Posting this by typing 1 letter at a time from my new iphone from my new apartment in Nagano. This is so slow I'll almost never post (pls frgv ntspk) but I promise I'm still alive！
Since I'm going to Japan for I don't even know how many years, it's time to finally move out properly-- that is, get my room empty enough so that someone else could move in.
The good part is that unlike previous attempts at room cleaning, I can just ask myself, "Will I need it in Japan?" and if not, "Will I need it when I come back from Japan?" If the answer is "no" to both of them, it goes out. Trash, recyclables, thrift store, used bookstore. Laundry will be washed, then sorted and either packed or donated. Very simple.
The bad part: the sheer volume of stuff. I thought I'd done well when I'd gone through the piles of coursework and papers on my floor. Then I looked at my desk, which was piled about two feet high. Then my other desk. Then inside my desk-- 3 drawers full of junk from elementary school. Then under my bed. My closet.
There are definitely some nice little surprises. Like, there's change everywhere-- sometimes in piles, sometimes just scattered, sometimes in the pockets of pants I haven't worn in 4 years. I keep unearthing coins. I expected there to be about $15 overall, but so far it's up to $40 and counting. (The $20 in quarters were nice, but the $4 pennies were a pain.) I even found a pile of cash from when my boss used to pay me in cash-- that's $300 I'd just forgotten about.
The toughest part, though, is the books. I would be sad if all of them disappeared, but I'd know I'd be able to rebuild most of it. But looking at any individual book, I go, "I loved that book!" or "I wanted to read that book!" I can't cull them at all, I love them all too much. It feels so sad to put them in storage for however many years it's going to be, knowing that no one will read them for the whole time, but it feels just as sad to donate them to the used bookstore.
The pastry chef said that I could come back whenever I wanted, as long as I don't visit every day, so I guess I can call myself a pastry intern now. If you go to Il Cappricio tonight or tomorrow and order the lemon mousse or the torrone semifreddo, you'll be having something I made. I also made rhubarb syrup to go over strawberry crostata, the crisp topping for blueberry and peach crisps, and chocolate buttercream frosting to go over a raspberry-filled chocolate cake someone ordered. (Cake isn't on the menu at Il Cappricio, but if you call a day ahead and order one, he'll make one for you.)
I'm still a bit surprised by the kitchen culture there. For instance, he sliced off the tops of the chocolate cake layers so the cake would stack together neatly, and he left these thin extra slices in the pans on the counter. Then for the next half-hour or so, every host, waiter, or prep cook who wandered by just took a bit of it. (I definitely had my fair share too! Who wouldn't want a morsel of chocolate cake?) One of the prep cooks was julienning some beautiful sugar snap peas, and the pastry chef just grabbed a few when he walked by. He also left the bowl he used to mix up the molten chocolate cakes lying around, and at least one of the hosts just stuck a finger in. It's so different from working in a dining hall! Over the course of the day I had countless little bites of chocolate cake, licks of buttercream frosting, tastes of semifreddo and lemon mousse, and nibbles of torrone. He let me take home some extra torrone too. In effect, I'm getting paid in dessert.
By the way, before I forget, here's the recipe for torrone semifreddo. The torrone is 3 cups of sugar and 1 cup of honey boiled to the crack stage, poured over 3 egg whites as they're beating, mixed with the zest of an orange, beaten until the mixer can't handle it anymore, then kneaded with some chopped toasted almonds and a little cornstarch and spread out to cool. This makes enough for 2-3 batches of semifreddo. Because he doesn't have an industrial mixer, it comes out fairly soft, almost marshmallowey, melt-in-your-mouth, fragrant with orange, and for this purpose it's fine. The semifreddo itself is dead easy, actually: beat 4 egg yolks with half a cup of sugar until pale and tripled in volume, whisk a pint of cream, and fold them together with a tablespoon of Frangelico, two tablespoons of Gran Marnier, and as much of the torrone as you want, ripped and crumpled up. This time he sprinkled in some powdered hazelnut praline too. Then you put it in molds and freeze them. This amount makes about 6. I tasted the batter, and it was amazing. He serves them over a pool of warm gianduja ganache.
Also, here's how he did chocolate cake. The cake recipe itself is standard, and I didn't see it. He sliced off the tops of the layers so they stacked better, then spread the bottom layer with a reasonably thick layer of raspberry jam, then with a reasonably thick layer of chocolate buttercream. (Remember, this is the sort of buttercream recipe that calls for a pound and a half of chocolate and two pounds of butter: super rich and smooth and very chocolatey.) After the top layer went on, he checked it to make sure it was level and filled up the uneven side with a bit more buttercream. Then a thin layer of buttercream goes on (I did this part) and it goes into the fridge for 20 minutes before another layer of buttercream goes on. I did this too, but after I thought it looked good, he smoothed it a bit more with the offset spatula, then ran the spatula under hot water to get it very hot and ran it around the side of the cake until it was as smooth as a mirror. Then the whole thing goes in the fridge until the party comes in the door, and the 2 hours or so between then and serving time should be enough to warm up the buttercream. He wasn't worried about the top because the guy who plates the desserts will top it with fresh fruit and serve it with vanilla ice cream.
Last time I visited, I was surprised to find myself a bit bored, actually. It's easy to make one batch of brownies, but to make enough molten chocolate cakes for the restaurant like I did last time, you have to crack about four dozen eggs. (You throw away half the whites. And if you're me and accidentally add the flour to the insufficiently-beaten eggs and it clumps, you throw them all out and crack another four dozen.) It takes a long time to crack four dozen eggs! Or working butter for buttercream: when I went to make the buttercream, the butter just wasn't soft enough, so I chopped it up and worked it myself for 20 minutes until it was good. And it feels pretty similar to washing out the coffeepots at my work: it's just another task that has to be done. Same with a lot of the work. Like, to make lemon mousse with candied lemon rinds, you have to zest and juice about a dozen lemons, then julienne the zests. I'm getting better at it, but it takes a lot of time, and it just feels like something to do and get done with. Not to mention the dishes that you have to take care of, same as at home.
That said, I still think it's very cool to do this.
Just got an email saying "Congratulations! Your JET status is now 'accepted'."
In August I will be teaching English in Nagano!!
No way can I sleep now.
When I arrived at Il Cappriccio the other day, the pastry chef already had some hazelnuts toasting in the oven, and he'd mixed up a batch of raspberry sorbet that was just now ready to go into the ice cream maker. It would be impossible for me to give a blow-by-blow of the whole shift, because in general, he was always doing at least four things at once. At any given time, there might be cookies in the oven, chocolate melting on the stove, something cooling in an ice-water bath, and pie dough warming up a bit on the counter to make it easier to roll.
On the eating side, the difference between the creme brulee you make yourself under the broiler and the creme brulee you pay $9 for in a swanky restaurant is that when you pay the $9, you get a lot more than creme brulee. Currently, orange cardamom creme brulee is on the menu. You get a dish of orange cardamom creme brulee, a hazelnut macaroon filled with orange buttercream, and a scoop of raspberry sorbet on a crisp orange cookie. The orange cardamom creme brulee itself is simple, and you can make the same one fairly easily. But I have never served that much stuff together!
Here's a few of the things he made:
-Torrone semifreddo. He'd already made the torrone, a simple matter of pouring boiling sugar and honey over some beating egg whites and adding orange zest and blanched almonds, and he'd made it come out soft and fragile. (He let me taste some: it was soft, a bit chewy, almost melt-in-your-mouth, and absolutely fragrant with the orange zest.) The semifreddo itself was 8 egg yolks and sugar beaten together until the sugar dissolved and the mixture was pale, then with a quart of cream, whipped, a spoonful of Frangelico, a few spoonfuls of Gran Marnier, and chunks of semifreddo folded in. (He let me taste this mixture-- it was amazing.) You then freeze this in molds and serve it atop ganache made with gianduja.
-Lemon mousse, which is one of his interpretations of a house recipe that's always been with the restaurant. You take the zest of a few lemons and the juice of a lot, then you warm up the lemon juice with a little sugar and gelatin so that the sugar dissolves and the gelatin melts. Meanwhile, you have egg whites beating with a little sugar and cream whipping. (He has 2 stand-type mixers to help with the multitasking.) After the gelatin is melted, you chill the mixture until it comes down to room temperature in a bowl set in a bowl of ice, then you fold in the cream and egg whites. Then you just fill the cups, cover them, and let them set. This is one of the simplest desserts on the menu, and it's served with only some candied lemon rinds and one or two dried cherry biscotti.
-Molten chocolate cake. Of course, molten chocolate cake is best right out of the oven, but here's his trick for making it ahead. You bake the cakes, then you unmold them. You leave some of them at room temperature and put the rest in the fridge. The ones you leave at room temperature will be heated up in the oven for just a couple of minutes when they are plated, and the ones in the fridge will come to room temperature in the kitchen later. He serves the molten chocolate cake covered with caramel sauce, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on a crisp cocoa cookie and some whipped cream on the side.
