Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A (Slightly Belated) 9/11 Tenth-Anniversary Thought

Two weeks, ago I mostly avoided the news coverage about the 9/11 Anniversary.  That first week after it happened, I was having nightmares about Osama bin Ladin and charred corpses buried in the rubble, and a lot of intrusive thoughts when I was awake, mostly involving that gaping hole in the second tower before it collapsed.  I didn't see any value in having all those images flashing in front of me again.  What I did spend a lot of time thinking about is the ten years after 9/11, and how America has changed since then, not just for me, but also for my Muslim neighbors, most of whom are from Somalia.

When I tell people that a large number of our clients are Somali, I tend to get one of three responses:

*A lame joke about pirates (because all Somalis are pirates! Get it?)
*"Have you seen Black Hawk Down?" (nope.  I'll take my real-life experience over your Hollywood any day of the week) 
*You be careful, girl.  I heard about them 20 Somalis who went back to Somalia in 2008 to fight for Al-Shabaab, and..." (yeah, you get the idea)

Now, I realize I'm being a little snarky, here.  I also realize that when your only source of information about the Somalis in Minnesota is the six o'clock news, your idea of what's going on here is going to be skewed a certain way.  Of course, the suburban self-segregation that leads to middle-class Euro-Americans getting all their information about immigrants from the six o'clock news is it's own issue, but that is another soapbox, and shall be posted another time.  

So, from a refugee resettlement perspective, here is my take on those 20 young men who went back to Somali to fight for Al-Shabaab:

Being a newly arrived refugee in America is difficult in a way few of us can imagine.  They arrive here with nothing but what they can carry, limited English skills, limited understanding of the cultural differences here, and thousands of dollars of travel debt to the U.S. Government.  To that, add the unspeakable pain that comes from war, torture, rape, the death of loved ones, culture shock, and the heartache of being uprooted from everything you ever knew, and cast into another country that might as well be another planet.  That the refugees of Minnesota have taken root and contributed so much to who we are as a community is a testament to their strength and courage--these people are my heroes.

But not all of them are able to keep above water.  They often live in low-income, violence-prone neighborhoods, where they are subject to the same economic, educational and familial systems that keep even natural-born citizens stuck in cycles of poverty and powerlessness.  Their children, many of whom don't fully appreciate the situation their parents fled from, and the effort it took to bring them to America, look for hope and validation wherever they can find it.  Young men join gangs in search of a family; I believe that the 20 young men from Minneapolis got on that flight to Mogadishu in search of the meaning and purpose they failed to find here in Minnesota.

How does this happen?  How do people fall through the cracks like this?  And the real question--how does someone become so disconnected from their neighbor to think that terrorism and violence are the path to new life?

It's amazing the impact that relationships can have on how we see the world--how they can give us hope, and bring us joy even when circumstances are difficult.  When you form friendships with people who are different from you, something happens.  Suddenly, when you hear the word "Muslim", you no longer think of the Twin Towers collapsing on September 11, you think of the Somali coworker who bravely and cheerfully celebrates the Ramadan fast while his Christian coworkers are busy throwing a potluck.  You think of the father and his three children you helped pack food with at a charity event.  And when they hear the word "Christian", they no longer think of Abu-Ghraib, or the Rev. Terry Jones bloviating on CNN, or of modern-day Crusaders in fighter jets out to destroy their religion.  They think of that nice person who helped them study for the citizenship test, or drove them to a doctor's appointment, or invited their family over to dinner.  

And it becomes much, much harder for us to dehumanize each other, and see each other as "the Enemy."

So here is my strategy for keeping young Somalis in Minnesota from turning to terrorism: 


Instead of complaining about their lack of English, offer to help them learn.

Instead of complaining about them being on public assistance, help them fill out job applications, and offer them rides to interviews, and help them develop job skills.

Instead of complaining about them not integrating with American society, become their friend and give them a reason to do so.

Hope does a lot to keep people from turning down a dark path, and in many cultures "poverty" is defined not by a lack of money, but by a lack of access, and a lack of community.  When we invite the Somalis to join our community, and value the contributions they make, there will be fewer young men who feel they have to run off to war zone to find meaning in their lives.  

