Pan-African Nationalism basics, plutocratic cookie pigs and Rabbi Hillel

If I ever get pulled over for “fitting the description,” the description will be “garden-variety middle-aged white lady.”

It’s been an accurate description for most of my life (with the exception of the age part, which is following the conventional trajectory and means that if I live long enough, I’ll be a garden-variety old white lady), except for one interval. I never felt more ethnic in my life than I did during three years residing in a city of 20,000 people in Central Flyover Country. I passed as white just as easily as you please. Until the second question.

The first question was “What is your name?”

The second was “Where do you go to church?”

The minute I said, “The synagogue 45 miles northwest of here (the closest one),” it was all over. I wasn’t black. But I wasn’t white anymore, either. There were about 30 Jews in Central Flyover Country. But as a reporter – and features editor – for the local paper, I was the first one many of the people I encountered had ever seen up close and personal.

Most of my experiences as a small town Jew were positive. People were curious, but also respectful. There were a couple of uncomfortable encounters, but I never felt unsafe.

This week, I learned what it feels like when no one needs to ask anything to know you’re different. All they have to do is look.

Supposedly six of the approximately 200 people who showed up to the auditorium at the Large Midwestern Technical College Where I Work to hear guest speaker and Philadelphia resident Dr. Umar Johnson’s talk “Black to the Future: The Return of Jim Crow Justice in the Age of Post Racialism” were white. I never saw the other five.

A picture of three chickens, two white and one black, with another black chicken in the background.
Chickens. Some of them are black and some of them are white. And they all seem fine with that. Maybe it’s because they’re in China and not the US. (photo credit: Talia Frolkis)

The first thing Johnson told us about himself was that he is a Pan-African Nationalist. I didn’t know anything about Pan-African Nationalism before his talk. Taki Raton, a local Pan-African Nationalist, spoke later in the week at a smaller gathering. I learned a bit more there. Between the talks, I attended a screening of “Dream Big Dreams,” a documentary about Vel Phillips. Among other things, she singlehandedly opened the doors to Open Housing laws in my city and nationally during the Civil Rights movement. The screening and talkback was organized by One MKE, a local group whose mission statement includes the phrase “foster and retain a diverse pipeline of talent and improve cultural competence.”

There was a lot to chew on in what Johnson & Raton said, and I’m still thinking about it, especially having just read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah.” Her protagonist, Ifemelu, moves from Nigeria to the US. Among other things, she starts a blog. It’s called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-­American Black.” As much as I want to talk about how much I loved this book and how highly I recommend it,  I’m going to focus on Johnson’s talk.

Some of it had me jumping for joy, some of it left me cold. In the jumping for joy category was his recommendation to read Carter G. Woodson’s 1933 book, “The Miseducation of the Negro.”

Woodson’s thesis is as true today as it was when he wrote it. Education as it currently exists is a form of social control, designed to ensure perpetual second-class status for black Americans. To counteract that, black people need to discover and learn the truth about their ancestry and about African civilization.

I loved that Johnson was an authentically proud black man telling a group of mostly young black men them to stop looking for approval outside themselves. I loved him telling them to love themselves and each other and to care for each other, in part by building institutions to strengthen themselves and their communities. I loved that he urged them to not rely on anyone else to make that happen. I loved his message of community and of taking care of each other first.

In the “left me cold” category was his disdain for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. He was referring to black boys being disproportionately misdiagnosed. I get that too many energetic kids, especially black boys, get labeled. But speaking as a white kid who spent my entire childhood undiagnosed (another story for another time), I can tell you that it’s real and it’s no fun to have it. So I get the overdiagnosis, but for the few kids who do have it, addressing it can be a game-changer. I speak from experience.

He also does not seem to believe in the theory of abundance. Maybe it’s the white privilege talking, but I’m kind of a “rising tide lifts all boats” type. If you have, I can, too, and more for you is not necessarily less for me.

His blanket portrayal of other communities as adversaries rather than allies competing for resources reminded me of a joke I heard when Governor Walker got elected in 2010. Walker promptly set to work bringing back the Middle Ages, complete with landed gentry, peasant and serf classes and minus the guilds. And not in a good way.

Here’s the joke: A union member, a Tea Party member and a 1 percenter are sitting at a table. There’s a plate on the table with a dozen cookies. The plutocrat takes 11 cookies and turns to the Tea Party member.

