Friday, March 31, 2006

Writing Challenge

I have committed myself to participating in the April Writer's Challenge organized in the Writers' Forum over at my beloved and much-recommended Paperback Swap. My goal for the month of April: 15,000 words. Not a whole lot, but I figured that since this is my first time to do something like this, I'd aim somewhat low.

Each participant decides on their goal, then strives to write that much during the month of April. Editing and re-writing will get done later; April is for writing new stuff. The objective is to get folks to stop procrastinating and spend some significant, scheduled BIC (butt in chair) time actually writing. This event is, in a way, a "lite" version of Nanowrimo, though the "lite" part refers to the quantity of words to be written, not the quality. Also, Nanowrimo focuses on novel writing, while in this Writer's Challenge the type and genre is open.

I'm kind of looking forward to doing this; it'll give me an excuse and the focused motivation to do something I want to do anyway. I envision myself writing short stores, essays, memoiric anecdotes ... wonder what I will really end up writing? I guess we'll know on April 30th. :-)

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Las Jacarandas

The tree known as jacaranda, which flowers at this time of year, is one of my favorites. There are two basic types: the one with light purple flowers and the one with red flowers. While both types have fascinating branch shapes, I much prefer the purplish flowers. When they fall, they form a soft lavender-colored carpet on the ground, and it all looks doubly gorgeous when they fall on bright green grass. Several flowering jacarandas together make a spectacular sight to behold. They also cast very cool shadows. I hope you'll enjoy these photos, which I took at the Instituto Politécnico Nacional (where I work). Although these particular shots were taken a few years ago, it all looks the same right now. I feel so fortunate to be able to see these every day for several weeks!

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Chest Messaging

I saw an amusing saying on a t-shirt a few days ago: I’m out of my mind. Please leave a message.

This could be the beginning of a post about t-shirts. I could mention how I have been wearing fewer and fewer of them in the last several years, to the extent that if I wear a t-shirt twice a month, that’s a lot. Don’t think that I don’t like extremely casual clothes; I do, and in fact I feel very fortunate where I work I can wear jeans and pullover tops on a regular basis. I’ve never owned a suit, and dread the day when I may be forced to wear one. But t-shirts, the classic t-shirt style with a round neck and text and/or graphics on it, just don’t appeal to me much anymore, for some reason.

The t-shirt quote above could also be the start of a paragraph about leaving messages. I could talk about how I have never had an answering machine and never wanted one. I don’t do text messaging on my cell phone because I’ve never had (or wanted) one of those, either. I do like messages in my e-mail in-box, however – as long as they are interesting or useful ones. I like finding a sticky-note message stuck to my locker door at work from an ex-colleague saying she had dropped by to say hi to everyone but had missed me. I love seeing a message from dh at home, saying that he cooked something yummy and inviting me to look for it in the fridge and try it out.

Or the above saying could inspire me to write about being out of my mind. How can someone be out of their mind? What is the mind, anyway? Wouldn’t you cease to be you if you left your own mind? Why don’t we talk about being in one’s mind? Well, I guess we do; there is the expression in my right mind. There are “out of body experiences” and you can be “out of your mind,” so does that mean you could conceivably one day leave your soul, too? Whew, this is quickly getting much too deep for a blog post.

So I think that I will only let the quote at the top lead me to write about t-shirt sayings. And all I can say about them is: there are way too many nasty, grotesque, and inane ones out there, but one in awhile you come across one that’s actually amusing.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

LBJ and Pro Baseball Go to the Movies

Last weekend we watched a couple of HBO movies on dvd we picked up at our local movie rental place. They were Path to War (starring Michael Gambon, with Donald Sutherland and Alec Baldwin; John Franenheimer, director) and 61* (starring Thomas Jane and Berry Pepper; Billy Crystal, director). I learned a lot from both of these pictures; I love it when that happens!

