Friday, October 15, 2010

Blog Action Day 2010: Blogging for Water Awareness

What do you do first when you wake up in the morning? After turning off my alarm, I reach blearily for a drink of water. I take for granted that I can and that, if I'm really thirsty, I can guzzle as much as I want. One in eight people - nearly one billion, worldwide - can't do that because they don't have ready access to clean water.

Count the people you see today with that number - one in eight - in mind. The eighth person you passed on the street on the way to work? She can't hop in the shower to warm up first thing on a crisp fall morning. The sixteenth car you passed on your way home? The driver can't splash cool water on his face to wash off the sweat of a long hike under a hot sun. The twenty-fourth person you pushed your cart past in the grocery store yesterday evening? Her kids are always thirsty, because she has to use what little water she has, dirty as it is, to cook enough food to keep them from starvation.

Meanwhile, every hamburger we eat is the result of hundreds of liters of water - for just one meal. (The estimates on the water used during the production of a single hamburger vary widely, ranging from a little more than 100 liters all the way up to 2,400 liters, or about 27-634 U.S. gallons.) Have an iPhone? Every charge uses half a liter of water's worth of electricity. (And there's probably an app for that.) In 2010, 2.5 billion people don't have access to a toilet - and 1.2 billion don't have any bathroom facilities at all - but only about 1 billion people worldwide don't have a cell phone.

I'm not saying that we should give up our showers and our filtered water and our favorite meals in a fit of guilt. That wouldn't do anyone much good. What I am saying is that not enough of us are aware that there's a global water crisis - and that needs to change.

The first step toward solving a problem is recognizing it, and that's what we need to do. We need to think about water the way we think about what we're going to have for dinner, or what one thing we really want to do tomorrow - it needs to be something that's always there, at the back of our minds. That way, when you're washing dishes, shutting off the tap in between rinsing plates will become a habit, if it isn't already. So will waiting until you have a full load to do the laundry, taking shorter showers and turning off the water when you brush your teeth. You might mention to your neighbor that the barrel in your backyard is for collecting rainwater to use for watering your garden so that you can donate your water bill savings to an organization that provides clean water to communities in Africa. He might think, "Wow, that's a great idea," and do the same. Gradually, the message will get out: water is precious and scarce, and we need to help more people gain access to what they need to survive.

So here's what I want you to join me in doing today:
  1. Visit the Blog Action Day website. Read up on water - its scarcity, the hardships people experience trying to get it and ways to start solving the problem. Think about what you read, and share it with a few people you talk to today. (The statistic that touched me most? 42,000 people die every week - 38,000 of them children under five - from not enough water, unsafe water and unhygienic living conditions. That adds up to more people than are killed by violence, including war, every year.)
  2. Monitor your water usage. Be conscious about reducing the water waste in your home, even just by turning the tap off a few seconds faster every time you use it. A great idea my brother's family uses is saving the water from my niece's baths to water their yard.
  3. Lend a hand. Fortunately, there are some fantastic organizations working globally to combat this problem and making some real progress, at least one of which I've written about on this blog before. charity: water, Ryan's Well Foundation and make it their business to raise awareness and work to get clean water to the people who need it most. As you think about where you might make donations at the end of this year, a popular time for charitable giving, consider them.
The global water crisis isn't something we can ignore without serious ramifications for each and every one of us. With less than 1% of the world's fresh water accessible for human use, every drop is precious. Let's start thinking about that, and doing what we can to help.

This post was written as part of's Blog Action Day 2010. There are more than 5,016 blogs in 137 countries participating right now - to add yours, click here. Blog Action Day 2010 is also taking place on Twitter, using hashtag #BAD10. To read a travel-centric post about the water crisis and how travelers can help, visit Diary of a Wandering Student.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Recipe Corner: Pumpkin Bread

I love autumn: the beautiful colors, the crisp temperatures that are just right for curling up with a mug of tea or hot chocolate and the ready availability of various kinds of squash, which I think is delicious. Dealing with the tough hulls of most squashes intimidates me, so I usually settle for recipes that don't involve trying to hack through them. One of my favorites is this one for pumpkin bread, which I made for the first time this season yesterday. Enjoy!

Pumpkin Bread
Servings: ~20 (two 8" x 4" loaves)
Preparation Time: 10-15 minutes
Cooking time: ~1 hour
Difficulty: Easy. Just toss the ingredients into a bowl, stir and pop in the oven.

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (I'm debating trying this with half whole wheat flour, but haven't done it yet.)
2 cups packed dark brown sugar (If you want a slightly less sweet bread, don't pack it.)
2/3 cup granulated sugar
15 oz. pumpkin puree (I use one can of Libby's Pure Pumpkin; most recipes for this quantity call for two cups, but I found that it didn't quite bake all the way through on the inside unless I let the outside get a bit too done, so I use just a bit less.)
1 2/3 cup applesauce
2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 - 1 tsp ground nutmeg
3 tsp ground cinnamon

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Prepare two 8" x 4" loaf pans (I use cooking spray or parchment paper; use your preferred method.)
  2. In a large bowl, combine all ingredients. Mix until the flour has been fully incorporated. Evenly divide the batter between the two pans.
  3. Bake at 350°F for 1 hour, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and cover tightly with foil; allow to steam for 10 minutes. Remove foil and turn out onto a cooling rack. Tent the foil loosely over the loaves and allow to finish cooling. ("Steaming" the bread locks in the moisture of the pumpkin and allows it to set a bit, which is one of the things that makes this bread so delicious. Do give it the full 10 minutes - the first time I made this recipe, I got impatient and turned the loaves out to cool early, which caused one to break in half.)
This bread doesn't really need butter, but adding it (and microwaving it for a few seconds, if you're not eating it still warm from the oven) completes the rich flavor of fall. Add a cup of tea or coffee and pretend you're walking through a forest flaming with the colors of autumn. (Or go for the walk, then have the bread!)

