Food Prep

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Before I left Mexico for the Thanksgiving break, my baby brother and I were already discussing the logistics of serving mustard greens for dinner Thanksgiving Day.

I am in love with food and all its processes: Growing, cooking, and eating. The growing of food is part of my family heritage, and cooking is not something that, in my family, is just a chore that must be done just so people won’t starve; it is a task performed with love and enjoyment, and eating is something to be done together.

The first idea for procurement of the greens–to pick them from an uncle’s garden–bombed when the uncle informed us that the greens in his garden were finished.

So I sat in stop-and-go traffic for over an hour to get to the farmer’s market to buy fresh mustard greens because not only did my baby brother want to eat them,  I wanted to prepare them. I wanted to immerse myself in the whole mustard greens process: washing and trimming them, boiling the bacon and then adding the greens, which would be coming over the top of the pot at first, then wilting down into the hot water almost instantly. I wanted to experience the changes in the smell as as the fragrance changed from sharp and raw to rich and mellow. I imagined the poached eggs I would have for breakfast  the day after Thanksgiving, cooked gently in the rich pot liquor that would be left after the greens were served.

My daughter had plans to make four pumpkin pies (from canned pumpkin) for the Thanksgiving dinner: two for our family and two for her husband’s family. When my other brother brought in a pumpkin from the porch that my sister had bought for decoration and started chopping it into hunks, I sent my daughter a quick text to let her know that making four pies might not be necessary. My brother was doing this not because it’s the easy way to make pumpkin pies, but because much of the pleasure of eating  them comes from the enjoyment of repeating the process of preparation that’s been part of the family tradition throughout his life.

Eating mustard greens for Thanksgiving Dinner wouldn’t have been done in our family fifty years ago. Mustard greens were served for plain, everyday meals, with beans and cornbread, because during the winter months they were one of only two or three vegetables available from the garden (and that was only if there had been a good harvest of snap beans the previous summer, put up in jars). But these days, because we are all too busy to prepare them, never mind grow them, they have faded away from the weekday dinner table, replaced by spring mix from plastic supermarket containers. Now, they are a special treat to be enjoyed on holidays alongside the turkey and cornbread dressing, not just another side dish, but a symbol of a heritage.

And the pumpkin in the pie arrived there only a day after the pumpkin had been just a porch decoration.

 

Reflections on the Sub Day

After I had stood up and said “Senorita! I am the English teacher,” and had been shown to the correct place to sign in, and had finally reached the classroom, I found it full of students ranging in age from adolescent my own age group. First I assigned the pairs for the speaking test and then sent everyone out except for the pair being tested.

I had no idea what I was doing.

The “gradual release” model of instruction is considered to be pretty effective: 1. Show me how you do it, 2. clarify it for me by checking for my understanding, 3. let’s do it together, and then, 4. I can do it on my own.

In my life, there are many, many times when I start with step four.

Since it involves a considerable amount of trial and error, skipping the first three steps results in a longer learning time (and considerable amounts of anxiety), but it’s generally effective in the end.

Crawling under the house to fix the toilet drain. Replacing the radiator in the car. Fixing a broken water line.

These are all activities that require immediate action. There’s no time to take a course before that toilet drain (or radiator or water leak) is fixed.

Being a substitute teacher, in my experience,  is somewhat similar.

I hope one day soon I will have the opportunity to be taught how to administer and score a speaking text for English language learners. This time, however, I was flying by the seat of my pants.

Giving scores to the students wasn’t possible, but I was able to take notes for the “real” teacher so that she could score the rubrics later. As I went through each pair of students, I began to have an idea of what to look (or listen) for in relation to the rubric. I am certainly not competent, nor yet prepared, to score a rubric, but when I do take the course, I won’t be completely in the dark.

The best part of the sub day came after all the tests were finished. We had an hour to reflect on the exam and to chat. The students wanted to know about me and my life. They don’t have a lot of opportunities to practice English with a native speaker, and they asked a lot of questions.  Then, I turned the questions on them and they told me about themselves, one by one.

They said,  “We want you to teach the advanced class. You should apply here for the job!”

I told them that I already have.

Who knows? My opportunity to learn step-by-step may be closer than I realize.

Subbing

I am here at a local school where I am to sub for a colleague who teaches English here.

