God wants what we already are

You know that friend you have, the one who is constantly reinventing herself? Every six to eight months, she breathlessly announces that she’s found a new direction, a new purpose, a new passion, and everything is going to be different now.

If she’s religious, she’ll say she’s finally learned to listen to what God wants for her life, and from this day forward, she’s dedicating her life to this new thing that is absolutely where she is supposed to be and what she is supposed to be doing.

That friend is probably wrong. Whether or not she is selling something, she is probably going to fail. How do I know? Because of that word “new.”

This isn’t just true for people who are prone to fads. I knew a woman who had an intensely rich interior life. She was very generous, but tended toward being withdrawn and insightful. But with the best intentions in mind, she would frequently announce a whole new approach to life, a radical reinvention of herself. I remember one time when she thought the Lord was calling her to be less negative and to say “yes” to literally everything. Even unreasonable requests from unreasonable people. I guess she thought that she was too closed-off and focused on self, and the way to remedy this was to be radically open.

That didn’t last long, nor should it have.

This is not to say that God never wants us to do something new. He wants this constantly, in fact. It’s terrible how much he wants it, and how radically. But it’s also true that what God wants from us is the development and perfection of what we already have. Or, more properly, he wants what we already are; and if we are looking to please him, that is where we should always start.

Here’s the crazy thing: God will even use the bad things that we already are to bring about good. I guess being without limit allows you to take the broad view, even of human beings.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: 木偶人1962, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Present madness

Ladies and gentlemen, do you suffer from . . . . PRESENT MADNESS?

Present madness is when you find yourself choosing, paying for, and possibly even being ecstatic about a gift, even though it is stupid and insane and nobody wants it. You do it because you’ve been caught up in the panic and hysteria of Christmas shopping, and after a certain point, your brain takes one look at your emotional state and decides it wanted no part of this, and leaves. So you end up paying too much money for something that is objectively garbage, but it presents itself to you as if it’s not only a good present, but the thing without which Christmas simply will not happen. 

If this has never happened to you, then please consider the following essay my gift to you, so that you may be happy in the life you have chosen. If what follows is familiar, then this is also your gift: The gift of knowing it’s not just you. 

Present madness happened to me when, as a newlywed, I ended up buying my new husband a heating pad from a drug store for Christmas, and was devastated when he very understandably didn’t like it, because it was a heating pad from a drug store

It happened to me back when I was single and had time to wander around a mall unimpeded, and yet somehow I ended up buying my younger brother a rubber steering wheel cover decorated with red and yellow flames. (My brother did not own a car.)

It happened to me last year, when I came within microns of pressing “order” for a pair of Harlem Globe Trotter Heelys for a child who not only never expressed an interest in Heelys, but doesn’t know who the Harlem Globe Trotters are and may not even know what basketball is.

And it came very close to happening this year, when we went to GameStop (ptui, ptui) a week before Christmas in search of a very specific item.

Before you judge us for what I’m about to relate, please remember that we had “finished shopping” weeks ago, and were smugly resting on our materialistic laurels, quietly sneering at those inferior parents who had squandered their Advent praying or serving the poor or whatever. We, being wise and prudent, had Christmas literally in the bag. We had ordered almost everything online, and let the goodies come to us, and honestly, most of the gifts were wholesome, thoughtful, and occasionally delightful. But, about a week before Christmas, we locked ourselves into our bedroom to make sure everything on our list was actually in our possession. 

Oh dear. It turned out two items we had ordered were still in transit, and expected Thursday (Christmas eve). One item had quietly changed its expected arrival date to March 25. One apparently hadn’t realized it was coming all the way from China, and in a panic, sent us a rather hostile email saying that there’s no way it would make it on time unless we coughed up an extra $40 in shipping, and we had to say yes or no two weeks ago, and it went to spam. And one was still meekly sitting in an Etsy cart, hoping and praying I’d actually order it. 

The lo, the twinkly world of Christmas joy became dark in our eyes. And so we succumbed to Present Madness.

We shouted something vague at the kids about being back soon, and we went to, uh, seven stores, looking to just pick up a few things to fill in the gaps in our carefully calibrated present list.

And we found nothing. Walmart, Target, Michael’s, the local toy store, the local comic store, even the retail wasteland known as TJ Maxx, but NOTHING.

To GameStop then we came, burning burning burning. 

