Girl Power

medieval times field trip

It’s mid-third quarter of this school year and I am knee-deep teaching two novels set in England nearly six hundred years apart. The 7th grade is reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, the diary of a girl in medieval times during the reign of Edward I, covering the span of one year of her life, 1290-1291. My 8th grade literature class is reading The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle which is set in 1889. Even though I’ve read both books many times, I was struck anew this year when the class discussions in both 7th and 8th grades turned to the roles and rights of women during those time periods. Inevitably the comparison was made to the roles and rights of women today, this being an election year with Hillary Clinton appearing to be the nominee for the Democratic Party. If that happens, and if she is successful, she will be the first woman president of the United States of America. In the year 2016.

catherineKaren Cushman used her research skills and knowledge of the Middle Ages to craft her first book, which was awarded the Newberry Honor in 1995. Catherine is the only daughter of a domineering country knight who has decided in September of 1290 that Catherine is of marrying age, although she is not yet fourteen, which always draws gasps from my 7th grade girls. She resists being betrothed against her wishes with all her might and successfully chases off suitor after suitor, until finally she must use the acceptance of a betrothal to someone she despises as a bargaining chip to win something she desires even more, the freedom of a bear who has been kept in captivity and abused for entertainment at a village fair.

fishing for vocab

7th grade girls “fish” for vocab from the Middle Ages

Throughout the book as she runs from being promised to a man that she does not love and does not wish to marry, she dreams of being someone or something else: a villager, a Jewish boy traveling out of England, Perkin the goat boy, her Uncle George the crusading knight, a sausage maker, a monk like her brother Edward who copies holy books in the scriptorium of the abbey. An old Jewish woman admonishes her, “Little Bird, in the world to come, you will not be asked ‘Why were you not George?’ or ‘Why were you not Perkin?’ but ‘Why were you not Catherine?’” It is sound advice, for the time period, as it is not possible for Catherine to be “Catherine” because she does not wish to be the subservient daughter of a not-so-wealthy knight who has to spend her days spinning and sewing and doctoring, and in the end be married off to a stinky, smelly old man just because her father says so.

HoundThe Hound of the Baskervilles is set during the reign of Queen Victoria, who did much to expand her realm so that “the sun never sets on the British empire”. She made an enormous impact on almost every facet of British society from parenting to entertainment, from religion to fashion, from the etiquette of eating to the etiquette of mourning. Yet, the roles and rights of women had not progressed that far from Catherine’s time. The story revolves around an ancient curse against the heirs of Baskerville Hall, who all die mysterious deaths. The origin of the curse is the story of Sir Hugo Baskerville, who kidnaps a young maiden from her father’s farm on the moor and takes her back to Baskerville Hall. She escapes and he promises that he would “that very night render his body and soul to the Powers of Evil if he might but overtake the wench” but instead he is attacked by a “giant beast of a hound” and has his throat torn out. The “coming of the hound” has plagued the family ever since, from the time of the Great Rebellion (1642-1651) until the present day setting of the novel, 1889.

manuscriptThe legend itself was documented in a manuscript dated 1742 and written by Sir Hugo Baskerville, a scion of the evil Sir Hugo. It contained the origin of the legend along with the warning to not go on the moor at night for fear of a reprisal of the attack of the hound of the Baskervilles. It was written specifically for his sons, Rodger and John, with instructions “that they say nothing to their sister Elizabeth”. Poor girl, my 8th grade students bemoaned, she was to know nothing of the family curse, she was not to be warned about going on the moor at night? I explained to them that a girl in 1742 would not have gone anywhere without a male escort, certainly not at night, and certainly not on the moor. She would not have had the freedom her brothers enjoyed, and she would not be the target of the curse as she would never be able to inherit anything of the Baskerville estate.

