Sunday, June 30, 2013

I'm not dead and neither is ducks.

As I said in my subject line, I am not dead, and Izzy is in good health, if you can excuse the funk-mouth and her desperate need for kitty ritalin.  I'm just terrible, terrible at keeping blogs updated.  Sometimes this is a blessing; I sighed a small sigh of relief when I heard that Xanga was shutting down.  I was...shall we say, processing a few things theologically and ideologically back in 2006, and when you're processing things, you tend to get defensive and take firm stands on things you actually know nothing about.  Which is to say, I was a moron.  Let all of my brain diarrhea from that period of my life fade away into the ether of cyberspace, I say.

So, it has been nearly a year and a half since my last post.  In the time since I have gotten a job as a campus janitor and met three amazing new friends there, and I have only ended my shift covered in poop once, so overall, it has been a positive experience.  I am no longer interning at World Relief, though I tutored ESL at church once a week until last week, when we had our final lessons.  Now I have a giant, Somali-shaped hole in my heart that I'm not quite sure how to fill, except with lots of sambusa and possibly a friend's wedding this summer.  Our church, which began as a small house church and transitioned into a still-quite-small storefront church with a drop-in center, is now transitioning back into a house church as our pastor and about half our members are moving on to greener pastures.

Also, my microwave blew up last August, the transformer near my bedroom window blew up in October, and my apartment building caught fire in March, which was followed by a surprise return visit from the OCD fairy, who never lets me leave unless every single appliance is turned off and I've triple-checked the stove.  The windstorm last week officially qualifies as the "big storm" of 2013, pending no other challengers for the rest of the year.

So what happened to me today that trumped all of this as being blog-worthy?

                                                                         "D'awww"            (photo by russavia)

Had I been just a few minutes later than I was, this would be just another post about some unnecessarily-long bike ride I took somewhere in the Twin Cities, if that.  After waiting far too long for the bus to East River Parkway, I decided to take a different bus that ran a few blocks down from where I was but went to the same place.  I'd gone about two blocks from there before I had to stop for a mama duck and her impossibly cute, probably day-old chicks, to cross, all of them following her in a nice, neat line, all of them peeping frantically because they were in the middle of a busy road and there were monsters coming at them from all directions.  

I pulled over and went "awww" and made all the other sounds that I'm supposed to make because I have ovaries, but the smile faded when I saw that mama duck, in her infinite wisdom, was leading her babies directly for the part of the curb that held a storm drain.


Sure enough, I watched two of the little ducklings drop between the grates and disappear below.  And of course, because I saw them, and I was the only person who saw them go down, I was now responsible for them.  Somehow, some way, in order for this Sunday to be redeemed as a "good day" that was worth getting out of bed for, I would have to find a way to pull these two ducklings out of the drain, uninjured, and reunite them with their mother.  Why didn't I just accept that crap happens, nature is cruel, and go ahead with my afternoon plans?  

Listen...have you ever heard a duckling peep?  Watch this video.  I'm serious!  Now imagine those lil' guys abandoned at the bottom of a drain, left to slowly starve to death because I had more important things to do than come to their aid (I didn't, and I knew that, and whatever I had planned wouldn't be fun anymore if I kept thinking about starving ducklings the whole time).  

Mama duck, meanwhile, quacked at me angrily for helping her remaining two babies up over the curb so they wouldn't end up the same way, and then waddled off with the survivors without looking back once.  A Bible verse came to mind:

"She [the ostrich] lays her eggs on the ground and lets them warm in the sand, unmindful that a foot may crush them, that some wild animal may trample them.  She treats her young harshly, as if they were not hers; she cares not that her labor was in vain, for God did not endow her with wisdom or give her a share of good sense." (Job 39:14-17)

Birds are dumb--even the Bible says so.

Whatever the case, I soon found myself gathering long sticks, of which there were many due to the recent windstorm, trying to fashion a kind of long-handled scoop that would fit between the grates of the storm drain, which looked to be about four feet deep.  I had my Karen bag, a cloth satchel with a long, wide strap so it can be worn over the shoulder. I tied the bag to the end of the stick and lowered it down between the grates, trying to ignore the traffic that was blazing past me only a few feet away, holding the neckline of my shirt between my teeth to keep from flashing said traffic.

