Hot Pot: Revisited (Now With Stomach Lining)

I really loved my time in Chongqing and tried to pack in a lot in the few days we had there. For the most part, it was all about the hot pot. The day after our delicious meal the first night in town, we discovered another hot pot restaurant that set up under a tent across the street from our hotel. 

Hot Pot Tent

 

It’s run by a family that lives in the apartment building behind it. Luckily, Lindsay was there and could translate. They sat and talked with us for a while and told me a little about how the soup is made. They said it took them 100 days to learn to make it. I’m guessing that is a euphemism for ‘a long time’ instead of exactly 100 days. They said the actual process of making the soup takes three days. It contains 30 different peppers that they cut, wash, fry and then mash into a paste. It’s then cooked in water oil and garlic. The soup there was much hotter than the soup we had in the alley, which makes me think the first place gave us the Whitey Special. Even the soup that we asked to be mild was noticeably hotter.

At one point, the father grabbed something that looked like a dirty dishrag and threw it in the pot, saying it was the most delicious thing in the place and that we had to try it. No one would. In fairness, it looked pretty gnarly. But I didn’t want them to be offended and I’m pretty hard to gross out so I strapped on my food balls and volunteered. I started to regret my decision upon closer inspection of the dishrag. It was coarse, bumpy, and gray.  Lindsay said she couldn’t completely understand what he said it was except that she heard him say “guts” (Yum!). Later, we collectively decided that is was stomach lining. I slathered on the garlic and sesame seed oil and tossed her in. It didn’t have much of a taste but the texture was awful. It was really, really tough and honestly took a couple minutes to chew. The wife was standing over me repeating, “Hao chi, ma? Hao chi ma?” which means “Does it taste good? Does it taste good?”

Truthfully, lady? It was disgusting. But I couldn’t say that. Instead, I said “Mmmm! Hao chi!” which means, “It tastes good!” But, unlike Lady Gaga, I don’t have a poker face no matter how hard I try. Everyone could tell how terrible it was.

Besides the stomach-lining incident the night was wonderful. The family was so accommodating and kind. They even gave us their phone number so that if we went out and got in later than one, when they close, we could call them and they would open back up for us. We obviously would never do that, but it was touching to see that kind of generosity to strangers. 

The next day a group of us went to visit the Ciqikou Ancient Town. Most of the buildings date back to the Ming Dynasty but there is a monastery, the Baolun Si monastery, which dates back to the Western Wei Dynasty from the 6th century.

Baolun Si Temple

 

We walked through the narrow lanes, shopped and ate. The buildings were built into the side of a hill that rose up from the Jialing River. Once again I found myself  at a major tourist attraction on a Sunday. There was a sea of people but there were smaller lanes shooting off where we could escape the majority of the crowds. We were able to sit down at a teahouse and have a traditional tea service with the most darling woman who owned the shop. We strayed even further from the main drag, across a bridge and over to another hill where houses were on stilts built into the hill. These older neighborhoods give you a glimpse into what China was like hundreds of years ago with smalls homes, tightly packed in together on winding roads. People still live there today but these little enclaves are now standing in the shadow of the skyscrapers, neon signs and sweeping spotlights of the city.

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Hot Pot

Between the Great Firewall of China and really slow internet connections, I haven’t been able to post for a while. I’m going to try to play catch up. Here goes….

Last Thursday we had a nightmarish travel day leaving Huizhou at 4:30am for a bus ride to the airport in Shenzhen, then flew to Chongqing, which is just east of the Sichuan province. Chongqing is not technically a city; it’s a municipality. I don’t actually know the difference and the only reason I mention it is that there are 30 million people who live here. So I believe, if it were actually a city, it would be the largest in the world. It sits where the Yangtze and Jialing rivers meet. In fact, the theater we performed in sits on a hill looking over where the two rivers meet.
A blurry shot of the Yangtze meeting the Jialing River.

The Yangtze is the third largest river in the world and Chongqing is a popular stop for those going on a cruise through the beautiful three gorges. That is, until the building of the Three Gorges Dam is complete, after which the gorges will be submerged. I would have killed for a couple days off to take a cruise myself, but it’s not in the cards this trip.

This area of the country is known for its spicy food, particularly a dish called “hot pot”. Actually, the literal translation from the Mandarin is “fire pot”. It’s a broth made with chilies, garlic, water and oil. It sits over a burner on the middle of a table, boiling. You select different vegetables, seafood and meat and cook them in the soup. Everyone is given a dipping sauce of toasted sesame oil and garlic. Chongqing is said to serve the hottest of the hot pots and it was a goal of mine to give it a try. A lot of people in the cast were eager to as well.