Class is to begin at 8:00 a.m. It’s an exam day. It’s 7:50.

There’s no staff here yet.

I try to put myself into the mind of my coworker. I see her coming in the gate, stopping to chat with the doorman, as relaxed as as a rag doll and as nonchalant as . . .  well, as a Mexican.

I’m trying to slow my breathing.

Not only is this a completely new experience–being a substitute teacher in a Mexican school–I’m to administer exams for an ESL class. I have no experience and no qualifications for the task. I received the materials from la Mexicana last night at 8 o’clock.

I’m to administer exams for an ESL class. I have no experience and no qualifications for the task.

Students are trickling into the courtyard. Doves are cooing and finches twittering in the trees. The traffic noise is increasing outside the gate. I’m working at keeping the corners of my mouth turned up and my forehead relaxed.

7:58. Someone opens the outer door to the office. I go in with others who crowd the counter behind which three employees have arranged themselves. Those who came in with me seem to be paying for tuition. I hang back for five minutes and then step forward to the counter.

I am ignored completely.

After a minute I turn away and sit in a chair against the wall, waiting for the crowd to clear out. There’s now a line of about a dozen people. Each one seems to have a dispute to settle. I’m getting really annoyed. If I knew where the classroom is I’d just go and get started. I consider standing up and yelling.

Instead I take deep breaths and remind myself that I am not in the United States.

It’s 8:15.

Evening

When the sun goes down and the lights go up even the least lovely town starts to look better.

Edges soften. Dust blends into dusk. Peeling paint and faded advertisements blur into each other, visually softening the harsh effects of the desert sun.

Signs of familiarity glow against the hazy backdrop of sky: Starbuck’s and Burger King and Dairy Queen issuing invitations to those who are out and about for a snack or a pick-me-up to help make it until dinner time.

Traffic is light and the side streets are quiet, resting up to be ready for the bursts of activity to come later.  Even the pigeons are quiet. The hedges along the sidewalks in the residential areas turn to shadows. The light-painted walls come forward, as if the streets have narrowed.

I walk away from the massage appointment in the cool air. Darkness falls completely.

It seems strange to arrive home after dark; the time change has made a difference. I climb the stairs to my kitchen and prepare my supper and turn on Netflix.

After I bit I realize  I’m hearing a strange rumbling noise and the screams of excited children from the street behind us. It sounds like a Ferris wheel. Now that I’m getting ready to go to bed, a party is starting. A band begins to play.

I turn on my sleep sounds app and lie down.

Poetry

I don’t usually write poetry

(unless I’m drunk and the moon is full).

I was grown in the Louisiana muck

Backwoods religion in sticky pine pews

Where “poetry” is Psalms and Song of Solomon

And getting drunk is not allowed–

especially for girls.

 

 

Scary Stories

A post from Goodreads came up on Facebook a few days ago: What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?

I didn’t have to think long at all.

I don’t like being scared.

I don’t like being scared. My mom would never permit anyone to frighten us when we were small, and even when we were teens she did not like it all all when someone scared her kids.

When I was really little, maybe five, The Wizard of Oz movie scared me so much I didn’t want to go to bed by myself. (The Wicked Witch? The Flying Monkeys? I don’t remember, but I was crying for my mom in the dark bedroom.) Soon afterward, television disappeared from  our home forever.

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Photos: Google Images

I didn’t enjoy haunted houses; in fact, I think I visited only one when I was growing up, and maybe there have been two others since I became an adult. I didn’t watch horror movies or read Stephen King books (with the exception of The Green Mile, and that’s a post for another day) because I didn’t enjoy lying awake in my bed at night when everyone else was asleep seeing visions of monsters or murderers coming after me. I hated “thrillers” like Unlawful Entry and Seven with their horrifyingly predictable scenes (predictable in that I knew for sure something was going to make me jump and scream) and and yet I couldn’t stop watching until the end; hypnotized I would be, like the prey of a cobra.

I didn’t enjoy lying awake in my bed at night when everyone else was asleep seeing visions of monsters or murderers coming after me.

So it didn’t take me long to answer the question: What’s the scariest book I’ve ever read?

Elizabeth Peters was one of my favorite authors when I was young and she still is, although her “real” name was Barbara Mertz. She is one of those whose work reinforced my will to become a writer.  The adventures of  Ms. Peters’ feminist heroines entertained me and her writing inspired me to learn, not just about writing but also about Egypt and London and Helen of Troy.

