Wednesday, December 27, 2006

a new Christmas tradition

This Christmas was unusual: my first Christmas spent away from family. I have found a new tradition. Instead of traveling, agonizing over gifts (I am a self-confessed idiot when it comes to picking out presents), or negotiating family, I spent a quiet, fun, and normal evening with Cullen and his brother. We decided that since it was, after all, Christmas, we should cook something nice, but there was no Christmas music playing (I think Beastie Boys was playing at one point), no Christmas decorations, and no obligatory gift giving and wrapping paper to clean up. Cullen gave me my gifts the night before--they were un-wrapped and hidden in a closet, and he found his gifts the following day, so we kept that part personal--but Christmas itself was just an ordinary evening spent in great company.
We each contributed to the feast. Cullen grilled (a new North Carolina term I am incorporating into my vocabulary: out here, you grill, you don't BBQ food) a delicious chicken, I baked bread and made mushroom risotto and a salad, and Will made fondue. We had enough food for 10 people, and we ate so much that we were almost at the point of sweating. But it was delicious. We laughed a lot, and we drank a few bottles of wine, and because the chicken took so long to cook, dinner wasn't consumed until 9. But that was perfectly okay. Because it was just us, and no children eager to eat quickly so that gifts could be un-wrapped, or elderly relatives who needed to be home before too late--just us. No schedule, and certainly no reason to be hasty--especially with all that fondue. And the best part? No Christmas letdown. I can't quite articulate that feeling, but I used to get it every year. After the presents are opened, and the dessert consumed, a feeling hangs in the air--a nebulous discomfort of "that was it?" All of the holiday hype, and two months of suffering through Christmas music and plastic-ness and poof--it's gone. Christmas is over and piles of ribbons and crumpled wrapping paper remain.
I now prefer the dinner party approach.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

M&D do Winston

My parents came out to visit me this past week. I decided not to fly home for the holidays, so they came out from CA to check out my new home. They had been to NC before, but a cross-country road trip in a Bookmobile makes it difficult to really “know” an area. I was their obliging tour-guide; their visit allowed me an excuse to take a few days off work, and I was eager to explore my new home more.
We did the typical tourist attractions: went to Asheville and toured the Biltmore house, hiked the local trails in Winston, sampled the many fine restaurants here, and toured the Reynolda house museum in town. I learned a lot about the area, which I enjoyed—I feel like I am piecing together the area more.
I think that they enjoyed Winston-Salem more than they had anticipated. I am not sure what their image of the town was prior to coming, but it seems that they have turned a corner; I think that they are beginning to understand why I moved across the country. Winston is just a nice place. There is nothing striking that stands out about the area—no ocean down the street or fantastic lifestyle attraction, but it is a good place to live, and the combination of little things here add to its overall charm. I have found my spot here, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else now where I could be more content. I have a fantastic job, I have met my media naranja, I have great friendships, running trails abound, and the area is replete with cool spots to explore.
I have a hard time imagining what it feels like to be a parent—there are certain aspects of a parent/child dynamic that are not reciprocated. It was easy for me to move out here, but for them, I suppose, it is more of a struggle to have their kids scattered about. The feelings surrounding my move were definitely not mutual. I was ecstatic; my mother cried for a week. But here’s what it comes down to, and I hope that they get this: if your children are truly happy, let the resistance go. No matter where they live, or what lifestyle they embrace, or what political/religious persuasions they may espouse, if they are truly content, then as a parent, rejoice in that, because true contentment is rare.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Daily Rant

Sometimes I need to have a good bitch-fest. Here goes. Christmas-mania before Thanksgiving (hell, it starts after Halloween). Why? Seriously, I realize that it is driven by commercialism and not because people (excluding the ones who own a separate set of dishes that have x-mas trees on them) are just that into the holiday, but it is so annoying to see Christmas wreaths and Santas plastering anything that stands still. If I was in charge, I would have a law banning all and any Christmas decorations until, oh, say December 15th. Ten days of cheap x-mas d├ęcor are all that any self-respecting store or city needs. And after Christmas? Take it down, please, spare us. I am not trying to sound like a total scrooge, because I actually enjoy Christmas very much, but I despise the commercialism and plastic-ness of it. What better way to ruin a holiday than by decorating and over-selling it two months before it even arrives?
Here’s my second rant and puzzlement of the day: Video games and the hype over buying new consoles. I am a self-admitted idiot when it comes to pop culture, so if NPR doesn’t report it, I probably haven’t heard about it. This morning, the newscast mentioned the release of new Nintendos or Sonys or some kind of new game thing—and here’s what I don’t understand: people standing in line for three days to buy one, or paying $1500 on eBay for a blasted video game player. Sometimes our culture completely disgusts me, and paying that much, or waiting in line that long for a piece of entertainment is ridiculous to me.
There, I'm done. I feel much better.

