Why I’m Team Hillary (At Least for Now)

I’m so very not even remotely excited about the prospect of a President Hillary Rodham Clinton.

When Barack Obama announced he was challenging Ms. Inevitability for the 2008 nomination, I became one of the earliest small donors to his campaign. I continued to make little contributions when I could. The funding pleas from Hillary went unopened. When he got the nomination in Chicago, my face was waterlogged with joyful tears for so many reasons. Mainly I preferred his positions on the issues. An African-American major party presidential nominee felt like a bit of balm on the wounds of our country’s racist history. It was pretty cool to have a contemporary who reminded me of my university friends running for president. At the invitation of a generous friend, we even traveled to DC to attend the inauguration. Never have I been more proud of our son, who was barely five years old, walking without complaint for hours in the cold as we tried to find an entrance to the Mall that wasn’t closed.

The euphoria has long since worn off, and Obama’s presidency has disappointed and enraged me many times, but I fear Hillary would have been even more deeply in the pockets of anti-worker big business and even more hawkish. Now the 2016 election is less than 20 months away. I’m not seeing any Barack Obama mounting a challenge to the Inevitable Hillary Juggernaut this time around.

Of national figures, I’m most closely aligned with Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Warren has said repeatedly that she won’t run. Her voice is indeed desperately needed in the Senate, and a Warren presidency with a Republican Congress couldn’t accomplish anything anyway. I’d vote for Sanders in a heartbeat, but his avowed socialism probably renders him unelectable, because nothing scares large swaths of American voters like “European-style socialism” . . . never mind that they’ve never been to Europe or experienced first-hand the horrors of societies that invest public funds in universal health care, housing, education, infrastructure, renewable energy and culture instead of endless, pointless wars in the Middle East.

That leaves Hillary. She’s really smart, she works her ass off, and I like her dry, twinkly humor. How she and Bill run their marriage is none of your or my or anyone else’s business. But I don’t trust her. Of course much of the “scandal” of Bill’s administrations was Republican-pumped hot air about nothing, but I fear ambition will always trump integrity with her. For all her talk about women and families, she and Bill were part of the Democratic Leadership Council Democrats who, in the name of “welfare reform,” took significant strides toward dismantling what little of a social safety net we had. The effects of the NAFTA treaty on American workers and families are debatable at best. She’s shown too much willingness to use military force without thinking through the consequences and wink at corrupt, worker-oppressing big business. She doesn’t seem comfortable with the wheeling, dealing and arm-twisting a president must do to move legislation, which is the last thing we need after eight years of Obama’s squirrely relations with Congress. She performed dutifully as Secretary of State, but hardly exuded excitement about working in the foreign policy arena. Other than a sense of dynastic entitlement, I can’t figure out why she wants the job or what she thinks she can accomplish in office.

I know choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil. But . . . but . . . but . . .

If no viable challenger emerges, I’ll back Hillary all the way, every way I can. Our country cannot afford to have Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Rand Paul or Sarah Palin any of those other wing nuts who call themselves Christian but openly worship at the shrine of (the ironically atheist–do they even know?) Ayn Rand in the White House. Whatever her shortcomings, however many ways I expect her to disappoint me and make me mad–

I can count on Hillary not to deny climate change.

I can count on Hillary to leave women’s reproductive choices to their consciences and their health care providers.

I can count on Hillary not to shove the GLBTQ community back in the closet.

I can count on Hillary not to advocate abolishing the minimum wage or repealing anti-discrimination laws.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg is 82, Steven Breyer is 76, and Scalia and Kennedy are 78. It makes me nauseous as a pubic hair on a soda can to realize how long Clarence Thomas has sat on the Supreme Court. He, Roberts and Alito together make up a youngish trio of horrors. I can count on Hillary to make Supreme Court appointments I can live with for the next 30 or 40 years.

And it would be kind of cool to have a woman president.

© 2015 Susie Allison-Litton. All rights reserved.

Wild Mushroom Risotto with Sundried Tomatoes

This can be made vegan, vegetarian or omnivore, and can be a hearty main dish or a side. It requires attention while cooking up to the last minute, so choose easy things to go with it. Allow about an hour to make it from start to finish. I like to serve this as a main course with a salad or a warm, colorful vegetable dish. Serves up to 4 as a main dish or up to 8 as a side.

