Thursday, April 17, 2014

Greedy for Greener Leaves

It was 70+ degree and sunny for a week, then mild and rainy on my birthday (not unwelcome - it is April, after all). On Tuesday, the temperature plummeted in the wake of a pelleting rain, and so did my mood. Premenstrual syndrome conspired with post birthday blues to burgle every remaining morsel of joy I'd felt just one day prior. But mostly it was the shitty cold weather's fault.

I used to think the most perfect time of year is that series of spring days when all the chartreuse trees have blossomed and bloomed to some degree but no single leaf is yet full grown. The lilacs and tulips come with their hard, shellacked hues of purple, yellow, and cranberry-orange. The fragile newborn flora grow more resilient and sprightly. The fauna turn manic. Birds perform their wall of sound, dawn and twilight symphonies. Bunnies emerge. Humans dine al fresco and fornicate.

That was last week, and I loved up every one of those days as much as I could. When I eyed Tuesday's forecast, part of me felt wistful knowing this perfection would all pass too soon. But another part of me just shrugged and wondered, "When's the real show gonna start?"

This is the real show - lush, dewy leaves and grass sizzling in the hot sun. Fences festooned with morning glories. The inevitable kudzu carpets rolling over the mountainside. Stepping out of my air-conditioned house into a honeysuckle scented sauna. Roses and rosemary. The flavor of meat cooked outdoors, over smoke. Bare skin on slow moving limbs. Never shivering. Losing my lip balm to the medicine chest until November.

It seems my preferred environ is densely floral and humid. Who knew? I always hated hot sticky days in Michigan, but that's probably because I usually didn't have central air conditioning. I may have once loved springtime most, but it was harder earned back then. Without a dramatic thaw, the chartreuse week just isn't as big a deal. It rather intensifies my rainforest cravings, because air just can't get muggy enough on mere baby leaf fuel. It's the succulent vegetation that brings the sultry breezes.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Reasonable Cost of Being Authentic

Big surprise - I don't care for bridal or baby showers. In addition to the dopey games and the general awkwardness of daylight gatherings with strangers, I find the public unwrapping of presents very strange. I remember kvetching about this to my friend R. "Wouldn't it be better if we all just gave each other cash and skipped that part? The last way I wanna spend a weekend afternoon is watching someone else tear into a bunch of kitchenware they'll never use or clothes their kid will outgrow in a week. That isn't my idea of fun."

"Yeah," she agreed. "But you gotta play the part, right? I mean, you just have to sit there, ooh-ing and aah-ing over the gifts."

My sense of indignation flared and I replied, "No, I don't. I'll just stare off into space and think about something else."

R gave me a funny look. And since she's older and teaches psychology, I take her funny looks to heart. She never revealed what that facial expression meant, but I arrived at this conclusion a couple days later - when it comes to showers, I can either play the part of an excited, envious girlfriend and bitch about it after the fact, or I can zone out in the back of the room and not whine about having to be there. But I can't have it both ways. That's double-dipping.

I've come to a similar conclusion about being a social creature in Chattanooga. My kind is quite weird in this town, where sarcastic, introverted, over-thinking, lefty, atheist, hippie chicks with midwestern accents are rare. I certainly don't wish to live in a place where everyone is just like me because that would be creepy and boring. And it isn't as if all the other people in Chattanooga are exactly like each other. I'm grateful for that human variety because people-watching will never be dull. But it is hard to find others with whom I can relate and sometimes my loneliness sours.

That's when I begin resenting all the places where I don't fit in, which is just about everywhere. I notice it most when I'm out to eat - ugh, like that meal at the new farm-to-table cafe, where the hipster servers try too hard at looking cool and not enough at doing their jobs well. "Yes, my lunch was scrumptious, but that guy with the handlebar mustache who took twenty minutes to brew my coffee? And the smug, yuppie clientele? Ick, I may never go back." Then I remember my last birthday brunch, at the all-you-can-eat fried chicken place on the edge of town. I'd waited months for that down home feast. At the end of my meal, the polite, standoffish, middle aged waitress asked me where I'm from. "Just a couple miles down the road," I said, but her quizzical face told me exactly what she was thinking - "No, where are you really from?" 

