A fig. A failure. A long wait.

Figs

Fig season is officially over in my corner of California which is why, at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday, I bought the very last box of tender, tiny-seeded Black Mission jewels from my favorite farmer.

It was now, or wait until next year, to create the perfect loaf of fresh Fig Sourdough.

A few weeks back I’d seen an entirely new type of fig bread at a Parisian bakery. It sat on a pedestal, just out of reach, behind the front counter glass scrawled with purple marker: Fig Sourdough. The loaf, sliced open, was the mesmerizing deep brownish-purple of sweet fig jam. I’ve eaten fig bread many times, but it’s always been a golden-brown loaf, flecked with bits of dried fruit and, usually, walnuts. I didn’t buy the bakery loaf.  I’m a baker and wanted the challenge of creating this new, beautifully colored bread on my own.

Undaunted by the lack of recipes for such a thing – every single baking website recipe calls for dried figs, and every photo looks like the fig-flecked golden-brown loaf I knew so well – I plunged into invention mode.

I added half a jar of fig jam to the initial flour, starter, and water mixture, assuming this would create my desired deep purple hue. It didn’t. I added the rest of the jam jar and waited for yeasty bubbles to rise, signaling the dough was healthy despite this new ingredient. Bread baking is an art, yes, but more than other types of baking, it’s a science. I tempted flour, yeast and water chemistry by interrupting it with jam.

The starter mix rose, although it didn’t develop the color I was hoping for.

Kneading

I chopped Farmer Sean’s last box of figs and added these to the fully floured dough and proceeded to knead. This too did nothing to imbue the loaf with rich purple. I convinced myself that some sort of kitchen alchemy would happen during the rising process.

Something did indeed happen eight hours later when I tried to transfer the dough from its rising bowl to the baking stone.

Bad dough

The rise and fall of my dream was so complete I couldn’t help but laugh and send photos to the bakers in my bread circle, the same ones I’d casually texted that morning about creating a recipe for a new kind of bread, the friends who were all awaiting my baking secrets. What happened? Oh no! Should you add more yeast? More flour? What went wrong?

Sometimes I confuse bread making with trying to leaven world peace through community, or metaphor. I had already set out plates on my table, one for each of my walking distance neighbors who I planned to surprise with hot, fresh slices of this new kind of bread that I’d invented after imagining such a loaf might exist. The butter would be pooled to perfection in the time it would take to step from my house to theirs with this triumph.

You can’t always trust the old recipes, I’d say. You have to be willing to make mistakes, I’d laugh. You have to go out into the world to see and try new things.

Perhaps it was those three empty plates on the table, or my dogged belief that I could still make something resembling the bread I’d seen, or maybe I just wanted to keep #procrastibaking rather than write, but I was undaunted by the sticky flatness before me. Buoyed by the purple beginning to tinge the dough, I convinced myself I was a thirty-minute, 450-degree bake away from a Fig Sourdough that actually bore the color of its namesake.

I kneaded in another cup of flour and slid the dough into a flat dish with sides. For good measure I smeared more fig jam on top, sprinkled it with grated parmesan cheese, added chopped walnuts and drizzled it all with a blend of ground fresh chili paste and honey. What my loaf lacked in height and typical bread perfection, and it would make up for in flavor and creativity.

While waiting, I revisited the photo of my bread inspiration.

Fig Sourdough

Surely, you immediately see what I did not. Yes, I guess there is also such a thing as Chocolate Sourdough. I’m guessing it’s a deep rich color. And that golden brown loaf on the right? Mmmm, you tell me.

I think it’s a fantasy Fig Sourdough I’m after when I write. This unicorn of breads beckons in the form of books I admire and the possibility that the writers I surround myself with will help unlock its recipe. I imagine a world where we all share bread and ideas respectfully with one another, and I write this world into existence. If I imagine it, others can too.

I’m writing these next eight weeks with a small group of students and I’ll confess we might all be trying to create fantasy bread. We want to make something amazing that we’ve always dreamed existed, maybe even thought we once saw or read, but it feels just out of reach at the moment.

We’re persisting. We’re failing. We’re succeeding, kneading, needing to keep on. I have every faith that fig season will return with us still here, awaiting new fruit with open palms, and older, wiser eyes.

With floured palms,
Catherine

This is one attempt at the first assignment for the Composing Self course I’m teaching this fall. If you’re interested more in bread success than failure, I’ll be linking to some of my favorite bakers on the Write Now page in a few days. Come back for a visit. Stay for the crumbs.

