Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter in Sarasota

Such a treat to celebrate Easter in Sarasota, at St. Michael the Archangel on Midnight Pass. This was my parish all during those amazing summers of my childhood, when we would spend as much as a month on Siesta Key. Now I only make it up here for a week during Spring Break, but it’s always nice to return. I had never been here for Easter, and it was a great celebrationpeople were packed in so tight they kept the doors open, and they stood outside. Another mass was going on simultaneously in the parish hall, and the parking lota good-sized lotoverflowed onto the grass and the street and down the street as well, to meet the other overflowing parking lot of the Episcopal Church a few blocks away. It took almost half an hour for Holy Communion. I’m no good with numbers, but I’d say there were about 3,000 people packed into that rather small, T-shaped church. After mass they crowded around the altar, taking pictures. My mom and I got tired of waiting for a front shot and took one off to the side.


It’s nice to see so many people at church, although “Big Mass” daysEaster, Palm Sunday, Christmasare always bittersweet, simultaneously a reminder of how many Catholics there are but also of how many of them are missing the rest of the year. Some of them hang in there for a couple of weeks, but eventually once we’re deep into ordinary time it’s just the usual old crew once more, scrambling to get enough readers, ushers, and Eucharistic ministers for a simple ceremony in front of half-empty pews.

So it’s always a thoughtful moment for that old crew to see the oceans, the vast oceans of people who are at least nominally Catholic. What brings them in on the Big Mass days? Some sort of secular enthusiasm for Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny? What makes them leave? Lack of time, I’m sure many would say. Who has time to go to mass once a week. That’s just a cop out, of course. There’s plenty things most people have time for once a week, like hitting the mall or catching a movie, that take more time. It’s not that. What is it, then?

I think I’ve already given my best theory: people are much more willing to identify as Catholic (or Episcopalian, or Baptist, or whateverthis is not solely a Catholic issue) when they have the secular enthusiasm of a holiday to validate that identification. Of course, that secular validation has an expiration date, and so once the shelves clear of tinsel and non-flammable multicolored Easter grass, they stop coming. It’s one thing to come to mass when Payless has a sale on Easter shoes to let you know everyone’s going to be doing it, and a whole ‘nother to do so some nameless Sunday in August when everybody else is back-to-school shopping.

I realize this is no revelation, but I felt compelled to comment on it sitting there in church (my mother and I were the last two to get seats, a row of folding chairs set up in front of the first pew) surrounded by what seemed like all of Siesta Key. It felt so good to see so many people participating in what is usually such an exclusive affair that I sometimes wonder whether me and the other fifty or so stray cats that show up to regular mass back home at St. Dominic’s are the last Catholics on earth. Now that I work at an actual Catholic school (St. Thomas is technically Catholic, but in such an optional way that you could spend your four years there and never really notice it), I get more of a feeling of community, but by and large to be Catholic, to be religious at all, usually feels like being a minority. In the movies we are always child molesters, on TV we are nonexistent, and pretty much everywhere else we are freaks and extremists, people who hate gays and fear sex. Yet there we were on a fine Sunday morning in paradise, by the thousands, as normal as they come: babies, elders in wheelchairs, families of two or of ten, some dressed up, some not so much, but all of us present and accounted for.

How would the popular conception of Catholics change if more of us who identify as Catholic did so full-time? Would we be able to correct the media image that so readily associates religion with extremism? If the whole world could see what I saw today, would we be so afraid to embrace our religion more than simply on holidays? Because it is fear that keeps us away, fear that ties us to the pack mentality of going to church only when everybody else is doing it. I see that fear today on Facebook, so many posts saying “Happy Easter, to those of you who celebrate” or words to that effect. We are afraid to offend. As if accidentally wishing a Happy Easter to someone who might be Jewish or atheist is grounds for war. We are suspicious of one anotherwe assume an agenda behind a holiday greeting, feelings of superiority or privilege. We assume hostility.

Here’s something this cubanita has learned about freedom of religion: it doesn’t mean freedom from religion. Doesn’t mean we all keep our religion to ourselves, as if we were doing something wrong. It should mean everybody gets to do whatever they want, religious or otherwise, without judgment or interference. That’s what it felt like today, amid that sea of people. It felt like freedom, and it felt good. Happy Easter!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Publication News

It's summer! That means time to catch up, and I have to begin with a string of publications that I'm totally stoked about. Here they are, in the order in which they got to my house:

Zymbol published one of my "wacky poems"! Take that, Rafael (my husband, who first referred to my poems as such)! In all seriousness, it's pretty hard to publish experimental poetry, in my experience, at least, but Zymbol--just a few issues old--is especially interested in symbolism and surrealism. Thus, "Magic Trick," my highly experimental nonce sonnet crown, finally found a home. A great publication story: originally I sent them a bunch of shorter poems, having totally given up on the idea of anybody even considering a sonnet crown. On a whim, I decided to mention that I had a sonnet crown to send if they were interested. Magically, they didn't want any of the poems I had selected, but they asked to see the sonnet crown, and they liked it! It's a gorgeous issue, with haunting artwork from Carrie Anne Baade and an amazing piece called "Ways to Become a Druid" by Larry Lefkowitz. You can get a copy of this issue here.

