The family chef
The cook in the next generation
By Nicole Bokat
September 7, 2012
“Watching a woman cook is very sexy,” my boyfriend said.
“Not as sexy as watching a man order in,” I retorted.
“Making a meal can be creative,” he insisted. “A way to nurture the person you love.”
“You know what’s nurturing?” I asked. “Letting your ambitious girlfriend study over pizza.”
I was a grad student in New York City, subsisting on salad from the Korean deli, bagels, and adrenaline. Feeling inept in the kitchen, I held up the shield of feminism. I also felt a little demoralized by this man — who was rich enough to hire a personal chef — asking me to stop working and turn on his stove.
So I married someone else, a different man who found my domestic deficits charming. Once we had our two sons and moved to a New Jersey suburb, we both viewed food preparation as just another item in a long list of household chores. I served fish sticks or chicken fingers to my kids, too preoccupied with finances and rushing out the door to teach night courses at a local college to worry about the nutritional content of their meals.
My favorite photos show my boys eating take-out Chinese, Taco Bell, or store-bought birthday cake. My lack of culinary skills was depriving them of wholesome food, and my husband was often too busy to depart from his favorite staples: steak, mashed potatoes, and frozen mixed veggies.
Then one day my younger son, Spencer — a kid who loved to muck around in horse stables and play video games with his best friend — became fascinated with the Food Network. This intense boy, with the furrowed brows and piercing gaze, found solace from the corrupting influence of middle school in watching flour, eggs, and butter turn into brioche.
He’d do his sixth-grade homework in the living room with the television buzzing in the background, his new role models Bobby Flay and Anthony Bourdain, one eye cocked to watch them whipping up chicken paillard with lemon and black pepper and salmon en papillote with julienned vegetables.
From this breed of macho chefs, Spencer learned a whole new vocabulary that he’d casually inject into conversation: ceviche, confit, drizzle. But the real shocker came when he turned off the set and began to imitate his role models. This was cooking, no holds barred: not just homemade ice cream, but the frozen treat served daintily atop a tuile cookie, plated with stars made from raspberry coulis.
Once Spencer had pined for an iPod and the newest GameBoy. Now his wish list was laser-focused on kitchen gear: an All-Clad cooking set and roasting pan, a digital thermometer, an ice-cream machine, a pasta roller, a heat lamp and silicone mats for pulling sugar, and a hand-crafted mahogany cutting board, soft enough so as not to dull his samurai-scary Shun knives.
In eighth grade, he wrapped tissue paper around his homemade biscotti — the tips dipped in chocolate, dyed red for Christmas or blue-and-white for Hanukkah — and presented them to the kids at school. After that, he was bombarded with requests from his newfound friends, including the lovely redheaded girl who ate half his chocolate walnut pie in one sitting.
His passion was increasing not only his popularity but his confidence. I chauffeured him to the A&P and Whole Foods, busting our budget so he could try out new recipes. I marveled that this boy who had emerged from my body knew how to choose a better cut of brisket than I did. Spencer never allowed me to be his sous-chef. That role was awarded to my husband, who was allowed to marinate London broil or chop vegetables.
On the Fourth of July, we surprised our guests — who were undoubtedly expecting chip’n’dip, followed by takeout pizza — with Spencer’s pulled pork. His recipe required slow smoking all night on the grill. Like the parent of a newborn, he’d awaken every two hours to tend to his baby by adjusting the low temperature and throwing more hickory wood on the fire.
No longer was I the introvert for whom throwing a party generated performance anxiety and dread. Instead, I was the proud hostess who thrilled her guests with a delicious home-cooked dish — all thanks to her 14-year-old’s culinary enthusiasm.
A few years after the devastating loss of my father from cancer, holidays had become difficult. Nobody had much energy for Thanksgiving, once my mother’s province, until Spencer’s suggestion that he be crowned executive chef. We traveled to my sister’s place in Maine with nonperishable items that my middle-school boy insisted on packing.
Hauling the bird away from my sister’s house in a Styrofoam chest filled with ice and brine, we crammed it into the trunk of our car like a stiff we planned to dump in the Atlantic Ocean. Spencer and my husband hoisted it into the fridge at the Residence Inn to let it develop flavor and tenderness overnight in its salty bath. The next morning, we discovered that the container had sprung a leak overnight. Frantically, we mopped up the oozing mess.