Bread and Book Deficit

Lately, I have felt an odd kind of emptiness, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. And then it came to me—I haven’t been baking or reading since I moved here. I used to have a voracious appetite for both—baking artesian breads and flying through a few books a week. I haven’t baked bread yet because I don’t like my kitchen right now. I have barely been reading, save for my weekly U.S. News subscription, because I read all day at work, and when I get home, I would rather go downtown and grab a beer with the girls. Also, I don’t like my living room, and to read, I need a cozy place to snuggle up and get lost between lines of text. I am blaming my current living situation, which will be remedied in January, but in the meantime, the absence of baking and reading is burrowing a deep void in my life.
I went and saw Stranger than Fiction this weekend. Interesting, a little slow, but the part that gripped me was the baking. The love-interest female bakes and owns her own bakery. She has some great dialogue about how she discovered the magnificent powers of baking and decided to open up shop because it changed her perspective on life. My baking epiphany wasn’t quite that forceful, but making bread is supremely satisfying. I am continually amazed that I can find such joy just by mixing flour, yeast, salt and water. Baking is more than just the act of mixing the ingredients, tweaking rising times, flour/water ratios, kneading techniques, or adding a biga. The whole yeast chemistry thing is fascinating to me, but giving away the bread, and eating it, is truly divine.
I used to bake a few loaves a week for friends or dinner parties. I would go through 25 lbs. of flour in a month. No more. I have yet to even turn on my precious Kitchen Aid mixer. And that, I have determined, is the reason that I am a bit down and empty at the moment.
It took me awhile to figure out bread. For an object with only a few ingredients, it is actually quite complicated to master. Through many trial and error loaves, I finally got it down and moved into the holy-grail realm of baking: baking by feel and without recipes. I can tell, just by how slack the dough feels, how it will rise, if it will be a porous loaf, if it will develop a sour tang, or if it will be dense and hearty. I have experimented with dough by letting it sit in a cool room for days on end before baking. I have kept sourdough starters. I have added oregano and basil, figs, walnuts, and cloves of baked, oozing garlic. My favorite bread is still just a loaf with water, salt, yeast, and flour—the purist loaf. The trick is manipulating how long the dough sits for the best flavor—it is, I suppose, akin to wine or cheese making. And therein lies the beauty: the absolute simplicity of bread.
Bread cannot be rushed. If I am to bring a loaf to a dinner party, I need to know a few days in advance so I can start a biga. On the day that the bread is to be made, I start mixing early in the morning so the yeast will have time to throw a party and work itself through the glutenous strands. It has to be periodically pressed down and sprayed with water or olive oil. The flavor has to be coaxed along patiently. And then the actual baking itself—shaping the loaf so it doesn’t lose the lightness and keeping the oven sufficiently hot and the loaf moist so that a perfect crust forms. The process is methodical and deliberate, but surprisingly forgiving.
But here is the part that gets me: watching people enjoy the bread. Drinking wine, eating bread with friends, lovely. Thanksgiving is coming this week, and I am spending it with my dear Kara’s family in Virginia. I resolved that even though I cringe at the thought of baking in my current kitchen (I don’t even know if the oven temperature is accurate!), I absolutely must bring some bread. I am hoping that feeling the dough again and smelling that fantastic scent of corn meal hitting a hot baking stone will ease my current malaise.
Now if only I could find a good book again…

