Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Final Countdown

It's official: in less than one hour Buy Nothing Month will have come to an end. And unless something entirely unexpected happens I really don't think any more money will be spent before midnight. With that in mind, here's a rundown (featuring no specific figures because that's a little too personal for a public blog, don't you think?) of what was actually bought:

Fresh produce (mostly from our local farmers' markets) including:
  • Lettuce - bought weekly
  • Tomatoes - bought weekly
  • 2 Heads Cauliflower
  • 1 Bunch Collard Greens
  • Carrots
  • Many Apples
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • 1 Lb Huckleberries
  • Chanterelle Mushrooms (a must every fall at the market!)
  • Savoy Cabbage
  • Onions
  • Green Onions
  • Garlic
  • Cavolo Nero (Dinosaur Kale)
  • Parsnips
  • Serrano Peppers
  • Cilantro
  • Zucchini
  • New Potatoes
  • Leeks
  • 2 Limes (not from the farmer's market, surprisingly enough ;-)

Other Groceries:
  • 1 Dozen Eggs
  • Sour Cream
  • 2 Lb Butter
  • 1 Gallon Milk
  • 5 Lb Bread Flour
  • 5 Lb Whole Wheat Flour
  • 1 Can Evaporated Milk
  • 1 Loaf Great Harvest Sourdough
  • Snacks from Trader Joe's for Upcoming Road Trip
  • A Couple Energy Drinks (for Michael when he has to go back to night shift after a few days off)

  • Car Tune-Up
  • Wedding Gift
  • 5 Bottles Fruit Wine for Gifts
  • Mt. Townsend Cheese (gift for my parents)
  • Locally Smoked Salmon (gift for my parents)
  • Gasoline
  • Plane Tickets to Phoenix at Christmastime (mostly paid for with credit card points)
  • Toothpaste
  • Earplugs (for Michael who sleeps during the day - those old ones had to go!)
  • Washington State Farm Bureau Dues (required by our home insurance)

A Couple More Things:
  • Michael went out to brunch with coworkers & paid for himself & one other person (this was allowed within the rules: Michael had up to $50 he could spend if friends/coworkers invited him to go out, and he stayed under $50)
  • Snacks, hot dog buns, etc, that Michael bought for the potlucks at his weekly game nights
  • We also paid our monthly bills - phone/internet, electricity, monthly Blockbuster DVD mail service, and Michael's World of Warcraft monthly fee were all paid for in September
I'm sure there are other items I've forgotten, but this lists the majority of what was purchased. Some purchases haven't even been used yet, but it was more convenient to buy them sooner rather than wait until tomorrow, and convenience can be a money saver, too. Misnomer that Buy Nothing Month may be, I still feel pretty proud that we made it through the month without caving.

But this begs the question: is it really that difficult to live on a tighter budget? With all that has been happening with our economy lately and rising costs, for some people times are doubtless very difficult, and items like plane tickets and gifts can't even be considered. I'd also wager that there are many of us who are used to spending more money than really necessary, and it doesn't hurt to cut back a little (although I risk sounding hypocritical considering we're about to go on vacation and spend more money again).

I don't want to sermonize, so I'll leave it at that. In the end I can say that I enjoyed Buy Nothing Month, and I hope to do it again some time next year. But I'm also looking forward to a good night out!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Some Like It Hot

One thing I learned yesterday: natural mango Snapple mixed with home-infused hot pepper vodka and garnished with cucumber and mint is actually not a bad drink. Who would've thought, huh?

The drink was the special of the day at a friend's housewarming in Tacoma. While mango Snapple was not originally a part of the concoction, it was all that was readily available when our mixologist ran out of Sprite. But kind of like those chili-coated dried mangoes they sell at Trader Joe's, the combination actually... works.

The housewarming itself was in honor of Amy V's former long-time roommate, Christina, and I have to say she couldn't have picked a nicer day. Until the sun went down and took the day's warmth with it, many of us sat out on the porch enjoying summer's unexpected return. And, considering how small and circuitous the layout of Christina's apartment is, quite a few people managed to fit in her living room that evening. Christina is a real decorating fiend, and in the months since she moved in she'd turned what had been (so I heard) a toxic wasteland into something all her own with charm to spare.

Plus, she gets bonus points for the adorable kittens at play for our entertainment. Really, what more could any housewarming need beyond boisterous baby animals and hot pepper vodka?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Easy as Pie

Today was supposed to be a busy day. I needed to bus to the U District Farmers' Market to buy hostess gifts for our upcoming trip and vegetable for the coming week, make a pie, walk Lucy, bake some bread, get some final things cleaned up around the house, help Amy V move in, and go to a BBQ with some church friends. On paper, so to speak, it sounds like quite a list.

