Friday, April 29, 2005

Bodies of Knowledge

Ann has a wonderful post in her recent archives about how mediated our experience of beauty is, given the prevalence of affordable style, in the form of Target, or Martha Stewart, or Pottery Barn, or wherever. Ann says, "What happens when beauty becomes the norm instead of the ideal? Personally, I turn away from mass-produced and towards as handmade as possible."

Which brings to mind a conversation some of the Friday Night Irregulars had last week. All four of us have, or have significant access to, a multitude of bodies of knowledge--cooking and baking, hunting, making music, sports (playing more than watching), needlework (including embroidery, needlepoint, knitting, and sewing, that I know of), writing, drawing/painting, software design and building, and gardening. We also know people who are farmers, mechanics, carpenters, secretaries, and painters, as well as people who are professors, doctors, and lawyers. S threw out the phrase "embodied knowledge," which made me think of all the ways that we judge how a job has turned out, what needs tweaking or fixing of some kind, how we diagnose what's wrong. S talked about how knowledge gets communicated in a scientific lab. B pointed out (as Kurt Vonnegut did in Player Piano) that mechanization will get you to some places, but also eliminate possible destinations. I talked about how my brother the mechanic often gets called in on the most difficult diagnoses, the ones that require mechanical knowledge and expertise, rather than the problems that the computer can diagnose when you plug the car into it. J, in addition to being an organizer of several sorts, is the embodiment of institutional knowledge at an academic institution--she knows where the bodies are buried, and who put them there, as well as how to get simple (or complex) things accomplished within the sphere of overlapping bureaucracies and little fiefdoms. And then of course, are the other things we all know: J and I both do a lot of needlework; all of us are pretty good cooks, and I'm a good (and, I hope, about to become a better) baker; B goes hunting and actually brings back food; all of us work out in some way; S, B, and I all play sports, and I practice yoga. I've long wanted to learn to weave, and make pottery.

But, increasingly, these arts (or crafts, if you want), these embodied knowledges, are becoming rare. Why bake bread when you can get a crusty loaf from the bakery, or the grocery store? Why hunt your meat when you can get it packaged in cellophane? Why make hundreds of thousands of tiny stitches on a scrim when you can go buy a print? Why make a pie crust when you can buy one from Trader Joe's? Hell, why make a pie at all? (I realize, in some ways, I'm arguing against myself: If I'm going to open my own bakery, I'd damn well better hope that everyone doesn't learn to make their own.)

You (or I, anyway) can't really argue against the quality of the product, just as Ann doesn't really argue against the beauty of the items--many high-quality, beautiful things are available, at least in our society, and many are broadly affordable, at least to the (shrinking but still sizeable) middle classes. (Here's another thought: Who makes things by hand? Poor people, who can't afford to do anything else, and very rich people, who can get other people to make things for them.) So what's the value of these things, of this embodied knowledge?

Some of it, for me, is the intrinsic pleasure I take in the actual making, and I've tried (and actually succeeded) in communicating some of that pleasure to the stepkid. Some kinds of knowledge really have to be embodied, really cannot be mechanized--think of some of the building craftspeople, the stonemasons and the like, whose arts are dying out as the last practitioners die--and I like to think that I'm engaging in a little preservation effort of my own. But Ann touches on some of it, too: "Problem is, the eye's thought process has itself been influenced--one might say mediated--by contemporary culture all over the place. It's what makes a knit scarf from the Gap appear beautiful, even perfect, while a scarf knit by your friend is full of gaps and twisted stitches and is therefore amateurish. The surface becomes more important than anything holding it up."

And that's exactly the point. If we let it, if we don't allow ourselves to embody knowledge, then the surface does become more important, even as we struggle, individually, and, perhaps, collectively, to not be ONLY surface. We--or, at least, I--want to have something holding us up, I want us to be able to hold ourselves up, with something other than shiny pretty things.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

A is to B . . .

Sitting on the cedar-chest-passing-for-a-coffee table are:
  • pencil and eraser used to scribble thread color numbers so I remember what I used in particular sections of the massive needlepoint that STILL isn't done (but almost is)

  • coasters

  • multiple remotes

  • a book about (by?) Jack Welch about the "GE Way" that C's boss gave him to read

  • Season One of "The Sopranos" (one of my Christmas presents this year)

It occurred to me this morning that those last two things might have a few things in common.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Nothin' Special

That's what I have to post today, unfortunately. Or, rather, I have a bunch of things, including one post on class and sex (the gender kind, not the humpy-humpy kind), in the works or in my head, but, miracle of miracles (maybe it's the effect of the new Pope? or the old one, pushing for beatification & sainthood? even though I'm an atheist and not even baptized? probably not), I have actual work to do at my job. None of it is interesting, mind you, and I'd really rather not do it, but I really must.

I will tell you that we assembled wedding invitations this weekend. We had the Unofficial Bridespeople over Saturday night, fed them (pasta e fagioli, which is the easiest thing EVER to make, and freeform strawberry tarts with some chocolate thrown on top, and J brought a salsa she makes with olives and avocados, and there was red wine, some of which B brought), and then formed a Wedding Invitation Assembly Line. We could not include the response cards yet, because the menu has not been finalized, but at least the invites are put together. I should reassure you people that I call them "unofficial" bridespeople because we're not having any attendants. It's true that I'd like to put B in a poufy bridesmaid's dress, but that's only because he's a straight forty-something man and it's fun to threaten him with it. We are going to have assorted family members stand around with us, somehow, and C's sister is doing the officiating part (though we're not letting her say very much), but no people in suits and pastel-dinner-mint dresses lined up. No aisle, either.

We're probably going to have C's son hold our rings or something--and I'd love to have my nephews help with that, but my brother, for reasons that are completely unclear (and, so far, unexpressed) to me is refusing to bring my nephews with him. They're 5 and 8, so they would be able to participate and enjoy, and would remember this event and so on. I've been planning to hire a babysitter-type-person to hang with the kids in one of the private rooms that the restaurant has, because there are going to be quite a few kids between the ages of 5 and 10, and I thought it would be good to have a place for them to go when they get bored, and someone to entertain them a bit, so their parents don't have to do all of it. My brother and sister-in-law know all this. Nevertheless, about two months ago my mother informed me that my brother wasn't bringing the kids. My SIL called the next day (at my brother's behest, it turns out), and the reasons she gave were (a) it would be too hard on my parents (which isn't true; my parents volunteered to bring them out early), (b) it would be too hard on me, given the excitement and preparations (which isn't true; we're going to have my stepson all that week, so him having someone his age to play with would be a good thing), (c) they don't want kids running around at the wedding (which is why I'm having a babysitter there, which my brother knows), and (d) my brother and SIL would have less fun (which may be true, but seems like a damned selfish reason to not bring the kids). My mother, who understandably doesn't want to be in the middle of her two remaining children on this one (even though she thinks the kids should be here), won't tell my brother anything more, and my brother has been too chicken to call me and talk to me himself.

