Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Share Your Wealth

I recently began reading a book called Kabul Beauty School, written by Deborah Rodriguez. The book tells of her experiences in post-Taliban Afghanistan where she trained women to perm, highlight, cut and dry their way to self-sufficiency in that war-torn country. Kabul Beauty School brings back all kinds of memories for me, not only about my days spent volunteering in post-war Nicaragua but also about my experiences - sad, funny and bittersweet - as a cosmetology student whose punk aesthetic spelled her doom.

What makes Deborah Rodriguez's book so compelling is the apparent absurdity of her decision to go to Afghanistan in the first place. The lone beautician among a team of doctors and dentists who had gone to provide aid, one can only assume that her presence there must have had a few people scratching their heads. I remember feeling that same way in Esteli, Nicaragua when my efforts to work on a farm and a construction site made me wonder if I had anything to offer the people I was trying to help. On the construction site, I'd sent a bunch of bricks tumbling down the side of a hill and on the farm I sprouted blisters after about half an hour of hoeing. I was supposed to be removing weeds from a vegetable garden but I didn't know a weed from a plant and I killed about equal amounts of each.

Fortunately, I soon found out (like Deborah) that we all have something to offer. I was pulled off manual labor and ended up doing some much needed translation, assisting at a Salvadoran refugee arts cooperative and working with Nicaraguan teachers in their classrooms, all areas that played to my strengths.

Like me, Deborah was initially asked to do work ill-suited to her abilities. She took blood pressure readings for the medical professionals until she realized that her real value to the Afghan women was her skill in cosmetology. The beauty salons in Kabul had been shuttered by the Taliban, who controlled every aspect of women's lives, down to the details of their personal grooming. The women who formerly ran the salons had lost their way of earning a living. Deborah's decision to start a beauty school, when taken in the context of the social and political situation in that country, becomes an act of courage and a means to empower other women.

Video: Deborah Rodriguez Shares Her Experiences in Afghanistan in "Kabul Beauty School."

These days, I'm a stay-at-home mom with no time to run off and break bricks in foreign countries, but I still volunteer at my daughter's school, and this year I've also signed up to volunteer at Phoenix's own version of Comicon. I'm not building houses, giving kids new smiles or saving lives, but I am doing what I can and it feels good to do it. In fact, it seems as if my whole family has been inspired by the unusual situation we find ourselves in (living in different states) and has been doing a lot of volunteering lately. My husband worked at the Houston Food Bank this week, helping to fill and seal plastic bags with over two tons of rice that will be distributed to hungry families. He’s also been working adoption fairs for homeless puppies with an organization called The Pup Squad. My daughter volunteers at the library and helped them raise several hundred dollars at a book sale last weekend. All of us are convinced that these experiences enrich our lives. That's the funny thing about volunteering, you never feel like you're giving, you feel like you're getting.

When I left Nicaragua, I knew I'd had an experience I'd never forget, one that would change my view of the world forever. That continues to be true. I try to remember that what we do best is often what we enjoy most, so I don't worry so much about not being able to build houses. I have my own set of talents, my own wealth to share and I'm going to share it.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Scents & Sensibility

Our family dog, Cinnamon was especially anxious to take her morning walk today. Thinking she really needed to answer nature's call, I tumbled into some clothes and hurried out the door with her in tow. I was more than a bit frustrated as we walked along for a block or two, stopping every few feet for Cinnamon to sniff one of the mesquite bushes or scent the air. Normally, she can't wait to find a patch of soil to relieve herself but this morning was different. She was into smelling her surroundings. I know that dogs have an especially keen sense of smell and I started thinking about how animals use scents to tell them about their world: what's good, what's dangerous, which way is home.

I began to think about my own scent memories and associations. Here are a few:

The scent of Night Blooming Jasmine: when I was a teen in East LA, my bedroom window was right up against my mother's garden. On warm nights when the window was open, the sweet, subtle perfume of this night blooming plant would permeate my room and help me drift off to sleep.