Okay, the scene isn't usually that alienating, but I do so often feel self conscious about my clothing and manner when I'm out in society. I figure that's apt to remain the case so long as I choose to be myself. And since I'm stubborn and lazy and don't want to style my hair or go to church, I've learned to accept that and expect nothing more. That's the cost of being myself in this mostly conservative Bible Belt city. When I start to feel lonely or uncomfortable, I stave off grumpiness by appreciating my loner superpowers - the ability to roam solo in a social setting, the capacity to amuse myself without attention from others. And though I'm shy, I can engage in surface-level, polite banter. The locals may not be friendly enough to overcome my deep reserve (and I know that's all on me), but they are almost unfailingly civil. I could certainly do far worse in the many other parts of this country where I don't click.

In the early 1990s, I was part of a rapidly shrinking white student population at a largely Arab/Muslim high school. I was also a morbid, pale, extremely serious alternachick, so there was no chance of my being normal there. Getting used to being a freak took a couple years, but overall it was an invaluable experience. Being forced to spend long hours with very different people made me more tolerant, compassionate and open-minded. Those lessons probably outstripped the whole of my sub-par public education. In fact, racial and class integration is one of my top concerns as I explore my daughter's education options; I've felt very strongly about this since long before I became a mom. So it's funny that I wound up in this place where I find myself so weird again. Again, learning to feel secure in my freakiness is an everyday challenge, but I feel like this experience may be just as good for me in the long run. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

In Honor of the Friends I Didn't Help

Ever since I became a parent, I often think about two childhood friends whom I believe were molested by their fathers. In both cases, obvious signs flashed before my young eyes, but I was either too naive or distracted at the time to notice. Contemplating those horrors now invites a tidal wave of feelings - anger, sadness, frustration, guilt. Maybe I'm no more culpable than any other person in my friends' lives who did nothing to help them. As far as I know, the crimes never came to light, just as we never discussed them at the time. But you recognize certain patterns as you get older. You meet new friends and listen to their stories. You gradually discover that incest and pedophilia are much wider-spread blights than any child wants to know. 

This has been extra heavy on my mind in light of Dylan Farrow's open letter about her estranged father (and accused molester) Woody Allen. Without speaking about them specifically, I will make the following points, beginning with the most obvious -

- People who want to sexually assault children need to be kept away from children. It is our social responsibility to sequester predators from our young.

- Abusers tend to have been abused. It us our social responsibility to stem the cycle of sexual violence by helping victims deal with their trauma and holding perpetrators responsible.

- None of this works if we ignore symptoms, shame victims who speak up, or otherwise close our eyes and pray it isn't true. 

- It especially doesn't work when we are distracted by a predator's clout, money or prestige. Consider Jimmy Savile, the late English celebrity who is now accused of raping dozens of kids. Through his career and philanthropic work, he positioned himself in such a way that he had easy access to children. So did Jerry Sandusky. These two men were able to abuse many, many young people because they had the power and privilege to do so. Preventing such predators from inflicting that level of damage requires greater vigilance, not less. 

I'm not telling you how to feel about Woody Allen as an individual or artist, because I don't think that matters. But your gut reaction to Farrow's accusation does. If it was something like, "Say it isn't so!" followed by a firm resolve to not believe it, then you aren't ready for your social responsibilities. I implore you to make yourself more ready. Because after all, Woody's just some famous guy you don't even know. How will you react when the alleged predator is someone you do know?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Tug of War

Tomorrow will be my last day as a part-time cheesemonger. After that, I will return to being a full-time mama. I am very excited and very freaked out.

I'm excited because I get to spend more time with my daughter and less time worrying about her when we aren't together. I'm not a worrier by nature, but you see a lot of sad families at a grocery store. Sour thoughts can be so persistent.

I'm freaked out because in the first eight months of my child's life, when I stayed home full-time, I kinda forgot how to talk to people and I'm worried that's gonna happen again. I'm mostly happy to be a hermit, but I do require some social interaction.

I'm excited because, in addition to the time I won't be working outside the house, I'll get back those three hours I spend commuting through the ugliest part of town every week. We've been juggling two jobs with one shitty, dying car. We're over it.

I'm freaked out because of money.

I'm excited because once again, I shall delve into a thrift obsession. I get off on seeing how frugal I can be. 

I'm freaked out because I come from the land of Yankees and their annoying work ethic. I can't help feeling like a loser when I'm unemployed because working hard (even for a shit wage) is what good little children do. I don't completely buy this philosophy, but it does rule a bit of my heart.