Equipment Needed:
Chef’s knife, cutting board, 2 quart sized bowls, liquid measuring cup, measuring spoons, fine-mesh strainer, paper towel, saute pan, stock pot that will hold about 3 quarts, wooden spoon, ladle that holds about 1/2 cup of liquid. Optional: cheese grater

Ingredients (all quantities approximate):
-1 ounce dried wild mushrooms. Porcini are good; or use a package of dried mixed wild mushrooms.
-1 quart mushroom, vegetable or chicken stock. I am happy with boxed stock. Have extra on hand in case you need more than a quart.
-4 plump garlic cloves
-2 shallots, each about the size of a ping pong ball. You can substitute a small yellow onion if shallots are not available.
-About 12 ounces of fresh mushrooms. You can use brown (crimini) cultivated mushrooms, wild mushrooms, or a combination.
-¼ cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes
-½ cup dry white wine
-1 tablespoon soy sauce (omit if using sausage)
– ½ teaspoon dried thyme (or 1 teaspoon fresh)
-¼ teaspoon dried rosemary (or ½ teaspoon fresh)
-1-1/2 cups Arborio rice
-Optional: 2 chicken or pork sausages, spicy to taste, about 3 ounces each
-2-3 tablespoons olive oil
-Black pepper
-Optional: Fresh grated Reggiano Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese to pass at the table
-Optional: 1/2 cup Italian (flat-leaf) parsley for garnish

Set up any other dishes you plan to serve with the risotto so they will require very little attention until serving.

Put a bit more than a pint of water on to boil. While the water is coming to a boil, put the dried mushrooms in the strainer and rinse them under cold running water. Put them in a bowl. When the water boils, pour it over the dried mushroom. Let the dried mushrooms soak while you do the next few steps.

Put the stock in the stock pot and set it on a back burner of your stove. Put the saute pan on the burner in front of the stock pot. Lay out your ladle and wooden spoon by the stove.

Peel and chop the shallots. Mince the garlic. (Garlic tip—push down firmly on the garlic clove with the flat side of your chef’s knife to loosen the skin for easy peeling. Before mincing, slice the garlic clove in half lengthwise and remove and discard any sprout you find in the middle. Garlic presses do save time, but I find the flavor and texture of pressed garlic inferior.)

Carefully wash and slice the fresh mushrooms about 1/8” thick.

Carefully remove the sun-dried tomatoes from the jar to leave most of the oil in the jar, and if they are not already chopped, chop them.

Put the soy sauce (if not using sausage) and wine in a cup.

Measure out the herbs and rice.

If using Parmesan or Romano cheese, grate.

If using sausage, remove the meat from the casings.

If using parsley, wash, dry and chop.

Line the strainer with a paper towel and place it over the other bowl. Pour the soaked dried mushrooms and their liquid into the strainer, catching the soaking liquid below the strainer and squeezing the mushrooms to extract as much liquid as you can. Carefully remove the paper towel, leaving the mushrooms in the strainer. Again rinse the mushrooms under cold running water, squeeze them as dry as you can, and chop them coarsely. Add the saved soaking liquid to the stock in the pot on the stove.

Warm two tablespoons of olive oil in the saute pan over medium-low heat. Add the shallot and cook, stirring often with the wooden spoon, until it begins to soften and turn translucent. Add the garlic and cook and stir another minute or so. It’s OK if the garlic starts to get golden, but preferable not to let it start getting dark brown, as overcooking causes it to turn bitter.

Turn on the heat under the stock and let it come to a boil while you do the next few steps. When it boils, turn the heat down to keep it barely bubbling.

Add the fresh and dried mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, and optional sausage to the saute pan. Continue to cook, stirring often, about five minutes. If you are using sausage, crumble it with your spoon as you stir. If the pan seems too dry and things are starting to stick, add a bit more olive oil.

Add the rice and herbs to the saute pan and stir until the grains are lightly coated with oil and liquid from the mushrooms. Again, if it seems too dry, add a bit more olive oil.