“I’d look out for that one,” he says, nodding in the direction of the union member. “I think he’s trying to take your cookie.”

It’s because I have a backstory to point to, to be proud of and to own that I am able to understand and clearly articulate exactly what it is about the idea of straight-up separatism that bothers me. It’s also the reason I can understand and clearly articulate the reason it’s so vitally important to be able to have a strong and separate group identity.

So here’s a shoutout and thanks to one of my ancestors – Rabbi Hillel, who said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not, now, when?”

A walk in the park, and why there should be an Academy of Cashiering Arts and Sciences

So, the Academy Awards were this weekend. We watched a bit of them, which sparked a thought about the day before.

Sweetheart was at work and I was performing my weekly “take a lame-ass stab at bringing some order to the Landfill I Call Home” exercise in futility when the phone rang.

It was R, calling to see if Tuki & I wanted to meet her and Bailey at a nearby park for a walk. The day was perfect for a walk. Sunny. Warm (temperature above 20F (-6C) for the first time all week). So I leashed up my girl and we headed out.

Bailey is an eight-year-old Samoyed/Golden Retriever (we think) mix. He was jumping and pulling with excitement even before I parked and we got out of the car. Except for Tuki falling out of the back seat getting out, we had a great time. (I was corralling the leash and my purse and didn’t get to her fast enough as she tumbled onto the street. She bounced back up right away, but it was an awful moment. We were on the driver’s side and R & Bailey were on the sidewalk, so they didn’t see.)

Bailey, me and Tuki
Bailey on the left, Tuki on the right, and me in the middle.

Sweetheart brought R into our lives. They’re both arborists who speak fluent Tree. Walking with the two of them, I’ve learned about different types of trimming, picked up some Latin (R refers to trees by their Latin names) and a bit about urban logging. She works for a city (Sweetheart is a utility arborist). The extreme cold has cracked the trunks of some of her city’s streetside trees, so they have to be removed before spring. If they aren’t, they could fall and do some major damage. Some residents are upset about losing their trees. Rut R said this is actually a good time to do removals, because then she can get new street trees planted in spring.

After our walk, I went to my local food co-op. I’ve been a member since the mid 1980s, when there was only one location. Now there are four, including one relatively close to home.

Sometimes the checkout lines get pretty long. Like most people, I look for the shortest one. Before Middle Kid grew up and left home, we had a system. She’d hit one line and I’d hit another and whoever got closest fastest would signal the other to move over.

Those rules don’t apply at Local Co-op if Z is working a checkout line. The smile alone is worth the wait, but there’s more to Z than a cheerful smile. She’s one of those people who radiates well-being, and I do not mean that in a sanctimonious “crunchy granola” way. It’s more like a happiness bubble with a doorway. You step inside and trade in whatever might be bothering you for a few minutes of joy while she’s ringing up your butter and milk and lettuce and toothpaste and eggs and you chat about nothing.

Z, brightening the day of the customer ahead of me.

At this point, Z and I know enough about each other to ask about work and school (she’s back in school where I work, and while I have no idea if my endless pestering had anything to do with getting her to go back, I’m thrilled). We also, as it turns out, are connected through my neighbor Linda, because Z and Linda’s son were high school classmates and friends.

There’s no Academy of Cashiering Arts and Sciences. But if there were (and why shouldn’t there be?), Z would be right up there with Meryl Streep, nominated annually and winning more often than not.

Tuki: My heart on four legs

Things are a little hectic here in Flyover Country at the moment, so I am going to post a photo of my dog inspecting the bouquet of birthday flowers my sister and her family sent Mom, who turned 87 this week.

Tuki and flowers
My dog, on Mom’s floor, contemplates the the birthday flowers my sister and her family sent from Canada after a dinner of chicken and rice.

Mom is not the only senior citizen in our family. Tuki, the aforementioned dog, turned 14 this past September. I’ll tell her full story when things are a little calmer, but here’s a bit about the dogs of my childhood and how Tuki and I came to be a pair.

