Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Girl in the Song

This Associated Press photo was originally printed in my high school yearbook, 1984

Bruce Springsteen released the album Born to Run on August 25, 1975. I was born a little too late to run, being not quite eight years old at the time.

My parents were still married. From the deep backseat of their Chevy Impala, I remember Glen Campbell. Johnny Cash. Dolly Parton. Loretta Lynn. Tennessee Ernie Ford. It was the kind of music that was on AM radio in small town southern Missouri, where we lived.

At the pool and at the park and at the ice cream stand, roasting through those hot humid summers we had down there, the big kids in the little towns would have their transistor radios on. I got to hear what actual teenagers were listening to, even though I was far from one myself. Philadelphia Freedom. War. Wings. Janis Ian. It was different than my parents' music.

Like most kids, especially then, the music wasn't something I chose. I was a passive absorber of the adult culture around me; so when Captain and Tennille sang that love would keep us together, I didn't even really think about it. It was a song on the radio that I didn't control, and like bedtimes and homework and wearing uncomfortable shoes to church, it wasn't something that even occurred to me I could reject or even ask for something else. I didn't even know there was a something else.

I do not remember Bruce in any of this. I don't think he was there yet-- for me, anyway.

In just a few years' time, my life changed dramatically. My parents split up; my mom moved north with my sister and me, to a different town in a different state. That wasn't something I chose either. It was a painful time for my parents, so it was a painful time for me. I seemed to land with a hard thump in junior high, chubby but stretching rapidly up, ratty sneakers, knee socks that kept slumping down, thick eyeglasses, and long bangs that flopped in my face. Grown-ups had proven themselves to be too indifferent, or insensitive, or insistent, or too much of all those things all at once, to be trusted. I read a lot. My bedroom door was closed a lot.

It was into this scene that Bruce Springsteen walked. I giggle a bit at the drama of that sentence; as if the curly-locked and leather-jacketed Boss had leaned off the Big Man's shoulder on the cover of the Born to Run album, and into my doorway instead, guitar still at the ready.

The beginnings were actually a bit murkier. By the time I was thirteen, I'd acquired a cheap turntable stereo. I'd discovered that 45s were 99 cents at the record store at the mall, which I could walk to from our harvest gold apartment. I had some spending money every once in awhile, some time to myself, and just enough freedom to choose-- if not my life, exactly-- then at least the music I listened to. I might not have been born to run, but I wanted to catch up. To what, I didn't yet know; I just knew I liked the sound of it.

It was during this time that Mr. Springsteen eased his way in to the metaphorical doorway of my life. First Born to Run. Then back a bit, with Darkness on the Edge of Town. I wasn't sophisticated enough yet to be interested in Nebraska yet, and I couldn't afford The River, because double albums cost too much for a kid with no job. But it was enough. And even though I was also listening to all the other stuff that was coming out at that time, prog rock and new wave and punk and metal, I kept coming back to Springsteen.

In that "I'm the only freak of my kind" way that teenagers often think of themselves, I was crazy enough to believe that Mr. Springsteen was a secret that I alone possessed. Yeah, you could read about him in the pages of Rolling Stone and there were other people standing in line at the record store to buy his stuff, but music critics and other fans didn't know what I knew.

His songs gave form and recognition to feelings and thoughts I'd been having, things I didn't have the experience or vocabulary for-- yet. It made me feel part of the human condition called adulthood that I was only just beginning to understand, and wasn't quite ready or sure I wanted to enter. I was tethered to my turntable by bulky headphones behind a closed bedroom door. It was a secure vantage point, not just to love the music, but absorb the stories Springsteen spun about life.

It has been said over and over again that the appeal of Springsteen's songs is their narratives, universal themes of the working-class everyman and everywoman. For all I know academic papers have been written about that very topic.* But I want to write about the universal made particular, made singular, made Laura Beth, made her want to be the barefoot girl on the hood of a Dodge drinking beer in the soft summer rain.** I want, and am trying to write, a love letter to the maddening, skinny, dark-eyed, wild-hearted, day-dreaming woman-child I was at seventeen. I owe one to her, the one who thought of herself as the girl in those songs.

In the summer of 1984, Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band released Born in the USA. It was a post-Vietnam era rock assessment of the most difficult relationship any American will ever have, the one with the place you were born-- the ideals you want to keep, finally recognizing the wrongs you need to walk away from. Did the sixteen-going-on-seventeen girl listening to the radio in that Chevy Impala she now drove, consciously and deliberately recognize these metaphors between country and home, citizenship and family?

Oh, hell no.

