Monday, February 28, 2011

Grown-up Things I Hate Doing: Volume 2. Chickens!

While never a vegetarian, until recently I rarely cooked meat myself. The preparation of meat held many mysteries for me, and I'm not too fond of cutting it up. What I really hate is cutting a whole chicken into serving pieces. Or a turkey, whatever. This is true even when they are cooked. A whole bird just seems so large, so complete, so completely overwhelming!

My vegetarian friends and readers are probably smirking right now. Here is a grown-up thing they will never have to do. Also, they are probably preparing to skip reading this post.

A couple of weeks ago, Whole Foods was having a big special one-day sale on whole organic chickens. They were on sale for as much as you can buy a normal chicken at a non-fancy store. The signs all said, "Limit 10," so I guess people were planning to stock up. They were also local chickens, so they probably hadn't been sitting around too long. I wasn't going to make it to Whole Foods that day, so I asked my boyfriend to pick one up for me, or maybe two as I could store at least one in my freezer, and added that since the limit was ten, if he felt like freezing some too, buy as many as he wanted and I would pay for them and cook them over the next few months. I like roasting chickens; they are big enough to share and I usually manage to get someone else to do the cutting-up part. Well, a winter, spring, and potentially even a summer of roasted chicken was not to be; my boyfriend was only able to get one chicken at Whole Foods. It was the last chicken they had! As such, I decided it was destined for greatness. It was with this chicken that I would make my first coq au vin.

It wasn't until I had already gotten all of the other ingredients (specifically cheap vin) that I learned that coq au vin was not a simple roasted chicken. I wasn't going to just plop it into my big red pot with some Charles Shaw and sprigs of thyme, oh no. Coq au vin involves a whole chicken that is "cut into serving pieces" before it is cooked. It appeared that this time I was not going to con any dinner guests into doing the cutting for me. I would have to do it myself, and worse, when the chicken was still raw. Ew, ew, ew.

The day I'd make coq au vin was not clear. There was no special occasion. I didn't want to throw a big dinner party. I could have invited over a couple of friends. Finally, I chose the evening following a working Saturday. After leading a public tour, I wanted to do something relaxing and creative, like cooking a whole chicken just for the sake of learning the recipe. I invited my boyfriend to come over when it was done, but I knew we'd mostly be enjoying the leftovers for days and days to come. This was how, when it was late enough that I should have been eating dinner, not starting dinner, I began making coq au vin.

If I really knew how to cut up a chicken, this probably wouldn't seem like such a big task. But I am not always patient enough to read instructions. I toyed with the idea of just roasting the chicken and making the coq au vin sauce separately, but I resolve that, no, I wanted to do it the "right way." So I cut up that stupid chicken.

I am sure that somewhere out there, on Google or YouTube, there is a video tutorial on how to cut up a whole chicken into "serving pieces." I did not look for such a thing because I can handle "yucky stuff" better in real life than on a screen. I didn't want to see chicken bones and blood on YouTube, but in real life, I could convince myself that it was better to be acquainted with the reality of what I was eating.

Beyond "drumsticks," "thighs," and "wings," I wasn't quite sure what defined "serving pieces." I also wasn't really sure how to do it without breaking bones; I don't know if you can separate the leg and the thigh and the wings and then cut the main body into a "serving piece" without breaking bones. I guess there are special knives for cutting up chickens, but I have not yet gotten for my kitchen "good knives" and found myself having to snap the bones by hand. Maybe because it was "farm fresh" and hadn't been sitting in a freezer for months, but from this chicken spilled forth much more "reality" than other chickens I have bought and had to cut up. It wasn't exactly like a bloodbath on my cutting board, but there was no hiding from the blood and bone marrow made visible by my sloppy chicken preparation.

By the time my boyfriend arrived, the chicken was safely in the big red pot with Three Wishes (not Charles Shaw) and bacon bits and onions and mushrooms, and I was nearly done washing my knives and cutting board and plates in scalding water because I had a vague idea that you were supposed to disinfect your entire kitchen after cutting up raw meat in it. My boyfriend was blissfully ignorant of the scene that had been my kitchen table just an hour ago. That is when he informed me of the movie he had chosen for us to watch after dinner: 127 Hours.

I watched most of the movie with a pillow over my face, even as early as when Aron Ralston was just frolicking with some ladies in a pond, because you never know when a gory scene is coming up, and there was no way I could watch a guy cutting his arm off without thinking of that raw chicken.

Something pretty to break up the "hate"

So that I don't just write three posts three days in a row with "hate" in the title, I'm posting a little happy thing in between each post so that you know that I am still in the "half full" state and not looking for things to be angry about.

That is a quiche I made last week with frozen Safeway broccoli and miscellaneous cheese I have accumulated and smashed garlic cloves and miscellanous dried chili peppers I have accumulated when traveling, soaked overnight and chopped. The previous weekend, I'd tried to make tortillas using a friend's recipe, but I got confused and thought I could use flour or cornmeal or half and half and instead of fluffy flour tortillas, I made a crumbly half-flour-half-cornmeal dough. There was enough to make some thick tortilla chips/crackers and two cornmeal quiche crusts. I made the second today but I haven't taken its picture yet. So, the broccoli quiche was the result of a fortunate failure, a mistake turned into something good.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Grown-up things I hate doing

This was going to be a list, but I think it will be a series, a series I return to every time a new topic/story comes to mind. Also, I'm aware that it might seem like a ripoff of this, and that probably was my inspiration. Also, you should read it, because it's hilarious. (I don't know why I wrote that. I hate when people say anything to me that begins with, "You should." So what I mean is, I highly recommend you read it - it is way more fun than most things people will tell you that "you should" do.) It's quite possible that the linked blog post gave me permission to verbalize that I hate going to the bank. So, Grown-up Things I Hate Doing #1 is dedicated to Going to the Bank. I really hate going to the bank.
Now, you might say, "But why, Sarah? Why? You love money!" And you would be correct. I do love money. I suppose I do like watching the numbers on my account statements rise. I like watching my balances due turn to "0" as I pay everything off in full.
I just attempted to draft some sentences on why I hate going to the bank, detailing the process of removing pay stubs from paychecks and signing the backs of checks, looking up my account number in my phone under the fake name the way the nice teller cleverly told me to store the number so I'd stop forgetting it, filling out the deposit slip with the pen-on-a-leash, but you know what? There is nothing wrong with this process. There is nothing logical about my hatred of going to the bank. The only logical thing I can tell you is that it's really stupid that Chase Bank makes you list ONE check on the front and all the rest on the back. It's also stupid that some branches (I'm looking at YOU, 39th and Hawthorne) don't have calculators at the deposit-slip-filling-out station (I don't even know what it's called!) so you have to do all this math in your head and then when it's wrong, you have to INITIAL the correction when the teller hands the slip back to you! Oh, the indignity!
Also, since I moved out of my third Portland home, there hasn't been a Chase bank conveniently located near anything I drive past when I'm going to work or running errands. I always have to go out of my way to get there.
Still, why this of all Grown-up Things is the one I Hate Doing is not really clear. But the result of all this is that I will walk around for a whole month carrying around month-old checks. I know that the check will clear; therefore I feel like I already have the money even if it's not "official." Finally, on Friday, I visited a friend who lives near a Chase bank and was able to fit the hated bank visit into my schedule. I planned to stop on the way to her house.
But then I remembered! To get to the bank on the way to my friend's house, I would have to make a left turn into the parking lot. I hate making a left turn across that street! I hate making a left turn into that bank! I hate that bank's parking lot! (It is a very small parking lot that is difficult to navigate when it's full, but plenty of errands take me to worse parking lots, and this does not detract from my enjoyment of those errands. I'm looking at you, Seven Corners New Seasons!) I hate going to the bank!
So I got to my friend's house a bit early, and told her that I would go to the bank on my way home from her house so that I could make a right turn into the parking lot. I confessed to her my hatred of going to the bank. She admitted that she, too, hates going to the bank.
Later that afternoon, I stopped at the bank. I parked in the tiny lot without incident. I did not have to squeeze in next to a truck and subsequently have to climb over the parking brake to exit on the passenger side. (A common occurrence as my car has really large doors. This mostly happens in parking lots with narrow spaces. I'm looking at you again, Seven Corners New Seasons!!!!!) With a sigh, I gathered up my checks, making sure I had all of them, making sure they were all signed, making sure none of them were actually stubs separated from their checks, and walked in.
A man was stationed at one side of the deposit-slip-filling-out counter. He appeared to be completely nuts. Seeing nowhere else to fill out my deposit slip and seeing that no one else in the bank seemed particularly alarmed by his presence, so I walked over to the other side of the counter and tried to avoid making eye contact with the man. His face was stubbly and his hair was disheveled under a knit beanie, but that look merely places a man on the line between "homeless" and "rugged homeless chic" (especially in Portland, where many men walk that line. One time I ran away from a guy outside of Fred Meyer who I thought was holding a cardboard sign asking for money, and it turned out it was just his grocery bag.) What tipped me off was that he had completely taken over his side of the counter with stuff, and was continuing to pull stuff out of his pockets, laying it all out on the counter where he could view it all at once, near a scribbled-upon deposit slip. He appeared to have no checks. The only money he had was some change, and I imagine that merely came from his pocket. It was the muttering that got to me, though.
All I wanted was to fill out my deposit slip as quickly as possible, but the muttering distracted me. It sounded displeased, and as it crescendoed to angry, I became so agitated that I filled out my deposit slip wrong and had to start over. While I was beginning my second slip, the man stomped away from the counter (leaving his possessions still on display) to mutter some questions, which I didn't hear, at a teller. I saw the teller shake his head and respond politely in the negative. The man stomped back to the counter, and I could make out some of his muttering.
"Stupid shit you weigh like seven thousand tons what are you doing in my pocket? You're just a receipt! 'Ask at the register about your senior discount' it says, well! I'M NOT FIFTY-FIVE OR OLDER!" he shouted.
I finished my slip, walked up to the teller, deposited my checks, and hurried out of the store as quickly as possible. I got into my car and backed out of the tiny spot without incident. I did not back into any pedestrians or bicyclists using the parking lot as a shortcut. I made my right turn back onto the road home. That's when I saw him.
Walking away from the bank on the sidewalk was the Muttering Man. He was fiddling with a bunch of small items, putting them in his pockets. One item in particular caught the sun and my eye; his bank card. He was in fact a legitimate customer of that bank.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Five Things for Friday

