Not Quite Ready for Italy’s National Cookbook

This is not going to come as a shock to those of you who know me well, but I’m just stating the facts. I am not a cook, a chef, a baker or any other synonym for one who makes food. My idea of cooking is going online and ordering food to be delivered to my house. (I’m so far away from being a cook that even calling in an order on the telephone is too close to actual food preparation.) When I open those steaming packages of take-out, it counts as cooking in my book. Whenever there was a family event that involved everyone bringing something to add to the spread, I always tried to be first to reply to the invitation email so I could call dibs on the potato chips if it was a barbeque or the rolls if it was a sit-down dinner. Either way, the “cooking” involved dropping by Albertson’s grocery store on the way to the meal, running in and getting my assigned item and heading out to where the real food was being prepared. Even Thanksgiving, which we were kind of in charge of on Thad’s side of the family, I got out of the real work by offering up my giant kitchen (which was pristine, since it never got used) and buying the bird and fixings. It was a price I was more than happy to pay.

It was a system that was working out pretty well for me when we were living in Idaho, because I had enough real cooks around me that I could always fall back on their food creations for a  real meal once in a while. My parents are always good for a meatloaf or grilled burgers, especially when my brother, the baby of the family, calls up and requests dinner. All I have to do is piggy-back on his call. My sister-in-law is always trying out new recipes and has a dining room table big enough for a few extra diners.  And I am assuming my older sister knows that all holiday meal gatherings are eventually going to end up at her house. It is part of her predestined roll as the oldest child. (Don’t worry Melys, I’ll bring the rolls!)

But what happens when I am just under 10,000 miles away from home and want to make a homemade birthday dinner for Thad? Usually I just suggest a lasagna dinner from either his mom or my mom, whoever asks about his birthday first. This year, a mom-sanga wasn’t an option, so I thought maybe it was time to step up to the plate and figure out how to make a “real” lasagna dinner myself. (“Real” gets put in quotation marks because everything is relative in China. You do the best with what you have here.)

With the goal of homemade lasagna in mind, I took the subway to a new supermarket in town that has a lot of western goods available. For a price. But that is a whole different story.  Last time I was there, I noticed the butcher block at this store had some decent looking ground beef, so I picked up a few small packages of that, along with lasagna noodles. I already had mozzarella cheese, which we buy in bulk from a different store in town, then cut up into blocks and freeze. My back bedroom, which is filled with random goodies from Costco had a couple jars of spaghetti sauce, which I figured could be a stand in for the tomato sauce. I looked all over but couldn’t find any ricotta cheese, cottage cheese or sour cream, but again, this is China-style lasagna.

Sunday was Thad’s actual birthday, but he wasn’t feeling super great, so we put off the homemade dinner until tonight. I made sure to have everything at work wrapped up right at four so I could skitter out the door and head home to get dinner in the oven. I remember from watching my mom make lasagna about a million times that it is a bit of a process.

It is less of a process when you make the “easy” version. Apparently, the noodles I bought (the only ones the store had) are pan-ready, which means I didn’t have to boil them before making the meal.  That saved me one step! Plus, having less ingredients made the whole preparation a little faster than I expected.

After cooking the ground beef (which was actually decent quality- no chunks of fat or slivers of bone to be found!), and adding the spaghetti sauce, I embarked on the Lincoln-Log-esque process of building the lasagna, layer by layer. I started with sauce on the bottom of the pan, thinking that would help cook these strange oven-ready noodles I bought. Then came noodles, burger-mix, cheese and back to noodles.

Italy isn’t going to come calling anytime soon, asking for my recipe to add to their national cookbook, but I do have to say I was rather pleased with the results. Many times I start these cooking projects with high hopes, only to have my dreams of a homemade meal come crashing down, but tonight, it actually worked out. Not only did the lasagna *look* like a lasagna, but the taste was a pretty decent replication as well. It wasn’t my mom’s lasagna, but it wasn’t a total embarrassment either!

And, guess what we’ll be having for lunch tomorrow. Birthday lasagna- China style! (With just the two of us, I still have 2/3 of a pan left.)

Happy 36th birthday, Thad!

