Saturday, November 17, 2018


Dear Lori,

It's been a year.

It's been a year since the recent unpleasantness.

It's been a year and I've accumulated so many debts I'll never pay back.  There's so many people to thank that I can't possibly name them all: my colleagues at school, my students current and former and their families, my people in New Mexico, my friends and family.  I am pretty good with words, but I cannot express my gratitude for everything you've done for me and mine.

It's an odd thing to say, "it's been a year."  The inflection matters, of course.  Said flat, it's a statement of fact.  With a heavy sigh, it turns into a statement of struggle but also of hope.  As in, (deep sigh) "It's been a year," (but next year will be better? silently unstated)

It's been a year and somehow here we are, celebrating birthdays, and taking trips, and doing homework, and food shopping as if nothing happened.  And then we turn around in unexpected moments and scream at each other only to share some "apology chocolate" later.  We had to coin a term for it, "apology chocolate."  I hate that this is a thing in my house.  I enjoy it when I eat it.  And then I fell guilty about enjoying it or even needing it in the first place.

It's been a year and now there are whole days that seem oddly normal.  Until a couple of weeks ago, I was actually sleeping through the night.   In the run up to today, I've been waking up at 4 am and unable to fall back asleep, but if I learned anything this year, it's that I can function on four or five hours sleep routinely.

It's been a year and the sky didn't fall and the earth didn't open even though it felt like it should have.

It's been a year and I took off my wedding ring this morning and put it your jewelry box in our bedroom next to your engagement ring and wedding band.  It is both an admission of defeat and a sign of hope.  It's the realization that this isn't all a bad dream and I'm going to wake up with you next to me and everything will go back to normal.  It's the realization that the next chapter begins now.

It's been a year and I don't miss you any less or love you any less.  And no matter what happens next, that will always be true.


May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all.


Sunday, October 21, 2018

On Feminism, Food, Fun, and Scholarship

I was fortunate to attend the Western History Association in San Antonio, Texas this weekend.*  One of the panels I attended, "Tamale Making and Storytelling" was implicitly feminist (although nobody used the f word, but then again, nobody needed to).  I think many people perceived this as a fun  session, but I think it's worth the time to explicitly excavate both the work that went into the session and the work that took place at the session and how both those things informed both my scholarship and my teaching and made this one of the most productive, if not the most productive, panel I've ever attended and discuss why this may be the most feminist session I've ever attended at any conference ever. 

First, a bit of background.  I signed up for the panel, in part, because two women I admire very much, Dr. Mary E. Mendoza, a friend, and Dr. Maria Montoya, a mentor and friend (and a member of my dissertation committee) were two of the four organizers.  The other two were Dr. Lori Flores and Dr. Rachel St. John.**  I've also read Que Vivan Los Tamales by Jeffery Pilcher about the history of tamales in Mexico.  The book has stayed with me, especially the chapters about battles over corn vs. flour tortillas and the chapter on the introduction of commercial masa.  The first chapter was about how what turned out to be bad nutrition science was used to denigrate corn (perceived as indigenous, brown, bad) and promote flour (white, European, good).  The other chapter was about how women's embrace of commercial masa freed them from tedious masa making and allowed them to either pursue wage work or leisure time.  This also led to a backlash by men, particularly elite men,  who feared the consequences of either of these options. Plus, I've worked as a cook and I'm always looking for new tools for my cooking toolbox.  I've never made tamales and I wanted to know how it was done.  So you factor these three things:  friendship, intellectual curiosity, and  opportunities to learn technique and this was the first session I signed up for. 

The four scholars walked us through the tamale making process, each while providing a section on the history of the tamale and their own relationships with tamales.  As audience members, we made our own tamales with supplies that were on the round tables we sat at.

Tamales are intensely labor intensive.  Making the masa and the filling can take days.  Even though using commercial masa is a timesaver, it's still a laborious process.  So really, this panel on tamale making was just the last step.  And even though the ingredients were pre-made for us by teams of Mendoza women over the last several days (more on that in a moment), my first tamale took me over 20 minutes to make.  This included coating the pre-soaked corn husks with masa, inserting the filling, wrapping the tamale, and tying it up.

The tamales were placed in instapots to be cooked and then we had a catered lunch (including fantastic tamales from a local supplier).