The first stick was too short.  It didn't even get close to where I could see the two ducklings, huddled together amid the sticks and wet leaves.  Even if I was able to reach the bottom, I would need to find a way to hold the bag open so the ducklings could actually stumble in.

I tried a million things.  I kept having to tie and re-tie the bag to different sticks, and I never really managed to get the ducklings to go in the bag, though they were more than willing to hide underneath it since they apparently thought it was their mother.  Finally, after about an hour, I was about to give up.  

I was frustrated by now--angry that people kept driving by without stopping and offering to help (why would they?), angry that I couldn't work up the courage to ask the Korean family doing yard work across the street for a hoe or a rake or something, and constantly worried that some St. Anthony police officer would pull up and see me squatting in the curb there, shirt in teeth, digging in a storm drain with the stick, and ask--"just what the hell do you think you're doing?"--and I would actually have to spit out the shirt and answer the question.  I thought about just giving up, but then the waterworks started, and I knew that there was no "walking away."  My career choices have always been around ministry or non-profit work.  I rescue things.  I can do nothing else.

Then, suddenly, it came to me.  One final strategy that just might work.

I took some thin, green branches, the kind that are pliable, and wove them into a ring.  I used that ring to hold open the mouth of the bag, and tied it in place with the little tassels that are often left dangling there.  Then I tied the straps to the end of the stick.  Rather than trying to scoop the ducklings, I would leave the bag to lie flat on the ground, guide the duckling into the middle of it, then lift it straight up and around it.  I tried this strategy, and after a few false starts...


I caught the first one, and pulled it up through the grate.  I could see it in the bag, but it was such a tiny little thing that it seemed to have no weight.  I placed the duckling under my bike helmet to keep it from running off, and then went back for its sibling.

This one was more difficult, and I was getting concerned.  The duckling wasn't peeping anymore, and seemed to be tottering on its side, as if tired or injured.  After some coaxing, I got it in the bag.  Relieved, I started to lift it up.

Then the bag slipped off the stick and fell to the bottom of the drain.

Well, I confessed that I cussed a little after that.  It was midday, and hot, and I was supposed to get to St. Paul in time for dinner at El Burrito Mercado, with time left over to take the bus home.  And I just lost my Karen bag.  I took the stick, bent the tip, hooked the shoulder strap, and then began to lift again.  And to my utter shock, on the first try I was able to reach down, grab the strap, and lift both it and its precious cargo out of the drain to safety.  Duckling #2 went to join its sister or brother, while I celebrated my victory...and realized I hadn't the foggiest notion where Mama Duck or her family had gone.

With the ducks in the bag, I scoured the neighborhood in search of Mama and her brood, but had no luck.  They were no doubt hiding under a lilac bush somewhere, and though they would certainly come back this way, seeing as there was a pond nearby, now long would that take?  The lady out watering her flowers hadn't seen where Mama went, but she was happy to see the two little drain explorers waddling around in the neighbor's yard, following me wherever I went.

In the end, I left them in a sheltered area in hopes that the mother would find them by their constant peeping.  I wasn't going to spend my afternoon looking for her after all the time I'd spent getting the ducklings out.  I know, I hate the ambiguous ending too.  I had visions of watching the little guys stumble across a yard to join their mother and leaving them happily ever after, but it was what it was, and this was something I could not control.

As for the bike ride, it was...nice.  It's been a while, and I don't have the stamina I used to have, and I made a completely pointless detour down into Hidden Valley park only to learn that it was flooded out, but it was relaxing.  I never made it to downtown St. Paul; I only made it to 35-E and back around to the Mendota Bridge, Fort Snelling, and Minnehaha Park.  I took the light rail home, with a brief detour to Holy Land Deli for some Injera Bread, and overall, it was a good day.

For myself, anyway.  For the ducklings, whether they found their family or not, I imagine it kind of sucked.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Izzy's Vet Adventure

So, after another long hiatus, something has finally happened in my life that's interesting enough to blog about.

On Sunday, I met with a friend of mine who is also involved with the refugee ministry (and is far more hard-core than I am).  She and I have a lot in common; we both have family in the same small town in Iowa, and we both have a passion for trauma recovery and psychosocial health.  She's compassionate, selfless, and someone I look up to; when I picture "success" in my own life, I imagine myself doing what she's doing.

