Thai Cafe by Steven Wang

Go Your Own Way

I’ve eaten and adored more piles of pad thai than I can count, starting with a first tentative (and screamingly spicy!) bite the first time I went to Chicago (thanks, db!), escalating into a more-than-weekly habit when I lived in Brooklyn. I’ve watched the line cooks at Thai Cafe in Greenpoint throw the ingredients into the hot wok by handfuls, let the flames shoot up everywhere, and deftly turn out a beautiful pile of noodles for me to devour.

But I’ve never made pad thai. Never even tried to make it. It just seemed too— what? Far from what I knew how to cook? Full of ingredients I knew intimately by taste but not by name? When I did look for recipes, they all seemed full of conflicting ingredient lists and directions, each with their streak of insistence that theirs was the pure way, the real pad thai.

Tonight I made pad thai. I finally found a demystifying recipe from a cook I trust (Deb at Smitten Kitchen), realized I had most of the ingredients and knew how to find the others, and I just gave it a whack. I shook something loose. And it was good. There were tastes in there I recognized from Brooklyn, and now I’m breaking them down and thinking about how to re-jigger the recipe to more closely match my memory of the blissful, fresh, light version in my memory. And I’m going to make it again and again, I know I am, and different every time. And sometimes I’m going to throw snow peas in there, and sometimes cabbage, or pickled radishes because nobody’s looking over my shoulder and I’m not a purist, and I’m going to follow what tastes good. I’m going to improvise.

It’s taken me a long time to be alright with improvising in the kitchen. I’d always tinker with recipes, but never tromp too far afield for fear of wasting food or making something not so hot (umm, that’s why god made smoothies and microwave popcorn, Lori). It’s taking me even longer to be okay with improvising a life. Lately I look at my “career,” a patchwork of things that I do, an assortment of hats I put on and take off: writer, campaigner, project manager, interviewer, editor, violin mom, pre-pubescent advisor, wife, gardener, adjudicator of Band-Aid worthiness, social media planner, fundraiser, communications strategist, listening ear, cook. And I think I felt like there must be something wrong with having all those hats. What am I really? Shouldn’t I be able to say?

But I’m all those things and more besides, and some I haven’t even started to be yet. An evolving list of ingredients, sometimes successful and sometimes, meh. I lose my mojo somewhere for awhile and then some days I wake up and, like the deft scrape and scoop of the line cook, I’m in the zone, and it comes out right. I’m not going to stop making it.


Pad Thai for Now

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

You’re gonna make 2 servings at a time in your wok, because that’s about how much fits in a nice big wok. If you don’t have a nice big wok, use any large saute pan that can take super high heat (not a nonstick pan or enameled cast iron). This recipe makes 4 humongous servings.

  • Soak in warm water to cover for at least 10 minutes and up to 15:
    • 1 lb rice sticks (dried rice noodles about linguine width)
  • Prep your tofu:
    • Either drain, press, and cube 1 lb of tofu, then fry in hot oil in the wok, drain on paper towels, and sprinkle with salt and chili
      OR use a pre-baked tofu cut into small cubes (I like the kind from Trader Joe’s).
  • Stir together this sauce that I’ve extrapolated for myself. Yours will evolve, I’m sure. This is enough for 4 servings:
    • 4 T tamarind sauce/concentrate (this one I think is pretty essential, and it was at my local Asian market, so it’s probably at yours)
    • 1 T worcestershire sauce (you can sue me, but I’m not big on fish sauce, and pad thai I love is very light on it)
    • 1 T rice vinegar
    • 1 T low-sodium tamari or other soy sauce
    • 2 T dark brown or demerara sugar
  • Prep the rest of your setup:
    • 1 large bunch of scallions, chopped, white and green parts in separate bowls
    • 6 cloves garlic OR 2 small shallots, chopped
    • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten in a small bowl
    • Thai chili flakes or Sriracha sauce
    • Canola, grapeseed or other neutral, high-heat cooking oil
    • 3-5 cups bean sprouts
  • For the last stage, have ready:
    • lime wedges
    • chopped salted peanuts
    • ideally, chopped cilantro and Thai basil

 

Then it goes like this—about half of your ingredients from each of your prepped stashes as you cook 2 servings at a time.

  1. Drain your noodles and get your wok really screaming hot.
  2. Add: about 2 T oil
    Garlic or shallot plus white parts of scallions
    Stir-fry till they just start to take on color
  3. Add noodles (1/3 to 1/2 of the whole pound that you soaked)
    And the sauce (just half of it)
    Stir-fry until the noodles have absorbed the sauce and look mostly cooked
  4. Push your pile of noodles to the side of the wok
    Put 1/2 of your eggs in the blank spot and let this sit for a sec
    Throw your tofu, chili flakes, a small handful of bean sprouts, and a small handful of scallion greens on your noodle pile while you’re waiting for the eggs to get half-cooked.
  5. Scrambled the eggs and everything else into your noodles.
  6. Turn this out onto a plate, top with another small handful each of bean sprouts and scallions.
    Sprinkle generously with cilantro, basil, and peanuts, and squeeze lime over.
  7. Be happy with yourself, even as you chew over how you might change it up the next time.
    Hey, we’re alive here. We’re growing.
    xo

Backyard Syruping

This New England transplant has learned that buckets on trees are one of the first reliable signs that spring is coming. And we’re so hungry for it.

