Monthly Archives: January 2012

Musical Mondays: 1/23/12 edition

What happened to Musical Mondays last week? It was a holiday! Martin Luther King, Jr would not have expected me to update my blog on his birthday. He would have appreciated much more what I actually did, which was take a page out of my Jewish upbringing to enjoy a day of Shabbat-like rest. Where did we leave off? Oh, yes, I was nine years old and had just been cast as an afterthought in my school play. I guess I always was the kind of kid who had the urge to perform, but at that point, I lost interest. If we had school plays in middle school or high school, I don’t remember them.

However, I did develop a bit of a musical itch when I turned fourteen. After I begged for a while, it was decided that I would take guitar lessons at a local music school. My nana bought me an acoustic guitar and I began my weekly lessons. This went on for a couple of years. It was fun! Instead of learning tediously, by learning how to read music, I basically would bring in songs that I wanted to play and my teacher would show me the chords. If I brought in a CD, we’d play the songs together, me fumbling to change chords, him jamming with his eyes closed in a fit of musical ecstasy that completely prevented him from noticing or caring that I had no idea what was going on.

My teacher was a nice guy, and I can’t say he ever did anything inappropriate, but he was a little weird. I always thought so, but he proved it with one incident that occurred maybe a year into the lessons. I had gone to the mall with Lindsay, one of my best friends, and we were walking around when we spotted Creepy Guitar Teacher with his family. Being fifteen and socially awkward, I kept the contact to a minimum: we waved at each other awkwardly, then went on our separate ways. At my next lesson, he couldn’t wait to talk about how we saw each other. “Who was the friend you were with?” he asked.

“Lindsay,” I replied.

“Well, Lindsay is a very attractive woman,” he told me. Yes, Lindsay was very pretty – she still is! But at the time, Lindsay was 15 years old. A girl, not yet a woman. Definitely still jailbait.

Now I’ve never been a 50-something man who comes into regular contact with teenagers, but I’m pretty sure that if I was, I’d refrain from telling them that their friends were attractive.

From that point on, I decided that my guitar teacher was a creep and that I didn’t want to learn from him anymore. So I began dishing out attitude, becoming the epitome of a sullen teenager and pretty much refusing to participate in my lessons.

The good thing that came out of guitar lessons, though, was that I owned a guitar and began practicing regularly at home. I never got good, but I learned most of the chords and messed around with online tablature so I could play lots of songs. The down side was that I didn’t learn anything technical. Musicians have a working knowledge of their instrument. They have an ear for music, and can figure out how to play songs that they hear on the radio just with their perfectly tuned ears. They know scales, and how to make the seventh, and stuff like that. My only ability was to shift from chord to chord if I knew the names of the chords.

I picked up the guitar again in college, during one of our rowing team’s spring break excursions to Georgia. Someone had brought a guitar along. I’d grab it and strum the chords I remembered in no particular order, making up lyrics about my teammates on the spot and warbling them without any real tune. They weren’t mean or anything, just goofy, and everyone would laugh as I played, so I’d play more. My ego swelled as people told me I was like a female Tenacious D. My teammates encouraged me to enter the annual talent show with this skill. After some persuasion, I did. Sitting in the middle of a circle of teammates, I played random chords and went around the room to make up a verse about every single person sitting there. Surprisingly, I won. The grand prize was a pair of socks that said “I’m Awesome!” I wore them until they frayed and I had to throw them away.

After the trip, I put my guitar down again, and hardly played again until 2011… tune in next week to see why.

Things I Learned This Weekend

Doesn’t it seem that the older you get, the faster time flies by? Approximately three minutes ago, I was leaving work on Friday afternoon. Now it’s Sunday night and I’m full of gotta-get-up-early-for-work dread. Don’t get me wrong, I like my job. I just hate waking up early.

Albeit short, this has been an interesting weekend, I’m feeling a little bit motivated to write.

This weekend, I learned that writing a blog post with an interesting title will get many more page views than any previously-written boringly-named post will get. But, as you can see from today’s title above, I am not going to take advantage of this lesson. I’m writing for me, not you. But it was interesting that so many people read my blog this weekend, and very nice to hear comments from friends old and new! Thanks for your feedback, everyone.

This weekend, I learned that tattoo removal hurts like freakin’ crazy. Should I back up a little bit? How did I learn such a thing? Well, when I was in college I took a religious studies course about Islamic Mysticism. It was a really cool class. This was way before I had fully developed my current views on theism, and I really appreciated learning about Sufis. The Sufis love their god, and some were known to express this love in the form of poetry. Have you ever heard of Rumi? He was born in 1207, but his work is beautiful and relevant today.
Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy,
absentminded. Someone sober
will worry about things going badly.
Let the lover be.”

