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Category Archives: Musings

A Different Kind of Recipe

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Ah, teaching…and summer’s off. If you’ve been reading recently, I hope I’ve conveyed my gratitude for the time to spend with family, read, cook, travel, and write. Summer’s off are such a beautiful thing. But I think many teachers would agree that summer’s off are also, in many ways, summer’s “off.” The teaching must go on, come August or September, and so there is curriculum to be written, errands and doctor’s appointments to be scratched off the personal to-do list, and resources to be gathered.

The resources to be gathered part…

I’m trying crowd funding for the first time. I spend plenty of my own money on resources for my classroom — last school year, having shared classrooms for four years, I had to start from scratch when it came to decorating my own room. Also, my projector didn’t work, something I use everyday, so I was left with no choice but to buy my own, justifying it as an investment in my teaching career. When I tried to get creative, scissors and glue sticks and graph paper and construction paper were all on me, which added up. I had to scrounge for my own pencil sharpener, replace my own dying markers, provide lotion, and sometimes buy my own kleenex. Then I purchased graduation gifts for a some of my seniors. This is the norm in teaching.

And another norm in teaching: asking people you know — family, friends, readers of your blog — to fund resources that your school cannot provide. In some ways it’s a beautiful movement, and in some ways, it’s a very sad reflection on the lack of funding in schools, especially when schools have such high expectations for their students and their teachers. But I’m asking all the same.

Here is my site, Chromebooks for Writing Classes with a video of me talking about how chromebooks — even a few — would help my students and help me do more as a teacher. Things like project-based learning, in-class research, increased student engagement. In the video I focus on how these chromebooks would benefit my classroom, specifically, but I would share them with my colleagues, and so, in reality, they would benefit an entire English department. If you can give, thank you. If you can share on social media, thank you. If you can click on the link and give it some of your attention, thank you.

As I share in the video, here’s “a different kind of recipe,” written by my student Kumari, a sweet reflection on what it takes to write a good essay:

The Perfect Essay

Ingredients

4 cups of sole-purposed brain power
4 teaspoons of creativity
4 cups of dedicated research
2 cups of MLA format sourcing
5 tablespoons of brainstorming
4 cups of editing

Directions

  • Place brainstorming in bowl. Let it sit for a few hours. Then, when it feels right to YOU, add in the dedicated research and stir.
  • When the mixture is smooth, begin adding in the sole-purposed brain power and the creativity alternately, while stirring.
  • When both are in the bowl, grab a blender and blend until the mixture is fluffy and smooth.
  • Then add in the editing and MLA format sourcing, alternately until both are in. Stir.
  • Next, put the mixture in the fridge and take it out everyday and mix it for one to two hours until the mixture is absolutely perfect.
  • Then give the mixture to your teacher, get her opinion on it, and with her advice, polish and add ingredients as you see fit. Put the mixture into the oven and wait until it is golden brown.
  • Take it out and enjoy it, a steaming sweet taste of success 🙂

I’d argue that as technology is increasingly a part of the workplace and our personal life, the only thing missing from this recipe is technology. It has a prominent place in our world, and it deserves a prominent place in our classrooms. So consider this “ask” a recipe in the works for better learning, better writing, better teaching. Thanks for considering.

 

Zero to Thirty

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Today is a very special day! My nephew, Owen, was born, and he shares a birthday with one of my best friends – today, she turns thirty! I know that male and female friendships are different, and my friendship with the extraordinary Benazir Ali feels like it pretty squarely fits the female mold, but one of the best things that Owen has to look forward to is friendships of this kind. By “this kind,” I mean close, dear friendships that stand the test of distance and time.

In the female universe, at least, this kind of friendship involves a lot of talking — you can speak your mind and more importantly, your heart, without reserve. You can fight and even occasionally say horrible things and genuinely forgive each other a few minutes later. You can be happy for the other person’s joys and at the same time, share your sorrows.

Benazir is Muslim, and I am Christian, but we are constantly asking each other to pray for the other one because…. LIFE IS SO STRESSFUL! Or, to put it more optimistically, we all need our God.

On the day of my nephew’s birth, it seems fitting to share this quote that Benazir sent me earlier this year (I don’t know the source):

In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other: ‘Do you believe in life after delivery?’ The other replied, ‘Why, of course. There has to be something after the delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what will be later.’

‘Nonsense’ said the first. ‘There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?’

The second said, ‘I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t understand now.’

The first replied, ‘That is absurd. Walking is impossible. And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.’

The second insisted, ‘Well I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.’

The first replied, ‘Nonsense. And moreover if there is life, then why has no one ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.’

‘Well, I don’t know,’ said the second, ‘but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.’

The first replied, ‘Mother? You actually believe in Mother? That’s laughable. If Mother exists then where is She now?’

The second said, ‘She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her. It is in Her that we live. Without Her this world would not and could not exist.’

Said the first: ‘Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.’

To which the second replied, ‘Sometimes, when you’re in silence and you focus and listen, you can perceive Her presence, and you can hear Her loving voice, calling down from above.’

This is perhaps one of the best explanations of ‘GOD’ I have come across.

Judging by Owen’s swaddled bliss today in the hospital, life immediately after the delivery seems pretty cosy. Here he is with my brother (his uncle, not his father):

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But as Benazir and I both know, the further you climb into this God-filled and suffering-filled life, it can get harder to discern God’s presence. And so God gives you supportive friends, among other things

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And on your birthday, God gives you permission to eat cake.

