02 December 2014

On Race, Violence, and Social Constructs

C. Loring Brace, an American anthropologist at the University of Michigan, argues that, biologically speaking, there is no such thing as race. What we think of as "race," in humans, is simply the concentration of inherited physical traits in a given population, based on geography and, to a great extent, social isolation.

In other words, people from different parts of the world tend to show different physical traits based on where they live, or, more accurately, where their ancestors lived. For example, people originally from sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia and the Americas tend to have darker-toned skin and eyes; people from northern Europe and other parts of Asia tend to have lighter skin and eyes. For millennia, travel to and from those places was limited, so people selected their mates from the local population - the people they were most likely to meet. This meant that their offspring bore the physical characteristics of their parents, and with the passing generations, each population took on a distinctive look specific to its location.

And that distinctive look is the root of our concept of "race."

The second part of the race puzzle is social isolation. For most of human history, the different "races" did not mix extensively because travel to other parts of the world was difficult, and the odds of meeting people who had very different physical characteristics were low. As travel became easier and more efficient, however, two things happened: the more economically powerful northern Europeans began to subjugate people with darker skin, enslaving them and otherwise treating them as inferior to those with lighter skin. For generations, they struggled to fit into a society that rejected them as full members at the most fundamental level. And, perhaps as a result, a social taboo grew up around marrying and reproducing with people whose appearances were different from one's own. The taboo was so strong that it was encoded into law in many places. For example, the interbreeding of people considered to be of different racial types, known as miscegenation, was illegal in parts of the United States until 1967.

Thus, although barriers to meeting people of different national origins have been largely physically eliminated in the developed world, we still have a strong concept of "race" embedded in our consciences. We know the physical differences between black people and white people quite well; we can identify them on sight. And we still, unfortunately, treat these people differently based on the most superficial of criteria.

Because, you see, all human beings are biologically the same. We are of the same genus and species, and our biological functions do not differ significantly. (Oh, sure, there are some populations that are more prone than others to various maladies, or that have certain strengths or immunities that others do not have, but these are small differences that do not, and should not, affect our ability to treat each other equally in the eyes of the law.)

The more I learn about the theory of race being a false construct, the more I like it. The inequality that we, as a society, experience and enforce on a daily basis, is all in our heads. If you remove skin color and feature shape from the equation, all you have left is bare humanity.

If you recognize the entire concept of "race" as the natural extension of an unjust and outdated social construct, the scales fall from your eyes. The young black man killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in August becomes simply a young man killed by a police officer. The twelve-year-old black boy shot in Cleveland by the white police for playing with a toy gun simply becomes, well, a dead twelve-year-old boy. As the us-and-them dichotomy disappears, the feeling of horror rises. What have we done? And what are we doing?

A Facebook friend attacked me last week for the sin of sending my children to a public school that is apparently not "racially diverse" enough for her tastes. She boasted that she herself had attended an "integrated" school, and that she in turn had sent her children to a school that had a lot of "blacks."

I send my children to the local public schools, which have a sizeable first- and second-generation immigrant population, a high proportion of children for whom English is not a first language, and strong representation of Jewish, Asian, and Muslim cultures. Though I chose the location of my house, I did not choose the ethnicity, religion, or skin color of my neighbors. They are who they are, and I cherish my community for the people in it. When I explained this to my friend, she responded, "Asian people don't count. They tend to excel at integrating into our society. Your school isn't diverse unless it has a lot of black people."

Another of my Facebook friends - someone clearly, by her appearance, of northern European descent - told me that she wished "the black community" worried as much about "black on black violence" as it does about the killing of that young man in Ferguson. In doing so, she revealed to me that she is a true racist, and one of the most insidious kind: the kind that pretends to be concerned about the welfare of "the black community," but still believes, deep inside, that people with darker skin tones are more prone to violence than people with lighter skin tones, and that this tendency toward violence is something they need to solve.

But the people with dark skin are not the ones shooting unarmed teens, under color of law, on the city streets of Ferguson and Cleveland. They are, in overwhelming numbers, the ones being shot, not the ones doing the shooting. The idea that "black" people are inherently more violent than "white" people is not just racism of the most repugnant type: it's scientifically and mathematically unfounded.

I'm not finished thinking about this issue. I may never be. And neither should you be. We, all of us, have a long way to go in changing our mindsets about skin color. But we absolutely must work at it, as hard as we can. If we challenge ourselves to think of race, as Dr. Brace does, as a false construct - to measure ourselves and each other simply as people, without regard to the varied physical traits our ancestors handed down to us, we might make some progress in no longer associating skin color with tendency toward crime. We might begin to eliminate the socioeconomic injustices that have created a permanent underclass in American society - a group of people we urge to play by the rules, but then repeatedly deny full participation in our democracy. We might stop assigning a value to someone's company, in the classroom or at the dinner table, based on their blackness, their whiteness, or their Asian-ness. And we might, God willing, stop the senseless fear-fed violence that tears our society apart on a daily basis.

26 November 2014

Thanksgiving, and Everyday Kindness

I got my hair cut yesterday at a local salon. When I arrived, I had to take off my sweater and put on a little smock; they provide a tiny little one-person dressing room stocked with smocks for this purpose. There was someone in the dressing room when I arrived, but she had the door open and was just standing there, texting someone on her phone. I waited politely just outside the door.

The hair-washing lady saw me standing there. She looked at the lady texting on her phone, and then she looked at me. She watched me with interest.

After a few minutes, when it became apparent that the texting session was not going to be over quickly, I poked my head into the dressing room and asked, "May I just grab a smock please?"

"Of course," the lady said, not looking up.

I took a smock and went to the ladies' room to change into it.

When I emerged and sat down to have my hair washed, the washing lady said, "That was really smart, what you did there."

"Thanks. There's always a better solution than yelling at someone to hurry up, don't you think?"

"You're a better person than I am," she said. "I would have told her to move along."

I'll admit, I thought about asking her to step outside to finish her texting. But I thought, this is just a small moment, a small inconvenience. I had no idea what was going on. Maybe she had a sick kid, or a crisis at home. Elderly parents. A car in the shop. Maybe she was arguing with her husband or her boss. Who knows? Who am I to judge someone I have never seen before? And she probably didn't even know I was standing there. There was nothing to gain by being rude. I saw that the bathroom was unoccupied, and that would work just as well for me.

A few minutes later, a freshly-coiffed woman approached the hair-washing lady with a small wad of cash. "Thanks for washing my hair," she said. "This is for you."

"I didn't wash your hair," she responded. "That was Lisa. She's in the break room. I'll give this to her."

"No, I'm pretty sure it was you - wasn't it?"

