Individual Magic: Thinking of Food (and Plenty) at Christmas

These dishes set the tables of our past, and today they connect us to a culture of resourceful cooks who prepared year-round to feed their families. Many of these recipes were considered too mundane to merit writing down. Now they risk being forgotten.

From those traditions, the recipes grow from simple things you might make on a weeknight to more elaborate dishes I serve in our restaurant.

—–Vivian Howard, Deep Run Roots (“Don’t You Dare Skip This Introduction?”)

Almost three on Christmas afternoon, and the magic of the day has settled in, saturating. There is, as a writer of lyrics once said, a marshmallow world outside. Green Christmases are pretty common here, so the fluff of snow,—white, pristine snow that creates a glowing, freshened palette—is a holiday card-kind of treat.

And this morning, during the Gifting, Jim tore open the wrapping on a new appliance—a combination air fryer/convection oven/ toaster oven. We were all taken with it, and with its possibilities, and we halted what we were doing to drag it into the kitchen. Mark and I wrangled it onto the counter where appliances reside, removing two venerable specimens, which will go into the rapidly filling Goodwill box.

But Jim stood, staring out into the side yard through the big window.

“Look,” he whispered, and finally, plugs fussily plugged in, new oven situated just so, we did.

We saw something we’ve never seen here before: a fox hopping and snuffling in the snow. We gathered at the window; Mark and I pulled out our phones to click photos. The fox, surely sensing us there, seemed unconcerned.

It became clear she was wearing down a mole; the new snow now is full of tracks and splot marks where the little canine ran and leapt up and then landed full force in the snow. The mole was cagey; it burrowed and disappeared, and the fox looked up, perplexed.

Then it stuck its trim red snout into the snow; its fat tail wagged, and a tiny black creature surfaced, running, and disappeared again.

The fox leapt, and the chase continued.

It was focused and intense.

I didn’t watch to see the end of the hunt, but Mark says the mole finally, despite its courage and cunning, met its end.

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He posts a fox photo online, and someone comments that sighting a single fox is good luck. We’ll take that little bit of magic, that Christmas visitation, as an omen of good tidings at the end of a most distressing year.

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On the dining room table, where Jim is diligently working on lists—cataloging the new books he got for Christmas, creating pairings of superheroes that he might use in a short story here and there—the Christmas candle, lit first thing this morning (before the coffee started brewing, or the cinnamon buns went into the oven) burns steadfastly. That’s another harbinger, we believe, of good luck: a candle burnt, on Christmas, to its socket.

And wonderful smells emanate from the oven. This year, we are roasting a standing rib roast. I’ve only done this once before, so I have been frantically searching recipes. I could put the roast in the oven at 375 for an hour, I discover, then turn the oven off and let the meat sit in its waning heat for three hours. Then, I would turn the oven back on for another hour’s roasting.

This method sounds intriguing and the recipe-writer says it’s guaranteed to produce a succulently juicy roast…but: there can be no opening of the oven door once the process begins.

I think about side dishes, and I finally settle on the method outlined in my New Cookbook (itself a Christmas gift, once many years ago). I roast the meat low and slow. I boil some golden potatoes. When the meat reaches a certain temperature, I pour the potatoes into the roasting pan with a half cup of water, and I stir until they’re coated with juices. They start turning a beautiful golden brown almost as soon as I shove the roasting dish back into the oven.

Mark and Jim waft into the kitchen now and then like cartoon characters uplifted by aromas. All that remains is to throw salads together and to decide if we want garlic bread.

“Look at those potatoes,” Mark says, peering in the oven during one wafting.

And I think there’s a kind of magic, too, in the foods we eat on holidays.

And, really, there’s magic in the foods we eat in general.

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I’m thinking about this—about the magic and the specificity of food—because last Saturday, I declared it was a Scottish cooking day. I made a loaf of oatmeal bread (it was so good, or it had been so long since we had homemade bread, that we fell upon it with serrated knives when it was fresh from the oven. We ate big slabs with butter melting on them. We ate much of the loaf in fifteen minutes.)

I made a batch of Scottish shortbread for cookies; I rolled out half the dough and cut it into shapes and baked them up.

“Can we use the Christmas sprinkles to decorate them?” Jim asked, and I said sure. But the cookies went the way of the oatmeal bread. When I opened the plastic tub I’d put them in on Sunday night, there were two cookies left—a Santa and a Christmas tree, un-iced but delicious. I put them in a container and took them in my lunch the next day. On Christmas Eve, we rolled out the rest of the dough, and James and I cut out a new batch of cookies. They may or may not live to be frosted.

And, that Scottish cooking day, I made a batch of Chocolate Fudge Delight, my mother’s celebrated recipe. She found it, I think, in a magazine in the late fifties or early sixties (I have a copy of a letter she sent to my brother Dennis’s friend Jim’s mother; in that letter she enclosed a copy of the fudge recipe. That letter is dated 1962; she’d been making the fudge for a bit at that time, but I do remember, as a very young child, the excitement of that new find, that wonderful fudge that would become a staple into the next generation and beyond.)

The fudge recipe is not Scottish, but my mother certainly was, and so creating a batch of that fudge, for me, constitutes Scottish cooking.

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And I’m thinking about the magic and specificity of food because Mark got me copies of Vivian Howard’s two cookbooks, Deep Run Roots and This Will Make It Taste Good, for Christmas. Howard, who is talented, personable, and not afraid to be quirky, has two shows on PBS. Mark and I grew addicted to watching her; we cheered her successes and laughed at her foibles (she laughed at them, too) as if she were a beloved friend or a family member. We looked up her recipes online and tried things—tried combinations and ingredients—we’d never ever thought of using before.

When we exhausted every episode of the show, I felt unexpectedly bereft, as if Howard was one more person we couldn’t see in person because of this damned pandemic.

I was excited to get the books, and I stayed up late last night to finish my library book, which was really good, but which had a disappointing ending. Now, I thought, I can read me some Vivian, and after the morning’s Gifting, that’s exactly what I did.

Deep Run Roots has recipes for sure, but it’s also a story book. In it, Howard explains that she grew up in Deep Run, North Carolina, counting the years, then months, then days, until she could escape. She made good her plan; she went to boarding school as a teen; she took advantage of internships and courses that drew her away from her birthplace. She went away to college, and then she went to New York City to work.

She had no plan to become a chef, and she had no inclination to be a chef in the town where she grew up, but that’s what she did.

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Howard tells us that her New York City odyssey started in advertising and ended in the restaurant business. After burning out in the advertising business, she took a job as a server in a restaurant devoted to authentic southern food; she rose to line cook.

She didn’t think, though, that “southern food” meant HER kind of southern food, which she took for granted and kind of shunned. And then life, as it does, drew her back to her family and to her region. She and her husband started two restaurants; she had the opportunity to do a PBS program; she grew as a cook, and she and the restaurants and her book won awards.

Along the way, she grew to appreciate the foods of her region and the cooks from whom she grew up learning. Now, she uses the ingredients that are available to her in her corner of North Carolina; she studies the methods of the best cooks she knows, including her mother; and she puts her own unique spin on those things in her restaurants.

