Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Harissa Soup, Take 1

The pot currently simmering on my stove is an experiment. I am making harissa soup, based on a recipe I've pretty much made up myself. Based on recipes for harissa and my own cooking sense. Once I've perfected it, I'll post it. So far, I made vegetable broth, letting that simmer on low while the vegetables - the harissa part of the soup - roasted in the oven in olive oil and spices. Now, the roasted vegetables have been added to the stock, along with the water used to deglaze the cast iron pan in which the vegetables were roasted. I plan to add more caraway, coriander, and cumin if the spicing isn't strong enough. The finished soup will have cooked yellow lentils and chickpeas in it. It is vegan, but can be served with yogurt and/or feta cheese. My other ideas for garnish are cilantro leaves and oil-cured black olives.

Harissa is a hot sauce that comes from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. Because these places were once French colonies, North African cuisine has become popular in France, with some elements and ingredients becoming incorporated into French cuisine itself. Not only am I part French, but also, my grandmother lived in Morocco for part of her childhood. It's due to her influence, I'm sure, that I love this type of food. Couscous, chickpeas, pomegranates, harissa, and recently, preserved lemons. I go through phases, but this cuisine and its star ingredients are what I always fall back on. (This, as well as other Mediterranean/Middle Eastern things, like za'atar.)

Harissa is hands-down my favorite hot sauce. It is very, very hot. It would be too hot for me, but the flavor is so interesting and appealing to me that I brave the heat, with yogurt or milk standing by. I think I'm finally developing a tolerance for it. I think what sets harissa apart from other hot sauces is the inclusion of caraway. It's not what you normally associate with hot sauce. My favorite brand of harissa (which I recognize by the pictures on the can, not the name, as I can't read Arabic) also lists as the first ingredients beets and carrots. I've never seen this in another harissa recipe, but I don't care. To me, beets and carrots belong in harissa. They complement the caraway.

I don't just use harissa in Moroccan recipes. I add harissa to nearly every pot of chili I make, even chili verde. A roommate and I once made chocolate cupcakes with harissa. Before I dropped Organic Chemistry for the second time, my stress-relief snack (after evening lecture) was fried okra with harissa. Someday, I will make harissa ice cream. I think "harissa" is a pretty word. Perhaps that is what I will name my firstborn.

Well, this was longer than I intended. I meant to just write an unedited post to tell you, my readers, that I am inventing a harissa soup recipe.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

This could get meta.

Last night, I experienced every blogger's dream.

Well, no. This or this is every blogger's dream.

Anyway, it was at a bar in North Portland, that mysterious place* where numbered avenues cease to be. While out in public, someone announced that he'd read my blog—this blog!

My initial emotion—elation—quickly became alarm. I blanched. I recalled that I'd recently posted a collection of pictures of toilets. But he then he referenced specific posts he'd read, the toilet post not among them.

And yet, with respect to that topic, a startling coincidence was to be realized.

Remember this? I took it with my cell phone in the bathroom of my favorite NE Portland bar after too many of their signature cocktails. It was supposed to capture some interesting wall art.

Well, this newfound reader busted out his iPhone last night and showed me that he, too, had photographed this exact same bathroom wall art. Except, the iPhone being superior to the Verizon Motorola, his was a clear photograph of a Donnie Darko-like bunny rabbit painting. Not exactly my Rectangle of Darkness.

I know what you're thinking, and to be honest, the same thought crossed my mind. But then I remembered: Yes, the restrooms at the Bye and Bye are unisex.

* For my North Jersey readers: I suspect that North Portland is like Union County and the parts of Essex and Morris Counties that border it. You know it's there and you've been to places around it, but unless you have a specific reason to go to, say, New Providence or Berkeley Heights, you could live in the state your entire life and never enter that region. And if you, having made a wrong turn off of 78 or 22, find yourself in a place such as Springfield, you are hopelessly, horribly lost.

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Sign

Yesterday, I began a post on this topic. The opening lines - the paragraph and a half that to set the scene - ended up growing into a different, but related topic, and becoming a post of their own. The original post is still worth writing. The original opening paragraphs still fit the story.

It was really about eleven months ago. But the flora of Portland seems to be on a schedule that is a month ahead of New Jersey's, so this event feels like it happened a year ago.

It was at the Community Garden. I was at work. Something I've realized since being out here, where I am happy, is how much I miss the rare things that made me happy when I was in my last NJ town, where I was unhappy. It is because those things that could make me happy, in the midst of dissatisfaction (at best; at worst, misery) were special. They seemed sweeter than anything; they were hard to leave. They were fantastic, almost magical, with a hold on me that would make me forget the way things were. I would lose perspective. I'd be afraid to leave or lose these few special things and wonder if the rest of my life--the bad parts--could be adjusted or ignored. Many of these things were physical or natural; alive, but not people. Things that could-let's face it!-not love me back.

My garden was one of those things. One late April morning, I left my desk to do something at the Community Garden, such as hang up a sign or open the gate, and I took some time (probably my 15-minute break) to check on my own plot. It had been two or three weeks since I'd planted my seeds. I'd planted radishes, carrots, and beets, as well as a wildflower mix and borage. I'd also planted yellow and red onion sets and Swiss chard, pak choy, and cauliflower transplants. At that time of the season, I would have been pulling weeds from my path and watering the tiny plants and seedlings. I'd fill my watering can at one of the pumps, carry it back to my plot, empty it, and go back. I probably made three trips each time I needed to water my plot.

As I emptied the last pot of water onto my radish seedlings, I felt immeasurable bliss. Seeing their little healthy leaves gave me a feeling of satisfaction. I regretted that I wouldn't be there to see all of the wildflowers grow. I regretted that I wouldn't be there to plant tomatoes.

At this point in time, I had recently made the decision to move to Oregon, but I hadn't told everyone. I hadn't done anything to make the decision official; I hadn't given notice to my job or to my landlords. No one had noticed that I was only planting early season crops. It was, at this point, not too late to turn back.

