Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Benedicimus te

This year I went to the Christmas carol service at Harvard (college towns! I love 'em!) The church, as usual, was packed enough that latecomers had to sit on the floor. People come mostly to hear the excellent choir and organ, but also for the pleasure of singing through some of the carols. It's the only place I've been that expects you to sight-read Latin on "Adeste Fidelis", though they do give you a choice of German or English on "Silent Night." It's a legit church service with gospel readings and prayers, but I don't have a good sense of how many of us come for a musical more than a religious experience. Sometimes I worry that I ought to find some more secular outlet for my harmony-singing urges, but I've had no luck.

We are now in the midst of family Christmas with twenty or so of Jeff's and my family. It's a solid week of cooking, eating, board games, singing, exchanging gifts, playing music, napping, and walking around the neighborhood. Pretty much my ideal way to spend a week. I know at least three people who wandered into Thomforde gatherings and stayed for days.

At night we light the menorah. My understanding of the Hebrew words we sing is vague at best. I know they feel warm and close. I'm grateful to whatever has preserved my father-in-law and his ancestors, grateful for Jeff singing beside me.

Last night we all went to see Revels, a stage show of traditional Christmas music and dance. Revels is aimed at a more secular crowd, and is generally very good at making folk culture accessible to people who aren't normally part of that scene.

Revels also includes a good bit of participatory singing, which I always approve of. There's no sensory experience that instantly conveys "you're among friends" to me like lots of people singing in harmony. Revels ends with a stately version of the Sussex Mummers' Carol, complete with Ralph Vaughan Williams' soaring descant.

God bless your house, your children too
Your cattle and your store
The Lord increase you day by day
And send you more and more,
And send you more and more.

And I decided it doesn't much matter what the words mean. We don't have cattle, and many of us don't believe in God. It is enough to stand in a warm building surrounded by a thousand other voices, singing a blessing onto each other.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas postcards

Having exhausted my supply of decent-looking envelopes, this year I made Christmas postcards.

I recommend it as a doable way to make your own Christmas cards, as long as you don't plan to write an essay inside. Print out a bit of a carol or poem, a cut paper star or snowflake, and you're done.

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.

-Eleanor Farjeon

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

St. Lucia Day

Happy Lucia Day! Lucia was one of those early Christian martyrs who died rather than marry a pagan. She may or may not have gouged her own eyeballs out. Naturally, we celebrate with candles and saffron buns!

It's the Scandinavians who get really into this.  Scandinavia, I can tell you from personal experience, is very dark at this time of year. So I don't blame them for latching onto a December saint's day for a woman whose name means "light".  In both homes and public gatherings, they have processions of children in white robes. The tallest and prettiest girl wears a wreath of candles on her head.

Carl Larsson, "Lucia Morning"

One unexpected benefit of winning the Nobel Prize is that during your stay in the Grand Hotel in Stockholm, a procession of Lucia girls and star boys wake you with a song. The problem is that laureates are sometimes surprised to awake to coffee and pastry born by singing girls dressed in white and crowned with flame. Supposedly, one of them believed he had died and gone to heaven.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Good things

Today in church the topic was the Magnificat, also known as the Canticle of Mary. I was thinking about one part, which we used to sing in children's choir:

He hath filled the hungry with good things
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

Today I realized that my mental image of the "good things" is the food page from The Little Engine that Could.

"Some of the cars were filled with all sorts of good things for boys and girls to eat — big golden oranges, red-cheeked apples, bottles of creamy milk for their breakfasts, fresh spinach for their dinners, peppermint drops, and lollypops for after-meal treats."

To me, the combination of words and images invoke all that is wholesome and tasty. Fill me up!


As a social worker, I have to write things like "Patient is not motivated to maintain sobriety." That word, sobriety, sounds to me like people in gray clothes sitting in uncomfortable chairs. I'm not motivated to "maintain sobriety", so why should my clients be?

As a child in the Episcopal church, I disliked the part in the Book of Common Prayer about living "a godly, righteous, and sober life." I guess "sober" was supposed to mean "not too crazy." Quakers used to be big into sobriety, and the opposite was "gay", "vain", or "immoderate". The 1806 Book of Discipline from Philadelphia advised "that a watchful care be exercised over our youth, to prevent their going to stage-plays, horse-races, music, dancing, or any such vain sports and pastimes." "The sipping and tippling of drams and strong drink", though poetically phrased, was also frowned on. And if any Quaker should "fall into this evil practice, giving or taking strong liquors at vendues, or countenance or promote any noisy gatherings, they should be speedily dealt with as disorderly persons." This speedy dealing-with probably amounted to a concerned talking-to by some people in gray clothes, after which you would be kicked out of meeting if you didn't change your ways.

We're still using the nineteenth-century rhetoric that equates alcohol with frivolity. By the 1920s our culture worshipped frivolity, and what had everyone been taught about it? That it goes hand in hand with alcohol. If you want to be "gay" or "immoderate" (i.e. to have fun), drinking is the way to do it.

The result is that some people have forgotten how to have fun without drinking. Last Christmas when Jeff's boisterous Quaker family was gathered, a cousin's boyfriend marvelled that we seemed to be having such a good time with minimal drinking. He had never seen a family do that before.

When I dispatch my clients to a "sober house", I hope it won't be so very sober there. I hope they'll stay away from alcohol, but maybe there will be a little frivolity and even some noisy gatherings.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011


Last week, my dad and I were talking about the uproar about someone letting her nine-year-old son ride the New York subway alone. “I don't know,” my suburban father hedged, “Aren't there a lot of crazies on the subway?”

Meaning people who mutter to themselves? Occasionally. Disheveled people? Definitely. Drunk people? Sometimes. People who strike up unwanted conversations with strangers? Sure. Violent? I did see two people get on a shoving match on a subway car one time, but both of them appeared willing participants.

But dangerous to people who are minding their own business? No. There may be other dangers on a subway – theft, sexual harassment – but I don't think mental illness has anything to do with that.

I've heard similar reactions to my landlord situation. My landlord is paranoid, and my housemates and I are the objects of her paranoia. She believes we're practicing witchcraft against her and poisoning her with electromagnetic radiation. This results in her doing things like banging on our door at odd hours, duct taping our porch door shut, and writing us letters in all caps.

The reaction from our friends: “This is beyond entertaining, and you need to get out of there.” “It is almost as crazy as she is to stay there.” “Maybe you could have her committed!”

There's a reason she hasn't been committed: she hasn't done anything dangerous. Annoying, yes. In breach of our lease, yes. But not dangerous. And people don't seem to understand that distinction.

People who have lost touch with reality are not out to get you. If anything, they might think you're out to get them. Working on the psych ward, I have not met a single patient who would hurt a stranger. Maybe the nurse who's giving them meds, maybe an ex-boyfriend, maybe themselves, but not a stranger.

Sunday, December 04, 2011


One of my favorite Christmas songs is the Cherry Tree Carol, based on a story from an apocryphal gospel. Joseph and the pregnant Mary are walking through an orchard. She, maybe because of the pregnancy, gets a yen for the cherries and asks him to pick her some. Joseph, none too pleased with the mysterious pregnancy situation, answers,

"Let him pick berries and let him pick cherries
That brought thee now with child."

It's such a typical interaction. Joseph and Mary are both feeling wronged. He's mad because someone knocked up his fiancée, and she's mad because she wants those cherries and can't go clambering around to get them. Plus she's just been insulted.

But because this is a story, a miracle happens and settles the argument. Unborn Jesus takes sides and tells the trees what to do.

Then bowed down the tallest tree
Into sweet Mary's hand.
Then Mary cried, "Oh, see now, Joseph!
I've cherries at command."

Mary is vindicated. Joseph, embarrassed, attempts an apology:

O, then bespoke old Joseph,
"I have done Mary wrong,
Cheer up, cheer up, my dearest dear,
And do not be cast down."

