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Monthly Archives: February 2014

I have an idea brewing for a post, and I actually think it’s a good one. I’ve taken a photo for it, and I’ve started going over main points in my head. I have not, however, sat down and actually composed a word of it. Not a word (unless you include the title, which I’m not going to give away here).

I also have a screen addiction. It’s 11:11 pm as I’m writing this (make a wish!); I’ve been telling myself to get off the computer and make yogurt for the past two hours. I was tired. I had wine at dinner. I sat down at the computer aimlessly, knowing there were a few things I could find to do to “be productive” and also knowing that one of the tasks I had set before myself was to write a blog post.

Well, I didn’t write the post I wanted to write.

I did find some leads on future job possibilities and checked out a BuzzFeed link that made me laugh. Laugh out loud, that is. That’s worth something.

But sleep and sanity is valuable too. Tomorrow, when this will be published, I have close to 12 hours of continuous babysitting in front of me. I’m going to write that blog post–the one I really want to write–but in the meantime, I’m going to go make yogurt, meditate for 10 minutes, and call it a night.

Meditation wasn’t one of my New Year’s Resolutions, but the wall where I posted that list is as blank as I want my mind to be in the next few minutes. Although I’ll probably still stick to the resolutions, I realized they were goals I could easily remember without a list.

More than the relatively easy check-offs that made it onto my New Year’s list, goals like trying to live more fully in the present moment and to get away from mindless screen use actually matter.

As I’ve written this – word count now at 325 – I’ve checked numerous sites that looked interesting but didn’t teach me much; I’ve let time elapse. I haven’t made that yogurt.

But I am signing off, getting my yogurt on, and ending on a more positive note, a photograph from this past summer. Having spent many a sunny afternoon with this girl, I have yet to come across many creatures more capable of seizing the day than this one.

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Mercredi = Wednesday

 

 

I am not the kind of person who jumps on everything my alma mater does and shouts hooray! I am, however, quite proud of our recent initiative to restrict the president’s pay to 10 times that of the lowest-paid worker. College is, in many ways, a grossly distorted microcosm of the “real world” (and I have a lot more to say about that, but this is not the post). However, it’s not totally distorted. What is very real is that there are a lot of people who work really hard, every day, and get paid peanuts; at the same time, there are other people, who work really hard, and get paid a lot.

The difference between these people isn’t work ethic or human value. The difference is what kind of work they’re doing and how that work is valued. We consider labor “skilled” or “unskilled,” and we shell out big bucks for workers who are most responsible for bringing in revenue to the college. As many people point out, paying large salaries to presidents of institutions is part of being a competitive hirer. You get what you pay for, or so this logic goes.

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You also get to live in, or at least near, a place that looks like this.

However, if we back away from the context of competing institutions of higher ed, we can see that, for example, $300,000 and $325,000 are fairly comparable salaries. Yes, $25,000 per year does add up quickly. However, is it going to make the president of the school happier? More fulfilled? More intellectually stimulated? …a better president, a better leader?

The school that I went to, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, is asking for exactly this reduction–reducing the president’s salary from $325,000 to $300,000–while simultaneously raising the lowest wages from $25,000 to $30,000. This would satisfy the 10:1 ratio initiative. This would also raise the lowest paid workers above the poverty level for a family of four.

While this doesn’t solve the college’s internal financial woes, it does make a clear statement of values–and it’s one that nearly everyone on campus supports. While the college president has an important role in the college as a whole, the campus cleaning crew, for example, are probably more important on a daily basis. But it’s not just cleaning crew v. president. Professors are less likely to have salary increases than administrators, yet professors are the core of the college.

Most ridiculous, in my opinion, is a statement made by James Sherk, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation (as quoted in the article linked above): “Employers base pay according to workers’ productivity. This sort of pay cap proposal attempts to redistribute wages from the most productive employees to less productive employees. In doing so it will severely distort hiring decisions.”

How can you compare the productivity of a college president, a professor, and a cleaning lady? “Productivity” is a fishy word in that statement, a word used to legitimize what is essentially defensiveness. In some ways, I think the cleaning crew could probably take the prize for most productive: they constantly clean up after hundreds of slobs, many of whom take partying productivity as seriously as any other form of it and produce their vivid results in dorm bathrooms and hallways.

Or perhaps we could give the top salary to the professor who touches the most students’ intellectual curiosity. When students felt moved by a lecture, they could drop a dollar into a collection plate passed around at the end of class. Presidents, having little daily interaction with students, would have to earn their keep in some other form, perhaps by selling advertising space on their office walls or allowing sponsored ads on the college website and receiving that revenue personally.