Back in the seventies, before the Amelia Peabody series became such a hit, Ms. Mertz wrote novels under the name Barbara Michaels. Under this pseudonym she addressed spiritualism and the occult and frankly scared the pee out of me. I only remember the one title: The Crying Child.

This was a story (if memory serves) about two sisters, one of whom has recently lost a baby and is suffering from something like PTSD: she is hearing a baby crying in the night. The other sister goes to visit her to try to help her cope, and lo and behold,  she hears it too.

I remember this book not just  because of the horror but because of the research involved in the creation of the story and the way Ms. Mertz/Michaels/Peters used her research in the plot of the novel.

Let me tell you now: I won’t go if it’s scary.  I won’t go to your haunted house. I won’t go see the newest version of It; I never saw the original. I didn’t read the Alex Cross Series; I only watched one of the movies because I am a Morgan Freeman fan (and afterward I wished I hadn’t). I haven’t seen Saw nor the Blair Witch Project nor The Exorcist–the scariest of all, from what I’ve heard.

If you read The Crying Child you may find it tame. That’s okay. It was quite scary enough for me. Scary enough to keep me awake at least one night, and that was enough for me to know that I didn’t want to read any more of Barbara Michaels’ novels.

I’ll hang with Elizabeth Peters and her adventurous, non-haunted heroines.

Cocoa Beach

Finding some good fiction to read is a challenge because of the time I have available for searching. I want to know that what I’m buying is going to be worth the time, not to mention the money.  I subscribed to something called BookBub, which sends me recommendations for ebooks, and the New York Times Review, and I am a member of Goodreads, but with short blocks of free time for researching, these are almost useless to me.

I want to know that what I’m buying is going to be worth the time, not to mention the money.

So since my Amazon Prime Reading recommendation for Cocoa Beach came with a free sample, I could check it out on the bus on the way to school.  I downloaded it and it wasn’t terrible, so I paid the $13.99 for the whole book (by a New York Times Bestseller List author, by the way) and I’m on my way to what I hope will be a satisfying reading experience.

(I’m not going to write a book review, just in case you’re wondering; I’m just going to make a couple of comments.)

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First of all: I love Florida. I have loved it since I was eight years old when I went for the first time. I love movies that are filmed in Florida, I love television series about Florida, I love Karl Hiassen’s books. I loved visiting the sister ship to Ernest Hemmingway’s Pilar on Islamorada in the Keys. I loved the mangroves and brought home a mangrove sprout to give to my grandmother. The shrubs that are only houseplants in the rest of the country grow to tree-size there.  The boat rides with my brother through Boca Raton to the Atlantic were idyllic. I love the blue water and white sand vacations with my kids on the Panhandle so much it breaks my heart.

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So a novel about South Florida set in the 1920s? Florida and history! It could be a dream come true!

I’ve read about five chapters of Coco Beach so far, and I am enjoying the way the author switches back and forth between past and present in alternating chapters. I can see the landscapes and settings from her descriptions, some of which are quite fresh. Although her attempts to portray human emotions are more “telling” and less “showing,” I am willing to concede that I understand what is happening in the mind of the protagonist.

But then I begin to see adverbs.

Stephen King (famously) said, in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: “The road to Hell is paved with adverbs.”

He also said he can be a good sport about them.

Am I becoming a more discriminating reader or just a pedantic nit-picker?

I can too, I guess . . .  but then when they start to jump out at me, I think maybe I’m on that road.

“Staring at a photograph while the clock just ticks and ticks, ten o’clock drawing inevitably toward eleven.”

How else can ten o’clock reach eleven, except inevitably?

Am I becoming a more discriminating reader or just a pedantic nit-picker?

I put “literary fiction” into the search bar and returned a Goodreads page with a whole bunch of possibilities. I’ve downloaded a couple of samples to read on the bus.

Changing Directions

All summer, while I was mostly without internet, I was thinking that I wanted to take the blog in a little bit different direction when I got back to Mexico. Then when I got back, I was immersed for the first month in getting settled into school and classes, but the question never left my mind: What direction will the blog take this year?

