The Promised Land

If life is a journey of self-discovery in which we are all lost and looking to find ourselves, then our search will always lead us backwards to our parents, grandparents and more–that is, our roots. My second Sunday Read is The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson, a history of the African-American great migration that illuminated my understanding of the past in many ways.

Everyone must explore their heritage, but for black people and second generation immigrants (I am both, btw) this task involves some pioneering because the story hasn’t been told. I know many, many professional black people whose understanding of their grandparents, even their parent’s lives, is limited, like mine. We know they lived in segregation. We know they were waiters, shop owners, domestics. We know the Klan harassed them, but we don’t know what it was like. There is a fog over many parts of our past that hides from us the lives of our ancestors.

The Warmth of Other Suns helps to change that. The book, written by a woman whose parents migrated north, explains fully and with humanity, the lives of three members of the Great Migration. It also writes with authority on the common experiences, hopes and emotions faced by all those who made the journey and how it affected those who stayed behind. Wilkerson comes by her authority the hard way. She interviewed over a thousand people. The book took her over a decade to write.

I’ll leave the details of the book to other published reviews. I’ll just say that the migrants move to Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. They reap extreme, moderate and meager professional success, but more interestingly, they each have different emotional experiences. One is bitter, one is anxious and one finds peace. But in the end, we are all glad they made the journey.

For me, the most compelling details were the lives and hardships they experienced in the south and how they were and weren’t able to overcome these challenges in the north. And by the end of the book we are very much in the modern era even though the characters childhood experiences are ones that are out of another time. The book is really the missing link between our modern Age of Obama era and our shameful segregated past. Yet this book makes clear how the relative successes found in the north are layered over what happened back in Dixie. And we ignore that at our peril.

The Warmth of Other Suns is a masterful, beautiful, intelligent, powerful and epic read. It’s long, yes, but it can be read easily in stages and it goes fast. And I hope that Wilkerson, who is now a journalism professor, writes another book soon.

Sunday Cooking: About Salad

Sigh, salad. ‘It’s so much work!’

That’s what my cousin (she knows who she is) said to me when I shared a new recipe with her. And I agree. Salad, for those of us who would never consider rabbit food a meal on its own, salad does feel like yet another thing to lug over to the dinner table for an uncertain reward. After all, my husband and I are likely to just pick at it after already having had two helpings of whatever carnivorous entree we’ve prepared. I never ate it growing up, though we would pair spaghetti with meat sauce with a side of sliced cucumbers. That was the only raw vegetable we ate regularly, as far as I can remember.

Still, new times call for new measures and the truth is I eat too much. And even when I don’t eat too much, I eat too much meat. And even when I don’t eat too much meat, my diet has little variety. And I don’t think I’m alone.

So, SALAD.

Don’t laugh. But I have actually studied frequent salad eaters (i.e. white people) for years and have deduced the following get-more-salad-into-your-diet plan.

1) Get a salad bowl. Made out of wood. The smallest communal size you can find.

2) Get a pair of salad tongs and salad tossers (UGH!) salad servers. Wood ones are prettiest but they will dry out if left in water and need oiling. Metal or bone ones are less maintenance.

3) Buy as expensive a balsamic vinegar as you can stand (I assume you already have some extra-virgin olive oil in the house.)

You are now ready to serve salad in a civilized and regular manner. That’s right. ‘Regular.’ We need to turn this from a special occasion thing into an almost-daily habit.

During your weekly Saturday morning (or Wednesday night, whatever) shopping trip. Buy a head of lettuce. Just one. Or get the pre-washed stuff in the plastic containers if you want.

Now, the  key to salad is timing. At some point during cooking, tear a few leaves from the lettuce, run them under the tap and then leave them to dry between some paper towels. That’s right, don’t bother with the salad spinner. Now, fast forward. You’ve got a glass of wine in front of you. The meat (a roast chicken perhaps?) is already resting on your cutting board. The potatoes are in a serving dish covered in tin foil. Now, as your significant other sets the table and sets out the chicken, put the lettuce in your pretty new salad bowl**, add a few slices of whatever you have on hand, some shredded carrots, or a handful of red onion, or some sliced apples, whatever. Or nothing. It’s fine to eat just lettuce leaves. Drizzle them with some olive oil and some balsamic. Stick your serving pieces in the bowl and let one of your guests toss. Try to eat some greens between each round of good stuff.

