From the Ukraine, With Love

My friend, Henry, brought me a crock of sour dough bread starter, aka ‘mother,’ the other day, along with instructions on its care and feeding. He also brought a recipe for a Rustic Loaf, and directed me to a You Tube video that featured Julia Child, looking remarkably lively, and Nancy Silverton, who has seized the French Chef baton as regards sour dough bread making.

I watched the 11-minute video start to finish, then baulked at the recommended technique for forming of the loaf – all that parchment paper and dough flipping — and the constant spraying the oven necessary to produce the characteristic crisp crust. I’m basically someone who will always choose a simpler method if its available, and not just in the kitchen. We’re talking bread here, not Baked Alaska or the great American novel. Bread, no matter how perfect, is quickly eaten and soon forgotten. Or so I said to myself, as I rummaged for another recipe.

SourdoughBut not so fast. The fact is, the arrival of Henry’s starter in my house has revived fond memories of my mother’s way with sour dough and how it all came about. It seems that my mother, a Burma-born immigrant and self-taught cook, became fast friends with a Ukrainian-Canadian[1] (I suspect they were members of the same curling club). The friend shared a sour dough starter she had nurtured for decades, along with instructions on how to keep it going. If the starter hadn’t actually landed in Canada with the friend, then the family recipe certainly had. In other words, it goes back.

Mom stored hers in glass jars and took such good care of it, it lived there happily for decades, through daily feedings, transfers to clean jars, and used often to bake bread, rolls, biscuits and so on. Knowing her enthusiasm and generosity, it was probably shared widely with other friends.

Whenever my parents visited us from their home in Edmonton, Mom would ‘import’ – smuggle, actually – a small quantity of Ukrainian ‘mother’ in an airtight glass jar wrapped in underwear and tucked into her carryon bag. Never mind that my father looked askance at this unlawful practice. In those pre-TSA days, the chance this affable grandmother would be questioned, let alone searched, at the U.S. Canadian border, was nil.

Once we got home, Mom would transfer the starter to a glass bowl and beat in equal parts of unbleached flour and whole milk to ‘feed’ it and let it recover from its long journey. Then, having recovered from her own travels, she would produce the first batch of biscuits. In the next days, she took over the kitchen, turning our breads for the family and eventually, our neighbors, with a breathtaking command of her materials and technique. “And when did you say your Mom was visiting …” (Bob and Sally next door.)

If you let it, sour dough starter can take over your kitchen, if not your life, very much like an exotic pet, which is what Henry calls his. I haven’t given mine a name, yet. The starter goes to sleep in the refrigerator (and suspended animation in freezer, according to Mom) and is quickly revived with a feeding. You need to smell and taste it to make sure it is thriving before proceeding with a recipe.

Like all fermentation processes, sour dough starter depends on the capture of wild yeast that is all around us – a process common to the making of beer, wine, yogurt, sauerkraut, and cheeses. In the Julia Child video, Nancy Silverton demonstrated this yeast-capture technique using a bunch of grapes placed in a bundle of cheesecloth, lightly mashed with a wooden mallet, then placed into a batter of room temperature flour and water. As this mix starts to ferment, you see tiny bubbles forming in the batter. It seems magical, but it’s basic food chemistry. For a newbie to sour dough, this is a bit like witnessing a birth.

A regular practice of making anything at home these days is a declaration of independence from the dominant culture. Beyond that, I’m pleased to be a miniscule contributor to the growing interest in the microbiome, the vast collection of microorganisms that essentially colonize every body, contributing to health and/or disease. We literally, as Walt Whitman put it, ‘contain multitudes.’

It’s a good thought to hold in your mind while you’re kneading a batch of sour dough bread. I froze a cupful of Henry’s starter, in case I managed to kill off the sample (it happens). So far, I’ve made two traditional loaves (one for the freezer), and last night, I made whole wheat sour dough pita to go with the labneh – a yogurt cheese, dressed with olive oil and Zaatar, a Lebanese spice mix. Here’s the pita recipe in case you want to follow me down this delightful rabbit hole.

As I shaped the springy, risen dough into lemon-sized portions, then pressed and rolled them into pita to be cooked in an iron skillet, I could almost sense my mother at my side, beaming.

[1] Canada, it turns out, has the world’s third-largest population beside Ukraine itself and Russia.

