Saturday, January 26, 2013

Art in Little Haiti

I am perpetually on the lookout for free events in Miami, and today I was lucky enough to find a walking tour in my own neighborhood. I'm never quite sure what neighborhood I live in - it's sort of Design District (since we're five or ten blocks from all the hip, expensive stores like Hermes and Prada), but it's officially Buena Vista, the more historical name for our neighborhood filled with historic, 1920's houses. We're also only a few blocks from Little Haiti. Our neighborhood is filled with Haitians, but I don't know much about the culture, beyond what I've observed from a distance. (Like, Haitian Creole is a beautiful language but the custom of bicycling in the direction of opposing traffic terrifies me as a driver.)

The walking tour was in Little Haiti, conducted by a local mural artist, Serge Toussaint. (Click on the link to see what his murals look like.) Most of his work is murals done for businesses, which play the dual role of enticing people into the store and advertising what the store does to people that may not read English. So, if you run a restaurant, you paint a fish on a platter and a sandwich, and if you run a botanica which sells folk medicine items and religious items, you'd paint pictures of saints.

He told us many stories, including how he stayed in Miami: after a one week visit, he didn't want to return to New York with his father, so he stepped off the Greyhound bus right before they were headed back and "missed" the bus. He also solved a mystery for me. There's a mural painted under a bridge that features a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. (since it's on Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive) and a white outline of Obama. I always thought that the mural had never been finished. However, the story is this: the city commissioned the MLK mural, and Serge added Obama because there was so much space. It was during Obama's first campaign and the symbolism of the first Black presidential candidate was unmistakable. However, the Department of Transportation said the mural couldn't be political, and forced the artist to paint over it. He did, very carefully, so that a perfectly clear silhouette of Obama is unmistakable.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A gift from me to you: a recipe for perfect beignets

Once or twice a year I get a craving for donuts. Unfortunately, this craving never comes with enough warning that I can whip up a yeast dough to rise overnight for early-morning frying. But after several attempts, I can now claim success with a yeasty, fried-dough alternative: beignets.

Inspired by my recent trip to New Orleans, I decided to try making beignets again. This was in spite of the unremarkable results of past attempts. However, instead of relying on only baking soda as the leavening agent, as I had in the past, I found a recipe that used both baking soda and yeast, but required none of the pesky rising time. And they were delicious! You don't need to believe me alone - we had so many from the one batch that we fed both the upstairs neighbor and the landlord and his family, and everyone liked them. In fact, I think I'll halve the recipe next time, because it's not that often that I need to simultaneously feed ten people donuts.

Monday, January 21, 2013


It was a weekend of celebratory events: I attended a wedding and a dance recital. Since part of my job is to study how people interact and the larger patterns in their behavior, I was struck by the ways that culture came through in the ceremonies.

The wedding was at our Unitarian church, where the couple had met. The wedding was pretty similar to most Christian/ non-theistic weddings that I've attended. But there were some small differences: the invitation included a note about the diversity of invited guests, and thereby (gently and very subtly) implied that if this was a problem for anyone, they should keep their mouths shut. The meal was completely vegetarian, and the whole thing was beautiful yet frugal.  The music was a special treat - a jazz trio of high school students who had only played in public once before.

I also went to my first arangetram, which I would roughly describe as a dance recital/ graduation /religious ritual. A dancer studying bharatanatyam, the classical Indian dance style I'm learning, may do her arangetram after a decade or so of study. It's similar to a small wedding, or graduation, or quincenera (sorry - I don't know how to get the correct tilda on the 'n'), because it's a great big celebration that's also a rite of passage. The parents rent a theater and hire musicians, you send out save-the-dates and invitations, and family flies in from all over the world. There were about 200 people in attendance, the student danced beautifully for two hours, and then we had a great Indian meal.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


I love to lifehack. I read blogs like Lifehacker and Ask Metafilter to learn about all the ways I can live my life a little more efficiently. I find it particularly interesting to think about how I can use my time at work more profitably. Academics have (relatively) a lot of free time, and a lot of long-term projects that we need to complete, and which may not have firm deadlines. My starting technique was a to-do list, and I've used several different to-do list apps in an effort to better visualize my priorities. Then I moved on to staying focused while working, which is why I now use the Pomodoro technique. This structures my time so that I work for 25 sustained minutes, and "break" for 5. The break can be as simple as checking email or talking to a colleague about a project, or even making a cup of tea. The short bursts of sustained work help you reduce distractions and interruptions, and I manage to do a lot of writing and editing this way. 
But the most meaningful change occurred when I installed Internet-blocking software on my computer. (I use SelfControl.) I recognize that I often fritter away time on news sites or blogs, and I used to turn off my wifi connection. But that doesn't work as well when you need to do research or check email. The Internet-blocking application is much more sophisticated - if I activate it, I can't change my mind during the chosen time (which for me, is the eight hours of my workday). Turning off the computer won't disable it, although I'm sure if I knew more about programming I could figure out a shortcut. Most importantly, I don't block all Internet, just the places I waste time. Goodbye facebook and slate and New York Times. Hello productivity at work. This appeals to my German sense of efficiency, but also to the cognitive scientist in me: we have only a limited amount of self control each day, and so when I minimize the choices I have to make to stay focused, I save some willpower for other decisions in my day.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

