Saturday, May 28, 2016

Lazy Movie Weekend: It's as good as Dancing Queen

I have a very specific memory of my 18th birthday: I'm sitting in my bedroom in lovely Burke, VA writing in my journal (because that's what we all did) and listening to the song "Dancing Queen". I don't remember if this was later in the evening after celebrating or sometime during the day. I just remember sitting there listening to that song and thinking of one of my favorite movies Muriel's Wedding. At one point in the movie, Muriel says she hasn't listened to any ABBA songs because her life is as good as an ABBA; "It's as good as Dancing Queen." I guess that's what I was thinking about that day; one day my life would be as good as an ABBA song.

I've seen this movie a hundred (probably). It's not a completely happy rom-com but it's funny and dark and sad and genius all at the same time. This is one of my favorite Australian comedies followed closely by Strictly Ballroom. The 1990s were a prime time for Australian movies that didn't involve Baz Luhrmann. 

I just got back home from attending my cousin's beautiful wedding so I thought we'd spend this long, lazy movie weekend celebrating all things love and weddings with a trip back to 1994 and Muriel's adventures in Porpoise Spit, Australia. Grab your favorite girly drink, some wedding cake, and your best ABBA inspired dance moves and settle in for Muriel's Wedding.

  • This was Rachel Griffiths first movie and Toni Collette's second. The movie was a huge international hit and would propel them both into larger roles and Hollywood fame.
  • PJ Hogan, the film's director, had to beg the members of ABBA to allow the use of their music in the film. They agreed (for a share of the profits) and were pleasantly surprised when the film was so successful. Muriel's Wedding is the reason the musical Mamma Mia!, the Broadway musical (and it's sad film sister) exist. 
  • The movie is #911 on Steven Schneider's 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
  • Let's talk about the opening sequence at the wedding - that is my nightmare. All the single women going crazy at the thought of catching the bouquet so they can be "next." It's one of those scenes that reminds us all about how ridiculous some traditions are and how primal women can be. Thank you to all my friends who have gotten married and not done this at the reception. Your resident single friend appreciates it more than you know. 
  • Muriel's "friends" are the absolute worst - apparently it's a rule that in every rom-com there has to be a group of women who are terrible. I'll refer to this group as the "Aussie Plastics" for the rest of this post (Means Girls will be a future LMW. I promise.)
  • Those bridesmaids dresses - the color, the poof, the bow, the headpiece. Bridesmaids dresses are just mean.
  • Why would you waste cake by putting it under your pillow to dream of the man you're going to marry? My future husband would know (instinctually, of course) that we don't waste cake like this. Cake is for enjoying not for napping on.
  • Someone is a bad bridesmaid and an even worse husband. Now Muriel has secrets. 
  • Are store detectives a thing? Does anyone know a store detective? I'd really like to meet one.
  • Just remember, Porpoise Spit is the jewel of the North Coast.
  • "You're terrible, Muriel." Muriel's sister, Joanie. The Heslop family is a lot to take in. The horrible dad (played by the brilliant Bill Hunter), the sad mom, the laziest children ever. This is why Muriel listens to ABBA songs.
  • "Bill Heslop - You Can't Stop Progress" Joanie: He lost. It's so funny.
  • F-ing Deidre Chambers - that's how I refer to this woman every time she's on screen. Her geisha comment is one of the worst casually racist comments in the entire film (and there are several).
  • I hate the scene at Breakers (the most cliched beach bar name ever). It's funny on some levels ("Like Chuck. He's up on my level.") but so soul-crushing on others. "I'm know I'm not normal..." and Muriel shouting "I'm not nothing!" - this is a darker rom-com than most. We haven't gotten to the plot line involving cancer yet.
  • "I'm going to be a success, Mum. I'm going to get married and be a success." I don't like this definition of success but I'm saying it in my head as I type in an Australian accent. 
  • My second nightmare: all inclusive resort trips. Mandatory fun at it's worst but Muriel seems to be having a great time. 
  • Finally we meet Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths). She is the cool friend everyone needs in their life. She's a badass, super fun, and does not give any effs about the Aussie Plastics. It's genius. "You're wicked!" 
  • "I'm not alone. I'm with Muriel." Love it!
  • That "Waterloo" lip sync is amazing. I'm hopeful that the show Lip Sync Battle will get Toni and Rachel to come on and recreate this amazing moment. Someone should call them and make this happen.
  •  Muriel: Do you ever think you're nothing? Sometimes I think I'm nothing. Rhonda: You're not nothing, Muriel. You're amazing. Of course this is followed by Rhonda talking about how awesome it is that Muriel has a fiancee, Tim Sims (fake of course). His name is based on two popular snacks in Australia, Tim Tams and Dim Sims.
  • Is Sydney really the City of Brides?
  • Muriel's haircut is one of my favorite things in the movie. The power of a flattering haircut cannot be overstated. 
  • Poor Brice. Muriel should have given him more of chance. "I'm a terrible dancer." We all are, Brice. We all are.
  • I'm fairly certain we've all had nights/dates like Muriel and Brice's minus the cancer, naked American soldier, and broken window. I don't know everyone's life so maybe this is exactly how your Friday nights go down. The thought I always have during this sequence is that Rhonda and Muriel need real furniture in their living room.
  • Rhonda is rushed to the hospital and Muriel calls home to find out that they know she stole all their money. "Dr. Farrell says he needs a holiday from us." Muriel's mom, Betty, tells her.
  • So if you best friend is in the hospital and has to have surgery to remove a discreet tumor from her spine and your family is a mess, what do you do? If you're Muriel you try on every wedding dress in Sydney and tell lies to get the sales girls to take photos of you in them so you can take the photos to your sister who's in a coma. Seems legit.
  • Muriel's pep talk to Rhonda: "When I lived in Porpoise Spit, I used to sit in my room for hours and listen to ABBA songs. But since I've met you and moved to Sydney, I haven't listened to one Abba song. That's because my life is as good as an Abba song. It's as good as Dancing Queen."
  • Of course Rhonda finds out about the wedding dresses and that Tim Sims was fake. Muriel is basically all of us when it comes to be single and hating it: "If I can get married it means I've changed. I'm a new person." 
  • F-ing Deidre Chambers. Seriously this woman. Bill Heslop cannot help himself with embarrassing restaurant business meetings.
  • Muriel's second way of dealing with problems: Enter into a marriage of convenience with a South African swimmer with Olympic hopes who needs an Australian wife to qualify for the team. As one does. She also reverts to listening to "Dancing Queen" again so maybe her life isn't as good anymore.
  • Mariel's Wedding (did I mention she changed her name?): So many things...
    • The Aussie Plastics are back as bridesmaids, looking like peach tulle nightmares.
    • F-ing Deidre Chambers is apparently Muriel's mom now.
    • Muriel's mom barely makes it to the wedding and Muriel ignores her (not intentionally).
    • Poor Brice ends up attending for some unknown, masochistic reason.
    • "Mariel, you're beautiful." - Tania (Aussie Plastic)
    • "I Do, I Do, I Do" is her entrance music - perfect. I would probably do something like this if I ever got married.
    •  David's coach, "I should have hired you some friends." 
  •  Friend breakups are the worst thing in the world. Rhonda sums it up perfectly, "Mariel VanArckle stinks."
  • David is an interesting character. He judges Muriel so much for wanting to do the same thing he wants to do: win. The problem is that she believes she can win only if she's married. Someone needs to sit Muriel down and talk about life choices. 
  • Muriel's mom makes my heart sad. She deserved a lot more than her husband and most of her children gave her. Joanie's grief is so powerful. Her father is terrible and that stupid letter from a former Prime Minister is the worst. 
  • Muriel finally realizes it's not about being married but about being her - her awesome self. David also shows up too and that's not awkward at all. "I don't love you either but I think I could like having you around."
  • She finally tells her dad what's what and it's a great scene between the two of them in the burned up backyard. "We're not nothing." 
  • The final scene with the Aussie Plastics and Rhonda's mom is one of my favorites in the movie. Tania screams, "I'm married. I'm beautiful!" and you have to laugh. Muriel and Rhonda say goodbye to Porpoise Spit as they should. The only question I have is did Rhonda's mom send her all her stuff? Is that how it all worked in the end.
I love this movie for so many reasons. Muriel is us all; looking for her place in the world and trying to figure out who she is. I like knowing that Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths became friends during filming; you can see their actual friendship on screen. It's the best part of the entire movie. Muriel is amazing; she just has to figure that out for herself.

