Sunday, June 30, 2013

Limes and Organized Nerd Singing

No, this is not a post about margaritas, though I kind of wish it were. That sounds delicious on a warm summer day like today. But no. Remember that one year, 2011, when I vowed to make a new recipe once a week for the whole year? Yeah! It was tasty and fun and but so much effort to cook, and shoot, and eat and then write about it every time. So I haven't blogged my cooking in awhile. But we had my dad, step-mom and brother over for dinner last weekend and Joe, the recipe scout, found this wonderful summer recipe for us to make, Grilled Chicken with Cucumber Melon Salsa


It was fresh and light and took advantage of all the Missouri grown melons and cucumbers at the store lately and the fresh herbs in our herb garden. (The only kind of garden I can actually manage, minus a couple of pots of geraniums and some hosta that refuses to die.) 

I doubled the recipe since we were serving five adults and figure leftovers would be excellent during the week. We added some veggies, cottage cheese ranch dip otherwise known as Underhill dip from Joe's family, and a delicious pesto, mozzarella, and tomato pasta salad from my step-mom, and it was an excellent summer meal.

The recipe is really easy. Sunday morning I mixed up the marinade, juicing about eight limes, and got the chicken soaking all day in the fridge. Then the real work. Just chopping, dicing and more chopping. And cutting some mint out of the garden. That was it. The most work was chopping, juicing limes and Joe grilling the chicken. The weather was too hot on the deck, so we had dinner inside and then forced my brother and parents to watch Pitch Perfect. Mike was skeptical at first, "Is this going to be a piece of shit?" We assured him, no, it's funny and quirky and enjoyable. And it was. So if you're looking for some way to spice up your Sunday dinner, might I suggest melon salsa, lime chicken and the antics of college age acapella singers to wrap up your weekend?  Because "Organized nerd singing? This is great!" 

7Days:Day2 Pitch Perfect Sunday

Friday, June 28, 2013

Photo Fellowship and Creative Narcissism

I love taking pictures. Like most people with a phone nowadays, I like to capture moments, big and small. It seems to have taken over the world, this taking photos of the mundane and the impressive all the time. So much so that I'm reading a British mystery novel and the detectives decided that the murder victim in the story must have had something to hide because they couldn't find any photos saved on her phone. (Message I took from this, take plenty of photos to avoid being murdered.) I love playing around with light and locations and angles and filters. I love taking pictures of food that I make. I don't care if this makes me corny or an over-sharer. I like it. I'm married to a semi-professional photographer, so photo equipment is around our house all the time. I have full access to any myriad of professional lens and camera bodies, remotes and flashes and triggers. But I always go back to my phone. It's easy. It's fast and with a few apps, I've got a timer, a multi shot option, and all of the filters and photo shop that I can imagine, right at my finger tips.

I often think that I should ask my husband to give me a few classes on photography, mostly to master some of his fancy equipment. I do alright when I use his stuff. But it's intimidating. It's heavy. It's infinitely breakable. There are a thousand dials and gauges and numbers. And it scares me off. I had a couple of photo classes in high school and I'm decent with the technology, but I could be so much better. But nope, I wimp out, and go for the iPhone.

This week was 7 Days, the summer round of the quarterly self-portrait photo group that I've been a part of for the last few years. Other like minded photographers, many of them incredibly talented and creative people, take one photo each day for 7 days, they have to set up the shot, have some part of the themselves in the shot, and then post the shot to the group for lots of commenting and sharing and general photo nerd fellowship. It's a lot of fun. And it forces creativity. It forces embarrassing looks from strangers as you take photos of yourself in public places. It forces me to look at myself and my environment differently every day. And it forces inspiration. Which is a good thing. I get inspired by the interesting and varied takes on the two themes for each session, and by the sheer number of gorgeous or funny or sweet photos that we all share. So as 7 Days comes to a close today, here are the 7 shots from my 7 days round. (All iPhone shots, of course, cause I'm a lazy little photo equipment wimp!)

Day 1: I Melt with You
It's June, so it's hot. Really quite warm. And I have a love hate relationship with the heat and sun. So I'm in the shade with a time travel novel and a large iced coffee this afternoon, trying not to melt away.  

Day 2: 'Cause, Baby, You're a Firework
Today's theme was "Music-Inspired." I have a guilty pleasure. Belting out Katy Perry tunes while washing my hair. Don't tell anyone, ok?

Day 3: Mac Puppy Dog and I are watching The Real Housewives of Orange County
My book club just left. We watched Life of Pi since we read the book for our last meeting. All the intensity of the movie tired us out. So now the dog and I are relaxing with horrible reality TV. Mac loves the OC ladies. Don't judge him.

