Friday, May 29, 2009

Home for Memorial Day

Spent time with my girlfriends in San Francisco. My family had a BBQ and played with my little nieces before their move to Seattle.
I took my Dad out for an early Father's day to the ferry building in San Francisco.
Then to see Star Trek. Short three day trip, but packed with wonderful memories.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Eating Cheaply in Boston. Brace Yourselves.

The greatest preparation I had for living cheaply was working for a budget travel guidebook called Let’s Go. I zigzagged across the Southeastern States on a budget of $75 a day. I reviewed restaurants, entertainment hot spots, and hostels. This two-month whirlwind tour of the South was done alone and it was the most rock’n’roll lifestyle I ever led. I slept in my rental car. I took showers in campgrounds. I even learned how to sneak into hotels for their continental breakfasts. And while my trip through the quiet towns and burgeoning cities of the South had to eventually end, the skills I learned as a broke but inquisitive traveler has stayed with me. I learned that sometimes the best places to eat aren't the flashiest or most popular dining hotspots, but the ones that have been able to weather the ups and downs of time.

First rule of thumb: don’t judge a restaurant, diner, or bar by its appearance. But this is not to say that you should simply throw caution—and your personal well being to the wind. If that lonely diner looks unsanitary or smells like rotten sea urchin, then you should perhaps see what's at the next block. In other words, trust your gut when checking out these places. Remember: trips to the hospital are expensive!

In an old, historic city like Boston, there are restaurants that have been around for decades for a reason. Their prices are consistent. The meals are served fast. They're dependable like an old friend. These restaurants aren’t likely to make it on a “Best of Boston” list. They'll never be on anyone's list as one of the most desirable places to dine. But if we judged these places on food alone, they would be right up there with Beantown's trendiest eateries.

The best thing about Boston is brunch. From greasy spoon diners like the Breakfast Club in Allston that serve up homely and comforting breakfast to the refined flavors of Latin American foods at places like Tu y Yo in Somerville. The menu at Tu y Yo is bound with humble descriptions of fantastic dishes that come with Latin staples like plantains, huevos rancheros with black beans. Diners can expect a heaping plate, usually served with perfectly smooth dollops of guacamole. And the best part? All entrees are under eight dollars. These are the tucked-away places that are not found in hotel restaurants or anywhere near Newbury Street. You'll have to go to the outskirts of the city to venture to places like Dogwood Café in Jamaica Plain, Masa in the South End, Steve’s Kitchen in Allston, and Ball Square Café in Somerville where various waves of cultural flair can be found.

Final rule: Eat out for lunch instead of dinner. It's easy and far more affordable. When you eat out at night, you feel the heat of the crowd bearing upon your comfort zone. You feel the billions of hungry Bostonians waiting in line for the next expensive mound of food in fancy presentations. Why not skip all of that and enjoy the quiet zen-like atmosphere of a restaurant without the hustle of noisy, hungry professionals? You can. Next time you’re hankering to hit your favorite establishment, take my advice go for lunch and not dinner. You will be happily surprised.

You don’t have to travel to far-off countries to try new and delightful foods. Boston’s many inexpensive and multicultural establishments, like the row of Russian eats in Brookline or the many Brazilian restaurants on Cambridge Street, make ours a worldly city to eat in. Staying in your comfort zone while dining out can be expensive and dull. What's the fun of hoping that the same dish was made the exact same way as the last time you had it? You've already tasted that before. It’s time for something different that tantalizes your taste buds.

Smart Girls Guide To Free Indulgences

At Mac Cosmetics in Boston, they don’t let you leave ugly. In fact, they want to make you happy even if you’re not going to buy any of their products.

I discovered this one quiet and cool spring night when I walked into the empty make-up store on Newbury Street where gossipy girls sat around looking gray with boredom. I was greeted by a woman dressed in all black with eye makeup that looked like neon green lasers were shooting from her eyes.

“Do you know what you want, hun?” she asked.
“I don’t know” I laughed, “Probably a change.”

