Thursday, March 15, 2012

Progress and Distraction

A friend called recently and asked how my book was coming.  "My book?" I asked forgetting for a moment my whole plan behind this blog.  "Oh, right.  The Year Of... .  Well, slower than I had hoped."

Maybe I am just too distractible for this kind of thing.  I have already started a couple other projects, a book of poems, a Twitter feed (@poetrynotes), write blogs for a friend on the side, all while taking care of Bubba full time--not to mention Boog and Dr. Sweety.  Sometimes I wish I were more like Dr. Sweety who seems to have the unnatural ability to focus in on a task--be it her statistics homework, cooking dinner, or completing an impossibly tricky "Paint-doku" puzzle--with her whole mind and body until she gets it done.  Don't get me wrong.  She can procrastinate with the best of them, but once she sets her mind to something she completes it fully.  I'm always driving her nuts by leaving a couple things for later.  A lone dish in the sink.  A couple items from the grocery store I forget and have to go back for.  A small pile of the kids' laundry that doesn't get thrown in with the rest of the laundry.  "If you're doing 'x' why don't you just do all of it?" she's asked on many occasions.

I don't really have a good answer.  But maybe distraction can be a good thing as long as eventually things get done.  And if it takes me back around to the original project with new material or insights, perhaps distraction could even be a useful way of working--though maybe not so much with household chores.

Reading A Year In Provence recently has got me thinking about moving to Rochester and what I can figure out about the local character here in the way Peter Mayle observes the French.  So here are a few observations I've made over the past six months or seven months.

1.  People in Rochester tend to drive on the slow side.  Or maybe driving in Boston has permanently damaged my driving habits, since I still believe in jumping the green light and being ready for anyone to cut into my lane.

2.  A lot of newscasters seemed lost when there was no snow this year.  Though most people I talked to in every day conversations seemed perfectly OK with it.

3.  Just like southern France, there are local vineyards, mountains, beaches, and farms.

4.  Unlike southern France there is not a lot of sunshine or warm weather.  (Though it has been perfectly sunny and warm the last couple days.  Maybe with the advent of global climate change, Rochester will be the new Provence!)

5.  Western New York and the Hudson Valley might as well be in different states.  Most people I've talked to here--parents, teachers, other parents--come from around here.  Few have connections to a different part of the state, let alone another state and have that 'that must be interesting' tone of non-interest when I tell them about New Mexico, Albany, or other places I've lived.

6.  There's a general niceness in Rochester.  I was in the Tops grocery store across the street from our apartment where I'd left Bubba's bag in the cart not once but twice on different occasions, and a woman who worked there smiled at me when we came in the store and said, "Remember not to forget your bag again!"

7.  More observations and tales of local color to follow.  Wouldn't want to finish the job quite yet . . . .

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Memory Palace Attempt

A couple months ago I decided to try the memory technique known as the memory palace as described in Moonwalking With Einstein.   (I've still just dipped into A Year in Provence,  but that's a different issue).  I chose for my memory palace my childhood home.  The task: remember a list of groceries to get at the store.

Since I am at home with my eighteen month-old, I do the grocery shopping.  And usually, I write out a quick list before going, though more often than not I shop by going through the rows of groceries and picking out what we need.  The list comes in handy mostly to make sure I get any special items like small snack sized zip-lock bags for Boog's lunches or toothpaste or garlic if we're out.  Even though I don't consult it all that often, I always take the list, since I always seem to forget something if I don't. And even when I do have the list, if I don't go over it carefully before checking out it seems I always forget one thing or another, much to Dr. Sweetie's consternation.  Once when I went to a corner store for just three items, one of them slipped my mind.  I made the short drive back to our house, then retraced my steps back to the store wondering how I could not even remember a few items at a time.  The third thing--dryer sheets, or Sprite--had been sucked into some black hole of the brain, never to come to light again.

The worst part of being forgetful is that even when I have been conscientious and made a thorough list, I sometimes forget to take the list.  There it sits on the beige counter, whispering its contents to its tucked in corners while I stand in the baking aisle trying to recapture if I wrote down baking soda or baking powder, or pondering in the dairy section whether our sour cream in the fridge is still good or not.

