Monday, January 18, 2016

People, on MLK Day

I used to believe I was colorblind.  What that meant, to me, was that I thought I could judge people, in the words of Dr. King, not on the basis of the "color of their skin but on the content of their character[s]."  And maybe I was (though I know better now, I have my own biases that I work to overcome); but maybe--more likely--I was just blind, not so much to injustice (easy to point fingers), but to my own role in perpetuating it by imagining that standards created by a dominant group could be race-neutral.

Now, I think we need to see the difference that we have been taught to (or become accustomed to) un-see, to acknowledge the difference that difference has made, and decide to throw away the glasses that cloud our vision, whitewashing everything.  We need to question what we think we know, about the world and about ourselves.  My eloquent friend Noah (who can riff in words as well as he can in music) wrote something along these lines last year, when he challenged us to be more self-reflective, to ask ourselves, every day, in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, "are you sure?"

A few years ago, my son was gifted a hand-me-down book entitled, simply, People.  It's a beautifully written and illustrated book, originally published in the 1980s (in many ways a product of its time) that describes the astonishing diversity of humanity on all four continents, and touches on issues like poverty and racism and body image (even body modification) in a way that isn't moralizing, but that opens the door for questions and conversation.  Who are human beings? What are they like? Where do they live, how do they communicate, what games do they play? How are people different, and how are they the same? What can we learn from each other? Why should we respect -- and celebrate -- difference?

And while there are sections of the book that feel like a dated "salad"-style multicultural curriculum, or some pages that replicate cultural stereotypes, there are others that talk about the ways in which we create artificial power structures that don't, in the end, protect us from all experiencing the same fate: death.

My daughter chose this book as her bedtime story last night, and as I read, admiring the artwork and the book's matter-of-factness, I found myself wondering how her reading of People might be different with her own children.  Whether she would look at the pages about diversity of employment and think about the white man in the grocery store, complaining that black people get and keep jobs just because they're black (with whom she'd gently disagreed, pointing out the roots of urban poverty in slavery and industrialization, asking him why he thinks people in power shouldn't do something about the mistakes that we've made as a nation). Whether she would look at the pages about poverty and remind herself that all of the people in the poorly maintained apartment complexes at the other end of town are nonwhite.  Whether she would read the pages about diversity of religion and think about a world that turns away migrant women and children from war-torn countries.

Or whether she would be reading that book to a child in a country that continues to ask itself "are you sure?" ... that faces its unsavory past, has been brave enough to tell more complicated stories, recognized institutional biases, overcome fears of each other, and found a way to move forward, to promote peace and justice.
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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Something Old, Something New: Rye Brownies

"A place for everything, and everything in its place," my father was fond of saying.  He was a master of organization.  Or at least, he strove to be one.  He was certainly more type A than my mother, who claimed to have places for things in piles on the dining room table.

I hear that voice in my head as I've started to bring things, little things, to our new house.  We're only moving 20 minutes away, so it shouldn't be a big deal, but on the other hand, the world is slowly tilting upside down.  Where will the cups go?  The plates?  How do these old things fit into this new (larger, but differently configured) space?

There is a closet that I know is right for a roasting pan, a footed cake server, our assortment of lesser-used small appliances.  There is only one really right space for dishes, so the silverware (it seems to me) goes in the drawer beneath them.  The mugs and glasses go on either side of the stove, and close to the sink.

And of course, the smaller questions mirror the bigger ones.  How will we fit, this old configuration into a new place?

Something old, something new.  A place for everything, and everything in its place.

It's a strange process, this imposition of order.  Every day the old house becomes imperceptibly less full.  Every day I live, for a few minutes, anyway, in the new house.

Someday, maybe it won't seem so new anymore; it will just be our house.

Rye Brownies
I've been making homemade brownies since grad school, when I realized how easy it was to melt chocolate and butter together.  When I started seeing recipes for rye brownies in my feed, I rolled my eyes.  Could they be better?  And yet, there's something appealing about them.  Earthy, chewy moist.  Something old, and yet also something new.

11 T. unsalted butter, cut into 1/2" cubes, more for greasing pan
10 ½ oz. bittersweet chocolate (60 to 70% cocoa), chopped
1 ½ c. rye flour
½ c. unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
½ t. baking powder
1 t. salt
4 large eggs
1 c. sugar
1 c. light brown sugar
1 T. vanilla

Heat oven to 350 and grease a 9x13" baking pan.

In the microwave, on half power, melt the butter and chocolate, stirring ever minute or so with a heatproof rubber spatula. Let cool.

In a separate bowl, whisk together rye flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt.

Beat eggs, granulated and brown sugars and vanilla until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Beat in melted chocolate mixture until smooth. Beat in flour mixture.

