Thursday, March 26, 2009

What everyone has on their face: Tulips.

I looked for a joke about tulips to accompany what will unavoidably become a massive barrage of tulip photos I took today, but there is a sad lack of tulip jokes in this world. Need a reminder? Look at the title of this post. That was the best I could do.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

9 til 5 = not me

What do Wyclef and I have in common? Neither of us can work a 9 'til 5.

I have been annoying Marcos lately. Wyclef Jean's "Gone 'til November" song has been stuck in my head for days. It may not help that I've added it to my new playlist, but really, I just couldn't say it better. As you may remember, he sings,

"See, you must understand, I cant work a 9 to 5
So I'll be gone til November"

I don't really have anywhere to go til November, but the line before that part has me written all over it. I'm meeting with Jason tonight to brave the world of job hunting, because we are both a little petrified. Scary things are better when they're reframed as social events. Wish us luck.

Monday, March 23, 2009

"Kokoro" is Japanese for ♥...

I usually don't like a messy kitchen, but tonight I reconsidered. The remains of our midnight meal prep were severed cilantro legs, cabbage core, carrot and potato skins, and tofu juice falling from our counter into the sink. It was actually quite pretty.

When our friends Kokoro and Chris and their Buddha-of-a-son Ren were swept off to Berkeley a few months back, we inherited an assortment of Japanese food products that nobody else could decipher. Among the treasures were akamiso and shiromiso, the thick soy bean pastes that are the base for miso soup.

Thank you, we love your hearts! On late nights like this, there is nothing nicer than making a big pot of miso soup to get me through my assignments...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Me, forty days ago...

In Uzbekistan - and I'm sure the practice is common in other Muslim countries as well - it is tradition for new parents to wait forty days before taking the newborn outdoors, sharing photos, and the other events that welcome a baby into the world. Historically, infant mortality rates dictated that newborns survive the first forty days of life before the official celebration of their birth. Today marks the fortieth day after the birth of Amina, my friend Zumrad's little girl. I have been waiting patiently to share the story and photos with you.

Zumrad is in the Social Work program with me at UNC, and when she became pregnant and decided to deliver in a birthing center just blocks from our home, we offered to help out in any way we could. We quickly received our assignment: when Zumrad went into labor, she would call us and Marcos would come pick-up her 16-year old son Kadir and take him out for a fun day while his mother delivered her baby.

When I offered more specifically to be at the birth if she needed extra hands, she confessed that she wasn't sure how comfortable she would feel having me there. In Uzbekistan, hospitals are concerned about maintaining strict sterility; at the births of her two older boys, there had not been one person in her family present. Not her husband, not her mother, nobody. Knowing that childbirth wasn't her most beautiful nor modest hour, she was hesitant to allow me to be present.

But, on the morning of "the" call, Marcos went to pick up Kadir, and a few hours later I was invited to join Zumrad and her husband Ulugbek at the birthing center. I was elated.

The Birthing Center in Chapel Hill is run 100% by midwives. I entered the room, and it was much different than the hospital where I had been present for my friend Kokoro's birth a few months ago. At the Birthing Center there was a huge tub, various stools and chairs, a large rubber exercise ball, and a low queen-sized bed. During her contractions, Zumrad moved from stool to ball, to bed, to tub, to a different stool and back to the ball, in order to find the place where she could have contractions with the least amount of discomfort. The winner was the exercise ball: Ulugbek sat on the bed in front of her, coaching her through prayers in a language I did not recognize, and I sat on a stool behind her, putting pressure on the base of her spine during contractions and massaging a fragrant white lotion into her lower back between waves.

Amina was born about six hours after I arrived. By the time she emerged, three midwives were present, and both Ulugbek and I were on the bed with Zumrad, bracing for the arrival of a baby.

It was so amazing to see her little head come out, with a massive shock of black hair. The umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck and she was an intense shade of purple, but the quick, sure hands of the midwives quickly unwrapped, massaged, slapped gently and sucked with an oxygen hose until we heard the little scream.

I know that in many instances the scream of a baby can be grating, but that first scream is the best sound in the world.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A craving for stuffed peppers...

Eight years ago the obsession started. While backpacking through Greece, my German sister Melisande and I followed an urge to climb a mountain and found ourselves in the warm kitchen of Katafigio Alpha, a hikers lodge nestled under the three peaks of Mount Olympus. Guests weren't allowed in the kitchen, but looking back, we were really only guests for about three hours before the woman running the lodge saw me drying dishes and asked us to stay and work for the next week or two.

Our favorite part of life on Mount Olympus? That everything was Greek: language, culture, making music at night outside under the stars looking over the Aegean Sea, and FOOD! Maria, our friend and the chef at the lodge, made stuffed green bell peppers that my tastebuds have still not forgotten...

