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!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Um, where are you from?

A coworker whom I chat with sometimes in our breakroom asked me this the other day. I told her, and she said, "Oh, I had to ask, because I couldn't place your accent."

It's very rare that someone hears an accent when I speak, so I mentioned that usually some people hear it, and others don't. She said, "Oh, I can definitely hear it."

A few days later, in talking to another coworker, I detected a Spanish accent in my voice. As far as I know, this is a new development. which is cool with me, I dig accents. I'm just wondering where this came from all of a sudden!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

What happens when you have too much time on your hands

These are apropos of nothing. I was just bored during the 17 flights I had to take to make my way from South Carolina to Oregon, and got to thinking. (I know, shhh.)

These are not meant to be definitive or anything, it's just what I like. And by "I like", I mean what I like right now. It's impossible to commit to hard-and-fast favorites, but one of the criteria I used when thinking up these Top 3's was that the items had to have been on the forefront of my mind for at least the past 5 years (or so).

Top 3 80's Songs

1. It's My Life - Talk Talk. Not to be confused by Talk Talk, by the band Talk Talk, off of their album Talk Talk. I love the singer's voice and his phrasing.
2. Desperate, But Not Serious - Adam Ant. His voice is dark, the horns are bright, and the lyrics make no sense. Welcome to the 80's!
3. Call Me - Blondie. I have a girlcrush on Debbie Harry. The lyrics in this song are simple, straightforward, and unapologetic.

Honorable Mention: Sweet Child o' Mine - Guns 'n Roses. Lovers of guns, roses, and apostrophes. I like this one mainly because of Slash - his guitar playing shines in this song and makes me want to go to a concert, tease my hair, sit on some dude's shoulders, and scream "I love you Slash!!! Wooooooo!!!" Then I'd take a swig of Miller High Life and pass out.

Top 3 90's Songs

1. Better Man - Pearl Jam. This is a song, see, that could have come off sounding very sensitive-ponytailed-man, but instead grabs you and makes you think of every woman you've ever known who has lived this song.
2. Blow up the Outside World - Soundgarden. I actually don't know how to explain why I like this one. All I know is it makes me close my eyes and rock out.
3. Paranoid Android - Radiohead. That intro gets me every time. There are so many contrasts in melody and feeling, and Thom Yorke's reedy voice adds to the tension in the song.

Honorable Mention: Grace - Jeff Buckley. I'm a big Jeff Buckley fan, and this is the first song of his I remember hearing. Another song that I like mainly because of its contrasts; a melody that's full of longing, and a voice that sounds almost anxious.

Top 3 Songs That I Hate With a Burning, Itching Passion

1. I'd Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That) - Meat Loaf. I won't even get into the old and tired jokes about the title. Also, I won't speculate on what it is he won't do, because I'm pretty sure I've narrowed it down and I probably wouldn't do it either. But aside from the lame title, Mr. Loaf has to be the most annoying singer I can think of. The stupid title, the stupid voice, and the stupid instrumentation make this one stupid song.
2. We Built This City - Jefferson Airplane. I can't explain this one. A fairly average mid-80's song, but from the moment my 5th-grader self heard it, I knew that I would hate it for the rest of my life. And look here, I was right.
3. (Everything I Do) I Do it For You. Oh my God, Bryan. Actually, I hate everything you do, but this one...this one just trumps it all. And to think that you do it for me, in your treacly, trite way, just makes me feel icky inside. This is just wrong, Bryan. Go find a girl who will appreciate the fact that you rhyme "love" with "love" and forget that I even exist.

Honorable Mention: I Will Always Love You - Whitney Houston. Aaaaaaand IIIIIIayayayIIIIIIIII wiiiiill aaaalwaaaaaays looooove youuuuuuuuu woahhhhhhhh! My work here is done.

Top 3 Covers That I Like Better Than the Originals

1. Take Me to the River - Talking Heads (originally by Al Green). There's something slightly wrong about this song. He's singing to a 16 year old. I don't care how early people hooked up back in olden days, that just ain't right. And when David Byrne sings it, and the Talking Heads play the music, all that wrongness comes out in all the right ways.
2. Rusty Cage - Johnny Cash (originally by Soundgarden). Soundgarden made this song badass enough, but when Johnny says he's gonna break his rusty cage, you believe it. That man will do it, no question. I also love how he brought out a country twang in an alternative rock song.
3. Got to Get You Into My Life - Earth, Wind, and Fire (originally by The Beatles). I might get in trouble for this one, because omg teh beatles are teh awesome!!1!! And they are, but whereas the original song was good, this one brings out the basic melody and makes it groove. The one downside is that this song is from the worst movie ever made in the history of the universe, as well as whatever was around before the universe: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Honorable Mention: None. I got nothin' for this one. Suggestions welcome.

Top 3 Sitcom Theme Songs

1. Good Times: I always wanted to get up and dance to this song when I heard it. And I will be forever in debt to Dave Chapelle, who finally cleared up the mystery of what it is they sing after "scratchin' and surviving". (It's "hanging in a chow line.") I always pictured James and Thelma as the singers.
2. Diff'rent Strokes: "It don't matter what you got/Not a lot/So what?" So true. So, so true. And you Puerto Ricans out there, don't tell me that about a second after the name of the show comes on, you don't expect the voiceover dude to come out and say "Blanco y negro".
3. All in the Family: Maybe it was the song coupled with the images that went along with it during the intro, but I always feel a little verklempt when I hear it.

Honorable Mentions (because I can't do just one): Barney Miller, The Rockford Files, Sanford and Son

Friday, July 11, 2008

Puerto Rican on board

There's something kind of cool about spotting a PR bumpersticker on a car. The further away you are from PR, the more my neck cranes to look at the car. Why am I looking? What does it matter who is inside? I don't know, but I look anyway.

This weekend I saw one of these on a car here in Portland:

I've seen similar ones around town a few times. A few months ago I saw one up by Fort Lewis , in Washington State. The most random place I've seen a PR bumper sticker was on a car in Wyoming. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the sticker and the license plate:

We have one one our car. I'd post a picture of it but I can't find one similar to it online, and taking a picture of the one on our car would be pointless as it is pretty worn. It is a Hurricane Wilma survivor, you see. Prior to the storm, it was in perfect shape. After the storm, the colors were stripped, and sometimes it looks like the part that says "PR" actually says "PA". It kind of looks like those European decals that have the initials of a particular country, but on either side there is a tiny PR flag. Except now there are only one and a half tiny flags. I feel a little embarassed about that; surely I should be taking better care of my national-pride bumper stickers, but I keep forgetting to get a new one when I'm down there. I can order one online, but I keep forgetting to do that too.

