Drunk Shakespeare

Since I’m in dissertation land, time flows in strange bobs. For example: we returned from New York City over a week ago and I still haven’t managed to blog about one of the best parts of the trip: a performance of Macbeth by the Drunk Shakespeare Society!

When my mom proposed the outing, I was a bit dubious. The evening bills itself as a small ensemble of actors getting drunk and doing Shakespeare. “Well”, thought I, “This will either be completely insane and amusing, or a train-wreck of a disaster such that I simply won’t be able to look away and I’ll have no recourse but to blog about it passive aggressively in hopes that one of the actors googles himself and my blog entry pops up in the search results.” Lucky for all of us, it was an experience of the first degree.

The Drunk Shakespeare Society performs six shows a week in one of those NYC spaces that, through careful diligence, transforms from a hole in the wall to a magic fairy land of entertainment. They’ve annexed a room in the Lounge at 400 West 43rd (right next to a seedy Comedy Club) and transformed it into what feels like a society subscription library. Books are arrayed in every corner, splayed on oak bookshelves, and arranged by color. You’re basically sitting inside a Victorian library that had a bit too much Pride to be stifled by the social restrictions of alphabetization.

The premise is that one of the actors gets completely ferschnockered before your eyes, and the ensemble then performs a 90-minute cut of one of Shakespeare’s more famous pieces. The drunken actor generally takes the lead (so for us it was the gentleman playing Macbeth who took the dive) and is supported by the rest of the talented cast. To enhance the experience, you can pay extra to participate as the King and Queen for the evening, which entitles you and one guest to a crown, throne, a bell to ring and effect the play’s action, champagne, caviar, and home-hade chocolates. We didn’t spring for the throne,

And, of course, you can totally just steal the throne for pictures after the show.

And, of course, you can totally just steal the throne for pictures after the show.

but it was fun to watch others as they made the play for it. Apparently you can pre-purchase it; though the evening we were there it was up for auction before the performance.

In terms of talent, the company is not to be missed. Forget the gimmick, improv, and the smart additions to the script; these are some pretty well trained classical thespians with acting chops to match their colossal livers. And trust me, I don’t say that about everybody I see bark out a sonnet onstage.

What was most exciting was to see how these actors engaged with the text in a way that got their audience similarly engaged. And the folks in the audience weren’t necessarily folks I would expect to see at your run-of-the-mill production of Macbeth. At one point, as I was watching an actor and an audience member race to shotgun a beer while the fate of the play rested in the outcome of the race (…I learned all kinds of things that night… including that “shotgunning a beer” is a thing that not only exists, but can be included in sportsmanship competitions), I realized that this was perhaps one of the most noble arts endeavors I had seen in recent time. Here was, writing a dissertation on how Americans made Shakespeare their own in the post-Revolution years, and I was witnessing first-hand the modern incarnation of the age-old phenomenon.

Because, you see, Edwin Booth didn’t perform Hamlet “AS SHAKESPEARE WROTE IT”. Edwin Booth performed Hamlet as Edwin Booth wanted to perform Hamlet. Nineteenth century American actors basically re-wrote the text to conform to cultural norms of the time. Heck, King Lear as written by Shakespeare was removed from the repertory for hundreds of years because it was simply too sad (…they instead performed a version written by Englishman Nahum Tate somewhere around 1681 which wasn’t eradicated from the stage until circa 1838). So what were these slightly intoxicated actors doing if not following the noble line of history in updating a cultural phenomenon to make it more appealing to a mass audience?

And you know what, anything that anyone can do to make Shakespeare appealing to a mass audience while remaining hat-tippingly respectful of the text is fine by me. As much as I tout myself as a “purist”, I’m a purist who enjoys a good laugh like anyone else. So long as you’re not billing yourself as “AUTHENTIC SHAKESPEARE” but rather some kind of adaptation or alteration, so long as you’re enjoying and having fun and making art to help others do so as well, so long as you’re not causing trauma to unsuspecting middle schoolers and forcing them to swear off the bard for the rest of their earthly existences, do that voodoo you do. The world will be a better place for it.

Anyway, if you get half a chance, you really need to check out Drunk Shakespeare. It’s a hoot, holler, and everything between. I think it would be particularly useful/inciting for those who don’t feel that they enjoy Shakespeare, or perhaps that they haven’t yet found some kind of understanding of it. DS is definitely a good gateway drunk to the world of all things Bardy. Especially if you enjoy one of their (admittedly overpriced) cocktails with the show; that will definitely get the brain wheels greased and ready for action.

How can you know what you want till you get what you want and you see if you like it?