I gazed down at the seedlings, love filling my heart. Maybe I don't have to leave, I thought. Maybe I can stay here. Maybe I can make things work out. Maybe I can stay here in New Jersey!

I'd like to pause here to state that I am not exaggerating or altering the following events for dramatic effect. This really happened.

At the exact moment that I thought those words-Maybe I can stay here-I heard a loud CRACK. I looked up, searching for its source.

A beautiful dogwood tree in full bloom had collapsed in the forest next to the Community Garden. I looked up in time to see the top of the tree as it crashed straight down, like white lacy parasol thrust violently to the ground. It was the native dogwood, Cornus florida, which is very common in people's yards, but you do not see it often in the woods. It is not common to see a white-flowering dogwood in its native habitat. I was seeing one now, just as it died.

On the other side of the Community Garden, beyond a scant forested border, was Interstate 287. The buzz of North Jersey traffic was like ocean waves, a sound both gentle and loud. The only other gardeners present were at the opposite corner of the Community Garden, so for them, the sound of the interstate drowned out the loud crash. No one but me saw the dogwood tree die.

If ever there was a sign...

I looked in my G-mail history to see if I had written anything different about that day. I found the folllowing:
I thought, maybe that's a sign! but of course it's not. Just, when logic can't help me make a decision, I start to act superstitious. But today when [someone I worked with] was rude to me, I thought, that's my sign!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Preface to A Sign

It was really about eleven months ago. But the flora of Portland seems to be on a schedule that is a month ahead of New Jersey's, so this event feels like it happened a year ago.

It was at the Community Garden. I was at work. Something I've realized since being out here, where I am happy, is how much I miss the rare things that made me happy when I was in my last NJ town, where I was unhappy. It is because those things that could make me happy, in the midst of dissatisfaction (at best; at worst, misery) were special. They seemed sweeter than anything; they were hard to leave. They were fantastic, almost magical, with a hold on me that would make me forget the way things were. I would lose perspective. I'd be afraid to leave or lose these few special things and wonder if the rest of my life--the bad parts--could be adjusted or ignored. Many of these things were physical or natural; alive, but not people. Things that could-let's face it!-not love me back. Such as a dawn redwood growing by a pond. I'd track its yearly cycle of foliage - from chartreuse stubs, to velvety soft dark needles, to glowing bronze, to skeletal winter limbs - but it didn't care for me.

It is these things I sometimes miss. I feel the longing sharply, suddenly, and irrationally.

I feel it when I hear a certain song-usually something by Modest Mouse or Belle and Sebastian-or when I see certain colors. The neon green of oak flowers glowing in the sun; the more dull red of maple blossoms. Pink and white magnolias. Especially when I'm in my car.

I feel it when I catch a glimpse of Mount Hood over the highway and housetops. When I realize I've missed the peak bloom of some flowering tree and think, "I'll see it next year." I feel this sharp sadness when I reflexively know that I've found my place here; that chances are, I will be here next year. I will see the four seasons of Portland again...and again.

This opening paragraph to the post I meant to write, "A Sign," got long. So this is the preface. "A Sign" will be written later. Good night!

The Texting Room

Yes, that is what you think it is. I took that photo at the Portland International Airport on the morning of August 25, 2009, the day of my return from my first trip home to New Jersey. When I landed in that friendly, calm, free wi-fi hotspot, after flying with a view of Mounts Hood and Jefferson and being able to tell them apart, this eco-friendly toilet was one of the first things I saw. The fact that it had a #1 flush and a #2 flush was both amusing and awesome to me. I think it was the first time I'd seen that in America. I took the picture for people back on the East Coast, thinking it was a quirky little sign that, before I'd even breathed its outdoor air, I was definitely in Portland.

For some time now, the words "the texting room" have been in my notebook. It's a reminder to myself to write about elements of public restrooms that stand out to me. This seems as good a place as any other to post my collection of photographs taken in public restrooms.

That is the World's Fastest Hand Dryer. This was taken in the ladies' room attached to the First Class lounge at Union Station in Chicago. That lounge didn't have an abundance of outlets for your laptop charger, but it did have a fancy bathroom.

Between Portland's two most popular beverages - beer and coffee - I've had a lot of time to consider ladies' rooms. And yet I still can't decode, based on the doorknobs or handles or any other subtle sign, if a restroom is a single room or if it contains multiple stalls. Many a time have I stood outside the door of a multi-stall restroom, concerned--because I could see a light under and hear movement beyond the door--of walking in on someone. Even when you know it's a single stall, it's still difficult to tell whether or not the restroom is free. Some people just leave the lights on and close the door no matter what; I think that is bad manners! I am always relieved by places that have installed a convenient sign on the lock; it reads "vacant," in green, and then, when the locked is turned, it reads, "occupied" in red. So simple!

Perhaps it's a sign of my growing eccentricity, but the features of the ladies' room are starting to factor into my reviews of bars and restaurants. (Broder Cafe, for example, gets a thumbs-up for its dual-flush toilet and--more importantly--vacant/occupied sign on the door lock, as much as its delicious food and adorable decor. Screen Door, too, has that handy little "vacant/occupied" door lock; although I've never been to Screen Door at a time when there wasn't a three-person line for the ladies' room.) These signs save you the embarrassing questions, knocking, and "Just a second!" "Okay!" dialogues.

This automatic seat coverer, also taken in the First Class ladies' room at Union Station, made me momentarily speechless. I had to wait until the toilet was flushing to take this photo, since I was using a noisy SLR and didn't want to seem like a creep snapping photos in a bathroom stall.

"The Texting Room" concept emerged on my first visit to the Screen Door restaurant on E. Burnside in Portland, and it is because I went back to Screen Door that I was reminded of this topic. I was originally planning to combine this post with a positive review of Screen Door, but I decided that it would send the wrong message to force that nice restaurant to share space with a post that featured pictures of toilets.