When we were kids, my sister and I dearly wanted fuzzy pets. But Debby was allergic to cats, Dad was not an animal lover and Mom had gotten her fill of animals growing up on a farm. By the time we came along, the only animals left there were Duke and Penny, a pair of dogs. We liked Penny, but Duke, a German Shepherd, was a tad scary. Later, Aunt Bessie and Uncle Sam, who lived nearby, acquired Prince, the ultimate in canine home security. Prince didn’t care who the humans welcomed. Everyone was the enemy. One night, Aunt Bessie, dressed in her nightie, bent down to feed him. Guess where he bit her?

It’s mildly ironic then, that Tuki, who started her life with me as a fuzzy round fur ball, grew up to be a Shepherd mix. She has long legs and a long, slender frame. I always tell people that if I looked like my dog, I’d be Naomi Campbell.

She was a stray when I found her. She was three months old, gamboling in the side yard at my friend Ann’s office with Ann’s dog Lucas. Ann rented offices and my employer at the time was housed there. I was running a night meeting and had to dash out to pick up a kid.

“Who’s the other dog?” I asked.

“No idea,” she said. “I’ve never seen it before.”

The puppy was having a lovely time playing that game where you get just so close and dash off. Ann’s neighbor Rodney walked up behind it while it was distracted by the game we were playing. He scooped it up and put it in my arms.

“Madam,” he said, “you have a dog.”

I tossed the puppy in the car and went to pick up the kid from First Husband’s. I’d gotten her the CD alarm clock she’d been asking for forever and was looking forward to her joy at getting it.

The puppy (it turned out to be a she) was quiet as long as I had my hand on her head, stroking her as she sat in the passenger seat. I prayed that she wouldn’t pee there. She didn’t. But whenever I took my hand away, she whimpered. So, when I wasn’t shifting gears, I was stroking her head.

I got to First Husband’s and can now testify that a CD alarm clock is irrelevant to a kid when you show up with a puppy.

I’d already called the Dog Lost and Found, because I wanted to make sure she wasn’t somebody’s beloved lost pet. They picked her up the next morning. We signed a “finder’s form” that would allow us to have first dibs on adoption if no one claimed her.

“C’mere, you cute little stinker,” the DL&F guy said, adding there was a good chance she’d be claimed.

I picked her up. I looked deep into her eyes and she into mine.

“I hope your people come for you,” I told her. “And if they don’t, I hope you get a wonderful home where you are loved and cared for.”

Then, I handed her over.

As it turned out, she was somebody’s beloved pet. I already loved her. Then, Providence smiled upon us. As Second Ex was deciding whether he wanted to adopt her during her week at the DL&F, our house got broken into, bolstering one of my arguments for why it would be good to have a dog. Her owners had a week to claim her, and the break-in happened in the middle of that week. As soon as the detective left, I called to see if she was still there. She was, and the woman on the other end of the phone told me that if no one had claimed her by now, they probably wouldn’t.

Sure enough, she became ours. We named her M’tukah Ruth Gettelman. M’tukah, because it’s Hebrew for sweetheart, Ruth because she was a stray (“Whither thou goest…”) and Gettleman because the Gettelman Mansion is where I found her. We called her Tuki.

Within a week of bringing her home, she almost died from bacterial pneumonia she’d picked up at the DL&F. I was beside myself at the thought of losing her. I was madly in love with this sweet little creature who adored me as openly as I did her. I have never stopped being grateful to the vet who saved my puppy. (In one of our rare areas of disagreement, Tuki has never forgiven him for those needle sticks and whatever else it took to get her well.)

My friend Grace, also a dog lover, summed it up perfectly when she called her dog “My heart on four legs.”

That is absolutely how I feel about Tuki. There’s only one way I have ever been able to bear the thought of knowing that dogs don’t live as long as we do and I will likely outlive her. It’s knowing that it would be harder for her to live without me than it will be for me to live without her.

Forget the birds: This Valentine’s day it was “all about those bees”

So, yesterday was Valentine’s Day. You know. Roses, chocolate, celebrating romance with your honey – assuming you have a honey. Sweetheart and I don’t really do much for Valentine’s Day. We talked it over early on in our relationship and agreed that being nice to each other on a regular basis was enough of a gift. Still, every so often, one or both of us has presented the other with something small on Consumer Love Day. So, I gave him a bar of raspberry pecan chipotle chocolate before running out the door for a day-long beginning beekeeping workshop.

