Monday, August 16, 2010

The Adventures Continue!

Nine days hence my year in Chicago comes to an end and I'm headed off to Washington, DC to start a new chapter of adventuring.  Since I won't have the university consuming my every waking moment, I'm hopeful that I'll be able to sustain a blog (rather than have it squelched half a year in by a masters thesis).  If you want to follow my adventures in Washington, you can do so at Tales from Federal City, my new chronicle of discoveries and experiences.  I promise to do a better job this time!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties... the form of "having no time."  The first draft of my thesis is due on Friday's not done.

However, once it is done, I promise to do some writing.  After all, I have things to tell you about:

- my adventures in Boystown (over the weekend)
- my voyage to Washington (end of March/beginning of this month)
- another culinary adventure (involving chicken, spices, and some lovely brand-new knives that actually cut things in one single stroke instead of requiring a sawing motion which would be more appropriate for a log than an orange)
- job interviews and other career aspirations
- and more.  I think.  

Funny how only one of these is about Chicago.  I need to get out more.  But I have no time!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

So Close But So Far...

I am pleased to report that I did in fact manage to write ten pages of thesis and send out a bunch of cover letters and queries since I last wrote.  I am also pleased to report that at this time tomorrow I will be on an overnight train heading east.

I am not pleased to report that I'm nervous as all hell.

Perhaps that's an overstatement - after all, I have nothing to lose, only things to gain.  But I do not often trek more than a thousand miles on my own (the last time I did that was three years ago when I went over to Germany for study abroad, but that's quite another story), and I do not often find myself in the position of trying to convince the faceless entity of the federal government to hire little me to do something for them.  Preferably something at least mildly interesting that doesn't involve waterboarding.  Of course, the government isn't really faceless because I will be interviewing with people (living, breathing ones, I assume) and that fact that I have received more than one (in fact two) unsolicited invitations to things (as opposed to blanket e-mails that probably went out to hundreds of people, of which I have received three) suggests that I am a pretty strong candidate in someone's eyes.  My job is to prove that hypothesis correct - it's just that there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of people competing against me.  For pity's sake, there are half a dozen people from the London School of Economics, more than a dozen from the Harvard Law School, a bunch from Yale...

You'll forgive me, I hope, for being daunted, because even if those schools are not as intense as the University of Chicago - we're pretty crazy here - they have all sorts of name recognition.  I presume that government officials won't be bamboozled by an eminent name, but who knows?  Here's hoping the entire Harvard delegation is cross-eyed and socially awkward.  Ditto Yale and LSE.

Anyhow, I leave tomorrow evening from Union Station (Chicago) and arrive early on Monday afternoon at Union Station (Washington).  As far as I can can tell, the main difference between these stations is that the one in Washington is connected to Washington's public transportation system - the one in Chicago, as I have unhappily learned, is not.  Not even a few blocks away.  From the station I will proceed via Metro to my hotel (without even needing to change lines - bite me, Chicago Transit Authority), where I will secure my room, drop my things and, depending on how nasty I feel after an overnight on the train, shower.  Then I prepare my agenda for the following day(s) and, if the weather's nice, toddle about the capital.  Possibly meet up with a friend.

The following day (the 30th) is my 23rd birthday, so I will celebrate by running myself ragged.  I have an interview at Social Security at 11, register for the Fair at 12, attend the opening session (remarks, etc.) from 1-4, and then a tour and info session (and maybe interview?) at the Broadcasting Board of Governors at 4:30, then, if time permits, a reception at the Department of Agriculture at 5:30 (if the BBG thing doesn't go over), and then, back to the conference center for a meet-and-greet until 6:00 (that's if I don't make it to Agriculture - though I may skip it altogether if I'm too tired).  At some I shall eat.  And then, if nothing further presents itself (like people who want to do something for my birthday, about which I am being pessimistic so as not to be disappointed) back to the hotel and to bed.

