Saturday, March 19, 2011

Beware of Onions

Red, White, Yellow, Spanish, Vidalia, Cipollini.  Up and down, I scan the wall of onion filled baskets, by far the ugliest section in the produce department.  If I didn’t know what an onion was, I’d certainly never pick one up out of sheer culinary curiosity. 
Covered in unattractive papery, peeling skin, some even with dings and spots. Different varieties and colors. Various nuances of flavor. But this ugly little vegetable is a base ingredient in a myriad of dishes among cultures throughout the world.  With a sigh, I tossed my unsightly Vidalia into a plastic bag and headed home. 
Onion poised on my cutting board, chef’s knife in hand, I began my dissection, removing the outer black flecked layers.  Are these specks a bad thing?  I really don’t know but as I peeled, the imperfections fell away, leaving behind a pristine yellowy white layer of flawlessness.  Obsession seizing me, I peeled and peeled, negating the recipe at my side. Each layer became more tender, each releasing more juice.  And there I stood, gazing at the counter, surprised at the mess I’d made in my attempt to find what was at the center, which was just a pinky nail-sized oniony core.  Tears trickling down my face, it hit me…people are an awful lot like onions.
What we look like on the outside has absolutely nothing to do with what is on the inside, buried deep within the sanctum of our hearts.  When introduced to someone new, what do we do?  Communicate, of course.  All very surface, all very polite initially.  If we find some common interests, we take it a little further, peeling a little deeper, discovering what lies beyond the fa├žade.
Peeling people takes great care.  Pause and thoughtful consideration should be taken after each layer, carefully weighing the risk/benefit ratio of digging any deeper.  You must also decide how much you will allow yourself to be exposed, for it is a bit of a game of quid pro quo.  When someone reveals something personal, you must now return the gesture.  Failure to do so, and you risk forfeiting the game, losing the chance for a connection.   
The opposite is also true.  Some people seem to sit around, begging to be peeled, shedding their layers faster than you are ready for.  All you do is ask a co-worker how they are doing and the next thing you know, you’re covered in “I’m eight weeks pregnant and my husband just cheated on me” emotional vomit.  And you didn’t even bring a change of clothes.  Speaking of the workplace, heed extra caution.  You have to see these people every day.  Peel too far for the professional situation and you’re left with a big pot of ‘awkward’ stewing on your desk. 
Sometimes in the process, you’re blessed enough to discover a friend, a friend who on the outside looks so completely different than you—a red onion sitting next to a Cipollini.  Layer after layer, repeated e-mails/texts/conversations/dinner at P.F. Chang’s/coffee at Panera and you’ve found yourself a friend for keeps.  To whom, at the low points of life, you compose epic-long emails to, knowing that out  of everyone, your  friend is probably the only one you’d ever have the courage to hit “send” to.
Perhaps the greatest example for me is the process of falling in love (I am a hopeless romantic, after all). With each personal interaction  layers are loosened—some layers requiring a bit more work as they are jaded from past heartbreak.  Perchance in the process you discover something so sweet and tender…ah true love, then marriage, where you will learn that the peeling yet continues.  It is a lifelong process.  A continual learning experience.
Now, a strong word of caution, oh ye metaphoric onion peelers: just like a real onion, you cannot put the layers back together when you find something you don’t like or when you’ve accidentally peeled too far.  No matter how much you pray or cry, the layers will simply stare back at you from the cutting board, little curled up bowls, leaving you with whatever you’ve found in your dissection…pungent or sweet or downright rotten to the core. 
Concerning people, peel judiciously…and keep a few tissues handy, just in case.
          --Suzi Ryan

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Assessing the Middle East’s voice through Laurie H. Anderson’s novel

My most recent foray into teen lit reading was the amazing 1999 novel, “Speak,” by Laurie Halse Anderson.  Beautifully written and hauntingly disturbing, it tells the heart-breaking story of thirteen year old Melinda’s traumatic silence after a brutal attack at a pre-high school summer party.  Peeking into the troubled teen’s mind and reliving her anxiety, fears, and solitude was both a scary and addictive experience.
I couldn’t help but draw larger analogies to the pain of the character and the pain of the people in the Middle East right now.  While many people can’t understand why several Arab countries are willing to plunge their worlds into chaos simply for the chance to be heard, Anderson’s portrait of a young girl’s silence provides the perfect microcosmic glimpse into the region’s disturbed past. 
To live under tyrannical rule for decades with sealed lips, passively accepting whatever suffering a dictator deems worthy to dole out is both humiliating and frustrating.  Just as in Melinda’s case, the fear, the mistrust, the self-blame and the ultimate hatred can build into a powerful force.  How that force takes shape often depends on a person’s capacity for reaction.  While there are bad apples in every barrel, most of the people of the Middle East seem to have finally found their voices and are not willing to be silenced again. 
As the head Libyan oppressor and his nepotistic government continue to murder the innocent and sink an entire country into desperation, the voices keep getting louder.  For the first time in many, many years, the people of the Middle East are releasing their nationalistic shackles and fighting subjugation together in solidarity.    
Although the interim governments in the few countries who have gained their “independence” may be no better than the previous dictators, just being allowed to verbalize discontent is a huge step in the right direction.  As the protagonist in Anderson’s novel is finally able to break her silence with a resounding, “NO,” so too are these nations finally able to reject years of silence and suppression and rise up against the corruption in their countries. 
Anderson’s novel clearly transcends the typical tale of high school hardship.  Her message that silence is often more agonizing than words is eloquently conveyed to those who really listen.  Whether you’re a broken girl of thirteen or a broken nation of millions, everyone should have the right to shatter the chains of pain and degradation, end the silence, and quite simply
         --Suzy Ismail