1. Ice Cream I've been making homemade ice cream without an ice cream maker for about three years now. The technique that I use is so easy and so effective, it just never seems worthwhile to me to use some machine that's probably annoying to clean. Many people think I set out to learn this technique, but it all happened by a weird series of events that turned out to be pretty lucky. First, I wanted to make the clemenquat salad from Heidi Swanson's first book, Super Natural Cooking. Kumquats were not to be found in any of the nearby grocery stores (and Trader Joe's was half an hour away, the kind of thing you only went to when you had planned a trip) except for the giant Asian grocery stores. There were two I could easily get to when I lived in NJ. Let me pause a moment to sigh over how much I miss that luxury. The Pacific Northwest equivalents are far enough away that I have to plan a trip to go there, although Trader Joe's is now close enough to go to every day, even on my way home from things, so I guess it's a tradeoff.

Anyway. So, the only way I could buy kumquats at that store was in a huge bag. After making the clemenquat salad twice, I was out of clementines and sick of that salad. Not wanting the kumquats to go bad (oh, and we were tired of just eating them like candy, too) my roommate, PH suggested, "You better look up something to do with those kumquats! Maybe you can find some recipe to use them all up!"

That was how I found the recipes website of Florida's kumquat growers. The recipe that stood out to both PH and me was kumquat ice cream. Because we also had a lot of candied ginger.


Homemade Ice cream

That picture was taken by my friend. It is copyrighted, by the way. I don't know why the code from Flickr doesn't say that.

I love that there is an entire website dedicated to ways you can use up your kumquats.

Anyway, the ice cream craze started with an unusual flavor, not with something easy like vanilla. From there, we (or I) made pomegranate ice cream, rosewater ice cream, pistachio ice cream, chocolate chili pepper ice craem, chocolate ice cream, margarita ice cream, strawberry basil ice cream, and lavender honey ice cream. That was all before I moved out of that apartment. On my own, I've made regular old chocolate and vanilla as well as mastic ice cream, blueberry ice cream, olive oil ice cream, and bergamot ice cream. I had a drunk idea once, that Wasabi Ginger Pear ice cream would be a good idea, but it hasn't happened yet.

2. Welcome the New Addition. I've been slowly taking pictures of my apartment, planning to write up a "house tour" for you. I would even include the awkward areas that aren't well-organized or decorated yet, such as my Problem Corner. But before I could get a picture of my Problem Corner, this happened.

A friend needed a place to store his dresser, so I'm dresser-sitting for a few months, and in those few months I get to use it. Great! It solves the problem corner, although it is HUGE. It is more space than I ever planned on. The Problem bookshelf that was there before (which I got for $4 at a thrift store and is banged up and ugly. It wasn't wide enough for the record player that was precariously perched on top of it. I used it as a place to store junk and hid it (the junk and the shelf) under some "decorative fabric." Now it's next to my desk, in a corner where it's useful, where its ugliness is out of sight without the need of fabric.

3. CUTE

I went shopping today and got some things at Sock Dreams. J. Swan and I then toured some of the antique stores in Sellwood, which is a neighborhood in SE Portland that kind of feels like walking through a dream, a dream of beautiful gardens and quaint houses and antique stores and coffeeshops with character. (Not like the dreams I've been having lately, about being forced to marry/date people other than my boyfriend for some reason not explained in the dreams, and being very upset about it. What can it all mean?) Anyway, I refrained from over-spending at the antique stores, even though my apartment is full of little shelves and nooks and is the perfect place for a collection of functional yet cute things! I got some gifts for my mother and decided it was okay to spend one dollar on myself on this cute little butter mold. At least we think it is a butter mold. It's too small to bake a tiny cake in...

I like it on my knife magnet!

But that thing is always cluttered, so the little shelf over my window is a better place for my new cat friend. It is next to my old Jersey plate, opposite some madeleine pans. Yes, I know my blinds are crooked - they started to fall down one day and I haven't moved them since; I am too afraid. Also, I need to stop taking these pictures at night!

4. I am doing really well in school. That's all. Much to my surprise, despite things I thought would negatively affect my academic performance, I am doing well and I am thrilled.

5. Knitting

From Knitting Projects

I am finally make time for this again.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Snow Day

It was to this I awoke this morning.

The snow melted before I could take a picture of the camellias outside my window covered in snow. A few hours later, snow, then hail, then more snow fell. I believe I saw at least three instances of snowfall during the course of the day.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Spreadsheets and Schedules: How I Manage My Finances or, How to Have Expensive Tastes While on a Student Budget

Thank you to TurboTax for sponsoring my writing about household finances. Learn more about how TurboTax can help you find every tax deduction you deserve. I was selected for this sponsorship by the Clever Girls Collective, which endorses Blog With Integrity, as I do.

How I manage my family finances is inextricably intertwined with how I save money. It is also worth noting that my family is a family of one; it is just me.

I was brought up with a disgust for waste. This includes wasting food, wasting time, and of course, wasting money. When I began taking conservation classes in college, I encountered, like a huge wall suddenly appearing in my path, a dilemma. Much of the products that I had regarded as excessively expensive, such as organic food, was in fact expensive only in terms of money that I spent, but in terms of real cost (such as cost in resources, cost in energy, or cost to the planet), it was by far the cheapest option.

Thus began the internal argument every time I went shopping, a clamor of debate over the price of goods I knew was real contrasted with the sticker price before my very eyes. It felt wrong to spend so much money, but it also felt wrong to buy things which started to feel tainted to me. (I read a book about pesticide-related deaths of farm workers in Mexico, and for months I would not buy tomatoes from Mexico. Every time I tried to buy one, I thought about people dying of pesticide poisoning and various governments trying to cover it up. It was much less depressing to buy tomatoes in a can, or better yet, just wait until Jersey tomatoes were in season.)

This was how I began to develop what some might call "expensive taste." When my income seemingly doesn't match these tastes, I resort to The Spreadsheets.