-The aforementioned orange cardamom creme brulee. You take the zest of an orange, a handful of cardamom pods, a quart of heavy cream, and a quart of whole milk. You bring it all up to a boil, then you turn off the heat, cover it, let it sit for an hour or so to let the flavors infuse, then you strain out the orange zest and cardamom and make creme brulee with it. This much made about 15 orders. The procedure for basil-flavored ice cream is the same: you set the basil in the cream, let it infuse for a couple hours, then strain out the basil and make ice cream with the cream.
-Here's his recipe for caramel sauce, although I didn't see him make it. Take 3 cups of sugar and a cup of corn syrup and cook them until they're the right shade of brown. Add a quart of heavy cream and stir and cook it until the caramel is dissolved and the mixture thickens somewhat. He says it keeps for weeks in the fridge.
-The aforementioned hazelnut macaroons: you toast the hazelnuts, cool them somewhat, then grind them to powder with some confectioner's sugar. Fold them into some beaten egg whites, shoot them out of a pastry bag (he let me try this, and it's not as easy as it looks!), let them sit for 2 hours, then bake them. They were really nice at that stage, mostly crispy with a bit of chewy and this wonderful, rich toasted hazelnut flavor, but he sandwiched them with just a tiny dollop of pastry cream flavored with orange zest and Gran Marnier.
As well as these, he made dried cherry biscotti, vanilla ice cream, orange cookies for the creme brulee and cocoa cookies for the molten chocolate cake (I helped with these), candied lemon rinds for the lemon mousse (I helped with these too), and individual strawberry and dried cherry pies. Being a professional pastry chef is a little bit like being a waiter in that you have to be able to remember how many balls you've got in the air, and when you have to catch each one. There is not much difference in how he folds together a mousse and how I do, but he can make a mousse and molten chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream and biscotti all at once, and I can't. He even told me that this ability to multitask is more important than theoretical knowledge, because being able to make the best dessert in the world doesn't help you if you can't get the job done.
My boss is awesome!
The way the scheduling works at the store is that he writes a new schedule every week, although we're free to change it amongst ourselves as much as we want after the fact. Since he writes it Friday morning, if you give him a note by Thursday night with your request, he'll give you what you want. There is only one time in the 8 months I've been working that he slipped up, and he apologized after.
There's something next Saturday I wanted to get to, but I was a bit out of it when I wrote the note, and I requested "Saturday 3/30" off. This Saturday is the 31st. So he just gave me both Friday the 30th and Saturday the 31st off. How cool is that?
I'm so happy! I was going to wait until I get the results of my JET interview in April before I started looking for a house (and if I get in, of course I'm not moving out yet) but the interview went so badly I'm not keeping my fingers crossed at all. If I get in, I get in. Anyway, I saw posted on the bulletin board in my store an ad for a room in an apartment, and when I called them to check it out, the girl who's renting it out recognized me, and I recognized her too, since she's a regular. It turns out that the room is in an apartment that's right across the street from the store-- my commute will shrink from a 20 minute walk to about 20 seconds! The landlord normally does background checks on the tenants, but since he's a regular too and knew I have a steady job, he was totally OK signing the rental agreement right away. Both of them know that I applied for JET and may need to move out in a few months, and are totally cool with that. Plus, the rent is about half what I would pay for a single apartment, so as long as I'm a bit careful, I can afford it. (Granted, a second job would make it easier.) So I'm moving in a week from Friday! I can't believe how easy it was! I'm finally moving out of my parents' house-- with any luck, for good!
So although I'm not doing the actual move yet, I'm preparing-- laundry, packing, and shopping. Today I visited them again to do a thorough kitchen inventory. They have almost no equipment: no cutting boards, vegetable peelers, cheese graters, eggbeaters, custard cups, baking sheets, and not enough spoons or storage containers. I'll have to buy pretty much everything. I'm so excited!
1. A couple weeks ago, a local student, Franco Garcia, vanished. I knew him, because he worked at the CVS right by my house. He was last seen at a bar, and then he just wasn't there anymore. He has not attended classes, shown up for his job, or been seen by any of his family or friends. There are now posters that show him, asking if anyone can give any information.
2. One week ago, one of my coworkers went MIA. He didn't show up for two of his shifts, and he isn't reachable by phone. None of his family or friends know anything either. Since we don't know what's going on, he isn't fired yet, but we aren't scheduling him for any other shifts until he shows up again.
3. Just now one of you told me about someone else you know who also disappeared like this. (I'm keeping you anonymous for now if you want to remain anonymous.)
Just once is strange enough for something like this-- so strange, in fact, that it happening twice isn't much stranger than it happening once. But three times? Something is definitely going on.
One of my boss's jobs is to monitor the security camera footage for shoplifters, and to show the associates (i.e. me) who to look out for.
About a week ago he showed me footage of a lady stealing about five pints of Ben and Jerry's. "Do you know her?" he asked me. "Yeah, that looks like someone I know, but I'd be surprised if it were her," I said. The lady on the security camera looked a whole lot like one of my favorite customers, you know, one of the nice ones who always asks how I am. She usually seemed tired, and somewhat down on her luck, but she always seemed happy to see me and willing to chat a bit. She'd actually submitted an application a couple months back, and I helped him pull it out. "If it's her, this would be about the third time in six months," he said. (The last shoplifter who I helped identify had also submitted an application.) "Yeah, that's the real reason we're always accepting applications," the other associate on duty said.
Anyway, the customer I know came back about three times in the intervening week, and each time, I looked at her carefully, but still couldn't tell if she was the lady in the security footage. But yesterday, my boss showed me more footage of her, this time stealing two pints of Ben and Jerry's and some Windex, then stopping by to buy some cigarettes. "What kind of cigarettes were they?" I asked my boss. "Newport hundreds." "Shit." I know only about four people who smoke Newport 100's, and the lady I knew was one of them.
Anyway, this customer came back that very night, and sure enough, she went right to the ice cream freezer and started rooting around. I asked her if she needed help, and she told me about a particular flavor she was looking for, one with caramel and chocolate. This is actually quite plausible, and I wouldn't even be of much help finding a hidden flavor: the ice cream vendor does all our stocking, so I don't even know what all flavors we have. Furthermore, we order a lot more flavors than we have columns of ice cream, so he just sort of crams them in as best he can-- I do try to keep them sort of straight, but we sell so much ice cream it can get chaotic in there. So if you're really dead set on making sure we don't have one pint of something bizarre lurking in somewhere, you really have to go through it all. I let her do this, but afterwards, I wasn't sure that I didn't see her sneaking something into her purse.
In other words, this favorite customer of mine is almost certainly a habitual ice-cream thief, and she will be arrested for shoplifting. I don't like it.
I need to take the JLPT this summer, so I was checking out the questions on the website to decide which level I should go for. I'm debating between Level 1, which would certify me as an expert in Japanese, and Level 2, which means that I can read most manga but struggle with newspapers. (This latter describes me more accurately.) I could do most of the example questions for the Level 2, but I thought that they might be challenging even if they were in English!
Here's some of the things they have you do: they scramble up some of the words in a sentence, then tell you to put them in the right order. They give you some sentences that all use the same word, and tell you to pick out the one that uses it right. They give you an essay with a word left out of the conclusion, and have you decide what word was left out. Just knowing the words is only the first step here!
As you know, I work in a convenience store. I have to make sure there's no one in the store and lock up before I can go to the bathroom downstairs. The first time I did this, I could've sworn I heard footsteps coming from above. "Hm, that's weird," I thought, and filed it away in my brain for future reference.
Another feature of the store is that the door is set to chime every time someone walks in. This makes things easier for me-- I could be in one of the backrooms stocking milk or washing out cofeepots or something, and I know to rush out every time I hear the chime, just in case it's someone who needs to buy something from behind the counter, or otherwise needs assistance. If I'm on the sales floor, I look to the door, and if I'm behind the counter already, I say, "Good evening," or whatever time it is. I have done this from day one. The only problem with this is that at least once or twice a day, I hear the chime, look to the door or rush out of the backroom, and there's no one there.
Also, since I always check who's coming in when I hear the chime, and since I can see the entire sales floor from almost anywhere, I can be aware of everyone in the store and where they are at all times, unless it gets super-busy. This is both a customer service thing and a loss prevention thing: if someone seems to be looking for something, or if someone's spending a lot of time somewhere, I generally ask if I can help them. Problem is, sometimes I think I see someone out of the corner of my eye-- sometimes a middle-aged lady, sometimes a teenage boy-- and when I look, there's no one there. Sometimes this happens when there's no one in the store, or even after I've closed.
I know there are perfectly reasonable explanations for all of these. Like, the footsteps could be because my store is connected to 2 restaurants-- I could be hearing their footsteps. The walls are pretty thin anyway, and I know I can often hear people talking outside when I'm in the bathroom. The chime really freaked me out until I learned that there's also a chime on the ice cream freezer-- it chimes when you stand in front of it. (There's $6,000 worth of ice cream there, so my boss would like me to be able to tell the chimes apart and look to freezer whenever I hear its chime too.) That takes care of most of the times I hear the chime. As for the people, well, I am blind without glasses, so my peripheral vision is pretty worthless.
