Friday, January 31, 2014

Lightning: "This Wonderful Democratic Instrument"

"I will set myself a big problem.  I will go there, I will photograph this thing, I will come back, and develop it.  I will print it, and I will mount it and I will put it on the wall, all in twenty-four hours.  I will do this, to see if I can just grab a hunk of lightning."  --Dorothea Lange

I first discovered the photography of Dorothea Lange when I began researching the Japanese American Internment for my work on Asian American literature.  I've posted her photos of this time period before, and this is one of my favorite:

Lange took the photo in March 1942, less than a month before President Roosevelt signed Executive Order #9066, mandating the incarceration of "all persons of Japanese ancestry" in concentration camps in Arkansas, Idaho, Wyoming, California, Arizona and Colorado.  Of the 110,000 people incarcerated, 70,000 were American citizens, born in the United States.

Lange was hired by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to photograph the Japanese Relocation; the Military Police in charge of the relocation itself were less keen on her presence.  There were numerous constraints placed on what Lange could and could not photograph: no pictures of barbed wire, no photos of machine guns or guard towers, no images of the back-to-back toilets in partitionless bathrooms.

Nevertheless, Lange photographed the event, which terrified her because of its implications.  She said once, "it's an example of what happens to us if we lose our heads" (27).

Despite the restrictions, Lange's photographs managed to convey images of the internment that the WRA felt would be prejudicial to the government's efforts; for that reason, most of them were never published.  It is only within the last 5-10 years that many of them have become publicly available.

Lange's career as a photographer began when she worked as an assistant for Arnold Genthe, whose photos of San Francisco's Chinatown and the 1906 earthquake are quite well-known (more on Genthe in a future post).  She established a career as a portrait photographer in San Francisco, but even as she did so, she was drawn to photograph the people in the streets and the world around her.

After hours of taking photographs of her wealthy clientele, Lange would quietly pick up her camera and head into the streets.  She photographed the bread lines during the Depression; she photographed the increasingly violent workers' strikes in California in the mid-1930's.  The opening epigraph to this post describes her decision to photograph the San Francisco May Day Demonstration in 1934.

 Lange is best known for her images of the tenant farmers displaced from farms by the Dust Bowl and "tractored out" by the advent of mechanized farming.  She photographed Southern sharecroppers in the late 1930's and early 1940's.

Her most famous photograph, "Migrant Mother," seen below, is the image of Florence Owens Thompson, a 32-year-old mother of 7, living in a pea-picking camp in Nipomo, California.

Lange shot the photo in March 1936: she was returning from a month-long project of photographing the working conditions of migrant farmers for the California State Emergency Relief Association (SERA).  She initially drove past the handmade sign pointing to the camp--she already had enough images.

Twenty miles later, for no apparent reason, she turned around and went back.

Days later, she sent the images to the San Francisco News; on March 10th, the federal government shipped 20,000 lbs of food to the starving migrants (6).

Lange called the camera a "wonderful democratic instrument": she cultivated a degree of "invisibility" which allowed her to enter worlds to which she seemingly did not belong and gain the trust of others.  She claimed that her limp--she had contracted polio in 1902, when she was seven--gave her "an immense advantage": "It puts you on a different level than if you go into a situation whole and secure" (22).

Lange refused to use a 35mm camera: she preferred looking down into the camera and working with a large negative that she could later crop.  She claimed, "I am not one of these people who sees a finished print before I take a picture... Sometimes I use just a fraction of the negative" (23).

Later in life, Lange travelled the world extensively; she regretted the fact that in Asia and the Middle East, she couldn't remain invisible and photograph what she saw as she had done for years in the United States.

If you're interested in Lange's work, I recommend Elizabeth Partridge's Dorothea Lange: Grab A Hunk of Lightning Her Lifetime in Photography (2013), which is the source of the facts and quotations in this post.  Linda Gordon has also written a very good biography of Lange, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (2009), and with Gary Y. Okihiro, Gordon edited a collection of Lange's photographs of the Japanese American Internment entitled, Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of the Japanese American Internment (2006).

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Weekend Turnaround

Last week did not go as planned.  It started on Monday, when I went to pick up my bike ahead of the snowstorm.  The bike shop told me it would be ready "by Monday."

