Monday, January 31, 2011


This is how the frozen tree branches look in front of my house. Everything is hushed in the expectations of an approaching storm.

We are told to await further information as to whether the classes will be cancelled yet again tomorrow. On the positive side, no classes means I could spend all day working on my article. On the negative side, though, my syllabus goes completely to the dogs if yet another day of classes gets cancelled.

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T


There is this student, let's call her "Emily", who wants to do a Major in Spanish with no previous background in the language. This means that she has to take a full year of Beginner Spanish, then a full year of Intermediate Spanish, and then a semester of Advanced Spanish (2,5 years altogether) before she can start taking more advanced literature courses. "Emily" feels that this is too slow. Two and a half years of just taking language courses is boring and it doesn't take her closer to her goal fast enough.

So she decided to take an advanced literature course while still in her second year of language learning. Everybody told her that this cannot be done, she will fail the literature course, it will be a huge waste of her time. I thought about it, though, and decided to let her into my advanced literature course. I like students who want to achieve more than what's expected from them.

Now, the course is very difficult. We start with Medieval readings that even native speakers find hard to understand. "Emily", who is still just beginning her Intermediate Spanish II, is struggling. But she works hard and perseveres. We wrote our first, very difficult mini-quiz last week. And "Emily" did great. She got 90%, which puts her ahead of almost everybody else in the course.

It's students like "Emily" who make my job so rewarding. 


I don't have many regrets in my life. You live, you learn, you make mistakes, you acquire experience. 

So I got married way too early to the wrong person. But it allowed me to understand a lot about who I am and what I need in life, what kind of a relationship can make me happy.

So I went to the wrong graduate school. But I met some people who are crucial to my life there. I also discovered what kind of academic I never want to become and how not to treat students, which is a very valuable negative experience. 

So I frittered a lot of money on expensive vacations when I was in the initial stages of grad school and got into debt as a result. But I had tons of fun and got to see the world. Now I can talk to my students about the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution as somebody who knows first-hand what she is talking about.

So I wasted a lot of time on friends I had nothing in common with. But that gave me enough stories to keep blogging for years to come. 

There is one huge regret I can't get rid of, though. And it's that I didn't start blogging a lot sooner. I was very lonely in the first year of my doctoral program. There was literally nobody worthwhile to talk to. And then there were the years of moving around constantly. Getting used to living in an entirely new place so often is really hard. You feel like there is no continuity in your life when there is a new environment, a new place of abode, a new group of colleagues as often as I experienced it. How great would it have been to have a blog like this one where intelligent people from all over the world come to discuss things, express their opinions, argue, and have fun? How could I not have discovered blogging sooner? Stupid, stupid Clarissa.

Fox News and Geography

You've got to love Fox News. Sometimes, I wonder if they are trying to look incompetent and clueless on purpose. Egypt might be all over the news (meaning the actual news) these days. Fox News, however, still hasn't been able to figure out where Egypt is actually located.

Their mistake is even more egregious given the country they erased to stick Egypt in its place. I hope I don't need to tell anybody (except, of course, the quasi journalists at Fox) which country is supposed to be located next to Iran.

Thank you, Canukistani, for always supplying me with such great materials!

P.S. I can't help wondering what hapless college graduated the idiots who are behind making this map.

Things That Suck in Canada

I love Canada, but there are three things that suck something fierce in my country (no, this post will not talk about taxes): banks, cell phone connections, and the Internet. These three areas are monopolized, which is never good because when there is a monopoly, competition dies. And when there is no competition, there is no incentive to provide goods and services that are even marginally decent.

Canadian banks charge you for every breath you take. Depositing, withdrawing, having an account - everything carries a fee. They mess up, steal your money, and charge you for this transaction. (This actually happened to me. National Bank of Canada stole $1,000 from me, and I could do nothing to get it back. They even recognized they messed up, but that money has never been recovered. By me, that is.) 

They also have this weird policy of "freezing" any money you deposit. I deposit some money in cash, and can't have access to it for days. If you deposit a check, it's frozen at least for a week. If the check is American, your money is frozen for 30 days. I once deposited a check from the Treasury of the US in the amount of $250. And then I had to wait for 30 days for it to clear. I mean, I know the US Treasury is not in great shape, but you can reasonably expect it to be able to clear a $250 check, right? After I moved to the US, I kept bugging bank tellers, unable to believe how easy banking was in the US: "So you are saying that I can deposit this check and have access to my money immediately? Like, right now? Like, this very moment? For real?" 

Canadian Internet banking is a story that I'll keep for another day because it's too bizarre. And if you dare to lose your bank card, woe betide you. You will be tortured and abused by the condescending bank tellers to the degree where you will start considering how great life was before the banking system came into existence.

The cell phone services in Canada are equally nasty. The quality of the connection sucks. Canadians know that there are specific places in their houses, apartments, offices, streets, where cell phone connection just dies. Every conversation I have with my sister who lives in Montreal is punctured by her saying "OK, I'm gonna get disconnected now. OK, the connection is about to drop again. Don't hang up if the sound disappears, it might get back up in a minute." And the cost of having a cell phone has always been sky-high. When I moved back to Canada for a year in 2007-8, I could never understand my cell phone bill. I kept thinking that somebody put the wrong number of zeros on the amount I owed. My happy-go-lucky American habit of blabbing on the cell phone all day long had to be abandoned.

The Internet connection is also expensive, slow and bad. In the US, you can always catch some free Wi-Fi somewhere, but in Canada it’s all password protected. Even in Starbucks, you can’t get free Wi-Fi. Every time I go back to Canada, I prepare to struggle with the Internet connection. As a blogger in the US, I'm used to being able to blog from pretty much anywhere. In Canada, though, I always feel disconnected from the world. Every trip to Canada is spent in a frantic search for a connection. And even if you are fortunate enough to find one, prepare for it to drop for no apparent reason at the worst moment possible.

As if things weren't bad enough as it is, Canadian monopolists are now trying to make the Internet connection even harder to get and even more expensive:
The CRTC has decided to allow Bell and other big telecom companies to change the way Canadians are billed for Internet access. Metering, or usage-based billing (UBB), will mean that service providers can charge per byte in addition to their basic access charges. The move is sure to stifle digital creativity in Canada while the rest of the world looks on and snickers.
 This is so wrong, people.

Killing Children

This is something that happened just last week. A woman named Julie Powers Schenecker shot her two children because they annoyed her:
Julie Powers Schenecker is accused of shooting her daughter, 16, and son, 13. . . Police found Schenecker on her back porch, covered in blood. Inside, they saw no signs of struggle. They said she had shot her son in the head in her car, and then went inside and shot her daughter in the face. When police first interviewed her, she said her teens were mouthy, talked back, etc. . . Schenecker was a stay-at-home mother.
 And then people get all antsy when I mention that women are human too, they need to have a life of their own, or they'll start biting people's heads off. Or shooting them in the head.