Someday I’ll know what Owen prefers, cake-wise, but when I asked Benazir, she just said “anything chocolate.”

So Benazir, happy thirtieth! You deserve all of the love and all of the chocolate you can get. You are one of the most intelligent, kind, and strong women I know. Keep climbing 🙂 Whenever you make it to Saint Louis, I’ll make Joy the Baker’s Chocolate Beet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting for you, which I tested with Britta and Nuala, two of my wonderful nieces. It’s delicious.

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Chocolate Beet Cake with Beet Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes one layer cake

Materials

Aluminum foil
Sheet pan, preferably rimmed
Paring knife
Box grater
Cutting board
Measuring cups
Measuring spoons
Two 8 or 9-inch round baking pans
Electric mixer, paddle attachment
Mixing bowls
Whisk
Spatula
Skewer
Cooling racks
Cake stand

Cake Ingredients

2 medium beets, unpeeled
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
6 oz unsalted butter, softened, plus more for greasing the pan
1 cup packed brown sugar
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pans
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cups buttermilk

Frosting Ingredients

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
8 oz (1 brick) cream cheese, softened
4 to 5 cups powdered sugar, sifted
2 tablespoons finely grated beets, mashed with a fork
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or scrapings of one vanilla bean pod
1-2 teaspoons milk, depending on desired consistency
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
pinch of salt

Instructions for Cakes

  • Place a rack in the center and upper third of the oven.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
  • Thoroughly wash beets under running water, and trim their leaves, leaving about 1/2 inch of stem.  Place clean beets in a piece of foil.  Drizzle with just a bit of vegetable oil.  Seal up foil.  Place on a baking sheet in the oven.  Roast until beets are tender when pierced with a knife, about 1 hour.
  • Remove the beets from the oven.  Open the foil and allow beets to cool completely.  Beets will be easy to peel (just using a paring knife) once completely cooled.
  • Using a box grater, grate the peeled beets on the finest grating plane.  Measure 3/4 cup of grated beets for the cake and 2 tablespoons for the frosting.  Set aside.
  • Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F.  Use butter to grease two 8 or 9-inch round baking pans. Add a dusting of flour to coat the pan. Set pans aside while you prepare the cake.
  • In the bowl of an electric stand mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment, cream together butter and sugars.  Beat on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes.  Beat in eggs, one at a time, for one minute after each addition.   Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary.  Once eggs are incorporated, beat in beets and vanilla extract until thoroughly combined.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.
  • Add half of the dry ingredients to the butter and egg mixture.  Beating on low speed , slowly add the buttermilk.  Once just incorporated, add the other half of the dry ingredients. Beat on medium speed until milk and dry ingredients are just incorporated. Try not to overmix the batter.  Bowl can be removed from the mixer and mixture folded with a spatula to finish incorporating ingredients.  Cake batter will be on the thick side… not pourable.
  • Divide the batter between the two prepared cake pans.  Bake for 23 to 25 minutes (for a 9-inch pan) or 30-32 minutes (for an 8-inch pan).  Cake is done when a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean.  Remove cakes from the oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes.  Invert cakes onto a cooling rack to cool completely before frosting and assembling the cake.

Instructions for Frosting

  • In the bowl of an electric stand mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment, beat cream cheese for 30 seconds, until pliable and smooth.  Add the butter and beat for another 30 seconds, until well combined.  Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl as necessary.  Beat in the beets.  Add the powdered sugar, vanilla extract, milk, lemon juice, and salt.  Beat on medium speed until smooth and silky.  Refrigerate the frosting for 30 minutes before frosting the cooled cakes.
  • To assemble the cake, place one layer of cake on a cake stand or cake plate.  Top with a generous amount of pink frosting.  Spread evenly.  Place the other cake on top of the frosting.  Top with frosting.  Work frosting onto the sides of the cake.  You will have extra frosting left over.  Refrigerate for an hour before serving (it will make the cake easier to slice).  Cake will last, well wrapped in the refrigerator, for up to 4 days.

 

 

 

 

Farewell Chicago

brunurb P1090489 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0I have seven more nights to sleep in my Chicago bed. Seven more 5:30 am snoozes filled in by the sound of dump trucks reversing, ambulances speeding, cabbies honking, and heels clicking on pavement outside my bedroom window. Am I feeling nostalgic? Not so much, as a matter of fact. I’ve reached a point where the allure of the city, in all its gritty, gray, urban glory, has faded for me. I’m ready for a shorter commute. I’m ready for bigger patches of green grass, for big, old trees that aren’t plopped in the middle of a concrete sidewalk with a copper plate covering for protection. I’m ready for pizza that isn’t Chicago style pizza — and yes, that especially includes Imo’s, even if it does resemble “Velveeta on a cracker.” I’m ready for snow that melts, rather than transforming into a coal-black packed powder for weeks on end. I’m ready for longer springs, longer autumns, shorter, warmer winters.

