30 things before 30

I’m trying thirty new things every day for a month before I turn 30 . . .

#22: Give minimalism a chance

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I attended a reception at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden for an association event this evening and was excited to learn that the second floor exhibitions were open for guests.  I skipped the hors d’oeuvres and headed for The Panza Collection exhibition, comprised of new works acquired by the museum from a private collector.  The pieces include art from the “Conceptual, Light and Space, Minimal, and Environmental” art movements. (I use quotes here because I’m citing the exhibition brochure; I’m not sure I would have had a clue what movements these pieces were from otherwise.  Perhaps the “bore our viewers to tears” movement?)

I was disappointed from the get-go, probably because I have little love for gallery spaces with nothing in them except a few vinyl words on a wall spelling out “It can only be known as something else” (sorry, Robert Barry).  Upon encountering this work, I audibly sighed.  I was hoping for something that would make me feel something other than an irresistible desire to roll my eyes.  Maybe the original “graphite on wall” version would have been more interesting (you can learn a lot from an exhibition checklist if you try hard enough).  But I doubt it.

I know these guys (not one of the pieces in the show was by a woman, as far as I can tell) were supposed to be challenging traditional ideas about aesthetics and the meaning/nature of art (again, I know this thanks to the brochure).  But I just can’t get behind something that feels less powerful to me than it would have in a poem, which I could have read anywhere and would not have taken up so much precious space on the National Mall.  I walked past piece after piece—a large grey line on a wall; a definition of the word “idea” printed in white on a black square of cardboard; another word, “self-defined,” formed out of white neon tubing—and I felt, well, nothing.  And that just makes me sad.

Most of the time I “get it”—art doesn’t have to be beautiful, or made with paint or marble; it doesn’t need to make sense or make you feel good.  But art that makes you feel nothing just seems like such a waste.  I’m okay with being shocked, horrified, saddened, humored, confused, surprised, awed.  The Hirshhorn’ exhibition description tells us that the works in the Panza collection are made by:

artists (who) dismissed conventional concerns in favor of an avid engagement with ideas, processes, social and political issues, the body, and phenomenological experiences.”

Sounds good to me.  But I didn’t feel anything “avid” or “engaging” about most of the works I encountered, which is a shame.  And then I read this little tidbit about Dr. Panza:

(He) distinguished himself by his willingness to collect art that few museums or private collectors at the time were willing to acquire, such as Conceptual works that exist only as documentary certificates or room-sized installations that require vast storage space and significant resources to install.”

Now we were getting somewhere.  It’s true that the exhibition showcases items you’ve probably never seen before.  I hadn’t really thought about why (other than the fact that I disliked them and so, therefore, didn’t really care).  And just as I was about to give up hope, I came across this little number:

"The Weight of the Infinite"

The Obliteration of Roman Opalka

I found basically no interpretation of this work in the gallery itself.  But a quick google search for “Roman Opalka” turned up an article, “The Weight of the Infinite.”  Apparently, Opalka has been painting numbers for quite some time, beginning with “1” in 1965.  The series this piece belongs to, called “Details,” begins with white numbers on black and, as time progresses, he lightens the background: black, grey, . . . white?  Yes, at some point, he should get the point where he is painting white numbers on a white background.  Why?  That’s not the point, and that’s not why I’m writing about him.  I was attracted to the two photographs, not the numbers on canvas.  Apparently, each time Opalka completes a canvas of numbers, he takes a photograph of his face.  So, as his numbering slowly stretches towards the infinite (and will eventually be invisible), so does his life trajectory reach toward the finite (the photos attest to the process of aging, which must ultimately lead to, well, death).  Pretty heavy, huh?  Makes you stop and think, doesn’t it?  More than that, it probably makes you feel something—fear of your own mortality, sympathy for a dying man—yeah?  And even if the concept of it doesn’t move you, the photographs alone speak to the human condition: at once alive in the moment and yet always slowly dying.

My Panza Collection experience was worth it just for this piece alone—or rather, for this man alone.  But I would be lying if I didn’t tell you I also enjoyed Doug Wheeler’s ethereal “Eindhoven, Environmental Light Installation,” Richard Long’s naturally soothing “Carrera Line,” or Jan Dibbets’s oddly mesmerizing “The Shortest Day of 1970 Photographed in My House Every 6 Minutes from Sunrise til Sunset.”  If you have a half hour, check the exhibition out.   Let me know what you think.  Or better yet, let me know what you felt.