Arguments in real life don't work like this, but we wish they would. I often see this in social work clients (and myself): we act like if we can just prove how wronged we are, someone will take notice and rectify the situation. We would like the universe to announce: "You are right, and he is wrong." And we make up stories where it really does happen.

But in real life, there are no trees that bow down to settle arguments. The other person's hurt is as real as our own. There will not be a divine arbitration, so we have to patch things up as best we can.

And the carol echoes this: after the miracle, life goes on as usual.

So Mary picked one cherry,
As red as any blood,
And Mary and Joseph, they walked on homeward,
All with their heavy load.

I find this the most touching, most human part of a very human carol. We are all carrying heavy loads. We are all stumbling along in the dark, groping towards each other.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Advent calendars

In Denmark I saw Advent calendars for adults (with lotto scratch tickets behind each door), kids (with chocolate), and cats (with 24 cat treats behind paper windows). My favorite was just envelopes strung on a ribbon, which you could fill and hang on a wall.

I make these every year. You could just paper-clip mailing envelopes to ribbon, or make smaller envelopes. They're not hard to do, and people like them (especially college students who are away from home).

Ideas for filling the envelopes:
  • origami cranes or other shapes
  • chocolate coins
  • paper snowflakes
  • excerpts from poems or stories
  • hearts cut from red cloth (in Denmark, hearts are considered Christmasy for some reason.)
  • jokes
  • bags of flavored tea
  • real or paper holly leaves
  • notes marking days of the month: full moon, winter solstice, St. Lucia's day (Dec. 13), St. Nicholas's day (Dec 6), first day of Chanukah (for those of us in mixed families)
  • recipes
Here are ideas from some other calendars, some pretty ambitious.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Parlor games

It's almost Thanksgiving, which means awkward time with family. To avoid the slumped-watching-TV scenario, or at least too much of it, here are some games that are popular at our house. If you can't be hokey with your family . . . gosh. Better start now.

In the manner of the adverb:
One person leaves the room, and the others pick an adverb (all-time favorites at our house were "manfully" and "unhygenically.") The guesser comes back and instructs the others to do things, which they must do in the manner of the adverb.
"Jeff and Michael, play patty-cake in the manner of the adverb."
"Gillian, hit on Nathaniel in the manner of the adverb."

Continue until the guesser can figure out what the word is.

The Writey-Drawey Game, or Spanking Yoda, or Telephone Pictionary
Everyone gets a sheet of paper. Everyone writes a sentence on the paper, then passes it to the next person. The next person draws a picture of the sentence, then folds the paper down to hide the original sentence. The next person writes a sentence to describe the picture, and so on until the paper is full. (Some deliberate misinterpretation adds to the game.) Then unfold the papers and read them aloud.

"Noah got off his ark only to find, instead of two of each animal, rows of strange spotted zebra giraffes, zeraffes, or girebras, if you will."

Names on foreheads:
Someone writes out names of famous people on sticky notes. Everyone gets one on their forehead, visible to others but not them. You wander around asking people yes-or-no questions to guess who you are.

Charlie doesn't know he's James Bond.

Monday, November 21, 2011


There's a lot of grim humor in the nurses' station at a psych hospital. You have to joke, or it would be unbearable. So when a patient comes in and the nurses or social workers say, "Oh, I love him. I hope they assign him to our team," for a while I thought they were being sarcastic.

I eventually realized it wasn't a joke. When the staff say, "I just love him," or "She's such a sweetheart," they mean it. Some patients aren't easy to work with, like the woman who stands at the door of the nurses' station bawling "I wanna get ouuuuutta here! What's wroooong with you people?" As her social worker gets up to go talk to her, there's affection on her face mixed with the exasperation.

If you're a people person, a psych ward is a strangely satisfying place to work. You see a different part of people, rawer and deeper.

A typical episode: One of the older women is having a rough day. She's been sitting at the table in the milieu muttering and shouting all morning. The most veteran counselor there, a burly American Indian man the patients call "Chief", walks to the middle of the room and stands before her. He plants his feet, spreads his arms, and begins to sing.

"You must have been a beautiful baby,
You must have been a wonderful child,"

Activity in the milieu stops. The patients turn to look.

"When you were only starting to go to kindergarten
I bet you drove the little boys wild.

(This is true. She showed us a picture of herself as a young woman, and she was gorgeous.)

"You must've been a beautiful baby,
'Cause baby, look at you now!"

He finishes up, arms flung wide. It works: she cracks a smile.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Showing off, growing up

When I was a teenager, my family went to a folk dance week once a year. The young people there danced harder, stayed up later, and were generally way cooler than me. I desperately wanted to be a hotshot like them. Unfortunately, I was stuck in a town without much of that. I was the only young Morris dancer within seventy miles. Our contra dances were infrequent and slow-paced. It was frustrating.

When I was sixteen, I had an email exchange with a young dancer in the Boston area. She complained about how the youth rapper sword team she danced with wasn't really her favorite, and she would prefer to be on one of the other youth rapper teams. My jaw dropped. There wasn't a sword team in my entire state, let alone one with anyone under 30, and she was complaining? I vowed to move north as soon as I could.

At age twenty-two, my dreams were coming true. Everyone wanted to dance with me, I was engaged to a hot young folk dancer and musician from Boston, and we were working on the crew that summer at Pinewoods dance camp, folk mecca of the United States. Of course, I was also terrified because the other workers at Pinewoods were people who had grown up doing all this. These were kids who had been hot dancers for a lot longer than I had.

The crew worked all day together, and at night we danced. We formed a crew rapper team, and I was sure I wouldn't be good enough. My boss, the one I wanted most to impress, was the best rapper dancer of us. I was sure she would lead the set. Instead, she asked me to take the leading position.

I couldn't understand. She knew the most, by far - why wouldn't she want to take the lead? Eventually, I figured it out. She had passed through her hotshot stage. She knew she was a better dancer than the rest of us, and wasn't interested in showing off. She was moving on to the teaching stage.

Last summer, Jeff and I went to a contra dance together. It was pretty tame, as Boston dances go - not many dancers, not many young people. Jeff was calling, so I couldn't even dance with him. But there were a few beginners there, and I made it my mission to be sure they had a good time. In the process, I had a good time too. If I had only been at the dance for my own enjoyment or to show off, it would have been miserable.

There are dancers who stay obsessed with The Best forever. They don't want to dance with beginners. They want to dance the fastest and coolest they can, all the time. But the more mature ones move on, and start bringing out the best in others.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

New blog!

Charitable giving is one of the most important things in my life. If you read this blog, you know that.

I have enough to say on the topic that I'm giving it a space of its own. Introducing:

Giving Gladly

A blog on why well-planned giving is the most important thing you can do -- and more fun than you thought!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

There but for fortune

Today in the mental hospital where I work, I met a woman who said she had learned to be all brain and no heart. When she was five, the authorities found out her father was raping her, and she was sent to be raised by her aunt and uncle. They were hands-off academics who fed her mind but not her emotions, and in fifty years she has never had any close relationships. She came to the hospital because she was homeless and considering suicide.

This woman speaks with the richest vocabulary and most careful grammar of anyone I've talked to in a long time. Her intellect is completely sound, and she has clung to it because she has very little else in her life. She is who I might have been if I had been born into a different family.

Before I started work on a locked psych ward, I thought it would be scary to be around people who were totally unlike anyone I knew. Actually, the scary thing is that the severely mentally ill are a lot like people I know. They are people like any other people - professors, parents, dockworkers, students, cashiers - whose brains played them a trick. This, frankly, sucks.

All our brains go a bit askew at times, especially when we dream. You know that dream where your teeth are knocked out, or your finger is cut off, or you have a terrible haircut? That same fear, brought to waking life, is body dysmorphic disorder. You know how in dreams you know something is terribly wrong, even if you can't explain how you know it? That, when you still feel it the next morning, is paranoia. You know how scenes suddenly change into other scenes, and impossible things happen? That, if it goes on for months, is schizophrenia.

All our distancing from the homeless, from the insane - it's to help us pretend the distance is far, but it's not. We need to push them away to pretend it can't happen to us, or that it doesn't suck. But it does.