Add the wine (and soy sauce if not using sausage) to the saute pan and continue to cook, stirring slowly but constantly. The liquid should bubble, but not too fast. When the liquid is almost gone, add a ladle full of hot stock from the stockpot to the saute pan. Continue to stir slowly and constantly, letting the liquid bubble but not too fast. You want to keep the rice from sticking on the bottom of the pan. When that liquid is almost all absorbed into the rice, add another ladle full of stock. Continue cooking in this manner, adding one ladle full of stock at a time and cooking and stirring until it is almost completely absorbed into the rice, until all the stock is used up. (Be sure to turn off the heat under the stock pot when it’s empty.) Taste the risotto. It should feel firm to the bite but not crunchy. If it does not feel done, add some more stock to your stockpot and continue adding ladles full of stock one at a time, cooking as indicated, and tasting until the risotto’s texture is to your liking. Remove from heat and stir freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Garnish with parsley (if using) and serve immediately, passing grated Parmesan or Romano cheese at the table. If everyone in your party likes cheese, you can stir the cheese into the risotto along with the black pepper.

(c) 2015 Susie Allison-Litton. All rights reserved.

A Breastfeeding Story

I gather there’s some mommy-war brouhaha boiling around an ad for Similac infant formula now showing on television. It’s always entertaining to get in on the mommy wars so I will share my adventure in breastfeeding. If you don’t want to read about bodily fluids, stop now.

My husband and I were stunned to find ourselves expecting a baby a month after our wedding. We married in early April. I was 40. He was 46. I had never been pregnant. Based on some less-than-fully-responsible activity in my younger years, I thought I never would be pregnant. But in early May, some symptoms I’d read about appeared, so I took one of those pee-on-a-strip tests. It turned the pregnant color. I said to my husband, “I guess I won’t be joining you for martinis for a while.”

Fast-forward to the end of December. I gave birth to a six-pound, three-ounce boy. (Mind you, this relatively small baby was born 270 days after the wedding, more than the average human gestation period of 266 days. I mention this because certain friends and relatives have announced at large gatherings that I was already pregnant at our wedding. It’s sweet if they want to claim the baby was conceived under their roof, or well-intentioned if they think it will make other people who were pregnant before they got married feel better if I too was pregnant before I got married. It also annoys us, not because we care what people think about our pre-marital sex life or lack thereof or want to deprive our loved ones of the happiness they get out of believing I was pregnant before I got married, but because it’s not true.)

In hindsight, maybe I should have skipped the epidural, but I dislike pain, friends with kids said it helped, and my OB-GYN said there was no need to be a natural childbirth pain martyr at my advanced age. Maybe I should have done a home birth instead of going to a germ-infested hospital (it is not a bad hospital; hospitals are by definition full of sick people), but in 2002, I’d never heard of anyone having a home birth. I’d been so bemused by the whole pregnancy thing that I didn’t even make a birth plan.

When I went into labor, off we went to the hospital. After I’d labored and pushed for thirteen hours and the baby was on his way down the birth canal, an experienced nurse notice that his heart rate had suddenly flat-lined. The umbilical cord had wrapped around his neck and he was stuck. No matter how hard I pushed, he would not budge. My husband has a birth injury caused by oxygen deprivation. We were not going to mess around. They quickly did an episiotomy and pulled him out with a vacuum.

We spent five days in the hospital. The baby was fine, but the morning after the birth, I had a horrible infection set in. I’ll never know exactly how I got it, but I had bouts of blasting, uncontrollable diarrhea that came on so suddenly I couldn’t even get off the bed much less make it to the bathroom. I could only get nutrition by IV—even a drink of water set me off again. It took them four days of pumping IV antibiotics into me before the problem was sufficiently under control for me and the baby to go home. I hereby nominate the nurses and aides who cleaned up after me for sainthood.

My husband wanted me to breastfeed. So did my mother-in-law, who breastfed her babies in the 1950s and 1960s when “modern moms” used formula. I wanted to do it because my mother had fed me formula and I’ve always been prone to respiratory problems to which breastfeeding supposedly makes children less susceptible.

