Monday, March 30, 2009

Social Justice

It's 5:45 am. I normally do not concern myself at this time of the morning with anything other than watching the morning news while giving my hair a little time to air dry and getting a good dose of caffeine running through my bloodstream so that my eyes are actually open when I put my mascara on my eyelashes. I will admit that my coffee is a bit strong (and particularly good) this morning, but it is not the reason I am writing.

Today at work I have to talk to the principal (some days being a teacher feels an awful lot like being a student) about an important matter. Without getting into more detail than would be appropriate, he came to me on Friday and essentially told me that I may need to make an exception about a matter. That is, he’s really making this exception. What he doesn't understand, in his haste to make this executive decision in order to please one student and one set of parents, is that it will open a can of worms and have far-reaching consequences. I'm not as into politicking as I am doing the right thing.

I am a big picture thinker so I am thinking of all those kids for whom an exception has not been made, and it's frankly just not fair. Or right. As my friend Deanna joked, “You? Miss Social Justice?” Add to that the fact that he just kind of came in and usurped my authority on this matter and it gets to my core. For good measure, throw in a third piece to this tricky puzzle: my passion. I stand up for myself and my beliefs and it’s not always easy to keep my cool. But today I have to.

As much as his unwelcome and unannounced Friday afternoon visit ruined a part of my Friday and occupied my mind for much of the weekend, I now see the timing was advantageous to me. I absolutely cannot walk in and say Are you out of your effin' mind? or anything else peppered with expletives, as would be natural for me and as I wanted to Friday. (Come to think of it, delayed kudos to me for not blowing a gasket on Friday!) Over the weekend I had the opportunity to seek the counsel of good friends. I was able to vent and seek their advice. Venting was good for...well...venting, blowing off steam so I can keep the expletives in that cartoon bubble I walk with above my head so often at school. (student: Did we do anything yesterday? my cartoon bubble: No, we decided that since you weren't here it wasn't worth learning anything.) Their advice helped ground me. I took notes and think I can be focused and rational and professional.

So often I live my life according to the bumper sticker: Well-behaved women rarely make history. Today my challenge will be to disagree without being disagreeable. I'll let you know how I fare.

PS I kept my cool. I did some homework, so to speak, consulted other faculty to make sure I knew what I was talking about. (That would at least make one of us! (meow)) I brought notes and I argued on my own behalf and the other teachers who would be affected and should have been consulted. Perhaps more importantly, I argued--without raising my voice--on behalf of the kids who'd be cheated by the provision he, on Friday, told me I might have to make for this one particular student. There will be no exception.

Now give me back my bumper sticker.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

My Favorite Flowers

Alstromeria

Today is a beautiful early spring day in southern New England. It is sunny and 60 and full of promise--a day that begs you to come outside to play, or open the windows and blinds to let it inside and mingle. It asks you to turn off the TV and put a little jazz on the stereo, or something else without lyrics, and with beautiful flowers like these on the table, it transforms cleaning from chore to celebration. It encourages you to fill your grocery cart with fresh fruits and vegetables, and eat something entirely from the earth. It gives me permission to burn lilac candles again, and it whispers in my ear, only three more months until summer vacation....

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Joy of Cooking

I think I've made it clear that food is one of my favorite things. Arugula, pork products, a good sandwich, Bugles, Girl Scout cookies? I love them all...But it's not just the food itself I am drawn to, it is also the experience, and I've talked a little about that here, too. The plate and the plating, the smells and color and textures can make an experience, even if I'm alone. Add scenery or put me at an outdoor cafe--on Newbury Street in Boston, overlooking the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla, in a piazza in Florence, a garden restaurant in Rome (see photo), and the food tastes different. Add good company to the mix, and an outstanding meal is bound to make my ever-changing top ten list--with or without ambience.

Eating last January with Deanna, a great friend, at Dogwood--a great restaurant in Baltimore that partners with a culinary institute that works with those recovering from addiction, homelessness, and incarceration--comes to mind. Recently, escargo and burgers at a local Madison pub, (Lynch and) Malone's, with my sister Liz and friend Mary G before heading off to hear Jodi Picoult really hit the spot. And how could I forget that delicious dinner at The Lobster Pot in Provincetown with Jill, so many moons ago?