And if you're interested in taking part in this process (and are in the Twin Cities area), here are some good places to start:

World Relief Minnesota (Evangelical)
International Institution of Minnesota (Non-Sectarian)
Lutheran Social Services (Lutheran)
Minnesota Council of Churches (Mainline Protestant)
Catholic Charities (Catholic)
American Refugee Committee (Non-Sectarian)
Center for Victims of Torture (Non-Sectarian)
Islamic Center of Minnesota (Muslim)
MORE Multicultural School for Empowerment (Non-Sectarian)

And there's a bunch more here:

Friday, September 9, 2011

Had to Call 911 Today

The weather was nice this week, and I'd spent most of it holed up in my apartment working on The Dreamer and some articles for a future wiki, so I decided that today I'd do a "mobile office" and go down to Nina's on Selby Avenue (that's what all aspiring writers and poets do in the Twin Cities, right?).  On my way back, I picked up dinner at the Tin Fish and caught the Route 6 bus up to downtown.  We were near Loring Park and I looked out the window of the bus and saw a man passed out in front of the church sign at United Methodist on Groveland.

I couldn't tell if he was asleep, or passed out from drugs or alcohol (he looked like he might have been homeless), but the situation didn't look right.  I kept thinking about what I should do.  Do I call 911?  I'd never done it before, and I have a weird phone phobia, which probably has something to do with the Aspergers, and it takes me forever to work up the courage to call people, especially people I don't know.  Do I find a cop or one of the DID Ambassadors downtown?  What if the guy was having a stroke or a heart attack?  If I waited to track down a cop, it would be too late.  Do I just sit and hope someone else would call the police?  Nah--I'd learned about Diffusion of Responsibility and the Bystander Effect in Social Psychology class, and a quick glance around the bus (and the many people who were walking around that area, pretending not to see him), made it clear that it was in full swing.  And I hate pseudo-Christians who see people in need and "say a prayer" for them without actually doing anything to help.  So I bit the bullet and made the call.

What surprised me is how hard it was to do that, and how long it took me to convince myself to do it.  It's not Advanced Ethics, there--a man is passed out on the ground, laying in the sun on a hot day, possibly dying.  You do something, right?  Is the world going to fall apart because more than one person called for help?  That Bystander Effect is a be-yotch.  I'd always watched those Dateline shows where they set up crisis situations that require bystanders to interfere or call for help, just to see how people would really act in those situations, and I always wondered what I'd do.  I did do something in the end, which means I can sleep tonight, which is a good thing because I'm sleep deprived as it is.  But I know that getting my superego to slap some sense into my id took a minute of rationalizing, and digging up mental class notes from a course I took seven years ago.

And thank God I did, or this afternoon might have ended differently for both of us.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Why I Chose to Self-Publish

I've been working on the Sixth Cycle series for ten years, and trying in earnest to get published for  the last three of those years.  In that time, I've lost count of how many well-meaning friends and family members have directed me toward vanity presses and self-publishing houses, and I've had to gently explain why I was better off trying my luck with agents and big publishing houses, rather than sink $2,000 to produce a book that was often poorly-edited, had lame cover art, and that I would have to sell myself, with no shot at getting into a bookstore.  

The usual process for getting a book published is as follows: you send a query letter to a publishing house or an agent (some of the big publishers won't even consider you if you don't have an agent).  And it better be a good query letter, because they get hundreds of them every day, and it's usually some low person on the totem pole who has to read them, and make a snap decision based solely on your concept.  If they like the concept, they'll request the first few chapters of you book--something called a "partial".  If they like the partial, they'll request the entire manuscript.  

One agent I know of received around 36,000 queries in a year (including one of mine).  Of those, she accepted 9 new clients.  Even appealing to Sturgeon's Law, which states that 90% of everything ever produced is crap, that means that 3,591 works that might have actually been good, or maybe just needed a little tweaking, this agent was forced to turn down because of the sheer volume of submissions.

Obviously, this serves a purpose-- every egomaniacal hack who thinks of him or herself as the next Great Americal Novelist wants to get a book published, and some of their books are downright awful.  This is the Gatekeeper Argument for trade (traditional) publishing--the agents and publishers skim off the cream and protect consumers from this kind of thing.  This is why for the first couple of years, I did the long slog of sending out query letters, about 70 in all.  Never mind that the Gatekeeper Argument ignores that sometimes the Gatekeepers aren't very good at gatekeeping (*cough*Twilight*cough*), and that decisions are based on marketability as much as quality (*cough*Twilight*cough*).  I think it's also ignoring that as the eBook self-publishing industry evolves, new gatekeeping mechanisms will evolve with it.  But the stigma is still there, which is why I was reluctant to try it at first.

