Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Week Without Coffee

If you know me (which, if you're reading this, you almost certainly do), you know that I love me some coffee. There's something about a nice, hot cup in the morning or after a meal that just hits the spot like nothing else can. I also enjoy the process of making coffee - the simple, sequential, familiar steps that lead up to the pressing of the 'brew' button, the comforting noise of the coffeemaker and finally, the wonderful smell and taste of fresh coffee. Normally, I just sip mine straight-up, no cream or sugar, but occasionally a nice mocha or cappuccino is divine.

This week I'm going to do something sort of crazy, something almost bordering on insane... This week I'm off coffee. Just to do it, to prove to myself that I can. And also as a sort of experiment to find out if I feel different without coffee. I've heard conflicting reports about how coffee affects your health; one week it's good for cognitive function and a fantastic source of antioxidants, and the next it's bad for your blood sugar levels and overall cardiovascular health. So to cut through all the hype, I just want to know how my body will respond to a Week Without Coffee (WWC).

My WWC begins right now. And just to clarify, the no coffee rule includes decaf. I've never thought of decaf as 'real' or 'actual' coffee, but if I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna do this - you know? Do I expect it to be easy? No, not really. Especially this weekend when I'm sitting at home doing my normal coffee-drinking activities like sitting on the porch, eating breakfast, reading or catching up on email. But I'm not such a coffee hound that I expect to have any tangible symptoms of withdrawal other than the uncontrollable urge to stare longingly at my coffeemaker. Time will tell.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Vegetable Sculptures and Recipe for Texas Caviar

Odds are that right now someone somewhere is making a vegetable sculpture. What a glorious world we live in!

I happened upon this picture of a veggie lion yesterday (on - visit them to see the rest of the pictures) and was sufficiently moved to keep browsing the internet's wide array of vegetable sculptures. Some very impressive and un-boring veggie creatures can be seen here on Apparently, the Lambeth Country Show, an annual event in South London, features an Alternative Vegetable Sculpture Competition. Fabulous photos of some of the 2008 entries are posted here on Flickr. The big winner in 2008 was a veggie bust of Amy Winehouse.

But if you don't feel like turning your vegetables into a sculpture, you can put them to another good use by making Texas Caviar. Here's the recipe I made for my book club, courtesy of my colleague J:


1 cup sugar
3/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 can pinto beans - drained and rinsed
1 can black eyed peas - drained and rinsed
2 cans shoepeg corn - drained
8 ounces diced pimento - drained
1 medium red onion - diced
1 cup celery - diced
1 cup green pepper - diced
1 or 2 jalapeƱo peppers (depending on your taste) - diced


1. Boil the sugar, vinegar, vegetable oil, water, salt and pepper; then allow to cool.
2. Combine all of the remaining ingredients.
3. Once the liquid has cooled, pour it over the mixture and refrigerate for a few hours (or overnight, which is even better).
4. Drain most of the liquid and serve with Fritos scoops or tortilla chips.


Friday, May 22, 2009

LTLYM #28: Edit a photo album page

Learning To Love You More (LTLYM) is a web-based project comprised of work made by the general public in response to assignments given by artists Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher. This week, I am going to tackle my first assignment, #28: Edit a photo album page. Here are the instructions:
Look through a friend or relative's photo album. Choose a single page that includes details that you find interesting. Take a piece of solid-colored paper that fits over the entire album page and cut one to ten holes in the paper that reveal details of the pictures. These details can be parts of people's bodies, their pets, a cake, a poster, anything you find visually intriguing. These holes should be small, just isolating the details, with holes that are the shape of the thing you are isolating (cake-shaped hole, tiny hole isolating just someone's head, etc.) Give your page a title that includes the name of the person who's photo album you have used. For instance "Erika's trip to Florida," or "Dave and his dog Walter at the Beach."
K and I will be visiting his parents for Memorial Day weekend, so I plan to complete this assignment using one of his mom's family photo albums. The LTLYM website is no longer accepting submissions, so I will just post my results here on my blog.

