MONDAY MIX (CHRISTMAS EDITION) – 12/25/17

A few years ago, I attended a conference presentation during which audience members were asked to construct a metaphor to represent our experiences as students.  No one had ever asked me to do this, so I was intrigued, but pretty stumped.  Then I remembered my old boom box, with its radio and dual cassette deck–I always kept a blank tape handy, ready to press “record” whenever something caught my ear.  I realized that I did the same in the classroom, gathering bits and pieces from various sources, often without an idea of how–or even if!–those pieces would fit together. That was the joy of making and sharing mix tapes; when crafted thoughtfully, they were greater than the sum of their parts.  

In that same spirit, I share a weekly “mix” of articles, recipes, book recommendations, and ideas in the hopes that something I share might fit into your own personal, ever-evolving collage. 

Have something you think I might be interested in?  I’d love to hear about it.  Share it here.

**

So, this is Christmas–a strange one for us, as my mother-in-law died on Saturday evening, just after 7:00 pm.  Her death was peaceful, for which we are grateful, and she died at home, surrounded by loving family.

Naturally, our experiences over the past few weeks have had me thinking about the ways that we as a culture do–and don’t–process and deal with aging, death, and grief.  Though it’s an inevitability for us all, we tend not to know what to do when it happens to us or someone we love.

-Since the death of her husband in 2015, Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg has been on a mission to change that; along with Wharton professor Adam Grant (whose On Being interview is a favorite), she’s been advocating the “Just show up” approach.  Though most of us instinctively say “Let me know if I can do anything,” those words effectively shift the burden to the person already dealing with a difficult time.  In this piece for USA Today, Sandberg & Grant discuss what to do instead, and run through other common (if well-meaning) mistakes we sometimes make around the holidays when it comes to friends who are grieving or in crisis.

-Though I’d planned to spend the last week working through a large stack of exams and final projects, my brain was too distracted to effectively focus on grading.  Instead, as has been the case at other bedsides, I turned to fiction, specifically Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, which I have been eager to read for months.  A friend just generously loaned me her copy, and it could not have landed at a better time–it’s one of my favorite pieces of fiction in recent memory.  I’ve nearly finished it, but have left the final pages to savor, maybe tonight after Shiv goes to bed.

-I had some ambitious baking projects planned for this Christmas (like this amazing-looking trifle, which I may yet manage to pull off for New Year’s Eve), but they had to be set aside for obvious reasons.  Still, Shiv & I managed to do a little baking together–one of my favorite traditions–yesterday afternoon.  Since he & Jill both adore the orange-chocolate combination, I’d set my eye on this orange-chocolate madeline recipe and it did not disappoint.  They felt fancy, but weren’t difficult to pull off, which is exactly what we needed.

Sending everyone much love this Christmas Day.

(BELATED) MONDAY MIX – 12/19/17

A few years ago, I attended a conference presentation during which audience members were asked to construct a metaphor to represent our experiences as students.  No one had ever asked me to do this, so I was intrigued, but pretty stumped.  Then I remembered my old boom box, with its radio and dual cassette deck–I always kept a blank tape handy, ready to press “record” whenever something caught my ear.  I realized that I did the same in the classroom, gathering bits and pieces from various sources, often without an idea of how–or even if!–those pieces would fit together. That was the joy of making and sharing mix tapes; when crafted thoughtfully, they were greater than the sum of their parts.  

In that same spirit, I share a weekly “mix” of articles, recipes, book recommendations, and ideas in the hopes that something I share might fit into your own personal, ever-evolving collage. 

Have something you think I might be interested in?  I’d love to hear about it.  Share it here.

**

-I’m a day late with this week’s mix, and my post from this weekend might help contextualize why.  Jill continues to keep vigil at her mom’s side, along with a wonderful team of hospice nurses; since Jill’s mom was a nurse herself, they consider her one of their own and advocate fiercely for her care.

