Friday, December 31, 2010

Final book reviews of the year!

I believe that one of my random 'goals' for 2010 was to read more. While it's uncertain that I read more than in 2009, I will say that I read some very high-quality books, in addition to a few totally crappy quick reads. I won't mention the crappy reads, which I consider to be junk food for the brain that normally come out during long airplane trips or family visits. I did finish strong, so I'll give myself credit for that.
The most recent reads are:

Americans in Paris by Charles Glass.

My uncle recommended this book to me, and I'm not much of a history buff, don't spend hours watching the History Channel, but this sounded fascinating. It's about the American community that lived in Paris during the Nazi occupation. There were moments of great sacrifice and selfishness, heroism and treachery. All in all, a very interesting book. It did take me months (literally) to finish it - I think that I started it in October and finally finished it up over Christmas break. Shew!

Then came a quick read: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman.

This book was SO GOOD. I know that I've said that about a multitude of books this year (okay, a handful, the handful that I've read), but seriously, there was so much to like about it. Funny at times, devastating yet restrained at other, it seemed to reflect the entire range of human emotions and experiences in it's slim 200+ pages. I loved the structure, which made it not seem like a novel in some ways, more like stories connected, but then very much novelistic in others. And the end? I cried. I was so sad that it ended. Very few books that I've recently read pulled my emotional cord, and this one did, but without manipulating or contriving. It was a brilliant, funny, sad book.

Finally, I, Claudius by Robert Graves.

I read this book years and years ago and very much enjoyed it then. Michael and I have been watching the HBO series Rome, so I gave this book to Michael for his birthday. He took it with us to Colorado, and I ended up reading it on trip back. It is filled with intrigue, politics, war, perversion... All of those fun aspects of the Roman Empire that historical fiction can bring to light. Graves slyly plays with history, fiction and narrative, and he writes quite well too. I've now sworn to Michael that I won't read Claudius the God until he reads this one. We'll see if I keep my promise!

Just to recap a few old favorites that I read this year:
The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead - Definitely one of the most original novels that I've read in recent years.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark - Billed as "Harry Potter for adults", it's actually much, much more. A fun, wonderful read.
Travels with my Aunt and The Quiet American by Graham Greene - Both are REALLY well-written books that seem to catalogue a different era and generation, and the melancholy and nostalgia of growing old. Mixing in politics and intrigue, they make for satisfying reading.
Next on the list: Some Mario Vargas Llosa. I have a book in Spanish and one in English, so I'll work through both of them in the new year and refresh my Vargas Llosa base. I'd also like to read Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler which looks marvelous.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

'Tis the season for presents!

And for being with friends and family, of course. I know that it's obnoxious, in bad taste and somewhat taboo to talk about presents in relation to Christmas, which is so hypocritical. So, I confess that I do like the present aspect, both giving and receiving. Our 'holiday-celebration-extravaganza' season seems to begin with Michael's birthday, at the beginning of December. The bargain that he and I struck a few years ago was to give each other a blow-out birthday but then Christmas would revolve around friends and family and presents for them. It has worked beautifully, although I am thinking about going the stocking route with him next year, just so that we have fun, little items to open up. The otherdeal about our birthdays is that the birthday boy or girl also gets to give the NON-birthday "celebratant" a present, which makes it an exciting day for both people, in one way or another.
Anyway, for Michael's b-day, he gave me a Patagonia t-shirt which made me immensely happy. I did not give him one "major" present, but some of my favorite items were a Lonely Planet California Trips guidebook (which is awesome!) and these uber-cool and totally non-usable shot glasses:

As for the presents that people gave us, these sweaters may be my favorites:

It's not really about the sweaters, of course, but how INDIGNANT our ever-dignified dogs look, especially Gus, who is in the pink sweater. My mother-in-law apologized for not giving us/them two green sweaters, but I told her that Gus likes to celebrate his masculinity wearing pink. Who doesn't, after all?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Out of the "Boulder Bubble"

