Category Archives: Life

Summer Travels, part 1

I am about to embark on the last leg of my summer travels and visit some friends from grad school and my parents. These travels have been interesting for a number of reasons, mostly that I returned to some places I haven’t been in a while – this is a good way to see how I have changed.

My first foray into the world this summer was a trip to visit my dear friends G and B, and all their friends, but not their dog (sniff), in Edmonton. They drove me everywhere I wanted to go, and we got to see B’s parents, my aunt and uncle (amazing) and some friends from Ottawa and Toronto. I met my friend’s husband for the first time and played with their cute kid (who is my distant relative, so, I claim ownership). I had some tea with a cousin who also lives in Edmonton and we caught up on the past a lot of years. This was a good holiday.

My next foray into summer travel was less fun. Instead of going to a conference in Puerto Rico as I had planned, I went to my grandfather’s funeral in Saskatchewan. This was undoubtedly the right decision and I spent some time with my dad and brother (my mom couldn’t make it) and my dad’s extended family grieving and remembering his life. When I came back to Bluffton, one of my friends asked me about my grandfather. I said simply that he was a good man. He was not a famous man (but he did write a lot of letters to a Mennonite newspaper, which makes him famous among my very extended family and friends of my dad in Mexico and Latin America). He did many things for his community, he loved my grandma and his family.

A few weeks later, I began my epic summer of travel in Mexico. I went to DF for a day (and went to none of the coffee shops or taquerías I had written about before), did a few errands, and then travelled to Chihuahua and Zacatecas (with brief time spent in Coahuila and 10 minutes in Durango). I felt like I encountered about 5 cultures in a week – Mexico City, airports, broader Northern Mexican culture, and, broadly speaking, Kleine Gemeinde, Old Colony (two kinds) and General Conference Mennonites in three different colonies. It was a lot to take in. I had heard of these places all my life but had never known what they were like – in some ways it was like visiting the community my dad grew up in, and in other ways, not at all. The way people’s houses are structured is, for example, more like how my grandparents’ house was than most Mexican homes I’ve visited. The food was a delicious blend between Mennonite and Mexican. A bit more coke that I’m used to, and a bit more Nescafé as well (fairly common in Mexico), but it was lovely. I of course was doing research for my new project so I was trying to take everything in. I may have succeeded.

I was able to bring some of this pseudo-ethnographic research to bear on two presentations I did when I got back to the part of Mexico I understand a bit better. But more on that next week.


Rituals and Routines

We are now about to begin the fourth week of the semester at Bluffton, and so routines are well underway. I remember once in probably grade five or six I was writing a composition in French about my Thanksgiving and I talked about celebrating with our family friends, several of whom have now passed away. Rituals change and traditions shift. But that doesn’t mean I want them to.

Some of my favourite rituals in fact occur during Christmas. For many years, we have had Christmas dinner with family but this year they decided to enjoy the sun so we celebrated with others. And then boxing day. We all know that this is the best part of Christmas. It involves ham, which is superior to turkey, and some of my most beloved family friends (and some others. You know who you are, reading this blog while working in international development). According to Victor Turner, a scholar of religion, rituals bring us into a liminal moment outside of ordinary time and space. He doesn’t discuss how distressing it is to deviate from them, how some new things like board games are fine, but other new things, like people not being there, are not. For example, this year we spread out getting together with these beloved people throughout the vacation, but I hope that we never deviate from this tradition again.

The school year also begins with rituals. I have some activities I do with my students each first day of school, and always make them do an activity before I hand out the syllabus. This ritual is somewhat routine for me, but sets the tone for the class. And as much as I love the rituals of Christmas, I need routines. I have a workout plan so that by the end of the semester I will get closer to my lifting goals (squat my bodyweight, deadlift double). I also plan out my semester in terms of how much writing I will do. I have a five-year plan, and semester goals, which I then break down into weekly goals. I also have a fill-in-the-blank schedule for how many hours I write each day and how they compare to my daily writing goals. These rituals help me develop a good routine. (Sidebar: it took me a very short time to do all this planning. This means I have officially kicked all remaining effects of my concussion in their sorry behind). This semester when I meet my writing, teaching or lifting goals I’m going to give myself gold stars.

