Wednesday, February 29, 2012

My First Books

When I was younger, I do believe that I had less shame. Not that I can feel myself drowning in any shame-mires now, but I really didn't have any shame 15 years ago. I used to write from a place that was exceedingly indulgent, and--I think, anyway--surprisingly truthful for my age. And then I would type up my favorite entries from journals, bind them into little booklets, and give them out to friends and family at Christmas.

It's a little cringe-worthy now, to read through these books. I shared everything. Reports of drunken nights and make-out sessions, sappy feelings and attempts at rage. I recall my aunt asking me one Christmas morning, did you have to use the F-word on the very first page? And you know what, I did.

To me, being a true writer meant telling the story, regardless of who was going to read it, even (and especially) if it was embarrassing. I didn't base my picks for each booklet on what was most presentable to the greatest number of people. I picked the stories and journal entries and poems I thought were best. And then I just held my breath and handed them out. It always surprised me to learn that people actually read them. I'm still convinced that the booklets were read in a gossipy way, so people could see if they "appeared" in an entry. Or to guess who it was I was dreaming about.

When I was about 24, I stopped writing for a while. I must say, I don't think this was necessarily the right choice, but I don't think it was the wrong choice either. The reason I stopped writing is because I felt like all of my topics were drivel. Half-baked. Youthful, but in a whiny way. Undeveloped. One-dimensional (one-and-a-half dimensional on a good day.) How many times can one write about smoking a cigarette on a rooftop in San Francisco? And so I stopped until I was 28, and the booklets stopped with them. It's sad, really. I guess you could say that I crushed my own spirit. Or at least, I gave myself a mandate: grow up, and then let's see what you have to say. Ruin your life; it's the gateway to the other dimensions. Just be quiet for a bit; trust that you'll still be in there when you're ready.

But oh, I'm so glad I have this record of younger times. It's funny, my syntax has stayed much the same. All of these years, and I'm still breathing the words the same way. (Isn't the placement of a comma just like taking a breath? In my opinion, where you choose to put a comma is optional, and depends entirely on how you breathe.)

Of course, there are entries throughout that are utterly embarrassing. Lousy metaphors, over-worked analogies, and sometimes no sense of irony whatsoever. There's even one dreadful story in the first volume called "Beanstalk, Jack Beanstalk," with instructions to be read in a subtle Brooklyn accent. (Ugh!)

Icy Fingers, Mistaken Embraces (what a terrible title) was the first of the group. It was 1996 and I was 19 years old--my first year of college. My English teacher had the class end the semester by compiling what she called a "chapbook"--a collection of work we had written (hence the terrible Beanstalk story). OK, there is nothing redeemable about this collection except the cover art--my friend Dave Mason drew this picture of me in all of ten minutes out in the quad of Moorpark College, and to this day, I am in awe of what he was able to sketch so quickly. It is, literally, the only piece of talent that came from this booklet.

But! Icy Fingers Mistaken Embraces gave me the idea to do more booklets, this time using stories and journal entries I actually cared about.
Duomo Circus came next--named, of course, after the slip of paper that a very good-looking man in Florence gave to me that read "Do you can came with me tomorrow in Duomo Circus for a drink." 1997 was my first real year of traveling ever in my life. I went on a 3-week trip to Europe with my girlfriends--a trip that to this day is probably one of the most epic adventures of my life--and I also visited New York City for the first time and fell in love with it. And so this booklet contained all of my journal entries from my travels, opening with a favorite Jack Kerouac quote and an earnest declaration that I would go to Europe "without a boyfriend, without a husband, carrying only my youth and a promise..." (hee dramatic!) And of course, wouldn't you know, I only have one coffee-stained copy leftover of this one.
100 Degrees Below 100 came next (1998)...
...Followed by Molly's Soliloquy (1999). This one, I think, was my favorite. All of that yummy English major reading I was doing in college--Ulysses and Paradise Lost and Salman Rushdie--it all soaked in and came through here. When I think of myself writing, I think of this year. The poemy thing I wrote called The Odyssey (above) was one of my favorites.
The last one I wrote was El Elegante. I was 23 years old and obsessed with Anais Nin. I had just moved to San Francisco. The World Trade Center had just been destroyed. I guess you could say that change was in the air. It's funny, though, that this was the end of the road for the suddenly stop doing something that had become such a ritual. And I had just switched over to color-printing technology!
In the spirit of considering change, I particularly liked this entry called Teething, which I wrote on the eve of my 21st birthday. And in the spirit of considering change, perhaps this is the year that I make my next booklet. I've followed my own rules, after all, and have grown older, so (as you know), I am giving myself permission to write again. I'm curious to see what my grown-up booklet would look like, what I would have to say. And, of course, how I would feel about it 15 years from now.


