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Diplomacy Begins at Home

Diplomacy Begins at Home

I don’t talk about it that much, but my mother was in the Foreign Service when I was a kid. Since Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, I’ve been incredibly depressed. The blog has languished unto death, but I wanted to take a little time and write something about how I am feeling. I don’t promise that this is coherent, though.

Romania in the eighties was a hard place. There was so little reliably available on the local market that before we left the U.S., we put in a huge order at a warehouse. At least two years’ supply of the basics—of toothpaste and shampoo. Soap and laundry detergent. Toilet paper. Sugar and flour. Canned goods, enough to stock a nuclear shelter. Even so, every two months brought in a support flight from one of the U.S. bases in Germany. Unloading the car one day, a carton of eggs in our hand, a well-dressed woman in furs came up—“Where did you get the eggs,” she asked anxiously. “What store is selling them?”

In many ways, we lived with a lot of privilege. Our house was a giant rambling villa; we had the top two floors. This was after the Embassy moved us all from a gray monolithic apartment complex, where all we foreigners were jammed into a few blocks, presumably for better surveillance, because the heating situation became so unreliable. Romanians just lived with heat that came on for a few hours in the middle of the night. Bucharest in the winter is a cold place; I don’t know how people did it. Life was very hard for so many.

But the privilege that I had as an embassy kid wasn’t just about the material things—the oranges in midwinter, eggs whenever we wanted, the heating oil the embassy had shipped up from Vienna. It was also the privilege that I had been born with, simply by dint of being an American. The only difference between me and the boy three houses down was that he was born in Romania and I was born … well, technically, in India, to an American mother.

We were from the greatest democracy in the world, a place that held the promise that you could be anything, do anything. America was the envy of the world, then, with freedom of the press, freedom of expression, and the unutterable luxury of having a say in our self-governance. (Although maybe not so much culture.) It was an odd experience knowing this, yet being surround by a sea of Socialism. My piano teacher was a member of the Securitate; there, clear as day, was a bug in the dining room chandelier. Our phones were tapped; so were our cars. Romanian kids could only attend the American School up to the fifth grade, and after that, we were systematically kept apart from each other. Years later, I wrote my college application essay on how the constant presence of the Other—of, in fact, being the Other—changes one self-definition as an American.

I’m still trying to figure that one out.

Sometime in the four-year stretch we lived in Bucharest, we were invited to a Russian family’s apartment. That sounds completely unremarkable now—but remember, this was in the middle of the Cold War. It was a huge deal. I don’t even remember how it came about, but I think it was because my mother was the Director of the American Library, and our host was the Soviet counterpart. They had a son about my age. The mother had spent days cooking; but what I remember most was the giant bowl of caviar and the lace doily it was served on, and the stiff wood chairs we sat on. My mother translated English to Romania; the father translated to Romanian to Russian—and back and forth, back and forth, a slow rusty seesaw. The boy and I sat there, creaking smiles at each other.

Because even at that age, we knew. This visit wasn’t about us. It was about something much bigger.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

So to get to the point: I was one of the people who was shocked at the election of Donald Trump.

And please understand. I do understand the frustration. The political system is corrupt. Campaign financing silences our voices. Big business and Wall Street win every time. I get that we all have fears and challenges, some more than others. But I was shocked to my core because this man is not a leader. He is a blustering bully.

A president does not get to call his opponent “a nasty woman” and threaten her with imprisonment, routinely insult people of different faiths and nationalities, treat women with such contempt, control what journalists can say or do, and stomp all over the constitution. A president does not get to do or say all the outrageous things Mr. Trump has said during the course of this campaign. We needn’t go through the list. They are embedded into our collective consciousness. (Also, YouTube.)

It is an affront to the office of the presidency, to everyone who works for the government, and to every single citizen–regardless of whether or not that person voted for him. It is an affront–no, a horror–to the world.

Yet—here he is. President-Elect Trump.

And we voted him in.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

The days of being an embassy brat are long gone. I’m a lot older now; the world has changed. It’s more immediate, for one. Remember how slow the Diplomatic Pouch used to be, a letter took at least three weeks one way. I remember asking about letters, packages, days on end. Once a week, my father would call, always on a Sunday night. I remember breathing into the receiver of the rotary phone—“Hello? Hello?—the buzziness of the transatlantic call crackling through the tan earpiece. We all used to live more slowly; I wonder sometimes how the speed of communications makes us more reactive. Words have less weight when they’re flung through Twitter.