She rebelled against her culinary roots and then she embraced them, and in doing that, she created her own individual cuisine. That’s something that, it occurs to me, we all do on one level or another.

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It’s funny: I think the kind of cooking I grew up with is the default cuisine; I can, if I choose, explore to choose a fancier or a less elaborate ‘font.’ But I’ve seldom thought about the influences on the food I eat, and ate; I just accept it as the foundation and build on that.

So today I look up Scottish cooking; I find a post on matador.net that claims to showcase the best traditional dishes of Scotland. Mark reads over my shoulder as I scroll through.

We agree that we probably would NOT enjoy haggis, black pudding, or clootie dumplings. We agree that we would probably try kedgeree and porridge. And we both think we’d probably really like Cullen skink, fish supper, and cranachan.

I think I’d like bannocks and Scotch broth and Scotch pies, too.

I think about the foods my mother cooked when I was growing up, and I see the influence. We used a lot of oats; I have a recipe for oatmeal cookies tucked away that I think are probably very similar to oat cakes and that may have come from my grandmother, who died when my mom was only three.

My mother would often make things like boiled dinner, which was maybe Irish in origin, but followed Scottish cooking methods. We grew up loving Scottish shortbread. Our meals were often plain, always substantial, and seldom featured lots of spice or long-simmered sauces.

Of course, much of that came from my father’s preferences. Dad’s background was German and Irish; he did like cabbage and sauerkraut, which a quick look online associates with those two cuisines. But he grew up in an orphanage, and when he was finally allowed to return home—his father had remarried—his stepmother was a very good nurse, and a very bad cook.

“Her idea of fixing dinner,” my mother would tell us, appalled still after thirty and forty years, “was to send one of the kids to the corner store for white bread and cold cuts.”

My father liked things plain. He liked meat and potatoes. His preferences, of course, also shaped the family cuisine.

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As did the times. Depression kids, my parent grew up in a time when the government, an article in The Atlantic tells me, got involved in what people were eating. In 1929, when the impact of the Depression hit, Herbert Hoover was president, and he invoked the famed resilience of the American people, declining to set up support programs.

U.S. citizens, he believed, would figure it out. Using Yankee ingenuity, they’d weather the economic storm.

But then Roosevelt was elected president in a landslide, and then drought and disaster hit the farmlands, drying up food sources. Roosevelt created FERA—the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. The USDA then had a branch—the Home Economics branch—that was an all-woman department; they were charged with figuring ways for US housewives to feed their families using what foods were available.

FERA had five million pounds of dried beans to distribute, for example. A USDA spokesperson called Aunt Sammy went on the radio to tell Americans just how to cook those beans.

The government began telling people what and how to eat. The thirties were when, for instance, the five food groups became a commonly held concept. The idea of ‘scientific eating’ arose. Eating for pleasure was dismissed; the much less appetizing prospect of eating for health was introduced.

Ethnic food and the spices that made it appealing were on the government’s bad list. (So, I read with horror, was caffeine.)

On the government’s good list, the Atlantic article tells me, were things like prune pudding, canned-meat stew, veggies casseroles with lots of butter and cheese, Jello salads, and dishes made with canned creamed soup and canned tuna.

I see the influence of that on the foods I grew up with.

I see the influence of food trends that countered those methods—Julia Child was a big instigator—beginning in the 1960’s.

I see the influence of convenience embraced by our parents. Howard writes that her mother, who grew up on a farm and had to participate in creating almost all of her childhood food by hand, loved the wonders of buying ready-made foods at the supermarket. And my mother, who remembered her grim aunt decapitating chickens in their city backyard, was a grand advocate of frozen, ready-to-cook chicken.

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We are informed by the ethnicity of the places where we grew up—my hometown boasted many people of Italian descent and many people whose families had Polish roots. Wedding buffets, for instance, might feature both baked ziti and golumbki, and no one would think that odd at all. A little German snuck in with sliced beef sandwiches on kimmelweck rolls. It was a frugal Italian mama who came up with Buffalo-style chicken wings.

We are informed by the places we visit and the new places we live; even just fifty miles of separation can encourage whole new dishes and different styles of eating.

And there are, of course, the preferences we have, and the preferences of the people we eat with.

We, each of us, and each unit we eat with, develop our own cuisines.

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My mother never once fixed a prime rib dinner. Even when she and my father retired and their finances settled down and they became ‘comfortable,’ prime rib was not a dish they’d think to fix at home. It was, by reputation and habit, a cut of meat that was just too expensive.

For a long time, I absorbed and accepted that point of view, and then opportunity and adventure nudged me out of it.

We eat a lot of things now we didn’t grow up eating. But we celebrate a lot of things that were part of our culinary upbringing, too.

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Dinner is delicious. The potatoes roasted in the pan juices almost melt. Jim insists on demonstrating that the meat is fork tender. We eat crisp salads and we crack apart a loaf of cheesy garlic bread.

We have a cookie jar full of the kind of cookies Mark’s grandma always kept on hand for her grandchildren. We have a plastic tub full of Scottish shortbread. There’s a little bit of fudge left, and there are special cookies and savory mixes gifted to us by colleagues and neighbors.

It’s a heady, extravagant mix of new and old and beloved and experimental.

The food of Christmas is a little bit of the holiday magic.

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“This,” says Jim as he wanders by, on his way to the family room, “has been a GREAT Christmas.”

He is right: we are healthy; we are together; we have been blessed with all kinds of plenty even in the midst of a year ravaged by a pandemic. The early dark settles on the fresh snow, and I hope that the part of the magic that remains is a sense of how lucky—how blessed—we are, and the awareness that there are ways to share our blessings.

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https://matadornetwork.com/read/best-traditional-dishes-scotland/

https://www.executivethrillseeker.com/executiveblog/traditional-german-food-to-try-in-germany

https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/12/great-depression-eat/511355/

Chasing Chicken and Other Obvious Revelations

Mark sidled over with his iPad.

“Look at this,” he said.

It was one of those cooking videos. Six plump boneless chicken breasts went through transmogrifications at the snap of a well-manicured set of fingers. The unseen chef touched each piece of chicken; magically, slits appeared down their middles. The chicken bathed in flour, dipped in egg wash, and coated themselves in Panko bread crumbs. Then they went to rest on a shiny sheet pan.

Those magic fingers appeared again. This time, they inserted a slice of ham and a wedge of Swiss cheese into each slot; then the fingers went away and rushed back with a bechamel sauce in a little beaker.

And this was the best part. The fingers drew forth a Corningware pan full of unpeeled potatoes.

SNAP!

The potatoes were peeled and cubed and waiting to be of service. (“I want to be able to DO that,” said Mark.)

The fingers laid each chicken breast on the lovely bed of potatoes. When they were nestled, they poured the bechamel over all, and popped that richly laden pan in the oven.

SNAP!

The chicken breasts were done, browned and oozing with rich cheesy sauces. The potatoes were browned and crispy.

“Hey,” I said to Mark. “THAT looks wonderful.”

He sighed.

“I showed it to Jim,” he said. “And Jim said, ‘That would be great. IF we can ever buy CHICKEN again.’ ”

Mark wandered off, glumly, and I wondered if he was displacing his own sad frustration onto a quote from our son.

