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Friday, November 03, 2006

Adventures of the Texas Land Man ... er Woman

At a friend's wedding last Saturday I heard the most shocking piece of information ... I have readers. Or should I say HAD readers. I recently switched careers and have been traveling back and forth between Fort Worth and Houston for the past couple of months, and in all the upheaval, fell down on the job with my blogs. Who am I kidding? I can't even blame the career move. It just has been one hectic summer... except it's November, so I guess that isn't really an excuse either.

Anyway, a friend's boyfriend who I hadn't seen in ages mentioned that they have checked my blog and haven't seen any action on it in months. And I have no excuse since I have had plenty to say (as always), so I'm back at reader request ... or something like that. It sounds good, so leave me my fantasy.

It actually is a pleasure to write again now that most of my days aren't spent writing lately ... My editorial position with the art magazine ended in August when the office relocated to Colorado, and I was offered a job in a completely new field with perks too good to pass up. So although I still am making money doing freelance writing, my bread is buttered by the oil and gas industry (yes, I know I have complained about my miserable five months tech writing for a prominent oil and gas company, but this is different ... I swear ... and it pays better).

I am now (drumroll please) ... a land man. If you have no idea what that is, don't feel bad. I didn't either until recently, and when asked what I do, I usually just say that I am a consultant for the oil & gas industry. For the curious, I will give a brief elaboration. A land man (or land manager) researches title and mineral ownership on tracts of land for interested clients, and in some cases, actually arranges for the lease of mineral rights from their owners.

In practice, it means time away from a desk, a cubicle and corporate America. There is quite a bit of driving, but I also can work from my "home" office or at various courthouses. And since I am self-employed, it also is largely self-directed. And it allows me the time and financial freedom to write, which is wonderful. The hardest part is spending so much time away from lovely Houston and all my dear friends and family ... although the weather in Fort Worth has been lovely.

Plus, with my daily food allowance, I have the opportunity to try all the great restaurants in the Dallas-Fort Worth area (woohoo!), which for a foodie like myself is irresistible. All in all, quite the adventure and worth sharing. So keep tuning in dear readers, and I will do my best not to disappoint!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Reichl Rocks

So I’m a little behind the eight ball on this, but I just finished reading Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples by food writer/editor Ruth Reichl. I have never really followed Reichl’s career or read much of her writing, and what a joy it was to discover such a fantastic storyteller and food lover for the first time. Not only did I devour the books in just a couple of days, I also subjected my boyfriend to several chapters I read aloud to him while he watched muted Miami Heat/Dallas Mavericks games. Oh, and I just ordered her newest book on Amazon today and have been scouring websites (in vain) trying to find archives of her 1970s columns in the LA Times.

I may have to break down and go to the library.

I believe these may be the best memoirs I have ever read. Of course, I haven’t read many. But that’s usually because it is hard for me to really get into the typical memoir format. Reichl’s books read more like a good page-turning fiction novel. Tight, evocative, and touching. Wow, I really can’t say enough.

The way she ties the food experience to people and to the story is really remarkable, since so many people try without nearly this level of success. And her descriptions of food, whether it is a meat counter at a Spanish marketplace, an exotic dish discovered in China, or a dining experience with friends, are remarkable. So inventive, so original, but still true. They seem so dead-on and yet she finds a way to introduce the most mundane thing again and make the reader experience it for the first time. Truly admirable. I found myself rereading descriptions with a mixture of awe and envy.

I just can’t believe I didn’t pick these up sooner. And I will probably pick them up again before the month is over. I just hope an anthology of her columns is in the works (hint, hint)!

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Disaster Strikes!

Those who know me understand that although there is always room for culinary improvement in my kitchen, very rarely do I have to actually dump a meal down the disposal. In fact, the last time was November 2001: I made a navy bean casserole but used a TABLESPOON of dried sage instead of the required teaspoon. Rookie mistake.

What I didn't know at the time is that large amounts of sage are actually mildly poisonous (is there is a such a thing as mildly poisonous or is everything just poisonous?). The dutiful diners who choked down a few spoonfuls of the toxic legume dish spent several hours regretting it. Ah, those were the days.

Since then, I've been doing okay in my cooking adventures. Not every meal is stellar, but always edible and often more than edible. I guess they do say pride before the fall, right?

So one night I am making fettuccine with vodka sauce ... "Thirty minute meal" (thank you Rachel Ray and by the way, her magazine rocks), so it isn't the *real* vodka sauce but it was going to be an acceptable substitute. I had been buying Raos brand vodka sauce, which is very tasty, but at $9 a bottle, I just can't justify the expense all the time.

