Sourdough Lessons

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Bread is considered one of the most humble of foods. Little did I know that humble bread would humble and humiliate me in a battle to doughy death.

A year or so ago, I thought it would be cool to have a sourdough starter. I kept it in the refrigerator in a glass mason jar with a hinged top that locked into place. I’d feed it every week or so if I remembered and the stuff would separate into a murky whitish putty underneath a cloudy liquid. Sometimes I would make bread, adding yeast because that’s what you do when you make bread, along with the sourdough starter. The bread was okay, nothing great and kind of dense. My husband went on the no-carb wagon and the bread-making got farther and father apart.

And then, one day I noticed that my sourdough starter had started growing green fuzz. Not in the starter itself, but up the sides of the jar and in and around the rubber sealing ring of the lid.

I joined a Facebook group of sourdough experts and asked around. I was right – green fuzz is no good. I dumped the whole thing. Didn’t even keep the pretty jar.

After a few weeks and lots of lurking on that Facebook page, I began to see the error of my ways. I had starved my starter. That cloudy liquid on the top was called hooch and it’s like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors – it’s your starter saying, “Feed me, Seymour!”

Without enough good bacteria, the mold had gotten a toehold in the jar.

Okay, I could do this.

I sent off to San Francisco – home of all things sourdough – for a new batch of starter. I ordered a new pretty jar. And I began again. I even named my starter this time, a sarcastic name, but still a name. She is Princess.

I fed Princess more consistently. When I was ready to make bread, I took some starter out, fed that, and let it rest and do its thing.

I followed the recipe to the letter. The dough was wet and not particularly springy. But I had faith. I baked. It took longer than the recipe said, but I knew I wanted a dark crust. So I baked longer.

The moment of truth: I cooled my bread and cut into it. A crusty, dense hockey puck, the middle still raw and the crust nearly impenetrable.

Over on the Facebook page, the group was posting photos. Golden loaves and boules with elaborate carvings of leaves and braids. I had a hockey puck and these people were practically making sourdough castles complete with moats and dragons.

I tossed my hockey puck – honestly, not even the birds would eat it. And I tried again.

The process takes days. You have to take Princess out and let her warm up, take out a little bit and feed that, do more adding, waiting and something called folding. If you start early Thursday morning, you should have bread by Sunday night.

But I did every step. Gave it extra rising time.

This time, a Frisbee. Edible and cooked through, but hardly lovely. Barely bread. More like a cakey focaccia.

I’m going to try again, of course. My persnickety princess of a starter is not going to win.

Vicki from the Facebook group told me what I’ve come to learn as the real truth:

She said:

“When I really put my mind to it, really pay attention and stay in the moment (i.e. I’m mindful), the bread is much, much better than when I dash through it thinking about other things. Sourdough really responds to thoughtful hands. Mindfulness isn’t what I had in mind when I started baking, but it’s what I discovered along the way.”

Fine. Mindfulness is a lesson I am still trying to learn and if sourdough is here to teach me, then I’ll try to learn that. Sourdough…it’s science, it’s art, it’s Zen. And it may be more than I can handle.

 

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Why Do We Give

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A year or so ago, my husband and I were walking home and we heard this homeless guy telling everyone who passed that he was hungry. He wasn’t actually asking for money, he was just telling people he was hungry and asking if they could help.

I seldom carry cash anymore, but I could use my credit card to help end this guy’s hunger.

So, I found a pizza place that was open and I bought the guy a small pizza and a bottle of water.

Was he happy or grateful? He was not. He wanted money, not pizza.

And it got me thinking. Why do people give?

I turned to psychology – well, Psychology Today, actually. And a psychologist there wrote about the four kinds of altruism that we humans have developed.

The first is nepotism altruism. That’s the kind of altruism you do for those in your family. It’s apparently not just because you love your family, but because you are biologically invested in having your genetic material make it long-term, and your family is made up of your genetic material.

So, according to that theory, I don’t love my daughter for her own sake, I love her because she carries on the family gene pool.

Now, I know people who have adopted and they would give their lives for those kids, DNA or not, so I’m not sure about that theory.