My HMO vehemently urges new mothers to breastfeed. Instead of formula samples, they hand out educational materials from La Leche League. They have a lactation center and a lactation consultant hotline number. They loan you a breast pump for a month free of charge to help you get going. The lactation consultant met with me several times while I was in the hospital and tried her tricks to get enough milk to come in, including pumping before the baby nursed to get the milk started and stick-on nipple extenders that gave my husband the giggles. I was severely dehydrated from the infection, though, and the baby was not getting enough milk. We supplemented with formula. The baby loved that bottle. It was so much easier to get milk out of there than my breast.

At home, I tried to nurse him, but when he cried and refused to latch on for half an hour, I would feed him pumped breast milk out of a bottle. I went to more meetings with the lactation consultant and followed her instructions as well as I could.

One afternoon when the baby was about two weeks old, he nursed for almost an hour. It hurt like crazy because he refused to switch off the left breast, but I excitedly called my husband and said, “He’s finally got the hang of it. He’s nursing.”

But, alas, after that one joyful coupling, the baby reverted to pattern: he’d try to nurse because I’d make him, he’d get annoyed with the pace of the flow, and he’d disconnect and scream. I’d try to force the nipple in his mouth and he’d turn away. As the lactation consultant had warned me, pumping without nursing produced less milk over time. By the time the baby was two months old, I could barely squeeze out a tablespoon no matter how long I left the pump on. My baby would be a formula baby.

I was lucky. Most people in my immediate circle helped me find the positive. When he was four weeks old, I had to go back to work and put the baby in day care anyway, and it was going to be a nuisance to haul the pump and bottles back and forth and find room in the communal office refrigerator to store the milk. It would be hard for me to perform at work if I was sleep-deprived with him in our bed for breastfeeding. One friend to whom I’ll always be especially grateful said, “The great thing about a bottle is that the whole family can feed him and bond with him.” I knew my baby would not die of malnutrition.

However pragmatic formula was for us, I still felt judged a failure by the wider mommy culture and by myself. I’d had lots of support but I hadn’t tried hard enough. If I’d had the right kind of birth plan instead of no plan at all, I wouldn’t have got that dehydrating infection and my milk would have gushed in. If I had planned better and saved more money so I didn’t need to rush back to work, breast-feeding would have succeeded. My baby would not get the optimal health benefits that the breast-fed babies of better mothers enjoyed. When he developed asthma and eczema at age one, I blamed it on my failure to breast feed him.

Then a relative, an ace at breast-feeding, had a second child. She had the resources to stay home with her baby. I don’t think that kid ever had a drop of formula. When he was one, he also developed asthma and eczema. Of course I don’t wish health problems on any child, but I have to admit, it made me feel better because it showed me in a visceral, non-abstract way that a child’s health is the result of many factors, like genetics, not just whether he breastfeeds.

At this point, I can’t imagine any responsible health care provider in the U.S. promoting formula over breastfeeding as a matter of policy. Some people are still going to formula-feed, for their own reasons. It’s not your place or mine to judge whether those reasons are “good enough,” as long as they are their own reasons and not foisted upon them by employers or restaurant operators or whatever other nut-bags freak out at the sight of a mother nursing an infant (in which case the appropriate reaction is to look in another direction). Formula manufacturers tell stories to market their product. In a capitalist society, as long as they don’t lie, that’s allowed. There’s no need for lactation activists to get their knickers in a knot over formula marketing—their competing pro-breast-feeding message comes through loud and clear, sometimes painfully so. The mommy wars will continue, but can we please declare an armistice in this stupid baby-feeding battle?

(c) 2015 Susie Allison-Litton. All rights reserved.

A Man and the Safety Net: The Road to Solsbury Hill

I only had two first cousins, and now I have one. Mike died at 54, young these days. The road to his early death was not dramatic. Rather, it was a slow, steady decline punctuated by a few slips in the mud. I tell his story because it shows something of what America expects of men, what men expect of themselves, and how we treat men who fall short.