Yet sometimes for me the experience that elevates food comes before I sit down to eat it. It comes in preparing it myself. From finding the best, freshest heads of broccoli at the supermarket to getting it home and steaming it to its brightest green hue--all are a part of the experience. I love cooking. It's in our nature to be creative and I love the creative escape of cooking. Some people tend gorgeous gardens, others knit or crochet, some scrapbook. I like to cook. We all like to make nice things. Being creative makes us feel accomplished and contented. I love creating meals that delight, making something for myself, or friends, or both. Cooking makes me feel good.

So many days at school, despite my best efforts to update my arsenal of pop culture references, to create new lessons and curriculum materials, and to be as energetic as was natural when I was in my twenties, I leave deflated, frustrated, not knowing if I got through and understanding that if I did, I might never find out. The other day I had a particularly bad day at school, having spent the last two hours of my day in Bio lab with the most immature 15/16 year olds on the planet. That day it was even more important for me to make something nice, create something good. So I turned to the kitchen and my creative abilities to feel better.

Lucky me, I had fresh arugula on hand...as well as other favorite ingredients: mahi mahi and fresh lemons, good olive oil, capers and pasta. So when I got home I got busy in the kitchen and made this wonderful dish that made me feel better. I tossed some arugula in lemon juice and olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper, and filled the bottom of my dish. On top I put a serving of pasta, also tossed with olive oil and lemon juice and topped it all with the mahi mahi that I seasoned with salt and pepper and seared and cooked in a hot pan with olive oil and a little piccata sauce. It was delicious. Three bites in, I mixed the arugula and pasta. After the fourth bite I took a picture. It looked and tasted good; it changed my mindset.

Cooking and eating dinner made me forget that I spent the better part of my day spitting in the wind. It enabled me to spend my evening and end my day satsified with my creation, my very own spring in a dish.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Balance

In life there are two kinds of lessons: those we learn that stay with us forever, e.g., put your hand on a red hot stove and it will burn, and those we learn and re-learn ad nauseum. Over and over. We learn and we forget. What is consistent is our need to relearn the lesson. Why we forget, or ignore, is varied.

Perhaps the initial incentive is gone. I think of women, who post Barbie wedding quickly find the weight they lost when they were starving themselves and driving everyone crazy while belaboring details of the big day. (I'm not judging the brides here, just identifying this as a situation of incentive/absence of incentive--although I do find it incredibly sad that society still makes women feel like they are only worthy of a picture book wedding if they're skinny. When I'm feeling particularly feminist, I feel it's incredibly sad that society makes women want a picture perfect wedding at all. But I digress.)

Maybe we learn and decide that something else is more important to keep in mind, ostensibly more pressing in nature, less [insert contemptuous tone] “selfish.” Here I can't help but think of moms who forget how much they enjoyed an occasional massage, or pedicure, or meeting a friend for coffee and who, only on the verge of a nervous breakdown or divorce, and at someone else's urging, find their way back to that weekly Happy Place.

Sometimes it is difficult to stick with a plan, or just plain easier not to. I think we're lazy by nature, or have been encouraged in the last couple of decades to be lazy (please, let me pay 3 times the price for chicken breasts for buying them in pre-portioned packages within a package—NOT!). And we take the easy way out. Take exercise, the bane of my existence, my perpetual lesson. I feel better when I exercise. I know this, but sometimes it is easier and more enticing to sit and wallow--or go out and have fun (read: eat or drink)--then get in workout gear and sweat. So I have stopped and started exercising umpteen times in my adult life.

The good news is sometimes all it takes is for the lessons to be repackaged (there we go again), intentionally or not--just enough to get our attention. I don't have to pay for a gym membership or don spandex and run? I can throw on old sweats and follow along with a DVD in my own living room? Yay! Sometimes we just forget that it felt good to live like you knew the lesson and eventually get to feeling miserable enough to pick up our lesson books again. Or the threat of losing something as with the aforementioned prototype mom--your mind, your partner's attention, the last semblance of your self-respect—can also make us hop into action. Imminent loss works as effectively as the initial incentive to learn it to begin with.