That sticker has allowed us to meet, as much as one can meet someone speeding down a highway, a couple of interesting characters. One of them was in Florida, pre-Wilma. We were speeding down the highway headed towards Miami - speeding because if we didn't keep up with the rest of the horde driving 90 mph, we'd surely die - and Dave tried to change lanes. Unfortunately, a car in the lane he wanted to get into was sitting in his blindspot and he didn't see it. Fortunately, he noticed just in time and came back to his lane. A few seconds later, a maniac in a giganto SUV pulls up next to our passeneger side and starts yelling at us in Spanish. He was not the guy in Dave's blindspot, but he witnessed the incident and decided that Dave was a menace. As this gentleman hung halfway out his window and swung his fist at us, not looking at the road, rolling along at 90mph, yelling barbaridades at us and accusing us of being reckless, we wondered why he was yelling in Spanish and not English.

Dave: How does he know anyone in this car speaks Spanish?
Me: Must be that he saw the PR sticker.
Dave: That thing's coming down!!

I stalled, and eventually the shock of the incident wore off. Passive-aggressive victory on my part, and so PR Sticker stayed to survive a hurricane. A couple of years later, back in Portland, Dave came home one day and said "I think I met a Puerto Rican today." Again, he had been driving down a highway, and a car pulls up alongside him. This time, though, it was a friendly woman who looked like Celia Cruz (according to Dave, I wasn't there to verify this). She smiled at him broadly and gave him a thumbs-up. He was confused at first, but decided that, once again, it must have been the PR sticker, working its magic.

But the best one, and, again, not seen by me because I wasn't there, was Dave's sighting of a car whose owner had typed up BORICUA in Word, printed it on a plain sheet of paper, and taped it to his back windshield. I imagine that's the equivalent of a temporary license plate. Until your real PR sticker arrives in the mail, sent by a relative or some website, you have to put up your paper document somewhere on your car.

I'm not sure which sticker will replace our battleworn veteran, who has brought us such joy and such fear for our lives, but I'm thinking...

...will not be it.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Stealing ideas for a post

My friend at Zoo, Askew posted a list of popular books created by the National Endowment for the Arts; they estimate most adults have read 6 of the 100 books. Without having gone through it beforehand, I'm posting the list and bolding the ones I've read. Then, if I really have read six or less, I'll lie be honest about my results and resolve to get to readin'.

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte

4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

44 A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte's Web - EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Okay, so more than 6. Some of these I have copies of, waiting in the wings, like Vanity Fair. I was happy to see, though, that my period of teenage nerdery led to my having read a good number of the ones listed. I was bowled away by the storytelling in Notre Dame of Paris, especially when Hugo weaves the priest's character so finely so as to show you that although he may be the bad guy, he's also human, and people's bad motives usually come from somewhere. And I found Jude the Obscure so emotionally heavy that when I finished the book, I involuntarily heaved a heavy sigh.

Others I read in school, and actually read them rather than buying Cliffs Notes. Among those are Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. Hamlet, I admit, was another one I read because I "had to", but I was lucky to have an English teacher who took care to make Shakespeare seem not-so-inaccessible, and I found myself falling into his rhythm with her help. One Hundred Years of Solitude is another book I read in high school, and I remember my Spanish teacher telling us to not freak out about the cast of thousands, and to not try to keep strict tabs on who was related to whom; the important thing was to just read and enjoy the story. I did that, and after that I wasn't scared to read large books that spanned generations -- which served me well for reading the historical fiction series of books by Edward Rutherfurd, one of my current favorites.

I was almost done reading Lolita while riding on the Long Island Railroad one day, and then accidentally left it behind when I left. I was only a few pages away from the end so I went to Barnes and Noble and finished it there. More than once I went to Barnes and Noble to use their art books for research. I wasn't the only one who treated is as a library, either, and I never saw anyone get hassled for it. Not that the NYU library wasn't great, but B&N was closer, and sometimes laziness wins.

My mom made me read Little Women when I was about 9 or 10. For some reason I wasn't interested, and for some reason she totally forced me to read it. I ended up loving it, and asking my mom if I could plant a flower garden, because the girls in the book each had one. My aunt Wandy gave me The Little Prince; she gave me several books throughout my childhood, all in beautiful hadcover editions, and I remember always loving each one of them (one I remember in particular was Stories for Free Children. It was one of the first times that I read something as a child that actually made me think). I read The Little Prince and Stories several times, even though I'm not a re-reader by nature.

Losing myself in a good story is one of the greatest pleasures in my life, and I have to smile at the thought that for almost every book I read, I have an associated memory. Where I was, or how I felt, or what happened to that book. I've been going through a reading lull lately, but Dave's been wanting me to read Doctor Faustus, so I think I'm going to pick it back up tonight and dive in.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

My new favorite word


I learned this word through my daily Doctor Dictionary email. At some point I appear to have told that I'd like to be sent random words and its definitions. And, I mean, not to brag (really, no, don't make me brag, it's so off-putting), but most of the time I already know these words. Every once in a while, however, along comes a Cockaigne to bring me down a notch or two, and amuse me in the process.

Now, in and of itself, it's a great word. Not quite a portmanteau in terms of spelling, but aurally, it kind of gets there. But what makes it truly great is not just how it sounds, but also its definition: "An imaginary land of ease and luxury. "

A life of ease and luxury in Cockaigne, indeed. Never mind Utopia...Cockaigne's where it's at!

The Land of Cockaigne, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1567

And why didn't my Dutch and Flemish Art professor show us this painting in class?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Motivation: Grab it while you can

Dave and I have a Nintendo Wii which I love very very much. Last month we got WiiFit, a game that is meant to get people off the couch and playing exercise-related games. The Wii allows you to make your own avatar, called a Mii. You get to use it as your character on a lot of Wii games, including WiiFit.

