Friday, November 10, 2017

You're Doing Everything Wrong: Butternut squash burns edition

The kitchen smelled like goodness and deliciousness, chasing the cold, gray day away. I spooned butternut squash from the pot to the blender as instructed by the helpful Food Network recipe. And then it happened. I was transferring one batch from the blender to the bowl and somehow, a glob of squash made its way to my hand instead of to its home in the bowl. I felt like I was in the slow motion part of an action movie; my movements didn't match the pain I was experiencing. Instead of flinging the errant squash off my hand, I was transfixed by it's beautiful golden hue. My movements slowed and the pain increased. Finally, I snapped out of it and got my hand under some cold water.

Stupid squash.

This is what happens when I plan to cook. I get all excited about making certain recipes and I think I'm doing a good job planning out how the cooking will impact my week. But then the squash starts attacking, the brussel sprouts get an attitude, and I realize I have ground ginger not grated ginger because I'm an animal (apparently). I do everything wrong when it comes to cooking and meal planning.

I'm a planner in literally every other aspect of my life (have you seen my color organized closet?), but I've never been good at meal planning. Conceptually, I understand meal planning. I'm obsessed with the fact that there are over two million results when I Google "meal planning containers" - that's just for the containers to hold said meals. There are almost twenty million results when searching for "meal planning." Everyone, and I do mean everyone, has an opinion or method for getting your meal plan on. I've read so many articles on this, trying to get inspired. Friends, who do this well, have shared recipes and techniques they've found useful over the years. I've tried their techniques. I've made the recipes (some of them), but it never seems to stick. I could pretend like it's because I'm a terrible cook, but I'm not. While I prefer baking, but I'm a good cook. As my friend Emily would say, I would make my village proud where we still living in times when a woman was judged based on her cooking skills and ability to birth children. Oh wait...

Anyway, it's not my cooking skills. What I've come to realize is my aversion to being good at meal planning comes down to four things:
  1. I'm an incredibly indecisive person when it comes to deciding what I want to eat on a particular day.
  2. I don't like eating the same thing more than twice in a row.
  3. I get easily distracted by convenience.
  4. I'm only cooking for me. 
I'm not a picky eater; a family only needs one of those and my brother called dibs on that long before I was born. Since I'm not picky, the options are endless, which is overwhelming, so I resort to making the same five or six things because I know I like them and it's easy. One of the things about meal planners that I admire is how creative they get with recipes. No, I don't normally cook sugar pumpkins (those are the little ones used for pies and soup), but I'd love to try! I don't ever think that way and I'm indecisive about food. How can I possibly make a dish that will last me a week if I'm not sure I'm going to want to eat that on Thursday? It's a level of food commitment that I'm not sure I have in me. Maybe this is also why I'm still single. I decided that to combat this particular issue, I would commit first to breakfast items for my meal planning experiment. Breakfast, like a lunch date, is less formal and less stressful. I converted my family banana bread recipe to muffin form and divided them into packs of two, freezing some and leaving others out. These are delicious and one of the best things I've made in a long time. I'd share the recipe, but my dad has to give permission first; it's a long story. I also attempted overnight oats for a few weeks. Let's just say that mushy oatmeal is not my thing. I wanted it to work out but no amount of pecans or fruit could help. I'll stick to regular old oatmeal moving forward.

After my mixed successes with breakfast, I decided to focus on lunch. When I started my new job back in June, I set a goal for myself to bring my lunch more frequently. We have very nice cafes within the office and full kitchens so there is no reason not to embrace lunch. No reason except I'm me. I was doing well for a while, bringing salads and leftovers, but it was so easy to walk downstairs and get something from the cafeteria. Before I started making work friends, I'd go out by myself to lunch to get off campus for a bit. Then I remembered my goal and decided to try some new things for lunch. Inspired by my friend Jessica's meal planning, I tried Thai Turkey Lettuce Wraps and some fancier salad ingredients (from a series of recipes Jessica sent me). I made my favorite crockpot recipe; Turkey Sloppy Joes. I roasted a chicken so I could use it in salads and throw it in cauliflower fried rice for an exciting change. I did fine for awhile, but then the business of work and the stresses of commuting reared their ugly heads and I got lazy again. Then I got annoyed with myself for being lazy.

Enter the butternut squash soup.

I sat down at my computer two weekends ago and began my search for an easy butternut squash soup recipe. I enjoy butternut squash and it's been getting colder so I figured making soup on the weekend for the week was a great idea. I also made a Santa Maria Tri-Tip roast from Trader Joe's on the same weekend so I could alternate between the soup and veggies and the roast (which I put in a salad and had with acorn squash that didn't burn me). The only day I caved and didn't bring lunch was food truck day. I felt that was justifiable for Korean fried chicken. Anyway, I felt accomplished. Despite my squash burn, I successfully made meals for the week and brought them to work and ate them. My breakfasts included the banana nut muffins. The week went smashingly.

Building on the success of the week, I went searching for more recipes. I found a bunch of options in a Buzzfeed post featuring one pan chicken dishes. I opted to make the Sheet Pan Chicken Stir Fry as my first recipe. Besides having to buy oyster sauce and sesame oil, I'm not sure this recipe made much of an impression. I ate it for dinner the day I made it and then brought it for lunch twice last week. It's not terrible; the sauce was good and it was easy to make. It just wasn't great. I was underwhelmed and ended up eating peanut butter and jelly one day and buying a quesadilla from the cafeteria on Friday. If I make this recipe again, I'll double the sauce, add some chili paste, and a few different vegetables (maybe carrots and cauliflower). I'm not giving up hope on this one, but it needs some work.