You might be wondering what drew me to LTLYM in the first place. Well, I've been loosely following the work of Miranda July ever since I saw her feature-length directorial debut, "Me and You and Everyone We Know." With its motley cast of characters (pictured above), each struggling for some sense of connectedness to the world and each other, this film made me laugh, cry and squirm. And it left me hooked on Miranda.

If you have not seen any of Miranda July's short films, I would recommend "How to Make a Button" and "Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody?" They will make you think and make you smile. And if you like those, you should check out her website and keep your eyes open for a new feature-length film coming soon (in production right now under the working title "Satisfaction").

I have been meaning to do a LTLYM assignment for a while. Some challenge the participant to connect in some way with friends/family/strangers, while others are more focused on creating something tangible. All seem to be about having new and individual experiences - which ties in perfectly with sometimes a strange notion.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

For My Sister, the Superhuman

On October 4, 2007, my sister AL suffered a stroke due to a ruptured and bleeding cerebral AVM . Several months later, I sat down and wrote about the experience. My main intention was self-therapy through writing, but I also wanted to record some of the details that I thought (correctly) would fade from my memory over time.

Recently, AL and I had a conversation about how little she remembers from the weeks after the stroke (click here for a little more fore/background). I told her about my AVM journal and she was keen, so today I'm going to mail her a copy of it in its entirety. Please read on for a couple of excerpts.

In this first one, I had just learned from my dad that AL had both an active bleed and a large clot in her brain. When I first got off the phone with him, I was confused and on the verge of hyperventilating, but then my colleague, C (well, former colleague - I worked in NYC at the time) talked me down, and together we decided that I should leave work that very minute to begin the five-hour drive to my sister in Syracuse.

I was scheduled to go to China for work in three days. I took everything I would need for the trip with me (except, I realized later, my airplane ticket), because I was hopeful; a lot could change in three days. Maybe my sister would be fine in three days. C walked me to the bus terminal carrying more than her fair share and proclaiming herself my Sherpa. I was on the 2:50 bus and K left work early to meet me at the park & ride. We were on our way up to Syracuse. The ride was long and I hated it. It sort of reminded me of the time when, shortly after graduation from college, when I was working as a waitress and uninsured, I had a cyst on my head the size of a golf ball (and growing!) and K drove me from Washington, DC all the way up to Utica to see the only doctor who would remove the cyst for free - my mother. The pain had gotten to the point where I was rotating doses of Vicodin with three Advils, taking one of the other every two to three hours and I was still in a world of hurt. The present drive to Syracuse was throbbing painfully in a completely different way.

We finally arrived after about five hours in the car and were instructed by my dad to go to the fourth floor Pediatric ICU. She was stable. We walked into the PICU, and hers was the bed straight ahead and just to the left. I went to her and she looked just as she had last time I saw her. I gave her a hug and that's when she said "I love you" and I felt an immense rush of relief. She was fine! But then I noticed she wasn't really talking at all, or hardly at all. Everyone was talking to each other around her, but her participation consisted only of non-verbal communication: facial expressions, gestures, hand squeezes. A resident came over to give her a little test. He pointed to his watch and asked her if she knew what it was. She shrugged and laughed at herself and shrugged. Next, he asked her to name the object he had in his hand - a pen. She said "sand," in a rising tone, like it was a question and you could see in her eyes that she knew she was totally wrong. It was just this look of 'What am I saying?!' The resident asked her if she knew what the object was for / what people do with it, and she answered by making a writing motion with her right hand.

There were more questions, but I didn't hear them - I felt like I was going to lose it. This was bad. First, I turned around and took a few steps away from the bed because I didn't want AL to see me. Then I involuntarily sunk down to my knees. K was on me like a flash, squatting in front of me - "are you ok?" - and I was trying not to cry because I didn't want others to hear me. The situation was bad enough for AL, my parents, my brother and my other sister. Maybe because I wasn't allowing myself to cry, I was having trouble breathing. A split-second later, over K's shoulder, I saw a nurse coming towards me with a needle and asking if I was all right. I stood up, grabbed K's arm, and walked - almost ran - out of the PICU. Safely in the hallway, I let out my tears and my shock and my disbelief. That initial moment of realization - sometimes it takes seeing with your own eyes to grasp the gravity of a situation - passed, and soon I was able to pull myself together. The next two weeks were a complete roller coaster for my entire family - we dared to hope; we let the doctors' bleak assessments get to us; we knew she would be ok; we were faced with the fact that she would need long, hard, dangerous brain surgery; we saw the other brave kids in the PICU fighting their own battles with death or near-death; we watched AL laugh hysterically one day and fall into depression the next; we prayed (very rare, at least for me); we were insomniacs; we wondered when they would ever operate on her...

