Saturday, November 29, 2014

It's a Small World

When we asked our kids what they liked best about Disney, one of the things my son mentioned was the "It's a Small World" ride.  My husband and I both laughed, given how dated the ride is, how old the animatronics are, how stereotyped the countries are.  We joked about the parts of Disney we thought could use some updating, this included.  But on the other hand, I can see why: it's a simple, happy version of the world all in one place.

We spent a fair amount of time at Epcot this year (which I now know means Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow), not so much in the "space age" section, but walking around the world showcase, appreciating the replica architecture, visiting tiny museums, listening to people speak in different languages.  As my son colored in a character at one of the Kidcot stops where they wrote his name in Japanese, I found myself thinking about the first time I started to appreciate the world outside of my immediate family (which was, admittedly, pretty global, with bits scattered in Spain, Guatemala, Puerto Rico).  I'd been exposed to lots of other languages, and I watched my share of the news, but I think the first time the world became real to me was some time in the fourth grade, when I met Nana.

Nana was a Japanese student who came to the U.S. knowing almost (or so it seemed to me) no English.  She spent most of the day elsewhere in the school in ESL and other classes, but when she was in my regular classroom, my teacher had assigned her to me: I was supposed to help her figure out what we were doing, where we were in the textbook, how to do the seatwork.

I'm not sure I did a very good job of all of that, but I do remember Nana teaching me to write my name in Japanese, and I thinking that it was pretty cool to be able to write with an entirely different alphabet.  We also spent hours looking at her school supplies (things like her pencil case, which I think now must have been a Picachu prototype), and talking in our limited way about clothes, and doing the things that kids do when they discover another culture.

from dadsguidetodw, because my pictures aren't as good
Nana didn't stay long in my classroom--they never did tell us where she went--but I think now about how much more cosmopolitan my kids are, how they haven't even traveled as much as I had, but they have children--not just second or third generation but recent immigrants--in their classrooms from all over the globe.  And it does feel like a small world to them, a world in which you can connect with anyone, anywhere, at any time, across boundaries of geography and culture.

My son and I returned to Epcot on the last night for the fireworks show, a special holiday edition featuring children singing "Let There Be Peace on Earth, and Let It Begin With Me," and Disney Imagineers know what they're doing: if anything left you feeling inspired to go do good in the world, that was it.  I hope that the spirit of common humanity and shared experience can, in fact, unite all of us this holiday season, remind us that we're not just colored splotches on a map but real human beings, and that we have a responsibility to take care of each other. Because it really is a small world, after all.
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Thursday, November 27, 2014

With Thanks

This is just a quick but sincere thank you to everyone who worked today so that I could enjoy Thanksgiving with my family, without the usual holiday stress.  With love, me

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Light the Night: Peace Begins at Home

It was well past dark when I came into the town that marks the half way point between work and home, and noticed the luminaries lining the main street.

If I'd been any other traveler, I might have driven past the lights, thinking how festive they were for the holidays, wondering if there were some special celebration in town (though there wasn't a soul out on the street), or whether they did that regularly in the downtown business district.  But it took me only about a minute before I saw that the bags had been marked with stickers, realized that it was early December, and made the connection: I knew what they were for, and I sucked in my breath, remembering.

When we first moved to our neighborhood, in 2005, my neighbor asked me to serve on the Board of Trustees for the county's domestic violence agency.   She was the executive director, as soon as I introduced myself on our move-in day, ringing her doorbell to ask if I could borrow some aluminum foil, sporting my University Women's Retreat sweatshirt, she decided that I could be useful to her.  "Look mom," her teenaged son pointed out from behind her in the doorway, "she's even wearing the right shirt."

A few weeks later when she made the ask, I think I made some sort of comment that day about how I wasn't really qualified, but by my second month in town I was attending bi-weekly Thursday night meetings.  It was an an astoundingly large organization with significant influence in the county, and I served on the board for about four years, until I thought I was going to have a second child, and things started to get complicated.  Though I knew more than I might have wanted to about domestic violence and sexual assault going in to the position, I learned a lot about community outreach during those years, and I credit the Communities of Light event with helping me to really get to know my neighbors.

Communities of Light was started as a way to raise awareness about domestic violence and sexual assault; the lumaniaries were supposed to serve as a symbol of hope for those whose lives had been affected by violence, suggesting that the community itself would offer a space of solace and comfort, even when victims couldn't find that at home.  The agency sold luminary kits, and board members would take a few cases, first to our neighbors, and then to businesses in town, who would all light the candles on the same night, sending a collective message as a community about support for victims, and a reminder that "Peace Begins at Home.".  I felt a little like a Girl Scout going door to door with the carefully piled the luminary kits in my son's red wooden wagon, he squashed into the back holiding the money, but I was always proud when, on the appointed night, I'd look down our street at the lines of flickering candles.

Universities have been struggling with sexual assault in a very public way recently, and I'd like to ask the community to hold survivors in its thoughts during the holiday season, when it's not uncommon to see even higher than usual incidences of violence, not just at our institutions (which see increases at other times if the year), but in your hometowns. When you see lights lining streets or in windows, please remember that Peace Begins at Home. and remember that someone you know--female or male-- might need a safe space, too.

This fight is not theirs alone. Shouldn't we all stand up say we've had enough?
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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Because I Need To Write About Ferguson.

I will likely have nothing original to say about Ferguson, but that doesn't matter.  I need to say something.

I'm deeply saddened, by so many things: by the grand jury's decision not to indict Darren Williams, by the ensuing protests that left Ferguson on fire last night (burning down, among other things, a bakery owned by a black woman for whom her business represented years of selling her cakes at flea markets), by the police response to the violence (more violence), and by a culture that continues to turn a blind eye to persistent racism, hiding under the banner of colorblindness.

James Forman writes in the Atlantic about Chicago sociologist Alice Goffman's book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (Fieldwork Encounters and Discoveries)
One consequence of racism and segregation is that many American whites know little or nothing about the daily lives of African Americans. Black America’s least-understood communities are those poor, hyper-segregated places we once called ghettos. These neighborhoods are not far away, but they might as well be on the moon. The only news most people ever hear about the inner city comes from grim headlines; the only residents they can name are characters on The Wire. Of course, ignorance of a community doesn’t stop outsiders from having opinions about it or passing laws that govern it. But those opinions, based on stereotypes and catchphrases, make it difficult to conduct meaningful public deliberation about social policy. And the laws, all too often, harm people who have enough going against them already.
When we talk about Ferguson, let's not start with the fact that there are some good police, or that #AllLivesMatter, or anything else that's self-evident and self-congratulatory.  Let's not even start with the fact that beyond the outright bigots there are some really thoughtless people out there, like the Rhodes candidate who saw my student (another Rhodes candidate at the time, now a Rhodes winner) reading Americanah and said "hey, is that book any good?  You're like the fourth black girl I've seen reading it."  Let's not try to erase race by supplanting it with class, and say that poverty is at the root of all social ills (yes, they are tangled.  That doesn't mean they're the same).  Let's start with this: we have a problem with racism in this country, which is not going away any time soon.

And that's why the protests are happening.  Because pleas to be peaceful in the name of Michael Brown could not contain how people feel.  Because what happened in Ferguson, not just on that night in August but for the hundred and eight days the followed, is a metonym for something much larger and more insidious.  Because despite calls for "healing," our country doesn't know how to move forward from where we are; there are no guideposts for this.

I can look at the evidence given to the grand jury. I don't know what their deliberations looked like.  They must have thought their verdict was fair, given the evidence they reviewed and the laws that governed their decision.  I can think that shooting an unarmed man 12 times should be a crime in anyone's book.  But I don't know what it's like to live where Michael Brown lived.  I will never experience a world of arrest quotas and high-tech surveillance; I will never have to be a fugitive from my own home.

Maybe one thing we can all do is start naming the racism we see, instead of telling people they're overreacting.  Maybe we can be more mindful about our language, not in a 1990s political correctness way, but in a way that suggests we give a shit.  Maybe we can start to be honest with ourselves about what modern racism looks like.  Maybe we can stop using shorthand (e.g. the picture of Ferguson burning), and use the tools of the anthropologist--thick, rich description--to understand.  Maybe we can fight for more equality by fighting for more opportunity.  Maybe we can learn how other people live, in a deeper, more complicated way than what the media shows us.  Maybe we can be kind to each other.