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Groovin' to music

I am a music-addict. I can’t function without it. Especially when I am working, running/riding solo, cooking, baking bread, writing, driving, eating, reading, taking a bath…you get the point. I think that my brain waves work best when music is playing; it helps me focus, calms me down, and puts me in a fabulous mood. Music carries so many memories with it, that I am quickly transported back to a time or situation when that particular song or tune was played frequently. Oh, that is another thing I have with music: when I discover some artist or song or genre I really love, I will listen to it incessantly until I have killed it before moving on to the next melodious victim. I am trying to pace myself better when I find music that I really like, but it is a hard habit to break. The positive thing about this habit is that memories get inextricably tied to the tunes. I listen to music that I loved back in college, and it is completely tied to that stage in my life. Pressing or clicking play is akin to reaching into a mental audio memoryfile. I am reminded of ex-boyfriends, my cycling team, dinner parties, and foggy San Luis morning mt. bike rides up Madonna Mountain. The 200 or so songs that were on my Mp3 player this past summer take me back to jogging through cobblestone streets in southern Switzerland or dodging traffic in London. The music that I have been listening to since moving to NC already has feelings associated with it: fall days; the sense of newness out here and anticipated adventures; days spent at the office; first impressions of people; phone calls back home. I think that music right now is even more impressionable because of the novelty of living in a new place; every new discovery or friendship is quickly associated with the song stuck in my head.
My job is particularly endearing because I have the type of job that is conducive to working with headphones connected to an iTunes library. I edit all day, and I can focus much better when my computer is shuffling among the 1200 or so songs on my work computer. Fortunately, I work at the type of place where that is completely acceptable—we even share our music libraries on the office network, which is a great way to discover new music (and learn a thing or two about people I work with). Listening to music and reading all day—I really do have the perfect job.
Sometimes I wonder if I need more silence in my life. Is it a bad thing that I can’t function without music? I mean, is it normal to come home and go straight to my computer (even if I have to pee really bad) to start my iTunes shuffle? Same thing in the car. Ignition goes on, volume or desired track is picked. I have tried to go with silence, but I have found that I feel kind of empty without my music. Music isn’t crowding out my thoughts, because I find that I think clearer when music is playing. So maybe it’s okay.
One of my favorite things in the world, besides frozen yogurt, is riding my mt. bike while listening to my Mp3 player. I enjoy riding with groups, too, but there are those days where I crave a good trail and my headphones. In San Luis, I had some standard climbs that I would frequently do sola, and it was the best possible escape. Something about being out with music, among the trees or rocks, rolling over dirt with a 160 beat heartrate that is completely renewing.
My grandma, for the past few years, has rented a summer cabin in the mountains. One summer, my bike and music got me through a boy-heartache up there. I went out each day, and for three hours or so, found new trails in the fragrant pine trees and thin mountain air until I sweat out the nebulous pain. To this day, I can’t listen to the same playlist without thinking of those rides—but now, I don’t feel that ache; instead, I just remember the pine trees and red dirt trails and that part where I discovered myself feeling stronger and moving on.
Songs and artists are frequently associated with certain people. Perhaps I listened to a particular CD a lot when I was around that person, or sometimes, I discovered that music through a tip from someone. Every time I hear good jazz, I think of my dad and our cabin in Washington. Lately, I’ve been going to this great live-jazz club in town on Wednesday nights just because I have such good memories when I listen to that music. I drink a few glasses of wine, and get into this lovely haze of memories and relaxation. My “mezcla de musica” CD from my buddy Chris reminds me of him and hanging out at Taco Tuesday in San Luis. Jack Johnson reminds me of Santa Barbara and John, because I first heard his music hanging out at John’s house. Some music, unfortunately, has been tainted by bad memories of people or experiences, and I have yet to find a remedy that can take away that association.
But for the most part, music is all wonderful.

Friday, November 10, 2006

To stay or move...