The author’s son Spencer at the stove.
I was exhausted already. But Spencer managed to whip up a feast nevertheless, featuring chestnut stuffing, roasted duck, and a pear tart. And I witnessed the healing effects of this special meal, how it released the loss our family felt and changed our traditions forever. My son now carved the bird in my father’s place.
A month later, Spencer received his first paid assignment: a bûche de Noël, or Yule log. He rolled the confection into existence, carefully decorating it with green sugar moss and mushrooms delicately formed from meringue. We delivered it to my friend’s house and, happily for us, we were asked to stay for the Christmas Eve celebration. As a reform Jew, it was the first time in years that the season — formerly spent with my parents — didn’t sadden me.
Throughout high school, my youngest developed a wide social circle of mostly female friends, for whom he serves dinners and desserts. I’ve noted how the girls flock to the home of a 17-year-old male who knows how to don an apron and turn on the flame. Lately, I’ve caught myself observing as he adds béchamel, mozzarella, and Parmesan to the final layer of lasagna, memorizing the steps he takes for when he’s no longer around to feed us.
Now, as Spencer goes off to college, I’m making an effort to incorporate finer, fresher ingredients into our meals and trying to eat higher-quality food. Still, I know I’ll never be able to match either his skill or passion in the kitchen.
I suspect that over time, I’ll succumb to many old habits, such as ordering in Chinese food and bringing home the bagels. Without our son around, my husband and I will be lonely. And hungry. We’ll be looking forward to his visits home.
I hate to admit it, but my ex-boyfriend was right. It took the son I adored, however, to show me that cooking is both an art form and a way to care for those you love.
Freelance editor Nicole Bokat is the author of two novels, Redeeming Eve and What Matters Most. Her work has been published in the Jewish Daily Forward, Z Magazine, Parents, and on More.com.
Copyright © 2006–2012 Culinate, Inc. All rights reserved.
Does your child's life seem like a soap opera sometimes? Here's why 5- and 6- year-olds are constantly breaking up and making up.
By Nicole Bokat
During my son's first two years in public school, it seemed as though he were riding a social seesaw. If I asked, "How was your day?" Spencer would frequently sigh and say, "Henry isn't my friend again." When I asked why, he'd say matter-of-factly. "He's friends with Joseph now. They ran races on the playground without me." He complained all the time about being excluded, so I finally broached the subject with his first-grade teacher. She, however, was nonplussed: Spencer was happy and well liked, she said, and he and Henry were inseparable. Finding good friends makes school much more fun for 5- and 6-year-olds, but their relationships tend to be rocky because they don't yet realize that it's normal to disagree sometimes. “When they fight with their friends, it feels catastrophic," says psychologist Michael Thompson, Ph.D., coauthor of Mom, They're Teasing Me (Ballantine, 2002) and a Parents adviser.
Another concept that eludes many kids is that friendship, unlike marriage, doesn't require monogamy. If your child's closest friend wants to play tag with another classmate one day instead of having that regular soccer game with your child, it seems like a betrayal; notes Eric Buhs, Ph.D., a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "As kids get older, they learn that if a friend wants to play with someone else on occasion, it's not a personal rejection."
Children this age may also have trouble interacting with more than one person at a time. If two kids are together and a third comes along, they'll sometimes reject him-even if that child is a better friend of one of them. "Engaging in cooperative games is challenging for young children's social skills, and the more kids involved, the more coordination required," Dr. Buhs explains. As a result, one friend might lash out at another, saying, "You can't play with us," when what he really means is "I can't handle so many people at once ."
All kids will experience some rejection from their peers, but you can help your child take social ups and downs in stride—and maintain lasting friendships.
Arrange playdates. The best way to nurture friendships is to find time for kids to play one-on-one outside school. Choose kids you think would be compatible with your child-and, ideally, whose parents you like- and invite them over to play. However, if your child insists on getting together only with her best friend, respect her decision.
Keep problems in perspective. If your child is fatalistic about the end of a friendship after a rough day, don't dwell on his despair. Kids rebound quickly, Dr. Thompson says. "They usually just need a snack and a good night's sleep, and they'll be ready to enter the mix again ." However, you might offer your child some comforting words, such as "Remember the last time you fought with Kyle? You thought you'd never be friends again, but then you made up the next day. I bet that'll happen tomorrow."