Further reading:

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life Ed Yong

The Art of Eating, M.F.K. Fisher (available at your public library)

 

 

 

 

 

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Fast Fashion, Landfill Forever

Outside my front door right now are three bags of perfectly good, wearable clothing, my latest donation to the Vietnam Vets. Do I feel slightly virtuous about recycling what we no longer need? Well, I used to until I realized that far more of my discards than I realized were winding up in landfill. Only about 20% of clothing discards is recycled, and countries like India and China are swamped even so. The remaining 80%  goes directly to landfill. Cotton degrades in 1-5 months. Nylon: 30-40 years. Rubber-based products, never.

Of course, that is not the focus of Marie Kondo, the declutter and organizing coach whose new Netflix show has single-handedly caused a surge in donations to Goodwill, Salvation Army and Hospice thrift shops. But maybe she could be paying more attention to what causes all those over-stuffed closets and drawers in the first place.

The Guardian addressed the front end of this worsening problem with an opinion piece well worth our attention:  How to cure the shopping addiction that’s destroying our planet. Heavy-handed? Well, maybe not. Dig a little deeper and up pops this quote from a BBC piece: “The environmental footprint of today’s fashion industry is extraordinary, making it one of the top five most polluting industries on earth, up there with the petrochemical industry.” This covers the whole process of textile production and the making of clothing, not just what happens in landfills. Fast fashion, the mix of demand-creation aimed typically at the young, and the response of retailers needing to ‘refresh’ their collections as often as every two weeks with inexpensive clothing  — much of which is manufactured in sweat shop conditions (another story) — is a significant part of the problem with The Fashion Industry, one it can no longer ignore (see Sustain Your Style).

OK, we get it. Apart from turning toward thrift stores to replenish our wardrobes, what can we do? The three R’s of how to minimize one’s stuff in general works perfectly for one’s clothing: Reuse — go shopping in your closet, or in the closet of a same-size friend, for that upcoming gala. Host a clothing swap for fun or charity. Or rent your next formal wear, like guys have done forever. Ditto, specialized gear for sports. Repair: one of the gifts my mother gave me that I most appreciate, is a love of sewing, both by hand and with an electric sewing machine. I can now speak hemming in two languages, and have become G-Ma go-to when jeans or Scout uniforms need shortening.

Recycle comes in last now that we realize the true cost to the planet. So what about a new slant on Refresh? This could be anything from altering your existing clothing in good condition so they fit you better — some cleaners offer this service for a fee —  or shortening or lengthening pants or shirt sleeves yourself. You can dye, or tie-dye, those tees that are so wonderfully soft with wear. Or, if slashed. distressed jeans are your thing (not mine), you could work magic with some sharp scissors applied in strategic places.

JacketsSince my spouse branched out creatively with a collection of weirdly wonderful masks (available as wall art or on t-shirts, cushions, mugs, totes, etc. from FineArtsAmerica), I got excited about putting versions of his original images on our old denim jackets.  Your local art supplier will sell you a medium to convert acrylics so that they can be painted directly on fabric. Now it occurs to me that jeans or cloth sneakers could also be perfect for this kind of customization. Wear your art! Here’s a bunch more ideas for DIY wardrobe hacks at Etsy  Who knows, your next side hustle could be a line of repurposed clothing.

Read more:

Top Apps in swap and trade

Remake — turning fashion into a force for good.

Worn Again new resources

Love: Engine of Survival

Love’s the only engine of survival – Leonard Cohen, The Future

60 Minutes is almost always interesting, and occasionally infuriating. But Sunday, January 13, 2019, it rose to heights that resonate specifically with my interest in the mysteries of the consciousness and cognition, and how love and compassion seem to endure in the worst of times.

First, the interview between Scott Pelley and Kai-Fu Lee, an American-educated Chinese billionaire venture capitalist who believes AI (artificial intelligence) will “change the world more than anything in the history of mankind. More than electricity.” And, this veteran of Silicon Valley, also believes China is moving more quickly in this field, and in unexpected ways, that his former colleagues have yet to recognize.

As you might intuit, jobs of the future – or rather which ones will be made redundant by AI – got a lot of play. According to Kai-Fu Lee, some 40% of jobs, both blue and white collar, will be “displaceable” in 15 years, yes, even some service jobs. One caveat (maybe): “… in some sense there is the human wisdom that always overcomes … technology revolutions.”

2-hearts-1-heart-consciousnessAs Axios (a favorite news source in my household) puts it: Go Deeper. For an understanding of what China is accomplishing with AI, enter its classrooms. Using facial and emotional intelligence technology delivered via handheld tablet, AI is giving teachers instant feedback about their best and brightest students, and also which students need extra help and support.

