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Monthly Archives: October 2014

Potato Harvest

Years ago, after a very intense and bad breakup, I began the most intense and constant period of writing I’ve ever done. But it was all in a journal, and I was using it to suss out my own mind.  Which means, there is no way in all the nine hells that anyone will ever get to see any of it.

But that’s the only way to dig to the truth sometimes – to get the rawest words down on paper, to look at the content of your own heart and mind in black and white.  And sometimes the only way to get to it is to promise yourself it will be kept that secret.

A bit like cooking, really – before you can turn what you’re cooking into a dish, you sometimes need to lay the ingredients all out on the counter and give them all a good look to see what you’ve got. Trim away some of the bruised or mushy bits. Make sure the bits are all right before you start cooking.

And sometimes getting the ingredients requires some dirty work – digging way down deep into the soil for things like carrots or potatoes.  And it’s trickier this time of year – things have been growing a good long time, they’ve gotten much bigger and gotten a good hold inside the earth.  Digging them out takes more work and they’re dirty and funny-looking when you finally unearth them (as are you, usually).

But – it’s ironic, isn’t it, that the dishes you make with potatoes are the most comforting?  That long hard work and that dragging that ugly thing out above ground pays off in something that comforts you and makes you feel better.  The work is always worth it.

….I realize I’ve gotten a bit short of words in here the past few days. Let’s just say that I’ve been digging some potatoes.

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Spoke Too Soon

An hour after saying I had no flu-like symptoms, the muscle aches started. The fatigue came an hour later.

Am currently switching my plans for the day from “cooking up healthy soups and stews” to “baking cookies as a comfort move”.

Puttering

Every so often I need a day to just stay home and poke around.

I wrote this weekend off anyway – this year I finally got a flu vaccine for the first time ever (I’m a tiny bit phobic of needles, and I never got the flu either so why mess with success), and because I’d heard some people can have flu-like symptoms for a day or so afterward, I timed it for a Friday night so I could get through the next couple days at home if I had to.  But right now, except for a slightly owie injection site, I’m okay.

But the idea of just sort of hanging close to home appeals anyway.

Oddly, I’m not thinking of just doing nothing flat-out.  Even the one time I did the “staycation” thing from a job, where I took a week off but didn’t travel, I spent a lot of the time in mildly ambitious housekeeping tasks – clearing out a closet, making big batches of cookies I could stash away or stews I could freeze, giving the bathroom a better-than-usual scrub.  The only time I left the house today was to gather this weeks’ CSA box, followed by a side trip to a Middle Eastern food shop on Atlantic Avenue that has deals on bulk nuts and spices and flours so I could get nuts for spicing and oats for making the British kind of flapjacks.  My roommate is out most of the day, so except for maybe hauling some trash down to the curb, I’m most likely going to be inside scrubbing mirrors and pondering whether there is any kind of casserole I can make that uses half an andouille sausage, five pounds of spinach and some weird bacon-infused cheese.

Over time I’ve noticed that I do this when my life outside the home has started spinning a bit; when I’ve been juggling extensive tasks at work, or I’ve been out and on the town a lot, or I’ve been racing to do other errands; it’s a way to come back to center, exert control over one small corner of the world and ground myself.  I may not be able to completely control my love life or smoothly navigate getting a visa for MIddle East travel to my boss, but making a batch of stew and stowing it into a neatly-marked box in an orderly fridge is an anchor.

Years ago, I read a brilliant observation in a book of Neo-Pagan philosophy – “you must serve the Goddess of Trivia before you can get around to serving any of the others.”  Sometimes you can’t think straight to do anything else when your head is cluttered with your having had to squint at yourself through toothpaste flecks on the mirror.  Best to serve trivia now and then.

Neighborhoods New York Project: Ditmas Park, Beverly Square and Victorian Flatbush

Growing up in New England, I got used to towns having a “Victorian House district” – those were the big fancy houses up on the hill, big gingerbread-trimmed houses with three stories and towers and gables and front porches and shutters and all sorts of foofaraw.  They were where the rich folks lived back in days when much of New England was filled with textile mills, while the workers lived in the little buildings down by the mill itself.  Rich folks were more likely to live in them today as well – unless they’d been renovated as separate apartments, with slapdash renovations dividing them up into studio apartments with bathtubs shoved into weird corners and walls that didn’t quite fit.

