X, with an xo.

next generation

Here’s what I know about my generation: we are like the small area of Venn diagram overlap between the two enormous spheres that are Millennials and Baby Boomers. As Whitney Collins wrote in a great Salon piece, we’re the meh between me and more.

Though there’s some (pointless) debate about bookend years, we GenXers are roughly (haha, she said rough) the folks born between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s. The generally accepted marks are 1965-1980, thanks to the book Generations; but demographers often like neat 20 year bands for their data buckets, so our span often spills over the edges into a 1964-1984 range. If that’s the case and we really need specifics then I’d plot the origin of our ironies, set to a Bobby  Vinton soundtrack, on Friday, December 13, 1963, the day after Kenyan independence, and cut us off on 12/31/83, the official debut date of Apple’s “1984” ad on a station in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Like other marketing and community development folks, I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying generational attributes. And like most other marketing types, I’ve most often been looking at the big three: Silent Generation, Baby Boomers and Millennials -bypassing my own GenX ruffians. You can’t sustain sales, win elections or fill blood banks without substantial representation from the three biggest generational groups, and X just gets lost in the mix. It’s ok; we’re used to it. We make our own way, with or without all the fuss and attention. Meh.

True to form, I once thought of GenX as just the fishtail end of the Baby Boom set. We’d been given a generational name, and we were different from the group ahead of us but not super-dramatically defined and certainly not driven. The Baby Boomers fought for women’s rights, civil rights, and growth; and all we did, coming behind them, was squander the inheritance. We were Slackers, Mall Rats and Clerks, soon to be overshadowed by the indelibly fabulous monogram-and-polish set looming behind us. A handful of writers tried in the mid-2000s to frame us in better light (see Jeff Gordinier’s Gen-X: The Ignored Generation), but I blew off those narratives, not really wanting to claim my clan.

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking more and more about not only my own generation but also what my children’s group will shape up to be. It started, this line of reflection, with this NPR piece, From GIs to GenZ: How Generations Get Nicknames. I’d actually forgotten, until listening to the story, that we were once called the Baby Busters, as ill-suited a label for us as Gen Y was for the Millennials, not that either group of us particularly loves being labeled.

During my brief stint at an ad agency years ago, working for the most horrible boss in the history of bosses (seriously), I once took the liberty of drafting copy for a direct mail piece my client wanted to produce. “Huh. You’re a pretty good copywriter,” vile agency man said, “but creative work belongs to the creative people, not the account reps.” His remark was gift, really. I’d have been miserable in that segregated agency world of suits vs. style books, and his swift dismissal of my effort made it easy to walk out without a tinge of regret.

One of the things market research types have recognized quickly about the Millennials is that they don’t like being labeled at all – not just generational labeling, but any singular designation that appears to limit their freedom to be whatever they want to be. It’s not chef or data analyst; it’s chef and data analyst – or any other varied combination that suits the person, the time and the circumstance.

Yeah, I so get this. In fact, we Xers, the Slackers, paved this road, although I don’t think it was intentional or obvious at the time. Family-earner mom and stay-at-home dad? Yep, we started that. Thriving cupcake business on the side? Yep, we started that, too. We didn’t want to be just one thing, either. Still don’t. Won’t, ever, because we know we can’t. The luxury of being one magnificent showpiece was never in the cards for us. We’re plate spinners (I’ve long said this should be my epitaph), and we’re damn good at it.

Maybe, to be sure, some of the resistance to pigeon-holing comes from selfishness, from wanting unfettered access to it all. I think a greater part, though, comes from the recognition that, as Nikki Giovanni said so well, “There’s always something to do.”

“There’s always something to do. There are hungry people to feed, naked people to clothe, sick people to comfort and make well. And while I don’t expect you to save the world I do think it’s not asking too much for you to love those with whom you sleep, share the happiness of those you call friend, engage those among you who are visionary and remove from your life those who offer you depression, despair and disrespect.” Nikki Giovanni

As we Xers head into AARP member status (a mark of turning 50) and Millennials hit the stride that is life-as-a-30-something, it’s becoming easier to see the mark we’ve been making and impossible not to wonder what’s coming in our wake. What doors did we open for our children? What roads are they going to pave?