In practice, it was actually a fairly relaxing day. For me, that is. I'm sure it was an extremely busy day for those more involved with the moving. As it turned out, Amy & Co. arrived later in the afternoon than I (perhaps naively) had anticipated, so in the end I didn't feel especially useful. Perhaps I can make up for that this week by applying felt pads to all the furniture that will be moved upstairs.

But while I was home baking, I realized that although baking is time consuming in the sense that several hours must elapse from the time one begins until the product is ready for consumption, rather little is required of one in the meantime. Still, one can't really leave the house when baking, as there tend to be short periods of downtime sandwiched between small tasks, and everyone knows better (I hope) that to leave something baking in the oven unattended.

There is a certain satisfaction that comes with baking that sets it apart from simple cooking. Perhaps it's the transformation of flour, yeast, and milk into a chewy loaf of sandwich bread. Or perhaps it's the fact that everyone loves pie, and mine, despite being incredibly messy and soupy, was still a hit at the BBQ.

I did have one moment of near panic today, however. Loaded down with bottles of fruit wine and veggies, I saw my bus pull up to the stop across the street. I didn't make it in time; the bus had pulled away from the curb by the time I got to the stop. But I am hard pressed to give up on a near bus connection, and was soon in hot pursuit, bags flailing wildly (and dangerously) at my sides. It was all worth it when the driver actually stopped to let me board. And he was even pleasant about it! That's more than one can expect from your average Metro driver, let me tell you. Some of them are real sticklers. This one was definitely deserving of piece of pie, or maybe a bottle of fruit wine. All I can hope is that the rest of his day was as pleasant as mine.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Company's Comin'!

Life is full of surprises. Wednesday night I was surprised by a call from one of my cousins who lives in Oregon (no, that part's not surprising - almost all of my 22 cousins live in Oregon, and yes, you heard that right, I did say 22). It turns out he was in the area for work related reasons and hoping to stay over one night since an he found out that day he had an unexpected appointment in Oak Harbor the next morning.

Of course, we said he was welcome to come over. That's what a guest bedroom's for, right?

I do like having house guests.

Soon we will have a more permanent kind of house guest in residence. Amy V is moving in - tomorrow! While we did have two brothers living with us for the first two and a half years in our house, Amy is the first renter since then who will be staying for more than a couple of months. Overall, I would say I'm pretty excited. This, too, is one of the reasons for the flurry of housecleaning this past month; we had to get the place organized and clean out the downstairs bedroom, bathroom, and hall closet.

There are still a few tasks to be done, such as washing the window of the Amy's future bedroom to remove the lovely muddy dog prints Lucy left behind when we kept her in the back yard. I don't think Amy would appreciate Lucy's artistic vision in this case, which is OK - I think Lucy's take on Dog Prints on Glass is probably ahead of its time. But Lucy loves a new housemate, so I think she'll forgive Amy's lack of a critical eye.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

This Is the Way of the Modern World

Sometimes I feel as though I am standing stock still in the midst of a blur of movement. You know the scene, perhaps from a special effects laden commercial or film: one person slowly taking in their surroundings in the midst of a busy intersection - maybe Times Square or Tokyo - everyone else a flurry of neon as they go about their daily business, lost in technology.

At Bumbershoot one year I saw a short film with a creative take on the speed of modern life. The protagonist, a relatively unambitious slacker (or at least that's what his ex-girlfriend would have us believe) suddenly finds himself living at a pace that is literally slower than that of the world around him. Simply due to the fact that his movements, although seemingly normal to him and us as the audience, are so slow, he becomes invisible, completely escaping the notice of all those around him. To him everyone else has become an undeciferable blur.

Of course, he meets another girl living life in the slow lane, the kind of perfect match one always finds in the movies.

My life in the slow lane isn't quite so literal, but throughout the past several weeks I have felt a slowness seep in to my daily routine. On almost any given night I am at home, making dinner, walking the dog, maybe watching a show on the TV before Michael heads in to work. I have time to take the bus or walk rather than drive, time to make a meal from scratch, time to houseclean without having to squeeze it in. Where did all this time come from? On the one hand I feel blessed to be able to do these things. How many people would say they have the time to cook every night, or to juggle reading four different books in two weeks?

At the same time, I feel, well, a little bored. Life in the fast lane was never my aspiration, but life in the slow lane can start to feel like stagnation. I don't want to be stuck in first gear forever. While I'm proud of the fact that I can typically track my entire schedule in my head, without so much as writing any of it down, this does give me pause.