If you’re not familiar with GameStop, it’s a sort of geeky gehenna that sells video games, used video games, and a horrifying array of spectacularly useless game-related merch. The rug smells funny, the air is bad, the employees are all shriveled monsters, and whoever sets the prices should go to prison. Last time I went to GameStop, many moons ago, I went to advocate for my gangly, curly-haired teenage son, who had somehow gotten himself embroiled in a complicated situation involving a box of special edition Sonic the Hedgehog breakfast cereal. I don’t ever want to talk about that. But the line was moving turrribly slowly, and I soon saw that the delay was being caused by a middle-aged woman with stooped shoulders and baggy eyes, who was passionately arguing for justice on behalf of her gangly, curly-headed teenage son. Something about reward points and the collectable My Hero Academia shoelaces he had ordered.

And I says to myself, I says, if I wanted to look in a mirror, I could do that in the comfort of my own home, and at least I could sit down. So I never went back, until last weekend, when we had nowhere else to turn and GameStop knew it.

My feet hurt so much, they were audibly whimpering.  My nose was running behind my mask, and I had to go to the bathroom. We hadn’t made a dent on our list at all, except that we had bought one thing that took care of one kid, but which shifted the balance of presents so that now a kid who had formerly been done suddenly needed a little extra present to even things up. Yes, I said “needed!” Don’t question me! I’ll cut you!

So we made the ultimate sacrifice and went to Game Stop, and we still didn’t find the thing we were looking for, because it’s Game Stop. We circled around and around to make sure the thing was not there, and it was not. But. What is this?  What is this amazing thing? It is so amazing! It is, and you’re not going to believe this! It is a Dragonball Z hot air popcorn maker that lights up! So cool! And we knew exactly who would want such a thing: A child who didn’t need any more Christmas presents. But it is on sale! And it is a limited edition! Or maybe it doesn’t light up, but is just orange! Hard to tell from the box! Only six left! And her birthday is in April, so we could pack it away and be ahead of the game! We’d have to be insane NOT to buy it! So we grabbed one and got into line, chortling to ourselves at what a wonderful present we had scored, and how much progress we were making, because look at us, buying something!

Luckily, it was GameStop, which means the line was moving slowly. As we waited, we had time to stop and reflect. And we realized that we were about to spend $30 on absolute garbage that would make zero people happy. So, get this, we put it back, and we left the store without buying anything.

Just this once, we triumphed over Present Madness.

Except then we went to Walmart and bought a Frozen II Karaoke machine and also a rose gold microphone at Aldi, in case we need it. We might need it! I’ll cut you!

Maybe you think this is an essay about how we learned our lesson about excessive materialism, and how, having renounced the Dragonball Z Air Popper and all its empty promises, we vowed to realign our hearts toward the Christchild, who was born in Bethlehem with only swaddling clothes to cover him and only a choir of angels to sing him to sleep, and that was enough. That was enough. 

But no. One of my sisters just mentioned on Facebook she’s eyeing a self-stirring mug they just put out at Walmart, and now I need to find my car keys. I honestly think the angels will still be singing when I get back. 

The O Antiphons reimagined: My interview with Sr. Ansgar Holmberg

Ansgar Holmberg, C.S.J., 86, didn’t paint her O Antiphon series to edify or instruct anyone. They were meant only for herself.

Ansgar (she likes to be called by her first name) has been with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet for 67 years, and although she has spent time teaching children and offering spiritual direction, she created these seven paintings over the course of three years as a personal way to contemplate Scripture.

“I had read what other people had said, but I decided to paint them for myself, for me to understand them better. That’s one of the ways I learn,” Ansgar said.

Now the seven paintings, done in brilliant gouache (a kind of opaque watercolor), are gathered in a small book, Praying the Advent Names of God, paired with poems composed by another sister in the community, Joan Mitchell, C.S.J.

The O Antiphons are a series of seven verses dating from the sixth century and prayed during vespers during the last week of Advent. Each antiphon is a name of Jesus taken from Scripture, and they are the basis for the popular Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

Ansgar’s images are saturated with color and inhabit a strange space between iconography and myth. Ansgar said she did not set out to express a theological idea with her works; she simply followed her intuition.

“I didn’t have any rules or laws or requests put upon me, but it was my own expression of where I was at that time as I worked with these,” she said. “I put my own spin on it, and it went a bit more cosmic.”

