statement of belief for conversion

There is an obvious way start to this story, and a more round-about way. The obvious way to start this story is when I was 18: my hall-mate freshman year of college invited me to Friday night Shabbat services. Her mother had died of cancer only a few weeks before the start of the school year and I remember feeling keenly how important Hillel was to her. My own father was in remission after a second fight with cancer and the specter of his illness traveled everywhere with me. And there, in Hillel, saying Psalm 51:15 — Open my lips that I may praise Your name — I felt God. Not that God entered the room, not that God spoke, but that I became unmistakably aware of God’s presence for the first time in my life. 

The round-about way to start this story is when I was 8: I read a book about Wicca and, entranced by the idea that there was something larger than myself, I convinced my parents to let me light candles and spread circles of salt. The less obvious way is to start the story with me, age 12, dragging my parents from Catholic church to saint’s home to Catholic church across Europe, lighting candles at every opportunity. Less obvious, of course, because they are not, on the surface, about Judaism.

But underneath the surface, the seeking is still true: I have spent most of my life chasing answers to the question, “How should a person be?” And by that I mean — What does it mean to do good, to be good? What does it mean to be in a world that is chaotic, in a world made up of fallible, mortal connections and structures? I have been looking for a safe place to land the vessel of my heart and soul, a safe place that does not erase the brokenness of the world but instead energizes me to help repair it.

I am having a hard time explaining this even to myself: there are two things at play, but they are essentially intertwined. I want to be Jewish because it is through the rituals, the prayers, the history, and the community of Judaism that I become aware of God’s presence in my life and the world around me. Heschel wrote that “We are alone even with our friends. The smattering of understanding which a human being has to offer is not enough to satisfy our need of sympathy…It is such a sense of solitude which prompts the heart to seek the companionship of God” (Man’s Quest for God, 17). I have always felt this solitude and unmooring, this sense of needing a safe place to land — and that no person or human-created structure could offer that safety.

But God can. So — I want to be Jewish because through Shabbat, through Passovers at Amy’s house among her laughing children, through the melody of the cantor on Yom Kippur, through reading Heschel early in the morning before I face the day, through saying berakhot, I find more and more moments when I can feel God’s presence in my life, when my soul finds a safe place to land. It is through the “sanctification of time” that Judaism releases me from the solitude of being human and into the presence of God (Heschel, Sabbath, 8)

But there is a second part of reaching for Judaism, that while fundamentally tied to my personal experience of God, is also rooted in the world around me and what kind of person I am in that world. 

I want to be Jewish because I understand that life is built not from one epiphany, but from the choices we make every day. The way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives, and to build a life that tips the balance towards good requires that we choose every day to orient ourselves towards justice, reflection, kindness, and curiosity. I want to be Jewish because Judaism is an actionable framework for doing and being in the world, for building a life that tips the balance towards good — towards tzedakah — despite the fact that “the world is unredeemed and deficient” (Heschel, “The God of Israel and Christian Renewal”). 

I want to be Jewish because to be Jewish is to believe that what I do and how I treat people matters — to God “above”, to God within me, to the God within those around me. In my early twenties I read Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s Surprised by God, in which she describes her own reading of Buber’s I and Thou — which I promptly went out and read for myself. It’s beautiful and important, I think, that in the original German Buber used the intimate “du,” rather than the formal English “thou.” There is an intimacy to standing “in relation” to one another — the sort of profound, focused attention that much of society only reserves for romantic or familial relationships. But Judaism — through the idea of b’tzelem Elohim, through the teachings of Hillel (“If I am only for myself, what am I?”), through Buber’s I-Thou, demands that we hold this relational space with the world around us (and not just the abstract world, but the specific world, the specific people in the world). 

So, Judaism offers answers to that question which I have held for my whole life: How should a person be? And Judaism offers answers not through dogma or conclusion — the answers to be found in Judaism continue to yield questions, continue to invite debate and discussion, continue to deepen through time and study.

my two favorite gas stations in oakland

I want to tell you about my two favorite gas stations in Oakland. 

There are two gas stations equidistant from my house, but they are not my favorites — one is just off the freeway and only accessible on my way home. The little store is cramped, barely stocked, and the cashier sits wholly encased by a glass partition. There is no sense of warmth or friendliness. The other close gas station is a Valero. At a busy corner with an ice cream parlor on one side and an apartment complex on the other, it always bustles with people. It’s a fine gas station, albeit sometimes challenging to get in or out of. 