THE BIRTH OF THE SPREADSHEET
In 2009, I was not actually poor. I merely perceived myself to be so, because I was spending more on rent than I ever imagined and living in a town where, because stores also had to pay their outrageously high rent, everything was expensive. Although my income matched this, I thought I might someday want to go to graduate school, so in the last quarter of 2008, I started tracking my expenses. This continued more aggressively into 2009, when the jury duty thing happened, and I began to realize I might want to quit my job and run away to Portland. It was at this point, too, that the second spreadsheet was born, the one that compares prices of frequently-purchased groceries, and with this, a somewhat rigid Shopping Schedule.

THE SPREADSHEETS

The first spreadsheet tracks my expenses. (Note: click on it to make it big.) (Also note: I see that I spelled "apiece" wrong, and you can also see from the gas price that this spreadsheet isn't current.) I note the date of purchase, the cost, a description of the item itself, where it was purchased, and any comments, such as whether it was on sale or if I'd buy it again. (This is the place for notes such as, "Fruit was all overripe and mushy; next time buy them at the other store." After all, you're not saving money if the product is no good!)

The "When Replaced" and "How much saved" columns sometimes get ignored. When I am keeping this spreadsheet, I save all of my receipts and make an effort to write down purchases for which there is no receipt. Then, every night, I will enter the receipts into my spreadsheet. Sometimes there's a backlog and I don't get to do this until a free day. Then it gets done as part of my filing and desk organizing. At such times, the receipts get clipped together with a binder clip that gets attached somewhere conspicuous on my desk. (Right now it's a magazine file.)

What may seem excessive detail - the place of purchase and the product descriptions - are record kept for when I get around to updating the second spreadsheet.

(Again, click=big.) Above you see the Prices of Stuff spreadsheet. You also see that it is badly kept. When I lived in New Jersey, this was not the case. Since I had lived in the same state for all twenty-five years of my life, I had my preferred stores and products. The spreadsheet was pretty well kept up to date. I had the prices of all purpose, whole wheat, and whole wheat pastry flour - in bulk bins and in bags, at co-ops and chain grocery stores - all recorded and compared. What I found will be summarized later in this post. Anyway, while some grocery shoppers might prefer the time and convenience of one-stop shopping, for me the real money just isn't worth any perceived savings of time. So, I aim to buy my flour where flour is cheapest, my yogurt where yogurt is cheapest, my produce where produce is cheapest, and my spices and "ethnic" groceries where they are most competitively priced.

What about gas? Doesn't that waste a lot of gas? No, because I have gotten in the habit of the rigid Shopping Schedule.

In NJ, during the Year of Austerity that was 2009, I knew that the prices of all groceries were $0.50-$2.00 more in Morristown than they were in stores by my parents' house or in the stores at which I shopped when I lived in New Brunswick. Since I went to either place at least once a week, I waited until planned visits to either place to do all of my grocery shopping. The only things I bought in Morristown were last-minute fruits and vegetables needed for that night's dinner, at a produce market (whose name escapes me at the moment) that was on my way home, just north of the dreaded circle (aka "the Green," as locals called it, because there was a park in the middle of it.) Eventually, I developed a schedule, seeing certain friends on the same day each week, and planning ahead to shop at the same stores on my way.

On Sundays, I would assess what was in my fridge, look over the latest recipes posted on food blogs I followed, look through my cookbooks, and think about what to make. Once that was decided, I'd make a shopping list. Or I should say, I made shopping lists. There was a Wegman's list, an Apple Farm Market list, and sometimes a Subzi Mandi list, a Phoenician list, and a Kam Man list. On Mondays, I went to a knitting group in Bridgewater, NJ, and afterwards, I would go shopping at the Wegman's that was open until midnight. Soon, the tradition included a good friend who would drive up from New Brunswick, meet me at the knitting group, and go with me to Wegman's. This served a few purposes. 1) It gave us time to catch up; having been used to living in the same town and seeing one another several times a week, the separation of 30 miles felt unbearable and there was so much to talk about. 2) It gave us a buddy, someone to make sure that we made no imprudent purchases (or, just like clothes shopping with a friend, someone to justify for us the purchase of a little luxury.) 3) Mostly, since we were shopping so late at night, it gave us a buddy with a second set of eyes to make sure we didn't sleepily grab something we hadn't intended to buy. I learned the hard way that shopping at 9:30pm led to accidentally grabbing, say, vanilla yogurt instead of plain yogurt. I learned this the hard way when I tried to pair that yogurt, later that night, with spicy curry chips. Yuck!

Wednesdays, I met a friend in New Brunswick usually around 7pm; we went to the After Hours event at the Zimmerli Art Museum. But I would leave for New Brunswick straight from work, armed with a cooler in my trunk and my shopping lists in my hand. I would stop at the Apple Farm Market for produce and organic eggs (which I knew were priced no better anywhere else in North-Central Jersey) and when necessary, I'd go to the Phoenician, a Middle Eastern market in North Brunswick, for things like sumac powder, olives, and other non-perishables that were difficult to find elsewhere.

The Subzi Mandi right off of the 287 exit to New Brunswick opened after I moved to Portland. Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit this, but I felt a little twinge of regret that I no longer had need for the convenience of its location; I no longer had reason to stock up, on the way to visit my friends, on cardamom, lentils, and 99-cent bags of shallots labeled as "Indian onions."

TWO YEARS LATER
The Year of Austerity and the development of all of these spreadsheets and schedules served me well, in that I was able to develop good habits for the sharp decrease in my income that followed my decision to quit my job and move across the country. In the second half of 2009, I moved to Portland for a job, lost that job, collected unemployment for awhile, got a part-time job, started graduate school, and as of last week, left that part-time job for another one that I will start next week. In that time, too, I've lived in many different places with many varied rent payments. Frequent moves and shifts in my schedule have made it difficult to always track my expenses (all those furniture purchases make the "expense" side seem too depressing, almost as depressing as not having furniture), to keep track of different Prices of Stuff, and most of all, to make a shopping schedule. At times when I know that the spreadsheets will just make me miserable, I allow myself a break, trusting in my own good habits to minimize the damage of avoiding any tracking of my finances. Overall, however, when I do sit down and record things in a spreadsheet, I usually find that I am much better off than I imagined.

CONCLUSIONS
What can I say that will help my readers? Well, first of all, what works for me won't work for everyone. Such anal retentive management of grocery bills will make some people crazy; it's kind of like dieting. When I was unhappy with my life in The Year of Austerity, this careful tracking of my finances and rigid scheduling made me feel like I had some control of my life back. When I walked into my familiar stores, where I knew I would not be cheated, I felt at peace.

I haven't abandoned these sheets and schedules, or I wouldn't be writing about them at all. The Prices of Stuff, those that are not already recorded on my spreadsheet, are in my head. I have come to a few useful conclusions that might serve my readers on both sides of the country.
1. The best prices for spices, nuts, and ingredients considered special to ethnic food tend to be found at ethnic markets. Sometimes these even beat bulk bins. Also, in Portland, sometimes Italian food counts as "ethnic" food. Savings are pretty significant, such as $2.50 for a bottle of rosewater versus $10. Also, it's fun to go shopping at places like the Phoenician in North Brunswick, NJ, or Uwajimaya in Beaverton, OR. Of course, this could lead to impulse buys that negate all those savings...
2. For "fancy" groceries, you may have the best luck at a "fancy" store. Why? Because there's a good chance the store brand will have its own version of the specialty product that will be cheaper than the less fancy grocery store's price for a name brand. For example, Wegman's makes its own whole wheat flour, which (when I last lived in NJ) was cheaper than King Arthur or Bob's Red Mill at regular grocery stores. Whole Foods 365 brand is pretty good, too; once I learned this from Martha Stewart, I saw for myself, now that I live pretty close to a Whole Foods. Oh, and pretty commonly purchased groceries sometimes fall into the "fancy" category. Like olive oil. Which plenty of people who don't consider themselves fancy cooks use. And again, this could lead to impulse buys that negate all those savings.
3. Groceries are strangely more expensive in Portland than they are in NJ! Except for organic milk. Organic milk is a lot cheaper. The specific whys of all of this are still a mystery to me, but after nearly two years, I haven't gotten over the sticker shock of buying food in Portland. Except for organic milk.
4. These spreadsheets don't just apply to food; this was just the best example to use while keeping this post at a reasonable length.

