Finding balance in the second half of life

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Don’t Talk about Periods

In Community on March 31, 2023 at 8:16 pm

I saw a headline that said something about students being prohibited from talking about periods in a certain southern state. I’ll admit that I didn’t read the article, but these days that’s not a requirement for opining. As a long-time writer and editor, I have a lot to say. 

Sure, the period is unexciting, but as end punctuation, it’s a real work horse. My fervent hope is that exclamation points are not encouraged in the place of periods. They’ve been over-used for years now, and our communications don’t need any more ejaculations than we’re already seeing. Question marks have also been increasingly popular of late (are Valley Girls done yet?), but they have come to indicate intonation more than inquiry. Girls using excessive question marks are likely to be taken less seriously; that rising inflection at the end of sentences has come to be associated with the females among us as surely as–oh, I don’t know–menstruation. 

Periods, exclamation points, question marks: Is there another end punctuation? Is this an assault on complete sentences? Is this part of a movement to migrate all prose to fragments in bullet points? Will novels in the future be “decks”–something we can flip through slide by slide, with a few pithy phrases on each? Will history books be spelled out on Burma Shave signs–without conclusions? Will essays be word clouds, without any structure? Will there be any complete thoughts? I can’t help but suspect a conspiracy. 

Maybe we’re not supposed to talk about periods because–sentence fragments and splices aside–periods are really pretty well understood. Maybe this is an effort to refocus precious instructional time onto the topics that really matter. If that’s the case, may I suggest the comma? Depending on the typeface in use, it may look more or less like a spermatazoon, it’s true, which may make some people feel uncomfortable. (It may not be a bad thing if that image causes a little bit of embarrassment when commas promiscuously procreate.)

In the extra time we’re devoting to commas, we can aim to undo the damage done by years of “just put one where you’d take a breath.” The widespread adoption of that “rule” is the best evidence that too much time was spent talking about periods: There must have been hardly any time to talk about commas.

Periods are used at the end of declarative sentences, which are those sentences that “make a statement.” That southern state certainly has. 

Secular Saints

In Community, Fulfillment on May 4, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Together, my good friend Louellyn and I make up the Smith College class of ‘76 Alain de Botton fan club. She started the group, but I, the more materialistic of the two, am the one who now owns a copy of everything our idol has published (in hard cover whenever possible: de Botton’s books are always exquisitely designed). This month I ignored her request to wait to read his latest until she could finish and send me the copy I Amazoned over for her birthday. I ordered one for myself so we could read it simultaneously (she lives in Massachusetts, I’m in Michigan).

Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, employs a strategy the author readily admits will “annoy” both religious and atheistic readers. In chapters stuffed with illustrations and photographs, he looks at the trappings of faith (“music, buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts, shrines, pilgrimages, communal meals, and illuminated manuscripts,”) for insights that might be useful in secular life.

In a Q & A on, de Botton outlines his thesis:

In the 20th century, capitalism has really solved (in the rich West) the material problems of a significant portion of mankind. But the spiritual needs are still in chaos, with religion ceasing to answer the need. This is why I wrote my book, to show that there remains a new way: a way of filling the modern world with so many important lessons from religion, and yet not needing to return to any kind of occult spirituality.

For example, in a section titled “Role Models,”  de Botton notes that the characters we encounter in sitcoms, video games, tabloids, and the daily news tend to include what he politely (and poetically!) refers to as a “paucity of paragons.” He admires the Catholic Church for offering believers “some two and a half thousand of the greatest, most virtuous human beings who, it feels, have ever lived,” and wonders if the rest of us might not be able to compile a similar list of secular paragons taken from our cultural history and literature.

Here’s Louellyn’s response (in an email she is letting me reproduce here):

The deeper I get into it, the more I love the book. My Catholic friends from childhood had saints they relied on. In the Greek Orthodox church, we had saints, but I knew nothing about them. They didn’t have the same importance, I guess. The only saint I had some affection for (and I never heard about him in my church) was the Italian from Assisi, Francisco, with his love of birds, animals, nature. My kind of guy!

But I did and still do have a patron saint from our culture, our literature, someone whose life was so exemplary that he has always shown me the way. Atticus Finch. You think of Atticus and immediately the thought of justice comes to mind, but he embodied so many virtues. Charity (toward the mentally limited neighbor), prudence, temperance, patience, courage, hope…  What virtue did he not embody?  If there were any doubt that this was a man worth emulating, that he was a saint on par with those whose statues are carried through the North End on a summer day, that doubt was dispelled when he walks out of the court room and every single person in the balcony rises to his feet, a scene that not only causes me to cry when I watch it, but a scene that causes me to cry when I think of it … like now.