Wisdom, for instance, is frequently portrayed in Western art with symbols like a lamp, a book or a female form enthroned; but in Ansgar’s conception, Wisdom is a figure descending fluidly from the heavens, grasping the sun in one hand, breathing out waters and engraving the bed of a riverbank with the other hand. Wisdom, Ansgar said, is proceeding from the womb of God.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

Image: “O Wisdom” from Praying the Advent Names of God by Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ, and Joan Mitchell, CSJ, used with permission 

 

Hush, there’s a baby nearby!

Advent at the Fisher house includes singing, lighting of candles, opening a door on the Advent calendar, reading the passage from the calendar’s matching booklet, picking the appropriate homemade ornament and hanging it on the Jesse tree, looking up and reading the corresponding passage from scripture, and plucking the chocolate out of your own personal Advent calendar, if you haven’t already eaten them all, if you haven’t already brushed your teeth. Well, brush them again, then.

Fisher family Advent has, in short, transcended tradition and achieved rigmarole status. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m happy to be doing special things that we don’t do at any other time of year. It’s a nice combination of scripture and aesthetics and memorable lessons, perfect for children and adults alike. It wouldn’t really feel like Advent without it.

But it would feel even more like Advent if I didn’t yell at everyone the whole time we were doing it. It would feel more like Advent if I focused less on reading the right Bible verse in the correct tone of voice, and focused more on being open to the word of God. If I lit a flame in the darkness and let that symbol speak to the kids’ hearts’ directly, rather than correcting them for pronouncing “Is-ra-el” wrong, or brooding in my heart that I’ve raised them all wrong, and we need to start doing scripture drills every night, and I need to start being a better mother so I will have better kids who do things better. 

If, in short, I prepared a way for the Lord for the sake of the Lord, rather than preparing for the sake of getting preparations done.

Shh, there’s a little baby nearby! 

That’s what I’m trying now to keep in mind. This thought, this image of a newborn nearby, helps make my Advent a little more like Advent. It makes everything a little gentler, a little quieter, a little more slow and thoughtful, just as if there were a tiny baby in the next room, someone I don’t want to disturb, someone I don’t want to grieve. Someone whose world I want to make warm and quiet, soft, welcoming, and kind.

I can’t always control what I have to do during the day, but I can control how I do it. For the sake of the baby nearby, I can take a breath and give a mild answer if someone insults me. For the sake of the baby, I can offer help to someone who’s struggling, rather than waiting for them to ask. I can warmly compliment someone for achieving something small. I can hush my tone of voice; I can apologize sincerely when I screw it up. I can try again without flagellating myself for my inevitable sins. I can skip the sarcastic remark; I can forego the conversation that will only lead to irritation. I can think of the baby nearby, think of the kind of world I want him to grow up in, and I can do what I can to make it a little softer. 

I can recognize that I have been noisy and quarrelsome, critical and demanding, and I can think of the baby nearby, and I can hush.

This is what works for me, since so much of my life has been dedicated to caring for babies. But what about you? What if you don’t have a baby in your life?

Oh, but you do.  You have someone helpless, someone in need, someone who needs patience, someone who is easily frightened or overwhelmed. Someone overlooked. Someone who is just starting out, someone who isn’t getting much done but could still use some praise. Someone whose world would be better if you decided to act out of love. 

The “baby” may look like a snotty teenager, an obnoxious co-worker, or a difficult parent. It may look like a pushy stranger on the sidewalk, or a rude cashier. It may look like a priest who’s disappointed you, or an internet troll who really is out to get you. It may look like someone who never thinks of what you need. 

Or it may even be yourself. We can be so extremely hard on themselves at this time of year, keeping up a constant interior litany of blame and reproach for not doing it right, telling ourselves terrible things that we’d never dream of saying about anyone else. 

This is what people are like: Needy and demanding, fussy and inconveniently fragile. Would we respond any differently if the people we encountered were new babies? Could we be a little more gentle?

What if you remembered that you, yourself, were a little baby once, and even though you can feed and care for yourself now, you still deserve to be treated with gentleness, even if only by yourself? 