Tune in. Rather than use the time during your child's playdates for housework, phone calls, or preparing dinner, take the opportunity to listen to how she communicates and solves problems during play, suggests psychologist John Gottman, Ph.D., author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child (Fireside, 1998) and a Parents adviser. Later on, when you're alone, you can encourage your child to empathize with how her friends might have been feeling.
Limit electronics. Your child may have fun playing Nintendo with a friend, but many experts insist that high-tech devices actually isolate children from one another. These include computers', Game Boys, and video games-as well as TVs. Instead, encourage the kids to choose more imaginative forms of play.
Don't lecture. Listen to your child and try to be compassionate, even if her problems seem trivial. Put a positive spin on the situation by brainstorming a few responses that she could use the next time a friend shuns her. She might simply tell the other child, "You know, it hurts my feelings when you say you don't want me to play with you."
Be patient. Now that my son, Spencer, is 7, his social life seems dramatically different. He usually comes home with only happy stories, and he hasn't complained once that he doesn't have friends. But I'm sure that having survived those first social melodramas will serve him well when he has to deal with inevitable rejection in the future.
What’s your child’s friendship style?
You can't change your child's basic temperament, but by accepting his strengths and weaknesses, you can help him navigate friendships. Here are the four primary styles kids have when it comes to making friends.
Ardent These are the kids for whom the term "best friend" was invented-they adore one other. "For them, this other person is their alter ego," says psychologist Michael Thompson, Ph.D. "However, it's a passionate, high-risk style because you can get your heart broken easily."
Sociable For most kids, friendship is about companionship. "These kids just want to be part of a crowd and don't yearn for one particular child," Dr. Thompson says. The normal ups and downs, therefore, don't affect them quite as deeply.
Shy These children want playmates but have trouble reaching out. They cling to their parents as safety nets, especially at the beginning of the school day. Shy kids need a little more help from parents and teachers to form friendships.
Awkward These kids have trouble reading social cues and tend to be disruptive when they try to join in. They can be bossy or angry in a way that frightens other kids, and often need coaching to make friends.
Article copyright Parents, October, 2002
Natural Childbirth: From Option to Orthodoxy
By Nicole Bokat
"I did it!" a beaming Elizabeth announced to our mother's group. "Chloe was born naturally" The other women clustered around mother and baby, nodding in approval that Elizabeth had passed the childbirth test with flying colors. Once again, a feeling of alienation crept over me. Pregnant with my second child, I planned on requesting anesthetics the moment my labor pain got too intense.
Unlike me, many women today strive to have natural childbirth. Even Maria Maples "had no anesthetics," Donald Trump bragged to The New York Times. The most popular way of achieving this goal is through Lamaze training; to distract the laboring mother by focusing her attention on complicated breathing techniques. According to a 1992 article in Forbes magazine, half of the parents of the four million babies born in 1991 went through Lamaze training. This figure doubled from 25% in 1987. Why are we so caught up in the trend?
If all things come in cycles, then our culture is immersed in a growing moralism when it comes to motherhood and, as a by-product, childbirth. Having proven that we can be independent, high functioning, high earning, and aerobically fit, women are also striving, once again, to excel at motherhood—beginning with our marvelous feats of endurance in the delivery room. How many other long, arduous procedures do people brag about surviving without the benefit of modern medicine? Has anyone ever heard of "natural open-heart surgery"? How about a "natural vasectomy"?
While avoiding drugs to minimize the risk to one's baby is the underlying aim of natural childbirth, conquering the process has, inadvertently, become a status symbol. Having a child, "naturally," is considered a badge of honor among some mothers; perhaps this is similar to surviving a bullet among men who've been to war. The more militant portray triumphant veterans of childbirth battles in grandiose terms, conjuring up images of Mother Teresa, Joan of Arc, or the Mighty Lioness of the Jungle. But, even for the more mainstream, "natural childbirth" has become a catch phrase; one that appeals to the "good mother" in us. What has been lost is the message of the women's movement: Every woman should be free to make her own choices about pregnancy and motherhood without being judged.
