When white privilege isn’t white: Confessions of a complacent Latina

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, there was a fire at a garment factory in New York City. Within less than 30 minutes, the fire had claimed the lives of 146 mostly young immigrant women. I’ve been so moved by this tragedy since first hearing about it, felt so connected to the personal stories of these women, that it inspired me to write my first novel. So on Friday, March 24 of this year, I was taking an early morning bus from DC to New York to attend the commemorative events.

Shirtwaists carried in honor of the victims.

I arrived at Union Station an hour before my bus and headed straight for the restroom, which was occupied almost entirely by homeless women, doing what we all do when we first wake up in the morning. Brushing teeth, fixing hair, looking in the mirror; some were putting on makeup. Bags with their few possessions sat open on the floor nearby.

Now, I know homeless people “live” in bus and train stations, and it’s obvious on the most basic level that they’d use those restrooms. Still, it was jarring to me. I didn’t feel like being confronted with an uncomfortable reality before six o’clock in the morning. And I wasn’t just confronted with it, I was sharing the bathroom with it, competing with it for space in front of the mirror before I’d even had my morning coffee.

Crowd gathered outside the historic factory building at the Corner of Greene Street and Washington Place to honor the memory of the fire.

Facing uncomfortable realities is a ubiquitous part of life. But it’s somehow become a daily occurrence in the nightmare shit show that’s descended on our country since last November. It’s constant, inescapable.

And I must confess, with due self-awareness, that I’d spent the past few years of my life in a state of relative complacency. Sure I’m Hispanic and have at times encountered some real doozies in prejudiced stupidity … you’d be surprised if I told you the source of it sometimes. But as a Puerto Rican, I’ve been a US citizen since birth. I am very assimilated, and my hometown for the past 20 years has been Washington DC, a known “coastal elite bubble.” My son attends a bilingual school among many other children of diverse ethnic, socioeconomic, cultural, and gender-identity backgrounds.

I knew these past several years that things are far from perfect. I’d just been sufficiently untouched by bad stuff that I didn’t (need to) sweat it too much. For all my education, travels, so-called sophistication, for all my pursuit of diversity and my righteous outrage over systems that oppress the underprivileged, even as a woman of color, I’d embraced the safety of a life where my privilege was hardly ever questioned, much less threatened. I liked things that way, took them for granted.  I didn’t ignore the undercurrents of egregious inequality everywhere, but I did, for all practical purposes, choose to remain silent about them.

A lot of folks have articulated well how the recent election has awoken a bunch of us out of our complacency. That it’s a good thing this is happening. Like the beautiful essay We were made for these times, which inspired the quote that appears at the top of this post. It’s all so true. If we all waited for injustice to affect us directly before we spoke out for what’s right, the wrongs we humans inflict on one another would never be righted.

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. … It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.
What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing … One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times.”

It’s just so easy to get bogged down, too. By outrage, powerlessness, uncertainty about what to do next. Every single day —EVERY. DAY.— I alternate between feeling grateful and determined to stay woke, and longing for the familiar comfort zone of the harbor I had known.

Back in the ladies’ room at Union Station, I noticed the homeless women were getting themselves ready to look just like any of the other travelers waiting to board a train or bus. I saw some again outside the restroom, and it worked well, they completely blended in. Had I not seen them in a more private moment, I’d never have known they were homeless.

In fact, I realized I’d seen one of them before, on a previous trip. My train was delayed, she was sitting next to me at the gate, and thinking she was a fellow traveler, I’d asked her if she was also waiting for the same train. She snapped and yelled that no she wasn’t, then grabbed her bag and stormed off. I remember feeling rather stung by her unkindness.

But you know, I’d just spent the morning doing the same exact thing as those women, dressing for a part. In my case, the part of an educated, moderately sophisticated urban wife and mother, an Americanized Puerto Rican who teaches Spanish, who reads, writes and travels. And please-god let me look the part of someone who’s written a story worthy of being read by more than 20 people. Most of the time though, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing and I suffer from crippling impostor syndrome.

Every year, volunteers with street chalk visit the homes of the fire victims throughout the city, and write a commemorative message on the sidewalk. This was my first year participating. It was humbling, and an honor.

So, I could profess to feel a deep bond with women who perished in a fire over a hundred years ago, but bemoaned having to share a bathroom with homeless women on my way to honor the century-old tragedy? And this is what it boils down to. I’ve embraced, for decades, a sense of empathy in abstract, in theory, removed. Injustice hadn’t touched me in any real sense, so I could toot my own political correctness horn but remain generally silent about it. This is what we refer to when we talk about white privilege, or privilege in general, and why we need to keep talking about it. It’s something that I, even as a person of color, have been guilty of.

Something’s shifted, though, within me. It’s baby steps. One day at a time. But it’s true and irrevocable. Because our mutual destiny is inescapable and “tied in a single garment.” The homeless woman who yelled at me? I wasn’t exactly kind to her, either, on our second encounter. But she absolutely is my fellow traveler. So were the women in the restroom that morning. So are you. And remaining silent as though the plight of less fortunate sisters and brothers here and now isn’t mine and ours to bear is simply no longer an option. And so maybe I will look back on this time, and I will be grateful to my intolerant, unkind teachers after all.

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Never Forget

I met my husband David on this day, 14 years ago. The occasion was a progressive dinner party called (yes this party had a name) ‘Farewell to Jesse Helms.’ Jesse Helms was a senator from North Carolina who had recently retired, and who was known well for his opposition to affirmative action and to reproductive and gay rights, among other things. So one could say David and I met at an event celebrating the end of an era of bigotry. What a happy day that was!

November 9, 2002

November 9, 2002

A few years after David and I were married, when Obama was first elected president, I remember how, caught up in the wondrous surge of hope, I (half-kidding) exclaimed, “I think we can have a baby now!” And we did! Today that baby is in first grade. This morning he and his classmates were discussing what country they were going to flee to in light of this new upcoming presidency. Parents were hugging each other. Some of us cried together. The school principal sent an email to the parents, informing us that additional counseling services are available to the students in the next days and weeks. That in school today, teachers had to create activities that ensured and emphasized for the deeply distraught children that they are safe, and that they will always have access to education regardless of religion, race, or documentation status. In other words, they were in crisis mode, in fallout mode, because the children were so upset by the results of this election. Imagine that.

