Thursday, July 21, 2011

What We Talk About

Tuesday, when I was making dinner, I was butterflying a couple of chicken breasts when I thought to myself, "South America is the shape of a chicken breast." It was a huge revelation. The Fibonacci rule or the DaVinci thing or whatever "golden" mean where everything you look at is proportioned the same way had come into my kitchen. And I thought about deep meanings behind continents dividing and forming into the shape of chicken breasts.

Afterwards, when I told Caleb about my great discovery as we were going to bed, he sleepily replied, "You shouldn't blog about that, people might not think you were very bright."
And I laughed, "You couldn't come up with more interesting thoughts while staring at a chicken breast. Well, I guess you are the one who's lived in South America."
"Yeah, how would you like to be compared to a chicken breast?"
"Better than being compared to a pork chop."
"Who got compared to that?"
"No one. I was speaking generally."

On another note, Caleb's in his third week of work at Epic (Verona, WI), and they are filling his brain with all kinds of healthcare knowledge. He recently told me about a dream he had where half of the surgical pins in his arm came out and he could see the plate poking up to his skin. He concluded the story by saying, "I have dreams about healthcare now."

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Talking to Washington

Burma Police Patrol- photo from National Geographic Article

Politics has never been something I was into. The closest I've come was going into downtown Chicago on the night President Obama was elected. We were only a few blocks away from his post-election party. My political thinking: Well, after the election, I did register to vote in TN, but now I don't live there anymore. The political changes I would like to see are political changes in the Dominican Republic, not in the U.S.

In my new home of Madison, WI, politics are important to almost everyone. Everyone has a bumper sticker that says "Recall Walker" because they are all so pissed at him for what happened earlier this year. I have moved to the land of radicals, liberals, progressives, activists, nudists, strikers, people who throw things at the capitol building when they're angry. I think they may be rubbing off on me.

In the past few days, I have been on a little political journey of my own thanks to my friend Jill Ridderbos, a Wheaton grad working for the summer in Washington with the U.S. Campaign for Burma. I received an email from her last week entitled, "Will Wisconsin Stand for Burma?" and I dreaded opening it because I knew I was probably going to be asked to do something. Her email told me about the U.S. Campaign for Burma (USCB) and the severe human rights violations inflicted on Burmese citizens by their government. The email asked me to call up my senators and get them to co-sponsor a resolution that imposes sanctions on the Burmese government.

I read over all the instructions and tried to pronounce the name "Aung San Suu Kyi," which I still can't really do. I let it all sit for a day. Then, it was time to email Jill back and tell her that I was sorry and I couldn't do it. I didn't feel like calling any senators. I knew this wouldn't be a good enough reason for Jill, and she would be disappointed. So, I instead decided to call the senators.

It was nerve racking! The first call, I got transfered to the staffer's phone and his voicemail picked up. I was terrified. I left a horribly garbled message with stuttering and stammering and then, on top of all this, I left my 901-area code number to call back, which is still my cell phone number. Anyone from Wisconsin would know that 901 isn't a Wisconsin area code. They will think I'm a fraud! Thus ended call one.

Call two went a lot smoother. I just read exactly what the website said for me to say, and I left my 608 Wisconsin area code number.

The next day, much to my surprise, I got a call back from the second office. He told me that he was very familiar with the bill and that he thought Senator Johnson would co-sign it, but he couldn't say for sure because he still needed to talk to him about it. Sweet! One down. I emailed in my results to the USCB.

The day after that, I got a call back from the other office, telling me that Senator Kohl would for sure sponsor the bill. Great news. Someone at USCB emailed and said I should try calling the other office again to make sure they were going to sponsor it or get any updates because the deadline was the next day, so I called and left a message. The secretary asked, "Can I tell him who's calling?" And I said, "Yes, it's Sarah Mathias from Madison. I'm calling about a bill I spoke with him about yesterday." He still didn't pick up the phone, but I left another message.

