The Golden Toga Flap: Pride parade advocates

[Note to audience: According to Wikipedia, citizens of ancient Rome used to wave their toga flaps to express approval for public performances. In the style of the Golden Globes, the Golden Raspberries, the Golden Goggles, and other alchemical plaudits, the Golden Toga Flap will be a regular feature on IWtSLtY that affirms people working to improve the world. Anyone is eligible: A-list actors, small children, teachers in rural Illinois, frat guys behind me in line at Grocery Outlet. I’m not writing these blurbs for any sort of commission; I just want to spread the word about great people doing lovely things. If you have nominations for the Golden Toga Flap, please feel free to leave them in the comments or send me a private message.]

Today I went to my first pride parade.

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As a fairly new ally, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t have any rainbow-themed clothing, but I did have a purple shirt, which my hazy memory told me would be a good choice. A quick Google search confirmed this, and off I went.

The first part of the parade went about as I had surmised. There was a group of Boy Scouts, and a motorcycle squad, and a delegation from PFLAG that included one woman holding a sign proclaiming, “Proud Mormon mom.” There were groups from major corporations, several local support groups, and quite a few churches. Everyone was in colorful tights and shirts and tutus, handing out beads and stickers — standard parade behavior, by all accounts.

Then there were some groups that took me aback: a large delegation of Goths, and a dozen nude bicyclists, and a couple of floats representing the local community of BDSM enthusiasts. As these groups hadn’t really been present in my experience of this city so far, I had some fairly strong reactions to their sudden appearance. Reactions like “There are small children here” and “How is this related to gay pride?”

But then I started thinking about those reactions. What did a bank or a restaurant or an airline have to do with gay pride? Couldn’t sexuality affect every part of a person’s life, from employment to clothing choice to entertainment? If I had faced a legacy of prejudice and persecution for something as important to me as my sexuality, wouldn’t it be fantastic to see such a diverse group of entities publicly standing up for me and my community? And if I was concerned about preserving children’s best interests, why hadn’t I been concerned about them seeing the float from Controversial Corporation X and possibly associating the company with fun music and free candy?

The free condoms,

The free condoms, on the other hand, might have been slightly harder for parents to explain. Embrace the teachable moments, my friends.

By the time the last group rolled through, I had a very different picture of the pride parade movement. Sure, it started as pushback against the majority idea that a couple meant one man and one woman. Sure, communicating and normalizing broader definitions of relationships is still a super-important initiative, as is protecting the safety and legal rights of the people in those relationships.

But beyond these enormous objectives, I think there’s a bigger principle at work in pride parades. The people on those floats, painting their faces and putting on corsets and donning wigs, are human beings. The logical next step here would be to say something like, “They worry about bills and calories and global warming too — they’re just like us!” But is it really fair to justify someone’s existence by assuming that they conform to my ideas about social norms? I don’t think so. Maybe that drag queen in the sequined bustier works as a high-powered executive in a big-name firm; maybe not. Maybe the male stripper gyrating to “Wrecking Ball” in the back of that pickup truck has two kids he loves dearly; maybe not. Either way, it shouldn’t affect my respect for the human being in question.

So way to go, pride parade advocates, for giving human beings the chance to appear publicly in roles that are supremely important to them, whatever those roles may be. We know that these people are more than those roles, but we appreciate the chance to learn more about the wide rainbow of people with whom we share this beautiful planet.

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Photo credits: “Love” sign from PublicDomainPictures and candy from LoboStudioHamburg on Pixabay.

Dear graduates: You’ve got this.

Today’s post is all about unemployment.

Wooo!

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1932: Stand in line for hours to get a hot meal.       2014: Stand in line for hours to see a singer. Progress? Let’s say yes.

June is the time for many happy occasions, including weddings, Fathers’ Day, Flag Day, and Juneteenth. It’s also the time for many graduations, upon which many college graduates realize that Real Life has indeed hit. There’s no hiding behind tests and goodbyes anymore, folks. It’s time to stand and deliver.

When I graduated from college one year ago, I decided that I would stay around my tiny college town for a few more months before I started grad school in another city. Rent would be low, food would be cheap, and work — I was certain — would be pretty easy to pick up.

At this point, I should give you a basic summary of my skills.

