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Archive for November, 2012

What Really Matters

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

This is a tricky time of year when it comes to the word “meaningful.”  For many of us, Thanksgiving serves as the gateway holiday into a six-week period of major ambivalence.  We think Rockwellian thoughts of hearth, home, and family.  And yet we run down our metaphorical batteries with errands and obligations that make us anything but happy.  We have idealized visions of what this time of year should be, but somehow our very attempts to realize those visions dismantle them, one ironic piece at a time.

What is it about the pursuit of “what really matters” that causes us to sacrifice everything that really matters?  Why, in the name of family and togetherness, do we spend most of December fighting traffic in mall parking lots?  Why, in the name of homemade baked goods, do I sacrifice multiple leisurely evenings with my husband?  Why are we so prone to let the holiday season – which is marketed with rosy cheeks and roaring fires – turn into stress and drudgery?

As we sit down to make our list of New Year’s resolutions at some point during the upcoming month we inevitably take stock of ourselves – strengths and weaknesses alike – and earmark for improvement those things we wish were different.  And while I am a believer in this exercise, I think the timing is a bit inopportune.  On the one hand it allows us to indulge in the holiday season’s guilty pleasures with reckless abandon.  But on the other hand it also enables us to adopt the mindset of “just getting through” the holidays and thereby let them devolve into an empty shell of their actual purpose and potential.

This year I’ve found myself with a rare and unexpected gift – some extra time.  Every December since we were married, GAP and I have thrown a Christmas party.  It has traditionally been the Saturday after GAP’s company party, and usually ends up being the week before Christmas.  But this year everything is shifted up a week, leaving me two full weeks before Christmas but after our party circuit winds down.  When I realized that this was the case I was initially flustered at the short turnaround time, but ultimately embraced it when I realized that two full weeks of decidedly lower-key holiday merriment would follow.

And so, in an effort not to destroy those two weeks of quietude with the side effects of procrastination, I am making some Holiday Resolutions for myself:

  1. I know what I need to get most of my recipients, and will take advantage of that fact by shopping now.
  2. I will shop online as much as possible to prevent unnecessary trips into jungle-caliber malls and shopping centers.  I will consider shipping fees a reasonable price for sanity.
  3. I will wrap presents as I buy them, not in one marathon session on December 23rd.   I will not wrap late at night.  And I will not wrap without a mug of hot chocolate or glass of red wine nearby.  (I love wrapping, but it’s easy for it to become a chore if I procrastinate and don’t take any care in setting a pleasant ambiance.)
  4. I will not worry about mailing holiday cards until after our party has been thrown.
  5. I will not obligate myself to cook 85 different varieties of cookies for coworkers.

As with any goal, I don’t know how successful I will be.  But experience has shown me that I’ll come much closer to my ideal by the mere act of identifying goals.  I want this Christmas season to leave me room for what really matters.

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This post was originally published in November of 2010.  With Thanksgiving falling early this year I have the same extra week between our annual holiday party and actual Christmas.  So this post is ringing as true to me today as it did two years ago and I thought it worth reposting.

A Legitimate Question

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

Only recently have I begun to lie about my age.  I’m perfectly willing to concede that I’m 35.  But when I reach the end of a Boden product review entry and am asked to categorize my age I just can’t bring myself to check the 35-44 box.  I always check the 25-34 box.  Thirty-five is one thing.  But I’m not yet ready to reconcile myself to the fact that I’m part of an age category that includes 44-year-olds.  I’m pretty sure that it’s okay for me to avoid unpleasantries about my age, though, because I am not the House Minority Leader.

Yesterday, as she announced that she intends to keep her current post as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi grew offended when NBC reporter Luke Russert asked her about whether that decision damaged the Democratic party by preventing younger leadership from taking the reins.  As soon as the question was out of his mouth the congregation of women standing behind Pelosi cried foul.  ”Age discrimination!” they shouted.  Russert (bully for him) held his ground, though, repeating the question and pressing for an answer.  Pelosi then remarked. “Let’s for a moment honor it as a legitimate question, although it’s quite offensive. You don’t realize that, I guess.”

Now I know the old saying goes that a lady never reveals her age,* but I’m here to say that I think that women (at least women in public service) shouldn’t get a pass on this issue any more.  Once upon a time there was a much thicker glass ceiling than there is today.  Women didn’t serve in houses of Congress, on boards of directors, or on the United States Supreme Court.  Slowly, though, we’ve chipped away at that glass and today women fill all sorts of leadership roles.  This progress is both wonderful and warranted.  But just as women’s merits should be held in as much esteem as men’s, so should our accountability be challenged as persistently.