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Good Samaritan Muslim

Before this past Sunday, I hadn't given the word "Samaritan" much thought. A Samaritan is someone who does good deeds, is kind to others, we should all strive to be one, etc., etc., and I think there's probably something about it somewhere in the New Testament. It's just a word, right?

Apparently not.

I spent a few days this past weekend in my hometown of Manhattan Beach, CA, catching up with friends and family and enjoying the annual Hometown Fair. A tradition of mine, whenever I'm in town on a Sunday morning, is to go back to the church I grew up in - Manhattan Beach Community Church - for services, which I was happy to be able to do last weekend as well. My beliefs aren't 100% in line with what MBCC preaches, but I spent a large portion of my childhood and adolescence there and going back to a community that's open and welcoming to everyone, whatever their beliefs, always feels like going home. Being greeted warmly, whether by new members of the church I don't know or by members who remember me from when I was eight years old, is as comforting a sensation as curling up by a fire on a cold day.

I was especially excited to be there this past Sunday, since a friend of mine who also grew up at MBCC, Joe (now Rev. Joe Zarro!), was giving the sermon. It was titled "The Good Muslim," and as Joe is one of the most compassionate, kind, thoughtful and inclusive people I know, I was eager to hear what he had to say about the haze of intolerance toward people who hold differing beliefs and particularly toward Muslims that seems to be spreading throughout much of the U.S.

Joe read the parable of the good Samaritan from the book of Luke, about a man who is set upon by thieves, beaten and left on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite (a man from a particular Hebrew tribe) each see the man and each passes by on the other side of the road, leaving him there to suffer. A Samaritan happens by and is the one who helps the man, tending his injuries and taking him to an innkeeper, whom he gives the equivalent of about two days' pay to care for the man until he can return.

Today, that doesn't seem like an exceptional story: the Samaritan is so called because he helped the man who was injured - he was a good Samaritan - right? Wrong. Joe explained that Samaritans were actually part of a religious sect (and they number about 700 worldwide today), one that was reviled by Judaism and treated with the same intolerance and fear with which Muslims are met in much of the world today. For the skeptical Jewish lawyer who asked "Who is my neighbor?" when Jesus instructed "Love thy neighbor as thyself," the idea that the Samaritan was his neighbor and deserved to be treated with fairness and respect was as radical as suggesting to a member of the Tea Party that a Muslim is his or her neighbor today.

The takeaway from this is that if a Samaritan, a man widely hated just because of the personal beliefs he held and not because of anything he had said or done, was the only person with humanity enough to stop and help a man who couldn't help himself, what does that say about prejudice and intolerance? If the Samaritan - or the Muslim, to use a modern example - hadn't existed, as the injured man himself - let's update him to a Christian - may have wished at some point in his life before that day on the road, what would the man's fate have been? The priest and the Levite - a pastor and a rabbi, in our modern example - would have passed him by and he would have continued to lie there, bleeding. The Samaritan (Muslim) demonstrated more compassion than anyone else in a society where he was regularly scorned and we remember his good deed, having long since forgotten that we ever despised or mistreated him.

This may be a parable from the Bible, but it also sounds a lot like common decency.

When it comes to organized religion and worship, I'm not a particularly active participant. My beliefs are my own and I usually prefer to keep them private. What I do share is my faith, a word I think is sadly under-utilized: my faith in the strength of community, my faith in the love of my friends and family and my faith in the basic goodness of humanity. In all of the shouting matches the past few months about how terrible it is that masjids (mosques) and Islamic community centers are being constructed around the country, amidst all the slander against Muslims as a single evil entity rather than a diverse group of people like any other, I haven't heard one critic mention a single Muslim he or she knows personally. And I have to wonder how anyone can hate more than one billion individuals they don't know - it seems to embody the very extremism these critics profess to stand against.

This wave of intolerance, hatred and bigotry worries me. But I have faith that neighbors will stand together against the mob and not only protect the people that mob seeks to cast out, but speak out on their behalf. I have faith that, if one person in that mob, and then another, and then just one more, stops shouting long enough to meet one of the people they've been shouting about, that they'll fall silent, realize that this person is their neighbor and turn to stand with, rather than against, him or her. I have faith that every one of us who shares space in this society can coexist, more or less peacefully. That faith has nothing to do with religion - mine or anyone else's - and everything to do with believing that people are basically good and, when face-to-face with another individual, whatever they look like or believe, will usually choose to accept, rather than hate, one another, because the commonalities that unite us almost always far outweigh the differences that we choose to let divide us.

If you're reading this, you're my neighbor and, although we may not always agree, I believe that we're more than capable of respecting one another for who we are. And I promise that if I see you bleeding on the side of the road, whoever you are, I'll stop and do what I can to help.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Bookshelf: Foreigner

I read a little bit of everything; I always have. My dad loves science fiction, so I read some of that. My mom likes historical fiction, so I read some of that. You already know that romance novels are among my greatest guilty pleasures. I went through a phase in middle school where I read Madeleine L'Engle and any kind of poetry I could get my hands on, almost exclusively. I'm a compulsive shopper in bookstores and libraries: if it looks interesting, I'll take it. Shakespeare? Absolutely. Hosseini? You bet. A random book on the psychology of women? Why not? The latest take on the relationships between the founding fathers? Yes, please!

