March 07, 2007
Happy Birthday, Ghana
Fifty years ago yesterday, Ghana became the first African colony to gain independence, under the leadership of pan-Africanist hero Kwame Nkrumah. Actually, the modern nation of Ghana was formed from two British colonies: Gold Coast and Togoland.
I didn't pay much attention to Ghana's independence day yesterday (though at David's insistence I text-messaged my friend Ackah to wish him a happy independence day) because I have very ambivalent feelings toward Ghana after spending a month there in the summer of 2005. Before I went, people told me that I would either love Africa or hate it. It turns out that this was just one of many pieces of misinformation people fed me before my trip. I neither loved nor hated Ghana: I loved some things and hated others. Here is a list of other things I wish people hadn't told me before I went:
- You will get sick (malaria, diarrhea, parasites, etc.)
- You will get mugged and/or raped
- Africa is dangerous
- The food is sketchy
- When you get there, you will need to wash the walls of your room with laundry soap
- Don't go out after dark
- Accra (the capital of Ghana) is just like Los Angeles
- Wear mosquito repellent
- If you ride a tro-tro (public minibus), you will die
- You can't be too careful
And here is a list of things I wish people had told me:
- Africa is no less safe than the US
- The food is delicious (though fattening), especially the plantains
- Forget about hot showers, but cold showers are less cold at night than in the morning
- Wherever you go, people will try to sell you stuff, and they will expect you to buy it (regardless of whether you need or want it) because you are white
- Carry toilet paper or, better yet, learn to pee like a man
- Tro-tros are fun, and much cheaper than taxis
- Sit in the front of the taxi, and don't expect to have a seatbelt
- How to make an international phone call (it took me two weeks to figure out how to call home)
- How to do laundry (I never figured that one out)
- Ghanaians are very well dressed (they know how to do laundry)
- Every man you meet will want to marry you; don't take it personally -- they just want to get out of Ghana
- Navigating is hard because Ghanaians don't use maps, street names, or addresses, but if you ask someone for directions, more than likely they will just take you where you want to go
- Food is cheaper on the street than in a restaurant, and no less delicious or safe
- Talk to strangers -- it is the only way to learn about a foreign country
Ghana was a difficult place to live -- I was dirty all the time, it was hard to find a toilet when I needed one, the maps were unreliable (I had three maps of Accra and all were different, so I had to triangulate between them to find anything), there was no infrastructure (VERY hard to find a working pay phone and impossible to get around except by taxi), libraries and archives were in dismal conditions, and things that we take for granted (like kitchens and laundry facilities) just don't exist. But there were some things I really liked about Ghana -- the food, the people I met, the climate, and the music. There was music everywhere. When I called David from the only working pay phone I ever found in Accra, he said it sounded like I was at a party.
Going to Ghana was a life-changing experience. I probably could have made it easier for myself by staying in hotels and hanging out in the expat section of town, but that isn't my style. I enjoyed staying with a Ghanaian lady (whose name was also Emily!), getting around Accra on foot, and eating meals on the street or in chop bars. If I had had a little more courage, I would have ventured into one of the bars fashioned out of shipping containers near my house. I would not recommend Accra as a tourist destination, but if you have a reason to go there, it is a very interesting place to go.
February 28, 2007
I got my first cashmere sweater in 2002 by accident. That's right: I didn't buy it and it wasn't a gift; it came to me as the result of a particularly fortuitous error in the J. Crew warehouse. I had ordered a charcoal gray long-sleeved v-neck cotton shirt, which was on sale for about $12. When the package arrived, it was charcoal gray, long-sleeved and v-necked, and I had been charged $12 for it, but it wasn't a cotton shirt. It was a cashmere sweater.
Once I realized what had happened, I was in a moral quandary. Was it okay to keep the sweater J. Crew had accidentally sent me, even though they had only charged me about ten percent of its retail price, or was that stealing? The quandary was easily solved when I tried on the sweater and found that it was too big. David and I drove to J. Crew, where I explained what happened, gave the sweater back, and had the $12 refunded to my credit card. I never did get the cotton shirt, but I didn't really need it: I had a perfectly serviceable gray shirt from Old Navy, so I'm not sure why I had even ordered the J. Crew shirt in the first place.