So I figured since this was the first time using the memory palace technique to remember my groceries, I'd start small.  My list contained 6 items--a box of tissues, the dreaded sour cream, coffee (vital to existence and therefore easy to remember), chicken stock tomatoes, and basil for making sauce.  I followed Foer's advice and placed each item around my house.  The box of tissues sat squarely on the flagstone path leading up to my front door.  And for good effect I imagined the box wouldn't stop spewing tissues from the top.  The sour cream I placed in the alcove between the screen and front doors.  Here I also followed Foer's example and  imagined a model merrily bathing in the sour cream.  The coffee sat steaming in a giant mug in the hallway, the box of chicken stock played a tune on the piano in the living room, the basil grew from a pot further down the hall and was promptly devoured by a killer tomato with growling sharp teeth running out of the kitchen.

This was all etched quite vividly in my mind.  Then I got to the store.  Maybe I'm the only one who shops like this, but I tend to follow a set pattern when going through the grocery store.  This helps me to remember things as I check against my list and what I remember about what we have at home.  The store essentially becomes another memory palace, since after getting to know where the things I buy are I travel to them in roughly the same way each time.  It felt a bit frustrating and silly to be faced with the dilemma of following the pattern of my new memory palace list or going along the same shopping route I usually take, and I promptly forgot one of my items: the piano playing stock.

After trying the memory palace a couple more times it has worked when I make sure to create very vivid images.  But more often than not, I find it quicker to make a list and try to be diligent about both following it when I'm at the store and actually taking it with me.

Next challenge:  build a memory system that won't let me forget what items need to go on the list itself!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Falling Off the Wagon (Part 2)

Dr. Sweetie gave me the 'I told you so' look today.  I had let her know that I hadn't posted on this blog in a month and haven't even started reading my next 'Year Of. . .' book (Peter Mayle's A Year In Provence is officially next on the list).

"Big shocker," she said.  Or something thereabouts.  In my defense I said I'd been focussing on writing poetry in the time I have when Bubba naps, so the blog had fallen by the wayside.  "Well, that will surely get you published quickly," she replied.

So now I'm back to prove Dr. Sweetie wrong--or to prove to myself that I can keep this up.  I have to admit that I've never been good at keeping journals or diaries, except during a soul-searching time in college, so I will have to set an egg timer on my desk and write for 22 minutes a night, or some other perfectly artificial method for setting pixels into words.

So.  Ideas for Peter Mayle, who I had glanced at back in October, but then had to return to the public library.  He goes to Provence for a year, fixes up a leaky old house, meets with locals, eats and drinks a lot, and writes--at least that is the general gist I got from reading the back cover and glancing through the first few pages.  Perhaps here in Rochester, I could write about all the locals I have met, spend a week trying local delicacies (we're close enough to Buffalo to make Buffalo wings a local specialty!), or learn the language--well, that one shouldn't be too hard.  Maybe there is a French restaurant I can eat at.  There's local wine to sample for sure, but perhaps the task should be to get to know something that defines Rochester this month.  Something besides the stagnant post-industrial, post-Kodak economy.

And maybe by the end of this month (OK, I have to define "month" as the end of November sometime into December), I will be able to give back to Dr. Sweetie her 'I told you so' look.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Falling Off the Wagon

On Monday when I did the weekly grocery shopping with the boys I fell off the local foods wagon.  Maybe it's just the change in season and the fact that all the local peaches are gone.  Yes, apple season is here, but somehow I haven't been tempted to chomp down to the core of an apple much lately.  One thing or another has kept us from the farmer's market--travel, driving rain, the deliciousness of sleeping in on a Saturday when the kids will allow it--and everyone seemed to be craving something different as we trolled the Wegmans produce aisle.

"I want those," Boog pointed to boxes of strawberries.  I made a faint protest about how they weren't in season at all anymore, but then thought "what the heck?" and reached for a clear plastic box of perfect looking berries.  As we passed the rows of bananas, I remembered how much Bubba loves those, so I picked a bunch--I did stick to organic to make some concession to better eating. Prices for local chicken and beef suddenly seemed exorbitant, and I have had some time to forget the horrors of factory farm produced meat that Kingsolver laid out in her "Year Of" book.

Perhaps this is why a local foods lifestyle is so difficult to maintain.  There are so many options presented to us in even the most average grocery store (and Wegmans, still one of my favorite things about Rochester, is far above average!) it makes it hard to pass up a tasty looking out of season fruit or veggie.  In summer when I shopped for fruit and vegetables at the farmers market and farm stands, I bypassed the produce section of the grocery store almost completely, only buying what other stuff we'd need for the week to cook dinners, clean the house, and snack on in a relatively healthy manner (organic cheese puffs vs. nuclear glowing Cheetos!)  I made an effort to bypass as many aisles of processed foods as I could and make more at home--muffins, cookies, bread, my own roasted chilies that we still have in the freezer.