Path to War is about the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency and the string of decisions made that led up to the Vietnam War. The film is sympathetic to LBJ in that it portrays him as a man who had the potential to be the greatest president of the century but whose presidency was derailed by the war. That was kind of refreshing, as most of the stuff I had heard about LBJ before was so damning. So I watched with a critical eye and an open mind and learned a lot about the way this war developed. Of course, as often happens when I learn something new, it made me want to know more about the whole topic. It hit me while watching that this was the guy that was president when I was born; though it all seems so remote, it happened in my own lifetime!

I've always liked Donald Sutherland, who played the role in this film of Clark Clifford, an advisor to LBJ and later a member of his cabinet. For some reason I thought Sutherland had died in the past year or so, but I could find no mention of that when I Googled his name. Apparently he's still alive to make more movies. I'm glad!

The other movie, 61*, is about Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle's effort in the summer of 1961 to break Babe Ruth's homerun record. Now, I know the basic rules of baseball (hey, I even played kickball in gym class as a kid!), and I knew Babe Ruth was a legend and I'd heard the names Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, but beyond that, I was pretty much in the dark. I've never been much of a sports person, and the little fandom I have participated in was related to soccer, not baseball. Well, this movie was fun, not light and fluffy but definitely summery, and has made me fond of baseful. It was doubly exciting for someone like me who, because of ignorance of the topic, didn't know if the record was going to be broken or not; someone more knowlegeable would probably not have been as on the edge of his seat. This movie made me want to attend a major league baseball game some day -- though I know professional sports have changed drastically since the early 1960's and my ballpark outing might turn out to be disappointing.

Though seemingly about completely different in subject matter, there were a couple of common threads to these two movies. Both are true stories from the 1960's -- albeit one from the early sixties and one from the late. And both show folks doing the best they know how to in their particular circumstances and getting blasted for it by the general public and slandered in the press.

By the way, I haven't come across any online reviews of either of these films. Is that because they were released by HBO? How will we know what to think of them if there are no "official" reviews? (LOL) I liked both pictures. They touched my heart and stimulated my mind. Not too shabby for a couple of movies -- especially in our times.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Speaking in Silence

Last Friday in my last class of the day (from 6 to 8 p.m.) I spontaneously decided not to speak during the class. This is an idea that I had kicked around occasionally in the last few years, but I'd never actually taken the plunge. It wasn't easy -- silence is one of the last things expected from a foreign language teacher -- but I didn't utter a word during the class. I used gestures, pointing to the textbook and other things a lot, and an occasional instruction or comment written on the board. The students were allowed to talk to me and to one another normally. At the end of the class I asked the students (via a question on the board) how they had felt. A few said they had enjoyed this novel class, a few had actively disliked it, and the majority were somewhere in the middle. I myself felt great; I guess being silent made me feel less that I had to be in control and in charge the whole time. I don't plan to use the "silent treatment" again with this same group in the near future, but I may use it with them again some time, and I will definitely use the technique on other occasions with other groups.

On one occasion not long ago dh and I agreed to take a vow of silence for a day. It was a Sunday, so we were together all day and didn't have to work. That was an interesting experiment, too. I feel I didn't do very well, myself, as although I didn't use words I did use a lot of "hmms." It's amazing what you can express without using words but still using your voice! Gestures were rampant, too. I feel it wasn't really a day of silence, but just of noise of a different type. We did relatively well, though, considering it was our first try. Maybe some time in the future we can do it again, keeping truly silent and making it a more spiritual experiment.

So what have I learned from these two experiences? First, of course, that it really is not that difficult to communicate without words. I did feel frustrated at times, but on both occasions I was usually able to make my basic message understood (and, in the second instance, to understand dh's message). More importantly, I was forced to use my creativity to express myself; I could not depend on the same old way of saying things (that is, words). Sure, there are cliched gestures just as there are cliched linguistic expressions; still, it is easier to be lazy in language than in gestures.

Perhaps the most important lesson of these experiences, however, is the reminder of how we humans are able to overcome difficulties, be resourceful, find solutions to problems. I think I often need to be reminded of that. I tend to get stuck in ruts sometimes because I don't think I have to wherewithal to break out of what I already know -- even if what is known is causing me problems. I just need to be reminded of the awesome resources I have available to me inside my very being: life, intelligence, will -- sparks of the Holy Spirit. May I never take them for granted.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Electric Fan Soul Massage

What is it about the sound of an electric fan that is so soothing? Especially if it's on 'oscillate' mode.