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The boyos are right: buying chicken in a plastic-free way is frustrating. Because, I’m sure, of the juiciness of the tender birds, retailers want to pack it in plastic. Most don’t even discuss it; there’s little chicken offered in the fresh meat counter. Instead, it’s prepackaged, shiny in its plastic, and stacked proudly in the refrigerated meat case.

And it’s frozen, too: I can buy bags of quiescently frozen boneless chicken breasts or thighs, usually at a pretty reasonable price. I wonder, though, about the conditions those hens lived in,–whether they had to have their beaks cut off to keep them from cannibalizing some of the thousands of other chicks crowded into their holding pen, the place where they ate and pooped and waited for butchering.

I tried to buy plastic-free chicken at a couple of meat shops; one couldn’t help me. The other was happy to wrap my bird in paper…but when I got home, I discovered that they had popped it into a plastic sack FIRST.

But clearly, I need to solve the chicken dilemma for the boyos, who are hankering for some chicken cordon bleu.

So I get online and search meat cutters in the area. Most of them proudly show gleaming cases filled with gleaming plastic packages. Several of them don’t mess with chicken at all.

And the prices on some of the sites make me choke a little, my Scottish bile stirring right up.

And then I think, “Wait a minute.”

I pull up the number of that market that wrapped first in plastic, then in paper. I explain my quest to be plastic-free, and the clerk to whom I talk says, “Of course! We usually wrap in plastic first to avoid the mess factor, but if you can deal with that, we can package your chicken in paper.”

We discuss minor logistics, and I sign off. Today, I’ll go buy boneless chicken breast, plastic-free…on my end, at least.

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Meanwhile, we use the last of the old plastic kitchen trash bags, and we switch to the special ones I ordered. (They are plastic, too, of a sort, but they’re made from organic materials—mostly corn, I am afraid—that biodegrade in landfills. If everything we put in them biodegrades, too, we won’t be contributing as much to toxic waste.)

Mark shakes one out and we groan in realization. They are about half the size of the traditional plastic bags…much too small for our kitchen trash can.

Later that day, the boyos do a shopping run and come home, proudly, with a new, smaller trash can.

Made of plastic.

But, okay. I will use that little trash can for ten years. Maybe more, even. I’ll reuse, reuse, reuse it.

I line the little thing with my green organic waste bag, gauzy as gossamer, and I pull shut the louvered pantry door.

I can live with this.

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My other frustration, in the week just past, was flour. Oh, not regular flour: all the wheat flour I could want, in every imaginable variety, comes packaged in paper. But oat flour, rice flour, amaranth flour…all the things I mix together to make up my AP flour substitute…all of THOSE are plastic wrapped. It always startles me when organic, intentional, environmentally-conscious products present themselves in plastic.

I email Bob’s Red Mill and express my frustration, and I get a swift reply. They are looking at the situation, the reply tells me. Many of the flours spoil if stored in paper for long spells. The company experimented with a better kind of plastic, a number 7 kind, but it’s not recyclable in most areas. Their research team is working on it, but most solutions they have found would significantly increase the price of the product.

I sigh. I appreciate the fast and courteous response. And I understand the constrictions of the business of food.

But I don’t want to buy my gluten free flours in plastic bags.

The bulk food store where I am hoping to get glass containers filled with flours hasn’t had a shipment yet: they don’t get shipments all that often, the manager told me.

I am out of my gluten-free AP substitute, and the tiny box I bought in the store is not only maddeningly pricey, it has a plastic liner.

I find a possible answer on Amazon, a paper-packaged five-pound bag of AP substitute mix, gluten free, that will arrive on my doorstep tomorrow. If we like this, I can order much larger quantities—a 25-pound sack, for instance.

I’ll think about that. (Storage?) But in the short term, we’ll see how this new mix tastes, and how it works in recipes.

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This morning I mixed up a batch of home-made dish detergent, and I baked a Bundt cake with the last of the sour cream. I have a little stash of T-shirt squares tucked into my towel drawer: what to use when a paper towel is needed. One of those did a great job of greasing the fluted innards of my Bundt pan, and then I rinsed it out and tossed it in the wash.

I mixed the cake ingredients together in the KitchenAid, while the dish soap cooled and the oven heated, and I poured the batter into the pan and set it in the oven to bake for an hour and twenty minutes. And in the meantime, I paid bills and answered emails, graded papers, and did dishes. The mail came, and I sorted it, sitting down to marvel at a wonderful card that came from a friend. It was a quiet, productive, but not hectic, kind of morning.

I’m having more of those lately. The plastic-fast contributes to this in a big way, I think.

I was naïve when I thought, at the beginning of Lent, “I’ll just give up single-use plastic.” There is much to explore in pursuing that kind of lifestyle. There are frustrations, often, and I get irritated with people who get irritated with me (“Lady, just take the plastic!”) But part of the message I’m getting here is this: Slow down.

My plastic consumption has drastically improved. There are still things to figure out; there are still, perhaps, some compromises to be made. I need to pick up the phone, write out the emails, pen letters to manufacturers. But a thoughtful, intentional life, I see now, is the eventual result.

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I am feeling up to tackling this week’s challenges:

Finding makeup in zero waste packing,

and

what to do about a mop.

Musing on Reusing: Wednesdays Without Plastic


There are lots of resources, and especially, there are lots of inspiring blogs, about living a plastic-free life. And on one blog I visited this week, I found a photo of the inside of the author’s refrigerator.

Those refrigerator innards were so pretty, they made me gasp. Piles of fresh, colorful produce—green and yellow squash and carrots and, I think, sweet potatoes,–tumbled, in a kind of organized way, on the bottom shelf. The other shelves held glass bottles and glass containers (I could see a big block of cheese under a glass dome, for instance). There was some crockery, mysteriously concealing its contents, on the shelves, too.

It was neat and pretty and completely plastic-free.

I open my own refrigerator, and it does not resemble that plastic-free wonder at all.

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At the deli this week, we bought stacks of sliced yellow and white American cheese and sliced mozzarella. We bought a towering pile of sliced ham, which was on sale. Although that deli/meat counter normally bags deli items in plastic, the clerk cheerfully wrapped all of my stuff in big, lumpy paper packages.

I brought the packages home and unwrapped them. I folded the paper, smoothing it into the leanest, least space-taking shapes I could manage, and put those in the non-food trash. Then I took a variety of plastic containers from the Tupperware shelf and packaged up the meat and cheese.

When I open my refrigerator, I see tidy stacks of mostly plastic containers.

This probably will not change very soon. Rather than putting my plastics in the recycling—one blogger wrote this week that recycling plastic delays, but does not deter, that plastic from winding up in a landfill,—I figure I might as well use them, over and over again.

When the plastic storage containers spring leaks or throw out cracks or just get too worn and food-stained to use again, I’ll be faced with a dilemma. I THINK what I will do is find other uses…maybe starting seeds in them or using them as bases for flowerpots outside. I will very, very reluctantly dispose of them in recycling bins.

It’s here, this plastic: I have to deal with it. And only when it’s beyond use will I replace it with glass or stiff cardboard or ceramic.