Maybe this is one role for the humanities.

Nothing will change overnight.  But we owe our children a better legacy than this.
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Monday, November 24, 2014

#MicroblogMondays: Liminal

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

  1. of or relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.
  2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.

One of the questions on the supplemental application for high school hopefuls trying to gain admission to the hallowed halls of the institution where I work is: "Favorite Word."

I don't know if I had had a favorite word in high school, but I know what it is now.

In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning "a threshold") is the indeterminate phase in the middle of rituals, when the participants in the ritual are no longer exactly as they were before the ritual, but have not yet assumed the role that they will assume after its is complete. Imagine standing in the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and you've pictured a liminal space exactly.

That's exactly where we are now: on the threshold, on the thin line between fall (a balmy afternoon in the 60s) and winter (snow forecast for Wednesday), not really in either, but somewhere on the edge.  One of my students asked me to tea today off campus, and it couldn't have been a more perfect day to escape for a little while.  If it hadn't been for her, I might have missed it.

What's your favorite word?  Are you bracing for transition?  Or have you crossed over?
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Sunday, November 23, 2014

On Being Interesting, Reprise

Without trying, really, I tend to surround myself with people who I deem more interesting and more intelligent than I am, on the theory that they'll inspire me to be the best version of myself.  This works sometimes.  Other times, not so much.

Late last week, I was invited to judge a 24 hour student film festival (that is, a festival of student films made in 24 hours).  I know next to nothing about how to decide if a film is any good, or about making a movie, or about chugging Red Bull, but I was honored to be asked (even though I knew I wasn't their first choice because they'd forgotten to remove some key sentences in the email invitation they sent, a fact that was later confirmed by my boss, who had been nearer the top of their list), and since the event started at 9 on a Saturday night, I could leave the kids just before bed and head down to campus.  It felt like more than just a token responsibility; the prizes included $500 cash: $100 each to best acting and best screenplay, $200 for best production, and $100 for audience favorite.After checking with my husband, I ignored the little voice saying "why me?" and replied that I'd be delighted to join them. 

I drove to campus, parked in my normal lot and, finding myself earlier than I'd expected (traffic was lighter than I'd thought on a Saturday night) took the long way to the classroom, treating myself to a double pumpkin spice latte on the way.  (I don't think I'd ever had a pumpkin spice latte before.  Does that make me unAmerican, uncultured, or just un-brainwashed?)

When I arrived at the classroom, I was greeted by some familiar faces; they were still setting up, so I took my reserved seat in the judges' row.  I was soon joined by a philosophy professor on the Committee for Film Studies, a master of another residential college and his daughter (a film critic), a video producer/editor at the university Broadcast Center, and the Dean of Admissions (who doesn't make movies, but at least goes to see them once in a while).  I started feeling more than a little unqualified for the task at hand.

The films were great: creative, funny, touching, thoughtful, little windows into our students' brains.  I marveled at the accomplishment, thinking that I never could have made a five-minute film in 24 hours as an undergraduate.  I thoroughly enjoyed the next hour and a half, though I second-guessed my way through my ratings, and starting going back when it was all over.  I was the last judge to hand in my ratings; they had resorted to asking members of the audience to tell jokes to bide time.  As they tallied the responses, the philosophy professor made pleasant conversation, while I sat there feeling like I had nothing to say: I don't go to the movies, I barely get to read a book a month, I don't do research.  I cook, I do laundry, I clean, I commute.  I help my children learn to read and navigate Prezi for a class assignment.

And I wonder, why is it that I go there, to that place of feeling like I'm a boring individual who has wasted the last ten years of her life not learning anything or growing in any way, so quickly?  Why be so quick to compare myself to people who have lived different lives than I have?  Why not walk away from an event like that feeling grateful for the fact that students from across a few college, after only a year in my position, tell me that I'm "esteemed" (and when I tease them about it, defend the use of the adjective by looking it up in the OED)?  Why worry about being second, or third, or ninth fiddle?  Why wonder why, during my two years at home with N., I didn't earn another degree or become a better musician or write a novel?  Why worry about what I'm not doing with the little free time I have?

Perhaps awareness that your thoughts are crazy is the first step, but it's nowhere near half the battle.

Do you surround yourself with people you think are smarter/cooler/more interesting than you are?  Do you secretly worry about not being interesting enough (or some variant on the theme)?
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Friday, November 21, 2014

Choose Your Own Adventure, and Thai Peanut Curry

This week, the world lost a visionary when it lost R.A. Montgomery last week.

Remember Choose Your Own Adventure books?

I don't know when I first started reading them--they were already below my reading level when I discovered them in the library--but I blew through the series, devouring them over the summer by the stack.  It was the precursor to hypertext for me; I loved the idea that stories could branch out in different directions, and that you could return to the source only to do it all over again in a completely different way.

The genre wasn't exactly new; Wikipedia (forgive the source) tells us that the game book most likely originated with Jorge Luis Borges is 1941, who wrote about the fictional author of a "game book" in 1941, followed by an actual puzzle novel a few years later.  But R.A. Montgomery popularized the idea, and with Choose Your Own Adventure, game books took off.

I found myself in the grocery store today, buying turkey.  Not a whole bird, mind you, but enough for dinner this weekend before we leave for our trip.  And I wondered why.

I think it has to do with choice.

Given the ability to choose, suddenly traditional Thanksgiving--on my terms, with only my immediate family--seemed like fun.

It's also curry season, and I know a family who eats Indian food for Thanksgiving, just because they can.  There are people who choose to eat tofu for Thanksgiving.  Somehow, having the choice makes tradition seem more bearable.

So: here's to R.A. Montgomery, who empowered a generation (and then some) of young people to feel like they could have some say over their destinies.  You will be missed.

Did you ever read the Choose Your Own Adventure series?

Thai Peanut Tofu
Maybe your Thanksgiving includes a turkey, and maybe not.  But it's curry season, and this will warm you just as well as a dinner full of starches.

1 block medium firm tofu, cut into 1/2" cubes
cornstarch to coat tofu
splash of soy sauce
splash of sesame oil
1 T. olive oil
2 bell peppers, slivered
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
1 inch knob fresh ginger, minced
15 oz. can light coconut milk
2 T. red curry paste
1/2 c. peanut butter
1 T. sesame oil
a  bag of baby spinach
cooked basmati rice

Place the tofu pieces in a bowl, splash over soy sauce and sesame oil to taste. Refrigerate, occasionally stirring to make sure all pieces are coated.  Toss in cornstarch to coat lightly.

Add the oil to a large wok or frying pan over medium high heat. Add the tofu and saute until the cubes begin to brown and get crispy. When they have almost finished cooking, remove it from the pan and set aside in another bowl.

Working quickly, add a little more oil to your wok and saute the peppers, garlic, and ginger.  Once the peppers have softened, stir in the lite coconut milk, red curry paste, peanut butter, and sesame oil. Whisk all ingredients together until heated through and blended. Set sauce aside.

Wipe the wok clean or in another skillet, heat a tiny bit of olive oil over medium high heat. Saute the spinach for a few minutes until it is slightly wilted.

Heap spinach in each bowl, top with basmati rice and tofu, and drizzle with peanut sauce.
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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Mental Health on Campus

There have been a lot of conversations lately on my campus and others about mental health.  And to be perfectly honest?  I'm concerned.

We've seen some pretty awful things happen on college campuses recently.  The shootings at FSU and in Santa Barbara.  The man who opened fire with a handgun in a building at Seattle Pacific University, killing one and injuring two others. These events, and the stories of students who have harmed themselves instead of harming others, demand both that we rethink the role of the campus in cultivating and supporting mental health and well-being, but that we also take seriously our own limitations in doing so.

Walking the fine line between caring for students and appearing punitive is complicated, though.