  1. Deep knowledge of literature
  2. Deep knowledge of classical music
  3. Basic knowledge of Anglo-Saxon swearwords
  4. Solid experience with customer service
  5. Some knowledge of pre-Etruscan theatre

Clearly I was destined for greatness. And by greatness, I mean mid-level escort work, specializing in stressed academics.

“Heyyy there, big guy. Wanna debate Lacan’s and Saussure’s views of the unconscious? Or are you more of a New Historicist kind of man?”

I looked everywhere. I went door to door handing out résumés. I scoured job listings and made a lot of cold calls. After several weeks of this, I was forced to face Cold, Hard Post-Graduation Fact of Life #1: If you’re only going to be in town for a few months, very few people are going to hire you. You might be the greatest cashier in the world (to be clear, I wasn’t), but nobody in their right mind is going to put in the time to hire and train you in June, knowing that they’ll have to go through the whole process again in September.

And so my focus slid from “copy editor” to “wine tasting hostess” to “bookshop clerk” to “barista” to “pizza maker” to “ice cream scooper” and beyond. I was having nightmares about running out of money and being homeless for the rest of my life and watching from the sidelines as my college friends gallivanted off to success in their careers as doctors and lawyers and teachers. I was allotting $15 a week for food, never driving anywhere, and keeping the power off as much as possible. In the middle of this, my father sent me a quote from Robin Sloan’s book Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore that resonated keenly with me. The narrator, struggling to find a job, describes his search process:

“I kept at it with the help-wanted ads. My standards were sliding swiftly. At first I had insisted I would only work at a company with a mission I believed in. Then I thought maybe it would be fine as long as I was learning something new. After that I decided it just couldn’t be evil. Now I was carefully delineating my personal definition of evil.”

 

Finally, in early July, as I was researching egg donation only half-jokingly, I got a job.

Naturally, it was unpaid. Despite that small detail, it allayed my anxiety a bit. It was in a good place (a local social services agency), with good people (including my landlady, an old family friend, and my ex-boyfriend’s uncle). I was learning things (like typo3 and some basic graphic design), and it would fill the gap in my résumé. And in the middle of that, I heard back from one of my cold calls: A lady on the outskirts of town needed help cleaning her house once a week.

And clad in the shimmering samite of my bachelor’s degree, I went off to clean her house. Because when you’re young and desperate and someone offers you a job, you take it, no matter how humbling it is.

Yes, even this job.

Yes, even this job.

I was lucky — I had some savings, and local connections, and good health insurance through my parents, and concrete plans for my future that were already in motion. I never reached the point of majorly serious financial trouble. But even if I live to be a hundred, I will never forget the helplessness and anxiety of having no income source in sight. It’s a feeling that has kept me on my toes through one year of grad school and given me so much more empathy for the people who live with unemployment for months or even years.

To those of you who have just graduated and are feeling the crunch of the job market, I leave you with this advice: Keep fighting.  Keep learning. Don’t be afraid to start low. Just throw yourself wholeheartedly and selflessly into every application, and eventually someone will want to harness your passion. Finally, if all else fails, remember this quote from Tina Fey’s amazing book, Bossypants, describing a time when her mother was babysitting two very young Greek children.

“After a couple of hours, seven-year-old Christo was beside himself. He had never been babysat before. […] Pulling his golden curls nervously, he looked like the night manager of a miniature diner who had just had a party of six dine and dash. He ranted to his baby sister in Greek, ‘Πως καταντήσαμε, vreh βρε Maρia!’ This sent my mother running into the dining room laughing hysterically. I chased her. What? What did he say? Roughly translated it was ‘Oh! My Maria! What is to become of us?’

His overdramatic ridiculousness tickled my mom in such a specific way that she was doubled over in the dining room, hoping the kids wouldn’t see that she was laughing so hard at them she peed a little. A phenomenon I now understand on all levels.

They were going to be fine, but they couldn’t possibly believe it.”

—————

Photo credits: Sculpture from PublicDomainPictures, Soho shop from AaronPictures, and vegetable girl from PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay.

Book Chatter: Airhead

amc

We’re usually all about the serious adult things here on IWtSLtY.

It’s true. Let’s review some of the serious adult topics we’ve covered so far.

Ketiraka the Warrior Queen, Destroyer of Krill, is a grown-up thing.

Hitler and sex? Definitely a mature topic.

