Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Wearing the ribbon, day 7

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Last week I said that, in response to the death of Michael Brown, I was going to wear black and white ribbons for the next 100 days and some people asked me to give updates. So here’s my first.

A little recap--I wanted an an outward sign not only of my sadness over what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, but also of my recognition of my white privilege and my hope that people I encounter would treat me with the same respect and courtesy if I were black.

 A little logistical update--Making the ribbon is trickier than it looks. Since I’m kind of klutzy, it took few days to get it to not look like a sorority pledge ribbon. Now it’s got that little loop we’re so used to seeing in different colors. According to the internet, it’s called an awareness ribbon, so I’m thinking of it as my white privilege awareness.

And so far that’s exactly what it’s turned out to be: MY awareness. When I first wore it, I felt as if I was wearing a sign and I rehearsed how I wanted to talk about it. But, actually, almost no one has asked me about it. 

I, however, have thought about it a lot. Every day when I pin it on, I am aware that I am  making a public statement about my identity. I feel as if I’m pinning on my whiteness and all the societal implications that go with it, including things I take for granted that others are routinely denied. Even if no one else comments or notices or has a clue why I am wearing it, I know. 

Back in the 80s, as a volunteer with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, I took part in a session where we were asked what we considered the single most fundamental part of our identity. Surrounded by people whose answer was “gay,” I realized I never thought about “straight.”

Likewise, this weekend I attended an opera festival where, at at one point, I sat near a woman who was very obviously once a man. Although she wore long hair and lively pink nail polish, her body language was painful--guarded and uneasy. Even in this bucolic setting among  this very specific group she looked as if she felt at risk. And I thought about the privilege of not thinking about going out in public identified as “other” in people’s eyes--and about how many categories of “other” people are made to feel. 

I am hoping against hope that Ferguson will provide a turning point. I am hoping even as I see the horrifying comments and hundreds of thousands of dollars pouring forth in support of the officer who shot Michael Brown.  Every day the news dashes my hopes. But still, I am hoping and I am wearing my ribbon.

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One very small very personal action

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A few weeks ago  I had an encounter with a police officer. I was driving down a Cambridge street and drove through a crosswalk just as a pedestrian was nearing the far sidewalk.  Seemed like a totally reasonable thing to do, no danger to anyone, but as I was stopped at the traffic light just past the crosswalk, a police officer walked over to me and said politely, “In Massachusetts, the law is that you need to stop whenever someone is anywhere in the crosswalk.” “Oh, I didn’t know that,” I said and he said,  “Have a nice day,” and I drove away thinking, “what if I had been black? What if, instead of being an old white woman, I were a young black man?” 

In fact, a young black man I know, a delightful poet who has done tremendous good in our community, had a similar small traffic incident recently and it did not end with the officer saying, “Have a nice day.” 

So, as I am thinking, like many of you, of Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missouri, and the long line of injustice and tragedy that shows no sign of ending,  I am also thinking of how I am wrapped in the protection of my skin color. 

There have been so many times I might have had a similar incident--the taillight I didn’t realize was out, the misjudged yellow light--the thousand and one little things that might have gotten me into trouble but didn’t. I’m thinking of the many times I’ve wandered through a store “just looking, thanks,” without being followed, or how I walk down the street without worrying that someone might decide to question my freedom to do that. There was a Saturday when Dr. D. and I ate a Formaggio barbecue lunch on a picnic bench in front of a nearby school:  the school was closed, but there was a “no trespassing” sign, and we were aware of the privilege we felt in our white skin to do this small, harmless thing. 

When my crosswalk incident took place, Michael Brown was alive and well, spending summer evenings with friends and getting ready to start college. In the weeks since then, and especially now in the days since Michael Brown’s death, I find myself in daily interactions wondering if I would be treated the same way if I were black. A stupid question, I know, insensitive, societally tone-deaf. 

I’ve decided to do a very small thing. I bought some white ribbon and black ribbon and pinned a snip of each on my shirt.  It’s an outward sign of my sadness, not unlike the torn black ribbon Jewish mourners wear when a family member has died.  It is also, I hope, an invitation to a conversation. I hope I will be asked about it, so I can say I’m wearing it because I am heartbroken over what took place in Ferguson and because I realize I have the unearned protection of white privilege and that I hope the people I meet during my day who treat me with courtesy and respect would do the same if I were black. 

It’s a tiny thing, subtle and maybe totally inconsequential, and, I hope, not presumptuous. I am wearing it today for the first time, and I feel a little nervous, a little self-conscious, a little uneasy about whether anyone will react and how I will respond. I’m going to wear it for 100 days. It’s a personal response, but if you see me, I’ll have ribbon with me in case you want some, too.