downtonAh, England, and their archaic rules of inheritance. Fast forward to 1912 and Season One of Downton Abbey (let us pause in a moment of silence as this majestic series comes to an end-in America, that is-next Sunday, March 6,  2016), where we learn that the future heir of Downton who is also to be the future husband of the oldest daughter, Lady Mary, dies tragically aboard the Titanic. Thus launches the conflict for the entire series: no male heir for Downton, no money for the three daughters to inherit as it is all part of an entail created when their American millionairess mother married Lord Robert Grantham and saved him from being an aristocratic pauper.

law school men to womenIn both 7th and 8th grade classes these discussions ran their normal course, talking about how girls today can grow up to be whatever they want to be, right? I noted that one girl’s dad is an architect but so is her mom. Another girl’s dad is a Ph.D. but her mom is a medical doctor. One of our career day speakers was a man who is a biomedical engineer but another speaker was a woman who is a chemical engineer. Times have changed. Women can pursue any field of study they desire. In 1980, I was a freshman at LSU Law School, and I was one of only five girls in my section of 75 students. Today the percentage of women to men enrolled in law school has increased drastically, 47.8% women to 52.2% men for the 2012-2013 Academic Year.

hillaryHowever, we have yet to elect a woman as leader of America, to serve as Commander in Chief. Will this be the year? Could Hillary Clinton in fact be the one to take a hammer to that glass ceiling of the White House? From all outward appearances, it seems that she has what it takes. She has been brutal in the debates, taking all the blows on the chin and returning fire. She has the right credentials: First Lady of both the State of Arkansas and the United States, Senator of New York, Secretary of State. She has a brilliant legal mind and is a compelling public speaker. She is not my candidate of choice, because I cannot stand by her pro-choice beliefs, I don’t think she has always been entirely truthful, and I don’t admire her “stand by my man” policies either.

girls at lunchBut, she has played the cards dealt to her each step along the way, and she has played them well; and even though she lost the Democratic nomination in 2008, she did not give up. She took full advantage of a great education and has used every single opportunity and life experience to further her own ambitions in pursuit of her goals. THAT is the lesson America’s young girls of today need to take heed of. Work hard. Study hard. Take calculated risks. Never give up. You are not Catherine or Lady Mary. You can be whatever you want to be. Girl power.


It All Started with a Lemon

left over snowWe’ve had quite a winter so far, with the evidence of our January blizzard still on display in our yards and parking lots. Today’s unseasonably warm temperatures are supposed to help with that. Just this week, however, on Tuesday we had yet another snow day (our seventh so far) from school due to ice and terrible road conditions. Trying to avoid the stack of essays that were calling to me from my school bag, like sirens beckoning the sailors to come toward the rocks, I took to the kitchen.

limoncelloMy husband had brought home from the grocery store two bags of lemons. Earlier in February I had packaged up the last of my homemade limoncello as a hostess gift for a friend whose Mardi Gras party we were attending. Nestled in a gift bag along with a half-pint of homemade orange marmalade, the glistening yellow fire in a bottle looked quite appealing. I find it a bit strong for my taste but my friends love receiving a bottle of it on special occasions. A separate shopping trip produced the requisite two bottles of grain alcohol. That, some water, and six cups of sugar, is all it takes to create three quarts of homemade limoncello.

Making limoncello is not difficult, at least not the recipe I use, which I found in the Wednesday Food Section of the Washington Post in 2005. The hardest part is peeling seventeen lemons, being careful not to strip away any of the bitter, white pith. Then, you wait. And wait. And wait. Finally, you have something very special. Once I brought a bottle of it to a friend’s house, and her Italian husband found it in the freezer when he was serving drinks to some friends who were visiting from his hometown in Italy. He asked where the limoncello had come from and she told him I had made it. He brought it out and served it to his paesani. They killed the whole bottle. He told his wife it was the best limoncello he had ever tasted. Enough said.