Did I mention that I’m ready? At the same time, I’m already anticipating that moment when the absence of all that Chicago has to offer suddenly tugs at me, when suddenly I’m aware that I’ve given up a great deal and I can’t go back to it. I know it’s coming. So here’s a little list of Chi town places I’ll especially miss, hopefully with some appeal for both readers well-acquainted and completely unfamiliar with the windy city:

The Old Town School of Folk Music is one of my favorite places to see live music in Chicago. In addition to offering a wide range of classes in a wide range of instruments for both kids and adults, Old Town hosts so many great concerts. This March I saw Los San Patricios, a concert about Irish immigrants’ contributions to the Mexican-American war, jointly produced by the Sones de Mexico and the Irish Music School of Chicago and featuring a fusion of Mexican and Irish music and dance. Another favorite was a performance a few years ago by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell, performing songs from their joint album, Kin.

Joseph Kranak Signature Room CC BY 2.0LSD, as in Lakeshore Drive, is such a gem. The glint of sun on the corner of skyscrapers. Wide swaths of lake, stretching toward the horizon. Belmont Harbor, with its promise of leisurely summer days spent out on the water. An open view of Buckingham Fountain, whose spray hits the sky just so, making a rainbow. Joggers and bikers cutting their path, making the city feel lived in, alive. Warm days when the beaches are loaded with people. Cool days when the sand is iced over, windswept into craggy piles. Gray, dry  days when the city is a blend of blue, silver, and white.

Andrew Seaman Davis Theater CC BY-ND 2.0The Davis Theater, located in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, is almost 100 years old, with a definite old-timey feel, established by antique posters, retro vending equipment, and four theaters displaying high, smallish screens and dingy, threadbare seats that you can’t help but love. It’s a refreshing respite from the brightly lit, commercial complexes where movies are more frequently shown today. Perhaps it’s most admirable feature, though, is the name — speaking as one, it’s hard not to love a “Davis” 🙂

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 11.32.31 AMSpeaking of Davis’s, I will sorely miss Davis Street Fish Market, purporting on their website to be “Chicago’s #1 Seafood Destination.” I have a long history with this place. I recall eating there with my parents on a college visit to Northwestern, and celebrating my graduation there a few years later. These days my husband and I like to journey over to Evanston on a Friday night for some “Crescent City Cioppino,” replete with scallops, crawfish, clams, shrimp, mussels, tomato, and fennel, or maybe some Jambalaya. Well, we used to. I suppose I’ll need a new seafood spot in the Lou.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 11.58.32 AMI’m not a big shopper, but I have some great memories of sorting through Knee Deep Vintage‘s collection of dresses, t-shirts, bags, and shoes. Open since 2008, the shop is located on 18th Street, in Pilsen, on Chicago’s south side. I bought an army green dress with a gold print, 1950s-style, with a cinched waist, stiff collar and 3-quarter cuffed sleeves, and pleated flare skirt that I was intent on sporting for Halloween, Mad Men style, but it’s just been hanging in my closet for the last five years. I finally donated it the other day. Still, it was a rare find, and I’m glad I went knee deep for it.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 12.12.52 PMDak is a Korean barbecue joint near my house whose praises I also sung on the site Food Riot. A clean, spare, small space with blonde wooden tables, gray floors, and plentiful spools of paper towels, Dak is good for two versions of wings: one with a soy/garlic/ginger sauce, and a spicy red pepper version. Rice bowls are also on the menu, containing veggies, a fried egg, and a sweet/spicy red pepper sauce, but my favorite is their Bulgogi — thinly sliced steak lightly dredged in Korean barbecue sauce served alongside a sticky mound of white rice. They also make a mean eggroll and a tasty batch of sweet potato waffle fries that are hard to resist.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 3.06.01 PMSpeaking of neighborhood haunts, it’ll be hard to part with Devon Market. The Edgewater grocery store has fresh bread baked in store, a large produce section, a wide assortment of Mexican style meats, international pantry items, and is such a bargain compared to the bigger chains.

Patrick Emerson Follow Harold Washington Library Patrick Emerson CC BY-ND 2.0How I’ll miss the Harold Washington Library, and the entire Chicago Public Library system. The sheer size and vibrancy of Chicago’s libraries, housed in so many beautiful and historic locations, is something to be savored. (I think Sulzer Regional Library in Lincoln Square is a close second for me.) And for a bit of trivia, did you know that the city’s public library system was set into motion after the Great Chicago Fire, when 8,000 books were donated from England? Now you do 🙂

Rachel 365/28 Lao Sze Chuan CC BY-NC 2.0

Lao Sze Chuan is, hands down, my favorite place to eat Chinese food in the city. They have a delectable eggplant pork dish that’s soft and buttery and decadent, a mayonnaise shrimp item that sounds disgusting but is strangely addictive, delicious crispy beef dishes, irresistible steamed dumplings, and warm pots of fresh tea. That said, their menu is extensive, and in all my times eating there, I’ve only scraped the tip of the iceberg. Don’t take my word for it — this place has received numerous awards from the city’s culinary community. It’s a fairly widespread favorite.

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 2.11.39 PMAnd… last, but certainly not least, I will miss Links Hall, a performance space for independent artists — a place to take risks, generate new work, and expose Chicago audiences to new horizons. With all its artistic offerings, I doubt Saint Louis has a place quite like it. Aw shucks.

So there you go. As I prepare to journey southward, I remember that Chicago is a loaded, special place, full of places and people and meals to be missed. What’s your favorite Chicago gem??

