Play: It’s Not Just for Children

As children, our imaginations run freely. Our cognitive development depends on our ability to create ideas and synthesize all of the new ideas we are learning. It is no sillier for us to imagine a house made of lollipops than it is to learn our ABCs. For many of us, our favorite TV friends were furry monsters on Sesame Street. We liked to take our dolls or Legos and create things; everything with our mind was an open door.

And then what happened?

We grow up and enter a very left-brained world that values order, logic, and rationality. Careers that involve organizing data are very lucrative. Even the arts acquire an ethos of predictability: if that movie doesn’t make X number of dollars over its opening weekend, its leading actor or actress can expect a dip in his or her career. And why even take a risk on making an odd/unusual/original movie, when a predictable formula is a crowd-pleaser, guaranteed to make millions of dollars back? And if you live in a particular geographical area, like the Midwest, it’s best to conform, to look/dress/act like everybody else, with boringly banal tastes. And let’s not forget the Internet – it has homogenized everything down to the font.

But what if you want to swim upstream, to be an artist in this particular world? If you want to be a performing artist, such as an actor or an opera singer? Be a part of these professions where creativity and play are highly valued – no, rather, necessary?

It involves a process of letting go. Of letting go of the rational mind, and diving into the irrational. Of diving into a sense of the imagination, the fantasy, and the spontaneous. Of trusting one’s intuition and deep impulses – we all have them, but we have been educated out of them. It involves taking risks, sometimes not doing what everyone else is doing, and enjoying the process, doing what’s right for yourself. But sometimes it’s not doing what’s right for yourself, but for the character: a mild-mannered man might play the role of a sociopath, or a country girl might adopt a perfect Brooklyn accent.

Highly accomplished people in many fields talk of this as a state of flow (the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is all about this.) Great discoveries in the sciences have been made when scientists were enjoying experimenting. Athletes are literally in a state of play when they are in their games. It is especially evident in music – simply listen to Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean” and the playfulness of the band is so evident in the song.

We have to remember periodically to return to a state of play, do things that encourage this. We don’t have to know the result, how things will turn out. We just have to have fun.


The Women of Letters Celebrates Its Fifth Anniversary!

Dear readers,
I’m so delighted to announce that The Women of Letters has been in existence for five wonderful years of thought-provoking issues, artistic inspirations, historical reflections, and more, thanks to you! I started this blog to be a dialogue between me and a very brilliant, intellectual friend who had left a graduate program. However, as her path took her elsewhere, the blog became entirely mine from the start. And it has brought me nothing but good luck and positive experiences. It was a big step for me to put my ideas on voice out there in the blogosphere, as I’m not someone who doesn’t like to spend much time online. But the response has been so encouraging and it’s really such a heartwarming feeling to know that people read my blog. Best wishes to you for a happy Thanksgiving, and why not try your own hand at blogging? You never know where it may lead you.
With gratitude,

The Primordial Pleasure of Books

In our devalued era of Facebook and social media and everything electronic, there is something to be said about the pure, simple pleasure of reading a book.  From the moment you crack the spine until the very last word and period, a book is soothing and fulfilling to the soul.  What does the cover say?  A good cover lures you in – something agents and editors and publishing houses know very well.  Sometimes the covers have praise inside and/or outside, something that is controversial; should a book not stand on its own merit?  But how else can a new writer be taken seriously without an endorsement from a seasoned one?  The font and layout and spacing inside are also up for debate.  Some fonts are easier to read than others, and we have all struggled through cheap paperbacks with no space to breathe between the lines.  And what about chapters?  Line breaks?  The space between sections is equally as important as the words.  And what of the heft of the paper?  Do the pages turn easily, or do they fly up as soon as you let go?  And – my favorite – what about the smell?  That sensual pleasure of putting your nose to the page to inhale the ink and paper, more pleasurable in new books than old?

Finally, what could be more gratifying than turning the pages, holding the weight in your hands, enjoying that primordial pleasure of connecting deeply with words in a most singular way?  Either in a cozy chair in broad daylight, propped up on one hand in bed under a dim light where it feels like the book was written just for you, feeling that continuity with the author even if the book was written months, years, decades, even millennia before.  Reading is a solitary event, though another great pleasure in life is discussing books with others.  So is visiting a bookstore, with rows and rows of tomes that you want to to read but know you will never get to, charming places that make an avid reader feel like a kid in a candy shop.  There is nothing quite like reading a book, and there never will be.  And thank God for that.