So you can see why this was a popular session, but there was incredible intellectual depth to it.  I wasn't able to take notes as I went along (my gloved hands being covered in masa) but I wanted to note some important points.

1.  There isn't a single tamale making tradition.  This was especially evident when it came to questions over tying vs. not tying tamales.

2.  The story-telling part was extremely important to the session.  As each of our scholar-hosts told us about tamale history, she also located herself within that history.  Family histories and social networks were revealed.  Mary Mendoza's stories mostly revolved her extended kinship network, still very much in San Antonio and present at the session to help out.  Maria Montoya talked about creating new networks of tamale making as a way of creating community in places far distant from her childhood home.

3.  Support, support. support!  As the various tamale making experts on hand circulated around the room, they were amazingly supportive of the many novices, even as they provided gentle instruction and correction.

4.  Credit was generously shared.  It took a lot of people to do the prep work for this, and they were expressly and repeatedly named, acknowledged, and applauded.  Part of the point of the session was to make the gendered work behind tamale making visible.

5.  Food history and family history are both pretty important fields.  The intersection of the two leads to powerful scholarship (not just at this panel but see, fore example, Michael Twitty's The Cooking Gene).

6.  We need another term than cultural appropriation.  The session ended with Maria Montoya, who is an administrator at NYU Shanghai telling a story about a Chinese woman who dated a Mexican and learned to make tamales.  She ditched the guy but kept the recipes and runs a booming tamale making business in Shanghai.  One of her top clients is Dr. Montoya.

7.  This whole session was a metaphor for feminist scholarship.  It also was feminist scholarship.

8.  We didn't get to do the usual post-panel Q and A.  I'll leave my question here.   We heard a lot about family fights over tamale making.  Are fights over food proxies for other fights, or are they what they appear?

So that's that.  I think.  I'm really tired so I'm probably forgetting stuff.  But not as tired as the people who put in all the work before I ever set foot in the room where the panel took place.

Oh and postscript.  The ratio of men to women who attended the panel was around 1:9.

Postscript 2.  Which is to say all of this is a metaphor for what happens in the academy But especially for women professor's careers.  Lots of unseen labor.  Lots of care for others beyond the immediate job description and then other people get the bulk of the yummy stuff.

Post slightly modified to clarify the metaphor in Postscript 2

*Special thanks to Miriam Salmanson, Jon Salmanson, Michael Salmanson and Tobi Zemsky who cared for my children in various capacities while I was gone and various parents of my kids classmates who drove them places.  This made my trip possible.  Also making this trip possible was generous financial support from SCH Academy. 

**Normally, when we talk scholarship around here, we don't use the Dr. titles, but I'm using them here to emphasize that each of these women is a respected, dynamic, expert in her field. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Of Melons and Melancholy

I bought a melon today at the good produce store.  It reminded me of Lori.  Not because of the shape of the melon or it was her favorite kind or anything like that.  Rather, it reminded me of a whole series of experiences that we shared around food.  I suppose this is on my mind because my birthday is approaching and one of our first Philly dates was for my birthday.  We had just moved to Philly and had been married less than a year.  My brother Michael drove us to Fork so Lori and I could share a bottle of wine and take a cab home.   I ordered a beet salad as an appetizer.  Lori was disgusted.  Then the beets arrived.  There were sunburst beets and red beets.  They'd been grilled and then lightly marinated.  The colors popped catching her artist's eye. 

"What are those?" she asked.

"They're beets."  I said.

"I've never seen beets like that," she said somewhat mystified.

"Have you only ever had canned beets?"  I asked.  She nodded.  "Try one."

Beets became a staple part of our diet.  We roasted them at holidays and did them on the grill in the summer.  There were more food adventures.   She claimed she didn't like fruit, but had rarely had good, in-season ripe ones. "That's what a peach is supposed to taste like?"  "These are blueberries?"   Late summer, Jersey tomatoes ruined her on anything but cherry tomatoes for the rest of the year.  She sometimes had trouble laying off the wrong season fruits or picking out good melons.  "You can't buy clementines until Thanksgiving and they won't be good after President's Day."  I'd tell her.  Since she did the food shopping, this would come up a lot. 

