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Extra Good Special Things

My daughter knows nuthin' from nuthin', yet she writes beautifully!

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This space contains most of my published work to date, the most recent at the top.

Monday
May252015

Of Pinholes & Peepshows

Originally Published December 11, 2014 in Cleaver Magazine

You can’t return to the days of Polaroids. Not really.

There are modern approximations - crafty mimicry that recalls the once ubiquitous family camera. I like the app Hipstamatic, a high-end photographic fast food that can reproduce the bygone look of analogue photography with the convenience of a cell phone. Then there are the dogged geniuses of The Impossible Project who recently reinvented the defunct self-developing film. But if you grew up during the days of the first Polaroid cameras, those instant snaps became forever entwined with your childhood. Here’s one of me with our cat, and our mother’s handwriting. Typical in our family, the photo was about the cat, not the child:

 

 Our parents were unsentimental, and discarded the old camera when something smaller and lighter came along. But during the 1960s, theirs was the J66 Polaroid Land Camera, gargantuan by modern standards, with a 14mm f/19 lens (according to the manuals one can still find on-line). It was a complicated machine compared to the later iconic Polaroid cameras that spit out one photo at a time. The film came on a roll, and the user had not only to move the film through the pressure rollers to start the process, but also had to wrench the protective paper out of the camera to initiate developing. After counting to 10, you opened the camera back, peeled out the photo, and immediately preserved it with careful, even swipes of the peculiarly aromatic fixer tube that came with each roll of film. It was a ritual I reverently watched my mother perform countless times, in slack-jawed admiration. The photographic options of the J66 were stream-lined to near point-and-shoot levels, the assumption being that the users didn’t know their way around a camera, and didn’t care to. “Learn to hold the camera steady by pressing it against your face,” the manual suggested helpfully.

On my lap now is a family album dated 1961-1965, containing 3 x 4 inch deckled-edged pictures taken with that Polaroid camera. The instant gratification the camera provided meant that it was used often, recording seemingly mundane moments that would otherwise have been forgotten. I see not only the faces and stuff of our childhoods, but a shocking revelation that the house was once tastefully, even sparsely furnished, showing clean lines long since obscured behind lean-to bookshelves, walls over-populated with pictures, and thickets of knick knacks. Even the oak floors were visible - before the ‘70s buried them in wall-to-wall. Many things haven’t budged in all this time. When the everyday is photographed and archived - and then 50 years pass - the frozen scenes acquire a gravitas they lacked at the moment.

The time is nearing, after almost 60 years, when the house will no longer be ours. I find myself compelled to photograph and archive this place that retains so much history, so many pieces of our lives in the very walls and wood and footprint. My three siblings and I ran amok here, grew up, moved out and in many times. Our parents grew old here. Grandma died in the cottage behind the house, and Dad in the living room. Our mother is old, so old she wanders in her mind and forgets that her husband died over a year ago. She fears that he won’t fit next to her in the narrow hospital bed that replaced the sagging king-sized one in their room at the top of the stairs. How do I memorialize this house, these people? It is a place where change has happened reluctantly or not at all, and now irrevocable change is looming. For now, at least, some change is held at bay: drink time is still four o’clock and so it will be until none of us come there anymore.

And so I have taken to photographing in a manner antithetical to the lickety-split days of modern documentation. I am using pinhole cameras that I make myself. The basics of a pinhole camera are simple: There is a container (a box, or can or other such empty enclosed space). There is a tiny hole to let in light, and something to cover it when you wish to prevent light from entering. Finally, there is the photo-sensitive surface - paper or film - placed inside the container. The Polaroid J66 took snapshots in a fraction of a second. The exposures I make must, by nature of the pinhole’s lack of technology, sometimes take as long as 48 hours. Because I am looking back over extended, stretched time, it seems fitting that snapshots should give way to the long, stretched exposures afforded by a pinhole. Time, how we experience it, is fickle. I am slowing things down, and breathing in and out thousands of times as one simple latent image evolves.

I set my cameras around the house, beginning each exposure by peeling off the black tape from the pinhole. A camera watches, unmoving, spying for as long as I allow it. It sees the light and dark and begins to gather the two, pulling them in, creating tonal ranges, drawing the lines and curves of the vista within its angle of view. People can go about their business, might even stop and stare, but they pass too quickly to register. Not even a ghost of them remains – unless it is my mother, who sits in her chair for hours on end these days. Only the still and the illuminated will be laid down on the emulsion.