So apparently New York has at least one Victorian House district in Brooklyn.

The houses in Ditmas Park are much closer together than in small-town Victorian Districts. Each one has only the tiniest of lawns, with the houses taking up nearly the whole lot.  They crowd much closer together on each block as well. But they’re still small-town Victorian enough that you feel like you’ve stepped out into some sort of twee surburban soundstage.  And…actually, you’re okay with that, because the houses are all gorgeous.  And they’re all different – this isn’t the kind of suburbia where everyone’s house looks exactly the same; here is a Mission-Spanish style house, right near a mock Swiss Chalet.  Near that is a house that looks a lot like the Addams Family Mansion.  Everyone’s yard is kept up, but there isn’t the regimented sense of everyone…having to keep their lawn up to please a block association.  Everyone’s house is kept up because everyone likes where they live, dammit.

I stopped in on a warmish fall day, good for wandering. And it is a good place for a wander, and a good time of year for it – a bit before Halloween, when some of the more gothic-looking houses had already begun to decorate their windows and lawns with fake tombstones and spiderwebs.  The neighborhood is right bang between two major thoroughfares in Brooklyn, but there was practically no traffic at all on the streets, so I could hop back and forth from one side of the street to the other as I wanted, trying to get a better look at one or another house.  Someone was leading a small crowd on a walking tour that same afternoon, and I passed by them twice, in two completely different parts of the neighborhood.

The really ritzy-looking part of the neighborhood was up towards the north end, a single block on the gracefully-named Buckingham Road. I did see an apartment building on the block – most likely something built on the footprint of something knocked down years ago – but all the other houses had slightly bigger yards, slightly more decor.  One house had a silo on the side; I read that it had once belonged to King C. “I invented the Safety Razor so I’m massively loaded” Gillette.  I actually preferred the house next door – the Japanese House, built in 1903 by a developer trying to capitalize on a national craze for Chinoiserie.  Every fashionable house had an “Oriental room”, he figured, so why not go whole-hog and build an entire Oriental house?  It went unsold for a year; the well-to-do no doubt thought it was a bit much.

I actually loved it. I spent most of my walk fantasizing about buying one or another of the houses and turning it into a bed-and-breakfast, or if it was especially big, a youth hostel.  The Japanese House would have been perfect – a short walk from a few subways, a block from Prospect Park, and still on a quiet enough street to give the peace-lovers some solitude.  There was even a town green on the block – the road inexplicably split into two lanes, with a big grassy lawn in between them running the length of the block – big enough for some ambitious block association to hold picnics and concerts and for kids to have pickup games of baseball or tag.

I didn’t see many kids, though, until I got further south – down by one of the few “main drags” in Ditmas Park.  The first shops or restaurants I saw were huddled on a two-block stretch in the middle of the neighborhood, on Cortelyou Road; crowds of kids played on the monkey bars in the schoolyard, while their parents shopped at a farmers’ market on the block.  Here was where everyone had gathered, to do all their shopping and socializing.  There were coffee shops and little restaurants scattered across the couple blocks in either direction, some of them with clusters of people outside debating whether to put their names on reservation lists.   A chalkboard outside of one spot announced, “You made it out of bed! Now come have brunch!”

I’d heard about another spot further south, though, and walked further on, into the Beverly Squares neighborhood. The houses were a little smaller here – unlike Ditmas Park to the north, Beverly Squares hasn’t been named a historic district yet.  But they’re trying – a lot of the houses were especially polished-looking, with fresh landscaping and spotless paint in artfully-chosen period colors (except for the one that was a technicolor combination of yellows, turquoise, and purple). I counted three with prominent Victorian-era-flag bunting on their porches.  Several had very prominent medallions on their sides proclaiming the year they were built. But the feel was similar; quiet streets, few people about.  Pretty much the only people I ran into were a pair of kids who were going door to door, shoving flyers advertising a pilates studio into everyone’s mailboxes.