About a month later it was Hanukkah and, when I opened my gift from David, there it was: the same gray cashmere sweater, but in my size! David had liked it when it came in the mail by accident and really wanted me to have it, so when it went on sale he pounced. Thanks to my fantastic boyfriend (who is now my fantastic husband!), I got to keep the sweater, free from any feelings of guilt. Despite my weight gains and losses over the past four years, the sweater still fits and I'm wearing it today.
February 07, 2007
Learning to Wear a Scarf
I was twenty years old the first time I wore a scarf. It was January 2000, the beginning of my semester abroad at Cambridge University, and my dad and stepmother had given me a scarf to keep me warm. Thinking back on it, it seems strange how worried they were about me freezing to death in England. After all, they had lived in Boston since I was seven, and Boston in the winter is certainly colder than England, but they never seemed to think I needed a scarf when I visited them. Perhaps they didn't realize that England, while it is certainly colder than Los Angeles, my main frame of reference, just doesn't get that cold because it is surrounded by water. In fact, it only snowed once that whole winter, and then only a light dusting that melted pretty quickly.
Nonetheless, I was glad to have that small black scarf when I was there. I wrapped it around my neck and tucked it into my wool pea coat to cover the spot on my chest that the coat left exposed. When I moved to Michigan a year and a half later, I brought that same scarf. David quickly realized that such a small scarf was totally inadequate for the Midwest and, afraid that I would get too cold and flee back to California, he gave me a much larger, warmer, and more colorful scarf from J. Crew. That scarf was big enough to wear in all kinds of interesting ways: if my neck was really cold, I could wrap it around about four times; for wearing under a coat, I could double it and pass the end through the loop (my friend Tamara referred to this as the "prep school" way to wear a scarf); I could also wrap it around twice and let the ends hang long.
Over the next few years, my mom took up knitting again, I went back to London a few times and got a pashmina (a fake one of course, purchased for 3 pounds on Oxford street), and now I have more scarves than I know what to do with. I have also learned more creative ways of wearing them. The pashmina can wrap around me like a shawl, or I can use it outside of my coat to close the gap between the coat and my hat. In the past few days of sub-zero weather, I have become very attached to a purple wool scarf that my mom made. It is about ten feet long (and I'm just over five feet tall), so it wraps around and around. This week I have been wrapping it from the base of my neck all the way up to my nose, covering my ears in the process. Wearing my scarf over my nose and mouth does make it a bit hard to breathe, and my breath condenses inside the scarf. The nice thing about wool, however, is that it is still warm when wet, so the condensation doesn't really bother me.
In fact, I'm starting to regard wool as a wonder fiber. For the past two days I wore wool pants, but wearing the same pants three days in a row felt a bit excessive, so today I'm back to my polyester trousers from H&M and I can feel the difference. Whoever first decided to shear a sheep and make clothes was just brilliant. It would be even better, however, if humans could just learn to grow their own fleece in the winter. Although then we wouldn't have any need to knit...
February 01, 2007
This morning I found myself reminiscing about the alternative school I attended from kindergarten through fifth grade. It was the Santa Monica Alternative School House, affectionately known as SMASH. When I started kindergarten in 1984, SMASH was a K-12 public school, designated as alternative because it followed a "progressive curriculum." We called all of our teachers by their first names, and classrooms combined multiple grade levels. Many of our teachers played the guitar, so singing was a regular part of the school day, and instead of playing with blocks, we used "manipulatives." I loved my kindergarten and first grade teacher, Jim, who later became a principal at SMASH. He played the electric guitar and had an amplifier named "pig nose." Our teachers didn't grade us, but instead sent home extensive written evaluations.