I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had by Tony Danza

I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had by Tony Danza

Schools and teachers are a hot topic in Idaho right now, as the November ballot includes Propositions 1, 2, and 3, which deal with a variety of education related issues. As a registered Idaho voter, former teacher (although hopefully I’ll be back in the game at Thad’s next posting) and concerned constituent, I’ve been watching the battle between the sides rage this entire fall. (You would think being in China would put me out of that loop a bit, but at least the Pro-Props 1,2 and 3 side seem to have found me. In the last three weeks, I’ve gotten nine of the exact same flyer from their group. Nine! The same flyer! My goodness. Whether I agree with the position or not, sending me nine of the exact same piece of literature is going to do little to change my mind folks.)  With schools being on the forefront in many states this season,  I thought it would only be appropriate that I jump back on the book review bandwagon with an education-related review. (It has been a while since I’ve added to my Book Musings category, not because I haven’t been reading, but it has just fallen to the wayside between the move to the other side of the world, a new job, and finding my place in a new community. But, I hereby declare that book reviews, shell-rated and all, are back!)

Tony Danza is not someone I would expect to turn to for insightful thoughts on education reform and the realities of classroom life for teachers, and yet, like with so many things in life, I was pleasantly surprised. In his new book, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had, he takes on the role of a teacher in a tough, urban school in downtown Philadelphia. After being fired from his latest Hollywood role, that of a daytime talk show host, he was looking for a way to give back to his community and seriously considered the Teach for America program. But, I think the limelight is just bred in to some, and he found a way to mesh his California-career with his Philadelphia upbringing, in the form of a documentary that is filmed over the course of a year teaching high school English.

Skeptical yet? I was at this point! I imagined him going in for a few weeks, doing bit parts and then moving on to the production and selling of his latest film-creation. But, while I do take issue with parts of the gig, after reading the book, I can see how genuinely dedicated he was to his role as a teacher and how touched he was by his students. (He taught a single English class, granted, it was a double period, for a year. He also did some other duties around the school, but the strain that shows from his single class of students needs to be multiplied, as teachers don’t get to plan for, teach and review work for a single class a day.)

Danza faces the realities of many teachers in America today. He must find a way to get his students to embrace great literature when they prefer the crass rhymes of less-than-stellar role models they hear on the radio. He must teach his high school students to communicate effectively, through written and spoken word, when they constantly revert to the LOLs and OMGs of modern-text-talk. On top of this, he learns that teaching a subject area is only half of the battle educators face each day. He soon sees that his kids are lacking in positive role models at home, that they are coming to school hungry and tired and that they don’t dare dream, as they’ve seen too many dreams crash to the ground and die.

I am probably partial to Danza’s newest work because he spends his year in an English classroom, something I am missing right now. But, his book is full of touching moments, but also very real, tough moments. I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had should be on the top of Christmas lists for all the teachers in your life (they will understand and appreciate his perspective),  as well as all of those folks who think a few laptops and online classes are the solution to crowded classrooms and not hiring enough trained, certified and experienced teachers.  I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had  by Tony Danza earns a solid:

Happy Birthday to My Eyes!

The space shuttle flying piggy-back around the Washington Monument. Baby gorillas frolicking at the National Zoo. My mom’s surprise 60th birthday party. Pandas lazily munching on bamboo. Airports in Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Bangkok and Guiyan. Rainstorms in Thailand. The wedding of two friends. And at least ninety books. (I used my GoodReads.com account to come up with that number, but since I sometimes forget to add a book to my “shelf” after I read it, that is a conservative count.)

What do all of these seemingly random things have in common?

They are all wonderful things that my new hawk-eyes have seen in the last year.

Friday was the one-year anniversary of my LASIK surgery and what a great year it has been! It isn’t as if I was blind before and could suddenly see, which would be a medical miracle, but without my contacts, my focused world consisted of about six inches from my face. Contacts were great, especially the leave-in ones that I would wear for a month (or more!) at a time, but once we realized we were going to be spending the bulk of our time living abroad for the next few decades, I figured it was time to throw away the saline solution.

As I went through the numerous pre-operation appointments, I was warned about various possible side-effects, including problems with halos and night vision. (These apparently were a higher concern for my case, as it seems I have abnormally large pupils. Thad has always made fun of my eyes, saying they were like alien eyes, so he was only too happy to have it medically confirmed!) I had put off the surgery for years, mostly on account of these possibly complications. It turns out, I had nothing to worry about. Within hours of the procedure, I had 20/20 vision and never developed any problems with halos, night vision or dryness. LASIK was a total success!

Now, I can roll up a few sets of clothes, stash them in my bag and head off not only to western China, but whatever random city Thad’s next assignment takes us to. And, rather than filling my consumables shipment with contact solution and cleaner, I can use that space for a few extra boxes of Cheerios and some macaroni and cheese.

(Here’s the blog entry I wrote a year ago, just two days after having LASIK surgery.)