But up the street from the Valero is a local gas station that only just reopened, after who knows how long of a renovation. There are clear “in” driveways and “out” driveways (I know — that probably seems overly picky? But it makes a difference!). The store is spaced out and they always have sour gummies. I’ve never seen a man working the counter; the whole operation seems to be staffed by several generations of smiling, competent women. They all wear hijabs and every time I’ve been in, at least one woman has a cordless phone tucked between her scarf and her ear, ringing me up and giving directions or exchanging gossip on the phone. They always compliment my hair. It’s also the gas station I stop at when I’m heading east towards the mountains or Rilke’s trainer. 

My other favorite gas station is near R’s house. Sometimes I stop there on my way to her apartment and pick up peanut M’n’Ms and a lottery ticket. They just renovated their store, expanding to nearly double the size and replacing the linoleum floor with large, grey tiles. Every time I buy a lottery ticket, the one of the men behind the counter says, “Come back and let us know if you won.” There is warmth in the way he says it, so I smile back. An older man parks his black pick up truck permanently on the curb in front of the gas station. I think he lives in his truck; sometimes in the morning when I drive by, the windows are thick with inner condensation. Every time I pull up, he teases me that my car needs to be washed. It makes me think of all the guarded moments in my life when I have encountered men — not sure of their intentions, of what level of violence may be coming my way. It makes me think of this because with the men at this gas station, I do not feel guarded.

I love gas stations in general. Even before I adopted Rilke, I took road trips alone. Illinois to Missouri every other week for a year, Illinois to Texas and back, Illinois to California, back and forth from California to British Columbia four or five times, up into the mountains dozens of times. I drive a manual Subaru Impreza — four wheel drive for mountains and snow, with a hatchback that I somehow believe can fit anything I need to carry. In my car, I feel free and safe.

Gas stations were oases on those trips — a reliable spot to use the bathroom and restock on coffee, Twizzlers, pretzels or popcorn, cheese sticks and M’n’Ms. They offered a small moment of human connection. There is something wonderfully predictable about gas stations: half-burnt coffee, overly-sweet pound cake in plastic packaging, 2-for-$1 Spanish peanuts and orange slices, lottery tickets under the countertop, a give-one-take-one penny dish, a bathroom that probably needs a key on a terrible, disgusting spoon or plastic rod. But for all their same-ness, they are staffed by people who live in the place. What a strange coming together — of moving through and staying put.

The gas stations made me feel in control, as though no matter how far I hurled myself and my car out into the world, there would be something to sustain us. And in that small way, they made me feel safe, even when I was throwing myself from one place to another in an effort to start fresh, to erase the past, to escape the idea of who I was.

These two gas stations here in Oakland stand as islands in my mind, spaces of some relative safety. Is it that they recognize and remember me? Is it that I feel seen as a person first there, not as a woman or an object? They act as an anchor and as an echo of all the far-flung gas stations I’ve visited in the past.

if only, i would

When I was little, I thought that I would reach 27 and be magically transformed into a very specific version of myself. She would be blonde, married, have a dusting of freckles on her shoulders. That’s when I would know — I was Grown Up, I was A Woman. 

I look nothing like Tea Leoni, but Little Me somehow thought I would grow up to look like her?

Twenty-seven arrived and I was busy moving in with The Ex. She owned a house in the suburbs — all dark wood and open plan kitchen. Between 18 and 27, my average tenure in the apartments where I’d lived had been a whopping 10 months. I jettisoned a fair amount of my accumulated, thrift-store household goods in favor of her far nicer things when I moved in. In particular, I donated or gave away most of my kitchen — the sole holdouts were a white pot with a wobbly handle, my grandmother’s cast iron frying pan, a Springform pan, and a couple of ceramic mugs that had sentimental value. 

The Ex loved cooking, so her kitchen was well outfitted. It was the first house I’d ever lived in and I reveled in the space. There was room to store a dehydrator, a food processor, and a blender. There was counter space to have a toaster. When you move a lot, there are so many small corners you cut to make the moving easier and less expensive. Do you need a toaster if you can broil the bread? Why get a food processor when you have a little blender? Recreating a kitchen in a new place is expensive, and it always seemed, in those many moves, ridiculous to invest in the kitchen equipment I really wanted.