That didn't come until much later. But the people in Springsteen's songs were people I recognized. They were never promised perfection, and they certainly couldn't buy it. They were all too aware of what they didn't have. But they were willing to work. They were willing to prove it all night.** They were willing to give what they had. I wanted that in myself. I wanted it in other people. If I saw myself as the girl in those songs, I wanted no less than the boy in those songs too.

As it so often happens at exactly that point in a young woman's life, a Boy in the Song appeared. He came along as part of a small circle of friends who delivered one of the first of many best gifts from the universe-- a feeling that I belonged somewhere. His eyes were intensely blue when he looked at me, and he spent a lot of time coaxing words and emotions out of my quietude. They all made it feel good to laugh. On November 16, 1984, this new group of friends went to see Bruce Springsteen live and afterward, the Boy in the Song kissed me lightly on the cheek, outside the concert stadium in the frosty night.

It is hard to put words to the revelation, for these people and that Boy to arrive in my life at exactly that time. They seemed to hold a different map, one I never got, and they showed it to me and pointed "you are here." I was able to put a pin down somewhere, anywhere, and with people who were just like me. Now I knew, for the first time, that it was possible to belong somewhere other than to the place you were born. It wasn't just an important thing. It was everything.

In the profound joy and relief of that moment, compounded by inexperience and teenage hormones, it was too easy to overlook the fact that the reason they found me, the reason they were so happy to see me, is that they were lost too. And as much as I wanted and needed them to be my rescue party, we were all just lost together.

But at least we had each other, and all the moments we could steal from reality. We had old sofas in dark basements, and hands held under tables in the high school lunchroom, and phone calls late at night when no one could yell at us to "get off the phone!" Just like the friends in the song, we made our commitments to love and friendship like they were weapons against all we'd ever known. We made a promise we swore we'd always remember-- no retreat, baby, no surrender.**

But the Boy and the friends and I, we failed each other. Not just in the typical teenage ways that everyone experiences growing up, but also in ways that were very specific to our particular brand of damage. Our parents had done their best with what they had, but across all our families poverty, divorce, addiction, alcoholism, mental illness, Vietnam-- all those things cut a wide swath through our upbringing, whether our parents could help it or not. And mostly, they couldn't. Neither could we.

I expected a lot of that scared, wild, rapturously angry and romantic young man, and that scruffy, rebellious tribe of friends. They expected a lot out of me. But we were still lost, some of us getting more so, and life was about to launch us out into the world.

By the time I left high school, the music industry had rolled into cassettes and quickly on into CDs-- my life and even my music went on to other formats whether I wanted them to or not. Bruce recorded albums without the E Street Band. Those songs sounded like bumping into an old friend with a new life that didn't include me. I knew what that felt like. It hurt. It made me think that all the things I believed in, including the Girl in the Song, were at least wrong, and possibly worse, didn't even really exist.

So I stopped listening. I dumped Springsteen for R.E.M., the Offspring, U2, anything and everything but the songs that had led me to pain in the past. It was comfortable to like music without being emotionally invested in it. I went to college and kept writing but for the sake of a journalism degree rather than for myself, another comfortable choice. I also ended up marrying a nice boy who was not in any song whatsoever, just to be on the safe, comfortable side. During those years, I couldn't bother to stay informed of Mr. Springsteen's latest musical endeavors. When his concert tours were in town, I was invariably vastly pregnant, nursing, or in some other way tied to a domestic life I couldn't have escaped if I'd wanted to. I didn't want to.

But another strong theme that weaves its way through Springsteen's music is the idea that, however much running or leaving or walking away you do, your truths are going to be there, waiting for you in dark bedrooms, on lonely highways, and through the hard lessons life serves up. You can't escape yourself. I certainly didn't.

That was the reason I spent the last decade struggling to become, if not found, at least un-lost, locatable on a map I had drawn myself, in a landscape that felt like the best kind of home. It was an act of survival, and like a lot of acts of survival it involved desperation, poor choices, fear, exhaustion, and loss. Eventually it also began to involve things like independence, home ownership, self-regard, and if I am being completely honest, some more exhaustion and loss. Because this shit is hard.

It also came to involve Tom. One night this summer, I came home to find him, asleep in his armchair, deeply tired out from his day's work. On the television, Springsteen on Broadway played to this lightly snoring audience of one. Tom had been re-watching it without me. It would be a good story, a perfect story, if Tom loved Bruce Springsteen as much as I do. Somewhere in the struggle to find my place in the world, in a way almost as complicated as the struggle itself, Springsteen's music came back to me. But Tom isn't a passionate fan, and has a way of referring to him as "Phil Springsteen" just to tease and annoy me.

