Who Wants Some Kale?

I have way too much. Like the crunchy, liberal New Englander I am, I get a weekly farm share. Massachusetts has a relatively short growing season – California, we ain’t – and therefore my farm share is limited to what grows here, which apparently is lots of kale. It’s exceptionally hardy, as anyone knows who has ever tried to chew it. Kale is not for the weak-jawed.

Every Thursday afternoon I gather my reusable bags, slip on my Birkenstocks, and drive my Subaru over to my CSA pick-up location. My car stands out as the one that’s NOT a Prius, and also because I don’t have a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker or a magnetic paw that asks the rhetorical “Who Rescued Whom?” If anyone suspected I don’t love kale, I’d probably be chased away by an angry mob tossing kohlrabi at my head. If you aren’t sure what kohlrabi is, you definitely don’t have a farm share.

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Despite the kale, I love my farm share. I go all in with the add-ons: bread and homemade granola from an artisan bakery, whatever fruit is in season, and eggs from what I have to assume are the most pampered chickens in America given what I pay for a half dozen. I love the lettuce, the fresh garlic and peppers, and the endless tomatoes from late July through early September. You might as well not celebrate summer if you aren’t eating sliced tomatoes with salt on a regular basis. Mine taste even better because I didn’t have to grow them myself (I’m about as good at gardening as I am at appreciating kale).

My first year in the program, I asked a fellow CSA member what she did with kale. “Kale chips are the best,” she swore. “Just toss them with olive oil and salt and bake them – they are just like potato chips!”

Here’s what I learned (spoiler alert if you’re preheating your oven right now to cook up a tasty batch): kale chips are to potato chips what a vegan tofu loaf is to filet mignon. Anyone who thinks one is an acceptable substitute for the other is either a dirty liar or an unfortunate misfit who probably never gets invited to potluck suppers. The kale chips did not get an encore in my kitchen.

So I tried pureeing my kale in a savory potato cheese soup, but even my trusty hand blender couldn’t break down the stringy fibers, which were kind of a buzz-kill to the velvety mouth-feel of potato cheese soup. I also tried ripping my kale into tiny pieces and added it to a stir-fry, which seemed fine but only confirmed that kale is not spinach. It would not yield to heat or sauce; it continued to vex me with its impenetrable strength.

Finally I tried to replicate a fairly palatable kale salad I’d had in a local restaurant, and that was OK until I paid attention to how much olive oil and shaved parmesan were required to make the aforementioned salad taste good. In the end, the salad was decent, but it probably had more calories than a Big Mac Super-sized Value Meal. Foiled again.

So here I am, cooking up my other farm share delights like garlic scapes and cabbage and spinach. I’m toasting the rustic farm bread and topping it with a very precious golden egg, adding a sprinkling of fresh herbs over the creamy yolk. My kale sits forlornly aside, but it will not go to waste.

For I have found a lovely solution to my “too much kale” problem. I have recently become acquainted with a delightful young guinea pig named Petunia. Apparently, she and others of her ilk do not believe one can ever have too much kale. I look forward to a symbiotic summer with Miss Petunia, and am grateful to her for helping me out with my little problem.guinea-pig-tan

Now if only I can find an animal that likes kohlrabi.

Is There Anything Sadder Than Costco in January?

When I went shopping just after Christmas, my local Costco was virtually unrecognizable. All remnants of Christmas had vanished, as if the entire holiday season (signs of which, by the way, appeared in early October) had never happened. And so I lie awake at night and wonder…did they sell ALL those neatly wrapped boxes of Belgian chocolate? ALL the 8-foot tall teddy bears? Every last pallet of Panettone?

Just days before Christmas, the place had been a happy madhouse. There were traffic jams near the meat counter, long lines at checkout, and a parking lot situation that looked like the bumper cars at the state fair – but the Christmas spirit prevailed. I don’t know why; perhaps the marketing geniuses at Corporate determined just which Christmas songs were best suited for both calming the nerves and opening the wallets.

The Christmas Season at Costco is a playground for the senses. Holiday tunes drift magically from the player piano ($2,799.99!). The high-pitched whirr of a blender makes milkshakes, which are offered to shoppers by a nice lady demonstrating a Vitamix. You can walk down the row of home goods and plunge your arms elbow-deep into throw blankets that feel like real fur.

