Wednesday, March 3, 2010

In the eye of the beholder

Dave and I have been watching coverage of the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. One of the topics that usually comes up during disaster coverage is whether or not there will be looting or violence. What's looting when you don't have a house, food, or much of anything? Rampant disorder is one thing, but looking at images of people milling around the entrance of a grocery store, or walking away with a bag of food, we wondered if that's more like "surviving".

When we lived in Florida, Hurricane Wilma left us without water or power for a week. We had about 3 days' worth of food, so by day 5 or so we decided to venture out and see if any supermarkets were open. We finally found a Publix that had no power, but the employees were still able to ring up sales. We battled with about two hundred other people over boxes of trail mix and saltines.

During the last few days we'd heard of fistfights happening in gas station lines or among people waiting for local government agencies to hand out ice (yes, ice was that much of a precious commodity), so I tried not to piss anyone off. If that lady wants the box of crackers I was reaching for, then let her have it. No problem.

Later that day, on our way home, we passed one of those long gas station lines and saw two guys leap out of their respective cars and beat each other silly.

So when I see people jostling somewhere in Port au Prince to grab a loaf of bread from a semi-destroyed market, my instinct is to not call it looting. Because you know what? I have seen Americans go apeshit over 5 days of not being able to fill up their gas tank.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mmm pie

Ever since...ever, I've had a strong predilection for bread and sweets. I've also leaned heavily towards gaining weight easily, so that has not worked in my favor. I can look at a slice of cake and gain five pounds, but if I look at a treadmill I just get tired.

About a couple of years ago I decided that I needed a new hobby. I came up with baking. Of course, of all the things I could have picked -- rock climbing, marathon running, kickball -- I ended up filling my house with things that can squeeze me out of my jeans by sight alone. I did it because I had a feeling that I could be good at it, and I needed that kind of boost. Baking involves following instructions exactly and being precise, and I'm the kind of person who has fun putting together furniture.

I found that I actually am pretty decent at it, which has been pretty cool. What I didn't expect, though, was just how intensely frustrating a process baking can be. Even a couple of years later, I can look at a recipe and go, "No sweat! I'll push out these cookies easy", then 2 hours later find myself telling cookie dough to &^$^ its &*$% with a @#^.

So this weekend I decided that I'd up the ante from making cookies and bread. I would make a pie - only the second one I have ever attempted to make. The first one was an apple pie, this one would be cherry. I admit that while the first one was 100% homemade, for this one I used pre-made filling. But it was really good! And to be honest, it's not the filling that gives me pause -- it's the crust. Flaky and golden, with a sprinkling of sugar just before baking. That, in fact, is what I think is the hard part.

Much like with making bread dough, pie crust is an exercise in patience. You can follow the recipe but external factors can be game-changers. If the weather is cold and dry that day, your dough will reflect that. You'll then have to adjust on the fly until you feel the dough become what you want it to be. But a novice like me doesn't always know what she wants out of dough, and an inpatient one (ahem) doesn't want to accept that some attempts may yield bad results. I mean, that stuff takes time and energy!

This time my pie dough did suffer from being too dry. As I tried to roll it, it would stick to the rolling pin and get all cracked and crumbly. I didn't yell at it but I did give it what-for. Eventually I decided that it had become too warm to work with, not to mention abused by my rolling attempts, so I put it back in the fridge to re-chill.

I brought it back, added a bit more ice water, and started again. This time, yes. This time, the dough gave itself up easily. Like Romeo to Juliet, like Bacall to Bogart. Like Madonna to any number of people. I rolled it out into to almost-circular crusts (don't judge me, I'm still not good at that) and gently draped the first one on the pie plate. The chunks of butter that would melt during baking and help create those beautiful flaky layers were still there; I was afraid all my rolling killed them.

I assembled the rest, brushed it with egg white, sprinkled some sugar on the top crust, and into the oven.