Seems strange and altogether stupid to mourn a year when another day will greet you just like any other. My last hour, and I am so melodramatic.

But tonight I drove home and realized that fifteen was six years ago and I cried and cried because that was when I met Matt and Chad, and that was when youth seemed eternal and then one day you hear Matt's getting married in June and that seems far away to him. So nonchalant. And they will get married and there's no reason why they shouldn't.

Late bloomer. I will not marry for a while because I am not mature enough to want that kind of life.

Late bloomer. I was not ready to move out until now, and even now I feel a pang seeing mail show up at this address.

Late bloomer.  I thought my sunflower on the kitchen table was a late bloomer, but it only closed up and died. Not I.

Late bloomer, that may not publish a novel or a story till far past twenty-one. But that is all right. Like many women before me, that is all right. Like my sisters who bite their tongues until they have no more, until evolution just started making women without them. But I believe in regeneration. Like sharks teeth, my words will grow out of my experience and nights like tonight, crying on the 405 because I became an adult in one day. I should have seen it coming. I had it on the calendar. It is a simple math equation--every 365 days.

But I don't quite fit this suit yet and I wonder if sharks cry when they teethe.


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Quilt of Burning Love

What can I say? It was the weekend before Valentine's Day. I had been detoxing all week--no cheese, no wine, nothing!--and I had all of this what can only be called energy. And so it made perfect sense that it was the weekend to start making what I now refer to as The Quilt of Burning Love. That whole weekend, I really went on a tear. Not only did I reorganize the junk drawer, but Robb and I cleaned out all of our drawers, getting rid of bags and bags of old clothes. We order seeds from the seed catalog and did all sorts of barfy couply stuff. And while digging through our laundry closet preparing to go to the laundromat, I remembered an old backpack I had stuffed away in there. And in this backpack was a very large piece of patchworked fabric that I had always meant to do something with. And so, since I was on a tear, I fished out the fabric and tossed it in with the rest of the laundry, deciding that I would turn it into a quilt.

The patchworked piece of fabric, you might be interested to know, was once a room divider between the "living room" and the "bedroom" in my last apartment (which, let's just say, had a rather open floorplan.) It was one of the first things that I sewed when I got back into sewing a few years ago, and it was hastily put together in an emergency situation while preparing for a family visit. I had just moved in two weeks prior to their visit, and somehow, when the realtor had shown me the apartment, I had completely forgotten to look at the bathroom. Friends, it was TINY. Like, you could sit on the toilet, brushing your teeth, and then ever so slightly bend over and spit directly into the sink. If you wanted to change your clothes in the bathroom, you had to get INTO the shower, which was only three feet long. 

This bathroom was so small that I was actually wondering if my Dad--who is not a small guy--was going to be able to USE the bathroom, let alone change his clothes in it. So to avoid a parental nudity sighting, I scrambled over to Purl Soho, spent ungodly amounts on this beautiful fabric, and sewed myself a curtain that was 8 feet wide and 14 feet tall. (I know, tall, right? What this apartment lacked in bathroom, it made up for in vaulted ceilings. I wish we could have made a loft toilet or something...used some of that overhead space!)

