Monday, December 13, 2010

Urban Christmas

One of the things I love about living in a city is the sidewalks. I can actually walk places. I come from the suburbs of Virginia, where there are no sidewalks, crosswalks, or bike lanes. Here, I understand when people say they "ran into someone on the street". I actually see people I know on the sidewalk. Because we're not inside cars.

In a city, it's worthwhile to have shop windows that will make people stop and look. These are some of my favorites from Harvard and Porter squares.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


In December, Jeff and I observe both Advent and Chanukah. In short, we set things on fire a lot. On the windowsill, there's the menorah. On the coffee table, there's the Advent wreath.

What strikes me about both of these is how process-oriented they are. When you see a picture of a menorah, it's always the eighth night will all the candles blazing. But it spends most of the week partially lit, building up to the finale. An Advent wreath, likewise, is in a perpetually lopsided state. On the first Sunday of Advent, you burn one candle. Next Sunday, two, until it's Christmas Eve and all four (or five, depending on how you do it*) are lit. At any time, some of the candles have been burnt more than others. They are different heights, even when they're all lit.

Now, we say, I want it now. But both of these seasons are not about instant gratification. They're about duration.

*Yes, I know my candles aren't pink and purple, nor are they properly in a wreath. But this is how my Danish host mother did it, and it sure is easier to find white candles.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Bits and pieces

Small giving annoys me. I don't mean the widow's mite - I mean the person who has 83 charities and gives $4 to all of them. So I was suspicious of Betsy Londergan's What Gives 365 project. She's giving away her inheritance, $100 a day, to a different cause each day. Not the model of efficiency.

But reading about the causes she chose made me really . . . happy. It was delightful to see someone try to do it all. I don't actually think NPR needs my money in the same way Zanmi Lasante does. But her project is a great educator. (As is NPR, to be fair).

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Bus talk

Bus etiquette is different from etiquette on other kinds of transit. Buses are cheaper than faster, more convenient forms of transit (rail, cars, planes), so you get a poorer clientele. Maybe the etiquette difference is cultural, but I think it also has to do with the correlation between poverty and mental illness.

In any case, there's this woman who rides my Tuesday evening bus. She's always trying to get other passengers to go to church with her, and I once heard her propose marriage to a stranger. She also doesn't know how to regulate the volume of her voice. This week when I got on the bus she was talking loudly on her phone.

After a while, a man behind me began shouting back. "Blah blah blah. Blah blah blah! Shaddap!" Talking Woman did not appear to notice.

Once Angry Man voiced this complaint, other passengers apparently began to see Talking Woman as an actual problem (though Angry Man was far more annoying). A well-dressed woman who looked like she normally would not speak to anyone on a bus approached the driver. "Excuse me, there's a woman who's been talking nonstop on her cell phone." The driver grunted that there was nothing he could do.

But now Angry Man turned against Bourgeois Woman. "Nobody can stop her from talking! She's got a constitutional right! What is it, third amendment? Freedom of the press!"

This doesn't happen on the commuter rail.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Another world

After reading a post on a feminist blog about the Biblical womanhood movement, I had to learn more about it. I've spent the last few days immersed.

There are several main components. There's the modesty piece, about how you should dress, sit, and stand. There's the work piece, about how you should work at home or in a family business because no human but your husband or father should be your boss. There's the courtship piece, about why dating will ruin you for marriage. There's the fertility piece, about why you should have as many babies as possible. And there's the stay-at-home daughter phenomenon, which holds that home and not college is the right place for young women until marriage.

There's backlash, obviously. Commenters on said things like, "Disgusting . . . I’m beginning to think I ought to go vandalize a church." Within Christianity, there are some more thoughtful and compassionate responses.

But I was surprised at how much I found to like. While I'm not a fan of the denim jumper look, I share the distaste for skanky clothes. I don't want men or women relegated to anyplace based on their gender, but I cheer the revival of homemaking and homesteading. This family's 1200-square-foot house with twelve residents? Awesome. And I have to admire the courage of people who live a profoundly counter-cultural lifestyle.

The movement is all about the family. This article on how daughters can treat their fathers better made me do a double-take - don't we normally advise parents on how to treat their children? Filial piety is totally out of style. And while a lot of the writing around daughters makes me want to gag, these people are on to something. Look for the good in each other. Communicate. Try to function as a unit instead of everyone striking out on their own. Give more than you take, and don't be "thing-hungry". (I can imagine that would be very important to men who are the sole wage-earners in large families).

Despite the stereotype of evangelical Christians as ignorant hicks, it's such a text-based culture. Take this argument by an eighteen-year-old homeschooled blogger. She goes through several texts, analyzes them and their historical contexts, finds flaws in her prior beliefs, and comes to a new conclusion. How many teenagers do that kind of thing without any arm-twisting?

Granted, sometimes the textual analysis goes horribly wrong. Please, please, do not use The Taming of the Shrew as your model for marriage.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Liberty and justice at age seven

In the school where I intern, there’s a bulletin board where a teacher has posted second graders’ writings about freedom, having rights, laws, trust, fairness, and equality. I found it really interesting what the students said about these topics.

Young kids have quite a sketchy understanding of what any of these are. A lot of them just spewed a list of “things we’re supposed to do”, interspersed with bits of the Pledge of Allegiance:

Justice for all. Be someoen’s friend if they have none it dosen’t matter what coler you are. Be respectful. Have freedom. Care for others. Keep your hands to yourself.

