Monday, July 25, 2011

Topanga Canyon (Watch out for snakes!)

In a little less than a week, I will journey to the east coast for a twelve day adventure that includes a visit to Sunderland, Massachusetts where my best friend Gwendolyn (affectionately referred to as Friendolyn) resides and a visit to my family’s home in Ithaca, New York.  I am planning on filling this little blog with copious amounts of pictures—documenting every hike, every picnic, every pie I bake, and every plate of thai food that I ravenously consume (and I plan on doing nothing but hiking, making pies, and eating thai food—so prepare yourself).  Friendolyn, the dear that she is, has also graciously agreed to take me to Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, MA…which I am so disgustingly excited about, I can hardly contain myself.

But, in the meantime, I am merrily keeping busy here on the West coast.  Today, Moses and I traveled to Topanga State Park in Malibu for some boot breaking-in, pleasure-filled hiking.

The trip didn’t start out as particularly promising.  We were a bit tuckered out from our champagne brunch at Overland CafĂ© (with Melanie and her adorable mother), so leaving the house proved to be a bit of a challenge.  Then, as we merged onto the Pacific Coast Highway, crawling along at a glacial pace in traffic worse than anything we had experienced during the supposed “carpocalypse” of last weekend, the sky began to darken into an unfriendly shade of gray.

Fortunately, once we past the trendiest Malibu beaches, the traffic thinned, the sky cleared, and we began to cruise along at an acceptable speed.  Soon we found ourselves swerving through the remarkably green hills of Topanga Canyon.  And while the trip was still not without its hardships—we brought only one water bottle instead of the two that I recommended (Moses was convinced that one would be sufficient but he later acknowledged that I was right: oh, delicious victory!) and nearly died of thirst from the intense heat and lack of shade—we enjoyed spectacular views and had a truly magical time.

And, despite my concerns, I am pleased to report that we did not encounter any rattlesnakes.

One of the many breathtaking views on the trail to Eagle Rock (you can faintly see that we are just above the cloud line)

There we are!

We ran into quite a few critters...

The view from Eagle Rock

The path back

Me on the top of Eagle Rock.  Hot but satisfied.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Making pies all day

My love for baking has crept into previous posts through photographs and fleeting remarks about my transformation into my Polish grandmother, but I decided today that I wanted to devote an entire, but in all likelihood, cursory blog to it (as I must soon leave to help my dear friend Melanie move).  While I would say I have only very recently become a decent cook, I have always been a fair baker.  And moreover, I have always enjoyed baking.  Cooking, on the other hand, used to make me frantic until I realized that, hey there, clueless bear, it’s just like baking.  You just find a good recipe and follow it.  Now, I find myself improvising whole dinners and Moses hasn’t complained yet so they really must be good.

But I digress. This summer, with its infinite and, at times, paralyzing amount of leisure time, has allowed me to truly indulge my inner baker.  Pretty much since the moment I graduated, I have been baking incessantly.   I have made, in no particular order:

1.       Three carrot cakes
2.      One Tiramisu (whose texture for one reason or another turned out rather poorly)
3.      Coconut Rice pudding
4.      Banana bread
5.      Zucchini bread
6.      Two yellow cakes with chocolate frosting
7.      One key lime pie
8.     One rhubarb pie
9.      Three (perhaps four) blueberry pies
10.  One rhubarb pie
11. One peach and raspberry pie
12.   Two ginger pear sorbets
13.  And so much more (although I can’t think of anything else at the moment)...

Here is just some photographic evidence:

One of the many blueberry pies I made...
The summer peach and raspberry pie (made for a girls night at Kate's) 
My key lime pie.  This picture of it actually turned out quite nice (although, to be frank, it was taken from this angle because half of the pie is already eaten)
And while I didn't "bake" this frozen margarita.  I did use the ginger pear sorbet that I made on the 4th to make it...
 More baking and blogging to come...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

a place for the genuine

I had originally intended for this blog to be a diverting collection of random thoughts—whatever struck me at that moment—much as the first one was.  Indeed, I have several drafts of posts written in this spirit: one about the Los Angeles bus system (why is it that when waiting for the bus, regardless of what direction you are traveling, there is always an infinite number of buses going in the opposite direction?) and one about “Toddlers and Tiaras” (a horrifically mesmerizing TLC show).  Recently, it seems, this blog has become more a constellation of memories.  I’m not entirely sure of the reason for this.  Perhaps transitions make me nostalgic.  Nevertheless, I thought I would embrace this.  After all, when, besides a memoir, do you have such a tidy and charmingly detailed record of such recollections?  I, for one, do not have the patience for journaling.  And Virginia Woolf, with her extensive correspondence, multivolume journals, and twelve hundred novels will continue to make me feel bad about this…