IMG_5517Steam starts to rise from small sugar shacks in the hills, and on the weekends you can see fleece-jacketed neighbors wander toward these little barns like bears staggering out of hibernation, drawn to pancakes and company. The sap flows in the maple trees, the syrup soaks into the pancakes, and conversation gets lively again.

If you have even one maple tree in your backyard, you can distill some fortifying sweetness all on your own. Maple sugar season is brief and intense, like spring—the sweetest sap only flows when the days get just a little bit warm but nights are still cold. Practical magic like this is so worth attempting in even the smallest quantities—it reliably lifts me out of winter-induced fatigue and back to a state of wonder. Embarking on this process with your kids only magnifies the magic. Sugar from trees? Are we living in Candyland?

IMG_6858It doesn’t even have to be a sugar maple. Really! We tap two trees; one is a Norway maple, and the other a red maple. The sap from sugar maples has a naturally higher sugar content, which means less boiling time to get a very sweet syrup. But I love the hearty, complex maple flavor of our homemade syrup.

Our sugaring “operation” is completely lackadaisical. We really don’t know what the heck we’re doing, and you don’t have to either. I confess we’re in it for the process as much as the product. (Although, fair warning, you could get hooked and find yourself poring over University of Vermont studies of sugar content variation.) We don’t have a hydrometer or a candy thermometer. We don’t have a sugar shack or a cauldron over a fire, just a willingness to steam up the windows of the house on raw March evenings while we boil a few gallons of sap down to a level that tastes right. The difference between something that’s 1-5% sugar (the sap) and 65-70% sugar (syrup) is heat and patience. There’s got to be some kind of metaphor in there.

Tapping Your Trees

This is the only part of the process that requires a little bit of specialized equipment. You can purchase a few spiles (the taps that act as tiny sap faucets), buckets, and covers online in various places, but if you’re in a northerly region where syruping is common, your best bet is to visit a sugar shack and talk to the proprietor. I’ve never met one who didn’t love to jaw about the process. We got our handful of supplies from a maple producer who was switching from buckets to the new system of taps, lines, and tanks. (Bonus: you might get to eat some pancakes while you’re there.)

Supplies

drill
7/16ths inch drill bit
spile
hammer or mallet
bucket (optional – you can use any clean container that will hang off the spile)
lid

Choose a maple tree at least 10 inches around. This process does create a wound that the tree will need to heal, so make sure you choose a tree mature enough to handle it. Pick a spot on the trunk about 3-4 feet from the ground, on the sunniest (south facing) side, if possible. If you’ve tapped this tree before, make sure you pick a new spot at least 6 inches away from last year’s hole. IMG_5541Drill a hole at a slight upward angle (so the sap will flow down), 2 to 3 inches deep. You need to get past the bark, into the sapwood, but not into the heartwood of the tree.

Place the spile in the hole and tap it in with the hammer. You want to be gentle here; don’t split the wood, or your precious sap will leak out all over instead of dripping down the spile.

If you’ve chosen a warmish day, in just a few seconds you’ll find sap starting to drip off the end of the spile. I dare you not to grin with delight.

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If you’ve got a bucket, hang it on the hook to catch this steady drip, and put your cover in place, too. I love the thoughtful design of our old spiles; there’s a small hole on top to thread the cover’s wire through, creating a hinge. Simple and marvelous. If you’re using a plastic container, make a hole for the hook and position your container so the sap can flow in, but the top is shielded from rain and bugs.

Now just wait. We check our two-gallon buckets daily on our heartiest tree. If you’re using a smaller container, you might want to check more frequently.

Harvest and Boil

The bad news: it takes 40 to 50 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. The good news: most of the process is pretty low-maintenance.

Supplies

flour sack towel or cheesecloth
colander or strainer
sap storage bucket (optional)
large deep roasting pan or stock pot
jar funnel (optional)
storage jars (I highly recommend glass)

Remove any bits of bark or adventurous insects by straining your sap through a colander lined with cheesecloth or a flour sack towel.

IMG_5488If you’ve got lots or can’t boil it off just now, you can store sap in a clean bucket outside or on a porch. Then onto the stove it goes, over a high flame. For a long, long time. If it’s not too cold to crack a window, that helps to vent the steam. You’ll find varying opinions on this, but I don’t mind steaming up the house, especially if we’re nursing spring colds. The sap doesn’t start to have much of a smell until it gets about 2/3 of the way boiled down, anyway, and then it smells like a walk in the woods and a batch of cookies all at once.

I tend to leave my stock pot on the back burner and just add more sap to it once there’s room. I figure all that boiling and re-boiling has got to kill any hardy microbes trying to set up shop. A wider pan evaporates faster, but the stock pot works fine for me. I turn on the burner as soon as I get home with kids and backpacks in tow, and I leave it on while I’m cooking dinner and all evening long, refilling it with the day’s harvest. After the sap has reduced to a couple of inches in the stock pot, taking on a bit of color and sweetness, I set it aside in a smaller saucepan until I have time to watch it more closely.