So in the year of 27 I wasn’t blonde or married or dusted with freckles, but I was living in a house. In the year of 28, though, it became clear that The Ex and I were not making one another happy and I started looking for apartments in Oakland again. 

I lucked into my current spot — affordable (kind of, for Oakland), access to a backyard for Rilke, close to work. Of course, when I moved in I had to replace the entirety of my kitchen. After the first-last-deposit check, I had very little to spend on all the things I wanted to have in a kitchen, so I bought only the bare bones. A few bowls and plates, some utensils, three wooden spoons. 

The first winter in this apartment was not quite dire, but it was sad. There was credit card debt from impulse purchases (books, dog toys, ambitious vegetables that wilted in the refrigerator). One of those impulse purchases was at a Target in San Leandro, late on a Saturday night after a day spent grading in a cafe. I had always — of course — wanted a KitchenAid mixer. “If only I had a mixer,” I thought, “I would bake more.” 

So often that kind of conditional promise limits us. If only I was thinner, I would be happy. If only I made more money, I would travel. If only I had more time, I would write that novel. If only…I would… As if the universe had created an inflexible set of prerequisites for the things that we really want. As if we need a deus ex machina to make us ready for the life we think we’re meant to be living. It’s fear of failure, that’s part of it right? What if I can’t actually write that novel when I have more time? What if once I lose the weight, it doesn’t magically make me happy?

Reader, I want to tell you that I bought that mixer, and I started baking more. (Much to the delight of Rilke, who eats what falls on the floor, and R, who eats what comes out of the oven!)

But the rest of my kitchen was…pretty sad. My parents unearthed a toaster oven from their garage last fall so I finally gave up toasting my bread in the oven (or in a frying pan!). As I’ve baked more, I’ve accumulated more cookie sheets and even — indulgence — both 8×8 and 9×13 baking pans. 

In the back of my mind, though, is the thought — If only you lived in a real house, if only you made more money, then you could furnish the kitchen of your dreams. After a $40 blender gave up on me, I gave up on smoothies. I split my pie crust recipes in half to fit into my tiny food processor. I thought: When I’m a real adult, when I settle somewhere for forever, then I’ll get the blender I want, then I’ll get a food processor, then I’ll replace my cheap mixing bowls. 

And then for the holidays, R and my parents conspired and bought me two of the appliances I had wanted most for my kitchen. There’s no more If only, I would. They were my deus ex machina. I am not a materialistic person, but I have to tell you, I lay in bed hugging a stupid kitchen appliance box and crying when R gave me her gift. 

I’m a few years past 27 and not even remotely like the woman I imagined when I was young. I think how I turned out is better than Little Me could ever have imagined. But a part of me still holds on to that idea that — some day I will just wake up into a different, more fully realized life. Will wake up knowing how to sort the mail, how to cook oatmeal without Googling it every time, how to navigate the mess of dental health insurance. 

This is so stupid, but having the kitchen appliances I’ve always wanted — it feels like the universe very gently and kindly saying, “This is your life. Right now. Not a faraway If Only Future Day.” 

small sicknesses

December has not been kind to my body: in the early part of the month, laryngitis took my voice; a week before Christmas, in grappling class, I caught an accidental elbow to the mouth that split my lip on the inside, making eating painful for days; now, I’m trying to kick a cold that’s left me running on what feels like 10% of normal energy. Today, I’ve been awake for maybe five hours.

Whenever I am sick, I feel the desire to imbue it with meaning — sickness as a metaphor for some deeper arc or turn in the narrative of my life. It’s an impulse borne out of the fact that I am able-bodied, and sickness is not my “normal.” For the most part, my body is a patch of firm ground on which to land. It is dependable. I understand: it is not this way for everyone, and it will not always be this way for me.

Rabbi Ruttenberg is one of my favorite Jewish writers; her book Surprised by God helped me to name that I, too, wanted more God in my life. I’m so happy to have found her on Twitter, where today she published a beautiful thread about gratitude for our bodies.

I think we all have media we turn to when we’re sick: the shows, the books, the albums that comfort us in the absence of a Platonic-mothering figure. I listen to Azure Ray’s Drawing Down the Moon; I watch The Princess Bride; I read Robert Hass’s “Tall Windows,” which is only a little bit about being sick, and more about courage. “The desire to sleep” he writes, “was lightbulbs dimming as a powerful appliance kicks on…What kept you awake was a feeling that everything in the world has its own size, that if you found its size among the swellings and diminishings it would be calm and shine.”