However, they did not tell me that they're actually closed on Monday.

Then I tried to head to the pool for my swim and I'm not sure what exactly it was about Martin Luther King Day that was driving everyone to exercise, but I couldn't find a space to park.  So I had to leave.

Basically, the most I accomplished that day was getting gas in my car.  (Not really, but that's how it felt.)

And then, the snowstorm and another "arctic blast."

Don't get me wrong: I like a snow day as much as the next person.  But I've come to realize that a snow day is only a gift if you have something else you'd rather be doing.  And you aren't housebound because it's too icy to drive anywhere.  And it's not so cold outside that it hurts your eyeballs.

Classes were supposed to start last week, and I was all set.  Ready.  Good to go.  And then... zip.  Nothing.

Okay... so, time to regroup and figure out how to catch up next week.  While you sit around wondering why you had to spend so much time the previous weekend getting ready for something that Mother Nature decided not to allow.

By Thursday night, I was feeling cooped up and grumpy as all get-out.  I decided that this weekend would be the time to turn it all around.

So when I woke up on Friday morning, I reminded myself that things were looking up right off the bat: it was my first day off of antibiotics in what seemed like far too long.  Put that under the heading of Good Things About the Weekend.

On Friday, I also redid Monday's-bike-shop-and-swim-that-never-was.  This time around, both went... swimmingly.  So that was done.

Then, there was the weekend.  I decided that if Mother Nature was going to be all hells bells about the cold, I needed to fight back.  Picture me, opening and shutting drawers and closets, tossing garments hither and thither, muttering, "I know it's in here somewhere..."

And then suddenly, voila.  Bingo.  RIGHT BACK ATCHA, Mother N.

I actually have absolutely no recollection of knitting this sweater, but trust me, I did.  Knitting is kind of like giving birth at times--endorphins kick in and your memory of the actual labor gets a bit fuzzy.  I'm not sure what provoked me to knit such a bulky, warm, snuggly specimen of a sweater, but I suspect I bought the yarn during a previous "Arctic blast."  Or after reading about the Ice Age.

In either case, it did the trick.  Or at least, it was a start.

Because I'm not one to quit while I'm ahead.  Oh, no.  If I learned nothing else from the experience of this week, I learned that it was time to cook something.  So I decided to make the wonderfully garlicky chicken bouillabaise recipe that I have, and use some of those tomatoes I canned--remember when?--last summer.

Here are the tomatoes and garlic simmering in white wine, chicken broth and Pernod, with rosemary.

If you have to be housebound on a cold winter's day, this is the way to do it, trust me.

It's a multi-step recipe, so after letting the garlic simmer and soften, you pulverize all of it into a wonderful, thick sauce.  Then, you take the chicken that you've browned, load it all into a dutch oven with sliced potatoes and pour all of that lovely sauce all over the whole. damn. thing.  (Sorry, but it's a cussin' good dish.)

And then you bake it at low temperature for a good long while, so that your house smells delicious and becomes delightfully warm (although you should still light a fire in the fireplace, just because).

Here's what the bouillabaise looks like, all set to eat.
The white dollop in the center is a garlic and red-pepper mayonnaise.  You don't need to add that, but I did, because I had the fresh eggs.

And because it tastes even better that way.

I'm also pleased to announce that, after months of practice making mayonnaise by hand, I can now use my mini-cuisinart instead.

There's just a little knack to mayonnaise, and you've got to get so that you know how to gauge what it looks like and where it's headed when you're mixing it, so that you don't experience disaster.  Once you do, it's easier to use a processor--although I still wouldn't use my big processor to do it.  It's just too hard to make sure you don't add the oil too fast, when you work with it in a big... contraption.

At least, that's my take on that.

And speaking of things that require a certain knack.  Can you tell me what this is?

No, it's not an itty-bitty Native American Dreamcatcher.

It's the toe of a sock.

Yes, it is.  This is what you have to deal with when you knit socks, if you choose to knit them from the toe up, which for some reason I do.

Actually, I know why I knit them from the toe up: because, when I knit mittens, I hate that final series of decreases you have to make before they're finished--you know, as the mitt tapers to the tip of the fingers.