Yet, too many pregnancy books, peers, and care providers insist that if we fail at natural childbirth, we are settling for an inferior experience or, worse, exposing our infants to potential risks. Tracy Hotchner's Pregnancy and Childbirth is representative of a slew of guides for expectant mothers. The author advises women to try and avoid medication, warning that any drug might harm the baby. Yet, in the next breath she explains that maternal anxiety—a reaction to pain and fear—can adversely affect labor. Enjoying every minute of your labor is thus the only guilt-free choice.
We seem to have regressed mightily from the mid-nineteenth century, when the anesthetic use of chloroform was discovered and endorsed by Queen Victoria, who had nine children, despite the clergy's protestation that women needed to suffer in childbirth to atone for Eve's sin. As Jessica Mitford describes in her wonderful book The American Way of Birth, for the next 80 years, the fashion in childbirth—for those who could afford it—became avoidance of pain through anesthetics. Then, in the 1930's Grantly Dick-Read, the author of Childbirth Without Fear, and later Frederick Lamaze, attempted to steer women away from the use of much coveted anesthetics. Dick-Read believed that women's anxiety creates the pain of childbirth. Lamaze acknowledged that the process was painful, but insisted that women themselves could control the degree to which they felt that pain. Both men advocated the "conditioning" of women through breathing based on Pavlov's experiments with dogs. Once again, women were held to ridiculous standards of perfection while simultaneously viewed as victims of their own imagination and fears. Today, those who most ardently advocate natural childbirth have merely politicized women's suffering for a new purpose: the health of the baby. In doing so, they have embraced the age-old image that true femininity requires martyrdom.
With my first son, my doctor assumed that my husband and I were in sync with the times; it was understood that I would attempt natural childbirth and then breast-feed our baby for the acceptable six months to one year period. We listened to the rhetoric, felt guilty for any doubts we harbored, and signed up for Lamaze. In the class, the nurse chided women who planned, in advance, to have epidurals. She cheerfully reassured us that we could "push our way to victory," since we were ''made for having babies." Having secretly hoped for a loophole that would require my using painkillers, I suddenly questioned whether or not my cowardice pointed to a maternal deficit in me.
Then came the endless stories of successful drug-free births from friends and acquaintances. Alice allowed her older child into the birthing room until the final hour, then, valiantly, gave birth in a shower! Jane rocked on all fours in the final stages of labor. Two of my neighbors popped out sons en route to maternity centers, then bragged about the births as if they were stellar achievements rather than lucky accidents of nature.
Along with my admiration for these audacious sisters, I couldn't help but wonder: What's next in this "Can you top this" atmosphere? Giving birth in the workplace? While jumping out of a plane? Birthing theaters (selling tickets and having people attend "improvised" productions)? Despite our courageous performances, our choices do not always reflect what's best for mother and child. One woman I know romanticized the idea of a home birth, free of medical intervention. An emergency complication—coupled with the distance to the hospital—turned her experience into a nightmare. Sadly, she is now unable to have more children. Women who grow nostalgic about the less intrusive, less technological environment of yesteryear seem to forget how often their foremothers died "naturally" in childbirth.
My own reservations notwithstanding, I finally succumbed to the dictum that labor was a crucial test of my maternity. Unfortunately, my first son's birth turned out to be unnaturally brutal. During the pushing stage, he lodged himself on my spine, refused to budge, and caused me unbearable distress. Treating my labor like a difficult sporting event, my obstetrician shrugged and exited "to get a Snickers bar" when—after three hours of pushing—I received an epidural. As I was leaving the hospital, I spoke to a top administrator who shook her head at my story. "It was much more civilized in my day," she said. "They put you out, and, when you woke up, you had your baby."
This second time around, I've already informed my new doctor that I harbor no fantasies of winning the delivery room medal of honor. Since women's childbirth experiences range from exhilarating to agonizing, we should be encouraged and supported to understand both our options and their limits in what is, finally, a dive into unknown waters. Each of us should balance the needs of our infants with our own mental and physical health. Planning and daydreaming should center on the baby, not the birthing event.
I've flatly rejected all rhetoric that exalts the advantages of breathing like a hyena. I'm ignoring the cheerleading tactics of those in the medical and motherhood community who make women, like me, feel inadequate because of discomfort and "natural" fear about childbirth. I believe that it's time for the childbirth industry to stop making women feel guilty for not blindly embracing the latest childbirth craze. The pain of childbirth needs to be depoliticized and viewed exclusively for what it is: suffering. Finally the myth of the perfect versus the malicious mother must come to rest, beginning in the labor room. After all, our ultimate aim is to be mothers, not heroes or symbols. What could be more natural than that?