It occurred to me that night and more and more as time goes on, that the longer Tom is in my life, the more he seems to be in all the songs, in just the right way. If I need someone to wait for me or for a sunny day, to cover me or to be tougher than the rest, Tom seems, always, to be that.** On our wedding day in 2017, our program quoted Springsteen: "There's another dance. All you've got to do is say yes." So, we did.

As I write this, it's been 35 years to the day of that night in 1984, when Bruce took the stage in my hometown.** The girl who saw herself in those songs wasn't wrong about herself, or what she wanted. She knows that now, and still has the music to prove it.

*The minute I typed that sentence, it got me on the academic journal search engines, and I found THIS. I will most likely read it, because I am that kind of fan. And geek.

**All the references made to Bruce Springsteen's words and music are not in any way intended to be an infringement of any copyright belonging to him, the E Street Band, or to their publisher. His work is entirely his own. Moreover, the writer owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. Springsteen. Thanks for helping me with the growin' up.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Buttery White Bread

After a great deal of difficulty with my skin last winter, during which I desperately hoped I could peel like a snake and grow a new, healthy, and non-itchy layer, I learned that I had developed some allergies. Through a process of eliminating from my diet, in turn, gluten (not fun, but not impossible), dairy (I'm so sorry for the things I said when I was cheese-less), and quite a laundry list of other things (I'm so tired of reading labels), I finally sussed out two valuable pieces of hard-won information.

1. My skin is allergic to a particular kind of preservative found in a lot of liquid soaps, laundry detergents and shampoos. If interested, here's a website that discusses the issue and alternatives, though this is a tangent that doesn't get us any closer to the recipe, or the food. And I am all about the food.

2. During my gluten-free phase, my skin problems continued. So I added wheat back into my diet. Skin and immune system, ticked off again, flared more intensely. Next I eliminated yeast from my diet. My skin improved, and I was bereft. Because yeast is the reason for so many of the foods-- wine, beer, cheese, bread-- that I love, this depressed me more than I even care to admit. Then, after I got my skin to a relatively stable point, I decided I'd rather be miserable and itchy for awhile than eternally pizza-less, and I made a pizza with my own home-made dough.

I didn't have a reaction. Nor did I any other time that I ate home-baked goods. Or cheese or wine or beer.


I went back to my internet research, and considered what was left. While I don't know for sure and there can be many overlapping factors in allergic reactions, I concluded I'm most likely allergic to some common preservatives or shelf-stabilizers in commercially baked breads and similar products. There are so many of these types of ingredients, often listed together in a single product. I decided it wasn't worth trying to narrow it down further. I've just started avoiding store-bought bread and baked goods. Things are going much better-- my skin doesn't look like raw hamburger.

I've always done a lot of home baking because I enjoy it.  Now I'm doing it because I am trying to avoid those preservatives. Do not think, however, that I now have become some baking-all-the-time type person. I'm not that crazy. I work full time, and I have other things that need doing, as well. Like laundry and blogging.

Despite the relief that my allergies don't appear to be gluten- or wheat-related, it's better for me if I don't have wheat and white flour things all the time, anyway. As I get older I'm trying to stick more and more with meat and veg. If bread is something I have to bake in order to have it at all, it means that I eat it less often, and it's a bit of an event. Something to savor and celebrate. If it doesn't cause an allergic reaction, so much the better.

One of the recipes I make a lot is this one for buttery white bread. The recipe developed gradually over the years from a multitude of other white bread recipes that were not quite completely right, so I kept experimenting. I fiddled with more and less sugar, more and less butter, eggs and no eggs, until I came to this buttery loaf. This one is simple, not too sweet, and has enough fat in it that it doesn't go instantaneously crumbly and stale overnight. It is divine as buttered toast, with jam or honey. It is also a good sandwich bread. Since September is here and the weather has cooled down enough to have the oven on, I thought I'd share it with you.

Buttery White Bread
  • 2 cups milk (2% or whole milk. Don't use skim milk, because you want it to taste good!)
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup, or 8 tablespoons) of salted butter (Don't use alternative fats. It will give your bread the sads.)
  • 1 Tablespoon or 2 packages active dry yeast (Don't use quick-rise for this recipe)
  • 3 T white sugar 
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt (if using salted butter) or 1 tsp kosher salt (if using unsalted butter)
  • 6- 6 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (I use King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour, but I've also used grocery-store brand unbleached all-purpose when on a budget, so that is fine too.)
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 375° F. Pour the two cups milk into a large mixing bowl. Chunk up the stick of butter and put it in the milk. Microwave the milk for 20 seconds, and then check the temperature with your finger or thermometer. Microwave in 20 second increments until you get the milk feeling nicely warm but not at all hot to your fingertips, with the butter chunks beginning to get melty and soft, but not completely liquid. Depending on your microwave, it takes about a a minute, maybe a little more. If you've got a cooking thermometer, you can check that you're in the 105-110° F range, but it's okay to just do it by feel. It should look like this: 