 

 

Pushing the Bard in House of Cards

Brian Rinker House of Cards CC BY 2.0I resurface today after too long of break from this site! My excuse is that I’ve been busy with all the details of moving. But I admit, I also have a little fessing up to do, because there’s a far less upstanding reason for my hiatus. It’s called Season 3 of House of Cards.

I was initially reminded to watch when I came across an article in this month’s issue of The Atlantic by Christopher Orr, called “Why the British Are Better at Satire.” Orr contrasts the American show with its BBC predecessor from 1990, in addition to critiquing Veep and its British counterpart, The Thick of It, as well as lamenting the general lack of satire on American TV, despite quite a few shows wheeling and dealing in Washington intrigue. From Orr’s vantage point, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are the closest we have to British satire, with their quick-witted, unrelenting, barbed sensibility.

In opposition to Jon Stewart’s fast-paced repartée, the American House of Cards is notably “declawed,” according to Orr. It amounts to melodrama, the stuff of soap operas, a “sleek, intriguing portrait in menace” versus the “jaunty” British version. Wile both American and British versions share the same, basic narrative arc — a politically mired “Francis” who is denied a much anticipated promotion, then sets out on a vengeful, transparent quest for power — Orr outlines vast differences in tone and style. For starters, the cast of the main character: Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood is an ambitious conservative Democrat whose Machiavellian scheming reads as ridiculous and absurd when compared to Ian Richard’s Francis Urquhart, a “winking, bred-in-the-bone conservative.” According to Orr, the Lady Macbeth vibes of Francis’s wife are also toned down and muddled in the American version, and his chief of staff Doug Stamper is caught up in the stuff of soap operas (alcoholism, unrequited love…) Lastly, Orr points out that Frank Underwood is one corrupt Washington official among many, whereas Francis Urquhart is a “genuine villain,” the “one dishonest man” who upsets the hapless political framework surrounding him.

Diving into one episode and then the next, I can’t shake Orr’s critique. The American series’ melodramatic tone is addictive and alluring (hence, my recent binge) but it does ring hollow at times, striking me as a little bit off, incomplete. And then I wonder — does the melodramatic style necessarily cheapen the show, or does the American version simply strive to create a more stylized, self-contained, Shakespearean world set in modern-day Washington? In a 2013 interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, Kevin Spacey talks about playing Richard III as preparation for Frank Underwood. Orr characterizes Spacey’s asides to the camera as “ridiculous,” but so are the antics of Shakespeare’s ruthless king — you could argue that Spacey is playing Frank with a similar sort of gravity and bravado that he brought to the stage as Richard. These overt references to Shakespeare, and the straightforward styling of Frank as an old-fashioned, ruthless evildoer, seem to be part of the American show’s allure. There’s even a scene in season three where Underwood is addressing the camera through his own blurry, distorted reflection in a White House window, a nod to Richard III’s hunched, deformed physicality. There are plenty of moments where Underwood drives home the despicable, tyrannical nature of his character with a straight edge — the opposite of a “winking” demeanor — not least of which when he visits his father’s grave and pees on it just outside the sight lines of the press. While Kevin Spacey’s theatrical flair for his character’s malice is somewhat fascinating to watch, I have to agree with Orr that viewers of Francis Urquhart probably enjoy his character more, because there’s so much more to mine with the weird mix of light and dark that defines satire. By the end of season three, Frank Underwood and his much emphasized, increasingly frequent asides become something of a deadbeat, all too familiar.

Maybe the caricature aspect of Frank Underwood is why Season 3 keeps turning to his wife, Claire. Orr is right that Claire is too complex to be a Lady Macbeth type, though she nods in that direction at times. Take her sleek, angular wardrobe, omnipresent stilettos, and icy blonde highlights — an image that projects the severity and singularity of her ambitions, especially when coupled with that squinty, loaded gaze, the object of many a close up. There’s the moment when a dejected Francis calls Claire for solace and she tells him she “can’t indulge him” if he’s doubting himself, and plenty of other moments in between when Claire’s relentless pragmatism reads as ruthless, as if she never shifts her gaze from their marathon climb to the top. It becomes increasingly clear, however, that Claire is not at the helm of her husband’s quest for power. Instead, she clings to their political partnership increasingly out of desperation, not because she doesn’t long for power and status, which she does, but more fundamentally because she doesn’t love her husband. Her commitment to Frank’s scheming is more about a dogged persistence to preserve their union in some form, and of course, because she’s already in so deep, implicated in her husband’s trail of evildoings. In my opinion, watching Claire evolve into an increasingly self-honest, vulnerable character is one of the most satisfying parts of season three, but it does reinforce the feeling that the American House of Cards is softer around the edges, and ultimately apolitical.

I think the most salient effect of side-stepping satire for a more menacing, melodramatic political portrait is that House of Cards completely dodges any meaningful relationship to the real-life theatre of American politics. Instead we get a stylized, operatic, self-contained and unmistakably fictional world to peer into for some good old-fashioned intrigue. The lack of a political critique is why everything feels so stylized — the Shakespearean overtures don’t push us to think critically about our own political climate, they just plunge us further into a strange, dark world with a little extra flourish. It’s simply a difference of approach, but with the recent outcry over John Stewart’s leaving The Daily Show, it seems that Americans audiences are hungry for a more pointed social critique instead of these heavy, angst-ridden worlds that ultimately function as an escape from our own.

