Speed bumps remind us to slow down

My office should be declared an archaeological dig site.

I have spent the better part of two hours doing nothing but excavating, occasionally — ok, frequently dusting off folders, books, questionable objects that have not been used or moved in over a year, despite the use of my office by people who were holding together the many loose ends I left when I walked away from campus last summer. Midway through the year I learned that my bookshelves were being used as the backdrop for faculty and student video profiles that were filmed in my office, which explains why there was a large white umbrella in taking up residence in here when I popped in last spring.

Finally, the over-eighteen-inch high pile of papers has been sorted through. Most of it is filling the newly emptied green, plastic, recyclables receptacle in our office suite — and most of it was packaging: envelopes, filler advertisements, plastic wrapping for journal issues, bubble wrap, and more envelopes. I heard forests cringing all around me, their cries cutting through the crooning tunes courtesy of my Carole King & James Taylor Pandora station.

What stayed: copies of research participant permissions that were not filed before I left; copies of grant reports and related materials; journal issues that I have not yet looked through and the ones that contain pieces I have authored or co-authored;

Among the very special finds was a 2009 calendar that features the paintings of life in small town Norway, Maine, all painted by the then-90+ year old Duncan E. Slade. I had spent a week in Maine with my in-laws the previous summer that had included a visit to Slade’s studio, where I first learned about underpaintings, and about the artist’s life, including his decision to pursue a career in teaching at the age of 51. The four of us — Slade, my in-laws, and I — spent the better part of an hour talking about these and a range of other topics, including the strange symbiosis that exists between Philadelphia and Maine. At some point, my in-laws must have gone back into town and had the artist sign the calendar for me, which they presented to me the following Christmas. Gems, all of them. So I let myself take a few minutes to look through the calendar that included this painting for October that speaks to me loudly any time of year.

And then, quite unexpectedly, a piece of notebook paper fell onto the wobbly table top below me. I recognized the handwriting immediately. The rounded letters written in black ball point stood out and coaxed their neighbors to bend slightly, too. Capital letters mixed with lower case throughout this note that was written by one of the secretaries in a different program, whom I had gotten to know when I first arrived at my university. She was a sharer of stories, a sister, a grandmother, ready with a warm embrace, an infectious smile and sweet voice that belied her wicked wit. Walking past and seeing her in the doorway was always a highlight, an excuse to exchange laughter, momentary and agenda-free respites from what can feel like intractable mania. The last time I saw her, the familiar sturdy gait with which she would amble slowly and deliberately through the school halls, had been stripped away in a manner that only life-stripping diseases can do. Her carefully coifed salt and pepper hair was replaced by a closely cropped head of small curls. Thick glasses were a permanent fixture on her face, and they allowed me to recognize her when I attended the farewell luncheon being given in her honor last summer. She was surrounded by people and chatter and food and others who, like me, also hadn’t known the full extent of her illness.

In the letter, she references a conversation in which we discussed her grandson, about whom she was concerned and spoke of often. Hers is a letter of thanks, and she concludes her thoughts in this way:

“I (we, my [dept] coworkers) respect you so much. … Don’t let anything or anyone change you — It’s important to your students and to those with whom you interact. Respectfully, I—–“

Oh, but dear I… you changed me. With your beauty, your grace, your persistence, and caring. And I am ever thankful for that.

And now, back to the big dig.

the moving chronicles, part 2: home disrepair

I moved back home — and for the past eighteen years, Philadelphia really has been home — a little more than 12 weeks ago. With me came a small percentage of my book collection, boxes of data (artifacts, drawings, CDs, DVDs, transcripts that have been hand coded, and more), and an inordinate amount of clothing and accessories. Apparently, despite hours, days, and weeks of purging, what appears to me to be an excessive amount of items still exists. And thus the purging continues, transformed now into paring and making decisions driven not by sentimentality — aw, remember when so-and-so who I haven’t talked to in years gave me this? — but instead by an adherence to practicality and minimalism: does it fit (in this house, on my person, within this newly cultivated sense of being?) and if not, out it goes. Brutal, yes. Necessary, oh yes.