So, early that afternoon, we met at the Crescent Moon Bakery on Central Avenue to talk shop.

Winner of the 2011 "Official Best Of" Ethnic Pizza in the Twin Cities Award, and the First Annual 2012 Rachel Forde Godawful Web Design Award.

It's a small Afghan-owned pizzeria and bakery on Central Avenue, about a block down from the Holy Land Deli.  We ordered a football pizza, and it was every bit as good as advertised.  Imagine a thin-crust supreme pizza with gyro meat and spicy tomato sauce, with ketchup bottles of green and red chili sauce to douse it in.  I'm serious about how good the pizza is at Crescent Moon--this was the best I've had in a long time.  Not only that, but the place is less crowded than the Holy Land.  Holy Land also doesn't have a TV playing Arabic music videos all day, which are always entertaining even if you don't know what they're singing about (usually some unabashedly sappy paean to an unattainable woman.).  You can get the standard kebabs and pilaf if you want, but really, why bother when there's Afghan pizza to be had?

It's reading week at Bethel Sem, so I didn't have class on Monday like I normally do.  Izzy was acting strange all morning, pacing back and forth and straining like she was constipated.  She did eventually poop, but it didn't seem to help.  I decided to wait and see what happened, and left that afternoon to go on a walk downtown around the Stone Arch Bridge.  Here in Minnesota, we basically skipped winter this year, and it was 46 degrees outside so I had no excuse to be in the apartment all day.  I did some homework, got dinner at Lund's on Central, and started home once it got dark.

Izzy had not improved.  She hadn't peed all day, wasn't eating, wasn't drinking, and paced anxiously around the apartment, her tail lashing, pausing occasionally to strain.  This wasn't at all like her, and there were so few symptoms leading up to this to that whatever it was, it had hit her suddenly, and hit her hard.  I did some research on the internet and started to panic--what if she was blocked?  What if something ruptured, or she got renal failure from built-up toxins?  I called the vet and tried to set up an appointment right away, but even I was able to get her to the vet, I myself would have no way of getting home besides calling an expensive cab, so I made the appointment first thing in the morning.

I hardly slept at all last night, terrified that I would fall asleep and wake up the next morning with Izzy laying dead on the floor somewhere.  I kept kicking myself for not setting up a vet appointment sooner, especially since she seemed like she was in so much pain, but I was also terrified that it would turn out to be something horribly expensive that I couldn't afford, and that I'd have to face the shame of telling a veterinarian that I can't give my animals the care they need.  Heck, until recently, I couldn't give myself the care I needed--I have a stress fracture in my left foot that I've never seen the doctor for, epilepsy that I can't afford medication for, and weird headaches that are probably stress-related, but still disconcerting.  I can be stupid with my own health, but Izzy can't set up her own vet appointment, or say or do anything in her own defense if her owner chooses to be negligent.

Needless to say, Izzy was alive the next morning, and we boarded the bus first thing to go the vet.  I left her in the care of Banfield Animal Hospital down at the Quarry Shopping Center, and spent a good hour just pacing around Rainbow Foods, staring blankly at the turnips and bins of bulk cashews, praying that God would be merciful to Izzy, and that He'd find a way for me to afford the vet bills on top of everything else.  I went home, did laundry, vacuumed my apartment, and went back at about 3:00 to pick her up.

The bill was huge.  I'm going to have to shuffle some bills around to pay it.  If I quit eating out and getting coffee every dang time I transfer buses in Minneapolis, I should be alright.  The most important thing, though, was that Izzy was peeing again, on an antibiotic, and feeling much better.  The tranquilizers certainly helped:

Dude...I could eat, like, a whole cow right now.

So, we'll see how it goes.  I'm teaching myself not to be so anxious, and to realize that there is almost always a workable solution to any problem.  It's what I admire about refugees and what I hope to learn from them as I spend more time working with them--how not to be so blinded by the threat of catastrophe that you miss the many small blessings and answered prayers that fill our lives and give us hope.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Goodbye Christmas Tree

I took down all my decorations last night, and put away my Christmas tree this morning.  Izzy, of course, was more than willing to help, and by help I mean sit in the empty box so I couldn't pack up the tree, chase the twine I was trying to tie it shut with, and do that thing where she runs laps around the apartment and howls like she's hopped up on amphetamines.  I think she was miffed that I was taking away her personal jungle gym.  Here are pictures I took the night I put it up:

You do realize I'm going to wreck this thing, don't you?