Grateful Wednesdays

Kalyan Chakravarthy Half what? (CC BY 2.0)I’ve decided that hump day deserves a regular gratitude list. It’s the best way to slide into Thursday with my head screwed on straight, to pause in the middle of the week for a little putting-in of perspective. And I think there’s added value in listing nuggets of thankfulness  in order to share them — for me, that is. It feels like a subtle way of taking action on what I’ve been given, paying good things forward by making them known to you, dear reader, or by drawing attention to the less tangible things. And for me, making a personal gratitude list public helps me to
cement and augment a more general posture of thankfulness and abundance. I hope it reads less as, “good for me, now let me pat myself on the back” and more broadly as “the world is loaded with wonder.” So, thank you, and without further adieu, ten things, small and not so:

  1. Wait for it…chocolate chip and roasted pear scones, courtesy of Smitten Kitchen. What a slightly unexpected, fruity, chocolatey, tart-sweet combo. While I’m at it, the entire Smitten Kitchen site — a self-contained gold mine of recipes, simple and scrumptious — and also, the mini scone pan I was gifted for Christmas. I never got around to making scones before I had this pan. It’s the little things.
  2. The people in this world who choose a hard path, knowing it’s hard, and knowing that there is no way around it. I’m thinking of Dr. Martin Luther King. I marvel at the clarity of his life’s mission, vision, and moral conscience.
  3. Winter headbands that keep things insulated on, say, an early morning/early evening commute involving lots of walking and waiting in the cold. If you’re reading, go ahead and grab yourself one! Just do it.
  4. The unique beauty of urban landscapes: the warm, orange glow of streetlights against a dark early morning sky, the steep rise of buildings, winding around the lake, the contrast between a bright train car and the sleeping wooden balconies outside. I could go on (I’ll spare you) but suffice it to say that Chicago is a looker, even in the thick of late January.
  5. A new vegetable soup recipe: Provençal Vegetable Soup, from Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris. There are a couple of things about this soup that I find noteworthy: the addition of broken spaghetti noodles and halved green beans, the liberal use of chopped leeks, and last, but not least, the swirling-in-for-serving of pistou, a paste made of raw garlic, tomato paste, fresh basil, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese.
  6. The practice of blogging. I think of it as a practice,  not unlike a yoga practice. It’s something I routinely turn to to clear my head, to challenge myself, to slow myself down and develop a deeper presence of mind and level of self-awareness. I’m thankful that blogging is something I can always return to when I have the time, that there’s now a foundation of entries on this here site to blossom into more entries. And more. It’s a good thing we bloggers collectively have going here, on WordPress. To think that the world of blogging didn’t exist a few years ago…
  7. New horizons/things to look forward to. For me, that includes a very hypothetical, much discussed and absolutely unprepared for trip to Ireland in the not so distant future. The longer it goes unplanned, the longer the gestation phase of my fervent anticipation — a blurry assortment of misty, rolling hills, warm pubs, and long, stretched out days of doing whatever the heck we please. One day we’ll get there.
  8. The space and time to be enjoyed by two adults who don’t have kids…yet. In other words, the absence of a heavy (yes, and beautiful) responsibility. This translates into gym time, leisurely cooking, the satisfaction of getting-stuff-done after work, whimsical and aimless conversations with my husband that have nothing to do with getting stuff done.
  9. The difference between writing for an editor and writing for myself. I say difference because I am grateful for both modes, so to speak. I find both challenging and rewarding in different ways. With writing for myself comes the joy/challenge of figuring out what I truly want to say, and also the spontaneity and lightness of having an idea strike my fancy and setting words to page. With writing for an editor comes more scrutiny, more research, a satisfying degree of clarity regarding form and style, and the meaty challenge of organizing ideas accordingly. With both comes the joy and freedom of returning, writing as much or as little as time dictates, but always knowing that writing is there.
  10. Befitting this rather nerdy post I will end with an entirely nerdy “nugget”: I am proud to say, I am very, very thankful for step aerobics. Yep, that’s right. Doing “mambo cha-cha-chas” and “corner knees” and “helicopter turns” astride a big plastic bench. At about 7:30 on a Tuesday evening when I’ve been alternately sitting and standing but not doing a whole lot of moving, it’s bliss, a way to get the blood flowing if you have an affinity for basic jazz dance moves and/or leanings toward the 1980s decade. Somehow, over the last three or four years I’ve morphed into what some would call “a stepper” — I just wish I had the wristband and the pastel-hued leg warmers to do myself justice. Oh well. When a girl’s gotta step, a girl’s gotta step. Er…woman, that is… (I have a pet peeve for grown ass women referring to themselves as girls. Oops.)

So that’s it. My list of small, and not so small points of gratitude to get me over the hump. I hope they serve you as well. As my dust-gathering Book of Common Prayer reads, “It is a good and a joyful thing, always and everywhere, to be thankful to God.” Amen.

