I finally got rid of all the dressing bottles in the school refrigerator.
Lunch is served at all of the schools every day: there is always rice, a soup (either a clear soup with vegetables or miso soup), a meat dish, like a piece of fish, and a vegetable dish (which is often mixed with fish). I happen to be a vegetarian now-- not the easiest choice in Japan, which is probably the most fish-obsessed country in the world. But it means that I cannot have school lunch, so I bring my own. And since salads wilt, I keep a bottle of salad dressing in the staffroom fridge. Then, when there's only a few drops of dressing left, I bring another bottle.
You can see where this is heading: fourteen months in, and there's like six little bottles of dressing, most of them with about three drops of liquid dressing and a sort of crusted-on scum. The school nurse and the assistant vice principal had been telling me to get rid of them for about the last two months. Anyway, I was finished with work early (miracle! the contract says 4:30-- I consider myself lucky to be out of there at 5:30-- and today it was 3:45 and I was done!)-- so I just headed for the staffroom sink. I had to ask the assistant vice principal where to put the glass bottles, since he deals with the glass recyclables and metal recyclables generated in the staffroom. (I already knew where to put the staffroom burnable, non-burnable, and three classes of paper recyclables.) He just keeps those recyclables in bins by his desk.
After several trips to his desk to deposit another freshly-clean bottle, he said, "Is that all of them?"
I said, "No, not quite. Actually, this is kind of embarrasing, but a while ago I bought a bottle of lemon dressing, and it was really gross, so I never had it again. I left it in there hoping someone would end up eating it."
"Throw it out!"
"I know, but it's a whole bottle! I feel so bad just ditching it."
"Let me see." He goes over to the fridge, and there just happen to be some sprouts someone left sitting there anyway, so he tries a drop of the lemon dressing on on the sprouts. He pours a drop of the dressing over the sprouts, pops them in his mouth, chews. Thirty seconds later: "You're right, that's really bad."
"I know, right?"
"Straight lemon juice would be better than that. Don't feel bad about throwing it out. --Wait, look at the expiration date. When does this expire?"
"October 29th-- that's today! Sweet! I don't need to feel bad about ditching it all! Shoot, I'm so sorry! I just made you eat almost-expired really gross dressing for nothing!"
"It's OK. Just wash out the bottle and don't worry about it."
Is there any chance any of you could email me a scan of a couple of pages from the official English translation of Hikaru no Go? I want the one about halfway through the fourth chapter, with super-angry Akira with go stones flying through the background. If any of you could do this, I would be super super grateful.
Monday was a holiday here, so I spent the long weekend with some friends who live in Tokyo. It was wonderful, since they live right near a subway station. I could sleep as long as I wanted, and I could even go out during the day, and go back and have dinner and freshen up before going out for the night-- something I can't even do in Boston. I only did a few things-- I got a teaching game from a professional Go player, I checked out Akihabara and had lunch at a maid cafe, I did some shopping-- but I was able to relax and enjoy them more than if I had just been rushing from place to place or if I'd had to get up super-early. I think I'd been doing the travelling thing all wrong. Next time I travel I will only do a couple of things per day, and I will book the hotel for long enough that I won't have to worry about annoying check-out times.
Anyway, the second day, we had some leftover pumpkins in the fridge. They didn't have anything but grapes and soda in their fridge when I arrived, because they don't do any of their cooking, but the first day we made dal an a few simple curries together, because they were curious about them. (We made this dal recipe
, although we didn't use so much oil. None of them had ever had dal before.) I also got pumpkins for kaddu ki sabzi, which is a very simple dish of pumpkins cooked in spices. When I checked the recipes online, I saw that they called for fenugreek (one blogger said that it is essential, even), and we didn't have any. So I said, "Well, we can simmer them Japanese-style, right? You have soy sauce and sugar." Some of my Japanese cookbooks had recipes for pumpkin simmered in a broth with soy sauce and suger. And one of the guys said, "Nah, that takes too long. Let's just fry them." He sliced the pumpkin to about 5 mm, skin on, and fried them in a nonstick skillet with just a little oil until they were soft, sweet, and barely beginning to color and get crisp on the edges. They were wonderful.
I feel incredibly happy and very silly about this. This is not a recipe I needed to go to Tokyo to get; I am sure that any of my Nagano friends could have told me, and I probably could have figured it out on my own even in America. But I am grateful for any 10-minute vegetable recipe, no matter what means I find it by.
