Archive for December, 2008

Christmas Recap

December 31, 2008

Internet has finally arrived in my little apartment in Brooklyn, with some help from Santa Claus!  Ah, feels good to be connected with the world again.  

Christmas Eve at Manny’s family was so much fun.  Once again, all my knowledge of Spanish disappeared, I could not even bring myself to say feliz navidad.  But the gift of baked goods proved to be the universal language.  My cookies and brownies were consumed with much praise and were gone in about an hour.  

But Manny’s family – seriously – the nicest, most welcoming people I’ve ever met.  I ate dinner seated next to Manny’s older brothers, who know English, and they kept translating the conversation for me so that I wouldn’t feel left out.  Then I hung out with Manny’s four nieces, who are all around the pre-teen and teenage years.  They are awesome, smart, tough kids who made me feel so old because they thought Daria and Beavis and Butthead were vintage TV classics.  I was afraid they would think I’m too much of a dork, because they’re cooler teenagers than I ever was, so to break the ice I told them about some crazy science stories (like that boy was nearly decapitated but doctors reattached his head) and soon we were all watching Nacho Libre together on Manny’s computer.  

After Manny’s house,  I went to my mom’s house up in Westchester, collapsed on my bed and slept for about 12 hours. During Christmas, I realized that my family is the exact opposite of Manny’s family in every way possible, and realized this is both good and bad.  My family is big on traditions and doing the same thing for Christmas every year.  Usually these traditions are comforting and reassuring, but this year they felt forced and I felt like I was just going through the motions.  Plus my grandmother makes it no secret that she disapproves of me and dislikes that I live on my own in the city, that I moved out by myself without getting married leaving my mom alone with an empty nest, that I don’t go to church anymore, that I voted for Obama, that I’m dating a Mexican, etc etc.  But you know, it was still good to have the family together.  

This week I am back to work and sadly, without reading material. I started reading Labyrinth of Solitude by Octovio Paz but I can’t quite finish it.  Originally published in 1950, Labyrinth of Solitude is collection of essays that explore the essence of the the Mexican identity.  I read the first few essays, which were interesting, but honestly, the book is not really a page turner and I found it hard to stay awake on the morning train ride to read it. So, back to the library it goes. But, you should read more about Labyrinth of Solitude because it is a really important book.  

On Friday I have to take the subway up the Bronx to visit a friend , which is about an hour and half train ride each way.  I cannot face this trip without suitable reading material, so I have some book exploring to do.

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Confession

December 24, 2008

So my “Never Fail” coffee cake has failed me on the day I needed it most. 

I spent most of the evening after work yesterday wandering around the city in the freezing cold looking for a Christmas present for my mom.  I finally got home around 8:30pm.  I tried to bake the cake, pack all of my cookies and brownies into tins, wash a million dishes, sweep the floor, pack Christmas presents, and my overnight bag for the weekend all at once so I could get to bed at a decent hour.  The result?  The bottom of the cake burned. 

NOTE TO SELF: Do not do more than one thing at a time; and do not stress out.  Because when I stress out I cannot think properly and everything that needs to turn out right turns out wrong.  For example, I did the following stupid things:

  • Burned the bottom of entire cake
  • Dropped a tin of cookies on the kitchen floor and half the cookies broke in little pieces
  • Woke up in the middle of night in a feeling of panic
  • Overslept this morning and didn’t have time to shower
  • Packed presents and cookies in a paper bag, but forgot it was supposed to rain today.  Said bags are now soggy and wet and are about to break apart
  • Slipped on the ice and fell on my butt on the way to the subway this morning

Now let’s balance that out with some positives so I don’t freak out:

  • After I picked myself up from the ice, and the all the presents that flew out of my bag when I fell, I helped an elderly lady cross over the treacherous ice patch
  • My vanilla cookies turned out exceptionally delicious
  • Last night Manny came to my rescue and washed all of my dishes
  • Despite the rain/freezing rain/sleet/whatever nasty-ness is falling from the sky, my hair is actually not that frizzy
  • I finally get to meet all of Manny’s family
  • I get to spend Christmas day at home with my family

That’s better.

Never-Fail Coffee Cake

December 23, 2008

As a kid, I never understood why adults got so stressed out over Christmas.  When you’re little, all you do is sit back, open presents and eat, and enjoy a long Christmas vacation.  Nothing stressful about that! 

So, it is my first Christmas as an ‘adult’, my first Christmas living away from home, and I can officially say that now I understand why adults get so stressed around Christmas.  There is just so much stuff to do, stuff to buy, stuff to bake, more stuff to buy, stuff to wrap.  And the fact that I get one day off from work instead of a two week vacation like I did when I was a student is not helping. 