Screw those other ornaments--I want the star

These are quite shiny, actually

Why do you have to hang my new toys so high off the ground, woman?

Hmm, or do I want it in silver?

Ah, this'll do

Wait, what's that sound?

Oh, squeaky bird, I'll never forgot you.  You're better than any of Rachel's cheap dollar-store crap.

Merry Christmas, everyone, and have a Happy New Year!

Christmas Cookies, Stockings and Black Henna, Part 3

Day 3 was a bit different from the other days.  We didn't visit anyone at home; instead, we all met late in the morning outside Suuqa Karmel, the largest of the 3 Somali malls in South Minneapolis.  I got there first; even though it was December 18, it was almost 50 degrees outside, so I didn't mind standing out in the sun for a few minutes, reading my Kindle.

Suuqa Karmel was an old Midwest Machinery warehouse that was bought in 1997 by the...ahem...controversial Basim Sabri, a Palestinian immigrant who renovated the building along the lines of an indoor, Middle-Eastern marketplace.  He divided the building into stalls, where local Somalis--mostly women--opened their small, start-up businesses selling everything from prayer rugs and hijabs to perfume, bed sheets and tea sets.  There is a mosque on the upper level, and a branch of Franklin Bank, one of the local banks that caters to the Somali population by offering Shariah-compatible services.

I waited in the parking lot between the two buildings that comprised the mall, and people-watched for a while.  Men in dress shirts stopped in at one of the little coffeeshops on their way to and from work, while women and children piled out of minivans, probably visiting the sisters and aunties who were on shift at their stalls.  When the rest of the group arrived, we all went in together, though I hung back to get a coffee and a couple of sambusas.

Somali coffee is amazing.  It's like diabetes in a cup.  I don't know how much sugar and milk they poured into that thing, but it was a lot more like a chai latte from Caribou than the thick, gritty Arab-style coffee I was expecting.  Sambusa is like Indian samosa, only better, because it's got meat in it (which can pretty much be said of most East African food--like Indian, but not vegetarian, so better by leaps and bounds).  You can get them with ground beef or ground fish--the quintessential Somali snack food.

We got there right at noon, which meant that the mosque upstairs was blasting the Call to Prayer over the loudspeakers, and I was instantly back in the Old City of Jerusalem.  The smells were all there--frankincense, fried food and gasoline, and the cramped, winding hallways with their tiny shops stuffed to overflowing with the same ten kinds of item reminded me so much of Christian Quarter Road.  I think Basim Sabri was a little homesick when he drew up the blueprints for Karmel.

But the Somalis have found it well-suited to their own entrepreneurial ventures, and as I said, it was mostly women.  I bought a guntiino (sarong) from a nice lady whose name I can't seem to remember.  I asked how much and she said "For you--fifty dollars."  My heart sank.  That was bargaining language, and I suck at bargaining.  Had I actually been in the Christian Quarter, I would have haggled a bit, but this was Minneapolis, and I'd just taken it for granted that the rules would be the same here as the Kmart down the road.  I paid the fifty dollars.  I would later find that a guntiino fitted for a tall, African woman would not necessarily fit a short, potty Norwegian-American girl.  Natch.

We wandered around there for an hour and a half or so.  Me and Sarah, another IV volunteer, stopped in at the Islamic Bookstore for some Somali grammar guides and dictionaries, and eventually, most of the group made their way over to stall #110, where I found five of us girls in line for henna.  I hung back for a while; the tattoos were huge and only $5 apiece, a price that screams "hair dye in a tube."  I'd seen pictures online of where people got henna tattoos using "black henna," which is not actual henna at all.  These unlucky souls found out too late that they were allergic to the chemicals used in it, and erupted in painful rashes that left permanent (though lovely) paisley-shaped scars all over their feet and hands, but gosh darnit, the girl was so good at what she did that I was mesmerized.

