Monday, April 28, 2008

A quick taste

My long weekend in Big Sur was absolutely lovely, and I'm dying to write more about it. However, I've got a lot going on this week, both at work and outside, and I suspect that I shall spend more time this week focused on the things that pay the bills (my job) and the things that keep me sane (soccer, running, book group . . . you get the idea) than on a vacation update. Anyway, here's a quick taste, McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Bonus points to anyone who can tell me why the water in Big Sur looks so turquoise and tropical compared to everywhere else in California.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Reading Update: April 22

Sara Gruen -- Water for Elephants

I enjoyed this book, but frankly, I expected a heckuva lot more from it, with all the press hype it's gotten. Basic Plot: Jacob, a 90-something man coping with the indignities of being shipped away to a nursing home by his caring-but-detached children, recollects his younger days working for the Benzini Brothers Circus. What I really enjoyed about the story was Gruen's prose -- it was quite lovely and lyrical at moments. She paints a vivid and enjoyable picture of circus life back when circuses were the height of entertainment, as well as of a man at the end of his life, grasping for meaning in what he once loved. But the narrative lacked depth, I think. I enjoyed the experience of reading it, but it didn't really make me think about anything outside of its bounds. Ultimately, I thought it was a cute story and not a whole lot more.

David Ambrose -- The Man Who Turned into Himself

Eh. Mediocre at best. The story begins on an ordinary day in the Hamilton household, with the main character, Rick, interacting with his loving wife and young son. Several hours later, he rushes out of an important meeting, suddenly sure that something terrible has happened to his wife. Rick then finds himself swerving back and forth between two parallel universes, unsure what is real and what is just a delusion brought on by a tragic accident. Ambrose clearly wants to explore some interested theories in quantum physics and their potential implications in the real world. He wants to make us question our reality and think about how we become the people we are. All he actually made me want to do, though, was get to the end so I could move on to something more well-written and interesting.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Home is . . . where?

Lately I've been thinking a lot about home. About what makes a place home. Is where you grew up always home? Or can you build a home just by living somewhere long enough? What if you move around a lot? Will anyplace every really feel like home then?

Despite my recent footloose lifestyle, I wasn't one of those kids whose family moved around a lot. In fact, my parents still live in the same windswept house in the Michigan woods they brought me home to 32 years ago, as a newborn. But something inside teenage me was restless as hell. I wanted OUT of Michigan, and so I went 800 miles away for college in Boston, when I was 18. I lived there for nearly 7 or 8 years, but since 2002, I've lived in 5 states for a year or more, and a few others for a month here and there. There's something addictive about moving around that much. About always having a new neighborhood to discover. About getting to start fresh every 12 months or so, whatever mistakes you may have made where you lived before. I haven't traveled for pleasure as much as many people, but I've lived in more places as an adult than anyone I know.

But lately I've been wondering -- where's home in all that? Is it just the place I come back to at the end of every day? Where's home for any of us, really, in today's world, when everyone I know has friends scattered across the globe? When we can hop on a plane and be literally on the other side of the world in less than a day? I love that about the world I live in, the possibility of it, but I also sometimes crave the kind of stability that my grandparents had, living in the same town for their whole lives. A place where everything is familiar and stable. And I've started to wonder lately if it's ever too late to build that. If you can just pick a place and decide, this is it, this is going to be home.

I've been living in California for 18 months now, if you include the first three months I lived here when I thought it was only temporary. That's longer than I lived in DC. Longer than I lived in Chicago. And almost as long as I lived in Lansing while I was getting my MA. And in a lot of ways, it's really starting to feel like home here. I have a circle of friends that's growing larger every day, many people I can call who live in the same area code as me. My office finally feels lived in, decorated with heart-shaped rocks from my hiking trips and pictures of me with friends and family, the shelves full of books. I started a book group here and our next meeting is at my house. I'm playing on two soccer teams. I have favorite restaurants and trails and "local secrets" that I can pass on to friends of friends asking for advice about a visit. I have so many things that I would be sad to leave behind.

And yet at the same time, in some deeper sense, California still feels completely foreign to me. I still feel a bit like I'm in a Dr. Seuss book every time I see a lemon tree in someone's front yard, the lemons dropping to the ground and rolling in the gutters down the street. Each time I drive into the city, coming out of the Rainbow Tunnel to a sweeping view of the Golden Gate Bridge, I feel like I must be on vacation. This can't possibly be my life.

