Friday, 16 December 2016

Excuse Me. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.

I never noticed it before, how often women apologise, but I suspect it’s always been like that. 

Look at me, for example.  Here I am with a real live diagnosis, for which there’s an actual NHS clinic they let me attend only because I was probed and prodded & bled to prove I’m medically in need.  Nevertheless, a diagnosis I never name here because I secretly believe I’m malingering. 

I’m sorry.  I have a tall, long-eared imaginary illness named Harvey. 

Graffiti in Canterbury
Maybe this general propensity to apologise is more obvious to me because since the election, more women have stopped sitting with ankles demurely crossed, waiting for Rhett to give us equal pay.  They’ve begun to unapologetically ACT,  & when they do, they tell their stories – the dramatic plot arcs that rise & fall on the commute home.  The times they themselves were Boudica, or the times they froze in the face of unfairness.  The small day-to-day heroes & villains that are only known because women tell other women about them.  Wonderful stories that Harvey & I never getting tired of reading, ever scrolling for more. 

Yet when some women talk about themselves, whether they’ve physically protected another person, or bought some bigot his lunch, some women preface what they say with an apology.  They’re sorry for speaking out, sorry they aren’t deprived enough.  Aren’t non-white enough.  Aren’t glass-ceiling-ed enough.  Aren’t verbally abused enough.  Terrified enough.  Isolated enough.  Sexually assaulted enough. 

They often say they didn’t do enough.  Like we’re not ever supposed to be tired.  Never supposed to get ground down.  Never supposed to be too afraid or too inexperienced or too out of our depth to know what to do. 

Women are supposed to fix everything.  A helluva price to pay for not having a penis.

When my son El Punko first transitioned a dozen or so years ago, he said that he didn't want trans-advocacy eating up his life.  He felt guilty about that, especially because as an FtM, he’s a minority inside a minority.  But he simply wanted to transition & get on with being.

I remember we were walking down a side street in Galway when he said this.  I remember the smell of wet pavement.  I remember how anguished he seemed. 

El Punko
I told him a story about my mother who raised 7 kids while working outside the home, running a 200 acre farm, being active in her church & community.  One Sunday after the animals were fed & the kids dressed, she threw on some clothes herself & took us to church where she directed the choir.  After the service, women thanked her for being the first one to wear a pantsuit to church.

My mother hadn’t thought about what she wore that day.  She’d been too busy trying to get through her morning.  And that’s what I told my son to do.  Be the best advocate he could by living the best life he could.

All these long years later, El Punko lives his life.  He’s never been a professional advocate, but he’s supported his share of transfolk along the way.  Several months ago, a straight white man spoke up in defence of transgender people, & claims he did so because he knew my son.

You might be tempted to think I practice what I preached.  But it’s Harvey who's taught me what El Punko knew way back then.  Every moment you spend doing something, is a moment you can’t spend doing something else.  But it’s not weighted equally, moment by moment.  Something you do now may take so much from you, that you don’t have anything left to give to later.  You have to choose.

So if ‘all’ you can do is raise your chillen to be decent human beings or sweep the floor without killing the bigot ranting hate in your work place, if all you can do is talk to a woman being harassed on a train or smile at someone who calls you a bad name or stop a LGBTQ+ kid from killing themselves or invite a refugee family to dinner, if the only thing you can do is sign a petition or give another person hope, then that’s your part of the story. 

Motto of St Francis of Assisi

Each little part done by each separate person, eventually gets the whole job finished.  Someday, someone’s going to do something good because you did what you were able to do.  

No one should apologise for that.  Not even you.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Sleeping On It

Today I’m writing about lentils & disappointment. Both get stronger if you let them sit a while, but maybe not in the way you expect. 

From Mary Berry’s Foolproof Cooking.
A couple of days ago, my younger Sis & I got tagged by a Rogue Sibling into a group email sent by another sib I’ll call Bro.  

Bro’s an old hat at excluding us.  I don’t know why he does this to Sis, but he’s ghosted me since a minor disagreement we had about 8 or 10 years ago. 

I could see in Rogue Sib’s reply that Bro’s original email was about a phone call he’d had with our mother’s nursing home.  It shocked me that Bro’s grudge now eclipsed my access to our mother’s health issues.  I needed to think about my reaction to all this, so decided to try a new recipe full of stuff I love – red lentils with chilli & ginger. 