I do not think that every person on campus “deserves” equal pay. The requirements of each job involved with the college are different. Professors and most administrators typically have extensive higher education, which itself costs money; if we value that education, we should treat it as an investment by providing some form of return in higher wages. We must value that education, or we show that we do not value the education we are in the business of producing.

Further, we do need to value intangible work. Intellectual work often looks like staring at a blank page, or a blank screen. Creating and executing high-quality courses takes serious effort, but not the kind of effort that usually shows itself in sweat marks or dirty hands. Quantifying this work is a gnarly challenge, but devaluing it is not the solution.

In the end, though, money doesn’t buy happiness or even a particularly good president. What money buys is housing, food, electricity, clothing, transportation, and even education. To lose sight of this, to be blinded by competitiveness and greed, is a moral failing. In corporate environments, this is perhaps more understandable (though not more just). In institutes of so-called higher learning, however, it is reprehensible: if our supposedly advanced education does not allow us to see and comprehend unfairness and work on practical solutions to remedy it, can it really be considered much of an education at all?

Sometimes I wish pie crust were a food group. It’s more like every food group, though, amiright? It has everything in it a human needs to survive–carbs, fats, water–and it’s delicious. This is a kid who used to (and secretly still does) love the taste of flour, so pie crust is just heaven.

Even more heavenly, I came across a ratio for pie crust that has been borderline life-changing. Instead of measuring things, which I don’t do anyway, I can just get the right ratio of ingredients together. So: for 2 cups flour, use about 1 cup shortening (I try to use slightly less), and 1/2 cup ice water. It’s a good idea to use cold butter, too.

This is more than enough for a large quiche bottom, or for two thin smallish pie crusts. It’s also enough to make a large rough something or other and then have some leftover dough to play with. (Best thing ever: jam on goat cheese wrapped in pie crust.) All you do is put some flour in a bowl, dice butter or Crisco or whatever (you can use a combination, it’s fine) and start mixing them into the flour. When this is nice and crumbly, add a bit of ice water. Try to form into a ball. Keep adding tiny bits of ice water until you can make a ball. There–that’s good!

I didn’t believe the ‘refrigerate overnight’ trick for a while, but it seriously makes it much easier to roll the dough out. If you have thought of making the dough that far in advance, props to you, and do let it chill out. Then the next day it should be super easy to roll it out. I just scrub down a section of countertop, sprinkle a little flour, and use whatever flat-ish objects I have on hand to roll out the dough. A drinking glass or glass jar can work as a rolling pin, but you don’t need to get that fancy. In a pinch, an unopened can of beer or, of course, the flat of your hand, will do. Or rolling pins. Those are allowed.

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Homely, but delicious!

I suppose it could be more convenient to buy pie dough, but this isn’t very difficult or time-consuming. If you’re going to spend 20 hours on a Netflix binge, you might as well make up a batch of this stuff and throw it in the freezer. It’ll keep. Also, you can adjust the recipe a little bit to balance with the taste of whatever you’re putting in the pie. To me, this is one of the big advantages of doing something yourself–you can do it better, more precisely, and with more specific end results.

If you’re going to put something sweet inside, you could add a little sugar or replace a tiny amount of the water with honey. You can add a pinch of salt to amp up the saltiness, and sometimes I’ve thrown stuff like baking powder in to make it a bit fluffier and that works too. A bit of milk will also change the taste a bit… the type of shortening you use will really shift the flavor… butter is great for everything, but an animal lard can be really nice with a meat pie.

Anyway, the beauty of making a pie crust for me is how transparent the whole process is. It is one of the simplest things to make and it can be used in so many ways, to have so many flavors. I think if given the option, I would eat everything in a crust. Unlike bread, there is no mysterious leavening when you have to just hope and pray that your baby is going to grow up. Unlike cookies, there is a little more sense of utility. You make this thing, and then you can use it in five million ways.

Writing, by contrast, is not like this. Writing is, in many ways, not nearly so utilitarian as pie crust. Even worse, it’s finicky and fussy and falls flat even more frequently than bread dough. It is really the culmination of a series of abstract processes, none of which you can hold in your hands, none of which you can roll out onto the countertop with a beer can. The only thing you can do with a rolling pin in the writing process is use it to beat yourself senseless in hope of one day–maybe one day!–making a tiny bit of sense.

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Writing, for me, often looks like this. It is kind of dark and dingy and miserably boring. There are a lot of words and, I am afraid, very little meaning. It is not delicious. When I am “finished,” which I never feel that I am, I cannot bake it or just happily eat it raw. I cannot put goat cheese in it and smile for hours.