Likewise, the bread bags. I have a stash of them in the pantry cupboard. I debated taking them to the supermarket, where they collect and recycle plastic bags. But I need to do my research and see what happens to those plastic bags. Melted down, can they be morphed into more plastic bags? Are they spun into thread? Are some of them rejected, to wind up in a landfill?

While I find out, I make bread, so I don’t have to buy more in plastic packaging.

The bread machine I bought for five dollars at last year’s yard sale is my baking buddy. Two or three times a week, I put the ingredients for French bread in the pan, set it to the dough cycle, and let the little machine do its work. The process takes an hour and a half or so; then I decant the dough and put it on a greased pan and let it rise, again, until it’s doubled. In terms of my own work, the bread takes less time to make than it takes me to go to the supermarket.

Mark and Jim are fans of that bread, hot from the oven with butter, or dipped into a simmering pot of homemade spaghetti sauce. Jim mentioned, though, very politely, that the French bread made kind of skinny sandwiches. So yesterday I dug out a white bread recipe for the bread machine, and I ran, it, too, on the dough cycle. (We find, when we let the bread bake in the machine, we have to contend with the paddle hole in the middle, and the edges are crunchier than we like.) I made a one-batch test recipe and slid it into a greased pan, and baked that, too, when it was risen.

Jim circled and circled after the baked bread was tumbled out onto the old bamboo chopping board. He didn’t want to cut it too soon and squash the bread, but he was hungry, and the fresh, hot bread smelled so good. When it was finally cool enough to cut, he dug in, made a sandwich, and deemed it good.

When we bake our own bread, we don’t bring in any more plastic bread bags. But I use the old ones to keep that fresh-baked bread fresh.

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I have directions for making plarn—plastic yarn—saved on Pinterest. It’s an interesting process; I knitted up one bag with the result and it seems sturdy and usable. But I have a back-load of hand-craft projects to do: a quilt to piece, curtains to hem, cloth bags to make to store holiday decorations. I have to struggle with reality: will I actually sit down, make the plarn, which takes a while, and then knit it up into something wonderful? And while I am clearing the decks to do that, where will I store the burgeoning sack full of the blue and orange plastic sleeves the newspaper arrives in?

A first attempt at knitting with plarn…

Is there some other way I could use that plastic?

I ponder. The switch to a plastic-free lifestyle, I find, is not one made overnight.

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Shopping without plastic:

This week, I used the last little bit of the cover-up product that tones down the effect of the age spot on my cheek. I don’t want to hide it completely, I tell myself, but I don’t want that age spot to be the thing people focus on.

The old dispenser is completely and thoroughly plastic, and I wonder how I am going to replace my cosmetics as they run out. I go searching and find this blog: https://greenindyblog.com/zero-waste-makeup-brands/

I’ll be exploring the possibilities and sending out an order.

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I find, too, that living plastic-free creates some conflicts in diet. This week, I ran out of my non-wheat flour mixture. Our doctor wants us living wheat-free; we try to reach a realistic and healthy compromise. But it’s surprisingly difficult to do in a plastic-free way.

My bulk-food store packages everything in plastic bags. I bought glass containers and took them to the store. They promised, when the next shipment comes in, that they will pack up my brown and white rice flour, my oat flour, and my chocolate chips, in glass containers.

Their shipments don’t come in too often, though, and, as I am waiting, my supplies run out.

At the supermarket, I stroll through the organic baking aisle. All the flours I need are there…and they are all bundled in plastic packaging. I add Bob’s Red Mill to the list of companies I am writing to, asking them to re-think their plastic philosophy. I buy a small cardboard box of gluten free AP-flour substitute. It costs almost five dollars and weighs about a pound. This won’t last me too long.

There are no flours in the bulk section. I am just a little stymied. Wheat-free or plastic-free? I know there must be an answer, so that I don’t have to choose. Further exploration needed…

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Meanwhile, I sip, as I type, rich, dark, locally roasted decaf, which arrives in the mail in its biodegradable paper packaging. It’s possible, I think, to live well plastic-free. It’s just a bit of a challenge.

My mama always told me that nothing worthwhile is ever easy. That might not be true for everything, but it sure seems to apply here.

Wednesdays Without Plastic: Coffee Quest

“I’ll just give up single-use plastic packaging for Lent,” I said, blithely. And publicly, which was a good thing, because, faced with some very real challenges, I might otherwise have been tempted to quit.

Coffee, for instance, is a challenge. The coffee I like comes in plasticky packaging, and I’m not at all reconciled to giving up my brew. I had me a moment considering what I was going to do about that.

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Here, by the way, is a warning about aging for you young ones: as we season, doctors glibly adjust our habits, never mind how much we liked the old ones. So I sat on the stupid paper-covered table in my stupid stiff paper johnny, freezing and in shock (I am not bitter), while the doctor told me my blood pressure was high.

“My blood pressure’s NEVER been high,” I argued. “I’ve always had low blood pressure.”

“Hey, things change as we age,” he said. I don’t know what that ‘we’ business was all about; he looked like a new age Doogie Howser.

Then he asked me about my daily coffee consumption.

I did some quick calculations: where was the sweet spot between ‘doctor needs to know’ and ‘truth’?

“Mmmmm,” I said. “Maybe eight or nine cups?”

“Oh, no,” said New Age Doogie. “No, no, no. You’re going to have to cut that out. Completely.”

I looked at him hard. Was he KIDDING?

“Stop drinking coffee,” I said, slowly and distinctly, just to clarify.

He shrugged. Not only was he not an aging person, he was clearly not a caffeine person, either.

“Drink decaf,” he said. 

Like that was no big deal.

I left his office with a prescription and an attitude, but I did take his advice to heart. I began a structured weaning-off process, and, within a month, I was living in Decaf Land.

After a lot of experimentation, I found two decafs I could live with: a dark roast from Starbucks, and a medium roast from Seattle’s Best.

Both of them come packed in plastic-coated bags.

And I’ve given up the caffeine, but not the coffee. I need that brisk, hot drink to start and gird my day.

So I’m going to need a plastic-free source.

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I look up coffee roasters in our area. I find one that looks very promising, a grassroots kind of place that started with coffee lovers roasting their own beans in the back room of an entirely different business altogether. They offer two kinds of decaffeinated beans. They do not have a coffee shop, but they market their beans at all kinds of interesting places.

And it looks as though their beans come in brown paper packaging.

This will be fun, I think. We’ll take a road trip and pick up some beans. I decide to stop at a little market in a Columbus suburb where the beans above are sold, and I locate two other coffee specialists in the same funky, getting-gentrified-but-still-edgy, little town.

The boyos are on board for a Saturday afternoon coffee cruise. I call the little market to insure they have the decaf beans from the grassroots roasters. I talk to Stephe (pronounced Steve), who staffs the wine bar; he goes to look.

Moments later, he picks up again, a little out of breath. There is only one bag of those decaf beans left, he says, and he’ll hold it at the wine bar for me. I give him my name and my thanks.

Then I call a place I’ll call the Rich Dark Cup of Java. Their coffee beans, pictured on-line, look as though they come in a plastic bag. Ian, a young manager, answers the phone at Cup of Java, and I ask him about the packaging.