And here’s what really got me: this is not an elite private school advantage. Kai-Fu Lee’s pet project is to project gifted teachers into some of the poorest classrooms in the country. Given the mess of public education in the US, that should send a chill down the spine of every administrator, teacher and parent in the country. Not to mention our political and corporate leadership.

And BTW, China’s youth is even more wired than their age cohort in the rest of the world, and no one there seems particularly upset about the loss of privacy. Are we Americans being seduced into placing our attention on things of questionable value? And to what end? Thoughts? Your comments might inspire a future post.

But it was the conclusion of the AI segment that convinced me this was the most valuable 12 minutes I have spent with a screen of any size in recent memory. The exchange (slightly abbreviated):

Pelley: When will we know that a machine can actually think like a human?

Kai-Fu Lee: … not within the next 30 years. Possibly never…I believe in the sanctity of our soul…a lot of love and compassion that is not explainable in terms of neural networks and computation algorithms. And I current see no way of solving them.

Pelley: We may just be more than our bits?

Kai-Fu Lee: We may.

Lastly, to my original point about the mysteries of cognition and the power of love, I urge you to stick around for the final 60 Minutes segment, A Different Kind of Vision, Leslie Stahl’s report on how Chris Downey, an architect who lost his sight to a brain tumor, has returned to his work – “I’m a kid again. I’m relearning so much of architecture…about what I had been missing” — and to a favorite family activity: playing baseball with his son.

Read more:
The ‘Oracle of A.I.’: These 4 kinds of jobs will not be replaced by robots

60 Minutes/Vanity Fair Poll: Artificial Intelligence

 

Crossfire

For some time, Mondays have been my day to write without distraction or interruption. My practice is to write something every day, even if it’s a note in the margin of a book, a few lines, or a paragraph in longhand. I got into the habit of keeping a journal in a poetry workshop decades ago. It began with an assignment for Lawrence Raab’s poetry class at Bread Loaf Summer Session, 1979. We were to keep our notebooks handy and jot down whatever caught our attention; sights, sounds — a bit of overheard conversation was my favorite — anything that could conceivably serve as material for a poem.  I kept at it throughout my 6 week session and I may have written one or two poems I considered worthy of reading in public, that is, to the assembled student body. I still write poetry in spurts, then let the well refill for a while. But journaling stuck.

The latter half of the Bread Loaf notebook, stained with coffee cup rings and ink blots, was an account of the confusion and pain of my collapsing marriage, trying to support my children through the breakup, while trying complete my degree on time.

Nowadays, I use the journal to keep sane in an insane time, to express gratitude for a privileged life that I deserve no more than anyone else, and yes, to document thoughts, feelings and ideas for further development. Blog posts, say, or maybe even poems. But today, inspiration for this post came from the dark side, a startling reminder of how close and interconnected we are, with our often trivial First World ‘problems’ (shopping for eyewear that fits and flatters) to a world where life-shattering violence, most of it from guns, has helped turn one metropolitan hospital into a nationally-recognized triage center.

Connecting the dots: my spouse is a volunteer with a state-wide mentoring program that pairs him with high school students who are designated at risk. Perhaps their families are untraditional in some way — a single parent household typically — coupled with financial need. Many students represent the immigrant community, and are bilingual and multi-cultural. The program’s goal is to help qualifying students escape the cycle of poverty through higconnect dotsher education, and some 24,000 children have been served to date in all 67 counties.

Mentees accepted into the program who graduate high school are awarded two years of paid tuition to any Florida institution of higher learning that accepts them. Obviously, good grades are a must for those who aspire to the more prestigious schools like University of Central Florida or UF Gainesville. For even those who manage just to graduate, there is the fine community college option at no cost to them. These students also get the academic help they need, but the role of volunteer mentors like my spouse is to support and encourage their students to complete their high school education. A sort of motivational coach.

His current student, the second American-born of Haitian descent he has mentored, is a star, both academically and athletically, who already displays a keen interest in and aptitude for business. He maintained the grades for a top-rated school and has already been accepted by the university of his choice.  He’s also mature, personable, and it would appear that he has been able to rise above the family and financial challenges of his earlier life.

So today, while I was at my desk pounding the keys as usual, the two met in the lunch period as is their practice.  I fully expect my spouse to return ebullient from these regular meetings, eager to bring me up to date on his student with whom he has forged a strong relationship. But I could see immediately his mood was different as soon as he walked in. Turns out, his student would be leaving school early today to visit the family of a neighborhood friend who was gunned down last night. Beyond that detail, he didn’t want to talk about it. What I want to know is, how will this ambitious, smart 18-year-old live with these memories. How will we?