Why?  Because the fair begins in earnest the following day at 9, and I intend to be there on the dot to get in and score a few points, so to speak, before the swarm descends.  The conference center (even just our allotted portion) is huge and there will be a lot to process.  Best to be there early and interact with people before they get tired and snappy.  This includes me.  This runs until 4; rinse and repeat on Thursday, except it only runs until 3.  I probably won't stay that late because my train leaves at 4-ish - another overnight, which delivers me in Chicago just before 9 on Friday morning.  Instead of heading home to do the reading I will need to do to catch up on the classes I will have missed (did I neglect to mention that this is all over the first week of classes at the U?  No?  How careless of me.), I will hop on another train up to Milwaukee to meet my parents and spend the Easter weekend at home.  I don't want to do it, but they would be wounded if I didn't.  So, honorable gentleman that I am, I have acquiesced.  I suppose I can relax when I'm dead.

I do not guarantee updates from Washington, but I will see what I can do.  It's supposed to get up to 85 on Thursday there - and me in a suit! - but I may find time to post a few thoughts and/or daily digests.  We'll see - wish me luck!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


My current joke: Guess which part of Spring Break the University of Chicago doesn't understand.  Hint: It's not the "spring" part.

That alone should give you a bit of an idea as to why the post below this one is from the middle of February.  I promise you I didn't plan it that way, but this has been the most exhausting March I think I've ever experienced.  Which, considering some of my Marches back at undergrad, is saying something.

I do have posts I intend to write to fill in the gap between this one and February 18th, and I had intended to write them over break.  However, yesterday we were informed via e-mail from our preceptor that fifteen pages of our theses are due at the beginning of next week.  No earlier warning - just yesterday.  Needless to say, neither I nor anyone else has fifteen pages written.  As of this posting, I've got two (which, let's be honest, is probably more than my friends vacationing in Mexico have got).  So although I had intended to spend part of spring break posting here, I don't think that's going to be possible.

Lest you think I am simply whining excessively over a single paper (even if it is a master's thesis), I will throw another important factor into the mix.  Around the beginning of March I was notified that I have been awarded a finalist spot in the federal government's Presidential Management Fellowship program, a prestigious and highly competitive placement program for people with newly-awarded graduate degrees (read more here).  Why am I telling you this?  Because the invitation-only career fair is next week.  Fortunately, I have all my travel arrangements and hotel safely booked away, but there is that small matter of sending out resumes, cover letters, and various queries before the fair begins, because you can't do it all in two and a half days.  So competing with my thesis - 15 pages by the 29th, you'll remember - is something arguably even more important: my future.

Am I over-dramatizing?  Probably.  There's a good possibility I could get out of bed tomorrow, grab breakfast, pack up my things and beat it to the university where I'll hammer out ten or more thesis pages, then come home and send out half a dozen resumes after dinner.  Likely?  No.  My goal?  Absolutely.

(Look for more material between now and February 18th - I will do my best to fill in that gap, I promise!  I've got all sorts of neat stuff to talk about, like the Museum of Science and Industry, my favorite bookstore that I introduced you all to in the fall, spring fever, artwork, cooking...)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

I Am Unfamiliar With Alleys

In the town where I grew, there were very few alleys - in fact, the only two I can think of were downtown, not in residential districts.  In Hyde Park, on the other hand, alleys grow on trees.  Well, not quite, because it's entirely possible that the alleys outnumber the trees.  But perhaps I exaggerate.

In any case, I walked by this alley on my way between grocery stores (which, of course, means it's a Thursday) and snapped a picture of what I saw.  What intrigued me most was the cobblestone, another thing Appleton, WI is almost totally bereft of, with the exception of the street sandwiched between the block of downtown containing the hip university students' cafe, the imports store, and the ultra-expensive gourmet grocery store; and the ugliest parking structure I have ever encountered.  It's a treat - it looks like it belongs in Sarajevo circa the mid-1990s (if non-history buffs don't get my joke, let me remind you that Sarajevo was under continuous siege from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996...)

I believe I was talking about cobblestones.  You might recall that I've had a run-in with cobblestones once before and mused on it for a while - that street was paved over.  This one - this alley, to be more precise - looks like it will be around for a while.  What I particularly like is that it has begun, in a way, to meld with the nature around it.  There was a pond collecting in the left foreground (and on the sidewalk - I had fun trying to maneuver through that without soaking both feet) and as you look farther off, if you don't concentrate too hard, all those patches of water and piles of snow begin to blur together and, towards the "vanishing point" of the picture, it's hard to tell if the cobblestone has given away to a lake or if it persists until it reaches its outlet, whatever that may be (it's blotted out by the brightness of the sun).  I think the reason I took this photo - because sometimes I can't explain why I feel compelled to take a photo until well after the fact - is this cobblestone-water-ice-sun goulash which sums up what I actually like about winter.  That and the puddles of dirty meltwater which suggest that spring, my favorite season, is coming...

