Wednesday, December 26, 2012

LEGOs. Why mess with a good thing?

I'm looking forward to buying my kids LEGOs. The little bricks so they can build things. Anything they can think of. And I'm a bit ashamed of the LEGO company for their marketing schemes in the last few decades. No imitation Barbie "Friends," no war toy movie knock-offs. Remember the sound of running your fingers through the bins of the LEGO bricks as you looked for just the right piece? Remember the castles? Remember the cities? Remember the inner debates about if we should make a particular tower taller or wider?

If you'd like to watch some incredibly well researched critique of this whole business, here's a couple of posts from Feminist Frequency. She's a little ranty at times, but she raises incredibly telling examples and points out distressing trends in the LEGO industry which sadly cross over into a lot of the marketing for kids.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Slaughter of the Innocents

For advent, my housemates and I are fasting electric lights, and are just using candles and now, string lights from our tree. It has been inconvenient and troublesome, exhausting to prepare our lunches by candlelight in the early morning, but fasting doesn't seem worth it if it isn't hard, so I am glad we're sticking with it. While I should probably talk some more about candles and all they can mean again another time, today I found out of the tragedies in Connecticut, and I realized how little I was considering the darkness of this world, and our need for Christ and his light. 

If you haven't heard this news, go read it or look at this incredibly powerful collection of images from the NYTimes. I like to think we can shelter children from some of the horrors of this world. The other day in the kids section at work, a little girl picked up a copy of the book, The Man Who walked between the Towers and took it to her mom, who read it to her. At the end of the story, the book mentions that even though the twin towers aren't there anymore, the story of the man who tightroped between them makes the memory of them live bright. And the little girl asked, "why did they move them?" Her mom just told her they didn't move them, and that they weren't there any more, and that they could talk about it more when she was older. I forget that children have been born and lived their whole lives since that tragedy, born to lives with their own tragedies to meet, and griefs to deal with. It breaks my heart to think of kids this girl's age seeing their friends die, and siblings and parents and families all ripped apart with death. 

Death so close to Christmas too, when we think of people as being more than ever our brothers and sisters, and sing of peace on earth, and goodwill to men. I forget how much death is a part of Christmas. We celebrate the birth of the Son of God, who's mission on this earth was to die for our sins. "Nails, spear, shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me, for you" we sing in church, and T. S. Eliot, in his poem about the Magi writes about the similarities between birth and death. The narrator of the poem says after the journey,
"All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death."
And in the Bible itself, the birth of Jesus paired with the slaughter of the innocents, as Herod killed any child that might rival his station as king of the Jews. So even as our tracks of Handel sing out, "Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people" we can read of the mothers whose childen were murdered, and the sounds of "weeping and lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more." I don't know what to say to this. So I sit. In the darkness of my living room. Praying for everyone effected. Waiting for the light.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Food. And its complexities.

Growing up I had a pretty healthy relationship with food. I think Rochester is a really good place for people who like food, Wegmans being an exceptionally nice grocery store, and the Rochester Public Market being one of the oldest and best loved in the country. Some of my favorite memories of growing up involve chopping vegetables for dinner while my mom or brother read books outloud, or getting basket after basket of peaches or sweet corn or red peppers to can or freeze. At my best friends-the Kennedys'-house I learned how to make a consistently excellent white sauce, how to caramelize onions and how to bake oatmeal bread. My favorite food growing up wasn't french fries or jello (we only had jello at church dinners) but my mom's tomato soup, which does not in any way resemble Campbell's, being packed full of potatoes, vegetables and ground turkey, often eaten with fresh bread. Food was a nice part of my world, and I was glad to know how to make it, liked eating it, and felt like it was one of the simple, good, parts of life.

Events over the last several years shook up my ideas and feelings about food. Many of my close friends have become vegetarians or vegans out of strong moral convictions. One of my closest friends developed an eating disorder, family members have had some serious medical issues and my parents went on a "separate your starches from your proteins" diet which made me sad and angry and other feelings I didn't know what to name. Is it weird to grieve for my mom no longer making "my mom's tomato soup" because with potatoes and turkey it doesn't fit their diet? Add into that a discovery of many of my friends with a plethora of food allergies including a couple of friends with celiac. My fiance went through a grueling nine month allergy identification diet in which he could eat very, very few things besides vegetables, most fruits and rice and potatoes. We got through it, but it was tough, and now his short list of allergies (including eggs and wheat) seems easy to handle. With all of these climactic food changes in the lives of people around me, I started noticing what everyone around me was eating. I watched the PEGs choose food at the cafeteria. I learned to make tex-mex breakfast foods from my friends from Texas, and I tried lots of things at our remarkably varied (and often excellent) cafeteria.