Lin-Manuel Who?

Hamilton is playing at the Broward Center for the Arts and there are still a few tickets left as of today, Balcony Row M for $159. Of course, in New York City, the ‘cheap seats’ are going for $438, and Orchestra? If you have to ask …

Flashback to the summer of 2015. We’re in New York City —  in a borrowed apartment on the Upper West Side — when it was suggested to us that we get into an early morning line at the Richard Rogers Theater to score a couple of tickets at deep discount. Hamilton had opened at the Public Theater to critical acclaim, and now the Broadway run was just starting. Maybe I’d been away from the big city and annual theater subscriptions for too long. I just remember thinking something like Hamilton, Schamilton. Lin-Manuel who? For a grandson who had committed the Hamilton lyrics to heart, this may have been the moment he realized these grandparents were just human after all.

It’s human to regret the roads not taken, and perhaps there is an evolutionary purpose for wondering what might have been. Will having blown it with Hamilton be a regret I’ll carry to my grave? Not likely. For one thing, the movie will be here soon enough, and I’ll be able to hear and understand those rap lyrics better than I could in Row M. For another, the missteps and stumbles of life are a chance to re-do, re-set, carry on better.

We have lived for nearly a decade in a well-maintained townhouse community, remarkable for the reticence of its residents. True, a certain percentage of us are seasonal and others are in the 9-5 workforce. Whatever the reason, most residents keep to themselves, hidden by garages and patio walls. Just as co-housing is designed for connection and interaction, ours seems organized to keep people apart. As we learned last Fall, even if the HOA rules don’t forbid canvassing, such activity is unusual and not warmly received in our community. With a relatively small number of families with children, even Halloween here is pretty muted.

A young family in the next townhouse to ours was expecting their second child. We were on friendly terms with Lauren and Eric largely because our paths regularly crossed. They were often outside, playing on the grassy area with their little girl and puppy, while our routine includes daily walking or biking. We were the nonconformists, you might say. Eric worked from home, and you’d see him heading off for a run when Lauren came home for lunch from her nearby job. When Lauren’s pregnancy became evident, I made a mental note of her due date so I could bake some blueberry muffins and stop in when their new baby came home. No doubt I was remembering my New Jersey neighborhood, where every life event, even the sad ones,  occasioned an outpouring of baked goods and casseroles. Like an extremely inclusive church or temple.

The happy day arrived. Eric and Lauren’s home was swarming with grandparents and visitors, balloons and covered dishes, and somehow the moment for that extra measure of neighborliness passed. We spent more of that Summer away, and the next thing I knew, their baby boy was taking his first steps. And then, just as swiftly, their home was on the market and they were moving out of the area. To a larger place with a yard, they said. I wasn’t surprised, just sad for what might have been.

These days, I’m conscious of making an effort to greet and make eye contact with neighbors or the people I pass on my exercise route, whether regulars or not. Husky, right? Beautiful dog! Hey, great shot. Winter at last! Terrific haircut.

A quiet 40-something single man replaced the family next door with the trio of noisy dogs, and Italian-speaking nonna whose spaghetti sauce wafted into my kitchen (the silver lining). Our new neighbor apologized in advance for the ruckus of his renovations (which were extensive). In short order, we met his parents, exchanged coffee cakes, and stood chatting in each other’s space. I don’t want to overstate this, but it feels as if I took the right fork this time.

Making Connections

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” ~ John Muir

Worthy of your attention: two films this past weekend that are unlikely to capture any of the big movie industry prizes and yet, taken together, are indeed ‘hitched’ to each other and to the current state of our union. One is set in the nation’s capital and the other, deep in Mike Pence country. I recommend you see both with a group of friends and follow-up with a conversation, maybe more.

trailer-hitch-towbarFirst, The Front Runner, starring Hugh Jackman as Senator Gary Hart and Vera Farmiga as his wife, Lee, J.K. Simmons as Hart’s campaign director, Alfred Molina as Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post, along with a great ensemble cast. Based on the book, All the Truth is Out by Matt Bai, the narrative follows the rise and fall of the senator from Colorado who hoped to challenge the belief that the West had yet to produce a president.  Gary Hart had everything going for him: he was attractive, experienced, smart, and he had good ideas for the country. He also had a rocky marital history that would surprise no one given the times, and one that had not kept others from occupying the Oval Office, before or since.