On the one hand, we need to take care of students for whom college triggers or exacerbates mental illness.  We know that the instances of depression and anxiety among college students are higher than ever.  According to the American College Health Association's 2013 national survey, over 30 percent of college students reported feeling "so depressed that it was difficult to function" at some time over the past year. Over 50 percent felt "overwhelming anxiety."  Eighty-four percent felt "overwhelmed by all they had to do."  And yet only 10 percent were diagnosed with/treated for depression, and 15 percent diagnosed with/treated for anxiety. A 2011 National Alliance on Mental Illness study of college students diagnosed with mental health conditions found that more than half of the students with mental health conditions who dropped out of school didn't access campus-based support services.  We need to make it acceptable to seek help for mental illness (at all stages) instead of hiding because they fear being seen as weak or stigmatized, and we need to educate our communities better to recognize the warning signs.  I wish that someone had recognized what was happening with Elliot Rodgers, and done something for him before it was too late for him, and for others.  While the police who did the welfare check on Rodgers certainly missed the boat, so did so many others who had contact with him on a regular basis, who might have been able to catch this before tragedy became the inevitable outcome.

On the other hand, we need to be able to talk openly and honestly about the fact that colleges are not equipped to handle students who require intensive care.  Students where I work have been worried about the fact that the college may ask them to leave if they are a threat to themselves and the community, and they worry that we won't allow them to come back.  Though there have been stories about students being bullied into withdrawing, my experience has been of staff and faculty members looking out for students--we do the best we can with extensions and accommodations first if situations haven't reached a crisis level--and realizing that we are limited in our ability to provide support.  We can't exclude students with any disabilities--mental or otherwise--from pursuing their educations.  But if they are not in a position to balance both treatment (which can be a full time job, and then some) and the rigors of college work, we have to help them to be realistic, and to allow themselves the time and space to be well enough to return and be successful.  Mental health problems also have real ripple effects for the community that need to be considered; if a student is suicidal, and a roommate is (rightfully) concerned, how will that roommate focus on her work?  I worked with a student last semester who was in an intensive outpatient program, and (understandably) fell behind in his classes.  As I arranged extension after extension with his professors, I worried about the additional psychological weight of his accumulating academic responsibilities.  At every point, I tried to keep the door open so that he could leave without being judged.  I let him know that what he was trying to do was challenging, and that his first priority needed to be his own well-being.  In the end, he made it through that semester, but at the expense of the fall; it had been too much.

We also need to rethink the way we cultivate wellness.  I work at a place where the pressure to perform is extreme: our community includes of some of the highest-achieving students from around the country and the world and some of the most well-known scholars in their fields.  Even in co-curricular circles, students take themselves very seriously; many of our athletes and artists and dancers might as well be professionals, and students who arrive with an amateur interest in, say, dance, often have their hopes dashed when they are rejected from some of the prestigious dance companies on campus, which aren't even affiliated with the dance department.  The unfortunate culture of effortless perfection is strong here.  As someone who was pushed from an early age to achieve, and who later pushed herself, listening to the voices in my head that told me I'd never be good enough, I know exactly where these students are coming from.  What I didn't have was the additional pressure of feeling that everyone else around me had it all together, because I went to a large state school.  That came later, perhaps in graduate school, and the effects were very real, even though I had four more years of experience on my side.

Worse, many of them report being socialized to think that being this busy and overcommitted is normal, or even desirable; that they're somehow flawed for not being able to handle it; and that attentiveness to wellness and downtime is an undesirable feature in a successful student/professional/adult.  While some of it is chemical, I think that some of it is also environmental.  The competition and pressure starts early, with our own children, who we know are also--as a generation--overscheduled and overcommitted.  How many of us really opt out?

Students don't want to take time off, but they also don't realize that not taking time off could result in poor grades from not being able to catch up, or worse.  Then, they worry that if they do take time off, that the institution will ask them to offer up some evidence that a treating professional thinks they can come back without being a risk to themselves and others.   If you're already experiencing severe depression and anxiety, it's a lot harder to think this sort of thing through rationally.

I don't think we should encourage our young people to be mediocre.  I think that all students deserve to be challenged to achieve their potential; after all, that's how we get leaders and innovators.  But I think that we need to do a better job of teaching them (and modeling) balance, speaking openly about mental illness, reminding them that no one expects perfection, that we need to judge ourselves by what we learn, not by what we earn.  In the end, no one cares whether you got an A or a B or even a C on your English term paper.  They care that you turn out to be a decent human being who makes a contribution to the world, in whatever way you are called to do, to the best of your ability.

Did you ever take time off in college?  What is your experience of mental illness, or of expectations of perfection, on campus?
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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Keeping the Channel Open

I spend entirely too much time on Facebook, perhaps to the detriment of my own productivity outside of my work day (though my brain seems to turn off at 9:30, so perhaps it's not such a loss after all), but sometimes it pays off: the other day someone posted a link to a short piece on judgement by James Clear about Agnes de Mille and Martha Graham.  And though I've heard the quote before, today I can't get it out of my head.

The story, briefly, goes like this: de Mille spent years of her life choreographing things she thought were wonderful, but received no critical acclaim.  Then, she choreographed Oklahoma!--which she deemed second-rate--and it was a fabulous success.  Confused about her own ability to judge her work, and worried that she couldn't be as good as she wanted to be, she went to see Martha Graham, who told her that:
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open."
In other words, not only are we our own worst critics, but we have no business deciding what's any good.

As someone who studied literature and philosophy, I find myself bristling, because this approach complicates our notions of standards (which humanists fight to establish all the time...why else make decisions about what we teach in an art or literature class?).  But it also doesn't exactly leave the worth of your work in the hands of your consumer, either.

And I get it.  We can't let our self-judgment paralyze us.  Our job is to show up, and create, to the best of our ability.  The work isn't good or bad; it just is.

Clear says we should "fall in love with the process."  So we're not so obsessed any more with the end, but we can luxuriate in the great middle, the producing.  Which is useful food for thought for me this NaBloPoMo.

The last time I did NaBloPoMo, it was summer.  I had lots of vegetables to cook in new ways, I had sunlight to shoot photos, I was going to yoga, I wasn't commuting.  I got lots of comments.  I felt like I was part of a community.  I enjoyed the process.  This time, I get home late, when it's too dark to shoot; I haven't been cooking a lot of original things because I have only the weekends, and even those have been busy; I haven't been going to yoga.  I get home, do the chores, and feel tired.  I sit on the couch and eat, because invariably I haven't eaten enough for dinner.  I want to do NaBloPoMo, and at the same time, I resent my own commitment.  I think about what I have to get done, rather than the doing.  And invariably, I judge.  I tell myself there's no point in blogging.  I have nothing to say.  No one comments anyway.  If I have lurkers, I'd never know it.  All of this is about the end, not about what happens in the middle.

(The other day I sent a poem I'd written to an English professor, and immediately regretted it, telling myself how bad the poem was, and how could I presume to send my crappy poem to someone who knows anything about literature.  Wrote Anne Lamott tonight: "I would be just fine most of the time, if it weren't for my mind."  I hear you, Anne.  I hear you.)

What would happen if we just kept the channel open?  What would it look like?  All of this talk about finding voice ... what if it's been there all along, if we just stopped trying to think so much about it?

Do you "keep the channel open"?   Do you think you'll ever be satisfied with your work?  Do you believe, as Graham does, that dissatisfaction breeds creativity?  Have you fallen in love with your process?  How do you decide what's good, and does it matter?

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014


When I call home from my car, she demands to talk to me.

"Mama," she chastizes me, "you have to come home."

"Yes, love," I tell her, "I'm on my way.  I'm in my car right now."

"You have to drive fastly," she says.  I hear the admonishment in her voice.  "So you don't get home so late."

"I'll be home as soon as I can," I tell her.  "But I can't drive too fast; I don't want to get into an accident."

"Well, OK," she says, grudgingly.  I can hear her crossed arms.


"Mama," she tells me, from her bed, wrapping her small arms tightly around my neck, "you're trapped."

I've missed you, too, I think.  "OK," I agree.  "But what about work tomorrow?  How will I get to work?"

"I will un-trap you in the morning," she assures me, hugging even more tightly.

I laugh, but in truth, that would be fine with me.


I love both of my children.  My son is a delight.  But I call my daughter my "special girl."  And every time she loves me like this, fiercely, it returns to me: against the odds, she is the one who lived.
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Monday, November 17, 2014


Today's post is inspired by the Golden Key prompt from the good folks over at The Daily Post: "You’ve been given a key that can open one building, room, locker, or box to which you don’t normally have access. How do you use it, and why?"