And happy eating.

 

**Tear it up into small manageable pieces as you do so, removing the tough ribs.

What Brand is Your Therapist??

Shrinks and their current and future patients are all clipping this long dispatch from a newly-minuted therapist who wasn’t good enough to get clients the old-fashioned way so starts investigating marketing techniques. The question of whether shrinks should brand themselves, the slant promoted in the headline, is not very interesting. What is, is the evolving psychology of patients.

Apparently people no longer want to change. They just want fixes. The article discusses the author’s evolution from a traditional therapist to some kind of mind coach who looks for superficial problems that can be solved in one phone session.

Of course, there are always people out there who want everyone else to change while they stay the same, but therapists are supposed to be the ones who help them see the light. They are doctors, not consultants. It is times like this when I bemoan the decline of organized religion. Parishioners had to listen to their priest (because God was on his side). And that priest had a handy script of time-tested wisdom to see people through rough patches. The problem is that priests are not so great for relationship advice. Or maybe they are, I’ve never tried. Maybe priests just have a marketing problem… Ha.

Ah well. Read the article here.

 

Sunday Reads: Little Bee

Little Bee
Little Bee

Little Bee by Chris Cleave, a British author and journalist whose childhood was at least partially in Cameroon, is one of the most moving, well-crafted novels that I have ever read, period. And it may be the best contemporary portrait of a poor, black girl that I have ever read. (Caveat: I am happy to hear suggestions of others. I want to read Dave Eggers’ book, which I hear is excellent, but that’s about a black boy in any case. My friend Dolen’s novel Wench is also terrific but that is historical fiction. )

The book asks readers not to give away too much of the plot, because the narrative’s power comes from how the story unfolds. I don’t know if that’s really true, but I’ll respect it.

My praise for Little Bee, my first-ever Sunday Read, comes even though it has two strikes against it from the knee-jerk liberal perspective. 1) It’s a book about two women, a Nigerian teenager and a bourgeois magazine editor, but it is written by a man, allowing it to take advantage of the women-driven book club industry but also avoid the condescending ghetto of women’s fiction. 2) The author is white and a main character is black, a historically-troublesome dynamic that calls to mind too many centuries of white people putting words in black people’s mouths.

But, quality is the best defense and Little Bee is great. I can’t find fault with an author who does what he does so well. I encourage Chris Cleave to write a book about a half-Asian, half-black girl with wealthy parents growing up in New York and Paris. That would be awesome! Then there would be two.

The conclusion to made me cry. Not for the protagonist, though. She finds satisfaction and an independent emotional power. This is an achievement that eludes so so so many people. No, I cried for the world. Because it is too stupid to honor her.

Thanks to Audie for recommending it.

Sunday Reads: An Introduction

It’s Thanksgiving week and I am grateful for good books. Fiction–good fiction–is the most emotionally-satisfying and intellectually-engaging object that is easily available to most anyone. I come by this realization honestly. For years my reading diet consisted of pop non-fiction of the moment and breezy pageturners that I could finish in 36 hours at the beach. Reading was not a thought-provoking pleasure for me, but rather an efficient means of processing information or a diversion from the tedium of my life.

My job is part of the reason for this. It required me to process a lot of information. But it was also related to a lack of empathy, I think. I had a hard time relating emotionally to characters, thus I relied on books for information but not for emotional understanding of our world, or for answers to the existential questions that plague us like, ‘How do we come to terms with death?’ ‘What is the appropriate way to treat our parents?’ ‘In a world in which religion feels out of step with the times where do we go for answers to our moral dilemmas and comfort in our sorrows?’ And perhaps the greatest question of all: ‘How in God’s name are we supposed to deal with other people?’

Fiction has started providing me with answers to some of these questions. Sunday is a day for family and reflection so I will start using that day to post either a recipe or a book review. Stay tuned.