The other day I decided that I want to move, get my own place. Right now, I have a roommate, and it works out okay, but it is not ideal. I love living by myself, and I haven't lived alone for two years. It is time. When I moved here, I had an afternoon to find a place; I was here interviewing, and by the time I got the job offer, it left me a few hours to find a place before flying back to CA and then making the drive cross-country. So, I went to craigslist, found a house downtown, met my future roommate, shook hands, and that was it. My roommate is an interesting one, and yes, it was odd moving in with a total stranger--and a male southerner: brave. I have lived with a guy before, my best friend actually, and it worked out fabulously. He gave me advice on guys, I gave him advice on girls, we kept the place clean--it was a fun year. Girls can be drama, and I've had enough bad roommate situations to know that I need to be very choosy. But time to shop around was not a luxury that I had when I moved out here.
Here is what I love about my house right now: It is downtown--I walk to work on days that I don't meet my running group. I am right across from Old Salem, which is charming and quaint. The location is ideal. I have a great front porch, complete with a swing. We even have a bug zapper. Add some bourbon, and bam, you feel like a true southerner. My room is fantastic, and it attaches to my bathroom, also a plus. My room is girlie and white and clean and organized and a very relaxing space.
Here's what I don't like: Basically, the rest of the house.
It's not so much the house itself, because it is an old, charming design. But in reality, the livingroom is a UNC basketball shrine. The bikes--okay, I am contributing to the clutter, because I have nowhere else to store my three bikes. But near my three bikes are two sets of golf clubs, lacrosse sticks, a basketball, hockey sticks, and random UNC-related shit that clutters the floor and bookshelf. The house is truly a boys world. My roommate has his big screen tv, foosball table, and enough basketball memoriabillia to stock a small museum. If I were back in undergrad, maybe, but now that I am a so-mature 26, I need order and Pottery Barn-esque decorating.
But beyond the living room problem is the kitchen problem. My roommate is a slob. He has yet, in two months, to empty the dishwasher or put away his dishes, and he has a penchant for leaving grisly remains of steak on the counter. It disgusts me, and as I result, I have not cooked a proper meal in two months. I used to be the queen of throwing a fabulous dinner party or whipping out some mouth-watering artisan bread. No more. My friends here don't yet know that this ex-Californian can cook and bake, quite impressively, if I can be so modest. Right now, the kitchen functions as the place where I stumble to in the morning for my coffee.
Living by myself was fabulous. I could blast NPR as loud as I wanted in the morning, walk around un-clothed, and in general, just completely let down my guard and revel in all of my own space, neat and decorated to my exact specifications. Granted, my roommate isn't home that often, but still, it is his cluttered space that I live in.
My plan was/is to buy something in a few months, which is why I moved into my current house: cheap rent, no lease, no deposit. I still want to buy something, but in the meantime, I have this living-alone right now! inclination. I know that I can be impulsive, and maybe it is just a case of impetuous own-space fantasies taking over.
Moving out will mean that I will have to buy furniture. That feels like a big step. Also, I hate moving, with a passion, so it will be the again dreaded-process of finding boxes, packing, un-packing and all that, only to repeat the cycle when I buy a place.
So here's the question of the day: Do I make the jump and move, or bite it, endure the dirtiness and stay? I ventured out for some apartment-hunting this afternoon. It is hard to find something right downtown, that is reasonably nice, for the price that I want to pay without having a roommate. Plus, the whole being-locked-into-a-lease thing. I hate these kinds of decisions.


My sister is eight years older than me, and largely because of our age difference, and because she has lived in Oregon for the past sixteen years, our time spent together has been limited to family gatherings. Our views on social issues are different, and for some nonsensical reason, that became an underlying current in our relationship. When we did get together, our conversations were confined to the superficial, and the whole family-dynamic mix thrown in there didn’t do much to ease our relationship.
Either consciously or sub-consciously I have mimicked many of my sister’s moves through the years. She is an amazing woman, and as an older-sister role model, she has done some remarkable things that have made me want to follow in her footsteps. She also has had a more difficult time, particularly with our parents, who were extremely strict with her. They loosened up a lot by the time they got around to me, and I learned by watching some of her mistakes; I knew what issues I could push and what ones to let lie.
She is a traveler, and inspired by her, I also went to Costa Rica to learn Spanish. She studied journalism and worked as an editor. That wasn’t my original career choice, but now I am blissfully employed as an editor. She is a great athlete--runner, cyclist, and general outdoorsy-type. I followed suite. I think that we have many similarities in our personalities, too. We both snort when we laugh. We find the same humor goofy. (Maybe that comes from our dad.) We both have the same opinions on our family. We believe in working for social causes. This blog, in fact, was inspired by her blogging. We both express ourselves through words. We don’t look anything alike, and I have always been envious of her beauty. She has that completely low-maintenance type beauty that I covet.
This summer, in a two-week lull between European trips, I decided to go up to Eugene and spend a few weeks with her. Partly, I was motivated by wanting to be anywhere but Sonora, but mostly, I just wanted to get to know her again, away from the family, in her element. It was a fantastic two weeks. I spent a lot of time with my nephews and brother-in-law too, and got to know them on a different level, which was great, but my sister and I made our peace, without even trying. Just spending that time together, chatting, laughing, comparing family observations, and just being us, was refreshing and completed something that has been missing for me: a sister bond. I didn’t realize how important that relationship was until I rediscovered it.
I had a brief taste of our unique position two years ago when our dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer. She was the only one who I could really relate to during that time. We talked on the phone and cried together, and maybe that whole experience was the beginning of the bond that was solidified this summer.
After my two weeks with her, we turned an unspoken corner in our relationship. We began talking regularly on the phone, giggling together, encouraging each other, and finally conversing past the superficial part. She was my strongest ally when I was trying to move to NC; she encouraged me, called me regularly, and when I got discouraged with my job search and the complexity of moving across the country, she was my backer.
I can’t quite articulate the value that our newfound relationship has had in my life. I feel like I finally have a sister, the kind of relationship that I have always hoped for. Someone to call when I am excited, discouraged, or just want to flap my mouth. She, of all people, understands me uniquely because we were raised by the same people, in the same town. We have traits that undeniably make us sisters.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Running with a club

