Saturday, October 29, 2011

Fuck Fluticasone.

I figured out this week that, rather than asthma, a more likely source of  most of the breathing issues I've had is the medication they put me on - an inhaler with a steroid called fluticasone. It's an immunosuppressant, and I've gotten several upper respiratory infections. I also have this sneaky suspicion that it made things somewhat more difficult for me in China, and the amount of chest pain I've had is way up compared to the pre-medicinal days.

Do I have some breathing issues? Yes, particularly during allergy season.  Most of that is pretty lightweight if I'm somewhere with not much mold. I didn't have any sort of medications until I was 19 1/2. I've only used my rescue inhaler once in the US, and that was an overreaction. If I go back to China, I will need to take some meds with me, but even then...

But generally, I'm a pretty healthy guy. Pre-inhaler, I was at a good weight, with a 99th percentile heart rate. Now, I've had five infections in as many months, as well as other issues. I'm kinda pissed at the doctor now. You're supposed to lower your inhaler dosage over time, but the doctors didn't do that. Furthermore, they put me on heavy-level dosages during a bad allergy season, even though I had almost no history of this sort of thing.

I've spoken with a few doctor friends on the phone, and they've told me I don't need this medication.

So I'm mad. I'm sorta going off myself, but I'm going to the student clinic here on Monday to simply tell the doctor "I'm not taking this medication anymore, what do I need to know about going off this medication?"

I had a great past five months, but I'm mad that I was basically hoodwinked into thinking that I had something more serious than I actually did. And I'm sick of getting sick all the time. And I'm sick of taking the inhaler twice a day when it just makes shit worse.

And I'm sick of how we throw pills and formulas at illness now. My mother kicked the ass of every cold I ever had with tea, soup, and OJ. Meanwhile, I'm taking a medicine that makes me get more stuff.

Sorry about the rant.

P.S. I would've had to come home from China early anyway. That was one hell of a spider.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Rye bread is the best bread

I love rye bread. Crusty, tart, slightly sour, rye is truly the ultimate grain for a good loaf. The thought of toasted rye with butter and pickles makes me…very happy. Very, very happy. I am very much a good Jewish boy: give me my rye with bits of caraway, and I am your willing slave.

The entire country of Finland also loves rye bread – Finland has more varieties of ruisleipä, or rye bread, than any country. Finnish immigrants brought recipes with them to the United States, and one version somehow made it into a vegetarian cookbook from Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca.

Last week, while I was baking kugel with Sharon in her dormitory, we found a collection of cookbooks. I found that the vegetarian cookbook had forty pages of Finnish recipes. Given my obsession with all things Finnish, I got really excited, and proceeded to copy down some of the recipes. I then decided: the following Saturday, I would write my essay and make rye bread. I adjusted the recipe to my taste – a bit more butter, and the essential addition of caraway.

The original plan was to go up to the Swedish grocery in Andersonville in the morning to buy a good, proper Scandinavian rye flour, but that didn’t happen because of combined fatigue and laziness. So I went to Treasure Island – Hyde Park’s very own overpriced supermarket. Luckily, TI did have a decent quality rye flour.

Then it was time to make bread (and write my essay in between). I hadn’t made bread for years, so I approached the process as a novice (though I did know how to knead). It was quite the experience.

Firstly: making bread is a lot of work. Kneading is damn good exercise for the arms, and the whole process is pretty long – although the ingredients are pretty simple. You all should give bakers a ton of respect.

Secondly: making bread is really rewarding. It’s such a staple food, but it’s such an art. You really can’t appreciate bread until you’ve tried to make it yourself. It’s hard, and frustrated. When you’re holding that loaf in your hand, a feeling of achievement like no other comes over you. You’ve made bread! Crusty bread! The ultimate food!

I’m pretty happy with how the bread turned out. In retrospect, I should have used darker rye flour, but the bread was still tasty and filling. My dormmates really seemed to like it, as did my friends Aaron, David and Douglas. I definitely plan to make this recipe again – especially given that I have requests from three people now.

The recipe is below, for your culinary pleasure.