I’d stop and think about it but, as you know, I’ve got plates to spin. Also, I have confidence that the people behind us are going to figure it out on their own anyway without the tiniest bit of help, direction or control from me. It’s isn’t that I’m unwilling to help generation next – quite the opposite. It’s just that somewhere deep, inside all that meh, I find permission to believe (that’s what agencies call it) that generation-yet-to-be-named will find its own way. We’ve been doing it for generations, with or without the labels, whether or not we recognized it at the time.

Happy week.

And to my friend and faithful reader who crosses into 40 today: Cheers. Welcome. I’m so very glad you’re here.

********

Food | Week of February 2, 2015

So, I’m the sort to rip off the bandage in one swift pull (why prolong things?), and here it is:

The weekly dinner plan thing is over. The end.

After four years of making weekly menu plans for my family (two years on my own, two years shared with you, here), I’m ready to try something new. I’m ready, my family’s ready, and I hope you’ll be ready, too.

The recipe archive that’s here on jenny’s lark isn’t going anywhere, and all of the archives will still be there, but my food and cooking pursuits are moving to my new blog, Dinner Prompt.

What’s a dinner prompt? It’s an idea, kind of like a writing prompt only oriented toward cooking.

How will it work? It’s still taking shape (will always be) but I’m shooting for short daily posts (I’ve got 5 published and 10 in the hopper) that will be published each morning in order to give you some inspiration on you lunchtime or afternoon trip to the market when you’re shopping for dinner.

What’s going to happen with jenny’s lark? Weekly writing, still shooting for Saturday by 10:30. Wish me luck.

Wait! I can’t move this fast! I need a gateway drug! No, hon, you don’t. You can change lanes, I know you can. And if you’re stuck, all the menu archives are staying put. If you need to keep swimming in that pool, it’s still there.

Riding through the crazies.

So here’s something you might have noticed: the characters in those delicious coming-of-age stories, the one that are always all the rage? They’re never a day past 25 (if that). The over-30-and-40-something people? They’ve already come of age. They’re full-grown, and their angst-of-now stories are called mid-life crises.

Our stories, I mean, not theirs.

Mine, I mean, not ours. Although maybe it is yours, too.

Riding through the crazies

But the spirit of the second story, the uneasy middle-aged one, is always firmly rooted in retrospection. One thread is the main event; the other is just a prequel, set during the time when we worried about meaning and heartbreak, not whether our knees and rotator cuffs would show up for work each day.

Tale as old as time, our first big stories include bygone innocence, reward through hardship, wisdom through loss, et cetera, et cetera. Then, in the end, that prequel narrative tilts either toward peace or toward wistfulness. It’s that place where the protagonist either accepts the choices of the past or doesn’t.

Right there, right at that point, that’s where the crazies come in, if allowed, to subvert the main story’s plot line.

what if what it what if what if what if

Unlike a coming-of-age, field of discovery tale, mid-life anxiety plays out on a precipice overlooking a downhill slope. If the crazies take the narrator’s seat, then it’s a story told while trying to ride a narrow crest and lasso something that escaped, all without either slipping back into juvenile folly or falling into the deep. It’s a yarn of impending acceleration: fast, though not always furious; manic; though not necessarily depressed. what if what if what if. It’s an infinite conundrum, enough to make anyone nuts.

“Maybe it’s not too late!” the middle-aged crazy says, teetering on that razor’s edge. It’s not too late to buy a sports car and swim naked and sing karaoke. To be a contender.

Or maybe that hero could stop living in the prequel, let memoirs be memoirs, because, friend, that story is O-V-E-R. Maybe the main narrative, the one that really counts, could ignore the crazies, steer clear past what if what if what if and just be the story of now, a view from the crest overlooking the cliff, the best view of all time, ever, no matter how the coming of age played out.

So what tale are you working on, cliff rider? Are you flailing with a lasso or breezing along the crest? You get to decide. Only you.

Happy week.

********

Food | Week of January 26, 2015

Speaking of throwbacks, here’s one from last year – a repeat weekly menu because I’m working on something new, something to do with menus, something good that you’ll like. But it’s not ready yet, so this week I’m afraid you get what you get, a blast from the past. Hope there’s at least something you liked.

