Sunday, March 25, 2012

READING: Vagabonding

This week's read:

...and for those of you keeping track, I'm still half a week behind.

I'll start with a confession that led me to this book: I'm a habitual overpacker. My general train of thought while packing is -- to borrow a quote from Mo Willems' I Am Invited to a Party! -- "What if there's a fancy costume pool party?!" So packing is always a game of Tetris, except instead of blocks, I'm trying to fit in seven different cardigans and a pair of hiking boots even though I'm going to Bermuda.

So when I first saw this video of Rolf Potts explaining how he traveled through 12 countries without luggage*, I had to buy his book. Leaving the country with only a cargo vest full of necessities is so far out of my wheelhouse -- I had to learn more.


Vagabonding is the concept of long-term, low-budget world travel -- sleep on couches, sleep in the woods, go where the road takes you and where the train fare is cheapest. See what you see. Simplify your life at home so you can spend more time away.
...vagabonding is not to be confused with a mere vacation, where the only goal is escape. With escape in mind, vacationers tend to approach their holiday with a grim resolve, determined to make their experience live up to their expectations; on the vagabonding road, you prepare for the long haul knowing that the predictable and the unpredictable, the pleasant and the unpleasant are not separate but part of the same ongoing reality.
Now, let me say that I don't think Rolf and I would travel well together. For starters, I'm a big fan of hotels -- the kind with cable television and free wi-fi and room service nachos. The other issue is that I don't just let things happen. I'm all for changing the game plan or pulling off the road if we pass somethng more interesting than our destination. But there are plans. I travel with a manila folder that my husband and friends (with varying degrees of affection) refer to as "Danny Tanner's Clipboard of Fun." I like to know where we're going, what we're doing, and when we're eating. For an extra layer of travel pleasure, I like to pretend I'm coming up with these ideas spontaneously. So I'll wake up in the morning, consult my folder o' fun, and casually say, "Hmmm...maybe we should go snorkeling today?" Then I spontaneously whip out my printed confirmation for a snorkeling cruise at 2 p.m., Mapquest directions to the marina, and my new water shoes.

So, yeah,  I don't think Rolf and I would be travel buddies. Still, he quotes Phil Cousineau's** defense of the prepared traveler:
Preparation no more spoils the chance for spontaneity and serendipity than discipline ruins the opportunity for genuine self-expression in sports, acting, or the tea ceremony.
See? Still fun.

One thing that surprised me was his view on tourism. I expected some degree of traveler vs. tourist elitism, but he seems to fall squarely in the middle of the two. (In that regard, maybe we could travel together, at least for a day or two.) He points out that Kerouac's On the Road inspired more people to buy jazz records and convertibles than to actually hit the road in search of spiritual awakening -- that consumerism tends to be a substitute for living richly. He notes that many travel snobs are actually looking for a caricature version of the culture and a story to tell when they get home again. And he makes the obvious, but often overlooked, point that most tourist sites are crowded because they're worth seeing:
...tourist attractions are defined by their collective popularity, and that very popularity tends to devalue the individual experience of such attractions...this has inspired cultural critics the world over to bemoan how "tainted" the world's tourist draws have become...such fears say more about the travel habits of cultural critics than the actual reality of the road. Indeed you only need to wander a few minutes from the Champs-Elysees, the Sphinx, or the backpacker dives of Dali if you want untainted glimpses of Paris, Egypt, or China.
In other words, if you can't deal with the tourists, quit whining and hop on a train to the next town. It's probably pretty quiet there.

Anyway. There are few things I love reading about more than travel, so this was right up my alley. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes to wax philosophical about travel -- or just needs a vacation.

P.S. In the spirit of vagabonding, if you were taking a long-term vacation -- let's say six months -- where would you plant yourself? I'd pick Kailua Bay or Amsterdam***.

P.P.S. Excuse me while I have a case of the gimmes.