The second kind of altruism is reciprocal altruism. You know, the standard you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours. This kind of altruism means you will sacrifice in the short term because you know there’s a longer-term payoff. I guess you could say Machiavelli had this kind of altruism, because it all sounds very calculating to me. It’s Mob altruism. Very much like, “I’ll vote for you, but don’t forget who your friends are when that legislation comes up.”

The third kind of altruism is the good you do for the sake of the group. War movies are full of this stuff…the guy who throws himself on a grenade so his platoon can survive. I would imagine that Congressional legislation would fall under this, if we had anyone in Congress willing to give anything up for the greater good. I wonder about this kind of altruism. As we become more tribal in this country, and our tribes get smaller, I wonder whether this kind of altruism is going to become extinct.

The final kind of altruism is moral altruism. That’s the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have the do unto you. And, according to this psychologist, people have a certain view of themselves and if they violate it, they experience a kind of dissonance that’s uncomfortable. The article says that this last kind of altruism is uniquely human, by the way.

I don’t know about that. On a really bad day, is the sympathy and kindness I feel from my two dogs just some kind of transaction for them? Is it a feed-me-and-I’ll-be-good-to-you kind of doggy altruism? Or is it the other way around? If they aren’t sweet to me, they fear that I’ll stop feeding them?

And wouldn’t that be another kind of altruism? The kind that is fear-based? The kind that says that people won’t be good to each other unless you hang a death penalty over their heads?

Let me get back to my homeless guy.

Why do we give?

Is it fear, or is it a bribe to the fates so you don’t wind up like that homeless guy, or is it helping us define ourselves to ourselves as good people, so we can sleep at night?

giving

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Space in Love

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But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

 That’s the famous Khalil Gibran quote and you’ve probably heard it incorporated into LOTS of wedding ceremonies.

And as we get ready to celebrate Valentine’s Day, I have to wonder…what does that mean? What are spaces in your togetherness, and when is it too much space?

My mom and dad were married straight out of high school. They were married for more than 50 years and hardly ever spent a day apart. There was a brief time when dad did some sales calls on the road when I was really young, but by the time I was in college, they had started a business together and it was rare to find them apart. Weekly phone calls to the parents, it was just understood: one parent on each phone extension and nothing was ever a secret from the other one. It was always momanddad like it was one word, never mom…and…dad.

I kept trying to get them to do some things on their own, especially after I first heard that Khalil Gibran quote.

But my mom would just say, “There’s nobody I enjoy as much as I enjoy spending time with your dad, so why would I?”

When I married my husband, I married someone with very different interests. He likes photography, discipline, solitude. I like dancing, horseback riding, being pampered, and making dinner for friends. I do love spending time with him, but I would never ask him to go to a spa vacation with me. It would be excruciating for him, and worrying about him would ruin my own state of zen.

So, most years, I go without him.

The first year we did separate vacations, my mom was really worried. This was my second marriage and she was convinced I was going to screw this one up too…I mean…separate vacations?! People only do that when their marriage is in trouble! And then they have vacation flings that hammer the final nails into the marriage.

Well, no.

In fact, I would find that I came back from those vacations with a renewed appreciation for my husband. I missed him, but I would never have had the chance to miss him if he was with me every minute!

I mentioned earlier that my husband and I are very different. I can try and pretend that I care about the angle and light of endless photos of the same animal, but why? My husband is much happier without me, geeking out over camera equipment with his photographer friends. No need for me to be there.

And, dancing? Well, my husband has taken a few lessons with me, just because he’s that nice a guy. But when we go to the dance floor, he dances a few beats of a song and then gets bored. And, since songs are usually only an average of 2.5 minutes, that tells you just how much he hates dancing. But should I never dance again because my spousal dance partner won’t?

Now, my mom would have said, yes, I should never dance again. That we should develop hobbies that we both enjoy so that we can do them together. Behind that advice would be the secret fear my dance partner would somehow become more attractive to me than my own husband is.

Could happen, I suppose.

But that feeling that you need your partner to be your other half in everything? It’s not going to stop you from having an affair, if that’s what you’re set on doing.

Honoring the spaces in your togetherness depends on your maturity and your being complete all by yourself. Because that “you complete me” stuff you see in movies? It’s bullshit. Go get some space in your togetherness.

woman binding his man with a chain on white background

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Everybody Lies

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Everybody lies.

That’s not me talking, that’s science.