In need of more wedding movies for your long weekend? Here are few more of my favorites:
  • Bridesmaids
  • Monsoon Wedding
  • The Wedding Planner
  • Corpse Bride 
  • My Big Fat Greek Wedding
  • Mystic Pizza
  • The Wedding Singer
  • Rachel Getting Married
  • Mamma Mia! -  I can't help but love this movie. Pierce Brosnan should never, ever sing but I will listen to him sing "S.O.S" in this movie and love it every time.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
Promo Poster
Muriel at the wedding
Muriel's Wedding 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Short Story Hour: The Quest

The following is inspired by a recent outing to Nationals park to watch the Nationals/Tigers game. This happened to take place on May 11 when Max Scherzer completed a 20-strikeout game, becoming the fourth player in MLB history to do so. While not nearly as significant but much more amusing, that evening I bought the last nachos in the park. Apparently. 

The Quest

Gus hated baseball stadiums. Not baseball but the elaborate stadiums and parks that make up modern baseball. He had grown up going to old school parks, spending most games in the cheap bleacher seats. "Fancy baseball" with its gourmet food and craft beers didn't sit well with him. The constant jockeying for the next giveaway, be it bobblehead or player inspired Chia pet irked him. Why didn't people just watch baseball anymore? Why was the game not enough to make it an event? Ticket prices were astronomical so he understood some of it; give the people what they paid for and all. That didn't mean he had to like it.

Gus also fell into the group of people who enjoyed a low scoring game to high scoring ones. A home run here or there rather than every at bat appealed to him. To Gus, a low scoring game showed the true power of teams; it was the game at its best focused on pitching and fielding and team dynamics not just powerhouse hitters. The rare grand slam should be just that - rare. He didn't want to sit through a game where the score was 10-0 by the fourth inning. That was not baseball; that was some weird form of reality tv.

The biggest disappointment about modern stadiums and parks were the crowds. Gus liked that people came to games but despite their modern approach to design, modern parks didn't ever seem to be designed to actually handle the crowds that came out to each game. From the park entrances to the lines for bathrooms (even for guys) to the exits at the end of a game, there always seemed to be too many people and too little space. The worst offender, by far, was the concession areas. Gus was currently on minute 20 in line for nachos, his second favorite ballpark snack. Gus had a baseball game eating system: start the game with a hotdog or two (usually two) with a beer and then get at second snack at the start of the 5th inning. His second snack rotated between nachos and a soft pretzel. Tonight was nacho night.

The game itself was a great one for Gus; low scoring so far, great effort on the part of both teams, and a few exceptional at bats for his favorite players. One of the pitchers was poised to tie or break a strike out record tonight. Gus hoped it would happen even though he was rooting for the other team. He would miss out on this amazing feat if this line didn't move faster. He watched the screens above the concession stand and could hear the roar of the crowd from where he stood but it wasn't the same as sitting in his seat. He probably should have given up sooner but a system was a system. By the time he even thought about leaving the line too much time had passed and he was too invested in the nachos.

