Saturday, October 28, 2017

"They Spoke French"--how stories get lost between generations

The stories you think you’ve passed on to your children are not necessarily stories they know.

Earlier this year, I was talking with my daughter about who-knows-what, something to do with languages, and I said that since my grandmere and grandpere always spoke to each other in French, and usually spoke in French to my father as well, I had grown up thinking it perfectly ordinary that grown-ups sometimes spoke to each other in a language the kids didn’t understand.

“What!” She nearly fell off the sofa. “They spoke French? I didn’t know that!” She had assumed that they spoke Italian, which would be a reasonable thing to assume if I hadn’t told her otherwise. My grandparents had come over from Italy, after all. Just… a French-speaking part of Italy. At least for Grandmere.

“I’m sure I told you!” And I probably had. Once. When she was very young. And apparently never again.

So she hadn’t known, and hadn’t had the slightest idea that her own Granny and Grampy could also speak French (though they didn’t normally speak it to each other, and probably hadn’t spoken it for years.)  Had she known, she said, she might—might—have considered taking French in school instead of Latin.

Suddenly things were clearer. I had wondered a little about her choosing Latin. I had offered good reasons why French or Spanish might be more fun (including that fact that I knew some of both and we would be able to talk together), and in the back of my mind I had wondered that the family connection didn’t seem to enter into her decision. But I’d never actually said, “Why don’t you take French? Your great-grandparents spoke French and your grandparents would probably be delighted.” No, I just assumed she’d considered that fact and decided that Latin would be more fun, especially since she already knew the Latin teacher and liked her.

And she did get a series of very fun Latin teachers. Later she went on the Latin Club trip to Italy, so the family connection did come in, sort of.

But how had I failed to pass on such an important bit of information? What else had I failed to tell her?

“You know Grandpere was a baker?” Yes, she did know that. Good.

“And Grandmere worked as a maid?” Yes, and now that my daughter knew Grandmere had spoken French, the story that Grandmere had passed herself off as a French maid, not Italian, made more sense. (Apparently French maids were desirable back then—Italian maids, not so much. Prejudice has a long history, though the groups involved change.)

But she had a question for me. “What did my other great-grandpa do?”


Photography, though I don’t know whether he made any money at it. Some acting, apparently. And my mom always says that there was a brief spell when he sold used cars. And…uh…

I need to go back to my mom and ask more questions, I think. I wonder what stories she told me that I have now forgotten?

At any rate, this discovery led to a discussion of the family tree, a search for the two books I have relevant to that side of the family (though one is mostly a photo book), and the conclusion that we really ought to get a genealogy program and sort this all out. And, as my daughter said, we should write down all the stories I can remember, and all that Granny can tell us, so that my daughter can pass them on to her own children some day.

Maybe they’ll decide to take French in school.

The Aunts by Isabella Halstead, The Fabulous Hooper Sisters, and assorted genealogy papers

Till next post.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Learning American Sign Language--it's interesting, challenging, and (as with most languages) probably easier if you aren't shy

Last spring, my daughter and I (and one of her friends from school) started taking a class in American Sign Language. Since this blog is about the interesting (sometimes shiny) things that grab my attention, I thought I’d mention some of the features that make this an exciting language, and also say something about my experience trying to learn what is, to me, a very unfamiliar language.

First, some of the things I find interesting about ASL. One of the most obvious is the use of space and direction of sign. For example, if the signer wants to say that she gave something to her mother, she can indicate that she is going to use the area to her left as the space for “my mother”, and then direct the movement of the “to give” sign to show that the signer is giving something to her mother. By placing “my father” to her right, she can describe an encounter between her mother and her father, neither of whom is there, without repeatedly signing “my mother” and “my father”. (If her parents were there, she could simply point to them.)

As well as using space in interesting ways, facial expression is very important. (Our teacher keeps reminding us of this—apparently we have relatively inexpressive faces most of the time.) Expression seems to play much the role that tone of voice plays for English speakers, plus more. I say “plus more”, because I think there might be some signs aren’t really complete without the appropriate expression. I’m not sure though—I think the teacher said that if you sign “sad” without a sad face, it comes across as either sarcastic (which would equate to deliberately inappropriate tone of voice) or confusing (which suggests that you didn’t really communicate what you meant).