At all times of the year, but especially at Advent: It’s always about the person closes to us – or, if you like, it’s all about the baby nearby. And this is how we serve the Person who, liturgically speaking, is nearby, about to be born. We tell our kids that Christmas is Baby Jesus’ birthday, and the kind of presents he wants is for us to be good to each other — and yes, to ourselves. Sometimes the best kind of goodness we can offer is just a little gentleness, a soft touch, a decision not to make noise. A little hush, for the sake of the baby. This is a good way to make way for the Lord: With gentleness.

It’s Advent. There’s a baby nearby. Hush, hush. 

[This essay has been modified excerpted from an essay first published in The Catholic Weekly in 2016.]

Image by Paul Goyette from Chicago, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Children’s confessions are just as real as adults’

Recently, I’ve come across several instances of people taking the seal of confession lightly. Not priests, thank God (although I have heard priests disclosing things that skirted too close to the line), but laymen — specifically, laymen talking about their children’s confessions.

(Before I go any further, here is my vital reminder: If you do encounter a priest who has broken the seal of confession, or if you find evidence that this has happened, SAY SOMETHING. Tell his bishop, and demand a response. This is a big stinking deal and you should make sure it gets addressed. A priest who breaks the seal of confession needs to be stopped ASAP.)

Carelessness around children’s confessions represents two failures: A failure to take confession seriously enough, and a failure to take children’s spiritual lives seriously enough. Both can be disastrous; or, at very least, they can erode our understanding of what sacraments are for, and therefore erode our faith.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

I feel like I should note that I was a little crankier than absolutely necessary while writing this. Sorry about that! 

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

 

What’s for supper? Vol. 235: In which we fight in the shade

Today, we are having potato latkes and noodle kugel, as described here. This is because, being only Jewish, I thought today was the last night of Chanukah. It was actually Thursday night, as we discovered when we ran out of candles on Thursday night. Oops! But there’s definitely no rule you can only have latkes and kugel during Chanukah, so away we go.

I’m about to put my kugel in the oven. I goosed my childhood recipe with apple bits and blonde raisins soaked in rum, and a little of this and that, and I think it’s going to be delicious. The kids are positively disposed toward it, because “kugel” is a silly word. 

Latkes recipe:

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Kugel recipe:

Jump to Recipe

Here’s what else we had this week:

SATURDAY
Lasagna, birthday cake

Speaking of delicious, we had Benny’s birthday party this weekend, and she requested Damien’s famous lasagna.This is a Burneko recipe and he really puts you through your paces, with a béchamel sauce, a pork ragu, fresh mozzarella and parmesan, and the works. It takes about 300 hours to make and it is heavenly. I always get bad pictures, but it is pure bliss. 

Slightly better picture from the next day, when I had leftovers for lunch:

Since we couldn’t invite people over for a party, we had a spa day in the living room. I decorated with yards and yards of tulle, and we hung paper birds from threads, and blew up dozens of balloons.

We had assorted fancy snacks (mini eclairs, chocolate kiss pretzel bites, chocolate covered cherries, etc.) and grape soda with bendy straws, and then we proceeded to put on terrifying facial masks and tried to balance chilled cucumbers on our eyes.

When we had enough of that, we painted each other’s nails while listening to Taylor Swift. It was everything a spa day ought to be.

Benny and I made some birds out of marzipan, which is harder than I expected. We colored them with gel food coloring and watercolor brushes. Then we made little nests out of melted chocolate and shredded coconut. The end result was . . . really something.

Anyway, we had fun, and Benny was happy. Here she is wearing her new bird dress and wearing the glasses that make rainbow hearts appear around light sources, including birthday candle flames. 

Oh, we also made these cute little caprese ladybug snacks. A cracker, a slice of mozzarella, a basil leaf, and a tomato half with an olive head. 

The dots are, unfortunately, icing. We need to figure out something savory that clings like icing. 

SUNDAY
Meatloaf, roast potatoes and squash

I honestly don’t remember Sunday. We were definitely running around. Damien made the meatloaf

Jump to Recipe

and I cut up some butternut squash and questionable potatoes, and roasted them with olive oil, salt and pepper. 

Yes, we are eating meatloaf on paper plates. I started using paper plates when I was pregnant, and oopsie, never stopped. 

I feel like I always say this, but just in case: To easily cut and peel butternut squash, stab it several times with a fork and the microwave it for 4 minutes. This doesn’t cook it, but loosens it up enough that you can process it without needing a machete or chainsaw.