He was next in line and approached the first open cashier. As he was about to give his order he heard the line manager say, "We're out of nachos." Almost 30 minutes in line to be crushed with one sentence. His face told the whole story. The cashier tried to be peppy and friendly but it was no use.

Gus was cool; he'd order his standby. "How about a pretzel?" he asked.

"We're out of those too. Sorry. You could try the concession stand behind home plate on this level. They don't usually run out as fast we do." She smiled at Gus.

"Thanks." Gus got out of line and contemplated his next move. He could return to his seat and his friends, snackless but less irritated or he could venture on into the belly of the park and find those nachos. Gus watched throngs of happy baseball fans rush past him with their beers and ice cream in souvenir hats. He wanted those nachos like he had never wanted any snack food in his entire life. He made his way into the crowd to find his destiny.

Dodging a family of five carrying every possible confection the concession stands had to offer, Gus maneuvered his way through the crowd and to the stand behind home plate. He avoided a near collision with a group of preteen boys engrossed in a video on one of their phones. He swerved to avoid a run in with the home team's mascot who was posing for photos with a group of opposing team fans. He nearly collided with three guys carrying enough beer to last the rest of the game (and who maybe should have stopped an inning ago). He made to the stand unharmed, ready for his snack. He walked closer to the stand, Home Run Snacks, and was greeted by a sign:

No Nachos. No Peanuts. No Pretzels.
Try Section 207.

Seriously? Gus wasn't sure if he was annoyed by the lack of nachos or the weirdness of the sign. In all his baseball-going years he had never seen a sign like this. Did he risk more disappointment and go all the way to section 207? Was it worth it? Gus was missing the game and should turn back but he could not. He had to go forward; it was his duty. He circled back to the nearest stairs to go up one level. When he got to the top he realized that he was on the opposite side of the park from section 207. He took a deep breath and soldiered on.

Gus was on a mission now. He dodged more photo ops with the other team mascots and little kids stopping abruptly in the middle of the walkway distracted by something and their parents not realizing they'd stopped. He walk right into a bacheorlette party taking selfies and stopped to take a photo for them when the bride to be asked. He walked past stands selling hot dogs, cotton candy, kettlecorn, and pizza. Shakes beckoned to him from one stand. Popcorn, peanuts, and Cracker Jacks sang their siren song from another but no, Gus would not stop until he got his nachos. 

He could see the sign for section 207. Gus wasn't sure if it was his imagination or what but the lights seemed to cast an unearthly glow around the stand like it was just him and the concessions. He imagined this was how explorers felt in the desert when they came upon an oasis. The line was short and he couldn't see a sign or any other indications of a lack of nachos. Gus quickened his pace. The nachos were so close, he could almost taste the cheese and the jalapeños. Was it real cheese? Gus did not care.

He was the fourth person in line. He could hear the orders of the people in front of him; it was oddly quiet on this level as if the game had ceased and the only thing happening was Gus finally getting his nachos. The people at the two cash registers ordered hot dogs, pretzels, peanuts, and beer. Not threat from these guys. Gus could see some of nacho trays but could not tell how many were left. He was going to be just fine. The person in front of him went to order.

"I'll take two orders of nachos, 2 pretzels, a Coke, and a Bud Lite." The smiled at the cashier.

"Jalapeños?", the cashier asked.

"Absolutely." The man took out his wallet to pay.

At that exact moment, Gus realized that this man was going to the last tray of nachos. This guy was going to get Gus's nachos. He would be completely out of options after this stand. He knew that none of the other places sold nachos. This had been his only hope. Gus took a deep breath and checked his frustration. He could be the crazy guy at the baseball game losing it over a tray of nachos or he could be an adult, order a pretzel and go back to his seat to watch the rest of the game. He did not want a pretzel but he did not want to be the crazy guy so he hung onto the last resort: there would be more in the back. That was the answer. 

The nacho thief paid for his food and walked off with a stride that could only belong to a guy who got the exact food he wanted and knew that's who he was. He nodded at Gus. Gus squared his shoulders and walked up the next available cashier. 

"Hello. Order of nachos please," Gus was as polite as possible. 

The cashier paused before responding as if she sensed desperation in Gus's overly polite greeting. She smiled and said, "One second, sir. Let me check in the back for you." She left her register and went back to the prep area. Seconds ticked by. Gus distracted himself by watching the game on the monitors. He had missed another scoreless inning and the pitcher was getting closer to the record. It was almost the 7th inning; his quest for delicious snack food had taken almost two whole innings. 

The cashier returned, " I'm sorry; we're totally out of nachos. Can I get you something else?" 

Gus paused. What was he doing? He spent two innings wandering this park trying to find nachos to keep coming up short each and every stop along the way. He passed up so many other snack options along the way for what? A silly system he put in place when he was kid? What was he actually doing except not enjoying the game with his friends and witnessing baseball history? Would this become a silly cocktail party story or an amusing anecdote he'd tell his grandkids one day? They'd shake their heads and say something under their breath about crazy Grandpa and his crazy systems. Gus embraced the crazy; he could not give up.

"Is there anywhere else I could try? Is this the only place left that sells them?" Gus tried his best not to come off as a weirdo.

"You could try one of the restaurants that have stands. I think one of them has nachos but they're fancier than what we have. And more expensive." She called for the next customer.