He called me back today, and told me that Senator Johnson would for sure co-sign. Both Wisconsin senators are now onboard, and I got to watch the debates in the House on CSPAN right after I found that out.

So what is all this about? Two things: Burma, and what I learned about democracy.

Second thing, democracy. I had no idea that I could call up senators' offices and say, "Hi, my name is Sarah from Madison, WI, and I'm calling about Senate Joint Resolution 17-- the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act..." I had no idea they were so accessible. Jill said that she didn't either until she moved to Washington. She said that they are in their offices there, and if you go visit them, they have to see you. They are there because of the people. Those staffers had to call me back, and that is wild to me. Who knew? Does anyone know about this?

Also, apparently my calls made an impact. Jill told me that the advocacy director at USCB said about me yesterday, "One of Jill's friends yesterday got a senator who hadn't co-sponsored in four years to sign back on, the power of one!" Now this is cool! I had no idea that those painful and exciting phone calls would accomplish anything at all. Maybe now I will call more.

First thing, Burma. The bill USCB is trying to get passed is called the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act. This act imposes sanctions on the Burmese government with the aim of preventing resources like guns from getting into the hands of the regime in power. The regime attacks and destroys ethnic communities. The army uses rape as a weapon of war. The government refuses to release over 2,000 political prisoners. No one really knows the extent of the problems in Burma or how many people are affected in part because of all the internally displaced people hiding in the jungle. There's no way to keep track of numbers. Jill is passionate about these issues because she has spent time in neighboring Thailand and has seen it all with her own eyes.

Fusion of the two. People rave about the virtues of democracy and the need for democracy in other countries, but I haven't really understood its significance until now, or the significance of not having it. "Democracy" hasn't invaded my life, but I am free at any moment to invade its life (and get a word to the people whose job it is to represent me). That's the beauty of it-- and something that Burmese citizens would love to have--for land mines to stop permanently altering their lives, for women to live without the fear of being raped. Maybe democracy and peace don't always go hand in hand so neatly like this. Maybe there isn't always a linkage between living in a democratic country and living without fear of sudden destruction. I'm not trying to tout democracy as the only way, but I think the leaders of a country should take care of their people. This is a biblical principle. The king is supposed to be just. Burma certainly doesn't have that.

If someone living in Burma could do what I did this week, call up their senators' offices and say, "Hello, my name is X, and you know, it would be really nice if you could stop putting land mines around my rice field. Thank you," that would be a great day. I think that's part of what the sanctions do. It's like we're all calling up the Burmese government and asking them to stop.

Here are some resources to learn more about Burma:

U.S. Campaign for Burma Homepage and Blog

General News Source on the Region of Burma and Southeast Asia

National Geographic Article about Burma

Photo Journal of Burmese Prosthetics Clinic

Watch CSPAN tonight to see them debate the bill!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What's for Dinner

Our needs for food and sleep are some of the greatest limitations placed on humans. That is how a business man would say it. They could also be called opportunities for extreme enjoyment. It's devastating when we miss out on or have problems with both- for example, when you have trouble sleeping through the night, or when you have stomach problems that change a delicious meal into a horrible experience shortly after. TMI Sarah, TMI. The question "What's for Dinner?" is an age-old refrain asked by countless children and husbands in America. The wives ask it too, it's just that no one is around to hear them when they do. Well, no one's around when I ask it, but I was around my mom plenty of times when she asked it to herself and, rhetorically, to us. It's a kind of musing question because the answer is as big and limitless as your imagination and physical energy stores at that point of the day. What's for dinner could be a fresh, handmade gnocchi dish (that I intend to cook one of these days) served with chicken and steamed broccoli or it could be a frozen pizza. You decide.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Today's Events