A fall class offering

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Did you ever walk away from something you truly loved and feel a bit disoriented? After nine and a half years I quit my university teaching gig.

It’s a little soon to say if I regret my decision, but I’ll admit to floundering this fall.

I didn’t leave my job because I didn’t like it. The privilege of standing before a roomful of bright, kind, young people looking at me like I had something valuable to teach them, never ever got old.

And I didn’t lose my job. In fact, my evaluations were always strong and my contract was freely renewed each semester. I have an open invitation to return.

What I tired of was continuing to play a part in the nationwide trend in higher education to shift the role of teaching to part-time faculty who, at least at my university, receive no benefits and no more job security than a 15-week contract. One current study found that from 2003 to 2013, the use of adjunct labor increased from 52% to 60% at private universities and from 45 to 62% at public bachelor’s degree-granting institutions.

At the same time, student loan debt has risen to over 1.5 trillion dollars collectively according to a June, 2018 article in Forbes: Student Loan Debt Statistics in 2018: a $1.5 Trillion Crisis.  “At private nonprofit colleges, average debt in 2012 was $32,300 (15% higher than in 2008, when the average was $28,200).” Where does the money go?

It turns out, according to a recent study, savings which come from using adjunct labor are usually funneled into more student services and administrative expenses. Somehow I felt complicit in a cycle that feels usury.

To put an exact number to this trend, my last contract guaranteed me $4,830.00 for teaching one semester’s class. The university limits the number of courses any adjunct can teach: Two. So, I taught two courses for a total semester paycheck of $9,660.00, or $19,320 annually.

I stood in an elite private university classroom before 36 students for six hours a week, prepped and graded 36 students’ writings, and made myself available for office hours adding another 18 – 20 hours of work a week. Add a week of syllabus writing time. Add another week of finals grading. I was making roughly $28 an hour which is significantly more than minimum wage.

Each of the 36 students would pay the university about $5,000 for my class. Yes, you can do the math. The university earned about $180,000 on my labor each semester. No savings are passed to students.

Can I reiterate how much I loved my job?

I did have the opportunity to voice my concerns directly to the university president over a lovely mushroom soup and salmon lunch. He shrugged and said, in effect, it’s the same everywhere and until there are no more adjuncts to take the work – and in the humanities especially there’s an over-saturation – the situation won’t change. And besides he said, students care more about adding a lazy river to the pool than who teaches them.

So I walked away to decrease the adjunct pool by one whopping body.

I’m faced with tremendous amounts of free time. I feel a little fractured, to be honest.

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Finish poetry book:                 Check.
Send book to publishers:         Check times ten.

I’ve targeted 25 publishers for my recently completed manuscript, each with its own open submission timeframe. I’m on the tenth publisher. Four have rejected the book. Six are still pending responses. Fifteen have approaching deadlines.

In the meantime, every writer will say the best thing to do after you finish one big thing is to start a new project.

Since it’s fall, which has meant school begins for as long as I can remember, I’ve decided to take a class. One of my own: Composing Self. It’s a writing class I’ve taught many times, exploring how and why writers compose a specific identity through careful language selection. If I’m any good at this teaching thing, I should learn quite a bit.

Composing Self is a creative nonfiction course. I’ll write about myself, or write about another real human, within the context of the world, much like this blog post which blends the personal with facts and figures for larger context.

We exist in the real world. We have permission to speak.

Do you want to take this course with me?

If you’re intrigued with the prospect of having someone curate a reading list for you, and create regular writing prompts, send me note using the contact form at the right. There’s still time!

What’s the cost?

What do you think I’m worth? Pay me what seems fair when the class is over.
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~Catherine

ps: This passage written by James Martin, SJ in The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everyone: A Spirituality for Real Life inspired me to include real salary numbers in my post, a move I’m certain I would have shied away from before reading the observation.

Individuals show their status through certain social symbols – job titles, possessions, credentials, and so on. One’s personal worth depends on one’s wealth or job.

That’s why discussing salary is perhaps the biggest taboo in social settings: it’s the quickest way of ranking people and is society’s prime measure of our worth. Finding out someone else’s salary instantly makes you see the person in a certain light…

James Martin, SJ, in summary and comment upon Dean Brackley, S.J.’s concept of “Downward Mobility.”

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This is the same face as the image at the top of the post. Different angle. Different light.

Kalapaki Beach Sand Sculpture 1, 2, and 3
Photos by Catherine Keefe