A three-person line for the ladies' doesn't seem that long, but when you are full of Stumptown coffee and Bloody Marys, or restaurant tap water and beer, or any combination of the above, the thoughts that come into one's head on that three-person line quickly turn rude. Or at least, as each new girl enters the single-stall room and fails to emerge after 30 seconds, thoughts turn to, "What is she doing in there?! When I get in there, I am just going to pee and get out! I am going to be considerate of my fellow ladies out here!"

But then, the door closes behind you. The noise of the restaurant fades. You are in a place of peace and tranquility. A refuge. It is in that solitude that perspective is gained; the inner debate of "Am I crazy or is he/she/the wait staff being rude to me?" gets settled. It is here that the realization of, "I am not having fun now, and I can go home!" occurs. It is here that one realizes one is actually on a very bad date. Because one is suddenly, post-hand-washing, texting one's ex-boyfriend about a mix CD.

It is also here that one may proclaim (inwardly), "I am having a great time! I can't believe how well this is working out!" It is here that the text messages of, "Omg, my blind date is really cool AND he's cute!" are sent. It is here that the text messages are read and it is here that they are sent.

For example, like that photo above. This was taken and sent as a picture message to several people on the East Coast at 11:30pm (PST) on Friday, November 20th, 2009. What, you don't recognize the amusing graffiti over the ladies' room mirror at the Bye and Bye!?

It is here, leaning against the sink, that brilliant ideas for stories and blog posts are written. You bask in the glow of a single CFL, lulled by the silence interrupted only by sounds of rushing water. You take much longer than necessary to check and adjust your makeup. Then you check your phone. You forget about the long line of ladies you swore to consider; you are under its spell: The Texting Room.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Spring Masthead

This time, all of the images were from photos taken by me, except the one of me, taken by Meg (my road trip companion from NJ to Portland in late June-early July 2009.) The mountain scene was taken at Glacier National Park in Montana in June of 2008. The street garden scene on the right was taken just a day or two earlier on Hawthorne Blvd. in Portland. The floating rhododendron was excised from a photograph I took recently at Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden in Portland. The photo of me was taken at a steakhouse in Paxton, Nebraska, and the fried dill pickles were cut and pasted and cut and pasted and manipulated from a photo I took in Memphis in June of 2008.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Bad-tini, Part Three: B is for...

I left the restroom and came back to my seat near the rude girl and her friends. Even in the bar's bad lighting, I could tell their clothes were black, as though they had heard somewhere that this was the sophisticated city girl's uniform. Many of the girls at the table admitted that they didn't like their martinis; they were too sweet. I agreed aloud. "I don't know whether I should get a second martini and give them another chance, or just save the bus money!"

When the waitress came back to our table, nearly everyone ordered a second martini. I decided to stay, to give the bar and the night a shot at redemption. I requested the cherry chipotle bourbon drink, thinking the chipotle would make up for any level of saccharine.
"I'm sorry. We stopped making that drink. Is there anything else you'd like?"
"Yes, but...I really don't like sweet drinks." Smiling, I asked, "Can you recommend anything to me that's not sweet?"
"Um...a lot of our customers like the HMB. It's refreshing." She pointed to its place on the menu.
I saw the words "lemon" and "cucumber." I said, "Okay! I'll have that!"

It was then I saw that the menu also described this drink as "high-maintenance." I realized what "HMB" stood for and felt mildly offended! Perhaps I wouldn't have ordered it if I'd known what the "B" stood for! Speaking of "B"'s....

After the waitress took my order, the rude girl seated next to me did something different. She who had spent all moments prior to this trying to turn away from me now turned to face me. Her gaze was glacial. Her voice was steely, its temperature equal to that of her stare. It was like a fork kept in a freezer all night, the cold, sharp tines aimed to deflate my bubble of affability. She growled the words, "Now you won't have bus money."

It's tempting to write me in this story as heroic and this story's bully as merely jealous. It's tempting to juxtapose the onset of her negative attentions toward me with the utterance of something brilliant and witty on my part, at which the rest of the women in attendance laughed with adoration. It's tempting to describe her as attractive, but not pretty; well put-together to make up for being naturally homely. Then, I would write that her hair was striped with sickly highlights. I would contrast that volumeless hair with the waves of soft ebony that cascade from my brow; and that brow, unlike a complexion revealing a hard-lived twenty-something years, with a spray tan emphasizing early wrinkles and liquid foundation pooling in those deep crevices....that face's owner couldn't help but be jealous of a heroine's smooth, flawless skin the color of the milk of virgin cows who have fed on nothing but lilies, white violets, and snowdrops.* It's tempting to write such a cliche, but it's not the truth. This story's bully was pretty. She actually looked remarkably like a pretty version of my Arch Nemesis from High School, whose look was just shy of beautiful by nature of being a bit pinched.

It's tempting to make myself out to be the heroine of this story, standing up to the bully, defending the shy or quirky girls at the table—nay, defending the shy and quirky girls of the world! with a clever comeback, small smile, and flip of my hair. (Those cascading waves can be so heavy!) In reality, I was not heroic. I said nothing; I was—appropriately—frozen.

How was the HMB? Sweet. Not cloyingly sweet and not bad. But it was too sweet for a martini that's supposed to be "not sweet." Though for a drink with "B" in the title, I guess I should expect it to be that type of drink.

I stayed to finish my HMB. My friendliness toward all seven women at the table resumed and did not waver. My smile returned and stayed until the end of the evening. It stayed as I asked the waitress to correct the price of the HMB on my tab, knowing it was supposed to be half off and knowing that I was outing myself as poor. The smile stayed on my face as I exchanged numbers with four of the friendly girls I'd just had dinner with. I stood up to leave and said, smiling, "I'm going to catch my bus."