And then who could forget the scene where Atticus is at Tom’s family’s home, and the father of women who said she was raped confronts Atticus and spits on him?  Atticus could have said, “Jeb, Scout, we are putting Alabama in the rear view mirror and heading for NY.” But did he? No. He takes out his handkerchief and wipes the spit off his face, and holds his ground and keeps working.  Which gave me the courage to wipe the spit off my face and hold my ground and keep working.

Chris Hedges, paraphrasing Aristotle, said that courage is the most important of the virtues, because without it, one is unlikely to practice any of the others. My patron saint is the embodiment of courage. He guides my daily life.

Beautiful, no? I doubt M. du Botton could have said it better.

Who is your personal patron saint?

I’ll tell you about mine in another post. For now, I leave you with a prayer written to be prayed to one of the two and a half thousand, St Expeditus, patron saint to procrastinators and “everyone who needs a quick solution for their problems”:

St. Expedite, witness of Faith to the point of martyrdom, in exercise of Good, you make tomorrow today.

You live in the fast time of the last minute, always projecting yourself toward the future.

Expedite and give strength to the heart of the man who doesn’t look back and who doesn’t postpone.


St Expeditus

–Debra Wierenga

Not So Simple, Really

In Community on April 23, 2012 at 5:57 pm

I’ve about had it with KISS. You know: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

I’ve been fuming about this since I heard an interview on NPR way last fall. The reporter asked a person who’d helped with social media during the uprising in Egypt what advice he had for the Occupy Wall Street folks. “They need to Keep It Simple, Stupid,” he said.

And I thought, but you’ve missed the point. They’re saying it’s not simple. They’re saying we need to learn how to have difficult conversations, to include diversity, to acknowledge disparity. If they were to keep it simple, they’d perpetuate the very things they’re protesting against. It’s simple for one viewpoint to be allowed to dominate as the only reality; that’s what makes dictatorships so efficient. It’s much more difficult to make room in a society—or in a community—for the diversity that our democratic ideals suggest we value.

This KISS phrase haunts me. I object to the “Stupid.” I didn’t allow my kids to call each other “Stupid” (and it was a dictatorship—simple!); in my house, the repercussions for that were as bad as for swearing. I’m not sure we’ll have reasoned discourse with each other until we assume that we’re all smart people. And if you say it’s directed at the speaker herself? Same issue, and then some. If you think you’re stupid, then maybe I’m not so interested in hearing your point of view. If you think you’re stupid, maybe your perspective is not so grounded in a healthy humanity.

And then that “Keep It Simple.” “Keep” implies that we are in control, that it’s up to us to decide whether it’s simple or complicated. It denies the reality that there’s a whole lot going on around us—the weather, the economy, geopolitics, and, that most complicated of all, each of the individuals in each of the communities of which we’re a part—that we don’t control, even if we wish we did.

I can’t quite commit, either, to the notion that simple is better. A hard-boiled egg is simple, and tasty, too. But I made gnocchi with roasted vegetables and spinach pesto, and that was awfully good, too, though hardly simple, in preparation or flavor. My kids made great simple drawings when they first held crayons, but I’m not ready to eschew Van Gogh in their favor.

I like the idea of finding the simplicity beyond complexity. But saying that we must keep it simple sidesteps the idea of all of the work it takes to find that path. Remember that quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes? “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” That, after all, is how Steve Jobs made money—and changed our technological lives—with Apple products: “You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

It’s taken me some time, but I’ve finally come up with an alternative to propose: Instead of KISS, let’s RICE: Recognize It’s Complicated, Einstein.

First, let’s assume the best of each other and of ourselves. We are smart people, or we can be, if we demand it of ourselves. And our relationships will all be stronger if we assume that other people are pretty smart, too. Maybe they’re not smart in the way that we are or in the way we have come to expect; maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe we have a more accurate view of the world and understanding of what we’re up against—and what we have to celebrate—when we value each other. (I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t easy. Phyllis Schlafly? Sarah Palin? But maybe “hard” is better than “easy,” as “complex” is richer than “simple.”)

Then, let’s not put ourselves in control of the universe. It takes some effort to peel off those super-hero clothes—they’re lycra, after all, and pretty clingy. But the sooner we acknowledge that we live in communities and in a world that we don’t control, the sooner we can start acting more responsibly. Pretending we’re more influential than we are only makes us frustrated and angry.

And, finally, let’s get comfortable with complexity. Comfort with complexity and ambiguity are understood as signs of the intellectual agility required of leaders, and for good reason. Seeing complexity helps you to be more certain that you’re getting the whole picture; it also helps you adapt as required by things beyond your control. And if you’re not recklessly simplifying, you don’t suffer the unintended consequence of eliminating possibilities.

Sound complicated? Good. RICE, baby.