Bar-Mitzvah Boy Leads 'Lapsed' Parents Back to Shul
By Nicole Bokat
Although Jewish by birth, my husband and I are what you might call lapsed Jews, except for the fact that we never really had a faith to lapse from. On the religious identity map, we're just to the left of Unitarian. Actually, we're most comfortable referring to ourselves as -- pardon the catch phrase -- "cultural Jews." Translated, that means: We come from New York; we love Woody Allen's movies (although we don't identify with the Soon-Yi thing); we celebrate Passover and maybe one of the High Holy Days.
Lately, though, we have found ourselves in the odd position of returning, as it were, to the faith we never really held. The reason: our elder son. To our great surprise, he's begun asking -- no, demanding -- to study his heritage. We shouldn't have been so surprised; he's entering his teens, and like every other teenager, he wants what his friends have -- including a bar mitzvah.
My husband had a bar mitzvah. To this day he can read Hebrew, or at least sound out the characters, although he doesn't actually understand the meaning of the words he is reading. As for me, my few early experiences with Judaism were mostly negative. When I was nine and my uncle died, I found the service cold and intellectual. Suddenly I was jealous of those lucky enough to have been born into the Christian faith, with its easy promise of a tangible heaven. Growing up in a predominantly Jewish town, my hankering for a more outwardly celebratory religion only worsened over Christmas when neighboring towns would display their bright lights all through the cold winter season.
Despite our shared reservations, my husband and I were married by a female rabbi in a restaurant, mostly to please our parents. Yet, when our two boys were born, we refused to go as far as a bris, even to accommodate our mothers' wishes. My husband thought the procedure barbaric enough without celebrating it through ritual and audience participation. Instead the boys were circumcised by my Italian obstetrician. Like most of the lapsed Jews I know, I've since crashed a few children's services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Yet the thought of joining a synagogue seriously occurred to us only once.
Years ago we were threatened briefly with the prospect of life in the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania. During our two day stint in Shippensberg (I had a job interview with the English Department at a local university there), we became a little nervous at the sight of seven churches within a mile proximity to the motel. We'd been warned by the faculty that the town was filled with right wing, born-again Christians, that, in fact, the hippest folks around were Amish. The first night we scanned the local phone book, looking up Cohens, Shapiros, and therapists, for proof of our kind. We didn't find any -- unless you call "Counseling in Christ" therapy. We didn't. My husband shocked me by insisting: "If you get the job, we'll have to live in Harrisburg and hang out with the Reconstructionists." I admit feeling relief when passed over for the position
Eight years later, we were happily ensconced in the liberal, multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, town of Montclair, N.J., with no plans to embrace religion. Imagine our surprise when our 10-year-old son, Ben -- exposed to only to a sprinkling of Judaism -- proclaimed over pepperoni pizza one night, "I want a bar mitzvah."
"What?" my husband and I exclaimed in unison.
"Yep!" Ben said, with confidence. "And, Henry wants to know when I'm coming to Hebrew school already."
As far as my son was concerned, the jig was up. It was time to get serious and embrace our roots.
My husband, who has a suspicious mind, asked, "What brought this on so suddenly?" I knew the answer he was fishing for: the kids at school were talking loot.
But Ben responded in a thoughtful manner. "Well, the presents would be nice. But, I want to be with my friends. And to learn Hebrew."
In other words: sense of community; continuation of tradition. We looked at each other and shrugged. "Well, maybe," we said, lamely. I agreed to check out the temples in and around town.
I called my friend, Lizzy -- a self-described atheist -- who sends her ten year old to the more "laid back" of the two possible reform temples in our area. Despite her reservations about religion, she acquiesced to her husband who wanted their son, Nathan, to be exposed to Judaism and to be bar mitzvahed. Although reluctant, Lizzy admitted enjoying her few experiences listening to the rabbi sermonize. Also, she emphasized, Nathan loved it. When I asked him to assess the environment, the boy answered cryptically: "The classes are cool."
"Cool," I said and drove myself to shul.
