pewter cup, march 2013

Stay for dinner, I said often in the early days, though much less frequently of late. I have been busy, preoccupied, blue.

Stay for dinner, why don’t you? There’s plenty to share and we’d love to have you, I said, peeling pears and mincing garlic, wondering if we’d actually have enough. I wish I were somehow more prepared.

Stay for dinner, please, won’t you? Belly up to the counter, join in. Over wine and water and juice boxes we can roll up our sleeves and match ingredients; thaw and adjust and season.

By the time we’re at the table, candles flickering, we’ll feel warm and just a bit squishy. And when someone finally gives up the spoon to sip straight from the bowl, we’ll wonder why we don’t do this more often, why we let other things get in the way.

Stay for dinner, I said, just yesterday. And to my delight, you said yes.

-Jennifer Balink, 2015

Where it’s at.

fleur de lis on the merry go roundI’ve lately had a hankering for kale, a development that could not possibly surprise you more than it has surprised me (see The Trouble with Kale). But there I was, a couple of weeks ago, standing in the green grocer section of the market thinking, “huh, kale and cabbage slaw; that sounds good.” For many days now, off and on, kale has been on the menu for lunch and dinner. Weird, yes, but true.

Fumble around on the internet and you’ll find as many credentialed experts who believe food cravings indicate nutritional deficiencies as ones who do not. The common ground in the “cravings = needs” debate is that cravings are signals from your body indicating something’s out of whack. The bigger idea is that addressing the need, in some form or fashion, will restore the body’s equilibrium.

A craving for kale, for example, might actually mean you need calcium, whereas a craving for Pringles might mean you’re just mad at your husband for doing something bone-headed (not that this would ever happen in your house), and that you need to address your cortisol level – with a walk, perhaps, instead of junk carbohydrates. In either case, the goal is getting back to an even keel, back to a state of normal.

In our eternal “know thyself” quests, know thy normal might be the first level of enlightenment. In terms of physical health, knowing your own normal is vitally important for early detection of disease and for regular maintenance of everything from weight to anxiety. Figuring out what a normal state feels like is step one. The decision tree branches out after that, a tree framed by statistics and ranges. My normal lives within the parameters of The Normal, the boundary of healthy and balanced.

As long as we’re talking about things like cabbage, kale and calcium, there isn’t much fighting over my normal versus The Normal. It’s an intellectual exercise, a numbers game in which we agree, generally, to accept some definitions. Even if my normal crosses perpendicular to yours (you say paleo, I say poppycock), we’re relatively peaceful co-existers as long as we stay on a rational, tangible field.

Cross over to a field of dreams, though, and things get tricky, fast. In the realm of abstract thoughts and desires, your normal and mine are no longer intersecting lines but tectonic plates, easier to see than to understand, cumulatively spherical, boundaries ever-changing. It’s hard enough trying to figure out the limits of my own normal here, let alone the dynamics of our convergence. And what you crave in order to restore your normal may not seem normal at all to me.

The brouhaha over the Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover is what started me down this particular rabbit trail of thinking. It is in the bounds of common decency? Can a body like that really be normal?

I tweeted a link to Jennifer Weiner’s recent NYT column (“From SI: the Latest Body Part for Women to Fix”), and in the tweet I pulled out this quote from the article:

“We all have to draw a line in the sand, and mine is underneath the waistband of my Hanes cotton boy shorts.”

I thought it was a good line, one I did not intend to weigh down with added significance. It was, to me, lightly ironic and funny.

A friend responded to my tweet with this:

“@jenniferbalink w/o moral compass who draws lines? each of us=anarchy?”

Yeah, funny not funny.

Damn, where is that moral compass, the equivalent of glucometers and blood pressure cuffs? On the field of libertarian anarchy where individuals can opt out of vaccinating but not out of pregnancy, who does define where Normal lives? I wonder if your compass can point me there, because we are way past the green grocer’s section of the market.

When thoughts become real in words, pictures and actions, then, at least in theory, physical laws should regain governance: for every action, an equal and opposite reaction. For every strict conservative, a porn star. For every virtuous kale salad, a greasy can of Pringles. Opposite ends balanced on a fulcrum, seeking level over time, normal equilibrium defining its own bounds.

But desires and feelings aren’t numbers; subjective can’t ever be objective. You say normal, I say outlier. There’s no scientific meter to indicate who’s right. We’re plates with plains and mountains and oceans, all converging around a sphere. I’m craving kale. You’re craving naughty swimsuit photos. And the world goes ’round, two turntables and a microphone, trying to stay on an even keel.

Happy week.

Tilt shift.

Valentine tilt shiftHere is what I know about marriage:

The only marriage I’ll ever really know anything about is my own, and I really know only half of that. In the half I know, I see things from only my own limited view; I know what it’s like for me being married to Bernard, which is probably entirely different from what things would be like for you if you were married either to Bernard or to me. (No, not offering those as options; you’re missing the point.)