“Yeah, well,” he says, “the bags we use are kind of plasticky.”

“Okay,” I say. “Well, thanks.”

“Wait!” says Ian. “Wait! We do have brown paper bags we use when we run out of the regular bags. I could put your beans in that.”

I picture the boy opening up a plastic bag of beans and pouring them into a brown bag. I picture him throwing out the plastic bag, and I see myself contributing to plastic waste. I tell him that, and Ian says, oh, no. They get their beans in BIG bags and package them on site. He could do up a brown bag for me and leave it at the counter.

I agree that will work.

I try to pull up the website for the third interesting place, a shop called Yeah Me Too, but it doesn’t have one. The shop’s tiny, if the photos are true; I’m not clear if they only sell hot beverages or if they sell beans, too. One scathing review complains that there’s no place to SIT. But a breakfast blogger says it is the best coffee in Columbus, period.

There’s no phone number. The picture of the shop makes it look a little cramped.

But it’s right down the street from the market where they’re holding my beans, so I put it on the list, and we pack up and pile into the car and head toward Columbus.

***************

The market where I am to meet Stephe is a funky place, with all kinds of imported foods—figs and olives, hard sausages rimed in white mold, and salted fish in tins that peel with a key. There is a whole section of olive oils; there’s a variety of vinegars. There are long refrigerated cases filled with cheeses from Ireland and Israel and darkest Wisconsin. There is a lovely supply of chocolate. And everywhere, there is the shiny gleam of plastic packaging, even in a place with a sensibility carefully balanced between global and locally sourced.

I stop to look at the coffee section before I head to the wine bar. The market offers a healthy variety of beans, most of them of the regionally roasted, artisan variety. As Stephe reported, there’s no decaf in the brand I’m searching for on the shelf.

Mark and Jim go to peer through the shiny glass cases at piles of beautifully fresh meat and fish; a friendly clerk gives them kind of a virtual tour. I head to the wine bar, where I find Stephe, identified by name tag. Stephe has a long and shiny brow; his graying hair starts in the mid-scalp area and sweeps back to curl below his ears. He wears a red vest and a red bow tie and a black and white striped shirt, and he reminds me for all the world of a ringmaster at a very exclusive circus.

And he is gracious and kind. He likes my single-use plastic fast idea, but he thinks I’m going to find it more difficult than I realize. He tells me a little about the people who roasted the beans I gather up; good people, he says, who give back to the community. He hands me the coffee; it is packaged, cheerful and humble, in stiff brown paper.

I collect Mark and Jim and pay for the beans and a few things the boys have gathered.

**************

Yeah Me Too Coffee, the little no-website, no phone number place, is just a few blocks down the street, so we drive there next. It’s a tiny storefront. I push open the door; there’s no one, it seems, inside.

Then a man unfolds himself from behind the counter. He’s tall and thin and it seems like he does a lot of unfolding. He has a distinguished coxcomb of graying hair; he is dressed colorfully, and he is very interested to hear about my plastic-free quest.

They only use, he tells me, one hundred per cent biodegradable packaging.

He swivels to show me the decaf beans. They are in a transparent bin next to a big roaster. The back part of the shop is very clean and very crowded.

Mark and Jim look around. There’s nothing here but coffee. There are two chairs to sit in, but they’re low to the floor, kind of like toddler seats. The boyos wave to me and head out for a walk around the eclectic neighborhood.

The coffee guy tells me the decaf beans are old; he roasted them Tuesday, and here it is Saturday. He’ll give me some as a sample, but he won’t charge me full price, if anything. I ask if I can smell the beans; I take a deep whiff and they smell wonderful. He grinds some for me, fills up a bag, and we settle on five dollars. He tells me he can mail beans to Zanesville, and he writes his email address on the organic, biodegradable, packaging.

*******************

The boyos discovered we were parked in spaces reserved for a dry cleaner’s customers. A mean looking woman came out, scowling, they tell me later, so they got in the car and peeled away. I emerge from the store, and they roar around the corner. I hop in and we make a clean get away. We’re off to Big Rich Cup of Java.

BRCJ is a bustling place, with old hipsters, young urban professionals, young hipsters, some distinguished looking elderly women—all tables are filled. There are cases of muffins and cookies and biscotti, which are not made on site; they are tightly, plastically, wrapped.

I slip off to use the bathroom while Mark orders us drinks and picks up my decaf. When I come back, I find he and Jim have opted for drinks to go, and there are two bags of decaf, two shiny plastic bags, on the counter in front of Mark, who has already paid.

Wait, I say. MY decaf is supposed to be in a brown paper bag.

Mark looks puzzled, and I ask the clerk if he knows about some decaf that Ian left for Pam.

He is cloudy for a minute, but then he clears. The DECAF! In the paper bag! Ian left it for me!

He hands me a paper bag of beans. I thank him and nudge Mark. We need to give back the other decafs and get the total adjusted.

The clerk looks bewildered, and a manager comes over, apologizes for the confusion, and takes the receipt and rings up a new one. Mark thanks him and we wait for our drinks.

I get a steaming black decaf. It has a plastic lid. Jim gets a frozen hot chocolate in a sleek plastic cup with a sleek plastic dome and a thick red plastic straw. We step outside, into the pale sun of a winter afternoon, while Mark waits for his tea to steep.

We’ll take all this plastic home, I say to Jim, and recycle it. He nods solemnly.

But NOW, I say, let me just smell these beans. I am hopeful; my cup of decaf is rich and smoky. I undo the tabs and open up the paper bag.

Its insides are coated with plastic.

I cross Big Rich Cup of Java off my list, and Mark comes out with his tea and we head home.

************

I decide I will taste test the coffee from the market and the coffee from Yeah Me Too over the next couple of days, and decide which coffee to order.

The next morning, Sunday, I make the Yeah Me Too coffee. The beans may have been roasted on Tuesday, but they brew up a rich and delicious pot.

A definite contender, I realize happily.

On Monday, I open the brown paper package I bought at the market. I discover it, too, is lined with plastic. So I grind the beans, brew my morning coffee, and find my decision made. For lovely beans, in non-plastic packaging, it’s all Yeah Me Too.

*******************

So…coffee is sorted. And we have moved on to cloth napkins—to dishcloths really. I stole that idea from an eclectic little diner where we ate a while back; the nubby dishcloths were fun and functional. James and I went to the discount store and bought four packages of eight in a rainbow of colors that complement our Fiestaware.

I bought eighteen cloth hankies, which we’ll put in baskets in the bathrooms when the kleenex run out.

The bulk food store has agreed to package baking supplies for me in the containers I dropped off. We are not quite at plastic-free yet; there are things we need to use up and dilemmas I still need to solve.

But we are on our way.

**********

And one thing I’m finding is that the quest involves a conversation and, sometimes, a connection. Like with the woman at the supermarket who was doing inventory when I was shopping for glass containers. I told her about my plastic fast plans, and she said, “Well, THAT’S got to be good for the environment.” Then she gently nudged the container I was holding from my hand.

“I’m marking these down, anyway,” she said. “I may as well do it now.”