MONDAY
Nachos

Easy peasy. I cooked up some ground beef with orange powder from some envelopes, sprinkled it over tortilla chips, and topped it with shredded cheese from a bag, then heated it up. I set out red and green salsa, sour cream, and jalapeño slices, and I think that’s it. Bloop.

I also have this little jar of corn queso that I keep taking in and out of the fridge. I’m afraid to open it and heat it up, because what if nobody wants it, and it goes to waste? So I put it out on the table unopened, and if someone wants it, they can open it. Of course they don’t, because it’s not open, and they’re afraid I’ll yell at them for opening it. Then, after everyone’s eaten, I put it back in the fridge. I wish there were some way of getting paid for being this stupid. At this point, it’s an actual achievement. 

TUESDAY
Sandwiches, carrot cake

Tubesday was my birthday! I only had a little work to do and barely lifted a finger, while Damien did all the driving and meal prep. He made (and, this is important: shopped for) the delicious sandwiches I requested.

He splits some baguettes and gives them a good olive oiling, then lays on — I don’t even know what, prosciutto, capicola, salami, provolone, fresh basil, sun dried tomatoes, and misc. They are delicious.

He also bought an assortment of frozen appetizers, and some excellent carrot cakes. 

Well, first, for reasons unclear to me, the girls brought in an invisible cake

then Damien brought in the carrot cake

and I managed to blow out the candles with only eleven tries

Now I am 46. I had a lovely day and am happy to be alive with this family for another year!

WEDNESDAY
Pepperoncini beef sandwiches, fries, pomegranates 

A very tasty meal with minimal effort. You chunk some roasts into the slow cooker with a jar of pepperoncini and juice and shake in a good amount of Worcestershire sauce. I’m very excited about Worcestershire sauce these days. Cook, shred the meat,

pick out a few peppers, and serve on crusty rolls with provolone and mayonnaise.

A fine sammich. 

THURSDAY
Hamburgers and chips

It was supposed to be a meal of summery picnic food (honey mustard chicken drumsticks, biscuits, coleslaw), but we all spent the day digging out of two feet of snow, so I switched to something heartier. I did make a big pot of hot chocolate, and we also fed the birds (recipes in the post). We got our first junco yesterday! We’ve had lots of chickadees and tufted titmice, plus regular visits from wrens, nuthatches, cardinals, and the occasional bluejay. We like to watch birds, and we also like to watch the dog watching the cat watching birds. At least it’s an ethos. 

If that stimulus money ever comes through, we may actually buy a snowblower this year. There was so much snow, I was reduced to actually helping with the shoveling, and I’m too old, dammit. I have a horrible feeling a snowblower is going to be one of those things you spend more time fixing than using, but it can’t be worse than shoveling your driveway by the light of the headlights. 

FRIDAY

Today, the potato latkes with sour cream and applesauce, and noodle kugel with rum raisins and apple! I’m waiting for the boy to come back from the store with eggs. Yes indeed, another child with a license. 

Word on the street is you can rinse your shredded potato in cold water and that will prevent them from turning grey. I always thought they had to be actually covered in cold water to prevent discoloration, which makes them harder to squeeze out properly. I will report my findings. I don’t actually care if the potatoes turn grey — it doesn’t affect the taste, and they turn golden brown when they cook — but it would be nice not to frighten the children. 

And that’s it! It’s the kids’ last day of school. We’re all going to confession, and then I’m taking the little girls Christmas shopping. This feels like the wrong order of events. I may sedate myself first.

Potato latkes

Serve with sour cream and/or apple sauce for Hanukkah or ANY TIME. Makes about 25+ latkes

Ingredients

  • 4 lbs potatoes, peeled
  • 6 eggs beaten
  • 6 Tbsp flour (substitute matzoh meal for Passover)
  • salt and pepper
  • oil for frying

Instructions

  1. Grate the potatoes. Let them sit in a colander for a while, if you can, and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. 

  2. Mix together the eggs, salt and pepper, and flour. Stir into the potato mixture and mix well. 

  3. Turn the oven on to 350 and put a paper-lined pan in the oven to receive the latkes and keep them warm while you're frying. 

