Archive for September, 2012

I Witnessed History

Well readers, this past Saturday, I had the opportunity to fulfill a dream I have had since 2004, the first Presidential election that I paid attention to. I got to see a small piece of history through the experience of a campaign rally!

We have all seen them on television, and if you are passionate about one candidate or another, you may have even cheered or clapped along with the crowds as the candidate shouted words of inspiration on television as I have. Maybe it’s the journalist in me, but ever since I started paying attention to these rallies, I longed to not just cheer along with a television crowd, but be in the crowd, to not just listen to a reporter trying to capture the experience, but experience a rally for myself. Of course, when there is something you really want to experience, the candidates would always come to town when I had school, and when I was off, the campaign rallies were too far away. My freshman year of college in 2008, John McCain held a rally just blocks from my college, and my mom had the audacity to attend the rally with my grandmothers, but insist that I go to class! If I were sighted, I might have fooled her and walked in the door of the building where I had class, waited until the car was gone and then walked to the rally where I would have blended in with the masses and she would have never known. It wasn’t high school anymore, so the school wouldn’t have contacted her or given me a detention. As it was, Gilbert and I didn’t know the route to the rally and I didn’t know of any friends who were going, so I went to class like a good student. But as I listened to the professor, it occurred to me that the 2012 campaign season would be in full swing the summer I graduated college. If the economy was still shaky then, I might even be able to enjoy a few months without a job. If this turned out to be the case, I vowed that 2012 would be the year to fulfill this dream.

Well, 2012 came in the blink of an eye, and I did graduate and the economy is still bad, so I still don’t have a job. Given that, last Monday September 17, Mom was trying to talk me in to going with her to Indiana for a family reunion on Saturday. I was a little reluctant, fearing that finding something gluten-free at a potluck-style family reunion would be a nightmare. When she promised we would get to Grandmas house in time to go to a grocery store and make gluten-free food, I was starting to cave. And then I found out that Barack Obama was coming to Milwaukee for a rally on Saturday. It was officially decided. Sorry Mom, but I have to go to that rally. I have waited years for this experience. Perhaps remembering how I envied her in 2008, she understood.

The rally was free and open to the public, but tickets were required. So after a career fair last Thursday morning, the kind of event when we would usually be tired and hungry and thus choose to go straight home, we bypassed the home exit on the freeway and made a special trip to one of four Organizing for America offices in our area to pick up two tickets. We had to fill out a form with our contact information to obtain the tickets, and as long as they had lured us in, the form asked if we would be interested in doing anything on a list of volunteer opportunities for Obama’s campaign, and Obama T-shirts and buttons were on display for purchase with a donation. Boy are politicians clever and opportunistic! We didn’t want to commit to volunteering, but I fell for the Obama button for a donation ploy. I had to have something to show off at the rally after all! Everyone else probably would too! So I got a Women for Obama button with a $1 donation.

Mom put the tickets on the little kitchen table when we got home so we would see them Saturday morning, and every time I would walk by that table, I would feel for the tickets to verify that they were still there, that they hadn’t been accidentally lost amidst other paperwork or gotten anything spilled on them and because I just couldn’t believe that the opportunity I had patiently waited eight years to experience was just two days away now and touching the tickets confirmed this was actually for real!

Last Friday I got a reminder call from a volunteer, as if I would forget to show up for such an opportunity. The volunteer said the doors to the park where the rally was to be held would open at 2:30 in the afternoon, so we should try to get there around then to get a better spot in line and get through security in time for the President. So on Saturday at around 1:30, sporting blue jeans, a white T-shirt, a red fleece jacket on which Mom helped me pin the button and a pair of good walking shoes, and with both of our tickets in my excited little hands, we headed for the rally.

Now I knew there would be a long line. This was the president of the United States after all, and not just any president but the first African-American president and an inspiring speaker. But when an organizer of the event spoke on the news Friday casually predicting “a couple thousand people”, I imagined a line that was blocks, rather than miles long. Dad had the car parked right at 2:30 and already when we took our place at the back of the line, Dad said we were a mile from the park. And as we stood in line, people were still coming in waves, until Dad told me that the line wound around buildings and extended all the way to the lakefront miles away.