I'm also in Obsession: Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century, a new collection of poems in my favorite form. Edited by Carolyn Beard Whitlow and Marilyn Krysl, the anthology also features an afterword by Lewis Putnam Turco! The 152-page book features sestinas on Americana; Art; Love and Sex; Memory, Contemplation, Retrospection, and Death; The Natural World; Sestinas about Sestinas; Sestinas with Irregular Teleutons; and Unconventional Sestinas. Mine, "Lizards," which originally appeared in Poets and Artists, opens the "Natural World" section (note to aspiring poets: change your last name to something beginning with "A"--you have no idea how important that tiny detail is!). I could spend days dropping names here on all the amazing people in this anthology (you can read the ToC here), but the only one I will mention is Maxine Kumin--got into an anthology with you one more time, Maxine.

I've got two poems in Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books, edited by Bryan D. Dietrich and Marta Ferguson. Another great publication story: "Wonder Woman Goes through Menopause" actually won a prize back in 2008, but the awarding magazine, HereThere, collapsed before publishing it. The other poem, "Superman Confronts Me about Dinner," is one of my Lois Lane poems. (Someday I hope these will all be together somewhere, even if it's just a chapbook.) Both are in a section of the anthology called "The Bronze Age," about aging superheroes. Lots of familiar names in this anthology, too, so I won't play favorites by naming just a few. Suffice it to say this is now the definitive anthology on superhero poems. Check out the ToC here.

Lastly, my old favorite, two new poems in the latest issue of Iodine, which also happens to be the 15th anniversary issue. Iodine published my first poem ever, and I hope it will publish my last. I've come to trust editor Jonathan K. Rice's judgment, who convinced me that "Never" is actually a very good poem, even though I wasn't sure when I sent it to him. I also have another sonnet, "Maria's Sonnet," in this issue.

I've also gotten a poem accepted for How to Live on Other Planets: A Handbook for Aspiring Aliens, although that won't be out until next year, The ToC is already up at Upper Rubber Boot Books, however, so you can get a preview here. It will reprint "Malibu Barbie Moves to Mars," which originally appeared in Eye to the Telescope. I'm excited--this officially makes me a sci-fi poet!

Hoping that the summer will bring more opportunities for writing and sending out stuff. I have been neglecting my writing, a lapse for which  there is no excuse. I did have a great creative writing class last semester, so I am raring to go, and hoping to get this blog back at the center of things again, so check in every once in a while and feel free to nag me if you think I'm letting the summer go by without posting. I would love to hear what you think of any of these pubs if you check them out. My thanks to all the editors who have given me some much-needed encouragement. To all my anthology and issue buddies, I lift a virtual glass of sugar-free lemonade: cheers!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Lisset's Mother's Legendary Croquetas

Many moons ago, I was known by my middle name, and my mother packed my school lunches with homemade goodies I would share with those lucky enough to be called my friends. In time, one lunchbox staple became the stuff of legend: Las croquetas de Sonia. A quarter century later, people (okay, maybe just my old pals Rita and Shirlene) still clamor for the secret recipe. Behold:


4 tbsp. butter
 1 small onion, chopped
4 tbsp. flour (any kind)
1 cup milk
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. each pepper and nutmeg
1 tbsp. lemon juice
2 cups ground beef, cooked (just browned or lightly seasoned leftovers is fine)
eggs and bread crumbs for breading
oil for frying (Mazola, one assumes)



1.       Melt butter with onions. Add flour and milk and stir until thickened.
2.       Add salt, pepper, nutmeg, and lemon juice.
3.       Add ground beef.
4.       Mold mixture into croquetas.
5.       Bread by dipping first in egg, then flour.
6.       Fry until golden brown.

Now that we are vegan, she continues to make them, and they are even better. An easy series of subs: vegan butter for butter (we use Earth Balance), unflavored soy milk for milk, soy ground beef for the dead stuff (Boca crumbles are the best), and water mixed with a little of the flour for the eggs. You can also bread with plain flour if you don't find vegan bread crumbs.

Please, do not share this recipe with just anyone. They must be deserving.

