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Archive for April, 2010

March for Babies

Monday, April 12th, 2010

I’ve never been a big advocate of “causes.”  This is probably a failing on my part.  But for most of my life affinity to any specific cause felt worthwhile, but contrived.  I didn’t understand with particular clarity why this was, but I didn’t question it.  I continued to endorse those causes for which my support was solicited.  But my involvement was always based more on an effort to be a good Samaritan than on personal investment.

With time and the experience it provides, I’ve come to understand the source of my detachment: Youth. 

When we are young our wingspan is small.  We have been fewer places, encountered fewer people, and (happily) been touched by less pain and fewer tragedies.  As we walk down various paths in life our exposure – to joy, wisdom, folly, and pain – increases.  And all of these experiences come with a face attached.  It is that process which takes the abstract and intangible “cause” and makes it something highly personal to which we feel intimately connected.

I wrote several weeks ago about IEP’s rocky start in life, including his admission to the NICU immediately after his birth.  We were among the lucky in that he was full term and has suffered no long-term effects of his neonatal diagnoses.  But not all families are as fortunate.  In the time we spent at his bedside in the NICU we also had the opportunity to see babies whose start in life was much more tenuous; babies born three months early; babies hooked up to tubes and wires for weeks and months, instead of days; babies whose futures could be riddled with lingering health problems related to prematurity. 

Many of you know of Madeline Spohr, who died at seventeen months of age just over a year ago due to complications from prematurity.  I have followed her family’s arduous journey through grief and birth for many months now, and in the process have become aware of the March for Babies sponsored by the March of Dimes.  The March for Babies raises awareness and money to fight the causes of prematurity.

Between my own experience in the NICU, and the intimate details of the Spohr family’s pain conveyed by Madeline’s mother Heather, I have come to feel personally connected to the cause of prematurity specifically, and struggling children in general.  And so it was with both excitement and sadness that I jumped at the opportunity to participate in my local March of Dimes chapter’s March for Babies when a friend of mine suggested it.  It was with additional excitement and sadness that I registered as a part of Team Maddie to honor Madeline Spohr’s beautiful memory. 

Part of me misses the days when I didn’t understand – at a visceral, rather than academic level – how people come to be passionate about various causes.  We become passionate because we have felt pain.  And through our involvement we endeavor to spare others the very pain we have endured.  My experiences and pain pale in comparison to that of many others.  But it is enough to spur me into action.

In two weeks I will join many other parents who believe in this cause.  Some of these parents will march with their children.  Others won’t have that luxury.  I have pledged $300 toward this cause and am eager to see my pledge fulfilled.  To that end, I will personally donate two dollars for each comment left on this post.  If you would like to contribute an additional donation to my pledge, please e-mail me at tendollarthoughts  (at) gmail (dot) com and I will connect you with my donation page.

The Practice Round

Friday, April 9th, 2010

Today marks the second round of play at the Masters.  (For the non-golf-lovers of you, the Masters is one of the four Major golf tournaments played each year.  Green jackets.  Big she-bang.  Etc.)  The world’s greatest players converge on the otherwise sleepy Georgian town of Augusta and compete for what is arguably the most coveted major championship title in their sport.  Like any good golf tournament there is hushed commentary from sports anchors.  Leading into each commercial break there are macro shots of perfect azalea blossoms.  And among the spectators are many men and women clad in various shades of seersucker. 

On Sunday evening GAP flitted down to Augusta to spend Monday attending the first practice round of this year’s tournament.  Over the years he and I have attended a few different golf tournaments together, including two Majors.  We’ve learned a lot during these experiences.  For instance, Jack Nicklaus’ son is not nearly as fun to watch as Jack himself.  Even nice Southern men don’t take kindly to having mustard squirted on the backs of their white shirts in the grandstand at the number one tee.  You cannot wear enough sunscreen.  And if you split up on cell-phone-prohibited courses you must be very specific about when and where you intend to reunite.