“I’m not sure we’ll be able to get in on time,” Dad confessed when he saw where we were in a line that didn’t budge for over an hour, “we’ll try to get in, but don’t be too disappointed. I think someone near us in line said they heard people who were closer to the gate had been there since 9:00 in the morning. I wouldn’t have had the patience to hold a place in line for that long, even if it was to see the president. But I will say it was the most pleasant, festive line I ever waited in. It was nothing like waiting in line to get on an amusement park ride, where everyone is in a tight single-file line with the hot sun beating down and little kids getting tired and upset. It was around 56 degrees, a cool Autumn afternoon. I think it was a pretty cloudy day too. I did feel the sun occasionally, but it wasn’t oppressive at all. Since the line didn’t move very fast, people could step out of the line and sit in the grass or on a bench and then get up when the line moved. Since I was running on adrenaline, and since I am used to standing for insane lengths of time from when I was in choirs, I could have stood the whole time. But Dad insisted that I should be one of the people sitting down because if we managed to get in to the rally, it would likely be standing room only so I should pace myself.

Surprisingly, at least where I was, I didn’t hear any protesters, and Dad didn’t see any protest signs either. Perhaps in the aftermath of last year’s Capital chaos in Madison, police have been cracking down, so protesters decided to stay home. But at different times, random people would come around selling Obama merchandise. “Obama buttons! Obama buttons! 2 for $5!” or “T-shirts for $10! Others are charging $15!” When the line progressed a little further, someone was even selling Obama underwear! I’m not kidding!

Just behind us was a mother and her little boy who ran around and played a little while we waited, although the mother basically said to be careful because if he got hurt, they weren’t leaving. He complained a little about the long wait, but overall was a great sport, behaving much better than I would have at his age. On the one hand, he seemed a little young to be at an event like this, but he seemed old enough that he would remember the event and while he may not appreciate it now, when he grows up he will understand that he got to witness history.

After over an hour in which time the line hardly budged, all of the sudden it was moving fast and we pretty much walked without stopping until we reached security. Since it was the President, it was airport style security where we had to empty our pockets of metal, throw away any liquids, and even remove our Obama buttons. To my relief though, we did not have to take off our shoes!

And then at about 5:00, we were in the gate! Dad was right. By the time we got in, all of the seats were filled and we were standing crammed like sardines ten rows back. The outdoor venue where this rally was held is a popular venue for summer festivals. I’m not a fan of outdoor concerts so I had never been to this venue, but my dad had and said it wasn’t very big. Someone else said it seated around 5,000 people, but the next day, I read a recounting of the event from a blogger who reported there were 18,000 people there. At first I thought that whoever organized this rally seriously underestimated Obama’s popularity, until Dad explained the politics of perception to me. Organizers of rallies like this intentionally use smaller venues to create an overflow crowd because if the event was hosted in a big venue and there were empty seats, it would look bad.

My dad had to stand on his tiptoes to see because there were tall people standing in front of us and I had to strain to hear the speakers because people around us were talking, but we were there! When a former Democratic Senator, a woman running for senate and a union firefighter gave speeches, the crowd seemed enthusiastic but relatively subdued. But when the president of the United States stepped on to the stage, that all changed. The audience erupted in deafening cheers, mirroring the spirit of the rallies I had seen on television. And if you thought he could give a rousing, inspiring speech on television, they are ten times as rousing when you hear them in person! It’s one thing to hear a crowd “boo!” on television when Obama talks about Romney’s vision for the country. It’s quite another to be in the booing crowd and then hear him say “don’t boo! VOTE!” From then on, every time Obama said “Don’t boo!” the crowd would shout “VOTE!” After awhile this cheering and booing gets boring when you have to listen to it from the other side of the television screen. As a passive television viewer, I have accused these crowds of being silly and overly dramatic. I admit to fantasizing about getting “good seats,” or maybe even having the opportunity to shake the president’s hand, so I was a little disappointed about how far back we were, fearing that the experience would be no different than if I had watched it on television. In fact, Dad and I probably could have seen and heard the president better on television. But as soon as the whole venue exploded in cheers, I realized that the back of a live audience is still part of a live audience through which energy and emotions spread like wildfire. And no matter how far away we were in the venue, if you put it in to perspective, you realize you are still closer to the president than many will ever have the opportunity to be, making the long line well worth the trouble.

Two favorite lines from this rally that were re-played by reporters and which I liked too:

“We are not Bears fans first or Packers fans first. We are Americans first.” I don’t care about football, but it is common knowledge that Obama is a Bears fan. It made me think how nice it would be if a few extremely partisan bullheaded politicians on both sides were listening to this speech and took a hint, perhaps taking it a step further and changing the words in their head to “we are not democrats first or republicans first. We are Americans first.”