—Lois Maassen

Working Physics: How Changing Space Alters Time

In Community, Survival on November 2, 2011 at 1:40 am

Time passes differently in an office. As a freelancer, I work at home or the coffee shop or the library, but sometimes it makes sense to work onsite with a client for a few months. That’s when I notice the movement of time. It’s not that it goes faster or slower in an office or that it’s better or worse. It just goes differently. Sideways, maybe.

When my mom was in the hospital overnight, I spent the day with her. Mostly we were waiting—waiting for tests, for medication, for the doctor. The doctors and nurses were busy and efficient and I knew they were getting things done. But what happens in there isn’t life, or at least not normal life. Normal life is what happens outside the hospital walls. You can see it from the window. Two nurses taking a walk during lunch, a man unloading groceries from his trunk, a group of teenage girls sitting on the lawn, heads bent over their phones.

That’s the best comparison I can make to how I experience time in an office. I feel like I’m alongside life. I’m not unhappy. I just feel that something is missing, or that I’m missing something. After a few days in the office, the feeling starts to dissipate. After a few weeks, it’s almost gone.

It’s easy to understand why time moves differently for me inside an office. On my own, I have total control over my time and my days are varied. I’m used to moving directly from folding a load of laundry to interviewing a source to walking the dog. By comparison, a day in the office feels pretty monotone.

What’s more intriguing to me is why time stops moving differently, and quite quickly. It’s possible that I get used to it. People are adaptable, and you can get used to anything. (This is why college students raised in tidy homes adjust to dorm living.) Maybe being able to adjust is just nature’s way of helping out. But that answer seemed partial at best.

I was still thinking about it last week when I got an e-mail from the client. The team I’m doing work for was going out for lunch, she said. Would I like to join them? Sure, I said. While at lunch, I heard about children’s sports-related injuries, Halloween plans, and career paths. A few days later, in honor of all the people with October birthdays, donuts, bagels, and sliced apples magically appeared atop a bank of filing cabinets not far from my desk. All day people stopped to snack and chat.It’s an open office, so I overheard conversations about work, upcoming college visits, recipes. I remembered one of the best parts of working at an office: People.

And I think somewhere in there is the answer to why time begins to feel normal again. The more time I spend onsite, the better I get to know the people who work there. Then—not surprisingly, I know; none of this is rocket science—I feel connected and that’s when the shift occurs. That’s when time inside the office stops feeling like it’s operating alongside life and starts feeling like a part of life.

Or it could be the food. But that’s just six of one, half dozen of another. —Christine MacLean

Congregating in Faith

In Community, Fulfillment on May 16, 2011 at 12:36 am

I’m a churchgoer.

I say that right up front because, while I have a lot of friends at my church and others, I also have a lot of friends who aren’t churchgoers, whether or not they are believers, never mind in what.

Every now and then I have to revisit my reasons for going to church. Sometimes I get an an awfully tempting offer for another Sunday morning engagement, sometimes I get lazy, sometimes it’s just not easy to be part of a church.

It’s unfortunate, right off the bat, that the word “church” is such a buffet. There’s the “church” building, there’s “church” as a Sunday morning event, there’s the “church” as a nonprofit organization, there’s the “church” as a hierarchy, there’s the “church” as a congregation of people. No wonder we can find ourselves ambivalent about the whole thing; it’s hard to know what we’re even thinking about. And to make matters worse, there’s the occasional use of “the church” to give form to a point of view, often ascribed to Christians, who may in the moment be behaving in less than Christ-like ways.

My non-church friends talk to me about worship; they ask whether I can’t worship anywhere and at any time. And of course I can. I know I need, though, that weekly structured mindfulness in company with others who are working to be mindful of the same thing. So it’s not worship so much I’m headed to church for, but headspace, recalibration. And since I’m a puzzler, who carries conundrums on the back burner of her heart until they become at least a little clearer, I’m also looking for missing pieces, for wisdom that comes from others’ experiences and education.

I wish I could claim to be pursuing only worship. I’m sure I would feel a better person if that were my only aim. My nature, my history makes it more complicated than that, or makes me a needier person.

I saw only two movies before I was in high school: Mary Poppins and Sound of Music. The church my dad pastored had members he knew to be more conservative than he. He took seriously the advice from Paul to the Corinthians: “Be careful that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” Paul was encouraging early Christians to set aside their inherited religious laws against, for example, eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. At the same time, he didn’t want a controversy about whether eating that meat was sinful to get in the way of God’s larger message, which is, we’re reminded, to love each other as God loves us.

For my dad, movie theaters were like sacrificed meat. He didn’t, himself, believe that movie theaters were of the devil, but it wasn’t a controversy he particularly wanted for a distraction within his congregation. When we wanted to see a movie, we went to the far north side of the city to the east, where it was unlikely that any parishioners would see us. And there were only two movies attractive enough to warrant the risk and the travel. I thought Julie Andrews was the world’s only movie star.