Not caring much about seam allowances or evenly cut panels, I sewed that baby together as fast as I could and hung it up. It turned my apartment into a sort of gypsy-esque pasha palace, which I liked. But what I liked best of all was not having to see any of my family members naked.
When I moved into my next apartment, I was happy to have doors, but I no longer had a need for my 14-foot tall room divider. And so it languished unused for three long years, which is basically a crime against humanity. But thanks to my detox energy, I remedied that and finally turned it into a quilt!
My original plan was to just fold the fabric in half widthwise and have it be the same on both sides, but I decided I wanted each side to be a little different. So on one side, you have the original side-by-side vertical stripes of patterned fabric. On the other side, I cut three strips of the patterned fabric and put two strips of muslin between each patterned strip. it's horizontally striped on the reverse!
Can I just talk for a minute about my love of muslin? I feel like it has a bad name. It's basically just an unbleached cotton, and as most people who have watched Project Runway know, muslin is what is used to make "test garments"--like, a designer will literally make a garment using muslin to test how it fits and drapes before they use their super-pricey fashion fabric to make the actual garment. And when they're done, I can only assume that they throw their muslin out like common trash (I am probably wrong about that.) But personally, I think that unbleached cotton is gorgeous! It's off-white with sort of a nutty complexion, and with a little bit of textural and tonal imbalances. I like it. In fact, every time one of my sewing book authors talks about making a test garment out of muslin, I secretly want to ask her to give it to me when she's done. You can keep your fashion fabric...make mine muslin!
Anyway, I can honestly say that I don't know which side of The Quilt of Burning Love I like better. Sweet and Musliny? Or Gypsy Romance? (Those are their names, by the way.)

For the actual quilting, I decided on simple vertical stripes. I love the way it goes against the horizontal panels on the Sweet and Musliny side, and with the stripes on the Gypsy Romance side.

OK, one last thing. I've made a few quilts in my life, and each time, I manage to eff up the binding pretty bad. I just can't figure out how close to sew it to the edge or something. And I pretty much refuse to sew a binding on by hand. Not gonna do it. But on this quilt, I figured out a way to completely machine-sew the binding AND have it look really nice. Here's how I did it:
Cut a 2-1/2" strip of fabric that is the circumference of your quilt, plus about six inches. Iron the whole strip in half lengthwise. Align the raw edge of the strip with the raw edge of your quilt (with the folded part facing up since it's gonna fold up and over the edge of the quilt after you sew it on the first side). Sew the strip to the quilt 5/8" from the raw edges. Then fold it up and over to the other side of the quilt and tuck the edges under so that they perfectly align with the stitch line you just sewed, pinning in place as you go. Then go to your machine and zig-zag stitch along the edge of your binding right where the binding meets the quilt. It will be right on the edge of the binding on both sides, and the zig-zag makes it look cute. DONE!

Oh, and since you're probably wondering, Camper helped A LOT. Especially every time I needed to get on the floor and cut something out. Super helpful. As always.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Out With the Icky

When I first moved to Brooklyn, I did not have even one solitary chair to sit my butt down in. I had two large bags and a guitar. The rest was being shipped. The only shoes I brought with me were a pair of flip-flops, a pair of sneakers, and a pair of cowboy boots. I had a knitting project I was working on, a book I was reading, and my laptop. I brought my teddy bear with me, and some bedding. That was it, folks. It was a weird time. (Incidentally, my first box to arrive came two weeks later and it contained nothing but hats and bathing suits...I was so bummed.)

The guy who had my room before me was kind enough to leave me a bed and a desk, and Arvi, my new roommate--a friend of a friend who I had met only once--gave me a chair. It was a simple wooden chair with shiny red vinyl on the seat. And it was one of the first things that started to make me feel like I had a home. Some time soon after I received the chair, it developed a small crack in the vinyl, and thousands of horoscopes later (yes, I was a horoscope writer when I first came to New York), I had turned that crack into a lightning-bolt shaped shred that ran from one end of the seat to the other. 

Five years passed in this manner, and each time I looked at the chair, I though yick. That looks terrible. But for some reason, the thought of fixing it never really crossed my mind. 