I'm sending my nephews their own invitation, and my brother will have the opportunity to come to his senses, but, if he persists with this craziness . . . well, obviously, there's little I can do. What I can do, however, is make sure that many, many people at the wedding go over and ask him, "Where are Emma's nephews? She's talked so much about them! I was looking forward to seeing them!" I'm sure that will make him very comfortable with the whole situation.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

More about Addiction

What to do about drugs and drug addiction has been hitting the news lately, and Charlie had some commentary on a book about it as well. As I noted in Charlie's comments, on one hand, I agree that the current approach--criminalizing (some) drugs in ways that virtually guarantee that young men, mostly young minority men, will spend time in jail or prison--hasn't been working. When there's a demand, and there IS a demand, then suppliers will arise to meet that demand. Incarcerating people for using or selling (some) drugs isn't going to change that; what it does instead is create a class of people, ex-convicts, who have even less chance of doing anything else with their lives than they had when they were 10.

Most drugs are controlled in some way in addition to the market that requires payment for them--e.g., by requiring a physician's prescription, and, in the case of what are called scheduled drugs, requiring special licensing to possess or dispense. Which drugs merely require a prescription and which are more severely restricted or banned is complicated and political--can anyone truly believe that marijuana and peyote are more dangerous than cocaine? That the former two have no legitimate use, according to our drug schedules? Know what drug causes more preventable deaths than anything else? Tobacco. Perfectly legal, no need for a prescription. Alcohol causes all kinds of problems--and it's also perfectly legal. That is, rationality isn't what's necessarily behind the way we think about "good" and "bad" drugs.

If you're going for an economic argument, treatment is cheaper than punishment (which the judge may well argue). Several states have not only set up treatment programs for people who'd been arrested/were addicted, they collected a lot of data to see what happened. What they discovered is that treatment is cheaper than no treatment, even if some people relapse. That is, take two people who have similar backgrounds, history, addictions, etc., put one in treatment and not the other. The one who receives treatment--even if it's expensive treatment--will cost less, over the long run, than the one who does not receive treatment. Would-be (or actual) addicted felons turn into productive, tax-paying citizens who pay money into the public coffers.

What's missing from Charlie's (or, more likely, Judge Grey's) account, at least so far, is the notion that drug use/addiction is something other than a merely economic problem. If you look at the judge's summation of the problem, as provided by Charlie, it's as follows:
1. Increased drug production and drug sales effort
2. Increased systemic violence from criminal drug industry, Increased drug use and use-associated crime
3. Increased public alarm
4. Increased public pressure for police protection against drugs and drug violence
5. Increased appropriations [I think that's what's meant here] for criminal justice measures
6. Increased police intervention in the drug market
7. Diminished drug supplies
8. Scarcity-induced higher drug prices and inflated profit incentive
9. Increased drug production and drug sales effort (which you will note is the same as #1, and the cycle continues)
And, of course, there's quite a bit to this. Prohibition, whether of drugs or alcohol, will almost certainly cause a spiral of consequences that may well be worse than the problems directly attributable to the use, rather than to the prohibition, of the drug. If you remove that prohibition or restructure it more rationally, then you will still have the problem of the addicts, but you will not have the problems of (a) the crimes they commit in order to find money to buy their drugs or (b) the arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of the people who sell but do not use those drugs, i.e., people whose only crime is to sell drugs. They'll have to find something else to do--and it might be equally unsavory--but at least some people who would now be incarcerated would no longer be arrested.

But what problems are attributable to the drugs themselves? Alcohol, for example, appears to be beneficial in moderate quantities, and many, perhaps most, people can enjoy it without endangering themselves or others. Marijuana is probably similar in that regard, and neither of these drugs is inherently addictive. That is, many people can enjoy the drugs in moderation for decades and never become abusers or addicts in any meaningful sense of those words.

Other drugs are more difficult to enjoy in moderation over long periods of time--cocaine, many (most?) of the opiates, and, especially, meth and its siblings, for example, can be extremely addictive, and relatively quickly. Nicotine is extremely addictive--moreso than cocaine or heroin, by some accounts (though I think there are complicated reasons for that, possibly in addition to whatever inherent physical properties the drug has). That is, individuals who use these drugs, even in moderation, can become addicted to them. For example, if I have two to four drinks per week, most people would not regard that as excessive. It doesn't impair my normal activities to drink that amount, and I could continue using that amount for many years without becoming an alcoholic. If I used cocaine two to four times per week, it's reasonably likely that I'd become addicted, that my normal activities would be hijacked by my desire for the drug, and that the two to four times/week would become more frequent. Drinking does not affect my desire to drink; using cocaine or heroin or cigarettes or meth affects my desire to use those drugs. (For alcoholics, drinking does affect their desire to drink, but it's possible to drink and not become an alcoholic.) In other words, we might well want to classify drugs in terms of the likelihood that people who use them will become addicted--but that's not what the current system does. If that kind of rationality were behind the drug scheduling process, then marijuana would not be regarded as "worse" than cocaine, and nicotine would have to make an appearance on the list. The latter, at least, will not happen any time soon.

What's missing from the economic argument, then, is consideration of some of the realities of addiction. We might argue that an infinite supply of heroin or meth would eliminate the need for junkies to commit crimes to support their addictions, but, with at least some drugs, I don't believe that's true. That is, it's the effects of the drugs themselves, not just the economic constraints imposed by addiction, that are intertwined with the commission of some crimes. (Ask anyone who's ever had to deal with a violent alcoholic spouse, or consider the motivation and ability to do productive work of someone who's addicted to meth or heroin.) Thus, we might also want to classify drugs in terms of what they do to the person who uses them or to that person's behavior. PCP, for example, seems to exacerbate or otherwise contribute to violent behavior; alcohol can certainly do that; marijuana just plain doesn't. (It's kind of funny to think about a stoner getting up the energy to get violent.) That is, the drug is harmful not just to the person who uses it (with a squishy notion of "harm" here--ALL drugs have the potential to harm), but it also contributes in some way to the possibility that the person who uses the drug will harm someone else. The federal government had been (and may still be) collecting figures on the number of people who are under the influence of some drug when they are arrested. Not surprisingly, that number is pretty damned high, and it's not just because people commit crimes to get more money to buy more drugs. Some (kinds of) drug use, particularly addictive drug use, impairs judgement and is implicated in other behavioral changes.

Finally, a hidden aspect to this whole discussion is that we are ambivalent, at best, about what drugs do for us. If someone has really disordered states of perception--schizophrenics, for example, or someone who's really depressed--we want to bring them a little closer to normal, enable them to function in the world (and not commit suicide). Our current climate says that it is not just acceptable, but preferable, that a depressed person take an antidepressant every day--but that it's not acceptable, and it's even wildly illegal, to occasionally use a psychedelic. It's okay to treat high blood pressure with a pill--rather than diet, exercise, and other lifestyle changes--but it's not okay to smoke some dope, even if said dope-smoking is therapeutic, but especially if it's purely recreational. And I think it's the "recreational" part that makes the puritans among us nervous, even though we're always playing with our consciousness: little kids spin in a circle to get dizzy, and it can be entertaining to see the world from a slightly (perhaps even drastically) altered state. All in all, though, rationality appears to play no part in our discussions, even as it's supposedly rationality that we're trying to maintain.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Sex for None

Apparently, there's a group at Princeton promoting chastity. Except get this quote:
Jennifer Mickel, a 19-year-old sophomore from Monroe, La., brought up abstinence at a women's forum at Ivy Council, an inter-campus student group in the Ivy League.