One take away from the film: Hart, who was leading in all the polls, had the misfortune to be running for president at the exact moment when the media, that heretofore had kept a “gentleman’s” (sic) silence on the private lives of politicians, decided that everything was fair game. If films like All the President’s Men and, more recently, The Post, depict journalism as a noble, even heroic, calling, Front Runner flips to the dark, conspiratorial side you’ll find all too familiar.

Today, the line between news and entertainment has become so blurred in search of eyeballs for advertisers, it’s wise to adopt a healthy skepticism toward even your favorite, most trusted news outlets.  I’m troubled that 60 Minutes gives so much free airtime to the current occupant of the White House. And why always opposite Leslie Stahl? Did we really need to squirm through Anderson Cooper’s interview with Stormy Daniels when the important part of the story was the payoff and possible obstruction of justice? How many New Yorker covers devoted to #45 are enough to keep that much-loved magazine afloat?  The Front Runner argues that the 1988 Hart campaign was the turning point in reporting on politics, and suggests that we, the American public, paid a price and continue to pay it.

If you doubt this, consider the actual footage (shown in the film) from Johnny Carson’s opening monologue about the breaking scandal. Here’s Johnny, rocking on his heels, bringing down the ‘front runner’ by describing the meeting between Hart and Donna Rice on — smirk, smirk  — the party boat to Bimini called Monkey Business. Of course, Carson was soon joined by Joan Rivers and David Letterman also piled on.  By the standards of Saturday Night Live, this is pretty tame stuff. Don’t get me wrong: I think comics like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver, are performing a public service when they mock those in high places for their corruption and lawless behavior in the performance of their official duties. The gratuitous, graphic details of consenting adult relationships: porn by any other name.

Consider also Gary Hart’s announcement of his withdrawal from the race at his press conference, quoted in the film: “Politics in this country – take it from me – is on the verge of becoming another form of athletic competition or sporting match. We all better do something to make this system work or we’re all going to be soon rephrasing Jefferson to say: I tremble for my country when I think we may, in fact, get the kind of leaders we deserve.” For his entire speech, click here.  The film’s last words: Gary and Lee Hart are still together.

Monrovia, Indiana, another masterpiece from Frederick Wiseman, our longest living documentarian (88), runs 143 minutes as if to bring home in personal terms the tedium and minutiae of the lives of Monrovia, (pop 1,063). If you’ve not experienced a Wiseman film, you may find his story-telling approach unusual to say the least: sans narrative, sans interviews, sans music, is it cinéma vérité American style. Made shortly after the 2016 election (with little doubt how the town voted), Monrovia, Indiana brings you into the life of the town (and thousands others like it, by implication) via a fly-on-the-wall view at a town council meeting debating, longer than most would sit still for, one bench vs. two for the library. The camera takes you inside a barbershop, a beauty salon, a tattoo parlor, an animal hospital (alert: very graphic). You’re in the high school classroom among the bored-to-death students, being lectured about the town’s days of basketball glory. You’re in a gun store as the proprietor and a customer weigh the pros and cons of certain models, while a poster on the wall declares: Gun Control Is Holding With Two Hands. You’re testing mattresses with the wife in the gym. You see pigs being marked for slaughter and herded into a truck, a couple of them trying to turn back. You see the impact of Big Ag in single crop fields, pesticide spraying, and massive, labor-saving equipment. Scripture affirms that a wife ‘is subject to’ her husband at a wedding ceremony, and the wedding singer, the only person of color, sings “Always.” More scripture quoted at the closing scene of a funeral, affirms the deceased is ‘at home.’ We observe the casket being lowered, the clods of earth piled on top.

There’s big trouble here in the Heartland, and though the opioid epidemic is not mentioned, you can’t help but think of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Monrovia is struggling with water issues; conflict over a new development, though the town needs the taxes; soil-depleting farming practices; restless young; elders, some sick, some obese, some who have ‘run out of gas.’ And this before climate change — heat waves, bigger storms — rolls over this unprepared region and its citizens.

We Americans tend to romanticize our small towns*, and there are many scenes of pastoral beauty in Monrovia, Indiana, as well as a sense of public service, decency, honest labor, and neighborliness among its citizens. For the most part, A.O. Scott’s New York Times review celebrates those qualities, while also noting this is “a slice of red-state America at a time of fierce political polarization.” I saw on the faces a quiet desperation of which Henry David Thoreau wrote, and I wonder when and how it might erupt; where it will take them … and us. I wonder if anyone is really listening within the halls of power once the votes have been tallied, the winners declared. I wonder how any of us might make connections across the political divide that offer and invite compassion and respect.

