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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Planes and the peanut problem: On pleasing everyone and pleasing no one

southwest peanuts packaged

I flew Southwest last week, which meant that I received peanuts for an in-flight snack.  Each time I fly this airline now, I wonder if it will be the last time they hand out the tasty legume.  In this age of prolific allergies--peanuts particularly--why do they insist on keeping the popular snack dating back to the early days of flying?

It cannot be for the sake of tradition.  Plenty of things airlines do now were not done fifty--even ten--years ago.  We pay to check bags and to secure "premium" seats, we touch our seatmates if we so much as move our pinky finger, and we don't light up cigarettes to celebrate our takeoff.  Change is inevitable, and the airlines don't seem to have a problem with it.

It cannot be because of money.  Peanuts are a relatively cheap snack choice, but so are pretzels and cookies, the preferred treats of other airlines.  Flour, water, sugar, and oil are inexpensive to process into small nibbles.

It cannot be in order to please everyone.  Parents of peanut-intolerant children worry about the seatmate who gobbles down peanuts next to their child on the plane and wonder whether flying Southwest and saving a few dollars is worth the risk of peanut exposure, subsequent epi-pen objections, in-flight emergencies, and hospital visits (I would be remiss, however, if I did not point out the recent science on allergic reaction triggers, which, in the case of peanuts, questions whether airborne particles alone can evoke a reaction).  On the other hand, those fed up with our allergy-obsessed society celebrate Southwest's cavalier rebuke of our (over)reactive society. (If you call ahead to report a severe allergy, Southwest will make accommodations, but the airline's default is to serve peanuts).

But no matter what Southwest does, Southwest will never win.  I admit that I am always annoyed when I fly other airlines and receive only a paltry bag of pretzels.  I am not a pretzel fan, and I would prefer something more substantive and nutritious than simple carbohydrates to hold me over to landing.  Then again, I don't have allergies.  I imagine many would make the argument that, given the danger involved, the crowd should act in the interest of those with the most to lose, and the airlines should not carry peanuts on board.

The peanut problem of course cuts deeper than airlines--it surfaces everywhere from school lunchrooms to friends' houses and restaurant kitchens.  But what interests me here is not peanuts per se but the inevitability of angering or upsetting or alienating at least someone.  No amount of nuance or accommodation ever seems to work for everyone.

So maybe that has been Southwest's logic from the get-go.  If we can't win them all, why go through the pretense of trying?  

Do you think that it is impossible to find a solution to please everyone?  Should we bother trying?

Friday, October 17, 2014

In defense of millennials: Why the church--and the world--needs the Entitlement Generation

I was invited to speak at my church last night.  One of my fascinations--okay, borderline obsessions--is the place of millennials in today's society.  Here are some reflections I shared on why millennials are not all bad, and how I hope our church and world will respond to some of my generation's insights. 

Life’s messy.  This might be my lesson in life, or at least for this decade.  Life's messy, but that’s okay. What insight do I have to tell about the experience of life, when I have barely lived a quarter of it? I can’t tell you all of my life's high and low points yet, or my regrets, or all the things that I wish I had known, but I can tell you about being a millennial and how my generation has its own insight to offer.

I know that millennials get a lot of grief: we’re entitled and flaky and addicted to technology and lazy and lack a moral compass. We’re too forthcoming with sex and we don’t really know how to work and we rely too much on our parents. This all may be true, but we bring some of our own gifts to the table, too, and I think that these gifts help make a bit of sense of my story so far.

We millennials, we’re kind of disillusioned. We’ve heard that we can have it all, and sooner or later, we all discover that we can’t. I think so much of the dream has been framed in terms of perfection: it’s about having the perfect house and perfect family and perfect job and perfect work-life balance. But life is full of trade-offs, and maybe my generation, with our instantaneous awareness of the bombs shooting off halfway around the globe and our unpaid internships and our appreciation of the pluralistic nature of our society--and the oppression inherent to its makeup--gets that in a really profound way.