“I don’t see a lot of victims here today. I see hardworking Wisconsinites.” Alright, politicians are human and since even I, an average person feel terrible when I have occasionally said things that got misinterpreted, I cannot imagine how much worse politicians must feel when their every word is scrutinized across the country. Unfortunately, I have the sneaking suspicion–based on the fact that Mitt Romney defended that statement last week rather than apologizing for how it was interpreted–that he was not misinterpreted. Of course there probably are a few people out there who don’t have any desire to pull their weight and expect the government to take care of them when they are perfectly capable of working. But I believe that people are basically good and therefore I am sure that 46.99% of them are hardworking Americans who simply cannot find jobs that pay enough to provide for their families, let alone pay taxes. Or perhaps they desperately want to work but cannot find jobs at all because so many companies were encouraged to outsource jobs to China with tax breaks under the republican leadership of George W. Bush? The thought of having a president so excessively wealthy he is out of touch with this reality scares me.

But the most thrilling moment of the rally to me was when Obama reminded us that Osama Bin Laden was dead. It started with just a few people toward the front, but within seconds, it reached the back of the venue. “USA! USA! USA!” Despite all that is wrong with our country, it is amazing to see such contagious patriotism is still alive. If any Obama opponents hidden in the audience weren’t woken up by the “we are not Bears fans or Packers fans first. We are Americans first” comment, maybe this swell of patriotism got their attention. No matter who is president, we are Americans first and we should all want terrorists brought to justice and work together to secure a bright future for our country.

I try to keep political preferences off my blog as much as possible because I want to express myself, but I am not the kind of blogger who wishes to alienate anyone or ignite a fight in the comments. But I am sure some of you noticed my little jab at the republican party earlier. So while I would never go as far as buying Obama underwear, I admit that this election, I am for Obama all the way. I don’t worship Obama as if he will save the world, nor do I believe that republicans are evil. Both candidates are mere imperfect humans. After the Republican convention, I was appalled to hear that Mitt Romney’s campaign was supported by donors whose identities were top-secret, only to find out a week later after the democratic convention that Obama had secret donors too. And my internship with my state’s republican governor last summer woke me up to the corrupt behavior of unions which I admire republicans for trying to end.

I would not rule out someday voting for a republican if he/she was intelligent, well-spoken, had reasonable and moderate views and was specific about their plans. But I had a bad feeling about John McCain, and I have an even worse feeling about Mitt Romney. As an observant journalist, I have noticed that every time a reporter asks Mitt Romney a tough question, he dodges it with a blatantly scripted statement, whereas Obama answers tough questions more directly. Mitt Romney seems to pander to his party, promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act, whereas Obama isn’t afraid to do something politically unpopular. I’m sure the transition toward more government control of healthcare won’t be perfectly smooth, but something had to be done to hold insurance companies accountable for unethical behavior like denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions (like me once I can no longer be covered by my parents). Mitt Romney said he would make sure people with pre-existing conditions are covered, but since he won’t be specific, I worry he is just saying that to lull people in to thinking he will be moderate, and then once elected, he will return us to the status quo where insurance companies are in charge. And as far as republican scare tactics like telling us this will mean “socialized medicine”, we already have socialized medicine. Everybody who comes to the emergency room is cared for whether they are ensured or not, but the cost of caring for people who won’t pay for insurance because they never thought they would get sick is passed on to those with insurance making their healthcare costs higher. The provision of the Affordable Care Act which requires everyone to have insurance or pay a penalty will simply distribute healthcare costs more fairly. I am also aware that Romney passed a very similar Universal Healthcare plan as governor of Massachusetts, making me wonder if the one and only reason he is vowing to repeal it is because a democrat passed it.

My point in saying all this is that at least when it comes to this dream come true, as cliche as it sounds, patience is bitter but its fruit really is sweet. Sure the immature student in me would have loved to play hooky to see a campaign rally so close to my college. But John McCain lost the election of 2008 and was quickly forgotten by the media, and likely would have been forgotten by me too, especially since he wasn’t a candidate I was fond of. I would have just been going to the rally to experience a rally. But having the opportunity to experience a rally for the president of the United States, and realize that I didn’t just experience a rally but was inspired by it, made this an experience I will never forget.

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I’m Dreaming of a Good Pizza, Just Like the Ones I Used to Know

In the old days before Celiac, there was at least one night every week or two when it was a long day of school or work and we had no energy left to cook an involved dinner, a day when someone was feeling under the weather and needed quick easy comfort food, or nights when we just wanted a yummy dinner that was befitting of a Friday or Saturday movie night. In all of these cases, someone would say, “let’s get a pizza.”

     My parents and I liked to go to a sit-down restaurant for pizza occasionally, and occasionally we would carry out pizza from Pizza Hut or Rosati’s. But as we matured and became (slightly) more health conscious, we became fans of the take-and-bake revolution. When we baked pizzas, not only were they fresher and hotter. They also seemed less greasy. Come to think of it, that was around the time that a Papa Murphy’s opened up just five minutes from our house.