Then there’s the fact that there is no “is.” The verb “to be” is basically non-existent. And here I thought “to be” was such a basic, crucial verb! Apparently Russian doesn’t have it, either. Our ASL teacher, who is a CODA (Child Of Deaf Adults), knows quite a few languages.

One final thing that is really neat—ABC stories. Many signs incorporate the same hand shapes used for fingerspelling. For example, “family” uses an “f” shape on both hands, and the hands make a circle. (Isn’t that a nice sign?) In ABC stories, the signer tells a story using signs that incorporate the hand shapes from A to Z, in order. We saw a Halloween ABC story on a video in which the thumb of the “A” was Dr. Frankenstein’s surgical slicing open of his creature’s skull (to put in the brain) and the final “Z” was the terrified doctor’s mad zig-zag as he fled the scene of his creation.

I said earlier that ASL is, for me, a very unfamiliar language. The only languages I know are spoken, and I’m not used to watching movements for that level of meaning. (I’m used to gestures for simple stuff, like “Over there” or “Come here” or maybe a sarcastic playing of tiny violins.) Sometimes it feels like my brain is burning from the attempt to focus and recognize the words as they are signed—and our teacher is signing at what is surely a v-e-r-y s-l-o-w pace.

As I get more familiar with the signs, I expect I will be able to recognize them faster and the sensation of my brain burning will fade. Also, maybe I’ll be able to catch more than the first and last letter of finger-spelled words (and the “h”s—for some reason, they grab my attention.)

I neglected to mention earlier that the grammar of ASL is completely different from English. That’s another challenge—figuring out the order in which I should sign so as to get across my intended meaning. John gave Jane an apple. Is it BEFORE-APPLE-JOHN-GIVE-JANE (with appropriate direction of ‘give’)?  Still not sure.

Our teacher keeps nudging us to go to DeafChat meetings and practice our conversational skills with ASL speakers, but she seems to have gotten an entire classroom full of introverts and shy people. (We have a class of about five, now.) She tells us entertaining stories about traveling to other countries and practicing her conversational skills, laughing at her mistakes and urging us to do likewise. She’s right, of course, but I have a hard enough time talking to strangers in English, never mind when I can barely get beyond my name, the weather, and my favorite food (chocolate). It’s been a problem with every language I’ve learned (some French, some Spanish). Eventually, I hope, my vocabulary and nerve will both be sufficient to give it a try.

Anyway, American Sign Language is pretty neat and I commend it to your attention. Try it--whether because you think it is cool, or because you want to learn about Deaf culture or work with Deaf people, or because you want to be able to talk to your friends during noisy concerts. Just don’t use it to give answers across the room during exams—no matter what my ASL teacher says.

She’s just being mischievous.

A hand finger-spelling the letter H.
For some reason, "H" stands out.
 Till next post.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Addicted to Story

I am addicted to story.

Poetic and dreamy as that sounds, the reality is not so rosy.

My first thought was actually “I am addicted to Netflix.” It was only after I’d given the matter more thought that I realized the problem goes much deeper.

This past year I spent a lot of time watching mysteries and detective shows via Netflix. This was partly due to having first one shoulder, then the other, freeze. Frozen shoulder meant that there were some months when my shoulder ached a lot and carrying out everyday tasks, like moving laundry out of the machine or putting away dishes, could get quite painful (especially if I knocked something over and tried to catch it with the wrong arm!). So I spent a significant amount of time distracting myself with Netflix. Sometimes I checked out audiobooks from our library. It would have been nice to spend the time catching up on reading, but repetitively turning or flicking pages seemed to result in worse pain later.

As I improved and could do more, I kept watching shows on Netflix. Sometimes it was sociable—I watched with my daughter. She knit or drew; I cooked or put dishes away. Or at least, I tried to.

Because that’s the point, the reason for this post. I cannot watch a mystery and follow a recipe without missing parts of the plot and, too often, missing parts of the recipe as well. It isn’t just the problem of turning away from the television either, though obviously that makes it easy to miss a crucial clue or facial expression. I’ve tried to clean while listening to audiobooks. There isn’t anything to look at while listening to an audiobook, but my cleaning still suffers noticeably.

