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It’s that time again. The annual mid-to-late-May, scattered brain blog post.

After nearly three decades spent lived inside of school years, I feel the rhythm in my bones, in my marrow. Most people catalogue their lives by calendar years, January to December; I think about August to May. This 2014-2015 school year has seen 3 weddings attended, 2 showers thrown, a dozen writing deadlines, a record-breaking 11 sick days, 1 appearance on the NPR website, and 1 potty-trained toddler. Moving from middle to high school, teaching three new classes, creating two of those classes from scratch, relishing the tremendous opportunity to teach many of my students for the second or third time—it has all yielded more personal and professional reward than I could have imagined. I am grateful, proud to have survived, and very, very ready for June.

My juniors are ending the year with Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a short story collection that draws heavily on his experience fighting in Vietnam. Structurally, it is a brilliant piece of work, each story like a spoke of a wheel that circles around the themes of memory, ambiguity, truth, and fiction. Each piece is a masterclass in how to write about things that matter, without knowing exactly how they matter or why. About how to tell the truth without being sure that there is any objective truth to tell.

Line after line, even though I hadn’t anticipated that it would do this, this text is forming the perfect bridge between the end of one season and the start of another, allowing my students and I to reflect on what’s been and what’s to come: the seminal experiences that shape us, the ways we decide who we are, who we will be, what we will do with what life presents us. “That’s what stories are for. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”

Summer is coming; there are stories to tell. There is a new book to write. There are plane tickets: to the west coast for a graduation, to the east coast for (another!) wedding. There is a road trip planned, practically a summer requirement. There is a little boy who loves to swim and consume epic amounts of watermelon. There is okra coming up in the backyard.

 

(^tiny photo-shoot-interrupting okra thief)

PERFECT OKRA & POTATOES

Source: Tom Hirschfield via Food52

Jill and I fell in love with this dish last year, but each time I made it (and there have been many), we ate it all before we remembered to take any photographs. This dish is truly more than the sum of its parts—doesn’t sound like much when you read through the recipe, but the method transforms the ingredients, yielding perfect texture on both the okra (no slime here!) and the potatoes. The hit of garlic at the end is just right, and while the original recipe calls for a finish of fresh basil, we found that we like it better without.

Pair this dish with another sublime-and-crazy-easy seasonal dish—this blistered corn-off-the-cob—make a caprese salad with beautiful, fresh tomatoes, and call it dinner. Man I love the summer.

PS: If for some reason you end up with leftover okra-and-potatoes, it makes a wonderful bed for a fried egg breakfast.

ingredients:

russet potatoes* okra* 1-2 cloves garlic, depending on your preference salt & pepper, to taste canola or another neutral oil, like peanut

*You want equal amounts of small-dice russet potatoes & sliced—thin but not sliver-thin—okra. Scale however you like, but it’s easiest if you have a pan big enough to cook everything in an even layer. I usually use 2 small russets & probably 20 okra pods.

Heat a large skillet, preferably cast-iron, over medium-high heat and add enough oil to generously coat the bottom. Add the okra, spreading them out evenly, and season with salt & pepper. Leave the okra alone until the undersides are brown, then add the potatoes, tossing everything around and breaking up any chunks of potato. Add a bit more oil to the pan, if needed. Season again with salt & pepper.

Keep an eye on the potatoes, turning down the heat so that they don’t burn, and turning them occasionally. Remember, they won’t brown if you mess with them too much, so keep an eye on the pan but mostly leave it alone to do its thing. (In my experience, the dish takes about 20-25 minutes on the stove from start to finish.)

Once the potatoes have browned and are tender (fork test!), add the garlic and mix it in well. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cook for just one or two more minutes, until the garlic is fragrant. Taste and add more salt/pepper if needed. Serve hot!

 

 

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GNOCCHI ALLA ROMANA

April 27, 2015

Today would have been my father’s 73rd birthday.

If I could, I would have made these gnocci alla romana for him, warm and rich, covered in Marcella Hazan’s butter-onion-tomato sauce, with meatballs on the side. There would be a big green salad, crusty garlic bread, and a bottle of red wine. Homemade ice cream—I think vanilla with bourbon pecans—topped with warm berries. We would have had a little Scotch afterward, something I never got to do with him because teaching myself to like whiskey was a project I undertook after his death.

