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Kwanzaa: My kujichagulia

Habari gani?

This week is Kwanzaa, the often-mentioned but mostly-mysterious major December holiday. I’ve always been vaguely aware that Kwanzaa is about Pan-African identity. But what it’s about more specifically and how to celebrate it? No idea.

The Official Kwanzaa Web Site gives a pretty good picture of what this week is all about. Created in 1966 by an American professor, Kwanzaa includes the celebration of seven values, or principles. You focus on one principle every day through New Year’s Day, which is a time to reflect and “answer soberly and humbly the three Kawaida questions: Who am I; am I really who I say I am; and am I all I ought to be?”

Today is the second day of Kwanzaa, and the value of the day is kujichagulia (koo-jee-chah-GOO-lee-ah), or self-determination. The Nguzo Saba, the seven principles of Kwanzaa, says this value is about defining ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.

This sounds absolutely perfect for me today. Two of my college roommates are visiting tonight. Both are very independent, intelligent women who have gone on to create adventures and experiences for themselves. One prowls the swamps and forests of the Southeast for the U.S. Forestry Service. The other spent a year in Thailand as a teacher and is probably Kenya-bound in the spring.

I admire both of them immensely, but I have a really hard time not feeling twinges of jealousy. It’s not a competitive feeling so much as remembering that I had hoped to travel or do something exciting after graduation. Instead, I took a very conservative path. I accepted a modest job at the university I graduated from, which isn’t all that far from where I grew up. Other than a brief trip to South Africa in college, I’ve never been abroad, though I have traveled a lot domestically with my family and G.

While I have no immediate plans to leave my job or anything like that, eHow suggests using kujichagulia to make some real goals for yourself, kind of like life-long New Year’s resolutions. I figure it can’t hurt to at least try to articulate what I think I want so I can start trying to make some of it happen. If nothing else, it’ll give me something to say when my roommates ask what I’m doing. I’d prefer not to say I’m doing the exact same thing I was last year!

Ok, so using eHow’s list of of strategies as a model, here goes: Read the rest of this entry »



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Holiday astronomy: From Saturn to the moon to the Star of Bethlehem

The last week and a half have absolutely flown by. The lack of posts is a direct result of my solid immersion in Christmas happenings. My brother and his new girlfriend arrived on the 17th, which was also the first day of Saturnalia, the ancient Roman festival known for its (pretend) reversal of social roles between masters and servants.

It was ironic; until now, it was always me, the older sister, who was bringing a partner home. And it was always a special occasion when I came home from college. This time, though, roles were definitely reversed. Now, I’m essentially the child “still at home” since I live near my parents and my brother traveled from a time zone away for the first time in several months. And my relationship isn’t the new shiny thing anymore. I’m not the one more or less breaking ground. His and my paths are so distinct they’re impossible to compare. I think this is a good thing–it’s just interesting how my brother’s and my roles in the family have changed, and those roles don’t “switch back” after a week.

Anyway, I was hoping to attend some winter solstice celebrations in Madison, as Unitarians are an excellent source for this kind of thing and we have a healthy population of them. But most of the celebrations happened the Friday evening before the Tuesday solstice, and I was at my parents’ place. I was then hoping to go to the lunar eclipse party the night of the 20th at the UW Space Place. The eclipse was supposed to be the only one visible this year and since it was happening on the winter solstice, it was the northernmost lunar eclipse possible–an event that apparently hasn’t happened (or been visible?) in 456 years. I was pretty stoked for this, but unfortunately, Mother Earth put the kibash on my solstice plans. It was super cloudy in anticipation of snow the next day, and the party was canceled since visibility was essentially zero.

I struck out on some of the biggest holidays of the winter season last week, but I certainly made up for it during the King Kong of holidays in the U.S. Having my brother home from the Navy was a pretty big deal. We cut down a Christmas tree the day after P got here, and we all scrambled for last-minute presents. Mom busted out a serious variety of treats and meals. We spent Christmas Eve with the family of one of my brother’s friends, which was interesting. Spending such a family-oriented day on someone else’s turf wouldn’t have been my choice, but it worked out, and then we went to a church service with my brother in full dress blues. Christmas Day was pretty relaxed; my uncle came down and we pretty much spent the day eating, opening gifts, eating again, watching some TV and eating one more time. Can’t complain!