Monday, May 27, 2013

From the Swamps to the Skies: Preston L. Allen Talks about Every Boy Should Have a Man

My homie Preston Allen’s new novel, Every Boy Should Have a Man (Akashic, 2013) is the most interesting book I’ve read this year. Since it’s still only May, let me rephrase that: it’s the most interesting book I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s not the sort of novel I often read; it’s neither realism, nor sci-fi, nor fantasy, nor speculative fiction, but its own thing, what could perhaps be called an epic fable or fairy tale. Regardless, what has most impressed me is not its style, although it is unique, but its heartthis is a serious book, a throwback to the polemical novels of Isaac Asimov or Philip K. Dick, with a little Jonathan Swift thrown in for good measure.

The confusing title refers to the book’s premise: a world controlled by a race of giants called Oafs, where humans are considered lesser animals. Some roam in the wild, feral but smart, sort of like industrious chimps. Some are kept as pets by the oafs, and these come in dumb or fancy varieties that can talk, sing, or even play instruments. Some are eaten as meat. These categories are not well-defined; an expensive “talking” or “musical” man can be a wealthy oaf’s pet one day and dinner the next if circumstances change. The novel’s main character is a “female man” called Red (her name changes as her owners change, but it is always some variation of Red because of her hair and “frecks,” or freckles), a talking, musical man who is born to a female man owned by a poor boy oaf.

Preston tells the story in an almost fairytale voice, interspersing the main narrative with tales told by bards as songs and passages from “Great Scripture.” The oaf world seems pre-industrial, since they live in villages, and so one has the impression of reading something medieval. A philologist would have a field day with this novelin the oaf world, bears have become beos, horses hoss, cows bovin. Humans are simply referred to as “man,” whether male or female. In their degraded state, humanity’s gender has become irrelevant except for breeding. The oafs go to war and hunt species to decimation. All of these factors contribute to a morally and ethically complex text that questions the boundaries of humanity, gender, and sexuality. What makes one species superior to another? What responsibilitiesto each other and to the planetcome with such hierarchies? Is there some greater force that can survive the mistakes of those in power?

I decided to ask Preston some questions of my own. Though his last novel, Jesus Boy (Akashic, 2010) was a huge successone of Oprah Winfrey’s top ten of the year!—it turns out Preston still has the time to remember the little mans he once knew.

Q: In the acknowledgments, you credit the Earth Ethics Institute at Miami Dade College, “whose class in the swamps inspired this book.” Could you tell us more about that class and how it inspired you?

A: At the college where I teach, we instructors take classes from time to time for such things as maintenance of rank, promotion, and most importantly to stay current in our field.  As you know, in our country things change rapidly.  One wouldn’t want the teacher to know less than the student. 

In my conservative field, English, the only rapid change we see is in the area of technology, and I had taken most of the techy courses that were out there at the time.  So I got to thinking that I might do something different this go round. There was a course called something like “biodiversity and sustainability.”

Ah, I was a schoolboy in liberal, blue-state Massachusetts in the late sixties during the ecology phase, the country’s original “green” phase.  Ah, my eyes were already misting over with nostalgia.  Ah, the good old days in Boston.  Ah, my longhaired, love bead, tie-dye, perhaps high, hippie teachers.  Ah, their optimism.  Studying nature in a classroom?  That would be nice. 

Nice?  Nice?  Are you kidding!  How, oh how, did I miss the words “total immersion?”  Just great.  Nature would be my classroom.

So here I was in the Everglades up to my knees in mossy water, on my guard for alligators, snakes, and other creeping things.  All these dangerous animals. 

And then it hit me.  Man is an animal too.  And dangerous. 

It wasn’t an original thought, and to be honest I had had it before.  But never with such power and such light. 

In this ecosystem, the alligator is the top predator, but man is the topmost predator of all.  Man can take the alligator and turn it into a purse, an amusement in a zoo, an exotic meal.  Now what if there were some intelligent species of creature above man on the food chain?

I remembered as a child in Boston coming home from the pond with a gift for my mother that I withdrew from my pocket dead.  Tadpoles.  And I wondered what species of boy could go down to the pond, pick up a handful of humans and at home withdraw them from his pocket dead. 

What species of boy could bring one of us home on a makeshift leash only to hear his mother say, “Get that stinky creature out of this house!  It’s mangy and full of disease.” 

And what species of boy would pout and say in protest, “But mom, every boy should have a man?”  And that was it. 

As the wildly flying birds sang above my head, I envisioned the novel from beginning to end, the many issues I could explore, the biblical sound of it, the title, everything. 

I had to get it down on paper before I ruined it by over thinking.  When class was over, I sped home.