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I feel a lot more comfortable here in Torreón. My Spanish has improved some, and while I still often find it impossible to understand what people are saying, I feel confident telling the taxi driver what route to take to where I want to go and I can order sotol con tomate at Garcés. I have my regular shopping day on Saturday and cooking and laundry on Sunday. I have help with the house cleaning. I still don’t have much of a social life, but I’ve accepted this as something I can live with for the present.
I’m much more confident in my work. I am improving as a writing teacher, and I’m learning a lot about the craft of writing at the same time.

One thing I have remembered is that readers make good writers.

My choices for reading material are limited (unless of course you consider the Kindle option, which I often do, but I need to hold a book in my hands). The school libraries are my only sources for books in English, but I find my favorites are there, and a third reading of Cold Mountain seems to be in order.

Frazier’s book makes me feel a lot of things but the point I want to raise here is simply this: I love to read. I don’t have as much time as I would like to read (or at least I tell myself that I don’t) but reading is very important to me for entertainment as well as for learning.

So now it’s been two months since I got back and I’ve decided what to do here this fall. I’m going to use the blog to talk about books. I’m going to share what I’m reading, good and bad, great or awful. I’m going to talk about the past and the present and maybe the future. I’m going to share my fiction with my readers and the world (or at least a little part of it).

I will continue to share my experiences in Mexico as well (I had my first ever acupuncutre treatment today and I plan to spend a few days in Mexico City over Thanksgiving break). I expect that I still have a lot more to learn while I’m here.

So welcome back, my devoted fans and dedicated readers!  I hope you’ll hang with me for a few posts and let me know what you think of the new direction.

Changing Views

I told myself I had plenty of time to write a post summarizing my year,

and here I am on the morning of my flight out of Torreón hurrying to pull some thoughts together.
Here we go.

In work:  During this, my first year teaching a full grade of students two different subjects, planning and teaching and falling on my face and getting up again, I learned how to (sometimes) trust myself instead of (always) looking to others for approval and validation.

In travel: I didn’t travel around in Mexico like I thought I would. I did learn my way around Torreón. I know (thanks to recommendations from coworkers) where to go to get my hair and nails done. I know through my own explorations and help from acquaintances where to go for sushi and pasta and a breakfast of scrambled eggs with dried beef. Thanks to a student, I know where to buy natural skin care products (one of my priorities, along with natural food, which isn’t so easy to find).

In language: I can now order tacos from the taquería around the corner from my house. I know how to tell the UBER or taxi driver how to get to my massage appointments. I can make a pedicure appointment over the phone. I can have a conversation with someone who doesn’t speak English (if they are patient enough) and understand, if not every word, at least the gist of the conversation.

In life: I learned some things about being from the United States (of America) and being from Latin America that do not make me feel good about the current social and political climate—although it’s possible and probable that this is nothing new except to me. I have had the bubble of my innocent illusions painfully punctured by incidents involving and conversations with Latinos.

I’ve laughed and I’ve wept.

Gotta run. It’s time to say “adios” and “hasta luego” to El Norte for the summer.

See you in August.

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Empty Nest

I am here at IAH on a Sunday morning, sitting at the departure gate two hours early. I check my Facebook feed for the first time in days and like all the likes. I listen to the pop music coming from the overhead speakers and the clink of glasses and silverware from the restaurant next to the gate.

My youngest child graduated from high school this week.

As I contemplated the approaching event and planned my trip, I felt sure, somewhere in the back of my mind, that, at some point,  I would get emotional.  I even considered the possibility that I might ruin all the graduation fun with tears and maybe some wailing. The week before I left, I did cry quite a lot.

But when I got to Louisiana, and saw the grandson and my children and parents, and spent time eating and talking and swinging on the porch, my grief disappeared. I felt happy and calm.

My mothering journey began forty years ago, almost exactly.  It has involved many ups and downs and many, many twists and turns. It will never end, until I die.

Now, I have officially entered a new phase.

Apparently there is an adjustment period and symptoms associated with this part of parenthood. There is even a name for it: Empty Nest Syndrome.

I don’t think I’m going to have it.

My youngest is independent and self-sufficient. He has already been working for years. He has a plan for his immediate future and he’s taking steps to implement his plan. I am concerned about him and his siblings on many levels, but I am not worrying about them.

I have just started a new career, myself, and I am learning something every single day. I also have plans for my future, and I’m taking steps to implement them.

My nest may be empty, but my life is not.