Step 2: Add the yeast and sugar. Stir once or twice to blend, and then let it set for about 10-15 minutes. It will get foamy, but still have chunks of butter in it, and look like this: 

Step 3: Measure flour by scooping it into the measuring cup and leveling off. Measure four cups of flour into the bowl. Add the salt. Using a sturdy spoon, mix the flour into the liquid until the dough is a rough, sticky batter that mostly clings together, though you may have a few clumps or bits that are not fully incorporated. At this point you may still see some lumps of butter, but they are beginning to incorporate into the dough.

Step 4: Sprinkle a clean countertop with flour. Stir the 5th cup of flour into the bowl, but don't worry if it's an even rougher mass of clumps. This is where it all starts to come together. With clean hands, dump the dough out onto the floured countertop, and knead it by folding the dough in half toward you, and pushing it away from you against the countertop with the heels of your hands. It's messy, but will start coming together as you work it. Flour your countertop lightly if it starts sticking, and sprinkle the dough with flour lightly while you knead, but don't use more than the upper limit called for in the recipe. In cold, dry weather, you'll use less flour. In hot humid weather you'll use more. Keep kneading, for about 8 to 10 minutes. By the time you're done the dough will have completely absorbed the butter, become smooth and elastic, and will form a ball like this:

While many recipes call for putting the dough in an oiled bowl, I admit I'm too lazy to be bothered with this nicety. I scoop the dough back into the bowl I mixed it in, cover it with a clean dishtowel, and set it aside. Let it rise until double in size. This takes anywhere from about an hour and a half (in warm weather) to up to three hours if your kitchen is pretty cold in the winter). Go somewhere else and have a cup of something hot. Fold some laundry. Answer some email. The time will go faster than you think.

When it has doubled in size, dump the dough back out on the counter and knead a few times to get excess air bubbles out and get it feeling smooth and elastic again. Divide in half. Shape into two loaves, and place in two oiled 9X5 inch bread pans. Cover with the dish towel, and let rise until the dome of the loaf is just barely an inch above the rim of the pan. This time, keep a closer watch, as it should take as little as twenty minutes for this step, and if the dough rises too much now it won't rise as much in the oven.

Bake at 375° F for 30-35 minutes, until the loaf is well browned, not just on the top, but down the sides that are in the pan. A good way to tell if it is done is to gently shake the loaf pan. If it's nicely brown down the sides and on the bottom, it will shake loose from the pan without much trouble. If it seems tightly stuck in the pan, it probably needs another five to ten minutes to bake off a bit more moisture and to brown up the crust. Remove from the oven, and turn the loaves out onto a rack to cool. Don't leave them in the pans; this steams up the crust and makes it soggy.

Store tightly wrapped, and remember that since this is fresh bread without any preservatives, it will go stale in about 3-5 days, even faster if the weather is warm and humid. In warm weather I store mine in the refrigerator to prevent spoilage. It will freeze unsliced for about a month.

Happy toasting!

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Acts of Rebellion

I grew up believing that acts of rebellion were large and spectacular and often involved young, extremely idealistic people who smelled like patchouli, belonged to "movements" and crowded public streets to chant and wave signs. I also knew that it often involved violence and destruction. The 1960s were just beginning to hit the history books when I was in high school, and those pages showed things like the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức in Vietnam and U.S. cities that convulsed with rage during the "long hot summer of '67."

That, paired with my upbringing, which insisted that I be polite, quiet, cooperative, responsible, and well-behaved, meant that rebellion didn't fit my or anybody else's idea of who I was then.

Now at 51, I'm a whole lot less enchanted with cooperative and well-behaved, but I'm still mostly quiet. Patchouli is one of the worst smells in the world to me, and it's really not in my character to march about with signs and shout about injustice. To be clear, I'm not criticizing those things in other people (well, except for the patchouli. I'm going to criticize that no matter what.)

It's just that my introversion and quiet make me a bad bet for those loud, crowded, and strident demonstrations of resistance. On the other hand, doing nothing is not an option for me in these turbulent, frightening times. Pretending everything is okay is a luxury increasingly fewer people have. Pretending everything is okay is exhausting to an even half-aware soul. Pretending that everything is okay is giving away my own power in situations where what I really want is change.

I decided that my definition of rebellion needed some reframing.