"The discussion was very sex-focused, like about having rape kits in medical centers and condoms and the morning-after pill," Ms. Mickel said. "And I asked, 'What do your schools have for women who are not having sex?' And the room fell silent. These delegates are appointed by their schools to be experts on these subjects, and no one had anything to say about abstinence."
Okay, Ms. Mickel, those rape kits, and the morning-after pill? Those can be used for women who are abstinent but who get raped. Because abstinence won't protect you from rape. So maybe the room fell silent because the other people there wondered why you hadn't figured that out.

The other comment that annoyed me:
"Our mission is not ideological," [David Schaengold] said. "We are trying to remove this discussion from a setting that would make people uncomfortable - from a religious setting, for example - and make it available to everyone."

He went on: "We don't believe that human beings should be used as instruments or objects. We think the proper relationship between humans should be one of respect and love, and we think promiscuity and random hook-ups are completely destructive to respect and love. Dignity itself is a moral standard."
I have to disagree that promiscuity (whatever he thinks that might mean) and "random hook-ups" are necessarily at odds with or destructive to respect and love. (The reverse is also true: just because you're abstinent now, waiting for that loving, respectful relationship, in the context of which you're willing to have sex, does not guarantee that that relationship will remain loving or respectful.) There are all kinds of reasons for people to have sex (or not), but I think, in general, the healthiest reason is that you want to, and so does the other person/people. As long as everyone is clear about what's going on--and what's not going on--what's the harm in it? And there can be a great deal of genuine pleasure. If you have a different view of sex, or if you want to restrict your sexual activities, hey, great--that's your choice. But really--as long as everyone is following the golden rule, what's destructive about that?

That is, despite his claims to the contrary, that IS an ideological mission. He believes that sex under conditions other than the ones he deems appropriate is destructive to respect and love. I would argue that the number of partners one has, or the length of time a given relationship lasts, are not necessarily connected at all to the respect or love inherent in the relationship. How the parties treat each other, whether the relationship lasts 50 years or overnight, is of far more importance. You can, if you want, make an argument about the choice-making abilities of the people involved, e.g., what ability they have to say yes or no, but that's not the argument he's making. He's arguing that many partners or short-term connections are inherently destructive.

He--and the rest of the abstinent crew--can believe, and, more importantly, act, however they damned well please. But enough already with the disingenuous responses, okay? You're passing judgment, whether you claim you are doing so or not.

What Kind of Cat are You?

(with apologies to Billy Jonas, whose music out you should check if you have kids or know kids--it's a lot of fun)

Bitch wrote a great post pointing out how trusting women to be moral agents is at the heart of choice politics, and a follow-up post about feminisms. Go read them.

As for feminisms, well, my own is a lot like Dr. Bitch's, I think, though with less interest in shoes. She says: "I do not believe that there are no differences between men and women; but I believe that what differences there are have been vastly exaggerated by social conditioning, and I reject essentialism." I'd argue that it is surpassingly difficult to specify differences between men and women, precisely because the social conditioning starts at birth or before, and it may be impossible to have any sense of what the differences necessarily mean. (We can talk about what they mean in practice, in our society, with the social conditioning we received, but the meaning of given differences depends in large part on the meaning we assign to those differences. Meaning isn't inherent in difference.) And, really, this is the root of my own feminism. About 32 years ago, I stormed up the stairs in my parents' home, asking why my brother didn't have to fold the laundry but my sister and I did. My mother answered that it was because he was a boy. Although I couldn't (and wouldn't) have phrased it to her this way, I could not understand what having a penis had to do with not folding laundry. Did it get in the way somehow? And, really, that moment helped crystallize things for me. I didn't have much outlet for my realizations, except when I read Ms at the public library (which I did religiously), but it was a start. It's all the more amusing, in some ways, given the utterly traditional divisions of labor in my parents' and grandparents' homes.

But that's also a testament to several of the men in my early life--my dad, for one, who has always thought I could do anything, and my maternal grandfather, who thought the same thing. I suspect it helped that my brother didn't come along until I was six--i.e., I was the oldest son as well as the oldest daughter, in some ways--and it definitely helped that I was smart and precocious, and my family values intelligence, and it probably helped that my dad and grandfather are/were men who spent a fair amount of their time and energy advocating and considering questions of justice of one kind or another. For people of intelligence, and they are/were, it's difficult to believe that workers should be free but that women should be subjugated. I'm sure their feminism is imperfect, but it is from them, in large part, that I learned the principles that undergird my own feminism.

And that leads to another point. Bitch says: "My feminism likes men, and is sympathetic to the ways that they, too, suffer from narrow definitions of gender." I have to agree with that, and I recognize that my agreement is in part a result of the extraordinary men I've known. I have several friends who have played a huge role in raising their children (including one stay-at-home dad and another who did it for six months) and who wouldn't have it any other way. I've been mentored primarily by men. When I was broke, depressed, unemployed, and being forced to change careers (after the graduate school fiasco), a group of men were my unfailing supporters in their own ways. Have I also been subjected to sexism by men? Have I met many men who happen to be assholes? Have I met men who want little or nothing to do with their children or who expect that their wives will do the large part of the child-rearing (or, more likely, aren't even aware of the work involved in child-rearing)? Yes and yes and yes. But I can't bring myself to condemn men as a category--I can't even bring myself to regard men as a category rather than as individuals. I do not regard the biological fact of maleness as the problem--I don't even regard the social fact of maleness as the problem, even though its manifestations may be at the heart of many problems.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Kitchen Aids

NJ asked about cookbooks, and I realize that a lot of people don't have what I would regard as the basics in their kitchens. In this post, I'm going to list cookbooks I particularly like, including why I like them; spices and handy canned goods I think are central to cooking a wide variety of things; and kitchen implements that are necessary or useful. Obviously, it would be expensive to go out and buy all of this at once. I'd start with a cookbook or two, and pick a couple of recipes, and buy what you need to make those, and then branch out a little at a time.

Cookbooks Everyone should have a copy of Joy of Cooking. If possible, get an earlier version than the latest revision, because the older version has a lot of information about canning and freezing and so on that's apparently missing from the latest revision, but, truth be told, I haven't tried to use the new edition. I use Joy to learn the basics about whatever it is I want to do or know. Want to know about butter cookies versus roll cookies versus drop cookies? About the various cuts of beef? About different methods for cooking something? Joy has the answers. Some of the recipes are outdated, but, as you become a better cook, you can still use their recipes as the basis for something else.