Still, I have to wonder.
Since today was Halloween, of course candy had to be purchased. (Yeah, it would be possible to just not hand out candy, but who wants to do that?) Everyone else forgot until late, so at about 5:00 I made a last-minute run to the grocery store and the dollar store to stock up. The grocery store was almost completely bare; it was as if they wanted to avoid ever selling any Halloween candy at half-price. Of course the prices were shocking to me, because I've only ever bought Halloween candy at half-price the day after, so I was standing there going "$5 for this?" I told a lady also buying candy there, "I can't believe this is all!" "Yeah, this is all there is," she said: "the really stupid part is, I've already bought candy." "It's just never enough," I said, and she said, "No it's never enough-- especially if I know where it is!"
Of course I sucked it up and paid, because the prices at CVS were even worse, and the dollar store was about a mile away, and I wouldn't want to risk the remaining stuff going before I got there and back. And the dollar store had good-sized bags for $3 and tiny little ones for $1, so I ended up paying the same amount there.
When I got back, and mixed up this selection of peanut buttery, chocolatey, crispy, trans-fat-filled sugary stuff in a giant mixing bowl, the doorbell started to ring right away. I let the first group of ghosts, ballerinas, and pirates pick their own, and they each reached into the bowl and grabbed a huge handful. I wanted to make sure that everything would last-- hey, I spent more than I should here!-- so I told the next group to each take 1 piece. They dutifully each took only two. I told my aunt this, and she told me that you just give them each one piece yourself. (If it's only one piece that I'm getting, I'd definitely rather choose.) So this was what I did for the next group, two minutes after. By now, I've served some 10-15 kids, and the bowl is still about 2/3 full. At this point I took a nap and woke up at midnight.
My brother's report was that there was only one more group of trick-or-treaters, so the remaining candy is ours. The bowl is still just as full as I left it. So I ended up paying mumblemumble for candy for mostly myself. And if I were going to get it for myself, Nov. 1 is the day, not 5:00 on Halloween! And if it were going to go to the trick-or-treaters, I should've just let them each take what they wanted-- I definitely got enough. I feel like such an idiot here!
So I need to learn Spanish now. Even if I won't need it in grad school a couple years down the road, and even if I don't particularly like the thought of international travel, probably about a third of my customers come from Guatemala, and a good portion of them speak little or no English. Learning Spanish now would be a good move. I can't take a class, because I don't have the time or money to go into Boston however many times a week it is. And I don't want to try going on my own, because grammar books are just too big-- you get lost in them right away, and they're usually too long to just plow through. I'd rather have someone explain what I need to know, so I can study it on my own. And I don't want to travel very far, probably not much farther than the library-- that is, I want a local tutor.
I've been through five of them so far. I'm not counting all the ones who didn't respond to my calls or my emails, who were too busy with other students, who were unwilling to plan lessons, or who made grammatical errors in any of their emails with me. The five I met up with were as follows:
1: A recent grad who'd been to lots of places in Latin America. He spoke with no accent I could hear, and guided me through the alphabet and some basic verb conjugation. Problem is, when he went over the alphabet, he kept skipping letters, which my mother kept pointing out. So she will not let me see him.
2. A Spanish teacher with many years experience both teaching and tutoring all levels of Spanish, with a terminal degree-- she mentioned that she also knew Latin and the entire history of the Spanish language, and although her training is more in Castillian Spanish, she'd also traveled around Latin America. Problem is, after spending an hour with her I had no idea how I'd study in preparation for the next lesson.
3. A sociology professor who happens to be a native speaker. He answered all of my questions, but I felt no chemistry with him whatsoever, and I doubt his ability to create lessons at all.
4. A current Spanish professor with about 30 years experience who spent a very nice hour with me going over some basic phrases I can use right away, as well as breaking down some of the grammar in those phrases for me. I was about to just go with her rather than going through all of the rest of the tutors in Boston, but a family situation came up, and she became unavailable.
5. A young lady who is currently studying Spanish in grad school, who reviewed what I went over with the other tutors as well as reviewing some stem-changing verbs and introduced me to reflexive verbs. She also spent a minute explaining the use of "de" to me, which is awesome because everyone mixes it into otherwise English phrases. I do feel bad for her, because by now I've been through so many you could easily spend the whole hour just going over what I've gone over. I didn't feel quite comfortable with her, in part because she spoke Spanish with a thick American accent, and in part because she told me to just memorize the forms of the stem-changing verbs rather than going into the reasons for the sound changes at all. So I'd worry that the level of both her Spanish and her lesson-planning skills are not quite where I'd want them.
I don't know what to do now. I want someone who would teach me Spanish the same way I would teach someone Japanese. I feel like I've clawed through every list of tutors on every website and come up with nothing. Should I just forget the whole tutoring thing and just wing it with books? (If so, which ones? And how do you make a study plan you can stick with?) Do I need to just find a class? Is there another option I'm not thinking of?
Notes from my store. I have no problems with any of my co-workers or managers. I do, however, have several beefs with the upper management. Here's one.
We throw away more bread than we sell. Company policy is that you pull bread 5 days before the printed expiration date, because no one wants to buy a whole loaf at full price if it's going to expire in a couple days. Part of the problem is that we order too much, true. Last time I went through the bread in preparation for a delivery, I pulled and wrote off about 30 loaves-- so much that I wasn't even able to carry them in one garbage bag.
Now, if it's got to go, it's got to go. Fine, then. There's a soup kitchen almost right across the street from this store, and a day center that provides food, referrals, and assistance not much farther away. It would hardly have been a blip in my commute to just walk them over on my way home from work. There's a huge homeless population in this town, and a huger population on foodstamps. Maybe it would take too much staff time to mark down bread, and it's cheaper to just get rid of it. There's plenty of people in this town who could use it. Problem is, this is against company policy. We are not allowed to give away anything we write off, period. By company policy, I had to throw those 30 loaves of bread straight into the dumpster.
One of the perks of my job is that I get to play whatever music I want. Most shifts are single coverage, so I don't have to fight with any co-worker over the CD player most of the time, and usually the person who's coming in to relieve me doesn't change it until after I leave. (I do the same for them.) The managers don't care what we play as long as we play things that have no swearing in them-- it is a family-friendly establishment.
I just let the radio play whatever station it was set to for the first month: most of the senior associates listen to the soft rock station, the manager listens to the classic rock station, and some of the associates listen to that station that plays Kanye West and Lady Gaga. Of course I got thoroughly sick of all of those stations-- a whole workday is a long time to be listening to anything!
Hence me bringing in massive stacks of CDs from the library. Right now, I have about 20 CDs in the player. (There's a 50-disc changer.) It's a mishmash of musicians I've heard of but never listened to, stuff from my Zumba classes, a couple of my old favorites, and Loreena McKennitt. I like CDs so much better than the radio: you can choose what you want to hear, and you get to hear stuff that just doesn't get much airplay. Or if you do listen to all of the musicians who are on the radio, you get to hear their whole records and not just the 1 or 2 songs that get the airplay. Right now, if any of you recommend a CD to me, I'll be as likely to check it out as I would be to make a cookie recipe you give me: no guarantees, but it'll probably happen sooner or later.
From the customer point of view, I don't know how much difference there is. At first I thought that my choices were awesome-- my Latin customers sang along with Shakira, the teenagers danced to the funky songs, and the 40-somethings all said how much better this was than the usual stuff whenever I played something calm. Of course, that's not all that different from the radio-- they sing and dance to the radio all the time too. And I get compliments almost no matter what I play.
I've recently been really into Loreena McKennitt-- she's a highly trained soprano, and mixes in Celtic sounds, harps, Arabic dance rhythms and tonalities, Gregorian chants, and whatever else she feels like. Everyone loves her-- I got expatriates who were happy to hear her, people who hadn't heard these rhythms since they came back from Egypt, and a whole lot of regular people who like her sound. I also got compliments for Dido. I put in "Nevermind" this morning, and the guy who came in to relieve me said, "Is this 'Nevermind' by Nirvana? You're awesome! I haven't heard this since high school! Can I put this on repeat?" I think people just really like music in general.
Finally I think I understand why everyone in this country eats such garbage. I do too now. The reason? Work.
Say I'm working a 10-hour shift. If I'm lucky I'll have something before I leave. I will eat at work-- if I'm lucky I'll have enough time to cut up an apple or a cucumber before I go, if not I'll just pack some raisins and almonds. (Whatever it is has to be edible without touching, hence the cutting up-- I have to be able to wait on customers, and I am not going to handle money and then food.) I don't like relying on the store for food. When I get back, I'm going to be starving. And I'll have just been on my feet all day-- I'm not going to want to spend more time making myself something nice. I'm just going to grab whatever I can. Lots of days I'll just stop at a restaurant before or after work: I have the money now, and I don't have the time to cook.
