Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Fun Fact: Hippos Love Tomatoes

Ernesto Sirolli is an Italian entrepreneur who helps people. But he learned a thing or two about what is actually helpful and what is not before he embarked on his career, and the method by which he learned his lesson is both amusing and incredibly instructive. I'll paraphrase, but it's not as funny here as when he tells it here. Nor do I have such a great accent.

When Ernesto was young, he and a bunch of Italian do-gooders decided to go to Zambia, Africa, to help the natives learn agriculture. They selected a luscious valley by the Zambian River that seemed perfect for a thriving farm and set about trying to get the natives excited about what they were going to be taught. The Italians tilled the land and planted tomatoes and zucchini. Though they paid the natives to work, the natives were pretty casual about when they showed up and when they didn't. In fact, the Zambian people in that area were pretty blase about the entire operation. But that was okay because the Italians were going to help them anyway. They felt very good about themselves and their righteous and charitable works.

When the harvest started coming in, it was amazing. The tomatoes were huge. The zucchini was ultra-bountiful. The earth was so well suited for growing it was incredible no one had figured it out before!

And then the hippos came and ate the entire crop down to the nub.

"Why didn't you tell us about the hippos?" asked the Italians. "You never asked," answered the Zambians. The Zambians knew very well why farming that land was useless unless you really liked feeding hippos.

He makes a very good point about the fact that going to a country and helping entrepreneurs requires you to find their passions, which isn't possible until they trust you and they are willing to talk to you. I think that's true of most people. We walk into a situation thinking that our good intentions and ideas are the best and only way, and when the person we're trying to help balks at our charity, we get angry. Don't they know what's good for them? We tend to have an empire mindset where we are either paternalistic toward the people we want to help or we patronize them. We think of them as slaves or as children. Either way, it isn't the proper mindset, and you won't ever do any real good until you change how you think of and approach people you'd like to help.

Good stuff. Here's the link again if you want to watch his 17 minute talk.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Old, Dark Fear

There's a certain sense of dread I associate with dark, cold mornings. It's not just the fact that I have to stumble out of bed after an unsatisfying sleep in order to drive my oldest girl to the school for early morning seminary. It's not just because I know that after I get home the day will have well and truly started and there will be no more chance to snooze, or that I will be under pressure to produce billable work while also running a household bent on entropy. No, this horror and dread go way, way back.

I was in first grade. My teacher, whom we quickly nicknamed "Mrs. Shark," was an older woman who didn't seem to like children very much. Looking back now, I realize she had probably been teaching for decades by the time I arrived, small and quite intimidated by authority, and she wasn't willing to put up with any funny business. Frankly, she terrified me. I absolutely hated getting into trouble, so while I was a model student, I was probably also kind of annoying in my shrinking fear. The worst thing I could possibly imagine was to make a mistake, because if I made one single mistake, I and the other mistake-makers had to stay in during recess and fix it. It was even more worrying because I had no clue what the awful punishment could possibly be for failing to adequately correct the mistake. I really liked recess. What if the next level of punishment was a visit to the principal's office?

Back in those days, principals were still allowed to spank naughty children. Every once in a while during lunch, our principal would walk out of his office and just stand casually by the front doors, kind of swinging the board that was used as a paddle. The noisy room would suddenly hush, and we would whisper to each other  rumors of spanked children past and present. I still remember the room itself with its huge Peanuts characters painted in happy colors on the walls. Snoopy and Charlie Brown, Lucy and Linus looked down on our antics, contented smiles on their faces, a stark contrast to the smirking principal with the awful piece of wood in his hand.

One day, I made a mistake. When I got my boardwork paper handed back to me, red pencil had been slashed across it like blood. My fate was sealed. My stomach hurt and my head swam. The awful day I had been anticipating had arrived. I would miss lunch recess, and if I was really unlucky, I might get to visit the principal and his paddling board.

I was completely relieved to find that Mrs. Shark's duties took her out onto the playground that day, so at least I was spared her presence while I attempted to correct my paper. I sharpened my pencil, pulled out my paper, and began erasing the misspelled word. But to my horror, the paper ripped. The rip ran right across the space where I needed to rewrite the word. I almost passed out with fear, and tears burned my eyes. I remember saying, "Now what am I going to do?"