Remember this when services are being cut. Remember it when you hear someone shouting nonsense from a street corner. If this is not actually your neighbor, your sister, your self - it could be. It is people very much like you. Be kind.

Monday, October 24, 2011

What keeps us safe

My housemates' baby is four months old now. As I watch them bounce, cuddle, and sing their son to sleep, I wonder about how lullabies worked before recording. If you're actually only singing them when your child is so young they can't fall asleep unaided, the child is too young to remember songs. Maybe older siblings hear what their parents sing to new babies, or what neighbors or relatives sing?

There are modern lullabies that obviously never went through the folk process. Take the beautiful "John O' Dreams":

When midnight comes good people homeward tread
Seek now your blanket and your feather bed
Home is the rover, his journey's over
Yield up the night time to old John O' Dreams.

It's lovely, but it's not exactly for kids. It's got four wordy verses which I've sung dozens of times but can't remember. This is clearly not the kind of thing that sleep-deprived parents pass down orally. But why write a lullaby for adults?

The other shoe dropped for me recently in a lecture on self psychology. Self psychology is cursed with terrible nomenclature - almost none of its terms accurately describe what they mean. So the "idealized parental imago pole" of the textbook sounded like mumbo-jumbo until the professor explained: "Our lifelong task is to find what feeds us and keeps us safe." We never outgrow the need to feel that we are protected by someone wise and strong. People may get this from religion, from idealizing a romantic partner, from hero-worship. And it's okay, because it gives us ideals to strive towards as well as a sense of wellbeing.

Children are born without much ability to self-soothe. Parents do it for them with sounds and touch. Later children carry around objects (blankets, dolls) to comfort themselves with when the parent isn't there. Still later, we repeat verbal assurances we have heard from others. (The first time I took a city bus alone at age fourteen, I repeated the phrase "It's going to be okay" under my breath for the duration of the trip.) The need to be comforted doesn't go away, but we learn to parent ourselves.

One of my favorite experiences is falling asleep while other people are awake and making music. It feels comforting in the same way that reliving childhood pleasures is comforting, except that this wasn't actually something that happened in my childhood. I think it's the sense that I can relax because all's well in the world. I've heard other people describe this feeling while falling asleep in a car with someone else driving.

This is why we have wordy lullabies for adults. This is why 25% of businessmen take their teddy bears with them on business trips. This is why Guns N' Roses wrote "Sweet Child O' Mine" as a joke and it topped the charts. Even if our parents will never literally hold us and comfort us again, we have to get that feeling somewhere.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

On suffering

My social work internship this year is in a psych hospital. Today I heard a patient explain her view on suffering.

"My angels think suffering is something holy, but I don't think so. Like Christians hang a cross with a dead Jesus on it over their beds. That's sacred to them, but I think it's creepy. I don't think Jesus had to die at thirty-two. I think he should have stayed alive and raised his daughter. Did you know he had a daughter? It was on the History Channel."

She echoed almost perfectly the words of Spanish poet Antonio Machado:

¡Cantar de la tierra mía,
que echa flores
al Jesús de la agonía,
y es la fe de mis mayores!
¡Oh, no eres tú mi cantar!
¡No puedo cantar, ni quiero,
a ese Jesús del madero,
sino al que anduvo en el mar!

Song of my homeland,
that throws flowers
to the agonized Jesus
and is the faith of my ancestors!
Oh, you are not my song!
I cannot sing, don't want to
to this Jesus on the cross,
but to him who walked on the sea!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Secular Sunday school

I'm teaching one of the Sunday school classes1 for my Quaker meeting for a few months. As an agnostic, I wasn't really sure how to come up with lessons that were appropriately Quakerly but didn't require me pretending to believe anything I don't.

The first month has gone pretty well. We focused on John Woolman, a Quaker abolitionist of the 18th century, long before it was popular. I read his journal once, and what struck me that this hero of social justice was not a happy guy. I thought being that far ahead of your time required a disregard for social convention, but he actually did care what his peers thought. Telling his slaveowning friends that their way of life was reprehensible made him really embarrassed.

I thought the topic of "Doing what you think is right, even when it's unpopular or embarrassing" was totally apt for eleven-year-olds. They're starting to be embarrassed about nearly everything, so they might as well practice. We did some role-plays of John Woolman and his friends, and then some of modern schoolchildren dealing with a bully. We talked about how authority will not always step in to solve things, either by outlawing slavery or by making other kids stop being mean, and sometimes you have to take action yourself.

The kids were fairly interested, the old Quakers were happy I was teaching them Woolman, and I was happy I didn't have to mention God. I thought I'd write up the idea, since it might be useful to other teachers in a similar quandary. You could do the same with an admirable person from just about any faith tradition.

1. Technically "First Day school", since early Quakers weren't okay with pagan names for days of the week or months of the year. This leads to strangely numeric sentences like "The next business meeting is on the third First Day of Ninth Month."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bug or feature?

This week, Jeff has been arguing that the commute to my new internship is too long and unpleasant, and that I should try to get a different internship closer to home. Today, I spent my commute trying to win the argument. I got to see the sunrise! I had a nice jar of tea on the bus! I got a lot of reading done! Look, there's goldenrod blooming in the marsh beside the highway! It's really a nice commute.

A similar thing happened when he and I got engaged. My parents had big misgivings about the match, and I was determined to prove them wrong. At first I worried that I was being childishly perverse, blindly reacting against them. But when I realized that my rebellion was manifesting as a determination to be happy in my marriage, I stopped worrying.

...which makes me wonder if someone could game my system. If I'm despondent about something, maybe the answer is to provoke me into enjoying it.

For Margaret

The day I met you you were 96 and in need of a secretary;
I was 19 and in need of a job.
For the next year we frustrated each other:
I was too young to understand your typewriter,
you were too hard of hearing to understand anything I said.

When I bite into a tomato I think of you,
standing in your garden that first day.
You were eating a tomato, warm from the sun,
the seeds dribbling onto your blouse.
You offered me one, and we ate tomatoes together in the yard
before getting down to business.

When I'm 96, I hope to be like you:
still businesslike,
still enjoying summer's fruits.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

That explains why I've never liked him

One of Jeff's bandmates has been abroad for a semester. I was telling her what she missed.
Me: They had this crazy gig in Chinatown where we had to carry the keyboard up to this loft.
Jeff: It was an anti-mining group that decided they wanted a contra dance at their summit.
Me: And they were all dancing in those stompy anarchist boots -
Some guy: Wait, anarchist boots?
Me: Have you ever seen an anarchist? They wear those boots.
Guy: I used to be an anarchist, and I wore sandals! But then, I was an anarcho-capitalist.
Me: ...Well.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011


I was a weird kid. For a week in fourth grade, I wore shoelaces tied around my ears just to prove I was different. My friends were mostly weird kids, too, and we reveled in being nonconformists together. I mostly understood the social rules I was breaking, and I intended to break them. As time has passed, I've gotten more okay with social rules, but I still thought of them as things people shouldn't really have to follow.

Last year I worked with a kid with mild autism. He couldn't really pick up on social rules, and he wanted friends but didn't have any. I realized how different it was to be the weird kid because you didn't know how to be normal. So I taught him social norms.

When someone says hello, they expect you to say hello back.
I know you're excited about dinosaurs, but sometimes you have to ask other people about their interests.
You have to talk to kids your own age, not just your brother.

In college, a similar thing happened with my understanding of cultural relativism. So many things I thought of as universally standard, I realized, were actually cultural. Punctuality, personal space, gender roles - they all vary a lot. I prided myself on not valuing American norms above other cultures' norms.

This summer I've been working with refugees, helping them find jobs. We teach them how to survive in America. And we teach them American cultural rules, which sometimes require breaking the rules they learned in their home countries. It felt bad at first, but not as bad as seeing someone whose cash assistance is about to run out and still hasn't found work.