On Christmas day, me and my vaguely Jewish family* joined the stereotype and, before our large dinner of Chinese food, went to the movies. Of course, being theatre dorks, there really was only one choice of film for the day. My mom wanted to see Meryl Streep, and I was dying to see pretty much everything about Into the Woods, so off we went.

My social media feed has since exploded with folks who saw it and their opinions of it. It’s kind of inevitable when you’re friends with a lot of theatre-types (many of whom are professionals and/or academics). For the most part, people have positive things to say about the experience with the occasional hater mixed in for good measure.

For my part?   Haters gonna hate (…hate hate hate hate), but you just shake it off, Stephen Sondheim.

Into the Woods was a great film adaptation of a tricky complex story. The beauty of the play is in its tightness; the multitudes of tales that become inevitably intertwined by the greater dramatic events of Sondheim’s allegory. Director Rob Marshall and script/screenplay writer James Lapine did a masterful job of cutting the sometimes unwieldy piece into a slim two-hour film version that translated into the film medium with grace. Think about the scope of Into the Woods for a moment: you’ve got giants attacking townships, you’ve got birds pecking out peoples’ eyes, you’ve got cows dying and subsequently coming back to life who need to be milked onstage (and need to be able to eat props), you’ve got a character who needs to be cut open so that two other characters can come out of his belly, you’ve got a magic talking tree that showers gold and jewels and fashion onto a main character, you’ve got beanstalks growing, palaces thriving, balls balling, and markets selling. The show itself is cinematic in scale, and that’s even before you talk about taking it to the movies.

Film allowed Into the Woods to be its delightful self: quirky, magical, spectacular, and (yes) dark.

In the woods, you may encounter a Brussels Sprouts Swashbuckler who looks suspiciously like me.... alright, look, they shouldn't put weapon-shaped food on the shelves if they don't want people to fence with it, okay?

In the woods, you may encounter a Brussels Sprouts Swashbuckler who looks suspiciously like me…. alright, look, they shouldn’t put weapon-shaped food on the shelves if they don’t want people to fence with it, okay?

Now to the comment that the film was inevitably “Disneyfied”. Come on, people, what did you expect? You really think that a film being billed as a “mish-mosh of cute little fairy tales” would confront the reality of Sondheim’s allegory? Yes, “Hello, Little Girl” was a stranger danger song with no consequences beyond being followed home and eaten, and “I Know things Now” didn’t have the connotations of a sexual awakening. The Little Red plotline was kept very literal, at least on the surface. But let’s get real. Little Red Riding Hood is a story that bears the cultural burden of sexuality and has for hundreds of years; I hardly think that one film adaptation can undo all of that history. Besides which, the film doesn’t run from Sondheim’s lyrics. If you listen, even for a moment, the allegory is still there. The wolf still makes Red “feel excited… Well, excited and scared” and she still ponders “though scary is exciting, nice is different than good”. Johnny Depp as the wolf is slimy enough that I was made uncomfortable. I personally think that the sequence worked on a level innocent enough for kids, but dark enough for the adults looking for something more.

I’ve seen a lot of hubbub about the play being feminist or anti-feminist. I would like to remind audiences that this play isn’t new news. It debuted in 1986. If you want to have a discussion about what is/is not “feminist”, you need to go back and take a look at what else was being performed and/or talked about in that year, not this one. Moreover, the capable female characters who drive the plot can hardly be called “damsels”. Yes, Cinderella is a character in the play and yes, she still has a love story with a semi-disinterested Prince Charming who stands for all things machismo…. But this shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. Again, I refer you to the long history of the Cinderella myth and the myriad of popular culture icons and tales which have been produced about and around it. Sondheim’s Cindy is kind, driven, and determined; all of which are salient qualities which prove invaluable to her as she deftly navigates the woods. Let’s not forget that she leaves her “perfect happy ending” because she finds out that her husband has cheated on her and that she chooses to do this despite the fact that her life will be monumentally more difficult without the Prince’s wealth and power to back her.

Musically, I think the film lends more clarity to Sondheim’s complicated lyrics than any stage play I’ve ever seen. Because of the magic of cinema, every single word of these often tongue-twistered songs was crystalline (I finally understood a portion of the witch’s rap that, despite years of trying, I had not yet gotten… who knew that “rampion” was an edible root?). Because the filmmakers were able to slow down some of the thicker passages, they read much more readily to the waiting ear. If historically you’ve taken issue with Sondheim’s music, I’d strongly recommend giving this film a shot; I think it will clear up a lot for you (and perhaps be able to provide a gateway to some of his other work).