Of course all roads would lead him to the fancy parts of modern baseball he hated. Gus took the escalator down to the first level and quickened his pace back around to the side of the park where his seat was located. He walked past the two restaurants he thought would have nachos and both were closed. It was not in the cards tonight for Gus to have nachos. He stopped back at the first concession stand, back to where it all began. He bought a bag of peanuts and a beer. He slowly made his way back to seat and his friends.

The 7th inning stretch was just about to start. As Gus got closer to his friends, he could see the familiar white tray and the bright orange cheese in the hands of his friend, Amy. What? Nachos?! He stepped into their row as "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" came to an end.

"You're back. We worried we'd lost you. I wasn't sure if tonight was a pretzel night or a nachos night so I grabbed these for you. They're the last nachos in the entire stadium. The guy at the concession stand told me so." Amy smiled and handed Gus the tray.

"But where? And how?" Gus stammered. "I walked all over this place and there were no nachos anywhere. I don't understand."

Amy laughed, "Jake knows a guy. He saved one for us." Jake nodded in Gus's general direction. "Peanuts! I love peanuts."

"Thanks." Gus gave Amy the bag of peanuts and sat down to enjoy his nachos. The cheese was perfectly warm and delicious. It mixed with the spiciness of the jalapeños and the salt of the chips. It was the best bite of nachos he had ever had. He settled in with his snack, his beer, and his friends to watch the end of the game. History was made, the home team won, and all was well in baseball snack world. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The UT Recipes: Shhh! It's a secret.

"Instead of studying Locke, for instance, or writing - I go make apple pie or study The Joy of Cooking, reading it like a rare novel."
-Sylvia Plath

Baking has always been a form of therapy for me. The preciseness is appealing; measuring ingredients, mixing them just so, following specific instructions for baking, setting a timer. The organizer in me likes the steps and the order especially given how chaotic and uncontrollable most of life can be. When I bake, particularly old favorites like banana bread, chocolate chip cookies, or yellow cake, I don't have to make decisions or argue with anyone about a minor detail that will end up being forgotten ten minutes after our conversation ends. It's just me, Stanny (yes, I named my stand mixer), and whatever recipe I've settled on for the day. The benefit for everyone else is delicious treats and my decreased stress level.

I have friends who also find baking soothing when stressed; Jessica has written about it over at Neek Confessional and I have a conversation about this with at least three people at work every time I bring in baked goods. Some people find the same feeling with cooking but I never have unless I'm following a recipe. I'm not the type of person that just throws things together and makes a fabulous dinner. I suspect this is why I'll never be a chef but I can see myself being a baker one day.

As I started work on this month's UT Book recipe, I began researching the recipe (one I was not at all familiar with) and stumbled upon an interesting nugget related to it: the cake I've selected was a favorite recipe of Sylvia Plath. She made the cake frequently and supposedly baked one up the day she wrote the poem "Death & Co."; Plath baked when she wrote. According to author Kate Moses, Plath found baking and cookbooks a connection to "the life of the body" and kept a baking journal to log her daily baking (this is a wonderful idea). She adored The Joy of Cooking and subscribed to Ladies' Home Journal to keep up to date on the latest recipes. She wrote of her kitchens in an essay called "Kitchen of the Fig Tree" for the Christian Science Monitor, one of the first essays she had published. And before you ask, yes, I see the irony in her baking and her suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning (from the oven in her kitchen). I choose to look beyond this and simply focus on the joy baking brought her in life rather than the macabre. Moses, in her research for her novel Wintering, found the same sort of solace in baking as she worked through her fictional account of the last days of Plath's life. I understand Moses completely and feel a kinship to her baking need as she finished the final chapters of her book.

So what was this cake Plath so loved? Depends on who you ask; the cake has several names including Secret Ingredient Cake and Mystery Cake. However, it's real name and the name it shall forever have in my heart is Tomato Soup Cake.

Tomato Soup Cake has a history in the 1920s and 1930s when ingredients like eggs and dairy would have been scarce. One blog I read about the cake called it "a recipe of frugality"; it could be made with things you would naturally have at home including canned soup (made popular by Campbell's in 1897). The soup adds moisture to the cake without extra expense. Original versions of the cake didn't include frosting which makes sense given the popularity during the Great Depression. The cake was a staple of community cookbooks for decades (although I couldn't find it in either of the Junior League books I have from 1950 and 1964). According to the Campbell's article, community cookbooks were the way recipes were shared before official test kitchens cropped up; their kitchen opened in 1941. Campbell's first version of the recipe was more like a British pudding (more similar to a bread pudding or custard or both). In 1942 they released the first version of the cake more like the one in the UT Book called "Halloween Spice Cake." They would test versions of the cake from 1950-1966 until they conducted "recipe experiment #38" which adapted the recipe to use cake mixes that were popular at the time. This recipe became the first recipe to be put on a soup label and it's one of their most searched recipes today.

I have never had Tomato Soup Cake nor had I ever heard of it until I found the UT Book. I'll admit it was the recipe that caught my eye when I was flipping through the book at the vintage store. The ingredient was one thing but it's also one of the few recipes that has a specific source, Mrs. Gibson. I wonder a lot of things about Mrs. Gibson including pondering which type of frosting she would use on her version of the cake. Since the recipe mentions the frosting, it helps put the notebook into a specific time frame - the late 1960s or early 1970s. During this period, frosting finally makes it way into the recipe. The popularity of carrot cake in the 1970s and its cream cheese frosting are partially responsible for this. Many of the modern versions of the recipe pair it with cream cheese frosting rather than chocolate or lemon as the older versions reference. As I researched the recipe I found more and more people who love this cake. One person commented on a blog that he/she has this cake every year for their birthday and have been doing so for 40 years. What a great historical cake!