Ultimately, however, I know that the time I have now won't last forever. As of next weekend, my life will be picking up the pace, and I'll soon busy myself with packing and finalizing details for our road trip, scheduling when to visit friends I haven't seen in awhile, helping our new housemate settle in, and planning for parties and small group gatherings.

With that in mind, I'm content to stay in the slow lane for a little longer... just a little.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Buy Not, Want Not

We are now officially more than two-thirds of the way through Buy Nothing Month. My biggest fear at this point is the fact that we are almost entirely out of cheese... and I made a promise to myself not to buy more before October! Seriously, we are almost out of cheese, except for some Parmesan and a small piece of pepper jack. Still, I think we can make it.

While I've been pretty strict on the food front, however, I can't claim no other expenses have cropped up. The problem with a moratorium on spending is that following through requires a good deal of foresight. We've just had one significant expense and other, smaller costs are bound to be incurred before month's end.

The (relatively) large recent expense was due to the fact that we took the car in for a tune-up on Friday. Luckily only minimal work was needed. But why take the car in now? Couldn't we have waited another two weeks at least?

See, there's where planning comes in to play. Next Thursday we'll head off on a road trip to Pasadena, and considering we hadn't taken the car in for a tune-up since we bought it a year and a half ago, neither Michael nor I felt comfortable driving such a distance without making sure everything was in order. We could have done it sooner, but the fact is either way we'd be paying for it.

The same goes for a couple of other upcoming expenses - buying a wedding gift and hostess gifts, for example. Since our friends' wedding is the impetus for our trip, and since we will be staying with family and friends at various points along the way, these are also expenses that can't be postponed.

Am I complaining? Not at all. We've been planning this trip for some time; it's not going to break the bank. And while buying gifts for others may violate the literal definition of Buy Nothing Month, I'd say it in no way violates the spirit. It's one thing to be frugal, but another to be miserly. With that in mind, I'm off to face the last eight days of Buy Nothing Month. Cheers!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Monsters Among Us

A monster lives in our closet. For most of the week he sleeps silently, but when he wakes no one in the house can escape his roar. Far from hiding his presence, he glides through the house trumpeting his arrival, his long snout constantly sniffing the floor.

This, no doubt, is how our dog views the vacuum cleaner, or Vacuumonster, a name she would doubtless find fitting. When Lucy was first introduced to the Vacuumonster it was, to say the least, a traumatic experience. We quickly learned, after her initial shock resulted in wetting the carpet, that Lucy needed some time to adjust to the Vacuumonster's presence, so for many months she stayed in the yard whenever he came out to play.

Thankfully Lucy has learned that the Vacuumonster is mostly harmless. Only mostly, though, as she would rather not be within ten feet of the thing. Lately I've had the idea that if we could ween her of her fear completely, we might be able to encourage a symbiotic relationship between our two resident beasts. The Vacuumonster could use his brush attachment to remove Lucy's loose fur, keeping Lucy clean and Vacuumonster gainfully employed. The way it is he already spends most of his time sucking Lucy's loose fur off the floor, anyway. This would just cut out the middle man. I realize this may sound weird, but I had an organ teacher in high school who vacuumed his cats, and they seemed completely unfazed.

Today I decided to try to introduce Lucy to this idea, albeit gently. With the Vacuumonster turned off, I called her to the front landing and, holding onto the scruff of her neck with one hand, softly moved the brush over her back. To her credit, Lucy did not run away in terror, although I did recognize a look of frozen fear in her eyes. "IT'S TOUCHING ME," the look look said. "OK, don't panic, but - OHNONONOIT'STOUCHINGME. Must. Slink. Away. Now!"

I tried to reassure her that the Vacuumonster was friendly by pretending to vacuum my own leg. Lucy cast one glance behind her as she slunk down the stairs, a look that clearly implied that her mistress was INSANE, and she should therefore get to the safety of her sofa as soon as possible.

I suppose I should just be thankful that we don't have to banish Lucy from the house every time we vacuum now. This is, after all, the dog who cowered in abject terror under a chair the first time she encountered the oscillating ceiling fan. The world of the modern house dog is apparently full of dangers we humans blissfully ignore. I'm sure Lucy is just waiting for that time when the Vacuumonster will give in to its true nature and actually suck one of us up along with the dog hair and dust mites.

"See?" Lucy will say with her eyes. "I KNEW it couldn't be trusted! You should have let me lick the floors clean instead."

Thursday, September 18, 2008

On Writing

Last night I was up until 1am writing the museum review below. I can't remember the last time I stayed up so late feverishly writing away for the sheer pleasure of it and not because I had a term paper due the next morning. It's not as though I even knew what I was going to say beyond my opening paragraph when I began, but somehow the ideas kept coming and by the time I was done I was on such an adrenaline rush that I might as well have downed three Turkish coffees.

