Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Lenten Challenge, Days 7-13

Check out the beginning of the series here!

Jared recovers from the revelry
Welcome back, Dear Readers, to my enthusiastic (if sparse) chronicling of this year's Lenten Challenge to not eat in restaurants from Ash Wednesday to Easter.

I've achieved an appreciation for two things during this time, one of which is how great it is to have friends who, unlike me, actually like to cook and are good at it and let me eat their tasty foods; and the other is how cooking is so much less terrible when you invite such friends over and make them do it with you.

In the spirit of this attitude of gratitude, last night I had a bunch of people over to celebrate the Jewish festival of Purim. As with most Jewish holidays, this one involves a predictable narrative of the Jews' near-vanquishment, miraculous survival, and subsequent invention of a special food to commemorate the whole ordeal.

In this case, the special food is hamantaschen, a triangular "pocket" cookie traditionally stuffed with fruit filling. As Loyal Readers know, this particular pastry also traditionally brings me a great many feelings of frustration and inadequacy in the kitchen. But this year I was determined to have success, and so it went:

Whether as a result of my newfound commitment to the social aspect of dining, or just my highly disorganized method of party-hosting, we all ended up making the hamantaschen together - mixing and rolling out the dough, filling and shaping the cookies, and counting down impatiently for the magic moment when they'd be done baking.

We deviated a bit from the traditional fruit fillings, lending a sort of kitchen-sink effect to the effort: A wasabi-asparagus variety shared the serving plate alongside cookies stuffed with tomato, basil, and feta; peanut butter and jelly; or kumquat-habanero marmalade lovingly preserved by the multi-talented Jessi Taylor (though I did have to veto the decidedly unkosher suggestion of "shrimp hamantaschen").

We had a great time together eating a ton of delicious cookies, and thanks to the masterful baking skills of our beloved bagel hero, Laura Sugerman, we didn't fuck up a single one!

Who's cooking for me tomorrow?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Lenten Challenge, Days 5 & 6

Check out Days 1 and 2, Day 3, and Day 4 here!

I was asked recently by a Catholic friend why I'm giving up something for Lent. As I explained on my Days 1 & 2 rundown, I feel that as a resident of the United States, I am constantly surrounded by Christian culture, politics, morality, and other guiding principles: Streets are named after saints and other Christian heroes, the federal government celebrates Christmas, and even our currency has references to Christian monotheism. Here in Louisiana, our counties are called parishes, and the main annual tourist attraction is Mardi Gras, a precursor to the Lenten commemoration of Jesus' meditative fasting in the desert.

Indeed we are saturated by Christianity, and no amount of lip-service to the "separation of church and state" undoes such a reality. [For an even sassier perspective, here's a recent NYTimes article characterizing the Catholic Church as a "global business" and "service industry."]

As a Jew, I experience this saturation somewhat indifferently. My literacy - meaning my ability to survive and thrive - in mainstream American culture is greatly assisted by the fact that Judaism is, after all, integral to Christianity. That is, when I see "In G-d We Trust" printed on a dollar bill, I understand it. While I'm not quite certain why religious faith is relevant to our system of monetary exchange, I get that they're talking about monotheism, and Jews are down with monotheism (even though we don't like seeing the name of G-d spelled out on destructible or erasable media - that's why I substitute the "-" symbol).
Just like Moses ate

We are also down with getting paid days off for Christmas (or overtime pay if we "do a favor" for a Christian colleague). We like parades, so St. Patrick's Day is fine; we like retail sales, so let's hear it again for Christmas. And I didn't even get to Peeps, "Home Alone," or the floral hat processionals outside Baptist churches on Sundays. Thanks for all the bounty, Christians!

There's so much to enjoy about being forced to observe someone else's religion, but I'd be lying if I said things didn't ever get itchy. For example, I could tell you a lot about Easter, a holy event of the Christian calendar, but how many Christians know the significance of Yom Kippur, the most sacred day to Jewish people?

Also, when we testify in court, we are supposed to swear to G-d on top of a bible that contains both the Old and New Testaments. Jews are not permitted by religious law to swear to each other or G-d, so in court we "affirm" on the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament - the only one we believe in). While some view this alternative as a thoughtful accomodation, it actually detracts from our participation in mainstream culture. Who, after all, would not look suspiciously upon a witness who refuses to "swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you G-d"?

