Monday, June 30, 2008

Voulez-vous Rendez-vous avec moi, ce soir?

Part of the problem is the name. It sounds like the kind of restaurant were Dockers-clad Cambridge dot-commers take their Match-dot-com third dates, hoping their $29.95 membership fee pays off.

My other issue with Rendezvous -- "dishing haute cuisine to Central 'mental' Square since 2005" -- is its fickle menu. Is it French? Is it American? Is Italian? Or even North African? Embracing its previous life as a Burger King, you get it your way at Rendezvous. In this case, it's muddled and mixed.

It's not that the food was bad. My charcuterie plate -- a Kandinsky-esque palette of duck griette, cured pork belly, and chicken liver mousse bedazzled with cornichons and caper berries cut so they resembled the Llyods of London's building -- was a highlight. I had to fend my dining companions away from the griette -- basically a glorified terrine that packed so much duck fat into 15 cubic centimeters that NASA scientists should contact the chef to learn how to optimize its payloads.

Katie's gnocchi with morels, maitake, microscopic black truffles and piave cheese also impressed, if -- and only if -- you got a morel-filled bite. Otherwise, as Katie notes, it was umami overload.

Ada's cheese plate boasted a nice blue goat that had to be quadruple creamed, but Angela's cold octopus salad -- Greek or Sicilian? -- was on the bland side. I didn't notice the fennel, lovage or smoked paprika on the menu, but there was cilantro aplenty.

The entrees also batted around .300. The skate -- cooked on the the bone, if you know what I mean -- was a delicious ode to the Pacific Northwest, combining fiddlehead ferns, hazlenuts, sage, and a little too much brown butter. But its sauteed potatoes were a superfluous sacrifice to the tyrannical triumvirate of meat, starch and vegetables. The shrimp came overcooked and the roast chicken unremarkable, though I admittedly tried only a bite of each, and I urge my dining companions to prove me wrong.

The wine list -- exclusively old world and Californian -- included a number of wines under $30. We tried an excellent $24 Spanish wine, proving that the cheapest plunk on the list may be the one to get -- unless you're on your third date and looking to close the deal. It was a 2006 Vino Sin Ley made of a grape I had never heard of -- Montestrall. I might order a case, if I can find it. Over dinner we had an unremarkable -- and more expensive -- Cote du Rhone. It had a nice earthiness that complemented the brown butter, err skate, and I bet it would have gone well with the gnocchi, as well. But no one bothered noting the winery or vintage -- 'nuf said.

We split two deserts: a lovely chocolate cake with a dollop of cinnamon whipped cream and, my favorite, an orange-spiked polenta cake topped with rosemary ice cream, strawberry and crunchy, tart rhubarb that reminded you of its kinship to celery. No complaints here.

So Rendezvous wasn't bad, but for $70, it wasn't fantastic, either. When Ada asked for her roast chicken wrapped to-go -- I see it reincarnated as a splendid sandwich -- it came back in a Chinese take out box. Next time I'm at Rendezvous, I'll order the Kung Pao escargot.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Perfume counters

In the past year or two I've become obsessed with perfumes. I've managed to collect quite a few, and the number of fragrances I've sampled is well into the hundreds. Some perfume lovers have had an interest in fragrance since they were young, but I never did, not until I discovered the world of niche perfumery and scents that were unusual, unisex, and often rather natural-smelling. Before that, my only real knowledge of perfume was from the perfume counters at department stores.

The counters flanked department stores like fortresses, creating an obstacle course that required a strategy to cross unscathed. Averting the eyes and walking quickly and determinedly was the best hope, but not always successful. The women waited in crisp polyester suits, faces bronzed to an ocher sheen and lips pinched into lines of fuchsia, crimson, and coral. They looked bored but their eyes were predatory, tracking each customer winding her way around the bulging glass counters toward the escalators. As someone passed, their bodies lifted to attention and swayed forward, bangled arms stretching out to brandish bottles and paper test strips.

“Care to sample the newest fragrance from Gucci?”

They would lift the bottle, with its pale pink or lime-colored juice, and depress a thick spray on the paper, wafting the strip with a practice sweep. They would bestow it on the customer and watch her as she inhaled.

From the paper would emerge a chemical smell of fruit and flowers and sugar—sometimes a little more peach or a little more apple, a bit more freesia or rose, but always managing to be pretty and bland and suffocating all at once.