"Nope. But no worries. I'll go give this to her." The washing lady took the money and, leaving me for a moment, went to find Lisa.

When she returned, I said, "Don't ever tell me again that I'm a better person than you."

"What do you mean?"

"You could have said 'thank you' and put that money in your pocket, and no one would have been the wiser."

"Yeah, but that wouldn't have accomplished anything." She shrugged. "What goes around comes around."

She was right. I thought about it later, when I was stalled in traffic in the grocery aisles, and then later, when my son texted me that he absolutely needed a black t-shirt for school by tomorrow morning and would I possibly mind running to the store to find one for him? This involved a trip to K-Mart at 6 P.M., with the full load of groceries still in my car.

There are opportunities to be kind and helpful, or at least not rude and judgmental, lurking in every small moment of every day. I'm going to try to start taking those opportunities as often as I can.

(Yes, I am aware of what is going on in Ferguson, MO and in other cities all around the country. I will write about that soon. I'm still thinking. I like to think before I write, if I possibly can.)

Happy Thanksgiving to my readers in the U.S.!

27 October 2014

Fairies Teenagers Can Believe In

Several friends have children younger than mine - grade schoolers, mostly - and are currently confronting, for the first time, the fact that their children no longer believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy. This is a difficult time for parents, as it heralds the end of a period of magical innocence. They lament the loss of the fantasy that magical creatures live among us and make miraculous things happen, seemingly without effort.

Fear not. I have gone through this period and come out in one piece on the other side, and I have a solution for you. It is my pleasure to introduce your older offspring to a solution that works for them. It is a continuation, if you will, of the active fantasy life so essential to their healthy development.

Fairies, elves, and fictional creatures they can continue to believe in.

Please meet:

1. The Laundry Fairy

To prepare for her arrival, cover the floor of your bedroom with damp used towels, dirty underwear, mismatched socks, and other sundry items that need to be washed. If you have nothing dirty to offer her, that's okay; just throw clean clothing and bedding haphazardly on the floor. She'll be unable to distinguish it from things that genuinely need to be washed.

Then simply go to school, or work, or your sports practice, or whatever it is you do all day that requires you to take six showers, using a clean towel each time.

When you return - wonder of wonders - all the dirty stuff is washed, dried, folded, and placed neatly back in your room! And you barely lifted a finger!

2. The Toilet Paper Elf

This one is my favorite. He lives in the basement, wearing a cute little tissue paper hat, and waits for you to use the last of the toilet paper on the roll. Then, just in time for the family's return from the lunch rush at Chipotle, he dashes upstairs to the bathroom, bearing rolls of toilet paper to replace the ones you left empty. He installs them neatly on the dispensers for your use.

Sometimes he brings extra rolls from the storage closet and puts them in the bathroom cabinet, so they're handy if you run out and find yourself in an awkward situation. But don't feel obligated to replace the empty rolls, even if doing so would take minimal effort. Believe in the Elf, and he will continue to serve your needs!

3. The Dish Bunny

We've all been there. You have just finished making yourself a midnight snack of microwaved something-or-other that you found in the refrigerator while your mom was sleeping. Or maybe you have made a big bowl of popcorn in that popper with the hand-washable-only plastic lid. Or maybe you made yourself a healthy breakfast before dashing out the door to school in the morning.

You would have put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, but the dishwasher was full - of clean dishes. Who has time to deal with that? Or with the annoying reality that some things need to be washed by hand?

Never fear! The Dish Bunny will do it! After you leave the house, or before you rise in the morning, she hops on into the kitchen and cleans up the mess. She unloads the clean dishes and puts them away, reloads the dishwasher and turns it on, washes the popcorn popper, scrapes the melted cheese off the inside of the microwave, and wipes the splattered gunk from the counter. You don't even need to share your food or leave her a snack, the way you do for Santa or the Easter Bunny. That stuff makes her fat anyway. She'd much prefer to clean up after a meal she hasn't had the pleasure of eating - wouldn't you?

4. The Light Bulb Pixie

You flip the switch, and the light bulb gives a sad little buzz and a flash, and then it goes dark. You know where the illumination comes from: a box of replacement bulbs in a nearby cabinet. But don't waste your energy to fetch a bulb or climb up on a stepladder. That's the Light Bulb Pixie's job!

She comes along when no one else is home, usually late at night, equipped with magic sparkly dust that allows her to avoid tripping over the shoes, books, and sports equipment you left on the hallway floor. She works her miracles silently, installing environmentally-friendly CFL bulbs all over the house and disposing properly of the burned-out ones.

No one else in the house needs to risk breaking his neck in the darkness if he believes in the Light Bulb Pixie!

5. The Cash Leprechaun

This handy little guy comes up with money (presumably from an unlimited pot of gold stored somewhere near the horizon) whenever your earnest little teenaged heart desires it. School fundraiser? No problem! Feel free to order several hundred frozen cheesecakes - the Cash Leprechaun will just throw the money into an envelope on the date it's due! No questions asked!

What about all those iTunes songs you need to buy? The last-minute check needed for a school field trip, prom tickets, lunch or ice cream with the friends, gas for the car? No problem. The Cash Leprechaun has you covered. One hundred per cent. Face it, you deserve it because of your steadfast faith in miracles.

I have never actually seen the Cash Leprechaun. He seems to work his magic only for teenagers and college students. Just about everyone else has to work to support their material whims and fundraising goals. But if you happen to see an extra Leprechaun floating around your house, could you send him my way?

I believe, I swear. I really, truly do.

03 September 2014

Nude Photos! (Just Kidding. Why The Content of Stolen Photos Doesn't Matter)

I usually don't have much to say about celebrities and their nude photos, serial marriages, sex tapes, dubious diet plans, and questionable expertise on scientific and medical issues.

But I want to say something about the actress Jennifer Lawrence and her nude photos, which, if you haven't heard, were stolen when someone hacked the cloud-based service on which she had stored them. (Read more here.)

Let's say you just got your brakes fixed, and then, as you were speeding across the Tappan Zee Bridge at eighty miles an hour, they failed, and you careened into a barrier and got hurt. (Stay with me here - I am explaining a concept that will become important to what I have to say about the nude photos.) For the sake of easy math, let's say your damages total $100,000. You'd like to sue the boneheaded mechanic who didn't fix your brakes properly. You argue that he was negligent and that he owes you the whole $100K.

But wait. You were speeding at the time, says the judge. We need to figure out how much of your damages were caused by the faulty brakes, and how much were caused by your excessive speed. Because maybe the mechanic's negligence wasn't the cause of most of your injuries. Maybe your speed was responsible for 60% of your damages. If, at the posted speed limit, you would have sustained only $40,000 worth of damages, then that's all you're going to collect from the mechanic.