But the thing is, I was raised—all us Embassy kids were raised—knowing that we were not just representing ourselves our or even our families. We were representing our country. I’m not saying we weren’t just kids, we were. But this was never far from our minds. There was a sense of obligation, and part of that obligation was observing the form. The form matters. Because it is the form itself that enables people to observe and respect different, but to find common ground.

The truth is, I don’t know how much of my memory of basic civility is accurate. I remember being coached on proper forms of address, how to proceed through a receiving line, how to navigate formal table settings, how to converse. I am sure the dreaded elitist word will come up; somehow, that has become its own derogatory word, implying that one is out of touch. And though I hate kowtowing to it, let me say: my purpose in saying all this is not to show off—it’s to underscore how much the form mattered. We all have our own stories and journeys, all of which are valid. This is just mine.

And perhaps it is the normal course of things, to mourn the loss of the civility one remembers as one gets older. But I am not that old, only 43, and the level of incivility, of outright rudeness, of contempt for our citizens, of lack of common human decency and our allies during this campaign has had no age limit. People may differ violently on policy, on ideas. People may have heated debates that veer into rudeness. But where do we go when hatred and contempt replace ideas and intellectual thought? Where do we go when a president is elected despite the obvious contempt he feels for 240 years of the world’s greatest experiment in democracy? How can we call ourselves Americans when in the 21st century, we elect politicians based on xenophobic, sexist, and racist rhetoric?

And given my upbringing, how can I say “my president, Donald Trump” without a deep sense of shame?

The truth is, I can’t.

Hilda training video

Hilda training video

Foodist Literacy … or Literate Foodism … or something

Foodist Literacy … or Literate Foodism … or something

A recentish New York Times opinion piece mused on the fact that food has replaced culture. “Foodism has taken on the sociological characteristics of what used to be known … as culture,” says William Deresiewizc. “It is costly. It requires knowledge and connoisseurship, which are themselves costly to develop. It is a badge of membership in the higher classes ….”

Oh the guilt.

To be sure, I’m a rather boring cook, but I do tend to wax incessantly about how vast hordes of Americans don’t cook anymore and sniff that I make everything from scratch. This evening, for instance, I made beet soup: sautee onions and a whiff of celery and garlic in butter, add turkey stock from the tail end of the soup I simmered on and off for three days, chop up roasted beets and whizbang with a stick blender. Having replenished the spice drawer at PFI this weekend and feeling adventurous, a few crushed juniper berries and some anise wended their way into the pot too.

In my defense, however, it wasn’t served in blindingly white ironstone a la food blog to showcase its beety red glory; Steve wasn’t hungry so I slurped it out of a chipped blue and white rice bowl at my desk, where I watched a 20 year old documentary about an inner city public school, and let the spoon, which was too big, tip out of the bowl at the end. We like to think we’re all different, but we’re not. Dirty dishes are always just dirty, in the end. And our schools haven’t gotten better in the past 20 years either.

Aside from this one piece, I have grown tired of newspapers, so I cancelled my kindle subscription to the NYT for now. On the phone a few days ago, my mother confessed that she had resubscribed to The New Yorker. “All my friends take it and want to talk about the articles,” she explained, “so I succumbed.”

“You can subscribe on your kindle,” I told her. (I gave her one for Christmas last year.) But she had gotten one of those special offers in the mail, and had already sent it off, and misery loves company so I succumbed too. And oh, serendipity, how we love thee, apparently the current issue, the one I downloaded this morning is … get it … the Food Issue. Tina Brown has a lot to answer for when it comes to The New Yorker, and the themed issue is one of them. Themed issues are just one step above books of quotations.

Nevertheless, a lot of the writing is really good. I haven’t finished yet, but Daniel Mueenuddin’s Sameer and the Samosas was fantastic. There’s hope yet; what have I missed? It made me nostalgic for the Mount Holyoke library; one winter, I spent long days in the stacks reading old bound New Yorkers sitting cross-legged between bookcases. There were timers on the end of each row and every so often, I had to get up and crank the timer back up to 30 minutes. Or was it 45 minutes, or an hour? I can’t remember. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that seeming expanse of time, no ping of email, nobody else around, just lots and lots of pages that I could never in a million years get through and the sense that it didn’t really matter.

