29 January 2014

The Tween Roller Coaster

Over the weekend, the girl asked me to take her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art so she could sketch in the Greek/Roman sculpture galleries. Yes, where all of the people are naked and most of the men have had their penises lopped off. She’s 10. Oy.

But I'm a good mother and I like to encourage trips to museums.

We wandered through other bits of the museum too. There was a cool exhibit of mid-century Venetian glass, where we both took a lot of close-up phone photos until a guard chastised us. And we were both decidedly unimpressed with the jewelry show. Would you wear that? No, would you? And somehow, we ended up in a gallery with a fistful of Georgia O'Keefe paintings. Being the subversive mom, I decided I had to mention that many people think many of O'Keefe's paintings look like...yeah. Her response? I know.

It's a funny age. On the one hand: I WANT TO GROW UP. On the other hand: I'm still a little girl. We wobble-wobble between the two.

Last week we had the small drama of:

My armpits smell
Hmm, yes they do. We'll have to go get you some deodorant.

She's now applying antiperspirant three times a day, even though I keep telling her once a day is more than sufficient.

[We did have a nice dinner conversation about the word "lapse" and the concepts of pre- and post-lapsarian.]

Tonight I navigated her through the minefield that is texting, this time a group text that got completely out of hand. Delete me. I HATE YOU. Part of the problem is that the children, for they are still children, haven't any idea how to deal with a group text. No one wanted it to continue, but they all kept saying "delete me", "I deleted this message", "stop texting me" - which meant that it kept going and going and going. And then, there were hurt feelings, not unwarranted, but oh the drama.

I am glad, though, that she texted me (and only me) and told me it makes me feel really bad / I don't like that feeling and wanted to know when I'd be home. We had a good heart to heart about kids and relationships and what other people might be feeling and why group texts and reply-all are often misused.

And then, later in the evening, as she was tidying up before bed, she piped up with I think me and (BFF) are the only girls in fifth grade who like dolls. The other girls, they're trying to grow up too fast.

It's a goddamned roller coaster is what it is.

28 January 2014

Oh, Pete

Last spring, I found out that Pete Seeger was playing a benefit concert at a Unitarian Church not too far away from where we live. Pete! In spitting distance! So we went, and took the girl, because we thought it was important for her to grow up knowing she'd been in the same room with him, and we swooned a little when he ambled onto that stage, banjo slung upside down on his back.

We sing "his" songs all the time. Loudly, in the car, Here's To Cheshire, Here's To Cheese. Quietly, at bedtime. Raucously, reverently. And even when it's not Pete singing, it's people informed by him - Arlo Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Pete was a part of my childhood. There was a concert series every summer in the town next to ours, and there were always good people playing: Oscar Brand, Odetta, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie. Pete's environmentalism, his anti-war activism, his general lefty-commie-pinko sentiments course through my veins. Somewhere in a drawer, I've got a button, "Clean Up Big Muddy", a souvenir call-to-arms from the early days of Pete's campaign to clean up the Hudson River.

Arlo Guthrie does a side-splitting version of The Garden Song, Inch by inch, row by row // Gonna make this garden grow, in which he talks about how Pete sings "in front of the song", giving you the line just before you need it, teaching people to sing. Pete does just that, here in We Shall Overcome.

Because I am an optimist, I do believe that one day, we shall overcome, and that this machine will surround hate and force it to surrender. Rest in peace, Pete. And thank you.

27 January 2014

Garbage Pail Gratin

My mother lived alone for many years, and as a result, had a rather zen thing about eating. In the summer, dinner was a salad. Greens, crunchy bits, chick peas, maybe some feta. In the winter, it was garbage pail soup. She'd make a big vat of vegetable soup, starting with chicken stock and adding whatever was lingering in the freezer, a handful of lentils or maybe some beans, a parmesan rind if one was at hand, and a spoonful of pesto at the table. No recipe, just instinct. Mind you, I'm not going to say that it was great soup, but it was warm and cheap and healthy.

I kind of love Martha Rose Shulman. She does these columns on the New York Times website, where she'll dive into something and give you four or five semi-variants. Recently, she did gratins, Not Your Grandmother’s Gratin:

Potato and Sorrel Gratin
Roasted Squash and Red Onion Gratin
Fennel, Kale and Rice Gratin
Roasted Cauliflower Gratin With Tomatoes and Goat Cheese
Roasted Eggplant and Red Pepper Gratin

After skimming through all of those recipes, it occurred to me that they were all, at core, the same: vegetables and a grain/starch plus eggs, milk, cheese.

