25 February 2010

Hierarchies of needs

Here's a piece I just wrote for my writing group's February assignment, on "moving."

You say “write about moving” and I try hard to skirt the obvious and think about writing about dancing and discovering more about my physical presence on the earth every day, an aspect of my life I have come to treasure in my middling age.

Yet I can't help circling back to the fact that we moved a lot. Much more than most other people I knew. Even my daughter who was born halfway around the world has only moved twice, once to the orphanage when she was a newborn, and once to the house where we all live now. When I was a child, we moved, and moved again and moved some more, leaving one behind, forever it turned out, just like everyone said. We had so many addresses I couldn't remember them all, but my mother kept track, and wrote them down for me before we could both forget them, bless her soul. The longest we had an address during my childhood was three years. When I started going to kindergarten, I was amazed that most of my friends had lived in their houses for their entire lives. We hadn't even had a house some of the time.

Looking at the list of addresses where I've lived can be painful. I didn't have a special doll or stuffy to tote everywhere I went. I had my sister and my mother, but after a while I didn't even have my sister anymore. We dressed in clothes we found in free boxes, bought secondhand, or even found on the street. I was proud of my ability to sleep anywhere. Was it any wonder that, when my grandfather came to town and dazzled me with visions of debutantes dancing across the ballroom floor at the Brown Palace Hotel, I begged him to buy me a special doll, a brand-new one, even though my parents had explicitly instructed me not to ask for anything for Christmas?

Now I think about moving sometimes, but we chose well when we bought our first house 15 years ago. and I like its modest size; I can clean all the floors at once if I want to. I feel so fortunate to be where we are that I don't want to upset our happy apple cart -- I'm far more risk-averse than my parents were, I notice, as a parent and homeowner and free agent. I'm not as likely as I thought I would be as an adult to want to pull up roots and relocate. My husband and I did it once, for six months in Germany, and it was one of the most difficult periods of my life. Without the ability to translate, I was without my sense of humor and verbal agility, and often felt I didn't have much to offer. The heavy gray weather didn't help matters. The phrase “Out of sight, out of mind” would ricochet around my brain, making me wonder whether my friends were all forgetting about me.

A couple of years ago, I was seized with the idea that I should move with my family to India, we should get tech jobs, and write a book about the experience. I'm fairly certain more than one person or family have since gone and done this, and have written books or are making documentaries about it, which I'm a little surprised to find brings me relief. Ahhh, I don't have to do that!

The fact that my daughter has had some special needs has made me feel very fortunate to be able to get some help sorting through them and working with her. She would be a different person today if we hadn't been able to do that. What gets to me is: We didn't know enough to help my sister the way she needed help when I was a child. And what an opportunity this has been for my daughter; learning about her needs has helped every last one of us in some way. I didn't know enough when my little girl was tiny to know what she needed, although people tried to help me see it. I just did what I could, loving her and sticking close by, and trying (if not always succeeding) to find nonviolent ways to respond, counter to some of my initial instincts, which I knew were wrong but didn't have as much modeling to fill in for them as one might wish when one is suddenly spending many hours a day with one's little baby. When she started getting independent, e.g., walking, I started trying to push her away, too early for her abilities I now know. It turned out she couldn't see well. Now that she can, she is far less fearful about the world at large than she was when she was small. I was worried that she was so clingy; now I see how she couldn't always see faces, probably not enough to recognize whether people were friendly or hostile. Of course she clung to me; I always sorted such things out for her. Now she has more skills and we can support her better, instead of getting mad that she isn't like we were when we were smaller. Being able to provide her not only with love but also with stability and consistency closes some circuit within me and her and allows energy to flow where it hadn't been flowing before.

Will we move again? Hard to say, but living on a block with great neighbors, kids around my daughter's age, and great transportation options to just about anywhere, I have a hard time summoning any motivation to relocate. What a relief, another thing I don't have to do.

Oh, the places I've lived!