So when I fire up the game, it wants to analyze my age, weight, BMI, etc. I stand on the board and let it do its thing. The results show that my BMI is a bit on the high side of normal. That's enough of a bummer, right? Well, it's even more of a bummer when you see your Mii get fat right before your eyes, and the chirpy computer voice says, "That's overweight!"

Which is a tad better than the Japanese version of the game, which just says, "You're fat!"

More than any personal motivation I might have to lose a few pounds -- my appearance, my health -- I feel inexplicably indebted to that Mii. I can't let her gain weight! Because of this, I've dropped 10 pounds. What kind of a person would I be if I just let her let her appearance go?

You might ask what kind of person I actually am if it takes a cartoon to spur me into action. And to that I would reply, "Good question."

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

One of my birthday gifts from Dave this year was a book called The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz. It's about a Dominican boy living in New Jersey. Oscar is fat and nerdy, much to the dismay and bafflement of his family and peers. He is obsessed with girls, but doesn't have the rap that other Dominican boys have. Instead of learning to dance merengue, he's immersed in role-playing games and reading and writing science fiction. As a child he was the life of the party, always dancing, cracking jokes, and flirting with older girls, but then...then he got fat, and it all went downhill from there.

This book pulled me in for various reasons, one of them being that the author throws in words and phrases in Spanish and doesn't feel like he needs to translate them all. I don't know that I would call it Spanglish, but for an English-language novel, it comes close. I thought that was brave of him, to assume that non-Spanish speakers would still be interested in the story even though some of the narrative is in another language. I can definitely attest to being very comfortable with swinging from one language to the other even within the same sentence, so it was fun to read a book written in a language that's similar to my own brain's. But more than anything I was drawn in by Oscar himself - a misfit in his own culture.

He's expected fit certain Dominican molds: be a ladykiller, be in at least decent shape, be more interested in a social life than in shutting himself in his room to read sci-fi. The bigger he gets, the more shy he becomes around girls, the more looks of derision he gets, the harder it becomes to be less of a hermit. He wants to be the Dominican guy that others expect him to be, but it just isn't him.

It reminds me of my own teenage years. As a child I also liked to entertain others, in my case by making up stories and songs on the spot, and regaling my audience with my creations. As I got older, I became more introverted. I didn't feel like I fit in at all with others my age (and I won't claim to be an anomaly, I know many teens feel the same way). I wasn't overweight like Oscar, but I wasn't bikini material either -- not an easy thing when you live on a Caribbean island. I was a huge reader and would also hole myself up in my room, although my preferred books were more along the line of The Count of Montecristo and Notre Dame of Paris. The more I holed myself up, the harder it was to be like so many of the girls I knew: outgoing, comfortable flirting with boys, easy to make friends. The few times I hit the nighttime scene in Old San Juan, I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. And of course, that kind of thing is a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more you think you stick out, the more you appear to others to be uncomfortable.

Going away to college, in New York no less, was my way of breaking out of the environment that I felt was forcing me into a vicious cycle. Oscar, too, found a certain level of freedom with a change of scenery. For me it was going from the Caribbean to New York, for him it was going from New Jersey to the Caribbean. Years later, reading this book, I felt for Oscar because it's so hard to wonder how it is that you turned out so different from everyone around you. And it made me think about just how deeply your culture shapes your expectations of yourself and of others. Are either of those sets of expectations always accurate? Probably not. I probably thought I was more awkward than I really was, and I probably thought none of the other girls my age had any insecurities at all, which is highly unlikely. But when you're in the thick of it, it's hard to see that.

When I was living in Florida, I had an African-American coworker who sat right next to me. She once asked me what I had studied in college, and I told her I majored in art history. We talked a little bit about that, and she said, "Sometimes I would like to go to a museum or a gallery, but all of my friends would look at me like I was crazy. I'm supposed to want to go to a club." I was surprised to hear her be so blunt about what her own peers expected of her, and given how headstrong and independent she was, that she'd agree to comply with those expectations. But being a part of your community is a strong motivator. I could see where she was coming from.

To this day, I'm not the most outgoing person. It can take me a while to warm up to unfamiliar social situations, although I find that I am able to warm up to them and lose my insecurities after a while, which is very different from how I was before. I want to be able to be okay when meeting new people. What's an even bigger change is that I recognize that I'm kind of nerdy, and that's the person these new people will be meeting, which used to make me uncomfortable. But now, I'm pretty okay with that.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Timbers vs Islanders, part II: Introducing the concept of "verguenza ajena"

So another year, another season, another chance for the PR Islanders and the Portland Timbers to converge on PGE Park.

After my one and only attempt to sit in the Timbers supporters' section during a PR-Portland match, this year I decided to meet up with some friends and sit in the stadium's beer garden. Good choice all around, except they decided to put some shelters for the players right in frackin' front of the garden, which hurt visibility. Oh well. It was a nice spring day, we were sitting outdoors. And we had beer.

But it looks like I can't expect an Islanders-Timbers match to end without some sort of brouhaha. I feel this story is better told in pictures.

I arrived early so as to snag a good seat in the garden. Both teams were out on the pitch, warming up. Sharing the space together, in soccery harmony. (Islanders on the top, a Timbers player on the bottom.)

After a while, they are ready to start. Here they are during the national anthems. The guy on the right is the guy they hire for every Islanders game. He's got the "sing the Puerto Rican anthem" position in the friggin' bag, so don't even think about it.

Match is underway. Now that they are actually playing is when things start to turn.

I start to notice, along with the entire stadium and the Portland coach, that our beloved Islanders are not exactly, let us say, sporting fellows. They take too long to take corner shots. They play too aggressively and start to rack up fouls. They dive. Pretty soon they start to get really brazen and one of them gets a red card -- he's out of the game. I believe that one was for a deliberatly thrown elbow in the direction of a Portland player's face.

I'm starting to get really embarassed. Obviously not for me, it's not my fault these guys are acting like neanderthals. But they are representing Puerto Rico, man! What the hell? Here is where verguenza ajena comes in. It sort of translates to "embarassment for a third party", but it refers to feeling embarassed for someone else. It's not just that I'm embarassed over the way these guys were acting just because they're Puerto Rican (which is bad enough). I was feeling embarassed for them, personally, because they were putting on a testosterone-charged spectacle. Living the stereotype of the machito.