In the 3 month period since journeying home, I have also been traveling or otherwise away from home for a little over half of that time. While this schedule certainly fulfills the wanderlust inclinations with which I began this sabbatical adventure, Purging and Decluttering have sat and waited patiently for me to return my attention them. “We thought we were making some progress,” they imply with longing as I walk into my bedroom and see the still-unpacked green suitcase. “Don’t forget about us,” they implore; “If you ignore us, it’ll only get worse,” they threaten.

In the midst of this indoor dust settling and unsettling, the outside of our house has begun to whine in the only ways it knows how: leaky windows, a rusted through gutter seam, and paint that bubbles and peels down the front of the house like crocodile tears. More than a decade of little things has grown into a laundry list of Todos — that reminds me: clean laundry area.

Today the painters have come to resolve at least one of these issues. And I type these thoughts on my laptop in my living room, I am unable to enjoy any repose that may come with lounging on a sofa as unyielding tensions has settled into my shoulders in response to the scraping, Scraping, SCRAPING of paint just outside. The hairs on my neck are at attention, unaware as to how exactly to react as the cacophonous rhythm of metal against stucco is infused with intermittent comments made by the three men working on this relatively small job, that do little to assuage an already-nervous homeowner’s nerves:

  • “We’re gonna have a problem with that.”
  • “Just use a crowbar and hammer.”
  • “I have no idea — just see what you can do with that.”

To provide a small amount of context, allow me to describe this house which is called a trinity. According to the Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual, there are only a relative handful  in a few neighborhoods in Philadelphia and we live in section of town that is bestowed with the less than useful designation of being included in the historic register. Built in the 1870s, this is one of twelve trinities in this block of homes and I had to explain this a few times to various people on the phone who wanted to know which of the exterior walls I wanted to painted or which windows I needed replaced. There is only one exterior wall and no, we don’t have an outdoor water supply. A trinity, in brief, is a home with three floors above ground that are built in as one room stacked on top of one another, all connected by a spiral staircase in one corner of the house. In most, the basement is where the kitchen is located. These elements — multiple floors, spiral stairs, working fireplace — were romantic to the kids who bought this place eleven years ago. The adults who inhabit the structure now are wondering where that youthful enthusiasm and fearless went…!

The comedy of the situation is begging to be realized, but at the moment I am near-paralyzed as ladders, dropcloths, hoses, and sandpaper consume the entirety of the narrow walkway space between our house and the brick wall that separates us from the courtyard and parking area of the houses across from us. We have become the people blocking the walkway, another designation I’d rather live without.

“Are you gonna be here all day?” Mike the painter asked me earlier today without the usual rise in voice that accompanies a question and more akin to an instruction a teacher gives her class. I nodded, but he already knew that I was going nowhere. The clouds that make up the overcast skies seem to be standing still, as if to taunt while taking in the humorous scene unfolding below: gal on sabbatical held hostage inside the very home she is trying to rejuvenate, while it torments her with noises that she must sit through in order for the disrepair to lift. The paint color? I think I just agreed to a muted blue. Paralysis.

Oh daytime TV, you may be my only solace. Thank goodness for Ugly Betty repeats…

a sunday

“Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”

George Eliot’s words are the most resplendent celebration of autumn I have come across — of someone truly in love, a commitment, a bond between soul mates.

Yesterday, a Sunday in autumn, was worthy of such a quote:

– a steaming mug of blackberry sage tea sweetened with honey early in the morning
– morning radio with talk of this and that made another round of autumn “spring-cleaning” almost joyous (necessary chore before the next delicious bit)
– by mid-morning, my ipad and i had taken up residence on two sided sofa in a local coffee shop and spent two cups of coffee slowly taking in a few more chapters of open city. the arrangement of the words demand the reader attend to the relationship between them, to the spaces in between that are not defined, and to the many moments we might dismiss or overlook that are patiently sculpted with description and memory…
– a quick stop in the supermarket to pick up a treat for later
– a 3 mile walk under mostly baby blue skies, atmosphere laughing with the wind, people with unwittingly smiles on their faces, walking west on a street that i sometimes forget to remember. i never noticed that church before and when did the gas station become an apartment building?
– tennis on the new courts built as part of a large sports complex expansion at my alma mater with a fellow relic from said alma mater
– 3 mile walk home. didn’t we almost buy that carriage house? dodged a bullet — whew! how much redder can that garage door be, not quite blood red, which is always more maroon than i’m prepared for, but candy apple tempered with a hint of burnt sienna — RED! yes, they are bringing that play to philly, although i’m not sure i’d be able to watch anyone else play rothko; molina was stellar.
– tacos for dinner that were the height of perfection, followed by a mug (ok, 2) of decaf chai and a small slice of apple pie (hello autumn!)
– a few more chapters of “open city”
– sweet slumber on a cool fall night