In so many ways, we non-Christians have to fit into the Christian mold in order to operate successfully in this country. Our traditions and holidays are, when acknowledged, treated as equivalents of Christian ones; our differences are oftentimes met with skepticism and interrogation:

Coworker: "Why don't you eat on Yom Kippur?"
Me: "Because we're so concerned about praying and repenting, we can't make time for food."
Coworker: "But why?"
Me: "It's kind of like Lent when you don't eat meat."
Coworker. "Oh."

To participate in such a social system, we have to have a deep understanding of Christianity both in theory and practice. I don't have any problem with Christianity as a religion or Christians as people (some of my best friends are Christians!), just the established cultural hierarchy that pervades my present experience as a Jew in this country.

It's for that reason that I feel totally comfortable "observing" Lent as a non-Christian.

If Christians are fasting and otherwise doing acts of penitence to enhance their spiritual development, I see no conflict with my own simultaneous pursuit of self-edification. Lent happens to be a great excuse for checking in with neglected New Year's resolutions. And because it is so mainstream, it also offers a convenient explanation for otherwise abnormal behavior (especially in New Orleans), such as abstinence from drinking, smoking, or eating out in restaurants. People seem to accept voluntary sobriety when they think you're doing it just for Lent, despite your actual level of long-term ambition.

All in all, my Lenten Challenge is the product of my adjustment as a non-Christian in a Christian context: I'm not repenting for my sins, but I am trying to lead a more focused and intentional life.  I'm counting and sharing my blessings. I'm taking care to ensure that my choices do not hurt others. I think Jesus would be down with that, and if not, I affirm that I'll continue to try.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Lenten Challenge, Day 4

Check out Days 1 & 2 and Day 3 here!

People have been asking me if I'm doing this project for improved health, and the answer is “not really, but that would probably be a nice side effect."

It’s true that cooking for oneself yields greater control over one’s nutritional intake. Yet it’s also true that when people refer to “health,” they usually mean “weight.”

I usually avoid conversations about weight because I don’t think they’re useful beyond legitimizing the false connection between a person’s physicality and self-worth. This is a totally bogus framework to understand health and wellness.

For similar reasons, I also make sure to avoid dieting. I think it’s more physically and emotionally valuable to concentrate on overall lifestyle health. So if one day I want to eat an entire bag of Zapp’s pickle chips without sharing, I feel okay about that because there are other days when I am an exercise badass. It all balances out if you’re mindful of what your body needs.

This is not to say that I'm immune to the societal imposition of beauty and health standards on our bodies. To be sure, I find the conflation of health and weight to be not only misleading but damaging. Plenty of skinny people are unhealthy, and plenty of fat people are pinnacles of health. Everyone’s body is different. And such reductive logic tends to obscure the social determinants of health, such as access to healthful foods and medical care. Yet if we try to visualize “healthy” or “fit” bodies, we are likely to conjure up very specific images that are intended to make us feel inadequate, especially as women.

I recently came across this article on "Fitspiration," or how various industries collude to "inspire" us to achieve our fitness goals:

Pay attention to the advertising so often being done in these “fitness inspiration” messages and you will see what is really being sold here. Is it a message of real health and fitness or a message asking you to commodify yourself by buying sports bras, yoga pants, the latest fitness DVD, etc. to appear a certain way. Advertisers are VERY GOOD at framing their messages as an empowering “You Go Girl!” message with their fists in the air cheering you on. But pay attention to their swift move from using that pumping fist to cheer you on, to punching you in the face for not being enough. If you do not have rock hard chiseled abs, the right workout outfit, etc., you are not good enough until you do. These advertisers will make sure you know that, because their profit depends on your wallet and your beliefs about yourself.

Such messaging is empowering only when it can be read for what it is: profit-driven nonsense.

I think it’s important to try to be healthy, even though it is hard a lot of the time. It’s also important to recognize that a colossal amount of imagery and other media exist to make us feel like we need to change ourselves to fit a narrow mold of fitness and health. I think a great wellness exercise is to call bullshit on those who tell us we are inadequate.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Lenten Challenge, Day 3

Check out Days 1 & 2 here!

Yesterday was the third day of my Lenten Challenge to not eat food in restaurants, and it was also the day when the real question became, "How much hummus can one person safely eat?"