And back to "La-la-land". Safely, at least. We drove the same route - I-25 and I-40, mainlygaping at the sites and colors of New Mexico again. Last night, we continued through Gallup and made it to Flagstaff, AZ, where we ate pizza, drank beer and watched football before crashing and waking up early. Michael told me that I was the ideal college girlfriend, which I took as a compliment. Whether he meant it as such is entirely unimportant.
Leaving Boulder was, as usually is the case, difficult. Much of his family lives there, and at times it feels more like "home" than California. At other times, however, it seems far too young, hip, and outdoorsy for us. As much as I like all of the gear that we have and count Patagonia and REI as my favorite stores, I definitely consider myself to be somewhat of an impostor. I am not a hard-core ANYTHING, especially when it comes to outdoor adventure experiences or physical endurance. Also, my commitment to green living is lukewarm; I probably come out more environmentally friendly than some people, but I eat meat, probably don't recycle enough and I have yet to garden (although I would like to plant a garden one of these days and actually harvest what we grow).
Maybe part of the 'bubble' aspect for me is that we go to Boulder to VISIT, and we are not visiting my family or where I grew up (that's a different matter). So, the experience differs dramatically from life in LA - the scenery is different, cyclists can actually bike on the road without fearing for their lives, there is such an abundance of green, open space. We take walks almost every day, we buy lattes and scones and don't worry about our waistlines, we shop at Whole Foods and don't wince at the prices, we stop for mid-afternoon beers... What isn't to like about that?
On this visit, we also ate eggnog pancakes with a bourbon sauce at Lucile's, a Creole-style restaurant. After which, I swore that I would eat greens for my next meal, but then the night rolled around and we had happy hour and appetizers at Salt, a bistro that specializes in seasonal and local fare. We quaffed down a few glasses of Colorado red wine which surprised us both and accompanied the meal quite nicely. Right before our return trip, we stopped by Savory, our favorite spice shop. Yes, there are spice shops in LA, but we happen to *love* this one. We did learn that they just opened up a shop in Newport Beach which is another reason to visit the OC!
But reality eventually does set in, and we recognize obligations and constraints that pull us back to California. Maybe ONE day Boulder will no longer take on these mythical proportions to me; Mt. Olympus will shrink, and a mere mortal such as I will actually be able to live there?*
In the meantime, we are back to the rain in Southern CA! Our house is still standing and has suffered no damage, so that is all good news. I also thoroughly enjoyed our TJ's run this afternoon. At some point, we'll eat some dirt cheap Mexican food - or make some of our own. Home sweet home!
**I couldn't help that silly reference; I just finished the book "I, Claudius", and it inspired me a bit.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Snow and Skiing!

After an EIGHT year hiatus (almost), I was officially back on skis this week at Eldora, Colorado, a small ski resort just outside of Boulder, Colorado. Although we only played around on Nordic skis rather than ripping down the slopes on Alpine skis, I was so excited to be in the snow and on skis. I've never been a great skier, but I've always enjoyed the slopes. When I lived in Seattle, some family friends taught me how to Nordic ski, which is a lot of work but can be a peaceful and almost relaxing venture, especially when the trails are well-groomed and one is in good shape and can hit that sweet 'glide' spot.
All of the ski and snow fun stopped abruptly me for me when I stupidly tried to make my way down a black diamond at Squaw Valley back in 2003 and ended up tearing my meniscus. Being pulled around by the ski patrol is an experience that one should have at some point in his/her life, but I wouldn't totally recommend it. That incident, I would say, marked the beginning of the end for my left knee, and I avoided most snow-related activities like the plague. Well, I tried to convince myself that snow-shoeing was just as much fun as skiing. While I did enjoy the experience and certainly want to snowshoe again, I am SO PSYCHED that I can ski again! I have terrible luck on mountains (the knee issue, for instance, and a broken ankle that I had to hike out on), and one of my cousins has suggested that I try surfing, but I am happy to return to the mountains.
Based on our fabulously fun Nordic experience, we are returning to Eldora on Monday for a few runs on the downhill runs. I will stay mainly on greens, maybe venture over to a blue, but no black diamonds!
And I will keep my fingers and toes crossed that I don't fall and totally f-up another part of my body OR the same knee. That would just simply suck.
One last deep thought and then I'll close - being back on skis and feeling almost confident does make me forever grateful for physical therapy. I officially ended back in May, but then signed myself up for a few more weeks or months of PT this fall, when skiing became a possibility. The ortho doctor cleared me for skiing, but he said that more PT wouldn't hurt (obviously). It was painful in more ways than one to return to physical therapy, but now I will say that it was completely and totally worth it.
Here is a final shot of me, thinking about the wonder of the season (or something like that):

Monday, December 20, 2010

Hello Boulder, Colorado!