Tres Flores Brillantina: the floral odor of this hair oil reminds me of my father, who used it daily to comb back his thick, curly hair. This one comes with a visual memory as well: the oily impression of my dad's head left on the passenger window of our family car when he dozed after a long drive.

The Sonoran Desert after a summer monsoon: I love the smell of the wet dirt in the desert after a summer thunderstorm. Its deep, earthy smell, somewhat musty and mixed with the green scent of wet creosote is usually carried through the air on cool, welcome breezes after a scorching hot day. The smell somehow conveys the promise of life. Now I understand why so many Bollywood films feature dance sequences during monsoon rains. It's like a blessing from heaven to mother earth.

Scent of Mexico: The tortilleria near my aunt's house in Mexico City is completely open. At night they roll down the metal door but during the day, the area where the tortillas are made and the sidewalk is separated only by a narrow counter. Here, one can place a basket lined with a dish cloth to receive a kilo or two of hot, freshly made tortillas. The warm odor of sweet corn masa practically pulls the pedestrians off the sidewalk towards the humble, delectable treats which can be sampled for a just few centavos. The scent reminds me that the best things in life are often the simplest: a rough hewn stool to sit on, a handmade tortilla with fresh butter, the company of a dearly loved family member.

Yesterday, I roasted red potatoes with rosemary, salt, cracked pepper and a little olive oil. It's a very basic, simple dish but the rosemary smelled so appetizing that I could hardly wait to taste the potatoes. I opened the oven and, using the excuse of tasting the potatoes for doneness, popped a hot spud into my mouth, burning and effectively numbing my taste buds for the evening.

It probably sounds insane that I'm baking at all during summertime in Arizona when the temperatures outside are in the triple digits, but baking is my weakness. In winter, I bake cakes, cookies and quick breads several times a week and usually end up gifting a loaf to an unsuspecting neighbor. There's nothing like the smell of bread baking in the oven and a pot of good strong coffee brewing, its dark aroma mingling and complementing the lighter fragrance emanating from the oven. It puts me in a good mood and colors my whole day.

When my daughter and stepdaughters were growing up, I recall them watching an episode of Sailor Moon where one of the sailor scouts is remembering her childhood. In a flashback, you see the little sailor scout entering her cool, sparsely decorated Japanese abode where her mother is baking cookies. She breathes in, takes a bite and a jubilant smile spreads across her face. The scene made an impression on me so I try to have warm cookies waiting now and then around the time the school bus rolls around. The cookie smell says "welcome home, come in, sit down and unwind, I'm happy to see you."

The power of the sense of smell is not to be underestimated. I once broke up with a man just because I didn't like his scent. He wasn't dirty, but his body chemistry was just wrong when it mingled with mine. By contrast, I slept with my husband's unwashed t-shirt for months when he was in prison. I kept the shirt next to my pillow and would take deep breaths from it, hoping to fall asleep and dream that he was in bed next to me. Now that he's often away working in another state I cling to his pillow, trying to inhale the last traces of my lover.

Last Weekend for American Sabor in San Antonio

Hello everyone,

Just a quick post to let you know that this is the last weekend to check out the American Sabor exhibition in San Antonio (full disclosure: I have a small featured artist spot in this important show.)

Plus, today is a free American Sabor MusicFest show at the Museo Alameda venue in San Antonio featuring one of my favorite bands, Girl In A Coma who have a fantastic CD "Trio B.C." out on Joan Jett's Blackheart label. Go support these talented young women and see the show before it gets to the Smithsonian in 2011!


Friday, September 11, 2009

It's More Mass Gluttony

Greg's in town this weekend and we found ourselves with a little play time on our hands this morning so we decided to make the half hour drive to Glendale, a quaint little town just west of Phoenix that's rich in thrift stores and Mexican eats. There's a neighborhood restaurant there that sells tasty bastardized cheddar cheese green chile tamales that scream pocho! every time you bite them, but I'm getting ahead of myself because today, lunch came after dessert.