I have three new recipes to try; Chicken and Pumpkin Rice, Slow Cooker Beef Stroganoff, and Chicken with Sweet Potatoes and Apples (also a sheet pan recipe). These are all things I think I can eat for more than a few days. If none of them work out, one of my delightful co-workers gave me a coupon for a free Hello Fresh box. I'm contemplating the veggie plan for some variety. Even if I don't like it, I won't be out anything.

And that's the real result of this experiment. I've lost nothing. I've accomplished much, even if I don't think I have. I may still cave on occasion and get food truck food or go to the cafeteria rather than eat that salad I so beautifully prepared, but at least I'm trying. I'm trying new recipes. I'm trying to be better about bringing lunch. I'm trying to be healthier when I can be. I will never be these women, but I'm good with that.

Coming soon to the Island: I try speed dating, a special Thanksgiving edition of Lazy Movie Weekend, and I reflect on six months at my new job. Where does the time go?

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Lazy Movie Weekend: Sometimes the final girl sucks

Happy Halloween! As is my Halloween tradition, we begin today's post with the greatest Halloween song of all time:

If you haven't seen the 1986 gem The Worst Witch, you need to get on that stat. If anyone wants to buy the $100 copy on Amazon for me, I won't say no.

Horror movies are high on my list of wonderful things about Halloween. Yes, I'm aware that I can watch a horror movie on any day of the year, but watching horror movies on or around Halloween is better than watching them on a random Tuesday in April. The chill in the air, the sugar hangover from eating too many mellowcreme pumpkins (not a thing - you can never have too many mellowcreme pumpkins), the fact that it's sweater season, all of these things make watching horror movies so much more fun. I've written several posts over the years, detailing some of my favorites. I plan on spending this year watching two of my favorites, Halloween (the original) and Shaun of the Dead, which isn't a horror movie per se, but I like my scary/funny balance so it stays.
Instead of talking about what you should watch, I'd like to spend this Lazy Movie Weekend steering you away from two movies that are only scary in how much of a disappointment they both are. I grew up watching terrible movies on WGN and USA's Up All Night. I've seen the Swamp Thing movies and Troll 2 and countless other crappy horror movies where things like boom mics were visible and costumes were probably made by a group of third graders. What usually happens with these movies is that they're so terrible, they walk down the path of awful and end up being moderately amusing. Or at least an option for my very own Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode from the comfort of my couch. I'm game to take a gamble on a straight to video release or a Netflix original because it might become one of these types of movies if it doesn't end up being very good. My friend, Emily, committed herself to a "31 Days of Halloween" movie/show challenge. She planned to watch at least one Halloween movie (horror/family/thriller) each day for the entire month. I joined her recently for dinner and a few Halloween movies. We made terrible choices.

I love a horror movie with a strong female lead. Some of the best horror movies, the original versions of Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre all feature strong female characters and helped to create the concept of "the final girl." A final girl is the last person standing at the end of a horror movie, after the psycho killer or malevolent force has killed everyone she ever loved. It's almost always a young women, hence the name. There are a handful of final guys, but it's far less common. The 1990s and early 2000s were a great time for final girls in horror, giving us Sydney, Alice, and Julie James (Scream, Resident Evil, and I Know What You Did Last Summer respectively). There have been some great final girls in more recent movies too (Cabin in the Woods, anyone?). Final girls are badass and will fight until the bitter end of the movie. Both of the movies Emily and I selected had such great potential for final girls, but they failed miserably.

Up first, Final Girl starring Abigail Breslin and Wes Bentley. I've had this movie on my Netflix list for awhile now. The premise is promising: Wes Bentley's William trains Abigail Breslin's Veronica to be a killing machine. She then proceeds to go after a group of young men who kill blonde women for no apparent reason. It all takes place in the 1960s in the woods of a nondescript American town. The movie is terribly boring. It's not a horror movie, but it had all the elements of a great thriller, which always qualifies a movie for inclusion at Halloween. The plot was confusing; was William saying the younger men killed his family or were somehow connected to the "bad man" that did? Did we really need a mommy/incest story line for one of the dudes? Why would anyone go to the woods with a bunch of dudes they just met? What is up with the girlfriend's poofy bangs? The most satisfying part of this movie, other than the end, was watching the Frank Sinatra wannabe character get an axe to the chest. I only wish Veronica had punched him in the larynx first. Our time would have been better spent re-watching Little Miss Sunshine (for optimal Abigail Breslin) or American Horror Story: Hotel (optimal Wes Bentley).

If Final Girl failed to be interesting, the second movie, Abattoir, just failed. Again, the premise is the stuff of great horror movies: a journalist and a cop team up to figure out of why a mystery man is buying properties where tragedies take place (murders, suicides, etc.) and then removing the room where the tragedy took place. Of course, it's personal since the journalist's sister and her family are killed. Turns out the mystery man is building an abattoir (a slaughterhouse, if you are not familiar with this term or don't listen to Nick Cave), filled with death and despair. Julia and her cop buddy (the brother from Across the Universe looking like a heroin addict) have to figure out how to save her sister's soul and destroy the house. Cool premise, right? It has all the makings of a great horror movie and it was filmed in Louisiana (from what I could tell) so there are some wonderful settings that add to the creep factor.