So, the past few weeks really were super busy, filled with work and play, trying to wind down while also gearing up for the holidays. With all of that energy and excitement, Saturday morning we loaded up the trunk of the car, filling it with presents and suitcases and more presents, put the dogs in the backseat and then we headed east! Our timing couldn't have been better since Southern CA was due for six days of straight rain.
We drove through the rain for the first hour or so, and then popped out of the fog and the rain, pretty much a clear shot from the Mojave Desert to Gallup, New Mexico, where we spent Saturday night in a Motel 6 smoking room. As Michael described the experience, it was comfortable enough to sleep, but not comfortable enough to want to stay. Well put. We did eat at Jerry's, a local place that served up good New Mexican fare, which differs considerably from Texas and California Mexican food. I can't say how it differs exactly, but it does. We had pork in a green chile sauce, and it was definitely good and not something that we eat all the time! The jury is still out regarding Gallup, but I would stay there again.
Overall, the drive to Boulder was uneventful but beautiful, especially through New Mexico. Every time we drive through I-40, we comment on how we should actually stop and spend time there. The late afternoon/early evening light and the early morning sunrise were almost a cliché because they were so beautiful, filling our sight with purple, deep grey, golden yellow, all contrasting with a variety of greens. It made me think of Georgia O'Keeffe, whose work I don't necessarily love, but captures the colors, shapes and spirits of New Mexico. Or perhaps I'm more familiar with her work than with New Mexico, and so I see it through her paintings?
We finally arrived in Boulder yesterday afternoon around 3:30, driving directly to Snarf's, a local sandwich place that seriously makes some of the best subs EVER. I don't know what it is about Snarfs, but I seriously obsess about the sandwiches. I just learned that they are opening shops in Chicago and St. Louis, which makes me envy people who live in those locals.
This morning, we also hit up another favorite stop, Spruce Street Confections, which serves up a mean latte and makes their own delectable scones. I would consider working there for a summer if I could learn how to make scones as good as these. Obviously there is a stick of butter in each one...
In the meantime, we have plans to hang out with family, walk the dogs, take naps, go visit some of our favorite shops (like Neptune Mountaineering, one of the coolest outdoor gear stores that I've ever encountered) and go SKIING! It's going to be a good holiday week here in Boulder, CO!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Personal day!

I am a firm believer in taking advantage of the two personal days a year that are my "right". Some of my colleagues pride themselves on never missing a day of work, but I believe that the school where we work gives us personal days, mental health days and sick days for a reason - to be used. That said, I don't abuse sick days, and, knock on wood, I tend to be a fairly robust human being, so I never use up all of my sick days. In fact, at this point, they've probably accrued so that I could miss an entire month, if need by (fingers crossed that it won't happen!).
But personal days are different. They are guilt-free days that I happily take off. I normally use them for a random long weekend, but it felt GREAT to take this past Friday off. I had been feeling a bit sick, but a cold did not fully develop, so it seemed unethical to take a sick day. A personal day, however, was a totally different matter.
So, I put in the request on Wednesday night, got the okay, planned classes and on Thursday afternoon, I blissfully closed and locked the office, walking away from school for the weekend.
I must confess that I intended the personal day to also be a work day - the stacks of papers had piled up enough. Buuuttttt... It wasn't to be. I decided that the personal day would be truly personal. I enjoyed a leisurely walk with the dogs in the morning, then I went for a nice, slow, hilly run around mid-morning, followed up by an INTENSE massage. I rarely splurge on a massage, but someone recommended this cheap but clean place, so I've gone there twice. The deep-tissue experience was definitely intense but therapeutic. By the time early evening rolled around, I had baked this bread and made dinner, which was butternut squash raviolis with a sage and cream sauce. We washed dinner down with a Byron Pinot Noir. It was a far better bottle than we usually drink, but I think the massage and shopping left me feeling quite magnanimous.
Oh, yeah, did I mention that I went shopping?
I found this little number which I ended up wearing to the holiday party on Sunday night:

It was a fun dress to wear to a holiday party. Usually I stick to the comfort and familiarity of the LBD (I have one that is silk and another that is wool, so I can pretty much work them all year-long, if need be), but I loved the print and also the cut of this dress.
All in all, a successful personal day!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Coffee Conundrum(s)

