(Don’t) Lower Your Expectations

Last winter, I made myself this hat.

IMG_2855

I was disappointed with it, at the time. I wanted a slouchy beret, and I hadn’t made it long enough or large enough. Blocking it with a plate inside didn’t help. The color was wrong, not warm enough against my skin. I believe I told Twitter that it made my head look like a mushroom.

It wasn’t what I expected.

This wasn’t going to be a post about a hat. It was actually going to be a post about a conflict Jon and I had last week over what “doing the dishes” entails, and who should do them, and when, and how. But that made me feel petty and ridiculous, and I didn’t have any pictures to go with it, so here’s this hat.

I think, “Lower your expectations,” is terrible advice. I know the idea is that if things go well, you’ll be pleasantly surprised and if they don’t, you won’t be disappointed, but that’s acting as if your expectations don’t influence the way things go, and they absolutely do. I expect myself to get good grades, to be at work on time, and to speak kindly to people. If I didn’t expect it from myself, do you think I would do those things? Because I think I’d lie on the couch marathoning Battlestar Galactica for the third time and telling my family to leave me the hell alone. Thoughts have power. Lower your expectations and you won’t get anywhere–or knit anything.

On the other hand, you can’t quit knitting because your hat didn’t turn out quite as planned, and if half a sink full of dirty dishes makes you want to throw something or start to cry, you clearly need to reconsider something about your life. So where’s the middle ground?

When you join the Peace Corps, they spend a lot of time during pre-training and training telling you not to have expectations. You have no idea what you’re about to get into, and whatever vision you’ve constructed in your head about your future home or work is, assuredly, wildly off-base. Better just to not expect anything at all, right?

I always thought that was such a load of crap. How is anyone supposed to not have expectations? That’s some Buddha-level shit, right there, and let me tell you, nobody joining Peace Corps is anywhere near Nirvana. But, seeing the merit of the reasoning behind the advice, I tried the next best thing–having expectations, but acting like I didn’t. I didn’t waste time frantically trying to prepare for the unknown. My bags when I left were 20 pounds below the allotted amount, and I spent the next two years trying to convince future volunteers on Facebook that they would be just fine without quick-dry towels, or anything else from REI.

IMG_2858

I think the trick is knowing how much to invest in your expectations. How much are you going to let them affect you? With Peace Corps, I was well warned to invest almost nothing in them–I read all the blogs, all the Wiki articles, even, “So You Wanna Be a Peace Corps Volunteer?” I internalized all the good advice about how Peace Corps is unpredictable and you need to be able to bend and not break. In the rest of life, I’m not always so well prepared.

The hat went into storage for the summer. When the weather got chilly and I found it in with my other handknits, I couldn’t imagine why I didn’t absolutely love it last winter. A few months took the edge off my emotions, and now I love the warmth of the thick cables over my ears. I love the wavy line where the hat springs directly from the cables. I love the near-perfect kitchener graft I did to join the cable band (visible in the above photo; I’m sure a knitter can spot it, but it’s almost invisible). The hat even makes my hair look good! It’s still not terribly slouchy, but why does it need to be?

On Saturday, Jon went out in supremely nasty weather because I was mired in homework and craving the warmth and comfort of red wine. He doesn’t even particularly like red wine–he just wanted to take care of me. And I’ve been doing the dishes myself, because for crying out loud, it takes ten minutes, and I do them exactly the way I want them done, and why should I expect anyone else to do that? I’m learning that the world doesn’t operate within the parameters of my expectations. The things I focus on aren’t the only things there are. Sometimes I forget that. I’m working on it.

IMG_2854

The hat is Scathach’s hat by Mona C. NicLeĆ²id–it’s a free pattern, and I recommend it. And the scarf, well that’s a subject for another post. (There may be another post. Blogging twice a year is still a schedule, right?)

Pi Shawl, finished

I am celebrating this.

20140511-175705.jpg
It’s done in laceweight baby alpaca, three skeins I bought many years ago and never got around to using. I adore shawls and scarves, but never made myself a really good shawl. On March 14 (Pi Day), the pattern was going around, so I cast on, and here I am!

Now I’m so excited to wear my new…. What’s that? Alpaca is warmer than wool? Summer is almost here?