I put a pot of pasta water on to boil, grab my ceramic cast iron dutch oven and start browing up some garlic in olive oil while I chop some fresh basil. All is right with the world. I even take the time to give my boyfriend a quick culinary lesson--I have been trying to help him tell different herbs apart, so I gave him a basil leaf to smell and taste.

Since I am a big Astros fan, he starts reading me an article on Lights Out Lidge and how he has moved on since that awful Pujols home run in the Championship series last season. (I'm glad someone has because I haven't.)

Anyway, I add crushed tomatoes to the garlic, then the basil leaves. When the basil leaves wilt, in goes a glug or so of vodka. At this point I am glowing about my own ability to multi-task: Salt pasta water. Check. Dump in pasta. Check. Listen to boyfriend. Check. Wait for sauce to boil. Check. Time to reduce the heat and take a taste!

This is when the trouble begins, because I decide to (*gasp*) improvise. I don't like tomato sauces that are overly acidic, and they tend to be if they don't cook very long. I read somewhere that a bit of sugar or baking soda can help with this, so I add a sprinkling of sugar. But of course, I am still not happy and make the fateful mistake of grabbing a box of baking soda and well, let's just say that if you choose to do this in the future, a little, I mean a very little, goes a long way.

My sauce foams up like I have never seen a tomato sauce foam before. Wait--I have never seen tomato sauce foam before. Tomato sauce shouldn't foam. And then it turns an unnatural orange color ... almost like the greasy residue of cafeteria spaghetti.

I try not to panic. I turn to the one cookbook that I have used almost daily for at least six years, well every time I cook anyway: Brilliant Food Tips and Cooking Tricks--an alphabetical guide to kitchen secrets and shortcuts, with some recipes thrown in.

I read the dreaded words: "The catch with baking soda is that it must be properly balanced with the acidic ingredient so that it is fully neutralized. If not, the leftover baking soda will leave a soapy, bitter flavor." I taste the sauce. Oh yes, soapy and bitter.

I am now fighting chemistry. In school, chemistry always won. Things do not look good.

I look for other acids--brown sugar, lemon juice, cream of tartar, buttermilk and chocolate ... Ok, I don't have buttermilk and chocolate is out. I try adding a bit of brown sugar. Then I try adding a can of Italian seasoned diced tomatoes for more acid. Still not working ... I add some tomato paste--just a teaspoon or so. After adding each ingredient, the foam kicks up again. I taste the sauce, which at this point looks more like soup ... Ok, a little better. Maybe if I cook it a little longer.

By this point, the pasta is done. I drain it and steam some asparagus, and turn my attention back to the sauce. A little lemon juice goes in, more brown sugar, some tomato paste, and now I can't tell what it tastes like. My mouth tastes like soap--but at least I'm in no danger of getting heartburn tonight ...

Finally, I add cream to the sauce and ladle some of it into the bowl of pasta, adding a little more basil and some cheese to hopefully mask whatever bitterness is left in the sauce. How I could make a sauce that is so overly sweet and that bitter at the same time is beyond me.

My boyfriend takes a test bite: "It's OK," he says a little too cheerily while adding a handful of cheese. I am not so sure. I think if I take one more bite, I am going to be sick and start eating the asparagus (which was great by the way). To lighten the mood, my boyfriend compares the meal to Lidge's famous failed slider that oddly makes me feel better. Then we made a unanimous decision to throw out the whole mess with pomp, ceremony and the help of a garbage disposal, and go get burgers (which were great by the way).

I will let you know when I do finally conquer the vodka sauce. I just think now is too soon. I still have the faint taste of baking soda in the back of my throat ...If culinary disaster strikes only once every five years, I can handle it ... especially since the boyfriend's parents are coming for dinner tonight.

Humbled in Houston

Monday, March 20, 2006

Just Add Water?

Joseph Campbell, mythologist and author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, once said that “hell is life drying up.” To him, life is about the individual journey—following your bliss and creating your own path in the world. To ignore the call to adventure or to follow a path that is not your own means stagnation. It is the wasteland.

There is really no way to describe the unease and disharmony—even on the body’s cellular level—of knowing you are off course unless you have felt it. But I would say that “life drying up” is a good start. For me it feels like swimming against the current, like the pull of gravity, like all-out war with your own cellular resistance.

I believe in listening to my body’s own cues—even if it sometimes takes me a while to catch on.