The Philosophy of Kindle Owning

After outselling hardcover books on Amazon a while ago, Kindle books have now finally overtaken the sales of paperbacks as well:
Amazon sold 115 e-books (not counting free ones) for every 100 paperbacks sold, during the first quarter of this year so far and that includes paperback books for which there is no Kindle edition.
But that isn't all. Kindle is also the most popular of all e-readers on the market (which is not surprising since it isn't really an e-reader. It's so much more):
The Wall Street Journal Blog's Dan Gallagher, after Amazon's 4th Qtr report Thursday, writes that while the Amazon Kindle is "far and away the most popular of the dedicated e-reader devices on the market".
Kindle is special in that it doesn't leave anybody indifferent. People either love it or hate it with a passion usually reserved for political leaders and movie stars. The only people who don't have an opinion about it are the ones who don't know it exists. If you read discussion boards of Kindle lovers, you will encounter statements like: "I love my Kindle so much, I'd donate a kidney to it if it needed it. And I only have one kidney." And if you think this person is kidding, then you have never met a Kindle owner. 
I was one of the early adopters of the Kindle who bought the very first, much bigger and less sophisticated version back in 2008. I'm still terrified of how much it cost, especially since at that time I couldn't afford it all. But as somebody who was finishing a dissertation and planning new classes while living part-time in two different countries, I could afford not to buy it even less. 

Now I'm on my second, much cheaper Kindle, while the first one has been given up for adoption to my sister. I still get to visit it, though, and spend time with it. And if you think I'm kidding, then you really have never met a Kindle owner.

"But it has DRM," people say. "How can you like a device with the DRM so much?" Well, guys, it could have a tail and horns, and I'd still love it. And don't call it a device. It's a Kindle. You don't ask people in reference to their partner, "Why do you like this mammal so much? He snores." Love isn't reasonable, you know. It just is. Many a student has alienated me by exclaiming, "Oh, what a cute e-reader you have!" An e-reader, indeed. A Nook is an e-reader. What I have is a Kindle. And if you don't see the difference, then you have never met a Kindle owner. 

P.S. "You like me, too, right?" asked the man who has been sharing his bed not only with me but with my Kindle as well for the past several years after hearing me go on and on about how fantastic my Kindle is. So I got him a Kindle of his own. Now he finally understands what it means to have a Kindle in one's life.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Like Mubarak, Like Gbagbo, Like Mugabe

This great poem was written by my friend and fellow blogger KTravula. It describes so many dictators that ruled (and still do) in Africa, Latin America, Middle East, Soviet Union, etc. I really love this poem, so I wanted to share it with you:

Tyrants stamp brash feet on winding paths on of wide open lands
and laugh on fart cushions in cabinet meetings of fellow fawning hands.
They mouth verbs at protest noises from the warm comforts of palace bedrooms
on one hand a full plate, and on the other soft triggers of their imported dooms.
Tyrants dance around dials of outside help, counting losses like currency notes,
swapping allies like the last statuettes of their long tortuous days and rotes.
They sing lullabies of aftermaths, of threats and tears, against a glory so long lost
and o, they fear. They dream of dreary wings across the windowpanes of frost.
Tyrants languish on the tail chairs of their vain vacuousness. They stink.
They drawl in the slime of impotence, a dour fire of an eighty year old wrink.
I look through the fog of emptiness, and see dead multiples of power tenths
and all that remains of a gentle tug into bright new days of different strengths.
Tryants live so that they may leave, gracelessly, in a baggage of seasoned trash.
No other way remains but will, plenty and strong, and despots’ dicks ash to ash.
(c) Kola Tubosun

The Liberating Potential of the Burqa, or the Future of Gender Studies

When I saw that the Department of Gender Studies was planning to conduct a series of lectures titled "The Liberating Potential of the Burqa,"  at first I thought that I had finally encountered a Gender Studies program that had a sense of humor. Such departments have a tendency to possess a humorless, intense earnestness that scares away students and professors alike. They are also known for conducting really outlandish activities that do not help them to be taken seriously on campus. 

An example of such an activity is a party to celebrate menstruation, where everybody who is menstruating comes wearing a tiara, and everybody else celebrates them. The point of the party is to demonstrate that menstruation is perfectly normal and not to be ashamed of. When that activity was first suggested, I tried to point out that it sounded a little outdated. With the commercials extolling the great absorbency of tampons airing every fifteen minutes on every channel, are there really any people in the civilized world who don't know that menstruation is normal? In response, I was told that there is nothing wrong with celebrating normal physiological processes. As soon as I heard that, I proposed we organize a defecation party. Nobody would argue that defecation is perfectly normal, right? It would be a truly feminist activity since people of both genders could participate in it equally. And everybody who has a successful bowel movement during the party will get a tiara to celebrate the occasion. For some reason, nobody appreciated the suggestion, and I was not invited to any further meetings.

Of course, after this experience I was pleasantly surprised to see the announcement for the "The Liberating Potential of the Burqa" lecture series. "Finally, somebody at Gender Studies has a sense of humor", I thought. Then I read further and realized that my joy was premature. As usual, this activity was being done completely in earnest. The point of the series is to demonstrate that burqas "liberate women from being constantly victimized by the desire implicit in a male gaze." Truly, when American puritanism and the third-wave (or "choice") feminism come together, the result is sad. And a little insane. 

I never got this whole drama about people being demeaned or "objectified" (what a silly word!) by another person's gaze. If somebody looks at you and finds you attractive, it isn't something they can control. Whether they act on their desire for you can be controlled, of course. But the feeling of desire cannot. Only a very puritanical world-view believes that desire is inherently evil and has to be feared. As for objectification, other people are always objects of our actions. That's implicit in the rules of grammar. "I see you, I like you, I help you, I respect you, I support you" - in all of these sentences "I" is the only subject, while "you" is always an object. Other people are always objects of our feelings, actions, thoughts, etc. Being an object of somebody else's actions can be both good and bad, depending on the content of the action. 

Every day, as I walk around, people see me and form attitudes towards me on the basis of what they see. Even if these attitudes are negative, why should I care? Why should I hide myself behind a bulky piece of covering? Why should I grant others such a huge power over my life? Instead of spending our lives fearing the judgment we believe is present in the gaze of other people, shouldn't we concentrate on our own desires, thoughts, and experiences? Who cares what some unknown man who sees me on the bus thinks of me? If he thinks I'm attractive, that's his right. If he sits there thinking, "Oh, Jeez, what an ugly woman," that's his right too. 

Very often as I walk around campus a male student comes up to me to say,

"You are very pretty (beautiful, attractive, have great hair, beautiful eyes, etc.)"

"Thank you," I always say nicely, as it's very obvious to me that this is a comment that has no intention of being threatening or offensive.

"So what's your name?" the student usually asks after that. 

"I'm Professor Clarissa," I say. After that, the student and I both giggle and go on our separate ways.

It is my firm belief that unless Gender Studies programs realize that such exchanges happen among human beings, that they are normal, non-threatening, non-offensive and should not be policed, Gender Studies have no future. They will continue being marginalized on campuses because people don't welcome being told that every single little thing they feel or think turns them either into a victim or into an abuser.


I believe that it's important to have dreams. A life that is bereft of dreaming must be pretty bleak. I believe in setting a goal, working like crazy to achieve it, and then enjoying the feeling of accomplishment once you do. And then, of course, coming up with a new dream. 