Lesson learned:  If you open yourself up to something you think you won’t like, you just might be surprised.  Also, knee-high boots with wooden soles are REALLY noisy in an echoey-empty gallery space “filled” with minimalist works.  Go for ballerina flats or maybe (more likely in my case, at least) your favorite Pumas.

Written by danamuses

October 26, 2008 at 8:01 pm

Posted in turning 30

#21: Go big or go home

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Last week, I purchased a gigantic apple from the farmer’s market.  I’m not talking big.  I’m talking a massive, colossal, enormous, elephantine, whopping apple.  When I brought it to the grower-seller to purchase it, along with a few other apples and some field greens, he actually said:

Whoa.  That’s a big apple.”

The guy to his left stopped mid-way through selling a bagful of butternut squash to admire the specimen.

Dude, that is big!”

So, I’m telling you, this apple was no ordinary apple.  When I purchased it, my intention was to chop it up for a dinner salad.  I often use fruit (lots of apples, pears, grapes, mango, or whatever other fruits are in season) in meal-sized salads alongside Gorgonzola or goat cheese, a handful of walnuts or pecans, and my homemade balsamic vinaigrette.  Sometimes I even go crazy and throw in some sliced chicken breast.  I never get tired of these meals because the season, the place I purchased the items, or the specific combination I went for that evening always makes the experience different.  Whether my husband gets tired of salad for dinner is another story; a meal just isn’t a meal for him unless it involves a bread product.

So, I thought this particular apple was destined for dinner.  But I’m in the third week of this challenge and things are starting to get desperate.  I looked at the apple.  It looked at me.  I decided to take a glamour shot of it alongside a size-verifying object.  You know, like a quarter.

This apple is not messing around.

This apple is not messing around.

The more I viewed it from the artist’s lens, the more it sucked me in.  The apple was shiny and plump and calling my name.  So I went for it.  The first bite was glorious—crisp, sweet, and just the right amount of tart.  The next few bites were pretty darn good too.  By minute five, I wasn’t feeling so psyched about the gargantuan apple.  I tried to pawn it off on my husband.  He looked at the quickly-browning flesh and turned me down.  My dog gave me the “what’s-that-I-might-want-to-eat-it” look that he gives whenever I have something (edible or not) in my hands.  I held it out to him.  He sniffed.  And then he walked away. I got through about 2/3 of the apple before I gave up.

Lesson learned: It’s easy to “go big or go home” when you’re already home.

Written by danamuses

October 25, 2008 at 10:30 pm

Posted in turning 30

#20: Narrowly escape encounter with a neti pot

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Just an innocent neti pot, hanging out on the counter.

Just an innocent neti pot, hanging out on the counter.

I encountered something unexpected this evening in my brother-in-law’s bathroom.  No, it wasn’t the empty toilet roll or the grimy shower tile.  It was a neti pot.  Just sitting on the counter, innocently.

Now, I’ve never seen a neti pot in person.  My only encounter with one was on the show, Six Feet Under.  Crazy old George is in love with his neti pot, having used it every day since youth to keep colds away.  Ruth is not so much in love with the neti pot, particularly when she discovers it in her kitchen cupboards.  She freaks out in that characteristically neurotic and endearing way of hers.  Not exactly great advertising for the ancient nasal irrigation method, but at least those of you who’ve seen the show know what I’m talking about.  They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

My brother-in-law lives in a house with several other young twenty-somethings, making their way through life with music, two dogs, a couple of six packs of beer, and each other.  They’re sweet, hippie-leaning guys (and a gal) but of the five of them, I can’t even begin to guess which housemate the neti pot belongs to.

The longer I hung out in the bathroom with it, the more I became sort of obsessed with the fact of it just sitting there, left out for all to see.  It reminded me of an argument I once had with a dear friend about whether it was appropriate to leave a tub of Metamucil out in the office kitchen.  She claimed it was a food and she had every right to keep it there.  I argued that it was medicine and suggested the reason her coworkers might be uncomfortable with it sitting out in a public place is that it reminds them of pooping rather than what they’re doing in the kitchen, which is eating.  We never saw eye to eye on that one.