The biggest change in Beverley Squares, though – the blocks had far more trees.  Ditmas Parks’ trees were all things carefully landscaped by the homeowners, most of them shorter than the houses themselves; maybe sometime you’d find someone who’d let the trees grow taller than the house, but mostly it was the houses towering over everyone, and I found myself shielding my eyes from the sun a few times.  But in Beverley Squares, the yard trees all towered over the houses, and street trees also lined each block.  One block in particular actually made me stop and stare at it a few seconds – the entire block was lined with birches, arcing gracefully over the neat Victorian houses and gently scattering their first lost leaves of the autumn on the sun-dappled sidewalks below.  By far, it is one of the most beautiful blocks I have ever seen in this city

An Open Letter to Malala Yousafzai

Dear Malala –

Damn, girl.

The world is losing its collective mind right now because you’ve just won the Nobel Peace Prize. There are some people who are making a fuss because you’re the youngest person ever to win, but – hell, excellence isn’t necessarily a thing that the young can’t take part in. Although, that fact did lead to the absolute best statement I’ve ever read in a press release: “Malala will make her first statement on winning the Nobel Peace Prize after school.”

I’ve since heard that statement, and it’s lead me to notice ways that you and I are actually kind of alike. Which is probably a strange thing to hear – on the face of it, it probably doesn’t seem like a 40-something American woman and a 17-year-old Pakistani girl would have much in common.

But I know what it is like to really, really want to learn, and I know what it is like to hear people who think that you shouldn’t, or at least that you shouldn’t learn certain things because you’re a girl.

I did have some advantages you didn’t; I realize that. I was a little girl at a time when the equality of women was actually on an upswing in this country; I was born a few years after a major feminist movement had had its heyday, and one of the albums that me and all my friends listened to taught us that girls and boys can aspire to exactly the same careers, and there was no law that should keep girls from wanting to be truckers or boys from wanting to be stay-at-home-with-the-kids caregivers. And I took that thinking with me to school, where I dove in and tried to learn everything because….

…Well, because I wanted to, basically. The world and the way it worked just fascinated me. I did have people telling me to get an education because it would help with a career, but that was only secondary to my wanting to learn things just because they were interesting. Knowing how children in other countries celebrated their holidays didn’t do a blessed thing for me in school, but it was a cool thing to know. Same too with learning about the different defense systems for Amazonian tree frogs, or the fact that some rocks are formed just by compressing sand over time, or how to say “thank you” in different languages or even just the number of languages there actually were. I wanted to learn it all just for the sheer joy of marveling at it.

And this actually didn’t always go over well at school. My teachers loved it – or at least tolerated it – when I would race through my classwork and then read the class encyclopedia. But the other kids teased me; why did I want to read when I didn’t have to? Why did I care about that stuff?  I didn’t have many friends as a child, and it was all down to my wanting to learn. I didn’t stop, but it got lonely.

Mind you, I am NOT saying that my own social isolation compares in any way to your having been shot in the head by a Talib soldier. You had to face far, far greater obstacles to your learning than I could ever have conceived of, and I was blessed with a school that had much, much more in the way of resources. Even when I was old enough to know that my public school was less-equipped than some richer schools, and was grumbling about that, I still was surrounded with a luxury of resources that you probably would have pounced on greedily.

But you and I are both in societies that try to tell girls that they either can’t, or shouldn’t, get the same kind of education as boys do. Both our societies are still telling women that they can’t, or shouldn’t, aspire to the same careers as men do. In your case, the society at question is much more overt about it – but in my case, even though it’s subtle, girls are still discouraged from studying math or science or technology, and they’re facing assault and harassment on the job.  Even if it’s something they’re just doing for fun, women are told they’re not welcome, and face a lot of threats if they stay. Again, no one has actually tried to shoot any of these women – at least, not yet.

Which is why it’s so important that you, and other women, just keep on going in the face of this. This isn’t just a problem for girls in Talib-controlled parts of the world – it’s a problem for girls everywhere. And not just girls – grown women face this problem. Because we are women, people think this means the things we can do, or think, or play with, can be restricted. And they can do some pretty terrible things to make sure we comply. But every time a girl blows that thinking off and says “I don’t care, I’m going to get my education anyway,” it makes it easier for the rest of us to say, “you know what, me too.”