An extremely useful complement to Joy is Sally Schneider's A New Way to Cook. ANWtC provides a basic range of recipes and techniques that are lower in fat but that focus on flavor. I've made the chicken braised in marsala with dried cherries three times now--it's not a difficult recipe, though it's time-consuming, but oh MY is it good. I wouldn't necessarily try it without a basic comfort level in the kitchen, but you can read it for yourself. She also provides good instruction on basic techniques and flavors.

For vegetarian cooking, nothing beats Moosewood cookbooks (though a number of people are fans of The Vegetarian Epicure, I've never owned those and can't speak to them). My copy of New Recipes from Moosewood Restaurant is held together with duct tape, and it still has pages falling out of it. According to the website, however, this cookbook isn't available. What's become my new favorite is Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites. I also have New Classics, Daily Special, Cooks at Home and Sundays, as well as the two original books by Molly Katzen--the original Moosewood Cookbook, also held together with duct tape, was one of the first cookbooks I ever owned. They're all good, but I'd start with the Low-Fat Favorites and branch out as you see fit.

I think you can get pretty far with just these three books. If you want a book more geared toward baking and desserts, you could check out the Moosewood dessert book (I haven't done so yet) or the Cook's Illustrated baking book, which is truly superb, but NOT low-fat in any way. I also like Marcella Hazan's books on Italian cooking--she's extremely thorough, and the recipes are good. I use Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking pretty often, and her recipe for polenta is the best.

If you're feeling more adventurous, the Cook's Illustrated stuff will get you pretty far--they are overwhelmingly thorough in their recipe-testing, to good effect: I've made several recipes from the magazine, and all have turned out extremely well. There's a lot of instruction about technique, too, and they test products as well as recipes. The downside is that it can sometimes be a little precious in tone, I think a lot of the cooking has more fat than it need have, and they're not cheap. (I refer to the magazine as Food Porn Bimonthly, and looking at a couple of issues will explain why.) Cook's Illustrated also reviews cookbooks, which is helpful.

I don't have any of Alice Waters' stuff, though I suspect I'd like it. I do have a Silver Palate book, but I don't like it much--every recipe seems to start with two sticks of butter. I have some Asian, Indian, and Rick Bayless books, but you can start rummaging through cuisine-based cookbooks once you have a good grasp of the basics and your own tastes.

Spices and Canned/Dry Goods Everyone has their own list of must-haves, and many cookbooks will, too. Mine include, in roughly alphabetical order: bay leaf, basil (though I prefer to make pesto and freeze it or get fresh basil), cardamom, cinnamon (ground and sticks), coriander, cumin, cayenne, fennel (seeds and ground), fenugreek (though I just added this recently; you could do w/o it), ginger (ground and crystallized; sometimes I also have fresh in the vegetable drawer, and homemade ginger ale mix in the fridge), oregano, parsley (fresh is better, but dried is very handy), pepper, peppercorns, turmeric, thyme, tarragon, nutmeg, vanilla, and vanilla beans (if you're feeling extravagant and baking something special; otherwise, just good vanilla extract). I might be forgetting some, but these are the ones I use most often. I also have almond and orange extracts, and possibly lemon. We also have about 10 different kinds of hot sauce--C sprinkles it on everything, just about--but I don't use it much. I also have a jar of yeast in the refrigerator, but that's only if you want to bake a lot of bread. (Do you? I can help w/ that, too.)

For dry stuff, I have white and brown rice, coarse corn meal (bought in bulk from Whole Foods and used for polenta), pasta, flour (unbleached), cake flour, sugar (white, brown, and confectioner's), baking chocolate, chocolate chips, and several kinds of salt. (I have a lot of other things, too, but these are the basics.) Red and brown lentils are useful to keep around, as are chopped nuts if you do a lot of baking. Canned goods include Muir Glen chopped peeled tomatos (regular and fire-roasted) and several kinds of canned beans (great northern, black, pinto, and garbanzos; I don't use the pintos much, but C does). Some people like dried beans, but the convenience of organic canned beans is great--cooking dry beans means you need more time. With both tomatos and beans, I stock up like a madwoman when they go on sale and then mark the date I bought them on the lid with indelible marker. You also want, at minimum, some good olive oil (first cold-pressed is the quality you want; I like Colavita), canola oil (when you need a blander taste than olive oil), and perhaps some balsamic vinegar (Whole Foods is good quality and cheap). You might want soy sauce if you're going to do stir-frys. I buy butter (unsalted) when it's on sale and freeze it. I also make chicken stock and freeze it in individual one-cup containers, which is extremely handy; some people use canned or boxed chicken stock. Onions and garlic are the basis of just about everything, so I always have them around. Do NOT use powdered garlic or onion. Ever. For any reason. If you have some now, go throw it out.

If you're going to have leftovers, then you want a bunch of little plastic Ziploc or Gladware containers; I portion things out and freeze them for lunches. These are also good for portioning and freezing things like tomato sauce. We bought a little upright freezer--about 9 cubic feet, I think--and it's stuffed full; I bet we have 50 little plastic containers in one freezer or the other.

Equipment Really, you don't need much. A couple of knives (a 7" paring knife from the grocery store, maybe a chef's knife, to start); a cutting board (plastic can go in the dishwasher but wood is good, too, and, apparently a lot safer than people once thought--possibly safer than plastic; make sure you wipe everything down really well after you handle raw meat of any kind); a big pot (3-4 qts., for making pasta and so on); a small and a large frying pan; a 1-qt saucepan. Start with that. Add what you need a little at a time, or take advantage of a calphalon sale at I have a big stock pot, too--at least 8 qts. I don't like non-stick that much, because I don't trust the coatings. You also want some baking dishes: at minimum, a 9x14 glass dish, an 8x8 square pan, at least one or two loaf pans, maybe a lasagna/roasting pan. You might also want a pie plate or two, a muffin tin, a springform pan. I have a ton of stuff, but I've been doing this a long damned time and it adds up. You want at least a good strong hand mixer--expect to pay $60-$80 for it. If you can afford it, a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer is a wonderful wonderful thing--I got mine as a gift, but I used the hand mixer for years and years before that. A full-size food processor (I have a Cuisinart) is better than i ever expected it to be, but I use the hell out of my little mini-prep Cuisinart, too, and I highly recommend it. You can get really far with a hand mixer and a blender, though--I'm living proof of that. If I had to buy things in order, I'd say: hand mixer, food processor, mini-prep, stand mixer.

Any questions?

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Thought for Food

Sam asked me, below, whether he can eat foie gras guilt-free, which reminded me of a series of conversations we had around here awhile ago. An ex-coworker was a vegetarian, and his wife was vegan. I'm neither, though it's true that I don't eat a lot of meat, and another coworker is thoughtful (in a deep sense) about what he eats, but some of what he eats includes meat that he has killed (venison, turkey). The vegetarian, L, was used to making relatively unchallenged comments about food--the basic arguments for vegetarianism were among them--but the other coworker, B, and I, have thought about food and its production a fair amount, so the basic arguments didn't go very far with us. Which is more destructive, I asked L, vegetables that have been grown with a lot of pesticides or animals that have been grown in something other than factory-farming conditions? How much does what people can afford factor into the equation? B points out that nearly any use of land by humans alters its state, alters the species that grow and do not grow there, alters the animals who live off or around that land.

