adventures, by accident


November 2011


As it turns out, I have more than 140 characters worth of thankfulness.

I’m thankful for my health, and for having a roof over my head, and food in my fridge. I’m thankful for my roommate’s cats, who run into my room first thing in the morning and have to be shooed out at night.

I’m thankful for my friends and my family, and for being lucky enough to have people that blur the line between the two. I’m thankful for their support and encouragement, especially when things are rough. I’m thankful for my boyfriend, who has never seen ‘The Office’ but listens to me quote it a lot anyway.

I’m thankful for my job and my coworkers and my reasonably short commute. I’m thankful for the Internet at home, and the public library nearby, to keep me educated and entertained.

I’m thankful for having a few days off, to rest and recuperate before the likely busy next few weeks.



Life in Baltimore marks the shortest commute I’ve had in a long time. In the past few years, my “commute” (to work, or school when I was at College Park) has gone from about 45 minutes of walking/public transit to 45 minutes of driving to 30 minutes of driving (but on the Beltway so hard to predict) to about 20 minutes. What’s gotten me through all those hours of driving, plus any number of road trips in between, have been podcasts.* I have fairly boring taste in music, so I don’t really have the supply of new music needed to get me through all those hours. I listen to podcasts on a lot of different topics, and I really love podcasts that are in the 20-30 minute range, since I don’t have to break them up over 2-3 outings.

Some favorites:

Filmspotting. I do have a weakness for Chicago based or affiliated podcasts, of which Filmspotting is one. They do weekly movie reviews and top five thematic lists (heist movies, relic movies, etc.) as well as multi-week studies of particular directors or genres (70s scifi, documentaries). I especially like that the podcast timelines that come with the download, so I can focus on reviews of films I’m interested in and not listen to the whole hourlong podcast. Weekly from WBEZ Chicago.

Planet Money. I started listening to this NPR offering because of my sister’s recommendation. It’s 20-odd minute podcast on financial topics, ranging from the breakdown of the Euro zone to investments. There’s a rotating cast of hosts, plus some topics that are covered in multi-episode storylines. Twice weekly plus segments on other series.

Radiolab. Science, music, culture. Oliver Sachs is a frequent guest, and they did a whole episode on Zoe Keating. This podcast is hard to describe because of the range of topics covered, but if you like it, you probably love it. Sporadically (the schedule is unpredictable) from WNYC.

These are, of course, in addition to widely popular standbys like Fresh Air and Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!, which you should check out.

*A note on audiobooks: I’ve never gotten into them. They usually put me to sleep, except for the Jim Dale Harry Potter books, where his interpretation of Hermione’s voice I find so irritating and disappointing I become irate.

Making Life Easier

I am not, by most measures, an early adopter. Of anything. But when I do adopt something, I tend to develop the “how did I ever live without this” mentality. Examples from years past include my hot water bottle and my GPS. (I know how I lived without Julie, my GPS, but it involved a lot of swearing, crying, and paper cuts from looking at maps while pulled over to the side of the road while swearing and crying.)

Recent examples include Crisco baking sticks, powdered buttermilk, and the Wegmans app for my Touch.

Crisco baking sticks are, obviously, a genius idea. I realize that these are basically death sticks, and that these sorts of hydrogenated oil products will eventually kill me. But this is where the genius lies, to me – in packing Crisco like butter/margarine/cream cheese, with a solid wrapper and measuring marks on the side, I can get better and more reliable measurements. Rather than having to buy a huge tub of Crisco, get my hands and multiple measuring cups gummed up scooping out Crisco, and then get a spoon dirty trying to get the goop out of the measuring cup, I just slice off the appropriate amount. I’m not left with tubs with reserves of shortening wasted in the creases, a la peanut butter. I don’t use Crisco often, and the sticks seem easier to store than the tubs. But Crisco does feature in two of my favorite recipes for two of my favorite baked goods – Skillet Cornbread and Snickerdoodles – so I like to have some on hand for my baking sprees. If you use Crisco, I recommend.