Perhaps I’m a bit of a personal hygiene prude but I don’t expect to see wart remover, hemorrhoid cream, or athlete’s foot powder sitting out in a bathroom.  If you had asked me before tonight, I would have put a neti pot in the same category of unmentionables.  But here’s the rub:  in person, a neti pot is irresistibly adorable.  An angelic cream-colored ceramic exterior, smooth as a baby’s bum, and a lotus flower for adornment . . .  who could resist it?

It was hard but I was able to escape without touching the pot.  I snapped a few photos of it while I cooed about how cute, weird, and awesome it was (much to my embarrassed husband’s chagrin).  But I didn’t touch it.  And boy am I glad: have you seen how it works?  All I could think about when I saw this video of it in use is me, hacking up a lung the way I do when I get water up my nose at the public swimming pool, or snorkeling in the ocean, or even sometimes when I’m not paying attention in the shower.

Lesson learned: I’m probably way too uncoordinated to use a neti pot for its intended purpose.  But I wouldn’t mind having one for a watering can or a gravy boat.  They’re just too darn cute.

Written by danamuses

October 24, 2008 at 11:34 pm

Posted in turning 30

#00: Take a day off

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That’s right, you heard me.  I took a day off.  I didn’t do a single new thing today.  I told you I had at least one “bye” day.  I woke up, showered, and went to work.  When I came home, I watched “Jeapordy!,” and “The Office,” and hung out on the couch with my hubby, my cat, and my dog eating sweet potato fries and drinking Fresca.  I’ve probably never done that exact combination of things in one day . . . but that doesn’t make for a very exciting post now, does it?

This post is so uneventful, even Henry fell asleep.

This post is so uneventful, even Henry fell asleep.

Written by danamuses

October 23, 2008 at 11:44 pm

Posted in turning 30

#19: Sip a surly smurf

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Over the years, I’ve become a responsible adult.  Or at least that’s what people try to tell themselves around this age.  For some time now I’ve been able to stick to my personal goal of being home and in my jammies before midnight on “school nights.”

Tonight I went to the Red Derby in Columbia Heights to celebrate another fabulous friend’s terrific thirtieth.  The bar doesn’t provide much to write home about—bottled but no draft beers, decent fries, and plastic chairs that look like they’re straight out of your 5th grade math class.

Apparently on Wednesday nights the happy hour special is $4 White Russians . . . with rail vodka.  Pass!  I played it smart and had a Natty Boh.  In a can.  (Yeah, remember those!?)  I haven’t spent much time with most of the birthday girl’s pals so I was glad to catch up with a great guy friend I haven’t hung out with much lately.  Now, back before I was a responsible adult, he and I made lots of mischief.  He’s still “on the varsity team,” as he calls it.  I’m solidly “on the bench.”  He’s a great friend and a blast to be around . . . but sometimes having so much fun can really make your head hurt the morning after.

I told him about my challenge to do 30 new things in the 30 days before I turn 30.  And he wanted to help.

You’ve never been to this bar before,” he offered.

Yeah, but that shouldn’t count or else I’d just go to all the metro stations I haven’t disembarked at before and call it a day.”

He needed a refill so we moseyed up to the bar.

You could do a shot of something you’ve never done before.”

True.”

We eyed the choices.  Frangelica?  I can’t say I’ve done a shot of it before but I’ve had my share (my mom loves it too).  Whiskey?  Done and done, yuck.  Jagermeister?  (Come on, I went to college.)  The bartender saw that we needed some help.

You want a surly smurf.”

I do?  What’s in it?  Sounds scary.”

Blue curacao and some other stuff.”

Um.  Okay.  Two please.”

The surly smurf is very . . . blue

The surly smurf is very . . . blue

And that was the end of me. It was sickeningly sweet like a foofy-chick-drink and, yet, strong like a manly scotch on the rocks all at once.  I don’t know what was in it and I probably don’t want to know.  The closest recipe I can find is for a “Smurf Fart,” which involves cream and doesn’t sound toxic enough, believe it or not.  All I know is it made me want to scarf down a cheeseburger to erase the taste of it.  It was greasy and salty and meaty and fabulous.  A perfect complement to the Guinness I also ordered with the aim of getting rid of the memory of the surly smurf.

On the way home my friend and I stopped at another bar.  We ate a pineapple slice soaked in vodka.  That was a good idea.

(Too) many hours later, I found myself contemplating life on my metro ride home.  It was 11:45 p.m.  I thought about how good it is to see old and true friends.  (Smile.)  About how awesome that cheeseburger was. (Yum.)  About my bar tab. (Bleh.)