And here's an excerpt about AL's surgery, which finally took place on October 18. The two weeks leading up to it were hectic in the way that hospital life is. The doctors kept pushing the surgery back because they wanted all the blood to have a chance to settle down, dissolve, whatever.

When they wheeled her into surgery, my mom went with her in a crazy blue suit - half astronaut, half Pillsbury doughboy. AL went to sleep and mom joined all of us in the waiting room for what we expected to be a five or six-hour wait. We took turns going down to the cafeteria, getting coffee, walking around. Books and TV (mostly nothing on, but I do remember watching Ellen) to pass the time. There was a Mickey Mouse phone in the waiting room, and we were told we would get a call when the surgery was over or almost over. So, at the six-hour mark, every time the phone would ring, we would be all excited. But it was for other parents, other families... and the hours dragged on. About ten hours after she had been put under, we finally got our call. AL was being stitched up - the head neurosurgeon came in and told us that it had gone well, though longer than expected. There were literally thousands of vessels attached to the AVM, which they had needed to remove. So, for each of those tiny vessels, they had to cut, tie off, burn - very time consuming. We were all glad to know it was over and she was safe. They wheeled her through the hall and back up to the PICU. As we caught a glimpse of her, we could see that her eyes were both under the bandage that was holding her head together. She looked like hell, but she was alive.

The next day I got to really appreciate the shape she was in. She looked (and, I'm sure, felt) like she had gone a few rounds with a heavyweight and not been allowed to fight back and then been hit by a bus. The incision went from the center of the top of her forehead to the back of her head and then curved around and up behind her left ear. The skin and muscle had been pulled back and a piece of skull literally sawed out before the surgeons could even start working on her brain. Her left eye was huge, purple and swollen shut; her right eye was a slit. They had to increase her self-dosed morphine, which was the only medication they had found to effectively control her pre-surgery pain, to one full gram per push of the button. She was allowed one push every seven minutes. On top of all the pain, she was still having immense trouble communicating, and the morphine made her foggy and out-of-it. She was extremely irritable. She would want something described as "that" and would get frustrated when we didn't know what she meant. It was hard to bear and yet, the absurdity of the situation got the better of me at one point, and I just had to laugh. I brushed past the curtain surrounding her bed and laughed softly but hysterically next to the nurses' station. One of the nurses came up behind me - she must have assumed I was crying, which was fair enough, because there was a fair bit of that going on - and she asked if I was ok. I turned, smiled and said, "My sister is being such a bitch!" The nurse giggled and we agreed that the bitchiness was a good sign. Later, my sister would share that she really thought she wanted to die then. To just let go would have been such a welcome release. But she was feisty, and she fought on.

Don't worry, reader - it ends happily! And it makes me so proud to go back and think about all that AL's been through and how we handled it together as a family. She is an amazing girl and I am in awe of her. AL was fourteen years old at the time of her stroke. The only phrase she was able to articulate on that day - "I love you" - is indicative of her personality. She has faced mortality and depression in ways someone her age shouldn't have to. And almost the whole time, she's been able to laugh at herself.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Blood Draw Adventures and AVM Journal

Doctor's appointment update: I survived! After procrastinating for literally years (read about it here and here), I found a doctor and had myself checked out. My visit was uneventful until I went to the lab to have my blood drawn. The tech asked me if I've ever fainted during a blood draw and I said no, I haven't had this done in a loooong time, but it shouldn't be a problem.

Her first try was painful. I wasn't looking at the site, but it felt like she was digging a ditch with that needle. I felt a sudden rush of heat and said, "Woah, I don't feel so good." Apparently I was having what is referred to in medical jargon as a vasovagal response - what a terrible feeling! I was given an ice pack and told to lay my head down. Several minutes later, the tech asked if I wanted to go ahead with the blood draw. "Absolutely," I replied. "I don't want to have to fast again!" So we went to find an exam room where I could lie down. She tried again, in my other arm this time, and everything went smoothly.