So I went home with bargain glassware. The checkout lady gave me an exasperated grin when I showed up with my greens, newly misted and dripping, not in plastic. I explained, and she rolled her eyes, looking tolerant, and said to the bagger, “No plastic for HER.”

The bagger was unhappy. He held up the glass containers. “Do I have to DOUBLE bags these?” he asked, and the cashier, sighing, said that he did.

Some people are supportive, some people look at me a little cock-eyed, and some people find the whole plastic-free concept to be just a little over the top. But I have milk in a cardboard carton, soft white hankies on which to blow my nose, a lidded container for my egg shells and coffee grounds—composting: that’s a project coming up—, and the feeling that life is shifting, just a bit.

Consumer Monster and a Plastic Fast

I am sitting at an endless table. The table stretches on and on in a long, long room. There are others across from me, others to either side of me.

I don’t care who else is there. I am waiting for Max the Manufacturer.

There is a low grumble of anticipation; the others are waiting, too.

I tap my fingers on the table, and I gasp. My fingers are FURRY! Muppet furry! I pat my face: there’s a broad flat mouth! My hair is crazy! (Well, that and the glasses: those are normal, anyway.)

A chant begins. I join in,—join in emulating my heroes, Animal and Oscar and Cookie Monster:

Me want food! Me want food! ME WANT FOOD!

We pound, too, and the noise crescendos, and then….then the big double doors swing open. Our chanting turns to cheers.

It is Max! Max the Manufacturer!

Max has food for us. 

He rapidly wheels a deep cart, filled with packages. At each Muppet’s place, he tosses a container onto the table.

I pick mine up. It is meat!

It is luncheon meat that is wrapped in plastic, and then encased in a lidded plastic container, which is sealed with…more plastic!

I join the chorus, which is now singing, “Me love MEAT! Meat good enough for me!”

And I tear at the container.

I rip off the plastic seal and throw it behind me.

“Raaaaah!” I roar.

I open the plastic top, and I throw that behind me. Now I begin to pant and salivate.The inner plastic is tough. I use my Muppet teeth to tear it apart, and I give a victorious, guttural crow. I toss the juicy inner plastic away, and I take the pile of meat slices and I shove them into my mouth.

“Num!” I blart, mouth full. “Num! Num! Num!”

My furry hands sweep the remaining plastic behind me, and I wonder what Max will bring me next.

Maybe some miniature Oreos in individual-sized plastic serving containers.

Maybe he’ll bring me two, or three. Me HUNGRY!!!

The pounding begins again, and I push my chair out a little to get more room.

But the pile of plastic behind me is so deep and so tall I can barely budge.

I have become, I realize, Consumer Monster.

*************

I was driving to northwestern Ohio and listening to NPR when I heard the story about the sea turtle with the plastic drinking straw stuck in its nostril. It picked up that straw, minding its own business, swimming in the ocean—swimming through plastic waste blithely ejected by humans.

The creature had to be hauled into a medical facility to have surgery; someone took a video of the procedure, which was, the commentator said, pretty gruesome to watch and to listen to.

An expert chipped in with a discussion of how plastic straws alone pollute our beaches and oceans. Pounds and pounds, TONS, of plastic straws go into the trash, get processed, wind up, somehow, in the ocean.

If one sea turtle was discovered, dying, from humans’ plastic waste, how many more creatures suffer and die without notice?

The next day I met my friend Terri for coffee at a funky little college town coffee shop. There, by the register, was a cupful of stainless-steel straws. I bought three to take home.

****************

My Comp II students write a proposal to solve a national or international problem as their capstone project. Last semester, five of the 24 papers dealt with the floating plastic dumps in our oceans. The students had done their research; their definition of the problem was stark, grotesque, unavoidable.

They proposed some interesting solutions too (things like what’s going at 4oceans.com), but I was just staggered by the magnitude of what we have, unthinkingly, done.

*******************

I tore the plastic from a package of paper napkins and trotted over to the cabinet where I keep the kitchen trash. The wrapper was printed in bright blue ink, and I thought, idly, that if I knew how to make flowers from plastic wrapping, this would make a pretty, deep blue rose. I opened the louvered doors and shoved the wrapper into the trash can, which was lined with a white plastic garbage bag….and filled with plastic waste.

And since then, I can’t help continually noticing. My God, it’s everywhere, woven firmly into the lives we lead. The things we buy to prepare and eat. The wraps I keep in the cupboard—plastic wrap and baggies and quart and gallon storage bags—things I may wash out after one use and then re-use a time or two, but things that eventually wind up in my trash.

I have no idea where they end up after that.

So I’ve been thinking about the poor sick turtle and the floating acres of plastic and the plastic in my household. Why don’t manufacturers DO something? I wonder. Why don’t they stop using plastic in every damn thing?

I think that, and then I go out and buy what they’re offering.

And I applaud the heroic efforts that some people are making to contain, control, and eliminate the plastic dumped into our seas and landfills. But I’m wondering, too, if a first step wouldn’t be not to add to it. Some are busy cleaning up the mess, but I keep making more.

Maybe a beginning would be not to contribute any more plastic to an already rife and burdensome mess.

Maybe I need to see if I can live without plastic.

I mention that to my son and he says, Hey! You could do that for Lent! Go without plastic instead of giving up candy or something.

He’s brilliant. A commitment–heck, a crusade–is born.

*************************

I get on line to do some research. I find that there’s a whole zero-waste movement out there—that there are people who throw out only tiny amounts—enough trash to fill a small mason jar, for instance,–every three months or so. I discover that there are environmentally friendly products and methods to explore. There are discussions about biodegradable, organically-based plastics. I find out a very dear friend has a son whose family tries very hard not to consume single-use plastic.

And I start making plans.

I order paper baggies and plant-based plastic garbage bags, guaranteed to decompose in landfills. I am excited when they arrive…until I see that they have been packed with those little plastic air pillows. I sigh, and I pierce the pillows, flattening them, and I put them with the plastic bags to be recycled.

There are a couple of meat counters, locally, that wrap their meat in waxed paper and butcher paper. Maybe I can buy chunk cheese at those counters, too. I talk to a clerk at Kroger about bringing my own paper bags to package and buy bulk items.

“Why not?” she says. “It’s fine.

I take an un-bagged cabbage to the self-check out and bring it home without wrapping it in plastic.

We think creatively. Jim has acquired a real hankering for cranberry lemonade, a product from Ocean Spray…which comes, of course, in a sturdy plastic bottle. But we can buy frozen cranberry juice concentrate and frozen lemonade too; their containers are paper, mostly, with metal end caps.

We polish off two plastic bottles of juice and save the sanitized bottles. The next shopping trip, I buy the concentrate. I pull down the giant bowl, glump in the frozen base and add water. I stir up our own cran-lemon mix, and scoop it into clean bottles. Mark and Jim try it at lunch, and they are surprised.

“This is really GOOD,” Mark says, and I think Score! Mixing my own is a good deal cheaper than buying bottled….which is, of course, not true of all non-plastic packaged goods. We’ll take our victories, and our economies, where we can find them.

We can refill our olive oil bottles at an organic foods store not far away. I think about using powdered cleansers instead of sprays in plastic bottles, about using brillo pads instead of plastic scrubbies, and about grating my own cole slaw instead of buying bagged mix.

