Monday, October 31, 2005

Your tax dollars at work

Generally speaking, UCLA is pretty stingy with stuff. They charge you an arm and a leg for parking, ticket you every chance they get, and good luck trying to find an affordable lunch on campus. However, as seen below, sometimes they do throw us lowly minions a bone.

Old Pepsi machine...............New Pepsi machine

Perhaps this is to mitigate the fact that they recently upped the beverage price from $1.00 to $1.25. No, that's just needlessly pessimistic thinking. They love us. They really, really love us.

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Ikea Chronicles, Chapter 3

Unstained solid wood nightstand ($99), no picture available

It was early 2001, and I was buying my first actual furniture from Ikea. I was still sharing a bedroom and charging the purchase to the parental credit card, so I wasn't quite in the position to be unequivocally excited about anything; but nonetheless, bringing home a couple of big, heavy boxes full of fine Swedish craftsmanship was pretty cool. One box contained the rickety $50 clearance computer desk (which remains rickety to this day, and perhaps will get its own chapter in the future); the other held my nightstand, which gets its own chapter right now.

There were plenty of cheaper nightstands available -- plastic nightstands, metal gym-locker-looking nightstands, and so forth, some for as little as like $25 -- yet somehow, for reasons that remain elusive to me, I decided that $99 was a worthwhile investment [of my parents' money] for a nice-looking, high-quality model. It wasn't going to serve any purpose other than supporting the weight of my alarm clock and holding random crap in its drawer and small cabinet, and it never did. At this point I'm not even sure why I thought it looked nice, being that it's not stained or otherwise gussied-up, but at least for a time it was the nicest, least-likely-to-fall-apart piece of furniture I owned.

Current status: taking up valuable space. In my present bedroom configuration, I'm using my 3-drawer dresser (guess which brand) to hold my alarm clock and don't really have room for an additional piece of furniture for that purpose. So the nightstand sits, listless and mostly useless, in front of the dusty second-hand Casio keyboard on which I'll occasionally bang out a Belle & Sebastian song or the intro to "Don't Stop Believin'."

Monday, October 24, 2005

Abandonment issues

First of all, a bizarre trend at the Cheesecake Factory. This didn't actually happen to me the last time I went to Cheesecake Factory, but going there on Saturday (and watching it happen to someone else) reminded me. The deal is this: they have a marked tendency to switch horses mid-race, figuratively speaking (maybe literally too, but I'm not familiar with that aspect of their business). You get your waiter/waitress/serve-bot at the beginning of the meal, and you pretty much assume that he/she/Tobor will be around until it's time to pay the bill. It's not like you devote a lot of thought (if any) to that assumption, but it's up there in your head somewhere, probably in the same general area as the knowledge that eventually you're going to need an oil change.

But then halfway through the meal, or while you're looking at the dessert menu, or right before they fill your water glasses for the second time, the original guy/girl/cyborg approaches your table with another dude/chick/artificially-sentient-being at their side, and they tell you that for the remainder of your meal, you're going to be served by the Replacement instead. It's always done in this super-genial way that's designed to make you think this is all perfectly normal. "Steve here's going to be taking care of you for the rest of your dinner" is usually more or less how it sounds. And no, it's not as bad as something like "This is Bob and he's your new daddy," but still, it's a little on the strange side. Or, it's a little on the strange side the first time it happens; when it happens three, four, five, or twenty-seven times, it starts to make you wonder. I'm not taking it personally or anything, since like I said, I just saw it happen to someone else last time I was there, but I wonder if the Cheesecake Factory brass should start looking into hiring servers/waitstaff/self-aware-meal-carts that are a little less on the commitment-phobic side.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Well played, Paula.

Well played indeed.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Ikea Chronicles, Chapter 2

(Can't find a picture of this right now, so bear with me. Maybe I'll put one up later.)