When we google the words Never Forget, we see they are basically synonymous with memorials in honor of the 9/11 tragedy. So many of us remember it as the most calamitous, most devastating day in our country’s entire history. And like many of you, I believe the results of this presidential election will likewise be remembered as one of the worst moments in our history. The disbelief is raw. As is the grief. We haven’t told our son about 9/11, just haven’t had the heart to. We’d figured, what’s the hurry? This morning, on the anniversary of the day we met, David and I held each other, utterly heartbroken, asking ourselves and each other, “How do we tell him?”

Never Forget can obviously be applied to many other human tragedies as well. Slavery. Segregation. Homophobia. Women literally dying, in shame, as a result of illegal abortions. Genocide. And I think one big reason why this election is so indescribably soul-crushing for me personally is that I feel like this happened because too many Americans fucking forgot, AGAIN, the consequences of electing an unstable, bigoted tyrant to office.

When you think about it, we all forget, all the time. We forget we’d resolved to be better. To eat better, to exercise more, to be more punctual, to read that book, to write that book, to yell less, to be kinder. Kinder to ourselves especially. And I believe this is what our country has done this week. There’s been a collective forgetting, a cataclysmic forgetting, that we’d resolved to be better. (Don’t think I don’t know there are some straight-up fucked up hate-filled bad seeds out there—I’m not talking about them or to them.)

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Hope. Never forget the hope.

But Never Forget is also evocative for the patriotism it conjures so unequivocally and invariably. You see, I will never forget the power, the sheer force, of the auspices of hope and equality under which I met my husband 14 years ago tonight, and which partly inspired us to become parents 8 years ago. Now, more than ever before, I will remember to remember exactly what that felt like. And know that one day it will feel like that again. Because the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice, even when it feels like the world’s turned upside down. After all, it does kind of feel like, after an agonizing decline in our cultural and national consciousness, we have “finally” hit bottom.

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Today I feel like the staggering “fallen foes” in this musical number from Hamilton, except I am most definitely not retreating.

So what do we tell our boy? Well, it’s a complicated conversation we’ll be having for years to come. For one thing, we are not going anywhere. We will grieve. We will go deeply within and broadly beyond ourselves, and ask some hard questions. We will love each other hard, and continue to revel in life’s joys and pleasures. We will work our asses off in peaceful yet assertive protest. And we will rise up, not in arms, but in love and peace.

David and I met while celebrating the end of era of bigotry. And I know that we shall one day, through our hard work, through invoking love and light, be celebrating the end of this unimaginable dark time in our history. This is a call to action. We will not be silenced. We will not give in to fear. As Michelle Obama said in her speech at the Democratic Convention earlier this year, let’s get to work. P E A C E.

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Of course I’m with her

Yeah, in case it wasn’t already obvious. But I’m not going to make my musings here all dense and high-brow. Goodness knows we all have policy and issues fatigue. Here are some simple basic things that describe one person who’s voting for Hillary Clinton. I hope you’ll find them worthwhile or at least amusing.

I’m with her not just as a Latina. Also and more specifically, as a Puerto Rican (and lifelong US citizen) who’s spent half her life on the Island and the other half on the mainland. As a woman and feminist, a daughter and sister, an aunt. As a deeply flawed but fiercely loving wife and mother in a multi-ethnic household.

I am voting for Hillary as a Catholic (yeah you heard me) and a woman who believes in God and evolution and prayer and reincarnation and faith and energy fields. As someone who, in fact, prays every damn day. Who believes in democracy and never takes something so precarious for granted. As someone who wants peace. Who supports gun control and who still cries every time she remembers Sandy Hook (crying now). Who believes that what’s good in humanity (and in America) is greater than what’s not so good, and who refuses to ever, ever give in to cynicism.

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I’m with her, as someone who loves this country. Who is passionate about human rights and civil rights (is there any difference?). As a Generation Xer who likes to think she’s acquired some measure of wisdom in her 41 years on this earth. Which reminds me, also as someone who does not believe global warming is a hoax. And as an unapologetic tree-hugging bacon-eating pescetarian. As someone who’s on the fence about pets but might still get one out of love for her kid.

I’m with her as someone who, in addition to family and country, also loves history, coffee, saying ‘I love you,’ books, potato chips, traveling, Judy Bloom, sushi, Harry Potter, chocolate, Stephen King, cooking and baking, yoga, naps, swearing, exercise, friends, raw onions, Hamilton (and musical theater in general), Christmas, Paris, red shoes, tea, pasta, writing, NYC, Hondas, cuddles, and cheese.

I am voting for Hillary as a fervent LGBT ally and supporter for life. As a neighbor. As a linguist with a freaking doctorate. A once and future educator. An author. A hypnotist. As someone who strives not to take herself too seriously. As a citizen with common mother-trucking sense. As someone who reads and who’s been paying attention.

I’m with her as an individual whose pet peeves include tardiness, meanness, having to remember so many damn passwords all the time, poor spelling, self-righteousness, sloppy food preparation in restaurants (apple core in my pie? really?), toilet paper placed with the flap under instead of over, superiority and condescension, plastic packages designed to be impossible to open; and the incessant need to update the software and apps on my phone to the point that nothing works like I remember and I have to relearn how to use Viber, Facebook, and the message threads on my Gmail all the damn time.

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These are just some things about me. And like all of you, I am greater than the sum of my parts. Not easily labeled or pegged. Thank goodness for that. The two nominees are also greater than the sum of their parts. There’s a part or two about Hillary that I’m not crazy about. But the sum of what she stands for resonates with me, with my values, with my vision for the future of this country.

I can’t think of a single thing the loathsome Trump has said that would ever, ever, EVER make me vote for him. Not one that I could isolate. Which makes me think that voting for him on one single issue (abortion –like Trump stands for the sanctity of life? please) is reckless, irresponsible, and deeply troubling. (To the person I know who says she’ll unfriend anyone who “attacks” her “faith”-based support of Trump, the ball’s in your court, my dear. Perhaps you should unfriend me. Go in love and light.) And the sum of what I’ve seen and heard from this awful, awful man makes me feel like I’m in a nightmare I want to wake up from.