It's been hot here lately, and though I enjoy the warmth, dh gets hot and bothered and often turns on the fan. I'm usually glad when he does, but not so much for air circulation as for the soothing sound the fan makes.

Air conditioning does not particularly soothe me. Traffic noise, even unobtrusive and in the distance, has no calming effect. Even ocean waves get on my nerves after awhile.

It must be that I associate the fan noise with something positive from childhood. Perhaps with a day in kindergarten when all us kids were all on our mats on the floor taking a nap and the adult ladies were over in the corner talking indistinctly, in low tones. Hearing their voices made me feel safe ... and sleepy. Or with a day in fourth grade near the end of the school year when the teacher was reading to us; she would read a chapter each day to get us settled down after recess, and it was the most delicious moment of the schoolday. Or maybe it was one of the many times I spent an afternoon with Daddy out in the garage. He'd have the fan on and maybe some dorky music, too; he'd be concentrating on some project and I'd be working on something else entirely and rarely would a word pass between us, but I felt a certain deep contentment.

When the electric fan is turned on, my heart smiles, and often my lips follow suit. Something deep inside of me gets the message that all's right with the world. Soothing. Ahhhhhhhhhhh ....

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Vegetarian Taco Filling

I made this last night and thought I'd share the recipe with you. It is quite economical and really good rolled up in a hot soft corn tortilla, topped with chopped jalepeño peppers. Great for a meatless Lenten Friday or for when the grocery money has run way down.

I'm not a vegetarian, by the way; I do eat meat and enjoy it, but I don't miss the meat at all when I eat these tacos. I found the basic recipe for this on the Internet a couple or three years ago; unfortunately, I don't remember where, so I can't give proper credit to the originator of it. The optional ingredients are additions of my own, though.

Vegetarian Taco Filling

Note: all quantities are approximate, so don't think you have to measure.
1 cup texturized soy protein
1 cup boiling water
1 to 2 Tbsp. margarine
1/2 to 1 cup chopped fresh mushrooms
1/4 to 1/2 cup chopped onions
1 or 2 cloves of fresh garlic, finely chopped
1/4 cup chopped green or red pepper (optional)
1/4 cup chopped black olives (optional)
seasoning to taste (I just use salt and the occasional miscellaneous herb,
but you could also add taco sauce, chili powder, ketchup, or whatever.)

Rehydrate the soy protein by soaking it in the boiling water for 5 minutes. Sautee the onion, garlic, mushrooms and green/red pepper (if using) in the margarine. Add soy protein, seasonings, and black olives (optional) and continue to sautee until most of the moisture has evaporated. Eat immediately or it can be stored tightly covered in the refrigerator for several days.

Yield: 2 to 3 cups filling

See some more of my recipes.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Robins in the Spring

In honor of our recently-arrived spring, I'm posting this picture I did in 2001. It's done in watercolor pencil outlined in marker, and is entitled Robins in the Spring. (Yes, the bottom robin is the one I have in the graphic right above my profile in this blog.) When I first did this I got the idea of making four different versions of the same tree, one corresponding to each season of the year. I never did get beyond this spring one, though. What do you think -- should I do summer, autumn, and winter, too? Leave a comment if you have an opinion.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Movie Marathon

Knowing that we had a 4-day weekend ahead of us, dh Eddie and I were all geared up for a lot of dvd watching. I used my 3-rentals-for-the-price-of-2 coupon and brought home a trio of films on Saturday night. We got the snacks ready, positioned the recliner in front of the screen and … the dvd player wouldn't work!

I won't bore you with exact details, but we didn't have a working dvd player until today at about midday. And since the rentals have to be returned tomorrow, we settled down for a movie marathon. The three pictures: Fiddler on the Roof ( MGM, 1971; Norman Jewison, director), A Day without a Mexican (Plural Entertainment, 2004; Sergio Arau, director), and Good Morning Vietnam! (Touchstone Pictures, 1987; Barry Levinson, director). Interestingly, I unwittingly selected films with a certain common thread running through the: though set in very different times and cultures, they all deal in one way or another with societal breakdowns in times of crisis.