In the end it’s all about balance, keeping ourselves in check, not letting loneliness outweigh self-respect so you find yourself in yet another bad relationship, or not letting drinks at 5 being the only way to unwind, or not letting the only hat you wear have a name tag that says what you do for work (Teacher) or something about your relationship to others (Mom). Relationships, incidentally, are a great conduit for life lessons. Learning to balance our relationships with others and ourselves is, I think, the task at hand. Having an awareness of ourselves and a happy relationship with that person is vital. Every wellness wheel I’ve ever seen is about a balanced self…although, come to think of it, I haven’t seen any since the early 90s when I worked in higher education and had big bangs and sprayed my hair out over my ears (think broadcaster’s bob). But I’m digressing again.

Anyway, this is exactly why moms should sit over coffee or get their toes painted--or both, and why those of us who love to eat and drink should exercise. It’s why those of us in love with the wrong person should fall in love with ourselves first, and may be surprised to be led to the right person as a result. It’s why those of us who aren't in love with our jobs should fall in love with something else and put some energy there, to create something good, and not give all our energy and time to that thing that pays the bills and elevates our blood pressures.

Suddenly it occurs to me, if the lesson is indeed balance, then maybe the goal is happiness. Love and happiness.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Spring in a Vase

I love daffodils, the floral bargain of all bargains. Most supermarkets sell them during March in 10-stem bunches for $2.50. These I got for $1.29 per 10 stems at Trader Joe's (a store and, more importantly, source of happiness that deserves its own entry). A no-brainer.

I'm ready for spring, and these bring me one step closer.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Girl Scout Cookies

It’s that time of year again, when we all get a taste of what addiction would be like when those “cookies”—do-gooder, legal crack—are delivered.

Remember when you got the call from your niece, or saw that shiny form with pictures of this year’s cookie choices and all the tiny lines to fill in your order in the lunch room at work? And you thought, Well, I shouldn’t… but I want to support my niece/daughter/the Girl Scouts. Or maybe you’re at peace with your annual soiree to the dark side, comfortable enough to say YES! I love Girl Scout cookies; I love this time of year! Either way, your diet is headed for disaster. Not diet in the traditional—I’m depriving myself of food or otherwise manipulating what I want to put in my mouth in order to lose weight—sense, but diet as in food intake period. Because whether or not you are controlling your food intake, it most likely cannot afford the extra calories and fat that a sleeve, perhaps a whole box, of cookies introduces to the metabolic machine--efficient or not--that is your body. If you are a person who made a New Year's resolution? Well, bu-bye. There it goes--down the tube. It'll take till summer to repair the damage.

I laugh when I look at the portion size. 2 Tagalongs? Seriously? My 9 year old niece can scarf twice that in five minutes. 4 thin mints? Then why do they come in a sleeve of 20? Which happens to go perfectly with a 12 ounce glass of milk?

I suppose some of us probably try to stick to a portion or two. We put them back in the cupboard where they taunt us. Like a half empty bottle of tequila in the cupboard on Cinco de Mayo. And the next thing we know we feel sick. We swear them off, never again. Which is why the lemon ones are often still in the cupboard until April. But, indeed, like an alcoholic and his or her bottle, we go back to it. Finally, all temptation is removed, and the whole experience a distant memory the next time the call comes, next January.

Would you like to buy some Girl Scout cookies?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Bugles

Like so many kids who grew up in the seventies, Saturday nights for me and my sisters were about watching The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. “Julie McCoy” remains part of the language of our generation as [n.] the person who does all the party planning, and I bet we can all call up our best Herve Villechaize to say “Boss, boss! Ze plane, Ze plane!,” the way he would every week. Sometimes, we’d have special snacks while watching, especially if my parents were out at a dance at one Polish Home or another--maybe a bag of Stateline chips, or a box of Bugles to share. Who can honestly say they didn’t put a bugle on each fingertip, and maybe recite a little from the Wizard of Oz (I’ll get you, my pretty!), and then eat them one by one? Well, if you didn’t, you missed half the fun.

None of the three of us really wants to say that we were poor, afraid of the stigma, or afraid to hurt our parents’ feelings since they worked so hard for us…but looking back, it is clear that we were definitely working class folks. Lower middle class. We had a house over our heads and a car in the driveway, and there was always food on the table, in copious amounts on holidays, but we didn’t have a lot of extras. The extras we did have came our way because somewhere our parents did without. They didn’t tell us that. I just know. I didn’t then, but I know now. And I am in awe.