Yellow Plastic Popsicle Maker Kit (approx. $2.99)

I bought these at some point last year. It wasn't because I really like popsicles; I mean, I don't hate them, and I'll usually accept one if offered, but under normal circumstances I'm not going to go out of my way to acquire one. My mission, rather, was to create my own line of boozesicles. (Not to be confused with boozecake, since I could never hope to penetrate that market.) I figured I could start off by making some Bailey's Irish CreamSicles and move forward from there. But that didn't exactly work out. As it turns out, unless you have some kind of laboratory-grade absolute-zero freezing apparatus, it's pretty much impossible to get Bailey's to solidify into any kind of popsicle-like formation. All I ended up with was Bailey's Irish Slush, and somehow I doubt that would sell. I could have tried to make other alcoholic frozen treats, but the thrill was gone by this point.

Current status: Strewn about in the lower cabinets that I barely ever open, waiting (possibly in vain) for the day when I either (a) get really excited about making nonalcoholic popsicles or (b) get a night job in a cryogenic laboratory.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Gauntlet

Making risotto tonight for the first time since beginning my mostly self-taught master chef class was like shipping off to Normandy after a few months of basic training. Sure, you can be ready in theory, but once you're really in the shit it's a whole different ballgame. No, I'm not actually going to compare stirring rice into broth with the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, but I will say that if Spielberg had filmed me with a high-shutter-speed handheld camera from 7:00 to 8:00 this evening, he probably would have won an even bigger Oscar.

I'll now do my best to recollect the course of the proceedings. Kind of a live-blogging after-the-fact thing. Here goes.

Yesterday: Walk over to Trader Joe's and pick up box of Aborio rice, carton of vegetable broth, and mushrooms. Think to self "this should be fun," unaware that the Fates are thinking the same thing but grinning much more devilishly.

6:45 P.M. tonight: Look up risotto recipe online and take notes on the back of a page-a-day calendar page.

6:50 P.M.: Prepare ingredients. No burners turned on yet; kitchen still comfortably cool. Chop onions, measure out broth, rice, white wine, etc. as makeshift kitchen stereo plays preselected cooking mix. (First song on said mix is "Hell" by Squirrel Nut Zippers. Fates continue grinning devilishly.)

7:00 P.M.: Turn on burners to heat up 2 pots: a 2-quart containing broth (herein referred to as "Thing 1"), and a 3-quart containing olive oil ("Thing 2"). Slap a lid on Thing 1 so it simmers a little faster. Add chopped onions to Thing 2 and begin sauteeing.

7:05 P.M.: Add garlic to Thing 2. Some of the onions have sunburns by now, but so be it, I'm not a master chef yet.

7:07 P.M: Add rice (all 2 cups of it) to Thing 2. Begin stirring with large plastic serving spoon ("Skippy").

7:09 P.M.: Dump wine into Thing 2. Continue stirring with Skippy.

7:12 P.M.: Wine has absorbed into rice. Dump 1 cup of broth from Thing 1 into Thing 2. Stir, stir, stir. Everything still fine. Approximately 10% of rice remains blissfully unaware that it has less than 20 minutes to live.

7:15 P.M.: Still stirring, but occasionally setting Skippy aside to do other things. Dandy Warhols play on kitchen stereo.

7:20 P.M.: Add more broth to Thing 2. Take out some mushrooms to add to the mixture later on. "You're gonna fall behind me," sing The Donnas. "You're falling behind on stirring me," sings the rice, who, not possessing quite the same lungpower as a bunch of hot girls in their early 20's, goes mostly unheard.

7:28 P.M.: Add a little more broth and continue stirring Thing 2 with Skippy. Some rice is sticking to the sides. Oh well. See previous comment about not being a master chef yet.

7:33 P.M.: Notice unpleasant, smoky, decidedly un-risotto-y smell coming from stove area. Pick up Thing 2 from the burner and discover fallen bits of onion and garlic. Remove said bits, congratulate self on job well done, move on.

7:35 P.M.: Except...

7:37 P.M.: ...those were totally not the things causing the smell.

