Don’t forget to breathe

The library summer reading program started on Saturday. I took the kids and we all signed up. Adults need to read 4 books to enter the raffle and there is one held every week.

Challenge. Accepted.

I’m taking a break from heavy non-fiction so I chose one about art. The next fiction book on my list was a graphic novel so that should be a quick read. Those were my planned books. What about the other two that I need for the summer reading challenge? I chose a young adult novel that was on my list. My daughter has turned me on to these and it has further elevated my opinion of her. The young adult genre seems so much better than when I was her age, but then I also did not have the access to books that she has.

I headed over to the adult fiction section of the library to chose the 4th book. I decided not to check my Goodreads list and instead went over to the new release section. I’ve always found this section a bit intimidating because you only have 14 days to read the book and you can’t renew. I can’t recall what attracted me to the book. I only know that I was hooked by the summary. Extra bonus points for a black woman author. Checked it out, headed to the pool with the kids, and started reading.

the wide circumference of love

The Wide Circumference of Love by Marita Golden is breathtaking. I devoured it. It is what I’ve been yearning for in books that I’ve been reading this year. An instant connection with characters who face their lives head on, stumble and find a path forward. My heart stopped on multiple occasions and tears flowed at the beauty and heartbreak of the life and love of this woman and her family.

This is the story of a family facing Alzheimer’s. I have no direct experience with the disease so I cannot judge the accuracy of its portrayal in the book. The author does have passages where Gregory, the husband with Alzheimer’s, is written in the first-person narrative and I found them disorienting. Much like I imagine the disease to be. The voice of Diane, his wife, is where we learn the breadth of what he loses to Alzheimer’s. The author does not shy away from the fullness of the disease and juxtaposes that against the history between them.

Gregory’s journey is inevitable. Diane is the one who has choices and struggles to figure out how to make those choices in a way that respects her, him and their children. Their history leads the way and the conclusion honors their mutual love and growth. It is the foundation of her path forward beyond the final pages of the novel.

Marita Golden has written a beautiful love story. It is also more than a love story. Diane is a dark-skinned black woman at the center of this love story. It is her voice, her experience, her growth to which the reader connects. She is not defined by her husband or her children. She defines who she is and her voice strengthens over the course of the narrative as her decisions become clear to her. It is black and it is feminist and it is the best novel I’ve read so far this year.

A mis-matched pair

Summer has arrived so I took a little break from writing to soak up the sun. It also reminds me that I need to come up with a writing plan for the summer. I usually write during the day while the kids are at school. I have a hard time writing when they are home because of noise and distraction.

It is Sunday morning and one of the kids is still sleeping. The other is reading a book. Perhaps early mornings will work best. I know I need to keep writing because it is helping me sort through things. I feel physically and mentally better when I’ve explored whatever is bothering me.

Writing is a commitment I’m working to make a habit. Reading feels like it is close to a habit and I committed to that in January. The 3-week cycle is working and I just finished another two books. My fiction selection was light and breezy. My non-fiction selection was heavy and challenging so I ended up taking an extra week to finish it. A bit of a mismatch in intensity ended up being a good balance of reading.

My Fiction Selection

the japanese lover

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende is a lovely book. It is a slow, weaving story that spans the lifetime of Alma Belasco and her love affair with Ichimei Fukuda. Allende is a compelling storyteller. The book is not without flaws and left me disappointed that the character never grew to explore in depth the events of her life. Perhaps that was the intention. Confronting your shortcomings without risking change is disappointing.

Overall the story is very over-the-top and there is a character assigned all the issues of the mid-to-end 20th century in San Francisco. Alma is a Jewish immigrant from Poland who’s parents die in Treblinka. Her lover is a Japanese-American and was interred during WWII. They are the star-crossed lovers at the center of the story. The story includes closeted homosexuality, AIDS, illegal abortion, pedophilia, classism, and racism.

I’m not sure all that was necessary. One character, Irina, had a backstory that was particularly dreadful and I’m not sure why the author went in this direction. There were other, less sensational ways, to get her to that time and place in the story. This is the character that pushed it over-the-top for me.