Now, sending out query letters wasn't a total waste of time--I got several partial requests and some helpful input from agents (including Kristin Nelson, the agent whose stats I sited above), and typically an agent won't bother to respond personally if they don't think you have some potential.  I compared myself to other authors I knew of and pegged myself somewhere in the 70-80th percentile.  I wanted to get to that coveted +90th percentile that isn't "crap," so I joined some writer's groups and got some critiques, took a chainsaw to my story and cut out any characters, plot devices or scenes that weren't absolutely necessary, and editted, editted, editted until I liked what I had left.  I briefly set aside the story so I could focus on school and my internship at World Relief.

And then I read a news article about Amanda Hocking, and Kindle Publishing.  I resisted the idea at first.  I knew poems, stories and papers I had shared that my writing and my ability to tell a story was the best card I had in my hand, and I wasn't sure I wanted to play it on a gamble like self-publishing.  However, ePublishing was different--it was less expensive, less wasteful, and new devices like the Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and others made it a rapidly growing market. You might not become a millionaire as a self-published author (though Hocking certainly did, and a couple of others since), but you could very easily make it into the black.  Not so with hard copy self-publishing.

But I did the math--I was unemployed, trying to get into the non-profit sector, a job market that is fiercely competetitve, with a whisper-thin resume to back me up.  I needed the experience of social networking, internet marketing, and running a home business to fatten it up, and I needed the feeling that I was responsible for my own success or failure, and not be at the mercy of the interest or apathy of a publishing house that was going to invest most of its resources into the John Grishams and Stephen Kings who were guaranteed to make them money.

And two months after "Lastborn" went to press, I still feel that I made the right decision.  Sales have yet to pick up; I do have some reviews lined up for the coming months that may change that, so we'll see.

A weird thing happens when you as a writer spend so much time around your characters--they start to become like friends to you, and after so many years of knowing Ayuma, Donovan, Faduma and the rest, I felt a certain obligation to bring them to life by sharing their stories with someone else, whether it was just a small group of friends and family, or a larger fanbase of like-minded readers.  I could have waited on a big publishing house to shine upon me, and gained some level of legitimacy in the process, but somehow, this just seemed like the right decision, and I look forward to what the future brings for the Sixth Cycle.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Acorn Bread

So after a several-month hiatus from fishing, I finally caught a bass at Long Lake

However, my big outdoorsy project over the last couple of weeks has been amassing about five pounds of acorns from local sources and processing them into flour, which I use in bread and pancake recipes.

"Oh no!" you cry, flying across the room to swat a slice of warm, oven-baked acorn bread out of my hand.  "My mother said acorns were poisonous!"

Well, no disrespect to your mother, but the lady didn't know what she was talking about.  She probably saw you toddling around in the backyard, still in diapers and sticking anything and everything into your mouth, and "poisonous" was the first thing that popped into her mind to say to you to keep you from hoovering up every loose object you found, like a tiny human dustbuster.  Acorns have been eaten all throughout history, and were a staple to the Native Americans of California.  However, your mother can be forgiven a little (and only a little), because of a little chemical called tannin. 

Now, tannin is actually very common in fruits and vegetables--it's what makes dry wine dry, and unripe fruit bitter.  Bite into a raw acorn and you'll see why grocery stores don't sell it next to the bags of walnuts and almonds.  Too much tannin can cause stomach upset and inhibit the body's ability to absorb iron, and it just tastes nasty, so to eat acorns, you have to process them first.

The first step is to find an oak tree that doesn't produce a lot of tannin to begin with.  Oaks can be divided into one of two groups: White Oaks and Red Oaks.  Representing the White Oaks, I give you my personal tree of choice, quercus macrocarpa, the Burr Oak:

Note the rounded tips of the leaves.  Burr Oaks are the only northern oak species with the fuzzy caps, but they're common in dry, upland soils and easy enough to find. Burr Oaks are huge, spreading trees that can be wider than they are tall, with dark bark, thick trunks and a warped, wind-twisted profile.  Burr Oak acorns and those from other White Oaks tend to be low in tannin, and are the usual acorn of choice for eating.  