I read an article by data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz about data he tracked on google searches. Now, you can lie to your friends and you can lie to a survey-taker – and people do, all the time. But you can’t lie to google. By your searches, ye shall know them.

So, way back in 1950, researchers asked people in Denver whether they voted, whether they gave to charity, and whether they had a library card. The researchers already had this data, so they knew the truth already. But guess what happened when they asked Denver folks about this stuff? You guessed it. They lied. They were WAY more smart, generous and involved in their survey answers than they were in real life.

And guess what. They’re still lying. Everyone is.

They lie about sex. Ask any researcher and they will tell you that the number of times people have sex is WAY less frequent than they boast about in surveys.

But even more chilling, they lie about things like prejudice. Seth looked at data from Google searches and aggregated them into some interesting conclusions about people.

Google reveals that people search for things like, “Why are black people rude?” and “Why are Jews – or Muslims – or lots of other races – evil?”

The researcher also says that Google tells us a bit about our attitudes on gender. Like the searches about boys had to do with whether someone’s kid was smart or not. The searches about young girls? They had to do with her appearance, like “Is my daughter overweight.”

Kind of depressing.

liars

 

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Rituals

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So, how have you been doing on those New Year Resolutions?

Have you lost weight/exercised more/become a better person? Yeah, me neither. The difference is that I don’t do resolutions anymore. I just can’t seem to stick to them, even when I try. I know that you have to do something new for a certain amount of time and then it becomes a habit and, before you know it, you’re a new, improved version of yourself. I just can’t seem to get the old, unimproved version of myself on board.

I’m not alone. According to a psychologist in US News & World Report, 80% of resolutions fail by February.

So, I don’t do resolutions anymore.

Instead, I do rituals that mark the changing of the year. Resolutions don’t make me feel like I’m getting a fresh start, but rituals do.

For me, that means a frenzy of organizing. I’m a list person even in the worst of times, but the new year brings lists of lists. Back before electronic calendars, I used to transfer every birthday and anniversary from one year to the next, adding a year so I would know how old people were or how many years they’d been married. People thought I was incredibly thoughtful but I just had a good calendar system. Nowadays, with repeat functions on calendars and Facebook reminders, it’s almost impossible to forget a birthday. So that ritual went by the wayside, but I have others.

And my rituals?

I guess I’m as superstitious and ambitious as everyone else.

I cook the traditional meal – greens for money, black-eyed peas for luck —  but I also shred old files, do an inventory and clean-out of what’s in my pantry and freezer (huh…just how many ginger roots did I think I’d need?!), and I update my death book. You know, the book that has where my will is, where the passwords are, who to call when I die, and the self-deprecating obituary I wrote for myself.

The only thing I don’t touch is the blank date of death on the obituary. I’m superstitious and ambitious, not crazy!

 

 

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Strong but Safe

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In May 2018, I was honored to be part of a performance of the Charleston performance of, “Listen to Your Mother,” a live performance of essays about motherhood. 

You can read my essay below, or scroll to the end and see a video of my performance. It was a helluva show and I made some wonderful friends. Enjoy! 

“Are you going to be okay?”

My mother was on her deathbed and she wasn’t letting go until she made sure that her only child would be all right. Her dark eyes were sharp despite the pain, and lasered into mine.

A good daughter would offer reassurance. Mom had struggled for months and she was tired. A stronger daughter would ease her mind so that death could ease her body.

At that moment, I didn’t want to be strong. All I wanted was to push aside the monitors still strapped to her, and nestle under her soft arm, wailing and moaning and being weak. Mama, please don’t leave me.

Who will I be if I don’t see myself reflected in your eyes? How will I stand strong when I no longer have you as my soft place to fall?

My mother, my closest friend and biggest cheerleader, was dying. No, I wasn’t going to be okay. I probably would never be okay.

But that wasn’t what she needed to hear, and this moment was about her and her death, not me.

So, when she asked, “Are you going to be okay?” I answered, “Yes, Mama, I’ll be okay. You raised a strong one.”

And, she did, although I didn’t feel strong at the moment. She raised a strong one almost despite herself.

My mom lived in terror that something would happen to me. It was so important to her that I stay safe.