Somehow, they raised three daughters and sent us all to college on blue collar wages. I have a Masters Degree now, and I work as a teacher; with no children of my own in diapers or braces, I suffer mild panic attacks if my car needs work. $350 for a water pump and timing belt puts a dent in my budget. I can’t imagine if I had tuition bills to pay. They came to this country, not knowing the language, and took their best shot at the American dream.

So I’m not embarrassed to say we grew up without extras, that we were a working class, blue collar family. It makes me proud of my parents to acknowledge their, our, humble beginnings.

And it makes those Bugles taste even better.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Dignity


Life lessons often come in strange packages, not like in the movies--when a parent sits a kid down and has a heart-to-heart talk--although sometimes they come from the movies. While I don’t remember the title or the plot, I remember a line from a black and white film I happened upon and watched part of, in which a mother of several children says to one of them who is crying, "a person with inner dignity is never embarrassed." The line stuck with me and has become one of my mantras. I use it to remind myself that if I have inner dignity, I can rise above a potentially embarrassing situation. If I carry myself with dignity, I can walk away from it with my head held high. A situation is a moment, and not a reflection of me.

I don’t remember if I was a teenager when I saw this or a young adult, but would guess it happened after childhood, when I recall being embarrassed frequently and when I probably would have been too young to understand its meaning. How good it would have been to have this kind of self esteem when I misheard or misunderstood my first grade teacher who said something about snack time, not “it’s snack time,” which prompted me to take out my pink wafer cookies and her to come to my desk and tell me to put them away. It was an honest mistake and due in part to a language barrier I had then I think, with Polish as my first language and English as my second, and I don’t think Mrs. Fulton was admonishing at all, but to me it was horrible experience. I wish I could have crawled into a hole back then and for years following.

Fortunately, the movie line rescued me from remaining embarrassed about The Cookie Incident in perpetuity. Likewise, it has stifled shame in situations where I might publicly make an honest mistake, or get to the front of a check out line and realize I have neither cash nor the right card with me, or be in the company of someone who is a little drunk, for example. A person with inner dignity is never embarrassed, I remind myself, as I stand corrected or quietly walk away without my groceries or with a boisterous imbiber. This doesn’t make you stupid, or classless, or white trash. It’s a moment. You are more than this. You have dignity. Feeling good about myself is so much more pleasant than worrying and being insecure, and though I still have to work at it with other daily mantras on my way to work, more often than not I am confident and secure, and my inner workings reflect the fa├žade I donned decades ago.

A few years ago, when I was in Florence, Italy, I remember setting off for the day feeling just great. I was happy that I was there, proud for taking the trip by myself, pleased with my tan, and loving my outfit. Nothing could stop me, nothing could go wrong…Until I was strolling along the Ponte Vecchio, a popular and romantic tourist destination, and next thing I knew I was face down on the cobblestone and my packages, having become detached from my hands, were sliding down the bridge like a puck on an air hockey table. It’s okay to laugh. I do every time I tell the story. I actually made a call home to the states that night so I could share the story and have a laugh with someone. But at that moment, I did not laugh. Three men came to my rescue from different directions and helped me up as their wives looked on with a little pity. I got up, thanked them for their help, "Grazie, Grazie," I said, even though they too were probably American, and brushed myself off. Literally. I had cobblestone dust on my black capris, but fortunately hadn’t ripped them, and my hands were filthy from breaking my fall. My white crocheted sweater had somehow survived unblemished. I walked into the closest jewelry store and asked them to use their rest room so that I could wash up and check that I really was okay. Then I continued my day.

A person with inner dignity is never embarrassed.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Snow Days

On the topic of snow days, within my faculty there are two factions: those who would rather not have any snow days, and those who, more like students, enjoy snow days and look forward to them. The former says they'd prefer to get out earlier in June. I, a member of latter group, respond to those in the former with "we're still getting a long vacation. Whether we get out on the 16th or the 20th, we still get two months off." We live in New England, so we're going to have snow storms and, therefore, snow days. Why not enjoy them?

