Sunday, December 26, 2010

I love Christmas

I really love the Christmas season, and for some reason this year was even more enjoyable than years past. Maybe it’s because last year was the first Christmas I’d ever spent away from Seattle, so I had two years’ worth of build up. The early advertisements didn’t bother me and I happily listened to Christmas music at every opportunity, only reaching my saturation point on Christmas day itself – perfect timing.

I planned my company’s holiday party, attended a lovely Hanukah dinner (mmm, latkes!), and went to half a dozen other Christmas parties and dinners - including a Santa-themed pub crawl and a dinner where I roasted my very first duck - before the big day. The duck was delicious!

The most memorable of these was Adam’s yearly Christmas party, in which guests are advised: “don’t come as you are . . . come a little bit better.” This results in a normally casual group transformed into a sharply dressed crew. Adam goes all out, including providing a top-shelf bar meant to last well into the night, decorating to the nines, and dressing as Santa and subjecting himself to an hour or more of Santa pictures. I didn’t make it home until 6 am and it was definitely the party of the year.

Contrary to the stereotypical stress-inducing family, mine is a joy to be with on Christmas day (and otherwise). We have very few obligations and a long-standing tradition of staying in our PJs all day – no one comes and no one goes. We make Chex Mix, drink hot buttered rum, watch movies, and play board games.

Of course, before all of that we open presents. Ever since we were kids, my parents have treated Christmas as the one day of the year when we’re extravagant, from sweet to savory, from decorations to gifts. Growing up without a lot of money, this was a particularly touching feat, one we didn’t fully appreciate until we were adults. This year was no different, but now that the kids are adults we give each other great gifts, too. All in all a very satisfying and relaxed morning of ripping open wrapping paper, pausing to eat overnight waffles, and finishing off at a leisurely pace. Another difference is that as adults we can stretch gift-opening until the early afternoon. Here is my sister displaying a fan of incense samplings and my dad figuring out his new Kindle in the background:

The only bummer was that I got the 24-hour flu, from about 2 pm Christmas day until pretty much right now. It was, as the flu goes, quite mild, which doesn’t mean it was fun (I’m not sure which was worse, puking or missing out on all the good eats) but at least I recovered quickly because I go to Mexico tomorrow!

I’ll be touring the Yucatan peninsula for the next 2 weeks. I’ve been dying to get back to Mexico ever since my last trip when I went to Oaxaca and the Southern coast for my 24th birthday. Five years later I’ll be spending New Year’s and my 29th birthday amid Mayan ruins and next to the Caribbean sea.

So, happy end of the holiday season to all of you, stay tuned for vacation highlights, and I'll see you in the new year!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Backlog blog #5: Manu Chao plays Seattle

Manu Chao has long been one of my favorite musicians. His were the first songs I could sing all the way through in Spanish, I have very fond memories of my Spanish boyfriend singing me Manu Chao songs when I studied abroad in Sevilla, and I never tire of hearing the same albums over and over again.

So, even though I am famous for disliking live music, I have now been to two Manu Chao concerts in the same calendar year.

I had the opportunity to see Manu Chao last year in Argentina and I jumped on it - taking a bunch of Americans and one Brasilian with me - because he so rarely plays in the U.S. It was a memorable show and I was grateful to have seen him.

Imagine my surprise when, on the first day walking to work from my new Capitol hill apartment in October, I passed the Paramount Theater and its placard announcing Manu Chao for the very next week. I quite literally did a double take, even rubbed my eyes to make sure it wasn't a mirage. Sure enough, he was doing several shows in the U.S. on the west coast, and Seattle was his first stop. Of course I had to go to his first Seattle show ever!

The natural choice for a friend to accompany me was my co-worker Ilona, a woman who loves languages, foreign culture, and a good beat. I bought us tickets at the box office and we counted down the days until it was show time.

The show was fantastic. I couldn't help but compare the two shows, and here are my thoughts.


Energy. That man brings an insane, inhuman amount of energy to every show he does. This is especially evident in his jumpy movements and the frequent beating of the microphone against his heart and head, which actually is a pretty cool sound effect.

Repeated sounds. At each show, Manu and his crew seem to zero in on a short, catchy riff that they repeat, and repeat, and repeat... in Argentina this went on for nearly an hours' worth of encores. To be honest, it was getting pretty old by the end of what was a 3.5 hour show.