Day 4: Fancy Business Ladies Like Beer too
I had a late board meeting presentation for a client tonight, (I help nonprofits with fundraising planning) in Lawrence, KS, about 45 minutes from us in Kansas City. Joe and I attended the University of Kansas there, met, became best friends, then fell in love, got smarter, etc.

So since my meeting was fairly short, he came with me and we made it a date night. Visited our old favorite places, reminisced, wandered around and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves with a late dinner at Freestate Brewery. A good meeting, a good date and a good beer.

Day 5: Almost Always Better Than the Book
Today's theme was "Movie-Inspired."
I just want to read tonight. So I did.

Day 6: Down by the River
We had a delicious dinner with friends tonight, in the coolest little downtown area of Kansas City, right near the river. I love it down here. And with cool storm clouds and shiny wet streets, I enlisted my favorite Joe Sands tripod and took a few shots running across the street and up and down the cobblestone sidewalks like a weirdo. 7 Days is always good for pushing me out of my comfort zone and reminding me that strange looks from passersby are a badge of honor in this group.

Day 7: They're Watching You
This abstract print hangs in my office on the wall behind my chair. Now and then it feels like little abstract eyes are watching my back. Except then on days when my brain feels fried from too much grant writing, they look like nipples. Maybe they're supposed to be nipples? I can't tell. And that's what's fun about abstract art. Might be nipples, might be eyes. Who knows? So I leave you with that, nipples or eyes, you decide. See you this fall, gang!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Mason City and Frank Lloyd Wrong

Before our visit in April, I'm not sure I could have named one reason a person would choose to make a special trip to Mason City, Iowa. Maybe your grandma lives there and makes the best cinnamon rolls in the entire state. That is a reason to go way out of your way to visit Grandma and enjoy her baked goods and some old fashioned guilt and hugs. But if your grandmother doesn't live in Mason City, I figured there was no reason to venture over to that part of the country, specifically. And that's not to defame Iowa or Mason City, just any small town in the middle of not much else that takes several hours to get to. But now I can name about fifteen pretty decent reasons to get yourself there, soon.




My delightful and thoughtful in-laws gave us a gift certificate for a hotel stay in Mason City a couple of Christmases ago. That sounds sarcastic, doesn't it? Like they gave us a Holiday Inn gift card and said "get the hell out." But they gave us a gift certificate to a spectacular and quite special hotel, at least for architecture nerds like my husband, and junior architecture nerds like me, it was a night's stay at the Historic Park Inn Hotel, the only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright hotel in the world. The whole world.


So we planned a visit, and since Mason City is fairly close to Minneapolis/St. Paul, we decided to take a long weekend and visit our dear friends in St. Paul. We planned to crash at their house for several days of nonstop talking, eating, dog cuddles, city touring and general merriment. Pretty much a dream four day weekend road trip. But before we get to the late night Game of Thrones watching and intensive cake consumption and the particle physics lecture (seriously), let me give some time to Mason City. It deserves it.

We drove up from Kansas City on a Thursday, and after a brief delicious sushi lunch stop in Des Moines courtesy of a Yelp recommendation, we arrived in Mason City and checked into our hotel. It was small and lovely. Full of the angles, stained glass, low ceilings and rich wood work that you can expect from FLW's early work. The hotel, and the bank and office spaces located in the building, opened in 1910. The bank went belly up in 1920, like so many banks, and shortly after that the offices closed, the hotel fell out of fashion, and things went downhill from there. Turned into retail space, offices, apartments, and finally a rather skanky flop house, the hotel was in serious disrepair when a coalition got together in 2005 to buy the building and raise the $20 million necessary for a complete restoration and renovation. It is an immaculately restored hotel, with some modifications made to please modern hotel guests, like bigger rooms, bigger bathrooms and more privacy.



The hotel is absolutely stunning, but not ostentatious. It fits into the block of shops and restaurants that it sits next to and it faces a sweet, green little park that was covered with bits of snow the whole time we were there, in APRIL. It snowed off and on during our entire trip, in mid APRIL! Ridiculous. So we arrived at the hotel, checked into our park facing room, one long wall of all windows, lots of woodwork and stained glass, and that long checked bolster pillow that I wanted to steal. I didn't. It would have been really hard to sneak out with a six foot long foam pillow. And wrong.


We had a tour scheduled at 3pm for another Frank Lloyd Wright building in the area, the Stockman House, so we missed the public tour that the hotel docents offer, but the hotel staff was so nice that they asked a docent to come in and give us our own private tour that evening. We had a whole hour to wander the hotel with the docent/expert. She was full of charming anecdotes and Midwestern warmth. It was so fun to wander around the small, quiet hotel and hear about all the history, touch the rich mahogany walls, peer into the old fashioned law library, and take a look at old photos from the original hotel.