So now we have the Islanders coach (top) and the Portland coach (bottom) staring each other down.

Then the elbow-throwing happens, and it's fight time!

That kerfuffle settles down, and it's back to playing. Islanders are trailing, and it's near the end of the match. The boys still have some fight left in them, though. No, I don't mean fighting spirit. I actually mean fight. As the last minutes tick away a Timbers player is taking too long in getting the ball in play, in the estimation of the Islanders coach. So the coach runs onto the pitch and just as the player is about to kick the ball, he grabs it and runs away with it. Think about this for a second. He runs. He grabs it from under the player. He runs away. Coach was kicked off the game, and then.....fight!

If it weren't for those stupid shelters I could have documented all of this a whole lot better.

As my friends and I walk away after the match, I was feeling really disappointed. Why were they acting this way? There was absolutely no reason for such a display. What a bunch of huevones.

I met up with Dave, who had been sitting with the Timbers Army, as he usually does. The story of how he grabbed some college punk by the collar after yelling out "go back to your shanties!" is pretty well-known among his TA friends by now, and he said that the ones sitting next to him would say something about shanties and then look at him expectantly. I asked him if anyone really did shout out anything inappropriate, and he said no. All in all people were surprised at the players, but as far as I could tell that didn't carry over into any kind of stereotyping or nastiness.

I told Dave about how I was feeling. "If it makes you feel any better", he said, "Only one or two of the Islanders players is actually Puerto Rican. And the coach is Irish."

I'm still not sure if that makes me feel better, or worse.

(PS: I apologize about the picture layout. I know it's funky but I can't get it to format correctly.)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A funny story

One of my coworkers was calling a health insurance company in order to let them know that one of their subscribers was admitted urgently to the hospital. Her cubicle is on the other side of mine, so I can hear her every conversation. Mainly because she talks very...very...loudly.

When she was asked for the diagnosis, she says this:

"Abcess of the buttlock."

I immediately stopped what I was doing. I had to hear this.

"Abcess of the buttlock", she repeats. Silence, then once again she repeats this impossible-sounding diagnosis. "That's what it says right here on my computer."

It's clear to me that there must have been a typo, and it's really an abcess of the buttock. She has been working in the medical field for about 25 years; how this hasn't occured to her, I'm not sure. Finally, the person on the other end tells her the same thing, that it must be buttock. Why it has taken 3 repeats of "buttlock' for this to dawn on the other person is a mystery as well. "Oh, yes, that sounds much better. It's that."

What killed me the most is that before it dawned on these two that it must be buttock, the insurance rep asked my coworker for a diagnosis code, which is a universally-recognized number that the healthcare industry uses in order to specifically identify illnesses. "I can't find a code for it", my coworker says. No, there is no code for buttlock. I am pretty sure of that.

I think that if anyone is ever interested in producing a porno geared for senior citizens, it should be named Buttlock and star Andy Griffith.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Los de aquí y los de allá

I have a rule that I live by when it comes to giving my opinion about PR's status: I don't live there, so I don't discuss my opinion on the subject. Only people who make their lives there should be weighing in on this. This is why when it is suggested that Puerto Ricans in the US should be allowed to vote in any plebiscites about status, I'm always opposed. If you have made your permanent residence outside of the island, I feel that you've given up your right to decide anything for the island.

So what I think about whether we should be independent, or a state, or remain a commonwealth, is irrelevant and I won't be going into it. But that doesn't mean that I can't read the news and form opinions about things that happen.

The view from the outside can be valuable. Not just in this situation, but in virtually any situation in life. Somebody looking at an issue from a different vantage point is looking through a fresh set of eyes. There's less personal involvement that can color your point of view. But a lot of times, even knowing this, I still feel trepidation about voicing my opinions. Having lived in PR and having lived in the US, I think I've had a chance to see things from both inside and outside. The thing is, I'm not always sure that the view from the outside is welcome.

I care about what goes on in PR because it's my home. Having moved away doesn't change that fact, and it doesn't mean that I should stop caring. In leaving PR, I could have chosen to distance myself completely from everything, good and bad. I could stop following the local press, stop caring about the issues that affect people's lives there. But I don't, not only because it's my home, but because much of my family is there. Of course it matters to me that, say, the governor got arrested. It matters to me what people think, and what the guy is saying, and how this is all going down. How a country handles these issues speaks volumes.

I see the governor, in defending himself, remind us of the fact that we are still, in the end, governed by someone else. He says this in criticism of federal involvement in the island. That he is a member of the party that endorses the commonwealth, and that in 2005 he vetoed a bill calling for a referendum to decide PR's status, is an irony that is hopefully not lost on people. The commonwealth has served him well -- until the moment our link to the US made it possible for him to get arrested. It's not just this hypocrisy on his part that pains me, it's also that he is using it to shield himself from the fact that, like it or not, he is accused of violating federal, not local, laws. He is trying to make Puerto Ricans feel that not only is he being persecuted by the US, but that the entire island is being persecuted as well.

Even if I'm not there, this matters to me. It pains me to see PR being used as someone's meat shield. If he is innocent, then let him speak to his innocence plainly and directly. But this is the conundrum that I personally face as a Puerto Rican living outside of the island, and I can't imagine I'm the only one who faces this dilemma. I know I care, and I don't think caring is wrong -- but how far do I go in expressing views that people on the island may not care to hear about? And it's not necessarily about writing about it here, as it's not like this blog gets a huge readership. But mostly it's wondering what to do and what to say when I talk to people back home. What's my role now? Is the opinion of the "expat" of any value?

What's crazy is that I've been away for 13 years now (counting my college years, which really should be cut in half since I spent half the year in PR anyway) and I still don't know the answer to this question.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Corrupt, but patriotic

It's been a while since I last wrote anything in here. The urge to write hasn't gone away, but my mind has frozen up as to what to write about. I've been working, I've been coming home, and I've been going to work again. More often than not, I work late, because things are hectic and they're only getting

I decided to take a couple of days off this week, because things are only going to ramp up in the next few weeks. I even have to work on a Sunday next month! I know! For someone whose never worked in any kind of job that required her presence on the weekends, that's a real bummer. So I took my two days off and stayed home. That's unusual for me too -- usually if I take time off, I go somewhere.