Ruisleipä – Finnish-Style Rye Bread
Based on a recipe by Susan Harville, with additions from the Jewish tradition

1 ½ cups milk (apparently, you can use beer instead!)
2 tablespoons butter, plus additional for surface coating and glazing
1 teaspoon salt
1 pack dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
½ cup warm water (a bit extra is recommended, but not more than 2/3rds of a cup)
2 cups rye flour
½-¾ teaspoon caraway seeds
3 ½ cups white flour, plus additional for surface-coating

1.       Heat the milk until warm, but not beginning to bubble – you should be able to touch the warm milk without saying “ow.” Add the butter and salt and stir in until blended. Set aside to cool.
2.       Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the warm water. Let stand until the yeast starts foaming royally.
3.       Stir the yeast and cooled liquid together in a fairly large mixing bowl.
4.       Add the rye flour and caraway seeds; stir until smooth.
5.       Add the white flour to the mixture cup by cup, and stir until you have a stiff dough. You may need about half a cup of extra white flour.
6.       Dust a surface (cutting board or cookie sheet recommended) with white flour. I recommend dusting your hands as well with flour when you knead – the dough sticks less to your hands.
7.       Dump the dough onto the surface and knead until the dough is stiff enough to be about the same texture as your earlobe. An alternate test is to check if the dough holds the shape of a finger after the finger is stuck into the dough and removed. The dough should be a rough ball.
8.       Cover the dough with a damp cloth and let stand for 15 minutes. In the meantime, coat a large mixing bowl with butter. Be sure to coat the bowl well.
9.       Once the dough has rested, knead the dough until it is smooth and passes the earlobe test. Again, dust your hands with flour beforehand.
10.   Place the dough in the buttered bowl, cover with a damp cloth, and let rise for two hours – it should be about double in size at the end. Flour your hands again!
11.   Punch the dough – and we’re talking a good punch here. Knead the dough for one minute or so, until it’s at earlobe test level again.
12.   Butter a large-ish cookie sheet very well, then divide the dough into two parts. Form two rough, round, low loaves, then place each on the baking sheet. Cut a hole through the center of each.
13.   Cover the dough with damp cloths, and let rise for half an hour – the loaves will increase in size.
14.   Preheat your oven to 375F. Brush the loaves with water, and if you choose, some melted butter. Puncture the loaves with a fork in several places – I recommend doing a nice pattern for this. If you wish, sprinkle some more caraway seeds on top of the loaf.
15.   Bake the loaves for about 30-35 minutes, or until they sound hollow when knocked on the bottom. Cool, and nom. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What makes a good professor?

I generally have really awesome professors this quarter.

My professor for the social science philosophy requirement at Chicago is not only a brilliant scholar, but a clear speaker and a generally nice guy. The teacher in the Norwegian class I'm auditing has taught us an incredible amount of Norwegian culture, vocabulary and grammar in four weeks - all with a relaxed smile (and, occasionally, cookies!). My Geography professor is a Grand Old Sir who makes the class into the biggest storytime ever. My history professor is....EPIC. She is a GENIUS. She is AMAZING. I've learned so much about Chicago....

(My Chinese class is a bit dull. Alas.)

I also had some amazing teachers at UChicago last year - my Ottoman Civilization professor, Ancient Egypt professor, and Chinese teacher spring to mind. And my Assyria professor. I learned more in one year here than I learned in most of my classes in high school.

So I've been thinking - what makes a good professor?

I don't think there's a formula or anything. Honestly, each discipline to a certain extent will require different attributes - I could go on and on about good language teachers (of which I've had several), or good history teachers (of which I've had several), or bad English teachers (of which I've had two), or terrible math teachers (of which I've had two). But I've identified a few attributes that all my amazing professors shared:

Passion - all of my professors are really passionate about what they're teaching. They don't necessarily see it as the world's most important thing, but it's the thing that they love - their beloved discipline. They get excited when you show interest in a topic (for example, my Egypt professor's amazing reading list when I told her I was interested in Coptic stuff), but they don't tell you that it should be your passion too. They just push their love for the topic into the way they teach, and they teach it with gusto. It's not a drag for them.

Humanity - I've unfortunately have had a professor  who looks down on students, treats them like uncultured jackasses, and makes broad and inaccurate assumptions about them.

My awesome professors don't do that. If anything, they show their own human nature to the students - their pet peeves, or their funny stories, or even just the things that make them happy. They talk to the students as friends, and are generally quite helpful. I don't feel awkward around my favorite professors, because they've made themselves human.

Cross-disciplinary ability - a good professor is fucking amazing in his or her own discipline and really good at a few others. This allows them to really put a broader perspective into their teaching. They can bring in other sciences and disciplines, and put their subject into a much more useful context. I would have not liked Assyrian history so much had my professor not put it into a context of broader imperial history and the context of Biblical exegesis (Assyriology is extremely useful for the Old Testament). I learned a lot about urban planning and construction in my Egyptian history class. My Norwegian class is also a great place to learn about different conceptions of modesty, and the aspects of bad translations. My Ottoman history class completely changed the way I think about politics in the US. It really makes the subject...even more awesome.

