Saturday, August 23, 2014

Ice Buckets

I've been trying to get my head around the latest Facebook fad to engulf the universe. This is something called the Ice Bucket Challenge, which as I understand it, requires someone who receives the challenge to either donate $100 to a favorite charity or pour a bucket of ice over the head. For quite awhile, I dismissed the challenge as something of a celebrity spoof. If people who could spare $100 or more would do so to benefit a cause such as research on Lou Gehrig's Disease, all the better. And, I figured that since most of my circle of friends knows -- hopefully at least -- that my current condition of life is one of being cash poor and food rich, I wouldn't be challenged in the first place.

My hackles rose, however, when I learned from a close friend -- okay, my sister -- that the Ice Bucket Challenge was evolving into a bit of a popularity contest, particularly among teens, such as her children. Only the more exciting and risqué aspect of the challenge wasn't about donating the $100; it was about the brain-numbing thrill of dousing yourself with ice. My close friend -- okay, my sister, sorry, sister, that I am divulging the source -- has decided to respond to the challenge her daughters are receiving by donating the money for them and letting them indulge in the ice pouring exercise. That raised some questions for me: What are we, as a society, learning through this experience?

All right, before we go any further, I should issue a preachy alert. Anytime one starts talking about giving, some sense of moral piety is bound to emerge. And, so if it surfaces in the words that follow, my apologies in advance.

My flip answer to my sister was that I didn't have $100 to give to anyone right now (except National Grid, Time Warner Cable, Verizon Wireless and the countless other monthly providers of services whom I must satisfy with cash every month), and that if anyone challenged me, they were probably going to get a piece of my mind.

And, in a sense, that was the challenge: How to make the "piece of my mind" meaningful to someone other than myself.

I have given money to charitable causes -- and less charitable ones -- quite freely in the past. These days, because I lack money, I try to give time, food, and knowledge about various life skills that I happen to possess by virtue of living as long as I have. As the small food-growing operation in our backyard garden/farm/homestead continues to expand, I find myself feeling that it is important to remember not to sell the bounty of our harvests before: first, making sure that the nutritional needs of my husband and myself and all the residing animals on our land are met; and second, ensuring that we're donating at least 10 percent of what we raise to local food pantries. Anything that's surplus after that, in my view, can be gifted or sold. A piece I read by Garrison Keillor on "wisdoms" seemed to echo this point. He says that the credo of generosity says to give all you've got, but that if you do that, you'll have nothing and others will have to give to you. So don't give everything you've got, he advises. At the same time he notes that most people can give 10 percent.

But what is 10 percent? How is it measured? What if your wealth is not in the form of cash? What if you are a six-figure income earner with nothing left over after paying the bills that are helping you amass your wealth? What if the most valuable asset you've got is a skill you can teach, a practice you can promulgate? Why, I wonder, are these forms of wealth not figured into the traditional 10 percent figure of tithing or the $100 versus a bucket of ice over the head? Could an ice bucket challenge allow for these kinds of giving?

As some of you know, I have been a supporter of President Obama, and volunteered for his campaigns for the presidency in both 2008 and 2012. I will come clean now and acknowledge that the reason I did this had less to do with his politics and more to do with the value he placed on the $1 and $5 donations he sought particularly in 2008. The value of contributors was measured less in terms of the amount of money they could give and more in terms of the number of people they could mobilize for his campaign. Reading this logic in an Atlantic magazine article in June 2008 suddenly opened up a whole new scenario of political change in my mind. If all the poor of the country and the world gave $1 and urged their friends, neighbors, and family members to also give $1 and to tell everyone else, the insensitive 1 percenters would have no match. The tables of power would be reversed in an instant.

Reality has not quite followed this vision, but I do feel that politics in America at least has gained a certain dimension of egalitarianism through application of this logic. With the ice bucket challenge, however, there seems to be a push back. You are valued if you have $100 to give. You are punished if not because the bucket of ice symbolizes the quality of your heart. I don't oppose giving or ice, but I wonder if there is a way to revise the language so that we all are giving the best that we've got without worrying about how the dollars and cents measure up.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour

I decided to join the Writing Process Blog Tour after receiving a request from another writer last week. The idea behind this tour is to share some views about one's writing process, and to tag three other writers to join the tour by posting next week. I have not had a chance to circulate a request so I'm hoping three readers of this blog might be inspired enough to contact me and let me tag them. We have been asked to consider the following questions:

1. What am I working on?
2. How does my writing differ from others of its genre?
3. Why do you write what you do?
4. How does your writing process work?