I still miss the first snow of the year, standing in my yard, or on the sidewalk of a city street, or in my ivy-covered back courtyard in Chicago, ears echoing with the hush of a world being coated in newborn snow. I'll probably always get a little homesick thrill every time I see Vernor's Ginger Ale or Faygo Redpop in the cooler at the candy store down the street. And my senses are oh-so-confused by California. Like right now, everything is abloom here. The wisteria is bursting off of arbors and porches, like the fizz on an exploding bottle of grape soda. The roses have thrown their petals open. The apple trees are letting loose their delicate perfume. Everything smells like flowers and just-cut grass. Like May in Michigan. And yet, simultaneously, the smell of woodsmoke hangs in the air, and the nights have a crisp dry chill to them that makes me feel like late autumn back home. And in the summer here, everything turns golden yellow and pale, crisp brown. It doesn't rain and the air is dry. And yet my body tells me that it can't possibly be summer, without the smell of the first raindrops hitting hot pavement. Without the earthy scent of lake-water in your hair after a 9pm swim on a sweltering August night. Without windy afternoons on a pale-sanded Lake Michigan beach.

At my soccer game last Thursday, I was talking to a woman who grew up in the northeast. She told me that she's lived in the Bay area for 20 years and it still feels just a little bit off every year when the weather is so warm and dry in April. It makes me wonder, will any place other than where I grew up ever really feel like home, or will something in my blood or genes or synapses always swing my heart back toward Michigan? Can you ever really leave behind the home of your childhood?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Things I Learned this Weekend

1. It is a bad idea to eat three bourbon blondies with dark chocolate chunks before I go running. Even if they're really good. My run was pathetic Friday evening -- only half as far as usual, and it was misery every step of the way. But BOURBON. In BAKED GOODS. How's a girl supposed to resist that?

2. I've been gradually falling in love with Massa Organics short grain brown rice for a couple months now. I get it at the Marin farmer's market on Sundays and at first I was in too much of a hurry most days to spend the 45 minutes it takes to make. But then I made it once or twice, and found myself thinking about it for two days after eating it. And I discovered that if I make a nice big batch all at once, I can toss a scoop in with scrambled eggs in the morning, and that it reheats way better than regular rice, so it's good for several days. And then, this weekend, I discovered that it also makes damn fine risotto, and now it's totally love. Massa Organics rice and I are totally going to be together forever. :-)

I've never tried to make risotto with anything besides plain old arborio, but I'd noticed that Massa's rice cooked up pretty creamy just on its own, so I thought I'd give it a shot in risotto. Yum, yum, yum. It turned out just as creamy as any risotto I've ever made using arborio, though it did take a bit longer to cook, and it absorbed more liquid than I'd usually use. Definitely a weekend meal, not something my grumbly tummy would have the patience for on a weekday, after working all day, going for a run, etc. Anyway, I started with a base of some leeks and garlic, white wine, and the last of the homemade chicken stock I made a few weeks back. At the end of the cooking time, I added in some shitakes, sugar snap peas, and super-skinny asparagus from this morning's farmer's market. The veggies got just barely crisp-tender, and the rice was toothsome and tender and rich all at the same time. SO GOOD. I'd post a recipe here, but I don't really use them. I learned the basics of risotto from an issue of Cooking Light a few years back, and I've always just winged it (wung it?) since then.

3. It is, in fact, possible to play soccer on severely blistered feet, without dying, as long as you layer your poor heels and toes in about 18 layers of moleskin and athletic tape. In fact, I scored a really pretty goal, and assisted on two others, so it was totally worth it that I couldn't feel my toes because the tape made my feet about a size too big for my cleats. (By the way, no moles are harmed in the making of moleskin -- it's this special sticky-backed flannel blister padding, for those of you who've had the good fortune to never need it). Thanks to a tip from Jemima, I've laid off the Neosporin, and my multitude of blisters are healing pretty well. Good thing, too, as D. and I are headed to Big Sur in less than 4 days for a long weekend full of outdoorsy hiking fun. And, of course, marshmallows and bourbon next to a roaring campfire :-) Do you think bourbon blondies mix as poorly with hiking as they do with running?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Mt. Saint Helena

Went hiking in Calistoga a few weeks ago, on Mt. Saint Helena. Crazy trails, Amazing views! The terrain there actually reminded me a lot of Yosemite. And the best part of hiking in Calistoga? Soaking in the hot springs afterwards. Ahhhhh. See if you can spot the hummingbird in this picture (he wasn't all that obliging about posing for me).