Your stupidity - your own negligence - exacerbated the problem. You don't get to collect damages resulting from a problem you helped to cause. That's a basic tenet of civil tort law, and it's called contributory negligence. Every law student learns this in her first-year torts class.

Now, let's say I left my back door unlocked and someone snuck into my house and stole a $100 bottle of scotch. It was really, really stupid of me to leave an expensive item like that in plain view, behind an unlocked door. It's like I was practically inviting a thief to come steal my Macallan.

But does that mean the thief is immune from punishment?

No. Because, as everyone learns in their first-year criminal procedure class, there is no contributory negligence in criminal law. That doctrine is limited to civil lawsuits. Think about the rule, and it will probably make sense to you rather quickly. All criminal behavior is discouraged, no matter how easy it was to pick on the victim. We can't let thieves off the hook simply because they prey on people too stupid to lock their liquor cabinets. Taking a bike that doesn't belong to you is still theft, whether or not the bike was locked to the rack; reasoning otherwise would put too heavy a burden on potential crime victims.

People who blame rape victims for their dress, their habit of running alone in the park after midnight, their consumption of alcohol - those people don't understand the concept that a victim is a victim and a criminal is a criminal. If we sanction the criminal behavior in any circumstance, we have started down a slippery slope that will undermine our entire legal justice system.

I have a shoebox in my basement that's filled with my parents' wedding photos. If someone comes into my house and takes them without my permission, that's burglary. It's burglary whether they're in a shoebox or a beautiful album, whether they're in a closet or a locked safe or a pile on the floor. They belong to me, and you don't have permission to take them, regardless of how stupidly I store them.

And if the shoebox were full of naked pictures of me? Same rule. The content of the pictures doesn't matter any more than the method of storage. They're mine. That's all that matters. And if you steal them, you are a thief.

Back to Jennifer Lawrence. I haven't seen the pictures, so I don't know what's in them, and I don't know anything about the cloud service she used to store them. I can tell you, however, that those pictures belong to her, and the hacker who took them without her permission is a thief. A twenty-first century thief, but still a thief.

And those of you who are saying it's her fault? That she shouldn't have taken naked pictures of herself? That she should not have stored them in the cloud, which she should have known would be insecure? That anyone who has nude photos taken of herself must be some sort of brazen, narcissistic hussy who was asking for it? Do you know what you are called?

You are called victim-blamers. You are conceptually indistinguishable from the people who think rape is okay because the girl was drunk or scantily clad, or who think the thief has a right to the bike because its owner was in too much of a hurry to lock it up, or who think my shoddy scotch storage justifies a burglary.

Let's stop blaming Jennifer Lawrence for owning nude pictures of herself. Maybe it was stupid and narcissistic, or maybe she had a damned good reason for owning those pictures. I simply don't know, it's none of my business, and it shouldn't matter. If it matters to you, know that the law says otherwise, and ask yourself why you care.

P.S. If you have my Macallan, I want it back. Thanks.

25 August 2014

An Honest Conversation About Ferguson

Believe me, I have been thinking for some time now about writing a post about the events that have been unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri. (In case you have been living without benefit of news outlets, you can catch up by reading a fairly good, if sparse, timeline of the events here.) The basics: on Saturday, August 9, shortly before noon, a police officer in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, responding to a call about a suspected shoplifting, shot and killed an 18-year-old unarmed African-American man named Michael Brown. The exact events leading up to the shooting were not made immediately clear, and they still haven't been, but the community, the nation, and the world erupted in outrage, with the people of Ferguson rioting and the governor of Missouri calling in the National Guard for help. Things have quieted down somewhat, but I think it would be inaccurate to say that peace has been restored and that all is well.

Peace has not been restored, and all is not well in America. As Mother Jones recently reported, at least five unarmed black men, including Brown, were killed by the police from mid-July to mid-August of 2014. No one knows for sure how many unarmed people are killed by the police each year; because of inconsistencies in reporting, estimates vary widely (source). But the issue is one of great concern to just about all observers, particularly those who, like myself, take more than a passing interest in the issues of gun violence and race relations.

Why haven't I written about it? Well, first of all, it seems to me irresponsible to write unless I have solidly educated myself about the issues, and that takes time. I've read everything I could get my hands on, from news reports to blog posts to first-person accounts of the Brown killing and several other, similar incidents. I have been struck, though not particularly surprised, at the anger - most of it justified - coming to the surface in reaction to the incident. The conversation seems to be in part about the use of force and the militarization of the police, but most of it centers around the age-old problem of race in America. Why are the young men being shot to death on the street primarily black? What is it that makes the racial divide one of the defining features of our society, and why can't we rise above that divide?

Smarter people than myself have tried and failed for two hundred years to answer these questions, so I won't attempt to solve society's evils in a glib blog post. But I am not going to be afraid to enter the conversation. I am aware that many commentators have hesitated to venture into these waters because they are afraid that, not being "people of color," they will be viewed as unqualified to opine. They have been told, or led to believe, that the color of their skin somehow invalidates their thoughts on the subject, or makes them incapable of understanding the depth and horror of the situation. But anyone can understand the depth and horror of the loss of a loved one (a son or otherwise) for no good reason.

We cannot be quiet, and we cannot sit on the sidelines and allow the color of our skin to determine the validity of our opinions. The idea that only people of a certain racial background are qualified to talk about the problem of race in America is not only polarizing, but also renders a solution to the problem - if a solution exists - nearly impossible. We cannot hope to unite ourselves under a banner of equality, and to eliminate racially-based violence, if our first instinct is to define ourselves as black, white, or other, to separate ourselves accordingly, and assign a value to our thoughts based on nothing more than pigmentation.

I had thought that our parents' generation, those who lived through the Civil Rights era, who fought a hands-on battle against segregation and prejudice in American society, had made some progress. I had thought the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts had made a difference. I had thought that the summary execution of young people on the street had become anathema to a country of laws. But as I read the news and the conversations it engenders, I see no progress being made. We are treading water in a poisoned pool. We may never reach the other side, because we are pulling each other down under the surface.

Let us talk, but let us also listen. Let us come up with constructive suggestions for forward progress. Can we have an honest dialogue about the relationship between our law enforcement and our civilian population? Can we talk about violence and its prevalence in our society, state-sanctioned or otherwise?  Can we get to the root of and address the disproportionate numbers of African-Americans living below the poverty line, spending their lives incarcerated, and dying on the streets? Can we separate our opinions of each other from the many shades of skin color our ancestors gave us and instead focus on the ideals they left us as their legacy?

I am willing to try, and I hope you are too.