I’d always wanted a tattoo. Although I wasn’t sure what to get, I knew I was looking for something with a meaning that could resonate with me for as long as the tattoo lasted. While Sufi poetry was mostly about love, they tended to use imagery of drunkenness and ecstasy. Of course, they were really inferring that a union with God was intoxicating and ecstatic, but in college, I liked those ideals regardless of intent. Along those lines, here is what I almost got tattooed on my body at age 19:

That, in case you’re wondering, is a love poem by Rumi. It’s still bookmarked on my Safari, the list of favorites having been imported from computer to computer over the years. And I’m so glad I settled with the tattoo I ended up getting, because the laser would have proven unbearable as it erased every last character of that poem.
That was my first tattoo on the first day of its life. It was supposed to be an Arabic word that meant “do beautiful things.” It was the name of a Sufi philosophy that dictated all Sufis should be on their best behavior at all times, as though Allah was watching them. While I couldn’t quite identify with that, I loved the idea of being the best I could be at all times, no matter who was there or why. As it turned out, the tattoo wasn’t quite right, which can happen when a word is culled from the recesses of Google and Arabic websites. It was missing a couple of dots. After it was fixed, I got the itch for another tattoo; getting the ink is kind of a rush, like a runner’s high. I ended up with the word “love” in Hebrew tattooed on my left ankle. It balanced out the Arabic for this lapsed Jew, I figured. This was a terrible tattoo. It was free because it was one of the artist’s first attempts at permanent body art. That explains why the letters faded away around my Achilles, like a whisper or afterthought.
Almost as soon as the tattoos became a part of my personal landscape, I knew that they would have to be removed at some point. The Arabic, for example, became particularly annoying. When I wore dresses or skirts in an attempt to present myself nicely, the word was somewhat of an eyesore. People would say “You have a smudge of dirt on your leg… oh, wait…”
So, to make a long story short, thanks to Groupon and an early birthday present, I was able to do something about the tattoos this weekend. And if you take nothing else from this post, let it be this: that laser hurts like hell. Getting the tattoos removed was approximately 5,452,921 times more painful than having them done in the first place. At the studio, I lay down nonchalantly on my belly at first, waiting for the laser. After the first blast – which felt, incidentally, like a white-hot beesting that resonated up past the knee and down towards my toes – my entire body clenched. I gripped the sides of the chair until my fingers went white, every muscle aching from the restraint of holding myself down against every instinct to get up and bolt. This continued for, fortunately, only a few minutes. Although I don’t remember saying anything during the procedure, Xavier heard me cursing like a sailor from the waiting area outside. It hurt so bad that I was dizzy for 20 minutes afterwards. Crazy, right? I’m not the bravest person ever, but trust me: this hurt. Keep your tattoos, people.
They did offer Lidocaine cream for an additional $20, which I deferred in the name of saving money and acting as tough as possible. This was an epic mistake that I shall never repeat, not for any of my remaining five sessions. Now the tattoo remnants are bandaged and I can’t wait to peek and see how much they’ve changed. I got a glimpse before the healing cream went on, and they definitely looked faded.
Although my “do beautiful things” tattoo will soon become a thing of the past, I want its message to live on. Today, I was saddened upon hearing the news story that Representative Gabrielle Giffords will not seek reelection to Congress. I just finished reading the biography that she and her husband wrote together, and it was an amazing and touching story that left me in tears. (Look for it in a What I’m Reading Wednesday post shortly!). Rep. Giffords, as you may remember, was shot point-blank in the head by a deranged gunman as she hosted a Congress on Your Corner event last January. She survived, but seven others did not, and many others were also injured. Reading the story of all that she did for her country and her constituents before her injury, then learning about her long and difficult recovery, made me wonder what more I can be doing with my life to help others. Although I have the opportunity to work with patients on a daily basis, my job is more about helping doctors to come to a diagnosis, not actually helping them in a hands-on way. That is still my ultimate professional goal: to help people feel better.
I don’t know if I believe in karma, not in the traditional sense. However, I believe that putting forth positive energy into the world will result in a better place for everyone, and you will ultimately be happier for it. This attitude hasn’t always been kind to me in return – I’ve been burned badly after trusting others. But I’ll keep trying to see the best in people, and treat them the way I’d like to be treated.  That’s what my idealistic tattooed self would have wanted, and I’m going to remember that even after a laser burns away my best-laid plans.

How to Stay Motivated on a Rainy Weekend

It’s pouring outside.

