Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Summer Sucks

Summer has arrived here in New York City, and I can't help but hate it. I love New York and will never (voluntarily) live anywhere else, but let's face it: this city is an assault on the nose on the best of days. In the summer it's downright horrific. It's like torture porn for the olfactory sense.

The problem with summers here is that the crowded buildings, masses of people, and pollution-spewing cars combine with lack of central air conditioning most places (including my apartment), pedestrian lifestyle, and public transportation to create a perfect storm of stagnant heat, oppressive humidity, and sticky, stinky bodies pressed close together without a lot of relief.

When I tell people how much I hate the summer I get a lot of, "But you're from Miami!" To which I answer, "Yes. And I left there."

I'm just not a hot weather person.

As I type this I'm sitting in a cafe, under an air conditioner AND ceiling fan, sipping an iced tea and wearing shorts and a tank top. And it's still only May.

My mother-in-law, a native of Havana, Cuba, cannot stand the cold, and to her "cold" is anything below 75 degrees. As I said in a recent review for Moms Who Need Wine, "As soon as the mercury in the thermometer dips to 74 or below, she turns into a woodland animal and falls instantly into deep hibernation. True story."

I'm the opposite. As soon as the time and temperature box on New York 1 reads anything above 65, I start whining about how hot it is and turn into a Grumpy Gus. The heat makes me tired, and the dinky little window unit a/c's we have at home just don't quite cut it unless I crank them down to 68 degrees and blast all three of them together. I'm very sorry, Mother Earth, but I figure my carbon footprint is little enough that I can afford to be bad in the summer. Either that or I may kill all my friends and family in a heat-stroke-induced rage.

Things I hate about the hot weather:
  • Everyone smells. No matter how much we all shower and use deodorant, it's just a fact of life that in a city of 8 million people riding public transportation together, it's going to get a little stinky pee-ew. And by "a little" I mean "it's so bad that I often throw up a little in my mouth from even the shortest of subway rides."

Not too different from how New York City subway
straphangers stand. (Photo courtesy of smallguyseo.com)

  • It's hard to cool off. Most other cities have nice, new, modern apartment buildings with central air conditioning. And the shops and restaurants and cafes all have central a/c, too. When you don't have those things, life in the heat can get...rough. It reminds me a lot of the 6 weeks I spent on a study abroad trip to Italy. My friend the Jewtalian, an ex-pat New Jerseyer who married a guy from Italy and moved there to be with him and raise her family, tells of how the Italians fear moving air of any kind. The summer I was there we all nearly passed out on a daily basis from the lack of modern comforts like air conditioning or ceiling fans. And that's kind of what New York is like in the summer. Maybe not as bad - lord knows New Yorkers love them some ceiling fans. (I had one installed last summer to try to maximize the efforts of our window unit a/c.) But still, when you read the bit below you'll wonder how 8 million people make it from May to September every year without collective, en mass dehydration and heat stroke.
  • New York is an outside kind of city. Few New Yorkers own cars. And why should we when we have the best public transportation system in the world? And by "best" I of course mean the worst. The buses come only in clusters, and if you miss a cluster you'll likely stand at a bus stop - without shade or a place to sit - for up to half an hour, waiting, melting, burning from the outside in. At some point the heat will scorch its way through your skin like a laser and fry holes in your internal organs. People have DIED from 3rd degree sunburns on their livers in this city! True story.
Going underground isn't much help. The subway stations are...how can I put this without offending your delicate sensibilities? The subway stations are like the lowest pits of Hell, un-ventilated, reeking of urine both stale and fresh, with traces of vomit and feces, rats scurrying about, sludge flowing between the subway tracks, and a press of humanity crushing you with their sweaty selves. At least the subway trains themselves are air conditioned. Most of them.

And if you're not taking the bus or subway, you're often walking. For blocks and blocks and blocks. In 90+ degree heat, with no hope of cooling down once you reach your destination unless you are prone to filling your bra with ice. I won't say I've never done that, either.

My friend Tia once came to visit us over Labor Day Weekend, and after living my life with me for 5 days she lost so much weight her clothes no longer fit her. We did THAT much walking.

Now imagine either pushing a heavy stroller full of squirmy toddler in that heat, or else constantly coaxing a walking little boy who has to stop and look at every. damn. object. from one block to another. Yeah.