Finish and Store

This part requires a little more attention, but is still easy enough to keep an eye on while you’re pinging around the kitchen with other tasks. Boil your almost-syrup over more moderate heat now, testing its flavor and consistency with a spoon periodically.

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Two easy tests along the way: 1) I tend to notice more foaming when we’re getting to the final stages. 2) Drop some boiling syrup from a spoon into a jar of ice water. If it immediately forms a blob and sinks, you’re there.

When it looks and tastes like syrup, turn off the heat, and strain it into your jars while it’s still hot. The larger pores of cheesecloth work better than a flour sack towel for finished syrup, but I make do. Paper towels and coffee filters, however, are pretty useless here.

Place a clean lid on your jar, cool to room temperature, and refrigerate your syrup for up to three months. Not that it’ll last that long.

IMG_5472It really is a kind of magic, you know. According to a helpful FAQ from the University of Minnesota, chemical reactions take place in the boiling process to create the distinct brown color and maple flavor we adore. “Neither the exact nature of these reactions nor the identity of the reacting substances are known. That is why chemists have been unable to create an artificial maple syrup flavor that even remotely tastes like the real product.” Take that, Mrs. Butterworth.

Eat Up!

Try your homemade maple syrup in these favorite recipes:

Oatcakes

Pear and Almond Oatmeal

Melissa Clark’s Olive Oil Granola (but I make it with almonds)

And of course! Tall, Fluffy Buttermilk Pancakes from Smitten Kitchen

Fresh baked soft pretzels on a cooling rack

Snow Day Soft Pretzels

We’re buckled down here in New England, and the radar shows that most of the East coast is doing the same. I’m happy to have our snug and cozy family time back after two whole grueling days of being back to ye olde work-and-school routine. Whew. Time for a break!

bird feeders piled high with snow

Birdfeeder Snowmeters

As long as the power stays on, I’m definitely up for a baking project, and these pretzels are pretty great when you actually want something that will occupy the kids for a while. Instant gratification they’re not—I actually didn’t even mention them until the dough had risen and was ready to shape. But they’re worth it. “So much better than the ones at the mall,” says Soph. Most definitely.

We made these a lot when I was a kid, and I remember spending tons of time trying to make letters, dinosaurs, even fortune pretzels. When you’re shaping, keep in mind that they need to hold up through the poaching process, and that they’ll rise and expand quite a bit more as they bake. But they won’t need to be beautiful to be delicious.


Soft Pretzels

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Makes 16 full-sized or 32 miniature pretzels

2 c warm water (100 to 110 F)
1 T + 2 tsp sugar
1 packet active dry yeast (2 1/4 tsp)
5 to 6 cups all-purpose flour
1 T salt (kosher or table salt here)
2 tsp olive or canola oil
1/4 to 1/3 c baking soda
1 large egg
Coarse salt or pretzel salt (I used Baleine coarse sea salt because I already had it hanging around)

Mix the dough:

Combine warm water, 1 T of the sugar, and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer (or a large mixing bowl if you’re doing this by hand, which is not hard, since there’s not a lot of kneading involved). Let stand 5 to 10 minutes. Add 1 cup flour and combine thoroughly.  Add the regular salt and 4 more cups of flour, and mix until combined plus another minute or two. Add 1/2 cup flour and do that again. Is it still very sticky? You might need the last 1/2 cup of flour. If it’s winter and your house is dry as a bone, I doubt you’ll need it (we didn’t). Give it one more whack, a/k/a knead it about 10 times on the counter. Scrape out your mixing bowl, then add oil and spread to coat the inside. Put your dough back in, cover with plastic wrap or a towel, and put it in a warm spot for an hour.

Shape the dough:

Punch down your lovely dough and divide it into 16 equal pieces. I love a bench scraper for this job. Put the pieces under plastic so they don’t dry out while you’re shaping. Now you can let the kids have at it.IMG_7979

Roll each piece out to about 16-18 inches long on a lightly-floured board or counter. Now you can braid it, shape it traditionally (make a loop, cross the loop over twice, pull the ends down the center of the circle and you’ll wind up with a loop on each side and your nice little twist in the center), or go to town with your imagination. Place the shaped pretzels on a parchment-covered baking sheet.

Right about now, you want to preheat your oven to 450.

Poach your pretzels:

This is what makes them taste like pretzels! But this part is definitely an adult’s job. Bring 1 1/2 inches of water to boil in a wide, shallow pot. (I used my biggest saute pan.) Make sure you have at least an inch of pot above the water level. When your water is boiling rapidly, add the baking soda and remaining 2 tsp. sugar—things will foam up! Put the water at a simmer and add 3 or 4 pretzels. You may have to turn up the heat again to keep the water at a simmer, especially if your pot is good and wide. I use a fish turner to move the pretzels into and out of the water, since they need delicate treatment and good straining. Poach for 1 minute, then flip over in the water and poach 40 seconds to a minute longer. Drip dry them slightly as you move them back to the baking sheet, and repeat with your next batches.