Crazy long encores. So, so long. Like, almost as long as the show itself, both times. Though he kind of cheats by using that repeated riff... Oh, ooooh, oh, OH, OH, oh.

Price. Totally reasonable in both cities.


Band size. In Seattle, it was just Manu + his lead guitarist and a drummer. In Argentina, there must have been 10-12 musicians on stage. Still, the energy level was incredible.

Venue. In Argentina, thousands of people packed into a free-for-all stadium with minimal security and virtually no rules - smoke 'em if you got 'em kind of scene. Compare this with the uber-anal Paramount theater, where the employees seem to go out of their way to destroy as much of the show's magic for you as possible.

Each venue had its advantages and disadvantages. In Argentina, it was crazy and awesome and you could go anywhere you could maneuver yourself. Of course, this also involved a lot of pushing and illegal drug activities, and in a closed stadium that much cigarette smoke was a disgusting detractor.

In Seattle, you bought your seats ahead of time and even though the open, downstairs area wasn't anywhere CLOSE to full by Argentina standards, the "I-think-my-job-is-really-important" Paramount ushers wouldn't let you budge from where you were assigned. Hell, they wouldn't even let you inch into the aisle to DANCE a little, rushing at you with a flashlight in the face to corral you back to your proper place. And, the stage crew was embarrassingly bad, constantly interfering with the band. I thought Manu Chao was going to pop one of them when after about 3 altercations (including one where Manu actually tripped over one of them in his way) the stage crew guy wouldn't hand him his guitar, apparently fiddling with a string for about 2 solid minutes ... are you kidding, guy?? It was so bad I was actually embarrassed, like blushing and groaning and fidgeting uncomfortably embarrassed for the impression Seattle's stage crew was causing. But, the air was clean and I wasn't scared for my life.

Shorter sets. In Argentina, there are no limits to how long a show can go, and with a crowd of 10,000+ that can be a long time. Although his show in Seattle was certainly long by Seattle standards, it was nowhere near the almost too-long show he did in the south.

Dance crowd. Of course Argentina blows Seattle out of the water for the dance scene, because EVERYONE DANCES. Like, duh. Why go to a Manu Chao concert if you aren't going to dance? Passive, boring Seattle was a little more restrained up in the balcony seats, but some of us were definitely going crazy (much to the dismay of those sitting near us.) I have to give it to Seattle, though: those on the main floor actually had a mosh pit going, and a pretty solid one at that (is there anything Seattle goers won't mosh to?), plus several successful crowd surfers.

In short, I was delighted to be at both shows and particularly pleased to have two very different Manu concerts under my belt. You better believe that if he's ever in a city when I'm there again, I'll continue adding notches to my Manu Chao belt!

And, thus ends my backlog - I'm finally caught up. Next you can expect something about Christmas, and then I'm off to the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico for 12 days where I'll spend New Year's and my birthday. I'll blog from the road if possible, but if not you know you can count on a 'super comprehensive' (aka stupidly long) blog with photos on my return.

A non-traditional Thanksgiving

As everyone must know by now, I love Thanksgiving. But, I am not beholden to a single Thursday in November to celebrate it; in fact, I’m fairly indifferent about its specific date. So when Robyn suggested an out of town retreat I jumped at the idea of a few days of R&R.

Of course, only a crazy person would fly over Thanksgiving break so we searched for a local option and came up with the Bonneville Resort on the Columbia River. Bingo! We booked ourselves for 3 nights and several spa treatments and patiently awaited our mini-break.

There was some temporary concern when the storm hit that we wouldn’t be able to make it out of the city, but luckily by Wednesday morning the streets were more or less OK and the freeway was free and clear so we got out without a problem. Along the way we made a random stop in Kelso to go on a wild goose chase for a UPS store that the iPhone promised us would be there, and it was. Not two hours later when we stopped for groceries, of course, there was a UPS next store. We also hit up Five Guys Burgers, my absolute favorite fast-food-but-not-fast-food place that has magically migrated here from the east coast. By the early afternoon, after some gorgeous scenery along the way, we pulled up to luxury itself – 3 days with nothing to do.