The answer has yet to be determined but I think Sabra should be glad I'm not Boycotting, Divesting, and Sanctioning them, because they would seriously take a hit this month.

In related anti-colonial news, I was waiting for my bourgeois comeuppance with this project, and it arrived yesterday at work when I was again unable to enroll my client in a food pantry program because he's - get this - underage. Never mind that he is basically homeless - apparently in the City of New Orleans you need to do some serious legwork to get food to a hungry minor. Programs do exist to provide for such needs, but they are so underfunded and have such specific eligibility requirements that it's almost not worth going through the whole rigamarole unless you know a sympathetic social worker who can fill out the forms, you know, "properly."

In any case, I am eating - unlike my client - lots of apples, cucumbers, and avocados and am expecting to soon have the clearest skin this side of the Mississippi, if only I can stop also eating grilled cheese and chocolate chips. And they say vegetarians are so healthy.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Lenten Challenge, Days 1 & 2

As a consequence of being immersed in Christian morals and politics, there comes a time in the life of every American Jew when you just have to throw in the towel and say, "Fuck it, I'm going to embrace this Jesus business and use it to my advantage." And voila, we get to celebrate theologically irrelevant things like Mardi Gras, paid leave for Christmas, and candy sales the day after Easter.

Yet along with the festive we have the morose, and so my Dear Readers, we find that Lent is again upon us.

Every year for the past however many years, I've tried to give something up for Lent. Since moving to New Orleans, I've found this practice to be a useful post-Carnival detox method. But some Lents (Lentos?) I am more successful than others. One year I gave up driving, which went well mostly because I bike 80% of the time anyway. Another time I gave up gossip, which went horribly: "If I hadn't given up gossip for Lent," I would whisper conspiratorially to a friend, "I'd tell you about what happened between A and B and why C is really really mad about it!"

What can I say - I'm a bad Christian.

I've heard that you're supposed to give up something that symbolizes a sacrifice. Most of my friends who are doing it are giving up things like cigarettes, meat, or Facebook, but I'm a nonsmoking vegetarian with a Media Empire to manage. So here we are at this year's creative Lenten challenge: no eating out in restaurants.

Dear Readers, you may already know that I do not like cooking, nor do I really care very much about food in general, unless it's offensively spicy. I have written about my disdain for the internet pornography that masquerades as food blogs, and indeed dislike that literary culture so intensely that it actually pains me to present to you my new Shtetl Chic feature: "Lenten Challenge: 40 Days of Feasting with Indifference."

Every day I will document my travails in home cookery, except for Wednesday, when I was still recovering from Mardi Gras and was thusly unable to leave my bed until 2pm, at which point I burned [ed: pan-seared?] cauliflower and ate it with carrots and hot sauce. Fancy, I know.

Anyway, yesterday was more successful because they fed me at work, and also I tapped into my pre-scheduled Valentines Day exception to the Lenten rule:

I had to attend a First Aid training at my job, and though I was promised a free lunch, I came laden with snacks, fearing (rightly, as it turned out) the inevitable ham&cheese sammy. But Readers, it pays to have friends in high places, and I was able to convince the house chef to hook me up with a veggie burger that managed to be both chewy AND soggy at the same time [ed: versatile!]. The experience of eating it was diminished [ed: enhanced?] somewhat by the photos of "Sucking Chest Wounds" that the First Aid trainer failed to obscure during mealtime, but hey, beggars can't be choosers.

All was not lost, however, as Valentines dinnertime rapidly approached. We had originally planned to go to the Waffle House in Waveland, Mississippi (because nothing says Valentines Day like the Waffle House in Waveland, Mississippi - no really, it was my idea to go), but we went to Lost Love Lounge instead and ordered everything vegetarian on the menu, which suited my purposes just fine.

So I have survived two days of my Lenten Challenge for this year, and I feel much closer to the spiritual enlightenment I will surely achieve by Easter, a day I will forever henceforth associate with take-out.


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Evidence of a rape culture

The first news story I read yesterday was about a 30-year-old woman being abducted and raped by three men in the Garden District, an area of New Orleans generally regarded as "nice."

I searched the article for mentions of the time of day of the attack, the woman's race, if she knew her rapists - anything anything to make me feel better about the situation, to make me feel like this would not happen to me. I realized that I was trying so hard to "otherize" the victim and details of her attack that I was ignoring the obvious point: Violence is personal. Any attack against a woman in my community is an attack against me.