“Isn't it gorgeous?” they would say, mustering what appeared to be genuine rapture over the scent they had been smelling for days now.

Or, they would be practical. “It's a perfect scent for summer, not too heavy.”

Or simply appeal to consensus. “This is very popular.”

The latest perfume was always what they'd push, as they were directed to. Whether the person wanted something for day or night, something sheer or sinister, a perfume with florals or citrus or wood, they would steer their customers to the newest Gucci or Dior or Chanel as relentlessly as a jetstream.

They were not open to argument. “Oh, but this is very unique. It has lychee!”

Their enthusiasm was persistent but never personal. They remained ciphers with tight smiles and arched brows.

All around them the air was heavy with perfumes, heated by the bright lights of the makeup counters. The scents mixed together into a nondescript scent of femininity—a particular kind of femininity that sought to smooth over its anxiety with glittering powders and lifting creams. This femininity required perfumes that suggested flowers and fruit and candy, that had no dark shadows that could be interpreted as masculine, nothing that smelled of sex or sweat, nothing overtly natural, nothing that would stir souls or evoke memories. The bottles might be given names that suggested pleasure or danger or individuality, but the odor itself always conformed to a certain expected blandness. Perfume like this was meant to be functional, to promise passion but deliver safety.

And the sales associates always waited at the entrances of the department stores as if ushering one onto this narrow path of womanhood, their determined posture a signal that avoiding that journey was as impossible as crossing the sea of counters without a spritz.

Umami Rendezvous

After sitting down at 9 pm in a warm little wooden booth that compared quite favorably with the one at the IHOP in the burbs earlier in the day, the Wind-Up crew took some time with the wine list. Are we supposed to recognize these wines by name? Or is everyone just guessing like we are? We decided on red from Spain, eliminated the more expensive ones, then picked a grape none of us had heard of before, monastrell. (The Web tells me today that it’s also known as mourvèdre.) I don’t have the vocab for describing wine but I really liked this one; it was good to drink on its own and then held its ground against our decadently salty, fatty, earthy, spicy appetizer selections.

For my appetizer, I had umami pillows. I mean potato gnocchi with sauteed morels and maitake, black truffle and piave cheese (not to mention a rich, earthy broth that gets no official billing). I’ve had the gnocchi at Rendezvous several times before; they change it up all the time. After my first bite I was a bit disappointed, but then I figured out I needed to get a bit of everything in each bite. As you can see from the photo, it was quite a homey dish (except for the truffle shavings.) Ewen’s charcuterie plate was beautiful. Capers and cornichons stood up like transmitters, antennae, and skyscrapers on an alien planet admidst islands of fatty meat. A dollop of chicken-liver mousse looked like a Saarinen building and tasted like licking Cheeto dust off your fingers, but sweeter.

Our entrees were on the whole a bit lighter so we picked a Cote du Rhone for the next bottle. It was good for drinking with a meal but didn’t make much of an impression on me. Nor did my shrimp. At previous meals at Rendezvous I’ve had those tiny, tiny sweet shrimp local to New England, covered in chili powder and lime juice. These were larger and also quite sweet but ever so slightly overcooked. That shouldn’t happen at what Gourmet dubs one of the best restaurants in the country. But I loved the bed of black rice below them and ringed with butter that had a hint of spice and a hint of shrimpiness. The nutty arroz negro valenciano has a large amount of anthocyanins and of course there are a lot of nutritional claims about them on the Internet. What’s cool about anthocyanins to me: they’re in berries and blood oranges and experimental organic solar cells. And they stained the inside of my mouth. Angela ftw with the toasted orechiette and meatballs, for sure. (She had a head start on us all though, having outgeeked us by studying the menu and selecting her dishes before we even got there.)

The best thing about dessert, which I hope someone else will describe, were the thin, crunchy slices of macerated rhubarb and the rosemary ice cream plated with the polenta cake. The evening ended on Ewen’s roof amidst the orange-mist-shrouded chimneys of Inman Square with tiny sips of Old Chub. And then I floated off to sleep on an umami pillow...

more Tuscan kale, please

Last night was our Wind-Up group trip to Rendezvous in Central Square. There was a lot going on, so I'll just stick to telling you how good my food was.

