Sunday, December 26, 2010

Entering The Lull

The week between Christmas and New Years is when a languid pace of life takes over. Everyone is fattened up and content after a month of overeating. Mine began early this year with a two-week vacation to gastronomically wealthy India in November, so I'm definitely well-padded for the winter.

About 8 years ago I came across an essay called Why We Travel by Pico Iyer, one of my favorite travel writers. I've pulled it out for another read with each trip I've taken since, to see the different ways it rings true every time I go to a faraway land. In Kenya I read it once every six months, and I remember thinking by the end of my two years that I didn't relate to Iyer's dreamy romanticized reflections at all. In fact, I found them really irritating and naive.

I realized it was because when I was in Kenya I wasn't traveling. I was living, and it was in a place called home, but not with a capital H. Being abroad was my way of life. It was foreign, but it wasn't exotic; it was exhausting. I was trying to glean resonance and relevance from an essay that wasn't referring to what I was doing.

I reread the essay when I came back from India a few weeks ago, and was one again fully enraptured by the time I got to the final paragraph. I don't suffer from any illusion that my travels are anything but vacations -- escapes from my New York reality, a way to shake myself awake from the sleepwalking I do to the beat of a mind-numbing routine in a soul-asphyxiating city, literally forcing as much distance between me and Here because Here can be seen much more clearly from way over There. My travels are for realigning my brain, rebooting my soul, upgrading my standards, walking along the perimeter to check that there are no breaches in the boundaries, and all of these things are only possible because travel for me creates a change in scenery, instead of being the norm.

I don't insist on "roughing it" for the sake of roughing it when I travel, whatever that even means. I can't stand those who judge fellow travelers who seem at first and only glance to be surrounding themselves with a luxury or two that resemble home, like tickets on an overnight bus that is less likely to fatally plunge over a cliff because it's not built from Frankenstein spare parts discarded by wealthy countries 15 years ago. I've tried to be a hero and discovered, like all wisefolks, that there's no such thing as a heroic tourist, only an insecure one running away from failures at home, armed with a list of ways to prove something meaningless to himself. Thanks to Peace Corps policy, I paid my poser hero dues in Kenya risking my life riding matatus for two years, and the only thing I got out of it was the realization that I had impressed no one.

In India my friend Christi and I were trying to book bus tickets with an agent in the beautiful Rajasthani city of Udaipur. A hippie-ish American guy in his 40s started chatting us up after eavesdropping on our travel logistics. We were showered and wore clean clothes, and Christi was madeup and wore earrings. As the American guy left the shop knowing as much about us as he had when we arrived, he said helpfully, while flies buzzed around his armpits curious about the tasty things that had died under there, "You should try roughing it sometime. It's good for the soul."

I love Iyer's description of Traveler's Snobbery (an infectious disease I named myself, often acquired while away from home but not caused by any parasite, virus or bacteria), delivered with signature understated scorn:

Though it's fashionable nowadays to draw a distinction between the "tourist" and the "traveler," perhaps the real distinction lies between those who leave their assumptions at home, and those who don't: Among those who don't, a tourist is just someone who complains, "Nothing here is the way it is at home," while a traveler is one who grumbles, "Everything here is the same as it is in Cairo -- or Cuzco or Kathmandu." It's all very much the same.

The deeply unfortunate thing about travel, and meaningful life experience in general, is that the most valuable outcomes have no physical form that casual strangers can see. Wisdom, for example. Of course, true wisdom also says that it doesn't matter what casual strangers think.

My halfway-there wisdom says that when some washed up hippie-wannabe's midlife crisis decides that he's got you all figured out because you don't carry bedbugs in your Birkenstocks and tries to rescue your dead soul by suggesting you "try roughing it," wisdom would be a lot more useful as a giant fist that could punch people in the face.

Conversely, the deeply fortunate thing for me is that compassion also has no physical form whose absence casual strangers would notice.

Friday, December 24, 2010

So It Has Been Awhile

Awhile since I posted. A longer while since I posted anything inspired. Apologies to any fans still out there still faithfully tapping F5 on your RSS feed. You're the die-hards. Thank you for reading.

Another year, another 365 days to reflect back upon and either decide to feel bad about not getting it just right, or to rewrite the story from a more generous point of view.

Recently I've started to suspect that my task right now is to live Groundhog's Day The Movie. Someone is making me do this until I attain a higher state of consciousness, a greater sense of peace and love and forgiveness towards myself, a more sincere acknowledgment of all that's sacred and treasured inside me.

I'm sort of pissed off about that. Let's get on with it, already. Because
1. Everyone else got the green light to proceed to Feb 3 without having to stop being their shitty selves, and
2. By the time I'm done here I'll be so stunningly amazing and beautiful (on the inside, on the inside) that there won't be anyone left for me to relate to meaningfully. Siighh. Life is rough for those of us on the path to greatness.

A sweet stranger introduced me to the poetry of Hafiz of Shiraz, a 14th century Persian poet. What strikes me most about his writing is not the profound wisdom, but the unbridled ecstasy contained in his lines. Life is all a mind game, so pass me that big turkey tray of gratitude and joy. I've gotten good at tricking myself into thinking I'm not angry, resentful and deeply bitter.

Hafiz says, "I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in the darkness, the astonishing light of your own being."

Tears, friends. Tears.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Brief Interviews With Hideous New Yorkers

Okay, so most of the fascinating individuals you're about to hear from weren't actually hideous. Maybe just the young woman who walked past me this morning holding a sign in her mouth that said something apocalyptic about David and Goliath. I couldn't help it; I stared. She was holding a sign in her mouth.

Apparently she thought I was being rude. "Blah blah blah blah CUNT. Get a job," she said as she passed me, the sign temporarily extracted from her mouth.

Taxi drivers also seem to bring great joy into my life, but usually without the verbal abuse. One guy pointed to his face while giving me change and said, "Your beauty mark is nice."

"Oh," I said. "Well, thanks."

"My wife has one, too. I love it on her!"

This weekend at the farmer's market a friendly old lady came up to me, bright pink lipstick all over her face like a 3-year-old had applied it. "You should try some basil," she said. "The Italians use it."

"Oh, I see," I said, eyeing the sickly bunches wilting in the late afternoon. "Looks like they're almost sold out."

"Here, you should try this bok choy," she said. "You'll like it. It's Chinese."

Well, technically, by that logic, I should hate bok choy. Every pro-Independence Taiwanese person knows that nothing good has ever come out of that undemocratic foreign regime across the Strait, and especially not leafy greens.

My office mate the Epidemiologist recently came back from a trip to Taiwan and now has a picture of a beautiful mountain range on her desktop. One of the attendings wandered into our office and noticed the Epidemiologist's new wallpaper.

"Oh, is that picture from your trip? You went to China, right?" Doctor Smarty asked.

"No, I went to Taiwan to visit my family," the Epidemiologist said. "The picture is of a mountain in central Taiwan that I visited while I was home."

"Oh, okay," Doctor Smarty said. "So then, is that the Great Wall?"

Trick question of the day: What country is the Great Wall of China in?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Work In Progress

Hey reader reader! I just set up a new blog with some recent drawerings. The template will be less painful on the eye soon.

The first (and only) post is about the most beautiful man on earth. Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Laff (and Cry) of the Day #8

Art class dude: Do you work in the creative field?

Me: No...

Art class dude: use the other side of your brain for work?

Me: No. I don't really need to use my brain for work. A monkey could do my job.

Art class dude: Ohhh I see. You must work in nonprofit.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Digging Through My Oddball Photos, Again

Bellevue Hospital: Offering patients the most advanced medical technology available today

And the red star means spicy

This looks like the cock that was used to flavor the seasoning. Apparently he's not too happy about it, either.

I finally spotted a piano from the Play Me I'm Yours art installation in June. This one was in front of St. Mark's Church near Astor Place. Somehow I missed the other 59 pianos. I'm just now browsing their website and feeling sad that I didn't know about it earlier. My sheet music is somewhere under the bed, collecting dust.

...And discriminating against half breeds

Engrish: Good at stating the obvious...

Thanks for exterminating the red dragons. Now how about the giant rats?

Food Porn Chronicles: The Shakes

One of the few things that I get excited about during New York's stifling hot summers spent inside greenhouse apartments is making fruit smoothies. The weather the last month or two has been straight out of Do The Right Thing, without the racial violence. Every morning I get up 15 minutes earlier to spin fruit in my mini food processor. It's the best thing in the world.