S. Columbine St., Denver, CO

S. Federal Blvd., Denver

Berthoud, CO

Gough St., San Francisco, CA

Julian St., The Rectory, San Francisco

Noe St., San Francisco

Pierce St., San Francisco

Cole St., San Francisco

Olompali Ranch, Novato, CA

Nederland, CO

37th St. & Baseline Rd., Boulder, CO

High St., Boulder

Canyon Blvd., Boulder-Mother and father separate, divorce

South St., Boulder-with father and stepmother

Mapleton Ave., Boulder-with father and stepmother

18th & Spruce St., Boulder-Mother

28th St., Boulder-Mother

15th & Spruce St., Boulder-Mother and stepfather

Bluff St., Boulder-Mother and stepfather

Broadway, Boulder-with father and stepmother

S. Boulder Rd., Boulder-with mother and stepfather

Vienna Way, Venice, CA-with mother and stepfather

UC Davis off-campus student housing, Davis, CA

Blake St., Berkeley, CA

Walnut St., Berkeley

Pilkington Ave., Santa Cruz, CA

Fair Oaks Ave., San Francisco, CA

Laidley St., San Francisco

Friends' apartment, Dortmund, Germany

Our apartment, Dortmund

Don & Joyce & Steve's house, Mapleton Ave., Boulder, CO

8th St., Boulder

Catalpa Way, Boulder

24 February 2010

Farewell, Lucille Clifton, or Why we don't critique content in my writers' group

My poetry teacher at UC Santa Cruz died recently, which undammed a wash of complicated feelings. I liked her poems, but the best thing about being in her class was the other writers I met there.

Once I was feeling comfortable in the class, I submitted a poem about being a child in my father's car while he drove us home from a party, drunk. Lucille Clifton, instead of critiquing my poem on its literary merits, attacked my content: "A father wouldn't do that to his children. This isn't believable. This couldn't happen."

Really!? This was astonishing news to me.

But you know how it is when someone tells you "This can't be done" or "No, you are dead wrong on this"-- and you just have to set them straight. I was so flummoxed at first by Lucille Clifton's reactions to me and my work that I deliberately didn't pick up my final critique from her, which in a way was just hurting myself because now it means I probably only have a couple of those poems from long ago. Miz Clifton, I now see more clearly, had a chip on her shoulder about discrimination and privilege, understandably given our time and place. I am guessing that to her, most of us at UCSC appeared to be just-weaned, still-sniveling symbols of privilege. She asked aspiring poets who wanted to take her class to write about a time when they were in the minority. She barely believed me when I said that being from a hippie family made me different from my peers, even though I felt those differences acutely every day that I was in school or watched television or had some other opportunity to see how other kids my age lived. I believe she had in her mind a notion about what it meant to be a hippie that didn't quite match my situation. I didn't know enough about the way things were to explain that I wasn't talking about being the kid of privileged parents who had decided to chuck the whole establishment scene, but rather was talking about being a kid of a sociopathic father and a manic-depressive mother. Now I know, and I still feel a need to set the record straight.

I only worry that all this dwelling on what happened is giving me some kind of chip on my own shoulder. I feel compelled to record each new set of revelations, and I keep hoping that process will make it easier to leave behind me. But I haven't fully been able to name what has been whittling away at my shoulder all these years, and I now I can.

Not only can things happen that way but they did, to me. Bless your heart, Lucille Clifton, for not having the capacity to see evil in a father's heart, but I did. And if you are willing to listen, I'll tell you how it was.

17 February 2010

Being us

Every now and then I'll say:

"I love Prince!" or some other equally grand declaration.

My sweetheart will challenge me: "I think you just like the idea of Prince."

But here's the thing about the Princes and the Lady Gagas and the Johnny Weirs of the world: They are doing their best by being most true to themselves. I felt that way the other day watching the Oprah episode about the woman who went from being Tim to Kimberly. She documented it in a fascinating documentary film Kimberly made about her experience switching genders that I attended at BIFF last winter. Oh, and by the way, Kimberly is a lesbian now, and has a partner. Oprah, bless her pointy little soul, really tried to wrap her arms around the transgender thing but couldn't quite let herself go there, so offered Kim's story in her "be your best self" format. Oprah celebrated that Kim was able to go back and become friends with her buddies from the football team for which she'd been the star quarterback, back in the day when she was a boy and feeling like she was in the wrong body. Oprah brought Kimberly's mom on the show and told her face to face she wished she'd told her about her feelings earlier. Not much outlet for thoughts like that in Helena, Montana, up to the point where he made the leap to being she.

But today, Kimberly is living proof that being yourself can change things for the better, and offer others a broader view, which is why yes, I really do like Lady Gaga. And I flat-out love Prince.