A boy who was also missing recess happened to hear me and looked at my problem. "Why don't you put some tape on it?" he suggested. Great idea. I taped the rip. But now I couldn't write the word in the right spot. And worse, my pencil made no discernible mark on the tape, so I couldn't write over the top of it. The same boy came to my rescue again (I wish I remember who it was). "Just write the last part of the word after the tape," he offered reasonably. There would be a huge gap in the word, but Mrs. Shark would understand that the tape was to blame, wouldn't she? I fixed it as best I could and then ran out for the rest of recess, though I wasn't completely at ease. It wasn't until the rest of the day passed and I heard no more about my paper that I finally relaxed a little.

So you see my fear, even if it was the fear of a 7-year-old. I lived with it on a daily basis, and it was very real to me then even if it looks completely irrational to my grown-up eyes. But the soundtrack that will forever remind me of that year was the Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy talking alarm clock I got for my birthday. The clock itself was cute: when the alarm went off, Raggedy Ann and Andy had a little conversation about waking me up. So sweet. But the sweetness of their conversation morphed into some sort of dreadful death sentence in my head. Oh no! It was time to go to school! Raggedy Ann and Andy had betrayed me yet again!

I started getting stomach aches and headaches. My mom took me to the doctor, and he diagnosed me with stress. And then, thinking they were doing me a favor, my mom and the teacher agreed to take me out of the special little class for kids who read a lot, where we would leave the classroom with another teacher and do experiments and talk about cool stuff. It was the one place I felt absolutely safe, and now it was gone. The other three kids left in the class teased me about being dumb, which didn't make me feel any better.

I probably got used to Mrs. Shark over the months, and the rest of my years at that school were fabulous. I loved my teachers, who were all young and idealistic and believed in encouraging my interests. I really thrived. But the feelings of horror associated with those dark and cold mornings of the winter of my first grade year have never quite left me, even if I now have an adult perspective on Mrs. Shark (whose real name was Mrs. Sharp) and making mistakes. It's not as acute, of course, but it lingers. At least I can laugh about it now as I drive Sian to school.

Remind me to tell you about the time I got teeter-totter splinters in my behind and ended up half-naked and standing in the teachers' lounge while Mrs. Sharp picked the bits of wood out. Good times. Especially with all the other teachers walking in and out and laughing about my predicament. But that's okay, because I was wicked good at crazy and highly unsafe teeter-totter tricks when the teachers weren't looking. Best in class.

UPDATE 12/11/2012: My dad found the recording of the Raggedy Ann and Andy Talking Alarm clock. Of course, he sent me the mp3 file of just the Raggedy Ann and Andy clock, but I am stoopid with technology and will have to embed the entire YouTube video. Listening to it now, it's hard to believe the enthusiastic little message turned so sinister in my mind. But, then, the blaring of a regular alarm clock heard at any time of the day is enough to put me into fight-or-flight mode.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

It Wouldn't be Thanksgiving Without the Red Mung

Happy Thanksgiving. I've celebrated twice now, and I still haven't started using the leftover turkey. We had everyone over yesterday because that was the only day schedules all meshed, what with one of my brothers and his family traveling in from out-of-state as well as the need to incorporated my British in-laws into their first American Thanksgiving celebration. Since the Wednesday meet-up was kind of a last-minute decision, there was no time to cook the turkey; instead, we had ham, cheesy potatoes (the kind we in Utah call "funeral potatoes" because everyone always brings them to a funeral luncheon), homemade rolls, and chunks of fried zucchini. The zucchini was thanks to my chef brother, and it was immensely popular with one and all.

Today, Thanksgiving Day, some (but not all) of the same family members came back and we had a more traditional feast, though I completely forgot to bake the sweet potatoes. Fortunately, to make up for that horrific oversight, my mom made her famous Red Mung jello salad.

Red Mung has been a family tradition for holiday dinners since before I was born. My mom got the recipe from the wife of my dad's best friend back when they were all newlyweds, and Mom has been making it ever since. My children, nieces, and nephews demand it at Thanksgiving and Christmas. It just isn't a holiday without Red Mung, and now it's a multi-generational thing.

