Posts Tagged culture

Celebrate Your Unique Talent Day

Ahh which talent to choose? My winning charm? My unparalleled sense of humor? My captivating sense of style? My mad juggle stick skills?

Yup. That last one’ll do.

Sometime in my middle school years my family visited the Bristol Renaissance Faire in Illinois. And we liked it, so hush. Giant turkey legs, medieval costumes, the dueling knights–all nice features. But the true highlight was not the Shakespeare impersonators nor the many, many swords. Nay, the best element of the faire was, of course, the acrobats. And their tool of choice that midsummer in Bristol were colorful, bedeviling juggling sticks.

My parents bought me a set, which includes two guide sticks and a larger stick with leather and tassels at each end that you flip around between the guide sticks. I loved those things and spent more time than I should probably admit flinging them around in the backyard. I was decent back then–I mostly stuck to experimenting with variations on the helicopter and the propeller, though I didn’t know then what those tricks were called.

In fact, I never really did learn much about stick tricks, unlike my other middle school passion: yo-yos. I could do breakaways and three-leaf-clovers all afternoon back then. (By the way, walk-the-dog is so overrated.)

The juggling sticks stayed tucked away for most of high school and college. However, I decided to bring them with me post-college, and today I pulled them out from under the bed. I proceeded to terrorize Koda and greatly annoy my downstairs neighbor every time the middle stick, or baton, hit the ground.

I can still do the basics, but my older, more investigative self wanted to know more, so after several minutes of twirling, dropping, and twirling again, I set the sticks next to me and went googling.

Apparently, juggling sticks are also known as devil sticks or flower sticks. (Thanks, The difference is the weight of the sticks and whether the baton has tassels on it. Mine do have tassels, but they also are somewhat heavy, thereby meeting the same criteria as’s products, which go by the name of devil sticks rather than flower sticks. Semantics, semantics.

The history of these things is a bit difficult to find without being willing to pay for the information, but the basic gist is that people have been playing with sticks for more than 3,000 years. Rumor is devil sticks arose first in Africa, and images of them are found on Egyptian tombs. Eventually, they spread to Asia. (Thanks, Wisegeek.) I’m not sure whether devil sticks were part of Medieval European culture, but what I do know is they are a great accessory for modern day jesters.

And me. Off to twirl!


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Fibonacci Day and Eat a Cranberry Day

Math and cooking are two things that, perhaps not surprisingly, go well together. This may explain why my engineer partner can handle the almost anything in the kitchen, whereas my writerly soul gets nervous about how long to microwave Ramen noodles. Today, though, is a day that celebrates both a mathematical sequence and a common food. In theory, this should have terrified me.

The Fibonacci sequence is one of those math things you learn in elementary school that seems almost miraculous when you’re nine. 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5. Appears random, but wait: 0 + 1 = 1, 1 + 1 = 2, 1 + 2 = 3, 2 + 3 = 5. Ooh. Ahh.

Truthfully, while I remembered something called the Fibonacci sequence existed, I had forgotten what it actually meant until today. (November 23, 11/23, 1-1-2-3 in case you missed it.) The Fibonacci sequence is named for Leonardo of Pisa, called Fibonacci, who wrote a book about arithmetic in the 1200s. (Thanks, Wikepedia.) Fibonacci didn’t discover the sequence–it had been noted in Indian mathematics for a long time–but he introduced it to Western intellectualism, so he’s the one who got the credit.

I had no plans to celebrate Fibonacci Day. However, something strange happened while I was celebrating Eat a Cranberry Day. I cooked Fibonacci.

Now, honestly, this was a total coincidence. Maybe the universe is trying to be cute and friendly with me after Have a Bad Day Day. Or make me feel better after my failed attempt at Start Your Own Country Day. (Yup, my country lasted all of ten minutes after G got home. I should have spent more time training Koda in border defense tactics.)

I had planned to prepare a half bag of cranberries the way the bag told me to. Boil a cup of sugar and a cup of water, then add three cups of cranberries and bring back to a boil until the cranberries pop. Take them off the heat, pop them in the fridge, and your snack will be set in a few minutes.