08 August 2014

Thinking About Change

I learned a lot of things at the BlogHer14 conference in San Jose.

First, and most important to me, I learned that there are people out there who read my blog regularly and actually like it. This seems like a small thing, but sometimes, as I have said, I feel like I am writing into a vast void. Though the stats tell me someone is reading, I get very little direct feedback on my posts. Imagine my joy at being recognized by a reader at the BlogHer conference!

We were at a breakout session, going around the table introducing ourselves, and when I said that my name is Jennie and I write "Still Life With Crockpot," one of the other bloggers gasped and said, "You write 'Still Life'? That's one of my favorite blogs!" She sought me out later, obviously delighted to have met me, and we took a selfie together. Weeks later, I am still living off the high of her praise. She has motivated me to keep going.

Moments like that make me feel like the effort of writing is worth it. There are trolls out there who can be very discouraging. My husband posted my Hobby Lobby post on his Facebook wall, and one of his high school classmates absolutely tore me apart with his criticism, accusing me of shameless self-promotion and questioning my legal credentials and my objectivity. I don't know this man at all, and I am pretty sure he's not a regular reader, but his words still hurt, because I put a lot of research and effort into that post. I've been writing this blog for a few years now, but I still have trouble separating my work from my feelings. I take criticism very seriously, especially when the criticism attacks me personally. It happens more often than I'd like to admit.

(I'd like to publicly thank one of my amazing cousins, an experienced writer and media professional, who, at a recent family gathering, made a point of thanking me for the Hobby Lobby post. He probably doesn't know how much his words meant to me, but even a small amount of whispered praise does wonders in bolstering me against the criticism.)

I learned - am learning - that I need to just do what I do and not worry about the critics. The BlogHer conference reinforced that idea. It takes courage to write about controversial subjects, and the existence of that courage is important to us as writers and to the marketplace of ideas in general.

Another, more mundane thing that I learned: when I handed out business cards that said "Still Life With Crockpot" on them, people instantly assumed that my blog is about food and cooking. That's not an unreasonable assumption. When I first started this blog, I did not know what it was going to be about. My general idea was to write about the slow-cooker lifestyle: what it's like to work as a professional woman eighty hours a week and still be expected - still expect - to run a home and raise a family and have a meal on the table when the sun goes down. That's a conundrum unique, I think, to my generation of women, the generation that was taught that it is possible, and even desirable, to do everything at once and to do it all well. We now know that it's not that simple, but I thought there were lessons to be learned from the myth. And I thought the Crock-Pot - that piece of kitchen equipment on which working moms like myself lean so heavily - was a symbol of the struggle.

It turns out, I think, that the reference was so subtle as to be lost on most people. Contemporary social, feminist, and legal commentary, which is what I want "Still Life" to become, is a tiny voice in a blogosphere dominated by food, parenting, travel, and crafting. I know I sometimes post about crafts and travel, family and even food, but that's not my primary interest here. And I am in the process of concluding that my blog needs a name change. Something that more accurately reflects what it is about.

If you are a regular reader, or just someone who has recently stumbled on my site, I would very much appreciate your thoughts on this. Does "Still Life" need a makeover? If so, how dramatic should it be? Should I separate out the knitting, travel, and family stuff into a separate blog and use this space to focus on women's issues? Or do you like things the way they are?

Please let me know. I really do value your input.

28 July 2014

What You Must Know When Traveling Cross-Country By Train

My husband and I recently traveled to San Jose, California by train to attend the BlogHer14 convention. I’ll write more about the convention soon, but before that, I wanted to give you a few tips about traveling by long-distance train in the United States.

We took the California Zephyr from Chicago to Emeryville, California (not far from San Francisco and San Jose), and then we flew to Seattle and boarded the Empire Builder back to Chicago. Here’s what I learned.

The Empire Builder at its stop in Spokane

The trip from Chicago to the coast takes three days in each direction, assuming the train is running on time. (More on that below.) Choose your sleeping accommodations wisely. There are three main options that you can consider.

If you’re a college student, traveling alone or in a group, you might be able to get enough sleep in a reclining coach seat, using your backpack as a pillow. Coach tickets do not include food, so you must bring yours along or buy snacks and meals in the club car or dining room. Bathrooms and showers are shared – they are small, but not too awful. Think about an airplane restroom, and you have an idea of the space in the train loo.

      The next option up is a “roomette”: a small compartment about six by three feet, with two facing seats that recline into a bed of sorts and a bunk bed that folds down from the ceiling. If you are traveling alone, with little luggage, you are not very tall or wide, and you do not have an issue with claustrophobia, this might be a good option for you. Roomettes include three meals a day, unlimited coffee, water, and juice, and porter service (an attendant who makes the beds up, provides you with towels, pillows, and other comfort-based needs, delivers food to your compartment if you wish to dine there, and generally provides advice). Bathrooms and showers are shared. My husband and I traveled to California in a roomette, and we frankly found the compartment too small for our needs.

      On the way back from California, we upgraded to a “deluxe room,” which has wider beds, a closet, an en-suite toilet and shower, and a wide viewing window. The deluxe room also had space for our luggage, whereas we had to keep the luggage on a hallway rack when we were in the roomette. Porter service and meals are also included in a deluxe room, and a “family room,” which includes a fold-out child-sized bed, is also available for a slightly higher fee.

Travel as lightly as possible. You will not be subject to the same luggage restrictions as you’d have on a plane, but you will not have a lot of room to store the items you bring. Unless you want big bags underfoot all the time, leave them at home. And don’t worry about theft if you are staying in a compartment; Michele, our porter on the Zephyr, told us she’d been on the job for twenty years and had never had an issue with laptops, phones, or other valuables wandering.

The trains stop, but not long enough for you to do anything but stretch your legs for a moment on the platform. Bring with you everything you will need: your usual toiletries, including shampoo and toothpaste, medications, diapers and sanitary supplies, if necessary, and any food you can’t live without. The staff will help you as much as it can, but its onboard resources are limited. Do not bring towels, blankets, or pillows. Your porter will supply these items, and they’re perfectly acceptable, so don’t waste precious luggage space.

Give yourself plenty of time. This is not a mode of transportation that lends itself to people who are in a hurry. The weather and track conditions will influence the train’s punctuality. Delays of hours and sometimes even days can occur, though they are infrequent. Be flexible.

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served in the dining car and are included with all sleeper car accommodations. A snack bar operates from early morning to late at night, offering sandwiches, chips, beverages, and small entertainment items (like decks of cards) at an additional cost. The dining car menu is limited but includes healthy options and items for children.