lemon curdAfter peeling the seventeen lemons and putting them to swim for thirteen days in a four-quart jar half filled with grain alcohol, I was left with seventeen naked lemons. I figured if I didn’t go ahead and juice them right then and there they would end up shriveled and useless in a baggie in the back of my fridge. So, I hit Google looking for ways to use leftover lemon juice. Lemon bars, no, too many carbs. Lemon pound cake a la Starbucks, ditto. Lemonade made with artificial sweetener, too cold. Then I stumbled upon a recipe for lemon curd that could be modified to be low-carb. So, I got out eggs and butter and Splenda and made a batch of sugar-free lemon curd. Not great, but also not bad for zero carbs.

coconut macaroonsOf course, lemon curd depends on extra egg yolks to make it so thick and creamy. After making the lemon curd, I was left with two egg whites. Now what? Sure, I could have poured them down the drain or put them in the freezer, which would have been the same as pouring them down the drain because I know I would never have thawed and used them. So, I dug around in my pantry to see what I could make with two egg whites. Seeing two bags of coconut that I had purchased a while back, I decided to make coconut macaroons. Not exactly low carb, I know, considering the main ingredients are two bags of sweetened coconut and one can of sweetened condensed milk (diabetic coma right there in a can), but I planned to bring these beauties to school the next day because two of my teaching colleagues love coconut and chocolate, naming Almond Joy and Mounds as their two favorite candy bars.

MacaronsSpeaking of macaroons, we had dinner at a French bistro on Valentine’s Day. The “chef’s special” for after-dinner was a trio of mini-desserts: chocolate mousse, carrot cake, and as the waiter said, a macaroon. I asked him, “a coconut macaroon or the French cookie, the macaron?” He said it didn’t have coconut in it, so I said, “Oh, okay, the macaron.” As the French cookie has become today’s version of the cake pop or the little sweetheart, the cupcake, I hear more and more people calling it a macaroon. Now, I’m not trying to be rude, but I think waiters in a French bistro should know the difference. Just saying. chef specialOh, and by the way, when the “chef’s special” arrived at our table, no macaroon or macaron, just the chocolate mousse (mediocre) and two servings of the carrot cake (okay). No explanation whatsoever.

After making my trio of goodies, I whipped up a quick batch of Beef Vegetable Soup for dinner and decided to read for a while before dinner. No, I did not grade the essays, but I had a great day in the kitchen. The next day, I brought the macaroons to school as promised and placed them on the table in the faculty lounge. One of my colleagues asked what was the occasion. I said, “Well, I made limoncello and had lemon juice left over so I made lemon curd but then I had egg whites left over so I made macaroons.” Everyone laughed at this, even as they were enjoying the fruits of my thriftiness.

Together Forever

valentine flowersHappy Valentine’s Day! Today is the 28th Valentine’s Day my husband and I have celebrated together and we graced it with a nice day at home and then dinner out at a local French bistro. As usual, our gifts to one another were small tokens marking the day. I received a lovely bouquet of flowers and a beautiful pair of gold earrings, and in turn I managed to valentine socksfind dark blue dress socks with tiny red hearts to replace the ones that I gave him years and years ago when we were first married. After dinner we walked the dog and then separated into separate television viewing rooms for our respective Sunday night favorites: Downton Abbey for me and Walking Dead for him.

wedding photo boothLady Mary on Downton Abbey had a far less desirable Valentine’s Day, living through the nightmare of her new beau in his racing car being involved in a horrific accident at the track, leaving his racing partner dead in his burning motor car. The incident brought back far too many tragic memories for her, as her first husband Matthew died in his own motorcar, racing home from the hospital after the birth of their firstborn son and future heir to the grand estate of Downton Abbey. At the end of tonight’s episode, she broke off her relationship with Henry Talbot, leaving Tom Branson to counsel her that you can’t stop living just because you don’t want to get hurt. He should know, having had his heart broken and his world ruined in Season 3.