However, because we’ve always previously attended competition rounds of play, until GAP’s trip earlier this week, I’d never really thought about what the players learn at these tournaments.  During competition play, as you would expect, golf is a very linear game.  Each player takes one tee shot, and the requisite number of fairway (or ruff) shots and putts to complete the hole and move along.  Practice rounds are a different animal altogether.  In addition to a lighter atmosphere and more crowd interaction, the play itself takes on a different tone.

The players are there not merely to practice, but to dissect the course.  They are there to experiment.  They want to take every possible shot – from the most desirable to the most undesirable locations on the course.  They don’t know where their shots will land during competition, how their clubs will interact with the grass and the wind on those days, or what their mindset will be when they get there.  So they take four or five tee shots.  They drop golf balls all over the fairway.  They get themselves into sand traps just to hack their way out.  They test drive every possible mistake the might make, to ready themselves for any potential circumstance. 

And as GAP was describing this method of play to me (which I knew a bit about already) I grew envious of these golfers.  I couldn’t help but think about how nice it would be to have such practice rounds in real life.  To run simulations of all the mistakes we think we might make.  To purposefully make wrong turns and stupid decisions so that we can better understand the outcomes.  To walk away from a zero-stakes trial run with first-hand knowledge of exactly what consequences we’ll face if we make these same mistakes during regulation play. 

Alas, life offers no such practice round.  From the moment we’re born this life is for keeps.  Occasionally we get a mulligan.  And if we’re smart we’ll learn as much (probably more) from our mistakes for their having been committed on the record than we would have during a practice round.  Nevertheless I still wish I could make my way through a simulated version of my life before being sent into the game for the real thing. 

As I think about it, though, I haven’t done too badly in this life.  (That’s an understatement.  I have a wonderful, happy, and rewarding life.)  Much of it had nothing to do with me.  Good parents, a happy childhood, a terrific education, and good health are largely part of life’s lottery.  But I’ve had a bit of influence myself as well.  Without the luxury of a trial run I managed to choose a satisfying career and a smashing husband.  (Genetics aside, I take no credit for IEP.  He’s my biggest jackpot!)  I’ve made more than my fair share of mistakes to be sure.  But somehow I suspect their cumulative effect is more powerful than that of any practice round.  My mistakes have certainly yielded consequences to address, but nothing I couldn’t handle.  And perhaps those consequences ingrained the lesson learned deeper in my brain than would have been done otherwise.

I’ll enjoy watching the golfers navigate the promise and perils of Augusta National this weekend.  With each shot I will wonder what nugget of knowledge from their practice rounds they’ve referenced.  I will also wonder whether the mistakes made on Thursday and Friday will make more of an impression than those from Monday and Tuesday.

The old saying is that practice makes perfect.  But I might modify that saying to “mistakes make perfect.”  And if that is in fact the case then there’s nothing to fear in life’s mistakes; only a future that is made the better for its past follies.

The Face of Flattery

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

On Monday I ate lunch in my office.  Then I popped out to run a quick errand.  I had to deposit a check and there is a bank branch with a drive-through ATM just a couple of minutes away.  However, when I pulled up to the ATM I found it out of service and had to walk inside to use the lobby ATM.  When I left the bank lobby I walked across the parking lot to my car and about halfway to my car I heard a voice from the driver’s seat of a nearby sedan shout “Nice legs!”

I immediately shot the guy a dirty look.  I am a woman with a brain and a life, not just some skirt on the street.  How dare he objectify me that way, right?  But as soon as I stepped behind a parked utility truck and was removed from the heckler’s line of view, I smiled.  The thing is, I do have nice legs.  Specifically, I have muscular and defined calves.  When standing flat footed I’ve always thought I look a little blocky, but I’ll concede that when wearing high heels the effect isn’t half bad.  So this guy, whom I don’t know and will never see again, simultaneously insulted and flattered me.  And in the face of something as simple as a cat call I was surprised at the level of conflict that ensued in my mind. 

My initial response was to dismiss the flattery as derisive and cheapening objectification.  I am smart and educated.  I was raised to understand that I am complex and nuanced; a multidimensional person whose worth lies in a subtle composite of valuable traits, my appearance being least among them.  But I am also a woman who was raised in a culture that disproportionately values physical beauty.  So, much as I may try to factor my looks out of my own assessment of worth, some vestiges of that perspective will always linger.  And hearing my looks complimented – regardless of source or context – feels good.