Beyond food, I shared so much of myself with Lori.  She bought what she thought was a Native American rug at a yard sale (it was maybe Amish?) and so I taught her how to identify good Navajo rugs.  She designed her engagement and wedding rings, but I found the jeweler and the stones before hand, knowing that she would never want a diamond once she knew there were purple sapphires out there. 

And yet. 

There was so much from her I didn't learn.  I'm struggling with understanding how credit reports work (mine was good, than briefly bad, and is now good again?).  I'm terrible at hiring people to do work on the house.  I have no idea how to decorate or organize the kitchen.  I still struggle to understand art.  And so often when I asked her about these things, she gave me only surface details.  With every tricky real estate deal, I'd try to pry for information, not about the deal per se, but about the techniques she used to persuade someone to buy (or not to buy) a house.  She couldn't explain how she knew how to get to places from other places the fastest way (I often can only get to a place from a certain other place.  For example, there are some places I can only get to from home or from school so if I am someplace else I have to go to one of those places first before I can get to the place I want to go.) 

She usually picked out my clothes, but didn't teach me the principles of dressing.  So I'm starting to forget what the pre-approved outfit combinations were, and I'm thinking my clothing might be very interesting this year.  Conversely, I've gotten very good at getting help in stores now.  The downside is, I'm an easy mark.  Just ask the two(!) salespeople that helped me in Clark's over the weekend. 

There's so much Lori had to teach me and that I wanted to know about her.  These days, that's what I'm missing most.  I still miss the little things we did together.  But what pains me most is all the things we didn't get a chance to do, that we will never do.  That's when I miss her the most now. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

First Day of School

It was almost normal.  Clothes were laid out the night before.  Lunches were made in the morning.  We have to get to school early because the construction project means there is very little parking. 

Syllabi were handed out.  Course websites were logged into.  History of Violence got their traditional scary first reading.  AP explored the American Yawp textbook (your tax dollars at work!). 

Advisees were met with; summers were discussed, assignment books were handed out. 

It was all so normal.  I was a little scary when I needed to be, funny because I can't help it. 

It's going to be a good year. 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Summer Play List

Most of these were campfire songs.  Some were just in my head.

This is a new standard for campfire:

This next one is a Gulch original: 
It's been stuck in my head since I got back.  For the record, I've only ever been to the 49er once, and it's where I met Doug Monroy (emeritus, Colorado College) for the first time.  He never let me forget it.

This was on my mind all summer though it's not something we sing:

And,  of course, I played this a lot:

And this one: 


I didn't play this one much, but I sure thought about it a ton:  

And I played this one a lot, but I don't think anybody knew what I was playing (plus on the lap dulcimer I have to cheat on some of the chords):

(Yes, I know the Lucinda Williams is the original and probably better version.  I like what I like and MCC brings the passion to the vocals).

And this one, too.  These last three I mostly played by myself, alone for all the obvious reasons.

And of course, every campfire ended with this: 

Saturday, August 4, 2018

An Unabashed Love Letter to My Summer Colleagues

Dear Cottonwood Gulch Staff,
I would write you all individually, but I cannot and then what should be public would be private.  And while I don't praise often, when I do, I do so loudly and proudly.

Thank you.

Thank you for beginning to give me my life back.  I'm not saying this summer was easy.  To be in one of the places I love best without the person I love most was incredibly difficult.  Of all the many gifts the Gulch has given me, Lori was always the best.  To be there without her when she was alive was hard, to be there now was beyond difficult.   Nearly every inch of your 500 plus acres has a memory of her etched in my mind.   There were nights when I cried on a bare rock between the staff cabins D and E.  There were moments were I thought this idea was a terrible mistake.

And yet. 

The longer my month of work went on, the more eager I was to get up in the morning.  Not because the nights were almost endless and awful, which they were especially at the beginning, but because each day brought a new discovery and a new piece of learning.  There were rattlesnakes to catch and relocate, dishes to wash, trucks to clean, a library to organize, buildings to sweep.  Hard work is a good tonic for grief and you gave me plenty of the former.

But having a sense of purpose is also a tonic for grief.  I've been going through the motions these last months, keeping my shit together not because I wanted to, but because I had to.  I've been getting out of bed out of a sense of obligation, not out of a sense of purpose.  I re-found some of that purpose thanks to you all.  Your energy and enthusiasm for taking young people on intellectual adventures, for discovering the wild around them and in them, and for making them think about themselves and the world reawakened something in me.