I start to believe maybe this is doable, living life without single-use plastic, and then I run into things like my fully plastic deodorant dispenser.

Huh. Deodorant is kind of non-negotiable. What viable alternatives are out there?

But we are forging ahead…or I am, anyway, to the support and sometimes dismay of the boyos. Lent starts this Wednesday, March 6. For the six weeks that follow, I am going to see if I can live without plastic packaging. And I’ll see how life changes, and I’ll see what I do, and what I don’t, really, truly need.

And of course, I’m going to have to write about it.

So I’m adding a weekly plastic-post to my blog. I think I’ll call it ‘Wednesdays Without Plastic.’ I’ll document stuff like my upcoming attempt to make my own liquid dish detergent and my quest for freshly ground decaf in paper packaging. I’m hoping to talk to local folks who live without single-use plastic packaging, and I’ll be exploring some websites and blogs from people who do their best to contribute NO waste to our ailing environment.

I understand if this discussion is not your cup of tea, so I’m warning you ahead of time, and then you can ignore those Wednesday ramblings.

I’m hoping to transform from a Consumer Monster to a Zero Waste Zelda.

And I suspect there will be surprises along the way.

Uncivil Liberties

After a long string of HOT, it was a beautiful day for a walk. I let my arms swing, and the wind blew the hair back out of my eyes. There were lots of people out this morning: I said hello to other morning walkers and to kids and their moms and grandmas and caregivers who were waiting for school buses. I stopped to talk with a dog walker or two, and then, on the home stretch, I ran into a woman—call her Geraldine–I know because she works hard for worthy causes all over town.

We stopped to chat for a moment.

“How are you?” asked Geraldine.

I opened my mouth to reply.

“Oh, I KNOW,” she said, quickly jumping into the void. “It’s hot, isn’t it? That’s why you’re out here in the morning. Better to be in the house, in the air conditioning, in the hot afternoons.”

I realized I hadn’t told Geraldine I was teaching this semester, so I opened my mouth again. But Geraldine got there first.

“Did I tell you we spent a month in Florida this summer? My daughter had twins and we were happy to help. But HOT? Oh, my goodness. We never left the house except to get into the air-conditioned car and go to an air-conditioned restaurant or supermarket. But those babies! They are so cute. And healthy, thank God.”

Geraldine cocked her head and looked at me expectantly. I started to ask her whether the twins were boys or girls or both, when she looked down and tsk-tsk-ed.

“Wouldn’t you think,” she said, “the city could FIX these sidewalks. How many times have you almost tripped on this jagged cement? I know,” she said before I could answer what was clearly a rhetorical question. “dozens, right?”

She patted my arm. “Well,” she said. “I’d better run. Chet will be wondering where I am.” She marched off, but then she turned around and smiled back at me.

“So nice,” she called, “to talk with you.”

I smiled faintly and waved and thought, But you didn’t talk with me. You talked TO me.

I like Geraldine, I really, really do. But our exchange—or her monologue—was the last in a list of creeping incivilities that I’d been totting up all week.

I walked home wondering whether people have lost the art of listening to each other. Perhaps it’s a skill no longer taught…but that doesn’t explain Geraldine, who’s (I think evilly) a good ten years older than me, went to school when listening was a learned skill, and should know better.

Too much exposure to media that demands one-sided interaction, maybe?

******************

I’ve been thinking of dear Kim, lost to cancer at age 62; her birthday would have been this month, and she’s been on my mind. Kim and I cooked up some schemes together that flew (we talked our church into sponsoring a fun food-sculpture activity to benefit the hungry way back in the day, for instance. I moved away shortly after that, but Kim turned the event, which she dubbed Can-Do, into a tradition.) And we dreamed some schemes that never came to pass. One of those was a newsletter we’d call Civil Discourse, a place where we’d demonstrate that we all can listen to each other, agree or disagree with each other, and do it in a respectful, intelligent, courteous, meaningful way.

We talked about that concept a lot and sent each other articles and wrote up paragraphs that might seed some ideas, and we kept the email lines buzzing with our thoughts. But we never got that cumbersome craft to lift off from the sticky grounds of our imaginations.

We agreed, though: something needs to be done. The art of civility is fast disappearing.

I miss Kim.

And I miss the chance to talk with her about the rules of discourse, and about the niceties, the things we once took for granted (oh, I’m sounding old), that become more and more rare.

******************

At home, I pour myself a coffee, and before I can sit down, the mail slides through the door. I go to fetch that tumble of paper and I stand by the table, sorting.

There is junk mail. I stack some for the recycle bin, immediately. I snip the ones that offer one or all of us instant credit cards. Preapproved! No annual fees! (I would prefer that no one searching through the bins of paper find a credit opportunity in my name. Snip. Snip, Snip.)

There are ads with coupons. I cut away the ones we’ll use and put the remainder in the recycling pile.

Jim has two slim packages.

There are—oh, joy!—two handwritten envelopes, and the handwriting is familiar and much-loved.

And there is an oversize, glossy postcard. It has a distorted picture of a gubernatorial candidate, an ugly close-up, on the front. The text on the back tells me why I should spurn, hate, and vote against this man. It goes beyond hype; it plunges into vitriol.

I examine the card for a return address. (When similar hate mail appeared before the special election not long ago, I wrote and asked the responsible party to stop sending those missives to me. Tell me the good things about YOUR candidate, I wrote, but don’t send me poison to taint the opponent. I’m not reading mail from the haters. The postcards stopped coming to me. They still slid through the mail slot, though, addressed to my husband or my son, instead.)

There’s a vague mention of a committee. There’s no address. When I go on-line, I can’t find that special committee to contact them.

It’s a little chilling, this anonymous, hate-filled doggerel, sleek and expensive looking, floating through my doorway, tainting my day.

Remember our mothers wagging fingers and saying, “If you can’t say anything good…”?

Remember the rules of civil engagement?

Remember when the candidate whose team leveled low blows would be accused of taking cheap shots?

I believe that we need a fair press that honestly reports the good and the bad, the outstanding and the indifferent, about those who want to lead us. I’m tired of the hateful half-truths and innuendo.

I want the candidate’s team to tell me what their person’s qualifications are. I don’t want to know how well they sling their mud.

*****************

After lunch, I pulled up my college email. There are several messages from students.

Three of them have no subject line, and no message. Each sports an attachment.

I carefully compose an email to those students.

“I see you’ve sent me an email with an attachment,” I write. “Would you please re-send this? I would appreciate it very much if you’d put your class number and section as the subject. Then, please write a message telling me what you’ve attached, and what you’re hoping I will do.”

I end with thanks for their time and attention. I hope I am teaching a little email etiquette.

I have teaching friends who delete subject-less emails. I have teaching friends who will not respond to emails with attachments but no messages.

Email is a relatively new technology, yes, but it’s been around long enough that we can develop some expectations about e-courtesy.

******************

At school the next day, I park far enough away that I can stretch my legs walking to the building, and I head across the crosswalk. There is a yellow sandwich board in the middle of this intersection; it sports a red-lettered sign that reads, “STOP FOR PEDESTRIANS.”