I got home, put on my PJs, and crawled into bed just as the clock hit midnight.  Shockingly, I didn’t turn into a pumpkin.

Lesson learned: When a bartender tells you that one of the ingredients is “other stuff,” say no.

Written by danamuses

October 22, 2008 at 8:58 pm

Posted in turning 30

#18: Journey to the top of the Washington Monument

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The view from below.

The view from below.

Have you ever played tourist in your own city?  Today I finally got up the nerve to take the minute plus elevator ride to the top of the Washington Monument.  This is after staring at the thing every day for the five or so years I’ve been working on the National Mall.  There’s usually a line wrapped around the obelisk, which looks miserable in the droopy Washingtonian summer heat and even more excruciating (for me, at least) in the colder months.  I thought I’d thwarted the queue completely by reserving tickets online or the small transaction fee of $1.50 (they’re totally free if you go pick them up in person on the morning of your visit).  But, alas, to stand in line at all you need a ticket and so, in essence, the ticket simply gives you the right to stand in the 11:30 am line for a tour.

The wind whipped around my husband and I as we waited along with several multi-generational families, some German tourists, and a man arguing with a park ranger about what a dumb rule it is that he couldn’t take his child’s stroller up to the top of the 555 ft. structure.

Who made up that ridiculous rule?”

Um, someone higher up than me.”

Ah, passing the buck, I thought.  A telltale habit of employees in highly bureaucratic organizations.  But the ranger was pleasant enough when our time came to cross over from the waiting-in-line-for-a-tour line to the waiting-in-line-to-get-inside-the-building-and-go-through-security line.  After that line, we waited in the elevator line.  And once we were up at the top?  We waited in “I want to look out at this view but I’m only 3 feet tall so someone has to hold me up to see out the window” lines.

Without being too much of a Debbie Downer, I have to admit that the experience at the top was a bit anticlimactic.  It’s true that the views from the top of the monument can’t be beat.  But the sense of scale is a totally skewed by the fact that you can only peer out of small, horizontal portals out on to the Potomac River, the Tidal Basin, the National Mall, the White House, and the vastness of Northern Virginia.  My photos are a bit murky because the windows were hazy, but you can zoom in really closely.  We thought we might have seen snipers on some of the roofs (on the White House?  nope.  On the National Gallery of Art?  nah.) but when we analyzed the photos back at home we couldn’t find any.  Can you?

See any snipers?

See any snipers?

The highlight of the trip was the elevator ride down.  I’m not being glib—during the recent renovation of the Monument a new fancy-pants elevator was installed.  The National Park Service explains:

With a flip of a switch, the elevator will now slow and windows in the cab will change from opaque to clear on downward trips to allow viewing of the commemorative stones.”

Why this is not publicized on every piece of marketing material promoting a visit to the Monument is beyond me.  Imagine whizzing down the tallest freestanding stone structure in the world when the elevator gently slows and the panes of glass that you thought were frosted suddenly turn clear and you’re staring at the inside of the monument!  And it isn’t like the inside of a chimney, no—you’re looking at some of the 193 restored commemorative stones on the interior walls of the Monument.  Some are simple inscriptions while others boast elaborate bas reliefs of people on horses or of exotic buildings in foreign lands.  You feel as if you’re peeking in on an eerie, secret world—the warm heart inside the flat and cold exterior.  The stories behind the stones—part of a scheme to raise money during construction—is full of intrigue as well, including a tale about the rambunctious “Know-Nothings” stealing a stone donated by the Pope and tossing it into the Potomac in protest.

What is that you say?  You didn’t know about this fascinating feature of the Monument?  It’s no wonder given how difficult it was for me to find information about the stones or the high-tech elevator after my visit.  I’m trying to find out what technology is used to make the elevator windows go from opaque to clear on cue.  I’ve seen theories about reflected light, or argon, but I can’t seem to find an official explanation.  If you know where to find out, let me know!

Of course, I don’t have any photos of this special surprise on the elevator ride down.  Who has their camera armed and ready at such a time?

Lesson learned: They say that it isn’t the destination that matters but the journey.  In some cases, this even applies to journies on elevators.

Written by danamuses

October 21, 2008 at 10:51 pm

Posted in turning 30

#17: When all else fails, sharpen knives

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You may think the title of this post is metaphorical.  Well, it isn’t.  I felt like crud all day today (potentially from something “new” and organic that I purchased from the farmer’s market yesterday).  It was getting late by the time I felt well enough to do anything.  I was desperate for something, anything new.  So I learned how to sharpen knives.  And then I cut grapes in half with them.