I am not flippant about what’s at stake here. I also know that calling this the most important election of our lifetime is tired and trite. But of all the values we hold dear as a country, I believe that democracy is one of the greatest, and also one of the most frighteningly under siege right now. There are many, many reasons why I’m voting for Hillary. I tried to be both humorous and serious here, but don’t be fooled by my (attempt at) lightheartedness. This isn’t funny. There is one nominee who, in unprecedented fashion, has seen fit to shit all over the strides we’ve made in our –admittedly flawed– democratic process (not to mention all over equality, integrity, and basic human decency). And if nothing else, I am voting for the one one who respects and vows to uphold democracy.

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Live every day like it’s your birthday

Everyone has a favorite version of the old adage: “Live every every moment (or every day) like it’s your last.” I get it, I do. Life is precious and fragile, and if we knew we were dying (which when you really think about it, we all basically are), what would our souls yearn to do with such urgency that we’d once and for all let go of the meaningless stuff that weighs us down? I absolutely get this, particularly when it comes to loving, and letting our beloveds know they are cherished. (I sit here writing this on the 15th anniversary of 9/11.)

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I also find the idea of death as a motivator kind of dark though. Some of us take urgency a little too seriously, and this sort of message makes us susceptible to feelings of anxiety and defeat. Because if it’s all about, “quick, you’re running out of time, go go go!” well shit, I just can’t take that kind of pressure.

This is how I felt on my forty-first birthday last week. For me it was a little harder than forty, actually. Forty felt special, a big milestone birthday. I used it to look at life on a grand scale, to ask big questions. In hindsight, that wasn’t such a great idea. So I didn’t ask big “life” questions this time. Instead, I decided to focus on how I would behave, what I would do differently, to mark this one birthday day as peacefully as possible.

1. The first thing I did in the morning, more consciously than usual, was to give thanks for being alive. Because it’s true that life is precious and fragile. I know how fortunate I’ve been, and I happen to like it here quite a lot. And each new day really is a gift.

2. As someone who doesn’t like being the center of attention and struggles with feelings of unworthiness, birthdays feel a little awkward. So in the morning, I also made a conscious decision to remain open to the love I’d receive during the day. To not try to minimize it with the tired deflective “oh I don’t deserve it!” reflex. But to receive it fully, because who am I to stop the flow of love, all because of some stupid (untrue) script stuck in my head since childhood? I read somewhere recently that any love we deny ourselves is love we deny the world. The older I get, the truer this feels.

So I let my husband David and our son Eric, and my parents, spoil me. And it was freaking awesome.

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Sweet surprises I got to wake up to.

3. I also tried to stay centered on what matters, again, not big-picture thinking, but in the small things that arose throughout the day. Eric got into a bit of trouble at school that day. Sometimes I get kind of fixated on these things. You know, like I can control them? I thought about it and asked a little bit about it. Then I was happy, very happy, to just let it go.

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A bouquet of my favorite flowers.

4. I deliberately commented with a thank-you message to each and every Facebook friend who wished me a happy birthday. Since I’m not super popular, it wasn’t a huge number of people, but it felt deeply special. And with responding to each of them, I remember each of them still, with enormous gratitude. I’d invite you to consciously write ‘thank you’ a few dozen times one day and see how you feel!

And finally, 5. This one’s connected to 2 because it’s all about love. In this case, self-love and truth-telling, and discerning when something is, and is not, about me. A loved one called and I missed their call. I was briefly tempted to worry this had made them mad, then I … didn’t. We spoke later, no one was mad, and that was the end of it.

Another loved one whom I’d have liked to hear from on the phone sent me only a text message. <Shrug.> I was disappointed; then I accepted it, very importantly, without reading into it any messages about me.

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Here comes the ice cream cake!

My family and I tried watching a movie we’d recently loaned to a friend, and the DVD was so badly damaged that half the movie was simply unwatchable. I reached out to the friend, part of me fearing she’d be insulted at the insinuation that she’d ruined our DVD. She didn’t recall anything happening to our movie while it was in her possession, which I wholly believe, but she still insisted on taking responsibility for it, and replaced it with a new one. I’ve always highly respected this friend; now I respect her even more. Obviously I needn’t have worried. And to think I almost didn’t ask!

Focusing on what matters. Gratitude. Knowing when something is about me and the enormous, glorious freedom that so much actually isn’t. LOVE. I had a perfect birthday. Not because every single circumstance of the day was perfect  –though it was pretty darn nice–  but because I remained conscious about how I responded to everything that arose.

Again, I didn’t set out to ask big life questions at my birthday this year. But in asking how I wanted to spend the one day, I actually stumbled on some practices that could serve me pretty well every day. And since we’ve established that I’m not a fan of undertaking each moment like I’m about to kick the proverbial bucket, I figure that using lessons from a day spent celebrating life is a good approach for me. I probably shouldn’t eat every day like I ate on my birthday though…

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Churros con chocolate happy dance.

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Back to School

My son Eric started first grade last week. You’ve all seen the funny memes, gifs, and videos of parents doing a gleeful happy dance when school resumes at the end of summer. For some reason though, I really don’t feel that way. So I thought I’d break it down a little to understand why.

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First  –and I know I’m speaking as an at-home parent–  I like going at least a few weeks with absolutely nothing structured to do. I loved lazy summers as a kid, loved them as an adult before parenthood, and love them still as a parent. We get to sleep in and take a long time eating breakfast, no lunchbox needs packing, no running out the door, we travel, go out for the day or stay home … we just get to hang out. (And yes, there’s also a lot more TV. So what? It’s summer!) Why would I be in a hurry to be in a hurry every morning again? For the most part, I’m really, really not.

There’s also the part where I miss him and feel nostalgic, plain and simple. I’m sure it’s not unique of me to feel occasionally sentimental about the passage of time. You’ve heard it before: It goes so fast. And the feeling tends to hit me the hardest at the start of a new school year. When we turn a year older or mark the beginning of a new calendar year, we do celebrate, but then we go back to our relatively unchanged routines. A lot more changes with each new school year.