Man, does it fail. The movie is set in the present but Julia, played by Jessica Lowndes, better known for her roles in Hallmark holiday movies, really loves the 1950s. In a better movie, this would be a quirky and endearing. Not here. It's annoying and mildly confusing. There's a weird cult plot line that feels like it should have been the focus of the movie but isn't (or maybe a separate movie). The romance between Julia and the cop is forced; I've seen more sparks in a Hallmark holiday movie (and they only kiss in the final two minutes of those movies so this is saying a lot). Dayton Callie is the mystery man and is appropriately creepy. He was great on CSI as the guy they thought was the Miniature Killer. But he can only do so much. The brightest spots were two of my favorite New Orleans actors, Bryan Batt and John "Spud" McConnell, making appearances as Julia's boss and the small town sheriff, respectively. They couldn't save this mess either.

I didn't even stay to watch the end. As I'm an old person and go to bed at 9:30 during the week, I had to drive home from Emily's house. She watched the last 20 minutes without me and reported that I missed nothing. Like the rest of the movie, it was confusing and she wasn't quite sure who all died in the end. You should know who died at the end of horror movie.

What we enjoyed most about this movie was reading the reviews on IMDB. Since the movie was so terrible, Emily and I spent a good portion of our time reading the reviews aloud. Here are some highlights:
  • I am still mourning my money that I wasted on this turd of a movie at the fantasy film fest. Sitting trough this felt like a root treatment without anesthesia, wearing Spanish boots while listening to Justin Bieber. I seriously doubt that most of positive ratings are authentic. It is a really bad movie. Period.
  • I seriously wish there was a way to give negative numbers. This movie was awful. Nothing made sense.
  • What is this? Why are there so many positive reviews? This film doesn't feel like it needs to explain any of it's "creative" decisions to you. Oh yeah it's a 30's reporter working at a 50's newspaper driving a 50's car in a modern setting. What? That's not creative and not how you do things, I felt like this was a sequel or that I needed some kind of explanation before hand, or some visual clues, something, anything, but no this movie just expects you to just go with it. But it doesn't feel right, it feels forced and uneven and wrong. I mean can you honestly tell me that when you saw her talking to her sister that it felt right, and that that didn't bother you? I don't know what was the goal here. It's a mess.
(These are printed as they appear on IMDB; I have not corrected grammar or edited in anyway. Click the link above to read more, including some questionable positive reviews.)

I think Brian Tallerico sums it up best as "one of the most baffling and ineffective horror films of the year." I haven't figured out how any of those positive reviews even exist. It makes no sense. Julia could have been an epic final girl, but nope, she's a waste of a perfectly good vintage wardrobe.

My advice, dear Island readers? Plan your Halloween horror movie viewing carefully. Don't listen to Netflix when it recommends a movie to you based on your previous viewing of The Craft; that recommendation will lead you to Final Girl. You're better off re-watching both seasons of Stranger Things and thanking the Duffer brothers for giving us the treasure that is Chief Hopper.

Until next Halloween...

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Second Return to Transient Suburbia

Every time I go to an artist or writer's talk, there's always that one person who asks the question about how the artist or writer makes their work happen. This person is usually the last person to ask a question and he or she always prefaces the question with a bunch of details about their own work and it's usually excruciatingly awkward. As an audience member, I'm usually sitting there wondering where the question is or if this person only wanted to share that her new work would be shown in a basement gallery on a Tuesday at 11 am if anyone wants to come see it. Good for you, but where's the question? She finally asks the question: "What's your process?" or some variation on that question. The artist or writer always answer the same way: they get up and work. They write, they paint, they sculpt, they play music. Whatever their art is they do that every day because it's their job. The person asking always seems disappointed by this answer. I'm sure he or she expected some grand answer which would help solve the writer's block or artist's block they're having. Or help them create when maybe their art isn't their only job.

Maybe that writer does have a thing he does everyday, rituals that help him ease into his writing flow or whatever, but that's only going to work for him. If a writer told me, "I get up every morning, have a cigarette, drink a pot of coffee, walk around the neighborhood, do seven jumping jacks, place my composition notebook facing east, and then I sit down to write," I wouldn't be able to do it since I don't smoke and I'm terrible at cardinal directions. If he also told me he made some offering to one of the goddesses of creativity, I might try that one out to see what's it all about. Unless it involves sacrificing a goat. I don't think I'm the "sacrifice a goat for my art" kind of person. My point is there is no answer except to write or create.

And that's where the challenge lies. My day job isn't to write. As much as I would like it to be sometimes, it's not. I haven't written anything new for Transient Suburbia, my novel, since March. I spent last fall and much of the winter rewriting parts of the novel and adding new sections along the way. I had seven beta readers look at it; five provided feedback. They all seemed to enjoy the story and the characters. At least two of them confirmed what I had been thinking about adding a section for the main character, Harper, at college. I decided to add the section to give the story a little more conflict and dimension. This new section would take place in Nashville, a city I have never visited. Because I wanted to make it feel real, I planned my trip, had few ideas sketched out, and was ready to go.