* For anyone who happened to look at the link -- yeah, sorry, this is another Tim Ferriss recommendation.
** He quoted about 2938731982371937 books in this book. This is one seriously well-read dude.
*** Not for any illicit reasons. I just really liked the canals and the pancakes. Actually, pancakes factor pretty heavily into my love for both locations.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

RECIPE: Easy-Peasy Honey-Soy Chicken

Secret recipes are a big pet peeve of mine. I hate when someone tells you a recipe, and you try to recreate it, and it so obvious that they've conveniently "forgotten" a key ingredient. It's like they're thinking, "If they know how to make my oatmeal cookies, what reason will they have to invite me to parties?!"

I have no secrets in the kitchen. Which is why I was a little peeved when I pulled this recipe from my Pinterest board today and noticed something was....a little off. Looks delicious, right? But what are the red things? The recipe doesn't call for anything red. What are you trying to do to me?!

As it turns out, I didn't have enough soy sauce so I had to tweak it a bit anyway.

Secret recipe for the veggies: Bag of Steamfresh Asian Medley.

You'll need:

  • 1 lb. of boneless chicken strips
  • 2 Tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp. oyster sauce
  • 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp. minced garlic
  • 1 Tbsp. honey
  • three shakes of cilantro flakes

Stir everything but the chicken in a bowl, then mix in the chicken. Funny story, I went to throw the chicken wrapper away and when I came back, I couldn't find my fork anywhere. It was gone. Gone! My husband always complains because I use, like, 42 pieces of silverware to make a single meal, but it's because I'm always misplacing the stuff I'm working with. As you can see from this photo, the fork was nowhere to be found.

Yeah. So anyway, stir it all around, let it hang out in the marinade for a few minutes, and then cook over low heat in a skillet.

I know, that picture really isn't helpful in any way. I'm pretty sure you already know how to put chicken in a skillet. I wasn't worried that you might stack all the chicken into a giant chicken-tower in the middle, or anything like that. It's just that once I get into picture-taking mode, I can't be stopped.

You'll notice there's no cilantro in the skillet. That's because I forgot it. So, it's up to you whether you add it to the marinade, or add it to the skillet. That's not a secret -- that's just good old-fashioned forgetfulness. (Wait, where did I put my fork?)

P.S. Bringing this dish to the linky party at Countertop Confections. What's a linky party? Beats me. But darned if I'm not going to show up!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

READING: Evil Plans: Having Fun on the Road to World Domination

This week's read:

A little backstory: About a year and a half ago, I borrowed Tim Ferriss's The Four-Hour Workweek from the library, read it cover to cover, and immediately went out and purchased a copy for myself. Ferriss provided concrete, actionable advice for streamlining your time management and starting your own business (or tailoring your current job to your ideal lifestyle). There was no nebulous, feel-good babble just to pad the word count. (That book also inspired last year's de-cluttering project, the Trashed365 blog.) Granted, for every 4HWW devotee, you'll find someone who hates the book, hates its lofty title, hates Ferriss's cultish following. But I'll admit to drinking the Kool-Aid. I chug the Kool-Aid. I love that book.

So when Ferriss excerpted Hugh MacLeod's Evil Plans on his blog, I added the book to my reading list. After all, Ferriss also recommended Tony Shieh's Delivering Happiness, which was an excellent read (especially for a Zappos addict like me).

But I was completely underwhelmed by Evil Plans. The excerpt I originally read turned out to be the meatiest example in the book -- and I actually liked it less once it was in context. I'll get to that in a minute.

The concept of Evil Plans is to identify "the Zone," a.k.a. the place where what you do and what you love unite. (Your "evil plan" is whatever you do to get there. And...that's about as specific as it gets.) MacLeod found his Zone when he quit his uninspiring day job to draw cartoons for a living. It's a great concept: "Do what you love, and you'll never work a day in your life," as the saying goes.

There were two problems that clouded the positive message for me. First, each essay reads like those philosophical Facebook status updates that typically follow a few glasses of wine. (Or, probably more accurately, it reads like the unedited posts of a blogger who feels obligated to churn out fresh content on the same topic every day.) But the overriding problem, for me, was MacLeod's self-righteous assumption that anyone working a 9-to-5 job is miserable, and that only entrepreneurs can do what they love.

