Sunday, January 27, 2013


It has been a busy week, in case you couldn't tell by my nearly week-long blog-absence. The busy-ness was compounded by the fact that I had some vague cold-like symptoms that rendered me headachey and tired and bleary-eyed and sneezy and snuffly for a few days.

But so far, so good. No flu. My best friend has (had? I hope!) it, and they aren't just whistlin' dixie when they say it's bad. She's a trooper, and she took to her bed, so chances are, I would not survive for more than a few hours.

In the meantime, I've been reading Bella DePaulo's book Singled Out (I know: why? Like I need any more proof...), and I must say, it's a humorous and enjoyable look at all of the myths of what she refers to as American "matrimania."

Case in point: the myth that, "If you're single and you get sick, you'll have no one to take care of you."
Yes, exactly. And you'll probably heal in about half the time, because you can get bed-rest and do what you want without someone pestering you about what you should be doing or asking you, "Any better?" because they have things they want you to do for them, but they don't feel quite right asking you just yet. You look too awful. But at the first sign of recuperation, they'll be asking.

Singles can hide out and hole up when they're sick. Ask any wounded animal and they'll tell you: that's the way to go.

But no one in human culture is ever going to tell you that.

DePaulo coins the term "singlism" to describe what she sees as they systematic discrimination that singles suffer in American society.

If your immediate reaction to that last sentence is, "Oh, COME on... you're just angry and bitter because you're alone... but don't worry, your time will come! You'll find someone!," I'll ask you to hold that thought for just a minute.

While DePaulo is quick to point out that the discrimination of singles is in no way as virulent as racism or homophobia or other forms of systematic social prejudice in the US, she also notes a pervasive current of stereotyping with respect to singles--one that does in fact have economic and political implications.

If I die tomorrow, no one can have my Social Security benefits. They just go back into the system. If a married person works the same job for the same number of years and dies, their spouse is entitled to their benefits.

If two people live together, unmarried, for 30 years and one of them dies, the deceased's benefits go back into the system. If you're not married, the relationship doesn't count in the eyes of the federal government.

I also won't get the little token sum designed to cover "funeral costs."  Why? I'll be needing a funeral too, I suspect.

Although gays have been petitioning for decades to have the legal right to marry, DePaulo wonders whether we should focus on undoing the legal "perks" of matrimony entirely. Expose the workings of "singlism," dispel the myth of "matrimania," and level the playing field. And then let people decide for themselves what will make them happy in life.

DePaulo identifies American "matrimania" as a form of constant mental blanketing fueled by fear and yearning. You know the pattern: If you aren't married, you're "no one." You "need" to get married. You "should" get married. If you aren't married, you "will be," someday.

You're "too nice" to not get married. (Substitute "too smart," "too funny," "too cute," "too rich," "too female"... whatever works).

As DePaulo points out, we've validated the idea of the "significant other" in the form of the spouse, to the exclusion of all other social and emotional relationships.

People have--and always have had--other relationships that nurture their lives, their minds, and their souls. Investing one person with such all-encompassing emotional responsibility is, if you think about it, truly foolish.

You need more than just one other person in your life, because you have more than just one set of needs. And you will change over time. And life will hand you things you simply can't predict.

DePaulo notes how all of the rhetoric surrounding "matrimania" is designed to conceptualize marriage as the sole key to security, stability and happiness in American society.

By the same token, all of the rhetoric surrounding "the single life" whittles that "life" down to a protracted waiting for "the One." The single person is conceptualized time and time again as lonely and unhappy and trying very, very hard not to be bitter.

Singles allegedly join clubs and take up hobbies, not because we're actually interested in them, but because we're waiting for fulfillment in the form of a "serious" relationship (and the clubs and activities are the best way to meet people, of course).

When we get the relationship, we'll drop the clubs and the activities, because the relationship will fullfill us in every possible way. Stated so bluntly, I think we can see the silliness of such an expectation. And yet, it is the source of the fear and yearning that shapes the lives of many, many women and--to a somewhat lesser extent--men today.

Trolling a dating site, I once came upon a username that, to my mind, perfectly encapsulated that fear and yearning: "Imnotbald."

There are all kinds of singles out there with all kinds of experiences (including the divorced and the widowed), but the image put forward is decidedly... singular. It's the woman looking for a man, usually, but occasionally, the guy who finally figures out that a "good woman" is exactly what he needs.

Again, when you think about it, the way in which the diversity of human experience is whittled down to this one, marketable image is ludicrous.

Because, of course, corporate American is involved: the marriage "industry" is a billion-dollar enterprise.
It's out there, ever-present and pervasive, in small ways. Years ago, I started noticing that, almost without exception, clothing models are almost always wearing wedding bands, if the advertisement features a man and a woman.

Look for it. If you don't believe me, read this.

If you've spent any time wondering why you always feel pressured to be in a relationship or why you feel "left out" if you're not, the reason is, because you are. And once you see it all for what it is, you can begin to consider all of the many, many life-options available.