Grief is like a punch in the stomach.
It glazes us so that driving a car
or crossing a parking lot to buy
tomatoes for dinner is dangerous.
I forgot to grab the Redbox.
Memories replay in the search
for a previously insignificant detail,
some sure sign indicating, warning, that
today’s events would unfold as they did.
Finding none, the brain returns
to the scene of the crime: third-floor
parking deck, twelve noon, Friday.
In this case, alone among all other
breaking news stories, the brain
can fill in the exact face, the exact
stature and build of the man
who holds up the gun and fires. 
He used to wear white socks
with his Adidas flip flops. He spoke
softly and gently, loved his sisters.
Then, the questions: did he fool us all?
Killers don’t drive Prisuses. Why did
he wear slacks and a shirt and tie?
He hardly fits the bill for a killer.
Are they sure it was him? Then,
to the John Grisham novel where
one side effect of a bad drug
was the intense desire to kill.
Surely, this is the only way…
There’s nothing to do now
except to cook the shock and disbelief
into the fajitas, then brace for the moment
of realization in the middle of the night
or first thing in the morning: 
it really wasn’t a bad dream.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I have this great love-hate relationship with mornings. I hate waking up, but I love having woken up early. It's the same thing with writing sometimes. Some famous writer says that writers hate writing, but they love having written.

I've just spent about four and a half hours writing. And boy, is it a good feeling. Now, I am sitting down to blog with a perfectly toasty grilled-cheese sandwich. Yum. Haven't had one of these in a while.

Last night, I couldn't sleep. We try to go to bed early because Caleb has to get up so early, but usually I don't get up with him, but, if I sleep in till 10am, I can't go to bed at 10pm. Thus, I found myself wide awake from the hours of 10pm to 1am. Some of that time I spent lying in bed thinking, and then I got up and went to my favorite night time reading place-- the bathroom, specifically, the bath mat with my back to the tub.

The book of the week, The Hours, by someone whose name I forget right now. Michael Cunningham? M something C something. Blame it on the sandwich. This book supposedly won a Pulitzer, but it's full of name dropping and way too much meaningless description. I actually skipped an entire paragraph which I don't think I have ever done in my life. I made those astute (lol) observations before I notice the "Pulitzer" on the cover... I've just always wanted to see the movie. I don't like when people name drop awards and other famous authors-- it's too much showing off. That's great that you're talking about Merwin and Rich and the two other people, but get back to the story! If I wanted to hear about them, I'd have picked up an anthology or something. I also don't like it when authors make sweeping generalizations about entire groups of people like "Christians with acoustic guitars" or the large two page section speculating about gay men and what they do.

But, there was a great section that was all story, no fluf, from the perspective of Virginia Woolf. It talks about her getting up in the morning to what she knows will be a good day of writing. As a writer myself, I loved every word. I could picture her in her dressing gown with her cup of coffee, going up the stairs to her room and sitting at a desk overlooking the window to the street with the red brick building.

I eventually got back into bed and my mind drifted off to the Dominican, as it usually does, and I was thinking about Virginia Woolf and writing, and Danielle's comments that I should write, and my long-time desire to write about the Dominican coupled with someone's comment at waffle night last night, "what do you do all day?!"And I heard the words in my head "you have a story to tell." So I decided that if God would let me fall asleep, I would start writing. I did this very morn.

Thanks to M.C. and the author of the cooking book for being critique-able yet strangely inspiring. Too often, I see what I would change in other books, but I've lacked the guts to actually try something myself. If other people can write books, so can I. I realize this is effectually giving the finger to the professionals out there who actually make money from their craft, but I figure starting with defiance is better than not starting at all. I know it will be hard and I won't want to keep doing it after a while, and it will take way, way, way longer than I want it to or think it will. But then the other part of me thinks that it's already written. I have written it like a hundred times in my mind and I wrote it while I was there in my journals and I wrote it again after that in class presentations and research papers and powerpoints and cooking for people and training other people who are going there. I know this story like the back of my hand. The hardest part will be cohesion, tone, the discipline to keep getting up in the morning. The dialogue, Spanish-English stuff, like what language do I use for what and how much Spanish should I put in, how do I get the old to fit with the new, how do I talk about injustice in a way that's enjoyable to read? Those things. Bahhhh I'm excited! I do love a good challenge and a big project that seems impossible.