This year, I am having Christmas Eve dinner with Manny and his family at their house for the first time.  Even though Manny and I have to been together for a long time, I have never been over to his house.  Because of the the general awkwardness of meeting a significant other’s family, especially when there are obvious cultural and language barriers that make things even more awkward, we tried to put it off for as long as possible.  This was easily accomplished while Manny and I were away at college, but now that we are both back home in New York, and our lives are becoming increasingly connected, the time has come to the meet the families.  Manny has been over my house a handful of times and met my extended family at various family functions.  So far, so good.  But now it is my turn.  I met his family briefly at Manny’s college graduation two years ago, but now I get to meet all of them and be a guest at their house.

 I know some basic Spanish, but as soon as I see Manny’s parents, every single little piece of  Spanish that I know flies out of brain.  I forget everything that I’ve learned and I am too nervous to say a single word of Spanish in fear of looking like a complete fool.  I am intimated by his parents to the max.  Which is why I am going over to his house tomorrow armed with overflowing Christmas tins of homemade baked goods.

I clearly suck at a lot of domestic things.  I suck at cooking, folding laundry, and making beds.  I have a higher tolerance than most for clutter and messy rooms.  However, I am good at baking.  This week I’ve baked vanilla cookies with chocolate walnut frosting, oatmeal walnut cookies, a tray of homemade brownies, and tonight I am baking a coffee cake.   Because if there is one thing that breaks down cultural and language barriers and brings people together, it is homemade baked goods.  Right?  I hope so.

So now I am going to share with you, few readers of this blog, my never-fails-to-impress-people coffee cake.  (This cake better not fail me tomorrow!)  Maybe it is the massive amount of crumbs that makes this so impressive?  But one bite of this cake and people will think you are a baking goddess or god.  When all you really did was mix stuff together and put it in the oven.  This is why I love baking. 

My mom got this reciepe from somewhere, I don’t even remember, and it was her secret baking weapon for a long time.  Then she passed it on to me and my sister, and I’ve passed it to friends in need of bringing something special to parties or family functions.  Technically its not all “homemade from scratch” because it uses a Duncan Hines cake mix BUT – this recipe is different than the one on the box.  The crumbs use margarine and that’s gross and I never ever use margarine except in this cake.  I don’t have enough baking experience to experiment for suitable margarine substitutes. 

Never-Fail Coffee Cake

1 box Duncan Hines butter recipe gold cake mix
4 eggs
2/3 cup milk
2/3 cup oil
 
Mix all ingredients well with mixer.  Grease jelly roll pan (the large baking sheet with edges) Spread batter evenly in pan.  Bake in 350 degree preheated oven for about 20 minutes until golden and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.  Cool well.
 
CRUMBS
4 cups all purpose flour
2/3 cups brown sugar
2/3 cups white sugar
2 sticks margarine
1 stick butter
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon vanilla
 
Melt margarine and butter.  Add to dry ingredients in very large bowl.  Mix with hands.  Make crumbs as large or as small as you like.  Spread over cool cake and bake another 20 minutes.  Cook cake and sprinkle powdered sugar. 

Enjoy the cake and enjoy your holidays!

The Red Queen: Sex And The Evolution Of Human Nature

December 17, 2008

queen

Okay, who can resist a book with that title?  Who doesn’t want to know about sex and the evolution of human nature?  Want to know why men propose marriage and not women, and why women are more likely to conceive a child by an adulterous lover rather than her husband?  According to the book’s back cover, The Red Queen will reveal these answers and more! 

The problem is, I am just about done with the book and I cannot really answer these questions.  There are tons of facts and information in this book and yet I feel like I didn’t really learn anything new.  And that’s a real let down, because that’s why I read these types of science books. 

I think that evolution, at its very core, is a very simple process.  I’m certainly not an evolutionary biologist or whatever, but I am a scientist, and I think I understand the basic concept.  Certain random genetic mutations make some individuals more successful at surviving and breeding than other mutations.  Therefore, these successful genes get passed on to the next generation.  I feel like the author, Matt Ridley, packs so much stuff into his writing (history, numerous animal studies, examples throughout literature and pop culture, etc etc) that he just complicates his main point, which is two-fold: 1) that human beings and many other animals reproduce sexually instead of asexually to ‘outsmart’ their parasites and diseases (i.e. – sexual reproduction is present when organisms are exposed to parasites and disease and asexual reproduction is present in the absence of parasites) and 2) that certain physical features and characters among humans are selected for sexually rather through environmental factors or survival.  Sexual selection is something that was not really covered in my high school bio class and I realized I overlooked its significance.  So although I didn’t really learn anything new, I did learn of another way to look at a question.