Justina's Recipe for Perfect Smoothies

fresh ripe strawberries, cut into small pieces
fresh blueberries
soy milk

Freeze the cut up strawberries and blueberries the night before. I usually cut up enough fruit to last a week and keep it in a large tupperware in the freezer. In a food processor or blender, add a handful of frozen strawberries and blueberries, half a banana, and soy milk. Blend until smooth. Experiment with portions to get the right amount. Pour into a commuter coffee mug and bring on the train. Note: I freeze the fruit because my mini chopper is too small to handle ice cubes.

Variation: Watermelon, strawberries and apple juice. Don't freeze the watermelon.

Another variation: Half an avocado, 1 T condensed milk, whole milk. Don't freeze the avocado. Add ice.

Avocado shake

Another variation: Dragon fruit, blueberries, soy milk.

A word about dragon fruit: There are two kinds, the ones with white flesh and the ones with purple flesh. The purple ones are slightly more tangy, the white ones taste slightly like fresh cut grass. Neither have much of a flavor, but they are full of water, which makes them popular on hot days, especially after an overnight stint in the fridge. Last weekend I bought them for $4/lb on Canal Street. Not cheap, but I wanted to see how they would turn out in a smoothie. I'm mostly a fan of the texture created by the seeds. I prefer the purple ones but they seem less common; I only saw one stand selling them.

Purple dragon fruit
 Oh, and one more thing. THIS IS THE BLUEBERRY MOMENT OF THE YEAR. I think for the next week or so blueberries will be in peak season, so keep your eyes peeled at the bodega or sidewalk fruit stand. I bought a pint at my bodega for $2 yesterday and they were perfectly large, plump and sweet. The sidewalk stands are selling them for $1.50 a pint. Stock up!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Oh God I Should Be In Bed But First

So a little bit of serendipity has gotten me drawing again the last few weeks. Here are a few from the stashes. Some are actually from a year ago. All charcoal on paper.

Serendipity? I don't think I actually know what that means.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Food Porn Chronicles: Who Needs A Garburator?

But first, Laff of the Day #8, as told by the Eternal Paid Volunteer Temp. He's full of good stories lately.

"This guy went down in front of the ER today. You know those elevators to the right of the entrance to the ER? He went down there.

"There were all these doctors around him, trying to help him. All these doctors, completely surrounding him, right next to the ER.

"And then I heard someone go, 'Should we call 911?'"

This being Bellevue Hospital, the comment could be interpreted two ways:

1. As an example of American robotic stupidity, the same type that makes me devour Popeye's Fried Chicken but get weepy at the thought of the nice homestay hostess at Tiger Leaping Gorge who chased down a fat hen after she asked, "Are there any vegetarians in your group? No? Okay, I go make dinner."

2. As keen insight and a prudent warning from someone who rightfully doubts the competence of Bellevue medical staff, many of whom are on NYU payroll and therefore wear those white coats with the misleading purple NYU School of Medicine patch suggesting proficiency in providing medical care.

And now, onto the porn.

I just got back from a long weekend in Texas. The first night home always requires getting reacquainted with the contents of the fridge. Ew, I totally forgot about these mushrooms. Also excavated from forgotten corners of the pantry and crisper: a can of chickpeas, three-month old sun-dried tomatoes, a bag of pita bread. Any normal person would enlist the help of their Garburator. Not me.

Hummus has been on my to do menu for a few weeks, and tonight seemed like the perfect occasion: another greenhouse night in the apartment (but a frigid 85 outside, with a light breeze that refuses to make its way through our windows), no love for any heat-generating appliances with the possible exception of the toaster oven, and plenty of old food to test the limits of edibility.

Sun-Dried Tomato Hummus with Mushrooms

old, sad-looking mushrooms
dried oregano
fresh garlic
1 16-oz can chickpeas
1 1/4 T tahini
juice of 1/2 lemon
olive oil
salt, pepper and chili flakes to taste
2 pitas
garnish: fresh tomato slices and watercress

Sautee mushrooms in 1 T olive oil. Season with oregano and salt. Set aside, do not drain. In a food processor, chop 2-3 cloves of garlic, chickpeas and tahini. Add olive oil and lemon juice, salt, pepper and chili. Continue processing until mixture has the consistency of mashed potatoes - or store-bought hummus. Doesn't everyone know what hummus is supposed to look like? Toast and slice pita bread, if desired. Serve hummus in a bowl, top with mushrooms and mushroom liquid from the pan. Garnish with tomatoes and watercress.

Notes: I didn't have tahini so I used 1 T peanut butter and 1/2 t sesame oil. The hummus has a slightly more Asian taste than it should, but the substitution worked in a pinch.

And of course, it was another Dark N Stormy night.

There is a background story to this meal, for those of you still reading. My mom always packs a ton of food for me to bring back to New York at the end of my visit. Yesterday, as we were leaving for the airport in Houston, she said, "How about this mochi? How about some sticky rice? How about this smoked salmon?"

"All of it," I said.

This evening I stopped at the store to pick up sandwich trimmings for the smoked salmon sandwich I was going to have for dinner. Watercress, a tomato and Laughing Cow cheese because it was on sale...sort of. The hand-written sign pointed to a stack of Laughing Cow wheels that were printed completely in Arabic, except for the part that said, "La Vache Qui Rit," the French name, and "Produced in Egypt."

For some reason, only the Arabic/French Laughing Cows were on sale, at 3 for $5. The ones printed in English with the English name were regular price.

Some interesting facts from wikipedia:

In Arabic-speaking countries (except for Egypt, apparently), it's called البقرة الضاحكة (Al-Baqara Ad-Dahika).

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is often jokingly referred to as 'La Vache qui Rit' because of his supposed resemblance to the cheese's logo.

Anyway, the point of the story is that my mom decided not to pack the smoked salmon, but I only discovered it tonight when I got home. Huge disappointment, with a lonely bunch of watercress and a tomato as collateral damage.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Food Porn Chronicles: It Was a Dark n Stormy Night

So the saying goes that all anyone ever uses blogs for these days is to post pictures of their cat or whatever they happen to be eating. I guess I've been guilty of both. It's not as extreme as the San Francisco Chronicle's Jon Carroll and his cat columns, but I like to think the comparison is somewhat appropriate. Carroll is more brilliant than me, though, so he gets to be more self-indulgent than me.

But onto the blah blah blah.

Tonight's dinner was inspired by a trip to Dallas BBQ last Saturday, when it was about 140 degrees outside. It's a touristy joint with passable barbecue, but we were more interested in the frozen margaritas. My friend inhaled his large plate of steaming brisket, but I couldn't bring myself to have anything hot. Instead I had a shrimp cocktail on a bed of avocado and lettuce. Crisp, cool and horse radishy. It hit the spot.

Tonight, back in my greenhouse of an apartment, I decided it was time for Dallas BBQ shrimp cocktail, redux.

7-9 large shrimp, peeled
1 ripe avocado
1/4 red onion, minced
1/2 tomato
1-2 leaves lettuce, chopped
juice of 1 lime
red chili flakes
shrimp cocktail sauce

Boil the shrimp until cooked through. Don't overcook. Combine avocado, onions, tomatoes and lime juice. Mash together until smooth with a few lumps (you've just made guacamole.) Add salt and chili to taste. Place shrimp along edge of bowl. Serve guac on top of lettuce. Makes 2 servings.

Notes: I didn't have shrimp cocktail sauce on hand, so I mixed wasabi with ketchup. The wine glass turned out to be hard to eat out of so I recommend a regular ole bowl. If you don't like eating sea poo you should devein the shrimp before you boil them.

A couple of friends recently brought me a bottle of dark rum in exchange for dog-sitting their beautiful, sweet Australian cattle dog while they were on vacation. Perfect for dark n stormys.

The rum, not the dog.

The key to good dark n stormys, according to a quick trawl of the interwebs, is the ginger beer. My favorite is Stoney Tangawizi (made by Coca-Cola??), a standard soda offering available in nearly every inhabited outpost in Kenya. It's not too sweet, has quite a bite and makes me sneeze. A friend visiting from the U.S. even brought a few bottles back to California with him, or claimed he was going to.

Alas, Stoney, like Tim Tams (owned by Pepperidge Farm??) and a limited few other brilliant foreign creations, is not available in the U.S. Would I have to go to Whole Foods to buy overpriced ginger beer?

It turns out that ginger beer is extremely popular in the Caribbean, and that dark n stormy is a Caribbean drink from Bermuda or Jamaica depending on who you ask. Which means that my neighborhood grocery store, which serves a Caribbean and West Indian community, stocks shelves and shelves of ginger beer varieties. There were so many to choose from. I couldn't decide. I finally went with the Diet Goslings. You know, if you're planning to drink as many dark n stormys as I am, you should avoid any sugar you don't have to ingest.