I'm, at heart, someone who likes to be alone. Not all the time, certainly. But every now and then I find it centering, and even comforting, to be alone in my house. Even if I'm just folding laundry in front of the TV, like I did today. The silence, the lack of anybody wanting anything from me, the chance to do whatever I want, whenever I's nice. I rented the first half of the last season of the Sopranos, and may I say that as much as I love that show, it can be stressful to watch one episode after another. Who's gonna get whacked next? Whose gonna do something stupid and piss Tony off? I can't keep worrying about these people, I need to take a break.

So I come to the computer and read up on Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, PR's governor, and his current legal troubles. He's been under investigation by the Feds since 2006 for corruption stemming from illegal campaign contributions. Dental companies based out of Philadelphia apparently donated money to pay for his past campaign for Resident Commissioner, and in return tried to finagle their way into multi-million dollar contracts with the Puerto Rican government. He is also accused of personally pocketing some of that money. Because he, of course, did not report that money to the IRS, he's also accused of tax evasion. Today he turned himself in, pleading not guilty, and was released on his own recognizance.

Well, screwed up, right? It gets better. Now you have ex-governor and prominent member of Acevedo Vilá's rival party, Carlos Romero Barceló, bragging that he was the one who turned him in. Romero Barceló is a statehood proponent; on the other end of Acevedo Vilá is the independentista Rubén Berríos, stating that more important than charges of corruption leveled at the island's governor is the fact that, because the Feds are leveling these charges, PR is a colony. Some people, apparently, are looking to hitch their decrepit wagons to this guy's falling star.

And Acevedo Vilá is not too far behind Berríos on this. Acevedo Vilá is a member of the Popular Democratic Party, which backs the status quo (remaining a commonwealth of the US) in our never-ending Status Wars. However, he is adamant that the reason he is being investigated is because he openly criticized a 2005 FBI raid in which a long-time fugitive and leader of the militant independentista group Los Macheteros, Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, was killed. He was a fugitive because he was wanted for stealing $7 million during a heist on a Wells Fargo depot in Connecticut.

How the raid happened, and whether Ojeda Ríos should have been killed in the process, is one thing. Whether or not the FBI gives a rat's ass about what the governor of Puerto Rico thinks to such a degree that they would go to an elaborate scheme to frame him, is quite another. Puerto Ricans are well aware that their government is corrupt down to the marrow of its bones. Corruption is a cancer that is eating away at the island's ability to prosper. Acevedo Vilá has been an unpopular governor who many see as ineffective. But by invoking a vague sense of nationalism, will he earn a pass from people? Already I'm seeing quotes in the papers from people who feel for him, because if the Federal government is involved then this must clearly be a case of Americans persecuting Puerto Ricans. To be fair, there are others that call this an embarassment for the island and want him to resign. But to what degree do these differing opinions fall under party lines? Is the statehooder blindly rooting against him? Is the commonwealther blindly supporting him? Is the independentista blinding himself to the actual case and only focusing on the fact that PR also falls under federal jurisdiction? I'd be interested to hear from people on the island on what they think about this.

Our status colors everything. It motivates everything, it hinders everything. It's inescapable. I've given a lot of thought to how it has affected, and continues to affect, people's lives. It's the kind of topic that makes my brain shut down into a state of writer's block again, because how can you put it all into words? It's daunting. And by thinking about all of this and getting depressed about it, it occurs to me that some may wonder why, with me not living there, I would care so much (or at all). That's definitely a topic I would like to go into later.

But, hey. At least Acevedo Vilá got me writing again. Thanks, buddy, for taking one for the team!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Tag, I'm it!

I've been tagged by my friend Candace. The rules are:

1) Link to the person who tagged you.2) Post the rules.3) Share six non-important things / habits / quirks about yourself.4) Tag at least three people.5) Make sure the people you tagged KNOW you tagged them by commenting what you did.

So here are my 6 random quirks/habits/things:

1- I geek out over the Dark and Middle Ages. It's a pretty nerdy interest, but it's actually helped me. Not too long ago I was going through a week-long training at work. The instructor, in order to break up the monotony, had us play Jeopardy and came up with questions pertaining to the training material. As a wild card, he threw in a question about the Magna Carta. I answered it, and by doing so won 1200 points and the incredulous stares of my fellow trainees. Magna Carta for the win!

2 - When asked what I would pick as a superpower, I pick being able to travel back in time. If I can have a second superpower along with it, it's to be invisible. That way I can go back to my favorite periods in history, but not get myself in trouble and end up, say, burned at the stake as a witch.

3 - I'm sick of YouTube.

4 - I have a cowlick on the side of my head that is almost impossible to tame, and ruins pretty much every single haircut I get.

5 - I secretly judge people who order their steaks well-done.

6 - When I was a kid, I wanted to be named Kimberly, after Kimberly Drummond in Diff'rent Strokes. I can't believe I'm admitting to that.

Alright! Now I will tag 3 others and have them embarass themselves too!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Julio Iglesias: looking great

Last night, Dave and I were looking at some music videos on Youtube. A few years ago we had a tier of channels on our cable tv that included MTV en Español, and we used to watch that station often. The videos we were looking up last night were ones we used to see a lot on MTV.

Back then, Julio Iglesias released a cover of an old Carlos Vives song, La gota fría. Dave developed an instant dislike of the Carlos Vives original, and an equally instant love for Julio's version. Insisting that he is not, technically, a Julio Iglesias fan, he said that he simply thought his cover was superior.

There's also the issue of personal style. While in his video Carlos has ratty long hair and wears denim shorts and shirtless vests, Julio has neatly coiffed hair and dresses simply but neatly. He also sports his eternal tan, which is clearly legit and not a product of Bain de Soleil.

It's been a few years since we saw the video, and while watching it again last night I commented on how nice Julio looks in it. I said, "I wonder what he's looking like nowadays."

In all seriousness, Dave turns to me and pointedly replied, "Probably great."

After I laughed for about five minutes at the absolute certainty with which he said that, he explained why he's so sure of this. In his mind, Julio is out on the beach somewhere, looking tan and getting all the ladies. But he would still like to point out that he is not a Julio Iglesias fan. He just likes that one song, and thinks he looks great.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Richardson's out -- I guess I have no one to vote for now

The Hispanic demographic in the US has been taken into consideration more and more by the media. In part because of our growing numbers, in part because of the ongoing chatter about immigration.