Now that I can read Japanese fast enough to finish a typical novel in 2 or 3 weeks, I figured it was time to check out the local library. Libraries have a lot of things not in bookstores, and besides, if I can read a book before it's due, why shouldn't I?
I was a bit surprised to see a whole bookshelf full of nothing but Western translations. Of course all of Earthsea-- the movie made the book much more popular-- but also the Inkspell
series (translated from the German), Ella Enchanted
, a bunch of others. Now, reading a Japanese translation of a book that was originally written in English is one of the least appealing ways to practice Japanese that I can think of. If I'm going to chew over a book for three weeks, I'd definitely rather it be a book originally written in the Japanese, instead of something that originally was English anyway.
I changed my mind, though, when I saw Murakami Haruki's translation of Catwings
by Ursula K. LeGuin. I haven't actually read the original (and I am frustrated that it's not available for Kindle!), but I know it's not a rare book. Besides, it is written by one of my very favorite authors, and translated into the Japanese by Murakami Haruki. And if he says it's good Japanese, it's good Japanese. I've read English translations of books I've read in the Japanese before, and it can be interesting to compare them, so why not occasionally go the other way? (Besides, it's short.)( commentsCollapse )
About a month ago, about a week after the new batch of JETs arrived in my city, one of those new JETs posted a question to the local FB group: Where in the city can fresh strawberries be found? I couldn't say, because I hadn't even thought of looking for them. The answer, of course, is that although there are some imported and/or out of season fruits and vegetables, and some things available year-round, generally you can only buy things here when they're in season. Strawberries are in season in Nagano from maybe late February to mid-April, and then you just can't find them. In August, you might be able to find frozen strawberries in one of the bigger stores, but that's it.
Anyway, now that it's mid-September, the grapes are in season. And I have to say, I like the grapes you can get in Japan a lot better than the ones you can get in America. (To be fair, many of the ones here do come from California. Maybe only New England is unlucky.) The sort of seedless grapes I was familiar with are very rare here. You can buy specific varieties of grapes, like Muscat or Steuben or Niagara. They usually have seeds and usually have very thick skins, but they more than make up for this in flavor.
My favorite variety of grape is called kyohō (巨峰), which is a brand name; I don't know what else they are called. They are giant, almost as large as small plums. Their skin is tough enough that you can peel it off with your fingers if you want to, and they usually have seeds. They are intensely sweet, far sweeter than normal grapes, sweeter than gummi bears, sweeter than a spoonful of granulated sugar--they're almost as sweet as Kool-Aid. Any sweeter and they'd be inedible. And almost as strong as the sweetness is a pure, rich, intense grape flavor. It's hard to describe: they taste like grape, only considerably more so.
Someone brought in some of these grapes to the staffrooms at two of the schools I work at last year. Most of the teachers were able to suck out the pulp from the skins and then spit out the seeds. I was quite surprised, because I had never seen anyone eat grapes like this before. A few of them peeled the grapes with their fingers. It is pretty much impossible for me to spit out anything, so I found a knife so I could cut them open and pick out the seeds first.
Nagano produces a lot of these grapes, and now that they're in season they're quite cheap (at least by Japanese fruit standards). If you walk by the display at the supermarket, you smell a rich, fruity grape smell.
It's almost August, so it's almost summer vacation.
What this means is that there are three weeks in between the first semester (from April through July) and the second semester (from the end of August to the end of the year). But this does not mean the teachers or even the staff gets three weeks off. Every day of that three weeks is technically a work day, so if you want even one day off, you use one day of annual leave to take it. In my school, everyone gets 20 days of paid leave per year. This is a lot, for Japan-- many companies give you only five days. Also, in general you have to take vacation days when you're sick, because if there's no doctor's note, it didn't happen. And remember that the 20 days is also to be used over winter break and spring break. Also, sometimes you're told to take one of those days: if there's a conference or something that you can't participate in, but it's a work day, no one is at the school, so there's no point in going, but it is a work day.
For the teachers, the problem is not just with the shortness of the vacation, but with all the other stuff they have to do too. All of the teachers have many administrative duties besides teaching, and the whole Japanese school structure compounds that. For instance, there is no kitchen in the school; school lunch is made in a school lunch center a few miles away, and then distributed by the students. One of the English teachers' jobs is to liase with the school lunch center and oversee the student distribution process. I have no idea what most of the teachers do-- there's budget stuff, PTA stuff, sports teams stuff-- but there's a lot of it.