 

Sunday Recipe: Roast Chicken, Parisian + Caribbean Style

As a child I was lucky enough to grow up eating food prepared by two amazing chefs: Dalma, a tall, handsome, West Indian so tough that he didn’t use oven mitts and Patrick, a short, lithe Frenchman who informed me that making duck confit, from scratch, was easy. Both of them were lovely people and answered my questions about cooking.

If you are a personal friend of mine, I have probably served you roast chicken for dinner at some point. For years, it was the only recipe I knew that could serve four hungry people in an attractive fashion. And a well-made roast chicken is just so attractive. Golden brown crispy skin, the juices pooling on the serving dish. It’s all I can do not to just rip off a piece before plopping it down on the table… A friend was just telling me about his recipe for roast chicken using a cast iron skillet, and it reminded me how much I love making this dish.

So, my roast chicken recipe is a combination of Dalma and Patrick’s recipes. I use Dalma’s dry rub of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, onion Powder, garlic powder and adobo sprinkled thickly all over the chicken. Inside the cavity goes a split onion, a bay leaf and more of the same spices.

Patrick taught me the preparation. Get the chicken as dry as you can. Wash your hands and then warm up a large pat of butter between your palms. Once it’s soft, smear it all over the chicken. Season it and then cook it at 450F for 15-20 minutes, until the top starts to take on a decent color. Then cover it loosely with aluminum foil (poke a few holes in it) and turn the heat down to 325F and cook for another 75-90 minutes. If you wish, you can also throw a cup or two of sliced potatoes tossed in olive oil and butter in the bottom of the pan. If you are cooking a lot of potatoes you’ll need to add some stock or water at some point so they don’t dry out.

The chicken is done when you tip it back and the juices in the cavity run clear.

It will look almost brown with a crispy skin and will smell amazing but DO NOT not tear right into it. Let it sit for 15 minutes, or better yet, half an hour. Be patient. Have a drink. Make a salad. Then gather around the table with your family and friends and enjoy.

Obama: The Morning After

Obama won re-election last night, decisively, if a little tiredly. I fell asleep around 10 when I saw that the night was leaning left and woke up in time for Romney’s gracious concession and watched all of Obama’s victory speech.

Obama’s speech was good, if not quite as soaring as some of the 2008 vintages. I was moved by his ernest declarations about what we can all do together and I totally agree that America’s best days are in front of us, not behind us. I’m feeling kind of creative so I am going to try my hand at speechifying, something I have not done since I was 14 or so and gave a speech at the opening of the law school building named after my Dad. It’s a bit nerve-wracking.

Obama emphasized that he needed people to come together and help him move the country forward. I think he could have used that point to establish more of a bond with his audience. So, here goes. Let me know what you think in the comments or email me – clewishalpern-at-gmail.

The cynics want to tell you that things are too difficult, that our challenges will not be solved unless we move backwards. They want you to believe that these hard time will last forever. But I believe that the tough years that are behind us will only make us stronger. 

Yes I know that people are hurting. We have some big concerns to tackle. But it is in this time of hardship, through these trials that families and individuals will learn and grow. It is through challenges and struggle that we discover who we really are and what we really love. 

I know this from my own life. There were times when Michelle and I struggled, working to pay off our student loans. I wasn’t making as much money as Michelle wanted and we had some serious disagreements over that. And, believe me, we had some painful conversations. But out of those painful talks, out of those late soul-searching nights we found a new strength. We figured out what was really important. And it is from those nights that we built the foundation that our marriage rests on today. 

And so it comes down to faith: Faith in our family, faith in our friends, faith in our churches and faith in this great country. And that is why I have a deep faith that our nation’s best days are ahead of us. God Bless you and God Bless these United States of America. 

Vote And Keep the Faith

It’s election day and the wind is at Barack Obama’s back. Yes, I voted to re-elect the President and I am happy that he is poised to win.

Yet, I find myself wistful. Obama’s campaign has had the feel of a slog, rather than a victory tour. I am particularly annoyed by how he almost genuflected before Michael Bloomberg, saying that he was “honored to have Mayor Bloomberg’s endorsement.” That endorsement arrived so barbed. If those are Obama’s friends, he definitely doesn’t need any enemies.

Too often Obama acts like he needs help from people when he doesn’t. With his infallible politeness and natural class leads him to ignore the people who insult him. This is a fine quality in a person, but in a public figure the upshot is that he allows himself to be disrespected.