Evil Plans is filled with condescending digs at corporate life. The office environment is filled with "drudgery and abuse," where you'll work with others who are "schlepping along" so you can afford "treadmill-type external markers of success." A little heavy-handed, no? And where 4HWW focused on the end goal (escaping the daily grind to travel more, spend more time with loved ones, or pursue new hobbies), Evil Plans seemed to be about escaping the daily grind because it's just such a pathetic place to be.

I disagree. And I say that as someone who's currently in "the Zone" -- I work for myself and do what I love. My hobbies are writing and photography, and people pay me to write stories and take pictures. I call it "funemployment." But before I became a freelancer, I worked in a cubicle for nine hours a day -- and it was fantabulous. My cubicle farm was filled with awesome coworkers, and we'd sit around watching advance copies of TV pilots and writing quizzes for 12-year-olds. Of course I had to contend with the shackles of, um, a regular salary and health insurance and a 401k -- but somehow I survived.

Okay, admittedly, that's an unusually fun job. But I know people who really love doing taxes, designing bathroom cabinets, and fixing people's computers. Self-employment really isn't the only road to happiness. And regular paychecks are nice.

Which brings me back to the excerpt that first piqued my interest. It was an anecdote about a woman who quit her crappy desk job, went back to an old waitressing gig ("the money [was] insanely great and she liked her job"), and started her own design company in the meantime. She took a risk and a paycut, but it paid off in the end. Great story when I read it the first time. But after reading the rest of this book, suddenly the last paragraph seemed a bit too self-satisfied:
Three months and she managed to bag half a dozen high-paying clients for her business. Last time I saw her, she was wearing very expensive shoes and had moved into this very hip apartment in Brooklyn. Like I said, I was so proud. And her colleagues back at the restaurant? They're still there. Choices were made.
Um, wait a second. Why, exactly, are we judging the people at the restaurant? How do we know they're not working on their own six-month or one-year "evil plan"? Or -- crazy idea -- how do we know they don't simply enjoy waiting tables? Maybe it's not MacLeod's dream job, but that doesn't mean her colleagues are all victims of bad choices. (Not to mention it seems a bit hypocritical to gauge her success by her expensive shoes and hip zip know, all those "treadmill-type external markers.")

There are other moments of arrogance. In describing "the moment," a term British Army officers use when they realize they have to stop being the buddy and start being the leader, he offers a long-winded story about letting a waitress off the hook for a $30 drink order she screwed up. (Wait, how does that make him a leader...?) He seems to think his college buddies were the only Deadheads who really cared about the band. He calls his cartoons "my daily gift to the world." And in a flawed supermarket analogy, he says:
Aisle after aisle of products that most people, frankly, don't really give two hoots about. Sure, there might be a perfectly good brand of paper towel or breakfast cereal, but at the end of the much do people care? Answer: Diddly-squat.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Tell that to anyone who's still in mourning over the disappearance of Waffle Crisp, or who counts the minutes until Reese's Eggs return. (Okay, those are both very personal examples.)

The one concept I found interesting was the idea of "expressive capital" -- that the most successful ideas in the near future will be those that allow us to express ourselves best. Hello Pinterest, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, Wordpress, Flickr.....

But that was only a few pages. Overall, there was no game plan, no actionable advice, just bite-sized, stream-of-consciousness blurbs about how much work sucks, and how jealous everyone will be when you quit. I found it hard to get past the arrogance. That's right -- I'm a fan of Tim Ferriss and I still found it hard to get past the arrogance.

Then again, MacLeod says haters are a sure sign of success -- so it's all good, right?

RECIPE: Tagine-Style Chickpeas with Couscous

Lately I've been recycling a few of my favorite recipes, which is a nice, euphemistic way of saying I've been stuck in a recipe rut. So when my husband forwarded me a tagine recipe from his boss, I was like, "Awesome!"

Okay, not really. I was like, "What the hell is a tagine? It calls for dates...what are dates?" Dates are one of those things I'd heard of but never knew exactly what they were. But armed with information from a few helpful readers, I set off on an epic quest to find dates.