The problem is that my mind cannot successfully follow a story and make decisions at the same time. If I am listening to find out whether the body in the coffin really belongs to the missing lawyer, I am not simultaneously deciding whether I ought to degrease the stovetop, or whether it would be more productive to clear the papers off the table. To decide that, I have to tear my mind away from the story—and while I do so, I miss part of the story. The story experience is weakened, and the cleaning takes much longer than it should.

The same applies to any task that requires attention. I had started a simple sweater that required nothing but knitting around and around for ages. That I could knit while watching a show.  Then I started a shawl in its place, because it was clear that I wasn’t going to be able to pull a sweater over my head for months, but I could still drape a shawl over my shoulders. (Eventually I had to stop work on the shawl, too, because the repetitive motion of knitting resulted in increased pain.)

But even though the shawl pattern was very simple and repeated only four rows, most of which were either straight knitting or straight purling, the shawl suffered from being worked on while watching Netflix. I kept having to rip back stitches because I’d missed the occasional yarn-over, or because I’d mistakenly been purling in a knit row.

So I know, from repeated and varied experience, that I cannot watch a movie (or listen to an audiobook) and simultaneously follow any but the simplest recipe or knitting pattern, or do any but the most straightforward cleaning (drying dishes, e.g.). I know this.

And yet, as I start wiping counters or pull out a soup recipe, I find I am filled with the urge to turn on the television and see if there is anything good on Netflix that I haven’t watched yet. Or maybe just watch a Poirot episode for the umpteenth time—after all, I can’t miss as much if I already know who did it. I really, really, really want to watch something! The idea of just cleaning or cooking, without the accompaniment of story, seems so… bland.

It wasn’t always this way.

Still, why am I calling this an addiction? It isn’t really, and the term gets thrown around much too casually already. I won’t suffer physiological withdrawal from leaving the television off. The urge to watch Netflix isn’t alienating me from my family—they like watching it, too. It isn’t interfering in my daily life… well, not much. Not unless you consider the number of hours I spent watching Midsomer Murders, all 116 episodes, even though it isn’t nearly as good as  Death In Paradise.

I’m saying “I’m addicted” because even though I know I can’t successfully combine watching shows with other tasks, I’m having a hard time keeping myself from trying to do so—over and over again. The lure is just too great.

Further, I’m saying I’m addicted to story because it doesn’t actually matter if the story comes in the form of video, audiobook, or paperback. Books tend to be less of a problem because I really can’t do anything else while reading a book, so I don’t try. (If it is an ebook, I can walk on the treadmill while reading it, but walking is automatic enough that I can do both successfully.)

Having said that, there are some situations where my absorption in a book does pose a problem.  If I start a book in the evening, I often don’t want to stop reading to go to bed. I stay up too late and don’t get enough sleep. That has happened many times.

Also, I tend not to be very responsive to my family when I am in the midst of a good book. My daughter will not let me forget one evening when she was young and I wouldn’t put down my book long enough to read her a bedtime story. I suspect I asked my husband to take over that one night so I could keep reading—I almost always did read to her—but that isn’t the way she saw it. That night, she and the book were in competition for my attention—and the book won.

Now we’ve reached the part of the post where, having outlined the problem, I propose a solution.

Umm, willpower?

Disconnecting the router?

A resolution not to watch/read/listen to any story that isn’t truly worthwhile, and to give my undivided attention to those that are?

Well, I’m still working on it. I would be pleased to hear from anyone else with a similar problem, especially if they have found a solution that works for them.

Till next post.

The much-abused pink shawl in progress.

P.S. In case you were wondering, that total is 174 hours of Midsomer Mysteries, or about a month's worth of forty-hour work-weeks. And it wasn't the only thing I watched.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Chocolate Tofu Mousse--a foamy chocolate tofu for you

Today I’m going to give you a recipe for Chocolate Tofu Mousse.

