Friday, February 26, 2010
Capers, and sun-dried tomatoes, for sale at the Berkeley Bowl.
posted by 125records @ 4:20 PM   2 comments
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Are you familiar with unclaimed property web sites? There might be a big fat check out there with your name on it. All you have to do is search your state's unclaimed property database -- try entering "unclaimed property" and your state's name into Google -- and voila, you might be rolling in dough. California alone has over $5.7 billion in unclaimed assets.

Unfortunately, I don't have an unexpected windfall coming my way, but I recently found out that somebody I know has a lot of money due, thanks to a few too many changes of address. And when I say a lot, I mean six figures. High six figures.

Of course, this led me to imagine what it would be like to discover that all of a sudden, I was a few hundred thousand dollars richer. Now, bear in mind that I am very fortunate -- unlike a lot of Americans, I never have to worry about where my next meal is coming from. I can do indulgent stuff like eat at Coi and shop at the Berkeley Bowl. But the thought of all that money made me... OK, it made me envious.

This morning, I got an email from Donors Choose, one of my favorite charities. I try not to browse the Donors Choose web site web site too frequently, because I want to fund everything, and sometimes it makes me cry. Last winter, I stumbled upon a project posted by a teacher in Oakland whose portable classroom did not have any source of heat. The kids had to wear coats in class and were often too cold to concentrate on their studies. The teacher wanted to buy some space heaters. I decided to fully fund the project immediately, and a few weeks later, I got a packet in the mail with thank you letters from the students and a bunch of photos of the kids happily posing with the heaters. How you can look at that and not be moved?

Anyway, I made the "mistake" of spending a few minutes on Donors Choose and found this proposal: "Fourth Graders need a North Carolina Shore Adventure." I've never been to the North Carolina shore, but apparently there is a cool light house, the Wright Brothers museum, and sand dunes. Mrs. W. wants to take the kids in her high poverty classroom to see the Bodie Island lighthouse and museum this spring, and she needs $3,273.24 in order to make it happen. Here's the good news -- a bunch of people, including me, have already donated $1,857.74. But as of this writing, they still need $2,134.02.

Maybe you can check out those unclaimed property web sites (I love the fact that Illinois' is named "Cash Dash"!), and if you discover a few bucks, you can make a tax deductible donation to help fund the proposal. If you loved field trips when you were a student -- heaven knows I did -- this would be a great way to give back.
posted by 125records @ 4:44 PM   2 comments
Monday, February 22, 2010
When I was in school, I was introduced to the world of Required Reading, where a teacher would assign, say, William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and everyone in the class had to read it and then take a test to prove that we had read it. ("What is Brutus’s explanation for killing Caesar?") As a lifelong lover of books, I quickly discovered that I hated Required Reading. The best way to make me not want to read a book was to assign it to me in class. This led to, among other misadventures, learning that renting the movie version of "Dr. Zhivago" is not an adequate substitute for reading Boris Pasternak's novel if you want to get a good grade on the final.

While I was avoiding Cry the Beloved Country, it's not like I was spending all of my free time reading Tiger Beat. Entirely on my own, I read the collected works of J.D. Salinger and F. Scott Fitzgerald, along with pulpier stuff like Jeffrey Archer, John Irving, M.M. Kaye and Colleen McCullough. (I remember choosing Kaye's The Far Pavilions to read on a trip to Sweden because, at nearly 1000 pages, it was the fattest novel I could find at WaldenBooks.)

Then I got to college, and Required Reading took on an even more sinister cast. In my English lit classes, we had to read a book every week; one of the most miserable weeks of my college career was spent plowing through Herman Melville's Omoo. Some of the books were inscrutable (William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury); others were just plain boring (Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady). Yeah, I know I'm going to hear from people who think a Henry James novel is their idea of a beach read, but I honestly can't think of one single book I read in English lit that I enjoyed.

I was thinking about this because I've been wondering lately if there is some nutritive value, so to speak, in reading books that are "good for you" instead of simply picking up books that appeal to you. Should I be reading Crime and Punishment instead of The Help, even if I don't think Dostoyevsky is "fun"? Was my education somehow inadequate because it resulted in me preferring Anne Tyler to Theodore Dreiser? Would I be a better person if I was reading Faulkner and Woolf? Or, once the degree is hanging on my wall, does it even matter if I never again read anything weightier than Entertainment Weekly?