Laws is for try your best and foloing laws is aluled like if someone is copeeying you you say stop.


laws is to respect people and be kind. and laws is to try your best. and also when you make a mistake don,t erase cross it or line it. and also you can’t alwy always say the bad word.

Some of them had a pretty good operational understanding:

Trust is when you keep a seekret for someone. If you don’t keep a seekret, thats no good.

laws are rules if you brack brak bracke brack them, the police will come, and arrest ou and that is bad, and you will go to jail.

There was only one that seemed to actually have an understanding of how any of these concepts intersected:

freedom means to be free and do what ever you wat but you can’t do stuff bad that’s why there is laws.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Two recipies for fall

Midterms are over. I have time for baking again!

Tarte tatin is French for caramelized upside-down apple pie. Essentially, you melt butter and sugar in a skillet, then cook your fruit in that. You put a piecrust on top and bake the whole thing in the oven. Then you flip it. Ta da!

- Preheat the oven to 350.
- Take a heavy-bottomed skillet. It must be able to go in the oven, so be sure it doesn't have parts that will melt. Turn the heat to medium high and add:
a chunk of butter (2-4 tablespoons)
1/2 cup sugar
Stir it around and let it melt. Meanwhile, cut in slices:
3-4 apples or pears
- Lay all the slices into the bubbling liquid. Mmm. You could sprinkle on some cinnamon at this point.
- Let it cook 10 minutes or so, while you make a piecrust. (Piecrust: mix 1 1/4 cups flour, a pinch of salt, a tablespoon of sugar. Cut in 1/2 cup of cold shortening or butter. Stir in 1/4 cup cold water, adding more if needed. Keep everything cold and handle it as little as possible.)
- Roll out the crust and lay it on top of the fruit. Tuck it down around the edges a little. Put the whole thing in the oven and bake about 30 minutes, until the crust looks reasonably done.
- When you take it out, flip the tart onto a plate. Flip it now, not later, or it won't want to come out.

Project two was breakfast rather than dessert. I recently ate a cinnamon bun with cheddar cheese, and I was trying to recreate the experience.

- Make a sweet bread dough. I made a basic dough with white flour, milk, an egg, butter, sugar, salt, and yeast. Let rise.
- When dough has risen, shape it into a rectangle. Sprinkle with grated cheddar, chopped apple, cinnamon, and sugar.
- Roll up the rectangle and slice it into buns. Lay the slices on a greased baking pan. Let rise again for an hour or so.
- Bake at 350 - not too long! Check after 10 or 15 minutes.

Monday, October 25, 2010


People like to claim that foreign aid doesn't work. Obviously it doesn't always work as well as we hoped. But sometimes it succeeds in invisible ways.

This week, cholera hit Haiti. Know what's amazing? That it didn't hit sooner. Since the earthquake in January, the country has been crowded with tent cities. Sanitation is a real problem, and waterborne disease was always a huge risk. When I worked at Oxfam, donors were sometimes puzzled that we focused more on water than on food. Cholera is why. Yes, it's important that there were agencies dealing with food. But the fact that Oxfam and others were digging latrines and trucking in water are the reason there's been so little disease in Haiti since the earthquake.

Clean water isn't that exciting, especially to those of us who have constant access to it. We can understand hunger, but we've never watched a child die from diarrhea. And an absence of disease doesn't make for news stories. There are no headlines proclaiming "No Typhoid Again Today In Port-Au-Prince."

This is why aid matters, even when you can't see it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Pathologizing princesses

I guess I shouldn't have expected social workers to be perfect. In general, I think the profession is oriented to meeting people where they are and helping them in a non-judgmental way. But there are times when I'm disappointed. Don't get me started on phrases from professors like "the opposite race" and "everybody has sexual desires."

As part of my social work training, I'm interning with a school counselor. This week as I looked through the child psychotherapy manual in my supervisor's office, and I saw the section on Gender Identity Disorder. I knew that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual lists it as a mental disorder, but doesn't prescribe any treatments. This book does. Apparently if I get a girl who wants to dress like/act like/be a boy, or vice versa, I'm supposed to talk her out of it. We're supposed to talk about her mommy - doesn't she want to be like her mommy?

Gag me with a spoon.

I've seen the fear of children's gender-bending. I've seen teachers deeply uncomfortable about the idea that the child over there with the short hair and cargo pants - that one? really? - is a girl. After a nail polish extravaganza at daycare, I've seen a boy gleefully show his mother his purple-and-gold nails, only to be yanked to the sink and scoured. (She was so upset she forgot you can't take off nail polish with soap.)

It doesn't have to be like that. Take Cheryl Kilodavis, author of My Princess Boy. At first she was worried about her four-year-old son's taste for high heels and sparkles. But his family rallied around him, and when he decided to be a princess for Halloween, she called the school. And the school made it clear to everybody, students and staff, that nobody was to laugh at Dyson. On Halloweeen, some of the male teachers came as ballerinas and performed a dance for the school. The kids loved it, of course.

When he's older, maybe Dyson will transition to living as a woman. Maybe he won't. Do we really have to wrestle with a four-year-old about this?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Did you know?