Transfer batter to prepared pan (it will be quite thick, not even really pourable) and smooth the top. Sprinkle with sea salt, if you like that sort of thing, and bake until brownies are mostly firm, but the tester still comes out with wet crumbs, about 25 minutes. Let cool completely before cutting into squares. Serve or freeze.
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Wednesday, January 13, 2016


My father played Powerball.  But not until the jackpot was, in his estimation, worth the drive over the border to New York State (because Jersey didn't sell Powerball tickets then), where he would also visit the Rockland Bakery, coming home with a half-eaten loaf of fresh Italian or challah or raisin bread, danish, and if I was lucky, a scone.  This motivating figure was something over $50 million, so it wasn't often that he went to buy tickets. Still, he had his red-ink pencil-bubbled-in card--a study in numerology, some combination of birthdays and anniversaries and other dates whose importance we would never know--which he brought with him on each trip, as if he were a professional gambler.

I often wondered why he would drive the 20 minutes to New York to buy a lottery ticket for a jackpot that was $50 million when it wasn't worth driving there for, say, five million.  But my father was not a man you could cross-examine.

We never did win the lottery.

My colleagues all bought a ticket today, and assumed I'd had, too.  I hadn't.

"But when you start thinking about all of the things you'd do with a billion dollars," they reasoned, "you feel happy."

And maybe that's exactly why I didn't buy a ticket.

Not because I don't want to be happy, but because I don't need to buy disappointment.

Sure, it's entirely possible  that I'd win.  But if I don't?

Maybe I've spent one too many hours of my life dreaming and even planning about the probable futures that become impossible after all.  I don't know if that makes me a pessimist, a realist, or a curmudgeon.  But one thing is certain: it will never make me a lottery winner.

Did you buy a lottery ticket?
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Monday, January 4, 2016

#Microblog Monday: On My Sleeves

I never used to wear dresses, preferring instead the pantsuit approach, but when I started working at my current place of employment, I did what people usually do: I started dressing like other people who worked there, hoping to fit in.

Unfortunately, I'm down to two dresses in my closet, so it was time to find another.  I scoured the consignment stores, my local box stores, and the internet.

But have you noticed?  If you live in the Northeastern U.S., someone has decided that women don't need winter wear this year.

Dresses are 3/4 sleeve tunics, only halfway down the leg, presumably to be worn with leggings, but really, not.  Or they're short sleeve or sleeveless affairs, to be worn (I'm assuming?) with a light sweater.

I confess, I'm confused.  Why are women expected to wear less clothing in the winter?  What would happen, I wonder, if we decided that men had to go sleeveless in January?
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Friday, January 1, 2016

Trading Cards

It was part of the ritual of December.  Every year, the large box of Christmas cards, covered in a thin layer of dust, would come down from the shelf in the back room (referred to as the "cold room" even in the summer, when it wasn't) over the garage.  On top of the assortment of cards sat, in my mother's neat typewriter print, the list of people who got sent a card last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, an accounting of greetings sent and received in tidy columns.

As an adult, I developed my own December rituals, sending holiday cards (not Christmas cards, because I have enough non-Christian friends I like to include) to people I hardly see, and people I see every day.  I used to send hand-written letters, but as the list has grown longer and time has grown shorter, I've gotten lazy in my old age, and now we print photo cards with a single picture of the four of us (not just pictures of my kids, on the theory that my friends might want to see me too--as an aside, I'm always happy to get picture cards from my childless/child-free friends, and wish this was something more people did), on which I scribble a brief cheerful personalized greeting in fat black or silver Sharpie.  I excuse this shortcut by telling myself that I'm in touch with most of these people anyway, that the "Christmas letter" isn't necessary because they read my posts on Facebook, or they read my blog, or they see me around town.

Somewhere in the middle of the card-writing frenzy, my college roommate sends an email to everyone in our friend group, an effort to confirm addresses before she sends out her own cards. Inevitably, someone has moved, or someone has something silly or snide to say to someone else.  A flurry of reply-all email ensues, a little more longform than Facebook, a little more personalized than the Christmas letter.  And we realize that while we're technically all in touch, we're really not in touch at all.  The email flurry is almost like having us all in the same room again, even though I know it's short-lived, ending in everyone having what my roommate refers to as "trading cards."

I welcome the "trading card" email.  It acknowledges the weird adult phenomenon that is the photo card, agreeing that it's not enough while also supporting our perpetuation of the tradition.  And it also reminds us of the people who aren't on the email chain, the people I then Google-stalk.  This year, it poked me to get in touch with a college roommate I haven't spoken to in over ten years, who has a new job, a new husband, a son of her own and two more that came with her new relationship.

I used to ask my mother why she'd send cards at all, why she'd bother with a stamp for people around the corner, and why she'd bother with a card for people she only touched based with once a year (it seemed disingenuous to pretend she cared, because that's how it seemed to me: pretending).  But now I think I understand, both the deceptive nature of constant communication (which she couldn't have foreseen in the way that's it's become manifest), and the possibility of promise in rekindling the relationships that might have fallen away, even if you only start the fire once a year.  My ledger lives in Google Sheets, but maybe the annual accounting--perhaps to myself, to hold on to people, knowing that life is too short--isn't so different, after all.

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