I use Azure Ray and The Princess Bride as a stop-gap when I’m sick — a way to trick my brain into sleeping with their familiarity, because like Hass I am kept awake by the sense that there is something to be found, some key understanding that would let the world “be calm and shine.” I have thoughts, and then — as Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching would say — second thoughts, and third thoughts. A side effect of “normal” being a steady place to land is the self-imposed expectation I should always be doing. Sickness destabilizes; I am not able to be doing. In fact, sickness demands that I not do. And in the not doing, I sometimes find it hard to pinpoint who I am.

Sometimes, when I am sick, I tell people, “My body was telling me to take a break.” I have ascribed my sickness a meaning, and the meaning is: I work hard so I deserve a break. Where does this come from? Why do I feel this need to justify rest?

The flip answer is capitalism, which is also a true answer. But another true answer is teaching. The narrative of teachers is one of self-sacrifice, of willingness to give of oneself tirelessly because a teacher is working for a Higher Purpose. Another true answer is the story of being a woman, which glorifies multitasking and continual support of others.

Judaism has a lot to say about rest; rest can be found in the palace of Shabbat every week. Heschel writes that “[t]he Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living.” When I read this, and when Rabbi Adar went over this in my Jewish Rituals class, I underlined it in my notebook. We do not earn rest through work. Rest is our right as living beings.

(Forgive me a longish aside? Over the holidays my uncle and my father got into a tense political conversation. My uncle resented the idea of higher taxes and “his money” being used to social services because he perceived people on welfare as “lazy.” My father argued that even if some people who receive social services are “lazy,” the good that the money does for those in need is more important. The whole conversation clarified something so distinctly for me: I believe our value as humans is not defined by our labor. We all deserve food, shelter, education, stability, healthcare. Those rights are not determined by what we contribute to the economy.)

But for those of us (ME) who define our identity through work and doing, rest is hard. I rarely keep a full Sabbath; there is simply too much I feel like needs to get done. So sickness — when rest is the only activity possible — is difficult. It means confronting unspoken and pervasive expectations I have for myself, the definitions I have of who I am.

“welcome to the goddamn ice cube” by blair braverman

Tuesday I woke up exhausted and voiceless; I wrote a quick lesson plan for the substitute, texted my principal, and then went back to sleep until noon. I woke up feeling marginally better (the internet tells me it’s likely laryngitis; i.e., I’ll sound like a smoker for a week) and ready to read something. Twitter came to the rescue and told me that Blair Braverman’s “Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube” was on sale (still is!) so I downloaded it and dove in.

I started following Blair on Twitter maybe five months ago, when I stumbled on her footage of the minis and the maxis meeting for the first time.

I’ve been a devoted member of #uglydogs ever since, laughing at the antics of Blair and Quince’s sled dog team, crying at probably most of the threads, too. In fact, R has told me I’m not allowed to read Blair’s threads unless I’m home with my own dog, because inevitably I turn to her with teary eyes and go “I love dogs and I just love Rilke so much and I want to kiss her big perfect face.”

Rilke is fond of facekisses

One of the things I love most about Blair’s Twitter threads is the way she sees all the living creatures around her with such love. It is not an impractical or blind love; but you can tell she’s someone who is investing in seeing the world as it is. And seeing is an act of love.

So I was excited on Tuesday to curl up with this big baby and Blair’s memoir.

The story begins with an encounter between Blair and a dying man on a beach in front of a bonfire. The man asserts, over and over, that “he could have fucked her” if not for his illness. Stoic, Blair remains silent. It is the first hint: this is not a story about ice axes and daring rescues on a mountainside. It is about a different, particularly female, kind of survival.

Over the course of the narrative, Blair travels back and forth to Norway, where the bulk of the story takes place: with her parents as a 10 year-old, on an exchange program in high school, at a folk school the year after high school, in her mid-twenties as a traveler and then a part of a community. She also spent two summers in Alaska.

The examination of “What does it mean to be in the world, in the body of a woman?” runs throughout the story. Blair writes the reader into the complexity of questioning, “Is he good or bad? If he’s good, why doesn’t this feel good?” It feels very deeply female, this questioning. It feels true and sad and naming it also feels necessary. When she writes about her host-father in Norway during high school she describes, “I doubted myself so violently that I split into two: the part that was afraid, and the part that blamed myself for my fear.”

