Meeting Mr. Jefferson

10426886_10152689666770963_1143964879377038488_nWalking through Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson and his family (both acknowledged and enslaved) is a powerful and thought-provoking experience. Thomas Jefferson was a complicated man, and his talents and the scope of his life are a little overwhelming to consider from a modern perspective. Pretty much everyone knows Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and that he was the 3rd President of the United States. Only one of which he took pride in, by the way. He is reported to have said the presidency was “the daily loss of friends” and did not even include it on his epitaph.

If you’ve got a nickel in your pocket, you know what Monticello looks like. It still looks like that, thanks in a large part not just to modern conservationists who have stewardship of the property, but to a Jewish man, US Navy Commodore Uriah Levy, who purchased the home in 1830, then in disrepair after Jefferson’s death. Levy was a Jew who directly credited Jefferson’s role in creating the Republic with allowing him to live a life “which a man’s religion does not make him ineligible for political or governmental life.” The Levy family held Monticello for more than 90 years, until it was transferred to the current trustees in 1923.

Almost 90 percent of the house is original, which is truly remarkable. What becomes immediately apparent, as you walk through, is that Jefferson’s statesmanship was not his greatest accomplishment. That’s kind of hard to comprehend. The Enlightenment created Jefferson, and to this day, we still benefit from his ingenuity. He believed “human reason and knowledge can improve the condition of mankind.”

He was the governor of Virginia, the vice-president of the US as well as the president. He was the ambassador to France. We have the Library of Congress because Jefferson donated his library to the Nation. When it was burned by the British in the War of 1812, he established it again. Jefferson was not an inventor himself, but he was a visionary, and what we would probably today call an Early Adaptor. He employed new technologies in his home and in his architecture, such as a cooktop with burners for his cooks he learned about in France, double-paned windows, harmonious ratios of natural light carefully worked out using the Golden Mean to proportion the rooms of his house, and innovative indoor sanitation. He was an architect of innovative usage, attention to detail, and tremendous craftsmanship. Everything from the drainage on the roof (still being studied by preservationists at UVA) to the mortise and tenons of the window panes were designed for not only efficiency, but for beauty. Jefferson doubled the size of the US through the Louisiana Purchase. He maintained friendships with Lewis and Clark, and collected accurate maps, soil, flora and fauna, fossils and relics of indigenous people. He studied topography, and had paintings of Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and John Locke in his parlor.

Jefferson was a prolific but very disciplined writer. He used a polygraph machine to copy all of his thousands of letters, leaving behind some of the clearest and most well documented historical, private and business papers in America. We have almost 19,000 papers written by Jefferson over his lifetime. He believed and stated educated citizens were essential to the survival of democracy.

The docents and stewards of Monticello don’t shy away from the fact Thomas Jefferson, a product of the Enlightenment, was also a slaveholder. Modern genetics and careful curation and compilation of documents and oral histories have established with near certainty that Jefferson did indeed have four children with Sally Hemings, a woman whom he literally owned. To modern sensibilities, this difficult to consider. The foundation is careful to attempt to accurately tell the names and stories to the enslaved workers who lived their lives, some for five generations, at Monticello. Nearly half of the enslaved people were of the Hemings family. In his will upon his death, he made provisions for some enslaved people to be freed. But only some. Jefferson allowed, unlike many, his enslaved workers to learn to read and he encouraged and enabled the study of trades and craftsmanship. As I said, it’s hard to reconcile.

The grounds are beautiful, even in the winter austerity. The family cemetery is a short walk from the house, past the slave quarters and down a gentle hill, holds the remains of the Jefferson family, decedents of the Levy family, and of the Hemings families. On Jefferson’s marker, he asked for only three things: Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia. When it came down to brass tacks, that’s what mattered to him.

I’m kind of in love with Jefferson and I’m kind of conflicted at the same time. It’s a complicated love that I don’t entirely understand. How could one person achieve so much? The answer is also complicated, and involves owning other human beings, inheriting a tremendous start, and leaving his family with tremendous debt. People have devoted doctoral thesis to and not arrived at satisfactory answers about Jefferson. The truth is multi-facted and elusive, and probably impossible to nail down, but few would argue the fact that he had a powerful effect where he extended himself.. His ideas are still fueling our debates and the complexities of who we are as a Nation, and in which direction we should face for our future. That’s a legacy worth contemplation and study.