Then my aunt died and I canceled my trip. The I was laid off. My mom was in and out of the hospital. I was in the middle of a stressful job search. Pumpkin died (although this happened later). I was stressed out and not feeling creative. I kept writing the Island because I had to write something and I can literally write anything on here, but I stayed away from my novel. I couldn't bring myself to touch it or think too much about it. I love my characters and the world I created, but I couldn't do it. I couldn't write them while all of the other things were going on. It bothered me that in a time when I had nothing but time I couldn't write. I felt like I was failing even if no one was asking about it or cared if I was finished. I'd pick up my notebook and stare at it for longer than necessary. The Nashville section was on hold; I didn't want to write about a place I had never been. I wanted it to feel real. My focus was gone. I felt empty when I thought about it so I tucked it away, hoping I would find my way back to it sooner rather than later.

I found a job (as most of you know). My mom is doing better. I mean, she keeps telling me she's worried that I'm going to die alone. I take this to be a sign that she's feeling better. I have come to terms with my aunt's passing and the fact that we weren't close but that didn't mean I didn't love her or care about her. I have let my anger at what happened with my previous job go. I'm still very sad about Pumpkin, so please stop asking me when I'm going to adopt a cat. If I'm supposed to have another cat, I'll know when the time is right. I promise I'll let you know.

More surprisingly, I'm finally ready to come back to Transient Suburbia.

Here's what happened. I was asked to go to Portland to deliver a workshop on public speaking for work. I went out a bit early to explore the city and adjust to the time difference. I had a great time in Portland; I'm planning to go back for an actual vacation and do more. I feel like I only scratched the surface of the area. It was nice to be out of Northern Virginia for a few days. A change of scenery can lead to inspiration. That's what people always say right? It's what I told myself as I prepared for the trip.  I brought my notebook with me just in case inspiration struck. I didn't seek it out. I didn't go to see any live music although that is something I enjoy doing when I visit a new city. I took in my new surroundings and relaxed, truly relaxed, for the first time in months.

And then it happened. I was sitting in a pub, listening to Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, enjoying a local beer (don't ask me which one), people watching, and eavesdropping a little bit. I mean, the table next to me was pretty loud so it's not like I had to try hard to hear what they were talking about. They, two couples, were discussing classic rock and the fact that songs from their youth were now playing on the local classic rock station. One of the guys was focused on the fact that Nirvana was playing in fairly heavy rotation on the station right now and it was messing with his mind. The other guy and the two women were explaining that that's how it worked; a song hits the 20 year mark and it becomes classic rock. Even if it was part of a sub-genre of rock, it still qualifies. Nirvana and Green Day and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden are all old enough to be on the station. It is an inevitability.

He was having nothing to do with this argument. He felt that those songs didn't belong on the stations alongside Kansas and Styx and Journey. He failed to mention Led Zeppelin and The Clash and The Rolling Stones and all those other bands who are also classic rock and are pretty fantastic (sorry Kansas, Styx, and Journey fans); he could only focus on bands that people tend to either really love or really hate. At some point in the conversation, he started being "insufferable music guy" and I could actually hear his dinner companions' eyes roll. I can see both sides of the argument; music gets classified a certain way after a certain time. That's how it works, but it pains me to hear the songs of my youth on the station here in DC. When did I get so old? Didn't these bands change music? Didn't they defy categorization? They can't be on the classic rock station. We need more time!

The couples moved on to another topic eventually and my dinner arrived so I stopped actively listening to them. Instead, I enjoyed my meal and then it hit me. This discussion was exactly the way I wanted to start the new section of the novel except that my version takes place in the late 1990s when Harper is in college. She will have this discussion on a first date with a guy and this will be what they will end up arguing about. He will be the guy in the restaurant and she will be the one arguing about the inevitability of music classification. They will fall madly in love because of this conversation. And then other stuff will happen. I haven't actually written any of this or figured out the rest, but I will. I will figure it out and it will be glorious...or at least it will get me to the finish with the story I love so much.

Thanks insufferable guy at the pub. I appreciate your strong opinions and thank you for your service to Transient Suburbia. I don't know your name but I promise to thank you in the acknowledgments as "Insufferable Nirvana Guy in Portland, OR." You're welcome.

Coming soon to the Island: I do everything wrong when it comes to meal planning, my annual Halloween Lazy Movie Weekend post arrives, and I decide to try speed dating. It's going to be a very exciting fall/winter here on the Island!

Sunday, October 15, 2017

I came for tires, I stayed for the crackers

I bought an unnecessarily large box of crackers.

I didn't set out to buy an unnecessarily large box of crackers. My day was focused on buying four new tires (don't be jealous) and going out to dinner and a gallery opening with my parents. Nowhere in the planning of the day did I stop and think to myself, "You need an unnecessarily large box of crackers. These crackers will make your life better. For $4.49 you will not want for crackers for months as long as you properly store them once the package is open. This is an exceptionally good deal."

I've been Costco-ed.

I can't remember the last time I visited a Costco. I'm one individual who lives in a moderately sized apartment. I don't have space for bulk anything. Even when the tiny orange cat was still with us, buying in bulk wasn't a thing I participated in because of limited space. Storing a 45 pound container of cat litter is impossible in most apartments in the area. And frankly, I don't have the upper body strength for carrying that item anywhere. I believe during my last visit to a Costco I was with my parents and I bought a bottle of vitamins. I did not finish that bottle of vitamins.