She even let us into the special event space, or the section of the building that used to be a bank but now is used for banquets and weddings. It's all light creams and greens, and has a fresh modern feel, even though it was designed in the early 1900's. Even the masonry between the bricks is unique, the space between the front of the brick and the masonry is filled with small irridescent pieces of glass that catch and reflect the light in greens and yellows. It's a tiny detail, but once you notice, your eye continues to look for these little glimpses of shine and color.  





It was just as good as the tour we took at the Stockman House and the architectural center earlier in the day. The docent at the architectural center could tell that she'd landed a couple of nerds, so she spent over two hours talking to us about all the gorgeous and prominent Prairie School houses in the area, along with the Stockman House tour itself. All in all, we got about four hours of solid architecture sight seeing, between tours and driving around the areas near the Stockman House.


We couldn't take any photos inside the house, but it has the typical open floor plan that FLW revolutionized. It really reminded me of his own home and studio in Oak Park, IL. Similar layout and use of windows, hearths and urns. Those urns are everywhere.



After all of the driving, and sight seeing and architecture, we were ready for an early dinner. We'd rather go somewhere that locals like to eat. So we checked out Yelp and the list of recommended restaurants from the hotel, and settled on the Northwestern Steak House, in part because of the stellar reviews and also because it's been around since 1920, and is randomly located in the middle of a neighborhood and butts up against the local cement plant. Charming right?

It was a tiny, old school steakhouse, complete with dark old wooden booths, chatty waitresses and those tiny glasses of water that feel like you're drinking out of a shot glass. The steaks were perfect. Cooked in olive oil, butter and Greek herbs, they were mouth watering. But frankly, as good as the steaks were, the spaghetti side dish was even better. That sounds odd, right? I always think a spaghetti side dish at a steak joint is going to be watery tomato sauce and overcooked noodles. Nope. This spaghetti is perfectly al dente and the only sauce happens to be the olive oil, butter and herbs that the steak has just cooked in. To die for, I could have just eaten a big bowl of that and skipped the steak entirely. We loved the Northwestern Steak House, and I plan to try and replicate the meal at home sometime, you know, for a special occasion that warrants buttery, meaty pasta and fattening steaks! Like a Monday.


This would be founder, Tony Papouchis. 

So we wrapped up our night with a trip back into the 1950's at Birdsall's Ice Cream to take home a little caramel creme for later, and then headed on our private fancy hotel tour, then crashed in our room, called Emily and Jay, our friends in Minneapolis to confirm details for the next day, and we officially spent the night in a real Frank Lloyd Wright hotel.


Joe and I have a tradition now where he gets up at some ungodly hour like 6am and runs off to take photos of something impressive. I stay at the hotel. I lounge and leisurely get dressed, watch the news, write, read. It's a perfect tradition. And he usually brings coffee and breakfast. This time we had the finest pastry and coffee from Coffee Cat in Mason City. Because it was vacation, why not share a peanut butter cup brownie and a cinnamon coffee cake slice for breakfast? My honey hazelnut latte was tasty.

So there's about 15 reasons to visit Mason City.
 1. Friendly hotel staff that have well manicured nails
 2. Historic lovely hotel that no longer looks like a skanky 1970's flop house
 3. Enormous velvety pillows that you should refrain from pilfering
 4. Amazing architecture from early Prairie School designs
 5. Pastries for breakfast
 6. Old school Greek steakhouses with oil portraits over the cash register
 7. Kind tour guides willing to talk and talk and answer every question
 8. Gracious Midwestern folks
 9. Honey Hazelnut lattes from Coffee Cat
10. King size beds with soft linens and plenty of blankets for the shitty April snow storms
11. Birdsall's taking you back to the 1950's
12. Frank Lloyd Wright everywhere
13. The relaxing, slower pace of a small town
14. The gorgeous details that the eccentric nut bag FLW carefully placed in every one of his spaces
15. And most importantly, that amazing butter, olive oil, steak and herb spaghetti.

We hit the road Friday morning by 10am, waving goodbye to Mason City, and hello to the Twin Cities and further northern adventures. And probably more pastries, if I had anything to do with it. But wait for the next installment when we get to theoretical physics, more cake, Game of Thrones and the friendliest, humpiest puppy dog in the entire state of Minnesota. Plus the legendary Al's. Wait for it!