My first big dream was to leave my country. My sense of self was incompatible with the way of being everybody else practiced and enjoyed. I felt different all the time, and not in a good way. It took two years, but I accomplished this goal. It's been twelve years but I never went back, not even for a short visit. My country and I are very happy without each other.

Then, my goal was to do a PhD in Hispanic Studies at an Ivy League university. I achieved that goal, even though the experience of being at that school was a lot less attractive than what I had imagined in my dreams. Actually, it was pretty nasty. But now I have my diploma and I mention it at every opportunity because after all the pain and suffering it needs to bring me some benefits.

After that, my dream was to join the academic world as a professor. Now that I have achieved it, I cannot believe my own luck in having chosen this wonderful profession that is so rewarding. It might be freezing cold outside, but I can't wait to get up in the morning and run to work through the snow or the rain. 

So now I have a new dream. I want to make a really big impact on my field of knowledge. My former adviser wrote about me, "In ten years, everybody in our field will know Clarissa's name." This was all the more valuable given that she really disliked me the entire time I was her student. So that's what I want. I want everybody in my field to recognize my name. 

I believe that it is completely within one's reach to achieve anything they propose. So if in ten years' time you come back to the blog and see that I haven't achieved this goal, there will be one person to blame: me. I recognize fully that the only thing that can prevent me from realizing this goal is my own personal set of limitations: laziness, inertia, passivity, lack of perseverance. I'm putting this in writing in a public forum specifically so that I don't feel tempted in the future to wiggle out of this and blame my failure on circumstances, bad lack, discrimination, a conspiracy of evil people against me, etc. 

I just wonder what my dream will be after this one comes true.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


My knowledge of what is going on in Egypt at the moment is pretty much non-existent, so I'm not expressing any opinions right now. The hitcounter shows me that my regular readers from Egypt haven't been around recently. I know the Internet has been cut off in Egypt, which is really horrible. It is also dangerous, as people now have no way of letting the world know what's going on. 

If there are people reading this who can share their insights into the situation in Egypt, please do so in the comments. Also, if / when the Egyptian readers manage to get their Internet connection back, do let me know you are OK, because I'm worried here. Stay strong, people!

What Not to Do at a Job Interview

After seeing a good, nice person in desperate need of employment butcher his chances at getting a very good job paying $100+K, I decided to share some advice as to what not to do at a job interview. If these suggestions seem too obvious to you and you are wondering what's the point of stating something so obvious, let me tell you that I have seen very intelligent, mature, highly educated people with decades of work experience make every one of these mistakes, alienating potential employers and destroying any chance at a job offer. 

1. No matter how badly you were treated at your previous place of employment, a job interview is not a good occasion to launch into a 15-minute-long diatribe detailing every way in which you were wronged by previous employers. Even if what you are saying is 100% true, it makes a really horrible impression to show resentment and anger. Psychological issues should be resolved during a session with your therapist, not during a job interview.

2. Making your political convictions known during the very first interview might not be a good idea. Talking about "Obama" and "Clinton" as opposed to "our great President George W. Bush" will probably not make a very favorable impression. A job interview is not a political soap-box. After you get the job, you will have numerous opportunities to debate politics with your colleagues. But the goal of an interview is different.

3. If you are doing a phone interview, remember that when you are placed on loud-speaker, the noises you make become very loud. When you are asked a question you find stupid, it is a bad idea to make deep, frustrated sighs and click your tongue in desperation. People on the other side of the conversation get a very loud rendition of your exasperated sighs and scoffing.

4. It makes a really bad impression when you respond to a question that a prospective employer poses with "First, let me ask you a question." People often think that this makes them sound proactive and take-charge, when in reality it simply makes them come off as rude and pushy. 

5. Don't tell the people you interview what a shitty place they live in. Even if you went online and found tons of information about their state's debt, unemployment rates, nasty climate, corrupt officials, etc., it might be best not to share this knowledge in a triumphant tone with people you want to give you a job in that very state. They are living there and probably even enjoying it. What's the point of making the interviewers feel bad about themselves?

6. Don't suggest to the interviewers that the work they do is "easy." If such statements are supposed to make the prospective employers feel good about their super easy lives, they don't achieve the goal. They just make you come off as snooty and condescending. 

7. Don't go on at length about how fantastic, hardworking, overachieving, etc. you are and follow it with "But the most important thing you have to know about me is that I'm very humble." And then offer your musings on the merits of humility. 

8. Believe me, I understand the struggles of candidates who are not native speakers of English. Still, after decades of living in the US is it too much to ask that a candidate for a very responsible position avoid referring to people as "coloreds"? (Especially when the people in question are his students.)

Some advice specifically for those who are looking for an academic position:

1. It is really not a good idea to announce that you hate doing research and that teaching is also not your favorite thing to do, but other than that you are perfectly suited for this position. Research and teaching are two activities that all academics do. You can't avoid them. You are not supposed to want to avoid them.

2. Don't make fun of the research your prospective employers are doing. "Wow, I had no idea that anybody even did that any more. Isn't this topic horribly outdated?" makes everybody present dislike you.

3. Sharing how much you hate students because they are all lazy, stupid and unintellectual is probably a bad idea for somebody whose job description involves teaching on a regular basis.

These suggestions are based on what I have been able to observe while serving on several search committees at different universities. If you want professional advice, visit this great blog where professional recruiters who have placed hundreds of candidates in all kinds of positions will be happy to answer any questions you leave for them in the comment section. They don't place people in academic positions, though. If you have questions about the academic job market, leave them in the comment section to this post, and the academics who read (and write) this blog will share their insights.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Bad Job Interviews

So we interviewed a job candidate today, and it was horrible. We collectively felt extremely bad for this candidate. It's painful to see how a good, intelligent person can simply slaughter a job interview by saying every wrong thing possible. And I would have so liked to see this particular person get a campus visit, but the interview was too much of a disaster.

I know there was one phone interview I butchered when I was on the market. It was a position I really wanted at Temple University in Philadelphia. I love the city, and the position was made for me. And then during the interview I actually forgot the names of the authors I analyzed in my dissertation. I couldn't name a single one, which made me feel like a complete idiot. I can only imagine what the interviewers thought of me. I still cringe with shame when I remember it. There was also this beautiful moment during that interview where they asked me the question everybody asks you:

"So why do you want to work at Temple University?"

"Where??" I asked like a total fool.

"Temple University," they said. 'The place you are interviewing with right now."

That was pretty bad. But not nearly as bad as the interview I witnessed today. I feel really sad because of this.

Meetings, Committees, and Time-Wasting

I now know why academics love having meetings every fifteen seconds, why they spend so much time on committees, service-related activities well in excess of what is required of them, sending out needless emails, discussing every tiny little issue for hours, etc. The reason is that they want to avoid doing research. 