So I sautéed an onion, boiled and sliced a few tired potatoes, added a bag of frozen Swiss chard/beet greens (from last summer's CSA), added a cup of cooked wild rice, mixed it all together and dumped it in an oiled baking dish. I then added 3 eggs beaten up with 1/2 cup milk and some salt and pepper, sprinkled some grated cheddar on top and threw it in the oven. And it was good.

In other words, don't be afraid to invent.

17 January 2014

How To Have A Party

The very back of my mother's black book has a section on entertaining - a diary, if you will, recording dates and guests and menus for parties. And when I look at the page of her notes on the Christmas Eve party, it's like a road-map. This is what you serve for an open house. This is how you do it.

You have cookies, fruitcake (my grandfather sent us one every year), pretzels, crackers & melba toast (which you make out of party rye). You have hot cookies (spicy cheesy sesame shortbread "pennies") and "Boursin spread" and chicken livers. Later, sometime after 1978, we'd add cheese and pickles and olives and nuts to the menu, and eventually the fruitcake stopped coming.

Oddly enough, the recipe for the chicken livers wasn't in the black book - it was in the file box. But I'd once copied it into my own recipe book, and, because I'm a good sharer, here it is, down at the bottom of the page. Make it for your next open house. People will love it.

Parties always want crunchy cheesy things. For the open house we had before Christmas, I included John Wm. Macy's crunchy cheese sticks, which are the kind of thing you find at fancy parties and can't stop eating. Truth be told, I had them in the house because a publicist sent me some, but truth be told? They're really good and I'd buy them again in a minute.

The other crunchy cheesy thing I served was a sort of apple/onion/blue cheese pizza, from a New York Times recipe. It was easy to make, and cut into 2" squares, it got scarfed down by the wine drinkers who never left the kitchen. What is it with the kitchen? Always have some food in the kitchen at your open house, because some people never leave there.

Chicken Liver Pate

1 pound chicken livers
2 sticks of butter (at room temperature)
1/4 of an onion
1/8 t. dried basil
1/4 t. anchovy paste
2 T. cognac

Melt one stick of butter. Sauté the livers in the butter until brown outside but still pink inside, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool, in the skillet, until the butter firms up. Transfer to a food processor. Add the second stick of butter and mash to a nice paste. Add other ingredients. Transfer to a serving dish - I like to pack it in a crock or something where you can smooth over the top. Serve it with melba toast, the kind you make yourself out of a loaf of party rye, stuck in a low oven for a while.

Note: I always add the dried basil, though I don't know why. And I never add the anchovy, though maybe one day I'll be brave and try it.

Disclosure: I didn't buy the Macy's Cheese Sticks; the publicist sent them to me. No one paid me to write about them, and my opinions are my own.

16 January 2014

Moky's Black Book

One of the things I did for Christmas was make scanned-printed-bound copies of my mother's cookbook, her well-loved, oft-repaired black book, as gifts for my brother and sister. It was her repository of recipes, tried and true, and perhaps never tried at all. Some are edited, or annotated: “good w/ peas instead of carrots”. Some were cut out of magazines or newspapers, glued into the black book, tried, and ripped off the very page - no good, bland, awful, never make this again! And some are part of the family history - Butterflied Leg of Lamb followed by Fruit Ice Cream? Yup, that sounds like dinner.

For me, reading it is a huge nostalgia trip. The Seven Layer Dinner is, I think, the meal that got served to Aunt Gertrude once - it didn’t cook long enough and the potatoes were raw. Then again, maybe it was the Lamb-Potato Casserole - that too has raw potato layered with the meat. That lamb-potato casserole also has the note “add 1 c. garlic”. I have to think that’s one clove, not one cup. The Duck with Lentils has this uncharacteristic note from the woman who didn’t generally cotton to fruit or other sweet notes in savory dishes: “more apple would be good”.

Lots of friends and relatives supplied recipes which made it into the book. There's a hand-written recipe for Shish Kebabs in my grandmother's hand, which Moky edited to “omit” the ground chili. Gigi - my grandmother - also appears with a recipe for Brownie's written out my handwriting, complete with that errant apostrophe.

Possibly the simplest recipe is Elizabeth’s Pork Chops:

Close together in
pan - cover
w/ milk
350 °F for an
hour or more

A couple of the printed recipes include pricing - a nod to the economizing housewife. The punch recipes are said to cost $15-$25 for fifty servings. And Lydie Marshall’s Poulet a la Grecque says that a 2 1/2 pound chicken will cost $1.42. Um, right. But the recipe sounds tasty - chicken and onions and tomato sauce and feta, baked and served on orzo.

Making the book was a labor of love - I scanned about 150 pages, made a half-assed (idiosyncratic and incomplete) index, wrote an essay of sorts, and uploaded the whole shebang to Blurb. But it was about my favorite gift that I gave anyone this year, and I had a third copy printed just for me - and for my daughter, one day.

