Monday, December 31, 2007

Breathing Fire

Fire-Breathing Dragon agreed to give us a command performance of some of her fire tricks. We gathered after dark on a gravel playing field. Here she is lighting her hoop.
This is like hula hooping with consequences. If you ever stop moving, that fire, um, burns you. So you don't. Fire-Breathing kept that thing spinning for about twenty minutes. She had also wet her hair thoroughly before she started, and her girlfriend stood to one side with a literal wet blanket.

Yes, that hoop is twirling around her neck.
Then she added the fire sticks.
She lights her hand on fire, lets it burn for a few seconds, then closes her hand to put it out. Or she runs the stick along her arm, dripping a little oil to burn right off her skin.
Doesn't it get hot? we asked. She didn't seem to think so, though you'll note she's not wearing much and it's December. Afterwards we tried playing with some of the toys while not in flames: I can keep the hoop going for about a minute. There were various other things on ropes you can swing in pretty patterns, and we tried skipping rope but while Aussie Sister could skip pretty well, and Writing Sister could skip a few times before catching the rope, I could not get in even one skip. I am comforting myself with the thought that Aussie Sister has taken circus classes.
We finished up with another demonstration: the fire fingers. Fire-Breathing Dragon referred to what you see above as "the iffy move" because it is heavily abdominal-dependent. She did in the end make it both down and up.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The New Experience Tour of Western Canada

My sister from Australia is visiting with her New Boyfriend. New Boyfriend, who has never been out of Australia before, is learning a lot of new things.

Among other things, he has learned that he is completely incomprehensible. Last night he said something to my other sister, Writing Sister, who listened, nodding thoughtfully, then turned to Aussie Sister and said, "How does anyone know what he's saying?" She wasn't being rude, she just wanted to know.

Also last night we gave New Boyfriend the experience of Chinatown sweets. Our landlords, bless their wonderful hearts, gave us a package of ginseng candies. None of us can stand them except Winnifred, and she says, "They taste like dirt, but sweet." New Boyfriend gamely tried them, resulting in the facial expression above. That's him looking rather accusingly at Winnifred.

Other new experiences: eating a gooseberry; bagels and lox; going to the gym; and looking at really big mountains. (To Aussies, the Coast Mountains are really big).

Another new experience, one he isn't likely to want to repeat: communal grocery shopping. Since he is going to be cooking for us New Year's Eve, he wanted to pick up a few things at the supermarket, but the three family members accompanying him had conflicting advice and he wasn't allowed to buy some things he needed. Now the mere words "rock salt" starts up a huge debate. I wasn't there so I don't have all the details, but luckily we had some rock salt and could just sneak it to him when the others weren't looking. He's being a good sport about all this.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Dong Zhi 冬至: the Rebirth of Yang

In most aspects I tend yin, really. Water, earth, and so on. But at this time of year, a little fire and air is not unwarranted. Thus, we spent the solstice evening at the Sun Yat-Sen Gardens, illuminated by an array of lighting devices and a variety of artistic impulses.

This has got to be the single most multi-cultural event I've been to in ten years. There was about an equal mixture of Chinese folks and Everyone Else. There was probably plenty of internal diversity among the Chinese people present, but I am not qualified to observe just how much. Among the non-Chinese-looking folks, there were many skin colours and languages present. I heard Spanish and Russian (lots of Russian). And I'm pretty sure we weren't the only Jewish people there: as we entered the garden walking into this eerie lantern-lit space, a soft lowing sounds drifted across the courtyard. Behind me, a child said, "Oh! They're playing the shofar!" It was not a shofar, though it did sound like one. We eventually made our way to where the fellow was playing the instrument:
That is a huge horn (the bottom of it rested on the ground) made of a single elderberry root. The mouthpiece was from a trumpet and the flare was a bamboo frame with papier mache, thoroughly varnished to withstand possible rain.
I thought it witty that a leafless tree was hung with leaf-decorated lanterns. As we walked on the winding paths we would come to an area with fish-shaped lanterns; then one with drum-shaped ones; then half-moons; and so on. There were also flower-shaped lanterns floating on the pond,
and in a side room there was a menagerie full of pigs, frogs and owls.