By far my favorite portion of the film was “Agony”. Film as a medium just lends itself much more readily to satiric melodrama than stage. Which is not to say it’s impossible to pull off on the stage, just slightly more difficult. Anyway, I was in stitches the entire number and it’s well worth the price of a ticket to see two handsome princes compete for audience attention amidst a slew of water effects. I was slightly sad they cut the reprise because the number was so good that I wanted them to do it again.

There were, I will say, a surprising number of children in the audience. Let me reiterate that while this film is based on fairy tales, it is not a children’s movie to any extent. It deals with heavy and dark topics (rape, murder, infidelity, body mutilation…), and has big scary man-crushing giants. Your young children will be bored and/or scared, and will spend the entire film kicking the back of someone’s seat while you sit there pondering what, exactly, it was that you thought you were getting into.

Really all I can say about the experience is, to quote the witch, “Go to the Woods!”. Just leave small children at home. And don’t expect something the play didn’t give you; that’s just not fair.

 

*We’re cultural Jews rather than folks with any particular religious bent.

Holidays are Stressful

The hardest things about the holidays is letting yourself walk away from your desk.

This year, we’re going to be spending some time with family (a week of it away in New York). I’m really looking forward to seeing my family, I’m really looking forward to being in New York, but I’m not looking forward to the inevitable pile-up and feelings of guilt I will experience while I’m gone/when I return because I took some time off and didn’t work on my dissertation.

Though Holidays also meant I got to meet this guy: my Birthday Present was an encounter with GreenBlack the African Penguin!

Though Holidays also meant I got to meet this guy: my Birthday Present was an encounter with GreenBlack the African Penguin!

December is a tough month to work through. The inevitably jerky start/stop rhythm necessitated by finals, end-of-semester celebrations, holidays, birthdays, etc. does not lead to the most productive environment for the academic writer. Especially the academic writer who is out of coursework and thus has no excuses about why end-of-semester is so tough on the brain.

Working at your own pace on your own calendar with only the loosest of deadlines set and agreed upon with any kind of higher authority can be taxing this way. It means that you are your own boss and, as everyone knows, being your own boss means that you have to answer to yourself. Your harsh, slave-driving, judgmental, over-achieving self.

The problem with this stage of the Ph.D. is that, by this point, you know your own limits because they were pushed and tested so hard by the rigors of your exams. During my peak Comps. studying time, I was reading 4-6 books in a day (…and watching at least one documentary or film as a sort of “cool down”). I was also, of course, not-so-slowly having a nervous break-down about the stress of studying for these colossal exams, and the pace at which I was cramming information into my head. Let’s just say that it wasn’t exactly the most healthy time of my academic life (… and that seems to be the common experience amongst humanities Ph.D. candidates).

Unfortunately, this also means that I know it is entirely possible for me to work at that pace and sustain it for four months. And because I know that, I know that when I’m not working at that pace I’m not working at top capacity. And because I’m my own boss and can’t hide anything from myself, excuses don’t really jive with me. So when I don’t output at that level, I feel like I’ve “wasted a day” unless I do some pretty serious sanity checks about what I actually accomplish in a given period.

Perspective is a hard thing to maintain when you’re staring down the eyes of something as big as the Dissertation beast. At the moment my beast and I are still friends, but I am fully aware that at any time it might turn on me savagely and tear my arm off. My only hope of survival is in keeping up with the deadlines I’ve imposed on myself. Ensuring that I don’t tire myself out with irrationally-placed demands while at the same time balancing the amount of work that I need to accomplish is key to winning the long game here.

So, while I’m not going to feel entirely good about it, I am walking away from my desk for a week. When I come back, I’ll be refreshed and good to go for another year. Or at least another several months until I can justify taking another break longer than my workout.

I hope you find it in yourself to put down the keyboard and leave the book stacks to themselves for a few days. I also hope that you have a wonderful holiday season full of warmth, love, and delicious food! I know I will; there’s a maple-glazed bacon turkey in my future.

Christmas Hot Cocoa Cookies

I am still alive. I am still hard at work. The semester being over, I have officially taken a headfirst nosedive into dissertation work in hopes that I can turn out a draft of a chapter by January sometime. Things are looking pretty good for this writing schedule (though, I will admit, that’s definitely aided by the fact that I’m writing a chapter about a project which I’ve been working on for two years now).

The problem with working around this time of year is that, inevitably, you’re going to be interrupted for the holidays. We will be leaving to spend Christmas in New York with my family for most of next week, thus meaning that I have to wrap any major work I was doing here before end-of-day on Monday. It’s sometimes tough to balance things like that: you know you need to go deep, but not so deep that you can’t ear-mark it in a place that’s feasible to return to. My research, much like my plants, will need to be glutted with sustenance so that it can self-sustain in my absence.

