Monday, December 26, 2011

That's Pittsburgh: David Conrad edition

Back in April, Pittsburgh native David Conrad, wrote a piece for the Local Dispatch section of the Post-Gazette, "It's hardly polite to be outside Pittsburgh." If you somehow managed to miss it, read it now. 

It struck a chord with me, and I took a moment to write him an email to tell him so:
Dear David:

Thank you for this commentary. I always enjoy reading your pieces about Pittsburgh, and it pleases me that you have chosen to not become an expat like so many who have tasted success and moved themselves to shwankier climes.

I have left and come back and left and come back and left and come back...but I'm never leaving again. I think that to fully appreciate Pittsburgh, one must leave. I ended up on a path that took me from place to place, back through Pittsburgh several times, and through new groups of friends about every 2 years for a good chunk of my life. In my mid-20s, I was exhausted and broken. I had been away for 8 years in California. I came out to visit my mom and we had cause to drive to Morgantown, through the rolling Appalachian foothills, over river valleys dressed in gossamer mist... Broad leaf deciduous forests. Water. Green...  Somewhere in those river valleys, my bones shifted. I inhaled, filling my lungs with humid air, becoming suddenly aware that I had been breathing like I was clenching my lungs in my fists. I knew with every atom in my being that I was home. 

A few months later, I took 2700 miles of therapy, alone in a 10ft U-haul, save for my cat and a little boom box stereo. I left here one more time, almost taken by the Blue Ridge Mountains, but it was not to be. 

My native land has reclaimed me, and I have fallen in love with this City in a way I can only hope to share with another person someday. When I think about it, it feels like a marriage--warts and all, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health--we're in this together. I love the rivers, the trees, the old architecture, the history, the crazy geography, my big, beautiful sanctuary of Frick Park, but there are plenty of cities with beautiful skylines, water features, and great architecture. What sets Pittsburgh apart is what you wrote about--the fundamental decency of our people. Even our pretentious hipster douchebags tend to be pretty well-behaved and polite out in public. People talk to each other. People actually stop when they say "How are you?" It is considered to be a mark of incivility if you treat those "beneath you" as though they are beneath you. We are egalitarian, proud, and kind. We believe in caring for our neighbors. We believe that those relationships matter more than what car you drive or how fancy your house is. I take great joy in being from a place where hard work, humility, and charity are still widely-held and cherished qualities. 

Thank you for allowing me to "slow down your day" a bit to tell you that I was very touched by your piece and how glad I am to have you among those who care about Pittsburgh and her future. And though your essay had "nothing to do with" the loss of your father or your brother's illness, I am saddened by both. 

Kind regards,
There certainly are kind people everywhere and plenty of jerks within our city limits, however, places have a certain esprit de corps, a sense of who they are and what they value. Pittsburgh may have plenty of rude and uncaring people, but their actions are not championed by the rest of us. When people talk about the Pittsburgh region, they do not remark on our rudeness or snobbiness. They comment on how welcoming and friendly we are. Our charity and generosity is fairly legendary. It is what we expect of each other. Hard work, charity, and humility are traits that are emphasized from birth onward. They are values that we publicly champion and aim to pass along to children and newcomers. This is who we are. This is what we do. This is what matters. 

As Conrad wrote:
It's the simple damn truth: You come from here, you learn to look people in the eye when you greet them. You learn to give them the benefit of the doubt till they screw up. You learn not to mouth off to people you don't know. You don't say crap about people's families. You hold doors open. You say "Hello" and "Thank you" to someone's face and "You're welcome" when it's needed.
Ron Cook wrote a piece on the Steelers' Brett Keisel in today's Post-Gazette lauding him for the community service and charity work he does that garnered him the team's nomination for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award (for the player who combines on-field excellence with outstanding community service). Fine and good you say--plenty of athletes do worthy charity, what makes Keisel special? 
"As heartbreaking as it was for us to lose the Super Bowl last season, it was heartwarming to come home and do something good with the beard," Keisel said. "We were able to throw an event together in about a week where I shaved it off and we raised $40,000 for Children's Hospital. It wasn't me that raised that money. It was the city of Pittsburgh. I was just glad to be a part of it. Children's Hospital is very dear to me because of [teammate] Aaron Smith's situation and the help they've given [his son] Elijah"

Elijah Smith was diagnosed with leukemia in 2008 when he was 4 and is cancer-free today. 
"I look at it this way. The city we're in and the position we're in, we have to give something back. The Pittsburgh Steelers mean so much to this city and people give us so much. How do we not give something back? That's what I try to tell the young guys. 'Plenty of people need our help. Find something close to you and get involved with it.'"
Keisel also has devoted efforts to the American Heart Association, the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society, Animal Friends of Pittsburgh, the Salvation Army's Project Bundle Up and the Read Across America program.
Keisel might be "a bearded guy from Wyoming," but he gets it: hard work, humility, and charity. It could be all about him, his ego, bling, babes, and being famous (surely he doesn't have to do more than glance around his own locker room, let alone the rest of the National Felons League, for a healthy dose of those attitudes), but instead he is humbled by the position he holds in this city. He uses that place, not to build himself up, but to give back to a place and a people who have given him much. As Ginny Montanez would say, "That's Church." Indeed. That's Pittsburgh. I claim Keisel as a naturalized yinzer.