Don't ask me where its unattractive name came from because I don't know. I wasn't born yet, remember?

Red Mung
3 oz. box raspberry or strawberry gelatin
1 cup boiling water
1 lb. can crushed pineapple, undrained
3 ripe bananas, mashed
1 lb. box frozen strawberries in sugar
3 Tbsp lemon juice (or juice of one lemon)

Pour dry gelatin into the boiling water and stir until dissolved. Add the frozen strawberries, breaking them up and stirring them until thawed. Mix in all the other ingredients. Refrigerate until set. Serves 6. Double or triple the recipe for a crowd, but separate the gelatin mixture into several containers so it will still set up in time. 

If there's a more American recipe, I don't know what it is. A sweet gelatin salad with dinner? No, we don't count it as dessert. Slap it on that plate next to the mashed potatoes and boiled carrots and never mind if the juices mingle a bit.

Wait. I've done the math and there wasn't time for Mom and Dad to have any holiday dinners before I was born. They got married in January and I was born exactly nine months later -- to the day -- in October. We hadn't hit Thanksgiving or Christmas yet. So I was around, I guess, but I still don't know the reason for the naming of this salad. I really didn't care at the time.

Also, Mom must love me because she always makes me a special batch without bananas. Me and fresh bananas, we don't have a friendly relationship, but she doesn't want me to miss out on the tradition. I'm grateful for that, among many, many other wonderful things.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Intelligence is Relative

I had a happy moment today: as I was preparing to write a blog post for a sewer repair company, I decided to check the client's website for some specific information. As soon as I saw the website, I knew it had been created by the company I work for (that isn't always the case. Some clients pay for SEO without also wanting us to write their websites). I started reading it and immediately noted how well-written it was. Then I realized that it sounded like something I would have written. Curious, I looked it up, and sure enough, I was the author of the text, which had been completed back in April of this year.

That may sound like bragging, but it's really not. If you've read as many amateur websites as I have, you'll note that far too many of them contain a large number of astounding spelling and grammar errors. They also might be terribly long-winded or frustratingly uninformative. My job is to answer a potential customer's questions about what the business can do for them in a clear and concise manner, highlighting relevant information, and making it all very easy to scan in about 10 seconds or so. I also have to include at least 350 words per page, even if the current website from which I must glean information is scanty at best. Yeah, it's a hard, hard job I do.

Anyway, as I was reflecting with some pride on that, I ran some errands and stood in a line or two at stores. Then later, when I went to pick up the girls from school, I looked down and noticed my sweater had been inside-out the entire time.

Friday, November 16, 2012

An Introspective Moment Flavored with Both Joy and Sadness

One of my best friends back in high school was a boy with whom I fought on a very regular basis. We would sometimes go weeks without speaking to each other because of some misunderstanding or disagreement, and since I never fought with anyone else like that (I'm really not confrontational), I found it both disturbing and oddly fascinating in a satisfying way. We didn't have a dating relationship at all; in fact, I was often his sounding board for ideas on how to get the good looking girls to go out with him. Over the years we got used to our particular brand of relationship and developed a tight bond despite our constant arguments.

When his birthday rolled around during our senior year, we happened to be in one of our not-speaking modes. He had said something very hurtful to one of my female friends and I had chewed him out about it, and that caused an argument which led to the somewhat inevitable "Fine! I'm not talking to you anymore!" But as his birthday got closer, I spent some time dealing with a dilemma. On the one hand, what he had said to my friend was almost unforgivable; on the other hand, I wanted him to feel special on his birthday. So I quietly created a birthday poster, photocopied it about a dozen times, and taped the photocopies up around the school. It was a common practice in our school, and it meant you were at least somewhat popular if someone would go to all the trouble to do that for you. I watched him to see his reaction, and I was pleased that he was pleased. We still didn't start talking again for another couple weeks, and I don't think he ever asked if it was me and I never volunteered the information. To this day, though, that memory makes me happy. And I'm also pleased to tell you that we are still friends, though we haven't fought since we were at least 20.

I was thinking about that not only because it was his birthday this week but because I was feeling grateful that we'd managed to apologize to each other so many times and still pick up that thread of amity, that our friendship has lasted through decades of growing up. Here's to you, Mark. May your life be blessed. Thanks for letting me be a part of it.