So I’ve been reading up a storm and ordering ILL books on delay so that I’ll have something to come home to (…other than my awesome bed).

In the meantime, I made the following Hot Cocoa Cookies for our department Holiday gathering. I thought they were incredibly awesome, and I hope you do too! I took the recipe from Rachel Ray but, as usual, cut it in half (her recipe makes 60 cookies… who in their right mind would need to make 60 cookies at a clip!?). Here’s my version, complete with serving suggestions at the bottom.

Ingredients 

2 oz. unsalted butter (half a stick)
3 4 oz. bars baking chocolate: two semi-sweet, one bittersweet.
¾ cup flour
1/8 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
¾ tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. salt
¾ cup light brown sugar
2 eggs
3/4 tsp. vanilla extract (I tend to use vanilla paste because I find it more flavorful)
15 large marshmallows

Procedure 

Chop the semi-sweet chocolate bars into small bits and melt them along with the butter in a saucepan. Stir frequently and melt over medium heat lest you risk scorching the chocolate. When this is good and melty, allow it to cool for about 15 minutes while you do other things.

Whisk together your flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt until the mixture is a uniform color.

Beat the sugar, eggs, and vanilla together (I use an immersion blender for this, but you probably should use an electric mixer if you have one) until the mixture is smooth and consistent. Mix in the cooled chocolate until everything is just blended and an even consistency/color. Slow the mixer down to a low speed and add the flour mixture in at least two batches until everything combines nicely. You don’t want to overwhelm the wet ingredients with the dry (it creates batter lumps if you do), so just add slowly and evenly until everything is nice and mixed.

Allow this to sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes, then shape into dough balls (I use a cookie-baller to do this, but you can also use a tablespoon if you want). These are RICH AND INTENSE, so you don’t want your cookies to be too big.

At this point, I set the dough to chill in the refrigerator overnight. You don’t have to, but it does prevent the cookies from spreading out too much when you bake them. You’ll want to fridge them for at least an hour if you opt for the instant gratification baking.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees and arrange your dough balls on cookie sheets. I line my cookie sheets in parchment paper, but you could also use a Silpat if you have it. I also spray with cooking spray just for extra slippiness and ease of removal upon baking. This recipe yielded 32 cookies for me which went on to two cookie sheets of 16 cookies each.

Bake for about 12 minutes or until the tops of the cookies begin to crack.

While the cookies are baking, cut your marshmallows in half. Take the bittersweet chocolate bar and divide it into 32 small squares. Place one small square on the sticky side of each marshmallow.

When the cookies have hit their crackling stage, pull them from the oven. Insert a marshmallow, chocolate-side down, into each cookie pressing gently to ensure that you’re surrounding the chocolate with almost-baked cookie batter. Once every cookie has a marshmallow hat, put the whole shebang back in the oven for about 4 minutes, or until the marshmallows are a little bit gooey and a little bit golden.

You can garnish with grated chocolate over the top at this point and it does look really pretty! Allow the cookies to cool for about five minutes in the pans before transferring to a cooling rack. I would, honestly, serve these babies warm if at all possible (I’m picky about my marshmallows and only like them when heated to gooey perfection). If you can’t serve them right from the oven, reheat them for a few minutes before putting them out and encourage guests to eat them quickly. Nom.

 

 

FaceSpace

It’s the end of the semester which means that I’ve received what I’ve now come to regard as an end-of-semester tradition: the Facebook friend requests from students who were in my classes.

Since my students are millennials who grew up in the digital era, and since I do spend so much time speaking about social media in my classes, it’s not strange that they should seek me out or otherwise find me on the Internet. Let’s get real: when’s the last time you’ve had someone be a part of your life for any significant period of time and didn’t bother to Google or Facebook them? As I’ve so often said, the Internet is a monstrous facet of the modern era and it’s not going away. We can either embrace it, or be doomed to obsoletion.

This shot of the BPL can, for instance, be found on my Instagram. And yet? I fear it not.

This shot of the BPL can, for instance, be found on my Instagram. And yet? I fear it not.

So yes, I do connect with my students via social media. My twitter feed is public (as is my Instagram, this blog, and most of my Pinterest boards), my Facebook profile has enough security checks on it that I am comfortable with what’s available to the world being public information. If and when students find me, I approve friend requests.

I know that this can cause no small amount of anxiety amongst teachers of any age. I think the vast amount of social media anxiety in regards to one’s students stems from either a lack of understanding about privacy features, or a lack of understanding about digital boundaries.

So let’s discuss how and why I keep my feeds so public.