There are lots of ways I’m ambivalent about the kindle (and I won’t enumerate them here), but lately, I’ve been wondering whether the kindle is changing the way I read. I have less patience. I often have this niggling sense that there’s other stuff I should be reading, and hey, look, just clicking the home button will take me there. Or I get caught up in reading the Amazon reviews because they can be vastly entertaining. In other words, I wonder whether the kindle is shrinking my own attention span. The next thing you know, I’ll be embracing the themed issue.

Or reading nothing but cookbooks.

A great Harper’s–and where the stimulus money has gone.

A great Harper’s–and where the stimulus money has gone.

Instead of reading the NYTimes on my Kindle this morning in the bathtub, I reached for the latest Harper’s instead. It was a great one. There was a fantastic article on election rigging (I am amply vindicated in my conviction that Bush may not have won–either time), another great article about why austerity doesn’t work (that, sadly, Faux News won’t read or probably even understand if they did because it includes–gasp!–numbers), and a piece on writing amidst the homeless in the downtown Seattle library (which, despite its undeniable architectural creativity and yes, even genius, is sadly antithetical to my notions of what a library should be).

But one thing that really struck me was a fantastic piece about stimulus money and where it’s gone. Apparently, most of us see its effects every day–we just don’t know they were funded by stimulus money. Check out the Recovery web site, insert your zip code, and see what projects have been funded around you.

It turns out my zip has received nearly 2.5 million in funding. To be fair, the descriptions are a little opaque, but they seem to be about public works: the community center, some land remediation, some other stuff that makes no sense to me. But still, I promptly emailed the site to my mother, who lives in the woefully conservative town of Julian, CA. (Put it this way: her neighbors have a huge sign that says Buck Ofama that is an ongoing bone of contention). I thought it would be a great topic for her weekly column in the Julian News.

“Did you know that Julian received 1.5 million in funds?” she zinged back. The local public school received a million. There was some brush clearing–great for one of those places that keeps burning to the ground. And the (this is one of the places that keeps burning). And the water district received a good chunk too. Not bad for a town with a population of 1,500.

More post-debate ponderings

More post-debate ponderings

I couldn’t help it. I watched the second debate. And boy, was I bored. Romney didn’t answer any questions, but hey, it was an opportunity to get his paternalistic little smirk in front of thousands. Obama repeated the same old trite phrases and talked to the points he no doubt rehearsed in debate camp or prep or whatever.

To be fair, there was a moment in which Obama got fired up. Sadly, my Spider Solitaire game required a bit of tricky card maneuvering, so I missed it.

And once again, at the end (and after I won the game), I had to see what the headlines were.

“Crackling debate”
“Turning up the tension”
“Candidates tangle in fractious debate”

I don’t know what debate these people were watching, but it clearly wasn’t the same one I was. I sure wish I could have tuned into theirs; it sounds far more interesting. Next time, I will be sure to stream live coverage from WGB Wishful Thinking.

There are two things that seem to characterize the Republican Party. The first is the sheer genius of convincing poor, uneducated people to defend a lifestyle they will never have. The second is occupying an alternate reality and convincing themselves it’s real. Austerity works–despite the facts. Creationism is a valid theory–despite the facts. Global warming doesn’t exist–despite the facts.

Well, you get the picture.

The problem is that we liberals have become complicit in this alternate reality world. By not calling them out on their crazy shit, we have basically said, okay, fine, let’s argue that. Or more to the point, let’s NOT argue it because how do you argue with crazy? It’s a little bit like running into someone who is disfigured and being “polite,” we look the other way. And now we’re in this very weird position of running against disfigured ideologies.

Let’s take the environment for example. Romney calls Obama out on not having an aggressive drill baby drill mentality. Obama says, well actually, I have done x, y, and z. I wish–I really, really wish–hehad said something like, “You know, you keep talking about passing the deficit down to our children. But you’re okay handing down a ravaged planet? Just because we CAN do something, doesn’t mean we SHOULD.”