That moment reminded me of parts of “Educated” by Tara Westover — a desire to reconcile the halves, to square the inner truth with what the world (or the men in our lives) said was true. 

Along with a story about female survival, though, the book is a story of community. Blair’s friendship with a general-store owner in northern Norway is the spine of the narrative. Arild and his store become the heart of Blair’s growth towards herself. In Norway, she helps him feed lambs, visit far-flung customers, and open a local museum. She builds a place for herself at the coffee table with the other regulars. 

One of the strengths of the storytelling is Blair’s ability to hold both the moment and the reflection in a balance such that the reader is within the narrative and they know where they are in a larger context. Near the end, Arild, who has been nothing but kindness and platonic support for Blair, makes an off-color sexual remark. Shaken in the moment, a few paragraphs later Blair is able to use that moment to help us (and herself) understand both Arild and Norway more deeply.

Dog sledding (mushing) is a part of the story — Blair sleds throughout Norway during her folk school year, and by the end of the book, I feel like I’ve made it (almost) to where I picked up her story on Twitter — happily training a team of joyful dogs alongside her husband, Quince (who, it turns out, is allergic to dogs but supports Blair’s dream because LOVE).

Blair and Quince’s relationship felt like such a gift, too. Honest and based on so much healthy communication. But I’m blabbering a bit, I think.

TL;DR: “Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube” is a beautifully written, reflective, and complex story about what it means to be human. I stayed up late to finish it and you should read it!

rosemary, brown butter shortbread

It seems like that time of year (all the times except summer?) when there is no down time. Yesterday after school was a whirl of walking Rilke, filling out/dropping off my ballot, making cookies, cleaning the apartment, and reading for my meeting with Rabbi C tomorrow. Oh and did I mention prepping for class today?

So I settled for something easy for my bake last night. One thing I really love about shortbread cookies is that they don’t spread — and that means I can fit a full batch on two cookie trays and I’m not up until midnight baking/cooling cookies. I’ve been very happy with Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” shortbread, in part because it’s so forgiving of additions.

Yesterday I browned some butter and then set it to cool in the fridge while I ran (literally) my ballot to my polling place. I feel very lucky that I can get there by foot (plus, I needed some endorphins yesterday). Then, after mixing the cookies and popping them into the fridge to cool, I did a quick vacuum and put away the laundry. While they were baking, I made my slides for today and gave Rilke a belly rub (multi-multi-tasking!).

These cookies are crisp, delightful disks of buttery sweetness. They’re not overly decadent, but they are almost always what I’m craving (have you noticed that I’m obsessed with rosemary and brown butter yet?). Anyway, they’re up there with Deb Perlman’s Blondies recipe for “recipes I would someday like to frame/paint on my cabinet doors because I use them so often.”

 

Rosemary Brown Butter Shortbread

1 cup browned butter, cooled to solid

150 g sugar

1 egg yolk

190 g flour

60 g cornstarch

pinch salt

1.5 Tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary

 

Cream together butter and sugar for ~30 seconds to a minute. Mix in egg yolk and rosemary, then add flour, cornstarch and salt. Run the mixer until the dough comes together (I’ve found it to be very forgiving). Roll into two logs ~1″ in diameter, wrap in plastic wrap (or a ziploc bag) and place in the freezer for ~25-35 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 325° (Bittman suggests 275° for 30 minutes, but I’m too impatient for that).

Slice the logs into ~1/4″ slices and place on a paper-lined baking tray. They won’t spread much, so you can get them quite close.

Bake for 14-16 minutes (I like to check halfway through because I worry that one tray will cook at a different rate than another and I’ll need to swap them. You know your oven). I like them to be firm and only ever-so-slightly golden around the edges when I pull them out.

Let cool on the trays for at least five minutes before transferring to a rack.

This made me about 50 cookies, so I packed up half for coworkers and threw the other half in a ziplock in the freezer. I’m sure Future Me is going to be very happy to find them!

“This Will Only Hurt a Little” by Busy Phillips

I stayed up reading “This Will Only Hurt a Little” well past my bedtime, and then sneaked the last 15% of the book while my students were working on their history project in groups, racing through paragraphs that sucked me out of my classroom and into a more glamorous and adult world.