Social media is an excellent networking resource. I have personally met future employers, kept track of contract employers, and connected people I know who could usefully utilize each others’ talents via Twitter and Facebook (connections which otherwise would have been difficult or impossible to make). I have made a digital portfolio available to potential clients via my Facebook and blog updates (I always make certain to blog or micro-blog from projects to keep this sort of record on hand). If you want the best summary of why I’m the right girl for a job, just spend some time looking at my social media feeds; they’ll tell you how hard-working I am, my relative fields of expertise, and enough about my personality that you’ll know if you want to work with me but not so much that you’ll feel like you’re looking at a tabloid.

It’s important to understand that social media doesn’t have to lay your soul open for the world to see. Social media is, very much, what you make of it. Do I occasionally do and say things which might not be construed as the most professional/that I wouldn’t want my students to find out? You bet I do. I’m human; it comes with the territory. Am I going to discuss those things or even advertise them via the public forums that are my social media feeds? Absolutely not! If I don’t put it on the internet, then it’s not magically out there waiting for someone to find.

I can understand the argument that, sometimes, others will post things to your feed which might hint at previously mentioned not-so-awesome activities and that might keep a working professional from connecting with mentees in cyberspace. This is truly a matter of knowing thy privacy settings. There are ways to ensure that content others post either doesn’t turn up on your public feed, or must be approved before going public. Understanding these options will allay the fear of being exposed in a way that you’re not ready (or willing) to be.

Social media connections are not synonymous with unhealthy mentor/mentee boundaries. In fact, I look at these connections as an extension of my mentorship. In a world of poor Facebook-public decisions, I hope that my students can view my social media feeds as a good example of how to handle a digital persona. After all, how are students meant to understand the best way to build themselves a valuable digital presence if those skills aren’t taught, discussed, or demonstrated to them? This is a teaching opportunity which can assist my students in developing life-skills which will carry them into the job market, far past their careers at the University.

This is not to say that it’s “wrong” to keep your social media feeds private. Everyone has their own comfort level with technology, and that needs to be respected. But just as the choice to maintain a locked-down internet presence is valid, so is the choice to curate a public online persona and to utilize that persona to further enrich the lives of your students.

Pretzel!

Finals in full swing and a Nor’Easter raging outside, it can only mean one thing: bake-tastic baking!

I’m a softie for soft pretzels.  When I made these the first time, my ever-wonderful partner in crime asked me where I got them.  When I said “pinterest” he was confused because he was pretty sure that I had bought them from a professional rather than made them myself.  In short: this recipe will not steer you wrong, folks!  Enjoy it with some really good Dijon (I have personally taken to doing a 1 part Grey Poupon to 1 part whole-grain country mustard for optimal deliciousness).

Since these pretzels really only keep for two days or so, I do a half batch from the original recipe.  It means that we can eat them before they lose their doughy goodness.  Here’s my take on Sally’s delicious soft pretzels:

Ingredients

¾ cup warm water
1 packet (1/4 oz) Fleishmann’s active dry yeast; about 2 ¼ tsp
½ tsp kosher salt
½ Tbs light brown sugar
½ Tbs unsalted butter
approx. 2 cups all purpose flour
1 large egg
coarse sea salt to taste

Directions 

Proof your yeast by dissolving it with a tiny pinch of sugar into the warm water.  You want the water to be inside-of-wrist warm (technically 95 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit).  Cover and let stand in a warm dark place for about eight minutes.  If, when you come back, the mixture is bubbly, it means that your yeast is alive and good to go.

Melt your butter in the microwave (you want it just melted, not scorching) and add it to the yeast mixture along with the kosher salt and brown sugar.  Stir this until the mixture is uniform.  Slowly add your flour one half cup at a time until the mixture is thick and no longer sticks to the side of the bowl.  If 2 cups doesn’t do it, add up to 1/8 of a cup more.  If you can poke the dough with a finger and have it bounce back at you, then you know that it’s the correct consistency.

Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead it for approximately three minutes.  When you kneed, you’re strengthening the gluten (the long fibers which hold the dough together).  You know that you’re done kneading if the dough is smooth and slightly tacky, and if it holds its shape when held into the air.  When this is done, work the dough into a nice round ball.

Spray a mixing bowl with nonstick spray and place your dough ball in there.  Cover and allow to rise in a warm dark place for ten minutes.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and line a prepare a baking sheet.  I like to line mine in parchment paper with a thin coat of nonstick spray for good measure.  If you have a Silpat, you can use that instead.

Cut your dough into three long sections and roll them into long thin ropes.  Slice the ropes into bite-sized sections (I got about 37 from this recipe, but it depends on how big you want your bites!).

