Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Abby Normal, and Rustic Cabbage Soup

I don't know about you, but some days I feel like I've become, a Vonnegut puts it, a little "unstuck in time." Other days I get up and think, OK, I can do this. I've been having more of the latter kinds of days recently, and I feel my sense of normal shifting a little bit.

Yesterday, at a meeting with some senior administrators, it became clear that there was a real possibility that we wouldn't be back at my university in the fall. I guess that had always been a possibility, but I guess I've been coping pretty well because I'm living in denial. And suddenly I felt like the ground moved out from under me.

It was a familiar nausea, a small part of something like what I felt when I lost my second pregnancy. I had all of these plans, plans that were made not just with me but with other people -- family, colleagues, friends -- and then the plans suddenly were not-plans. I didn't know how to live in the world any more, when the reality I'd imagined for myself was suddenly no longer even possible. And further, it was never going to be like it was "before."

My yoga teacher wrote something the other day that her teacher taught her about patience, and that really struck a chord for me. She wrote that "patience is not when we're sitting and waiting for something to be over" (that's more like tolerance); rather, patience is "staying present while knowing you don't know when, or how, or even if it (whatever it is) will end. What you do know is that you can't do anything to speed the process along." And what happens in the course of that kind of patience is that we emerge, from whatever it is, changed.

Like many of you, I suspect, I've felt frustrated and sad that the world I'm used to moving through isn't here, and from all indications, it's not likely to be back to that kind of normal any time soon. Or ever. People will die. People will lose jobs. Our whole economy is likely to change. That realization is sort of like being at the top of a roller coaster, and knowing that there is no way out but down; frankly, it makes me a little queasy, as unknowns tend to do. But maybe there's something to be gained from the practice of patience in the way my yoga teacher describes it. Normal wasn't working all that well anyway for a lot of people; if nothing else, COVID has laid bare those failures. Maybe we begin to cobble together something different, and eventually something better, than the normal we had before. Arundhati Roy has written about the how the Pandemic is a Portal: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next…We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”  And Ruha Benjamin reminded us in a talk she gave at our local independent bookstore Labyrinth recently, hope isn't something we have, but something we do.

You may not feel like you have the energy for that right now. I don't consistently have the energy for that, either. As a blogging friend said to me: there are "no words of wisdom or inspiration that are going to spiritually bypass us out of this one." But instead of waiting for it all go to back to the way it was, maybe there are small ways in which I can reimagine what's normal. Being present, being patient, showing up for whatever the hell this is, and being willing to be changed.

We've been making a lot of soup around here, because they're filling, comforting, and not too expensive. Good pandemic food, and good for a different kind of normal. This one is easy, uses things you are likely to have in your pantry or can find in a store.

Rustic Cabbage Soup
courtesy of 101 Cookbooks

1 T. extra virgin olive oil
a big pinch of salt
1/2 lb. potatoes, skin on, cut 1/4-inch pieces
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
5 c. stock (I used chicken stock)
1/2 c. soaked dried white beans (you can also just use 1 15 oz. can, see note)
1/2 medium cabbage, cored and sliced into 1/4-inch ribbons

Warm the olive oil in a large thick-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Stir in the salt and potatoes. Cover and cook until they are a bit tender and starting to brown a bit, about 5 minutes - it's o.k. to uncover to stir a couple times. Remove to a bowl.

Stir in the garlic and onion and cook for another minute or two. Add the stock and the beans and bring the pot to a simmer. Cook for about an hour and a half, and then add the potatoes back in. Cook for another 20 minutes or so or until the beans are soft.

Stir in the cabbage and cook for a couple more minutes, until the cabbage softens up a bit. Adjust the seasoning, adding more salt if needed.

Serve drizzled with a bit of olive oil and a generous dusting of parmesan cheese.

*Note: if you want to use canned beans, just add them into the potatoes along with the stock, and then add the cabbage without the long cooking time in between.

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Friday, April 10, 2020

Acknowledgements, and Cinnamon Buns

Every Friday, I write to the senior class, in a series I call my "senior thesis Friday" emails. All of our AB students (about 75% of them) write a senior thesis, and a good chunk of the engineers do, too. It's something between a rite of passage and hazing ritual, I guess, and it's hard enough to do under normal circumstances, never mind during a pandemic when you've been scattered away from your community of friends, and are now REALLY writing this thing alone. I am worried about them.

I always try to offer some practical advice (like break down a larger thing into small manageable uber-specific chunks, or get enough sleep) and encouragement (the equivalent of "you got this"), and I always include an inspirational song (I always wonder if they follow the links and ask each other whether they think I really listen to Lizzo and Andra Day and Gorilla Biscuits).

We're getting closer to the University deadline, and I have no idea how many of them may not make it over the finish line this year. It's right around now when I start to worry about the ones we haven't heard from, and at least when we're on campus I know how to find them. Now, I really don't even know where to begin if they go MIA and stop answering my emails and texts.