School Craze: Arming Teachers is a Bad Idea

Just a couple days ago, I read an article not in an American news site but on the BBC:
about Colorado’s policy to train and allow teachers to carry guns at school for protection – protection for the students. Naturally, I was horrified to hear of such a scheme; my immediate thought was about what might happen if a teacher happened to be angry and took out his/her anger on a student. I forwarded the article to a friend who is a teacher in America’s heartland, in Dexter, MI. Dexter is a small community outside of Ann Arbor, MI, a famed college town and home of the University of Michigan. Dexter is quite homogenous, lies in the countryside outside and Michigan has, according to a 2013 survey discussed in detail on a major Michigan news site,
an estimated 29% gun ownership by adults.

Here is what my friend, who is an elementary schoolteacher in Dexter, wrote in response after reading the article:

This is exactly what should NOT be done.

First, on the average day at school, you don’t have a school shooter (I made it through my whole school career without someone shooting up my buildings). I’ll bet you didn’t have one either.

Second, arming teachers means there is a weapon in the classroom on ALL those days when there isn’t a school shooting (read: EVERY day of most every student’s school life). A pistol in a classroom? What could possibly go wrong?

Third, if there ever WAS a shooter, would the teacher have their weapon handy (will they carry it every day on their hip)? Or, will it be in their desk, where a student could possibly get to it? AND, if they do decide to shoot the intruder, will they hit the intruder? Teachers are in the business of motivating children to read, practice their math facts, properly punctuate and capitalize in the their writing, and not bully other students. They aren’t trained in marksmanship! Do we need more bullets flying around a school?

Fourth, our school is trained in ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) to counteract any intruder. This is a safe and effective way to deal with the unlikely event of a school shooter. Life happens and we can’t be 100% safe from EVERYTHING that will happen to us as we navigate this life, but having teachers packing heat can only lead to more problems.

This was a very detailed response that I found fascinating, and wanted to share with my readers. Gun violence has indeed been hitting our schools and educational institutions in the recent past, in ways that are extremely disturbing and tragic. In addition to information on posters for how to take safety in case of fire, tornado, and natural disasters, campuses now feature strategies for what to do in case of an active shooter. But countering these shootings by arming teachers is not a viable option. We need gun control at a very high, strict level in situations with our most vulnerable members of society – children. But we also need to educate people on anger management and provide services for mental health. In these mass shootings at schools and other public places, the shooters had a host of mental problems and disorders that were not always adequately addressed. Therefore, gun control begins with mental health. And schools should be teaching and providing resources for mental health to nip these horrors in the bud when minds are still young.

What I’ve Learned: Literary Musings

Dear Readers,
2017 has been exponentially (or is it logarithmically? Whichever is bigger!) busier since beginning the MFA program in creative writing at Warren Wilson. One of the greatest joys are the letters to our supervisors, in which we can expound on what we’ve read in a less formal way than our essays, much like I am used to doing here. Here are some highlights, based on what I’ve read. Thanks for reading!