Monday, February 15, 2010

New Features

Observers with keen eyes will have noticed by now that a few news features have come to Tales From Second City.  That's what happens when you poke around through other people's blogs - you get all sorts of neat ideas.  So here are a few neat new features for your - and my - amusement and convenience:
- A blogroll, down at the bottom of the right column.  Here I've listed some of the things I read on a regular or semi-regular basis.  Quite the varied bunch, I readily admit!  Keep watching that space - I'll probably add some more to it in the future.
- New navigation links under the title banner.  "Home" will take you back to the blog's front page, and "Links" will take you to a page which summarizes the blogroll, plus a little blurb I've written about each of the links.  "About" is currently a dead link, but I will eventually write something about me and about this blog to put there.
 - Copyright, way down at the bottom.  After seeing a former roommate's blog with this Creative Commons widget on it, I thought it made sense to add it on, just to have all my bases covered.  If you blog and think you may want to exercise some control over your work, consider using a Creative Commons license.  Just click on the image or the text and you'll be taken to the site from whence it came, complete with an explanation.
 That's all that's new for right now, but if you have suggestions, requests, or other input, just leave a comment!

NOTE (17 Feb, 12:40pm): I've lightened up the background color from jet black to a dark gray in hopes that it won't be quite so hard on the eyes.  I'd appreciate knowing if you think it's an improvement or not.  I'm going to try it this way for a couple of days before I make a final decision.  Let me know your thoughts!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Culinary Adventures: Happy Valentine's Day!

I don't usually post twice on the same day, but what's Valentine's Day without a bit of chocolate?  At right is a modified sour cream cookie - this one with cocoa powder and chocolate chips, perfect for the chocolate lover that we all - well, most of us - have locked inside.  It's hard to keep the chocolate lover locked up on Valentine's Day, though, so let it out and make a batch of these cookies! (They're so good they speak to my inner chocoholic - and they're saying "Hey now, we may look like cow patties but we taste loads better.")

Technically speaking, this isn't a culinary "adventure" really, because this is a recipe I've done several times over.  It is unique in this respect, though: from start to last batch in the oven I managed it in 38 minutes, my best time yet.  Once the last batch comes out it'll be 50 minutes even.  Practice makes perfect - and speedy - but this is a painless recipe with a fluffy, chocolate-y result that will make you feel great, even if you're single.  Feeling brave, or craving chocolate?  Read on below for my recipe; try it once or twice, modify it, and make it your own!

James's Chocolate Sour Cream Cookies

1 c. sugar
1/2 c. margarine or butter
1/2 c. dairy sour cream
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 eggs
2-1/4 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 c. cocoa powder
1 c. chocolate chips

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.  Soften the margarine or butter (you can partially melt it in the microwave, but there's no need to liquefy it), and then mix it with the sugar, sour cream, vanilla, and eggs.  This can be done by hand or with electric hand mixer, which yields a fluffier dough.  Next, mix in the flour, the baking soda, the salt, the cocoa powder, and the chocolate chips.  If you feel like adding some zing, grate some orange peel and add that too (warning: work intensive; will definitely hurt your speed).  Drop dough by teaspoonfuls onto greased cookie sheets and bake at 350 for 10 to 12 minutes.  Because of the cocoa powder the cookies won't really change color as they cook; they're done when a gentle tap on the top yields a firm (but not hard) cookie - still squishy/mushy and they need to bake longer.

To make the original recipe (Sour Cream Cookies, no chocolate), remove the cocoa powder and chocolate chips and substitute instead 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg (or more if you like your cookies with attitude).  These cookies are very forgiving and take to experimenting well - I'm going to do a ginger version at some point.

Enjoy, and Happy Valentine's Day!