Except it was 75 degrees that day, so when I failed to find them at the closest grocery store, I abandoned my quest (a.k.a. a trip to Whole Foods) and went to the park with the boys instead. So I decided to use raisins* as a substitute for now. (I think figs would make a bangin' substitute, too.)

I modified the original recipe to an unrecognizable degree because it was way complicated -- a lot of steps, a lot of stove-vigilance, a lot of unfamiliar ingredients. So this is my super-simple version.

You'll need:
  • one box of plain couscous
  • 15 oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 cans of chickpeas
  • 1 cup raisins, dates, figs, or dried apricots
  • 1 tsp. ground cilantro
  • 1 tsp. cumin
  • 1 tsp. coriander
  • 1 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1 tsp. minced garlic
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil
  • 1/8 cup water

Saute everything but the tomatoes and water in a little bit of olive oil, until the chickpeas start to look a little more cooked. Then add the tomatoes and water, and simmer for 5-10 minutes.

In a separate pot, cook the couscous according to the package instructions. I use instant couscous because it takes 10 minutes max, and I sprinkled a little salt and pepper in the water while it was setting.

Scoop it on and enjoy!

* Even though I hate raisins. Seriously, can someone explain their appeal? It takes nine years to chew them and even longer to wash the sticky residue off your hands. They're like a natural alternative to industrial-strength wood glue. Still, I took one for the team.

Monday, March 12, 2012

READING: You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons

This week's read:

Rickshaw is illustrator Mo Willems' sketch diary of a year-long trip around the world in the early '90s. There were three reasons I had to have this book:
  1. I'm obsessed with RTW travel and would live on The World if I could. I'd settle for living in the World Showcase at Epcot.
  2. I think Mo Willems is responsible for some of the best children's books ever written -- the Pigeon series, the Knuffle Bunny books, and Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn't Know She Was Extinct. Plus he used to be a writer and animator for Sesame Street. In summary, he is awesome. 
  3. Foreword by Dave Barry. More on him later, but the two words that can sell me on any book cover are "Dave Barry." 
Full disclosure: This is basically a picture book. And yet somehow I'd put off reading it for five years. (Well, five years and a week -- this is technically last week's read.) 

While it wasn't as LOL-funny as his children's books, Rickshaw reinforced my love for Willems. Each day of his trip, he sketched a person or experience that stood out to him -- and nothing more. A five-day stop in Paris is encapsulated in sketches of drunken Yankees, car headlights, a flowerpot, a statue, and an angry park employee*. And yet, at the end of the book, I had the urge to visit places (Hohhot? Manali? Kathmandu?) that I'd never considered. Black-and-white cartoons and funny retrospective captions were somehow as bad for my wanderlust as a five-page, photo-heavy spread in Travel & Leisure -- that's impressive.

These are the sketches I dog-eared, so I'll just list them in order: A possible inspiration for the Pigeon books. A superficial conversation overheard at Dachau. A Turkish bus line called Kamilz Koc**. The rejection of pony rides***. Roti vendors. Spending December 26th in a straw hut in Thailand****. A man applauding a peacock. The joys of driving uphill in San Francisco.

And of course, I have to talk about the foreword. I know my writing style (especially my penchant for footnotes) is hugely influenced by Dave Barry. I became obsessed with him after my sixth-grade boyfriend Steve***** basically ordered me to read his books. He was right -- they were hilarious. I usually have to stop several times per paragraph to laugh hysterically and then read the passage aloud to anyone within earshot. I had the chance to meet Dave Barry a few years ago, and it was one of the few times in my adult life that I was starstruck. (The other two: Seeing Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen****** on the carpet at the VMAs, and when Michael Emerson called my house and said, in his creepy Ben Linus voice, "I'm looking for Kara Wahlgren.") I drove four hours to a book signing in Arlington and told him he had inspired me to become a writer. He asked, "How's that going?" And I said, "Oh, um, good I guess." I neglected to tell him that I was actually a writer. Like, a fairly successful one. I just couldn't form coherent thoughts over my brain screaming, "THAAAAT'S DAAAAAVE BAAAARRRYYYY." 

Anyway, Dave Barry wrote the foreword and it's really funny. And, it turns out, Mo Willems shares the penchant for footnotes. So I'm convinced we'd be buds.