If you dine in the dining car, you will be given a reservation time and seated with fellow travelers, just as if you were on a cruise. This is a great opportunity to get to know your neighbors, but if you’re an introvert or someone who doesn’t chat well with a wide variety of people, some of whom can be very different from you, be forewarned. We had wonderful conversations with a fracker from North Dakota, a little girl traveling with her grandma, an English couple and their three teenaged sons, an Amish couple from rural Indiana, and a single gay man from Chicago. Prepare to make friends, We got business cards from all of these people and look forward to staying in touch.

Lastly, bring a camera, something to read, and your portable hobby. There’s a lot of time to be spent just relaxing, either in your own seat or in the wide-windowed sightseeing car. Cell signals are few and far between, so your phone and MiFi will work only sporadically, and the train does not provide its own internet service. In the long stretches between towns, I knitted, read, played Scattergories with my husband, slept, and chatted with my new friends. Most of all, I gaped at the mountains, rivers, gorges, and prairies: those are the reasons, after all, that one travels this way, and if you yearn for breathtaking scenery, you will not be disappointed.

Happy trails!

06 July 2014

Freedom of Religion and Obamacare: The Hobby Lobby Decision Explained

Because I feel it's necessary, based on all the misinformation and puzzlement I have been hearing, here is a plain-English explanation of what went down at the United States Supreme Court last week. I hope it will explain for laypersons, in and out of the United States, what everyone is talking about, with as little politicizing and legalese as possible. (If you're a regular reader, you already know what I think.)

I am an attorney licensed to practice in New York and New Jersey, and various federal courts, including the Supreme Court. I have 20 years of experience with constitutional issues. That being said, please be advised that this post (along with any others that may follow on the subject) represents my own interpretation of the Supreme Court's decision and should not be mistaken for legal advice. If you have specific questions, please consult directly with an attorney in your state.

A Little Legal Background. (I apologize for this, but it's necessary for a clear understanding of the issues.)

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees citizens, among other things, the right to free exercise of religion. As anyone could have predicted, though, the secular laws immediately began coming into conflict with people's religious practices on a fairly regular basis. Until 1993, the federal courts generally resolved these conflicts with a two-part test. They asked whether the law in question substantially burdened someone's right to practice their religion; if it did, they then inquired whether the law was needed to serve a compelling government interest. If it was, it would prevail over the individual's right to worship freely.

In 1993, the Supreme Court decided the case of Employment Division v. Smith. In that case, two Native American social workers had ingested peyote as part of a religious ritual, and when they subsequently showed up at work, they were fired from their jobs. When they applied for unemployment insurance, their claims were denied on the ground that their conduct - ingesting the peyote - had been illegal. When their case reached the Supreme Court, the Court held, under the "balancing test" I just explained, that while the law against peyote did burden the workers' rights to use the drug in their sacramental ritual, the anti-peyote law served a compelling government interest that outweighed that right. In other words, the peyote-eaters lost.

The holding in Smith caused a fair amount of outrage in legal and religious circles. Think about it: many Christians and Jews also regularly serve alcohol to minors as part of their rituals. That's illegal, but it's generally overlooked because of the small amount of the substance involved and because the practice is so common. Shouldn't the Native Americans, people reasoned, have their peyote ceremony overlooked too? And if not, shouldn't everyone be nervous about getting fired for taking part in routine religious rituals on the weekend? Yikes.

And so, in response, President Clinton signed into law something called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (referred to as the RFRA). The RFRA changed the balancing test: now, the government could not substantially burden any religious practice unless that burden was the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest. That should do it, everyone thought. Least restrictive means. Compelling government interest. That's a very, very tough test for the government to pass.

Very Quickly - Birth Control Review

Just a quick note about the whole birth control thing - a brush-up on basic human reproduction, if you will, along with an explanation of some common ideology. You'll need this too.

If you believe that life begins at conception, you belong to one of two camps on the issue. There are people who believe that a human being is created the moment a human egg meets a human sperm. This is the most conservative group. And then there are people who believe that a human being is created when the mass of cells resulting in that meeting implants in the wall of a human uterus and starts growing (usually a couple of days later). Both groups oppose voluntary termination of established pregnancies (i.e., abortion), but the latter group is a little more flexible about birth control. That's because there are two common ways that birth control can operate: by preventing the meeting of egg and sperm in the first place (like a condom or a diaphragm, or sterilization surgery), or by preventing the recently-united egg-and-sperm mass from implanting and continuing to develop (like a Plan B "morning-after" pill or an IUD). Most traditional, taken-before-the-fact birth control pills operate both ways: they prevent ovulation, but they also make the wall of the womb inhospitable to implanting embryos, just in case.

Are you with me so far? People who subscribe to the most conservative view don't like IUDs or morning-after pills, and they're suspicious of regular birth-control pills. These people are often conservative Christians, and they believe sincerely that using anti-implantation birth control is a sin, because it amounts to killing a human being. And that belief is their indisputable right.

The Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare"

This is the last backgroundy thing you need to know before we get into the specifics of Hobby Lobby - I swear. (See? It's pretty complicated and we haven't even gotten to the case yet!)

I'll make this as simple as I can. Under the recent Affordable Care Act legislation, which is often called "Obamacare," businesses that employ a certain minimum number of employees have to provide their employees with health insurance. According to rules made by the Department of Health and Human Services, which flesh out the provisions of the Act, that health insurance must include preventive care for women, including complete coverage for any type of birth control approved by the Food and Drug Administration. This includes both types of birth control: the anti-fertilization type and the anti-implantation type. Employers pay for this coverage for their female employees. (I say "female employees" because only females have eggs, uteruses, and pregnancies - and that's why this is a women's issue.)

An extremely important detail: nonprofit religious organizations, such as churches, synagogues, and similar groups, can opt out of any coverage with which they disagree on religious grounds. All they have to do is file a one-page form with the HHS certifying their good-faith refusal, and the HHS will pay directly for the objectionable coverage. This procedure avoids stomping on the rights of a nonprofit religious organization and insures that women get the coverage of their choice without any cost to them individually.

The Hobby Lobby Dispute

Okay. I think you have enough background now to understand what happened last week.

Enter Hobby Lobby, which operates a bunch of huge craft supply stores all over the United States. Hobby Lobby is a closely-held corporation. That doesn't mean it's small - in fact, as of 2013, it had 3.3 billion dollars in annual revenue and was on the Forbes list of America's largest private companies. Saying that it's a closely-held corporation means it only has a few stockholders. In this case, the stockholders are all members of the incredibly wealthy Green family, who are conservative Christians of the as-soon-as-egg-meets-sperm-you're-pregnant camp.

