Friday, November 6, 2015

deliciousness in dough

So there we were, Chris and I, drinking beer on a Sunday evening, as happens not infrequently, and we started talking about how delicious food is.

Especially how delicious food is when wrapped in dough.

Especially how American cuisine does not have enough savory deliciousness wrapped in dough.

Especially how much we envy other cuisines their dough-wrapped deliciousness: Salvadoran pupusas, Bolivian salteñas, Mexican empanadas, Russian pirožki, Chinese dumplings, Indian samosas, Italian stromboli, Korean mandu, French crêpes.

So we hatched a plan to ride our bikes from one local ethnic restaurant to another sampling all the deliciousness wrapped in dough.

At its grandest, the plan has included a dozen restaurants and as many miles, but we're running out of biking weather and free weekends, so when the meteorologists told us today promised record-breaking high temps, we decided to do what we could in an evening: three South American restaurants outbound along Columbia Pike and two Asian restaurants inbound toward home.

And it was delicious.

I think the pupusas from Abi Azteca were the oddest. They looked like pita on the plate, but were more like thin pancakes (but not crêpes) with beans and cheese or pork and cheese contained by the sealed edges. The cabbage garnish was quite delicious.

The sulteñas from Pan American Bakery are a strong contender for my favorite. We got one with chicken and one with beef.

I brought one home for Anna. 

All in all, it was a delightful evening of cycling, fellowship, and deliciousness wrapped in dough. There are more picture in Chris's version of the story: "3.5 hours, 4 bellies, 5 restaurants, 2 bikes, and a whole lot of deliciousness wrapped in dough."

What better way to spend this day, the warmth of which we won't see again until after winter?

I'm looking forward to our northward swing on a tour of European restaurants when next the weather cooperates. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015


I used to see life as path opening up ahead of me, sometimes winding and hilly, mostly direct. Occasionally, there would be moments in which I was aware of standing at a fork in the road, when I had to choose between two things with the consciousness that choosing one likely meant giving up the other forever. As when reading a which-way book, I was only able to see the decision right in front of me. In this model, the unchosen paths sometimes branched off sharply and disappeared from view and other times wound their own way nearby, still visible but not accessible.

Lately I've been thinking that life is more like a labyrinth, in which there is one path, but it is folded neatly around itself so that from any point, one can see the whole pattern.

The first time I set foot in a labyrinth, I fell in love. We were camping,* and my friend Karen looked at her husband Mike and said, "You know what we haven't done in forever?" No, love. What? "Made a labyrinth." You're right! I'll pick up ten pounds of flour when I go to town.

When Mike came back with the flour, they first defined critical points in the pattern and then started drawing curving lines from point to point. Even as I helped lay the lines, I had no understanding of  what we were creating. As the flour ran out, Karen declared the labyrinth complete.

"Now what?" I asked.

"Start here," Karen positioned me at the open space in the edge of the large circle full of lines. "Just walk. Keep going forward without crossing the lines. When you get to the center turn around and come back."

"But I'm not very good at mazes."

"It's not a maze. You don't have to make any choices, just follow the path. People have been doing this for millennia."

"But why?"

"You'll see."

She was right.

Since then, I've taken advantage of the few labyrinths that have appeared at my feet, and walking a labyrinth is always a profound experience. Not long ago, I was struggling to explain the experience of meditatively walking a labyrinth to Lou, so today I walked twice, once with a camera.

Even though I know what to expect, I'm always nervous to take the first step. It is a step over a boundary from the everyday to the sacred.

There is no wall stopping me from walking straight to the center. Taking this first curve in the path marks the choice to be obedient to the structure of the labyrinth.

I have to remind myself that getting straight to the center isn't the point, and yet early on the path winds close to the center, as if to give me a glimpse of where we are going.

And then, the path swings out to the outer edge of the labyrinth, and I feel so far away. Because even though I know that it's all about the journey, I still think of the center as the goal.

And then the path and I are back by my shoes at the entrance. Why are we back by my shoes?

So. Close.

Finally. Arrived.
On my second walk, sans camera, I sat down here and wept. I can't even say why. I sat down on the beautiful concentric cobbles, and there were tears. And when they were done, I stood up.

 Here beginneth the return. This is where I get cocky, thinking, I have walked all the inches of this path, I know you now, labyrinth. 