SMASH was a kind of paradise, an educational oasis that seemed to be totally outside of reality, as I learned when I switched to the regular middle school in the sixth grade. Few of my middle school teachers were interested in actually teaching, and were on perpetual power trips, using their authority to instill fear in the students. Calling teachers by their last names seemed stupid to me -- after all, they were people just like everyone else -- and their grading seemed totally arbitrary when they weren't teaching us anything anyway. Granted, my middle school, John Adams, was a particularly bad school -- as I learned when I entered high school and found that the honors classes were almost entirely populated by students who had gone to the other middle school -- but no other school could have lived up to the experience I had at SMASH.
SMASH probably didn't prepare me very well for the real world, where we do often have to submit to arbitrary and idiotic authority (think, for example, of our country's current presidential administration), but as a kid, going to school there was a fantastic experience.
January 28, 2007
Holding a Grudge
Last week, David rented The Illusionist. I made it through about half of the movie before I had to go to bed, and David was surprised that I was reluctant to watch the rest of it the next day. Yes, it was a pretty good movie, but I just can't stand Jessica Biel, the lead actress. When I told David, he gave me a puzzled look and asked what I have against her. Granted, she hasn't been in enough good movies for me to have a strong opinion about her acting capabilities, but what I have against her goes far beyond her on-screen performance: she was rude to me when I worked at Starbucks. There I was, nineteen years old and slinging coffee on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica to make some money and keep myself out of trouble the summer after my first year of college, and in walks sixteen-year-old Jessica Biel. I recognized her from the television show Seventh Heaven (though I'm terribly embarrassed to admit that now!) and, when she got to the front of the line, I asked her if I could help her and her male companion. She sneered at me, told me in a super-snotty voice that they didn't need any help, and then went and sat down at a table without having ordered any coffee! David pointed out that it would have been more grammatically correct for me to have said "may I help you" instead of "can I help you," but her response wasn't smart, it was just rude. And, yes, I'm still holding a grudge almost nine years later.
November 23, 2006
Green Bean Casserole
Thanksgiving is my favorite secular holiday. I love the fall weather, the turkey, and the gathering of friends and family. While some families have Thanksgiving traditions that they repeat year after year, my mom and I always took a more experimental appraoach to the holiday: turkey sandwiches, turkey pizza, tofurkey, tofu lasagna. Sometimes we even had our Thanksgiving meal in restaurants. The one constant was that we were always with people, either friends, family members, or both.
The last Thankgsiving I spent with my mom was 2001. I had been living in Ann Arbor for six months, and it would be my first trip back home. David and I had been dating for just a couple of weeks, but he gave me a Thanksgiving gift to take back to LA with me: the makings of Green Bean Casserole. Having grown up in Los Angeles, where most of our groceries came from the Santa Monica food co-op, I had never heard of Green Bean Casserole, and was quite puzzled when David gave me two cans of green beans, two cans of cream of mushroom soup, and a can of those deep-fried onions. I had no idea what to do with these ingredients but, fortunately, the recipe was on the back of one of the cans. So I put them in my suitcase and, on Thanksgiving day, I mixed it all together and stuck it in the oven, not at all sure what would come out. I had never even seen a canned green bean before!
We had several people over that year: my grandparents; my mom's boyfriend Ken and her best friend Mary Ann; my (still quite friendly) ex-boyfriend Erik and his parents, brother, and sister-in-law; and my uncle Chris, his wife Anna, and stepson G. Nobody had ever heard of Green Bean Casserole, and our guests were all very curious about this Midwestern concoction (actually, according to my Google search, GBC originated in the South). Everyone agreed that it tasted good, but we couldn't quite agree on whether or not it was actually food -- after all, what food group does cream of mushroom soup fall into?
Since 2002, I have joined David's family for Thanksgiving. After two years, however, his mom decided that she was done with the holiday, or at least with the cooking part. She had made the meal every year since she was nineteen, and formally turned it over to me. As our house is way too small to host Thanksgiving dinner, for the past two years, I went over to David's brother's house, and cooked the meal there. I had all kinds of ideas for what I would make, but David's family is one of those traditional ones, and they eat the same dishes every year. He insisted (under threat of being excommunicated from the M--- family) that I had to do it exactly as his mom had done it, which included using her turkey recipe. The first year, everything turned out very well, and everyone agreed that my turkey was the best they had ever eaten. But last year, the turkey was too big, and David's mom's recipe didn't work. The turkey came out of the oven still rather raw (I couldn't test it with a thermometer because it was wrapped in aluminum foil), but by the time we figured this out, the oven was full of other stuff, and the turkey couldn't go back in. So we microwaved it! David's family was very understanding, though, and assured me that it was still the best Thanksgiving ever.
