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Archive for October, 2009

Put. The Phone. Away.

The most recent cover of The New Yorker shows children trick or treating at the door of a home as parents stand at the end of the sidewalk looking at their mobile devices, which cast an eerie glow onto their preoccupied faces.

I wonder how many kids feel as though when the iPhones come out, they disappear (or any other mobile device). “Yes honey. That’s great, honey.” Tap, tap, tap. Download another app.

The device becomes the eyes, ears, and mouth with which we sense our world, creating such distance between ourselves and our lives.

In 1999, when I was working with people who loved their tech gadgets, the coolest thing to have was a Motorola Razr. It was a phone. Phone calls. That’s all it did.

There was only so much time you could spend on a phone. Even though I had two phones and a pager, I didn’t spend eons checking or using them. Even sending text messages becomes annoying after a while, so the phone can be put down, charged, walked away from.

But is the iPhone and its ilk just as dangerous to the ability of people to connect to one another as the widespread use of the internal combustion engine is to the environment?

Judging by what I see around me, I’d say yes. They are tools for further self-absorption that we just don’t need.

(Oh, I know, I know. Mitigating circumstances. “What about the time when I… or when my kid got hurt…” I’m not talking about those things. I’m talking about daily business of life stuff.)

That New Yorker cover kind of makes the whole thing hit home. Not only are you supposed to be out having fun with your kid, but you can’t even disconnect from your device long enough to watch them say trick or treat? Aren’t Halloweens supposed to be something you mark time by in your child’s life?

Shouldn’t you be there for it?

And by that, I mean, not just standing there – but recognizing the moment as special? Recognizing this time with your kid as special?

And quit it with the camera phone! Just look at the world and have the experience.

What happened to focusing on the task at hand?

Don’t we all feel harried, hurried, harassed enough from being connected all the time, from being pulled in all these directions? You’d think we would welcome the relative down time doing one thing at a time offers.

And I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed that when I’m trying to do four things at once, not a single one of them is done well or completely.

For my kids there is a time to use computers (or any electronic device). They use the devices to complete discrete tasks. Think about how different it is for us. The computer and internet are literally part of nearly everything we do.  My kids have their own cell phones, too, and I have made them such battery conservation fanatics that they will use their phones and turn them off until they are ready to make another call. Hm. They may have something, there.

//End Rant//

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So crafty I made people

When I need to gather strength in myself, I remember being pregnant and giving birth to my daughter.

I got pregnant at 26 due to basic inattention to certain protocols that should be followed by a healthy, fertile female should she not want to get pregnant. At the time, my career was just taking off. I was working crazy hours on a huge redesign at a dot-com and living in Manhattan. My ex started out at one company, got fired and started working on Wall Street, making next to no money. And now, a baby on the way.

It took a fair amount of strength just to be pregnant in that situation.

6 months pregnant in Central Park

6 months pregnant in Central Park

It was then that I started doing yoga.

I started planning my birth, as women are told to do. I had it in my head that I would give birth completely naturally. My body, I read, was made for this. I considered water birth, hypnosis.

I did this crazy ice cube exercise where you prepare for the levels of pain becoming more intense by holding ice cubes in your hands until they’ve melted.

It was all very Baby Mama.

When I was 8 months pregnant I moved from New York to DC. It was a sweltering, 90 degree August 31 in Manhattan and I was carrying boxes of books way out in front of my giant belly, getting looks from passers by for doing such a thing while pregnant. By the time I got into the truck to drive to DC and the cats started vomiting and crapping in their kennels, I had just about had it.

Actually, I think I was kind of lucky I didn’t go into labor right there at 32 weeks from the stress.

I continued to commute to New York two days a week — leaving the house at 4:30 AM and returning at 11:30 pm — for the ensuing six weeks, only stopping when I told my ob-gyn about how I was thinking that if I went into labor on the Metroliner I’d be ok, right?

Oh, I said when I saw her arched eyebrow. I guess I should maybe stop.

Then the actual labor and delivery. After 14 hours of labor I was dilated two centimeters. I was falling asleep during contractions, doing pretty well, I thought.

At 4:05 pm on October 25, 1999, the midwife discovered that my daughter’s heart rate was decreasing at the end of each contraction.

“We have to get this baby out now,” she said. Dr. Gupta appeared a minute later to explain that my natural birth plan was about to go sideways.