a haircut is more than a hair cut.
more than hundreds or thousands of hairs cut.
it’s letting go of more-than-i-care-to-remember all-nighters to meet journal deadlines;
removing from my immediate memory nervousness and anxieties, frustrations and uncertainties (well, some of them anyway);
shaking off once-thought-inexcusable slights and misdirected injustices,
hours of line-by-line edits of students’ dissertation proposals and chapters (only to have them start “fresh” thereby rendering your time, effectively, a waste! … but you learned something: to say no more often and to notice the warning signs of wayward students earlier);
it is the sloughing off of the tough skin, built up to bounce back more resilient following rejections, negative feedback, cricket-like silence following conference presentations (and sometimes the presentations to your immediate colleagues, whose looks of confusion may never quite go away);
it is the stripping away of layers tension that has been shellacked onto each muscle as the gym and the outdoors become your friend again — and a series of massages doesn’t hurt, either.

no, a haircut is more than just a few hairs cut.
a haircut is shedding of the loveliest sort.

and now we begin to grow again — fresh, hopeful, with skin so tender it hurts.

giving quinoa a chance

at the suggestion of my friend, a, i gave quinoa one last shot — b/c i had all but given up on this wonder grain. so i tried the quinoa salad recipe she suggested and made following changes:

  • a lovely pecorino called re nero, recommended to me by the guy behind the counter at claudio’s in the italian market (b/c a cow’s milk cheese like gouda and i don’t get along well — although i do love the flavor of a good gouda)
  • pistachios instead of walnuts (b/c my dining companion is not a fan of the latter)
  • and i added in some roasted pumpkin seeds to add a bit of the slightly bitter depth that walnuts add.
  • rice wine vinegar instead of sherry vinegar (b/c that’s what i had at home and b/c i’m trying to purge my existing items before buying new stuff)

i love that what starts out as just a bunch of ingredients can turn into something. more precisely, something edible, nourishing, enjoyable even. perhaps not entirely unlike nascent scribblings and unformed nuggets of ideas blossoming and being shaped into phrases, paragraphs, and sometimes — if we’re patient and just a little bit lucky — coherent thought that can do some good in the world.

and below is what my version of the finished product looked like as compared with theirs — i promise to start using a real camera so that the loveliness of my sabbatical doings aren’t all captured with the filmic residue of the awful blackberry camera.

the verdict: it was damn good. thanks, a. you have turned me around on quinoa – almost. perhaps i’ve done a 120, not quite a 180. a key difference here was that quinoa was not the star ingredient. it had to play nice with the others. and i didn’t mind all the chopping — it was the waiting for everything to cool to room temperature that drove me just the slightest bit crazy. for someone who doesn’t usually follow recipes this was also a good lesson in paying attention and learning to incorporate multiple preparation techniques into one dish. life lessons seem to be cropping up just about everywhere these days… or have they always been around and i’m only now starting to pay attention (again)? i suspect the answer is, quite simply, yes.

the moving chronicles, part 1

as i finished up the last of my packing/cleaning/packing/cleaning/moving epic marathon this weekend, the possibility of this post kept me going. so, without further ado, here’s a snapshot into my otherwise-housekeepingly challenged brain:

if my apartment was a military mission, it would be: desert dust storm
if my apartment was a color, it would be: dusty rose
if my apartment was a browning sonnet, it would be titled: how do i dust thee?
if my apartment was a famous quote, it would be: i dust, therefore i am (barely)
if my apartment was a line from a shakespearean play, it would be: out, damn spot!
if my apartment was a sporting event, it would be: the dust bowl
if my apartment was an emotion, it would be: all choked up
if my apartment was a restaurant, it would be: the sneezecake factory
if my apartment was onomatopoetically penned, it would read: achoo!
if my apartment was a fictitious character out of children’s pseudo-religious lore, it would be: the dust bunny

if i am ever so unlucky as to have to move again — which i know will be in a year when i come back to my apartment — may i remember to hermetically seal everything and wear a face mask, dammit.