This year, David's mom has taken the holiday back, so I am off the hook! Although cooking used to be one of my passions, I am utterly grateful that I don't have to cook today. I told her that I would bring a vegetable dish (roasted onions, carrots, turnips, and beets tossed with kale), which I made yesterday, so today I can just relax and eat! But the other day David's mom called him to tell him that his cousin Heather would be driving up from Ohio with her family and bringing Green Bean Casserole. She was afraid that I would be upset because I was already bringing a vegetable dish, and Heather's casserole would be competition. So I called her to assure her that I could really care less. To begin with, I'm just not that petty (I don't think). But, no less important, whatever Green Bean Casserole may be, it is most certainly not a vegetable dish!
October 24, 2006
Happy Mole Day!
It may not be apparent from reading this blog, but I was a huge chemistry geek in high school. I took two years of chemistry (regular and AP), and in the tenth and eleventh grades, chemistry was my favorite subject. I loved the neatness of balancing chemical equations and the knowledge of how to turn one substance into another (I guess that is technically alchemy, but they do bear a resemblance). Yes, I liked history too, but it didn't fire me up the way a good chemical equation could. Once, in a fit of post-AP boredom, my friends Libby and Clare and I broke into the chem lab to precipitate silver out of a solution. We let the silver dust dry, but couldn't get it hot enough to melt and solidify, so we just gave the dust to our teacher as a gift. I don't think he quite knew what to do with it...
But despite being such a chem geek, I didn't know about Mole Day until yesterday, when David came home from work and told me about it! There was a big mole celebration at Belleville High School, which was written up in yesterday's Ann Arbor News. It had caught David's attention because Avogadro's Number was the topic of discussion at a recent M--- family bar night. I can't remember how it came up, but I was shocked at how long it took me to remember Avogadro's constant and the significance of the mole. After all, for two years, the mole was my basic unit of measurement!
So what is a mole, exactly? It is a unit of measurement consisting of 6.02 x 10 to the 23rd of whatever. For example, a mole of books is 6.02 x 10 to the 23rd books. Why would you want a mole of books? Well, you wouldn't -- that is even more books than I have to read for prelims! The mole is the basic unit of measurement in chemistry because it is the basis for chemical weights. For example, the chemical weight of Hydrogen is 1, which means that a mole of hydrogen atoms weighs 1 gram. I guess the mole doesn't have much significance beyond that, which is probably why I promptly forgot about it after I passed the Chemistry AP!
October 07, 2006
I have been blogging quite a bit lately about Michael Lerner's Jewish Renewal, and I have said it before, but I'll say it again: this book should be required reading, not just for Jews, but for all of humanity. Yesterday I read the chapter on Shabbat, which argues that Shabbat is a revolutionary practice. Lerner tells us that
Shabbat is both the result and celebration of the first national liberation strugle. Ruling elites throughout most of recorded history have sought unlimited power to expropriate the labor of others. When there is no limit, when people are forced to work till they drop or drop dead, we have a condition of slavery. Shabbat is the first historical imposition of a limit on the ability of ruling elites to exploit labor. It is the embodiment of the first time when the people who work were able to say no to a ruling elite and make it stick. The notion that working people could do this, that they had rights that limited the power of the bosses, was a new notion in history. The Jews built their religion around it.Lerner goes on to claim that the weekend is the Jews' gift to the world: the secular version of Shabbat brought about through the efforts of trade unionists, who were disproportionately Jewish.