Now that the media is paying attention to the "Hispanic vote", I again find myself wondering, "What is the Hispanic anything?" In other words, are Hispanics a heterogeneous bunch, who all think the same way?

Bill Richardson, the Governor of New Mexico, was until recently a candidate for President under the Democratic party. He was born in the US to a Mexican mother, and he was raised in Mexico City. In the tv show Today, Matt Lauer asked Tim Russert, a journalist who hosts Meet the Press, the following:

LAUER: All right, let's talk about the other stories from Thursday. The debate
was one. The other was, on the Democratic side, Bill Richardson pulls out of the
race, the New Mexico governor, presidential candidate. He says, `Look, I'm out
of money but I don't want to be out of the game.' So what does his leaving the
race do in terms of the other candidates?

RUSSERT: It opens up the Hispanic
vote, Matt, because Richardson himself from Mexico, his family, his mom. And
where is that going to go? We know about South Carolina. Half the voters are
African-American, at this time heavily tilting to Obama. But what happens when
the race goes to other states like California, like Arizona, like New York?

Why does Russert think that Richardson's withdrawal from the race opens up the Hispanic vote? Richardson's numbers, both in polls and in primaries, were quite low. If there is any room for trends within the Hispanic community, it has been noted that we tend to vote in similar ways depending on the country we're from: for example, Cubans have been noted to lean towards Republicans, Puerto Ricans towards Democrats. The fact that both countries produce Hispanic voters does not mean they share the same general tendencies. With the booming Hispanic demographic in the US, Richardson's numbers should have been much stronger if Hispanics were to, as a unit, back him solely because of his heritage. When Richardson first announced his bid, the New York Times reported that he was not making much of a connection with his fellow Latinos.

At least when discussing the projections for African American voters in South Carolina, Russert specifies that the numbers show them to be leaning towards Barack Obama, also in the race as a Democrat. But as for Richardson, the only reason he gives is because Ricardson and his family are from Mexico.

As a journalist, I generally like Tim Russert. I don't think he actually subscribes to the "they're all the same" mentality that those who are less racially-savvy subscribe to. But it just goes to show that we have people who are otherwise very well-informed making assumptions about people just because they speak Spanish. Personally, I find it almost insulting to think that I would be expected to vote for someone just because of their ethnicity. I am happy to see a Hispanic presidential candiate, truly. But to go so far as to assume that our heritage is so similar that I would by default vote for him? Are we so blinded by the awesomeness of a Hispanic candidate that we throw our reasoning skills out the window?

I've often thought that every decade has a scapegoat. Periodically, people go from fearing one group of people to another. This time, I feel Hispanics are on the receiving end, mostly because of the immigration issue, but also because our numbers are growing every day. When you are a small minority, easily marginalized, it's easy to be overlooked. But Hispanics are not in that position anymore. Past scapegoats have organized and brought about a message to the community at large, to the point where it's no longer acceptable to openly say "they're all the same". The way I see it, when we have the media assuming that Hispanics are, indeed, all the same, it's time for us to step up and remind them that we're not. As much as I feel that Hispanics don't have a single mind, I do feel that all of us who hail from Latin America have formed our own community -- whether it be around the term Hispanic, or Latino, the things we do share bind us together, to a certain degree. But if we were all of a single mind, the community we are in the process of forming would be far less interesting, and far less capable of growth.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Cultural comparison fieldwork: The gym

For a few months now I've been going to the gym for all of my exercise needs. I was going after work, which was, truly, a bummer. Some people convinced me that I should try going in the mornings. I reluctantly agreed to try it. This meant that I would need to shower and get ready for work at the gym.

Before I continue, I need to draw some initial comparisons between Portland women and PR women. In Portland, women generally dress in a somewhat reserved manner. Not dowdy, really, but even on a night on the town you won't be seeing much cleavage. In contrast, women in San Juan wear clothes that are tighter, sexier, more revealing. Some go too far, but that's just to be expected -- some people are given an inch and they take many, many miles. But in general, in Puerto Rico women's fashions are a bit more saucy.

Using random pictures found online, this is my rendering of the difference between these two camps:

One picture came from the Dockers site, the other from bebe. So, that kind of explains it. Now, I'm not saying every single woman dresses like these two. But in terms of capturing the zeitgeist of the two cities, I think it's a fair comparison.

With that out of the way, back to the gym. Showering there means using the locker rooms, and using locker rooms means I'll be seeing women in various stages of undress. I expected this.

What I did not expect was how different these women, who in their outdoor lives are usually conservatively dressed, would act in the confines of a female-only locker room. Many didn't bother to wrap themselves with a towel when heading to or coming out of the showers. They bent themselves into positions that are at best passable when clothed, but outright indecent when not. The first few mornings, I had to struggle to not laugh.

Because I had, in the past, compared women in Portland to women in PR, I couldn't help but wonder if women back home would act the same way. You would assume that, since the sense of style down there allows for more revealing clothes, that women would be just as unconcerned with covering up when in a locker room. But the way I see it, I think PR women would attempt to conceal way more than their Portland counterparts. I'm thinking that when they are ready to hit the shower, they'd wrap themselves in a towel. When they come back to the locker, they'd also be wrapped up, and they would discreetly get dressed without deciding that this is now the time to, in public, take care of several grooming needs which a towel could perhaps inhibit. Such as, applying lotion, and raising various appendages in order to make sure not an inch of you remains un-moisturized. When they stood in front of the mirror to dry their hair and apply makeup, they might choose to perform these activities while fully clothed (especially if the hair-drying part requires bending over). If I ever ran into any of these women on the street, I'd have to look away, because I have seen more of them than anyone should ever see of a stranger.

I've never been to a gym locker room in PR. Has anyone been? Can they attest to what locker room culture is like there? Because I need to know -- indeed, must know -- if my hypothesis is correct.

Sunday, January 6, 2008


Or rather, sumsum! The author of the cookbook I used says that these were popular with Syrian Jews in Paris -- they'd have some with their coffee during the Sabbath. Let's explore Sabbath snacks through the eyes of Syrian Jews in Paris!