Disappointment underlies the theme of this book for me. I’m disappointed that Alma never feels confident enough to face her self-made hurdles to build a life with Ichimei. I’m disappointed that all the characters move in a repressed way and never challenge her to be better. Ichimei accepts her hurdles. Her husband accepts her hurdles. No one challenges the shoulds in their lives. And that is the ultimate disappointment.

My Non-Fiction Selection

living in the crosshairs

I am going to focus this post on the book review and may do a separate entry on my thoughts on abortion (I’m pro-choice).

Living in the Crosshairs: the Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism by David S. Cohen and Krysten Connon is an intense read. It does what it sets out to do. Nearly every page relates an anti-abortion protest experienced by an abortion provider (both doctors and clinic staff). Individually most acts can be defined as protests. Collectively it rises to the level of terrorism.

There are individuals who are protestors. Those stories are shared from the perspective of abortion providers. The providers do not agree with the argument of the protesters but do not seek to eliminate their voice. Well-defined spaces for protest and well-defined rules of engagement allow both sides the ability to safely coexist and provide an added level of protection for the women seeking an abortion.

There are some individuals who clearly are not protestors. The murders of Drs. Gunn, Brillon, Slepian, and Tiller were acts of terrorism. That is the extreme end. The book details the path from protest to terrorism. Abortion providers are stalked from the clinics to their homes. Abortion providers are threatened with violence and death. Abortion providers homes and cars are at risk when that information is shared with individuals who have physically harmed abortion providers in the past. Every provider has an experience where their life was at risk.

The invasive and threatening tactics raise the threat level to terrorism. The goal is to induce enough fear in abortion providers that they quit. Those that instigate violence may decry it when used knowing full well that the violence only reinforces the fear they try to instill.

Living in the Crosshairs is a dry, matter-of-fact book. It doesn’t need to embellish the experiences of the providers. The number of providers across the country and the similarity of the rising level of threats does an effective job of proving the argument that these are acts of terrorism.

The After Thoughts

Sometimes life hands you an opportunity to speak out against an -ism and you don’t. That happens to me a lot. I don’t like to argue. I don’t like to make another person feel uncomfortable because I disagree with them. I like balance and calm. I’m a Libra, after all.

I make nice and the other person isn’t aware of my inner conflict. So while I like balance and calm and conflict avoidance, that’s not where I end up. My inner voice never shuts up. Slowly I’ve been realizing that the only person who benefits from my silence in the face of an -ism is the person I’m placating.

I certainly don’t benefit because my mind doesn’t shut off and move on. I certainly don’t benefit because I’m made to feel, yet again, that I don’t do a good enough job of standing up for myself and others. I do that in my head. Later. It is completely ineffective at changing anything since the person who needs to hear what I have to say doesn’t know I have something to say.

I bring this up because it happened again recently. I was at a Cub Scout activity with my son and a seemingly well-intentioned man I’d never met before shared his views on what’s wrong with Girl Scouts and how to fix it. My brain hasn’t stopped counterpointing with him.

We were at a nature center on a Letterbox hunt so were walking outdoors in nature. This man was one of the guides and had been involved in Boy Scouts in the past. At some point, he turned the conversation turned to the Girl Scouts. He clearly wanted me and another mother to know that he felt girls should be doing this sort of thing too. Something along the lines of Girl Scouts should teach girls how to camp, tie knots, and be outdoorsy just like boys. Girls can do anything boys can do. Woohoo. Fist bump me because I’m an enlightened man. Except, he isn’t.

He isn’t because he assumed that Girl Scouts doesn’t provide those opportunities for girls. They do and I did point that out. He countered that they don’t camp in tents. No, I agree, not until they older. What I failed to point out that the reason they aren’t camping in tents until they are older is that they are camping without a parent or guardian at a much younger age. Girl Scouts can attend week-long overnight camps without a parent or guardian starting in second grade. Completely on their own and unable to call home since no cell phones are allowed. Boy Scouts require a parent or guardian to attend with the camper until sixth grade. So, no, Girl Scouts don’t sleep in tents in second grade. The goal of the experience isn’t tent sleeping. The goal is independence. Same as the boys, just a different method to get there.

