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Category Archives: essays

Embracing the Selfie Ethos

Cristian Iohan Ştefănescu #selfie CC BY 2.0We are all the stars of our own movies, the protagonists of our own stories, but it seems, with the “selfi(ie) generation” at the helm, as a society we’ve become more self-consciously so, keen on having an audience. Lately I’ve been wondering if this is such a bad thing — as my Facebook feed is inundated with babies and couple shots and cool views from exotic locales, it seems there’s more to the culture of selfies than narcissism. It has to do with a basic appreciation of life, a move toward sharing and celebrating the little moments.

I wonder if the selfie ethos is shaping us to savor our lives a bit more, to be more ebullient and overflowing and public with our little victories — more connected as a result of social media, not less.

There is an interesting CNN article about “the upside of selfies” that reveals some surprisingly positive statistics: according to Common Sense Media, one in five teens reports to feeling more confident as a result of social media, versus 4% feeling less confident. 29% of 13-17 year-olds report that social media made them feel less shy.

According to Rebecca Levey, the founder of a video platform for tweens, social media is an opportunity for kids with niche interests to find each other. It’s also a place for tweens and teens — and full-grown adults — to make their voices heard about important issues.

The New York Times has a name for such tweens and teens, and some of those full-grown adults — it’s called “digital natives,” folks who never had to adapt to the internet, for whom a virtual reality was always a matter of fact. Apparently, these so-called millenials are “the first in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations had at the same age.” Who can knock ‘em for cheerleading their way through, for slapping a selfie on a genuinely difficult struggle?

I’m increasingly inclined to view my friends’ status updates, hashtags, and photo uploads as something to celebrate. Hear me? I want in on the minutiae of your life — it’s life-affirming to share it.

In the meantime, allow me to indulge in the selfie culture myself, by showing you what I made: muffins! That’s right — look at me, look at what I made! Orange marmalade muffins. They’re delicious. Or at least, I think so. Me. Myself(ie). And I. Here’s the recipe:

Orange Marmalade Muffins
Adapted from The Pioneer Woman Cooks

Ingredients

2 oranges
2 sticks butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda

Tools

Microplane zester
Cutting board
Sifter
Mixing bowls
Measuring cups and spoons
Stand Mixer with paddle attachment

  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Grate the zest of the two oranges. Measure the flour and sift it into a bowl.
  • Cream the butter and the granulated sugar.
  • Add the eggs and mix until combined.
  • Add the flour and the brown sugar and mix until just combined.
  • Combine the buttermilk and the baking soda. Add it to the mixture and stir until just combined.
  • Stir in the orange zest.
  • Line a muffin tin with paper liners and fill 2/3 full with batter. Bake until light brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle of the muffin comes out clean, about 13-15 minutes.
  • I had enough batter to repeat a second time, making six more muffins. Fill the empty muffin cups with water.

Warrior One, Cinnamon Bun: Going with the Flow in the Kitchen

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 4.56.55 PMI was recently introduced to the concept of “flow” while watching the documentary, Happy on Netflix. Formally, that is — I realized that I regularly experience flow while chopping onions or stirring risotto. The movie debunks many familiar misconceptions about happiness, but uses hard science to back up its claims, shedding new terminology and a new, well-researched framework on many tried-and-true pieces of wisdom that your grandmother and your five-year old could probably tell you. For example, the “hedonic treadmill” is a psychological explanation for greed and “ennui,” or boredom. It’s the idea that money can’t buy happiness past basic shelter, food, and financial security because no matter how fortunate our circumstances, we have a nagging tendency to adapt to the events of our lives and pursue further gratification.

Flow, however, is central to happiness. It can happen at work, at play, even in a high pressure situation, like a dance performance or an athletic event. Simply put, it’s the experience of getting lost in whatever you are doing — whether you are line order cook, a Brazilian surfer, an Indian rickshaw driver, or an elderly farmer in Okinawa, Japan. People who regularly experience flow tend to be happier, whether they experience it in their jobs, their personal life, or as part of their culture, in the case of the Bhutanese, a Southeast Asian country that has centered its economic policy on gross national happiness rather than gross national product. I have a hunch that our favorite cooks and domestic goddesses inspire us with their flow: Julia Child, with her high-pitched, pot-smacking exclamations, Ina Garten, with her understated, pleasantly-surprised-with-herself remarks (“how easy is that?”) and Martha Stewart, whose love of lemons crosses prison walls.