05 February 2010

We're baking with electricity now

Making that delightful no-knead bread has been quite an experience, one that has made me think about what it means to make your own food. I remember lots of baking in my childhood, my mother's and when we lived in communal situations she always helped cook. I thought the kitchen was always one of the most interesting places to be. My mom baked for a living after she and my father split up, making pies for restaurants with a friend, and then as pastry chef at Caribou Ranch. She baked healthy breads, adjusting as needed for the 8,000-foot altitude, and even concocted wholesome meals and wedding cakes for the crews of musicians who came up to make their records.

When my husband and I were young and living in the Bay Area, we were turned onto Greens and ate at Chez Panisse and Jeremiah Tower's restaurants and and it turned out that we were living in one of the epicenters not only of a major earthquake (Santa Cruz, 1989) but also of a revolution in the way huge swaths of the population were starting to see the food they consume and the chefs who prepared it -- chefs have in subsequent years been recognized as more than cooks but as curators of food. Our batch of early health-foodie revolutionary tracts -- one of the Moosewood Cookbooks, Laurel's Kitchen, a copy of Adele Davis' Let's Eat Right to Keep Fit that I never used, intermingled with The Joy of Cooking and the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook and the New York Times Cookbook as the cooking canon of our time and place, one of the very best was the lovingly compiled Tassajara Bread Book. I have enjoyed recipes from other Tassajara cookbooks, but there is an attitude of calm support and peace with the natural proceedings you are about to engage in that is unlike any other cookbook I have ever read or cooked with.

And so we made many loaves of bread and relished the scent and texture and experience, experimented with the balance of white and wheat flour, and loved the results, even when the proceedings seemed to take the better part of a day.

Yet, despite all that calming Zen baking advice, I was always concerned that I'd gone past the smooth-as-a-baby's-bottom phase in kneading my dough and into the tearing-the-gluten-bonds phase that would make my bread tough and chewy. Every loaf of kneaded dough I've made has made me fret about that.

So the no-knead dough was a revelation. I was suddenly more anxious about overhandling the dough when you hardly touched it except to spill it out of its bowl and fold it a couple of times and let it rest, then spill it into a piping hot dutch oven that you cover and bake for about 20 minutes, and uncover and bake another 15. It turned out I needn't have worried -- that dough is about the most forgiving, beautiful stuff on the planet. I have not worried once about torn gluten strands since I started baking this way, and if I feel like making kneaded bread, I know I always can. But I am far more likely to do this instead.

Crusty, Crackling, No-Knead Bread

This is my version of the Speedy No-Knead Bread recipe that the New York Times published recently.

In a deep bowl, measure and stir:
3 cups flour (or 150 grams)*
1-1/4 teaspoons salt
1/2 packet or about 1 tsp. yeast**

Pour in:
1-1/4 cups water (no warmer than 110 degrees F/44 C)
1/4 cup plain lowfat or whole-milk yogurt (or use all water if you wish to make this nondairy)

Stir the ingredients together for a minute or two, until you have a shaggy, sticky dough and all the ingredients are well blended. Scrape the dough down the sides of the bowl and cover the top of the bowl with a damp towel. If your house is chilly, make a place for your dough to rest by heating your oven to 200 F (95 C) for about five minutes and turning the oven off before you put the covered bowl inside the oven to rest from 3-8 hours.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, fold it in half once, and fold it in half again. (Expect a loose dough that barely lets you handle it.) Cover with a damp cloth or plastic wrap for 30 minutes. After 10 minutes, start preheating your oven to 450 F (235 C) and put your 6- to 10-quart dutch oven and the lid in the oven to preheat as well (be sure to unscrew and remove the handle on your lid if it is not heatproof -- many of them aren't. If you have to do this, twist a small piece of aluminum foil and insert it into the hole where the lid screw was to seal the hole because the steam from the baking bread is what initially allows the beautiful crust to develop).

After the oven and dutch oven are preheated, use a pizza peel or a flexible cutting board to gather up your dough and put it into the dutch oven. Bake on the middle oven shelf for 20 minutes. Remove the dutch oven lid and bake for another 15-20 minutes, or until the loaf is a rich golden-brown.

Remove dutch oven and set it on the stove. Take the loaf out of the dutch oven and set it on a counter or cutting board to cool for a few minutes, if you can wait that long before slicing and eating it.

*My current favorite blend is about 1/3 white winter wheat flour to 2/3 unbleached organic white flour.
**Fleischmann's or Star rapid-rise both work well -- and you don't have to proof them in warm water first.