I feel that I have rediscovered a lost love - the love of writing.

As I young child I felt compelled to write down stories, usually first chapters of what I was sure would someday become some of my many wildly successful novels. In seventh grade I remember being given the privilege of opting out of our regular English studies for the opportunity to create a collection of fantasy short stories and then a complete children's book. Looking back, I can't say that I find any of these stories to be particularly well crafted; I had a habit of starting off strong and then petering out because I hadn't mapped out a logical conclusion.

Still, I wrote. On into college I wrote, although by that time the tedium of producing essays and articles to fit someone else's choice of topics had started to take its toll, and I was no longer writing for the simple joy of it. In my journalism classes I struggled to mold my style to fit the requirements of writing a news story. But I will never forget the time when, with my graduation close at hand, one of my professors, who happened to be the head of the print journalism division at PLU, asked what I planned to do at this point.

"I'm not sure," I admitted.

"Well, whatever you do, you should write," he told me. "You need to write."

Do I need to write? And if so, is it for my own benefit, because I need this outlet, because this is how I can best bring into focus the world around me? Part of my excitement last night stemmed from the fact that in writing about the exhibit I opened my own eyes to ideas I hadn't even previously considered. I won't claim my writing was anything spectacular or original, or that it would have much meaning to anyone else, but I felt as though I had found the key to an unexpected treasure. Much like how an Impressionist painting can cause you to look at a simple still life in a totally new way, so the act of writing brought forth new connections and observations that I wouldn't have otherwise made.

I'm not sure where writing this blog will lead me. Maybe it will eventually be nothing more than a dusty cyber artifact of a brief period of my life. Who knows? For now I am content with the fact that I am writing again, writing for no other reason than the newly rediscovered desire simply to write.

Inspiring Impressionism

Impressionist exhibits are the Nutcracker ballet of the art museum world - in other words, they're cash cows. Any decent broad-based, art-through-the ages institution, at least one that likes to think of itself as "world class", will throw out the obligatory impressionist show every three to five years and watch the crowds come in, people willingly handing over their cash who otherwise may never have darkened a museum's door. This allows the museum in turn to support the avant-garde exhibits that only museum members and art hipsters will patronize. Well, and also those few who come in with puzzlement creasing their brows as they peer from one room to the next, not sure if these art museums are really all they're cracked up to be.

That, at least, is the cynical take on Impressionism exhibitions. What was once revolutionary - so much so that the art establishment of the time didn't even consider it art - is now fodder for millions of posters, mugs, and refrigerator magnets gracing the homes of everyone from rural housewives to college freshmen. In this sense, Impressionism has become perhaps the most egalitarian art in the world. No one will think you a snob for liking Monet's waterlily paintings, but copies of Roman busts or post-modern multi-media collages may come across as a bit pretentious.

But what is it that makes Impressionism so enduringly popular? At the Seattle Art Museum's Inspiring Impressionism exhibit, which I visited tonight, I felt like I gained some insight into this phenomenon. And I got to see some beautiful paintings. After all, I enjoy the Impressionists, too.

I have to give credit to SAM for putting a new twist on the art of Impressionism exhibits. Attempting to show the inspiration that the Impressionists drew from the Old Masters - whether they admitted it or not - the show was a fascinating look at how these artists gave a new twist to old themes, and how they brought back even older themes that had become passe in art at the time, such as scenes from everyday life and landscape painting.

It was striking to see the similarities and differences juxtaposed. Usually museums are strictly categorized by style and era, often chronologically. Here the comparison of distinctly different styles gave one the ability to both look at the art with the benefit of distance between now and then, and to imagine oneself a peer of these artists as they came to the Louvre to copy the Old Masters. The older paintings were beautiful in their attention to detail and realism. But the Impressionists had their own take on reality, one where color and movement trumped discipline and detail. And while the Old Masters amaze us with their skill at composition and realism, the Impressionists shock us into seeing the vitality and color that surround us, even in everyday life.

This, at least, is my impression (bad pun, I know - sorry!). As any Art History 101 student knows, the rise of impressionism, giving way to the likes of Van Gogh, Picasso, and Mondrian, coincides with the advent of the age of photography. What use was absolute realism in the face of the camera? A photograph was even more realistic, less expensive, and, eventually, accessible to the masses. What was the purpose of art at this point?

Maybe, if art could capture that exquisite fleeting moment when the sun glances off the river, when a mother takes her child into her lap, maybe it could speak to us in a way a photograph and even the Old Masters can't. With paint slapped on seemingly without effort and brilliant colors, no wonder we're excited by this art. It takes something so often seen as mundane, and allows us to see it as something fresh and new.