For an appetizer I got the salad of chilled octopus, roasted peppers, fennel, lovage, black olive and smoked paprika. The octopus was sliced thin (I like mine chunkier), but was perfectly cooked and not too chewy. I was not a fan of the iceberg lettuce. If you are charging me that much for a small salad, I expect something more than iceberg. The smoked paprika added an assertive spiciness that went perfectly with the Spanish wine we were drinking. This dish made me even more excited for my trip to Madrid that's coming up.

My entré (which came out surprisingly quick) was the braised pork and veal meatballs with toasted orecchiette, tuscan kale and piave cheese.

My only complaint about the dish? Not enough Tuscan kale. (If you haven't noticed, I have a weird obsession with this vegetable.) I have never had toasted pasta before, but it gave a nice crunchy texture to the dish. The meatballs...what can I say? They were close to perfect. Not too heavy, but very moist and flavorful. I could have eaten five more. The salty piave cheese had a strong taste but paired very well with the meat. The broth at the bottom of the bowl might have been a little too garlicky for some, but I looove garlic and felt it brought all the elements together.

As you can see, I enjoyed the meal quite a bit. I had pretty high expectations for Rendezvous, and for the most part, they were met. Maybe we will return in a few months to check out the new seasonal menu.

As much as I enjoyed my dinner, it doesn't come close to my favorite meal ever, which was at a small cafe in Paris. It consisted of fresh baguettes, warm and melty camembert cheese, perfect scallops in a white wine butter sauce, and creme brulee. This summer I am going to Italy and Madrid, and you better believe I'll be blogging about all the amazing food I encounter there.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Wind-Up Gets Ensorcelled

Frank Bruni, the food critic for the New York Times, becomes downright rhapsodic when describing a dish he likes. Why I love reading about restaurants I will never go to, and listening to descriptions of farmers' markets in cities thousands of miles away, is an issue to be probed at another time. For now, we will dwell on Bruni's 6/25/08 rhapsody in pork. His review of two wine bars in NYC has a handful of gems that rival my previous number one favorite Bruni turn of phrase ("like a bright white archipelago on an emerald sea, dabs of house-made ricotta").

This week, Bruni declares himself "ensorcelled"* by the pigs from a Virginia farm (in particular, the blade steaks carved from them). "The arugula blunts the meat’s punch, while Parmesan in the salad brings saltiness to the brawl." Bruni, sir, we are only in paragraph 3, and you have outdone yourself.

I love this stuff, but obviously it's pretty ridiculous. Food writing can seem like so much self-indulgent bullshit. But think how open his senses must be to the experience of the meal (or to the thesaurus?) to be able to write things like that. For all the times the wind-up has said, "I'd like to do some food writing..." (and some have even said they'd like to work at a food magazine), how many of us have tried it? So I had the idea to get a few of the wind-up bloggaz to a fancy restaurant to try this out. And coincidentally, Angela is badly in need of a tuscan kale fix. So tonight at Rendezvous in Central Square in Cambridge, we will open our senses to the food, delve into the thesauri, put up some posts, and see if we can even come close to Mr. Bruni. Look for the posts tomorrow, or after we recover.

*ensorcelled: enchanted, fascinated. under the spell of a sorceror.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Blogger Beware

Before you sign on to free WiFi at your hotel or anywhere else, you should really read the user agreement. I didn’t use the internet at my hotel earlier in the week because the user agreement was pretty much insane and about one step away from requesting your signature in blood plus yr immortl soul.

If you’re staying at the Hilton or a hotel owned by them, such as a Hampton Inn, they claim all rights to everything you transmit “irrevocably in perpetuity in any location throughout the universe.” This isn’t just information about what sites you go to and what you buy. They claim copyright to any e-mail, blog, etc. that passes through their proprietary ether. And by clicking “agree” before you go online at their hotels, you are even agreeing that such materials you’re generating are original and that you have the rights to them in the first place. What does that mean? As far as I can tell, this also means that you are agreeing that you have the rights to hand over to them the copyright on any e-mails etc. coming into your inbox. I skimmed this thing a bit and thought there is just no way in hell I can agree to that. I don’t know if it would hold up in court but the way this is written, it seems to mean that if I submitted a story to my editor over their network, the magazine doesn’t own it, Hilton does.