In Praise of Boredom

IMG_2443“Mom, I’m bored!” my brothers and I would occasionally whine. But only occasionally. Boredom meant mom would “give us something to do” and that seldom meant something we liked. It was far more fun to find things to do without asking mom to intervene. I remember long, lazy summer days with nothing concrete to do. I remember weekends with wide open days where bikes were crashed on the lawn, my hands smelled of the warm rubber basketball, and grass stains colored my knees— pants or naked skin, depending on the season.

My mom would be sitting at the kitchen table, illuminated by her sewing machine light and the eerily comforting pale-green sunlight filtered through the ruffled translucent eves shading our back patio. She would have the phone cradled between her cheek and shoulder, talking with my various aunts about the latest family drama, while shoving calico and rickrack though her humming needle. The windows were always open, and the breeze carried the tangy and sweet scent of fruit— plums, apricots, tangerines and oranges— floating in from the backyard. Some days the breeze carried the pungent scent of the tomatoes being packed down by the bay at the Libby cannery.

“Go outside and play,” she would stage-whisper over the phone, and shoo me away, shoving more rickrack through and snipping threads with her scissors. So many memories of my mother involve thread, fabric, and her always-busy hands making things.

There were no coordinated practices, no organized play dates, no schedule divided into 15-minute increments to keep everyone on-task or focused on being somewhere or doing something. There’s been a lot of ink devoted lately to free-range parenting; the natural backlash against the modern tendency toward over-structured and over-scheduled and sleep-deprived kids. For me, and maybe for a lot of you, this wasn’t a trend- it was just growing up. It was life.

I’ve noticed, with my own kids, that while I don’t schedule their free time out of existence and I carefully keep the margins of their young lives open and unstructured, they are still far more accustomed to being entertained than I ever was. While my mom had her sewing machine and the telephone- twisted, curling, stretched out tether keeping her in the kitchen- I didn’t have anything. That was grown up stuff. I went outside to play.

Today, I have my computer and a phone— which is better than anything Gene Roddenberry imagined 50 years ago— and my kids have devices that I couldn’t even have dreamed up when I was eight, or eleven, or thirteen. There are kindles with wifi, laptop computers, and personal, pocket-held video games. My teenage son has a phone my mom gave him for Christmas. It doesn’t have service, but it’s got wifi and he can text me from school, and it does everything a computer can do. When my kids burst through the door after walking home from school, they grab a snack and immediately open their screens.

This is a reality of modern life. I’m no luddite, and frankly, I make my living by keeping my finger on the electronic pulse of what’s happening through electronic tethers. I don’t have any desire to take these modern marvels and methods of connection from my kids. They can FaceTime with their grandparents and their cousins, they can do homework and submit it, they can play games with friends in other states, they can research science fair projects and watch the live feed from NASA. These are good things.

But sometimes… I want to hear “Mom, I’m bored.”

Creativity happens when there is room to be bored. When we are not entertained, not distracted by screens showing giving us infinite images of beautiful things, interesting things, fascinating things- our minds have room to actually turn on. When we are not rushing from one lesson to another practice, to another meeting or appointment, there is room to breathe. Being bored is where thinking actually starts. Sit in the stillness. Sit in the quiet. Let your mind wind down, and see where it takes you. Ideas germinate in boredom.

How do I encourage my kids to take advantage of the beautiful margins of their lives? To not fill all the space with stuff? I make them be bored.

Turning off the screens— ALL the screens— sending them out to play without direction or micromanaging… leads to that wonderful refrain. But shortly, a magical thing happens.  And it always happens. When they have nothing to entertain them, suddenly they start imagining. Suddenly, I hear games being invented, laughter from the backyard, bikes being hauled to the porch, giggling voices teasing each other as they try and manage the tire-pump themselves. I hear “Mom, we’re going to play basketball!” and I will holler back to please put a coat on… and that’s it. Basketball will turn into a game of tag, and tag will lead to finding a cool hole in a tree and discovering a stick bug, and that will lead to making a small fort and habitat for the captured bug. And that will lead to lifting stones and rocks in search of more bugs, which sometimes leads to finding a lizard or frog. And so it goes. It’s a beautiful thing, and suddenly, they aren’t bored anymore.