I'm not saying I'm any different, mind you. I have the same problem. And don't get me wrong, I love doing research. The problem is that everything else I do (preparing for classes, creating fun activities for students, organizing my paperwork, creating new syllabi, going over my tenure portfolio, reading, taking part in committees, etc.) is so much easier. It just is. Three hours of research leave you more exhausted than 8 hours of any other academic activity. Research is hard. It's also fraught with emotional pain. I often drag out work on an article because I'm afraid of the moment where I will have to send it out and prepare myself that rejection can befall me at any moment. 

This is why there is always a reason why one can't do research right now. But I just thought of a great way of really advancing one's research. Do you know how when we are scheduled to teach, those hours are marked off on our calendars as the time slots where we are completely unavailable to the world? Something similar needs to be done with research. I teach 7,5 hours per week and in those hours I can't do anything other than teach. So let's say I dedicate 10 hours per week to uninterrupted research and refuse to make myself available to anything or anybody. Just like I do with teaching. Imagine how much I'll be able to publish. 

I'm terrified of becoming one of those failed scholars who only produced enough research to get by the tenure committee. So now I will be trying out this new strategy. I will keep you informed about whether it works. But I feel like there is something really valuable in this strategy I just devised. 

House Cleaning

I just cleaned out my entire mailbox associated with this blog. (I have two other mailboxes which are still cluttered with e-mails from years ago, but I can't contemplate cleaning three overstuffed mailboxes on the same day.) Now I have folders named "Fan Mail" and "Troll Mail." It wasn't easy to sort the messages, though, because what begins as fan mail often transforms into troll mail after a while and vice versa.

I have also discovered that when you clean out your mailbox, Hotmail gives you the following funny message: "Wow, you've got a very clean inbox! (Did you know you can receive messages from other email accounts?)" To me, it sounds a little mocking. Like, "Wow, look who's got nobody to write to them! But wait, maybe you've got a message or two at some other account, you poor, friendless loser?"

Maybe one day I'll even listen to the voice mail that has accumulated on my work phone since August 2009. I'm ideologically opposed to voicemail and don't have it on any of my phones. Except at work where it was inescapable.


Has anybody had any problems accessing my blog? Or is my home computer acting up?

I haven't been able to load the blog from home since yesterday. Now I'm at work, and it seems to load perfectly. Is it just me? Is my home computer aware that I'm submitting a grant proposal that might lead to a purchase of a substitute for it? Is it simply jealous?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Funny Searches

My hitcounter is a fountain of hilarious information. Here is a list of search terms that some people used today to access this blog:

Tihomir Petrov is a Muslim (3 searches. Sure, whatever happens, cherchez les Muslims)
Tihomir Petrov liberal (or the Liberals)
Petrov Urination
masturbation lesson (Yes, there was a post on this topic. And it was pretty funny, too.)
appendages of the husband (I wish I had a way of knowing which appendages the person actually meant)
Tihomir Petrov blog professor peepee (as we can see, the peeing professor really made the news and provoked some inventive seraches)
why doesnt my husband help me (Actually, people come by with this search pretty often. Which is kind of sad)
hot male bodies
california state math pee door


I don't seem to be able to run far enough to prevent my compatriots from shaming me.

I was sitting peacefully in my office yesterday trying to submit an article for publication when a colleague I had never met before called me on the phone. He'd received an e-mail from a friend in Ukraine and was mystified by what it said. All he managed to get out of it was "tragedy," "horrible problems," "life has no meaning," "senseless," and "really bad." Obviously, my colleague got very worried that somebody had died or gotten really sick. So he called me to see if he could come by and have me translate the e-mail. Of course, I agreed.

The longish e-mail addressed a single issue: money. There were endless complaints about how the author of the e-mail hadn't been receiving her salary for 3 months and will probably not receive any salary in the future either (like anybody forces her to stay at a job that doesn't pay.) And her daughter had to offer bribes to pass every single course she is taking in college (which, I'm sure, nobody is demanding of her. My people love offering bribes when nobody is asking. It's our national pastime). And she had to spend all her savings on those bribes And life has no meaning any longer because there is no money. Money, money, money. The e-mail ends with this Ukrainian person congratulating her American friend on his wonderful life, filled with travel and fun. Which is something she will never have because she has no money. And her life has no meaning.

While I was translating this letter for my colleague, I was curling my toes in shame. There he was, looking like a kind Santa, this academic who spent his entire life travelling to underdeveloped countries with the goal of helping people. How could I tell him that his so-called friend was taking him for a ride? That she probably dresses a lot more expensively than he does? That, in all probability, she owes her place of abode while he either pays rent or has a huge mortgage? That it's highly likely she considers all Americans to be stupid and there to be used?

"Life is pretty difficult over there, right?" the kind colleague asked me.

"Erm. . . yeah. . . I guess," I managed to mumble.

Sermon Titles

Of all the weird things to collect, I collect funny sermon titles. The most recent one I saw was:

"God loves you. And I'm trying." It would have been funnier if it were "God loves you, and I don't," of course. But still, it's pretty cool.

Back at Yale, one of the churches in front of my department had a sermon titled:

"Think education is expensive? Consider the price of ignorance." Considering that our university produced Goerge W. Bush, I was somehow not convinced.

P.S. My students in all three courses are writing mini-quizzes today while I just sit there. So I'm blogging like crazy. There is nothing more fun than blogging during class time.

Peeing on Colleagues

This is when you know that things at Cal State are really getting dire:
A California university professor has been charged with peeing on a colleague's campus office door. Prosecutors charged 43-year-old Tihomir Petrov, a math professor at California State University, Northridge, with two misdemeanor counts of urinating in a public place. Arraignment is scheduled Thursday in Los Angeles County Superior Court in San Fernando. Investigators say a dispute between Petrov and another math professor was the motive. The Los Angeles Times says Petrov was captured on videotape urinating on the door of another professor's office on the San Fernando Valley campus. School officials had rigged the camera after discovering puddles of what they thought was urine at the professor's door.
The system of higher education in California has long been in dire straits. When professors start peeing on each other's doors, though, you realize that the tensions have grown intolerable. What's next? People defecating on each other at departmental meetings?
This is why I always tell my fellow academics: people, spare yourselves, rest, don't stay on campus until all hours of night, go home, go for a walk, on a date, to the swimming-pool, anywhere. Don't let yourself burn out to the point where pissing on colleagues is the only activity that sounds worthwhile.

An Ethical Issue: Blackface

So let's say a group of white students dress in blackface and don dunce caps for a fraternity party. Stupid, offensive, wrong - obviously. There's nothing to argue about here. Now, my question is: should the university punish these students?

On the one hand, these are adults who have decided to entertain themselves in their free time in this insensitive, offensive manner. As stupid as this decision is, it's their decision. Should we be able to police what students do and how they choose to entertain themselves in their time off? Will the next step be to police how the teaching faculty spends their free time?

On the other hand, though, if it was a fraternity party, it was conducted on university property. Should that in any way influence the way in which the university responds to what these students did? If these actions are not punished in any way, it looks like the university is endorsing them. Then again, if we take this attitude, then we are privileging property ownership over people's individual rights.

I really don't know what the right course of action here is. Any thoughts?

