Category Archives: Dispatches From the Front

Happenings from my real life. Newsworthy and noteworthy.

Enter sleep mode

A timely little article in the most recent National Geographic sagely warns me that my work/sleep patterns over the last several days have had essentially the same effect on my brain that several shots of whiskey in rapid succession would have…

Not wishing to head down the dark and twisted path of drunk blogging just yet, I just wanted to let you know, gentle reader, that I’m working on sobering up–so to speak–and will return shortly.

Meantime, amuse yourself thusly. It’s an oldie, but a goody–and showcases why my little friend Tiger is one of the cutest muppets in the world.

Real Estate

So we did indeed do our cooking and our bike riding, but best of all, we did a little exploring. After the rest of the family hopped a plane back to greener pastures, my mom and I hit the road north, to spend the night in an Earthship. (Photos here.)

I suppose this could just be a diverting trip to an unusual hotel. I could leave it at that… but you know me. Being possessed of an almost pathological compulsion to think deep thoughts, and being snarled in the long process of crafting my own future, this trip was bound to become part of the larger, ongoing a-musing that occupies so much of my frontal lobe these days.

Let me see if I can distill this down, fish the gold bits outta the pan…

Economics, the way we currently play that game, seems more and more to me simply another word for bondage. Entered into willingly (albeit ignorantly), and with gilded, velvet-lined bonds, maybe, but bondage nonetheless. The genius of the game, though, is that marketeers have married in our minds those chains with notions like freedom and independence–it’s your stuff that sets you free. And so we gleefully pull the chains a little tighter, and believe the slogans.

A little voice somewhere inside me started crying Hogwash a long time ago, and she’s only been getting louder.

I’ve dutifully played my part as money filter–passing dollars from employer to debtor for years on end, skimming off the leftover gunk for myself–but I think it’s time to slip outta this system altogether. Or better yet, to Rube Goldberg me another contraption, one that has a beating human heart at the center, instead of hunks of cheap plastic and glitter.

What I’ve been simmering on that hot plate in the back of my mind looks like an implosion or inversion of the American Dream–the house, the property isn’t the end of the means; it becomes part of the spinning gears of the means themselves. The end is my life itself, lived on its own terms. An Earthship, or something like it, fits right in to that plan, in so many ways: the garbage-heap building materials, the DIY subversiveness, the self-sustaining infrastructure, the basic realness of it all… even just the organic shape of the space when you’re inside it–all these things jive with a worldview that’s less and less about baubles and more about bliss.

It’s hard to talk about integrating compassion and integrity into your life in these pervasive, fundamental ways without sounding, well, a bit yoga-retreat-y. Like all that patchouli finally got to the ole brain cells.

But it’s about more than woowoo and Namaste-ing each other all day long. I’m talking about survival, both in a Love-Your-Mother-bumpersticker sort of way and in a my-soul-will-become-a-sawdust-raisin-if-I-don’t-get-out-of-the-rat-race kind of way. Both are critical, and urgent.

Raj Patel’s wonderful little book, The Value of Nothing, summed up what I’m trying to get at very well, in a brief discussion of Buddhist economics:

The real value of something is not in its ability to satisfy a craving, a desire, a vanity, but to meet the need for well-being.

It all stems from that simple truth. All of it–how I want to structure the rest of my life, how I will value my time and my labor, what role stuff plays in my life. An Earthship, or something like it, isn’t a magic elixir or a patent cure-all. But it is a tool, a means, a process, a question and an answer, about what and who and how we value.

Kitchen stories

I don’t come from a picture-taking family. My father took the camera out of the household when he left, and the delineation is pretty clear in the family photos: there is ample documentation of my earliest years, BC–before camera–but from kindergarten on, it’s only annual school and dance portraits, and the occasional candid from a field trip or a special event. Things pick up again a bit after high school, but having not grown up with a camera pointed by me or at me, I tend to forget that I even have one–much less remember to use it.

My mom is coming to visit soon, and her only requests so far have been to go for a bike ride (yes, please) and to cook together (yes, please!). This morning, I sipped my coffee over an untidy sheaf of recipes–handwritten on magazine insert cards, napkins, coasters, and scraps of paper; typed on binder-ready pages; clipped from magazines, newspapers, and food packages. I have to admit that the nerd in me couldn’t resist organizing just a little. Alphabetizing seemed the simplest, and the quickest. But things soon got complicated, and I kept changing my mind mid-stream. “Acorn Squash Lasagne” rightly leads off the A’s, but then somewhere near the middle there’s an entire “Jimmy” section–Jimmy’s Shortbread Waffles* should be under W or S, and would be if I were organizing this for anyone but me. But thanks to the good words of a writer I’ve never met about her friend who I’ve also never met, the waffles stay under J.

If I weren’t pressed for time, I could have carried that trend out: lentil soup and chocolate mousse would have been filed together, for the house where I first made each. Feijoada and docinos de abobora for a warm day in September, when I was new in town and didn’t really know anyone. Cold carrot-ginger soup and chicken and onion curry for the way they keep coming up in conversation with the same person. Posole and ceviche for the way I got my first taste of each while living here. The autobiographical recipe collection–very Rob Gordon.

Poring over all the scraps of paper ended up feeling more like I imagine it feels for other people to flip through the family photo album–so many of the dishes I love belong to very specific times and places and people in my life. Standing over my very old and very cranky range with dogs underfoot, Boris McCutcheon on the stereo, and my mom at my side will be yet another snapshot to include. The problem now is deciding what to make…

*Sadly, I can’t eat these any more. But they’re so flippin’ good I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of the recipe. You should give it a whirl.