At the end of the visit, I felt fantastic. As I skipped along to my office, I texted my little sister AL: "Just had my blood drawn and almost fainted. Guess I'm not as tough as you." AL suffered a stroke in October of 2007 due to a cerebral arteriovenous malformation (AVM) - this picture at right gives an idea of what an AVM might look like. In the months that followed, she had to undergo invasive brain surgery and countless medical tests and procedures. After all that, I figured that a blood draw would be a piece of cake for her.

AL texted me back: "Oh but you are! I would probably faint too." Hmmm. Later that day, she called me. She said that she doesn't really remember having her blood drawn in the hospital, even though it was done several times. The combination of intense pain, heavy and sustained medication, and brain bleeding have left her with huge gaps in her memory of the time she spent in the hospital.

AL said that it's weird to have these long stretches of time that she doesn't remember. Or she'll remember one random thing that happened, but not know exactly when it happened or what came before and after. This made me think of the time I sat down and wrote a journal about her (our) ordeal. I thought she might like to see it. Maybe it would help fill in one or two of the gaps. AL seemed excited about this. Thus, my assignment for the week became digging up the journal and sending her a copy. I'm looking forward to a re-read (writing the journal was so therapeutic at the time), and hope my sister finds something in there worth knowing, too.

Friday, May 15, 2009

When in Doubt, Quiche

This week I endeavored to host the Shoeless Book Club at my apartment (click here to read my slightly anxiety-riddled 'before' post). It was a first for me in the sense that I had several guests over for dinner without K there to do all the work.

I was a little bit stressed-out about the menu. I never cook, so I knew I had to pick easy dishes that would be near-impossible to mess up. For snacks, I settled on texas caviar and slices of french bread with goat cheese and honey. The texas caviar was a huge hit! The recipe was provided courtesy of my colleague, J, and I'm happy to pass it along upon request. Consider making it next time you host a gathering or find yourself scrambling for something to bring to a potluck - you won't be sorry! It's only downfall is that it makes your kitchen reek of vinegar, but I made it the night before, opened some windows, and was good to go by the time book club commenced.

For the main course, my friend M suggested quiche, which was perfect - I made one with mushrooms, onion and ham, and a meatless version with mushrooms, onion, asparagus, spinach, and broccoli. I served the quiches with a big chopped salad because, as I always say, everybody loves a chopped salad. We topped the meal off with red wine and cake from Trader Joe's.

Luckily, I had tidied up the apartment so there was room for all my guests. I even moved some furniture around in the dining room to make it easier for people to move around the space. As host, I had to select a few book options for all Shoeless members to vote on. The big winner was Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga - a novel I have been wanting to re-read for the last several years.

In the end, I think everyone went home with full tummies and the book club meeting was a success. One would think that the experience would have improved my hosting abilities (and confidence therein), but more than that, it just made me even more appreciative of all that K does whenever we have guests over. Just one of many reasons I'm so lucky to have him in my corner.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Exhibition: Accomplished

At long last, Saturday arrives. K and I are a little hungover, but eager to join the throngs of fans from across the Midwest flocking to the Museum of Science and Industry for Harry Potter: The Exhibition. We're on track to make it on time until - wouldn't you know it? - the Link Bridge starts rising and there we are, stuck on Lake Shore Drive. Tourists get out of their cars to take pictures while I mutter (and occasionally shout) obscenities.

By the time the bridge is lowered and we drive the rest of the way to the museum, park the car and find the entrance to The Exhibition, we're a good fifteen minutes late for our timed entry. K says, "I have this really bad feeling they aren't going to let us in."

"Oh, we'll get in," I answer. "There's no way they actually turn away late-comers; they wouldn't really be that mean." Then the cordon is lifted - we're in! Phew. I did not want to have to settle for the Fairy Castle (no offense, Fairy Castle fans).