We've all heard the human interest story about Helen Keller: water pump, fingerspelling, etc. But there's more to her story.

Newspapers liked to pat her on the head for her work with the blind, but things changed when she voiced a political opinion. When she started advocating socialism, the Brooklyn Eagle editorialized that her "mistakes spring out of the manifest limitations of her development."

Keller responded:
The Eagle and I are at war. I hate the system which it represents, apologizes for and upholds. When it fights back, let it fight fair. Let it attack my ideas and oppose the aims and arguments of Socialism. It is not fair fighting or good argument to remind me and others that I cannot see or hear. I can read. I can read all the socialist books I have time for in English, German and French. If the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle should read some of them, he might be a wiser man and make a better newspaper. If I ever contribute to the Socialist movement the book that I sometimes dream of, I know what I shall name it: Industrial Blindness and Social Deafness.

Dear Ms. Keller,
You're my hero.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Waiting it out

One of the first lessons I remember from high school Russian class is about why it's traditional for Russian brides to be sad. It's because they are leaving their family to live with their husband's household. As in many traditional cultures, women had no clout outside the home and had to get all their power within the family. The matriarch ruled over daughters and daughters-in-law. A girl marrying into the family could gain rank by bearing sons. Stick it out enough generations, and eventually you become the matriarch.

Jeff comes from the kind of close-knit family you rarely see in our culture. There are so many of them, it's overpowering. At our wedding, there were eight of my relatives and thirty-four of his. The house is like a shrine, covered in photographs of ancestors. And woe betide the woman who marries in and tries to change things. When Jeff's widowed grandfather fell in love with an abrasive woman, the men in the family took it in stride and the women freaked out. Even aunts who married in years ago never make it to the inner sanctum when it comes to making decisions.

I could probably push more before I met with real resistance, but I'm terrified to try it. I don't want to be that woman they laugh at. This weekend on a family vacation I tried to negotiate for the presence of mustard at a meal. It was a disaster.

Our lease is up in a few weeks, and we've considered moving back into the family house rather than paying too much rent for our tiny apartment. We love them and they love us, but it would be nuts. At this point, I just need to remember that there's a reason I have my own household. I came to this family twenty years too late to be on even footing. In another generation or two, I'll have a chance at being a matriarch.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

I must say . . .

I sometimes wonder why some people seem naturally taciturn and others (like me) can't bear to have an interesting thought without sharing it. One thing I love about being married is that there's someone whose job it is to listen to me talk.

Today I got a lesson in where that comes from. I ate lunch with some kindergarteners, each of whom individually asked what my name was what I was eating. Then they began to tell me things, some of which were true. "That's my friend over there." "I'm allergic to bread." "My teacher's name is Ms. Henry." One gap-toothed girl beckoned me close enough to hear her whisper: "I ate chicken soup at my home."

That's it. No concept of what facts will be interesting to other people. Just the urge to share, which some of us apparently don't outgrow. I love it.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sociological moment

Recently Jeff and I went to my cousin's very posh wedding on Cape Cod. At the rehearsal dinner, the main course was whole lobsters, antennae and all. Most of us didn't have a clue how to get at the food inside the shell. The bride stood up to demonstrate, holding her lobster tail aloft.

"You grab it like this - and you crack it like this - and then you pull the meat out."

So we poor bumpkins were educated in the haute cuisine of Cape Cod. But of course, lobster is only posh food because we think it is. If we went to a wedding in some other culture and saw the bride cracking crustaceans open with her bare hands, we'd think they were barbarians!

Monday, September 06, 2010

Two reactions

Last week I finished up work at Oxfam to start social work school. I met with HR to wrap things up, including the contributions they made to my 401(k). When I was first hired, I explained to an incredulous HR worker that I didn't want to take the money, but she said that was impossible. (I also tried refusing a salary, but that was even more impossible.) So when I met with HR last week, I mentioned how frustrating it was that I was forced to take money that I would rather Oxfam keep. The woman looked at me cooly and said, "Oh. Are you independently wealthy?"

It's the thing I think my coworkers have been wondering all along. They all have access to the database records stating that Jeff and I gave Oxfam about $40,000 last year, more than my annual salary. Two people living on less than one salary? Surely we had some advantage they didn't?

Well, other than having a husband who majored in computer science, no. I sputtered, "We're normal people with normal salaries. We just think it's really important to help people." I'm so frustrated when people believe giving a lot of your income is something only other people - rich people - can do.

So that was the nonprofit. Meanwhile, Jeff had gotten a job offer and was trying to negotiate a higher salary at the technology company where he works. The vice president of his department finally asked, "Why is the pay raise so important to you?" Jeff explained that we want to give as much money as we can. In the end he not only got the raise, but help from the vice president in getting it in forms that made sense (cash now rather than retirement savings which we can't give away for decades). The vice president also said he would consider giving more himself.

So there you have it. The worker at the relief and development nonprofit assumes people give away money only if they have a huge surplus. The worker at the technology company questions the need for more money and totally accepts the idea that you wouldn't want to hoard everything for yourself. Go figure.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The latest news

What's the role of gossip? Fun? Destructive? A way for society to control people, for good or ill?

I recently spent a week at the folk dance camp for grownups where Jeff and I used to work. Jeff couldn't go, so I went alone. Now I'm back, after spending a week with our friends, and I wonder how much news to share.