…I’ll be so excited to wear my new shawl in about six months.

Runzas (a recipe)

Oh, runzas. Where do I even begin to explain this mythic food to you? Do I tell you that they’re a Russian/German stuffed sandwich now popular in America’s Plains states? Do I explain that they’re the basis of Nebraska’s most popular fast food restaurant? (I actually worked in a Runza once, for four months. This is not their recipe; I never did the cooking part of the job.)

A runza is basically a bread roll stuffed with ground meat, cabbage, and onions. Like an Old World Hot Pocket, I guess. Jon, who grew up here in southeast Michigan, compares them to pasties, and I guess that’s really not far off. My mom made them while I was growing up, and I make them, and now I’m going to show you how to make them.

Image

Runzas

You’re going to need:

  • 1/2 lb. ground meat (I used breakfast sausage; ground beef or pork is more traditional)
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1/4-1/2 head of cabbage, sliced into strips
  • Salt, pepper, and any other seasonings that strike your fancy
  • One loaf’s worth of your favorite sandwich bread recipe–I used this.

Prepare the bread dough ahead–I actually let mine rise in the fridge overnight.

For the filling: brown the meat and onions in a large pan until you like the color (brown is flavor!). Add the cabbage and stir until the cabbage is fully cooked. Season with salt, pepper, and any herbs you like. I kept mine simple because that’s how we like it, but thyme or sage would be lovely.

Allow the filling to cool completely. (I refrigerated mine overnight with the bread dough.)

Oil a large baking sheet and dust it with cornmeal.

When your dough is finished rising, dump it onto the counter and flatten it out to about an inch, pressing all the air out. Cut it into twelve equal pieces–I did three strips, then cut each strip into four.

To roll each runza: Flatten a piece into a rounded rectangle, and put a scoop of filling into the center. The amount will depend on the size of your bread piece, but 1/4 to 1/3 of a cup should be about right. Roll it up just like a burrito: fold the sides in a bit, then fold up the bottom, then roll it up tightly, stretching the top of the rectangle. Pinch the sides to make sure the filling can’t leak out, and place the runza seam-side down on the baking sheet.

Roll all the runzas and place them on the sheet. Cover with a damp tea towel and allow to proof for 30 minutes to give the runzas volume.

Bake at 400F for 15 minutes or until golden. I didn’t bother preheating my oven–you can if you like.

Yield: 12 smallish runzas.

Image

Notes:

The ground meat could be substituted for well-seasoned lentils, white beans, or another meat-substitute for vegan runzas. I keep meaning to try this, but my husband loves the meaty kind and is wary of vegetarian variants of beloved foods.

I made twice amount the filling given above, not realizing it was way more than I needed. The leftover filling makes an excellent soup if added to broth. I used mine to make a matzo ball soup that may have actually been more delicious than the runzas themselves.

For the bread, I used a basic white sandwich bread recipe (linked above). My mom always made them with whole wheat dough, which would certainly be healthier. I’ve also successfully used frozen pizza dough, which I can get really cheap from the liquor store where we buy our favorite pizza. Once in college, I even made them with refrigerated croissant dough, but the results were not satisfactory.

The Quietest Place: Suburban Detroit

This post is part of The Art Assignment #5, The Quietest Place.

I spent the first two decades of my life in very rural environments–I grew up in western Colorado, miles from anywhere, then attended college in Virginia on a campus with thousands of acres of woods, away from any major cities. In those environments, it was never very difficult to find quiet places.

Then there my small city in the Philippines, where quiet was practically nonexistent. You can’t cram so many people into such a small space without hearing your neighbors washing laundry, or having a busy street right outside your window.

And now? Suburban Michigan. Oh, how I resisted moving here. What could possibly be less glamorous?
I came around on the subject of Michigan, and I love living here now. But I hadn’t really confronted the idea of the suburbs until this assignment. The assignment was to take a walk from your home and find the quietest place, then absorb and document it. I actually began my walk at my inlaws’ house, because that was what worked for me. So here it is: the quietest place in my inlaws’ neighborhood.

20140422-162039.jpg

Or is it? The first thing I discovered when I started walking is that noise is fairly homogenous in the suburbs. Once I moved away from the busy roads, it was a thin soup of dogs barking, robins chirping, cars passing, and always, somewhere, someone using a power tool.