My Real Teaching Philosophy

School starts on Monday. There is a lot to be discouraged about. The country where I live has proven its true colours. It is not doing well on any front I care about. Cases in point: Ferguson. Blaming the victim for sexual assault. Interning children. Buzzwords of all kinds. All this influences how I interact with students and colleagues and people blaring country music from a truck while I am trying to jog while listening to a charming British lady telling me to keep going (This is the NHS Couch to 5k podcast.)

In spite of all this, I must wake up each day. Since I have a job, I must work. Since I am a conscientious person, I must do this work well.

Over the years I have developed a statement of teaching philosophy that can be distilled as the following: I teach Mexican literature and culture, and, more broadly, Hispanic literature, culture and Spanish language, so that my students can learn about another culture, learn what it is like to be a person who does not understand what is happening, to learn from one another in a community, that can then transform its context.

In reality this involves understanding students who are unfailingly polite, and yet, who I do not understand. They like sports and music (including the aforementioned country) and have, shall we say, misgivings about latino people and undocumented workers. So I explain that when the factories went to Mexico, and the rust belt, became, well, the rust belt, the Mexicans were not better off. And to try, somehow, to put my research about repression – when it overwhelmingly affect the bodies of already marginalized people – and the potential for transformation, into practice. 


El Evangelio de Lucas Gavilán

I am now writing a book based in part on the dissertation I am no longer writing (thank goodness). The book refers to many of the same novels and short stories as primary texts. Yesterday I began revising the chapter that will now talk about the failing Mexican state after Tlatelolco and Vicente Leñero’s novel, El Evangelio de Lucas Gavilán. The novel, The Gospel of Lucas (Luke) Gavilán,  brings the Gospel of Luke to mid 1970s Mexico. I like it so much I want to select it as the key text for the first year seminar I am teaching in the fall, except that it is no longer in print in English, so it is unlikely that twenty students could buy it from amazon. I think it would be perfect because it honors the biblical text, in many ways, so the often religious students would only be offended for half the novel. It would be challenging for them, because it would give them a perspective on the Bible they have likely never had before – that Jesus was a revolutionary, or at least, a rabble-rouser – and that he was never raised in body from the dead. The novel tells us that Jesus’ baptism happened when he heard John the Baptist preach, about how loving God could only be understood by handing oneself over to the cause of justice, and that this is at the heart of the Gospel message. I doubt any students would have such a radical mental shift, but so far that has not stopped me from evangelizing about “liberal” ideas. Any other texts I could use for the same end?

Mennonites and Mormons Meet in Mexico

The other night a reached a new high or low. I read an academic book before bed. It was an anthropology book published in the last 20 years, though, so it included a lot of first-person accounts that made it a bit less dry than other scholarly books. It is called Desert Patriarchy by Janet Bennion and was recommended to me as a book about Mennonites in Mexico that had the added bonus of being written by a non Mennonite. It is also about Mormons in Mexico.

Some have called me (as a Mennonite) a Mormon. I have to assume this is because in people’s minds, Mennonites and Mormons are the two unusual religions that start with the letter M. Both have mainstream varieties that you would never be able to pick out of a lineup (unless you belonged to one of the groups). Then there are the kinds that inspire anthropologists and TV series. These would be the Mormons who practice polygamy, and the Mennonites who dress in unusual ways.

Desert Patriarchy studies both religions in their more extreme forms in Northern Mexico under the paradigm of desert patriarchy – two Mormon colonies, one more connected to mainstream Mormons than the other – and one extremely conservative Mennonite colony. I appreciated her observations about both communities, but noticed several factual errors in her comments about Mennonites. She claims both groups are Anglo, which I dispute, and that Mennonite German is a Swiss-German language, which it is not. I am also not sure that the desert is what made either group so extreme, which is central to her argument, so this makes me doubt her overall stance. She makes many historical errors – had she examined the origins of Mormonism within the Great Awakening in the early 19th century in the Eastern part of the US, and the origins of Mennonitism within the Protestant Reformation, she would have refuted her own thesis. I can only hope that since Bennion is a (former) member of more fundamentalist Mormon community in Utah, the remainder of her observations about that community would be grounded in historical fact. These errors of course point to the larger anthropological blindness towards history.

