Friday, February 27, 2015

#AskHerMore and preaching in heels

reese witherspoon quote
Photo credit: AP Photo via Facebook
I'll admit right away that I didn't watch the Oscars this year, but one of the first things I saw in each recap was a mention of Reese Witherspoon's #AskHerMore campaign and Patricia Arquette's appeal for equal pay.  The feminist edge to the Academy Awards elicited mixed reactions, it seems, which I can understand.  Many woman cheered, while others complained, disappointed, that the show had far too serious a tone, that maybe the year's biggest event was not the time or place to air such grievances.

But, of course, that was the point: When better to call attention to an issue?  Why not tag on to an already huge platform and highlight how differently women and men are treated when they have supposedly reached the very pinnacle of their careers?

I don't think that the problem is the dresses or the hair or the diamonds.  I imagine most of the women on Sunday night's red carpet enjoyed or at least actively participated in the crafting of their looks, and, while I could begin an entirely other conversation on how we celebrate one particular type of beauty, how its limited, and how its a problem, I want to keep things simple here and say that fashion is fun.  Fashion is a form of self-expression, what we want the world to know about us at first glance.  

I always say that we were not created as floating, ghost-like souls, so our bodies must matter.  The dichotomy that we've set up is really unfortunate, then: either one does serious work or looks pretty; it's either brains or beauty.  Younger generations have begun to complicate that presumption somewhat, but it still operates.  Just look at all of the shapeless clergy shirts on women pastors and priests and men's suits on women lawyers.  To be taken seriously in fields previously dominated by men, women must look like men.  If women dare to stray from the unspoken dress code, that becomes all anyone can talk about: instead of engaging the content of the sermon or the case, the only topic worth mentioning is the high heels or earrings the woman professional chose to wear.  It often is a lose-lose: (many) women downplay their own tastes and preferences to be taken seriously or they honor their own likes and dislikes but lose respect and credibility.

What I hope becomes possible is a both-and: We can care about outward appearance and be respected for our brains and wit.  Fussing over silhouettes or pant length may not interest everyone--although I do notice, to my delight, that there seems to be growing attention to male fashion, and it is becoming more socially acceptable for men to adopt characteristically "feminine" habits towards dress and grooming--and I don't argue that it should.  But I hope that the way forward is decidedly less narrow, less constraining.

Maybe the point is not that the press shouldn't ask Reese who she is wearing (although they might ask her that after seeking her reflections on her attitude towards taking on her latest role) but that they should spend as much time asking Kanye West and Neil Patrick Harris and Brad Pitt the same.

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

What can you lose and still achieve the same result?

I remember reading that the grocery store chain Wegmans opted to remove the apostrophe from its name after calculating the cost of proper punctuation.  Each large neon letter and symbol outside of the front doors ran upwards of a half million dollars, and the company's chief decision makers decided that an apostrophe simply was not worth that kind of money.  Sure, the name technically is not grammatically correct, but who really misses the tiny curly line?  That's what the brand banked on, anyway, and it seems that their bet paid off.

I've been thinking about the idea of losing and gaining a lot recently.  You know the Ninety Ten Rule--that the first ninety percent of the task takes ninety percent of the time, and the last ten percent takes the other ninety percent?  Some may say that it's the Eighty Twenty Rule, but regardless, the idea is that the most bang for your buck comes not from the details and minutia, which are the true time suckers, but the work at the beginning.  That's not to say the details aren't sometimes crucial--we want perfection when we are talking about brakes on a car or heart surgery--but I continue to go back to the Wegmans sign: When should we settle for good enough?

Do hours of extra work always translate into noticeable results?  I think about times when I've made fudge with a double boiler and candy thermometer and times when I've made it in the microwave--the microwave version always receives way more compliments and requests for the recipe.  Or when I edit and edit and edit a piece of writing only still to be over the word limit.  Or the occasions when someone puts weeks into perfecting a work presentation but it does not go over, not because the presentation was lacking, but because there were fundamental differences in vision.

Letting go is not something that our culture prizes.  How much better does it seem, after all, to brag about the three hours of sleep you got last night because you were working so hard than boasting about the relaxing evening you enjoyed unwinding with your family followed by a reasonable amount of rest?

But it is a value I continue to want to hold up and explore further.  For one thing, letting go enables us to have full, rich, well-rounded lives.  For another thing, it reminds us that we are not the center of the universe: If we let go, life will still go on, work will still get done.  But most of all, how much really stands to be lost by stepping back--or maybe more importantly, what stands to be gained?