What's difficult are the apologies you never gave and the pain you feel when you realize that the reasons you told yourself that apologizing was too difficult or impossible were, in reality, so petty and small and stupid. Such an unsaid apology can haunt your soul forever. I have one of those to give to someone, and perhaps it's too late now that so much time has passed and our lives have never intersected again. But I'm sorry. I truly am. And I always will be.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Primal Scream

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! No. No. NO, I can not write another article or blog post or website. I just can't do it, especially when I'm on my fifth article about colocation. I'm not a computer nerd (though I'm a nerd in many other respects), and I just don't want to do the research anymore. I got a break today and wrote about Japanese erasers, but I've got nothing left in me. It's gone.

Help me. Someone write a book I can edit. Someone offer me a job that won't make my brain sizzle out of my ears.

I need to go find my cheese, which I hope has been placed in the "we'll pay you to travel the country with your family and write about it" section of the maze. Or I'd even take the "we'll pay you to be a cosmetology guinea pig" nibble as long as I can make a good hourly wage.

Sigh. Pardon my outburst. Sometimes it just builds up to the exploding point and I have to yell for a while to calm down, even if the yelling is purely virtual. Thank you for your time.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Beasts I Live With

Our menagerie has slowly  -- and, perhaps, inevitably -- grown over the last three years of living in our home here in our small town. We do love animals, though as the adults in the family (usually), Husband and I have had to put our collective foot down several times. It's not foolproof, though it did spare us the addition of two cockatiels, but only barely. I actually wanted those birds, but they ended up in a home with a very attentive and loving person who doesn't have constantly hungry cats. Probably best.

The oldest and most venerable animal who allows us to feed, pet, and house him is Myles. He was the only one in his litter who didn't end up in a new home, so we've kept him for 10 years. He is still my dad's favorite cat of all time. He rules the house as the grumpy old man who scares the dogs nearly witless and doesn't put up with not being fed every five minutes. But he's really a soft and cuddly teddy bear who snuggles up for a good session of fuzz therapy whenever you need a cuddle. Of course, his habit of leaping onto the bed at 5:30am and kneading me with his claws until I stumble down the stairs and shove him out the door isn't my favorite thing in the world, but we all have our trials in life.

Lincoln is the polar opposite of Myles. We found Lincoln pacing back and forth in his cage at the pet store, an unfortunate inmate of the animal shelter because of his penchant for running up trees. Gabrielle used all her birthday money to purchase his freedom and then spent a week begging me to take him back because all he did was hide behind the couch and try to scratch people. He did eventually grow used to us and adopt us as his people, but it wasn't until after he was neutered that he and Myles finally became best buddies. Lincoln is outgoing and playful where Myles is quiet and brooding. And he's very much Gabrielle's cat. He loves her dearly.

I've talked about Jazzee before in this blog. She's not officially our dog, but she shuttles back and forth between our house and my friend Ruth's. It was kind of hard getting used to having a dog, what with the constant and sincere devotion and attention she pays to me; I was used to the much more disinterested cat personality up until that point. I pick her up nearly every day and she goes home at night, which suits her fine, since no one except her plays with her toys or chews on her chewy rawhides at her real house.

 Marmite came along earlier this year -- in February or March, I think. He was the stray that won our hearts, and he's the one who finally made me understand what dog people have been saying all along. He and Jazzee are best friends and they follow me wherever I go in the house -- my own little jingling parade of tags and fur and pure excitement. Whenever we put on our shoes and get ready to go out the door, Marmite is there, whining in anticipation of a car ride; and maybe, if he's really lucky, he'll get to go on a long walk in the field without wearing his leash, sniffing everything and running three miles to our one. He is fiercely devoted to all of us. I can't help but smile at his constant enthusiasm.