Now with all of that at my back, I and my housemates are cooking for ourselves three meals a day, and there are so many decisions. Decisions before we grocery shop. Decisions before we cook. I'm not sure what to do with them all. I recently read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. It's staggeringly good, and focuses around the question, "what should we have for dinner?" looking at food in our culture, on our dinner plates, and through history. I read it almost entirely while eating my lunches at work, which is not an experience I recommend, though I wholeheartedly encourage you to read it. Pollan writes winsomely, expertly and with feeling about topics which would in other hands seem bland. As he writes it, corn is a tragic hero, mushrooms radiate mystery and organic paradises leave much to be desired. He doesn't answer the question, doesn't say, "this is what you must do" but tells the stories of our food where it comes from and what does into it, and suggests that we should "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

That's what we've been doing in our apartment. It's been a joy to make all the soups and the curries, the salads and the breads and the muffins. We've had some meals which were real flops, some meals which were not healthy (Guy Faulks Day dinner was fish fingers and sweet potato fries), but mostly I've been really proud of us. Many of our most delicious recipes so far have come from the Moosewood Family Restaurant cookbooks. The sweet potato-apple-chipotle soup is a thing of beauty, and their chili-fest chili was pretty delicious also. Their recipes are all vegetarian, many of them vegan. It's been really nice to bring food to work in tupperwares and eat home cooked food I made myself or made by one of my lovely housemates. It's been nice having ownership over my food, and it's been nice to share it with others. I think that's my favorite part of food.

One of the people I look up to the most is one of the women who TAed us when we were 1st year honors kids in London. She said one day, "Isn't it wonderful that we have to eat? That we have to stop working and sit and feed ourselves, and hopefully with other people." It was a blessing in college (when the food was just there for us) and is still a blessing, every day to be able to eat. To have the means to purchase and prepare food. And to enjoy it with friends, and this week, family.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Adventures at Rhinebeck Sheep and Wool Festival

So what is a sheep and wool festival and what makes it wonderful? It's the gathering of hundreds of vendors of yarn and wool and related products and animals and people come and buy yarn. One can also come to buy spinning wheels and wool to spin, or drop spindles and dyes or the animals themselves. There is sheep shearing and there are sheep dog events (like in the movie Babe!) and there are textile weavers and basket weavers and leather workers and potters and so many people who work with their hands. And though there are many things which made this weekend at rhinebeck wonderful, I think I can scoop up most of my delight into three big straggly categories.

The weekend was wonderful because it was one enormous sensory overload. If all we had done that weekend was travel to Rheinbeck and go hiking we would have had a beautiful weekend. It could not have been more beautiful weather, out in the countryside of the northeast, through rolling hills and valleys covered with trees at their peak of color. But once we got into the festival we went through shop after shop of yarns in the most beautiful colors. Every time I thought I'd found a favorite ship I'd find another with even more beautiful combinations of colors. The picture above is from Briar Rose Fibers, a wonderful shop with staggeringly beautiful yarn. You might be able to get an idea from the pictures, but it is not the same as being there in person because in person you can touch the yarn. My hands are still happy from the memory of running my hands through baby Alpaca and Cashmere, though merino wool and silk and bamboo, and through lambswool. It's such a treat to just touch these things, but even more of a treat to be able to buy some and take it home with me.

The second great joy of the weekend was just the exposure to such a high concentration of skill. Last year at a yarn shop in Princeton I overheard a conversation between the store owner and a pattern designer about what sort of patterns she should be producing. They decided the safe choice was to stick with very simple patterns because so few people have the skill to do anything more complex. It made me sad to think that the level of skill in textile arts is falling, that maybe we're loosing the skills our grandmothers might have had and that maybe we won't be able to get them back. A weekend at Rheinbeck was the sweetest antidote to these thoughts. Not only did I see people everywhere wearing gorgeous, complex hand knits, I got to see people exhibiting phenomenal skills in all areas of textile design and production. At a stall selling lace weight yarns and threads, I saw a whole display of wedding ring shawls, lacework knit with such fine thread and so airy a design that you could pull the whole shawl through a wedding band. They were for sale, at about $700 a piece, which seems like a steal when you start counting the hours that went into that piece of artistry. I found a picture of a wedding ring shawl online to give you an idea, but the ones on display were even more lovely than the one above.

