Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Mad Men-- On Power

People watching Sunday's episode of Mad Men on AMC, season 3, episode 7, called "Seven Twenty-Three" might have thought that they had now officially gone over to watching a soap opera. Flirting with handsome men and school teachers, rendezvous, and Peggy waking up with a man in a hotel room...were we really just headed into another show that quickly devolves into everyone sleeping with everyone?

That's not what I saw, however. Steve and I usually try to identify a theme for the episode as it unfolds, and lately we've been grasping, and not really hitting on anything very concrete. But I think Sunday's episode was a brilliant illustration of how power works, and namely, of the theory that one gains power by withholding and loses it or gives it away by divulging information.

All the major characters in the episode had a certain amount of power banked. They could use this power for money or sex or advancement of some other aim. The game, as it was, revolved around a principle Don Draper sums up early on, when Conrad Hilton wants Don signed to a contract before he'll work with the firm. "He wants what he can't/doesn't have." Getting what you want is power, no? The business relationship is also firmly identified with sex: Conrad Hilton tells Don he has "a wandering eye" and wants his needs satisfied-- meaning he's willing to ditch his current agency for Don.

So how did the characters fare?

Betty has power over the city employee, Henry Francis, sexual power that she wants to use to get him to advocate on behalf of saving the reservoir. Henry Francis wants what he can't have-- Betty, and he has a lot of power. Betty maintains her bank by giving him a little but not enough-- no walk to the car, no kiss. He also gains power by withholding, canceling the walk up to the reservoir, leaving open the possibility of a second meeting.

Betty seems to have no power over Don. She confronts him about not signing the contract, and he simply walks out, not to appear again until, when? Sunday night? It seems he doesn't come home until Monday night, after he's signed the contract, though he throws this at her almost as an accusation ("are you happy now?") even though she had seemingly nothing to do with his decision-making.

Peggy has negotiating power with Duck over a new position at his firm. He is "wooing" her with a scarf. She is loyal until Don scolds her for no apparent reason (pure sexism) when she approaches him about the Hilton deal (men can be this aggressive in business, but not women). She goes to Duck's hotel room, ostensibly to return the scarf, but then submits to his sexual advances, thus losing ALL her power and really any chance of legitimately taking the job at Duck's firm. Oh, Peggy. Oh, oh, Peggy. I love her-- she doesn't understand power. But also, Peggy wants to be wanted: "What is it that you want from me?" she asks, and he responds with a lewd proposition.

In the relationship between Don and the teacher, Miss Farrell, she also has a fair amount of power. It seems to me she made an advance toward him when she made the phone call home-- and when she told of losing a parent when she was young, she compromised her own power, which lies in part in mystery. She proves consistent here, when during small talk that she initiates, she accuses Don of coming on to her. She may be being honest, but she also is diffusing all sexual energy. He has given her nothing, and he retains all power. He has not shared with her or been "intimate" with her, although she has with him, if only in conversation. She cuts off the actual possibility of an affair, which is a good thing, as she is a teacher, but is again not good in terms of power brokering. And because Don is unscrupulous to the core of his being, and holds all the power, there is still a chance he'll eventually "get what he wants." If he decides to want it.

Finally, the most interesting exchange/brokering in this episode is over Don and the contract. Sterling and Cooper want him to sign. They insist that he sign. Eventually, when other tactics (reason, approaching Betty) don't work, Cooper goes to his office and asks: "Would you say I know something about you, Don?" "I would," says Don. "Then sign," says Cooper. What he knows is that Don has stolen his name and identity from a man who died in Korea. He has the information. He has the power. Don still negotiates, even as he's signing, in this case not to have to work with Roger Sterling. (For telling Betty? Or a final salvo in their never-ending male competition?) As he's signing, Cooper asks, "After all, when it comes down to it, who's really signing this contract anyway?" That question in its way acknowledges that Don still has manipulated the situation-- doesn't play by the rules. But maybe is also assuaging his hurt ego, saying that he still has a trump card/power if he chooses to use it. It's actually quite brilliant the way Cooper achieves this with a series of questions.