Dark N Stormy

1 part dark rum
4 parts ginger beer

The can of soda expanded in my fridge, resulting in the Tower of Pisa effect you see.

And another thing. Apparently you can suck tea or coffee through a Tim Tam with the corners bitten off, and win contests for your effort.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Laff of the Day #7

As told by the Eternal Paid Volunteer Temp:

"I was at the vending machine today and this fat lady..." [holds arms out to indicate a 300 lb woman] "...was complaining about how everything is too healthy. 'Why's everyone trying to make us be so healthy? Why can't they put regular soda in the vending machine instead of this diet crap?' So I said, 'Well, this is a hospital. They want you to be healthy.'

And she said, well if we were all meant to be the same size, we'd all be a hundred pounds, wouldn't we?

Then she said, 'I'm going downstairs to the other vending machine to get a real soda.'"

[The End]
And then I said, "While you're down there you should also try to get a real gym membership."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

I Left My Heart In...

It's back to the grind after a glorious week in San Francisco, the greatest city on earth. A friend said tonight that there is a marked difference in my mood and energy since I've been back.

"Even your skin looks different," he said.

"I'm browner," I said.

"No, something else," he said.

Love, probably. And life. Something renewed in my spirit and my soul. Something gently shaken and lovingly reawakened. My head tilted with curiosity, my eyes squinting into the sun, my shoulders dipping and legs zipping around people to get a better view. Showered once again by the love of old friends, the kindness of strangers, and all the things that make my pulse race for the place that I call home only because it resides in my heart.

I reconnected with the people who paint my world there with broad and fine strokes, in vivid and muted colors. I got to know distant connections who are now being recruited to nourish the love and wonder and passion for life that only seems to spring forth when I'm out there. I reconnected with the city itself -- a living, breathing, pulsing mass of rolling hills, crashing surf, dramatic cliffs plunging into deserted beaches and shimmering tidepools, tiptoeing fog, crisp blue skies, sprawling bridges and winding highways and car-free bike lanes.

There have been tiny tiny men who were threatened by the knowledge that I'd never love them as much as I love San Francisco. They have bellowed in their weak, quivering voices that San Francisco is not a living thing and wouldn't miss me if I moved away to follow and prop up their empty souls. They lacked imagination, they lacked self-worth, and they lacked a compelling reason to take up precious space on our planet. So when a tomato truck ran them over while they were wiping their crack with poison oak leaves on the side of Interstate 5, I only mourned for the tomatoes.

So what? I love bloody marys.

In San Francisco, I'm alive. The vitality and passion that were part of my daily wardrobe, tucked into every vein when I lived there years ago, became fiery again. I'm not sure what it is, this match struck against a coarse surface, this beacon through pea soup fog, these hibernating parts of my soul that bound out of bed at the crack of dawn when I find myself sitting on the dock of the Bay, wasting no time.

In New York, those parts of me have fallen asleep. At some point in the last three years, complacency took over. Things started to seem good enough. Monkey dancing for lethargic bureaucracies seems good enough. Doughy, unchallenging, clown-like men seemed good enough. Being surrounded by plodding vapid lifestyles seems good enough, as long as it comes with eye contact and a vague semblance of customer service.

There's an equally valid flip side: The friends I have here are priceless. I'm glad to have a job, and a lovely bike, and a kickass living situation in an endearing neighborhood. I'm young, healthy and don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me.

In this silly thing called life, I'm constantly faced with the dilemma of which reality to use to realign my perspective, how finely to tune my patience and my discontent, exactly what constitutes opening my eyes so I can feel gratitude and what constitutes spin. It's not East Coast vs West Coast, it's Eastern vs Western.

Practice: Sitting still, breathing in until your Buddha belly becomes impressive. Now shed your desires. This is how to achieve happiness. Want creates dissatisfaction. Accept what you have and be grateful, instead of feeling entitled to more and trying to reach for things you don't have.

Versus: How many million times did I want to shake my Kenyan friends in the village and say, "Stop complaining about what you don't have and do something about it. Say out loud what you're thinking and ask for what you want."

There's no right answer to my dilemma. Or rather, the right answer is different every time I ask the question.

There's something missing when I'm not in San Francisco. It's that thing that I know exists, because I remember seeing it somewhere before. Not just seeing, but holding it and breathing it and living by it. Now I've gone for years without tending it, and then it reappears joyful dancing frolicking in the form of the place that feels like home, the place that holds my heart. It's so obvious. But sometimes it comes in other forms. Like in the form of another rich, rare soul revealed to me through uncontrollable laughter, through vocabulary words I never knew, through a conversation full of brilliant ideas I completely disagree with. And then it's all of those things held up to me as a mirror reflecting the beauty of my own soul. Yes, I've seen you before.

It's my lifelong love affair. Like all true love, the feelings ebb and flow. But kind lovers forgive each other for being absent, for taking each other for granted for long periods of time. They do this because their love still lives and breathes and kicks and scratches. It's not going anywhere. They know they've been fools for pretending otherwise.

Back to the complacency. It settled in when I wasn't even looking. It slowly, silently smothered me, stubbed down the embers in my soul's campfire. But I'm still wearing my headlamp. I can see that the s'mores I made awhile ago have cooled too much, the graham crackers are a little dry and uninteresting. Don't worry though. I'll wrap and save them for later. Tonight I'll retire to the tent, bring in my hiking boots so they stay dry, zip out the biting critters. I'll get a lot of sleep, and dream courageous dreams.

I wake up to the sun these days, and it rises early.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Laff of the Day #6

I share an office phone with Joe the Banker. It's a pretty ghetto setup. One office, two phone lines, five people.

Also, our phones are just phones. They don't have speaker phone, mute, hold, voicemail or volume control. They look like this:

Technically if you turn the phone upside down there is a knob that you can slide to adjust the receiver volume. Or maybe it's the ringer volume.

Either way, the knob doesn't work.

Why don't we have modern day phone technology? It has something to do with the grinding bureaucracy we work for at NYU, and how it's also woven into the grinding bureaucracy of Bellevue Hospital.

Today someone called for me, and Joe the Banker picked up.

"Hello, Peds I.D.," he said. We work in the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, or peds I.D. for short. And it's pronounced "peeds I.D."

"Sure, one moment," J-the-B said, and motioned for me to pick up the line on my phone. Yes, the old-fashioned one-phone, two-lines setup.

"This is Justina," I said. It was the other project coordinator, the Noob. She was giggling.

"," she gasped between giggles, ""

"I know, I'm sending it out again," I said. "And stop laughing at me. It's not funny."

"I'," the Noob said, still giggling.

"Whatever. I'm resending the attachment," I said. I was sort of annoyed that she thought it was so funny that I had forgotten to attach a file to my email.

A few minutes later she emailed me the following note:

Sorry, I wasn't laughing about the attachment; I've done that a million times. I was laughing because the person who answered the phone said, 'Hello, this is P. Diddy.' 

Don't you have your own phone line?

And that's how Joe the Banker became P. Diddy.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Midwestern Hospitality

Spent the weekend in St Paul, MN for a Peace Corps friend’s wedding, mostly marveling at how nice all the people working in the service industry were. I expected everyone to be rude and abusive to me, and no one was, except this one lady at the open bar who growled, “NEXT ORDER!” without looking at me.

“Can I get another glass of the zin?” I said, pushing through the nasty the way I always do in New York.

She looked at me, startled, and said, “Oh, I’m sorry, honey. I was talking to my assistant back there. But here, let me go ahead and get that wine for you.”

Brad was standing next to me and said, “Well, in New York she would have been talking to you.”

I was also amazed at how many trees and other green things were growing all over the place, and how all the empty spaces in front of houses were real parking spots that no one needed because they had already found a parking spot.

And, I was amazed at how many fake blonde women there were, mainly middle-aged, using the same honey blonde shade of hair dye.

“I even noticed it on my flight into St. Paul,” I said. “All the flight attendants had the same color hair.”

“The fake blonde is not a Minnesota thing,” Tim said. “It’s a most of the rest of the country thing, except for New York and certain parts of California.”

“Really? Where have I been all this time?” I said.

“In New York and certain parts of California,” he said.

“I do remember bleached blonde hair being all the rage in Chicago back in the 90s,” I said. “But now it seems like the thing to do is be a dyed brunette with long straight hair.”

“Well, you’ll probably start seeing the brunette thing in the rest of the country in another 15 years, because that’s how long it takes for everyone else to catch on,” he said.

Fashion predictions from a water and sanitation engineer from Phoenix, ladies and gentlemen.