I've always loved gaining access to forbidden places.

I remember long afternoons after school let out, waiting for my mother who was a teacher, and looking at ramp that led from the sidewalk to the boiler room with envy.  I didn't care what was down there; I just wanted to get in there.  When, in sixth grade, a friend and I managed to weasel our way into assignments in a locked ditto machine room where we composed juvenile short stories and plans for our novel, we thought we'd struck pay dirt.

During my freshman year of college, I lived on the tenth floor of a ten story building, the highest on campus at the time, and still, it couldn't have been more than a week into school when I found myself in the stairwell with a bunch of guys who were trying to pick the lock to floor eleven.  I discovered an obsession with roofs.

By junior year, I'd found a friend in the physics department who took me up to the roof of the physics building, to which he had a key (or maybe he picked the lock, too; I can no longer remember that detail, only that he seemed legitimate).  I was a little wary of his motives, but luckily for me, he was completely honorable.  We looked at the stars, peered down into the skylights, and marveled at the campus spread at our feet.

The same friend also conspired with me to get the elevator to the highest floor of the computer science research facility (locked at night), where a small lounge protruded beyond the facade of the building, suggestive of a flash cube.  It was always deserted and dark at night, and it was probably not safe to be there, but I didn't care.  We were the only ones who were, and that was exactly why I loved it.

As I grew older, I began to accumulate my own keys.  My car, student organization offices, entire academic buildings, my own apartment.  Reading Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, I found myself empathizing with Macon Dead, despicable though he was in every other way: I loved my keys.  I loved knowing that I had access.  They keys symbolized both accomplishment and perspective.  My father began to joke about my keyring, calling it my albatros, or my cencerro (cowbell).

As the years passed and access became more of a virtual privilege than a physical one, I craved passwords, being able to see things and change things that other people couldn't.  Databases, systems, websites: all of these were mine.

My keyring has been pared down quite a bit from my younger years.  I carry my car key, my house key, my mother's house key, my office keys.  But I still love being able to unlock all kinds of doors.


There is a back door to my office that leads to the roof.  Not much is out there, and it's fairly trivial to get in and out.  But it offers a view of forbidden fruit: the tower that has been closed for some time now because of its unsafe condition.  Students ask me, conspiratorially, if I've been up there.  I imagine what it would be like to look out, shake my head, and know that some day, I will be able to confess: yes.

If you were given a key, how would you use it, and why?
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Sunday, November 16, 2014

By Hand: A Post about Gifts, and Meatball Soup

It's beginning to look a lot like the holidays: we begin December with a series of birthdays around here, follow it up with a Christmas chaser, and keep partying until February, after my husband's and daughter's birthdays are over.  I gave in today and started making dough for gingerbread people.  As we approach Thanksgiving, I'm finding myself increasingly thankful that we'll be starting the holiday season from a slightly different perspective, at least. But at some point, I'm still going to have to think about gift lists.

I've written here and here before about gifts, about how much I dislike the artifice of generosity precipitated by Christmas, how much I dislike the expectations of extravagance, how I appreciate the people in our lives who have removed that expectation and give what they want simply because they want to do so.

Last week, the good folks over at The Daily Post asked about the best gift you'd ever received that was handmade by the giver.  I've been lucky enough over the years to get lots of homemade gifts: my kids have made me all sorts of featuring their handprints and pictures made of popsicle sticks and paper and glue; my sister-in-law made us a set of cloth napkins that we use daily; I was once involved in a blogger exchange in which I ended up with two lovely quilted mats and a lavender neck-warmer; my mother-in-law knits all sorts of hats and mittens.  And I won't even try to enumerate the gifts of food (though yulekake is up there somewhere, as is granola, and by the way, awesome present for a friend if you can't make it yourself: some Kimberly's Blend from Hippie Chick).

But I think the handmade gift I treasure most, still, is the bulky red scarf my mother knitted for me a few years ago.

I remember opening the box on Christmas morning--we'd gone to her house with my son--and she, apologizing, saying something about well, you'd said you liked handmade things, and this is all you get this year, so I hope you like it.  The scarf itself was lovely: made with soft, non-scratchy red yarn that looked like a fuzzy plump caterpillar, knit loosely enough to breathe, but tightly enough to protect against the wind.  It was even more lovely, though, because she'd finally heard me, after all of those years of lobbying against extravagant gifts.  The gift was both the thing itself and the acknowledgement.  Which is what a handmade gift is really about anyway, isn't it?  Because you can't really make something handmade for someone without knowing them, understanding them, appreciating them in a way that makes them completely present.  I was deeply sorry the next year, when she went back to expensive gifts.

What's your most memorable handmade gift?

Lentil Soup with Spinach and Mini Chicken Meatballs
I don't usually like meatballs, but these are pretty fun to make by hand, too.

1 c. dried brown lentils (or 22 oz canned no-salt-added brown lentils, rinsed and drained)
5 c. water
2 T. olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 large cloves garlic, grated on a microplane or crushed using a mortar and pestle, divided
6 1/2 c.  low-sodium chicken stock
1/2 t. salt, divided
1 lb. ground chicken breast
1 oz grated Parmesan
1 t. Worcestershire sauce
4 T. flour
6 oz (170 g) fresh baby spinach leaves

(Skip this step if you’re using canned lentils.) Sort through the dried lentils to remove any small stones or pieces of dirt, and then rinse with cold water in a colander. Bring the lentils and water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Cover and simmer until the lentils are tender but not mushy, about 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally; strain. 

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat; add the onion and sauté for 3 minutes, then add 2/3 of the garlic and cook 1 minute more, stirring constantly.

Add the chicken stock, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon black pepper, bring up to a boil, and then turn the heat down slightly to simmer.

Meanwhile, combine the ground chicken breast, remaining 1/3 of the garlic, grated cheese, Worcestershire sauce, almond meal, and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon black pepper in a large bowl. Combine the mixture with your hands, being careful not to over-mix. You can add a bit more almond meal if necessary so that the chicken mixture forms little balls when pressed together.

Shape the chicken mixture into small balls (I use a 1 1/2 teaspoon-sized scoop) and drop the balls into the simmering stock. Cover and cook until the meatballs are cooked through, about 10 minutes.  Add the cooked lentils and cook until warm, about 1 minute.  Turn off the heat, add the spinach, and stir until wilted.
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Saturday, November 15, 2014


It happens in the freezer aisle: an ambush.

Like a wave, it begins in her throat, or perhaps a tightness in her chest, a constriction of the lungs, rippling outward.  A clawing at her heart.  What is it? she wonders.  Looks around.  But there is no one, nothing else but her and the frozen broccoli, neatly stacked boxes of pancakes.

Then she understands.  Her old nemesis.  Maybe the freezer aisle isn't so surprising, after all.

She beats back the darkness, denies it.  This will not happen here, now.  Breathes deeply.  Recalls coping mechanisms.  Tries to remember if she has let the voices belittle her too much these recent weeks.  Tries to visualize the things that she allowed to rot away at her.  Enumerates the things she's been chewing on.

Realizes that perhaps it wasn't so sudden, either.

Now that she considers it: the shadows have been nipping at her ankles with the onset of the colder weather and the darkening skies.  It's not exactly seasonal.  But it's harder to be mindful with less sunlight.

She feels angry, annoyed that her therapist had been right, that this is who she is, that she isn't cured, that she owns this demon.  Wonders if she should go back.  Doesn't want to go back.  She knows how to do this, difficult though it may be some days.

Sometimes bravery isn't written in all caps.

Do you struggle with things you thought you put behind you?
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Friday, November 14, 2014


I knew, when it snowed last night, that even if it didn't stick at home, I'd find some on the mountain this morning.  I wasn't disappointed.

Sometimes winter mornings after the snow are too brilliant; I find my eyes tired by the time I get to work, grateful for the darkness of the office.  I prefer the filtered light of an autumn snowfall, the way the leaves still clinging to the trees lend a sort of glow to the landscape.  It's the same kind of light I prefer in my office: I turn off the overhead fluorescents in favor of a lamp that illuminates the small corner of my office, highlighting the warmth of the wood desk.

Happy weekend.

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Thursday, November 13, 2014


Tonight the kids and I went to a celebration at the library in honor of a retiring librarian and her devoted volunteer husband.