-For the last few years, I’ve looked forward to the Bitter Southerner’s Best Southern Albums of the Year.  The list always seems to arrive right when I need new music in my life (helllooooo giant pile of grading), and I’ve discovered so many now-beloved artists this way: Run the Jewels, Valerie June, Hurray for the Riff Raff, John Moreland, Leon Bridges, Shakey Graves.

-Another list I look forward to each year is Brain Pickings’ curated selection of Loveliest Children’s Books of the Year.  These books are always visually stunning, as well as substantive & meaningful in content, so it’s a great list to use when purchasing books for a birthday party or friends who are expecting a baby.

-Before things got really crazy, I managed to spend several hours in my kitchen doing some holiday baking.  I stuck to old favorites, to keep the margin of error low, and was able to mail some care packages off & deliver a few boxes of baked goods to friends and family, which made my heart happy.  Here are a few recipes I can enthusiastically recommend:  coffee + cardamom shortbreads (super easy to make & a brilliant flavor combination), hazelnut + dark chocolate meringues (I subbed in pistachios & they were still delicious), my most favorite rugelach of all time (super high-maintenance, yields a zillion cookies, TOTALLY WORTH IT).

Sending everyone love during this complicated, weird, wonderful time of year.  xx

LATE-NIGHT DOUGHNUTS

 

It is eight days before Christmas and my mother in law is dying.  I’m sitting on the floor of Jill’s parents’ guest bedroom as Jill leans over the newly installed hospital bed, gently cajoling her mom to swallow syringe after syringe of children’s liquid Tylenol.  Below the window, the oxygen machine hisses and gurgles, and from the living room I can hear the faint sound of the Chiefs/Chargers game; I know it’s because of the holidays, but the fact that there’s an NFL game happening on Saturday night only adds to the strangeness of the situation.

Of course, it’s not strange, not really.  That’s the thing about death—it feels exceptional when it’s happening to you, but it’s completely ordinary.  It happens to everyone.

Death is complicated and messy and hard—I know this, firsthand, from my father’s death, and from the deaths of the moms of two of my best friends, but that doesn’t make it any easier when it happens again.  Less surprising, maybe.

I am less at a loss for what to do as I probably was the first time.  I know that it matters to sit here, to bear witness even if there isn’t anything to do but wait.  I believe that it’s important to find moments of life to savor, even among the absurdity and the sadness, even if that means driving an hour-and-a-half to celebrate Hanukkah with friends, to eat latkes and cuddle puppies and acknowledge the now of this moment, as imperfect and challenging as it is.

Still, I’m learning newly.  New dimensions of tired, new pinches and challenges inside family life, new awareness of how sacred twenty minutes with your wife, some leftover dinner that nobody had to make, and two glasses of wine can be.  I am reminded that she and I make a good team – we always have – and that competence, that usefulness, the deep love that roots it – can be comfort.  Watching her care for her mom, the tenderness and the fierce protectiveness with which she makes every decision, tugs the same string inside me as seeing her with our newborn son did.

Shiv is down the street tonight, staying at his other grandmother’s house.  He’s been especially snuggly with her today, overly-affectionate almost to the point of being clingy.  Though he hasn’t articulated it directly, I know it’s because he’s realized that this will one day happen to her as well.

He loves Jill’s mom, but he never really got to see the best of her; she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a year after he was born.  I’m thankful we took so many photos of the two of them in the beginning, big smiles of delight on both their faces.  They would sit together at the back window of Jill’s parents’ old house in Shreveport, watching the birds and the squirrels.  Or she’d bounce him in her lap, singing nonsense songs and pausing at random intervals so that he’d squeal with anticipation.

I wonder what he’ll remember of her, how these last few years will stick in his mind.  It is a shame to think that, as the Alzheimer’s robbed her of herself, it also robbed him of her, just as he was growing old enough to really form relationships.  As we have had to do with my dad, whom Shiv never got to meet, we will do with Jill’s mom: teach him about the person we wish he could have known.