But, as you know by now, I don’t read directions well. I dumped a cup of sugar into the cranberries, then realizing my mistake, plucked the cranberries out of the sugar and tried to brush them off. Along the way, I remembered my mother’s strong advice about the need to actually sort and wash cranberries, so I did that. Since the berries have been in the fridge for an uncomfortable amount of time, there were a lot of bad appl–err, cranberries, and by the time I’d sorted out the good ones, I was left with a little more than two cups.

In my infinite cooking wisdom, I figured since I was already off track, I might as well experiment. To the cup of sugar, I added a half cup of water and a half cup of brandy (my mother uses orange liqueur in her cranberries and it’s great, but that stuff is pricey). I then was concerned I didn’t have enough sweetness, so on a whim I added about three scoops of grape jelly. I also added a dash of cinnamon as an afterthought.

Once I got the cranberries into this mixture, the apartment absolutely exploded into the scent of autumnal, Thanksgiving-style muskiness. It was great. Once the berries popped and I pulled them off the heat, I tried the mess. It was like eating candy with a bit of a mulled spice tang. It was hard to leave them in the fridge, but they were burning my mouth, so it had to be done.

And so, I have created Fibonacci Cranberries.

0 cooking skill required
1 cup sugar
1 cup liquid, half brandy, half water
2 cups cranberries
3 spoonfuls of grape jelly
5 minutes approximately to get the berries popping once you’ve added them to the boiling mixture

Veni, vidi, fibonacci.

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National Indian Pudding Day

If you asked me yesterday what Indian Pudding was, I would tell you I didn’t know and that I didn’t believe such a thing existed.

Today, I know what Indian Pudding is. And it currently exists in my oven.

Indian Pudding is a misnamed (in my opinion) New England dessert. When those poor English colonists set foot on American soil, they dreamed of their wheat-based custards from back home. Sadly, they knew not how to obtain the proper ingredients for the Old World dish, so they substituted cornmeal (thank you, Abenaki and Patuxet tribal members) for wheat and hence created Indian Pudding. (see MyPunchBowl)

I selected an version of Old Fashioned Indian Pudding to try tonight while visiting my parents and brother. Cook a quart of scalded milk (learned what that is today: hot milk just before the boiling point) and a third of a cup of corn meal for 20 minutes in a double boiler (thank god for myMolasses and corn meal for Indian Pudding mother’s kitchen). Add a half cup of molasses and a teaspoon of ginger, then pour into a buttered two-quart baking dish. Bake in the oven for two hours at 300 degrees. My mom and I adapted the recipe a bit and went with a half teaspoon of ginger, a teaspoon of cinnamon, and about a half teaspoon of nutmeg. (Also be sure to include a dash of salt.)

My mom had never heard of Indian Pudding either, which scared me a bit. If my mom doesn’t know a food and how to make it, you’re likely in trouble. So we don’t know how this will come out. I just hope it’s edible.

We started this project a bit late, but I was insistent–we had to have it in the oven and I had to have a post online before midnight. Because otherwise, we would have missed National Indian Pudding Day, and then there was no point in making it at all. My parents kindly, very kindly, permitted me to dirty the kitchen and bang pots around at 11:00 p.m. (Fortunately, it’s World Kindness Day. They subconsciously celebrated it.) I have a good excuse for this late start: We had to attend P’s going away party!

The pudding will come out of the oven a little after 1:00 a.m. And considering the heavy molasses content, sampling my Indian Pudding may not be the most auspicious start to World Diabetes Day. But I’m not about to let this holiday slip past me, so for better or worse, I am saluting those early colonists and recreating one of the truly first Euro-American dishes.

Again, I just hope it’s edible.

(I’ll post results and photos tomorrow, since I’m borrowing P’s computer and he may not appreciate me tapping away in his bedroom at 2:00 a.m. Just a guess.)