Q: The plight of mans—kept as pets but eaten as meat as well—echoes the ethical sophistry of our own society, in which we treat pets as family members and yet eat other animals without a second thought. One of the last facets of the Oafs before their destruction is that they become almost exclusively carnivores: “ . . . for oafs in those latter days had become monstrous indeed. They had resorted to a diet almost exclusively of meat (chicken, goat, hog, hoss, bovin, beo, dog, cat, rat, and man-meat whenever they could get it).” Do these allegories reflect your own personal philosophy? Is EBSHAM a vegan manifesto?

A: Vegan manifesto.  Me?  I’m not sure.  Maybe my mind wandered in that direction. 

Yes, lately I have been thinking about my diet.  I tend to believe that it is more animalistic to eat meat that . . . “animalistic” is not the word I want . . . I think that if we devolve to a more primitive state we might tend to eat more meat. 

Look carefully at the list as I wrote it, the order of the animals.  The list begins with animals that usually are eaten for food, then it goes beyond the usual, taking in dangerous beasts as well as vermin and those we consider pets.  Finally, it ends out of desperation with cannibalism. 

Vegan manifesto.  Me?  I’m not sure.  The mans in the novel are herbivores and they do inherit the earth, I guess.  I still eat meat, though not as much as I used to, and when I do, I think about the animal that gave its life for my meal.  Does that count?  At some point I am certain that I will give up eating meat entirely, though mostly for my health and not so much for any other reason.

Q: EBSHAM strikes me as a profoundly religious book, rocketing from a kind of biblical pantheism to a condemnation of the role of religion in justifying war and violence. This is a book with a mission, and I don’t want to oversimplify by calling it environmentalist, globalist, or humanist. Could you comment on what you’re hoping readers will be moved to consider by this book?

A: First of all, I'm hoping that my readers will enjoy the ride. The sugar in the medicine. The dancing and the  clapping at the prayer meeting.  In fact, I hope the message doesn't overwhelm. 

I want them to feel emotion as they're reading.  A connection with the characters.  I want them to read it the way children listen to a fairy tale. The awe, the magnificence, the magic--that's what I want them to be engaged by. 

Maybe they'll stop and think about what it means later on, but when they're reading I want them to be scared of the wolf, amused by the foolish decisions of the two little pigs who did not build their houses out of bricks, and nod their heads knowingly when the house of straw is blown away by a huff and a puff. 

We adults know what it means.  Haste makes waste.  Quick work is not the best work.  Hard work pays off in the end.  We've heard our parents tell us this before.  Just not in a story. 

And a story, first and foremost, must be a story. So here we have a boy who wants a pet. When he gets the pet, he wants to show him off. When he shows him off, the real owner shows up and just like that, the pet is gone.

Like those kids sitting on mats around their teacher, we nod our heads knowingly.  That's what happens when you show off. 

Of course, this pet is a man . . . That must mean something. Hmmmmm. 

We are adults. We know what it means. Be kind to your planet, mans.  Be kind to your animals, mans.  Be kind to each other, mans.  Learn from the oafs, mans, or you'll end up just as extinct as they are despite your sacred texts, ancient wisdom, good intentions, whatever. 

The earth is forgiving and resilient, but it can only take so much. We've been told this before. Just not in a story.

Ah heck, we've been told this many, many times before in a story.  It's my hope that this time we'll listen. Those Boston hippies back in the day made me quite the optimist.

Q: For lack of a better term, I’m calling EBSHAM an “epic fable,” which to me best describes your tone, the straightforward neo-biblical language and musical passages sung by “the bard” that mimic oral narratives. Did this approach come to you from the novel’s inception, or was it a conscious decision you made later? I’m curious about how difficult it was to sustain it without slipping into the everyday speech of, say, All or Nothing.

A: Yes, it's a fable, and hopefully people will take it as an important one.

From its very inception, as you put it, the novel was that way.  I wanted it to sound the way it came to me in the swamp. It's a very simple message, really.  A very simple story. 

I think the problem these days is that many important messages and concepts are written in language that is so complex as to be misunderstood or deliberately misinterpreted. 

In Richard Attenborough's epic film, Gandhi, there is a scene after the violence of Muslim/Hindu riot, when a guilt-ridden Hindu comes to the mahatma, falls to his knees, and fervently pleads something like, "O,  Great soul, help me.  I'm going to hell.  I've killed a child!"

And Gandhi responds in a gentle voice something like, "There is a way out of hell.  Go into the streets where there are many children whose parents have been killed in this violence.  Find a boy who is the age of the one you killed.  Take him into your home and raise him as your own."