I know that most of you probably don't work 10-hour shifts like I do. (My shifts vary: I've done 12s, tomorrow I have a 9, and later this week I'll have 6s and 7s.) But you all have something, whether you have a long commute or you like to spend an hour at the gym after work. Even if you're only working 8 hours and have an easy commute, you're going to be tired when you get home.
Then what about weekends? I have days off every now and then. But the problem is, there are things I like to do besides cooking. I like to read and watch movies and play Go. I don't want to spend my day off just chopping carrots! And I bet you don't either. In fact, sometimes my days off are busier than my days working. In that case I'll definitely buy something from somewhere. Some days off I do make a massive amount of something, but it's just not feasible to spend your whole Saturday cooking. Definitely not every Saturday.
And the time I have off work is the same deal. Even if I'm just working a 6 and have lots of time after, sure, there are some days when I'll head right to the kitchen. But there are just as many days when I'll head to the library or the yoga studio. Like I said, I like cooking, but I don't like cooking all the time.
So in this country, there are lots and lots of restaurants where you can get lunch or stop before or after work easy. (I am partial to the falafel place near where I work, but that's probably not the best for my health either.) Grocery stores sell chickens already roasted, carrots already shredded, and beans in cans. (I don't trust any of them, but I definitely see the rationale.) Convenience stores like mine sell sandwiches as well as easy snacks like trail mix and string cheese, not to mention the flood of pretzels, chips, Lunchables, Slim-fast, protein bars, Cheerios, and Hamburger Helper. It's incredibly easy to have terrible eating habits without even knowing it. This is just what's going to happen when everyone works all day.
I wish I knew the solution. Maybe if the workday were only 4 hours, more people would cook. But then more people would spend the extra hours doing more yoga and reading more and playing more WoW, and they'd still want something easy to eat. Maybe we need more bistros in the original sense of the word: dirt-cheap places with limited menus each day that serve healthy stuff that tastes more or less like your mother's cooking. But lots of places try to do that already, and we still have a problem. I don't really know the way out.
I can't review. The movie is what it is. I'm not happy about all of it, and I didn't like how they left out so much of the context for what they did show, but I've felt that way about pretty much all of the movies. And even with the issues, I was happy to see the parts that made it onto the screen on the screen. Trying to review this movie is like trying to review the Bible-- it's just too big, and too iconic. You can talk about what was going on in it a bit, but you can't really review it.
You know what word I hate?
There's a good reason for this. "Stomach flu" is a euphemism. The real word is food poisoning. Do you think our bodies evolved to start randomly throwing up for no reason? No! There's generally a very good reason. If there's some sort of bacteria or virus that's irritating the gastrointestinal tract, it had to get in there somehow-- generally by something the person ate or drank.
Here's the other problem with the word "stomach flu". It implies that the flu strikes whoever it pleases, for any reason or no reason. It sounds like a regular disease.
But it's not. It's food poisoning. It's almost completely preventable.
"Food poisoning" is a word like a grenade. It points the finger. It assigns blame. Because everyone knows you don't get food poisoning for no reason. You ate bad food and got food poisoning. Maybe you left it on the counter too long. Maybe it sat on the buffet table too long. Maybe it was contaminated at the plant or at the farm where it was grown or washed or ground up. Maybe several of those. But there was some reason for it. It doesn't just happen on its own.
There's really no way to track how much food poisoning happens in America (or pretty much anywhere, for that matter). The CDC has no idea how many people get food poisoning. Most people who get it just stay at home being sick for a couple days until it goes away-- they don't call their doctor, and they don't go to the hospital. So the number you may have heard, 75 million cases in America per year, is nothing but a guess. They took the number of known cases of food poisoning and multiplied it by 10, because they knew that most people don't report it. The actual number could be much higher or lower. The new number, 48 million cases, is not really much lower-- it's only more accurate.
And here's the other point. Most cases of food poisoning are preventable. Maybe that spinach was washed in water that had runoff from a meat plant. Maybe the cows that were ground up were sick to begin with and not butchered properly. Maybe the meat plant didn't keep everything cool enough, or maybe the meat was chilled with jets of air that was chilled with equipment that wasn't kept clean. Maybe that pool you swam in wasn't as clean as you thought it was. There have even been food poisoning cases traced to ice cream: the ice cream base had been trucked in a tanker previously used for liquid whole eggs. There are a lot of reasons why contaminated food might get into your hands in the first place. It's not just you forgetting to cook the hamburger or taking that lick of raw cookie dough. And so it doesn't look preventable when it happens; it looks like it happens for no reason.
But here's the thing. Even if there's nothing you can do about a lot of the upstream production causes of food poisoning, you can at least acknowledge that that's a possible cause with your language. Use the stronger word, the word that lets everyone know that you know that something is wrong and someone is to blame. Maybe if more people used this word, maybe all of the companies that are causing all the food poisoning, all of the farms and meat producers and food manufacturers, might feel a little more pressure. Even if you aren't writing to your congressperson and asking them to support food safety bills, you can at least call it what it is-- if everyone did, maybe we wouldn't even have to write our congresspeople about it.
I have refrained from mentioning this on people's individual journals so far, because food poisoning just isn't fun. If you're sick with it, the last thing you need is some crazy rant in your comments section. But next time I see the word "stomach flu", I am not going to ignore it.
Japan-- I don't even know what to say. I don't even know what's going on over there, or what to worry about. Should I worry about emergency infrastructure so people don't starve? What about people's jobs-- should I just assume that everyone who was displaced is now unemployed? I have no idea how bad the damage even is. I'm so happy that everyone's coming together again to support Japan, and I'm hoping they don't need it.
I'm taking a trial week at an area gym, and took a spinning class this morning. I'd been wondering for years what a spin class would be like: I know lots of people really love them, but how much can you do with just a stationary bicycle?
And it was so much fun! I was dying within the first 10 minutes. There's so much you can play with on a stationary bike: speed, resistance, standing rather than sitting (this was most of the class), or alternating the two, or even pulling yourself forward and back while pedaling. Even if the instructor just directed the pace and resistance, it would give enough variety to help the class carry through: there's no way I'd use a cardio machine like that for 55 minutes on my own.
My favorite exercise was when, while standing and pedaling, the teacher had us raise our right arms. I hadn't even thought of that option. It's such a simple change, but when you're keeping balanced and moving, it's still enough to challenge the stability of the core muscles. I wanted to try a lot more exercises along that vein: maybe we could try it with very light weights, for instance, or float both hands off the handlebars at once to really challenge the balance. I feel like the stationary bike isn't really a single-purpose tool like an elliptical or a treadmill is-- you could probably use it to add a new dimension to almost any upper-body exercises.
I liked the Pilates class at this gym, too. The instructor was certified in Balanced Body Pilates, which is one of the less traditional schools of Pilates-- the instructors always mix in a lot of junk. Which actually makes it a lot more interesting for me, because I already know a basic classical mat routine. It must have been difficult to keep an eye on the posture and form of all 30 or so of us-- many Pilates instructors say that that's way too many-- but I think she did it pretty well. She had us do pliés in the beginning before the hundreds and added a lot of things starting from all fours after the ab series. Plus, even for the exercises that I am certified to teach, it's always so nice to have someone reminding you how to do them right!
Right when people were filing out of the class, more people started filing in, so I decided to take that class too. This was probably stupid of me; I don't think I was in any state to take another class after those two! It was a barbell class taught by an instructor with the body of a Ken doll, and I'd been thinking about trying it when I'd read the description anyway. I didn't like it. There were a lot of deadlifts (that is, where you lean over, holding a barbell, and pull yourself up) and rows (where you lean over, holding a barbell, and pull just the barbell up) plus a lot of overhead presses and even squats where we put the barbells over our shoulders. In exercises like that, proper form is essential. For those last, a lot of people were hunched over like gargoyles under the barbell, and some people, trying to keep their backs straight, had their chests forward and their shoulders so far back that they were almost leaning backwards-- neither of which is very good, but if the instructor is up at the front of the room, he can't really do anything about it.
There were even some exercises where I wasn't sure about his form. Like for the deadlifts, he'd fling his hips forward a bit after he came all the way up in a way that looked like it would compress his lower back. (Granted, I may have been watching his form a little too closely.) I'd almost worry that he might have lower back issues in another five or ten years. Also, for the standing quad stretch, he made one of the classic mistakes, twisting his body rather than keeping it square, and he only held the stretch for a couple seconds. Plus, even if he did guide all of the exercises better, perhaps by having an assistant demonstrate them while he walked around giving more specific help, it still didn't feel like a balanced routine-- there were almost no twisting motions, it was mostly just those 3 straight up and down exercises, and it didn't feel like it was helping my posture or flexibility at all. Then again, if that's what I want, I should be taking a yoga class instead.
I didn't ask the manager of the gym about this instructor's certification or how they manage those classes. Pointing out my worry about the instructor's form felt like it would be less a question to enlighten me and more a question to show that I notice things. Plus I could sidestep the issue by simply never taking that class again and never taking personal training from him. But now that I think of it, it does worry me. If there's this one staff member who teaches classes and does personal training who I consider to be unqualified, what other issues might there be?