So today, to break up this blog’s usual gravitas, we’re going to talk about models and brain-swapping and OMG I am surrounded by hot guys and they all love me OMG OMG OMG what do I do they’re sooooo hot.

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NSFW.

Yes, I am talking about YA fiction, where literally anything is possible. I love that, by the way. I love that YA fiction centers on these people who are teetering on the rift between childhood dreams and adult resources, childhood helplessness and adult responsibilities. They’re at an age where they can shape their futures in any way they deem best — and yet they’re fighting against an increasing number of forces that are trying to do the shaping themselves. They’re struggling to be true to their ideals while fighting poverty, addiction, peer pressure, parents’ expectations, cultural expectations, broken systems, abuse, and a world that doesn’t take them seriously.

And sometimes zombies and werewolves. Okay.

If we view the paranormal elements as objectifications of teens' real enemies, we might be able to salvage an academic argument here.

If we view the paranormal elements as teens’ coping mechanisms for their real enemies, we might be able to salvage an academic argument here.

In Meg Cabot’s Airhead, the premise seems straightforward enough: There’s a normal girl, Emerson Watts, who likes her best guy friend, who doesn’t seem to notice her. Her little sister, Frida, is obsessed with a teenage pop star and model, Nikki Howard. When Frida insists on going to see Nikki perform live one afternoon, Emerson gets roped into chaperone duty. In a shocking twist (or perhaps not so shocking to those of us who read the book jacket), a freak incident kills Nikki and crushes Emerson. Nikki’s corporate sponsors, not wanting to lose Nikki’s multi-million–dollar body, convince Emerson’s parents to sign over Emerson’s functional brain, which is then transplanted into Nikki’s body.

With me so far? We’ve got a normal girl’s brain in a supermodel’s body, which is controlled by a company doing all sorts of dodgy things, including slapping a strict secrecy clause on all parties involved, so nobody can know that the real Nikki is dead and the real Emerson is still alive.

Or is she? Is someone’s life centered in their brain, or in their body? Were Emerson’s parents right to make that decision? Is Emerson less of a feminist now that she spends her days promoting fashion and following someone else’s plan for her life? Only a few chapters in, I had to set the book down and drink a slow cup of tea while processing it all. “Dear Ms. Cabot,” I imagined myself writing, “this was supposed to be a feel-good easy read about a teenage girl discovering herself amidst luxury surroundings. I didn’t mean to get entangled in all sorts of ethical debates about personhood and autonomy and identity and the true nature of feminism. Seriously, ma’am, cut out the critical thinking requirement.”

If you are perhaps more open than me to the idea of having your world expanded, then Airhead and its sequels, Being Nikki and Runaway, will assist you in just that. If you have a teenage girl in your house who hasn’t spent so much time pondering these questions, consider giving her these books. In any case, Meg Cabot will take your  worst expectations for YA fiction and turn them on their heads, dealing out a surprisingly meaty tale. Well done, Ms. Cabot. With Airhead, you’ve held up a mirror and forced us to examine our ideas about airheadedness, and heaven only knows we all need knocking down a little sometimes.

 

Photo credit: Hot men by WikiImages and zombie from harry22 on Pixabay; other image attributions found in their home posts.

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Postscript: I couldn’t resist posting this image result for “vampire”. What the heck, Pixabay?

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“Ve vill control all your planes. Yes. This is good plan.”

 

Counter Action: Black bean–corn chowder

Goodbye, white balance. I'll call you if I need you.

Goodbye, white balance. I’ll call you if I need you.

Do you ever have days where it feels like 4 a.m. all day?

Maybe it’s because you have actually gotten up at 4 that day. Maybe you ran out of bread and cereal and pancake mix and had to make do with a mushy banana for breakfast. Maybe you checked your library account and discovered that you had three books a week overdue. Maybe you glanced at the New York Times Bestseller list and found that the book at the top — the one everybody is raving about, even that crusty old critic in Chicago — has a setting, characters, and premise very similar to the book you’re currently writing, and now if you try to publish or promote your book in any way, everyone will think you copied.

This has never happened to me. Well, except for that one time.

"What do you mean, the Molokai leper colony isn't fresh material anymore?"

“What do you mean, the Molokai leper colony isn’t fresh material anymore?”