It's a small community with tons of shifting relationships. Some of the news is quite benign, I think - who sat out late on the dock with whom, etc. But I wonder if I'm doing wrong to relay stories about people. Jewish law gets quite detailed about "evil speech" or lashon hara - it's forbidden to speak ill of other people except in very specific circumstances (e.g. if someone's going into a business deal with a person you know is a fraud.) But I've never seen a small community where everyone minds their own business.

I wonder how gossip interacts with marriage. A major reason I wanted to get married is that I wanted a structure supporting the relationship. I believe my life will be better in the long term if I stay with Jeff, even if there are periods when it's not fun. That's why I want society holding me to my promise. We could have just vowed fidelity to each other privately, but it further solidifies the vow when you say it in front of your family and friends and you wear a ring on your hand that means you're off limits to other people. Knowing that other people expect me to keep my promise makes it easier to keep.

So what happens when you watch someone who was apparently married two months ago, but who comes to camp minus his wedding ring and spends the week cuddling with someone who's not his wife? In a way, it's their own business, and I don't know the whole story. Maybe his wife left him, or they're in an open relationship and his ring just happened to fall down a drain.

But marriage is not just your business. If you want a relationship to dissolve easily and with no fuss, marriage is not your best option. You know people will whisper if you're visibly slipping, and shame is a powerful motivator. When you make your vow public, don't you invite your community to help you keep it?

Saturday, July 24, 2010


People love to believe there's something edgy about raising your own food, cutting your own hair, baking bread, etc. Just insert "DIY" in front of anything your grandma did, and it's suddenly hip. Or maybe it's "radical homemaking" or "urban homesteading".

We've gone full cycle. Take line-drying clothes. Seventy years ago, it's what everyone did. But once people could buy dryers, many of them were thrilled that they didn't have to use a clothesline anymore. (At least in the US, where energy prices are cheap. In Europe, it's a different story.) Line-drying was something most people avoided if they could. But now line-drying is not just cheap, it's "green". Which it always was - there just wasn't always a word for it. Fifty years ago, nobody was making documentaries about clotheslines.

As with any cultural change, this isn't happening everywhere all at once. There are plenty of people who like their dryers, wonder bread, and iceberg lettuce very much. Why should they do everything themselves when they don't have to? My mother is one of these people. She learned all the Depression-era skills from her mother - she knows how to bake, can, garden, cut hair, etc. But she doesn't want to, and she can afford not to.

This week my friend Elisangela came to my apartment for the first time. She moved here from Brazil ten years ago, and I was a little afraid of what she would think. Mostly of the fact that I'm keeping livestock in my kitchen. I can imagine her wondering, "Why would you do this when you can buy jumbo eggs for 99 cents a dozen?"

When Elisangela walked in, she made a beeline for the quail pen. "They're chickens?" she asked. "Quail," I said. "My grandmother raised quail," she said. "She would never kill them because they made a special call when a stranger was coming near the house. They know."

And that was that. To her this wasn't urban homesteading or DIY poultry farming. It was just that thing her grandmother did back in the village. I felt totally, blessedly normal.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The secret garden

Remember this? It's the lot behind the post office that I adopted last year.

This is the garden now:

It's not Eden, but it's nicer than it was.


Yesterday I woke to hear the sound I had been waiting for. It sounded like someone shutting a tiny, squeaky door hinge. I knew it could only mean one thing: my quail had hatched.

For years I've wanted to keep poultry. I corresponded with the Medford animal control guy to no avail. I dreamed of the day we could move to somewhere with a yard to keep chickens in. And last month I learned a critical fact: you can keep quail indoors. They're small and quiet, and they're prolific layers.

So I ordered eighteen eggs - you really can get anything on the internet. Jeff built me an incubator, and for seventeen days I anxiously monitored the temperature and turned the eggs. I read up on quail maladies like spraddle-leg and pasty-butt (assuring Jeff that neither were contagious to humans).

I didn't entirely believe it was going to work. For one thing, our homemade incubator varied wildly in temperature. Maybe the eggs had already been baked into oblivion during shipping. Maybe the humidity was wrong, or the temperature had spiked too high. Anyway, it seemed improbable that these little rock-looking things were going to turn into animals that would breathe and run around.

That's why it was so magical at 4 am when I heard the first peeps. It was like Santa Claus had come. I knelt at the incubator and saw the four damp babies inside the incubator. They looked exhausted. Sometimes they'd get up and stagger around the incubator, but mostly they flopped down in awkward positions - on top of each other, on top of the unhatched eggs. I considered what they'd just been through: in order to be born, each chick had to break through a calcium wall. With its face. And then it was able to get up and begin walking on its siblings.

If you've never hung out with a newborn creature, I recommend it. Any way you look at it, new life is amazing. A hen in Indiana laid an egg that would go through the mail to me, develop with the aid of a lightbulb but without food or water, and three weeks later become another quail. I knew the facts, but seeing it happen is a completely different experience. Also, baby birds and mammals are designed to be attractive. Their survival depends on adults wanting to take care of them, so being cute helps them survive.

For reference, that's a juice bottle lid. The chicks are about two inches long.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010


Today I was trying to tell a coworker I wanted to hold off on publishing something I wrote. "Maybe we should season this another week," I told her. Translation: I woke up this morning realizing this was all a horrible idea, and if we publish this I'll be so embarrassed I'll cry.