It was definitely crazy to take three tough classes back-to-back like this. After the last one, I had to just flop down on the couch in the reception area for half an hour. There was a TV there, and I have no idea what was playing. I'm all hurty, in a good way. I hope I haven't tried to do too much.
By all rights, I should hate Grey's Anatomy.
There's no plot, save the overall arc of the interns turning into surgeons, and the romantic whatnot, and romance is done better on just about every other show on television. There's no explanations of the medical mumbo-jumbo, so unless you keep pausing it to check Wikipedia every ten seconds, you have no idea what they're actually doing when they do their slicing and dicing. (I grew up on PBS documentaries, so anything that gives less infodump seems somehow deficient to me.) Plus, the medical subplots are all very predictable. Generally, if someone comes in looking like they just went through a meat grinder, the surgeons will all get together and do their magic and the patient lives. If they look absolutely fine, they're actually dying of cancer.
Not to mention the most predictable surprises. A person comes in because he fell down a flight of stairs, and he actually has cancer. A man dies of liver disease, and it turns out he actually has cancer. Meredith gets a funny feeling during open heart surgery, and a little while later, the heart explodes.
And of course all of the labs come out perfectly and unambiguously within a few hours, there's never a backup of people waiting to use the X-ray or the MRI machine, if someone needs surgery you can just book an OR, and there's never a shortage of medical equipment or staff unless the plot demands that they just so happen to be one pint of blood short.
Plus the constant things that are just not OK. Flirting with your patients is OK; proposing marriage is not. CPR is OK; CPR on DNR patients is not. Autopsies are OK, but not if the patient or his or her family has not consented first.
But somehow, burning through a whole season of Grey's Anatomy is both as irresistible and oddly satisfying as eating a whole package of Oreos is.
The show has such a weird sense of humor. Like, if two girls are discussing their respective exes, normally aortic aneurysms would never come into it. And everyone there seems to regard unusual diseases and bizarre surgeries the same way I regard unusual desserts and bizarre cupcakes. Did you catch the look on Meredith's face when she saw the guy with bicycle spokes sticking out of his chest?
But more than anything, the show has a sense of justice. Good people, for the most part, live. Bad people either die or get arrested. People bring their problems with them into the hospital, and the interns talk them through the problems before they even agree to the surgery. You know that everyone is either going to get a happy ending or just desserts. It's a happy view of the world.
I think I'm getting the hang of the farmer's market.
The problem with the farmer's market is that everything looks so good. So it's very easy to go, "OMG zucchini! Those itty baby ones look beautiful! Cabbages! Yes, I totally know some great cabbage recipes! Lettuce! I love lettuce salads! What's this weird thing over here? May as well try it anyway!" And before you know it you're laden down with enough vegetables to feed an army. Then you discover them three weeks later looking not nearly so beautiful.
Everyone in the family loves to eat things made with super-fresh vegetables, and now that the growing season is on us in earnest there's really no excuse not to buy most or all of the produce you eat or cook with from the farmer's market. But no one wants to cook with them. In fact, no one wants to cook at all, and would be happy living in a boardinghouse, where the meals are taken care of by someone else.
I think this next week, I'll buy mostly things that can be eaten as is. Last week, I bought some beautiful wax beans, because the week before I bought them and stir-fried them with coconut and hot peppers, and they were delicious. Since wax beans are edible with no further cooking or dressing, they disappeared without my help.
I got far too much parsley last week. My mother believes that parsley is a salad green, like lettuce, and should be served in roughly the same quantities as lettuce. I agree with her. Parsley was the only thing that I ran out of, or that I ever rationed my use of, since as well as using massive amounts of it in Middle Eastern-style chopped salads, you can toss the leaves in with just about any other kind of raw salad, and if you chop the leaves a little, you can sprinkle it on or in anything else you're cooking. So last week I got enough to feed a small army. The bunches I got filled up a whole shelf of the refrigerator. I think I've finally gotten too much-- I have done all of the above. I've made chopped salad, tossed salad (in my case, about a third parsley and two-thirds lettuce, and that seemed to work) and used it to garnish every soup I made and tossed it with every pasta dish. I wonder what else I should do with it?
I have just discovered a really good hummus recipe!
I love how varied hummus recipes are. According to one of my cookbooks, "hummus" just means "chickpeas"; it can have whatever else you want in it, or almost nothing else. Don't get me wrong, I love the standard Lebanese chickpeas-lemon juice-tahini-garlic drill, and I will defend it to the death. (I also love all of the standard optional spice additions: hot pepper, cumin, perhaps a pinch of cinnamon.) But there are lots of recipes that mess with it-- using tamarind and ginger instead of lemon and garlic, for instance, or leaving the chickpeas whole, or adding a little yogurt, or mixing in some pomegranate syrup and sprinkling some pomegranate seeds over the top. Paula Wolfert even gives a recipe where you mix in bits of fried lamb.
Anyway, I found this recipe for Moroccan-style hummus, with only chickpeas, water and olive oil, salt and pepper and hot pepper and cumin, a little raw garlic, and a boiled onion! I hate onions in any way, shape, or form, but I think that's an amusing recipe. I can see how using a well-cooked onion, particularly one fried until brown, would add an interesting sweet note.
So I substituted half a head of garlic, most of it fried until sweet, golden brown, and crunchy. I blended about two-thirds of it into the cooked chickpeas in the food processor, processed it for about five minutes, enough to get it puddingy-smooth. I scattered the rest of the fried garlic over the top. This recipe doesn't call for the usual tahini or lemon, just chickpeas, spices, garlic and the olive oil I fried them in, and a little of the cooking water if you need it to correct the consistency. It was so good! The fried garlic flavor was so sweet and so pervasive! And anything that has little crispy bits of crunchy-fried garlic strewed over the top can't be too bad in my book.
The only thing I'd change next time? I'd use a whole
head of garlic.( More specific recipe notes.Collapse )
When I went to the farmer's market last weekend, one of the tables was a volunteer promoting a local organic farm, which runs a CSA (that my family used to belong to, but now it's so popular you can't just sign up anymore), and that also has after-school programs for teaching children about organic farming, and that lets anyone who wants to volunteer to work on the farm.
I thought that sounded like a cool idea. I'd learn a little about gardening (I know nothing now), I'd get out of the house, and besides, I need to get all the work I can right now, paid or not.
So I showed up yesterday morning. The farm is actually only a half-hour walk away from my house, which striked me as odd, since when my mother drove me a couple of years ago, the drive always took 15 minutes. The volunteer coordinator said that the most important work right now is getting rid of weeds. (I think that that's a good thing, because it means that the soil is healthy, and it's much better for the soil and for the environment to get rid of what weeds do show up by hand than by other methods.) He led me to a basil bed, which was a thick, 15-inch-high mat of solid green. There was about one basil plant every foot and a half, and all of the other plants were weeds. The soil was dry enough that it's not too hard to just pull them up by hand, and leave them in the paths to dry up.
He showed me what some of the weeds were. "The one is amaranth," he said, of a plant about 15 inches high, with slightly scalloped leaves.
"But that's edible," I said. I'd actually paid $4 per pound for a slightly different variety, red amaranth, at the farmer's market. The farm that had sold it to me said that you could cook it like spinach. He explained that yes, it is edible, but if you're trying to grow basil, it's a weed, since basil grows best in a weed-free bed.
He pointed out a couple of other plants common in the bed too. "This one's purslane," he said, of a little 6-inch plant with rounded, teardrop-shaped leaves. "That one's edible too," I said. I'd seen recipes for purslane salad in a cookbook I read just a week ago. "Why are you throwing them all away?"
"Well, if you come back, I promise you there will be an unlimited supply of them," he said. He also said that this year, he'd had an unprecedented level of volunteers ask about edible weeds. This doesn't surprise me at all. It fits right in with the whole idea of low-impact living and urban gardening-- the idea that these plants that will grow as fast as you let them and that you can find anywhere are actually pretty good for you.
So I weeded the basil bed-- or should I say, the amaranth bed. By my estimate, it was about 80% amaranth, 10% basil, and 10% everything else, including purslane and grass. (I hated pulling up the grass. Their roots spread so far and cling so hard!) I have no idea how many pounds of amaranth I pulled up. It was actually pretty fun to get down there in the dirt pulling up plants, although I know I wouldn't have enjoyed it if I hadn't had a choice in the matter.
Next was the soybeans. I estimated those were about a third amaranth, a third soybeans, and a third everything else, although they were considerably harder to weed since all of the stems intertwined with each other.
I left then, since I was getting hot and tired. I don't know how much I actually helped them. The volunteer coordinator said that it would take one of them probably about 15 or 20 minutes to weed the whole basil bed, though he expected me to take about an hour to an hour and a half. (I took an hour and a quarter.) With the 5 minutes he spent explaining things to me, that means I only saved the staff 10 minutes. I spent an hour working on the soybean bed with the weed crew, the part-time workers who help the full-time staff with the weeds, and I don't know that I saved them any time on it. Plus, the farm does get money, from the CSA shareholders, probably from grants, and probably from the parents of the children in the after-school program. (There's an idea-- get people to pay for the privilege of pulling weeds!)