It's a lot like a carrot cake, specifically in the spices used for the batter. Cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg combine with tomato soup, sugar, Crisco, and other dry ingredients to make a light cake that's sort of red in color. It smelled a bit like fall as I mixed it together. No pan size was mentioned in the UT Book recipe; the ones online varied from 9x13 to 8 inch square pans. I split the difference and used a disposable 8x12 pan I happened to have; it seemed to work just fine. It was easy to mix up and took ten minutes less to bake than the recipe indicated. This is probably my oven specifically; it tends to bake things faster. Some recipes include the addition of raisins and nuts like a carrot cake but this one does not so I left them out.

For the frosting, I opted for my standard vanilla buttercream recipe because it's awesome (not to brag or anything) and because several of my co-workers have an aversion to cream cheese frosting. I don't get it but I'd rather they enjoy the cake instead of complain about the frosting. A handful of my co-workers knew what the secret ingredient was in advance because I've been discussing this cake obsessively for weeks. I didn't tell everyone though, and made a little sign using one of the other names for the cake, Secret Ingredient Cake. I asked anyone who tried the cake if they could guess the secret ingredient. Both this name and Mystery Cake were used to hide the fact that the cake included tomato soup. I wanted to hide it as long as possible from my co-workers/testers.

The verdict?

It took several people before anyone guessed the secret ingredient. One person named all of the other ingredients but could not place the secret one. Some of the other guesses included: pumpkin, applesauce, apples, licorice, and brown sugar. Only one person said that had she known what the secret ingredient was in advance, she probably wouldn't have eaten it but was glad that she was brave and had a piece. Some of the group who knew what the ingredient was in advance said they only noticed the tomato soup taste on the first bite and it wasn't even that strong of a taste; this wasn't true for everyone who knew the ingredient though. I didn't get the taste at all but maybe that was because I tried the batter before trying the cake. We also discussed the color - it's not quite red, not quite orange but it's really pretty and makes for a lovely cake. I did get two requests for cream cheese frosting despite the haters in the office. Maybe next time.

Overall score for this recipe: I'm going to give it an A. It was super easy to make, tastes like fall, and gave me an excuse to make really good frosting. I'd make this again using the UT Book recipe or using one of the other recipes I found while doing research.

In addition to finding another great recipe to add to my repertoire, I'm also looking forward to reading Kate Moses's novel Wintering and contemplating Sylvia Plath, her work, her death, and her baking.

Blog posts:
The Enduring Allure of Tomato Soup Cake
A Spicy History of Campbell's Tomato Soup Cake
Campbell's recipe
Tips for Housewives
All others by me

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Ballerina Lawyer

One of my co-workers has a sign on the window of her office asking passers-by what they wanted to be when they were children. I don't remember all of the responses but I'm pretty sure "superhero", "Dallas Cowboy cheerleader", and "Princess Leia" were all posted by my colleagues. It's a fun question to think about especially since so many people probably aren't what they wanted to be when they were children. Some of the jobs we have today weren't even realities back then.

I haven't filled out a post-it note yet but if I did it would say "Ballerina Lawyer."

A ballerina lawyer isn't a lawyer for ballerinas but a ballerina who happens to also be a lawyer. Every time I tell people this is what I wanted to be, they always ask me to elaborate on what exactly a ballerina lawyer would do. Obviously practice the law and dance like a bad ass. This is not challenging if you think about it. I've also had several people suggest that this has all the makings of an excellent television show. Maybe I've stumbled on the next edition of Law & Order. I'd watch marathons of this show on USA.

If I'm honest with myself I've never really known what I wanted to be, career-wise, when I grow up. I feel like I've had what I'd call a "stumble upon career" pathway. I started teaching because I could and I had skills and a background (theater) that the school was looking for at the time. That led me to admissions in a roundabout way which led me to working for my current company. Since I joined at the time it was more startup than corporation, I did a little bit of everything and found that I'm a teacher and writer at heart. That's mostly what I do these days but I can tell you that none of this was on the this when I was five or fifteen or twenty.

If I continue to be honest with myself, I know that I've always wanted to be a writer. I like telling stories and entertaining people. Creating characters and the worlds and places makes me happy. I love words and putting them together in ways that make sense. This is partially why I have dutifully kept this blog going for the past five years. I've written all sorts of things on the Island; some more successful than others. Y'all really like Pumpkin. From what I can tell there needs to be 80% more Pumpkin on the Island. I'm not sure I agree with that but I'll try to give the people what they want more frequently. I feel a "Pumpkin's Guide to Summer" coming soon (she did help you survive a blizzard earlier this year).

But does this make me a writer? I've never really had anything "published" although I have been featured on my company's blog a few times and I tried posting on LinkedIn this summer (more coming soon). Something I wrote was featured in another author's book but I don't know if that counts either. I don't really want to get into a philosophical discussion/debate on what it means to be a writer or an artist. I believe I am one and that has to be enough.

This year I decided to focus my attention on getting my first novel published or at least on the road to being published. I wrote Transient Suburbia for 2014's National Novel Writing Month. I was able, in 23 days, to write a novel just over 50K words (meeting the requirements of NaNoWriMo). It has a beginning, middle, and end. I wasn't able to do everything I wanted to do given the constraints of the month but I ended up with a really great story and characters I love. I've been editing, revising, and adding since December 2015. With the exception of one thing, I feel like I've done as much as I can without getting actual feedback from other people. I'm finally ready to let other people read it completely. I gave myself until the end of the April to get the draft to a place I felt comfortable with sharing. I enlisted four of my friends to be readers.

I have sent the novel out into the world and I cannot take it back.