Whatever other lessons those episodes taught me, somewhere I also retained the knowledge that my relationship was not so much with “the church” as it was with the individuals in the church. This makes for a complicated, messy, rewarding life together, but it’s part of the reason that showing up at church is on my priority list. And it helps me to remember that when “the church” does something, it’s not a single institutional entity, but a collection of individuals, who are, each in his or her own way, trying to do what they think is right.

Saying I learned this lesson doesn’t make it true. In spite of my best intentions and deepest insights, I can leave a church committee meeting or other gathering in deep frustration. I confess: Sometimes I stew.

On my better days, I remember that a congregation is a complicated network, that it will never behave as though every member knows the same things or thinks the same things or lives the same life. Especially difficult is seeing what looks like timidity in discussing “welcoming the sojourner in our midst” through immigration reform or, more generally, what it means “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with [our] God.”

Those issues are too connected to the political realm for some, and that means it’s too easy to act like Republicans and Democrats instead of like Christians, I guess. I struggle to see justice, mercy, and humility as that sacrificed meat; they seem to me to be so much more, to be required of us as children of God.

In society more broadly, we seem to have lost our “commons,” that place where we can come together to talk about what we all hold dear and where we have differences. I’ve read lots of articles and essays about how the fragmentation of the media and the isolation of our lives exacerbate that: There are TV stations for liberals and TV stations for conservatives, and viewers of each are reinforced in a very different reality; I know how different the realities are because of the station that runs in the waiting room where I get my oil changed. And when we sort ourselves by political (or other) persuasion, and then interact with folks only like us online, it’s far too easy to demonize and diminish other points of view.

A church congregation, it seems to me, is one place where differences could be talked about and explored, with confidence in a foundation of love. In spite of being drawn together by a shared faith, though, we’re still just people. And people have their feelings hurt and assume that everyone else thinks like they think—or should. We all have our own histories, including family members who’ve been alcoholic—or not, friends who are gay—or not, financial security or insecurity. And because we are, after all, only human, what we think we know can get in the way of what God would like us to know.

I have mused this week about whether it was time to take a different tack in my church life. My friends and colleagues know that I often say, “too hard,” and while usually I don’t mean it, this time I might have.

My spousish one asked what I was thinking on that score today as we arrived home from church. When I said I was tending to stay the course, he nodded.

“You’ve got to belong somewhere,” he said. “And a church is probably a better option than most.”

Especially when it’s a church into which you’ve been deeply knit, with people who are willing to struggle with what it means “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with [our] God.” And when that’s too hard, the answer, especially in church, even in church, is to love more.

–Lois Maassen

No Story Here

In Community, Fulfillment on April 22, 2011 at 3:01 pm

 Photos courtesy of Mary Hilldore Photography

I bought fresh tulips ($7.99) at the grocery store the other day. They weren’t bad, but they are nothing like the 300,000 that will bloom in a few days here—20,000 in my neighborhood alone—courtesy of the City of Holland, Michigan. They’ll line my Historic District walking route, braving gale-force winds, withering heat, or snow, and sometimes all three in their short lives.

Together, the tulips create a riot of color. Individually, each is a floral temptress dressed to kill and experienced in the art of the come-on. “Pick me.  No one will see,” whispers the Ollioules. “There are so very many of us! A few won’t be missed,” wheedles the Double Orange Emperor. “Go ahead and pick one,” coaxes the Black Parrot. “You know you want to.”

I do want to. I picture them in vases, gracing rooms throughout my house: on my back porch, on my nightstand and, most decadent of all, in my bathroom. But day after day I resist.

And so does everyone else.

In my town, with temptation at every turn, no one picks the city’s tulips—not the descendants of the Dutch who settled here, and not anyone who is a member of one of several ethnic groups that make up almost 30% of the population today.


You might think it’s because of the “per stem” fine imposed by the city, which, when I first moved here 20 years ago, I heard was $50/stem and recently heard was $150/stem. Except that the “per stem” fine is Holland’s own little urban legend, apparently. I checked the city ordinances and I didn’t see one that was tulip-specific. (The city can fine a tulip picker for violating Sec. 22-5: Mutilating, etc., public property; molesting etc., birds, animals, fish, etc.; all those etceteras offer quite a range of applicability.)

“It’s not that they are worried about the fine, anyway,” says my friend Debra, who lives near downtown. “It’s that they worry about what the neighbors will think.” It’s true.  My walking partner and I sometimes see a tulip that’s been downed by natural causes. Neither of us dares carry it home (although it must be a crime of a different sort to abandon beauty where it’s sure to be trampled). For better or for worse, the community’s norms are strong.

“A person would have to be a real low-life to pick someone else’s tulips,” says my neighbor David Myers, author of a bajillion psychology books, including the one you probably had to read in college. “And, although there are such low-lifes,” he adds, “they are usually not the ones doing flower-arranging in their homes. My additional conjecture is that flower-lovers are at low risk for misdemeanor criminality.”