Lastly, since we are all human beings and not machines, it's important to give oneself (or at least myself) a break. For example, when I'm moving or just coming back from vacation or otherwise in a place where my time is constrained, I throw out a lot of these rules in favor of convenience. Right now, I'm hiding from the spreadsheets a little bit because I know that, since I just moved, my expenses will be greater. Since now is the time I'm buying things like a 6-month supply of cleaning products or giant bags of rice. Also, I don't always go for what is the cheapest, but what is the best value for its quality. I've lightened up since the Year of Austerity, realizing that, since I go through maybe three bottles of shampoo a year, I can afford to buy something really nice, if it will make me happy, rather than the cheapest biodegradable thing out there (or even the non-biodegradable stuff.) On that note, too, I've lightened up on the topic of non-waste from a "real" cost standpoint in favor of the non-waste of real money; acknowledging that I am a graduate student without a high income, I've decided that speaking out with my wallet is not necessarily my moral responsibility, not right now at least. I'm allowed to buy beauty products with parabens in them and vegetables that aren't organic, even eggs that aren't cage free. So, in contrast to the Year of Austerity, this might be the Year of Reason as well as the Year of (Relative) Stability. Now that I am in an apartment I plan to stay in and a graduate program that will take up at least two years of my life, I can resume habits and schedules...and spreadsheets.

(As a side note, all of these jobs and unemployment etc mean some complicated taxes! On the bright side, this year I can file as a resident of just one state!)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Half Full, Part Two

In some notes I took on Saturday, I have written, "A side note - avoid moving backwards. I was simultaneously looking too far ahead and looking backwards." Don't we all do this? Like one of those self-helpy e-mail forwards proclaims, people have a tendency to look at their life and say, "If only X changes; then everything will be better." Sometimes X changes, and, if we were to believe the e-mail forward, people will then look to X2, the next change. But I think another possibility is that people find themselves happy with a percentage of their life, let's say 75% (for this example.) They don't want that 75% to change at all. They want to change the remaining 25%. But what usually happens is that, when you get that 25% where you want it, the other 75% has changed either because time passed and things happen or because it's not possible to have both the 75% you liked and the 25% you wanted. For example, let's say you have lots of time, but you want a second job so that you can have more money. You will lose that time. Duh. It is pretty obvious, but some people still work toward this impossible 100% regardless. So they're not just looking forward to a change; they are looking backward to what was and trying to get it back, to reunite themselves, with that 25% newness, to the 75% former happiness. I know I do this sometimes!

I also think it's just as common to look backwards as it is to look too far ahead; what I mean is, I think that even though the directions are opposite, the situation of Looking Backwards and Looking Ahead are similar. It's like the difference between traveling 10 miles east or 10 miles west; one of those is -10, but they're both 10. They both are moving equally far from 0. Both arise out of a dissatisfaction, out of the same feelings toward the present.

Self help e-mail forwards, aphorisms, and your friends and family will tell you to look to the present, to look for the good in today, but as I wrote yesterday, sometimes that mindset is hard. You can't just flip a switch because someone tells you, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life," or something like that.

Anyway, a lot of the things I am reading, seeing, and hearing lately all go back to this idea of enjoying the present, moment to moment, because we don't know what's coming next, and right now I'm receptive to it. So on Saturday, I made a little list of things I like about the present, things for which I say, "thank you!", and it got longer than I planned. It is as follows, edited for clarity:
A pretty day; birds were singing while I scraped the ice off my car this morning and the sun shone through the blinds and curtains of my windows as I got ready for class. While I waited on a long line to pay for my parking spot downtown, I stood under a clear blue sky. The cold sunny morning made downtown Portland into a display of vivid colors, and the outlines of the buildings - both the new buildings' straight lines and angles and the curves and curlicues of the older architecture - were clear, crisp, and sharp. It was nice.
My apartment is fairly clean and will be easy to move around; it won’t feel like an obstacle toward what I need to get done this week.
My new scarf that I just finished. Also, I have plenty of projects to work on with my old stash yarn and the interchangeable needle kit I got for Christmas three years ago. Even if it's not the ideal tool for what I'm making, it's perfectly functional and I don't need to go out and buy new needles unless I want to. Making something beautiful AND functional is a stress-relieving activity for me.
My past in NJ and my present life in a new environment, the things I've learned from both places, and the possibilities I have to move around the continent/world and learn more in the future.
The multitude of books in the public domain that can be read for free online.
French press coffee for free! (I have a friend who works at a coffeeshop and gets more free coffee than he needs, so I get all I need; since my utilities are included in my rent, even the hot water is free!)
Friends you can have over without needing to put your laundry away first.
Living in a building with a washer and dryer in the basement - and the dryer is fast!
Housemates/neighbors around whom I can leave my laundry in the basement without fear of annoying anyone or anything being stolen.
Student loans stuff got cleared up. (That is its own post and not very interesting. Basically, because of some hiccup probably with the government or computers, my student loan money that I was supposed to get this term was in limbo and I had to wait, getting poorer every day, for some paperwork to clear.)
Water stations at restaurants. (I love love LOVE that in Portland, most places you go to eat have water stations with the silverware and condiments so that you don't have to buy bottled water. I don't mean sit-down restaurants, I mean places where you order at a counter, where you usually can't ask for a glass of water. Unless they have a water station.)
"Fast" food that is healthy. (I'd had lunch at a place on campus that was pretty cheap and fast, where everything was organic but, more important to me is that it was all *food.* I got a bowl of rice and beans with avocado and other veggies on it; it was all *food* and not unidentifiable edible substances.)

This was Saturday; now it's Monday. There's plenty more I could write about, but I'm going to go back to enjoying Monday.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Half full

Sometimes a change in circumstances brings about a change in perspective. It may have been unclear from this blog, because I was quite aware of how I was acting and censored it on the blog, but recently I have been rather cranky. In my usual cranky way, which is picking on things that can be improved, not totally picking just to pick. More like, "I can't believe how rude that person just was to that cashier! People are terrible! [and perhaps a spiral into how terrible people are to each other, with examples, and analysis of the examples, which would carry me through the checkout lane, to my car, and then my entire way home until I walked up the stairs to my front door]" than "Ugh, why is yet another Portlander wearing brown boots with black leggings? Brown with black, take it back! What an assault on my eyes!"

Anyway, I was aware of how negative my outlook was, and I kept trying to change it, kept trying to focus on positive things. Except it would go like this.

"This traffic isn't TOO bad!"

"That tree over there sure is pretty!"

"I may be stuck in traffic, but I get to sit in a warm car and then go home, not like that guy over there with the cardboard sign asking for change! Unless he is lying, a guy who actually has a home who is just dressing up and trying to make money by emotionally manipulating people instead of GETTING A JOB! It's so sad that people live like this, sleeping under bridges when it is so cold and damp! Why is the world so cruel???? I want to change it and I'm going to school to change the world, but it is so hopeless! I am just one person!"

Being optimistic just became another thing I was failing at in my obsession with Being Perfect.

I wouldn't recommend being a pessimist, but sometimes there is a reason things are the way they are; now I see that I was unhappy and felt stretched thin. Unhappiness is exhausting; it makes everyday tasks seem insurmountably time-consuming. Sometimes, outlook is everything; sometimes, circumstances really are important. So, with a change in circumstances, my outlook has changed. I made a list in the side of my notes during Grant Writing class yesterday of happy things, and it got really really long. I will type it up later - not now, since I'm on my way out.

The final thing for the list is that my first project for the class, my letter proposal, got a positive reception from everyone who read it, and I feel a renewed sense of optimism, enthusiasm, and ambition. I can change the world. I have the talent and the drive and I am going to do it.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Changes

I quit my job.

I won't be going into details on this blog as to why I am changing jobs or what my new job is or any of that. That's just not what this blog is about, and it's one of the areas of my life I don't feel comfortable putting out on the Internet.

Perhaps some readers picked up on something in my recent posts - posts about quitting a different job, posts about traveling and escaping, posts about all kinds of tension, such as comparing kitchen catastrophes to my life.

When I decided to leave, to look for a better job or, if that didn't come up, go to school full time and focus on finishing the program more quickly, the tension did impact other areas of my life and it probably was evident in my writing. I tend toward the type of person who defines herself by her work, so it was upsetting me more than it really should have. Not until Tuesday was I certain about the new job, and once that was secure, I was ready to resign. So in about two weeks, I'll start at a new job, one I probably won't blog about very much, just as I rarely, if ever, blogged about this last one (although I can think of two stories now I can share with you, and I am very excited about it!).