I arrived at the corner opposite my stop just in time to see the bus pull away. It would not return for another 45 minutes. I took a different bus east and a second bus south. I got home 90 minutes later. I'd missed my TV show and I was too tired to tackle my To Do list. I watched the end of The Bachelor finale, cuddling my laptop on the couch. There, I looked up reviews of the bar, to see if I hadn't just come on a bad night. Most reviewers, as I would have, gave the bar 3 stars. The best part about it was the cucumber water and our polite waitress.

I'd give the night itself three stars. I accomplished something, crossing one restaurant off of my To Try in Portland list. My trip home was long, but a magazine kept me entertained. I'd exchanged contact information with more than half of the other guests at the meetup and even made plans with some. The best part about it was, despite all else, making new friends.

Part One / Part Two / Home

* Immaculate lactation!?

Bad-tini, Part Two: Big-Haired Jersey Bar Reviews

Instead, I opted to simply not accept the situation. When I spoke, I moved my body to adopt an open posture, facing everyone at the table and including them all as my listeners. As the girl turned her gaze toward her plate or toward her friends, I directed polite, friendly questions at her. I kept a smile on my face and tried to make eye contact. I faked oblivion in response to her frowns which, as I persisted in not taking the hint, turned to glares.

Our food and drinks began to arrive. My nasturtium martini tasted like mixed fruit juice and high fructose corn syrup. There was none of the allyl isothiocyanate-kick that "nasturtium" in the title suggested. My martini tasted, as some online reviewers have so aptly described this bar's offerings, like Capri Sun. It tasted like it had as much liquor in it as a Capri Sun, too.

Next, my food. I'd ordered tuna sliders off the Happy Hour menu. I received two unremarkable tuna burgers embraced by stale bread. My allyl isothiocyanate* craving was not to be satisfied here; the "wasabi aioli" alleged to crown the tuna burgers tasted like runny Hellman's. (Best Foods, for you West Coasters.) It was only on the second sandwich that I could located the advertised pickled ginger slices.

The decor, which my companions for the evening had admired, has been described by Yelp reviewers as "hipster," "vampire," and "goth." The entire interior was painted black. The tables were rectangular. The central theme seemed to be straight lines and right angles. The dim lighting gave everything a red cast so that it was hard to tell what color the bar's patrons were wearing. I can see where "vampire" and "goth" come from, but not "hipster." I associate "hipster" with my side of the river or bars like this. I include the descriptor anyway, since so many reviewers used it, even if I don't personally agree. It wouldn't be the first time I was mistaken about what's considered "hipster."

After finishing my food and martini, I went to the restroom, the decor of which consistently represented the theme of darkness and rectangles. Here I could detect the music. It was primarily drum machine. Constant drum machine. It sounded like runway music for an imaginary fashion show, like the canned music a network news station might play in the introduction montage for a "fashion show" segment.

In the solitude and relative quiet of the bathroom stall, I could regain perspective. I was not having fun and I was the subject of a definite snub. The snubber's rudeness had escalated as I continually refused to fade into the background. I feigned naive oblivion; I barreled through her unfriendliness like a clumsy, slobbering golden retriever who offers more affection than she seeks. Still, this was exhausting. If I left now, I could use the same bus ticket to go home, saving two bucks.

Part One / Part Three / Home

* Allyl isothiocyanate is the chemical that gives wasabi, horseradish, and other mustards their heat. See Wikipedia's entry.

Bad-tini, Part One: C is for...

Sometimes there's a reason you don't leave your comfort zone. That is the first thing I wrote in my journal on the evening of the incident I am about to describe. It's one story, but I've divided it into three blog posts so that it doesn't overwhelm my readers.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a happy hour meetup in a trendy neighborhood downtown. I rarely go downtown; I rarely leave my side of the river.* But I like to try force myself out of my box sometimes. I like to meet new people, too. I RSVPed right away to this meetup because the bar the organizer had chosen was on my To Try in Portland list.

I was in a fantastic mood the entire day. While I rode the bus downtown, I wrote in my journal about my great day. I listed every good thing that had taken place—I'd planted flowers, driven across the Sellwood Bridge, gotten a CD in the mail, bought daffodils at Trader Joe's....

I expected my Monday's greatness to continue at the bar, but it was not to be. My good mood was fortunate, for had I gone to the Meetup in a bad or even mediocre mood, I would have had an awful night.

When I arrived at the bar, the evening's organizer and one other girl were seated at our table, which was long and rectangular. I smiled, sat near both girls, and introduced myself. They smiled back, and we began to chat. I looked at the drink menu; most martinis were half price all night. So far, so good.

More girls began pouring in; soon we had our eight and the table was full. A waitress appeared and poured us all glasses of water. We drank and realized there was something in our water—cucumber! It was delicious. I felt that I must be at a classy place. Some of my dining companions commented on the bar's decor.

This bar had been on my "list" since, months ago, a guy suggested it to me as a possible place for us to go on a date. I had looked up their menu and was intrigued by the long martini list, especially an entire section of flower-flavored martinis. I ordered a nasturtium martini. Nasturtium is a bright flower that tastes like watercress, which has the same spicy chemical in it as horseradish.

The eight of us began to get acquainted. I learned that a friend of the organizer was seated next to me. I also learned, throughout the course of the evening, that she only wanted to talk to the people with whom she was already friends. I am not sure at which point she stopped pretending to seem interested in the other girls at the table. I do know that not very far into the evening, her eyes began to narrow when some of us would talk. (From what I could tell, what these targets had in common was that they were either shy and meek or outgoing and artsy. Or just not previously a member of her group of friends.) I thought, I know that look. It's the look that the popular girl in high school gives to those she deems not good enough to talk to her.