Of course, this is also complicated by the car trip to Niagara Falls, the reason I think he actually signs. Don at the point of picking up the hitchhikers really thinks he's invincible. He thinks he has ALL the power. And yet he is duped by these liars, these "innocent" kids. He's also, of course, undone by the vision of his father, the story at all costs he wants to keep secret-- seemingly the real threat to his power.

The deck is stacked in this show, as in the society it portrays. The men have the power, and the women have few tools for getting some of it for themselves. Everyone in this episode "wants what they don't have." If you don't have power, you seem to have two options: preserving mystery and living in the sexually charged atmosphere of withholding intimacy, or clubbing the guy who has what you want over the head.
I, unfortunately, have been Peggy, and I have been Miss. Farrell, too. And once, in a car after what had been a series of romantic dates and flirtations, I told a man something about myself and he said to me, "Why did you do that?" "What?" I asked. "Why did you just give up your power?" I had no idea what he meant. But he, rogue that he was, drove away from my house and into the nearby city where he slept with another woman, telling me later that I had imagined any romantic overtures on his part. I tried to figure out what he meant about giving away my power, and in some ways I did. It was a painful lesson. It didn't make me start being mysterious, or stop me from blurting out what I wanted and calling a romance a romance-- or divulging things about myself probably best left unsaid. But I did tend to my power as best I could, and watched how such things work in the lives-- and tales-- of others.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Last night Paul and Missy got married, with a wedding at the Church of St. Joseph and the reception at the college's new conference center. The rehearsal dinner was the night before under a tent on Kevin and Amy's patio, which had been the dance floor for our wedding reception a little over a year before. Paul has spent the year building a log cabin on some property "up north" that belongs to Kevin and Amy, and over the summer Kevin and Paul have spent many days doing some of the major finishing work, with Amy coming up most weekends and helping with the staining and painting. Missy has spent the year finishing up her physician's assistant degree, traveling back and forth to Philadelphia where she's getting the degree, and Minnesota where she's done most of her "residency" rotations.

Paul is among the oldest of the grandchildren, in the first batch that include Steve's three daughters and a little later, Tim and Annie's two daughters. Then there's a big gap before the two pre-teens and the large group of kids 8 and under, including three babies in the last three years.

On the farm, it feels like the end of one era and the beginning of the next. Paul was the most engaged child on the farm, and grew up digging holes and building forts. In high school, Steve said, he quit organized sports because, he told his mom, "Practice takes up so much time, I don't have time for my projects." Paul leaves behind a spotless and well-equiped shop, and here and there remnants of old forts and building projects, including the bare pad on which he built the foundation of the log cabin, before unstacking the logs and carting them up to the lake property.

It was a very nice wedding, rather low-key and lovely, simple and relaxed. It was a little surreal to sit in the pew as the wedding unfolded, when just 14 months ago I was the bride. Last year, I'd only been in that church a few times, but now I go every week and know where to sit and where not to sit so as to avoid sitting behind the pillars. The beauty of the Mass is that it is always more or less the same, and so I had this strange other-side view of my own wedding. Missy wore a traditional white dress, and Paul wore his grandfather's wedding suit, but there they were in the chairs where we'd sat, holding hands and enjoying the Mass which for me last year seemed to go very, very fast.

Afterwards there was the visiting at the reception, with people I've known one year longer, and children who recognize me as family now, and the usual ups and downs of DJs. We didn't stay until the end, and so missed both the "dollar dance" (not a great tradition) and also the whole group gathering on the dance floor in a circle and holding hands for a rather tongue-in-cheek singing of Kumbaya-- now that, I would have liked to see. But we did a little dancing, and a little drinking, and got Missy and Paul married.