You must look your job interviewer in the face, even if he is a man.
You have to speak louder.
We say "customer service," not "customer services." It's just one of those things.
You can't go to a job in a teeshirt that says, "I'm available, but don't tell my girlfriend."

I used to hate social rules, but I was smart and privileged enough to get what I wanted without them. Hopefully these people will learn enough and become secure enough that they, too, can choose which rules to break.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Precocious twelve-year-olds

Julia: This is so goofy. Gödel, Escher, Bach is listed as a Young Adult book in the library system.
Jeff: I think it is a young adult book.
Julia: Young adult books are for twelve-year-olds. Like Sweet Valley High.
Jeff: Most of the people I know who read it were teenagers at the time.
Julia: But that's true of Dune, and that's not a young adult book. Look - (flipping to a passage.) "We now 'squeeze' this sentence of English (the metalanguage) into the formal notation (the object language): <P⊃~~P>. This, our first theorem of the Propositional Calculus, should reveal to you the intended interpretation of the symbol '<⊃>'."
Jeff: Okay, you're right.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Between a rock and a crunchy place

Despite my initial complaints, I've gotten really into Less Wrong. It's refreshing to talk to people who don't write me off as weird/cold/unfeeling for trying to think through things carefully. And yet it's mostly populated by male techy types, which has got me thinking about signalling.

In college when I started going to protests and hanging out with activist kids, I considered ways I could change myself to fit in better with them. I briefly believed that ripping my clothing and wearing a fair-trade head scarf might make me a better activist. One evening I remember going from an activist meeting to a Campus Girl Scouts meeting and realizing there was nothing I could wear that would make me look at home in both groups. The answer, obviously, was that I didn't need to look like either group to do good work.

But the pressure for outward conformity isn't as bad as the pressure for conformity of thought. I was at a women's college when the Larry Summers scandal happened. In class after class, my professors lambasted Summers for suggesting that biological differences between women and men could have anything to do with the maleness of the science and engineering faculty at top universities.

Except . . . there was nothing wrong with what he actually said. He cited a study that did indeed show men's intelligence varying more widely than women's, creating more idiots and more geniuses. In fields that demand extremely smart people, it makes sense that there's a larger pool of good male candidates. And he didn't even list this as the main reason for the disparity - the other factors he listed were discrimination, different socialization, and the fact that the jobs require something like 80 hours a week. Nothing that feminists haven't been saying for decades. But because he mentioned IQ, the feminist community went nuts without, in most cases, even reading what he said.

I'm a feminist. Given the absurd things that have been said about gender and intelligence in the past, I understand getting your hackles up when you hear anything about it. But when you start a ruckus for no good reason, you're embarrassing me. I believe in social justice work. Justice does not just happen by itself. But ignoring truth in the pursuit of justice is not okay.

I refuse to signal less as a feminist so I can signal more as a rationalist. That would be as silly as ripping my jeans to be a better activist. But I expect better of both communities.

Dear rationalists: please welcome people who aren't white male atheist computer programmers under the age of 40. The fact that the site was 96% male at last count is obviously not due only to a longer right tail on the IQ curve.

Dear social justice folks: please be sure your arguments make sense.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Yearning to breathe free

This summer I'm volunteering helping refugees find work. When I ask, "What was your last job?" I'm often surprised by the answer from people who are now applying for jobs as dishwashers or housekeepers.

"In South Africa, I own clothing store."

"I taught at a university in Angola."

"I distributing rice in Haiti after earthquake."

"I never had a job - I was studying to become a teacher. My parents already came here, so I was running the house for my brothers and sisters."

It's amazing how versatile they've had to be. Today I listened to a worker writing a resume with an Afghan woman. "What languages do you speak?"

"Well, Farsi and Tajik and Russian. Now English."

"Wow. Tell me about your work history."

"I was gynecologist seventeen years. When I live in Russia I doing massage. Also, I make all clothes for my family. Also, I make carpets."

"You make carpets? With all those little loops?"

"Yes. Also, I can cut hair, but I don't have license."

These people have been through things I can't imagine. They've started over and over again, fleeing from one country to another. By the time they get here some are still proud, still trying to find jobs worthy of their qualifications. Others are more pragmatic and fill out application after application. The hardest part of this work is not breaking down in tears when I help a professor or doctor apply for a job cleaning floors.

America, be grateful. The professionals of the world are lining up for visas. Their English is often faulty, but they are not. How will you welcome them?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

This sorry scheme of things

Bible-centered folks often start explanations with, “The Bible tells us…” The quotations which follow this phrase sometimes address the topic directly, but more often there’s a lot of inference involved. The Bible gives a lot of specific injunctions about what to eat and how to build an ark of the covenant, but very little about bioethics.

What would a religious document look like, I wonder, that actually told people how to live? If an all-seeing God intended the document to be a guideline for people not just in 600 BC, but for all ages, what would that instruction manual contain?

It could be a lot shorter and less repetitive, for one thing. The hygiene rules could focus more on hand-washing. I hope the moral rules would still include some version of the golden rule, which is useful enough to appear in most major world religions. I hope it would emphasize kindness.

On the poetic side, Biblical prayer could also use some improvement. The words Jesus specifically tells people to use are now known as the Lord’s Prayer. Unfortunately, it’s not a very good prayer. It doesn’t have any particular theme, and gives the impression of being a mishmash of phrases from Jewish prayers. The only bit of poetry in it (thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory) doesn’t appear in any original text and was tacked on later. The Muslim and Jewish daily prayers are also pretty convoluted and not especially good poetry. My understanding is that in both cases they’re quotations from religious documents that somebody decided would be good to recite every day, not cases where the document says “God told us to recite this text every day.”

If one were trying to pick a prayer for everybody to recite, what would it be? Something like the Prayer of St. Francis would be my pick. I like that it hints at actions we can take.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy . . .

It would be nice if this really were St. Francis’s prayer passed down over seven centuries. But its earliest appearance is in 1912, and it wasn’t connected with St. Francis until 1936. Maybe I just like it because it’s in a modern style, and in a few hundred years it will seem terribly dated.

Actually, maybe daily meditation would be a more sensible, and less time-sensitive, thing to prescribe in a religious instruction manual.

In the words of Omar Khayyam (or more accurately, FitzGerald riffing on Khayyam):

Ah, Love! could you and I with Him conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits--and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Unaskable questions

At a party this week I witnessed the following exchange between two friends who hadn't seen each other in a long time, one of whom has ongoing medical problems.

Asker: How are you doing, dear?
Answerer: I'm . . . okay.
Asker: Now, are you really okay, or are you just saying that?
Answerer: (bursts into tears)
Asker: (hugging her) There, there.
Me: (not out loud) What were you thinking?  She obviously didn't want to talk about it!  Did you provoke her to that just so you could comfort her?

There is a category of question that only has one acceptable answer.  They include, "Do I look fat in this?" and "Do you love me?" and "Do you regret marrying him?"   If there's only one answer you can accept hearing, or there's only one answer the other can acceptably give, don't ask.

Friday, August 05, 2011

What would change your mind?

There's not much good philanthropy evangelism out there. Individual charities have marketing departments, of course, but not many people who advocate philanthropy in general. By philanthropy, I mean personally significant giving to causes you think are important (not $20 here and there to random charities that send you mailings).

Giving What We Can is one attempt at this, which I think is quite well done. Bolder Giving is another, though it has rather a lot of millionaires and not a lot of ordinary people. Peter Singer's writings seem to have reached a lot of people, or at least gotten some media attention.

Here are my guesses at why people don't like to think about giving:

  • It's scary to think about what you might give up. In fact, I've found the thinking to be more painful than the actual lifestyle changes. Jeff and I have a very high quality of life on not much money. Philanthropy does not have to be a drag.

  • It can be difficult to make financial decisions once you realize your pocket money could be saving someone's life. I used to agonize over every purchase, which was not good for my mental health (and thus my ability to keep giving). Laying out a budget with money that definitely will and will not be given away has made my life much easier.

