Thursday, December 18, 2014

Holiday Making

I owe my blog some attention. We had a fantastic time in the Caribbean, so I'll write about that soon. In the meantime, how about some holiday cheer? Here's the Christmas tree I coded with madewithcode.com.


The light pattern will be displayed on an actual tree (Washington State's) on the White House Elipse at 4:18 this afternoon. :)

Saturday, November 22, 2014

July, August, September Reading 2014

22 September 2014
Whiskey, You're The Devil (An Addison Holmes Mystery, #4)Whiskey, You're The Devil by Liliana Hart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A fun, light read. Follows the pattern of a Janet Evanovich novel closely.


17 September 2014
Ursula, UnderUrsula, Under by Ingrid Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book reminded me a bit of Away by Amy Bloom in its style of telling the story of a different character in each chapter while maintaining at least a slight connection with the central thread. It starts with a couple in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan losing their little girl, Ursula down an abandoned mine shaft. Then it tells each of their stories and those of their parents interspersed with stories of ancestors from various places and times before eventually looping back to the present.

I loved the way that the author develops each character and the little jolt of surprise I felt when she made the connection with Ursula and Annie and Justin, her parents. I also sensed a tip of the hat to Jane Austen when she lets us in on what might have happened if things had turned out differently...but didn't.

I picked this up at a used bookstore in DC a few months ago while wandering around town with my friend Molly. Good choice!

3 August 2014
The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green

My rating: 4 of 5 stars




A Long Way HomeA Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars





View all my reviews

A Short Trip to Seoul

Last week, I went to Seoul for a quick work trip. We had a few hours for some cultural orientation one day which began with a walk through the grounds of the Gyeongbokgung Palace. The palace, which had been destroyed and rebuilt more than once, reminded me of the Forbidden City in Beijing. (According to Wikipedia, they were built within a few years of each other.)

Self-proclaimed Kimchi Queens
Afterward, we had a whirlwind visit to the National Folk Museum and a peek at the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History before we strolled through the Seoul Kimchi Making and Sharing Festival. It was too early for the sharing, but they already had women demonstrating the making of kimchee. My friend Barbara and I made sure we had our pictures taken with the raw ingredients.

Thankfully, I was thrown in with colleagues with a good appreciation for food and the local knowledge of where to go and we had many opportunities for tasting delicious kimchi. We had not only excellent Korean food, but also Vietnamese, Japanese, and Italian. Naturally, we were eager to sample the native fare. Highlights included our first lunch in which the beefeaters among us had bulgogi and I had hearty bibimbap. I love the communal atmosphere of sharing around the table.

Sundubu Jjigae
One dinner we had soft tofu stew (sundubu jjigae) which was served with little side dishes--including a little dumpling resembling gnocchi. A large bowl with garnish like bean sprouts and seaweed flakes was brought to each of us and then boiling stew and rice were served in stone bowls. There was a bowl of raw eggs which you could crack over the stew and mix in while it was still hot. Tasty! My main challenge was that the tofu got more difficult to wrangle the further I made it into the bowl as I was squishing it with my chopsticks. (Perhaps I should have used that spoon I see lying there in the picture?).

Our last group dinner was a fantastic meal, beautifully plated at a restaurant surrounded by art. The owner had created many of the ceramics we used. Very cool. There a pretty and delicious kimchee pancake in the shape of a yin yang symbol, a nice green salad, crisp fish, sweet pork, beef, and a vast number of side dishes.


My flight left on Saturday evening, so I was able to wander the Insa-dong neighborhood one more time and had a set lunch at a restaurant serving vegetarian temple-style food. It was called Barugongyang for the monastic bowls in which it was served. I chose the "lighter" meal--with only 10 courses. I suspect I ate in greater style than a nun would have.

I'd like to visit Seoul again and to see more of the country when I have more time. Briefly, during bidding season this year, we thought we might have a chance to live and work there. The biggest hurdle besides getting an assignment is learning the language which, while it has a phonetic alphabet and no tones--an advantage over, say, learning Chinese--it also has multiple levels of formality...And honorific or non-honorific verbs and nouns depending upon whom you're addressing. Sounds intimidating! Though we won't be going there in 2015, who knows what the future will bring?

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Washington Weather

http://www.wunderground.com/
The weather has been hot and steamy lately here in D.C. The heat and humidity that we expected in August has reached us in September. The only signal that tells me it's nearly fall is the darkness that greets me when I wake up in the morning and the ever-earlier sunset.

I had heard that this winter was expected to be a bad one, although I suspect that was from folks relying on the Farmer's Almanac. Judging from the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center this part of the country looks like it will be warmer than usual in the fall and early winter and normal as winter wears on. I hope so.

I'd like to avoid the cold we experienced last winter, but it will be nice to get out my boots and hats again. Who knows where we'll be next year at this time or whether we'll need winter clothes at all?