So here goes:

1. What am I working on?
Currently, I am working on trying to get inspired. I mean that in more than a flippant way. I have been working on a book project over the past several years that, if all continues to go well, will be published in the fall of 2015. The project began as a doctoral dissertation, which earned me my PhD in 2007. It evolved into a strong and highly readable book manuscript from 2011 to 2013, after I floundered with trying to decide what to do with it for a few years. I was fortunate to have been able to make contact with an excellent university press, and the support of their editors and two external reviewers have made the manuscript stronger and stronger. I just received some comments and am working on a final set of revisions, and am looking forward to seeing the book in print.

I am proud of the work, and I do feel that it will receive a warm reception when it is finally released. But the book has taken a very long time to develop, and as you might guess I am feeling the fatigue. I do have a second book project in waiting, and an idea for a third project. I also have several short articles and contributions to edited compilations that are in progress. But the past year has been a hard one emotionally and financially, and I am feeling a bit burned out. I am looking for ways to reconnect with my writer-self, so that I can seek some new energy and intellectual stimulation that hopefully will start to reinvigorate me.

2. How does my writing differ from others of its genre?

I would describe my writing as a hybrid of narrative non-fiction and academic auto-ethnography. I integrate an interdisciplinary mindset into my research and my writing, but my writing is not ponderous or dull. Before I entered academia, I worked as a daily newspaper journalist. That training made me into a storyteller, and when I was able to release myself from the constraints of journalistic writing, I found that many of its sensibilities -- organizational styles, short paragraphs, measured uses of quotes -- had become organic to me. The style persisted through a master's program and a doctoral program, to the point that when I would try and mimic more conventional ways of writing academically, my advisors would tell me to stick with what I do best. I do my best to do.

On the narrative non-fiction end, my writing differs because it is scholarly. I hesitate to say academic because it is not writing that seeks acceptance within academic constraints but rather writing that uses the skills that scholars acquire to theorize, pose curious questions, investigate particular situations, and come to personal and sometimes forceful conclusions.

Overall, I write to be read and I would be quite disappointed if someone refused to read my work because it was either "not academic enough" or "too academic".

3. Why do you write what you do?

This is a rather difficult question. I would offer two answers. The first is that I like to share with the world the things that I do. While I have worked to get inspired, I have blogged about growing food, about researching and teaching hip-hop, about the politics of sustainability, and about my quests to maintain a sense of health and fitness for life through moving my body. These are daily pursuits. Lately, I have been interested in writing more about teaching practices because a large part of how I earn my living comes through teaching. I experiment and innovate, and it is this freedom to experiment and innovate that I enjoy most about teaching. Grading papers -- not my favorite part. I feel like I have created some interesting activities in classrooms that I would like to narrate to others.

The second answer is that I want readers to have an opportunity to know about the world I have experienced, and to consider that world from the lens that I offer them, at least provisionally. I grew up as the eldest daughter of immigrants from India in the 1960s in the Midwest at a time when immigrants from India were few and far between. I was born in the United States, which made me American. But my identity and my place in the U.S. has always been ambiguous. I am a permanent "no fit" person, and it was only when I hit the half-century mark that I began to feel comfortable in that role. Being a no-fit offers a way to see the world differently, and an obligation (dare I say moral obligation) to tell the stories of what one sees.

4. How does your writing process work?

I have two daily practices: I write three pages of longhand in the morning, and I write at least 750 words electronically at night. Followers of Julia Cameron might recognize both of these practices as versions of morning pages. I began the longhand habit in 1998, and I joined in late 2012. The idea is to use the morning stretch to outline and hash out ideas, and the evening stint to generate sharable prose. The writings in these practices often do not dovetail with each other, which is okay with me for now. Years of morning pages have helped me draft essays, write course syllabi, outline books and book chapters, and generally take care of my life. The work that I began in earnest with in April 2013 has led to a fairly vigorous blogging practice, and some good work. I do feel that I need to add a third daily practice, which is to go to a library or a coffeeshop for a couple of hours each day to do some quiet reading and writing. I feel that that practice will help tap the wells of inspiration so that they start flowing again.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Farmer or gardener?