Today, if he were here, I know that we would have talked about the earthquake in Nepal, about how David Brancaccio acknowledged the “awkward” transition from news about lack of water and basic medical supplies in an underdeveloped nation to stock reports from the world’s richest countries on Marketplace this morning. I wonder what my dad would say about the arguments that will begin in the Supreme Court tomorrow, arguments that—either way—will impact his daughter’s, and his grandson’s future. I like to think that his opinion would have shifted in the last nine years, the way that opinions have shifted all over this country in such a historically short period of time. I like to think that. It’s a useful fiction.

Tonight, instead, my mom and my son and my hopefully-someday-soon-legally-recognized spouse and I went out to dinner and raised a toast to the man whose life was unexpectedly cut short almost nine years ago. We toasted“L’Chaim”—to life—because toasts are sort of like prayers, words that build things when we declare them. To life. There are tiny humans growing in the bellies of two of my closest friends. To life. There are junebugs and roly-polys milling around my backyard, plucked by the hand of my son and brought to show me. To life. There are tomatoes on the vine, black and blue berries, too. To life. There is the news that we came home to, anger and judgement and a reality that is not new but is perhaps being newly seen.  To life.  To missing lives, to angry lives, to lives in crisis, to lives that have been all but exhausted.  To lives of excess.  To lives of service.  To ordinary lives that are usually, upon closer examination, anything but.  No matter the kind of life, death is the end game for us all; let this compel us into urgency but do not let it drive us to despair. To life. To life. To life.

“Tell me you believe the world is made up of more than all its stupid, stubborn, small refusals,

that anything, everything is still possible.” –Mary Szybist

Happy birthday, Papa. I love you.

GNOCCHI ALLA ROMANA Recipe composite from Saveur & Lucky Peach

One of my mom’s favorite restaurants in town makes a killer version of these, so I decided to try and replicate them a few weeks ago when having her over for dinner. It turns out that gnocchi alla Romana are a breeze to make compared to their more traditional, potato-based cousin. They are so delicious that Jill, Shiv, & my Mom all went after seconds—and thirds. If that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is. I plan to make this in the future for company, since you can do the main work ahead of time, then pop them in the oven to heat when you’re ready to serve.

You can serve them plain, but topping them with this simple but luscious tomato sauce really takes them over the edge.

Ingredients: 4 cups milk 1 ½ cups semolina 1 ½ cups Parmesan (divided) 8 T unsalted, softened butter, divided 2 egg yolks, beaten Salt & freshly ground black pepper Bring milk to a simmer in a large saucepot; reduce heat to low. Add the semolina very, very slowly and gradually, whisking the entire time. (Do not dump the semolina in, or you will end up with a giant, lumpy, clump—not that I would know from experience or anything).

Cook the semolina, whisking frequently, until the mixture is solid but soft, about 8-10 minutes. Whisk in ½ cup of the cheese, 4 T of the butter, & both egg yolks. Season to taste with salt & pepper; remove from heat.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with buttered parchment. Pour the semolina onto the sheet and smooth with an offset spatula—you are aiming for an even layer, about 1/2-inch thick. Allow the mixture to cool until firm. (If you are planning to make tomato sauce, this is an excellent time to do it!)

Heat your oven to 500° or as close to that as you can get. You can either use a knife to cut gnocchi squares, or use a biscuit/cookie cutter to make circles. The squares are more efficient, the circles more aesthetically pleasing. Either way, don’t waste your scraps! They are delicious.

Layer your gnocchi in a buttered baking dish, overlapping them slightly. You will probably end up with 2 layers of gnocchi; sprinkle each layer with half of the remaining cheese and dot with half of the remaining butter. Bake until golden, about 15 minutes; if needed, you might want to crank up the broiler for the last 3-5 minutes to achieve the lovely browning you’re after. Serve with warm tomato sauce (optional) and even more cheese.

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ANYONE WHO ACTS WITH HONOR

April 14, 2015

Last night, I had the privilege of giving the keynote address at my school’s National Honor Society Induction.  At the request of colleagues and parents, I am posting a transcript of my speech below.  

Good evening, everyone. I am honored to have the opportunity to speak to this group of National Honor Society members, their friends & family, and my fellow faculty. I would like to thank the NHS Board for asking me to participate in this special event; it is always a huge compliment when students choose to listen to you more than they are already required to!  I hope that what I say in the next few minutes doesn’t have you regretting your choice.

When I was first asked to give a speech tonight, my thoughts immediately turned to a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita, one of the sacred texts within my own religion, Hinduism. The Bhagavad Gita, which translates as “Song of God,” is a text within a text and consists of a conversation between Arjuna, an accomplished warrior from a noble family, and Lord Krishna, who has disguised himself as Arjuna’s charioteer. The conversation begins at the outset of a battle between two branches of Arjuna’s extended family. Arjuna, who has lived his whole life as a warrior, despairs at the thought of going in to fight against members of his own family. He starts to question his life’s path and meaning. If you remember, Arjuna’s chariot-driver is Krishna is disguise; it’s convenient when you have an existential crisis and an avatar of the Lord just happens to be nearby.

So Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna and the two proceed to have a conversation about the proper way to live one’s life and what it means to do one’s duty. This brings me to the quotation that I mentioned—at the apex of their impassioned conversation, Krishna assures Arjuna: Anyone who acts with honor cannot go the wrong way. I have carried this quotation with me since I was in high school, and I want to share a bit about how I have interpreted it and what it means to me.

Most people don’t realize this, but Hinduism and Judaism actually have quite a lot in common. Each tradition emphasizes food, both for use in sacred ritual and in daily life, prescribing rules for proper preparation and consumption of food in observant homes. Hinduism has an incredibly strong cultural and geographic tie to India, while Judaism, of course, is inextricably bound to the land of Israel. And both religions use a modified lunar calendar, which means that our holidays almost always overlap. But the similarity that I love the most, personally, is the way that both religions emphasize the potential sacredness of everyday life. Ritual and goodness are built into the nooks and crannies of our seemingly mundane existence; we aren’t just spiritual when we go to temple or synagogue. Connection to God isn’t limited to one day of the week—every time a Jew says a blessing (which is why there is one for every occasion), or a Hindu chants a mantra silently in their head—they are honoring this emphasis on everyday goodness. Within both of these traditions, there are many different versions of what it means to live a good, noble life. Anyone who acts with honor cannot go the wrong way.

I find this notion incredibly comforting. Often, we find ourselves frozen by the idea that there is a “right choice” to make, and if we don’t identify that right choice, our lives will be ruined. This pressure is particularly acute, I think, during the period of life you all now find yourselves in. There is this notion—and I think it’s important to acknowledge that we as adults and teachers often perpetuate this notion, even without meaning to—that your task at sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, is to plan out your life, set goals, and then go about achieving those goals. As if it worked like that for any of us! What talk about much less often is the fact that, ultimately, none of us have that kind of control over our own lives. We think we do, but that control is an illusion, an illusion that’s revealed whenever things don’t go the way we planned. We cannot control our circumstances. We cannot—fellow parents, I’m looking at you here—control other people. All we can control is our own reaction to what happens around us.

Personally, I think this is good news. Though I am a recovering control freak and can relate to some (many? all?) of you sitting in this room, I have come to find that many of the best things that have happened in my life have been things that I never, ever could have anticipated: coming to Houston to go to Rice, my relationship with my partner of thirteen years, my beautiful son. Of course, some of the unexpected pieces have been incredibly trying—losing my father very suddenly nine years ago—and these things will happen to all of you, if they haven’t already. In the midst of those kinds of moments, I turn to Holocaust survivor and writer Viktor Frankl:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

This is perhaps the most powerful force we as human beings can exercise in our lives. Even when we have lost all other avenues of agency, we can choose how we respond to whatever is happening around or inside of us. To act with intention is, I would suggest, one of the key cornerstones to living an honorable life. Whatever it is that comes to you in your future, choose it. Choose it fully and commit yourself to it. Don’t allow others to make your choices for you.

Personally, I believe that in order to choose most powerfully, we have to know what we value. Some of the students sitting here may remember the Moral Courage unit from my eighth grade class. As we read To Kill a Mockingbird, we also studied historical figures who had taken incredible risks in order to stand up for their beliefs. The key is that they had to know what they believed ahead of time, so that they could identify when those values were being compromised in a way that they would not tolerate. We can all-too-easily lose our focus in the heat of the moment; that is why it is important to articulate and commit to one’s core values ahead of time. Focusing on our core values can offer a very powerful framework for our daily lives. The code of the ancient Japanese samurai states that one should be able to make any decision “in the course of seven breaths.” A warrior—or a student, or a parent—who is deeply rooted in and committed to their values is able to assess each situation in light of those values, allowing decisions to be make not merely quickly, but thoughtfully. There is tremendous freedom in this.