And the Green family does not want to pay for its women employees to have access to any sort of birth control that operates after fertilization. But they are a for-profit corporation, so they can't take advantage of the religious exemption written into the law.

So they sued the Secretary of Health and Human Services, saying that her rules, which require that coverage, violate the RFRA.

And they won, by a squeaking 5-4 vote. (Here's a link to the official opinions in the case.)

The Justices who voted in favor of Hobby Lobby were Alito, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Roberts - all men. The Justices who dissented - that is, who voted against Hobby Lobby - were Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Breyer - three women and one man. Alito wrote the majority opinion. Kennedy wrote a brief "concurring" opinion - agreeing with the majority but stressing a different point. Ginsburg wrote the main dissent, and Kagan and Breyer wrote a separate dissent of their own.

And here's what they said.

The majority opinion said that, because of the closely-held nature of the Hobby Lobby corporation, the interests of the corporation and the Green family are one and the same. In other words, the corporation is entitled to a First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. Forcing it to pay for contraceptive coverage to which it has a sincerely-held religious objection constitutes a substantial burden on its rights.

The majority further said that forcing the company to pay for such coverage was not the least restrictive way for the government to deal with the issue. The government could, for example, extend to Hobby Lobby the same mechanism for dealing with religious objections that it already extended to churches: that one-page form which, when filled out, compels the government to pay for the coverage directly. That would save Hobby Lobby from having to do something against its religion, and it would provide female employees with the coverage of their choice.

Justice Kennedy's separate opinion stressed that the decision was extremely narrow. He did not wish the Court's holding to suggest that a religious exemption was available to any employer - just to closely-held corporations whose owners had sincere religious objections.

Justice Ginsburg was unusually fiery in her dissent. She disagreed that the Greens and the corporation were one and the same. A corporation is a form of doing business that shields its owners from individual liability - if you get the benefits of being treated as a corporation, why should you double-dip by getting treated as an individual when it's convenient? A company should not have the right to bring a suit under the RFRA.

She also disagreed that Hobby Lobby was substantially burdened by the HHS rules. She reasoned that financing a sin is not the same thing as committing the sin oneself. We all pay taxes, but we don't decide individually how the money is spent. That's up to the legislature. Taken to an extreme, the two majority ideas put together - corporations having religious rights and no one being compelled to pay for things they disagree with - could set the country up for chaos in enforcing the health care law. Every individual entity would seek an exemption for every individual part of the law with which it disagreed. In the end, the law would be eviscerated, and women would be left effectively with no reliable access to the contraception they need for full, equal participation in society.

Justices Breyer and Kagan, in their separate dissent, agreed with Justice Ginsburg that Hobby Lobby's challenge to the contraceptive coverage requirement failed on its merits, so they stressed that they did not need to decide whether a for-profit corporation or its owner had standing to bring a claim under the RFRA.

So there you have it. And it would be settled, and fixable by a small amendment to the Affordable Care Act, if not for what happened on Thursday, July 3. On that day, the Supreme Court issued an injunction in the case of Wheaton College v. Burwell. In that case, Wheaton College, a small, non-profit religious liberal-arts institution in Illinois which is opposed to the use of birth control of all sorts, refuses to file the one-page form which would entitle it to an exemption. It argues that the filing of the form, in itself, makes it complicit in a sin.

And on Thursday, voting 6-3, the Supreme Court issued a preliminary injunction, basically saying that Wheaton does not have to file the form until the lower court decides the merits of its case.

All the men voted in the majority. All the women dissented.

Now you understand the issues and can discuss them intelligently. Go.

03 July 2014

Summer Interlude

There's just been so much going on in the political and legal arena. I want to write about it all, but I don't know where to start.

I wrote about the Hobby Lobby situation last April, when it first came to my attention, and I anticipated the Court's recent decision in a post on my blog's Facebook page last November. (What? You're not following me on Facebook? I spent a whole evening figuring out how to make that easy - check out the links on the right sidebar to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Ravelry, so you don't miss a thing.) I have just finished reading the Hobby Lobby decision, and I will write more about it in the coming weeks, if my readers are interested in the issue.

Yesterday, I attended a rally with the New Jersey chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America at the offices of Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen in Morristown. (You can see a picture of our rally on nj.com. I'm in the bright blue shirt and black pants at the far right of the picture. The far right. Ha. See what I did there?) We delivered over 3,300 postcards from citizens who support stronger federal regulation over the sale, purchase, keeping, and carrying of firearms by civilians. We believe that strong federal laws will curb the cross-border transactions that now make New Jersey's current gun laws, among the strictest in the nation, virtually useless. I'll keep caring about this issue until we can reduce the current rate of 32 dead Americans PER DAY as a result of gun violence. (My source: the Brady Campaign.) As you know if you're a loyal reader, my daughter and husband came close last November to being a part of that statistic at our local mall. We still live with the nightmares. Maybe we always will.

On a more personal note, summer has arrived with all the enthusiasm that this past winter had, and my dogs and I are trying to keep cool. I spend my days doing legal research and writing; my spare time is spent mostly knitting and reading. (All the sonograms are coming up girl this season, and I am busily making a bunch of lacy baby blankets for friends. I'll post pictures when they have been received by their owners, but I think you'll like them.) I am also tending a few pots of herbs and tomatoes, and my pumpkins, string beans, and peppers are so far withstanding the heat fairly well.

The two younger kids are in the Adirondacks as usual, one of them as a camp counselor and the other in his final year as a camper. My oldest, home from college, is working hard for the Red Cross and is also picking up early-morning shifts at a local bagel shop for some pocket money. I have been trying to choose the bike over the scooter as much as I can, because, while I'm not paid to look good, I am quite concerned about my health. And I've always loved bicycling, so why not do something I enjoy?

My oldest (left) and youngest (right) on their last evening together for the summer.
He was off to camp the next morning, and she's working hard from home.

Meanwhile, The Newburgh Sting, the documentary that features my husband and the sort of work we do in our law office, premieres on HBO on July 21. If you are interested in learning about the issues covered by the film (terrorism sting cases), or the general issues with which we deal, or if you just feel like stalking us, please check your local listings. The film is an eye-opener, and it's generated a lot of buzz at all the festivals.

Stay cool - or, if you're one of my Southern Hemisphere friends, stay warm - and I'll be back soon.

16 May 2014

When The Boss Turns Out To Be Bossy

Let me say at the outset that I am not a fan of the "ban bossy" movement. I think it's a gimmick, and while it does open up some discussion as to how we use our vocabulary in gender-biased ways, it stigmatizes a useful word for which, sometimes, there is no adequate substitute. Now, I'm afraid to say it, even though I wish I could without being instantly judged.