Monday, January 21, 2013


Today is the last day of January break, so it's time to get back into the swing of things.

It's been a great break, all things considered.  I don't know about the rest of the world, but it seems to me like Christmas and New Year's occurred about six months ago now.

I do love to teach, but I also love being on break.  I think I'm one of the few people who's more productive on vacation than at work.  Which is not to say that I don't get a lot done at work, but it's a different kind of productivity.

Lots more time spent interacting with others.

I think this is something that throws my more extroverted friends off, because they note the fact that I have an extremely extroverted job, but when I'm not working, I'm highly introverted.  As in, I could go days on end without seeing another person and be perfectly content.  It's my way of recharging.

So that's essentially what I did for the past two and a half weeks.  I recharged.  I went swimming. (At the pool. I'm not a Polar Bear).  I went ice-skating.  I finished an article and a proposal project, and I'm halfway through finishing another.  I updated my webpage.  I updated my syllabi.

I cooked.  I went to the gym to work off the Christmas candy.  I read, and I blogged.  I emailed.  I stacked firewood.  I sat by the fire for hours on end, reading and having a wonderful glass of wine. 

So now, I find myself taking a deep breath, because in 24 hours, it's ON.  Back in the thick of things.  Meeting, teaching, conferences, interviews, all that interactive stuff that is also part of the life of a professor.

And for some reason, I have a feeling that this one is going to be a super-busy one.  So.... bring it.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

"The Idiot"

I've been taking advantage of the suddenly snowy (and then rainy) days to work on rereading Dostoevsky's The Idiot (1868).  I haven't finished it yet, but I'm about halfway through.

I love Dostoevsky, as anyone who knows me (or my blog) already knows.  I first read The Idiot in 1994.  I remember it exactly, because I remember the apartment I was living in and where I was sitting when I first read it.

It's that kind of book.

I always felt that it was the one Dostoevsky novel I couldn't quite figure out, and I knew that someday, I'd have to go back and dig into it a bit more.  So that's what I'm doing.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've become really interested in the role of rumors and gossip in general, and I think they play a significant role in Dostoevsky's novels.  In May of 2012, I examined the role that they play in The Brothers Karamazov (with a nod to Adele and Veggie Tales, of course). 

In fact, I think there's an interesting divide in Dostoevsky's work.  While his earlier novels (in particular, Crime and Punishment & Notes from Underground) focus on the perspective of an individual protagonist and his isolation from the community, his later novels focus on the role of community and its effects on a protagonist (in particular, The Idiot, The Demons, The Brothers Karamazov).

This shift makes sense, given Dostoevsky's growing concern with what he saw taking place in Russian society in the mid-to-late 19th century.

What I think is less explored, though, are the philosophical and psychological implications of Dostoevsky's fascination with rumor as a means of representing the community.

Dostoevsky's protagonists always struggle with uncertainty.  How do they understand themselves and their relationship to the world around them?  How do the ideas they adopt or adhere to function as ways of making sense of the world and its uncertainties?

While Dostoevsky's concerns are serious and philosophical, I think he uses rumors and gossip as a way of showing the everyday operations of uncertainty as well.  Although they serve a comedic function, Dostoevsky's inclusion of gossipy characters and his narrators' discussions of the various rumors circulating around a particular event also probe serious existential issues.

How do we know what is true--about ourselves and about others?  While rumors may seem trivial, as psychological theory has noted for quite some time now, rumors can actually serve as a significant mode of political propaganda.  Rumors have the capacity to function as a means of social control.  They can ultimately inspire--or demoralize--an entire population.

Rumors also have a highly personal component.  Our willingness to listen, spread and/or believe them suggests a lot about our individual concerns.  One of the most enjoyable scenes in The Idiot (in my opinion) depicts this phenomenon. It occurs at the start of Book II.

At the end of Book I, there is a scene and a scandal.  The novel's protagonist, Prince Myshkin, suddenly leaves for Moscow.  As readers, we're shown the scene and we know the gist of the scandal. (No, I won't tell you: you have to read the novel.)

What we don't know, precisely, is why Myshkin left or what his departure "means."  Instead of telling us outright, Dostoevsky's narrator tells us what everyone thinks has happened.

In a narrative move very typical of Dostoevsky's work, the narrator tells us ALL of the conflicting and competing rumors circulating about the prince, both the plausible and the potentially absurd.  Perhaps more importantly, the narrator weighs all of them equally.  If a rumor is dismissed as silly or implausible, it is almost immediately qualified by evidence that suggests that it might very well be possible after all.

One of my favorite points in the novel is Dostoevsky's depiction of Madame Yepanchin's reaction to all of these rumors and their implications.  Although she only met him briefly, she initially liked Prince Myshkin a lot.  Depending on what may or may not have actually happened both before and after his departure for Moscow, she may actually like him still.  But initially, she doesn't know what to think.

