Sunday, May 30, 2010

Guest Post from the Smallest

In Church today we were talking about family history. Everyone was handed a little sheet of paper and a pencil to write down a story about an ancestor. And somewhere in the space between my paper and pencil, there was a thought.

I thought about the stories that came from the people before us. I thought about how often they seem like a validating part of us. Like when you're little, just a kindergartner, let's say and you find out that your great-great-great grandmother was Pochahontas. As a kidergartener you run all around the school yard, the playground, even in your class and stand up and declare imperiously that you are related to Pochahontas. It dazzles everyone. You even make some new friends, just because they wanted to be with the Indian Wild Princess Girl. Just so they can go home and show off to their big brother that they have a friend who is Pochahontas.

But just because she's your great-great-great grand mama, doesn't make you any cooler. It's not like it gives you super powers where you can now talk to trees and little animated racoons. Ghandi's great grand son is just another person. His life is his own to make something of, it isn't like he gets free cookies for being a descendant of Ghandi, right?

But I then I think of the Hanukkahs, which I have been celebrating as long as I can remember. I think of the Passovers, and the nights spent in a living room full of all my older siblings dancing to Banghra music. And I decided, hovering somewhere there in the air inbetween the paper and my pencil, that the stories and ancsestors only shape us as much as we embrace them as a part of ourselves.

I did not wake up in the mornings in India and eat rotis for breakfast and go to work in the fields. But as I fold the dough on the counter and roll it out for my brother Stephen to cook on a hot pan, using only his hands, I can imagine and connect to the people who did. I can feel them running through me, through my veins.

And I don't know all the stories, certainly not as many as James, who is much taller and therefore has more room inside him for such things as stories. I just have distorted and fragmented peices that sort of drift through me and weave and set into place in my life, amongst my own stories that I am painting.

I have my own stories, of edgy reckless climbing and learning to make waffles by listening for them to speak to me to tell me that they are done. I have stories of magnificient, laughable stupididy, of plane rides alone to foriegn places and they go on and on......

But within them there are the peices of other people that give me direction; for example my history lead me to India, to see this country that I have only felt before in my brother's beard and the beat of music, only seen in my grandfather's eyes. It lead me to read or rather stumble over the four questions in Hebrew at a Seder held on the floor of an apartment in Thailand. It lead me to teach a group of Christians how to dance the Horah, and to teach a Thai woman how to cook tortilla soup.

But this thought is getting to big for the space alloted; it only has a tiny space between a 2B pencil that is closing in on the sheet of white paper, so I jot down a story involving Jews in Romania and hand it in.

And I end my Ramblings.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Pani Agua Water

While washing her hands a few minutes ago, Kira began to sing softly to herself--something she often does. This time, though, the words of her song were "pani agua water" repeated over and over.

Nicole and I smiled. "Pani" is the Punjabi word for what English calls water, "agua" is the Spanish. We often give Kira the choice between the three at dinner after she asks for juice. You'd think that a kid would get upset by that sooner or later, but for now at least, she seems to like the choice. She'll actually pick "pani" or "water" or sometimes "pani and agua mixed"--the sense of satisfaction at knowing an extra name is apparently as good as the extra sugar and flavor in juice.

And now she's singing them.

Besides being incredibly cute, what does growing up like this mean? Although Nicole gives certain commands in Spanish, it's not like we're actually planning on teaching Kira fluent Spanish in the home (my mother tried hard to teach us Spanish when I was little, and not one of us ever got good at it). And although I know a little Punjabi, not even I can carry on a conversation in it: I'm lucky to get out a coherent sentence.

So what, in the long run, does Kira get out of learning non-English words at home?

A few possibilities come to mind:

1) Even without fluency, language brings a sense of connection. I really believe that something as simple as having sung about agua as a five-year-old will help Kira more easily access and appreciate the diverse cultural backgrounds of people she meets and works with. And knowing words like pani now definitely helps her connect with her sense of being an Indian, of wanting to know stories about that part of her familial past.

2) Learning bits and pieces of different languages will help Kira become a stronger analytical thinker. She and I had an interesting brief conversation, for example, about whether pani was "really" water: she was sort of fascinated to think about the fact that water and pani are both names for the substance and not just for each other ("pani" serving as a sort of code-word for what is truly named "water.") Playing with language is helping her consider how systems might work. The extra practice organizing and reorganizing knowledge almost certainly has value in more areas than just cultural identity.

3) By learning bits of multiple languages, Kira is developing a heightened awareness of sound as well as meaning in language. I'd imagine that this affects her sense of English as well as of Punjabi, Spanish, and whatever else she happens to absorb at home. Being able to more keenly appreciate language on the level of sound certainly makes life more beautiful. It may also contribute to a love of literature later in life, something which I think has numerous benefits. And it may ultimately serve to make Kira more persuasive, since the sounds of what we write and say affect people sometimes as much as the content.

Although English was the only "complete" language I learned in the home, I think I benefited from hearing Spanish, some Navajo, and a little Punjabi around as a kid. And I think Kira will gain more than might be imagined from being exposed to multiple languages at home, even though she probably won't learn, in the home, to actually speak more than one.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Home Cooked Meal

E_mirror Guest Post by Vilo Elisabeth

A friend of mine is taking a world religions class. Recently, they studied Judaism. “You have a Jewish connection, don't you?” she asked me. I explained that I'm a quarter Jewish, on my dad's side (which is enough to give me citizenship in Israel, but since it's from my father's side and not my mother's, doesn't count in some circles). “Do you make any Jewish food?” I had to think about this, and the answer made me laugh internally.
“Latkes, which are potato pancakes, out of a box. Matzo ball soup, out of a box. Oh, and challah—the braided bread.”
“Yeah, we had challah in class” she said, and that was the end of the discussion.

