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taygete

adventures, by accident

Month

December 2011

Faux-cation

How do you spend your holiday breaks?

I’ve been lucky in the past few years – I get a full week off for the winter holidays this year, have had extended school breaks the last two years, and didn’t have to travel the two years before that to spend the holidays with my family. But being home in Chicago always presents me with a weird dilemma: to enjoy being home, or to take a break.

Chicago is basically my favorite, and there’s always a ton of things I want to do when I’m home. I want to get in some quality time with my family, neighbors, and friends; I want to get out and about to my favorite restaurants and bars and other destinations; I want to check in on museums and plays and culture. Trying to cram my soccer bar, deep dish pizza, Cuban food, the public library’s fantastic collections, and blood donation in to one visit can be challenging.

My other instinct on vacation is to laze. To park myself in front of the DVR with a beer and a plate of appetizers, sleep in, read, and nap. Vacation should be relaxing, right, and involve no coordination or planning? It goes against my instincts, but sometimes it’s nice to let somebody else take care of the details and just enjoy myself.

I usually manage to balance these two instincts pretty well on my visits home, and get in some TV time as well as some outdoors time. But I do often head out of the city thinking, “If only I’d had time to …”

So, how do you spend your breaks?

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Resolved

On the whole, I’m not much one for resolutions. Despite my love of making lists, I don’t usually have a big New Year’s celebration or any similar marker to “start” on any resolutions I might make. Last year, I made a few resolutions, and I have one for the new year. I suppose wrapping up the first semester of my job is as good a time to reflect as any.

From 2011: I resolved to give more to charity, write more reviews of books I read, and knit more. I think I did fairly well. For the first resolution, I donated $200 this year (for inquiring minds, it breaks down to $75 in three separate Kiva loans, $25 to the Red Cross general fund after the earthquake/tsunami in Japan, $25 to my alma mater Mount Holyoke College, $25 to Planned Parenthood, $25 to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and $25 to Baltimore’s NPR station WYPR) and, as already discussed, got back on the blood donation bandwagon (by December 31st, I will have given again, too). My second resolution didn’t work out as well, though it’s a work in progress. I tend to read a lot of series books, and finding new and interesting things to say about each entry in the series can be challenging. I also tend to check out piles of cookbooks or knitting books from the library to browse, but not really reflect on or review, so those tend to get 2-3 star ratings on GoodReads while I move on to the next in the stack. I made this resolution because I hate that feeling of knowing I read a book but not remembering anything about it or what I thought about it. Finally, I did a pretty good job knitting this year. Almost all my knitted gifts were done on time, and I tackled some more difficult problems. My real challenge is keeping things on the needles – I have plenty of patterns I want to try, and yarn to use, but once I finish a project I really need to work on casting on something immediately, rather than coasting on my last success. My fall resolution to scrapbook wasn’t followed through on, so that’s been moved to a January project on my internal calendar.

For 2012: I’m hoping 2012 will be a year to focus on (however ridiculous this will sound) bone density. Now that I have insurance I was able to visit a doctor this fall for a physical, and she gave me a little talking-to about how the next year or two are critical for bone density. Osteoporosis runs in my family, and this age range is where I really need to be focusing on building bone density; apparently, after 29 or 30, the most you can do is maintain bone density, rather than building it. This is going to mean increasing my calcium intake (I’m focusing on dietary calcium, but have supplements as well), reducing my pop intake (Coke Zero and I will be going through a nasty breakup when my current stash runs out), and varying my exercise beyond yoga and cycling to include more higher impact activities that help build bones (walking, weightlifting, but probably not running).

I head home tomorrow, and I can’t wait.

Aggregation Aggrivation

Aggregating interesting things on the web has been a plague on my life for several years now. When I lived in Boston and started my first grad school program (late 2006/early 2007) I didn’t have a computer or Internet access at home. I would occasionally spend my lunch breaks on my work computer doing research for school, and then need to access the links or other information from a computer at the school library. For a while I would send myself emails with links and attachments, but that got frustrating to keep track of, and in the days before my Gmail account and access to Google Docs, I didn’t think I had a lot of alternatives.

Then I discovered delicious, the web-based bookmarking site. I used it heavily for school, bookmarking and sorting all kinds of links. After I moved home and had a laptop/internet access, I used it just as heavily for managing my first library job search, then eventually for recipes as I began to discover cooking blogs, as a wishlist for items not available through Amazon, to bookmark activities and events I was interesting in attending around Chicago, and to share those activities with my sister/partner-in-crime, who I’d convinced to join the service.

Delicious has since been revamped, and I’m not fond of the new look, and I’ve found some glitches that make it less appealing. I use social bookmarking now to mark articles for access from my laptop, and two work computers. Often I’ll find a long article at work that I want to read later at home, or I’ll be halfway through an article at the reference desk when my shift is up. I’ve cobbled together a few services for these types of tasks, none of which is really meeting all my needs.

