About Me

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Hello! Welcome to my online travel-food-life journal/virtual scrapbook. I am a poet, playwright, journalist, editor and basic jack-of-all-trades writer. I was born in El Salvador and raised in Minnesota. I have just returned home from a year and a half in South Africa.

28 March 2013

Boston 4: My Harvard Experience


"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ..."

Ah, Harvard!

So, as I mentioned in the first of these Boston posts, my feelings on Harvard are complicated.  It is an odd thing to have gone to school like Harvard, especially as an immigrant kid.  People hear the word "Harvard" and there are a whole list of assumptions that are made instantly.  They range from "smart and hard-working" to "box-checker" to "arrogant and privileged."

Harvard is a wonderful place, an amazing school, a resource beyond compare.  But it is also a very intense, competitive place.  You are surrounded by genius-level kids and their generations of preparation.  

At least for me, it just wasn't a friendly place.  And as a very shy, very unsure/insecure undergrad, I needed a little more friendly.  Partially my frustrations were with the school itself, its rigid and conservative views (at least at the time) on things like Ethnic Studies, professors you rarely met, impersonal advisers, etc.  I just didn't find a lot of encouragement.  I was told a couple of times that if I really wanted to study what I wanted to study (U.S. Latino literature) I'd have to transfer to a school out West.  It was very hard for me to find my place there.  I've come to realize that it's a phenomenon common to immigrant kids in higher education, but at the time, I just felt very isolated and scared.

Which is where the other part of my frustrations lay -- with myself.  I guess since I'm writing about this I might as well talk about something that I've referred to briefly before -- and that is my struggle with depression.  I did not know -- certainly did not recognize -- but I'm pretty sure I went through 2 if not 3 bouts of major depression while at Harvard.  For anyone who has never experienced depression, it is very difficult to describe what it is like, but let's just say that it made an intimidating place all the more intimidating.  I did not know I needed help, did not know how to ask for it.  Eventually I would.  Eventually I would tame my "black dog" as Winston Churchill called it.  But at the time I was just hanging on by my fingernails.  

Given all that, it's actually a miracle I finished, and with not-too-shabby grades either.  But for a long time, I never wanted to talk about having gone to Harvard.  I didn't want the assumptions made about me, didn't want to sound whiny and ungrateful, didn't want to relive what were some painful times.

But I've come to terms with it.  In the past few years I can honestly say I've reclaimed the title of Harvard alumna.  Do I wish some things had been different?  Of course.  But time gives perspective and now I can be proud of having gritted my teeth and gotten through it.  I can appreciate all the fun times and the good professors and the doors it has opened.  I can now more thoroughly elaborate when people ask, "What was Harvard like?"

What was it like?  It was beautiful and scary and wonderful and inspiring and crushing and I made life-long friends and some days I just wanted to run screaming.

And you thought I was just going to show you pretty pictures of the campus!

But really, this is how far I've come: I used to say I'd never want a kid of mine to go to Harvard.  Now I say, hell yes I'd want them to go (someone's gotta maintain my poet ass in my old age), I'd just try and prepare the daylights out of them.  And send them lots of care packages!

So there you go, a brief account of 4 of the most intense, most important years of my life.  Harvard, you kicked the crap out of me, but oddly, I still miss you.

It was great to visit my old house (Harvard upperclassmen live in one of 13 houses, this was mine, good ole Currier House!)

27 March 2013

Boston 3: Pudding Lust

When we left off we had just finished (barely!) the Freedom Trail.  The following day was our last full day in Boston, so I wanted to spend the day at Harvard.

But first, we stopped for lunch at one of my favorite old haunts.  

And "haunts" is the perfect word, for I was indeed haunted ... by a pudding.

No, I know that sounds dramatic, but really.  Have you ever had an experience where you taste something and it's so sublime that you spend years trying to find it again?

Well, once upon a time, a little Harvard undergrad worked at a social service agency in Central Square (one subway stop away from Harvard Square, but a whole other world away.)  Sometimes, when she had a bit of extra money in her pocket, she would stop at this Indian joint and feast on their buffet.  Their samosas were amazing, the lassis excellent ... but it was their kheer that made her see unicorns and double rainbows.

 ... lo and behold over 15 years later, it's still there!  Shalimar of India how I have missed you! 