Let's celebrate...with crackers! Not only can I select from one of five variety of crackers, there are helpful recipes on the back of the box so I can get the most out of my celebration experience. Will I try cream cheese and cucumbers on a GrainsFirst? I might. How about some bacon and brie on a Cabaret? Everything is better with bacon. I don't even know what I'm going to try on the Vintas; maybe it's time to get some of the fancy Cowgirl Creamery cheese and really celebrate. So many options.

I understand that going to Costco is a chore for the vast majority of people shopping much like my monthly big shops at Target. For me, Costco is an experience. I don't come here very often and it's a fascinating place to explore. I had two hours to kill and needed to get some steps in so I did what I always do: I made Costco into an adventure. My dad was with me as I needed him to gain entry into this wonderland. My dad loves a deal so Costco is definitely for him. I've distilled the experience down to my four favorite things about Costco.
  1. The volume and variety of what you can purchase at a Costco. The number of items you can purchase at Costco is staggering. Want an electric heater? Costco has you covered in two sizes (although only one was available at the Woodbridge location). Do you have an army of teenagers living in your home who consume more food than you could imagine a human could consume? You should check out Costco; I'm sure whatever you buy will last two days rather than one. How about a piano? Look no further than Costco. I need to find someone who has purchased a piano at Costco; I have lots of questions. Actually, I'd like to find two people who purchased a piano at Costco; one who planned to do so and the other who walked into buy toilet paper and bottled water and walked out with a baby grand. It has to happen. I mean, I came in to buy tires and walked out with an unnecessarily large box of crackers. It's the same thing just on a different scale. 

    Beer Advent calendar - my dad & I thought it was funny. My mom thought it was sacrilegious.
  2. It's really a community. You have to be a member or with a member to enter a Costco. There are millions of Costco members in the world so we're not really talking of the exclusivity of say a country club or a cult, but you have to make a choice to spend $60 (or more) a year just to walk in the door. What I noticed during my time in the store this weekend was how pleasant everyone seemed. Target is often an exercise in trying not to punch people in the throat while navigating aisles that don't always accommodate the cart. Maybe it's the free samples. Of course, Costco is also associated with a very specific slice of suburbia, the word disdainfully dripping off the tongues of people who great up in the suburbs but now have very expensive haircuts and judge the place from which they sprung. I don't find this accurate at all. Yes, the majority of people shopping this weekend were suburbanites from around Prince William County, but I also saw a big biker dude (no idea where that 20 pack of coconut water is going on his bike which was parked outside), a hipster cool kid couple buying beer, almonds, and frozen hors d'oeuvres, and a woman wearing head to toe designer clothing who was buying paper products, a sheet cake, and water. Everyone loves a deal.
  3. Costco is an experience beyond shopping. Yes, shopping is the reason we were all there but the experience cannot be ignored. My dad and I had about 2 hours to kill while we waited for my car. During that time, we were able to make two full rotations of the store, finding new items on each time around. My dad did a little comparison shopping, making a note of a few things for future purchasing. We bought four items (toilet paper, vanilla extract, and two boxes of crackers). We tried samples all over the store (more on this shortly). After paying for our items, we had a drink in the cafe to wait out the last 20 minutes. We people watched because everyone makes a stop at the cafe. It's part of the experience, like eating Swedish meatballs or a hot dog at Ikea. I'm not suggesting you plan your next date night at Costco but I would not judge you if you did. Make an experience out of buying that economy sized bottle of olive oil. It's worth it.
  4. SAMPLES! I expected a much longer wait for my tires but it ended up being just under two hours. My dad's response to this: Let's gets some samples. Clearly, my dad knows what's up at the Costco. We sampled seven items: cranberry walnut bread, ciabatta bread, Bischoff cookies ("airplane cookies" according to my dad), a pumpkin pancake, chicken potstickers, chicken teriyaki meatballs, and yogurt (only my dad had the yogurt). We could have tried a cheeseburger, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, apples, a vitamin (which seems weird), and at least two pastries. Had we not had Sugar Shack donuts earlier we would have tried the pastries. Hands down, the chicken potstickers were the best. I would have bought some but I don't know enough people to have a party in which we would consume the entire bag of potstickers. The second best was the pumpkin pancake and I don't like pumpkin flavored food all that much. My dad, on the other, loves pumpkin food like a 20 year white girl. I'm still surprised he didn't buy a box. Remember what we learned in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping: "Costco samples like a motherfucker" should be everyone's catch phrase.
Am I going to run out and get a membership. No, I'm not. However, I will have to visit Costco every 7000 miles or so for a free tire rotation. Costco has an excellent warranty/tire service package when you buy tires if you're in the market for a new set. My dad will have to join me so we can hang out, find new weird things to purchase, try some new samples, and talk about work. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday morning.

I did not buy this but I really wanted to.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Misfit Toys Road Trip 2017: Something D-O-O Doughnuts

I'm out of practice.

I used to travel all the time. At some point in the last 12 years, I was traveling at least once a week to exciting destination like Fishers, IN or Ontario, CA. The last time I traveled for work was sometime in 2016 and the last time I flew was back in March for a funeral. I'm out of practice when it comes to travel. I forgot how exhausting flying is; the recycled air, the crowds at airports, the chaos of loading a plane (I will never understand the "system"), and dealing with people who never travel. I had all these plans for my first day in Portland, but they were dashed all to hell the second travel fatigue hit me. Like the old woman I'm becoming, I stayed close to the hotel, at an early dinner, and was in bed by 8:45 pm. I'm sorry, Cannon Beach, I really wanted to visit but I also didn't want to fall asleep while driving.

