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.

MONDAY MIXTAPE – 11/27/17

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.

**

-Jia Tolentino, who writes for The New Yorker, is so whip-smart that I am often envious of her ability to flesh out, articulate, and make intellectual connections between ideas that I’ve barely touched on in my own brain.  I don’t always agree with her, but her work always makes me question and further refine my own thinking.  Case in point: her most recent piece, “Where Millennials Come From.”  Here’s a little nugget for you:

“And, when humans learn to think of themselves as assets competing in an unpredictable and punishing market, then millennials—in all their anxious, twitchy, phone-addicted glory—are exactly what you should expect. The disdain that so many people feel for Harris’s and my generation reflects an unease about the forces of deregulation, globalization, and technological acceleration that are transforming everyone’s lives.”

 

-Read with wonder and awe this piece about The Last of the Iron Lungs.  I knew, as the kids would say, that this was “a thing,” but I definitely didn’t have a very detailed understanding of what life with polio really entailed.  It’s so powerfully humbling:

“But another thing they all had in common is a desire for the next generations to know about them so we’ll realize how fortunate we are to have vaccines. “When children inquire what happened to me, I tell them the nerve wires that tell my muscles what to do were damaged by a virus,” Mona said. “And ask them if they have had their vaccine to prevent this. No one has ever argued with me.”

 

-In case you haven’t seen it yet, the Merriam-Webster Time Traveler feature is a pretty fascinating time suck/wormhole.  Search by year to see what words had their first known usage the year you were born, or look up any year/time period you choose (it goes pretty far back!)  Fun fact: gaydar first showed up in the year of my birth, 1982.

 

-Consider this your annual reminder that the World’s Greatest Eggnog Recipe was passed down to us from Lynn Robinson Williams, who died in her Memphis bed at age ninety-six with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other.  Southern writer Julia Reed published this recipe in Garden & Gun magazine several years ago, and it’s become a staple of our family’s holiday traditions ever since.  I plan to go ahead and make the base (everything minus the whipping cream) now, then let it hang out in our fridge for a couple of weeks.  It really mellows the flavor – just be sure to store it in an opaque container!  (Even better, save half the base for next year – the longer it ages, the more amazing it is.)

THIS IS 35

Today I am thirty-five years old: the age my mother was when she had me.  Since she’s now seventy, that makes me half her age.  And just about twice the age as my seventeen-and-eighteen-year-old students.

I don’t believe that age means anything inherently, but I also don’t believe it’s “just a number.”  There are appreciable, material changes to my physical being that have made themselves known in my sleep patterns and the color of a few of the hairs on my head.  I’m not complaining–these are pretty low-level changes, but even as I joke about upgrading my skin care regimen, I am acutely aware of how important it will be for me to accept my body’s limitations as I age.  Over the past three years, I’ve watched my wife, Jill, care for her elderly parents; I’ve see firsthand how the refusal to be in reality about one’s physical capabilities creates a terrible burden on caregivers and impacts the quality of life of those who need, but deny that they need, care.  Jill and I are vehemently committed to aging with as much grace and acceptance as we possibly can; we’ve put structures in place to help insure that our son, Shiv, does not end up in the position that we find ourselves.  (I’m definitely the only thirty-five-year-old I know with a long term care insurance policy.)  I know it won’t be simple, that this will be a conversation we return to again and again, to hold ourselves accountable to the lessons that this season of life is teaching us.

As cheesy as it sounds, learning to pay attention to the rhythms and adjustments that different periods of my life have to offer has become my overall M.O.  Not saying that I’ve got it down pat, but I’ve definitely deepened my capacity to sit with difficulty, to recognize the growth opportunity it brings, and to hold onto the knowledge that I will never, ever be done growing.  Just when I think that I’m in pretty good shape, something comes along to humble and remind me that this human work is the real work.

In thirty-five years, I’ve done a lot of school, over a decade’s worth of teaching, written two books, adopted a child, watched a parent die, and spent fifteen-and-a-half years in partnership with the most incredible person I know.  So while I know thirty-five won’t seem significant to some–I’ve had several folks recently tell me “Oh, you’re still so young” or “You’re just a baby!”–it feels like something to me.  I’ve lived a lot of life in these years, made a bunch of mistakes, learned a shit-ton.  I really like who I am and am proud of the fact that my life has been shaped by my own hands and my reactions to circumstances.

