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."


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.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

On Women's Empowerment

It's been a long time since I've posted on this blog, and I thought I'd take this opportunity to try to reinvigorate it. Below is the text of a speech I gave last Friday at a women's empowerment luncheon hosted by the Student Government Association at St. Thomas University. I was asked to speak on the subject of balancing work and family, and it brought on some serious soul-searching.

I would like to begin by thanking Ashley Perez & Laura Safstrom and all the members of the SGA for asking me to be here today. I must admit I’m surprised to have been asked—although anyone who has been my student knows that I am a self-described feminist and I care deeply about women’s issues, I don’t see myself as someone who has managed to balance work and family life in a successful way. How can I speak to you on this topic?

At 40, I suppose I now have the experience and credibility to be called a “successful woman.” I have been teaching for two decades, and in my classes I always try to confront women’s issues as much as possible, even if that means creating hostility in a generation that by and large sees itself as having gone beyond the gender struggles that defined the 1970’s and 80’s, when I grew up. I have a long list of publications—some of which could be described as feminist—that make me seem like a successful writer. As many of you know, I have a successful marriage to an equal partner who also would call himself a feminist if he were here, instead at home taking care of our sick dog. Moreover, I have achieved all of these achievements as a first-generation immigrant Latina, a feat in and of itself.

The truth, however, as the great philosopher Obi-Wan Kenobi put it, depends greatly on your point of view. From a less optimistic viewpoint, the successes I have just enumerated are a product of creative presentation, the kind one often does on résumés. If someone had told me, when I was a college student, that at 40 I’d be working part-time and relying on my husband’s salary for survival, I’d have died of mortification. The plan was different. My goal was to marry, yes, but always to be economically independent. That demanded a stable, economically viable career, but I also wanted one that would give me the time to pursue writing, and that is how I came up with teaching. In other words, I wanted it all: a successful career, personal fulfillment, and a rich family life.

That was the ideal, but the reality was that I made a series of choices that prioritized family and emotional life over career development. I use the word choice deliberately, because it is descriptive of the brand of feminism that became the legacy of my generation, women who reached adulthood in the late 80s and early 90s. Though the idea of choice feminismbasically, the notion that women should be free to choose whatever lifestyle they wish, whether that means staying at home and being a mother, pursuing a career, or some combination thereof, without being told which choice is “best” by a prescriptive social agendahas been in circulation for some time. It is a carryover from the discourse of abortion, which began to use the term “pro-choice” to avoid the use of the more negative “pro-abortion.” Yet, it was not until 2005, in Linda Hirshman’s American Prospect article, “Homeward Bound,” that the term “choice feminism” became a commonplace of feminist lingo. Ironically, in that article, Hirshman bemoans the choices women were making at the time, women who had reached the pinnacles of education and privilege only to quit working as soon as they became mothers. According to Hirshman, women were making terrible mistakes, abandoning the hard-won rights of earlier feminists in their retreat to the home. These were the same women who, two years earlier, had been dubbed the vanguard of the “opt-out revolution,” the term used by Lisa Belkin in her New York Times article of the same name to describe this phenomenon. While Belkin ended her article on a positive note, suggesting that women would transform the workplace with their point of view into a less demanding structure that would eventually allow both men and women to lead more balanced lives between work and family, Hirshman sounded a note of alarmwomen were going backwards, abandoning the public sphere and losing the political and economic clout that had enabled choice feminism in the first place.

Hirshman urged women to remember what Betty Friedan called the feminine mystique, the syndrome she explains in the seminal 1963 work that explored the limitations of an exclusively domestic life for women. While crediting the feminist movement for having opened the doors of the workplace to women, Hirshman condemned it for quitting before it successfully redesigned family life. Women weren’t quitting the workplace because they were freely “choosing” the domestic sphere, but rather because they were too exhausted by the now-proverbial second shift. The egalitarian home, where both men and women shared the responsibilities of keeping house and raising children equally, had failed to happen, and in validating the choice to stay at home, the philosophy of choice feminism had preempted the discussion over whether the unequal division of labor was fair or not.

To address this situation, Hirshman offered 3 very concise recommendations: “Prepare yourself to qualify for good work, treat work seriously, and don't put yourself in a position of unequal resources when you marry.”

What this meant was, first of all, that women should stop fooling around with liberal arts curriculums that only led to low-paying, limited opportunities in academic and artistic fields. Instead, women should use their college experience to prepare for work. She wrote, “Feminist organizations should produce each year a survey of the most common job opportunities for people with college degrees, along with the average lifetime earnings from each job category and the characteristics such jobs require. . . . The survey would ask young women to select what they are best suited for and give guidance on the appropriate course of study.”

Second, once ready to pursue work, women should stop prioritizing fulfillment or meaningful social service in favor of jobs that make money. She wrote, “Money is the marker of success in a market economy; it usually accompanies power, and it enables the bearer to wield power, including within the family.”

This leads to her third point, family. Here, she was also very specific, recommending that a woman should marry not just someone who has an egalitarian view of gender, but ideally a much younger or older man. Why? A much younger man, or perhaps an artistic type, will not have a competing work agenda. If it comes to choosing one career to put on the chopping block for the sake of home and family, a woman in a superior economic positionthat is, married to a younger man who has not yet established himself as much as she has or an artistic type who doesn’t have economic supremacy over herwill get to keep her career while the man gives up his. Conversely, a well-established, older man will have enough money to pay for help, maids and nannies who can free the woman to continue working. The worst bet is an equal partner: “If you both are going through the elite-job hazing rituals simultaneously while having children, someone is going to have to give,” she wrote. Once done finding the ideal partner, she finally recommended having only one child, to ease the burden of child-rearing without missing out entirely.