Perhaps part of it comes down to enthusiasm. In my big college English lit survey classes, I never got the sense that the professors (or T.A.s, for that matter) were genuinely excited about the books they were teaching. Whereas in junior high English, my teacher, Mr. McBee, assigned Dickens' Great Expectations, and when some of the pupils groaned, he exclaimed that this was an amazing book and that once we read it, we would never forget Pip and Mrs. Havisham. And you know what? It was, and I haven't.

If you truly love a certain Great Novel from the canon, let me know in the comments and maybe I'll give it a try.
posted by 125records @ 5:16 PM   9 comments
Friday, February 19, 2010
I used to frequent the Berkeley Bowl supermarket -- when I lived within walking distance of the place. Once I moved and had to drive there, I realized why it had won the nickname "Berkeley Brawl" and decided the parking lot was reason enough to permanently cross the place off my list of favorite stores.

However, in 2009, the always-crowded Bowl opened a new branch, Berkeley Bowl West. It's located about two blocks away from my auto repair shop, Art's Automotive. I am fiercely loyal to Art's. Do you ever worry that your mechanic is trying to make as much money off you as possible by telling you that your car requires unnecessary repairs? Here is how you choose a great auto shop: pick one that's so busy, they want to get you in and out of there as quickly as possible. Art's will never cheat you, because they have too darn many customers. There's a long line of Best of the East Bay award plaques on the wall. Art's is awesome.

Anyway, while I was waiting for an oil change this morning, I wandered over to the new Bowl, and -- my God, the place is astonishing. I used to think the Whole Foods in Oakland was the ne plus ultra of East Bay food stores, but the Bowl makes it look like a 7-11.

Going into supermarkets is a bit of a hobby for me. Whenever I'm in a foreign country, or even just an unfamiliar city, I always make a point of checking out the local grocery store -- perhaps it's something I picked up from my dad, who does the same thing. I just like seeing the local brands and taking a look at the prepared foods and bakery items, even if I don't buy anything. So I've been in a lot of supermarkets. But I'm here to tell you, I have never seen anything like the Berkeley Bowl West. The only place I can think of comparing it to is the mighty Zabar's in New York. (Nothing will ever beat Zabar's, if for no other reason than that the Bowl doesn't carry black and white cookies.)

The Bowl is huge. It's probably as big as my local Safeway, which is pretty massive. But what will really make your eyes pop is the Bowl's produce department. I wandered through it, thinking "Wow, this is big!" and then I realized I'd only seen half of it (it's divided into conventional and organic produce). If you need any kind of obscure root or mushroom, this is the place to find it. (Check out some photos here.)

The Bowl carries at least a dozen different kinds of capers. There is a section of U.K. foods, in case you have a sudden craving for a Yorkie Bar or mincemeat pie filling, and an impressive Asian selection. The bakery has a zillion calories' worth of pretty cakes. In fact, the only thing that the Bowl lacks is a really great prepared foods section -- I'd still have to give Whole Foods Oakland the edge there. (The Berkeley W.F. is too puny.) The Bowl is primarily for the adventurous home cook, the person who really needs to track down a chirimoya in order to make some obscure recipe.

I wasn't intending to buy anything (hah!) -- I thought I'd go hang out in the cafe while I waited, but I never even made it there, since I was too transfixed by the supermarket itself. Naturally, I wound up with a full basket of items, including:

Spicy handmade corn tortillas from Sonoma's Primavera
Organic baby arugula and some pitted Kalamata olives from the olive bar so I can make this recipe
An outrageously delicious morning bun from Semifreddi's
A tub of La Cascada house salsa
A package of Almondina biscotti
Inari-zushi from the sushi bar

Happily, at 10 AM, the Bowl was not at all crowded, and there were many empty parking spaces available. There's no need to brawl -- the new Bowl has room for all.
posted by 125records @ 4:51 PM   4 comments
Sunday, February 14, 2010
I don't mean to complain about the weather, seeing as how much of the East Coast is buried under a couple feet of snow, but I'm in St. Petersburg, FL, and it really should be warmer. After five days, I'm not sure the temperature has even hit 60.

You know who is happy about the cold weather? Movie theater owners. Because if you can't walk on the beach, you may as well catch up on those big hits you missed. I saw two of them, "The Blind Side" and "It's Complicated." Even though both of them have been playing for weeks, the showings were packed.