Because I work with teenagers, I am extra-sensitive to the fact that wisdom does not necessarily come with age; I know a lot of eighteen-year-olds who are a heck of a lot wiser than a lot of so-called “adults.”  It’s unfair to discount someone else’s life experience simply because they are younger than you; theirs is still a full and complex life, no matter what the age.  With my students, I work to be extra-mindful never to discount or discredit their experience or to act as if I know better.  Maybe I have a bit more practice as this being a human business, but I’m nowhere near mastering it.  They often have just as much (if not more) to teach me than I have to teach them.

So, I figure today is as good as any to reflect on where I’ve been, where I am, and where I hope to go.  I know enough to know that life is indeed what happens when you’re busy making other plans, so I’ve mostly forgone the planning for intentions and imaginings.  I’ve learned to lean into and trust the inklings and inclinations that tug at my gut even though I cannot rationally determine how they might fit into the future.  And I’ve gotten a bit better at remaining present in the moment–being right here, right now, and recognizing this precious life for what it is: a privilege and a joy.  I hope I get to keep doing it for a while longer.

In the spirit of birthdays & wisdom, here’s a completely arbitrary list of 35 things I’ve learned, in no particular order:

  1. Never trust people who are rude to waiters or other folks in the service industry.  Associate yourself instead with generous tippers.
  2. Wear sunscreen, even when you think you don’t need it.  Even if you’re brown.
  3. Marry someone smarter than you.  Dinner table conversation will never be boring, and you will spend your life learning from and with your spouse.
  4. Grief is a sneaky, tricksy, & utterly devastating beast.  Never underestimate it.
  5. It’s worth spending money and being inconvenienced to be present at the weddings of your closest friends.
  6. You are not what you own.
  7. You are not what you produce.
  8. You are not what you look like.
  9. Feelings are real, but they aren’t always true.
  10. Depression and anxiety are liars, and they will trick you into believing all kinds of things.  They will dig a hole so deep that you can’t climb out of it alone; go get help.  Do not be ashamed of needing it.
  11. Give genuine and extravagant compliments.  It’s always worth whatever awkwardness you feel you may be risking.
  12. No matter how poor you are, don’t sell your books.
  13. The people in your life cannot read your mind.  No matter how obvious you think you’re being, they will not know how you feel until or unless you tell them.
  14. When the idea of something (especially some sort of change), scares you, in a thrilling sort of way, that’s a pretty good sign that you should go for it.
  15. If you don’t know your values, you can’t live according to them.
  16. Always do what you say you’re going to do.  Be reliable.
  17. Lying to impress people makes you feel like trash.
  18. The people whom you think have it all together?  They don’t.  I promise.
  19. No one ever regretted getting a thank-you note in the mail.
  20. No one ever regretted saving for retirement, either.
  21. Trader Joe’s makes the best shave cream.  It’s honey mango, smells amazing, and protects my very sensitive skin.  I recommend.
  22. Stop saying “yes” to things you don’t actually want to do.
  23. Real friends don’t care if your floor is clean or not.
  24. If you were wrong or if you screwed up, apologize.  Do it for real, do it well, don’t make excuses.  People will respect you for it.
  25. Keep good-quality butter out on room temperature.  Major life upgrade.
  26. If you were raised in a trauma or violence-free home, you have an incredible advantage over others who didn’t.  You’d be amazed at how many others didn’t.
  27. Following major life events (a birth, a death, an illness), support tends to drop off about four to six weeks later.  That’s when you can really make yourself useful by leaving some food in a cooler on the porch, or asking when you can come hold the baby so a parent can go take a shower or making plans to get your grieving friend out of the house.
  28. Librarians are heroes, and they really love answering questions and solving problems.  Utilize them!  It’s probably the best thing your taxes pay for.
  29. Go vote.  Even if you feel cynical about it.  Just go.
  30. Don’t lie to children, because they always know.
  31. The people we love will invariably, at some point in our life, disappoint us.  And we will disappoint them, sometimes without even realizing it.  Once we’re made aware, the best we can do is take responsibility and work to do better in the future.  When someone else does this for you, forgive them.
  32. Strong marriages do not happen by accident.  Contrary to what all the songs say, love is, in fact, not enough.  You’re gonna have to do some work.
  33. If you witness a friend treat another friend badly, be prepared for them to do that to you someday, too.  It’s just a matter of time.
  34. Be honest with your partner(s) in bed.  It’s worth it.
  35. “Every day, you have less reason / not to give yourself away.” – Wendell Berry