Now that the school year has started though, I have fallen into patterns set up so well by the food suppliers and grocery store planners.  I buy juice boxes and pre-packaged snacks for Boog's lunches, cookies and other baked goodies that we can all survive on in the morning.  I have recipe for pumpkin bread that's been waiting for me in my Better Homes cookbook for a good week now.  

It probably wouldn't take too much to hop back on the horse.  But at this point making the mental effort is half of the problem.  One of my projects for this fall was to make soup once a week and give that to Boog for a lunch and have leftovers.  So far I've made one somewhat ill-fated onion soup and haven't done any since.  Maybe when I get to reading Julie and Julia I will make a potàge some cool fall night. But somehow the planning has eluded me.

It would be nice to have had a garden I'd planted with enough food to can and freeze for the year, but since I live in an apartment complex, the local foods project will have to take on a new phase. Maybe I'll get a sun lamp and grow basil and oregano in our laundry room. Or maybe I'll commit to buying local meat since the best of the produce is waning.  I plan to keep writing about eating locally, even though the month for Kingsolver's book is up.  I might keep adding on topics from month to month so by the end of the year I could write about almost anything.  And that is a wagon I will fall off at my own peril.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Memory Gardens

It's funny sometimes how the moment you start looking for things, there they are.  The same day I started to read Moonwalking with Einstein, the book Joshua Foer wrote about the year he spent training his memory to compete in the memory championship, a new show, Unforgettable, aired on CBS about a former cop who remembers everything that she's ever seen (except, of course, the murder of her sister). 

It seemed like an interesting twist on the crime procedural.  Instead of swabbing shoes and guns for fingerprints or poking at tufts of fabric that magically match those found at the crime scene, we see Carrie Wells walk through her memory, as if memories could be viewed like one of those 3-D exploration demos you sometimes see in museums or real estate sites that let you swivel the view 360 degrees and walk through whole rooms and houses.  She refocuses on clues that were there in her view that she hadn't thought of before as important and discovers how to solve the crime.

I had heard that some people have this kind of near photographic memory, the kind you can fast forward and rewind like a videotape.  A while back I remember seeing a woman on Good Morning America who seemingly remembered everything she'd ever seen.  She could go back through her mind's eye like a rolodex, pull up the day she wanted to revisit, and tell you what happened, what the weather was like, major and minor events, even trivial things that wouldn't necessarily make a strong emotional impact.  And before she was discovered she didn't seem to think any of this was out of the ordinary!  

I don't know if many people are able to walk through their memories as if experiencing the inside of a movie, but I do know that I had an experience that approaches that kind of visual immersion when I started to read Josh Foer's book.

The first few chapters he devotes to how he became interested in the memory championships and befriended some of the competitors who told him, much to his surprise, that they possessed no more than average memories, but employed certain memory devices to be able to memorize lists of random numbers, a poem they'd never seen before, and whole decks of shuffled cards in just minutes.  When Josh's friend and memory trainer Ed describes the device of the memory palace, he asks Josh to take a mental walk through his childhood home, a space he knows extremely well and place the random objects of the list he's trying to memorize in various rooms of the house, I could see exactly what the author saw, since I have been to his childhood house--both of them, since I was friends with his brother Jon (of Everything Is Illuminated fame).  It was a bit like crawling inside someone else's mind for a few minutes as Josh walks up to his driveway and places a giant jar of pickled garlic (the first item in the list), then a tub of cottage cheese in which a model is frolicking (it turns out anything sex-related gets remembered more easily), and on up to his living room where he places more items.  It made me think about the birthday party I went to for Jon in sixth grade when I discovered it could actually be fun to dance with girls, the time I camped out in his back yard, or the Paula Abdul poster on his wall.  Josh I remember mostly as a much-adored kid running in everyone's footsteps, so it seems strange to me too to be reading about his childhood from a grown-up perspective, since in my mind, he is still somewhere between four and six years old.