Visual skills - one thing I've noticed is that a good professor can present information well in a visual sense. My Civ professors had amazing slideshows (Power-Points can be awesome. Consult Hakan Karateke or Nadine Moeller for assistance). My Social Sciences professor makes incredible charts to explain Smith. My Chinese teacher last year had an incredible calendar on his syllabus. A good sense for information organization can make a world of difference.

Stern grading - I'm totally old school with grades, and I like professors to be that way too. You won't improve unless the professor is totally honest with you. My favorite professors are harsh graders who tell it to you like it is. It helps you learn more and improve your writing/knowledge/language ability. Then again, I do well in their classes because they teach so well. But if I mess up, I know their honesty will help me get back up again.
This post is for my friend Hannah, who's currently kicking ass as a Teach for America corps member in Detroit. Hannah, you're going to be one of these amazing teachers. I know it.
Side update: I'm going to probably start a separate blog where I do pop song translations between English and Chinese. The Milkshake translation project will go on this, as will translations of Teresa Teng songs (Teng was a Taiwanese diva in the 70s and 80s), as well as everyone's favorite Beyoncé song - Single Ladies.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sukkot and the Joys of Kugel (with recipes!)

Sukkot is one of the more awesome holidays of the Jewish calendar.

It's a week-long festival celebrating both the autumnal harvest and the forty-year wandering period in the desert following the Exodus. Traditionally, one eats meals in an outdoor booth made of branches, a sukkah. Tradition and Jewish law also requires prayer with the four species: palm branch, myrtle and willow bound together and called collectively a lulav (which is also the word for palm branch) and an etrog (citron in English). Nowadays, the Orthodox still follow the traditions fully, but most non-Orthodox - myself included - only participate in some of the festivities.

I've eaten twice in the sukkah at the University's Hillel (institutional), and I'm going to do the lulav-and-etrog thing either tomorrow or Tuesday. I don't have my own, so I'll borrow a friend's, or use communal ones at a synagogue in the neighborhood. Lulavim and etrogim are expensive.

Why do I like Sukkot? Well, there are several reasons. Firstly, the commandment to be happy is an awesome thing. Sukkot is a holiday of joy, of warm feelings and exuberant singing, of celebration and enjoying the most basic facet of life: the change in seasons. Secondly, eating outside can be quite an experience. Al fresco dining not only allows you to simultaneously experience breezes and bread (or, like Friday night, damp and bread), but also makes you appreciate the fact that most of the time, you eat indoors, shielded from things like wet. And jacket-wearing during dinner.

My prayer group threw a little party for Sukkot today. Originally it was going to be baked goods and games, but it ended up being baked goods and bonding. My friend Sharon and I made two of my recipes:

1. Lokshen-kugel, or noodle kugel. It's a Jewish traditional casserole. Think bread pudding, but replace the bread with noodles, and add cream cheese. My maternal grandmother's recipe is great.

2. Apple cake. Sharon had gone apple picking yesterday, and apple items are always awesome. My paternal grandmother has an idiotproof recipe for apple cake that requires few ingredients and zilch effort.

The party, though small (only about 10-12 attendees) was a success. Most of the group regulars came, along with some of my other friends (which was awesome). The baked goods were a success (kugel is a wonderful, wonderful thing), so I'm posting the recipes below. The gathering was really a celebration of what Sukkot is: enjoying the (for once, beautiful - this is Chicago) autumn weather and being happy with those around you.

Chag sameach - Happy Holidays.

Lokshen-Kugel/Noodle Kugel
adapted from my maternal grandmother's recipe

Note: I tend to eyeball measurements while baking. Adjust as necessary.

~10-12 oz. egg noodles (I recommend a thinner cut)
4-5 eggs
1 1/4 c. brown sugar
2 c. milk
1 c. flour
3 oz. cream cheese, softened (leave it out for say, an hour or so before using)
a handful of raisins (optional)
1/4-1/2 tsp cinnamon (optional)

1. Cook the noodles until al dente. You do not want them to be too soft; they will soften as they bake. Drain, rinse and set aside.
2. Preheat your oven to 375F. Butter a cake pan, a shallow 13x9 pan will do.
3. In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs until consistent. Add the sugar, milk, and flour, (and cinnamon here too) and beat until you have a thin batter.
4. Mix in the cream cheese and beat until the cream cheese is in small bits throughout the mixture. You may need to use a whisk to cut the cream cheese if it's stubborn about softening.
5. Place the noodles into the pan. (Mix the raisins in by hand if you add raisins.) Spread evenly on the bottom of the pan.
6. Ladle the liquid-cheese mixture into the pan and press it into the noodles. The noodles should be soaked, but  not submerged in the fluid. If you need more liquid, beat an egg, some milk and sugar together.
7. Bake at 375F for 45-50 minutes, or until only cream cheese residue and some moisture comes out with a toothpick. The top should be crisp; it's awesome to have a few burned noodles.