Glaze and salt:

Beat the egg with 1 T water, then brush the pretzels with the glaze. Sprinkle with coarse salt. If you like sweet pretzels, switch out the salt for cinnamon sugar here.

Bake:

at 450 for 12 to 15 minutes, until they are golden to deep brown, depending on how crispy you like your pretzels. Cool 5 minutes on a rack. These are best eaten the day they are made, which is not a problem over here!

Half-eaten soft pretzel on a blue plate with a schmear of mustard

Ordinary Extraordinary

A couple of years ago I found myself driving baby Stella to Boston Children’s Hospital at 3 in the morning in pouring January rain, gripping the steering wheel super tight as other cars passed me on the Mass Pike, and I remember thinking, wait—what the hell are these other people doing on the Mass Pike at 3 a.m.?

And then I popped out of my narrow world for just a moment, where I’d been feeling put-upon by the fact that I was required to stick my baby in a carseat in the middle of the night in order to get her the scheduled surgery she needed. And I saw all the other cars. And I remembered that as hard as things were for me, that wasn’t extraordinary. That was ordinary. Life asks so much of us, all of us, so much of the time. And I sat there, hunched behind my steering wheel, in awe at the quiet strength silently underlying this sweep of cars on the slick, wet road, underlying the love of every parent, every person.

I’m not supposed to be writing this right now. I’m supposed to be doing something else. But if I always did what I was supposed to do, I would never pop my head up and see the other cars, the other faces, connect with them. Joy makes us pull our heads up from our screens and look at the sky, look each other full in the face for a moment. And it’s okay that we have to spend a lot of time with our faces in our screens, and working our way through checklists and performance reviews, and washing the dishes and folding the laundry (again). It’s okay that life asks this perpetual labor of us—so long as when joy calls us, we listen. (Gawd I’ve been watching too much Call the Midwife, haven’t I?)

A lot is asked of us, and we live in a brutally demanding moment. There’s no end to the need to resist, to mobilize, to work for justice. There are days I’m surprised to look up and see that my Facebook feed hasn’t left physical welts on my body. We’re shelled by a near-daily cascade of horrors. We’re worried for ourselves and our friends and neighbors. I sometimes feel like I’m running around with a paper towel that’s already soaked up everything it can hold, but I’m still mopping with all I’ve got. (I wrote about that for parent.co too, if you need a moment of validation!)

For a long time after Trump was elected, this blog felt like a rather shallow enterprise to me. There’s so much to be done. I guess I forgot to look at the title of my own site. Yep. Still gotta eat. We gotta keep strong, people, gotta feed the resistance. So here’s something to feed your bodies. Bring it to a table where you can look into the faces of loved ones—or strangers—and feed one another with your eyes, your hopes, your plans.

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Slow-Cooked Hoisin Chicken with Slaw

Adapted from a pork recipe at The Kitchn

For the chicken:

3 lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs

1/2 c bottled hoisin sauce

1/4 c soy sauce

3-4 coin-size slices of fresh ginger (you’ll fish it out at the end)

2 T chopped garlic

Mix all this in your slow cooker and set it to low for 6 hours, or high for 4 hours. If you have a long work day (all hands raised!) this will be fine on the “keep warm” setting for another 3 hours past cook time. Whew. It falls apart into shreds which you can either serve over rice, scoop up with flatbread, or just plop it on the plate.

For the slaw:

1/2 to 3/4 head green cabbage, finely shredded

1 bunch scallions, sliced

1 bunch cilantro, chopped

1 cup peanuts (I like salted here), chopped

1/2 c peanut or canola oil (anything neutral here)

1/4 c rice vinegar

2 T toasted sesame oil

2 T soy sauce

1 T sugar

I like to combine the first 3 ingredients ahead of time and throw them in the fridge. You can use bagged slaw here, but the fineness of the cabbage shreds does kind of make the whole thing more light and delicate. If you’ve got a mandoline and a moment, go for that. I try to maybe make the dressing ahead and set it in the fridge too. Then I can just chop the peanuts and toss everything together when it’s dinner time. Last time I forgot the peanuts and the children were not happy! They like lots of peanuts.

For a hearty variation on this slaw, use red cabbage, more sesame oil, and black sesame seeds instead of peanuts.

Crickets

What a different world it is since I last wrote to you.

A world without Kev, who died almost a year ago now, and whose voice, mock-scolding or laughing with me, I still hear constantly, thank god. A world, starting today, without John Ashbery, a founding father if ever there was one.

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I carried this book in my backpack for more than a year. I have read it more times than any other single volume of poetry.

A world whose simmering dangers have bubbled up into more prominent awareness in a President Tr*mp era. (Fingers still crossed this is the shortest possible “era.”)

So buffeted are we by memories, elegies, news cycles, abandoned self-improvement regimes, that sometimes I’m actually stunned at constancy.IMG_7505

The ocean. Properties of drippy sandcastle design. My patient, unwavering husband. Turning butter and eggs and sugar and flour into muffins.