So when my dad and my brother both suggested a sci-fi series that starts with a book called Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh (one of their favorite authors, whom I had never read before), I shrugged and figured I'd get around to it eventually. When they mentioned the series is about an interpreter, I opened the first book the next day. And, just so you can't say you weren't warned: sci-fi series + interpreter living in a foreign culture + author-invented language = this is going to be a very geeky post.

The basic premise of the series, the first book of which was published in 1994 and the most recent of which - the 12th - came out this year, is that a human spaceship gets lost on its way to a potential colony and, after much struggle (which is greatly abbreviated in the beginning of the first book and fleshed out as it coincides with the present-day storyline throughout the series), finds its way to an inhabited planet in another solar system. Much infighting later, some of the colonists get tired of living on a ship and make their way down to the planet, where, predictably, clashes with the native population (the atevi) ensue. Fast forward 200 years (part of that "greatly abbreviated" portion) and you have a human population that's confined to a specific geographic area where the atevi are not allowed to venture, and one human who serves the aiji (the atevi leader), and by extension the entire atevi population, in the capacity of cultural and linguistic interpreter (known in Ragi, the atevi language, as the paidhi).

When the storyline's present day begins in Foreigner, it's a 20-something man named Bren Cameron who holds the position of paidhi. The plot starts out complicated and becomes more so, but is interesting and fun to follow through the lens of Bren-ji's (a familiar form of address, in Ragi) flexible and seeking mind. I'm in the middle of the third book, Inheritor, and am very glad I won't have to leave Bren and his friends (although that concept does not exist in Ragi, something with which Bren struggles frequently) anytime soon.

I'm not actually sure what the average sci-fi reader would appreciate most about this series. Maybe the fact that the atevi culture is so well-established in the author's mind, and that the focus is much more on them and the paidhi's growing understanding of them than on the human population, which mostly lurks in the background and pops in and out of Bren's thoughts with telegrams and memories. Maybe the fact that the human population in the story originated from a time when humans were space-faring, but have lost their ability to reach space and the entire world, the atevi foremost, is on the brink of achieving that capability together.

I'm not sure how the average sci-fi reader views this series because I'm so captivated by Cherryh's treatment of Bren Cameron's psyche as an interpreter immersed in a foreign language and culture that I can't seem to stop geeking out about the storyline on a linguistic and cultural level long enough to geek out about it on a science fiction level.

As far as I can tell, the Ragi language is Cherryh's invention, of which - at least at the back of the first two books - she explains the pronunciation. You pick up bits and pieces of the structure and cadence of the language throughout the books, both from the scattered phrases Cherryh includes in Ragi, and from Bren's thought processes about the language, its ties to and expressions of the atevi culture and the specific difficulties he experiences when he has to switch back to Mosphei', his native, human language. In the book I'm reading now, pieces of the language are laid out a little more explicitly, since Bren is teaching it to another character.

Equally as interesting as the Ragi language itself is Cherryh's grasp of the psychological impact of acquiring fluency. The frustration Bren struggles with when trying to deal with what should be his native language and culture is exactly what I felt when I came back to the U.S. after a year in France: things that should have been normal annoyed me, I fumbled trying to communicate in my own first language and generally felt like there was a wall of one-way glass between me and what I had once considered the every day. In Inheritor, one passage in particular made me burst out laughing at its accuracy:
There were moments lately when not only the right word wouldn't come, no word would come, in any language... Deep fluency started by spurts and moments.
This feeling of a total inability to communicate, in any language, is something that hit my friends and I somewhere in our second or third month of immersion and cropped up at random times for the next month or two. We called it the "black hole" between French and English and, fortunately, were able to laugh about it, frustrating as it was, because we were all going through it together. Finding the same experience in a sci-fi book was completely unexpected, but gives me even more respect for C.J. Cherryh and her thoroughness.

So if you like sci-fi, or culture, or language, or are just looking for a reading list to keep you busy for a while, I definitely recommend picking up a copy of Foreigner and letting it suck you into the series, and into the complex world of Bren Cameron and the atevi.

(Bonus: Ms. Cherryh, a former Latin teacher, has Latin lessons on her website. Far from traditional, but they're very interestingly and effectively put together!)

Friday, July 30, 2010

Found in Translation

Is it just me or does 2010 seem to be speeding by? I've just gotten my head wrapped around the fact that it's summer, and all of a sudden, August is two days away.

I'm six months out, give or take a week or two, from my departure for Australia, and anticipation is building by the day. I've bought hiking boots (although those are practical for Arizona, too), found a new rolling duffel after bidding a fond farewell to the most beat-up of the two that saw me through four years of college and nearly three years of post-grad life and - after considerable research - have chosen a pack in which to lug more of my stuff to the other side of the world and been fitted for the right size. I filled out my housing application last week and am nervously toying with ideas for scholarship essays. I've loosely planned out my course schedule for the two years of my Masters program. I'm so excited, both to travel in a new part of the world and to study subjects I love, that some days I feel like I'm going to burst.

One thing I realized I haven't done, however, is explain my choice in courses of study. My choice of school was one thing, but I haven't touched much at all on why I want a Masters of Translating and Interpreting with a Masters of International Relations in the first place. (On a side note: every time I babble out that mouthful to someone who asks what I'm going to be studying, there's a moment of stunned silence while they try to digest what I've just said. It makes me feel a little ridiculous.) So, here goes...

My one required course my second semester abroad in college was French to English Translation. Translation was a scary word. And, actually, it sounded kind of boring. Why would I want to take someone else's words and plug them into another language when I could write my own, in either language? I dreaded that class throughout first semester, when two of my friends were taking it, despite their protestations that they liked it. About halfway through my first translation, an excerpt from David Sedaris' Holidays on Ice, a light blinked on in my head. This is translation? This is fun! What was I worried about?