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Kindergarten graduation in June.

For instance, Eric graduated kindergarten in June. But it’s not until I see the new crop of kindergartners and their parents at school now that it really sinks in. There are new teachers and new classmates. He has a locker now instead of a cubby. He’s literally moved up one floor in the school building. He knows he’s one of the bigger kids now and very proudly displays a lot more independence in many different areas.

So between laziness and nostalgia, I love summer and feel less than thrilled about back to school.

And yet …

If researchers were to conduct studies on when even the most well-meaning parents are most likely to lose their patience with their kids and, shall we say, speak to them in a slightly raised tone of voice, I suspect they’d find a correlation between this phenomenon and summer, particularly its final weeks. I think both kids and parents get stressed knowing school’s about to start. No matter how much we love our school, there’s anxiety over change and the unknown.

Obviously, it’s all the togetherness, too. Let’s face it, Eric’s used to not being with his parents 24/7. And that’s a good thing. An important thing. My kid honestly doesn’t want me around all the time, and by the end of a few weeks of that, he’s probably ready to spend several hours a day where I don’t see or mediate most of his actions.

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Hugging it out in Venice, Italy this summer.

From my end, the more we’re together at home in the context of a daily routine, the greater the danger of me believing the terrible delusion that I can control all the influences my kid is exposed to, and that in the degree to which I control that, I can rest assured that he’ll mirror back and validate me and my values. I think plenty of parents, stay-at-home moms especially, are vulnerable to this. In the first week of school alone, Eric has come home saying some things that make me want to ask him where he heard it, who said it and in what context, what he said in response, and what he thinks about it all. In other words I’d thoroughly dissect everything with him. Then I’d tell myself it’s so that he has a chance to discuss and process it. But I’d bet that a good eight times out of ten, I’m doing it just so that whatever he’s exposed to goes through the filter of Mom, and I once again have the illusion of control.

So with everything Eric says that comes from school, I try to stay aware, and check myself first. If it’s something that could compromise his safety or ethics, I pursue it. If it just threatens me and my delusions of control over my kid, I rein it in. His knowing I’m not a needy hovering parent is at least as important as knowing I’m there whenever he needs me.

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More summer fun!

So, do I celebrate back to school? Yes and no, I guess.

Parenting someone so young and sweet is so much more precious that I ever imagined. And the separation we experience every year at back to school, more so than at birthdays or New Year’s, reminds me all too keenly of how crazy fast these years are moving. My heart aches a little. The tug is real.

But there’s something to be said for making it through another school year and summer together. It’s not a flippant reveling in having him “out of my hair” again though. Yes, there’s relief that the end-of-summer jitters have passed and the year has started out well. Yes, I do better when I have some time to myself for a few hours five days a week, and he does better when a portion of his time and interactions with people and with information aren’t controlled by his mom. Most importantly though, my boy is slowly yet assertively making his own way in the world. I honor that. That, I celebrate.

 

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Me and Star Wars: A 35-year saga

Picture it. Santurce, Puerto Rico. Summer 1980. I’m not sure why my parents thought it was a good idea to take their 4-year-old daughter –who’d probably never seen the first Star Wars movie– to see Empires Strikes Back.

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My older siblings and me around 1980.

All I know is my 7-year-old brother was eager to see it, so all of us went. We must have gone to a matinee, because I remember the sun being very bright. It was hot. And the line outside the theater went around the block. People in the line were fanning themselves with whatever they could find, including pieces of cardboard they must have torn off some box(es) somewhere. Soon I started to feel funny. I pined for a bit of shade, and the makeshift cardboard fans provided only minimal relief. My dad must have noticed something, because he went to move me out of the sweltering sun into the shade. Next thing I knew, I was flat on my back, blinking up at the sky, at Papi’s worried face, and at the pieces of cardboard in the hands of well-meaning strangers fanning me back into consciousness.

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An old movie house in Santurce, PR.

Turns out I have an abnormally high sensitivity to heat. That was my first time fainting, but I’ve been collecting similar embarrassing stories ever since. (Just ask my husband David about our hike in the Grand Canyon when we’d been dating less than a year.)

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David and me the day after I “survived” the Grand Canyon.

Thus was my introduction to Star Wars. I don’t remember anything about the movie except for the fainting, and the incredibly jarring scene where Darth Vader cuts off Luke Skywalker’s hand. It sucked.

By the time Return of the Jedi came along, and we once again went as one big happy familia, I actually adored the ewoks, and the power of love in the final showdown between the emperor, Luke, and Darth Vader moved my 7-year-old soul deeply. But it wasn’t until the prequels came out many years later that I really got into the high anticipation for each new release, and the terrific excitement of watching them in theaters.

The Force Awakens has been an all new experience. I’m 10 years older than I was at the last Star Wars theatrical release, and am now the mom of a young Star Wars fan. There’s also social media. On opening weekend last December, friends’ Facebook statuses featured a lot of Star Wars-screening-related updates. I also saw folks who were earnestly out of the Star Wars loop and were moderately interested at best. Then there were the ones who are so above it all, who had great fun baiting their Facebook friends by faking an innocent I-just-don’t-get-what-the-big-deal-is! shrug and headshake. David and I (make no mistake about it) were super excited to see it. We were also okay waiting a couple of weeks.

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At the movie theater for The Force Awakens. Funnily enough, this was also in Puerto Rico. We loved it! And not just because I didn’t faint this time.

After some debating, we decided our 5-year-old Eric wouldn’t come with us. We really didn’t think he was ready for all that nonstop action and loudness (and drama!). Since he hadn’t yet finished Empire Strikes Back, and he himself wanted to be caught up on the stories, the decision was easy.

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Reenactments are a frequent scene in our house.

Eric had declared, right before his 5th birthday last March, that he was going to start watching Star Wars after he was 5 years old. He remembered it, too. He was a little scared in some scenes but made it through A New Hope after a few sittings. We started Empire Strikes Back with him in July. By now he was deeply invested in the characters, and as soon as things started to go awry for Luke and Han, he demanded that we turn it off.

“What if Luke dies?”