Now comes the key part: the baking soda bath.  While this is the most pain in the butt portion of the recipe, it’s also vital to ensure proper pretzel consistency).  Boil about 4 cups of water with ¼ cup of baking soda.  When it has worked up to a good rolling boil, drop in 8 or so bites at a time and allow to boil for 20 seconds.  With a slotted spoon, remove the bites and put them on your baking sheet.  Repeat until you’ve boiled all of your bites.

Beat the egg and brush it over each bite.  Sprinkle the whole shebang with coarse-grained sea salt, and bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown.

I’m told that these bites will freeze for up to three months and that they can be re-thawed in a 300F degree oven.  To be completely honest, the batches I make never last long enough to be a problem.

 Happy baking, and stay safe out there!

The Book of Love

It’s kind of a running tradition that every year for my beloved’s birthday, I come up with some hand-made way to express how joyful it makes me that he was born. One year, I made him one of these little babies (that was a huge hit, by the way, and not horribly difficult to make). Another year, I took a box of his favorite tea and wrapped each tea bag with a slip of paper that had a reason why he’s awesome on it and a sentiment of endearment.

This year I wrote him a book.

It sounds pretty extreme when you put it that way, but think of this: every person in the world needs a creative outlet. I love to write. At this stage of my dissertation process, I do a LOT more research than writing, and creative writing is an entirely different beast than academic writing. I needed a place to put all of the pent-up writer’s emotion that wasn’t going into my diss. That, and I wanted to play with the novel-writing functions/capabilities of Scrivener (which, when I started writing this book, was a new toy for me).

You might also say “where on earth did you, oh woman who works seven jobs, find the time to do a thing like write a novel!?”. The truth is that it happened in snatches. I set myself word targets and sat down to write one chapter a night (two when I was being REALLY productive). I took breaks when it got too overwhelming, and I definitely didn’t edit it as toughly as I could have. On the whole, it did eat into my social time; but not as much as you might think. Part of it was discipline; I knew that I had to write at a certain pace in order to hit my goal; so I just did. Part of it was careful outlining; I came up with the story I wanted to tell in about five minutes as I was going to sleep one night. Then I took that outline and pulled it apart into chapters so that I always knew exactly where I was going with things at any given time. This helped when I got stuck in the occasional rut because I could tell myself “you’re not stuck; you know exactly where you need to be… just knuckle under and write!”

The point of the exercise was simple: to write my companion a story that he would enjoy reading, and that I would enjoy producing. And to play with my new toy software (which, by the way, is still awesome and I highly recommend to anyone producing any writing of any length but particularly long pieces or things that require a lot of moving parts to keep going).

But I had an ulterior motive as well. I wanted to prove to myself that I could, on a time-table, produce a novel-length manuscript that was worth the paper it was printed on. It was a test, you see. A way to prove to myself that I was in fact capable of producing that many words and slapping them coherently on the page. And you know what? I am. I know I am because I did. And that’s just one less piece of ammo that my demons can use against me when I’m having bad dissertation-writing days.

Yup.  There she is.  My book.

Yup. There she is. My book.  That I wrote.  And had professionally printed.  Because I can write books.

I had the book printed on Harvard’s Espresso book machine (her name is Paige Gutenberg, by the way). It was an awesome experience to layout my own text (so not as hard as it may seem; the final product even has fancy drop-caps at the beginning of every chapter, different alternate page numbering, and header texts which varies by chapter and is distinct on odd and even pages), PDF everything, send it, proof it, re-edit, then send again. The nice lady who runs the Espresso book press even agreed to meet me at a time when we could watch her print the final product so that we could see the machine in action. It’s totally awesome to think that we live in a future where I can manipulate a few lights and dots on a computer screen, then have that create an object of importance with which one can interact about fifteen minutes later.

So take that, dissertation demons. I wrote a book. And I’ll write another one, too. As soon as I get all of my research ducks in a row. Ugh. Guess I better go read something now…

Thanking You

What with finals around the corner and the end of the semester only kind of in sight, it can be tough for us grads to really enjoy what’s supposed to be a day off to reflect about all the things that make our lives pretty great.

While I can’t promise that I’ll refrain from opening a book until Campus opens again on Monday (our break is Wednesday – Sunday), I can honestly say that I’m going to take at least a moment to honor the spirit of the holiday.