Gardener or farmer?
I've been stumbling over how to articulate the meaning of these two terms over the past couple of years as our family's emotional, financial, and physical investments in growing vegetables and fruits and raising chickens and small livestock has increased. I think about these categories as I walk through my yard to gather food for an evening dinner or to pull weeds or amass a big basket of tomatoes for canning. And, I wonder, am I walking through a yard? Or am I walking through a farm?
Out of curiosity, I googled the definition of farmer tonight. I came up with a fairly broad range of hits, all of which seemed to unite, oddly, around a singular and somewhat capitalistic theme. A farm is a source of income. A farmer is one who works on a farm. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is even more specific. Its website on Farm Household Well-being provides a glossary that states: "A farm is defined as any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the year. " In short, if you're growing food but not selling it, you are technically not a farmer. You are ... well, what are you? 
That seems to be an interesting question. We will have farm income this year -- about $200 from the weekly sale of a dozen eggs that my husband makes to a colleague at the local food pantry where we both volunteer. So, I suppose that's a start. We also receive inquiries from friends and colleagues occasionally as to whether we sell at the local farmers markets or whether we might have some particular product for sale. I tend to see these inquiries as not particularly serious. Everyone's curious about what other people are doing, and asking such questions such as whether we'd sell some turnips seems like a good way to open up a conversation. 
More to the point, however, is our own motivation. We put a lot of work into our food-growing endeavors. But we have no large aspirations to create a market for our produce. We mostly want to enjoy the food that we raise for our own consumption, share it with friends when opportunities arise to do so, and make some regular donations to food banks that always are in need of fresh produce. The last thing I want to do is to try and put a value on this endeavor in the form of retail purchases.
So does this make us gardeners? According to Wikipedia, "Gardening is the practice of growing and cultivating plants as part of horticulture. In gardens, ornamental plants are often grown for their flowers, foliage, or overall appearance; useful plants, such as root vegetables, leaf vegetables, fruits, and herbs, are grown for consumption, for use as dyes, or for medicinal or cosmetic use. Gardening is considered to be a relaxing activity for many people." Without the immediate link to bringing the food to market, it does seem that "gardener" is an appropriate way to describe my husband and myself. But relaxing activity? I find myself puzzling over that point. 
Recently, I arrived late at a party. I attributed my lateness to the fact that I had been working in the gardens and needed to change clothes and scrub the dirt out of my fingernails. I was not expecting any particular reaction. Yet, I was surprised when people started exclaiming, "Oh, fun!" "Good times!" "My garden is so far behind this year." Gardening for this group of people was clearly a pleasurable pastime, as it is for us. But I couldn't help wondering: "Do they realize that we live off this garden?" "Do they know that if the tomatoes or peppers or kale doesn't get planted, we probably won't eat peppers, tomatoes, or kale through the winter?" "Do they understand that this is our food?" 
The linkage that I make between "growing and cultivating plants" and food to subsist on seems to straddle a line between "relaxing activity" and "$1,000 or more of agricultural products produced and sold during the year." I have always felt that growing food is a source of income in an indirect way: When one grows one's own food, one lessens the reliance upon other food growers. Hence, money is earned through not being spent on the capitalist market. I find the question to be of deeper interest as I recall how some "real farmers" -- those who definitely earn more than the requisite $1,000 a year from the production and sale of agricultural products -- responded when I asked once whether customers of farmers markets who get inspired by the farm produce around them to grow their own end up hurting the very farmers who were their prime suppliers at a particular point in time. My question drew several laughs and one fairly insightful response. "Are you kidding? The more people grow their own food, the less we have to grow it for them. You can't believe how excited we get when we see others doing what you're trying to do." 
One last definition comes up in discussions among farmers and gardeners. The term is "homesteading" and it refers, according again to Wikipedia and numerous other online sources, to "a lifestyle of self-sufficiency." Homesteading, according to Wikipedia, "is characterized by subsistence agriculture, home preservation of foodstuffs, and it may or may not also involve the small scale production of textiles, clothing, and craftwork for household use or sale."
What does it mean, then, to be a homesteader? Is this the way of the future, of life after capitalism, when farmers cease to exist because all people are dedicated to becoming self-sufficient, a lifestyle that erodes the necessity of buying and selling produce via the market? 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Frugal Feasts