“He won’t die. We’ve seen it. We know.”

“But he could die!”

“He doesn’t.”

“BUT HE COULD!!!”

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So we let it go for a while. Eventually, the frenzy of The Force Awakens got him interested again. He finished Empire Strikes Back almost exactly 6 months after starting it. David and I were on pins and needles over the scene where Darth Vader reveals his true identity. But Eric seemed more concerned for Luke’s hand than the weight of Vader’s revelation. (I don’t blame him.) And there you go. After that, Return of the Jedi was a breeze. We watched it soon, and quickly.

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It’s dawned on me that my kid started watching Star Wars precisely 35 years after my parents took my siblings and me to see Empire Strikes Back. What vastly different experiences. I love few things more than a good hero’s journey tale where evil is redeemed by good. I don’t say this in a religious sense or to sound Pollyanna-esque. There’s immense life-affirming power in the triumph of light over darkness, and that draws and resonates deeply with many of us. This, for whomever doesn’t “get it,” is the reason why we love these stories. Experiencing and discussing them with my sensitive, inquisitive young boy is wondrous in ways I never could have dreamed back in 1980. (Not losing consciousness helps.)

My little man turns 6 in a couple of weeks. Can you guess the theme of his birthday party?

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This is Eric last Halloween, helping with the groceries.

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French bread recipe

If you’re like me, you’ve often thought that homemade bread is something only the most sophisticated cooks can pull off. Oh how wrong we’ve been, and I couldn’t be happier to share this recipe with you! It is full-proof. And since few things bug me more than fussy, over-complicated recipes that feel unattainable, this one’s the opposite of that, and only requires ingredients most of us already have in our pantry. By the second or third time you make this, it’s going to feel so easy.

My inspiration/baseline was this online recipe. But I made some important changes to it that I think simplify things and deliver and even better texture and flavor. I also broke it down with lots (and lots) of pictures.

A note on warm water: Basically you run the hot water on the tap for a few seconds, but it doesn’t hurt your fingers to touch it. Not hot enough to cook anything, but definitely more than lukewarm.

Start by dissolving 1 tablespoon of sugar into 1 cup of warm water. After the sugar, quickly and gently stir in 1½ teaspoons of active dry yeast. Place in a warm place for at least 10 minutes. I often use my radiator when it’s nice and warm, or the top of the stove, with the oven underneath it preheated to 200.

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While that sits, mix together 2½ cups of all purpose flour with 1½ to 2 teaspoons of kosher salt (only 1 teaspoon or less if using fine table salt) in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment.

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When the warm water with sugar and yeast mixture starts to look like a funky, frothy science experiment –that’s exactly what it is!– and to smell a little bit like a brewery, you know you’re in business.

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Frothy and bubbling less than 10 minutes later. This part is so much fun.

Start running the mixer on medium speed, and add in the water with yeast. Try to scrape every bit from the measuring cup into the mixer.

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At this point, I always have flour nearby for sprinkling, and I refill the “yeasty” measuring cup with warm water. I mix for about 30 seconds. If A) the dough still looks too crumbly and isn’t coming together and off the sides of the bowl, I add additional warm yeasty water from the measuring cup, about 1 teaspoon at a time, then wait another few seconds.

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My dough was looking crumbly and dry, so slowly I added 1 tsp at a time of the warm yeasty water. Works every time.

If on the other hand, B) the dough looks too wet, I sprinkle very small handfuls (also about a teaspoon) of flour at a time. I usually run into A more than B. My point is, if the dough doesn’t look like it’s coming together like it’s supposed to, it’s still very fixable if you go slowly and watch it carefully. Just don’t panic!

Once you see the dough come together and off the sides of the bowl, continue to knead with the mixer on medium or medium high speed for about 5 minutes. (Make sure the tilt head on your mixer is locked, otherwise the dough will make it wobble and shake and it won’t knead properly.)

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This is what you want your dough to look like, then you let the mixer do the kneading for 5 minutes.

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Meanwhile, prepare a large flat rolling surface with flour, and a medium-sized bowl (it should hold at least eight cups) with 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil to coat the bottom and sides.

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iPhoneFeb2016 2579After 5 minutes, turn off the mixer. Coat your hands with flour, and remove the dough onto the floured surface.

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See how sticky that is? You’ll need flour to unstick it from the dough hook.

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Knead with your hands* a few times until it looks and feels soft and smooth. It can look like a disk or a ball. (*This just means you fold it onto itself and push down with the heel of your hand.)

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Place into the bowl with oil, turning over once or twice to make sure the dough is evenly coated in the oil. This prevents an awkward crust from forming as it sits and rises.

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Now it’s covered in oil.

Immediately cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap, and place in warm, draft-free place until it’s roughly doubled in size, at least an hour, up to 2 hours.

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Again, putting the dough on top of an oven preheated to 200 works really well.

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After an hour and a half, I was good to go!

Now you’re ready to prepare the dough for its second rising. 🙂

Uncover the bowl and take dough out. Don’t be alarmed when it deflates the instant you touch it. It’s supposed to do that.

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‘Punch down your dough’ is the bread bakers’ equivalent of the literary ‘kill your darlings!’

In fact, many recipes for bread and pizza dough will specifically tell you to “punch down the dough” at this point in the process. Place on floured surface again, and smooth out a little with well floured hands.

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Use a rolling pin to roll the dough out thinly, to about the size of a standard half sheet pan, about 13 x 18 inches. Cut the dough in half, lengthwise, until you’re left with two roughly 6 x 18 pieces.

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Begin to roll each half of the dough up, again lengthwise. Keep it tight, and smooth out air pockets.

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Pinch the seams as much as possible. The aesthetics are an area where my baguettes still need a bit of work (as you’ll see in the photos below) but the flavor and texture are so 100% legit that I know the rest will catch up. Place each rolled up dough half, seam side down, on a half sheet pan lined with either parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Fold and tuck the ends in and under using your fingers, again pinching the seams a bit.

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I like to –very gently– rub a bit of flour on the baguettes at this point. It helps create the crust when it bakes later on.

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I just rubbed these with a small amount of flour. This is optional.