LinguinBroccolii with lemon, baby clams & fresh parsley

This is an easy and delicious dish, one that tastes as good cold the next day as when it’s hot and fresh.  Cook linguini per package directions.  While pasta is boiling combine in a glass bowl: 1 can baby clams, mostly drained; juice of one large lemon; ½ bunch (or more) fresh parsley, chopped; 1 clove garlic, pressed or very finely minced; olive oil and salt.  Drain pasta, put it back in the pot; pour the clam/ lemon/ parsley mix over the hot pasta and toss well.  Top with grated Parmesan cheese.  Serve with steamed broccoli (or some other green thing).potatoes

Parker’s Fish & Chips (Barefoot Contessa)

This is one of the easiest meals to prepare, and my family always enjoys it.  The recipe, available here at Food Network, is from ye olde stand-by Barefoot Contessa Family Style.

Avgolemono | Spinach SaladLemon blossom

Many, many years ago I cut out a recipe for Avgolemono (Greek chicken and rice soup with lemon) and made it every week during the winter.  It’s lighter than chicken & dumplings, but only a bit, and the tang of fresh lemon brightens any cold day.  This recipe from Serious Eats is close to mine, although I do add shredded poached chicken.  Now if only my Meyer lemon tree would produce fruit so I could make this more often….  Serve with spinach salad (red onion and mandarin oranges). Green cabbage

Carnitas with Salsa Verde

From Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food, page 45: “Salsa Verde, the classic green sauce of Italy, is a sauce of olive oil and chopped parsley flavored with lemon zest, garlic, and capers.”  Serve with carnitas (p. 359) and buttered cabbage (p. 297). There are equivalents to all of these recipes online, but none of Waters’s originals.  Buy the book; you’ll like it.  

Vegetable Plate

Brussels sprouts| Butternut squash | Polenta | Saladwinter squash

Roast the butternut squash (peeled, drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with salt) and the Brussels sprouts (olive oil, salt and a bit of balsamic vinegar), though not in the same pan.  Serve with either grits or polenta and either salad or leftover cabbage.

********

All words and images belong to me, Jennifer Balink. Want to borrow? Please ask first.

Please, box me in.

Box 1Box 2Box 3

I used to think it was just me. (I know, poor grammar. Blah, blah.) Anyway, I used to think I was the only one, the sole outlier who, even when given ample time to write a speech, etc., would do absolutely anything to avoid getting started. Surely I was the only one stupid enough to say, “hey, I’ll write that!” and then actively avoid keystrokes, paper and pen until everyone, especially the client, got huffy and demanded output. What idiot would do that, over and over and over again?

Because my mother was both a writer and a writing teacher, growing up I had more than my fair share of instruction in the craft of writing, its structure, content, style. Oh, and a vast arsenal of words that would come to my rescue when I needed them, 30 minutes before deadline. But I never learned, or cared, much about the process of writing. I’ve always been the jump-in sort: Want to cook? Start cooking. Want to write? Start writing.

If you want to get all Myers-Briggsy about it, I’m an ENTJ, and we are big idea people, not instruction-reading, process thinkers. Also, I need the Muse to appear. I am forever waiting for that flake, the queen of last minute arrivals.

But I can be adaptable when I choose to be, and in the last year I have begun studying process, not just about writing but in general. I’ve been trying to get a better understanding of the how that must accompany my what so when I have my big ideas I’ll be aware of the work involved. Also, I thought, maybe hidden in the small print I’d find a summoning spell for that fair-weather friend the Muse.

Concurrent to my study of process, in one of my greatest-ever procrastination moves, I’ve reading about the process of writing. Reading about the process of writing has bought me HOURS away from actual writing. [Note that while reading about the process of writing, I also learned that I am far, far from alone in this sort of procrastination, that it is, in fact, quite the cliché. Silly me.]

Then I stumbled upon Todd Henry, self-appointed “arms dealer for the creative revolution.” I found Henry through a Levenger sample pack (I am not making this up) that included their version of his Personal Idea Pad (PIP), a paper tool for brainstorming and harvesting wildly creative ideas. I found the sample page because I was procrastinating while stuck on a project that had hit a block.