Anyway, I have been getting migraines and upset stomachs, and I'm hoping that they will go away now. They could have been related to the Medical Stuff of Summer 2010 (which I also have not written about, so only some of my readers know about that) or they could have been stress related. Also, when I put on my Interview Clothes on Tuesday, they did not fit like they did during the job search of 2010. That could be related to the Summer of Medical Stuff or that could be stress or that could be too many Weekend Skillet Potatoes.

Not much else to say. Still thinking about Tuesday's re-resolution to Stop Trying to be Perfect. But I'm still making that price comparison spreadsheet. In fact, this coming week I will be writing a sponsored blog post about how I manage my finances - aren't you excited!? The spreadsheet will get ample coverage.

Updated: I forgot to add that the new job is paying me more. That is GOOD NEWS!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Cannon Beach Adventure Part 2: The Beach in the Fog

When we arrived at our hotel at about 12:30, the office was closed. A "Will Return" sign announced that someone would re-open the office at 1:15. We drove into the town to look for lunch. First, we stopped in the town's visitors' center and picked up some pamphlets. Then, we crossed the street into the cutesy downtown area, past Jupiter's Rare and Used Books and Coastal Yarns, both of which I stared at longingly. We ate lunch in the first open restaurant we came across, and it turned out not to be a mistake. It was something Fireside, and there was indeed a huge fireplace in the center of the dining room. The nice thing about it is that the fireplace didn't have a back wall; what I mean is, you could sit on either side of the fireplace and still be right by the fire, and that was nice. It was a perfect fireplace day, raining, foggy, and cold. We were the first couple seated by the fireplace, but before we had finished eating, the fireside seating became crowded with more couples. The food was good, too.

We went back to our hotel to check in and relax, and then, when we realized we were running out of the daylight with which Oregon winters are so stingy, we walked back into town and onto the beach. We ended up walking all the way to Haystack Rock, about a mile and a half. From there, we left the beach and got back on the main street. We looked at some shops and got dinner recommendations from storekeepers. Since we were really cold and wet now, from walking in the rain and fog along the ocean, we decided to go back to the hotel to shower and change before getting dinner. Also, we wanted to drive to dinner so that we wouldn't have to walk three more miles in the rain.

We had dinner at The Warren House Pub, which has mixed reviews online, but our experience was very nice. The beer was great and I really liked my food! We got to sit by a fireplace again and the service was nice. The lettering on the sign reminded me of McMenamin's (but the beer was better); the inside reminded me of some restaurant in Montville, NJ, that I went to with a friend when I was visiting from Oregon. It was dark with glowing lights from the fireplace and candles. Very cozy.

The next morning, we walked back to the beach and had breakfast at the Cannon Beach Bakery before driving back to Portland so that we could both go to work.

Not much of a story here! But we got some nice pictures. These were all taken with my phone. As much as my new phone drives me nuts with its propensity to call people from my purse, it does take nice pictures, and I appreciate that.


The artist at work.

Haystack Rock through the mist. We were not that far away. This is just to show you how frigging foggy and damp it was. It was like walking through rain clouds.

Well, that's better!

There might be more pictures coming, if I find them on my phone. The rest of what is currently off of my phone is at my Picasa album right here.

2011 Resolution Update

I meant to do this check-in a little earlier in the year, or maybe write a post elaborating on each resolution, or something. For review, here's the list.


1.Be less petty and more forgiving.
2. Stay organized and keep house clean.
3.Manage time well with school and work.
4. Keep in touch with loved ones in and out of Portland.
5. Maintain finance tracking and budget - keep info together to make wise financial decisions.
6. Fix broken stuff.
7. Go for walks.
8. Make healthy food, emphasizing health more than eco, for now.
7. Read - make time for fun, stress-relieving hobbies.
8. Do I need to be more adventurous? (This is not really a resolution, just a reflection that every year I make some kind of "adventurous" resolution like, "Try one new thing every day!" and on January 1, 2011, I reflected that I have that whole thing down pretty well!

Maybe these resolutions sound okay to you, especially the ones thrown in that are obviously about relaxing and fun, but I know the hidden message behind them all. They are all steps to a plan with the Objective (or perhaps a better word would be "Directive") of Sarah, Become Perfect.. This includes being well-read and good at creative things - don't let the word "hobbies" in Resolution #7 fool you!

My tendency is to get overwhelmed and fall behind on all things, when faced with too much to do. Or take a break for something that should be relaxing, but the whole time I am stressed, feeling guilty for taking a break. This ends today. TODAY!

Who needs to be perfect? I am smart, and I don't need straight A's to tell me that. I have a job and I'm in school - I am productive human being. I don't sit around wasting space (except when I've gotten myself so overwhelmed by a to-do list that I am doing very little. I am financially responsible and always have been; it's just the fact that I'm taking out loans to pay for graduate school that is scaring me. (I have been a debt-phobe for as long as I can remember, avoiding loans and paying off everything in full.) Also, there was some weird hiccup with my student loans where all of it got stuck in some kind of government paperwork limbo and I have been paying out of pocket for everything. Tomorrow the money gets disbursed to my account, finally. FINALLY. But I'm not going to lie - that slow drain on my savings account was a major source of my stress and feelings of imperfection.

Laurie aka Crazy Aunt Purl wrote last week about spending a lot of time trying to decide whether to buy organic or conventional cauliflower, and I saw myself in that post, except for the part where she buys the very inexpensive conventional cauliflower and is at peace. No, I'm still in a place where I spend so much time staring at groceries and doing math in my head that clerks ask me if I need help. Anyway, this weekend I spent a significant amount of time stocking up on things like beans and vegetables and I thought I was so smart for getting things on sale and even remembering to bring my Safeway card with me for a change and then I got my receipt.

"You saved $3.28," it said.

I can be optimistic and say that, $3.28 every week will add up to something good! Or I can say, "Was all that effort and aggravation and guilty hemming and hawing over whether or not to buy the pricey, but good-for-you vegetables really worth $3.28?"

Happy Valen-CRASH!

It's been raining pretty heavily in Portland the past couple of days. I read that on Saturday we had 45 mph wind. Anyway, you'd think we'd all know how to drive in the rain, even those of us who are new to town but have lived here almost two years.

Last night, I ventured out into the cloudless, misty night which was so dark it seemed like the humidity was really black ink, like blackness was not just a way to describe the sky but a thing that surrounded all objects on the ground. Some car lights cut a small tear in that darkness, through which I could see my neighbors doing something that seemed complicated and mysterious. It involved taking up about half of the street, and it was the half on which my car was parked.

You see, in Portland, the streets are narrow and people park on both sides. If two cars are coming down a street at the same time, one of the drivers has to be polite and pull over. This always happens. I rarely, if ever, have seen a hurried, angry game of chicken take place.

When I got into my car, I started backing up at an angle so that, when I pulled out, I could give the neighbors (whose actions were still mysterious, but appeared to be more complicated than simply, "moving a different car to the outside of the driveway" and also there was a carseat involved that may or may not have had a child in it) as wide a berth as possible. As I was backing up I looked through my rear windshield and could only see raindrop-spotted dark. I backed up, back back back SLAM!

Silly me! I backed into the curb!

Then I noticed the red car behind mine.

Oh my God did I hit that car? Was I that close? Did I even SEE that car? What? Was I looked out the window in the mirror? What!? In my confusion, my memory of past few seconds' events had become a huge void.

Embarrassed, I got out of the car to look at the cars. There was no dent on the red car. Its license plate wasn't even ruffled. There was no red paint on my car. I had merely hit the curb more loudly than usual.

The neighbors' interest was piqued. They stared as I walked back to my car.

"It was just the curb!" I supplied awkwardly. "Good!" I added.

I got back into my car. The neighbors recommenced whatever it was they were doing. When I arrived at my Valentine's Day destination, I checked the car again...no red paint. Phew!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Cannon Beach Adventure, Part One: The Journey Begins on 26

We started driving at 10:31 AM. I don't think I took note of the time of our stops or our arrival. We got on I-5, crossed the Willamette, and exited onto US-26. Our first stop was in Beaverton for gas. We had about half a tank, maybe more, but I insisted we stop because I didn't want it to turn into the Donner Party. Or at least, I didn't want us to find ourselves in the deep, dark mountain forests staring hopefully through the darkness hoping to catch a glimpse of The Elderberry Inn and paying at least 30 cents a gallon more for gas than we'd pay in Beaverton.