 

##

 

When I first met Jill’s parents, I was scared of her mom.  Jill’s dad was charming and easy to like, but Billie Jean intimidated me.  Her reputation preceded her—a woman who could hunt, fish, grow, and cook anything, better than anyone else, even (especially) the men.  She had been an exacting, no-nonsense mother to Jill, her only child.  She had an intensely critical streak, despised incompetence, inefficiency, laziness.  She was a registered nurse, so you can see how her personality suited her profession; this is a woman who has never cut a single corner in her entire life.

Over time, I found ways to connect to her; at Christmas, she’d spend hours sitting at our dining room table, working on whatever new puzzle we’d just gifted her.  I’m terrible at puzzles, but I’d sit there anyway, sometimes the two of us in silence, sometimes me managing to pull a story or two out of her.  If it wasn’t a puzzle, then it was Scrabble, which Jill and I persisted in playing against her even though she always, always won.

Not unlike my own mom, these were the only times that you’d ever see Billie Jean sitting down; we used to joke that she was like a shark—she had to keep moving or she’d fall asleep.  She was constantly up to something in her kitchen: cooking, cleaning, organizing, putting things away.  Or there was something to tend to in the garden.  Or something to fix in another part of the house.  Nothing went to waste on her watch; we have Ziplock bags full of peas in our deep freezer that she has been rinsing out and re-using since 2009 (they’re labeled in Sharpie, of course).

She was also a damn fine cook: best cornbread I’ve ever had in my life, and the best fried okra, too.  Thankfully, Jill has apprenticed in the methodology for both, which she’ll someday pass onto Shiv.  I have a notebook full of Billie’s recipes, which I spent one winter break copying out by hand—pies, soups, preserves, pickles.  I snagged a couple of her purple glass pie plates, too, and her angel food cake pan.

Sometimes, on winter nights like this one, when Jill and I were visiting her parents and all of us were staying up late to watch whatever sports game was on, Jill would pipe up at about 9:00 pm: “Mom, will you make us some doughnuts?”  Obligingly, Billie Jean would grab a can of Pillsbury biscuit dough from the fridge, shape a hole into each round, and fry them all up on the stove.  Off to the side, she’d lay out little dishes of chopped pecans, chocolate glaze, and powdered sugar, so we could customize our own.  They were delicious, of course, but they also seemed to somehow exemplify my mother-in-law’s particular genius.

 

##

 

The funny thing is, I don’t know that Billie Jean has ever thought of herself as my mother-in-law.  She doesn’t even know that Jill and I are married, since we made things legal just two years ago, well into her Alzheimer’s confusion.  Even before that, I doubt she ever would have used the term; I’ve always been introduced as Jill’s “friend,” and until Shiv was born, Jill and I slept in separate bedrooms whenever we visited her parents’ house.

As you might have guessed, this woman I’m sitting next to, who most likely will not live to see this year’s Christmas, we don’t see eye-to-eye on very much.  We disagree politically, religiously.  We have very different ideas about parenting.  And we come from such different worlds that we almost certainly wouldn’t have been part of each other’s lives if it weren’t for Jill.

That’s the one thing we always had in common; we both love Jill.  Though she never said this outright, I think because Billie could tell that I loved Jill, that I was good to her, that we were happy—and I guess it didn’t hurt that I am a polite, Southern girl who can eat a respectable amount of fried catfish—despite our differences, I got a pass.  I gained entry into a world that was as strange to me as it now feels familiar, learned more things that I will ever be able to accurately count up, and grew to love, and be loved by, this formidable woman who, it turns out, has a devastatingly quick wit and gives really excellent hugs.

You don’t get to choose your family.  I doubt that either Billie or I ever would have imagined that we’d be in this room together, here at the end of her life.  But there is a strange kind of grace in this, how life can pull and stretch you beyond what you might thought possible, how it shows you that the rules of love you’ve been playing by were much too small all along.