Knowing that it's getting both close to the end and also getting more difficult (as people continue to get sick, and the markets tank and job offers are revoked or not extended at all, and as students lose motivation and a sense of purpose), my piece of advice this week was to write the acknowledgements. It seems a little crazy to do that before you finish, but it's better to do it when you're not exhausted anyway, and I tell them that it will make them feel good to remember the people who have been there all along and are still cheering them on, and that it can motivate them to keep going when things feel impossible. It's like gratitude, I guess, right? When we express gratitude, we feel better about the world, we notice positive things, we feel loved and cared for. The acknowledgements, in a weird way, engender hope.

If I had to write the acknowledgements for what was a particularly sucky week, I think I'd have to do something along these lines: 

I want to thank everyone who helped me get to Friday this week. To my orthopedic surgeon, who continues to see me in 3D for follow up care and makes me feel like an important patient, for not laughing at my crazy jury-rigged pink bandanna mask, and for making me feel like I was doing a good job at something (sitting on my butt), at least. To my colleague A, who invited me to zoom happy hour for two in the middle of the week, and reminded me to take care of myself and stay sane. To the amazing chocolatier that I know on a first name basis, who overnighted a SECOND package of Easter bunnies to us after the first package was lost to the UPS black hole (I know that UPS folks are completely overwhelmed and hope someone is enjoying an early Easter present---you seriously need to order yourself some of his macarons). To the people at my car dealership, who, in a turn of insanity that I can't quite wrap my brain around, risked their health to come pick up my car with the perpetually dead battery from my house and drive it to the dealership for repairs so I didn't even need to worry about how I'd get it there with a broken foot and only one other driver in the house. To my long time friend who checked in on me randomly, even though I should be the one checking in on him. To the kind people who welcomed me back so warmly to my little space here, which I hope I can try to inhabit again for a while. To my husband, who has been pretty patient with me, and who has tried to anticipate my needs. To my son, whose dry and flat sense of humor and ability to be amused by pretty much everything continues to me to maintain perspective. To my daughter, who, in needing lots of hugs this week, also gave them to me. This week would not have been survivable without their support.

We are going to have to talk, at some point, about the problematic nature of acknowledgements. The people who are most endangered by this. The people I can thank, but for whom "thanks" is really not cutting it. The people who need better pay for what they do. Health insurance. Better housing. The people who allow me, who has done nothing to deserve it, to stay home.

It's Good Friday, speaking of acknowledgements (because isn't that what Easter really is about? about someone who made the ultimate sacrifice for human beings? to give them hope?), and I probably should be posting a recipe for hot cross buns. But no one except me likes them around here, so I've got the next best thing: cinnamon rolls. Which my daughter made. The one who needs, and gives, hugs.

What do your acknowledgements look like this week?

Cinnamon Buns (from the Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook)

1/4 cup warm water
1 Tbs (1 package) active dry yeast
1 Tbs granulated sugar
2/3 cup whole milk
1/2 stick (4Tbs) butter
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 large eggs
1/3 cup granulated sugar

Cinnamon Filling
1 Tbs butter, melted
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 Tbs ground cinnamon

1 cup confectioner's sugar, sifted
4 oz cream cheese, softened
1 Tbs heavy cream
1/2 tsp vanilla

Combine the water, yeast, and 1T sugar in a small mixing bowl and set aside until puffy.  Heat the milk and butter in a small saucepan (or the microwave) until the butter is melted; set aside. Whisk together the flour and salt and set aside. In yet another bowl, whisk together the eggs and sugar, then whisk in the milk-butter mixture. Add the yeast and egg mixtures to the flour and stir to combine (it's helpful to whisk 1/2 cup if the flour into the egg mixture first until smooth before combining everything).

Knead the dough until it's smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, turing to coat, and cover. Leave in a warm place until doubled in size, 1.5 to 2 hours.

Grease and flour a 9x13" pan. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and roll (or press) out into a 16x12" rectangle. Brush the melted butter over the dough.

Combine the brown sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle generously over the dough within 1/2" of the edges. Roll up the dough long ways and cut off the messy ends if you want (I didn't). Use dental floss (no, really!) to cut the roll in halves until you have 12 rolls. Lay the rolls in the prepared pan and leave them to rise until the rolls are all touching and reach the rim, about 1.5 to 2 hours (or overnight in the fridge, which is what we did).

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and bake the rolls for 20 minutes until golden brown. Let the rolls cool for 10 minutes before inverting the rolls out of the pan, and then flipping them again onto a serving dish.

To make the icing, beat the icing ingredients together with a fork (if you don't sift the powdered sugar, the icing will be lumpy). Spread the icing over the warm rolls and eat as soon as possible. They really don't keep well for more than a couple hours!
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Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Notes from a Small House: Pandemic 2020 and Vegetarian Korma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chickpea and Cauliflower Korma

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

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

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

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

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