I can sympathize with Foer when he says he wishes his memory were better at times.  I used to think I had a pretty good memory.  In high school I felt like I remembered more than some people and prided myself on not writing down homework assignments or wearing a watch.  I felt as if I started to use a planner my ability to remember what was important would dull and I'd come to rely on slavishly writing down everything on a list, and it has mostly come to pass.  I found I sometimes forgot assignments, and in college found it more useful just to have it written somewhere so I didn't forget.  Now I even use my computer to make daily to do lists--thank you EverNote (I'm not quite up to the smart phone phase--and anyway whenever I take out an ipod around here, one child or another goes gaga, drools, whines, or grabs, until it's pretty much useless to do anything with it other than give it up or stow it in a pocket until a kid-free time comes around).  

So maybe all this is just to say, if you will pardon the image of a slightly gaudy cemetery, that our memories are gardens that can be tended, pruned, grow tangled, perhaps blossom and bear fruit so that when we go looking for an idea, an image that's been stashed in a drawer in the mind, hidden in an attic storage box, or even a word, what it was that was on the list, on the tip of the tongue blanked out for a moment, it will be right there, waiting to be found.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Two Local Dinners

A couple months ago, back when I was kicking around ideas for this blog, I went on vacation with my family in Maine. Two dinners we ate at two very different restaurants point to ways the local foods movement is currently being carried out in new and old ways.  

1.  Flatbread Company, Somerville, MA

This former candlepin bowling alley, now pizza restaurant/candlepin bowling alley was described to us by our friend as "Hipster pizza with bowling.  But really good!"  The refurbished space was bright, inviting, and decorated with fanciful drawings on chalkboards that listed the names and locations of farms that supplied key pizza ingredients such as goat cheese and "nitrates free pepperoni."  The ingredients for pizza were super-fresh since they hadn't travelled far, and we could find the place where they originated, most in Massachusetts, a few in Vermont and New Hampshire, but few ingredients besides the olive oil that came from more than 100 miles away.  

Restaurants that showcase local ingredients are the exception rather than the norm in most places, but a pizza restaurant seems like a smart way to begin.  There aren't too many ingredients for pizza--though the menu did feature a number of local cheeses and free-range, chemical free meats.  And pizza is something most everyone enjoys, so it's hard to claim that this type of local foods eatery is only for an elite class who can afford such things.  There were, however, hipsters drinking microbrews. But such is to be expected in Davis Square.

It made me envision a day when ingredients' origins might be listed on a menu much the way calorie counts are required to be on fast food and other menus.  Visiting McDonald's or Denny's or the local bistro we could see how much of the meal came from California, Chile, or Argentina or our own back yards and make more informed choices.

2.  Shaw's Fish and Lobster Wharf, New Harbor, ME

I have been going to Shaw's since I was a kid and it was called Small's.  It's located in the small fishing town of New Harbor, a working fish and lobster village wrapped around a small inlet up the coast from Pemaquid Point.  From the deck you can look out to Muscongus bay and see Monhegan Island, a view I never get tired of revisiting.

When we went to dinner here with some friends who were visiting us for a few days, our 5 year old had his first taste of lobster.  "What are you eating?" he had asked our friend L.  "I'm having a lobster," she said.  "I want lobster," he immediately replied.  We explained that he could have a lobster roll, but it would be too tricky to eat a whole lobster himself since you have to break open the shell.  Neither my wife nor I eat shellfish, but Boog had tried shrimp before and liked it and wanted his own lobster.  When our friend's lobster came, bright red, resplendent with claws and antennae stretched out, Boog was fascinated.  He'd only experienced lobster in the grocery store tank where he'd waved hello to the creatures crawling on top of one another, claws sealed by yellow rubber bands.

"He doesn't talk," Boog remarked as L. took apart the lobster claws.  He seemed genuinely puzzled that the animal wasn't alive anymore. "Can you eat the eyes?' he said, poking a black eyeball.

"Actually, you can," our friend said. "It's bitter, so not a lot of people eat it, but it's edible.  I was in Japan recently and my Japanese friend ate a whole lobster--head, eyes, brains, guts, everything."  

Earlier that day we had watched lobstermen in the harbor pulling traps.  "Do you remember those guys we saw getting the lobster out of the water?" we ask Boog.  "Well, that lobster you're eating came right out of the water down there."  What better time and place, I thought, to begin a local foods education than at Shaws?  