Before writing this post, I went searching for a quote about knives, to make me seem more clever than I actually am.  And here’s what I came up with, perhaps you’ve heard it before:

The rule of carving holds good as to criticism; never cut with a knife what you can cut with a spoon.” (Charles Buxton)

Now, here’s the rub: I completely and utterly disagree.

My kitchen knives are fancy—too fancy to be sure.  In fact, my husband bought them on a greedy whim with wedding gift money. (And without my consent!)  I was furious at how much he’d spent.  Then he took them out of the box.  They’re so stunning—sleek, black and steel, with a pleasing swoop of a handle—that I actually gasped.  He put one in my hand . . . and it was love.  The manufacturer will tell you that they feel so good because of “the precision weight and balance of a full metal tang.” J.A. Henckels is not messing around.  (Just watch this video to get a sense of how neurotic the company is about quality or just to learn about how a knife is made; I had no idea how fascinating the process is.)  But I didn’t care about the physics behind it, the knife just felt like, well, home.

And so my husband was forgiven and I’ve been on an odyssey of devotion to my knives ever since.  My favorite happens to be the 7″ Santoku knife, a large knife with a broad and very sharp edge.  I cut everything with it from massive, hearty butternut squash to delicate, juicy tomatoes.  My husband prefers the 8″ Chef’s knife which, frankly, scares the pants off me.  It isn’t just the size but the shape of it; it’s just terrifying.  He also likes playing around with the bread knife, the carving knife, the serrated utility knife.  I will admit to using the paring knife every now and then; using the Santoku to pit cherries just isn’t practical.

I use my Santoku so much that it has started to dull more quickly than the other knives.  Or so I that’s the theory I’ve been living with for a few years now.  But then it dawned on me: my husband sharpens the knives on a regular basis.  But he only pays attention to the knives he likes to use and my poor Santoku isn’t on his list.

So, as I stood over the sink, preparing spinach and field greens for a dinner salad, I saw my two needs becoming one: I would learn something new and I’d get back a devastatingly sharp blade on my Santoku.

Using the sharpening stone.

Using the sharpening stone.

Using a sharpening steel feels better.

Using a sharpening steel feels better.

The lesson began with a sharpening stone, recently acquired by my husband from a coworker who was a butcher in a former life.  I wet the stone under running water (overkill, probably, on the wetness) and, holding the knife at a steady angle, drew the blade across the stone.   I did this several times, flipped the knife, and repeated the process.  While it is perfectly acceptable to use such an implement to sharpen a kitchen knife, the grit seemed too large to me and I feared that I was doing more harm to my precious blade than good.

Grapes?  What grapes?  Bam!

Grapes? What grapes? Bam!

I switched to the chromium-plated sharpening steel that came with the set and felt good about my decision as soon as I drew the blade across the rod; the effect was much smoother and made a less worrying sound.

When the sharpening was done, I ran a test of my newly honed instrument . . . by cutting a handful of grapes in half for the salad.  The blade sliced through the tiny round fruit as if they didn’t exist, as if they were merely figments of my imagination . . . and I fell in love all over again.

I will never choose a spoon over my Santoku, even if it seems superlative (as with the case of the grapes).  Perhaps I will have to eat my words the next time I have ice cream, soup, or apple sauce?

Lesson learned: While cutting with a spoon may be more humane (and, in many instances, safer), using a Santoku is much more satisfying.

Written by danamuses

October 20, 2008 at 10:39 pm

Posted in turning 30

#16: Prevent wrinkles

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I took a trip to Target today for the usual Target-y stuff: laundry detergent, a bed skirt, shampoo, a sweater dress, Archer Farms fancy organic junk food (can you say “lemon cookie straws” or “peanut butter dipped peanut butter bites”?) and, of course, an overpriced candle that smells like fall. I was trying my best to stick to my list but was doing a fairly poor job of it (hence the aforementioned dress, junk food, and candle).  And then things took a turn for the worse: I reached the skin care aisle.

A plethora of potions to keep me young and spry (looking).

A plethora of potions to keep me young and spry (looking).