Which leads me to wonder, how many things do we look at in our lives each day and think, yick, that looks terrible, before we just move on? For me, that list is long. And honestly, if I took a good hard look around my home and asked a question as precocious as "what can I make better?" the answer would most likely be EVERYTHING. From the state of the junk drawer to a dusty lampshade in a corner to the overcrowded mini-trunk where we keep our hats to our couch cushions which have somehow revolted into unruly plump ovals. Individually, I don't really care about any of these things--I'm not going to lose sleep because we don't have enough hooks to hang our coats--so I am usually content to turn the other way. But cumulatively--like, when each room in your house has two or three of these eyesores, and your hair isn't looking all that good, and you realize that all of your favorite clothes are either missing buttons or are ripped--when looked at all together, these things can start to get you down. 

And so, I must say this: Don't underestimate the power of sewing on a button. You can't fix all of these things in one day--you just can't. And I literally just tried this weekend and it was miserable and I failed. But just one small improvement--not even every day! Just, like, one a week. Or one a month even! That one little improvement could be the thing that keeps you from slipping into the swamps of sadness. (Well, that's my opinion on the matter anyway.)
So about that chair. This week, I had a revelation. You see, I bought a bunch of upholstery fabric a couple months ago to make my Modern Carpet Bags, and much of it has just been sitting around. But then it hit me: one uses upholstery fabric to upholster things! Like...ripped chair seats!

This revelation occurred on a Tuesday night, while Robb and I were home in our pajamas. I held up three pieces of upholstery fabric before him, he picked the only option that wasn't hot pink (surprise surprise), and we flipped the chair over to start our reupholstering pajama party!

Robb got out his drill and removed the four screws that held the seat in place (though one could easily do this with a screwdriver.) We spent some time fiddling with the staples under the seat, using the back of a hammer, pliers, and various shivs to remove them. Then we realized we could just lift up on the vinyl and the staples popped right out. Voila!
We cut out fabric to fit the seat (plus a few extra inches just in case), and folded the fabric up and over the back of the seat, pulling it tight on opposite sides.
 And then we stapled it in place (Camper approved of our work.)
 Camper then helped me miter the corners. (Thanks, Camper!)
It's actually a little tricky to get the corners just right since you don't want the fabric to pucker on the side of the chair that will show. I found I could get a nice smooth corner if I folded little bits of fabric on top of each other in a fan-like fashion.
And then you staple-gun the bejesus out of it.
Once the fabric was pulled nice and tight and securely stapled, we trimmed away the extra fabric and screwed the seat back in place. All in all, about one hour's worth of work. One hour and five years, that is. Because that, sometimes, is how long it takes to realize that you can fix something. And that it might actually be easier than you think.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Cheese Mongers

Disclaimer: This blog post contains many graphic photos of cheese making, and is not recommended for the lactose intolerant or those who are leery of curds. 

With that note of caution out of the way, I'm so pleased to tell you about the adventure I had with my sister, Erin, when she came to town the weekend before last! She said to me at some point on Saturday, hey, we should make something! And I said, like what? And then she gave me a cheese-making book, so that choice was easy. (Thanks, Erin!) We immediately skipped past the do-able cheese-making for beginners and gawked at the beautiful homemade bries; the goat cheeses with fluffy interiors and gooey exteriors that look an awful lot like Humbolt Fog; we talked about Cowgirl Creamery, and we even shared some "all-time best" cheese-eating stories. And then we realized that in order to make many of our most favorite cheeses, one needs about six-to-twelve weeks and many scary-sounding ingredients that have, like, numbers in them. (MM 100 powdered mesophillic starter anyone?)