And it’s not just women who need to have each others’ backs on this. Another thing you and I have in common is having had fathers who supported our brains. When you finally spoke to the press about your Nobel Peace Prize, you thanked your father for “not clipping [your] wings”. He pretty much said exactly the same thing a couple years ago. And I absolutely know what that’s like – my own father would encourage me to think and to question things, and let me see that he absolutely loved watching my mind at work. I told him recently that I realized how important that was and how grateful I was that he raised me that way, and he was genuinely surprised that I thought he should be thanked – it was more of a treat for him, he said, to see that happening.

But the thing is, not every father of a daughter is like that. I told my father how rare that was; I’m sure you also noticed how rare your own father was in how he thought. It can be just as brave for a man to support a daughter in a world trying to knock that daughter back, but it’s exactly what those daughters need.  Because that’s what helps us spot the sexism out in the world, that’s what proves to us that we don’t need to give in to it, and that’s what gives us a foundation to stand on and do battle from.  You know that as well as I.

My own life has gone through a lot of changes since I was one of the star students at my own school.  Your life is going to go through a lot of changes too (granted, at a whole other level than mine). But learning doesn’t stop for anyone at any age, and something tells me that you’re going to keep wanting to learn and educate yourself, even when you’re my age, and God help the person who tries to get in the way of you doing that.

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You go, girl.

Thank you,

Kim

Genuine Articles

I’m a member of the web community Metafilter, where someone recently posted a link to a spot-on parody of the faux-rustic lifestyle magazines so popular now –

Fall is the perfect time to entertain at your home or in an abandoned barn. [… ] Your fall supper will be an intimate gathering of your own personal illuminati — local cloth artisans, butter sculptors, and those orthopedic surgeon brothers who play in a bluegrass band.

The resulting discussion has been pretty interesting.  There’s been some slagging of the DIY movement here and there; someone scoffed “who actually cans stuff anyway,” and I was one of a number of people who spoke up to say “uh, I do.”  But mostly it’s been our own mocking tales about the fetishization of this kind of life and aesthetic.  Someone shared the story of having been approached by a colleague from a more urban background who lamented he hadn’t grown up in a place where he could “have a roll in the hay” like you always hear about.  When our friend suggested he just try mowing his lawn and leaving the clippings to dry, then having sex there, his colleague gasped, “but that wouldn’t be authentic!”

The idea of “authenticity” has become a big marketing gimmick. Over on Buzzfeed, there’s a brilliant article about the Madewell clothing line – by the great-grandson of the Russian immigrant who actually founded Madewell.  And who has nothing to do with the current company.

The former Madewell was a work clothes line, kind of like today’s Duluth Trading Company, operating out of New Bedford, Massachusetts; they sold well-made but cheap basic, sturdy clothes for fishermen and construction workers.  The current Madewell, though, sells women’s clothing – distressed denim, plaid shirtdresses, cardigans – and has a blog filled with pictures of models lounging in fields or curling up by fireplaces, cuddling their new monogrammed Madewell shawls around themselves.  One recent blog post asks, “Wasn’t it French philosopher Albert Camus who said, ‘Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower’?”, and I have to admit that I can’t quite see what Camus has to do with cable knitwear.

The former Madewell closed up shop in the mid-90s sometime, and then in the early 2000’s someone from J.Crew approached the family about buying the company name.  Not the company itself, or its clothing or the factory even – just the name.   And they did that just so they could boast about having had the Madewell reputation and a ready-made “history” – the fact that the company was founded in 1937 is all over the Madewell marketing.  But the actual Madewell you visit today is barely ten years old.  And yet they are making money hand over fist from people who think they are participating in a down-homey, rootsy “authentic” business.

Now, I’m not much of a fashionista anyway, so while I do think that Madewell business to be intellectually fascinating, it’s still something that doesn’t touch me.  However – I do a lot of DIY canning and cooking, and my family had a vegetable garden when I was a kid.  We also are actual farmers – my family has a cranberry bog in Cape Cod and we’re suppliers to Ocean Spray.  And so that’s why I’ve had a beef with Williams-Sonoma’s own “authentic” DIY and gardening line, with things like a stainless-steel jam-making pan or imported Scottish jute twine  (in eight colors) or a twenty-dollar seeding pot maker or specially-printed seed envelopes, and a metal box just to store them in.