Google Reader, typically paired with Instapaper. This aggregates the blogs I follow, so if I go a few days without checking in, I don’t have to remember what the last day I checked was and can keep the info to read later. Often with long articles, I’ll save the details to Instapaper and export them to my Kindle so I can read ad and glare free. Doesnt’ work well for graphic-rich articles, obviously, but Instapaper is one of only two apps I’ve paid for in my year of having an iPod touch, to give you a sense of how much I use this service. Since Google Reader’s redesign I’ve tried a few other RSS services, such as Feed.ly, but haven’t found anything I like better.

Pinterest. I used to have a folder on my laptop for assorted visuals I found appealing – design and craft ideas, photos of places I want to visit, cute animals, etc. Pinterest basically serves this same function, but web-based, so I can pin and access the images from anywhere, and it doesn’t take up hard drive space. Pinterest can preserve both images and links, and saving things here doesn’t feel as cluttered as keeping articles in Google Reader forever. As far as discovery goes, a lot of what other people pin seems to involve wedding planning (in which I have negative interest), crockpot recipes (don’t own one) or insipid “inspirational” messages (mostly Christian or fat-shaming), so I often pass on browsing other people’s pins. There’s a convenient “pinmarklet” button for my browser bookmark toolbar that makes saving quick and convenient, though I don’t like having to enter a description for everything I pin.

Delicious. Feels bloated and inconsistent since being acquired by AVOS. I like that there’s more image/visual support, and the interface is clean and straightforward. Good integration with Chrome and Firefox. But th big advantage of delicious for me, at least previously, was the ability to access the bookmarks from anywhere. A video I can’t watch at work can be bookmarked to watch at home, for example. But now, links I delete at home won’t get deleted at work, and my user preferences are similarly not uniform across multiple computers. I’m considering a switch to Diigo at this point, though I don’t know anybody who uses it currently to interrogate about it.

Fairy Stories

I’ve never been the biggest fan of fairytales. Sure, I had a few Disney favorites, but I enjoyed the music and colors more than the stories. I’ve read and enjoyed a few fairytale re-workings, but on the whole I’m not inherently drawn to either the source materials or the retellings.

Which makes it interesting that I’ve found re-imagined fairytales on my shelf and in my Hulu queue quite a bit recently. I suppose it’s very zeitgiest-y, but I always find this sort of confluence interesting. Occasionally it will happen that a historic figure will crop up in multiple books I read in a row (Vidocq, or Vidocq-inspired characters, is a past example), or actors show up across multiple viewings, or I’ll unknowingly check three books somehow related to Venice out of the library. Do you ever hear a word or somebody’s name you’ve never heard before, and suddenly it seems like it’s everywhere? Thus also go fractured fairytales.

Once Upon a Time (ABC): Of the two fairytale series on tv this season, I wasn’t expecting to like this one. And there are some strange elements – I, for one, find the highly stylized fantasy elements in the flashbacks to be roll-my-eyes cheesy and visually overwhelming. The conceit of the show is that an evil queen cursed an entire fantasy/storybook land to modern-day Maine, with no knowledge of their previous lives and no ability to leave. The one person who can (unknowingly and unbelievingly) release the town from the curse is brought in by her son (who she’d given up for adoption ten years prior). There’s a lot going on in this show, with modern-day plots intercut with their fantastical precedents, and often a B-plot of secondary character development running in the background. On the whole, I’m enjoying the show, which generally treats its audience as intelligent enough to follow the plot without being bludgeoned over the head with the parallels between fantasy and modern plots. It’s fast-paced but realistic, and the characters are pretty well-developed. I think the modern-day evil queen is a bit mishandled – she’s not quite evil enough to be rooted against, but no other perspective beyond Evil Queen is provided, so she ends up being a walking plot device, really only there to ensure her own demise. Although extremely white and containing some problematic adoption narratives, a highly watchable show.

Grimm (NBC): A crime procedural wherein the protagonist discovers he’s the last descendent of the Brothers Grimm. As a crime procedural, it works reasonably well, with a sort of X-Files-esque vibe in the Pacific Northwest. The main character has to hide his knowledge and abilities from many other characters, including his partner, but the supernatural elements seem to be mutually aware of one another. Other aspects of the series aren’t as engrossing, and seem superfluous. There’s tension surrounding the girlfriend-almost-fiancee that feels completely irrelevant, as we don’t see her or them together enough to feel invested. The police chief (lieutenant?) is “in” on something “nefarious,” but again, we don’t see enough of him to really feel the threat. I’ll probably keep watching this to the end of the season, in case the characters and back story develop, but I’m not holding my breath.

The Sisters Grimm (series by Michael Buckley): As with the tv series, these books for middle grade readers focus on the story of two sisters who discover they’re descendents of the Grimms, and many of the story components of the tv series apply here. I find that the set-up makes more sense in a children’s book than on screen – absentee parents are a tried-and-true story component for children’s book, since it’s hard for wild adventures to happen with involved and attentive parents. (See also: my childhood.) In this story, there’s a good deal of tension among the Grimm family members and among the supernatural entities, which can lead to a lot more conflict and screaming than I find appealing in children’s books. For somebody of the appropriate age, these might be great (almost a sort of girls’ version of The Spiderwick Chronicles), but I find the children alternately screechy and preachy.