Blame library school. If it weren’t for library school, I wouldn’t have become friends with Jeff, the tech services and then head librarian at the Large Midwestern Technical College where I work. Jeff took up beekeeping before I met him. Having a honey connection was cool, but when I found out he had hives around town and was seeking new locations, I invited him to put one in our yard.

Sweetheart did a natural landscape installation back when he owned the house with Ex, and it is perfect for bees. So, nearly three springs ago, Jeff drove over and set up a hive.

My Beehive
The beehive formerly known as Jeff’s in the backyard currently known as ours.

I queried him on what to look for that would trigger me needing to call him and what I needed to do to make sure my little pollinating guests felt welcome in our yard.

Jeff said pretty much nothing beyond making sure there was a water source. He did say I should call if I saw them swarming. That meant the hive was too small and they needed to relocate to roomier digs. He’d have to come out and retrieve them if that happened.

He told me that they’d come out during daylight hours, that they didn’t like cold or rain, and when it was hot they would clump up in front of the beehive. “The front porch,” he called it.

It was a pleasure to watch them that first summer. They’d fly in and out of the hive, and when it got hot, sure enough, just as Jeff had promised, there was a “beard” of bees just wandering around on their front porch.

Bees on the porch
Jeff’s bees, hanging around on the “front porch”

I didn’t get close enough to it to make the bees feel alarmed, and Jeff assured me that as long as I wasn’t wearing dark clothing or eating bananas, that probably wouldn’t happen anyway. Bees send out pheromones, and the alarm pheromone (“We’re Under Attack!”) smells like bananas.

Jeff came by every couple of weeks or so and opened up the hive. He said they were doing really well, and in July started adding what he called “supers.”

That fall, he harvested two supers worth of honey, and got the hive ready for winter. I have no idea what he did. The following spring, he discovered that the bees had swarmed in September and the few left behind hadn’t survived the winter. I learned in Saturday’s workshop that bees mostly swarm in summer. That gives the bees left in the hive a chance to populate the hive and make it big and strong before winter. A late swarm would pretty much mean the bees left behind were doomed, and that’s what happened to the colony in my backyard.

“Bad beekeeper,” Jeff told me as he installed a new colony in the hive last summer. Those little guys got busy immediately, populating and pollinating and hanging out on the porch.

Jeff, holding a honey frame from the colony in my back yard.

Then, in September, Jeff got a new job. In Colorado. I was crushed, not just because my friend and hopefully-some-day-colleague was leaving, but because he was going to take my little buzzing entertainment complex along.

“I’ll leave it for you,” he said.

So, here I am, with what I can now tell you, thanks to Andy Hemken, is a Langstroth Hive. Andy spent approximately seven consecutive hours filling the heads of 55 novice wannabee-beekeepers with all kinds of information, all of it interesting and the rest useful.

Interesting was the fact that in 1981, there were 5 million beehives in the US, and now there are 2.6 million. The largest honey producer in the country is North Dakota, followed by South Dakota, Montana and Minnesota. Interesting also is that we produce 1/3 of the honey we consume. The rest is imported, a lot of it from China.

As far as beekeeping itself goes, there are approximately 95,000 hobbyist beekeepers (1-50 hives), 5,000 for whom beekeeping is a sideline (50-300 hives), 1,000 commercial beekeeping operations (300-5,000 hives) and 100-15,000 bee breeding hives, which make new queens and honeybees.

There was honeybee biology, diseases, behavior, types, food and nutrition. We learned about hive materials, bee space, why bees die, beekeeping equipment and a year in the life of a beekeeper. There were beekeeping variables, suggestions for hive placement, harvesting and extracting honey, and, of course, the truth about stings (they’re inevitable).

We also went home with a book and invitations to an equipment workshop in March and a field day in June. Novices and experienced beekeepers will pair up and work hives together.

Before that, though, I will have to get myself a veil, some gloves, a light jacket and boots and see whether the bees Jeff left me survived the winter. Yesterday I learned that you don’t want to open up a hive unless it’s above 45F (7 for you Celsius types). This morning, the temperature here was 3F (-16). I have no idea whether I’ve got live bees at this point. But I know for sure I don’t want beescicles.

Newsmakers make news, religious fanatics make trouble and Mom’s community hosts a Debbie Friedman event with a millennial twist

It’s been a terrible week for the news business. Brian Williams has been handed a suspension without pay for six months, or as I’m calling it, “book leave.” Jon Stewart is leaving The Daily Show to have dinner with his kids. And Bob Simon, whose latest stop in a distinguished career was 60 Minutes, was killed in a car accident.