  • It can be lonely. I waited about 10 years before I heard of anyone with a giving philosophy similar to mine. The internet is helping create communities, though.
  • Talking about money is hard.  I'm afraid of being a guilt tripper, and I think other people are afraid of being guilted into something.

  • We all know people who are richer than us, and it's easy to feel deprived in comparison. This mindset does not encourage generosity. A feeling of abundance does.

  • Serious givers are often intense/kooky people. People who disagree with Peter Singer about animal rights or euthanasia may discount his writings on giving. I used to think the existential risk people were cranks, but I'm starting to take them more seriously.
So here is my question to you, dear readers: what are your qualms? Are there things that would make you think differently about giving?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hostile lullabies

Jeff and I share an apartment with another couple and their two-month-old baby. I'm getting lots of babysitting practice, and with that comes lots of singing. After a day with a person who can't speak or understand your language, what you really want is to be verbal. Reading is difficult because babies have a way of occupying your hands. The kid likes hearing a human voice, but you quickly run out of things to say to someone who can't talk back. Thus, singing.

I'm realizing lots of the standard lullabies are strangely slow in tempo and sappy in lyric. At least at this age, the baby seems to want a lot of upbeat jiggling, not slow rocking. And since the baby only hears sounds, you can say anything. Which explains all the less-than-kind older lullabies. Think "When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall."

From Scotland, with too many children:
Hee O, wee O, what wou'd I do wi' you?
Black's the life that I lead wi' you;
Many o' you, little for to gie you.

A sleep aid from Appalachia:
What'll we do with the baby-o?
If he don't go to sleepy-o?
Dance him north, dance him south,
Pour a little moonshine in his mouth.

From the Blackfoot:
Come wolf, bite this baby:
He won't sleep.

Then there are the homemade kind, made up on the spot. Our housemate Hassan's go something like this:
Baby baby, you're the one
You make bathtime . . . you actually hate bathtime.

Bottom line: If you don't keep your sense of humor, you're done for.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Reason vs. religion

I've been reading a lot of Less Wrong (a site that tries to educate people on rationalism) lately. They love to hate on religion there.

Today in church I was thinking about why I was there. There are many decisions, like what to do with money and how to teach science in schools, that I think people should make rationally. But there are other decisions, like what to with your Sunday morning, that I think people should make without too much tizzy about what would maximize utility.

I think anti-theism people ignore some useful functions of religion. I like church for one of the same reasons I like social work: it gives people space to think and talk about important things. There are very few spaces where we are invited to do that. It's good to ask ourselves periodically, "Am I treating my loved ones well?" "Is the way I live my life consistent with my values?" "Am I focusing on what's really important?"

I don't think religiosity has much of an effect on most people's daily lives. Most people seem to act like they want to act, and then pick and choose from their religious traditions to explain it. But I think religion sometimes gives us tools to become better people. In social work school we're certainly taught to ask about people's spiritual life and play up any strengths that offers them.

When we pause for silent grace before dinner, many times I've refrained from a bitter comment by remembering the Christian meal blessing: Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest. Not because I actually believe in Jesus as the incarnation of love, but because I can imagine what it would be like to believe that. For me, it's less effective to think "I should be kind" than to imagine the god of love actually sitting at my table. And if that kind of imagination helps me be a kinder person, what's wrong with it? The need to take everything absolutely literally, and to rail against any thought that is not literally true, seems strangely inflexible to me.

I also think church broadens my view of who "us" is. I like that the liturgy includes praying for people with mental illness, homeless people, people getting divorces, people who are sick, people who lost their jobs. Society's usual method is to power on and pretend these problems don't exist. I like that in church we can acknowledge these as things that happen to people we know, people who are us. My defense mechanism is to pretend that I can somehow avoid any of these problems by living my life properly. The prayers remind me of reality: bad things happen to good people. Our response should not be to ignore it, but to stick together and help get each other through those bad things.

Lastly, group singing. And potlucks. Rationalists, how good are your potlucks? (There was a meetup in Cambridge this evening at a restaurant, but I didn't go because I don't consider most restaurants a rational use of money. Also, I thought you might be jerks.)

Skirt guard

The Dutch have it all figured out when it comes to bicycles. One bike accessory commonly seen there (though not here) is the skirt guard, designed for keeping coat tails and skirts out of your back wheel.

This week I made my own. I wear skirts most of the time, and while I've never had a skirt-in-spokes disaster they do sometimes get stuck in the back brake. Now that won't happen!

I cut two semicircles of fabric, stapled them together along part of the curve, and sewed the corners to the bike. For some reason I cut off a part at the front, but don't do that.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

More on covering up . . .

...but on a different theme from yesterday's.

Today I learned that a small number of Jewish women in Israel have started wearing the burka. A conservative Jewish dress code normally encompasses long sleeves, skirts, and hair coverings for women, and this sect is taking it farther by adding a face covering. Faced with Jewish women who dress like Muslim women, other Israelis are freaking out. People harass them on the streets and call them "Taliban women." One news story breathlessly reports that even little girls can be seen "walking around outdoors in full body coverage." A member of Israel's legislative body proposed banning the burka for both Jews and Muslims.

Isn't it interesting that when women draw attention to themselves, so many people can't handle it?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Making shade

One of the challenges of car-free life is avoiding the summer sun. After reading about the dubious chemicals in sunscreen, I was looking for some new solutions. My usual method is a straw hat, but although it's good for the face and shoulders I still got a burnt back last week.

The winning combination for today's 92-in-the-shade walk to the library:
damp cloth around the neck

The umbrella only works if you have a hand free, though. All weeding will now be done after sunset.

Saturday, July 09, 2011


I just returned from a week at folk dance camp. The surprise pleasure of the week was how intergenerational it was.

Americans may work, but rarely play in mixed-age groups. The folk world is a welcome change in that regard. Most of the best Scottish and all of the best English dancers I know are over age 40. (By "best", I'm judging not only for grace and skill but also enthusiasm and enjoyment.) Physical vigor is useful, but knowledge and spirit are more important, so people can continue to develop as dancers for decades. If your knees or ankles go completely, you can take up an instrument or sit on the sidelines and gossip. I like knowing I can continue in this community until I'm old, and that friendships with other dancers formed may well last the rest of our lives.

Our culture holds up young women, maybe 15 to 25, as the most beautiful. But the teenagers I saw at camp looked undeveloped compared to people their parents' and grandparents' age. The girls, still with children's streamlined torsos, looked unformed in their formal dresses shaped for older bodies.

I was there as a kind of understudy to the session's main organizer, a doyenne of the folk world who's in her fifties. With her upswept gray hair, sheer stole, peacock-blue gown, and orthopedic sneakers, I thought she was the most elegant woman at the ball.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

The shrines of East Somerville

I recently heard the residents of my neighborhood described as "houseproud", a word I didn't know was still in use.

At least on the exterior, houseproud manifests as a lot of rosebushes and saints. These are some statues near my house. I think they're kind of sweet.

Madonna with Distracted Attendants

Saint Anthony in the Bathtub

Madonna with Trashcans

Virgin and Child with Peonies

Madonna with Flags

Our Lady of Chainlink

Monday, May 23, 2011


Dear New Yorkers,

Let me tell you that yesterday I was not at my best.
I am normally pretty good at not looking like a tourist.
I know that yesterday I was carrying my belongings in a pillowcase, and I was standing on the subway platform weeping with frustration, and my hair looked like I had slept on a bus.

But let me explain that that was because I had slept on a bus,
and the New Century stop is nowhere near where they said it would be,
and is nowhere near the Lucky Star bus stop.
It was because the subway ticket machine charged $3.50 for a card that turned out to have no money on it,
and because the ticket lady disclaimed all knowledge.
It is because your subway platforms do not have their destinations labeled,
or if they did it was in a manner invisible to me.

In Richmond I realized how citified I had become at a yardsale,
under spreading oak trees across the street from my parents',
where a placid man and his little boy greeted me cheerily.
I realized I had my thumb looped protectively through my purse strap, lest someone yank it from me.
The habit I once had to turn on in cities
now has to get turned off in the suburbs.