So, two days ago I attempted to bring the glory back into my life, and although it was a great meal, I still look forward to the day when I can watch Maria work her magic. Next time, I will take notes...

Stuffed Green Bell Peppers
Okay, who am I kidding? I don't really follow recipes when I cook, but I'll try to give a general idea of how I made these...

Stuffed green peppers are basically a mix of yummy things, thrown into the cavern of a pepper. The yummy things are usually the following:
  • Ground meat, already cooked. I used turkey because that was what I had, but typically peppers are stuffed with hamburger meat. Cook it up deliciously, with diced onions, garlic, salt and pepper, and maybe some oregano or other seasonings.
  • Rice, already cooked. I put the rice on first and let it do its thing while I cooked the meat on one burner, and boiled the peppers on another (more about that later). I used white rice, but I think that brown sounds good, or possibly another grain.
  • Tomato sauce. I used up a small can of something fully uninteresting, but of course, the better the sauce the better the end product.
And that's basically it. The stuffing is basically a mixture of the rice, meat and tomato sauce, and any other herbs or finely chopped veggies you want to add (I added finely chopped mushrooms and cilantro to keep my produce rotating).

But the peppers! While scanning a zillion stuffed pepper recipes online to get an idea of the ingredients I should use, I came across the direction over and over to boil the peppers in salt water prior to stuffing and baking them. I will send kisses to the person who can tell me the reason for this, although I suppose that it has something to do with helping the peppers to retain their water through the baking process?

So, the order is: put on the rice (don't put too much water); cut the tops off of the peppers, de-seed and place in boiling salt water; attend to cooking the meat with onions or garlic, with seasonings and salt and pepper; and then pre-heat the oven for 350 or so. After the peppers have boiled for about ten minutes, lift out with tongs, tip out the water, and place in a pyrex dish. Mix together the tomato sauce, meat and rice, and taste it! Everything is already cooked, so this is a great chance to test for saltiness. You will probably have to add more salt, because the addition of the rice and the combination with the peppers will dilute your flavor a bit.

Once the mixture is heavenly, spoon it into the peppers, pressing it in lightly to make sure that you are filling in the pepper's valleys. Place the pepper cap on, cover the dish with foil and bake for about 40 minutes or so. Most recipes say longer, but I found that since the peppers had already been boiled, cooking time wasn't too long. We ate the peppers with parmesan, and they were delicious.

Bon appetite!

Fatherhood at its best

Today at work I had an appointment with a family I meet with weekly. Lately I have been coaching the mom through playing with her six-year old son and teaching her how to use positive play skills to strengthen their bond. The mom and son live in a small home in a low-income neighborhood, along with two older generations of the family and a flow of loving people who seem to always be coming and going.

The father of the boy has been in prison for the past three months, so I was surprised to see him in the home today when I arrived at the door for our afternoon appointment. I had met him once before, and it was apparent that his son thought the world of him. So today when I was told that I would be coaching the dad through play instead of the mom, I was inwardly having a party. What can I say? Dads who play with their kiddos just give me a peaceful feeling about the future.

And sure enough, this dad was a born natural at making that one-on-one time with his son worth gold. He was fluent in the language of specific praise and positive feedback, and his enthusiasm was hard to beat. I stood in the doorway to the adjacent room, with the walkie talkie that I barely needed to use (I coach into a small ear-microphone that parents wear until they learn the skills by themselves), feeling so appreciative of this man who was locked up last week and was now on the floor playing with his son.

From my position in the doorway, I could not see the boy, who was playing with the matchbox cars on the other side of a large couch, but suddenly his little head popped up from behind the furniture. He flashed me two big thumbs up, and mouthed the words "This is going so good!".

Yes indeed, it was going so good.


There are some things worth waiting for, and spring is one of them. If I had to name the season that I felt was perfectly me, I would say "autumn" in a heartbeat... but this year spring is really growing on me.

And when it comes down to it, it's really all about the natural stuff (and maybe not college basketball). I planted my poppy seeds last week, and little green shoots are already appearing. I'm convinced that being able to grow something is the quickest way to feel like a real winner in life.

And the fruit.... oh wow. Not only are great-looking fruits starting to reappear in the grocery stores, but prices are affordable! Cartons of beautiful strawberries are on sale at Target for $.99, and cantaloupes are $.99 at Harris Teeter (for you local readers). So, we may have gone a bit overboard with six containers of strawberries and five huge cantaloupes all purchased within the past two days, but Marcos' solution? Go back and buy more strawberries.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Treat yourself to a little CBT

For a few weeks now, two of my classes have been covering Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) at the same time. Since my memory is the size of a small pea, repetition does wonders for me. Honestly, not everything I hear at school is really worth writing about (I know, shocking), but this one I found intriguing...