Having every single service industry person be totally nice, helpful and competent towards me, and every other person I met be friendly, made me realize that many New Yorkers are just not nice people. I mean, there’s really no excuse for that level of nasty, hateful abuse towards everyone around you when you don’t even know them. In fact, there’s no excuse for it when you do know someone. It doesn’t take any more brain cells or calories to be courteous, although most people who are distasteful are also able to spare a few thousand calories and not need a snack afterwards.

It is true, according to my Minnesotan friends, that Minnesotans and Midwesterners in general tend to be non-confrontational and polite, which I’m told leads to passive aggressiveness since it’s not natural to be that nice all the time.

It was my first trip to Minnesota and I definitely arrived with certain expectations of back-woodsiness. I’m not even sure why I came toting such strong biases. It might be because I’ve befriended quite a few Minnesotans and adopted-Minnesotans in the last five years or so. I felt a bit impatient with the lack of fresh vegetables and non-fried options on the menus, and assumed that the only beer on tap anywhere would be American mass-distributed brands like Bud and Coors. And well, those were on tap, but there were a few local microbrews as well.

I also noticed that so far Minneapolis has been spared the scourge of the skinny jeans fashion craze that is tragically sweeping New York City and traumatizing me and my disturbingly flat ass these days. And I’m referring to the women’s fashion. I doubt skinny jeans for men will ever make it to the Twin Cities, since the entire weekend I didn’t see a single gay man, which is only to say that I didn’t get out that much while I was there. But if I had traveled the same social trajectory in New York, more than half of them would have been gay and/or wearing skinny jeans.

So, thank you, Minnesota, for a wholesome Midwestern weekend full of reminders that the entire world is not New York, for good (mostly) and for bad (a teeny tiny bit).

Friday, May 7, 2010

New York Moments and Laff of the Day #5

Jetting over the amber waves of grain on my way to St Paul, MN.

Today has been a constant stream of examples of why New Yorkers should be banned from working in the service industry: They possess the evolutionarily impossible combination of incompetence and a nasty attitude, which you’d expect to eradicate itself from the gene pool by virtue of having no social or biological value. And yet, here we decent people are, putting up with this crap while Nature laughs in our face and spends eons trying to get it right.

I went to check in for my flight and there was no line at all. In fact, all of Terminal 4 at JFK was eerily empty except for rent-a-cops and a few people traveling to a Carribean destination. I had my choice of two equally bored-looking check-in counter staff, and chose the woman because she was young and pretty. Or maybe because the dude was young and ugly. How’s that for successful marketing by Sun Country Airlines?

Any evidence of prudent hiring ended there because the woman rolled her eyes at me when I approached, presumably because it meant she had to do her job. No smile, no fake greeting or fake wishes for a nice flight.

“How many bags are you checking today?” was the only thing she said to me, in the same voice that someone would use to say, “My brain seeped out of my ears years ago, and then I used it to make muffins for my neighbors so I’m incapable of feeling anything but entitlement and disdain.”

Peet’s Coffee in Terminal 4: I ordered a regular Earl Grey from two reasonably friendly baristas. My tea came in a paper cup placed inside another cup placed inside a third cup, which seemed like overkill protection against my burning my hands. She had also put one of those paper rings around the last cup, which sent the burn-fearing buffalo over the cliff's edge.

Then I realized that she had given me two teabags, which made me happy until I started sipping the bitter, tannic, acidic hot drink that would never burn my hands.

For a company that prides itself on being green, Peet's Coffee sure knows how to hire employees who mindlessly ignore their corporate values.

I passed a second Peet’s Coffee on the way to the gate, and stopped to ask for more hot water in my tea because it was too strong.

“Can I get a little more hot water in here?” I asked the barista, pointing to my cup. She stared at me with no smile, no reply, and no firing synapses. Then she dragged her inexplicably heavy yet empty soul to the pastry case, heaved her 1 lb arm with all her spiritual might, and pulled out a pastry for another customer.

After ringing up the other customer as fast as a snail might, she stared at me with the same slack-jawed, mouth-breathing look of hatred, which I had earlier mistaken for low IQ. I still didn’t know whether the answer to my question was yes or no, even after she took my cup from me.

“I’m too lazy and entitled to muster the brain cells to answer your question,” she pantomimed with her lack of a will to live.

After all this, I was left thinking, “Aren’t there health codes that say you’re not supposed to refill a customer’s already-used cup?”

Who knows. I could start an entire blog of stories of dismal customer service in New York. I could call it New York Moments.

There was the one time I was at that sock store on St. Marks Place. They have a huge variety of socks and other apparel for your feet, but everything is overpriced.

I asked the cashier if there were any discounts for buying several pairs at once.

The answer choices are:
a. Yes, or
b. No.

The cashier was a big, ugly, hairy bridge-and-tunnel-type, which is odd considering he works at a sock store on St. Marks, a block packed with touristy tattoo parlors, head shops and Japanese restaurants.

Anyway, the ugly cashier’s butt crack said, “GRUNT HSSSSSSSS.”

Then his ugly face got uglier as he scowled at me and said, “There are people who come in here and buy ten pairs of socks and never ask for a discount.”

So now a customer doesn’t even have the right to ask if a store policy exists that might encourage her to develop a favorable opinion of the business and perhaps come back and spend more money.

Instead, she gets grunted at by an ugly guy’s ass crack and then told to shut the hell up for trying to be a savvy customer in a store whose existence depends on people who are willing to shamelessly consume unnecessary products like overpriced socks.

Apparently this moronic business model works in New York.

Wow, I just came across this story:

Based on the article, this could be the same guy. But I'm not sure because I swear the one I talked to was older, fatter and even uglier than Marty Rosen. You'd have to show me a picture of his ugly grunting butt crack, then I could tell you.

Imagine, two nasty people working at one sock shop.

Laff of the Day #5, from Cindy with an S. "I was flying with a friend once and she fell asleep. They came by with snacks and left hers on her tray table. The cookies were so good that I decided to try to eat hers while she was sleeping. She’d never know the difference. But when I started reaching for her cookies she woke up.

Darn it! I wanted those cookies!”

Gypsy Cab Charm. “Where you come from, honey?” he asked.

“Texas,” I said. “You?”

“Bangladesh,” he said.

“Oh, where everyone got arsenic poisoning from contaminated wells all over the country thanks to the worst public health disaster in history,” I almost said, calling up the only thing I know about Bangladesh.

Instead I said, “Oh, nice.”

“I want move to Texas, start good business. My friend have gas station in Texas, make so much money,” he said.

“You don’t make good money driving cabs?”

“Ha! No, no money from this. I work so long, then go home and sleep, then go back to work,” he said. “No good money. You married?”

“No,” I said.

“Let’s go to Texas, you and me, start a business,” he said. ‘I’m not married, no girlfriend, no wife. Let’s go to Texas.”

“Oh, no that’s okay,” I said. I had better things to do, like slit my wrists.

“Think about it, honey,” he said.

I already had.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Plug For My Friend On Savage Love

My friend Francisco co-hosted the relationship and dating advice show, Savage Love, today! He was so so so amazing. Check it out so you can say you knew someone who knew him when.

Listen to the show here (you'll need Quicktime).

Learn more about Francisco and his free advice Saturdays in Washington Square Park.

The blurb from host Dan Savage's website:

Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Episode 184

Today, Dan is joined by special guest expert Francisco Ramirez! Francisco dishes out free sex advice in Washington Square Park. Hear Dan and Fran double-team on your weekly dose of smut.

Click Here If You're Homophobic

I was posting some hepatitis screening events to a community calendar at work today, and came across a website for a program in Minneapolis that provides sexual health education and services for men who have sex with men.

The messages on the site are straightforward, sex positive and appropriately tailored to the target audience. But, there are notes all over the site implicitly apologizing for this content.

This site contains HIV and STD prevention messages, safer sex strategies, information about gay and bisexual men's health, harm reduction strategies around meth, and images that may not be appropriate for all audiences. Not seeking such information? [Click here to] exit this site.

"They just mean, exit here if you're homophobic," my officemate Joe the Banker said.

And I think J-the-B pretty  much summed it up. The people who designed the site were so worried about offending the sensibilities of intolerant hetero-centrics that they felt compelled to put up signs all over the place.

Why disguise it? They should write something like, "Warning: This website will remind you how terrified you are of gay people."

The program is in Minneapolis, which (I'm told by Minnesotans) is an oasis of liberal white thought in an otherwise conservative, windswept Midwestern wasteland. So maybe that warning could say: "This website will remind you that you are blissfully engulfed in a world of white heterosexuals who think they're tolerant about diversity because they've never actually encountered diversity."