I know how to live in Boston.
I don't get lost anymore.
I don't respond to men who try to talk to me.
I don't look at subway maps.

But you reminded me, New York,
that somewhere inside
I'll always be a bumpkin.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Project: circle rug

Or, what to do with all the fabric your mother is never going to make into anything.

Cut fabric into long strips. You can turn the corners so it's one long strip.

Crochet into circles. Crochet the circles together. I'd never successfully crocheted anything before, but these are pretty hard to screw up.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The unhomely house

I'm on vacation at my parents' house, which means my parents spend the day at work while I stay home. In the suburbs, there is virtually nothing I can walk to. I've crocheted two bath mats in the last two days. It's seriously boring around here.

The house is like a parody of a home. Now that all my grandparents have died, their furniture has come to roost in my parents' house. The house is full of furniture, only a few pieces of which are regularly used. The nearly-unused furniture includes five dressers, four desks, two kitchen tables, two sofas, two armchairs, and two enormous china cabinets full of china they never use because they never have people over because the house is too messy. The amount of house they actually use could fit into the studio apartment where Jeff and I used to live.

The house, designed for four or more inhabitants, has barely two. My sister and I are gone, and my parents spend their days working and sleeping. Not much eating and even less cooking goes on. The kitchen, which used to be stocked with actual ingredients, now contains mostly foods that are ready to unwrap or thaw. Last night I spent almost as long trying to find ingredients as I did actually cooking - there were plenty of individually-wrapped frozen tilapia fillets, but no pasta. Totally weird.

My dad always worked too many hours, but now Mom is doing it too. (As a preschool teacher! It's really unclear what needs doing in a preschool classroom for four hours after the children have left.) Dad hasn't cooked in twenty-eight years, so he comes home and crankily waits for Mom to come home and thaw him something. When I visit, I'm praised for anything I cook (partly, I suspect, as a backwards criticism to Mom). Today when I picked Dad up from work, the receptionist asked if I was "the French toast daughter." Apparently my dad finds my making French toast important enough to tell everyone at his office about.

I know my instinct to blame Mom for everything is sexist. Mom has mostly stopped doing the cooking, sewing, gardening, canning, etc. that she once did, but Dad never did those things. If he wants dinner before 11 pm, he could thaw it himself.

Ugh, though.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Jeff and I live with another couple who are expecting their first child in a few weeks. “Attachment parenting” is the current paradigm, and they’re knee deep in books about how to bond with your baby. Last night they were discussing how to get the proper skin-to-skin contact to encourage the production of prolactin and oxytocin while still allowing them to put the baby down occasionally. Some of these books imply that, as the dad-to-be put it, “If you break eye contact, your baby will explode.”

It’s sweet to see their preparations and their happiness, but at times I feel a little bitter. Jeff and I are planning to adopt children from foster care in a few years, and it’s a very different story. Kids in state custody have been removed from their birth families because of abuse or neglect. I can’t control whether their mothers took meth instead of folic acid. I can’t control whether they were breastfed. The ultra-cozy, ultra-responsive atmosphere that is in vogue right now is probably not what these kids got. And so, if you believe the books, they are probably hopelessly screwed up.

I have my fears, but I don’t really believe it. Every child who’s been removed from its family has trauma that will never fully go away. I work with kids who have been homeless, seen parents deported or jailed, who have gone hungry and underdressed because their parents were incapacitated by their own problems. That leaves a mark on anyone. But I’ve seen these kids grow and thrive once their circumstances change. I hear adoptive parents say, “At age three he was barely speaking, and they told us he was mentally retarded. Now he’s at grade level. He’s so excited about everything.”

It’s tempting to believe that if I could just control all the variables, I could make sure my children were perfectly healthy and happy. But no parent controls all the variables. You can take all the folic acid in the world and still get a child with autism or Down syndrome or anything. For me, part of getting ready to be a parent is letting go of the illusion of control.

(Also, coveting the tiny clothes and blankets that are scattered around the house. That’s another part.)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Maybe I should try stimulants?

I was just told I didn't get the internship I applied for because I came across as "too reserved" for a fast-paced hospital setting. The faculty liaison noted that I came across the same way to her, and that I must try to be "higher energy" at my next interview (also at a fast-paced hospital setting). Apparently my efforts to appear calm rather than frantic with interview jitters backfired.

It frustrates me that peppiness is considered necessary for so many jobs that don't actually need it. After the first week of one of my cooking jobs, my boss took me aside and asked if I was all right. She thought I seemed sad, and she really wanted me to be happy. So although I was already happy in the job, I now had the burden of acting happier so as not to worry my boss.

My mother, a veteran preschool teacher, has noted that people judge her the same way. People who work with children, it seems, must have wide eyes and high-pitched voices. Children don't flock to her in the first minute, the way they do to some people. But in the long term she's an excellent teacher - patient, inventive, and affectionate.

If I were a patient in a psychiatric hospital, I'm not sure I would want my social workers to be so very peppy. But now I have to figure out how to act like it for my next interview. I feel like freakin' Jane Fairfax.

"Jane Fairfax has feeling," said Mr. Knightley -- "I do not accuse her of want of feeling. Her sensibilities, I suspect, are strong -- and her temper excellent in its power of forbearance, patience, self-control; but it wants openness. She is reserved, more reserved, I think, than she used to be -- And I love an open temper."

- Jane Austen, Emma

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Adventures in millinery

Thanks to Goodwill, my housemate's hat block, silk flowers from the Carlisle dump, and fabric scraps from the neighbor's trash . . .

I am ready for any and all Easter services, graduations, and summer weddings.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Dig for victory

During the World Wars, governments encouraged civilians to . . . garden. And be thrifty. When was the last time you heard our government advocating either of those things?

Now, preoccupied with GDP, we are told to consume more. After 9/11, President Bush advised us to continue taking vacations at Disneyworld.

I'm not sure I love the idea of my garden as a "munition plant". And that last woman looks a little crazed (botulism, maybe?) But I love the idea of a national ethos of production and conservation rather than consumption. And I'm pleased the Obamas have followed in Eleanor Roosevelt's footsteps with a White House vegetable garden.

It's spring - time to start growing your own food! Depending on the space and interest, you may not grow every tomato you eat this summer. But it's worth it for things you want really fresh, like salad greens or herbs. Seed is so cheap! Try it!

Internet instructions like to make gardening sound easy-peasy, which it kind of is. But be realistic: your plants need good soil, good light, and enough water. Container gardens are a good place to start if you have trepidations or limited space. Better yet, make your own sub-irrigated planters. The internet will tell you most of what you need to know, and the rest you'll learn from experience.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The way things should be

I used to think that social work was mostly about fixing people's problems. Or if I couldn't fix things, at least I could listen.

Working with children, I'm realizing that it's not just that. It's also teaching them how things should be. Children don't have a lot of information about the world yet, so each time they have an experience, it shapes their view of what is normal. A lot of my job is telling them when things are wrong.

They should not have called you that name.
Your father should not choke you. I know you're used to it, but you should not be used to it.
Your mother should not have told you she wanted to give you away.
Friends do not spit on each other.
Those boys should not write things about you on the bathroom wall.
I'm sorry that happened to you. You deserve better than that. You deserve to be safe. You deserve to be loved. It will not always be like this. Right now you are eleven, but someday things will be better.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


The division between religion and mythology seems fairly clear to adults - one is believed by people currently alive, and the other was believed by people not currently alive. To children it's less clear.

I'm sitting with two eight-year-olds, one Irish Catholic, one Haitian Catholic. They are discussing bee-stings.
"It's like that fable," says Ryan.
"Yeah", says Paul. "That we read in class." I ask them about it.
"Zeus didn't want the bees to sting people over and over, so he made the bees die after one sting."
"But it's not all true," Paul adds. I ask which part isn't true. "The part about the bees."
"But the part about Zeus is true," Ryan asserts.
Paul agrees. "Zeus is watching us right now." He looks upwards and waves. "Hi, Zeus."
"But Zeus doesn't have a stinger," Ryan says.
"No. He's really busy. I bet he has a lot of papers on his table."
"But they didn't have papers then, they had scrolls."