He also makes a comment about how Girl Scouts seems to be about arts & crafts. I responded that the troop leaders help determine what activities the girls participate in. Then I did it. I threw in a stereotype of my own. I suggested perhaps the arts & crafts versus outdoor was a reflection of the affluence in the area. I should not have said that.

I’m also going to say a little more wrong. I think it may also be a reflection of the opportunities in an urban versus a rural area. It is rare that kids raised in large metropolitan areas are exposed to as much nature as a kid raised in the country. I grew up in a rural community with hunting, horses, camping, fishing, hiking, and the like all readily available and common activities in which many participated. These are not tasks that common in Chicagoland. Hunters have to hunt elsewhere. Campers have to camp elsewhere. Access to horses and fishing is limited.

These are the stereotypes in my head that I reinforced in that conversation. Yes, on the surface they are based on my experience, but they are also based on false narratives. My assumption is thinking that a Girl Scout leader who was raised in an urban environment wouldn’t have the experience or interest in teaching camping skills. It ignores the fact that Boy Scout leaders raised in an urban environment have the experiences. Why wouldn’t the Girl Scout leaders?

It ignores the fact that women can learn these skills for the express purpose of teaching it to interested Girl Scouts. It ignores the fact that the women may not have been allowed to learn those things because they were women.

I’m not perfect, but I am learning to be better. I do a lot of self-reflection in these post-conversation mind benders. I’m still trying to get to a place where I’m vocal in the moment. I didn’t face my own participation in the perpetuation of sexism until I sat down and wrote this post. It was supposed to be about him and his wrong.

It turns out my after thoughts are a benefit to me too.

 

Sarah Saves the Day

I want more from the non-fiction books I’ve been reading. I’ve been left dissatisfied with the last few books that I’ve read and I’ve done it to myself. I want them to be better. I want them to go deeper. I’m taking that frustration out on Sarah. Sarah isn’t the only non-fiction author leaving me feeling this way. She just happens to be the one I was reading when I started this blog last week.

My goal this year is to read more books. I have a formidable number of books on my Goodreads “To Read” list and it wasn’t getting any smaller.  I decided to tackle my “To Read” list by reading 50 pages per day and I should be able to get through a good number of books this year. I’m not real consistent about it, but I am reading more and more consistently.

My current process is to read one non-fiction and one fiction book at the same time. If I have not finished them by the time they are due back at the library, I don’t finish them. Only one book has met that fate thus far. It was a self-help book on forgiveness and I’m not sure why I added it to my list. It wasn’t the therapy I need right now so I lost interest in it.

The other part of my plan involves deciding what to read. I started the year wanting to read just fiction. I kept running into an availability issue when picking out a book. I’m a library user and it is a common problem for recently published, popular books. Now I go through my Goodreads list by year and pick out the first non-fiction and fiction book added. I joined Goodreads in 2014 so I have some depth in this regard. I just finished books from the 2015 additions to my reading list and checked out two I added in 2016.

My Fiction Selection

the wind is not a river

The Wind is Not a River by Brian Payton is a compelling story that takes place during WWII in the Aleutian Islands. It was good, but not great. I didn’t feel connected to the characters but was intrigued by the actual events during which the story took place. The author provided four book references in his Acknowledgements and I’ve added them to my reading list. I want to learn more about the people of the Aleutian Islands and what took place there during WWII. It will be a while before I get to them unless I change my book selection process.

My Non-Fiction Selection

thieves of state.jpg

I added Thieves of State by Sarah Chayes to my list after she appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The book is about corruption, its impact on forms of government, and aspires to provide solutions. I found the book disappointing and a reflection of what is frustrating me with the non-fiction books I’ve been reading lately. I want more depth. I’m not sure that’s possible in a 300-page book.