By asserting that Russert’s question was offensive Pelosi tried to give herself a pass, to move on without answering it.  It sort of pains me to say it, but no man would have done that.  The ages of Reagan and McCain were widely discussed during their presidential administrations and campaigns.  I wasn’t following politics very closely in the early ’80s, but I followed the 2008 presidential race energetically and never once did I see McCain avoid a question about his age.  He consistently responded that he was in excellent physical and mental health, and that his age had provided him a full set of life experiences that would guide his leadership of the country.  These are fair questions in the political arena, and if women want to go toe-to-toe with men in elected office we can’t ask for special treatment on certain topics.  Part of shedding the sexist limitations of our nation’s past is also shedding some of the chivalrous protections that went along with it.  Russert’s question was a legitimate one, even if women of Pelosi’s generation don’t like to think so.

In retrospect what surprised me most about Pelosi’s initial “How dare you!” response was that once she got past it and gave a real answer, it was a good one.  She talked about not having entered Congress until much later in life than her male counterparts and her resulting awareness of the need to elect young women to the House.  She talked about her efforts to shepherd younger representatives into positions of leadership.  She made it clear that her maintenance of her current role is in no way detrimental to the grooming of younger leadership.  (Whether or not you agree with that is a different question altogether.  My point here is that she had an eloquent answer.)

In a way I think Mrs. Pelosi weakened herself with her knee-jerk rejection of Russert’s question.  She should have embraced it.  In doing so she would have conveyed confidence in her tenure and her experience.  Her eventual answer about working to facilitate younger leadership would have rung true.  And the headlines following the press conference would have focused more on her leadership and less on her age.

No elder statesman has ever apologized for his age.  No elder stateswoman should either.

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*To this day the age of cosmetics legend Mary Kay Ash is only an estimate.

A Springboard to Accomplishment

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

When we are being honest we will admit that our culture isn’t perfect.  This is true of every culture on the planet.  We all have our strengths, but we also have our weaknesses.  And unless we are willing to cop to those weaknesses, they will continue to plague us.  I started thinking about this yesterday after listening to this piece on Morning Edition about Eastern vs. Western perspectives on struggle.

The piece begins with a poignant description of a fourth grade classroom in Japan.  As the children are being taught to draw three-dimensional cubes on two-dimensional paper it is the child who is having the most trouble with the lesson who is selected to do his work on the board.  Reporter Alix Spiegel aptly notes that in the U.S. this would be considered cruel and unusual.  We would never want to publicly humiliate a child by announcing his failure to grasp the material.

In the Japanese classroom, though, the reaction is vastly different.  As the child fails to get it right and repeatedly keeps trying, the other students patiently wait (apparently without any kind of teasing or mockery – that alone impressed me a great deal) until he finally mastered the cube, at which point his fellow students broke out into applause.  In Eastern cultures this kind of struggle is part and parcel of the learning process; something to be embraced and conquered rather than a source of shame or inadequacy.

My children are growing up smack dab in the middle of America.  We’re doing our best to expose our kids to a variety of cultures, and to help them understand at a core level that there are lots of different approaches to life.  The fact remains, though, that in this part of the country long-standing cultural norms are strong and not often diluted by influences from other cultures.  We will have to work hard to infiltrate those norms with awareness of different paths.  This may be easy enough when another culture’s way of doing something is more fun or interesting.  But getting kids to sign up for more struggle is going to be a tough sell.

Already IEP is reluctant to keep after something that he finds tricky.  When a sweater sleeve gets turned wrong-side out he comes to me to right it.  When he gets to the final few bites of oatmeal in the bottom of the bowl he asks for help in scooping them out.  And far too often (work- and school-day mornings do not lend themselves to embracing struggle…) I oblige him.  There are times, though, when I decline.  When he can’t find a puzzle piece and wants me to help him look.  When he turns a backwards shirt around on his own because I’m in the shower.  When he cuts his food with the side of his fork because I’m busy feeding his brother.  And in these situations, when he figures it out for himself, his pride and satisfaction are palpable.