One more ingredient that I will assert as key to living honorably: managing one’s integrity. Often, we speak of integrity as a moral virtue, one we certainly wish to possess but which we can’t really define. We know it when we see it, and we can identify those who have it, but we’re not sure how to get it ourselves. As an English teacher and writer, I am fascinated by the way words can have multiple meanings. So while one definition of integrity is “the quality of being honest or having strong moral principles,” the lesser-known definition is the one I find most compelling: “the state of being whole and undivided.” We use this second definition more to think about buildings and machines than people—does the roof have structural integrity, will it hold, will it do what it’s meant to do?—but I have learned that a similar principle is applicable to each of us as well. Have we done what we said we would do? Are we dependable? Is the structure of our selves whole, or are we saying one thing and doing another? Just as a roof will eventually go out of integrity—losing some shingles and causing a leak—we will, too, inevitably, act in ways that are “out of integrity”—at odds with what we say or believe. But we do not despair over the moral infirmity of a leaky roof; we simply do what we need to do to fix it, put back shingles, clean up the mess. And so we, too, as human beings are responsible for cleaning up our messes. When we make mistakes, we must acknowledge them. When we screw up, we apologize—genuinely—and work to be better. We put systems into place to restore integrity to ourselves.

As a culture, we don’t do mistakes well. We expect our celebrities and public figures to never make a misstep, and we often shame each other publicly for poor choices. It’s impossible to overstate the damage this does to all of us. When we aim for perfection, we inevitably set ourselves up for failure—I say “we” because this is one I’m still very much working on. There is no day on which you are going to look around your life and say “Yep, today’s the day, I did it, I’m done growing!” That may be something you have to accept over and over again—I know have had to—bu you have to give yourself room to get it wrong. Certainly, there is work we can do to minimize our messes, but we are all going to make messes. The important thing, and the thing that will distinguish you from others, is how you take responsibility for those messes. Beating yourself up doesn’t actually make a difference, as it turns out. The most powerful response you can offer when you are out of integrity is to acknowledge it and to take action to restore that integrity. This you can do. It is both incredibly simple and the hardest thing.

Anyone who acts with honor cannot go the wrong way. Choose deliberately, honor your values, and manage your integrity. These are things you already do so beautifully, which is why you are sitting here today. Hold onto those pieces and trust yourselves. Everything you need is already inside of you.

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ON THE DAY YOU WERE BORN

March 18, 2015

A friend of mine became a father last night When he spoke, in his voice, I could hear the light Of the skies and the rivers, the timber wolf in the pines And that great jukebox out on Route 39.

–Bruce Springsteen, “Valentine’s Day”

Dear Peanut,

You were born today, ushered to the outside via fluid and effort and love, cheered on by a village full of people obsessively checking phones and laptops for email updates from your dad.  The framework of you turned this day from ordinary to extraordinary.

I listened to Waylon Jennings with new ears, thinking how you will get to hear him for the first time someday, the way his voice opens and echoes with knowing, like a well-worn piece of leather: full of feeling, but never sentiment.  After the dreariest morning, the sun finally came out and the day of your birth became one of the best that a Houston spring has to offer, breezy and blue; I thought of you someday, barefoot in the grass, giving name to cloud shapes, face sticky with popsicle.  I thought of all of what’s ahead.  You don’t know what pineapple tastes like.  Or what it feels like to fall in love.  You haven’t yet felt your stomach drop out on a roller coaster.  You’ve never read a poem!  Or been to a baseball game!  Or seen the ocean!  Baby peanut, there is so much good stuff ahead, you don’t even know.

Of course, the world you just arrived in is inexplicably ugly sometimes, and the work of being a person inside of it can be daunting and draining.  Your little tiny personhood is so fresh and so new and so miraculous, but the fate of human hardship is your birthright and eventual destiny.  There is, I’m afraid, no way around this.  But the good news is, so too will you inherit the astonishing beauty that this existence has to offer—moments that will take your breath, full of finger-tingling connection and warmth that spreads through your chest, feelings that cannot be explained.  It is our most ordinary and our most precious miracle, this life, and it is what we have to offer you.

The thing that is both weird and amazing about being a baby is that people love you before they ever know you.  I am one of those people. I love you because I love your parents—because I know that they are two of the absolute best human beings this world has to offer, that they make an incredibly good pair, and that they will give everything that they have to the raising of you.  I have watched them nest and prepare and worry and ask questions and beam with joy at the thought of you.  I may or may not have screamed and cried and literally jumped up and down when they told me that you existed, tiny zygote of hope and uncertainty and life-altering potential.  Honestly, I’m crazy about you, and we haven’t even met yet.

Welcome to the world, sweet peanut.  It is a wild, strange, and woolly place, but you’ve got yourself some excellent tour guides, and I think you’re going to like it here.  I’ll be the auntie who gives you books on your birthday and who always has snacks in her bag.

 

xoxo,

Aunt Nishta