The basic premise of Cognitive Behavior Therapy is that our thoughts (cognitions) directly influence our emotions and behaviors. A central aspect of CBT is learning how to identify "automatic thoughts" - in other words, those immediate mental assessments which come right before our mood switches - which are sometimes accurate, and sometimes, well, totally off-base.

Cognitive distortions are common for us humans, and are manifest in things like all-or-nothing thinking ("if I can't do it perfectly, I'm just not going to try at all"), catastrophizing ("everything is going to go horribly"), overgeneralizing ("I suck at math so I must be stupid"), jumping to conclusions ("he shut me down with that look, so he must hate me"), disqualifying the positive ("when I succeed it's because I'm lucky, and when I fail it's because I'm not good enough"), as well as many other messages that our internal tape players tell us about ourselves and the world. As you can imagine, these types of thoughts lead to anxiety and unhappiness if we don't have the tools to question their validity.

So, as students are prone to do when studying psychological concepts, I have been trying to catch my automatic thoughts, and it is MUCH easier said than done. When my mood changes, I have been trying to ask myself, "Okay, what just went through my head?", so that I can monitor if I was blowing things out of proportion. I can't always put my finger on the thought or image I had just prior to feeling stressed, but the times that I can catch myself seem to go better. When I get the chance to walk with myself through the thought and say, "Now really? Is that totally accurate?" I can often feel the tension leave my body as my brain kicks out the garbage...

Monday, March 9, 2009

Confessions of an Impatient Shopper

Confession #1: I dislike shopping.

Contrary to the word on the street about women, I generally dislike shopping.

Okay, so a hefty dose of retail therapy can really make me feel superb sometimes, but only if I feel like I'm getting more than I paid for, which really only happens at thrift stores, and grocery stores (on a good day). You know that vision of people wandering through malls, browsing and buying? Well, that's not me at all. I just don't have the patience for it.

But, there is one place where I love to look, and browse, and eat, and test out, and buy. Costco used to be my one and only love, but now it has become IKEA. This week is spring break at UNC, so today we road-tripped it with Nick and Nicole to check out the brand new store in Charlotte, NC. Here are some things I love at IKEA...

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Redneck Ice Cream Sandwich Torte

At a friend's Valentine's Party in Hawaii a few years back, we played the Newlyweds Game. For the question, "What is the most redneck thing your wife does?", both my friend TD and her husband answered in their separate groups, "Eat cool whip!". Here is TD's famous Redneck Ice Cream Sandwich Torte. You will definitely not find it in any gourmet magazines, but the feedback I have heard from friends is that it is a hit with kids who hate cake, and kids who love to help with "cooking"...

  • 1 cup coarsely chopped creme-filled chocolate sandwich cookies (i.e. Oreos, about ten)
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 (3.9 oz.) package chocolate instant pudding and pie filling
  • 1 (12 oz.) container frozen whipped topping (e.g. Cool Whip), thawed and divided into 2 parts
  • 12 frozen rectangle ice-cream sandwiches, unwrapped
  • 2 Tbsp. semi-sweet chocolate morsels, grated, or multi-colored sprinkles

Coarsely chop cookies. Combine milk and pudding mix: whisk until mixture is smooth and begins to thicken. Immediately fold in half of the whipped topping and cookies; set filling aside.

Working quickly, arrange six of the ice-cream sandwiches side by side on a large platter. Spread filling evenly over sandwiches. Top with remaining ice-cream sandwiches, forming a rectangle-shaped torte; smooth sides.

Spread remaining whipped topping over top and sides of torte. Grate chocolate over torte or use sprinkles. Freeze at least 30 minutes, or until ready to serve. Yield: 16 servings. Okay, let's be real. Yield: 8 servings, because you will want a double slice.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Bridging the Achievement Gap

Each year at UNC, undergraduate and graduate students who are involved in research have a chance to submit an abstract for University Research Day. My friend Kate (a Ph.D. student) and I decided to apply with our project, and we were accepted. Here we are, trying to sound smart for the UNC "Daily Tarheel" journalist who wrote about us in her article for the university newspaper.

We have been involved this year in studying school success at a rural North Carolina school that is defying the Achievement Gap, to see what they are doing right.

But I'll back up... What is the Achievement Gap? Historically, free public education in the United States has been considered to be the great equalizer - the chance to give all kids equality of opportunity in life, regardless of their circumstances. Yet unfortunately, there has been a consistent historical discrepancy between white and racial minority (specifically African American and Latino) student's academic achievement since the early 1970s. This discrepancy, illustrated by the light green space in the graph, is called the Achievement Gap.