Anyway, add it all up and most teachers are taking one week off for their summer vacations. And this is a pretty long time by Japanese standards. My school, in northern Nagano, in central Japan, is close enough to Tokyo that you can go there any weekend, and we're close to Nagano City and Karuizawa too. But for anything else, you really need a longer break. A few teachers are going to go overseas, because it's actually cheaper to go to India or Hawaii than it is to go to Hokkaido. Travelling in Japan is expensive. And travelling outside of Japan is cheap. A friend of mine visited Seoul, and the travel company arranged for her round-trip flight and lodging for 3 days, and it cost her I think about $300.
That said, I do not plan to travel. It's not the money or even the time--it's just too much work. Yes, there are many beautiful and interesting places, but I think they are almost as beautiful in books or on video. My perfect vacation does not involve getting up early (which I would have to do if I were to travel) or spending long amounts of time in trains, or trying to find out where I'm supposed to go. I have to do enough of that any other day. No, my perfect vacation involves sleeping for as long as I want to, piles of books, and never spending any more effort than it takes to cause brownies to appear. Even in America, I had plenty of books, but never enough time to read them. And planning a trip and then taking it just feels like more work. I want to be lazy. I want to do nothing. A plate of brownies, a stack of paperbacks, and a couch-- that's all I need. Why leave home?
There is one teacher in my school who has been particularly hard to work with. This is mainly due to her schedule: she is a homeroom teacher, so she has to be with her class for the homeroom at the beginning and end of the school day; she runs the tennis team, so she supervises their practices before and after classes every day; and she runs the student council, so she is often busy with them too. She is usually at school from about 7 to 8, but never has any time to consult with me. I shall call her Ms. Red.
This would be fine if she were OK with me just showing up in classes and doing what she tells me to do then, or if she were to just make requests of me. She does neither. Just showing up in classes and, for instance, reading the textbook slowly enough so the students can follow along, is worth almost nothing. There are CDs which came with the textbook which have every word and every passage read by a native speaker, and of course she can read the textbook too. So I also make powerpoints in simple English, I do skits with the teachers, and I prepare games for practicing grammar. This always takes a fair amount of preparation and consultation, and with the other two English teachers, I just ask them. Neither of them is as busy as she is, so they're usually at their desks or in class. And if they are too busy-- both of them do have several non-curricular duties-- it's OK, because I'll be able to catch them another time. Ms. Red has told me that she's usually available after classes, but after classes she has homeroom and after homeroom she has tennis practice, and even if she's at her desk in between homeroom and tennis she's usually busy.
Anyway, last week, I asked her, "When can we talk?" She said, "Not now, I'm busy." I said, "I know. When is OK?" Her answer was, "Monday morning, between 8:00 and 8:10." My contract says that I don't have to be at work until 8:30, but whatever it says, doing my job is the most important thing. So I was at school at 8:00. She was consulting with another teacher until 8:05 and there was a staff meeting at 8:10, but those 5 minutes were enough to plan for the week.
Yesterday I asked her again, "Are you busy?" (The answer was, as expected, "Yes, so busy.") "When is OK?" "After 8." "Is Monday OK?" "Yes, at 8:00." "8:00 Monday morning. OK." Simple as that.
Why on earth hadn't I done that before?? How is it that it took me almost a year to figure this out?
I swear, administering tests gives me the heebie-jeebies. This week I'm testing the first years and the third years (the seventh and ninth graders, if you count from the first year of elementary school). I tested the second-years last week. The main English teachers are administering the speaking test this time, and I'm administering the reading test.
The students have to read a short passage-- it takes me 10 seonds to read out loud normally, and 16 seconds at a more classroom-friendly speed-- and I have to evaluate them out of 3 on speed, pronunciation, and volume/attitude.
Each of these is a fairly fuzzy category, because even if someone reads in a good number of seconds, they might sound too fast or too slow. (So I make that one a less fuzzy category by just setting a range they should shoot for and timing them all.) For pronunciation, I don't think I gave anyone a 3 out of 3, because no one got all the r's and l's, the past tense -ed, the pronunciation of all of the words, and an approximation of a natural rhythm right. And the last category is the worst.
After administering the test to one class, I told one of the teachers, "I can hear them of I can't. Shouldn't I just give full points to the ones I can hear?" And her answer was that the third point is for when someone is especially crisp and clear, so she wanted me to rate out of 3 anyway. So what happens is if someone read in the number of seconds I prescribed, but reads totally robotically, I take out points from the other categories.
