Wednesday, November 22, 2017

This Thanksgiving, I’m trying micro-gratitude

A mother of young children recently shared this story with me about her favorite part of the day, and it certainly wasn’t what I expected to hear. “When I strap both my kids in their carseats, I close the door and walk to the driver’s seat, and that’s it, that’s what I try to enjoy. Because everyone is safe and secure, and I get to walk those few steps knowing that they’re okay, but really, really, enjoying the quiet.”

At first, I thought her story was just about the saddest thing I’d ever heard. How long does it take her to walk around that minivan – 15 seconds? And that’s it, this tiny moment, that’s her highlight? This is just something that’s too small to be grateful for, I decided.

And then I thought again. I wondered about myself on my grumpiest, crabbiest, most entitled-acting days, and thought it was likely that I didn’t spend even one second being grateful, let alone 15. I thought about how this young mother had managed to find the tiniest moment of blessing in an otherwise raucously chaotic life.              

On second thought, I realized, this wasn’t a sad story after all. Once I knew that, it was clear I needed to find my own moments of what might be called micro-gratitude--moments that seem so insignificant, and pass by so quickly, that I had barely noticed them before.

This season, as trees have been laid bare and the days have gotten darker, I’ve been trying to pay attention to those slivers of sacredness that are right in front of my eyes. Instead of the rote repetition of the headlining gratitude all-stars--family, friends, food, blah, blah blah—I’ve tried to fix my eyes on split second wonders of just-for-now blessings. It might be something as fleeting and mundane as lugging a few more books to fill up the Little Free Library I received as a birthday present in September. As I stack up the spy thrillers and chapter books and knock-knock joke compendiums, I imagine the joy on the faces of people who will revel in coming across just the title they needed most, without ever realized it.

Or, as I walk along Minnehaha Parkway on my way to errands or exercise class, I’ve been forcing myself to stop—a full-on, no-fidgeting-allowed stop—to watch the creek, forcing myself to count to ten. “Pay attention,” I tell myself. “It’s all going by as fast as this water is passing, so spend ten seconds to take it in.”

If your family is of the sort that’s inclined to go around the table and say what each member is thankful for this holiday, I urge you to follow the lead of that young mom and split the atom of gratitude to its finest possible point. Do it until you can come up with the tiniest, most precious parcel: on the family’s newest member, the crescent of an infant’s thumbnail; the one perfect spoonful of your mom’s most delicious dish; the warmth of the dishwater on your hands when you volunteer to be the one to clean up this year, no prodding needed. 

All those milliseconds of gratitude might not add up to any great insight for you this Thanksgiving, but they might help you get a little closer to the truth: all we have is today, and all we can be grateful for is what’s happening this very second, and that’s reason enough.  

Saturday, October 21, 2017

I really thought this post would be outdated by now

Six years ago, I wrote about how Anita Hill's bravery had improved my own personal working situation. But, you know, not enough. Here's a repost. Hope it's the last one.


“Dear Ms. Hill” An Eighties Survivor Offers a Long-Overdue Thank You

It’s been twenty years since Anita Hill told the Senate Judiciary Committee that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. In a recent interview, she mentioned that she’s received tens of thousands of letters since then, and that reading them inspired her to write her new book, Reimagining Equality.

I could claim that my letter to Ms. Hill was lost in the mail (remember mail? It was all the rage twenty years ago), but, the sorry truth is, I never wrote one. At the time, I didn’t realize the importance of her testimony, nor did I understand what the impact of that testimony would be. So here’s my belated letter, delivered with many thanks:

Dear Ms. Hill,
I started working when I was 16. I’ve worked in a public library, an all-girls’ high school and several advertising and marketing agencies. Except for my stint at the school, where every employee was female (except for the janitor), there was never a time when there were not men at my place of work who took every possible opportunity to engage in smirking innuendo, smarmy double entendre and blatant sexual discussions. The culture of the time dictated that everyone should laugh at, and pretend to enjoy, this talk, for to do otherwise was to be labeled “uptight.”

There was always at least one female in each of these work groups who indicated that she loved this sort of thing, and whose giggles and sidelong looks always encouraged the men to even greater feats of Hefner-esque blather. I noticed that these were usually the girls with the very large breasts. I suspected that if I also had very large breasts, I might think that the guys were just as funny as these girls did. In fact, I thought the men AND the girls were stupid, but I tried not to say so. To be uptight was a terrible thing, back in the eighties.