On one hand, I relieved and excited to see what they think. I need feedback in order to move forward. A certain amount of stress has been lifted. It's readable, funny, and I think a good story. On the other hand, I'm terrified at the prospect of them reading it. Yes, I posted portions of the novel here on the Island so it's not a secret but it's also not the same thing. I'm nervous and I don't get nervous that easily.What if they hate it? What if they think every character is terrible? What if it's predictable? So many negative thoughts go through my head when I think of them reading through the story. I can't help myself. I assume this is why #hemingwaywasadrunk. 

More to come on the adventure that is Transient Suburbia.

Next week the UT Recipe book opens again! This time we'll try a cake recipe many affectionately call "Secret Ingredient Cake" because revealing one of the ingredients may not inspire a desire to enjoy it as one should. Curious? Check back next week to find out what the secret ingredient is.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Because cake and nachos

Something has happened to me that I never thought would happen.

I like going to the gym.

As I write this I'm still in my sweaty gym clothes from this morning's workout. Pumpkin is sitting on my lap like it's no big thing that I probably (most definitely) smell. She just wants attention. I have actively loathed the notion of going to the gym since I had middle and high school P.E. classes. I'm sure that there are good intentions behind gym class in school; teaching physical fitness and health should help make students make smart life choices. However, I'm convinced no one really sat down and thought about gym class all the way through. High school is terrible enough; why did they have to throw gym shorts and running into the mix? I didn't burn my gym uniform but I really enjoyed throwing it away. I was reflecting on one of the most ridiculous moments from middle school P.E. recently as I wrote a new chapter for my novel. I had to take dance classes in middle school P.E. I don't know if anyone else did this or remembers this (if you went to middle school with me) but I distinctly remember learning to waltz under the instruction of our teacher, Coach Martino, and having to perform in a "dance competition." My group had to do the twist. I recall that we added a smooth move where we did the twist and changed positions on the dance floor (aka the Lake Braddock gym) at the same time. I don't know why this was deemed something that 7th graders needed in to do in gym class but it was.

I've always been what one would call an "indoor kid." My favorite activities include reading, staying indoors, being sarcastic, and listening to music. I played softball for exactly one summer in the third grade and never made it very far in gymnastics because I had the habit of spraining my ankle every other week. I sunburn easily (I like to refer to it as lobstering) so outdoor team sports and running were never in my future. When I was in college, I did go to the Rec Plex (our recreation center) for awhile to use the indoor track but I always felt judged by the athletes and sporty people who ran the track rather than walking it like me. And then I got super busy working, going to class, and creating lots of really great theater. The gym and I parted ways amicably and I didn't give it much thought for lots of years.

Two years ago I invested in my first Fitbit, stopped drinking soda (or pop or Coke - fill in with your regional descriptor of choice), and started tracking what I eat and drink. I pledged to drink 64 ounces of water a day (if not more) and go to the gym four days a week (now I'm at five days a week). I obsessively log everything on the Fitbit app. I casually drop my gym habits into daily conversation. I make smoothies and think about protein a lot. I find myself thinking about my day in the context of my treadmill time; when I have to be at work earlier for some reason I plan my gym time a little differently. I take my gym clothes with me when I travel and make sure I have time in the morning to get my 45 minute walk in. I've worn through a second pair of tennis shoes in less than a year; that used to take me ages to do.

I was thinking about all of this earlier this week while I was traveling for work. I had to go to the mothership in Cincinnati for some meetings and to run a training so I brought my gym stuff with me. I've done this pretty regularly on trips for the last year or so; this was a short trip and normally I wouldn't bother on a short trip because of the extra packing space I'd need for my gear. But I did bring it all and when I mentioned that I would be going to the gym in the morning, my co-worker was surprised but in a good way. She brings her ukulele; I bring my gym clothes. After this conversation it dawned on me: I finally figured out how to enjoy going to the gym and exercising.

Here are my observations/realizations:
  • Exercise should not be torture - you have to find something you love. I love walking and being indoors so using a treadmill or an elliptical (although not my favorite machine) makes sense for me. I still sweat and I feel it when I've pushed myself but I'm working out in a way that is comfortable and enjoyable for me. I'm in the process of looking for a quick arm workout for the days I don't go to the gym but feel like I should do something else.
  • Distracting myself while working out is key. Reading and listening to music are two activities I love that also have the distinction of being activities that cause me to lose track of time when I'm doing them. I combined both with my gym time and now I don't even notice how long I've been working out. It's not until the 5 minute cool down clicks on that I realize I'm almost done with my workout.
  • Sweat is awesome. It's good for your skin, gets the toxins out, and helps regulate your mood. I even read some articles on this from fitness websites and magazines - I went on fitness magazine websites. My skin looks great and I'm sure it's a combination of all the water I drink and the sweat. 
  • Finding the right work out time makes all the difference. When I first started walking, I would go in the evening after work. Do you know how easy it is to talk yourself out of going to the gym after a long day at work? It's easier than easy so I switched to mornings. I naturally get up at 6 am anyway so that's my gym time. I think it's a perfect way to start my day.
  • I like cake and nachos. I would rather eat nachos than drink a sugary, high calorie coffee beverage because nachos are delicious and are one more example of why cheese is a perfect food. I don't feel guilty about eating nachos anymore. Why? Because I'm active and I balance nachos with healthier choices. Tracking food has made me aware of what I need to eat and how much - it's not about denying myself things I enjoy. It's about enjoying them in appropriate portions.
  • Accountability can't be understated. I know everyone has their own version of accountability: a workout buddy, your preferred fitness tracker or app, being able to wear those jeans you really love but aren't quite comfortable. For me, it's Fitbit. I compete with myself not with others on Fitibit (even though I do have friends on the app and I see where they are in the daily totals). Fitbit keeps me honest and is always there. I want to track my steps and log my food. I like the badges. I like the encouragement that isn't coming from an actual person.
  • Which brings me to my last realization: this is for ME. When I was younger I probably worked out on occasion or tried to eat healthier because that's what you do when you want to be attractive to other people. Fitness and being healthy was about what others thought of me not what I thought of myself. Here's the thing: I legitimately don't care what people think about the way I look anymore. If they have a problem with my physical being, that's their issue not mine. I feel good, I look good, and it's all for me. 
I have a great sense of accomplishment with my walking especially given the fact that I have walked the distance of the March of the Penguins (70 miles), the Monarch butterfly migration (2500 miles, and my favorite the length of New Zealand (990 miles). As Fitbit so helpfully told me via email, I have walked the distance from the Shire to Mordor. If that doesn't make me want to walk more I don't know what will.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Record Store Day 2016: The least metal thing I did today...