Thursday, June 13, 2013

30 Second Reviews: 6 Months of Words and Stuff

Hi, friends. Six months! Somehow it's been six months since I did a book review post. Jeez, too many books to review. Why did I wait so long? I think part of the reason is that the Blogher Book Club has come to a close, so I've gotten out of the review habit. 

But I've read some pretty fabulous books so far this year. So how about some 30 second, possibly 20 second book reviews just so we can get through everything? There are some great summertime reads in here, some books so fun I'm almost embarrassed to admit how quickly I read them or how much I enjoyed their cheesy goodness. Lots of mysteries, a touch of horror, and a few non-fiction just so I don't feel like a total light weight. So let's dive in!

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
This is an epic novel that covers more than five decades. Full of life and intriguing characters and unique colorful locations, it felt like an African John Irving novel. Beautiful and sad and epic.

Mrs. Lincoln Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini
What an excellent subject for a book, the relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her African American dress maker, personal attendant and confidant Elizabeth Keckley. But the execution was too dry, too much telling, not enough dialogue and direct character interaction, and too much listing off of Civil War events and leaders. I wanted to get more into the internal thoughts and motivations of Elizabeth and Mrs. Lincoln, but it felt more like reading a textbook than a novel. I felt kept at a distance from the primary focus of the book. Not bad, but not my favorite.

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
I was hesitant about this book when my neighborhood book club selected it, just because it seemed a little simple and slight following the story of a young African woman in Botswana opening her own detective agency. But I was wrong, it was simple and charming. Ok, you win, little book. I fell in love with your straight talk and lovely protagonist and African setting. You win, I want more.

Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl
A Southern supernatural young adult love story. I was home sick. I laid in bed the whole day. I finished this baby between naps and soup. The perfect fluffy silly teenage read.

At Dawn by Jobie Hughes
This is a beautifully written book about flawed, frustrating and stuck young characters trying to make lives for themselves in the cold, demanding streets of Chicago. Characters stuck in their own failures and mistakes and regrets. But I liked it even when I hated our protagonist.

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
This audio book was nearly perfect. Filled with imagery of the stark and beautiful country of Texas and Mexico, with fading cowboys and doomed love, I thoroughly enjoyed every hour of it.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright
I bought this book the day it came out. A penetrating, multi-year investigation of Scientology from it's early beginnings to it's most recent celebrity stars, this book was carefully researched, fascinating, disturbing and deeply enjoyable. Is Scientology a cult? Read the book for yourself and decide.

Touch and Go by Lisa Gardner
Standard thriller fare. Not the best, but not the worst read for a cloudy Sunday afternoon.

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt
I'm still thinking about my review for this one. Beyond the gorgeous, descriptive language covering the fall of the Roman Empire, heinous Popes, court intrigue and the power and beauty of books and libraries, it felt like the author was trying to force this book to justify his own personal beliefs about religion and faith. I feel smarter about the time and Epicurus, but not sure I buy the entire premise of the author. In fact, I'm not even sure the author does.

The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carlson
A sweet, inter-generational family novel that reminded me of classics like Fried Green Tomatoes or To Kill a Mockingbird. I loved the lucid writing and the way the author gives each character their own section, so the reader has a chance to see all of the characters from different angles inside the family.

Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz
Loved this audiobook. Made me wish I was 11 or 12 again and discovering gothic mysteries for the first time. Full of dastardly villians, urchins with hearts of gold, witches and puppets that come to life, I was swept up in the magic and whimsy of this dark little tale.

With or Without You by Domenica Ruta
This memoir of a working class girl growing up with a drug addicted mother is haunting and blunt and honest in a way that makes me close my eyes and feel for Domenica and understand her and at the same time want to smack her. Real, brutal and intensely revealing, I like the way the narrative only follows a loosely structured timeline.

A Good American by Alex George
The last book I was lucky enough to review for Blogher's Book Club. Here's my full review.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
Joe and I attended one of Rainbow's readings in Omaha back in March, so of course I HAD to re-read Eleanor and Park. I adore this book. I've raved about Rainbow here and here. Go read this book. Buy a couple of copies and pass it around. Do it. And pick up Attachments while you're there.

Live by Night by Dennis Lehane
A violent, vast and viciously entertaining novel of gangsters and their molls, of up and coming cities of sin and vice in the decades during and after prohibition. Joe Coughlin is an intelligent, contemplative antihero outlaw that will drag you transfixed from a Boston prison to a lush humid Tampa, to the island of Cuba pre-Castro. I'm giddy that Ben Affleck is set to direct the film adaptation. He'll do it right.

You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself by David McRaney
Humans are easily mislead, self deluded, delightful morons. This review is shorter than the title of the book. 