dating photoLife is hard and there are many obstacles along the way that interrupt happiness and bring much sadness to our lives: sickness of loved ones, losing a parent, difficulties at work, financial problems. Finding that one soulmate to walk with and traverse the ups and downs of this journey is critical. While I don’t live in a castle or have a household of servants, I still count myself as one of the lucky ones, someone who has been successful in that quest. My husband and I share our Catholic faith, family values, and much more. We shared household chores and parenting tasks as we raised our two daughters. We were there for each other, as we said we would, in good times and in bad. We may argue and bicker over the day-to-day annoyances of life but we are, as Annie and Daddy Warbucks sing, together forever.

valentine cardsLast year for Valentine’s Day I scoured the internet for ideas of something personal and homemade I could present to my husband as a token of my love. On Pinterest I found the perfect idea: a complete deck of cards, each one emblazoned with one of the 52 things I love about him. 52 things I love about youThis exercise of creating this list and of typing out each of the 52 things I love about him made me realize that it is indeed the small things, the everyday little things, that really count. He was genuinely touched by this simple homemade gift and vowed to read one a day until he had made his way to the end of the deck of cards.

Truth be told, I could have filled several decks of cards with reasons I love him, and I doubt if any of them would have impressed Lady Mary Crawley very much. As much as I love this grand British soap opera/period piece, I do not envy either the upstairs or downstairs inhabitants of the real life Highclere Castle. Lord and Lady Grantham have three grandchildren and they are hardly ever seen. valentine dessertThis is not due to budget restrictions, child labor laws, or finding talented children to play these roles. Children of this time period were raised by the nanny and the governess and spent little time with their parents. I would not trade my time with my daughters for anything in the world, not one minute of the time they were crying babies, crawling toddlers, sassy adolescents, or the wonderful young women they have become today.

With only two more episodes of Downton Abbey left to savor, I wonder how creator Julian Fellowes will leave us in the end. Will Downton Abbey survive the change of times, the fall of grand country estates full of servants? Will Lady Mary find happiness and true love again? Will the series end with her the melancholy young widow but strong heiress running the estate alone, with only her son George at her side?

valentine selfieAs this Valentine’s Day comes to a close, I once again say a prayer of thanksgiving for a whisper in my ear a Sunday evening Mass 29 years ago, when my neighbor and good friend Susan leaned in to tell me, “I think he’s the one. You should go out with him.” He was the one. He is the one. My one and only. My valentine.

Travel for Beginners

soy sauceI know almost nothing about soy sauce. I know I like to dip my sushi rolls into it and I know that the colored tops of the soy sauce bottles on the tables in Asian restaurants denote whether the soy sauce is regular (red) or low sodium (green). I know it is one of the two ingredients in the teriyaki sauce I make to go on Aunt Kay’s Sesame Chicken, a recipe I begged off of the wife of my husband’s boss after a dinner party at their house. I also know almost nothing about Singapore, like for instance, what languages the people speak there.

All that changed this week, however, and I didn’t even have to leave my house. I traveled to Singapore and learned about the ancient art of making soy sauce by reading Kirstin Chen’s debut novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners. I am itching to go to an Asian market and buy a bottle of really expensive, artisanal soy sauce and have a tasting of it on little rice crackers. I am also intrigued with the idea of tasting a splash of it in a glass of ice-cold Sprite.

I really enjoyed reading Chen’s story of a young woman from Singapore who has made a life for herself in America, only to have it come crashing down around her when her American husband leaves her for a much younger but also Asian woman. She escapes the trauma of her life by returning home, flying back to the nest to the home, and business, of her parents. She reluctantly goes to work at her family’s artisanal soy sauce factory with her father, not kicking and screaming per se because the energy that would involve is not something she can muster, but with a melancholy resignation that it is better than staying home to watch her mother drink herself to death. Running on a track of constant avoidance, first of her parents and their provincial life, then of her first career, then of her husband, then of her family’s business, and finally of her very image of herself, she comes full circle and discovers who and what she truly is, the keeper of the legacy of her grandfather’s life’s work. I learned so much from Chen’s book.