Use the same sharp knife to slash each loaf (I go in about an inch). You can do a few diagonal lines, or one line lengthwise along the baguette. (Here are a few fancier ideas I’m excited to try soon.)

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Here I did diagonal slits.

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Here I went with one long lengthwise slit. As you can see, I had some issues rolling one of these. My problem? I didn’t like how it came out the first time so I tried to perfect it. It would’ve been much better if I’d left it alone!

Place in your warm place of choice, no need to cover it this time. Allow to rise a second time for another hour, until it doubles in size again.

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A little over an hour later, these had risen perfectly. And my awkward-looking one was still looking awkward. Scroll to the end for the result.

Now you’re ready to bake your bread! Place a roasting pan (at least 2 inches deep) on the bottom rack of the oven, then preheat to 375.

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Combine 1 egg while with 1 tablespoon of water. Brush bread with the egg wash.

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Once the oven is preheated, fill a large measuring cup or pitcher with hot water. Put the half sheet pan with the bread in the oven, then pour hot* water into roasting pan below it, until you fill it about ¾ of the way. This will create a steam in the oven while the bread bakes, which combined with the egg wash, will give your bread a delicious golden crust that won’t murder the roof of your mouth.

(*The reason you don’t want cold water here is because the steam it creates when poured into the preheated roasting pan could be dangerous — hot water creates the steam with less chance of causing any burns.)

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Watch out for that steam!

Bake for 20-25 minutes. Start checking at 20 minutes, and continue baking for 2 minutes at a time until the crust is golden brown.

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I was a little bummed at how visible the seam was on this baguette. Then I tasted it, and all was well.

Your only challenges now will be waiting for it to be cool enough to handle so you can eat some, and once that happens, trying not to eat half a baguette in one sitting. I have failed at both challenges and am not even a little embarrassed to say it. It’s so delicious I dare say you will impress yourself and your friends, and the return is that much more amazing considering how easy it is!


 

French bread

Active prep time: 30 minutes                       Inactive prep time: about 3 hours

Cooking time: 20-25 minutes                        Makes: 2 loaves (2 baguettes)

Ingredients:

  • 2 ½ cups all purpose flour (plus more for sprinkling)
  • 1 cup warm water
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 1 – 2 teaspoons kosher salt (½ – 1 teaspoon fine table salt)
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 tablespoon water

Instructions:

  1. Dissolve sugar in warm water. Add active dry yeast. Let sit in warm place about 10 minutes.
  2. Combine flour and salt in bowl of electric stand mixer.
  3. Running the mixer on medium speed, add warm water and yeast mixture to the flour and salt. Mix until the dough comes together and off the sides of the bowl, adding up to 1 tsp at a time of additional warm water or flour as needed. (See notes for A and B above.) Once dough comes together, run mixer on medium-medium high speed for 5 minutes.
  4. Prepare medium-sized mixing bowl with vegetable oil.
  5. Using floured hands, turn dough out to floured surface and knead by hands a few times until smooth. Transfer to the oiled bowl, turning over once or twice to coat in the oil, and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Set in warm draft-free place for 1 – 2 hours until it doubles in size.
  6. Remove dough to floured surface and roll out thinly to 13×8. Cut in half lengthwise. Roll each half up (lengthwise) to form a cylinder. Transfer to lined half sheet pan, seam side down, and tuck and fold the ends under.
  7. Score/Slash with sharp knife. Set in warm place to rise a second time for 1 hour, until it doubles in size again.
  8. Place roasting pan in oven, then preheat to 375. Prepare egg wash with 1 egg white and about 1 tbsp of water. Brush the bread and place in preheated oven. Fill roasting pan to about  ¾ full with hot tap water.
  9. Bake 20-25 minutes.

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Wow.

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See, the one I was all perfectionistic about came out ugly. Plain and simple. Luckily, the flavor and texture were still perfect.

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Three S’s for 2016

Okay. Yes. I made New Year’s “resolutions.” But no, they are not aimed at losing weight or making money. Instead, I set intentions for myself in the new year. The idea came after a bout of anxiety in the final months of 2015. Folks who, like me, are prone to periods of anxiety never know when they’re going to strike. But it’s captured quite well in this internet meme.

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My initial sneaky trigger last fall was a worry about my son Eric and illness. Think the usual worries most moms feel, multiplied by … a lot. Soon, the Paris attacks happened, and the negativity and anger that surfaced afterwards were deeply upsetting. I started a blog post about it and simply couldn’t finish it. My husband David was also travelling overseas a lot in those weeks, and I was in a state of constant fear for his safety. It was all just a little too much.

I went into a bit of a personal hibernation (despite the abnormally mild start to the winter) in which I was just productive and present enough in the daily wife & mom grind, but rendered pretty powerless in most other respects. I rallied and cheered up for the holidays, yet the start of the new year still found me feeling more than a little bit vulnerable.

So I set three intentions for 2016. Coincidentally, they all start with the letter S.

The first one is self-care. I’m sure you’ve heard it before: It’s often hard for moms to take time for ourselves. Even when you’re at home, like me, the time your kid is in school can easily be spent dealing with family and household stuff. Add to that a lot of stressful stress, and toward the end of the year, I wasn’t writing or seeing friends or going to yoga class. I was barely exercising, and wasn’t even reading much. I thought of returning to New York City, a hugely re-energizing solo trip I’ve made every February since 2012, but then wondered if I could justify it, since I’ve finished my novel set in the City. I usually know better than to be a martyr mom or to draw all identity or worth from parenting, but it’s such an easy place to hide when feeling emotionally lousy, that I found myself using family as the excuse for everything I simply had to or couldn’t do.

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On the second day of 2016, David and I watched the sunset off the West coast of Puerto Rico, and talked about what self-care means to me.

Thankfully, my knowing better caught up with me, as it usually does. And I realized I was in woeful need of some serious self-care. For me, it starts with taking time for myself without feeling guilty about it, or trying not to … baby steps, you know. Time for my writing, for reading, for exercise, for personal space and quietude. It’s eating right, and while I’m on the subject of what I take in, also learning to discern amongst the many —many— thoughts that enter my head. I mean, I can be discriminating about food but then accept every wild and crazy thought (and I have some real doozies) that assaults my mind like it carries a truth about me and my world? Uh, no. Right?