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Cougar shot in Chicago

Mom, this link is especially for you -- Cougar shot in Chicago. And you were worried about me going hiking in California!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Darwin at his best

So I've been thinking about letting my cats outside. Violet LOVED going out when I lived in Lansing. She'd lay about in the sun and explore and -- bonus for me! -- bring all sorts of lovely half-dead creatures into the house. (note the sarcasm on that last one). Seriously, that girl was quite the hunter. Once she very carefully brought me a whole family of mice -- momma and 4 teeny tiny babies. All strategically crippled, but not killed, leaving the "fun" part for me. (The vet assures me that all of this is a sign of respect. But between you and me, I could have done without Vi's signs of respect on my bed! And WTF do you DO with 4 half-dead mice. I mean, after you've decided that just throwing them over the fence into the nasty neighbor's yard is just too mean. To the mice.)

So anyway, last weekend, I got the beasties all caught up on their vaccinations and went and bought a new collar for Scout, since she somehow managed to completely SHRED the old one. Don't ask me how. I'll try to remember to post a picture of it later -- it's ridiculous. So I bought her this cute green argyle collar at Target (3 bucks! I love Target! Shred away, Scout -- I can afford a new one!) and I put it on her. Tightened it up enough that I figured it wasn't choking her but she also couldn't get it caught on things. 5 minutes later, I came out into the living room to find Scout oddly hunched over on the floor. I thought she was about to puke, but it turns out that the little genius had somehow managed to get her bottom jaw CAUGHT under the collar and she's sitting there with her jaw stuck open, at a complete loss for how to handle this particular dilemma. She didn't even look angry -- just resigned. Anyhow, after I finished laughing, I realized that probably it didn't feel very good to her, so I let her loose from her self-made trap. Got a claw to the hand for my trouble, too. Maybe I shouldn't the Scout-monster out, afterall. I'm not sure she's evolved enough to survive on the mean streets of Petaluma!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Slightly less babyish steps than I thought

So I just found this website for mapping the mileage of your running route and it turns out that the route I've been running is actually 3.16 miles, so I'm doing better than I thought with the whole running thing. Tonight I'm going to add an extra half mile to the route. Go me.

On a completely unrelated note, I almost died from the cute when I was driving home last night and saw a herd of pygmy ponies with BABIES. Have you ever SEEN a baby Pygmy pony? They're about a foot tall and so cute it hurts. Seriously! (And, um, so cute that you might almost swerve off the road trying to get a better look at them). I brought my camera with me today and I'm totally pulling over on the way home to snap a picture of the cuteness!

EDT 9:30 pm - Just LOOK at the cute! That tail! The fuzzy baby mane! Don't you just want to give it a noogie? Seriously -- it should be illegal for any creature to be this darn cute!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Baby steps

So this running thing is finally maybe starting to get easier. Yesterday, I actually enjoyed my run. And today, I was able to think about something other than how much I wanted it to be over as I was running. This is PROGRESS, people! I have started walking uphill for a few blocks to warm up, so I can then run downhill for the beginning of my run. That seems to get me warmed up better than what I was doing before. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm still only going 2.5 miles or so at a pop, but I'm running more of it than walking. Baby steps.

The biggest problem at the moment is blisters. I've got one literally on every single to. What does that mean? Do I need new shoes? Do I have some kind of wonky stride? WTF?

Of course, any health benefit I'd be getting from running is probably completely counteracted by all the ice cream with strawberry jam and lemon curd I've been eating lately.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Reading Update: April 8

Graham Greene -- The Quiet American

This one has been on my must-read list for a while. I wrote my MA thesis on Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, and I hold onto a lingering interest in the Vietnam War and Vietnam War lit. The Quiet American is pre-American involvement in the war, set in the 1950s when the French were still trying quite frantically to hold onto their colonial power and the Americans were just beginning to dip their toes into the whole mess. It was an interesting counterpoint to the many Vietnam War memoirs and novels that I've read -- reading it was something like knowing that a runaway train is careening toward you and yet not being able to do anything about it.