  4. Put 1/4 to 1/2 and inch of oil in your frying pan and heat it up until a drop of batter will bubble.  

  5. Take a handful of the potato mixture, flatten it slightly, and lay it in the pan, leaving room between latkes. Repeat with the rest of the mixture, making several batches to leave room in between latkes. Fry until golden brown on both sides, turning once. Eat right away or keep warm in oven, but not too long. 

  6. Serve with sour cream and/or applesauce or apple slices. 

Noodle kugel with apple and rum raisins

A cozy baked noodle custard. Some people make savory kugels, but this one is decidedly sweet.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups raisins, regular or blonde
  • 1 cup spiced rum
  • 1 lb egg noodles
  • 1 stick butter, melted
  • 2 lbs cottage cheese
  • 4 cups sour cream
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 12 eggs, beaten
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 4 apples peeled, cored, and cut into bits

Instructions

  1. Put the raisins and rum in a dish and let them soak for at least half an hour.

  2. Preheat the oven to 375.

  3. While the raisins are soaking, boil and strain the noodles.

  4. Strain the raisins. In a large bowl, combine the rest of the ingredients and stir in the raisins, then stir in the drained noodles.

  5. Pour the mixture into a greased casserole dish and bake for 30 minutes or more, until the custard is set and the top is golden brown.

5 from 1 vote
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Meatloaf (actually two giant meatloaves)

Ingredients

  • 5 lbs ground beef
  • 2 lbs ground turkey
  • 8 eggs
  • 4 cups breadcrumbs
  • 3/4 cup milk

salt, pepper, garlic powder or fresh garlic, onion powder or minced onions, fresh parsley, etc.

  • ketchup for the top

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 450

  2. Mix all meat, eggs, milk, breadcrumbs, and seasonings together with your hands until well blended.

  3. Form meat into two oblong loaves on pan with drainage

  4. Squirt ketchup all over the outside of the loaves and spread to cover with spatula. Don't pretend you're too good for this. It's delicious. 

  5. Bake for an hour or so, until meat is cooked all the way through. Slice and serve. 

 

5 from 1 vote
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Beef pepperoncini sandwiches

Ingredients

  • 1 hunk beef
  • 1 jar pepperoncini
  • several glugs Worcestershire sauce
  • rolls
  • sliced provolone

Instructions

  1. Put the beef in a slow cooker with a jar of pepperoncini and the juice. If you like, cut the stems off the pepperoncini. If there isn't enough juice, add some beer. 

  2. Cover, set to low, and let it cook for several hours until the meat falls apart when poked with a fork. 

  3. Shred the meat. If you like, chop up a few of the pepperoncini. 

  4. Serve meat on rolls with mayo if you like. Lay sliced provolone over the meat and slide it under the broiler to toast the bread and melt the cheese. Serve the juice on the side for dipping. 

Snow day! Bird seed cakes, hot chocolate, sugar cookies, and 6-sided snowflakes

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What we’re watching, reading, and listening to this week: In which Woody Allen and Insane Clown Posse have redeeming qualities

How’s everybody doing? Okay? Remember the thing about …something something real talk, ladies, you are enough, etc. Don’t be cry. Me encourage you. Okay, here’s what we’ve been watching, reading, and listening to lately. I guess this should be Christmas or Advent stuff, but, it’s not. I put up a bunch of lights, we do candle things, and we’re going to confession, and I’m enough, dammit. 

If there’s a theme to these books, movies, and music, it’s “hey, there’s something to you, after all.” 

WATCHING

Hannah and Her Sisters (Where to watch. We rented it on Amazon Prime for $3.99)

We boycotted Woody Allen movies for a while – not because we thought it would be immoral to watch them, but because, ew. If you’re still in that place, I get it. But after a while I got a hankering to see if the good movies were as good as I remembered (and those are the ones he made before he became an open degenerate, anyway). 

Broadway Danny Rose was hilarious and sweet, and I liked it a lot, but Hannah and Her Sisters is terrific. It kept reminding me of a Tolstoy novel, where he just plunges you right in the midst of the lives of these fully-developed personalities in such a way that you understanding their pasts and their likely futures, and how they relate to each other.

I saw this many years ago and thought it was well crafted, but now, having gotten over two decades of marriage under my belt, I think it is a truly great movie about love. You want there to be good guys and bad guys, and there are, but there’s also regret, and recovery from passing madnesses, and redemption. Fantastic dialogue and acting, absolutely captivating setting and soundtrack, and a happy ending. Don’t get me wrong, it has people behaving very badly, indeed, but it shifts very deftly from wretched nihilism to a sort of tender, hopeful agnosticism that makes human life beautiful. Really kind of a masterpiece. 