*There are more than 16,000 towns in the United States with population under 10,000, as of 2015.

 

Surviving This, Too

If there is a plot against America, the haphazard shredding of the civil order and institutions is as effective as anything more premeditated. That’s somewhat good news in this sense: the events we witness on a daily basis are obviously not the result of a coherent governing policy. That would require a modicum of competence. Instead, we are in the throes of ad hoc policies whose broad purpose are to comfort the comfortable and inflict further pain on the afflicted. Just pick up a newspaper.

Have you noticed the meme about ‘surviving’ this presidency? I think we already have, because if there is a silver lining to the current state of awful, it is that many of us who woke up only every 4 years to elect a president, have sharpened our wits and stiffened our citizen spines. We’re learning to resist when we can and workaround when we can’t. We won’t be fooled again. Exhibit A: November 6, 2018.

The last time I felt this awake to how personal politics are – and may I say, should be — was in 2000 when my candidate, who had written a book warning us about climate change, resource overshoot, and other threats to human civilization, (Earth in the Balance), was defeated by an opponent who would lead us into a unnecessary and costly war, by the slimmest of vote counts and a truly terrible Supreme Court decision*. By 2008, I didn’t need much convincing to get involved in a well-run ground game in a historic presidential campaign. In 2016, in my home state of Florida, the campaign mojo was missing, to be charitable. But I survived it 😬!

chutes-and-laddersWorkaround, computerese for “a strategy or technique used to overcome a defect or other problem in a program or system,” could be the motto of any number of political operatives that were birthed in the last two years. In addition to Indivisibles https://indivisible.org/, and Women’s March https://www.womensmarch.com/, another new kid on the block is Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Here are some ways they are debugging the broken gun control laws. They are bipartisan. They support candidates willing to stand up to the gun lobby. Instead of taking an anti-Second Amendment position, they advocate for gun safety in the home, citing statistics on suicide, domestic violence, and accidental shootings. www.momsdemandaction.org This organization of smart, young mothers has affiliated with deep-pocketed Everytown for Gun Safety, https://everytown.org/ founded by Michael Bloomberg in 2006. And, if my local chapter is an example, they are the most ferocious, well-prepared canvassers you’re likely to meet.

There’s a reason I focused on Moms Demand Action. Today, for a few scary moments, the significance of these grassroots movements came home to us: the local high school attended by our youngest grandson, went into Code Red Lockdown. All clear now, but for some newly traumatized teenagers.

* Retired Justice John Paul Stevens called Gore V. Bush one of the three biggest errors in his tenure on the Supreme Court.

New Yorker article on Indivisibles: https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/indivisible-an-early-anti-trump-group-plans-for-a-democratic-future

If you’re a Facebook user, check out this page, Done With Guns, started and maintained by Joy Richter Weisbrod after the Parkland massacre.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/1013848712101918/

A State of Thanksgiving

My first Thanksgiving was on a Christmas tree farm in Virginia, owned by State Department friends of my career diplomat parents. I was 10, a student at a small private school in Washington, and all I knew about this holiday was that there was a big parade going on in New York City and I wanted to go there.

How did I know about the parade? From the black and white DuMont my father had purchased and presented to the family with a flourish. The Pilgrim and Indian story couldn’t hold a candle to what I was learning about American life and culture from my favorite shows. I had even swapped out the British accent so lately acquired at boarding school in the UK, for my version of an American TV personality.

Thanksgiving on a Christmas tree farm hadn’t sounded nearly as exciting as a parade, but that all changed as soon as we were greeted by our hosts, Jerry and Ruth, and their two daughters, Rachel, 11 and Sarah, 9, who immediately introduced me to a litter of kittens. Instant bonding. Perhaps my father had met Jerry because he was assigned to the Burma desk, and this was his way of making three Burmese newcomers to the country feel welcome. I didn’t know it then, but I was hungry for just such a family, informal, warm and funny, a sharp contrast to my own reserved parents, in fact, to every adult I had thus far encountered.