Powdered buttermilk. Yes, I realize that vinegar + milk = buttermilk; don’t comment. But while I almost always have those two on hand, that’s because I use them for things, like drinking and cleaning. Not in that order. Powdered buttermilk helps my baking sprees in that I rarely have buttermilk hanging around; it tends to spoil between my infrequent uses. It keeps in the fridge, so you don’t save fridge space like you do with powdered milk, but a little bit goes a long way. Just dissolve a few tablespoons of powder in water and voila! I’ve found this especially helpful in those all-to-frequent instances where I haven’t read a recipe through and don’t realize I need buttermilk until I’m midway through baking. For most people, the vinegar-in-milk situation will suffice, but I prefer buttermilk powder to stretch my milk out between shopping trips.

Finally, the Wegmans app. I have been enthusing about this to basically everybody I know (sorry, people!) Wegmans has been in my peripheral vision for a long time, but I never shopped there until their recent store opening in Lanham, MD. Their hot bar is surprisingly tasty for a grocery shopping date, not to mention the Coke Freestyle Machines. They have a good selection of fresh produce, mostly decent generics (from my experience, go for cereal and soup, avoid sodas and peanut butter), and with a club card I find reliably low prices on baking staples, especially butter. What’s really sold me, though, is their online list service and app. Since moving to Baltimore,  have wasted a lot of time and energy wandering confusedly around grocery stores, looking for dried blueberries or whatever. The app lets me make a list online, access it through my iPod touch, and tells me how much it will cost and what aisle it’s in. I have been going to Wegmans once a month to stock up on pantry items as well as the occasional seafood deal or fancy cheese. If there’s a Wegmans near you, get a club card, download the free app, and knock yourself out!

Recipe Fails

I really enjoy trying new recipes, and spend a lot of my time online swapping recipes with friends, reading food blogs and cookbook reviews, and finding cooking inspiration wherever I can. I have a pretty good sense my my own limits, both in terms of space/equipment (my tiny apartment kitchen is well-apportioned, but doesn’t have everything) and in terms of skill or motivation (I’ll cut my watery-eyed way through pounds of onion only because I adore onion soup, but I’ll avoid cutting spicy peppers if I can, for example). I think the reason I stay close to my comfort zone is the fear of failure. Fear of wasting my time and energy and still not having anything for dinner; fear of wasting food and the money I spent on the ingredients; fear of choking down terrible leftovers out of guilt and cheapness.

I’ve had some pretty memorable failures. One Christmas I attempted orange marmalade as a gift for my father, which I stayed up half the night working on and never got beyond the consistency of sweet orange soup. One year a friend and I failed at honeycomb brittle (almost broke her knife trying to cut it) and at homemade marshmallow (I won’t even describe for you what congealed marshmallow ingredients look like). Tomato sauce that’s way too watery, bread still raw in the middle, and wildly undercooked baby artichokes in a sauce are other examples.

I had two failures in 24 hours this week. The first was a souffle (my second failed souffle) that was in the wrong size pan (I’m bad at estimating volume!) and collapsed. Delicious but unlovely, my generous dinner companions complimented it anyway.

Fallen dish of Grand Marnier Souffle
Fallen dish of Grand Marnier Souffle

After the souffle, I had some pastry cream left over, so I took a friend’s advice and made some cream puffs for dessert last night. Again, they were tasty, but the batter was a challenge, and they didn’t come out as they should have, looking like baked pancakes instead of puffs:

Flat, chewy pastry puffs
Flat, chewy pastry puffs

In both these cases, I got pretty lucky. The “failures” were still edible, so nothing really went to waste, and I have a good sense of where it all went wrong, so I can try again and expect better results. For the souffle, I need to do a better job of reading ahead and making sure the dish is the right size. For the cream puffs, I think the batter needed to sit and thicken for longer – later batches of the puffs came out taller and more dense. Eventually, I’ll probably get back on the horse.

