Sunday, October 30, 2011

Chopped: Cooking for the 21st Century Boomer

If you're a boomer (and you probably are if you're reading this), you certainly watch the Food Network, at least occasionally.  And if you watch the Food Network, you have probably seen the cooking contest program, Chopped.

(Digression:  How does this relate to Corners, a novel, you ask?  Answer:  Shelley was the deli girl, remember?  She created gourmet catered dishes out of her imagination from almost nothing when she was a school girl.  But then I am not Shelley - at least not entirely =)  Still, Shelley grew up to be a boomer, didn't she?  Hmmm.  Back to business.)

Chopped always features four real life, better-than-the-average-bear chefs competing against each other for $10,000.  Each week there is a winner, and sometimes, at the end of the season, they have a really big contest in which all of the weekly winners get together and cook their socks off really fast, cut themselves, drop boiling water, curse, throw down their aprons in displays of poor sportsmanship, and compete for a lot more than $10,000.  Now that's some good television.

In the course of these weekly rituals, the contestants are each given a basket with three or four "mystery ingredients."  These they must include in their dishes or be chopped, unless one of the other chef-testants really screws the pooch and produces a dish of such horror that it can barely be eaten.

These "mystery ingredients" may include such things as durian, which is a fetid foul smelling tropical fruit; quince, brains, chicken feet, jelly beans, and whatever else the producers dug out of the sofa cushions.  At the moment of tasting, the adventure comes in watching the judges approach the quivering morsels impaled on their forks as if they were eyeing a live possum at the end of an animal control stick.

There is an obvious application for the 21st Century boomer here.

As the housing market and the economy have gone SPLAT, we boomers just don't have the disposable income for fabulous gourmet cooking that we used to have in the 80's and 90's when we all learned to be foodies.  Instead, while struggling to pay the monthly note on our underwater-and-drowning homes, we are digging in the sofa cushions to find ingredients for our evening meal.  This is all while dreaming about the days when we used to moan and roll our eyes over gourmet take-out, or whip up a little butter and vanilla poached lobster tail or baby lamb chops rubbed with rosemary, olive oil and garlic.

We have a need to make our leftover lemon hard candies, year-old ground sage, and apple cider vinegar taste like Mario Batali prepared them right there in our own kitchen.

So last night, in the spirit of Chopped, I honored my pledge to spend not one thin dime off the budget and raided my pantry.  In it I found raspberry jam and about a half inch high of elderly crystallized balsamic vinegar.  In the fridge, I found a skinny WalMart chicken and bag of oranges from September, soft but still useful.  En garde.

The bird got marinated in the juice of all the oranges (they were actually pink inside, like grapefruits - I'm not sure why; maybe they were ossified grapefruits) along with a little chopped rosemary that grows by the front door, some sea salt and ground pepper; then basted with olive oil (giant tin can from Raley's - lasts forever and cheap) and a blend of the raspberry jam, balsamic, and some of the orange juice.  Next, roasted the whole thing, cut in quarters, in an aluminum baking pan at 375 for about 45 minutes (just kept checking the thigh joints till the juices ran clear).  Popped a couple of scrubbed potatoes in next to the pan, no foil, with a vent cut in the skins.

While it all hung out in the oven, I dug deep and found a can of refrigerator biscuits I had never used because I accidentally bought the ones flavored with honey.  Sauteed some slightly wilted broccoli florets in a fry pan with a little olive oil and a shake of garlic salt while the biscuits browned.

When I pulled out the bird, its juices, infused with sweet orange and rosemary, had risen about one third of the way up the pan and created an amazing simmer sauce - a little fatty, so I drained it - that left the bird succulent and redolent with chicken-ness.  The oil, raspberry, and vinegar had developed a fragrant, crackly skin, beguilingly golden and flecked with berry seeds and herbal bits.  Miraculously, everything hit the table at once.  And everything disappeared down to the last crispy potato skin, laden with sour cream and dripping with butter, in less than ten minutes.  Sigh.  All that, 1408, most of the family, and some Yellow Tail to wash it down.  Foodie heaven.

Boomer-ism is about making it happen and letting the sun shine in, come what may, is it not?  There's something about the chips being down that bring out the best in a boomer.  What's your experience today?  Are you up?  Are you down?  Have you turned that frown upside down?  Share, and if you have a favorite sofa cushion recipe, share that too.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Closet reality

Now and then I watch one of those reality TV shows about people who hoard.  I have to confess I can't watch them too long, though, because they pinch just a tiny bit where it hurts.

I have one closet in my house that I would consider a hoard.  My children know about this closet, and they are nodding their heads and moaning in affirmation right now if they are reading this.