When the kneeling Hindu murderer nods his agreement and begins to rise, Gandhi stops him with a stern admonishment. "But, it must be a Muslim child!  And you must raise him as a Muslim!"

There is power in simplicity. If we lived by those simple words, there would be no more war. Go back and look at the "Ten Commandments." Simple words. People understood them.  People knew what they had to do to be good; people knew what they had to do to be bad. 

Compare the Commandments to the many chapters devoted to the hundreds of laws and corollaries and addenda to the laws of Moses in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  Their number and complexity make our tax code look like a nursery rhyme. 

Now compare them to the simple parables of Jesus.  I'm not preaching. I'm just saying.

Like I said before, I knew immediately how the book would sound. Furthermore, I was prepared for this sound by my upbringing in the holiness church of my childhood.  I often joke that I'm bilingual as are most of us who grew up in the black church. I speak English and King James Bible.

The real difficulty (wink, wink) was in keeping the everyday speech in All or Nothing and especially Jesus Boy from slipping into the King James. 

Bible stories, fairy tales, parables, fables, and this novel all contain important lessons told in simple language.  They follow the KISS principle.

Keep It Simple, Stupid!

Q: You write about sex, religion, gambling. You write short stories, poetry, novels. You write realism, erotica, and now—what to call EBSHAM? Speculative fiction? Do you ever worry that readers will be bewildered by your choices, or, perhaps, that editors and critics will not follow you on such a winding road?

A: Thus far, one may argue, that I have been writing so as not to be accused of self-caricature. 

At the same time I've been kicking myself for my inability or my reluctance to write sequels. 

During my erotica phase, after I had written my first short piece "Nadine's Husband" for Brown Sugar (Plume Penguin), I was called on to write a second and said I could not. I had exhausted all of the erotic content in my heart. I always write from the heart.

But my editor waved a good chunk of money at me, and suddenly I felt my erotic heart pumping in my chest. 

When I finished the story, my editor read it and said, "Where is Nadine?  Where is Pam?  These are not the same characters."

Groan. 

So I went back to the computer to accomplish a task that seemed to me boring and unpleasant, if not downright impossible.  To revisit the scene of the crime after the crime has been solved.  Where was the joy in that?  Where was the inspiration?  It seemed like too much work.  It seemed too much like work.  But money is money.

Beat on, my starving artist's heart.  O, the things we do for money.  

What I gave her next was met with the same complaint.  "Where is Nadine?  Where is Pam?"

This time I had an answer:

"This is Nadine's lover's wife.  She suspects that he is cheating with Nadine, and so she sleeps with her best male friend who has been in love with her since childhood.  The best friend she sleeps with is also the best friend of her husband, Nadine's lover.  In other words, the lover is sleeping with his best friend's wife.  In other, other words, the lover, the wife he is sleeping with, and the husband who is sleeping with Nadine were all best friends as children, get it?"

She got it even if you don't, and more importantly, my heart was pumping for these new characters and this fresh scenario. 

Nadine be damned.  "Nadine's Husband part 2" would proceed without you.

She did, however, show up in parts 3 and 4.  With all that money being waved around, one can only delay the inevitable for so long.

But it taught me something about myself and about my writing process in general.  For me, writing is effortless when I write from inspiration.  When I write for work, I write well, but it is, in fact, work.  And I don't necessarily find it pleasurable.

Work writing resides in the head, from which it I can be pulled when needed . . . Because of practice, because of my academic training perhaps, I am able to do this efficiently.

Inspired writing resides in the heart, out of which it copiously flows once the heart is tapped.

I think that with this story, I may have found a key that may tap my heart at will.  I'm not promising sequels, or anything like that, but I'm not ruling them out either.

There are quite a few more issues that can be explored in that magical realm above the firmament.

Amen! I must admit, I’m jealous. If there’s anything one can learn from Preston’s experience (should anyone remember this blog’s original mission!), it’s the importance of keeping yourself open to new passions and writing with them whenever possible. Thanks, Preston, for these thoughtful answers. May the bard continue singing.


A recipient of a State of Florida Individual Artist Fellowship in Fiction and winner of the Sonja H. Stone Prize in Literature, Preston L. Allen is the author of the short story collection Churchboys and Other Sinners (Carolina Wren Press 2003) and the novels All or Nothing (Akashic 2007) and Jesus Boy (Akashic 2010), which "O the Oprah Magazine" listed as one of "Ten More Titles to Read Now," Dennis Lehane called "a tender masterpiece," and about which the New York Times proclaimed, "no one does church sexy like Allen."