I wasn’t sure what to expect since you can never tell in pictures what a hotel will really be like and it seemed as if it might have a 70s flair, but I was pleasantly surprised. 70s flair aside, the hotel itself is quite grand – I’ve never seen such a majestic room (outside of Vegas) OR such a giant fireplace. Here is the view from our room:

After getting settled in we made our way down to the spa for our 4:00 appointment: a mineral water and essential oil bath followed by a “wrap.” The bath rooms are quite sweet, with deep tubs separated by screens in dimly lit rooms. After 30 minutes of soaking we were ushered into the wrap room, where we were tucked within an inch of our lives into hot blankets, a cool towel covering our eyes. It sounds so simple, yet it was probably the most enjoyable spa treatment I’ve ever had. We left there moving about 10 times slower than when we went in, and lazed in our robes in the tropical pool room for a solid hour before heading back to our room and going to bed by 8 pm.

The next morning was Thanksgiving and we started it off right with mimosas in bed. Then we went downstairs to the most unexpectedly wonderful surprise: FREE BUFFET BREAKFAST. I’m not talking about some dinky little continental affair; this was a full-blown feast including coffee, juice, fruit and oatmeal, bacon and sausage, potatoes, and the best parts of all, an omelet station AND a waffle station. Free. Every morning.

Sometimes we’d look at each other with a gleam in our eyes and we’d know we were thinking about free breakfast. In fact, that free breakfast was such a great deal that we managed to spend almost zero money on food, having brought groceries with us for most meals. The only time we dropped any cash was on the Thanksgiving meal itself. But that’s later… after The Bridge.

I had done some scouting on things to do in the area and came upon what sounded like a promising description of some nearby hot springs. Also nearby was the Bonneville dam, which Robyn was not as into touring in the freezing weather as I was, but it was pretty cool to look at from afar:

Anyway, we decided that on Thanksgiving we’d venture out to check out these hot springs 20 minutes away. We bundled up...

...and off we went further east through several one-horse towns until we came to the Carson Hot Springs Resort. It was a wee bit, how shalle we say, dilapidated?

We went into the main building and asked a bored but pleasant man where the trail started. We didn’t reveal our plans since it was a gray area whether or not it was legal to access them. He pointed us behind the hotel and we started the mile hike across partially frozen but otherwise easy terrain. The directions we were following were sketchy at best but we did manage to find the suspension bridge mentioned:
Yikes! The river was thundering beneath us and we were both terrified to cross, so of course we had to, yelping like scared baby animals all the way. Here is the view from halfway across:
Once on the other side we saw the ‘piece of string’ alluded to in the shady directions which was really a rope and started a very careful scramble across some frozen rocks. When my water bottle fell out and crashed 20 feet to the ground below, and when I saw that after these rocks were more rocks, even more frozen and even more vertical, we very wisely surmised the danger and backed up out of there. (This was one of the many times I have been grateful to be a level-headed, non-thrill-seeking woman.)

Back across the bridge we went, where we encountered two locals who informed us that to get to those hot springs you actually have to scale a vertical wall and that the best way is via raft or other water vessel. I wanted to track down the idiot who wrote the original instructions and tell him what a moron he was, but then again I was the moron who was basing my experience that day on a stranger’s vague description, so I didn’t have anyone to blame but myself.

Safe and sound at the end of the trail we applauded our sound judgment – AND our crossing of the bridge – and started back, stopping to cross the Bridge of the Gods, kind of a lofty name for this unimpressive overpass:
It cost us $1 each way and we were surprised to find that we were in Oregon on the other side, though if we’d stopped to think that we were on the Columbia it probably wouldn’t have come as a shock (like I said, spa life had slowed us down some). We stopped and had sandwiches with a flock of geese, crossed back over the bridge, made our way to the hotel, and sat by the pool for several hours reading before it was time to feast.

Imagine, if you will, a Thanksgiving in which you neither have to cook nor clean, coupled with unfettered, unlimited access to all your favorite dishes: this is the beauty of a gourmet Thanksgiving buffet.

We went back for seconds and thirds and had more than our fill of Thanksgiving classics: requisite turkey, potatoes, and stuffing; green bean casserole made with fresh green beans; tons of veggies and salads and soups and cheeses; and a good variety of pies (which some a-hole next to us actually had the gall to say was a 'thin selection.' Really, guy? How many kinds of pie do you NORMALLY have on Thanksgiving?) There were also non-traditional items like prawns (which we did some damage to) and a prime rib (which we didn't touch). We ordered a bottle of champagne which they let us take back to the room with us, tub and all. Here I am after dinner posing next to our favorite place in the hotel, the "area of rescue":

It was another early night for us, though I stayed up watching Avatar for the first time. I was glad I hadn't wasted any money on this lame adaptation of Pochahontas in the theaters. And don't try to tell me that the 3-D was worth it - I'm so sick of 3-D! It gives me a headache after 20 minutes.