Internal Candidates

Most of the academic job seekers who are preparing for their campus visits right now have no idea how many the jobs they are interviewing for in good faith have already been promised to internal candidates. Often, an internal candidate is somebody's relative or friend, which makes the entire process smell really bad. In other cases, however, there are legitimate internal candidates who are perfectly qualified for the position.

I understand very well how a department might want to offer a tenure-track position to an adjunct who worked hard for the department for years or who is about to get a PhD. What is really wrong, though, is that even in cases when the department is 100% convinced it has the right internal candidate, it is still forced to declare a national search. Such searches waste university resources that are scarce as it is. They also exploit hopeful candidates who apply for the position in good faith, go through a gruelling 9-month job application process, interview at the MLA, kill themselves to deliver a great campus visit, and have no idea during that entire time that they don't have a hope in hell of being hired. I've seen such fake searches, and they honestly break your heart.

So my question is: why not dispense with fake searches altogether? They waste precious resources, undermine a university's integrity, and cause damage to job seekers. They are conducted for the sake of keeping up appearances, which is hardly a goal worthy of all this sacrifice and dishonesty.

A Campus Visit from Hell, Part II

Just as I reached the point of utter desperation, a prospective colleague appeared.

"Where have you been?" he asked irritably. "We have all been waiting for you in the classroom."

We rushed into the classroom, and I started getting the beautiful handouts I'd prepared at home out of my bag.

"Oh, I forgot to tell you," the person who teaches that course told me. "We actually covered all this yesterday. Today, you should teach pages 98-109."

The only problem with that plan was that I'd never in my life seen pages 98-109 and had no activities prepared to cover the unknown material contained in those pages. At that point, I had really stopped caring about the job, making a good impression, or the people observing the class. I decided to have a good time. The students in this Elementary Spanish course weren't prepared for a teacher who only speaks Spanish in class but I didn't care. I have one huge asset as a teacher: I immediately establish a great rapport with the students even when they don't understand a word I say. I don't know how it works, but students like me no matter what I do. So I used that. We played charades, and the walls of the classroom practically shook with laughter.

When it was time for me to leave, I had one of my proudest teaching moments when I heard a student say, "Could she stay? We'd rather have her than our regular teacher."

The next stage of a campus visit is a talk you deliver on the topic of your current academic research. My talk had been practiced at several other campus visits, so I didn't expect any surprises from it. That is, until the Chair of the department interrupted my lecture on contemporary Spanish literature to ask:

"So have you read Kafka's Metamorphosis?"

"Yes," I answered tentatively, unsure of what to expect.

"So what's your reading of it?" she continued.

I tried to offer my vision of the book, only to be interrupted by the Chair.

"Your reading of Kafka is very amateurish," she announced. "It's what I would expect from somebody who has done no research on Kafka at all."

I wanted to point out that I had, indeed, done absolutely no research on this writer for the simple reason that I am a Hispanist and have nothing to do with Germanic Studies. Contradicting the Chair, however, was definitely not a way to make a nice impression, so I just smiled impotently. A fellow Hispanist tried to save the situation and asked me about an article I'd published recently. As soon as I started responding, the Chair interrupted me in a voice filled with indignation:

"Well, I have to say, I'm really disappointed with your reading of Kafka!"

After the visit ended, a nice member of the department was driving me to the airport.

"There are still three hours until your flight," he said. "Let me drive you around the city, show you some landmarks."

"No, thanks," I said. "I just want to go home now."

I knew that these people must have hated me and that I was never going to work at that place.

P.S. It's my fourth semester teaching at this great department. Campus visits are deceptive. It turns out everybody really liked me. And after the first two weeks of working here, I knew that wild horses wouldn't be able to drag me away from this campus. And that campus visit I thought had gone so great? They hired somebody else and forgot to inform me that I didn't need to wait for a reply any longer.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Weird People

Weird people keep writing to this blog's address to inform me that my blog is really bad and unless I start writing very differently they will stop reading it and recommending it to others. Now, the bad news is that I write the way I write, and it is highly unlikely that there is going to be an instant and radical change in what I do here any time soon.

There is, however, some good news too. The first great piece of news is that - believe it or not - there are other blogs in this world, and what's more, I have no power to prevent people from reading those other blogs. I even recommend some really good ones here on a regular basis. Another encouraging thing to consider is that people who send me endless e-mails with recommendations on how to make my blog really good and a lot more popular can easily put their advice to good use, open their own blogs, and make them extremely good and super popular.

For some reason, however, the weird people in question don't start their own blogs (even though they seem to be so knowledgeable on how to do it). They just keep torturing themselves needlessly with the imperfections of mine.

A Campus Visit from Hell, Part I

As many of my colleagues in academia are gearing up for a fresh round of campus visits, I want to share the story of the worst campus visit I ever had. I'm hoping that whatever you have to go through in the coming months, dear colleague, will not be quite as bad. Keep this story in mind and no matter what befalls you on the road to academic employment, tell yourself: it could have been even worse.

The week I came back from what I thought had been an exceptionally successful campus visit, I was contacted by a Chair of one of many departments who had interviewed me at the MLA.

"We want to offer you a campus visit but it has to be right now," she said. "Can you get on the plane the day after tomorrow?"

I don't like to say no to any opportunity to get a job in this tough economic climate, so I cancelled my classes and bought an airplane ticket. The department faxed me some pages from the textbook I was asked to cover in the class I had to teach as part of the job interview, and I stayed up all night before the trip preparing some really fun activities for the class.

The flight lasted 6 hours longer than we'd expected. Campus visits are only offered in February and March, which means that the chances of you getting snowed in somewhere along the way are high. The schedule of my 3-day-long campus visit was extremely tight, so every time my flight was delayed I could practically feel the chances of getting anything useful out of the visit slipping out of my reach.

After a sleepless night and a 14-hour flight, I arrived at my destination and was immediately taken to a restaurant for a meal. Only the most naive and inexperienced job seekers expect to eat or drink anything at such gatherings. Every sip you take is scrutinized, and your job is to make a good impression. If you think that academic hiring is about how good your CV is, how rich your research agenda might be, or how great your teaching skills are, then you are in for a huge surprise. It's all about making a nice impression. That is, if it's even a good faith search and not one of those sham searches that are only conducted to save face in a situation where the job has already been promised to somebody's relative or an internal candidate.

From my MLA interviews with the members of this particular department I knew they were a pretty spacey bunch prone to long silences. During that first dinner they seemed even more out of it than at the MLA interview. I summoned all the chirpiness I possess to fill in the long bleak silences. The main topic of conversation at the table was about the high prices of food at that particular restaurant, which made me feel horrible about every bite I tried to take. It might have been my imagination, but it felt like everybody was looking at me with resentment whenever I tried to swallow anything.

Next morning, I was told that because of the delay of my flight several activities had to be taken off the agenda.

"So you aren't going to get to see the campus. Or the library," a member of the search committee announced. "But not to worry, you are still going on your excursion with the real estate agent."