This closet contains certain of my garments that date back to 1990.  For those of you who are old enough to think that sounds like yesterday, it's actually 21 years ago.  This same closet contains virtually all of my garments dating back to 1994.  There are teddy bears and other stuffed items that belonged to my children when they were little, too, from the late 80's.

Wow, you may say.  I bet that's a lot of garments.  And why back to those particular years?  What the heck?

First of all, cut me a little slack here, because it's only one closet.  So let's move on to the details now, in a general kind of way.

1990 to 1994 were probably among the best years of my life, second only to 1974 to 1978.  (That's one important reason why my first novel, blogged in full below, if you scroll a while, is set from 1974 to 1978.  But I digress.)

Those were spaces in time - the late 70's and the early 90's - when I was entirely my own woman, free as air, relatively manless for the most part.

During those times, I was beautiful.  This is not just me talking here, or my mother:  I was, objectively speaking, clock-stopping gorgeous.  Probably not coincidentally, I was also transcendently happy, in a clueless sort of way.

In 1990 for a few fleeting years, I was even chic, I am told.  My skin was seamless.  My eyes were bright.  My hair was thick and full and fell into place.  I was fit and trim enough for all practical purposes, as Emily Webb's mother would say, and aerobically fierce.  I was powerful in my chosen field, and rising.

I think I stopped throwing clothes away when I first knew my life was not going to get any "better" for a while.  Granted, my life did not get any worse, either, at least not at first.  But in 1994, I will suffice it to say that I got . . . caught up.  There is no finger pointing here.  This is my fault.  I was a big girl and had full knowledge.  But get "caught up" I did, and thus began a sad, gradual descent that took almost twenty years to get in check.

So I have every single garment I ever bought from 1994 to today because 1994 was the year the slide began.  That was the year my hair went white.  That was the year I started imperceptibly gaining weight, little by little. That was the year that surprise, then denial, then sorrow, then bartering, then anger, then resignation started gaining ground -  one by one at the molecular level, seeping in like tulle fog on a Merced October morning.

Oddly, I have always been resilient and astute in almost all other things during these many years, as those who know me will tell you.  But in this particular fog-machine area of my life of which I speak, I have lived gobsmacked and blindsided past all recognition all these many years, and all the while working like a mule.  Go figure.  Am I sorry I did it, sorry I hung in?  I can't say that I am - while there was not what I can name as "happiness" in it for me, at times there has been the satisfaction that comes from labor well intended, and from that a deeper joy.

I did my level best in my ham-handed way, trying to please Him as I did; and He has said well done, and set me free.

Today, I'm going in with Hefty bags and cardboard boxes.  I'm going to pack those garments out one by one, starting today, just the way they went in.  I will pack out the party dresses from the beautiful years, the wedding dress from #2, the work clothes from when I was important and thin - all of it.  I can do that because today I am free, from the inside out, from the molecular level on up.  One day in 1994, I turned a corner and stayed there for a really long time; but today I see a new corner, and I intend to turn it and run as fast as I can.  That's all the detail anyone needs to know to get the gist.

Our hope lies in getting up and finding a new corner to turn the minute we get our wits back about us.  That's what I'm doing today.  I can feel my wits, and they are razor sharp!  Praise God!

Do you have your wits about you today?  Please share.  God bless, and happy cleaning.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

By the skin of our teeth: San Francisco's deadly dance with Jim Jones

It has now come out that Jim Jones, the madman who lured nearly a thousand people into the Guyanan jungle to ultimately face their deaths 33 years ago, was likely orchestrating a 9/11 like attack on San Francisco before his reign of terror came to an end, stopping the plot.  A link to an article which reveals this is posted to the right.

According to reports from a witness to the plan, he had sent a highly placed Temple follower to flight school in Oakland to learn to fly a commercial jetliner, just well enough to steer it after murdering the pilot and taking over the cockpit - but not well enough to land it.  His intent had been to load the plane with some 200 Temple leaders whom he saw as defectors, allowing them to think they were simply on a chartered commercial flight for the day.

Thank God his plot did not have time to hatch, killing potentially thousands along with his own leadership.  Still, more than 900 individual American souls were lost in their place on November 18, 1978, on Guyanan soil.

The 33rd anniversary of the Jonestown murder-suicide tragedy is rapidly approaching. Survivors, family, and friends will gather at a recently dedicated memorial in Oakland to pay respect and remember, and to mourn.  The memorial is a milestone in itself, taking decades to get approved and to build.