Below, representing Red Oaks, is quercus rubra, the Northern Red Oak:
Note the pointed leaf tips.  Red oaks tend to have ramrod-straight trunks, with branches sticking out at right angles.  The nuts are so high in tannin that they really aren't worth the trouble, though enough processing can make any acorn edible.  If in doubt, crack one open and take a bite.  It won't taste good either way, but if you can chew it up without spitting it right back out, you're in good shape.

Step two, gather a butt-load.  The more the merrier.  I usually get about two pounds in one plastic grocery bag.  Just ignore all the passersby staring at you.  You--the college-educated career woman on her hands and knees on the ground, picking up acorns by the pound.  Those squares just aren't as in touch with Mother Nature as you are.  You're urban foraging, darn it!  It's hip!

When you've got as much as you're willing to deal with in one evening, then comes step three, which is shelling the acorns.  I don't call this part "tedious," but if you're two or three seasons behind on your favorite TV show, this might be a good time to break out your DVD box set or find an online archive somewhere and be prepared to sit for a while. 

               Izzy gets an acorn if she behaves herself and stays out of my business

                        Sooo tempting....
If you're lucky, and it's early in the season (the last weekend in August in these parts, depending on the weather), the papery inner membrane will come off with the shell, and most of the acorn will be good.  If you're not lucky, you'll be constantly rubbing the paper off with your fingers and breaking off wormy bits.  Discard any acorns that have little holes in them, because they're probably wormy; sometimes it's easier just to dunk the whole batch in a bucket of water and discard the ones that float, because they're likely to be bad.  Yeah, you'll come across a few acorn weevil grubs as you're shelling; just toss them in the trash, or if you're like me, save them in a container and use them for sunfish bait.

When you've got a batch ready, toss the shelled acorns in a blender with a large amount of water, like so:

This is the part of the process that will render your acorns edible.  Tannin is water-soluble, which means that with enough soaking, you can rid your acorns of all that nasty bitter taste.  In my experience, blending the acorns with a large amount of water--making an acorn "smoothie", if you will--is an easy way to not only grind your acorns, but also to speed up the leaching process.  When your acorns are ground, you'll end up with a pale-colored slurry that you can then pour into a container, like so:

Snap on a lid, put in in the fridge, and let it sit overnight.  When you get up in the morning, take the containers out, and they should look something like this:

Your slurry should have separated into three layers: the acorn meal at the bottom, a thin layer of starch in the middle, and a layer of brown, tannin-stained water at the top.  Carefully pour off this top layer, and try to lose as little of the starch as possible.  Replace the water, stir, seal, put it back in the fridge, and go to work.  When you come home from work, repeat the process, and again before bed.  Keep doing this until the water stops turning brown; this could take anywhere from 3 days to a week, depending on how much tannin is in your acorns.  You can also taste a little to see if it is still bitter.

When you are finished with the leaching process, you can drain it and incorporate it into a recipe as is, compensating for the added moisture (acorns make excellent quick breads and pancake batter), or if you want to save it for later use, drain it, spread in out in a food dehydrator or an oven set at low heat, and dry it.  When you're finished, you should end up with a product that looks like this:

I'd grind it in a blender one more time for good measure; if you're really hard-core, you can use the milling attachment on your kitchen grinder.  There are recipes for acorn products all over the internet, usually incorporating equal parts wheat flour and acorn flour (acorns are nuts, not grains, so they lack the binding properties provided by wheat gluten.  Trust me on this one--Worst. Pancake. Ever.)

For my house-church meeting, I made a loaf using this recipe. I added another egg and about 1/8 cup of milk, because I like my quick bread soft and moist, and used maple syrup as a sweetener.  The end product looked like this:

And it made my apartment smell like yummy banana bread.  I really can't overstate how good this stuff smells when it's baking.  It'll make you wonder why people don't make acorn bread all the time (and then you'll remember the three hours you spend sitting on the floor watching "Community," and the week-long leaching process afterward, and understand why acorns are kind of a seasonal treat).  The bread itself is very heavy, though the finer you grind the flour, the less this seems to be an issue.

Try it fresh out of the oven, with a dab of honey butter, or add some dried cranberries or shredded pumpkin to go with the whole "fall" theme, and you'll agree that it was worth the effort.

Bon Appetit!