This agreement is pretty amazing, not only in its implications but in its language. Orwell would just go to town on this thing. Throughout the document, the call the WiFi access “the Service.” A distinction is made between “information” and “the Information.” Ah, I am so happy I never thought I wanted to go to law school like so many of my high school and college classmates.

This thing goes on and on and on and on and on, buthere is the tiniest little taste of the Hilton/Hampton Inn user agreement (italics mine):

“Also, when you submit information (including the Information) to us in your use of the Service, you thereby (i) represent and warrant that such information is complete, truthful, and accurate, that you own all rights in such information, that the information, if applicable, is entirely your own original, unpublished work, is not based in whole or in part upon any pre-existing work or work of any other person, does not violate or infringe in any way any copyright, trademark, trade name, service mark or any other statutory, common law or other proprietary or personal right or interest, is not abusive, obscene, profane, sexually explicit, threatening or illegal, and you agree to indemnify, defend and hold the Indemnified Parties (as defined below) harmless from and against any such claim and relinquish, release and assign to us all rights in and title to such information, (ii) acknowledge that you (and not the Indemnified Parties) are solely liable for any damage resulting from infringement of copyrights, proprietary rights, or any other harm arising from their submission and our subsequent use of the information, and (iii) automatically grant us a worldwide, royalty-free, exclusive right and license to use, reproduce, publish, distribute and such information (in whole or in part, in any media now known or used or heretofore known or used at any time, and in perpetuity), although you acknowledge that we have no obligation whatsoever to use, reproduce, publish, distribute or display the information. Further, we reserve the right to monitor and review transmissions, use any information related to such use to ensure that our policies are followed and otherwise as a necessary incident to the provision of the Service or to protect our rights and property. We may also monitor and review stored transmissions without restriction and you hereby acknowledge and consent to such monitoring. You further acknowledge that passwords are known to us.”

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Eliot Reads Prufrock to Portishead

Lonesome Travelogue

I went to Champaign-Urbana, IL this weekend for work. I was there less than 48 hours. I was reading a strange book, didn’t have access to the Internet (more on that in a future post), and was generally feeling very isolated. In my hotel room, I wrote these notes. People keep asking me how my trip was so here you go.

At the airport, the courtesy phone that’s supposed to dial right into a cab company doesn’t work. Finally I get hold of Freedom Taxi. Waiting outside, the sky is an intense indigo. The driver comes and he takes me to my hotel by the back roads, which look like country roads where I grew up—one-lane asphalt cracking at the edges, no street lights. But after a few miles I notice that this place is totally flat. No hills. The cab company is obviously him, a cell phone, and one other woman who keeps chirping him on the phone. “She’s slower than a box of rocks,” he tells me. “And that’s pretty slow.”

My suitcase is coming after me so I have to stay up late. I go to a 24-hour chain diner across the parking lot from the hotel and feel like a character in the Paul Auster existential mystery I read on the plane. Or a protagonist adrift in a Haruki Murakami novel, in the first part of the book, before he figures out what he’s supposed to be searching for but is beginning to understand what he’s lost. These characters are always eating by themselves at diners, reading a book or scribbling in a notebook.

The young guy at the hotel desk says, “Thank you, my friend.” He is a strange Quaker, with silver earrings, his hair spiked curvily up with gel, and a small pot belly beginning to nudge the bottom of his suit jacket.

The next day at my meeting, an engineer tells me the first person ever to win two Nobel prizes in the same area (physics) was a professor at the University of Illinois. He won for transitors and superconductors. Yes, a total badass who deserves a melancholy, eponymous tune if Sufjan Stevens ever writes part two of his Illinoise album. One of his students invented the LED and some kind of laser, I read on a plaque outside. In 1922, a professor here developed the technology for talking pictures but it wasn’t adopted by the industry for five years. They kept using grammophones.

Walking from the university to the hotel, I flinch, startled backwards as if I was about to trip. A foot-thick swarm of ants is charging across the sidewalk. I’ve never seen ants move so quickly and thickly without evidence of a soda smear or a dead animal up ahead. I watch them complete the 2.5-yard journey from the grass on one side of the sidewalk to the grass on the other. Do they have some purpose for doing this? I can’t tell. An ant who strays from the group reminds me of the penguin running to his death in Encounters at the End of the World. I’ve been thinking about ants, and talking to people about ants, a lot lately.