Jonestown remains a subject that many don't want to hear about, or read about, or think about.  I am often asked, why on earth did you choose to write a novel with a central plotline that features Jonestown?  Who would want to read such a thing?

Jonestown is remembered largely as a suicide, although more than half of the people present that day were murdered.  More than a third were infants or minor children killed at the hands of their own parents or guardians.  Many more were shot or injected with poison into their backs when they refused to drink from the vats of cyanide prepared for them.  By labeling Jonestown a suicide, in effect we blame the victim.  Why on earth would we want to do that?

Whether we like it or not, we carry guilt, those of us who were nearby and didn't notice what was gravely wrong.  We carry guilt for what happened that day, and in the many dark days before.

We had made the Peoples Temple a part of our Bay Area power structure.  Jones himself was chief of the Housing Authority for the city of San Francisco.  His Temple attorney was a deputy in the City Attorney's office.  Jones rubbed elbows with the soon to be assassinated mayor and Supervisor Harvey Milk, as well as with Willie Brown and Joseph Freitas and Richard Hongisto.  Indeed, he helped them all get elected, with his Temple soldiers managing and manipulating multiple registrations to individual voters sufficient to swing the vote.  With their own attorney in charge of the Voter Fraud unit for the City, an investigation of the matter resulted in not one conviction.

We loved Jim Jones.

Jonestown babies in the nursery
And all throughout that time, his people were hungry, oppressed, corporally abused, even drugged.  They were brainwashed and robbed, taken in from the street as they hit bottom and manipulated into his grip, then harvested of their worldly goods for his gain.  They were taken off to the jungle, unclear any longer on what was right and what was wrong, divested of their passports and social security checks and their jewelry.

Many had been manipulated into signing over their homes to Jones, having been targeted using information he gathered through his position with the city.

l to r, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone,
Jones, and Vice President Walter Mondale
Some of them, mainly the poorest of the poor, had been divested of their children, convinced to sign them over to Jones for adoption.  He corralled many more from the string of foster homes and group homes he ran through the Temple.  The ones most in his control - the ones Jesus would call the least of these - were stranded overseas, hungry, cold, wet, tired, and overworked.  It must have seemed to them as if it all happened in a dream.

What would WE have done in their place?  None of us really knows.  It's ever so much cleaner to remember it as a suicide and call them crazy.  It can't happen here; it could never happen to me.

But guess what.  It DID happen, and it could happen again.  We all bear responsibility for what happened out there.  As an electorate, we are lazy, uninformed, and complacent.  We need to step up and manage our own communities, roll our sleeves up and get in it with our own hands.  This is America.  Our government is supposed to be our own.  We need to own it.

I wrote about Jonestown because as a girl I briefly knew someone who was there, from the early seventies through to the very worst of it.  And I knew her just well enough to know that she meant absolutely the best she was humanly able to mean at the tender age of nineteen.

Jonestown pre-school
She worked herself into the ground trying to improve lives, not end them.  She wore herself out before she was old enough and wise enough to know what hit her.  In a lot of ways she was just like me.  The only difference was the church she landed in.

I knew her just well enough to know that she did not deserve to be demonized, because she did not have the ABILITY as a very young lady to singlehandedly steer the behemoth that was the Jim Jones empire in a different direction.  It was just too late by the time his leaders - handpicked for their lion hearts, their broken lives, and their ignorance of human evil - grew up enough to sort it all out.  Like all victims, she may believe it was her fault.  If so, like all victims, she is wrong.

When children are led by evil, their values fail.  His leadership was comprised of children, and we as a community failed those children by elevating Jones to the highest posts we could offer.  If you think nineteen-year-olds are not children, just remember yourself at nineteen.  Now imagine yourself alone on the street, and a nice pastor offers you a warm bed and something to eat.  You can figure out the rest.

We NEED to think about Jonestown because it could happen again, and because the dead deserve to be remembered with respect.  A Temple survivor I have come to know, Teri Buford O'Shea, has written a book of poetry which she had to self-publish because mainstream publishers wouldn't.  I don't need to tell you why she had to self-publish.  You know why.  You owe it to those who were there to LOOK at it, especially if you were a voting citizen of San Francisco when it mattered, like I was.  There's a link to her website to the right, and I hope you will explore it.  Teri speaks in a 2008 interview for MSNBC below.

I wrote a book with Jonestown as a central plotline because having brushed up next to it, it haunted me, and it haunts me still.  Overall, the book is not about Jonestown, per se.  The book is really about being lost, and being afraid, and finally finding your way home.  It's a book about me, and you, and us.  If you are a boomer, or if you are a survivor of anything at all, or if you want to be a survivor of the state you are in, you owe it to yourself to try it.