  • The beaches here are...interesting. At least in Miami when you go to a beach you can be reasonably assured that the water will be blue or green or some combination of the two, the sand will be white, and the people will be at least mildly attractive, what with most of them being sexy European tourists and all. New York is surrounded by water, it's true, but, um, uh...it's not Miami. Let's just leave it at that.

Coney Island beach. Sigh.
(Photo courtesy of wanderingbrooklyn.com)

  • Speaking of water and a lack of relief from the heat... It's hard to cool off aquatically here in New York. In Miami everyone has a pool as a matter of course. They just do. In-ground, above-ground, whatever. When you live in Miami you are assigned a Publix shopping card, a hurricane tracking map, a gun to shoot looters with after you are hit by the hurricanes you just tracked, and a swimming pool.
In New York, not so much. It's hard to have a pool when you live in an apartment building that abuts several other apartment buildings. So we have "community pools," but there is not enough chlorine in the universe to make me allow the bodies of myself or anyone I love to become immersed in those. I mean, think about the words "community" and "pool." Am I just paranoid here? Come on.

Not for me or mine.
(Photo courtesy of locals.oyster.com)

The playgrounds have sprinklers, but those are for the kids. So what are we grownups left to do to find watery refreshment from the terrible scorchiness of New York summers? I won't name names, but I happen to know for a fact that I am not the only person around here who takes cold showers in the evenings...

  • It's hotter than Satan's Asscrack*. I love the change of seasons. Nothing makes you appreciate the crisp, cool Autumn air like 500-degree summers. But, as with everything else in New York, our change of seasons are neither mild nor subtle. Our winters are harsh, with at least several blizzards per moth for three months in a row, and temperatures well below freezing from December through March. In spring all we get is rain. March showers bring April showers bring May showers. And when the rain ends we get summer, which is a brutal, evil mix of heat and humidity. Last summer we had five heatwaves in a row, a "heatwave" being defined as above 90-degree temperatures. We regularly go days at a time above 100 degrees, usually right around the Fourth of July. Now, think about that, and think about it in the context of everything else I just said about living in New York in the summer.

So yeah. Summer can suck it.

*TM my friend the Ex-Pat from Detroit.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How to Buy Good (Cheap) Wine

I like to think that the reason people ask me for advice on buying good, affordable wines is because of my spot as the Budget Wine Reviewer over at Moms Who Need Wine, and not because I'm a cheap alcoholic.

Because I am a cheap alcoholic, but I also give good advice. I like to think so, anyway.

Now, I realize that a lot of people are probably intimidated by wine shops, or you have snobby wine friends (like me) who can recognize swill a mile away. (Though, if your snobby wine friends really are like me, they'll drink it anyway once all the good stuff is gone. Swill wine is like Natty Light beer, which we used to drink as college freshmen after we went through all the actual good beer.) But rejoice! There is no reason to be afraid of wine shops. Here, in a nutshell, is how to find a good wine without breaking the bank.

1. Figure out your budget.
There are plenty of quality wines out there for $15 or less, so I usually go with that. Once you have your price cap in place you'll know which wines to quickly weed out.

If you really want to splurge, or if you're buying Pinot Noir (more on that later), I'd say go as high as $20, or even $25. But you really shouldn't go higher than that. Even by New York City standards you can get very good wines for under $20, and definitely under $25.

2. Figure out your color.
A red is not like a white which is not like a rose. And none of those are dessert wines or champagne.

A good way to know what color wine you want is the circumstances you're buying for. Dinner? There are some rules about what goes with what - like white wine with fish, red wine for tomato-based sauces - but my rule of thumb is the heavier the meal, the heavier the wine. So, rack of lamb with baby potatoes would get something in the heavier reds, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec, but mushroom risotto would go with something lighter, like a white wine or a Pinot Noir.

If you're unsure of wine heaviness, check out RackWine's chart of wine heaviness.

You can also go by the weather, or season. A lot of wine drinkers stick with reds in the cooler months and whites in the warmer months. Personally, I can and do drink red wine year-round. (My June review for MWNW will be on that subject.) Pinot Noir is a great summer red, as is Shiraz. Shiraz, while heavy, is spicy and stands up well to grilled meats.