It was really hard to find a quiet place. Every time I thought I had, a dog would start barking at me, or a car would pass, or standing still would cause me to hear the wind chimes I’d missed while I was walking.

I walked for an hour. It was Easter Sunday, and as I walked, I slowly began to become amazed by how much of people living I was observing. I heard a lot of radios, and because the weather was so lovely that windows were open, I caught a lot of snippets of people’s Easter celebrations–well wishes, arguments, complaining, and several parents stepping out onto the front porch to smoke and escape from their kids for a minute.

I’ve somehow always thought of suburban neighborhoods as faceless blocks of houses with no personality or distinguishing features; I had a lot of contempt for them, in fact. I’m actually ashamed to admit this, but it wasn’t until this walk that it clicked for me: Every house has people in it. All of those people have stories. Every single nearly identical house is absolutely filled up with the stories of people living their lives. They’re people who have buried parents, who worry about their children’s developmental milestones, who like yellow mustard but not brown.

There is no quietest place in a neighborhood like this. People’s lives are moving through it constantly, leaving ripples. I realized, I wasn’t looking for the quietest place: I was looking for the quietest moment.

So, after an hour of walking spanning a couple of miles, I finally stopped, just two blocks from where I started, and waited. And for a few moments, there were no dogs barking, no cars passing, no one mowing their lawn or calling to their kids.

So, here it is. Two photographs of a still moment between the waves of life on an Easter Sunday in Michigan.

20140422-162053.jpg

Leaving a mark

Image

I found this mug in a thrift shop, yesterday. It’s custom-printed and features an older man repairing or building a chair using Elmer’s wood glue.

I had to explain, both to the girl who bagged my purchase, and to Jon, that I suppose I felt sorry for him. Someone loved this man and respected his skill (as a carpenter? handyman? husband?) enough to both take this picture and immortalize it on a mug. Then, some time later, someone (someone else? the same person?) sent the mug to a thrift shop, for reasons unknown. (De-cluttering? Painful memories? Clearing out an estate?)

I felt that, whoever the man on the mug is or was, he deserved some respect. And as he was clearly a maker, I feel some kinship there.

(Jon: “So do we have to keep it forever?” He indulges my flights of fancy but doesn’t necessarily understand them.)

As it happens, I stumbled across this mug at a time when I had another dear craftsman on the mind.

Image

I snapped this photo in the park, while watching the twins play. I recently took up spinning again, and have found it remarkably well-suited to child supervision. But that’s a subject for another post; right now, I want to talk about the spindle.

My mom was, for some years, married to a man who built fiddles. He was an artist and a craftsman, and as I was living with them at the time I took up spinning, I asked him to make me a spindle. I had visions of some hand-turned, polished object of beauty, so when he delivered this, a dowel fitted rather poorly into a plain disc of wood, I was a little disappointed. But on it, I learned to spin.

Over time, the unfinished wood has developed a smooth, glossy patina. The spindle is just the right size and weight for my purposes. It holds a great deal of yarn. Since it’s a bottom whorl spindle, I can let it rest on the ground while I draft out extra twist, without getting the yarn dirty. It has no notches or hooks, no frills. It’s useful and it’s been used, and it was a gift from one maker to another. All that makes it beautiful.

The man who made it died of depression while I was in the Philippines. I cried for days, and no one understood why. “So… he was not married to your mother any longer?” They wanted to comfort, but they were confused. I couldn’t quite articulate at the time, but I think it’s the unfairness of the whole thing–that someone who added so many good and useful things to the world would leave it the way he did.

I think about him often. As a craftsman, he’s best remembered for his fiddles, but I have this spindle. I’m going to use it to make more good and useful things. It’s the best tribute I can think of.

Rebirth: A Disclaimer

It has been a custom of mine, in each new phase of my development, to reinvent myself online. I talked a lot with friends in the Philippines about the way our online personas were just that–personas, masks, a marketing scheme. You present yourself the way you want to be considered.