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Living Intentionally

Continuing thoughts on living a simpler life, I recently watched Adam Baker’s TEDx Talk “Sell Your Crap. Pay Your Debt. Do What You Love.” It was an excellent reminder to consider my ideals.

I admit that I like to collect stuff. I remember where I bought each scarf or basket on my travels or who gave me a certain mug. I imbue each thing with meaning. Once I have something in my possession, it's hard to let it go. But every time I do get rid of stuff, I feel such relief. I've almost never regretted getting rid of something (except those letters my family and friends wrote to me when I was an exchange student).

View on a walk along the C&O Canal. Wouldn't I rather be here than organizing, caring for, paying for, and collecting more things?
Whenever I find myself in-between, with very few of my belongings--like just after a move, before my things arrive or when I worked temporarily in Geneva or Kabul--I realize how little I need to be comfortable. We have the unique privilege when we live overseas of (most often) being housed in furnished quarters. We don’t need a lot of furniture. And every time we move, we have a new opportunity to whittle down our belongings further. I know just a few little touches can make a place feel like home.

Sometimes I fall into the trap of thinking that if a little of something is good, more is better. (I like these four flower-shaped bowls, maybe I should have eight. I like these two little French glasses. I'll order a whole set.) If I stop to think, I know this is not true, but in the moment, it seems like a good idea.

From time to time I fall back on the comfort of "retail therapy", but the thrill of instant gratification fades quickly. I know that clutter stresses me out! This is why the idea of organization--think: the Container Store--is appealing to me. Then I remember that if I owned fewer things in the first place, I'd need fewer containers in which to organize them.

For me, living intentionally is not something that happens all at once, but in stages. Sometimes I'm better at it than others. I aspire to it and if I look back, I can see various habits I've changed over time in order to simplify my life. I love the idea of collecting experiences rather than things and right now feels like a good time for me to ponder this again.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Living Small

When Chuck and I lived in Eugene, Oregon, I was a member of a simple living book club. We worked our way through a book that challenged us each week to consider a new topic and live with intention. It was a challenging exercise, but also helped me focus on how I really wanted to live my life.

Around the same time, we considered building or buying a house and we fell in love with the aesthetic of Dwell magazine and Sarah Susanka's book The Not So Big House. I still dream of designing a small house based on our needs and wants and not the expectations of society at large.

This came to mind again recently when I read the New York Times article Freedom in 704 Square Feet about a Portland couple who designed and built their house so they would have more time and money to devote to what they chose to do rather then keeping up payments and maintenance on a larger house.

Freedom in 704 Square Feet

Then I watched the documentary "Tiny" on Netflix. The filmmaker decided to build a "tiny house" and interviewed others who have adopted the lifestyle. They live in not just small, but literally tiny houses that are typically 100 to 400 square feet vs. the 2600 square feet of the average American Home (according to the website The Tiny Life).

People build small or tiny houses for a variety of reasons. Some want to have a lighter impact on the earth. Others want to spend less money and time on their housing so they can do the work they love or spend more time with their family.

Rocky Mountain Tiny Houses' "The Boulder"

Whenever I've had the chance to spend time in a small, tidy place it's been a positive experience. I stayed in a lovely Paris apartment a few years ago, first with Chuck and later with Mindy and our friend, Lynn. It has a loft bed, small rooms, and pretty old beams. Last weekend, I stayed with my friend Sarah in her little cottage and loved the coziness of it.

While living small or tiny is not for everyone, the idea is so appealing to me. We may just need to test it out temporarily one of these days and see how we do....

Paleographers at Play

A page from Leo Baekeland's Diary

Thanks to my friend Sarah Z., I recently learned about a new Smithsonian project in which they are crowdsourcing transcription. At the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers Transcription Center they've posted digitized images of various manuscripts. You can browse through materials from different collections, jump into any one of the incomplete projects, and either start a new transcription or review that of someone else. It's all page by page, so you don't have to have a lot of time.

I've worked on pages in five manuscripts so far.
  • Journal of Facts in Natural History, from the 1860s
  • Joseph Francis Rock's Field Book, from the late 1920s
  • Joseph Henry's Record of Experiments, from the late 1830s
  • Notes on Forest Growth in Washington Territory, circa 1860
  • Leo Baekeland Diary Volume 10, 1911-1912
Leo is particularly endearing in his curmugeonliness. In one passage, in reference to helping a colleague work on an article, he wrote, "then too[,] had to correct many heresies and clumsy writing". About some other colleagues, he said, "Both are very slow....No wonder so few chemists accomplish anything." Hah!