If you're going to a party or to someone else's dinner and you don't know what will be served, Merlot is a great all-purpose red, while Sauvignon Blanc is a good all-purpose white.

3. Know your region.
A lot of wine regions grow the same grapes but have vastly different wines. A Malbec from Chili, for example, isn't going to taste a lot like an Argentinian Malbec.

Just because a country puts out a certain type of wine doesn't necessarily mean it's any good. I love Spain and Spanish wines, but I stick with what they do best: Tempranillo and Granache. California is good at producing heavier wines like Merlot and Zinfandel, so that's where I go for those.

Here's a good easy primer for finding out which countries produce which types of wine.

A Note on Pinot Noir:
Ah, Pinot Noir. The elusive princess of the wine world. A good Pinot is hard to find. A good Pinot for under $15 is damn near impossible. If you're out to buy Pinot I highly recommend you keep your price cap at $25, otherwise you'll only set yourself up for disappointment.

So now you're in the store. You know your price cap, what type of wine you want, and which region to look in. After that it's pretty much a guessing game unless you ask for help. Now, the average liquor store that happens to stock wine probably won't have many experts on hand to help you. In that case, it's best to stay away from the bargain bins and sale racks. Those are wines the store can't move, probably for a good reason. Just pick a label you like and hope for the best.

But, if you're in a proper wine shop you can probably assume the employees have tasted most of the wines they sell and can help you. You don't even need to sound like you know what you're talking about to avoid sounding stupid; it's what they're there for. Give them your price cap and what color you want, and let them help you. (Though, I would suggest shaving a dollar or two off your price cap. I have never ever said, "$15," and actually gotten a $15 wine; it's usually $16 or 17.)

If you do ask for help, be prepared to answer questions about taste. Do you like sweet wines? Fruity wines? Heavy (full-bodied) wines, or light wines? Don't know what any of those mean? Use the phrase, "I want something highly drinkable." Works every time.

And if you're really, really too shy to ask for help and you just want to pop in, get your wine, and leave, Andrea Immer Robinson's motto is "Wine and Food For Everyone." Her website has some great resources to help you. There is also Wine Enthusiast's Wine Pairings page, which lists some meals and which wine goes with them, or the Bryson Wine Page's Wine Tutorial.

Good luck and l'chaim!

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Doctor and The Cat

I make no secret of the fact that I am a giant geek, and I love Doctor Who.* I actually didn't start watching the new series until January** when my friend Nola got me into it. She and I pretty much share a brain, so when she told me I'd like it, I trusted her. And she, of course, was right. I love it!

I love Christopher Eccelson, who played the 9th incarnation of the Doctor in the first season of the new series, I LOVE David Tennant who came next, and I am madly in love with Matt Smith, the current Doctor, and want to have babies with him. (Don't feel sorry for my husband, here; he wouldn't mind being in a Freema Agyeman/Karen Gillan sandwich.)

So, Husband and I are now finished with Season 5 and onto Season 6, when in a few short episodes we'll be all caught up with the new series.

And it's occurred to me recently, while thinking about "Doctor Who" and letting my son, the Juban Princeling, watch PBS Kids because I am a horrible evil mother worse than Hitler's mother and I let my son watch TV (gasp, clutch pearls, call Child Services), that the children's animated show, "The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!" is really not so different from "Doctor Who."

Photo of Matt Smith as my boyfriend, er,
The Doctor, Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, and
the TARDIS, taken from Chaotic Geek

"Doctor Who" is based on a character called The Doctor, a Time Lord who can travel across space and time. He uses a TARDIS which stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space. He always travels with a young (attractive, female) companion. They have adventures in places most humans don't get to see or even know about. The companion learns things.

Photo of the Cat in the Hat, with Sally and
Nick in the Thinga-ma-jigger, taken from Moxie Bird

"The Cat in the Hat Knows A Lot About That!" is also based on a fantastical being who shows up to whisk away his two young friends, Sally and Nick, and takes them in his Thinga-ma-jigger to exotic locales for adventures and learning.