Another room and its courtyard had a display of art that used directed light and shadow. Some of it was made by the artist in residence, some by regular folks. I had no idea which was which. This was one of my faves: a burlap hanging which was embroidered, cutaway, and appliqued, hanging heavy and straight. The lamp focused on it spilled an enormous shadow on the sheer linen curtain behind it. When the linen curtain caught a breeze, the movement of the shadow changed your impression of the burlap original. It seemed to shimmer, even though it was standing still.
The art was arranged in such a way as to allow you to go up and touch it. Children were quite uninhibited about touching it, and not one injury was noted to either art or small fingers. Let this be a lesson to us. The stunning work below, which was about a meter square, was made out of the industrial mesh used to make shatter-proof glass and wooden toothpicks. There are thousands of toothpicks inserted into exact squares of the mesh to create this effect.
We bought tea and hot chocolate at various points to ward off the cold, and also ducked into the enclosed rooms to warm up, like one where you could have your name calligraphied. We ended up in the gift shop, watching a little Russian girl (whom we had spied earlier fingering the art) picking out a parasol. We went on to dinner at Foo's Ho Ho, one of only a few remnants of my childhood Chinatown.
Winnifred's full web album of solstice pics (you knew these were her pics, I assume) is here; her web album of the Sun Yat-Sen Gardens at other times is here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Products of the Religious Life

No, I have not turned spiritual. I have not decided to be more receptive to either of my ancestral religions nor to join a cult. But I have become interested in the tradition of consumer products coming out of cloistered religious orders.

Someone gave us this rather strange gift, you see. I believe the gift-giver's relationship to this product is entirely serendipitous: she saw it, thought it sounded unique and intriguing, and bought a bunch to give various friends. And like her, I am intrigued. This product promises nutrition, weight loss, the reversal of a variety of middle-age-associated health problems, increased energy, digestive succor, and a sense of purpose in life. Here's the come-on on the outside of the package:
Those who eat at least half, but not more than one unit [of the product] for breakfast will be able to avoid lunch, restrict themselves to a vegetable salad with insignificant dressing in the evening and lose weight.

(Yes, Winnifred said. If I ate chocolate cake for breakfast, then fasted for nine days, I would lose weight too.)

This product, it seems, is made with hemp. Now, I am all for hemp seeds. I do believe they are a great protein option for people who don't eat red meat, and for people with allergies to more common sources of protein. I once met a vegetarian with an allergy to all nuts, beans, lentils, and most everything else that contains a complete protein. I wish I still knew her and could turn her on to hemp. But something about the packaging and typography, not to mention the expansive promises, made me think something else was going on; something non-scientific and possibly a bit fanatical.

Then I opened the package. Here is what I consider virtually proof positive:

The text of this flyer is reproduced here, but you don't need to read it to get my point. In my life as a shopper, I have frequently noted that products with too much verbiage--products that seem to not know when to shut up--are pretty much invariably tied to a strange religious way of life. There is, for example Dr. Bronner's soap products.

These bottles mingle existential messages ("Absolute cleanliness is Godliness! Who else but God gave man Love that can spark mere dust to life! Poetry, uniting All-One! All brave! All life! Who else but God! Listen Children Eternal Father Eternally One!") with more mundane advice about the use of the product ("Dilute! Dilute! Okay?"). Sad to say, while the screed-covered bottles remain for the original "magic soap" product line, new products are housed in tastefully simple wrappers. Dr. Bronner's family still owns the company, but none of them inherited his flair for ecstatic prose.

Then there is the Biblically-inspired bread. I am not kidding. We found this sprouted-wheat bread in Brooklyn and quite liked it. One day I noticed that the back of the package was covered with tiny print. I had thought is was a sort of patterned color, but it turned out the patterns was hundreds of words. Though not nearly as interesting as Dr. Bronner, it has a certain fervor:
Ezekiel 4:9® Sprouted Grain Bread is inspired by the Holy Scripture verse: "Take also unto thee Wheat, and Barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and Spelt, and put them in one vessel, and make bread of it..."Ez 4:9 We discovered when these six grains and legumes are sprouted and combined, an amazing thing happens. A complete protein is created that closely parallels the protein found in milk and eggs. In fact, the protein quality is so high, that it is 84.3% as efficient as the highest recognized source of protein, containing all 9 essential amino acids. There are 18 amino acids present in this unique bread - from all vegetable sources - naturally balanced in nature.
[As a complete aside, I believe their recipe might be informed by a mistranslation. In my JPS Bible, the verse says "emmer" where they have "spelt." On the other hand, emmer is mighty hard to find, so the translation might be loose for practical purposes.]