Not just a little bit of rain, the kind you know will fade away after a few hours and you can get on with your day. This is a complete downpour, born forth from cloud-blackened skies at 10:30am. Our bright, sunny house is completely dark right now, save for bursts of lightning that tense me up for the rolls of thunder I know are coming. This is the kind of rain that ruins your plans for the day (jogging outside) and makes you want to stay in bed.

I’m not in bed, although Xavier still is and it is probably the warmest, best place in the house right now. I’m in the office and it’s a bit chilly. Our office is technically a sunroom, with so many windows we have no place to hang pictures, and it leads to our little backyard. The door doesn’t shut all the way – perhaps the result of a certain fifteen-pound terrier body-slamming it when she wants to go outside and chase squirrels – so chilly air filters in and keeps me shivering enough to stay awake.

The reason I’m in the office, wide awake, wishing I could stay asleep? Well, there are two. Thanks to an awesome member of the website Serious Eats, I just received 21 Meyer lemons in the mail straight from California. If you don’t know what a Meyer lemon is, let me enlighten you. It’s technically a lemon, but much sweeter, and its peel is almost orange. It’s like the difference between an egg from the grocery store and an egg from someone’s pet chicken that roams around a backyard.

My Meyer lemons!
Now that I have these beauties, I’m brainstorming the amazing recipes that I can make with Meyer lemons. First up is definitely homemade lemon curd, some of which will be turned into lemon mousse. I’m also considering lemon risotto. And who could resist the allure of classic lemon bars? There is so much to make that I can hardly wait to get started.
Unfortunately, as I plan the calorie-bombs that I want to make, it’s raining and I can’t go for a run. This brings me to my next issue: exercising. This week has been a bit of a bust in terms of working out. My dad was in town on Tuesday and we went out for a ridiculously delicious meal at Ecco. The ridiculously delicious meal was washed down with a ridiculously delicious bottle of wine. That set the stage for a week of eating delicious food. It was capped off with – wait for it – my first bowl of authentic Japanese tonkatsu ramen last night! I’ve been wanting to try real ramen for years now and it did not disappoint. It’s like the 10-cent packages on steroids, speed, and crack. The only unfortunate thing about the meal was that I couldn’t finish my huge bowl of soup. Which, by the way, was much better than anything you’ll find at Panera.
Broth, noodles, pork belly… amazing

So how am I going to work off the calories from this crazy week of food? Kickboxing, as you may remember, is too expensive for me to afford right now. It’s been raining like crazy so outdoor workouts have been hard to accomplish. But did I tell you about how I stopped by the local LA Fitness to check out membership rates last month? I hate working out at the gym, so my visit was really just to motivate myself to get back on my bike. Well, the overenthusiastic sales guy has been calling me constantly ever since. I ignore his calls, but today he left an interesting message regarding a $20 monthly rate. That is just cheap enough that I might have to investigate and consider actually joining. Hopefully it’s not a scam.
But even if I join the gym at a cutthroat rate, I’m legitimately worried that I will just not go. The gym is right next to our house, and there’s no reason for me to skip workouts, except I get way too bored during them. The ellipticals don’t even have TVs, so how am I supposed to stay entertained and distract myself from the pain, heavy breathing, and impending feelings of death and doom? They do have classes there that I might be able to enjoy. I’m not sure if they have spinning, though.
So what do you think? Is it worth joining a gym at $20/month and then hoping I manage to go once in a while? And, is it painfully obvious yet that my love of food is going to be the death of me in my attempts to stay physically active?

Why I Hate Panera Bread

Panera Soup & Sandwich
Panera chicken noodle soup. image from Flickr by john-pittsburgh

Panera Bread is the absolute worst.