Now, lemme tell ya, I ain't no film critic. In fact, I've seen very few movies in the past, oh, fifteen years. I've almost certainly seen more in the three and a half months we've had our dvd player than I did in the previous ten years. Only now, after having watched a lot of the extra material that comes on many dvds, am I getting a feel for what all goes into movie-making. In a way, I'm quite non-critical and very easy to please. On the other hand (as Tevye from Fiddler would say), surely this very distance from and naivete about the world of movies gives my view of each film a fresh and novel perspective. Or something.

The first one we watched today was Fiddler on the Roof. I remember having seen this movie as a child, and it must have been on t.v. I remember it as a joyful film -- which it is, though it seemed much sadder, too, now that I understand it more. The extra material had a lot on in it about the director, who came across as a bad-humored, non-very-likeable guy. Though he's probably a big huggable teddy bear in real life, practically the only pleasant thing that got across to me about him on this occasion was learning that despite the facts that he created this classic movie about Jews and that his own last name is Jewison, he is actually a Gentile and the descendent of a line of Gentiles reaching back as far as anyone can remember!

Then we saw A Day without a Mexican. I liked this film. Didn't adore it, but definitely liked it. The idea behind it all was ingenious, and there were several really good puntadas (a term difficult to translate but meaning something akin to "hitting the nail on the head"). After the movie marathon I got on the Internet and learned that most of the critics (at least the ones I´d read -- principally U.S.-based) considered it pretty bad. Hm. It'd be interesting to see what the Mexican critics thought, but since I need to finish this post up and get to bed, that will have to wait until another day. Sure, the acting was cheesy and the visual production looked cheap at times, but wasn't that intentional, part of the "concept" or whatever they call it? I mean, it all takes place in California, folks; what did the critics expect, something elegant? No offense intended toward California, of course, but chic like Paris it is not. Or maybe the critics just didn't "get" the puntadas.

I liked Good Morning, Vietnam! too, though again, only liked it, not loved it. The critics at the time seem to have adored it, though; go figure. Robin Williams is a genius, I must admit, and it is an honor to share a first name with him. (If you happen to see this post yourself, Mr. Williams, please send me an autographed photo so that I can show it off to my students. I'm a real teacher of English as a foreign langugage! lol) The story itself had some interesting turns to it, too.

Of the three films we saw today, the one I'd be most likely to rent again (or even buy, if it were deeply discounted) would be Fiddler on the Roof. Visually it was beautfiul, story-wise it was multi-layered, and hey, I just like musicals.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Hitchcock in the Spring

This photograph was taken a few weeks ago at Teotihuacan, an important archaeological site about an hour's drive north of here and one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. We are inside the wonderful little museum they have there. The profile is my husband Eddie's, and the window behind him looks out on the Pyramid of the Sun, the largest pyramid at the site and one of the largest in the world. Yes, those little specks at the top are people who have climbed up there. By the way, Eddie only permitted me to publish this picture provided I mention how much he dislikes it because it makes him look like Alfred Hitchcock. I agree that he does look like Mr. Hitchcock, but I happen to love the photo, so here it is:

Today and tomorrow, as happens every year at the beginning of spring, thousands of folks will go to Teotihuacan (the lucky ones arriving early enough to find a place to stand on the Sun Pyramid) for the New Agey practice of cargarse de energías - roughly translatable as "getting good vibrations." People, this site was once used for human sacrifice; how "good" can those vibrations be? I don't believe in New Age stuff, but if I did I wouldn't be going anywhere near a human sacrifice site in order to fill up with energy. Sheesh.

Anyway, here are a couple of links to spring-related sites. (My apologies to the Southern Hemisphere, where autumn is beginning today.)
Article: Why Has the Date Changed for the Start of Spring?
Mrs. Lee's Daffodil Garden

Sunday, March 19, 2006


Earlier today my mom wrote to me with a positive remark about this new blog. A couple of days ago, a former student wrote the first comment to ever be posted here. Both of those were very uplifting!