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Pound Sterling

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Whew. We can all breathe more easily. The disgusting remarks of Donald Sterling were appropriately answered with major sanctions from the NBA, announced by its commissioner, Adam Silver.  And now the whole Sterling-Silver episode is on its way to being a done deal and we can all congratulate ourselves for how quickly racism met swift justice. See what a little 24/7 news coverage can accomplish!

We can all rest easy, right?  We were shocked shocked. Whew, LA NAACP which was about to engrave Sterling’s name on a second lifetime achievement plaque. Close call, Doc Rivers and all those players who were caught by surprise by their team owner’s despicable attitude and stepped up to protest with a coordinated wardrobe malfunction during a practice session. Great news, all those other NBA owners, those hob-nobbing officials, all the fans who scored courtside seats who won’t have to risk such tawdry association any more. Racism has been vanquished and no playoff games were harmed. Like a surgeon with the happy report, “we got it all.”

Am I the only person finding this a little tarnished? I think there’s a tiny worm we missed in all the hoopla. This was a start, but if we’re honest, we might need to stop the piling-on and the back-slapping and admit it: it’s not just Sterling. It’s time to root out racism, but the job isn’t quite done yet.  It might even extend outside the paint.  It’s kind of a bigger problem than one puny man. 

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Life on the streets

Friday, April 18, 2014

We were walking along the street and the two women walking in the opposite direction said hello.  And the next people coming down the street said hello, too. In fact, many people we passed acknowledged our existence. Not all of them and not in a creepy or intrusive way. Just in a human way--a little nod to the shared space. And when I inadvertently stepped into the path of a bicycle, the cyclist braked loudly and then...offered his hand in apology.  Said he was sorry, even though it was my fault. Asked if I was all right. We exchanged assurances that each of us was fine and hopes that we each would have a nice day. Dr. D. and I left that exchange noting that, in Boston, invectives would have been hurled and anger would have curdled the air.

But we were in Philadelphia. 

Philadelphia, which often looks as if it’s seen better days and which feels, in many ways, like Boston’s opposite. Where the Boston streets are cozy and walkable, Philadelphia goes for the wide vista and the life-threatening street crossing. Where Boston revels in the patrician heritage, Philadelphia celebrates egalitarianism. Philadelphia is sadly defaced with graffiti; Boston--thanks in large part to community activists and with no thanks to the graffiti-glorifying ICA--does a better job of protecting its exposed surfaces. Both have a strong presence of educational institutions, cultural vitality. Philadelphia gets a plus for weather, Boston for public transportation. Philadelphia wins hands down on city halls.

But what’s with the friendliness--presence versus lack of? When I first moved to Boston from New York, I noticed this. Coming from New York! New York, the city people place right up there with Paris on the friendliness scale. But that hasn’t been my experience. In New York there is an acknowledgment that other people exist. Give New Yorkers a shared street experience--a sudden snowfall, an annoying horn-honker, an adorable child with puppy--and they exchange looks. Smiles even. Or shrugs or eye-rolls as the occasion warrants. It’s quick, the underlying rule on sidewalk or street being always keep the traffic moving. But it’s there. 

Not in Boston. On our streets there’s no recognition that another person is approaching. Even on my quiet one-block-long street. People are friendly enough one on one, but not in the public space. What’s up with that?

Dr. D. and I came home determined to give it a try. Philadelphia’s brotherly love in the hub of the universe? Let’s see how it goes.

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A memorial to a memorial

Thursday, April 10, 2014

I visited Copley Square more than once last spring. More than two or three times; each time it was a wrenching experience. Each time I joined others walking slowly, dabbing at eyes or letting tears fall freely, remembering what happened on April 15. We stepped around the wilting flowers, read the heartfelt notes, saw the objects left in tribute, including all those running shoes. If there was one overriding image, that was it: the running shoes, everywhere at the Copley Square memorial and later grouped into a heart shape for an iconic Boston Magazine cover.  

It was the kind of outpouring that often grows in the face of tragedy, like the ones at firehouses all over New York after 9/11, and like the one outside the Engine 33 Firehouse on Boylston Street right now. They are the human impulse to comfort made visible. Their power grows out of their spontaneity.

And then what to do with them? Sweep up the flowers, distribute the teddy bears, put the signs and letters in a storage corner? In Boston the decision was made to preserve as much as possible and create an exhibit. The result, “Dear Boston,” is currently at the Boston Public Library, next to the newly-repainted Marathon finish line and across the street from where the memorial grew.

I am sad to say that the exhibit, while clearly well-intentioned, is a memorial only to a memorial. A neat square of running shoes. Letters in children’s handwriting--notes from other countries--all under glass, clean, and carefully planned. And maybe that’s why it feels so depressing, so dead. The Boston Strong spontaneity is gone, scrubbed out, cleaned up, and presented for viewing access. 