My technique still needs some work, but this was a really good second attempt. That bald spot in the lower right of the pie is from a chunk of crust sticking to the foil I wrapped around the edges to keep them from burning. It is not, I must state emphatically, because I chomped away at it. That would be crass.

Even though they are different, there's something about bread and pie doughs that is really satisfying (once they come together). Kneading dough at first can make me a bit panicky, because it can be a little sticky. I immediately convince myself that I have botched it, that it will not come together and that it hates my guts. But if I stick with it, I can feel it start to change in my hands. It starts to give way and doesn't stick to my hands or the work surface. Then after a few minutes of gentle compliance, that thing comes alive. It expands a bit, gets firm and pliable. It is so satisfying not just to know that I made it happen, but that my hands felt it happen every step of the way. With pie dough, the real metamorphosis happens under the rolling pin, but after battling with it and begging it to comply, bringing it treats like ice water or flour in order to coax it out, and watching it relax under steady, confident rolling is pretty cool. I mean, panic and Spanish obscenities were also involved but they either didn't hurt, or they actually helped. I'm not sure yet.

But, really, as great as that all is, eating that pie is even better. Let's not fool ourselves.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Um, hi

So it's been over a year since I wrote, here, huh?

I've had a muse-killing year. Details aside, I've kind of been like a deer stuck in the headlights for exactly the last 12 months. Just last week marked on year since our car got totaled after 2 aholes got into an accident right on front of our house and crashed into our poor, unassuming, paid-off car. It's been mostly all downhill from there.

I've often felt the need to write, but haven't had anything to say. So I just sit around saying, "Man, I really should write something. Oh hey, TV's on." The grey days of winter certainly don't help. I promised myself that this year would be different, but, man, laziness is hard to shake. Also, I have carrots to grow on Farmville. Which is pretty lame.

Alright! No more vegetating! From now on I will scour my brain for stuff to write about. In the meantime, here are some pictures from my last trip to PR. They represent exactly what I want right now:

An amazing beach:
Palomino Dock

And delicious fried food:

Don't even tell me that doesn't sound good.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Screw Wheaties

Snowy days are cool, in that we don't live in a place that gets a lot of snow each year, so it's kind of exciting when the white stuff starts falling.  The bad thing is that it has to get pretty cold in order for this to happen: 

Yesterday we got ACTION WINTER STORM OH-EIGHT (or something like that, according to the local news). Lots of snow, and lots of wind swirling the snow around. Dave and I went for what I thought would be a short walk, but he had other plans. About a mile later, we reach a fork in the road and he asks me where I'd like to go for breakfast. One of the options was a Cuban joint, which, although tasty, is really tiny. Afraid that we'd get shut out in the cold, we headed to the other spot. Which was, of course, packed. I've come to the conclusion that Portlanders are impervious to the elements. They shun umbrellas, ride their bikes to work in driving rain, and wander out for food in the middle of crazy snow.

We headed to the Cuban restaurant, which made me happy because Cuban food is almost identical to Puerto Rican. It was almost empty, it was warm, it was great. I sat down to a big mug of café con leche and watched snow get blown around like a sandstorm through the picture window in front of me. Without the crowds there was no reason to rush. The coffee did a good job of warming us up but then our food came and the whole thing was just perfect.

Bistec de palomilla (cubesteak with onions - cubesteak being much underestimated as a cheap but versatile cut of meat), moros y cristianos (black beans and white rice all mixed together), fried eggs over easy, and fufú (mashed ripe plantain). And to nibble on, little pastries like cream cheese empanadas and lemon poundcake.

That's how a Puerto Rican makes short shrift of ACTION WINTER STORM OH-EIGHT! 

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Of buses, elevators, and people

If you venture out into the outside world every day, in any capacity, you inevitably come into contact with people. These people, depending on their mood, or the time of day, or where they are, or even what the idiosyncracies of the city itself are, will interact with each other in various ways. Since I mostly find myself out in the world during morning and afternoon rush hours, most of the people I encounter are in a hurry, or thinking about work. In other words, not in the best of moods.