I failed to realize, though, that I was speaking Quaker and she had no idea what I meant. Apparently "season" to mean "delay, hoping we never have to deal with it again" is not common usage. E.g. The Education Standing Committee agreed to establish a task group to further season this idea.

Sometimes I think Quakers have too much jargon, but sometimes it would be useful if everyone knew it.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Project: self-watering planter

I'm determined that living in an apartment on the third floor without so much as a fire escape won't keep me from growing food this summer. I've commandeered a patch of wall on the sunny side of the building, and so far nobody has disturbed my plants.

The latest project was a self-watering tomato pot. Plants develop root systems better if the water is coming from below, not above. Also, when I'm away for a week, the plant will suck up water happily.

The lower pot is the reservoir. It was a regular plastic pot with holes in it, so I lined it with plastic. The PVC tube is for adding water.

The second pot has wicks to draw up water from the reservoir. I used strips of towel poked through the holes in the bottom.

The soil and plant go in the upper pot, and voila:

I fill the reservoir via the tube. As the soil dries up, the towel wicks up water from the reservoir. The plant has damp soil. Hooray!

There are tons of instructions out there for building self-watering containers. They're great for the urban garden.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

I have a business!

. . A very small one. In an effort to support my sewing habit, I'm going commercial.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Who knew?

Speaking of things that recently got names made up for them . . .

Apparently when you
- go to Dollar-a-Pound
- buy two teeshirts (from their weight, I estimate this cost about $1.50)
- cut them up, and
- make them into a dress,

that's "upcycling"!

This is totally my plan for fixing the teeshirts-for-Africa aid debacle.

Cops and the soldiers, they nailed him in the air

I've seen those "Jesus was homeless" teeshirts. But I didn't realize the connection (though not the slogan) had been made about 60 years earlier. I just heard Woody Guthrie's rewrite of the outlaw ballad "Jesse James," rewritten as "Jesus Christ."

Jesus Christ was a man who traveled through the land
Hard-working man and brave
He said to the rich, "Give your goods to the poor."
So they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

The major problem with the song is that not much rhymes with "Judas Iscariot".

Saturday, May 08, 2010


My mom talks about how strange it is that my generation thinks it's no big deal to have people in space. Moon landings have been around for longer than we have. Because Mom remembers when the first one happened, it's still a big deal to her.

My grandmother, born in 1908, saw a lot more changes in her lifetime. She remembered when electricity came to her hometown. One change I had never thought much about, but that revolutionized people's lives in the last century, was easy access to birth control. Fifty years ago, sex usually meant babies. If you listen to old songs, you hear it everywhere.

The lyrics to the Kingston Trio's "It Takes a Worried Man to Sing a Worried Song" never made much sense to me. Recently I heard Woody Guthrie's version, no doubt influenced by his time in the 1930s as a homeless dustbowl refugee trying to earn money to send back to his wife and three children. (Long distances are an unpleasant but effective method of birth control.)

Yes we got six children, and expecting several more
Kids run out like cattle when you open up the door.
Yes you single boys can ramble and can lead a rowdy life
But you'll have to take it easy when you get yourself a wife
You will have a flock of children and have others coming on
It takes a married man, boys, to sing a worried song.

Older folk songs are full of the same complaint:

When I was single, I'd sport and I'd play
Now how the cradle it stands in my way.

Loretta Lynn (who married at 13 and had four children by the age of 19) recorded a number of songs on the topic. In 1970 it was "One's on the Way," written by Shel Silverstein(!)

The girls in New York City, they all march for women's lib,
And Better Homes and Garden shows the modern way to live.
And the pill may change the world tomorrow, but meanwhile, today,
Here in Topeka the flies are a buzzin',
The dog is a barkin' and the floor needs a scrubbin'.
One needs a spankin' and one needs a huggin',
And Lord, one's on the way.
(Oh gee, I hope it ain't twins again.)

In 1972 when she recorded "The Pill", stations wouldn't play it:

You wined me and dined me
When I was your girl
Promised if I'd be your wife
You'd show me the world

But all I've seen of this old world
Is a bed and a doctor bill
I'm tearin' down your brooder house
'Cause now I've got the pill.

Matt McGinn of Scotland writes of the same wish in another part of the world:

Now they're talking o' the pill, they've filled my heart wi' hope
I'm sitting here and waiting on a signal frae the Pope
I went along to buy some at fifteen bob a tin
I hope we hae the Pope's okay before my man comes in.

It's fifty years this week since the FDA approved the first birth control pills. What a change.

Friday, April 30, 2010

A stitch in time

Working at an international aid organization, the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake has been interesting to watch.

People are riveted by suffering. Months after the quake, people are still calling to donate for that specific purpose. I gently try to steer them to a general donation. "We've raised all the money we can responsibly spend in the next 5 years. At this point, donations are really more needed in other parts of the world." This is not what they want to hear.

Haiti got $1.55 billion in aid just now, largely because it was on the news. Darfur (remember Darfur?) is not on TV. Nor is Congo. Nor is Pakistan. Nor are millions of poor people around the world whose daily lives are a disaster.