Residents who don’t love flowers have to at least tolerate them. In Holland, tulips literally come with the territory. If you live on any of several designated “Tulip Lane”s, curb-side tulips are not optional. The city plants them as a matter of course.

Figuratively speaking, respect for them also comes with the territory. “When you grow up in Holland, you just know that you don’t pick the tulips,” says my teenage son. “You’re socialized that way.”

The annual Tulip Time Festival plays a key role in that, and the festival’s Kinder Parade—a seemingly endless stream of costumed elementary students from the area schools—is a good example. Students are expected to march with their schools in the parade, regardless of ethnicity (or enthusiasm, for that matter). Schools typically make sure the children have costumes and provide busing to the staging area where the parade begins. The students smile and wave through the first mile, but visibly start to wilt during the second, especially when it’s hot.

The students’ extended families, who get up at 5:30 a.m. to get a prime spot on the parade route (but dutifully wait until 6:00 a.m., at the request of the city, to actually spread out their blankets and set up their chairs) watch them with adoring eyes. But the children must feel eyes of the broader community are upon them, too, sending the message “This is an important part of who we—and you—are.”

Finally, most people understand the tulips’ importance to the local economy. Tulip Time brings about $10 million in business to the area every year and without tulips, there is no Tulip Time. “The fact that there’s considerable public funding going into the tulip planting and maintaining means that there are many folks who watch out for the well-being of the tulips,” says Don Luidens, professor of sociology at Hope College in Holland.

I spoke to the city’s former police captain, in case I was just not hearing about crimes against tulips. He easily recalled the times the tulips had been truly vandalized—all three of them. In 20 years. “There’s no story here,” he told me. “There’s nothing here to write about.”

It’s hard to find examples of integrity these days. Daily we read about CEOs and elected officials lying with abandon and athletes cheating on and off the field. It happens here, too, occasionally. But when it comes to tulips, we stay on the straight and narrow. The Dutch Calvinist settlers here believed in total depravity, which includes the idea that, because of original sin, “all are inclined by nature to serve their own will and desires.” But I think we also have an innate longing for beauty and  connection to nature, and to do the right thing. Maybe the real reason we don’t pick the tulips is that, for three weeks every spring, they satisfying those longings.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that we don’t, and that’s remarkable to me. It doesn’t, however, seem to occur to residents that it could be any different.  Or maybe it occurs to them but, like the police captain, they think there’s no story here. And that may be the most remarkable thing of all. –Christine MacLean

Life Goes On

In Community on March 19, 2011 at 10:42 pm

Our local, small-town newspaper has downsized a bit. Not surprising, I suppose; more surprising, perhaps, that it’s managed to stay in print for nearly 120 years in spite of being sandwiched between two larger city newspapers that publish daily and include more substantive news.

The downsizing, while making me sad, introduced a feature I like: The back page now reprints news from a hundred years ago:

  • Mrs. Charles Meek of Grand Rapids is spending a few weeks with her father, A. Rynbrandt.
  • Denn M. Bos made a business trip to Grand Rapids last Wednesday.
  • Dr. Masselink purchased another fine driving horse from King Brothers of Grand Rapids. It’s a six-year-old.
  • Peter Roon visited at the home of Mr. and Mrs P. DeWitt Sunday.
  • George Aldering was the guest of George Bos Sunday.
  • The singing school of Drenthe was entertained at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Telgenhof on West Main Street last Thursday evening. After the singers rendered some fine selections, refreshments were served and the merry crowd returned home at a late hour.

Why do I love to read these? I don’t know the people, of course, since the year is 1910. I can only speculate about whose grandparents or great-grandparents they might be, since many of the surnames are still familiar in this area.

Every line is a short story, so there’s plenty of what Anne of Green Gables would call “scope for imagination.” Try this one, for example:

  • Notified by residents in Robinson township that John Beukes of Holland were begging from the farmers in that vicinity, Sheriff Andre [Sheriff Andre? Who could make that up?] sent his deputies out and had the pair picked up. As there was no charge which could be held against the young woman, she was released, but Beukes was taken before Justice Hoyt at the Haven, and sentenced to 65 days in the House of Correction at Detroit for vagrancy. Beukes is an odd character, almost 70 years of age, but though indigent, was married to a young Allendale woman last November in Grand Rapids. Since that time he has been living in Grand Rapids, but has done nothing in the line of work. His young wife, who is about 24 years of age, will return to the home of her parents, who are now living near Coopersville.

Aside from that one sad example of the wages of… I’m not sure what, it sounds like a leisurely, civilized life. People paid calls and made their own entertainment. They moved at a more reasonable pace—and shorter distances, too.