Of course, the warehouse is still a warehouse – it never quite attains the glistening visual appeal of a Crate and Barrel – but it’s also not nearly as breakable. Thank goodness for that, because it’s easy to get distracted by a giant inflatable snowman and accidentally ram your cart into a pallet of grapefruit.

But the very best thing about Costco during the holidays is the merchandise. For a limited time, you can practically get diabetes just by standing too close to the desserts. They have coffee cake, tiramisu, peppermint bark, shortbread cookies, apple pies, and tins of “biscuits” with pictures of European cities on them. Nearby, the endless piles of toys beckon. My kids are too old for most of them, but it’s still fun to browse the remote-control cars and hover boards and packs of 100 colored pencils, sharpened and ready to go.

Alas, all that good stuff disappears the day after Christmas. When I arrived and showed my member card at the door, I entered a different world.

The store was silent – no more music. Just the shuffling, snow-booted feet of the shoppers in front of me, wiping icy slush (ugh!) from their practical footwear. Such are the sights and sounds of winter in Massachusetts, with no Christmas to distract us.

After Christmas, there is not one fun thing left in that store. Apparently, January is the month when we pay for our holiday sins. The dessert section was replaced with industrial size jars of protein powder, which presumably we need to add to the diet green smoothies we’ll grudgingly consume until spring break (and made with that new Vitamix!).

What else is featured in Costco after Christmas? Well, lots of mattresses. Respectable-looking furniture (nothing too funky or hip). Throw rugs. Among the sweaters and coats, a lone table of women’s bathing suits mocks me, as if to say “It’s too cold to wear us now and you’d only depress yourself by squeezing these over your pale, over-fed body.” I can’t deny it.

I still go to Costco, because life goes on and we need milk, laundry detergent, and wine. Lots of wine (the next best thing to Christmas for distracting one from winter in Massachusetts).

On the bright side, the crowds have thinned considerably and parking is easy. Costco is like church – after Christmas, you see who the regulars are. And you wait for the next holiday, when it will be warm and crowded once again.

What’s the Worst Thing That Can Happen When a Boy Plays With a Toy Gun?

If you watched any part of the recent 24-hour A Christmas Story marathon, you might think you know the answer. The classic holiday film features a white boy named Ralphie who desperately wants to find a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle under the Christmas tree. Much to his dismay, everyone with whom he shares this heartfelt wish (his mother, his teacher, even a department store Santa) rejects the toy as too dangerous. “You’ll shoot your eye out!” they proclaim.

But the story of Tamir Rice tells us that the “worst thing” that can happen, actually, is being mistaken for a criminal who is brandishing a real gun, and being killed by police who shoot first and ask questions later.

Last week, a grand jury in Cleveland declined to press charges against the officer who shot and killed Tamir. Timothy J. McGinty, the prosecutor in the case, said the boy’s death was “horrible, unfortunate, and regrettable. But it was not, by the laws that bind us, a crime.”

Perhaps McGinty’s statement is actually the “worst thing,” for it did nothing to assure parents that any black boy playing with any toy gun couldn’t reasonably expect the same fatal outcome. He reported that the officer who shot Tamir had reason to fear for his life, implying that the fatal shooting was merely an unfortunate consequence of Tamir’s own actions. Actions identical to those of Ralphie in A Christmas Story. Each boy was playing with a toy.

Several recent news reports confirm that the worst consequence for any particular behavior may depend upon the skin color of the one doing the behaving.

Sandra Bland (African American) allegedly changed lanes without signaling, which didn’t result in anyone being harmed. She was arrested and jailed, then mysteriously ended up dead in her cell. The officers involved claim she killed herself, but her family doesn’t believe it. A grand jury declined to indict anyone.

Eric Garner (African American) allegedly sold individual cigarettes on the street, which didn’t result in anyone being harmed. A video recording clearly shows him being choked to death by a police officer and his death was ruled a homicide. Again, a grand jury declined to indict anyone.

Meanwhile, a white male named Ethan Couch drove drunk and killed four people, then pled guilty to four counts of manslaughter (Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and Eric Garner never went to court or entered pleas – they didn’t live long enough to do so). But Ethan was sentenced to 10 years probation and no jail time. Now that he’s been apprehended for apparently violating probation, maybe he’ll face real consequences. He will probably survive.

These news snippets are selective, but they highlight a painful truth that is undeniable to all but the most blind. While America has spent the last century desegregating our institutions, giving all Americans access to the same rights and privileges, the criminal justice system is a stubborn holdout and still has a long way to go. As long as it’s not working for each and every one of us, it’s not working at all.