I let them walk to and from school. It’s good for them. They have that window each day, where they are responsible and independent- the window between School and Home, which belongs only to them. When the door crashes open, they are always happy to be home, and they also usually have something to report- they observe. They see and feel the seasons changing. They know who got a new bike, and which neighbor kids also walk. They know who got a new kitchen sink, because on trash day, that house had cool debris out at the curb. They report on cool yards they pass, and which house has the best climbing tree. They also have been astoundingly responsible and never yet blown through the window in which I expect them home. They have not only lived up to the rules I set down, they have surpassed them. They never could have done that had I not allowed them the space to do so.

And that’s been my biggest takeaway from giving them room to be bored: They really are amazing human beings. Kids can do so much, and the beautiful thing about giving them room to expand is that they then own their own accomplishments. They didn’t do or achieve anything because I was driving them, hovering, or managing all of their time. They did it because of themselves. That kind of accomplishment is priceless. That kind of trust in each other is beyond priceless.

Boredom is where the future is born.

Catching Up: January Edition

Well, the IEP is behind us now. That Eligibility Meeting was rough, but the IEP went smoothly and I’m very happy with Bean’s team and confident with the new services and support he will be getting. He’s doing pretty well, and there is a stout safety-net being constructed as we transition him towards middle-school next year. Middle-school is scary enough with a typical kid, contemplating it with a Special Needs child is whole new level… Thankful, once again, for the devoted professionals who spend their careers not just educating these children, but educating others so these kids can have successful lives.

Abby is utterly submersed in Harry Potter right now. Her Evil Uncle Willy gave her a magical, light-up replica of Hermione’s wand for Christmas, and she takes it to bed with her each night, illuminating the pages of her books while she softly chants the spells in Latin. She’s asking to take Latin now in high school. Doesn’t your 3rd graders worry about high school classes?

So last week, she decided she wanted her hair cut like Hermione’s. It was probably a good idea, since her hair is thick, naturally wavy, and was easily grazing the small of her back. This is lovely, except when it’s time to comb it, when she howls like a wildebeest in a mud hole. The girl at the beauty shop did a lovely job, and managed to mimic the hair of Hermione exceptionally well. Here’s a stunning example:


Er… maybe not.

I went mural-painting for a friend’s daughter, who, coincidentally enough, is also nutballs about Harry Potter. It started out as a request for Quidditch hoops to be painted on the wall in her room, and ended up being something along the lines of this:


Guess what Abby suddenly wants on the wall in her room? Not the Quidditch hoops, which I thought, frankly, turned out quite nicely:


I guess the holidays were such a whirlwind I utterly forgot to write about any of it- I think I slapped a few picture up on Instagram or Facebook, but that was pretty much the extent of it. It was a lovely December- we were fortunate enough to have a full house for Christmas, and utterly delighted in having all five kids with us. Jon’s family has some wonderful traditions that we seamlessly incorporated into our own. There were matching pajamas, many knitted socks, piles of cookies and icing, and a bunch of happy kids. It was pretty much the best.




New Year’s Eve came with far less fanfare. We were down to three kids, and never one for wild shenanigans, we did our Virginia tradition, which is having hot chocolate at the LOVE train, and then snuggling down at home for the remainder of the evening. I like NYE to be quiet, when I can reflect on the year leaving, and imagine hopes and dreams and plans for the coming year. It’s a reflective and quiet time for me, and coupled with sugared up kids who can barely make it to midnight, being home is by far my preference.


Recipe: Kale & Brussels Sprouts with Vinaigrette



1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 small minced shallot
2 garlic cloves, finely grated
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 slices bacon
1 large bunch kale, thinly sliced
12 ounces brussels sprouts, thinly sliced
1/4 cup sliced almonds
2 Tbsp fresh parmesan

Make the vinaigrette in a jar with a tightly-fitted lid. Combine all ingredients in the jar, and shake vigorously- the mustard creates an emulsion, and despite it being an acid/oil dressing, it generally will not separate when stored in the refrigerator. This vinaigrette is more than needed for this recipe, and is lovely on salads as well. Set aside to chill.

In a large saute pan, crisp up the two slices of bacon. Remove cooked bacon from pan and drain on paper towels. With the pan still hot and containing the bacon grease, add entire pile of kale and brussels sprouts. It will be a lot for the pan, but they will cook and soften quickly. Toss and turn gently with tongs for 1-2 minutes— you just want it lightly wilted— then remove to a salad bowl. Add the crumbled bacon, almonds, and parmesan cheese, and toss with 2 Tbsp of the prepared vinaigrette.

Prepare to be amazed. I could eat this every day, it’s so ridiculously good.