It had been another hectic afternoon.  My daughter fought me because she wanted to put on her Elsa and Anna PJs and go back to school for pajama night at the Scholastic book fair, so I compromised, and told her she could go to the library in her PJs.  (Of course, she immediately decided she wanted to wear her completely impractical red feetie pajamas instead, in the rain, without shoes on, but that's immaterial.)  My son needed to re-write his homework, and complete the homework he didn't complete the night before (because he forgot to turn the page over, after his teacher had told him to do so).  Despite the chaos, I managed to get the kids out the door again into the rain, brownies and apple tart in hand, just as the party was supposed to begin.

From their perspective, it was probably another boring adult party, with the slight added interest of snacks and lemonade.  But even if it didn't sink in right away, I wanted them to see everyone there to honor someone who had so generously given his time to the community; I wanted them to see that love matters, to see what a legacy looks like.

It's unusual, I think, to hear what people have to say about your legacy while you're still alive.  In the days and weeks after my father died, everyone I met said something to me about his contributions to our church and his community, his talent for landscaping and for creating art with living things, his humor, his creativity.  I suspect that while people thanked him every day, he never got to experience the kind of appreciation that I saw last night: the town clerk and a representative from the planning board was there to honor B's formal contributions to civic life; the historical society talked about his countless volunteer hours doing all sorts of projects (including building a scale replica of the town's oldest house); the director of the library talked about how B's mark was quite literally all over the building, how he'd fixed all sorts of little brackets and widgets, and how when there wasn't a part available, he'd make one.  Some people talked about how his mark was all over town--he walked its perimeter twice daily, never hesitating to stop and pick up a tool to help someone plant something, or to shovel snow somwhere half way through his walk.  Some people mentioned the "little libraries" he'd built, which stand in three places in town now, honoring other people's contributions.   They expressed their gratitude to the librarian for bringing the media library to life, organizing it despite her own disinterest in the content, so other people could use it.

There were token gifts: a canvas library tote bag (also a project catalyzed by the couple), a few plaques, a resolution passed by the town Council (our equivalent, I guess, to the keys to the city).

On the way home, I asked my son what he thought.  I asked him if he knew that B. did all of those things, and that his wife had made such an important contribution to our community, too.  He said that he could tell that people really liked B. and his wife, and that they were going to be sorry to lose them.  I agreed, and said that we were lucky that B. cared so much about other people, and was willing to help out, without any thought about what was in it for him.

My son asked me what I would have said about B. if they'd asked me to make a speech.  I thought a minute, and told him that I'd mention his walks around town, his eagerness to stop and make a difference, his wry sense of humor, and his keen appreciation for what really matters.

My kids have both known B. and his wife since they were toddlers, have seen him walking around town, seen him pitch in at various houses on our street, have helped me to maintain the Little Library near our house by keeping it stocked with books for people to take home.  I hope that when they're faced with decisions about the legacies that they will leave, maybe they'll remember B. and his wife, and know that sometimes the little contributions are just as important as the ones that make the news.

What do you think people would say about you after you're gone?  What do you hope they would say?  Are the answers to those two questions the same?
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Commute, and Overnight Apple Pie Oats

True confessions: I'm posting twice today, because yesterday sucked.   We'll pretend that this one counts for yesterday, OK?  Good.  You'll understand in a minute.


I love my commute.  

In the morning, I quickly leave behind my town and find myself in a new development, then rolling hills and farms: fields of alpacas, horses, hay.  After the farms comes the mountain, a small one, and the trees grow up and around me into a tunnel of red and yellow, until I reach the top, head back down past a few more farms, and into wide meadows.  The last ten minutes of it is traffic lights and expensive homes, but by then I'm usually thinking about what I'm going to do when I get in.

At night, at this time of year I head home in the dark, up the winding roads with my high beams on, watching out for deer.  If I'm lucky and it's not quite dark yet, sometimes from the top of one of the hills, I'll see a hot air balloon off on the horizon, beyond home.  Even on the rainy days, the scenery is beautiful.

I hate my commute.

My husband is away on business.  It's 4:30.  There is a student in my office who needs to talk.  He has trusted me to listen.  It's complicated.  We've been here since just after four, and he may be winding down, or he may not.  I'm hoping this is helpful, but I am also watching the clock.  My daughter's school closes at six, and it's a good hour and change drive from here, past home.  That's not accounting for picking up my son, who is at a different aftercare program in our town.

It's 4:40.  My student is still talking.  I am trying to find a good way to close the conversation without making him feel cut off.  I finally tell him, in a pause, that I don't want to kick him out, but it's an unusual day, and I have to pick up my kids.  I ask him if he thinks he has a path forward now.

It's 4:45.  The student has just left the office, I gently and slowly ushering him out, trying to continue paying attention to him.  There is an email that requires an immediate response before I leave the office, because I will be off of the communication grid for the next three hours.  I type a hasty response, hoping it's enough, gather my things, and run out the door, nearly running over the master of the college, who is amused when I mutter that I have to be in Lebanon.  I suspect that New Jersey geography beyond the Northeast Corridor mystifies him.

4:50.  I've started my car, pull out into traffic.  It's moving slowly.  I pray for lights to turn green.

5:12.  On the hills where I look out at the alpaca and horses and balloons, now I am looking at the taillights of a slow moving vehicle.  I am tempted to pull out from behind and cross the double line, but can't bring myself to do so, because I can't see around the frequent bends in the road.  Instead, I tailgate.  And then tell myself how annoying I'm being, and how unsafe it is to drive this way.  I pull back.

5:30.  I'm pulling into our town, but I still have to drive past it to get my daughter.  I make a strategic decision at the last minute to take the loop road next to the river, avoiding the highway traffic, and pick my son up on the way back.  I will have half an hour between her school closing and his, and I can make it if I don't hit any traffic on the way back.

5:50.  My daughter's school parking lot.  Ten minutes to spare.  It's completely dark, and there are three children working with colored pencils on mats.  I am trying to collect her calmly, but she decides she wants to put everything away.  Her teacher tells her to leave it all there, but she is insistent.  And careful.  For once, I wish she was a little sloppier.

6:02.  We're pulling back onto the highway.  I have half an hour.  I'm supposed to be feeding the kids dinner already, but that it is impossible on days like this.  I make small talk with my daughter, who senses my panic and tells me to calm down.  I mentally put another quarter in her therapy jar.

6:20.  My son's aftercare program.  I think we hit every traffic light on the southbound highway, and there is no way around it, except to go back on the loop road, and lose even more time.  I extract my daughter from the car, claim my son, who is typically slow about getting his bag and jacket, and buckle everyone back into the car.

6:30.  Home.  Microwave.  Leftover lentil soup for my son.  Fish sticks.  I toss the bag of carrot sticks on the counter.  We have an hour to eat, bathe, and get my daughter in bed.  Somewhere in there, I have to check my son's homework.  I pull out some rice cakes for myself, and start mixing brownies for an event I promised to bake for tomorrow night.  I am munching a rice cake, stirring brownies, and making lunches for the next day all at the same time.  I am hoping I don't put brownie batter in the lunch boxes.

7:10.  Kids are finally done eating.  I usher my daughter into the shower, catching her as she's streaking down the hallway, completely naked, laughing at me.  My son begins reading me his homework problems, which are half wrong, because he's done them in haste at aftercare, as usual.

7:30.  My daughter is showered, I ask my son at least give times to get into the shower, knowing that I need to get this process started before I go upstairs to put my daughter to bed.  I still have to do the dishes in the sink, run the dishwasher, do the laundry that has now overflowed the washing machine.  The brownies are out of the oven, and my daughter needs her teeth brushed.  I brush her teeth, tuck her in, sit with her until he breathing begins to slow.

8:00.  My son is supposed to be brushing his teeth.  Instead, he's playing his recorder.  I ask him if he fed the fish that morning, because they are looking hungry.  I go start the laundry, do the dishes, cut the brownies.

8:35.  I shoo my son up to bed, after five minutes of nagging him to close his book.  He asks me to stay.

9:00.  The laundry is in the dryer.  I pull the dishes out of the drying rack to make room for the ones that will come out of the dishwasher wet.  I open my computer, and respond to email for another half hour.  I think about blogging.  I realize I'm starving, because I ate rice cakes for dinner.  I think about eating the brownies, and put them away to prevent myself from doing so.  I eat peanut butter right from the jar, and cranberries by the handful.