In an episode of "TCITHKALABT," Nick and Sally learn about whale songs; in an episode of "Doctor Who," it is thousands of years in the future and Spaceship UK is floating around the universe on top of a giant space whale. In "TCITHKALABT" (which I am now copy-pasting because that it a pain in the ass to type) Nick and Sally learn about ecosystems and how animals depend on plants and flowers to survive. In "Doctor Who" the Doctor discovers a living being inside a star that has been sourced for energy fuel for a spaceship. In "TCITHKALABT" Sally and Nick learn how to build a bird's nest for some eggs they find. In nearly every episode of "Doctor Who" the Doctor has to save Earth and/or the entire Universe and/or all parallel universes from imminent destruction.

So you see, the two shows are actually quite similar. I'm pretty sure if I keep letting the Princeling watch "TCITHKALABT" he'll grow up to enjoy "Doctor Who." (And also if I dress him in a Yankees jersey he'll grow up to be Derek Jeter!)

Would it be bad parenting of me to start a letter-writing campaign to PBS Kids to get the Weeping Angels into an episode of "The Cat in the Hat Knows A Lot About That!"? They are super cool.

*The new series. I've never seen the original series because once when I was about 4 years old and it was on, I had a nightmare about The Doctor.

**Trauma from childhood nightmare, see above.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Juban Princeling Photo of the Week, 5/14/11

So overwhelmed by the book selection at Barnes & Noble,
the Princeling has to have a little lie-down.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Sprints Vs Marathons

A few years back my husband read Murakami's non-fiction running memoir, "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running."

I'm guessing since he runs long distances and has learned how to pace himself, he probably doesn't have pacing problems with his novels. I don't run. I have serious pacing problems.

Then again, what do I know? Maybe Murakami is excellent at running marathons but shitty at pacing his writing.

My entire writing life to date has been spent writing essays and short stories. Those, I can do. A quick burst of creativity, some editing, and done. Writing an entire novel is a whole other can of worms. For those of you who think it's easy, I'm here to say: it is not. It's damn hard.

How much information do I give away in chapter 1? How do I slowly unravel the thread of the plot without losing readers' interest? How do I keep tension without making every scene over the top? I just don't know.

The other night at the super fabulous Mice At Play event, "Martinis, Mad Men, and Role Play," I had a great conversation with a former teacher turned sculptural artist. We talked about how we are both visual learners, and I mentioned that whenever my husband asks me to tell him how to do something on the computer I can't just tell him - I have to come over and show him. (To his great annoyance. "Just tell me!" he'll shout as I tell him I'll be right there. "I can't!" is my reply.) She totally understood that, but then asked how I can be a writer if I'm so visual?

There's the rub.

I can watch the story unfold in my mind's eye, but getting it on paper is an enormous challenge to me. A good challenge, for sure, but still quite difficult. I imagine this is what is must be like, sort of, to climb Mount Everest: you don't just attack the mountain, you have to pace yourself. Like, really pace yourself. (Trust me, I've seen enough documentaries on this. I'm a little bit obsessed with Everest. I own the Everest IMAX movie on DVD, and have three books about the 1996 disaster.) You go up to Camp 1, acclimate, then climb back down. Then you go up to Camp 2, acclimate again, then come back down. Reaching the peak, if you do it at all, can take a month or longer.

And yes, I just compared my dinky little historical urban fantasy novel to climbing Mount Everest. WHAT?!?!

Why can't I just take the little movie I have in my mind and barf it into a novel? Why can't you all see the story in my head? If I've been writing most of my life, why is this so hard for me?

This is why so many writers are also alcoholics.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mother's Day!

To my own mom, and to her mom, and to every other mom out there - have a very happy, restful, and fun Mother's Day, and may you be showered with love and gratitude!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Juban Princeling Photo of the Week

My husband says "flashlight," I say SONIC SCREWDRIVER!

I mean, right?

(Image of David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor from geek.com)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Sick Kid Drinking Game

Just in time for Cinco de Mayo (aka The White Person's Mexican Independence Day), it's the drinking game parents all over my apartment have been waiting for! W00t w00t, and whatnot!

Last night our 2 1/2-year old son, the Juban Princeling, scored a pretty high fever out of nowhere. Like, literally, he pulled it out of his ass just in time for bed. I saw him do it, too, saw him reach back, grab a fever, and smack it onto himself. Great.