To make sure I do, the following is a partial list of some of the things I am thankful for this year:

  • My incredible advisor who is a super hero, rock star, and academic pit bull all in one. Seriously, this lady is unbelievable. The fact that she does all of the things she does (president of this professional organization, top of that research field, leading expert in all kinds of things, teacher, mentor, philosopher…) is a feat of its own, but on top of everything she makes herself so available to her students. She has done more for me this year than I think I can possibly relate in words, and I am thankful every day for her guidance and wisdom.
  • For that matter; all of my mentors (past, present, and future). They let me ask potentially embarrassing questions without judging me (or at least without telling me that they’re judging me, which is really what counts), they even give me valuable answers despite their own packed research and travel schedules. Every day in dealing with my own students, I only hope to be as awesome to them students as my mentors have been to me.
  • The well-stocked school library with ILL privileges that will get me anything I need from anywhere in the world in a reasonable enough time. With a slight bit of forethought, I can have any book that I might want to put my hands on delivered to me so that I can read and love it. Hooray.
  • A supportive partner who knows when he needs to leave me alone so that I can deal with some red pen problems, when he needs to ask me questions about my work so that I can talk my way out of a funk, and when he just needs to let me cry at him about Edwin Booth.
  • Good smart friends and colleagues with sympathetic ears, appetites for good beer, and heads full of giant brains. As a note: should this year be the year of the inevitable zombie apocalypse, this item of gratitude to the universe would be written no differently. Brains.
  • Lots of tea. And espresso. Oh my espresso machine. And really anything that makes liquid caffeine. As a note: the rest of the world should also be thankful for this and the effect that it has on me. Nobody wants to deal with an uncaffeinated Dani. Trust me.
  •  All of the wonderful theatre companies who continue to include me in their creative plans. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a great many incredible theatre-makers this year, and I look forward to continued opportunities to come.

Alright folks, that’s that. Go eat some turkey and be thankful that you’re not on line at the grocery store. Unless you are in which case you might want to consider how planning impacts your life, stress, and happiness.

Have a great holiday!

At the Opera

I used to be afraid of Opera.

I know that sounds weird. I mean, it’s not like I had nightmares about a heavy-set woman wearing a helmet with Viking horns and yellow braids chasing me down while singing “Flight of the Valkyries” in a piercing soprano (…though now that I put it that way, it does sound kind of horrifying). When I entered my PhD, despite having been a theatre person my entire life, I had never seen an Opera.

It just seemed daunting. There was so much popular entertainment baggage associated with it. So much society told me I should be if I went to an Opera: well bred, musically inclined, interested in melodrama, in possession of a fur coat and those tiny steam-punk binoculars… What happened if I found it boring? Or worse, what happened if I laughed at the ridiculousness of some big tragic moment put to song in a way that seemed in keeping with the genre tropes that my admittedly narrow-framed world view understood to be a part of the Operatic aesthetic?

Cut to one day in my first-year research methodologies course, the Professor going on some tangent about various “alternative” theatrical forms. He wound up in an Opera rut and paused when he realized that he was looking at a roomful of blank-blinking faces. “Who here has been to the Opera?” He asked.

Not a single one of us raised our hands.

He freaked out a little bit (not in a scary way, but definitely in a way which made an impression). I mean, he was kind of right. A roomful of various theatre professionals now entering their second-ish career in training to become theatrical experts and not a one of us had attended live Opera. There was something shameful about that; he knew it, and I think in our hearts we knew it. I vowed in that moment that I would make it my business to see an Opera as soon as I could.

I didn’t have to wait long. A couple months later, I was presented with tickets to La Traviata as an afternoon outing with a friend. We went. I swallowed my anxiety about what to wear, how much to read the subtitles and how much to look at the actors, and if I would have a good time, and let the music wash over me.

It was a great evening. AND I got to feel morally superior to boot since it was the same day as the Superbowl that year (…I mean really, I took in a great cultural moment and supported the arts while the rest of America grunted at their television sets…). Two years later, I review Opera on a regular basis and I’m working hard to introduce the art form into the lives of those around me.

It can be tough to work up the nerve to have a new experience. But especially when that new experience involves supporting the arts, it’s important to buck up and give it a try. Here in Boston we have all kinds of opportunities to see Opera: Boston Lyric Opera, Boston Opera Collaborative, Boston Metro Opera, and Geurilla Opera (to name a few professional companies). There’s also more “home-grown” student organizations such as the MIT Gilbert and Sullivan Players, performances by New England Conservatory’s Opera Students, and performances by Opera students at the Boston Conservatory. Take a risk, take a chance; you might just (like me) discover something new and wonderful out there in the world.

Irish Brown Bread

When I lived in Ireland, I discovered something magical.

My whole American life, I thought that soda bread was some gross concoction of white bread and raisins. I was raised to the unfortunate conclusion that it was yucky and full of “fruit”; only suitable as a doorstop or a second-rate substitution for fruitcake as a holiday gift to relatives you didn’t particularly care for but felt obligated to procure presents for anyway.