The next day, I received a reply from Dave--brief, but kind and human. When I wrote to him, I did not expect to receive a reply, but when I did, I just smiled and said, "That's Pittsburgh." And it is.

Post script:  While digging around on the interwebs a bit for this piece, I came across a (much more timely) blog post by Carl Kurlander in response to Conrad's piece that shares some of my reaction.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

December morning

December morning
Bright moon, high in the pale blue sky
shining through frosted, misty air
Bright as your eyes, sparkling
like your smile lighting up the room
Dawn breaks over the river
Promises of warmth
riding the clouds of early morn


Sunday, November 27, 2011

My season

Ah, the fall feast has been had, the temperature has dropped, the sparkly decorations and tiny lights have been retrieved from the dusty corners of the loft above the garage. This is my time of year. Perhaps because I was born in the middle of winter, just slipping in in the waning days of 1972, the season always calls to me. Whatever the origin of the feeling, it is undeniable that this time of year is special to me. It's introverted like me. The short days turn our focus inward. We live in the dark, wrapped in wool and microfleece, scarves buffeting the wind, hats pulled low over our ears. Our bodies are wrapped against the elements, our houses closed up tight to retain heat and conserve energy. We gather together seeking warmth and companionship around fires and hot coca.When the snow comes, the very earth and air become quiet. When the snow really comes, we are all slowed down--trips postponed, don't drive, stay

It is a somewhat sad irony that this contemplative, quiet, introverted, dark, cold, insular season is also one of our busiest--full of parties, travel, celebrations, shopping, and gift exchanges. Even with all this kinetic energy, however, the nature of the season is slow, restful, restorative. We try so hard with our electric lights, alarm clocks, and high-tech clothes to pretend that the earth around us doesn't dictate the cycle of our lives, but a layer of microfiber and a 25w CFL do not 20,000 years of evolution erase. If you pay any attention to what your body is telling you, you will probably notice that your body thinks it it time to rest and restore, no matter what the alarms, smartphones, electric lights and flashing screens of our lives may say.

I also find that as the calendar year comes to a close, I naturally become more reflective--looking back over the current year, assessing what I have done and not done and considering where I would like the next year to take me and what I will need to get there. Restore. Nourish. Recharge. Lay dormant under the snow. Feel your brain sink into the back of your skull. Rest in the expansive, dimly lit winter sky. Feel the chill sink down into your bones. Know that you are a living being. Breathe the earth down into your lungs. Lay in waiting for the return of the sun to warm your nourished mind and body. Be ready to reemerge and grow bright and bold, vivid and alive--skyward.

But don't forget the lessons of the trees and perennials--ultimately the lessons that run in the marrow of our bones, etched into our DNA. To reach the sky, the mighty oak sheds its leaves, turns all its systems to 'low' and rests...quietly renewing, recharging, restoring--laying in wait, under the snow.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Bodhisattva's Way

I give thanks to all the holy lamas who have carried the unbroken dharma lineage through the aeons. I prostrate in gratitude that my life has been touched by these kind teachers and dedicate any merit that I may accumulate in this life to the liberation of all beings from suffering. 

May you have happiness and its causes.
May you be free from suffering and its causes.
May you never be separated from the joy that is without sorrow.
May you abide in equanimity, free from bias, anger, aversion, and attachment. 

May I take up the path of the warriors and become a Victor so that I too may hold the lamp on the path to lead all beings out of the darkness.

Dedication from Guide to a Bodhisattva's Way of Life
by Master Shantideva

May all beings everywhere
Plagued by sufferings of body and mind
Obtain an ocean of happiness and joy
By virtue of my merits.

May no living creature suffer,
Commit evil or ever fall ill.
May no one be afraid or belittled,
With a mind weighed down by depression.

May the blind see forms,
And the deaf hear sounds.
May those whose bodies are worn with toil
Be restored on finding repose.

May the naked find clothing,
The hungry find food.
May the thirsty find water
And delicious drinks.

May the poor find wealth,
Those weak with sorrow find joy.
May the forlorn find hope,
Constant happiness and prosperity.

May all who are ill or injured
Quickly be freed from their ailments.
Whatever diseases there are in the world,
May these never occur again.

May the frightened cease to be afraid
And those bound be freed.
May the powerless find power
And may people think of benefiting each other.

For as long as space endures
And as long as living beings remain,
Until then may I too abide
To dispel the misery of the world.

Monday, May 30, 2011

In Praise of the Queen of the Sun

Last Wednesday, I was fortunate enough to catch the last showing of Queen of the Sun at the Melwood Screening room. 