Last Friday evening I met with a group of people with whom I am involved in giving talks at our Monday night prayer group. Some of them made positive observations about my participation last Monday -- when I felt I had been quite the failure. What a wonderful gift!

An encouraging remark can turn my day around. It's like seeing the sun come out after weeks of overcast weather. I can be feeling blah and start getting discouraged and even a little hopeless … and a little compliment literally changes my life at that moment. Of course I'm not the only one who is affected like this. I'm just your average gal, so this must be something pretty common to human nature. Forgive me if I'm stating the obvious here, but it's just that all this came to me in a particularly forceful way today: sincere encouragement is life-giving.

My mom is a great encourager. She was a junior high school English teacher for several years in a school district serving a large number of migrant workers. Her students certainly needed the motivation and hope she provided! Mom retired from teaching but not from giving life. Whenever I'm around her I hear her talking to other people, in person and on the phone, encouraging them to do something they've wanted to do but have not dared, or daring them to do something that they would enjoy and be good at. She encourages me a lot, too. She gave me life in the physical sense, and she continues to nurture it to this day. Thanks, Ma!

I need to encourage others more. I need to be lots more generous in my praise and much stingier in my criticism. I need to actively look for ways to be encouraging. I need to get past the lazy attitude that a person already knows that they're doing a good job and doesn't need my input. People often truly don't know they are on the right track, or that someone notices their efforts. We're all pretty much looking around for confirmation and support -- and cheer or two once in awhile.

We can never really know how much our actions and words affect others. They can often affect them very much -- encouragement is life-giving. Let's imaging that tomorrow a nice remark I make in passing to a colleague is the only positive thing they hear all day. Now let's imagine that I don't make that nice remark, and so they get zero positive input. I have the power within me to nurture life -- and the power to refuse to nurture it. Gulp.

Lord, help me to be encouraging!

"Therefore encourage one another and build each other up as you are already doing." -- 1 Thessalonians 5:11

(The image above is another selection from my defunt e-card site. Original photo by Joy Grose.)

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Last "Bridge"

Today begins a long weekend for a lot of people in Mexico; we don't to back to work until next Wednesday! Tuesday is March 21st, and, as Benito Juárez's birthday, a civic holiday here. As has been common until just this year, when a civic holiday falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday, government offices and many other places of employment just go ahead and take off the Monday or Friday between the holiday and the weekend, doing what is known as hacer puente, "making a bridge." And since I've worked at the Instituto Politécnico Nacional (a government institution) for many a moon now, I've enjoyed many of these bridges over the years. It makes for some great mini-vacations, even if it's not so hot for productivity.

All that is going to end, though. As of this year, five civic holidays will be celebrated on Monday instead of the original holiday date. Benito Juárez day is one of them, though since 2006 is the bicentennial of his birth there are special celebrations scheduled and the traditional date is kept this year.

Occasionally this change from the traditional date to the Monday before or after will be good. Example: Constitution Day is supposedly on February 5th. This year that date fell on a Sunday, and we wouldn't have gotten an extra day off work for it, but for the first time in Mexican history it was changed to the following Monday and we did get a free day out of the deal. Woo hoo!

But mostly this means a reduction in days off, since it strikes a hard blow at the venerable puente system. Yesterday as I was leaving work one of my colleagues said, "Enjoy your puente, people; this is the last one we'll have." How sad! A much-beloved institution is gasping its last. Seems like somebody should be commemmorating this in some way, like it's not right to just let it all pass without noticing.

Actually, this is not the last "bridge." There will be others, taken on non-civic holidays such as Day of the Dead or Christmas or even Mother's Day (May 10th), when the whole country grinds to a halt while everyone takes mom out to dinner. However, these extra-long weekends will be fewer and much farther between. I suppose it's a positive measure, necesary for advancing the country towards first-worlddom. Ay, but I did so love making bridges!

Friday, March 17, 2006

What's Mexican about St. Patrick?