The month of August seems to offer an interesting paradox: On one hand, I walk through my gardens every evening and marvel at the fact that I have so much food that I cannot decide what to eat. On the other hand, I open my bank account in the morning and look at the diminished rate of return. I shake my head and sigh as I realize that this paycheck cycle will not be the one that will leave over enough money for such desirable trifles as running shoes, car repairs, greenhouse sheeting and lumber, or a much needed break from cooking for a dinner out. It seems that the paradox is perhaps instead a parable, a less on how to feel rich and poor all at once.

There's got to be a capitalist theory of money out there that explains the imbalance: an almost over-abundance food, a scarcity of cash. August (and July) also are difficult months for food pantries and providers of social services because the demand for assistance goes up. "School's out," one individual who works at a local food pantry explained. "More bodies at home, more mouths to feed."

And more people on vacations, and less likely to give.

A year ago, I had a hard time seeing the abundance even as the gardens were exploding with their harvest. All I could think about -- and, for good reason, worry about -- was whether or not the bills would get paid. Some grim realities were staring me in the face: a cut to the paycheck as the result of what the State of New York (which is my ultimate employer) described as the "deficit reduction program" was going to slice about $140 off my after-tax monthly income; an increase in health care premiums as the result of a new union contract was going to swipe an additional $100. On top of that, I had income taxes I owed the IRS as the result of receiving several generous (and unfortunately in the long run untaxed) grants in 2012.

In the face of this dire scenario, my husband and I made what seemed to be an audacious decision. We reconfigured the direct deposit plan for my paycheck so that a modest amount -- $50 a month -- would go into a money market and investment account we had with Charles Schwab brokerage. I didn't see how this diversion could be possible; for the past three years, we had been withdrawing money from the account in order to live. It was nearly tapped out, and my paycheck was diminishing. So how could we possibly put money back?

Somehow, we did. And a year later the modest amount that had accumulated provided enough to expand our small farm to accommodate two goats. We acquired the goats -- two boys -- along with their mother on loan as they had not quite been weaned off of her on the first day of August. They live a good happy life on the farm eating weed-ridden swathes of grassland that we hope eventually to turn into cultivated land, and generating a fair amount of what I've come to call "black gold" -- manure that contains only vegetable matter and therefore can immediately be put back into the land as a natural fertilizer and nutrient rich booster of soil.

The goats will go to a butcher in November. While that might seem crass to a vegetarian, it is another way of building abundance for those who eat meat. For now, they are part of a growing family of animals that live on our farm: six cats, five roosters, and seventeen hens. Like the goats, these animals too create wealth for the land. The hens lay an average of four dozen eggs a week, a figure that probably will come close to doubling when the birds that were babies in March begin to mature enough to lay eggs consistently sometime later this month. The hens and the roosters also generate a form of black gold, and they keep the incessant insects that dominate the Adirondacks somewhat at bay.

The cats, too, build abundance in ways that transcend their innate cuddly qualities. Despite their cute, sweet purring demeanors, they are among the planet's best hunters. For us, that has meant rodents that dominate farms and can wreak havoc in gardens are relatively under control. Without getting too graphic, I would also note that the spoils of the hunt also contribute ultimately to the creation of black gold.