Practical advice, to be sure, but no way to live, if you ask me. Except for the single-child policy, I broke all her rules, relentlessly pursuing a career in the dire liberal arts, despite at one point having been a well-rounded student who I’m sure could have succeeded in a more lucrative field. The scant four years that separate my husband and I meant, nevertheless, that when I met him he was at the end of his studies while I was only at the beginning of mine, and so he got his degree and his job before I did, making the development of my own career at first economically secondary and then eventually simply economically irrelevant. Though we never got around to having that first child, much less a second, we did have one, then two, then three, and eventually four elderly parents whose care demands that we stay in Miami, where my choices, so to speak, have been limited to either part-time work or switching careers altogether.

What was I to have done instead? Joined the ranks of the millions, both men and women, who make good money but hate their jobs? Passed on the rare opportunity of sharing my life with someone who loves me, understands me, and shares my interests and values because he posed too much of a threat in the competitive job market?

Perhaps I didn’t have the necessary mettle to martyr myself to the feminist cause, to make inroads or at least toe the line for the women who followed. I prefer to think, however, that among the limited field of choices at my disposal, I made those choices that would make me happy not as a woman, but as a human being. I believe that if I had been faced with a wider field of choices, I would have chosen differently. Both Hirshman and Belkin were right on one note: the working world is not only at odds with family life, it is hostile to it. Where both of these writers were shortsighted is in assuming that only one of these spheres is in need of revision, when in reality it’s both.

Today I hear my women students say things like “I really want to be a doctor, but nursing is a better career for women,” or “I really wanted to be a plastic surgeon like my father, but he says nursing is a better career for a woman,” or “a woman should have the right to pursue her career in her twenties, but give it up in her thirties, because children need their mother.” They are already compromising, and who can blame them? The way we have come to think of work is exclusive of any other aspect of life. No sacrifice seems too great to offer at the altar of The Career. Relocate to Uzbekistan today and back to Wyoming tomorrow? Sure, no problem. Put in a 60-hour work week to impress your boss and get a promotion so you can work an extra 5 or 10 hours more? Sure, no problem. Drive for two hours every day or maybe even spend the work-week in a hotel in a different city and then drive home on the weekends? Sure, no problem.

This concept of success and dedication demands the turning over of your entire life, a proposition that should be unacceptable to both men and women. We bemoan the loss of community and family life, of spirituality, and even of our health in this society, and all these losses are directly attributable to a concept of work that demands a slavish dedication to ever-diminishing wages. It’s a trap. For every stay-at-home mom baking cupcakes and going mad trying to unleash her creativity by decoupaging the diaper pail, there is a leave-the-home dad putting in 60+ hours a week at work who barely knows his children and is beginning to wonder why he ever got married in the first place.

Conversely, we need to stop pretending that home and family are a separate planet where only women belong. The 2011 film Life Happens is a wonderful example of what we are doing to young women. The film opens on one fateful night where two women in their early twenties have a fight over the last condom in their apartment. Sure enough, in the next scene, one of themthe loserhas a baby. The rest of the film is about how the new mother, Kim, adjusts to life with a baby. Her relationship to her friend, the winner of the fateful condom who continues to live the life of a twentysomething party girl, is compromised, because no one wants to date a girl with a baby and so she can’t participate in the party scene anymore. She nearly gets fired one day when she can’t find anyone to take care of her son and takes him with her to work. Her boss, a middle-aged woman intent on appearing younger, hates children and threatens to fire her if she ever does it again. The father of the baby leaves her because, as a surfer, a baby doesn’t fit his lifestyle.

The film ends with the typical happy Hollywood resolutions, but in between it shows what happens to young women who dare to have children: they must give up their lives in exchange. No one wants to deal with babies, and so they become the sole responsibility of the mother. We don’t want babies in restaurants, even though between the big-screens and the drunken screaming, no one has been able to have a conversation in a restaurant since TGI Friday’s first opened in 1965. We don’t want babies at church or at the movies, because if they cry they might interrupt the ringing cell phones. And we certainly don’t want babies at work or in classrooms, because they might distract us from Facebook and Twitter. We just don’t seem to want babies anywhere, and no wonder: to have a baby is to exit the world, to become an outcast. You can hang out only with other mothers, and in designated spaces. This isn’t choice; it’s segregation.

The aphorism holds that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. One way to address this issue is with education. We need to reinvigorate women’s studies programs, to study women’s history, women’s literature, and even women’s biology. We need to teach a new generation of women why Woolf wanted a room of her own, why Nora leaves Torvald, and how it is that Minnie Wright wound up strangling her husband.

Had I not studied these women’s lives myself, I might not be able to understand what my parents are going through right now. My mother was a pioneer of the so-called mommy-track. She received an Ed. D. from the University of Havana and worked as an educator in Cuba until she left in 1969, at the age of 40. She had me late, at 43, and since my birth coincided with the move to the US, she gave up working to raise me. Try as I could to keep her employed, however, I was fully grown by the time she was just 63. She’s 83 now, and it’s been 20 years and counting since her most intellectually challenging task has been what to make my father for dinner. She still tears up when she talks about her work in Cuba. Meanwhile, my father has just retired, finally, at 80. He spends his days in bed. Just last week he cried in front of me for the first time. “I don’t know what to do with myself,” he said. He had been working since he was 14.

These are not women’s issues; these are human issues. What we need as women is no different from what we all need as human beings: balanced, integrated lives, where we have the opportunity to develop every aspect of ourselves and live complete lives. It is only then that we will feel truly empowered.
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