It is autumn, and the cycles of life feel very close, rich, and eternal.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Harvesting Grass Seed

Today, after church and before we had to head off to work-- Steve finishing a seed job before it rains and me to a process with a consultant going on at the monastery-- we spent an hour in the plot of prairie grass on the north side of our house harvesting grass seed. Steve was much better at it-- faster and more focused-- and managed to get almost a bucketful of the fluffy Little Bluestem and Side Oats seed that made up most of the grasses there. I did OK, and it was very pleasurable, stripping the heavy strands of grass of their seed, which came off in your hand easily, sometimes trailing grass but mostly just giving itself into your fingers. I transferred mine into a bag slung over my head and shoulder. (photo top left: little bluestem)

The grass grows in lovely clumps, and Steve pointed out that a single seed would grow an entire clump, so not that much is needed to seed an area-- only 8 lbs an acre. I pointed out that the seed we had gathered, a bucket and a bag full, couldn't weigh more than a pound. In that way, it seemed to me like a lot of seed was necessary!

(photo left: a handful of fluffy little bluestem seed; side oat in background)

The seed is light and plentiful. It is wonderful to think we don't have to buy any, but from here can spread our prairie over the patches of land he's been burning and killing back with Round-Up all summer. And the seed that falls from the plants and our fingers as we pull it from the stalks also goes out, to fill in the prairie spaces.

(photo right: Steve harvests with both hands and bucket!)

September is a time of harvesting and of preparing. In a few weeks we'll begin the process of expanding the garden for next year, with its own steps of burning the weeds, then tilling, then raking, then covering with topsoil. I'm hoping we'll also have time and good weather long enough to build a fence around the plot, so it is ready next year no matter how late the thaw.

We have plans. I look at catalogs and think about the big garden, about raspberry and blueberry bushes, but mostly about the area back there where I want to build a writer's cabin, where I want to put a hoop house over some of the plants to extend the garden season, and where Steve wants to put a painting studio and a chicken coop. There's a whole village out there waiting to happen.

(photo left: prairie brome)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Riding My Bike

Two weeks ago, after a short campaign, Steve convinced me that I should buy a better bike than the "clunker" (his word) I've been riding the past six years or so. And after we spent way more than I ever thought I'd spend on a bike, he announced, with confidence: "Biking is your sport!"

I hadn't ever thought about having a "sport," but I also have never considered riding a bike a sport, so the whole thing struck me as funny. But looking back, I have to admit that if I have indeed had a sport throughout my life, it would be cycling. And there's no time to ride a bike like the autumn.
Biking is going through a resurgence as all across America old railroad sidings have been turned into thousands of miles of bike trails. And what an amazing thing it is, to ride bikes where trains used to go, along straight, level, paved trails that meander through prairie and forest, along rivers and lakes and past farms, and stop periodically at parks and former train stations that now have charming pavilions.

In my part of the world, we have the Lake Wobegon Trail, 46 miles from St. Joseph, through Avon, Albany, Freeport, Sauk Centre and on to Osakis, with a spur to Holdingford, and another trail system beyond Sauk Centre. Now that I have a really good bike, I can ride much farther and longer for less effort, and it is indeed a pleasure to ride. On Thursday I had a day off, anticipating a weekend of work, and took my camera along on the ride. I'm posting some highlights here-- the former grain elevator in St. Joseph with its faded sign for "Vita-Pep Feeds" and the St. Joseph water tower with images of the monastery steeple and dome. Farther west, where the trail crosses Old Collegevile Road, there is a cluster of houses that must have sprung up around an old depot. There are still about 10 yards of tracks there, too. I love these houses, one of which belonged to Joseph O'Connell, a sculptor who did three important pieces for the monastery. There, I stopped and took too many photos of an apple tree in front of a dilapidated barn.

When you start to see wetlands and then finally a stretch of open water, you are almost at Avon, the first major stop on the trail. I only went that far on Thursday. The stretch between Avon and Albany is particularly beautiful, with lots of water and people riding to and from fishing spots with their tackle and rods on their backs.