Last week I got to swoon for constancy a bit, sitting on a favorite beach, my only industry the meditation of castle building—and wrecking, and building atop the ruins—and the occasional fetching of a wind-snatched sunhat. Somehow it seems to have built a reserve of steadiness, and I’m ready to head back into the flow.

Surfing that wobbly balance of news consumption and activism to make myself some way useful and mostly skirt political despair. (Lately I like this podcast.) Putting up tomatoes.Buying new shoes for the girls and then what feels like a week later buying more new shoes for the girls because their toes are now busting through. Okay, September. Bring it.


Whole Grain Blueberry Muffins

These are amazingly soft and light without any white flour whatsoever, a magic trick achieved with the combination of finely ground oats and yogurt. The recipe struck me as a curiosity for that reason when I saw it in Real Simple. And then I had to make it just a little bit less healthy. With a sugared lid, since that’s how we roll. They’re still pretty tame in the butter and sugar category; you could honestly tell yourself you had oatmeal and yogurt for breakfast . . .

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Oh my god I forgot the sugared tops this time. Shit.

1 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1/4 cup pecans or slivered almonds, toasted
1/4 cup golden flaxseed meal (Bob’s Red Mill is a good brand, at your natural foods store, or substitute more nuts if you’re brave)
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp kosher salt

Heat the oven to 375. Add all the above ingredients to a food processor and pulse until finely ground. (Make sure your oats and nuts are ground well.)

In a separate large bowl, whisk together:

4 tablespoons melted butter
1/2 cup white or light-brown sugar
1 cup plain yogurt (whole or lowfat)
1/4 cup milk
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla

Add dry ingredients to your wet ones and stir until just combined. Gently fold in:

2 cups blueberries, frozen or fresh

Scoop into paper-lined muffin trays (these are sticky—if you don’t like paper liners, you could get away with parchment here, but not with cooking spray alone). My favorite tool for this is an ice cream scoop with the sweeper feature that kicks the dough out when you depress it. You can spray your scoop with cooking spray and that’s even easier.

Sprinkle the tops of your muffins-to-be with:

2 tablespoons sugar

Bake at 375 for 22 to 25 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in muffin tins at least 15 minutes. Fear not the first day of school.

Safety

In this week of shattering earthquakes, what has shocked me the most have been the shrugs and eyerolls. Statements like this:

“It’s over and Trump won. Get over it and move on.”
“Why is everybody freaking out? It’s just an election.”
What I’ve found when I probe a little deeper is a profound ignorance of the fear that people of color, immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ, and other vulnerable people are feeling. That’s the same ignorance that lets people complain about Black Lives Matter protesters blocking the highway. Get out of the way so I can drive my car. Don’t make me feel unsafe.
But honey – they are in the middle of the highway because they feel unsafe. They’re being targeting by law enforcement. Their families and friends are dying for no legitimate reason. This country has a history of civil disobedience used to draw attention to civil rights violations. What they’re doing is not only proper but in the annals of democracy, it is a hallowed act. Get out of your car and join them.
I went to a school council meeting Wednesday afternoon at my daughter’s elementary school. I asked our unflappable, determined principal about how the day had gone. “It was a really tough day,” she said. “Lots of kiddos in my office. Lots of kids worried that their families are about to be deported. Lots of black kids afraid they’re going to be killed by the police. They’re terrified. And we had to break up a game of Trump Tag at recess.” She sighed.
It’s a lack of empathy creating a gulf between rural white America and these poor kids. But there’s also a gulf to be bridged in my understanding of the fear that’s motivating Trump voters. Because they are motivated by fear, too. They don’t think they’re being hateful. They’re afraid. Isolation creates fear. Empathy, connection—these are still our best tools.
On Wednesday morning, with tears streaming down my face, I told my kids that love is more powerful than hate. That our belief in love is unwavering. That “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But we must also remember that it is more powerful than fear. As a white middle-class person, I might think it’s hard for me to bridge the gap between threatened minorities and white people who perceive a threat as well, but it’s much easier for me than for many. And so I must reach out, and listen, and stretch.
There are people who need our help and support, people who feel unsafe (and ARE unsafe), and the work doesn’t stop. Our belief that love is stronger than hate—that doesn’t stop. The search to find compassion for those whose motivations and decisions we disagree with —that continues more earnestly than ever. What we need to do is not retreat, but engage. Reach out. Connect.
This week I interviewed several college students for the summer creative writing program where I work. Let me tell you—they are incredible. They talked about the joy of connecting to others through writing, of making sense of life through storytelling, of the joy and magic of feeling for the first time no longer alone. They want to pay all of that forward and make it possible for others. They make the way by walking. Each one of them has already done amazing things—worked 30 hours a week while going to school full-time, for instance, or self-published three novels, or organized a Day of Tolerance with diversity training at their high school, or started a creative writing group at a tiny town library. Things I was never engaged enough to do at their age. They know we need each other and that we are stronger together, and they are reaching out. They WANT to be the glue.
That’s what my kids want too, clinging to my legs this week, imploring me with their eyes. Let’s glue ourselves to each other. On Wednesday I crouched by the little one’s preschool cubby, called the big kid over, and told them to remember: “When they go low, we go high.” We won’t say nasty things about anyone, even Donald Trump. We don’t need to. We will invalidate his positions with our love and compassion.We will stand up for people who are being bullied, people poked by the permission he gives to bigots and misguided people everywhere. We will be the helpers.
How to help is less clear, and more individual to each person. For me, I am working hard to find compassion and engagement with differing points of view. I am interested in bridging the gap. I want to pursue facilitator training and learn more techniques for engaging in civil discourse without triggering immediate defensiveness and disengagement. I also know that for many years I have ceded the space of Christianity to the warped version that would have us consider Trump a “pro-life” candidate. Though I most vehemently disagree with that interpretation of Jesus’ teachings, I have quietly walked away from the church rather than engage. But that space is too important, and too powerful, to give up on.
Social media is a place where deep conversations don’t always happen; yeah, we hear that a lot. But I’m not so sure it can’t be used that way. I’ve found lots of inspiration and information there, and I want to end this post with some of them, and some advice for engaging online which I’m going to follow much more closely than I have before:
  • Always, always, always fact-check news, quotes, and statistics before sharing them online. No matter how “right” it sounds to you. Whenever you can, share a story from the most unimpeachable source out there. For example, if you see a story from upworthy.com (a left-leaning site), and you can find the same story on NPR, share the link from NPR. (And try not to share from the Huffington Post, because they don’t pay their writers, but that’s another side of beef.)
  • Think about responding to an inflammatory post via private message rather than as a comment. Always ask questions and, if you can, offer facts. Be calm and avoid sarcasm. Start by offering a point of agreement or empathy. Using statements like “I was surprised to find out that . . . ” and “In my experience” implicates your own thought process, rather than accusatory “You” statements.
  • Don’t disengage with people who disagree with you. Rather, try to enlarge your connection with them and make the bridge stronger. Keep engaging as respectfully as you can. If you’re trolled, say so and step away. (This pertains to my personal situation more than it does to people with a larger public persona, who find themselves trolled repeatedly and stalked online. A whole other ball of wax that also needs fixing.)