The fact that I am blogging on Shabbat, and that I blogged on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, should tip you off to the fact that I'm not a terribly observant Jew. My observance has waxed and waned at various points in my life, and has particularly ebbed since I moved to Ann Arbor. In college, however, I dated a guy who was shomer shabbos and, when we were together, I observed Shabbat with him. We attended Friday night services at Hillel, followed by dinner with friends. On Saturday we awoke to what our friend Leslie referred to as the "sun alarm" and spent the day reading, playing games, and going for walks. As night fell, we would break out a bottle of kosher wine, light the Havdalah candle, and sing the prayers. Then off to the movies! Although I did enjoy this observance, at the time I was more focused on what we couldn't do (turn the lights on and off, cook, ride in a car, watch television, use money, etc.) than on the gift, power, and luxury of rest.
Today it seems like there are so many reasons why I can't observe Shabbat: there is no synagogue in walking distance, I would miss the farmers' market, and there are just things that need to be done on Saturdays. In my mind, Shabbat is a luxury that I just can't afford, especially in grad school, which pretty much requires 24/7 attention. Lerner's point, however, is that Shabbat shouldn't be a luxury reserved for those who can afford it. The Torah commands not only that the wealthy rest, but that their employees and even their animals rest as well. But Shabbat doesn't just happen on its own. In a sense, of course, it does just happen; today is Shabbat whether I observe it or not, but the cessation of work doesn't just happen. I used to be confused by the phrase "to make Shabbat," which is how observant people tend to refer to it. After reading Lerner's chapter, however, it makes sense: in our secular world, we have to choose to make Shabbat happen; we have to choose to say no to the responsibilities of the rest of the week.
The problem, however, is that I can't make Shabbat on my own. Sure, I can light the candles, say the prayers, and take a rest, but Shabbat is really a community activity. Lerner points out that, unless a critical mass of people observe Shabbat, the capitalist market will force us to "choose" to work (or do our shopping, or clean our houses, or whatever). Furthermore, part of the joy of Shabbat is being able to share our leisure with friends and family, which requires being part of a whole community that observes Shabbat. Judaism is not a religion that can be practiced in isolation. Even reading from the Toray requires the presence of a minyan -- ten Jews. We need each other, and Shabbat can only happen if we all make it happen together.
August 11, 2006
Glad I'm Not Trying To Fly Home From London This Week
It seemed like the only news on NPR all day yesterday was the foiled terrorist plot to blow up flights from London to the US, which just made me so grateful not to be at Heathrow yesterday. This is the first summer since 2003 that I haven't gone to London, and last summer I had my own harrowing experience trying to get home.
After spending two weeks doing research in London, I went to Ghana for a month to take a class at the University of Ghana and to do research in the National Archives. I was scheduled to fly home on August 12. By that time I had been in Ghana for four weeks, and away from home for six weeks. I was tired, lonely, dirty, and ready to come home. But when I woke up that morning, the woman I was staying with was watching the BBC News, which was covering the British Airways strike. All BA flights had been cancelled. I didn’t know what to do. She didn’t have a phone, so I couldn’t call the airline, but she had one of her employees drive me to the BA office. When I got there, they said there was nothing they could do. My flight was cancelled and they didn’t know when BA would start flying again. They advised me to go to the airport and see if another airline could get me on. I was in a panic. I was far from home, in another country where I didn’t know what my rights were as an airline consumer, and where nobody seemed very concerned about helping me get home. I couldn’t even call home to tell people what was going on.