But that's just me being judgmental and sanctimonious. Back to the rant at hand.

The site, and the program itself, delivers fact-based messages that de-stigmatize non-boring, non-Biblically-defined, non sexually-repressed-WASPs-in-missionary-position sex. It candidly discusses the risks of sexually transmitted diseases for people who practice any type of interesting sex. For example:

HIV isn't magical (thankfully)... we know exactly how it is spread! Unprotected anal sex (both top and bottom) and sharing needles continue to fuel the HIV epidemic in our community.

But then they undo all their normalization by putting up a bunch of links that let you exit the site while you still have the chance to save your soul. To me, it says that they're not really that comfortable with their own messaging.

This is in the footer on every page: This site contains HIV prevention messages, strategies around safer sex, and information about gay and bisexual men's health. If you are not seeking this information, click here to exit this site. 

On another page they write: DISCLAIMER: If you are not seeking information or images about safer sex, gay and bisexual men's health and other material that may not be suitable for all audiences, please exit this site.

A disclaimer is a statement renouncing responsibility for something. In this case they seem to be saying, look, we're giving you all these chances to avoid seeing things that will potentially offend you, so don't blame us, because we told you so.

By acknowledging that the content is offensive to some people, even if those people are prudish bigots, they are implying that yes, pictures of hot men showing affection for each other, or a shirtless dude with a six-pack pulling on his pants waist to look down his boxers, should be considered offensive.

Hold up, cowboy. Let's do a Find and Replace on that last paragraph.

"By acknowledging that the content is offensive to some people, even if those people are prudish bigots, they are implying that yes, pictures of hot women showing affection for each other, or a topless woman with a gigantic rack pulling down her pants to reveal her hot pink thong, should be considered offensive."

What? That made no sense whatsoever. Certainly no one would ever disclaim that it may not be suitable for all audiences. Audiences have to put up with that stuff all the time. So stop apologizing for images that a few frat boys are going to find too homoerotic to handle.

Click here if you're homophobic: Hell, click here even if you're not.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Duped, New York Style

This is the last time I'll talk about Megan and the douchebag in Madison Square Park. Why? Because my friend's theory is that the whole thing was a viral marketing stunt. It makes sense. She said she saw him yesterday too, but during lunch. As she pointed out, there was something just a little too polished about the guy. And something a little too big about the sign. Plus, who stands outside ALL DAY in a suit like that?

Well, I fell for it. I told at least three people about it, and I blogged about it. Fortunately less than ten people read my blog.

Glad I didn't take a picture.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Scarlet Letter, New York Style

I saw this dude standing in front of Madison Square Park today, wearing a giant handwritten sign that said, "I WAS VERBALLY ABUSIVE. I'M SORRY, MEGAN." He was a total Wall Street suit, about 30 years old, probably Ivy League educated, and had a grim look on his face.

I'm totally kicking myself for not snapping a picture of him with my camera phone. In fact, half a block later I had already reconstructed the conversation I would have had if I had pulled out my camera.

"No, bitch, you can't take my picture."

"You were verbally abusive. You don't get to choose."

"Don't take my picture."

"Whatever, douchebag. Say cheese!"

Instead, I tried not to make eye contact and kept walking. This Hispanic dude walking in front of me turned to his female companion and was like, "Hahahahaha! That guy's a fucking pussy!"

I told my friend about the suit with the sign, and she said, "I sort of like his girlfriend."

Then she thought about it and said, "His girlfriend sounds abusive too, for making him stand there with that sign."

Who can say how that numbnut ended up there on a Friday evening wearing that giant sign? Maybe his girlfriend forced him to do it. Maybe he decided to do it as a surprise for her, to prove how sorry he really is.

I've been in abusive relationships. Standing in Madison Square Park like Hester Prynne doesn't cure an abuser of his abusive behavior. It's just part of the cycle of violence.

He was probably like, "**!#$$!! YOU #!!**$$ MOTHER#@$$!@#@!! IF YOU EVER #@@$!!!** I'LL @#$@!!! YOUR $##@$$!***#@ #@**!! LIKE !@**#@@@#!! SO DON'T YOU EVER @@*&#&$%%!! AGAIN @!**#@@%#$!"

And in the next breath, after she stormed out and slammed the door, he probably pulled out the permanent market and poster board and started hatching a plan to win her back and prove that this time he's really sorry.

For a few seconds I felt embarrassed for him, that he was willing to humiliate himself to win back this Megan person. Then I hated him, for being so ignorant and lazy that he thought he all it took was a shallow stunt.

Changing abusive behaviors is a lifelong commitment to self-awareness, humility and personal improvement. Most people fail.

Certainly in my lifetime I will never stop being a hopeless procrastinator. And that is so much less complicated than the terror, insecurity and desperate need to control others that abusers contend with.

I hope Megan knows better. I hope Megan dumps his retarded ass. Even in New York, there are better men out there.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Food Porn Chronicles: Tour of Asia

It was a long weekend of fun and sun, cherry blossoms and Brooklyn Bridge strolls, and battles between winter and spring wardrobes. Mostly it was out of doors and out of the house, in a warm restaurant or in someone else's house.

Now Tuesday so soon? I decided to take it easy tonight, stick my head in the fridge and get reacquainted with the inhabitants. Urgently seeking care: one large chicken breast and a pound of okra, starting to bruise.

I whipped up a Thai basil chicken recipe I learned from Noi, my language teacher in Mahachai. I still can't get it to stop tasting more Chinese than Thai, though. See the recipe below.

Gra-Pow Gai (Thai basil chicken)

1 large chicken breast, sliced thin OR 1/2 lb ground chicken
1 1/2 T fish sauce
1/4 t baking soda
corn oil OR peanut oil
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1-2 Thai chili peppers, finely chopped 
1 small onion, chopped OR 3 shallots, chopped
1/2 bunch basil leaves, coarsely chopped (I used sweet basil but holy basil or Thai basil is more authentic)
1 T soy sauce

Marinate chicken in baking soda and 1 T fish sauce. Mix well and set aside for 10-30 minutes, or cover and store overnight in fridge. In a large pan, heat oil. Add garlic and stir for 1 minute. Add chili and onions, cook until onions begin to turn clear. Add chicken. Cook until almost done. Add basil, cook for 1 minute. Add soy sauce and fish sauce, cook for another minute. Serve over rice.

Here is a very similar recipe with better pictures: "Gai pad gra-pow" just means stir fried chicken with basil, same thing as saying "gra-pow gai" when ordering it from a street cart.

Next food resuscitation: Okra. A few months ago I discovered this lovely Pakistani hole in the wall called Haandi on Lexington and 28th, near work. Someone told me it's where all the cab drivers eat lunch. I'm not sure about that, but the food is great and the Bollywood videos are always ridiculous, even if sometimes you'll catch a customer using the communal spoon to eat straight out of the bowl of mukhwas.

Anyway, their okra curry is amazing, and I was inspired to try to replicate it at home. Unfortunately, the inspiration had dwindled to almost nothing by today, and my greatest accomplishment was rounding up every Indian spice I could find in my pantry to throw into the dish. Voila! Meet my recipe for Okra With Insufficient Combinations of Indian Spices, which is nothing like the okra curry at Haandi.

Okra With Insufficient Combinations of Indian Spices

1/2 lb fresh okra
1 T whole mustard seeds
1 small onion, diced
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 in piece of ginger, minced
1 fresh chili, sliced
1 tomato, sliced
1 T curry powder
1 T roommate's mystery yellow powder (Justina's diagnosis: coriander powder)
black pepper

The secret to cooking okra, I learned after googling 20 bhindi masala (okra curry) recipes, is to pat them dry with a paper towel after washing them. They need to be really dry before slicing and cooking, because water makes the gooey stuff inside even gooier. And now, off we go, a-currying okra.

Wash okra and pat dry. Even better, lay them on a dishtowel and allow to air dry for 30 minutes. Trim off the top, then slice each piece of okra lengthwise. Heat oil in a large pan. Add mustard seeds and cook on high for 1 minute. Add garlic, ginger, onion and chili. Cook until onion begins to turn clear. Add okra. Cook uncovered for 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Add tomato, salt and pepper. Stir and cover for 2 minutes. Stir again and cover for another 3 minutes. Add curry and coriander powder. Stir and cover. Allow to simmer another 5 minutes or until okra reaches desired consistency. Serve with rice or naan (you're on your own for that recipe).

And finally, Vietnamese spring rolls, artfully and awkwardly hand rolled by yours truly and my friend Kumiko last week, after we finished our taxes. All I can tell you without a video is what to put inside.