Two paintings in particular stood out to me after I left the exhibit. One was a Renoir, a scene of a couple leaning in towards each other, sitting in a garden beneath sun-dappled trees. Renoir perfectly captures the idea of clear summer light filtering through the leaves, reflecting off the woman's white dress. It's almost as if you can see the play of the sunbeams and feel their warmth.

The other painting I was drawn to was actually not one of the Impressionists', but a portrait in profile by Fragonard of a girl reading. Although painted a hundred years prior, I could see the foreshadowing of the Impressionist movement here. The large, flat strokes reminded me of Manet's work, and the girl's brilliant yellow dress and red pillow gave it a shock of color not seen in many of the other earlier paintings. And much like the Impressionists, that red pillow was not merely painted in red, but also blues and purples and streaks of white, giving it surprising depth.

This is, of course, only what I personally experienced. As to be expected on the last Thursday of a popular exhibit, the museum was fairly crowded, and I'm sure everyone had their own opinions. But is the fact that an exhibit is so popular really a bad thing? Isn't it good to have art that almost everyone can enjoy, and that gets people of all backgrounds into art museums? Cash cow though it may be, I don't think the allure of Impressionism is going to wane any time soon. And that, my friends, is a beautiful thing.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

When Life Gives You Chickens...

I feel like I've been talking a lot about food on my blog. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that I haven't been getting out much during Buy Nothing Month, or perhaps it's just indicative of where my true interests lie. I have been thinking about food even more than usual lately, no doubt encouraged by the fact the I'm just finishing up Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.

The book covers more ground than is possible to summarize in a quick blog post, but suffice to say that it has made me more determined than ever that eating local, fresh, homemade food is far preferable to the products found at the local supermarket. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? But actually following through on that conviction is something that relatively few people in our culture have yet to do.

Convenience and price are two of the likely reasons for lack of follow through, although Pollan makes what is, to me, the reasonable point that, if food is so important, isn't it worth spending more money on? Compared to previous generations, Americans today spend a much smaller percentage of their income on food. We've become accustomed to artificially cheap prices, and to having disposable income to spend on entertainment. While there certainly are many in this country who are truly impoverished, there are also many who are willing to fork over the dough for a giant flat-screen TV, but balk at the idea of paying what they see as an unfair premium for eggs from pastured chickens.

Now I suppose I could feel smug for patronizing my local farmer's markets regularly this summer, but how good have I really been? Tonight's dinner was chicken stroganoff, and the chicken came straight from a giant freezer bag from Costco. Since I'm a moderate by nature, I don't feel the need to forgo any and all industrialized food, if that were even truly possible in this day and age. But I do think I could do better, starting with coughing up the extra bucks to purchase local pastured chicken for our dinners, chicken that had a genuine yard to peck in, rather than a tiny door leading to a strip of vacant grass outside while thousands of chickens huddle en masse in their barn.

I have another confession to make - I did buy one of those pastured chickens earlier this summer, and prepared to make what I was sure would be the World's Greatest Chicken and Dumplings using a recipe from Saveur. Despite my better judgment (and I really did know better) I decided to go along with the recipe and incorporate three cups of melted butter into the dumpling batter. Yes, I did say THREE CUPS. And yes, that was a dismal, truly abysmal failure that ruined the entire dish. As I had surmised myself when following the recipe, the correct amount was actually THREE TABLESPOONS, as noted in the next issue of the magazine. Let us not forget the ever nourishing dish that is humble pie. And let us also be thankful that no company was coming for dinner that night.

But hey, at least I was able to make some excellent chicken stock with the bones.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Mac 'N' Cheesiest

I have never understood the draw of macaroni and cheese from a box. I mean, sure, it's convenient, but while there may be macaroni, can you really call that florescent powder cheese? Really? Even Velveeta falls closer to actual cheese on the spectrum of "Foods That Are Cheese" versus "Foods (or should I say substances?) That Are Not Cheese".

I am, however, very partial to the Real Thing. Comfort food doesn't get much better than a mound of noodles bound together by lovely, melting cheddar. Michael heartily agreed when I made it for dinner tonight.

"But I can see how some people may not like this so much," he said while tucking in.

"What?!" I countered.

"Well, some people don't like sharp cheese."

"But sharp cheese is what makes it taste so cheesy! Otherwise it's just creamy with too much filler," I paused, mulling over what Michael had said. I guess that not everyone does like sharp cheese, so maybe my version of mac 'n' cheese, made with white Tillamook cheddar that was aged for three years, might be a bit much. After all, it's not even yellow, much less radioactive orange.