I went to the internet café and sent an email to David and my parents, telling them that my flight was cancelled and that I didn’t know when I would be able to get home. There was a travel agent across the street from the internet café, so I asked him if there was anything he could do for me. He said he could get me on an Alitalia flight for $800, but I was hesitant to go ahead with that because I didn’t know if BA would reimburse me. Nonetheless, I was determined to get home, so I packed up my suitcase and went to the airport. I went from airline to airline, but all the flights were totally booked. People who had heard about the BA strike before I had had gotten all of the available seats. I took a taxi back to the BA office. The best they could do was rebook me on a flight on August 17, five days later. They offered to put me up in a hotel, but I preferred to keep staying where I had been staying. Still, I couldn’t imagine spending another five days in Ghana. I wanted to be home. The next day I went back to the BA office. That day it was even crazier than the day before. There was an American family making a huge scene, demanding to be put on a flight that night, which made me embarrassed to be an American. A Ghanaian woman actually told the American woman that she needed to learn "African patience"! The Ghanaians who were there were, for the most part, waiting patiently, willing to accept whatever the situation was. Perhaps it was because they were already home, so they could just stay at their houses until they were able to fly, or perhaps it is because of their religious faith, their knowledge that God (Jesus or Allah -- everyone is either Christian or Muslim) would get them where they needed to go eventually. BA was resuming flights that night, but was not willing to bump anyone who had a ticket for that night, so people who had been scheduled to fly for the two days prior were just being given seats that were available. Some people would have to wait two weeks to get back to the US. When I heard that, I felt very lucky to have been given a new ticket for the seventeenth, and I gave up trying to get home sooner.
My parents, meanwhile, were freaking out. They emailed to tell me to buy a ticket on any available airline and that they would reimburse me – they just wanted me safely back in the Western Hemisphere. But once I accepted the fact that I would be there another five days, I became very grateful to have that extra time there, which allowed me to do some things I hadn’t done yet. I had my first street meal, I spent a day reading on the balcony of the house where I was staying, I spent a few extra days doing research at the archives, and I met some nice people. I wrote to my family, telling them that I was resigned to stay until the seventeenth, and not to worry about me: that every day I was there, something happened that made me glad to be there – even the days I spent freaking out at the BA office!
I’m also super-grateful to the woman I was staying with, who let me stay on for the extra five days. I would have felt much more stranded if I had been on my own in a hotel. But it was still scary, and I began to worry that I would never get home – that I would just have to apply for Ghanaian citizenship and finish my Ph.D. at the University of Ghana. On the morning of the seventeenth, I was so scared that something was going to happen to prevent me from getting home – that my flight would be cancelled, or that it would turn out that I didn’t actually have a reservation for that flight. People told me to get to the airport several hours early, and I did – there was no way I was going to miss that flight! It wasn’t until we were actually in the air that I truly believed I would soon be home. When I got to Heathrow, I called David to tell him that I was safely back in the First World, and burst into tears on the answering machine because I was so relieved.
July 25, 2006
Living with Strangers
Yesterday I ran into my former roommate Rob in front of the People's Food Coop. I first met Rob in the fall of 2001 when I answered his ad for a roommate, which I found on the bulleting board at the coop. I had been living in Ann Arbor for about six months, but the relationship I was in was ending and I was desperate for a new place to live. Rob had what seemed like the coolest apartment in all of Ann Arbor: a three-bedroom loft on Main Street, just south of Liberty. When I went to check the place out, Rob's girlfriend was there, and she seemed perfectly nice, which made me feel better about the idea of moving in with a guy I had just met. There was also another woman, Heather, living in the third bedroom.
It turned out that we were all going through breakups. I didn't see Rob's girlfriend any more, and Heather was breaking up with her boss, who had sponsored her work visa, and she ended up having to move back to Canada. After she left, a parade of women moved in and out of that bedroom over the next eight months: Alison the undergrad, Mavi who was studying for the LSATs, Lisa from Buffalo who was taking classes from David's summer program (and who ended up dating Rob!), and an exchange student from Germany whose name I forget. There may have been one or two others who are slipping my mind right now.
Rob was a good roommate in the sense that he was hardly ever home, but when he was home, he usually had some creepy friend over. He was also very mysterious. To this day, I'm not sure I ever knew his last name, though I must have done, because I had to write checks to him for the rent and utilities. I never saw him without a baseball cap on, which makes me wonder what he is hiding under the cap. Also, Rob is self employed, and I never quite understood what he did. He always referred to it as "information research," but he also talked about buying loans, and at times I wondered if he was selling drugs. And I always wondered why he always found women to rent his extra bedrooms. In the end, he was harmless, and he did give me (or rather rented me) a fabulous place to live when I needed one, but he is not someone I would choose to hang out with.