I made a couple of timid attempts to suggest that a real estate agent was of no interest to me but to no avail. The agent arrived, I was packed into her car, and sent off to explore available properties. At that time, I had exactly $112 in my checking account and $32 in savings, so the agent's spiel about the really cheap properties that were available "just for $325,000, imagine that!" left me cold. I was scheduled to give my trial class right after the real estate excursion. It is very tough to teach a class where there are more people observing and judging you than actual students. All I wanted at that point was to get some alone time to have a cup of coffee, go over my class plan, relax, and get into the teaching mode. I teach in Spanish, so it's necessary to take a moment to tune into the Spanish-speaking side of my brain. The real estate agent, though, was relentless.

"Oh, there is plenty more time left before your class," she said as she finally let me out of her minivan 3 minutes before the trial class was scheduled to begin.

I was expecting somebody from the department to be there to take me to the classroom where I was going to teach the class. Imagine my horror when 10 minutes into the class I was supposed to be teaching nobody arrived to lead me to the classroom. The visit had been planned in such a hurry that nobody put the actual classroom number on my visit schedule.

(To be continued. . .)


The ways of blogging are mysterious. My hitcounter shows that for some unfathomable reason most of my visitors today are from Oklahoma. Many years ago, I read Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and since then always wanted to see for myself whether Oklahoma was truly as sad a place as this great novel made it out to be. I got my chance to see Oklahoma (and many other places) during my academic job search. I was invited for a campus visit to a university in that state.

The members of the search committee who picked me up at the airport drove me through the outskirts of Oklahoma City filled with bunker-like buildings that were depressingly dirty orange in color. Then, we traveled through a bleak landscape dominated by a low, oppressive sky.

"If you hear strange sounds in the night," a prospective colleague said brightly, "it's the coyotes howling."

By the end of the visit, I was ready to join my howling to that of the coyotes. The tiny little town where the campus was located was dominated by churches. It doesn't really deserve the name of town but I don't know how else to call it. A village? A hamlet? A ghostly outpost of civilization in the midst of nothingness?

"We have 70 churches here, so you'll have no problem finding one to suit your taste," another future colleague said. "And please don't think we are completely backwards here. We even had a Starbucks open here last summer. So we are civilized now."

The thought of coming to consider the opening of Starbucks as an important cultural event was daunting.

"So where do you go for groceries?" I asked after 40 minutes of driving around the area which did not result in a discovery of a single shop.

"Oh, that's really easy. We have this great supermarket 50 miles from here. Of course, you can also drive into Oklahoma City, which is pretty close. It only takes a little over 2 hours to get there. There is never any traffic here, so you'll be fine."

It was not surprising that there was no traffic in a place where there was one Starbucks per 70 churches, but I kept that insight to myself.

"Are there any apartment buildings where I could rent a place?" I asked.

"Oh no, why rent?" the colleague responded. "There is this great little development where new houses are being built right now. You can just buy one of them. Let me show you, it's just 20 minutes away from campus."

Twenty minutes driving, of course. I considered telling the colleague that I didn't drive but thought better of it. This kind person was trying so hard to make me like the place. Why demonstrate how truly unsuited I was to it from the very start?

In the evening, the search committee took me to a restaurant. As everybody who has spent any time doing campus visits knows, you can never show any disrespect towards the local fare. Literature departments are poor and taking a prospective colleague out for a meal is quite expensive for them. It simply won't do not to demonstrate extreme enjoyment of the meal you are being offered.

I'm a very fussy eater, which is the main reason why I became a cook. When I saw the food that was being served, I realized that yet another sacrifice to the cause of an academic job search was being asked of me. The menu was filled with dishes I'd never heard of before. In my experience, chicken is always a good choice of campus visit food. Ordering vegetarian might alienate some of the older members of the search committee who'll think you are a hippie in disguise, a political activist, or a trouble-maker. Beef is too heavy and takes a lot of time to chew, which is not something you can afford at a dinner where you'll be bombarded with questions. Pork will provoke a host of questions about how come I wear my Star of David and still eat pork. Fish smells, and you don't want to breathe a fishy smell onto the people who are interrogating you. (As you can see, I could write a doctoral dissertation on the subject of campus visits.)

So I ordered something called "chicken-fried steak." Imagine my surprise when I discovered that this dish didn't contain any chicken. It was a steak deep-fried in some rock-hard batter that made me think of dentists' bills and dentures. (And if that seems obvious to you, then maybe you've spent too much time in Oklahoma.) Every dish was smothered in a weird-looking grayish sauce (you can see it on the picture.)

"What is this sauce made of?" I asked one of the search committee members.

"Oh, isn't it delicious?" she asked. "It's lard mixed with flour."

This revelation led me to panicky attempts to recollect how people went about purging.

Everybody at the department was really understanding when I rejected their kind job offer on the grounds that "I simply can't imagine ever living in this place."

Who Cares About Pedestrians?

While every measure is taken to clean the roads for the drivers, look what the sidewalks are like. Of course, not only is walking out of the question (it always is, so what else is new?), but even waiting for the bus becomes a risky enterprise. You have to stand practically in the middle of the highway, praying that the speeding cars won't hit you.

And then people wonder why obesity is on the rise in a country where nobody gets a chance to walk anywhere but from their sofa to their garage. The municipal authorities don't even seem to consider the need to clean the sidewalks. Not even in places where responsible citizens who care enough about the environment not to buy a car per each family member routinely wait for public transportation.

Now I'll have to spend all day in my office with wet feet just because city officials don't consider anybody but the drivers worthy of their attention.

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Tuesday, January 25, 2011


The colleagues I really envy are the ones who get to sit during their lectures. I teach three classes in a row on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and by the end of the day my feet hurt so much I can barely move. All my classes are a mix of lectures (during which I stand and walk in front of the board) and group activities (during which I trot around the room, trying to maneuver between chairs, tables, huge backpacks students love carrying around, coffee mugs, and water-bottles.) Sometimes during group activities, questions from students come so fast that I have to jog around the classroom, jumping over stuff they throw on the floor. At the end of my last lecture, I always wonder how on Earth I will be able to walk out of a classroom. Today, I had to illustrate the Spanish word "cojo" (which means "lame"), and that was really easy.

Right now I'm sitting on the sofa, contemplating with horror the eventual need to get up.

Book Reviewing Policies

People are writing in more and more often, asking if I'd be willing to read and review their books. I'm not at all averse to doing that. If you are considering sending me a book for review, here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Send your proposal to Don't forget to mention your book's title, genre, and page length. Also, provide a brief summary.

2. I reserve the right to express my honest opinion about the book. If I don't like it, the review will reflect that.

3. Hard copies of books are preferred. I read too much off a computer screen as it is, and it hurts my eyes. Of course, if the book sounds really interesting, I'll accept it anyway in the .pdf format.

4. Don't send any books until I explicitly agree to review them.

5. I will not review any of the following:

* romance novels;
* anything to do with zombies or vampires;
* fantasy;
* sci-fi;
* books on mafia and organized crime;
* books where the main character is the President of the US;
* books that contain more than one car chase;
* books where martial arts are important;
* books about the CIA;
* books where somebody is dying of cancer for over 15% of the entire length of the book.

No offense, people, I just don't get this kind of books, so it makes no sense to expect me to write intelligent reviews.