I'm a firm believer in dessert after every meal and I'd push for dessert after every snack too but my bathroom scale won't allow it. It just so happened that this morning as we were driving out to Bitzee Mama's for lunch, we drove by Cerreta's Candy Company. Cerreta's is a real throwback to the days of mom and pop operations, in fact, the store is decorated with murals of the Cerreta family. The patriarch, Jim Cerreta is a real life Willy Wonka who raffles off Golden Tickets and assigned each of his sons to one of the departments: chocolates, caramels, creams and the retail store. The candy factory has been around for forty years and most of the machinery is original or only slightly modified. Tubes and hoses run along the ceiling and walls, carrying molten chocolate to giant vats where it is carefully measured into plastic molds of hearts, Santas or rabbits, depending on the season. They also have some unusual molds, such as bones and feet.

Cerreta's offers free daily tours of the small factory and we'd tried to take it once before but had come at the wrong time. Today the sugar gods were smiling and we walked in right at 10:00am, just in time for a tour. We were the only two people waiting for a tour and I was certain they'd send us away but instead, a sweet smiling lady came over and started telling us all about the factory. My eyes grew as large and round as lollipops watching the thin sheets of caramel being chopped into bite sized squares, then shooting down a conveyer belt to be wrapped in cellophane and dropped off the end into neat little white boxes. Just when my inner Veruca Salt was about to be unleashed, the tour guide offered us a sample of some warm, fresh caramels that we popped into our salivating mouths and I was sent floating in heavenly bliss.

We ate our way through the various departments then hit the candy store where we sampled more, including some yummy prickly pear cactus brittle. I selected a bag of a strange looking confection called Arizona Gold; it's crunchy but light and airy like cotton candy that's been through boot camp and has gone from soft, pink and bouncing to a firm honey gold.

We buzzed out of there riding our sugar high to our lunch stop where we packed away the green chile tamales, chips and salsa, cheesy refried beans and rice then complained on the way out about our bulging panzas and our inability to move. I felt like my belly was going to pull me off balance and tip me over as I wobbled along the Glendale town square.

On our way home Greg and I looked at each other as we approached our favorite Arizona panaderia, should we stop, hadn't we eaten too much already? What the heck, as long as we were in the neighborhood we might as well get some pan dulce. We showed some self contol and only purchased half a dozen pieces of conchas, cuernitos and elotes.

It was a great day for pigging out because like the song says "Everyday will be like a holiday when my baby comes home..."

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


"What did you say?" My icy voice followed my daughter as she scurried into the hallway.

"Whatever, that's fine," she enunciated without breaking her stride. Had I imagined it or was the original "Whatever" delivered in a dismissive tone? I'd spent the whole summer reminding my kid to dig into her rich vocabulary and pull out language that was more precise than her usual "Whatever," but it was a losing battle. I'm convinced that she favors the term because aside from the implied neutrality, it can be delivered by a teenager as a sort of passive resistance while she drags her feet to do her chores or in the face of some other unreasonable authoritarian command.

Yes, that's right - I have a teen at home. High school started a couple of weeks ago. She's a freshman this year and had to attend Freshman Camp to get acclimated to her new surroundings. I drove her to camp the first day and walked with her into the gym where the students were gathering. My daughter promptly walked to the other side of the gym and after a few minutes walked back and politely asked me to leave. I shuffled off with my tail between my legs, looking back at her as I walked out the glass doors, wondering if she'd get lost, if she'd make friends, if she'd survive without me.

A few hours later when I went to pick her up I was all smiles, eager to hear about her first day at summer camp. I parked the car, got out and stood near the entrance as the freshmen poured out. Finally, I spotted my baby.

"How was your day?" I asked, all sunshine and lollipops.

"It was great. Can you wait for me in the car next time?"