Translation became one of my two favorite classes that semester, not least because of my professor, a professional translator in her own right, and one who understands that languages can - and should be - fun. What I learned from her, and through the practice of translating several pages of varying material each week, was that translation is a far cry from something as simple as transposing a word from one language into the matching word in another.

Like people, language has baggage. Words have a history that's tied to the places they come from, the places they're used and the evolving cultures of the people who use them. And finding the right way to communicate not just the meaning of the word itself but all the nuance of its baggage requires an understanding of cultures on both sides of the translation. (Of course, this doesn't apply quite as often or to the same degree when you're talking about translating instructions for assembling a piece of furniture, but we've all laughed at the stilted language in manuals for things manufactured in another country.)

Part of the translator or interpreter's job, especially when it comes to literary translation (which is feared by translators far and wide as the black hole of the industry, in which you lose yourself and never make any money - so, naturally, it's my favorite type of translation) and diplomatic interpreting, is having a firm grasp of the historical and cultural baggage of both the language he or she is translating from, and the language she's translating into. That knowledge, and the ability to translate nuance and background without interrupting the flow of the text - or the speaker's rhythm, in interpretation - is the mark of a good translator. Which means, when you're dealing with a good one, you won't even be aware that they're there, and you'll be able to read or listen to the thoughts of someone from thousands of miles away, with a background that may be radically different from yours, as though they lived in the house down the street.

And that - that bridging of physical, cultural and linguistic space - is why I want to be a translator and an interpreter. I tend to view the world in terms of relationships, between people, between words, between cultures. What's the same? What's different? How does what's different relate to what I know and understand? Usually, what's different has some point of reference to what I know, that makes what might at first seem alien at least something I can grasp, if not fully comprehend. And it's those points of reference, those connections between languages, that let us bridge the gap between cultures and appreciate the lives and thoughts of men and women to whom we may never have given a passing thought, but whose lives - and livelihoods - are inextricably linked to our own.

Our world is getting smaller, and the need to communicate more effectively, more thoroughly and more often with others is growing. Much of the world is in crisis, whether humanitarian, environmental or economic, and that isn't a reality that's going to change anytime soon, especially if we don't talk to one another across the political and linguistic boundaries in which we've barricaded ourselves. There are great ideas out there, in every corner of the world, and translating them, language by country by continent, can only help our collective future.

I dream about a world where every idea - an environmental solution, a discovery in astronomy, a humanitarian cry for help, a literary daydream - races from person to person around the globe within moments of its inception, sparking interest, aid and inspiration. Largely thanks to the internet and affordable international travel, we're closer to that dream than we were thirty years ago, but we still have a long way to go. In becoming a translator and an interpreter, I hope to bring us just a little closer to making that dream a reality.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Beautiful Places: Mt. Rainier National Park

If my love affair with the Pacific Northwest was launched by a specific event, I can't remember what it was. It might have been a ferry ride, a whale-watching tour or a particularly gooey-sweet pastry. I don't remember not loving the region. I've spent some of the most enjoyable weeks of my life between the coziness of downtown Portland and the stark beauty of British Columbia's Desolation Sound.

One of the best parts of the Pacific Northwest, whether your definition includes Northern California and Alaska or not, is its national parks. And Mt. Rainier National Park - just a couple hours' drive from Seattle - is one of my favorites.

With its peak reaching 14,410 feet above sea level, Mt. Rainier dominates views from throughout the area on sunny days - I've seen it from an eastbound ferry leaving the Olympic Peninsula, for half an hour prior to landing in a plane headed into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, on runs between Lake Sammamish and the Issaquah Alps, from Lake Union in the heart of Seattle and from a bridge around mile 19 of the Rock 'n' Roll Seattle marathon. But I've also been in the park, staring straight at the mountain, and seen nothing at all - like at Denali in Alaska, the cloud cover can be impossibly thick.

But Mt. Rainier is far from being the only attraction at the park that bears its name. Mt. Rainier National Park covers 368 square miles of land, lake and mountain, with more than 260 miles of trails. You can go from sweating at the park entrance to staring at snowbanks outside the Paradise Visitor Center an hour later. You'll see marmots and pika, hummingbirds and northern spotted owls, shaggy mountain goats, timid black-tailed dear, black bears, elk and various species of salmon. You might find views of fields of wildflowers in brilliant bloom, or of the icy blue heart of one of the park's 25 named glaciers.

Spending time at Mt. Rainier is a sort of live-action Choose Your Own Adventure book. You can eat a picnic lunch at White River Campground and picnic area or browse through the Longmire Museum or one of the three visitor centers. You can take a short, easy walk above the tree line on the Nisqually Vista Trail (named for its views of Nisqually Glacier) or under the shade of enormous old-growth cedars and Douglas Fir at Grove of the Patriarchs (with the bonus of beautiful views of the Ohanapecosh River, particularly from the trail's short suspension bridge). You can join the crowds of cyclists pedaling their way up to Sunrise (if you pick that one, though, I'll meet you at the top, ready to pour water and Gatorade down your throat when you collapse outside the visitor center) or over to Mowich Lake. You can trek to Glacier Basin and back in a day or take the challenge of backpacking the 93-mile Wonderland Trail (the National Park Service recommends a minimum of 10-14 days - longer, with snow or bad weather) around Mt. Rainier itself. Whatever your preferences, the park can keep you busy for as much time as you have to spend there.