It takes me back to my archives and paleography days in grad school. I love working out someone's handwriting quirks and the satisfaction you get with each little discovery. 'Aha! That's how he makes his 'd's'. Or, 'Oh! That's an ampersand. Now I can go back and figure out what that other sentence really said....' It's the same sense of accomplishment you get when working a puzzle and the pieces gradually fall into place or after staring at a picture mosaic, you finally see the bigger image. And it's even better when glimpses of personality come through. I love it! 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Further Experimentation in Fruit Tarts

The peaches are still in their full glory and blackberries have ripened, so we went a little crazy at the Farmers' Market. Yesterday I made a similar tart to the one I make a couple of weekends ago. This time, I cut the peaches up into chunks and then soaked them in the juice of half a lemon and several ounces of amaretto and ginger liqueur. Once I spooned the peaches into the crust, I scattered a pint of blackberries over the top and then sprinkled the flour, sugar, butter sand over that.

Later, Chuck mixed up some cocktails blending a peach and some passionfruit pulp with the leftover lemon-amaretto-ginger-and-peach liquid, adding more amaretto, fresh mint, and seltzer water. Delicious and refreshing!

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Los Restaurantes en Habana

Another highlight of my trip to Cuba was, naturally for me, the food. Again, my colleagues took me under their wing and introduced me to the concept of the paladar.
Paladar (plural: paladares) is a term used in Cuba to refer to restaurants run by self-employers.[1] Mostly family-run businesses, paladares are fundamentally directed to serve as a counterpart to state-run restaurants for tourists seeking a more vivid interaction with Cuban reality, and looking for homemade Cuban food. (Wikipedia)
My first introduction was via the Restaurant El Partenon. A group of folks were going and invited me along. Aside from meeting new people, and running into and acquaintance from DC in this instance (!), one of the benefits of dining in a group is getting to sample a greater variety of dishes.

We ordered a selection of starters including two kinds of ceviche, grilled octopus, tostones, etc. and main dishes, as well. I had been warned that our hosts would be generous, and they were. In addition to the items we ordered they probably brought half again as many dishes on the house.

We had blended mojitos, along with lots of water, and were naturally offered rum (and cigars) after the meal. I have to admit that by the time I got to the fish I'd ordered, I had to have it boxed up to send home with a colleague. I could not fit in another bite, but boy, was it good!

One day, we had a work lunch at Cafe Laurent. Sadly, it was a little too breezy to sit out on their balcony with its view of the picturesque Hotel Nacional and the bay beyond it, but the room where we sat had its windows flung open to the fresh air. I had a large salad with sautéed shrimp and a gorgeously presented and delicious ceviche.

A couple of the other restaurants I tried were a fantastic and generous chicken place whose name I didn't get and the charming La Imprenta in Old Havana. The food was good and prettily plated and I loved the setting. It is located in a building that used to be a printing house and the furnishings are designed around the theme--my chair was in the shape of a lower case k and the barstools were large number 7s.

On my final evening in town, I was introduced to Atelier. A colleague and I dined on the rooftop terrace. Our table was set with a lace cloth, a lovely jumble of mixed glassware and bright orange fiesta plates. I was particularly enamored of the architectural piece of wrought iron and old typewriters. We shared some appetizers and I ordered the traditional ropa vieja. I loved it!

I wondered whether paladares cater mostly to expats and tourists and the most wealthy Cubans or if there might be different pricing for locals. They seem to do enough business to keep going....

My only disappointment in general was the state of the mojitos. I don't know if it's a matter of being used to an Americanized version, but most of them tasted like someone had put sugar, mint, rum, and soda in a glass. Where was the muddling?!

That didn't detract too much from my trip. ;) I can't complain about the fantastic restaurants, the warm weather, or spending an early evening sitting on the grounds of the Hotel Nacional, sipping a refreshing drink and gazing in the direction of home...

Sunday, July 27, 2014

La Habana Vieja

Over the course of a couple of evenings during my visit to Cuba, a colleague showed me around la Habana vieja. The colonial part of the city that was founded by the Spanish in 1519, Old Havana has a series of public squares surrounded by beautiful old buildings that have been restored with the help of UNESCO. It was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1982.




My colleague and I strolled from square to square and it was as lovely and charming as you could wish. (At the same time that I was in Cuba, another friend was in Spain. Looking at her photos, the similarity in architecture is striking, though not surprising, I suppose.)

Among the old fountains and colonnades there were statues of important figures in Cuban history and some incongruous pieces of more modern public art, as well. (See: the giant tulip here or the woman riding a rooster in the same square).

We also happened upon an art installation being assembled one evening and came to visit it the next. I was struck by what seemed to me to be a greater integration of the arts in daily life.

Along with appreciating unobtainable artworks, I was naturally interested in seeing more accessible handicrafts, as well. In visiting the market by the port, I found some photographs and a necklace which was made of a silver-plated fork folded to frame a turquoise-colored stone that I just had to have.

Aside from the market, I imagine that the privilege of living and working in that part of the city is comparable to that of Place des Vosges in Paris or other rarified locales. But I got the impression, that I hope is true, that anyone was welcome to stroll through.