After a nap in the hotel, I’m groggy and when I try to remember where I am there is a noticable delay. What year is it, and who is the president? Where are we? After eating at the best Mexican restaurant in Urbana, IL, I feel a little better and I take a walk. I like the suburbs around here. Lots of small houses (most in minor disrepair), narrow streets, people sitting on the porch in the beautiful evening.

Thank you, my friend.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Kansas Knifeholder

From Hobbs on Massachusetts Avenue--no not in Cambridge--but in Lawrence, Kansas, a surprisingly hip university town. O, fellow blogger, where in Kansas are you from?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Transitory Enchantment

Before crossing the GW Bridge, at 55 mph down the Henry Hudson Parkway, Sarah offered a thought in wonder. It was an innocent one, but it has an impressive pedigree. (Most of Sarah's thoughts do, and what would a road trip be without dramatic inferences drawn from shabby tid-bits?) We were discussing the Dutch colonization of Manhattan--of course--when she wondered what it would have been like to have been Hudson gazing upon the Pallisades for the first time. What mystery! What wonder! The word she used was "vast". Three or more things then occurred to me. First, the last page of the Great Gatsby, where Carraway muses upon similar waters:
"...for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic judgment he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate with his capacity for wonder."

And then there's Sinclair Lewis's speech given upon winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1930. Charge, he implored American writers, charge out of the stuffiness of safe, sane, and incredibly dull provincialism, drive across the GW Bridge, and with joy give
"the America that has mountains and endless prairies, enormous cities and lost far cabins, billions of money and tons of faith, to an America that is as strange as Russia and as complex as China, a literature worthy of her vastness."

And, yes, the obligatory Kerouac:
So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old brokendown river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the west coast, all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks in the west and folds the last and final shore in and nobody, just nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old...

Monday, June 16, 2008

Lexicographical Lols

This sign is outside Changsho, a Chinese restaurant on Massachusetts Ave. in Porter Square in Cambridge, MA. I've walked by it several times a week for the past three years or so and it still makes me laugh. This is the only use I've ever seen of this particular adverb. Your car will be towed as a matter of mere duty, form, routine; with a minumum of effort, care, or interest. (With thanks to the OED.)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sexy Eucharist

There’s been a lot of talk of change and unity for months now, but what is really bringing the nation together this summer is dissing the “Sex in the City” movie.

It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be after reading the reviews and taking in David Hughes’ full-page New Yorker grotesquerie of the four main actresses. Based on that image I expected to be assailed by the cinematic equilvalent of a gnashing and screeching pack of harpies (and if I were a guy, after glimpse of Hughes’ depiction of Nixon and Davis’ giant teeth, I would have been fearful of something else). Set up for this, the movie was not as terrible as I thought it would be—just pretty stupid, and an hour too long. But something Anthony Lane wrote about the dragging, two-and-a-quarter hour movie in that same New Yorker issue was right on.

“When Garbo made ‘Anna Karenina,’ in 1935, she got happy, unhappy, loved, left, and under the train in less than a hundred minutes, so how the hell are her successors supposed to fill the time?” (Sorry for the spoiler about the train, if you didn’t know.)

In the week before I saw “Sex and the City,” I fell under the spell of Garbo at a screening at the Coolidge Corner theater. This was silent film as it was meant to be seen: on a large screen in a gorgeous art deco movie house, with live music. “Flesh and the Devil,” made in 1926, is one of the sexiest movies I’ve ever seen, though of course there are no sex scenes in it. As Mordaunt Hall (is that a pseudonym?) wrote in his 1927 Times review, “It is a story of passionate love for a woman and the friendship of two men who, as boys, like the knights of old had mixed their blood; their friendship is the conquering power over their blazing affection for a conscienceless creature.”

This conscienceless creature is of course Garbo. The camera and both of the leads make love to her. She stands by the window during a rain storm and the shadows of water trails slide down her neck. Meaningful cigarettes are exchanged and smoke billows languidly. It reminded me of movies produced in Bollywood, where until pretty recently depicting men and women kissing was scandalous (so my first-gen buddies, who exposed me to these movies, told me). Instead of sex scenes, dreamlike song-and-dance routines in golden fields.