The first night we got into town we took a suggestion from the hotel for a restaurant and a few cab loads of us headed into town. They dropped us off in the middle of a huge, outdoor shopping area that was bustling with people. The restaurant looked really nice but was in a mall-type place. I’m just not too keen on eating in malls, especially in another country. We had some time to kill so we split up and walked around hoping to find something more authentic.  It didn’t take long till we found a market with dozens of vendors winding up a little lane.

It was here we spotted what looked like a perfect spot but I feared it would be a hard sell. See, it was kind of in an alley. This was truly street food, as in, you’re sitting on a short, squat stool on an actual street. And it didn’t so much have a ceiling as it had a few tarps hung between the buildings. But the food looked and smelled amazing. They were making the broth in big pots in the middle of the alley. There were shelves of meat, seafood and vegetables on skewers.

Making the broth

 

The tour manager, Lindsay, who speaks Mandarin, talked to the owners and they were very accommodating of our large group. We gathered the troops and brought them there; a little nervous that they might notice the health inspector hadn’t been there in a while. We kept saying, “But you cook the food in boiling hot broth so that has to kill anything bad, right?”

A few were turned off but 12 of us stayed and were lucky to have. The food was amazing. Some people were scared of the hot soup so they offer a pot with a divider, half with the hot soup, half in a delicious vegetable broth with no heat. We went to town picking loads of skewers: broccoli, various greens, cilantro, seaweed, tofu, tofu skin (which looked really weird but was quite tasty), potatoes, sweet potatoes, brussel sprouts, different kinds of mushrooms, taro root, quail egg, sausage, beef, ham, pork….I think I got it all. Since I was mostly eating vegetables, I was able to just eat and eat and eat. Or maybe that’s because I’m a gluttonous pig.

The soup was hot but not overwhelming. It was a different kind of burn than I’m used too. It was spicy for sure, but not very painful and it didn’t overwhelm the other flavors. Also, it went straight to my head, giving me a bit of a buzz. And hours later, I had this heat in my stomach that I can only describe as oddly comforting.

Honestly, it was one of my favorite meals of all time. The flavor of the food was incredible. Sesame oil and crushed garlic, folks, I’m putting it on EVEYTHING when I get home. The company was excellent. The staff was so helpful and kind. And here’s the kicker: When they gave us the total, by counting the used skewers and adding up the beers (about 15 32 oz beers) the total was 180 yuan. Do you know what that comes out to in dollars? 26, for 12 people eating and drinking like kings. That’s TWO DOLLARS A PERSON. I kept saying, “Have them count it again! They must be wrong!” But they were right. We left them a nice tip telling them, through Lindsay, that it was the best meal we’d had in China and in our country, when you enjoy your meal, you leave a tip.

We’ve had the option of eating in the hotel three times a day for free. That’s very convenient but it’s the same food everyday and it makes you feel like you’re chained to the hotel.  I’ve done most of my eating on the street and have found that, for the most part, it’s fresh, made by hand about 5 seconds before you eat it, and ridiculously delicious. I mean, one must be smart. If it looks shady, don’t eat it.  But I haven’t seen much that’s really dodgy.  Kieran, the uillean piper on tour said to me before the meal, “I’m so glad you have food balls”. I like that term, especially in lieu of “foodie” which rings with pretension and prissiness. So strap on your food balls, folks, and try something new.

Hot Pot Crew

Overnight Cities

 

The other day we flew from Shanghai to Shenzhen then took a two-hour bus trip to Huizhou in the Guangdong province in southeastern China. I happened to have been reading about Shenzhen and the surrounding area as we were driving though it in a book called Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler.  I read Hessler’s first book, Rivertown, about teaching English for two years in a town on the Yangtze, a couple years ago and really enjoyed it. He has since become the Beijing correspondent for the New Yorker as well as a contributor to National Geographic and has spent about 12 years living in China. If you’re interested in China, especially the China of the past few decades, I can not recommend Oracle Bones enough. Hessler shares his own stories, and the stories of his friends with keen insight and compassion. It’s a really compelling read and you don’t even notice that you’re learning a great deal.