None of this is to attack vegetarianism, I should add, or meat-eaters, either. I do think that Americans eat more animal-based foods than is good for them, and I also think that many people don't think too much about their food supply. (Another ex-coworker likes meat, but only if it doesn't bear any bits, like bone or gristle or fat, that remind her that she's eating an animal.) I'm distressed by the prevalence of pesticides, even as I recognize how they make food available in ways it might not otherwise be. I'm also distressed by the disappearance of family farms, in favor of large agri-businesses, not least because the latter seem to bring out some of the worst aspects of globalization. I suspect that too many people eat too many foods that have been processed entirely too much, and there are an increasing number of studies that seem to back me up on that one. Overall, though, I've come to think that it's the thoughtfulness that's at the heart of it, because all of those things are interrelated.

Hestia asked me about my food philosophy, and, not surprisingly, I have one. (You've probably figured out that I have a philosophy about damned near everything, and if I don't have one, I can make one up.) I try to:
1. Buy local.
2. Buy organic or "natural" food.
3. Not eat a lot of animals,
4. When I do eat animals, not eat animals that have been treated badly.
5. Cook from scratch and utilize ingredients that have been minimally processed.
6. Eat seasonally.

Obviously, compromise among these principles is necessary, and all bets are off (or most, anyway) when I go out to dinner, largely because I can't control most of these factors. Nevertheless, let me explain them a little bit.

Buy local. A lot of the food we eat travels a huge distance to get to us. This uses up a lot of resources, including a lot of non-renewable energy resources. It has the potential to ruin local economies, both in our own locales as well as in distant countries--it's the Wal-Martization of food. That is, in order to produce vegetables or fruit, farmers have to meet a lot of standards. Some of them have to do with safety--don't grow vegetables on a toxic dump, for example. But other standards are directly related to the convenience and profit margins of the distributors--grow tomatos that ship well rather than tomatos that taste good. What also can happen is that small producers have to make large investments in order to meet such standards--they're now in even more debt. The distributor can now screw them on price: do as I say, and accept the price that I offer, or I will not buy any of your produce. When the distributor controls the market, which is often the case in a given area, the producer can either comply or go out of business. Increasingly, producers go out of business no matter what. Local production and distribution enables farmers to make a living without having to follow the Wal-Mart rules, or so I believe. I patronize farmers' markets, and I buy locally whenever I can. An unintended benefit of this, however, is that I often get to meet the actual producers, which can be a complete trip. Many love what they do--the potato guy, for example, knows more about more kinds of potatos than anyone I've ever met. The bee guy is another one, and it's the best honey ever. The meat guy. The herb guy, from whom I've bought many bunches of basil over the years, and to whom I introduced pesto made with his basil. The fruit ladies, and their grandsons. I like knowing the people who have grown or produced what I'm going to eat. It's a basic human interaction.

Often, too, local is better-tasting. It's closer to ripe when it's picked. The producer can grow varieties that don't ship well over long distances but that taste spectacular or varieties that select for taste rather than looks. I remember reading an article about apples: in part at the behest of distributors and large grocery chains, apple producers slowly switched to trees that produced fruit that was big, red, and shipped well. Unfortunately, the apples tasted awful; they had no taste, or they were mealy. Even more unfortunately, apple trees take awhile to mature, so it wasn't a problem that could be reversed quickly or easily, and it was the producers who bore the brunt of the cost; the distributors always get their cut. Same with tomatos--I won't buy anything but canned tomatos in the winter, and local tomatos in the summer. Fresh tomatos were not meant to be shipped, okay?

Buy organic or natural food. There are several bits to this. I object to large bio-pharmaceutical companies developing Frankenfoods, especially when those seeds and the resultant produce have unknown long-term effects. (I don't know and neither do you--they haven't been around long enough.) This is particularly problematic when the seed produces a plant that is resistant to a particular herbicide that is used to kill the weeds, and the herbicide is also manufactured by the seed company. I remember learning about crop rotation when I was in grade school, which is a completely different method for making sure that the soil doesn't just wear out or blow away. With regard to meat, I prefer that the animals I eat not be tortured before I eat them (which pretty much eliminates veal, and probably eliminates most foie gras, for me). Free-range chickens, cattle that have been raised on a smaller (rather than a factory) farm, hogs that have been raised the same way--these all seem like better ideas to me. I especially do not want the animals to be fed a lot of antibiotics and growth hormones--that can't be good for them, and it can't be good for the people who consume the meat, milk, and eggs. The large food industries will deny it all, of course, but think about it and decide for yourself. I'm not particularly a fan of pesticides, either, and I think that one of the good things that has come out of the huge expansion of the organic food industry is evidence that large-scale organic farming is possible. (The downside, of course, is that any huge industry may cause the aforementioned Wal-Mart problems.)

The other difficulty with organic/natural food is that it is often significantly more expensive than non-organic food. I don't know that it's more expensive to produce, mind you, but the distributors have figured out that the market will bear much higher prices for organic, so the cost of production is less relevant in the price-setting. Thus, this principle may often conflict with other principles, particularly for people who have limited resources.

Not a lot of animals. and Not animals that have been treated badly. Most of us come from genetic stock that didn't eat a lot of meat (Arctic natives notwithstanding), and we don't need to eat animals to thrive. They're tasty, though, and we seem to be omnivores in general. This one is more a health principle than anything: there's increasing evidence that an excess of animal products isn't very healthy for you. A lot of meat seems to be associated with colon cancer, for example, though the link is far from direct. A little bit of lean meat isn't going to hurt, and neither is a little butter. A 24-ounce steak and a stick of butter, however, are more problematic, and not just because there are a lot of calories in both.

Here's the other thing, though. I think a lot of the factory farming of animals is tied in a disturbing causal circle with the amount of meat we eat. I think the factory farming of animals is harmful to them, to the land on which they live, and to those of us who eat the animals, and I'd rather we move toward a situation where we eat less meat but it's of higher quality and has been treated better while it's alive. It would be more expensive, perhaps, to eliminate the huge factory farms (though we have to ask, "more expensive for whom?"), but perhaps not. In any case, better-quality meat, in smaller quantities, seems like a good trade-off. Possible? I don't know.