Many of us who find flow at the stove also tend to find it on our mat — yoga mat, that is. I imagine that choppers and whiskers of the most vigorous, scrupulous variety might also be fans of vinayasa “flow” yoga, where the zen feeling takes over by moving through a series of poses in coordination with our breath. Which has me thinking… Sometimes I encounter little problems in the kitchen, minor events that nevertheless, interrupt my flow. Things like unexpectedly coating myself in flour or becoming blinded by tears midway through chopping an onion or getting a muscle cramp as I cleave my way through a large butternut squash. In case similar hiccups have ever plagued your me-time at the counter, I invite you to try these three yoga-inspired practices. Why not honor our inner divinity in the making of our mess?

Airplane to the Rescue

This pose is an excellent strengthening pose for the Instagram user who likes to take pictures of his or her food but can’t seem to get the right angle. Avoid the temptation to doctor your photos with an iphone and instead, honor your core, back, and hamstring muscles while striving for a close up. Gently pour your weight into your standing foot, pulling up out of your hip, and lean forward with your torso as your working foot lifts parallel into the air. Keeping your gaze fixed on the dish and making sure not to fall headfirst into your dish, reach your arms forward and snap.

Clean Updog

This pose is useful for crumbly cookies, soup recipes involving blenders, and unsteady hands. To complete the pose, simply whistle for your dog, close the kitchen door, and give the dog space to lick up your mess. Meanwhile, unroll your yoga mat and come to a tabletop position, placing your hands and feet hip distance apart. Press the balls of your feet into the ground and push into a downward dog position. Take five deep breaths, breathe into your lower back and hamstring muscles, and give thanks for your dog.

Onion Eye

If onions make you cry, practice breathing through the discomfort. Inhale deeply before you commence chopping. Tightly pinch one eye and scrunch your nose so as to shut out the sulfur compounds being released from the f*** onion, similar to a stank face. You might even try pranayama, alternate nostril breathing, to achieve a balance of calm and energy as you chop. Of course, you need both hands for chopping, so instead of pressing your nose with a finger, you might try plugging your nostril with a paper towel. If your scrunched up state prevents you from safely wielding a knife, gently pull back, pause, and proceed with the use of a prop, such as a pair of sunglasses or onion goggles, available at Bed Bath and Beyond, until your knife skills become more rote.

On Growing My Cake and Eating It, Too

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It’s been ridiculously long since my last post! Here are a few of my thoughts on the joys and excesses of eating local, originally published on Food Riot… Is it just me, or is this topic rich with contradictions?

Terroir is the French term — the notion that foods possess an innate sense of place, down to the soil, the air, the shape of the landscape. For example, that a pinot noir grape grown on a farm in Sonoma, California has a slightly different bite than a pinot noir grape grown along the Rio Negro river in Argentina. It’s like the notion, “you are what you eat,” except that before you consume this essence of self, the food is busy becoming what it is — and if you buy into the terroir concept, the essence of food could not be more Scarlett O’Hara-esque — rooted in terra, terroir, the land.

This terroir term makes me think of rap lyrics, a whole range of upwardly mobile artists touting loyalty to their roots. In the world of food, “going local” may strike a hopeful, less defensive tone, but it’s still the same sentiment — “I’m still Jenny from the block” translates into sticking to your roots — quite literally, your root vegetables — putting the brakes on the rather privileged, entitled, modern assumption that “the world is your oyster” in favor of an old-fashioned reverence for your own backyard, and the brand of leafy greens where you were born and raised.

Much like those leafy greens, I suppose that my “taste” is shaped by my environment. On the one hand, I was born and raised in Saint Louis — and in my case, an appreciation for certain Midwestern foodstuffs is somehow built in — cheese (even the much-maligned, processed, Imos-Pizza-topping Provel), red meat and hearty casseroles. On the other hand, as a Chicago resident, I have an abiding taste for Mexican — not the kind you find in Missouri, where the waiter might not be familiar with horchatas. I tend to crave sour, spongy Ethiopian bread dipped in spicy vegetable medleys or Korean barbecue, with its thin, seared meats. My love of onions can take me around the world and back — from Indian curries to Chinese stir fries to Jewish latkes. Actually, scallions alone could do the trick. If I’m starting to sound less reverent and increasingly presumptuous when it comes to this simple, local food thing, what can I say; I came of age during the rise of The Food Network. I’m another earnest member of Generation Y trying to be slow and local, but really, I want to have my cake and eat it too, and I don’t necessarily want to grow my cake in my backyard. Plus, I don’t have a yard. I have a very persistent, slightly manic squirrel running along the rail of my balcony.