One of the former students he writes about was working at a factory outside of Shenzhen. Shenzhen is a city that 30 years ago had a population of 300,000 and now it stands at over 8 million. It is actually nicknamed “The Overnight City”. In the late 1970s, the Chinese politician Den Xiaoping began a policy called “Reform and Opening” where his aim was to, you guessed it, reform and open the economy to the free market and private industry to improve growth. Instead of trying this in larger cities like Beijing and Shanghai, he opted for less developed areas to create Special Economic Zones. Shenzhen became the most important of those. Young adults left their agrarian life to find work in the factories of these new Special Economic Zones. In fact, it amounted to a massive migration as you can probably glean from the population growth of Shenzhen. Most of the conditions and pay were subpar and unsafe with organizing by the labor forces simply not allowed.  But at least it was a wage rather than subsistence farming. There were stories of those few people who managed to strike it rich or climb to the top that gave people hope for the same.

The drive from Shenzhen to Huizhou was one long stretch of factories and apartment buildings, drab and unfinished, or just finished enough.  Between those I would occasionally see little homes, shanties really, with tiny farm plots. I imagine it was only those homes a few decades ago till all of this industry quickly grew up around them.

A blurry photo of the factories outside of Shenzhen

 

It was relentless for the whole two-hour trip. At first, it was a little surprising but it shouldn’t have been. I would venture to guess most of the things I own were made in China, in fact, most of the things that most Americans own.

The city of Huizhou looks like it just popped out of nowhere a few minutes ago. There is construction everywhere. It’s an interesting place to see because it seems indicative of the growth going on in China right now to accommodate its evolving and booming economy. Things just can’t be built quickly enough. Our hotel is only two months old. It is upscale and grand but it’s right across from what I can only describe as a slum, to give you an idea, though the term strikes me as derogatory since those are people’s homes. 

The hotel restaurant caters to Westerners. It’s technically “Brazilian” complete with meat on swords. The Chinese wait staff is dressed like cowboys and there is country music pumped in. Well, pumped in when Roger and Bing, the Filipino couple who do English language covers, aren’t playing. The whole place is kitsched out and bizarre. The few places I’ve seen that have catered to Westerners are a little unsettling, like someone drawing a photo of you and making you look totally ridiculous. I want to ask, “Really? This is what you really think of me? Oh dear…”

A few members of the band and myself went out to explore the city the other day. There was a really nice park on the river with gardens and a pagoda-ish (new word alert!) structure that seems to have been a watchtower. 

Pagodaish Tower

 

We went into town and explored some alleyways with food stalls, live animals and some random wares. There was one terrible yet perversely interesting street that I can only describe as consumerism on crack. It was really a pedestrian walkway lined with shops but every single one, yes, every single one had a speaker outside that was blasting a different song. I suppose it was to lure you in but, really, it just made me want to run away. In the middle of the street I was probably hearing 8 clashing songs. There were also lights blinking and things dancing. It was sensory overload. I had a taste of this in Shanghai, stores where people were yelling at you to buy things, shoving things in your face to try and a Haagen Daz cooler that actually talked, but nothing there compared to this street. We couldn’t get out of there quickly enough.

I can’t imagine why anyone would end up in Huizhou unless on business or if you happen to be in one of the umpteen Irish dance shows traveling the globe. That leaves out a lot of people. I’m glad to have stopped there though. While I obviously have no comprehensive understanding of the changes going on in this country, I’ve just had a glimpse.

One Day in Shanghai

I was only able to have one day to explore Shanghai with the rehearsals, run throughs and sound checking that needed to happen for the first gigs. The hotel and theater we were in are in an area called Pudong New Center. The “new” bit of the name is there because just 30 years ago this was boggy farmland. Now it’s the financial center of Shanghai with towering skyscrapers including the tallest building in China.

Pudong New Center

 

But there’s also a hint of middle America. There are chain restaurants, strip malls, “American” things and the two aforementioned Irish bars are in Pudong. There is an ill-named area near the theater called “Originality Street” with establishments as original as Starbucks, Papa John’s and a recreation of the Munich Hofbrau Haus. I trust you’ve picked up on the irony. 

Then there are all the apartment and condo buildings. As you can imagine, in a city of nearly 20 million people, you would kind of have to live on top of one another, and they do. Picture a stereotypical, new condo building in suburban America, make it 10 times as big and then put 12 of them in a block. Then do that with another design again and again and again till there’s a sea of them.