In 1923, Rudolf Steiner, a scientist, philosopher & social innovator, predicted that in 80 to 100 years honeybees would collapse. His prediction has come true with Colony Collapse Disorder where bees are disappearing in mass numbers from their hives with no clear explanation. In an alarming inquiry into the insights behind Steiner’s prediction Queen of the Sun examines the global bee crisis through the eyes of biodynamic beekeepers, scientists, farmers, and philosophers. On a pilgrimage around the world, 10,000 years of beekeeping is unveiled, highlighting how our historic and sacred relationship with bees has been lost due to highly mechanized industrial practices. Featuring Michael Pollan, Vandana Shiva, Gunther Hauk and beekeepers around the world, Queen of the Sun weaves a dramatic story which uncovers the problems and solutions in renewing a culture in balance with nature. (Link)
The movie beautifully interweaves pieces showing the beauty and mystery of the beehive and the profound love inspired in the beekeepers for these industrious and majestic creatures upon whom our very lives depend with the tragedy brought upon the colonies by the industrialized beekeeping necessary to support unsustainable industrial agriculture with its monocrops and reliance on pesticides and chemical fertilizers. 

The good news is that there are things that can be done to improve the lot of the honeybee, and you can help! An obvious move would be to become a beekeeper yourself, and Burgh Bees will gladly help you get started if you are so inclined. (Note: The City of Pittsburgh recently passed a zoning ordinance allowing for the keeping of chickens and bees in the City.) Even if you are not interested in/able to have a few hives of your own there is still plenty you can do! The Queen of the Sun website offers a list of ten relatively simple things you can do to help bees, and the Burgh Bees site echoes several of those points.

Probably the first step for many people is to learn to not be afraid of bees! Don’t be nervous about encouraging bees around your home—they have little interest in you. As the Burgh Bees website states: “Honeybees are very docile unless trapped, disturbed by harassing their home or stepped on. A honeybee flying around you is just being curious and will not sting you. They only sting in defense of their hive.” Unfortunately since honey bees share a similar shape and buzz as wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets, they are guilty by association in many people’s minds. If you need a quick lesson telling the difference, click here. Honeybees, unlike carnivorous wasps, are vegetarians—they aren’t interested in you or your picnic goodies. Honeybees also die after they sting, so they are inclined only to do so when they feel threatened. Wasps, on the other hand, can sting and bite repeatedly. The best way to deal with these aggressive pests is to keep them from setting up shop in places where you and they are likely to cross paths with unpleasant results. Wasps et al are territorial and will avoid another colony’s space, so I am going to purchase a Waspinator (a wasp’s nest made from fabric) from the Ahimsa store and see if it effectively keeps these more aggressive pests away from my patio and deck.

Now that you know the bees are far more interested in your flowers than you, what to plant? When thinking about what to plant around your home or in your window boxes or balcony pots at your apartment, you’ll want plants that will attract and nourish our bees and select varieties that bloom at different times. Both the Burgh Bees and Queen of the Sun websites have information about specific plants, as does the Penn State Extension. Make sure that you also provide your pollinators with a source of water. A small birdbath (or the bottom pan for a flower pot) with rocks that allow the insects to walk to the edge of the water without risking falling in is ideal. 

Avoid using pesticides in your garden and on your lawn. Among many other reasons to avoid using poisons around your home and yard, there is increasing evidence that pesticides strain bee colonies and neo-nicotinoid varieties have been one of the major culprits in Colony Collapse Disorder (link). Bees are designed to attract pollen particles to their bodies, so when you spray chemicals, they mop up the poison along with their food and their bodies have no protection against the toxins. These toxins, in turn, end up in their honey and if that honey is collected for human consumption, it will end up in us. There are many ways to manage insect problems organically which involves creating the appropriate conditions in which nature can do her job. One of the problems with pesticides is that they are indiscriminate, so they kill all the beneficial insects as well as the pests. If you find ways to attract and care for your beneficial insects, they’ll take care of the other guys eating your plants.

Most of us appreciate a tidy and pretty yard, but a pristine yard makes a lousy ecosystem. Clover is actually incredibly healthy for your lawn and provides food for pollinators. Feeding your lawn organically with compost or compost tea provides it with the nutrients and microorganisms it needs to remain healthy through all seasons. Keeping your lawn on a diet of chemical fertilizer is like giving up eating food and subsisting on vitamin pills. In theory you are getting the nutrients that you need, but not in the most effective way for your long-term health. In addition, you are exposing yourself, your family, and your pets to toxins, many of which then get washed off your lawn and into our waterways, affecting aquatic life all the way from your nearest stream down to the New Jersey-size dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Allowing some native wildflowers that might otherwise be known as weeds to bloom in a few corners of your yard and leaving some of your winter garden clean up until spring provides food sources and habitat for many beneficial insects that will overwinter in hollow plant stalks or under some of the garden debris. (If you don’t want to do it yourself, Phipps provides a list of lawn care and landscaping professionals who are certified in their Sustainable Practices program.)

Buy Fresh! Buy Local! As if the fresh peaches, beefsteaks bursting with flavor, and sweet corn that is actually sweet aren’t cause enough to get to a farmer’s market or grocery that carries locally-grown produce, consider also that most small scale farmers do not practice monocropping. Monocropping is one of the primary reasons why bees are driven on semi-trucks all over the country under high-stress conditions. When there is only one crop growing for 5000 acres, there is nothing to sustain the bees for the 50 weeks a year when that single crop is not in bloom. Biodiversity is essential for a healthy, sustainable ecosystem, so get to know the folks growing your food. Learn about where it comes from. Support growers who use natural and/or organic practices. Feel good about what you are putting into your body. And, while you are ogling all the delicious things you might bring home for dinner, be sure to grab a jar of locally-produced raw or pure honey that has not been treated with any chemicals. Explore the many various flavors available and get to know your local beekeepers. 