I'm excited because I'll have time to work harder at more personally fulfilling endeavors - raising my kid, thrift, fitness and writing.

I'm freaked out because of the cheese loss. I'm really gonna miss snacking on all that luscious cheese.

I'm excited because of autonomy. This is probably the closest I'll ever get to being an entrepreneur.

I'm freaked out because, as Dylan said, "You're gonna have to serve somebody." For me, that somebody is a two year old. And while she's the cutest, most lovable boss I'm ever gonna have, she's also such a temperamental naysayer.


Friday, December 13, 2013

Tips from a Cheese Lady: Having Fun with Fromage this Holiday Season and Beyond

Don't call me an expert. Those people exist but I'm not one of them. I package and sell cheese, but more so I just love it. Nothing unusual about that, most people do. But I also notice that most people stress about cheese on some level, be it the calories, the cost or the pressure to appear urbane. How unfortunate we should fret over something that ought to bring us pleasure. Kinda sounds like the holidays, right?

I say, 'tis the season for chowing on big globs of coagulated milk. Let's have fun with it. The following tips are meant to help you do just that:

Stop trying to make it be good for you Cheese has nutritional value but you can easily find leaner, richer sources of calcium and protein. Goat and sheep milk varieties are better for you only by being kinder than cow to your digestive system. They're still loaded with cholesterol. All cheese worth eating is quite fatty. You could sweat details like, "Is it organic or raw or grass fed or hormone free?" - if that's for ethical or aesthetic reasons, I get it. But if you're banking on those options being substantially healthier, just stop. It's the loveliest indulgence. Why not make the most of it by seeking good flavor instead? As with any food, I recommend avoiding anything highly processed. I know, that stuff also tastes good and it's usually cheaper, too. But I believe the tastier, not-as-bad-for-you cheese is worth the extra cash. Maybe it's better to be frugal by way of abstention. We shouldn't eat too much of this stuff anyway.

Having said that... If you have it, just eat it Don't obsess over preservation. If you need to maintain a big chunk, wax paper and aluminum foil make better long-term wraps than plastic (which suffocates cheese and leads to more rapid molding). If plastic is what you have on hand, wrap it tight. Keep it dry. Don't set it on a wet chopping surface. If you do find mold, cut it away and enjoy the good cheese underneath. Just don't freeze it. That ruins texture and flavor. Besides, you probably have regular access to a grocery store, right? If you can, buy smaller quantities. Or share it. Don't hoard the cheese, it will only lead to sadness. 

Snobs are jerks. Don't be one of them I once attended a cheese-selling class when I worked at Foodie Delight*. They dealt a fab selection, most of it unattainable to me for being in the $30 to $40/lb. range. I was excited but also intimidated. When the manager/teacher asked us to name our favorite cheese, I was too embarrassed to say Cambazola because I'd just seen expert Steven Jenkins trash it in his Cheese Primer. Now I feel silly for being so self-conscious. Screw Jenkins, Cambazola is yummy. True, it's no longer my favorite. I'm less satisfied with a lot of stuff I used to love because I've tried better things. Certainly, if you're so privileged that you get to sample cheese the world over, mainstream fare is gonna suck in comparison. But if stinky, gooey, sweet, crumbly-bits-o-blue laden Cambazola were the best thing around, I'd still be pretty passionate about cheese. And if you serve it at your party, I will be very excited. I will also be excited if you serve Velveeta nacho dip and corn chips.

Guilt-trippers are jerks. Don't be one of them Please don't balk at what your friends pay for quality goods. I can't stand customers who come to the counter just to groan, "Eighteen dollars a pound!" I don't stand in front of the Ferrari dealership and moan, "You want how much for a car?" Nor do I begrudge a Ferrari owner their deep desire for something that matters not to me. My feelings about jewelry and shoes are the same. On the other hand, I think it's totally worth spending ten bucks every once in a while on a memorably delicious cheese I can share with a few friends. And if that helps you feel better about occasionally blowing a small fortune on fromage, you're welcome.
I didn't avoid soft or raw milk cheeses during pregnancy and both my daughter and I lived to tell. Preggo ladies, take note - you can get your unpasteurized goods from me. I offer a zero judgement guarantee.