[By the way, props to Life in a Cramped Kitchen, which gave me the idea of sharing this recipe along with the picture, since I normally tantalize with a picture but don't give out a recipe.  I'm just mean, I guess.  Check out LICK (hey, cool acronym!) for some great recipes and beautiful photographs.]

Nuns! Everywhere!

Well, perhaps a bit of an overstatement, but not by much.  Over the course of the weekend I have seen more nuns that I would have seen in months back up north.  And not all of them at church, either (some, yes, which isn't terribly interesting, so I'll leave them out of my account).

One in particular struck me.  I was at the local produce market picking up milk (because it's cheapest there, which still isn't that cheap - oh how I miss Wisconsin in this respect - but if you think I'm going to pay $3.99 a gallon at the grocery store you're crazy) and a few other things when there, by the windows at the end of the checkout lanes was a little, wizened nun.  She wasn't dressed like the stereotypical nun - you know, with the long flowing habit and the wimple (the starched white things that frames the face and holds up the veil); rather, she was wearing the same garb as Meryl Streep in Doubt (here), but with a much less prominent bow and no glasses.  This little old nun was presiding over a table of baked goods, about which other residents of Hyde Park (my significant other, specifically) had informed me.  I would have stopped by, but I was in a bit of a hurry to do the rest of my shopping and then return home to get some work done, so I didn't pause.  "But," I found myself thinking as I walked home, "why?"

I have no doubt that they're excellent baked goods - if sisters are selling things, you know they're good, because they wouldn't sell them if they weren't.  There's just something about the nuns - at least, those who are still alive - that makes me think of hand-crafted works of art.  After all, nuns were the ones who used to be responsible for embrodering altar cloths and vestments.  They used to be - and in some places still are - the only ones allowed to bake the host used in Catholic Eucharist.  And in the Middle Ages, some prominent women like Hildegard of Bingen were responsible for great works of art, like the illumination to the right (it's from the Liber Divinorum Operum (A.D. 1165), one of the several books Hildegard wrote - you can see Hildegard herself in the lower left-hand corner).  So it's certainly not fears of quality that made my shy away from the little table at the produce market.

Are we - am I - apprehensive of nuns?  We've all heard about the horror stories of the nuns who taught in Catholic elementary schools across the country up to the last few decades of the previous century and some of them taught my mother, so I heard stories from her as well as from society in general.  (If you haven't heard the horror stories I'm referring to, watch Doubt - you'll get some idea at least.)  And the figures clad all in black, nothing but faces and hands visible from under their robes, do seem somewhat intimidating.  But I'm not unfamiliar with that sort of nun.  Perhaps it was the Meryl-Streep-like garb - the blinder-like bonnet, especially - which unsettled me.  Perhaps that I was hurried.  Perhaps I wasn't sure I wanted to be seen consorting with a nun in public (but why?).  Perhaps any number of things.  What is most likely - and what I realized eventually - is that I anticipated needing to spend the cash I had on hand on groceries at my other two stops that afternoon, and didn't want to go up to the table, look over the baked goods, and then leave without making a purchase.  Even if the reason were my own tightness of budget, it would look like I was unsatisfied with the goods being offered, which would be rude.  And you don't want to be rude to a nun - for all you know, she might have a big yardstick under her habit to whip out and beat you with.  And we wouldn't want that, would we?  No, Sister.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Culinary Adventures: Fried & Fantastic

I know I'm not the only one who succumbs periodically to the deep and heart-wrenching desire for fried food, but even I am distressed by the fact that deep-frying in the home is not only difficult (special-equipment required), expensive (special equipment required - oh, and you go through tons of cooking oil), and dangerous (who wants to burn down the apartment building?  Not me.), which essentially renders fried food out of reach for those of us which cravings.

Except not quite.  All that above is referring to deep frying, which we know so well from McDonalds, KFC, and the host of other restaurants, chain and independent, that have arisen across the country to satisfy our deep and (if we have any dietary sense in our heads) guilty cravings.  But there are different ways to fry - one of which I'd like to share.  But first, the problem with deep frying:

The dilemma with deep frying is that in order to deep-fry, say, a piece of chicken, you need something big enough to submerge the chicken in hot oil in.  This is easiest with special equipment (here) which will set you back $24 at the very least, and more like $60-$70 is you want a deep fryer with features, like a timer.  If you don't feel inclined to splurge on a gadget you can, at least theoretically, deep-fry in a tall pot, but hot oil, whether in a deep fryer or a saucepan, is dangerous stuff.  And what do you do with all that hot, greasy oil once you've deep-fried that twinkie in it?  Make weapons of mass destruction out of it, that's what.