A few years ago, a similar thing happened when I stumbled upon The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger. This book also took me to a new and exciting world where I had little knowledge or background. Geography is not my strong suit so I can honestly say I did not even know where to find Bangladesh on a map. In reading The Newlyweds, I was transported into a world of internet dating, arranged marriage, and immigration. Although it was not her first novel, Freudenberger was new to me, and after finishing it I immediately Googled her to find out her life story. I was shocked that she was American, born and raised in New York City, and while she had taught English in Thailand, she was no more Bangladeshi than I. How had she managed to get inside the head of Amina so completely and how did she transfer to paper the complex character profile of an immigrant in an arranged marriage? As a burgeoning writer, this fascinates me, and it makes me jealous.

a week in winterImagining village life in an Irish town is not as challenging as the exotic allure of Asia, particularly because I have an affinity for British literature, films, and television. Yet, Maeve Binchy’s novels sweep you away with such force that you feel as though you could walk out of your own door and pop down to the village for a pint at the local pub. I’ve enjoyed quite a few of Binchy’s books, but it is her last one, A Week in Winter, finished just before her death, that perfectly blended her talent of rich development of quirky characters with the authentic imagery of her setting. A Week in Winter tells the story of an inn set high on the cliffs of Stoneybridge, a fictional town on the west coast of Ireland. I would eat ramen noodles for a year to save enough money to travel to Ireland to spend a few weeks at Stone House.

Halfway through the book, Binchy takes her readers on a cliff walk with two of her characters, Winnie and Lillian, and the imagery in that part of the story is particularly powerful:

“And at first, it was exhilarating. The spray was salty and the rocks large, dark, and menacing. The cries of the wild birds and the pounding of the sea made talking impossible. They strode on together, pausing to look out over the Atlantic and to realize that the next land was three thousand miles away in the United States.”

a moveable feastPaula McLain also has the power to jerk me away from my suburban 21st century life. I’ve been fortunate to travel to Paris several times but her book The Paris Wife not only takes you to 1920s Paris but also inside the marriage of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Drawing upon Hemingway’s own telling of his first marriage and life as a young, struggling writer in his nonfiction A Moveable Feast, she retells and embellishes the story from Richardson’s perspective. Hemingway’s angst over his writing and his constant search for approval of his work combined with Richardson’s loneliness and insecurity as a young bride is palatable and poignant.

McLain then jumps continents but remains in the 1920s to take us on safari, on a journey to colonial Africa, and into the life of Beryl Markham in her masterpiece Circling the Sun. My travels have taken me around Europe but never to Asia or Africa. While I have always wanted to visit parts of Asia, I had no desire to experience Africa, until, that is, I read Circling the Sun. McLain’s words describing Kenya paint a vivid picture, albeit a picture that cannot be recreated in today’s world, a picture I now long to see for myself. She is a master storyteller, and her ability to not only bring back to life both Hadley Richardson and Beryl Markham, but to make the reader truly care about them, is astounding.

states visitedMy first vacation was a 45-minute plane ride to Monroe, Louisiana, the opposite side of my home state, for my cousin’s college graduation. I was in the 8th grade and before that I had only traveled by car, to New Orleans (60 miles away) or Baton Rouge (120 miles away). Two years later I flew to Memphis to visit my friend who was a patient at St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Up until the year between my junior and senior years of high school, I had not been anywhere else. Before that high school trip to countries visitedEurope, my only real travel was between the pages of a book, where my passport was always at the ready and well-used. Being an avid reader during my childhood and adolescence broadened my very narrow view of the world and introduced me to people, places, and possibilities I could not imagine for myself. Even today, after having traveled to 18 countries and 30 states, I still read for these very same reasons.

book with flowersDo yourself a favor; take a trip. You don’t need to pack much; you only need some time and a comfy chair. Escape to another world, meet some new people, learn about a new culture, taste some new foods, learn some new words. Read a good book.