Fortunately, I happened to read, at the same time these newspapers started to arrive, a collection of essays published by the local historical society. The essays reminded me that if I lived in 1910 I could also be maimed by polio, killed by tuberculosis, or bleed to death after having my leg amputated on my own dining room table.

I guess that means they didn’t actually have a simpler life. I’m tempted to think that living life on a smaller scale would be easier, somehow, but I see that’s illusion. There are enough tragedies surrounding us even with medical advances: aneurysms, tumors, enlarged hearts. Not to mention earthquakes and tsunamis.

This downsized newspaper of ours, I realize, isn’t publishing the whole story. They haven’t, so far, chosen to republish the obituaries or the legal notices. Sort of like Facebook status updates that feature only the happy parts of our lives.

Which, come to think of it, is perfectly okay with me. It’s sufficiently hard to miss the difficult parts; I don’t need reminders. I sometimes do need reminders that we can choose leisure, that we can live in community with others. That life, however ordinary, goes on.

–Lois Maassen

Raising a Glass of Tea to the Women of Iran

In Community on March 8, 2011 at 9:53 pm

Today is International Women’s Day. And today I’m thinking about the women of Iran, and women all over the world, who are protesting peacefully in the streets, taking great risks to stand up for equal rights for themselves, their daughters, their mothers.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Iranian women these past few months since I began auditing a course in graphic novel writing at our nearby college. In the course we are exploring long-form storytelling in sequential art forms, and of course reading great graphic novels as we go. This has me rereading Marjane Satrapi’s amazing novels: Persepolis, Persepolis 2, Embroideries, Chicken with Plums.

My mind is reeling with memories of my own college years, which coincided with the events in her first book — Satrapi is 10 years my junior (just a kid, really.) And also, my work includes writing about the sexuality of midlife women, and so Embroideries has long been on my radar. It’s a wonderful revelation of woman-talk around the Samovar. What happens when the men leave the room and the subject turns to sex. Of course sexual politics in Iran are intense and unsettling in ways that are different from the intense and unsettling sexual politics of the Midwest United States. But it’s easy to feel kinship and recognize sisters and mothers and daughters across miles and cultures.

And the samovar is an important character in this book. The tea is a character. I had a bunch of folks over the other day and, inspired by Satrapi’s Embroideries, I decided to make what my mother called “Persian-style” tea. What she meant by that was simply that you brew up a super-intense tea-brew, and then mix it with hot water throughout the day to make stronger or weaker tea as you or your visitors wish. This was a trick she picked up as a girl in Istanbul, where tea was made, as it is still made in many areas of Iran and in Russia, in a Samovar.

A Samovar is essentially a big water boiler with a spigot. There is generally room at the top to hold a teapotful of intense tea, keeping it warm. And tea from a samovar would be made just this way, a bit of the super-dark tea poured into a tea-glass, hot water added to reach the preferred consistency for the drinker, and then sugar lumps or honey or milk or cream offered, along with, of course, tea treats. The tea itself was the hostesses’s performance. She might have her secret recipe, her tea may be wonderful or awful. Reputations made and dashed on her ability to carry off a good cup.

Samovars themselves can be quite ornate, quite beautiful, a small fortune in silver or brass, or rather simple, homely, tin devices. They generally carry a central chamber where fuel, which might be charcoal, burns to keep the water around that chamber, hot. Nowadays they are, of course, powered by electricity or gas or have a chamber for a concentrated fuel. I approximate the samovar with a Zojirushi hot water pot and a teapot I keep warm on the stove.

Because of the way the tea is brewed, the flavors are really very different. For some reason the resulting tea is more smooth. That’s the best way I can explain it. Smoother tea. A friend describes it as a deeper flavor. Smooth and deep. That seems right.

Now the recipes for samovar-style tea can be as varied as for any steep. One of my favorites is just black tea with rose petals. Another favorite, which I’m sipping as I write, is Moroccan style — green tea (I use a Sencha) with peppermint. And then you can have a blast trying all sorts of chemistry experiments in the chai-style teas by boiling spices in your water before adding tea, to make a rich, spicy tea-brew. And there is no reason to flavor your tea at all. Especially if it’s a really great tea. You can pre-sweeten your tea mix with sugar or honey, but I leave it unsweetened, adding stevia drops to my tea to sweeten any of them, but especially the chai, whose spices will be very shy without sweetness to bring them out on the tongue.

Brewing tea in this way can be a great deal more convenient if you’re apt to drink a lot of tea throughout the day at home or at the office. Brewing your tea just once in the morning and then mixing spoonfuls of your tea brew with hot water throughout the day, or making iced tea by mixing the brew with cold water, is just a very fast and efficient way to make great tea quickly.

