Sunday, March 29, 2015

Travelogue: Bowers Museum and 85 Degrees C

Location: Santa Ana, CA
Date: Sunday, March 1, 2015
Company: Michelle Knowlden, Kris Klopfenstein

The Bowers Museum

Museum Admission: $13 for an adult

Museum Parking: $6.00

The Bowers Museum wouldn't have been so crowded, except that it was the first Sunday of the month and, as such, admission was free. Parking was not so free, but that didn't stop both lots from overflowing. Michelle didn't want to park a half a mile down the road. For a minute, it looked like our trip would be canceled. But then we spotted a car pulling out, and Michelle maneuvered into place.

My first impression of the museum building was that of a giant wicker basket. Strips of interwoven metal created texture along the front wall. Inside the courtyard, olive trees mingled with statues, and fountains flowed into metal basins filled with pebbles. The sound of Irish music wafted in from inside, which was sort of funny, because the museum covered every culture but European.

Kris had actually come for the Celtic Festival and spent most of her time at the lobby where the stage was set up. I had come for a different reason. I wanted to set my newest fantasy novel, Counterfeit Diamond, in a magical version of Dutch-colonized Indonesia, and I was attempting to do some research on the country. Michelle, who had been to the museum before, vaguely remembered an exhibit on Pacific Islands. She tried to bring me into the "Spirits and Headhunters."

I declined. We'd just come from lunch at Maru Sushi, where I'd consumed a bowl of sukiyaki and three tall glasses of water. I needed a pit stop.

Lucky I did, because as it turned out, the only Indonesian artifacts in the Bowers Museum were right outside the restrooms. Both the humanoid Tao Tao figures and the elaborately carved erong were used for Torajanese death rituals. As I looked more closely at the erong, or coffin, I noticed a representative buffalo head rising from the side.

I'd read, in a children's book, that one ethic group of Christians in the Sulawesi region of Indonesia offer up their buffalos as sacrifice and construct effigies to the dead. It occurred to me that this might be them. I felt a twinge of triumph for remembering my research, quickly followed by a wave of despair. The Torajanese were all very interesting, but I was interested in Java. It occurred to me how impossible it was going to be to learn about one kind of people on an island chain that claims over 400 local ethnicities.

My frustration was compounded when Michelle and I entered the "Spirits and Headhunters" display, and I realized the focus was on the Polynesian and Micronesian isles on the Australian side of the Wallace line. I tried to enjoy the crocodile boats and sago pots, but my heart wasn't really in it. I was feeling the limitations of the museum. Seeing the culture of a people from object was like trying to understand animals by staring at their dead carcasses. You miss the movement, the voice, the soul.

After buzzing around the display, Michelle and I wandered to an exhibit of the Lost Culture of Sanxingdui, which was free, and had some interesting giant masks with bug eyes and elephant ears. Then I went to the gift shop. The books cheered me up.

The Chinese exhibit was easier for me to connect with; I knew some of their history and was more familiar with their art. I gazed enviously at a scholar's desk flanked by cranes statues, with a ink painted back drop of misty mountains, and a jar of fat brushes. This must be the reason everyone wanted to past that scholar's exam. Nice stationary. I peered at Terra Cotta horses and a shy porcelain girl. But what I liked best was the Western chess set made up of Chinese figures. The pawns were based off the 8 Immortals, legendary figures, each atop their own different animal.

* * *

85 Degrees C Cafe

On the way home, Michelle decided to stop at 85 Degrees C Bakery. I'd never been there before and had no idea what to expect.

When I lived in Japan, I would come across a kind of bakery found near stations or inside grocery stores, where all sorts of breads were laid out in easy-to-access plastic cases. Some breads were normal, some were bizarre, but most were pretty cheap. You'd grab a plastic tray and a pair of tongs and start scooping up anything you fancied, trying hard not to buy up the whole bakery. Whenever I went on vacation, I'd hunt down these bakeries and buy my breakfast for the next day.

There was another kind of bakery in Japan, one that sold fancy cakes and desserts in glass cases. I'd gaze at white-frosted cakes garnished with glistening strawberries; fruit tarts perfectly arranged with blueberries, raspberries, and kiwi; and golden custards in clay cups. If you wanted a birthday cake--and were willing to spend $35 for the privilege--this was your shop.