As I stated above, if I'd begun the evening in a mood anything less than "fantastic," things would have ended differently. If "good mood" hadn't been my pre-existing condition, I would have been distraught, crushed by the treatment I received from that girl. I would have clammed up, slurped down my martini, chewed through my food, possibly ordered more, and stayed through the end of the night. Or I would have "gone Jersey" on her, conjured up rudeness to match hers, exceeding it only in tactlessness and volume. I would have called her a C-word or even CR.**

Part Two / Part Three / Home

* For those not familiar with Portland's geography, the Willamette River divides Portland into an East and West side. A street called Burnside divides the city North and South. I live East of the Willamette and South of Burnside, so I live in Southeast. Northeast and Southeast have similar personalities—laid-back, artsy, hippie-ish. Lots of houses and yards. Downtown is very different, and it is on the West side. That's where the tall buildings are. There's also a fifth section of the city called North Portland, which I don't even know how to describe. Just north of Burnside, on either side of the river, is Couch Street, which is not pronounced like a synonym for sofa. It is pronounced like a female body part. This has nothing to do with today's story. It's just some interesting information.

** If you are my mom or if you are under the age of 18, CR stands for "Cranky Rudeperson." I tried to find a link to the scene in 30 Rock where Kenneth calls Liz a "crankysue," but this was all I could find.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Big-Hair vs. Bullies

This is an unusual post to have follow a post about body image, but it connects to some stories I'll be writing for this blog and posting pretty soon. Think of this as completely unrelated to my last post; think of this as a Foreword or Preface to my next two updates. It was these two recent events that reminded me of this past incident that I'm sharing today.
I went to elementary school with a girl named Francine Morelli.* She was a bully, a known bully. I was frequently a subject of bullying. Aside from this, we were not much different. (As is often the case between bullies and the bullied.) We were both loud. We were both tall. We both had curly black hair. The way I remember her, she had a very pretty face, although no one ever pointed that out. Perhaps because, as I remember it, it was frequently twisted into the Scowl of Terror. (Inflicting terror, that is.) Another reason that her prettiness was ignored was that she was overweight. Being fat kids was something else we had in common. I spent most of my childhood packed in several layers of "baby" fat which, when I was fourteen, mysteriously melted away. I wouldn't be surprised to hear the same happened to Francine Morelli.
No one picked on her for her weight. (I was a different story.) No one picked on her for anything, because they were terrified of her. Whereas I reacted to my elementary school shortcomings by attempting to be invisible, a mere sponge absorbing the verbal abuse of my peers, Francine's approach was the offensive. She was too feared to be teased. I think she even hit people.
One day, in the cafeteria, I was sitting with my friends. Francine was close by. She was pretty quiet that day, subdued, I thought. I wasn't paying attention her, as I was telling a story to my friends. It was long and animated; some things about me have not changed since the '90's. Suddenly, Francine turned away from the girls which whom she was seated and cut into my story. In a menacing tone, she declared, "Sarah, you talk too much!"
It was the tone of a bully who's just started, who is waiting to follow up your protesting response with something even more cutting, and keep going and going, her insults escalating...
And that day, her target, typically a meek little insult-sponge, was having none of it.
I stood up from the lunch table and looked her straight in the eye. Leaning on the table, holding my tray, I said coldly, "Francine, you eat too much." I picked up my tray. "Way too much."
I turned, walked away, and for a few moments was the only person moving. Francine didn't deck me; she was stunned. Her mouth opened, but no cruel words came out. The whole lunch table was frozen with shock, and in a few minutes my friends unfroze and followed me. No one had stood up to Francine before, and I'd never stood up to anyone!
What happened after that was unmemorable. Francine Morelli continued to be a bully. In fourth grade (or something) she moved. I wasn't an instant Cafeteria Heroine. Francine did not develop a profound respect toward or friendship with me. Life went on.
But for just that one day, I had triumphed.

* Of course this is a fiction name. I wouldn't want to offend the REAL Francine!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

And back in the '80's, when supermodels were several sizes larger than top models today, the clothes worked on bigger bodies. They were bright, bold, curve-enhancing. Jackets had serious shoulder pads. Hair was sky-high. Earrings were chunky. It was an era when women were gaining power, going to work in their suits and running shoes, and I think the style of clothing was a reflection of a time when women didn't have to be invisible. I wonder whether today's mania for super-thin, wide-eyed, less powerful-looking girls is tied to fear of female strength. Today's girls take up less space, literally and metaphorically.
From Hungry, by Crystal Renn with Marjorie Ingall

Lately, I have been reading library books like they're going to be shortly declared illegal. I've been occasionally bookmarking and even remembering to type up passages that stand out to me, before returning the books to the library. On average, I walk to the library - about a mile each way - three times a week. I always have to have a book at night or I can't fall asleep. Sometimes, I'm so exhausted I don't even read anything. I just crack open the book and am somehow soothed by the familiar black-and-white of the page, and then promptly fall asleep with the book on my face. I used to freak out (or amuse) college roommates, because sometimes they would find me frozen in reading position, like a statue, and until they could see my closed eyes, or realized I wasn't responding to anything they said, they didn't know I was asleep.

This is why last night, after coming home from a night out with my roommate, I started reading Hungry, the autobiography of plus-size model Crystal Renn. When I woke up in the middle of the night with a sore throat and couldn't fall back asleep right away, I picked up the book again. I'm not finished yet, but I wanted to write a few things. This book addresses some of the things I've been thinking and talking about lately--and thought about and talked about a lot more back in January when I was sewing more, reading sewing blogs, and re-stocking my wardrobe with clothes that fit. To sum it up quickly, Crystal Renn is a successful size 12 model now, but at the beginning of her career, she was a regular model, going to all kinds of unhealthy lengths to be a size 0. This morning, I found myself plowing through the book, anxious to get to "the happy ending" (as it was in my head) where she stopped being unhealthy and became a size 12 again. Oh, and then became really successful.