Vietnamese Spring Rolls

2 lbs shrimp, peeled, deveined and boiled
1 pkg rice stick, soaked in warm water until soft
1 lb bean sprouts
1 head green or red leaf lettuce
1 small bunch chinese chives
mint leaves
1 pkg rice paper wrappers

Dipping sauce:
Mix together 2 parts hoisin sauce to 1 part peanut butter. Serve separately with Vietnamese chili sauce (sambal oelek).

Take your pick of spring roll Youtube videos:,

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Facebook Flashback

A Kenyan friend found me on Facebook last week. His name is Paul and he was my tour guide when I went on safari in the Masai Mara in 2006. A Finnish travel writer friend had introduced us before I arrived in Kenya, and at the time I thought Paul was the last Kenyan tour guide on earth. So I promised that I would hire him as a guide during my stay in Kenya.

Anyway, I accepted Paul's Facebook friend request last week, and posted a message on his wall a few days ago. I wrote it in Swahili because I still like to be an annoying showoff sometimes.

"How are you, Bwana? It has been a long time. Greetings from New York. Have you been getting lots of work? I'm sure you will, God willing. Greet your family for me."

A few days later I got a reply from him. It was written in English.

"Am expecting you to give me some businees.I dont have much work to do.Recomend me to your friends.Am doing well though .What of you?"

Normally I'd be happy to hear that a friend from the past is doing well. But all I could think was, he's expecting me to give him business? And not just any business, but "businees." I have not been in contact with this person in over 3 years and the first thing he says to me is, "You owe me something, and I'm entitled to it."

Everything irritating about being a foreigner in Kenya came rushing back to me, especially those 2 seconds after hearing something like, "You give me your laptop when you leave Kenya," or "What did you bring me from Nairobi?," or "Mzungu, why can't you give us something?"

I started banging out a pissy reply to Paul. "The reason you don't have business is because you expect other people to give it to you instead of getting it for yourself. Your business is in Kenya, not in the US, so go out and find it."

I read it over about 15 times. Then I canceled it. Was it really worth getting the last word and putting him in his place? Not to mention sounding like a complete colonialist pig. I wasn't going to singlehandedly reverse decades of a culture of donor mentality that is still being reinforced daily.

Who knows, maybe in Kenyan English, the phrase "Am expecting you to..." has a less entitled and bossy tone than in American English. What point was I trying to make, anyway? That I'm not like every other foreigner who is too nice or too soft-hearted to say no, or too rich to care? That he needs to learn about the naive Protestant myth that hard work, honesty and determination always leads to success, because Kenya is actually a meritocracy?

I've made it all the way to the three-year memory-softening mark in my post-Kenya life, but the crazy-making brain spinning has managed to start all over again. This stuff never leaves you. I have made peace with much of the anger and sadness that Kenya painted on my heart, and have embraced the densely imperfect beauty of the country, the culture and the people. I love that part of me that is Kenya and all the experiences and malaria meds that made me the slightly dizzy person with spotty short term memory that I am today.

But this. Damn you, Paul.

After the Masai Mara trip, I met Paul in a cafe in Nairobi to sort out some residual business. We ran into some other Peace Corps volunteers at the cafe, and they joined us at our table. They were two women, whom I will call Jay and May.

Paul tried to make small talk but they weren't interested in having a Kenyan conversation. "Where do you come from? What crops do you grow in your country? Have you eaten our ugali? Jambo. This means hello in our language."

Jay and May rolled their eyes and barely acknowledged Paul's elementary tutorial that seemed so inane and patronizing to us after 18 months in Kenya. I understood where they were coming from, but I was annoyed that they were being rude and short with him.

"Have you climbed Mt. Kenya?" Paul asked. "It's very difficult. You will lose a lot of weight."

He turned to May and said, "At least 2 kilos."

Then he turned to overweight Jay, looked her up and down, and said with a kindly smile, "And you -- you will lose at least 4 kilos."

I had to laugh. Jay's head bloated with anger like a balloon, but didn't explode. We all knew that being told that you were fat by a Kenyan was a compliment, but it didn't matter to her that day. Jay had all the information she needed to hate him.

A few months later I got an email from Paul. He said that he had noticed that my friends were angry with him that day at the cafe, and asked if it was rude in American culture to tell a woman that she's fat. And, more importantly, he wanted to learn more about our strange cultural norms surrounding body weight so that he wouldn't offend other foreigners.

It was one of the most culturally insightful observations that any Kenyan friend had ever made to me. I wasn't particularly impressed with Paul as a tour guide. One night during our safari, he disappeared without explanation for an entire evening, and we suspected he had been drinking at another safari lodge -- one that we couldn't afford on our travel budget. Nothing inherently wrong with unwinding after a long day, but why weren't we told his whereabouts and how to reach him if we needed something? You can't leave delicious foreigners unattended on the carnivorous African savannah.

And I'm still irritated that Paul's most recent Facebook message couldn't do better than play into my negative stereotypes of Kenyans.

It was only when I sat down to write this post today that I remembered Paul's email asking about American ideas on obesity. It's a good reminder that while I may be repeatedly disappointed when my own stereotypes about people reside in truth, no stereotype is the full picture.

Obvious, and yet still humbling.
"I've always wanted to have a dog and name it Bear. Because then I'd make it watch the Discovery Channel and see if it had an identity crisis from hearing stuff like, 'The bear eats mainly berries and other fruits of the forest. It does not eat meat, but will become aggressive towards humans if threatened.' " - Cindy with an S

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Laff of the Day #4

"It really annoys me when someone snores," said my officemate Cindy with an S. "One time my ex-boyfriend was lying on his back snoring next to me, and I was so annoyed about it that I shoved his head to get him to stop."

"Except that I pushed really hard, and his whole head flopped to the side."

"He didn't wake up."

"I thought I had snapped his neck."

"So I got really worried that maybe I had killed him."

"And I started checking his neck for a pulse."

"And I couldn't find one!"

"So I checked his wrists."

"And finally found one."

"I guess I didn't kill my boyfriend after all."

Another story by Cindy with an S

"I love the end pieces on a loaf of bread."

"Yesterday I was at the store buying bread. I was hungry so I opened the bag and ate the end piece, then closed the bag and put the rest in my cart."

"I kept shopping for awhile and forgot about it."

"Then I was going to check out, and I looked down at my cart and realized that my bread had no end piece."

"I was like, that's weird, there's no end piece on this bread. I better go back and get another one."

"So I went back to the bread aisle and put my defective loaf back and got one with an end piece."

"Then I got home and I was like, oh, I ate that end piece!"

How to spell Cindy with an S

"When I'm on the phone with customer service or whatever and they ask for my name, I say Cindy with an S."

"And people are always like, where does the S go?"

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Laff of the Day #3

It was 4:35pm and my officemates were giggling about a question on a CDC survey.

"How many times per week do you check you feet for sores?" the Eternal Paid Volunteer Temp read from his screen. "A. daily, B. 3-5 times, C. 1-2 times, D. less than once a week, or E. no feet."

Giggle giggle giggle.

"No feet? Why would that be a choice?" said Cindy with an S.

"Maybe it's a survey for diabetes," I said.

"Ohhh. Maybe."

"My mom and I carried my grandfather's leg home from the hospital," said the Epidemiologist.


"He had diabetes and they amputated his leg below the knee," she explained. "In Taiwan we believe that the whole body must be present at the time of cremation. So we put it in a jar and took it home."

At that point it was open season for dumb questions from dumb Americans.

"Did you put it in the freezer?" I asked.

"Did you wrap it in something first?" Cindy with an S asked.

"What? Whaat?? Whaaaattt??" the Eternal Paid Volunteer Temp kept saying.

"Did your grandfather know you brought it home?" I asked.

"It was big. Not in the freezer. It still had some flesh on it. We had to use something to preserve it. In a jar. I don't know if he knew we had it. It was a year before he passed away. This was all in Taiwan."

"If it's a Taiwanese custom then the hospital is probably used to getting requests like that."

"Well if it's part of his body they can't refuse to let him have it, right?"

"I bet in the US they have all sorts of restrictions on that." (Turns out, not as many as you'd think.)

Super V wandered in to molest the espresso machine. "Hello, everyone. What's so funny?"

"The Epidemiologist says she and her mom put her grandfather's amputated leg in a jar and took it home from the hospital."

"Interesting. Did you put it in the freezer?" Super V asked.

In Thailand my Thai co-workers loved to crack one particular joke that was only funny if you had learned English with a Thai accent.

"You want some fruit?" Ahn the driver would ask me, holding out a large cluster of fresh long kong.

"Thank you," I'd say.