The gal guided me to sit on a bar stool. She told me she was going to give me a special surprise. It’s Showtime! My makeup guide reached for my face and smeared concealer all over. Like an inspired painter attacking a blank canvas, she applied the stuff with broad, dramatic sweeps. Then she pulled a small fluffy brush out and gently applied a creamy eyeshadow that felt like liquid cashmere. She repeated this again and again until she had covered my entire face. I felt my hands tensed and began to sweat as I wondered what I should say to her if she ends up making me look like a drag queen. When finished, she stood me up, demanding the gaze of every eye in the place. I heard an explosion of applause. I opened my eyes and turned to the mirror. Is that me?

And that's how I stumbled upon the free make over. There are plenty of ways you can get free products and free makeovers. Stores like Sephora, Mac, The Body Shop, and Origins give out testers of any products upon request. The grand thing about it all is that you'll usually get a fairly decent amount—samples can last weeks. And they're portable. The sample products come in perfect sizes to bring along on plane rides, pack on weekend getaways, or to carry around for a quick freshening up after the gym. Retail associates are paid to help you find the right product, so go on—ask for a tester. And it pays to recycle. When you collect six empty Mac containers and bring them back to the store, you'll get a free product.

Many of the top salons, including Vidal Sassoon and Aveda, have sessions for stylists and colorists still going through training. These classes present the perfect opportunity for anyone in search of a free hair makeover. The stylist gets to test out different techniques, while you get a high-end haircut. And don’t worry about leaving with the kind of cut that will have you wearing a hat for the next month; a senior stylist always closely observes the trainees. Be prepared for the cut or color to take longer than a normal haircut—stylists in training take longer to make sure they are doing their work on you correctly. For more information, contact the hair studios and ask if they are in need any models.

If offering your hair sounds like too much of a risk, then try other free pampering by contacting a nearby cosmetology school. Cosmetology students are always looking for volunteers to practice their manicure, pedicures, wax, and haircut techniques more. If you’re hesitant about the quality of treatment then you can always ask for someone who is near graduation. Like at a salon, professionals supervise every student giving a treatment.

Bringing Back the Barter System

There’s a bowl of things I’ve not learned in the new world of journalism. I can write, but that’s just not enough. I need to know my way around the Web. I have to learn about blogging and how to use multimedia in my articles. I never dabbled with these programs before and unfortunately watching the news alone doesn’t make you a videographer through osmosis.

I needed to get ahead somehow and turned to my one sure skill: cooking.

My photographer and videographer friends would complain about being too busy to eat proper meals. While I, being a food junkie, would try out new recipes and enjoy my creations alone. I came up with a plan: start a barter system where I would cook for my multimedia pals in exchange for lessons in their areas of expertise.

My guest is a videographer and a vegetarian; he’s setting up his computer, which he calls his “machine,” on my kitchen table. It’s a rare treat for him to eat a proper meal instead of dry cereal or day old pizza. Tonight, at his request, I’m making Chinese food with fried bananas in rum sauce and a dollop of fresh cream. This meal will get me video editing lessons that would cost seventy-five dollars per hour for free. Not bad for a dinner that costs about ten dollars to make.

This happy marriage of eating and teaching has gone surprisingly well. However, you don’t need to know how to cook to have a barter system work for you. There are plenty other examples of trade exchange. From simple skills like dog walking or gardening to more professional skills like photography, accounting, yoga lessons, and website design.

We all have cast suspicion on bartering. The most common bartering experiences we hear about tend to be over large purchases. And when we do barter, it's usually with people who are professionals. When buying a house, we butt heads with brazen realtors. When buying a car, we struggle through negotiations with charming but fast-talking auto salespeople. This leaves us exhausted and suspicious. Did I just get ripped off? Could I have gotten this any cheaper?

But it's time we re-think bartering. Bartering is simple to do. You can place an ad on your city’s Craig’s list or find official local bartering sites. (Some of these websites are item specific.) There is a growing community of bartering that helps the cash-strapped individual and in our current economy there are more than a few.

When you place the ad, all you have to do is include the service you provide and the service you’re looking for. You will be notified when another person can match your offer. Barter systems require a lot of trust, so it is helpful to come up with a written contract for the exchange. If you don’t feel comfortable bartering with strangers, you can exchange skills with friends or family.