It’s been years since I’ve had my mother-in-law’s late-night doughnuts; Shiv’s never had them, and that’s a shame.  Come what may, we’ll make that one thing right tomorrow.  For Billie.

 

 

 

MONDAY MIXTAPE – 12/11/17

A few years ago, I attended a conference presentation during which audience members were asked to construct a metaphor to represent our experiences as students.  No one had ever asked me to do this, so I was intrigued, but pretty stumped.  Then I remembered my old boom box, with its radio and dual cassette deck–I always kept a blank tape handy, ready to press “record” whenever something caught my ear.  I realized that I did the same in the classroom, gathering bits and pieces from various sources, often without an idea of how–or even if!–those pieces would fit together. That was the joy of making and sharing mix tapes; when crafted thoughtfully, they were greater than the sum of their parts.  

In that same spirit, I share a weekly “mix” of articles, recipes, book recommendations, and ideas in the hopes that something I share might fit into your own personal, ever-evolving collage. 

Have something you think I might be interested in?  I’d love to hear about it.  Share it here.

**

-My friend Aisha interviewed Kiese Laymon for the LA Review of Books and I have such intellectual crushes on both of them that I could barely read the thing without, like, vibrating up out of my chair.  I’m just so delighted that this conversation happened, let alone that we get to read parts of it.  Can’t even choose a place to quote from because the whole thing is so good and has given me so much, personally, on which to chew.

 

-This piece hit close to home, quite literally: How a Pearland Mom Changed Her Life to Save Her Transgender Child.  The title is super click-bait-y, but the piece is written with nuance, a testament to what love can look like if we let it and how humbling parenting can be:

“A year ago, if you’d said to me, You know, you’re going to consider someone who identifies as a queer transgender man one of your best friends, I would’ve been like, No,” she said, smiling.”

 

-A whole rash of pieces–including this one from Vanity Fair–have appeared in the last few days, in response to former Facebook executives expressing “regret” over the work that went into designing the site, given its impacts on society as a whole.  I spend a lot of time thinking about social media and its impacts, both as it applies to me personally and also as it shows up with my students.  Stopping short of making any sweeping conclusions (and I fully acknowledge the irony of the fact that I’ll be sharing this blog post on Facebook) but I’m fascinated, and convicted by, the conversation.

 

-Last but not least, and on a lighter note, if you’re looking for a holiday beverage, my friend Valerie recently made this pear and rosemary sangria and it was SUPER delicious.  I’m not usually a white wine sangria gal, but this one won me over–it’s not too sweet and very festive.  Valerie says she used a Pinot Grigio for her version, though the recipe says Sauvignon Blanc would also work.  I think it’s definitely a recipe you could fiddle with to your liking!

MONDAY MIXTAPE – 12/4/17

A few years ago, I attended a conference presentation during which audience members were asked to construct a metaphor to represent our experiences as students.  No one had ever asked me to do this, so I was intrigued, but pretty stumped.  Then I remembered my old boom box, with its radio and dual cassette deck–I always kept a blank tape handy, ready to press “record” whenever something caught my ear.  I realized that I did the same in the classroom, gathering bits and pieces from various sources, often without an idea of how–or even if!–those pieces would fit together. That was the joy of making and sharing mix tapes; when crafted thoughtfully, they were greater than the sum of their parts.  

In that same spirit, I share a weekly “mix” of articles, recipes, book recommendations, and ideas in the hopes that something I share might fit into your own personal, ever-evolving collage. 

Have something you think I might be interested in?  I’d love to hear about it.  Share it here.

**

Hello friends!  I just realized that, in a few weeks, I’m going to have to start writing dates that end in “18.”  That is weird, but also great, because I’m pretty ready to kick 2017 out the door at this point.  You know?