With that in mind, what’s the worst that can happen when a boy plays with a toy gun? For now, unfortunately, that depends on the color of the boy’s skin. America can celebrate progress when a boy like Tamir wants to play with such a toy, and his mother’s only warning is “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

What This Veteran Wants You to Know

Every year, I appreciate all my friends who wish me a Happy Veterans Day because they are kind enough to remember that I wasn’t always a boring, middle-aged suburban mom and part-time consultant. In my youth, I sailed upon the high seas aboard the Navy’s finest warships in search of adventure and glory. Or so I recall. It was a while ago.

Because it’s Veterans Day and everyone seems inclined to indulge us vets, please allow me to offer a few thoughts about the military to my civilian friends:

  1.  I hate the phrase, “boots on the ground.”

I don’t know why this grates on me so, but it’s like nails on a chalkboard whenever I hear it. Politicians and pundits like to pretend that anything short of thousands of soldiers advancing against the enemy isn’t really combat. Sorry folks, but creating no fly zones counts as an act of war. So does enforcing an embargo with destroyers or dropping bombs with unmanned aircraft. If it makes us uncomfortable to call it what it is, maybe we shouldn’t be doing it.

  1. Not all veterans are homeless, drug-addicted, or unemployed.

Some of us are pretty well adjusted, actually. I am totally for helping vets in need – I support several nonprofits that serve vets and I’m glad to do so. But some initiatives are just wacky. In Boston this year, the mayor had this crazy idea called Operation Thank a Vet, which involved volunteers knocking on veterans’ doors and “thanking them for their duty and sacrifice” while providing information on services and aid.

Our mayor grew up in Boston so he should be more familiar with the ways of your average New Englander. We loathe awkward chitchat with strangers who show up on our porch unannounced while the Patriots game is on. Just send me a Starbucks gift card via drone and stay off my property.

  1. Also, not all of us are male.

At first glance, this is a lovely picture of three brothers reconnecting at a WWII commemoration.

World War II veterans and brothers Tommy Mazzareilla (Marine Corps), left, Phil Mazzareilla (Navy), center, and Henry Mazzareilla (Army) enjoy the '40s music of the Liberty Belles at a 2005 commemoration of World War II at the Charlestown Navy Yard in 2005. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Wikimedia.org)

World War II veterans and brothers Tommy Mazzareilla (Marine Corps), left, Phil Mazzareilla (Navy), center, and Henry Mazzareilla (Army) enjoy the ’40s music of the Liberty Belles at a 2005 commemoration of World War II at the Charlestown Navy Yard in 2005. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Wikimedia.org)

But look closely and you’ll see that whoever was in charge of entertainment made certain assumptions about the audience. I wonder if any WAVES from WWII showed up to be “honored” by scantily clad pin-ups belting out patriotic tunes? I’m sure the show would take them right back to the 1940’s, when they served their country just like men except without military status or benefits. Good times.

  1. Navy SEALS are not like vampires.

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They may look un-naturally handsome and inexplicably strong, so Americans can be forgiven for thinking that “sending in special forces” means that everything is going to be okee dokey. We have all seen too many movies like Captain Phillips, Zero Dark Thirty, and Twilight, in which no situation is too impossible or too dangerous for the SEALS / vampires. The good guys always win.

SEALS may be some of the best-trained and best-prepared fighters we have, but I’m pretty sure they are mortal. And by the way, they count as “boots on the ground.”

  1. The best way to experience military life without living it is to read books by those who’ve been there.

This is my personal opinion as an avid reader. Some incredible literature has been inspired by military experiences. My highly-recommended favorites are:

And if you really want to know what life on an aircraft carrier is like, pick up Geoff Dyer’s Another Great Day At Sea. He’s a journalist who spent time aboard the USS George H.W. Bush and wrote a very accurate account of his time aboard.

One last bit of advice to my civilian friends on this Veterans Day: if you know me, you are welcome to knock on my door. Bring me a Starbucks or, if it’s after 5:00 pm, something stronger. You are welcome for my service.

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Testosterone: The Military’s Real Enemy

Two stories in the news this week made me impatient to see women holding more senior positions in the military, and not for the usual reasons. Sure, women have leadership skills and technical expertise, and deserve a shot at those jobs. But the biggest reason of all, and why we can’t wait any longer, is because of something women don’t have. Testosterone.