So, I have a secret: I sort of love-hate Starbucks. Yes, the ubiquitous coffee place. It reminds me a bit of Disneyland (which I loath, even though I've never been there), because everyone seems so happy and cheery. Maybe it's the sugar and caffeine high that people must be on, as they gulp down their venti, chocolate cocoa-puff latte with soy milk and extra whip-cream. WTF?! What kind of a drink IS that? A friend of mine shared one of my favorite Starbucks story, how when the chain opened its doors in Spain, first of all, people did not know how to order. "Café con leche" is about as complex as it gets. Secondly, people would sit down at the tables and wait for someone to take their order, which never happened. Talk about a culture clash!
But, as much as I disparage Starbucks, I really like to take a break once every other week and walk to the local Starbucks during the school day. It's a nice "get out of the school-grounds" break - maybe a mile round trip? I never feel that I've gone very far, however, because I inevitably see students or other teachers there. One faculty member recently said that she calls the Starbucks trips her "vision walk". That idea has a definite appeal and sounds almost zen (or something). So, yes, I do the trek, and usually splurge on a small (I hate to say "tall" and all of that other lingo) chai latte, a drink that I could probably buy out of a box and it would taste just as good! However, I tried a 'speciality' drink twice in the past year, and both times I felt as though I were drinking a candy bar melted into coffee. NOT an appealing taste to me, but apparently the marketing does work on the general population.
My usual source of "crack" comes from a local coffee shop/purveyor, Intelligentsia Coffee, which makes the nectar of the gods, or something along those lines. When Michael and I lived in Silverlake, we would go to Intelligentsia at least once a week, which was a pricey habit. So, a few years ago, living on one income, we decided that we wouldn't sacrifice Intelligentsia totally, but we did limit the drinks MADE there and usually just bought coffee beans. This is still the case, but more for convenience than for economy.
Still, there are times when I do enjoy a cup of coffee from Intelligentsia, and that has become much easier since they opened up a coffee bar in Pasadena, just a few minutes away! Unfortunately, this also means that students, those beings whom I teach, have wormed their way into Paradise, just some parasite that would destroy the perfect apple. Don't get me wrong, I like the students whom I teach, but I also enjoy a clear separation between my 'school world' and my '¿real world?'. It's like clothes that I want to wear when I go out on weekends - these are NOT school clothes and an item will become tainted once I wear it to school.
In the same vein, Intelligentsia, that coffee paradise, has been tainted.
I went by there on Friday, after school, to pick up more beans for the next few weeks. Now, the Intelligentsia cafe in Pasadena is also a bar, so Michael and I talked about staying for a glass of wine and a bite to eat. Unfortunately, all of the wind was taken out of my sails when I walked in and saw a group of SIX students. Fie! Damn you, all of you! I felt betrayed and violated. How dare they? Why don't they just stay at Starbucks, drinking their crappy coffee-whipped-cream drinks?
Hope springs eternal - maybe they will move along and find the "next cool thing"?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Thanksgiving weekend in San Fran

Oh, yes, I'm very behind everything right now. The stacks of papers to grade are piling up, holiday cards will probably go out in January, and I feel rather unmotivated to do much of anything except focus on cranberry-blueberry pancakes. I did get college recommendations out on time, which I consider to be a major coup. Also, I am finally getting around to a quick trip report: San Francisco!
We drove up fairly early on Thursday morning, and while there was traffic on I-5 (of course), it moved apace, so we arrived more or less on schedule, right around 1:30. We ended up staying in a studio in the Castro, which was convenient to several friends' places in the city and was blissfully untouristy, with easy street parking - totally unheard of! It was very much a low-key, friend-centered visit. We also took our dogs, which they enjoyed, and we experienced the dog-friendly-ness of San Francisco! The people at the Doc Martens store even let Michael bring Gus and Milo into the store so that I could model these to them. Other than hitting up the Doc Marten store in the Haight (where I ended up buying the much coveted boots!) and going to the ferry building on Saturday morning, we hung out at friends' ate plenty of good food, and went for long walks with the dogs. Not a bad way to spend a holiday weekend! Plus, the weather cooperated, on the whole, which worked out well for all of us. Here are a few images to document the weekend:

Michael, trying to "herd" the dogs or make them pose for a photo-op. They, as usual, are not fully cooperating.

What you can't see is Milo pulling me along here. The picture (taking with an iPhone) doesn't do justice to the day.

Around the Ferry Building with the Bay Bridge in the background.

Milo looking like an alien in the car - look at that big smile, though!

We definitely fall into the "lame" category in terms of photos. Michael took the good Canon, but we left it in the car or the studio during many of our outings. So, we don't have a picture of Fort Funston, which is, as a friend described it, "Doggie Nirvana". We spent most of Friday morning there, and it was a grand old time.
This visit DID drive home the fact that most of our friends that are around the child-bearing and -rearing age are doing what they are "supposed" to be doing: having children, reproducing, adding to our population. It is CRAZY! To me, at least! It also serves to drive home the self-awareness that I (still) do not want children. It's a good think that my mom doesn't read this blog - she'd probably start to cry right now.