Still, I do think that local organic farms are definitely to be encouraged. Plus, next time I go, I'll get as much amaranth as I want for free.
Question for writerly types: Even if you have some idea of where you're going with something, do you ever hit a patch of boringness? Like continuing to write is as dreary as trying to eat an entire loaf of week-old bread with no accompaniments?
If so, do you have any tricks or tips for dealing with it? Is it better to try to just plow through it, or is it a sign that something is wrong?
Having procured a suit, dress shirt, cufflinks, and a tie months ago, I now face only one obstacle to actually wearing the suit: putting on the tie.
The tie simply will not tie properly. Of course there are six hundred ways it could go around my neck and not fall off, but in order to be properly tied, in the style befitting a nice suit, there are only a few types of knots by which it can be tied. And the knot must be perfectly formed, a symmetric isosceles trapezoid. If it is not an isosceles trapezoid, the crispness and elegance, in fact the whole look, is lost. You look like a drunken fratboy if the knot is just a little bit lumpy or off-kilter. Two millimeters off, and you may as well just get a three-year-old to accessorize you with Play-Doh or Silly String instead.
And when I tie this thing, believe me, it's not just two millimeters off. The knot becomes a rhomboid, a trapezoid, an irregular quadrilateral, a strange lumpy shape, or, if the tie gets particularly tangled up, a cabbage.
I think the tie simply does not want to be tied. No matter which tie I try, no matter which knot I try, when I cross one end of the tie over the other, that first proto-knot is never going to be symmetric, because of the stiffness of the tie and the fact that the two ends are of unequal width, and sloping. And when I wrap one of the ends around the knot, this irregularity is compounded. This is true whether I try a Windsor, a Half-Windsor, a Pratt, or a four-in-hand. Actually it may be worst with the four-in-hand, with the tie looping around the fewest times, meaning that even the slightest irregularities come out.
In fact, ties as a whole seem very much a wasted opportunity to me. Why should so much luxurious silk be bound up into such a stiff and stuffy garment? And why should ties be limited to symmetrical, tight little knots? We should not tie them tightly, but in any way we want! They could go around the neck three times, or over the shoulder, or tied into bows, or folded in half and then the ends slipped through the loop. There's unlimited ways of tying a piece of cloth around your neck, especially if you have a nice big flowy thing rather than a nasty rigid strip. But that would be a scarf, and men don't wear scarves with suits.
I should have started practicing months ago.
I wouldn't. High schoolers take too many classes already. They're already swamped with homework. Plus, high school students should have non-academic interests, or academic interests only tangentially related to their coursework. They're members of school orchestras and drama clubs that put on plays; they have jobs; they play chess; they play soccer; they can talk with the world's best in chemistry or history or math when they're at the top of their games. If you're in high school, you need to have the time to take on a job or a hobby, to talk with a favorite teacher to help research stuff you're interested in, to join a club or play a sport or geek out in the library or just figure out what it is that you want to do. You can't do that if you've got 6 hours of classes a day and then 8 hours of homework.
And any class, no matter how wonderful, whether it be modern cinema or, indeed tolerance 101, would only exacerbate this. High schoolers are already routinely exposed to some of the best literature ever written, and the typical response, years later, is "Oh, I had to read that in high school." As Mark Twain said, "Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do; play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do." Grace Llewelyn has said that being in HS is like starving to death and being forcefed a dozen Big Macs so fast you just throw them up again. Give them another class and it'll just feel like that much more work.
If I were somehow magically given the power to change high school education in any way I wanted to, I would do away with homework completely. Anything essential in the homework would simply be incorporated into the regular classes. Classes would be more guided study time than instruction. An instruction-based model makes sense in college, when you only see the professors for 2 or 3 hours a week, and the professors are busy with their own research too. But in high school, you see the teachers every day. There's just so much time that you spend in high school, it's ridiculous not to remember what you learn there. And I think that with this method, you'd actually work through the material faster. Teachers wouldn't have to worry about the people who didn't do their homework, and no one would be left behind. They wouldn't have to waste time cycling through the same material again the next year. Everyone would have a great grasp of the material, since the study time would not compete with the rest of the students' lives.
About a week ago, the Indian markets near where I live started selling baby mangoes: green mangoes about the size of ping-pong balls, as hard as a carrot, and greeny-white inside, like a cucumber. I bought some, and they were delicious: as crispy as a carrot, maybe a trace of a smoky, woody flavor, but sweeter and more sour than the best lemonade you've ever had.
They aren't selling those anymore, but now they're selling full-sized green mangoes: green, unripe mangoes that are just as big as the ones you're used to, but still all green all over and rock-hard. (I still had to slice and peel them with a very sharp knife.) They're also now only $2 per pound. If anything, they were even more delicious: still so so sour and so so sweet, only not quite as extremely either.
I'm still trying to wrap my brain about ways I can eat or serve them: they'd not be out of place in any fruit salad, and I suppose you could cook them and turn them into crisp (like apple crisp, only with green mango) or slice them and put them in between layers of a cake, or serve them alongside ice cream. I hear that you need green mangoes if you want mango chutney to turn out the right consistency, too. But they're so good plain that I can't really see the point of doing any of that.
Why didn't I learn about these ten years ago?
I remember a little while I set up a Flikr account, so I'd have a place besides Facebook to upload photos (especially food pics) to, but I haven't been updating it. I meant to upload all what I'd taken in the meantime there, but for some reason, Yahoo no longer even recognizes my account name, let alone my password. So I've uploaded a few of them to Google, although their photo site looks a bit cheap to me. Really, Google is the AOL or Geocities of 2010.
Besides, my camera follows its own whims. I made a wonderful coffee rum oreo cheesecake a few days ago and was sure I'd taken pictures of it, but they are nowhere to be seen.
Plus, I have no idea how to take nice-looking pictures of non-dessert foods. With desserts, it's easy: you just put it in macro and zoom in enough so you can see all of the gooey crumbs. But how do you give that kind of dignity to, say, a bean stew? I couldn't even get the color of a cucumber salad to come out quite right.
And, how much is it appropriate to put in the caption? A recipe? A source for the recipe? A description of what it was like? I thought all of those were standard accompaniments to photos in food blogs (or rather, the photo is an optional accompaniment to the description and/or the recipe), but what about for the photo service itself?
Regarding the story about two men who had lived together for twenty years before state workers put them in separate nursing homes, forbid them to see one another, and auctioned off all of their stuff
-Who took the 911 call? Who responded? Why weren't they aware that Clay and Harold were together?
-Were Clay and Harold married or not? If not, what legal rights had they assigned one another? Give me something more specific than "wills, power of attorney, and medical directives". And when the county went to court seeking to make financial decisions on Harold's behalf, how was it possible that both the people filing the claims and the judges reviewing them were unaware of these?
-Who represented Clay and Harold as "roommates" at court, and why did the court not question this?
-Who put Clay in a nursing home without his consent? Don't you have to prove to a court that someone isn't mentally capable of consenting before doing that legally? Isn't auctioning off someone else's stuff illegal too? Or terminating someone else's lease?
-Who at the hospital kept Clay and Harold from seeing one another? Should the powers of attorney and medical directives they had filed prevented this from happening?
-Why haven't I heard of this before? How come the first place where this appeared on the web was the website of the National Center for Lesbian Rights? How come the Associated Press hasn't already made this national news?
-Should I email the Associated Press about this? What about the editors of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, the Sonoma County paper that has so far ignored the case? Should I send email to letters @ pressdemocrat.com, which is for letters to the editor for possible publication which should be kept to 200 words or less, or should I email the executive editor, managing editor, or assignment editor directly? Which one? (Emails on this page
.) What about my local papers, like the Boston Globe? Should I email the news tip line (newstip @ globe.com) or should I email editors as well? Should I email columnists too?
I just saw How to Train Your Dragon
and absolutely loved it! Way to hit all of my storytelling kinks, Dreamworks. You've got dragons, which are as common as mosquitos but much more fatal, a dragon that needs to be kept in secret, and I'm happy.
I do have one issue, though, regarding the dragon society. ( cut for spoilersCollapse )
I love ice cream parlors! I know the prices can seem ridiculous-- you can get a pint of Ben and Jerry's for less than what you pay for one dish at an ice cream parlor. But at many of my local ice cream parlors, you get to taste as many flavors as you want before you decide, and the attendants will give you suggestions if you're having trouble, or explain to you how whatever it is was made, or offer to scoop around the unwanted bits if that's what you want. And everything is made fresh, right there. Plus they have so many more flavors! Today I had to choose between malted vanilla, French vanilla, vanilla bean, and sweet cream (with less vanilla, to emphasize the dairy character)-- for vanilla alone! They also had a type with 3 Musketeers bars and kahlua and Bailey's, much sweeter and headier than coffee; a deliciously rich and butterscotchy one with brown sugar and browned butter and brownies; a type with madelines crumbled in, like Oreo ice cream but without the chocolate; some with caraway; one with saffron and raisins. The last time I went, they had malted lemon, the earthiness of the malt underlining the lemon zest flavor; Guinness, the rich flavor of the beer working well with the creamy ice cream; and Khulfi, flavored with cardamom and pistachios.