Indian Pudding

The results were, well, not spectacular. My Indian Pudding was semi-sweet and looked like an unappetizing glob of brown goo. My family stayed up with me to try it, and though we all only had a few spoonfuls, I was the only one who ate all of my portion. Ah well, I’m just grateful they were game enough to try it. As my dad said, “S, you’re always bringing new things into this house.”

And so I brought Indian Pudding. And promised never to do so again.

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Native American Heritage Month

Last night the library in my hometown was showing “Lost Nation: The Ioway,” a documentary about the tribe’s struggle against American conquest. I politely suggested (without any coercion or pleading of course) to my mother that she should attend. And she did! Below is her account of it, and by golly, it looks like she learned something.

When I was approached by S to give up my Monday night couch- potato viewing of “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory” for “Lost Nation: The Ioway,” I was less than enthusiastic. But since a mother’s love for her offspring is an incredibly strong emotion, I couldn’t say no. Also since S did not tell her dear old parents about her double major in anthropology for several semesters, I guess I just wanted to prove something.

Just as February is Black History Month which most people now realize, November is Native American Heritage Month. American Indian Day was observed in 1915 in New York. Eventually, the entire month of November was proclaimed to be Native American Heritage month by President George H.W. Bush in 1990.

Having watched the PBS “We Shall Remain” series, I knew not to expect tribes of costumed characters in this type of documentary.  Instead, “Lost Nation: The Ioway” delivered a precious preservation of the Ioway people. As the filmmakers mentioned during the question and answer period, several of the people in the documentary have since died, but their stories have been recorded and will live on because of this film. I don’t ethically feel right about summarizing the documentary because if one is interested in this subject, the fee to purchase the DVD is quite nominal. However, here is the preview:


When I am not watching “Two and a Half Men” or “The Big Bang Theory,” I have on the cable news channels for background noise. Democrats and Republicans came to mind with this interesting tidbit from Monday’s experience, showing me that there are commonalities between my culture and the Ioway:

“The Bear Clan and the Buffalo Clan shared leadership of the tribe. They alternated through the year, so that during fall and winter the Bear Clan led the tribe, and during spring and summer the Buffalo Clan led.” (from Baxoje, the Ioway Nation)

After being privileged to attend the 97th public viewing of  “Lost Nation: The Ioway,” I did come away with a greater appreciation for Native American culture. If I am traveling through Minnesota near Pipestone National Monument, I will be sure to stop.  Ditto for the Living History Farms near Des Moines, Iowa. If our civilization should cease to be thousands of years from now, I can only hope there will be dedicated people in the future like Kelly and Tammy Rundle to preserve our history too.

–Mother of S

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World Communication Week

University of Cape Town

University of Cape Town dormitories

The first week of November is World Communication Week, observed by the International Society of Friendship and Good Will. Today I’m including a guest post from a very good friend of mine. Denis Kow Son Wong (who gave me permission to use his name) graduated yesterday from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, with an engineering degree. Denis was born on the tiny island of Mauritius and grew up in the Free State province in central South Africa. He was a kid during the last of the apartheid years and suffered discrimination because of his Chinese ethnicity.

I met Denis in January 2007 when I spent a few weeks in Cape Town for a work thing. He and I have kept in touch, and below is his letter about how he overcame a difficult childhood and keeps himself upbeat about the future.

Someone once said, “Life is full of surprises.” Whoever said this is quite right, but what they did not mention was that surprises don’t necessarily mean a good surprise, as the definition of surprise is just an unexpected occurrence whether good or bad.

My life is like what people read about in those post-apartheid stories that separate whites from non-whites. I grew up in a very Afrikaans town, and it was hard being pointed out as an “outsider.” There was still a feel of apartheid occurring in the Free State province [after apartheid ended in 1994], in that racism was a normal thing. If you were “white,” you felt as if you had more authority than another person who was non-white. Racist comments using dreadful harsh words were often used to abuse and to show one’s authority. If someone were to ask me to talk about my secondary education experience, I merely draw two faces, one sad and one angry. Sad and angry to see how people can actually react this way and not see that underneath the color of our skin and our backgrounds, we are all just humans.