Without bees, our agricultural system will collapse. These small, industrious creatures do so much work for us, and then, to top off their remarkable feats, they treat us with one of nature’s most miraculous products. In the movie, world renowned beekeeper Gunther Hauk says: "Honey was considered so sacred as a gift from the bees. The honey was not sold until the end of the 19th or into the 20th century. Most of the honey was given away as a gift. It is one of the most beneficial and healing substances that we can imagine.” Such gifts does this little insect give to us, the least we can do is to be hospitable to this kind guest. Please consider learning more about the amazing bee and seeing what you can do around your own home to make it an accommodating stop for our pollinating friends.

Add 06/01/2011: Check out this WTAE news story about a swarm of bees that landed in a North Versailles KMart parking lot. Props to the store for getting Burgh Bees out to collect the swarm rather than grabbing for the Raid cans.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

My sisters

Today, I will walk in the 4th Annual AmizadeWater Walk for Women’s Rights. It is my second year participating in this powerful event created by Pittsburgh-based Amizade Global Service and Learning. I have many kind and generous friends and was able to raise $638 (final) from donations that ranged between $5 and $100. In the course of fundraising, people often say nice things about me and what I do, which is kind, however, it is not what motivates me. 

There is an eons-long debate about whether charity should be done publicly, or whether we should do all of our good deeds as anonymously as possible. While I understand and deeply respect the former position for its emphasis on humility and keeping the focus on the deed and not what you will get from it (most particularly, praise), I feel strongly that public acts of goodness are important, even as the praise sometimes makes me feel a bit awkward. I know where my true motivation lies, so I do not worry about it too much.

This broken and hurting world needs more love, more kindness, more compassion, and more generosity. It is my belief that seeing others engaged in such acts encourages people to do join in. I believe that seeing someone else do something sweet and kind, no matter how small—going out of your way for a second to help someone on crutches with a door—makes people happy. Certainly not everyone, some will be too myopic to notice, but most who see it will feel some amount of joy and, it is my hope, be motivated to act on their own altruistic feelings. If we choose to focus on it, there is much negativity in this world and it makes people feel small and powerless. I want to spread the joy of the hummingbird.

There is an African parable about a forest fire. The trees are ablaze and the animals flee the forest ahead of the raging flames. They gather on the edge, staring at the destructive force tearing through their home. Finally, the littlest hummingbird cannot take it anymore and she flies to the stream, gets a beak full of water and flies to the fire and spits it on the flames. She goes back to the stream, bringing drop by little drop to the fire. The other animals see this and say, “Hummingbird! What are you doing!? You cannot put out this raging fire with the little drops of water from your beak!” And the hummingbird replies that they are right, but that is what she can do, and she will keep doing what she can do, however small, to help put out the fire. [Click here to hear African women’s rights activist, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and founder of the Green Belt movement, Professor Wangari Maathai recount this parable in the movie Dirt!]

The little hummingbird, on one hand, seems pitiful and hopeless, but she is the hope of the story—she will be part of the solution, no matter what the odds. I want to be the hummingbird. I want to be part of the solution, no matter how intractable the problem may be because the one thing guaranteed not to work is despair. I cannot feed everyone, but I can feed one. To that one person, the difference of a meal or not is probably a pretty big deal. 

So what does this have to do with the Water Walk? The walk and the small amount of money that I am able to bring to it is but a tiny act in the face of the daunting amount of suffering in the world from profound poverty, oppression, slavery, rape, war, greed, environmental destruction… So much devastation and the flames keep raging. I sit here in a warm apartment in a city that is not under siege. I brushed my teeth with clean water and was able to use a toilet inside, safely and sanitarily washing away the waste with potable water. I will open my refrigerator and take out a variety of food to make myself healthy meals for the day. Like many others in North America, indubitably, some of that food will not be eaten before it goes bad and will end up in my compost pile. I am writing this on a computer, itself its own little miracle, powered by electricity and connected to a global network of knowledge and resources, accessible in seconds with the click of a finger. 

I am a woman who has never been raped. I am a woman who has never been forced to marry. I am a woman more educated than most of the world’s population. Though my income is modest by US standards, it is thousands of times that of most of the women of the world. My safety, my security, my independence, my basic, inherent sense of self-worth and dignity are luxuries for most of my global sisters. I do not feel sorry that I have these things. Not in the least, but I am privileged to have them. I am blessed with great leisure and fortune. I do not feel guilty for the karma that brought me to this birth, but I also do not feel uniquely entitled to its gifts. The issue is not to feel bad about the gifts you have, but to figure out how you will use them. Will you use your privilege, your leisure and fortune, to serve others? Or to serve your own selfishness? The latter is enticing, but it is ultimately unsatisfying. Fed greed only becomes greedier—the craving never stilled. Like the delicious meal on which you overindulge, at the end of the night you will feel bloated, miserable, and sick. Feed love and it grows, filling you and everyone around you. 