When Mike was sixteen, my uncle Vladimir, an engineer who worked on the Apollo space program, divorced my passive, clinically depressed aunt and married an assertive go-getter named Jean who had five energetic children. Vlad and Jean made it clear to Mike that they thought Vlad’s money would be better spent educating Jean’s kids. Still, I suppose to his credit, Vlad honored his divorce agreement and helped pay for Mike to attend Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

Mike took a degree in audio engineering, but after a lifetime of his father telling him he was worthless and his mother too lost in dreams, drink, and nicotine-stained paperback bodice-rippers to notice him much, he lacked the gumption to try his luck in a big entertainment market. Local music production work was scarce before grunge put Olympia and other small Washington State towns on the rock and roll map, so he tended bar at the 4th Avenue Tavern. He loved serving his regulars. Olympia affectionately called him Gimli, after the dwarf in The Lord of the Rings, whom he did indeed resemble, near bigger around than tall with long hair and an even longer beard. He even had a girlfriend for a time. But Margaret was young, and didn’t stay long. His tender-hearted devotion couldn’t overcome her boredom with his rut of tavern, supermarket, liquor store and home.

Mike took after his mother, who also died at 54. He had her intelligence, twinkly blue eyes, wry sense of humor, and a soul so sensitive and a disposition so shy that the world scared him. Also like my aunt, he smoked and drank heavily, gobbled sugary junk food, and expanded from stout to obese. After years living the life of the tavern, Mike landed in the hospital for several weeks with diabetes symptoms and heart trouble. By the time he got out, he’d lost his job and accumulated tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills. He sold the family antiques he still had and borrowed some money from my mother, but it wasn’t enough.

Vlad and Jean brought Mike, homeless, buried in debt and still far from well, up to stay in the guest cottage on their acreage in Fall City, the bucolic town east of Seattle that gained fame for cherry pie on the television series “Twin Peaks.” There they had built their dream home, a stunning structure of exposed beams, cathedral ceilings and picture windows that looked out on the goats, horses and llamas that grazed their daisy-sprangled fields. They grumbled all the while that Mike did not deserve their help as much as Jean’s kids, who had found success in law, medicine and business.

When he got better, Mike found decent work at a warehouse under contract to Microsoft. He made friends among the habitués of Fall City’s taverns and joined a pool league. Then Microsoft canceled its contract with the warehouse and Mike ended up on the graveyard shift at Target stacking merchandise on shelves. It wasn’t much of a job, but at least he could still pay rent for the guest cottage and take care of himself. Target provided insurance to full-time employees, so Mike could get the insulin and blood pressure medication he needed.

Jean and Vlad aged and their health and mental acuity diminished. Jean’s kids convinced them to sell the Fall City property and move to the Olympic Peninsula where it would be easier and cheaper to obtain elder care. Mike had to vacate the guest cottage. He put his things in storage and slept on friends’ couches for a while, but his pride would not let him mooch forever. He moved into a dilapidated trailer.

Then Target, its sales hurt by the economic collapse, cut Mike’s hours early in 2009. He no longer qualified for Target’s medical plan, but the human resources manager helpfully advised him to start a Health Savings Account. Alas, the manager could not tell Mike where, with reduced hours at a job that barely paid more than minimum wage, he was supposed to find money to fund a Health Savings Account. He sold most of his furniture. When that money ran out a few weeks later, no longer able to afford his medicine, Mike died of heart failure. Co-workers checked his place when he didn’t show up for a shift and found the body. He’d been dead several days.

I went up to Washington to help clean Mike’s trailer and resolve his affairs. His sister, stepsister and I had been warned that we’d find pizza boxes and porn. We found porn in the drafty, leaky metal box he’d last called home, but instead of pizza boxes, dozens of empty Chips Ahoy cookie packages. We found heavy crusts of mold and rat droppings. We found a narrow bed, a small TV and one recliner. We found the Chapter 7 bankruptcy papers he’d filed a year before, releasing him from all the medical bills he could never, ever earn enough money to pay. The monthly budget he’d submitted to the bankruptcy court included almost $600 in rent for that wretched trailer, $150 to feed the cigarette addiction he could not break, plus money for groceries, prescriptions, laundry, utilities, gas and insurance for the rattletrap truck he needed to get to work, a basic cell phone, rent on his storage unit, and a little bit of the tavern social life that warmed his introverted soul.