I do not tidy the clutter of the house or clean off the dust. Beyond clearing a space for the camera, I leave things be. The results show the inherent distortions and sometimes unpredictable occurrences of pinhole photography, a scene strewn with blinding highlights and murky shadows as the sun comes and goes and returns again outside the windows, and the lights of the inside are turned on and off in their normal course. The images are like a day’s worth of security footage, condensed to a single frame.

I’ll do this until I can’t anymore: choose a spot, and with a giddy sense of reverence, reveal the pinhole and walk away to go about my business. “Go ahead,” I murmur. “Do your thing.”

Here's the link to Cleaver Magazine and the slideshow of pinhole images.

http://www.cleavermagazine.com/of-pinholes-peepshows-by-r-c-barajas/

Tuesday
Oct212014

Boy and Dog: 10 Years Later

Originally Published in the Washingtom Post Style Blog April 6, 2014

This is the end-of-life tale of a faithful, troubled dog, who came to our family sporting a bullet in her leg.

It’s been 10 years since Mocha appeared on the pages of the Washington Post Magazine, accompanied by illustrations by my then 11 year-old son, Sebastian. When our vet, Dr. Stephen Rogers discovered upon x-ray that this newly adopted dog of ours had bullet fragments in one hip, Sebastian and his twin brothers were outraged by the abuses this brindled mix-breed dog had suffered. Over time, we learned to handle the timidity and occasional aggressiveness of this poorly socialized young dog. Sebastian had turned to his sketchbook, creating an alter ego for her, a muscular dog who burst with a righteous power that neither Mocha – nor he – possessed. From his brightly colored pens sprang a laser wielding, Kung-Fu fighting, unexpectedly cultured crusader, to avenge her family against the evil-doers who’d shot her*.

The Mocha Comics, as they came to be called, helped Sebastian negotiate the transition from the benevolence of elementary school to the chaos of middle school. Meanwhile, Mocha slowly eased into her new life, learning how to trust us as we in turn fell helplessly in love with her. Their concurrent journeys of adaptation created a life-long bond.

A year after getting Mocha, we adopted a canine sister. Being part of a pack allowed Mocha to assuage some of her anxiety. She relaxed even further, and most of her old fears finally receded from her daily behaviors. She was always sweet and nurturing with children, but still distrusted such things as tall men. A tall friend of ours, who came over weekly for dinner, was her sworn enemy for almost two years. Then one day, she relented and he became one of her favorite people, her go-to guy for caresses. Once she accepted you into her pack, you were in for life.

Sebastian made it through middle school then high school, if not unscathed, at least in one piece. That August he dutifully - if cautiously - went off to college. The large state school was a bad fit from the start, and the stars did not align either in his living situation or with his classes and professors. He rebounded back home in two months, dispirited and unmoored.

Mocha and Sebastian once again found themselves experiencing a seminal transition together. What followed for Sebastian was a three-year period of soul-searching. As he regained his footing, he began what I thought of as a Liberal Arts Program For One, in which he read, wrote and studied music intensively. He populated each day with these activities, with an impressive discipline. Mocha accompanied him during this time of searching. She watched him practice his newly discovered love of archery, listened to him learning Irish tunes on his violin, and lay in her bed next to the chair where he wrote into the wee hours. During this time, Sebastian rekindled his innate enjoyment of learning.  At the end of those three years, his motivation revived, he dove into the rigors of a classical education at St. John’s College in Annapolis, to study ancient Greek, the great Philosophers, and the very principals that make up western culture.

Mocha at 12 had begun the inevitable decline into old age. Her bullet-ridden leg was arthritic and often unwilling to hold her up. As her eyes became cloudy, she went further adrift in her mind, imagining enemies at her gates, fighting them in her near-blindness and confusion. Then one day, she began to whimper and stumble, and to walk into corners she couldn’t find her way out of.

Last week, we ended her life. A suspected brain tumor was the final, insurmountable villain that no Kung-fu moves could cure. Dr. Rogers, who had first discovered the bullet that launched a thousand comics, gave her two injections – one to calm her, one to stop her heart. Sebastian, his father and I were with her.

Sebastian is about to begin his Sophomore year. He is happy and has found “his people” at last. Mocha was his unquestioning ally through all the years that got him to this place, and he was her charge, her special responsibility. Having propelled her rocket of a boy into orbit before falling away from him back to earth, her job is at last done.