Here's a little drawing I did a few years ago to commemorate St. Patrick's Day. Back then I had a little free e-card site with my own photos and drawings, and this was one of the images you could send from there. That card site was fun and a good outlet for my creativity, but I couldn't keep it up. Maybe some day I can do it again. Anyway, so I did this with watercolor pencils and markers, trying to make this holy man look young and joyful.

St. Patrick's Day isn't celebrated here at all, but there is a very curious connection between him (or at least his name) and Mexico. Back in the 1840s the United States and Mexico were at war. A certain group of soldiers who had signed on to the U.S. army deserted and ended up fighting for the Mexican side. They were called the Batallón de San Patricio (St. Patrick's Batallion) because many of them were Irish immigrants. Mexican history has them pegged as great heroes. Who would have thought that there would ever be Irish soldiers on Mexican soil, huh? (You can read more about them here and here.)

One final curiosity: a lot of the men from the Batallón de San Patricio met their Maker on August 20, 1847, at the Battle of Churubusco. The place at the time was a small town outside Mexico City, though it has since been swallowed up by the capital and now is a neighborhood well within the bounds of this city. Well, in northern Indiana there is a little town called Churubusco (pop. about 1,600). Who named it that, I wonder, and why? Did they have some connection to Mexico and/or the Batallón de San Patricio, maybe? It's intriguing to speculate about this.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

I'm on Dear Abby!

A few days ago I was surprised and delighted to discover that Dear Abby had published a letter I had sent her (via e-mail) in response to another she had published some time ago. Surprised because I had never even received an acknowledgement that they had gotten my message; delighted because, well, I'm a celebrity now, right? lol

You can read the original letter here (it's the first one on that page -- about a child's birthday party) and my response here (scroll down to about halfway down the page; my letter is signed Robin in Mexico City).

Now, I'd never written to Dear Abby before. I read her column online and often disagree heartliy with her. Much of the time she's way too liberal for my taste, and I get miffed. I wonder why I read her column, then. Hmmmm.

It was cool she printed my letter, however, especially since she still doesn't agree with me. What prompted me to write on that occasion was my ire at her passing judgement on a culture not her own. Oh well, at least she gave me the chance to get my own opinion published all over the nation in a syndicated column!

Of course, when I saw that my letter had been published, I immediately e-mailed family and friends so they could see how famous I am now. Several responded saying they had sometimes wanted to respond to a Dear Abby item themselves, but had never done it. I say: People, go for it! It's very easy because there's an online form for writing to her; you don't even have to put it in an envelope and spend a stamp. And if your letter gets published, you can be a celebrity like me! [grin]

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Refreshing No-Bake Mexican Lime Cake

It's been hot here the last couple of weeks; spring (the hottest season of the year here) has definitely arrived. I got a yen for this super refreshing lime cake, so I made it this evening -- then I thought to share the recipe with you here. Can't wait to eat it, topped with fresh black raspberries, tomorrow midday! It is so good ... you won't believe how easy a recipe it is. Real Mexican cooking doesn't generally make use of a lot of convenience foods (canned / frozen / packaged / etc.), but this is one exception. I don't remember exactly where I got this recipe; I believe it was from a student, ages ago.

See more of my recipes.

No-Bake Lime Cake

1 cup fresh lime juice
1 12-oz. can evaporated milk
1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk
About 50 packaged cookies (use Mexican "maria" cookies or any thin, bland, dry cookie such as vanilla wafers)

Makes about 8 servings in 10 minutes of prep time (plus several hours in fridge).

Blend the two types of milk with the lime juice until well combined. In a bottom of 9-inch round baking dish (or other shape of similar volume), place a layer of cookies. Cover as much of the bottom of the dish as you can. (You may need to break some of the cookies and use little pieces to fit between the whole ones.) Pour about one fifth of the milk/juice mixture over the cookies and spread evenly. Repeat layers of cookies and milk mixture until ingredients run out. Have the top layer be milk mixture. Cover and refrigerate several hours or overnight. The liquid will be absorbed, leaving layers of softened cookies interspersed with creamy sweet goodness. When ready to serve, cut into wedges or squares. Eat plain or top with fresh or canned fruit.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

First tweet

Today I am jumping on the blog bandwagon. Wonder what kind of ride it will be?