Heating the oil for the strong stuff.
I get all my ingredients together, convinced this’ll be great.  As always, I added more of the strong stuff to the recipe – a couple of chillis, 4 or so garlic cloves & about 3 inches of ginger.  Chopping & grating & flinging into the pan, should I or shouldn’t I confront Bro for throwing his weight around?

After heating all those colourful things for a few minutes in a little itty bit of oil, I tossed in a tablespoon of cumin & cooked those numscious things a bit longer.  With 500g of red lentils, that was all the official dry ingredients, but in deference to my Hag Improv tradition, I threw in some spring onions that looked a bit lonely sitting in the crisper. 

Once all these bad boys got coated in oil, next came ladling in 2 pints of veg stock.  I’d seen Mary Berry do this on one of her cooking shows, maybe even the Foolproof Cooking series itself.  She found it soothing, this slow ritualistic ladling of stock, spoonful by spoonful.  It did nothing for my mental state.  Maybe when you’re thinking about a Bro like mine, there isn’t anything short of drink or drugs that’ll calm you. 

 I didn’t time it, but Mary Berry says this ladling craic takes around 20 minutes, during which the lentils get nice & tender.  And that’s it, Fort Pitt.  Can’t get a recipe simpler than that, can you?

A mint garnish.
Talk about disappointment.  I’d never tasted anything so bland in my life.  All that ginger, all that garlic, all those chillis to no avail.  Bummer.  I stuck the rest into the fridge, resigned to using it as bulk in soup.

On top of that, I hadn’t decided how to react to Bro’s email.  To be honest, it’s not like I killed his dog all those long years ago.  I’d apologised back then.  He got abusive.  I walked away.  Electronically, at least.  The entire exchange had occurred from separate continents via email.

Nobody called Bro on shunning me.  Not back then, not now when he hoarded info about my mother.  Nothing more than a Rogue Sib quietly tagging me into group emails.  That disappointed me, but it didn’t surprise me.  

Bro has a lot of power in our family.  I have none.  I used to comment on the various power imbalances in our family, but was told the act of pointing it out showed what a hostile shit I was.  Which is obviously why the family couldn’t give me any power.  Now there’s a mind fuck if I ever had one.

But this present situation wasn’t about who did dishes & who watched the game after Thanksgiving dinner.  I decided to sleep on it.

Next day, I got the lentils out, but before slapping them into the soup bowl, I gave them a taste.  Oh my good golly, the ginger & garlic & chillis . . . I cannot even begin to tell you how wonderful those lentils were after stewing in their own juices.  I chowed down, contemplating the wondrous way disappointment changes if it’s let to sit overnight.  

Therapeutic ladling.
Nothing like a full belly to make me think I could take on Bro gently enough to not bruise his gossamer ego.  Flip open the computer, there’s 8 email exchanges between Sis & Bro.  The sheer volume made me glad I slept on it.  Yup, I’m 60 goddam years old & yet I thought those emails were going to be about vital mama-related information. 

Well, they started out that way.  Sis is the only sib who lives in our mother’s community.  She went to the nursing home to flesh out what the staff’d told Bro over the phone.  In her first email, she included some funny little stories about our mother’s carers who are doing a bang up job but have a couple of idiosyncrasies between them.  Sis made the mistake of saying she was on the list of people who had access to info about our mother’s care.

Bro writes back that there’s no ‘list’.  He & no one else has legal power of whatever, so he’ll make any decision he thinks best, based on what the doctors say after he forwards Sis’s email to them. 

Homegrown mint.
With the dignity that only sisters who have no power ever have to muster, Sis asks him not to embarrass her by sharing her emails with the very people she’s making fun of – she’ll see them when visiting our mother, when she goes to church or the grocery store.  She asks that she be included in discussions about our mother’s care.

Bro says he’s already forwarded her email, & in terms of including people in future, he shares info about our mother with people who pay for her care.

That confused me.  When had paying for our mother’s care been discussed?  Then it sinks in.  Bro has legal power of whatever, which probably means he gets the bills, which perhaps means that if he doesn’t share that information with us, he can be angry that Sis & I don’t participate. 