Time for the rest of lunch. Feel free to ask me how it's going/tell me to keep going. I don't know how long it will last...

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Response from a Friend to "The Mystery of Cooking"

I received this email today from a good friend, also a new college grad, also having some difficulty. It made me laugh and cheered me up, so I share it with you. 

Dear Sarah,

It is funny that I read your blog post today about baking because my roommate and I tried to bake apple bread tonight. Let me just say, solidarity sister! Usually I am pretty good with recipes, except for the one time I burned Easy Mac in the microwave. Pathetic, right? Well, I didn't read the recipe for apple bread all the way through so failed to miss that we were supposed to use two pans. We put ALL the batter into one pan. (In hindsight we should have put half in, baked it, then baked the other half since we only have one bread pan).

It was quite the disaster. See picture 1. We removed some of the batter and tried again, which did not work at all and led to picture 2.

Then our fire alarm went off.

On the bright side, it tasted really good despite the mix of crisp and goopy textures. I am not looking forward to cleaning the pan or the oven. Ugh.

I have actually enjoyed cooking because it's been really fun to experiment and improvise, cutting a few corners here and there. But baking? Yeah, baking is definitely a science, and when things go awry it is difficult to redeem the situation. Lesson learned.

Hang in there.


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Mystery of Cooking

I'm reading a book about food, love, and friendship called The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister. I picked it up for $4 at Barnes & Noble in the sweet used book section we have in Madison (the B&N is the size of a warehouse). Unfortunately, reading about food isn't making me into a better cook, yet. Ironically, I read the chapter about baking after I baked four dozen or so cookies (it took me three hours). I sort of cringed when I read the part about baking being more like a science than other kinds of cooking. The recipe called for 2 1/4 cups of flour, and I sort of eyeballed the 1/4 on top of the 2 cups. The cookies turned out pretty good, I guess. The thing I don't like about cooking is that you never know what you did wrong. The first tray of cookies were huge; I took the heaping tablespoon a little too literally, it seems. Then, all the subsequent trays got too toasted, even after I moved the oven rack one level lower because I thought they might be too close to the top. I put them in for only seven minutes, and they were too gooey to take out, eight minutes and they were brown. The recipe said 9-11 minutes. Everything burns in our oven, even cornbread. I've made that twice, and put it in for the minimum amount of time, but the edges still got browner than I would like.

A rookie can't spot the errors. Does our oven just cook too fast? Is it the food? Is it all in my mind? Get this-- one time, we were making brownies in our new "brownie pan," that's what they sell it as, a "brownie pan." We poured the batter into the pan, and it didn't even cover the whole surface of the pan. I ask Caleb, "Doesn't the box say 9x13?" "Nope." "But how? This is supposed to be a brownie pan!" Now who's at fault here, me, or the so-called brownie pan that you can't even cook brownies in?

This book I'm reading, they do everything from scratch in the cooking class, even the pasta. And they don't even use a pasta machine. The lady who runs the cooking class just pours in the ingredients, and everything turns out alright. The book is filled with descriptions of decadent food and the memories and images and feelings different spices provoke in those who smell them. I don't get any of those images or feelings burning into my brain when I take a whiff of oregano. The one thing I do get, when I smell the Rosemary, is the memory of playing video games (Dynasty Warriors) with my brother while eating Rosemary-flavored veggie stix.

However, the book is sort of like magical realism, which could explain how the food is really more than food. The restaurant owner, Lillian, has magic food powers that she acquired through a strange childhood with a single mother who read aloud constantly; she knows instinctively what to do. The food they make in the cooking class each month brings a sort of healing to one of the characters in the book, but not as extreme as Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) when the protagonist's emotions are conveyed through the food she cooks so that the diners also experience her feelings.