After working at a number of perennially failing local ad agencies (profits were low; cocaine costs tended toward the high side), I landed at a regular, mainstream marketing services agency, the largest operation in town. I was assigned to provide support for the all-male sales staff located in our Detroit region, where, I was told, women would need “a thick skin” and be able to “take it” from those rugged guys. I realize now that big breasts would have helped me a lot more than a thick skin, but I possessed neither, so it was, as one of those Detroit geniuses used to say, “a mute point.”

Since you’ve worked at law firms and universities, Ms. Hill, I suspect that you might not have met any men like these in your professional life, or at least until you ran into Justice Thomas. In any case, let me paint a picture for you of my world at that time, the time before you testified, using one fellow as an example of the archetypal behavior in that Detroit group. We’ll call him Bob, because that was his name, and we’ll skip over a detailed description of his beady eyes, his protruding jaw, or his tiny, mean mouth. We’ll just head right to some scenes that pretty much sum up my working life with him.

Scene One:  During a Presentation. We are gathered in a conference room, poised before flip charts (remember them? They were like cumbersome and unchangeable PowerPoints, just a step up from carved stone tablets, and even heavier). I am the only female present. Bob circles around the table, introducing each of “the guys.” He pauses a beat at me, then moves on. “What about her?” the customer asks. “She does the typing,” Bob spits out, looking very, very pleased with himself. 

Scene Two:  After a Presentation. We are packing up the slide trays and the flip charts after a presentation to GM Body Parts, and discussion begins about where we will be eating our celebratory team meal. I am the only woman in the group. Bob studiously avoids looking at me as he says, “Let’s go to the Men’s Grill at the Detroit Country Club.” Steve Maritz, a prince among these swine, points out that this will mean that I will be forced to eat, alone, in an anteroom.  Bob’s shrug indicates his lack of concern for this eventuality. I have heard, in fact, from other women upon whom this stunt was pulled. Joyce Irwin, a kind-hearted and creative member of the measurement team, told me that she once ate her entire dinner, alone, outside the confines of the Men’s Grill. “It was sort of fun,” she said, without a lot of enthusiasm. Steve suggests that we go somewhere else instead, and, mostly because his family name is on the building, we do. I never do see the women's anteroom, nor do I eat in it. But Bob continues to suggest it every time dining suggestions are being entertained.

Scene Three: During a Rehearsal. I use this term loosely, because “rehearsing” for an upcoming presentation to one of the big three auto manufacturers would seem to warrant an occasion for review, discussion and practice. At this company, at least back then, it was time for rushing out of the room on urgent phone calls, wandering around the office anxiously, and issuing graphic threats to the salesperson, who is frequently reminded that his genitals will be "on the chopping block," should the business not be won. By this time, I am used to the Betsy Ross craft work of making changes to the hefty flip charts, and rechecking the million-dollar budgets on a calculator. During this particular rehearsal, for GMC Truck, it becomes known that one of the salesmen in the office has accepted a job as a Regional Manager in the San Francisco office. This is a cause for great gales of homophobic hilarity. San Francisco, get it?

Bob tells the man, “Better not bend over to get the soap in the shower,” and everyone guffaws. Then Bob uses the speakerphone to share the news with several colleagues, always making sure to include his soap/shower warning. By the time the day is over, I have heard this remark dozens of times.

I keep at my work and I keep quiet. After a few years at this company, I have made a good friend. He is gay. I’ve always known that this talk is stupid, and I'm sure that, on several levels, it's just wrong. But to consider that what Bob is saying is illegal -- that people in business should not be allowed, by law, to be talking this way?  It’s not a concept I can even entertain.

Scene Four:  October, 1991.  Cue you. I watch every bit of the hearings. I know you are right.  I suspect that you are brave in ways I cannot imagine. And then I have to get back to work.

Final Scene, One year later. I am back in Detroit, preparing for another presentation, this time for Pontiac.  The group has grown weary of running around the room and threatening the safety of each other’s genitals, so we’ve gone out for lunch. There are maybe eight people at the table.  I am the only woman. Sometime during the course of the lunch, the smarmy freelance consultant says something. The funny part about this memory is that I cannot tell you what it was that the man said– it must have been so like what I heard every day from these characters that it became background noise.