Happy Record Store Day! While we should all spend more time at our local record store, it's nice to have a day when we can come together, listen to some music, and buy some records whether they be special releases, collection fillers, or random records that convince you they belong in your life. I'm not saying we all need a Bay City Rollers album but I know where you can get one if you're so inclined.

This year's festivities took us to Richmond, our capital and one of the most hipster cities I've ever been to. This is my third visit to Richmond since I moved back to the area and my first visit for RSD.

The cast of characters:
  • Anita, four time RSD buddy
  • Scott, my brother, making his second RSD appearance
  • Adam, resident Richmondian, Richmondite (I don't know descriptor) who joined us for lunch and our stop at Deep Groove (his favorite record store)
  • The delightful and not at all record store-y employees at Plan 9 Records, Deep Groove, and Steady Sounds
  • A lady walking a pig down W. Clay Street
  • Our waiter at Galaxy Diner, voted Richmond's best diner in 2015
  • The waiters at GWARbar
  • Me, your resident RSD planner - I wonder if that could be a job? You tell me where you want to go for the day and I plan your itinerary including lunch and bars stops. This could be a thing. I could also match up lone RSD-ers who want a group to hang out with during the the Nick Cave fan I talked to who just wanted to share his beliefs on the Murder Ballads album with someone (which, of course, ended up being me and the shop owner).
This is the first time I've really traveled for RSD; I don't count Baltimore as traveling even though it takes an hour to get there. Going to Richmond feels like going on an adventure and getting out of town. If you haven't visited Richmond I highly recommend it. It's hipster-y in really good ways (bars! coffee shops! neat/weird stores! an apartment building that used to be a dairy!) and beautifully old in ways that matter (original brick streets, gorgeous historic homes). There are colleges in Richmond so be aware of the undergrads who don't know how crosswalks work. Other than that, it's a great place to visit and an even better place to spend a day browsing through lots of records.

This year marks the 9th RSD and my fifth. It's been interesting to watch the growth of RSD over the years; it's gone from a small celebration of independent stores to an international movement connecting people together simply because they love music. In addition to the regular special releases, this year RSD featured some special releases for Disquaire Day, France's version of the day. Money from the sale of some items, like Metallica's Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, Metallica! - Live at Le Bataclan. Paris, France - June 11th, 2003 go to Give for France. Money goes to help victims of the Paris bombings. Several other releases today were recorded at the Le Bataclan. I had no idea how many bands recorded live sets there over the years. In addition to the Metallica CD, I picked up a Johnny Thunders & the Hearthbreakers album from a 1977 show

I like Metallica a lot; not love but genuine enjoyment. I'm not the fanboy my brother is but they're a great band and seeing them live a few years ago was one of my top concerts of all time. People have a lot of feelings about the band for lots of reasons (they sued their fans, they sold out, they're kind of jerks) and that's all well and good but they are the original indie band. They were the first RSD ambassadors and took up the mantel again this year. You can watch their performance from today on their Facebook page. I don't know if this contributed to my brother coming with us today but I'm sure it played a small role in his interest. It didn't hurt that I also promised we'd go to the GWARbar. Scott has wanted to go to the GWARbar for a while now but driving almost two hours to go to a bar seems silly. Driving almost two hours to record shop AND go to a bar is totally acceptable. This is how things work in my brain.

GWAR is a heavy metal band from Richmond that is known for very elaborate costumes and stage shows that include lots of gore and "violence." The band has come under fire for the violence and skewering of political and pop culture figures. Dave Brockie, original lead vocalist, died in 2014 but the band has continued and the Gwarbar opened in 2015. My knowledge of the band is pretty limited; I mostly know the song featured in Empire Records and that members of the band did pop-up RDS appearances a few years ago. To say that I had expectations about this bar would be an understatement. I wanted the drama of a GWAR show and the deliciousness of a high end bar all wrapped together in a nice blood-stained box.

Instead, we saw a woman walking a pig down the street.

Yep, she was walking a pig and a dog down W. Clay Street. Our waitress was so excited by this she had to go out and pet the pig. This was the highlight of the visit to the bar. It's not that the bar was bad; it wasn't. The beer selection was good (Satan's Pony was an excellent ale), they had tots on the menu, the music was great/thematic (including my third favorite KISS song which now seems weird since it's "God Gave Rock N Roll to You"), the staff was friendly and funny, and there was lots of GWAR paraphernalia adorning the walls but it felt sort of like a theme restaurant that didn't take the theme far enough. Maybe it's because we were there at 4 pm. I don't know; something was just off.