FYI 0.25 lb. yields 1 cup, shredded

Speaking of cooking... Here's my favorite, ridiculously easy recipe for delicious Slow Cooker Mac and Cheese (adapted from Stephanie O'Dea's Make It Fast, Cook It Slow) This is basically a cheesy, carb-y custard and it is divine. Like any great slow cooker recipe it's very low maintenance, but you can't leave it alone all day. You have to stir occasionally and it cooks fast. Make it when you're gonna be around the house anyway; most of that time can be spent doing other things.

A note about the cheeses - I love me some intense, aged cheddars but they don't melt well. I usually get something medium sharp, aged no more than a year (Henning's Mammoth is a great mild-but-flavorful, kid-friendly option). The fontina brings light sweetness and luxurious, gooey texture. 

1/2 lb. fontina, shredded
1/2 lb. young, mild or medium cheddar, shredded
4 cups milk
8oz. (1/2 box) elbow macaroni
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp. dry mustard
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper

Spray crock pot with oil. Mix milk and egg, then blend in spices. Mix in the cheeses and macaroni. Pour mixture into crock pot. Cover and cook on low 2 to 5 hours or on high 1 to 3 hours, stirring every 30 - 45 minutes. Serves 4 - 6.

*not a real name

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Heeding the Hills

Something strange started happening a few week ago. The hills and valleys of my lovely, leafy neighborhood, augmented by crisp autumn breezes and the grand annual color show, seemed to call, "Run, Tara." I told Dan, "I don't know what's going on, but I feel compelled to start running, like it might be fun." He said, "That's weird," and I agreed. Still the compulsion remained. It was an unprecedented urge, and unlikely to recur if I didn't act.

I've embarked on several neighborhood runs over these past few weeks. For those of you who are runners this is no big deal, but for me it's a revolution. I thought I hated running. Until three years ago, I never ran of my own volition. Treadmill jogging was enjoyable during pregnancy, mainly because I wasn't allowed to over-exert myself and still felt like a badass. Once Bernadette was born, I went back to hating it.

And running in public, where my neighbors could see me all slow, sweaty and sputtering? That fear was the last vestige of grade school gym class anxiety. But something broke in my brain and I just stopped caring about that. Or rather, my yearning for a specific sort of exhilaration overcame concern for what others might think.

So I listened to the hills and valleys, and they were right. I love my runs. They leave me feeling so vital. I usually start by jogging down the steep part of the ridge beside my house, which helps me build momentum for the jog up the side of the mountain. Every course is a little different. The distance and altitude changes depend upon various factors like time, traffic and whether I'm alone or pushing Bernadette in her stroller. I try to make each new journey a little more challenging. Halfway through, I like to reward myself by landing somewhere with a beautiful view (usually at the end of the mountainside lane pictured below). I slow down, catch my breath, let my well-worked lungs enjoy the sweet, piney air. And once I get going again, I don't stop until I get home.

It's a fun way to take in my favorite neighborhood sights - the stately Victorian palaces that line St. Elmo Avenue, the yellow brick Baptist church with the picturesque spire, the row of stubborn, still-leafy pear trees at the center of the valley, the goofy, geriatric Jack Russell terrier down the block. I see it all in such pleasing succession, like a montage - faster than a walk, slower than a drive.

The best part is how I feel at the end. I'm immediately energized and later I'm really, really calm. My breathing is improving so the finish isn't as overwhelming as it was initially. T, my fitness guru, explained it well. "Your blood is pumping and your muscles are moving fast, so your lungs start to think they need to breathe rapidly. But they don't. Eventually, you'll get to the point where you can finish a three mile run and immediately carry on a normal conversation." This recovery check is my favorite measure of progress. How quickly can I return to conversational breathing? I prefer tracking that over time or distance, I guess 'cause I'm a weirdo. But that's just another thing I enjoy about running, the freedom to take whatever course you like. The options are infinite.  

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Internet-Light Brain Diet

I recently decided if I want to improve at writing I must make better use of my time. And when I wondered how I might do that, the answer was immediate. I must spend less time online.

Here's my new approach - I check email as needed. When I'm curious how friends are doing or need to crack wise, I visit social media. When I must answer a random question like, "Who's that guest actor on 'Murder She Wrote'?", I google it. And when I'm done, I put the computer away. I don't wander aimlessly, back and forth, one app to the next, searching for amusement. That was the black hole that sucked so many hours.