-I feel that each piece of writing has a certain “secret code” to it, like a puzzle to be discovered, and once you understand it, the whole logic of the book becomes clear. I think that is what this MFA program is teaching us, to really look at great works of writing analytically and critically to see what is going on in terms of the craft. To look at all the seams and see how it is made. And of course, the best books are going to appear very seamless on the surface.
-Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed was absolutely brilliant, and I enjoyed every second of reading it. She is a genius, and she makes it seem so effortless. The novel is so complex, and yet we do not see the seams. It makes me really think about what angle to take about retelling classic works.
-Nabokov’s The Gift – what can I say? I picked up the book, read the first three pages, and then put it down because I was so awed by his writing, and thought “@#$%, why bother, I’ll never write again!” The man was a genius. Why he didn’t win a Nobel Prize is beyond me. Nabokov is a master prose stylist; just his use of language is stunning. That is what to read him for.
-I thought back on how in the 10th grade, we read Native Son [by Richard Wright] and how it blew me away with how powerful it was, how complex the emotions were, and how there were no easy answers as to who was “good” or “bad.” And then suddenly it hit me – that novel is a great example of how to write emotional dilemmas. I quickly started making notes about what I remembered from the novel and how Wright did this.
-[Upon reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s] Capote is a wonderful writer, I’m guessing a lot of those writers from that era in New York are really excellent craftsmen and women, not to mention intelligent and literary. My mother said that in the 60s he used to be on talk shows. Wow! Who do we have on talk shows nowadays, Kardashians?!
-[Upon reading Nutshell by Ian McEwan] What a gifted writer! Just the level of detail and intelligence and polish is amazing. I had the same reaction as I did with the Nabokov — I put the book down for a moment and just thought, “Oh God, screw it, why do I write?!” What I learned in reading Nutshell was that in retellings, you have to pick and choose. You don’t have to be so literal, and transpose everything from the original work into modern times. A retelling can be something that captures the gist of the original, or uses just a few elements from the original, or adapt certain things from the original to make it modern.
-Retellings [of classics] are all about choices you make as a writer, much as a director would with a script. What do you show and what do you leave out? What do you change? What do you add? How is it relevant for today’s readers? All very fascinating stuff.
-[Upon reading James Baldwin] There is no one else like him. It struck me, halfway through Going to Meet the Man, that Baldwin accomplishes the most important goal of a writer: to be thought-provoking. A man of letters, culturally significant, not just a literary writer. I admire him. That said, I don’t always like him. I find that there was a sense of bitterness running throughout. I think I admire the writers most who really get you to think, who aren’t just rehashing something or just telling a ho-hum story about something ordinary. George Orwell, Dave Eggers, Margaret Atwood — these are just a few people who come to mind. They leave a lasting impression on you. They are powerful. This is the sign of a great writer.
Bright Lights, Big City [by Jay McInerney] is an absolutely brilliant novel! So well written. Clean prose, nothing unnecessary, it tells the story so clearly and each word matters. Very entertaining, despite its flaws. I think for me the biggest letdown was the ending – I kept expecting for something major to happen to the protagonist. McInerney gives us these little climaxes here and there; he fails to give us one big boom at the end. And that really taught me something – you have to have a great ending. It’s interesting how Bright Lights is the story of a downfall. Downfall makes for a very effective theme in literature, a very strong theme; we see it in King Lear and so many other works.

TWOL Will Return Shortly

Dear Readers,
In honor of International Women’s Day, take a moment to think of the great women who have made a difference in your life.  They don’t need to be famous, only significant to you.  And ladies, think of the men who are in support of our work, and who are feminists as well!  As always, thanks to my readers; since beginning the MFA, things have been quite busy. But stay tuned for another post soon.

Chef Eve Aronoff: The Woman of Flavors

I was very fortunate to interview Eve Aronoff, a well-regarded chef who owns two restaurants: eve (seasonally-driven fine dining), and Frita Batidos (very casual, Cuban-inspired). She has appeared as a contestant on Top Chef, been invited to cook at the James Beard Foundation, and studied at Le Cordon Bleu. However, Eve is remarkably down-to-earth and does not take herself too seriously, always friendly and smiling when you see her in person. Here is our conversation from online interviews.

-Can you talk about your earliest recollections of cooking? What feelings did it evoke in you?
Sneaking tastes (equal to a meal in tastes) while my Mom cooked — she always warned me that I would ruin my appetite but I never once did! A feeling of abundance with the food spread on the table; rarely fancy but delicious, savory, made with a lot of love. Though it sounds cheesy you could taste it. The feeling of being nurtured.

-Can you talk a little bit more about your approach to cooking? I don’t mean the techniques, etc., but do you visualize what you cook, or have a kinesthetic sense of it, or an olfactory sense? For example, do you sort of see it like an artist with a palate of different colors? What metaphors do you use?
It is more of an instinct and just really focusing on the flavors, textures, and contrasts; being excited about ingredients as they come in and out of season; and wanting to keep a more organic presentation, which to me is more beautiful than one that is more architectural or orchestrated-looking. Does that make sense?