I step out into the road, but the gleaming black SUV barreling down at me is clearly not stopping. I leap backward, and try to make eye contact with the driver, a woman of about my age. She keeps her gaze straight ahead and does not meet my glance.

She ignores me pointing to the sign that tells her to stop.

So does the silver pickup that streaks by, blowing the hair back off my forehead, and the little white sedan. Both of those drivers, too, keep their faces rigidly focused on the road ahead, carefully not catching my eye.

In class that day, working with my college students, we share a treat of cookies and grapes—it’s Nat’s birthday, after all. Every single student stops to thank me for the goodies, and each of them wishes Nat a happy day.

My spirits lift a little.

**************************

Because I have been getting discouraged. What’s happening to us?

We often don’t listen. And maybe, after the need for water, food, and shelter, one of our most basic human needs is to be heard.

Our politics are polarized; fact and reason give way to emotion. I picture two raucous camps divided by a wall so high that we can’t see each other. It’s not so high, though, that wall, that we can’t fling our garbage gleefully to the other side.

And then, imbued with righteousness, we are deeply insulted when steaming, stinking bags of rubbish come flying back.

I want to find the dignity of debate and engage in a real search for truth and understanding.

Our daily interactions are rushed and abrupt; we are tense and intent on our own needs, and we studiously avoid considering the people we rush by.

We seem driven. We’re unhappy.

Civility, I mourn. Where have you gone?

Something, I think, needs to be done.

***************

I am sitting at my computer desk when Jim begins telling me a long story about a show he’s been watching. I start out smiling and nodding, but my right hand soon creeps to the mouse. I click and open.

As I pretend to be listening, I am focused instead on a rousing game of Forty Thieves.

Jim winds down.

“I’ll stop bothering you,” he says, and heads downstairs.

Nice message you gave that boy, I think to myself.

**************

I am cleaning out my email and I groan a little bit because there’s a message from an awkward acquaintance, someone who has a funny way of expressing herself, who always seems to be on the offensive. But I open it, and sure enough, she makes several suggestions I could implement to improve myself and my methods.

It’s hard, of course, to read tone into emails, but I do it, anyway, ascribing her motives.

“Beee-yatch,” I think automatically, contemptuously, and then I reign myself in, appalled.

This is a person, after all, who deserves my respect, and who, despite her clumsy communications, truly does mean well.

I close the email without an immediate response; I will wait until I can respond with kindness and with clarity.

***************

We are at lunch and Mark is telling me about a thing that happened that morning. All the while I am making just the right sympathetic noises in the pauses that demand them, I am running through my to-do list in my head. I am envisioning shopping and errands, trying to decide when I will have time to, finally, paint the dining room.

The conversation winds down and I can’t remind one thing that we said.

*************

I am not, always, civil, myself. And before I start complaining loudly about the state of the world, I need to consider the state of my life.

More and more I think, as I decry so many things—the state of the environment, the nastiness of politics, and the lack of general civility,—the only place that I can make a start is HERE.

So I bring my stainless steel straws to the restaurant. I pack my re-usable shopping bags when I got to the supermarket.

I write letters, honest letters, questioning letters, mournful letters, to the people who’ve been elected to represent me.

And I shut my mouth. I take my reluctant fingers off the keyboard, I place my hands in my lap, and I try, very hard, to make contact. I really, really work on my listening.

I remember to remind myself that every person has inherent dignity; I try to head off my knee-jerk derision before it occurs.

When I hear the voice of a chatty, opinionated acquaintance in the supermarket, I do not run to dive down the nearest unpopulated aisle. I shop along and when we meet, I smile and say hello and stop to talk for a minute that does, indeed, last longer than I’d like. But it’s not an interlude long enough to harm me or my comfortable life.

I resolve to be civil myself before I demand that others meet my highfaluting standards.

*************

It is not enough. It is far from enough. Our broken, jagged-edged world needs much more healing; there are so many sharp edges that can grab at our fabric, rip our soft and unprotected skins. My efforts are not much more than fluttering, but I cannot demand great, sweeping changes when I’m unwilling to change myself.

I can’t be marching and carrying a sign that says, “Clean up our common space!!!!” when my own room is hopelessly cluttered.

There is so much more to do, but I am not sure what next steps to take, what might help and what might make a difference. So today, while I am trying to figure it out, I’ll just keep trying to pull myself back to the present, to attention, to kind and compassionate response.

Today, just to begin, I will keep my ears open. And I will try to keep a civil tongue in my head.

It’s a Mystery Why Bharath Nominated Me…But I Accept!

Bharath Uphendra at Bharath’s Banter always has something thought-inspiring, funnybone-tickling, or downright charming to say. So I was thoroughly surprised and honored that he nominated me for a Mystery Blogger Award. I hope you’ll visit Bharath’s blog at https://ridiculousbharath.wordpress.com; you’ll find it very worth the visit. Thanks, Bharath, for nominating my blog for this award!

First, I must tell you three things about myself:

  • I have met amazing people in the blogosphere!
  • I have found some great recipes in the process of blogging.
  • Blogging has helped me create a writing discipline within a community of writers.

One of the many wonderful things about receiving an award like this is that different people visit your blog. I’d like to nominate some intriguing new bloggers I’ve encountered and follow; I think you will enjoy their rich and varied blogs, too. They are…

Words of a Little Heart:

https://wordsofalittleheart.wordpress.com/

The Heartbreaker Files:

https://heartbreakerfiles.wordpress.com/

Pen and Ink Sketches:

https://penandinksketches.wordpress.com/

Stories of Sandeept:

https://storiesofsandeept.wordpress.com/

and ZeroWasteChef

https://zerowastechef.com/

From thoughtful words to thoughtful recipes to wonderful sketches, these bloggers have much to offer. And if they choose to be a Mystery Blogger, the rules of engagement are at the end of this blog!

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Here are the questions Bharath posed to me, with my answers::

  1. What genre of music do you prefer? It’s a tough question. I guess I have to say classic rock.
  2. Your favourite song lyrics? I do love Sting’s Fields of Gold.
  3. How stupid can you be? I, personally, can do thoroughly stupid things, especially when I’m not being aware—like starting to put my jacket in the fridge and the milk in the hall closet…
  4. What’s your philosophy of life? I believe that everyone has strengths, and that focusing on them is a whole lot more productive than trying to fix the weaknesses.
  5. What’s your opinion on religion? Faith is a beautiful thing; so is spirituality. Organized religion can offer great support and community; it can also eb a divisive factor.

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Here are five questions for my nominees:

  1. Who inspires you?
  2. What book should everyone read, and why?
  3. What food should be banned from all restaurants?
  4. When and why did you start blogging?
  5. We all agree that things are not as important as people, of course, but sometimes things have great associations. What one thing would you really miss if you lost it? Why?

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And here are the rules to follow if you choose to accept this nomination:

THE RULES:

  1. Thank whoever nominated you and include a link to their blog.
  2. Tell your readers three things about yourself.
  3. Nominate 5-7 bloggers you feel deserve the award.
  4. Answer the questions from the person who nominated you.
  5. Ask your nominees questions of your choice with one weird or funny one.