Her fears ranged from the traditional “stranger danger” to the repetition of mistakes she made. My mom married my dad quite young because she was pregnant with me. Up until she fell in love with my dad, she was a good Catholic girl from an Italian immigrant family, going to a Catholic high school. Sex – let alone pregnancy – before marriage was a sin and my presence in my mom’s womb caused grief for everyone my mom knew.

It didn’t matter that she and my dad married and would stay happily married for 53 years until Mom died. My mom was determined that I would never make the mistakes she made.

Sometimes, it meant that she overreacted a bit.

My announcement in 7th Grade that I was “going steady” with a boy – which meant only that we would hold hands and sit together at lunch – was met with screaming… and tears…and threats… and dire warnings unless I returned the cheap silver ring he had given me. Sobbing, my mother explained that spending time alone with a boy so young would lead to “urges”… and then giving in to those urges… and then sex and pregnancy and disgrace and destroyed potential.

It seemed a bit extreme, but I gave the ring back.

In college, when I went camping –not my thing, but my boyfriend at the time sure loved it – she sent news clippings about a crazed killer who had murdered young people in their tents.

It was just one of many dire warnings as my mother let me know that I was truly wonderful – but likely to be struck down by fate or drunken drivers or serial killers at any moment.

And, as I got older, I promised myself I wouldn’t be bound by my mother’s irrational fears.

Living in the city? Yep. Waiting for a bus on dark street corners after covering a meeting for the local paper? Sure, I was tough. Sex? AIDS wasn’t really a thing yet and the Pill was, so BIG yes.

I was fearless. And I wasn’t going to let my mom’s obsession with my safety affect my life.

And, when I had my own daughter one day? She was going to be fearless too.

Except, right before I got pregnant with my fearless daughter, there was a case in which a young girl was taken, just as her mother looked down to pack up their things after a Christmas party at their apartment complex. She looked up and her daughter was gone. And she would stay gone until her body was found, years later.

So, yes, my daughter would be fearless, but I would keep a better eye on her so she would also be safe.

And because I had taken so many risks in my life on the road to being strong, I could share with her the obstacles that might trip her up.

I would raise my daughter strong but safe.

Well, that’s what I thought I was doing.

Isn’t it funny how your children can become a mirror to reflect back to you a version of yourself you just don’t see?

My daughter is an adult. She has a wonderful job, a rich life, and boundless enthusiasm for one thing after another.

Recently, she decided to raise chickens. She has her own house, so it’s not like she’s going to be raising them in an apartment.

But I immediately started trying to clear the obstacles. Had she checked zoning in her city? Informed the neighbors? There are woods nearby and her yard isn’t fenced – what about the danger of coyotes?

Hard to imagine, I know, but she didn’t react well.

And, confident in my rightness, I laid out a list of all her enthusiasms over the years and how few she’d stuck with, and why listening to me would have saved her time.

This was by text, by the way. That’s how we seem to conduct all our arguments these days.

And, my daughter, in the most loving way possible considering how angry she was, sent back a text with a list of her own. All the times I had responded with dire warnings very much like my own mother had done.

Lost that extra 10 pounds? Great, but don’t expect the rest of the weight to come off as quickly because the last five pounds always hang on. Buying a house? Great, but don’t spend too much on decorating, because things are going to break and you’ll need money for that. Make more money than your photographer boyfriend? Fine, but one day he may come to resent the disparity — and you may as well — so be prepared for that.

My daughter told me: “You will say that you’re proud of me but honestly it doesn’t mean much because you turn around and question every decision I make. Not in a constructive way, in a limiting way, a way that takes away my feeling of autonomy. I’m simultaneously the light of your life, but incapable of making informed decisions, impulsive and foolhardy. It gives me whiplash.”

I, who prided myself on being fearless and optimistic, had become the Greek chorus of doom in my daughter’s life.

Even in the midst of the text argument, I had told my daughter that I loved her. Her response?

“I love you right back but my perception of you is that you are far more negative than you think you are.”

It rocked me.

All I wanted was my daughter to be safe. Why couldn’t she listen to me?

And then it hit me.

My daughter was ignoring my dire warnings, much like I used to roll my eyes at my own mother’s doom and gloom. My daughter wasn’t stupid and she wasn’t reckless, but she had assigned my drumbeat of fear the role of just background noise.

And, by raising a daughter who ignored me, I too had raised a strong one.

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