Tertiary education at the University of Cape Town was a complete 180. Here, people are friendly and they don’t care, entirely, about the color of one’s skin or their previous history. Instead, we concentrate on who they actually are and what it is that they want to do, and it is interesting how universities bring together all sorts of different people with different views, yet they are all wanting to achieve something either for themselves or for others.

This is the place where I became who I really am because I was not afraid anymore of showing who I really am, and if some people didn’t like it, then that just means that they don’t like me and that is fine. You will never be liked by every single human being in the world; instead, you are only able to expand your friendship circle to however big you want it to be.

My experience of being myself mainly involved situations where I could be helpful towards others whether it is academically with course work, strangers with directions or advice, an ear to listen to and sometimes friends on the edge of suicide.

My goal is to earn the respect of others but the only way in doing this is to respect others the same way whether they appreciate it or not. “One door closes, another opens.”

One of my childhood dreams was to go and study in America, and I think I have gotten quite obsessive over the whole thing. The reason I would like to go to America is because it’s a different environment, an unknown territory to one such as myself, and it is this challenge that I think I would enjoy.

But alas, I have been declined and quite depressed over the whole thing. However, another door did open for me and now I am a part of a research team of great people working on things that will hopefully change the lives of people!

I would like to end this blurb by saying, if life throws you a curve ball, MUNG IT BACK WITH ALL YOU GOT! And if a door closes on you, don’t become obsessive over it. Stop and look around, only then will you realize the open door right next to you 😉

Sunset on Table Mountain, Cape Town

Sunset on Table Mountain, Cape Town

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All Saints’ Day

Halloween 2009 was terrible. And considering Halloween in Madison, Wisconsin, is often known as one of the best Halloween party towns in the country, well, you know I messed up. My costume was great, don’t get me wrong. I was Crazy Cat Lady with poofy hair and a tan jacket appliquéd with cats and butterflies. I tied a grand total of five stuffed cats on various body parts and topped off the look with orange sunglasses that matched orange capri pants tucked into knee-high yellow leather boots. So I looked great. Exactly as I was supposed to in order to properly channel the fugliness of a Cat Lady.

However, in Madison, females lean more toward Sexy Bee and Slutty Nun. So I just looked homeless rather than ready for a night on the town–a misfire I should have but did not anticipate.

Okay, an ugly costume wouldn’t have been a guaranteed death knell except for the tragic fact that I spent the night at a house party with much younger people, therefore looking especially homeless and untouchable. This one wasn’t totally my fault. I thought I would know more people at this particular party. Wrong. My group, which included college seniors, graduate students and me, a recent grad, ended up spending forever at a  party with lots of what turned out to be freshman and sophomore Sexy Bees and Dick in a Boxes. Worst of all, the house owners, who are actually nice guys who just happen to have a preppy web of acquaintances, opted for the cheapest beer available for their kegs. Milwaukee’s Best. Beast.

My Halloween spirit, which is usually insatiable, deflated faster than a bee sting after an EpiPen injection. I came home brooding about how to better channel the world of the dead before the weekend’s end, and since slumming with demons didn’t do it, I opted to head to church.

I live a couple of blocks from the historic First Unitarian Society, which has a historic meeting house designed by that Midwestern god Frank Lloyd Wright. Seriously, people in Wisconsin lose their minds over FLW stuff, so I’ve been aware of the Unitarian church for years, but as a good little Lutheran, I’d never been.

All Saints’ Day, which you may or may not know, is a Catholic holiday originally celebrated in May. The spring celebration was based on the ancient Roman Festival of the Lemures, which involved ceremonies to exorcise the malevolent spirits of the dead from homes. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

The festival was tweaked to fit Christianity when Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon to the Virgin Mary and to all the saints during the festival in 609 or 610. Another pope, Gregory III, shifted All Saints’ Day to November during the 700s in order to piggyback on the Celtic harvest and spiritual festival of Samhain. This piggy backing was supposed to eventually result in the celebration of only All Saints’ Day, but Samhain persisted, evolving into All Hallow’s Eve, and of course, Halloween. (Wikipedia strikes again.)