She opens strong. The first part of the book was engaging as Sarah reflects on her experiences in Afghanistan and how she came to view corruption as the driving force behind the instability and rise of extremism there. She expands the analysis to other nations in the second part of her book where she describes different models of corruption. The finale is her recommendations for a path forward to reduce corruption.

I found the first part of the book the most compelling to read while hinting at the issue that frustrates me this book. Her writing drew me into her day-to-day and the growing realization that corruption was a way of life for Afghans. I was happy to see her point out her white privilege in dealing with red tape and bribery. I really wanted her to explore this more in the rest of the book, but she never broke through the superficial surface.

Her descriptions of the different corruption models were tedious and I’m not sure my attention was all that great as a result. I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between them. I particularly was interested in her take on Nigeria as I had studied that country in a college political science course. Nothing she wrote about Nigeria sticks out in my mind.

I think this may be a case where she thinks her theory is easy-to-follow, but it doesn’t come across that way. She references PowerPoint charts in the Appendix, but they don’t stand alone and this reader would need to be walked through them more effectively than her written words.

The final section with her recommendations is where I checked out. At this point, I couldn’t get past my frustration with this book. There is a white, Euro-centric preference for a form of government that I just don’t buy into. She presents a case that “The charters — the foundations and origin of modern democracy — were aimed largely at curbing corruption.” She didn’t convince me of that. Although, my view may be skewed by current events here in the United States.

The difficulty I have with a lot of US foreign policy is the same that I have with this book. Democracy is a theory and we don’t even have here in the US, but we go about the world trying to spread the gospel according to Milton, Locke, and the Founding Fathers. We are acting as colonizers in absentia.

She calls out how corruption leads to extremism, but falls back on western models of thought. All governments are corrupt. Where groups of people are involved, corruption exists. We just don’t call it corruption outright, but it remains a systemic part of all our teams, tribes, organizations, and governments. The phrase, “It’s not what you know, but who you know” exists for a reason. We associate corruption with outright bribes while ignoring the subtle financial advantage “knowing someone” provides.

My government pessimism aside there is still the glaring problem of changing people’s behavior that is not addressed in the book. You can change processes and put checks into place, but all that will fail unless you change behaviors. Financial incentives only go so far and come with a healthy dose of irony when fighting corruption.

So we get to my main problem with the book. Did Sarah ever ask a single Afghan what it would take for them to stop participating in the corruption? Stop making the bribes? Stop taking the bribes? That’s the heart of my frustration with Sarah. I never get the sense that she’s involving the point of view of the people she wants to help.

People are the driving force behind any change. This book was sadly devoid of any insight from Afghans, Egyptians, Tunisians, Uzbeks, or Nigerians on how to move away from corruption and extremism in their countries. How do you create a majority culture that not only stops participating in corruption but fights against it becoming the dominant behavior in society? That’s the question that needs answering.

Wrong Equipment, Right Result

Sandwich bread recipe calls for a stand mixer to knead the bread. No worries. It turns out that it is easy to hand knead the dough.

I’ve always wanted to learn to bake really good bread. Crunchy french bread goodness. I’m not there yet. I checked out *the* book from the library and found out it is a process that takes several days and I’m just not ready for that kind of commitment.

Enter sandwich bread. A couple hours to warm, fresh from the oven bread. This I can do. A friend posted a recipe with a rave review so I decided to go for it. Ready. Set. Bake.

Except.

The recipe uses a standing mixer. I don’t have a standing mixer.

I have a small house. Small house = small kitchen. Small kitchen = minimal counter and cabinet space. Standing mixers are bulky counter space hogs with a hefty price tag. My trusty hand mixer handles most tasks but is not designed to knead bread.

So now it’s Ready. Set. Knead by hand. Bake.

Sounds intimidating, but it turns out that it’s not. It’s actually really easy and the bread has turned out perfect every time. I’ve made it four times so far. How the bread is kneaded – whether by hand or by mixer – is not one of the keys to success in bread making.

There are two keys to success in bread making: temperature and yeast.