Pardon my armchair psychoanalyzing here but as a black (and Filipino) person who has struggled with self-doubt I identify with this side of Obama. Calling people out is risky. It imperils all the hard work Obama has done throughout his life to make it easy for people to accept him, trust him, to see him as the upstanding, brilliant person that he is.

Ta-nahesi Coates wrote a brilliant essay in The Atlantic that elaborated on how race affected Obama’s presidency and how his treatment of race while in office affected the black community emotionally and intellectually. Ultimately, Coates makes a point that Obama succeeded by being someone “who happens to be black” and who does not overtly use race in any way. This worked for him but it’s not a fun way to live, Coates concludes, and it is not an example that young African-Americans should follow.

Our goal should be to be black and proud, able to stand up for what we believe in, respectfully, but without fear. Isn’t that what we all want. To be secure enough to speak our minds without fear of endangering our livelihood or the respect of others. If someone contradicts us to our face (“you lie!”) we want a presidency who is able to shut that down.

But Obama can’t solve all our problems now can he. He’s done a lot already. Let’s go out and be proud of and for him.

*I almost called this post The Making of A President, the classic book of that name by Theodore White. I found my father’s copy while staying at my mother’s due to Hurricane Sandy and just finished the first chapter.

After the Hurricane

Hurricane Sandy swept through New York yesterday, swept across the Eastern seaboard yesterday. The subway is out until who knows when, flooding in every borough, there’s a crane dangling from a luxury high-rise in the middle of midtown, electricity is out in my apartment and throughout downtown… And yet all these disaster-movie-like scenes are being met with a collective grimace and practical shrug. Here we have the ocular proof: New Yorkers are tough.

Cell phones are being charged in cars, at docking stations and in offices. People are moving in with friends or figuring out how to wash their dishes with as little water as possible. Convenience stores downtown are open. I saw shoppers browsing aisles illuminated by a handful of tea lights.  Cops are manning major intersections and elsewhere cars and pedestrians are negotiating the lack of traffic lights with ease. It seems that the interplay of stopping and going along the city’s streets is so ingrained in our bodies we hardly need traffic lights to remind us how to navigate: every few blocks, you stop.

One of the under-appreciated facts about New Yorkers is that we are exceedingly rule-conscious. Non-traditional, for sure, but respectful of regulations. We live too on top of each other to risk pissing each other off. And we know firsthand how wiggy things can get when even one person doesn’t do what they’re supposed to, whether it be biking on the sidewalk, blasting music at 11pm or blocking the box. I have been guilty of that last twice in my life and I still feel the mortification. I suppose another reason we follow the rules is that with all the people in this city you’re basically guaranteed to get caught.

So life goes on here even though the subway is down for up to two weeks. We look, we assess and we adapt. I am sorry for the roughly two dozen people who did die in the storm here in our city, but given the scale of the disaster and our population, I’d say this hurricane has shown me what preparedness can do. Be safe, take care and enjoy the unexpected connections that come your way as we all wait for the city to resume its normal rhythms.

Who Am I & Why Am I Writing?

I was born not too long ago as the younger daughter of two strivers. My Mom is Filipino. My Dad was a Black American. I grew up in New York and in Paris. My father came from humble circumstances but he did very well for himself on Wall Street. He died when I was 12.

I grew up, graduated from college and became a reporter. Two years ago I quit my newspaper job because I realized that I had no idea who I was and why I had been working so hard all my life. Since then I got married, became a mother and wrote a deeply personal and at times painful memoir.

The cities of my childhood, New York City in particular, are places of reinvention. People flock to these places to be inspired, to find or make their fortunes, to meet and measure themselves against the best. But what do you do when someone has gotten there before you and paved the way? And no matter how far off the path you go their presence, or their shadow, stays with you. There are two choices, I think: You can leave the big city and set out for new horizons, Montana, California, Canada… Or you can stay and fight, wrestling with your family ghosts. Of course, fighting a ghost is a fool’s task. You can’t win. And fighting just keeps the phantoms alive, instead of letting them fade naturally, mercifully, inevitably into the dust.

Is there a third path? I believe that writing will show me the way.