When I was just starting my junior year at college, my body decided I need a break whether I wanted one or not. I had just returned from a semester abroad, and before I even had a chance to feel jet lag, I began the cross-country drive back to school where I had signed up for a full course load (and then some), a writing fellowship and part-time campus job. I was also very close to getting engaged. But less than a month into the semester, I crashed. I was diagnosed with severe mononucleosis and had to withdraw from school and head to New Orleans for some R&R.

I have not experienced another corporeal coup d’état before or since, but I bring it up because now my body doesn’t have to resort to such extreme measures to get my attention. (Knock on wood!)

In the last month or so before I left my job, I began to dread every weekday. At the office, time slowed to a crawl, a very bored crawl. I left work on edge, completely drained and head throbbing. Life drying up.

I berated myself for being so unmotivated and unhappy, and for not being able to make myself turn lemons into lemonade. I tried to make the best of the situation, and do the “responsible thing” and keep the job until I could find something better. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had left my path. I was wasting valuable time, and I was miserable in the meantime.

In contrast, when I finally decided to leave—with no solid prospects—so that I could dedicate all my energy to getting back on track, I felt elated. Scared, but elated. The fog lifted. I was back to my old self again, and it only took me six months to figure it out.

So why am I talking about any of this? Because as bad as it feels to be off-track is as good as it feels to be back. And when you are feeling in flow with life and following your bliss, I believe that heaven and earth respond. Doors open that wouldn’t open for anyone else. Doors open where there were only walls before. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, calls it synchronicity (though I think she got it from Jung), and that’s exactly what I am feeling right about now. My life has officially been rehydrated, and I couldn't be happier.

It’s great to be back!

“A bit of advice given to a young Native American at the time of his initiation: ‘As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm. Jump. It is not as wide as you think.’” Joseph Campbell

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Sisterhood of the Pink Leather Pants

It’s rodeo time again here in Houston, Texas.

That time of year when nearly two million visitors fill Reliant Stadium to see all the barrel-racing, bull-riding, calf-scrambling action of the local rodeo (in fact, the world’s largest livestock show and rodeo since 1932).

Yes, here in Houston, the rodeo is eagerly anticipated by cowboys and non-cowboys alike. I, on the other hand, have always tried to avoid the rodeo or anything resembling a rodeo.

Although born in wilds of Wyoming, I have never really been fascinated with the Old West, the Wild West or any other kind of West, except perhaps for Nine West. Maybe it is the smell of cow pies, but I just never was a rodeo kind of gal.

So imagine my surprise as a Houston newbie when my non-Wrangler wearing friends and coworkers began buzzing with excitement over the approaching cow fest. Why get worked up over pissed-off bulls, pony rides and calf birthing? I just didn’t get it. It must be some sort of wacky Texas aberration (there are plenty, and if you don't believe me, go to Quitaque, Texas).

Don’t get me wrong. I respect Texas’s cowboy legacy. I just don’t want to witness it.

This is before I found out that the rodeo has come a long way since the ropin’ and ridin’ Spanish vagueros of the 1700s. Hell, it’s come a long way since the last time I (almost) came in contact with the Buffalo Bill Cody Stampede Rodeo less than ten years ago. Now it includes gourmet cook-offs and rock concerts in air-conditioned, club-level comfort. This is something I could get into … at least once anyway.

So when I told my grandmother that I was finally going to the Houston rodeo to see a Sheryl Crow concert, she seemed a bit bewildered about what I must mean by “rodeo”—prompting her to reply, “I guess us oldsters don’t know much about what is big with young people anymore.”

It was probably the same kind of bewilderment I felt when I went to what was advertised as a country fair and farmer’s market in Utah that ended up being a just a collection of cell phone-pushing salespeople and a lady selling homemade soap.

Anyway, for Sheryl Crow, I decided to break my rule about rodeos. When she had to cancel her tour last week after being diagnosed with breast cancer, my boyfriend and I decided we would go just the same. So last night we set out with two of our friends for a night of country fun in the middle of the city.

I am not sure that my rodeo experience can be classified as “typical” because, well, Melissa Etheridge was the scheduled Sheryl Crow replacement, and so the female-seeking-female population was probably a little higher than normal. A lot higher than normal. Er, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

And they were all wearing pink because Sheryl and Melissa had asked that concert goers dress pink for breast cancer awareness. So it was quite the spectacle for conservative Texas. Though according to my friends in the corporate suite, conservative Texas is still alive and well because many suites cleared out the moment the concert began.

And they missed a great show. I am not a big Melissa Etheridge fan but wow, she is talented—what a powerful voice. I had a good laugh when she proudly displayed the Texas-size belt buckle engraved with her likeness that was given to her by the rodeo organizers. She even threw in a Janis Joplin song and sang “If It Makes You Happy.” I’ll take that over American Idol any day. (However, I could have done without the annoying chick behind me who thought we were at some sort of Baptist revival and kept yelling, “Preach it, baby” every ten seconds.)