So I did what any good parent would do: I dumped some baby Motrin down his gullet and kissed him goodnight.

This morning I took him to the pediatrician, who checked his throat, which was easy since he was screaming his head off. Might be strep, she said. Then the nurse came in to do a culture while I was forced to hold my frightened, crying, screaming son down on the table. Five long minutes later we got the results: yes, strep. Yay! All that torturing my child was not for naught!

The rest of the afternoon was spent feeding my son baby Motrin, snuggling him, and trying not to kill him. Know what's worse than a kid going through a hard dose of the Terrible Two's? A sick kid going through the Terrible Two's.

He'd whine for me even while he was on my lap snuggled into my bosom. He didn't want to eat. He didn't want to drink. He wanted this toy, but then he didn't want it. He wanted to lie in bed. He wanted to get out of bed. He wanted the light on. He wanted the light off. He wanted a Band-Aid on his shirt. (I don't know, either.) He wanted his grandma (who lives in Miami). He refused to eat or drink anything except jelly beans and lollipops even though I know he's on both Motrin and antibiotics and I don't want his stomach lining to, you know, shred. He wanted a bottle of 1945 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild Jeroboam. Oh wait, that was me.

I used all the tricks from "Buddhism for Mothers" I could to keep calm and carry on during what was, to my son, the most wretched of all times for anyone, ever. I reminded myself that he is sick and miserable, that strep sucks, and that I am his Mommy and that for the rest of his life when he gets sick it'll be me he wants. And then when he refused to put on PJs I lost it a little bit and snapped at him just a teensy bit, which I think is what Hitler's mother used to do and now my son will surely grow up to make war and genocide. Great. I couldn't hold it together for just 45 more minutes until bed time, and now an entire race of people will suffer for it as some point in the future.

So I came up with the only way I know how to deal with a crisis of this level: a drinking game!

A little medicine for baby, a little medicine for Mommy
(photo courtesy of WikiCommons)

Here's how you play:
Don't bother drinking every time your child moans, "Mommy!" or you'll be passed out in under five minutes.
Open a bottle of your booze of choice.
Drink once for every...
*Refusal to eat real food
*Degree of temperature above 98.6
*Reversion to babyhood (in my son's case, he actually asked for a bottle for the first time in over a year)
*Day of antibiotic
*Request for a lollipop
*Voluntary snuggle
*Hour of quarantine
*Request to watch the same damn video yet again

When the bottle is empty, mash it over your head as hard as you can to knock yourself unconscious for a while. Repeat as necessary.

Monday, May 2, 2011

See You in Hell, Osama Bin Laden!

...except that I won't, because I'm a Buddhist and I don't believe in Hell.

Being a Buddhist, I realize that I should not take pleasure in someone's death. I should pity him or meditate for him or something like that.

But the fact is that I am a 15-year New York City veteran, and I earned my Hardcore New Yorker card on September 11, 2001, by being right here when it happened. I breathed the smoke from the fallen towers, I read the thousands of gut-wrenching Missing Persons flyers that Guiliani finally had taken down, I walked the streets near Ground Zero weeks afterwords when the ground was still torn open from the impact, even blocks away.

And so, I cannot let this one go. Bin Laden was as evil as they come, and this is how I feel about his death:

Maybe the universe will forgive me for this one.

Meanwhile, I have some Conservative friends (what? You should get some. They're fun, and certainly make life more interesting.) who are STILL hating on my man Bar (I assume Barack Obama would let me call him that if we were FB friends, which we technically are, but he has yet to answer my invite to come over for gluten-free pasta and Tasti-D-Lite). I mean, what's it going to take for these people to just STFU for a few hours and enjoy the good news? Will the man have to hold up Bin Laden's bloody, lifeless head for them to be happy?

I also made Husband promise to be careful today while going to work in Manhattan.

Him: "What, exactly, should I do?"
Me: "Avoid gathering masses. If you hear or see anything even remotely suspicious, you run home, OK?"
Him: "How am I supposed to avoid crowds if I have to take the subway to work? Walk?"
Me: "YES!!!"

It's a good day. But still kinda scary. Let's be careful out there, people.

On that note, I leave you all with one of my favorite odes to my absolute favorite city in the world: