Saturday, October 30, 2010

Hey, hey, hey. WHAT is going ON here?!

As a child of the 90s, many of my formative years were spent watching re-runs of Saved by the Bell after school and on Saturday mornings. The outlandish characters fulfilling their high school stereotypes, the groan-worthy lines, the high energy laugh track, and Zack's constant breaking of the 4th wall all succeeded in keeping me watching the madcap adventures of the Bayside crew. The events that transpired each episode were never super surprising, so watching them over and over again was as reasonable as watching them the first time. Ten years ago, I had seen every episode (including the College Years and the Wedding in Vegas special, of course) and would have, for better or worse, considered myself very knowledgeable on all things Saved by the Bell. Last night, it was proved to me that 1) you forget a lot in ten years, and 2) there are people out there far dorkier than I.

A week or so ago, a friend at work asked if I wanted to be on her Saved by the Bell trivia team. She saw in me a kindred spirit who would be the appropriate completion to her team of Bayside afficiandos mostly composed of members of her bowling team. Naturally, I said yes, although with some trepidation after her team added me to a group email list and kept sending questions like "What was the name of the photographer who wanted to take Kelly to Paris on a modeling contract?"

Flash forward to last night: we'd breezed through (well...sort of) the preliminary rounds and were in the finals. The finals were held at the Upper East Side Big Daddy's which is a retro diner standing as a tribute to 70s and 80s pop culture. Also, good milkshakes. For the finals, we were requested to dress like our favorite Saved by the Bell characters. In my case, I chose to dress not as my favorite character, but as the character I thought I could best pull off with things I already owned. Interestingly, that ended up being Violet Bickerstaff, Screech's girlfriend played by Tori Spelling. Here she is with her boyfriend who lovingly calls her "my heart":

I'm not sure why she looks so sour here. Maybe its her hatred of basset hound heads. Or the fact that she's dating Screech.

And here's my approximation using only materials I had on hand (the dress is actually from my Halloween costume last year). Luckily the friend who recruited me went as Screech:Someone said I looked "better than Tori Spelling," which out of context I would find to be a compliment of dubious worth.

Here's the rest of my trivia team done up in their Bayside best:
That's Kelly in the foreground, two waitresses from The Max, and Bayside's finest wrestler A.C. Slater up top.

Sadly, we didn't win any of the fabulous prizes (mostly restaurant and bar parties), but it was a lot of fun! For those readers looking to test their Saved by the Bell trivia knowledge, here were some of the questions from the night (or at least the ones I remember):

During the Wedding in Vegas, what member of the crew opposes Zack and Kelly's marriage?

Who does Screech set Kelly up with when Zack says he wants to see other people?

When Screech's mom goes out of town to visit Graceland, she gives Screech a list of rules. What number on the list is the rule "no girls!"? (For the record, I can't believe people got this one.)

That's about all that I remember. Feel free to shout 'em out if you know 'em. On another note, I hope all my readers have a happy Halloween! I'll be dancing in the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade--so, given my experiences at previous dance parades, this should be excellent blog fodder.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Not your grandmother's Holocaust novel: A review

Way back in this blog's infancy (for those unfamiliar with the developmental stages of my blog: as reference I'll offer that at 6 months I've decided my blog has reached its adolescence), I wrote a book review and promised to keep my reader's abreast of books I found to be of particular note. Then none of the books I've read in the last few months really felt worthy of reviewing. Either I didn't enjoy them that much, enjoyed them but didn't think I could really recommend them to others, or they were so mainstream that anyone who hadn't read them probably had done so intentionally and with difficulty.

Much of my reading for the better part of the last year has been shaped by a book club I attend monthly at Idlewild Books ( If you're ever in New York, this is a delightful independent bookstore that's worthy of a visit. And I'm not just saying that because the owner plies me with wine, pita chips, and lively discussion once a month. I've had mixed reviews of some of the books since I've joined the club, but they've all shared the link in common that they're books I would not have picked up and read on my own. However, this month's book was the first one I truly enjoyed. Or rather "was incredibly impressed by", as "enjoyed" is probably not the right word when describing a book that depicts such a horrifying version of humanity.

At any rate, the book is called Brodeck, or in some translations Brodeck's Report, and is one of the few novels by the French director and screenwriter Phillipe Claudel that have been translated into English. Claudel is apparently best known for his film I've Loved You So Long starring Kristin Scott Thomas. Although I haven't seen the movie, judging by IMDB synopsis, its looks to be about the same level of bleakness of subject matter. Full disclosure: for readers not looking for a rather dark read, this is probably not the book for you. It's set in an unnamed European village, and while the time and place are never really specified, it makes enough oblique references (and some rather direct ones) to clearly point to the Holocaust.

The novel is told in first person and in a very non-linear fashion. Brodeck, a villager who seems to skirt the outside of village society, is charged with writing an official report to absolve the other villagers of the murder of an outsider. In the process of writing the report, he confronts his own guilt and his experiences while a prisoner at a concentration camp. Because the time, while fairly obvious, is never specifically mentioned, it gives the novel and its atrocities an air of universality. During the discussion we would try to avoid destroying the illusion by referring to things as "quasi-Nazis" or "concentration camp-esque." The book at times reads like a parable, but also has elements of Garcia Marquez type magical realism and even fairy tales. There are many episodes where animals are used to make a point, although seldom are these stories or vignettes ever resolved or reconciled with the rest of the story. I'm not sure the last sentence makes it clear that I consider that a positive thing, but believe me, I do. The book is very complex and thoughtfully composed; even ends that are left loose are done with intention.

Overall, I recommend this book highly. Also, I promise to read more quality books (maybe even some happier ones) in the future. That way, I'll have something to recommend to you before my blog reaches its dotage.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Some nation's capitol

This weekend I left the warm embrace of Astoria to take a 4 and a half hour bus ride to our nation's capitol. Or rather my nation's capitol, as I don't presume to know the nationalities of all of my esteemed readers. At any rate, there was a database conference in D.C. this weekend. Normally, the frequent occurrence of database conferences affects me not at all; however, my California-based sister was attending this particular database conference, and I used this rare chance that she was on the same coast to journey down to see her. She was kind enough to let me and a mutual friend of ours crash at her hotel (the large, many-windowed Gaylord National) with she and her boss. In fact, she even gave up her bed to us and slept in a nest of towels and pillows on the floor. I realize this makes me sound like the kind of person who is too cheap to spring for her own hotel room and will dislodge the person who's name is actually on the reservation from her own hotel bed. In my defense, she offered. Even after I lost the coin toss.

You'd think a place this swanky could handle a simple request for a roll-away bed. And also wouldn't respond to a request for extra pillows with the delivery of a half dozen towels.

It was on the first night that I realized that while I'd scrupulously remembered to pack my camera, I had yet again forgotten to pack my memory card. That's right, the above picture was in fact taken by the good people in marketing at the Gaylord National. So sadly, there will be only one picture from this trip, that was captured with the usual grainy realism on my cell phone. (And frankly, I probably could have gotten a better picture online). Before I unveil that gem though, here's a list of pictures you will not be seeing: my sister pantomiming swinging a baseball bat because there was a fake home plate in the sports bar of the hotel, the giant plate of nachos at said sports bar, the lovely walk across the bridge to Georgetown, an environmental conscience-less squirrel trashcan diving and then littering its findings in front of the Lincoln Memorial, a potential duck brawl on the reflecting pool, a sign with a very odd spelling of "teepee" (is it just me or should it not be "tipi"?) in front of the Museum of the American Indian (which, and this is neither here nor there, I hear from multiple sources, has the best museum cafeteria on the Mall), a close-up of a "signature martini" from Vapianos that is garnished with five gummy bears, some beautiful orchids at the Botanical Gardens, and a close-up of my uncle's cat.

Okay, enough of that talk of what might have been. Here's the picture I did get:

Pretty nice, huh? Something about the statue just makes me want to climb up on his presidential knee and tell him all my troubles. Naturally, there is a small chain and a tall marble pedestal to keep you from doing just that.

So this post is extremely scattered and really tells you nothing about my trip to DC. Suffice is to say, I had a perfectly lovely (albeit far too short) trip, and it was wonderful to see my sister, my friend Michelle (a D.C. local who knows all the best places to get a gummy bear martini), my aspiring lawyer friend Aaron, and my uncle and aunt. Thanks to all those who gave me beds this weekend and especially to those who gave me their only non-floor-nest bed.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

That's the name of the game

Normally, this blog exists as a forum for me solely to amuse myself (and theoretically others) with thoughts on my weekends and cat. However, every so often I do seek to inform and enlighten. Don't worry, I'm not going to offer you my thoughts on the upcoming midterm elections; I may wear the hats of a book blogger or food blogger at times, but one thing I can promise to never become is a politics blogger. No, my blogger intentions are far more trifling than that. Today, for example I wish to sing the praises of a particular board game.

About a week ago, I impulse bought Liebrary from Barnes and Noble. (It's a sad fact that I always go into Barnes and Noble in Union Square just to kill time before meeting friends, and yet always come out buying something I likely don't need). The premise of the game is very similar to the game Balderdash. For those of my readers who, for whatever unfortunate reason, haven't played Balderdash (or the simpler Dictionary Game, from which it is derived), the rules are fairly simple. You are given a person, acronym, date, or word and have to come up with something plausible the person would have become famous for, what the acronym stands for, what famous event occured on the date, or the definition for the word respectively. Players then have to choose which they think is the correct answer (the correct answer is also given as one of the choices), and players get points both for choosing correctly and for having their answer chosen by others. Liebrary is the same concept except that it specifically deals with the first lines of books. Categories include: Classics, Romances, Sci-fi and Horror, Children's books, and General Fiction. Players are given the name, author and a basic plot and make up what they think the first line is (or at the very least: should be).

The game was co-designed by actress Darryl Hannah, for those who require a celebrity pedigree with their board games.

This weekend I made it a personal goal to invite friends to my apartment and get them just liquored up enough that they'd play this game with me. The first occasion happened organically and required very little effort on my part as my roommate happened to be inviting people over for vegan cassoulet (the perfect accompaniment to which is a get-together game encouraging full bodied, young red). However, while fun, this inaugural playing of the game was not enough to satisfy my lust for board games in general and writing silly first-liners specifically, so I invited several friends over for brunch the next day too. A few mimosas in, and we had another excellent game of Liebrary going.

Having played the game twice now, I feel qualified to blog about its merits. Full disclosure, I am something of a board game (and game in general) nut. I've been known to invite people for dinner with the express purpose of trying to coerce them into playing charades at some point in the night. I can be manipulative and perhaps a little too quick to refill the wine, but most of my friends know what to expect at this point. With that in mind, I fully recommend Liebrary to anyone looking for some good, clean, albeit somewhat nerdy, fun. Several friends expressed concern that they wouldn't be skilled at the game because they aren't avid readers, but it's really a moot point. Even though I'd read many of the classics in that category, and many of the children's books as well, I found by-and-large that the first line never sounded as familiar as I felt it should. Case in point, all my readers have probably read (or viewed) Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, but who can immediately recall the first line? (To save you the trouble of googling it, the first line--disregarding the memorable prologue--is the none-too-memorable: "Gregory, o' my word, we'll not carry coals.")

The only downside to the game is the name. While clever (well, by board game name standards anyway) written out, when pronounced I realized I kept trying to say it differently then just simply saying "library," but there isn't really a way to distinguish it phonetically. For some reason, I kept saying the illogical "li-bary" which in addition to not matching the spelling of the name of the game at all, caused friends to question my literacy. Overall though, the clunkiness of inviting friends to "play Lie-brary, but see, there's an extra 'e' in it, so it's Lie-brary...Lie and then brary...get it?" is far outweighed by the simple joy of a night of creative game play.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Talented pumpkin artists and the deadbeats who love them

As you know (or may have gathered from previous blog posts), I am an avid entrant of Internet contests. Naturally, I prefer contests where a degree of skill is involved, be it writing short essays about meatballs or crafting Valentines haikus devoted to car-sharing or condensing whole stories into 25 words. I don't win said contests, but I find them an enjoyable diversion during the workday. (This is not to say that I'm too good for sweepstakes; I lose those too. However, I'd only recommend them if you have a separate email address set up just for siphoning off junk mail). Anyway, the latest contest to grace my inbox was sponsored by the car-sharing service I'm a member of: Zipcar (incidentally the same people who rejected my loving haikus of contests past). But putting aside past defeats, I saw that Zipcar had asked its members to carve a pumpkin into a "Zipcar inspired" masterpiece for Halloween this year.

This seemingly simple task was only problematic because I lack any real gourd-carving skills. My artistic talent is really limited to an excellent eye for collaging (if I do say so) and the ability to draw cartoon people that all look the same regardless of intended gender. Luckily, I have an ace in the hole: a boyfriend who went to art school and is generally enabling of my single-minded obsession with winning $200 in driving credit. My contributions to the project were the following: accidentally puchasing a pumpkin with the thickest skin of any squash I've ever laid knife to, refusing to let him use stencils or too many ideas from google because "we have to be creative, if we want to WIN," and taking numerous pictures of my cat with her head in the pumpkin (something she did of her own volition). Pictures follow, of course:

Isn't that cute? Well, perhaps you had to be there.

Once we removed Dinah, we formulated a plan:The plan. It's a car with the Zipcar logo on it in front of the skyline. Hopefully, that's obvious at this point.

Behold the hands of an artist at work:
At this point, I was mostly just watching what turned out to be a patently unfunny episode of The Office, and occasionally offering helpful advice like "try not to cut yourself."

Without further ado, our (er, his) creation:
You might notice that this picture was taken in a well lit room, with clearly no candle in the pumpkin. This is because we couldn't cut away enough of the skin for you to really even see light through it. I tell you, this pumpkin was a beast.

All other Zipcar annual pumpkin carving contest entrants better watch out!

And finally, for those wondering (which I'm sure was all of you) about my honorable, if unmentioned, entry in the Valentines haiku contest (the prize for which was only a paltry $100 in driving credit), here it is:

Sharing is caring-
"I'll share a ride with you, Love,"
Whispers my Zipcar.

I take pride in how creepy and anthropomorphic I was able to make that in only 17 syllables.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My life is a hodge podge of food-related things

In my effort to bring you up-to-the-minute Astoria-specific news, I googled "Astoria, NY news" and found an article about the recent Vendy awards. For those of you, such as myself, who weren't yet familiar with the Vendy awards, allow me to enlighten you: Vendies are given out annually to honor the best and the brightest of New York street food vendors. This year the Vendies were swept by Queens, with residents of the burrough claiming the top 3 spots. The third place winner was Astoria's own Fares (Freddy) Zeideia, the self-proclaimed King of Falafel who was not surprised by the sweeping victory. "Everything is better in Queens," insists Zeideia. Zeideia also had kind words for his Jackson Heights competitor (the dosa king), saying:
"Dosa guy — his food is great — but I'm not much of a vegetarian." Suddenly, I could really go for a nice falafel cart shawarma.

In the land of chickpea fritters, this man rules as king. More specifically: the land located where Broadway meets 30th St.