For those unfamiliar with our national parks, Rainier is a great place to start getting acquainted with them. I've been hiking and camping in national parks throughout the country since I was in the womb, and this one has been in my top four since my first visit at the age of eight or nine (it has a great Junior Ranger program that will have your kids lecturing you on wildlife and scolding you if you set a toe off a marked pathway or trail). It's breathtakingly beautiful, home to an enormous number of species of flora and fauna and its staff is genuinely concerned with finding the balance between helping visitors discover all that the park has to offer and protecting its delicate ecosystems.

If you ever find yourself in the Seattle area, your visit won't be complete without at least a day trip to Mt. Rainier National Park.

For more information on Mt. Rainier National Park, visit the National Park Service's official site: All photos taken by and property of J. Pinneo.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Food for Thought

I'm in California this weekend - in Davis now, for Gina's graduation from vet school (!) and off to Manhattan Beach, my hometown in Southern California, on Saturday to see family and friends. So it seems like a good time for a quick "Food for Thought" update! Here's what's on my mind this week:
  • I haven't said much about the oil spill in the Gulf because I just don't know what to say - the damage being done to the delicate ecosystems there is terrible and heartbreaking. But one potentially positive idea (well, positive in a "we've got a lot of lemons, so we might as well make lemonade" kind of way) is this: What if BP trained people put out of work by the oil spill in cleaning the affected marshes, coastlines and animals? It would get some of the innocent bystanders whose lives are being turned upside down by this tragedy back to work and would help move the clean-up process along. What do you think?
  • The Art of Non-Conformity's Chris Guillebeau has a great post up today about transitioning from one place to another when traveling and the memories that last long after you've left the place behind. One thing he touched on that I forgot to mention when I posted about my "Map of memories" is the sometimes enormous cost of traveling. Many people don't understand why anyone would spend hundreds or thousands of dollars just to go stand on an island, hike a mountain or swim in a lake. Why not buy something tangible that you can use or show off? Beyond the experience itself, you're paying for the memories, Chris says. I agree with him, and those memories are worth infinitely more to me - and most travelers - than any big-screen TV or fashion-forward handbag.
  • A little more than a year ago, I recorded my "story" for Translator Tales, a project that's creating an audio database of how translators became interested in translation and why they do it. I had mostly forgotten about it until I stumbled across a posting about it on the American Translator Association's website. I don't know that it's of much interest to anyone outside the industry, but if you want to hear me geek about translation, you can go directly to the recording here.
  • Soccer is about the only sport I watch with any regularity, so I'm psyched up for the World Cup, the first games of which take place in South Africa tomorrow! I'm cheering for the U.S. and France, although I don't know that either will make it to the final matches this year. One of the things I love about the World Cup is that it's kind of like an international team-building exercise. We all take a break (well, to some extent) from yelling at and arguing with our international neighbors and let ourselves get caught up in the power struggle on the field instead. Fans of opposing teams heckle one another (mostly) good-naturedly, players clasp hands amicably with opponents who are citizens of countries with which their own governments are locked in conflict and everyone focuses on having a good time that's rowdy and intense in a completely different way from the international arena's norm. What matches are you looking forward to, and who do you think stands a chance to take home the Cup?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Embracing the Twitterverse

Remember my disdain for Twitter? Well, I might have to eat my words on that one. I've been using Twitter much more regularly for the past six or seven months, and I'm a convert.

The problem with my Twitter usage prior to this past winter was that I wasn't really committed. (Yes, that sounds slightly obsessive, but bear with me.) I looked at Twitter as Facebook-light and started out by just following people I actually knew. Big mistake!

One of the best things about Twitter is that, except for the very small number of people who block their tweets from everyone but approved followers, you can follow anyone, and anyone can follow you. Rachel Maddow, Joel Stein, The New York Times - all I have to do is click "follow" and I can see everything they post! (Not that any of the three are following me, but then, their tweets are a lot funnier/more interesting than mine.) Breaking news, project updates from my favorite non-profits, latest posts from columnists and bloggers I love - what's not to like? I stumble across great people to follow all the time, either by looking at who my friends are following or seeing an interesting re-tweet and following the account that originally posted it.

And it turns out Twitter is a great local resource. One of my public lists is compiled of accounts that feature great things to do in DC, from my (former - sniff, sniff) Pilates studio, which tweets great deals on classes to Curbside Cupcakes, a cupcake truck named Pinky that drives around the city and tweets its location and the flavors still in stock.

Basically, Twitter does a great job of accomplishing one of social media's most difficult goals: it creates a solid sense of community online, often among strangers. If I'm watching NCIS by myself and want to geek out about something that happened to someone other than my cat, I can tweet, tag it #NCIS and follow that hashtag to see what other NCIS-watching tweeps (Twitter peeps - yes, the Twitter lexicon is a lot geeky and a little scary) think about the episode. I often tweet about running and list "runner" as a descriptor in my profile, which has led to running/outdoorsy Twitter accounts following me, which has in turn led me to some great resources for running support networks, runner-friendly recipes and articles on giving my training a boost or preventing injury. (On the flip side of all the great content I get by following new people, I can also share my own content - namely, this blog - with people who would otherwise never come across it. It's a nice give-and-take.)

And, as weird as it seems on a platform that limits you to conversing in 140-character bursts, Twitter conversations are kind of fun, whether they're with friends about how much fun you had with them on Saturday, people you haven't seen in years about a shared interest or hashtag discussions about race etiquette for runners. Of course, there's also a lot of daily minutiae (my most recent tweet at the time I'm writing this is about a woodpecker in our front yard), but there's so much other content that comes with it - TIME articles, amusing sarcasm, political updates - that it flows by quickly and enriches the whole experience.