Or you could try things my way, which involves a happy coincidence and sudden, unexpected fulfillment.  Sounds much nicer than waiting for a deep fryer to show up at your door or trying to dispose of a gallon of cooking oil (hint: not worth it), doesn't it?  Here's how.

Last night, I was on the phone with my parents over the dinner hour and mentioned that I hadn't cooked anything, had no idea what I was going to do for dinner, and had just purchased a bag of rice (mundane, I know, but sometimes my mother and I talk about genealogy, so don't complain about that bag of rice).  My mother suggested I make rice, but throw a chicken bouillon cube in with it and have chicken-flavored rice.  Since I happened to have an abundance of chicken bouillon cubes and rice (as all apartment cooks should), I thought "well, why not?"  Answer: it's still dull.  So I steamed some mixed vegetables (yes, frozen from a bag, because I don't feel like shelling my own peas) and mixed them in.  Still boring.  So I ate about half and then put the rest in the fridge, thinking I would suffer it through it the following night, and let this be a lesson to me for thinking that a bouillon cube would solve all my problems.

As I was walking home from the university tonight, however, I had a thought.  I remembered seeing, when thumbing through one of my cookbooks a few months ago, a recipe for fried rice.  "What," I had wondered at the time, "is fried rice?"  So I read the recipe, and it made such an impression on me that I couldn't remember a thing about it as I walked home except that it required rice and eggs.  So when I got back home, I looked it up again and thought "hey, this is easy."  And this time I was right.

Now, it being a cookbook with gourmet (or perhaps gourmand) tendencies, it called for three different spices, a clove of garlic, minced shallots, and soy sauce.  I was in no mood to mince shallots (I don't even have shallots) so I scalped the recipe for its basic parts and decided to make my own, slimmed down version.  So I took out a saucepan (not a frying pan because this involves oil, which will spatter all over the stove-top in a frying pan, as I have found out in the past) and poured about three or four tablespoons of olive oil into it - enough to cover the bottom in about a third of an inch of oil.  Then I added garlic powder and onion powder and turned the heat on high.  In about a minute the oil began to spatter, so I took the rice out of the fridge (with vegetables still in it, mind you) and added it bit by bit into the pot.  I did get a bit impatient halfway through because I was so hungry and dumped the second half into the oil, but stirred frequently to make up for it.  Then, in a separate  bowl, I beat two eggs and added them to the whole mess.  Stirring frequently, the rice fried, the eggs scrambled, and the whole thing turned a lovely golden-brown.  I served myself some, added a little salt and pepper and, standing in stockinged feet in my kitchen, devoured it.  It was delicious.

The reason this works is because the rice is actually being fried in that little 1/3-inch of oil, because unlike a piece of chicken, it doesn't take much oil to submerge a grain of rice.  It also works because scrambled egg is absolutely delicious.  And it's worth remembering that I made the rice the night before with a chicken bouillon cube, which also added to the taste, and fried everything in olive oil, not canola oil as the recipe suggested.  But as you can see, it was quite easy.  So why not try it, and experience a little fried rice euphoria for yourself?

Friday, January 29, 2010

A Sudden Crush of Work Indeed

Remember this?
"Barring a sudden crush of work, I might take myself on an outing Friday afternoon as a reward for having made it through a difficult week and what is generally an unpleasant month.  And I promise to write about it."
I wrote that just a few days ago, and lo and behold, the sudden crush of work has materialized.  Somehow I'm not surprised - it always happens this way.  No Museum of Science and Industry for me.  In any case, I'll be keeping my eye out for another free day (they're listed here if you're thinking of coming down - or up - to visit) and hoping for my free time to coincide with a free admission day.  A bit like waiting for the stars to align a la astrology, but sometimes time management feels just as murky.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

So, I'm a Bad Person...