the moving chronicles, part 2 to soon follow… subtitle: learning to live together again, featuring my partner of nearly 20 years: philly.

more freezer surprise

here was the challenge that faced me today, when i returned home after a 7 mile speed walk to spend a rainy afternoon reading in one of my favorite cafes in the city, followed by a very brief book talk by john mcwhorter, who was peddling his new book about the wonder and joy of language (i’ve had my share of consternation and points of agreement with mr. mcwhorter over the years — always from afar — so it was interesting to listen to him wax philosophic about the plurality of language, all 6000+ of them, and underscore the relatively minuscule lifespan of the written word as compared with vast and various oral traditions that have kept languages alive for millenia):

  • 1/2 bag of frozen peas
  • 2 naked quorn cutlets
  • a box of frozen winter squash that may have been in my freezer since before i moved in, but i was determined to make use of it!

instantly i thought of the 1/4 bag of rice penne that i had in the cupboard and went to town making a one dish wonder — i know, it looks like wet pea noodles in the pic above. but after simmering, poaching (the cutlets), seasoning, and adding in the remaining jarred pesto hanging out in my refrigerator door, i actually had something that was creamy w/o the addition of dairy, hearty w/o the addition of weigh-me-down starches, and protein-tastic!  i finished the whole thing off with some finely chopped cilantro i had left over from the other night, a squeeze of lime, a handful of pistachio ‘nut meats’ (they are really called that), and a pinch of kosher salt for good measure.

although my bb camera phone truly is the worst, the fruits of my hunger-induced labor may still come across in this blurry pic.  so before this turns into another incarnation of my short-lived attempt at a foodish blog, i redirect this latest foray into purging back toward the nugget of an idea i introduced above, and that is the privileged role of writing in the world. much like my recent approach to making do with what’s there to accomplish the goal of preparing a meal for myself, i think of the vast array of communicative resources human beings draw on to make themselves understood in the world, to others both known and unknown. and how mis-communication can have dire consequences. this non-sensical, meandering line of thought is still tethered to the goings-on across the uk — my mind still filled with the images pouring out of various channels including bloggers holed up in their apartments, frightened and shocked tourists, reporters who continue to share the story as it unfolds even as their cameras are stripped out of their hands and their heads are bloodied, and ordinary residents anxious and eager to return to the business of the day. im purposefully not linking to the sites to which these descriptions refer because in part, what is the point? a simple search will yield these sources and much too many more. so rather than signal a hackneyed phrase and suggest that these last few days and nights are merely lemons out of which a sweet-tart beverage can be made, i am instead curious about what’s next. is the image of the tinderbox the persistent one, the correct one? are we, as a global society, so fragile that we implode and cause our own destruction? but perhaps that’s the problem: that we don’t see the world as a “we” but rather as a collection of haphazardly thrown together “theys” with whom we have little in common. we could go on like this, i suppose. but i reckon if chefs ruled the world, we’d have greater fusion and less division.

utopian? sure. fine. i accept my scarlet U. but whereas an increasing number of people, cooks and chefs chief among them, are seeking out ways to bring flavors and ideas and techniques together, there continues to exist tribal — that is to say, isolationist, separatist, segregationist — mentalities that resist the natural and organic blending that results when distinct elements come together. in my pea-and-winter-squash pasta medley, each ingredient’s character is present and alive. the herbs and spices serve to augment the unique characteristics while still allowing the elements to function as a single dish. i think we worry so much about “losing culture” and assimilation (as a result of a stance of openness toward other cultures, practices, and realities) that we inadvertently promote the very provincial and at times horrifically hateful thinking that fuels events like the unthinkable shooting in norway a few weeks ago. clinging to the familiar, regardless of consequence, is a kind of loyalty that will destroy more than it restores.

my lesson today was simple: go ahead and put the winter squash together with the pasta and a squeeze of lime. it wasn’t bad. in fact, it was even kind of good.

purging continues — or the mystery-ingredient game!

purging isn’t just for the paper mountains and outdated clothing purchases — i have finally come to realize that the freezer and cupboards must be freed of their contents, too.  well, at least the freezer. so, this weekend, with most of my immediate todos taken care of, i tackled the bag of frozen okra, petite peas, and package of puff pastry that has been taunting me for longer than i care to recall. i hemmed, and hawed, and fretted, and furrowed my brow, and just as i was ready to give up and make the walk to the corner bodega for some grub, inspiration struck (it also helped that my dinner companion was not having any bodega runs — there would be no food if not from the fruits of my mash-up labor!) — nothing new here. i often find that if i stare at isolated ingredients and food items long enough, something will come of it. (it’s the same approach i use in my very rudimentary brand of jewelry making — more appropriately called: stringing beads.)