The second week I moved here I joined a running club. I had never felt inclined to run with groups before because I feared that the pace would be too fast, and I always enjoyed the solitary time of listening to my music and cruising along at whatever pace suited me. But, in my attempts to meet people in a new town, I joined the club, and have now become addicted to our evening 5:45 runs. I now refuse to run by myself.
The Tuesday/Thursday runs are faster, and there is a core group of three of us that consistently show up. Walt, who is in his late 40s, likes to take care of us ladies, and is always offering to help if we should ever need it. Kelly and I have become close friends. She is fast and motivated and perky, and I enjoy her company immensely. Liz sometimes comes. She is in her late 20s and loves to laugh very loudly at herself and tell botched jokes. When I am suffering up a big hill or praying under my breath that the pace will slow, Liz’s laugh gives me life. Then there is the Wednesday night “penguin run.” Anywhere from 6-10 ladies show up (including my close friend, Jamie, whom I met right after I moved here). It is a mix of ladies in their late 40s whose observations on life are a mix of wisdom and dirty minds that have had time to collect quirky observations. We shuffle along at a slow pace, but it is my favorite night to run. They tell stories about their kids and husbands and gossip about people in the club or town or politics—whatever comes to mind is said. We are hard core. Rain and darkness don’t stop us—unless it is a thunderstorm. Kelly fears lighting, so we don’t meet if there is a big storm, but on the nights when it is wet and dreary out and I am thinking about how lovely it would be to go home and sip hot chocolate, I know that at least three people will be standing at the corner of the YMCA, waiting and motivated to hit the pavement. So I usually show up.
On the way back, the pace inevitably picks up. If it is a particularly fast night, we don’t say much, and the only sound is the rhythmic pounding of our feet hitting the street in unison. I love that sound. I have found that running with them clears my head and helps me release whatever stresses or thoughts are muddying my thoughts. If I had an argument with Jason at work about punctuation, or if I am thinking about boys, it all gets shuffled to the back, and I just run. I still feel immense satisfaction over an 8 mile run, and the more I run with them, the faster and easier it gets. I always wanted to be a runner, and I feel like I am finally getting there.

The South vs. California

I love that people here, the locals, have different levels of a southern drawl. You can tell which ones come from the country and which ones were raised in the city. Grits and okra and sweet tea grace most menus. The men here are not ashamed to demonstrate chivalry; they don’t assume that a woman will get offended if the door is held open as she passes through. Most businesses are closed on Sunday mornings. It is assumed that you are either a Baptist or a Methodist (which I am still getting used to—the whole “domination definition”). When I ride my bike, I pass tobacco fields—I had never seen tobacco grown prior to moving here. Interestingly, I feel comfortable living in a town that boasts tobacco and donuts, even though I don’t consume either product. I feel like I can let down my guard and put down my “political correctness” shield that one must constantly carry when living in California.

First autumn with colors

My first autumn in the south is incredible. I am finally living in a place with real seasons; leaves that change colors and fall; crisp, cold days; thunderstorms; and the absence of the sultry, summer humidity. For the first time in my life, I am living in a place that feels like it has tradition and order and regularity. Sonora—definitely not. My hometown is a mishmash of thrown together buildings, and un-traditionalism. It still carries a very prominent feeling of wild-west-ish disregard. I am finally letting go of San Luis Obispo, my college town and last place of residence. I had a love affair with the town, and it will always hold a dear spot in my heart. But it, too, is not a town of tradition, values, or stability. It is transient, changing every five years or so, as new college students drift in and out, sucked in by the beauty, and hoping to extend their education there so they can hold on the SLO reverie for just a little longer. But I feel like living here I have finally made it somehow; I have discovered the Americana that I have only seen in movies and a few TV shows. There are brick buildings that have been standing for generations and houses that don’t get torn down every few years. The streets are old and narrow and funky and have a charming character. There are parks and small lakes flanked by trails for jogging and biking. The old districts in town are especially charming. Houses in the “rich” section are not plastic and shiny, but old and statuesque. I have yet to go inside one of the houses in the old money section, but I imagine that the floors creak and the walls echo sounds as the house settles. The streets are lined with old, tall trees that have seen history here. They are not the result of a developer or landscape architect attempting to beautify an area. People rake leaves in their yards and leave the piles on the sidewalks to be picked up by county trucks. It is all so charming and the oldness of it, new, to me, that I still walk around awestruck. As much as I love it here, I am glad that I wasn’t raised here because I doubt that I would be able to appreciate it. It is lovely to become enamored with such simple things as colorful leaves that fall and get raked into piles.