The next day was Friday and we had a soak, wrap, and massage scheduled for the afternoon. As wonderful as all that was, there was something magical about our Wednesday soak and wrap that just couldn't be beat. Afterward we went to the pool, books and robes in tow, and spent some more quality time doing more nothing. There was a hot tub outside called the 'pool of tranquility,' and since it had snowed it was fun being outside in the frozen white landscape engulfed in steaming hot water.

By Friday evening I was getting a little restless - so much nothingness can be tiring! - so we did something a little more active: played UNO for about 2 hours. Not surprisingly, we were in bed early.

Saturday we woke up to our final free breakfast and our final swim in the pool, and we were underway by check-out at noon. My car was covered in snow, which I removed using a tennis racket randomly kicking about in my car. (Note to self: get an ice scraper.)

Snow-covered car aside, the weather was once again on our side and the roads were clear. The views were gorgeous and we stopped at Cape Horn to get some pictures. I love this one because it's hard to tell the difference between sky, cloud, fog, and water:

Of course I had to snap a shot of the Matrix for posterity. This car is going to have quite the photo album:

We got back to Seattle on Saturday evening at about 5 - virtually no traffic! - and spent the night chilling out in our respective apartments before reuniting for one last Thanksgiving weekend event on Sunday: the Christmas Tree farm.

Robyn has gone to the Carnation Tree Farm for the last 5 years and this time I was her guest of honor. I didn't get a tree - the saw is just for the picture - but I did get some garlands which are lovely hanging over my French doors, wrapped in white lights.

Here is Robyn loading up her mini-tree:
Although I love my family and love spending holidays with them, this was a happy and restful way to spend the long Thanksgiving weekend. Hip hip, hooray!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Backlog blog #4: A special visitor for a special occasion (aka EAT MORE CHILI)

Several years ago, my Seattle friends started a chili cookoff tradition. It has had many iterations, from specific judges to popular judging, from straightforward categories and rules to mind-numbing mathematical messes necessitating an excel spreadsheet to calculate the winner.

This year’s cookoff was held for the first time at Ray and Jen’s house, and when I was talking about it to my buddy Mike, one of the first friends I made when I moved to Philadelphia, he became utterly giddy. “Yo Arch, do you think I could come out there for this chili cookoff?” he asked eagerly. A short time later he had booked his ticket for a long weekend in October and I began laying the groundwork for this year’s chili entry.

After having been a judge and a straight-up interloper for several years, last year I entered for the first time. I chose the vegetarian category and won with ‘Moli,’ a mole-chili combination that I whipped up from scratch – yes, even the mole part – and that one attendee in particular still talks about longingly (Morgan, you know who you are). I had a reputation to uphold, so one weekend about a month in advance I went crazy with three different versions of the same experimental chili idea I had, roasting whole tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants to create a truly 'from scratch' recipe. (The pot on the left is the start of applesauce from the great apple harvest.)

Bubbling away:

It centered around lamb, which was delicious, but the rest of it didn’t really knock my socks off - not surprisingly, eggplant was NOT a winning addition to a chili, though the leftover puree did make a delicious baba ghanouj - so after a night of taste-testing I went back to the drawing board.

The next week, K and I were trying to come up with something to make for our neighbors who just had a baby. As is our wont, we scavenged the fridge, freezer, and pantry, and came up with a wild rice, sage, and squash soup. It tasted like Thanksgiving, a light bulb went off in my head, and the Happy Thanksgiving chili was born.

Fast forward to Mike’s arrival in Seattle. Born and raised in Brooklyn and a longtime resident of Philly, he had never been to the West coast. I had just moved into my apartment less than a week before but was determined to have it ready for my first guest of honor. We packed a lot into the first few days, much of it food-based: I took him to the best bowl of pho at Pho Bac in the ID; to Tacos el Asadero, the taco bus on Rainier; and for a gyro in Pioneer Square. When he mentioned he’d never heard of, much less been on, a floating bridge, we drove across I-90, through Bellevue, and then back across 520.