Truly, I respect and admire and value this notion of clean, fresh, local food. I’m inspired by Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food International, who says that “food is what ought to remind us every day that we are part of nature, that we belong to nature, that we are inside nature — the greatest living system.” Proving Carlo’s point, I had the privilege to enjoy a bullfight “à la mort” (to the death) on the oversized steps of a Roman amphitheatre in Arles, France. This was my second visit — the first time, I opted to watch the bullfighters sort of dance around the bull, no death happening, because I thought it might upset me. But the fight à la mort was not a gruesome experience, it was more of a grounding experience, oddly like clean, wholesome manual labor. I watched the bull reach his fate underneath a pounding sun, alongside little kids chomping on ham and cheese sandwiches. I took a wrong turn on the way out and ended up passing the tremendous, half-suspended carcass on its way into the beef truck. The next day my husband ordered “toureau” for dinner, and there it was, or its relative, on his plate. Yes — that particular day, food was a profound reminder that we live inside nature, much closer to the cycle of life and death than I typically acknowledge.

It was through living in Provence for a short, sweet six weeks that I first experienced a deep appreciation for the relationship between food and terrain. Actually, the impact of terrain in Provence extends far beyond food. For example, I realized that Vincent Van Gogh’s famous paintings from the region didn’t so much exercise artistic license but skillfully capture the special quality of light that exists there, day after day. I didn’t realize until returning to the U.S. that Provence was a destination of sorts, that the richness of the landscape was truly la crème de la crème, as evidenced by certain brands of rose wine or cosmetics companies like l’Occitane. But like many things that hail from Italy or France, the romance and purity of “terroir” doesn’t always mesh with the full-speed-ahead, patchwork-quilt American way. When I come across a green t-shirt that reads YALE KALE or the scrunched up nose of a three year old working his way through a macrobiotic plate, I am impressed by certain Americans’ willful, dogged commitment to eating naturally. We invented fast food, and doggone it, we will just as industriously re-adopt slow flood. With similar intentions, I attempted my first herb garden last summer. I basked in the versatility of kale, the joy of snipping chives onto pasta, the fact that I didn’t need to buy scallions. But there were also times when I felt like the hungry caterpillar in reverse. All I wanted was one, small square of Imo’s Pizza, processed in a factory, delivered in a box. To borrow from another 90s child, Pete Nice, of 3rd Bass, I guess I’m just a product of my environment.

Empathy As Change & We Are Not Trayvon Martin

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I recently heard Bill Clinton being interviewed on BBC News about his philanthropic work in Africa. When asked whether his poor, Alabama upbringing allows him to empathize with people there, he said that he is proud of his humanitarian work because it comes from a place of empathy, not necessarily of mutual experience.

It was so refreshing to hear someone elevate pure empathy as a foundation for social change. Often, it seems that leading social change requires a certain degree of “street cred”  in the form of a shared connection to the population or situation being served. I recently attended a non-profit gathering, during which several organizations shared their story. They attributed their success to effectively spreading a narrative. The story usually went something like this: I had cancer and I started a mentoring program for kids with cancer; I am Muslim and I started a theatre company to address issues facing Muslim Americans.

This is a beautiful thing.

But what if your struggles/experience/story don’t mirror those of the population you serve? Can you be a credible leader of change? Let’s hope so. It’s much harder to be complacent when experiencing other people’s pain vicariously, through imagination and compassion, rather than through personal experience, is a sufficient call to action. 

This is what I love about http://wearenottrayvonmartin.com.

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What an enlightened, beautiful, and courageous public forum for the pain we ALL feel, as in, all races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, and combination thereof, regarding Trayvon Martin’s death and the racial tensions that surround it.

I think the flood of responses shows how many everyday people of racial or socioeconomic privilege are affected by issues of race, but they don’t typically express their feelings. Why is this? Perhaps they feel uncomfortable or tentative about claiming any part of race-related struggles as their own, for fear of seeming insensitive to their own privilege.

I am not Trayvon Martin. I am a white female. I probably get more welcoming looks in a hoodie than I do in preppy clothes. Like most people, my upbringing, education, and day-to-day adult life defies and embodies stereotypes. I have lived with, been longtime friends with, attended school and church with, been neighbors with, been colleagues with, and supervised by “people of color.” My grandfather’s memorial service disproved the trope that 11:00 on a Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, for someone born long before the civil rights movement in Saint Louis, Missouri.

Growing up in Saint Louis, attending a private high school located in a very manicured, affluent, white suburb, I encountered excellent teachers, some cringe-worthy wealth, some outdated traditions, and some of the most open-minded, well-traveled, and socially conscious people I know. I attended undergrad in another affluent, manicured, and predominantly white neighborhood, but my peers were Egyptian, Indian/Muslim, Nigerian, Chinese, Sikh, Hindu, and Israeli.