About the Thanksgiving menu,  I already had an idea — from TV, of course — and I wasn’t disappointed. Well, perhaps a little. Where was the moulded Jello salad with the suspended bits of fruit cocktail? While the ‘ladies’, Ruth and Mum (as she was still called), saw to the turkey, slowly turning a deep golden brown, and the pies cooled on window sills, the plan was for the men and children to take a walk on their property and select a Christmas tree to be felled and delivered to us two weeks hence, in time for Christmas. Dad and I had underestimated the chilly temperatures and wet ground, but soon, in borrowed hats, scarves, gloves and duck shoes, we were off for a long ramble. Raspberry-Jello-Salad-1

It seemed that the family had returned from a posting to Turkey — hence the camel saddle and embossed metal trays — and before long, had purchased this Christmas tree farm with a derelict house on it. Apparently unfazed, they moved into the house, made do for a few months, and began to build a new house next to it. Their future home was a single-story structure with a big open space for the kitchen, dining area and living room, and a central fireplace, the ‘great room’ before its time. The bedrooms had been studded out, but it was still essentially a weather-proofed, wide-open playground. They were merrily camping out, in, while Jerry and Ruth finished up the interior walls and fittings as time permitted. It was impossible to imagine them in cocktail attire or making the diplomatic rounds as my parents did most evenings — “Receiving line, one drink, slip out a side door…”

A wood fire was blazing in the fireplace. A plank of plywood and pair of saw horses had been turned into a table. Though unfinished, the kitchen was operational, and the entire space will filled with delicious smells and classical music. I loved how the smoke clung to my clothes and hair for hours after we left. I hadn’t been so relaxed or laughed so much in months.

As far as I know, no one at this gathering gave a second thought to a family from Buddhist Burma celebrating Christmas — my father was nominally Church of England, while my mother and I were Roman Catholic — any more than this American family of cultural, if not observant, Jews, would take on a side gig as proprietors of a Christmas tree farm. I was relieved not to have to explain my appearance, my background, my existence, for once.

And it might have well have been that Thanksgiving Day, holding a new kitten in my lap, tramping through the woods with my new-found friends, making decorations from the pinecones and evergreens we collected, that I fell in love with America. I like to think that, despite the revolving door at the top, the State Department is still populated by people like our friends, willing to serve in sometimes dangerous conditions, at the whim of the top dogs, presenting a friendly face of America to the rest of the world. This Thanksgiving, I’m giving thanks for that.

I dedicate this poem to the memory of my first American Thanksgiving.

The last piece of pie
Has all the generosity of the first,
All that has gone into its making
By its maker. It wants for nothing,
No embellishments, no frill of whipped
Cream, no scroll of ice-cream can
Improve what is simply a piece
Of what was a whole, yet is wholly
Complete in itself. Taste it
And tell me that is not so.

 

Protect and Serve

At my desk this morning, my first act was to post to Facebook, a black and white photo of my spouse in the uniform of the US Navy, being saluted by his 3-year-old nephew. Though the world I most long for has eliminated the need for armed forces (cheers, Costa Rica!), I am proud of his service to our country, and grateful that he had the good fortune of serving between conflicts. I wish he’d kept those sharp uniforms, too!

Earlier, while still in my pajamas, I finished reading a book my friend, Laura, recommended a few weeks ago — one I heartily recommend to everyone: Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk. The book has been lumped together with other political bestsellers du jour, and it is certainly a sharp critique of the current administration. But its main message struck another chord: how well our government (in the capital G sense I wrote about previously) has functioned over time, regardless of the party in power. More importantly, the book lays out a portfolio of imminent risks, now that the true interests and intention of the incumbents have become clear, that is, close to zero in performing their sworn duty to protect and serve the United States and its citizens. Until recently, we have had the government to thank for focusing on activities like: “How to stop a virus, how to take a census, how to determine if some foreign country is seeking to obtain a nuclear weapon or if North Korean missiles can reach Kansas City.” No drama, no optics necessary or demanded.

service

(Photo: Mike Wilson, @mkwlsn)

Lewis, whose other bestsellers include The Big Short, The Blind Side and Moneyball (to mention three that were made into films) is a master storyteller, and if you have been following this blog, I can safely say you will be captivated, possibly even motivated to become more politically involved, by this latest book.  At the very least, perhaps you’ll come to understand as I did that “Roughly half the DOE’s annual $30 billion budget is spent on maintaining and guarding our nuclear arsenal.” We have as much to fear from accidents as from terrorism, it seems. And there’s the NOAA — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — yes, I had to look it up — $5 billion or 60% of the Department of Commerce’s budget and the largest data-gathering agency in the world. Without it, writes Lewis, “… no plane would fly, no bridge would be built, and no war would be fought — at least not well.” In other words, cabinet appointments filled with cronies and loyalists who lack the education, experience, understanding, or even interest in their missions as anything but an opportunity for self-enrichment, is a recipe for looming disaster on an epic scale.