GAP has long faulted me for choosing the least pleasant interpretation of any statement.  He says that if I can reasonably select between two interpretations of something said to me, I will always choose the one that is more negative.  Sometimes he’s right.  But I refuse to ignore my powers of discernment merely to choose the happy path.  I will critically consider the words that are spoken to me and decide for myself whether or not my inference accurately matches the implication.

But GAP’s criticism jumped into my mind as I frowned and then smiled in response to my heckler’s compliment.  Because wasn’t it, even if crudely delivered, just that – a compliment?  It wasn’t just the generic “Hey baby!”  He chose a particular feature (one that I myself happen to like) and tossed his opinion my way.  Under different circumstances – the fabulous gay fitting room attendant at Banana Republic, or a girlfriend – I’m sure I would have found those same words to be a bright spot in my day, rather than an objectifying insult.

So I’ve been wondering since my little encounter on Monday what my interpretation of my suitor’s advances says about me.  (I’m sure he wasn’t really pursuing me.  And oh what a surprise I’d have given him if I’d walked over to the car and reciprocated his interest!)  If I take his comment as flattery does it mean that I am shallow and easily manipulated?  If I take it as an insult does it mean that I can’t accept a simple compliment?  And does the fact that I’m waxing philosophical about this conundrum in the first place mean that I am judgmental, weighing the value of the statement based on its physical trappings?

I’ve certainly gotten cat calls that were in fact insulting and aggravating.  I can tell the difference.  But something about this one was different.  Even though my first reaction was to scowl, my first instinct was to smile.  It was a contrivance that those sentiments were manifested on my face in reverse order.

As I’ve thought more about it I’ve been surprised at my conclusion.  Flattery doesn’t always come from my husband, father, or friends.  Sometimes it comes from a disheveled guy in a dented car in a parking lot.  But to dismiss it for that reason alone says more about me than it does about him.  I will not always choose the happy interpretation just for the sake of sparing my mind the taxing task of discernment.  But choosing the dismissive path can be similarly lazy.  In this case I’ve weighed it out – much more than was ever warranted – and have decided that despite their source, these words flattered me.  And that feels good.

So Long, Suburbs?

Monday, April 5th, 2010

While looking unsuccessfully for an article on something else entirely, I made an important discovery the other day:  There is a Freakonomics Blog!  How did I not know this?  I immediately aborted my previous search and started poring over their archives, and drooling in quantities greater than what is socially acceptable.  It’s a complete goldmine of brain candy!  After frenetically combing through several sets of search results I resigned myself to the fact that this would become a time-consuming discovery and modified my expectations of reading it all right then

Of all the posts that caught my eye, the one that caused me to waste the most time at work was this one.  It is a quorum on suburbia, wherein the blog authors have tossed the question of suburban future to several topical experts.  As a lifelong suburb dweller (minus the six months of my semester abroad) I am fascinated by the idea that my lifestyle is an unsustainable blight on human evolution (or so say some of the respondents).  More fascinating still is the idea that within my lifetime said unsustainability of suburban life will reach its tipping point and the suburbs themselves will either radically evolve, or die off altogether.    

In reading the responses from the quorum participants I was struck by the range of perspectives.  From the apocalyptic to the reasonably foreseeable there is no shortage of ideas about how and where we will live in the future.    

  • There are many ways of describing the fiasco of suburbia, but these days I refer to it as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. … People will be moving to the smaller towns and smaller cities because they are more appropriately scaled to the limited energy diet of the future. I believe our big cities will contract substantially — even if they densify back around their old cores and waterfronts. They are products, largely, of the 20th-century cheap energy fiesta and they will be starved in the decades ahead (Kunstler).
  •  Government services such as police, fire, health, and public works will increase exponentially. To pay for the expanded services, taxes will also increase exponentially to the point where individual paychecks are made payable to the government and deposited directly in the general treasury (Antus).
  • The Will and Grace version of gay America — urban, wealthy, and white — is starting to look a bit dated. … Lots of lesbians and gay men now view the suburban home with a white picket fence and a family with 2.5 kids as their version of gay equality (Gates).
  • Skyrocketing gas prices will lead some households to reconsider their long commutes, introducing an “anti-suburbanization” force that favors denser, more compact cities (Brueckner).