Of course, there is a long and distinguished history of religious communities producing excellent items. In Canada we have the Oka cheese of the Trappist monks, traditionally used in tortiere, a pork pie (a treyf fun treyfland, we might say in Yiddish). And monasteries are famed for wine and beer. But while the orders selling these items may have wished that the purchasers would stick around for vespers and become better Catholics or drop something in the donation jar, there was absolutely nothing about the product itself that forced a sermon on consumers. There is just something about that urgency--that sense that they must impart these important life lessons and not allow you to wallow in ignorance for one moment longer than necessary--that they are seizing every opportunity to teach the unenlightened what they have only discovered through a long and possibly tortured road which others need not endure--which speaks to me of a proselytizing earnestness.

So, when I opened that hemp chocolate bar package (that's all it is, really), and that page of single-spaced type accordioned out in front of me, I thought, "cult." Googling up the company, I found lots of product information; several retail operations willing to send the chocolate bars to you; and this:
Rocky Mountain Grain Products (299614 Alberta Ltd) is a small Alberta company with about twenty employees situated in an irrigated, food producing area of rural Alberta. For the past thirty years we have worked with other local farmers to produce specialty crops on irrigated land. We have also designed, fabricated, installed and maintained the machines necessary to prepare a large variety of agricultural products for various markets.
This is far from proof of anything. But the evasiveness of this information (which is not in the package anywhere, their willingness to give lots of unsolicited health advice notwithstanding) somehow only convinces me further. A food-producing area of rural Alberta would be, let's see, anywhere in about 350,000 square kilometers? Twenty employees, thirty year old company, no web site? Hmm.

I promise to report further on the hemp chocolate bar (it's product name is "More Than a Square Meal"--I swear I could not make this stuff up), both after we've been brave enough to eat it and after I have consulted the business librarian at work about finding more company information. I will try eating at least half, but not more than one, unit for breakfast and see what happens.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Numerology of Many Lands

This is a bad picture (sorry) of the part of our whiteboard at work where we post the numerals in all the languages we're working in. Numerals are really useful when you're working with newspapers: dates and pages can be ascertained and strange collocations corrected. When we work off of microfilm we come across problems caused by microfilming newspapers Western-style (left-to-right) when they were produced in another sequence (right-to-left, top-to-bottom).

Right under the familiar numbers there are the Chinese numbers up to twelve. As it happens, there is a second kind of number used for fancy. Holidays and other occasions requiring gussying up get a more elaborate number. Those are the second line. My student helper is having trouble remembering them, so as we come across them he writes them up. We're missing three to nine.

Beneath that I wrote the Hebrew numbers just so I could feel useful. Of course I had to write them left to right, to avoid confusion, although if the microfilm issue teaches us anything it's that there can always be unforeseen results of compromises that attempt to simplify language diversity.

Then we have the Arabic numerals. You know, I always thought our numbers were Arabic numerals. I mentioned this to the Arabic-reading staff person who I asked to help me, and she seemed bewildered by this idea. Since they bear no resemblance to each other, she can't imagine why we would call our numbers "Arabic." (But I did find this explanation for how they evolved from actual Arabic).

What makes our work a little more confusing is that the language of the newspapers we're digitizing is not Arabic but Urdu, a South Asian language written in the Arabic alphabet. There are apparently some numbers which are not written quite the same in Urdu, or not always, or perhaps they used to be different but now are standardized, or something of that nature. Googling up "Urdu numbers" did not give us the characters we were finding on the newspapers. Consultation with the unicode character set was more helpful: there are two Arabic number sequences, one called "Arabic" and the other called "Arabic-Indic". Even then, that number two is pretty strange. The only thing I can imagine, after checking my sources, is that it's a holdover from using the letter ba' (the second letter of the alphabet) for the number two. This was apparently an earlier numbering system, much like the Hebrew one. In Arabic the ba' points the opposite way the bet does in Hebrew, and could conceivably have led to that c-shaped number two. The stray characters below the line of Arabic numerals are the variations we've found for those numbers. Could it be that Urdu, too, has different numbers for special occasions?