To my delight, I found the congregation of this modern synagogue to be casually dressed, open-minded, low-key types. The rabbi had a sense of humor. The young female cantor had the voice of an angel. During the service I attended, there was so much upbeat singing, I thought I'd slipped into the local Baptist Church by mistake. (Missing was the solemn lectures that made us feel guilty for craving lightness and joy.) As my husband remarked, "This place is too cheerful to be a house of worship." We signed up.
After his first day, Ben talked fervently about "Ethics Class." When my younger child, Josh, broke his arm on the monkey bars, the older one wisely espoused, "This is what we discuss in Hebrew school: why bad things happen to good people." After two weeks, we held our breath, waiting for Ben to complain about the twice a week, two-hour-session schedule. Nothing. Not one peep. Each Wednesday after school and each Sunday morning, Ben bound off with his books and a smile on his face: "Hi Nathan! Hi Suki! Hi Henry!" Among the bar mitzvah class, my scholarly -- not terribly social -- son was, suddenly, a member of the in-crowd.
Frankly, we were flabbergasted. We'd expected him to beg for mercy after clocking a couple of hours extra homework. Just the opposite. Ben thrived.
One month later, he was promoted from tutoring to mainstream Hebrew class. At Thanksgiving, he asked if he could read a prayer over the turkey (promising for the less educated of us -- meaning me -- to recite the English version). "Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe who has given us life and sustained us and brought us to this season." Appropriately chosen, we exclaimed, glowing with pride.
Later that night, after the guests left our house, my six year old son -- the one we'd always pegged as the rebel, the risk-taker, the future motorcycle and diamond stud in the ear -- turned to me, downcast. In earnest, he asked, "When do I get to go to Hebrew school, mommy?"
I couldn't help but grin.
It'd like to say we've been converted. But, embracing religion does not come easy for us. The truth is: we're taking baby-steps. This year, for the first time, my husband agreed to accompany our family to a Chanukah party at the temple, without protest. We ate latkes and sang Hebrew songs. Ben's enthusiasm has piqued my interest in the mystical side of Judaism, taught by the Kabbalah. As a system that promises analogies to Buddhist spiritualism and the meditative practice of Yoga, this tradition appeals to me more than the somber, dogmatic practice I remember from my childhood. While I still refuse to celebrate Shabbat on a weekly basis, I promised my older boy that, on occasion, I'd be willing to serve challah on Friday nights if he says a brief prayer over the candles.
It seems that I'm a Jewish mother, after all.
Article copyright Forward Newspaper, L.L.C., January 19, 2001
An Income of One's Own
By Nicole Bokat
In graduate school, I struggled to get my dissertation topic approved‑a psychological study on the contemporary novelist, Margaret Drabble‑by an English department composed of men who took refuge in white male studies the way I get comfort from chocolate cake. After a few particularly sharp rejections, an eminent professor queried, "Who's Margaret Drabble? Why not write on Virginia Woolf? I tell all my female students to write on Woolf." Disgusted, I found comfort in Sandra M.Gilbert's words "women's alienation from the sources of power is profound.. it has also been a philosophical alienation, an aesthetic alienation, a literary alienation." But time has passed since
I've sought solace from the rich array of French, British, and American thinkers; lately, I've become preoccupied with scrambling for paid work.
Last fall, a year after finally earning my doctorate, I was contacted by an all women's college and asked if I'd like to teach an Introduction to Literature course in their adult division. The student body consisted primarily of welloff women, in their 40s and 50s, who spent the last decade or two raising their children. The dean explained that many of the students would be signing up for this class with the expectation that it would serve as a transition from domestic life hack into the work world. She stressed that they were now returning to school to polish their skills in order to tackle the difficult job market; many of them harbored the less tangible goal of gaining some measure of personal freedom. The dean endorsed choosing texts by women authors. Great! A savvy feminist, I'd finally found a course where I could refer to Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, Simone De Bouvoir's The Second Sex, and Nancy Chodorow's The Reproduction of Mothering.