Last Sunday Steve and I drove our bikes out to Albany to take the 20-mile round trip ride to Holdingford. I'd heard this was the most beautiful part of the trail, and that may very well be true. This part of the trail winds through farms and bluffs and passes a large lake. It is not as wide, and the forest canopy stretches overhead. Riding over popping acorn hulls and through crackling piles of leaves, you know fall has arrived. But on the day we rode, it was perfectly still and hot. The destination, Holdingford, is also known along the trail for having a covered bridge, and sure enough, we could see the red covered bridge as we came through the last stand of trees, and on a small hill the town, with the church the most dominant feature, a cluster of buildings belonging to businesses named after local families, Rammler Trucking and Opatz Metals.

What was more, we stumbled on the tail end of a picnic at the town park, a community picnic being put on by the Lion's Club for the residents of that town and a few others. We met a young woman from Opole at the bathrooms who invited us to join in and have something to eat. We weren't hungry enough for the meal, but there was watermelon and that was about the best thing I could think of after 10 miles on the bike. And they were just taking the stage for the raffle and to announce the winner of the "guess the weight" contest of Snowflake the cow. Two people split the $48 prize with guesses within one pound of the cow's actual weight. There were many trucks with dairy farmer bumper stickers in the parking lot.

I'm looking forward to many more seasons on the trail, where I sometimes think about other bike rides-- my long explorations as a kid through Park Forest, Olympia Fields, into Flossmoor or out to Park Forest South (now University Park) and its farms; at Grinnell, when I'd ride as far out as I could get, clicking off the county roads; in New York City, over the Brooklyn Bridge and through Manhattan on Saturdays, the other direction to Coney Island on Sundays; the intense rides in the hills of Northern California, with my elaborate dreams and research about riding a bike cross country; the urban commuting in Chicago and in Reno, the lovely rides between our house and the university, especially in the winter with snow in the mountains; the daily rides in Red Wing, Minnesota at an artist's colony there along the Cannon River to see the eagle's nest.
And I guess if this is a sport, it is indeed mine.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Making the Gravy

Yesterday was another day with tomatoes. This time it was the romas, that I left ripening all week on the nearly-dead vines. I made a big pot of tomato sauce yesterday and what I loved most was the ingredients. From my garden, tomatoes, carrot, oregano. From the farmer's market, garlic and onion, and from the grocery store some crushed fresh basil, salt and pepper, and olive oil...

After running the tomatoes through the food mill, which I love (no need to remove skins and seeds by hand, just blanch them and run them through the mill), and sauteeing the garlic and onion, I simmered the rest of the ingredients for about two hours until it was very, very thick and flavorful. It boils down, so in the end I got two quarts of first-class tomato sauce from a bucket of tomatoes. But with the way they keep coming, I'll get a couple quarts to freeze as well as use this fall.

The Last Day

A friend asked me to read the book The Last Day by James Landis and tell her what I think. She sent me an advance copy and I told her I'd post my response. It isn't the kind of book I'd pick up on my own, for two reasons: 1) It's about war; 2) One of the main characters is Jesus. Still, I read it, and it was a very good read. It is very well-written and the soldier's story-- a story of war in Iraq and also a story of his home life, growing up in New Hampshire, making friends and finding family and the circumstances that made both difficult, are very compelling and kept me going through the book. The main character, Warren Peas (I didn't catch on to the Tolstoy novel title pun), gets shortened to "War" by family and friends, which is actually kind of chilling, as he is "war" in their lives, and they have a love/worry relationship with him. He's not an easy guy to love, since he is quite closed down emotionally, but he is very lovable.

Reading this book also gave me a chance to think about books with Jesus as a character. If my life were my own (i.e., if I didn't have a full-time job), I would consider doing a dissertation on the subject. First, I have questions: When did it become OK to have Jesus, in the flesh, as a character in a realistic novel? Does the character of Jesus in fiction change to meet the theology of the times? Does the character change to reflect the ethos of the times? Is Jesus always so, um, contemporary?