Kheer is Indian rice pudding -- delicate and divine -- and no one, absolutely no one does it better!  Believe me, I've tried kheer at so many Indian restaurants and nothing has ever come close.  It'd been over a decade and a half that I've been dreaming about the perfection of this kheer ... and how was it? 

Oh.  Oh.  There are no words.  Except these: delicate bits of rice, subtly perfumed with cardamom, tiny slivers of almond, the occasional golden raisin and an almost toffee-like aftertaste.

After some shameless flattery, I got the owner to give me the recipe -- the ingredients at least, not the exact measurements -- which I doubt he'd be able to tell me anyways.  I have a feeling it's just one of those things that they've made thousands of times and never even think about.  He said the true secret is that, "As long as you cook it, that is how good it will be.  And keep stirring."  

So I'm setting myself a challenge.  Picture me stirring pot after pot, hour after hour, peeking in anxiously -- that's how I'm gonna be spending my Friday nights!  I am determined to make this at home.  I can't go another 15 years without that taste.  

Actually though, I'm almost afraid to start experimenting to recreate the recipe, because if by some culinary miracle I actually get close, I'm afraid that I'm gonna hafta devour it by the panful.  

I'll keep you updated!

Anyhoo, that's the tale of one girl's 15-year pudding lust.  Tomorrow, Harvard!

21 March 2013

Boston 2: Dim Sum, Freedom Trail & North End

So, we loved Hei La Moon so much for dinner that we went back the next day for DIM SUM!  Can we talk about dim sum?  I love dim sum and one of the few sorrows about living in Minnesota is that I have yet to find good dim sum ... Does anyone have any suggestions?  Cuz, really, is there any better breakfast than spicy clams?  We don't think so!

Thus (heavily) fortified, we started The Freedom Trail:

Remember how I said if you have 2 days in Boston then you have to do the MFA?  Well, if you only have one, then you absolutely must do the Freedom Trail.  It is a 2.5-mile walk that takes you through 16 historically important sites through Boston.  It's free and simple, just follow the red-bricked road!

I've done this now a bunch of times, and each time I learn something new and am re-enchanted with the living history Boston embodies.

You start at Boston Commons and quickly reach the Massachusetts State House and the Granary Burying Ground.  Paul Revere, signers of the Declaration of Independence Samuel Adams and John Hancock, and Phillis Wheatley -- slave and first African-American poet and first African-American woman to publish a book -- are all buried here.

Another of my favorites is The Old South Meeting House:

From the organization point for the Boston Tea Party to modern-day rallies and events, The Old South Meeting House reaffirms that one of America's greatest strengths is -- and has always been -- its rabblerousers who refuse to let injustices go unchallenged.  One of my favorite statues inside is of Margaret Sanger (1883-1966.)  A plaque next to this stunning sculpture reads, "As a public health nurse (she) witnessed the disastrous effects of unlimited births on poor families.  Her life's mission was to legalize birth control.  She was arrested numerous times for distributing information and lecturing about sexual contraceptives.  When officials barred her from speaking in Boston's public halls, Sanger taped her mouth shut to protest and dramatize their efforts to silence her."

Close by is The New England Holocaust Memorial:

Haunting.  And infuriating (why don't we ever learn?)

You keep walking and hit Paul Revere territory in the North End:

Now, I know I said that the trail is only 2.5 miles long, but with all the walking and stopping you do at each stop, you get tired!  To will ourselves to finish we stopped for a break and I had to indulge in one of my college favorites, a plain donut with Dunkin' Donuts' crack-tastic coffee:

Then it was off to The USS Constitution, she was launched in 1797 and today is America's oldest commissioned ship:

Aaron is a big historic-boat buff and I'm just a big history buff in general, so we loved it!

We went below decks and I made Aaron stop and grab this picture of me:

Why there?  Well look what this cannon was nicknamed:


The ship is located in the former Charlestown Navy Yard which has a fascinating history of its own, especially during the World War II era:

I almost walked out of the museum shop with this:

By this time our feet were killing us, but we were determined to make it to the end of the trail, Bunker Hill, the site of the first major conflict between British and Patriot forces in the American Revolutionary War, fought here on June 17, 1775:

On our way down the hill we ran into this little guy:

Quite possibly one of my favorite pictures I've ever taken.  Look at his jaunty, swingy-ness.  Like he's taking his last bow, doing a little shuffle dance & saying "Hey folks, it's been great, thanks for coming out, catch you next winter! <<JAZZ HANDS>> Goodnight!"