But the moment we rise from the table and start to leave, the Regional Manager rushes over to me, smarmy consultant in tow. “Don didn’t mean anything offensive by what he said earlier,” the man says, “and he’d like to apologize.” The man then apologizes. To me. Because, he says, he hoped that what he said didn’t offend me. At first, I want to tell them that I don’t even know what they’re talking about, but I decide to keep that to myself. Grimly, I say, “I won’t report it. This time.”

When I see the relief on their faces, I feel as if the earth is shifting beneath my feet. I am in Detroit, a place where I have been demeaned, devalued and dismissed over the course of many years. And, Ms. Hill, because of you and what you were willing to do, these vermin are worried enough to behave politely towards me.  Not because they have suddenly sprouted souls, of course, but because the company’s corporate counsel has painted them a grim picture of how expensive a lawsuit from a mouthy, small-breasted bitch like me could be.

Work changed. It changed at that moment, and it changed every day after that. I’m not naive enough to think that these men are any different than they ever were.  When you put a lid over the sewer gas in a conference room, it just leaks out in different places, like talk radio, or Fox News. But, at least in the conference rooms I frequent these days, they have to watch their mouths.

And for that, Ms. Hill, I can only say – Thank You. 

God Bless You,
Julie Kendrick

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Barefoot again

Everyone is back in school, and I'm well shod at all times. Still, I miss those barefoot days some times. A blog post repost.

Give Me Your Shoes

“I have to be there [quick look at clock] five minutes ago. Take them off, now.” When your 17-year-old warrior-to-be is pointing at your flip-flops with this level of intensity, there’s only one thing to do. Take off the shoes. She slips them on and runs out the door. (Oh, no need to close it, honey, I think it’s much better to blast air conditioning into the backyard; it keeps the squirrels calm.) She squeals out the driveway. As the car vanishes, it's time to ask, as it often is with Emma:  what just happened? 
As best as I can piece it together from the soon-to-be-issued Coroner’s Report, Summer Happened. Here in the dog days of the official When Does School Start? season, I have found myself living with a couple of teenagers for whom the term “of the moment” seems a little too well-thought-out. Planning ahead? Devoting a brain cell or two to the concept of what might be needed for the journey that lies ahead? That’s not the way we roll. It’s so much more fun to race back to the house after a dashing departure, panting, flapping and screaming out a litany of lost objects in tones of rising pitch:  Phone! iPod! Money! Shoes!Cranium!
Gosh, it’s all so … hmmm, I think “impromptu” might be a good way to put it, don’t you think?  At least, that’s what I’ll call it after I pop another Xanax and have a moment to lie down.
It wasn’t always like this around here, I’ll have you know. I used to start the dinnertime drill every night promptly at 6 p.m., thus allowing for two hours of full-bore mommying and four more hours of Fielding Complaints, before defeat was declared and sleep won out. This household was a haven of order and ritual and a big old boatload of beginning-with-the-end-in-mind, none of which seems to have made the slightest impression on either of them.
Exhibit A is the Car Meal, a recent trend that gives me the whim-wams, but who’s asking what I think. The Car Meal is a result of the inability to count backward in any credible way. Let’s say, for example, that you are a peppy little ingénue who is currently in rehearsal each night from 6 – 10 p.m.  Your ride usually arrives at 5:30 p.m. When, then, should you enter the kitchen, with a plan toward preparing an evening repast that will sustain you until you return home at 11 p.m.?  If you said “4:30” or “5:00,” take a look in the mirror right now. You Are Old. NotGood for your Age or Well-Preserved, just Old. Here’s why -- the correct time to start thinking about dinner, when you have a 5:30 p.m. ride coming, is 5:25 p.m., and not a minute sooner. 
Here’s the procedure. Swan into the kitchen and look around, beseechingly, at all the appliances, as if a fully cooked meal might be popping out of one of them at any moment. Sigh and say, “I guess I ought to have some dinner,” pausing for a long, sad look at mom. Watch her spring into action. Think to yourself that there’s a little pep in the old girl yet.