*The original story

 

Tuesday
Oct152013

Does anyone read all those college applications? 

Originally printed in the Washington Post Magazine, Education Issue, April 11, 2013

It feels like a lifetime ago, but it was New Year’s Eve morning, a few short winter months back. The house was quiet. At 2:20 a.m. our three boys —18-year-old twins and a 21-year-old — had finally finished a whirlwind of applications to 18 colleges and collapsed into bed.

The best-laid plans of parents and guidance counselors are of no avail against the forces of young-adult procrastination. All December, our house had reverberated with curses at a temperamental Internet and voices yelling: Can someone read this essay and tell me if it sucks? What on earth’s an SSN? Hey, what’s the difference between race and ethnicity? What’s my stupid password? Desperate e-mails flew to mentors begging, Please, please send that letter of recommendation before tomorrow’s deadline! Name-calling escalated between the twins as one got called for an interview while the other had to request his. Doors slammed. Dinners became moody eggshell walks. And secretly, we-the-parents feared a shutout.

They could all be living at home next year, watching reruns of “Family Guy” and glaring at us from the sofa.

Most of their submissions had involved clicking the Common Application’s “send” button, but while the boys slept that last morning, we-the-parents dashed to the post office to mail ancillary material, in our case, music audition CDs, by the Jan. 1 deadline.

After that frenzy, two dogs snoozed in the corner (the third had stolen back into bed with one of the boys), unaware that all the angst-ridden behavior of the last weeks would deprive them of all three of their favorite playmates before long.

We-the-parents stared at each other over mugs of scalding coffee. So, what now?

Thousands of families had doubtless made the same post office dash. Thousands of other kids had doubtless left it to the last millisecond, too. And most were applying to colleges buried in applications. Schools could populate their freshman classes several times over with excellent incarnations. It’s like mass insanity.

So, what now? Weren’t we all thinking it? After the wordsmithing, the second-guessing and the fee-paying — we shelled out $970 in application fees, $618 to the College Board for SAT fees and its financial aid form, and I don’t even want to think about the test prep expenses — what happens? Who goes through the applications? How much time do they dedicate to each one?

Rumors abound among high school students. I remember our eldest saying, with a feeble laugh: “Did you know that admissions officers use headless chickens who run around, then fall and bleed on a pile of applications? The ones with the most bloodstains get accepted.” I’ve overheard the false bravado of the twins and their friends: “Ouija boards and Magic 8 Balls, dude. They probably play pin-the-tail-on-the-application while laughing hysterically.”

It would be eye-opening, wouldn’t it, to take a peek behind the wizard’s curtain? I wondered if any schools would be willing to reveal the most naked workings of their famously opaque admissions processes and allow us to have a look. I decided to approach schools in the Washington area. The first school slammed the gates, but Goucher College, Howard University and the University of Maryland welcomed a full view from start to finish, and the University of Virginia agreed to phone interviews.

Goucher College

Goucher College is a small, private liberal arts college tidily nestled in 287 wooded acres in suburban Baltimore. It is the only college in the United States to require its students to study abroad. President Sandy Ungar, sipping tea in his office overlooking winter-bare trees, is sympathetic to beleaguered applicants and colleges alike.

“It’s such a tense time. There’s almost no way for everybody to be wise about it. This confluence of forces — anybody who ends up making a wise decision is really lucky,” he says.

Before his tenure, Ungar had various careers, including a stint as a Washington Post staff writer in the early 1970s. He is a trim, energetic man with an engaging manner. “I’m very interested personally in the kids who are searching and who’ve learned some humility along the way, who know how to learn and who know that there’s still so much to learn, and who are not fooled into thinking that taking 12 [advanced-placement classes] makes them brilliant.”

The conference room where the admissions committee is meeting has the air of a room temporarily cleared for utilitarian purposes. Chairs are stacked against the walls, and two large tables are shoved together, their surfaces crawling with cables and modems that lead like life-support lines to the laptops of four admissions officers. These officers are Lisa Hill, Nenelwa Tomi, Will Lederer and Director of Admissions Corky Surbeck, joined later by Kim Murdock. Tomi, Lederer and Murdock are Goucher alums. Seven admissions officers total rotate in and out of the committee meetings. When not present, chances are they’re cloistered in their offices reading; “reading,” in the language of admissions, means examining application files.