Six bowls of Chocolate Tofu Mousse

Why would you want a recipe for Chocolate Tofu Mousse? Good question. There are plenty of delicious recipes for chocolate mousse that use wonderful rich cream instead of tofu. There are even recipes that don’t use any dairy at all, without using tofu. And I’m not going to tell you that you won’t taste the tofu. My daughter claims not to be able to taste it, but she likes tofu so much that she eats silken tofu right out of the package. Unless you like tofu as much as she does, you’re going to notice a slight tofu taste. It takes a little getting used to.

One possibility is that you are looking for a dessert with protein. Between the egg white and the tofu, this mousse does have some protein. But beware! This is not a health food. It has sugar and chocolate. It contains no vegetables, and probably has negligible fiber. If you want something really nutritious, make a fried tofu dish with lots of veggies, or a veggie-filled omelet! Those can be tasty, too.

It is possible that you are looking for a dairy-free mousse. Sorry, I use milk chocolate in this (although you don’t have to—the original recipe uses three ounces of bittersweet chocolate.) Alice Medrich has a dairy-free mousse in Bittersweet (I had the wrong title earlier) Chocolate and the Art of Low-fat Desserts, and I even made it once, though that was twelve years ago. I remember it as being tasty, if rather intense.

You might be looking for a dessert that will boost your calcium intake. I am still checking to see if there is a silken tofu that is high in calcium. The brand I used for this recipe turns out to use a different coagulant, apparently, and so has little calcium. I don’t know if that’s a feature of silken tofu more generally, as compared to the non-silken type used for frying.

It’s probably pretty safe to say that it has less fat than more typical versions of mousse involving heavy cream. It doesn’t taste as rich either—you wouldn’t want to serve a cream-based mousse in the portions I show here. You’d get indigestion. I’m not sure whether “can be eaten in larger quantities” is actually a selling point, but there you are. A foamy chocolate dessert that is lighter than a cream-based mousse.

Chocolate Tofu Mousse (6 generous servings or 9 discreet ones)

12.5 oz silken tofu (the kind in aseptic packaging is unrefrigerated till opened)
3/8 cup Dutch-process cocoa
2 oz milk chocolate, chopped
1 ½ oz semi-sweet chocolate chips (about ¼ cup)
3/8 cup boiling water
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
9 tablespoons liquid pasteurized egg white
½ cup sugar

Bring measured pasteurized egg whites to room temp or thereabouts if possible. They will not whip as well as regular egg whites, so give them every advantage. Also be sure that the measuring cup, mixing bowl, and whisk are all free of oil or grease. (Note: you want to whip egg whites around room temp, whereas you whip cream when it is good and cold.)


Puree the tofu in a food processor until it is velvety-smooth, perhaps 2 minutes.

Velvety smooth silken tofu

Combine cocoa and chopped chocolates with boiling water in medium bowl. Stir till smooth. Then I like to add the chocolate to the food processor, along with the vanilla, and really mix it into the tofu. But you could also put the pureed tofu in the bowl and stir there, I expect.

Rinse bowl (if you did as I do) and then scoop all the chocolate mix back into it.

Chocolate mixture blended with silken tofu

Be sure to wash or at least thoroughly rinse all parts of the food processor before the tofu dries on it.

Now whip those eggs whites. Start in stand mixer (if you have one) with a whisk on medium. After they get a bit frothy, start adding the sugar. Increase the speed to high. It takes a while, maybe ten minutes, to get soft droopy peaks. Maybe if you continued, you could get it stiffer—I chicken out at this point since I’m not confident pasteurized egg white can whip that stiffly. Soft peaks still works for this mousse.

Whipped egg whites

Gently fold about a quarter of the whipped egg white into the chocolate mix to lighten it. Then add the lightened chocolate mix to the bowl of egg whites and fold till just blended. Spoon or pour mixture into dessert cups. Cover with plastic wrap (plastic should not touch mousse) and refrigerate three hours or more before serving.
The original recipe for this (from Weight Watchers Magazine) was for a mint-chocolate tofu mousse that used only bittersweet chocolate and cocoa, and added 3/8 tsp peppermint extract. You can use 3 oz bittersweet chocolate instead of the mix of milk and semi-sweet, for a more intense chocolate flavor. I would not recommend more than 1/8 tsp peppermint, though.

You can use powdered egg white and water instead of liquid egg whites. It would probably whip better. I just don’t like the extra step of hydrating the egg.

Till next post.