These quotes are just a taste of the positions represented in the post.  Having no idea of my own how realistic any of them is, I find myself feeling like I’ve stepped into a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book where I’m making decisions the ramifications of which I don’t fully understand.

I have a love/hate relationship with suburbia.  I love living on a quiet block where kids play in the street.  I loathe having to drive everywhere.  I love not sharing apartment walls with neighbors.  I loathe the mega-market mentality of the suburbs.  I love clean fresh air and being able to let my dogs out the back door.  I loathe the distance, both literally and metaphorically, that separates me from the cultural epicenter of urban hubs.  But in spite of all the time I’ve spent thinking about my own experience in the suburbs, I’d never stopped to consider the broader implications of the lifestyle I have (if by default?) chosen.

It seemed obvious to me once it had been pointed out, but prior to reading the referenced post I’d never really thought about the premise of cheap energy on which the suburban concept is based, nor longevity (or perhaps more accurately, lack thereof) of that concept.  Reading through the respondents predictions I was struck by fear (could that really happen?) and incredulity (that could never happen!). 

After walking away from the post for a few hours I began to postulate my own theory.  Based on an amount of information that is just North of nothing I weighed out what I believe to be some realistic scenarios.  My overriding suspicion is that enough Americans have become so supremely entrenched in their suburban lifestyles that the ‘burbs will not, as Kunstler suggests, become wholly abandoned slums.  Rather, I suspect that suburbs will still exist, but perhaps in the vein of the small town – accessible by train, including infrastructure for foot traffic, and including more small-scale shops than super-sized retail outlets.  Perhaps more suburban office workers will telecommute, which will perhaps prompt an increase in single-car families.  These smaller city centers might pop up around larger urban centers (or evolve out of today’s existing suburban landscape).  Or, perhaps with the flexibility of working remotely small and medium-sized towns will grow as the members of the suburban exodus look for something with the convenience of an urban center, but without the price tag.

These are all just my mental musings.  Mostly, I find this topic fascinating and am enjoying pondering the cultural evolution of the only lifestyle I’ve ever known.  I’ve long thought I might someday end up living in a large city.  But I never dreamed it would be because energy prices forced me out of my current locale.  Clearly, I’ve got some reading to do.

Vegetarian Experiment: Recipe Recap #3

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

Confession time.  My energy for new recipes waned in the final days of my vegetarian experiment.  Here’s the thing about new reipces: they are work.  Not that the dish itself is that much more work.  It’s the learning curve.  There’s something about cooking something for the first time that is more draining than each subsequent preparation.  Pre-Veggie Month, I tried to make one new thing each week.  I didn’t always succeed, but I tried.  Anyway, I kicked this month off with a bang – many new recipes.  Things slowed down though and I’ve shot from the hip a little bit during the last couple of weeks.  Today I come to you with only two recipes, both of which I made up, but both of which were pretty good. 

Orichiette with Goat Cheese Sauce
Source: My own head
Difficulty: Easy.  Nothing major here.  I made this up as I went along one evening.
Labor: Low.  The only real work is the chopping, which doesn’t take much time. 
Overall Results:  For it being an experiment, I was really pleased with the way this turned out.  Light but flavorful.  The sauce was creamy without being heavy, and the veggies perked it up quite a bit.  The only drawback was that it was a little dry when reheated.  This one is best the first time around.

Ingredients
½ lb orichiette pasta (could also use small or medium shells, penne, etc)
1 Tbs olive oil and unsalted butter
½ cup yellow onion, small dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ red bell pepper, small dice
1 can low sodium vegetable or chicken broth
1 cup dry white wine
4 oz. bleu cheese crumbles
6 scallions, white and light green parts, coarsely chopped

Directions

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Cook pasta until al dente, according to package directions.
  2. Meanwhile in a large skillet over medium high heat, melt the butter and olive oil.  Add the onion, garlic and bell pepper and sauté until translucent – about 5 minutes.  Add the broth and wine and simmer until reduced by half – 6 or 7 minutes.  Stir in goat cheese crumbles and mix until cheese has melted throughout the sauce.  Season with salt and pepper to taste. 
  3. Add the pasta to the sauce and toss to coat.  Top each serving with a sprinkling of the chopped scallions.