Wait, I take it back. That architect is a bad guy.

We’ve also been watching Malcolm In the Middle (where to watch) with the kids ages 11 and up, and it’s still a very funny show, but I guess I didn’t notice the first time around how hard they leaned into the whole “everyone’s laughing, but if this were real, it would actually be abuse” thing, especially as the series went on (we are currently on season 5, which is a very funny season. We just watched the one where Reese joins the army and Hal is under house arrest). I think the target audience is people my age, among whom it is actually very common to have discussions about our childhoods that seemed normal at the time, but in retrospect were actually. . . . yeesh.

READING

Read aloud: The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander. The second in The Chronicles of Prydain.

I’m reading this aloud to kids ages 9 and 5, and they are enthralled. This one is more exciting and cohesive than the first. Lots of tests of character. I pause often to ask the kids, “Wow, what would you do in this situation?” and I am never gratified by their answers, but at least I can tell they’re paying attention. 

I won’t mind taking a break from Lloyd Alexander for our next read-aloud, though.He is a good, vivid storyteller, but he can be a bit clunky to read aloud. We started on Prydain when we lost our copy of Wind in the Willows just after Toad’s friend’s stage an intervention about the motorcar. It will be a nice change of pace to get back to Kenneth Grahame’s prose, which is so lushly, lovingly written. 

Benny also got a copy of Time Cat, also by Lloyd Alexander, for her birthday, but she hasn’t started it yet.  A talking, time-traveling cat who goes on adventures with a kid. Seems promising. 

I’m also reading Dragonwings by Lawrence Yep to myself (it’s a children’s book suitable for kids about grade 5 and up). Yep has a good, plain style and doesn’t flinch away from the awful realities of life for Chinese immigrants in California at the turn of the century, so it may not be great for especially sensitive readers. The protagonist is an eight-year-old boy who leaves his mother in China to live with his father, a former master kite-maker who now works in a laundry. It does a nice job of showing how myth makes its way into a family’s understanding of the world, a theme that fascinates me. 

I’ve also been picking up Notes From Underground by Doestoevsky and reading passages at random before bed, which may not be great for my mental health, but I don’t think it’s doing any harm to the book. 

And I ordered a paper copy of Cat Hodge’s Unstable Felicity, which is currently on sale for $8.99, because I will scroll through Facebook and Twitter for three hours straight, but I simply cannot read a book on a screen. Can’t do it. And I do want to read this book. (An audio version is also now available.)

LISTENING TO

Uh, Miracles by Insane Clown Posse

Damien made a reference to “fucking magnets, how do they work?” and I didn’t know what he was talking about, so he showed me this:

Okay, so this is objectively terrible work by some powerfully rotten entertainers, but I kind of love it. My mother would have loved it. Three cheers for the divine spark in every human, that makes even no-talent creeps in stupid face paint want to make a video encouraging people to think about how cool it is that there are mountains and rivers, and that children look like their parents, and there are stars and pelicans and shit. This is not good art, but it is real art, and even Juggalos need real art. Me gusta.

If you’re looking for something you can actually enjoy, you could do worse than the Hannah and Her Sisters soundtrack

How about you? Watching, reading, or listening to anything that’s good – maybe better than you expected? 

 

 

 

Never mind the cultural appropriation, here’s the latkes and kugel

We’re about halfway through Chanukah! This Friday is the last evening. I guess some Christians have taken to lighting menorahs, which is weird, especially if you already have an advent wreath to light. So I wrote 760 words about why it’s weird. Then I deleted them! Because I have a better idea: Let’s eat. 

Food is almost never appropriation. It’s just food, and it’s meant to be shared. Individual dishes are meant to be shared with other people at your table, and recipes are meant to be shared with people all around the world. It’s food! Have some!

Here are three Chanukah-worthy recipes: Jelly donut puffs, latkes, and noodle kugel.

Last year, I made jelly donuts (sufganiyot) using this King Arthur Flour recipe, which doesn’t use yeast. They describe it as “light doughnuts with a crisp exterior and wonderfully tender, creamy interior,” and that’s accurate. It’s a simple recipe and it went great except for the part where you get the jelly inside the donuts. I made a complete hash out of this part, and got jelly and sugar everywhere.