The Hunt for Orange October

It’s that dreaded time of year again. No, it is not Tax Day. Nor is it time for back-to-school dental check-ups that always end in the need to have a cavity filled. It isn’t even the shortest day of the year, when the sun seemingly rises and sets simultaneously.

It is Halloween.

I know some people love this holiday with a passion that most hold in reserve for their spouses and children and baby pandas. I admire those who can look upon this season of spooks and goblins as a blessing bestowed upon autumn by the pagans of years past.

I am not one of them.

Last year, I laid out my argument against Halloween in terms my dislike of most things in costume. (You are welcome to review that good-natured anti-Halloween diatribe here, in “Gourd Sculpting and Arachnid Treats.”) But there is more to my dislike of Halloween than just adults dressed as creatures from Star Trek that follow me around bars in Las Vegas. ( I would like to take a moment  to point out that toddlers and babies are excluded from my aversion to costumed critters. Whether it is a niece dressed as a puppy, the awesome kid who showed up on my doorstep dressed as a UFO in an outfit fashioned from two Rubbermaid trashcan lids fitted with Christmas lights, or a sleeping baby as nearly anything, whether it be animal, vegetable or mineral, I am on board. Little ones in cute costumes are adorable. The distaste starts when the disguised reach middle school. Sorry niece #1- you’ve hit the line this year! Unless, that is, you fathom some awesomely literary costume, of course. Then I will reconsider my arbitrary line.)

Although the costumed creatures are reason enough to not have Halloween on my “favorite days of the year” list (which I don’t have a physical manifestation of, but does exist in my head), I also cannot get on board with the black and orange thing. Black is okay. It is slimming. It makes for a nice little dress. On a car, it can help hide dirt. But, orange? Nope. Rarely is orange a flattering color and it is impossible to rhyme in a poem. It is a waste of a wedge on the color wheel.

Regardless of my personal feelings about Halloween, part of my CLO job is to plan/host events for our community in Chengdu.  Any such day that is uniquely American or culturally significant becomes a bigger deal when you are living overseas. People want their kids to experience Easter like they would in the US, with a giant bunny who delivers eggs filled with chocolate in baskets of plastic grass. They want an abundance of red, white and blue streamers amid which they can eat BBQ while celebrating the birth of our great nation. And, they want Halloween– costumes, trick-or-treating, jack o’ lanterns. ..the works.

To prepare for this festival of ghosts and ghouls, we needed pumpkins, as I am hosting a carved-pumpkin contest next week. (I hesitate to call it a jack o’ lantern contest, as entrants might have to be creative with how they design their oddly shaped gourd art.) Out went the call for pumpkin orders and in they came. With a total required number of orange orbs surpassing the two-dozen mark, I thought I’d get thirty, just to be safe.

With the help of our staff gardener, I headed out to a wet market on the edge of Chengdu, which was great because I love markets! There is something fabulous about seeing all the fresh produce stacked and ready for purchase. The colors in an outdoor market seem more vivid and vibrant. The smells are more aromatic. (This is true for both the pleasant scents and the not-so-pleasant odors that waft on the breeze.) Markets tend to have a different sort of shoppers than supermarkets, which is also intriguing to experience.

Chinese pumpkins aren’t quite the same as American pumpkins. (I am sure there is scientific nomenclature that would trace the lineage of these various gourds, but that isn’t my world. In the US, I see large, round, very orange pumpkins. In China, I see large, squat, toadstool-like, slightly orange gourds trying to pass themselves off as pumpkins.) But, Chinese pumpkins are the only choice, so we’ll do our best with what we have.

After digging through a woman’s enormous pile of pumpkins, sorting out the best, most-likely to be carve-able ones, we had a stack of thirty chosen gourds. As the gardener picked through the stack, helping me along in the process, getting a “hao” (thumbs-up) or “bu hao” (thumbs down) on each selection, he quickly caught on to what I was looking for and supplied a good number of pumpkins to our purchase-pile.

At one point, looking up from my hunt for the next great pumpkin, I glanced over my shoulder to see a crowd of probably fifteen or twenty people, mostly older folks, watching the show. I can only imagine what they must think of the blonde woman in a skirt and galoshes, buying thirty pumpkins. Is there a good story to fill in those gaps?

Thanks to the help of the gardener, I was able to haul my load of necessary Halloween adornments back to the consulate where they were quickly picked up by those who had submitted orders, taken to be carved in to…I actually have no idea.