The part of the weekend making my the most grateful right now is that people I went with. Owen insisted I come with him and his mom, aunt and cousin even though I had been scheduled for work, so I asked and got Saturday off. So I got to meet my aunt and cousin-to-be, and got to spend more time with my soon to be mother-in-law, and it was wonderful. It made me think what a familial thing knitting is. Lots of people learn from their mothers or grandmothers, and when people buy yarn they buy it to make hats or sweaters for their children or husbands or girlfriends as much as for themselves. Over meals Owen's mom and aunt kept talking about their mom, the sweaters she would knit (with the tight neckbands) and how much she would have enjoyed a festival like this. And yet again I was humbled and glad to get to wear the ring she left for "Owen's bride." One of the sweetest moments of the weekend was over breakfast when Owen's aunt said how nice it was to see her mom's ring on my hand. All weekend I was just showered with generosity, some financial ("it would make me very happy to buy that yarn for you") some knowledgeable (as I asked many questions about gauge and planning for patterns) and lots of generosity of heart as women I'd never met continued to exclaim how glad they were to meet me or would just announce to each other, "I like Clara so much" and it is a joy to be so welcomed into a family.

I am realizing how much I could be networking online over textile arts and over books, and these seem like worthwhile things, but I'm not sure. Right now I'm selling a lot of my time at $10/hour, and the time I have left over is a little precious to me, and though in the long run I think I would appreciate being connected to all the people I know who knit over Ravelry and I would like to be able to use GoodReads as a way of sharing my thoughts and recommendations about books,  I also like to just be with my housemates in the evenings, or communicate more directly with friends I love.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Reflections from Working in a Bookstore

I work in a bookstore. It wasn't my first choice of a job out of gradschool with degrees in music, English and Shakespeare, but as I've worked the last month and a half, I have been finding this job an increasing joy and privilege. Labyrinth Books is an independent academic and community bookstore in Princeton NJ, one of the nicest bookstores I think I've ever visited. We sell new, like new, used and bargain books, so if you're coming in hoping to find a pile of books for less than $10, you can do that. If you want the new releases discussed on NPR, we have them too. If you just want to browse some really well stocked shelves or need to pick out some books for your grandchildren we can provide a quiet, calm and focused environment for that. This is all stuff that one expects from most bookstores, what I think makes Labyrinth individual is the seriousness with which the staff approach their work. The manager and owner of the store both speak of this work as a duty, as a way of curating the knowledge contained in all these books. So Labyrinth also hosts many events, poetry readings, lectures and discussions with authors.

I think I first knew I was working in an exceptional bookstore when I came back to work after my shift to come to the first event of the season. It was a poetry reading, and I knew there would be three poets reading who's new work were carry, and the finalists for some highschool poetry contest were going to read as well. In my mind I imagined a number of local highschool kids reading middling breakup poetry and a few nice new poems by some relatively obscure poets, and there would be perhaps 10 people in the audience? Mostly the high school kids' parents and a few elderly couples. What I found myself attending instead was a large gathering (perhaps 70 guests?) listening to three exceptional poets (Tracy K. Smith won the Pulitzer in Poetry for her new collection, Life on Mars) and the secondary school poetry prize winners were not a few local kids. They were young poets from all over the country, whose voices rang clear and strong, and whose words startled me out of any expectations of mediocrity. I was humbled, and grateful to learn (once again) how much I have to learn.