As I contemplated this plethora of numbering systems, I found myself thinking about Passover. I could not figure this out as we are barely out of Hannukah and it is still a good while to go before the season of our liberation. Then I caught myself humming "Ekhad Mi Yodea," no doubt some sort of subconscious result of staring at the Hebrew numbers. Then I started thinking about "Green Grow the Rushes, O," which might itself be related to a Medieval Hebrew song. This led, naturally enough, to trying to remember the verses of "Red Fly the Banners, O" which I learned at the knees of my Communist grandparents. Of the web versions I could find, this one seems closest to what I recall (up to twelve: we were too polite to sing the anti-Trotskyist verses). However, for two we sang "two, two, the opposites, interpentrating, o" as they have here.

And that brought me back to the ba' and the bet, contraposed, both meaning "two." Opposites, interpenetrating.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Seasonal Comestibles

For a couple of atheists, we somehow end up eating a lot of latkes and singing a lot of hymns during the ole festival of lights. And the season is far from over, as we move on to the dominant cultural paradigm and a surfeit of chocolate, gingerbread and fruit cake. In cases such as these, good vegetables are crucial for maintaining what I call gezunt des kishkas.

This week brought us two carnival squash, with which Winnifred will make a pumpkin kibbeh; and an unusual orange kabocha squash; plus some carrots the size of my arm. I'm not kidding: that bunch of four carrots is as long as my forearm and a bit thicker around. I think part of the fun of getting food delivered is being surprised by how pretty it is when you pull it out of the box. There's something sexy yet refined about the lobes on the carnival squash. The Chocolate Lady calls kabocha the Greta Garbo of squash; I might be tempted to nominate carnival squash as the Katharine Hepburn of squash.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Big Ones, Small Ones, Some as Big as Your Head

As you know, Reader, I am not religiously inclined, but there are moments when I feel like breaking into a shehekhianu. While far from the first time I have eaten fresh coconut, we recently opened one for the first time.

Research indicated that the first thing to do was to hammer a Phillips screwdriver into at least two of the three soft germination pores found clustered together on one end of the coconut. That way, you can pour the coconut water out of the coconut before opening it. This prevents either losing the fragrant water or getting wet. You need two holes so the air can go in one while you're pouring out the other. There was a lot more liquid in there than you would have thought.

I had always thought this would be the coconut milk, but it turns out to be a completely clear, sweetly but mildly flavoured juice. Coconut milk has to be made by grating and expressing the moisture from the flesh. We did not attempt this.

Once you've got the liquid out, my source told me to gently tap on the seam that runs all the way around the coconut, using the back of a large knife. I tried tapping gently all the way around a few times, then tried tapping not so gently: I could not perceive any loosening or give in the husk.

I turned matters over to Winnifred, who gave the thing three good whacks.

There you have it. Mind you, she started prying it too soon, not realizing that it would open part of the way and then clamp shut on her finger.

I was absolutely amazed at how much flesh turned out to be in there. Each of those quarters looked like I thought a half would look.

This is about one quarter grated. Now I love coconut, but how exactly is one to use that amount of fresh coconut in a week, the amount of time it takes to go off? To the cookbooks! First, we used the coconut water in a fish stew. We used some of the flesh in a stuffed squash. Then Winnifred noticed that we had quite a few chum salmon steaks in the freezer. Chum is not tender or flavourful enough to use in any of our regular salmon recipes. Normally we don't even buy chum, which is primarily used for animal feed. But it has been a tough year for the salmon fishery and chum is about all that's coming in. Winnifred thought a Thai prawn recipe might work as chum fish fingers, both adding flavour and making use of its slight toughness.

You dip the salmon slices in egg, then in flour, then back in egg, then in grated coconut. Stick it in a hot oven for 15 minutes. Could this be easier? It was also pretty good. We ate them over salad.

We both came away with injuries. That's Winnifred's finger where she got a blood blister from the coconut slamming shut on her. My thumb was too gory to blog unbandaged. I was using a potato peeler to take the remains of the husk off the flesh, and managed to gouge a big piece out of my thumbnail. The coconut was unharmed.

This was a good learning experience, and I think next time SPUD sends us a coconut I will try making a stuffed coconut I read about. It's called porivilanga. In that recipe, you open one of the germination spores as wide as you can, and funnel in some nuts, raisins and sugar. You close up the hole with a piece of wood and then you put the whole thing in a fire (not on: in) for thirty minutes. Okay, there are some logistics to work out, but a girl can dream.