The two books I'm thinking of here are The Shack and The Last Day. The former was written for a Christian audience by a Christian and was most concerned, I think, in putting forward theological positions about revenge, forgiveness, love and humanity's relationship with God. The latter is written by a secular Jew and is first and foremost about war and family-- I'm not always sure what Jesus is doing there. It's published by a mainstream press (Steerforth-- yes, it sounds like a Christian press, but it's not!), albeit with hopes of crossover readership among Christian fiction readers.

What struck me about the Jesuses is that they're totally regular guys. They're full of joy, which is good. They delight in the world as it is, and see the enormous beauty in the world. They aren't at all "spiritual" or mystical or anything. They aren't threatening. In fact, the character in The Last Day are way more interested in interacting with each other than with Jesus (except for the father). Jesus is kind of just there to facilitate.

These Jesuses are not very serious. They are laid back. In The Shack, when you need a break from the Father or Holy Ghost (heavy), you go hang out awhile with Jesus. He's still going to blow your mind, but he'll throw in a practical joke about walking on water as well. The Jesus in The Last Day is the same way. It's not actually funny when Jesus wants to drive, or when he gets a speeding ticket. It's not irreverent-- the cop likes him well enough, as does everyone-- but it's just more Jesus than Christ. (Of course, Jesus is going by the name "Ray" in this book, which doesn't quite throw everyone off.)

Jesus, of course, knows what he's doing. And in the end he will shepherd the characters through death, resurrection, reconciliation, letting go, marriage, birth-- many, many large things that take place in the book. Plus, the writing is so much better in this book than in The Shack. No comparison, there. Jesus acts in small ways to make big things happen, like rubbing a driver's license so the date of birth or name changes, again, to facilitate. Making an egg grow into a giant omelet. Nothing with grand fanfare, but what needs to be done to get us through the scene and through the challenge to the characters. Jesus puts his hand on yours and you feel it-- you feel Him--all the way to your bones. You feel the love of God. I like that enormously.

In the end, though, I just don't know about these fictional Jesuses. It takes me back to teaching World Literature at Fullerton College a little more than five years ago. There were a number of Christians in the class, and sabotage of almost any lesson on the New Testament (a selection in our reader) was sure to happen. The first time I taught the class I didn't even include that book, or the Koran, avoiding the tension of literature/holy book entirely. This time, when we got to the New Testament, I said, "I just want to try to get you to see this as literature, to consider what it means outside your context. So what if we look at the 'heroes' we've read about so far." I put up a chart on the board. Gilgamesh: 2/3 god and 1/3 man. Achilles: 1/2 god and 1/2 man. Jesus: 100% god and 100% man. "What can we make of this? And what do we see of this hero's character in the excerpts we've read..."

I still think it's useful to ask this question-- especially when encountering these books with Jesus as a character, "in the flesh" and interacting in the 21st century. These two books focus on the flesh part, the 100% man, more than the god part. Yet they try, through vague appeals to wisdom, to get us to understand that Jesus, by our side, is not just a man with some special "powers." He's our guide, and he knows what he's doing. And he's not really interested in the minutia of life-- if he's there, the issue is big, and he's gonna get us through it in a way that is truly transformative. Once you've met Jesus, you will not be the same.

In that way, it's the most calming book about war and death I've ever read. After all, Jesus is there. How bad can things get? In Iraq, things are as bad as they can be, and the war scenes are a little hard to take. However, they are interspersed with the rest of the story, and so you don't have to "go there" for long stretches.

I'm glad I read it, and I can definitely recommend it. There's a lot of good character and plot in the book, and the New Hampshire setting is great, too. And there's the added bonus of getting to think about things like war, death, and what Jesus is doing in this novel.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Education and Indoctrination