"Hahahaha! You want some fruit?" Ahn would say again, pointing to his foot. "You want eat my foot? You say you like eat foot! Hahaha!"

It took me a long time to get that one.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Year of the Tiger

It’s the eve of the lunar new year. The older I get the more I appreciate rituals marking the passing of time. Out with the old, in with the new.

Out – Bad karma. In – Good karma.

Out – Delayed gratification. In – Living every moment with passion, joy, gratitude and peace.

Out – Selfish, lying, insecure, emotionally stunted, vapid, FUBAR, sleepwalking coward. In – Witty, smart, creative, inspiring, funny, sexy love interest.

There are a lot of different old history/New Year, letting go/starting over, fuck off/come hither, cleaning out/moving up rituals that I’ve only discovered as an adult. There are two in particular - the traditions surrounding Lunar New Year and the rituals of Loy Krathong observed in Thailand - that are much more meaningful to me than the lobotomizing pressure to find an out-of-control party and the Times Square ball drop countdown that we're told are the proper ways to ring in a new year.

Y2K - the new year, the new decade, the new millenium - was so depressingly underwhelming not because of what I did, where I was and who I was with, but because of the expectations that pointed out how those things weren't crazy drunken fun enough.

My parents never really observed Chinese New Year when we were growing up except for the red envelope which, although it was the only custom we practiced, was personally well-loved because parents and older adult relatives gave us kids money in a red envelope for good luck. Beyond that, I was never exposed to the colorful traditions and deep superstitions that underlie a lot of Chinese New Year customs. Instead I've learned them over the years from friends, and Amy Tan novels.

It turns out my roommate, "D," grew up with very superstitious Taiwanese parents, so with her help and that of Wikipedia, I may have increased my Lunar New Year knowledge by 50 percent this year. She and I are both tigers, and 2010 is the year of the tiger. The prediction is that it will be a difficult Year of the Tiger for tigers, though it is said that most animals in the zodiac have difficult years during the year of their sign. Follow?

Anyway, this morning D reminded me that to ward off the year's difficulties I needed to put on a red string before midnight, and wear it every day in the new lunar year. After racking my brain for where I might find a red string in my apartment, I thought of my sewing kit. I also threaded on a few beads for fun.

Then another friend posted on Facebook that tigers are supposed to wear red underwear every day beginning tomorrow. My one red pair is at the bottom of my laundry basket, and I'm not sure what to do about the next 360ish days (lunar calendars are unpredictable that way). But at least I have the string.

I do remember the last Year of the Tiger, 1998, being the most difficult I'd had up to that point. But I was much younger, and compared to the years I've had since, it wasn't really that bad. I don't even know enough about Taiwanese culture to be superstitious, but I figured that I can use all the help I can get, short of 21 new pairs of red underwear.

Chinese New Year is about being with family and friends. It's about performing scores of rituals to appease the gods and ensure all sorts of auspicious things for approaching times. In fact, the list of things you're supposed to do and say, and not do and say, is so long that you're probably guaranteed even more disappointment than when you're trying to find the most annoying party possible on Dec 31.

I made a respectable effort for the Year of the Tiger. I have oranges. I have sweets in red wrappers. I have noodles for longevity. I cleaned my room. I have three types of sticky rice cakes in the house.

D said that an old Chinese woman told her that to keep the Tiger Year's difficulties at bay, my roommate should take an old pair of slippers, stand in front of our building, and bang the slippers left and right at the doorstep while chanting in Chinese, "Old spirits go away, good spirits come and stay."

THEN, after our neighbors have completely flipped out, she should wrap the slippers in paper and burn them, along with paper money and other offerings to the spirits.

If we lived in Chinatown, we'd be doing this along with our neighbors. West Indians are not so understanding.

I didn't find Chinatown much more chaotic today than any other Saturday afternoon. There were still too many people on Canal Street and too many tourists staring and taking pictures at the fish markets. Lines were long. The New Year's parade is not until next weekend. The difference was that oranges, and flowers, and of course all the gaudy red envelopes, red wall hangings, red lanterns and red characters were doing brisk business. I couldn't find many places that had live fish, and I'm not sure if it's because of winter or because everyone wanted their whole fish for prosperity and fortune.

This white dude at the grocery store asked me how to prepare some packaged Chinese buns.

"Do you steam these?"

"I guess so," I said, looking at the package. What, I'm supposed to know because I look Chinese? "But don't take my word for it."

He walked away annoyed and disappointed that he didn't get a good answer. I should have messed with him so we both could have gone home happy.

"Marinate them in soy sauce, put coins inside for good luck and microwave for 20 minutes."

Loy Krathong, a fall lantern festival celebrated in Thailand, has a wonderfully cathartic ritual of setting afloat banana leaf rafts on a current to send away the year's bad karma while carrying coins as offerings to the River Goddess.

To Thai people who do this every year it probably seems commercialized and over-hyped, the way I hate the lameness of the American new year, but around Loy Krathong this past year - almost my first anniversary of no longer living in Thailand - I realized that I knew of no reasonable place to launch a raft loaded with my heavy burdens into a body of water. There are lots of places along the Hudson where you can toss a raft in from high above the water line, and I imagine you just have to hope it lands right side up so your bad karma and good offerings don't sink to the bottom and get stuck in Hudson River muck.

Upon further thought, though, I remembered that closer to the George Washington Bridge you can launch a raft right at the river's edge, with water lapping at your feet, as if you were Huck Finn.

We said there warn't no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow Day!!

But first, the Laff of the Day, from my therapist:

"He is a man with something seriously wrong with his personality."

She said this in earnest, but it made me laugh. Sometimes the truth stripped nekkid and lobbed back at you is hilarious.

And yes, I have managed to take another reluctant step towards becoming a New Yorker: I am now spending money I don't have for someone to listen to me talk about how a man with something seriously wrong with his personality did something seriously wrong to me.

I think the Laff of the Day is going to become a permanent fixture. Humor cures all sorts of things for me. That's why I still have a playlist on my iPod called "Comedy" that I made in Kenya, and I can quote Margaret Cho like a whiz. Yesterday I laughed for hours with a friend. And after that he paid for dinner. I haven't laughed that much since 2008. I know because I marked it in my calendar.

New York is being snowed in as I speak. I left work early, and lots of people didn't even bother to come in, including Super V. (For Visor). Snow muffles New York - and New Yorkers - until the whole city is soft and peaceful and empty. Like a zen monk.

I have snow pictures on my phone but my computer seems to have deleted the USB drivers so the photos are trapped for now.
Last Monday's Laff of the Day: Doctors standing outside the hospital smoking. But maybe that's called "irony." Or "depressing."

Monday, February 8, 2010

Bikes and Boobs

I get a pretty decent benefits package through my employer. That is one of the advantages of working for a mammoth institution, in addition to watching every agonizing detail of a grinding bureaucracy in motion.

One of the benefits I was most looking forward to while I was job hunting was an employer-sponsored health plan. The other, which I was looking forward to even more than health insurance, was a discounted gym membership.

Our corporate discount is not that much - about $13 dollars a month less than what the masses pay. As cheap as I am, and as wheezy-out-of-breathy as I am after coming up a flight of subway stairs, the discount wasn't a particularly inspiring reason to start working out again. But, the idea of resuming my arm-sculpting project was.

They're not much for a normal person. I have such skinny arms that when I was a kid my mom used to tell me they looked like they were about to fall off, and she'd get nervous if my uncles or cousins grabbed me by the wrists and swung me in circles, in case the centrifugal force snapped me apart at the shoulders and sent me flying, unarmed, into the bushes or something.

Only a few months ago, my brother kindly observed, "My God, your arms are so skinny."

Well, it turns out that skinny arms are partly the result of my body being kind enough not to store my fat in them. That honor is reserved for the Big Tummy. So, with no layer of fat to dilute the visual outcome of my efforts, I almost had no excuse not to develop a rock climbing obsession and pump free weights at the gym.

A few years later, permanently good lookin' arms. Except that they require maintenance.

I tried while I was unemployed and unbenefitted. It's hard to grow bigger, more sculpted muscles without weights. Pushups only gave me elbow problems. There is just no substitute for the variety and endless body-building possibilities of gym equipment. Also, there is something about standing in front of mirrors watching my veins pop out while I do bicep curls in that is not just encouraging, but encouraging of narcissism.

Reason #148 that New York is directly responsible for my limited happiness: It's very difficult to climb rocks, swim, or ride a bike 1. safely, 2. without stopping at every intersection, and 3. through beautiful terrain.