My self-care also entails saying no to things I’ve been accepting, which compromise who I am and my values. When I was in the throes of some internal struggles right around New Year’s, I came across this beautiful article. The highlight:

“The sapling doesn’t look to its elders for approval. It just grows toward the light … it all comes down to how each of us dares to say no when asked to be other than who we are.”

It can be hard to say no, but sometimes there’s too much at stake not to. I’m talking here about no as a complete sentence, without apologizing for it. And oh — yes, I am going back to New York City this month!

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Clichéd but true.

My second intention with the letter S has to do with my relationship with the concept of should. Because come on, think about it. If you’re anything like me, you obsess over what you should be like. And over how someone else should be behaving (usually someone who’s pissing you off). Or exactly what a given scenario should be, look, and feel like. Frankly, I am exhausted! The thing about should is, it conjures expectations. Obviously, right? And I don’t know about you, but I could seriously use a reality check on expectations, and a firm, honest sense of what I can and can’t control.

Which brings me to my third and final S, the Serenity Prayer.

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I think of the term change in this prayer as closely paralleling control. Iyanla Vanzant says that the greatest human addiction is the addiction to control. That we fear what we can’t control, and since we don’t want to be in fear, we try to control, control, control. Something like that. Though I may not be in a 12-step program for substance abuse, I must honestly confess that I have been addicted to control, in one form or another, my entire adult life. And it has been at the heart of So! Much! Needless! Suffering! I suspect I’m not alone in this. Enough, please.

Among the many reflections I’ve made on aging and life since turning 40 recently, maybe the most important lesson learned is, growing pains never really end. And at the same time, growth is always worth it. So, time to grow up, like the sapling, toward the light. Time to say no when it matters. Time to seek wisdom about what I can and can’t control. To embrace acceptance when something’s out of my hands, and courage when I do have power over it. Most times, the only thing I’ll be able to control is the story I choose to tell myself about what’s happening within and around me. And maybe, that’s power enough.

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Snowga

I really, really, REALLY-really don’t like snow. Maybe I vaguely like the prospect of a white Christmas, or the cozy thoughts I associate with being stuck at home with my two favorite people (provided we have enough food, of course). Beyond that, I sort of like how pretty it looks from inside the window of our DC home, and how happy it makes my kindergartner son Eric. But I dislike everything else about it, especially being out in it.

When blizzard watches and warnings started earlier this week, I took heed, went to the grocery store, and bought a LOT of food. By the time the snow started Friday at 1PM, I was halfway through baking a cake for my husband David’s 44th birthday, and was all set for a lonnnnng hunkerdown.

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Eric was chomping at the bit, asking –within minutes of the snow starting– when we’d be going out to play. I told him sometime tomorrow, and reminded him there would be no we, just him and Dad.

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Chocolate cake drizzled with a slow-cooked caramel sauce.

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It was good. So, so, so good!

Saturday came and went. David and Eric, and seemingly every individual on my street and the street behind it and the other one beyond that, spent time outside on more than one occasion, making it look like a neighborhood festival of some kind. I won’t deny I felt peer pressure to join in. But every time I opened the door just enough to get a decent picture was enough for me to reassert my HELL no!

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24 hours in

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“You say snowzilla, I say focaccia.” My caption under this photo on Facebook. Isn’t it cute?

By Sunday morning, I’d eaten quite a bit of David’s birthday cake, and of the focaccia bread I made on Saturday to go with soup. I was feeling sluggish, and the view outside our door increased my anxiety the more it reminded me of that horribly jarring snowstorm episode on Little House on the Prairie.

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The cars were buried.

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I also knew cabin fever was starting to set in.

When I saw that my neighborhood yoga studio was offering most of their regularly scheduled classes, I took it as a sign to challenge myself and venture out on foot. The studio is about half a mile from our house. Obviously, I needed courage and fuel for the hike. So I treated myself to a morning slice of cake with a second cup of coffee. Then, before I could change my mind, I squeezed my 40-year-old Puerto Rican hips into a pair of snow pants that I don’t remember ever buying. They still had the tag on and were surely a tight squeeze even back in the conveniently forgotten time when they were purchased. After almost getting cold feet –no pun– twice, out I went.

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The sidewalk turned into a trench.

The thing I feared most happened almost immediately. In my case it wasn’t slipping and falling, but sinking into a snowbank. I was up to my thighs within minutes of leaving the house. This triggered both my latent claustrophobia and my fear of drowning (I’m not saying it’s logical, but thus is the nature of irrational fears) and sent my heart racing. I wanted to turn back. But I pushed on, motivated more by pride than the promise of stretching my stiff limbs in the warmth of the yoga studio.

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I had no idea where the sidewalk met the street here.

When crossing over (and plunging into) these wickedly high mounds of snow, my phone almost went flying out of my hands. Luckily I never did lose it, but it was close enough that I have to wonder how many phones ended up buried in snow this weekend. Word to the wise: Stop, take your pictures, then put your damn phone back in your pocket before you resume walking.

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Or here.

The other thing I had several close calls with was dog poop. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! Dearest dog owners, just because it’s snowing, that doesn’t give you a free pass from picking up your dog’s crap. It is nasty on any normal day, and so much more so against freshly fallen snow, with neighbors in various stages of struggling to maintain our balance. Seriously, kiss my icicles!

Done ranting. Thanks.

Streets that I know like that back of my hand looked very different, and felt quite disorienting, under 20+ inches of snow. And since the streets were clearer than the sidewalks in places, they were more populated with people than cars. I felt like I was in a game of Find the Curb, which slowed me down and made me wobbly, but was also kinda fun.

Finally I made it. When I confessed to my yoga teacher that this was my first time out of the house since the blizzard started, she and another few people echoed, “Me, too!” Not that I was fishing for an amen, but it was a welcomed bit of you’re-not-alone validation. The class was PACKED! We huffed and puffed through our poses together. It was very worth it.

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I headed back with new found confidence. I noticed the charm and beauty more, and probably smiled more, too. It may not sound like a lot, but I felt as though I’d conquered something. And I did it for me, on my terms and through my own resources. Have I gone back outside? No. But I did learn today that the countdown to Memorial Day has already begun!