Remember that pledge I made back at the beginning of the month to write more?  Yeah, about's harder to blog regularly than I thought.

I think the reason is what exactly it is that I'm doing in Chicago - namely, going to school.  And unfortunately, the way school works (at least in this country) involves a need to get lots of work done.  This is not necessarily tied to a 9-5 work schedule like much employment in this country, which means any and all hours of the day are fair game for work-time.  And, it being the University of Chicago and a one-year master's program, all hours of the day are not only fair game for work-time but practically required for work-time.  That's not to say that I'm working 24/7, but during those hours I do have free, I often do things to relax, like spend time with my significant other, play games, and sleep.  "Not blog?" you ask.  No, honestly, because I don't want to write slop, and at the end of far too many days I'm often wrung dry as far as creativity and wit go.

The stop-gap solution I have devised is to take advantage of those rare occasions when I am both inspired to write and in possession of free time to write multiple blog posts.  You will have noticed, however, that none of the posts on this blog are dated from the same day.  I have a secret to share: it's a lie.  Some of these posts were written well after the fact, but I back-dated them (one of my favorite Blogger features).  How do I know when to back-date to?  Well, since many (but not all) of my posts are accompanied by a picture, all I need to do is figure out when the picture was taken (it's in there under "Properties") and then back-date to a few hours after I took the picture.  This works because when I take pictures with my phone, for example, it's almost inevitably because I want to blog about them.  But when my time (or my wit) dries up, the pictures just sit in my phone or on my computer (if I've managed to transfer them that far, which I often don't).  So take note - as I'm writing, the post below this one is from January 4th (more than three weeks ago - shameful, I know).  That may change.

Am I anticipating one of those rare confluences of the time and wit necessary to blog (not really a verb) in the near future?  Well, yes and no.  At the moment everything in my life is attendant upon the government service exam I'm taking tomorrow morning - nothing else matters and nothing else is planned.  However, once I make it through tomorrow (which will be an exhausting day, I'm sure of it), I have a few days off - that is, no classes.  That's not to suggest that I won't be doing work; I will.  However, the Museum of Science and Industry has free admission on weekdays during January, and I haven't visited yet.  Barring a sudden crush of work, I might take myself on an outing Friday afternoon as a reward for having made it through a difficult week and what is generally an unpleasant month.  And I promise to write about it.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Twelfth Night: Culinary Adventures Has a Party

"Twelfth Night?  What's that?"

A friend asked me this rather innocuous question when I mentioned that I was planning a Twelfth Night party.  I suppose what was running through her head at the moment was Shakespeare's play of the same name (see right); perhaps she envisioned me crowding a few dozen people into my apartment for a dramatic reading, complete with costumes and music.  And while I may do that at some later date, that wasn't at all what I had in mind.

Twelfth Night's significance comes from medieval Christendom (that is, Christian Europe during the Middle Ages).  The "twelve" may ring a bell for those of you with especially limber minds - remember that song "The Twelve Days of Christmas"?  You know, the one with the partridge in the pear tree and the calling birds and leaping lords and FIIIVE GOLLL-DEN RINGS?  The Twelve Days of Christmas to which that carol refers begin on the day after Christmas (December 26th - the feast of St. Stephen, which is referenced in the carol "Good King Wenceslas" - bet you didn't know that!), and continue until the twelfth day which, because Christmas is on the 25th of December, falls on the 6th of January.  The more religious of my readers will know that January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany, which commemorates the arrival of the Three Kings in Bethlehem.  Twelfth Night, then, is the eve of the Epiphany, or the night of January 5th.  Hence my party, which will occur on the evening of the 5th.

But wait, you ask.  Is Twelfth Night some kind of really obscure medieval Christian religious festival?  No, it isn't.  Twelfth Night is one of a series of observances built into medieval Christianity whose primary function, it seems, is to serve as an excuse for a party.  [Another is Shrove Tuesday, which we know in this country as Mardi Gras, or as Carnival/Carnevale in Europe and South America.  If you're wondering about the "Shrove," bit, it has nothing to do with shrews - rather, "shrove" is the past tense of the archaic verb "shrive," which means "to go confess one's sins" - you would do this on Shrove Tuesday (literally Confessed Tuesday) because the following day is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.]  Twelfth Night not only marks the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, it also marks the beginning of the Carnival Season which ends with Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras.  In comparison with these important issues, its actual religious significance is fairly minor.  So let's party!