A Resolution for the New Year

Kevin Dooley Christmas from the present's perspective CC BY 2.0I just started reading Daniel G. Amen’s book, Unleash the Power of the Female Brain. In it Amen argues that women’s brains are hardwired for the following strengths: empathy, intuition, self-control, collaboration, and a little worry. In turn, each of these strengths corresponds to a vulnerability of sorts: respectively, a tendency to feel responsible for everything and everyone, knee-jerk feelings of anxiety without having amassed the full facts, futile and frustrating attempts to control others, excessive approval seeking, and unhealthy doses of worry that lead to chronic stress. I especially identify with the positive and negative attributes of the intuition and worry piece — self-control, not so much, to which anyone who has spent any time with me and a jar of nutella can attest.

I remember, when I was probably grumbling about some aspect of my perceived incompetence, a friend saying to me that I had to stop assessing my self-worth on such a day-to-day basis. Similarly, a former boyfriend used to call me out on my incessant tendency to “analyze.” I don’t know what worry is if not a nagging impulse to analyze, scrutinize, to tease apart events and issues in one’ life that are really quite small, making up a fraction of the whole, that, like threads in a loosely woven tapestry, need room to breathe. A healthy new year’s resolution for me this year might be to hit pause on all of the assessing and reassessing that I am so stubbornly prone to and measure my own failures and successes within the context, the arch, of my life as a whole. Along with that comes a clearer, more impactful and present vision of what I want my life to look like, otherwise known as perspective. Anyone care to join me, come December 31st, when the clock strikes midnight, in toasting the revelation that life is marathon, not a sprint, that taking things slow and steady with a lot of deep breaths is in fact the wisest way to win the race?

In the meantime, there’s dinner to worry about. But I’ve got a resolution for that, too: earlier this week I suggested the merits of cooking one’s way through an entire cookbook, and for me, that would be Quick and Easy Chinese, loosely inspired by author Nancy McDermott’s stint in the Peace Corps. Talk about perspective — what I love most about homemade Chinese food is that mise en place is an imperative. Mise en place is the chopping and measuring of all ingredients prior to cooking so that the cooking process is essentially reduced to combining everything over a flame. Literally, “putting in place” all the ingredients gives the cook a clear sense of where the recipe is going and certainly appeals to the control freak lurking in your female (or male) brain. For example:

Chicken Stir-Fry
Adapted from Almond Chicken, 
Quick and Easy Chinese

Ingredients

12 oz boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/4 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon dry sherry
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons chopped fresh ginger
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped green bell pepper
1/4 cup chopped green onion

Tools

Mixing bowls
Measuring spoons/cups
Cutting board
Chef’s knife
Spatula
Whisk or fork
Large skillet

  •  Cube the raw chicken breast. Place it in a large mixing bowl with the soy sauce. Stir to evenly coat the chicken.
  • In a small bowl, combine the chicken stock, sherry, cornstarch, sesame oil, and sugar. Stir well.
  • Mince the ginger and chop the onion, green onions, and bell pepper. Have these ingredients ready to go in mixing bowls.
  • Heat the skillet over high heat. Add the vegetable oil and ginger. Add the chicken and spread it out into a single layer. Cook undisturbed until the edges turn white, about 1 minute, and then toss well.
  • Add the onion and green pepper. Cook, tossing now and then, until all the chicken is cooked through and the onions and peppers are fragrant and beginning to wilt.
  • Add the chicken stock mixture. Toss well to mix everything together. As soon as the sauce thickens, remove the pan from the heat and add the green onions. Serve with white or brown rice.

Cookbooks Are For Collecting

recoverling footprint in flour CC BY 2.0When Padraic and I were in Santa Fe this summer, we visited the Georgia 0’Keeffe museum, featuring an exhibit of paintings by O’Keeffe and photographs by Ansel Adams, both inspired by the artists’ visits to Hawaii. One 3D image on display, however, captured my interest as much as O’Keeffe’s bold, canvas-consuming flowers and Adams’s black-and-white depictions of industry steeped in island fauna: it was Georgia O’Keeffe’s cookbook collection, arranged neatly on a wooden shelf. O’Keeffe, like George Balanchine, and scores of other celebrities, I’m sure, famous for sophisticated works of art that extend beyond the culinary realm, loved to cook. There’s something about a cookbook collection that is a remarkably intimate way to remember and pay homage to great minds — providing the viewer with a living record of meals prepared with an artist’s own two hands, a record of what they willfully crafted, off-duty, when they were taking a break from peering through a camera lens, holding a brush, or rehearsing choreography. This is what they made for themselves; this is what they made as a form of escape from the art that defined them.

As someone who owns highly impractical cookbooks — whole volumes dedicated to variations on French fries, grilled cheese, even “mini pies” — I can argue from firsthand experience and ever-dwindling shelf space that I believe cookbooks are meant to be collected, that they possess a value and a presence that goes far beyond the utilitarian. I buy cookbooks for pure reading material as much as for how-tos and display them prominently in my kitchen/living room space as an invitation to imagine future meals to be made, to spark food memories, to establish my household as unequivocally food-centric. Ina Garten likes to dress her tables with things edible — like lemons, oranges, or fig leaves — likewise, I would argue the chicness of adorning your home with pictures of food and recipes, allowing the cookbooks to stand alone as works of art in their own right, just as Ina lets the food serve as decor. I’m generally a pretty frugal and no-fuss person; too much of one thing makes me feel scattered and weighed down, so I live pretty light. I take exception with cookbooks, however — I believe that a true food-lover, even if she’s a mediocre and/or minimalist cook, even if she relies heavily on the Internet when she’s actually doing the cooking, cannot have enough of them. With that said, here are nine things to do with your cookbooks besides the obvious:

1. Tag recipes with (tiny) Post-its once you’ve made them for the first time. This way your cookbooks form an ongoing document of your kitchen, and invite you to take on the impossible, long term project of cooking your way through every volume.