I regrouped and got myself together to explore the wonders and wilds of Portland. Sleep is a wonderful thing.

My frame of reference for Portland is the IFC show Portlandia, the song "Portland, OR" by Loretta Lynn and Jack White, and the movie The Goonies, which technically takes place in Astoria, OR but I sort of grouped it all together. This is an incredibly limited view of Portland, particularly if I only focus on Portlandia and putting a bird on everything or pickling it if a bird won't suffice. Yes, Portlandia is satire, but the beauty of satire is the truth that lies beneath. I was hoping to run into Nance or Candace and Toni or Spyke and Iris (my personal favorites) somewhere around town but I mostly saw super hipster dudes, adorable families, and older people enjoying the sunshine.

I started the day with a visit to Voodoo Doughnuts. I was prepared to wait in line a very long time, like that time I visited Franklin Barbecue in Austin for three hours (minus breakfast tacos and my delightful friend, Jessica). I was pleasantly surprised when it only took about 15 minutes to get through the line. Unheard of quickness according to the man in front of me. He then proceeded to share his views on the homelessness problem in Portland. (PS - he is not from Portland and has rather conservative views on how to "handle" homelessness in the city). Anyway, I still held his place in line so he could get cash from an ATM since Voodoo is cash only (make a note for when you visit). I'm a nice traveler that way.

Voodoo Doughnuts is pretty bananas. I've been hearing about the doughnuts here for years and was somewhat overwhelmed by the options. Flavors vary from traditional items like cake donuts with sprinkles and coconut to more adventurous options like the Memphis Mafia (including bananas and peanut butter), Voodoo Bubble (which involves bubblegum dust - I don't even know how one goes about making bubble gum dust), and a bunch of cereal themed options in case icing wasn't enough. For the vegans out there, there's an entire menu just for your. I had a Voodoo Doughnut, a yeast doughnut filled with raspberry jelly and topped with chocolate frosting. It's delicious. I also got a doughnut with Butterfinger candy crushed on top because life is better with a Butterfinger doughnut. Probably.

It was raining the entire time I was at Voodoo Doughnut so rather than sit outside to enjoy my breakfast, I headed over to my next stop, eating my doughnut in my car like God and the inventor of the doughnut intended. (Hanson Gregory is credited with the ring shaped doughnut - you're welcome.)

Powell's City of Books is one of the Powell's bookstores, located in the Pearl District of Portland. This particular location is an entire city block, containing nine different sections (color coded) and something like 3000 sections. It's amazing. It's one of the coolest book stores I've ever been to. Every corner seems to contain a little surprise or a recommendation from the staff. The sections range from the expected (fiction, horror, sci-fi) to the more specific (metaphysics, nautical fiction, woodworking) and everything in between. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable in a way that made me want to hang out all day. Strike that, I'd like to live in Powell's. I don't know how to make this happen, but there's plenty of room. I could sleep on any number of the nooks around the store, using the comfy sweaters (made in Oregon of course) as pillows. I'd be like those cats that live in bookstores; beloved and eccentric. This is my new life goal.

My trip to Powell's reminded of a very important fact: Beverly Cleary was from Portland. She grew up in the Grant Park neighborhood and many of her books are set here. She's one of the most successful living writers in the US (she's 101) and is known for her books chronicling the adventures of Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, and Ralph S. Mouse. I am a huge Ramona Quimby fan. I read every single one of the Ramona books when I was a child; Ramona Forever was my favorite followed by Ramona the Pest. As the younger child in my family, I identified with Ramona in many ways although I don't think I was nearly as adventurous as she was. I admired her fearlessness and the way she loved her family. Lucky for me, Portland loves Ramona too. There's a statue of Ramona (and Henry and Ribsy) in Grant Park. Ramona is triumphant in her rain boots, splashing away like nobody's business. Of course, I walked into the middle of Nerf gun fight near the statues (someone was having a birthday party).

My afternoon plan was to visit the International Rose Garden and then head back into downtown to go to the Deschutes Brewery for a late lunch. Apparently, everyone else had the same idea to visit the gardens so parking was nonexistent. I ended up driving back to where I started in the morning and visiting the Lan Su Chinese Garden instead. The rain had stopped and I found parking (before I had to pay for it too). The gardens are beautiful, tranquil and calming. I missed the noon tour, opting to wander through the small gardens myself. The Lan Su garden is considered the most authentic Chinese garden outside of China. It was created through a partnership between Portland and its sister city, Suzhou. It's an amazing oasis in the middle of the city. The name translates into "Garden of Awakening Orchids" and it uses sounds from both city names. In addition to the traditional art and architecture, current artists works are displayed (and for sale) throughout the gardens. There was a poetry reading going on as well. There's also a teahouse (which I didn't visit) but would go back to if I visit again.

By the time I finished in the gardens, it was time to return my rental car. Did you know that you can't pump your own gas in Oregon? You can't. It's both odd and satisfying to not have to do this. This doesn't mean that finding a gas station near the rental car place is easy but at least I could sit in my car and be annoyed by that fact while a very polite attendant pumped the gas. I made my way back downtown (thanks Uber) and finally made it to Deschutes Brewery.