I imagine you're tired of the history lecture by now.  Congratulations for wading through it!  You deserve some cake:
I will explain presently.  In the meantime, mind that you don't drool on your keyboard.

There are a couple of traditions associated with Twelfth Night, one of which - and it just happens to be my favorite - involves a cake.  To be more precise, it involves what in French is called a galette des Rois, or King Cake.  Just to be clear, that which is pictured above is not a galette of any sort.  My schedule prevented me from making the galette de Dame Carcas, a lovely orange-flavored cake from the south of France, which I usually make for this occasion.  Instead, because I was limited on time, I made a ganache, which actually refers to the frosting (made from cream and chocolate and nothing else) that I used to frost the cake, not the cake itself.  Despite the fancy name, this is actually quite a bit easier than the galette for several reasons, included a welcome absence of yeast and all the work that goes with it. The tradition behind the galette des Rois - or ganache des Rois which will have to suffice this year - is that hidden inside it somewhere is a bean (some people prefer a coin or a little china Christ-child, but I'd rather not break a tooth, so a black-eyed pea it is).  Whoever gets the bean in their slice of cake is crowned the King or Queen of the Twelfth Night party - and, according to medieval tradition, the Lord or Lady of Misrule.  This person rules the party, and once he or she is crowned, the normal order of things is reversed - masters become servants, for example, which was particularly salient during the Middle Ages.  I have a crown with which to honor the lucky bean-finder, and universal acclaim and prestige will be his or hers until midnight, when the Lord or Lady's rule ends.

That was a very long paragraph - have some more cake as a reward for making it through:

The question I have not yet answered, which may be perturbing those of you who are not lulled into a diabetic haze by the sight of this magnificent cake (of which I ought to take pictures in daylight so I don't have to use flash, which as you can see has given two pictures of the same cake that look quite different - one is chocolate, the other is butterscotch.  Hint: the second one is closer to the real coloring), is why I'm bothering to celebrate Twelfth Night at all, since I was so pressed for time that I couldn't make the traditional galette.   The answer is fairly simple.  I like spending time with friends, and winter is a particularly good time to be social since the weather is usually at least mildly soul-crushing in this part of the world by the time the New Year rolls around.  But people spend Christmas with their families, and New Year's Eve generally turns into debauchery, which I find distasteful.  Two years ago I decided I needed something to celebrate around this time of year that people wouldn't be committed for, but that had a fixed date, traditions, and such.  Twelfth Night fit the bill exactly.  So, starting last year, I officially inaugurated my own holiday tradition - wherever I am, I celebrate Twelfth Night with the friends I have near me.  I have my traditions - including the cake and the Lord/Lady of Misrule - and I hope to keep adding bits, like a dinner party or some Shakespeare - as the years progress.  It is quite satisfying to have a holiday to call one's own - or in other words, to have my cake and eat it, too.

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year's Resolutions

The New Year is here!  Can you believe that it's now 2010?  No more of the Aughts, as the first decade of this millennium is apparently now being called.  There are reasons to mourn (here), but there are also reasons to celebrate.  After all, in terms of American politics and society at the very least, the Aughts were a pretty bad decade.  I won't air my political views here, but suffice it to say that beginning with the biggest terrorist attack in U.S. history and ending with a major economic meltdown is a fairly bad track record for any decade, but consider further who was president for 8 of the 10 years...well, I believe you begin to see my picture.

I've made a couple of resolutions which I may or may not end up keeping, but one which I fully intend to keep is to write more frequently and more insightfully on this here blog.  I usually held back from posting until I had something at least mildly interesting in terms of a photograph to add to the post (though at least once I have stretched the definition of "mildly interesting photography" into fairly horrible contortions of which, looking back, I am a bit ashamed).  I'm going to try to write more without relying on a photo as a crutch.  I'll try to capture what a experience in my adventures in more ways than just the purely visual - a bit like a creative writing exercise, really, except with real subject material.  And less whiny.  Promise.