The Exhibition itself is staged largely in temporary museum space, big white tents that will be relatively easy to pack up and move come September (next stop on the world tour is still TBA). Upon entrance, several visitors have the opportunity to be 'sorted' by the sorting hat. To my dismay, neither K nor I are selected for this ritual - K because he's too old (obviously), and I because... well, I don't know why.

After a brief film of movie highlights (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince opens July 15), doors open onto the main exhibit area. The overall feeling is movie set meets museum meets kiddie amusement park. We see a huge number of costumes and props, from Harry's wand and the Marauder's map to the flying Ford Anglia and the Goblet of Fire. We get to pull a mandrake from its pot, sit in Hagrid's chair and practice shooting quaffles through quidditch hoops.

By the quidditch hoops there is a museum staff person talking with an adorable little boy. She's rattling off wizarding trivia questions and he knows all the answers! It is soon apparent that all staff are speaking with British accents, some more obviously fake than others. K thinks the accents are overly corny; I find them entertaining.

Several magical creatures are on display: Buckbeak the hippogriff, two centaurs, and even a dragon! K would have missed Dobby the house-elf had I not pointed him out hiding behind Dumbledore's robes. Sadly, there is no information about the movies' special effects. I guess I will have to watch some DVD special features.

All in all, the exhibit is fantastic and sure to be a hit with Harry Potter movie fans of all ages. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Shoeless and Without a Plan

Back in December, I had the good fortune of being invited to join a fabulous book club. Our next meeting is tomorrow, and it is my first turn to host. Hosting a meeting of the Shoeless Book Club is quite an endeavor, entailing preparation of a full dinner for 7 to 10 people (depending on attendance), with drinks and dessert.

Now, K and I have been known to throw a dinner party from time to time. But he always takes the lead on everything from planning the menu and cooking the meal to setting the table and mixing the drinks. My duties are generally restricted to opening beer bottles, making conversation and sometimes doing the dishes. But tomorrow K is unavailable (and anyway, he's not in the book club), which means that I will have to take on a few things that I've long been fully dependent on him for.

Right now I'm feeling a little overwhelmed because I don't have a plan. A good first step might be to make a list of what needs to be done today. So here we go:

1. Plan a menu. (Since I never cook, I should probably stick with simple dishes. And I should plan to make most of the food tonight because after I get home from work tomorrow I'll have less than an hour before my guests start to arrive.)

2. Go grocery shopping.

3. Clean my apartment. (The clutter will have to go if I'm going to have ample room for up to 10 people in my tiny place.)

4. Finish reading this month's book. (Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - not loving it, but I'm curious about how it will end.)

5. Choose two or three options for the next book. (The host presents a few possibilities to the group and then the rest of the members vote.)

6. Cook the meal!

Wow, that's daunting... I better go get started.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Whimsy and Wands meet Science and Industry

On Thursday, April 30, Chicago's own Museum of Science and Industry premiered Harry Potter: The Exhibition. Comprised of authentic costumes and props, the exhibition promises a first-hand look inside the magical world of Harry Potter. Sounds good, right? Well, for $28.60 per person, it better be! (That's $26.00 for general museum admission and timed entrance into Harry Potter, plus a $2.60 'convenience' fee.) K and I will enter the exhibit on Saturday in search of enchantment and whimsy. Promptly at 1:15pm (no refunds or late entry, of course).

Assuming we manage to get ourselves there on time, it really will be exciting to see this first-of-its-kind exhibit for one of the most iconic book and movie series of the past decade. I am particularly interested to learn more about all the magical creatures and what processes are used to make them look so realistic in the movies. I hope the exhibit at least makes mention of my favorite creatures, thestrals, the horse-dragon beasts that pull Hogwarts students around in carriages and are only visible to those who have witnessed death. And what about Dobby and Kreacher the house-elves, and Buckbeak, Hagrid's hippogriff - are there any puppets involved, or are they purely CG?

With any luck, the answers to all my magical creatures-related questions and more will be revealed to me on Saturday. Hold on to your wands and get out of the way, kids.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Free Comic Book Day!

Saturday marked three weeks since I embarked on my self-prescribed comic book challenge. Even though my initial goals turned out to be too ambitious for the allotted one-week time frame, I am definitely glad that I put myself up to them, and I count the project a big success.