The room is dimly lighted, as an enormous spreadsheet is projected on a wall. It represents the 3,500 applicants for the fall term — 500 applications per first-read counselor, although each file gets a second review by another counselor. The applications review, or reading period, takes about 13 weeks from December to early March.

Prospective students are listed alphabetically by high school. Across the top of the spreadsheet are more than 20 fields, such as region, grade-point average, midyear GPA, class rank (if available), ethnicity, whether the student is of athletic interest, whether he or she took the SAT (optional at Goucher) and the student’s contact history with the college. This constitutes the student’s personal row.

For academics, Goucher uses a 1 to 6 ranking system based on standardized test scores and students’ recalculated GPA (many colleges adjust high school GPAs to level the playing field between schools of varying strength and number of honors or AP classes offered). An A to D rating reflects all non-academic components. “An A represents a student who is multi-dimensional with broad leadership experience,” Surbeck says, “while a D represents a student with little extracurricular activity.” Goucher is considered selective, accepting 73.5 percent of its applicants.

At most schools, students discussed in committee are under review because their cases are not clear-cut. Michael J. O’Leary, Goucher’s vice president for enrollment management, explains: “What one person might see as a red flag, the other person might see as someone who has overcome an obstacle and has learned from it and will flourish.”

At Goucher (and many other schools), the officer who presents the case is familiar with the student’s high school and all the schools in its region. The officer also knows the school counselors, which is useful if he or she needs clarification or information. High school counselors are an essential piece in this process. In some cases, they are the most valuable link between student and college.

In one discussion, a student’s GPA declined in her junior year to below 2.8, the floor of what Goucher generally accepts. All the officers look at her files on their laptops, searching the data to get a sense of the person behind the numbers. Surbeck, who has access to the latest submission material, finds the student’s midyear reports, which show that her grades appear to be on the upswing. All the officers relax, and some nod approvingly. This GPA rebound, coupled with her interesting extracurriculars and strong essay, satisfy them, and she is admitted.

Lisa Hill, who has 18 years’ experience at Goucher, has control of the spreadsheet. She highlights the student’s line in green. This discussion lasted a lean five minutes.

The next applicant is rated a 6C, meaning her academics are weak and her outside interests indicate she would have average impact on the school. Her essay is disorganized, her grades have declined, and she failed a core science class. They vote to deny. Her line is highlighted in red.

The next case is presented by Lederer, a recent graduate who majored in music and at 22 is the youngest of the officers. He is the only temporary member, hired through May to replace a staff member who departed unexpectedly. “This is an interesting case,” he muses. The student has a richly international background, is described as a “true thinker” in one recommendation and has solid SAT scores. Lederer is on the fence because the student’s grades are “a little strange,” ranging from 2.45 to 3.2 for an aggregate GPA of 2.59. Lederer notes, however, that his classes have been highly challenging. The officers think the student is intriguing — one even calls him “cool.” “He’s perfectly matched to Goucher,” Surbeck says, and the student’s line is highlighted in green.

Next: a girl who elicits a few groans with two D’s in 10th and 11th grades with a “non-specific” health issue cited as the reason. Surbeck decides they will wait-list her to “test her interest.” If Goucher was just a casual addition to her list of schools, they probably won’t hear back from her. If she wants to be kept on the wait list, that shows a degree of interest not evident in her application. At this point, she is a “ghost,” an applicant who has not visited or made any contact except through the application itself. Hill highlights her row in blue.

The committee can get through 60 to 150 applications per day. “We don’t want to set up a student for failure — that’s the wrong thing to do,” Surbeck says later. “I’m a believer that retention begins at the admissions stage.”

Goucher will accept 2,400 students, and 15 to 17 percent are expected to enroll. By contrast, an Ivy League school might accept less than 10 percent of an enormous pool of applicants, but 80 percent of those will enroll.

University of Virginia

At the public University of Virginia, where reading begins in November, the admissions committee is well into processing its 29,250 applications by mid-February. One-third of the applications arrive between Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, the deadline at many schools. Jeannine Lalonde,senior assistant dean of admissions, is reading at home partly because she is sick and partly because it is quieter.

Lalonde is also known as Dean J on Notes From Peabody: The UVA Admission Blog, where she discusses U-Va. admissions to help demystify the process. The reality is that the officers must deny most applicants, and it concerns her that during the wooing period, so many schools fill mailboxes with colorful brochures begging students to apply. She believes U-Va. doesn’t overdo it.