Four minutes later, leave the house with your Car Meal in tow, and make sure it’s a good one. Fiala girls do not go for foldover bologna sandwiches or spotty bananas. Insist on nothing less than a freshly baked ciabatta with thin-sliced turkey, or perhaps a perfectly warm bowl of pasta with homemade pesto.  What about a hot-off-the-griddle batch of potstickers, along with a container of dumpling sauce?
I watch more cutlery and pottery head out my door each day than a Steak ‘n Shake car hop.  It’s only a matter of time before they begin demanding white tablecloth service, all delivered on a little lap tray. “And mom?  Those votive candles were getting a little dim last time, so try to use fresh ones tonight.”
I’m not quite sure how this happened, how I ended up with children so behind-schedule and lacking in vitality that the thought of running upstairs to get one’s own shoes is purely unthinkable. But here I am, barefoot, just counting the days until the first day of school.

Friday, March 17, 2017

How to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, according to Katherine Clifford Kendrick

Thinking today of my mom, she of the Clifford and Dalton clans. Here are my thoughts from a few years back on this St. Patrick's Day.


And the Rest of the Day to You

It wasn’t until twenty minutes into Zumba that I realized today was St. Patrick’s Day.  I noticed how many green shirts there were in class and had to cogitate on that for a few moments (to be fair, I was doing a tricky salsa step at the same time) before the light dawned.

I asked my mother, wherever she is, to forgive me.

It was not a holiday to be taken lightly in my house. I can still remember my mother giving me a shamrock-covered handkerchief, one of her best, to take with me to school on St. Patrick’s Day. “You can always tell a lady by her handkerchief,” she would say. She had a whole drawerful of handkerchiefs, all beautifully pressed and smelling of Chanel No. 5 and the sweet, pre-smoked tobacco of her Chesterfields. I don’t think I ever saw her blow her nose in anything but a Kleenex, but that was beside the point. To her, the epitome of ladylike behavior was the holiday hanky, the one that showed you were not only Irish, but classy.

I can also remember her teaching me little bits of Irish lore that she thought I could share at school. She had a misinformed idea of what happened at Buder Elementary, but I appreciated the effort. The hayseeds and crackers with whom I spent my grade school years were more interested in pinching people who weren’t wearing green than in hearing a rendition of “Harrigan” that my mother had taught me that morning,  “H-A-double R-I, G-A-N you see, it’s a name that no shame ever has been connected with, Harrigan, that’s me.”

Of even less usefulness was her insistence that I learn the proper way to greet someone on St. Patrick’s Day:  I should say “Top o’ the mornin’ to you,” and the person was to reply, “And the rest o’ the day to you.” She suggested that I try this ethnic charm on my teacher, who year-to-year, was a harried and sour child-hater just slightly above the cracker class herself, one who gave wide berth and the occasional fish-eye to a neurotic little twerp like me.

I never did of the things that my mother suggested.

Instead, I came home in the afternoon, hanky still pressed, song unsung, greeting undelivered. I suppose we ate corned beef and cabbage, yuck, but I don’t really remember that. My Aunt Fran was said to serve only green food on St. Patrick’s Day, including mashed potatoes. My mother thought this was disgusting, as bad as a cake with blue frosting. She trotted out the yellow food coloring to mix in her watery, Miracle Whip-y potato salad, but there was no need to get carried away. I thought green food sounded wonderful and exotic, but I never got to see it for myself.

The most enthusiastic Irish celebrant I ever knew was my godmother, Thelma Kelley (“k-e-l-l-E-y!” she would spell, showing what sort of Kelley she was, and separating her from the déclassé "y-only" crowd). There were two St. Patrick’s Day Parades in St. Louis, the product of a feud between the “true Irish” Hibernian society, whose parade was always on March 17, and the sellouts from the suburbs, who held a big parade on whatever Saturday fell before the holiday. There was a great deal of finger pointing between the two groups, and dark mutterings about IRA connections, but Thelma rose above the fray. She attended both parades, arriving early with a lawn chair, and, in later years, her walker.