Some links:

The Black Lives Matter platform.

Reasons for Liberals to Hope; the best piece of political strategy I’ve read this week.

This got me thinking: An opinion piece offering a different view of rural America.

A friend this week cancelled her HBO Go subscription and put that money into a monthly gift for Planned Parenthood. I don’t have much extra money, but I’m considering where I can shift. Here are some organizations to follow online, amplify their reach, and where you can, give them your money:

Also consider paying for a subscription to news organizations who are impartial and trustworthy; paying for good journalism allows it to sustain its essential function in our democracy.

We still belong to each other. And we are stronger together.

 

 

 

 

Nowhere is Somewhere

We just passed the 2000 mile mark on our summer road trip, having tearfully hugged our hosts in Ames, Iowa this morning (their pets also warranted long goodbyes from the girls) and pulling away, waving our arms out the windows, slick with rain showers. It stinks to have soul mates scattered around the country where you can’t see them as regularly as you’d like, but it’s beautiful to get to see them at last and well I guess I’ll celebrate the privilege just this minute before lamenting the loss. 

For a few days at least we merged laundry loads and dish duty, doling out popsicles, walking the dog, finding appropriate firefly containers. We took walks and stayed up too late, encouraged by one another’s presence to wend through thorny topics. Grief, career changes, the fog of midlife, parenthood all tumbled over one another. All lightened for being shared. 

Almost two weeks on the road now, away from the pressures of daily routines, and we’ve spent lots of time in the wide open green Midwestern landscape, wading in rivers and riding carousels and picnicking (oh the picnicking!). Lots of time for reflection, it seems, but when I go inward it’s just an echo chamber. Nothing in there. No pressing desire to rub words together or fathom the universe or even draw up plans for a bigger garden. Just nothing. Am I  finding wide open spaces because I have nothing to say, or do I just need a break from saying and doing and listing and thinking? The nothing that is–that’s the gift I’m getting on this trip, though I chafe against it. Standing around holding my white elephant of quiet. 

I feel a little like the tadpoles we caught in Squaw creek–between one thing and another, becoming, but with no idea what to expect from eventual frogginess. 

If you’re going to be wide open, I can heartily recommend bouncing around the Midwest into the arms of family and friends who know you to the core, whose love bears all kinds of shape shifting and reinvention. It’s been wonderful so far, and we’ve got two more stops to go. Flyover country, people call it, but we’re not flying. We’re present for every mile. Maybe all this openness is to remind me that there is no nowhere. Everywhere is somewhere, especially when there’s love there. 

Chicken and Egg

“You’ve gotta stop reading those mommy blogs. That’ll go a long way towards making you feel better.”

Kev and I were walking on the bike path, and although he’s the one with terminal cancer, I was the one complaining how rotten I felt. I wasn’t writing enough, achieving enough, making enough money. And worst of all, I’d gained weight. The horror! Kev wasn’t totally off-base in invoking “mommy blogs” as manufacturers of discontent. The culture of keeping up with the Joneses is ever more elevated by the cult of Pinterest-perfection, poisonous clickbait, and curating our “Fakebook” lives. He was telling me I cared too much what other people thought. And he was right.