 

Gnocchi with Greens and Mushrooms
Source: Inspired by a meal I had in a restaurant recently
Difficulty: Easy.  Making gnocchi from scratch is not actually all that hard.  It’s actually kind of fun; you should try it sometime.  Here, though, I use the packaged stuff which isn’t quite as fluffy as homemade, but much less work.
Labor: Low.  Very similar in method to the recipe above. 
Overall Results: I think this could have benefitted from some fresh herbs – dill maybe? – but overall I was really happy with it.  I ate it while watching the sneak preview of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution on ABC and felt quite good about myself in the face of so much pizza…  Also, it reheated quite nicely.

Ingredients
1, 16-oz package gnocchi (on pasta aisle)
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
½ lb shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and sliced
¼ lb Brussels sprouts, base cut off and outer leaves discarded
1 can low sodium vegetable or chicken broth
1 cup dry white wine
Salt and pepper
½ cup roasted red peppers, finely chopped
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese

Directions

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Drop in gnocchi and cook according to package directions.  Drain, cover, and set aside.
  2. Meanwhile in a large skillet over medium high heat sauté the shallots until slightly softened, about 2 minutes.  Add the mushrooms and continue to sauté until most liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes more. 
  3. While the shallots and mushrooms are cooking peel the inner leaves off of each Brussels sprout.  At some point you’ll get close enough to the heart that no more leaves will peel away.  Discard the hearts.  Add the Brussels sprouts leaves to the shallot and mushroom mixture and sauté 1 to 2 minutes more. 
  4. Add the wine and broth, bring to a simmer and cook until reduced by half.  Season with salt and pepper according to taste.  Stir in chopped roasted red peppers.  Add gnocchi to sauce and stir to combine.  Top each serving with a sprinkling of grated parmesan cheese.    

Hot Cross Buns

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

As I mentioned yesterday, I am newly obsessed with The Pioneer Woman’s blog.  Yesterday when I pulled up her site I was delighted to see that her latest recipe was for Hot Cross Buns.  My mother made Hot Cross Buns on every Good Friday of my childhood.  And while I have lovely memories of coming home from school to find a fresh batch on the kitchen counter (sometimes with extra frosting left in the bowl!) my favorite Hot Cross Bun memory comes from my adulthood, and from China.  This story is not meant to be thought-provoking or challenging in any way.  Rather it is a cherished moment of my life that I felt inspired to share. 

If you’re not familiar with Hot Cross Buns, you can learn a quick bit about them here.

I was 26 years old.  I was less than a month away from my wedding.  I was in Shanghai in the middle of a two-week business trip to my company’s Japan and China offices.  So things in my life were pretty calm at the time.  Right.

I’d spent the first week of the trip in Japan.  Sushi, tempura, industry trade show – all the usual suspects.  The second week took us to Shanghai for a 5-day training session with our Pac Rim distributors.  We were staying at the St. Regis hotel which was then, and is still, the most mind-bogglingly luxurious hotel I’ve ever stayed in.  I had a personal butler assigned to me at check-in.  The room was huge and stunning; the bathroom even more so.  Every time I left my room – even if it was just to run down to the hotel gym for a quick workout – someone came in and refolded the towels, tidied my toiletries, smoothed the duvet, and tucked under the corners of the toilet paper.  And every afternoon around 2:00 a snack was delivered to my room on a silver tray.  It was usually a pastry of some kind.  Something delectable that made me slide to the floor and want to never return home.  (What wedding?  GAP once lived in China.  Surely I could find a back-up version of him running around somewhere, right?)

I spent each day in a hotel ballroom, giving presentations on the key selling points of my company’s products, changes to the competitive landscape, and pricing and discount structures.  I’d eaten all of the local fare that had been served and had, for the most part, been delighted by how much I loved it.  Cuttlefish, jellyfish, whole roasted fish, seaweed salad, etc.  Business dinners each evening featured dishes that rotated among the traditional menus of our distributors’ home countries – Thai, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia.  I was lost in an international smorgasbord.   