She wants to like him, clearly.

I enjoy Dostoevsky's depiction because 1) it reminds me of me, and 2) it shows a very human struggle with information.

While we all grapple with "The Meaning of Life," we also grapple with information filed under the heading of, "He Did What?! No Way."  Two very different types of information, obviously, but both shape how we function in the world--how we treat other people and what we believe to be true, both about ourselves and about others.  In the end, both categories of knowledge can intersect and overlap and thus radically shape the way we see ourselves and the world around us.

Madame Yepanchin is a wonderful barometer for this process. It's not what she says, but what she doesn't say or what she refuses to say, that shapes the entire atmosphere of the Yepanchin household after the prince's departure for Moscow: first, that is for almost a whole month after the prince's departure, it was not considered acceptable in the Yepanchin house to speak of him.  Only once did Madame Yepanchin declare at the very beginning that she had been "cruelly disappointed in the prince."  Then two or three days later she had added, this time without naming the prince, in an abstract way, that the "main feature" in her life was her "continually mistaking of people."  And finally a full ten days later, exasperated with something her daughters had done, she summed up the whole affair with the declaration, "Enough mistakes!  We shall have no more of them!" (199)
Madame Yepanchin sounds like me on my blog sometimes.

She moves from a specific incident (disappointment in the prince), to a generalized sense of the trajectory of her own life as one marked by disappointment in people overall.  Her ultimate conclusion (my favorite point of all time), "Enough mistakes!  We shall have no more of them!" is comic, obviously, but it shows how a series of rumors compels her to make sweeping decisions about her own attitude in the future.


The fascinating element of rumors and gossip is that clearly, no one talks about the prince (including Madame Yepanchin), because 1) no one wants to talk about him because it's kind of an awkward situation, 2) if he really has done what they think he's done, nice people shouldn't be giving him the time of day, much less talking about him, and 3) no one wants to be the kind of person who talks about other people, particularly if it's about people who may or may not be the kind of person the prince might be.

The problem is, these are always the most interesting people and the ones worth talking about.

Thus, by not talking about him, they talk about him all the time... but without ever really talking about him.

The first time I read The Idiot, this characteristic bewildered and confused me.  I found it hard to figure out what was going on and why people were upset (with whom?  about what?).  When I started to reread the novel, I assumed a second reading would help me figure this out.

What I've discovered instead is that, if it could all be talked about and cleared up, there would be no novel.  Dostoevsky is playing on exactly this motif: people often "talk" but without ever really "saying" what it is they're "talking" about.  This is the source of the drama and the tension.

When you think about it, it's an extremely complex and clever narrative device.  In life, our identity often hinges on our deeds and our reputation.  We're "known," not only for what we did or didn't do, but for what other people think or believe we did or didn't do--and this "knowledge" accompanies us over time.  If we occupy positions of social prominence or authority, this second component of our identity can be particularly crucial in shaping the actions and ideas of those around us.

By incorporating this element--the circulation and transmission of rumor--as the very essence of the novel's plot, Dostoevsky offers a fascinating insight into 19th century Russian society itself--its insights, concerns, ideas and inner workings (as he perceives them).  He creates a way of examining the very notion of belief and its influence on action and identity, both individually and collectively.

Needless to say, I'm enjoying it all immensely.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

"Main Street"

I finished rereading Main Street by Sinclair Lewis.  I first read this novel long, long ago, when I was in high school.  I'm actually a fan of Lewis, so at one point, I read quite a few of his novels.  Main Street and Babbitt are probably his best known.

Lewis was actually the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930.

Lewis' work both represents and is critical of American society: the rhetoric of capitalism and "boosterism" in particular, and the way in which national pride and evangelical fervor often serve to mask what Lewis perceived as a bullying, provincial narrow-mindedness fueled by racism and class prejudice.

Boyhood home of American author, Sinclair Lewis, at Sauk Centre, MN. 
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division 
Main Street was enormously popular when it was published.  It tells the story of Carol Kennicott (nee Milford) and her residence in the fictional small town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota.

I found Lewis' attempt to tell the story of small-town America from the perspective of a female protagonist extremely interesting.  On the one hand, Carol Kennicott is a vehicle for Lewis' own satire and criticism of small-town life, which he depicts as characterized by hypocritical and nosy neighbors, mind-numbing sameness and a love of the all-mighty dollar.

When Carol asks the local mill owner in Gopher Prairie his opinions about profit-sharing, for example,
Mr. Elder thundered his answer, while the others nodded, solemnly and in tune, like a shop-window of flexible toys, comic mandarins and judges and ducks and clowns, set quivering by a breeze from the open door:
"All this profit-sharing and welfare work and insurance and old-age pension is simply poppycock.  Enfeebles a workman's independence--and wastes a lot of honest profit.  The half-baked thinker that isn't dry behind the ears yet, and these suffragettes and God knows what all buttinskis there are that are trying to tell a business man how to run his business, and some of these college professors are just about as bad, the whole kit and bilin' of 'em are nothing in God's world but socialism in disguise!  And it's my bounden duty as a producer to resist every attack on the integrity of American industry to the last ditch.  Yes--SIR!"
(I'm pretty sure I read almost exactly this same statement in a comment thread on a news article the other day.)