And so we quickly came to our senses and decided to go back to chapter 1 and make some normal-people cheese. The kind that can be made in an afternoon and eaten that night. After all, we only had the weekend! So we chose two cheeses: Queso blanco from Artisan Cheese-Making at Home, and the microwave mozzarella from The Bust DIY Guide to Life

The key to both recipes (and, I suspect, most cheese-making) is this: get some milk, heat it up, add acid to it, and watch it curdle!
Queso blanco began with a gallon of milk in a stockpot, which we slowly heated up to a steamy 195 degrees. It took about 25 minutes, which should have been good sister catch-up time, but instead we just took turns staring at the thermometer, watching it go up one degree at a time. We were very excited!
When we weren't staring at the thermometer, we prepped our cheesecloth! We were very nervous about our cheesecloth for some reason. We were both so sure that it would slip beneath the curds and all of those delicious bits would then fall through the colander holes! So we binder clipped the cloth in place. Total dorks.
At exactly 195 degrees, we nervously poured in our 1/3 cup of white distilled vinegar. Almost immediately, the curds plumped up and pushed away from the whey. I was about to say it was like magic, but it wasn't. It was like SCIENCE.
We took turns stirring the curds and making gross faces, because curds are gross looking. And then, after we let it sit for about ten minutes (the whey turns sort of green at this point, by the "whey"...and the book told us it was normal, so no judging). Scooping the curds out of the pot and into the cheesecloth was sort of the best part. So we took this video. (It's really short. And bad.)
And then I took lots of close-up shots of curds. 
Once the cheese drained a bit, we sprinkled a teaspoon of kosher salt over the cheese and mixed it up with our hands. The book did not warn us that the curds would still be very hot! Apparently this cheese-making business is not for sissies. After a few minutes exclaiming "hoo-ha-ha-hawt!", we hog-tied the cheesecloth and strung that puppy to the sink to drain. Isn't it horrifying looking? Horrifyingly delicious, that is.
In the meantime, we needed to get our mozzarella on. The recipe in the Bust DIY Guide to Life is called "Around the Whey, Girl," and I am very proud to tell you that I resisted singing the LL Cool J song while making this cheese.
I'll admit, Erin and I were both dubious about this one. We love mozzarella SO MUCH, and we were certain we would somehow fail. At one point she said, look at that cheese in the photo! It's perfect! And I had to confess that it's actually a stock photo. (Sorry, Erin! Sometimes insider information can be discouraging.)
We got out our big guns: Citric acid and vegetable rennet, both purchased at Brooklyn Kitchen that morning. This time, we combined our gallon of milk and citric acid in a stockpot and heated it up to a mere 90 degrees. At that point, we added the rennet and stirred softly, while an explosion of curds started to form. (Again: SCIENCE.) The recipe tells you to let it sit for three to five minutes, the less time the softer the cheese. Since Erin likes her cheese hard (there should probably be an innuendo there), we let it sit for five. 
At this point, I think we did something wrong, because the recipe tells you to "cut" through the curds with a knife, but ours looked like this. It was like cutting through cottage cheese soup with a knife, so...we skipped to the next step. Which was fine!
Next came the fun part: Kneading the mozzarella! It starts out looking kind of soupy, but then you drain off some of the whey and heat the mozzarella in the microwave for a minute. And then you knead it again and it starts to look like this:
And then you heat it in the microwave for 30 more seconds and knead it again and it starts to look like this:
A shiny happy ball of cheese!

Since it was Erin's last night in town, we decided to take our picnic to Robb's bar and have an al fresco dinner, including a baguette, tomatoes, pesto, arugula, and an advil container full of kosher salt (it made perfect sense at the time.)
And now you're probably did it taste?? It tasted amazing!! Both of them! No really! The queso blanco was like a much more flavorful cottage cheese. I liked to scoop mine onto crackers and eat it with lemony arugula. Yum! And the mozzarella was so very much like mozzarella, we were shocked. In hindsight, I would have gone for a slightly softer cheese (thanks a lot, Erin), and one less round in the microwave, but with a slice of tomato and a generous sprinkle of kosher salt, it was quite perky indeed.
And of course, in documenting our feast, Erin (being the big sister) had the sense to smile for the photo with her mouth closed, unlike yuck-o wine mouth to her right.