We decided that going to the GWARbar was the least metal thing any of us has ever done. However, it didn't really matter that it was not as we expected; it was still fun and a great way to end a great RSD. More importantly, the experience led to the wonderful conversations that always make RSD so great:
  • Deciding what types of animals Adam could walk down the street on a leash or harness. This conversation started before we saw the woman walking a pig but that only made us consider this question more seriously. I think we decided Adam could have a gang of nocturnal animals including a racoon, opossum, and an armadillo.
  • The realization that in 3 of the last 4 RSDs, we have gone to a space themed bar or restaurant at some point during the day. This year's addition, Galaxy Diner, was a great addition to the space family. I recommend the Boba Feta Burger.
  • We think we figured out that the Virginia rest stop right before Central Park (near Fredericksburg) is the reason traffic is always so terrible going down 95S. My father can finally stop asking us this question...every time we talk.
  • Would you take your kids into a bar to go to the bathroom? I guess if it was the only option, the answer would be yes but then would you buy something instead of just being that person who uses the bathroom and bolts?
  • What's the most metal thing you've ever done? This can actually be answered in multiple ways ranging from an actual concerts to various lifestyle questions. Talk amongst yourselves on this one.   
  • The realization that GWAR is really just KISS taken to its most logical endpoint with more blood. I realize that many GWAR and KISS fans will not like this statement but that's okay; I'm not metal enough for any of them so we'll never have to meet one another and debate this topic. 
  • When in doubt of anything in your life, remember this: there is a store in Carytown that sells these wonderful "prayer" candles. I'm sure Saint Iggy will be there for you in your time of need.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Prelude to Record Store Day 2016: If only I could remember equations like I can remember song lyrics

While I was not a big fan of Belinda Carlisle as a solo artist, I've always enjoyed the songs "Heaven Is a Place On Earth", "I Get Weak", "Mad About You", and my favorite "Circle in the Sand." Other than "Heaven Is a Place On Earth," I don't think I've listened to any of these songs by choice in 15 years. However, I still remember all of the words. I was thinking about this as I sat at a Belinda Carlisle concert at the Hamilton with a bunch of other "old" people singing songs from 30+ years ago ("We Got the Beat" was released in 1980 and "Circle in the Sand" is just a smidgen younger, released in 1988). Everywhere I looked, people were singing along to most of the songs Carlisle included in the set. It got me thinking: how many song lyrics do I know?

The number has to be in the tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands. This brings up a second question: What should be included? Does a jingle count as a song? Probably. Does it count if you know most of the lyrics to a song? For example, I know all the words to the Busta Rhymes verse from the song "Scenario" (Tribe Called Quest) and know the choruses to countless songs; do they count? I would say yes but I'm sure other people would disagree and say it only counts if I know all the lyrics. Those people are decidedly not fun and I don't want to hang out with them. What's the ratio of hymns or patriotic music to rock music? I know a ridiculous amount of hymns despite the fact that I have not regularly attended mass since 1998. One of my friends told me recently that she had the song "Home On the Range" in her head and remembered all the words to it. I remember the song but only as performed as "Glee Club Rehearsal" in the musical You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown. I don't know all the lyrics to "Home On the Range" but I know all of the dialogue to this part of the musical. I'm going to go ahead and count this anyway because I can.

According to an informal poll I conducted on Facebook (clearly the most reliable source for conducting poll-based research) my friends know more song lyrics than any of them could even begin to count. I was treated to the opening "rap" from the New Kids on the Block holiday gem "Funky, Funky Christmas" because that's how my friends roll. I'm most impressed with the random things people shared: their knowledge of lyrics from songs from the 50s and 60s (or even the 1920s) despite not having been alive during the songs' popularity, one person likes to sing if they're alone in a elevator, everyone knows a ridiculous number of commercial jingles. The general consensus is that for most of us our brains are 99% song lyrics. This probably explains why I suck at math but know all the words to "Livin' On a Prayer."

I did a small amount of research on the topic: Science is apparently the answer to why we remember lyrics. And maybe a little history too. Apparently the ability to remember song lyrics and melodies is a lot like having a physical skill like hitting a tennis ball or a baseball; it's something we're wired to do. This type of memory is called "procedural memory" and also includes our ability to walk and talk and why we can remember how to do things we haven't done in years like ride a bike. Another thought around remembering song lyrics goes back to early human history and oral traditions for sharing stories and history with one another. This is why we have troubadours and raconteurs/raconteuses. Telling a story is easier for some people if they are able to sing the story. Makes sense to me.

I've talked about it before but lyrics are a big part of why I still buy albums and CDs and why I've kept so many of the cassette tapes I bought in my youth. It's not just because I'm nostalgic and wish I could spend more of my time browsing in places like Tower Records and Kemp Mill Music (sadly both gone). I like spending time looking at album art and the lyrics when they're included. Other than the scientific reasons for remembering lyrics, this probably why I remember so many. It's not just the sheer number of times I listen to a song that cements the lyrics in my head; it's spending time with the lyrics and the liner notes. In the rares times that I dance in public, I always enjoy myself more when I know the songs. The familiarity of the lyrics makes me feel more comfortable, more okay with the fact that I don't think I dance well.

As I venture out for tomorrow's Record Store Day, I am reminded of this bit of dialogue from the movie Music & Lyrics:

Sophie: A melody is like seeing someone for the first time. The physical attraction. Sex.
Alex: I so get that.
Sophie: But then, as you get to know the person, that's the lyrics. Their story. Who they are underneath. It's the combination of the two that makes it magical.

That, my friends, is why I love music.

Tomorrow is Record Store Day! I'm making my way to Richmond to visit a few record stores and check out the GWAR Bar. More to come before the end of the weekend!