Where “Sex and the City” will just show you a naked model in the shower, “Flesh and the Devil” bathes its actors in streams of light from a church window. In what must be the most sensual communion ever depicted on screen, the married Garbo turns the wine goblet in the priest’s hand in order to sip from the same place where her husband’s best friend, kneeling next to her, placed his lips just a moment before.

The Wind-Up's Adab and I couldn’t quite get a read on what the message of this movie was supposed to be. Was Garbo a symbol of demonic forces, with her fugue of madness in the second to last act as her virtuous sister-in-law prays in the light streaming through another window? With his cigar holder in the form of a naked winged woman and his squinty eyes, the priest doesn’t seem like a good guy either. It’s difficult to accomplish because Garbo is so charismatic, but the movie vilifies her character, and when she falls through the ice of a lake at the end of the movie, I think we’re supposed to be happy that, with the death of the woman they both love, the mens’ friendship—which, in the exagerrated gestures of silent cinema, seems to these 21st century eyes to have homoerotic undertones—will be back on solid ground.

You might feel like you need to give the classics their due, and rent a silent movie, only to find yourself writhing on the verge of boredom as you try to stay with the plot on your tiny laptop screen. You need to give the experience another chance. When your local independent movie theater or art museum offers up Rudolf Valentino or Greta Garbo on the big screen with live musical accompaniment, you need to go out there and drop your $9.75. When you see them as they were meant to be seen, these movies have a sensuality that is pretty much unmatched by anything at the multiplex.

David Hughes image taken from the New Yorker website with many thanks. Please don't sue the wind-up blog, which hopes that this is fair use and that everyone will read your wonderful magazine. Garbo image from wikimedia commons, photograph taken in 1925 by Arnold Genthe.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Video: The Gentle Touch of a Cold Robot Hand

Robots are mainstays in predictable environments like factories and manufacturing plants. But if you want a robot to help grandma out of a chair, it needs to have a soft touch that can adjust to the human form.

One way of making a more adabptable robot hand is to use a technology called pre-touch, an approach developed by Josh Smith, senior researcher at Intel. Mechanical fingers with pre-touch sensors can detect an object, about an inch away, and adjust accordingly. (For a more in-depth story about pre-touch that I wrote last September, click here.)

Now Smith has added additional pressure sensors to the fingers so they can "feel" when an object is slipping and when it is secure. Once the object is positioned well, using pre-touch, the mechanical fingers close around it, squeezing only hard enough to keep the object from falling. Below is a video, taken at a recent Intel Research event, of the gentle grabber in action.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Bacteria and the Human Condition

Last week I attended a session on “Exploring the Human Environment” during the American Society for Microbiology's annual meeting in Boston. I love bacteria. They are just so cool and mysterious, these invisible but surprisingly complicated creatures that are the hidden hand of so many aspects of life. I always find myself fired up by microbiology research but don't often get to write about it because, frankly, most people don't care much about bacteria. That's why I was excited to be in a convention center full of microbiologists. At the meeting I began looking around at the people wandering the halls, trying to identify some distinguishing feature of people who care about microscopic unicellular beings. Unfortunately, they were surprisingly normal.

The idea of the session was especially interesting: because the human body serves as a habitat for billions of creatures, perhaps it is time to explore that habitat from an ecologist's point of view. A few years ago, I was talking to a scientist who mentioned to me the idea that the human genome should really include the genes of all the bacteria that live in our body. At the time, this was a really far-out notion, yet now we have the Human Microbiome Project and several sessions at the annual meeting devoted to the organisms living on and in us.

But I soon realized that there's a major hurdle to getting people interested in the human microbiome. How can we embrace the very things we try to wash off everyday, the things that live in places we'd rather not talk about, that are responsible for smells we try to cover up? As I watched the session, it was clear that no matter how fascinating the idea of bacterial communities in the body is, studying the human microbiome means looking at a lot of unpleasant things. You can couch it in data points and jargon or make light of it—like the smiling cartoon fecal sample reminiscent of Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo that one researcher included in a diagram—but ultimately our microbiome amounts to a lot of shit.

Retail Therapy – The Cost of a Funk

Yesterday I was in a funk.

I thought I’d walk it off. I believe in the power of body over mind – get the blood moving, get the endorphins flowing and the clouds will part.

I thought I’d commune with nature. I believe that staring at a tree can go a long way towards dissolving homicidal tendencies.