And I swear, I suffered with almost every single number I wrote. Yes, there were a lot of easy 8s-- people who read in good time, with acceptable pronunciation. (Many of the second-years were easy 7s instead of easy 8s, because the time we used for the third-years was much less strict. This was not on purpose; after I read the passage for a third-year class, the teacher said, "OK, that was 15 seconds, so anything between 10 seconds and 20 seconds is perfect.") But there are a lot of people whose pronunciation is considerably less clunky, or who make effort to put in more of the peaks and valleys of natural English. And I have to choose, are they an 8.5, or a 9, or even a 9.5? Or, if they spoke well but made lots of mistakes, which overrides the other, or do they cancel out? Or if they were sub-par, just how sub-par? It's easy for me to write those numbers, but I know that those numbers will have real effects for the students.
I read in That's Disgusting: Unravelling the Mysteries of Repulsion by Rachel Herz (I am addicted to Kindle) about an experiment. Both male and female subjects interviewed young women. The women fumbled through their purses at one point and dropped either a hair clip or a tampon onto the table. And both the male and the female subjects rated the women who dropped the tampons as less competent and less likeable than the women who dropped the hair clips. Herz quoted the study to show that people really don't like seeing tampons. But it also shows some of the weird sorts of biases that can creep into tests like these even when you're trying to be fair.
I am not used to administering tests.
A few days ago, I watched a movie called 「リアル～完全なる首長竜の日」, or in English, "Real: A Perfect Day for a Pleiosaur". I had to see it because there were machines similar to the ones used in Inception.
It goes like this: A guy's girlfriend has been in a coma for a year, but at the hospital, people are developing a machine that will let someone enter her consciousness. Her boyfriend, of course, is the only one who can do it. When he does, he finds her sitting at her desk in her mind, trying to write the continuation of the manga she'd been writing before, but she says it's not going well. She has one request for him. "Remember that drawing of a pleiosaur I gave you when we were high school freshmen? If I see it again, I think I'll break out of this slump. Find it and bring it to me."
While he looks for the picture, meanwhile, a ghost of a dripping wet ten-year-old boy keeps showing up. And every time he goes into his girlfriend's mind again, things are somewhat different. One time, her office is flooded with water. Another time, gravity isn't quite working; her pen floats through the air when she releases it. "That's because this isn't real," he tells her. Another time, outside the window, all they see is blank whiteness. There are a few twists that you will probably see coming, and I went, "Oh, of course, that explains that," when I saw them. The movie is classified as a mystery, because he has to solve the puzzle of the pleiosaur, but at its heart the movie is really a bizarre love story. I didn't like the ending, but was otherqise quite happy with it.
One of the teachers had me grammar-check a test she was writing. It included the following: "I've already worn my slippers!" This is a reference to an incident a few months ago: she and I were at a faculty volleyball tournament with some of the other teachers, and I was surprised to see bathroom slippers in the bathroom. I was already used to seeing bathroom slippers in the bathrooms in places where you're expected to be wearing slippers already, like doctors' offices and restaurants, but I didn't understand how it was supposed to work in a gym, where everyone was wearing sneakers. Anyway, she was amused at this small bit of culture shock, and has used it in a few lessons. Here, the test was on the present perfect, which in English is "have" plus a past participle. For example, "have eaten". Here, however, "I've already worn my slippers" makes no sense. She wanted something like "I've already put on my slippers" (which is difficult because the students don't know that use of "put on") or "I'm already wearing my slippers", which doesn't use the present perfect.
One problem here is the meaning of "wear". Japanese has about five words that can be translated as "wear", but none of them actually mean "wear"; they all mean "put on". One of them (haku) means "to put on the lower body", another (kiru) is for upper body, another (shimeru) is for things like belts that require fastening, and so on. But none of them have the sense of being on continuously that "wear" does. They all just refer to the action of putting it on. The problem, though, is that to express the concept of "is wearing", you use the continuing form that is generally easily translated as "is _____ing" or, in very horrible English, "is in the state of having _____ed" (____teiru). And "wear" is normally used as part of "be wearing". So it looks like "wear" just refers to the action of putting on the clothes, just like the Japanese verbs do. IT's very difficult to get that across!
After I explained this, the teacher considered just ditching that whole section of the test. I feel bad for her!
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?