I’d gone sight-seeing with a colleague one afternoon and eaten dumplings purchased from a street vendor that have never been matched by any I’ve eaten since.  The bread was fried crisp on the outside and chewy underneath.  The broth inside was rich, salty, and surprisingly hot.  It dripped all the way down my forearms and I actually licked some of it off.  The bite of pork in the middle was tender and fatty and melted on my tongue.  I was in a food nirvana.   

I was also reaching a saturation point of visual stimulation.  Ancient gardens, Confucian temples, giant Buddhas everywhere.  My colleague and I had a personal local tour guide for two days who took us into nooks and crannies of her city that we’d never have found (or braved) on our own.  I was absorbing the culture around me like a parched sponge.  I had moments of homesickness, but for the most part I’d been able to separate myself from the impending wedding and gotten lost in the world around me.  And so it was that when Good Friday rolled around at the end of my trip I was barely aware of it.

That day our business agenda reached its scheduled afternoon break.  I returned to my room upstairs where I looked forward to slipping out of my heels, collapsing onto the fluffy bed, and delicately tearing into whatever scone, éclair, or other confection might be awaiting me.  I opened the door, walked into that now-familiar and serene retreat of a room, and stopped cold.  There, on the silver tray, was a porcelain plate with two Hot Cross Buns. 

They were beautiful.  Golden dough glazed with egg whites and studded with raisins.  Iced by hand with careful, but not perfect, crosses.  I was so touched by the gesture that I almost couldn’t bring myself to eat them.  But I did.  They lacked the delicate crumb and subtle sweetness of my mother’s, but it was irrelevant.  I was as far away from home – geographically, culturally, metaphorically – as I’d ever been.  And yet a hallmark of my childhood sat before me on a silver tray.

I still don’t know the answers to all the questions that spun through my head as I ate my Hot Cross Buns.  How did they know these tiny details of Christian culinary heritage?  Did they know I was a Christian?  Did everyone in the hotel get Hot Cross Buns for their snack that day?  Or was it just for the Westerners whom they thought might enjoy a taste of home.  Did they have any idea how their thoughtfulness would strike deep to the heart of me?

Since I’d left home after college I’d never made Hot Cross Buns of my own.  I guess I didn’t realize what meaning they held for me.  But in that moment I became keenly aware of their significance; significance to which I’d been heretofore oblivious.  The next year I made my first batch of Hot Cross Buns.  They too didn’t measure up to my mother’s, but they were good.  And they were mine.  And it felt good to take my traditions into my own hands.  I have plenty of time to perfect my technique.

I haven’t made them every year.  But I will make them this year.  I think IEP would like them very much.  And I want his memories of them to be as ingrained as my own.

Weekly Allowance

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

It’s allowance time again.  Here are my favorite articles, posts, videos, and links from the past week or so.

Fish Farming – This slide show at The Huffington Post gives an interesting perspective on the ecological effects of fish farming.  I was relieved to learn the tilapia and oysters are eco-friendly.  I was disappointed to learn that shrimp are not.

PS22 – Ezra Klein at The Washington Post writes a daily blog on domestic and economic policy.  His Lunch Break posts, however, are some of my favorites.  He recently highlighted the PS22 Chorus, from an elementary school on Staten Island.  Watching these kids sing their hearts out had me completely slack-jawed.  You can watch them here and here.  

Pioneer Woman – Well, I’m fashionably late to the party on this one, but I was just recently turned onto the Pioneer Woman.  Since then I’ve killed hours trolling her site picking up recipes, photography tips, and riotous stories about her life on the ranch.

It’s Only Tuesday – This article from The Onion is old.  But as I sat in a long and boring meeting on Tuesday it came to mind.  It is exactly how I felt.  Thankfully, the week picked up on Wednesday…

We All Work – This post by Aidan Donnelley Rowley at Ivy League Insecurities really struck a nerve with me.  She brings the truth with this one.  The comments are also quite telling.