Oh, well. That just leaves more for me.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Summer in Seattle

It's days like these that make it feel good to be alive. After a summer of weather ups and downs, September is really outdoing itself around here. The weather today is perfectly sunny with amazingly blue skies. I took Lucy on one of my favorite weekend walks around the neighborhood. It's a favorite because of the gorgeous views of Lake Washington when we turn to head down 145th Street, followed by a walk along a quiet road with big leaf maples towering overhead. The sun was so brilliant today that I had to stop and stare at Lake Washington as it sparkled in the sun, and again to look up at the sun dappled maple leaves overhead.

And then what did I do? I cleaned house. Hopelessly boring, I know, but the thing is I only ever have the motivation to do that sort of thing when I have free days at home with nothing planned. In the evenings I may cook dinner and clean up the dishes afterwards, but I never have the desire to do laundry or sort through unorganized closets or wipe down the bathrooms.

Today, I am most proud of my accomplishment of organizing the medicine cabinet. This is actually the first time this has ever been done, so it's really nothing short of astounding. I actually know where to find all the cough drops and don't have to pry loose pill packets from sticky mystery goo to get to anything. Amazing!

I must also mourn the loss of all the beer coasters I had collected in Germany during my semester abroad in college. It was finally time to admit that they really don't do anything other than sit forgotten in a box, but now they have the opportunity to make themselves useful and be recycled, possibly into new beer coasters for some other college student to collect. Ah, memories! I don't mean to sacrifice nostalgia for the sake of an orderly home, but my memories will always be with me (until I'm old and senile, that is), with or without the coasters. The house, meanwhile, I have to live in every day, so a clean(er) home wins this time.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Nothing to Buy

It's Friday! TGIF! Except I actually have to work tomorrow (that's why I had Tuesday off earlier this week), and working on Saturday means I actually have to get up 45 minutes earlier than a typical weekday because of the Saturday bus schedules and the fact that I have to arrive by 9 instead of 9:30. Tonight I'm volunteering at the young adult shelter again, but just for a couple of hours in the evening so that I can still enjoy a full night's sleep.

We are also nearing the halfway point in Buy Nothing Month, so perhaps this is a good time to assess how successful our efforts at buying nothing have been. So far, the month has progressed as expected - we've bought food, of course, but beyond that the only items I've needed to purchase have been some small household needs, such as toothpaste, and those costs have totaled less than $10.00.

I've also been paying more attention than usual to using up any and all leftovers. While it's always my goal not to be wasteful, it's disturbingly easy to forget about small containers of unknown contents tucked in the back of the refrigerator. Citrus fruit, half eaten bunches of cilantro, canned tomatoes, and partially used tubs of sour cream have been among the many casualties. My attempt at scrupulously rooting out all odds and ends before they perish led to an unorthodox meal last night - quesadillas consisting of homemade tortillas filled with pepper jack, a little parmesan, and chopped cilantro, topped with the remains of a tomato from the U District's Saturday farmer's market, leftover potato ravioli filling simply eaten on it's own, and the last remnants of Tuesday night's salad. Right now I'm mentally creating a check list of other items I need to finish up this weekend. This can make for some easily prepped dinners, but have to say that while I don't mind leftovers for breakfast (yes, I do eat all kinds of leftovers for breakfast) or lunch, I really crave a freshly prepared meal to sit down to with Michael at the end of the day.

But better meals are ahead, and even though I really have limited myself almost completely to buying only produce and other fresh foods (like eggs) this month, I don't feel that my choices have suffered. I may have to buy more flour soon, though, what with all the homemade tortillas, pizza, and biscuits, I've gone through pounds of the stuff in the past couple of weeks!

That's all for today's report. I'll keep you posted as the month progresses.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Enchiladas for All

This week was an example of perfect timing. Some time last month I had offered to host a small gathering of friends for dinner while a mutual friend, who happens to be a missionary and English teacher in China whom we support, was visiting the Seattle area. Normally I don't get home from work until about 6:30 or later, which makes hosting weeknight dinners a bit of a challenge. I was confident this would work itself out, however, and lo and behold the realization dawned on me a couple of weeks ago that I was scheduled to work this coming Saturday, which means I get to take one weekday off instead. Bingo! I had Tuesday off of work so that I could concentrate on making enchiladas and getting the house ready for company. God works in mysterious ways.

It was good to see Dave and enjoy a meal with friends. I also learned that our house is apparently famed as "the house with the hammock" to our friends' Keri and Joseph's two young boys. That's a good thing, it would seem. Our house may not have much to offer young children, but it does have a hammock! And with the lovely weather we've been having lately, they got to stay on the porch and enjoy it while the adults had dinner in the adjacent dining room.