While Halloween is not high on my list and I’m not a big fan of dressing up, I will be celebrating more than I have in years.  (My current costume plan is to go as the great Chicago Bears defensive player, #99, Shea McClellin, but Thad tells me he is pretty sure Shea never wore gray yoga pants with his jersey.)  And it will be great! I’ll judge funky-shaped carved pumpkins, that I am sure will be extraordinary, since our community is amazingly creative. I’ll hand out candy from the “trunk” of my hot-pink scooter during the “truck or treat.” And I’ll do it all with a genuine smile on my face because distinctively American holidays are just a little more special when you live on the other side of the world.

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With A Side of Smog

Eggs benedict with hollandaise sauce, bacon, pancakes, dragon fruit, tiny oranges, chocolate chip shortbread cake (my contribution to the meal), all with a side of dense, industrial-grade smog.

That’s what we call a true Chengdu brunch.

When I roll out of bed on a Sunday morning, look out my massive floor to ceiling windows in the master bedroom and realize I can barely make out the PLA Hospital that is just a block up the road, I know it is going to be a rough day on the ol’ lungs.  Some days the gray can be blamed on 90% humidity- a fine mist that cools my skin and smears my make-up on my daily scoot to work.

Not today.

Today’s air is thick and gray, not the white of pending rain. Today’s air has the taste of coal and chemicals. Thad suggested that maybe Sichuan is celebrating a new sister holiday to the Spring Lantern Festival, this one being the Autumn Tire Burning Festival.

Of course, I couldn’t just sit on the edge of the bed and marvel at the lack of visibility. I had to know just how bad it really was. So, throwing on my fluffy pink robe and pink, monster-feet slippers, I shuffled out to the living room to fire up the internet and put a number on just how murderous the day would be on my pulmonary friends.

The United States Consulate in Chengdu has a great website filled with information about current events, upcoming activities and the array of American Citizen Services offered by the mission. None of that matters to me. I have the air monitor bookmarked on laptop and on days as hazy as today, go directly there to get the bad news as it is posted.

So, just how bad was the air in Chengdu today?

“Hazardous.”  All day long. (Okay, to be fair, we got a brief respite for about four hours in the late afternoon where the air popped up to the glorious level of “very unhealthy.”) According to the EPA, when the air quality is labeled as “hazardous” by their standards, “everyone should avoid all physical activity outdoors; people with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should remain indoors and keep activity levels low.”  (If you’re interested, I would suggest a quick trip over to http://chengdu.usembassy-china.org.cn/air-quality-monitor4.html , where the calculations are explained.)

There are a lot of great things about Chengdu.  We’ve got pandas. We’ve got Sichuan Opera. We’ve got lovely parks and spicy food.  The air is not one of those great things. Today, my eyelids feel like they are made of sandpaper. My throat has a scratch to it that wasn’t there yesterday. And the five air filters in my apartment are working overtime.

Sometimes, my lungs sure do miss Idaho.

A Book Club for Two, Please

Curled up on top of the floor heat vent, under a comforter, on a chilly Christmas afternoon with my brand new hardback copy of Matilda.

Flipping through the pages of a history book that my sister and I dug out of a dumpster at the high school where my dad taught, writing in the answers to the end-of-section review questions after reading each chapter.

Proudly clamping my brand new lamp to the edge of my frilly, white and pink daybed, knowing that now I could stay up way later than my prescribed bedtime to read just one or two (or three, or maybe four) chapters in the lives of the Holt family, from the American Dynasty series, in which I was totally entrenched.

Wandering down not-so-well-lit alleys with a backpack on my back, in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, (the list goes on…) in search of a used bookstore where I could buy a novel or two to tide me over until the next hostel with a “take-one, leave-one” lending library policy. (I must confess my thievery here. At these hostels, I took *WAY* more books that I left. It was out of desperation. Really.)

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Words and stories and books have always played a huge role in my life. From my earliest memories of reading the comics in the morning newspaper as I ate my bowl of Lucky Charms to my current, late-night book buying binges on BarnesandNoble.com, books are always there.

Last night, as I was putting off doing anything constructive, like folding laundry or cleaning up the dinner dishes, I was randomly surfing the internet when I heard the lovely little electronic chirp meaning I had a new Google message from someone.  Toggling over to my open Gmail account, I saw that it was my 6th grade niece, Kelsey, who was just starting her day in Idaho. She must have been ready for school a few minutes early, as she was online and we had a chance to chat for a bit. After talking about how school was going and what her crazy siblings were up to, she asked if I wanted to pick a book to read together and then talk about.

YES!!

Of course I want to read a book together and then talk about it. It will be like our own mini-book club!

I was so excited that she thought of this idea and I was on board before she could change her middle school mind. Thinking she might have an in on what was popular right now, I asked what she wanted to read (it isn’t always easy to keep up with young adult trends from the other side of the world), but she deferred to my English teacher-ness and said to pick.