Lewis is also at his best when he is looking at the staples of American culture with a satirical eye.  Describing a night at the movies, the narrator notes that in the "feature film," "a brave young Yankee" goes to South America: "He turned the natives from their barbarous haibts of singing and laughing to the vigorous sanity, the Pep and Punch and Go, of the North; he taught them to work in factories, to wear Klassy Kollege Klothes, and to shout, 'Oh, you baby doll, watch me gather in the mazuma.'"

The follow-up comedy reel features "the dual motif of legs and pie."

(I think I saw both of these films just last week.)

So this is Lewis' strength: social satire.  The French novelist Albert Camus once said in his review of Jean-Paul Sartre's novel, Nausea, that one of the difficulties involved in writing a philosophical novel is that it can't be more "philosophy" than "novel."  The ideas need to be balanced by artistry.

I think this is a dilemma that Lewis also faces.  On the one hand, I think he chose the perspective of a small-town, middle-class, professional man's wife (Carol's husband, Will Kennicott, is a doctor), because this is a narrative perspective that would allow him to look at the world he wants to depict from a point of view that is simultaneously central and marginalized.

As the narrator remarks with regard to Carol, "She was a woman with a working brain and no work."

At the same time, however, Lewis seems to me to be somewhat uncomfortable with the attempt to tell the story of small-town America from a woman's perspective.  The issue of an affair comes up: he dodges it.  The issue of children comes up: Carol has them, but Lewis then seems at a loss with what to do with them or with her role as a mother.  He dodges it, sort of.

I think Lewis is also uncertain, in some ways, of what it is that he wants to say and to accomplish in this novel.  On the one hand, the criticism of small-town life in the Midwest is--at times--extremely scathing.  Carol repeatedly tries to solve it or to flee, but what is the solution, really, and where can she go?

Lewis seems uncertain himself and unwilling to confront that uncertainty openly.  How can an individual maintain her individuality in a world that not only endorses but insists on and polices--both overtly and covertly--conformity?  As the narrator puts it, "The universal similarity--that is the physical expression of the philosophy of dull safety.  Nine-tenths of the American towns are so alike that it is the completest boredom to wander from one to another."

And yet, in the end, Lewis hedges.  The tone of the novel shifts, somewhat abruptly, and Carol begins to discover a new "goodness" underneath the superficial surface of Gopher Prairie.  She settles for her fate, it seems, and yet she still pays lip service to balking it.

In the end, I wonder whether it is Lewis' choice of a female protagonist that forces him into this bind.  He is comfortable criticizing America, but he is, in my opinion, less comfortable suggesting that women will ultimately insist on breaking out of the gender roles that have been scripted for them.  (Carol is not a suffragette.  The suffragette she speaks to longs for children and a husband.)

Nevertheless, I still enjoy reading Lewis, and I would recommend Main Street over Babbitt.  I'm looking forward to rereading Arrowsmith next, and then perhaps Elmer Gantry and Kingsblood Royal, two of his novels that I've never read.

At the end of the day, I still think It Can't Happen Here, although it is one of Lewis' lesser-known novels, is one of his most interesting--and most chilling.  It is about how all things quintessentially American mask the slow but steady rise of a totalitarian regime.

The ideas and concerns that Lewis raises in his novels are still with us in the US today.  The times and the issues may have changed slightly (or have they?), and we may phrase it all a bit differently, but in essence the criticisms his novels offer still ring terribly true.

Friday, January 11, 2013


The week began in process and so, it has been a week of finishing things.

Main Street is almost finished.  I thought it would be done sooner, actually, but I had some other left-over December dramas to resolve.  Now that those are over, I'm confident I can plow through those remaining 50 pages or so and post about the novel tomorrow.

I finished the cardigan I was working on.  It's really just a very plain, very simple cardigan, but I love it.  I love it precisely because it's very plain and very simple. 

It was knit all in a single piece, believe it or not, from the neckline down.  This got a bit fidgety and bulky at one point, but I weathered it.  It's loose-fitting and open and wonderful.  No buttons.

And it has that cool little cable pattern in the back that gathers it together.  See?

 I really don't know why I like that fact about it so much, but I do. 

I also spent a bit of time making ravioli from scratch.  Which was also quite a bit of fun. 

 Here they are, whole-wheat ravioli with spinach and 3 cheese filling:

So now those are waiting in my freezer for me. 

I found that the recipe made far more than it said that it would. 

Or perhaps I am just turning into a Master Hand-Roller of Whole Wheat Pasta.