On days like these, I find soup extraordinarily comforting. It demands to be eaten slowly and contemplatively, with an attention that isn’t often due to food. And when the soup is as good as this one, it’s well worth paying attention.  The cayenne and canned chilis give it an up-front kick, with the curry and cumin lingering underneath for a deeper flavor, and the dairy products rounding it out into a rich, filling soup. It’s a great one for these lazy summer evenings as well as chilly winter evenings, if you happen to be of the Southern Hemisphere persuasion.

And if you’ve just faced a grave disappointment of the early rising/library fine/literary anger persuasion, this soup will nurse you through the grief. It’s multifunctional like that.

Black bean–corn chowder

A combination of the black bean chowder from Time-Life Books’ Vegetables and the Pioneer Woman’s black bean chowder with yogurt–cilantro relish

Ingredients:

Soup:

  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 4-oz. chopped green chilis
  • 1 T. chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp. cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. curry powder
  • 1/4 tsp. cayenne
  • 4 c. chicken broth
  • 1–1-1/2 c. dry black beans, soaked overnight
  • 1 c. corn kernels
  • 2 T. butter
  • 3 c. whole milk (embrace it, friends)
  • 1 c. shredded cheddar cheese
  • 2 T. flour
  • salt to taste

Relish:

  • 1/2 c. sour cream or plain yogurt
  • 1/2 cucumber, diced
  • small handful of cilantro, minced
  • pinch of salt

Directions:

  1. Heat olive oil in stock pot over medium heat. Add onion and garlic. Cook until tender.
  2. Add chilis and spices. Cook until fragrant.
  3. Add broth and raise heat to medium-high. When boiling, add beans, cover, and simmer until beans are tender.
  4. Add corn, butter, and milk.
  5. Mix cheese and flour together, add to soup, and stir until thickened. Salt to taste.
  6. Mix relish ingredients together. Serve on top of soup.

 

Photo credit: Unhappy child from Bonoz on Pixabay.

Book Chatter: Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar

emcik

There are probably many reasons why activities like paintball and laser tag are so popular. Here’s my two cents on the matter: We’ve grown up on stories of battles, either factual or fictional. We love to think that conflicts are characterized by camaraderie, adrenaline, and thrilling acts of heroism that will be rehashed countless times over meat and mead. Since most of us will never be in battle, we like to try to recreate what we think battles are like at their finest.

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Sometimes this reenactment is a tad more literal than using color-coded lasers.

The authors of Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar, of course, know a different side of war. Comprised of essays written by some of the world’s finest war correspondents, Mud Crabs illustrates the sober heart of war by showing how it alters or even rips away one of the core elements of humanity: food. It’s clear that the correspondents were given a very general directive — “Tell us a story from your experience that involves food” — and the collection of results is as beautiful as a stained glass window in its variety. One writer describes the patrician tastes of Kim Jong Il at a time when many North Koreans were eating grass. Another recounts how he gained access to the inner circles of the IRA through his drinking prowess. A third recalls the delicious, pillowy bread he and his wife loved to buy in Bethlehem every time they navigated bomb strikes to see their obstetrician there. Perhaps most soberingly, one of the essays was written by a journalist who died in the field before the book was published, a stark reminder that these men and women risk their lives every day to bring important stories to the public eye.

Meanwhile, this is important news.

Just not as important as these stories, apparently.

While many parts of this book were painful to read, I appreciated it for showing me a side of war I hadn’t considered before. Leader or rank-and-file, soldier or civilian, local or journalist, we all depend on food for survival, and this commonality is something that could bring us all together. With gritty, honest war stories like Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar among us, maybe there’s hope for that unity after all.

 

Photo credit: Battle reenactment by Stones on Pixabay.

The Golden Toga Flap: Incredible Edible Todmorden

In 2009, the English town of Todmorden decided to try something revolutionary.

They decided to produce more of their own food.

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A hundred years ago, this would have been a given, but now, finding local produce in a supermarket can be well nigh impossible. Even if something is marked “Produced in the USA”, the odds are good that it was trucked in from another state. With the global spotlight currently on fuel usage and how best to utilize our planet’s finite resources, the topic of food production — how it’s grown, processed, and transported — has never been more pertinent.

If you’re looking for an in-depth discussion of this subject, I highly recommend Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, in which she and her family explore the concept of being “locavores” by eating only local produce for a year. Throughout her narrative of the experiment, Kingsolver tackles a bunch of questions, including this big one: “Don’t we need factory farms if we’re going to feed all seven-plus billion people on the planet?”

avm

As always, this image links to the book’s listing at Better World Books. I’m not paid to do this. I just like them.