Shortly after you exit the suburbia of Beaverton, which reminds me of New Jersey in a nice way, you drive through what a friend recently (accurately!) described as "Catan." There are fields and farms and sheep before you enter the forest whose resource is indeed wood. It makes me think again of New Jersey, but this time of Sussex County's farms and the rolling hills of Vernon, a town of apple orchards, farms (including a world famous cheese farm), state park land, and the last place to have someone else pump your gas before crossing into rural Warwick, NY.

At some point, the forest grew less dense and the speed limit dropped to 50. I knew it could be a long time before we saw another public restroom, so I asked if we could stop.

At a convenience store, I bought a Pepsi and asked, while checking out, where was the restroom? Vague instructions told me to go "around the corner." She did not offer me a key.

We walk outside and saw that the walkway into the store jutted out just slightly, like maybe three feet, and around that corner was another door and a window showing a hallway. It was a hallway that looked likely to lead to a bathroom. Alas, the door was locked. We continued along the length of the building.

Rounding the corner, we found only brick wall. Opposite was a chain link fence through which we could see some rusty, broken-down machinery. We continued along the brick wall. Rounding a corner to the back of the building, we found a large metal door. I don't think it even said "Restroom" or anything to indicate the function of the room its other side. It was locked.

Back around the corner, back along the brick wall, back around the first two corners, and back into the store we went. I asked the same women from whom I'd bought a Pepsi and asked for directions to the bathroom if there was a key to the bathroom. She handed me the key dispassionately. As I thanked her, she spoke up, slowly and loudly as though my stupidity was the problem, as though I would not have had to locate the door to determine its locked status, "Around the corner."

The restroom was disgusting of proportions that would have been epic had I not experienced this ten months ago. The toilet seat, however, was sparkling alabaster. Its purity and pallor was nearly blinding amidst the dank dingy brown of the rest of the room.

My time in the restroom was enough time for my boyfriend to notice and become entranced by Cooterville City Hall. Sadly, despite their OPEN sign, the owner had stepped out. We walked around outside and I managed to take only the following picture:

...before a car pulled up. A woman stepped outside and told us that the owner would be back in an hour and we could wait if we'd like. We decided to continue to the coast, and that I would take over driving. So we walked back to the car, I took my pillow out of the backseat, arranged it on the driver's seat, and with that we were ready to go.

As soon as we pulled back out onto 26, a huge sign with huge lettering proclaming JERKY MUSHROOMS LOCAL HONEY JAM!!!!! beckoned us to immediately turn left into the parking lot. I can't remember the name of the store, nor can I remember the name of the closed tavern across the street from it, which is strange because I kept reading the sign and saying, "With a name like that, I wish it was still open so we could have lunch there!"

With several types of jerky (alligator! antelope! wild boar!) and dried mushrooms (porcini! maitake!) now in our possession, we got back on the road.

It was here that my boyfriend's and my ongoing debate revived itself - was either of us a redneck or city folk, and if so, which one?

I am from the rural part of a state typically associated with "city folk," and my boyfriend is from a city in a state typically associated with cowboys and open spaces. Forgetting that antelope are at home "on the range," I expressed something that put me in the "city folk" category. (Or perhaps merely the "idiot" category.)

"I've had antelope jerky before," my boyfriend informed me, explaining that it was from an antelope that someone he knew had shot.

"What?! Where did he shoot an antelope?"

"Colorado," he said slowly, looking at me like I was nuts.

Or maybe it wasn't Colorado. It might have been Wyoming. It was some state that has Rocky Mountains in it. It dawned on me before I could give voice to my idiot conviction that of course antelope are native to North America. Yet my boyfriend pressed, knowing by the expression on my face that there was more to my ignorance.

"I thought antelope came from Africa."

Also, once when we were in Medford, I saw a wildlife crossing sign with the silhouette of an elk on it and said, "Look! Moose! I've always wanted to see one of those! And they just walk across this highway?"

Not much of note happened before we arrived in the parking lot of our hotel at about 12:30pm. We did pass the Elderberry Inn and I would like to note that not much had changed. This includes the outdated police car facing oncoming traffic with an alien mask propped up on the driver's seat. It also includes the permanent, gigantic sign advertising alleged FREE KITTENS.

A Permanent State of Cranky

There's a magazine article I haven't finished reading yet, so I haven't felt like I could fully comment on it, but it's about a study done that showed that some people are addicted to anxiety. The article focused on that, but the study also showed that some people have an emotion that's their natural state, and even though they may not like feeling that way, they want to feel that way because it's familiar. It's like they know how to operate better when they are in that state, and their performance on certain tasks is better.

This was not the point of the article, but I focused on that concept of an emotion being someone's familiar, natural state. It made me wonder/worry if my natural state is cranky. But also happy at the same time. I am optimistic, but I often find myself cranky. I complain. I complain about little things that I think relate to a bigger picture, and I complain about that bigger picture. I'm optimistic that working on those little things will have an impact on the bigger picture. When I am cranky, I like to make a joke about whatever I am cranky about. But I'm still cranky.

A year ago, when I was getting used to and loving life in Portland, I stepped outside of my box a lot. I was happy a lot more, or at least, I said happy things and smiled more. At some point, my critical eye returned and I allowed to have a voice. In a way, I'm more content, because I feel like I'm more honest with myself about my surroundings, situation, and what I want to do. Which sometimes means, "I want to change the things in which I find fault" and sometimes simply means, "I don't like going out like I did last year and spending all that money on stupid PBR. I want to stay in even though it's Friday and watch a movie and knit a scarf!"

Or am I just cranky?

Here is the article. What do you think about these concepts - addiction to anxiety and a familiar emotion?

Goodbye White Stripes

From BUST and NPR, a discussion. I have said some of the same negative things about The White Stripes, but I really don't think they deserve so much criticism. I used to complain that they were just mimicking older music and not doing anything new, but I was missing the point. The first thing Emily says is almost all that needs to be said; The White Stripes brought rock and roll back to rock music at a time when it was something else, something I wasn't even paying attention to. At that time, I had completely opted out of popular music and just listened to obscure bands that Napster helped me discover and my dad's Jimi Hendrix records.

Also, I like their first two albums better than anything new, anything that was popular. De Stijl is still one of my favorite things to listen to, and "Suzy Lee" on their debut, self-titled album is a song I could listen to over and over again. "Fell in Love with a Girl" got me listening...but I kept listening to their less popular songs.

I can't accurately critique drumming; I know nothing about it. But it used to drive me bananas to hear people criticize Meg White so dismissively as they raised ever higher the pedestal on which they placed Jack White. One of the comments on that post sums it up pretty well - to say Meg White is a bad drummer is to say Bob Dylan is a bad singer. Whether or not it's true, that's not the point. Also, I felt that attributing all of the band's success to Jack White and criticizing Meg White probably had its roots in sexism.

That's all I'll say for now. What do you think of The White Stripes deserved or un-deserved reputation? Are you sad to see them go?

PS

I have been paying a lot of attention to my blog stats lately. The searches have become less interesting and the most-read posts have also gotten less current. Who are you, people who have been searching "botanylicious" on Yahoo and Google? Who are you that keeps reading about The Time Someone Told Me To Straighten My Hair but not any of my other favorite posts? I read comments, you know, even on posts from 2006.

Sunday Thoughts

I have many unfinished posts, some of which exist in draft and some of which are only an item on a list, that contain thoughts I'd like to share with my readers, not just to proclaim my views on the subject but to hear some other thoughts and opinions and maybe have some interesting dialogue. These posts, on real topics as opposed to My Trip to Cannon Beach, are would-be essays which I feel, for some reason, have to be fully formed, fleshed out, with evidence (quotes and footnotes even!) and analysis, so that the opinion I state seems like a considered, reasonable conclusion. It's not disagreement that I fear - oh no! - it's instead accusations that I haven't considered or bothered to research all of the facts.