I say “aisle” but it was really three (more if you count the aisles that mix makeup with lotions, toners, and other concoctions).  One whole aisle was made up of soap and other cleansers . . . for your face.  The body washes are a few aisles down, across from the body lotions.  No, I was in the face wash vortex.  And across from it?  The eye cream, wrinkle remover, acne fighting lotion black hole.  If you’ve ever waltzed into such a place without a favorite brand and product in mind you know what happened next: I spent 30 minutes picking up tubes and jars and little spray bottles trying to figure out the difference between “Restore & Renew Beauty Serum” and “Time Resist Day Cream,” or what set apart “Olay Regenerist Deep Hydration Regenerating Cream” from “Olay Definity Corrective Protective Lotion” besides $6 (yes, they were $17 and $23, respectively . . . for 1.7 oz of goo)!

Now, I had great skin once.  You know, up until I was about . . . 10.  I was lucky enough to launch into puberty at an embarrassingly young age and the blemishes of adolescence came with it.  A friend of mine who also has “trouble skin” jokes that she and I are old enough for anti-aging face wash but not mature enough to stop with the anti-acne products.  I’ve been reading women’s “health” magazines (a la Prevention, Shape, Health, Self, Fitness) long enough to have seen several feature articles on “beautiful skin at any age.”  Each one of them had a list of “must do”s for women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and so on.  But now that I needed it, here at the beauty product mecca, none of the advice was coming to mind besides drinking water and wearing sunblock.  So, did I find the fountain of blemish-less youth in the Hyattsville Target?

After sorting through countless citrus-colored packages and marketing promises, I settled on a few items:

  • Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser (recommended by my dermatologist);
  • Aveno Ultra-Calming Daily Moisturizer with SPF 15 (I used this once after a nasty New Mexico sunburn and it really does what is says);
  • Neutrogena Oil Free Acne Wash (an old standby);
  • Garnier Nutritioniste Nutri-Pure Microbead Cream Scrub Oil-Free with Vitamin E and Green Leaf Extract (I like to use scrubby, exfoliating stuff in the shower; plus, who can resist a soap with a name so long??);
  • and a new experiment for my nearly 30 face, Neutrogena Ageless Restoratives Energy Renewal Eye Cream.

I don’t even want to tell you how much washing and moisturizing my face is costing me. . . and this was all purchased at a “discount retail chain.”  Can you imagine what I might have dropped in a department store?

When I got home I put my newly purchased products away, shelving them next to my whitening toothpastes, protective leave-in hair conditioning spray, shea butter foot cream . . . and all of it together just made me feel exhausted.  All that energy spent renewing, revitalizing, clarifying, smoothing, brightening!

A thought came to me as I stood in front of the jam-packed medicine cabinet.  It was a memory of a conversation I had with my mother years ago, when I was a mopey and pimpled teen envying my mother’s blemish-less, wrinkle-free, supple skin.  I asked her what she used to care for her face.

Growing up I always used Palmolive.

You mean to tell me you used dishwashing detergent on your face and it ended up looking like that?!?

It turns out that what she used was, in fact, Palmolive but that the particular formula wasn’t the same harsh, green soap we use now to soak our lasagna pans.  Still, who knows what the stuff was made of at that time?  This was the same company that launched Ajaz in 1947!  It doesn’t matter what the ingredients were, though.  I realized even then, as a clueless teenager, that I would never have my mother’s complexion.  But then again, I wasn’t going to stop trying.

Lesson learned: (In the words of Douglas MacArthur) “Years wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.”

Written by danamuses

October 19, 2008 at 11:21 pm

Posted in turning 30

#15: Volunteer for a presidential campaign

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My 30th birthday falls on November 4: election day.  And thus it seems only fitting to mark the mid-way point in my “30 things before 30” campaign by volunteering for another type of campaign: a presidential one.  The time I spent volunteering today enabled me to check off another item on my to do list.  But, even more than that, it enabled me to play my part in moving this country towards a turning point, a historical moment that has so many of us feeling inspired and hopeful.

Chicks for Obama

Chicks for Obama

Our assignment today (I say “our” because I also volunteered my reluctant husband) was to call voters in Virginia—largely southern and western Virginia—to find out who they plan to cast a vote for in the presidential and senatorial elections.  This data will inform plans for canvassing in areas of Virginia with larger percentages of undecided voters.  In the last 10 elections, Virginia has gone Republican; right now, Obama has an average lead of 6 points over McCain, making Virginia a critical battleground in this election.