But Christmas 2010 is now another Christmas past, and as everyone else recovers from the holidaze (the chaos between Thanksgiving and Christmas), I’m gathering my endurance for the ever on-going quest for daily holidays.

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National Chocolate-Covered Anything Day

Today is a hard holiday to complain about! I was thinking about getting ambitious and trying to make chocolate covered bacon, but G was deeply suspicious that this would work out, and I was secretly worried I might just like it too much.

So instead, I kept it healthy with dark-chocolate covered walnuts. I busted out my make-shift double boiler again, but luck doesn’t always strike twice. I was confused about why my chocolate was clumping up rather than melting, but then G took one look at the burner and told me the heat was too high. Sure enough, I turned things way down, and the chocolate melted smoothly. I added a little honey, then dropped in the walnuts.

They taste good as is, but I’m putting most of them on a plate to harden overnight. I’ll take a handful for a snack tomorrow, and I bet they’ll make a good yogurt topping.

Mmm, December holidays are ridiculously decadent.

P.S. George is still under the bed.

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Cat Herders Day

Koda waits for George

Koda waits for George

This year my brother gets to come home for Christmas before deploying next month. And he’s bringing with him a new girlfriend! My family is looking forward to it, and everything we’ve heard about her so far sounds great. The only hiccup to her staying with my parents next week is she’s allergic to cats. So what to do with their orange and white tabby, George?

George gets comfortable under my bed

George gets comfortable under my bed

It’s an awesome coincidence that today worked out for my mom to come to Madison¬†(they live about an hour away from me) and drop off George. Koda has stayed with my parents several times when G and I travel, so I was happy to repay the favor. The cats are pretty entertaining together; George takes awhile to come around, but once he does, the two will chase each other and keep very close tabs on one another. And when Koda and I left after spending several days around Thanksgiving with my parents, my mom says George wandered from room to room meowing.

George is an absolute sweetheart, but like I said, he takes awhile to come around. When my mom opened his crate in our living room, he bolted immediately under our bed. He’s been there ever since. We’re thinking he’ll come out by Friday.

Koda’s been circling and when he’s not doing that, he’s sneaking food from George’s bowl. Oh well. It’s promising to be an entertaining week with two kitties, though I’m not sure how effectively I’ll be able to herd them …

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Ice Cream and Violins Day

This one is a bit of a weird one, even for me. I decided to make a form of vegan ice cream while listening to violins, but thanks to the Metrodome collapse this weekend, the Vikings game was rescheduled for tonight. This meant that while I could get away with noisily running the food processor in short bursts, there was no way G could have handled listening to an orchestra as his men got squashed by the Giants.

Vegan "ice cream"

Vegan "ice cream"

Anyway, I’ve been meaning to try this VegFamily recipe for awhile. I’m not vegan or even vegetarian, but awhile back I was on a big banana kick. The trouble was fruit goes bad really fast in my apartment, so I was finding myself with an increasing supply of black bananas. So we froze them, and G made a couple of loaves of banana bread.

We still had leftovers, so I found the recipe for “ice cream” made from bananas and tonight was the perfect opportunity to give it a try. Cathe Olson is totally right–it was “better than ice cream,” in its own way. I packed almonds and frozen berries in with the frozen bananas, and food processed the hell out of it. I used coconut milk as the non-dairy milk. (I admit, I may have cheated if I had any dairy milk, but my kitchen it getting pretty bare, so the universe insured my concoction was animal product free.) It came out very creamy with nut and berry bits, and I kept heading back to the freezer for an extra spoonful. I know coconut milk is high in fat, but I’m positive this is a much healthier alternative overall than regular dairy ice cream. It’s definitely worth doing again.

A parting tip: Before freezing bananas, peel them! Otherwise, a vegetable peeler does the trick.