More freezer cooking

The larder (aka the freezers) was once again bare, so today was a Big Cook. It certainly deserves full capitalization, because I'm exhausted by the end of it. But the exhaustion is well worth it when I arrive home from work at 8pm and think, "I'll eat anything if it can just be ready in 20 minutes." At that point it's just a bonus if it is something healthy.

Along with the standard marinara sauce and pizza dough, I added some new things to the mix: 

Cauliflower and chickpea curry
19 burritos - for lunches
Mushroom, roasted red pepper, and swiss cheese quiche
For my records, I made 19 lunches (all burritos), 6 quiche dinners, 4 pizza dinners, 4 spaghetti dinners, and 3 curry dinners. I also have plans tomorrow to make 4 Mexican egg roll dinners (I know, it's an odd fusion recipe. It's probably best to call them Southwest bean rolls and not think about it too much.)

Thursday, January 10, 2013

In the Crescent City

I've been in New Orleans at a conference this week. It's been very enjoyable, as New Orleans seems to be a city that has a strong sense of place. When I walked through the streets, I never thought, "Hmm, it's just like Boston. Or Cincinnati." Nope. Instead, I saw the wide, wide Mississippi and the second-story balconies, which form canopies over the sidewalks. I ate beignets with chicory coffee at Cafe du Monde and mufflettas. I heard music as it spilled on to the streets, and I discovered that the people really are as friendly as they say in the guidebooks.

I only had time for sightseeing on Sunday. Unfortunately, it was cold and rainy and all my pictures show a gray and cold city. When I couldn't bear the wet anymore, I headed over to the St. Louis Cathedral (pictured to the left) and attended a service. This Cathedral was built in the 1700's and is the oldest still-functioning cathedral in the U.S. It was lovely (and warm) to spend the morning.

In a city know for so many different types of food, I've only been able to try a few. I was limited by both time and appetite - New Orleans doesn't exactly specialize in vegetarian cuisine. But I ended my trip with a Ramos Gin Fizz, which involved cream and gin and egg white. I know that doesn't sound like a perfect combination, but it was delicious. It didn't hurt that I drank it in a ritzy hotel bar (the Sarezac in the Rooselvelt hotel) with a bartender in a white coat who could offer a detailed history of the classic drinks he served. 

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Christmas, part 1

What can you say about Christmas that isn't cliched? There were cute kids and a dog who received presents. I discovered that my sister-in-law and brother were sneaking her Christmas treats, as per the age-old right of extended family to spoil children and pets. 

Because Andrew is English, my mother always buys Christmas crackers for the Christmas dinner table. I'm sort of surprised that they sell these in the U.S., as I've never heard of another family having Christmas crackers.
It was a joy to open gifts with my nephew. In our family, we all go around in a circle and take turns opening one gift, so that everyone can watch. My nephew went to each person at their turn, chose their gift for them and was genuinely excited to see all the gifts being opened.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Travel and illness

We had a terrific Christmas vacation. We logged 2400 miles in a small hatchback filled to the top. (To be fair, we didn't bring that much luggage - it was mostly dog crate and cat litter box). After enduring several hours of barking, we discovered the dog would remain relatively silent if we completely covered her crate. If the sheets and coats slipped the tiniest bit so she could spy us, it was back to the heart-stopping barks. The cat complained too, of course, but we couldn't hear her over the dog, poor thing. It was pleasant to watch the countryside, and see the change from palm trees to snow-covered, forested hills.

I got sick at the start of the vacation, suffering from headaches and an apparent stomach flu. Finally, it got much worse, we feared appendicitis, and there was a Christmas Eve trip to the hospital. There was no one else there in the small-town hospital, and I got superb, super-quick care. It turned out to be only an infection, but I got to have my first CAT scan, and that was quite fun. I had had enough morphine that I didn't think to ask about the precise physics of the CAT scan machine. In the end it was great to be sick while I was on vacation, as I could just rest and my mother and my husband were both around to take care of me. I was a bit spoiled.

I've decided that I would really like to blog more regularly, so I publicly announce here: I'm trying to blog three times a week. And I'll just flat-out admit that it's about my life, which often doesn't have much style. I always worry that my posts aren't sufficiently interesting, but if people don't want to read about my life, it takes about a tenth of a second to click away to something else, so I don't know why I worry.