So Cold the River by Michael Koryta
Started strong and lost me somewhere admits the tornados, poisoned mineral water, egotistical failed movie makers, ghosts and rednecks. But if you like that sort of thing, I'll loan it to you.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton
If you like her other books you'll probably like this one. It was fine. Lots of jumping from time period to time period, character to character, plot twist to plot twist. Enjoyable, but more convoluted than necessary. Reat The Forgotten Garden first, then maybe this one.

Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
This was a romp. A love story, a friend story, a Google-fied adventure through secret libraries, coded mysteries, and lots of San Francisco. Yes! Wonderful! And I think I found my next tattoo. Now to decide on the location.

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
This is barely more than a memoir of a comfortably middle class woman slumming it with the working class for a few months and sharing it with her equally middle class book buyers. While I admire the author for undertaking this project, I struggled with her writing style, her frequently interjected personal opinions, her sweeping generalizations, and overall superior attitude. I think this is a valuable book, but I wanted a more researched nonfiction story rather than a memoir.

In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin
The writing in this novel is magnificent, transcendent, beautiful. But. But, I can't believe I'm saying this, there's too much of it. It gets bogged down in it's own deep thoughts and moral quandaries and swooning descriptions of young women, love and duty. It needed serious editing and a loss of about 350 pages and it would have been perfection. Otherwise I found myself skimming and looking for action and plot lost among the pretty words and ideas.

Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley
The lastest in the Flavia deLuce mystery series. As charming as always, but Flavia is growing up, things are changing in Bishops Lacey. But mostly all I have to say is "Damn you, cliff hanger, damn you!"

The Last Girlfriend on Earth by Simon Rich
Unique, biting and funny. But even though it's a slim book, I found myself tired of the author's style and sense of humor about half way through.

The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn Saks
Another powerful audio book for my commute to work. This is the memoir of Dr. Elyn Saks, chronicling her struggle through bouts of serious mental illness, which despite the debilitating medications, side effects and symptoms of her mental illness, didn't prevent her from being incredibly successful. Her constant on and then off again medication struggle gets a little old, but her intensity, bravery and intelligence win out and win you over.

A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
I'm hooked. That is all. I'll try not to spoil the show for you.

Poke the Box: When Was the Last Time You Did Something for the First Time? by Seth Godin
Fine, I guess. Very forceful and vaguely motivational. Basically 84 pages of repeating his message of get off your ass, stop being scared, stop being mediocre and get to doing. Not bad advice, but not life changing.Though Joe tells me that Seth Godin is widely admired, I just wasn't won over with this one.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Wonderful. Of course. Your high school English teacher was right.

Me Before You by JoJo Moynes
A British chick lit novel, that's not really a chick lit novel. I listened to the audio book and when it was over, I was shredded. Crying while driving and listening to this sweet, different little book. I saw the ending coming a mile away, no big secret, but it was still heartbreaking.

Confessions of a Prairie Bitch by Alison Arngrim
Amusing. Nelly Olson is a funny lady and pretty damn tough, but that's a lot more info about Little House on the Prairie than I ever planned to read.

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke
A murder mystery set on an old plantation, just an excellent story populated with strong characters, the plantation is a character all it's own. This was essentially a great novel hidden inside a mystery story. A perfect first selection for Dennis Lehane's imprint. And a nearly perfect audio book performance.

Inferno by Dan Brown
Cheesy, fast paced, ridiculously unlikely, but fun. Pretty much The DaVinci Code minus the Catholic Church and set in Florence.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Fast, dark, deeply unsettling and a great way to start my summer reading. I didn't love Gone Girl, but I loved this story.

Dreaming of the Bones by Deborah Crombie
Another mystery, this one is the fourth in the British detective series by American author Debora Crombie. It was different, a nice audio book and an easy read.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
After reading Sharp Object I picked up Dark Places right away. I wanted to like it more than I did, but the story was so far fetched and the characters so generally unlikeable that I struggled to connect with it. Though Flynn knows how to create unique voices and get inside a character's head in an incredibly effective way.

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
When I stumbled across Joe Hill's first novel Heart Shaped Box a few years ago, I was hooked. Then when I found out his father was Stephen King, it all made sense. He writes modern, complex horror stories, similar to his father's heyday in the 1980's, and some of his more recent novels. Hill's latest, pronounce it like Nosferatu, was terrifying, bizarre and I devoured it like Christmas candy. (Read the book and that makes more sense.) Joe Hill may become as good as his father is in the freaking Kassie out business. Once you give yourself over to the story you'll find yourself staring at the page, glassy eyed at three in the morning, arms tingly and tensed, wondering when you'll ever sleep again.