The following weekend, family and friends gathered at the graveside in the Fall City cemetery to share memories, then proceeded to the Riverside Tavern for drinks, food and music. Far more people came than we expected for a man whose corpse had lain undiscovered for several days. Not one among those gathered had known how desperate he had become. His sister told my mother that Mike felt so bad about being unable to repay her previous loan that he was ashamed to even contact her to wish her a merry Christmas, much less ask for more help. My mother recalled asking Mike years back, “Why don’t you get married?” and his reply: “I have nothing to offer a wife.” Mike’s closest friend in Fall City and the captain of his pool team told us that Mike never let anyone come to his trailer and nobody local knew his situation. His sister, a single mother with no money to spare, had refused his last request for a loan. Mike’s manager at Target said, “Mike showed up on time for every shift. If you wanted a job done right, you asked Mike to do it.” Everyone said, “If we had known, we would have helped. Why didn’t he tell us?”

Mike died for a lot of reasons: the economy, the holes in the social safety net that single men drop through, bottom-line oriented employers that avoid providing health insurance if they can, and his unfortunate choice of self-medications. But I think he mostly died of being an American male. An American male succeeds on his merits and fails by his shortcomings. Mike wasn’t a leader, or an entrepreneur, or an innovator, or even someone who felt comfortable standing up for himself. He just wanted to get by. But he was too proud, too ashamed, too American male, to reach out to the people who cared about him and tell us that he needed help, that he couldn’t make it on his own. And we treated him like we treat American men. We didn’t inquire. We just assumed he was okay because American men are supposed to know how to take care of their business.

The Riverside Tavern has a good jukebox. We played “Solsbury Hill,” the song his sister said was his favorite, several times as we sipped our beers and walked over to look at the little shrine assembled to the man his Fall City friends called Russian Mike: a photo of him in a tux for a friend’s wedding, his pool cue, a bottle of Glenlivet, cascades of flowers from his sister’s garden. With its odd time signature and hard-to-hum melody, “Solsbury Hill” had never been a car radio favorite of mine. Now I realize it’s about a man leaving his old life behind to pursue new dreams. Mike, the romantic too insecure to ask a woman to love him, the trained sound engineer too lacking in confidence to pursue the career he wanted, the gentle soul too beaten down by the waves to go on, has left his old life behind now. I imagine us taking a bottle of Glenlivet up to the Fall City cemetery. We sprinkle a few drops on his grave and put the rest to a use we know he’d approve: drinking to his memory. I don’t know if anyone goes to a better place on the other side of death, but I’m sorry we failed to make it a better place for Mike on this side.

(c) 2015 Susie Allison Litton. All rights reserved.

Irish Stew with a French Twist

Irish Stew with a French Twist (serves 2 to 4)

I came up with this last night. Stew is a nice cold-weather dish, the butcher had lamb stew meat yesterday morning, and I had some herbs left from Christmas. This is a good work- or school-night dish because you can leave it unattended while it cooks. You can also make this with beef stew meat if you don’t care for lamb, or lamb is unavailable or beyond your budget. All amounts are approximate, and “cubes” are not perfectly squared-off dice, but chunks of about the size indicated. Last time I checked, they weren’t growing square turnips.

Prep time 20 minutes
Cooking time 90 minutes
Equipment needed: Knife; glass one-quart liquid measuring cup; cutting board; vegetable peeler; tongs; wooden spoon; non-reactive metal pot, with a lid, big enough to hold all the meat pieces in one layer

1 lb lamb stew meat in cubes (about 1-1/2″–the butcher should be able to give it to you pre-cut)
2 tablespoons bland-flavored oil
1-1/2 cups beef stock
1-1/2 cups red wine
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and sliced thin
1 turnip, about 8 ounces, peeled and cubed (about 3/4″ cubes)
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut in 1/2″ slices
about 8 ounces of white potatoes, peeled and cubed (about 3/4″ cubes)
salt
fresh ground pepper
1 spring fresh rosemary
1 sprig fresh thyme

If the meat is fatty, trim off most but not all of the fat. You need a little fat for flavor and tenderness.