That’s why, in the past, I’ve tended to create new blogs for each new persona, kicking the old back under a rug, slightly embarrassed by it, by the person I used to be. (When I started on the internet fourteen years ago, for example, I was a homeschooled fundamentalist Christian who loved books about talking animals.)

This time, though, I’ve decided not to do that.

Point 1: Anything I wrote on this blog 2-4 years ago (when this blog was most active) was and remains an accurate impression of at least part of the person I was at that time.

Point 2: The person who wrote those posts deserves to be honored even if she no longer entirely exists.

Point 3, the most salient: Most of my blogging attempts post-college have been abortive at best, and why go to all the effort of restarting if I’m only going to abandon it within a few weeks?

With that out of the way, I have an itch to blog. I’m creating things again, and I miss blogging about that. I miss working out my thoughts via text, too.

I decided long ago that it wasn’t worth “apologizing” for not blogging. But let me catch you up, nevertheless. Right now, I am:

  • Home from the Philippines (since November 2012, in fact)
  • Married (!)
  • (To someone I met in the Philippines)
  • (Deeply surprised, amazed, and awed by this fact almost daily)
  • Living in the suburbs of Detroit, the home region of the man (there’s another surprise, at least to me) I married
  • Studying speech and language pathology–for now taking prerequisite courses online before I apply for graduate programs
  • Meanwhile, working as a nanny for twin boys, age 3
  • The adoring owner of a rescued pet rabbit
  • Attempting to write fiction in the time not occupied by husband, work, and school
  • Crafting with intensity
  • Drinking perhaps more than I should

Should this latest attempt at blogging stick (and I hope it does), you can expect to see me talking about crafting, writing, my rabbit (lord, I love her), being a nanny, and the long path to becoming a speech and language pathologist (SLP).

On the Cognitive Dissonance of Compassion

I was born in a travel trailer.

Well, I was born in a hospital. But I spent many of my early months–both pre- and post- natal–in a little travel trailer on the top of a mountain in the Flat Tops wilderness area near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. My parents were there because my father was a logger, and that’s where the trees were. My mom bathed me, and later my brother, in plastic dish tubs on the slab of tree-trunk that served as our front stoop. My best baby pictures feature a rosy-cheeked baby almost lost in a sea of wildflowers.

This isn’t a Peace Corps story.

This is: Yesterday, I discovered that the two children who had mysteriously appeared in my back yard with the beginning of the summer are in fact the daughters of the young couple who live there.

Against the back wall of the compound, there’s a little two-room, concrete shed. Our landlords use one of the rooms for storage. The other houses our neighbors. It took a while to figure out what “neighbors” meant. At first, I thought it was just the one girl, barely 4’6″, a student at the neighboring university. A few months later, a boy appeared, to much speculation. Surely our landlady wouldn’t approve of a live-in boyfriend?

No, they were married. A little weird to an American eye, but okay, sure, they’re both students, they probably really need a cheap place to live near the school. But how is it, after 14 months of living so close that I can hear their indoor conversations and midnight trips to the outhouse, I’m only just discovering these two little girls, ages perhaps six and four?

Somewhere, I failed at something.

It’s not like I somehow missed two little kids for a year, incidentally. The girls probably live with a family member–a grandma or an aunt–during the school year. But still, how do you not know your neighbors have children?

Here’s the thing. You know when you sign up for the Peace Corps that it’s going to make you confront the fundamental inequities inherent in the “developed/developing” dichotomy.

(Incidentally, how I hate the term “developing”. It implies some sort of upward climb towards the inevitable glory of freedom and prosperity, like all of these poor foreign people will soon be just as happy and free and healthy as We Americans. “Developing” makes it so easy to dismiss the morass of environmental, social, and infrastructural factors in the way of that climb. It smacks of “differently-abled” to me–terms that sugar-coat the struggles of a minority are, I think, almost universally used to salve the conscience of the majority. I don’t have a better term to suggest. It just bugs me, is all.)

Anyway, you know the feeling I’m talking about. That squirmy thing in your stomach when you think about Those Less Fortunate. The one mothers of a certain generation called on when they invoked the starving children in China. The one no one really wants to think about.

And of course we don’t want to think about it! You rely on that car. That internet connection keeps you in touch with friends and family. Your smartphone is a lifesaver.