-Yes! Your restaurants are very accessible, I think. For many eaters it can be intimidating if something is “orchestrated,” as you put it so well. A question about classical technique — it’s something that I am always trying to understand and balance as an artist, how technique intersects with instinct. Because too much technique can kill instinct if we try to do things too perfectly. But at the same time, technique can help make things easier and give us a grounding in the fundamentals of whatever our art is. Did you find that your time at the Cordon Bleu stifled any of your natural cooking impulses? Or, did learning classical techniques allow you to go further?
I think my time in Paris at LCB was inspiring mostly from being in Paris and experiencing how central food is to culture there. I spent most of my time walking around Paris:  going to different ethnic eateries, outdoor markets (especially the North African market), pastry and cheese and charcuterie shops. I have always evolved the most from being around or even reading about cultures I am drawn to rather than learning in an official scholastic setting. Wandering around Cuban neighborhoods in Miami or going to the North African market in Paris or even reading about the history of Cuban culture and cuisine. Or reading Camus when I majored in comparative literature at Brandeis.
So being in school in Paris was educational, but more transformative was the time I spent there. I do think I refined some of my technique and presentation so I could balance that with the big bold flavors I have always been drawn to. From that I really developed my personal style as a chef — balancing complex, bold flavors paired with a very bright, cool, or refreshing contrast to create a harmony and bring out the best of both.
For me I think it is a good foundation or underpinning that can elevate your natural, more raw instincts and intuition. But if you rely on it too much to drive you, or [use it] instead of that intuition, you can lose the soul of what you are doing. If I cook that way it doesn’t taste good.

-Very interesting! It is so important not to lose the soul of what we do!
Yes, that’s the most important thing, I think. Knowledge, organization, etc. all augment what you can do artistically, but over-thinking things in a self-conscious way just tends to ruin things or at least takes a lot away when you are trying to create something special. You will never do it as well as when you are free-spirited.

-Very well said. I know it is easy to become very self-conscious, especially in the beginning stages of one’s arts career. What are your thoughts on molecular gastronomy, which really seems to push the limits in terms of food and creativity? Some marvel in this, whereas others think it’s very gimmicky.
I’m not personally drawn to molecular gastronomy to be honest, though I think it is pretty technically amazing. I don’t feel the same soul in molecular gastronomy from what I have seen/experienced, with the exception of Ferran Adrià. I feel like from there, a lot of the realness gets lost (on me at least). Also when I eat food like that, it is more of an interesting experience compared to a fulfilling one, and I usually end up ordering a pizza afterwards!

-Those dainty little dishes on a huge white plate leave us hungry and wanting pizza!

– Given the theme of this blog, I wanted to know — what are your experiences as a female chef? Is it a profession in which gender has played any impact, or is cooking a profession that transcends gender?
-I have always heard it can be a challenge to be a female chef, but in my personal experience I haven’t found it to be a major issue. I have always kind of tried to not focus on that and focus on just learning skills, so I could cook side by side with other people, whether they were male or female. Just focusing on the food, textures, and contrasts, and striving to create something delicious. Where I have encountered more bias has been in the business side of things in meetings. For example, where it seemed sometimes people may respond to you being passionate or particular as a challenge, and let it go if a male is communicating with equal or more passion, attention to detail, or sensitivity. Or sometimes people perceive you as the “creative type” without giving respect to the business aspect of what you have worked hard to learn/achieve. I have tried to handle that with being straightforward and having open communication, and that has sometimes seemed to ease the situations.

-Are there any famous women chefs you have worked with or met? Julia Child, Alice Waters, Gabrielle Hamilton, others?
Alice Waters has been very inspirational to me since I was little. We did a special dinner for the Agrarian Adventure modeled after her edible schoolyards, and she was the guest of honor, which was very exciting. I paired up with Takashi Yagihashi [of Takashi and Okada and Slurping Turtle fame] to do that dinner at the original [location of my restaurant] eve the first year we were opening, and it was a pretty transformational experience for me. It kind of opened my eyes to the community of cooking together with other chefs, especially for things we value and care about.

-So you don’t mind collaborating with other chefs?
I love to. I have grown to love to from that experience. Community means more to me than almost anything within the restaurant, and that expands it and brings people together to create something that is more multi-dimensional and often for a cause you really care about. It is very dynamic/thought-provoking working with other chefs.

-What strikes me is that your philosophy to cooking is very open and about learning, not ego-driven.
Yes, I have a lot of aspirations but I am not very competitive at all: that is one of the reasons why I think I did such a poor job on “Top Chef.” I had never seen the show and they approached me to participate. But really that was the only time I was doing self-conscious vs. free-spirited cooking and it just didn’t feel right or natural — and it was the worst job I’ve ever done at anything. So I just learned I love and thrive on real-life challenges, but not ones that feel orchestrated.