The tea brew, absent a samovar, can sit in a teapot on the warm top of my stove while serving friends, or I might mix it up in the morning and put it in a small pitcher in the fridge, where I can pour off a few ounces at a time throughout the day, to mix with hot or cold water, depending on how I want to consume or serve tea in the moment. I usually toss the morning’s brew at the end of the day, because I was told once by a Japanese friend that next-day tea is very bad for you. She told me this with such conviction that I shook in my boots and developed a kind of phobia about it.

So. If you’d like to try this, here are a few quick starter-recipies. Keep in mind that you should feel very free to adjust and experiment to find a tea-brew style that suits your tastes. These suit mine. If you don’t like my tea, feel free to whisper behind my back about it. Heh. Or better yet, write in the comments, because I am neither Persian nor Moroccan, and suffer no pretense that I’ve got it remotely right. I live to learn.

Right. Start with a good loose-leaf tea. We have some local spice merchants who sell nice ones. I like Mighty Leaf right now, and use their Ceylon and Sencha for these recipes. I start by waking the tea up by rinsing the leaves in a covered teacup. You can do this with a cup and small saucer, but the best tool I have found is a gaiwan, which is a simple Chinese tool for brewing tea. I place about 8-9 teaspoons of tea leaves in the gaiwan, fill it with hot water, and after just a few seconds, pour off that water. I have awakened the leaves and also washed away a bunch of caffeine.

Then I fill an 8-cup stainless pot with 5-6 cups of water. If I’m going to make chai-style tea, I place the spices in the cold water, and bring the water to boil, letting the water boil for a full five minutes with the spices before adding the tea. Longer is fine. I tend to lose patience. If I’m not going to spice the tea, I simply bring the water up to a boil for black tea, up to steaming for green tea (never to boiling for green tea), then place the tea and flavoring herbs or flowers into the pot, reduce the heat under the pot to its  very lowest setting, and let the tea sit to steep/cook for 5 full minutes for black tea, 3 minutes for green.

Then I pour this very dense, dark tea through a tea strainer into the holding pot. And that’s about it. When I want to pour a cup of tea to drink, I pour about a quarter of the cup full of tea brew, three quarters with hot water (or make it as strong as you like it), add stevia to sweeten, milk if I’m in the mood, and… delicious!

Moroccan style: 8 rounded tsp. Sencha, 4 rounded T. Dried peppermint.

Rose Ceylon: 8 rounded tsp. Ceylon, 3 rounded T. Dried rose petals (culinary grade) (Lavender is lovely too.)

Chai style: 8 rounded tsp. Darjeeling or Ceylon. In the water: 3 cloves, 3 Cardamon pods, crushed, half a stick of cinnamon crushed, a pinch of fennel seed, a pinch of cumin, 3 black peppercorns, and a T. of grated fresh ginger.  Instead of adding any water to a chai mix, you could add warm milk, or heat the chai mix with the milk together in a microwave.

There. Experiment with it. Invite a bunch of women over. Talk about sex. And when you have your tea in hand, I hope you will raise a cup to the women all over the world who have risked their lives to stand up for their rights today.

Groping Our Way Toward Green

In Community, Survival on March 4, 2011 at 2:19 am

While I was brushing my teeth the other day (with the water off), I heard that  Republicans have switched back to using Styrofoam in the Capitol instead of compostable food containers. They say that the money saved by making the switch can be used to reduce the deficit and that the “Green the Capitol” program didn’t help the environment much, anyway. Democrats disagree. Vehmently, of course.

I don’t know whom to believe. Like healthcare and education, being green is complex.  Something that seems like it’s best for the environment might not be. Our dishwasher has been underperforming for a while (due to either its 17 years or companies changing their detergent formula in an effort to be more environmentally correct themselves), so I’ve been washing dishes by hand. I’d forgotten how much time washing all the day’s dishes by hand takes.

I was okay with it because I thought I was helping out the environment. I’m woefully late to the green scene—we don’t compost and I still use baggies and Saran Wrap, albeit guiltily. Washing dishes by hand made me feel environmentally virtuous. But whether or not hand-washing dishes actually is virtuous depends on what kind of dishwasher you have, which cycle you use, how you heat your water, and the process you use. Can you wash and rinse a dinner plate in about one cup of water? I can’t.  According to, it’s almost impossible to be more efficient than a good automatic dishwasher, as long as you’re using good automatic dishwasher practices.

After that I decided to circumvent green complexity entirely by using less. When cooking, I estimate instead of using a measuring spoon. It’s one less thing to wash. Estimating amounts puts the meal at risk, especially those that call for cayenne pepper, but so far no one has noticed. My son did, however, notice when I went a step too far with my philosophy and drank grapefruit juice out of the container. He’s a teenager who has done that himself. Still, he didn’t approve. (In my defense, it was a moment of weakness, and I’m the only one who ever drinks grapefruit juice in our house.) 