I spend the entire mitten-knittin' time dreading that point.  I just don't like working with very few stitches on my needles.  "It's TOO FIDDLEY!!!" is what I often find myself screeching during these Troubled Times--often while swigging a beer to calm my nerves.  (It doesn't help.)

So if I have to work with very few stitches like that, I'd rather just do it and get it over with.

Increasing stitches always bring hope.  Decreasing them can be a slow, angled slide into despair.  

Hence, my decision to knit socks from the toe upward.  You can also check and make sure the sock is fitting if you do it that way, and trust me, you want to make sure.

Socks take a bit of time and effort, and you really don't want to finish and realize the sock doesn't really fit.  Because when it fits, it's a little tube of heaven.  Case in point:

Yes, that's it.  That's the sock I knitted.  My very first.  I'm working on the second one now: I picked blue to hide any flaws, but it would have been easier if I hadn't picked a darker color.

And I added a pattern, because I didn't want it to be "dull" just knitting it straight.  (Found myself wishing I had just stuck with "dull" at several points.)

It's got some small bobbles and some tiny, tiny glitches, but not many.  And it fits and it feels oh, so fabulous!

Various knitting sites had warned me that, once you start knitting your own socks, you won't want to go back to store-bought.

And let me tell you, they ain't just whistlin' Dixie.  It's a buttload of work, truly it is, but it is, in fact worth it: they're far warmer, far more comfortable, and yes, they stay up (that was a worry of mine as well).  In fact, they fit and stay up better than any store-bought sock I've ever worn.

And they feel wonderful on your feet.  I can't even describe it, except to say that you should go out and find someone to knit you a pair, because everyone should experience such happiness at least once in their lives

So this weekend marked the beginning of a new homesteader addiction on my part: make-your-own-socks.

Thus, the weekend was officially a 180-degree Turnaround.  Here goes next week...

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Gillespie's Diary

I finished reading Emily Hawley Gillespie's diary (an abridged version, of course) last Sunday, and I've been meaning to blog about it.

It's a funny thing, when you read a diary that someone kept for over 30 years, you start to feel like you knew them somehow.  So I was seriously bummed out when, in the final three years of her life, Gillespie became extremely ill.

She died in 1888 at age 49.  She was only 4 years old than I am right now.

Gillespie felt that a life of hardship as a farmer's wife drove her to an early grave; during the last years of her life, she began to experience paralysis and edema.

Her husband, James, claimed it was all in her head, that she was making it up to get out of work.

In the last decade of her life, Gillespie's marriage unraveled to such an extent that she and her husband ultimately separated, although she never obtained a divorce.  He was prone to fits of rage and, at one point, Gillespie was forced to flee and seek legal protection from him.

In the mid-1870's, she was compelled to sign the deed to their farm back over to him.  He had initially signed it over to her, a fact of which she was extremely proud.  Some scholars speculate that he did so to avoid losing it to creditors.

Gillespie was eventually forced to sign the farm back over to her husband, against her own wishes, because after her mother's death, her father, Hial Hawley, showed up on her doorstep and expected to be taken care of for the remainder of his life.

Because Gillespie was better off financially than her brother or sister, the burden of supporting her father would have legally fallen on her.  Lawyers advised her to sign the farm back over to her husband, otherwise she would be required by the county to provide for her father.

Not surprisingly, Gillespie's diary entries became increasingly bitter about the lot of women and the confines of marriage.  Her work was not valued, she was often not allowed to keep any money that she earned, and her life was one of relative isolation.  In one year, she received an average of 6 visits per month.  She herself went visiting three times.  She went to the nearest city, Manchester, three times.  Otherwise, she was confined to the farm and consumed by the labor of the farm.

As the years rolled on, her husband became increasingly abusive (both physically and emotionally) and would often suffer from suicidal fits of anger.  She regretted the fact that she hadn't left him when she had the chance.

As Judy Nolte Lensink writes in her concluding essay about Gillespie's life, Gillespie's regrets were not at all atypical.  In a study of letters and diaries written by women in St. Petersburg, Virginia between the years 1784-1860, Suzanne Lebsock noted that "one-third were miserably married; another third 'wrote as though their husbands lived on some other planet'" (Lebsock, qtd. in Lensink, 372).