Confronting the reality that your fortune well exceeds another’s induces this weirdly possessive guilt. You feel terrible, and you know it’s not fair, and you’d love to fix it. But you’re also gripped by the uncomfortable knowledge that you don’t want to lose the things you have. You justify.

I can’t tell you how many times, for example, I’ve heard some variation on the following: “I know air-conditioning is [expensive/bad for the environment/etc.], but in [Florida/Arizona/Texas/etc.] you really need it.”

My friends, I’ve been in the Philippines for twenty months, living, like most of the population, without air-conditioning. I’m coming to you with a hard truth: You don’t “really need” it. It makes your life immensely more comfortable and, if you’re old or young or ill, much safer. There are lots of good reasons to run an air-conditioner. But perhaps you should take a moment to examine your definition of “need”.

So, back to my neighbors. I’ve always told myself that I’ve avoided engaging with them out of respect for their privacy. The personal space allotted to them consists of: a) half of a concrete shed, furnished with a bunk bed, two stools, and a rickety table; b) a roofed area outdoors with a counter and a small wood stove–their kitchen; c) a single faucet belonging to an apartment that isn’t even theirs, from which they can haul water to; d) a concrete outhouse with no electricity and no running water.

In their position, with so much of my life happening outdoors in someone’s back yard, I would want as much privacy as possible. So I didn’t pry.

But what if that’s just an excuse? Doesn’t my life–this big apartment with its refrigerator, flushing toilet, indoor kitchen, and mere two occupants (two! in all this space!)–seem rather extravagant by comparison? I love and crave those things (personal space, indoor plumbing, unspoiled food). Isn’t it rather uncomfortable that literally in my backyard these people have none of those things?

The kids pushed it over the edge for me. Suddenly, this isn’t a young couple–this is a young family. I couldn’t tell you what the difference is, but it’s there. So on my way home from a trip running errands, I picked up a handful of Filipino popsicles, called “ice candy”.

It wasn’t until after I delivered the ice candy to the little girls and their mother–how many years younger than me? I don’t even know–that I started thinking about my own mother. She spent a lot of my childhood raising two children in trailers. I mean, we always had a house, but there were lots of times when if we wanted to be together as a family, we had to go where the trees were.

For me, memories of those months are mostly of the sawdust-and-mildew smell of a logger’s trailer, and sleeping at the foot of my mom’s little bunk, and reading the same chapter book over and over. I couldn’t tell you what my mom was feeling. Was she bored? Lonely? Worried about our health? I got bronchial pneumonia during one of those winters, and in a small space with a propane stove carbon monoxide poisoning was a constant danger. But mostly, I just don’t know. I wasn’t old enough or observant enough to know what that experience meant to her.

I see my mother in young Filipina with her two children in her too-small house. I mean, they don’t have much in common. My mom married at 30 and had me fourteen months later. Without resorting to speculation, observation suggests that my neighbor was still a teenager when her older daughter was born. But aren’t they still the same? Young families, trying to make their way in the circumstances they find themselves in. Just quietly pressing on.

Here’s what I’ve learned in Peace Corps: We need a hook. As long as our compassion is colored primarily by guilt and discomfort, how are we supposed to get anywhere? We have to find that link, something that surpasses the internal conflict of wanting-to-care with wanting-to-have. That bridge from Other to Us.

Guilt is a worthless emotion. Worse than worthless, actually: it arrests movement. It encourages deflection, excuses, ignorance. My exhortation, as a Peace Corps volunteer: Forget the guilt. Find your hook.

What comes after that? Well, that’s another thing I’ve learned in the Peace Corps: Just take the first step. You’ll figure it out as you go.

Adobong Kangkong ni Emma

I don’t often cook Filipino food. There are various reasons. One is that it’s, you know, pretty easy to get Filipino food if you’re living in the Philippines. Another is that the most iconic dishes don’t convert very well into a vegetarian meal. We’re not vegetarians, but we don’t cook meat at home. It’s expensive and frequently suspect.

Filipino food, unlike other cuisines in the region, isn’t highly spiced. It depends for flavor largely upon vinegar and fat, especially pork fat. It’s true, there’s nothing preventing you from making a big pan of pancit (Filipino noodles) without any meat, but I know from experience that most Filipinos would dismiss the result as “walang lasa” (without flavor) or “hindi masarap” (not delicious). And the thing is, they wouldn’t really be wrong.