The path of an application through U-Va.’s admissions process is as complex as the variety of applications themselves. It is known to be selective:It accepts 27 percent of its undergraduate applicants, so most prospective students have done their research and fall within the parameters of the statistically accepted.

U-Va. maintains a holistic (incidentally, this word is extremely popular among admissions officers) approach to applicants. There is no hard cut-off for test scores that would single-handedly rule out an applicant. “Testing doesn’t drive decisions anymore,” Lalonde says. That said, a quick look at the statistics shows that the average SAT scores of U-Va.’s accepted students is a combined math and critical reading score of 1340; 92 percent have a 3.75 GPA or above; 93.1 percent ranked in the top tenth of their class.

U-Va.’s admissions staff consists of 15 deans, five counselors and roughly 10 temporary readers. The university is shifting toward a regional approach like Goucher’s, meaning officers will be in charge of geographic areas. This year the university is also increasing its targeted enrollment of first-year students from 3,360 to 3,485. (About 8,400 to 8,500 students will be accepted; 42 percent are projected to enroll.)

At least two people read each student’s file, more if the student has applied to a specific school at the university, or if he or she falls into the category of an underrepresented group. From January to March, deans and counselors each read 30 files a day.

As at Goucher, a student’s application goes before the admissions committee if more input is needed to reach a decision. “It’s like a puzzle; when you fixate on any piece, you’re missing something,” Lalonde says.

For those students who wonder if all their wordsmithing is worth the effort: “The essays are our favorite part,” she says.

Howard University

Linda Sanders-Hawkins was an undergraduate at Howard University, then a graduate student and then worked her way up to director of undergraduate admissions eight years ago. She wants to protect the standards and the legacy of this private historically black college.

She also sympathizes with the angst that students and their families undergo. She confesses that her own son, when it came time to apply to college, was doing the midnight deadline dance. She found herself sitting at the table with him, unable to believe that even she, a director of admissions, was in the same boat as so many parents.

This year, Howard received 11,000 applications; it will accept 54 percent, and generally about 25 percent of those enroll. Applications are divided alphabetically among eight admissions officers and as many as 20 faculty members who read applications to their particular schools or colleges of study.

In early March, a committee of two from the College of Engineering, Architecture and Computer Sciences (CEACS) meets. The college’s assistant dean for student affairs, LaWanda Peace, leads the discussion. Next to her is Harry Keeling, associate professor of systems and computer science. Ten files are up for review, each with a deficiency in either GPA or test scores. The committee looks at the documents, papers arranged in gray folders. A strong application (one with at least a combined 1080 in the math and reading sections of the SAT and a GPA of 3.0) might garner an outright acceptance, while a weaker application is discussed and ruled upon by majority vote.

Peace and Keeling examine one student’s transcripts to see if she took science and technology courses. She did — and in fact one of her letters is from her physics teacher. Her GPA is fine at 3.2, but her test scores were lower than the admissions officers like. They notice the encouraging letter from her assistant principal, who reveals additional insight: This student, through extraordinary determination, had lost an enormous amount of weight. The committee sees this as a sign of drive and character. Ultimately her honor roll status and her ranking in the top 30 percent of her class, along with the recommendations, gain her admission.

While Peace pores over an essay from a home-schooled student who lost her mother and had to make her way in a mainstream high school, Keeling does some calculations on another student whose high school uses an unusually tough grading system that lowered his GPA to a 2.7. There is a concentrated silence as every document is examined. Keeling is troubled by two folders in front of him: Neither applicant shows any real interest in technology. One student wants to go into music production, which isn’t relevant to CEACS. Keeling and Peace decide to redirect these two files to the College of Arts and Sciences.

Another student with an abysmal 2.1 GPA is a conundrum, but things become clearer as they study the file: This student had been the sole caretaker for an elderly grandparent, who then died, leaving the student on his own. Parents are not in evidence. His grades did take a turn for the worse but rebounded to almost 3.4 in his junior year, and he continued a rigorous curriculum with A’s and B’s in all the right classes. His high SAT scores and a top score on an AP exam persuades the committee. The members admit him — albeit with a recommendation he take the school’s summer bridge program.

Howard has recently begun to incorporate interviews into its admissions process, hoping to round out its understanding of a student whose qualities might not come across adequately in the application. “It helps us to participate more holistically to get to know an applicant,” Sanders-Hawkins says.