But then, I discovered that I was sorely, grossly, wrong. Irish soda bread is a delicious, thick, warm, whole-grain thing. More commonly referred to as “Irish Brown Bread”, it was the staple of every breakfast (…and, for me, lunch, and dinner) when I was abroad. I loved it, and I’m pretty sure that most of my living in Ireland weight was put on due to copious consumption Irish brown bread rather than Guinness.

Upon my return home, I came to several saddening realizations: 1) beer didn’t taste the same anymore; 2) neither did cider; and 3) “soda bread” was still gross, white, and bespeckled with raisins. Where was my hearty brown bread!? What was I going to do but go mad pining for it!?

Almost ten years later, I’ve started baking my own bread and, I realized, if I bake it, I make it. My bread, my rules! There had to be a recipe for Irish brown bread somewhere! TO THE INTERNET!

This was the first recipe to pop up on google (and it was rated five stars by internet denizens at large, a trustworthy bunch en masse even if questionable as individuals). Since the process seemed easy enough, I gave it a whirl. I am SO happy with the results; eating that bread has me right back in Dublin. It’s definitely going to be a staple in this house!

Check out THAT scoring!  My happy loaf before it was sliced.

Check out THAT scoring! My happy loaf before it was sliced.

Ingredients

2 1/4 cups whole-wheat flour
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon fine salt
2 cups well-shaken buttermilk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter (1/2 stick), melted.

Methods

First things first: butter type matters! Irish butter, apparently, has a higher fat content than your run-of-the-mill American butter. Most grocery stores will stock KerryGold at least (and, in fact, that’s what I wound up using). I haven’t tried the recipe with “normal” butter, but I’m told that the results won’t be nearly as spectacular. Long story short: get yourself some Irish butter for this baby!

Pre-heat your oven to 400°F and stick the rack in the middle. This ensures proper heat distribution and allows your bread to bake evenly on all sides.

Sprinkle a baking sheet with flour. You could also line it in a sil-pat mat first to ease clean up. I tend to lay down parchment paper and then flour just to keep myself from having to scrub pans when I’m done baking.

Mix your dry ingredients (flours and baking soda). Use a whisk to combine them in a large bowl. If you’re hard-core, you can sift them together. I don’t have a flour sifter because I (generally) don’t believe in single-use kitchen implements, so I just took a whisk and gave it a good stir around until the mixture was free of lumps and one uniform color.

Add the buttermilk and melted butter.   You want to add the buttermilk slowly to ensure that you wind up with the correct texture. I added the first cup along with the butter, mixed everything around a bit with my hands, then slowly added the second cup (I wound up using more like 1.6 cups than 2 cups of buttermilk). You want the dough to be moistened and hold together, but not completely saturated. It might take a bit of mixing around to do. The original recipe recommends mixing at this step with your hands and, truthfully, anything that saves more dishes is fine with me so I went whole-hog bare-handed bread-kneading on this one! Mix everything around until it’s an even consistency (it’ll take about one minute).

Once you’ve done this, turn the dough out (a fancy way of saying “tip it from the bowl”) onto a lightly floured clean work surface. To be completely honest, I tend to use my baking sheet since it’s already floured and I don’t always trust my counter-tops to be clean enough for this task. Knead the dough until you’re left with a smooth ball that has no little pockets of flour. This will take about a minute or so. You want to then create a 2-inch thick flat round about 7 inches in diameter. This bread is dense and thick, so trust me, that’s all you’ll want in a slice. Also: since there’s no yeast in the mixture, the bread will essentially bake in the shape you create now. Make it a good one!

Place your dough mound on your baking sheet if it’s not there already and use a sharp knife to slice an “X” shape on the top. You’ll want this “X” to be about ½ inch deep. This step is called “scoring” the bread and it’s basically a way to help the baker control the final bread shape. As bread cooks, it expands a bit (even non-yeasty bread like this). Think of the shape of a traditional sandwich bread; flat and boxy with the mushroom top. This is due to the “oven spring” process of baking (without getting into the science, basically bread goes “poof” in the oven and expands to up to three times its size pre-baking). As the bread expands, a good score can help you shape the way it does so. The traditional “X” pattern will leave you with a nice round loaf even after it has “sprung” in the oven.

Bake the bread for 35-40 minutes (mine took 35). It’s done when the internal temperature reaches 190°F to 200°F on an instant-read thermometer. Another method to test doneness (the one I used) is to tap on the bread. If it sounds hollow, then it’s done!

Pull the bread from the oven and allow to cool. If you try to slice under-cooked bread, it will fall apart on you. Cooling takes about 2 hours, but I tend to leave mine overnight just to be sure.

Happy baking!