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Science lessons from 5-year-olds

I'm eating lunch with a class of kindergarteners. Kaitlin, a tiny blonde, sets down her pizza and tells me something, her face grave. I can't understand a word. As I bend down, she repeats:
"Moons can't see you . . . but they follow you."
"The moon does seem to follow you when you move around," I agree.
"The sun does too," says her neighbor Jada, wanting in on the action.
"The sun is a dying star," announces Adriana from across the table.
DaShawn has a more aesthetic focus, his eyes wide: "It's so pretty!"

Saturday, February 19, 2011

When gender matters

Yesterday I learned that my cat, Lady, is intersex. I called the woman who gave her to me to confirm that she had all her vaccinations and had been spayed. "Well, she didn't need to be spayed," the woman told me. "We call her a "she", but she actually has partially formed organs of both sexes. They named her Lady Gaga at the shelter."
"Oh," I said, startled.
"It just happens sometimes," she said calmly.

And that was it. It was the first time I'd heard anyone outside a gender studies class bring up intersexuality. And, more amazing, it was so casual. We both know Lady is a happy, healthy, very pleasant cat. There's no reason to worry about her dating life, or what kind of clothes she should wear, or whether she will want to have kittens. It's just something that "happens sometimes."

But when intersex humans are born, we freak out. In gender studies classes you always have to read the diary of Herculine Barbin, a French intersex person born in 1838. Her story paints a grim picture of Victorian gender roles. She was raised as a girl but later determined to be "more male than female", so had to start living as a man. It was impossible to get a job because she was dropped into her twenties with her past erased; while living as a man she couldn't tell people she had spent the last ten years as a ladies' maid. Destitute and forbidden to see her childhood girlfriend, she committed suicide. The diary constantly expresses the pain of not fitting in, complete with many exclamation marks. (This was the 1850s, after all.)

Around 1% of children are born with some "sexual ambiguity". Many of them are surgically altered - essentially, if your penis is too small, they cut it off so you can be raised as a girl. Many adult intersex people are not so happy about the choice doctors and parents made for them. We go through a lot of rigmarole to make people fit the binary.

Lady (...Gaga?) is sleeping beside me on the couch. Because gender doesn't matter to cats, their sex doesn't really matter either. If only we left everybody in as much peace.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Gingered spinach with almonds and raisins

I usually think I don't need a recipe to cook vegetables. But this one of those unintuitive recipes that comes out far better than you hoped.

Gingered spinach with almonds and raisins

Rinse about a pound of fresh spinach. It cooks down a lot.

Heat in a skillet on medium-high:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter

Sauté for three minutes:
some chopped almonds or pine nuts
some raisins (if they are shriveled, please soak them in a little water first)
1 teaspoon grated ginger

Remove that stuff from the pan. Put the spinach in the pan, cover, and let it cook down until it's as wilted as you want it. Stir everything together with some salt and pepper.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Couscous love

Thanks to the valentine exchange folks! The valentines are lovely!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The blues

I've been thinking about how the blues shows up in different cultures. We use the term to mean a specific kind of black American lament, but the same idea pops up all over the world.

Spain has the cante jondo, the "deep song." It's from the Roma (Gypsy) tradition - a people who have some major reasons to feel down. From what I can understand of the lyrics, they're mostly about lost love. But a lot of it doesn't even have words - it's just boiled-down sorrow expressed by a man and a guitar.

Tú a mí me lastimas
cómo aguja de muerte.
Mi sangre grita.
(You hurt me
like a death-needle.
My blood screams.)

A missing lover is also the main theme of American blues, as in Muddy Waters' "Garbage Man":

My baby, she run away with the garbage man.
Yeah, you know, my baby, she run away with the garbage man.
Please come back to me, so you can empty my garbage can.

I don't know where this little girl been, and I don't know where she going.
I don't know where this woman been, and I don't know where she going.
Please come back to me, woman - my garbage can is overflowing.

The American bluesman, like his Spanish equivalent, laments the lack of sex. But in Ireland, the equivalent of blues is a female genre. Sex is the problem in these songs. In Blackwaterside, the speaker realizes her lover is not sticking around:

That's not the promise that you made to me
When first you lay on my breast,
You could make me believe with your lying tongue
That the sun rose in the west.

There's not one girl in this whole wide world
So easily led as I
When the fish do fly and the seas run dry
It's then you'll marry I.

Although the lyrics have different themes (essentially boiling down to who gets pregnant), I'm not sure the literal content is the important thing. In all three cases, the songs of sorrow come from vulnerable people - people coming from grinding poverty and physical danger from those in power. Fats Waller was more straightforward about it than most in his "Black and Blue":

I'm white inside, but that don't help my case
Cause I can't hide what is in my face
How will it end? Ain't got a friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue?

Pain comes out, and everybody knows it when they hear it.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Valentine exchange

You like getting mail, right? And you don't want to abandon a perfectly good holiday to cynical commercialism, right?

Here's your chance! I'm organizing a valentine exchange. If you'd like to participate, email me your name and mailing address at juliawise07 (at) gmail.com by February 1st. I'll email you the addresses of four people to send valentines to by February 7th.

Personally, I feel Valentine's Day is a prime opportunity for the use of construction paper. But if you're not feeling crafty, you could buy some valentines. Or send your favorite poem, or a mix CD, or something else. Yes! It will be fun!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Live it up

The professor of my social welfare policy class assigned us to spend a week living on the amount you can get from food stamps. In the mainland US it’s $200 a month for a single person, $367 for a couple. The purpose of the assignment is to show us how difficult it is, and my classmates seemed duly worried.

I’ve been irked about food ever since last week, when someone I know complained that Toby Ord’s plan to give away a million pounds during his lifetime sounded very dreary “living on beans and rice and never going to a movie.” I plead guilty to not paying for movies — though in a college town there are more free screenings and performances than I could possibly see. The beans and rice is definitely a myth.

Jeff and I average $170 a month on groceries for the two of us – less than half what we would get for food stamps. Including meals out, candy, tea, and other nonessentials, we average $215 a month.

So here is my primer on cheap eating. There are lots of sites out there with advice, but they're mostly aimed at stay-at-home moms of large families. This is aimed at someone with less time and less ability to get around - i.e. working people without cars or a lot of freezer space.

Note that the focus here is only on cheap, tasty, and reasonably healthy, not ethical. If you have an opinion on the ethical food vs. cheap food dilemma, I'm happy to hear it.

Love food
If you don't like cooking, of course you’ll eat out more. Get interested in food. Read food blogs. Check out cookbooks from the library. Try making new things.

Read unit prices
Please tell me you knew this already.

Get equipped
A $10 slow-cooker from a thrift store will make your life easier. A pressure cooker will, too, though they’re harder to find used. If you find an old one it will probably need a new rubber valve, which only costs a few dollars. I also love my used breadmaker. A hot loaf or batch of pizza dough when I come home from work? Yes, please.

Go easy on the meat
Use plant foods (whole grains, legumes) as staples and meat as supplements.

Shop where poor people shop
Unfortunately, this is often the corner store. I don’t mean that. Tofu is expensive at ritzy stores, but not in Chinatown. Check out ethnic grocery stores. Check out the international aisle in the regular supermarket – Goya usually sells beans and seasonings cheaper than American companies.

Pack your lunches
Make too much for dinner. Pack leftovers and refrigerate or freeze them. Do this at night, not in the morning when you’re rushing. If you don’t have containers, look in other people’s recycling bins for takeout containers.

Plan for snacks
You don't have to totally change your life. If you know you’re going to get a soda or candy bar from the vending machine at 3 pm, buy them at the store and bring one with you each day. One, so you don't eat them all.