It may be my frugal New England background talking, but – all of this is ridiculous.  My family gets along just fine without multicolored jute twine – much less multicolored jute twine imported from Scotland.  We use cardboard egg crates to start seedlings, and as for seeds, we either plant everything, or re-use the envelopes we got from the garden shop, pinching them closed with one of Mom’s clothespins.  If we lost the seed envelope, a plain white envelope also works just fine. And the “storage box” is usually a recycled coffee can with a duct-tape “S” on it for “seeds”.  And as for that hundred-dollar galvanized jam pan?  I’ve always used either the junky yellow pot one of my roommates abandoned with me when she moved to Australia, or the cheap stock pot my cousins bought me for Christmas 20 years ago, and not only have people given precisely zero craps about it, I’ve saved a hundred bucks.

This is 100% pure marketing puffery. This is all tools with trumped-up prices for people who want to play house. But the hell of it is, is that a lot of people who actually may want to try canning or gardening may be put off by all that tat and those prices.  A friend recently confessed he was curious about making pickles, but couldn’t afford a stoneware pickle crock, nor find a place to put it.  “Screw that,” I snapped.  “Do you know how to boil vinegar?  Do you have jars?  Then you can pickle things.  Period.”  I mean, my great-grandfather probably didn’t have imported jute twine when he started the family cranberry bog, but he seems to have done just fine for himself.  And I doubt that every Midwestern woman in the 1930’s had galvanized steel pans when they were making jam, and yet they all seemed to do just fine.  People today want to have that back-to-the-land experience without putting in the work, so they embrace the tools instead.

This isn’t to say that an actual vintage well-made tool can’t be lovely.  Just about everyone in my family has nabbed a couple crates from the cranberry bog, re-using them to some purpose; my parents got a couple and painted them bright green to make an end table for our family room, and another couple – painted orange – were my first bookshelf as a child.  I’ve got a similar such bookshelf in my room now.  But something would feel vaguely off about finding a similar such crate, with the “ELB” painstakingly copied onto it, mass-produced from a warehouse in Taipei or something.  Our cranberry crates don’t look like that because they were made from new wood and treated with aging compound to give it a patina – our cranberry crates look like that because Grandpa used them to harvest an assload of cranberries and so they are dirty.  Actual farmers don’t want aesthetically beautiful packets for seeds or crates for produce, they just want boxes or envelopes to carry stuff in.

It’s the dilettantes who want the look of things, and who fetishize this kind of “authenticity” most.

Years ago, I saw a one-man play made from an interview with Ed Boros, a New York character best known for building a huge towering junk sculpture in the middle of an East Village community garden.  Something he’d said in that interview stayed with me – he was scoffing about how some auction house had sold an original Van Gogh for several millions.  “I don’t understand why people want to spend all that money just because something’s ‘original’,” he’d said.  “You want something original?  Get some paper and some paint and paint something yourself.  There, you’ve got an original.”

I agree.

Neighborhoods New York – Just A Taste: Upper East Side

This is not the official post for the Upper East Side. It can’t be.  But it absolutely should be recorded.

I had occasion to visit the Upper East Side for work today, twice, at two different times of day – once first thing in the morning, and once in the mid-afternoon.  And on both trips, I saw women pushing dogs in strollers.  And I don’t just mean baby strollers repurposed for dogs, either – these were strollers designed for dogs.

My first trip, it was a bulldog panting as it lolled in an open-air stroller, as “mom” pushed it with one hand and checked an iPhone with the other; the pouch attached to the handles bore water bottles and the handle of a pooper scooper.  And this afternoon I don’t even know what it was – all I saw was the “Pet Gear” label on the side of a soft-sided grocery-cart type of thing, and I saw a pair of pointy ears through the mesh window on the side.  “Mom” this was a thin blond dressed entirely in black leather, purposefully pushing her charge down the street towards Central Park.

There is no doubt more to the Upper East Side than this. But two specially-designed doggie strollers in a single day on the same block is either a sign, or a freaky trend.