Remember that recipe for Pad Thai that you always wanted to learn from your best friend? Well it’s time to do her laundry in exchange for a free cooking lesson.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


One of the perks of working at Hachette is free books. "The Link" is on my list of books to read after finals.
Kids are my heroes, not just because they enthusiastically eat mud and find genuine amusement in their own minds (two things I gave up with puberty, alas.) Even better than their complete openness to the joy around them, children have this uncanny ability to take the present and run with it, assuming that everything will always be as good, as fun, as fulfilling as it is today.

When I started volunteering at 826 Boston, a nonprofit tutorial center for inner-city kids, I was incredibly childlike with in my enthusiasm and wonder with the vision of it all. Helping kids write about monsters? In a Big Foot Institute? Where do I sign?

Fast-forward five (mostly wonderful) months, and I'm still happy to give up my Saturdays to be a volunteer. The main reason, surprisingly, was perhaps also childlike. I love exploring my own imagination, insightful interaction, and even getting out of my pajamas. In short, I like the people-ness that working at a place like this easily offers. Especially, in times like finals when all my free time (outside of work) is spent typing away in an empty computer lab. 826 gives me an extra dose of personal fulfillment.

Friday, May 15, 2009

A Year Ago Today.

This was the nicest apartment I ever lived in. Plush carpets. Round
the clock cleaning service. All of my meals delivered. Of course, the
smell of cleaning products was a bit much. And the views were
spectacular as long as you didn't mind looking at tombstones.

At age 27, I had moved into a retirement community to be with my
grandmother. She had a stroke, as I was wrapping up a visit to Japan,
so at my family's urging I went to be with Grandma. I had saved up my money
and was taking a year off from my graduate studies to travel, but an
Ohio nursing home wasn't my first choice.

Grandma's apartment looked a lot like the house she had lived in for
50 years with my grandfather. The walls were covered in paintings she had
created of old clowns and pastoral scenes. Grandma looked the same,
and as always was glad to see me. We had a special bond that had been
maintained through years of weekly phone calls no matter where I was
living. But Grandma was also different. She drifted in and out of
consciousness, only recognizing me part of the time.

I quickly learned that for most nursing home residents everyday is the
same. Grandma would read day after day while sitting alone. She told
me of her mother who worked in a potato chip factory during the Great
Depression and had eaten only potato chips for an entire year. She was
happy to tell me her story. All I did was listen.

Early in the morning, I got a call from the nurses telling me that they
thought my Grandmother was having a stroke. I put on my shoes and still
wearing my pajamas drove to the hospital. When my Grandmother
saw me she was shaking with fear. It had been a false alarm and she
was fine. To lighten the mood I joked with her about how watching all
the doctors running around reminded me of ER, which was one of her
favorite shows. She told me she was glad I was here.

A month went by and my Grandmother seemed to be on a steady road to
recovery. Then one day the real stroke came and knocked my her out of
commission. Grandma was in a comatose state with severe brain damage.
I knew she would never talk to me again.

The nurses told me hearing was the last thing to go when someone has a
massive stroke. So I read to her from whatever book I was reading and
told her about my day. I stayed with her another two months and was

With mixed feelings I decided I would go to Europe as planned. I
knew my grandmother would have wanted me to continue on with my plans
to travel.

As soon as I returned to Boston I drove back down to Ohio to say goodbye. I
wasn’t sure if she could still hear me, but thought she could. My
grandmother’s condition had worsened. Her pallor was grey
with illness. She had shrunk from being immobile. I held her hand and
stayed with her for a week before returning to school in Boston. When I
arrived, I got word that she had passed away.

After my year of travels I reflected back to my trip to Japan where I
saw that elders are revered and enjoy the company of each other. While in
Eastern Europe I saw cultures where families are close and stay in their
family’s home

I’m glad I had the opportunity to stay with my Grandmother. Holding
the hand of someone who couldn’t speak to me was more life affirming
than all my travels in Asia and Europe. I ended the year older and
wiser with a greater sense of how I want to live my life.