Easy-as-Fuck Apple Cake
Adapted from my paternal grandmother's recipe. She does not call it this. This recipe is something  I have never measured for, so the measures here are a guess.

Chopped fresh apples (I recommend using sweeter apples. Cut as you wish, I like thin disk-like slices)
2 c. flour
1 c. sugar
2 c. milk
3 eggs

1. Preheat your oven to roughly 375F. Butter a pan. (13x9 and shallow-ish will do.)
2. Spread the apples at the bottom to cover the floor of the pan. The number of apples you'll need depends on the apple you use.
3. Mix the flour, sugar, milk and eggs to make a thin batter.
4. Pour over apples to cover.
5. Bake until the top of the cake is golden, and a toothpick comes out clean. That should be around 35-40 minutes, but possibly longer.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

My project brings all the nerds to the yard

So originally I was going to post some more Jewish stuff (chag sameach, it's Sukkot) and segue into a heady mix of Arctic politics, recipes, and talking about the Chinese language again, but I'm tired tonight. So that's delayed.  I feel like posting, but not on anything serious.

So I'll post on a stupid little project of mine.

Milkshake, trashy as it is, is one of the best songs ever (you can see my opinions on pop music here, in an earlier post). Kelis really hit the ball with that one, and Mean Girls fame or not, it's pretty sweet. Not so great on the feminism front, but I like the "it's the girl's power" thing. And the milkshake metaphor.

Nerd that I am, I'm translating the song into Chinese. It's actually a fun challenge, and way better than what I was translating in Shenzhen (which was interesting, but rather stiff and legal-ish).

The preliminary translation is done. I'm going to rework it to be more idiomatic very soon, no sometime soon, maybe next month,  when I have time.

 Here it is - Chinese speakers, feel free to give your feedback.

Lyrics in English are copyright Kelis. This is my own freelance translation.






请主义, 小偷被抓,



, 你一进去,
大群看这儿, /



Sunday, October 9, 2011

Five resolutions for the coming year

Yom Kippur is when we come to terms with our humanity, and when we come to terms with our sins. We ask for forgiveness from G-d, and we ask from our friends, and we take steps towards being better people. Yom Kippur really concentrates on malicious acts done towards your fellow human beings, and one's repentance is supposed to be strongest in regards to acts against your fellow (and G-d).

I  myself have definitely not been nearly as nice or as good of a person to those around me as I could have been over the past year. I've identified five areas I want to improve in. I am human and will not be perfect, but, by His will, I hope to improve in these areas.

Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Make my own judgments, and not so readily believe the judgment of others. I've too readily believed the judgments of others on people, often with negative consequences. I've developed bad impressions of perfectly nice people, and too readily took other's anger as aspects of truth. I need to make fewer judgments like this.

2. Gabber less, listen more. I sometimes overpower conversations and don't let other, very interesting things get said. I want to be more conversationally polite.

3. More chesed, less snark. Chesed is the Jewish term for "grace and loving-kindness." Oftentimes, where I should respond with this, I am instead snarky or really...uncaring. I want to be less hurtful, even if I don't hurt the person directly.

4. Less gossiping. Gossiping is bad. I sometimes do it. I'd really like to do it less. My dormitory is honestly extremely gossipy, so I will really have to have a strong will on this. I hate it when people talk about me behind my back, so I really should practice what I preach.

5. Defend my friends more strongly. I'm friends with sets of people who dislike each other. Sometimes, when someone starts saying unjustified things about another friend of mine, I just sit there awkwardly. Enough of that. Nobody is talking about the people I love and care for like that. I'm defending y'all.

I hope to keep these things up. I have other tasks (forgiving certain folks, volunteering a few times), but these are the things I really thought about. I hope that I am able to do them.

Gmar tov to everyone.


Speaking of improvements to one's own self, my friend Hillel has yet another blog - I've linked it in the blogroll. It's called Improving Myself to Death, and he's chronicling his quest to achieve certain goals. Hillel is amazingly reflective about himself in general, and y'all should help him by reading his blog and egging him on. You rock, Hillel.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

I still love the fall, and a proposal

Yes, I'm geeking out about the fall again.