His short stories have appeared in numerous literary journals and have been anthologized in Miami Noir, Las Vegas Noir, Brown Sugar, Wanderlust, Making the Hook Up, and Here We Are: an Anthology of South Florida Writers.
His latest novel, Every Boy Should Have a Man (Akashic 2013), which has been called by Booklist "Imaginative, versatile, and daring," is a story about, well, er, um, boys who own mans as pets.
He holds a BA in English from the University of Florida and an MFA in creative writing from Florida International University. He teaches writing at Miami Dade College.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Cooking with Celia: Mango-Papaya-Tempeh Salad

One can hardly call this a "recipe"--it's more like an idea, since it's just a bunch of things Rafael and I tossed together today for lunch. But it was soooooooo delicious! Behold:
 
 
We have an excess of mangoes--my godmother's neighbor just lets them rot on the ground, and we have been trying to rescue as many as possible. So we cubed some. We also had a giant papaya we've been trying to eat, so we cubed that, too.
Next, we sautéed some tempeh in olive oil, seasoning it with salt, pepper, and garlic powder.
To continue with the tropical theme, we added some delish toasted coconut flavored almonds.
 

Croutons have been a real challenge lately--it's insane how difficult it is to get ready-made vegan croutons. Even when they don't have cheese or butter as a flavoring, they sneak in dairy somewhere in the ingredient list. We found these organic ones at Whole Foods.
 

What we are mad crazy about this summer is the line of vegan salad dressings from Follow Your Heart. We've only been able to try those few Whole Foods deigns to carry, but the Honey Mustard is insane. It's still vegan--the honey is really a mixture of brown rice syrup, chicory syrup, maple syrup, and natural flavors.
 
 
All this over some nice romaine. Yay summer.


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Cooking with Celia: Seitan Beer Stew


Had some wonderful seitan stew from Whole Foods a couple of weeks ago, and when I went back to get more (okay, okay, when I sent Rafael to get more . . . ), they didn't have it. I decided to make my own, which, of course, involves beer. Rule #1 of cooking with Celia: if it can be cooked in beer, it's better. I used a Coors nonalcoholic, which is what we have around in these sad times, but you can use whatever you like to drink. You could also sub 10 oz. of low-sodium veggie broth (reduce salt by half if regular), but then it wouldn't be "beer" stew, would it?





Serves: 4-6
Prep time: less than 15 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour

¼ cup canola oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup chopped onion
1 tsp. dry rosemary
1 tsp. dry thyme
1 tsp. cumin powder
1 tsp. dry oregano
1 tsp. salt (1/2 tsp. if using regular soy sauce)
½ tsp. - 1 tsp. black pepper
6 oz. sliced portobello mushrooms
½ each red, green, yellow, & orange bell peppers, slivered (or two whole peppers of different colors)
16 oz. ready-to-eat seitan
2 tbsp. low-sodium soy sauce
1 tbsp. maple syrup
1 bottle beer
2 tbsp. flour
  1. In a large pan, heat oil over medium heat. Sauté garlic until light brown. Add onions and spices. Sauté until translucent.  Add mushrooms, cover, and simmer for about 5 minutes until mushrooms are slightly cooked. The mushrooms will release some moisture when they are ready. 
  2. Add peppers and simmer, covered, another 5 minutes or so until the peppers are wilted. 
  3. Add seitan and simmer, covered, another 5 minutes. Add soy sauce, syrup, and beer. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Cover and simmer on low for 30 minutes. 
  4. In a small bowl, mix flour with about ½ cup of stew liquid with a fork. Keep adding liquid from the stew and mixing until you have a thick, lump-free mixture. Add to the stew and stir. Simmer for about another 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. The stew is ready when the liquid is the consistency of gravy. To speed up the process, simmer uncovered.
Serve over rice, with a nice green salad and, of course, more cold beer.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Further Thoughts on Women’s Empowerment

In my last post, I uploaded the text of a speech I gave last Friday at a women’s empowerment luncheon at St. Thomas University. I was limited to ten to fifteen minutes for speaking, however, and so there was much that I wish I could have included that I didn’t have the chance to say on the topic of balancing work and family life. I thought I’d include some of those details now.

The subject has been much on my mind of late. Though I don’t have any (human) children, I have had an avalanche of bad luck in the last couple of years with my pets, health crises and losses that have more than tugged at what little professional attention I have. Moreover, my father’s recent full retirement last year, which I mentioned at the end of my speech, has really thrown the whole family into disorder. His inability to adjust to life at home—scratch that: the confrontation with the fact that he had no life at home to retire to after a life of unchecked workaholism, has really opened my eyes to the necessity of building a balanced life before it is too late.

