Saturday, April 28, 2012

Enjoying Julia

Between the new job, the old jobs, tax season and my ailing cat, it's been a long hard month, so today I treated myself to a little break.  In between the housecleaning and the laundry I watched Julia Child: The French Chef, a 3-DVD set I checked out from the library.

The DVD sleeve says "includes 12 original episodes of the French Chef," so I thought that's all it was, but the first disc in the set is the PBS American Masters episode "Julia Child: America's Favorite Chef," a lovely biography with extensive information about her early life and also about her relationship with her husband.  The biography includes a fascinating video clip of the young Julia as bridesmaid in a gigantic picture hat, towering over everyone else in the wedding party, and the news that early in her adult life she turned down an offer of marriage from the heir to an "enormous" publishing fortune.  I was also unaware that it was the attack on Pearl Harbor which sent her to Washington and from there to Ceylon, where she was to meet the amazing Paul Child.

The other discs were in their own way even more fun, especially if you cook.  I couldn't help but laugh during the petit fours episode, when Julia kept assuring us that her fondant would reach the correct consistency "any minute now," and it stubbornly refused to harden.  In the days of live television, something like that must have messed up the timing for the entire show.  I also wondered how they flagged her about mistakes before the advent of teleprompter machines and in-ear microphones; in one show she erroneously stated that the recipe contained a half cup of almond extract; after a few minutes she looked startled, apologized, and said that the amount should be only a quarter of a teaspoon.  I visualized someone (perhaps Paul) frantically waving a chalkboard off camera. 

Such fun.  I'm inspired to spend tomorrow cooking wonderful things that I can eat during the rest of the week.

"If I can do it, you can do it...and here's how to do it!" ~Julia Child

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Smiling All the Way Home

Website design is one of the few professions that requires its followers to move back and forth quickly and easily between their left and right brains.  This is necessary because a successful design should be both aesthetically pleasing and technically sound.  Of the website designers I've met, most were either techies who searched for their inner artists as an afterthought, or photographers or illustrators who had decided to use the Internet as a marketing tool and then struggled with the technology.  Almost none grew up equally comfortable with art and science.

Although I enjoyed drawing and painting when I was younger, I didn't become seriously interested in commercial design until after I finished my master's degree in IT.  Once I decided to try to make a living as a designer I embarked on a crash self-study course in the principles of design.  I spent two years reading everything I could get my hands on about layouts, typography, color theory, and sub-categories like icon design and accessibility, and practicing with Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver and a graphics tablet.  By the time I did an internship with a real web design firm I was a fairly competent journeyman designer, but I was blown away by the artistic talent of some of the other interns.  Fortunately I was able to trade technical tips for design criticism, and I've continued to learn and improve ever since.

My main strength as a designer has been the ability to really listen to my clients' wishes.  One of my proudest moments was when a woman told me the logo I designed for her firm "spoke to her soul."  However, the client who gave me the bulk of my work over the last few years was a very critical person, and rarely satisfied with my designs even when his clients loved them.  I suppose this kept me humble (and prevented me from asking for a raise), but it left me totally unprepared for my current contract.  So far all of the design work I've done at my new workplace has been greeted with unadulterated praise.  Even when someone has asked for a design to be tweaked, he or she has hastened to assure me that what I've already done is great.  One associate said I have a real designer's eye.  Yesterday three of my client coworkers descended on my cubicle to tell me that the latest project I did for them was "awesome."  To be on the receiving end of this kind of feedback on a daily basis is a novel and pleasant sensation. 

I really hope this company considers hanging on to me for the long term.  I'm getting to spend all day every day doing work I thoroughly enjoy, getting paid well for it, and being patted on the back to boot.  I am self-motivated enough to jump through hoops for any employer, but I'll jump through flames for unconditional praise.

"There is no charge for awesomeness..." Po in Kung Fu Panda

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Bring on the Pho

One of the perils of my new job is that it's located in the heart of an area full of good places to eat.  Many of them, like the restaurants in San Francisco's Gourmet Ghetto, are small, converted historic homes serving fabulous food. I may need to start letting out my clothes.