When I consider how we managed to save $50 a month during a time when the net monthly
income went down by about $200, I am reminded of the paradoxical parable that August unveils. One year later, our bills have not diminished nor grown less urgent. My bank account doesn't look a whole lot better than it did in August a year ago. But we have food in the gardens, and in the chicken coop. There's plenty to eat and plenty to share. A little bit of frugality can indeed lead to a bountiful feast.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Celebrating sobriety

I broke my fast from alcohol earlier this week, ending 600-plus days of dryness with a glass of a crisp white wine. It was a beautiful summer day, and my husband Jim and I were celebrating the Hindu festival of Rakhi with our friend Caitlin. I was cooking a nine-dish vegan meal featuring the vast breadth of our summer harvest. Caitlin arrived with chocolates, some beer, and two bottles of a crisp-looking white wine. I saw the bottles cooling in the refrigerator and announced, "I think I'll have a glass of wine tonight."

I promised my husband it would only be one glass and that the glass would come deep into dinner. He in turn promised that he would not let me drink more than the one glass and would make sure that I was keeping myself well hydrated throughout the meal with apple cider and seltzer. A little before sunset, I had the one drink. And, well, what can I say? It was anti-climatic.

So what does a crisp white wine taste like after one has been dry for nearly two years? To be honest, it tasted like alcohol. Rubbing alcohol. I felt no intoxicating effect and I tasted none of the tangy sweet crispness that I had remembered with wines. I continued to sip water in between sips of the wine, partly because the wine seemed a bit difficult to swallow. I did finish the glass and at that point pretty much felt as if I were done.

What does this say about the allure of wine in our society? How much is the "fine taste of wine" a real sensation and how much of it is a story we make up in our heads?

Before I began abstaining from alcohol, I was a pretty consistent daily drinker. I would have two or three (or four or five) glasses of wine through an evening, usually beginning the sips while preparing dinner and continuing until I was ready for bed, though often I would switch from wine to whiskey or vodka on ice after the meal. It amazed me even in those days that this was widely regarded as a socially accepted practice. It seemed to me that it was something else -- an addiction, perhaps a disease? I was afraid to name the practice. I didn't want to call myself out as complicit.

Going cold turkey as I did on December 13, 2012, has been one of the greatest cleansings of my life. Without alcohol affecting my taste buds, my senses, my moods, and my brain, I have felt strong, clear-headed, direct, and fairly confident in all of my words and deeds.

But abstention, as you might guess, hasn't been easy. I didn't realize it at the time, but when I gave up alcohol, I also gave up participation in a social milieu. I no longer would meet people at bars, or feel comfortable at parties. I opted out of a pre-graduation reception that the college where I teach was hosting because one of the advertised events was a champagne toast to the new graduates. I found myself feeling guilty at large athletic events, where free beer to all finishers of such endurance events as marathons were the rewards for a job well done. In settings where I could not avoid being in the presence of people drinking (such as my cousin's wedding reception last year), I would find myself feeling chilled and unsettled. It's hard to explain that physical sensation. It was almost as if abstention was giving me a fever.

Over time, I began to relax into abstention. I can successfully sit at a bar in a pub and have a bowl full of pasta or a small pizza with a ginger ale or a root beer. I made through a friend's wedding shower at a wine bar on water alone. I can joke now about being a tee-totaler because saying I don't drink no longer feels awkward. At the same time, however, I have begun to wonder whether it would be okay to try drinking again. Moderately? A single drink on a special occasion?

I feel like the answer came through fairly clearly with those few tentative sips of what tasted like rubbing alcohol earlier this week. If there's no pleasure in the flavor of alcoholic beverages, stick with the seltzer. It's cleaner, cheaper, and healthier any time. But I also feel that there needs to be a shift in how we imagine ourselves as social creatures. We need to understand that celebrations need not be made toxic with intoxicating drinks. We need to look at those crisp lovely bottles of wine for what they are: bottles of sugar-laden, full-fat poison that will ultimately kill us if we continue to treat them as delicacies.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

From raw to royal

I wrote a few weeks ago about a six-week series of food demonstrations and tastings that my husband Jim and I had begun offering at a local food pantry as part of a goal to encourage people who live on the tightest of budgets to incorporate more fresh locally produced vegetables into their diets. We just finished our fourth session today, and so far have featured preparations of kale, Hakurei turnips, summer squash, and green beans. While we have not yet been able to encourage very many people to watch the actual cooking process, our samples and recipes have been gaining a warmer and warmer reception.