Anyway, after doing all of that, I was "over" my whole-wheat pasta making addiction (for now). 

The nice thing is, if you get on a roll (pun!), you can make enough to store for a while, and then you don't have to do it again anytime soon.

I also made my own homemade ricotta to fill them with, and while that might sound difficult, it's not.  (As you'll see if you click on the link to the recipe.) 

There's no need to pay for ricotta in plastic tubs at the store, if you already have milk and lemon juice on hand.  And a quart of cream has many uses besides ricotta, so... you save money making it yourself.  (Of course.)  And for me personally, store-bought ricotta has always tasted... funky.  I don't know what's in it, but I like cheese and that stuff is just not cool, IMHO.

The other thing I had to finish up this week involved discovering the capacity for sneaky vindictiveness in otherwise intelligent and seemingly reasonable individuals.  That kind of thing always shocks me, and I always wonder why I am shocked, only to eventually conclude that it will be a sad day when I just accept such behavior as the norm and don't feel shocked at all. 

In this case, shock is always a bit of a good thing.

So discovering that rendered me a bit speechless, which was why I didn't get as many things done as quickly as I wanted to this week and why my blog went silent for a bit, when I hadn't intended for it to go silent at all.

I've had a headache that lasted for three days.

As I spluttered and steamed my way through a controlled (but nevertheless potent) little hissy-fit, I was counseled to practice compassion.  I in turn indicated that although my store of compassion for such people is running a bit LOW right now, I will try.

I think this is a very good time for me to be rereading The Idiot, because in many ways Dostoevsky's novel is about precisely this problem:  a man opts to practice integrity, kindness and generosity of spirit in a world in which those qualities are not always (or even occasionally) practiced by others.

The sci-fi writer Anne McCaffrey once said, "Make no judgments where you have no compassion." 

I think this is good advice, although it's a bit hard to follow when you also feel like you've had to spend a couple of weeks figuring out how to get the knife out of your back. 

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I don't like sneaky.  If you ever want to ensure that I will always regard you with a wary eye and never again trust your word or your sincerity, go all stealth and sneaky on me.

When people attack me openly, I respect that.  I don't like it, mind you, but I respect it.  Those people have the courage of their convictions.  I don't share those convictions, obviously, but I can still admire their integrity.

They mean what they say, and they say what they mean.

People who do sneaky things have neither courage nor conviction nor integrity.  They mean nothing and at the end of the day, they're nothing but mean. 

I guess that's me being judgmental and not very compassionate, but at this point, there 'tis. 

But at least it's finished.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Progress in Process

The first weekend of the New Year was a hit.

Sometimes, life feels good because you finish all kinds of things.  But sometimes, because of timing, you're just in the middle of a whole lot of things, so it isn't realistic to expect to be able to finish them all.

The key to being (and feeling) productive is recognizing the difference between the two.

This weekend was a weekend of progress in process.  I finished about 2/3rds of Main Street, so I'll be able to blog about that sometime this week.

As I mentioned, I became addicted to making homemade pasta, and I got significantly faster and better at doing so.  Here's the second batch.

I cranked along and made about two lbs., so now the thrill of making it has worn off a bit.  But this is fine, because now I have homemade pasta stored in the freezer, ready for whenever.

In case you're wondering, I realized I didn't need to use a chopstick to roll the shapes (a process that would have involved figuring out where to buy chopsticks and then going to get them).  As it turns out, a #10 double-pointed knitting needle works just fine.

I also got back on track with my fitness regimen.  I went swimming, I worked out using the (friggin') circuit training at the gym, and I went ice skating.  Can you tell which one of the three is my least favorite?

Ice skating is such a happy winter activity.  Nothing beats it.  I step on the ice, and I'm 8 years old once again, smiling and speeding around the rink.

I finished all I could finish on an afghan I'm making.  I ran out of yarn.  Instead of getting fussy about it, I just ordered some new (should be arriving in a day or two) and switched over to finishing a cardigan.  I have about 4-5 more rows to go, and then that will be done (I finished the last half of a sleeve and half of the neckline this weekend).  Almost there.

I'm hoping to get the afghan finished so I can give it to Project Linus in NJ.  Ideally, I'd like to have at least two finished to donate, so I'm going to get cracking on another ASAP.

Project Linus donates handmade blankets to homeless shelters and hospitals, for children in need.  Since Hurricane Sandy, there has been a HUGE need.  If you're interested, the link to their page is on the list to the right of mine, under "Worthy Causes."  You don't have to give blankets: sometimes, you can buy a blanket, and the proceeds will go to Project Linus.

While I'm at it, I'll give a plug for two other worthy causes in NJ that I discovered in 2012.  Obviously, I'm a fan of Karma Cat & Zen Dog Rescue Society, the rescue shelter where I adopted my two crazy cuties last summer.

Their motto is Pure * Organic * Kindness.  What's not to love about that?