Long story short: I've come to love Twitter and I highly recommend giving it a chance.

I've temporarily posted a gadget in the left-hand column that links to my Twitter account, @JessalynP. I think it looks a little odd, so I'll probably take it down in a week or so, but for now you can see all of the random inanities I send out into the Twitterverse without actually going to Twitter.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Recipe Corner: A Fresh & Easy Summer Salad

It's impossible to not love summer. School and the sun are out, pools and patios are open and everyone seems just a little more relaxed. Not to mention, your local farmer's market and grocery store are starting to pop with the colorful (and delicious) fruits and veggies of the season.

I'm not a big traditional salad person - lettuce is hard to keep on a fork, it needs usually-bad-for-you dressing to give it flavor and sometimes, no matter how much you scrub the leaves before tossing them in a bowl, they retain a faint parfum de dirt. Ick.

I'll eat salad, but I'd rather sauté some zucchini, steam some green beans or just chomp on carrots and hummus to get my vegetables. There is one salad I can never get enough of, however, and summer is the perfect time of year for it. (My mom and I have been making this once a week since I arrived in Arizona. Even my dad, who usually denounces veggies as "rabbit food," likes it!)

Fresh & Easy Summer Salad
Servings: 4-6 as a side salad, 2-3 as a main course
Preparation Time: 5-10 minutes
Cooking Time: None!
Difficulty: Easy. If you can wield a knife and sprinkle cheese, you're good to go.

2 tomatoes (I tend to buy on-the-vine, but have also made this with cherry tomatoes, and any kind will work)
1 large cucumber
1/4 cup crumbled feta

Optional ingredients, to taste:
brown rice
cous cous
minced garlic
chopped onion
extra virgin olive oil
Greek dressing
(kalamata) olives

1. Wash tomatoes and cucumber.
2. Cut tomatoes and cucumber as desired (For me this means removing the tomato seeds and chopping the tomatoes into small pieces. I don't mind the cucumber skin but my mom doesn't like it or the seeds, so we've been peeling and chopping those too.)
3. Combine tomatoes and cucumber, add feta and serve!

My two favorite things about this salad (other than the fact that it's delicious) are:
  1. It has so much natural moisture and flavor that it doesn't need dressing.
  2. You can toss pretty much anything into it and it will continue to be fantastic.
If a salad isn't edible for you without dressing, Greek dressing, balsamic or just plain extra virgin olive oil go well with it. You can toss it onto a serving of rice or mix it up with some cous cous (which takes all of about 5 minutes to cook) to make a more substantial meal. I've also added leftover sautéed tofu (cubed, extra firm), which was good and would probably make a great addition to the cous cous dish. My mom and I added minced garlic once, which, if you're a garlic lover, is great. If you like a milder garlic flavor, try browning a minced clove of garlic in olive oil first, then adding it to the salad once it's cool. Or for an easier way to add spice, just sprinkle everything with basil before you toss the vegetables, either a few freshly minced leaves or a few shakes of a can.

Of course, with cucumber in the house, I start thinking about cucumber-and-cream-cheese sandwiches, which my mom used to make for me in the summer when I was a kid...

What are some of your easy summer favorites?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A map of memories

Matt Gross, the New York Times' Frugal Traveler for the past four years, posted his last column yesterday. In it, he writes about the things he's glad he did, the things he regrets not doing and the different ways people define "frugal" when it comes to traveling. It's a great piece, and it got me thinking about all of the traveling I hope to do while I'm studying in Australia.

I've taken something of a hiatus from traveling, aside from visiting family and sometimes friends, since graduating college. Spring break my senior year, when I made a solo trip to Copenhagen (with a side trip to Malmö, Sweden) and Prague, is my most recent departure from the U.S. A quick trip to my hometown in Southern California last April was the last time I went somewhere for no reason other than that I wanted to. For most of the three years since graduation, I've been too busy - and too busy saving - to think much about traveling, but in the past six months I've started to actively miss it.

One paragraph in yesterday's Frugal Traveler column especially hit home:
[M]ore important, it’s about realizing that your budget — whether high or low — does not determine the quality of your travel experience. To travel well, you need to pack an open mind, a lot of energy, infinite patience and a willingness to embrace the awkward and unfamiliar. No amount of money in the world can buy those things — because they come free.
Reading that, I felt a pang of desire to hop on a plane or a train and go - anywhere - because it's a statement I recognize, and one that I agree with 100%. My most memorable travel moments have had nothing to do with spending a lot of money. They haven't happened when I've been in posh hotels or paying to visit a local attraction. In fact, most of them have happened with no money changing hands at all.

You see, for me, travel isn't about the destination, although entering a country I've never been to or exploring a city I've read about for years is thrilling. For me, travel is about connecting with the people and the culture of a place; learning just one small piece of what it is that defines that place and the people who call it home. More than museums or monuments, what I remember about the places I've been are the people whose lives I've brushed against in passing and what they've taught me about their views on life.

My clearest memories from my first trip to Europe, which I browbeat my parents into taking when I was 15, are of the people with whom I interacted. The Parisian waiter who smiled when I ordered my first croque-monsieur, the man in the Eiffel Tower information booth who patiently waited for me to fumble my way through what felt like the most complicated three questions I'd ever constructed in French and never asked me to switch to English, the dog that spent all day following us around Pompeii with a big grin on his furry face, the waiter in Sorrento who insisted it was a crime for me to not be joining my parents in drinking his chianti. I loved visiting the places - I could hardly believe I was standing at the top of the Arc de Triomphe, in front of the mosaics I'd studied in Latin class, in a German castle - but it was the people who made me want to go back.