7:38 P.M.: Snap self back to reality and realize that Thing 2 is smoking worse than pregnant Britney. Turn on overhead stove fan. Not doing it. Watch smoke travel up towards ceiling, possibly towards smoke detector (still not exactly sure where it is). Remove Thing 2 from burner, open apartment door, watch smoke continue coming out. Consider aborting entire project, but figure that it's still salvageable at this point.

7:39 P.M.: Empty remaining non-burned rice into new pot ("Backup"). Take Thing 2 to sink and turn on faucet, sending good portion of rice to a watery grave.

7:40 P.M.: Put Backup on stove and resume heating. Add some more broth from Thing 1, who has managed not to complain or otherwise cause any static.

7:42 P.M.: Cooking playlist has ended, leaving me in silence. Want to put on more music but have learned lesson about leaving rice unstirred for more than 5 consecutive nanoseconds. Reach compromise by stirring with right hand while picking up iPod with left hand. Silence finally broken by Flock of Seagulls.

7:45 P.M.: Somehow, sautee mushrooms and butter in skillet while still diligently stirring Backup with Skippy. This does involve putting Skippy down for a few seconds at a time, which of course results in more rice sticking to the side, but not enough to cause apartment to go back into Defcon 2.

7:47 P.M.: Add mushrooms, butter, and some truffle oil to Backup after finally adding the last of the broth.

7:50 P.M.: Dump a healthily unhealthy amount of grated cheese into Backup and stir vigorously with Skippy.

7:52 P.M.: And so on.

7:55 P.M. And so forth. And add some salt and pepper.

8:00 P.M.: Taste some of the risotto and decide it's done. Want to rejoice at having made decent-tasting risotto without entirely losing security deposit, but lack energy to do anything more than sit down and eat. Relate earlier trials and tribulations to Paula and Rossanna via phone.

8:10 P.M.: Consider saving some risotto for a future meal.

8:15 P.M.: Nix that plan and finish eating it, figuring that cooking the risotto has already burned off more calories than could possibly be contained in it.

8:30 P.M.: Start cleaning.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Ikea Chronicles, Chapter 1

Rusch plastic wall clock ($1.99)

I bought this shortly after moving into my current apartment (sometime in 2002). Figured it would be nice to be able to see the time in the bathroom, and it was a thematic match to the Dekad wall clock I had in the living room.

Current status: strictly decorative. Weighing in at roughly half an ounce (maybe one full ounce with battery), the clock has a marked tendency to fly off the wall and land in the sink whenever I shut the bathroom door to take a shower. After enough of these incidents, the battery holder came a little loose and the battery would inch its way out at random intervals, thus stopping time and causing me to frequently wonder if my roughly 6 foot x 6 foot bathroom were some kind of temporal singularity (like that book Singularity I read when I was 11). I'd reposition the battery, it would come loose again, and the battle would continue. Eventually I let the clock have the victory, and it remains on the bathroom wall showing the permanent time as 6:45. Whether that's AM or PM is in the eye of the beholder.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Ikea Chronicles, Preface

If you didn't know me, you'd probably describe my apartment as an unintentional shrine to Ikea. If you knew me, you'd be aware that it's fully intentional.

I could start an entire blog discussing the ways in which thousands of my hard-earned dollars have gradually made their way into the hands of a few well-manicured men in Sweden, but instead I'm going to try to confine my musings to the more questionable purchases.

Read and learn. Starting tomorrow.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Fresh coffee, multiple wives

On the fair morn of the day after yesterday but just before tomorrow, somewhere between the French Revolution and the colonization of Mars, after Jaws but before the release of the 27th installment in the "I Know What You Did Last Summer" series ("I Think I Remember What You Did... Um... Fuck, It's Been A Long Time Now... Well, I'm Still Going To Try To Kill You At Any Rate"), I headed off for Starbucks for what I can now call "the usual."