The area’s a bit soulless, to be truthful so I wanted to get across the river to the older part of town and explore some neighborhoods there. When in a new city, I am quite content to walk around for hours, people watching and window shopping, without a particular destination. I headed to the former French Concession neighborhood to do just that. As soon as the taxi dropped me off there, I was glad I made it. The French handed the area back over the China in 1943 but it retains a French character with European style residences, charming boutiques and little cafes. The streets are lines with trees called London Planes adding to the charm and atmosphere of the neighborhood.

I did have one destination in mind, though, and that was Yang’s Fried Dumplings.  It was about a 3 mile walk closer to the city center and by the time I got there I was starving.Yang’s is on a little lane, full of food vendors, that cuts through the upscale shops, hotels of (what I believe is) the Huangpu neighborhood. It’s easy to spot right away because there’s usually a long line of people out front. They’re famous for their soup dumplings and a box of four costs a whopping 60 cents. Now, I’m not going to lie, this spot was plucked straight from the No Reservations Shanghai episode and Bourdain did not steer me wrong.
I ordered and waited, watching the dumplings being made then fried. The whole operation happens right in front of you. The dumplings are made and then given to a woman at the front window who fries them with sesame seeds and oil, scoops them up and hands them to you in a paper carton.

They were steaming hot so I left them to cool for as long as I could possibly stand it which, honestly, wasn’t that long. There’s a specific way you are supposed to eat them and I’m glad I saw Bourdain do it first. You bite the top off then slurp out the broth, which inevitably ends up looking very ungraceful because the broth is so frigging delicious that you’re just trying to get every last bit out. I had it running down my chin onto my jacket and purse. I couldn’t bear to let that go to waste so I actually wiped it with my fingers and proceeded to lick them. I know. Gross. But I am confident you would have done the same had you tasted the broth. I even drank what broth ended up in the carton. It must have been a sight. The dumplings themselves were delicious too, part of them being crispy from being fried and part being chewy and tender. In the middle was a delicious pork meatball.

After that I hopped into a taxi to head to the Old Town neighborhood, which as you can imagine, is the oldest part of town. That day I added another thing to my List Of Things I Would Never Ever Like To Do, right beneath swimming with sharks and sinking in quicksand, and that thing is driving in China. It’s total and complete mayhem especially in a downtown area like Shanghai. It makes driving in the city of Detroit look like the picture of traffic obedience. I can’t say we stayed in one lane for very long, or that we were ever truly in only one lane at a time, or that we were ever truly on one side of the road at a time. I found it was an experience best handled with my eyes closed or at least looking up, admiring the many skyscrapers and neon signs.

My guidebook said to avoid Old Town on the weekend unless you don’t mind crowds. I went on a Sunday. I would go a little further and say, don’t visit Old Town on the weekends unless you really, really love crowds and people touching you and bumping into you and taking your photo if you’re not Chinese. That’s right, not being Chinese means I get my photo taken a lot here. It’s much worse for the blonds. I’ve heard horror stories from a couple blond cast mates going to the Great Wall last year and having their hair touched constantly. For now, I’ve just been really owning it, throwing up a peace sign, posing, asking them to tag me on facebook.

Despite the crowds and the kitsch, I’m glad I went. The buildings were beautiful and I was able to hit my first temple, the City God Temple. I can’t say it was a very spiritual experience as it was ridiculously crowded and I didn’t even know which faith or spiritual practice it was built for upon entering (I now know it’s Taoist. Thanks, Wikipedia).

Worshippers burning sticks at the City God Temple

 

It was beautiful and it was interesting to see people pray or worship even though I felt like a bit of a voyeur. But I know that’s how I’m going to feel with the Chinese the whole time I’m here. I have no hope of communicating with them apart from some desperate hand gestures. I’m traveling around with a pack of Westerners with little personal contact with any Chinese. Combine that with the inevitable culture shock and I realize that I’m going to feel like an outsider looking in the whole time I’m here, taking photos and never penetrating the surface. So I take pictures of them and they take pictures of me. It’s an arrangement that seems to be working out so far.

When In Rome, Still Try To Find An Irish Bar

I’ve been in Shanghai for nearly three days now and I wish I had some interesting things to tell you about this city but I haven’t really been able to explore it and I’m a bit ashamed of the things I have seen.  The first few days have consisted of rehearsals, battling jet lag, rehearsals, recovering from New Years Eve, rehearsals and The World’s Longest and Worst Souncheck Ever.  There is some new material for the band, including my songs, and this is the first time everyone has been able to sit down and rehearse together which means I’ve spent a lot of q.t. in conference room 6 of the Grand Metro Park Jiayou Hotel. These guys are pros so the rehearsals have gone really smoothly. The same can not be said for yesterday’s soundcheck.