What is meaningful about the early 1970s? It was at that time that public schools in the United States were finally structurally desegregated, after two decades of wiggling through the 1954 Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education court ruling that declared that "separate is not equal". Before that time, the segregated academic playing field did not even approach a level of equality that could realistically be compared.

Why does the Achievement Gap exist? That is a wonderfully complicated question. Around the time of Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education, people vying for continued segregation used what is now called "scientific racism" to excuse oppression, arguing that there are inherent differences between racial groups that make some of us superior and some of us inferior. Now, of course, this way of thinking seems ridiculous. Flies are ten times more genetically dissimilar from one another than are humans across racial and ethnic lines.

So, what is it? Ultimately, the answer seems to be money, which is often tied to questions of power. When schools were segregated under Jim Crow laws prior to Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education, black African American schools received about 60% of the funding that white schools received. Now, although things are not so blatently unjust, inequality of funding is still a problem. American public schools are funded on a local level, with property tax dollars from neighborhoods supporting local education. Wealthy neighborhoods with big homes feed into wealthy schools with copious resources and opportunities, and low-income neighborhoods feed into poor schools, without resources and with a lesser quality of education. And thus cycles of poverty and the achievement gap continue, undisturbed.

So, when we came across Gaston College Preparatory (GCP) middle school in rural North Carolina, our interest was piqued. Demographically speaking, students are about 90% racial/ethnic minority, from low-income, rural communities, and the school is designated as a public charter school. Our research exploration was: what are they doing in their school that can explain the incredible success of their students? Everyone at GCP seems to be excelling.

Our findings suggest that there are many things at play. Some of the most applicable, pertinent points were the following:

  • Students highly value the personal relationships they have with their teachers, and teachers are supportive and available for one-on-one time
  • Teachers have high and consistent expectations for every single student
  • Success is defined in the classroom in terms of group success - focus on teamwork and making a difference in the world are key elements of the classroom climate
  • Teachers see character education as being as important, if not more important, than academic education
  • Students are often taken on trips to visit colleges, and college attendance is an expectation for every student
  • Teachers operate and teach under the growth mindset, which means that they view intelligence as malleable and always growing, rather than fixed
  • Students are taught about stereotypes linked to socioeconomic status, and are pushed to overcome them
  • Teachers feel supported by the administration and their colleagues - there are frequent classroom observation opportunities so that new teachers can learn from more seasoned teachers
  • The school motto? "Be nice. Work hard".
Coming out of the process of studying this school, my excitement about GCP and other similar schools is growing. Some aspects of the school are difficult to replicate - for example, they have an extended school day - but there are simple things that create an culture of success and high expectations at that school, which can be employed in other struggling schools with similar demographics and funding sources.

Our next step? To take our findings and disseminate them as far and wide as possible.

Monday, March 2, 2009

We moved to the South for this?

Today my morning class was canceled because of snow. North Carolina may have the word "North" in it, but don't let it be misleading - by most measures, we are still very much a part of the South.

I bumped into a friend of mine at school in the computer lab, and he was carrying a large duffel bag, so stuffed that the zipper was in pain. I asked if he was traveling and he told me that he had been sledding before his class, and was going after his class, and wanted to make sure he had enough changes of clothes to keep himself dry.

Man. I used to be fun too.

This is the view from our deck into the trees. We basically live in a little forest. From our deck, we can see our little (aptly named) downtown Chapel Hill.

Our backyard (above), and the sunset over our driveway. We are excited every day about moving down the road to a bigger place in July, but we will definitely miss this scenery...

Here's a little video I (Marcos) took that day.

Lessons learned from Craig and his addictive list...

It's 2:34 am, and of all times this week (ALL TIMES), precisely right now is when I'm feeling in the "flow"; that feeling that comes over me and says, "yeeessss... I want to write a blog entry".

This morning's topic (and I should apologize for anything I write, as I am delirious and may be catastrophically redundant) is Craigslist, and what I've learned thus far from my four-day obsession.
  1. There are many, many, many ugly couches that exist in this world.
  2. Ugly furniture can easily be disguised by the words "rustic", "unique" or "antique".
  3. I am nervous when people post photos of their furniture outside in their driveway, or what appears to be the middle of the street.
  4. There are many places in North Carolina with interesting names. My recent favorite? "Fuquay Varina".
  5. Even though horse manure, old tires, broken dryers and baby praying mantises may be listed under the "free" section, it doesn't mean that the drive to get them is worth it.
  6. Apparently Pottery Barn is more special than I thought, because most people claim that their furniture is from that store.
  7. Chippendale describes a style of furniture, not just a style of man on a calendar.
  8. Although staying up until 2:34 am does mean I have very little competition if I see any new postings that catch my interest, it is not really worth the wait because everyone in my area appears to be sleeping.