Thursday, May 20, 2021

Small Pleasures

On Tuesday I bumped into some issues of aging. I felt discouraged and trapped by the inevitably of getting older and sicker. I slept well, but woke up in much the same sad, hopeless mood. One of my first activities was reading Father Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation, which had the title, Choosing Love in a Time of Evil.  He quotes from Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning, on his experience in a Nazi concentration camp.  Frankl noted:

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision [emphasis mine], and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any person can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of them—mentally and spiritually. They may retain their human dignity even in a concentration camp. . . . It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful. . . .

I know Viktor Frankl's work well, yet it shook me up -- it reminded me that I, too, had choice. I did not need to surrender my humanity to my troubles.  

With that in mind, I went about my day, focusing on the famous glass half-full.  When depression tugged at me, I pushed it away. After dinner, I found myself shelling roasted, salted pistachios for dessert. Each nut required that I push the two dies of the shell apart and scope out the nut meats. I was chewing on my third or fourth nut when I realized that I was sublimely happy. My problems had not changed since the day before, but my perspective had opened up. If someone in a concentration camp could hold on to their humanity through troubles, then so might I. That's the theory -- but sitting in my kitchen cracking pistachios, I had some proof that I could do it. It wasn't an automatic thing. I had to make the choice. And I had to push away my unhappiness throughout the day. The work, however, allowed me to recognize the pleasure of eating some nuts. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Coronavirus: India Under the Hammer

The New York Times has run a special section devoted to the lives of those we've lost to Covid-19. Today, in the print edition, it was devoted to people in India who have died, including a young American who was living there. 

As has been true throughout the year, we have lost dynamic people whose talents were devoted to making the world safe and fun for all of us.  It brings the tragedy home.  

Several of my friends are closely connected to organizations in India that are responding to the crisis and here's their advice on organizations worthy of support. 

Nupur Chaudhury recommends these:

ARCH
This org is near and dear to my heart, and I continue to do service work in honor of Daxa Patel, who passed away recently. Working with her in rural health camps was my first job out of college. They work deep in the rural areas of Gujarat and Maharashtra, and were very involved in helping displaced families during the construction of the Narmada Dam. They continue to hold my heart as I continue to work to integrate service in my life. 
You’ll see that their website is bare bones. Don’t let that deter you from donating. 
Where to donate (USBased 501c3 to accept donations ): https://www.friendsofarch.org/
If you do donate through PayPal, feel free to include a note saying that you were “referred by Nupur Chaudhury” so that they know it’s a legitimate donation—they don’t have a ton of donors. 

Manav Sadna
I worked with this org in the slums of Ahmedabad, Gujarat. They work mostly with the dalit commuity, and work out of Gandhi’s old ashram.

Latha Poonamallee shared this:

If you are looking for a trustworthy grassroots organization to help rural India, I would strongly recommend Tarun Bharat Sangh in Rajasthan, India. 

I have been involved in this organization from 2001 and know them intimately. Their ground game is exemplary and they have the infrastructure to reach nooks and corners of their part of the country through their networked parallel governance organization. Their leadership is morally upstanding and you can be assured that your donations are being put to good use.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Coronavirus: A Year of Cooking with my Daughter

I love Eric Kim's piece on a year of cooking with his mother, which he called "a masterclass in Korean Home Cooking." No children would move home to learn cooking from me. Their father and stepfather did the cooking, while I happily and occasionally baked -- to great acclaim, I might add.  Paul Hollywood is my idol -- 'nuf said.

This pandemic forced me to confront this lacunae in my homemaking skills. My daughter Molly took over my food life in gentle steps, first of which was bringing me food in those days when my age group was in lockdown and we were all living in terror of the unknown. Given raw ingredients, could I make something? It was a tad grim at first. Gradually, the meat-and-potatoes recipes I'd learned at my mother's side all fell into place. Beef stew, spaghetti and meat sauce, meatloaf -- you see the pattern here.  I ventured into lentil soup and rice and sweet potatoes.  

Then we went on a vacation for two weeks and I got to cook at Molly's side. She was at the beginning of a cooking adventure.  While we were at Plum Island, meals featured the fresh produce and amazing ice cream and bread that were to be found.  Chocolate milk ice cream, fresh corn on the cob. The house we were renting was equipped with a grill, reputed to work once you got past the cranky starter. Molly insisted I work this thing -- I was ready to quit when the starter acted up, but she powered us through that. We made hamburgers and hot dogs and veggies on that grill and ate on the porch overlooking the ocean. We were satiated.  We were not afraid.

As we returned, the second wave took off, followed closely by the third wave.  We had to stay close to home.  Molly took up cooking with real seriousness.  She tried many recipes, investigated cookbooks, bought new spices.  She regularly shared what she was trying with me, by which I mean, we talked about it, as we rarely got to eat together.  We subscribe to the New York Times Cooking app, and discuss Sam Sifton's advice on a regular basis. She encouraged me to try certain recipes that she thought would be easy and satisfying.  Thanksgiving was a time for experimentation, as was Christmas.  We could only share in our small "pod," which put certain constraints on, for example, the number of pies we might bake.  The many satisfying discussions of stuffing were topped by a terrific meal.  Molly got me a Challenger bread pan for Christmas, which is one of the best presents I've ever received.  

As we come to the end of this year, I find that I am a very different cook.  Mainly this shows up in how comfortable I am in my kitchen.  My pots and pans are friends.  I can throw a meal together from what I have in the refrigerator.  I can steam, boil, bake, braise, sear, grill.  I chop with ease.  It doesn't always turn out well, and that usually happens when I get too freeform.  I'm much better off with a recipe.  But some things are so clear to me that whatever variations I try they work.  At the beginning of the pandemic, I could not make a decent pot of rice and now I can.  At the beginning of the pandemic, I rarely ate green leafy vegetables of my own volition.  Now cabbage, kale, collards and spinach are friends.  I even harvested dandelions from my garden and threw them into the pot of collards I was making.  I know how to freeze and unfreeze.  I can make a shopping list.  These are good things.  

The year of cooking with my daughter has been a master class in "try it, you'll like it."


Sunday, May 9, 2021

Happy Mother's Day!

I am in the process of packing up my research team's papers, which are set to go to the archive at Columbia University.  In the midst of the stacks of old transcripts and drafts of papers was a paper bag with things that belonged to my mom, Maggie Thompson.  At the bottom of the bag were a bunch of small pieces of paper.  I went through them very carefully, like a '49er shifting for gold.  Almost all were her to-do lists.  But one small piece rewarded my efforts: it was a joke that she'd gotten on the internet, printed out, cut off the parts of the page that weren't relevant, and then folded.  How it got into the bag I don't know.  I do know that the joke was so typical of my mother's sense of humor, I had a flash of her laugh, which was a delicious feeling.  

Here's the joke.

96 year old draws a bath.  She puts one foot in and pauses.  She yells to the other sisters, "Was I getting in or out of the bath?"

The 94 year old yells, "I don't know.  I'll come up and see."  She starts up the stairs and pauses.  "Was I going up the stairs or down?"

The 92 year old is sitting at the kitchen table having tea, listening to her sisters.  She shakes her head and says, "I sure hope I never get that forgetful."  She knocks on wood for good measure.  She then yells, "I'll come up and help both of you as soon as I see who's at the door."

Happy Mother's Day to All!