And I walk faster, and then, the path folds where I expected it to sweep.

Sometimes the folds of the path turn me in such a way that I can see neither the center nor the start. It's okay, though, because I know all the curves and sweeps of the path fit between those two points.

Look, path! We're almost there. So close to my shoes! 
I'm beginning to think that some of those unchosen choices from my past are more like this moment in which I can see something that I have not yet gotten to, something the path and I will reach later.

Oh. Just one more turn. Why are you done, path? I'm not ready.


*This camping trip was probably ten years ago, so all conversations are the paraphrase that survives in my memory.

This labyrinth is on the grounds of the Advent Lutheran Church in Arlington, Virginia, and I found it through the Labyrinth Locator.

Friday, September 18, 2015

vanity and honesty

My hair is a pain in the ass.

It's thin enough that it needs to be kept short, because if it gets too long its own weight pulls it flat against my head in sad and unflattering ways that highlight its sparseness.

It grows quickly enough, however, that I really should have it cut every six weeks to keep a short haircut neat and not shaggy.

It has just enough wave, though, that it really needs to be cut by someone with more than half a clue, which means not going to the cheap places, which means that in service to economy I try to stretch 6 weeks into 8 weeks into just-before-the-next-big-event.

All of which means I spend an awful lot of time not liking what my hair looks like.

I got a pretty decent (but expensive!) hair cut in mid-July (right before a family reunion). I probably should have planned for another haircut in late August just as the semester was starting, but I didn't. So, then I started thinking that maybe I could stretch just a couple more weeks to right before my dissertation defense....and I spent the last two weeks like a toddler with a clip holding my bangs back.

Wednesday, I went to a different salon, one that is less pricey and within walking distance, with two photographs of the sort of short pixie cut I was thinking might work.
source 1
From Marie Clare, December 2010
I came home with something much shorter. 

For about five minutes I truly hated it. Then I realized that I haven't loved my hair in ten years, not since it was thick enough to wear long and long enough to be braids or a bun.

Like a lot of women with thin hair, in collusion with our stylists, I had been trying to preserve the illusion of more than was there. I had been chasing the image of femininity that American culture feeds us, the image that pushes so many women toward dyeing the grey or wearing a wig or artfully arranging thinness into the illusion of volume. 

Ten years. I spent ten years trying to preserve an illusion. That's just bullshit.

I love all the rest of my imperfections, why not my (lack of) hair?
It feels funny, more like soft fur than hair, but it matches my freckles and my laugh lines.

Whatever else it is, this haircut is honest.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

a glimpse of rest

I had the privilege of hearing a great sermon about the importance of taking a sabbath this evening. Mark talked about how the moments of rest are an integral part of the creative process: In Genesis, the seventh day is one of the days of creation, not an extra day after a six-day creation was complete. In music, it is the rests that shape the phrases and create beauty rather than cacophony.

In the breakneck pace of twenty-first century American life, and especially the diffused nature of academic work, it's sometimes hard to imagine what sabbath rest looks like. For me, it looks like this:

dissertation shelfie
That, dear readers, is all the books and articles related to my dissertation on the shelf, which really only happens on sabbath.

Most days, they look more like this:

piles like this populate floor near my desk
Over the course of the working week, the piles around my desk multiply and grow precariously taller.

When I'm done working on Saturday, I save and close my working dissertation file and minimize the browser window with related websites. My teaching materials find their way into my backpack, and the sea of books and articles surrounding my desk return to their shelves.

And then I rest.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

the framing is the hardest part *

This is my rock and shell collection, and I love it.**

I love it so much, I brought it with me all the way from Rambling Farmhouse in the car, in the bottom of a round laundry basket, with only soft things packed on top.

I am happy just to look at them. Occasionally, I turn some over or bring new things to the top.

Some of these rocks and shells have been with me since childhood when I gathered them on Long Island's south shore. Some have crossed oceans in my backpack from Lake Baikal, from Paris, from São Paolo. Some have been gifts from other people's travels.

My grandmother thinks a rock collection is ridiculous. She has lots of reasons: they all look pretty much the same when they're dry, they don't say where they're from, there are too many for me  to remember acquiring each of them.

And she's right. The origins of most of these are now a mystery, and the overwhelming colors are greys and tans.

She's also wrong. In the aggregate, my rocks and shells are my travels. They are pieces of my world, the places I've visited and the places I've lived, and it doesn't matter that I can't tell you their individual origins.