I am a victim of sexual assault. I am a victim of sexual assault because we are all victims when sexual assault occurs, whether it happens specifically to us or to others. I say this not to degrade or diminish the experiences of those of us who have endured actual physical affronts and violations. I say this because this particular woman was not attacked out of context.

We live in a very dangerous world in which it is not rare for something like this to happen. It is not rare for women to live in fear, shame, or ongoing emotional distress. It is in fact common. What is thankfully also common is that people get outraged about this type of thing, and I believe that if we are outraged for the right reasons, that energy can bring us all to a healing place.

I think it is correct to be upset over this attack as an isolated event. After all, a woman was hurt and violated in a most intimate and physical way. She was denied agency over her body and her sexual choices. She was taken advantage of and she was injured. Her emotional pain will probably last for her entire life, well after her body heals. Yet her assault is one in a long, seemingly unending chain of violent acts against women in our city and our world. I take her rape personally because it could have happened or maybe someday will happen to me, and also because it reflects the darkest quality of the world in which I live.

"I'm evidence," she was quoted as saying, covered in her own blood and the semen of her attackers. Yet she is evidence of more than an attack. She is evidence of a tacit social understanding that rape is inevitable and the only recourse for us is to feel bad about it and maybe involve the police. And then what - lock up the offenders? Will that stop rape? Will that take away this woman's rape?

Some people have created a successful crowdsourcing campaign ("Support NOLA's Most Badass Assault Survivor," as if there were a contest for such things) to give the victim money for a down payment on a house. A house would give her more support and stability, they say. A house would be her own.

I agree that we, in acts of communal empathy, should give her money, and hugs, and flowers, and a new home, and whatever else she needs. But the more lasting gift would be to give her a real reason to feel safe, and that will only come if we say "We do not tolerate this. We do not want our women or anyone else getting attacked or fearing attack. We do not support the social circumstances that create helpless victims or necessitate the celebration of resilient survivors. We actively resist the violence that our men are taught to perpetrate in order to assert themselves fully as men. We want healing for those who have fallen prey to our collective violence as a society. We want healthy, strong communities that do not condone rape and other violence, and then turn to the police as flawed adjudicators of justice in the aftermath of such terrors. We want self-determination and liberation for our bodies and minds."

We need to build a safer way for ourselves.

I did not know what to do or how to think yesterday after I read that news article. I felt vulnerable. I wanted to stay inside and whimper. But then I thought about resistance and how I, as a female-bodied individual, could stand against such horrifying anti-female violence.

I decided the biggest act of resistance was to just be, to honor my existence as a person. I needed to do something that made me feel alive in a positive and physical, life-affirming way. I decided to go out and ride my bike at night in the Bywater. I decided to get drunk and hear music. I decided to say a big "fuck you" to the rape culture I live in.

I don't know if I was more careless than usual on my bike ride, if I made some more dangerous turns than I normally would have, if maybe I went the wrong way down a one-way street on purpose, but I knew that a motorist honking at me was affirmation that I was alive, that that person did not want to hurt me, that that person was actually ANGRY that I was in harm's way.

I biked very fast up to the French Quarter, so fast that I almost took a spill on the Press Street train tracks at Chartres, where there's cobblestone instead of pavement. And I felt that "about to crash" adrenaline rush as a confirmation that my body was alive and alert and going to do everything it could to protect itself from danger.

I went to the Spotted Cat and had too many vodka cocktails and listened to Meschiya Lake, who emanated force and strength with her voice and salty admonitions to the audience not to "touch any of my musicians or I'll punch you in the face." I thought about whether she was guilty of cultural appropriation when she covered "Indian Red." I went across the street to dance to a banjo duo's send-up of "Saint Louis Blues." I went to Walgreens and ignored all the products designed to make me feel inadequate, which coincidentally was 90% of the inventory. I went home and made tea and played with my cat. I made causes and effects. I barely drank the tea. The cat ran away from me. I had a nightmare about sexual assault. I got up this morning. I had to clean the teapot. The cat knocked over a houseplant. I was late to work. There was evidence that I had lived and done things and had an impact on my surroundings.  I'm evidence too. I'm evidence of a woman who fears, who makes impulsive decisions anyway, who rejects the perception that I am, or any other person is, a walking sexual receptacle. "I'm evidence," she said. I'm evidence too.