2:30.  I wake up on the couch, where I've fallen asleep with my computer on my lap and the lights on. I brush my teeth, put away the dishes, think about blogging, and decide that I need to get to bed so that I can get up again at 5:30 and get the kids out the door by 7, so I can get back down to work on time after driving 40 minutes out of the way to get my daughter to school.

Thank goodness this morning looked like this:

Overnight Apple Pie Oats

1/4-1/3 c. quick oats (I use gluten free ones)
almond milk (1 1/2 times the amount of oats, or more, depending on how you like your oats)

Put your oats and almond milk in a jar, and let it sit overnight in the refrigerator.  In the morning, while you are goading your kids to eat breakfast, peel (if you want) and chop an apple.  Dump liberal amounts of cinnamon over the chopped bits, and toss the cinnamon and apple together.  Add the apples to the jar, and grab the jar on your way out the door with the coffee you also made while your kids were getting dressed.  Stop somewhere on the road during your commute, appreciate the scenery, and take a picture of your lovely oats on the roof of your car with your iPhone.  Eat your overnight oats with the plastic spoon you stole from your son's camping gear when he wasn't looking.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Murakami and Kabocha Squash Soup

I don't get to read for pleasure as much as I'd like these days, but I belong to a book group that provides me excellent external motivation to read at least one book a month, and right now, I'm reading Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

I think I picked up Wind Up Bird Chronicles long ago, and hated it, so I'd avoided Murakami ever since.  But there's something about Tsukuru that is astonishingly simple and lovely; I love the exceedingly polite and even awkward dialogue (which may or may not be a function of translation--I suspect the latter) that collides here and there with imaginative prose.  Not surprisingly, it reminds me of Tokyo, or at least, of what little I saw of it during my brief stay there eleven years ago: simple, clean, spare, but also elegant and complex, with a less-beautiful backstory that simmers just below the calm surface (or, in some neighborhoods, in its midst).  Behind Tsukuru's perfectly pedestrian exterior lies this shadow life, which he begins to unearth, realizing that one cannot have harmony without discord, that you can't fully realize passion for life until you know loss.  I've been thinking a lot about some of mine lately, for reasons I can't quite put a finger on, and I understand what he's getting at.

Tsukuru is precisely the sort of book that fits my mood at this time of year, when harvest dissolves into empty fields, when the wind blows small cyclones of leaves off the trees and down the street, leaving the world a little colorless, too, but at the same time, full of possibility.  I'm reminded of Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man":
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

To see like the snow man, to realize that winter isn't cold--only you are cold--you have to challenge your own assumptions, be willing to shift your perspective.  Our reality is, in the end, up to us: we can choose color, or shades of grey.

The other day, needing to get out of the office for a breath of air at lunch, I walked to the farmer's market downtown, which will close soon for the season.  I hadn't intended to buy anything, but I walked past the plump, squat kabochas, and thought immediately of vivid orange soup.  Maybe I was channeling Tsukuru, needing some more color in my life.

What are you reading?  Or cooking?  And what color is your reality right now?

Roasted Kabocha Squash Soup
Kabocha is a Japanese variety of winter squash popular for its strong yet sweet flavor, which is somewhat like roasted chestnuts, and its moist texture.  In Japan it's used in a variety of dishes (including tempura); in some cultures it's revered as an aphrodisiac.

1 medium to large kabocha squash
1 T. + 1 1/2 T. olive oil, separated
2 small, or 1 large, yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 14-oz. can coconut milk (I used light coconut milk)
3 cups stock
1/2 t. cardamom
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cut kabocha in half, scoop out seeds and stringy insides, then prick flesh with a fork. Brush 1 tablespoon of olive oil on flesh and set halves face down in baking sheet in approximately 1/2 inch of water. Bake for about 50 minutes until flesh is soft.

While kabocha is baking, caramelize onions in 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil.

After kabocha is finished cooking, scoop flesh out of skin.

In a food processor, add kabocha, onions, coconut milk, stock, cardamom, salt, and pepper and process until smooth.
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Monday, November 10, 2014

#Microblog Mondays: Migration

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


At first I thought they were flying north. 
Then west. 

I tried to get my bearings.

They doubled back and over themselves, weaving bird
through bird, without direction, but with
purpose; twenty, fifty, a few hundred:
squawking greetings like so many Asian tourists,
or relatives in friendly arguments
about the best route to take,
circling, finally landing,
a cascade of wings and bodies into the water,
gathering their numbers to divide again into perfect Vs, the arrows
that point towards warmer climes.

I laughed with them, an
outsider who gets not the joke
but the intonation,
wished them a safe journey,
and turned north
towards home.
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Sunday, November 9, 2014


A friend of mine who was moving far away gave a group of us each a bracelet before she left.  It was made of beads rolled from recycled paper (if there's such thing as an extreme environmentalist, she qualifies), a kola nut to remind us of how nutty she is, and three letter beads: D, J, O.  They stand for a phrase that came up in conversation one day that made us all laugh, because so many of us suffer from mouths that are quicker than our mental filters: Don't Judge Out loud.

Contrary to what my husband probably believes (hey out there, S.) I try hard not to judge people.  Everyone comes to the table from where they are.  But there are times when people could be sitting a little closer to the table, and the fact that they're not drives me positively batty.  Maybe it's judgment, but it comes from a place of love.  Or dreams of universal self-respect.  Or something.

Last night we attended the birthday party of a friend turning 40.  One of the women there was someone I'd met before, at some of her other parties; though I'd been turned off by what I found to be her overly-bubbly persona, I figured that if she were a good friend to my friend, then I couldn't not like her.  After all, I've had my share of less-than-good friends, and I know how valuable the ones who give a shit really are.

The kids were downstairs with toys, movies, food, and a babysitter, thoughtfully enlisted by my friend's husband, allowing for the adults to mingle upstairs while maintaining on-call status in case of emergencies.  About five minutes into the party, my friend was holding a cocktail, when her friend demanded to know why she was the only one holding a drink.  She proceeded to continue to drink (though probably less than she was actually talking about drinking), and announce periodically how drunk she was.  I found myself getting annoyed, despite my best intentions to behave myself.  Why did this woman feel that she needed to be the center of attention?  And why was she acting like one of my freshman college students?

One of my other friends, who happened to be there with me, reminded me gently that some people still enjoy that kind of life, and that she and I had crossed over the into "grouchy old woman" phase. Still, it was like watching a train wreck for me.  I kept wanting to say "I feel uncomfortable with this situation," but not wanting to judge if that's really how she lets her hair down.

I found myself wishing for better for her.  And then, today, feeling sorry for her (not that pity is much better), wondering if she has a drinking issue (now that I've seen her get shitfaced at three separate events, announcing her decline every time), or an eating issue, or a domestic unrest issue, or a self-esteem issue that somehow manifests itself in all or any of the above. As I was reading this opinion piece in the Times today, I wondering if perhaps "mommy" culture (which is, let's be honest here, a class-specific phenomenon) actually normalizes self-destructive behavior for women in ways that make it even less visible, or worse, culturally acceptable: "oh, she's just getting drunk because that's how those mommies need to let their hair down."  And maybe that prohibition against judging prevents us from stepping in when there's really a problem (even if maybe there wasn't one here).

I'll try my best not to judge out loud, but I reserve the right to care.

Do you have to curb your judgments of others?  Are there times when you've wanted to say something about behavior you've found worrisome, but stopped yourself from doing so in order to respect someone's freedom?
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Saturday, November 8, 2014

By Heart

I took piano lessons for twelve years, from my fifth birthday through high school, with a short hiatus somewhere in the middle because I finally confessed to my parents that I hated piano because my teacher's constant berating (given my overly sensitive temperament) was making me cry.

I was good at piano; I memorized things quickly, didn't have to practice much in order to make it sound like I'd made some progress.  Over the years, I accumulated quite an impressive repertoire of music that I could play on demand without sheet music, including Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu:

I delighted in sitting down to a keyboard and blowing away unsuspecting audiences.