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Living in Chicago, segregation is normalized. Racial inequality is one of many talking points in the news, built into segments between inefficient lawmakers or expensive city parking. Riding the el pretty well lays out the situation.

I do not have to make peace with, or normalize the possibility that my skin color might invite violence, legal trouble, or certain forms of harrassment. It would be easy to say that I live in a different world, but the truth is, it is very obvious to me that our society is racially tinged and driven by appearances and stereotypes.

Depending on who I am with, what I am wearing, or what neighborhood I am in, people don’t look at me at all, or they look at me with curiosity, or they look at me with mild hostility. It doesn’t compromise my safety or tangibly impact me in a negative way. But the predictability of such reactions is a subtle, demoralizing reminder that “we” — the heterogenous mix of people that make up a city like Chicago, any city in urban America — go about our business in a state of quiet alienation and mistrust.

As the racial minority in my classroom, I have a glimpse of what it feels like to be judged on small attributes of my appearance, demeanor, or language. For example, pronouncing names correctly on the first day of school can bridge the unspoken racial difference. I am careful to offer unwarranted assistance with say, a reading assignment so that the help is not interpreted racially — otherwise, such “help” might cause a struggling student to shut down. I may consider myself enlightened, I may have diverse experiences, but I am also, unavoidably, a white authority figure. As such, it takes a little more time, a little more effort, and a little more care to build trust.

The polarized reactions to George Zimmerman’s trial, the racially charged criticism of President Obama, the various perspectives on Paula Deen’s racial slurs  — all are public, sobering reminders that race divides us. Apparently, whites, blacks, and all shades in between feel mutually misunderstood, or in the words of Ralph Ellison, “invisible… simply because people refuse to see [them].”

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To get beyond this state of mutual misunderstanding, we need to legitimize empathy and compassion as catalysts of social change, independent of shared experience. They may be abstractions, but they have concrete power.

Check out this story about Viola Liuzzo, the only white woman protestor to die in the civil rights movement. She acted on the belief that civil rights were “everybody’s fight.” For years, the purity of her motives was questioned. The family was finally vindicated when last May, Liuzzo was awarded the Ford Freedom Humanitarian Award, an honor shared by none other than Nelson Mandela.

I have to believe that the prestige of this award, and the magnitude of Liuzzo’s courage, reflects her ability to translate empathy into action, boldly, despite her status as a privileged outsider. For those of us who are not Trayvon, we are still hit hard by his loss, and we can still be part of the solution.

[Photos: Picture called “L’empreinte Digitale Oubliée” from Twistiti’s Flickr Photostream, “Rain on Hand Prints” from jcoterhals’ photostream, “Bean in Black and White” from james_clear’s photostream, “Raised Hand” by feverblue’s photo stream]

Pro Dev, Seriously

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As the school year approaches, those of us in the teaching profession start pondering things like “motivation,” “engagement,” and other intangibles that either invigorate our classrooms with the best kind of energy, or swallow our best efforts.

Hence, August Professional Development!

I was recently required to watch a video on the use of humor in the classroom, including appropriate targets for humor, explicit reasons why humor is important, and suggestions for incorporating humor cues into your planning. This breakdown could easily sound a bit OCD, but I thought it was one of the better professional development topics I’ve encountered.

I remember last year I was reading a teacher’s blog. It made the astute, somewhat taboo assertion that yes, you should care about your students liking you. Obviously, set limits with your students, build a structured classroom environment, set a goal of mutual respect and not personal popularity. Whew. That sounds familiar.

That said, teaching (and learning) are both benefited when students like the teacher. The importance of like-ability is widely accepted when it comes to landing a job or interviewing at a college, so why dance around the issue between teachers and students? What is the best route to like-ability? As demonstrated by Cosmo Brown in Singin’ in the Rain, “Make ‘em laugh…”

To me, the really smart aspect of the humor PD was the suggestion of scripting humor into your lessons, alongside transitions and pacing and other planned elements. This seemingly uptight approach to humor is perfect for the teachers who are more to the point, so to speak, who could most benefit from using humor to lighten the mood. Planned humor may be excessive, but it acknowledges the relationship building skills at the heart of teaching, and the fact that everyone can build these relationships in their own way.

It also acknowledges the importance of being yourself in a position of authority. So much of high school teaching boils down to effectively asserting your authority and respecting students’ sense of independence. One of the best pieces of “professional development” anyone gave me was this quote by Nelson Mandela:

“There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory within us. It is not just some. It is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine we consciously give other people permission to do the same.”

Humor is one, small way to give students permission to “let their light shine” by consciously doing it yourself. To be fair, certain instances of unbridled “self-expression” are not so enlightened — for example, doing a standing split against the door frame and farting in the middle of class, or sitting out a dance class, eating a tub of icing in the corner. These are horrible examples of “letting your light shine,” but I had to end with them. They make me laugh out loud.