Those aren't good odds: one third are miserable and one third feel like they're dealing with an alien.

In 2010, Natalie Merchant (formerly the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs) set a poem, written in 1897 by Laurence Alma-Tadema, to music.

It's called, "If No One Ever Marries Me."

Friday, January 17, 2014

"M. Butterfly"

I finally had a chance to read David Henry Hwang's play, M. Butterfly (1988).  It was quite famous in the late 1980's and early 1990's--it won a Tony award in 1988.

The play is based very loosely on the true story of former French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and a Chinese opera singer, Shi Peipu.  Boursicot and Shi were convicted of espionage in 1986: a judge found that, between 1969 and 1983, Boursicot had passed sensitive documents to Shi, who was a spy for Communist China.

The two men had also had a lengthy affair during that time.  And here's where it gets odd:  Boursicot was convinced that Shi was a woman.

I'll pause for a moment while you take that in.

At one point, in fact, Shi actually convinced Boursicot that he was pregnant.  He subsequently bought a child from a Chinese peasant family and presented it to Boursicot as their baby.

Again, I'll wait a bit for you to absorb that.

It was only when prosecutors showed Boursicot a picture of Shi's naked body that he realized that Shi was actually a man.  At that point, Boursicot had been living in Paris for some years with his male partner, so the homosexuality of the relationship wasn't an issue for him.  The question remained, however: how could one be sexually intimate with a man for nearly 20 years and not realize he wasn't a woman?

In response, Boursicot said that he never actually saw Shi naked, and that their sexual encounters were always conducted in the dark and rather quickly and furtively.  He said,

"He was very shy.  I thought it was a Chinese custom."

This is the point that was the inspiration of Hwang's M. Butterfly.  As Hwang points out in his afterword to the play, Boursicot's statement is a stereotype: "Asian women are no more shy with their lovers than are women of the West," but "Boursicot's assumption was consistent with a certain stereotyped view of Asians as bowing, blushing flowers" (94).

Hwang envisioned a retelling of the story as a retelling of Puccini's famous opera, Madame Butterfly, in which a U.S. naval officer (Pinkerton) marries a 15-year-old girl (Cio-cio san) in Nagasaki, and then abandons her.  (There's more to it, of course, but not much: that's the gist.)  The abandoned Butterfly kills herself by cutting her own throat, after placing a small American flag in the hand of her infant son.

Quick sidebar: Western audiences often describe Butterfly's act as an act of "hara-kiri."  Two things: "hara-kiri" is a Western reconfiguration of the word used to describe the ancient practice of "seppuku"--Japanese do not use the word "hara-kiri."  In an act of "seppuku," a person ritually disembowels himself: they stab themselves in the left abdomen, pull the knife across to the right, then back to the left.  They may also then pull the knife upward towards the sternum, although this is not required.

Seppuku is carried out with very strict accompanying rituals of tea-drinking and poetry writing, often in the presence of spectators.  Its origins stem from the samurai code of bushido: it is originally conceived of as a way of achieving an honorable death in spite of military defeat.  (In Ancient Rome, Roman soldiers did something a bit similar: they would impale themselves on their own swords as an honorable mode of death.)

In Japan, women could commit what is known as "jigai"--suicide by slicing the arteries in the neck.  In many cases, they would tie their knees together first so that when they fell, their dying position would not be "undignified."    

As Hwang realized, stereotypes of Asian cultures abound in the West and are, like most stereotypes, extremely resistant to the influence of reality.  When it comes to Chinese and Japanese culture, the West often sees what it wants to see and will ignore or negate any evidence to the contrary.

This is precisely why the Chinese American writer Frank Chin has taken such issue with the works of Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and David Henry Hwang: he believes they cater to Western stereotypes of Asian culture, and help to reaffirm precisely those perceptions that American culture needs to rid itself of.

A contemporary example: the American consumer's hostility towards products made in China.  While I don't disagree that we shouldn't buy badly-made crap produced in countries that engage in violations of human rights and pay laborers pennies an hour (if at all),  I disagree with characterizations of this as somehow "China's" fault.