6. I'd be willing to accept for review books in the following languages:

* English;
* Spanish;
* Russian;
* Ukrainian;
* French;
* Portuguese.

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"How Come You Blog So Much?"

When I first started blogging, I knew nothing about it. For some strange reason, I convinced myself that a blogger could only write one post a day. Two, at most, but even that was bad form. It was quite a struggle to keep everything I had to say to myself and only limit myself to one or two posts per day. Gradually, however, I came to realize that I had the perfect right to blog as much (or as little) as I wanted. I even conducted a little survey among the readers which told me that nobody wanted me to blog less. So I started writing as much as I wanted. That felt extremely liberating.

Today people keep asking me how I manage to produce 4-6 posts a day. The truth is that I write whenever something interesting occurs to me (which seems to happen quite often), and it doesn't take that much time at all. Normally, it takes between 5 and 10 minutes to write each post. The reviews, of course, take longer. When I'm planning classes or doing research, it really helps to switch to a different language and write a blog post. I find that it's the best way to move along whenever I get stuck on an idea or a difficult sentence. Besides, it's fun.

I will be writing a very complex article in Spanish in the next couple of months, so expect a lot more posts. :-)

The New York Times Uses the Tragedy in Moscow to Reinforce Stereotypes

In case you haven't noticed, I don't like The New York Times. It engages in irresponsible, biased journalism way too often for my liking. There are moments, though, when one would expect even the silliest journalists in the world to control their desire to advance some sort of an agenda. Unfortunately, even then journalists who work for The New York Times can't keep their desire to put a convenient spin on everything in check.

On January 24, 2011, Moscow was shaken by a horrible act of terror that claimed the lives of many people at the Domodedovo Airport and left many others seriously wounded. This is a tragic moment that should not be used to advance any kind of unfair and ridiculous stereotypes of the Russian people. An entire country is in mourning. Why can't its tragedy be respected, at least for a little while?

It is shocking to me that Andrew Kramer at The New York Times chooses this particular moment to advance a particularly unpleasant image of the Russian people in his article titled "After the Bombing, It's Business as Usual." The title itself is quite offensive. If the author of the article is trying to advance the idea that the Russians are so jaded that such a tragedy causes them no grief, he is a prejudiced, uninformed fool. How would he have felt if journalists from other countries had written this kind of articles hours after the tragedy of 9/11?

In his unintelligent article, Kramer tries to demonstrate that the Russian people are somehow more "fatalistic" than people of other countries:
Meanwhile, people continued to arrive to pick up loved ones and to embark on flights out of the city. It was as if officials, passengers and Muscovites in general were displaying a particular brand of Russian stoicism, if not fatalism. “Of course we feel sorry for the people who suffered,” said Olga Y. Vishnyakova, a departing passenger, as she squeezed through a crowd in the check-in area. “Some people refused to come to the airport because they were worried about their personal security,” she said, noting that just nine months ago a suicide bombing in the subway had been followed immediately by an attack at a nearby station. “But I thought, “Well, you cannot escape God’s fate.’ And then I thought, ‘It’s been a few hours and nothing’s happened. Why not? It’s probably OK.’ ”
I have no doubt that this conversation with a passenger did, in fact, take place. Still, the Russian Federation is a huge country that has 83 federal subjects. It has a population of 142 million people of different races, ethnicities, religious persuasions, and linguistic identities. It spans 9 time zones and is the largest country in the world. Drawing conclusions about "all Russians" on the basis of a couple of rushed conversations with a few traumatized passengers makes very little sense. I'm glad that major newspapers don't publish articles of the "All Jews are greedy" variety any more. Is it too much too ask that the same courtesy be extended to the Russian people?

P.S. Those who have been following this blog for a while know that as a former colonial subject of Russia I am not a huge fan of that country. Still, it is jarring to me when a whole huge nation is stereotyped in such an unfair and unfounded manner. I probably have had a chance to spend more time with the Russian people than anybody else who reads this blog and I can assure you that they are neither more nor less fatalistic than any other people. I can tell you more: they are all different. Just like the Americans. Or the Argentineans. Or the Nigerians.

Monday, January 24, 2011

An Act of Terror in Moscow

An act of terror killed at least 35 people and wounded many more in Moscow's Domodedovo Airport. It is suspected that the terrorist attack was perpetrated, as usual in Russia, by Chechen insurgents:
MOSCOW (Reuters) - A suspected suicide bomber has struck at Russia's busiest airport, killing at least 35 people and challenging Kremlin efforts to crush armed insurgency and tackle growing nationalist tensions in the country's heartland. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Monday's attack at Moscow's Domodedovo airport; but the action bore many of the hallmarks of militants fighting for an Islamist state in the North Caucasus region, on Russia's southern frontiers.
The last major terrorist attack in Moscow took place in March of 2010 when suicide bombers blew themselves up in the city's busy subway killing 40 people and injuring many more. Terror attacks staged by Chechen radicals have plagued the country for years. Everybody around the world is deeply saddened by the suffering of the Russian people whose lives have been overshadowed by the constant threat of terror attacks.

Saving the Intergrity of Canadian Journalism: Action Needed

A while ago I blogged about the attempts to introduce Fox News in Canada. Now there is an important development which doesn't bode well for the future of Canadian journalism. This is what Canukistani, the reader who alerted me to the news, wrote in his comment:
I’d like to make an update based on an article in the Toronto Star today. A piece by Stephen Scharper stated that the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission) “is seeking to relax restrictions concerning the broadcasting of specious information on radio and television.” Currently a Fox news or right wing American style radio shows cannot exist in Canada because the law stipulates that broadcasters “shall not broadcast any false or misleading news.” Last month the CRTC put a notice on its website that it wants to modify this law to “any news that the licensee knows is false or misleading and that endangers or is likely to endanger the lives, health or safety of the public.”

Now, this is very important. For now, we, the citizens of Canada, are protected by the laws of our country from an advent of irresponsible propaganda-mongers ready and willing to spread lies without any concern for the truth. If you have had any sort of consistent exposure to Canadian newscasts, you couldn't have failed to notice that Canadian newschannels differ greatly from their American counterparts in that they actually transmit news. Not political spin. Just news. Today we are about to lose all that. The result will be sad for all of us:
So who decides which information is false and endangers the public or is false and just funny entertainment for the masses? - A triumvirate appointed by (guess who?) our Conservative government. Of course we have nothing to worry about based on their long and distinguished commitment to transparency and evidence based policy i.e. two prorogations of parliament in one year, eliminating the census, increasing spending on prisons due to an increase in unreported crime. I could continue but I think that you get the picture. I can see in the near future where this new news channel which starts broadcasting in March could call the Liberal party a communist front organization which wants to bring a Soviet style regime to Canada while the CBC, referred to by conservatives as the Communist Broadcasting Company could not offer an accurate rebuttal without the threat of having its licence removed.