The fact that this story even exists--that it's a true story--is refreshing to me. A few years ago, I was very upset about my size. I don't think anyone knew this; I didn't voice it very often. It wasn't that I thought I was fat, just big. I knew that with the bone structure I had, no matter how thin I got, I couldn't become less than a size 8. In my head, feminine beauty was small-boned, petite, fragile. When I went to France and met my second-cousins, I felt like a giant. I towered over them, height-wise, and felt like I took up twice as much space. No one looked at me or treated me like the Fat American Cousin or even the Giant American Cousin. It was entirely in my head.

Of course it wasn't entirely in my head. Measurements for women's clothing sizes tend to put a 30" as the absolute maximum of waist measurements. If you're not short or small-boned and you are an adult, your waist is probably larger than 30" around. What I'm trying to say is, I'm not fat. I think you could go a long way from me and still not be fat. And I frequently fit into the largest sizes available at the store. So where do most people fit in!? That's just one example. To go on would be to list material sufficient for not one, but several lengthy blog posts.

The point is, it's not in my head anymore. I've chosen to opt out--as much as possible--of whatever it is that makes women unhappy about their size. If I were truly overweight and unhealthy as a result, then I'd would worry. I write "as much as possible" because of course it still gets to me. When I take my measurements for sewing patterns, I always fudge my waist measurement to 30". (Hint: It's not 30".) It usually doesn't result in ill-fitting garments, because I end up cutting the size based on my hip measurement, which assumes I have a waist that is something like 5" smaller than my hips. (It's more like 12".) And then I have to alter it.

I bought a sewing machine shortly after moving to Portland--spending, between the cost of the machine and the cost of other supplies, something like a month's rent--to opt out of all of this. I had gone shopping for dresses and left the store in a huff. NOTHING FIT. If it was large enough in the bust, it was too large in the waist. Forget about the hips; in the clothing world, I apparently have gigantic hips. I knew I could alter whatever I got, but why pay $50 for a dress I have to alter? If I'm going to pay $50 for a dress, it had either better fit, or be made of $50 worth of really nice fabric, handmade, custom-made, to my measurements. Reclaiming my wardrobe agency was empowering. While sewing can feed the size obsession, since it forces you to confront things like your actual measurements (see above: pretending I have a 30" waist), it makes it so much easier to tune out the noise, to just opt out of size obsession and "society*"'s idea of acceptable appearance. Especially when you look in the mirror and see how great you look in clothing that actually fits.

Phew! This got long. What I really wanted to do was just mention that I was reading Hungry, quote that passage above, and link to some stuff I read a little while ago about fashion and size. She opines tentatively--"I think the style of clothing was a reflection of a time when women didn't have to be invisible. I wonder whether today's mania for super-thin, wide-eyed, less powerful-looking girls is tied to fear of female strength.", but I think she might be on to something! Don't you?

Finally, this article has been in my "To Blog About" folder for months. It's a bit of a non sequitur, but it feels appropriate to post it now. I found it from this blog, which is one of my favorite blogs, so I'm using this as an excuse to link to it. If you're in a rush, the thesis of this article is that, despite the growing popularity of "healthy" or "real woman" figures (like Joan whatever from Mad Men), the fashionable ideal is currently moving away from the "hourglass" figure to the "tubular" figure. Looking at some pictures--things like baggy, drop-waist tops paired with leggings or skinny jeans--I can see what they mean. I'd like to draw your attention to the following from that article

In 1954, the women on average aspired to lose just under 3lbs, while today’s woman wanted to shed more than 10lbs. 1950s women aspired to ideal hips measuring just over 35 inches, while modern women wanted hips of less than 31 inches but larger waists than the 1950s women.

When I read, "35 inches" as a hip measurement, I think, "Huh?" But when I read, "31 inches," I think, "That is a waist measurement." (Really, it's all about proportion. Actually, really it's about NOTHING, because the hourglass, the tube, the "pear," the "inverted triangle"--they are all acceptable, attractive body types!)

My point? Well, here's at least one point. A few years ago, had I read that line, I would have been miserable about the difference between 31" (or even 35") and my actual hip measurements. But if I'd known about Crystal Renn (whose hip measurement, in Hungry, is listed as 42"), that wouldn't be the case. I would have known I wasn't alone.

* Whatever THAT means.

Friday, March 12, 2010


I can tell the difference between the pretty brown-haired ladies on All My Days of our One Life to Live. The mommies on commercials look young to me. I am the target audience of commercials for mops or laundry products. ("Why didn't anyone think of this before!?")

By the way, the women are Annie and Greenlee. I thought I was being funny calling her "Green Lee." I didn't know that was actually her name.

UPDATE: I also got my first Le Creuset today and was REALLY excited about it. I feel the need to explain that it was free. I did not buy a $137 cake pan. I accumulated enough points through one of my banks that I got this pan, a Pyrex liquid measuring cup, an egg separator, and a cookbook for free.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Less cranky (or "Magic Mountain")

Mount Hood looked magical yesterday as I drove home from North Portland.

I thought, as I pulled onto the freeway, "There's no way I'll see that mountain." The clouds were pale gray, impenetrable layers. They looked like a rumpled down comforter slumped above the Cascades, or like several feet of snow that covered only the sky. As I pulled onto I-5—or as some people out here call it, The 5*—I could see distant round mountains, black with conifers and patched with white, snowy bald spots. It was pretty and I was content to see it. I vowed not to look east, risking a car accident, for the cloud-covered place where Mount Hood should be. But suddenly, the road curved to the left and I saw the huge pyramidal mass breaking through the cloud layer, sun falling on some of its wrinkles. Mount Hood was there for me—a bright, glowing white giant. Across its trisecting lines, from the upper right and the lower left, drifted two wispy clouds.