I thought this was the most brilliant thing I've ever seen on aid: Prevent Disasters

I hear people say on the phone, "I saw how bad it was, and I wanted to do something." I'm glad that they're moved to help. But Haiti needed help long before the earthquake. It wouldn't have been so awful there if people had decent housing to begin with. People need help all over the globe, and they will need it tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Not just when they're on the news.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The good life

It's always interesting to find more names that exist for things you were already doing. This week I discovered two new ones:

Radical Homemakers
Reclaiming domesticity from a consumer culture

Urban Homesteaders
Sustainability, economy, pleasure

I was recently at a party where people were talking about their jobs and what they do for fun outside their jobs (running, music, etc). When asked, I felt kind of dumb answering, "I like keeping house."

But I do enjoy it. I always thought I would make a good 19th-century farmwife, except I didn't want the isolation of living on a farm. But even in a small urban apartment, I find it satisfying to do things myself. Keeping house wouldn't be an occupation if we ordered take-out or bought pre-made food. If we dropped our laundry off from somone else to wash and dry, or even if we used the dryers downstairs. If we hired other people to clean our space. If we bought all our clothes and furniture new instead of adapting things other people don't want. To some people these are all chores, but to me they're (usually) small pleasures.

This week I took a sick day, but wasn't too ill to get stuff done around the house. I moved the furniture, cleaned everything from the baseboards to the inside of the microwave, painted a dresser, made a birdfeeder, baked bread, watched a movie, and planted lettuce and swiss chard in windowboxes. It was the best day ever.

I don't want to quit my job and raise chickens full-time. I think I owe the world better service than that. But I would like to take a day every two weeks or so just to . . . keep house.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

The rhythm of the week

I'm fascinated by the ways household work has changed over time. Today I had a laundry revelation.

I've never done laundry without a washing machine, but for the last five years or so I haven't used a dryer. In summer you can do the whole operation in a day, but in winter, the routine is more like:
Day 1: Get home from work, put laundry in machine. Put on your coat and hang the laundry on lines outside. Laundry freezes.
Day 2: Laundry slowly dries, going straight from solid to gas.
(If snowing or raining, insert more days here.)
Day 3: Take the laundry in.

I just realized the reason for ordering the days of the week Monday: wash day, Tuesday: ironing day, etc, ending in Saturday: baking day and Sunday: day of rest. Baking is something you want to do right before you need it, so the bread is fresh. (At the Orthodox Jewish preschool where my mother worked, all the other teachers left on Fridays at noon to get their baking and cooking done before sunset.) But laundry is unpredictable. If you want clean clothes for church and can't work on the sabbath, you'd better start your laundry well in advance.

There's an English song about it:
'Twas on a Monday morning
When I beheld my darling
She looked so neat and charming
In every high degree
She looked so neat and nimble-o
A-washing of her linen-o
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
She stole my heart away.

It continues with hanging her linen on Tuesday, starching it on Wednesday, etc. until on Sunday she's finally a-wearing of her linen-o. This has always begged two questions: Where was she going so fast with that smoothing iron? And what was she wearing the rest of the week? No wonder he found her so charming!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The never-ending pork chop

This week I bought two pork chops. This is kind of a big deal, because Jeff and I buy meat about once a month. But Wednesday I took the plunge and got two of the $1.99/lb chops from McKinnon's, home of the surliest cashier in Davis Square.

Friday night I cooked the larger chop. I had never done this before, and even though I knew each person was supposed to get their own chop I figured we could share one. I made gravy, mashed potatoes, and green beans. It was delicious. I ate about a third of the chop and Jeff, after cutting his portion into smithereens, ate about a quarter. (If you salt it a lot, he explained, it goes farther.)

Tonight I made biscuits to eat with the leftovers. I cut up the bits of pork and put them in the gravy. We got through less than half the food. Jeff ate one, maybe two bits of meat spread out over two biscuits. I was hoping he would finish the rest for lunch, but he explained that biscuits and meat were too flavorful. He would be happy to use either to flavor his pasta, but he didn't want to waste them by eating them all at once. At this rate we'll be eating it all week, and there's still another chop in the freezer.

So now he's making pasta and I'm wondering where I went wrong. I know he hoards food he enjoys, and I know this is part of why we spend so little on groceries. I know he liked dinner, but I would kind of like him to eat it.

Sometimes it's jarring to realize how much I've absorbed messages like "wives make tasty meals and husbands eat them." Especially meat.
Wives take notice
Beef soup for men only
New wives kitchen
Meat is for boys, vegetables are for girls

Monday, March 01, 2010

Jeff and I were reading a list of the Jewish mitzvot, which are 613 things that you're supposed to do. They range from the very sensible:
472. Not to move a boundary marker to steal someone's property
565. Judges must not accept bribes
592. Not to curse your father and mother
605. Prepare latrines outside the camps

To the outdated:
49. Not to pass your children through the fire to Molech
165. Not to refrain from marrying a third generation Edomite convert

To the bizarre:
185. Not to eat non-kosher maggots
309. Not to anoint with anointing oil
448. The metzora must not shave signs of impurity in his hair

To the distressing:
33. To burn a city that has turned to idol worship
38. Not to cease hating the idolater
514. Canaanite slaves must work forever unless injured in one of their limbs
596. Destroy the seven Canaanite nations
597. Not to let any of them remain alive (unless they're your slave forever, I guess?)
598. Wipe out the descendants of Amalek

I was curious about this Amalek. Here's God speaking in 1 Sam. 15:3: "Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey."