Mike is part of a running and drinking club called the Hash House Harriers, and he found a Seattle chapter which took him on a grueling run in the rain and the mud through Lincoln park in West Seattle. Before I dropped him off we stopped for the glamour shot with Seattle’s skyline:

Later that night he didn’t realize how lucky he was when some of the runners decided to drive to Capitol hill to sing karaoke at the Crescent - a bar that you can see from my apartment - until he was ready to go the short distance home, at which point he was overcome with relief to get so quickly out of the rain and his wet clothes and onto my super comfy couch.

Mike was on his own that night because it was my 10-year high school reunion. It was over stimulating and underwhelming at the same time, but I’m glad I went on that walk down memory lane. It was great to reconnect with some people, and fascinating to see how some people had changed. Of course, most of us were exactly the same. I think the 20 year will be even more interesting.

The next day was Sunday - Cookoff Day. I had started the chili in the crockpot the day before, so Mike and I went to eat breakfast pizzas and watch football at Bill’s Off Broadway before hitting up the cookoff. He was in awe of how early football here goes down, especially the Monday night game which for us starts at 5:20 and ends by the time it had started on the east coast.

A few hours later we found ourselves in North Seattle, surrounded by crockpots of various size and smell. Ray and Jen did a spectacular job setting up the competition in case of rain, but we were lucky to have the sun shining down most of the afternoon. Here is part of the sweet set-up in the basement, which opened onto the driveway and front lawn:

I think there ended up being 14 chilis across 3 categories, all of which the majority of us were able to work our way through. Here are a few taste-testers eating out of leftover mugs from Ray and Jen’s wedding, the perfect chili vessel!

My personal favorite was a whiskey plantain chili, followed by Nathan and Morgan’s lamb with polenta, followed by my own Happy Thanksgiving which had a few kinks in the beginning that I managed to even out by judging time. The base consisted of roasted and blended pumpkin, tomatoes, turkey gravy, and chili peppers, plus dark turkey meat, hunks of pumpkin, chopped pecans, dried cranberries, and French’s Fried Onions on top. It was Thanksgiving in a mouthful.

I happily came out victorious in the ‘meat no bean’ category. Next year I will have to up the ante by entering ‘meat with bean’ in the hopes of securing a trifecta of wins. Here are this year’s winners:

You can also read about the cookoff and see more pictures on Ray and Jen's blog here.

By the time we went home we were a little fatter and a lot happier. We went to bed with lofty goals for the next day, Mike’s last full day and a Monday I had taken off. But, fate had other plans.

Mike is an early riser and I was secluded in the cave of my bedroom, so by the time I rolled out at 9 am he was nearing his breaking point: WISDOM TOOTH ATTACK! I felt so bad for him but there’s almost nothing you can do for that kind of pain. I started by giving him some pain killers and recommending he call his dentist and insurance provider to get a list of oral surgeons in Philadelphia, since clearly those suckers had to come out. After a few false starts he got the nicest woman in the world on the phone who scheduled him for a consultation the very next day, with the promise of surgery on Thursday. The only problem was, Mike didn’t fly until the next morning. Cue the call to the airline, where we got him on a 12:30 flight that night with a minimal fee since he was technically flying in the same day as his original flight. PHEW! With all of those details ready to go for his return, there was really only one thing left to do: drink the pain away.

Our original plan had been to take the Underground tour, go up in the Smith Tower, Columbia tower, or the Space Needle, and take a ferry ride to Bainbridge and back. We did pretty well after several drinks at the J&M Café in Pioneer Square and I think Mike managed to enjoy the Underground. We hit up the Smith tower where Mike got glamour shot #2 with the Space Needle:

By that time the booze was wearing off and the pain was coming back so we skipped the ferry, choosing instead to go to Tukwila to retrieve Harriet. (I both blame and thank Mike for this random incident in my life, since it all started the first night he came into town with the innocent phrase, “Have you ever seen a Lionhead bunny?” followed by about an hour of obsessive Google imaging and Craigslist searching.)

Once we had Harriet safely tucked away inside her shiny new cage, we meandered over to the Redwood, my friendly neighborhood bar a block away, to watch Monday Night Football. I have never watched so much nor learned so much about football as I did that weekend. Mike also helped me cultivate and refine my fantasy team, and I’m happy to report that I am in first place in my league and going to the playoffs next week. Holla!

Mike got safely on the plane, had his consultation and surgery, and while convalescing crafted this insanely awesome creation as thanks for my hostessing. A straight dude who can crochet is one in a million in my book.

He’s already plotting a return trip for the cookoff next year, and this time plans to enter a chili of his own. Bring it, Mike!