Anyway, the book was melancholy, but in a lovely way, if that makes sense. Like listening to sad music when you're not actually sad-- when you just sort of give yourself over to a blue afternoon. Greene's style is quite lyrical and he says a lot without actually coming right out and saying it, which I like. I tend to get irritated with stories that have too much narration -- let me figure it out on my own! This book reminded me a lot of Hemingway. Not so much in writing style -- Greene is much less terse than Papa Ernest. But in the themes of the story -- sad men in a sad war. I was going to put a couple of my favorite quotes from the book in this entry, but I've managed to leave it at home. Oh well.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Her Middle Name is D'oh

So troublemaker Scout really, really, really wants to go outside. She gazes longingly out the window at the cats across the street lolling about on their front porch. She stalks the door to my apartment whenever it looks like I may be going out. Last night, I was heading out to kick the soccer ball around and had my hands full with my cleats, the ball, etc as I was going out the front door. So Scout took full advantage and streaked out the door and down the stairs toward the front door before I could stop her. I chased after her, hollering, which usually gets her to turn around and head back, but this time she was determined to finally make her big break. So she bolts down the stairs and makes for the front door of the house. She thinks she sees her chance for freedom! The great outdoors is hers at last! She darts right at the last minute, toward her opening. And bonks right into the floor-to-ceiling window next to the front door. So, Scout, let me tell you about this thing called "glass." It's not so much permeable.

p.s. My new favorite word? Lolloping. It's what the rabbits do in Watership Down -- they lollop. tells me that it means to move with a bobbing motion. How many times a day do you think I can work lollop into normal conversation?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Reading Update: April 4

Jeffrey Lent -- A Peculiar Grace

I've not read anything by Lent before, though I did start to read his first novel, In the Fall, several years ago. I got distracted and never finished it. This book completely blew me away, though. I started reading it Thursday at bedtime and had finished it by midday Saturday -- I literally could not put it down. Basically, it's the story of this middle-loner artist who has never quite gotten over his first love, and how his life changes when a young homeless woman shows up in his backyard one morning. That's very simplistic, but it's the basic story. One thing I loved about the book: Lent manages to capture speech spot on. The two main characters in the story are from Vermont and Alabama, and each of their ways of speaking is completely distinct within the story and I knew instantly, before it was even revealed in the story, the general regions the characters were from. In my own writing, I've always avoided dialogue, as I struggle so mightily to get it right, so I was majorly impressed with Lent on that front. I also loved the fact that the book actually surprised me, yet the surprises were actually completely organic and true to the story. I'm often annoyed with novels that seem to throw in plot twists purely for the sake of having a twisty plot. Not at all the case here. And I loved the fact that the book made me want one ending, but at the same time, left me purely satisfied when it gave me a completely different ending. I could go on and on about how much I loved this book, but I suspect I lost the two people who might be reading this six or seven sentences ago, so I'll refrain.

Richard Adams, Watership Down

This book holds a special place in my heart, as some of my earliest memories are of my dad sitting with me on my bed, reading aloud to me from Watership Down. We even named one of my childhood dogs Rowsby Woof, after a dog in the book. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this book, and the time my dad spent reading it to me, played a major role in my ending up a lifelong reader and book-lover (and someone who makes their career of helping other people learn to love reading). I've owned and lost several copies of the book over the years, and on Sunday I found a used copy for a quarter at the Friends of the Marin County Library used book sale. The best part -- It's the same edition that my dad read to me from when I was a kid. White cover with reddish picture on the front, red coloring on the edges of the pages (do they ever still DO that with books, or was that a total 70s and 80s thing?) So this was a nostalgia read for me on a ton of levels. And I have to say, it was just as good as it has been every other time I read it, though I didn't cry this time around. (If you're a fan of the book, the Wikipedia entry for it is quite fascinating, by the way.)

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

I Think the Dog is Up to No Good.

Just try and tell me this dog doesn't look like she has nefarious intentions toward Emery. I think it might be the first time ever Lucy has encountered another living creature that's smaller and needier than her. (Although I suppose if you shaved off all of Lucy's copious fur, she'd really only be about the size of the rats that used to live in my garden in Chicago). I'm SHOCKED, actually, that my sister and brother-in-law let the dog get this close to the new baby. When they first brought thatdog home, they wouldn't let her anywhere near my much larger black lab, for fear he'd look at her crooked or breathe on her or something. Aren't you supposed to be more protective of the baby than the dog???