What excites me, though, about being a twenty-something right now, is the possibilities I see open around me. No, I can’t have it all, but I can be creative in choosing what I want. I’m entering a field where jobs and paychecks are dwindling, but instead of viewing the reality that I may need a second job to support myself as a tragedy, I can see it as an opportunity. That is how the church began, after all. In the first and second centuries, priests and deacons and presbyters had other roles out in the world. Porous boundaries are not a bad thing. Moving back and forth between the parish and the publishing house or hospital or non-profit organization or whatever my be the case makes a lot of sense.

My generation craves depth and meaning. Part of the reason why we don’t want to pin ourselves down to 8 to 5 jobs is because we want not to be slaves to appearances but pursue what matters. Sometimes inspiration may strike at 10pm, and in the age of the internet and telecommuting, it might easily be possible to deliver our best work. Again, the boundaries between work and personal, office and home are becoming increasingly fuzzy--which has its problems, yes, but also has benefits. Work that fulfills us--and does not simply pay the bills--is what we want.

And when it comes to faith, denominational label has little to do with where we will place our allegiance. We want to find a church home that has substance and truth rather than rules and dogma. For us, it’s not so much about believing the right things as doing the right things--like serving the neighborhood and being kind instead of passing judgment. Churches that are places of acceptance and love and hospitality are much more inviting than churches that are about boundary-drawing and orthodoxy and rigidity.

I say all of this because I want to explain where I come from and why I feel the need to break the rules. I give details about the many times I have screwed up or felt despondent or doubted not to overshare but to pass along the gift I believe I can offer, that I believe millennials can offer, one which I believe the whole church, in fact, can offer. I cannot offer a ten-step plan for stewardship or service or how to grow the church, but I can testify to how messy this world is, and how my hope is in God to use it all. I can talk about how much it has hurt to be crushed, how I have felt ashamed and embarrassed sometimes, and how I brace myself for when it will happen again.

But I can also talk about the light that has broken through the darkness, how beauty can emerge from the mess. I don’t believe that God gave my dad cancer or killed my husband Dan’s parents in a plane crash, but I do believe God was present in the casseroles and doctors and hugs and tears of loved ones. I don’t know if God wanted me to be a priest all along instead of a professor, and if I simply ignored the call, or if God changed God’s mind too, but I know that my experiences as a religious scholar at Vanderbilt will make me a better priest. And I am not sure whether the decline of the Episcopal church (and the church as a whole) is God’s rally for us to toughen up, but I am sure that the church needs to begin to realize that its influence extends far beyond the bodies who are in the pews, and that its purpose is the building of a better creation, not capital campaigns.

Glennon Melton is an author and blogger at the popular website Momastery. I bet many of you have read it. She talks about how life is brutiful--equal parts broken and beautiful. I love that, but if I put my own words to my experience, I might describe life as a beautiful mess. Still messy, not perfect, but beautiful nonetheless.

That’s the eternal question: How do you make beauty out of life’s mess?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

On my nightstand: October edition

Apparently I have books on my mind right now, but for the bibliophiles out there, I have another book post.  Here's a look at what I've been reading this month.  To see more of what I've been reading or to trade book recommendations, follow me on Goodreads.  I'd love to hear about any recent literary gems you've found (or books that I shouldn't waste my time reading)!

The Smart Swarm
I wanted to love this book, but I didn't.  It combined many of my loves--biology, anthropology, and sociology--but fell flat.  Perhaps because the examples of human swarms in comparison to the commentary on animal behavior proved lackluster, perhaps because the conclusions drawn at the end were just too general...for whatever reason, this book did not capture me as I thought it would.

Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough
Lori Gottlieb is herself single at forty-one and questions why she cannot find a suitable mate.  Her adventures with speed dating and matchmaking lead her to the conclusion that she had been too choosy in her earlier years, waiting for the "perfect" man who would never come.  At once humorous, truthful, and wistful, this memoir affirmed some of my beliefs about marriage being a good thing, but not everything.  (It also kind of reminded me of this Times article, and surprise, surprise, Gottlieb wrote it!)