My year abroad was the same. Aix-en-Provence felt like something out of a fairytale until I connected with the people there: the fruit vendor at the outdoor market on my way to school who took my euro, waved off the extra nine cents the scale had registered and handed me my pears with a wink; the pre-kindergarten student at the school where I volunteered who, after weeks of shyly refusing to talk, sat down next to me, lispingly asked me to read to her and leaned her head on my arm while I did; the elderly woman who, when three of my friends and I foolishly started to cross the street as a bus started down the hill toward us, lectured, "Attention, les filles !" in a tone that said, "What on earth do you think you're doing, young ladies?"

One of the best moments of that entire year was in late April, when my school's cleaning woman and I were making small talk in the empty lunchroom where I was studying. As she left the room, she paused, turned and said, "You know, if I didn't know you were American, the thought would never cross my mind that you weren't French." That's perhaps the highest compliment I've ever received, because it meant that not only had I mastered the language, but had also learned and begun to emulate the nuances of the local cultural patterns. Few comments have ever meant as much to me.

There are dozens of other moments like these that epitomize the places they happened in my memory: a British fast-food employee who was as bemused by my American accent as I was baffled by his Indian-British one, an Irish bus driver who made sure I had a seat with a view of the countryside, an elderly Italian man who commented on my being left-handed in a quiet plaza under the Florentine sun. Pieced together, these memories are a map of my travels that mean more to me than any souvenir I've purchased.

I know the scenery and the local customs will be very different as I travel through and from Australia. I plan to visit Southeast Asia, a part of the world for which I have no cultural frame of reference, and where I'll stick out like a sore thumb rather than blending in, as I was able to do in Europe. I fully expect to not understand half or more of what's said to me when I first arrive in Sydney, although the Macquarie Australian Slang Dictionary from my brother and sister-in-law will help. But the one thing I can be certain of, wherever I may be, is that it's in interacting with people - whether in English, French or pidgin Thai - that I'll find the heart of the place and make a memory to treasure it by that will last a lifetime.

Monday, May 17, 2010

It's time to move on

I love Washington, DC. I love its wonkiness, its history and the fact that, for two weeks every spring, it's completely covered in cherry blossoms. I love that everyone here is concerned about the state of the world, and that you're more likely to hear people talking politics than sports on the Metro. I love that that's true even when the people in question are wearing Caps jerseys or D.C. United scarves and are heading to or coming from a game. I love that it's a completely different city in the summer than it is the rest of the year, and that significant amounts of snow are rare enough that the entire population turns into a bunch of five-year-olds and runs out to make snow angels and throw snowballs when there are more than a couple of inches on the ground.

I love this city, but it's time for me to leave.

I initially sat down to write this post in March, when some (probably Metro-related) city hiccup had me frustrated. At that point, the above sentence read "I love this city. But if I don't get out of here soon, I'm going to lose my mind." For months, I had been becoming increasingly annoyed by Washington's inefficiencies, its tunnel vision, its suit-and-tie culture. I took it as a personal affront every time someone stepped into my path, sped around a corner as I was stepping into a crosswalk or sauntered rather than speed-walked down an escalator in front of me. Instead of my usual smile at obvious first-time visitors (well, the non-obnoxious ones), I gritted my teeth and walked past as quickly as I could. I was frustrated, edgy and suddenly obsessive about my personal space.

It's true that the Metro has been hitting more rough spots in service more frequently throughout the past year, which leads to jammed platforms, trains that bear more of a resemblance than usual to sardine cans and irritable commuters. And tourist season started in March, which always adds to city inefficiency.

It's also true that, after almost seven years inside the Beltway, the fact that I am definitely not your typical Washington personality is probably catching up with me. If I'm meeting new people, I want what's happening on the Hill or in the Supreme Court to be part of the conversation, but I also want to talk about what the EU is up to, what's going on in the Sudan, favorite hiking trails, great trips taken or planned and future goals that have nothing to do with running for office. I haven't worn a suit since my first interview for my current job almost three years ago, and that's perfectly fine with me. I sometimes dread the very thought of networking (which, in Washington, is akin to blasphemy).

My revelation that maybe I was just tired of Washington and ready to be somewhere else didn't surprise my friends at all, which came as a surprise to me. "You're a total granola type," they told me, "of course you were going to get sick of politico-mania at some point!" Me, granola? Since when? True, I like to buy local, don't own a car, am into outdoorsy stuff and non-profit work and think Seattle is one of the best cities on earth, but the "buy organic" movement generally annoys me and I haven't worn a peasant blouse since my freshman year of college. And the car thing is largely because, 90% of the time, it's more convenient in Washington to not own one.

I'm still not entirely convinced that "granola" is an accurate descriptor of my personality, but the more I thought about it, the clearer it became that inside the Beltway was no longer the best place for me to be. I'd hoped for some time that I'd be leaving in 2010 or early 2011 to pursue a graduate degree, but last fall even that began to seem too far away.

Fortunately, a solution presented itself, as they usually seem to do, which is why I'm now writing this blog from the Middle of Nowhere, AZ. The lease on my Arlington apartment came up for renewal this month and when I asked this winter about the possibility of renting month-to-month or signing a lease of less than a year, I was told both were impossible. The idea of finding a short-term lease and moving in May, then wrangling all of my stuff into storage at my parents' house in December or January before transplanting to Australia for two years was less than appealing. I talked to my parents and my boss and decided that moving to my parents' house in May and teleworking for the rest of the year was doable.