A flurry of doctors and nurses appeared. They turned me on my side. As a contraction hit me, they were telling me I had to stay still for the epidural needle and sign the consent form at the same time. I wasn’t scared until I saw my mother’s face. She was white, scared. So then I got scared.

As they wheeled me down the hall to the operating room, I said to people who weren’t looking at me, “I can still feel my legs.” I knew from the three epidurals I had before for knee surgeries that I should be numb and unable to move my feet. “Look,” I said. “I can still move my feet, too.”

No one was listening.

In the ensuing minutes I felt my stomach being cut open, my entire body being pushed and pulled all over the table as my uterus was yanked out of my body and put on my lap, at which point I asked if it was ok for me to scream, and then I think I passed out. Pretty normal response to that kind of pain, I imagine.

When I woke up shortly after 4:16 pm they told me it was a girl. I saw her – screaming, red, crying, purple fingernails from oxygen deprivation… but she was out, and healthy. I think I passed out again.

So whenever I feel like I need to remember that I’m stronger than I think, that’s a pretty good story to go back to. I had reserves to draw on that I didn’t know existed. Still do.

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The Peace Prize

I am not a big follower of the Nobel Prizes. I take note of who won. I don’t have a lot of emotion invested in who I think should win. I don’t understand uproar around this.

I mean, join the committee if you don’t like who they pick.

I suppose I kind of understand some of what people are saying about Obama winning, I mean, are any wars over, yet?

But … but.

One of the few episodes I’ve ever watched of Oprah start to finish was as the campaign was just beginning. Barack and Michelle Obama were on.

(Apart from thinking, this Michelle is something so … different… smart, confident, down-to-eartth, shit to-geth-er. And what’s this?! Is he acknowledging her role in his success?! Pigs are about to fly. Cats are about to shake paws with dogs!)

Anyway. Watching him, hearing what he had to say even before he declared his candidacy actually pierced the veil of over ten years of “inside the Beltway” cynicism and eight years of Bush… I thought:

Is it possible for one man to change the entire tone, the approach, everything? Is it possible for us to shift our focus as a nation, the way he’s saying? Could we? Does it start from the ground up? Can we change it? Is it only we, the people, who can?

A few months later, his slogan would answer – Yes We Can. As cheesy as it sounds, those were my questions, and he answered every one of them. He kindled a hope in me that I’d never had before. I actually got actively involved in the campaign. I’ve never done that before. The kids got excited about the campaign – we talked about politics, why Obama is so important. My kids argued with other kids at school, fought on the bus for Obama.

(I live in a really weird place where people still thought McCain had a shot after those debates. And you could really tell the shift in attitude of people once it became clear Obama was ahead. The bus fights got a lot nastier. Ah, another post.)

And the way he conducted it – every speech, every email I got, everything – had a populist feel to it, an inclusivity that was new to me in my years as a voting adult.

Was I cultivating… optimism?

I doubt I am only one who thought those things during the campaign.

Parallels were drawn to Bobby Kennedy. I read some of his speeches and watched a documentary about him on his campaign trail, the places he visited, the things he said. I wasn’t exactly alive at the time so I couldn’t know what effect he had on the nation at large, but I saw what happened when he was around the people he talked to — it wasn’t just an empathic hand shake and head nod, a la Bill Clinton. You could almost see the wheels turning – what could be done. What needed to be done.

I got that sense from Obama too.

Now that he’s in the White House, he’s pretty buried. We don’t get the ebullient yes we can speeches so much any more. What we get is a man hard at work, with good people around him, trying to clean up the mess that the Bush Administration left us internationally — nearly all good will squandered post 9/11 — and an incredible financial mess no one has ever seen the likes of before, the seeds of which were planted at least ten years ago.

And clean up messes that have been left too long – like healthcare – because he has the will to tackle it. His will, somehow, helps the collective will. We all know it needs to change. And he’s changing it.

And what were among his first acts as President? Starting to shut down Guantanamo.

Between starting to shut down that place, doing everything he and his cabinet can to end the wars, the way he operates as a human being, the collective will he seems to have rekindled and the spirit of healing he brought to this nation between black and white (for some of us), I think the right person won.

And to those who say that it was a U.S.-centric decision, I implore you to watch the videos from around the world when Obama’s win was announced. I believe his victory did change the world, or at the very least, their attitude toward us. Which, and I don’t think I’m mistaken in thinking this, helps world peace out quite a bit.