Cook from scratch and utilize ingredients that have been processed minimally. This one is much more complicated for me, and part of the explication belongs in another post about why I cook and why I liked to cook. The other part of the answer, though, is that I think that cooking is a basic skill that everyone should possess, at least in rudimentary form. Everyone should know how to follow a recipe; buy groceries; sew a button on a shirt; clean a bathroom; balance a checkbook or otherwise manage finances. That's one thing. The other thing, though, with the cooking from scratch, is that I think taste and smell are a huge part of our bodily repertoire--40% of the five senses, after all--and that we should take advantage of that bounty and enjoy food. For me, one of the important paths to that is doing my own cooking--that's one of the best ways, if not the only way, to truly find out what you like to smell and eat. When you buy a can or box of something--one of those mixes with a little spice packet, or a can of soup--someone else has decided how your food will taste. (The same is true in a restaurant, of course, but work with me for a minute.) When you sit down and read recipes and decide to try something new, at first you're going by someone else's ideas, but, very quickly, you start changing the recipes. (More difficult to do with baking than with cooking, but still possible.) I always leave out the bell peppers, because we do NOT get along, and I don't bother making a dish that features bell peppers, but I also know that you can adjust any spice or seasoning. There's something tedious about cooking, of course--having to feed a family every day probably wears thin--but there's something exciting about it, too. I like the rhythm of finding recipes, making a grocery list, doing the shopping (the stepkid likes to be the "lister," i.e., the person who crosses things off the list), making the food, knowing it's there in the freezer. I like knowing that I have sufficient supplies and sufficient skills, at this point, to throw something together, and those skills have been a huge help when I've been really broke and needed to stretch a dollar.

As for the minimal processing, well, there's increasing evidence that highly processed foods aren't that great for you, either. Personally, I think that most processing sucks the life out of the food, and I don't think that injecting a chemical back into it is the answer. Do I buy frozen meals? A few, when they're on sale at Whole Paycheck, to have for those times when I just don't want to deal with anything, but they could easily sit in the freezer for three months, and I tend to get the Amy's Organic or something. When I've had the Lean Cuisine-type meals, I've found them just yucky--sugar, salt, and chemicals, attached to gloppy rice or noodles or low-grade meat. That sucks the joy out of food, for me, and numbs the palate and the senses. I think that it's bad for one's energy level, too--whole grains and relatively fresh vegetables and complex carbohydrates and the like take time for your body to process, and your blood sugar and energy level aren't going to spike and crash as much as they will when you survive on sugar and low-fiber highly processed carbohydrates.

Eat seasonally. This one is more loosely interpreted, what with frozen organic vegetables and canned organic tomatos being available year-round, but I think it's a cousin to the "eat local" principle. Tomatos and corn on the cob are meant to be eaten within minutes of picking. Hours, if necessary, but not days or weeks, and not thousands of miles from where they were grown. It's just wrong. Strawberries are best when they're ripe and sweet and tender. Strawberries that have been shipped rarely have those characteristics. Rasberries are one of the finest things in life--they are also extremely fragile. So, really, raspberries from, say, Chile, are going to be missing something that the raspberries from an hour away in Michigan will have. Peaches--they should be sweet and fresh and so juicy that your elbow gets sticky from the nectar running down your arm. That means that there are a few good weeks for raspberries, peaches, fresh tomatos, corn, and so on; it means that some pleasures can only be enjoyed briefly, and that some pleasures can only be enjoyed later if you have a freezer or you can can or preserve your food. But that's okay. It reminds us that life is cyclical, and so are we.

I should add that I'm not really fanatic about these principles. Put a cheesesteak with onions from Jim's Steaks or Joe's Steak Shop in front of me, and we got something goin' on. TastyKakes, too. Good chocolate. Hard candy. And, about six times a year, a Dr. Pepper. I like to go out to dinner, and not just to get ideas for my own cooking. But I couldn't do a steady diet of any of those things any more than I could do a steady diet without any of those things.

Updated to add links to an article about cooking at home and one about strawberries.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Soup of the Day

Last Thursday I stopped at the fabric store to see what I could find, and, lo and behold, I found something. Saturday I dragged J down there with me and we pulled four or five rolls of silk fabric off the poles and took them to the big mirror next to the store's front window, next to which a man in his late 50s (?) was sitting, obviously one of the proprietors. The first one, a gorgeous peacock blue (with shimmery hints of green and purple) was wonderful, and he commented that it looked good. We looked at the others, all in the blue ranges, and after each one he noted that the first one looked best. He was right, too; there really wasn't any question about that. (His contribution was actually quite entertaining--it was very matter-of-fact, not intrusive at all, merely the response of someone who had clearly spent many years in the business and who clearly had an eye for it.) He hacked off a swatch, and away we went, with a checkmark next to one more task. Plus, C got his ring on Saturday--it's made by a technique called mokume gane, which is a little like making streudel with different metals.

Yesterday I skipped yoga so we could go buy a TV on sale. About 15 years ago--maybe more--I bought a 13" color TV, and it has served me just fine. The problem is, it's not cable-ready, as they say, so you can kind of attach the cable cord to it, but it doesn't stay very well, and I've never gotten a little converter plug, plus the network channels are horrible, because you're getting both cable and regular reception. We don't watch all that much TV, but what little we watch is often in bed--the news, or Law & Order, or, if we moved the cable box (which we did), The Daily Show, or, if C's not home, Nightline. I've been putting off buying things like TVs, but I finally succumbed--it was only about a hundred bucks, so it's not like we wheeled a big-screen flat-panel plasma monstrosity into the apartment. And, I'm supposed to be getting more paychecks this month! We came home and I did my share of the weekly cleaning, and did my finances, and then I set to work doing my lunch cooking.

As part of the Austerity Plan, we've been making our lunches since around the first of the year. As I expected (hey, I've spent more than a decade around recovering alcoholics, so I know a few things), C was all about making the lunches at first--his enthusiasm knew no bounds! Now, though, not so much, though I have some faith that he'll get back to it. I've been steadier about it, in part because I was tired of spending as much money as I was spending on lunches, plus I wanted to lose a little weight, which is easier to do when you know what's gone into the food you're eating, and easier still when you actually put it there and can, for example, cut out a lot of the fat and its accompanying calories. So I've been rummaging through my cookbooks, looking for things that freeze well, that can be portioned easily, that are suitable for lunches, and that aren't big wads of food (big lunches make me sleepy). This mostly means stews or thick soups (which Mrs. Doubtfire would regard as redundant); I'll make a batch of brown rice on Mondays and bring some of that to accompany whatever else is on the menu. The best cookbook for this, by far, is the Moosewood Low-Fat Cookbook (MLF). My favorite Moosewood cookbook used to be the New Moosewood Cookbook (NMC)--and I still use it for several things--but the recipes tend to have WAY too much fat in them; one really does not need three tablespoons of oil where a teaspoon or two will do.

Yesterday I went nuts: I made the Basque White Bean soup (which was much better than I expected--so good that I made a second batch and thereby used up all the cabbage and celery that I would otherwise have watched rot in the vegetable drawer) and the Golden Split Pea soup, both from MLF, and a Moroccan/West African-esque stew, based on two recipes from NMC, that enabled me to use up the last of the sweet potatos, the zucchini I bought a couple weeks ago, the rest of the can of tomatos I opened for the pea soup, and the last two onions. (I went through a whole bag of onions yesterday.) I felt extremely virtuous by the time I was done, plus I now have at least three or four weeks' worth of lunches.

So as I was in the kitchen, chopping and cutting and stirring and washing and pouring and portioning and so on, I fantasized some more about my eventual business. (Not the real one, the fantasy one. The former may have some things in common with the latter, but the latter is more of a wish-list than a business plan.) And I want to offer cooking classes of some kind. Too damned many people have no clue how to cook. This frustrates me to no end, not least because there are all these instruction books out there--cookbooks! with recipes in them!--and if you follow the instructions, you get food at the end. It's just not that complicated, or so I thought, but I seem to be wildly wrong about this one.