It has sprung

Yesterday the sky said its good morning with an inch of heavy, wet snow. Gone before breakfast was over, its weight was so brief the daffodils sprang back upright as if it had never happened, their yellow throats open to the sun that followed.

Spring shakes off winter in much the same way I might shake off a particularly deep sleep–slowly, in fits and starts. After each tap on the snooze button, it rolls back over to doze, groaning, before finally hauling itself out of bed, now unstoppable.

The pile of coats on our kitchen chairs bears testament to the spring’s meteorologic hijinks–in the past week, I’ve been outside in shorts and sandals, in rain gear, in parka and gloves. Spring can afford to be capricious, because she knows we will always forgive her. Sure, there’s mud and wind and allergies, but they lie forgotten (or at least far less aggravating) in the irreproducible glow of new green leaves, in the first crocuses sprung up overnight, in the smell of earth no longer dormant.

Keep Moving

Not so long ago, I met a woman who’d learned to tap dance from Gene Kelly, before he was anyone more than a good-looking, light-footed fella from Pennsylvania. She told me that he knew even then how to make an entrance, glissading down a bannister in the building where she took lessons. At the bottom of the stairs, he took her hand with a flourish and grandly kissed it. The memory still made her giggle like a schoolgirl all these years later. I told her I’d seen Debbie Reynolds dance when I was very young, and how the first time I ever got stitches was after a fall in dance class (my mother taught me irony when she nicknamed me Grace). I believed this woman when she told me she was happy with the life she’d lived, is living–because she so obviously believed it.

In my work, I spend a lot of time with older folks. I see how so many of us–me included, I must admit–treat our elders like idiot children, and how so many of them accept the role without too much resistance, relinquishing their personalities to slip into mild caricatures. I’ve had some of the most interesting, surprising conversations with elders, usually just because I made eye contact, asked a question, and gave them the space to answer it. If you’re in the right frame of mind, it can be incredibly fun to have your assumptions turned on their collective ear–and we make many assumptions about the elderly.

I can’t claim causation, but the correlation seems clear: the people who are allowed to retain their personhood and their individuality as they age, those who are still spoken to like adults, still expected to have opinions and theories and ideas of their own, seem more like to remain lively and spry, both in mind and in body. Stagnation, it seems, bodes ill for all but algae.

My dancing patient inspired me to resurrect a little softshoe of my own, though the tactical boots did it little justice. I don’t think she was impressed, but at least it was entertaining. More importantly, she reminded me to never assume I know your stories before I ask you.

Welcome, class

Tonight in my OB lecture, I compared a placenta to a frittata and pointed out the obvious resemblance of the prepackaged newborn bunting to a Klan hood, and that was before making an inadvertent rude gesture and miming all the things one should never never never do to a baby…

Seems they’ll let most anyone tinker with tractable young minds.


Through and around the shelves of shampoo and hair brushes filters the sound of voices. I am looking for simple brown rubber bands on a wall of scrunchies (they’re baaaack!), barrettes, and sparkly things. The voices, three or four talking over each other, are louder than they need to be, but not in argument. The conversation tumbles on itself, switching from English to Spanish and back again midsentence, never settling into either for more than a phrase or two. Someone’s having a PAR-teeee for an hijo, yes? From what I gather, it’s gonna be good. Bring your primos.

The New Mexico accent is a mestizo dream, all juggled vowels and willful cadence. It’s in an awful hurry to get it done manaña; it saunters at a dead run. The pace of the tongue matches the pace of driving, of paperwork, of any little thing you might do in a day–all following its own time signature. It embraces its own caricature; it’s a proud badge of place, a secret handshake, a line on a map. My Appalachian roots, my hillbilly tongue get it, even if my white skin and my Anglo name do not.

As much as the broken-open sky, the jagged Sandias sugar-coated with snow, and the unexpectedly riotous earth tones around me, this is one thing I have come to love about this place, and fiercely: a new color for an ear’s palate.

A preview

Yesterday, I knocked a winter’s worth of crunchy leaves off the hammock and lay down. The thin filter of bare branches above me was enough to cool the weak winter sunlight, and as I rocked my skin chilled and warmed, chilled and warmed.

Just the simple word dogwood in the book I was reading sent me into a moment of full-body homesickness, a yearning for springtime in the Blue Ridge.
My cells remember, and look forward to the turning of the seasons, in this place or in that.

From the night before

Christmas Presents!

I think maybe the dogs read a certain post I wrote recently, because they seem to have taken it upon themselves to bring a little Christmas cheer into the house…

Last night, we came home from an unexpected trip to the holiday-pillaged grocery store (more on that later) to find a special gift waiting for us. Artfully and prominently placed atop a woven green blanket on the couch was most of a tiny skeleton–pigeon, as it turns out. Tiny pearls of currant-bright blood clots still clung to its ivory surfaces and nestled in the weave of the blanket, shining like scarlet pearls. It really did look rather festive, truth be told. Festive, and a little gross.

You know how there’s always that person whose gifts you dread to open? It’s usually a well-meaning relative who really has no idea what you might want, and so gets you something extra cutesy or something the teevee said the Kids These Days would like. You nearly break into a cold sweat pulling back the wrapping paper, and you have your fake smile and an enthusiastic (and totally honest), “Oh, you really shouldn’t have!” at the ready.

Maybe I should have resurrected that act for the pooches. I think Santa’s little four-footed helpers were a bit hurt that we didn’t appreciate their efforts more. Brows furrowed, they seemed to be saying, You’re putting that in the trash?!?

Well, it’s not like they kept the receipt or anything.