I believe this is the only show of its kind that’s completely live with no tracks underneath the dancers and musicians. Now, I don’t see much wrong with tracking the dancers, though the singing is a different story (I’m talking to you, ‘Celtic Women’). It can be difficult to make dozens of step dancers sound really clean and not like a pack of elephants.  Plus, you can’t fake dancing. They’re obviously doing it right in front of your eyes. But because these dancers are individually miced, a good soundcheck crucial.

I had heard a few horror stories of working with Chinese crews and those did not prepare me for the absolute shit-show that was this soundcheck. Let me say that I have found all of the Chinese people that I have encountered to be perfectly lovely and gracious, if it’s not too ridiculous for me to make a blanket statement like that. The problem is not necessarily with them personally. We’re dealing with communism, or communism light, or communism with a splash of capitalism or whatever is going on here. The bottom line is that it seems a lot of the people working at the theater never really wanted to be sound technicians and were never really trained, they were just given the job. And there are a lot of them doing a lot of nothing. When we wanted to have something as simple as a stage door unlocked it took about an hour.It had nothing to do with the language barrier either, we had translators on hand for the whole thing. When any problem arose, it took about 6 guys to stand around and talk about it, well, presumably, they could have been talking about what they were having for dinner for all I know. I’m not sure why someone didn’t just go get the key. When they finally did it was so easy. But it took our French stage director, who is very good at his job, threatening death before anything happened (“I want zee got damn door open now or I am killink zomebody!!!!). 

When it came to something being seriously wrong, like a faulty cable into a monitor, forget about it. Our soundman, Stouv, who is himself a colorful Frenchman and is  also excellent at his job, just took matters into his own hands. He ran down onto the stage, cutting through the 13 Chinese men talking about the faulty cord, unplugged it, found another and voila! problem solved, momentarily at least. Stouv had patched all the monitors himself while the theater staff were busy talking about patching monitors. While he was fixing the chord situation, we noticed someone in the sound booth. It turns out that person was repatching the monitors for some mysterious reason. Perhaps he actually wanted something to do. When Stouv got back in the booth to continue the check, a screech emitted from the monitors that left our ears ringing for the rest of the night. But that’s ok, because I don’t need to hear to sing, do I? What was that?

So that’s how the soundcheck went for the most part. Something would go wrong, there would be a lot of talking in Mandarin and waiting, Stouv would run down to the stage, there would be a lot of yelling and explatives in French and a lot of sitting around and waiting by the band. This went on for hours. I’m not kidding. HOURS. And this was a nice theater. New and state of the art. I mean, look:

Eventually things got sorted out, for the most part. I’m just hoping every theater isn’t like this because it eats up a lot of time.

Besides the inside of this hotel and the theater, there are a few things I’ve seen. But they are embarrassing. Truly. The first two nights were spent in Irish pubs. I know, I know, I know. Having travelled with Irish musicians and dancers before, I have found that they love to hang out in the local Irish bar. Luckily for them, they are everywhere. For such a small country, Ireland’s Celticy tentacles reach far and wide. I had a friend from Riverdance, who lives in New Zealand, take a vacation with her boyfriend to this really remote island in Indonesia named Gili Trawangen. They were going to get away from civilization for a week, get away from everthing they knew.  Except, when they got there, there was an Irish bar on the island. You just can’t get away from them.

There’s an Irish bar only a few blocks from our hotel. The first night we were in town a bunch of us just wanted to stay awake till a reasonable hour to try to adjust to the time. So the quickest and dirtiest way to do that was the nearest Irish bar. We ended up at yet another Irish bar for New Years Eve but in fairnness, we were aiming for another club but it happened to be under construction when we got there. Solution? Flee to the nearest Irish bar. I rang in New Year’s in a cab, on the way there, watching fireworks from the rear window and watching the lanterns they light on the New Year’s ascend. 

Lanterns floating in the night sky

 

After the Irish bar, we made our way across the street to a 4am bar. And this one gets even more embarrassing. It was called “The American Bar”. Oh god. I know. Next thing you know I’ll be eating at McDonald’s yelling “Why does no one speak English in this country??!!”

Now let’s be honest, 4am bars are never, ever a good idea. Ever. That is a fact. When you layer that on top of being there with a group of Irish dancers, who are all for the most part in their early 20s and have the livers to prove it, then top that off with some Australians who are handing out free butterscotch Schnapps, well, then you have a real fiasco on your hands.