There are some cooking or baking techniques that require practice or instruction, but you can feed yourself pretty well without knowing any of them. If you really don't know anything, Joy of Cooking will get you pretty damned far (especially if you can get your hands on an older edition, which practically taught you how to skin a woodchuck, rather than this latest version, which apparently leaves out all of the freezing and canning info). It's how I learned most of what I know, except for peeling carrots and potatos and cutting up potatos for roasting.

I haven't figured out where cooking fits into my class schema, though. Eating, yes, but not cooking. I know that, for families like the one in which I grew up, if the mom knew how to cook, she did it, because it was cheaper than going out. In the 50s, a lot of women expected to do the cooking, and there were any number of resources, including their mothers and grandmothers, to assist with that. But the 50s and 60s are when prepackaged foods really began to take off. (Laura Shapiro wrote an absolutely fascinating history of women and cooking called Perfection Salad; it's in paperback, and very readable, and I highly recommend it.) If it could be frozen, canned, or otherwise pre-made, it was sold that way, because it was more "convenient." It also tended to be more expensive, which probably helps explain why my mother didn't go for that stuff. On the other hand, my parents didn't have "dinner parties," which I think were a more middle-class thing, or, more likely, a more urban thing. Cooking was about feeding the family, perhaps the extended family at a holiday, not about impressing the neighbors, unless you're talking about baked goods at the PTO bake sale.

In any case, it used to be the case that the poorest and the richest people cooked at home. The poor people cooked because it was cheaper--you can buy food in bulk, you can bring your own lunches, etc. The rich people cooked as a kind of display, e.g., at the aforementioned dinner parties. Julia Child convinced American women that they could learn to cook fine food, so a bunch of them set about doing that. But in the last 50 years or so, things have changed, I think. At this point, it's often nearly as cheap to get takeout as it is to cook at home, and, as Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out in Nickled and Dimed, if you don't have a stove or refrigerator, you can't do that bulk cooking anyway. I'd add that it's equally difficult if you live in a housing project where the utilities are uncertain, or if you have a long commute. The middle classes, the 20-somethings, they all have Trader Joe's and the like, where there's an abundance of food that can be heated, and Whole Paycheck has huge frozen food aisles. None of this involves cooking, however.

I feel like such an anachronism (I often feel that way, if you want to know), but I think cooking is one of those basic skills that everyone should have. So I'll have cooking classes at my shop.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Duck, Duck, Goose

The foodies among you may know that Charlie Trotter has dissed Rick Tramonto over serving foie gras. I clicked that link to read the story, and, at the bottom, four of the five Google ads were for . . . foie gras.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

'Splain, please.

Okay, I have a question for you (all six of you): Does the religion with which you were raised allow men and women to perform the same functions within the religion? If not, why not? And if not, how did that affect the way you thought about your role (or potential role) in your faith community?

Because I do not understand how people who are excluded from the most holy or sacred aspects of their faiths simply because of the genitalia they happen to possess can feel deeply a part of that faith. I know that it's possible, but I do not understand what mental gyrations go on. Do you feel excluded? Relegated to a lesser status? Did your discovery that men and women were treated differently affect how you felt about your church or your self?

I'd really like to know. And if you have friends who would have insight on this, ask them, too, would you please?

Monday, April 04, 2005

Root, root, root, for the home team owners

If they don't win it's a shame make enough money they'll move the team

I really do love baseball. I like watching most sports--except football and boxing--because, as I've said before, unlike most other things, you don't know how it's going to turn out when you tune in. I particularly love baseball for two reasons. First, because there's no time clock: as Yogi said, it ain't over 'til it's over. Second, despite all of the pearl-clutching and hyperventilating about steroids, average-size people can still play the game. That's not true in basketball, Muggsy Bogues notwithstanding, and it's not true in football, for many of the positions (how many lineman are under 300 pounds?). Hockey may be different, but hockey is destroying itself. In baseball, though, a guy can be the same size as the guy in the cubicle next to you and be a star. Greg Maddux is one of the all-time great pitchers. He's six feet tall, about 170 pounds--not particularly imposing.

And I love keeping a scorecard. The father of an ex-boyfriend taught me how to do it, and, thanks to a Tom Boswell essay about ten years ago, I learned how to add little bits of information (pitch count and first-pitch strikes) to my scorecard that enable even an amateur like me to see patterns emerge. (When I took my parents to a game at Wrigley some years ago, my dad told me that his dad always kept a scorecard. I went to my first baseball game with my parents and that grandfather when I was five.) This is helpful, because, unlike many people who grew up watching sports, I don't have the ability to remember particular moments or plays. I pick up the gestalt of the game rather than registering individual moments.

But, people, and I hope I'm not bursting anyone's balloons here, it is a BUSINESS. It is not sport, per se--sport is what I do, when I shlep to the gym three days a week to hit a little blue ball around; sport is what some of my friends are doing next week when they shlep to St. Louis, on their own dime and own time, to play in a tournament. Half of the people who show up in St. Louis will lose in the first round, and still they show up. Yes, there are truly beautiful (or bee-yoo-tee-full, as they say in Philadelphia) moments in the sports business, but the enterprises are being conducted in different ways, for different reasons. Barry Bonds--whom you may very well dislike--once said that the last time he played baseball "for fun" was in high school. The team owners aren't paying him to have fun: the owners are paying him to entertain the paying customers.

Now, we can argue about how we want that entertainment served to us. Personally, I'd prefer no steroids or growth hormones or the like. They can be bad for players' heatlh (don't be surprised if you start seeing more liver disease among professional athletes in the next couple of decades), and I object to any job condition that can cause harm. Second, when some players use them, they all feel pressure to use them, especially when a couple of points on a batting average could be the difference between the major and minor leagues; better that no one use them. Third, and most important to me, I'm more interested in seeing what non-'roided players can do. I think it's more interesting, more entertaining, if you will.

You'll understand, perhaps, that what pisses me off the most is not how "greedy" the players supposedly are. Tell me, if you could earn millions a year doing what you do, wouldn't you take it? You bet your ass your would. Same with all those CEOs, and, frankly, their pay is MUCH less tied to performance than most baseball players. If you're going to make the big bucks in baseball, you have to get to free agency first, and that means you have to prove yourself, consistently.