This post is devoted not to memory exactly but to poetry—the art that single handedly transformed me from an angsty teen to the slightly neurotic but generally well-adjusted person that I am today.  Poetry was my first love in literature—before I really fell for the British modernists (they were just so intoxicatingly weird) or the 19th century Americans (what can I say, I’m a sucker for self-made manhood).  Believe it or not, it all began with Edgar Allen Poe (I told you I was angsty).  In 8th grade we read “Annabel Lee,” and I was not only enamored with it, I discovered that I was able to see things in it that my classmates did not.  And although I wavered in career choice up until about 11th grade, it was then and there, really, that an English major was born. 

I had always written creatively (I would read stories I had penned about a fictional family on the Oregon Trail to my third grade teacher Mrs. G—she seemed pretty impressed by them) but it wasn’t until middle school that I began to dabble in poetry.  It was truly dreadful stuff but my Mom was nice enough to humor me when I read it to her.  I only started to become moderately okay at it when I reached 10th grade.  It was also around that time that I was first introduced to Sylvia Plath.  My 10th grade English teacher, Mr. Asklar, I think, sensed that I was somewhat talented and kind of moody, so even though he was teaching Brit Lit, he handed me volume of Modern American poetry one day after class and advised me to leaf through the section on Sylvia Plath (at the time I was flattered and grateful and looking back on it the gratitude remains but the flattery wanes slightly—what the hell does that say about me at 15 that a teacher was prescribing me Plath’s poetry?).  But nevertheless, Sylvia Plath really and truly did understand 15-year-old Wendy.  And I steadfastly believe that she made me a better and more uninhibited poet.

I was and still am rather conflicted about whether or not to include my own poetry in this blog—for the very same reason that I was initially conflicted about having a blog—it just seems so utterly narcissistic.  Like: look at me, plebeian, and marvel at my talent and general magnificence.  I would hope that you would do this regardless of my soliciting.  Also, there was something weird in the “terms of agreement” of this blog cite and I want to eventually collect royalties on my poetry…

But since the only people reading this are either family members or good friends, I will ask that you humor me as my mother once did, and that you also, as Tina Fey phrases it, let me be amazing at you.  I have included a little poem that I wrote today for my Polish grandfather.  He passed away this January at 92 and I think of him often.

this—is the word that was spoken—
that rattled the hornets' nest in the gables—
that fled frantic into the clefts of the orchard—
that left me jilted and darted from.

this—is the boughed heart of the orchard—
that spilled out its words of broken polish—
that beats as black as a magpie’s eye—
that left me bereft and muffled.

this—is your embarrassed shroud of tenacity—
that slipped like the spiraled ribbons of a citrus peel—
that recoiled in the embrace of blue ceramic tile—
that withered and writhed and vanished
in sunlight—

and so it was dziadek dziadek—
with clemency and strewn poppies—
and so it will be dziadek dziadek—
I will look for you on the horizon.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

These are a few of my favorite things (cont.)...

6. The Farmers' Market: It wasn’t until I moved out to California that I realized farmers' markets weren’t just a seasonal thing.  Sure they make for a lovely afternoon visit in the summer months—that’s when the produce selection is at its absolute yummiest—but it’s around all year long.  In upstate New York, we only have the farmers' market in the summer, for, perhaps, slightly obvious reasons.  For one, there is no snow on the ground (which is essential for creating favorable farmers' market conditions anywhere).  It is also the only time of year when things actually grow (and all that essentially grows is corn and zucchini but those happen to be two of my favorites…so…it works).  But, dear reader, as we all know, half of the reason for going to a given farmer’s market is for the other treats it boasts.  The Ithaca Farmers' Market, nestle near the shore of Cayuga Lake, has had some of the same vendors since I was a child.  The same families still sell the same egg rolls and chili rellenos that I merrily gobbled up in my youth (and that I am very much looking forward to eating again when I return in August).  A lot of same craftsmen and women are still there as well.  One local artist, who has had a stand there for at least a decade or so, still sells the same custom-made ceramic bowls.  It sounds kitschy, I know, but they really aren’t—they’re actually quite lovely.  My parents bought one for each me, Genny, and Scott when we were younger.  Mine was white with a whale on it and had my name written in blue glaze.  These bowls were wonderfully charming but, having being fired in the artists’ home kiln, also extremely fragile.  In an unfortunate turn of events, the stack of bowls were unceremoniously dropped by someone—and I can’t quite remember by whom but we are all equally clumsy and therefore all equally potentially culpable—and shattered on our kitchen floor.  It was tragic.  But that’s not the moral to this story (that would be depressing).  The moral is that farmers' markets are positively delightful and because summer is the only time they have them in Ithaca, they will forever be equated with summertime in my mind.