Why, Australian? Why??

 

Actually, it was a lot of fun. The real fiasco was the next day when we had to put on a show with 3 hours sleep. But I’ll only spend New Year’s in Shanghai once, right? Even though I spent it in the most American way possible. I promise from here on out, more China, less America.

Happy New Year!



China

I think I can say it’s official that I am going to China at the end of December for about 7 weeks. I sent in my info for my visa last week. I think it’s also pretty official that I will be spending March in France. Which means I can be officially excited. Which means I am SUPER F*@#ING EXCITED!!!!!

I’ve been trying not to be too excited since I got word that this was a possibility. To have fully unleashed my excitement and then have it taken away from me would have been too painful, made worse by the fact that I would be spending my winter, still temping, in the Official Worst Place To Spend Winter*, the Midwestern United States (Siberia might be a worthy contender for that title but I have never been there. If you have, please comment). You would probably have found me sitting in the corner of my room, searching flickr for photos of the wonderful places I should be visiting and crying into my hot toddy.

I have wanted to go to China since I was 5. I know I’m an over exaggerator but this is no over exaggeration. When I was 5, I saw the TV special, ‘Big Bird in China’. I was completely enthralled. While watching that show my wanderlust was born. I remember seeing one particular part, where Big Bird takes a boat down what I believe is the Li Jang River to find the Phoenix Bird, and saying to myself, “This must be the most beautiful place on earth. I have to get there.”

Here’s the scene:

I mean, who wouldn’t want to go there?? It’s absolutely enchanting.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be able to make it to the Li Jang River. It seems to be pretty far from anywhere I will be. But as far as I know, the schedule isn’t completely set in stone. Perhaps with a couple days off I can get there. It would be nice to fully realize the dream.

I am looking forward to exploring the places we are visiting and reporting back.  Luckily, I have a few connections to people in China. In my travels, I’ve found it so helpful to have a local showing me around, avoiding tourist traps and taking me to places I never would have known of on my own. In addition, I have never been to a place that is as culturally different to the US as China. And I’ve heard from friends that sometimes the great language barrier that can exist there tends to make one feel kind of helpless.

So here is where you could be very helpful. If you know anyone in China, can I borrow them? Even for just a friendly email exchange? I need people. And tips. Lost of tips.

Here are the cities in which we are performing as of right now: Shanghai, Huizhou, Chongqing, Hefei, Changzhou, Taizhou, Wenzhou, Beijing and Yantai. Now, I’m pretty decent with geography. At work, when I’m not busy and when I’m not staring longingly at flickr images, I’m usually taking geography quizzes. But I haven’t heard of most of these cities. When I started looking them up I was surprised by their populations. Hefei? Almost 5 million people. Taizhou? Almost 6 million. I guess I shouldn’t be shocked considering China is a country of over 1.3 billion people, but it just amazes me that there are all these ginourmous cities that I’ve never even heard of.

Oh yeah, as to why I’m going….I will be singing with an Irish group. I don’t think the outfit has been named yet. It seems it will be a dance show with a live band and some songs thrown in there. We’ve touched on some songs we might be doing but I’m looking forward to working on that further with the musicians. It might seem a little odd that I’ve signed up for something when I don’t even know what it’s called or what I’ll be singing but the music directors, Kieran and Liz, are old friends of mine. I trust them and admire them as musicians so I’m happy to be working with them. But really, they had me at ‘free trip to China’.

I’m really happy to be singing again, as well. I remember how much I missed singing when I dropped out of a perfectly good masters program for classical voice and went to work at a ‘normal’ job in Chicago. There were many things I missed about it, but I was surprised at how much I missed the actual, physical act of singing. It had been nearly the first time in 10 years that I wasn’t singing almost everyday. I’m looking forward to having that in my life again.

While 2010 is shaping up to be a pretty good year, I’m going to focus on enjoying the rest of 2009. And I can do it a little more contentedly knowing I won’t be sitting in this cube in a few weeks.

* This is not actually official

In Which I Talk At Great Length About Blood

I donated blood the other day. Right now I’m turning my shoulder so you can pat me on the back through time and space. They have a blood drive every couple months at work which makes it very convenient. Needles and blood don’t bother me and I actually kind of like donating blood. Is that weird? Perhaps it’s the free gifts. I’ve never met a free gift I didn’t like.  So far I’ve collected a first aid kit, jumper cables and a captain’s chair. Perhaps it’s because it’s an hour off work.  Perhaps it’s because it’s an excuse to gorge myself on sugar. “Self, you need that Babyruth. You’re donating blood!…Self, just finish all 6 Oreos in the package they gave  you. You just donated blood!”