Invest in seasonings
Or your food will be boring and you won’t want to eat it. For savory cooking, I wouldn’t be without:
Lemon juice
Vinegar (in a big jug to use for cleaning as well as cooking)
Olive oil
Broth powder or paste (for grains and soups)
Parmesan (the good kind in a wedge, not dust in a can. This is not cheap, but it is essential to my culinary happiness.)
Hot sauce / chili paste / something else spicy

Know your grocery store
Mine sells dried cranberries both in the raisin aisle and the produce area, and the ones in raisinland are cheaper. They also have a shelf in the back where they sell dented containers at a markdown.

Comfort food is important
I don’t skimp on ice cream.

Here’s a recipe to start you off. This made enough for two dinner servings and three lunches.
Asian beef and vegetables
1 lb. quick-cooking meat like London broil or pork chops (or tofu)
2 cups uncooked brown rice
½ head cabbage
1 carrot

½ cup soy sauce
¼ cup vinegar or lemon juice
¼ cup sugar
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon minced garlic
dash red pepper or other spiciness

Combine the marinade ingredients and put the meat in. Use a plastic bag or a small container so the marinade coats the meat. Refrigerate it and let it sit overnight (or 15 minutes, or whatever you have).

Put the rice on to cook.

Put a skillet on medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, take the meat out of the marinade and cook it 3-4 minutes on each side. Remove from pan.

Pour the marinade into the pan (remember, it has raw meat juice in it) and bring to a simmer. If you want to thicken it, dissolve a teaspoon of cornstarch in a little water and simmer that with the marinade.

Slice the cabbage thinly. Microwave in a dish two minutes (or until it’s as tender as you want). Grate the carrot and add to the cabbage.

Cut the meat into pieces and toss with the vegetables. Serve over the rice with the marinade as sauce.

Time: 50 minutes, less if you use white rice.
Cost: I’m assuming you start with some things (ginger, garlic, sugar). If you buy a cabbage, a pound of carrots, a bottle of soy sauce, a pound of rice, and a pound of meat, that’s $12 at my local grocery. You have almost a bottle of soy sauce, half a cabbage, and some carrots left over.
Yield: two dinners, three lunches (if you eat a little more than us)
Cost per serving: $2.40

Not boring! Not expensive!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Left behind

I heard a radio program of songs from the Vietnam era, both for and against the war. I was surprised at how many of them focused on women and children. The pro-war songs paint them as the ones who must be protected, and the anti-war ones paint them as the victims who have to go on living after their men are killed.

This trope has been going on for a long time. (We can also see the universal constant that all soldiers are called Johnny.)

During the Civil War Patrick Gilmore wrote When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" for his sister, who was awaiting the return of her fiancé. He promises
The village lads and lassies say
With roses they will strew the way,
And we'll all feel gay
When Johnny comes marching home.

But an older version of the song comes from Ireland, where they've been resisting English drafts for quite some time. They didn't have a name for post-traumatic stress, but clearly they knew it when they saw it.
Where are your eyes that looked so mild,
When my poor heart you first beguiled?
Why did you run from me and the child?
Johnny, I hardly knew ye.

150 years later, John Prine described the homecoming of another veteran:
There's a hole in Daddy's arm
Where all the money goes.

"Traveling Soldier" is probably the most famous of the girlfriend-waiting-for-soldier songs.
Crying all alone under the stands
Was a piccolo player in the marching band
And one name read but nobody really cared
But a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair.

The remarkable thing about this type of song is that both pro- and anti-war people love them. The disagreement is on whether the death was necessary, and the songs usually don't address that. One ambiguous song is "Warrior", which describes a woman burying her man and planning for their son's life as a soldier. With lines like "We must kill more people," I think it had to be meant ironically. Then again, Bob Hope had them perform it for troops, so somebody must have missed the irony.

My favorite of the songs was recorded by a Motown girl band, Martha and the Vandellas. It rejects the "they're fighting for you" rhetoric.
I was under the dryer when the telegram came:
'Private John C. Miller was shot down in Vietnam.'
And they say that I should be proud; he was fightin' for me
They say that I should be proud, those too blind to see
But he wasn't fightin' for me, my Johnny didn't have to die for me.

One great songwriter of a different era expressed the same message in prose. Julia Ward Howe wrote the fiery pro-war "Battle Hymn of the Republic", but recanted after seeing the carnage of the Civil War. In her Mother's Day proclamation of 1870, she framed war as a women's issue.
"Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

Two projects

Blessed with a snow day, I decided to do something about the pile of magazines on the bathroom floor.

I retrieved a pizza box from the neighbors' recycling, cut and stapled it into the size I wanted, and stapled white paper over it. Then I punched two holes in the back with a nail, took a section of wire coat hanger, and threaded it through the holes. I bent the wire up over the edge toilet tank, replaced the lid, and it was done.

But what is that lid? Why is it wooden?

Last summer, Jeff cut a new lid to the toilet tank. (The original plan was to drill a hole in a normal ceramic lid, but ceramic doesn't drill so much as shatter.) It has a corner missing, and bits of wood glued on underneath to keep it from sliding around. He also adjusted the float in the tank so it stops filling after about one gallon, leaving about a gallon's worth of empty space before the overflow pipe.

When we're waiting for the water to heat up before a shower, we catch the cold water in a milk jug with the top cut off. Then we pour the water into the toilet tank, via the missing corner on the wooden lid. If the tank is already full, the jug just waits until it's needed.

I think we've about halved the amount of water our toilet uses. Water is plentiful in our region, but it still takes resources to purify and transport that water that's going down the drain.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Whose life?

The news is telling us that a second person has died in Arizona after being denied an organ transplant. With a budget shortfall, the state cut $1.4 million from its transplant program. All I can think is - that much money and only two people died?

We all hate to put a dollar value on lives. But we do it all the time. If I had $1.4 million, I have some ideas about where we could save more lives.

If you want to keep the money in the United States, how about the Boston homeless shelter that had standing room only for 500 people seeking shelter from last week's snow? How about the people who sleep on the street because there is no room for them in existing shelters? Homeless people routinely die from exposure to the elements, violence, or illnesses they catch in overcrowded shelters with inadequate washing facilities.

Whose life do we value? Whose death do we read about in the news?

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Comfort and joy

On the day after Christmas, my cousin invited me to a local evangelical church. I went with her, since I had never been to one. My cousin is the only serious Christian in that branch of the family, and this was a seriously Christian place. (Praise music - whoa.)

I found the whole experience unsettling, and I finally realized what it was: there were no extras. Christmas was mentioned in the sermon, but other than that it might have been any Sunday of the year. There was no Christmas music. No decorations. The scriptural reading wasn't even about the slaughter of the Holy Innocents (that traditional day-after-Christmas downer). It was just 90 minutes of praising Jesus, with coffee afterwards.

I'm not a believer, but I crave religion. The church has developed a lot of pageantry over the years, and I love it. The saints, angels, and a cast of other characters. The seasons of the church calendar, patterning the year. The music. The sensual stimulation: architecture, the taste of the bread and wine, the scent of candles and incense (depending on how high church you get). The sense of drama: the crack of the wafer held above the priest's head for all to see, or the extinguishing of candles to leave the congregation in total darkness at Tenebrae. It's satisfying in the way Greek myth and fairy tales are satisfying. Folk traditions stay around because people crave them. Revels has figured this out.

Why, I wondered, is this stuff so important to me? And then I remembered stereotype threat: women and racial minorities do better on tests if they hear or write affirmations about themselves before the test, and worse if they're told that their group does poorly at such tests. It's subconscious - you don't need to believe what you're told in order for it to affect your performance. Just hearing it is enough.

I used to attend Quaker meeting with a woman who started many of her messages with, "The story I tell myself is . . ." She could acknowledge her religious beliefs as stories, yet still find them deeply meaningful. Even though I don't literally believe what I'm told, it helps me to hear the stories. Tradition says that the universe is ordered. It says our actions are meaningful. It says there is someone looking out for us. Some part of me needs to hear that, touch that, taste that.