Take, for example, the fact that women have wider hips than men.  Why?  Survival of the fittest is the most common explanation of evolution.  According to survival of the fittest, women have wider hips because it helped them to gather more food back when humans were hunters and gatherers.  And that women with wider hips were able to give birth to more children (or give birth with less complications) than narrow hipped women, therefore spreading the gene of wide hips to their offspring.  But there is another factor that is often overlooked and is the basis of this book, which is sexual selection: that in order for wide hip gene to spread among the the female population, men must also want to breed with wide-hipped women instead of narrow-hipped women.  So men are genetically programmed to find wide hips more attractive than narrow hips; or rather, men who found wide-hipped women attractive were more successful breeders than men who mated with narrow hipped women.  Therefore, this male preference for wide hips becomes more widespread among men than the gene for narrow hip preference. 

So back to the original question of why women have wide hips?  Its a combination of natural selection and sexual selection.  Its because women with wide hips were more successful in having babies and the men who found these wide hips attractive were more successful in fathering babies.  The same can be argued for many other male and female characteristics. Why does Ridley take the entire second half of this very long book to explain this fairly simple concept?  Want to know why men produce so much sperm while women only have a finite number of eggs?  Don’t read the 50+ pages of this book that attempt to answer this question, just listen to this first section of Radiolab instead.

Normally, science writing that is backed up with facts and examples is a good thing.  But in this book, it just too much.  Reading this book was an arduous, un-enjoyable ask that felt more like a chore because Ridley takes up hundredsof pages to describe what I think is a very simple concept.  Also, he writes like a know-it-all.  Reading this book is like listening to a really condescending lecture.  I like science books where I feel like I am learning something with the author.  I get inspired by the author’s natural curiosity and inquiry.  There was none of that in this book so that  made it really boring, even though the subject matter is really interesting.  Also, Ridley flatly dismisses a lot of sociological studies and social science research and I think he underestimates how culture plays a role in sexual selection.  That sort of bothers me.

In conclusion, I’m not entirely sure why men propose marriage and not the other way around.  According to Ridley, society and culture have little to do with it.  In species that form monogamous pairs (like humans and many birds) there is also adultery.  Monogamy + adultery = the best chance for offspring to achieve superior genes and have a better upbringing.  Having many sexual partners is genetically more beneficial to men than women.  Being married and having a lover on the side is genetically more beneficial to women than men.  So if marriage is in a women’s best interest, why don’t they ask men to marry them?  Ridley certainly writes at length about the history of marriage, but doesn’t really offer an answer.

I Heart Unions

December 12, 2008

I’ve been following the auto bailout business via online videos of Rachel Maddow’s show while updating spreadsheets at my nice, stable, unionized job.  The Republican arguments against the auto bailout are disgusting and make me sick.

And apparently I have no clue how to post videos, so, listen to this and get mad with me:  http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26315908/vp/28184849#28184849

That republican senator needs to get slapped in face.  Look, unions aren’t perfect, there are some really bad, filthy corrupt union bosses out there, to be sure.  But why are people so disillusioned that they think unions are not necessary?  Aren’t there still unfair labor practices?  Don’t workers still get abused by their employers?  Just last week, here in NYC, which is practically a union sanctuary compared with the rest of the country, two restaurant owners were arrested and charged with 400 (!) criminal charges, including violating minimum wage laws for their employees and falsifying business records to cover it up.  Also?  Over the summer, state investigators exposed a sweatshop in Queens that was making clothes for Banana Republic, Macys and Victoria’s Secret.  The factory owners paid their employees $3.79 per hour for working six days a week for over 60 hours a week. 

But yeah, I’m sure the need for unions has come to end. 

Yes, I take this issue personally.  To my family, a bunch of rowdy Irish people from Brooklyn, unions are life savers.  A unionized civil service job was their way out of Brooklyn and into the middle class.  One of my great grandfathers was a member of the Typographical Union and when he died my family couldn’t pay for a headstone for his grave so the union paid for it and he was buried in the union plot.  (An alternative version of this story is apparently this great grandfather was a Native American, and hated by the rest of my family so they refused to pay for his grave.  But no one wants to say yes or no he was an Indian because no one in the family wants to talk about him. One my uncles is going to do some cheek-swab DNA test to see if he has Native American genes.  Weird stuff.)  But also, my dad is a retired FDNY member and was actively involved in the fire unions when he was working here.  And now he’s involved with the international firefighters union in Washington DC.  Not to mention my uncle the cop, my other uncle the transit worker, my other uncle the HVAC worker who all have pensions and health care and were all able to send their children to college all because of unions.  And myself – my union job guarantees me paid sick leave, prescription drug coverage, tuition reimbursement for graduate school, free eye exams and eye glasses, and other nice things. So, we love unions in my family!  Maybe the era of unions paying for your grave is over, but the era of employees organizing against unfair labor practices is most definitely not over.  And maybe will never be over.