I also buy less at the grocery store. All the packaging makes me queasy, but I’m equally motivated by the work involved. The more I buy, the more work I create all the way around—bagging it, lugging it home, putting it away, not to mention the work involved in making money to pay for it. I’ve gotten a lot better at distinguishing want from need.

The same goes for clothes. I just don’t buy many anymore. I’ve had my red winter duffle coat for at least 18 years; when the lining wore out, a friend made a new lining for it that was nicer than the original.  When the straps of my purse wore out, I started using an old purse that’s dated, but well made—so well made that it will last for another 10 years, by which time it will qualify as retro.

Perhaps because I buy so few new clothes, I resist parting with old ones, even when I’ve stopped wearing them. I made half-hearted attempts at cleaning out my closet several times last year, but it was still full of things I didn’t wear. When the Salvation Army offered to pick up donations at the curb a few weeks ago, I took another run at it.

We live downtown, a few blocks from a shelter for the homeless. At this time of year, I see a lot of people walk by without real winter coats. When, on the day I tackled my closet, I saw yet another woman in a sweatshirt, it occurred to me that it is morally and ethically wrong to hang onto clothing I don’t wear.  If I have it, then someone who needs it doesn’t. For the first time it struck me as hoarding, and it trumped all my old excuses. There were still some things I clung to, but this time my closet is visibly emptier.

I’m not setting myself up as an example. Rather, admitting to all this is embarrassing. These are basic things, all of which I once knew and practiced but, I’m ashamed to say, set aside during the fat and stupid years.  I’m now having to re-learn them.

“Reduce” is the first commandment of environmentalism and where I should have started.  It was our way of life growing up on the farm. My father, a Christian and a Republican, taught us that God expects us to be stewards of the land. Even as little kids we knew what that meant—in all things, take what you need and no more. Whenever possible, reuse. He made it clear that God didn’t care if you were a kid, adult, or a Martian, for crying out loud—we are all stewards. Even Republicans and Democrats.

Which brings me back to those Stryfoam cups at the Capitol. Since the most environmentally friendly option—drinking straight from the container—truly is unacceptable (even if you are the only one who drinks that particular beverage), maybe the folks at the Capitol could do what I’m asking my family to do at home: use the same glass, water bottle, or travel mug all day.

That would give me lots of company where I am on this journey–at the beginning. And I’m not picky about the company. Bring on the Martians.–Christine MacLean

Looking for Redemption

In Community, Fulfillment on March 1, 2011 at 2:07 am

It was a small thing, but I remember it almost 30 years later: “I hate people who don’t turn off the water when they brush their teeth,” a friend said.

This probably hit me harder than it would strike other people. My family had some odd prohibitions. We weren’t allowed to curse, of course, but “hate” was also really strong language. We could hate tuna noodle casserole—well, as long as we ate it—but “I hate people” was a phrase that would have gotten me sent to my room, no matter how it was completed.

Of course perfectly lovable people have the bad habit of letting the water run while they brush. Surely something careless tooth-brushers might do could redeem them. And I really doubt that my friend meant what he said.

A few weeks ago I read Living Into Hope for a discussion group. Tucked inside, among other stories of reconciliation, is the story of Joan Brown Campbell’s 1999 trip to Kosovo to gain the release of American soldiers who’d been captured by the Yugoslavian military. These are the people who were part of the group, led by Reverent Jesse Jackson: three Serbian Orthodox bishops, a bishop from the Greek Orthodox Church, president of the board of the American Muslim Council, a Los Angeles rabbi, a bishop from the United Methodist Church, a Jesuit scholar and conflict-resolution specialist, and the Quaker director of Mercy Corps. Oh! And Rod Blagojevich.

Rod Blagojevich. Then a congressman from Illinois, more recently former governor, well-known for his hairstyle and his profane and self-serving wire-tapped telephone conversations, the latter eventually leading to his impeachment.

I will admit that I snorted. Probably out loud. So it was a very good thing that my friend Kay said that she loved that he was on this list. “Really?” I said, unable to disguise my incredulity.

“I love that he had a moment of redemption,” Kay said.

Ah. Yes. This is why we need insightful friends: They’ll say the right things to keep us honest and humble.

I’m thinking about this because of the way that groups and organizations are made villains right now. There’s the attraction of simplicity, of course, in seeing things as all good or all bad, all black or all white. But the simplicity of that oppositional view is overwhelmed by the complexity of all the conflict it engenders.

My brother had a biography of Jesse James when we were kids. The opening paragraph made us laugh and laugh. I don’t recall it word for word, of course, but it ran something like this: “Jesse James was a thief without conscience, a heartless torturer, and a vicious murderer. But he loved his mother.”

If I asked Kay, I’m sure she’d say it was a redeeming quality.

–Lois Maassen