My book is blogged below from bottom to top, like blogs are read.  I also urge you to view the 13th Annual Jonestown Report, published by the Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University, linked at the right.  There you will also find - among a depth of outpouring from survivors, family and friends -  my reflections on writing Corners, along with its last chapter.

I want to hear your thoughts about Jonestown.  Do you ever think of it?  Why, or why not?  I hope you take a moment to remember.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Two-and-a-half-glass-of-wine rant: Shelley's kids fail to launch

If you know my main character Shelley (Corners, a novel - right?  Blogged below), then you pretty much know me as I was when I was a kid - although I am not entirely Shelley.  Not entirely.  :)

You know, then, that I'm a boomer.  And I think popular wisdom tells me I'm supposed to be disheartened because my two adult children (a twenty-five and a twenty-three with pregnant fiancee) live at home.

KIDS: if you're reading this, you'd better read the whole thing before you get mad at me.  So keep going.

Now, back to business.

However, my feelings are exactly the opposite of disheartened.  In fact, I'm glad they're still home, my kids.  This is why.

Every so often, in a national way, the really big pendulum swings.  We go from boom to bust, from comfy to chaotic.  We prosper.  Then stuff happens, maybe a war or a "military action" or an energy crisis, perhaps all balled up together.  Economic pressure happens, sometimes suddenly; then, splat (we usually call that a crash, or some other painful term).  We recover, after what seems like forever, but it's not forever, really.  Prosper a little, then a little more.  And the beat goes on.  Splat.

Since no two things that happen are exactly the same - not in the wild cycles of nature, in economics, or in anything else - no two swings are just the same either.  Still, the circle only seems to tighten, with the energy crisis and then the crash of '79, then again in '87.  The real estate crash of 1990.  The bottom of the housing market in 2008.  I'm not an economist, but this is what I've felt over my ever lengthening life. Splat.

On top of this repeating revolving (ow - torque) economic canvas dances the human painting, creating and recreating itself before our very eyes.  When the crucible heats up, the culture changes.  And right now, the crucible is hot, and some of us are melting.

Now, my generation - we are boomers, and in our youth we were many.  We grew up in a time of prosperity.  So as a nation populated mostly with prosperous children, we as a nation questioned the system.  We could afford to do this, because we were financially comfortable, largely employed from an early age, not desperate.

So we questioned "the man," and his fairness, and we believed in our capacity to make things fair through the work of our own hands.  We engineered the technology that allowed for the birth of the information age, and then we gave it to our children to push it out to the next level.  People may not connect boomers with the techno era, but hey, Steven Jobs was my age, God rest his rebel soul (loved him).  So is Bill Gates.

But did we really make the difference we wanted to make?  Are people really different?  Are the systems we live in really different, more fair:  the economic system, the judicial system, the public services systems, over it all our system of representative government?

Is prejudice dead, or does it live on as an arm of the system?

Do the children, the sick, the helpless, the hopeless, the disenfranchised have an even chance at improving their lives, or do the systems we've created keep them pressed to the mat, instead of freeing them?

The economic crucible is hot, and getting hotter.  It's time for change.  And I think I see it coming, and wonder if it's just me.  I smell it in the wind.

I hear it in my twenty-something children's beliefs about government, right and wrong, fair and not fair.  They and their friends are fascinated by the sixties, the seventies, and all that they implied.  Hollywood and fashion, which belong to them now, are equally fascinated with those times, and reflect these things back to them as with a mirror held up to their fascination.

Joblessness in the Great Depression
These "children" struggle economically - unlike us as children - for obvious reasons.  They can smell the disdain of the small percentage (most of them my age) who already have theirs - the ones who have theirs and will pay to buy the vote that keeps it that way.  This minority of oldsters and their minions will exploit the very information highway X-ers and Millenials have laid, and buy the very media system we built for them to lay it on, to keep what they have in their own aging pockets, and keep the system structured so the young and disenfranchised stay pressed to the mat.

I believe this new group of young people is not going to tolerate it, this locked system that has a huge membership fee and a secret handshake.  We raised them not to tolerate it.  They are not worried about staying pressed to the mat because they don't buy the system's right to keep them there, nor do they buy that they have a requirement to acquire a membership card.

Sure, there may not be real jobs out there right now.  But they are ready to opt out if they have to, open their own small companies, educate themselves in the trades they need to do it instead of in the liberal arts colleges that have fueled the system at its worst.  They are ready to change jobs if the jobs they have don't meet their needs, to train and retrain, and to work more than one job if necessary to feed their dreams. They are about start-ups, entrepreneurship, individual fulfillment and freedom. They are about survival, and sticking together with the team they have brought with them on life's highway.