2. Place a stack of cookbooks by your bed and try reading them cover to cover, for each recipe marking the ingredients that you don’t have on hand on a Post-it. This way you can more easily recall recipes that match the contents of your fridge, more quickly write up a grocery list, and even group meals together on a weekly basis that share similar ingredients.

3. Rearrange them on the shelf. Feature and/or juxtapose different covers with appealing photographs, stack them according to food category, or pepper the books creatively throughout the room. Give them a stylish display, a place of honor, let’s say, in your dining/cooking/gathering space.

4. Pick a dish and cook it from as many cookbooks as you own, recipe testing until you find your favorite. If you’re like me, you’ll also end up writing in great detail about the best lasagna or blueberry pie you discovered.

5. Once you find your favorite version of something after expending the effort to compare and contrast, stick with it. Make that dish over and over again. You will become known for your fudgy brownies or creamy, garlicky mashed potatoes and this is an honor to be coveted.

6. Resist the temptation to surf the food blogosphere and instead, select one cookbook to cook from for the week. Chances are you can reuse any ingredients that you’ll need to purchase and you won’t get overwhelmed with the prospect of planning a variety of creative meals.

7. Pick a cookbook to cook your entire way through and blog about it! Ahem, Baking Through Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook.

8. Start the daunting process of crafting your own recipes by cross-referencing cookbooks and combining recipes and techniques. Write your own, personal cookbook of hybrid recipes.

9. If you don’t already own it, purchase The America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook and read it at your leisure, cover to cover. It will make you a more knowledgeable, efficient, and confident cook and give you a few tricks to store in your sleeve. Things like soaking eggs in hot tap water to quickly bring them up to the suggested room temp for baking, and the difference between French and American omelettes…

Oh, and one more thing — keeping adding to the collection 🙂

Finding the Spirit This Christmas

matee, but who cares? Christmas Tree CC BY-NC-ND 2.0I haven’t exactly been a model of good cheer this holiday season. Christmas tree? Meh. I hung a wreath on the door, pieced together an advent wreath with a few candles, and called it a day. Fresh batches of Christmas cookies? More like pragmatic pots of potato soup. Christmas carols? Instead, my ears have been ringing with Cuban jazz and NPR. Last weekend, I saw a group of decked-out carolers cavorting through the streets of Chicago and felt myself marveling at their energy from a comfortable distance.

So I was grateful when at church last week the priest mentioned a different way to prepare for Christ’s coming: repentance, seeking forgiveness. It’s so easy to get caught up in traditions that might best be described as decorative, that punctuate the holiday season much like the garlands on a Christmas tree, but never quite penetrate its central meaning. In the midst of preparing our homes for Christmas, it’s a refreshing prospect to do the more sobering work of preparing our hearts for the Lord.

What does this mean exactly? When I take good, long, honest look at myself with Jesus’s coming in mind I feel like one of those handmade, cobbled looking ornaments, my faith clumsily pieced together, a shadow of the smoothly crafted, well-integrated Christian life that I aspire to. But perhaps this is what the priest’s suggested examining is meant to yield — a reminder of how much we need the God who is coming for us on Christmas day, a humbling awareness of our own mediocrity and our unceasing need for him.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the book Quiet, including the author’s reflections on evangelical Christianity, how the evangelical movement is a bastion for the extrovert ideal, rewarding and revering those who live their faith out loud. I happen to be both an introvert and one who quickly became disillusioned with the non-denominational, evangelical church partially on the grounds of its bias toward extroversion, but for a short while I found the evangelical community very alluring, I’m sure partially owing to the charisma, aka extroversion, of its leading members. One of the phrases I remember being tossed around was called “active dependence,” the notion that we are called to proactively cultivate our dependence on God, to live fully in the reality of our need for him. Perhaps the most authentic preparation we can make this advent is to deepen our dependent relationship to the Lord.

In the meantime, there’s soup. Along with prayer, a good bowl of soup goes a long way toward refreshing the soul, I think. The pot is a repository for disparate elements, slowly transforming them into something new and life-giving, not unlike a prayer. You might consider this potato soup a token of my resistance against all the pretty, powdered, finely shaped edibles of the Christmas season, an invitation to pare down what is tangible about Christmas and leave space for the invisible turnings of the heart. Here’s the recipe:

Potato Soup
Adapted from the Pioneer Woman

Ingredients 

6 slices bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
Medium onion, diced
3 whole carrots, diced
3 stalks celery, diced
6 small Russet potatoes, peeled and diced
8 cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Paprika
Cumin
Red pepper flakes
Chili powder
Freshly grated cheddar cheese

Tools

2 Cutting boards
Chef’s knife
Potato peeler
Mixing bowls
Measuring cups
Measuring spoons
Frying pan
Plate
Paper towels
Wooden spoon
Whisk or fork
Immersion blender or blender

  • Chop the vegetables and the potatoes. Measure out the stock, milk, and heavy cream.
  • Cut the raw bacon into pieces using a separate cutting board and cook in a frying pan over medium heat until crisp.
  • Remove the bacon to a plate and pour out most of the grease.
  • Cook the onions, carrots, and celery in the same frying pan over medium-high heat.
  • After about 2 minutes, add the diced potatoes. Cook for about 5 minutes, adding the salt and dashes of paprika, cumin, red pepper flakes, and chili powder.
  • Add the chicken stock and bring the mixture to a boil. Cook for 10 minutes, or until the potatoes become tender.
  • Whisk the flour with the milk and add to the pot, cooking for another 5 minutes.
  • Using a blender or an immersion blender, process the soup until completely smooth.
  • Stir in the cream. Serve with cheddar cheese and bacon bits.