Hilarity Ensues

The point of this post is to tell a story I’m not sure will make sense in writing, so I’m padding it a bit in case the story bombs.

My family is not, on the whole, an indoor games family. We’re competitive, and mostly athletes. The traditional family Thanksgiving football game usually lasts until either too many people are hurt, or my uncle has made too many people cry, to continue. The indoor games popular in our family tend to be ping pong and pool, though Tripoley is also a favorite. Mom got my sister and I a Dungeons & Dragons starter kit at one point, but with just the two of us and a binder full of rules, it languished in the cupboard for years.

Our neighbors introduced us to one amazing card game many years ago, Dutch Blitz. It sound a bit complex, but once you get into the flow it’s a very fast-paced game, and requires that you pay attention. We loved it, and played in numerous vacations. I’ve been toting around a deck of Blitz cards for years now (the neighbors’ had a deck they’d acquired years back, and my sister tracked a deck down online in the early days of the Internet as a Christmas gift) in the hopes that I would find enough people for a game. I’m getting there, just slowly – it helps to have two of the four players know what they’re doing, and finding another player and two willing volunteers is tricky!

Two summers back, my sister and I were vacationing in Amsterdam, and searching for a souvenir for said neighbors, who had lived in the Netherlands for some period. We thought it would be genius to track down some “authentic” Dutch Blitz cards as a gift. On our last day, while doing some last-minute shopping, we wandered into a number of toy stores, or tried to – one was closed, one mega-store was crowded. One clerk, a poor Dutchman who had to listen to our increasingly frantic descriptions of these cards, since we didn’t know what the game was called, directed us to a local toy shop where he seemed confident the owner would be able to help. We didn’t see the cards, so asked the owner if they carried a particular card game, notable for having pictures of little boys and girls on the back.* “Sex cards?” she asked. Horrified and embarrassed, we fled to another store, eventually abandoning our quest in favor of something else.

Upon our return to the States, we told our neighbors about our failed odyssey to buy them a new set of cards. They broke into hilarious laughter; apparently, Dutch Blitz refers to the Pennsylvania Dutch, and has almost definitely never been heard of in the Netherlands. It was chagrin on top of embarrassment.

It’s a good game, though. You should come over and play it sometime.

*Between not speaking Dutch and being probably hungover, I suspect our request was significantly less coherent, but that’s bedsides the point.

Fringe Review

I lived in my apartment for 78 days without Internet. Technically, since we had the downstairs neighbor’s password, we could access some Internet, but not well enough to stream video or to use my laptop in my room. It could have been worse – I do have access at work – but it wasn’t ideal. While waiting for our service provider to sort itself out, I read a lot, and borrowed a lot of DVDs from friends (and Netflix), including the first season of Fringe. (Also Entourage, but the less said about that, the better.)

Fringe, the Fox show about paranormal investigation, falls into a weird nexus of my personality. I am a big science fiction/fantasy fan, and was hugely into The X-Files, a similar Fox show from years back, for a long time. And the similarities between Fringe and The X-Files are not superficial – monster of the week episodes interspersed with shadowy conspiracies, kidnapping of the main female character, characters motivated to investigation by personal/family connections – but there are also major differences, in that Fringe is (in my opinion) much more visually graphic than X-Files, and moves through several seasons worth of X-Files plotlines in its first season.

On the other hand, I’ve become much more skeptical in my personal outlook since I was a devoted X-Files fan. I am still interested in science fiction, fantasy, and other forms of speculative fiction, in writing and movies/tv shows. But I find myself rolling my eyes a lot and sighing exaggeratedly at my roommate’s beleaguered cats, who just want to nap on my lap in peace. I find I almost prefer the crazy, over-the-top quantum space-time transportation episodes to the stranger-than-fiction episodes. When it feels like they’re treating pseudoscientific nonsense seriously, I have a harder time suspending my disbelief, especially since the characters grow more credulous over the course of the season, and there’s no consistent Scully character to be skeptical and take the hard line. The first season’s heavy reliance on various miraculous devices to drive or resolve the plot becomes frustrating, and the ambiguous motivations of a supervisory character walks the line between “keeping the viewer in the dark” and “written to suit the episode’s plot needs.” But there are many ways in which I enjoy Fringe, too, including the extended and generally developed cast of charaters, the scenic Boston-area setting, and the rambling musings of the principal investigator.