In other food-related news, my roommate just launched a food blog. (Because she lives with me in Astoria, I'm going to round this up to Astoria-related news as well). As I've mentioned before, she's a vegan. She's also a very ambitious vegan, and, as such, has taken on the herculean project of translating all of Julia Child's Art of French Cooking into vegan glory. Think Julie & Julie only without the butter. I'm very excited to be sharing a kitchen with the project and look forward to the day she tackles de-boning mock duck or making an eggless souffle. It's going to be epic. You can (and should!) follow her adventures here:

Speaking of followers, thanks to a recent addition, I'm now only one follower away from double digits! Is this a worthwhile blog milestone? At any rate, I encourage any readers of mine who find this fact rather sad and are not yet following me to jump on the Living the Astoria Dream bandwagon. In an effort to make this vaguely food-related, and thus keeping with the, albeit tenuous, theme of this post, I will offer to personally buy my 10th follower a sandwich. This really only applies if you live in Astoria though. If you're a non-local follower, well then I promise to send you warm, sandwich-like thoughts. I'm beginning to see why I don't have more followers...

Friday, October 8, 2010

Museums and awkwardness

My blog got a lot of new readers this week. I noticed that my number of hits was easily 5 times that of what it normally is, which at first was rather exciting. Then I put two and two together. I was looking for a new roommate all this week and thus emailing a lot of strangers from craigslist. I remembered that I put the link to my blog in my chat info, meaning that anyone I emailed could read it. My theory was confirmed when everyone who came to see the apartment mentioned having read it. Shortly after meeting with everyone, my roommate told me she thought she'd be able to stay another month, making the whole roommate search kind of a moot point--with the exception of my short-lived fanbase. My roommate suggested she threaten to move out every couple of months or so to help me increase my blog's readership one potential roommate at a time. The only fault with the plan is that then my only readers would be people embittered by my dangling a tantalizing apartment (complete with undeniably adorable cat) in front of them and then pulling it away at the last second. It's probably more a recipe for angry comments then content readership. Ah well, it was nice to be popular while it lasted.

The other day, my friend wanted to go to a "Science Cafe" at the American Museum of Natural History. Basically, it's an event where you can buy overpriced drinks and listen to free lectures about the future of space travel. I had to go home and clean my apartment (for the aforementioned potential roommate visits), so I had already intended to not stay for much of it. In the end, we didn't stay for any of it because my friend and I were yet again reminded of a universal fact that I always manage to forget: events in museums are, without exception, awkward.

Then again, maybe this is only true for me. I can see the appeal of hosting events in museums. They generally contain wide, reasonably open lobbies, are full of conversation pieces, and add an air of grace and formality to any social function. Perhaps it's this exact formality I find off-putting. That or the fact that I am not a born social network-er. Put me in a room with wine, free food, and other would-be science nerds, and I'll inevitably hug the table to crudities and avoid conversation with anyone I didn't come with. A couple of summers ago, when I was staying at my parent's house before moving to New York, a friend and I decided to go to a "singles mixers" at the Houston Museum of Natural History called "Mixers and Elixirs." The free food we were promised with our admission fee turned out to be mini hot dogs and buttered popcorn. My friend and I eased our way amongst a crowd of middle-aged Houstonians, below a hanging brontosaurus, and quickly realized we were likely going to mix with no one. Also, there's no way to elegantly eat a hot dog.

By far the most awkward museum event of my life was at an event at the South African science museum in Cape Town. I went to a public symposium held by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (a group of us were invited because of a hook-up from our Conflict Resolutions professor). The speakers were apparently well known nationally and one of them was a current executive for the ANC. Anyway, the symposium was held in the science museum in a room called the "whale well" because it is an open room spanning several floors with whale skeletons and models hanging from the ceiling. By the time our group got there, all the seating on the floor was taken, so our only option was to lean against the railing. Me and my friends, however, were feeling plucky and innovative and decided to go up to the second floor where we could look down on the conference from above and actually found some seats in what was called the "whale sounds booth." Basically it was a hollow tube with seats in it, in which you could listen to the melodic songs of whales while overlooking the whale well. We decided the relative advantages of sitting down during an hour-long speech were worth listening to whales, so we set up camp there. But once the speakers actually started the whale sound loop chose that exact moment to switch to the loudest possible cacophony of whale noise and everyone (in a room containing several hundred people) turned to look at us. We scurried out of the booth in fits of laughter (mostly out of awkwardness, but really, the moaning and singing of whales at a serious function on the future of South African democracy is quite funny). It also happened later in the evening after the museum people had supposedly turned the sounds off, and we'd cautiously returned to our seats, only to be displaced again by the sounds of whales. Later in the night when we were at the reception to try our hands at mingling with South Africa's conflict resolving elite, we found out that everyone at the symposium thought we'd been pressing a button to make the sounds go off. "Are you the girls making the whale sounds?" was a common question we were asked. And that's why I'm now blackballed from any future Institute for Justice and Reconciliation functions.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Apples to apples