Normally when I travel and go out for a meal, I have no problem sitting at the bar. It's easier to deal with and every now and then, I end up chatting with fun people also sitting at the bar. Apparently, Sunday nights are very popular at Deschutes so it was faster to wait for a table than to sit at the bar. And by sit at a table, I mean awkwardly sit a table for four by myself. I have zero issue with dining by myself but seriously? It was weird and I'm sure the waitress was thrilled to get me on this table. The food is great and you can't beat a great beer. I had the Inversion IPA and it was the best.

Any day that includes a doughnut, a bookstore, Ramona Quimby, and a good beer is a great day. The weather cooperated (for the most part) and I felt like I saw a little bit of everything Portland has to offer.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

I don't know if you know this

I had a boss back in college at one of the theatres I worked at who had a horrible habit of saying two really stupid things all the time. He said both with such regularity it sort of negated the fact that he was generally a nice human being. We worked with the theatre donors so when they would call and ask for something he would often reply, "I'll get my gal, Erin, on that." or some variation of  "my gal, Erin" will help you. I'm sure this had less to do with me and more to do with his own confidence level in dealing with rich people, but it still annoyed me. I told him so and eventually, he least when I was in the room.

He also had a habit of starting sentences with "I don't know if you know this" and then proceeding to tell me or whoever else something that we obviously knew. I would love to believe he meant this in a helpful way, but honestly, when has starting a sentence with "I don't know if you know this" ever been a good idea? Every time this phrase is used in a sentence, my mind immediately says "This person is an asshole. Stop listening and do something better with your time." It's the phrase equivalent of men explaining things to me except that everyone does this. It's a phrase that inspires Hulk-level rage.

Interestingly, this phrase kept coming back to me over and over again last weekend and throughout this week as I listened to the news and started preparing for a workshop on public speaking I'm delivering this month. Part of the workshop covers transitional phrases and words that might discredit you as a speaker (think "just" and "I think"). "I don't know if you know this" would definitely fall into the latter category. There's also a section on tone of voice which got me thinking, are there any instances when "I don't know if you know this" is an acceptable phrase to include in a conversation? Could there be a way to say this and not come off as a complete jerk? I thought (or overthought) about this over the week and came up with five possible times in which "I don't know if you know this" is acceptable. I started with three and was able, over the course of the week, to add two more. I feel accomplished. I like it when I can add to a list.
  1. The School House Rock: "I don't know if you know this, but Twitter is not the law of the land." This use of the phrase could be helpful when addressing anyone involved in the current administration or supporters of said administration's policies when "policies" and "laws" get announced on Twitter. A related use would be "I don't know if you know, but the Constitution is the law of the land. Simply tweeting out a policy on Twitter doesn't make it a law. That's not how it works." You could continue with a discussion of how local and state laws are made. If you're feeling really fun and carefree, go ahead and belt out "I'm Just a Bill" to help reinforce the learning.
  2. The Julia Sugarbaker: "I don't know if you this, but your dress is stuck in your pantyhose." Designing Women was a gift to this world. If you didn't grow up in the late 1980s when this show originally began airing, you should do yourself a favor and find it on Lifetime so you can watch it in all its 1980s Southern lady glory. Julia Sugarbaker was played by the wonderful Dixie Carter. Julia owned an interior design firm staffed by her sister Suzanne (Delta Burke), Mary Jo (Annie Potts), Charlene (Jean Smart), and Anthony (Meshach Taylor). Julia was the epitome of classy Atlanta lady and was famous for her cutting remarks, impeccable taste, and loyalty. Julia would rock "I don't know if you know this" in both a helpful way (letting a woman know her backside is showing in public) and in a cutting but always graceful way as displayed in my all-time favorite Julia Sugarbaker moment of the show the episode, "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia." Her dressing down of the current Miss Georgia is a master class of how to use this phrase in a way that is both classy and catty. It is genius. 
  3. The Geography/Civics Teacher: "I don't know if you know this, but Puerto Rico is a US territory. More Americans live in Puerto Rico than 21 US states." Hurricane Maria has caused absolute devastation in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Watching the aftermath of all of the recent hurricanes has taken me back to Katrina and it's rough. Even worse, is the absolute lack of concern the 45 has shown for the people of Puerto Rico which is a US territory and most of its residents are US citizens. From the slow response to the insane comments about how "great" the relief efforts are going, he has done everything imaginable to make this situation worse. This shouldn't be about politics, but it clearly is. This is a clearly a president who doesn't know what he's doing and has a visible dislike of people of color. You can argue this with me if you want, but you won't win. If you can help in any of the relief efforts, please do. 
  4. The Teacher at the End of a Quarter: "I don't know if you know this, but we're out of bacon, chocolate and wine." This particular use of the phrase was inspired by one of teacher friends who reminded me how awful the end of a quarter or testing period can be. I remember my first year teaching and how stressed I was trying to get everything done. I think I subsisted on Cheez-its, wine, and cereal because I couldn't bring myself to go to the store and my budget didn't allow for takeout every day. The use of this version of "I don't know if you know this" is particularly useful if you're married or have a significant other or roommate who will remedy the lack of bacon, chocolate, and wine. I guess you could order all of those things online, but it feels better when someone does something nice for you. Be nice to teachers and treat them well.
  5. The Drinking Wine is More Fun: "I don't know if you know this, but you can drink wine and save the corks for art projects." I was at Target this morning buying cleaning supplies and a bag of mellowcreme pumpkins when I stumbled upon a box of wine corks to use for decorative purposes. Honestly, why would you buy a box of wine corks? I get it, it takes a long time to save enough wine corks to make most art projects. I look at this as a delightful challenge not a reason to go to Target and spend $10 on a box of corks. I'd rather invest that $10 in a bottle of wine. "But Erin, I don't drink." Then you shouldn't be using wine corks for decorative purposes. Find something else to use like pipe cleaners and mason jars.