The series is teaching me quite a few things and leading to a range of thoughts about politics, health, and food security. It also is motivating me to make changes in how I cook on a nightly basis and how I value certain vegetables and fruits. It also is encouraging me to look a little more deeply into how one can create a well-stocked kitchen while subsisting on a low income.

So step-by-step, let's start with politics. Well before the seeds for this project were sown, Jim and I were trying to dispel presumptions that shopping at the farmers market and/or eating organic, fresh-from-the-farm food were privileges of the affluent. Our stake in this fight was fairly personal -- as most political battles tend to be. We discovered the value of farmers markets ourselves in the summer of 2007 when both of us were unemployed for a brief period of time and had applied and were receiving food aid in the form of an EBT card. Going to farmers markets and buying local produce not only was a healthier chance but an economically feasible one because we could buy exactly what we thought we would consume in a week. Nothing would go to waste.

A year or so later, I was working several part-time and/or temporary contract jobs, one of which was as a fitness coach at a local Curves. My work shift on some days coincided with the farmers market, but understanding the budgetary and health value of purchasing produce at such markets, the Curves manager would cover for me for about forty-five minutes so I could get down to the market. And another year later, as I was still working several contract jobs, I found myself researching environmental justice and coming to a realization that there was a direct link between economically underprivileged neighborhoods and obesity. One study in Seattle, where I was living at the time, had found that people who lived in the generally poorer, more inner city neighborhoods south of the Lake Washington ship canal were generally about fifteen pounds heavier than those who lived in the more affluent northern neighborhoods. That insight was staggering to me for both personal and political reasons: I was a resident of a south of the ship canal neighborhood, and despite my high level of education and deep commitment to physical fitness and health, I was about twenty-five to thirty pounds overweight. These insights led me to theorize what is perhaps obvious: If people can find fresh, local affordable options for food (or even better yet, grow it themselves), rates of poverty, hunger, malnutrition, and obesity would drop significantly.

That memory rang itself back into my consciousness this morning as I handed clients of the local food pantry dixie cups filled with green beans that I had gathered from my garden the previous night. I prepared the beans in four different ways, starting with simply washing them, snapping them into bite-size pieces with my hands, and serving them raw.

"Wow," said one woman who was waiting in line, "what a treat. I don't usually eat healthy things like this."

She then shook her head and looked me in the eye. "You probably can tell by the way I look."

"We're trying to get you to eat healthy," I responded.

I went on to explain that a pint of green beans cost between $3 and $5 at the farmers market. Unlike the cheaper versions that could be purchased at grocery stores, however, the beans that were fresh from the soil would last considerably longer. "You know that they're fresh when you can snap them into pieces like these ones."

For the second preparation, I emphasized the simplicity of raw with one added touch: I steamed the beans in a bit of water. "You know that they're ready when their skin turns a bright green," I explained, noting that the $3 pint of green beans probably would make at least two or three meals.

"What did you put in them to make them taste so good?" one person asked.

"Water," I replied. "Just a little bit of water."

The third preparation emphasized a medley of flavors. I added oil, fresh onion, cabbage and cherry tomatoes that I quartered to the basic green beans. "This meal would cost about $2 to prepare," I explained. "There's nothing in it but fresh vegetables."

For the fourth and final preparation, I made the same mix of vegetables as I had for the third preparation. I added a simple twist: spices from India. I started with about one-eighth of a teaspoon of turmeric, which I added to the oil and allowed to froth as the oil heated up. I then sautéed the onions, added the beans and cabbage, and then two more spices: one-eighth of a teaspoon of ground cumin and the same amount (more or less) of coriander. I finished the dish by tossing in cherry tomatoes, once again chopped into quarters.

"Wow," said the intake officer at the food pantry's front desk, "You went from raw to royal."

"You know what this would go good with?" added one woman, a client of the food pantry?


"Brown rice."

I couldn't agree more. Before making the final dish, I had given some thought about how to present it. My fear was that the spices would add too much complexity to the dish and put it out of the price range of the food pantry clients. After thinking the issue through, however, I realized that most of the spices I use cost about $3 per jar and that a little bit of spice can go a long way.