It was also the last in a long line of slaps to the face about our earning power.  Both Sis & I took on student loans while our parents paid for everyone else’s tertiary education, including Bro’s tuition at one of the New Ivies.  Our adult lives started thousands of dollars in debt to schools we could afford, not ones run by Jesuits.  Little remarks at family gatherings about how much food we could afford to bring, how much money we owed our sibs for what we subsequently ate.  We shared the same DNA, but it was never meant to be a level playing field here.  Sis & I had been set up for this moment decades ago.

Lonely spring onion.
Something inside me shifted in a direction I really didn’t want to take.  A direction that alarmed me.  I decided to let the time difference move us through a second night, just in case anyone wanted to support Sis & me while I slept.    

And no one did.  Nobody.  Not one person said Bro, it ain’t cool to exclude your sisters because of money.  Not a one.

I’m Appalachian.  Family is huge for me.  But no getting around it, the deal had always been that in order for me to have a family, in order to be part of what I’d been taught was sacrosanct, I had to allow myself to be treated less than.  I’d done that for 60 years as my duty.  To breathe the same air as people whose mores had me gritting my teeth every time we met.

These flavours are mine.
Whatever it was that tied me to them, the thing that said you have my mother’s hair & I have your father’s mouth, I am yours and you are mine – it fell away like there’d never been anything between us.  I could no longer cast my figurative lentils & chillis & ginger before blood strangers.

And that, my dear, is what disappointment tastes like when you let it sit overnight.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Don’t Let The Laksa Stop Your Gob

Warming the bowls.
I’m cooking chicken noodle laksa this week, & thinking about people who tell other people to shut up.

In these post-election weeks, I hear rational voices advise liberals, men & women alike, to not get over it.  To not be so politically correct, to stop politely looking away, stop being tolerant of people with bigoted opinions, stop giving dangerous people a chance to be better.  Instead, call them out for what they’re doing when it’s wrong.  I hear liberals, men & women alike, admit they have to consciously make eye contact, make themselves speak up, confront, complain about the outrageous, as if that’s outrageous in itself. 

I look for myself on that spectrum, think about all those male voices that’ve told me to tone it down, get back in the femininity box, & I wonder how much of that was about them not wanting to hear something true, rather than about me being a jerk. 

Because, you know, I got myself a veritable talent at being a jerk.  Or as I’d rather call it, being an enfant terrible (French for jerk).  Did I ever mention El Punko’s poor 7th grade teacher . . . I probably scarred that girl for life.

She was one of those ‘90s fresh face, big hair, all American middle school teacher types who, despite living in rural West Virginia, didn’t know there was any side but the bright side.  Imagine the assault to my misanthropy when at our first (& only) parent-teacher conference, she went all Judy-Garland-Mickey-Rooney-let’s-put-on-a-show because she saw a physical resemblance between El Punko & myself. 

I kept it together for about four choruses of, ‘I can’t get over how much you two look alike.’  Then my mouth simply opened & said, ‘Really?  Because he’s adopted.’ 

See the non-flinching resemblance?
El Punko's father threw me under the figurative school bus for lying.  El Punko himself politely asked that I never attend another parent-teacher conference. 

Twenty years later, El Punko doesn’t flinch at the type of person his mother is.  Well, there was the time I asked the guy on a Dublin bus how much fucking room he needed, but usually my son takes me with a grain of salt.  I sometimes wish his message of self-acceptance had come earlier for me.   Mostly I wish I had a better filter between my brain & my mouth.  At 60, I’m only slightly better.  I don’t swear as fucking much.

When we decided he’d host Thanksgiving this year & invite a few of his friends whom I hadn’t met, it sat in the back of my mind, that little demon of insecurity who asked me => how are you going to not be an asshole?

One of El Punko's friends agog
at our Thanksgiving bounty.

Neither said demon nor myself came up with an Asshole Prevention Plan, so I focused on sharing the fruits of my new cooking lark with El Punko.  No better place to start than chicken noodle laksa.  

As it turned out, I learned something more than cooking from that soup.

I can’t find a link to the recipe I used, but it came from Mary Berry’s Foolproof Cooking & was developed by one of her staff, Lucinda McCord.  Here I say – Lucinda, you’re my Soup God.  Fantastic recipe, but being me, I had my wicked way with it.

Spicy paste fixin's.
You'd think that since Siobhán now includes my ingredients in her weekly shop, I’d be done with Hag Improv, but no.  There were a gaggle of shrivelled up limes in the crisper at the time, so I didn’t order more.