And that right there would get to the heart of the matter. I would rather hear them debate about global warming that repeating the same talking points. I would rather hear a DEBATE. This wasn’t a debate. It was a PowerPoint presentation in a two-person format.

God, I love Biden

God, I love Biden

Though, really, I still question whether debates are really useful. Most of us have made up our minds and we’re going to view what our party says as having “won.” I think Ryan is a smarmy little liar who never outgrew his Ayn Rand phase (as most normal people do). Everything he said, or didn’t say reinfornces that. Ditto on the opposite side. As for the great undecided, the problem is that the punditry seems to evaluate showmanship rather than content. And I’m not even sure how you can make it this far and still be undecided.

We’re all so filter bubbled, both online and off. It depresses me utterly. At the end of the first presidential debate, I didn’t have this sense that Obama “lost.” The next morning, I was a little shocked to see all my fellow Dems slamming Obama. Would everyone have had the same reaction if they weren’t told over and over he lost, all the pundits repeating ad nauseum what a disappointment he was? I’m not saying he was electrifying–clearly, he wasn’t. But he made his points. He was a gentleman and didn’t outright call Romney a liar. He met accusations and falsehoods with reason. And yet there, splashed all over the interwebz was he lost, he lost, he lost.

What I think is that we’ve all lost. We’ve lost the ability to think for ourselves. We’ve lost the ability to digest information that isn’t presented as a zinging soundbyte. And we’ve lost the notion that we should evaluate information based on content and context. I wish the punditry would just go away; peddling facile insights as breaking news has cheapened journalism. And it gets in the way of people thinking for themselves.

Not, you understand, that I think thinking is a strength of a large percentage of Republican voters. I am still trying to figure out how the Republican party has managed to get a whole group of people to defend a lifestyle they don’t have–and how to get them to back policy that ensures they never will.

All this post debate nattering

All this post debate nattering

Let me first say that Youtube is a wonderful wonderful thing, and I have wasted far too much time in the past couple of weeks watching past debates–starting with Carter/Reagan. It’s really interesting to see how the debates have evolved over time. Is it my imagination, or have the questions gotten dumbed down in the past 30 years?

And is it just me, or is all this post debate “analysis” just ridiculously silly? Before we closed out the CNN window, I think I actually heard someone say, “Well, Obama may need to think about his debate style. He tries to put things in context too much.”

Oh, the horror. Context and rational thought? How will we ever survive?

And perhaps more to the point, I’m not sure how all these people are coming up with a verdict of “Romney crushed it.” Crushed what, pray tell? Because I thought he was as insincere, dishonest, flipfloppy, and smarmy as ever.

Fluff became a hen today.

Fluff became a hen today.

At about 11 months or so, Fluffaluffagus finally laid an egg.

It is a very odd-looking little egg. Here it is, in all its bullet-shaped glory:

And it’s so tiny that it barely registers on the egg scale:

Poor maligned Henzilla

Poor maligned Henzilla

Today, I noticed that Henzilla seemed, well, fluffier than normal. She’s spent most of her confinement looking like a pancake with a head.

I pulled her up, and with a sinking heart saw another broken egg shell. But then I looked a little harder, and there it was. Yep, a wee baby chickiepoo.

Looked a little harder–and there are two.

So she’s a proud mama, and has proved us all wrong. She’s not a cannibal or a killer.

Henzilla the killa

Henzilla the killa

Doesn’t she look all sweet and maternal as she incubates her eggs?

Not so much.


The really sad thing is that there were only four that were developing nicely, and this was one of those four. I have bad bad feelings about this.

If nothing hatches and she stays broody, I will buy some chicks and sneak them under her in the dead of night. Apparently, this approach sometimes tricks them into thinking they’ve hatched their eggs.

Of course, she’ll probably kill those too.

Another day, another set of eggs

Another day, another set of eggs

You know, people are really generous. Here are the new fertilized eggs, which were given to me after posting a Craig’s List ad:

The rooster is a mille fleur d’uccle and the hens are d’uccle, RIR, ameracauna/easter egger, buff orpington, cinnamon queen, and blue marans.

(Speaking of the marans, just LOOK at the color of the eggs. I’m not getting anything that dark out of my two.)