Is this post’s title a typo? Is this actually Book Chatter?

Ahem. Sorry. It’s a fantastic book, is all I’m saying. Todmorden, meanwhile, puts the Kingsolver family’s experiment into practice on a massive scale, both space- and time-wise. Since 2009, they’ve launched multiple “locavore” initiatives. The best-known project is the community gardens all over town that anyone can harvest from, but there’s also a beekeeping project and Every Egg Matters, which encourages home coops. Perhaps most impressively, the local schools have played a central role in this movement, installing gardens, an orchard, a chicken coop, and (in the near future) a fish farm to involve students in the production of the food they eat at lunch.

Who wants to be in charge on harvest day? (Not it.)

Who wants to be in charge on harvest day? (Not it.)

When my roommate showed the original Incredible Edible Todmorden film to her mother, the first reaction she got was, “So … they’re basically doing what everyone did fifty years ago.” This is true, but how much has changed since then? Based on any of the many stories about town leaders discouraging home gardens, I’d say quite a bit. Todmorden knows that urban gardening is a good way — perhaps even the best way — to get citizens thinking about where their food comes from, which is something many of us could do more often. Well done spreading the word and kickstarting Incredible Edible initiatives in other cities, Todmorden. We flap our togas in your honour and stand with you in your pursuit of mindful eating and sustainability.

Want to learn more? One of the leaders of Incredible Edible Todmorden gave a TED Talk found here, and you can find the movement’s site here.

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Photo credit: Tomatoes from ludo38 and fish from falco on Pixabay.

Book Chatter: A Company of Swans

acos

Today’s installment of Book Chatter centers on A Company of Swans, by Eva Ibbotson. It’s the story of Harriet Morton, a young lady growing up in pre–World War I Cambridge under the micromanaging thumbs of her hidebound father, penny-pinching aunt, and insect-obsessed suitor. When Harriet is offered a chance to join a ballet company on a tour of South America, she leaps at the chance to leave her dreary home — even if it’s only for a few months.

Ibbotson’s narrative abilities are at their peak with A Company of Swans, so much so that she can leave a primary tension unstated, and it still serves as a major driving force through the story. That tension, to name the elephant in the room, is this: Harriet has joined the ballet company very much against her guardians’ will, so when the tour ends and the company disbands, where will she go next? Her only option, as we understand it at the beginning, is to return to Cambridge and marry Mr. Entomology 1912.

Meet the in-laws.

Meet the in-laws.

As with all stories, there are some details that may incur criticism.

  1. The father and aunt, acting as the main villains, are fairly one-dimensional. There’s very little about them that makes me conflicted about their actions. They’re just there as the forces of chaos.
  2. The roles that Amazonian natives play in the story, and the language used to describe them, are about what you would expect from a British expat in 1912.
  3. (SPOILER ALERT) In the end, that driving tension is a non-issue. Harriet doesn’t really decide her own fate. She chooses for the wrong reasons, and then her choice is snatched from her anyway, and then someone else decides for her. If I dare be this extreme, it’s a bit like Twilight: All through the story, we’re wondering, “Will she choose to become a vampire? Will she? I mean, she keeps saying she will, and all the signs point to her making that choice, but really, will she? … oh, look at that, she did.”
  4. If you buy the British edition, the blurb on the back is pretty insipid, not at all indicative of the book’s depth and lyricism. I know this isn’t the author’s fault, but still.

So with these things in mind, it would be entirely appropriate to ask me, “What do you see in this book? Why is it one of your favorites?”

First of all, the biggest reason I love this book is the gorgeous writing. Besides the precise structural chops mentioned above, Ibbotson also has the rare gift of describing details in a luminous way that will tickle your brain and make you want to be right there with the characters, even if they’re just walking through town or eating a meager breakfast. So even if the story is flawed (and really, show me a story that isn’t), at least the narrative vehicle is spot-on. Frankly, if I had to choose between good writing and a good story, I’d choose the good writing any day.

But now let’s examine those flaws. Regarding objection #1, I suppose it’s not necessary to have complex villains all the time. Sometimes, especially when reading purely for leisure, it’s nice to have an antagonist that fans are united in hating.