Writing is more like brushing my teeth. I do it, I do it many times a day, and I get a certain grim satisfaction every time I sit down and plug away at it. (Though I spend considerably more time writing than brushing my teeth, for the record.) The tools matter, too. I recently bought a French toothbrush and it is amazing. I love a good pad of blank paper, half-sheet size, with a kind of grippy pen. Right now, that’s what’s working for me. Once I have ideas laid out, I turn to my Mac. I am a big fan of the way of the “Focus View” option in Word that opens your page all by itself on your screen with only black space beside it–no toolbars or other programs open in sight.

But laying ideas out? That’s not like putting laundry out to dry. When I sit down to express a thought, I often have a fully-realized sense of things in my head. As I start writing, that usually falls apart, unravels. If I am lucky, if I am “in the groove,” or if I’ve provided myself enough material to come back and prune later, I may be able to regain some sense of that completeness through the writing process. But usually not.

For every post I write for this blog, I’ve written at least one other that I don’t publish. There are easy posts and hard posts. When I’m talking about a physical object, that tends to be pretty easy. I have the object itself as a literal touchstone; I can keep coming back to that to figure out what I’m trying to say. The idea, in effect, is outside of my head. When I’m trying to better grasp some element of behavior or to make a more intellectual point, it’s much harder to pin down my thoughts or make a cohesive explanation. Even harder to provide a sense of something that mimics the sense I have in my brain. Harder still to do this without making the reader feel terribly belabored by my word choices or just the sheer quantity of words.

It is this mind-numbing quality to writing that forces me to make pie crust. Also to do yoga, to spin wool, to ride horses. Doing things that engage me more physically have the effect of pulling me out of my mental labyrinth and then allowing me to enter again with possibly refreshed eyes, like the way one re-enters a house after being away on vacation. Writing is a compulsion.

Really, I prefer pie crust.

Today, I bought two books in French (Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, and Terre des hommes, by Antoine de Saint-Expéry, if you’re curious), took care of the children for ages, and also ran across this quote:

Change the way you look at these neighbors by changing the language you use to describe them. Think about the motivations for their actions. Instead of “that prostitute was out all night selling her body”, think: “My neighbor (insert name here) was forced by her pimp to stand out in the cold all night and have sex with multiple men she didn’t know.” See if that doesn’t change your opinion of her.

This article, “Oakland: 20 ways not to be a gentrifier,” is an excellent primer for… a lot of things, not just how not to be a gentrifier. The above quote, from #3 on the list, particularly struck me. Learning French, while living with a British family, while being a native speaker of American English, I’m increasingly finding myself with three words for things.

Example A: THIS OBJECT

La poussette, the stroller, or the pushchair–choose your poison. Personally, I think of ‘poussette’ first and almost always use it, even though I sometimes commit the verbally awkward Anglicization of saying “the poussette” instead of using the French article la. In the grand scheme of things, which word I use doesn’t matter. No matter who I’m talking to, be it the French nanny or the British mom, I’m going to be understood. Partly because I’m usually pointing at the object or making some wild gesticulation or something.

But even this teeny, tiny, totally trivial selection made me think. I wondered why I was suddenly using the French word for this thing I push around everyday, when I realized that the French word fits best: “-ette” is frequently a diminutive ending, in French and English, and “pousser” is the verb “to push.” The word feels like the cutesy version of ‘something you push,’ which is exactly right for what I’ve referred to all my life as a stroller. Frankly, I do not stroll with this contraption, I push it, frequently up steep hills with a 4 year old hanging on for dear life off the side. But, inside, there’s something cute and tiny. So, la poussette it is.

While this language choice was unconscious (I just overanalyzed it later, as I have a tendency to do), we can also make conscious choices about language usage. “Climate change” and “global warming” refer to the same phenomena, yet they have different flavors. Climate change, on a literal level, doesn’t specify what kind of change that might be. Global warming seems fairly straightforward, though, and this straightforwardness is misleading.

Global warming also has been used extensively for the past few decades, but recent research suggests less predictable outcomes to this phenomena than the term “global warming” suggests, so many environmental writers (myself included) tend to prefer the term “climate change.” While flooding, drought, and even increased extreme weather events (i.e. hurricanes, tornadoes) may all be related to warming, it takes a few steps to get from warming to flooding. “Climate change,” by remaining more ambiguous, is more accurate for what we now know about this stuff that is happening to our planet.

But notice. In the last paragraph, I concluded with the phrase, this stuff that is happening to our planet. By making “our planet” the indirect object of this phrase, isolating it from the verb (“is happening”), I’m also isolating the phenomenon from any sense of human responsibility. I’ve taken culpability out of the sentence, despite the fact that I’m talking about something that is very likely anthropogenic.

In other words, we are doing this. We humans are happening to our planet.

But keep reading. We humans. We’re in this together. We are all humans. This is our planet. We can change our language, and we can change our actions. We have to believe that.