Which is senseless, but not as senseless as those three Muslim kids in North Carolina who got shot by their neighbor. Over a supposed parking dispute? And somehow, we’re searching for an explanation. The alleged shooter – who has confessed, btw, was an….atheist. Which explains it about as well as a Christian or Jew killing them would. Which is to say, not at all.

Then there’s Kayla Mueller, the young woman from Arizona who died in Syria after more than a year in captivity at the hands of those people who are doing terrible things in the name of Islam. Other than returning the world to the time when we lived in caves and threw rocks at each other, it’s hard to figure out exactly what they’re after.

I am starting to think none of this religion stuff matters very much except as a veil for mean people to hide behind and decent ones to wear in order to try and make the world and their lives better. Based on news reports about them, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Kayla Mueller fell into the latter category.

Moving on – as best we can after change happens – a few weeks ago was Debbie Friedman’s yahrzeit – the fourth anniversary of her death. Her birthday is coming up in a couple of weeks. She would have been 64. Not a day goes by when my mother and aunts – who considered most of their kid pile one amorphous group of offspring – aren’t thinking of her.

Debbie might not have lived as long as her family and friends and the millions (I am not exaggerating here) of people who loved her music wanted her to. My sister and I were sure we would hang out being old ladies together with Debbie and her sisters. But she lived long enough to be remembered by people she never met. Some of those people work at the nursing home where Mom lives. One, the music therapist and activities person, Amy, approached me about six months ago with an idea.

“What would you think about having a concert of Debbie’s music around her yahrzeit? I was thinking it would be really great for your mother to help plan and be part of it.”

What did I think? I thought it would be great. The next thing I knew, Amy had Trish involved. Trish is the activities director on the assisted living side of the house, where Mom lived before she moved to the nursing home. Trish’s daughter Lauren and my Alex were playmates from the time they were about four. Now they’re both married – to Canadians – and living above the 48th parallel. Anyway, Trish is an activities genius.

So I told Trish about The Box. Mom has saved every scrap of paper from Debbie’s career that she ever acquired. I had it in a box to send to Aunt Freda for what will surely be some Debbie Friedman Archive somewhere someday that scholars will seek out. People will have to wear gloves to handle stuff that was jammed into various bags and between pages in books until I was tossing and sorting things in advance of her moves to where she is now. Trish was very excited about The Box, and started making noises about a display table.

She also made noises elsewhere. By the time Concert Day arrived, there’d been a squib in the local Jewish paper and a slew of local rabbis and cantors had signed on to take part.

Mom and I each got to pick a song to sing. She picked L’chi Lach, because she loves it.

I picked “Set me for a Seal,” because Debbie wrote it for my sister and brother-in-law’s wedding and we sang it together under the chuppah. She taught it to me, and then, intermittently for the entire weekend up to the wedding itself, my cell phone would ring and I’d pick it up and say hello.

“How does it go again?”

So I’d sing it for her.

Anyway, what with the Parkinson’s and all, Mom’s voice sometimes gives out. Also, I didn’t want her to have to stress about finding a key in which to sing. So we decided to do it with cello backup. That way, I could follow her around. Also, I played the melody through once, bowing, and then plucked so she could hear but the cello wouldn’t overpower her voice. It worked well.

Mom sings L'chi Lach. I pluck.
Mother/daughter bonding: Stillish life with cello. That’s Debbie on the movie screen. Mom was singing L’chi Lach. When she had her bat mitzvah in 2004, Mom led MiSheberach, Debbie’s setting of the healing prayer. Debbie stood behind her and played while Mom sang. At this concert, Rabbi Steve Adams did that prayer and he asked me to play guitar. I stood behind him the same way Debbie had for Mom. It was my quiet shoutout to both of them.

We were first, but before that was the best millennial part. Thanks to technology, I was able to get Aunt Freda up on FaceTime and she got to see the 200 people who’d showed up. I introduced her to the rabbis and cantors, showed her the display table and then shoved the microphone up to my i-pad. She thanked everyone for coming, and heard the audible gasp of disbelief when she said that Debbie was so afraid that no one would remember her music.