And then there's Yu. As lost kittens, she and her brother stayed with us for a few days until we located their owners. Turns out the owners live just around the corner, but they are fairly disinterested, and Yu visits us just about all the time. She is a cat with many names depending on which neighborhood kid you talk to (and all the neighbor children know and watch out for her): Ninja, Thunder, Dark Star, Midnight, Shadow. I never liked any of those names and simply called her Little Girl or Baby Girl until Husband suggested we name her after Granny Weatherwax's cat (one of Terry Pratchet's many delightful characters in his Discworld novels). So Yu she is. It makes for some hilarity of the extremely nerdy type. I enjoy saying things like, "Is Yu hungry?" and "Does Yu want to go out?" Just hand me the coke bottle glasses and the pocket protector.

Yu loves to tease Marmite. Loves it. It's practically her favorite pastime, though she does get a kick out of attacking my foot under the bed covers. Marmite, for his part, views her with some trepidation, but he doesn't like going out into the backyard without either Yu or Jazzee for company, so he puts up with it.

Funny how animals shape us and change us, isn't it? I get a great deal of satisfaction from the fact that an animal trusts me completely, and it makes me want to be a better person. It's like being smiled at by a baby: the sheer rush of joy you feel in that sweet moment seems to encourage some deep-seated desire to rise to any occasion where courage, honor, and integrity are required. Such is the power of this ingenuous innocence.

Friday, November 9, 2012

A Half Month in Review

I turned 41. That's right, I said it.

Sian was named English Sterling Scholar for her school, which is a big accomplishment. We also took her to visit the Brigham Young University campus, which Husband enjoyed almost as much as Sian did. He was ready to sign up right there. Sian was very excited, and not just because our tour guide was a cute 22-year-old returned missionary with a great sense of humor.

Linnea and I almost started weight lifting this week.

There was a pair of shoes, these light green satin slingback heels, that I talked myself out of buying on my birthday; but today I went back and bought them. I guess I'll end up buying the perfume I talked myself out of purchasing on my birthday as well, though I can't give you a date on that yet since I don't know myself. Some things must be done purely spontaneously, and perfume is one of them.

I had a desperate week at work (total brain burnout) and started looking around for something else, but then I got an email that they were going to start paying me more. It's amazing how a raise can renew your enthusiasm.

Sian, Sophia, Elannah, Joseph, and I went and saw the junior high school play production of How the Rotten Pickle Gang Robbed a Bank...or Got Turned Into Jailbirds for Tryin' to support one of the girls in our neighborhood. You haven't seen it because tonight was the premiere performance of it anywhere. I was mildly disturbed by the fact that there were four "ladies of the night" who made a blatant attempt to quit "the business" and hook them some town men. The town women tried to run them off in order to keep their men. I mean, really. I know it was a melodrama, and I booed and hissed or awwwed as much as I could understand what, exactly, was going on (it was a junior high production, after all), but prostitutes in a junior high play? Sophia, who had dropped out of the play early on, said to me, "They cast me as one of those girls, but I didn't like it so I quit." I guess I can understand that.

I took my friend, Ruth, to the doctor in The Big City. She's pretty much homebound and hasn't gone shopping for about five years, so because she was feeling good, we went out after her appointment. She treated me to lunch at IHOP, her favorite place. Then we went to the craft store and Walmart. By the time we got home, I was exhausted. Hauling a wheelchair in and out of a small Kia about 50 times really took it out of me, not to mention pushing her around acres of store. That makes up for some of the weight lifting I missed.

Speaking of Ruth, it snowed so heavily today that I had to go over and shovel her walk and wheelchair ramp twice, plus climb up on the ladder and brush snow off her satellite dish. Service brings blessings -- in this case, more weight lifting as well as some stretching.

I bought a huge stack of books from the thrift store. It's cheaper than paying the inevitable late fines at the library, and then I can keep the books  in big stacks (I ran out of bookshelf space long ago) until I get into a cleaning frenzy and make myself edit severely. For some reason, I have an affinity for old needlecraft books. I love the bright, stylized shapes of the 70s, though I would choose different colors. I don't know who I'm kidding, though. When am I going to be churning out tons of vintage-style embroidery? Lest you wonder (yeah, right), I only bought one needlecrafting book. I also found a great Mexican cookbook, a book about persuasive speaking, a clearly written herbal reference book (you'd be surprised how difficult that is to find), and something on home decorating. I love thrift store bookshelves. They're a treasure trove of odd and interesting topics.

Now, aren't you glad you know all that about me?