There’s a wok full of simmering spring vegetables mingling happily with oil and garlic on top of the stove. On the other burner, potstickers filled with napa cabbage and firm tofu are browning on the bottom of their starchy wrappers. These humble dumplings are shaped like a plump old lady’s purse and filled with aromatic ginger and Asian spices. The toasted sesame oil sparkles like flecks of gold in soy sauce. I am cooking tonight. I’m making Chinese food along with fried bananas in rum sauce and a dollop of fresh cream. Not bad for a dinner that cost about ten dollars to make.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Break from Finals

At Mac Cosmetics, Boston, they don’t let you leave ugly. In fact, they want to make you happy even if you’re not going to buy any of their products.

I discovered this one night while drooling over the unaffordable new spring fashion on Newbury Street. I walked into the empty make-up store where gossipy girls sat around looking grey with boredom. Greeted by a woman dressed in all black with eye makeup that looked like neon green lasers were coming out of her eyes.

“Do you know what you want, hun?” she asked.
“I don’t know” I laugh. “Probably a change.”

The loud-mouthed lass guides me to sit on a movable bar stool. She tells me she is going to give me a special surprise. It’s showtime. An older rigid woman wheels a black cart that holds a rainbow pallet of eyeshadows, lipsticks, and more. My makeup artist reaches for my face smearing concealer all over it. She dramatically applies it on. She takes a small fluffy brush out of a pouch of brushes wrapped around her waist. Gently she applies a creamy eyeshadow that feels like liquid cashmere. She repeats this again and again until she has covered my entire face. My hands sweat as I wonder if I am going to lie to her if she makes me look garish or like a drag queen. When finished she stands me up, demanding the gaze of every eye in the place. I hear an explosion of applause while I open my eyes and look into the mirror. Is that me?

I thank my miracle worker makeup artist. She tells me to come back anytime especially if I need my makeup done for a special event or just for a Saturday night out. I turn on to Newbury Street, dodging glances while walking down the street. I can get used to this superficial treatment... Actually I couldn't, but do like pampering myself.

Free, Fun, and Somewhat Frightening

Feathery hair fuzz blows off my right shoulder. I am sitting in a stylist chair at Vidal Sassoon. I have signed up to be a hair model because I need a haircut and it’s free. All I have to do is hand over my head of brunette hair to the mercy of a stylist. Richie greets me and tells me he’s going to give me a fabulous new look. A woman with asymmetric hair asks if she can get me tea or coffee. I grind my teeth, hoping my hair remains one length. First thing that happens is I become blonde. Excitement yelps me out of my seat. Fear chases it with the vague statistic of how bad bleach is for hair. That one out of a hundred bleach jobs cause a fatal reaction where your hair completely falls out. The bleach ingredients are made. I entrust myself entirely.

Whenever you go out for free anything there's always a risk. With hair, they expect you to be open. You have become their blank canvas and they are creating a new you. The results most of the time are impressive. The first time I went to Vidal Sassoon they dyed my hair the color of chili peppers. I felt instantly refreshed and new.

I’ve seen disappointment form on the faces of girls with blue hair and bowl haircuts.

Luckily, I like my new hair. Richie adds a streak of pink. The results look striking like a semiprecious stone surrounded by starchy white rocks. It was an adventure.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The moment I saw my new bike I swear I smiled one of those mouth-wide-open-so-much grins. I stood transfixed for a while, gaping at my new bike to be. Not that it is anything impressive, quite the opposite - straight forward bicycle with curved handle bars and blue frame- but taking it out for a joy ride just sounded so damn fun.

Fitting the bike in my Camry would be difficult. I was convinced by the nice owner, Sal that this would be impossible. He offered to drop off the bike at my apartment the next morning. Sad that I wouldn't be able to take it out for a midnight joy ride I agreed. (Come on, the guy was going to drop it off for me?!)

Looking around at the cute, diminutive house, I was tempted to stick around and chat. Sal told me that the bike belonged to his wife and she had kept it in the garage for the last thirty years. You can imagine what could have happened to it during that time- heavy coat of rust from being too close to the furnace or it could have been stolen. But no, it remained in perfect condition. After a tune-up my bike will be my staple for every trip to and fro.