The culture of “mommy blogging” (tho let’s acknowledge how poor that term is) does give us a few things that are truly valuable, one of which is that the space of caregiving is seen and the voices of caregivers are heard. At a birthday party last weekend, a grandmother who is raising her preschool-aged granddaughter had me bristling when she said she “couldn’t understand” parents who “say bad things about their children” on Facebook. What things, I wanted to know. You know, like posting pictures of terrible messes they’d made, or saying how frustrated you were with them. They were going to grow up and see all that negative stuff about themselves, she said. “We need to think about the children,” she said. And sure, she’s part right too.

But we’re always thinking about the children.

We need a place where we can vent, kvetch, engage in a collective eyeroll, and also take down the notion that if your life’s a mess, you’re doing it wrong. Facebook has been a place for us to do that. We don’t live in the Bronx of Grace Paley’s day, where the kids could roam the streets, grab a snack from anyone’s kitchen, and a mother needing a cup of tea from a compassionate neighbor could find one down the hall. I’m living far from my parents and sisters, and my college and graduate school pals are dispersed around the country. The demands of two-income families mean I don’t even see my marvelous  tribe of local mothers very often. Hence Facebook. I can’t yet cede that space to some future need for my offspring. I need that space. I need the benefit of the doubt, the acknowledgement of imperfection and messiness and difficulty of parenting and thinking and art-making and living. Being seen is a great gift we can give to each other. So I’ll cross my fingers and hope later that delete really means delete.

The dog pulled me along the path ahead of Kev, chasing a chipmunk. I wanted to explain my restlessness, my urgency to make changes in my life. “I just want to feel like I’m making progress,” I whined to Kev.

“Progress toward what? How can you make progress if you don’t know what you’re trying to move towards?” he countered.

I thought then about the needs I was bouncing between: self-acceptance and self-improvement. We want to feel better and we want to be better. But which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

Some Personal Truths:

  1. I have accomplished some things.
  2. The things I’ve accomplished have been tremendously collaborative and not the sort of things that give a person much of a public profile.
  3. Not that I want that anyway. I think.
  4. I am eating a cookie right now.
  5. I believe in making the unseen work of caregiving seen and appreciated, in having collaborative work acknowledged and celebrated.
  6. This would be a largely self-serving glorification, since most of what I do seems to fall into that space.
  7. I haven’t reached my potential.
  8. Yet.

I didn’t always thirst for change. We had a hard couple of years when J was in cancer treatment, Stella was a sleepless newborn, and J had a scary period of unemployment. Last night on our date night J reminded me of a particular weekend four years ago:  Kev collapsed onstage at their rock show. J resuscitated Kev, stayed much of the night with him at the ER, then got up at 6 the next morning, took his last chemotherapy dose (hopefully his last ever, knock wood), and worked an all-day event for his job. I was stunned even by the retelling of these feats of stamina. “I think I’ve compartmentalized a lot of that,” I said to J. He nodded. People contort themselves into all kinds of positions for their many roles, and for many kinds of love.

When things finally stabilized after all that turmoil, we were so thankful to still be clinging to the life raft that there wasn’t a chance in hell we would rock it.  When change came to me a year ago in the form of job loss, I was terrified at first. But as I moved forward into it (this time, it must be said, with a financial safety net–let’s not pretend that doesn’t make a huge difference), I found joy both in picking up old threads and in launching myself into learning new things. Change was enlivening. But it’s life, now, isn’t it? Fits and starts. Weather.

As Kev and I were talking and walking along the path I saw a large robin’s egg shell and picked it up. It was an amazingly well-preserved, uncracked piece, a smooth, blue, beautiful thing. I thought of the girls immediately and wanted to share it with them. I put it gently into my jacket pocket. Later I forgot, and shoved my phone in there, smashing it to bits. Nothing to show.

 

Poetry in the Margins

For long stretches, I let the poetry-making, art-eating parts of myself lie fairly dormant. While this particular piece of my life is essential to who I am, I haven’t been disciplined enough or selfish enough or strong enough (depending on how you view these things) for its centrality to hold when waves of other responsibilities sweep around me. There are times I have neglected that identity so completely that I shy away from calling myself a poet at all. I nearly gave myself whiplash from nodding my assent so vigorously when I read Kim Brooks’ amazing recent essay about the challenges of being a mother and a maker. If you care about being a good parent and making art, the struggle is real, and it’s always tipping out of balance one way or another. Then again, it’s not a museum piece, is it? It’s a life!

But oh, joyously, one miraculous day in April I find myself eating pulled pork at Kathranne’s house in Iowa, meeting poets and curators and artists and musicians and talking shop with all of them, gabbing about collaborative art-making and Joseph Beuys and Eileen Myles and Negative Capability, laying hands on the incredible traveling boxes made for Correspondence Publishing, pondering the difficulties of memoir with a new friend who used to be a tiger trainer (now raising three boys with equal aplomb, no small feat), tapping out poetry ideas on my phone in the guest bed, too wired to sleep. And oh, yes! That part of me is still there, the one who has something to say about all that, and wants to hear what you have to say about all of it too. I get to feel like a poet again. And its sticking to my ribs this springtime, not fading.