As for me, I’m not fond of crowds, so I usually pass on the parade action. I think beer tastes like liquid Wonder Bread, and I’d be happy to drink whiskey instead, but I’d need to do it five feet from a place where I could lie down quietly as soon as I did. So the holiday has waned in importance to me, especially since the values I love most in the Irish – garrulousness, eccentricity, the ability to laugh at oneself, and a willingness to look people in the eye – are all in somewhat short supply where I'm living now.
Still, I thought about Thelma today, and my mother, and the song. I sent out a silent “Top o’ the mornin’ to you” to both of them. And I swear, just under the salsa music, I could hear them wishing the rest of the day to me, too.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Impermanent permanence, and other thoughts on food

I write about food. I also write, at least lately, about family farms, Oriental rug merchants, and a Somali refugee who became a college professor. Writing about a bunch of different things is the lot of a freelance writer, after all. But I always come back to food: what’s trendy, what’s delicious, what’s better for you, what’s deceptively easy to make but impressive-looking enough for the potluck, what’s the next formerly exotic global cuisine that’s about to take all your refrigerator shelves. Just about every week, I interview a food trend expert or a hot new chef or someone who just opened up a storefront to sell sriracha-vodka-infused doughnuts, or something equally off-the-wall.

Because I write so much about food, and talk to so many chefs about their work, people assume that I must love, love, love to eat in restaurants. I recently interviewed a celebrated food reporter over lunch at a local spot. She tossed out name after name of popular eatery, wondering if I’d liked the toast stacks at Bachelor Farmer before they stopped using the toast racks, if I preferred Nashville Hot to traditional fried chicken at Revival or if I had, like her, simply swooned over the Vidalia onion tortellini at Spoon and Stable. I am often stupidly honest, so I found myself saying, “Sorry, haven’t been there” to each of her increasingly frustrated queries. Finally I confessed: I don’t eat out, not really. She looked at me as if I’d just confessed I was one of those “Twilight” vampires who doesn’t eat at all.

“What do you DO?” she asked. “I eat at home, I eat stuff I cook, you know … I just eat. I pretty much prepare everything I consume, usually from scratch, and a lot of stuff I’ve grown in my garden, things I’ve fermented or brewed …” I trailed off. She looked taken aback, as if I’d just confessed that I shot a bear every October and ate off it until it started to rot in spring. I shrugged.

It’s not that I don’t like food, because, take a look at me, it’s clear that I do. But all the fuss and bother and theater of eating out is wasted on me. I don’t particularly like being waited on. If I’m eating a meal in a restaurant, I’m usually wondering what’s going on in the kitchen, which always seems like the more fun place to be. And I can never really get myself away from thinking that I’m spending quite a bit of money for something I’d probably enjoy more if I made it myself, and for something that – let’s be honest here – I’m going to digest and excrete in not too short a time.

My interviewee’s frustration got me thinking. Most people eat out quite a bit, or eat food that’s been prepared for them, and that’s their “food experience.”. For me, it’s something different, and it often has very little to do with the ingredients themselves or the way they’ve been prepared, but with the intention behind them.

Here’s an example: a couple years ago, one of my children fell upon some hard times. A guy, a rift, a stumble … suddenly the world got very dark for her, and she ended up back at home, healing. In the early days of this crisis, I had dropped by a friend’s house on a quick logistical errand – returning a pot, picking up a book, something mundane. Standing at the front door for the thirty-minute chat that could never occur on the sofa because I was “in a hurry,” I told her about the very rough patch currently being navigated at our house. She responded with kind words, a hug and a promise of prayers. I left, momentarily buoyed. Then she got out her soup pot and went to work.

The next day, I had encouraged and prodded and cajoled my girl enough to extract a promise to “talk to someone,” who had blessedly fit us into her schedule. She opened the front door for an appointment that was filling both of us with dread. She stopped short and turned around. “There’s something here,” she said in that flat, toneless voice. We looked. It was a basket worthy of Red Riding Hood. Inside was a tureen of chicken noodle soup, fresh bread, a box of calm-inducing tea. There was an encouraging note from my friend. My girl looked at me in wonder. “She hardly knows me. She cooked me food.”

I blinked away tears and tried to explain. “She’s a good person. She’s a mom. Also, she was 19 years old once, too. She remembers what that can be like.” We brought the basket in the house. We went to the appointment. My girl felt better, having been listened to by someone wise. We came home. We ate the soup. Sitting together, my girl kept peering into her bowl. “She chopped these vegetables for me. She cooked these noodles.” Her amazement was complete – that someone had thought she was worth the effort, that someone had sent love to her in such a practical and nourishing way. Yes, she was digesting it already, and it would move through her body and be gone, but the love would stay. Impermanent food, made with care and delivered at the right time, had taken up a permanent place in her broken and battered soul. She will never forget her wonder when she discovered that basket on the front porch, and she will always feel the warmth of that broth filled with goodness.

That’s what food can do. And that’s why I write about it.