The inspirational weepie and the baby boomer rom-com have one thing in common: sensational real estate. Both Sandra Bullock and Meryl Streep's characters live in gorgeous homes. I'd happily move into either the Tuohys' tastefully decorated mansion (apparently, owning 80 Taco Bells is very lucrative!) or Jane's sunny Santa Barbara estate (apparently, selling chocolate croissants is very lucrative!).

Both films teach important lessons. For instance: don't drive around in your brand new truck jammin' to Young MC's "Bust a Move." Even after all these years, it's so funky fresh, you're liable to crash!

And, if you're Skyping with your new boyfriend, don't leave your computer unattended if your horny ex-husband is sneaking around the bedroom in the buff.

To be honest, both blockbusters are ridiculously entertaining, but I'm going to give "It's Complicated" a slight edge because Meryl Streep is so winsome as Jane -- please, Hollywood, keep giving her starring roles. "The Blind Side" also features some dialogue that made me wince: "You're changing that boy's life," one of Leanne's snobby friends says to her. I knew what she was going to reply even before she said it -- "No, he's changing mine." Also, child actor Jae Head as precocious kid brother S.J. is teeth-grindingly annoying.

All in all, though, I couldn't have asked for better turn-off-your-brain vacation-time fun.
posted by 125records @ 7:49 PM   0 comments
Sunday, February 07, 2010
How often do you have the chance to have dinner at midnight at an Irish pub in Albuquerque with 15 visitors from the central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan? I had that experience just last night!

Joe and I happened to fly into New Mexico on the day our friend Neal was promoting a show by Ordo Sakhna -- their first-ever U.S. appearance. It was sort of the luck of the draw and wouldn't necessarily have been my first choice of show, but I have to say that I was completely bowled over by them and would strongly recommend that anyone who has the opportunity to catch them on the rest of their tour (including dates in Berkeley and Sacramento!) do so. It will be an unforgettable experience.

The huge band features a variety of instruments, including a six-foot-long horn that I'm sure was a lot of fun to take on a plane halfway around the world. Three of the musicians were virtuosos on the komuz, a three-stringed lute. The showstopper of the evening was when all three of them played in unison, spinning their instruments around and playing them from different angles, including over their shoulders and upside down. Several of them also played the jigatch, which looks kind of like a little stick with a string coming out of it -- it's related to a jew's harp and is the oldest Kyrgyz instrument. As with the komuz, it's amazing the variety of sounds they coaxed out of what seemed like a fairly primitive device.

The music is kind of hard to describe -- if you've ever heard Tuvan throat singing, some of the sounds were similar, although played on instruments instead of made by the human voice. The evening's repertoire was evenly split between vocal and instrumental selections. One nice triptych of songs was a salute of sorts to horses, a valued part of the Kyrgyz culture, including clip-clop percussion that mimicked the sounds of hooves. The first song was dedicated to Alexander the Great's horse, the third to Genghis Khan's, but the second was a salute to the mustang and had some touches of American Western music thrown in.

In another nod to the land they were visiting, they did an interpretation of the song "Strangers in the Night" which garnered a lot of appreciative applause.

I always admire Neal for booking this type of show, because it's a hard sell. It's not like there's a ready-made fan base of Kyrgyz music the way there is, say, with music from Ireland or Western Africa. But while the crowd wasn't huge, it was incredibly enthusiastic -- there were three standing ovations. The next afternoon, someone approached Neal while we were out to say that she'd heard some ladies in a locker room talking about what a fantastic show it was. The people who did take a chance and went to see Ordo Sakhna were richly rewarded.

The group's rider stated that they were to be provided with a full meal after the concert, which is how we ended up at O'Niell's Pub. Lonely Planet declares that "the Kyrgyz are renowned for their hospitality and guests are often treated to fermented mare’s milk and bowls of fresh yogurt," but the Irish fare on offer consisted of fish & chips, shepherd's pie and chicken kebabs. Despite the fact that most of the musicians spoke no English, their road manager helped get everything sorted out and they seemed to enjoy the food.

While their onstage attire consisted of colorful, beautiful folk costumes, offstage, they wore pretty average-looking clothes by American standards, and several of them had digital cameras, iPhones and iPods. Ah, globalization.

If you're near Berkeley, Ordo Sakhna will be performing at Ashkenaz on Feb. 19.
posted by 125records @ 11:12 PM   1 comments
Tuesday, February 02, 2010
One of the blogs I follow, Foma*, has an annual challenge called National Just Read More Novels Month (it was created as a response to November's National Novel Writing Month). Of course, for me, every month is Just Read More Novels month -- I would estimate that 90% of the books I read are fiction -- but I do try to follow yellojkt's guidelines in January.