This is a safe place. Let it all out.

This is a safe place. Let it all out.

As for objection #2, I urge readers to remember that a work of historical fiction is striving for historical accuracy, and very often, history is not as clean and moral and forward-thinking as we like to paint it sometimes. Every era has its prejudices and quirks, ours included, and Ibbotson’s modern portrayal of Edwardian Amazonia is deliberate enough to prompt some potentially interesting discussion on why she chose to give the native people these roles in the story. There’s also a minor plot point that could spark debate over whether imperialism can ever be a good thing.

Similarly, with objection #3, one could argue that A Company of Swans isn’t really a book about a girl who finally gets the courage to make her own choices. It’s not set up to be the next feminist touchstone. It’s a book about a girl who loves to love, and who has been seeking all her life for someone to love her back. And in this, I think it’s safe to say that Harriet is indeed a strong character.

But what do you think? Does every story need to display exemplary treatment of disadvantaged groups? Is there room in today’s society for older books, like Little House on the Prairie or Gone with the Wind, showcasing attitudes that were mainstream in their time but are now quite troubling?

 

Photo credits: Bug from Pixabay; Umbridge meme from WeKnowMemes.

Counter Action: Spicy cauliflower stew with spinach and feta

This week, I’ve been watching a lot of Jaguar commercials.

Okay, one Jaguar commercial. This one. The one with Tom Hiddleston.

I know. I’d feel ashamed, but let’s be honest … he’s so purty.

“Oh hey, you’re a fan of Richard II narrated over Elgar’s Nimrod? What a coincidence, so am I [starting today].”

At first, I thought that was my only reason for enjoying the commercial so much. But then I was putting together a lecture on blogging safety, and that took me deep into the psychology of trolling, and I realized that my appreciation went much deeper than a tailored suit.

"The suits ... the SUITSSSSS ..."

Let me clarify: I appreciate a tailored suit when there’s someone inside it.

See, here’s a breakdown of Mr. Hiddleston’s villain in this scene, balanced against a breakdown of trolls:

  • He’s witty. (Trolls generally aren’t.)
  • He’s polite. (Trolls, by definition, aren’t.)
  • He’s well-read. (If trolls are, they don’t show it.)
  • He’s well-dressed. (In fairness, trolls might be. They just don’t bring it up very often.)
  • His monologue starts with the premise that being an effective baddie means having certain characteristics. If this villain is the model, then it follows that a “proper” villain is never drunk, or high, or prone to episodes of psychotic rage. He’s always calm, logical, and discreet — a consummate gentleman. (Trolls definitely aren’t.)
  • Perhaps most significantly, I’m comfortable with this villain because I’m familiar with the actor as a public figure. I know he’s brought hot soup to a reporter, and lent his coat to another reporter, and traveled to Guinea with UNICEF, and never has anything negative to say, and is generally one of the sweetest public figures around. As I watch him play a villain, there’s a small voice that tells me, “This is just his day job. When he’s done delivering that nefarious leather satchel, he’ll go right back to living on a pound a day in sympathy with the world’s poor.”

(By the way, who’s up for forming a band called Nefarious Leather Satchel? Anyone?)

In short, the commercial plays right into my desire to believe that evil is always obvious, that I can always avoid it if I have a checklist of outward characteristics to go down. And as my research on trolling showed, I really can’t. Villains almost never fit into clearly labeled acid-free boxes.* They’re always going to surprise you, one way or another.

But on the upside, the inverse is also true: Good people can be found anywhere, with any manners and any education, dressed in any clothes, driving any car.

This has been your Sunshine Sonya update of the week, delivered to your news feed free of charge.

[cheesy greeting card caption here]

Our motto: “Reach for the sun — it’s only got five billion years left.”