I want every girl born on this planet to never know the pain of rape. I want every girl to be raised so that she believes that being a woman is not an impediment to any dream. I want every girl to have enough leisure and fortune that she may be able to explore who she is other than the property of a man or a water mule. I want every girl to be able to be educated and financially independent so that she may choose to be a wife, a mother, a neurosurgeon, engineer, teacher, diplomat, scholar, a farmer...whatever her heart leads her to be.

I have oft said that the only good use of power is the protection of others. Strength has nobility only when it is used to empower others, not to continue their oppression. I have been given a gift. I find joy in sharing my gifts. I have this bizarre idea that when we are all better off, we are all better off--that more happiness = more happiness. There is no real way to insulate myself from the suffering of others. You may feel that your toe is far from your heart, but fail to treat infection in the toe, and one day it will stop the heart--we are all connected, inextricably. Who would want to cut off their leg or allow themselves to die rather than treat the infection with antibiotics? Those who see the toe as separate from the heart are suffering from terrible delusion that will cause them great harm.

There are over a billion people without access to clean water. Tomorrow, there will still be over a billion people without access to clean water. We can despair that and stay home today or keep our wallets closed because “we really can’t make a difference!” Or, like the hummingbird, we keep putting drop by drop on the fire... I know it works. If it was just me, I would not have $638 to help the people of Karagwe. I would have only my own small contribution. But because I told you, because I chose to do this act publicly and entreat others to help, WE have raised $638. A bucket of water made from many small drops. Still a small amount in the grand scheme of things, but I prefer to think of the people of Karagwe who now have clean water, improved sanitation, and more time to devote to improving their lives in other ways now that they do not need to lug jugs of water for miles a day. I prefer to think that one girl from that village will get to go to school who would not have before. Who knows what she may grow to become? She may be the acorn that sprouts the new forest in the ashes of the old. 

In the words of my favorite poet, “Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.”

My heartfelt thanks to everyone who has made this possible. I am but the humble courier of your generosity, and I bow to you with hands in prayer. _/|\_ 

Because of the generous support our grant partner, the AllPeopleBeHappy Foundation, and Water Walkers like you, last year alone we were able to achieve the following:
  • Bring clean water to over 300 schoolchildren in the area of rural Karagwe,Tanzania;
  • Install a massive 300,000 liter water-harvesting system, including gutters, underground piping, and a solar-powered pump for a new school in the small village of Chonyoyo, read more here;
  • Complete full evaluations on the water-harvesting systems that Amizade already helped to install for 8 families that have survived gender-based human rights abuses;
  • Install 5 other rain-water harvesting tanks for families in the region;
  • Construct and connect a vital fruit-tree nursery to the Chonyoyo water tank that will provide local families with healthy food;
  • Lead workshops on the benefits of Solar Water Disinfection (SODIS) – a method to produce suitable drinking water utilizing solar rays from the sun – to several groups of community members; 
  • Hold two very successful “Water Walks”, which have had a combined total of over 600 participants, received local print and television press, and raised over $8,000 for clean-water initiatives; and
  • Install ‘tip-tap’ hand washing devices (a mechanism designed to encourage hand-washing while conserving water) at recipients’ homes using simple, local materials, assembling the contraptions on-site by way of demonstrating a simple technology that families can share with their neighbors in order to increase awareness about the importance of hygiene and sanitation.

    Thursday, February 24, 2011

    kx's infamous El-Cheap-o El-Cheat-o Barrio Burritos

    I have been making fixins for bean and rice burritos for years and, though they are a quite humble culinary feat, they remain a highly popular meal among my friends. I have to admit that I can eat them for the better part of a week and never get tired of them. Even my mother who claimed to not like pinto beans, Mexican food, cumin, or spicy things inexplicably loves them. So, by request, the "recipe" follows.

    I use canned beans--either pinto solo or a mix of pinto and black. My favorite combo is probably one  large can of Westbrae organic pinto beans and a smaller can of the black. Rinse the beans well, but leave a little water on them.

    Use whatever you like or whatever you have on hand. I have used jasmine, basmati, white long-grain, brown, Trader Joe's Brown Rice Blend (brown rice, daikon radish seed, and black barley), and Trader Joe's Basmati Medley (white basmati rice, wild rice, dehydrated carrots, onions, celery, red bell pepper, mushrooms, parsley, garlic, and lemon peel). But my new-found favorite is Lundberg's Wild Blend (long grain brown rice, sweet brown rice, Wehani®, Black Japonica™ and select wild rice pieces). In general, I think the brown rice adds a nice toasty, nutty flavor to the burritos, but I also like the aromatic quality of jasmine rice, which I know sounds weird for burritos, but I stand by it!

    Use what you like! Monterey Jack is, of course, a classic burrito cheese, but if you have access to Mexican quesos like queso fresco, even better. What I use most often, however, is extra sharp white cheddar. I like to grate it on the thick cut side of my box grater.

    Again, use whatever you like (or you happen to have on hand). My stand-by is Trader Joe's Organic Tomatillo & Roasted Yellow Chili salsa, but I buy all sorts of different types depending on the season and what strikes my fancy. 