Nobody complained, mind you; but nevertheless, this year, I opted to buy a giant tub of jelly munchkins at Dunkin’ Donuts instead, and again, nobody complained. (They actually do come in a tub.)

Jelly donuts are a traditional Hanukkah food because they’re cooked in oil, which is a feature of the Hanukkah story. The jelly part signifies that jelly is delicious. 

I also intend to make (or possibly stand back while someone else makes) a ton of potato latkes. I don’t go for a lot of add-ins with latkes, although there are a million crazy varieties.

The secret is to let the shredded potato drain in a colander for a while, and then squeeze the heck out it before you mix it into the batter, so it isn’t too soggy when you fry the latkes. You want a crisp outside and a yielding, mealy center. I like mine with a little sour cream and apple sauce. Here’s the recipe:

Potato latkes

Serve with sour cream and/or apple sauce for Hanukkah or ANY TIME. Makes about 25+ latkes

Ingredients

  • 4 lbs potatoes, peeled
  • 6 eggs beaten
  • 6 Tbsp flour (substitute matzoh meal for Passover)
  • salt and pepper
  • oil for frying

Instructions

  1. Grate the potatoes. Let them sit in a colander for a while, if you can, and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. 

  2. Mix together the eggs, salt and pepper, and flour. Stir into the potato mixture and mix well. 

  3. Turn the oven on to 350 and put a paper-lined pan in the oven to receive the latkes and keep them warm while you're frying. 

  4. Put 1/4 to 1/2 and inch of oil in your frying pan and heat it up until a drop of batter will bubble.  

  5. Take a handful of the potato mixture, flatten it slightly, and lay it in the pan, leaving room between latkes. Repeat with the rest of the mixture, making several batches to leave room in between latkes. Fry until golden brown on both sides, turning once. Eat right away or keep warm in oven, but not too long. 

  6. Serve with sour cream and/or applesauce or apple slices. 

This year, the last night of Chanukah is a Friday, so for a meatless meal, I’m going to make latkes and a cozy little noodle kugel.  Kugel, with a “u” like in “put,” is a sort of baked pudding, and it is not a dish of subtlety or sophistication. It is a dish of egg noodles and sweet cheese and plump little raisins, and you serve it in steaming wedges. Here’s a recipe that resembles the one my mother used to use. My mother was not a great cook, but her kugels were hearty and comforting. I may add in some apple bits and maybe soak the raisins in something interesting. 

Here’s a Wikipedia photo, since I haven’t made mine yet:

Stuart Spivack, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Some kugels are savory, with onions and vegetables, rather than sweet. Apparently it’s more common for Litvak-style kugel to be savory, rather than sweet; but more common for sweet kugel to be pronounced “kigel.” But my family, who were Litvaks, favored sweet kugel and pronounced “kugel.” Yet another thing I wish I could ask my parents about. My father keeps turning up in my dreams, and I generally say, “Hey, I thought you were dead!” and he just wiggles his eyebrows at me, so that’s no help. You know, I think eating kugel will help. 

What counts as a work of mercy?

Several years ago, I was in a group of parents, mostly mothers, talking about our lives. We circled around to a favorite topic: How to make sure we had an active spiritual life, when every bit of energy and every moment of the day was taken up with the most mundane obligations: wiping bottoms, fetching juice, cleaning up spills of said juice, wiping away tears related to said spilled juice, and wiping bottoms again.

One of the more experienced mothers suggested that, when we give one of our own children a drink, we are engaging actively in our spiritual lives, specifically, by giving drink to the thirsty, which is a corporal work of mercy.

One of the few fathers in the group scoffed at the idea. It doesn’t “count” to give your own child a drink, he argued. You have to do that; it’s your job. It’s the bare minimum, and you definitely don’t deserve any accolades for doing the bare minimum, especially when it’s something so easy and basic as handing a sippy cup to a kid.

I remember the conversation so well because I was a young mother with several small children at the time, and his response crushed me. I felt there was something wrong with his argument, but I wasn’t sure what, so I assumed he was right, and I just needed to try harder.

But I’ve had years to think about it, and I think I’ve teased out his errors. There are several, and they are common.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image by adhadimohd via Pixabay