When Things Fall Apart

Justus Hayes La Chartreuse - Not Thorough Enough CC BY 2.0Yesterday morning I awoke to a crisis, of sorts — my closet had literally imploded in the middle of the night. Shelves smashed into the door, shoes shoved up against the wall, a heaving mass of clothes and bags and drawers to remove, gingerly, from the slightly cracked door. Today ended with a trip to Home Depot and a living room stacked with boxes and drawers, clothes hanging from my keyboard stand. This had to happen for a reason, I tell myself. Couldn’t find time to purge, now I’m forced to reckon with piles of things I forgot I owned.

Daphne Rose Kingma, of The Ten Things To Do When Your Life Falls Apart, would say that I’ve “integrated my loss,” number seven on the list of ten. Please forgive the implication that my closet is my life — although it has taken on a life of its own unfurled this way in the middle of my living room, so the metaphor seems apt. In all seriousness, Kingma writes that “crisis of any kind calls us into integration,” which means facing the troubles, losses that we experience, telling ourselves the truth about our struggles, and granting them a meaningful place in the narrative that we construct about our lives.

There’s a saying that I sometimes hear intoned in yoga classes: “I am exactly as I should be today.” It reorients the mind from a constant state of comparison — what is versus what should be — to simply, what is. With this mantra, the mind is freed up to observe and claim ownership of what naturally exists, and to proclaim the rightness of it, because it is. I imagine that this way of thinking has something do with the concept of integration, in its way of honing powers of observation versus powers of control, even the darker, unwelcome aspects of our surroundings, circumstances, and identities are acknowledged and incorporated.

Kingma writes that our “human nature prefers distinction, separation, and confusion, [but] our spiritual nature seeks wholeness, inclusion, and union. Since we are ultimately spiritual in nature, life keeps pointing us in the direction of this growth.” As much as we might resist embracing what is painful about life, casting our experience in a line, with steps “forward” and “back,” the reality is that we don’t selectively determine our path, instead, our path happens to us, and in it’s in our best interest to include the unplanned, unwanted directions in constructing a more three-dimensional image of ourselves.

It seems that I’ve veered a long way from my caved-in closet. As I pick up the pieces, I’ll try to embrace the chaos for what it is. After all, it is.

On Writing and Feeling

If there are mountains, I look at the mountains By Santoka Taneda English version by John Stevens If there are mountains, I look at the mountains; On rainy days I listen to the rain. Spring, summer, autumn, winter. Tomorrow too will be good. Tonight too will be good.

I received this poem in my inbox today and feel compelled to share it. Like many, I aspire to and struggle to live more purely in the present moment. With that struggle in mind, what a serene thought it is that “tomorrow will be good,” and so will today, and tonight, simply because what exists exists, and we are here to enjoy it. I find the poet’s simple, sparse language to be startingly articulate; in its simplicity, it deepens and subtly shifts my thinking about what it means to live in the moment, reassuring me that however scattered or anxious my state of mind, there is an inherent simplicity in having presence of mind. We simply need to be receptive to what surrounds us — “if there are mountains, look at the mountains.” The world does its work for us and we are here, simply enough, to receive the world.

There’s a mantra that I cling to, although I can’t remember where I encountered it, that “There is no pain in the present moment.” When I find myself rushing mentally, I am reminded that so much of human pain is sheer anticipation, cognitive chaos, the firing of neurons generating fear and angst, pain that does not exist apart from the ruminator’s overactive thought process. Which leads me to consider the discipline of writing. I’m sure that the same synapses that cause unnecessary, self-generated pain are the impetus behind beautiful and insightful streams of words. From that perspective, it’s not ideal to strictly limit one’s focus to what is immediate and concrete, but rather to pay close attention to feelings and thoughts that deviate from the moment and channel them into something concrete of their own, such as an outpouring of language.

If writing is a way of embracing our stray feelings and thoughts, allowing us to attend to the present moment of our own, individual, internal worlds, then I could do a better job of it. When a friend of mine recently challenged me to think about how much raw feeling is connected to my writing pursuits, I realized that I could better fuse the part of me that loves the creative act of laying out words on paper with the part of me that is sensitive, susceptible to a surplus of feeling. Sometimes I forget that writing is a tremendous receptacle for pain and joy and a whole range of feelings in between, and when I’m feeling down or up or somewhere in between I don’t think to turn to the page. How great it would be if instead of dumping, or sighing out our feelings of pain into something escapist, we could energize and invigorate ourselves, and validate the feelings we are having, by giving our feelings a voice. Here’s to writing from the heart.

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