I don't know, maybe these still make me sound like an asshole. What I do know is that I now have my new life mantra figured out: When in doubt, channel Julia Sugarbaker.

Monday, September 18, 2017

DC Days: The Dinner Party

"Feminist practice means everyone's voice deserves to be heard." 
-Judy Chicago, Fresh Talk at the National Museum of Women in the Arts
September 17, 2017

One of the first artists I got to meet when I first started volunteering at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) was Judy Chicago. Three years ago, we had a small exhibition of her work to celebrate her 75th birthday. She came to the museum to give a talk, which I attended. She and her husband were walking around the main galleries before the talk and I happened to ride in the elevator with them to the performance hall. We said hello and she asked if I worked at the museum. I shared I was in docent training and she told me to enjoy it. The talk she gave, in conversation with Jane Gerhard, was fun, feisty, and feminist. It was a great reminder of why the museum was founded and why women need a place where their work is championed.

Wilhelmina Holladay co-founded NMWA with her husband, Wallace, after they began collecting work by women artists. They were interested in discovering these artists, many of whom had been neglected by art history texts and in some cases, lost to history. Like Judy Chicago's iconic work The Dinner Party, the Holladay's were interested in combating the erasure of women artists from history. The current collection spans work from as early as 1580 and includes many living/working artists from today. I've volunteered at a few other museums in DC and volunteering at NMWA has been the most satisfying volunteer experience I've ever had. Every time I walk through the museum or lead a tour or participate in an event like this weekend's Fresh Talk, I feel like I'm part of something and helping our visitors connect to these works and artists.

I've felt, over the last year and half (or so), that NMWA has been a saving grace of sorts for me. No matter what was going on at work or in my personal life, I could go to the museum for my shift a few times a month and leave everything else behind. It's a little community, from the other docents and volunteers to the staff and guards to our visitors. I get to talk about awesome artists and spend time talking with visitors about their experiences in the museum.

Beyond my experiences with visitors, my favorite part of volunteering is those times when I do get to meet artists. We host a large number of events throughout the year where artists are present to talk about their work and interact with our visitors. I try to attend as many of them as possible not just because meeting artists is one of those things I never thought I'd get to do, but because hearing them talk about their art helps me be a better docent. I can elements from their talks to my tours and really bring art life in a way I wouldn't be able to do without those stories. 

I had the opportunity to see Judy Chicago again this past weekend at NMWA during the first Fresh Talk of this season. Fresh Talk is a part of the Women, Arts, and Social Change program that looks at women and the arts as catalysts for change. The program launched in 2015 and includes curated artists' talks along with either a Sunday Supper or Catalyst happy hour which enables the audience to continue the conversation after the program itself. I've been to two Fresh Talks and have loved the experience both times. One of the cool things about Fresh Talk is that the programs are live-streamed and the videos are available online for later viewing. I attended "Who are the new superwomen of the universe?" in June and had a blast. 

Chicago's talk was entitled "Amplify" and focused on how art can amplify women's voices and visibility. Her career has always focused on this idea, whether it be through her teaching, her dedication to feminist theory in art, or her actual promotion of "lost" women in history through The Dinner Party. In addition to talking about how her work has evolved from the 1960s, she also shared plans for a new visual archive and partnership between NMWA, the Schlesinger Library (at Harvard), and Penn State to create a new way to view her work and preserve her legacy. It's an exciting project and one that will ensure that Judy Chicago's work is not erased. 

What I loved about this particular talk was seeing the breadth of Chicago's work at one time. Alison Gass joined Chicago for conversation. Gass is the director of the University of Chicago's Smart Museum of Art. She shared at the start of the program that she was an intern at the Brooklyn Museum when The Dinner Party was being installed and that Chicago's work had helped to shape her own art practice. Judy took us through her work, talking about learning new techniques like china painting, auto body painting (she went to auto body school in the mid-1960s), and glass work for newer exhibitions. Her dedication to learning is part of her art practice, from the techniques to the history and narrative she creates. She spent time researching the women included in The Dinner Party just as she would later do the same deep research on the Holocaust for her series The Holocaust Project: From Darkness Into Light (1985-1993). She talked a lot about how we move through history where there are times when we push back and erase one group or another. "We're in another moment of pushing back and erasure." It's our role to fight that erasure.

I appreciate her focus on learning as part of her practice. She's constantly learning; that's something that I try to bring to my tours, my own art (mostly writing), and my professional life. There's no magic formula for creativity or producing art except to get up and do it. That's what she does every day. It's these moments that make my time at the museum so important. It helps bring my own passion and creativity back. 

As I sat at Sunday Supper, I had a wonderful conversation with the woman sitting next to me. She had recently moved back to the DC area after a fairly long time away and has been spending the last year "experiencing" DC again. She came to the event for Judy Chicago but was intrigued by the dinner part. We talked about writing (she's a writer), the museum, and Wonder Woman. It was the perfect evening of women, art, and social change. 

If you're looking for a way to engage more and feel like you're not drowning in the spiral of hate and stupid that seems to be the way of the world these days, do yourself a favor and catch a Fresh Talk this season.