02 June 2021

The lives of others

Throughout the Covid year, the New York Times' At Home section has recommended remarkable television shows and films from around the world, to engage us all during our confinements. (Incidentally, the last installment of that special pandemic Sunday newspaper section was this past Sunday 5/30/21, which may well be as definitive of an announcement that the pandemic is waning than we would get from the CDC.) I found some really great shows. Probably the most engaging 'international' shows for me over the past year have been Israeli and German-Israeli ones: Shtisel, Unorthodox, (both on Netflix), and Srugim, an older series (Amazon Prime). These all feature storylines about characters belonging to religious Jewish communities, the ultra-Orthodox Hasidim in the former two, and the modern Orthodox in the latter. Initially, I think my engagement was borne first out of fascination and connections from some limited personal experiences. (During one graduate school summer, I worked as a teacher at a Chabad House daycare/preschool, wearing long skirts and long sleeves, and I recall the rituals and kosher meals there. Also, every Saturday I see observant Jews walking to observe Shabbat in my neighborhood.) The rituals portrayed in Shtisel may be striking to outsiders (and seemed to be equally entertaining for some of the ultra-Orthodox themselves. See Why Shtisel has captured the global imagination, BBC, April 2019). For outsiders, it's also interesting to see the apparent incongruity of the strict religious rituals being practiced by thoroughly modern, contemporarily-clad characters, such as the young Jewish doctors, accountants, graphic designers, teachers in Srugim.

For its beautifully stark set design and cinematography, Shtisel is definitely worth multiple viewings as it has gotten from me. (I have also read the analysis Reading Shtisel by film scholar Maurice Yacowar, of course I have! He's got a new analysis to cover the third season too.). The show is a work of art, and a showcase for Israeli acting talent. (The miniseries Unorthodox features the breakout actor Shira Haas who was the remarkable Ruchami in Shtisel. At least two other actors from Srugim show up in Shtisel--the professor Avri who is the kind but lost Lippe in Shtisel, and the medical patient Mrs. Schwartzman who is the shrewd Rebbetzin widow in Shtisel.)

 And, yet. It's not the special rituals, or dress, or food that ultimately draw us in to these shows, but the common trials and tribulations of human life. Despite the men's knitted kippes and the married women's snoods, the quick blessings before eating and drinking, these shows are about the common slices of human life, no matter from where and of whom. The shows portray families seeking their way after the matriarch dies, of sons figuring out their futures and regretting past decisions, of women seeking a place and vocation, of close-knit friends sharing meals together while anxiously seeking life partners and comfortable lives. These struggles engage us because we can relate. We also relate to the human imperfections, to the fact that as with some of the characters, not everyone is likeable (Shulem!?), or makes the right choice, or exudes goodness, kindness, tolerance. It is these latter bits that pull me at me now, as I shift my attention to finding new shows or accounts: the snide comments about 'the evil people' (apparently applied to both non-Jews and Zionists, according to the elder Shtisel's brother) and the subtle mentions and glimpses of the Jewish settlements and the rural areas outside Jerusalem in Srugim, areas that I know are home to people not reflected at all in these shows. What about their lives, their families, their futures in these same lands, among these same people? How might a show about Palestinian families or young adult characters depict common struggles about the future, love, and happiness? I'm not making a political statement here, so much as a human one. I know the lives of these others are under dramatically different circumstances, deplorable ones in fact. But I also know there are common human quests, questions, and desires among them. So, as much as I enjoyed the Israeli shows depicting certain Jewish lives, I noticed an absence, an invisibility. I'd like to learn more about the lives of the others that were missing in these depictions; I hope I find that show on Netflix someday.

09 May 2021

How to Cook A Wolf

Sourdough bread: yes. Sourdough waffles: yes, Dry cured bacon: yes. Sauerkraut: yes. Pressure-cooker chana masala: yes. Air fryer chicken wings: yes. Borne out of circumstance, we've baked, cooked, preserved, and experimented in our own kitchen, like so many others have this past year or so. It's not the Depression-era or wartime creative-out-of-necessity cooking, as described by MFK Fisher in her book How To Cook a Wolf. (Although there was that run on flour all over the country: remember that a year ago spring? Friends shared their flour supply with me, and one day my bread-baking neighbor discovered some precious rye and grabbed an extra bag for me.) It's also not the same world as Fisher's: she would be surprised by the grocery online ordering and delivery, the elaborate restaurant take-out, even to-go cocktails. But somehow there is something familiar there in Fisher's account. (She has figured prominently in my observations about food rituals earlier too, see Provence, 2013.)