Much has been made of the recent dismissal of Jill Abramson from the helm of the New York Times. According to reasonably credible reports, she was dismissed for her brusque, abrasive manner (what might have been called, until recently, bossiness). Some people have said that she may also have upset some higher-ups by complaining about her compensation, but I don't have the facts on that, so I'm going to focus here on the bossy thing.

I've followed the story fairly closely, because I am interested, as you know, in issues related to women in the workplace. I find it fascinating and more than a little disturbing that the executive editor of a huge, big-city newspaper would be dismissed for brusqueness. In my mind, the cartoonish stereotype of a newspaper editor sits hunched over at a desk, behind a towering pile of paper, with a stinky cigar and a permanent sneer. A nasty, abrasive, brusque attitude is essential equipment for the job.

If you're a man.

Because, let's face it, a man who is brusque in the workplace is perceived as talented, ambitious, confident, and competent. Abrasiveness adds to the image: he doesn't have time for nonsense. He's not here to be your friend or mentor. Things need to get done. He doesn't suffer fools gladly. When you are working for him, you'd better do a good job, or heads will roll. I can't tell you how many nasty, brusque men I have worked for. Everyone knew they were nasty and brusque, and if you were new and your coworkers liked you, they might warn you before you headed off to his office: He's really mean. Don't take it personally. He's like that to everyone. Come back after he yells at you and we'll get a cup of coffee so you can have a moment to de-stress.

A man who is kind, gentle, and nurturing might find a path to success in the office, but he doesn't inspire the kind of awe and trembling fear that his meaner colleagues use to get the job done - fast and efficiently.

A female boss, however, is expected to be different. She is supposed to be a role model to other women, to take them under her wing and be a mentor to them, or at least a good example of what's possible for them someday. She is kind and understanding. She's an expert on work-life balance. (When did you ever hear a man described as having really perfected his work-life balance?) She had to claw her way to the top, but she's expected to drop a rope ladder for those below her, so they can get there more easily than she did.

If she's not like that, gentle, accommodating, and helpful in every way, we have a full vocabulary to describe her that we would not use to describe our male bosses. She's a bitch. She's an emasculating maneater. She hates men. She thinks women should undergo the same hazing that she underwent. She's not interested in helping anyone but herself. She's - yes - bossy.

The problem is that you often need to be bossy - abrasive, brusque, intimidating, decisive - in order to succeed in a fast-paced workplace like a newsroom. But if you're a woman, you're not allowed to be that way. Being bossy is such a negative trait in women that a huge social media movement has sought to ban the use of the word itself. Call a woman anything but bossy! Call her a leader! Call her creative and inspiring! Call her gentle and nurturing, demanding and authoritative, but don't ever, ever call her bossy.

And if she turns out to be bossy, you need to let her go. Because we can't have that. The mean executive editor with the cigar and the snarl is by definition a man, because women can't snarl. Or be mean. It just doesn't fit into our paradigm.

I think it's time for the paradigm to change. We can't equip women for leadership, and expect them to achieve the same things men achieve, if we frown on them when they behave in exactly the same way their male colleagues behave. It would be nice if everyone could be sweet and nurturing all the time, but we all know that's not how the world works. If a job requires brusqueness or a bit of unpleasantness from time to time, we have to allow people to be that way, without regard to their gender. Let's let the boss be bossy. The world will be a fairer place if we do.

13 May 2014

Still Life With Pressure Cooker

My husband got me a pressure cooker for Mother's Day. It's a big fancy Cuisinart electric contraption, and it had apparently been in the back of his car for weeks, hidden under a pile of clothes, waiting for Sunday.

When Sunday rolled around, my son wrapped the pressure cooker in some Christmas wrapping paper he had found in the basement - red, with snowmen and a script "Let It Snow" legend - and they all presented it to me with their homemade cards and breakfast in bed on a tray.

I was thrilled. I had wanted a pressure cooker for a long time. I'd been enchanted by the stories of stews made in minutes, and I'd dreamed of pressure-canning tomatoes and other vegetables. To use the pressure cooker, you fill it with food, and then you lock the lid, and the machine heats up. Pressure builds along with the heat inside the pot, dramatically reducing the time needed to cook the food.

A pressure cooker is sort of the opposite of a slow-cooker. With the slow-cooker, you plan ahead, assemble the meal in the morning, and then go do something else all day. With the pressure cooker, you do something else all day, panic at the last minute, and then throw something together that cooks in nine minutes. You heard me. Nine.

For my first pressure-cooker meal, I made some pork chops, and I thought I'd share the recipe with you. My husband liked them so much that he thinks I should rename the blog "Still Life With Pressure Cooker." I'm thinking the blog will stay the same, but the cooking equipment will change according to my mood. What do you think? Are you a slow cooker or a pressure cooker?

Here's my pressure cooker. I've put a purchasing link on the sidebar in case you want to buy one.

Still Life Pork Chops in the Pressure Cooker (serves 4)

4 thick pork chops, bone in
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups onions, sliced thinly
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tablespoons dried thyme
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/2 cup chicken broth
2 large pears, sliced thinly
salt and pepper to taste

Salt and pepper the pork chops and brown them, about three minutes per side, in the olive oil. Remove them to a platter. Without cleaning the pan, add the butter and heat it; sauté the onions, garlic, and thyme in the butter until the onions are transparent. Add the vinegar to the mix and simmer a few minutes, until the liquid is slightly reduced.

Put the onion mixture into the pressure cooker, and then add the wine and the broth. Add the pork chops on top of the onions. Layer the pears on top of the pork chops. Cook at high pressure (according to your manufacturer's directions) for about 9 minutes.

Serve with hot steamed rice and a salad.

06 May 2014

Just A Quick Thought

All of you out there changing diapers, folding strollers, signing report cards, cheering at soccer games: a day will come when that child you taught to read - maybe even struggled to teach to read, as I did - will recommend books to you. And you will read them and be moved not only by the quality of her choices, but by the wisdom and inevitability of the cycles of life. You will think it ironic that you have suddenly become the student, but then you will pause and realize that you always were.

I've added a link to my Goodreads account on the right sidebar. Feel free to send me a friend request on Goodreads so that you can see my reviews (most of which are very brief) and keep up with what I've been reading lately. As always, I appreciate your purchasing your reading material (and other needs) through the links I put here on the blog. I get a small referral fee when you do, and that helps me buy food and yarn and books and other necessary stuff.

02 May 2014

Sexual Assault: Can We Call It What It Is?

Yesterday, the federal Department of Education released a list of 55 colleges and universities that it is investigating in connection with their handling of sexual assault complaints. The government is to determine whether the handling (or, actually, the nonhandling) of the allegations violates Title IX, the 1972 law that prohibits discrimination based on gender in institutions of higher education.