2 packages of dry yeast (make sure they are not expired)
1/2 teaspoon of granulated sugar
1 cup warm water (anything that feels hot will kill the yeast)
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour
8 ounces (2 sticks) of melted butter
1 beaten egg, to brush
1/4 sesame seeds, to sprinkle

You will note in the background that my santos were present, like when I made pernil, to ensure a successful baking session. Fantastic! So, in a mixing bowl, stir together yeast, warm water, and sugar. Allow the yeast to dissolve and become frothy, about 8 minutes.

Then I added 1 cup of the flour and the salt. Blended again, then added the melted butter (it should not be hot, let it cool off a bit). If by hand, beat 40-50 strokes. If with mixer, roughly the same amount of strokes. Basically, you want them well-blended. I added the rest of the flour, 1/2 cup at a time so as to bring the dough around easily and gently. Dump it in all at once and you may end up with a cannonball.

Once a dough starts to form, you're no longer mixing the ingredients, but kneading them. I kneaded it on a low speed for about 5 minutes. Over-kneading, various bread-makers warn, can make the dough tough and not very tasty. I desperately do not want tough and untasty dough, no sir!

I apologize for this picture, as I admit it is not very appetizing-looking. But I wanted to show what the author means when he says the dough should be soft and elastic, not sticky at all:

It's no longer sticking to the sides of the bowl. The folds show you that it's soft, and as I pull a portion of it up, it's pliable. So, we've got dough.

Now we put it in a bowl to rise.

It needs to rise to double the amount of the original size of the dough. I marked it with a marker, because I was using one of those disposable containers and don't care if it gets marked up. If I'd had a rubber band, I would have just wrapped it around the bowl to mark the starting point, that way I would know when it doubled in size.

Some observations: a tall-sided bowl, I think, gives you a good idea of the rise. I also liked using a clear vessel, for ease of observation. You are supposed to let it sit and rise in a room that's about 75 degrees, which is normally considered room temperature. It's winter here, and I'm a miser who doesn't turn up her thermostat past 69. In case you are in a cold environment, boil 2 cups of water in the microwave. Once it boils, stick the container in there and leave the water in there too. That should help create a warmer temperature. Too warm a temperature, and it will rise very quickly, so those of you in PR, take note of that.

This actually happened to me. The recipe said it would take about 2 hours to rise, but in after the microwave trick it only took 1. Moral of the story - rising times are approximate, the conditions in your kitchen will ultimately affect how long it takes. So, keep an eye on it.

With the dough risen (sorry, forgot to take a picture of that!), it's time to start shaping the dough.

The recipe says it should yield 24 sumsums, so I shaped the pieces of dough according to that figure. I placed them on a cookie sheet covered in parchment paper to prevent the bottoms from burning. Then I rolled them out into into balls. Really go to town on this, as my 9th grade English teacher Mrs. Riefkohl used to say when she urged us to "go to town on your essays": cup them in your hands and vigorously ball them up (stop snickering) -- this helped keep them in shape. Flour your hands with each one so they don't get damp and slippery. If they are dry they will hold their shape better.

Now we roll them up so they are approximately six inches long. Again, flour up your hands and the work surface when you do this. I started them out between both my hands to form the basic shape, then finished the job by rolling it between my palm and the work surface to get the length:

Woot! Now, to roll them up. You curl them around your index finger, and you let the ends overlap each other. Kind of looks like a tortellini, doesn't it?

Now is when you start to preheat your oven to 375 degrees, as they will need some time to rest. Once it reaches temperature, brush them with the beaten egg and sprinkle on the sesame seeds, as much or as little as you'd like. Arrange them about an inch and a half apart on the sheet. In the oven they go.

The recipe, curiously, doesn't say how long to bake them for -- only to bake them till they are golden yellow. I made two batches, and discovered that by the time they turn very golden yellow, they are too crispy. Pale golden yellow is the way to go, as it yields a slightly crunchy crust with a soft, buttery interior. Did I say buttery? I meant BUTTERY. You can see the layer of butter inside the bun. If you like butter - and to me, butter is only rivaled by bacon when it comes to its taste sensation - you will love this. I can see why it is served simply with tea or coffee, as it doesn't really need much adornment. I would recommend setting your timer to 20 minutes, checking it, and increasing the cook time by 5 minutes incrementally. My magic number was 25 minutes.

If there are any Syrian Jews in Portland looking for a Sabbath snack, I can totally hook you up.

Recipe from The Breads of France: And How to Bake Them in Your Own Kitchen, by Bernard Clayton, Jr.


To some of you, making cookies from scratch may not be a big deal. Why is she even posting about this, you might say? Because I'm new at this and I'm excited about it, damnit. If I become a world-famous baker, you will be able to see my very first attempt and say "Look, I knew her back when making cookies was amazing to her." So, you're welcome.

Let's get started! Here are my ingredients:

2 cups plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled until just warm
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, plus one large egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 2.25 oz bag of finely-chopped walnuts (optional)

Okay! So I preheated my oven to 325 degrees. In a bowl I tossed together the flour, baking soda, and salt. In my mixer, I mixed on low speed the butter and sugars until blended. Then I added the egg, yolk, and vanilla and beat that until blended. At last, the flour mixture. The result? Cookie batter!

Oh, cookie batter, you are such a temptress. I refrain from eating you not because of the raw eggs, but only because doing so may fill me up and ruin me for the final poduct. If you don't have a mixer, then mix by hand until the consistency resembles the picture above.
Next, I lined a cookie sheet with parchment paper and got to work making the cookies. Using a 1/4 cup measuring cup (barely filled) in order to ensure that they were all the same size, I rolled up the batter into little balls. What? You can't picture it? Well, here:

But we are not done! To give them a nice chunky appearance on top, I tore each ball in half, and then put them together so that the jagged sides faced up. Look, like this:

Into the oven for about 15-16 minutes, no more than 18. This batch yielded 18 cookies. After they are done, I placed them on a baking rack to cool.

Beautiful, tasty cookies. ¡Fácil!

Happy Three Kings' Day!

I admit that Three Kings' Day is not a holiday I observe now that I am in the Iu Es Ei. Mainly because I have no children, and leaving a box of grass under my bed is no longer guaranteed to net me a cassette tape and box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates. Also, I have no family in the country to make me a lechón. Such is life.