Another gift of travel is realizing how flexible life is really, more than you remembered — how blinkered our routines become. Just seeing how someone else does it somewhere else, that opens up a huge pool of relief in which to swim back into yourself and let all the “shoulds” float away. How is the real question, how to structure things so there’s time and headspace for doing that which brings you joy. Whatever way you invent to make a life, with people-loving and art-making and social-justice longing and maybe without going bankrupt, you can make something beautiful, a life that’s free in surprising ways, and yours. I do believe that, and this spring, I believe it more than usual. The hard part (and it really does turn out to be a hard part sometimes) is that it’s not going to look like anyone else’s.

Even in recipes I like flexibility, so here’s the one from that evening in Iowa, which you can bend to your will and taste.

BarbeCue pulled pork

IMG_5675My favorite thing to start with here is a 3.5 pound boneless pork butt (yes, let’s get the tittering out of the way), but if that’s a bit pricey, I go with a 5 pound piece of pork shoulder, sometimes called picnic shoulder. With the shoulder piece you’re going to wind up with about 3 pounds of meat and have to trim off a great deal of fat (I was curious how much, so last time I weighed it — 11 ounces of fat and about 1 pound of bone). If you’re me, by the end of all that trimming you might wish you’d sprung for the pork butt. But I leave that up to you. If you’ve got a really big dutch oven you can double this, but as written it already feeds a crowd, and fits in a crock pot if that’s your tool of choice.

I find cooking things for long stretches tends to dull the flavors a bit, and they need a refreshing pick-me-up at the end. This layering gives the depth of flavor you want too — an echo of sorts. I use bottled barbecue sauce for this step (I like Stubb’s or the Trader Joe’s sweet and smoky Kansas City kind), but if you really want to make your own, this recipe looks about right to me.

3 to 4 pounds of pork butt or shoulder (see note above)
2 T brown sugar
1 T paprika
1 T smoked paprika
2 T chili powder
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 T olive oil
3 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp cayenne — optional for extra heat
1/2 to 1 cup barbecue sauce

Cut pork into 2 or 3-inch cubes and place in your dutch oven or crock pot. Mix all remaining ingredients (except barbecue sauce) in a small bowl and rub it all over the pork. Your hands are really the best tool for this. (If you’re going to be out all day, you can do this part the night before and stash it in your fridge til morning.) Set your crock pot to low or your oven to 200 and cook for 8 hours. Your pork should shred easily with two forks, and the melted fat will make a happy orange juice in your pot. The amount of this will vary greatly depending on how much fat was in your particular hunk of meat. You can drain most of this fat if you are concerned about it, or stir it all in to your shredded meat. I drain all but about 3 tablespoons — that seems to be enough to make things tasty but not heart-stopping.  Stir in 1/2 cup of barbecue sauce and taste. Does it need more? You can probably just about eyeball it.

Makes about 24 sliders for a party or 8 main dish servings. Freezes gorgeously.

Pretend Spring

I dunno, guys. It’s pretty weird out there. Even Eileen Myles, my personal heroine of wedding/welding toughness, vulnerability and smarts, thinks it’s the end of the world. The latest Republican debate might give transcriptionists a seizure, or maybe anyone trying to follow it. We’re all lobbing election-related memes past each other on Facebook. That’s where I follow Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which lets me know almost daily about a kid the age of mine who has killed or been killed senselessly by an unsecured firearm. Plenty of people are talking about America like it’s jumped the shark. The constant stream of reports about police brutality and debt-driven incarceration mount to a din; my outrage and despair seem only numbed and paralyzed by the frequency. The number of migrants fleeing into southeastern Europe has tripled in the past 2 months, though it hasn’t been cracking the headlines. I’ve had to supplant my afternoon public radio news habit with loud music I can belt along to. There’s only so much one can take.

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If only we all had such good attitudes about crashing.

It feels strange to walk outside and find crocuses thinking about being themselves, chart the diversifying birds daring their way up to the feeder, check the sap buckets, smell thawing earth. How can this be the same world? But it is this world I lean on to rescue me from the solipsism and anthropocentrism of our media diets. We belong to both of these fragile worlds. And each offers glimmers of beauty each day, beauty that is bound up with the struggle, not separate from it.

Read Something Beautiful

The absurd position of mothers in the only industrialized nation without mandated maternity leave is something that felt invisible to me when I became a mother only 7 short years ago. People are talking about it now, loudly, and that gives me hope:

Amy Westervelt wrote this great piece about how Having it All Kinda Sucks

Melinda Gates is talking about unpaid labor and how it affects women AND men in the global economy.

Lidia Yuknavitch writes lyrically and movingly about life’s complications, how “all the beginnings have endings in them.”

Make Something Amazing

If you have even one maple tree in your backyard, you can distill some fortifying sweetness. Practical magic like this is so worth attempting in even the smallest quantities—it always, always lifts me out of headline-induced nausea and back to a state of wonder.

Check back soon for a tutorial on making your own homemade small-batch syrup!

 

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Syrup spokesmodel and fairy princess