They are beautiful to me just as they are because when I look at this basket, I see the world as I have known it.

My choice to keep these rocks and shells piled on top of each other in a basket on a shelf, however, means that other people, like my grandmother, see just a pile of random rocks and shells gathering dust.

Sometimes I think about framing some or all of the collection. Like this:

Photo Credit:
And then I start thinking about all the decisions: how to group them, how to organize each group, what kind of frames, glass or no glass, how to mount them, permanently or not, where to hang the frames. And the basket of no decisions starts to look better and better, and I just...don't.

In a fit of pique this week I realized that my dissertation is exactly like my rock and shell collection.

I have gathered 138 pages (double-spaced! Times New Roman! 12 pt font!) of beautiful ideas. Ideas about the role of narrative in society. Ideas about why we tell some stories and not others. Ideas about how narrative changes. Ideas about faith and science and fairy tales.

Ideas with very little connection to one another.

They're not quite as random as my basket of rocks and shells, of course, because they're loosely grouped into chapters by topic. And truly, the grouping and the ordering makes sense in my head.

It's articulating the connections and guiding the reader through my thought process that I'm struggling with.

Putting the ideas on paper is not enough. Unless I can polish these gems and frame them beautifully, my work is just a pile of dusty rocks that are only valuable to me.


* Bonus points if the title made you hum.
** Did you know that rocks are my first love? When I was little my parents used to take me for walks on the beach because it was close and it was free. Most days we all came home barefoot because I had filled our shoes and socks with rocks and shells.
When the crew working on water and sewer lines under our street found out I loved rocks, they started bringing me the most interesting ones at the end of the day. When we moved, my dad refused to put the (many! heavy!) rocks on the truck, and I wailed because he was making me leave my friends behind. (In my dad's defense, some of the rocks from the workers were quite large.)

Monday, August 3, 2015

be the tortoise, not the hare

I measure my life in tally marks these days.

At the end of each 25-minute pomodoro of dissertation,  I make a tally mark on a piece of paper on my desk. Then I reset the timer and get up from the desk for 5 minutes of not-writing.

I'm at the stage of the dissertation process where I can feel it starting to gather energy as we roll down a steep hill. It's tempting to embrace the heady momentum and stay at the keyboard for hours at a stretch.

That way lies madness, though. Taking my hands off the breaks and my feet off the pedals and giving myself over wholly to the writing means forgetting to cook or even buy groceries. It means forgetting to make important phone calls and pay bills. After a few days, I have no brain for words and no energy for thinking and the life outside of my desk is in shambles. I've done that before, and I always hate myself for it.

So, now I aim for six poms a day, every day but Sunday. Most days, I make it to six tally marks by mid afternoon and then come back to the desk for two more poms (and two more tally marks!) in the evening.

Making myself stop feels like a bizarre kind of discipline.

I can attest that it is a fruitful discipline, though. The document on my computer is growing longer and more complex. The rest time away from the keyboard often leads to connections among chapters and solutions to knotty problem spots.

This is a mountain stage, not a sprint.

And the tortoise wins.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

a glimpse of family

At the aquarium today there was a manipulative that taught about how objects moving independently of one another may appear to be coordinated if they are following the same rules (as in the natural laws of physics), and this appearance of coordination is heightened when the objects look alike. The manipulative used black spheres on strings, but it was teaching about fish and schooling behavior.

I was visiting the aquarium with assorted aunts, uncles, and cousins spanning three generations, and we moved through the space with a minimum of coordination. But we all had the same goals:

1. Enjoy the fish.
2. Be with each other.
3. Keep track of children.
4. Avoid toddler meltdowns at all costs.

Sometimes we were all together in a clump, showing each other the same thing. Sometimes, we were spread out into smaller clusters. At the end, we left the aquarium, as we had arrived, in small, nuclear-family groups.

This evening we sat around looking at old family photos. Over and over again, we collectively marveled at how much we all look like each other, each of us resembling different others of us at different times in our lives.

Most of the time, we are fragmented into clusters by geography and the quotidian demands of our individual lives. Every once in a while, though, we gather, and there is some critical mass of natural law that helps us hang together.

Photo courtesy of Alison Griffin.

In those brief moments, we are a glorious school of fish dancing individually together.