The most important reason is a little more personal. A cousin of mine was recently diagnosed with non-hodgkins lymphoma. He’s only a couple months into his treatment and he’s already received a great deal of blood. He wouldn’t have made it this far without it. It’s frustrating to have so little you can do to help in situations like these. Bringing over dinner, listening and cracking jokes is about the best I’ve come up with. And while my cousin isn’t getting my blood, it’s nice to know that someone took the time to give theirs to him and that someone else who needs mine will be getting it as well.

I remember when I donated blood after September 11th. That was the thing to do in the weeks proceeding the attacks on the Twin Towers.  We were all looking for something, something to do to feel like we were helping in some miniscule, fleeting way. And that thing turned out to be donating blood.

I went with my roommate at the time, Hassan. We had been good friends in college and were both starting grad school at Northwestern that week, he for theater and I for classical voice. He had just flown back from Kuwait on a one way ticket and had just gotten a cell phone, that we both had to use for a couple weeks, on September 10th.  We answered the phone in those following weeks with, “Hi! And make sure to say, ‘Hi’ to the FBI!”.

Class was canceled for a few days and we decided to go into Chicago and donate blood. Hassan was a bit anxious as I’m sure many Arab men were in the days following 9/11. The office was jam packed.  After about an hour we were called, first myself and then Hassan. Now, let me just pause to reflect on how easy it is to pronounce Hassan – HAH-SAHN – two syllables, the same vowel. This is 1st grade phonics, people. But the name they called after mine wasn’t Hassan it was……wait for it……”HUSSEIN?? HUSSEIN??”

The conversations came to an abrupt halt, all eyes on poor Hassan. “It’s HASSAN. NOT HUSSEIN!!!” he yelled so all could here. But the damage was done. He was Hussein. Thank goodness the name has since been redeemed by one American President.

I know this sounds strange but I’m quite fond of my blood type, B negative. Any other B negs in the hiz?? Roughly 2% of the world population is B negative. We are an exclusive club trumped only by the AB negatives at 1%.

I’ve learned some interesting things about my blood type through the book ‘Eat Right for your Type’. First of all, they suggest I eat lean red meat, and dairy is fine as is caffeine and alcohol. That sounds easy. But what I like the most is that my blood type is descended from hunter gatherers and is found mostly in people of African and Asian decent. Ha! I’m nearly the whitest person I know! I love this because it is so not me. My prissy, dainty hands and feet (in fact, I’ve never met anyone with smaller thumbs than myself, and yes, I ask people to compare) would lead one to believe that I am descended from from some delicate ladies who spent their days lounging around their drawing rooms, reading and gossiping as in an Austen novel. Snooze!! I’d much prefer to have the blood of a hunter gatherer coursing through my veins.

Anywho, I had no idea I had this much to say about blood. And folks, I’m not telling you to go out and donate blood. I’m just telling you that if you do, don’t pay any attention to that “Don’t drink any alcohol today” bit. You can definitely have three glasses of wine later that night and still operate respectably. Trust me. *

* Don’t trust me.

Hunter Lovins

One of the greatest things to come into my life lately has been the podcast and my new favorite thing about podcasting is itunes U. It’s amazing the schools and lectures you have access to through it. You can practically podcast your way to a college degree which is much cheaper than actually going to college and you can do it at your boring temp job.  Unfortunately for me, I have a feeling that if I put ‘Masters Degree in General Studies from itunes U’ on my resume, I would not be taken seriously.  

I’ve been listening to a lot of things out of UC Berkeley, particularly from the Business School and the School of Public Policy.   A while back, I listened to a talk by Hunter Lovins (sweet name) about the theory of Natural Capitalism and it really interested me.

What I think she’s saying is that true capitalism should look at all forms of capital, not just monetary, such as human and natural capital. To ignore the others to maximize immediate profits is unsustainable, not just for the environment, but for the long-term profitability of a company.  She argues that the companies that are going to be most profitable going into the future are the ones who operate under principles of environmental sustainability. She has some examples of how this is already happening.

Asleep yet? Great.

I’m sure she can explain it better herself:

And if you want to hear her drop some serious knowledge bombs here’s a much longer video where she goes into greater depth about how sustainability can generate profits, increase productivity and innovation, enhance national security and how companies are putting it into practice.  Oh, and she ties it all together with ‘Lord of the Rings’. Nerdalicious.