13 January 2014


Someone I know is a great player with words - he can find palindromes at the drop of a hat, DENIERS REINED being a recent great example.

But every time I see the word DENIER, I mispronounce it in my head and confuse myself - because

DENIER = one who denies = De Nye Er

but also

DENIER = a unit of measure for how sheer your stockings are = De Near

Homographs are just another delightful confusion wrought by our English language.

10 January 2014

All Manner Of Games

A couple of years ago, I read a book by Jane McGonigal called "Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World". It was oddly fascinating book, a taxonomy of games, mostly online games, but not all, with a methodical explanation of how games make us smarter and happier, and how we can collaborate - game-ways - to make the world better. At the time, I thought it was hugely ambitious, largely successful, and fairly irrelevant to my life.

Curiously, though, it's a book I think of often. I think about it when I check in someplace on Foursquare, especially places like the local farmer's market, where I move in and out of the mayorship on a regular basis. Foursquare is essentially a game - checking in gets you points, points get you to the top of the list, WIN! And for the farmer's market, I figure that if I remember to check-in, maybe one of my local friends will see it and head down to visit the market - because the market gets better when more people shop there. So it's multi-purpose, my check-in: help the market, coddle my competitive streak.

We recently invested in a Nest thermostat. The Nest is wifi-enabled, so big brother knows when you've goosed the thermostat. And it sends you monthly reports that cheer you on: you did great, you're in the top 20%, you used more energy but it was really cold out. You can even control it from afar with an iPhone app. I kind of wish I'd remembered to do that last weekend: we'd been away, and left the house at 55°F - if I'd been on the ball, I could have told it when we were on the way home, so the house would have been a little less than frigid. [I saw a guy doing just that on the subway the other day.] Anyway, at core, part of the Nest's appeal is its encouragement of better habits through rewards, i.e. game-like behavior.

The present array of fancy pedometers on the market speaks to the gamification of fitness: share how many steps you took, and compete with your friends on who climbed more stairs. As it happens, I spent four weeks wearing two such devices: a FitBit One and a Wii Fit U Fit Meter. Honestly, I don't walk enough - it's what comes of having a desk job - but I like the idea of trying to best myself, trying to get more stairs in, more steps in.

I had the Wii Fit U Fit Meter because - as you know - I'm a Nintendo brand ambassador. I've had the FitBit for a while. While they both count steps, they differ in interesting ways.

The Fitbit One wirelessly syncs to your computer. You can log on to their website and check your results, and you can set it up so you get weekly status reports. It's also possible to create a community of friends - so you're competing on steps, again with the competition. The FitBit counts steps and floors (flights of stairs), and estimates miles and calories. You can use it as a sleep tracker, too, but I don't. (I'm a good sleeper.) And it'll give you badges for milestones. You walked 15000 steps? Badge for you! Oh, and it has a clock.

The Wii Fit U Fit Meter tracks steps and altitude (in feet), and has a clock. Oddly, it also has a thermometer - all well and good if the thing is sitting on your desk, but if you're wearing it, slipped into a pocket, the thermometer is useless because it's reading neither ambient temperature nor body temperature, but some irrelevant admixture. [I just took it out of my pocket - it's reading 87.6°F - way higher than room temperature, and way lower than body temperature.] The Fit Meter needs to be synced to the Wii U console, a slightly fiddly transaction where the Meter has to be pointed at just the right spot on the console. Once you've done that, though, you can check your progress on your walking tour of Italy:

Or your scaling of the Eiffel Tower:

As I said, I was wearing both the FitBit and the Wii U Fit Meter for a while. Because I am a geek, I noticed that the two devices were giving different readings, different by some percentage points not by just a few steps. If I was wearing them each clipped to a belt loop - i.e. up near my waist - the FitBit recorded more steps (6546 to 6088, or 6126 to 5770). One day, though, I dropped them both in the pocket of my jeans - where they were riding lower on my body. That day, the Wii U read higher, 7452 to 6514. Without getting all scientific about it, I haven't any idea which of the devices is more accurate, but clearly they aren't perfect systems.

Anyway, if you're looking to gamify your fitness, a fancy pedometer is fun. Besides, like The New York Times said, "it’s cheaper than joining a gym". And if you're fascinated by gaming's inroads into everyday life, read McGonigal's book". Reality isn't broken, it's just being codified and tracked and socialized in more and more ways.

Disclosure: I was sent the Wii Fit U Fit Meter by Nintendo, but without any expectation of a review, and with no compensation. My opinions are my own.