I see snow days as a little gift from God that says, Have an extra cup of coffee today. Or Spend time with your kids. Work on that project list. Even Get caught up on correcting. Make yourself lunch and take longer than 20 minutes to eat it. I know it is difficult to engender sympathy with non-teachers because of our summers off, but teaching is a difficult and stressful profession. In the throes of the school year we only get one personal day, and it is often more difficult to call in sick than it is to go to school while not feeling well...Which is precisely why I enjoy snow days, and why I can't understand my colleagues who would rather do without.

That being said, it is March, and I'm ready for spring and could do without any more snow days. I've had my share. Still, I enjoyed my day today. I made the most of it, knowing it will probably be the last. Tomorrow I will put away the lucky snowman that sits on my file cabinet and that I touch when a storm is forecast, and that my students are familiar with because of the big deal I make when I put him out in December.

I guess maybe there are three factions then: those opposed, those who appreciate, and those who are as "bad" as the kids. Tee hee.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Breakfast of Champions

As I begin my missive on breakfast, having just finished eating one, I feel compelled to proffer a disclaimer, to tell you I am not a heart attack waiting to happen. I have written herein that I struggle with being overweight, and have professed my love for pork products, so I think it's also important for you to know that my cholesterol levels are acceptable and my blood pressure is good and has been as long as I can remember--even when I was a regular smoker. On more than one occasion I have seen a puzzled look come over the face of an LPN after she fiddled with an extra large arm cuff and watched the sphygmomanometer read 110/68 (a benefit of teaching A&P: knowing words like that), and have felt compelled to joke at my own expense. I know, I'm a bit of a medical miracle: overweight smoker with good blood pressure. If it saved my arm from getting squeezed again to within a millimeter of its life, it was worth it. Similarly, eating lots of vegetables, cooking with olive oil, and looking at label information to choose the higher fiber option if given one, is worth keeping weekend breakfast in my rituals. Honestly, the vegetables and olive oil aren't even a forced effort. I crave salad if I haven't had one in a couple of days and could eat a plate of spinach--sauteed in olive oil with some garlic, salt and pepper--for dinner. But that's another post. Today I'm talking about breakfast.

Sunday breakfasts have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Every Sunday, after church, my family and I would sit down to breakfast. Sometimes this took the form of bagels and a tub of cream cheese, sometimes a platter of cold cuts and cheese with fresh rolls. Eggs might have accompanied either of these or could have been the costar of a breakfast with toast and bacon. Usually a dessert course--fruit salad or some fresh baked cake or quick bread-- was also served; always, in the summer, a plate of sliced tomatoes, garnished with sliced scallions or chives, from my mother's garden was served. The latter is not a particularly American breakfast accompaniment, but a savory addition as second nature to us as ketchup on the table is to other families.

While my parents still enjoy a family breakfast that includes my sister Mary and her husband and children (and where I know I am also welcome), I more often than not enjoy mine alone. Most Sundays, after a load of laundry or two and my exercise DVD and maybe a quick trip to CVS for the newspaper, before my Sunday chat with Deanna, I sit down to a perfect breakfast.

These days a perfect Sunday breakfast for me is 2 eggs over easy, 2 slices of toasted rye bread for dipping in the yolks, and 4 slices of center cut (lower fat) bacon. Depending on my plans for the rest of the day and my mood that morning, Sunday breakfast (which takes place close to noon) may also include a mimosa (or three) or a Bloody Mary (or two). It is perfection on a plate: a combination of colors, textures, and flavors that sets me right for hours and makes a mockery of the 90 calorie Special K bars I eat in the car on the way to school or bowls of Cheerios I scarf standing in the kitchen.

The meal is a ritual and a celebration. It beckons memories of my childhood and thoughts of my family as it calls to mind leisurely weekend brunches at Bartol Hall at Simmons. It celebrates the weekend and acknowledges the need to slow down and savor the simple things in life. For now, being active (enough) and making (mostly) healthy food choices keeps Sunday breakfast on my weekly menu.

Come to think of it, I'm not sure I could ever give it up, even if--God forbid--medical assistants no longer look puzzled. Knock on wood that I am in good health and know enough to make some good choices. But if one day my blood pressure reading meets their expectations and I am no longer an apparent anomaly, I bet you'll still find me practicing the egg flip at my stove on Sunday morning.
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