* I dog-eared this page because it reminded me of the time we got pulled over (on foot) by a policeman (on horseback) in Munich for running a red light (again, on foot). He clippity-clopped up behind us and asked, "Vhen you are in America, vhat do you do at a red light?" We explained that pedestrians pretty much had the right of way 75% of the time, and the right to risk their lives the other 25%. He let us go.

** The equivalent of Wonder Bread in Mexico is Bimbo. One of the few times I've used my Spanish semi-fluency was in explaining to a street vendor why he could make a lot of money selling bootleg Bimbo t-shirts to America tourists. (Porque en los Estados, es como una, en serio.)

*** I did a silent happy-dance when we went to the Grand Canyon and the mule rides were closed for inclement weather, because I'd failed to come up with a reasonable excuse for chickening out.

**** In 1990, of course. But this hit home for me because my brother -- who almost never travels away from his family -- was staying in a beach hut in Thailand only a few days before the tsunami. He has an uncanny habit of narrowly escaping death. 

***** By "boyfriend," I mean we sat at the same lunch table and usually hung out at recess. 

****** My niece had a similar moment at the JFK airport. She called me screaming hysterically, to the point I couldn't understand any of her words, only her extreme sense of urgency. Assuming there had been a bomb threat, I told her to calm down and explain what was going on. She took a deep breath and said, "Mary-Kate the newsstand...she bought gum."

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Love this quote...

...if only because it makes me feel a little better about my messy desk.
"There are all kinds of ways to live. You can take your choice. You can keep a tidy house, and when St. Peter asks you what you did with your life, you can say, 'I kept a tidy house, I made my own cheese balls.'"  
                                   --Annie Dillard


Friday, March 2, 2012

ROOST: How to Fake Your Way to Being a Facebook Foodie Mom

I literally just spent 10 minutes giggling at this magical little section of Nickelodeon's nickmom site. It almost -- almost -- makes me forgive them for bringing Max & Ruby into our household.

My personal fave was the most recent post, the Foodie Mom. Quick -- go read it and come back.

...riiiiight!? I think everyone has one or two or five of them in our social circle. And, um, I'm definitely NOT that mom in my circle.

Look! I made pastries!

My friend Brianne is one of those moms. Hopefully she's not offended by me putting her on shout. After all, her foodie-ness made her an excellent college roommate to have -- we were probably the only people on campus using our liter of Smirnoff to make penne alla vodka. Nowadays she runs her own little corner of the blogosphere called Cupcakes and Kale Chips, where she shares recipes like "parmesan balsamic-caramelized onion smashed potatoes." (I didn't make that up.) Most of her meals have, like, seven unique side dishes. Meanwhile, I pat myself on the back if I don't screw up beef stew. (Side dish?! I don't know, heat up one of those Steamfresh bags. What do I look like, a diner?)

As a result, her Facebook updates are usually along the lines of, "Just made the boys a filet mignon with a red wine reduction and a side of braised onto the honey-glazed pecan tartlets!" (I'm talking out of my ass here, so apologies if those aren't real food terms.) I usually read these posts while my kids are eating Goldfish crackers out of a Tupperware bowl. Look, I try to feed my kids healthy food as often as possible, but sometimes it's 12:15 and they're melting down and only McCain smiley-face fries will placate them.

So I figured I'd come up with a helpful little guide for making your Facebook food posts sound more impressive than they are. With a little bit of clever wording, you too can be a Facebook foodie!

  1. Skip the brand names. Cheerios become "toasted oats," Eggos become "buttermilk waffles," and Pizza Rolls become "mini-strombolis." 
  2. List ingredients. Add oomph by rattling off the (pronounceable) ingredients from the label. Today we'll be having pasta with tomato puree, cheddar, and paprika extract...or, y'know, Spaghetti-O's.
  3. Don't forget the details. Here's where it all comes together. Did you serve PBJ and potato chips? Or did you serve roasted peanut spread with grape jam on whole-grain bread with a side of thin-sliced potatoes fried in soybean oil?
See how easy?