Enchiladas are one of those perfect company foods, too. You can whip them up in advance and then relax with friends while the oven does the rest. Good food, good weather, good friends. Good night!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Golden Gardens Fills Your Eyes

On Sunday my friend Amy V (I say this to differentiate her from my friend Amy G - heh, that rhymes) and I hosted our (almost) annual barbeque and bonfire at Golden Gardens park in Seattle. The day was gorgeous, and on a gorgeous day the views across Puget Sound are enough to keep you from thinking too much about how sooty your feet are getting from all that charcoal-blackened sand. After somewhat uneven and unpredictable weather this past summer, we ended up with one of the flat-out nicest days of the season - after Labor Day, no less!

We even managed to get the charcoal grill going without lighter fluid or any other fancy tricks other than some newspaper, a few slivers of "kindling" found on the beach, and Amy's special skill with extremely long matches. Guests had brought marinated chicken, beef and pepper kabobs, sausages, and hot dogs. Any of these items will, naturally, taste better when cooked over a hardwood charcoal grill on the beach rather than in the confines of your own kitchen over an electric burner.

The only unfortunate thing about the day was how few people were able to join us. While it was great getting to visit with the friends who came, I think we have to concede that this year's turn out was unusually low, so in the end it was more of a casual afternoon with a few friends rather than a real party. That's OK, but I can't deny I was hoping to see more people and enjoy a rip-roaring bonfire. As it was, we didn't even have a bonfire because we didn't get the wood we were expecting. All was not lost, however, as the few of us who were there in the evening snuck over to another fire pit that appeared to be abandoned, but still contained some glowing embers, so we could roast our marshmallows for s'mores. They're still delicious after all these years!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Pasta, Basta!

Homemade pasta has a certain allure for me. It sounds so homey, yet decidedly sexy. In Italy, I have had fresh made pasta so good as to induce moans of delight. But as for my own homemade pasta... well, let's just say that it doesn't deliver the way my homemade pizza can.

While I feel I have earned the right to brag about my pizza, my pasta is sorely lacking. Tonight was no exception. It's probably been a year since I made pasta from scratch, and perhaps that's part of the problem. I was optimistic going in, however, following a Jamie Oliver recipe for ravioli filled with potato, pecorino, and mint. The frustration doesn't kick in until I am rolling out the dough. I would like to blame this on my rolling pin (and honestly, I do think that this is part of the problem), but it seems impossible for me to roll the dough thin enough. After twenty minutes of rolling, throwing all the upper body strength I can muster into it, I decide that enough is enough, and surely this oddly amoeba-like stretch of dough, thinner than any pie crust, is as thin as it's going to get.

I then attempt to fill the ravioli as soon as possible, before the pasta dries. This proves no easy task, as I struggle to complete the second batch, the dough too dry, in a matter of mere minutes, to bind together around the filling. The first batch has gone into the boiling water, but they look nothing like the uniform, bite-sized ravioli one finds in the supermarket. These are grossly deformed, giant blobs of dough, more closely resembling an alien species of anemic jellyfish than any packaged, pre-fabricated and perfectly pleated pasta.

When I remove them from the pot, they are flabby and misshapen, and a knife is a necessity when sawing through the thick layer of pasta surrounding the precious filling. The filling, by the way, is quite good, as is the melted butter, pecorino, and scattering of mint over the top. But the pasta itself, the shining star in any Italian primo, is here unremarkable except for its unusual, and not exactly appealing, chewiness. Still, I manage to eat five of them, whcih, considering their size, is no light dinner.

I may just have to break down and buy a pasta machine one of these days after all.

A Night at the Movies

Last night was a momentous occasion: the first (hopefully) annual outdoor movie night at Europe Through the Back Door. Held in the back parking lot, employees and their families spent the evening together, most of the young kids on the large carpet square laid out on the ground, while the adults sat around in a mishmash of company meeting room chairs and canvas camping chairs brought from home.

Topics of conversation ranged from junior high sleepovers to whether or not you ever want to have kids, to the upcoming MS bike ride next week, for which our company team has been successfully raising funds for the better part of the year. Pizza was the featured menu item, supplemented by the traditional movie concessions of popcorn, Raisinets, Junior Mints, and Red Vines. Of course, beer, wine, and soda were on hand, although the real treat was the hot chocolate served about midway through the movie, accompanied by homemade marshmallows, and (for the adults) Baileys or peppermint schnapps.