Anyway, happy Friday!  And thank goodness for Rachel Maddow.

Hawks and Cholera

December 7, 2008

I am at my mom’s house for the weekend dog sitting for this guy:

p8180090

This afternoon, I went for a walk along the bike paths that line the Bronx River Parkway. In the Village of Tuckahoe, the Bronx River widens into a slow moving lake-like body of water; it is my favorite walking spot because I always see all sorts of interesting creatures along the water. Today I spotted a great blue heron hanging out by the river bank. So I went on a path that goes up a ridge overlooking the river bank, putting me at eye level with high branches from the trees below. I looked down towards the river bank to find the heron, but all of a sudden, I am staring at this giant hawk that is in a branch right in front of me. The hawk could not have been more than 20 feet from me and it was right at my eye level. The hawk was facing me and I was able to look right in it’s eyes. After a few seconds, it seemed to notice I was staring at it, and it turned around to face the river, with its back towards me. Then it flew further away towards a branch closer by the river. It lifted its tail and pooped into river. Then it walked up the branch a little bit, and flew away to the other the side the river. It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen a hawk before, and I was able to see one so close up, it was amazing. Because I just read Red Tails In Love I wanted my bird to be a red tailed hawk. But after some extensive Google image searches, I think it was either a Cooper’s Hawk or an immature red tailed hawk. Cooper’s hawks are smaller than red-tails. I thought my bird was big and burly, but maybe that’s because I’ve never seen any other hawks before to compare it with. It had a large white belly with some scattered brown spots, like a red tailed hawk. But my bird didn’t have the red-orange tail that is characteristic of red-tailed hawks. Its tail was broad and brown with dark stripes. Both the Cooper’s hawk and immature red tailed hawks have these types of tail markings. So I don’t know what it was. But it was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen.

Moving on to books, a few days ago I finished Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which I very much enjoyed. When they are kids, Florentino Ariza falls head of heels in love with Fermina Daza. As they get older, Fermina chooses to marry a prominent, wealthy physician, and Florentino waits for the day he can once again profess his love for her. Only in old age, when they are both in their 70’s, does Florentino get a second chance with Fermina. On the surface it was a moving love story, but there are some more serious undertones throughout the novel. I did some research online (meaning I read the Wikipedia page) and found one of the major themes to be “love as an emotional and physical disease”. Florentino experiences physical pain from his love of Fermina Daza; for him, love is a disease which one can suffer from that is just as real as cholera.

Florentino Ariza loves Fermina Daza to the point of obsession. He eats the flowers that smell like her (camellias). He tries to find sunken pirate treasures so he can shower her with gold and jewels. He writes to her pages and pages of love letters, he follows her throughout the city and keeps tabs on her whereabouts. He is sick with love. Fermina’s husband, Juvenal Urbino, is the exact opposite. He fights cholera outbreaks throughout the city and successfully lobbied the local government to relocated the city dumps and sewage away from the harbor and the drinking supply. He is rational, practical and methodological.

Without this entry turning into a high school book report, I will just mention something else that I found interesting: according to the Wiki page, the word cholera in Spanish (colera) not only means the disease but also can denote rage or someone who is easily irritated or angered, much like the English word choleric. So you can look at the story another way – how Florentino manages the anger and frustration he feels about Fermina’s marriage to the wealthy Dr. Urbino and about social conditions of the city that influenced Fermina to marry someone she didn’t love so she could advance her social status.

In the mid-1800’s a cholera epidemic swept through New York City killing 3,515 people in a city of 250,000 people. (In today’s city of 8 million people, that would be the equivalent of 100,000 people dying of cholera.) But the out of this epidemic came the foundations of modern germ theory and the science of epidemiology, and also the creation of the New York City Department of Health. A British physician named John Snow was apparently the first person to document the connections between the spread of cholera and contaminated drinking water. Using a map of lower Manhattan, he marked the location of city water pumps as well as individual cases of cholera – thus showing that people who got water from contaminated pumps were the people who got sick. There wass a really good article about the cholera epidemic that was published in the Times a few months ago: How Epidemics Helped Shape the Modern Metropolis. The article ends with this: “Cholera is still a threat wherever drinking water is polluted. But Dr. Ho says that people should no longer die of it, if they are treated promptly and properly with rehydration fluids to restore their ravaged bodies.” And yet, there is currently a terrible cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe, where the disease has already killed over 560 people.