     It wasn’t long before we had the cooking instructions for Papa Murphy’s pizza memorized, so when Mom or Dad called to indicate they were on their way home from work and almost to Papa Murphy’s, whoever was home would set the oven to preheat. If it was a weekend and we were all home, someone would set the oven before we left. (We have one of the new energy efficient ovens that takes forever to be ready, but we had the timing for Papa Murphy’s down like clockwork. If we preheated the oven before we left, or when Mom or Dad was close to Papa Murphy’s, we could hear the “Beep beep beep” announcement from the oven that it was ready as soon as we walked in the door with the pizza.

     Unless there was an irresistible special pizza we had to try, or a silly, cute novelty like the thick-crusted pizza designed to look like a Jack-o-lantern for Halloween, we would almost always get a family size delite pizza (with Papa Murphy’s signature cracker-thin crust). Usually, we ordered it with canadian bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms, green peppers and onions. If Dad found a coupon that was only good for one or two toppings, he would quickly slice up our own vegetables and add them to the pizza. This was delicious too. Occasionally, we also enjoyed trying something unusual like the chicken parmesan delite or chicken artichoke bacon delite.

     The name sure suited these pizzas well. Just carrying them in to the house when they were still a giant cold paper plate of uncooked dough and toppings wrapped in saran wrap was a delight. When we got the fully loaded pizza, I swear that plate weighed five pounds, and it was the kind of pizza you had to carry cradled in the flat palms of both hands or else the plate would buckle under the weight of all the deliciousness it was carrying.

     It only got more delightful from there. In the few minutes when the pizza smelled wonderful but wasn’t quite done yet, I would be salivating like a dog. When Mom or Dad pulled the pizza out of the oven and placed it in the center of the table, those seated at the table would go “ah!” the same expression of contentment as when a cool breeze comes through an open window. Each slice felt like eating a delicious work of art too. They were the kind of slices that fit perfectly on a dinner plate. The crust of each triangular slice fanned out like wings across the whole width of the plate, and each slice also had to be cradled in both hands while being eaten because the thin crust would buckle under the weight of all the delightful toppings. From the crust that actually crunched like a cracker, to the crispy yet moist center where the cheese stretched with every bite and the tomato sauce oozed over the edge onto my face, each slice was a delight from start to finish, and there was always enough for us each to have two or three. In the early days, we would just get a 14-inch large pizza or get the 16-inch family size and have leftovers. But as time went on, we came to love the pizzas so much that we didn’t bother saving leftovers and would go ahead and eat ourselves in to a delightful stupor. With each pizza costing under $10 for my parents, the price was delightful too. What a perfect pairing of gluten and glutton that was!

     We were once loyal customers of Papa Murphy’s with a punch card that rewarded us with a free pizza when it was full, but last weekend, we had to accept reality and give our punch cards to my brother when he came home to visit. Papa Murphy’s does not have gluten-free pizzas and the gluten-free pizzas we have had just aren’t the same.

     On Friday July 20, just two days after my Celiac diagnosis, I was already hit with a pizza craving.

     “We can still have pizza,” my mom said, “we’ll just make it ourselves.” That night, she rolled out two pizza crusts from a Bob’s Red Mill kit. We all agreed it was too thick, doughy and dry. A couple weeks later, we tried putting toppings on pre-made crusts. I think they were from Schar. They were better in that they were thinner than Bob’s Red Mill, but still they seemed dry and doughy to me. The same was true of pizza I had at three local places that offer gluten-free pizza.

     I later found out that these pizza places don’t handcraft a gluten-free crust but throw their toppings on gluten-free crusts from companies like Schar as well. I don’t fault these restaurants for doing this. At this point in time at least, the Celiac population is still relatively small, so I suppose it would be impractical for these businesses to invest in the training and materials needed to make a gluten-free crust from scratch, and I suppose a hand-crafted crust would raise the risk of accidental cross-contamination. I liken it to the availability of Braille menus at restaurants. Since the blind population is also very small, very few restaurants offer braille menus, but when a restaurant does have one, I get a warm fuzzy feeling. This restaurant thought of people with special needs like me! I know I could read the menu online and decide on what to order before leaving home, but it is so exciting to be able to page through a menu with the rest of the family and read mouth-watering descriptions of their dishes rather than sitting with nothing to do while everyone else looks over the print menu. I get flustered when on occasion, I will place my order only to find out that the braille menu is out of date and the restaurant doesn’t offer that dish anymore. But once I recover and find something else, I don’t hold any hard feelings toward the restaurant. Ideally, it would be nice if they kept the braille menu up to date, but the blind population is so small I can understand how a restaurant just wouldn’t think of it, or maybe found it too impractical and expensive to update braille menus all the time for such a small market. It’s the thought that counts. Since a lot of places, including good old Papa Murphy’s, still don’t offer gluten-free options, I will gladly patronize pizza places that do have gluten-free options even if they aren’t spectacular, handcrafted creations because they thought of people with special needs like me! I would much rather eat a less than ideal pizza than live a life where I had to eat dinner at home before going to dinner with family or friends because restaurants didn’t have anything safe for people with Celiac to enjoy. Some people with Celiac have told me this was often the story of life even just five years ago.