85 Degrees was like both kinds of bakeries smooshed together. Plus it sold coffee and boba. Novelty breads sat warm in plastic cases: Hawaiian Chicken Brick Toast, Chocolate Chip Bowl, Portuguese Egg Tart, Rose Cheese rolls, and a Giant Brioche that looked suspiciously like melon pan (a kind of sweet roll with a crust of sugar on top). Delicate desserts modeled in the glass showcase: Chocolate Pearls dipped in ganache, Strawberry Tiramisu, and Cheesecake decorated with a rainbow of fruit.

I could have bought the whole store. But I resisted and bought only two rolls and a cup of sea salt coffee.

The store was popular and seats were scarce, so I had to enjoy my treats at home.

* * *

Sea Salt Coffee
$3.00 for a small

For a small coffee, it seemed pretty large. The top two inches were nothing pure, thick cream, lightly sprinkled with cocoa powder. Since the drink was vacuum-sealed shut, I had to puncture the plastic film with a sharp-ended boba straw. Sipping it, I noticed that the coffee wasn't overly bitter or sweet and that the salt flavor was light. It tastes refreshing.

Since I didn't mix it, I ended up slurping up the coffee first, leaving the cream to sink and the drink to become creamier and saltier. At last I'm left with ice on the bottom and some cream clinging to the plastic. I removed the plastic and tasted it. Yeech. Might as well be drinking whipped butter. Although, I probably could stick it on the bread.

Marble Taro

A flaky sugar crust of purple and white swirls sat atop the small loaf marble taro. As I picked it up, it felt hefty in my hand. As I ripped it, something in the middle of the bread stretched and oozed, like the best kind of melty cheese. This was, presumably, the taro, and it tasted like sweet bean paste with the added texture of gooey mochi. The taro melted into the bread to create a carb extravaganza. It felt like clay and stuck to the back of my teeth in the most pleasant way.

Calamari Stick

Neither a stick nor made with fried squid, these black rolls had the same circumference as a sand dollar, though obviously they were a good deal thicker. Made with squid ink, filled with mozzarella, and topped with garlic, they tasted like something out of an Italian restaurant: garlicky and cheesy and just on the verge of being too salty. I couldn't detect the taste of fish at all.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Weekly Update: 3-28-15 Home Economics

My streak of substitute jobs continues, as I was called in to work 4 out of 5 days. The only day I didn't work (Tuesday), I decided it was time to clean. Throughout most of March, I'd watched the kitchen and living room get messier and messier, until I could stand it no longer. I whipped out a broom, a vacuum, and all kinds of disinfectants and got busy tidying up.

I like to think of myself as a creative person, if for no other reason than I like to create things: stories, cards, food. Thing is, I can't seem to create anything without also creating a mess. Even something as simple as writing often leaves the room in a whirl of papers and pens. I don't like to clean, but I know if I leave the mess for too long, my mind will get messy. I'll lose my sense of discipline and start to procrastinate. Thus, I find myself in a maddening cycle of making messes and cleaning them up.

* * *

My friend Ashley needed some cheering up, so I wanted to make her a cake, but since she's a vegan, baking is tricky. Fortunately, I found a recipe for a simple fudge cake that required no tricky ingredients, like soy milk or vegan egg substitute. I couldn't make a frosting, because of lack of butter, so I put a glaze on some strawberries and called it a day.

* * *

This week, I haven't gotten much in the way of writing done, but I did finish my brainstorming for Counterfeit Diamond, the new novel I hope to write in April for Nanowrimo. With spring break looming over the horizon, I'm hoping I get the chance to get caught up. I've also been working at publishing The Changelings as a print version. Kaleo, my illustrator, has just about finished the back cover. With any luck, I'll have my proof copies at the beginning of April, giving me a chance to check for any last minute mistakes.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Summary of Last Week: Shpongle, Yakuza, Vinegar, and Change

Change is in the air, disrupting my schedule, and making it very hard for me to write up my blogs on time. Since March, my aunt (who's house I live in) has gotten a job. She works from 3:00PM to 11:00PM supervising alcoholics going through rehab. I went from seeing her everyday to barely seeing her at all. It subtly affected my own routine, everything from how I get to work (she was my ride), how much dinner I make (she no longer eats with us), and who walks the dogs.
But I liked my plans!
While this happened, the floodgates opened and suddenly I had subbing assignments galore, working almost every day. This is great for my bank account, but it makes it harder to keep to my writing schedule. To top it off, Nanowrimo is coming up next month, so to prepare for writing 200 pages in a month, I've been vigorously brainstorming every single weekday. This is on top of my usual writing. Needless to say, something has to give. Hence, lack of blog.