I went for it.  She had me sign my name in a notebook and date it (for liability reasons, I guess), picked up her tube, and started work on my right hand.  She was a genius.  She had no pattern to work off of, but each one of us who got the tattoos got a unique design, and I'm pretty sure she was making it up as she went along.

"You're not allergic, are you?" she asked.

I looked at my hand.  She was already halfway done; it seemed a little superfluous to ask.  Then again, if I knew I was allergic and let her get this far, I'd deserve whatever flaming eruption I got.  When she finished, a short five minutes later, I was free to go, and spent the next twenty minutes with my fingers spread out, letting the black paste air dry.  Here's my design:

I reasoned if I was going to have permanent scarring on my hands, it should at least look awesome.

I never caught the girl's name.  Later, while shopping at Rosedale Mall, I'd run into a Somali lady who knew the girl and said her name was Sabrina, or something like that.  So if you're not allergic to black henna, stall #110 at Suuqa Karmel is your place to go.

We had pizza in Maplewood after that, and then the church group went back north to Superior, and I went home.  I think the retreat was as enlightening to me as it was to our visitors, and I'm eagerly looking forward to the next one.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas cookies, Stockings and Black Henna, Part 2

Day two of our refugee extravaganza was similar to the night before--we started out late that morning for a different apartment complex and handed out Christmas stockings full of toys and school supplies to children we knew in the complex.  And, like last night, we spent a lot of our time lingering in the homes of the families we knew well.

Some people claim that immigrants are "stealing American jobs."  I'm a little confused by this, as my experience around immigrants is that they're all in the same boat as the rest of us--waiting at home, sending out resume after resume, applying for job after job, and hearing nothing in return.  I should point out that refugees are legal to work as soon as they step off the plane, and it is actually illegal to discriminate against potential employees on the basis of (legal) immigration status.  You can't pick one guy over another because he (or she) is a natural-born citizen, and the other guy just has a green card.  It still happens, of course.

There is a Bhutanese church that was holding a Christmas party and service later that day.  Incidentally, it was also a national Bhutanese cultural holiday, so attendance was going to be high, and everyone was dressed in their best suits and saris.  We visited a family in the next apartment, and their daughter was dressed in a gorgeous turquoise-blue sari that her mother had made for her the day before.  We sat with her mother and father for a while, and heard the same story--no work, and where there is work, no hours.  It's depressing.  This man had worked in Nepal for twenty years building furniture.  I thought of all of this untapped talent laying around, and got an idea:

First, wouldn't it be nice to have an online directory of refugee-owned businesses and skilled workers, so those who care about their new neighbors could help them by giving them business or hiring them for contract work?  Secondly, wouldn't it also be nice if those who are not working had some opportunity to create and sell their handicrafts and funnel some money toward the community in that way?  I know nothing about the Farmer's Market circuit or how that works, but the Hmong have had success selling their embroidery and folk art, and this might be a way for the community to use their ample down time in productive, empowering ways until the economy improves.  It's an idea, anyway.  Time to do some research...

We went to the Christmas service, where there were traditional and not-so-traditional Bhutanese dances and songs, and a short sermon in both English and Nepali.  We were invited for dinner afterward, and it all smelled so good (Bhutanese food is amazing).  Unfortunately, we had our own church service to get to that night so we couldn't linger any longer.  It was too bad; the Bhutanese will beat any American hands-down for hospitality, and it was really, really hard to leave :-(.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas cookies, Stockings and Black Henna, Part 1

Every once in a while, International Village--my church and the place I volunteer--hosts small group immersion retreats where we give visiting congregations a first-hand look at refugee life in the Twin Cities. This weekend we had a group from Superior, near Duluth, and it was quite a treat.

I had a heck of a time getting there, though.  First, I putzed around the house for too long and got outside just in time to see the bus pull away from my stop.  Oh phooey.  I tried plan B--walk to the nearby Bethel Off-Campus Housing, catch the shuttle, make a loop to Rosedale and catch my bus by a different route, only to learn that the last shuttle to Rosedale before Christmas break had just left.  Phooey again.  Luckily, the van drivers took pity on me and got me to Rosedale anyway, so all was well in the world.