The Goldfinch
Not for me.  Does anyone else feel that lately drugs+art+tragedy=critically acclaimed hit?  I'll offer the caveat that I am not much of a fiction reader, but I found the novel dark and depressing often simply for the sake of being dark and depressing.  The plot line dragged and the story culminated in a conclusion far too tidy and incongruous with the rest of the book.
Complicated and imperfect, a perfect testament to our post-colonial and postmodern world.  Some of the book's content is quite mundane and recounts the daily routine's of the book's characters.  But I caught myself sucking my breath in at some apt observations, like how black American women are always said to be "strong black women," never any other descriptor.  With precision and insight, Adichie gets stereotypes.  I find myself reflecting on her observations well after putting the book down.
The 4-Hour Body
I HATED Tim Ferriss's The 4-hour Work Week but surprisingly enjoyed this. I wouldn't necessarily follow his advice but enjoy Ferriss's perspective--he views things from a unique angle and always looks for a better hack for doing the necessary parts of life--in this case, staying fit and, well, having good sex (so be forewarned about the less-than-G-rated content in these pages). Minimum effective dose, indeed.

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line
This book, of course, is more about entertainment than great prose.  The characters came across as flat, but I've never watched the TV series or movie, so the book may assume an audience of devoted fans.  Nothing special, but it does offer the complete thriller package of kidnapping and ransom, murder, wild beach parties, long-lost family members, and drug scandals.

I'm linking up to Modern Mrs Darcy's Twitterature (a monthly book review linkup).  To see more book reviews, head over to the site!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

My go-to vegan cookbooks

I rely heavily on blogs for meal planning and menu prep.  When I'm browsing the internet, it's easy simply to add a recipe that catches my eye to our dinner calendar.  That said, I still love thumbing through cookbooks.   After seeing one of my favorite bloggers share her favorite cookbooks other week, I thought it would be fun to do the same.  Here are my most well-loved titles:

vegetarian cooking

1.  Oh She Glows: most beautiful food

I have highlighted her work before, but it's worth mentioning again.  Blogger Angela Liddon takes gorgeous photography and posts fool-proof recipes.  Many of the bloggers who are more health-conscious have posted their fair share of rock-hard brownies and watery "cream" sauces.  Not so with Angela.  She relies on real, whole foods and her dishes are nutritious, accessible, and satisfying.  Everything with chocolate in this book is divine, as are thersoups.

2.  Peas and Thank You: most family friendly

The author of this cookbook has sadly gone off the map, but I still turn to this cookbook for quick, easy, and Dan-friendly meals.  Sarah Matheny's vegan recipes are probably most like familiar favorites from childhood: she puts a vegan spin on cheeseburgers and gnocchi and banana cream pie.  Favorite recipes include the African slow-cooker soup, pumpkin-spiced chickpeas, and the zucchini quinoa lasagna.

3.  Choosing Raw: most boundary-expanding

Want to eat more green vegetables?  Buy this book!  Blogger and nutritionist Gena Hamshaw demonstrates the diversity of raw foods--it's far more than crudites and salads (but, she has plenty of great salad recipes too!).  The dressings, sauces, and hummus recipes are simple staples that add flair to otherwise humble dishes.  I would recommend beginning with the cashew cheese.

4.  The Vegan Table: best for entertaining

Colleen Patrick-Goudreau breaks down menus by seasons and occasions, taking the guess work out of entertaining.  We don't always make all courses listed, but the suggested pairings serve as great sources of inspiration, and the recipes are fancy without being fussy.  We like the carrot ginger soup and polenta with tomato reduction.  

5.  Veganomicon: most precise techniques

While I don't open this book as often as I do the others, this is the Bible for vegan cooking.  Many of the recipes are more complex and multi-step, but you are rewarded with impressive outcomes.  Don't let the long recipes scare you: the instructions are so thorough that you'll catch any missteps and have any uncertainties resolved.  This is the book to pull out when you want to show off a bit, or if you want to unwind by spending an afternoon preparing dinner.

6.  Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar: most crowd-pleasing desserts

We're cookie people at our house, and I swear by the chocolate chip cookie recipe in this book (I've perfected the method for soft, chewy, almost-but-not-quite underbaked cookies, but that's a post for another day).  This book's umbrella includes all portable sweets that contain some sort of flour-sugar mixture.  Try the ultimate chocolate brownies and homemade Fig Newtons.