I am on a lively Listserv with fellow alumni/ae from Grinnell College, class of '86 (with a good number of '85 and '87 thrown in). We spend our days weighing in on everything from midlife crises and what we do to try to keep our weight down to politics. Most people on the Listserv are liberals, so the two or three Republicans have a hard battle to keep us informed of how "the other side" thinks. Most of us really do want to keep in touch with what folks on the right are thinking, and sometimes there is meaningful conversation (though I can't say anyone ever changes anyone's mind on anything). This week the topic has been health care, of course, but there was a flurry of discussion about President Obama's speech to school children on the first day of school (Tuesday). Of interest was the question of whether the president should be "allowed" to make such a speech, and whether it was an "unwanted intrusion" into the school day, as our Governor Pawlenty described it. There was discussion of the controversial education aid piece suggesting teachers offer as a follow-up exercise having their students write a letter telling the president what they would do to "help the president." It was revised for them to tell him their personal goals. At issue was also whether the speech would be "indoctrination" and was inherently political-- which would be a bad thing. Given that now, all political speech is assumed to be partisan. And one poor Listserv member said that she did not trust the president.

Late in the day Phil Stewart weighed in with a post that truly got to the heart of the matter. It kind of shocked me by how "conservative" the position sounded to me. Here is an excerpt:

There is no reason at all for public schools, if they do not establish a capacity in children to learn how to become citizens of the Republic, and to participate in the political process. That is the whole Enlightenment project this country was founded in, distilled: the people are trusted to be capable of learning how to participate in government. If the people prove themselves worthy of this trust, the "divine right of kings" to rule is proven false, because they are no better, fundamentally, than the rest of us. If the people screw it up? Well, bring back the kings. Or the CEOs--or whatever you call a new autocracy--but that's the choice.

The idea that "all men are created equal" is a fundamentally psychological proposition, namely, that all are born equally capable of learning.

So the survival of the nation is bound up in the capacity of the schools to produce competent citizens. Part of this competency is understanding that we live in a Republic. When we elect a leader, he or she has the faith and trust of the people. If some individual or another does not trust him--that is immaterial to the leader's standing to address the people. Civics is the *payload* of education, as it is reasonably theorized, in a Republic. To treat the President's address to children in school as a political intrusion is an affront to the notion of the Republic itself. The Republic is founded upon the idea that the people can handle politics. The decision of who is to lead is decided at elections, not moment-to-moment in individual households. When the contrary holds, the nation *will* fall apart, and the chaos will make our heads spin. When the contrary holds, all of the evils we have held at bay on other shores will visit us, right in those same living rooms.

Given the years I spent thinking that public schools "quashed" creativity and just instructed us in how to "serve the state"-- by being obedient and maybe eventually going to an unjust war for it, but certainly not learning up to our ability, this little "rant," which I think it right on target, brought a smile to my face.

The larger question is, I think, are we interested in this project-- the Republic and the public schools? I thought of the homeschooling folks I know, who want to teach their children a different version of science and history, from an ostensibly "Christian point of view." And of charter school parents I know who want to put creativity at the forefront and also opt out of the "making good citizens" project. And it takes me ultimately to my current ruminations over "Emergent Christianity" and the issue of a crisis in authority. We are all sorting out what we believe and who is in charge-- of the church, of the state, of the Truth. Chaos indeed.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Ways to Eat Tomatoes

I have to officially take my garden off the "failed" category and put it in the success category. Although some things did not work out, and although those tomato plants look totally dead, they're still putting out a lot of pretty good tomatoes! They wouldn't win any prizes, but they're keeping us well fed. Even if all that happens now is that the tomatoes on the vine get red, I'll have a serious crop of Roma tomatoes for making rich, red sauce in a week or two (I'm not listening to Lynn Rosetto Casper, who said Romas are the "eunuch of the tomato world." She hasn't seen the sauce I made this week...) Next year there are definitely some things I want to do differently, but I even pulled some large, beautiful carrots out of the garden this week.

Yesterday I had the grill in action (actually had to go refill the propane tank, which I just filled six weeks ago) blackening several batches of cherry tomatoes and onions for salsa. I have a great salsa recipe, which is as follows:

Chipotle Salsa

Cover the bottom of a dry cast iron skillet with cherry tomatoes and put them on a burner (next to the grill if you have a burner there, or on the grill if you'd like) on medium-high heat and put 1/2 onion cut in wedges in one of those veggie grill pans (with holes, so it doesn't fall through the grates) and grill, turning with tongs until they are blackened in spots and the tomatoes are falling apart slightly. Then puree in a blender with a couple cloves of garlic (you can roast these with the onion if you want-- I don't know if it takes the raw garlic effect out of them since it's pretty fast) and one chipotle chili with a little adobe sauce from a can. Then put the puree back into the skillet over heat and simmer until it thickens to a consistency you like.