University of Maryland

The University of Maryland received 26,000 undergraduate applications this year. Twelve admissions counselors will each read more than 2,000 randomly assigned applications to fill 3,975 spaces.

At the moment, 10 counselors are seated in front of laptops around a large modular table. A basket of snacks rests in the middle. Projected on the screen is the file under discussion. Every document the student has sent has been scanned. U-Md. does not use the Common App, employing instead its own online forms. Admitted freshmen have a strong A-minus or B-plus average, with the middle 50 percent of SAT scores ranging from 1260 to 1410.

Colleen Newman, senior assistant director for freshman admissions, runs the meeting. The student under review is from out of state. She has a 3.9 GPA, but her SAT scores, at 990 combined reading and math, are low. They gaze at her transcript: A’s in ninth and 10th grades, and increased challenges in 11th and 12th bringing in A’s and B’s. The presenter says simply, “I really like her.” Her essays exude confidence, he says, and not only was the student on the honor roll for all of high school, but her letters of recommendation are stellar. She starred in several school musicals and is ranked 13th in a competitive class. “Let’s take the temperature of the room,” Newman says. “All in favor of fall admission?” Ten hands go up, and the student is admitted.

The next case is a boy with a 3.36 GPA and 1300 SAT. In this case, the test scores are fine, but the transcript is worrisome. The course load is not rigorous, and his grades are all over the place. There’s no telling how such a student might perform. He has not taken advantage of what his high school has to offer. The presenter thinks this student is not forthcoming in his essay. “Even his application feels very guarded to me,” she says sadly. Zero votes for fall admission, eight votes to deny, and two to offer spring admission.

“He’s got potential. I think a denial is very harsh for this type of student,” one argues. The presenter, who voted for spring admission, says: “I just want to give him a hug! I feel like, in the right community, he could do really well.” In the end, the majority rules. He will not be coming to U-Md. This denial took significantly longer than the earlier acceptance.

The last student of the day is an out-of-state boy with a GPA of 3.3 and SATs of 1209. His grades are chaotic, but his letters of recommendation are among the strongest the presenter has ever seen — one details the extreme kindness shown by the student toward a teacher who was going through hard times. Great essays, varied extracurriculars: The presenter is clearly taken with this young man. Another counselor is unimpressed: “I just don’t think he’s performing well.” Another defends him. “I like what people said about his character. He has high emotional intelligence.”

He is admitted by a clear majority.

Now we wait

So, in the end there were no headless chickens, no Ouija boards, no pin-the-tail games. Not at the schools I visited, at any rate. From the admissions counselors I spoke with and the committee meetings I witnessed, I felt a sense of humanity in their process, a pride in the hours (and hours) spent poring over applications. These officers seem dedicated to trying to understand the human student behind the electronic file. The process seems more like detective work than ax swinging.

And now it’s finally April, which means that most college-bound students have heard the news (good or bad) and received the envelopes (fat or thin). If you have been awaiting news, I hope you made at least one happy match.

How did my three boys do? Of the 18 schools they collectively applied to, they were accepted at 13 and wait-listed at four, so we are content. Now we have to see how on earth we are going to pay for three college tuitions. At once.

R.C. Barajas is a writer living in Virginia.

Wednesday
Jun062012

Book Review: Anatolian Days & Nights

Originally Published in The Philadelphia Enquirer, May 13, 2012

Anatolian Days & Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey

By Joy E. Stocke and Angie Brenner

Wild River Books. 264 pp. $16.95

Reviewed by R. C. Barajas

 Toward the end of Anatolian Days & Nights, a 12-year-old boy, tour guide for a day to the two authors, encourages them to take shards of pottery that lie amid the rubble of the ancient Turkish city of Harran. “There are so many pots to choose from and all of them so very old, ladies. So old it makes my head hurt,” he says. The honest, childlike remark seems to encapsulate the modern-day view of this intensely complex, richly fabled country. It is so old, and there are so many pieces that don’t fit together yet retain a sharp-edged color and beauty. Who wouldn’t get a headache trying to make sense of it all?

Co-authors Joy E. Stocke and Angie Brenner don’t attempt to fit the fractured pieces back together. Rather, they tell small stories of their travels together through Turkey over the years, vignettes that illuminate bits and pieces of the culture and history they’ve encountered. The two take turns narrating, and Brenner provides the lovely watercolor illustrations that head each chapter. The book is in sections, each a different Turkish trip they took together after having met in the Mediterranean city of Kalkan and becoming friends in Spring of 2001. It ends with their last trip in 2009.