All around Mount Hood was the same thick, gray cloud mass. The air in front of me was opaque. It took extra effort to see through what hung in it. I've never been able to describe this—what comes to mind is shifting, dusty white air—but when you look closely at the air, you see nothing of the sort. Maybe it's the kind of thing that you can see when you're not looking for it; it's present out of the corner of your eye only. It's like the ghost of snow. Because that's what that kind of air means. It is going to snow.

I dismissed the thought before it even formed into thought-words. It doesn't snow in Portland in March! But it did—not on I-5, not in my garden, but in other parts of the city, it snowed yesterday.

* I find this enchantingly cute. I want to go back to Jersey and tell people I am "getting on the freeway, the 80" or "the 287."

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Happy Week

For most of this past week, I have been ridiculously happy. Nothing big happened, just lots of little, nice, special things. After writing that last post, "The Flats," I went to a farmers market and, driving through the neighborhood that is now my home, I kept thinking how happy I was, how in love with it. I think this almost every day, but with memories of "the flats" in my mind, the juxtaposition gave me a new appreciation of what I have now. In that moment, I wanted nothing new; I was happy with what I had.

I've been very busy, which is why I haven't written since Wednesday. Being busy has given me some great things to write about. I'm looking forward to creating some new posts for my readers (whoever they are. It's becoming apparent that I have more readers than commenters.) Today I am taking a day off from being busy (but not really--tonight is roller derby and a meetup at a grand opening of a new bar, which was kind of sort of my idea) so maybe I'll get some time to write.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Flats

I've stated before that I like to write blog posts about events only after I've put some space between me and them. If there's space between the other characters and me, even better. Last week marked the anniversary of the staff meeting that changed everything; in short, I went home from it and immediately applied for new jobs, including the job that brought me to Portland, the city I live in and love.

Let that be a lesson. When things seem to be at their shittiest, lowest point, they can turn around and bring you a new, better life. But that great opportunity won't find you; you'll only find it if you make the effort to turn that shitty low point into something else.

It may seem appropriate, therefore, to write about those moments when misery became determination to change my life and leave New Jersey for Oregon...or anywhere. However, instead of going all the way back in time to winter 2009, I'll just go to that summer, when I first arrived in Portland and my new life began.

Happy as I was to be in Portland, I was in the wrong part of town. I lived in an area known as Felony Flats. I didn't know this before my arrival. I knew I was moving about 100 blocks east of the "cool" neighborhoods and I knew I was closer to Gresham, a suburb, than I was to downtown Portland. In my mind, this just meant I was moving to suburbia. I figured it would be boring and full of old people, but I could just hop on a bus and get to the fun, inner Southeast neighborhoods. Also, I figured there would be at least one bar and one coffeehouse within walking distance; after all, this is Portland! To be brief, I was wrong. The nearest coffeehouse was a Dutch Brothers drive-through. The nearest bars were strip clubs. The buses that ran to that neighborhood (or after certain hours did not run) are a story for another time.

There is some debate, even among native Oregonians, over the exact boundaries of Felony Flats. Most agree that this region encompasses SE 82nd Ave. One Oregonian told me that I was actually east of Felony Flats; perhaps she was telling a reassuring lie. I stayed for a few months, thinking that it was okay if I wasn't in a "cool" neighborhood, and that it was really just a working-class, not necessarily dangerous part of town. My neighbors were Russian immigrants and East African refugees, not felons. Then there was a shooting. I moved. I was writing this post during the shooting; in my living room, I heard the shots. Until I saw the paper the next morning, I blamed an imagination merely overactive from the subject matter of that post.

I drove through "Felony Flats" today on my way to a meeting. Although I'm familiar with that part of town, I nearly turned off the main road too early several times. If I lost sight of the numbered avenue signs and saw a gas station on the northwest corner of the intersection, I'd start to make my turn. This happened as early as forty blocks before my turn. You can imagine how many gas stations there are on northwest corners of intersections on a main road, but this is my only landmark.

This summer, I gave someone the following directions to visit me: Once you pass the Safeway at 122nd, get in the left lane. You will turn left off of Powell at a traffic light. You've reached that traffic light when you see a billboard for Burger King's 2 double cheeseburgers for $2 special. That's the only landmark. I am not kidding.

And I wasn't. The day that the Burger King billboard became an advertisement for something else, three months after I moved to Portland, I blew through the intersection and past my neighborhood. When I realized I was in Gresham, I turned around.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Jersey and Julia

As a pot of Potage Parmentier simmers on the stove, it seems appropriate to pull, from my ever-growing List of Things to Write About, my thoughts on Julie and Julia. I finished reading this book yesterday morning.

My first thought was going to be, where the heck did the italicized stuff about Paul and Julia Child's lives come from!? What book was that from!? What letter?! Then I realized it's spelled out for me, in plain English in the Author's Note, that it's Julie Powell's semi-fictional writing based on letters and biographies of the two Childs. Whoops.

I started this book with expectations. It's hard to say if they were high or low. I had heard a lot about the book from friends, my mother, and book critics. I've also heard about Julie Powell's second book, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, either from people who hadn't read the book or from a review in BUST magazine.

I just need to interject here that the soup is off the stove. Holy crap! Potage Parmentier is good. How can something so simple be so amazingly good!? Something without any olive oil? Something made with water and not vegetable stock?! Something with just salt and pepper - no fancy spices, not even garlic!?

Anyway. So, from various readers and critics, I had heard mostly unpleasant things about Julie Powell and her writing. As I read the book, I found myself agreeing with some of what I'd heard, and yet, I felt that if I were to write this and she were to read it, I'd feel terrible. In some ways, I identified and agreed with her. I felt as though if we were to meet, we'd probably get along, maybe even be friends. Overall, I enjoyed reading Julie and Julia. Not as much as My Life in France, which I read a year ago, but I still enjoyed it.