For example, I haven't commented on Egypt at all, even though I have been listening to the news on the radio (thanks to the theft of my iPod!). Sometimes I have New York Times articles from years ago that I want to write about. Sometimes it's books I've read, but I move too quickly to a new book that occupies my mind. For example, for about a month (when my iPod was stolen and I started listening to NPR, and heard some debate on the subject) I've wanted to write about the new, censored but less ban-able version of Huck Finn. I've taken pictures of things to write about. I've wanted to write about new recipes I've tried, some creative projects, and even the little things that might stand out in an ordinary day (such as camellias beginning to bloom outside my window.) I've wanted to write about school.

So I resolved to just write a few thoughts, limiting myself to three sentences or less, so that I wouldn't feel the need to go out, do some research to feel justified publicly stating my opinion on a topic and then, through my research, allowing a new topic to distract me...

I think a lot about school and what I am doing in the program. This is normal; I have always done this when I've embarked on a new course of study. Since I've just used up two of my sentences, I will conclude by saying that what I keep returning to is that, the more classes in "public administration" I take, the more I will feel permitted to publicly voice my opinion on current events and issues, which are really things that every individual, since we are all effected by them, should feel permitted to have an opinion on.

Last night I finally watched The Namesake, which I even wanted to see in theaters. I read the book in college because Jhumpa Lahiri (the author) was coming to speak to my class. Mira Nair is also one of my favorite directors; I don't watch many movies or know too many directors, but I know Mira Nair is great!

(Using a semicolon makes it one sentence!)

Speaking of grammar and grammarians, I've just started reading Mennonite in a Little Black Dress and I see myself plowing through it in a day or so. I find books like this relaxing, especially when things in my life are concerning me. It makes me want to revisit More with Less, a Mennonite cookbook that I've owned for years, but until last week was sitting in a box in New Jersey, always too heavy for me to pack in a suitcase.

Back to the school topic: Why not science? The truth is that I see myself, at some time in my future, returning to school for another academic degree and it would probably be in science rather than English literature or something like that. I've chosen nonprofit management because I think that, without some of the restrictions of the public sector, the nonprofit sector is a place for action not just for the environment/science, but other issues that are important to me. As gender inequality (and other forms of inequality, but I selfishly focus on gender inequality because I am a lady) keeps popping up in my experiences, in conversations, and in things that I read (well, I do subscribe to BUST), I want to be able to work productively (not just as someone who wears awareness T-shirts and makes people sign petitions) for a lot of things I feel are important. Well, that third sentence was long. I got distracted writing an e-mail.

This is as good a place as any to end, especially since I keep getting distracted!

Looking to the future (before I end), I think I want to go to Eugene next weekend for this big hellebore event. A nursery that specializes in hellebores (in fact, I think they are one of the world's top hellebore breeders) is having an open house, and unless you can put hellebores in a window box I have no reason to buy many hellebores, but I just want to see them. And get out of town. I also want to go to the Hillsdale Farmers Market, so we'll see. I also want to go back to Cannon Beach, and to Canada (but this time, British Columbia - Quebec is a little far!)

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Cannon Beach Adventure: Prologue

It would not be accurate to call this a weekend trip. My boyfriend and I spent less than twenty-four hours in Cannon Beach this weekend. With our school and work schedules, we are lucky to share twelve hours of our time off, with less than eight of those hours being reserved for sleeping. (This is as far as I'll go on that topic so that this doesn't turn into whining.

Our reasons to go to a rainy, damp place at the height of Oregon's rainy, damp seasons were similar to mine the last time I went to Cannon Beach in the rain. A lengthier post with more pictures and more stories will come later; I have work to do today. But I just kept thinking about the coast and my pictures and how much I wanted to share the memories with you, my readers. I couldn't wait.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Update to the Jardin Botanique Post

Well, just an update related to the plants. I wrote a little bit about Lithops, the genus of succulent plants known as living stones. In case that piqued anyone's interest, I'd like to share these two links I found today, both from You Grow Girl. I've fallen years behind on Gayla Trail's website, but I've deduce that she is growing Lithops from seed. Check it out here and here. And also here is a post with more pictures of some grownup Lithops in exciting colors.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Canadian Adventure, Part 6: Mont Royal

After the Jardin Botanique and a lunch of poutine, I went to Mont Royal. The above picture of the city was taken from the top of the "mountain." Mont Royal is a very nice city park. It appeared to have many wilderness trails. Much of it, of course, was under snow at this time. I parked my car and wasn't really sure where to go; I just followed the crowds. I also remember that it took me awhile to park; I kept driving in circles.



You may notice a big bridge and a river in these pictures. Up until the moment I found myself on a large bridge over the Saint Lawrence river (and this was before I moved to Portland, so it was when I still had a slightly irrational fear of driving on large bridges), I didn't realize Montréal was an island. (I say "slightly irrational," because I heard an NPR special on people who are so afraid of bridges they won't leave the Island of Manhattan or similar islands, and that's when I realized the true definition of irrational fear of bridges. I just found it scary, for no good reason. I still drove over them. I'll admit I'm still not used to the very high-up I-5 bridge over the Willamette.)

I am proud of the following picture not only because it shows me at the top of a big hill, having climbed something, symbolic of my solo trip to Canada, but also because I successfully asked some Quebecois to take that photo in French. I even explained to them how to use an SLR! In French.

At the top of Mont Royal was this fancy building. Inside was a big empty room. I remember being a little confused about what its purpose was.

Between the building and the railing of the overlook was a terrace that was covered with snow and very thick, slippery ice. The terrace was a veritable skating rink. Strangers smiled and laughed together, holding onto each others arms, sliding and skating (with just regular shoes) to the railing.

The following are some nature photos I took as I hiked back to my car.




I stopped at a gift shop on Mont Royal to buy post cards, and found earrings made by local artists out of native plant materials. I bought a pair of huge dangle earrings made of the top of a fern frond in resin. Sadly, one of them broke last year; the dangle separated from the hoop and I didn't realize it until I looked in a mirror. The decorative part of that earring is lost forever. Maybe I can make a necklace out of the other one!

Back at my car, I realized that it was quarter to four. The cathedral I wanted to see was closed, or maybe it was closing at four. Either way, I wouldn't make it. It was not going to open tomorrow, in fact, many things would not be closed the following day, Sunday, for the recognition of St. Valentine. (Montréal is perhaps the most Catholic place I've ever visited.) It seemed like there was no point to staying in Montréal the next day. It seemed like there was no reason to spend money on a hotel in Montréal. If I left now and drove straight home, I would arrive around nine or ten, which was a perfectly acceptable time to get home. I decided to head south and see where the road took me. If I got tired, I would stop, but if not, I wouldn't stop until I got to New Jersey. I felt ready to go home, anyway.

It may seem strange that after all it took to get to Montréal, I was ready to go home after only seeing a few things. But sometimes, that's all a person needs. Sometimes, you're ready to go home and no exciting new thing will really register with you, because all you want is to be home. Or is it just me?

Autoroute 15 took me back to the border quickly. I stopped only to look for gifts at the duty free store. I was quite overwhelmed by all the jewelry, expensive booze, and fancy schmancy stuff they sell at those stores. I just wanted some wine and some kind of snack to bring to jury duty. I got a very pretty bottle of cidre de glace (the apple cider equivalent to ice wine) and a bag of maple sugar candies.

The border crossing into America was very different from what I'd encountered earlier that day on the Canadian side. Two booths were open and five cars waited, yet I sat for at least fifteen minutes.

I don't blame the American border guards. I don't think they are jerks on a power trip. I think they are stressed out and possibly overworked. They don't have a lot of power or resources, yet if something goes wrong, they get the blame for letting a creep into the country. So I don't blame the woman who interrogated me. My story was admittedly strange.

First, she asked for my passport. She asked the typical questions, such as what I'd purchased (I presented my duty free bag and, amused, she told me that she didn't need to see the ice cider or bag of candy), if I'd met anyone in Canada, how long I'd stayed and what I'd seen. These last two are where she stopped.

"You're telling me you drove all the way up here?" "Yes..." "From New Jersey!?" "Yes..." "To visit the botanical garden and insect museum!?!?!?!" "Yes......???" "By yourself!?"

The unspoken end of her question became clear to me, and I realized why she was so doubtful of my intentions and my story. You drove all the way up here from New Jersey to visit the botanical garden and insect museum by yourself...on Valentine's Day?

She began to ask more questions about me, some of which were repeats (which they do to make sure you don't change your answer, not because they are jerks on a power trip.) Who was I? Where did I work? (I always, when crossing borders back to the US, emphasized that I worked for the government. Like you! I would be hinting.) What was my occupation?