In a pot with a lid large enough to hold all the meat in a single layer, heat the oil, then brown the meat on all sides, using the tongs to turn the meat.

While the meat is browning, put the wine and beef stock in a 1-quart glass measuring cup and microwave on high for 3 minutes.

After the meat is browned, pour the boiling wine and beef stock into the pot with the meat. The hot liquid may spatter when it goes into the pot, so be careful.

Stir the meat and liquid with a wooden spoon. When the liquid is boiling in the pot, reduce the heat and put the lid on the pot. Simmer gently for one hour. Peek under the lid once in a while to be sure the liquid has not cooked away. If the liquid is running out, add more wine and/or stock to the pot.

While the meat is simmering, prepare the vegetables. You will have the vegetables ready before you need them, so cover them with damp cloth or paper towels while they sit on the cutting board. This keeps the potatoes and turnips from discoloring and tames the onion fumes.

After the meat has simmered one hour, add the prepared vegetables, salt, pepper and herbs to the pot. Stir, let the liquid come back to the boil, reduce the heat again, put the lid back on the pot and simmer another 30 minutes, again checking once in a while to be sure your liquid has not cooked off completely. The vegetables will be fork-tender when the stew is done. Serve warm with French bread, biscuits, or dumplings.

(c) 2015 Susie Allison Litton. All rights reserved.

Revisitng Gilbert Grape

I spent time with a treasured old friend yesterday. “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” from 1993 is available on streaming Netflix. I have never not loved a film by Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom, even those that get so-so reviews. The exquisitely-cast “Gilbert Grape,” overlooked at its original release, is a restrained masterpiece.

Johnny Depp has in recent years gone down a rabbit hole into quirkiness, most often choosing oddball roles and allowing mannerism to crowd out soul. God knows he’s earned the right to do what he pleases, but he’s got such a deep well of talent for both comedy and drama that I long to see him again play parts like he did the title role in “Gilbert Grape,” a young man whose small-town Iowa family demands more from him than any person should be asked to give. It’s a straight part, the opposite of quirk, and he plays it brilliantly.

Gilbert, in his early 20s, has been the head of the Grape family since his father hung himself in the basement years ago. He lives at home with his morbidly obese agoraphobic mother (Darlene Cates), two sisters, and his mentally challenged brother Arnie. Whether Gilbert is working at his job at a local grocery store, hanging out with his friends, or meeting the carnal demands of the insurance salesman’s wife (Mary Steenburgen) with whom he is having a boring affair, he has Arnie in tow. Gilbert is both fiercely protective of and perpetually infuriated by Arnie, who always says inappropriate things or runs off to climb the town water tower whenever Gilbert turns his back for more than a minute. Life gets a little more interesting for Gilbert when Becky (Juliette Lewis) arrives in the stream of trailers that comes to Endora every summer to camp.

There is little plot. Instead, Hallstrom explores the life of Endora that Gilbert describes as “like dancing to no music,” character, the loving but difficult dynamics of Gilbert’s struggling family, and a budding romance between Gilbert and Becky. Leonardo DiCaprio hit an early peak portraying Arnie. When I saw the film at its original release, years before “Titanic” and Leo-mania, I thought they’d miraculously found a young man with Down Syndrome who could learn all those lines. The producers discovered Darlene Cates, who’d never acted, on an episode of the Sally Jessie Raphael show about obese agoraphobes. She’s marvelous, bringing pathos without an ounce of sap and luminous dignity to what could have been a cheap joke character. But Depp’s quietly nuanced performance anchors this wistful, beautiful film.

(c) 2015 Susie Allison Litton. All rights reserved.

Why I Don’t Call Myself a Feminist

I kind of follow the TV show “The Big Bang Theory.” There’s been some online buzz about Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting, who plays Penny, stating in an upcoming magazine interview that she does not consider herself a feminist and enjoys serving her husband. I won’t get into how the pull quotes distorted what she actually said, but that and other recent celebrity weigh-ins on the subject got me thinking. I may be progressive, but I have long declined to call myself a “feminist.”