The most disappointing part of this book is that is suggested that there are few, if any, relationships between Mennonites and Mormons. It also didn’t exploit the relationships both communities have between faith and work or faith and large families. That would have been interesting. My next project can no longer be about transnational Mennonite bodies in popular culture, but rather be about the cheese, apples and peaches that connect Mennonites and Mormons. It will involve a lot of taste testing to ascertain how Mormons taught Mennonites how to make the cheese Mennonites are  famous for in Mexico. I will also spend quality time learning how Mormon expertise in apple and peach orchards has  influenced some Mennonite farmers. If I were an anthropologist, this would be enough to make a book. Since I am not, I will talk about how popular culture sheds light on relationships between extreme religious communities in northern Mexico.

Thought Provoking Trip to Meijer

The most depressing thing about Ohio is grocery shopping. I am constantly irritated that the grocery store in my town sells produce practically on the brink of expiry (seriously. It’s gross and expensive). I am not  at all irritated that the Food Store is close to my house. All my money could go there and I would be a happy person. I have bougie (bourgeois) food needs. Being able to allocate my money there is clearly a sign of my social class.

The most depressing thing is not the limited access to good food in Bluffton – the village of 5000 at least has a grocery store – or that I have to take the interstate highway to go to a decent grocery store – but it is the fact that I have only seen people buying large quantities of food at the beginning of the month.

In early May, when I began writing this post, I had just come back from travelling to the grocery store in the middle of the afternoon. I normally do this to avoid “lines” and “crowds” (in quotation marks because the larger towns where I shop have populations of 20 000-30 000). And then there were lines and crowds. It wasn’t just before the superbowl beer and snacks these people were buying. It was amounts of food that looked like they could feed a family. Since rural Ohio is the most heteronormative place I have ever lived (but where most people, I imagine, do not measure up to the 2 parents 2 kids ideal), this should not have been surprising. I never see people buying a lot of food, or a lot of fresh food, because it is so much more expensive than canned or frozen or candy. Then I overheard the supervisor explaining to my cashier about EBT cards and sales (SNAP/food stamps benefit debit cards that can only be used to buy certain kinds of food), I realized that people were probably buying so much (aka a normal amount of food) because it was the beginning of the month and they could. I was sad and then I was angry. Most people in the US who qualify for some kind of benefit (and you have to earn so little money to qualify) are already working, albeit at low paying jobs. And shouldn’t work give you at least the ability to feed your family?

Jerusalem: Finished!

Yesterday I completed cooking my second cookbook, Jerusalem. I have previously cooked through Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty, which was a delicious experience. So, thanks to a friend who works at a bookstore, I received another one of his cookbooks as a gift. You might remember that I had some misgivings about cooking from this cookbook, but I eventually decided that if making more hummus is going to create more strife in the world, then the world is so messed up already it’s not even worth trying. As I cooked through the cookbook, I began to realize that although it has a stance that is not my stance, it very deliberately demonstrates the similarities between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims (but where are the Christians. I know them. They are there).

I have so many happy memories attached to this cookbook, because I wrote down who I had over when I tried new things, so that also affects which recipes I liked best. Some of the recipes in this cookbook ended up a bit odd, because I don’t eat dairy and I try not to eat gluten, because when I don’t do either, I feel so much better. I might feel the most best if I didn’t drink coffee, but that’s just not inside of the realm of possibility.

The recipes I would make over and over again are Spices, chickpeas and fresh vegetable salad, the butternut squash and tahini spread I made first for my old roommate’s birthday, the burnt eggplant with garlic (for my goodbye party in Toronto), the hummus kawarma that I made the first time I had people over in Bluffton, the list could really go on. All of the kinds of chicken are amazing – and since I made the braised quail with chicken, that is part of the list. The chicken with clementines was good, although when I made it for guests the ouzo and sugar created a more smoky-disco feel than I normally go for. The chicken with Jerusalem artichoke was better (I used potatoes and artichokes because some things cannot be found in NW Ohio). The rice that accompanied the chicken with caramelized onion was one of the best things I have ever eaten. The chicken sofrito has happy memories of a dinner party with friends, and a hilarious small child, and the saffron chicken and herb salad is from one of the first weeks I lived in Ohio. So much deliciousness. I could probably write a book.

I will leave you with words of encouragement: buy this book, and cook anything from it. You can go wrong, but only very rarely.