So here I am in my new home office in the Arizona mountains, with Nala curled up at my feet. I saw a herd of deer, a couple of jackrabbits and a few very arrogant-looking ravens on this morning's run and am listening to the wind whip through the pine trees outside as I take my lunch break (which is actually almost the end of my workday, since I'm keeping East Coast office hours). My mom worries that I'll go crazy inside of a month with no friends my age in the area and the nearest movie theater and grocery store 30 miles away, but I'm thrilled to have what feels a lot like time out of time to spend with my parents, focus on the aspects of my work that I love, read, write and relax before heading off on a new adventure.

I spent my last month in Washington doing typically Washington things: having brunch or dinner with friends, going to happy hour, browsing Eastern Market, attending performances at the Kennedy Center and the Washington National Opera, visiting quirky landmarks like the Mansion on O Street, wandering Dupont Circle, the monuments and the Mall. I didn't sleep much, and set my usual monthly budget aside so I could make the most of my last weeks in the city that had become my home.

As I spent my evenings packing boxes and my days rediscovering my favorite spots in the city, something began to change. I was smiling at tourists again, stopping to offer assistance if someone looked especially lost. When my morning train stopped in a tunnel for the third time, I shrugged and turned another page of my book. Rather than rush in and out, I spent ten minutes talking to the man working in The Guitar Shop when I took my guitar in to be re-strung, and he made my day when he called the same afternoon to say it was ready just because "Well, I liked you."

I arrived in Arizona last Thursday, exhausted but happy. And, unexpectedly, knowing that I'm going to miss Washington like crazy this summer: jazz in the Sculpture Garden, lazy evenings on sunny patios, even the swampy mugginess of my morning runs. Watching the Capitol Building drift by for the last time from a Super Shuttle window was bittersweet, which turned out to be better than being thrilled to leave it behind. It was absolutely time for me to leave Washington, but in preparing to leave I was able remember why I fell in love with it in the first place.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Lending a hand up

It's no secret that I'm a sucker for a good cause. I love (and, conveniently, work in!) the non-profit sector, and admire the work done by NGOs worldwide. Why? There's probably a lengthy explanation involving my psychological and sociological makeup, but basically the answer is "Because I enjoy it." I like people, I like making people happy, helping them in some way makes me happy, and doing it all around an issue or set of issues I care about increases my level of satisfaction tenfold.

Just working in the non-profit sector doesn't always feel like enough, though, and sometimes I want to get my hands on a good, old-fashioned volunteer project, be it painting schools, teaching a language or stuffing envelopes for a campaign. My life has been a little devoid of volunteerism since last May, so early this year I applied to be a volunteer translator for microlending site I've been translating for them for about a month now, and I absolutely love it.

If you're unfamiliar with Kiva or microfinance, the basic idea is this: Kiva is a non-profit that brings together a community of people dedicated to eradicating poverty by making small loans (starting at just $25) to local businesses. You'll find Kiva entrepreneurs in 196 countries - from California cities to African communities so small even Google Maps hasn't pinpointed them. There are entrepreneurs asking for $100 and entrepreneurs asking for several thousand dollars.

Whatever the amount of the loan, the process is the same: a local microfinance institution partnering with Kiva makes the initial loan, then informs Kiva, which posts the loan on its site (along with a description, photo and repayment term), where anyone who wants to can read the description and contribute to the loan. Once the loan is fully funded by Kiva lenders, Kiva sends those funds to the local microfinance institution and repayment begins. As the entrepreneur makes repayments to the local institution, those are sent on to Kiva, which repays its lenders, who can either reinvest the funds with another entrepreneur, donate to Kiva itself or withdraw the money from the Kiva system through PayPal.

There's always a lot more going on behind the scenes at a non-profit than it appears from the outside. At Kiva, one of the unexpected parts is the group of several hundred translators and editors typing away each week to get new loan descriptions translated into English and up on the site so they can be funded. Each translator is a member of a language team, with access to a dashboard that shows how many loans in their source language(s) are currently waiting to be translated and some other fun facts (for example, mine is showing that there have been 590 loans translated from French in the past month), as well as a link to the system that doles out assignments. And there's a whole wiki community of resources and discussion forums to help translators sort through unfamiliar localized terms and tricky phrases.

While I miss some of the benefits of more traditional volunteerism, like face-time with interesting people - both other volunteers and the community I'm serving - I love that this is something I can do whenever I have a few minutes, from wherever I happen to be, while helping people who are trying to enrich their lives and their communities throughout the world (well, in my case, throughout the French-speaking world).

One of the first loans I translated was for a Beninese entrepreneur named Geneviève whose loan I wanted to partially fund myself. I looked for her on the main Kiva site shortly after posting her loan, then the next day, then the day after...I couldn't find her anywhere! What happened to the loan description? I wondered, frustrated. A couple of weeks and a Google search later, I realized that I hadn't been able to find her loan because it had been fully funded by a single lender immediately after I had posted it. Curious, I delved deeper and found that every one of the loans I had translated had already been fully funded (I just checked again, and even the loans I translated on Sunday evening have already been filled).

Kiva lenders aren't kidding around! They check the site frequently and lend often because they're dedicated to helping get businesses off the ground that, without microlending, wouldn't have much of a chance. Since the first seven loans in April 2007, more than 184,000 entrepreneurs have seen their loans fully funded by more than 400,000 Kiva lenders, to the tune of about $132.5 million. And the repayment rate is an impressive 98.57%.

As a translator, I'm just a minuscule part of what Kiva does, but I love being involved. I get to read about small businesses thousands of miles away and the lives of the people running them, hone my translation skills and feel like I'm making a little bit of a difference when it comes to lending a hand (and not a handout, but a hand up) to some of the people who need it most.

Kiva loans start at $25 and increase in increments of $25. To become a Kiva lender, visit