If Veterans Day makes you think of our military heroes — and it should — we might also want to celebrate those unsung heroes toiling away in inner offices, who have done more to protect all Americans than the people we commonly think of as our leaders. I am talking about career civil servants (toward whom I admittedly have a bias) who are mission-  as opposed to money-driven. A few who stand out for me in this collection of extraordinary, dedicated and smart people: former Deputy Energy Secretary, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall who led the U.S. mission to remove chemical weapons from Syria; former NOAA chief, Kathy Sullivan, who grasped the human element in disaster preparedness; former head of Rural Development (USDA), Lillian Salerno, responsible for the $220 billion bank “that serviced the poorest of the poor in rural America.” Yes, those voters.

The Fifth Risk has been called ‘a love-letter to federal workers,” and why they deserve praise instead of the blame usually piled on when something goes awry. Why they deserve a raise and respect. And why we need to vote in people who understand what has always made this country exceptional. Read it at the risk of becoming better informed and more appreciative of what it really means to protect and serve.

Accidental Activist

It’s Election Day Eve, the most important election since I became a naturalized American citizen in 1972, years after I was eligible through marriage, the delay in protest of the Viet Nam War. The Tallahassee yoga studio shootings in the same week we mourned the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, weighs on me, especially as a yoga instructor who signs off each class with ‘Shanti, shanti, shanti, (peace) and a resident of a state where meaningful gun reform has been a non-starter. You do all you can: join an Indivisible group, host a house party for so-called Hot Democrats, canvass your neighborhood, join Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Women’s March, Hustle-remind voters of their duty. And I’ll never understand why so many do not exercise their franchise.

I’m in awe of the commitment and energy of my activist colleagues in these resistance groups. My genetic material is skewed toward civil service, and I inherited from at least two generations a faith in Government with a capital G, as if it were a kindly parent with the responsibility to protect and bring out the best in its citizens. America even more so, I’ve always believed. What other founding documents even mention ‘the pursuit of happiness?’ It’s worth fighting for.

Voting was something of a novelty in my native Burma (now Myanmar). When I became eligible at 18, I embraced it with the same alacrity I had absorbed my parents’ post WWII optimism about the prospects for our newly independent democracy. Two years later, I saw how quickly this could be overturned one dawn in 1962, when we were roused by the sound of explosions in the direction of the university. Within hours of the military takeover, politicians, dissident students, journalists, and supreme court justices, were rounded up like criminals and held without trial for what would be years. One of these was the editor-in-chief of a prominent newspaper, and my much-loved boss. Nothing like this could ever happen here, right? It’s unthinkable.

But then, so was the possibility that the birthright issue could affect my two children, given that their father was an American citizen. Most knowledgeable people (on both sides of the aisle) say this is a phony threat. But in light of the whiplash change we all live with these days, I (and my kids) would be unwise to ignore it.

And yet, we cannot give in to despair. People have been sharing We Are the World on Facebook, and the Jewish nurse who cared for the wounded Pittsburgh shooter wrote a deeply moving article on why and how she felt compelled to do that. On a book tour in the UK, Anne Lamott memorably said, “Earth is forgiveness school.” I share these items because I hope more people might read and even share them, especially the people in my life the least likely to. My ‘friend’ list holds many people I barely know, added in the flurry of my early ‘why not?’ days of social media, about four years that feel like forever. The numerically best response to a post of mine I’ve seen lately is an indication of how hungry we are to lighten up, have some fun, return to normal. We were having brunch with some friends this week, and my ever-playful spouse grabbed the doily on his plate, tore it in half, and inserted it under the collar of his shirt. A borrowed pair of our friend’s eyeglasses and voila! our joyful tribute to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, captured on smart phone and posted. A little explosion of hearts, likes, and comments followed.

Times like these, I think about my friend and Transition Movement colleague, Jean, who is busy creating a spiritual center on the acres of property in another state, on which she and her family launched their dream to live in harmony with nature — permaculture, bee-keeping, to name a couple of their practices. This new direction began with spontaneous community gatherings around bonfires, with music and food, and shared dreams of the future. The family, with a few partners, aims to evolve that into a more formal center and I gladly wrote a ‘seed’ money donation. Recently, in response to an email lament of mine about the state of the country and world, Jean had this to offer: “… perhaps the most revolutionary act is to have FUN.”

This puts me in mind of Wendell Berry’s quote (Manifesto): “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” I like it so much, I’m using it to inspire the new version of this blog, Transition Tales. Same URL for now, but with content more reflective of where I am now (in Tree pose, on the edge.) The earlier posts and the tags remain for now. It is time for a change. Tomorrow, may it be so!