I'm also a fan of Seer Farms in Jackson, NJ.  This organization began during the economic crisis a few years ago.  The owners realized that many people, due to foreclosures, natural disasters, or other domestic crises (illness, military service), are forced to simply abandon their pets.

Seer Farms offers a safe-haven for pets whose families are in crisis and transition.  As they point out on their website, "In our experience, if given the option, a pet owner able to make temporary long-term arrangements for the care of their animal(s) will do so, alleviating a considerable emotional burden that is added to an already difficult time."

I cannot imagine going through what some people have had to go through, and then finding myself forced to give up my cats on top of it all.  In tough times, pets are a huge source of strength and comfort.  Feeling compelled to give them up is an inconceivable emotional burden added to an already difficult time.  

Most people aren't innately cruel or callous (although some people are, obviously).  They don't want to abandon their animals, but if they can't provide for them and a shelter is the only option... they need other options.  Seer Farms works to offer that alternative option.

Obviously, Seer Farms has also been very busy in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

As George Eliot once wrote, "Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together."  And, perhaps more importantly, "More helpful than all wisdom is one draught of simple human pity that will not forsake us." 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Classics Club Readathon

As I mentioned yesterday, today is the first Classics Club Readathon, so I'll be trying to read for as many hours as possible.  I'm looking forward to this one, since the last Dewey's Readathon didn't go so well for me--I got distracted by a million and one things and never accomplished anything near what I had hoped.

Speaking of accomplishing things, I don't really have a strong game-plan for this Readathon.  I have a couple of books from my Classics Club List underway, so my thought is to see how far I get in each of those.  I doubt I'll finish any of them (definitely not Infinite Jest), but I'll dedicate the day to making progress on them.

Right now, I've got Sinclair Lewis' Main Street and Dostoevsky's The Idiot underway.  Both are rereads--I read them well over a decade ago, though, so they're like new (particularly Main Street).

If I start to feel like my brain's getting swamped, I'll switch to something a bit "lighter"--maybe Julia Alvarez or Annie Proulx or Junot Diaz.

We'll see.

I'm actually one of those rare people who don't snack while reading.  This is probably a form of self-preservation, since if I did, given the amount I read, I'd have exploded years ago.  I'm a big tea-drinker, though, and you'll certainly never see me turning away from a glass of wine and a book.  Right now, though, it's morning, and that means coffee.

At some point, I'm going to head out to the gym and the pool, because I need to get rid of the results of all of the holiday cookies and chocolate that I ate for two weeks straight.  I may take a break and make pasta again (I'm hooked), but otherwise, it's chilly and there's snow on the ground, and I can make a fire in the fireplace, so... bring it!

More later...

11:50 p.m.: Much, much later, that is.  Not a whole lot to report.  I've been spending the afternoon and evening reading Main Street, and enjoying it.  I should finish it tomorrow, or maybe Monday... I'll probably read for another hour and see how far I get.  All in all, a nice, comfortable Readathon!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Homemade Pasta

As one of my New Year's resolutions, I decided to see if I was the kind of person who could make her own whole wheat pasta.

If you're staring at that last sentence in stunned amazement, you should know that whole wheat pasta--yes, the kind you get in the box--is just whole wheat flour, egg, and water (with a little salt).  It's made into a dough, rolled out, shaped, and dried.

Of course, Ronzoni and Barilla may be adding other things (like preservatives), but really, that's the gist of any pasta.  Regular (non-whole wheat) pasta is just regular flour.  Spinach pasta has spinach added to the dough.

So I decided to start by just making a small batch, to see how it all went.  I poured a cup of whole wheat pastry flour into a mound (you can use regular whole wheat flour as well, but I read that the texture of the pastry flour is a bit better for pasta).

You beat the egg, then add it to a well you create in the center of the mound.  I was going to take a picture of that, but my well was too small and the egg ran down over the mound, so I had to hurry and get it under control, which meant I was in no condition to take a picture (what with my floury-and-eggy little hands and all).

Then, you knead it into a dough.  This takes anywhere from 10-20 minutes.  You want a dough that holds together and is elastic without being sticky, so you should add water in a little at a time, to get the consistency that you want.  When you've done that, this is what you end up with.

You should then wrap it in plastic wrap, or put it in a freezer bag, and put it in the fridge to "rest" for a half-hour or so.

You need to let whole-grain doughs "rest" longer than non-whole-grain doughs, because the grain takes a bit longer to absorb the liquids.  Taking the time to let it rest will also give it more flavor and make it easier to roll.

The trick with rolling your own pasta (instead of using a machine) is getting the dough thin enough.  Ideally, it needs to be "translucent" or about as thick as a sheet of paper.  This is difficult to do with a rolling pin, needless to say.

But, if you're dead-set on doing it by hand (which I was), you need to start with a rolling pin and a lot of counter space.  You slowly and steadily roll it thinner and thinner.  Like this:

And this:

And this:

Periodically, I would pause and let it "rest" a minute or two.  I find that the dough is a bit easier to work if you do that.  Also, you kind of need a little bit of a "rest" yourself.  Keeps you from getting discouraged.