Let me list some of the things I'd heard. 1) Julie Powell is not a good writer. 2) Julie Powell writes "fuck" too much. 3) Julie Powell is too negative and doesn't "get" the positivity, the love of life and living itself, with which Julia Child approached the world. 4) Julie Powell is a bitch and her husband, Eric, is a saint. How could she have cheated on him in the second book!? 5) Julie Powell in the book is NOTHING like the Amy Adams character in the movie!

I'll start with #4. Now, I'm not saying I disagree with this statement. But I don't agree, either. I don't actually know Julie and Eric. Although Julie and Eric Powell are real people, the Julie and Eric presented in Julie and Julia are characters in a book. They are as fictional as the Julia and Paul in the italicized sections of the book--merely based on real people. Julie wrote Eric as a saintly husband; we don't know what he's really like (although I am sure he is very nice.) Julie wrote herself as an occasional cranky bitch. We don't know what she's really like, either. These characteristics may have been exaggerated for the sake of a bitchy wife/angelic husband dichotomy. Who knows? It's one thing not to like reading about it, but let's not judge these poor people. In general, I mean, let's keep in mind that "characters" in nonfiction are still characters, edited down like a reality TV show. As for the cheating thing, according to BUST's review of Cleaving, Eric had an affair, too. The reviewer, Sarah Norris, does write, however, that it is "[i]n revolt." Yet Norris also writes that "together they weep, drink themselves to sleep in front of their television in Queens...", so while it's not exactly a model of polyamorous morality, this implies they were communicative about it to some extent. Note: I am not an expert on polyamory. Moving on....

Let's jump to #2. "Julie Powell writes 'fuck' too much." Yes, I agree. Profanity would be more effective if she used it more selectively, though I wouldn't recommend cutting it out completely. (That would be hypocritical.)

On to #1. Julie Powell is a bad writer. This is what I'd really like to talk about, because I disagree and, as a fellow writer, I feel the need to defend her. I don't think she's the world's best writer, but I found Julie and Julia to be pretty well-written. I think some reviewers are getting their dislike of Julie the person (or rather, the character) mixed up with Julie the writer. As I read Julie and Julia, the following line from a review of Cleaving kept popping up in my head: "Instead of a hardcover book, Powell's black-and-blue mess of confessions should never have left her hard drive." That was from a review of a different book which I have not read; still, I found myself thinking this about parts of Julie and Julia. There were thoughts of Julie's that felt too confessional, too much, usually too negative or gross. Or they weren't led up to appropriately; they seemed to crop up out of nowhere in a jarring, unsettling way.

Or maybe I just can't handle that kind of negativity. Maybe I need to get over the fact that I don't agree with her, rather than say, "She's wrong!"

Sometimes, I simply felt that the confession/negativity could have benefited from some editing, a smoother transition. That's all.

Finally, #3 - that Julie Powell doesn't "get" the message of Julia Child. Well, as soon as I realized that Julie and Eric from the book aren't completely real, I realized, with a bit of horror, that neither is Julia Child I know from My Life in France. To put it simply, that semi-fictional (for lack of a better term) Julia is in love with life, adventurous, optimistic, and energetic. She views life as a source of pleasure and looks for the good in all things. Julie Powell, the semi-fictional/literary version, is cranky. She writes things like, "bureaucrats are assholes." She tells lost tourists, "Lady, you are hell and gone from fucking New Jersey." I didn't find it pleasant to read, either, but in her defense, she's writing from New York City--a cranky place. Whereas Julia Child writes about the pleasures of food and its creation, Julie Powell often describes cooking for The Project as a chore. There are whole chapters where she doesn't seem to enjoy it at all, and this is why people feel that she doesn't "get" the message. I'm not sure if she does, either, but I am reluctant to write her off so quickly.

Despite the negativity and the lack of transitions, passages from Julie and Julia stood out, as though floating from the page on a heavenly cloud, as being so true to me. I would want to yell, "Yes! You are so RIGHT!" First of all, I understand her adoration of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I'm not sure if we adore it for the same reasons, but here are mine. In addition to the positive, life-loving approach to the world that is represents for me, it's also a representation of excellence. It might be the scientist in me, or my secret inner capitalist, but I appreciate any example of thorough work, of excellence--from well-made food, to well-written literature, to Olympic athleticism. It's beyond appreciation; it's a thrill.

This passage, too, indicates to me that in some way, Julie gets it--it's the part about the bone marrow (page 76-7). "The taste of marrow is rich, meaty, intense in a nearly-too-much way. [...] What it really tastes like is life, well lived. Of course, the cow I got marrow from had a fairly crappy life--lots of crowds and overmedication and bland food that might or might not have been a relative. But deep in his or her bones, there was the capacity for feral joy. I could taste it." It's dark and a little unsettling, but the focus on life and joy is there. She gets it.

She may not write it in the way that Julia or I would. Her choice of words and images may make me uncomfortable. (Like "bone rape," also on page 76.) But I just don't think she deserves all the criticism she's been getting. She may be cranky about life's everyday annoyances, but who isn't? Maybe she just writes the things we think, deep down, and know better than to make public. Maybe some people need to write or read those things. She's not the Amy Adams character, she's not Julia, and she's not perfect. But she put herself out there, and that's more than can be said for a lot of people. Lots of people are cranky, and no one is perfect.

In other news, this Potage Parmentier is wonderful. I just ate the whole four cups by myself.

Monday, March 01, 2010


Today is March 1. It is now no longer early to plant my peas (if I can remember where I put my vegetable seeds!) Soon I will be able to plant my radishes and lettuce - I might even be able to do it now in a raised bed. I can't find dark grey heels except on clearance; sandals and other spring fashions abound. It will be spring this month, for real, even though it's been in the high 50's and sunny almost every day this month. Although snowstorms continue to pummel my homeland, the East Coast, in Portland, where I truly live, spring is coming. For the first time, I looked at my masthead and thought, "This is too gray! It's time to make a new one with some color!"

Spring is here. I'm not ready!