On an unrelated note, why is the Internet so awash with whatever kind of web design is required to make it look like it’s snowing in the background? The animation is turning up on half the websites I frequent, and my Mark Bittman app, and it makes me sort of nauseous and zoned out. Unpleasant.

Navel Gazing

Is the WordPress homepage snowing? My Mark Bittman app is doing that, too, and it’s driving me crazy.

At the suggestion of a friend, I’m indulging in some navel gazing today. I was complaining about not having anything to blog about, given how lazy and unproductive I’ve been lately, and she suggested that might be worthy of exploring. Friends: like therapy, only better and cheaper.

I made the mistake of making a list of all the things I have to do between today and when I head home the 24th. Rookie move – I am now too stressed to be able to focus. For every thing I check off my list, it seems two get added; and every time I tackle a task, I feel like what I’m doing isn’t the “right” thing and I should be doing something else. So instead I alternate between frenetic activity and laying on my bed with the countenance of a stunned deer.

I know it’s not work that’s getting in the way of my focus, since work is actually remarkably slow considering it’s exam period. I have my Christmas shopping done, it’s just the knit gifts that need taking care of (and the shipping of said items). I have a long queue of tv shows and books that would keep me entertained, were I to find the focus for them. I have the ingredients of a half-dozen recipes sitting in my pantry, waiting to be used. But apparently, all I want to do is lay down every night and try to trick a cat into curling up next to me. And then do it again the next day. Maybe it’s time to mix it up, somehow.

When It Rains

I think my first exposure to the expression, “It never rains but it pours” came from one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, though I don’t recall which one. It seems to me to be an observable truth; even if it’s not empirically true, it very often feels true. And it feels true right now.

After a flurry of activity – cooking, baking, knitting, reading, socializing – around Thanksgiving, things have been mostly quiet for the last two weeks. I’ve been out of the office a few days for conferences, workshops and a dentist appointment, and have spent most of my off time reading Laura Lippman and eating prepared foods.

Sometime this week I blinked, and realized I’d unwittingly booked up my entire weekend with social engagements, and further committed myself to various cooking and baking projects for work. On top of the books due back at the library before I head home and a pile of holiday gift knitting the cats can’t seem to stop messing with, time seems to be getting tight.

I feel like I’ve been insulated from the stress of the holidays over the last few years, between living at home and being a student. I could be flexible about travel, or not have to travel at all, and therefore didn’t have to worry about shipping presents or stuffing them into my suitcase. While this year I have to work the 23rd and fly home the 24th, in past years I’ve been free and easy once finals were completed, and could knit and bake to my heart’s content, schedule ample time with friends and catch up on my sleep. Admittedly, winter road trips are not without their stresses, but on the whole the last few Christmases were much more relaxed than this one promises to me. It’s a bit cliche to feel the need for a vacation from your vacation, but that seems to be the way of it this year!

Solo

I live with a roommate and her two cats, but for most purposes I live alone. She and I get along fine, and share our space and pantry amicably, but I end up cooking for myself a lot. Cooking for one can be rewarding and frustrating – halving or quartering recipes can be tricky, trying to figure out if extras will freeze so I’m not eating the same soup for ten straight meals, doing all the shopping and chopping and carrying gallons of milk to my third floor apartment. I was grateful for Thanksgiving with family  in no small part because all I have to bring is cheesecake, but I’m still getting a belly full of delicious food that I didn’t have to make for myself (and in no way resembles a recent night’s “feast” of a box of Stouffer’s frozen mac & cheese and two servings of tater tots).

Most days I do pretty well. I try to stock up on frozen veggies when there’s a sale to I have healthy options most nights, I’ve mastered about a dozen yummy egg dishes, and I can be pretty happy with a baked potato or spaghetti-butter-cheese on nights when dirtying multiple pans seems exhausting. And yet, there are definitely days when I want something more interesting but am completely lacking in inspiration.

Into the breach steps Judith Jones’ “The Pleasures of Cooking for One.” Most famous as the publisher responsible for Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” Jones is an accomplished food writer in her own right. After her husband passed away in 1996, she’s been cooking for herself, and this book shows she hasn’t lost an iota of her taste. She scales down “real” recipes, for meals like stew and souffle, so they can be enjoyed once or twice without leaving the chef with a week’s worth of leftovers. Lighter, quick meals are also suggested, along the lines of traditional salads or omelettes. She provides strings of recipes featuring the same ingredient, so cooks can take advantage of sales or bargains without eating the same food for an entire week.

I read a small pile of cookbooks for one person recently, and this was definitely my favorite – the most practical but also the best looking recipes. Recommended!

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