If it doesn't look like it's getting thinner, trust me, it is.  It was still not really thin enough to make pasta shapes, but if I wanted, at this point, I could cut it into strips and hang it to dry on a pasta drying rack, and I'd have whole-wheat fettucine.

I wanted to try my hand at making shapes, though, so I bought myself a garganelli board for Christmas.  Garganelli is just like penne, only the seam is on the outside.  My attitude is, if I serve homemade pasta and someone objects to the placement of the seam, I don't want that person in my life.  So I was happily willing to make garganelli.  (Homemade penne is always technically "garganelli.")

The beauty of the garganelli board is, in addition to making the ridges on the pasta, it also enables you to roll each small square very thin--much thinner than you can get with a rolling pin.  With the striper and paddle, you can get the dough rolled to paper-thin or "translucent" consistency.  Here's the small square--I cut them to somewhat larger than postage-stamp size.

Initially, the temptation is to make them small, but it's easier to work with slightly larger squares, I think, particularly for your first time out.  You roll the square paper-thin, like this:

So that it ends up looking something like this:

At this point, you're ready to make the pasta shape itself.  If you want it to look penne-like, you start at the triangle-point at the longest part of your square.

If you don't want pointed pasta ends, you could simply start at one of the sides, and get a rigatoni-shape.

I like penne, so I wanted something penne-like.

You take the stripper and, you guessed it, roll the pasta shape across the board so that it creates ridges.

You press down slightly to create a seam, then slide it off the roller onto a cookie sheet, like so:

You want to put down a little bit of flour and/or a piece of parchment paper, so that the pasta doesn't stick to the sheet (As you can see, I used both, to be safe).  A helpful hint: if you roll the pasta close to the end of the roller, it slides off more easily.

I'm not gonna lie: when I first started, I had a brief moment in which I thought, "Ye gods and little fishes, this is going to take ALL DAY."  But it didn't.  It took me an hour to create this:

I'm reasonably certain that next time, it won't take even half as long.  You get the hang of it pretty quickly.  One site I checked out said that the stripper makes rather large rolls, and I have to agree.  Next time, I'm going to follow their advice and use a chopstick to shape it, so that the size is even more penne-like.

You now need to let the pasta dry, if you plan to store it.  Fresh pasta, when dried, can be stored in the freezer for up to 3 months.  I love my storage freezer more than life itself, so this was music to my ears.

If you're going to dry the pasta, though, you need to be a bit patient.  If it isn't sufficiently dried and you put it in the fridge or freezer, it will get moldy.  To dry it, you need to let the air circulate around it.  So you could leave it on the cookie sheet and just turn your pieces (making sure they don't stick to one another), or you can put it on a rack, like this:

If this seems like a lot of work for not all that much pasta, remember: I made a small recipe, about half the typical amount.  Most recipes call for at least two cups of flour and two eggs, in which case, you'll end up with twice as much as you see here--about a pound, in the end.

Success!  A satisfying and fun morning-project, to start off the New Year.  Tomorrow is the first Classics Club Read-a-thon, so I'll be hittin' the books once again for the weekend.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Starbuck's Heart

It was a whirlwind of a holiday, but a good one.  I've been the living embodiment of the old adage, "If you need something done, give it to a busy person to do."  I visited friends and family, and had a "slumber party" with my best friend and her two little ones.  I nearly finished knitting a blanket.  I polished my course syllabi.

I also finished the article on Moby-Dick that I've been working on forever.  I started it back before my mom became ill, in the months after my dad died.  And I've worked on it little by little ever since.

By now, I'm sure everyone's sick of hearing me go on about Moby-Dick, but I can't help it.  I have to talk about one of my favorite scenes in the novel, because it's been on my mind a lot lately.

At one point in the ill-fated quest for the white whale, the first mate, Starbuck, contemplates an immoral and illegal act.

He thinks about killing Ahab.

At this point in the novel, it is quite clear that the captain is insane and that he's unwilling to listen to reason.  He intends to use the ship to pursue his own vindictive quest, and he doesn't care about the well-being of the crew or the trust that the ship's owners have placed in him. 

The Pequod has just weathered a typhoon; the storm has cleared, however, and the ship is now back on course.

Starbuck is a devout Quaker.  He has openly expressed his disagreement with Ahab's decision to pursue the white whale at all costs, and at one point, Ahab has threatened to kill Starbuck if he continues to oppose his will.  Starbuck has repeatedly prayed to God to save them all from Ahab's insanity.  From Starbuck's perspective, the typhoon might well be regarded as the hand of God, expressing divine dissatisfaction with Ahab's course of action.

But then, the typhoon suddenly ends, as abruptly as it began, and the ship is back on course, in pursuit of Moby-Dick.