You and I, married friends, we can swap stories and compare notes all day long. We might notice things, peering into each other’s worlds, that would help us grow, that could make us appreciate and improve our own relationships. We could talk about how to share household duties, the pros and cons of date nights and what to do about all that snoring. We could agree, most likely, that a marriage built on trust, respect and acceptance is far sturdier than one built on a superficial frame.

Perhaps we could get together, drink some wine, untether our war tales and make lists like “10 Things Married People Should Never Do” or “4 Steps to Rescue Your Marriage.” But there’s no guarantee that our 10 things or four steps would apply to anyone outside our tiny tipsy herd. And in the end you’d go home to your little world, I’d go home to mine, and we might find that our lists didn’t ring true even in our own homes. Similar, we’d be, but different.

I wonder if we would see this during our list-making wine-drinking spree: It’s a precious freedom, the ability to pair and marry at will, that not everyone in the world can enjoy.

In the great life lottery I drew, from the nature pool, white, blonde (in my childhood), blue-eyed and straight. From the nurture pool I drew a moderate and tolerant two-parent household, a (lightly) Presbyterian one with college degrees on both sides and a master’s on one. I landed in a home with books, art, dogs, music, a diverse assortment of friends and food, a home in which I was loved and respected for who I was, quirks and all, from my birth until my parents’ deaths.

It’s easy for me to forget the incredible privilege that’s hard-coded into this lucky life hand, until I read something like Frank Bruni’s “Do Gays Unsettle You?” in last Sunday’s New York Times. Bruni, one of my favorite columnists, never fails to get me thinking; and this particular piece was a true focus tilter, a call to look both at the world and myself from a different angle.

My parents (my mother, really) had a number of gay friends, although most of these friends were closeted, their sexual orientation never a topic of open discussion. Our house was a model of acceptance but stopped short of overt support. Had Margaret or I been born with a preference for women over men our parents would have loved us just as much; but they would have been saddened by the hardships we’d surely have faced on that life road. Life is challenging enough, my mother once said, even with the most conventional of circumstances.

Generation passing to generation, my house now is not unlike the house in which I grew up. We have openly gay friends, welcomed and accepted in our home. Conversations with our children are a good bit more candid with regard to sex, sexual orientation and families (thank you, Modern Family and Glee), but our model of acceptance probably stops short of overt support.

While I’m completely comfortable teaching my son and daughter the nitty-gritty details that accompany love is love, sex is sex, and violence is violence (three distinct things, two of which are often better when paired, one of which will never belong), I am just the tiniest bit ill-at-ease, if I’m honest, when face-to-face with gay couples’ public affections. I’m not much of a public affection kind of gal to begin with, but some feels more foreign to me than familiar, and foreign things feel less comfortable than familiar ones, even to a big, soft, left-leaning liberal like me.

Which, of course, was Bruni’s point and why I’m still thinking about his column. “Walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk,” that’s the gist of it. If you support gay rights, stand up in practice not just principle.

So for a week now, the week leading up to the big VD, I’ve been thinking about marriage and commitment and hypocrisy; about the privilege to pair up for life with a partner of my own selection and the accompanying responsibilities. All of them.

As a straight married couple living in the United States, Bernard and I take for granted right to hold hands and share secrets; the right to agree and disagree; the right to be there for one another, in sickness and in health, each of us with the one person who wants to do the same for the other.

And, of course, the right to have sex, which typically, even for straight couples, is where things get all tangly, where people get nosy and judgmental about other people’s business. As long as the premise is assumed to be one-on-one man-woman sex, though, we as a culture are generally open and sometimes enthusiastic. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Jenny with the baby carriage. Or something like that.

We toss them together – love, sex and marriage, in the easy public narrative that starts with hand holding and links not only the one man and one woman but all the married man/woman couples lining that conventional landscape, a shared story with a strong common thread of tradition.

Or something like that. Something we ordinary traditionalists, even the liberal ones, are most comfortable seeing.

What if we were truly willing to shift our line of focus, to cut across the plane and be open to seeing, without judgment, a wider variety of pairings, accepting that every pairing outside our own is inherently foreign anyway. Would having a new slant on that view really impact our private realities, the unique alchemy of our own marriages?

What we have to remember, you and I, is that your marriage isn’t a reflection of mine. It’s a window, my view of you, not a mirror. The only narrative I’ll ever hope to understand is my own, and I’ll only really ever understand half of that. Yours will always be foreign because I’m not cast in your play. But my right to pick mine is only as strong as your right to do the same, whether foreign or familiar, comfortable or not, behind the door or out in plain sight.

Happy week.

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.