Now let’s back up a minute.  My politics are really no secret to anyone who knows me (come on, I concentrated in women studies as an undergrad and I live in “The People’s Republic of Takoma Park“).   But over the years I’ve grown more sensitive to other people’s perspectives and their rights to their own opinions.  There are only so many family gatherings (or fill in the blank here any event involving “mixed company”) that can be tainted by arguments between people with extreme and fundamental differences in their politics before one just wants to eat pie and shut up already.  I’ve always been an armchair critic and I haven’t done much to actively promote a candidate beyond a sign or a bumper sticker here and there.  But in this election such an approach just won’t do.

When I decided to vote for Obama, it was because, well, Hillary didn’t get the nomination.  I, like many others who voted for Hillary, went through a short period of mourning and disappointment.  But to be perfectly candid, watching the way Barack has navigated the past few months—from accepting the nomination, to his mastery over the debates, and most importantly, his ability to fire people up about change—has truly made me a convert.

I’ve been obsessed with Obama’s Web site for months now (even while I was rooting for Clinton).  If you’ve visited it (and how could you not have!?), you’ll know how visually striking it is.  He’s clearly got a brilliant design team and an adept social media gang pulling out all the punches, building his brand (yes, I mean brand—his last initial is the campaign’s logo for crying out loud and I’m surprised they haven’t yet trademarked the word “change”), and spreading the word virally in a way we’ve never seen before in a presidential election.

Visiting his site a few days ago, I noticed a quote in the header that took me by surprise:

I’m asking you to believe.  Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington . . . I’m asking you to believe in yours.”

Now, doesn’t that make you want to push your sleeves up and do something?  Not just watch Obama and Biden as they march towards the White House . . .  but actually participate?.  (Or maybe in your case, McCain and Palin?  Whoops, I actually just snickered out loud thinking about that.)  When is the last time you really felt like a candidate turned the tables and believed in you?  This quote urges us to act.  It tells us we all can go beyond simply believing in our abilities and, instead, actually make use of them.  (This reminds me of my disdain for Baltimore’s anti-drug campaign that peppered billboards and bumper stickers with a simple black ground and one white word: “Believe.”  Believe!?  Is that really the best we can do? What about an action verb that actually implies, well, action?  But I digress.)

So, reading that quote made me want to do just that: move beyond belief to action. How convenient it was, then, to go right from there to clicking on that word, “Action,” in the main navigation of the Obama Web site.   And that’s how I came across this weekend’s volunteer opportunity, “Last Call for Change.”  The Action Center is filled with large and small ways to get involved.  (Hint, hint.)

And if you’re feeling like you just don’t have the time, or you just don’t have it in you, the least you could do is carve the “O” in your Halloween pumpkin and set it outside for your neighbors to see.  Right? (And for my Republican friends and family: I still love you.  But try fitting “maverick” or “Joe the Plumber” or “I read ALL newspapers” on a pumpkin.  That’s right, I didn’t think so.)

Jack-o-lanterns for Obama

Jack-o-lanterns for Obama, at the Silver Spring campaign office.

Lesson learned: You gotta know when to get on your soapbox.  Like, now would be a good time.

Written by danamuses

October 18, 2008 at 8:29 pm

Posted in turning 30

#14: Make an authentic paella

with 4 comments

In her book, Paella!: Spectacular Rice Dishes from Spain, Penelope Casas tries to re-educate American readers about the heart and soul of an authentic paella dish.  The tome was loaned to me by a foodie friend who is very particular about the way things should be done in the kitchen (especially the outdoor kitchen) and so I was intimidated from the start.  Casas tried to ease my mind by explaining that paella-making is neither a complicated nor overly laborious process; it is as easy and quick as making any other dish from fresh ingredients, she writes.  Sounds good, right?  Well, I think she’s wrong.  But the dish I made turned out to be scrumptious and I’d do it again if I had the time and the proper equipment on hand.

Every at-home chef knows that making a recipe for the first time lengthens the total prepping and cooking duration.  You have to keep checking the recipe: When does this ingredient go in?  What am I looking for (e.g., browning, softening, evaporating)?  And what level of that action is appropriate for not making the thing a mushy, burnt, or unattractive mess?  While it can be invigorating, smelling all of those new aromas and creating something you’ve never made before, it can also be a bit stressful—what if I totally screw this up or go through all of this effort and am disappointed in the mediocre end result?

This photo of me and the paella sensei was clearly not staged.