7.  How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: most comprehensive

I wish Mark Bittman would just go vegan already, but he has certainly dipped his toes well into the waters!  I haven't read VB6, but this book answers all the questions I have about how long to cook different beans and grains and which flavors pair best with which vegetables.  Although you can find all that information online, I find it handy to refer to the index of this book.

8:  Thug Kitchen: most carnivore (actually, that's a misnomer--it's omnivore, but you get the idea)-friendly

This book is more Dan's vote than my own, but I'm pleased that the book appeals to a broad audience.  The language is foul, but the recipes are incredibly virtuous.  The kitsch factor alone may be reason to buy this book, but so far the recipes that we have made--marinated tempeh. peach-mint tea, and cauliflower cream pasta--have impressed. 

My most-referenced cookbooks have obviously changed since I've gone vegan, but I do still modify omnivorous recipes sometimes.  I'm curious: have your cookbook preferences changed over time, or do you reach for the same favorites?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Want to get to know your neighbors? Get a dog.

puppy on couch

When I lived in Nashville, I once left a note for the girl who lived in the apartment beneath mine, asking if she had constructed the compost bin outside her door and if I could add some of my food scraps.  She wrote me a very nice note back, saying that no, she did not make the compost bin, and had no idea how it ended up on by her door, but we never spoke again.

When Dan and I lived in a planned community townhouse, we would walk down to our shared mailboxes and tentatively glance around at any neighbors who happened to be outside.  Most actively avoided making eye contact.

When I grew up in a traditional single family home in Alabama, my family would remark on how un-neighborly everyone was.  No one was downright rude (okay, maybe that one fellow down the street was, who always gave us the stink eye when we would pass by his house and wave), but no one was familiar and friendly either.  Those who lived near us would say hello and smile, but--southern stereotypes be damned--they were not the types to get lost in conversation on the sidewalk or knock on your door asking to borrow a cup of sugar.*

So, when Dan and I moved into our first single family home last year, I wondered: Was chatting with your neighbors a relic of the past?  Did neighborhood kids actually play in one another's yards anymore?

Our neighbors were kind on the day we moved in to our new place.  Most came over to introduce themselves and made a bit of small talk.  And then we never talked to them again--at least for the next three months.

That all changed when we adopted Gigi.  Suddenly, we were thrust into the world of parenting a furry child, into struggles to keep our socks unchewed and compost unconsumed, head-to-head wars with squirrels for Gigi's attention, and mounting despair that dog hair would cover every inch of our floor and furniture, no matter how frequently we vacuumed.

With this new member of our family, and with the new challenges we encountered, we found camaraderie with fellow doggie moms and dads.  Suddenly we were outside much more often, prey to the wandering nose of Gigi, with time to roam and meander.  Instead of moving through the neighborhood with focus and purpose as I did during my runs, I took stopped when a neighbor waved and greeted Gigi.  Those of us with dogs would complain about our fur children's (well, and human children, so I'm told) propensity to poop at the least opportune times and places.  We would laugh about the irresistible thrill of chasing squirrels and rolling in the mud, and we would talk about our dogs' retrieving and swimming habits.

We began to get to know our neighbors.  We noticed, on our afternoon walks, that neighborhood children would play basketball or enact a Star Wars sword fight in a cul-de-sac.  Our neighborhood had ice cream socials and Santa visits, and some neighbors even threw block parties.  The 1950s friendly neighborhood was alive and well, and it was right in front of us.

So, my question is this: Are these kinds of neighborhoods out there, and have they been there all along?  Had I simply not taken the time to appreciate the banter and affection that results from slowing down, going through the motions of small talk, and allowing those awkward initial conversations to blossom into something more meaningful and substantial?  Did Gigi help me to realize what was already under my nose?  Or is our new neighborhood special?

I imagine the answer lies somewhere in the middle, but I'll take it.  Speaking of which, I think Gigi needs a walk.

*I'm pleased to report that my parents' current neighbors are much more friendly!

I'm curious: Do you know your neighbors--and if so, do you have a dog?