Similar to an unlikely hero, this stew doesn’t look like much, but I promise you, it’s well worth the effort. It’s got potatoes for bulk, cauliflower for silkiness, and spinach to make your mother proud. There’s whole-grain mustard for a zesty crunch, and carrots for visual warmth, and feta to amp up the flavor. In short, it’s the perfect stew for a brisk autumn day or a rare rainy summer day. If you chopped the carrots very finely, pre-wilted the spinach, and used less liquid, would it work as a cold potato salad? It might. Try it and let me know.

hash iv

Spicy cauliflower stew with spinach and feta

Serves 4

Adapted slightly from a recipe in Time-Life Books’ Vegetables: Great Taste, Low Fat

Ingredients:

  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 3 T. minced fresh ginger
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3/4 lb. (about 4) small red potatoes, chopped
  • 1 medium cauliflower, chopped
  • 3 carrots, diced
  • 2 c. chicken broth
  • 1/2 c. crumbled feta
  • 5 tsp. stone-ground mustard (the grainy kind)
  • 6 c. spinach, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 c. plain yogurt
  • 2 T. flour

Directions:

  1. In large stockpot, heat oil over medium heat. Add garlic and ginger; cook until fragrant.
  2. Add potatoes, cauliflower, and carrots. Cook until lightly browned.
  3. Add mustard and broth. Raise stove temperature and simmer until veggies are tender.
  4. Stir in spinach and cheese. Cover pot to allow spinach to wilt.
  5. In separate bowl, combine yogurt and flour. Stir into vegetables. Serve with more feta.

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*This has been your archivist joke of the day. No need to thank me.

Photo credits: Suit and daisy from Pixabay.

Book Chatter: Gap Creek

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First, a bit of self-positioning: I’m a big Doctor Who fan, Dan Brown’s books can keep me reading all night long, and A Song of Ice and Fire is currently holding me in thrall. I love stories with an epic scope, where a battle can determine the future of a galaxy, where the fate of the human race is on one person’s shoulders, where wide swaths of history are made and unmade. I love these stories. I do. They’re especially great for perspective — when I feel myself getting a little too convinced of my own importance, it can be very useful to pick up one of these stories and realize, “Oh, right, I’m not making decisions for the universe. Thank goodness for that.”

Just as a side note, was anyone else bitterly disappointed when onesies and Snuggies went out of style? I was so sure they would be the precursors to the one-style-fits-all jumpsuits of the future.

But at other times, it’s nice to pick up a story about ordinary people — people like me, thinking about what they’ll make for supper and do next weekend, while being vaguely aware that they should also be paying attention to broader questions, like whether they enjoy their work and what they’ve done recently to help someone else. It can be so refreshing to read these people’s stories and realize that I don’t have to win the lottery, or be born a princess, or bodyswap with a model, to have a noteworthy life. Sometimes it’s just enough to live the life I have to the fullest extent.

Come to think of it, if having a small life means eating cookie dough and watching these people sweat in high heels, I'm okay with that.

And since prosaic life includes eating cookie dough and letting these people carry the burden of sweating in high heels by the light of a thousand camera flashes, I’m totally okay with that.

In Robert Morgan’s Gap Creek, ordinary people are not just characters in the story; they are the story. Julie Harmon, age seventeen, is said to “work like a man” — a necessary thing in turn-of-the-century Appalachia, especially after Julie’s father dies of tuberculosis. Soon enough, a handsome boy named Hank persuades her to marry him and move to a place on Gap Creek, where the couple will keep house for an old widower.

Maybe it's bigger on the inside? A new bride can dream.

Maybe it’s bigger on the inside? A new bride can dream.

The main plot is both richly detailed and familiar: Hank and Julie are trying to survive as subsistence farmers in the face of fire, flood, heartache, and deceit. But behind this straightforward narrative, there are deeper questions in motion. Julie is the hardest worker her family has ever seen — but what happens what that isn’t enough? When she sets her mind to a task and pours her soul into it and still fails, what can she fall back on? With questions like these echoing behind the story, Julie’s struggles to butcher a pig or dig for ginseng will suddenly seem less like quaint details and more like metaphors for our own workaholic times.

My reaction to the lard-rending scene: “… yeah, never complaining about my job again.”

Some readers report feeling overwhelmed or depressed by Hank and Julie’s sea of troubles, which raises an interesting question: When does a writer cross the line between tragedy and overkill? Personally, I don’t think Morgan goes too far in Gap Creek, for two reasons. First, his narrative rings true with other contemporary Appalachian accounts I’ve read. Second, I think exposure to hardship is the first step to empathy. Even if it’s the hardship being experienced by fictional people a hundred years ago, it’s still a good conscience-tuner.

But what do you think? If you’re read Gap Creek, did you think the constant hardships were too much? Have you ever read a story that went too far in creating tragedy?

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Photo credits: Appalachias, Saturnscape, modelcabin, and pig are all from Pixabay.