So, I’ve been trying for months to nail down a good vegetarian version of adobo. Adobo is a meat or vegetable braised in a mixture of soy sauce and vinegar and seasoned with garlic, black pepper and bay leaf. Chicken or pork adobo is delicious, and there are quite a few vegetable adobos that are common here. And there’s certainly nothing stopping you from using tofu in place of meat. Except …

But every time I’ve tried to make meatless adobo, it’s just been lacking. The vinegar is so sour, and the soy sauce is so salty, but there’s no richness in the vegetable to balance those flavors. You’re left with something edible, but … well, hindi masarap.

In searching for adobo recipes online, I found a lot of people put coconut milk in theirs. I dismissed this at first. Adobo doesn’t have coconut milk! Where were they even getting this? For someone who rarely cooks Filipino food and has only lived in two relatively close regions of a diverse country, I pass rather a lot of judgment on FilAm (Filipino-American) food blogs that don’t reflect my experience. (Ground meat in tortang talong? What?!)

But … well, I had a little leftover coconut milk from Sunday’s dinner, and I knew I wanted to make adobong kangkong (water spinach) with quail eggs. And maybe what my vegetarian adobos were missing was saturated fat!

What I’ve learned in my meager three-or-so years of cooking vegetarian food is you have to replace that animal fat flavor with something. You can’t just throw some veggies at a pot and have it taste good. My usual strategy is to brown everything very well. Brown the onions. Brown the garlic. Let the oil absorb all those flavors. Hell, when I cook beans, I actually fry up the soaked, uncooked beans in garlic and onion until they start getting a little brown too. (Then I often fry them again after cooking! Have I mentioned I’ve lost twenty pounds in the Philippines? I have absolutely no fear of fat anymore.)

But I was browning like crazy in my adobos, and it still wasn’t enough to compete with the acidity of the vinegar and the saltiness of the soy sauce. Caramelized onions can fix most ills, not this one.

All this to say: adobong kangkong with quail eggs and coconut milk was easily the most delicious Filipino food I’ve ever made. The coconut milk, soy sauce, and vinegar reduced into a rich, thick gravy that I could have eaten with a spoon. That, with the meaty, substantial kangkong stems, and the little creamy burst of yolk when you bite into a boiled quail egg … I’m hungry just thinking about it.

Unfortunately, I cooked the whole thing in the dark during a power outage, so no pictures, except this one of the leftovers. (We ate all the quail eggs the previous night. I don’t think they’d reheat well.)

Adobong Kangkong with red rice

Adobong Kangkong ni Emma
(Emma’s Water Spinach Adobo)

You will need:
One big bunch of kangkong, cut into 2-3″ lengths
4-5 cloves garlic, partially crushed and sliced
3-4 shallots, sliced
1 long red chile, Thai-style, with most of the seeds removed, chopped
1/2 cup vinegar
1/2 cup soy sauce
~1 cup coconut milk (less if using canned)
Black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
Vegetable oil (we tend to use palm oil)
20 quail eggs, hard-boiled and peeled (or 6 chicken eggs)

Yields 3 servings as a main dish, probably twice that many as a side.

In a wok, saute the shallots on a medium-low heat, allowing them to brown slowly. Before they get crispy, remove them from the pan. Add garlic and chile, saute until garlic is browned. (You COULD add the garlic to the shallots, but I’m not good enough at telling when the shallots are nearly done, and if they saute too long, they get bitter. Your call.)

Return shallots to wok. Add vinegar, soy sauce, coconut milk, bay leaf, and peppercorns. Simmer for a few minutes to let the flavors come together. Chicken adobo can simmer for hours–since the veggies cook much faster, the sauce needs a little time on its own to become delicious.

Add the kangkong to the wok. It will seem like too much. It isn’t. Let the heat wilt the greens, turning them gently with your spoon so that everything gets exposed to the sauce.

When the kangkong is soft and swimming in the sauce, turn off the heat and add the eggs. Mix gently so that the eggs sit in the sauce, and leave the dish for a while so the eggs can soak.

Serve with rice.