A thinking person might consider whether shrivelled up limes have as much juice as fresh limes.  Me, well I didn’t think about that until I got to the squeezing part.  My first Hag Improv was to juice six* wrinkly ole limes for the spicy paste, after which I promptly forgot myself & doubled both the chillis & the ginger, then threw in an extra garlic clove or two.  Just to be on the safe side, you know.

The recipe suggests a mortar & pestle to mix this bad stuff,
but I used the chopper thing.

The paste also includes peanut butter & muscovado sugar, in case you’re wondering what else is in it.  Too yum!

Hag Improvs out of the way, there came one of those, well-shit moments.  Someone who knew what they were doing would’ve taken the chicken breasts out of the freezer ahead of time.  However, after making that kickass spicy paste & smelling that kickass spicy paste & yes, tasting some of that kickass spicy paste, no rock solid chicken breasts were going to stand between me & my laksa.  

Problem solved.

Hmm . . . so, I got me a big-ass ole knife & what do you know?  It cut through that frozen bad boy like it was butter on a summer day.

There's also the upside of not having to grab squishily old dead chicken flesh.  

Defrosting the chick chick.

I put the bowl of sliced chicken on the plate warmer & they defrosted themselves nicely.

Browning the pasted chicken.

The chicken got pasted & browned, after which the spring onions got themselves fried a little, so then it’s time to put in all the liquid stuff.  

I opened the first tin of coconut milk, saw this thick white gunk inside, turned the can over & gave it a hefty thwack into the wok.  If, like me, you don’t know anything about coconut milk, then you might not’ve expected this result:

Spilt coconut milk.

Fortunately, Siobhán threw herself between me & the 2nd tin of coconut milk.  

Adding the 2nd tin
of coconut milk.

In addition to more lime juice & Thai fish sauce, you use one lemon grass stalk.  Mary Berry suggests that you beat the feck out of it before putting the lemon grass in, so that’s what I did.  

Medium rice noodles.

The recipe uses medium rice noodles, but this soup is so delicate in flavour that after my first batch, I switched to fine noodles.  I hear there’s even extra fine rice noodles out there somewhere, so if I ever find those, I’ll try them next.

Lastly, my brain says coriander tastes like soap.  Since in this instance, coriander’s only used as a garnish, I skipped that part & didn’t look for a substitute.

Chicken noodle laksa.

Isn’t this fantastic looking?  
I made that.  I did.  

Despite how well my Hag Improvs turned out, when I cooked the laksa for El Punko’s pre-Thanksgiving lunch, I obediently followed the recipe, used fewer limes, chillis & garlic, grated less ginger, & didn’t even freeze the chicken.  El Punko thought the flavour was good, but not strong enough.  

I’d toned things down so he’d like it, & he didn’t.

Now there’s a life metaphor . . . here’s me, who sometimes (a lot of times) says things that I shouldn’t.  As a result, people’ve told me to tone it done, to shut up.  A lot.  Enough that my little black heart believes my voice is something too caustic to take out of the box.  And even though I haven’t shut up, the idea that I should is the single belief by which I define myself.  I measure myself against a standard I can never in my wildest dream hope to meet.

And I shouldn’t measure myself in only that way.  As a card-carrying introvert, I’ve never really mastered the art of social finesse, that's true.  But I’m kind & generous, occasionally tolerant, funny (at least in my mind), a great problem solver & a kickass good listener.  I love my dogs & brush my cats.  My garden is my biggest vice, I recycle like a crazy thang, & there are actually 3 digits in my I.Q.  Oh, & if I’ve known you for more’n 30 seconds, there’s a good chance I’ll knit something ugly for you.  So why shouldn’t I speak?  Why shouldn’t you listen?

Besides all that, if those yappity rational voices are right, speaking out is a trait a lot of Americans are going to need over the next 4 years.

Anyway, the day after Thanksgiving, El Punko & I wake up to a kitchen full of turkey & brownies, cinnamon swirls, apple crumble, the world’s best cornbread, stuffing, ice cream, candied carrots, cranberry bread.  He looks around at all this food, then says to me, ‘I’m hungry for your soup.’

El Punko at work.

You gotta love that guy.

*After making this recipe several times, I’ve learned that 3-4 limes work fine, depending on size & freshness.