Starbuck goes below deck to notify Ahab of the change in the weather.  As he does so, he notices the rack of loaded muskets in the bulkhead.  At this point, the narrator Ishmael remarks,
Starbuck was an honest, upright man; but out of Starbuck's heart, at that instant when he saw the muskets, there strangely evolved an evil thought; but so blent with its neutral or good accompaniments that for the instant he hardly knew it for itself. (386)
Starbuck reflects upon the fact that, at an earlier point in the voyage, Ahab had threatened him with one of those very muskets.  He pauses to pick up one of the guns and checks to see whether it's loaded.  Instead of emptying it, however, he holds it "boldly" and begins to think.

Melville's description of Starbuck's interior monologue is a fascinating example of how "evil thoughts" can be accompanied by "neutral or good" elements.  Itemizing Ahab's various demonstrations of foolhardiness or insanity, Starbuck asks,
But shall this crazed old man be tamely suffered to drag a whole ship's company down to doom with him?--Yes, it would make him the wilful murderer of thirty men and more, if this ship come to any deadly harm; and come to deadly harm, my soul swears this ship will, if Ahab have his way.  If, then, he were this instant--put aside, that crime would not be his. (387)
Starbuck doesn't call it murder.  He considers "putting aside" the "crazed old man" as a way of saving innocent lives.  After all, in his mental address to Ahab, he notes, "Not reasoning; not remonstrance, not entreaty wilt thou hearken to; all this thou scornest. Flat obedience to thy own flat commands, this is all thou breathest" (387).

Ahab will not accept anything less than total obedience from those under his command.  Starbuck fully realizes that, under such circumstances, there can be no reasoning with such a leader.  Mutiny is the only option, murder a distinct possibility.  As Starbuck muses, "The land is hundreds of leagues away ... I stand alone here upon an open sea, with two oceans and a whole continent between me and law" (387).

Starbuck has a wife and a small child that he may never see again, if Ahab continues down the path of his self-appointed vengeance.  Starbuck is well-liked on board the Pequod; it is unlikely that anyone would question his decision and, as he points out, he is currently "two oceans and a whole continent" away from the law that would prosecute him for Ahab's murder.

In the heart of even an honest and upright man, evil thoughts arise.  As Melville's novel suggests, honesty and integrity do not simply flow spontaneously from people of innately good character.  They are the result of choice; they stem from a recognition that "neutral or good accompaniments" can hide the true nature of an evil thought.

Starbuck's heart is not pure, but Starbuck is nevertheless an honest and upright man.  As we read this chapter of the novel, we can't help but sympathize with the first mate: Ahab is crazy.  His survival means the almost certain death of many others.

And yet, Starbuck's credo has always been that murder is immoral.  He opts to do what he believes is right, despite the "strangely evolved" promptings of his own heart.  Ahab might well have killed him at one point; Ahab may well cause the death of the crew in the near future.

The point Melville's novel seems to be making is that integrity stems from principle, not circumstance.  It cannot depend upon the action of others, because there will always be accompanying "good" or "neutral" thoughts that can initially appear to excuse immoral acts.

This is the paradox of Starbuck's heart: the extent of its integrity is proven in precisely those moments when his thoughts are most impulsive and impure, when the temptations of immorality are strongest.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Year

For the first post of the New Year, I thought I'd write about the New Year and expectations.

Everyone makes "resolutions" on New Year's Eve--or refuses to make them. And every year, for at least three days before the New Year, there are news program segments designed to help us keep our resolutions.

No one does any of these segments sometime around January 27th, of course, or March 3rd, to see how we're doing. As I tell friends, I hate going to the pool or the gym for the first two weeks of January, because it's always packed.

But by about the third week, things level off and by February, they're back to normal.

Resolutions are hard to keep, obviously. We basically end the year agreeing with ourselves that we'll adhere to a promise about the kind of person we wish we had been the previous year.

But chances are, if we could have been that skinny, happy, non-smoker who ate nutritious food and spent more time with family, we'd have done it by now.

I like Gabrielle Santa-Donato's January 29th article, "Moving Quickly, Caring Deeply: Creating Nine Lives in the New Year" on The Creativity Post. Although the advice is specifically directed towards twenty-somethings, I think it is applicable to those of us of a certain age as well.

Santa-Donato suggests that we take the time to think about the kind of lives we hope to lead, the things we wanted to do and to be able to say about ourselves, and jot those things down.

The point is to actually write them down--there's something about putting it into words outside of the space of your own mind that gives something like that a concreteness that can't be denied.

And then, she suggests, choose the goals and characteristics that matter most to you and identify five steps that could lead you to them.

I think Santa-Donato's suggestions are useful because they are future-oriented and trend-based. There's no danger of "slipping up" or "falling off the wagon" on a New Year's resolution here, because these aren't really resolutions.

They're ways of being in the world. And I hope in 2013 we all make the world a better place, in ways that are both large and general and small and specific.