I don't even think it's about the eating of the meals, although Fisher's wider works certainly celebrate the pleasures of eating. Maybe it's just the idea that meals--the planning of them and making them--in times of scarcity or in times of lockdowns, become especially pronounced in our daily lives and center firmly on where we make our homes. Meal-planning and preparation during the pandemic feel more painstaking, maybe more thoughtful, definitely slower. While my household is not looking into how to cook wolves, we read the At Home section in the NY Times each Sunday, looking for new takes on roasted chicken or one pan-meals, or we watch Samin Nosrat on Netflix or Kenji Lopez-Alt on Youtube, for ideas about how to use ingredients, or try new cooking techniques with basic kitchen tools. We confer during our work 'breaks' at home about the next meal. Even if we opt for takeout, there's a similar quality; we ponder the options and look over the online menus carefully before making our orders. And we consult cookbooks, on our shelves or online. Just last weekend, I was able to visit my in-laws (thank you Pfizer vax #2!), and I gathered and steamed clams from their beach, digging through my mother-in-law's cookbooks for the right recipe. While I'm no Kenji, I recorded the results on my own 'cooking video' last week to show some friends. You can call it my How to Cook Clams contribution to Youtube (below, or here Part 1 and Part 2). This is all to say, meals have become a central focus in many folks' day to day lives during the pandemic. That won't change soon, or ever, but it will shift. To mark the two weeks following our COVID vaccines, my spouse and I enjoyed a celebratory dinner the other night, at a real restaurant, with wine, with appetizers, with dessert, for the first time since 3/11/2020! We sat in the enclosed outdoor dining area at Ethan Stowell's How To Cook a Wolf restaurant in Seattle's Madison Park neighborhood, and while I did enjoy my meal, very much, I especially enjoyed eating it in someone else's dining room. 

06 May 2021

Water, water everywhere

When a person becomes an all-season swimmer, floater, dipper, swimbler, every body of water one passes by, in the car or on foot, takes on new possibilities. They begin to look like potential dipping spots. In some ways, it’s like any other social phenomenon—the way we begin to notice everywhere the very thing we are wanting or perhaps experiencing ourselves: Suddenly and inexplicably, it seems everyone is pregnant, or drives that color car, or has that pair of sneakers. On the other hand, maybe it is a little different for all-season open water swimmers. For one, many of us are deeply motivated by the physical and psychological effects of swimming in the open. Secondly, it’s not like water isn’t around us. It’s just that we see it with new eyes. We suddenly notice that creek, or canal, or beach, and then begin assessing it for foot access, potential cleanliness, safety, water current, convenience. We post questions on social media boards about swimming holes in that town or that part of the county, state, country, or share tips of good places through word of mouth other ways. It’s as if we open ourselves to new possibilities.

What makes a suitable watering hole anyway? That depends largely on what we are seeking. Roger Deakin in Waterlog, his now classic account of a solo swimming journey through the British Isles, describes swimming spots that to me sound strangely stagnant, or abandoned, or creepily eel-filled, and even harrowing. But his was a pursuit of discovery, of country and of self. For contemporary serious open water swimmers who are training for triathlons or other sporting pursuits, a long shoreline, good proximity to the beach from the water, and manageable water currents matter. And then for slow swimmers like me (there’s a whole global community of us on social media), we’re just looking for some place not too exposed, not too busy with boats, where we can get in slowly, float around, look at nature, catch some sun rays or raindrops, maybe share some gossip if we’re in good company. I personally like a good cove on a lakeshore where the water is not too warm and definitely gin clear (an apt British aphorism, one of many I learned from Deakin), with a spot for a chair and my two bags, maybe some sun. Or I’ll take a saltwater seashore, if I can get into the water safely over sand, rocks, oyster shells and if the water isn’t too gunky at high or low tide, and the area isn’t too exposed.

Lake shoreline with trees at water's edge

A favorite swimming spot on the lakeshore

But these are preferences and being able to satisfy them is a privilege tied to where we live. That said, we outdoor swimmers are a flexible bunch, and some of us (not me!) are quite adventurous, like Deakin. I think the thing that ties us together though is that we all get such pleasure from open water swimming. The pursuit of this particular pleasure expands our perspectives. So we begin to look for additional opportunities to get wet. During the pandemic, this pursuit has added novelty and a sense of adventure to otherwise mundane routines. For me, that expansiveness has felt especially notable during seasonal changes, as we look back and we look forward. For example, as summer turned to fall last year, I was quite engaged with reviewing and documenting the places I’d swum all summer and the new places I’d found (planning the limited hiking and camping we did do, I prioritized bodies of water!). There was a sort of poignancy as the shrinking light and working hours of autumn limited my swimming options but also anticipation as I wondered how much longer I could do it and what I’d have to do to continue as the weather and water became colder. (Let’s just say my friends and I learned some remarkable body-warming strategies.) Then there was the transition from fall to winter, and the excitement of a cold dip to celebrate the new year-- polar bear plunges as they are called locally. I even noted social media posts of really creative wintery plunges around the world, into ice baths in garbage bins in gardens: pandemic conditions inspired creative swimming solutions!  Now we move from spring towards summer and the possibilities get even better in the northern hemisphere. With great excitement, we notice water temperature readings climbing out of the low 40s (F) or low teens (C). A friend reports on some potentially interesting swimming possibilities during a family outing last weekend along our Puget Sound waters (as she ruefully also admits she didn’t think yet to bring her swimming gear with her!). A British islander’s social media posts begin to feature locales different from the quaint village swimming spot she’s photographed all winter. We are paying attention to the water everywhere, looking for our next swimming adventure.