We boomers can take pride in the fact that we gave this generation the tools to take it to the next level:  we gave them all of the information they need to get to the heart of what is true and fair at their fingertips, whenever they need it; all of the information they need to redesign their lives over and over again as many times as they want to, whenever they need to.  All that, and guts.  That is their power, and I don't believe that even those of us who handed them that power appreciate the drastic difference that these things will make in their lives, and in our world.

Most important, they also know that we, their boomer parents and all that entails, will not fail them in these times, and they rely on that fact.  Does that smack of a "me" generation?  Maybe, but I'm not sure I have a problem with that, because for them, me means we, much more than it ever did for us boomers, aka the divorce generation.  I sure hope they do that part better than we did, no kidding.

Will they ever launch?  God, I hope so.  Really, I know so.  But if my house, when I am ninety, turns out to be filled with family that spans over three generations, I know I will count myself blessed.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Becoming Dorothy

I was not at all surprised when I talked about "The Wizard of Oz" in my sophomore English class the other day, and found that all of my students had not only seen the movie, but they knew all of the characters, and what each one stood for.

Most of my students face daily - what shall we call it - complications, since I teach at a community day high school (expelled students, struggling students, foster children).   If you've been following this blog, then you know that my main character Shelley and I are both teachers (well, she's an aspiring teacher) who innately need to care for lost and hurting children.  Some might think that my students would have missed this historic staple of Hollywood film in the confusion of their everyday lives.  But in fact it was instant connection for them.

I knew they would know.

The Wizard and his pals have become iconic characters who reflect our greatest fears and our wildest dreams, both waking and sleeping, just as they lived in Dorothy's dreams.  Everybody within striking distance of a television, some 70 years later, has dreamed that dream, that nightmare, with Dorothy.  Who doesn't have somewhere in his life a Scarecrow, a Tin Man, a Cowardly Lion?  Who hasn't been pursued by the Wicked Witch?  Who hasn't craved the loyalty of an intrepid Toto?  Who hasn't felt abandoned and homeless?  Who hasn't aspired to be the brave and confident Dorothy, and find her way home?

If you've seen it, then you know that "The Wizard" (1939) explodes suddenly into Technicolor out of the black and white mist when Dorothy lands in Oz.  That moment gained it the reputation of being the first Hollywood film to use technicolor, even though that honor actually goes to "The Toll of the Sea," a silent film (1922).

So what was it about that color sequence that makes us think of it as the first color moment ever?

Because when Dorothy stepped out of that broken house onto those gleaming bricks, surrounded by Munchkins, she shed the dark threatening skies of the Great Depression, just as her country was doing in 1939, and walked into the true light of family, friendships, home.  Just that way, we can still today step into our own true light with her, out of whatever dark reality we may find ourselves in.  Out of the darkness, into the light, and home.  We can, if only we know where home is.

I have always though of myself as Dorothy, a little lost, but basically in charge of my own destiny.  I have marched - no, skipped - bravely out of whatever my train wreck du jour happened to be, trusty partner of the moment by my side, flawed friends in tow, loving family awaiting me when all was said and done.

I guess I expected all of my students to know they were Dorothy too, and that all they had to do was click their heels together and they would be home, because they had it inside all the time.

But then the class set out to journal and reflect on the question, Which character in "The Wizard of Oz" am I?  And I was surprised to find that they don't feel like Dorothy at all, with the exception of one extraordinarily brave girl who has one of the lowest flashpoints and highest IQ's I have ever seen.

I should have known this too.

Instead, one wrote that he feels like the Tin Man, because his heart is dried up inside.  Another is the Scare Crow, because he just knows he isn't smart (he's dead wrong).  Too many girls are Glynda, the Good Witch of the North, because they're in charge of taking care of every single person in their lives, except themselves.

One is the Cowardly Lion, because he's afraid whenever he goes out walking.

But I know that REALLY all the time they are Dorothy.  They DO have it all inside - I can see it there, but they cannot.  You know it's in there.  I know it.  But how do we get them to know it?  Right now they're fifteen, and they are stuck.  And for so many of them, it's SO VERY HARD to believe that they will ever, ever find their way home, wherever that is, whatever it looks like.

Every day I think on this, and every day I try my best to bring some vision, some image of the world outside their window, so they can see that right now each grade they earn, each thing they learn, is a clicking of their heels.  If only they could see . . .

So help me here - what are your thoughts?  What can we bring into public school classrooms that will conjure the ruby slippers for each and every child?  You tell me.