I started following Busy Phillips shortly after she started doing her Instagram stories. She is truly charming; as a viewer, I felt invited into her world. She shares the kind of details that make someone feel like they really know her (her penchant for margaritas and cinnamon gummy bears, her way of starting every story with “Guys!”, what she looks like when she’s working out or crying, her various rash/ache/bump questions — the kind we all get and then ask our friends “Has this ever happened to you? What IS it?”). She brings the same warm, best-friends-on-the-phone-watching-the-same-movie-from-our-own-apartments tone to her memoir.

The book tells the general story of her life — from toddling around the block alone for the first time to her current career stage (about to be a talk-show host, mostly retired from acting in movies/TV). It contains its fair share of celebrity gossip (who is an asshole, who drinks too much, etc), but Busy is also concerned with figuring out who exactly she is. She begins the book with an anecdote about an ex-boyfriend who told her she was “too much”. It’s a comment a lot of women get when they refuse (consciously or not) to cut themselves down to fit into the roles that are comfortable for the men in their life. So there is that theme through out. Busy wrestles with what it means to have healthy relationships with men, what it means to be a good mother, what it means to be a woman in an image-obsessed industry (and world, really).

The whole book sounds like Busy (at least, as far as I can tell from her Instagram stories). It’s casual, chatty, and anecdotal. And by anecdotal — I mean, she is more concerned with the events of a story than she is with setting, with connecting to larger meaning or context. Which is not to say that the book is not reflective; she has chosen a mostly coherent set of stories that trace the general trajectory of her life. I think what I mean is — at the end of the book, I was left wanting to know, “So what?”

And I’m trying to figure out why — because I read it in less than 24 hours and enjoyed the whole thing. The first section of the book covers her childhood and start of her time in LA, when she took her “Twelve thousand dollar pottery class” at LMU. To me, this was the most compelling section of the book. It’s difficult material; a 17 year-old boy raped Busy when she was 14. A boyfriend’s mother tells her she is going to hell for getting an abortion. She fights with her sister. Her world turns on the romantic affections of boys and partying with her friends. It’s a familiar story (and I don’t mean that dismissively); parts of it mirror my own high school experiences.

When her career “launches” with Freaks and Geeks and Dawson’s Creek, the narrative (for me) began to fall apart. While engagingly written, it began to feel like a recitation of famous names in different locations.

But maybe this is the point of celebrity memoirs? To give us plebeians a glimpse into the lives of the famous and (often) rich. But I think I want more from the memoirs I read: I want well-described settings that become characters in their own right; I want contextualization (in society or history or even within the narrative) that tells me this means something — about family, friendship, ambition, love, anxiety, motherhood, money, success, faith — whatever it is. My students are about to write their own memoir pieces; one of them asked me what the point was. I gave a little speech about the power of shaping our own narratives, but then I told them what I personally read for: “I want my understanding of what it means to be human to be expanded by your story. What will I learn about being human by knowing about your relationship to your grandfather? By reading how you overcame difficulty? Your perspective is unique and necessary.” Phillips is smart enough to deliver a story that expands our understanding of what it means to be human, but that is not in this book.                

housing & feelings

I love teaching. Here are some things I love about teaching:

I love finding and developing texts and activities that are challenging, relevant, and meaningful.

I love getting to know my students — their talents, challenges, sense of humor, quirks, joys, sadnesses, hopes.

I love thinking, as I develop my lessons, about how all of them respond, and adjusting my teaching to pull as many of them in as I can.

I love hearing their interpretations of the literature we read, hearing the connections they make between historical events as we study the past.

I even love grading, when I have the time to do it thoughtfully — it’s a chance to hear their thinking, see their growth, evaluate the effectiveness of my own teaching, and plan intelligently for the future.

I love developing curriculum with my team and co-teacher; they are an unbelievably smart and compassionate group of people.

I love running into students from previous years in the hallway and hearing how their lives are going, what they’re learning, what they’ve accomplished.

But there are many things about being a teacher that are stressful and hard and overwhelming. Things that it seems like we could fix as a society (and a school district), if we really wanted to.

A few weeks ago, an email thread at my school site snowballed. An administrator admonished the staff for not turning in their grades on time and then complained (to the entire staff) that the late grades would cause her to work on the weekend, which she did not want to do because it was “not fair to [her] family or to [her].”

I don’t think I’ve been more insulted by an administrator; that email thread happened to fall after I’d spent two weekends straight grading (an average of 11 hours each weekend). A teacher who wrote back gently reminding the administrator that most teachers work every weekend was given a formal letter of reprimand by the administrative team.