I managed to make three quarts of the stuff yesterday, which required another round with the canner, so I added a quart of just regular tomatoes to the batch. My pantry (a shelf in the basement storage unit) is looking good!

I also made my absolute favorite tomato dish yesterday, a cold yellow and red tomato soup. It's absolutely delicious, really smooth and flavorful, and even my friend Doug who does not like cold tomato soups (crazy for a person who spends as much time in Spain as he does) loves this soup. It is incredibly easy and also dramatic, two more major pluses. The only trick is buying the ingredients! I knew I wanted to make this, but I just won't buy yellow tomatoes at $3.99/lb at the grocery store. Lucky for me, they were $2 a basket at the St. Joseph Farmer's Market, so I got at least 3 lbs for $4 on Friday afternoon. Also the red and sweet white onions, so fennel and celery are the only "conventional" veggies here I had to buy.

Chilled Red and Yellow Tomato Soup

for yellow soup:
2 lbs yellow beefsteak tomatoes
1/4 cup chopped sweet white onion
1 small celery rib, chopped
1/4 cup chopped fennel bulb
2 Tbsp Champagne vinegar
2 Tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper
(Optional are a garlic clove and 2 Tbsp shallot. If I have them, I use the shallot instead of the white onion, but I don't use the garlic because I like to minimum the effects of raw onion and garlic...)

for red soup:
3 lbs red beefsteak tomatoes
1 cup canned tomato juice (though I forgot this last night and it seems optional to me)
1/4 cup chopped red onion (white would also be fine, or shallots)
1 small celery rib, chopped
1/4 cup chopped fennel bulb
2 Tbsp Champagne vinegar
2 Tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper

It is really fun to make this soup. First you make the yellow-- all the ingredients in a food processor or blender until smooth, then push through a sieve/metal mesh colander into a large bowl to remove the solids. (This is the part I like, using my hands!!)

Then you quickly rinse things out and make the red soup the same way...

Put each in a covered container in the fridge for at least 1 hour. Another great thing-- you can make it early.

Then for the dramatic presentation:

To serve it put a cookie cutter or hollow canning lid or something down in the center of a shallow bowl and pour the yellow soup into the ring. Mine kind of leaked out around the flower cookie cutter, but you still get the idea. Pour the red soup around the ring and lift the ring from the bowl. This recipe will make 6 bowls of soup. And trust me, it's amazing.
After all that, and some cleaning out of our storage stuff in the barn and a good workout, I was really done cooking. I'd planned to try to do something with the rest of the zucchini, but announced to Steve that I wasn't up for much cooking, so we'd just be having lobster ravioli and the soup. He laughed. The ravioli came from Trader Joe's, and the sauce was homemade. I had a lovely dry Riesling in the fridge, too. We ate on the porch, and Steve insisted we take a picture of the lovely soup. The prairie is mellow and the air was dry. Earlier, Steve asked if the dry air reminded me of Reno, but I said no. It actually felt like Southern California, dry but with a breeze that felt like it was coming off the ocean. It was fresh and crisp and really luxurious on the skin. I almost couldn't bear to leave my chair where I was reading and get up to make any dinner.

And when we sat down to dinner, it was clear that it really doesn't get any better than this.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Nuns: No Regrets

Last week someone was telling me about what happened in her small group in an Abnormal Psychology class at the College of Saint Benedict. They were looking at diagnostic tests, first Rorschachs and then those pictures where you create a narrative based on the figures and situationd depicted.