The featured presentation was the original 1960's Pink Panther. Everyone clapped as the movie ended, and in what seemed a matter of only minutes the parking lot had been cleared of chairs, tables, empty wrappers, and plastic cups. I noticed on the drive home that it wasn't even yet 10:00, yet it was of the most enjoyable Friday nights I'd spent in awhile. Perhaps that's a sign of one of the best work benefits you can hope for - to work some place where the people actually want to spend time together, and a company social event, rather than being a cause for groans and questions of, "how can I get out of this?" is something to look forward to. Thanks, ETBD!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Day in the Life

You know, there just hasn't been much happening these past couple of days. It's just the same old routine, but hey, why not write about that? Some day I will probably look back fondly on these carefree, low energy times. Well, maybe.

So what do I do each day? I wake up, get out of bed, drag a comb across my head... OK, so those may not be my own words, but that's pretty much the way it starts. What's that? Too much detail? Yeah, yeah, I get it. Here's my day in a nutshell:

Lucy, our mini-lab mutt, jumps to attention as soon as I make a move to get up. She's rearing to go - encouraged, no doubt, by the fact that breakfast is nigh and, as a lab mix, she is truly all about the food. By the time I leave the house, she's already settled into her "pad" on the basement sofa; the little princess likes to lounge.

I'm running out the door to my first bus. It's about a ten minute ride, then I'm off the bus and running again, this time for about two miles, at which point I'll stop to wait for my second bus of the morning. What's that, you say? You run two miles between buses? Why, yes, I do this nearly EVERY week day morning. Without getting into the boring details, let's just say this is the one way I've found to get between buses without the possibility of a missed connection. Thank you, King County Metro! I do have to admit, though, I'm thankful for the exercise. Not too many people get to run a couple miles as part of their regular morning commute. Total commute time: one hour 15 minutes. Total commute time if I were to drive: half an hour maximum, door to door.

Bus number two takes me directly to bus number three, which takes me directly to downtown Edmonds and Europe Through the Back Door. In other words, my job. I sit at my cubicle, except on days like today when I work the public desk in front, and spend my eight hour work day talking tours, booking tours, checking on tours, updating tours, and laughing at the funny things my coworkers say. This is what tour divas do when they're not, well, touring.

Off work, it's now time for the three bus commute back home (no running this time, as it's a different route). An hour later I'm home, and Lucy greets me at the door, her tail wagging so hard it looks like she might just actually wag her bottom right off. Of course, she knows this means it's almost dinner time; I can't pretend that the mere sight of me is so exciting.

I'm hungry, so I slice off some pecorino cheese from the huge wedge I bought at Costco. Michael's left a note on the message board saying to wake him at 7:45 - he worked an hour and a half of overtime this morning on top of his night shift. Since we're eating leftover chili for dinner and all I need to make are biscuits and salad, this leaves me with time to, well, what else? I'm writing this as we speak, aren't I? It leaves me with time to blog about my uneventful day! Happy Wednesday!

Monday, September 1, 2008

Pizza Perfection

September marks the beginning of Buy Nothing Month for Michael and I. Literally, of course, it would be difficult to actually buy nothing for an entire month - we need gas, food, and we have to pay our bills. I suppose we could subsist on canned chili and spaghetti from a jar for an entire month, but I am adamant about eating fresh vegetables and fruits daily, so that's definitely out of the question.

As this month starts, I am thinking about just how significant food is in my life. This weekend I have cooked tostadas with home-made tortillas, linguini with a lemony parmesan and olive oil sauce, fresh tomato salad, and, tonight, pizza. Ahhh, pizza. I adore it hot from the oven, topped with melted mozzarella di bufala and sweet summer tomatoes, with a sprinkling of freshly torn basil and rivulets of olive oil drizzling along the bubbly, charred crust. Home cooked pizza, for me, is the stuff of which dreams are made. Tonight Michael and I savored it with Belgian beer and an arugula and radicchio salad on the porch as the sun sank behind the trees.

The thing is, I would probably never make pizza if I had no one with whom to share it. In college I first made pizza in the dorm one day, passing out slices to anyone in the lounge who was willing. I love to cook, but not solely for myself. Somehow cooking is the one thing I can turn to when I want to encourage a friend, thank my parents, or give Michael something to look forward to after a difficult night at work.

Today I took the tostadas to a friend's place for lunch. At the mention of Buy Nothing Month she mentioned how, she, too, had been thinking about ways to save and still find time for friends, thinking that perhaps a monthly spaghetti dinner would be one way to do this. Food is so often the means to stay connected, regardless of social standing. It's comforting to think that I've had some of the best food of my life right here in my own home or the homes of family or friends, tonight's pizza being no exception. Best, as always, when served with good company.