I've gotten used to the fact that people in the US cities I have lived in keep to themselves more than in PR. For example, in PR people always greet each other and say goodbye when entering and leaving an elevator. No big deal, but they acknowledge each other's existence, which I always took for granted until my first day at my college dorm in NY, when I exited an elevator and startled the guy next to me by telling him to have a nice day.

A few weeks ago, on my first day back at work after a vacation to PR, I found myself bombarded with all the different kinds of thoughtless acts that you'd normally encounter during the span of at least a few days. On just one bus ride, there was the girl who cut in front of me in order to get on the bus and beat me to the last seat, the woman who carried a purse and two duffle bags and spread them all out into the seat next to her so that no one else could sit down, the guy who yelled inanities into his cell phone, and the woman who could see that I was getting off at the same stop as her and yet mowed me down anyway while trying to get to the door without even saying "excuse me" (and what is it with Portland anyway? People here never say "excuse me"). On top of that, she didn't even think to hold the door behind her for half a second, causing it to smack me as it jerked to a close and almost spilled my coffee.  And as the piece de résistance, the man in my office building's elevator who watched me sprint towards it and didn't think to press the Door Open button so that I could hop on. 

I've become not so much used to this behavior, but more like expectant of it. I don't expect people to hold open a door, or say "thank you" when I do it for them. I expect that most people will go about their day without giving others much of a thought. And I won't say I am completely blameless, because I'm sure that I, myself, the paragon of civic politeness, have had my head stuck up my ass at some point and participated in this kind of behavior. However, I actively try not to do that. 

Which is why today was such a pleasant anomaly. Today, for the first time ever in my years here, someone bid me a good day upon exiting the elevator. And he wasn't even Puerto Rican! That alone was enough to put a smile on my face. But wait, if you call now, you'll get two smile-inducing experiences for the price of one!

I hopped on a bus tonight, late enough that I'd missed rush hour. I told the bus driver that I just needed to get my bus pass from my purse. My bus pass is just a sticker affixed to my employee ID badge, and I rummaged through my purse trying to find it. I've already lost this thing once, and replacing it more than once a year is cost-prohibitive. I was starting to panic because, a) I do not want to lose this thing again and have to spend the next ten months without a bus pass, and b) I was afraid the bus driver would kick me out and I'd have to walk the rest of the way. I, of course, do not carry cash, which could have saved me from getting kicked off.

As I began to resign myself to my fate, I heard a voice behind me saying, "Miss, you dropped this." I turned around and a young man, the only other person on the bus,  is handing me a piece of paper. I looked at it and saw that it was a bus transfer -- basically proof that you paid your fare. I knew it wasn't mine because I only use my bus pass. I was confused for a second until I realized it was a current, unexpired bus transfer. This guy had noticed my situation and given me his ticket. Not only that, but he thought enough to play it cool so the driver would not notice. And, best of all, he called me Miss and not Ma'am. I've been getting Ma'am a lot more lately.

I tried to thank him as I walked to my seat, but he must have been shy because he just looked down and didn't make eye contact. 

Today I'm reminded that just because not many people acknowledge each other in an elevator, it doesn't mean I can't bring a little of my PR upbringing and start doing it here -- even if people think it's odd. I'm also reminded that it would be a good idea if I turned off my iPod now and then when I'm on the bus and paid attention more, because I just might find an opportunity to make someone's day less crappy.

Also, that I need to start carrying a couple of bucks in my wallet, to save me from strict bus drivers.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Sink or swim

I learned English as a child, it's my second language. When I was four, my mother enrolled me as a pre-kindergartener in an English-speaking school. I arrived the first day, and after the usual period of adjustment in such situations (children crying, shell-shocked-looking parents, consoling teachers), we all sat in our tiny little chairs and heard our teacher introduce herself and let us know what we were in for.

"My name is Mrs. Adame. I'll be your teacher, and this will be one of the few times you will hear me speak to you in Spanish. I will speak to you in English at all times except when you truly don't understand what I am trying to tell you."