Since I hit a block, I decided to organize my planner – my paper planner, because I’m the pen and paper sort. The paper planner I’m currently dating (I trade for something new every couple of years) is the Levenger smartPlanner, which arrives with not only the actual calendar pages but also some neat and pretty samples of things that can improve your work. That’s what they say, those Levenger people, and I believe them. And, besides, there is LOTS of procrastination potential in a sample pack of anything.

Anyway, I opened the sample pack, pulled out this funny looking grid sheet, tried to figure out how to use it, got frustrated and actually looked up the instructions. And that’s how I stumbled into Todd Henry’s website and found his book The Accidental Creative.

In a nutshell, to use a word from the PIP exercise, Henry argues that the structure creative people fight (I need to be free! Boundaries smother my artistic spirit!) is precisely what creative people need in order to produce their most brilliant work. He’s not alone in suggesting that structure provides leverage for creative output, but the way Henry presents his argument is, to me, more compelling and less confining-feeling than some others I’ve read.

So let’s go back to the beginning, back to the part where I have to produce a brilliant speech for a client, where I’ve amassed a wheelbarrow full of research, have taken at least two long walks, have organized my desk, have painted my nails and let them dry, and have baked a cake, successfully delaying actual writing until I have only 30 minutes to pray that damn Muse arrives and helps me produce 2500 brilliant words.

The deadline was (is) the structure, the hard stop that created leverage to shape a finished product from disorganized concepts. It was worked even here, on this blog, even if you didn’t know it. One Saturday afternoon, a few weeks into my weekly menu postings, I ran into a friend at the tennis center. “Chop Chop,” she said, clapping her hands together. “Where was my menu this morning? I needed to go grocery shopping.”

The idea that someone, even one person, was waiting for me to deliver on a promise has been enough to keep me at at least 90% on track for a Saturday morning deadline. Ridiculous, I know, but true.

Maybe Todd Henry is right. Maybe adding structure beyond a mere deadline can corral creativity in a way that enhances both the process and the output. Instead of hampering or smothering the brilliance, the structure of a process could actually enhance it.

On the grand scale of native creativity (and I do believe there is one), I’d put myself north of the middle and south of the top – better than average, short of genius. In an effort to inch my way up I’ve read all sorts of books on unleashing creativity. Henry’s is the first book I’ve found that describes process, tools and discipline in ways that make sense and don’t sound restrictive.

Maybe a bit of structure and discipline could help me get the tangled hairball of ideas out of my head and onto paper, on a more regular basis. Maybe, with a bit of added willpower from me, these tricks of Todd Henry’s could get me out of procrastinating and into producing.

So, for now, I say this: please, box me in. Let’s see what a little structure might do.

Happy week.

*****

Food | Week of January 19, 2015

cropped-red-and-orange-carrots.jpg

My greatest fear about weekly menu planning was that it would kill my nightly kitchen performance art. Nope, not the case at all. In fact, having a plan has, if anything, expanded my abilities and output, giving me some new tips, tools and techniques in the process. As I’ve written before, I use the plan as a framework, the leverage for getting dinner on the table and making everyone – especially me – happy.

Tacos al Pastor (Bon Appétit)

This recipe is a great and easy recipe from Bon Appétit, though it does take a little time to prepare. If we’re in a time pinch, then we’ll get chopped pork shoulder from the Bar-B-Q Shop (featured in the NYT 36 Hours in Memphis video – check it out).

Breakfast for Dinner: Easy Eggs Florentine (Martha Stewart)

No, my children probably won’t eat the Florentine part, but I’ll try anyway. The eggs and toast are sure things, easy and popular on weeknights at our house.

Beef Stew in Red Wine Sauce (Food & Wine)

Still on the beef stew quest, and here’s the latest contestant, from Jacques Pépin via Food & Wine.

Vegetable Lasagna (Emeril)

Bernard wants lasagna, and I want less meat. We’ll see if this recipe works on both counts, because the America’s Test Kitchen vegetable lasagna (really good) isn’t available unless you subscribe to ATK.

Grilled Halibut with Chimichurri (Gourmet)

We’re big chimichurri fans, but I usually make it to serve with steak. Here’s a new recipe (new to me) for grilled fish with our favorite garlicky green sauce. I’ll make a simple salad to go with, probably one with spinach, mandarin oranges and red onion.

*****

All words and pictures belong to me, Jennifer Balink. If you’d like to borrow, please ask.