Or did I? No, as a matter of fact, I didn't. A co-worker directed me to Peet's Coffee, where apparently they were giving away free quarter-pounds of beans. And even though my plan to start exclusively home-brewing coffee never quite took off, it's still nice to give the Mr. Coffee a workout every now and then so he stays in shape. So I moseyed (mosied? is there an actual past tense of mosey?) on over to Peet's, located conveniently right across the street from Starbucks, and took in the surroundings. I don't go there often, so I'm always kind of taken aback at how nice it is. Starbucks may have set the standard for the non-dirty coffee shop, but Peet's definitely takes it to the next level. You kind of want to take off your shoes when you step inside there, and if your phone rang you'd be sort of embarrassed.

Then there's the service. Dear god, these people are too friendly. Honestly, I think they wake up every morning just about ready to burst into song over how excited they are to work at Peet's. They probably have choreography and everything. ("Now I'm grinding the beans / Oh you don't know what it means / To have such a career / Well you might think it's queer / But I'm in love with my Peet's / From my heads to my feets") I don't think it's possible to get them mad. They're like Mormons that way. Do you know any Mormons? I've known some. You can't get them mad. I think once you join the religion you get your own dedicated ray of sunshine beaming down on you at all times. Plus, you get extra wives, which in the real world would more likely lead to multiple child support/alimony payments but in the sunshiney Mormon world just means even more happiness. Yeah, I know that officially they say the polygamy is a thing of the past, but I'm sure that once you really get your foot in the door -- say, to the Mormon equivalent of one of the higher Operating Thetan levels -- they tell you to go ahead and start picking out 3 or 4 extra wedding rings from Zale's and trade in your queen bed for a California king.

Anyway, I had my Peet's version of an iced latte and it was pretty darn good. I think the secret ingredient is love [of extra wives]. And I have my complimentary bag of Tanzanian Kilimanjaro ground beans! I heard they lost 3 people on the expedition to collect it, but the dark roasted, slightly acidic taste will more than make up for that.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

L'shana Starbucks Tova

The year 5766 is upon us -- and I say "us" to mean the Jewish people, of whom I am absolutely in no way a part, but like to pretend I am because it's fun. I have no religion (anymore) and probably never will, but the Jews have cool stuff like the evil eye and, well, the girls. So I'm okay with them.

But enough about that! 5766 shall forevermore be known as the year that I became a regular at the Starbucks in Westwood. Not a regular in the sense of going there sort of frequently, but rather in the sense of going there every single weekday and getting the exact same drink at more or less the exact same time, and building up enough of a streak so that the barista girl actually spots you in line, addresses you by name, and asks you if you want your usual iced grande nonfat latte. If 5766 was a refrigerator, this is the kind of event that would be magnet-ed to the door. And don't even try to fight me on this -- you can save a bunch of telegenically starving kids from malnutrition, discover the cure for asian bird flu, and broker a Middle East peace accord in the same day, but if you pop into your local Starbucks on the way home and you have to actually tell them your name and drink order, then I'm sorry but YOU'RE JUST NOBODY.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Whole Foods addendum

OK, I still love Whole Foods, but I'm a little more scared of them than I was five minutes ago. I was idly browsing their website (shut up) and reading their "History" page, which more brings to mind the ancient times when you'd display the severed heads of your enemies outside your castle as a reminder to anyone else who might fuck with you.

Basically, they start off with a quick little history of Whole Foods itself. Then they start listing off all the other natural foods stores they've acquired over the course of the rat race. And it's quite a few.

Oh crap, now I'm hearing that they just bought out the rights to the word "fresh" and I'm going to have to pay them royalties every time I write/say/think it.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Natural Foods Smackdown

Once upon a time, I'd buy groceries from anyone who would sell them. In college, we'd sometimes drive to the Market Basket in one of the hoodier parts of Somerville to save a few bucks on the total bill. Otherwise we'd hit the nearby Star Market -- not exactly regal, but at least it was clean. The times, they have changed.