As Kels headed off to her day filled with math and science and orchestra and dance, I spent the rest of the evening bouncing between BN.com and Amazon.com, looking for the latest and greatest novels to read together, thinking if I narrowed the choices down, she could make the final selection.

Because of this nearly manic need to have something to read in front of me at all times (cereal boxes, owner’s manuals, advertisements around the edges of a map…), our new reading adventure just gives me another outlet for my bookworm DNA.  I’m so excited (and I just can’t hide it!) to get reading together.

Book recommendations have been submitted to my co-reader and I await her proclamation. Next step? An awesome name for our two-person reading group.

 

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Geography Woes

We’ve all got regrets from our years in middle school and junior high, some of which most of us would probably rather not delve in to, especially in the realm of the clothes we were convinced were “cool.” (Think: Hypercolor shirts, overalls, big bangs, pegged baggy jeans,…oh, the list could go on…) But, as my search for the end of the sidewalk has taken me down paths I never could have imagined when I was wandering the halls of Jefferson Junior High, I couldn’t have foreseen that a bit more effort in Mr. Shake’s geography class would have come in handy.

I dreaded those frequent map quizzes, with just the outlines of countries and mocking stars of capitals. At the time, did I think I would ever need to know the difference between Haiti and the Dominican Republic? (I finally got those straight in my thirteen year old mind by remembering that Haiti is the shorter word, so it gets the smaller part of the island. That is some quality logic! That information became key when I moved to the island of Hispaniola to study abroad during college. With the big and little of it in mind, I was able to safely find myself on the correct side of the island. Most of the time.) Or did I need to know where the Yellow River was in China? (When that is the determining factor for heat in your apartment, you soon figure it out!)

At the time, Bangkok was one of the cities that actually stood out to me when the maps of Southeast Asia were handed out, not because I had any great interest in Thailand, and not even because it sounds like it was named by a prepubescent boy, but because it held the exotic appeal of hard men being humbled and tough men tumbling and references to people and places and events I didn’t understand, but backed by haunting music that clung to my mind like pearls to an oyster.

A score and a few years later, I found myself back in that sweltering city, not for anything as exotic as a global chess tournament, but rather for training with the State Department for my first non-teaching job in over a decade.

I may have sat in a hotel conference room for forty (or more!) hours that week, learning a massive amount about the eight portfolios that make up my position, which was well-worth the trip, but the minute we were released at the end of each day, I was ready to go see the city.  Within moments of being dismissed for the afternoon, I was in our (very posh!) hotel room, stripping off the layers of clothing necessary to keep warm in any conference room around the world (never mind that it was a balmy 90 degrees outside), shucking the tights, corduroy skirt  and cardigan for shorts, a tank top and sandals.

One night, we had the chance to meet up with our fellow ex-Crystal City Oakwood mo-partment mates, David and Ian, who were in town for a brief layover before heading south to the lovely beaches of Phuket. (See, I’m telling you, an entire country named by pre-pubescent boys. Wait until you see the picture of Thad at the Mo Chit Skytrain stop.)

We met up at Cabbages and Condoms, a great restaurant that started as a small NGO, and has blossomed into several locations within Thailand. Other than serving good food and fun, fruity drinks, their shtick is that all of their proceeds to go AIDS prevention and family planning education- both very worthy causes.  While we waited for David and Ian to arrive, we perused the shop filled with all things condom.  I decided against sending the postcards home to my elementary-aged nieces and nephews, but did end up buying both a shoulder bag and a scarf for myself. (Both of which I could have bought at the weekend market for a lower price, but I figured it was a good way to help the cause.) Rather than mints coming with the bill as a parting gift, we were each given a lovely, pink-wrapped condom as our take-away for the night. They have a theme and boy, do they stick with it!

As I think back to that second-floor classroom on 10th Street in Caldwell, the one in which I dreaded the day the atlases and colored pencils were handed out, the one in which I felt like nothing we were doing would ever have any consequence in my own life, I have to laugh. More than any other class (okay, other than English, but I have a natural bias there), geography is the hallmark of the Foreign Service. Capital city names roll of the tips of tongues like poetry off the lips of a bard. Who doesn’t need to know where Dhaka and Djibouti are? Or Dakar and Dushanbe? And if you don’t know them, it doesn’t take long to not only place them on a map, but learn their current state of political affairs and exactly how long it takes to fly from said city to home in the States. These are the places where you find that middle ground between despair and ecstasy. These are the places that will be home.

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