This picture I didn't take--I poached it from the internet.

7.  Mom’s Summer Activity List:  Despite all of us kids having active imaginations, there was always the potential for one of us or all of us to get bored from time to time over the summer months.  Because of this, every summer my mother would compile a list of things we kids could do.  Old favorite include:  play pioneers, go for a walk in the woods, play little mermaid (this required my sister and I to put red t-shirts over our hair), play badminton, play shipwreck, go swimming, play with super heroes (Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Green Lantern were in a perpetual love triangle), read a book, play 19th century oil tycoons (just kidding, that wasn’t one of them, although strangely enough a lot of our “plays” were set in the 19th century…).  Even now, I am sure that there is some version of the “Summer Activity List” written in my mother’s handwriting and pinned to the family bulletin board in the kitchen.  Although these days it probably says, “play video games” rather than “play 19th century detectives”…

Here we are playing pirates.

8. Picnics in the Basement: I realize, at this point, that the majority of these are based on memories from my childhood and that a good number of them are food related but just bear with me (I still have two more with which to potentially turn this all around).  Before air conditioning was a thing, at least at my parents’ house, which it wasn’t until about three or four years ago, my mother and sister and I used to have picnics in our finished basement whenever it would get too hot or muggy to eat upstairs or out on our deck.  We would sit on the floor, which was mostly carpeted, and use on our little brown and black trampoline as table.  It was, as I am sure you can imagine, just about the coolest thing ever.  And it remains to this day, one of my all-time favorite summer pastimes.

I don't have a photo documentation of our basement picnics, so here's a picture of a rose I took (that's summery, right?)

9. Swimming: Okay, so you knew this one was coming, how could you not?  I am talking about summer, after all.  I have always been a huge fan of swimming.  In fact, there is a video my parents took of us at the petting zoo while on vacation in Minnesota.  I am seven years old and sitting on a bench sulking.  My father narrates how I only wanted to go swimming and have been whining and complaining all day (and he, consequently, has a mind not to take me).  This should give you at least some indication of how much I love swimming (as I was normally a good nature child who rarely fussed about things).  I adored going to my maternal grandparents’ farm and swimming in their pool (even though it was too shallow to dive and the water was pretty much always freezing).  I also loved going to paternal grandparents’ home, where my grandfather would fill a little paddling pool (and he would do this early in the morning so that the water would be warm by the time my sister and I arrived) and would stock it full of fun toys to play with.  I also enjoyed, for a brief time, swimming in the pond near my parents’ house (which I no longer frequent due to water snakes).  Ithaca is famous for its copious gorges and (mostly illegal) swimming holes.  Ironically, Moses and I, who both grew up in Ithaca, grew up with different favorite swimming locations.  So now, whenever we are back in town for the summer together, I lobby for us to go swimming in the lake at Taughannock Park and Moses’ vote is always for 2nd or 3rd dam (which are okay, I guess).  Arguably the worst place to go swimming in Ithaca is Treman Park, because the water there is frigid.  I’m not exaggerating.  I think at its warmest its temperature is 60 degrees.  The last time I was brave enough/foolish enough to attempt to swim at Treman was a particularly hot and humid afternoon one August ago.  My mother, brothers, and I had been hiking the trails and were close by and it was so damn hot out that I coerced myself into going.  I thought: you were really young when you last swam here, maybe you were just less tolerant of cold water.  Maybe it wasn’t really that cold and if it was, it will probably feel good today.  Or maybe the last time you swam here you came early in the summer before the water had a chance to heat up.  But no.  The water never “heats up” at Treman.  My swim lasted all of about five minutes before I had to get out and warm myself on the rocks in the sun.

This is Treman.  I shiver just looking at it.
10. BBQs with friends and family: All right, it’s official.   Pretty much all of my favorite pastimes are food related—but you can’t fault me for that—because I really do love food.  And maybe it’s the subtle hint of hick in me, but I love me some good BBQ.  Moses and I do not own a grill (aside from our George Forman which we use to cook the occasional hamburger).  Instead, we are tortured by the constant aroma of BBQ wafting over from the neighbor’s house (because those Nazis have a backyard).  BBQs out here are relatively rare and I find myself, every summer, in a state of continual self-loathing over how, at one point in my life, I was actually sick of BBQ food.  Back in Ithaca, BBQs are happening non-stop over the summer.  You have a get together with friends: BBQ.  You have a birthday party: BBQ.  You have a Wednesday: BBQ.  My parents don’t even cook regular meals over the summer.  Dinners are just an endless grill-fest.  And I miss it sorely.   But, as god is my witness, I swear to you that I will one day own a grill and then my summers will finally be complete.