Then the dean hit me with the punch line: the salary. It was so low, I could count the pennies left over after train and subway fare. The masquerade over, I'd been exposed as my true self: an exploited and degraded adjunct. For the first time in ten years of part‑time work, I blurted out. "God, that's so little; who could work for that?" Then, I dared to ask, "how do the other teachers manage?" The dean hedged, then, confessed, "Most of them are married to... successful men." Code for surgeons, lawyers, executives ... the kind of men mothers used to beg their daughters to marry. Indignant, J demanded to know if she didn't find this paradox hypocritical: the school's philosophy of promoting women's independence while paying their almost all female teaching staff slave wages? With perfect composure, she fed me the company line: the college simply did not have more money in their budget for instructors.
I declined her offer with what little dignity 1 could muster and turned to feminist theory for salvation. I should have bought Naomi Wolf's second book Fire With Fire which, I've heard, unabashedly challenges women to aim for financial clout. Alas, I admit that it irked me to glimpse her pretty, young, made‑up face cropping up in magazines everywhere, aglow with a fire that no doubt was lit by her huge book advance. Besides, I couldn't afford the hardback copy.
Instead, I perused the old standbys. Granted, they were discussing feminist theory in conjunction with literary analysis, not championing a lifestyle. But I was nostalgic for the high‑road, the lofty scholarship that rarely transcends the Ivory Tower. I smiled over Annette Kolodny's declaration that women needed to liberate the text in order to recognize the achievements of female authors and to decode "woman‑as‑sign." But, then, I was forced to concede how inept I'd become at utilizing this information in my everyday life. I scanned through my books to determine my significance as "woman‑as‑sign." My thinking process had become pedestrian from more mundane concerns, such as the increase in my car insurance and the cost of my yearly visit to the gynecologist. All I could come up with was: I'm an Aries. That's a sign of sorts. Isn't it? Shoshana Felman directed me to "reinvent' language," to speak "not only against, but outside of the specular phallogocentric structure, to establish a discourse the status of which would no longer be defined by the phallacy of masculine meaning."
But, how exactly does one reinvent language effectively when demanding more pay from a women's col lege, an institution which, in its very mission, should represent the opposite of a"phallogocentric structure?" (And, what precisely was a phallogocentric structure if not this women's college, with its tall central building shaped suspiciously like a male organ?) It seems that in the Dean's office, I dis covered the truth: feminist speak doesn't matter much when you're living hand‑to‑mouth.
Flipping through the work of Luce Ingaray, Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva, I admit, I began to grow impatient. I could vent my rage for having been treated too long as a commodity; I could choose to live a totally "circular" life filled with linguistic fluidity; I could even create images about amniotic fluid and mother's milk in poetry. But, somehow the question remained: how does one sound the trumpet for the rest of womynkind if, sadly, one's instrument has grown rusty through lack of funds?
At the time I had the good fortune of teaching A Room of One's Own to my writing class. I was able to find comfort and wisdom in her controversial messages (controversial, that is, to tenured feminists who are paid to luxuriate in Woolf's unconscious conflicts). Perhaps, I thought‑reading "It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman"‑hers is the better way. Which, translated, conveyed this personal tidbit of advice: get off the pulpit and find a high paying job already.
My young, still idealistic students romanticize the life of a writer, never mind the stories I tell them of Tillie Olsen using the city bus as a writing room (for me, it's often the train en route to teaching). They believe determination and talent can overcome any obstacle and shake their heads when I quote Woolf's warning, "Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom." They don't yet have to consider the writer's relentless worries about the cost of quality child care, or her longings for suitable equipment on which to compose (something even Virginia Woolf could not have foreseen), such as a new computer with a laser printer and fax machine. While Feminist Theory is nice, I'd trade it in any day for a proper British nanny, a laptop, and a private study of my own.
I now direct my students to do the dirty work for me. I instruct them to ponder over Barbara Probst Solomon's pearls of wisdom: "If we wish to he firmvoiced and progressive about meeting our primary needs... we should not point our heads in the direction of the wrong revolution .... Sexual liberation without economic security grants women merely the right to stay marginal." Then, I scan their essays for easy answers.
Okay, I admit I'd like to have a glamour shot of me in Mirabella even if my claim to fame was a book renouncing "The contemporary ravages of the beauty backlash." I, too, would indulge in a little hypocrisy if it meant getting closer to the sources of money and power. If her "power feminism" can guide me to new treasures, no more debt and, say, due to inflation, a co‑op all my own, I'll buy a copy of the other Wolf.
Article copyright Z Magazine, August 1995