I am on hiatus from my book group, so I picked all of the books this time around. None of them were knock-your-socks-off, four-star reads, but they were all fairly solid nonetheless.

1. The Financial Lives of the Poets, Jess Walter: A couple of people whose taste I trust highly recommended this novel, which is, like "Up in the Air," one of those works that is very much of its (recessionary) time. Matt Prior is underwater in his mortgage, unemployed, and he suspects his wife of cheating with an old flame. His problems started when he quit his job as a journalist to found a web site called poetfolio, which blended business reporting with poetry. Not surprisingly, the web site was not successful, and while he managed to get his old job back, he landed in the midst of huge cutbacks in the newspaper biz and soon winds up without a paycheck. One night, Matt discovers a surefire way to get out of debt: become a marijuana dealer. (Shades of Weeds!) The author blends some poems into his narrative, which is not as irritating as one might imagine (Walter is an excellent writer). Perhaps because I survived the dotcom boom myself, I guess I could never be totally sympathetic to Matt's plight because his financial-poetry web site was a really stupid idea -- and it's only one of some very bad decisions he makes in the course of the book.

2. The Christmas Cookie Club, Ann Pearlman: My mom suggested I read this, and while my library copy didn't come in until after Christmas, it's not quite as seasonal a read as you might think. Cookie Club might be classified as "hen lit" -- a variation of chick lit for middle-aged women. The book tells the stories of each of the club's dozen members as they gather for their annual cookie exchange. Pearlman based the novel on her own club, and anyone who reads it will no doubt wish they could join such a group (who wouldn't want to go home with 12 different varieties of sweets?). The most noteworthy thing about the book are the interstitial chapters which examine the histories and culture impact of various ingredients, from sugar to chocolate to ginger. Cookie Club has a surprising amount of substance for a book with such a cutesy title and premise. And, oh yes, there are 12 recipes so you can try the cookies yourself.

3. The Enthusiast, Charlie Haas: This was a Chronicle Notable Book of 2009, and when I read the synopsis, I was immediately smitten: Henry Bay works as a nomadic magazine editor, toiling at a wide variety of "special interest" publications from Cozy, the Magazine of Tea to Spelunk, each headquartered in a different small town. The book captures the feeling of being an outsider in a world of hobbyists as Henry attempts to fit in with the ice climbers or crocheters, while seeming to have no passions of his own. The story meanders a bit as it veers into a plot about a Unabomber-type terrorist and Henry's brilliant scientist brother, but Haas wraps it up very cleverly.

4. The Hidden Man, David Ellis: I'm not a huge fan of legal thrillers, but I met Ellis at a mystery event and he seemed like a cool guy with a great personal story (he was former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's impeachment prosecutor!). Most legal thrillers are, of course, written by lawyers, and they don't tend to be known for their elegant prose stylings. Ellis, an Edgar Award winner for his debut novel Line of Vision, is no exception, but he can spin a good yarn and once I got into the story, I was hooked. The protagonist is Jason Kolarich, a lawyer who quit his prestigious firm after a personal tragedy. He is called upon to defend a childhood friend for the murder of a pedophile who is believed to have killed the friend's sister when he and Jason were kids. The "hidden man" of the title is a mysterious figure named Smith who hires Kolarich to take the case and seems to have shadowy motives. At first, I thought The Hidden Man was guilty of one of my literary pet peeves -- the supervillain with seemingly endless resources who always seems to be one step ahead of the hero -- but Ellis smartly allows Jason to keep probing until he discovers Smith's vulnerabilities and figures out how to exploit them.

Both The Hidden Man and Financial Lives of the Poets feature heroes who manage to get by on absurdly small amounts of sleep. I run into this a lot in novels, especially mysteries and thrillers, and wonder if any of the authors have actually tried to go, say, three or four days without sleeping. The characters do sometimes comment on how tired they are, but they still manage to drive cars and work despite their lack of sleep. There are studies showing that even going a couple days without sleep can be harmful and lead to symptoms such as memory loss and lack of speech control. As an occasional insomniac, I can attest to the fact that just one lousy night means I'll be flagging by mid-afternoon.
posted by 125records @ 1:40 PM   2 comments
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Name: Sue
Home: San Francisco Bay Area, California, United States
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