Which is why the photo accompanying this blog post is of my kitchen compost bin. It's an old lidded enamel container that sits to the right of my kitchen sink, and it's where I throw all our plant- and paper-based refuse.

It was a new practice as of this year, to reduce the amount of food waste going to the landfill, to provide fertilizer for our small backyard vegetable garden, and to create a small but self-supporting environmental circle between our table and the soil.

So was buying cotton mesh produce bags for carrying home fresh produce from the grocery (we already use cloth grocery bags), and my switching to solid bar shampoo instead of using bottled, to reduce the amount of plastic our household consumes.

So was turning over a little extra territory in our yard this year, expanding what is already a Monarch Way Station, to continue providing habitat for pollinators-- not just monarchs but other butterflies, moths, bees, and wasps that are so vital to the production of the foods we eat.

So was continuing our experiment in vegetable growing this year, trying out carrots, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, and asparagus for the first time.

In the context of these times, I believe them to be acts of rebellion. Not the sign-waving, marching-down-the-street kind, but the kind that reflects upon one's own behavior, and quietly resolves to do things differently. Differently enough that it subverts the status quo.

Composting is a rebellion against waste.

Reducing my plastic use, even a little bit, is a rebellion against the kind of consumerism that encourages convenience at the expense of the environment.

Planting vegetables and eating what I grow is a rebellion against corporate agriculture, and returns control over the quality and kind of foods I eat to me.

Planting flowers instead of lawn is a rebellion against wide-spread use of the insecticides and herbicides that harm our ecosystems.

Is it perfect? Oh hell no. My zucchini crop failed spectacularly this summer, I still need to grocery shop, I can't avoid all plastic, and I'm not a big enough hippie to go into subsistence farming or veganism (or wear that danged patchouli). Is it enough? Also no. No one person is enough. Is it better than nothing? I think it is, especially if my acts of environmental rebellion, however quiet and small, are being repeated by others across my city, state, nation, and world. That's how the needle moves.

I'm not likely to rebel by protesting. I'm glad other people are out there who do a fantastic, loud, noticeable, sign-waving, yelling, First Amendment with a capital F and a capital A push-back to those who are doing harm. We need that volume right now, for the environment and a long list of other enormous concerns.

The rest of us need to bring our gifts, whatever they are, to an increasingly difficult situation. My gift is growing things, and I can use it to address the threats our environment is facing. For that, I consider myself a rebel.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Stranger that Dwells Among You

Every time I see photos or read the news about the separation, imprisonment, abuse, and death of children at the U.S./Mexico border, these are the words that come to me. While I was raised Lutheran at a time when that meant having a good bit of the scripture, both Old Testament and New Testament, pounded into my head through memorization, repetition, and (yes, I'll just say it) fear, no one would consider me exactly a practicing Christian these days. You'd think I'd find other ways to express my moral outrage.

And yet these are the words that are given to me. My brain won't let go of them. They are unbidden by my conscious, more agnostic mind, but I don't think they are appearing out of rote memory or deeply buried piety, either. I think it's way beyond that.

It's deep in the human evolutionary bones, isn't it? The idea that the stranger, the foreigner, the person from beyond, the other, is so unlike us that it is bound up in our DNA to perceive them a potential threat. And the fear that arises from that gets us progressively more comfortable with anything ranging from avoidance to racism to cruelty to outright murder and genocide.

Almost as ancient, though, is the exhortation to be better than our biological wiring. The most ancient of religions on this planet contain some version of the Golden Rule. Somewhere early in the existence of humans, empathy also dawned, and realized that all of us, some how, some way, could be "strangers" in a foreign land, whether that foreign land was the next neighborhood over, or a continent half a world away-- lost, vulnerable, in flight, away from the only place they've ever known as home.

It may seem as though I'm oversimplifying a very complex issue. So I am. Because all I know is that when the human race has been able to live by its better nature--to take care of the stranger as one born among us--all of the beautiful, worthy and just things in history, known and unknown, have happened. Because I am done arguing this through a political lens, a policy lens, an economic lens, or any other lens that puts something between our eyes and the essential fact of what is happening right now.

Once you have decided to forcibly separate children from their parents, put them in cages, and neglect to feed, clothe, and attend to their hygiene and health, I don't care what you think about the politics surrounding that fact.

I don't care what your  political affiliations are. I don't care what your stance on immigration is, whether you want more or less. I don't care if they came here legally or illegally, by definition of current U.S. law, your opinion, or some other standard recently invented by anyone. I don't care if  they "shouldn't have come."

It is wrong.

The American Civil Liberties Union

Kids in Need of Defense (KIND)

The Texas Civil Rights Project

The Florence Project