But I do want to celebrate it, even if on a small scale, when we have kids. I envision a day where pork is for dinner (although I'm not sure that would be anything special, since I heart pork anyway), and they get gifts just as small but cute as I used to get. I don't know if this is something all kids in PR were told, or if this was just my family, but my mom used to tell me that Three Kings' Day gifts were small because the kings were poor. I thought to myself, "But they're kings. They gave Jesus gold. How could they be poor?" I didn't want to seem petty and greedy, so I kept my thoughts to myself. Then when I was six it hit me -- a poor king is so inconceivable, that these dudes probably don't exist. I asked my mom, and she just looked at me and said,



To those of you in PR: if you are heading to someone's house up in the mountains, where there's a lechón asado and three guys dressed up as Middle Eastern kings giving out presents to the young'uns, I say: I am jealous, and have a great day! And even if you're just going to Guavate for lechón, I'm still jealous. And to those of us away from the island: do you still observe Three Kings' Day with your own families? How do you celebrate it?

Cooking, baking, and a time without the internet

These past few winter weeks in Portland have been the same one after another: gray and rainy. It hasn't stopped, and won't stop for the foreseeable future. A break in the monotony came on Christmas Day, when it snowed. Aww! Where's Bing Crosby when you need him? But it was barely cold enough for snow, so it didn't stick.

For the past few days I've been thinking that I might want to try my hand at baking. I think I might be suited to its methodical nature. Also, I got a KitchenAid mixer for Christmas. I've never been a baker -- the closest I have come is making cookies from Pillsbury pre-made cookie batter with my grandma. We'd bake them in the toaster oven and, man, those things were like heaven to me.

But even more than baking cookies, I want to make my own bread. I've been wanting to for a long time, and I think I have narrowed down the two main reasons. For one, I adore bread. Any kind of bread, I will eat it. I don't even need butter or jam or anything on it -- if it's good bread, I like it on its own. If I'm hungry and cranky, but I know I won't be eating properly for a while, a slice or two of bread will immediately calm me down. But also, I am very attracted to the process of making bread. I'm fascinated by the idea that people all over the world have been making it, in pretty much the same fashion, for thousands of years. I like the thought of being part of that tradition, of creating food that has been around for a long time and has sustained entire populations. It may be the reason why I also love it when Dave and I make a dish called antico peposo. You braise beef in red wine and crushed peppercorns for about four hours. In the end, the beef comes out almost black, and winey and peppery. It has the feel of something that people may have made long ago, in order to use up less-than-desireable cuts of meat and dress them up a bit. And indeed, the recipe has been traced back to at least the 5th century. As a history buff (especially of antiquity and the dark to middle ages), the idea of eating foods that have sustained people back into times that seem so far away as to almost be inconceivable really calls out to me.

Anyway! I woke up on a rainy Saturday morning, and decided that on that fateful day, I would break in that mixer. I would make chocolate chip cookies, my favorite, and bread. I looked through my cookbooks and found two recipes: Thick and Chewy Chocolate Chip cookies from The New Best Recipe, which is a cookbook published by the magazine Cook's Illustrated, and Ka'Achei Sumsum, which are bagel-like buttery breads that, according to The Breads of France: And How to Bake Them in Your Own Kitchen by Bernard Clayton, Jr., are popular with Syrian Jews during Sabbath. Syrian Jews? Sabbath? That sounds old. Sign me up!

A word about The Breads of France: I linked to the 2002 edition, but I have the 1978 edition. It was a hand-me-down from my mother-in-law, an experienced baker. Having read over 30 year old-plus cookbooks before, I was concerned that it might be hard to translate the recipes into something I could make today as a beginner. Not so. His instructions are clear and step-by-step; having no clue what the finished dough should feel like, his descriptions alone guided me pretty much perfectly. What did make me laugh were the repeated references to hard-to-find ingredients or tools, and the inclusion of addresses to write to the manufacturers for a list of retailers. No internets! In fact, many of those items are now easily found today. See what I say about olden times? They're fascinating.

Things like these are what I love about old cookbooks: you can see how times have changed, not just in how easily some ingredients can now be found, but in the level of knowledge about world cuisines that is present then versus today. For example, Clayton mentions that to many Americans, the catalogue of French breads is comprised of mainly a baguette. And in an old Trader Vic's Mexican cookbook, Vic himself writes:

I ate Mexican food [in Mexico] until it almost gave me an ulcer. In Mexico it was pretty greasy. The finest Mexican food I have enjoyed came from what is known as Texas-Mex. Now, I know I'm, going to make a lot of Americans sore as hell -- you have to understand that I am an American, not a Mexican, and I eat what pleases me most. So, my wife and I went to work flying all over Mexico, eating their stuff, and then making adjustments on it so it would be palatable to Americans.

Mexican food is "stuff"! Har! He goes on to give Mexico credit for one thing: its arts and crafts. He and his wife became avid buyers, and he calls them "absolutely the most". Oh, Vic! That's better than "groovy", isn't it? Are they also the bee's knees?

I haven't tried any recipe in this book. Personally, I stick to his tropics-inspired cocktails -- his recipe for piña colada from his Bartender's Guide produces, bar-none, the best one I have ever had. But the book has brought me countless moments of joy as I read through it, and found such gems. The thing about Trader Vic and his numerous world-cuisine cookbooks is that, even though the recipes were beaten into American-palate-of-the-70's submission, they did bring all kinds of crazy ethnic cuisines to American home cooks' food conciousness. You have to start somewhere, and I guess it was all about baby steps at first.

So, in honor of this momentous occasion, where I would be making bread, the staff of life, and cookies, what might as well be the staff of life for sugar addicts like myself, I decided to document this first attempt at baking for posterity. Soon I will post pictures of those attempts.

(By the way, if the antico peposo sounds interesting to you, which it should, since it's easy to make and delicious, check out this book by Lidia Bastianich. The woman is an Italian cuisine master, and she has a great show on PBS. Also, stop watching the Food Network and start watching the PBS cooking shows, if they are available where you are. New Scandinavian Cooking, Fast Food My Way with Jacques Pépin, Lidia's Italy, Daisy Cooks with Daisy Martinez...wonderful shows. But I do give you permission to watch Good Eats with Alton Brown on the Food Network and, if you are in the mood for a laugh, Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee, the woman responsible for this monstruosity.)