In many cases, these aren't products manufactured exclusively by Chinese companies and sold in the West. They're produced by Western or American companies that are operating factories in China, companies that are more than capable of withdrawing their holdings in China or exerting stricter quality controls, if they choose to do so.  But instead, Western nations find it easier to characterize the problem as the age-old one of "China," writ large.  By playing on age-old stereotypes (the wily, evil Fu-Manchu who is out to trick the honest, wide-eyed American, the "Asian horde" that threatens to overwhelm the planet through the sheer force of numbers, etc. etc.), Western economic interests manipulate perception to achieve their own (immensely profitable) ends.

In essence, this what David Henry Hwang's play is about: Song Liling, the Chinese opera singer, manipulates the French diplomat Bernard Gallimard because he is able to play on precisely those points where Gallimard's desires intersect with his racism, sexism, and cultural stereotypes.

Gallimard wants a "Madame Butterfly" of his own, so Song Liling gives him one.  As he tells Gallimard near the end of the play, "I take the words from your mouth.  Then I wait for you to come and retrieve them" (86).

The point that Hwang is making, I think, is that stereotypes that seem to grant a perception of power in fact weaken us, both individually and culturally.  By ignoring truth and masking reality-- by making "truths" out of self- or culturally-generated fictions--we render ourselves vulnerable to anyone who can manipulate these perceptions for their own purposes.

While Hwang's play focuses on a straightforward switching of gender roles--Song Liling is a man masquerading as a woman--in real life, the case of Boursicot and Shi Peipu was somewhat more complicated.  As Boursicot later acknowledged, he believed, not simply that Shi was a woman, but that he was a woman masquerading as a man.

Shi told Boursicot a story straight out of Chinese legend: that he was born a woman, but because his father needed a son, he had disguised himself as a boy.  Ultimately, he told Boursicot that he was a woman disguised as a man and that he worked as an opera singer, playing roles that required him to pretend to be a woman.

In the end, Shi appears to have interwoven Chinese legend with Western racist and sexist stereotypes in order to convince Boursicot to engage in a twenty-year career of espionage on behalf of Communist China.

The effectiveness of Shi's play-acting is can be witnessed in Boursicot's comments at his trial.  When asked by the trial judge how he could have been so completely taken in, Boursicot insisted, "I was shattered to learn that he is a man, but my conviction remains unshakable that for me at that time he was really a woman and was the first love of my life. And then, there was the child that I saw, Shi Dudu."

The child convinced Boursicot because, he insisted, "He looked like me.''

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


I've been in recovery-mode for the past several days.

On Saturday, I was feeling pretty down in the dumps.  I assumed it was because of the repair-fiasco.  Because quite frankly, conflict gets me down.  I've met people who I would swear seem to genuinely enjoy it: they're always out stirring up gossip, provoking drama, getting in so-and-so's face, posting this and responding to that--you name it, they're pissed off and they're all over it.

I'm definitely not one of those people.  I'm just not.  Getting into confrontations with other people leaves me feeling exhausted and sad and guilty for days on end, and if it happens often enough, the stress gets to me and I start to feel genuinely ill.

So I thought it was that.  On Saturday night, I ate popcorn and drank a beer and told myself to "Snap out of it and move on.  It's over.  You've weathered far worse."

On Sunday morning, that's what I did: snapped out of it and moved on.  I spent a couple of hours finishing/repairing what I had hired that annoying guy to do. (I never said I couldn't do it myself: I simply hired him to do it because I thought it would be quicker and easier.  I was horribly, horribly wrong, of course, but the principle was valid.)

And then, because I'm not one to wallow in self-pity, I decided I would turn the tide on the whole thing and paint my kitchen.  And make a pot of soup.  And start learning to knit socks. 

I've been wanting to paint my kitchen for a while now, actually, but it was a good thing I didn't because when I went to visit a friend last fall, I saw her recently-painted kitchen and she had chosen a GREAT color.  I decided that's what I wanted for my new kitchen color--something like THAT--and I was very happy I hadn't settled for anything else.

I actually dreamt about her kitchen weeks after the fact--it was that kind of experience.