Here, it became clear to her, just as it had for the Canadian border guard.

"Horticultural education...so that's why you went to the botanical garden by yourself [on Valentine's Day.] Ohhhhh."

She let me through.

Back in America, I stopped for gas in Plattsburgh and bought a Pepsi Max at a store that took Canadian money as well as American.

Here I will pause to offer some traveling advice. If you ever find yourself needing to do a long distance drive, especially at night, buy Pepsi Max and drink a regular glass/small bottle of it. Something about it, probably the ginseng, makes you able to really concentrate on what you're doing, which is driving. You get the awakeness of caffeine without the jitters. You will just stay awake as long as you need to, totally able to focus on the road. From that gas station in Plattsburgh, I did not stop driving until I needed to buy gas somewhere in Bergen County, in New Jersey. I believe I drove five hours nonstop. From there, it was not long before I had to decide whether to stay on I-287 to go to my apartment or to exit onto I-80 to go to my parents' house. It would be an extra twenty minutes of slow country road driving to my parents' house, but I didn't want to go to my empty, lonely apartment that I didn't even like. I went to my parents house where family, dogs, and cats were waiting for me.

A few days later, I shared my maple candies and my story with my fellow jurors, who'd also spent the weekend nervous, restless, with nightmares about the trial intruding their sleep. (It wasn't until deliberation that we could actually share the content of our dreams and worried thoughts.) You can read more about that trial if you're really curious. Less than two weeks after my Canadian adventure, the announcement was made at a staff meeting that made me feel I was at the point of no return, the point at which I could not progress much further at my current place of employment, that I'd be stunted or hindered from my full potential at every turn. That evening, I downloaded and filled out the application for a seasonal (yet valuable) position at the place that eventually hired me and brought me to Portland, Oregon.

Canadian Adventure Part 5: Le Jardin Botanique de Montréal

I arrived at Le Jardin Botanique de Montréal shortly after it opened. Save a few paths, the grounds were closed and under about two feet of snow. The café was also closed. But I spent hours at the garden, for they had several greenhouses. Just looking at these pictures now, in the middle of a different winter, revives that feeling of seeing green in winter. Even in Portland, where the winters are mostly green (with moss, sword ferns, and the needles of Douglass firs), visiting a greenhouse, seeing a particularly healthy tropical houseplant, or just looking at pictures of flowering abundance simultaneously completely breaks the icy tranquility of believing yourself content with winter dormancy while quenching the thirst for green life it has just awakened. It's a reminder of what you're missing, yet good for the soul. And so was my trip to the greenhouses of Montréal.

Other visitors were few. I roamed the collections in peace.

A full-grown Murraya koenigii, known in English as the curry leaf tree. It is in the family Rutaceae, whose famous members include all Citrus species such as grapefruit, pomelo, orange, lemon, and lime. I have never seen the fruit of a curry leaf tree, but the leaves do resemble those clinging to the satsumas I've gotten at Oregon supermarkets. Curry powder was invented by the English to try to mimic the flavor of curry leaves, which did not survive the long journey to England from India. Now, curry leaves can be found in America, but their flavor is not really like curry powder, which I think has a very good flavor of its own! I think they pretty much exist independently of one another now. The smell that comes from Indian restaurants or homes where Indian food has been cooked (including my own) comes from the frying of curry leaves in very hot oil. While the smell can be overpowering, the taste is good! Anyway, I took this picture because I had, at that time, a small curry leaf tree as a houseplant.

For me, one of the highlights was a greenhouse entirely dedicated to Fougères (Ferns).

Of course there were orchids.

I can't remember what the exact name of the greenhouse was, but there were collections of plants typically used as houseplants, and their relatives, planted to grow as they would in the wild. This included begonias and members of the Gesneriaceae family (which includes African violets and Streptocarpus).

I particularly liked this polka-dot begonia.

Houseplants not in a house.

One of many weird cacti.

Living stones, members of the genus Lithops in the family Aizoaceae. I believe they are native to South Africa. These succulents disguise themselves from herbivores by growing close to the ground, visible most of the year only as two succulent, bulbous leaves that resemble (to the eyes of herbivores) stones on the ground. Once a year, the leaves grow tall and, from the widening space between them, a stem protrudes, reaching for the sky. Honestly, it looks more than a little obscene! But then, after a time, that stalk blooms, a lovely flower visible in the sign (the picture within the above picture.) They can be kept as houseplants; I had one in a window display at the place I was working in 2009 and I was very proud when, under my care, it not only lived but also flowered.

I made this picture small because it is ugly, but it illustrates a really interesting concept. The pinkish things above the branch are pieces of a flower being carried by ants. Many species of ants are farmers, a concept that stretches the limits of what most people think ant intelligence can include. These ants harvest pieces of leaves, flowers, or other plant matter and bring it back to their nests to feed the thing they are actually farming - fungus. The specifics of this farming are fascinating, but perhaps not for this post. I took a video of this, but I haven't figured out how to upload and embed that, and besides, the lighting isn't very good. In real life it was much more beautiful. Just imagine delicate, fluttering pieces of flower petals drifting, in a line, down a tree branch; the image beautified further by your knowledge of the intelligent social behavior of the tiny, barely-visible beings carrying the petals.

The pictures and video of the ants are all I took at the Insectarium, partly because my camera was running out of room and partly because the lighting wasn't that great for pictures. The insects were behind glass, so my pictures would have shown you nothing but the reflection of the camera flash.

After a trip to the gift shop and seeing that the café was really closed, I left the garden. I was starving. I had written down the names and addresses of some famous poutine places in the city, but I was too hungry to try to find them. I had seen a sign advertising poutine at a hot dog place down the road from the Jardin Botanique, so I went there.

The highlight of my visit to the hot dog and poutine restaurant was that I ordered my food and conversed with the clerk entirely in French.

From here, I went to Mont Royal, which another post will cover.

For more pictures of my trip, including of the Jardin Botanique, visit my Picasa album Canadian Adventure 2009.

Canadian Adventure, Part 4: Crossing the Border

The next morning, I woke up early, got a free coffee and pastry from the hotel lobby, and headed north, with only nineteen American miles to go!

I took lots of pictures documenting my last miles in America. I stopped at a rest area to get some self portraits, as there was no passenger to take real action shots. (So that picture above was taken under safe circumstances. I was only pretending to drive.) Here's one example:

If we were to go by this picture alone, we would conclude I was in fact miserable at the prospect of driving mysel to Canada.

Almost there! A bilingual sign! Quelque chose bilingue!

The sign says, "Last US Exit" and "Dernière Sortie EU."

Is it the same red Prius that accompanied me on I-87 two days previous?

Je suis arrivée! Autoroute 15 picks up where I-87 ends at the US/Canada border.

When I rolled down my window to speak to the border guard, I felt a little trepidation. Would I have to speak French? Although I'd driven to Canada before, this time I was alone.

"Bonjour, good morning!" a friendly voice proclaimed. She was all sunshine and warmth and springtime blossoms in the cold, flat, brittle brown winter morning. I handed her my passport and, when prompted, told her I was going to Montréal to sightsee, specifically to see the botanical garden and insectarium and maybe some museums and shopping.

"Occupation?" she inquired. I told her horticultural education, and for whom I worked.

"Oh! So that's why you want to see the botanical garden!" she said through her huge smile. She told me to enjoy my trip and wished me a nice day. With that, I was through the border crossing and in Canada!

To be honest, I dreamed of going to Québec since my first junior high French class. I dreamed of seeing a place where people spoke the same language as my grandparents, a place with a culture similar to theirs but much closer than their homeland and, perhaps more importantly, without an ocean in the way. I dreamed of practicing my French here.

Look! The radio is in French!

Most of the landscape between New York state and Montréal looked like this. Actually, this picture of stark winter beauty isn't telling the truth. The landscape on either side of Autoroute 15 was actually not pretty at all. It was flat, barren, and lifeless, with few towns and with occasional rundown convenience stores cropping up alone and conspicuous in the flat land, like trees along I-80 in Nebraska. It was a little depressing, but it didn't crush the high spirits I brought with me to Canada. It wasn't long before I was in Montréal, and in Montréal very different scenery awaited me.

More later!