the result was a crushed tomato-based, okra, mushroom and pea pot pie, complete with puff pastry crust. as a side, i had made a chopped salad that i continued to eat into the next day, made of: jicama, carrots, red bell peppper, and one black plum. flavoring came from the juice of one lime, salt pepper, a bunch of finely chopped cilantro, and a dash of white balsamic vinegar.

if this is what clean-your-refrigerator cooking tastes like, then sign me up! because i do declare: ours was a tasty meal, full of textures and alive with the taste of summer in every bite. and since no summer evening would be complete without watermelon, the super fruit (goji berries be damned), this ‘new addition’ was allowed in. even my beverage made good use of freezer finds: 1/4 bag of frozen strawberries, a few chunks of freshly cut watermelon, and 1/2 cup of the 2.99 chardonnay im still working my way through. put everything in a blender with a bit of sweetener of choice (splenda for me that evening) and voila! frozen berry sangria the color of nailpolish that my cousin would use to paint my toenails when we were kids.

still left: more frozen berries (no problem there!), frozen winter squash, frozen green beans. any and all ideas welcome!

purging and cleansing

my sister — yes, the recently married one — said to me the other day, as we were doing some window shopping in the big apple, in response to my exclamation that i was in the midst of a closet purge: “you’re always purging! when are you *not* getting rid of stuff?” her question gave me pause. was i always getting rid of stuff? and if so, why on earth was there still so much always around? im not a hoarder — of things of any kind — with one tiny, possible, seemingly unavoidable exception: paper.

PAPER!!!! (exclaimed as a silent scream — with the same energy as elaine’s pill-induced ‘streetcar’ moment — as i sit in this philadelphia cafe, and pump both my fists to the sky, or in this case, exposed beam ceiling.)

is it just a hazard of the job? i try to go paperless, even downloading the occasional ebook and hardly ever printing out an article to read, but the main culprit remains: revisions. REVISIONS!!!! i can get so far in the writing process with just fingers on keyboard and with the use of the very handy reviewing features on the various word-processing platforms i work my way through. but at some point — and there is always a point — i just have to print out the damn thing and scribble, doodle, and generally make a mess all over it using a panoply of colored pens. there are arrows, and stars to remind me where the changes should be inserted; underlines, strikethroughs, circles and more arrows.

this would be all fine and good if, when i went to clean and organize my apartment in preparation for the aforementioned subletter to move in for the year, i did not find not one, not 2, but more a few boxes worth of papers that were just multiple versions of various articles, published well over a few years ago, and replete with scribbles, circles, arrows, galore! but as i started reading through the jottings, non-sensical to anyone but me, i could recall things that i had read that brought me to a new idea; a conversation that inspired new questions or brought me to new texts. i let myself have the afternoon to sit with these writing memories, and i kept a few choice reflective artifacts. and the rest went out with the paper recycling.

but it wasn’t just my apartment i have been purging and cleansing. my email accounts, too, have become a sort of wasteland for all manner of annoying, frustrating, at times toxic messages. and while email remains a source of great joy — in the form of missives, news, and photos from family and dear friends — i have been making good use of email filters and the delete and unsubscribe buttons. it’s slow going, but i feel better, lighter already. my next big decision is whether or not to cut my hair, which is what i usually do at the end of a school year or after a key moment in life. i’d say this counts as such a moment, and yet i’ve gotten attached to the waves on my head. i may have to find other forms of lightness — a superficial antidote. of sorts, to the heaviness that calvino describes here:

“Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don’t mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification.”
– Italo Calvino (1993, p. 7)

for the past twenty-plus years, chopping off my hair has provided this Perseus-like flight “into a different space.” in other news, i had a fantastic ice cream sundae last week. who knew fluffernutter could be made into a fantastical yogurt flavor?! it was, and it was damn good. i would have a picture of it to show you, but i inhaled it too quickly. not to worry because it’s summer, and there will be more pix (and ice cream!) to come.