This pesky little hormone is a troublemaker. Its link to needless violence can be traced back to Cain and Abel (note they were brothers, not sisters). Ill-advised sexual encounters and venereal disease have plagued armies since the beginning of time. British soldiers during WWI were over five times more likely to be hospitalized for syphilis or gonorrhea than from trench foot, the war’s signature ailment.

In today’s military, testosterone is clouding the judgments of men who really should know better.

The first is Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr., the superintendent at the United States Military Academy. He recently defended the school’s boxing requirement despite overwhelming evidence about the downside of repeated blows to the head. That’s right – every male cadet who graduates from West Point must spend a semester receiving and delivering rounds of minor brain trauma. Concerned mothers and the school’s Board of Visitors (chaired by a woman) are pushing for change but meeting resistance. In fact, the superintendent is doubling down on his machismo by considering making female students take boxing, too, as they do at the US Naval Academy.

West Point has documented 97 concussions from boxing during the last three academic years. When students are unable to complete the course due to too many concussions, they are forced to repeat it later. If that seems perfectly rational, maybe you’ve had too many concussions.

The next example of testosterone run amok comes from Senator John McCain, speaking on the senate floor about recent developments in Syria. As a former naval aviator and chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he should know that while he may not like the fact that Russia is flying combat missions in Syria, it was actually a good thing that they alerted us to their actions so we could avoid an international incident or accidental loss of life.

With hormonally-fueled bravado, McCain said that rather than complying with the Russians’ request, we should tell them, “We fly anywhere we want to, when and how we want to, and you’d better stay out of the way.” Which sounds more like something one toddler would say to another than how seasoned diplomats should communicate.

This kind of provocation, if he really meant what he said, is reckless and dangerous. But it’s not unique among the men in charge of militaries. No doubt Vladimir Putin’s actions are being fueled by a similar level of testosterone (including his habit of posing shirtless).

Defenders of General Caslen and Senator McCain may argue that testosterone is vital to producing a combat-ready military, and that it makes men better fighters. Maybe. But female pilots and soldiers seem to do just fine with the amount they have.

I’ve personally seen examples of testosterone doing more harm than good. During my time in the navy I witnessed many promotions, happy occasions that should be celebrated with congratulatory handshakes but inexplicably involve a gauntlet of punches to the upper arm (where the new rank chevrons are worn). It wasn’t unheard of for a sailor to sustain pain and bruises so severe, they interfered with his ability to perform his duties.

Worst of all is the tradition of “blood wings” or “blood pinning,” where a newly-minted paratrooper receives his insignia by having the sharp pins of the new badge pounded into his chest muscle by his colleagues. This is considered an honor and a rite of passage.

Must we be content with a “boys will be boys,” philosophy, even when applied to people who should have become men long ago? I don’t think so. We need more women in the ranks and at the top, because the fairer sex seems less susceptible to hormonal fluctuations. Let that sink in for a while.

Pumpkin Spice Everything

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who welcome the autumnal onslaught of pumpkin-spiced everything, whose taste buds crave cinnamon and sugar paired delectably with a certain spectacular squash, and those with bad taste. I proudly call myself among the former.

This is MY TIME. Pumpkin season. The official launch comes when Starbucks announces the annual return of the PSL (my pumpkin peeps need no further explanation; for the rest of you, “PSL” is what serious consumers call the Pumpkin Spice Latte).

And so begins my favorite season, when the photos of food people post online include delights like the one I saw yesterday: Pumpkin Cheesecake Snickerdoodles. If those aren’t the three most mouth-watering words in the English language, I don’t know what are. They were accompanied by a photo that can only be described as hard-core food porn.

If pumpkin lovers gave awards for innovation and output, the hands-down winner would be Trader Joe’s. The product developers in their corporate headquarters must enjoy a little too much pumpkin liqueur (yes, it’s a thing, and it’s delicious) when they brainstorm, because they come up with some fantastic ways to use this gorgeous gourd.

My list is from memory and therefore not exhaustive, but Trader Joe’s sells pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin butter, pumpkin toffee, pumpkin cereal bars, pumpkin spice granola, pumpkin truffles and pumpkin pancake and waffle mix. Their pumpkin bread mix is so awesome that customers stock up in the fall and carefully ration their supplies for the rest of the year (I may know this from personal experience).

For the next couple of months, all grocery store shelves will overflow with limited edition tempting treats. Pumpkin donuts. Pumpkin yogurt. Pumpkin Pop Tarts. Pumpkin spiced nuts. Pumpkin coffee. Pumpkin cookies. Pumpkin muffins and bagels. I purchased a six-pack a pumpkin beer the other day, which I love but my serious beer-drinking friends find disgusting.