07 January 2014

Creative Chaos of the Fictional Variety

Interestingly enough, while I was reading Seven Life Lessons of Chaos, I was simultaneously reading Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker. It's a book that I probably wouldn't have stumbled upon, but for an imaginary friend whose review so intrigued me that I put it on my list. And, probably because I was primed for chaos and fractals, I found myself sticking yet more post-its in a library book, harnessing the synchronicity:

I had not considered the idea; rather than seeking to rule out variations in quality, accept and adopt the reality of imperfection. A very powerful model indeed.

The book is throughly enjoyable - a war story, a spy story, a clockmaker and gangster and dictator story, complete with two time periods and mechanical bees.

The saddle of the bee comes away, wings and all, revealing an inner cavity. Even through the loupe, he can barely make out the parts. Cogs, yes. Springs. Everything spiraling downward, inward, smaller and smaller and smaller, each layer geared to take instruction from the one below in a repeating pattern. Cellular clockwork. Fractal clockwork?

The main character is a Spork, another character has a collection of false teeth.

"I've brought my most alarming teeth!"

And indeed, she has, a steel set made in 1919 for an American prospector who like to chew rocks and taste the precious ores.

It's a delicious fantastical yarn. Great exotic characters, a steampunk bent, and a more or less incomprehensible 'machine' at the core. Suspenseful, bizarre, funny, and totally enjoyable. It's not what I usually read, but I loved it.

06 January 2014

Be willing!

My daughter is in the fifth grade, and tacked up on the wall in her classroom is a quote:

The mark of a creative person is a willingness to accept 
ambivalence - the liminal stage between problem 
and solution as a place of both discomfort and possibility.

The quote intrigued me, partly because it evidences a degree of ambition on the part of the English teacher, but also just because. So, I tried to track it down, and located it in an article on Whole Living.

"The mark of a creative person, according to Briggs, is a willingness to accept ambivalence -- that liminal stage between problem and solution -- as a place of both discomfort and possibility."

And so, one thing led to another, and I've just finished reading a book by John Briggs and F. David Peat called Seven Life Lessons of Chaos - which I quite liked, so much so that I filled up the library copy with post-its, and may need to get my own copy.

Chaos is everywhere. Order tends towards it, entropy. And yet, "thousands of tiny interconnections hold the system in place". I behave one way, it affects you. And vice versa. And when we all keep to the right on the subway staircases, we all get where we're going faster. Beauty is often alive with chaos: "Like healthy heartbeats, the rhythmic intervals in such music are always slightly irregular...fractal fluctuation within regularity...brings the music alive." Rivers and coastlines evidence organized chaos, where "apparent disorder masks an underlying pattern."

I found myself thinking a lot about the PTA. The PTA in my town is a bunch of petty bureaucrats, who make everything overly complicated and who tend to do things the way they've always been done because that's the way they do things. But! Now I understand them better - they are a collection of negative feedback loops, obsessive and repetitive:

"Limit-cycle systems are those that cut themselves off from the flux of the external world because a great part of their internal energy is devoted to resisting change and perpetuating relatively mechanical patterns of behavior. To survive in such rigid and comparatively closed systems, everyone must resign a little--or often a great deal--of their individuality by blending into the automatism.  Those who rise "to the top" in such systems are generally the ones who use empty phrases, those mindless formulas that keep the mechanism of collusion together. Limit cycles are the systems that make us feel powerless. They are the ones we want to change but can't because they appear to resist all our efforts. These systems are everywhere in society." (p. 40)

I found myself thinking about my town too, a town that is consumed with agita over two significant potential projects, with angry people on all sides of the arguments. What it needs is a way to "suspend their polarities and non-negotiable convictions long enough for something new to emerge".

Really, it's one of those books that really gets you thinking. My post-its are scribbled with words and fragments:

  • synchronicity
  • o we like sheep
  • ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny
  • the highway system as a distributed airport of take-off and landing strips
  • creativity not competition
  • how to "dialogue" to a new paradigm, not a compromise
  • irrational numbers

The end is apropos:

Rather than ending this book with a summing up, some definitive statement about life and chaos theory, perhaps we should be simply asking a question.

What question shall we ask?

03 January 2014


Here's what I think. If you go the the emergency room, the hospital should not be allowed to - three months later - send you fundraising appeals that start out:

Going to the hospital is never fun.

But we hope that when you came to [redacted] Hospital, you received top-notch care close to home and you found the Hospital to be a warm, caring place where you were treated with respect.

Because that right there? That solicitation violates the tenets of separation of church and state, and the bright line between advertising and editorial. It's an invasion of my privacy. It's completely improper and wrong. The fundraisers should not know who the patients are. It's like ambulance chasing.

Besides, I'm broke, because that little trip to the emergency room cost me something in excess of $5,000, thank you very much.

Update: Apparently this is legal under HIPAA. But that doesn't make it right.