Now it was still early, but after all that walking we were famished!  Thankfully we were close to the North End, Boston's historic Italian neighborhood which is cram-full of every kind of Italian cuisine you can imagine. Can you hear the angels sing?

We ended up going to  Panza; and I highly recommend it!  It got rave reviews online with the caveat that there were often long waits.  Well, thanks to being so early, we got in with no wait and had a prime table.

I wish my pictures had turned out, but it was just too dark inside.  Take it from me though, the food was scrumptious.  We had a perfect Caesar salad to start, Sicilian ribs as an appetizer then I had a free-form lasagna with pepper-pasta (amazing) and Aaron had some sort of sausage and rigatoni mish-mash that I wanted to steal from him.

To finish our epic day we had coffee & treats at a nearby cafe ... I had my favorite filled Italian cookies:

Then back to the studio and some serious foot-rubbing ... tomorrow would be our last full day in Boston and we'd be going for a grand tour of my alma mater!

19 March 2013

Boston 1: MFA, Fenway, Walk & Chinatown

So, a couple of weeks ago Aaron and I went to one of my favorite cities ever, ever, ever: Boston!

I went to Harvard as an undergrad -- which I don't think I've ever talked about on this blog.  It always seemed an odd thing to mention amidst bread recipes and lion sightings.  I have lots to say about going to Harvard, but I think I'll just save that for another post.  Sufficed to say for now that it was -- and still is -- a complex experience.  But whatever my Harvard life was like, I always adored Boston.  I loved it from the time my sister (who lived in New York City) took me to visit colleges there the summer between junior and senior year.  In fact, I loved it so much that I only applied to schools in Boston!  Crazy, now that I think of it.  

And what drew me as a 16-year-old still draws me hhhmmmmlalala years later: being able to walk and walk and walk and always see something interesting; great public transportation; the huge range of cuisines; the mix of high-brow and down-home cultures; and more than anything, the history that you can see, feel and touch all around you.

The first few days I was attending the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) annual conference.  It's essentially the biggest writer's conference in the country, and I was there to perform/present at one of the panels on behalf of The Loft.  I don't have any pics of the conference itself cuz I'm a loser, but it was a fantastic conference -- got to meet amazing writers, get some very sound, practical advice and was left open-mouthed by some of the poets who performed.

Aaron then joined me and we had a jam-packed 4 days of enjoying the city.  It was really special to me to be able to share Boston with him -- it is the place where I began to grow into the woman I was to become and I wanted to take him to all my favorite spots, my favorite restaurants and -- oh hell -- I guess revisit my misbegotten youth.

First up was the Museum of Fine Arts:

Much like the Harvard experience, I could say a great deal about my conflicted feelings about museums.  Of course they serve a hugely important role in preservation and education, but the politics of repatriating (or not) national treasures, etc. always bugs me.  Still, it is a stellar collection, brilliantly curated that spans from modern weavings to Mayan masterpieces to Monets and so much more.  If you have only 2 days in Boston, take one whole day just for the museum, it's that stellar.

Amid all the treasures like the Olmec mask above and the rows of Velazquez paintings and such, I found what I think was the most hilarious thing I have ever seen in a museum:

YES!  A good museum trip is never complete without copulating rats, I say.

Then, a beer break:

Those are blueberries in my beer! (That's the awesome Bunker Hill Bluebeery Ale at the Boston Beer Works.)

And post-beer, what are you gonna do?  Go to Fenway Park of course!

Aaron is a huge baseball fan, so he had a blast standing on top of the "Green Monster."

And there's me reliving my journalism days in the press box:

Then we took a really long walk through the heart of the city:

This is what I love about Boston; look at that gorgeous old architecture right smack dab between glass and steel.  No other American city does it better.

We were exhausted -- and famished -- by the time we hit Chinatown:

We ended up eating at Hei La Moon, which a friend from college who still lives in Boston recommended.  It is Hong Kong food at its best!

We staggered home to the studio we rented to get some sleep, rest our weary feet and get ready for even more intense walking the next day ...