We lost the connection somewhere between the first and second song, but it was a truly lovely and meaningful afternoon, and I felt connected to Debbie, my family and the community in a way I hadn’t before.

Everyone was backing everyone else up – we had a bunch of guitars, a mandolin, a drum and the cello. Mom got invited up to play timbrel when Amy sang “Miriam’s Song.”

That's Mom on timbrel for "Miriam's Song." Amy the activities goddess is playing guitar. Behind her are Cantors Lauren Phillips, Karen Berman and David Barash (with his tabla).
That’s Mom on timbrel for “Miriam’s Song.” Amy the activities goddess is playing guitar. Behind her are Cantors Lauren Phillips, Karen Berman and David Barash (with his tabla).

We were in front of a theater-sized screen with an image of Debbie on it. As the last song, we sang “T’filat Haderech (The Traveler’s Prayer).” But it was Debbie singing on the screen, and we all picked her key and played our instruments and sang with her. I was very involved in making sure I was in tune, in time and listening to the other musicians (this was our first and dress rehearsal as well as the performance) so it wasn’t until the song was over that I looked over to find Mom, crying her eyes out and pretty much a mess.

For a second, I felt like the worst and most selfish person in the world. Here I was, sawing away on my cello while my mother was falling apart five feet away and I hadn’t noticed.

Then, I realized that it didn’t matter. Trish, Amy and other people she knew and loved were there, comforting her and lifting her up. If Debbie could have seen it, she would have hugged those women and invited them to dinner.

Years ago, Debbie had given me one of her “This is how it is” talks about how Mom shouldn’t be living on Cape Cod anymore because the climate was bad for her Parkinson’s and she should be in California with her mother and Aunt Ann and she was trying to get her to move. All I could think was “Do you want to kill her? Because if you take her away from her community, that’s what will happen.”

I said something like “Good luck getting her to leave the Cape,” adding a silent “Let me know how that works out for you.”

By the time Mom was at a point where she had to move, Debbie was dead. Mom chose Milwaukee. We all loved the idea of Mom & her sisters together, but California wasn’t practical.

Debbie would have hated it too, and agreed. She would have been a regular presence in Mom’s life, calling, visiting, singing and comforting. What I realized in the moment after catching sight of my weeping mother, surrounded by so many loving women, is that even death hasn’t stopped Debbie from that.

Packrats in Love Struggle to clear the Landfill called Home (with a little help from Marie Kondo)

I came home from my most recent Book Group and announced to Sweetheart that I had good news and bad news.

“What?” he said.

“Book group is going to be here in March,” I told him. I was originally slated for August, but a spot opened up and I jumped. I’ve been wanting to talk about “The Orphan Master’s Son” with this crew since finishing it a month ago.

So, for me, this is great news, because now I don’t have to wait another six months. Plus, it means we get to clean the house. For him, it’s bad, because the house is going to be invaded by a horde of middle-aged women, and we have to clean the house.

Cleaning the house is, I am sad to say, an anxiety-provoking activity. If I ever write a screenplay about Sweetheart and I, it will be a romantic comedy/horror film called “When Packrats Fall in Love.”

We both have a fair bit of long-standing baggage when it comes to housekeeping, and neither one of us has figured out a healthy way of dealing with the ways in which our separate pathologies overlap. Think of it as a Venn diagram in dire need of re-arrangement.

It’s definitely a relationship issue, because on our own, we would be able to figure our own ways around it. He would hang out with his clutter, selectively noticing whatever bothered him and addressing it. I would put things in order in the way I wanted to and keep them that way once I got them there, culling and getting rid of things and paring them down and arranging them. And when I couldn’t do it on my own, I’d get someone in to help me with what is hard for me to do on my own.

It’s taken me a lifetime to get to the point of knowing I can do it. I know because I’ve done it. I know why it didn’t last, that those reasons are mostly behind me, and that on my own, I can make it happen again. But I want Sweetheart with me, so this has to be a team effort.

My earliest memories around cleaning are infused with shame, and my childhood memories are of terror. I have always struggled with creating and maintaining order, even as I coveted it. In my marriage to First Ex, the dynamic was very similar to childhood, and not much fun. Second Ex was much more easygoing, which was great emotionally but didn’t make for much in the way of physical change. Also, kids aren’t exactly an asset when it comes to trying to maintain order if you don’t already know how impose it.