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Sunday, February 15, 2015

On my nightstand: February edition

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)!

This book includes tips from successful entrepreneurs and creatives for establishing effective work habits.  I had high hopes but was underwhelmed, which I am starting to think is partly because I scored the book for free (there really is something to the idea that paying for something increases value).  I may try to read it again in a few months to see if I feel differently.  I expected more concrete, memorable takeaways, but I am coming up short.

I picked up this book based on my husband's co-workers recommendation, and I would agree that it is worth a look.  The chapters continue to make the same point using different data, which can be summed up as: Millionaires don't spend tons of money.  Perhaps not jaw dropping or mind blowing, but a good reality check nonetheless.  If nothing else, it will make you think about your spending habits.

This was a sweet, fun read.  Although I am not a member of the Jane Austen fan club (I like her but don't love her), I enjoyed this story of two sisters' reunion.  The book will probably touch you in some way: between its references to food, cancer, New York, Seattle, and loss, the novel finds a way to connect with every reader.  The topics addressed are heavy, but the tone manages to stay light, fresh, and hopeful.

When I need inspiration, oftentimes I read.  Productivity books give me the kick in the pants I need to get going again.  The attitude is no-nonsense but encouraging.  Read not so much to learn something new but to reaffirm your commitments.

I knew I would love this book before I even cracked up its cover because so many people I love and by whom I am inspired have followed in Thurman's footsteps.  This book is more a chronological sketch or ethnography than a finished work; I see it as meant to spark the imagination more than provide all of the answers.  If you wonder what race and religion have to do with one another or simply need a message of hope, seek out this book.

(Or, Evolving in Monkey Town) Rachel Held Evans makes me want to be an evangelical.  Her voice strengthens as she matures, so I would recommend her other works over this one, but I am glad she shared her story.  While I didn't identify with all parts of her conservative southern Christian culture, I saw pieces of my Alabama childhood in her humorous but insightful tales of coming to, losing, and coming to again faith.  I imagine her words hit home for many others as well.

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

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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Is it possible to meal plan and eat seasonally?

I love order, probably beyond a healthy level.  When I plan meals for the week, I take comfort in knowing what exactly I will buy at the grocery store, being certain that we have all the ingredients we need.  But I also love supporting local farms and tasting the delicious fresh bounty that the perfect soil, good weather conditions, and the right timing make possible.  I have struggled: Can I honor both?  Is it possible to maintain my meal plan but also eat seasonally and locally?

It's not exactly easy.  There is inevitable chance that accompanies a commitment to seasonal and local eating.  Sometimes the weather doesn't cooperate or pests destroy lots of the crop or things otherwise just do not go according to plan.  The risk inherent to seasonal and local eating complicates attempts to impose structure on my weekly menus.

But, after a few years of learning to go with the flow without letting go of the idea of structure completely, I have found a few strategies that enable me to keep a (relatively) tidy weekly meal calendar and appreciate the sweet fruits of the summer and root vegetables of the fall.  

Here are my tips:

1.  Subscribe to a weekly local produce delivery service or CSA.

If it is automatic, there's less temptation to skip the trip to the farmers market and rely solely on the grocery store.  We use a doorstep delivery service because we've discovered that traffic is too much of a deterrent to picking up a CSA box each week.  While I love going to the farmers market, it's not feasible for my schedule right now to go every week.  The subscription option is a painless solution to our complaints about lack of time.

2.  Customize your local produce options if possible.

We can swap a few ingredients out of our weekly box.  I know that we don't enjoy spinach very much, so I might opt for extra kale or butternut squash the weeks that it makes an appearance.  That said, I do try to stretch our tastebuds.  I'll usually give every ingredient a try at least once during the season.  Sometimes experimentation with cooking method or repeated exposure leads us to acquire a taste for less loved vegetables.

3.  Follow several favorite food blogs or earmark recipes to try in current magazine issues.

Food bloggers tend to highlight seasonal flavors, as do magazines.  Commit to adding a few into your meal rotation.  I'll bookmark recipes that sound intriguing and then place them into my Google calendar.  I can play around with exactly when I make which recipe, but reading about current food trends means that my menu naturally features stews in the winter and crisp salads in the summer.