I read my first comic book, Hack/Slash #1, on April 13. Since then, I have finished the entire Hack/Slash series to date of 21 books, and I've read the first three issues of Spawn (which by the way, is awesome so far).

It's been a brief but fairly intense introduction. I've gained both a sense of how special comic books are as a medium and an appreciation for why comic book nerds are so drawn to them.

As a comic book nerd himself, I think K has been expecting my interest to be only fleeting. But then I surprised him on Saturday. By suggesting that we go to the Comic Vault in celebration of Free Comic Book Day.

Free Comic Book Day happens every year on the first Saturday in May. Local comic book stores across North America give away certain comic books for free in order to get people into the stores and, hopefully, get them hooked on some comic books. The Comic Vault had a few artists on-site giving away and signing their books. The place was packed with people and good, nerdy vibes!

My Free Comic Book Day loot is displayed above. The IGNATZ book features previews of several international indy comics that look pretty interesting. And I felt it was my generational duty to pick up a copy of the free issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. For the moment, though, I'm going to stick mostly to Spawn. I think it's best I take it one step at a time.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Mixteco Initiative

On Wednesday, I vowed to eat at the most popular restaurant in my neighborhood, Mixteco Grill, by the end of this week. Long lines be damned. Here's a summary of my efforts:

Wednesday: I called Mixteco at 4:30 - no answer. Their answering machine explains that weekday hours are 5:00 to 10:00pm (except Mondays, when they are closed). I try calling again around 5:30 - still no answer. I don't think this is going to be easy.

Thursday: Today I called at 5:00 and again at 5:15, but got the same message each time. Seriously? You guys are open; your answering machine even says so; I know you're in there, and if I didn't have plans to go to spinning at 6:00, I'd walk down there right now and demand a reservation.

At 5:30 I tried one more time. And lo! - a person answered my call! I told him I'd like to make a reservation for two people at 8 o'clock, please. 'Sorry,' he said, 'we're all booked up tonight and tomorrow. But you should try to come in as a walk-in tonight. We have a few tables of two booked for 6:00/6:30, so they should be about to leave by 8:00.'

Haha, you're not going to fool me with that one! I mentioned in my last post that K tried once before to get a reservation at Mixteco. They told him the same thing: just come by later, the wait probably won't be long. So we did, but when we got there, they said it would be at least an hour. If it comes down to it and that's just the way it has to be, I'm willing to wait an hour in order to fulfill my mission. But today is only Thursday, and I'm not yet ready to resign myself to it.

Friday: In search of advice, I read some reviews of Mixteco on today, and I think I've gleaned some useful insight. According to yelp ("Real People. Real Reviews."), Saturday and Sunday brunch are my best bets for getting a table without a wait, particularly if I arrive shortly after they open at 10am. Okay, Real People, I'll trust you on this one.

Saturday: woke K at 9:45am and we arrived at Mixteco by 10:15. There were loads of available tables and we were seated right away - thanks yelp! We started with orange juice, which was freshly squeezed and delicious (no pulp, just like K likes it), and were treated to chips and salsa verde. Our guacamole arrived with big pieces of cucumber and radish in it for dipping - yum!

We ordered the steak tacos and chicken enchiladas brunch entrees. Both were delectable and very nicely plated. The meats were not at all tough, and the various flavors involved blended together beautifully. I saved room for dessert so I could order the famous pastel de tres leches ('almond cake soaked in three milks'). It was amazingly moist and perfectly complimented by the topping of strawberry and pineapple chunks - possibly the highlight of the meal, especially because it went so well with the distinct taste of the house coffee (is that cinnamon and citrus in there?).

I brought my camera along to take pictures of the food, but once we started eating I became way too distracted to play photographer. Only after the meal was over and I was laying on the table in a food coma did I remember the camera.

As I am the furthest thing from an expert on Mexican cuisine, it would be a little presumptuous for me to go into much more detail about Mixteco's food, but suffice it to say this: it lived up to its reputation, and that alone is quite a feat. On top of that, the service was great: fast and friendly. So if you ever happen to be in the neighborhood at 10:00am on the weekend, I highly recommend you pop in for brunch. For dinner, make your reservation a week in advance, and don't forget to BYOB.