Our book club ate at one of the local places this week.  Rice Paper, on 7th Street between Central and McDowell, is Vietnamese, specializing (as the name implies) in a variety of exotic spring rolls.  Our group had the spicy firecracker shrimp and the crispy calamari as appetizers.  The calamari, served with aioli and puffy rice cakes about a thousand times better than anything from Quaker, was particularly good.  Three of our party ordered bowls of pho, Vietnamese noodle soup; the portions looked more like vats than mere bowls and they all took some home, raving about the taste.  For the main course I had the Spider roll, a fresh (non-fried) spring roll which contained tempura soft-shell crab, mango, and avocado - yum.  Because our group was so large, we ate outside at a picnic bench in the courtyard, but the inside looked serene and beautifully decorated.  The women who visited the restroom assured the rest of us that it was a very Zen experience.  The prices were extremely reasonable for the high quality of the food and the friendly, attentive service.

I think Rice Paper is just a little too far from my office to fit into my half-hour lunch break, but it's conveniently situated for swinging by after work.  The only drawback to eating dinner there is the limited parking, but surely the early birds get the parking spaces - wouldn't you think?

"Pho bo is a Vietnamese beef and noodle soup which is often eaten for breakfast, but also makes a satisfying lunch or light dinner. The boiling stock, fragrant with spices and sauces, is poured over the noodles, bean sprouts and scallions, and it poaches the paper-thin slices of raw beef just before serving." ~

Monday, April 9, 2012

Hanging Uncle Guido

Since neither my mother nor my sister really likes antiques, I ended up with most of our family heirlooms, including a gallery of Victorian-era photos in their original frames. When Tom and I moved to Arizona most of the antiques ended up in our bedroom, so I hung the photos there, too.

About a year later we were browsing through a "stuff" store in Glendale when Tom spotted a photo in a frame almost identical to the one surrounding my great-grandparents. (Here's a picture of the frame and its original contents; the owners of the shop had labeled him "Uncle Guido.") Tom immediately bought the picture for the frame, intending to blow up his parents' wedding picture and add it to our rogue's gallery. However, he died before finding someone to do the work, and his parents' photo went back to his family.

Last fall, after moving into my new house and once more hanging up the ancestors, I was trying to decide what to do with Uncle Guido's frame.  I asked my Dad which of our small family photos he thought I should have enlarged for it.  Dad said that Uncle Guido is better-looking than any of our real relatives, so I should just hang him up and pretend he's related.

And I did.  He adds a little class to the central hallway in my house.  I can't help but wonder, though - who was he really?  I doubt very much that he was the shopkeepers' uncle, any more than he's mine.  He does look, though, as if he might have been Italian.  Wouldn't it be a hoot if he really was a Guido?

"If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance." ~George Bernard Shaw

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Assimilating Easter

When asked about my ethnic background, I usually say something like "mutt" or "Heinz 57," because my forbears on both sides of the family came from all over Europe.  Melting Pot R Us.

My mother's father's family was originally German Swiss, but they moved to Russia in the mid-19th century and stayed there for a couple of generations, intermarrying with the locals and copying their recipes, before moving on to America in the dead of night under assumed names (this was to avoid having the oldest son drafted by the Tsar).  As a result, much of the food that came down to us from them is an odd mix of German and Russian.  Some of the dishes are basically German but with Russian flourishes of sour cream sauce.  Some of them are Russian cuisine with new German names.  One of my favorite Easter traditions falls into that latter category.

Traditional Russian families used to (and may still) bake a special Easter bread called Kulich that's supposed to look like a domed Russian Orthodox church, and they have it blessed by a priest before eating it.  My mother's family called it Osterbuske and, as good Congregationalists, skipped the blessing.  It's halfway between roll dough and bread dough and usually includes cinnamon and raisins, with frosting drizzled on the top.  Some families add nuts and candied fruit.  I understand that special Kulich pans are available, but my family baked them in metal coffee cans; the "dome" comes from the dough puffing up over the top of the can.  My mother always served her Osterbuskes on a bed of green-dyed coconut, surrounded by jelly beans and those little bunnies made of the same stuff as candy corn.  After everyone had oohed and aahed, she sliced it into rounds and briefly toasted it under the broiler - VERY briefly, so the frosting wouldn't all melt off.