Over the years, as I've practiced less and less, my finger memory of that music has faded.  I've found the same thing is true of poems I memorized: Invictus, The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening (that one in the 7th grade).  I sat down to the piano today to tinker around a bit, and found myself halfway through "New York State of Mind" when I realized I'd lost the chord progression.  I couldn't help but feel like the things I'd learned by heart over the years-the things that are less intellect and more emotion-are slipping away.

The ancient Greeks believed that the heart was the seat of intelligence and memory, as well as emotion (in fact, it was with them that the phrase "learn by heart" originated).  Though neuroscientists have long since proven otherwise, I think about this sometimes when I wonder where the things I've forgotten go, and what is taking up residence in their place.  Is it course numbers?  Day care schedules?  Small projects?  My shopping list?  Whatever it is, it can't be as worthy of a place in the heart as music and poetry.

The root of the word record is Latin, too: before Latin, we had to work on re (meaning "again") and cor (meaning "heart"), committing it to the heart again.  And perhaps there's some truth to it after all: we make the time and space for what we love.

What things do you know by heart, and what things have you lost?
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Friday, November 7, 2014


Every week on Thursday I invite a faculty member to tea at our college.  It started as a way to get faculty members into the common room for informal, less structured conversations, but along the way, I've enjoyed meeting them, too, and with every passing week, I feel a little more envious of my students.

This week I'd invited a prolific novelist to join us.  She settled back into her chair, crossed her legs demurelty, and began to talk about disguises.  About growing up in South Africa, in a place where the world was turned upside down, but yet everyone pretended it was perfectly normal, and about running away from there to Europe, to the place where writers painted tantalizing portraits of a more civilized life.  She found she didn't fit in there, either.  She wrote, and was rejected.  Her voice was too angry, they told her.  Too raw.  Too close to her subjects.

Finally, one editor advised her to rewrite her book from the perspective of an onlooker.  That was it: the magic door, the way in.  She discovered her voice behind the veil.

I loved listening to her talk, because of the layers of voice and voicelessness, disguise and revelation.  She would put on the literary personae of people she didn't like very much, in order to say the things that she never could have said, were she her own narrator.  And yes, the disguise made the truth more possible, gave her the ability to allow other silenced people to speak.

Wednesday's prompt at BlogHer invited us to "find our authentic voice," listening to our writing to see if we can find ourselves in it, rather than trying to be someone else.  And yet, sometimes, it's also in the disguise that we are more ourselves, isn't it?

Does authenticity need to be the same as identity?  Can we be authentic even if we have adopted a writer's persona to inhabit?

What would your story look like if it was written from someone else's perspective?   Have you ever worn a writer's disguise?

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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Breakfast Treats

I don't often find myself lingering in the cookie aisle at the grocery store, except possibly when I'm buying Oreos for S. (this happens almost never) and am trying to make sense of the ten thousand flavors now available (pumpkin Oreos, who knew?).  But there I was, nonetheless, perhaps looking for graham crackers for s'mores, when I saw them: the unmistakable red, white, and green package, the original Stella D'oro Breakfast Treat.

They were my father's cookie: they lived in the kitchen drawer with a perforated metal sliding lid, the one that was meant for bread but that somehow became the "cookie drawer," the one that was always filled with foreign-looking packages and European names.  I hesitated, hand hovering over the package, wondering whether I needed to bring them home home.  I tried hard to remember what they tasted like.  Were they dry and crunchy?  Were they the ones that tasted like anise?

No, I thought.  Best to leave them here.  I'd end up eating the whole bag, just because I wouldn't want to waste them.  Even if I didn't like them.  I didn't need to eat the whole bag.

But they haunted me all week, those breakfast treats.

On my next trip to the store, I gave in.

After I unpacked the rest of the groceries, I sat down and pondered the bag, wondering if I should wait until breakfast.  And then thinking how ridiculous that was, given that my father never ate them for breakfast, either.  Cookies were for lunch.  And every meal in between.

I tore open the plastic, slid out the tray, and picked one up.  I bit in gently, surprised by the give of the brown crust, and the tender almond meal interior.  It melted on my tongue.  They were exactly the sort of thing my father ate: dry, sweet, needing cafe con leche on the side.

With that taste came flooding back others that I haven't thought about in years: Stella D'Oro Swiss Chocolate Fudge (also kept in the cookie drawer), the Pepperidge Farm apple turnovers I made for my father every night for dessert while he watched the evening news.

I still don't know what I was trying to find in that striped plastic container, but I probably don't need to tell you that I ate the whole bag.


My daughter, recently, has taken to spooning the foam off of my lattes in the morning.  The other day, she snuck a sip of the drink.  "I LOVE coffee," she squealed. Then, today, like she always does, she demanded a bite of my rice cake with melted cheese, salsa, and spinach.  And informed me that she might need to eat all of it.

I wonder, sometimes, what her taste memories of me will be.

What are your taste memories of childhood?  If you have children, what do you think their taste memories of you will be?
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Tuesday, November 4, 2014


The other night, as I was driving home, I spotted a hot air balloon off near the horizon.  Watching it hang there in the air, motionless from where I was, I thought: caesura.

example of a caesura in musical notation
I've loved "caesura" (pronounced si-ZHOO-ruh) ever since I first heard the word: both the word itself, and the idea.  A caesura is a complete pause in a line of poetry or in a musical composition, a breath between phrases or ideas.  Imagine the conductor's hands, held aloft in the upbeat.

They've been following me, caesuras, these recent weeks.  After the balloon sighting, my husband pointed one out the other day in the hymnal at church, wondering what it was.  It's a reminder, I think.

Living in balloon country, you get used to balloons, and yet, you never really do get used to them, either.  
When you see one, inevitably, you stop whatever you're doing to gawk at it for a bit.  Or you hold your breath for just a moment, with a little gasp.

How often do we do this?  Stop the routine, mindful of the break in regular meter?  In poetry and in music, the caesura gives the work meaning, draws attention to what will come next, sets expectations.  In life, too.

Students returned from a much-needed fall break this week.  Midterms made the atmosphere so tense that any ripple might cause someone to burst into tears; many of them see midterms as a final judgement, not a caesura.  And perhaps it would help if we could reframe them as an equally important "break," a pause before the next phrase begins.

But equally, I think, we need to find multiple moments between phrases, when we're--as one of my students put it--"traveling at warp speed and [still] feeling that you're not moving fast enough."  I used to do this with a weekly yoga class; now, leaving early and getting home late, I've lost that predictable (but also unpredictable) pause.  Even my drive home is filled with chatter.  Clearly, more and more students find themselves ill-equipped to pause, too.

I've been working, with some colleagues, on the framework for a retreat that inspires students to do just this: stop, reflect, set goals, check in.  Maybe the planning will do me some good.

Not that the reminder in the sky isn't welcome.

What do your caesuras look like?
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#TBT: Agrarian Pasts, and Apple Cider Doughnut Cake

In one of my old photo albums, there is a picture of me--I must have been around my daughter's age--standing, in the hazy fog from an old flash camera at night, on a wagon at Tice's Farm in northern New Jersey, surrounded by cornstalks and scarecrows with pumpkin heads.  I am grinning ear to ear in my pink jacket with the fluffy wool hood, and my hands are shoved into my pockets.  Most likely, I'm thinking about apples, and apple cider, and cider doughnuts.

I used to think that my obsession for locally-sourced food and farm markets grew out of my time in LA, when I would follow the markets from one neighborhood to the next to escape from life in graduate school, hearkening back to some less-complicated agrarian past that I never lived.  But now I think that those roots are much deeper: that it was about how we spent weekends in the fall, and long days in the summer, and about where half of me comes from.

I'm a child of a parent whose own childhood revolved around the harvest.  My father grew up in a poor farming family in rural Spain until he was old enough to go to a Marist boarding school where he studied to join the religious order. Sometimes, when he was feeling generous, or wanted us to demonstrate more entrepreneurial spirit of our own, he would recount days of doing errands, bringing lunches to workers in the field and earning a few coins here and there that he kept wrapped in a handkerchief.  Maybe it was this childhood that drew him into the garden during the summer, with his bat-sized zucchinis and bowling-ball kohlrabis, and into the orchards in the fall, leading caravans of his urban high school students into the orchard in lowriders that they'd park under the low-hanging fruit.  Maybe it was what drew him to Tice's and Van Riper's farms, with their garish Halloween displays and annual Thanksgiving Turkey Shoot.