Last night, I attempted to cook gnocchi for Caleb's first day at work. I personally don't like the stuff, but Caleb loves it. Everything seemed to be going well. The water boiled (you know it's a bad situation when that makes the list for things that go well), the sauce was heating up, I remembered I wanted to cook veggies and garlic bread, too. It was all done by the time Caleb got home and still hot for the most part. But the gnocchi was gross. Too chewy. Followed by the internal barrage of questions, "Did I cook it too long? Was it a bad package? Is this how gnocchi is and I just don't like it? Was it the cheese sauce?" I choked it down, vowing silently never to attempt it again. Caleb kindly reassured me and said that it was packaged and not really the real thing. I hope so. If that's what the real thing tastes like, why would anyone ever eat it? Also ironically, gnocchi was mentioned in passing in the chapter I read after dinner. And this is the same day as making the cookies, then reading about baking.

I like the book because of the way the character's stories are intermingled with the cooking classes. Each character has a chapter, and each chapter happens at a different cooking class with insights into that specific character's story. I like the unusual words she uses like "indiscriminate" and "luxuriantly," two words I apparently can't spell, according to spell check. I also enjoy the profound aphorisms that conclude certain sections of the chapters, like, "Carl was a bird watcher; he knew that not all sticks in a nest are straight" (p.81). Here, she uses an analogy: people are like birds and homes are like nests. It's a beautiful aphorism at this point in the story. It makes you think a little bit, but not too much. If she used fewer similes and metaphors, the reading would be much less clunky (or, there would be fewer lumps in the batter of her book!). Her description alone is often sufficient to create the image, but then she goes ahead and tacks on a simile anyway. This does add to the magical realism element, however.

I got a cookbook as a birthday gift with about 300 recipes, but frankly, I don't know where to start on the thing. Someone said casseroles are the way to go when you're first married because they are fast, easy, and you can eat them again. Perhaps I will start there. This person also said not to worry-- there's always time to start cooking later. She didn't really get into cooking into fifteen years into her marriage. This is good news for me. I don't have to be a pro right now.

Now, it's two o'clock, and I still need to eat lunch. But I am so desperately bored with food and with its disappointments that I have no motivation to go over into the kitchen and heat up some leftover taco meat. I love food, and I wish that by reading a book about loving and cooking food I could cook food better. But, I think this book is just setting up unrealistic expectations for a young cook in her first month of actually cooking. Taco meat, here I come.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Study in Snowballs

Nothing has ever tasted as good to me as a coconut snowball on a hot day. There was this place we used to go in New Orleans, it might still be there, on the corner by my grandparents' old house. We went summer evenings, and it was always exciting. What flavor would I get this time? The last time I remember going, we went in the afternoon not long before dinner. I have often been known to consume sweets right before dinner. Who really cares? I'll be hungry again later. This last time in New Orleans, I'm sure I got piƱa colada or coconut flavor. It came with the special plastic spoon/straw that you could slurp or shovel with. Absolutely perfect. The trick is not to drink all the liquid too fast, but to let it linger with the ice until the very end so you get the most out of the snowball.

Yesterday, I had a similar experience at the 4th of July celebration in Warner park in Madison. I saw someone walking around with what appeared to be a snowball, and after an hour or so at the park, Caleb and I set out to search. We found a long line, and the snowballs! Although it wasn't the ideal shaved ice from a machine, the flavor was just the same as I had remembered, and it was delicious. What a treat, and what a memory.

The fireworks were the best I'd ever seen with the whole show set to music played over the radio-- a whole medley of songs, some patriotic, some not. The crowd sat on blankets or in chairs they brought to the park, having camped out and reserved spots hours earlier. Many people had glow sticks and light up batons. I loved watching the kid in front of me with glow sticks fashioned into necklaces and then huge headphones on top of that to block out the noise.

Caleb starts work in two days, and I've been trying to think of things to do while he's gone all day. I've got a list ; ) I'm thinking about getting my teaching certificate, so I can investigate that during the day time and go visit schools. Still need to do research about a cooking class or a crew to join. Still looking for a church. DO have two big writing projects to work on. Not feeling particularly philosophical tonight, just a little bored ; ) John Grisham let me down with a bad ending last night, and I don't want to start another book right now. Pout pout pout.