4.  Be flexible with your ingredients.

Compare your local produce for the week with your tentative meal plan and tweak accordingly.  Swap out sweet potatoes for butternut squash or arugula for baby kale.  What I find to be key with playing with vegetables is water content: Any vegetable of relatively similar water content can replace another.  The flavor may differ, but a shepherd's pie with parsnips and broccoli totally can work, as can enchiladas with peas and carrots (In other words, don't substitute mushrooms for potatoes).  You may choose to scrap some recipes altogether and take your cue from the produce, but often times recipes can be reinvented depending on what you have on hand.

5.  Make extra and freeze.

On weeks that you end up with more produce than you know what to do with, double your recipes to freeze.  Soups and pasta sauces work beautiful, as do pureed fruit and vegetable cubes for smoothies.  If you have the freezer space, greens freeze fine without any preparation: next time you make a smoothie, simply grab a handful of frozen leaves and add them to the blender for extra nutrition and a thick, icy texture.

6.  Build in an improv night.

Most people have leftovers night, so consider also adding a night to improvise based on what you have in your fridge.  You may want to designate a certain day of the week to do this--every Thursday, for instance, is your wing it meal--or flex it depending on the particular week's rhythms.  Some meals will be better than others, but I guarantee you will end up with a few favorites.  My family never would have never discovered how much we liked oven baked flatbreads with pizza sauce and roasted vegetables if not for this principle.

7.  Vegetables aren't just for dinner, and fruit isn't just for snacks.

Make it easy to load your entire day up with produce by prepping ahead of time.  Roast the parsnips and delicata squash from your produce basket for salads, grate the tough September zucchini for zucchini bread, and add finely chopped apples to slaw.  Thinking beyond the dinner meal means that produce is less likely to go bad after weeks of sitting in the crisper drawer and opens up new recipe and preparation ideas.

We're definitely not perfect over at my house, but we're learning, and we're getting better as the years go by.  How do you balance the unpredictability of local harvests with your grocery shopping and cooking routines?

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Thursday, February 5, 2015

The magic of the Magic Eraser: Thoughts on girlfriends and domesticity

Our entire house has been covered in layers and layers of dust for the past month.  We discovered our basement shower leaked back in December, and then we found that the same was true of our master bath.  So, we've gutted both of the bathrooms, ripped out all of the tile, re-installed shower pans, re-tiled, re-drywalled, and re-grouted.  And by we, I mean our contractors.

Keeping a clean home is a losing battle.  I vacuum, and we realize that we need more drywall repair, and more sanding happens, which means more dust.  We haven't done laundry in ages because our bathroom renovation affected our washer and dryer, and other bits of our house's framing have disappeared because we needed to replace some of our pipes too.

Finally there is light at the end of the tunnel, and our contractor's parting gift to us was a cleaning service.  Several kind women came in yesterday and scrubbed our upstairs from top to bottom.  To my delight and relief, I can see the floor again.  I think Dan is happy too, but not so much because the house is clean but because I am sane again.  Which got me to thinking, yet again: What is it with women and cleanliness?

The stereotype is a sweeping generalization and not entirely fair, but far more of my girlfriends are hung up on combating every trace of dirt and grime from their homes than any of my male friends.  What interests me most about this phenomenon right now, though, is not whether it is socialization or culture or nature that leads women to hold these opinions but how these instincts act as bonding opportunities.  Lamenting over a dirty home is something that instantly unites my female co-workers.  We have stood in the hallway in front of our offices before and marveled over the wonder of a Magic Eraser, remarking that we really are not so different from the women who squealed with glee over the magic of the microwave some 60 years ago.  As much as our penchant for cleanliness may stem from misogynistic ideas about purity and an unhealthy cultural suspicion of messiness, little compares to the shared understanding that underlies these sorts of conversations about new cleaning technologies and dirty house brain fog.  We all hold the same secret; we get each other on a fundamental level.  An intimacy emerges from talking about house and home that does never does in chatter about office supplies or CNN, the same sort of intimacy that propels us through discussions about Spanx and PMS and sex.

Times like these, I would not trade being a woman for the world.  Maybe the demands made of us are too high--that we achieve the ever elusive "balance," that we look beautiful and perfect while doing so, that our homes and our families and other charges, who are all natural extensions of us, appear perfect as well--but perhaps precisely because of that fact, we can let down our guard with one another, take those unfair expectations and flip them on their head, so that they are not stifling but enlivening, not a source of grief but humor, a means not of isolating us in shame but bringing us together in triumphant jest.

Does this resonate?  Or do I have it all wrong?  Tell me what you think.

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