It is not too late, though. We can still act and at least try to prevent this from happening. Let's not allow Fox News come into Canada and spread its lies and propaganda. We don't need to subvert our own laws to help this unfair and imbalanced mouthpiece of hysterical right-wingers everywhere move into our country. Let's act! We only have until February 9 to make our opinions known, though, so there isn't much time left:
At a time of increasing economic turmoil and insecurity for the majority of citizens in North America, we seem to have a developing anti-democratic impulse on the right. Is a Kristallnacht coming? The CRTC is accepting comments on its proposed ruling change until Feb. 9. For information on how to submit comments, follow this link.
 Thank you, Canukistani! I would have missed this without you for sure.

Since We Are Taking About Identities

Here is a great meal that I prepared to celebrate my Russian-speaking identity. It's the unhealthiest food in the world and it shouldn't be eaten more than once every 5-6 months. The good thing is that you can't find it very easily in this area. When you do, though, it's fun.
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Responsibilty to Your Profession

A reader wrote in with a very interesting observation on his attitude to his professional identification. Here is what he has to say:
I guess this is a fundamental difference between our perceptions of reality. You see, I'm always a professional accountant. No matter where, when or what I'm doing - I represent my field. Therefore, I am acutely aware of the impact my words and actions have.

I find this very interesting because as somebody who doesn't identify with any group for any reason I don't feel this way at all. In my view, people who bring their professional identification with them everywhere they go run the risk of offering their professional services where they are neither needed nor appreciated. I'm sure all of us have met one of those medical professionals who can't get through a meal with friends without lecturing everybody on how bad their food choices are for their health. Or insurance agents who approach everybody at a party to ask whether they have enough insurance.
However, I would like to hear from my readers on this subject. Do you feel responsible for the image of your profession? Do you feel that you represent it wherever you go? Are you sometimes afraid your actions might reflect poorly on the profession at large? Or that a colleague's actions might make people think less of you as a representative of the profession?
Help out an identity-challenged person (me!) and share your experiences in this area.

Let's Feel Sorry for the Rich Folk!

Finally, an article that explains to all those envious losers out there how hard it is to make ends meet on the paultry income of $250,000 a year. The article that is aptly titled "Down and Out on $250,000" gives a detailed explanation of how difficult it is to get by on this tiny miserable amount:
It’s not exactly easy street for our $250,000-a-year family, especially when it lives in high-tax areas on either coast. Even with an additional $3,000 in investment income, they end up in the red — after taxes, saving for retirement and their children’s education, and a middle-of-the-road cost of living . . . In reality, to make ends meet, this squeezed couple would have to cut back on discretionary expenses – take a pass on a new suit, skip an annual vacation, and drop some kids activities. Unfortunately, the family would also probably save less, at the expense of their retirement or their kids’ educations.
The goal of the article is to shame all of us greedy underachieving fellow citizens of the hard-pressed families with such an income into rethinking our insistence that they pay taxes. Imagine that! A poor individual who leads a hand-to-mouth existence on just $250,000 per year will have to take a pass on buying a new suit. And all to pay some stupid taxes that do not benefit this individual in the least. I mean, it isn't like her uses the same roads as we do, relies on the same police officers and fire-fighters, expects the same military to defend the borders of the same country. And we expect such a valuable member of soicety  who gets nothing back from that society to give something back? That's just wrong.
Thank you, Mike, for pointing me towards this article.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Clarissa's Real Ukrainian Borscht

I seem to be placing recipes in a way that highlights each part of my complex identity. First, there was my Canadian split pea soup with bacon that symbolizes my Canadian identity. Then, I shared the recipe for the Peruvian fish soup that represents the Spanish-speaking part of my identity. Now the time has come for me to offer you a recipe of the most traditional and time-honored Ukrainian dish: the borscht. (Why I seem to be stuck on soups for the moment is a mystery.)

If you only tried borscht in restaurants, then you never tasted real Ukrainian borscht. Every Ukrainian has their own recipe of borscht which can't be mass produced while preserving the quality. This is why I'm now offering you my own recipe of borscht. Enjoy!

You will need:
  • a piece of meat on a bone (either pork or beef). I have also made borscht using chicken in the past, and it was a great success. Feel free to skip the meat for a vegetarian version of the borscht.
  • dry white beans (1 cup). This is often skipped too but I find it makes borscht much heartier.
  • 1 medium sized onion.
  • 1 bay leaf.
  • 2 medium sized carrots
  • 1 large or 2 small beets
  • 1 small can of tomato paste
  • 2 large potatoes
  • 1/3 of a head of cabbage
  • 1/8 of a bunch of parsley or cilantro
  • sour-cream to serve
1. Wash the meat and place it in a large cooking pan. Pork is normally used for borscht by real Ukrainians but I don't like pork. For me, it's a good, beautiful piece of beef. Fill the pan with water and add the onion and the bay leaf. Feel free to add some peppercrons too.

We only just started cooking and
it already looks beautiful. The
visual component is crucial in Ukrainian
cuisine. Food is supposed to look festive and fun.
2. Bring the water to the boil and reduce the fire as soon as it starts boiling. Don't let it stay boiling! Add some salt to the water and leave the stock simmering on a slow fire until the meat is ready (1,5-2 hours). Every once in a while, remove the foam that gathers on the surface with a slotted spoon. The more foam you manage to remove, the better your stock will be in the end. If you have decided to use the beans, now is the time to add them to the pan. Don't use canned beans: they will kill the borscht. It's better to add no beans at all than to use canned ones.

3. While the meat and beans are cooking, peel and cube potatoes. Wash and dice the carrots and the beets.

4. When the meat (and beans if you are using them) is ready, discard the onion and the bay leaf. Remove the meat from the pan. Let it cool. Cut some of the meat into small pieces and add them to the borscht. Reserve the rest of the meat for another recipe. Add peeled, cubed potatoes to the cooking pan.

5. In a small frying pan, heat some olive oil. Add the diced beets and carrots and fry them on medium for 5 minutes.

6. Add some of the prepared beef stock to the frying pan. Pour in 1 can of tomato paste. If you want your borscht to be of a darker color, add some beet juice. If you want it to be sweeter, feel free to add some fresh carrot juice. Leave the pan simmering for 7-10 minutes.

The choice is yours whether to use more beets and less carrots,
vice versa or an equal amount of both

7. In the meantime, shred cabbage. The cabbage should normally be green but it so happened that I only have red cabbage in the house, so I decided to use it instead.
It's up to you how much cabbage to use based on
how much you like cabbage. Some people who are really
not into cabbage have been known to skip it altogether
8. Add the tomato sauce to the cooking pan with the stock and the potatoes. Then, add shredded cabbage to the pan as well.
9. When the cabbage is almost ready, add fresh parsley or cilantro. Keep tasting the cabbage to determine whether it's ready because it takes different kinds of cabbage a very different amount of time to cook. The cabbage should be "al dente", so to speak. Make sure it is not mushy. As soon as the cabbage reaches the desired degree of softness, take it off the fire and let it stand for 10-15 minutes.
This is how the borscht looks when it's almost ready
10. Serve borscht with a table spoonful of sour-cream. True Ukrainians stick a really hot red pepper into their borscht and eat it with wooden spoons.
Borscht is served with sour cream.
I don't drink vodka, but it makes the picture
look more authentic