In the best moments of this book — part travelogue, part spiritual journey, part personal memoir — the authors simply tell the stories that unfold around them. There are lovely moments, such as when Stocke recounts a performance of whirling dervishes, and explains a little of the history of this spectacular ceremony and the significance surrounding the movements. In another chapter, the authors are invited to dinner at the home of a friend, and end up in the kitchen happily cooking with their hosts. The warmth and generosity of the people they meet consistently comes across with simple and true clarity.

Where the authors get into difficult terrain is when they attempt to recreate conversations, which hit the page stiffly and unnaturally. It feels as though, in the belief that dialogue makes for more intimate storytelling, they simply bracketed prose with quotation marks. This becomes particularly distracting for the reader during the intimate girl-talk moments between the two, usually regarding Brenner’s love interests (I’ve had plenty of girl-talk moments in my life, and none of them sounded so flat and rehearsed). It would have been nice to hear in the dialogue more of the authors’ bright energy and spunky, adventurous natures, hinted at throughout the book.

That aside, this is a worthwhile book for women planning a man-free trip to Turkey. It is by no means a guidebook — too many of the essentials of day-to-day life are omitted (one misses the nitty-gritty: how much did they spend per day? How does tipping/haggling work there? Where on earth does a woman relieve herself in the desert? What kind of shoes did they wear?). What it does have are tales torn from the pages of their journals — albeit slightly scattershot in the telling — that share their adventures and introduce many of the people they have met along the way. There is a lot to be said for two women, one married with children, the other single, who choose to travel through a country where such a thing provokes shock, distrust, and assumptions about the flexibility of their moral character. The two handle awkward or frightening situations with grace and intelligence. There is surprisingly little humor, however, and in one instance their attempt at it seems slightly cruel: An old woman bares her soul and they later crack wise about the old, dry cake she served them. At other times, they don’t take full advantage of some dicey situations that might have been hilarious in the retelling.

One difficulty in having two authors trading narration is that it’s hard to get to know either in depth. When, for example, Brenner reveals issues involving her love life, we don’t know her well enough to receive this information with any real sympathy. It becomes rather squirmy to read of her besotted feelings for various Turkish men. I found myself just wanting her to woman up and snap out of it. 

The latter part of the book is the most illuminating, in particular the tale in which a schoolteacher, acting as their translator, connects with and is educated by a group of dour women activists for an organization that works to end the practice of recem — the sanctioned murder of married women accused of extramarital sex. It is a warm but sobering moment.

A stricter editor might have urged the authors to tell less and show more. But the magnificent diversity of the land, and the colors, scents and taste of it, are ably described by both. There is a helpful Turkish pronunciation guide, too, in the front of the book. But the watercolor map, printed in black and white, ends up being somewhat confusing. “Turkey” is written inside the Black Sea, which is precisely the same shade of gray as the surrounding shapes of Georgia, Bulgaria and the Mediterranean.  This could bring about another headache.

 

Wednesday
Jun062012

The Science of Sweetness

Originally Published in the Washington Post - Style: April 6, 2012

Winnette McIntosh Ambrose does double duty at Sweet Lobby bakery and NIH lab

 

On a perfect day, Winnette McIntosh Ambrose would be in the kitchen of the Sweet Lobby, the pastry shop on Barracks Row she owns with her brother, by 6 a.m., in her National Institutes of Health lab by 10 a.m. and home by 8 p.m.

But not every day is perfect.

On this day, Ambrose is in the throes of training a new baker, which makes her a little late to Building 6 on the NIH campus, where she dons a white lab coat and peers through a microscope at mouse retinal cells. The cells are being cultured on a new biomaterial that Ambrose hopes will provide them with a better living environment than regular substrate. She would like to see, someday, sections of this biomaterial transplanted into degenerating retinas to restore vision.

Usually, her two lives — one as a creator of fine pastries and the other as a biochemical engineer — dovetail in a strange kind of harmony. Ambrose has a simple explanation why. “A lot of what we do in the lab involves a protocol of some kind,” Ambrose says. “You figure out how to plan an experiment in order to test the hypothesis. When you do an experiment, there are proportions — so this idea of following recipes to get a desired result is very much innate to me. When it comes to the kitchen, it’s kind of a similar thing. It was just a natural fit for me.”

