February 18, 2014

New is hard. Is it better?

As we continue to settle in to our new home in Oakland, I can’t help looking at every other meadow and wondering if it might be greener.

I thought a lot about this on my drive home tonight -- and about how change tends to break open pieces of life that we had taken for granted, even the parts that weren’t meant to change. Even harder than change, really, is that side effect -- of having what we had taken to be the reality of our lives shown, in a new light, as something quite different.

There were a lot of pastures to look at as I rode through the East Bay towns of Fremont, Newark, Union City. In the morning, it’s easy to look at these suburbs wholesale as places of endless potential. When the sun is coming up and the streets are empty except for the hundreds of cars in commute mode, there’s a blank canvas over each house, corner store and park on which you can paint all manner of happy stories.

At night, however, more people are out and about -- and I have more time and brain space to observe them. It’s clearer then that there are still neighborhoods with poverty, with hard knocks, with people just trying to make ends meet -- even close to large, gated communities. Some cars are old, dented, missing pieces and parts. Some homes have messy yards, falling-down fences. 

In short, there’s a range -- just like there is in Oakland. 

At first, as always, the temptation is to harken back to San Francisco and to muse that things are so different there. But it’s not true. San Francisco is an incredibly beautiful city, but it’s still got its struggles. Over time, living there -- right or wrong -- I took in those things that were uncomfortable and grew accustomed to them: the trash that always seemed to gather on a sidewalk where I ran, the graffiti that often appeared on the street just outside our apartment, the heartache at seeing the homeless camped in doorways at night.

Is San Francisco a greener pasture than Oakland? Is homeownership a greener pasture than renting? Is not commuting a better life than commuting? Is it better to keep what you have or to strive for more?

I was probably spurred on in my brooding tonight by an NPR interview with Meg Wolitzer, who was discussing her book “The Interestings,” a novel that begins at a summer camp and follows the characters as they grow older. In the interview, “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross asked Wolitzer if she sees “adult selves as being finalized with no chance for reinvention?”

Part of Wolitzer’s answer hit home:
I think that it's harder and harder to change in all kinds of ways as we get older, at least it is for me. Comfort and familiarity become so important in your life, I think, and the idea of really reinventing yourself, I mean - but I think - is tough.
Change is hard. New is hard. I think I’m still a young woman, but I do love comfort and familiarity, as much as I hate to admit it.

Bits and pieces of my “new” are becoming comfortable, like the window next to my spot on the couch, with its view right into a big, old rhododendron bush. At night, the light from my lamp shines just so into the leaves and blossoms, and I feel at home. But much of living here is still new, with routines and habits still to be worked out.

Is the pasture green here? Is it greener than before?

Ask me again when it’s a little more familiar.

February 17, 2014

A (somewhat belated) Happy Valentine's Day to You

It was a little late, but I got into the full-blown Valentine's spirit this weekend.

While Vivek went to pick up our Chinese take-out Saturday night, I whisked our Christmas decorations into the spare room (shhhh! don't tell) and whipped up a quick string of construction paper hearts on kitchen twine to hang across our fireplace. A vase full of tulips on top the mantel, courtesy of a friend who'd visited earlier in the day, completed the simple but oh-so-festive look.

Then, tonight (it's still Valentine's weekend, right?) -- I finally made my pink-frosted cake.

At some point when I was young, my mom made a pink-frosted cake at Valentine's Day in the shape of a heart, complete with gummy heart candies on top. With so much chocolate candy around, I kind of doubt I appreciated that cake as I should have then -- but man, have I been wanting one lately!

I needed, however, to make some alterations. I'm not likely to use food coloring for much else, so I set on strawberries, hoping they'd provide the right shade of pink. And my doctor's been after me to cut back on sugary candy (I have a weakness for things like gummy hearts, orange slices and red licorice), so I decided to skip the extra sweets on top. (Why I was concerned about the candy garnish and not the 16 ounces of sugar that go into the frosting anyway is beyond me.) Finally, if I'd made the cake in time for the Big Day, I might have gone to the trouble of creating the heart shape. But as I only got to baking in time for President's day, I decided on a straight-up layer cake.

Baking the cake was easy (nothing beats a boxed yellow cake, right?) -- so I just needed to figure out how to get my strawberries into the icing. I found a few recipes for strawberry buttercream frosting that called for syrup, but I was determined to use real strawberries -- and I found one recipe using real strawberries, but the ratios looked off. So I decided to wing it.

The result? Pretty tasty cake, if I must say so. It does have a rustic look, since I used the full puree, seeds and all. But the fresh strawberry taste -- even with just a handful of strawberries mixed in -- makes for one sweet treat.

Pink frosting on a yellow cake with pink tea towel and red kettle nearby.
Turns out you only need a few strawberries to pull this together. (I froze the puree I couldn't use tonight.) And while I think this recipe's probably adaptable to whatever's in your fridge, I'll note that I used full-fat milk and real Clover butter.

Happy Valentine's Day!


Strawberry Buttercream Frosting
(frosts one layer cake)

1 lb. confectioner's sugar
1 stick of butter, softened (1/2 c.)
4-5 large strawberries (enough to make 3 T. puree)
a few drops of milk

Cream together the sugar and butter. While the mixer's running, cap and puree the strawberries.

Add the strawberry puree to the butter-sugar mixture 1/2 tablespoon at a time and mix until well blended. Add puree until the icing seems just about ready to spread, and then add a few drops of milk to smooth it out.

February 16, 2014

Spring is (almost) here

Shhhhhhh -- listen! Spring is coming. Can you hear it?

The birds are up and singing. The sun is shining -- and it's only 7 a.m. There's a quiet hush hanging over the dawn: No snow plows; no rain; no wind.

I know this isn't what my East Coast friends and family are hearing or seeing yet. (Darn that Punxsutawney Phil!) But it's what we've got here. The apple tree is blossoming, the chrysanthemums are popping up in green shoots and the grass is growing so fast you can practically watch it.

Our apple tree -- blossoming already.
I'm most excited to see how long the days are lasting, from before 7 a.m. to nearly 6 p.m. There's more and more light every day, with more minutes and more hours to run, to pull weeds, to sit and enjoy the porch or patio.

We still need some winter rain, but I'm hoping -- for the sake of all these blossoms -- that we're past the risk of frost.

Bring it, spring. Bring it.

February 15, 2014

The joys of doing (almost) nothing

Two truths about today:

1. It was mostly a big, fat, do-nothing day.
2. I really needed today to be a big, fat, do-nothing day.

The past few weeks have been amazing, with trips to India, New York and (briefly) home, visits with old friends and the start of a new role at work -- but boy, was I ready to sit still for a while. I just wanted to stay in my pajamas as long as I liked and bum around after that in sweatpants -- watch TV, cook, make coffee, read, write, whatever struck my fancy.

So today, that's what I did. I woke up, cleaned the kitchen a bit, put some coffee on, fried some bacon and mixed up some pancakes. Then I visited with a friend who dropped by just as Vivek was frying up the last round of bacon and pancakes -- and the three of us proceeded to watch the Olympics. For hours. No seriously, hours. It was amazing.

After the friend and the boy headed out -- she for more socializing and he for some soccer-playing -- I settled in for two hours of mindless Internet browsing.

At 5 p.m., I decided I ought to do something -- so I mowed the yard (the grass was really tall, y'all). In fact, I mowed and trimmed the yard and swept the walks. I even figured out how to flip my trimmer around so that it would work as an edger, too.

See what amazing productivity you can get after (most of) a day of rest?

Now back to my sweatpants. It's time to watch Ben Fong-Torres narrate San Francisco's annual Chinese New Year Parade.