     To be fair, there is still one more local pizza place yet to try, Transfer Pizzeria, which some friends I made in a celiac support group said is the best. It is kind of far from where we live so it hasn’t been convenient for us to get there yet, but I cannot wait to try it, especially when I found out that they get their crusts from Molly’s Gluten-free Bakery, a locally popular bakery about twenty minutes from our house that also supplies gluten-free items to stores and restaurants in our area. Their sandwich bread was the best I have had since going gluten-free, and their mint brownies are heavenly too, so I have high hopes for their pizza crusts. If we like the pizza we get at Transfer, we could go to Molly’s and buy their crusts to fill with our own toppings.

     We also have yet to test the truth of the advertising on a kit for Hodgson’s Mill pizza crusts that claims they come out light and crispy. We have a pizza crust recipe on a box of Betty Crocker gluten-free Bisquick we haven’t tried either, and I have high hopes for this crust too because it made the best banana bread I have ever had, including my life before Celiac, and it makes for excellent dipping batter that I never would have guessed was gluten-free. This has caused my parents and I to suspect that while many gluten-free product lines clearly taste gluten-free and cater to people who want to give up gluten for weight loss or a desire to go organic, Betty Crocker’s products must have been scientifically tested (and probably infused with chemicals, but oh well), to make them appealing to Celiacs and their families who are going gluten-free because they have to.

     I have an aunt who doesn’t have Celiac but goes gluten-free most of the time because she is sensitive to it. She has been a wonderful trail blazer giving Mom and I advice. She prefers thin pizza crusts too and told my mom to try rolling the pizza dough out on parchment paper instead of using a greased pan as the directions for these kits say. Mom found that when using the greased pan, she couldn’t get the dough thin because when she rolled it out, it would just spring back like a rubber band. But my aunt said this doesn’t happen with parchment paper so she can roll the dough thinner that way. And once the family comes to a consensus on the best type of flour for a gluten-free pizza crust, she wants to start making them from scratch.

     For now when we want a quick easy pizza, we turn to Udi’s. My parents bought two Udi’s frozen pizzas, an uncured pepperoni pizza, and a four-cheese pizza. Of course these pizzas lacked the delightful freshness and flavor of a fully loaded Papa Murphy’s pizza, but the crust crunched like a cracker! That’s a wonderful start!

     Although less important in the grand scheme of things, I look forward to the day when we–(or Papa Murphy’s? If you are an owner or CEO for Papa Murphy’s and you found this blog, I urge you to think about it)–get the confidence to make pizza crusts from scratch to resolve another disappointment our family has experienced with gluten-free pizza crusts. They don’t come in family size. The standard seems to be 12-inch crusts, the equivalent of a medium size pizza at Papa Murphy’s (and more expensive than the Papa Murphy’s family size too). This is just not enough for our family of big eaters. Of course we can and do make two pizzas which actually amounts to more pizza than the family size as two 12-inch pizzas means we can now indulge in 24 inches of pizza! But our oven can only cook one pizza at a time, so while we start on the first pizza, someone has to check the progress of the second one in the oven. And the presentation just isn’t the same either. We still go “Ah!” as each pizza is put on the table because it still smells wonderful, but 12-inch pizzas don’t cut beautiful masterpieces of slices that spread the entire width of a dinner plate. I can hold gluten-free pizza slices in one hand like a football, and even though we get more pizza, it seems like less because we have started using smaller plates. These skinny slices would look pitiful on a dinner plate. I don’t know why companies make gluten-free pizza crusts so small. Maybe it has something to do with the chemistry of gluten-free dough and the pizza may not hold together if it is too big, or more likely, most gluten-free clientele probably aren’t as gluttonous as I am. But whatever the reason, I have been dreaming of the day when I can enjoy the perfect gluten-free, family size pizza on a cracker-thin pizza crust that would make pizza nights a delite once again.