There is a certain un-realness to an intentional community.  The routines and rituals I've been performing (some since 1979!) come so easily they were like a comfort blanket.  The ring of bells for wake up and meals, the grind of details, the slog of mealtime announcements, of the after-dinner meeting, and the knowledge that every night would end with a campfire and Desert Silvery Blue.  These were certainties.  And yet, it's so hard to translate them back to real life.  I may rename our chore chart "details," and Weber has already announced that we will do dishes "rendezvous" style wherein each person will clean their own plate and place it in the dishwasher but back here in Philadelphia it feels like the Gulch is Oz and I am Dorothy awakening from her dream.

But I think it is the other way around.  The Gulch is built intentionally toward a specific end.  Each of us took on a role, or several, and we were united in purpose.  Intention creates meaning; meaning gives purpose.  This is the lesson I learned this summer.  All along, these last thirty years or so, I'd always imagined that summer camp was the fake world or the escape from reality.  I was wrong.  All this time, I'd traveled outside the cave* and returned to the world of shadows not realizing I'd seen the sun.

So the lesson here is to live my life more intentionally now on.  I have to build this thing, my household, from the ground up.  The kids and I have a few weeks to figure it out.  I have no idea what the final result will be, but having finally seen the sun and recognized it for what it is, I finally feel ready to begin anew.

At the beginning of the summer, I asked New Mexico to heal me.  I should have known, that couldn't happen.  But the Gulch, you all,  came through for me in ways I didn't expect.  It showed me a way to heal myself.  Let the healing begin. Thank you. 

If you've been reading along these last few months please consider making a donation to the Cottonwood Gulch Foundation.   This link takes you to their capital campaign fund to renovate the mess hall and showers. 

*Yes, it's a Plato reference, but so was the Wizard of Oz and you let that slide, get over it. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Travel Day


I’m flying to Albuquerque.  Because New Mexico is my happy place.  Because keeping busy is better than not keeping busy.  Because I don’t want to clean my house.  Because I keep finding bits of Lori’s clothing and not wanting to throw them away. 


I’m flying to Albuquerque and I’m rehearsing in my mind what to say to people when I get there.  There will be a lot of people, people who care about me, people who asked me to come to help me heal, and they will all say the same thing.  “How are you?  No really how are you?”  It’s a well-meaning question asked by well-meaning people concerned for my well-being.   A lot of people ask me this question.  I have a lot of stock responses: 

“Hanging in there.”  This one is true in a very non-committal way.  It’s a confession. “Hey,” it says,  “I’m here.  I showered this morning.  I drank coffee.  I got some sleep. I’m going through the motions. Little victories, right?” 

“I’m just tryna to live my life.”  This something the kids at school say.  I adore it. “I am trying to live my life,” it declaims, “but I am not actually succeeding at living it.  I’m doing a pale imitation of living.  I’m hanging in the shadow world having been kicked out of the world of sunlight and forms and I can’t find the path back. But in the meantime, I’ll do all those things I used to do back in the sunlight world, just pale imitations of them.” 

“Today is a good day.”  I have been practicing this one.  I cannot make it sound convincing yet. 

And yet, as I was rehearsing in my mind and practicing responses it kept coming out wrong.  Instead of the above, I got “Don’t ask questions you don’t want answered.”  or “How the fuck do you think I am?”  or “I just spent a plane ride trying to cry discretely behind my hat like I was sleeping and the sobbing was just the plane vibrations, so I’m kind of dehydrated actually.”   


I’m flying to Albuquerque because New Mexico is my happy place except it wasn’t always.  It was a lonely place, too.  It was my happy place when I visited and when I finally moved there it wasn’t at all like when I visited.  I was sad and lonely and reading files about fatal mine accidents and carrying around the stories of dead miners and the families they left behind.  And for the first time in forever I was relationship-free and I was bad at being single, and just when I was getting ready to leave New Mexico with a bad taste in my mouth, I met Lori and all my faith in the Land of Enchantment was restored as Lori enchanted me.  


I’m flying to Albuquerque.  C’mon, New Mexico.  Pull off one more enchantment for me.  I’m counting on you.