I'm not going to tell the name of this particular one (although I think Cambridge folk know the one), because it's not just this one that I'm endorsing. I like how ice cream parlors just have fewer pretensions than most other restaurants do. Everyone going into one knows that they could get it for less in the supermarket, and even less if they made it themselves. But we're all willing to pay anyway, because it's just more fun to order a dish there than it is to buy a pint of B&J's, and I wouldn't have thought of half of those flavors on my own.
I need to find a good personal trainer. I can't afford a membership in a gym, and I don't want to be dependant on one to work out; I want to work out in my living room. That's part of why I got into mat Pilates: here's a beautiful moving meditation that you can do on your own in any space that's big enough for you to lie down in. But Pilates alone isn't really enough, I think: it will raise your heartrate a little if you do it properly, but a Pilates routine is only about 20 minutes long. Plus the human body is meant to move in more than just straight lines and circles. So I'd like to learn another workout as well. And I don't want to worry about hurting my knees or back or anything, so I'd rather have a personal trainer show me exactly what to do, if possible.
I love yoga (when I find a yoga-for-old-people class; I can't stand masochist's yoga) and kickboxing, but I could never put together a routine of them on my own. I've taken a number of dance or dance-related classes--barre classes, middle eastern dance classes, hip-hop classes-- but even if I can follow along, even though it might make so much sense in the class, I can never take it back with me. I can never remember all of the exercises and their order, or any of the steps or moves even if I understood them in class.
I've been trying out all of the personal trainers within walking distance that I can find, but all of them leave me cold. I've been surprised at how many there are, and most of them started no more than a few years ago.
There's two guys who have their own studios. One of them is trained in several disciplines, including functional training and Tae Kwon Do, and I loved working out with him. He was absolutely scrupulous in correcting my form, helping me find a perfect hand placement for pushups, good wrist alignment for tricep curls, and hip alignment for the type of kick he used. By the end of the hour with him I was sweating and happy. But I still felt kind of unsatisfied, and it took me a few days to figure out why: he didn't give me a workout, he gave me a set of exercises. There's a difference.
The other guy has a much bigger studio, and he has classes in it almost every day, plus he has other teachers do Zumba, yoga, and Pilates. I took a couple of classes from him yesterday. He warmed us up for about ten minutes doing crunches, planks, squats, lunges, and bicep and tricep curls, then set up about 20 different stations throughout the room with different equipment: kettlebells, medicine balls, jumpropes, Bosu balls, rowing machines. He prescribed one exercise per station, and had us switch stations every 45 seconds. It was like a zoo, with everyone doing their own thing, and it was interesting to keep switching it up. But even though he showed us what most of the exercises were very briefly, and he kept circling around to help us, there was no way he could keep track of us all and make sure we were all safe. Plus all of the toys are pretty useless for me if I don't want to buy them in the first place. For the second class, he seemed to keep cycling through the same set of exercises: bridges, crunches, pushups, lunges, calf raises, curls. I thought he did a pretty good job of using a relatively limited vocabulary to make what felt like a pretty good workout, but I got more and more frustrated as the workout went on: none of the beautiful isolations of the spine you find in middle eastern dance or hip-hop, no squishy fluidity anywhere, hardly even any twisting. Plus I was worried about the safety of some of the exercises he had us do, like toe touches with weights. (I learned in anatomy class that you never want to do that, because it stresses the spine a lot, so I didn't use the weights for that.) So even though I might take his class again, I don't think he's qualified to be a personal trainer.
There's another guy who operates a studio with three of his friends, and his concept is that a teacher in a class can never take care of you as well as a personal trainer can. So he has members of his studio sign up online for half-hour classes, and has half-hour classes for the whole day. You never take a class with more than two other people. But when I visited the studio, I didn't feel happy. He gave me a 15-minute introductory workout, but it felt like one exercise after another rather than one nice workout. He explained to me the logic to the exercises he'd given me: first crunches, for the upper abs, then leg lifts for the lower abs, then wall sits with a medicine ball for quads, etc. It still seemed to lack a sort of coherency. Also, there were other things about the studio that worried me. While I toured the place, another trainer who works there was working with a woman and having her do single-leg circles while binding her ankles together with an elastic to add resistance. He was looking at her foot, rather than her hips, and didn't seem to care that her hips were wobbling all over the place. (In Pilates, when you do leg circles, the idea is to have the motion come from your core rather than your leg, and to make the rest of your body absolutely still. Some Pilates trainers say it's OK even if it means that your leg doesn't move at all.) I asked him afterwards if he'd intended for her to move her hip and leg or just her leg (after all, dance often has a lot of hip movement) and he started explaining the benefits of the elastic he'd had her use. This just made me feel that he didn't really understand my question and didn't have much of an idea of what good form even was.
There's a number of gyms in Boston that have personal trainers, but usually you have to be a member of the gym to get them, and you have to pay the personal trainers more anyway (unless it's the kind of gym that's too expensive for everyone besides Bill Gates, that is). Plus I'm not really sure how I can size up personal trainers without actually working out with them. When I interview personal trainers, I try to make sure that they're familiar with a number of different physical disciplines; that they have a good idea of what good form is; that they know how to prevent injury and, ideally, help people recover from injury; that they believe that they can help you build a workout, using minimal equipment, that helps you with all-over strength and tone as well as being a great cardio workout that doesn't require you to jump on the treadmill afterwards. Maybe I should also try to figure out if they have a concept of the workout rather than just a bunch of exercises. Plus I try to size them up physically-- make sure they stand with perfect posture. But the last gym in Boston that I walked into didn't even let me interview their personal trainers.
I spent last Thursday and Friday in NYC and feel like I'm only now just coming back down to earth. I probably spent more in two days than I normally do in three months. Technically, I was there for a $70 Pilates workshop, but that was only the beginning.
Such culture shock! I saw a blonde lady standing off the curb, almost in the middle of the street, pointing to the other side of the road. "That's ridiculous! Does she think cars are going to stop for her or something?" I thought. Five seconds later, a cab pulled up.
Even though I took the Chinatown bus (Chinatown Boston/Chinatown NYC roundtrip for $30) and could have easily had lunch in Chinatown when I got in, I'd planned on having lunch at Café Gray, an upscale restaurant in Columbus Circle. The reason: Gray Kunz, who started the restaurant, had previously worked in Lespinasse, a restaurant in the St. Regis hotel that Ruth Reichl gave four stars to. "With your first bite you know that you are in for an exciting adventure," she wrote, and described food like mousseline potatos spiked with bits of fried potatos, a shimeji mushroom soup with pineapple juice, and petit fours with gooseberries. I knew that Lespinasse had long since closed, and I probably couldn't afford the smallest appetizer even if it were open, so I was happy to see Gray Kunz's name by a more moderately priced restaurant in my guidebook.
Of course, even if I only have enough money to pretend to be rich for two days, I couldn't stand the mall at Columbus Circle. It's the kind of dimly lit space with wood floors, where attendants await you at the entrance to each of the individual stores. The people passing by you are an assortment of rich ladies looking like a page out of Vogue, men in Armani suits, and scruffy-looking boys wearing hand-distressed jeans. I felt naked in my T-shirt and actually-worn-out jeans.
There was no sign of Café Gray. There were a few restaurants, a bistro where the cheapest salads were $15, and a dark place called Per Se with a tasting menu for $275. I don't have the kind of money for the latter at all, and for $15, I need to be getting some seriously good salad. An attendant at a nearby electronics shop said that Café Gray had been closed for a very long time, "over a year". (I was using a 2006 guidebook from the library.) I had lunch at a cafe nearby. When I got back to Waltham, I googled for Gray Kunz: since Lespinasse closed, he worked at Café Gray, then a bar called Grayz, then he was hired by an entrepreneur to work at a new restaurant, alongside Thomas Keller of the French Laundry. The new place? Per Se, on the fourth floor of the mall at Columbus Circle.
Happily, though, even if my main guidebook was Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl's 2005 memoir describing all of the different wigs and costumes she had to wear to keep herself anonymous as the New York Times food critic from 1993 to 1999, a number of the restaurants she describes are still in business. Case in point: Kuruma Zushi, a sushi bar that could probably fit inside my living room, that she gave three stars to. It's one of those places where someone will greet you at the door of the elevator, and then another person will stand behind you just to make sure your water glass is still full. I needed to make a reservation even though I was travelling alone, and even for lunch. One piece of sushi costs anywhere from $3 to $20 there. Chuutoro-- fatty tuna-- richer than heavy cream, and smoother in the mouth. Hamachi with that bite to its texture that you only get when it's very, very fresh. Herring roe, that, as Ruth said, "popped eerily beneath our teeth". I've waited through a 2-hour line at 6 in the morning at a sushi place on Tokyo Bay for fish that didn't taste as good. Even the gari, the pickled ginger, was amazing: almost candy-sweet, but with that fresh zing you expect from ginger. The chef explained to me how he slices young ginger and salts and blanches it before soaking it in sugar and vinegar.