I actually recognized most of the people in this visiting church group.  They were former classmates of mine from Northwestern, so we spent some time eating dinner and catching up.  We watched a short video about the Bhutanese refugees (more on them in a later post), and then set off to a couple of apartment complexes up the road to meet them personally.

Bob Flonkerton (not his actual name), the director of International Village, along with his wife Felicity, have spent three years developing a close network of friendships with the Bhutanese and a few Karen (Burmese) families, meeting with them in their homes and helping them with mail, ESL, occasional small crises, and sometimes just talking and drinking tea.  It must be difficult to regain a sense of trust after being driven from one's homeland, and the fact that Bob and Felicity have earned such close relationships with these families is a testament to how committed they are to the Bhutanese and their success here in America.

We split into group and went door-to-door dropping off Christmas cookies to the various Bhutanese and Karen families we knew.  We did this for an hour, and while the people from Superior went back to their hotel for the bed, we finished the night at a Christmas party in the home of one of our Bhutanese friends who has acted as a cultural liaison at the drop-in center.  Jeremy and Nancy, two other helpers at IV, were already there with their kids, and the kitchen was busy and full of people making fried pork and momo: boiled dumplings stuffed with fermented cabbage.  The food was wonderful, as it always, and dinner was finished with some steaming cups of chia.

It was nice to unwind at the end of a hectic day.  I don't know the community as well as Bob and Felicity, so most of the time I just sit and listen, and I learn a lot this way, and the stories are so interesting.  I've never met a Bhutanese family I didn't like.  I just wish that I lived closer to the neighborhood so I could get to know them better.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Grantwriting and Cheesemaking

Well, I'm back from Thanksgiving Break.  After finishing my second draft of The Dreamer, and after a few lonely evenings in my apartment crawling through Kindleboards' vast forum so I could join the conversation without making an ass of myself (thank you, Asperger's Syndrome), I remembered it was NaNoWriMo.  "Just how long is this thing I just created?" I asked myself.  I wasn't really keeping track as I was writing; the fact that I was writing my novel during NaNoWriMo at all was purely coincidence.  Still, I decided to check.  I copied and pasted my RTF file into Pages and did a word count.  Over three months, I'd written 150,280 words, which roughly translates to three NaNoWriMos in a row.  No wonder my brain hurt.  I also remembered the Distance Ed course I'd enrolled in five weeks earlier, which probably had a few assignments due by now.  Or a dozen.


With due apologies to Dr. Stone, I'm more or less caught up by now.  I still have a Case Study project due at the end the of next week on the topic of "Change Agency," or how to get a group of people or a culture to accept and propagate innovations.  I was reading and studying in the hopes of figuring out how to get thousands of people to buy my books and help me dig my way out of this swampy mire of student loan debt, but I think Dr. Stone was thinking more along the lines of getting more Bhutanese refugees to utilize the new drop-in center we've opened for them.

I just started volunteering at International Village, a brand-spanking-new nonprofit on Rice Street in St. Paul.  It's in a dinky little office building we've leased, but we've spruced it up quite a bit with some couches, lamps, posters, and almost every fake plant I could fit in a box at the Unique Thrift Store up the road, to make it look homey.  The beauty of working with an organization this new is that I feel so much freer to try new things and build up new skills; just this past Tuesday, Sarah, one of the other volunteers, gave us a list of philanthropic organizations to hit up for grants.  Seriously, grant-writing!  The most recession-proof job there is, and not a whole lot different than writing query letters and hitting up book blogs for reviews (okay, it's massively different, but something I can still get weirdly excited about).

Also, I learned how to make homemade farmer's cheese (paneer) over Thanksgiving.  It's easier than you think.  Here's my incredibly ghetto recipe, if you're interested:

1 gallon whole milk
1 cup white vinegar

First, bring the milk to 190 degrees F.  Add the vinegar, stirring for a moment or two until the milk separates into curds and whey.  When looks like it's as separated as it's going to get, scoop out the curds with a strainer.  Cool the curds, and mix in salt to taste (it'll probably take a lot, so be generous).  Then wrap the curds tightly in saran wrap and place under a heavy weight in the fridge overnight so it presses into a block.  What you end up with is something like ricotta salata, and I find it's best either crumbled over salad, or sliced and drizzled with honey.