I didn’t always feel that way. The first time I visited one was in Princeton, NJ, and I adored the bread bowl with French onion soup. It felt like an unimaginable luxury: a bowl made of bread! The vessel for deliciousness was also delicious, leaving diners drunk on carbs after stuffing their faces with a rapidly disintegrating bowl. The experience of eating at Panera was exhilarating.
When a Panera outpost finally opened near my house, I was in high school and didn’t have my driver’s license yet, so I only went on rare occasions. It was always a delicious treat. Although I eschewed the bread bowl on most visits, preferring to leave the restaurant not feeling like I’d eaten an elephant, I loved the “You Pick Two” combination. Often I’d indulge in a delicious dish of salad. Paired with creamy chicken soup, or my standby French onion, the meal was an affordable way to feel like a classy grown-up.
Then a few things happened that began to taint my love for Panera. One afternoon, I suggested to my mom that we eat there. That was the first mistake. My mom is an incredible cook who takes great pride in dismantling the culinary efforts of others. We both had French onion and after one spoonful of hers, she sniffed derisively and deemed the soup to be thickened with cornstarch.
“Is that bad?” I asked.
“Not necessarily,” she replied, her denial actually meaning that soup thickened with cornstarch is an abomination ranking right up there with genocide and shoulder pads in women’s suits.
To this day, I don’t really know why thickening soup with cornstarch is bad. I happen to make a corn-poblano chowder that’s healthy precisely because I thicken it with cornstarch and not cream. But that day planted the first seeds in my mind that Panera might not be the wood-paneled, lushly upholstered garden of dreams that I’d always imagined it to be.
Next, some of my friends ended up getting jobs at Panera and their reports from the kitchen were less than appealing. Soups, they claimed, came to each store in huge freezer bags, which were thawed and served as-is from the corporate kitchen. I’d always pictured my Panera meals crafted by cheerful elves slicing onions and tending to giant vats of soup with overgrown spoons, so this image came as a surprise. It pained me to imagine my Panera meal stripped of handcrafted love, born of a huge industrial factory.
When I moved to the desolate tundra of upstate New York for college, my opportunities to eat Panera were limited. But on the few occasions that I did indulge, I couldn’t help but notice that each bowl of soup was flavorless, overly salty, and greasy and left me feeling uncomfortably full. When I ordered salad, the leaves were wilted. Tasteless strips of chicken had the funny texture of sponges. Strawberries were still partially frozen. Fried noodle strips outnumbered everything else. I started to feel ambivalent about Panera.
A few months ago, I moved to a house that’s very close to a strip mall. There are many worthwhile vendors in that strip mall. To name a few, we’ve got Boardwalk Burgers, which serves Georgia grass-fed beef and double-fried spuds. Ansley Liquors, serving your booze with a side of hilarious hand-written signs. The list goes on. Unfortunately, occupying a storefront like a blight among the gems, is a Panera outpost.
I’ve gone there a few times recently, in need of a quick bite to eat. And somehow, no matter how hungry I am, I can’t bring myself to purchase anything at Panera. Reading the menu just makes me angry. For a cup of mediocre soup, they charge $4.79. Almost five dollars! For spongy old chicken and greasy croutons! Every time I’ve walked in and surveyed the menu, thinking I could maybe go for a bowl of soup, I quickly grow disgusted and leave without purchasing anything. 

Complaining is useless without providing an alternative solution. So here’s my alternative solution: you can make your own damn soup. It will taste infinitely better than anything from Panera, it doesn’t require as much effort as you think it would, and it’s practically free.

my chicken soup, practically free
Recipe to follow.
In the meantime, please don’t support Panera. They are taking advantage of people who don’t realize how inferior and overpriced their product is.
(However, their bread is pretty good. I’ll give them that).

What I’m Reading Wednesday: 1/18/12

Today’s book: “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)” by Mindy Kaling

Kelly Kapoor isn’t the most prominent employee of “The Office,” but her one-liners stand out as the show’s most memorable. Who could forget her amazing gem, “Ryan used me as an object,” in the show’s fourth season? Or when she slapped Michael during “Diversity Day?” Although I stopped following the show since “The Office” has gone way downhill in the wake of Steve Carell’s departure, I have a soft spot in my heart for Kelly. You can tell Mindy Kaling is just having a blast with that character – and who can blame her?

After reading funny-TV-lady memoirs by Chelsea Handler and Tina Fey, I was curious to see what Mindy Kaling would contribute to the genre. This was not a disappointment. The story is somewhat disjointed, reading as a series of little essays and rants as opposed to a cohesive text. However, it is solidly funny and I found myself laughing aloud more than a few times. Mindy is likeable and relatable – see, I’m calling her Mindy like we’re friends, not Ms. Kaling like any respectable book reviewer would do.

The more readers learn about Mindy, the better the book is. She takes us from her childhood to college, where she truly thrived. We learn about her post-graduation communal living situation with two best girlfriends in Brooklyn. This situation led to the collusion of events that created a play, “Matt and Ben,” that garnished enough attention to join “The Office.” It also makes us grateful for every non-ideal roommate situation we’ve ever had, knowing that things could have been far more crowded. By the time we reach her present stint at “The Office,” Mindy feels like an old friend. We’re excited about her success, although somewhat disturbed by some of her comments (for instance, begging guys not to shave their chest hair; it reminds her of her dad who is a man… or something like that). But we don’t feel overly enthusiastic about the book. It was cool: witty and wry, the perfect blend of earnest with tongue-in-cheek. But I don’t feel the urge to recommend this to my friends, or reread it immediately to (cue Journey) hold on to that feeling.

“No one, uh, ever asked you anything so whomever’s name is Toby, why don’t you take a letter opener and stick it into your skull?”

Bottom line: Bring it to the beach or read it on a plane.
5/8 slices.