Temperature comes into play multiple times in bread making. It starts with the temperature of your kitchen. Warm is good. Yeast likes to be warm and cozy. I live in a still-needs-to-be-fixed-up house that is drafty and located in Illinois where winter is long. I use the proofing method described in the recipe. During those few short, but glorious days of summer, my kitchen is warm enough so that it is not necessary. If you need to use the proofing method, fire up the oven before you start assembling the ingredients and it will be ready when it’s time to pop it in the oven.

You’ll likely have all the ingredients on hand except for the yeast. If you have an old package, check the expiration date to make sure it’s still good. Yeast dies and without it, the bread won’t rise.

A quick note on the type of yeast. I’m using a quick rise yeast. The recipe calls for instant yeast. It seems every brand has a different description of the type of yeast. You’ll want to use yeast that can be mixed into the flour so read the package if you aren’t sure. The other type is typically called active yeast and needs to be bloomed (mixed with warm water) to activate the yeast and is used in breadmaking with long rise times.

Front_Yeast

I’m not using a mixer so I don’t follow the instructions verbatim. I combine the flour, salt, and yeast in a big bowl. The remaining ingredients are combined in a 4-cup Pyrex glass measuring cup and popped into the microwave to warm. You can replace the milk with buttermilk and use a flavored honey if you’d like to play with the flavor of the bread. No need to melt the butter separately since it is all going in the microwave. I just cut cold butter into 8 squares before adding it to the other liquid ingredients.

The temperature of the liquid ingredients is a key to success. We want 110°F. Too cold and the yeast won’t rise as quickly as the recipe indicates. Too high and the yeast will die. I use the Beverage button on my 1,000-watt microwave to get to 110°F. You’ll want to stir the ingredients to evenly distribute the heat before testing the temperature.

Don’t let the lack of a thermometer and/or microwave prevent you from trying your hand at baking bread. You can heat the ingredients in a pot on the stove and use touch to estimate the temperature. Think really warm bath water. Hot tubs are regulated so temperatures don’t exceed 104°F. You’ll want water that is hot, but doesn’t feel like it’s burning your skin. I recommend erring on the low side as the only risk is a longer rise time where too hot will kill the yeast. You can also MacGyver it and use an oral thermometer as most are rated to 110°F, but target a temperature below your model’s max (105°F is good).

Temperature

You’ll notice I still have little chunks of butter floating in my ingredients. They will get worked into the dough during the kneading process so don’t worry about them. I combine the ingredients and use a spatula to mix everything until a solid mass is formed.

Mixed

I then dump it out onto my heavily floured counter. I sprinkle some flour on top, cover my palms with flour and start to knead. Kneading is a pretty simple process. Press the heel of your hand into the dough to flatten, then fold the dough back over onto itself into a ball-like shape, rotate and repeat. Here’s a link to a quick YouTube tutorial. When the dough starts sticking to the heel of your hand dust your hands again. You’ll want to knead for the full 10 minutes to develop the gluten in the bread. Kneading is what makes the bread light and airy.

You may be concerned about adding too much flour during the kneading process. One of the ways I address that is by measuring out a 1/2 cup of flour to control the amount I use. I usually have 1-2 tablespoons left at the end.

I let my bread rise for the full 50 minutes. Pictured below are what the rise looks like after 40 minutes and then again after 50 minutes.

I dump the dough back onto my still floured counter. I only clean up after the kneading step if the kids are home when I’m baking otherwise I leave it messy and save myself a cleanup step. The dough will feel really soft and pliable. I set my loaf pan behind the dough and use it as a guide for how wide to spread the dough.

The dough will rise for a second time in the loaf pan while you heat the oven. I usually set my timer for 25 minutes and then boil the water. I tend to use the high end of any timing ranges since it’s cold out. I’ll probably go with the lower end when I make this bread during the summer. The dough should rise to at least the height of the loaf pan.

My oven runs hot so I usually go with the 40 minute baking time and then check with the thermometer to make sure the loaf gets to 195°F. Sometimes I let it cool before slicing into it.  Sometimes.

The loaf usually lasts about 5-6 days in my house. I make it fresh for P&BJ night and then use it for grilled cheese or toast toward the end of the week.

Good luck and happy baking!