Autumn's here.

It went from unseasonably cold to unseasonably hot. But that's autumn: schizophrenic, indecisive.

The leaves on the Midway now are gold, red, and green. I'm staring outside the cafeteria window, and there's a  - sycamore perhaps? - with deep yellow leaves, standing proudly within the dormitory courtyard it is in. The ivy on the buildings here has started to change color.

I've started to breathe really well again (woodknocking, B"H). Autumn air is good for me.

There's something about the cold air that makes me happy. About the dying leaves, about the smell of fire and earlier nights.

So then I ask: who would like to celebrate the season with me? It would have to be after Yom Kippur, but we could meet on the lake, have some things with pumpkin and other fall foods, and appreciate the fact that we, perhaps, live in one of the most climatically beautiful cities in the world. The lake, the seasons, the drama of trees and buildings against the lake.

It sounds pretentious, but let's do it!

Sunday, October 2, 2011


Rosh Hashanah’s always been more of a New Year to me than the January 1st one.

Don’t get me wrong. I use the Gregorian calendar 99% of the time. Unless it’s a major Jewish holiday, I likely do not know the Hebrew date. I have a vague sense of which month it is in the Jewish calendar, and that’s it. My Jew time looks more like:

“RoshHashanahDaysofAweYomKippur-SukkotShminiAzeretSimchatTorah-HOLIDAY DEARTH-Hannukah-Winter chilling-Tu Bishvat-make hamantaschen-Purim-oh look, flowers-PESACH!!!-Omer-SHAVUOT!* -More dearth-Tisha B’Av-More dearth-Oh shit gotta buy apples.”
*Shavuot is hands down the best holiday in the Jewish calendar.

But the Gregorian New Year is dull.

Rosh HaShanah is exciting.

I shall use a comparison to explain why:

Chinese mansions and temples, in the doorways, traditionally had foot-level thresholds that one has to step over to cross into the next room. These thresholds not only act as markers of personal space, but also as markers of spiritual space.

I see Time much in the same way. As we cross into another spiritual (and academic, and for me, age) year, we step from the room of the year before, which we may have left in a messy state, into the spotless room of the year to come. But we can’t see the interior of this room that well. The force of G-d propels us into it, but we are still scared. The Gregorian date doesn’t do that.

We are scared when we cross. So to cross over, we go with friends. And that’s why this Rosh HaShanah meant so much to me.

To jump the threshold back home meant hours in a synagogue surrounded by sullen old people. We’d never get enough tickets (I consider ticketing services questionable at best), so I’d often be alone. The only time I felt warm was with my family, relaxing after services or at my mother’s incredible Rosh HaShanah dinner.

To jump here meant to be with Sharon and Aaron and Douglas and Chana and Noah and all the crazy Egal folks I love. It meant to be listening to a rabbi who you’ve discussed the finer points of candy with. It meant to sing prayers – and hear voices that were not just sincere, but were those of the ones you loved.

And that’s just awesome.

To jump the threshold is to allow the force of G-d to run through you. This is the point where you enter your own judgment, where you act against your own shortcomings, where you come to terms with your own humanity.

I went with a first-year in my dorm to do Tashlich on the shore of Lake Michigan. For those of you unfamiliar, Tashlich is a ritual in which one “casts away” one’s sins symbolically by throwing breadcrumbs or cereal into running water. The idea is that the fish, who are usually the likely consumers of your “sins” (in Chicago, it’s gulls), never have their eyes closed – just as your sins never leave you, and G-d can always see them. (See is an inappropriate word for the force that G-d is. You can’t really use that type of mortal, fleshy verb to describe what actions G-d takes).

As I threw the cereal into the lake, looking out at the beautiful waterscape  ahead , I felt compelled. It was awesome. It was like having a force run through you.

I had that too when I read Torah at Thursday morning services. I had practiced my portion, memorized it even, and yet when I faced the text, I began to shake uncontrollably. I do not believe in a literal text, but it is still a text with holy energy. And I felt that coursing through me, and propelling me into the New Year.

And dang, it was great.


For those of you who are celebrating:

 Shana Tova uMetuka! A sweet and Happy New Year! May the upcoming year be productive and happy, loving and energetic, inspiring and creative for you. May you and your family and friends know peace and evade sorrow. May He who pervades and outlasts everything give you blessing.

As you cross the threshold into 5772, may you do so with those you love and care for. May you find the reflection you seek and the insight you desire. May you be inscribed in the Book of Life, however you interpret it.

I wish you all the best.