If there's anybody who has a chip on their shoulders about genocide, it's the Jews. Rightly so. How does anybody deal with an Old Testament God? How do you reconcile "Kill both man and woman, and infant" with "Never again"?

How do you condemn "Drive the Jews into the sea" but not "Those in the front will be driven into the Dead Sea, and those at the rear into the Mediterranean. The stench of their rotting bodies will rise over the land"? (Joel 2:20)

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The real story

My favorite part of Quaker meeting is women's group. There was at one time a men's group as well, but it fizzled. Women's group is going strong for any woman who wants to spend 90 minutes listening and talking.

The time is divided between the number of people who show up, and you each get a turn to speak about whatever is going on in your life. If you want, other people give you feedback.

I'm usually the youngest at 24, and I believe the oldest is in her seventies. It means that whatever stage you, your job, your children, your relationship, or your parents are going through, there's probably someone else who's been through it before.

"I'm addicted to computer games."

"I'm doing great."

"Oh shit, my daughter isn't like I thought she was going to be."

"Sometimes you want to say, 'Do you have to chew like that?'"

"I'm fine as long as I get my 30 mg of Celexa a day."

"If it helps, eleven was the hardest year with my daughter. I would have sold her for a nickel."

"I married my wild oat."

It's such a relief to be able to speak the truth and hear other people's truths. I talk to lots of people every day, do many exchanges of "How are you?" with no real answers. You can't answer "How are you?" with "I'm trying to decide if I should apply to grad school," or "I just read the most amazing poem," or "Fighting back tears, thanks."

How could we do this more widely? How could we make spaces where people can talk about what is really going on with them? I think psychotherapy has its place, but I want something different from that.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Love in a war zone

One thing I love about Oxfam (where I work) is the attitude about the people we work with. Too many nonprofits paint poor people as miserable victims, waiting for aid from rich countries. There's that inevitable photo of the crying baby.

Oxfam sent the photographer Rankin to a refugee camp in Congo to get a different kind of picture. He writes:

I expected to be depressed. I had done my homework; the statistics were horrific. I could only imagine what the human face of those statistics would look like. The people I met confounded my expectations. I met fathers, mothers, children... all getting on with life, making it through, even having a laugh and a joke. These people didn't see themselves as victims, despite the bad hand that fate had dealt them. They were human beings, exactly the same as you and me.

View a slideshow of Congolese refugees telling about the people and things they love. Don't get me wrong, these people need help. They need clean water, homes, a way to make a living. Most of all they need an end to the war. But they are people, not numbers.

"I love my guitar. It is my most precious possession. I have had to run from my village three times because of the war. I leave everything behind except my guitar. Even if it's dangerous I always go home and take my guitar before I run. I can forget all of my worries when I'm playing."

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


I am an introvert living in a studio apartment with an extrovert. An extrovert who whistles. Who reads aloud the parts that annoy him. Who has not really mastered the fiddle.

Sometimes I need to hide.

I recently rearranged one of our closets so there is room for a Julia nook. There's a lamp hanging from the curtain rod, cushions to sit on, pictures on the wall. It gets wireless through the wall from the neighbor's apartment. Best of all, it has a door that shuts.

I think this will be useful for my sanity.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Here's to you, Mrs. Lipovic

I have two paperwhite bulbs on my windowsill, one past blooming and the other about to. I had never really though about plants' ability to make water and carbon dioxide into stems, roots, and flowers. I think I had assumed that they got most of their substance from the soil, like I do from food. But I give these bulbs nothing more than water, air, and a not-very-sunny window, and they go from dry oniony things to blooming green plants. The process is just amazing.

In high school I tutored an eleven-year-old refugee who had moved from Bosnia to Germany to Virginia with her family. They had lived on a farm at one point, and she spoke longingly of the open space and the flock of chickens she had charge of. They lived in a stark apartment complex full of other refugees from Eastern Europe and Africa. The streets had pretentious English names like Regency Drive and Nottingham Village Lane, but you never heard anyone speaking English there. There were no trees. The girl's mother, Mrs. Lipovic, looked worn and gray but always had candy and a vase of plastic flowers on the donated coffee table. I wanted to give her flower seeds, blue morning glories that could grow huge and rambling around the door of their cheerless apartment, but Mom explained that their landlord might not take kindly to that. I didn't want to give her a potted plant for fear it would die (like potted plants seem to do most of the time) and embarrass her.

Now it seems so obvious - I should have given her paperwhite bulbs. They only cost a dollar, and they're nearly impossible to kill. When I look at them, I always think of Mrs. Lipovic in her dreary apartment in a foreign country.

Sunday, January 31, 2010


When you marry a tech-y person, you should have to sign some kind of waiver.

I, ______________, understand that for the rest of my life I will attend parties with my spouse and his/her tech-y friends. The conversation will invariably drift to the merits of one programming language over another, and no one will notice as my eyes glaze over. Neither my spouse nor any of his/her friends will feel that anything is wrong with having a conversation that is effectively in a foreign tongue. If I request another topic, they will sit in baffled silence until I apologize and tell them to resume. If possible, I will take up some kind of quiet hobby like knitting. I understand that if the gathering is at someone else's house I may leave, but that if the gathering is in my own home there is no escape.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Burns Night

This year I'm celebrating Jeff's birthday by dragging him to a Burns Night - our first ever. Burns Night being a festival in honor of Robert Burns, Scotland's national poet. There are not many writers so fabulous that people are still partying 214 years after their death.