And then there is the return of Educating Rita to the syllabus. It’s not the first time I’ve started my English composition and literature class with this film, but it had been a while. I thought I’d bring it back this year, which is also the thirtieth anniversary of the film’s release (the film is based on the 1981 play of the same name by Willy Russell, who also wrote the screenplay). The story, somewhat of a retelling of Pygmalion, involves the quest of the main character, Rita, to go to an Open University program to study literature. She is a working-class young woman, and sees this chance at an education as a way of “finding herself” and living a more fulfilled life. It’s a wonderful way to start an introductory literature class, since one can only hope that students might be infected by Rita’s enthusiasm for books, or at least be better able to understand what a literary education might offer apart from three required credits.

It’s also just a damn fine movie, one of those that always yields a little something more the more times you watch it. I saw it for the first time in the theaters when it came out. I was only ten years old, and who knows what effect it might have had on me. Since then I’ve seen it countless times. At first I identified with Rita as a student, and now I identify with Frank, her tutor. This last time I saw it, however, I was really struck by the pressure Rita gets to have a baby. She’s married, and twenty-six, and so it’s expected. I’ve always read it as a common expectation given her class. None of her family sees any value in the kind of education Rita wants; their definition of happiness is work that pays enough to sustain a family, and the joy of “eight different kinds of beer” at the local pub.

This last time, however, I saw the situation with more clarity. It’s not so much that her family believes that once Rita has a baby she’ll realize the happiness to be found in that, and abandon the fruitless search for a kind of happiness they can’t understand. Rather, it’s a form of control. The relentless pressure to have a baby her family exerts is a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that having one will tie her down and so take up her time and energies that she will have no choice but to give up her studies. It’s a threat Rita understands, which is why she secretly continues taking birth control pills months after she’s told her husband, Denny, that she’s stopped.

Maybe my new, darker reading of this situation was colored by having coincidentally seen Life Happens, which I mentioned in my speech, more or less around the same time. As I said in the talk, it’s the story of two young women, one of whom has a baby. The entire conflict of the film is the struggle of the new mother, Kim, to keep some semblance of her former, pre-baby life intact while still being able to be a mother, even though she seems to be blessed in a variety of ways many new mothers are not. For one thing, the baby is unusually quiet, well-behaved, and healthy. She carries him around on one of those papoose contraptions, and he doesn’t so much as squirm. I’ve seen chihuahuas who put up more of a transportation challenge than this kid does. Furthermore, she has a job, and doesn’t seem to be in any sort of dire economic struggle. Finally, she lives with two roommates, who could potentially help her with her son.

The problem is that no one wants to help her. Her roommates are resentful of any time she asks that they take care of her son, and the message of the film is that Kim must learn to “take responsibility” for her child herself. Her boss is such a total witch that she pitches a fit when Kim arrives at work with her baby strapped to her back. She threatens to fire her if she ever does it again, and refuses to support her in her idea for a new business.

Kim’s story might have been Rita’s story had Rita caved in to the pressure to have a child. The message young women are getting is not that they have choice, but that they must choose, which is not quite the same. An ultimatum is not a choice, and the message of a film such as Life Happens is that if you “choose” to be a mother, every other choice is off the table: dating, friends, work—whoosh! Gone.

It’s a severe punishment, to say the least. I had another relevant experience around the same time, during the first week of classes. I was already about fifteen minutes into class when a woman walked in with two children, a girl about seven and a boy about four. She did not ask if she could bring them with her—she just sat down in the back of the class with them. I was a little miffed at the lack of courtesy, but I regularly allow my students to bring their children to class as long as they ask first and the children behave, and so I let it go. These kids were louder than any I had allowed before, however. You could hear them all throughout my lecture, talking to each other as they colored some pictures they had brought.

One never realizes how much one talks about sex until one is in front of a couple of kids. I was introducing the concept of cultural studies to my students, and I found myself embroiled in a discussion of Twilight. I wanted to make the point that although it isn’t “great literature,” it is nevertheless a text that reveals a lot about us from a cultural studies perspective, especially about the sexuality of teenagers. Every time I would have said “Edward and Bella having sex,” I substituted “Edward and Bella making whoopee.” Other times I have had children in my class, I’ve warned the adult that I won’t censor myself on their account, and that has been part of the agreement. This time, however, there was no such previous agreement, and damned if the little girl wasn’t paying attention, which had also never happened before. I was trying to get my students to understand the concept of the canon, and when I asked whom they thought was the greatest writer who ever lived (hoping they’d say Shakespeare, which would lead to a discussion of Dead [white, male] Poets), the little girl shot her hand up and yelled “Me!”