Even "coursebook rush" a time of high stress and intensity in the shop as we sell all of Princeton their books for the semester left me impressed. I hadn't really thought too much about the fact that every semester college students spend hundreds of dollars in books so that they can learn. They're already paying tuition, right? It made me think perhaps in my new life post-academic studies that every fall and spring, I should budget out a fair amount of income to buy books specifically so that I can learn. The courses these students were taking made me drool a little too. There was a course on Women and Theater in which they were reading Paula Vogel, Gurira, I am an Emotional Creature, and a book written by the professor titled, Feminist Spectator as Critic. Another course, this one a religion course about fairy tales and good and evil narratives? They were all reading Ursula Le Guin and Tolkien and Susan Cooper, 100 Years of Solitude, and The Once and Future King. I would pack up the students' books for these classes and wish I were still in school, or I would make plans for reading them myself. But there were other classes which just made me glad for the future of humanity. In one class, (a Sociology class or Econ perhaps?) all of the books were about entrepreneurship and small business models and imagining a future without poverty. I don't have delusions about fifty people from this undergrad class at Princeton ending world hunger, but knowing that privileged, intelligent students choose to take this class gives me hope.

There is something rather tender about working at a bookstore at this point in the history of the world. I know the age of print is giving way to digital mediums (despite all the fervent ardor of book titles on the literature new release table), and one of the things making me so grateful to work in a bookstore is the knowledge that my grandchildren won't be able to. So as I shelve, or gather books for an order to the UK, or repair display copies of pop-up books, I am warm with gratitude. For the books, (their smell, their touch, their physical presence in the room) and all they hold for everyone who reads them.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Hexaflexigons - because I miss PEG.

For those of you who don't know Vihart on YouTube, now is a good time to learn. She's a mathmusician and if you ever thought math was boring she's the one to show you that it wasn't math. It was lack of a good teacher. In her videos she explores Fibonacci numbers by drawing on cauliflower, explains mobius strips with charming stories or points out the ways you didn't realize that the world is beautiful.

This video is a video about a little paper toy I learned to make in PEG, the Mary Baldwin College Program for the Exceptionally Gifted. While working there I learned a lot, sometimes from lectures during staff training (about effective listening or conflict resolution), sometimes I learned from the other wonderful staff or their resources, such as learning to be okay with myself doing Zumba, or reading about the psychological and sociological challenges facing the gifted and talented. But most of the time I learned from the girls. I learned whatever they thought was cool, and whenever I stumbled upon something I thought was cool, they were eager to learn about it, or had already known about it for a long time and so could tell me all sorts of things I wouldn't have known. So here is a Vihart video for any of you who don't have a double math and art major in your lives. Enjoy.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Beginning with laughable Facebook ads

It has been over a year since I've posted anything on this blog, but I am beginning again. If you wanted to read more of my succulent prose,  I blogged for my thesis at and I blogged for the American Shakespeare Center Summer Camp in the time since writing here. Now I live with two very good friends, and near a truly lovely fiance, and I thought I would write some of the adventures we have, projects we attempt, and things we are thinking.

None of this.
What this blog will not contain a lot of is wedding planning. Facebook now knows that I am engaged, and so the advertisements reflect this. I have ads for "vintage modern wedding photography" which seems both expensive and like a contradiction in terms. "No More Toasters!" an ad for cash wedding registries which is particularly delightful as our apartment has been pining for a toaster for some time and just now, today we have acquired one, and are insanely proud of it. There is an ad for "the white dress diet: this diet was designed for women who want to loose weight fast" which seems insulting. "Find your dream dress at Norstorm Wedding Suite" would be more appealing if my "dream dress" were not being made for me by a magnificent costumer for the ASC. "Classical music creates the ideal atmosphere and makes the perfect statement at your wedding" makes me grateful for all the friends I know who make music with all their hearts and not just to provide atmosphere. "Perfect Bridesmaid Dresses" would be better for a bride planning to have bridesmaids. And the website presenting Romeo and Juliet as just one "inspiring love story," looses me on the word "inspiring." It confuses me a bit, as couples inspired by R & J may not live to be inspired by any other stories, yes? Making Memories and More offers to sell me "unique, fun, affordable wedding accessories, decor and gifts" though even the picture doesn't let me know what those accessories, decor and gifts might be.

Perhaps it is unkind of me to make fun of all these advertisements, but it is such a joy to be at liberty to make my own decisions and not get swept up in the commercialization of the weddings. I'm looking forward to my wedding because I'm looking forward being married, and I'm glad it will be a nice day full of many people we both love. And in the mean time? I'm loving living with good friends and enjoying each day we have together.