There were no organic ingredients at Shaws, and there was certainly beef, chicken, and other ingredients that did not come from Maine on the menu. But mostly people come to Shaws for an intensely local experience--to breathe in this salt air, sit on this one deck, and eat the local lobster, fish, and some of  the best chowder on the Maine coast.  It's this kind of local foods restaurant based around a product that can be found best in that one place that suggests a different kind of local eating experience.  One where there may be many kinds of people--locals, tourists, families, though fewer hipsters--and no need for a chalkboard listing the origins of the main ingredients.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Dinner Fatigue

I read an article recently in the Times about decision fatigue that shed some light on my nightly dinner dilemma.  

You see, Dr. Sweety and I up until now have relied on take out meals for--I wouldn't say most of our meals, but perhaps greater than half many weeks.  When I was working there came a time around 5:00 when I was home from work, we'd done our daily spills, and one of us asked the inevitable question--what do you want for dinner?

"I asked you first," Dr. Sweety would sometimes say when I responded "What do you want?"

We'd throw out a few suggestions of things we could cook, but inevitably, we were missing some key ingredient for a cooked meal like good bread for croutons or paninis, ground beef, or our vegetables had turned into green goo at the bottom of the crisper drawer.  (I sometimes felt my vegetable buying at the store was a matter of extreme optimism, a belief like Gatsby's green light that this week I'd reach out and grasp the zucchini or stir fry those green onions.  But more often then not I ended up tossing them into an overstuffed garbage bag of half-empty styrofoam cartons of chicken strips, penne drowned in a red bath, and now-limp fries).  So cooking was oftentimes out if we hadn't planned ahead.  And don't get me wrong, we did make a point of trying to plan some meals ahead, but through one thing or another plans always seemed to get scrapped.  So the inevitable question was more like, "What take out should we have for dinner?"  

Which brings us to decision fatigue.  Perhaps we were so worn down by a day of making choices--teachers and parents have to make a lot of decisions each day when managing a class or interacting with a baby--that our willpower to decide to cook was worn down and we took the easier path.  This exhaustion of the will was manifested too when we tried to decide which takeout to get.

It wasn't that we lacked choices like we did in New Mexico.  There, we could get pizza from Pizza Hut, burritos from one or two cafes, ho-hum Chinese food, but not much else.  In Delmar we had all manner of take out options, only we still spent many evenings so tired it was hard to choose which one we wanted.  Nothing seemed terribly exciting or mouth-watering.  Inevitably we'd complete the circle from pizza to Greek food, to Japanese, to pasta, to burgers, sometimes going with Chinese, sometimes not, and then back to the inevitable pizza, wood fired or New York style--with some of our own meals thrown in for good measure.  Were restaurant dinners better or worse than TV dinners?  Maybe we were just poor planners and could have benefitted from a slow cooker or more one-pot recipes.  Whatever our problem was, we found it hard to kick.  

Last summer we even pledged to cook every night (well, we would allow for the occasional pizza or Chinese takeout meal), eat all organic food, and use those vegetables when they were fresh from the farmer's market.  But through one circumstance and another we didn't make it.  Blame it on the baby, we said.  Blame it on my job search.  If we go with Kingsolver's argument, perhaps we were caught in food culture that says anything goes.  She writes, "Here in the U.S. we seem puzzled by those who refrain from gluttony in the presence of a glut."  Kinsolver bemoans Americans' lack of identity in our food, comparing us with Italians who eat Italian food, Japanese who eat Japanese food ingrained with links to locally available items.  She wonders, "Will North Americans ever have a food culture of our own?  Can we find or make up a set of rituals, recipes, ethics, and buying habits that will let us love our food and eat it too?" I want to believe we do have a food culture in America--or many food cultures considering the diverse regions of our country.  I was a little surprised since having lived in Tucson for many years, Kingsolver doesn't give more credit to regions like the Southwest where chilis, frybread, tortillas, and beans and rice, and sopapillas, to name just a few of the best items are integral to daily life.  But perhaps having it all is also a facet of American food culture--one that gets blown out of proportion at palaces of gluttony such as the Cheesecake Factory, but an element of what we as Americans have come to expect day to day as well.

Talking with Dr. Sweety the other night about our dinner dilemma, she brought up another possibility.  

"It wasn't decision fatigue," she said.  "It was just fatigue fatigue."  And that was true too, and possibly the biggest obstacle many of us face in embracing a nobler, local, more truly American culture of eating.