I never saw that woman again, or her kids. By the next class meeting the class had been canceled due to low enrollment (alas, if only the kids had registered . . .). I admit I breathed a sigh of relief even while bemoaning the loss of $2K. She’d been late, she’d made a huge breach in classroom protocol without so much as an apology, and she’d spent the entire class with one ear on me and another on those kids. What kind of a student could she possibly be? Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t enjoy flunking students or being demanding. I had foreseen a semester-long struggle with a fraught woman and a pair of rowdy kids in the back of the class I wouldn’t have the heart to throw out.

I am deeply ashamed now of my selfish reaction.

Who was that poor woman? She seemed older—I wouldn’t be surprised if those had been her grandchildren instead of her children, which means there are two fraught and beleaguered women in this story. Or maybe she was just one of those women who bought into the idea of having children late in life, when she’s “established,” so that it will be “easier” to take care of them.

What a crock of shit.

The truth is she, or her daughter, had no place for those children. The public schools were out for a “teacher workday,” and so these kids had no place to be. Whose responsibility were they? Let’s first look at this question from our current point of view. They are the mother’s, no? She should have arranged for appropriate childcare. If she couldn’t, then she should have stayed home and taken care of them, instead of burdening us with them, impinging on our rights as child-free people to live freely and quietly. And, if she could neither arrange for adequate childcare nor staying home, then maybe she shouldn’t have had them in the first place.

One of the great ironies of the widespread use of effective birth control and the legalization of abortion is that it has made the “choice” to have a child seem downright ornery. Though these developments may have somewhat freed women from the unfair double standard and allowed them to have sexual lives outside of marriage without the threat of unwanted pregnancy, they have burdened those women who “choose” to have children with an unusual notion of responsibility. You’ve made your crib, now lie in it, we seem to think.

Well, if it takes a village to raise a child, then the whole village should be responsible for him or her as well. Why do schools let out hours before offices and factories and other workplaces do, while we bemoan the fact that children aren’t learning enough and need to spend more time in school? Why must workplaces have ramps and elevators and special parking spaces for the disabled, but not so much as a small room with a nanny for the mothers who work there? The other day on Facebook someone was circulating a story about companies who are now including “nap rooms” for their sleep-deprived employees. This is yet another effort to squeeze out the last drop of a worker’s lifeblood on the job, something that’s already anti-family, anti-woman, but also a slap in the face. Now you can nap at work, but your baby can’t.

Another stupid irony. If mothers could have their children cared for safely, preferably somewhere close enough to check in on them when they wanted, they’d be the most productive workers in the world. There should be babies in boardrooms, in offices, and, yes, in classrooms. Looking back on that first day of class, how bad was it having those kids there? My students actually strained to listen to me. Hell, that’s never happened before! I’ve lectured through furniture being moved on the floor above, through construction outside the window, through the sound of a movie being played next door. I’ve had my students distracted by their laptops, their phones, and each other. I’ve had grown students I’ve had to silence for happily chatting in the back of the classroom as if they were in third grade. Maybe if they’d been taught to behave in public with adults, instead of constantly being sequestered with other children, they’d have known better by the time they got to college.

We all need to take responsibility for the care and raising of children. We all need to adjust our behaviors to suit them, to include them, as much as possible, in our world. To allow anyone who wants to the freedom to have a child without getting the leper treatment. Yet another irony is how much lip service we pay to the wonders of children. Ask anyone about children and gold stars will shoot out of their mouths. They’re our future, our hope, blah, blah, blah. But when it comes to the crying, the squirming, the running around, the endless questions—you know, the hard part—well, then, that’s the mother’s job.

Maybe mom wants other jobs, too, and we have to free her up, not by making her “choose” one way or another, but by supporting her and sharing some of the burdens of childcare. If anyone should start the ball rolling, it should be women. To go back to Life Happens, it’s horrible that Kim’s boss, the one who threatens to fire her for bringing her baby to work, is a woman. We need to support one another, as women, for all that women can and choose to do, not divide into castes like some horrible nightmare out of a Margaret Atwood novel.

To return to myself, I should have been more supportive of that poor woman who had to drag those kids along to her first day of class, instead of rolling my eyes and thinking only about myself and my hardship, which amounted to projecting my voice a little more and making a few clever substitutions in my language. In fact, looking back, some of my best students have been mothers. Young women who for one reason or another had children while in college, and, far from having that cripple them, were thriving. They knew, better than the slew of Hello-Kitty-iPhone-cover toting princesses who spend more time on their hair than on their papers, what it takes to succeed. They organized their time and knew what was important. They got it done.

But at what cost?

After that first day of class, the woman with the kids told the little girl to show the teacher what she had done. She came up to me and handed me her coloring, a jumble of blue and red I couldn’t really make out. “It’s beautiful,” I said, “A+!” She left the classroom skipping.
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