I feel valued by my students and their parents; I feel valued by my grade-level team and my department leads. But after email threads like the one I just described, it is clear that I am not valued; my work does not hold value for my administrative team.

And on the second of every month, after rent has been paid, I don’t feel valued by my district.

Last Friday our school bulletin included a blurb from the central office about a partnership with Roomily, a housing website that connects users who have a spare room with community members who cannot afford rent. The blurb is unclear; it notes that “OUSD is providing faculty and staff with resources that may help address [housing] hardship,” but a search of “housing” on the OUSD website returned only a PDF of a measure proposal that was vetoed. The description of Roomily leaves unclear if the hope is teachers with homes will sign up to house others, or if the intent is to find housing for teachers in need (or both?).

I believe in living in the community where I teach. I believe in being a part of the community where I teach because children don’t leave behind their homes and neighborhoods when they come into the classroom. Living in Oakland makes me a better teacher not just because I spend less energy commuting, but because students know I am in this with them.

I will never be able to afford a home in Oakland. My partner also works for a school, and even together we will never be able to afford a home in Oakland. We cannot even afford to rent a house together (we both lucked into below-market rents in spaces too small for both of us).

So when I read the blurb about Roomily, I felt very angry. Yes, the housing crisis in the Bay Area is bigger than OUSD. But — the solution to attracting and retaining teachers is not to find them rooms to rent in someone else’s house. Professionals (and teachers are professionals) do not want to rent a room in someone else’s house for their foreseeable future. To suggest that teachers should have to pay for being a teacher by being a perpetual roommate is insulting. It is insulting to the hard work teachers do and insulting the the children and families who rely on schools to provide an education and a path towards their dreams.

At a district-directed department meeting last month, the Humanities department looked at grade distributions by race. It was a sobering data set. Too many of our Black and Brown children are not flourishing; in fact, the data clearly shows that our school is failing these students. The reasons for this are complex, and they tie into the housing crisis described above.

(I’m sure you’ve read the studies; I’m sure you know that having a Black teacher for even one year can improve Black student outcomes for multiple years, including dramatically reducing their likelihood of dropping out; I’m sure you know that having race-matched teachers can reduce absences and suspensions. I’m sure you’ve looked at the teacher demographics of our district, which do not represent our students.

I’m sure you’ve done the math and the research and you see: when students of color don’t have culturally responsive teachers of color to act as role models, they’re less likely to go to college; because there are fewer college graduates of color, there are fewer candidates to come back and become teachers; because many college graduates of color feel financially responsible to their communities, they choose not to become teachers because they know teaching is not a ticket out of poverty.)

What recent college-graduate would choose to come and work here when the district is suggesting we find housing as someone’s perpetual roommate?

All of this is to say: serving the students of Oakland requires valuing and investing in the teachers of Oakland.

cinnamon-pecan oatmeal cookies

It’s be a Week, although I feel like I’ve been saying that all spring, and besides it’s only Wednesday. Rilke cut her foot last night and we spent several hours (and many dollars) at the emergency vet. Today, I accidentally let my second block out 10 minutes early (a serious no-no for 9th graders).

But. I have been working on a draft of an oatmeal cookie recipe that I’m pretty happy with. I made cherry-pecan oatmeal cookies last week, but was disappointed with them. They tasted too chewy — like the oatmeal wasn’t thoroughly cooked, and the butter flavor didn’t shine through.

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So I tinkered with a recipe that included ground oats as well as regular, upped the brown sugar, and came out with a pretty crisp, chewy cookie. But they were too thin, and even though I stored them overnight in a sealed plastic bag, they went stale quickly!

The tinkering continued. I replaced half the butter with shortening, reduced the brown sugar, lowered the oven temperature, and added some corn starch. The result? Tender, chewy cinnamon oatmeal cookies studded with pecans. I still want to try for a thicker version, but everyone seems pretty happy with these.

3 oz each butter and shortening, melted together

7 oz brown sugar

2 oz white sugar

1 tsp vanilla

1 egg + yolk

6 oz oats (3 oz ground)

4 oz flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp corn starch

1 cup chopped pecans

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Beat melted fats and sugar for 3-4 minutes, scraping down the bowl. Add egg + yolk and beat until ribbony. Add vanilla and beat until incorporated.