I went into Ralph's last night to buy some mojito supplies and, frankly, I felt a little dirty about the whole thing. Mind you, that place is cleaner than a hundred Star Markets put together, about as nice as a giant soulless supermarket can be, but it's got so much wrong with it that I don't even know where to start. Do they think the stuff they're selling is good? Could any of the people working there actually tell you which brand/type of Product X is the best for what you plan to use it for? Ah, what silly questions. You can't hold Ralph's up to that kind of standard. C'mon, they don't have a single bottle of olive oil selling for more than $10.

But Ralph's isn't in the running anyway. The smackdown in question is between Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, both worthy contenders in the arena of places actually worth buying food from. I might as well say right now that I can't really declare a winner. At this point, if either one of them dropped off the face of the earth, I'd probably drop with it.

In this corner, Trader Joe's, with about 200 stores -- approximately 190 of them in greater Los Angeles. I'm not even kidding -- if you stood on my balcony and swung around a 2-mile long bat, you'd hit no fewer than three. Anyway, TJ's kicks some serious ass when it comes to bang-for-the-buck. They're very committed to not letting you go broke, which is why they usually only sell one moderately-priced brand of everything (generally their own brand). You can pop in there, buy all your stuff with the confidence that none of it is crap, and pop out having spent less or the same than at Ralph's or Albertson's or any of those other evil empires. Then there's the shopping experience, which they manage to make enjoyable but not in that try-hard commercialized kind of way. The chalkboards with their little pitches about why you should buy this kind of beer for your 4th of July cookout, and so forth, are pretty infectious. At mine, they even have jokes and quotes and stuff written in front of the checkout lines so you have something to amuse you while you're standing in line. Where they kind of suck, and I don't feel disloyal in saying this because it's the truth and they probabyl know it, is in fresh produce. Sure, they have it, and what they have is good, and they bother to tell you where it's grown and whether it's organic. But they don't have as much as they should, and they don't sell anything loose -- you have to buy it in a package or box or bag with more of the same thing. If you want one red onion, sorry, you're getting 5. Come in for two avocados for guacamole and you end up with double that amount, and you know those other two are ending up mush before you can figure out what to do with them.

And, in the blue corner, Whole Foods, with around 175 stores in America and the UK. Unlike Trader Joe's, Whole Foods will happily steer you towards spending your every last dollar, then selling your mom's antiques to pay the rest of the bill. Yep, you have to be careful there. Nonetheless, if you like to cook (even if you're as much of a novice as I am), the place is your absolute fucking mecca. To paraphrase Trent in Swingers, the hottest 1% of foods from all over the world come to Whole Foods' gene pool. Their produce is fucking great and you can get as much or as little as you want. And they have everything -- all that stuff you thought only came dried in little spice rack jars, they have nice fresh bundles of. In a lot of cases you can even choose between organic and non-organic versions of the same thing. Basically, they exist to indulge every possible cooking fetish a person could have. If you're only willing to use unfiltered olive oil harvested from a town in Italy where the grass grows upside-down, you can either get some serious therapy, or buy said oil from Whole Foods -- and actually buying it is probably cheaper, though only by a small margin. Then there's the samples. Trader Joe's tends to be pretty consistent with them, offering 1 or 2 things regularly, but on a good day Whole Foods can have as many as a dozen throughout the store. Free lunch! (Then, when you buy all the stuff you just tasted, free second mortgage!) Also, let's not forget all those little extras like the cheese shop, salad bar, catering service, bakery, and so forth. All awesome, but every one of them a little cash vacuum waiting to lock onto you.

Oh, and one last thing -- apparently they're opening a 75,000 square foot Whole Foods in London in 2007. No, I don't think you appreciate how insane that is. The Santa Monica Whole Foods is about 27,000 square feet and, I kid you not, it is already approximately the size of Missouri. The salad bar alone has 3 congressional representatives. And they're going to build something almost 3 times the size of it? WTF? You just know they'll have an entire aisle dedicated to, like, marjoram. So on an unrelated note, who wants to plan a trip to London for 2 years from now?

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Respect the knife... and tame the vegetables

I hope it comes with replacement fingertips. Actually, for what I paid, it really should.