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My brother lived in an apartment filled with the smell of natural gas, over a jazz club I used to sing at (open mike), when he showed me how to properly cook ramen noodles.

Hanging out in his apartment, my headache from the gas raging and wondering how he could stand it, I remember him saying, “This is how I like them, and it’s easy and cheap.” It was one of my lessons learned in college about how to make cheap food that didn’t taste like cardboard.

Drain the water. Put in the salty goodness. Add pepper or tabasco. Then shake on the powdery goodness of processed Parmesan.

And it must be Oriental Beef. There is no other flavor.

Right now I sit in front of a bowl properly prepared, but with Parmigiano Reggiano and pepper with four colors of peppercorn.

Ah, Ramen.

Snack of champions.

Assistor of 2 am paper writing.

More valuable than No-Doz.

May your long noodles stretch to heaven to satisfy college students for future generations.

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I hit a low point yesterday. Dinner was at Target. I felt like the laziest mother alive.

I had been sick all day and just couldn’t face raw meat or the smell of cooking vegetables. I couldn’t even go to the grocery store, which I really needed to do.

My daughter was sick, there was no telling what she would eat. I thought crackers the safest choice for her, and one of those horrible little pizzas for my son. Grumbling though my stomach was, I ate nothing.

As I watched my kids eat and staved off the required-mother-guilt from having an empty refrigerator, I thought of looking in my own mother’s refrigerator long after I had left home and asking her why she never had any food.

She said “Shelby, I hate grocery stores. I cooked for four people for 18 years. I’m done.” She’s still that way. When we come visit, she jokes about needing to go out and get some food. That was kind of a surprise for me – that there was something about being my mom she didn’t like.

Boy do I understand it better now.

I hate grocery stores too, which is why I have perfected the art of blasting through them in 30 minutes or less. Unless it’s a Whole Foods, in which case the shopping is a sensory experience in itself. Like the South Loop Whole Foods. I could spend 30 minutes at the cheese case alone.


My mother learned to cook from tried and true Midwestern stock. Cook the meat until it’s bouncy between your teeth, and the vegetables turn to mush upon tongue impact. Salads were iceberg lettuce coated with Thousand Island. (In the summer, it was totally different – where we are from in Illinois, it’s bar none some of the best produce in the country, all summer.)

When we moved overseas, a whole new world of food opened up to us. Turkish. Greek. Indian. Korean. A little Japanese every now and then, though the food and its packaging always struck me as really weird.

The one exception in the greatness of our Brave New World of international food I will mention is British food – not pastries, not the cheese. The meat. In the early 80s… it was fish meal fed, I believe. So every chicken tasted vaguely of fish and not a single piece of meat was trimmed of fat.

We ate a lot of Indian when we lived in England.

My mom learned to cook almost everything we ate — Indian, Italian, Turkish… all this great food that we would not have known existed without the traveling we did.


Fast forward to now. (Yeah… this post is kind of a jumble. Deal with it.)

Usually I go out for my ethnic food fix, preferring to find the genuine article in a hole in the wall restaurant and comment on how the feta cheese is real feta, or the tandoori has just the right color. In my home, if I’m up for something new, I stick to Bon Appetit’s recipes because they are timed to what’s available in the best quality, which is all domestic.

Yesterday — before the sumptuous Target Dinner — I started thinking about the holidays. Really getting back into the adventure that complex cooking can be. The chemistry. The hours of marinating, the complex cooking instructions. The joy of new.

As though we were both on the same wavelength, Sarah wrote a post on cooking Moroccan food (and now I have a renewed interest in tagines).

I thought, why shouldn’t I learn how to cook all that stuff myself? Now that would be a project. Teach myself how to make real tandoor, moussaka, hell, even doner kebab, why not?

Here’s the best part: my next neighborhood, North Park, has a gazillion ethnic groceries and is really close to KoreaTown. I won’t be cultivating a love for kimchee or anything like that… but the availability of ingredients will be nice.

Out where I am now, you can’t even find a loaf of challah for Passover and there is not a single “ethnic” restaurant — sorry, but to me, Italian doesn’t count. And the Mexican place is just horrible. The French place just barely passes muster. It’s all steak and potatoes here. You’d think I launched myself right out of a major city or something.

I bet my mom packs up the Madhur Jaffrey cookbooks and sends ’em straight here.

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