"Oh..." I said, looking around and noticing that only a handful of parents were hovering at the school entrance, their respective offspring looking every bit as embarrassed as mine seemed to be.

"You don't have to get out," she said, rolling her eyes as if I'd neglected to read the memo.

"Whatever..." I thought to myself.

Once real classes started (as opposed to the fun and games of Freshman Camp) my daughter had to catch a new bus to the high school, so I walked the few blocks to the stop with her and took our dog for a walk at the same time. I repeated this pattern for about a week until my husband came into town. When I told him that he needed to walk our daughter to the bus stop, he gave me a funny look.

"Does she really want us to do that?" he asked.

"Yeah, I want to make sure she's OK," I replied.

"I know what your motivation is; I'm wondering how she feels about it though," he mused.

Greg walked out the front door with our daughter. He returned just a minute later, then he informed me that we would not be walking her to the bus stop from now on.

"Don't you think it's ironic that someone who had so much freedom as a teenager should be so overprotective of her own daughter? Didn't your mom drop you and your friend off to go rollerskating on Hollywood Blvd when you were her age?"

"But there are coyotes out there early in the morning, I've seen them..." I protested.

"There were plenty of wolves in Hollywood when you went rollerskating," he laughed.

"We'll see who's laughing when a coyote bites her butt."

The latest of my adventures in parental humiliation ocurred during Open House. Students were supposed to print out a copy of their class schedule for the parents to follow when visiting their child's classes. When we first got there, we raced to get to first period but once that presentation was over, the real race began. As she led me to the next classroom, I found myself having to walk ten paces behind my long-legged baby girl. I had to jog to keep up with her long, steady I-know-where-I'm-going stride. Of course, I wanted to look at the campus, but she'd have none of my rubber necking and pulled me to keep up with her pace on an invisible leash.

"Can't you slow down? I don't want to walk behind you." I was breathing hard now.

"I don't want us to be late. Do YOU want to be late?" she asked, deftly turning traditional parent-speak against me. Although I was fairly certain that there were other parents there that night who hadn't trained to sprint, I grudgingly trotted behind her, my wooden clogs making pony sounds across the commons, feeling like the old gray mare who just ain't what she used to be.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Cinny Crybaby Bread

Lightning in the desert can be a spectacular, awe inspiring display of nature's power, beautiful to behold... except when you have a wimpy ass dog that keeps you awake all night with her whining and trembling. I thought our dear little Cinnamon was going to have a heart attack with each strike of Thor's mighty hammer.

The storm finally subsided in the wee hours and I was able to get some sleep but a really annoying thing happened. The alarm clock went off. This can't be right, I thought to myself but sure enough it was 5:30, time to rise and shine. I poured myself a cup of hot black coffee and decided to bake myself awake. Here's my RX for a sleepless night:

Cinnamon Crybaby Bread


2 cans of refrigerated biscuit dough (the cheap stuff is fine)
1/3 cup of granulated sugar
3 Tablespoons of cinnamon
6 Tablespoons of butter
1/4 cup of pecan pieces (optional)


1.Preheat oven to 350F, butter or spray a round cake pan.

2. Sprinkle about half of the pecan pieces into the pan (if using pecans)

3. Mix granulated sugar and cinnamon in a plastic zip bag or bowl.

4. Cut the biscuits into different sized (random) halves and quarters and roll into balls.

5. Drop a few balls into the cinnamon sugar mixture and coat. Small batches work best or the dough sticks together and the balls don't get coated properly.

6. Arrange the coated dough balls in the cake pan.

7. Melt the butter and brown sugar over a medium flame, stirring constantly until it starts to bubble.

8. Pour the mixture over biscuit balls.

Place your pan in the oven for 25-30 minutes. If you use a small cake pan, put a baking sheet underneath in case the sweetness bubbles over. Cool about 10 mins, then invert it onto your serving dish.

Bad Housewife tip- Pull a piece off with your finger and clean that messy pan, yum!