This weekend, I did a fall activity I've been talking about every year since I moved here. That's right; I went apple picking. In previous years, apple season has eluded me. It's surprisingly short, you know. There's a fine line between un-ripe and completely picked over. And it's funny how popular picking your own fruit can be. I don't know why they don't have places to reap and grind your own wheat, too. Actually, they probably do somewhere.

My friends and I drove a good hour and a half into the Hudson Valley in search of the elusive organic orchard. This was done to appease my friend with a social conscience (for the record, I'm pro-organic too!), but had the dual perk of making it possible for us to eat apples directly off the trees without fear of pesticide poisoning. I wish I had pictures of the beautiful trees and us picking delicious fruit from them, but unfortunately they're stuck on my camera. I lost my cord a while ago, and these pictures ended up on my camera's internal memory. Did you know you can't buy a camera cord without contacting the manufacturer? I didn't until today! But that's really neither here nor there. Suffice is to say, you'll just have to use your imagination.

Naturally, the joy of apple picking is that you return from a day of basking in the crisp fall weather with several bushels of apples. The curse of apple picking is also that you return with several bushels of apples. Once divided amongst all of us, the apples were a more manageable quantity. Still, it's far too many apples for me to eat just for snacking (I go through apples at the doctor approved one per diem), without risking losing some. The solution of course was to start baking. My first apple project was a pie. I was careful to make sure this pie ended up on my memory card. Behold:It's vegan, made without refined sugar, and made with apples from an organic orchard. I'm ready for my New Age foodie badge now.

For those interested in the recipe, I got the crust recipe from my roommate's sister-in-law.

Vegan Pie Crust
2 cups flour
1/2 cup margarine/vegetable shortening (I used Earth Balance)
1/2 tsp salt
1 T vinegar
5-8 T water (give or take)

Put everything, minus the water, in the food processor and pulse to achieve course crumbs. Then slowly add water until mixture forms a ball. In my food processor this is also accompanied by a loud noise and shaking. My food processor is kind of old, I think. Refrigerate in a ball until ready to roll out. Makes two crusts.

For the actual pie, I used the recipe for "Amazing Apple Pie" from my roommate's vegan cookbook (she's the actual vegan; I just very occasionally moonlight). Specifically: How It All Vegan!.

6-8 large baking apples (I used a mix of about 5 species pulled from my grab bag. I would be hard pressed to tell you which ones)
3/4 c maple syrup (I used a mix of maple syrup and agave syrup because I ran out of maple)
1-2 T lemon juice
2 tsp cinnamon
2 1/2 T corn starch or arrowroot powder

First, you peel, core, and dice the apples. Then boil them in water for about 8 minutes. Drain them, but set aside 1/4 cup of the "apple water." Mix the apples with the syrup, lemon juice, and cinnamon. Then heat on medium the 1/4 cup apple water with the corn starch until it becomes thick (if you use arrowroot powder, as I did, it forms a sort of gel). Add the thickened mixture to the apples. Pour everything into your crust. Cook in preheated 350 degree oven for 40 minutes.

If you perform all of these steps correctly, you should end up with an apple pie. I know I did.