To be clear, I'm not vilifying the internet. It's how I keep up with a lot of cool people from my past. It's the medium by which Bernadette's grandparents watch her grow. Facetime, are you kidding me? When I was a little girl, I used to hold a book open on my lap and make believe I was video chatting with friends, like they did on "The Jetsons". I didn't expect that it would actually happen, or that the machine itself would be lighter than a book. Perhaps my favorite feature is that when I'm dead tired and craving Indian food, I can get that grub to my front door and the only human interaction involved is twenty seconds spent with the delivery guy. Thank you, technology!

But just as I cannot indulge in carry-out or human isolation every day, I must limit my internet consumption. And here is the result - not only do I have more time, I'm simply happier. The benefits of my fast speak to the ills of the medium ~

My house has never been so clean The internet is great for stabilizing my nervous energy and isn't as deadly as nicotine. Now that it's presence is reduced, I have to be active. The never-ending laundry pile keeps me busy. I've been cooking more complicated meals, which is fun (the extra dishes less so, blech). I've already planned Thanksgiving dinner and even mopped the kitchen and bathroom floors last week. Honestly, I've become a little obsessive about these chores, but at least I have something to show for it. Eventually, I'll tire of domestic labor and replace some of it with reading and writing. 

If a troll screams in the forest but there's no one there to hear him, he doesn't make a sound I'm thinking of this one guy who's Twitter famous for being a skeevy jerk. He calls himself a feminist but seems to hate women. Some of his enemies have worked very hard to prove this, which means he gets LOTS of attention. Eventually he had a mental breakdown and surrendered his account password to some very concerned friends. And then a month later, he came back under a different account. He tweeted selfies so everyone would know it was actually him and not some imposter. And then he had another mental breakdown, but not before he pissed off a bunch of other people.

I'm not saying that trolls don't matter, that their misdeeds aren't hurtful or that they shouldn't be held accountable. I am saying, thank goodness I never followed that guy. I've had my share of days ruined by trolls and I just don't see any point to that.

Speaking of narcissists... My ego isn't so full of bullshit P90X classes have taught me that an occasional ego beatdown is a very good thing. There's virtue in trying even when you lack aptitude. You develop humility, which opens you up to exploring all sorts of new things. You might even improve at something you thought you did well enough already. 

I feel like social media has the opposite effect of a proper ego beatdown. The more time I invest in Facebook or Twitter, the more attention I get out of it. The more often I update my status, the more "likes" I receive. The more attention I give to friends, the more they return. But I always want more favorites, comments and retweets. And when I don't get the number I expected, I feel a little sad. For what? What have I said or done to warrant any acclaim? When I limit my time with social media, I feel a little lonely at first. But then those red and blue lit flashes of attention mean less to me, and the desire to feel important wanes.

I'm more present for others In Real Life I use the term "IRL" hesitantly because our online lives are very real. I relish a handful of ongoing conversations with a few wonderful people I see once, maybe twice a year. But for those couple people who see me every day, I must refocus attention because I'm already such a space case. Written communication suits me too well because I'm so daydreamy. I think way more than I talk, which is theoretically fine, but not so much when you're dealing with a two year old. They need you to be interactive in the moment. And that's hard enough for me to do without the distracting lure of bright, flashing, nonstop, electric entertainment. Anyway, my daughter been to the playground about four times as often in the last fortnight as in the previous two years put together. My fast is helping me be a more fun and attentive mom.

It isn't as easy to forget my feelings, so I'm less anxious Louis CK touched on this subject in a recent appearance on "Conan". He went on a rant about smart phones, which was definitely more curmudgeonly than the tone I wish to take here. But he shared this wonderful anecdote about listening to a sad Bruce Springsteen song. When he felt himself getting bummed out, his instinct was to seek distraction by texting a bunch of friends. But then he chose to just ride out that bad feeling instead. So he cried, and it was a beautiful moment, and then he felt better.

I'm grateful for that story, because now I pay more attention to unpleasant psychic nudges. For instance, when I read a friend's brash remarks on some social medium and feel irked, instead of swiping to the next app, seeking the next entertainment, I ask myself, "Why does this bother you?" And I ponder that until I figure it out. Maybe I decide to hide or unfollow that friend, or maybe I just shrug my shoulders and say, "Well, that's how they've always been, what's new?" Maybe Bernadette says, "Go outside!" twenty times until I finally hear her and then we head to the playground. And at that point, I'll probably decide to just release that frustration because even if both of these lives are real, the breathing one is where I'd rather invest my concern.