    Yeah, that. I can get Tapatio at the Mexican market in the Strip (Reyna's), but I imagine you can find it at any cosmopolitan supermarket, or, you know, just about anywhere if you live in a region with a significant Hispanic population.

    I used to always use Pepito or Mission plain flour tortillas, available in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, but I have come to like the Trader Joe's variety with flax seeds. Don't be afraid to experiment with the flavored "wraps" either. Just make sure that whatever type/flavor you choose, it is burrito size, or else you'll never get it to roll up properly.

    In addition to the above, you'll need:
    • a nice medium to large onion (preferably a sweet onion, though plain yellow or white will work just fine)
    • garlic
    • Kosher or sea salt
    • pepper
    • cumin
    • cayenne pepper
    • celery salt
    • oregano
    • other suitable herbs and spices that you like (e.g., I also have a chili & lime blend that works nicely for this)
    • avocado
    • sour cream
    1. Get out a medium saucepan and start your rice first.
    2. Slice your onion--I usually slice the onion in half and then cut down the middle of each half and then slice each half into slightly thick slices. 
    3. Mince up/crush a clove or two (or however many you like) of garlic
    4. Heat a glug of oil in a medium-large saucepan over medium heat. Toss in the onion and saute until it softens. I sometimes add a small amount of butter to the oil just for some extra flavor, but this is totally optional.
    5. Add garlic and saute for a few minutes. 
    6. Dump in the beans.
    7. Season with cumin, salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste. Optional: celery salt and oregano. I have never measured the spices, but I go heavy on the cumin--I would guess at least a teaspoon. If you are new to this spice, obviously start with less and add more, otherwise use your judgment. I probably use about a 1/4 tsp of cayenne, mas o menos. Note:  canned beans all have a lot of salt, but some brands have WAY more than others, so bear that in mind when you add salt.
    8. Now here's where it gets tricky to explain--every batch turns out a little different from the last, but it's pretty hard to screw up unless you burn them to the pot. I usually turn the heat up just a little. If there wasn't much water left on the beans, I may add little (probably a tablespoon or two). Depending on how long and how hard you cook them down, you can end up with anything between complete whole beans and something that is like lumpy refritos. There is no right answer, so play around and discover what consistency you like best. I will sometimes partially cover them as well to keep some of the moisture in and steam them a bit.
    9. While the beans cook, shred your cheese, slice the avocado, and get your salsa, hot sauce, and sour cream out of the fridge. 
    10. Once everything is done cooking, you are ready to assemble your burritos. Heat up a flat griddle or a frying pan large enough to put the tortilla in the bottom over medium/medium high heat. Once the pan is warm, put a tortilla on it. Using your fingers, rub the tortilla on the griddle. When it feels warm to your fingertips, flip it over. (Turn heat down to medium at this point.)
    11. While still on the griddle, take a small amount of cheese and place it in a line slightly right of center, leaving several inches clear from the bottom edge. Put a little bit of rice (maybe two forkfulls), a little bit of beans (maybe 1.5 soup spoons worth) on top of the rice. At this point, I usually slide the tortilla off onto a plate to finish and toss another tortilla on the pan to warm up. Put salsa, hot sauce and sour cream on top (again, use small amounts). Top with slices of avocado. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper.
    12. Use a spoon to shape your filling into a nice cylinder. Fold up the bottom and tuck around filling. Fold the right side over, and then carefully roll the left side over. (It helps to pick it up to do this.) The top will be open. 
    Another wrapping variation is to make your cylinder of stuffing in the middle of the tortilla, leaving several inches on each side. Fold the sides in, tucking around the filling and then roll it up so that both ends are closed. 

    Next time I make them, I'll take some pics. :)

    Sunday, January 30, 2011

    Saturday, January 8, 2011

    January 2011, looking back.

    I’ve been feeling as though I need to write a post, but I’ve not been particularly inspired.  2010 slipped out of her prom dress, and 2011 snuck in the window with little fanfare.  Today feels no different than yesterday, and I’m not looking forward to the coming year with any  particular anticipation.  This post is an edited version of the letter that went out with my holiday cards last month.  I like to use the holiday season as an opportunity to reflect upon the year that has passed and share some of the milestones with my friends and family, because even those with whom I speak regularly don’t always get all the information, and it is a nice exercise for me to review all that has happened.  It is very easy to forget what one has done!  

    It’s hard to believe that it has been a whole year since I wrote my last annual winter note, yet at the same time, it seems like a distant memory.  I have survived more than half of my graduate program, though I think my sanity probably has a few more dings in it.  While I remain hopeful that this will lead me to good things, it has certainly not been a picnic.  I have 3 more classes to take—two this spring:  Economics for Public Affairs and Nonprofit Management, and then a capstone course over summer.  In the meantime, there is some talk of a potential new opportunity in my current job. 