Fold in flour, oats, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, and corn starch, then mix in chopped pecans.

Chill the dough at least 3 hours. 30 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 325°.

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Bake for 12 minutes at 325° and then let cool for 10 minutes on the tray. Cookies will look puffed and undercooked, but will collapse into a chewy, delicious, and solid cookie.

Rilke will have to be in her stitches for two weeks and I know already she’s going to be a nightmare of pent up energy by the end of it. But I’m grateful that it happened now, while there’s still time for it to heal before she goes to training. And grateful for my calm, wonderful vet, and grateful that I have the resources to take care of her.

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Currently Reading: Possession by AS Byatt

 

vegan blueberry-cherry pie & whimsy

On Friday, I took Rilke to see a behaviorist in the Central Valley; I had to take the day off work, which ended up being a small blessing. We drove the hour and a half through the hills and the orchards and the cow fields, past huge, newly-built mansions and worn, dilapidated houses and truck stops and feed stores. The behaviorist put me so at ease about Rilke, about her energy and her aggression and her anxiety. At the end of the month, we’ll head back to drop Rilke off for a 2-month board and train. I’ll make the trip out to see her once a week (so I can also get trained).

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Friday morning, though, before driving to the Central Valley, I made a vegan blueberry-cherry pie to take to Shabbat dinner at Amy’s house. Originally, I had planned on making a blueberry-peach pie, but the peaches were mealy and flavorless, so I rounded out the filling with some hastily-defrosted cherries leftover from the jam bars I made earlier this week.

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I used Cook’s Illustrated Foolproof pie dough, which I swear by — except I substituted Earth Balance for the butter. Yes, it was less flavorful, but it was worth it so that Amy and her daughter could dig in!

Crust (make 2+ hours ahead of time)

2.5 cups flour

1 tsp salt

2 T sugar

12 T butter OR Earth Balance

1/2 cup Crisco

1/4 cup cold vodka

1/4 cup cold water

Note: I have to make this in two batches, because my food processor is small. If you don’t have a food processor, do your best with a pastry cutter or fingers.

Pulse 1.5 cups flour in the food processor with salt and sugar until combined. Add in butter (cut into 1/4″ slices) and shortening (cut in 8 pieces). Pulse the food processor until the mixture comes together — it will look wet and cohesive. Scrape down the food processor, add the rest of the flour, and process again.

Turn the dough into a bowl and sprinkle with the vodka and water (mix together first). Fold the water and vodka into the dough — it will be very wet and tacky! Toss into a ziplock bag or wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 2 days.

Pie! 

20 oz blueberries

1 lb cherries (frozen is fine, defrosted and wrung out)

5 T cornstarch (if making this again with only blueberries or fresh cherries, I would reduce to 4 T)

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 tsp cinnamon* (there is a definite cinnamon flavor to the finished pie — everyone loved it, but just a head’s up!)

1/4 tsp salt

1 T butter or Earth Balance

Egg for egg wash

Turbinado sugar

Preheat oven to 400°.

Whisk together the cornstarch, cinnamon, salt, and sugar, then toss with the cherries and blueberries.

Roll out half the crust and lay in a 9″ pie plate. Pour in the filling mixture, and dot with 1 T butter (or Earth Balance).

Roll out the second half of the dough into a 10″x10″ rectangle and cut into ~10 1″-wide strips. Lay over the pie in a lattice pattern. Brush with egg wash and sprinkle with turbinado sugar.

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Bake for 15-20 minutes and then drop the temperature to 350°. Bake for another 30-40 minutes, covering the pie if necessary.

Let cool for at least an hour before cutting!

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On Sunday, R and I went back to my elementary school’s Spring Fair. It was lovely to show her all of my childhood haunts — the junk garden and tree house, the clay room, the back stairs with my class’s mural, the bench with my initials carved into it. We got “scrip”, the fair tickets I remember budgeting and hoarding as a kid, and bought ourselves a mini-key lime pie and I got my face painted. It was bright and warm but not hot; kid bands were playing a mix of new alt-rock songs and 70’s classic rock. Everything felt covered in a golden softness that carried through the rest of the day — coffee, soup, and baguettes at a cafe, book-browsing at one of my favorite bookstores, reading at the kitchen table while R cooked us bougie burritos (broccoli, tomatoes, quinoa, and a cashew-“cheese” sauce).

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