-I absolutely love Top Chef, but I can’t imagine having to cook under that kind of pressure. It seems like some wonderful, talented chefs just get booted for no reason.
I love real life pressure/challenges and I think, for me, those are even more intense, but are organic and, for me, can still be handled naturally. It just didn’t feel like it [the show] was about what I care about personally. (That’s what I was thinking about above when we were talking about losing the soul of the food.) I don’t think competition brings out the most delicious, soulful food but I learned a lot about myself from that experience, which is always good.

-What gave you the courage to pursue your career of being a chef? I was so scared and shy of going into the arts that I tried everything I could to avoid it, like spending many years in academia! But I couldn’t avoid it, because my heart was really in the arts.
That’s interesting. I could see that, but for me it was just what I cared about and was interested in and felt driven to do. So I didn’t really question it — if I had I might not have done it. I don’t know why in retrospect, but I thought I could open a restaurant. I wasn’t independently wealthy (I had NO money), but I kept looking at spaces, talking to bankers, working on my business plan whenever I wasn’t working etc…and finally all of the pieces came together to open eve, my restaurant. I really don’t know why I didn’t question things like that, or being a woman in a “male-dominated” industry, but I didn’t and I think those things have served me well. Maybe it goes back to things going better when you do them naturally — still with a lot of strategic thought but not as much questioning why/ability etc.?

-I think ultimately that is the best way, to be driven from the heart and soul instead of worrying too much about the externals.
When I went to school, my dad (who is a professor) told me to just expose myself to as many experiences as possible and find what I truly enjoyed doing and that is what I would be best at. He recommended going to lectures, etc…but for me, when I started cooking for spending money in college, I just fell head over heels in love with it and knew right away I wanted to open a restaurant. You must be very brave to pursue your art if you actually do question it – that takes a lot more bravery, I think, Sonja! I would have thought, “OMG what? Why/how can I do this? Okay, forget it…”
My parents, thank goodness, were very open-minded about me doing whatever I really was passionate about and I think that helped a LOT.

-It does really make a difference with parental support.
I have friends whose parents had a lot of preconceived notions about what careers are appropriate/suitable and that was really challenging for them personally. This has been such a fun conversation!

-What other creative outlets do you have?
I am in love with design and architecture. When I became ultimately debilitated by my back injury for an extended period of time, I was considering applying to the school of Art and Architecture at U of M. (There are so many creative facets within a restaurant, though, that it is pretty consuming/satisfying/fulfilling).

-Cooking is only one part of the equation when you run a restaurant. (Or for that matter, when one is a professional artist, one has to manage the business and career side of things.) You have two, and both are very successful — not to mention delicious! Can you talk a little bit about the business and professional side of things?
That is very nice, thank you, Sonja. I have learned a lot over a long period of time and developed skills in areas in which I was pretty deficient, which feels pretty empowering. I touched on this above because it is why the restaurant industry is so satisfying and exciting to me. What I love about the restaurant industry is how multi-faceted it is.
I love being able to constantly learn and evolve, whether in the areas of business/finance, developing my management style and our culture and personal philosophy, overcoming my shyness. Also focusing on design and having the design echo the texture and contrast of the food by striving to create a backdrop, rather than an overly “designed space.” So the contrast that is in my cooking is echoed when the people, food, spices, and music fill up the backdrop of the composition.

– One last question: what is your favorite junk or fast/casual food? Julia Child loved Fritos and peanut butter!
I have several, but I love pizza, bi bim bop, and Oreos to name a few! I have more — I am like the least elitist person in the world about food. I just love things that taste delicious to me, and I don’t think you judge junk food as a treat the way you would a Michelin starred restaurant. It is just a tasty snack but still tastes really good once in a while. I eat plenty of wholesome food, but everyone needs treats once in a while. What about yours, may I ask?

-I do love Oreos, pizza (but that can be healthy, right?) Ooh, mac and cheese from a box. I am a foodie and that is my guilty pleasure! Anything with orange cheese flavor on it is included!
OMG that was my favorite in high school — Kraft Mac and Cheese and better mac and cheese just does not taste better when that is what you are craving right?!

 -Any form of mac and cheese is really good, I must say!            TRUE! I should get back out there [to the restaurant].

-Have a great evening!                                                                               Likewise. Thanks for a great conversation and for thinking of me for this!