    Though my day job and my classes take up most of my time and energy, I have managed to do a few things this year.  I continue to serve as the Secretary of my neighborhood association.  In December, we had our 4th annual holiday party which was wonderful and delicious as always.  I truly love that seeing my neighbors (and discovering what delectables they have brought for my consumption) is one of the things I most look forward to in the holiday season.  A new holiday tradition for me is an annual party thrown by some neighbors to raise money for the local food bank.  The family lives just down the street from me and have renovated a turn-of-the-century farm house, restoring it to a single-family home and infusing it with their seemingly boundless creativity.  Among the many awesome things that they do, is this annual soup party, now in its 18th year.  They provide several amazingly huge pots of amazing soup, friends bring sides and desserts along with their own bowls & spoons (for which awards are given in various categories), and in the middle of their table is a large bowl for monetary contributions to the local food bank.  This year, the party raised $2200!  These are the kind of people whom I am astoundingly grateful and proud to count as friends and neighbors. 

    Any recap of 2010 would be incomplete without at least a passing mention of SNOWMAGEDDON!  As noted in my last tome, the University of Pittsburgh rarely closes—even a Secret Service perimeter cutting through campus and snipers on the rooftops only caused afternoon classes to be canceled for one day.  Normally, we’re expected to show up for work like we’re the Postal Service (classes may be canceled, but staff still must report for work or forfeit a vacation day).  This year, however, Mother Nature finally beat Mark Nordenberg.  The epic snowstorm of February effectively shut down the City of Pittsburgh for three days.  Minus shoveling 3+ feet of snow off my 75ft driveway, it was actually a lot of fun to have snow days!  

    In March, I again worked with a friend from Regent Square and the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh on our third community workshop to help homeowners make well-informed decisions about renovations that will accomplish their goals while avoiding mistakes that will lower the value of their home in the long run.  2010’s workshop focused specifically on energy efficiency, and in 2011’s will be on improving curb appeal.

    In April, after the snow melted, I participated in the Amizade Water Walk for Women’s Rights which raised money to help a community in Tanzania have access to fresh, clean water which will not only have an obvious impact on the community’s health, but will free the women and girls from the arduous daily walk to fill cisterns of water that they must carry back to their village.  We walked 1.1 miles carrying 1.1 gallons of water to represent the estimated 1.1 billion people in the world who do not have access to clean water.  Thanks to the great generosity and support of my friends and family, I raised over $400.  I called upon their kindness again in October, and they helped me raise $335 for Farm Sanctuary, a farm animal rescue and advocacy group, by sponsoring me in the 2010 Walk for Farm Animals

    Also in Spring, I had the weighty honor to officiate the wedding of two dear friends on Memorial Day.  It was an amazing experience (I had never done such a thing), and I am truly humbled that they asked me to participate in such a special way in this important occasion.  Based on the feedback, I think the ceremony was a success, and I am hopeful that it marked the beginning of a wonderful lifetime of love for my friends (and now their new baby!).

    Last year, I reported on the wonderful visit I had with my friend, D, who came to see me from Slovenia.  This summer brought another European visitor, M, this time from Sweden.  My Swedish friend came to see his Pittsburgh sweetheart (also my friend), and I was very happy to spend some time with them over dinner and exploring a bit of Oakland, including a tour of the Cathedral of Learning’s Nationality Rooms and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  I’ve known M for about eight years through the web and letters, so it was a true delight to get to spend time with him in person, and I’m so very happy that my friends found one another.  

    The Muslim holy month of Ramadan ended in late August/early September, as the nation was in an ignorant furor over the proposed Cordoba Community Center in midtown Manhattan.  I was happy and most grateful to accept the generosity and friendship of the Turkish Cultural Center and join them at their Iftar tent to celebrate community at the end of their daily fast.  Each night for the last week of Ramadan, members of the TCCP sponsor a meal and invite the public to come break bread with them, serving 100-200 people a day.  TCCP actively participates in interfaith and intercultural dialog in Pittsburgh, and I thank them for their tireless work to promote peace, friendship, and understanding, even as they often must face bigotry in their own home. 

    The following week, I enjoyed my annual pilgrimage to the Scottish Highland Games in Ligonier, and later in the month, one of my cousins and her boyfriend moved in down the street.  It has been great to get to spend time with them and get to know my cousin better.  I’m hopeful that they’ll be staying in town for a few years so we’ll have some more time together before they most likely head back west.  

    I was delighted to spend Thanksgiving with my mother, a good friend from India, and her mother who spends 6 months a year with her.  It was an honor to cook my friend’s mother’s first American Thanksgiving, and to share pullau and kheer with mashed potatoes, mushroom barley soup, and winter squash gratin.  In the America for which I am grateful, we are blessed to know friends from many places, break bread together, and get to know one another so that we can make sure that peace is always more important than chauvinism, and that love will ever cast out the seeds of war and ignorance.  

     My America also tastes a heck of a lot better.  ;-)

    I hope that whatever celebrations you have this winter season are filled with light, food, friends, and family, and that they have called you to embody that greatest of all human aspirations—agapé love.  May the winter chill curl you inward to reflect, restore, and renew your soul so that you may greet 2011 with clear eyes, an open heart, and vigorous spirit.  

    With much love and great gratitude for the amazingly beautiful, brilliant, kind, generous, creative, and compassionate people in my life—I wish you all health, wealth, and happiness in the coming year and always.