The fit proved so natural that in February, just seven months after opening its doors on Capitol Hill, the Sweet Lobby won Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars.” Ambrose, incidentally, has never taken a cooking class.

Any cook knows that science has its place in the kitchen — it thickens sauces, raises souffles and enables other seemingly magical transformations. But Ambrose understands the marriage of sugar and butter just as she understands the link between tissue and substrate.

And there’s something more in the way this 36-year-old has dedicated her energies and expertise toward healing the most essential parts of the human body — the eye, the heart and the insatiable sweet tooth inside each of us. She is a perfectionist — tempered with a gift for madly creative improvisation. The same commitment to trial and error that is evident in her design of a cardiovascular stent (Ambrose holds a patent for the first Food and Drug Administration-approved carotid stenting device) is evident in her colorful macarons, which sit in mouth-watering rows in the Sweet Lobby’s custom-designed cases.

Fascination with science

As a young girl, growing up in a middle-class family on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, Ambrose exhibited a highly motivated and ambitious nature. She always had a fascination with science, as well as an interest in languages.

“I knew from a fairly early age that there was this place called MIT, where you studied engineering, and you had to work really hard to get there. It was my goal from very early on.” At that point in her life, she’d had little exposure to things culinary. “What I did do,” she says happily, “was eat a lot of really tasty food.”

At 19, she entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on scholarship, beginning a double major in chemical engineering and French language and literature. “So having this kind of dual mind-set is something I’ve been comfortable with for a long time,” Ambrose says.

Almost immediately, she met fellow Trinidadian Ricardo Ambrose, a Computer Science major, and fell in love. They were married six days after graduation.

The food at MIT was ghastly, she says, so under Ricardo’s direction — he was an accomplished cook — they began preparing and freezing a month’s supply of meals. Soon, they were entertaining friends — he cooking the main courses, she the appetizers and desserts.

During a semester at the Sorbonne in Paris, Ambrose discovered French patisserie, particularly the macaron, that whimsically colored and filled almond meringue. Her admiration was based strictly looks — on a student budget, she couldn’t afford them. Only years later would she taste one, but she was determined to learn how to make them.

‘A global perspective’

It was after graduate school in the Biomedical Engineering Department at Johns Hopkins University when Ambrose began her methodical experimentation with making the technically precise macaron.

“It was about finding existing recipes, figuring out how to modify them and making them my own, combining my technical background with what I call a global perspective.” She laughs and says, “A lot of trial and error, too.”

Jennifer Elisseeff, Ambrose’s adviser at Johns Hopkins, says that she was good at bringing different things together. “She was the one to bridge all the people she had to work with. In science, you don’t usually see people with such social skills,” Elisseeff says.

After Ambrose obtained her doctorate in 2009 and eight months after accepting a job at the NIH’s National Eye Institute, she decided the time had come to put her culinary ingenuity to the test and open a boutique bakery with her younger brother (and fellow MIT graduate), Timothy McIntosh. He moved to Capitol Hill, where Ambrose trained him in the techniques she had taught herself.

It took 10 months to convert a 100-year-old former hair salon to the sleek storefront that is the Sweet Lobby. Ambrose was involved in every detail, from the high-capacity commercial kitchen to the color palette. The boxes, labels, even the tags were hers from concept to creation.

Creativity in science can progress at a glacial pace. “I think that the gratification you get from the life in pastry is a lot more immediate. I can come in with an idea for something I think would be amazing today and see it tomorrow. There are loads of opportunities for being inventive in science — that’s what it’s all about — but knowing whether or not your inventiveness plays out to impact people is a very delayed process,” Ambrose says.

Keeping both worlds aloft is a Herculean task. “It has segmented my life in two,” she says. Until she won “Cupcake Wars,” she never told anyone at NIH — not even her boss — about her “other” life at the Sweet Lobby.

“I feel that when you’re in one sphere, it’s important to focus on that sphere,” she says. “Unnecessary distractions can detract from the integrity of what you’re doing in that space.”

But if she had to choose? “I really don’t like thinking about it,” she says, frowning. “Most of the time, I am at peace, but I would not be entirely truthful if I said I didn’t feel conflict at times. But it’s my choice.” She smiles.

“At the end of the day, too, we have to be careful not to take ourselves too seriously.”

Because when you live in two worlds, every day cannot be a perfect day.