Even restaurant menus cater to folks like me. Pumpkin soup to start. Pumpkin cheesecake and pumpkin crisp on the dessert menu. Salads topped with pepitas, a charming name for pumpkin seeds that implies they might at any moment begin dancing to mariachi music on top of my arugula. I even saw a pumpkin martini on a menu recently, although that seemed to me a bridge too far.

After all, it’s possible to go wrong with pumpkin. I typed “pumpkin spice…” into my search engine and Google, with its eerie Big Brother ways, tried to guess what I would type next. The first choice was a pleasing “pumpkin spice latte.” But what came next? “Pumpkin spice tampon.” I was too afraid to click the link.

Despite my fondness for all things pumpkin, I have never actually cooked one. I get little ones in my farm share and stage them on my porch a la Martha Stewart. They are suggestively called “pie pumpkins” but I’m not tempted to go down that road. I’d probably slice off a finger trying to make it pie-ready, and after hours of preparation the finished product wouldn’t be nearly as good as the pie Costco is willing to sell me for $5.99.

The grand finale and the conclusion of the season come when I serve the pumpkin pie that follows Thanksgiving dinner. Once I push back from the table, wash the dishes and put away the silver, pumpkin season is officially over. Pumpkin lovers everywhere say goodbye to the tastes of fall and turn to the flavors of December…

Peppermint!

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What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Summer is almost over and all my kids have to show for it are thick calluses on the tips of their fingers from all the tap-tap-tapping on one screen or another. If the first day of school begins with their teachers asking for an essay titled, “What I Did On My Summer Vacation,” theirs would be lame indeed.

I live in a community with a tax base largely supported by SAT prep shops, supplemental mathnasiums, and preschools with names like “La Petite Académie” where toddlers learn to speak French and play the violin. Summers for our little geniuses are supposed to be for extra-curricular enrichment or at the very least, for attending the summer camp in Maine where generations of one’s family learned to sail and ride horses while wearing the expensive togs designed for such activities.

Alas, not for my cherubs. They got stuck with a mother who never grew up in the New England tradition of taking out a second mortgage to pay for summer camp. In addition, I’m too exhausted after the school year ends to continue schlepping the tykes to classes, lessons, or museum visits. The stamina required to get through the end-of-year recitals, graduations, and sports tournaments is mind-boggling, and when the last kid takes the last bow at the last concert in June, I’m already sunk halfway into my own summer coma.

So, what did my kids do this summer? In no particular order, they:

  • Became even more proficient at the game of Minecraft (who knew it was possible?)
  • Played hours and hours of Bridge – some with their grandparents, but when grandparents weren’t available, with the computer
  • Watched mindless TV – the truly mindless crap that passes for programming on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon
  • Showered every few days – I think this happened more often than not, but to be honest I didn’t pay much attention
  • Fed the pets and walked the dog only when harassed to do so by a parent
  • Went to a YMCA day camp where they played games in the hot sun, caught frogs in the mud, and didn’t learn a single thing about math
  • Committed to and then abandoned an exercise regimen
  • Ate their body weights in strawberries, peaches and watermelon
  • Barely looked up from their screens to see their mother hauling garbage bags, heavy with peach pits and watermelon rinds, out to the trash bin (on the plus side, I squeezed in some light cardio)
  • Slept in later and later each morning, ensuring that their eventual return to the school schedule will be as painful as possible
  • Discovered the wicked humor of Carl Hiaasen, thanks to paperbacks renewed over and over again from the local public library

That’s their essay. No thesis, no theme, and no high-level strategy – just a laundry list of what happened next. Nothing about this summer was planned more than 15 minutes in advance (except the YMCA camp, and only because the bus fills up and NO WAY was I going to chauffeur them out to that distant campground every morning). Any written testament to the last two months would be as rambling and aimless as summer itself.

But that’s OK. Other kids can go back to school and write about performing Shakespeare at their fine arts camp in the Adirondacks, or taking a Chinese immersion course at a local university. They can write their whole essays in Chinese for all I care.

What really matters is that our entire family is finally relaxed. We shifted into lower gear and laid low for a while, theoretically storing energy for the fall the way squirrels hoard nuts for the winter. We’ll see how it all works out when the alarm goes off way too early on September 8.