This was the first year ever that neither my mother nor my aunt Lu made Osterbuskes.  It didn't really feel like Easter today without them; even when I lived in New York, my mother would make a miniature version in a baked bean can and express mail it to me.  I guess I'll have to pump her for the recipe and next year take up the mantle of chief family baker myself.

"I lied on my Weight Watchers list.  I put down that I had 3 eggs... but they were Cadbury chocolate eggs."  ~Caroline Rhea

Saturday, April 7, 2012

WAITing for Mr. Right

Last weekend I knew I wouldn't have much time for reading due to my new job, so the e-books I borrowed from the library were things I could skim through in a hurry.  My favorite of the lot was The Inner Bitch: Guide to Men, Relationships, Dating, Etc. by Elizabeth Hilts.  At only 92 pages, many of them cartoons and every one full of humorous good advice, it was the perfect antidote to commuting stress.

This is actually the sequel to an earlier Inner Bitch book, which I have not read but will look for.  The first book apparently proposed the theory that many women's problems in life are caused by Toxic Niceness, or saying "yes" to others' demands when we really mean "no, no, a thousand times NO!"  (Been there, done that.)  Hilts believes the best way to avoid a life burdened by Toxic Niceness is for each of us to unleash her Inner Bitch.  This does not, as the word "Bitch" may imply, mean that we become selfish, surly curmudgeons in our dealings with others; it simply means that instead of automatically saying "yes" when asked to do something, we ask ourselves "What Am I Thinking [WAIT]?"  If the Inner Bitch is thinking, "I would rather smear my body with honey and lie on a fire ant hill," then she says "no" instead of "yes."  Politely, but firmly.

This book extends the WAIT technique to dealings with men.  You are attracted to a gorgeous guy already in a committed relationship?  WAIT.  You are tempted to totally remake yourself in order to fit the fantasies of the man you are dating?  WAIT.  The fellow you've dated for a month wants to move in together so you can both save money?  WAIT.  You've spent 10 years of married life as your husband's lackey and are now ready to bean him with a cast-iron skillet?  WAIT.

Most of the advice in this book is the same advice you would get from your best friend or your older sister - when in crisis, take a deep breath and really think about the situation - but advice like that is easier to take when the giver has no emotional stake in your life and throws in plenty of apropos jokes and cartoons.  If you are ready to laugh about every bad relationship you've ever experienced, want to avoid ever being in one again, or both, this is the book for you.

"[Toxic Niceness] leads to doing things you don't really want to do, which in turn leads to resentment, which tends to leak out in all manner of bizarre ways: snappish behavior, smashed dinnerware, prolonged periods of pouting...This is not a pretty picture." ~Elizabeth Hilts, The Inner Bitch: Guide...

Friday, April 6, 2012

In the Market for a Tank

OK, so I've been a Very Bad Blogger for the last couple of weeks.  I landed the contract job I applied for and have been working 40-hour weeks at the client's site with an hour-long commute in each direction.  The job is actually a lot of fun but I've gotten used to playing hooky in the middle of the day, and working straight through is pretty tiring, not to mention the hideous drive home up Grand Avenue, aka US 60.

Advantages of this job: enjoyable work; friendly co-workers; no more cabin fever; the chance of long-term employment; funny work-related stories (remind me to tell you about the non-fire non-drill we had on Monday); and as much income in a week as my former largest client paid me in a month.  At least temporarily I can afford to eat out occasionally and maybe hire a professional cleaning service to muck out my poor neglected home.

Disadvantages: the commute, the commute, the commute.

If I survive the 3-month contract period, there's a chance that I could be hired as a permanent employee with the possibility of flex-time, telecommuting, and (as a government employee) free use of public transit - yay!  Because after two weeks of driving into and out of downtown Phoenix during rush hour, I'm thinking I should stop wishing for fictional force shields and photon torpedoes and invest in a used tank.

"A commuter tie-up consists of you - and people who for some reason won't use public transit."  ~Robert Brault