So it took all the way until I was living by myself – between Second Ex and Sweetheart – that I licked it. Our neighborhood has an annual Home Tour, and I put my house up as one of the 12 that year. There’s nothing like the prospect of hundreds of people who’ve paid money to tromp through your Abused Victorian (mine was the “in-progress” house) to terrorize you into organizing it.

My "in-progress" Abused Victorian. The new owners have given it a major-league facelift. It does not look like this any more. That's Sweetheart up in the birch, giving it a haircut. (He's a professional. Don't try this on your own.)
My “in-progress” Abused Victorian. The new owners have given it a major-league facelift. It does not look like this any more. That’s Sweetheart up in the birch, giving it a haircut. (He’s a professional. Don’t try this on your own.)

A week before the tour, I’d gotten a bunch done, but there was way more. I called in the troops. Friends ruthlessly tossed junk, scrubbed windows, and planted flowers in front of the rosebushes and peonies at the front of the house. The place looked amazing.

It stayed that way for six months, six of the most glorious months of my life. Not once did I wake up and think, “I have to clean today.” It took virtually no time at all to maintain order, and I loved just sitting at home, gloriously reading or cooking or having friends over or watching movies or hanging out with my dog or doing nothing at all.

Then, I was in a car accident. I couldn’t move or do much. A year later, Sweetheart moved in with a lot – and I mean a lot – of things. I had an extra job at work that added up to longer hours and heavy pressure; I was dealing with accident fallout. Then First Husband died and Youngest Daughter, whose housekeeping skills made my worst efforts look like those of a domestic goddess, moved in. Soon, I was living in the Landfill I Call Home.

We’ve moved since, but by then I was in graduate school. I had a choice to make. I could focus on getting the house in order and doing my job, or I could focus on getting the house in order and being serious about school, or I could focus on doing my job and being serious about school. I could not do all three.

Aside from the fact that I happen to really like it, that job is the engine that runs my life. It was also, through tuition reimbursement, financing a significant chunk of my graduate education. (Anyone who has ever priced grad school knows exactly how big a deal that is.) Cleaning a house might be difficult, I figured, but not as hard as trying to clean up a transcript. So, I consciously let the house slide. Through six years of school that included breaking up my mother’s house – twice – and absorbing her things (some temporarily, some not so temporarily), I did not think about The Landfill I Call Home.

Then, last May, I graduated. (My GPA was 3.9. Thank you, Taxpayers. I tried to be a wise steward of your dollars, and I work every day to put the skills you bought to work on your behalf.)

Anyway, the house is still, I am sad to say, not up to the standards I am aiming for. But not long ago, I picked up a book called “The Life Changing Art of Tidying Up” by a Japanese woman called Marie Kondo.

I love her system, and am thinking of using a week of vacation to try and put it in place. Kondo loved tidying and order from the time she was a wee thing. And I mean “loved tidying and order” the way some little girls love horses or ballet or gymnastics.

She says forget about cleaning and tidying. Go through ALL your things, and handle them. Figure out what gives you joy. If it gives you joy, keep it. If it doesn’t, send it somewhere where it will provide joy to someone else. If it’s not usable anymore, thank it and send it to the landfill or recycling place.

It’s a big, intense endeavor. Just writing about it makes me anxious. But having gotten over that hill once and seen what’s on the other side makes me want, intensely, to take Sweetheart by the hand and make the trip together.

I’d rather eat homework than words: a shoutout to the culinary arts and a little Brian Williams rant

Today is all about taste – good and bad. First, the bad.

That would be Brian Williams. It wasn’t enough for Brian to be a tall, handsome, white, rich and hugely successful anchorman at NBC News. He had to lie about being in a helicopter that was shot down in Iraq so he could also appear to be … I don’t know. I got nothing. Well, that’s not completely true.

As a former reporter, I am disgusted. I never made it to the big leagues. It’s not that I wasn’t good enough (I might not have been, but that’s not the why of this discussion). It’s that I started late. I was in my 30s when I got my first full-time job at a small-town daily newspaper. The pay was terrible. As a single mother of three young daughters, I qualified for $126 a month in food stamps. I worked my butt off. I hated the pay, but oh, I loved the work.

A year or so in, my editor sent me and another reporter to a local school to talk to students about what we did as part of a career day event. A third-grader asked me if I’d ever lied in a story.