All Saints’ Day, which commemorates all recognized saints and those who have made it through the Pearly Gates, has remained a relatively small-scale religious holiday. I’m not Catholic and a Catholic church is not within a couple of blocks, so First Unitarian Society became the church of choice for me to celebrate All Saints’ this morning.

Again, I was raised Lutheran, though I’ve totally lapsed both in practice and in some ways, beliefs. So the Unitarian Univeralist environment was really different for me–no crosses on the walls, no Bibles in the worship area. Instead, the minister and associate ministers just talked about death.

Heaven and the afterlife were not the emphases of the service. Instead, a minister spoke to children about how heaven may or may not exist and either way, it is unknowable. So perhaps the better thing to keep in mind when a pet or relative dies is how they become a part of the Earth, helping to make the flowers grow.

The de-emphasis on fate and God as a part of death and the added emphasis on personal agency in death (the UU denomination is the only to have openly advocated for death with dignity, according to today’s minister) and the return-to-nature idea is an interesting twist on today’s holiday. As the handy little pamphlet “Who We Are: Unitarian Universalists” says: “In the end religious authority lies not in a book, person, or institution, but in ourselves.” So today I’m my own saint, and I get to celebrate being right where I am on this planet rather than worry too much about the unknowable heaven.

It was relieving, after last night’s party fail, to have someone say more or less that it’s okay to opt out of another, much more cosmic, popularity contest. After all, St. Peter’s book is probably the ultimate guest list.

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November is for Novelists

To kick off this blog, I’m celebrating not one or two, but three writing-related holidays. November 1 is National Author’s Day and National Family Literacy Day, both. of which seem to have garnered only a small amount of attention in the media and blogosphere. However, thousands of people are celebrating the third holiday: the kick-off for National Novel Writing Month, a non-profit initiative that encourages people to write a 50,000 word novel from Nov. 1 to Nov. 30. Nanowrimo is in its 11th year, and according to the website’s history page:

The very first NaNoWriMo took place in July, 1999, in the San Francisco Bay Area. That first year there were 21 of us, and our July noveling binge had little to do with any ambitions we might have harbored on the literary front. Nor did it reflect any hopes we had about tapping more fully into our creative selves. No, we wanted to write novels for the same dumb reasons twentysomethings start bands. Because we wanted to make noise. Because we didn’t have anything better to do. And because we thought that, as novelists, we would have an easier time getting dates than we did as non-novelists.

I tried Nanowrimo once while in college. I failed abysmally to finish a story about a struggling writer. Hmm. I’m trying again this year, though I may struggle to stay committed to both Nanowrimo and The Holidaze.

Anyway, back to National Family Literacy Day. I stopped home yesterday to collect some stuffed cats and a fugly jacket for my Halloween costume (Crazy Cat Lady–it was tremendous). My mom has steadily been converting my old bedroom into a library, and her latest efforts have been in setting up white bookshelves along the walls. I guess you don’t realize just how many books are lurking under your bed, in your closets, on the kitchen table, etc., until you see them displayed somewhat orderly on shelves. I grew up in a house with a lot of books. A lot. All were purchased by my mother, the only reader in the house (besides me). In addition to her bookworm tendencies, she is also an avid rummage sale hunter, and the two interests have resulted in a formidable book collection, mainly of women’s lit and, to a lesser extent, literary fiction along with dozens of garden books, food-related books and other non-fiction.

My book interests lean more toward drama and literary fiction, so our tastes don’t always match up. However, my mother knows how to find books that do appeal to me, so going home is often like raiding a bookstore, and yesterday was no different. I returned to Madison with a stack of novels, including Julie and Julia and several Barbara Kingsolver novels. (And since I now possess almost all of Kingsolver’s works, I think I’m covered for National Author’s Day!)

Without my mom as an example, who knows if I would have gotten into reading, and by extension, writing. Most definitely, her willingness to buy books and have books around helped. I think one strong family member who is willing to support reading, even against protests that stacks of books create a lot of clutter, can make a difference toward the literacy of an entire family.

So that’s my story for National Family Literacy Day. Thanks, Mom!

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