New Jersey; it would have been easier than listening to my mother complain about the gas stove, on which she was unable to cook spaghetti properly.

As an adult, my husband and I honeymooned by biking through Umbria; we traveled to Thailand with a tour company that used public transportation, homestays, and a pickup truck to get around; I took students to Brazil for a five day research symposium; I joined a ten day study tour to South Africa, to look at post-apartheid education in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

The bottom line is, I can't imagine going to the same place every year, and staying in one place once you get there.

On the other hand, my father-in-law, who married the woman whose family rents said cottages, has often said I haven't mastered the fine art of relaxing.  In fact, he says, I'm pretty horrible at it.  He recommends vacationing on Cape Cod as treatment for my condition.  (The reality is: I don't love the beach.  At least, not in the summer.  I love walking along it, I love the power of the ocean, but I hate swimming in it and getting sand in my bathing suit.)

I'm looking forward to getting away, and I'm grateful for the generous gift of space in those cabins, of that family making us feel like family, too.  My children love the time we spend there.  But it's also true that I miss the kind of traveling I did as a child, and as an adult before children.  It's a very different kind of vacation.  It's given me a perspective that I wouldn't have had otherwise.  Driving, alone, back across the country from LA to NJ, when I'd decided to leave my first graduate program, I stopped for a night in Sandusky, Ohio, and ate dinner at the bar in an Applebee's.  I never eat at Applebee's, and I never eat at bars, so it was doubly weird, but it was a good opportunity for conversation.  People were astonished to learn that I was driving across the country by myself, that I'd been so far from home, and that I'd traveled so much.  Most of them had never left their town, never mind their state.

Maybe it's true that I'm not very good at relaxing.  Maybe it will do me good to have to sit still and do nothing for a few days, and just listen to the thoughts in my own head.  I know that my children will thoroughly enjoy themselves; they don't feel the need for novelty and difference that I do just yet.  Maybe they never will.  Still, I'll look forward to the day when I can take them somewhere new, rock their worlds a little bit, make them a little breathless.

Do you take regular vacations?  Did you family go the same place every year when you were growing up, or have you been able to see the world?  Do you prefer the kind of vacation where you stay in one place, or do you like to be active and on the go when you're vacationing?

Thai Beef Salad
If I can't be jetsetting in person, at least I can do so in my kitchen.  This salad came from a skinny little volume that became one of our favorite go-to manuals for Thai food.  It was surprisingly authentic!

2 t. red curry paste
2 t. water
2 t.  grated fresh ginger
1 garlic clove, minced
2 t. lime juice
Cooking spray
1 lb. boneless sirloin steak, sliced thinly across the grain
1 1/2 T. lime juice
1 T. fish sauce
2 t. coconut palm sugar (or brown sugar)
1/4 c. cilantro, finely chopped
2 T. mint, finely chopped
1 1/2 c. thinly sliced radishes
1 small kohlrabi, quartered and thinly sliced
1/2 to 3/4 good-sized head of lettuce, torn

Combine curry paste, water, ginger, garlic, and lime juice in a bowl.  Add sliced steak and marinate 30 minutes.

Spray a skillet with cooking oil, heat to medium-high, and add steak slices.  Sear and cook through, turning down the heat during cooking if necessary.  Remove from heat; set aside.

Combine fish sauce, additional lime juice, and coconut palm sugar.  Add cilantro and mint.  Toss with steak.

Place torn lettuce in a large serving bowl.  Top with radishes and kohlrabi, and then with steak and dressing.  Serve warm.
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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

NaBloPoMo: Breaking With Tradition, and Lentil Soup with Browned Butter

There were a lot of rules about food in my family as I was growing up.  The post about breakfast got me thinking.  Not only did we have rules about what would be for breakfast each day of the week (which I guess was intended to simplify things, but really, wouldn't cereal and fruit have been simpler?), but we had rules about what was for dinner on Sunday (a roast something or other), what time we would eat (dinner at 6 on the dot every night, and at 1:30 on Sundays), and what dinner would include (always at least four separate things on a plate: bread, and a carbohydrate, and one buttered vegetable, and meat).  During Lent, we ate fish on Fridays.

I look at the way my family eats now, and I wonder when I decided to break so completely with tradition.  We do tend to eat at the same time every night, for the sake of convenience.  Nothing different about Sundays, though.  I usually feed my kids some form of carbohydrate with the evening meal, but there isn't necessarily one for me or for my husband, though I will occasionally find him with a bowl of cereal in hand later in the evening if I haven't made one.  There is often no meat in sight.  There are often multiple vegetables involved, especially during CSA season.  There is often one bowl per person (forget the plate), with everything mixed together in a soup or salad or stir-fry, aka the "one pot wonder."

I usually spend Wednesday and Thursday nights--not the entire night, but a good chunk of time--planning for next weeks' meals, so I can shop on Friday for the week.  Our CSA pickup is also on Friday, so I can start cooking on the weekend.  I had to laugh at myself, looking at my initial list of possibilities this week, taking a guess at what our share might include, and imagining what my old-world European father would have thought, once he'd gotten past how careless my handwriting has gotten over the past year.  Just count the number of times the words "chard" and "kale" appear.  (I also had to laugh at myself: I tease my mother for making lists of clothing to take on a trip, but my sketch of the week's menu is far worse than hers ever was.)

I guess, in my house, there are lots of food rules, too.  Just different ones than the ones I grew up with.