And indeed, after that, it was all English, all the time. It was complete immersion. We learned our colors, we learned our shapes, we learned songs, we played with blocks and did this thing where we walked on a balance bar -- all of it was based on instructions given to us in English, even though none of us spoke the language.  I don't remember being freaked out about it much, in fact, I remember coming home from my first day of school and saying I loved it, and after being asked if I had cried, I admitted to having cried un poquito when Mrs. Adame left us with the teacher's aide for a few minutes. By the time kindergarten came around, I spoke to my teacher in English almost exclusively.

Kids who started in that school as of the first grade and did not speak English had to go through the school's ESL program. These students would take certain classes with an ESL teacher and not with the rest of us. Science and math, mostly. Some kids would be done with the program pretty quickly, being mainstreamed after a school year. Others needed more time.  But without fail, those kids learned English and received a proper education at the same time. 

I started thinking about all that upon seeing a ballot measure that is up for voting here in Oregon. Measure 58 seeks to limit the amount of time students spend in ESL programs at Oregon public schools. The limitations being proposed are:

1 year for students in kindergarten to 4th grade.
1.5 years for 5th grade through 8th grade.
2 years for high school students.
It would also prohibit ESL (English as a Second Language) teaching programs for longer than the mandated time.

After that they will have to be mainstreamed into the general school population for all subjects. This means that if a student has not quite become proficient enough in English at the end of their allowed ESL time, they'll still be expected to keep up in all their other classes. The "hope", and I say that loosely, is that complete immersion will take them the rest of the way into fluency.

I am a product of immersion, but I do not support this approach. Immersion worked for my classmates and me because we were in a very particular circumstance: we were young enough to still be veritable sponges, soaking up all information thrown at us, and we were not learning subjects like math and science. The rule in my kindergarten class was that during the first semester kids were allowed to speak in Spanish, but by the second semester they were required to speak in English only. We were learning to read, an important skill, obviously, but again, one that we were all picking up anyway, regardless of which language came easiest to us. 

As we got older it was obvious that a bit more care was required with students who were not very proficient in English. They stayed in the ESL program until the teachers were confident that they were ready to be mainstreamed completely. It would have been inconceivable to throw a child into an English-language math class without the proper command of the language he or she was being taught in. What kind of frustrations would we be setting children up for, if at every turn in their school lives they are being presented with such hefty challenges, without any kind of assistance? The people who put this measure on the ballot say that they are looking after the kids' best interest, because immersion would give them no choice but to learn English quickly. But in reading statements made by people in favor of the ballot, I see statements such as "In this country, we speak English." One of the groups supporting the measure is Oregonians For Immigration Reform.

Which shows that this is not, and never will be, about wanting to help kids. This is about putting non-English speakers in their place, and using students to that end. But my fear is that there are people out there who truly might think that this is for the best, and vote for the measure because they think it stands to reason that immersion will always work. 

It's not enough to have experience with learning another language. Try learning another language and also having to get good grades in all of your other classes. Already we have a problem with Latino students dropping out, already we know that ESL classes in this state are not performing adequately. But instead of looking at the curriculum and pinpointing the problem, we're being asked to wash our hands of it. 

Not infrequently, I am reminded that I was lucky enough to receive a quality K-12 education. And I stress "lucky". I'm saddened by the challenges so many of our kids have to face just to receive an education, and I'm saddened that so many of those challenges are imposed on them by adults who really should know better.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

En español

I have been meaning to get back to writing in Spanish. My first forays into creative writing were in Spanish, and I'd like to be able to get back to that. So I started a new blog en español. No theme, really, just a place to be able to hone my writing in that language and get some feedback from whomever wants to give it. I have an idea for a story I want to tell, and hopefully publish one day, and I am thinking it will be in Spanish.

Once again, I suck at coming up with names, so don't make fun of me for my lack of originality. Or, do, I probably should start working on a thick skin!