My alma mater is on the list, which neither surprises me nor particularly upsets me.

What upsets me is, as I have said before, the way our society views crimes against women. They are different from "real crimes," and lesser, somehow. For example, domestic violence is not the same thing as violence, apparently. Attack a man on the street, and you're charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault, or something else quite serious. Attack a woman in her home and it's a "domestic incident." Among her remedies: she can get a restraining order - basically a piece of paper entitling her to complain if you come near her again.

And so it is with rape. Forcing someone to have sex without her consent is - should be - a very grave crime. It's a physical assault that is also humiliating, because it robs her of her physical integrity. And it puts her at high risk for all kinds of serious health consequences. It's the kind of thing that should be treated seriously, the way other attacks are: investigated by the police, resulting in an arrest and a public trial in a state-run criminal court.

But that's not what generally happens, at least not in the context of our institutions of higher education. Here's how it works. The woman knows exactly who her attacker is. If she is brave enough to do anything - if the humiliation of reporting the crime is not too much for her to bear - she seeks medical help, usually at the campus health center. The campus police - not the regular city police - are called. The matter is handled internally by a university standards board or by a dean. The attacker, even if found to have committed the crime as accused - is often allowed to remain on campus, maybe with some sort of academic or social sanctions. When I was a student, I knew a lot of women who were assaulted. I did not know a single man who was criminally prosecuted for rape by the state.

In the wake of the Department of Education's issuance of its list, a lot of people are upset, as if the way these things are handled is some kind of huge surprise to them. They are, like Captain Renault in Casablanca, shocked and appalled. Reform! they cry. Investigate! Prosecute!

But it's not that simple. Underneath all of this is a societal construct that violence and domestic violence are not the same thing. Rape and date rape and campus sexual assault are distinct crimes. In the case of campus sexual assault (a nice euphemism, no?), a boys-will-be-boys attitude prevails. "This guy is a promising athlete or student! Why should we ruin his life over a youthful indiscretion?" Leniency and secrecy must prevail so that he can grow up, become a CEO, live a prosperous life. The women he leaves in his wake are just collateral damage. They're something that got in his way.

When I was an undergraduate, at a traditionally men's college that had recently gone coed, I often heard something that I hear now in the context of "military sexual assault" (which, by the way, is also a nice euphemism for a horrible crime): if women weren't present, they wouldn't be attacked in such large numbers. The problem is the women; they're a distraction.

Well, I'm sorry if we're a distraction, but we're half of the world. When you get out of the military, when you graduate with your Ivy League degree, we will still be here. We will be in the board rooms, the graduate classrooms, and at the dinner tables. We are your mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, bosses, employees, and coworkers. We are people too. And we are not going anywhere.

Equality! they cry. But there won't be any equality until we reach a stage where we treat violence against a woman the same way we treat violence against any human being. Let's call a crime a crime, without resorting to diminutive euphemisms. When we do, we will finally be on the road to justice.

01 May 2014

Nourish: Ten Tips For The New Cook

[BlogHer's theme for May is "Nourish." With farmers' markets opening all over the United States and wedding season kicking off, I don't think this theme could be any more timely.]

I have a Facebook friend - a young woman, a graduate student - who is getting married this summer. She's bright and funny and very excited about the new house she and her fiancé have bought. She can't wait for her wedding day and her new life. There's just one problem: she's worried that she can't cook. She's really worried about it.

She wants to learn to be a good cook, so that when she's married, she'll be able to make delicious, healthy meals for her family and guests. But she's frustrated that it's not coming naturally to her.

I have a little unsolicited advice.

First, very, very few skills worth mastering come naturally. They almost always take instruction, practice, mistakes, screw-ups, tears, and hard work. You wouldn't expect yourself to be able to sit down at the piano for the first time ever and play a beautiful Chopin étude, would you? Pick up a pair of knitting needles that you've never touched before and, in a few hours, make a gorgeous Icelandic sweater? Of course not. So why would you expect yourself to be able to produce a gourmet meal for two on your first attempt?

Cooking is like anything else. You need practice, trial and error, and maybe someone to help you when you are starting out. Take a deep breath and follow some of these humble suggestions.

Assorted fruit pies

1. Make what you like to eat. Make a list of your favorite meals. Are you a fish lover? Does your spouse love hamburgers? Vegetarian? Gluten-free? Chocolate? Cooking is more fun when you are making something that will be eaten with enthusiasm.

2. Start with a recipe. That's right. Don't try to wing it, at least not at first. Invest in a good, comprehensive cookbook (I love my copy of The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook), and flag the recipes you'd like to try. Start a Pinterest board and pin recipes. When someone makes a meal you enjoy, ask for the recipe so you can try it yourself.

3. Invest in the tools you'll use over and over. My family loves rice, so I invested in a great rice cooker. We always have perfect rice, and I never need to worry about it once I turn the cooker on. Of course, my favorite kitchen accessory is my Crock-Pot, an essential tool for anyone who works outside the home. (But a sturdy Dutch oven on the stovetop works just as well if you're around to supervise it!)

My KitchenAid mixer lives on my counter.

4. Educate yourself ahead of time. Read the recipe and make sure you understand all the terms in it. If you don't know how to do one of the specified steps, look it up. Find an online tutorial. One of my daughters is an ace egg poacher; she perfected her skills by watching a You Tube video.

5. Shop locally and seasonally. Plan your meals according to what's in season. Try the strawberry shortcakes in early summer, not the dead of winter. Try to buy the ingredients as close to preparation time as you can.

Seasonal: Thanksgiving pumpkin pie.

6. Give yourself time, and focus on the task. Don't try to multitask at first. Follow the instructions carefully, and pay attention to what you're doing. Measure carefully. Don't walk away and leave something on the stovetop. Save the movie-watching for later.

7. Never make a dish for company that you haven't already made for yourself. And loved.

8. Take pictures and take notes. Always follow a recipe with a pencil in your hand, and mark up your cookbook liberally. Note the date on which you made the dish, any substitutions or problems, who enjoyed it in particular, where you got the ingredients. If it comes out great, photograph it.

9. Keep a binder. I have a plain old binder in my kitchen that's full of recipes printed from the internet, clipped from magazines, or taken off the backs of packages. They're arranged by type: desserts, meats, pasta, appetizers. I can find the chocolate-chip cookie recipe from the back of the chip bag in no time, even if there's no package handy.

10. Have fun. Set the table nicely and be artistic with garnishes. Open a bottle of wine or a festive flavored seltzer. Enjoy the company, whether it's just the two of you or the whole neighborhood. Cooking is fun when you enjoy yourself!