What pisses me off is the owners, with their constant whining and griping and complaining. See, for example, Daddy'O's comment to Fred's post. He notes:
On that day, the Cardinals' owners broke ground on a new, outrageously expensive, useless, redundant faux-retro cookie cutter stadium. The new stadium will be 1) uglier, by far, than the present one 2) seat fewer people 3) look just like every other new stadium, with throwback brick and squarish lines 4) be at least twice as expensive as the present stadium for a ticket and 5) is partly funded at taxpayer expense, without a referendum, and with 75% of said taxpayers polled being AGAINST a new stadium, however it was funded.
These same owners contributed heavily to Bush's reelection, which isn't even what I hold against them. What annoys the shit out of me is that they have managed to secure public funding for this project, despite massive opposition to the project, and they do it by preying on our nostalgia, on our wish that it were a sport rather than a business. Your voice, your opinion, simply does not matter; these men are sufficiently rich such that they can get what they want. And, though I haven't been to St. Louis in awhile, I imagine that there are many better uses to which tax dollars can be put--schools, anyone?--than a new baseball stadium. Similarly, with our fellow Americans and many Iraqis dying every single goddamned day in Iraq, our Congresspeople thought that hearings on steroid use in baseball was more important. Our President keeps getting a free pass on the run-up to the war and the actual invasion--go read Maureen Dowd on that one. That, my friends, is the real outrage; that, my friends, is why I can't bring myself to give a shit that some players took "performance-enhancing" drugs.

And then?

The thing that puzzles me most about the Pope-mourning--and I'm really quite serious about this--is that, if people really believe in an afterlife, etc., they should be rejoicing, because surely a pope--being the Vicar of Christ on Earth and all--would go to heaven, no? And isn't getting to heaven supposed to be the whole point? And there will be another pope, soon enough. So, seriously, why the mourning? I can understand how people in or from Poland would feel a special connection to him, and mourn his death, but as for me personally, this is also the guy who insisted that women had no place in the priesthood or anything like it, and who opposed contraception, even in the face of a world that is bursting at the seams, and opposed the use of condoms, even in places where HIV is killing off vast swaths of the population. If I have to pick a religious leader, I'll take the Dalai Lama and his messages of love and tolerance. But the mourning thing seems cognitively dissonant to me.

When C was a kid, his mom and dad lived upstairs in a two-flat and mom's brother and wife lived downstairs. C's mom was sick a lot, so C and his sister K spent a lot of time with their aunt and uncle. Last summer C's aunt died, after battling brain cancer for about a year or so, and C wanted me to go to the funeral, which I did. C's mom was glad for my company there, too, I think. I'd only met the aunt once, at their 50th anniversary party a couple of years ago, so I didn't really know her, but it was still sad--I know how much she'd meant to C and K and their mother.

It also was fascinating for me, in an anthropological sense. I'd never been to a Catholic funeral before, and, indeed, I don't think I've ever been to a funeral or memorial service where the attendees were assured by the officiant that the dead person was now in heaven, with the possible exception of my paternal grandfather's funeral, which I don't remember. I've lost a number of people in the last ten years or so, but the people whose services I attended were all Jewish, and Jews don't believe in an afterlife--if you've lived a good life, then you will be remembered in word and deed by those whom you touched. Before that was a coworker who was one of the earlier AIDS casualties and who didn't have a church service, and before that was my sister's memorial service, which also didn't have any mentions of an afterlife, given the lack of deities and such in my immediate family's belief systems.

It was difficult, then, to hear the priest going on about how C's aunt was granted life everlasting, that she was still "alive" in heaven, and so on. Obviously I wouldn't have mentioned this to anyone (except C, later), but it was jarring to me, and, if you want to know, was the source of the cognitive dissonance. That is, if you believe the person really is in heaven, then you should be rejoicing, no? I even know someone whose boyfriend belonged to a sect that thought that mourning at a funeral, instead of celebrating, was a sign of lack of faith. But, really, who rejoices that someone one loves has died? It's not what we do, no matter what words we can find to comfort ourselves with. Then again, for all I know, perhaps some people have no doubts at all about an afterlife and their own place in it--but then there should be that lack of sadness again.

What does make sense to me isn't even the ritual, at least not in terms of its content; what makes sense to me is the coming together to acknowledge that something important has happened, that someone we love has left us. My parents did not originally plan on having a memorial service or funeral for my sister, but they changed their minds about that, I think in part because so many of her friends called and wanted to know when it would be. I don't really have words to describe how terrible it was. Afterwards, everyone came back to my parents' house for food--even we atheists maintain some aspects of the forms. And I remember seeing that my father--who still looked completely devastated--also looked lighter, somehow. Not because he believed he'd ever see my sister again, or that they'd be reunited in some heavenly future, but because we had acknowledged something important, even if we had to invent our own ritual to do it. We had gathered together, as a family and a community of people who loved my sister, and said, out loud, she is gone and we miss her and our lives are changed.

Back when I was realizing that monogamy wasn't my thing, I couldn't quite figure out what the point of marriage was. I could understand people making promises to each other--and we're incorporating that aspect of the Quaker service into our wedding--but I didn't really get what other people had to do with it. I wasn't opposed to it, really, I just didn't see the point. But my sister's funeral is the main reason I came to think that there's a place for marriage, too. Both rituals, however conducted, include an important public aspect. At its heart, for me, that's what a wedding is about, and what I hope that C and I can pull off in June: A community of people who love us, and who gather with us as we promise to do our best to take care of each other and honor each other. We could as easily promise each other with no one else around, but we live our lives in communities, among people who love us (and annoy us and so on), and a ceremony that does not acknowledge the community aspects of our promises seems to me to be lacking something.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Bad Habits

Bad habits are hard to break
and the worst of them was you . . .
J. Dinman

One of my yoga teachers reminds us that yoga teaches us to notice our habits--our habits of body (which way do you cross your arms? Interlace your fingers? Which leg is on top when you sit cross-legged?) as well as our habits of mind (How do you talk to yourself? What do you say when you or someone else makes a mistake?) and our other habits (Do you always sit in the same space? What's your favorite parking place or seat on the bus?) It's not that we should necessarily change our habits, but I think she's right that it's smart to notice them, and, perhaps, even to question them. When I was a student, when I was a teacher, and now in my yoga classes, I try/ied to vary where I position(ed) myself, but many people have their Favorite Spot, and you find the occasional person who gets visibly upset if you occupy His/Her Spot. I think moving around within the room helps my yoga practice; it's easy to get stuck in a routine, and, given my inclination to manage every damned thing, I have to remind myself about that.

That's really the crux of the matter. On the one hand, routines make complex life possible. Think of Simon's work on subassemblies, or whatever he called them, but also think about tasks like driving a car or riding a bike. You have to routinize some aspects of it ("chunk" the task, if you will), or it's impossible to perform the whole task. On the other hand, though, you run the risk of ossifying, of getting so stuck in a particular way of seeing or operating within the world, that you miss something. (There are things I'd just as soon ignore, but that's different.)

In any case, I find it to be an interesting, Heisenberg-like conundrum, how routines and subassemblies and mental filing systems both enable and disable thought and creativity. And I probably had more to say about this, and maybe I will later, but, for now, I'm listening to the siren call of what's left of the chocolate bunny in my desk drawer. One of my bridespeople introduced me to a store that makes chocolate, and it is evil. Evil, evil, evil, that chocolate is, especially for making me go there Wednesday, when all the Easter candy was sure to be on sale. So I figure I'll eat the whole bunny (or what's left of it), and then it can't tempt me any more. Of course, there's a whole box of chocolate, from the same place, at home . . .