While I liked gardening in our small plot behind the house with my father, I loved apple picking, and going to those farms, getting lost in the cornstalks, dragging my feet through the tufts of hay, picking pumpkins in the field.  Later, as the farm grew more commercial, we'd watch them press cider through the tall windows, and then turning the corner to watch rows of doughnuts float down the lake of oil where they were fried, and across like a small flotilla to the drydock, where workers loaded them into bags, dusting them liberally with sugar.  If I were lucky, I'd get to eat a candy apple, sometimes coated in coconut, everything sticking to my teeth.  When I was six, there was a fire at Van Riper's that destroyed the cider mill and packing room, and I cried, wondering if we'd ever be able to go back.

I was disappointed to learn that Van Riper's became an A&P shortly before I graduated college, and that Tice's turned into an upscale mall six years later, complete with Banana Republic, bluemercury, and J.Crew, bearing no resemblance to the farm of my youth.  I happened across their page online the other day and found them advertising a fall harvest festival that promised to "keep the spirit of the Tice Farm alive."  Somehow, I just don't think it would be the same.

What parts of your past define you in ways that you sometimes forget?

Apple Cider Doughnut Cake

Our new coffee shop started selling a cake like this recently, and I was inspired to find a recipe I could try on my own.  This is a pretty close approximation of those fresh hot doughnuts from my childhood, especially with the sugar cinnamon coating that gives it an extra crunch.

9 T. unsalted butter, divided, at room temperature
1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, and roughly chopped
1 1/2 c. apple cider
1/2 c. milk, at room temperature
2 1/2 c. flour
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
1/4 t. nutmeg
1/4 t. allspice
3/4 c. sugar
1/2 c. light brown sugar, packed
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1/4 c. vegetable oil
1 t. vanilla extract

6 T. sugar
1 t. cinnamon
1/8 t. nutmeg
1/8 t. salt

Adjust a rack to the center of your oven and preheat to 350F.

Grease a Bundt pan with 1 T. butter. In medium saucepan, bring chopped apple and cider to boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until most of the cider has been absorbed and apples are easily smashed with a fork, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove pan from heat, cool 5 minutes, then pulse in food processor until pureed. Measure out 1 cup apple mixture and stir in milk; set aside.

In medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, nutmeg, and allspice; set aside.

In large bowl, beat remaining 8 T. butter, sugar, and brown sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add oil and beat until incorporated, about 1 minute.

Decrease mixer speed to low and add flour mixture in three batches, alternating with apple mixture, scraping down sides and bottom of bowl with rubber spatula as needed. Increase speed to medium and beat mixture just until combined, about 20 seconds. Add vanilla and beat once more, just to combine, about 10 seconds.

Scrape batter into prepared pan. Bake until cake tester inserted in cake comes out clean, rotating cake halfway through baking, 35 to 45 minutes. Transfer cake to cooling rack set inside baking sheet and cool in pan 10 minutes, then invert directly onto cooling rack.

Combine sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt in small bowl. Sprinkle warm cake with cinnamon sugar, using fingers to rub it onto sides.

Cool cake completely, about 1 hour.
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Monday, November 3, 2014

The End of the Season: Braised Kale in Apple Cider with Browned Butter Chicken (a #Microblog Mondays post)

On Saturday, as we watched the rain pour down and listened to the wind whipping around the corner of the house, I took down the Halloween decorations.

It was a weekend of endings: Friday was also the last pickup for the season at my CSA, and after my neighbor delivered my share (completely taking me by surprise because he rang the doorbell and it wasn't yet time for the trick-or-treaters to arrive), I found myself missing my farm already, wishing that I'd gone for the last pickup myself, to say goodbye.

This year we (or maybe I--it was definitely a planning process that I drove) decided to go to Disney for Thanksgiving; my daughter is the right age to appreciate it, and my son hasn't yet outgrown his sense of wonder, and I figured it would be a good way to try out time to ourselves for a holiday (which we almost never do).  And I'm looking forward to the trip, even though Disney still feels a little overwhelming.  But taking down Halloween without looking forward to Thanksgiving felt strangely depressing, even though I don't love hosting that meal.  Because in a way, that meant this really was the last harvest week.

I'm considering starting to bake cookies for Christmas, even though I'm also considering swearing off sugar again.

Have you ever spent a holiday in a nontraditional way?  Did it change your anticipation for the holiday at all?  Do you already have plans for this years' holiday season?

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

Braised Kale in Apple Cider with Browned Butter Chicken

There's a lot of fall packed into this dish: kale, apple cider, pumpkin seeds, and the nutty taste of browned butter.

4 T. unsalted butter
1 lb. chicken, cut into 1/2" pieces
salt and pepper to taste
1 head kale, stems and leaves chopped separately
1/4 c. pumpkin seeds
1/4-1/2 c. apple cider

Brown 1 T. butter for the kale.  Add garlic and saute until fragrant.  Add kale stems and saute until beginning to soften, about 5 minutes.  Add pumpkin seeds and saute until just browning.  Add kale leaves and cider and saute until wilted.

Rinse and pat the chicken, and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. In a separate saute pan, while the kale is cooking, brown a few T. butter for the chicken.   Place into the butter and allow to cook for two minutes without disturbing; turn over and cook for two more minutes.  Check for doneness and cook additionally if necessary.

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Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Modest Proposal

My brother got engaged last weekend.

It was an auspicious weekend for him to propose, given that it was just about two years ago that I met his girlfriend for the first time, in the middle of disaster.  My mother had fallen down her basement stairs, breaking three of her ribs and her collarbone.  I was at home with my daughter, not quite two.  My mother called us from the hospital, asking if she could move in with us temporarily, since she wasn't supposed to be living alone during the initial phases of recovery.  Of course, I said yes. My brother and his girlfriend drove my mother from the hospital to my house, moving her things.  I was impressed.  She'd already seen us at our worst.

And then Superstorm Sandy hit, and the lights went out.  My brother and his girlfriend were holed up for over a week without power in Hoboken.  We were powerless, too, using my husband's Prius as a generator during the night, to get the heat on in our house and to give a boost to the refrigerator, and trying to stay warm by day, lighting the bathroom with flashlights for my mother, who had only one working arm.  We heated soup and other things from cans on our gas stove and munched from the refrigerator full of apples that we'd just picked, which I'd originally intended for a pie.

They'd postponed Halloween in our town, and late on the night we finally celebrated--one of my neighbors brought over Butterschotts-spiked cider, and many of the others sat one their driveways with fire pits, distributing candy--the lights went back on, to much cheering and shouts of "Whoopee!  Trick or Treat!"  My brother's lights had come on just before ours, but not until damage had already been done to his basement, leaving them without hot water and with a lot of damaged goods, though they knew they'd been luckier than many others.

During some festival we all attended together, my brother made a joke about wanting a balloon man for his wedding.  I laughed, and told him that when the time came, I would be more than happy to pay for the balloon man.  And that if he found someone willing to have a balloon man at his wedding, he would know that it's the right person.
Most amazing balloon guy in NJ.  He's an artist.
Needless to say, K. knows about the balloon man.

My brother's relationship with his girlfriend has never sounded complicated--I'd almost go so far as to say it's relatively drama-free--but they've definitely been thrown a few curve balls.  Maybe in some ways, it's like creating balloon art: you stretch the balloons, and quite often things pop before you end up with something truly awesome, stronger for having been tested.

I've never asked my brother if he was going to marry the girl he was dating, because I think that's his business, not mine.  But wen he called, though it was bedtime for the kids, I couldn't contain the news.  "Guess what?" I told them.  "My brother's friend K. is going to be your aunt!"  After a few minutes processing this, they squealed and yipped and jumped on the beds, my brother and his new fiance laughing, somewhere in Hoboken.

"Wait a minute," I said to my brother, "do you know what this means?"

"No?" he responded, stopping mid-laugh, worried.

"I get to call the balloon man!"

On the other end of the line, I heard K. start laughing again, while my three year old daughter called from bed where I'd tucked her back in: "What balloon man?  Where's the balloon man?"

I can't wait for the wedding.

Do you have any relationships that were tested even before they solidified?
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