He ranges from maudlin:

Fare thee weel, thou first and fairest!
Fare thee weel, thou best and dearest!
Thine be ilka joy and treasure,
Peace, enjoyment, love, and pleasure!
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!

To political:

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hodden grey, an' a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man's a Man for a' that:
For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.

To pornographic:
Then gie the lass a fairin, lad,
O gie the lass her fairin,
An she’ll gie you a hairy thing,
An o it be na sparin;
But cowp her ower amang the creels,
An bar the door wi baith your heels,
The mair she bangs the less she squeels,
An hey for houghmagandie.

To tipsy:
O thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink!
Whether thro' wimplin worms thou jink,
Or, richly brown, ream owre the brink,
In glorious faem,
Inspire me, till I lisp an' wink,
To sing thy name!

Okay, so 18th-century Scots is pretty incomprehensible to English speakers at times. But that just makes it better. I urge you to sample the joys of Burns.
Death And Dying Words Of Poor Mailie, The Author's Only Pet Yowe.
Apology For Declining An Invitation To Dine.
To A Louse, On Seeing One On A Lady's Bonnet, At Church
Address To The Toothache
To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough

Friday, January 08, 2010


I keep hearing about various environmental stunts. No Impact Man, the 100-mile diet, and the Little Brown Dress are some of them. They all fall under what used to be called voluntary simplicity.

I'm not opposed to stunts - they make people think, they're noticeable. If labels and stunts help people feel cool about a simpler lifestyle, great.

I was thinking about the ways Jeff and I live simply. Some of these habits just come from having thrifty mothers, I think, but others we've come to on our own. And there's a often happy convergence between what is sustainable and what is cheap. There are exceptions, but mostly:

We do We don't
Live below our means and give away about half our incomeLike the level of inequality we see in the world
Bus, train, subway, bike, and hoof itOwn a car
Use rags, sponges, cloth napkinsUse paper towels and napkins
Line-dry our laundryUse the dryer
Travel by busTravel by plane
Make wineBuy alcohol
Use a little meat to flavor other dishesUse meat as a main dish
Use the libraryBuy books or movies
Have a big apartment by Hong Kong standardsHave a big apartment by American standards
Play music and board gamesOwn a TV
Cook at homeEat out
Buy bulk staples and cook from scratchBuy much pre-made food
Use reusable menstrual products
(well, only Julia)
Use disposable menstrual products
Shop from thrift stores, Craigslist, yard sales, and freecycleBuy new clothes, housewares, furniture
Use fans
Use air conditioning
Budget like hell Impulse buy
Count our blessings

Yes, even when it's cold.

Lentils with smoked gouda

This is a Pendle Hill recipe that's become one of my staples. Lentils cook faster than most beans even without soaking, so this dinner can be done about an hour after you get home.

Rinse 3 cups French lentils (also called lentils du puy. They are dark green in color and are much nicer than red or brown lentils.)
Cover with plenty of water and boil until tender.

Turn on the oven to 350. Drain the lentils and stir in:

1 teaspoon sage
Salt to taste
Broth or broth powder

Other possible additions:
a dash of vinegar
chopped apple
chopped walnuts
cooked sausage

Put in a greased casserole and top with grated cheddar or smoked gouda. Bake until the cheese is bubbly.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Just a thing

This weekend Jeff and I went to Kentucky for my grandmother's memorial service. She died at age 101 this fall. That thing happened that often happens when old people die - for years they have been a shell of themselves, unable to think or act like they used to. But this week, with children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren gathered in her house to remember her, she was there in a way she hasn't been for years.

My other grandmother, from the rich side of the family, used to tell a story about her childhood. A diamond belonging to someone in the family had come out of its setting, and Granny secretly got it out of the drawer and was playing with it on the floor. The stone fell between the floorboards. She told someone what had happened and then hid behind the door, terrified of being punished. The frantic adults pried up the floorboards and found the diamond, and they were so relieved they forgot all about Granny and left her unpunished behind the door.

At the memorial my mom told a story about her mother which I had never heard before. When Mom went to college, Grandma gave her a diamond ring, a family heirloom. (I've seen both diamonds, and this one is smaller but much prettier.) At one point Mom thought she had lost the ring, and she felt just awful about it. She told her mother she couldn't find the ring. Grandma answered, "It's just a thing. If you were lost, I would be really upset. But this is just a thing."

I'm intrigued by the comparison. My father's side of the family is much more materially successful. They're the reason I could go to an expensive private college. But I don't love any of them like I loved Grandma, who struggled to raise four children on the earnings from her and her husbands' various jobs (factory worker, teacher, secretary, newspaper columnist, minister). This woman taught me that if you could get the protein for the family supper for under a dollar, you were doing all right. (Her solution was usually tuna. Mine is usually beans.) But despite having less, she valued possessions less. At the memorial we sang a hymn that especially suited her, with the line "Riches I heed not, nor man's empty praise."

Grandma knew where it was at.