So I planned to do that on Monday.  But on Monday morning, I woke up 2 hours earlier than I usually do and felt like serious crap.  Because I seem to refuse to believe that I can ever have a genuine physiological reason to feel like serious crap, I told myself I simply needed to eat something--because, oddly enough, I had been eating next to nothing all weekend--and maybe take an Advil and just... get over it.

I did all of the above and I felt better.  So yesterday, I painted the kitchen and then hauled and stacked a cord of firewood.  And then I took a walk.  By nightfall, I had this sinking suspicion that I was once again beginning to feel like crap.  I found it very odd that I was letting work emails pile up, unanswered, in my inbox.  I couldn't focus and the thought of reading or writing anything was a bit overwhelming.

I slowly began to realize that I was perhaps not myself. 

I woke up this morning and realized I did NOT want to paint the kitchen.  I did NOT want to go for a walk or a swim. I did NOT want to cook.  I did NOT want to eat.  I did NOT feel like reading or writing or checking email or running errands or doing anything at all, actually.  I did NOT want to knit.  The most I could be convinced that I might want to do was to pet my kitty cats.  But their litter box was going to need to empty itself today.

So I took myself to the Urgent Care facility which is (luckily) right down the street from me.  Because what I failed to mention is that during all of this, I was somewhat aware of the fact that I had a low-grade infection that I'd been more or less ignoring for the past week.  At this point, it began to occur to me that I might not want to keep ignoring it in favor of stacking firewood and painting my home.

So I'm on antibiotics and things are looking up.  I surprised myself by finishing the kitchen paint-job this afternoon.  And I'm writing this.  And now I plan to read.  Clearly, I'm on the road to recovery.

Saturday, January 11, 2014


I had to ignore my own advice.  And as a result, I ended up with a resentful repair man on my hands.

In the words of the Dowager Countess Lady Grantham from "Downton Abbey," I had to send him packing. (I may have watched way too much of that show over the holidays.)

I wouldn't mind a Granny like her, particularly during weeks like last week.

It is amazing to me that, you can hire a man to do work on your home, take him through your house and show him exactly what the problem is, explain precisely how and why you want it fixed, and he will nevertheless think you are such a ... nitwit... that when he spends 3 days doing a slap-dash, crappy job, deliberating bungling things along the way in an effort to create more work that you will then (supposedly) have to pay him to do, you won't notice.  Or mind.

When you do and when you mention it to him, he will say, "What are you talking about?  Where?" And when you show and explain it to him, very clearly and very plainly, he'll try to tell you why it's fine the way he did it or insist he "doesn't see" what's "bothering" you. At such moments, this is the only appropriate response:

And yet, he will attempt to justify himself.  At length.  And it will only get worse with each sentence he utters.

When I subsequently described to my best friend what the work looked like and what he had done, this was her reaction:

I had no answer to give her.

Inevitably, the subject of the bill came up.

Not surprisingly, the conversation deteriorated from that point on. A particularly low point occurred when he actually uttered the sentence, "Well, I don't know what to tell you, honey."

To which I replied, "I'm sure you don't."

But in the end, I stood my ground: I refused to let him return for yet another stressful day of his so-called "repairs" and I refused to pay him what he asked. I agreed to pay what I thought was (more or less) fair, on the understanding that:

After all, as Granny wisely observes,

From that point on, the only question was how to recover from it all. Once again, Granny had good advice.

But then again, it was a Friday night, so I contemplated heading out for a night on the town. Because Granny did have an additional, useful suggestion to consider:

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Woman Hollering

I'm finding that I really need to get back in the habit of blogging right when I get an idea for a post.  This tendency to think, "Oh, ok, right.  I'll do that in a bit.  Let me just finish this other thing over here first..." is not working.

Days pass and then I remember the idea, but not exactly what I wanted to say about it.

And in the meantime, life happens.   Like right now, I have some home repairs going on, and I awake every morning dreading the arrival of the Sexist Repair-Dude.  I really don't want to talk about the specifics of the situation, suffice to say, I've concluded that, if you run a business, you really should stick to the business you run, even if the person you're currently working for is a single woman who lives alone.

Small talk and chit-chat should have very clear boundaries in such situations.