If you like The X-Files, Lost, or similar shows, you’ll probably like Fringe. I suspect it’s not quite procedural enough to have crossover appeal, but it’s been on long enough I may be wrong about that.

The Travel Bug

I love to travel, but I love to plan travel almost as much. I love reading about places I’m going, arranging destinations by location and daily budget, making a packing list, buying stamps, sorting pictures afterwards, all that jazz. Each destination requires a different type of planning, and I consider anything eligible for planning; if I leave the ten mile radius around my apartment, you can bet I’ve got a plan. (Sometimes even within ten miles. It’s a problem.) Familiar locations, like Boston or Chicago, require frequent weather checks (one never knows) and a long list of favorites I can’t miss, whether those be people, activities, or restaurants. If I’m headed to my aunt and uncle’s beach house, I check the stock online at the local yarn shop, plan my reading list carefully, and polish off the binoculars (and life list, which is an actual thing I own).

It’s been a while since I’ve been anywhere new, though, and I’m starting to get antsy. However slowly my vacation days seem to be accruing, I am already planning on how to spend them. I was considering somewhere warm and sunny to counteract the Mid-Atlantic winter – Greece was at the top of my list, until the economy started to collapse in on itself (and the rest of Europe). Cambodia’s been in the back of my mind for a while, since a friend recently threatened almost had the opportunity to move there, but that’s a hike, and not a cheap one. I also have to leave some vacation days in the kitty for my cousin’s wedding this summer.

While I consider, I’ve been checking piles of travel books out of the library to browse, and I have some recommendations. Like planning, the kind of travel guide you need varies considerably with your travel style (are you backpacking, or is somebody else paying?), the type and number of destinations (a city, a scenic farm or seaside resort, or a grand tour?), your familiarity with the destination (the area of the world, the frequency of visitors to the destination, whether you’ve ever been before and speaking the language), and other factors specific to the traveler’s preference (if you prefer adventure travel or spas, museums or birding or both; if you’re traveling alone, with a partner or friend, or a family; and so on). Caveat: I am not a widely experienced traveler, so I am FAR from an expert; these reviews come from my limited but direct personal experience.

Touring a country? I was enamored with the colorful Lonely Planet “Discover” series upon first finding them, and I think they’re great for armchair travel. They’re glossy and thick, with opinionated lists from staffers and guides, and they’re trying to be one-stop shopping by providing translation and currency information on the inside covers. They’re so big and so full of editorial information, however, that they’re not great for most travel, more suited to preparation than toting around in your day bag. If you want a picture-heavy guide, go for DK Eyewitness Travel guides, especially in Europe and the Americas. They’re lighter and have more factual information. My go-to guides are typically from the Rough Guide series, which I’ve found to give really helpful and practical planning advice, details on local culture (festivals, markets, etc.) and have information on adventure travel that’s at my level – which is, I like some outdoorsy stuff, but I’m no backpacker or snowboarder. I think Lonely Planet goes into more depth on museums and theater, but since most travel guides cover these topics and it’s the sort of research I do before leaving, I don’t find this to be critically missing from Rough Guides.

Visiting a city? I love the Frommer’s “Day-by-Day” guides, mostly serving major European and North American cities, which lay out basic 1/2/3 day itineraries, special interest tours, and include glossy city maps. I like these because the pocket sized guides are light and portable, I find the organization of the guides pretty intuitive, and they include a lot of information for outdoor activities, including walking tours. Walking in a city is one of my favorite things to do – you get, I think, a better feel of the city if you can walk around and see not only the highlights but everything else. Their Amsterdam guide had a great walking tour of the Jordaan and waterbike tour of the canals, and their Chicago guide has a good architecture walk of the Gold Coast.