Before the show, my boyfriend and I did manage to catch some of the rodeo antics—wagons races and calf chases—while eating our gourmet burgers and fries in posh club level comfort. Did I mention we were at club level? Though I found that the collective smell of dyed cow hide from all the leather-wearing rodeo goers adversely affected my dining experience. Tasting leather handbag every time you take a bite of burger isn't pleasant, even if it tastes like expensive leather with swiss cheese and guacamole.

We found the people watching far more entertaining that the bull riding. With the pink theme in place, it was like tacky western wear on acid—pink boas on snake-skin cowboy hats, pink leather pants so tight that they looked more like sausage casings and, my personal favorite, manly women in neon pink flannel shirts with matching plastic Crocs.

I may not be part of the cowboy boot-wearing, leather pant sisterhood, but I am beginning to appreciate the annual rodeo ritual. In fact, we’re going again next week to see Maroon 5.

Last night after the concert, while reflecting on the evening over a warm funnel cake, my boyfriend said to me, “Next time, we’ll show up later—just for the concert.”

“Deal,” I said. The rodeo is so much better without the rodeo.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Portrait of an Artist as a Young Corporate Slave

At this time over one week ago, I was sitting in my corporate cubbyhole tech writing for a prominent oil and gas company and going slowing crazy. How did I get here?

I am now “free” (which sounds so much better than “unemployed,” don’t you think?) and typing from the comfort of my own home office, but I still don’t exactly know the answer to that question. I do know it happened somewhere between me deciding not to go to graduate school in 1999 (hey, I needed a break) and a particularly violent coup d’état at an ad agency last year that included the firing of every writer except me. Small mercies.

You might think that is a good thing, especially since it included a small raise. You might be right, but the endless revolving door, reactionary management and the mercurial temper of the eccentric owner were getting unbearable and I jumped ship.

I was trapped in some sort of theatre of the absurd where every day we had to repeat the day before. Magazines, annual reports, ad campaigns were in a constant state of being “reworked.” Just before press time, they were scrapped so we could start the whole process again. Every passing whim and fancy of the company puppet master—and there were many—could be bankrolled, and they were. If the joy is in the journey, then we were in luck, because we never were allowed anywhere close to the destination.

On top of that, I had the misfortune of being a copywriter (and the first one in over two years to leave without being fired). To my surprise, I found that writers were not “creatives,” like the graphic designers and art directors. And I soon found out why. My job was more like a game of Mad Libs.

“I need three words about four letters long for this ad.”

“Can you write me three medium-size paragraphs about financial strength and potential?”

“The writing on this brochure doesn’t match what I envisioned for the layout. Can you delete two words per line in every paragraph?”

Um, I’d like to buy a vowel …

Instructions were usually impossibly specific, extremely vague or unreasonably absurd.

You see, I was not a “creative,” so I was not included in the planning or concepting process. In other words, I was not the idea man, I was the dictionary. I was simply the closer responsible for plugging in two adjectives, a verb and a noun that looked pretty before it went to press. Oh yes, and making sure everything was spelled correctly.

Nothing against graphic designers and account execs. Many of them are great friends and siblings of mine—and talented. But the exact nature of my job is often misunderstood.

What I mean is, everyone can write. Everyone can hold a pen. Everyone can put this pen to paper and make sentences. Ok, not everyone, but a lot of people. Many have taken a few English classes and had to write a paper or two. The difference between this and the skilled professional writer escapes a lot of people.

In my experience, people think that what separates me from the crowd is that I win spelling bees, play Scrabble really well and know what a dangling particle is. (And they would be wrong on two of three counts.) When I say I am a writer, I usually get either, “Oh, I have a book I want to write” or “I hated grammar in high school.”

Unlike nuclear power plants and computer technology, writing does not appear to require a trained professional because everyone with a high school diploma can do it (how well is another issue). And the more degrees they have and the higher up in the corporate food chain they are, the more insistent they are that they are, in fact, excellent writers.

And some are. But it doesn’t stop me from wanting to get a shirt that reads: Professional Writer—Please Don’t Try This at Home!

So I gave up the Mad Lib copywriting career for a miscalculated move into technical writing where writing is all science and no art, no flow, no poetry. I guess it has to be that way but it's not for me.

So here I am—free at last, free at last, and wondering if there truly is a happy place for the artist in corporate America. I sure hope so because I need to pay the rent.