All the Single Lady

I totally suck at keeping up this blog. Totally suck at it.  And I’m sure that’s ok. And I’m sure that no one (hi mom and dad) misses it. But I do like writing about silly things whether anyone is reading or not. And I’m going to get a lot more interesting very soon, I promise. Well, for about 6 weeks, at least. I’m 98% sure that I’m going to be doing a tour of China with a yet-to-be-named group (not because I’m being secretive but because it really doesn’t have a name yet) just after Christmas. It’s nearly all booked but I’m going to wait till I get a contract or ticket or visa before I let myself get too excited.

Part of the reason why I’ve not had much time to write is that my entire summer was eaten up by weddings, nine to be exact, seven of which were on consecutive weekends, two of which I sadly had to miss. I am not complaining about this, though.  Being with family and friends at weddings and the gatherings that happen around them is a pretty wonderful way to spend your time.

Which leads me to my next thought: Have you even felt like you were the only single person at a wedding? I’m sure many of us have. But, have you ever been at a wedding and looked around and realized that you are literally THE ONLY SINGLE PERSON THERE? This summer I had that delightful experience. At one point, Beyonce’s masterpiece ‘Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)’ came on and I looked around me and it was all married ladies. Ok, one was engaged but the point is that they all had a ring on it.

Something in me snapped.

I proceeded to yell, “You’re not single! You’re not single” and push every one of them off the dance floor including the bride (sorry, Jill). The DJ responded quickly with, “We can let the married ladies dance to this song too!” (his allegiance obviously with the bride) to which I responded, “No we can’t! this is MY song…MINE!” It was momentary. Everyone laughed. And if you can’t laugh at yourself then, well, you’re dumb.

In fairness, there was one single gentleman there. But he had his shirt off for most of the reception.  He was also involved in an alleged breast-grabbing incident.  Plus, he kind of reminded me of Charlie from ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ but a little less endearing. In light of these things and the fact that he was very sweaty, I stayed away from him.

Despite my episode, it was a beautiful wedding and a beautiful weekend.  It  was in Sutton’s Bay on the Leelenau peninsula. The Leelenau peninsula might be my favorite place in Michigan though Pictured Rocks and Beaver Island are close behind. Saturday and Sunday were spent driving the peninsula taking in the landscape, local food, trying to decide which cottage I wanted to buy and looking for Mario Batali. In fact, one of the reasons I want a cottage there is so I can become friends with Mario Batali.  After reading this article, I can just picture myself sitting on the shore of Lake Michigan, sipping prosecco while Mario Batali makes me pizza in the oven he had flown over from Italy. Plus, I bet Bourain stops by from time to time.

SETI@home

I went through a phase where I really wanted to be an astronaut. While the catalyst for that might have been the awesome! movie, Spacecamp, I took it quite seriously, well, as seriously as a 9 year old can. I had my career path planned out. I was going to major in Astrophysics and then enter the Air Force and become a pilot. I was desperate to go to one of the real Spacecamps in Florida or Alabama (partially because I thought there was a good 50/50 chance that I, too, would be accidentally launched into space) but couldn’t find a way to raise the nearly $1500 need to do so. I still remember the two boys in my class who were lucky enough to go. About fifteen years later, still jealous, I had a conversation with one of the Spacecamp alums about his time there and, shockingly, he said it was nothing like the movie. Apparently it was kind of like a very long science class – no lovable, talking robots, no shuttle flying simulations, no accidental shuttle launches – lame.

My dreams were completely shattered when I found you have to naturally have 20/20 vision to be an astronaut. I have something more like 20/700 vision. That is not an overexaggeration. I am actually legally blind without glasses or contact lenses to correct it. I was crushed. I guess I still could have majored in Astrophysics (pause for laughter) and done something less glamorous on the ground but it seems my academic ambition peeked at around 9.

It has still remained an interest I fulfill by reading authors like Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene who simplify these complex ideas enough for me to understand them.  But I found out yesterday that we can all take a more active role, at least in the search for extra-terrestrial life, with SETI at home. That’s right – E.T. Leave it to those hippies at Berkeley to think up this one.

So I think I’m going to run this on my own computer. Let’s find some aliens, people! Maybe they’ve figured out this healthcare thing. Maybe they will shoot us with lasers that come out of their eyes. Maybe they have fingers like sausages and like reeses pieces. I’ll let you know what I find.