I had dinner with a cousin who lives in NYC in Koreatown. We wandered around there for a little while before selecting a place, and had she not been with me, I'd probably smashed into a lamppost or something. I swear that street felt just like Osaka: everything flashing and neon, the narrowness of the street, the wooden signs on the restaurants, the 4-story karaoke places. And I love the Korean custom of serving 6 or 8 banchan with a meal! Korean-style eggy scallion pancakes, chunks of cabbage or bitter daikon radish or sweet cucumber in a spicy red scallion and pepper sauce, sweet and salty bean sprout salad. Who needs an entrée?
When I got back to Waltham, I asked the lady who runs the Korean market near where I live how to make the cucumbers. Her recipe: slice some cucumbers, salt them, rinse off the salt, let them sit with some finely chopped scallion and garlic mixed with a little sugar and crushed dried red peppers, then sprinkle them with sesame seeds if you want. I tried it, and they were almost as delicious: garlicky and hot and salty and tender-crisp.
I wish I'd learned earlier that food other than desserts could also taste good! The last time I went to NYC, I saw the food as an unavoidable expense and time that takes me away from the museums. This time I didn't even bother with the museums.
Now that I've graduated from UMass, I need a suit. I should have bought one years ago. It's not that I'm sure I won't get a job if I don't buy one-- I just think it would be a very good idea to go to interviews and things wearing one. Not to mention not feeling underdressed at every formal occasion I go to.
I should have asked for all of your help a week ago! I feel like I've been to every store in Boston that carries suits. And I must be either a clotheshorse or a complete blockhead: I cannot tell the difference between a $2600 Armani suit and a $300 suit from Macy's. I feel absolutely gorgeous and well-dressed in either of them. I feel like there should be something that I'm not noticing-- some secret handshake of men's clothing, some detail that immediately makes it clear what caliber of couture you're dealing with. It's not even the fit, because even if I go into one of those places where tailoring is included, the attendant always says the same thing of the jacket: "I wouldn't change a thing-- which is actually very rare. You have a great body." I had to go to Sears and find a $70 suit before I found one that was clearly cut so badly and made out of such cheap material that I thought "That's a pretty lousy-looking suit" when I put it on. What should I be looking for? How can you tell really great suit from just an OK one?
I got a big flat envelope in the mail yesterday containing a diploma. I was so surprised that I called the registrar's office to make sure it was real. "It will be in a cardboard envelope marked 'Do Not Bend,'" said the receptionist. "That's what this one is," I said, "but you told me that it wouldn't come until March." "It depends on when they graduated you. You must have been one of the first."
So I have six months to switch from university email to gmail. While I was checking my umail, though, I saw a link to this page
about the new campus rec center-- a place that's long frustrated me.
It's been clear for a long time that UMass needed a new gym. There had been a few small gyms in some of the dorms, but you had to pay to use them. There had been two other gyms on campus, on opposite ends of campus, but only one, Boyden, was free for students, and it charged $1 for classes like kickboxing and $10 for yoga classes. Plus, even though it was a ridiculously big building, there were only two rooms in it: a studio space and a weight room about the size of my living room. It was very crowded: usually, the classes would be back-to-back, with, say, a yoga class from 4:30 to 5:30 and a kickboxing class from 5:30 to 6:30, so by 5:30, all the kickboxing people would be lined up in Spandex in the hallway outside the room. There were lots of other classes, jump rope classes and hip-hop classes and funk classes, not to mention all the clubs like the tae kwon do club that also used the room, and their members would line up in the hall in their dogi and wait for the kickboxing or whatever to end. Since it was in the basement, there wasn't much ventilation, and usually by the end of the day, the room would be as warm as a sauna. Plus there wasn't a lot of equipment: for step classes, for instance, there was space in the room for all 30 girls or so, but not enough benches, so there would often be one or two girls who just did the class without a bench.
Not to mention the weight and cardio room. If you came at lazy times of the week, like Sunday afternoon, it wouldn't be too bad, but for most of the week, there would be a person on every machine there. They even had a sign-out sheet for the ellipticals: no more than half an hour per person, so you could book your machine in advance if it were too full. As for the weights, you'd probably be able to find a place to stand if you wanted to do free weights, but you'd probably have to wait a while if you wanted to use any of the machines. When the ex-assistant director of campus recreation showed me how to use all of the machines there a year ago, she told me the best times to go (avoid about 7-9 AM and 4-10 PM), to avoid looking at how everyone else is using the machines because they're probably doing it wrong, and that soon the new rec center, with plenty of all new machines, would open.
Forget about stretching or Pilates. There was a corner set up with a mat smaller than my Pilates mat, and at any given time you'd find four girls lying shoulder-to-shoulder there. Clearly, we needed a new gym. We've got 25,000 undergrads alone; we need a lot more space than that.
So for a couple of years now, this new gym has been under construction. It's been the center of much PR on the part of the school. Several of my friends, classmates, and housemates have said that they've never gone to gyms regularly before, but they would when the new rec center opened. The new rec center was supposed to be the solution to all this latend demand (people who would go, but didn't want to go to Boyden) and frustrated demand (people who loved gyms but couldn't find room in Boyden). I forget whether there are three or four floors, with two yoga studios, both much bigger than the one in Boyden, an indoor track, and as many weight and cardio machines as you could want. I'd actually auditioned with the assistant director to become a Pilates teacher there. The place opened, with much fanfare, about halfway through last semester, about a month behind schedule.
I first made it there a couple of days after they opened. After all, even though I have no interest in the cardio or weights machines, I need to know what the gym is like. Plus, the studios were supposed to be big and sunny, and they finally decided to waive the $1 fee for the classes. (The yoga classes are still $10, though.) I'd even auditioned with the assistant director of campus recreation to possibly become a Pilates instructor there.
With the buzz around the new gym, and the general excitement over it finally being open, the place was packed. You could see rows of people on the machines through the windows outside; you could see probably a hundred girls packed into the studio for a kickboxing class through its window; there were herds of boys and gaggles of girls decked out in Spandex and running shoes emerging and leaving, as if it were a mall on Christmas Eve. You had to swipe your card past a turnstile in the lobby to get to the gym, and go past a counter of attendants, as if it were a professional gym. The message is clear: people who don't have student or faculty ID cards are not welcome. In fact, when my ID card didn't work, one of the girls behind the counter told me that you had to be a student to use the gym. "I am a student!" I told her before she showed me the right way to swipe. There were fleets of staff members, behind that desk, behind a nearby desk where you could borrow a lock or a towel, or walking around with stacks of towels or clipboards. I knew that this gym had not been opened without a massive hiring effort, and that there was no way there was not enough staff to operate the gym, and there was no way I could possibly get hired there.
The space itself was a little strange. The shape of the gym is simple: it's a hollow glass box. The middle of the box is a basketball court. Around the edges are cardio machines and weight machines, on three floors. There is a section for stretching, with mats provided, about the size of my living room, in one of the perimeter sections. There are indeed two studios, both of them significantly larger than the one in Boyden. But since the strip with the machines was just a narrow row, probably about 30 feet wide, between the basketball court and the glass wall, you'd never be far from, or out of sight of, either of them. With the high ceilings, the glass wall, the sightlines to the middle of the gym, and the narrowness of the strip of machines, I felt both claustrophobic and agoraphobic. Plus, the crowd, the fact that from any given point you could see hundreds of boys playing basketball and students on weight machines or cardio machines, toned and buff boys and girls who clearly had gone to gyms regularly for years, made me feel anxious and insignificant. The only exposure I'd ever had to machines like that was since the ex-assistant director of campus recreation had shown me how to use them a year ago. The space is designed for the hordes of students who are all much more fit and more experienced than I am in every way.
I kept meaning to take some classes in the new rec center. The new assistant director of campus recreation, who auditioned me (who you see in the video) hired several new teachers that I wanted to meet, plus even with my favorite teachers from Boyden, it would be nice to use the new studio space. But the space made me so uncomfortable that I only went back to interview some students for a project for my journalism class and to audition again with the new assistant director of campus recreation. Plus, even though the space was bigger, from the outside, the class looked even more crowded than the ones in Boyden were-- the new gym attracted more girls than there was space for. They've even implemented a new system where you have to get a numbered ticket for a class and present it to the instructor before the class starts, to cut down on the crowding. Personally, I think there should be more studio space in both of the gyms, more teachers, and more classes. They should also fund the yoga classes; if I've got to pay $10, I'd rather just pay the $12 it would cost to take a class at a yoga studio.
But the people who use the gym seem to be happy with it. One of my roommates went to the gym three times a week like it was religion as soon as it opened. I'm a little sad that I never enjoyed this gym when I could, but it's a wonderful gym for the people that it works for.