Learning: Raising a Cook

I’ve been sicIMG_2792k. Like, really sick. Like, sicker than I’ve been in years. My allergies and asthma have been under control for so long, I sometimes forget what it’s like to not be able to breathe- then BAM, I get knocked on my butt by a winter cold that settles in and sets up camp in my lungs. Nebulizer treatments for the first time in years and years, prednisone, antibiotics… oh my. So I’ve been holed up at home, and trying to keep from cracking a rib from coughing. That’s not hyperbole.

Then we got snow. And in a bizarre move that made no sense— perhaps an overcorrection for the endless snow days last year— the district didn’t call off classes. I took one look out the window and told the kids to stay in their jammies. No way was I sending out in that. Then we watched twitter explode as local politicians and school board members pointed their fingers at each other while busses slid off the roads all over the county. We made hot chocolate and watched Firefly.

I did give Jeffrey a job for the day- in the spirit of my trying to learn more, I figured if he was missing a day of school, he could learn something too. I told him he had to find a recipe, read it, figure out if we had the ingredients, and then prepare it. I would be available to consult and answer questions, but I wanted him to be the chef and make the calls.

He camped out with my laptop for a bit, and arrived at The Pioneer Woman’s Perfect Potato Soup. Her recipes are always always always a good bet, and we had almost all of the ingredients. I encouraged him to give it shot. He got to work. I curled up on the couch and tried to hold very still.

Bean and Abby played games and colored and built things with Lego. Jeffrey donned Jon’s new apron and got to work. Yes, my husband has an apron. And his sister made it for him. So much awesome.

This is so much better than being in Social Studies, Mom!

This is so much better than being in Social Studies, Mom!

It took Jeff a while and the kitchen was a disaster when he was done, but the soup came out, just as Ree says, perfectly. He made it with gluten flour so I didn’t taste it, but it got devoured. Bean ate English muffins with peanut butter. Some things are as dependable as the sun rising in the east…

Later that afternoon (it never got above freezing and nothing melted) Abby managed to build a snowman. She named him Tom.


I’m going back to bed now.

Learning: Korean Cooking

My friend Kristen has a marvelous experiment going on at her blog, Humdrum Stick in the Mud. Every week, she challenges herself to do something outside of her comfort zone, and she documents her experiences, good or bad, feast or fabulous fail. Her writing is quirky and honest and funny, and she inspires me. While I know I’d be setting myself up for failure if I tried to manage this every week, I adore her idea of pushing ourselves outside of what is safe, familiar, and easy for ourselves. We are capable of so much more than we often imagine, and it’s truly only through pushing our boundaries that real growth and opening can occur.

With that in mind, I opted to start small, but still push my comfort level. I wanted to learn to cook a Korean meal. It doesn’t get much further from Korea than this Scottish/German, but I love Korean food, and I was determined to learn some new spices and ingredients that are were utterly foreign to me. Going into a grocery store where you don’t know the ingredients, and can’t read the labels, and where even the produce section is full of things you’ve never seen before can be intimidating. A little research ahead helped a lot, I had my list prepared. I knew I wanted to make a traditional Korean beef bulgogi and bebimbap, with all the traditional little delicious side dishes, known as banchan.

You know what? It went awesome. The internet here is truly the great equalizer, because lacking a Korean grandma to teach me, I found some great websites explaining the spices, the sauces, and how to make the banchan pickles and sauces. At the market, I filled my basket with daikon, fresh kimchee (which I opted to buy there, rather than attempt to make), dried shiitakes, daengjang (a fermented miso-like soybean paste), gojujang (a hot pepper condiment and base for many sauces), and a recipe for ssamjang (a pungent, delicious sauce).

Here is the result:


When I decided I wanted to learn to cook subcotinental Indian food, the hardest part was learning a new canon of spices and flavor combinations- it was the same with Korean food. The flavors are so distinct, and so amazing- but how to get there is a completely different journey than, say, moving from Italian food to Greek food. The ingredients are sometimes utterly different, and are combined in completely new ways- to a westerner. It was a ton of fun, and it came out utterly delicious. I am emboldened to try this further, and find new recipes and meals on which to subject my family, and which my children will turn up their general collective noses. (Jon and I gorged, Abby loved it, and the boys opted-out. Big surprise.)

Recommended support for learning the basics of Korean cooking at Maangchi, and at Kitchn. What new thing do you want to learn?