[Photo is from Charlottes Photo Gallery on flickr]

Let It Melt Away

Screen Shot 2013-04-23 at 2.10.10 PMIt’s almost automatic for me, tuning into NPR on my commute home. I’m a bit of a news junkie, and my job(s) involve a lot of driving. Unexpected tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombing can shake you out of the comfortable ritual of news consumption. This event was unexpected, incoherent, if nothing else, an impetus to pay closer attention to each other and the many forces at work in every individual. My heart goes out to the victims, the spectators, and even the perpetrators who are suffering right now. I’m sure that the healing process will require many small, tedious steps, putting one foot in front of the other. This recipe is one small token of solidarity.

Lemon Meltaways

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen Key Lime Meltaways

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temp
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
Grated zest of 4 tiny or 2 large lemons
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (aka 2 cups minus 2 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt

Measure Your Ingredients

  1. Measure butter and 1/3 cup sugar and put in bowl of electric mixer.
  2. Measure out lemon juice/zest and vanilla and set aside. In a medium bowl, measure and whisk together flour, cornstarch, and salt.

Mix It Up

  1. Cream butter and 1/3 cup sugar in bowl of electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add lemon juice, zest, and vanilla; beat until fluffy.
  2. Add flour/cornstarch/salt mixture to butter mixture and beat on low speed until combined.
  3. Shape dough into two, 1 1/4 inch diameter logs and chill for at least 1 hour.

Melt It Away

  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Place remaining 2/3 cups sugar in a resealable plastic bag. Slice logs into 1/4-inch-thick rounds. Place on baking sheets, about 1 inch apart.
  2. Bake cookies until barely golden, about 15 minutes. Transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool slightly, just three or four minutes. While still warm, place cookies in the sugar-filled bag; toss to coat. Bake or freeze remaining dough. Store baked cookies in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.
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[Photos: “Key Lime Meltaways,” Rennings flickr photostream]

City of Hunched Shoulders

Screen Shot 2013-03-23 at 10.02.16 AMThe first week of spring here in Chicago has been a mixture of radiant sunshine and sub freezing temperatures. I have been inwardly savoring the sunshine while clutching my pockets and burying my head in my coat.

On Tuesday, I made several trips along Lakeshore Drive — to the Harold Washington Public Library downtown, back to Evanston, back to the South side. I watched the flicker of sunlight across skyscrapers, its winking, springlike energy, meanwhile, clutching the wheel against a strong wind that persisted in nudging my car toward the concrete median…

One usually thinks of Chicago as a stark, wintry city, less green than silver and inclined to make clumsy leaps from winter to summer. The cold alone compromises a person’s ability to stand tall, take everything in, and smell the flowers. It seems that our shared tendency to hunch over, leaning into the wind with gloved, ear-plugged persistence, could easily be a snapshot of that stubborn, ambitious, individualistic American way. Our cultural tendency to forge ahead, in a manner both self-absorbed and disconnected, is not unlike the crowds of Chicagoans hurrying around in their sleeping bag sized coats.

On my short walk to the library to pick up some librettos, I managed to appreciate the combination of frigid air and bright sun. They are an invigorating pair — more Chicagoan in spirit than clichéd harbingers of spring, like budding flowers or soothing rain. I found myself in a sea of hurried, hunched over pedestrians, moving with the mute, tense persistence I would imagine of flower buds pushing through soil. The clutter of the city had a collective grace to it — a no-frills forward thrust containing the energy and buzz of spring. It reminds me of a poem by Galway Kinnell, “Saint Francis And The Sow,” in a free-association kind of way:

“The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower…”

because

“everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness…”

This poem describes St Francis stroking the wrinkly forehead of a pig, illustrating the idea that everything possesses its own inherent beauty and is worthy of self-love.  The pig takes in this unsolicited blessing by more fully embodying itself, “remembering all down her thick length” the “loveliness of a sow.”

I’d also like to imagine that our city of hunched over, hurried, shivering people is a city in bloom, flowering from within. Spring is present in the quick succession of heavy brass doors, elevator dings, and marble floors, followed by the drone of a computer monitor on the eighth floor of the library, humming over the heavy silence of wooden tables and hunched over readers. Outside, spring is the play of light on windshields, the cacophony of brakes sounding out randomly with car horns, whistles, and screeching subway wheels, all reminders of life stirring.

Here is the poem in its entirety.

[Photo: “When He Comes Ridin’ Into Your Town,” Chicago Man’s photostream]

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