-If you would like to read something uplifting, something that reminds you of the amazingness of science and the incredible tenacity of the human spirit, I highly recommend this Houston Chronicle feature–Alive Inside: How a Houston hospital restores patients with severe brain injuries.  It’s a stunning piece of reporting on a subject that, for most of us, is mind-boggling and difficult to fathom.

-Really excited about having discovered Luminance Skin Care, a totally all-natural skin care line (it is both vegan and organic).  This is not a sponsored post, just me being really happy with their products; I ordered one of their free sample kits–you just pay the shipping–and was convinced by the results.  I’ve wanted to use less chemical-heavy stuff on my skin for all kinds of reasons, but I have also struggled with changes to my skin the last two years; I’m thrilled to have found stuff with an ethos I appreciate that WORKS.

-A couple of friends gifted me this short story collection for my birthday and hot damn!  It’s been a while since I read fiction that felt this inventive and exhilarating.  I love it so much that I’m trying to go slowly so I don’t run out of stories too soon.

-Over on Instagram, several people requested the recipe behind the bread dough I posted today.  Since I don’t have a food blog anymore (!), I don’t write my recipes down as precisely, but I’ll do my best here.  Over the summer, I started making a “daily bread” for our household, in order to save money.  I’ve been experimenting to see if I could come up with something that would meet our needs: not insanely difficult to make, sturdy enough to slice easily, soft enough that Shiv would enjoy it in sandwiches, salty enough for Jill, good when toasted.  After some experimenting, I found this Bob’s Red Mill Recipe, which I’ve adapted below–it’s hearty and healthy, but not super-dense like so many whole wheat breads.

Ingredients:

2 cups milk (we always have whole milk on hand, so that’s what I use)

1/3 cup honey

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1 tsp. fine sea salt

2 cups whole wheat flour

1 cup oat flour (blitz rolled oats in the food processor until they resemble coarse flour)

1 cup buckwheat flour (I’ve also used rye or rice flour)

1/2 cup “add ins” of your choice (hemp hearts, chia seeds, chopped sunflower seeds/walnuts, or some combination thereof)

1/2 cup steel-cut oats (uncooked)

2 T active dry yeast

2 T vital wheat gluten

 

Instructions:

In the bowl of stand mixer, combine the whole wheat flour and the yeast.  In a small sauce pan, heat the milk, honey, oil, & salt until they’re just warmer than your finger.  Pour into the mixer bowl, then beat at low speed with the paddle attachment, scraping as needed so all of the flour is incorporated.  Then, beat for 3 minutes on high.

Switch to the dough hook attachment and add the remaining flour, vital wheat gluten, oats, and “add-ins.”  Run the mixer until the dough comes together and starts to work its way out of the top of the mixing bowl, about 5 minutes.  Flour the counter with some whole wheat flour and give the dough a couple of good turns with your hands–it should be springy, but not sticky.  You may need to work a little bit of flour into the dough.

No need to clean the mixing bowl–just give the bottom and sides a good rub with some butter, then add your ball of dough, cover with a damp kitchen towel, and let rise in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size.  This will take about 45 minutes to an hour.  Gently punch the dough down, then move to the floured counter.  Divide in half with a bench scraper or kitchen knife.  (If you want to be precise, you can weigh the dough; or, just eyeball it.)  Cover with the kitchen towel and let it rest for about 15 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F.

Shape the dough into 2 loaves and placed into greased bread pans.  Cover again and let rise in a warm place until they’re puffed and filling the pans up nicely, about 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the temperature of your kitchen.  Bake for 35-40 minutes, then remove bread pans from the oven and allow them cool slightly before turning the loaves out onto wire racks to cool fully.  Don’t try to slice before they’ve cooled!  I know it’s tempting but it’s never worth it.

You’ll need to keep this bread in the fridge; I recommend slicing the whole loaf at once, so it’s easy to grab slices during the week.  Freeze the second loaf, well-wrapped in plastic or foil, then tucked into a freezer bag.  Thaw at room temperature before using.