This photo of me and the paella sensei was clearly not staged.

I was able to avoid most of this anxiety because I knew I was at a real advantage for a paella-making virgin.  I was able to cook alongside an experienced paella-maker (the aforementioned foodie friend) who also happened to offer his kitchen, his authentic paellera (the shallow, wide, round pan that gives paella its name), and his paella grill (basically a large round burner connected to a propane tank).  He even threw in some saffron, Spanish smoked paprika, and some really tasty olive oil.  (When packing up the ingredients I had chopped and assembled the night before, I forgot to throw in a bottle of oil and it is probably a big reason the dish was so yummy—his oil was much more earthy and fruity than the stuff I buy in bulk at Costco.)  I had settled on a recipe for “Spinach, Chickpea, and Pine Nut Paella,” which fit the authentic recipe test but I was a bit concerned that my teacher scoff at the lack of pork or other meat products.

So, with only mild trepidation, I began the process: heating oil in the pan (he lit the thing because the open blue flame resting casually on a brick wall in his backyard scared the bejesus out of me); browning the pine nuts; softening the onion, red pepper, and 16 (sixteen!!) cloves of garlic; adding in the Arborio rice (an Italian substitute, typically used in risotto—I couldn’t find authentic Spanish bomba rice in the stores); pouring in the stock (the homemade stock I made with the leftover parts of last weekend’s roasted chicken experiment!); and stirring when I was supposed to (in the middle, to coat the rice in oil and savory flavors) and fighting back the urge to stir when I wasn’t supposed to (at the end, when the socarrat, a caramelized crust on the bottom, is forming).

It was a mild evening outdoors and the cooking went much like stir frying does—a whole lot of prep and then a whole lot hurrying up to throw things in while avoiding burning anything in the hot pan.  When the stock had reduced enough, we shut off the burner and covered the paella in newspaper, letting it cool and perfect itself for 10 minutes or so.  I already felt a small sense of accomplishment and I was happy that this was the kind of meal that gives you some breathing room to clean up before it is served, so that all those dirty dishes aren’t hanging over you, menacing and begging for attention.

The paella itself, I found out, was enough to feed probably 8 or 10 people (there were only 4 of us plus a munchkin eating) but, back in the kitchen, my husband was busily preparing a savory appetizer of chorizo in puff pastry, deep fried to golden goodness.  We munched on those (heaven!) and I was relieved that my foodie friend wouldn’t kill me for making an entire meal without meat.  The troops gathered and I posed for glamor shots as I set the steaming pan down in the center of the table.

The munchin is psyched about paella.

The munchkin is psyched about paella.

The result?  As Rachel Ray would say in her husky, grating voice: Yum-o!  Each of us scooped up respectable heaps of the rice and came back at least once for more—including the resident toddler who didn’t care much for the spicy chorizo (“hot!” she said adorably over and over, pointing to her tongue) but seemed to love the paella.  I thoroughly enjoyed my meal and, of course, the fantastic company.

I shouldn’t tell you this because a certain experienced paella maker might be watching but I can’t help myself: after the meal, my foodie friend’s wife took me aside and whispered, “That’s the best paella I’ve ever had!  Don’t tell.”  I’m sorry for breaking my promise but I think her comment was a testament not to my cooking but to her husband’s passion for food and patience in teaching me the importance of doing things a certain way (the “right way,” he would say).  I tried to do as much of the work as I could but he took over in key spots (e.g., when I couldn’t lift the huge and hot saucepan of stock with one hand) and advised me throughout the process (e.g., “You need to stir more, the pine nuts are turning black!” and “Stop stirring!  You have to let the crust form at the bottom!”)  So thanks to you, my foodie friend and his wonderful family, for inviting me to test the paella waters with your guidance.  And, while others have their criticisms about Casas’ text (inaccurate cooking times and temperatures, they claim, or too many similar recipes), I felt like I was being mentored by an experienced and passionate guide . . . and who doesn’t love a cookbook with an exclamation point in the title, anyway?

A proud chef.

A proud chef.

Lesson learned: You don’t need meat to make a mean paella (and certainly not a combo of chicken, and sausage, and seafood as the “touristy” American version of paella goes).  No, you need a great teacher and a little bit of elbow grease.

The finished product.  Yum-o!

The finished product. Yum-o!

Written by danamuses

October 17, 2008 at 10:43 pm

Posted in turning 30