And here I am at a BBQ last year...

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

These are a few of my favorite things...

Coming off of a glorious holiday weekend, and with a trip back east planned for later this month, my thoughts today have turned continually to the general splendor of summer.  Here is a cross-pollinated list of favorite summer pastimes from both youth and adulthood:

1.       Bare feetness:  The rule in our house was that when it was warm, we could go outside barefoot.  This, for whatever reason, was quite the treat for me as a young child and I spent the majority of my summers romping around shoeless in my backyard.  And, consequently, building up the sort of callouses that to this day make me an undesirable customer for pedicures.  I also suspect that my affinity for rollicking barefoot outdoors is closely related to my love of Jane Austen film adaptations as well as my hatred of wearing socks and close-toed shoes (which I will only deign to wear when it is too unreasonably cold for me not to).

A certain slant of light in my parents' back yard

2.      Biking[1]: This of course, can be done year-round, especially when living somewhere like Los Angeles (where there are no elements to brave except the occasional rainfall).  But biking, in upstate New York, is at its most pleasurable in the summer months.  I have incredibly fond memories of riding in circles around the barn, silo, and tenant house on my grandparent’s farm.  And of biking up and down the hilly dirt road near my parent’s house with my siblings.  One summer, on a bike adventure with my mother and sister, my sister found a charming little clearing in a nearby wooded area that was bordered by white blossomed trees.  It was enchanting.  Like something out of the Secret Garden.  I have since tried to bike back to where I remember it being but have never been able to find it.  It's possible that it has been swallowed by brush or by tickets.  Or it is possible that it never existed and I just dreamed the whole thing up…

The woods by my parents' house

3.      Berries berries berries: Now that I am an avid baker, the wide and varied selection of fresh berries over the summer has taken on a greater significance.  Yes, they make for a delicious snack, but they also allow me to do one of my most favorite things: make pies (see note in my previous blog about becoming my polish grandmother).  I adore making pies.  When I take a freshly baked berry pie out of the oven, I feel very nearly perfectly content.  Why does making pies fill me with such unadulterated joy and ease, you ask?  I’m not entirely sure.  But this doesn’t exactly strike me as the sort of thing that I really need to “work out” in order to become a better person.  In fact, I challenge you to find a single criminal or troubled senator who is a pie maker.  Maybe that’s our answer to a better society.

Here is the blueberry pie that I made yesterday for the 4th.

4.      Laundry hung outside to dry: I cannot do this in Los Angeles.  Not only because Moses and I don’t have the space but because any laundry that would be strung up outside our apartment to dry would inevitably be caked with a thick layer of black filth (courtesy of the Los Angeles air pollution).  This is incredibly unfortunate as there is nothing quite like sleeping on a set of sheets that have been ruffled by a sweet summer zephyr.  Drying laundry outdoors is also great fun.  My sister and I used to run through the walls of wet sheets hanging on the clothes line as we played (barefoot) in our back yard.  They were cool and smelt good and it was utterly delightful.

A fun (somewhat) non sequitur photo I took last summer

5.      Summer beverages:  There is something so delicious about being able to sit outdoors (on a deck or balcony or porch or patio) and sip a cold beer or glass of sangria at 12 in the afternoon without judgment.  Maybe it’s the weekend, maybe it’s not—you’re just enjoying the sunshine and languidness of the summer and no one thinks any less of you.  Summer is also the ideal season for one of my all-time favorite (non-alcoholic) beverages: iced coffee.  I dream about iced coffee—I thirst for it—especially if it’s even the slightest bit hot.  A coffee shop in Ithaca (that is serious about its coffee) uses coffee ice cubes in their iced coffee, so as not to dilute it.  Why more coffee shops don’t do this is puzzling to me.  It’s genius.  And every summer I have these delusions of grandeur that this will be the summer that I will actually make my own ice coffee in this manner—that I will have the foresight (and restraint) to pour some of my left over coffee into ice cube trays and let it freeze overnight.  Seems simple enough but this never happens.  I get too lazy and impatient and forgetful and just end up grumpily drinking hot coffee or walking to a local coffee shop to purchase some iced coffee (made at no inconvenience to me).  Yes, I know.  I’m incorrigible.

A doubly fun picture of me enjoying a decadent iced coffee beverage
To be continued…

[1] This we were not allowed to do with bare feet (that would be dangerous).