Maybe that's inevitable. In an online essay Quentin Miller wrote about how the instinctive outpouring of last year’s Copley Square tribute is likely to remain, in the minds of those who saw, it more poignant and powerful than any permanent marker the city might erect. That memory is definitely more powerful than this exhibit, just as "Boston Strong"--complete with expletive from Big Papi--is more powerful than the heartfelt but limp-sounding, "Dear Boston."

Certainly the impulse to preserve the tribute is understandable, as is the necessity of having some tangible sign this year of what happened last year.  

If you go to the BPL you may be impressed with the way an organized presentation has been orchestrated out of the scrambled chaos of what was left in tribute. You may find it interesting that people in other countries felt Boston’s sadness, and its strength. You may appreciate the fact that these things were collected and preserved.

But you  probably won’t cry.

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The Occasional Recipe: Chicken with Shallots and Cherry Tomatoes

Monday, April 7, 2014

I’m not taking credit for this recipe. Or any of my other “occasional recipes,” for that matter. They each originated elsewhere: I am not a creative cook, just a good follower and dumber-down of  recipes. So this one came from a recent New York Times Magazine. But I feel all right putting it out here because, as Sam Sifton notes in the article that includes it, the recipe originally came from a Martha Stewart magazine and went through several tweakings to become “Rishia Zimmern’s Chicken with Shallots.” And it went through a couple more when I made it, to become “Not Exactly Rishia Zimmern’s But Still Chicken with Shallots.” Or, since it includes cherry tomatoes, which, until I discovered the Kumato (oh, wow!) had been the only tomato I could bear to look at during the winter, maybe “Chicken with Shallots and Cherry Tomatoes.” 

So here, from Martha to Rishia to Sam to me to you!

Chicken with Shallots and Cherry Tomatoes
(serves 4-6)

8 chicken thighs
a little flour
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tsp. unsalted butter
8-12 small shallots, peeled but left whole
2 c. white wine
2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
2 sprigs fresh tarragon or 1/4 tsp. dried
2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved

1--Rinse chicken thighs, pat dry, and sprinkle with flour, salt, and pepper.
2--Melt butter in large skillet or heavy pot. When the butter foams, cook chicken until well browned and crisp. You may need to do this in batches so the pieces aren’t too crowded to brown.  
3--Remove chicken pieces and set aside. Add shallots to pan until they begin to soften and caramelize, about 10-12 minutes. Deglaze the pan with wine and add mustard, tarragon, and the chicken. Cover the pot and simmer 30 minutes.
4--Remove lid and allow sauce to reduce 10 minutes. Add tomato halves and cook another 5-10 minutes.

A salad and warm fresh bread works well. I made baked apples for dessert, as, hopefully a little good-bye to winter. 

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The dirty side of clean

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Stepping from the shower, toweling off and feeling clean, I hear the radio report that, I am warned, may be disturbing. Turns out it is about “cleansing,” too, but this cleansing is the killing of one kind of people by another kind of people, though, of course, how many kinds of people are there really? 

My father never said “kleenex” as others did when they meant some paper for wiping the nose. He pushed back against the trade name, said, instead, “cleansing tissue,” a construct that sounds, in retrospect, slightly archaic. That memory, and the pleasure of the bath and shower--especially when accompanied by fragrant soaps and gels and emollients--left me with a benign and even affectionate reaction to the word.

Then some decades ago the people killing each other in the former Yugoslavia started using it to describe what they saw as simply restoring their land to their kind of people. It sounded like a euphemism for “genocide” with its “final solution” overtones, and it gave me chills to hear it. It was used with quotation marks around it that you could see in print and hear in speech as a disclaimer--their words, not ours.

And then a strange thing happened. It started being used in news stories and public pronouncements not with quotation marks around it, not as naming an action being held up by the world as horrifying, but...kind of as an acceptable descriptive term. 

What happened to the quotation marks? 

I looked it up on that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, and found that “Ethnic cleansing is not to be confused with genocide.” Oh horrors, no. I didn’t stop to read the fine print to find out that distinction. I went on. It was “initially used by the perpetrators during the Yugoslav the 1990s the term gained widespread acceptance in academic discourse in its generic meaning.”

Well, if you want to get all nit-picky, ethnic cleansing doesn’t have to mean killing. It can also apply to various forms of forced migration (deportation, population transfer) as well as mass murder, and intimidation.”  The Final Report of the Commission of Experts (why does this sound as if I lifted it from “1984”?) defines ethnic cleansing as a  "a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas." A purposeful policy--sounds downright legitimate, doesn’t it? Wikipedia didn’t mention the quotation marks. 

I can accept murderous thugs figuring out a name for their activities, a way to rally troops, justify actions. What I can’t accept is that we and our news outlets and our public officials have adopted it and turned it from something chillingly reprehensible into...well....just another term with widespread acceptance in academic (and other) discourse.

I wish I had the influence to wage a one-person campaign on this. People, I want to say, listen to what you’re saying. Be careful with your words and recognize their power. These words mean something horrifying. Put back the quotation marks.


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