The four women in this group had a picture of an old woman with a kerchief or something on her head, and a younger, androgynous figure. The story they gigglingly constructed was of a nun on her deathbed, wishing that she had had sex in her life. She wanted to have sex with the young man, and regretted her life of celibacy. You can imagine how the conversation went.

No doubt, once the story began, the others went with it. Such is the group dynamics of 20-year-old girls. What struck me is that it was so completely alien to the nuns I know. It sounds like the teacher did a good job of addressing their story when it was reported to the rest of the class, saying that sexuality is certainly a part of life and likely to be a conflict for people living under vows of celibacy. I told the studnet who shared with me what happened that it would have been difficult if not impossible for me to intervene as they were constructing this story to say they clearly knew nothing at all about nuns, and should take advantage of their opportunity studying on the edge of a large women's monastery to get to know one of the Sisters there.

I am sure that in younger years, celibacy is a conflict-- even moreso, I believe, is the decision not to have children. This conflict was reactivated in spades, I think, as Sisters left in the 60s and 70s to get married (often to priests leaving ministry as well) The Sisters I know have the most fulfilling, life-long relationships with their Sisters. They look back on their long lives with satisfaction and joy.

Yesterday I was talking to Steve about news I'd received of an acquaintance who was getting a divorce after 19 years of marriage. The report of this divorce on a social media site shared that the couple remained best friends but the passion was gone, and they came to the conclusion (with separate counselors and a marriage counselor) that they were young enough to move on and find fulfilling, romantic relationships with others. I don't share this world view about marriage, but I was more saddened by the way others wrote in to congratulate him on his brave decision and encourage him in his new adventure and next part of his journey. One said the couple's two children will be better for their parents making decisions to be fulfilled rather than staying together for the sake of the children. The whole thing made me depressed.

Steve shared his view, which was that it is very difficult to critique the romantic view of love in society. He quoted Stanley Hauerwass, who wrote something along these lines: No one knows what love is. We only know love at the end of life, looking back on the relationships we have had in all their complexity, when we can say: 'yes, that was love.'

I'm not sure these two things are related, but I think they are. I think the girls in the class were more influenced by images of nuns in popular culture (sexy nun Halloween costumes come to mind) than by actual nuns. But I also think they will probably pursue romantically fulfilling, passionate relationships as the definition of successful relationships and, well, love. When those relationships no longer have that spark, if they are in a situation where they can do so, they will leave for the next step of the journey, a journey that is circumscribed by the autonomy of the individual, the highest aim being individual fulfillment at all times at all costs. Self-reliance.

The question is how, in our homes and in our world, do we provide models of lives that allow space for the individual to realize his and her talents, while also building meaningful and lasting communities that are sustaining over the long term?

If someone knows the answer, please tell me.

Nuns and Justice

The New York Times continues to have pieces in support of Catholic nuns in America. I presume they're getting a large number of letters and editorials on the subject by people whose lives are positively affected by Sisters across the nation. The Order I work for have their roots in contemplation, though they have always done apostolic work-- hospitals and education, mostly, the work of almost every order in the United States in the 19th century. However, many other orders are rooted in justice work. By rooted I mean their founding monasteries in Europe worked in prisons and nursed people through the plague and took in orphans.

When they left Europe, in the bloody wars that followed the Reformation or later, sending out missionaries to help immigrant populations in the New World, they brought with them this traditional work. The Sisters of St. Joseph stand out in this regard. I was told a story by a Sister of St. Joseph of Orange about how the Sisters who survived the guillotine or prison in the French Revolution continued to live in hiding and serve the poorest of the towns near Puy, France, while they also continued their tradition of making lace. This is a common story, and celebrates what I see as twoo ongoing traditions for Sisters: Work to meet the needs of the world and preserve art and craft traditions (usually, while praying). To read the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, click here.

These justice-oriented Orders are the Sisters who went to Latin America in the 60s-80s and provided places of refuge for struggling people and fought for justice, often at the cost of their lives.

These are the kinds of Sisters described in the most recent editorial in the New York Times. They work for justice locally, and their achievements are dramatic. To read the editorial, click here.