I try in these moments to point out to him how capable he is, and how good it feels to do something successfully even though it was hard.  I think I need to step back even further, though.  Explaining to a four-year-old in abstract terms that “Isn’t it nice to have a genuine sense of accomplishment?” won’t get us to a place where he fully embraces struggle as a part of learning.  We are all steeped in the belief that it is superior to find things easy in the first place, rather than to conquer things that are hard.  Overcoming that belief will require us all to experience firsthand the value of the struggle.

Struggle is uncomfortable for most of us.  We don’t see it as the springboard to accomplishment.  But perhaps with time - and some struggle itself – we can.

Mandate Schmandate?

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Everyone’s talking about the mandate* and it makes me cringe a little bit.

While I’m not afraid of expressing a controversial opinion on this blog, I typically try to avoid Red vs. Blue politics here.  I will say today, though, (not that it will surprise many of you) that I’m pleased with the election results and optimistic about what the next four years will hold for our country.  Nevertheless, I really don’t like all this talk of a mandate.

The premise, of course, is that when a candidate wins by some margin wider than a hairline fracture he or she is entitled to make sweeping changes rather than ”tinkering around at the edges,” as GAP put it to me last night.  My initial response to that was that anyone who is elected President of the United States had better be doing more than tinkering around at the edges.  Yet I still struggle with the mandate.

My objection is that it’s arrogant – that it implies some sort of carte blanche permission to ignore the other side and use your victory to push and shove whatever legislation you want into reality.  And I don’t believe that’s any way to lead a nation where very nearly half of the voting public cast their ballot for the other guy.  For the record, I don’t think President Obama operates this way.  Rather, it is within the media punditry that it keeps popping up.  This is still relevant, though, because we hear from media personalities far more than we hear from the president (he’s a bit on the busy side), so their nonstop yammering has a significant influence on how he is perceived.

My bristling at the mandate was briefly quelled by this post at The New Republic which eloquently addresses the broader impact of President Obama’s re-election and the message it sends about what kind of America we want to be in the future.  Reading it I nodded at the discussion of the “referendum on liberalism” and agree that if the nation voted against that referendum then those votes should mean something.  So it isn’t so much the behavior underneath a supposed mandate that bothers me as it is the rhetoric piled on top of it.

As it turns out, I’m apparently in good company.  Yesterday Ezra Klein tweeted “There’s no such thing as mandate. There’s only what you can get done with the Congress the Voters have [given] you.”  And this morning on Morning Joe David Axelrod said of the mandate, “That’s a foolish word and it’s generally untrue.” **  Thanks for having my back, guys!

So why-oh-why, then, must people parade about speaking as though Democrats have been given a permission slip to bully the right into submission?  The Republican party dug its heels in with far-right candidates in a number of races (Akin, Mourdock, etc.) and lost.  I don’t see how rubbing their faces in it with talk of a mandate is going to make anything better.  These are polarizing times and if we’re going to get anything worthwhile done in the next four years it’s going to be because both sides were willing to cede some ground for the common good.  Given the losses the Republicans suffered in this election they may have to cede more ground than their Democratic counterparts, but it’s still a two-way street.

I’m glad the president won himself a second term.  I’m excited to see what he does with it.  I think he is an accomplished and diplomatic negotiator.  I just wish the media would quit obfuscating that fact with all of this hubbub about a mandate.

*Mandate mentions can be found here, here, here, and many other places.

**See the 3:35 mark for the beginning of this discussion.

The Crucible of Too Much

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

The first dinner party I ever threw wasn’t exactly a disaster.  That’s pretty much the only good thing I can say about it.

GAP and I were newly married and we decided to have people over for dinner on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend.  Ten of them.  We had just moved into our first apartment together.  We were excited.  We kept inviting people.  When it was all said and done I had somehow managed to sign myself up for preparing a seated dinner for 12.  (Did I mention that this was my first dinner party?)  I won’t drag you through the details of it (thankfully most of them are hazy), but my primary memories include: gaspacho dip spilling all over my counter just before people started arriving, the enchiladas not being properly sauced and therefor ending up as tough as roof shingles, and barely seeing any of our guests because I was stuck in the kitchen up to my eyeballs in the realization that I’d bitten off way more than I could chew.

I suppose that if, after surviving that evening, I’d run for the hills with no intention of ever hosting anything again it would have been a justifiable moratorium.  Nevertheless, I’m glad I didn’t.  Because now, eight years later, I’m here to say that I think I’ve more or less cracked the code on entertaining.  That code?  It’s such a cliché I’m loathe to type it: Less is more.