In my world, guys who make disparaging little jokes or comments about me or my job or my home, all of which are designed to make me feel like a "little woman" and basically reinforce an aging male ego that operates on the assumption that unmarried women are by definition helpless and lonely, are really not appreciated.

I can take care of myself, and if I need help, I'll ask for it.  And I do have that whole published, tenured, professor-thang goin' for me, so I kind of think I'm doing okay at the end of the day.

The irony, of course, is that I actually hired the guy to do a job I clearly needed help with, and instead, he's wasting time with random observations to which I have become willfully determined to pay no mind.

And the jovial efforts at low-grade flirtation are just awkward and disturbing, thank you very much.  They make me regret the fact that I combed my hair and washed my face, and that's never a good feeling.

I've found that simply ignoring such comments entirely (by walking away) or, if necessary, by giving the merest little grunt of "hm" in acknowledgement (while walking away) is probably the best way of handling it.

It creates an atmosphere of "Ah, yes, I hear you, little man...and yet... No."

Eventually the guy will assume there's something wrong with you and give up trying to chat.  Particularly if your words and tone and facial expressions are always astoundingly cheerful and polite and friendly: this robs him of the chance to feel resentful.

Because you really, really don't want a resentful repairman working on your home.  REALLY.  I can't stress that enough.  

I can't speak for the other women out there, but I'm willing to shell out more money to be treated more professionally--receiving "personalized customer service" is very different from someone sticking his or her nose in my personal business or trying to get "personal" when we're talking "business." 

My dad always used to say, "Never confuse business with friendship.  If you do, you'll end up with bad business deals and broken friendships.  Keep the two separate: when you do business with friends, keep it professional.  Good friends will respect that, and they won't mind a bit.  People who want the boundaries blurred are up to no good: they're trying to get something for nothing, and they're willing to do it at your expense." 

And anyway, I've hired all kinds of workmen, and I work with men on a regular basis, and no one needs to be treating a woman like she's helpless and brainless.  Those days are over.  Really.

It's like having a used car salesman in your living room. It's just kind of sad, really. 

It's definitely a vestige of male-privilege.  Because think about it: if I stood there before class started or after it ended and made random little comments to my students about how I don't like the shoes that one of them is wearing, or how this one should be wearing a warmer coat, and are you going to the dining hall next or straight back to your dorm room? or telling them that they need to turn their desks just so, and make sure their bookbags are sitting upright on the floor next to their chairs because otherwise it isn't done right and it looks sloppy, or hee, hee, hee that's a really flattering shirt you're wearing, hee, hee, hee... is that the one you're wearing for a date tonight? hee, hee, hee...   I would be fired and then medicated.  In that order.

Students would hate me.  And with good reason: it would be perceived as weird and annoying.  (I would hate me.)

And as much as I'd like to blame the men totally and completely, I have to say to those women out there who still giggle and flirt in order to get good deals or cheap repairs (they think): you're not helping the rest of us.  Because that's why these guys do it: they expect a woman to turn on the "feminine charm" when greeted with the "protective male" routine.  It's an age-old dynamic that I really hope dies a permanent death some day very soon.  We don't need it.  And by that I mean none of us, men or women: it's foolish and fake and I would argue that, in the long run, it does more harm than good.

Just be authentic.  Why not?

In the meantime, I'm re-reading Sandra Cisneros' collection of short stories, Woman Hollering Creek (1991).  Her book, The House on Mango Street (1984) is quite famous and popular.  I'm a big fan of Cisneros' prose: when she hits her stride in telling a story, you're hooked.

I particularly like her use of narrative voice in Woman Hollering Creek: for example, in her story, "Eleven," her eleven-year-old narrator points out,
What they don't understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you're eleven, you're also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one.  And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don't.  You open your eyes and everything's just like yesterday, only it's today.   And you don't feel eleven at all.  You feel like you're still ten.  And you are--underneath the year that makes you eleven. (6)
She concludes, "the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one" (6-7).

I'm wishing I had found this quote for my birthday last fall.  Because I think it's a great way to describe the experience that comes with age.  You're still the person you were when you were younger, but you now have rings and layers on top of or around all of that, that shape who you are now.