The lentil soup I made just recently would never have appeared on our family table in my youth. At least, not without a lot of bread and a plate with three separate courses alongside it.

Do you have food rules, spoken or unspoken?  Do you meal-plan for the week or are you more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants cook?

Coconut Lentil Soup
This is, of course, Heidi's recipe. I omitted the red pepper, added a shallot, increased the liquid (mine was just too thick).
2 T. extra-virgin coconut oil

1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

6 cups vegetable broth
1 1/2 c. green lentils, picked over and rinsed
3 T. unsalted butter

1 T. Indian curry powder

2/3 c. coconut milk


fresh chives, snipped

Melt the coconut oil in a large soup pot over medium-low heat.  Raise heat to medium, add onion and garlic and saute until just translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the broth and lentils and simmer, covered, about 40 minutes, or until lentils are tender (Heidi recommends you start checking them earlier, at around 20 minutes).

While the soup is cooking,  melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat.  Stirring constantly, let it brown (you'll know you have it right when the foam goes away and you start to see small brown solid bits).  Stir in the spices and saute for another 30 seconds.  Remove from heat.

When the lentils are tender, remove the soup from the heat and stir in the coconut milk and salt.  Puree to your preferred consistence, and stir in half of the spiced butter.

Serve drizzled with the additional spiced butter and snipped chives.
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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

NaBloPoMo Time Warp Tuesday: Decisions

Kathy over at Bereaved and Blessed is doing the Time Warp Again!  Time Warp Tuesday is the monthly blog hop in which Kathy invites us to revisit an old post from our blog, and think about where we are now, how our thoughts about the post may have changed from its original writing.  This month, Kathy directs us to find an old blog entry about decisions:
Some decisions come more easily than others. Choose a post from your archives OR another blogger’s in which you or they wrote about a time when a decision needed to be made. Maybe it was a difficult decision that you or the other blogger really struggled to come to terms with. Or maybe the choice that was made was an easy decision based on your or the other blogger’s self-knowledge and approach to living. Then write a new post on your blog about why you chose the post that you did and what has happened in your life since it was written.


I've spent quite enough time lately talking about my decision to leave my last professional position, for reasons that were not exactly pleasant ones.  So I thought I would revisit another life-changing decision: the one I made to leave my first doctoral program.

I reference that decision both here and here, though I've never really talked about it in great detail; it was, in some respects, as straightforward as leavetakings get.  I was a well-funded graduate student in my first program; I had been given a few years of fellowship funding right from the beginning, so I never had to teach to fulfill the terms of my financial aid package, as some of my fellow graduate students did.  I had the luxury of concentrating on my coursework, and so was able to fly through it faster than most other people in my class.  I was the first to take my comprehensive exams, and upon being told that I passed them "in spite of my performance" (because, in theory, they knew that I knew more than I demonstrated that day, and that I'd had what amounted to an anxiety attack) I would have been the first to embark on preparation for my dissertation proposal.  But somewhere that day I realized consciously what perhaps I'd known all along: that I didn't want to write a dissertation about English literature.  That I couldn't see myself spending the rest of my life in libraries doing research, or even splitting my time between libraries and classrooms.  And suddenly I felt like the floor had dropped out from under me; like I was on one of those centrifuge carnival rides, and I had no idea how I'd get off.

I went out for pizza later that week with my friend C., on the Santa Monica Promenade.  We sat outside, eating, and talking, me balefully describing what I was going to have to do next.  And that's when she said, in her inimitable matter-of-fact way: "well, you know, you could just leave."

Fork in the road, from the Muppet Movie
I was dumbfounded, so much so that I think I couldn't speak for a full five minutes.  Of course she was right.  No one had chained me to this program.  Yes, I had used their fellowship money.  But I could find a way to pay it back if I had to.  Yes, I was across the country.   I could drive back.  I could lo
ok for a job.  I could do something different.

The next day, I started applying for jobs, and was offered the position at my alma mater that began my career in higher education.  It was the first time I'd made a decision that put me in freefall, and I was lucky enough to land quickly.  I suspect that had I not done that once before, I might not have been able to do it again, two years ago, when so much more was at stake.  I never looked back; that decision allowed me to be more true to myself, more comfortable in my own skin.

"Couldabeens" is a particularly relevant post this month, because I will be returning to academe in just over two weeks, starting a job that will be, I suspect, more focused on academic projects and ideas than ones I've had before.  It was yet another decision that will have brought me there, and in some ways the decision was just as complicated as the ones I've made before.  So much will be changing.  Even though I'm not starting over, I'm also, technically, starting over.  I'm a little bit nervous about the "swilling Starbucks" crowd, but looking forward to the "tattered paperbacks," the conversations about the world and about students' aspirations, the expansion of my own mental universe.

A few days ago Ilene over at Fierce Diva posted about her own most recent fork in the road.  And about the importance of staying true to ourselves in the big life decisions, the ones that leave us wondering "what if I'd chosen the other way"?  I can't help but think back to the fork in the road from the Muppet Movie, the one they encounter during "Movin' Right Along."  Though it's not clear that the map they have is doing any good, they turn "left at the fork in the road," without even thinking about it, without even really knowing where they're going, not with certainty, anyway.  What astonishingly refreshing faith that things are going to work out the way they should.  Maybe we all need a banjo-wielding frog and a singing comedian bear as our co-pilots.
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