The gym doesn't solve the rock climbing or swimming problems, but I recently discovered that some of the locations I go to (because my membership allows me to go to any of their ridiculous scores of gyms around the five boroughs) have these stationary bike machines that are similar to video games. The screen simulates an outdoor bike ride - or race, if you choose - with different environments to choose from. I'm convinced that some of those routes are from Marin County, where I put hundreds on miles on my bike, back in the San Francisco glory days. Which is redundant, by the way. San Francisco = glory days.

Anyway, each bike machine has handlebars that move so you don't ride off the "road" and into the surrounding rolling hills and coastal cliffs. The screen shows other bikers (usually passing me) and you can catch up and pass them, or set a pacer. It's pretty realistic, except for the part when I tried to run over the biker in front of me. On screen, that person just disappears. In real life, that person jumps off his bike and beats you with his bike helmet.

The first time I used the machine, I got sucked into the landscape and completely forgot that I was in crappy depressing vapid New York City instead of coasting through the Marin Headlands, overtaking a really fit dude wearing a red and blue bike jersey. It was pretty crushing when I looked up and realized I was still surrounded by annoying urban drones clomping away on their cardio machines. The second time I used the machine, I actually got disoriented while I was being convinced that I was "flying down a hill," and had to look away from the screen to avoid falling off my bike. The downhills are the least realistic part of the whole virtual simulation, since it's hard to replicate the laws of gravity, but of course, downhills are the best part of biking.

Well, life's not perfect, and neither is cool gym equipment. But thanks to stationary bikes that act like video games, I can now suspend my intelligence long enough to pretend that Marin County biking has arrived on the east coast. I am in love.

And then, for the big question that has been plaguing me for weeks: Is there some sort of locker room etiquette about keeping your boobs covered that I've been unaware of for 35 years, or is there some weird New York "modesty" going on here? Isn't the locker room a place where women can freely change into and out of whatever articles of clothing or undergarments they need to?

I have seen this happen to the exclusion of nearly any other method of bra removal: A woman puts on her sports bra or tank top OVER her bra, then removes her bra without exposing her breasts. Or, after a shower, she clutches a towel over her breasts and slips her bra on under the towel, so as not to offend us with an accidental glimpse of her boobs.

Are we not all women here?? Is this some sort of ridiculous "courtesy" that only New York women observe, or have I not been paying attention to this boob etiquette all my life? I would love for someone to elucidate this for me. I seem to be the only person, besides the middle-aged obese woman who stopped caring about her saggers 20 years ago, who thinks it's okay to let other women see your boobs in the locker room.

Well, whatever the answer, the women at my gym are going to have to keep putting up with seeing my boobies. Suck it up, bitches.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Food Porn Chronicles: Stuffed Acorn Squash

 This was dinner. You can see that I had already plowed through half of it before I thought to preserve it in pixels.

The verdict: Deeelicious, very filling, but takes for.ever to make, or about an hour. Even so, if I make it again I'm going to adjust the portions to make more servings for the same stomach. Mmmm leftovers.

Here is the recipe, also available here, but why would you want to visit another website right now? I only needed half an acorn squash for the amount of filling this recipe yields.

1 large acorn squash
2 T butter
1/2 c brocolli, chopped
1/2 c mushroom
2 T celery, chopped (I didn't have this)
2 T walnuts (I used pinenuts)
1/2 t brown sugar (I used white)
1/2 t soy sauce
1/4 c basil, chopped
1/4 c jack or meunster cheese

Heat oven to 400°F. Cut squash in half and remove the seeds. Rub the cut flesh with salt and place flesh side down in a baking dish and bake for about 35 minutes. While the squash is baking, sauté onion in butter until clear and add chopped broccoli florets, mushrooms and celery. Sauté about 4 minutes. Stir in walnuts and fresh basil, then sprinkle with brown sugar and soy sauce, adjust seasoning to taste. Toss to mix well. Check baking squash with a fork to see if it glides through the flesh. Stuff with vegetable mixture, top with equal amounts of grated cheese and return to oven for about 5 minutes.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I'm Obnoxious, She's Obnoxious

The return of the native. I don't get much sympathy from anyone when I complain about looking young for my age* or worrying about my jiggly body parts. But I'm going to try to write this anyway, and maybe some of you thin, youthful looking readers out there will leave supportive comments. No pressure.

I lost a lot of weight recently. A whole six pounds. I looked like an Ethiopian kid during the 80s famine.

No, actually I didn't look like an Ethiopian kid. What an offensive comparison.

I did worry that I was starting to look like this poor woman, though. My arms looked like a starving supermodel's. I lost the belly that inspired names like bigtummyinkenya. I wasn't eating much, or very often, because I just didn't feel like it. Because I was feeling all sorts of other terrible things instead. It had to do with a German, a clown, a coward, and a small yet enormously dishonest man, all of whom turned out to be the same rotten person.

But that's not the point. The point is, I was a little worried. All my life I thought that if I ever lost my big tummy, in Kenya or anywhere else, I'd look great. Instead I looked tiny and weak. I wanted to feed the girl I saw in the mirror, but she wasn't hungry. The holidays came and went and I wasn't overeating or being restored to my normal body size.

Today my officemate noticed me eating a second helping of my lunch - at 4:45 in the afternoon - and said, "My God, you're always eating."

And then I knew that I didn't have to worry anymore. Sure enough, I went to the gym and my big tummy was back, hanging over my elastic waistband in all its bloaty, unsightly glory. Some things just belong on me.

* Like the time a Vietnamese hairdresser asked, "Are you in college?" And I said, "Well, no, not exactly." And he said, "Oh, I see. Not yet?" Good Lord.

Blog this. In addition to collecting fodder for my future hit TV series called The Nonprofit, I think I could also start a new blog full of entries describing encounters with obnoxiously rude, obnoxious and rude people in this finely terrible city. I've even noticed a personal trend of adopting some of these insufferable behaviors, which means it's either time for me to run screaming from the entire tri-State area, which would be immensely satisfying, or go to yoga more often.

Anyway, one thing about being an NYU employee but working at Bellevue is that I can always tell who is NYU and who is Bellevue. One institution employs halfway competent people and indoctrinates new hires with customer service mumbo jumbo during orientation. The other institution hires candidates who were rejected by the DMV for being more than halfway incompetent and too surly. The ones who were rejected by both the DMV and Bellevue are hired by the postal service. But that's for another post.

There is one woman in particular who I'm still trying to find an excuse to re-visit just so I can find out her name and her supervisor's contact info. Or rather, so I can execute some elaborate revenge prank that would irritate her so much that her anger would collapse the unfortunate office chair that quivers precariously all day under her morbidly obese, motionless-and-not-doing-any-work body.

She works in the room where you go to get your picture taken for your security badge. Anyone who works in a Bellevue building has had to go see her to get their picture taken. The room is rectangular and slightly narrow. Her desk is on one end and she sits facing the room. The door is on the other end of the room, but on the side. Here, I'll spend way too much time drawing you a picture:

Anyway, there is this yellow 8"x11" sign hanging on the door frame that says, in 10 point font, something about not standing in the doorway. The only explanation I can think of for this is so that your bag or coat sleeve or other personal item hanging off your body doesn't end up in the corner of someone's ID photo. The sign is bright, yes, but the font is small. Not an attention grabber.

So naturally every single person who shows up for an ID photo ends up standing in the doorway. And every single time, this nasty lady says, "CAN YOU REEEAD THAT BRIGHT YELLOW SIGN?? DON'T STAND IN THE DOORWAY! YOU NEED TO STAND OUTSIDE."

First of all, how do you add emphasis when you're already capitalizing what someone's screaming at you?

Second of all, if I don't stand in the doorway, how will I know if The Horror is in or not? What idiot is going to stand outside the door not knowing whether the person who takes your photo is there to take your photo?

Once she has told you to enter her malodorous lair, which usually sounds like


"I'm sorry?"

"Oghhkggh!!! OGHKKGHHH!!"

"You want me to come in now?"


she grunts commands at you in barely comprehensible English. Oh. She is a native English speaker. It's just that speaking clearly isn't one of her goals, because if it were, she wouldn't be able to raise her voice at you for not understanding her the first time.

She doesn't make eye contact with you, until you say anything, especially if it's in the form of a question such as, "Sorry, I didn't hear you, come again?" Then she glares at you for forcing her to do any work. And by work I mean lifting her finger to click her mouse, or inhaling...before roaring an answer at you.

She is infamous. All I have to say is "that lady in the ID office" and everyone knows who I'm talking about. The big question is, how is she still employed? I don't know, but if she must stay employed, I hope it's long enough for me to find a way to annoy the shit out of her one last time. Oh wait. All I have to do is ask her to do her job.