Another three weeks. Sigh.

Chicken TV

Chicken TV

A couple of months ago, Steve had the bright idea of building a smaller coop and putting it up against the dining room window so we could watching chicken TV during dinner. We got really gung-ho about the concept for an evening; he sketched out plans while I scoured Craig’s List for more Fluffaluffagi (i.e., silkies, which he for some reason that I can’t quite fathom, loves). The next morning, we looked at each other and started laughing.

“I need a job,” he explained ruefully.

“I don’t have that excuse,” I said, even more ruefully.

When Henzilla went broody, he built a chicken tractor in a day. I was going to isolate her, as all the experts advise. But I was so gung-ho to have her hatch out some eggs, and I didn’t want to risk her broodiness being broken that I never moved her. And now that she’s rejected those eggs and was still trying to hatch out the plastic eggs, we figured it was time to try isolating her. So we moved the tractor (which in terms of weight is more like a combine) to the side of the house. I plucked her from the coop and settled her in there. She squawked furiously for about an hour–and now she’s re-incubating the plastic eggs.

It’s time to get more fertile eggs. Oh yes–and did I mention chicken TV? This is the view from our dining room:

Putting names to beaks

Putting names to beaks

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted chick pix, hasn’t it? Without further ado:

This is Stubbs. She’s been molting for ages, but has beautiful new plumage. I’ve found out that she’s a blue-laced red wyandotte, only she has two copies of the blue gene, so she’s actually white (splash).

My rose-comb Rhode Island Red. She doesn’t really have a name yet.

A production red I bought a couple of months ago. Her name is Ketchup (her sister was Mustard).

One of the three buttercups. The first buttercup I got is Mine (she has the biggest floppiest comb); the other one not pictured is Pointy because she lays these enormous pointy eggs; this one is Molty because she’s been molting for eons.

Deadline, the barred rock. Also an amazing layer.

Michelle Obama. I had an Autralorp who looked just like her, but she was an eggeater, so I got rid of her. This one is a black marans and Steve just continued calling her MO, which is the name the Australorp came with.

Attila the Hen. Steve says she looks manly.

Shpeck (bacon in Romanian, sp?), the Speckled Sussex. These pictures pretty much sum up her personality, so it’s no surprise that she’s my absolute favorite chicken (despite the fact that she laid about 5 eggs and then quit entirely for the winter).

I am not a huge silkie fan; I was going to get rid of her, but Steve fell in love with this ridiculous excuse of a hen. He also named her Fluffaluffagus.

Henzilla (who’s been isolated to make or break the broodiness)

Barnie, who is quite possibly the worst specimen of a Barnevelder that has ever lived. She’s still going through a juvenile molt, so we’ll see if she gets completely double-laced.

Henzilla the cannibal

Henzilla the cannibal

Early this morning, there were still two eggs under Henzilla. An hour later, there was one egg under Henzilla and the remnants of the shell. An hour after that, there were more shell remnants and Henzilla was incubating the plastic eggs in a different nesting box.

I’m going to give Henzilla the benefit of the doubt and assume that the growing eggs were quitters. And if she’s still broody, I’m going to move her into the new chicken tractor that Steve built (and that we’re going to put between our garage and Nicki’s) and give her some more eggs to hatch.

I’m so disappointed–the eggs were only two days away.



When I let the chickens out this morning, there were three smashed eggs on the floor and another in the coop. One was hollowed out and obviously eaten; the others were cracked enough that whatever may have been in them was dead.

I candled for the last time last night; of the six she had left, two were clear and four appeared to be growing. Certainly, two of the eggs felt heftier than one and when I peeled back the membrane a little on one (which I really debated doing because of being freaked out), there was a baby chick curled up inside.

The question is what happened. Henzilla was up off the nest when I pulled open the door to the coop. Michelle Obama and the rose-comb RIR were standing there. Did Michelle Obama get a little witchy? (I doubt it was the RIR–she’s one of the few that are laying right now and she’s in and out of the nesting box almost every day. She lays her egg in the other corner and calls it good.) Or did Henzilla push them out herself?

Whatever the case, I made sure the remaining two eggs were secure under her before shutting up the coop. One felt suspiciously lighter than the other. The broken eggs I tossed into the brush down the hill.