    Thanksgiving Menu

    Well, clearly, at the beginning of fall, I was all a-fluster with culinary inspiration which I happily shared with you back in October. Though I cooked up a storm in November and December, I didn't seem to find the time to take pictures or write about it, and I'm not thinking I'm going to find much time in the coming months to do so either, so I'd like to share my Thanksgiving menu before I am completely submerged by my evil economics class this semester.

    I was delighted to stay home this Thanksgiving and get to cook.  This all sort of happened at the last minute, but I rustled up a nice meal for me, my mom, a friend, and her mom. It was extra special because my friend is from India and her mom was visiting at the time and I got to cook her first American Thanksgiving meal, and I love Thanksgiving! Once you get past its questionable origins, you are left with a day of celebrating harvest, friends, family, and gratitude around a table filled with delicious food. How can you beat that!?

    So here is the menu:

    • Apple, Leek, and Butternut Squash Gratin
      • I have now made this several times and it is a true crowd favorite! Super easy, less the peeling and slicing of the squash and apples, the sherry and leeks provide a superb backdrop for the sweet and savory apples and squash. You can use any type of hearty winter squash or pumpkin.
    • Kale & Olive Oil Mashed potatoes
      • OMG good. I made mine with buttermilk, and I used both red and green kale. Heidi is right that the kale will stain the potatoes, so if you are making it for a fancy dinner, be sure to blend in the kale just before serving for the best appearance. (It will, however, still taste great reheated later...)
    • Rich Brown Gravy
      • Mom likes this gravy even better than most turkey gravies. I have never once, in my many years of making this recipe, had it cook as fast as the directions say, and I also often add like a tablespoon of cornstarch (be sure to blend smooth with a little water before adding it, or it will lump up in the gravy) to help thicken it a bit. It is delicious with sauteed mushrooms blended in as well. 
    • Scrumptious Green Beans
    • Mattar Pullau (Aromatic Indian rice dish w/peas) (friends)
    • Pumpkin Pie (mom)
    • Apple Oat Bars
    • Kheer (Indian rice pudding) (friends)

    One of the things I wanted to make, but ended up scratching once I realized that I had enough food for a small army to feed a dinner party of four, was Roasted Vegetable Ragoût w/Creamy Polenta. Since I had bought all the ingredients already, I made it the following weekend and it was deelish!

    I intend, in the near future, to put up a page with some resources for vegetarian cooking--whether you're just interested in expanding your cooking horizons, looking to reduce the amount of meat you eat, or worried about what to cook up for one of your twig and berry eating friend, I have some links that I think will help you think a little differently about vegetarian cuisine, particularly if you have little experience with that style of cooking and think it is all twigs and tofu and "weird ingredients." :-D

    Until then, however, I hope you enjoy some of these recipes! If you give something a try, leave me a comment below and let me know how it goes! Bon appetit!

    (And, as always, if you find a broken link, please also let me know!)

    Why is this place called Rough Branch?

    Rough Branch is a reference to Wendell Berry's "mad farmer" poems. Berry is an agrarian populist poet, and advocate for sustainable agricultural practices. I don't agree with every position he takes, but his reverence for the beauty and balance of the natural world, for the preciousness of the life that runs through it (including our own), and of the community that sustains both the land and each other, speaks to my heart.

    Over the past few years, I have sunk myself into the soil in my back yard, and into the community of neighbors that surrounds it, and it has begun to restore me. My garden is not just a plot of dirt providing vegetables for the salad bowl, it is an act of love, a place of profundity and awe. If you knew about the ecosystem that lives in but one gram of good earth, you would be humbled, literally, to the ground.

    Berry's poems are passionate calls to live--deeply, profoundly, fearlessly. To step out of narrow-minded egotism, to secede "[f]rom the union of self-gratification and self-annihilation, [to] secede into care for one another, and for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth."

    And so I have made my own nation small enough to walk across. I have named the small corner of the earth I steward Rough Branch. I have declared myself free of ignorant love, and I secede...

    From the union of power and money,
    from the union of power and secrecy,
    from the union of government and art,
    from the union of science and money,
    from the union of ambition and ignorance,
    from the union of genius and war,
    from the union of outer space and inner vacuity,
    the Mad Farmer walks quietly away.

    There is only one of him, but he goes.
    He returns to the small country he calls home,
    his own nation small enough to walk across.
    (From "The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union")
    The Mad Farmer challenges us to reconnect, to resurrect our land, our communities, and our souls.
    So, friends, every day do something
    that won't compute. Love the Lord.
    Love the world. Work for nothing.
    Take all that you have and be poor.
    Love someone who does not deserve it.

    Denounce the government and embrace
    the flag. Hope to live in that free
    republic for which it stands.
    Give your approval to all you cannot
    understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
    has not encountered he has not destroyed.

    Ask the questions that have no answers.
    Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
    Say that your main crop is the forest
    that you did not plant,
    that you will not live to harvest.

    Say that the leaves are harvested
    when they have rotted into the mold.
    Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
    Put your faith in the two inches of humus
    that will build under the trees
    every thousand years.

    Listen to carrion -- put your ear
    close, and hear the faint chattering
    of the songs that are to come.
    Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
    Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
    though you have considered all the facts.
    (From "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front")
    All quotes from Wendell Berry.