On a budget? If you’re on a strict budget, or trying to pull of a complicated itinerary of hitting a lot of places on one journey, Let’s Go can be perfect. They focus on student travelers and cater to that budget, but I’ve pulled some fabulous restaurant suggestions out of Let’s Go guides, including an amazing basement Thai restaurant in London.

New traveler? If you’re going to Europe, Rick Steves is the name you’re looking for. He produces volumes of travel information – guides and public television specials especially – including a “Europe through the backdoor” guide for beginners. If you’re not going to Europe, I am lame and cannot assist.

Rick Steves is also good, in my parent’s opinion, for family travel and European tours (road tripping through Andalucia, or rail travel in Benelux, as examples). If you’re traveling solo and enjoy outdoorsy activities, Moon Guides are excellent, but I suggest supplementing them with another guide book as they don’t seem to be published/updated as thoroughly. (That being said, if you’re interesting in improvising and don’t care much about background information, Moon Guides may be the way to go.)

Road tripping? I’ve had great success with the “AAA+” method of travel when hitting the road, and not just because the stops mentioned offer discounts to members. Factors like traffic and weather can really influence car travel, and it’s good to have a vetted list of reasonable hotels and restaurants if you can’t rely on making reservations well in advance. What’s the plus in AAA+ travel? If you’re taking a destination road trip, get a guide specific to the destination to enhance AAA‘s dry, factual approach to travel. I’ve used this method for lots of road trips from Chicago – a AAA guide to get to Mammoth Cave, Cooperstown or Duluth, and then a specific guide to the destination maximizes your enjoyment of the whole travel experience. Don’t get stuck on a parkway in Connecticut looking for a hotel. Trust me.

Overall, I’ve found most public libraries have a great if not perfectly updated collection of travel guides. Check out a few guides on the same region and find your preference – you may decide you have a Frommer’s budget for hotels after all, want a Michelin guide to splurge on restaurants, or want to supplement a glossy Cagodan country guide with a Lonely Planet Encounter city series. Once you’ve figured out how you want to travel, the right books will basically pick you.

Needles and other prickly topics

I donated blood yesterday after work. Unlike Dwight from ‘The Office’, I don’t feel lopsided, but in the grand (28) year scheme of things, it’s pretty surprising.

When I was little, I hated the doctor because I hated needles. I would scream and cry and hyperventilate, basically losing all sense of composure and control, even for tiny finger pricks. This carried on until well after I’m willing to admit, though I did manage to bear needles enough to get my ears pierced around ten. I probably would have chickened out on that if I hadn’t been waiting so desperately for so long.

My high school held periodic blood drives, but luckily I wasn’t eligible to donate (that was many pounds ago, I assure you) and didn’t have to embarrass myself more than normal by having a panic attack in front of my classmates. I ran out of excuses my freshman year of college, when a post-September 11th spirit of civic duty swept the campus, and I agreed to donate with one of my roommates. I was so nervous that my heart rate was above the threshold, but the nurse told me to wait five minutes to calm down, and I managed to calm down to an eligible level. After donating, I passed out on the snack table, apparently, though I only remember waking up on a nearby cot feeling crummy. Of course I lived on the fourth floor of my dorm, but my similarly depleted roommate and I managed to crawl up the stairs and into bed. I didn’t give blood again for a long time, but apparently overcame my fear of needles sufficiently to establish a collection of piercings and tattoos (tattoo, really) in the intervening years.