I walked from Cambridge to Beacon Hill, through the Boston Gardens where I sat and stared at trees. It didn’t work. The world was still clouds and daggers.

So I did the only other thing I could think of to do (though it was less a thought out plan and more like a response to a nic fit). I shopped.

I bought things I couldn’t afford which amounted to blush, eye shadow, a dress, a skirt, a pair of pants and a pedicure. I don’t want to look up the prices and do the addition because that’ll put me in a different kind of funk and the process will start all over again. But it did get me wondering – is there a mathematical formula for the ratio between $ spent or number of items bought and happy brain chemistry? It can’t be a linear relationship where the more money you spend the happier you get because if we take that premise to its logical conclusion then going broke would be bliss. I’ve been there. It’s not.

Or is the shopping - happiness formula not about the monetary value of the purchases but rather about the number of items bought – the consumption? I have no desire to eat when I’m unhappy, but acquiring new items is somehow satisfying. Would acquiring key chains or pencil sharpeners or those brightly colored plastic paper clips have the same effect as the pricier blush, eye shadow, skirt, dress, pants and pedicure? And is there some critical number of items which once reached brings on the brain alteration process? If so, what's that magic number. 3? 24? Is it different for each person or does it depend on the particular cause of the funk? 3 items for a fight with your boss. 8 for an argument with sis. 32 when the boyfriend pisses you off?

Does the improved post-spree mood have to do with newness in general? If I went to a gallery and looked at paintings I couldn’t buy but were new to me, would that work? Or is it just the distraction of shopping – getting your mind off whatever is that put you in the funk to begin with?

Or is it just a simple psychological formula – damage to sense of self is immediately (if temporarily) repaired with material items that help reconstruct outer image of said self. Plug up the holes with some fruity gum and buy yourself some time to work on the real repairs.

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions but I sure am glad I kept my receipts.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Toward the Alleghenies

This is a test. Of what? Self-indulgent poetry, of thee I sing.

Friday, June 6, 2008


I have a little obsession with the number 3. It's completely irrational and I can't really explain it but I think it's by far the most beautiful number that ever was. Because 3 is so fantastic, 333, which is 3 3s is also great.

You might think that 3 3s is better than one 3 but it's not because my numerical preference goes something like this:

-prime numbers excluding 2, 5 and 7 (although I think 257 is prime so that would be ok)
-then anything involving 3 3s (like 333 or 9, which is also 3 3s, or 27 which is 3x3x3)
-then anything ending in 1, 3 or 9

Where does the ritual come in? At 3:33 every day - a time when I can almost convince myself that something magical might happen - I try to take that minute to do something that might spur the magic along. I stop what I'm doing and I daydream or I write or I look out the window or I read something fun or I email a get the idea. I realize these are trivial activities - more mundane than magic, and I don't always manage to catch 3:33 as it happens, but it's my little numerical ritual. 3:34 is a real downer.

(It would've been really cool if I posted this at 3:33.)

DIY Hobo Sack

I'm not going to lie, as a kid, I wanted to be a hobo. Freedom on the open rails, eating beans out of a can, sharing stories with fellow travelers around a campfire--it all seemed so awesome. I had mostly given up on the dream until I came across the Laugh-Out-Loud Cats cartoon series, featuring Meowlin Q. Kitteh and Pip. Those two crazy cats revitalized my longing for the hobo lifestyle. And now, a post from a blog called "the cottage at frog creek" makes it all seem possible with instructions for sewing your own bindle.

Thursday, June 5, 2008


Revamped Graphic Equalizer from Marcelo Costa on Vimeo.
I have watched this several times and I can't stop. It makes me smile everytime. What song is this? Thanks to Laughing Squid via Kate. And apologies for being such a lazy blogger for the past week.

Sunday, June 1, 2008


No one tells jokes anymore...except my dad. I usually roll my eyes, but I liked this one enough to inflict it on you:

A bloke walks into a Glasgow library and says to the prim
librarian,'Excuse me Miss, dey ye hiv ony books on suicide?'
To which she stops doing her tasks, looks at him over the
top of her glasses and says, 'Fook off, ye'll no bring it back.

Found on Sidewalk

Found this during graduation season a few years ago but I always loved it as a metaphor for small sparkly joy amid routine.