At the time I’d watched enough episodes of Barefoot Contessa to understand the merits of making things in advance, choosing simple but tasty dishes, and not planning an event so demanding that you have no chance of actually enjoying it.  And yet it took me years of failed attempts at breezy, effortless entertaining before I finally got it through my thick skull.  I think somehow I felt I had to prove myself through the crucible of overdoing it before I gained the confidence to dial it down a knotch.  But now that I’ve hosted eight holiday cocktail parties, three Christmas dinners, three Easter dinners, one bridal shower, one baby shower, and countless smaller gatherings I have a better understanding of what constitutes a success.  This past weekend was the culmination of all that I’ve learned: Think about what your guests will find enjoyable, not what they will find impressive.  A stressed-out hostess makes for a stressful party.  And simple food is usually better than fancy food.  That’s it.

SSP’s first birthday party was Saturday, and family members started rolling into town Thursday evening.  Over the course of four days I served four different meals – two suppers, a lunch, and a breakfast – each without too much stress or incident.*  I spent none of them in the kitchen in a crazed dash throwing together last-minute dishes.  I sat down and enjoyed the company of my guests.  And we all gobbled up the food.

When I turned 35 earlier this fall I had many mixed emotions about it.  There is much about the excitement and anticipation of striking out into the world of adulthood for the first time that I miss.  But for every experience that was once exciting and is now ordinary there is another one that was once stressful and is now comfortable.  I enjoy the parties we throw so much more now than I did in the beginning.  I wish I could go back in time and take Ina’s advice to heart at a younger age.  But some things we must learn for ourselves.

*My sister did bail me out on Saturday morning by getting the salad prepared while I dealt with an almost-four-year-old who had decided that the excitement of company was as good a reason as any to completely ignore me.

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In the event that you’re interested, my menus this past weekend were:

Thursday Supper
Turkey burgers and tossed green salad

Friday Supper
Butternut Squash Soup (minus the ginger, half the cumin, plus about 2 tsp of brown sugar)
Two loaves of crusty bread
Three kinds each of cheese and charcuterie plus apple wedges scattered on a big carving board
Caramelized Vanilla Ice Cream (minus the salt, plus 1 Tbs vanilla extract)
Pepperidge Farm cookies

Saturday Lunch (Birthday Party)
Pulled Pork Sliders
Potato Torte (minus the summer squash)
Ricotta and Red Onion Pizza (dough ball purchased from neighborhood pizza joint)
Tossed Green Salad
Birthday Cake

Sunday Breakfast
Roasted Pear and Chocolate Chunk Scones
Scrambled Eggs

PS – In the event that you didn’t notice from the links above, I am a huge fan of SmittenKitchen.com.  Her readership is literally 8,000 times greater than mine.  (Seriously.  I did the math.)  So I don’t expect that my little plug here will carry much weight.  But her first cookbook was just released last week I’ve spent every spare moment since last Friday pouring over my copy.  If you’ve never read her, check out the blog.  And if you like the blog, do yourself a favor and buy the book!


A Well Informed Electorate

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

This is sort of a cheat post because I’m getting ready for much of my extended family to start getting into town to celebrate SSP’s first birthday.  But I had a thought that piqued my interest, and I’m curious about your perspective.

I was chatting with my sister the other day who mentioned that she’d just dropped her ballot into the mail.  She lives in Oregon, which is one of two states that permits voting by mail.  Ballots are mailed to the homes of registered voters about three weeks prior to an election, at which point voters fill them out and return them either by mail, or at a designated drop-off location.  She mentioned in passing that voting by mail has facilitated some of the most informed voting she’s done.

While voting by mail doesn’t necessarily change how she might vote for a race as big as the presidency, it has a lot of impact on how she votes in local elections and on various ballot initiatives.  Rather than showing up at the poll, finding herself unfamiliar with various propositions, and then not voting on them, she reads them on her mailed ballot, researches them, and then casts her vote.  I find this to be a wonderful antidote to so much of the uninformed voting that I suspect goes on.

I wonder, though, if this “do your homework” approach is just a quirk of my sister’s.  She’s a highly academic person with a strong proclivity for studies of all kinds.  So it’s not surprising that she would go about it this way.  But would you?  Do you think your votes would be better informed if elections were conducted as a take-home, open-book exam, rather than a pop quiz?