I started giving blood again, though still infrequently, when I lived in Boston, often going with coworkers on our lunch breaks. When I moved back to Chicago, I went regularly with a friend to donate at a local hospital, and it sort of became our thing – every eight weeks or so, we’d donate blood in the early morning, then treat ourselves to something sweet from the Starbucks in the local Barnes & Noble, either grabbing chairs to chat in the cafe, or wandering the shelves to check out the book selection. This is one of the things I missed the most, when I moved to DC two years later – those sorts of little rituals and habits always made me homesick. I think everybody who can give blood should give blood, so make a date with a friend – it’s more fun, the time passes more quickly, and you don’t have to rely on a stranger to catch you if you pass out!

One problem I occasionally wrestle with is the exclusion of so may potential blood donors, a topic recently discussed among some of my Facebook friends. I realize that the Red Cross and other blood donation organizations are simply trying to protect the recipients of the blood, who are probably in an immune-compromised state already, and when it comes to medical matters it’s usually better to be safe than sorry. However, I also found a difference between policies at Red Cross (and LifeSource, according to my sister) blood drives and the hospital – in terms of travel and “body modification” exclusions, the deferral period was much shorter. For example, I was able to donate at the hospital after traveling to Central America, because the hospital was able to check my itinerary against CDC’s malaria maps. While the official Red Cross policy allows for blood donation after piercings and tattoos “as long as the instruments used were sterile or single-use equipment,” or you’re in a state that regulates tattooing, the application of these caveats appears to be uneven.  And apparently if you’re a gay man, you’re persona non grata. Again, I realize that the Red Cross and other organizations are doing important work in organizing and staffing blood drives. But even if you think you’re ineligible, you may try the local hospital – they may have the staff time and energy to examine your medical history more closely and explain the reasons for your exclusion.

I’m giving again with my friend at the end of December, when I’m back home in Chicago. I can’t wait.


List of beers for the pumpkin beer tasting
Pumpkin beer tasting list

I would classify my Halloweekend as very successful. The cheese ball was a success (of course), as was the pumpkin beer tasting party, though I can only claim any credit for the former. As you can see, we had a number of beers to taste, with pretty mixed results. The beer featured in the photo was my contribution, Shock Top Pumpkin Wheat, which I described as not pumpkin-y with a clove aftertaste. This was a problem common to may beers – smelled more like pumpkin pie than tasting of pumpkin. In fact, at one point we accused the hosts of spiking Natty Boh with pumpkin pie spice. I believe the winner overall was the Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale, which I described has having a nice, spicy aroma and a rich finish. The loser(s) were Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale, which to me tasted muddy and sour, and Samuel Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale, which I sexistly described as “buttertaste” (“looks good, buttertaste”). I also scored the recipe for spicy chicken chili that I’m excited to try now that it’s soup weather.

Despite the threatening weather on Saturday, it actually cleared up to be quite a crisp fall weekend. Monday T and I managed to get out of the sauna of my apartment and enjoy some fall views of Baltimore at Druid Hill Park for a walk around the reservoir. I forgot my binoculars, but we saw some Greater Black-backed Gulls – they’re huge, and one of only a dozen or so birds I can identify without a book or my dad nearby.

I find Baltimore to be an especially interesting city for the crowded list of smashed-together neighborhoods. While many cities follow a predicable pattern of “nice” versus marginal neighborhoods, in Baltimore many of these neighborhoods practically co-exist, separated by little more than a street. In the Druid Hill Park area, along Druid Park Lake Drive, there are a few blocks of gutted rowhouses with only their facades remaining, sharing view of the park with luxury condo/high-rise apartment complexes. Many areas of Baltimore seem to be gentrifying, including Brewer’s Hill, Fells’ Point, and Federal Hill, with the latter probably the most gentrified of the bunch. But gentrification in Baltimore seems to be spotty rather than creeping, with renovated rowhouses sharing streets with abandoned ones, upscale dining opportunities adjacent to the ubiquitous “Fried Chicken Lake Trout” carry-outs, and other such commingling. I suspect this contributes (well, this and The Wire, or Homicide if you’re over a certain age) to the mixed reputation Baltimore has in the wider world. It’s hard to know what to say about a city with both high crime rates and Johns Hopkins University.

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