But on any given day, you can still be who you once were.

Saturday, January 4, 2014


Well, just like that, the holidays are over.

And except for the disappointing fact that I had to cut my visit short by a day because of the snowstorms in NY and New England, I don't have a single complaint.  Especially since I somehow managed to make it through the last 2 weeks without gaining a single pound (pro tip: SHARE the holiday goodies with others, you don't need to eat all of that yourself).

I watched all of season 2 of Downton Abbey.  No, I have not seen season 1.  I have also not seen season 3, except for the very last episode, when Lady Mary has a baby and Matthew has a car accident.  I think I may have seen too much Downton Abbey, though, because when I came back from my vacation, I began looking for knitting projects and decided I want to do this one:

Photo credit:
And I also want to do this one:

Copyright: Nemka7 (
Yes, I have several other knitting projects on the needles even as we speak.  (What's your point?)

Speaking of knitting projects, I never posted the pictures of the baby sweater with those cute elephant buttons.  It came out quite well, I think-- it was a very simple pattern:

(No, my photography skills aren't getting any better.  They probably never will.)

Actually, I've been knitting up a storm over the past two weeks because it has been colder than cold in the Northeast.  It's been North Dakota and Montana and Vermont Cold.  So I found a pattern for a Sweatshirt Sweater, and that's what I've been working on.

For holiday gifts, I also had success making Bourbon & Brown Sugar Mustard (pictured below, on the right) and jalapeno jelly (below, left):

I recently found a recipe for candied grapefruit peel, which left me positively ecstatic.  I eat grapefruit (pink or red, only) like it's going out of style, so the thought that I can perhaps do something with the peel too--something that involves the word "candied"--made me extremely happy.

But the reason I started this post--and gave it the title that I did--was because I planned to talk about my New Year's Resolutions.  As I mention pretty much every year at this time, I'm a bit odd when it comes to such things: I tend to go with the practical rather than lofty and inspirational.

Like, "I resolve to find a new primary care physician."  That kind of thing.

So my resolution for this year is to try to learn to knit socks.  Because I don't know how to do that, and if I did, I think I'd be pretty pleased with myself.  But if I try and don't like it, well, then, that's that.  But if I try it and I like it, I'll be happy.  So we'll see.

I've also resolved to finish one of my resolutions from last year.  In February of last year, I made several financial resolutions, and by February of this year, I will have seen all of them through.  This makes me happy to no end.  Being debt-free and living well within your means, not succumbing to the lure of consumerist crap and buying things that no one needs: nothing beats it.  I wish more people would try it.  I think a lot of Americans are unhappy, and I think this is often one of the main reasons why.  Just my two cents on that topic.

My only "lofty" resolutions for this year are to not spend too much time on work--because as you may have noticed, I kind of get consumed by it from time to time--and to try to travel more, which is sometimes hard for me because I instinctively like to stay home and knit and read and cook and talk to my cats.

But it's important to break out of your comfort-zone on a regular basis, and I know that.  I tentatively have plans to go to Paris in May.  I've been there before, but when I was last there, in 2007, I resolved that I really should return to Paris regularly.  So that's what I'm going to try to do. 

I've also resolved not to adopt another cat this year.  My best friend talked very calmly and sensibly to me about it and I think I've been persuaded.  It's hard, because quite frankly, I would adopt every cat in the entire world, if I could, and joyfully feed and pet and nurture every last one of them.  Even the thought of the many, many litter boxes wouldn't deter me.

I blame my parents: when I was growing up, we had eight cats.  Yes, you read that right.  We rescued one cat, and she had a litter of kittens, all of whom were stillborn, except for one.  Then, she very quickly had another litter of kittens, and we kept all of those.  We subsequently adopted another cat that was initially given to my Grandmother.

So, we had 2 rescued cats and 6 kittens and the general rule of thumb was, if a kitty cat appeared on the horizon, it should be adopted immediately. 

I wish I could have a house full of cats.  In heaven, I will.  A house full of books and cats and yarn and food.

But for now... I have a job and a life.  So maybe when I retire or if I die and go to heaven, but I'm hoping neither of those events will occur in 2014.

Happy New Year, everyone!