I read feminist authors–Carol Gilligan, Catharine MacKinnon and others–in my gender-based discrimination class in law school. Afterward, the professor asked us to raise our hands according to whether we were radical, liberal or cultural feminists, or not sure which kind of feminist. I did not raise my hand at all. The popular professor’s classroom was packed, so nobody noticed my abstention. That disappointed me. I would have liked to explain why I refused the label.

I had, after all, chosen to take an elective class called gender-based discrimination. Had I thought the subject was unimportant, or a bugbear invented by people unwilling to take responsibility for their individual shortcomings, I could have picked a different elective. The Law of Insolvency or Advanced Estate Planning would have apolitically given me the units I needed to graduate.

But I never was the apolitical type.

I believed then, and still believe, that discrimination based on immutable characteristics, including gender, is real. My husband represents people who’ve been fired, demoted, harassed or overlooked for career advancement due to gender, race, disability and age. As I tell our son, his dad is a civil rights hero. My beloved stepdaughter, who is biracial, has been called charming names like “rag head” and “terrorist” to her face in Oklahoma. Famous women in all walks of life–politics, business, journalism, film, music–are constantly critiqued on their clothes, hairstyles and figures while the appearance of men outside the entertainment industry usually passes unremarked.

I learned then, and still believe, that privilege based on immutable characteristics is likewise real. My favorite extreme example of privilege–that is, born on third base thinking he hit a triple–is that former occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, George W. Bush. White, male, heterosexual, cisgender, wealthy, grandson of a U.S. senator and son of a U.S. president, without any discernible physical or mental impairments (general dim-bulbedness doesn’t count as a handicap in American public life, but that’s a subject for another day), George doesn’t need affirmative action or the protection of anti-discrimination laws. He’s got a legacy membership in every club where power resides.

I’m not some deluded “individualist” who thinks we live in a color-blind, gender-blind world and we all sink or swim strictly on our own merits. I am grateful that women who went before me and put up with all manner of sexist crap opened doors so I could sit at the table with the guys in the law firm and catch flies with honey instead of vinegar. But I’m still not comfortable with the label “feminist.”

First, there are things about feminism that I disagree with or find embarrassing: women who are stridently anti-male, who posit that female qualities are better than male qualities, who try to dictate everything a “feminist” should believe, who suggest women are the only victims of gender stereotypes, who blame sexism and patriarchy for everything bad that happens to women, or who are so intent on subverting stereotypes that they become rude or ridiculous. I would never give a man of a certain age who holds a door open for me a lecture on patriarchy, though I know a feminist who did while on a job interview. He hired someone else with a better sense of time and place. I would never insist on changing the oil on the car while my husband cooks dinner when he likes to work on cars and I’m a good cook, though I know a feminist who did. She and her husband ate out that night while the car was towed to the shop.

But for me, the main thing is the word thing. I know that the dictionary definition of “feminism” talks about political, economic and social equality and is not per se pro-female at the cost of being anti-male. Some will say I’m not being fair to what feminism is really about. But as a cisgendered heterosexual middle-class female of European descent, I feel no more comfortable calling myself “feminist” than I would calling myself “whitist” or “middleclassist” or “straightist.” It’s like I’d be putting myself in a semantic club that excludes approximately half the population based on an immutable characteristic.

Here’s what I want: Until the birth-privilege clubs dissolve, I want laws that hold the doors open and the ladders in place for outsiders. I want people of all genders and races and abilities to be able to move through the world being their honest selves, following whatever passions and professions their spirits dictate, respected and treasured for their unique humanity and free of the constraints of stereotypes. I want work to stop being a contest for who can put in the most hours and affirmatively create, rather than just give lip service to, work-life balance for all employees with and without children. I want people to be courteous in offering help and comfort to friends and strangers, whether giving a pregnant woman a seat on the bus or opening a door for a man who has both hands full. I want people to whom help is offered to accept or decline graciously, recognizing the kind intention. I want people to honor whatever choices other people make for their own lives as long as they don’t harm others. I want everyone’s children to be educated, compassionate, mentally and physically healthy, accepting of people who come from different places than themselves, and following their own stars wherever they may lead. And I want everyone to put the seat and lid down after they use the toilet so my dog won’t drink out of the bowl. What would you call me?

(c) 2015 Susie Allison Litton. All rights reserved.