“I’m too lazy,” I told him. “It’s a lot of work. You have to remember who you told what to and when. Also, I have to look at myself in the mirror in the morning.”

Then I got serious and talked about how important it was to report whatever it is you’re covering in a way that lets a reader draw his or her own conclusions, to describe whatever it is you’re describing while also staying out of the reader’s way. Telling the truth, I told him, is the most important thing a reporter does.

So, shame on Brian Williams, who has made it harder for all the hardworking journalists out there who practice their craft with ruthless integrity. All the money in the world will not buy his reputation back, and his stink taints the rest of us.

<not>Thanks, Brian</not>.

Okay, enough about that man. Because I wanted to have a standard of living and because I started late, I no longer commit acts of journalism on a regular basis. Which brings us to things good and tasteful, or at least tasty.

One of the perks of my current job at a large Midwestern technical college is proximity to the best-tasting homework in the universe. Our associate degree, technical diploma and certificate programs include culinary arts and baking and pastry arts degrees. That means we have a student-run bakery and café, pop-up restaurant and a student-run section of the main food court. There is also a fine-dining restaurant called Cuisine.

The front and back of the house are separate classrooms, and the students are responsible for all the functions that occur there. So the maître d’, servers, buspeople, hosts and managers are all culinary students. Every week they switch off different roles. At mid-semester, the course ends and they switch with the students who worked in the back of the house. There, they rotate through all the roles one would find in the kitchen of a fine-dining restaurant while the former kitchen staff becomes the dining room crew. Chefs need to know what goes on in a dining room. And potential chef-owners get a sense of what they’re thinking about signing up for in a low-stakes setting.

I’ll be honest. The service is kind of slow. Which is not a surprise. After all, the students are not training to be servers, they’re training to be chefs. The food makes up for it, and then some. Also, the service is extremely friendly and the prices are ridiculously cheap for what you get.

This past Tuesday, my friend (and colleague) Rick and I and lucked into lunch on the house. If we’d paid, the meal would have cost us $17 each before tax and tip. The restaurant moved into a brand-new space two years ago. It’s spacious, decorated in warm neutral tones. Walk in and you don’t feel like you’re at work anymore. Two large monitors are mounted on the walls. No matter where you’re seated, you can watch the kitchen action. Great food and reality TV. I have had worse days at work!

Rick ordered this: “Jeff Leen Chicken, pan-seared breast and boneless leg with tomato-basil mousseline forcemeat, cauliflower risotto, baby broccoli with red onion, and yellow pepper and romesco sauce.”

Rick’s main course. He ordered the chicken. It was yummy. I had a bite.

I ordered this: “Grilled Hanger Steak, pommes frites, baby broccoli with red onion and yellow pepper and truffle Madeira sauce.”

My hanger steak. With my gluten issues, I have to be careful, and this is an entree I know is safe. They’re careful too, and very good about accommodating food allergies. (I’m looking forward to ordering the fish with g/f mushroom risotto, which will come along later in the semester.)

We had salads, too. I had this one: “Mixed Greens, apples, dried cranberries, almonds and goat cheese with a basil-chive vinaigrette.”

This salad was perfect. The flavor balance was just right, it wasn’t overdressed and the presentation….well, I guess I don’t have to say anything about the presentation. I want another one right now!

Rick ordered this: “Spinach Salad, mango, red peppers, scallions and toasted sesame seeds with a curry emulsion dressing.”

Spinach_Mango_Salad and some spreads
I had flirted with ordering the mango salad, but was glad I’d chosen the apple (recommended by my server) instead. This one needs some tweaking – I thought there were too many strong flavors competing for attention. But it was really beautiful to look at – like a summer garden on a plate. The butter (small round dish) was basil, I think, and there was a cream cheese and sun-dried tomato spread (larger round dish) that I would have ordered for dessert if I thought I could have gotten away with it. The kidney-shaped dish had an amuse bouche, which wasn’t g/f. I don’t remember what it was, but Rick said it was yummy.

We didn’t order wine, because we were going back to work. But we could have, because the restaurant has a license to serve a single glass to any customer who is of proper age and orders one. The school applied for the liquor license because students need to know about food and wine pairings. We also didn’t order dessert, which looked great. But time was running short and we both like to make sure we are giving the taxpayers of Wisconsin their money’s worth.