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Hungry in Paris (Ask and it shall be given, part 5)

The following is a true story about one of the most randomly extraordinary things that’s ever happened to me. I want to share it with you here, to the best of my recollection.

I was 16 years old in 1992 when I went on a student trip from Puerto Rico to Oxford, England for a 3-week intensive English course followed by one week travelling in France and Spain. While I’d already been bitten by the travel bug years earlier, this was my first time away from home without my family or friends. That was its own big deal.

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The view from atop Carfax Tower in Oxford

The host family assigned to me in Oxford was an elderly couple living in a tiny house on a street almost identical to the Dursleys’ Privet Drive in Little Whinging.

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Left: the house I stayed in outside Oxford. Right: a photo I took of Privet Drive during a visit to the Harry Potter tour at Warner Brother Studios (London) this year.

The woman kept a padlock on the house phone, presumably to keep us student boarders from making long distance phone calls for hours and hours. She never hid her dismay when I turned down constant offers of tea throughout the day. “How can you not want a hot drink?!” (I lived in Puerto Rico where it’s 85 degrees year round!) And the sandwiches she gave me for my school lunches were either cheese and tomato, or tuna fish with butter and cucumbers. One time she asked me what I normally ate cheese sandwiches with, and turned her nose up when I answered ham.

But I digress.

When the three weeks in Oxford ended, my fellow students and I were revved for the upcoming week of straight vacation, starting in Paris. We grabbed our last packed lunches from our British host families, and hopped on a bus to London, where we boarded a train to one of England’s southern port cities (I think it was Plymouth) for the ferry boat crossing over the English Channel into France. I’m pretty sure I ate my sandwich (was it tuna and cucumbers or cheese and tomato? I can’t remember) well before I got on the ferry, and had basically no more food for the journey after that.

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Starting the journey

To say that the waters were choppy that day is an understatement. Though I was mercifully spared the miserable seasickness, I did witness a good number of my fellow travelers running to toilets with pale, drawn faces.

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The ferry boat ride

After that was over, we still had to take a train to Paris.

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Train ride to Paris … by this time in the day I would’ve given anything for a tuna and cucumber sandwich.

Finally, it was a drizzly early evening when we arrived at our Paris hotel. It was, in fact, dinner time, and just a few minutes too late to exchange money at a bank or at the hotel’s front desk. This was a time before you could go to any cash machine and withdraw money. Most people still traveled with travelers’ checks, the currency was francs, and none of us had any. We had a few British pounds left over, which did us no good whatsoever. Since most of us were high school students, we didn’t have credit cards, and I have a sense (my memory on this is a bit fuzzy) that some of the restaurants where we asked didn’t even take plastic.

What could we do? A group of about four other students and I started to walk around the city, trying to figure something out. We were wet, exhausted, and hungry. So we came up with a plan to approach someone who looked local, and ask them to withdraw cash for us using their bank card in exchange for pounds and travelers’ checks. It was a long shot, obviously, but we were starting to feel desperate. The first few people we asked –wait for it!– said no.

Right as we were about to give up, someone looked up and noticed the names of the cross streets where we were standing: they were Rue de la Providence and Rue de l’Espérance.

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So we figured, since we were literally standing on the corner of Hope and Providence, maybe we shouldn’t give up … surely someone would help us! That’s when we saw a pregnant woman exiting an apartment building. We approached her and quickly explained our situation.

To our shock and delight, she told us yes, she would withdraw francs for us in exchange for our travelers’ checks and pounds … on one condition: that we sit and have a drink with her before heading off to dinner. Starving as we were, we agreed. The woman went to an ATM, got out cash, and together we found a bar and sat down for a drink. I have only a very vague recollection of what she looked like, and she didn’t tell us much about herself. Funnily enough, we did learn that she was headed to the UK the following day, so she’d been on her way to the ATM machine anyway, and she was happy to take our British pounds.

She was also lonely. I got the strong sense that her baby’s father was not in the picture. Then she said something like this: “How funny that we met each other on the corner of Rue de la Providence and Rue de l’Espérance, and that we were able to help each other. See, it wasn’t just me helping you get your money, but you have also helped me by sitting with me these few minutes and talking to me, keeping me company. So in a sense, we needed each other.”

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Paris the next day

I think she declined to join us for dinner. Soon we completed our money transaction and parted ways, wishing each other all the best. Then my friends and I took the money to a Chinese restaurant where we had the grandest and finest Chinese feast I’ve ever had in my life. At least that’s what it seemed like in my 16-year-old mind, and who is my 40-year-old self to tell that girl otherwise? Mistaking our jadedness for wisdom is such a common blind spot among us grownup types.

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the kindness of strangers in France. In fact, I’ve shared the stories here, about the incident with a cash machine in Paris and the time a few years later when my husband and I were hungry in a tiny French village. Isn’t this trend kind of mysterious and amazing? But all these things really happened. And remembering them touches a place deep in my heart where my own pure goodness lives alongside my faith in the goodness of others. Call me crazy, but I think we could all stand to tap into that place more often.

This is my favorite one of these stories, though. I have no idea if the woman would remember the role she had in helping a group of hungry Puerto Rican students get money for food on a drizzly Parisian evening 23 years ago, or that the thought of her poignant generosity and vulnerability still moves me deeply and lifts my spirits every single time. I especially think about the power of asking. It’s not just that you might actually get what you’re asking for (which in itself is pretty awesome), but it’s how the act of asking for help opens the door to keep kindness flowing. And to think it happened on the corner of Hope and Providence!


 

Note: A new friend I made on this trip was a law school student, (I believe) at the University of Puerto Rico. By the time we made it to Seville, I had all but run out of money, and she lent me money so I could buy souvenirs for my family at the World Expo. I promised to pay her back, but then we lost touch completely after coming home from the trip. I don’t even remember her name! But I did circle her face in the only two photos I have of her. I would love to track her down, to thank her again and to pay her back. Please help me share this blog post, so we can keep up the spirit of pay it forward! (Or in my case, in the spirit of paying her back…)

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