And that, my friends, is the story of how two sisters make cheese. But guess what? You don't need to have a sister to make cheese! You just need a gallon of milk, some acid, and a dream.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Nancy Drew and the Mystery of the Shark Submarine

OK, before I say anything about this book, I first have to ask this question: did you know that the Nancy Drew mysteries are all supposed to take place in the midwest? I have ALWAYS had Nancy pegged as a New England girl...from her party dresses and houndstooth coats to her ladies luncheons and sleek convertible (which must, at all times, be referred to as a convertible, even if the top is up. Never, under any circumstances, is it to be called a "car.") Now that I've gotten that off my chest, I'm ready to move on and discuss my latest Nancy Drew read: The Mystery at Lilac Inn!

My sister, Erin, actually read this one right around the same time I did, and we didn't even plan it! This was super helpful for when I needed to send late night text messages that simply said something like "OMG shark submarine???" It was a comfort to know that she knew EXACTLY what I was talking about.

So this adventure of Nancy's begins with her canoeing down the beautiful Muskoka River with her friend, Helen. When I first saw Helen's name, I immediately started to feel a little panicky--where were her usual sidekicks, George and Bess? I flipped ahead and found that, sadly, they aren't in this book. It was disappointing, I must say. Sort of like trying to watch an episode of The Facts of Life without Jo or Natalie. (Ew...imagine it: just Blair, Tootie, and Mrs. G. Worst episode ever.)

This disappointment was not long-lasted, though, since Nancy and Helen capsize their canoe on page 3. And Nancy Drew capsizing a boat of any form is always one of my favorite things. (I always wonder, how long does it take for her to style her hair after she's been dunked?)

True to the Nancy Drew formula, this book really delivers. Right off the bat, we are told that Nancy has an impostor (someone has stolen her charge plate and bought all sorts of stuff at a department store!). And her friend at Lilac Inn, Emily, has been having all sorts of strange and mysterious problems! What ensues is wonderfully improbable melange of events: ghost sitings, secret doors, diamond-stealing, skin-diving dates (good thing Nancy has a spare aqua lung!). And of course, there are many many near death experiences: Nancy is nearly driven off of a cliff in her convertible, her friend Helen gets clubbed in the back of the head, their bungalow gets EXPLODED with a time bomb, Nancy gets a spear shot at her head underwater (her underwater camera prevents it from STABBING HER FACE).

But best of all, Nancy gets kidnapped in a SHARK SUBMARINE. In fact, why didn't they just call it Nancy Drew and the Mystery of the Shark Submarine?

While I was envisioning this shark submarine, I must admit that I had something like the photo above in mind. Except, of course, the one above is not a true submarine, and Nancy's kidnapper's submarine full-on submerged. Oh, also, it was built in a garage. (Yeah right.)
I also imagine Nancy's captor looking like this guy above. And Nancy in the back just like this, only she was probably frowning. 

But as Erin so rightly pointed out, why would you make a shark submarine to go in a river?? Shouldn't it have been a beaver submarine? Or perhaps a trout? It also begs the question: how freaking deep is this river? Which then led to a web search of the Muskoka River, which is where this tale allegedly takes place. In fact, there is no Muskoka River in the U.S., but there is one in Ontario, and, well, it actually looks quite a bit like what I've imagined in my head, so I thought I'd include some photos here. Like this place on the Muskoka that looks so much like something that could be called Lilac Inn. And it even has shark submarine docking!
And can't you imagine racing your shark submarine down this slice of peaceful heaven?
Seriously, the shark submarine is the best part about this book. Totally worth it.

One last thing: Erin is firmly of the opinion that Nancy is a total ass. When I saw Erin last weekend, we had a chance to discuss exactly what she finds so ass-y about Nancy. (I mean, I find her kind of obnoxious in many ways--she likes to break antiques and trespasses frequently, and she always takes all the credit for the mystery being solved, though she has MANY helpers.) Erin, in searching for an explanation, said it best: when Helen got hit on the back of the head and someone blew up her cottage and tried to kill her--in the same night!--Nancy never once said, "Helen, would you maybe like to go home?" Or even "Would you like an aspirin?"

Yeah, I guess that's some pretty ass-y behavior. Or rather bad-ass-y behavior! After all, when Nancy's on the case, she's got a one-track mind, and quitting the case is for total sissies.