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Poinsettia Day ends in National Cocoa Day

Today I finally began Christmas decorating. In honor of today’s holiday, a tribute to a red Mexican flower, I decided to try making some origami poinsettias. I hesitate to purchase real poinsettias since they’re toxic to kitties, and Koda is definitely a plant nibbler, so the origami version seemed like a good idea. I has it all planned out: I’d make a small “bouquet” and tape it to our front door.

Unfortunately, I got a little too ambitious and picked a particularly complicated poinsettia, which involved folding leaves and two layers of red flowers that integrate together. I should have guessed I’d have trouble: The entire set of directions was five pages long. By take number three on the first page of steps, it was clear things were not going to work out. Just as my frustration level was rising, G decided to take a study break so we could go get a Christmas tree. I was thrilled to push my paper jibbles aside.

We bundled up and trundled to my car, which had to be cleared off and shoveled out thanks to last night’s storm. The driver’s side lock also frozen, so G crawled in through the passenger side and kicked open the door.

We were thoroughly chilled by the time we finally got going, so we both wanted to make this trip as quick as possible. We headed to a tree lot by a mini golf range, and I can honestly say I’ve never hunted so intently and so quickly for a tree. It was so cold I was ready to break down and spring for a $50 one, and was about to, when we spotted a small, really reasonable Fraser. About 20 minutes later, our tree was bundled, paid for and in the backseat of my car (the back doors also required kicking). I couldn’t feel my hands, toes or cheeks.

Once home, the tree didn’t take long to put up, but then the great S-versus-Christmas lights battle 0f 2010 commenced. Just as I got our multi-colored strand wrapped around, I discovered it was burnt out. I finally managed to get a strand of all-green lights in place. I then hung up our modest amount of ornaments, which Koda kept attacking. By the time I was done, I was cranky and decidedly un-festive. And I was still cold.

G noticed. “It’s cocoa day, right?” he asked and then slipped into the kitchen. When he came back, he had a mug of Ghirardelli hot chocolate, complete with cinnamon, nutmeg, whipped cream and biscotti. It was so decadent it was ridiculous. And so delish.

He lit pretty much every candle we own, turned down the lights and turned up some Christmas music on Pandora. Now I’m curled up, looking at my decorated tree and decorated living room and feeling back in the holiday spirit.

And right in the center of my tree is a homemade poinsettia ornament.

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International Mountain Day

This is a United Nations holiday, actually. The idea is to increase awareness of the identity of and challenges faced by indigenous people living in mountainous regions. Even though I live pretty far away from any populations that would technically count as mountain people, I figured I could try to identify for at least a little while today.

The highest point in Wisconsin is Timm’s Hill in Ogema, about four hours north of Madison. We had a vet appointment this morning (Koda is now officially on a diet) and I had to get my oil changed, so a multi-hour road trip wasn’t really in the cards this weekend.

Madison is lake country, so it’s pretty low lying. The city’s tallest point is the sledding hill in Elver Park, Madison’s largest community park. Elver Park is a great spot, with a disc golfing course in the summer and cross country skiing in the winter. The local country music station sponsors a more than decent fireworks show at the park every July. In Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid, Elver was on the proposed bike route.

My plan was to head over to Elver after our errands and hike up to take some pictures of the city from our “mountain.” However, I was thwarted by Wisconsin winter. We’re currently under a blizzard warning with, according to one of those handy National Weather Service alerts, expected snow accumulation of 10-16 inches and wind gusts of up to 45 mph.

The rain started as I was en route to Elver. By the time I got there it was a mix of rain and snow, and it was coming down pretty steadily. I knew I needed to be quick and get home before things started to freeze, so I skipped the hike. A few die hard sledders were still going, but it was definitely cold and very wet. A trio of young kids who had just come off the hill ran past my car, shrieking as they stepped in the quickly-forming puddles.

I snapped a few photos, then cranked up the defroster and navigated home through the slush. I supposed whether you live at a few thousand feet or several hundred, we all have our own environmental challenges.

Elver Park, Madison WI

The hill at Elver Park during today's blizzard warning.

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