But I kept thinking about it afterward. I had laughed to myself because typically, I don't make much from a box or mix. Growing up, my mom might get a cake mix for a birthday cake, unless we wanted a spice cake or the special cinnamon cake my dad loves. But she made cookies and sometimes bread from scratch. I didn't even know you could buy a mix for cookies until I was 17. (I did know about pre-made cookie dough, but I also knew it wasn't that great. It was mostly just for sugar cookies, anyway.) We did use a Japanese curry mix to make a curry sauce to go with potatoes, carrots, and chicken, until my dad decided it was too unhealthy and created his own curry recipe using yogurt and spices.

I learned to make challah in my 8th grade home ec. class. When I brought the recipe home, my dad told me that his grandmother, Ann Goldberg, used to make challah. He remembered that from visiting her as a child. This is the first time I remembered him mentioning visiting his grandmother, or really anything about what she had been like or done. I kept the recipe, and started making the bread as a way to feel connected to her.

Throughout my childhood, the main connection to Jewish food was on our visits to Grandpa Art, who lived in LA. Although Grandpa Art was Agnostic, he took pride in being Jewish—the culture, the food, the intellectualism. He often commented on accomplished Jewish figures, and loved to remind me that no Mormons had ever won a Nobel prize, while many Jews had. (My response was that the Jews had been around a whole lot longer, and there are more of them.) During our visits, we frequented several Jewish Delis, such as Junior's and Fromins, or whatever place he was currently enamored with. We would order rye bread, bagel and lox, cheese blintzes with fruit.

On one of these visits, Grandpa Art gave us a menorah from Israel. After that we celebrated Hanukkah every year, and my dad would make latkes and serve them with sour cream and applesauce. He usually made them from a box, but would often grate potatoes and onions to add to the mix. At some point during my teenage years, we started celebrating Passover as well. We bought matzo, the flatbread that represents the quick bread that the Jews made before fleeing Egypt—made without leaven, since there was no time to let it rise. Matzo resembles gigantic bland saltines. We made the haroset, the mixture of finely minced apples, raisins and nuts that represents the mortar for the bricks that the Jews made as slaves, and shows the sweetness even during suffering. Celery was our bitter herb, and sometimes horseradish sauce, but I never wanted to eat much. I don't remember what we served for the main dish.

Then one year we went to my dad's cousin Juli's house for Passover. Juli is an amazing cook. She put together quite the spread. Besides the traditional components of the Seder plate, she had crudities and Greek olives for us to munch on during the Haggadah. Her Seder plate also included an orange, to show women's involvement in religion, and besides a glass of wine for Elijah, there was a glass of water to represent Miriam's well. (Juli and her son had a lively argument over if she was making too much of women's contributions to Passover. My father later remarked on this, saying that it was refreshing to see such a spirited debate without their being rancor or hurt feelings on either side.) Juli grew and ground her own horseradish, which made me a convert. We took some home and happily ate it for days. Juli and her family also introduced us to the multiple uses of matzo—to make french toast, for turkey sandwiches, covered in chocolate. Passover has been a much richer experience for me since.

Here's the soup I made for my seder this year. The matzo balls were from a mix, but the soup I made myself. Purple cabbage made the broth purple!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


We got together at my in-laws on Sunday evening as a joint celebration of my brother-in-law's birthday and mine.

I noticed again how much my grandpa smiles when my brothers-in-law start teasing and even wrestling with each other. I'd asked him about it at my wife's birthday gathering several months ago, and he told me seeing Garrett and Brandon reminds him of growing up in the same house with seven of his brothers and (I think) four male cousins.

Countries change and eras change, but some things remain the same.

I love family.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Viva Los Suns

Arizona recently passed an insane immigration bill which makes it legal to arrest anyone who is even with someone who is not carrying immigration papers.

Tonight, the Phoenix Suns NBA team is playing in jerseys that say "Los Suns" as a protest against the bill.

Hopefully immigrant point guard Steve Nash won't be arrested on court for having left his immigration papers in the locker room...

Monday, May 3, 2010

Thesis Defense

I'd imagine that very few people have as much fun defending their theses as I did on Thursday. Three bright, interesting professors spent two hours asking me questions about my work and its implications and I had a blast.

Part of this was probably because my thesis project (made up of these three blogs plus a separate document about creative blog writing which will go to the library at the end of this month) is so different from traditional MFA theses that no one knew the answers to any of the questions asked at the defense for sure. We had the chance to play with ideas about internet communication together. These are particularly important conversations to have, we agreed, since the internet is increasingly influential in developing broad cultural patterns of how people read.

The ways the internet changes reading, I argued, will depend to a great extent on how writers of all kinds compose for the internet. Because of the wide range of choices, I said, it's possible to write more than ever before for a narrow audience of people who already agree with you. Maybe the internet will increase the degree to which writers and audiences simply reinforce each others' pre-existing notions about the world.

On the other hand, though, I think the internet has the power to suggest an interconnectedness that undermines narrow and stereotyped views of the world. I believe that my blogs, by linking together different parts of myself, can help create a healthier kind of literature: one which helps us see reality as a complex system which requires our attention rather than as an easy problem those who disagree with us simply refuse to solve.
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