But all that stuff is boring.

You'd probably rather hear about the fun stuff. Well, I've had that too. Fun, for me, anyway.  Bizarre and dorky to others, perhaps.

* * *

I don't usually go to concerts, and I'd never heard of Shpongle. But my friend Ashley and her boyfriend Matt had an extra ticket, so I said I'd go with them on Sunday, March 15th. It was a good excuse to visit my dear friend and thrift store shop for our upcoming Lightning in a Bottle event.

Ashley loves costumes and any sort of quirky clothing. I'm a bit cheap with clothes and cowardly with my appearance, but I do think it's fun to dress up every now and then--usually when Ashley's nearby. While getting ready for the concert, Ashley brought out her collection of wearable lights, tiny bulbs strung on wires thinner than a paperclip. Inspired, I decided to braid it through my hair to see how it would work. To my surprise, it worked pretty well and lit up my face with blue star light.

Stars in my hair
I happened to be wearing a blue shirt, too, and Ashley suggested I continue the theme with my makeup. Using Halloween makeup crayons, I lined my eyes with blue and painted my lids white. It didn't seem outrageous enough, so I painted white under my eyes, making me look vaguely sick or perhaps like a Zombie. Still not satisfied, I painted my lips blue. I thought I'd gone too far, but Ashley was delighted. She thought I needed a dot between my brows, but I suggested a crescent moon to go with the starlight theme.

Too Much Blue?
 The rest of my outfit looked plain, so I accessorized with a black ballerina skirt and some black-and-white striped armbands leftover from Ashley's goth phase. But I had been foolish. I'd gotten dressed before we went to dinner. Which meant now I had to go to Mother's (Ashley's vegan) in full costume. I swear, I couldn't look anyone in the eye.

And it didn't get much easier at the concert. Even though the first person we saw was a man with a flower in his ear, I felt silly and a little bit like a phoney. But I was here. Nothing to do but dance my cares away. With feet rooted firmly to the floor, I swayed and twirled and batted my arms and was very grateful that the shiny lights and green tentacles on the stage were all drawing everyone's attention away from me.

Two tentacles flank the sound equipment. Pokeballs hung on the wall.
The opening DJ was called Phuture Primative, and he was pretty good, as he would occasionally mix music with lyrics into his electronic beats. I especially liked a rendition of "Mad World." Shpongle was only pulsing bass and electronic harmonies. When he was on stage, the tentacles sprouted gears and eyeballs and became especially psychedelic. But by this time, I was tired, plus I had to wake up at 5:00 for work, so we cut out just after 10:00.

* * *

On Saint Patrick's Day, I found myself immersed in Japanese culture. Valencia High's Japanese teacher was out administering tests, leaving me to show her class various DVDs. But one little mini series unexpectedly caught my eye.

 "My Boss, My Hero"

This goofy little comedy/drama follows the adventures of 27-year old tough guy Makio forced to enroll in... gasp... high school.

As yakuza, as high school student
 Makio is a member of the yakuza, so stupid that he messes up a 27 billion yen deal by failing to add 20 + 5 + 5 + 5. Fed up, his father, the yakuza boss, threatens to kick him out, but gives him one last chance. 27-year old Makio must spend a year in high school and get himself educated. By next spring, bring me your diploma," his father says. "If you can't, the position of 3rd head boss will go to your younger brother Mikio."

What ensues is a mixture of high school hijinx, Japanese style.

I saw the first episode in class and it was pure, corny hilarity. At times the comedy was clearly intentional, as when Makio donned his "scary face," willing the teacher not to call on him. Other times, I'm pretty sure it was unintentional. Like when Makio has a sad moment and the rain drops on him right on cue. Watching it in class was especially fun, as the students reacted to everything, laughing, mocking, cheering. I was so jazzed up, I decided to seek out the other episodes.

"Call on me and I'll kill you!"
 That was a mistake, as I ended up getting hooked.

Surprisingly, the series gets more and more dramatic as it goes on. By the end, I was actually tearing up at the end. Oddly enough, for all that the first episode champions flying over buildings in an attempt to land pudding, the last episode deals with the realities of being exposed and going separate ways after graduation.

* * *

Speaking of Japan, while I was living in Kagoshima, I discovered the joys of drinking vinegar. It sounds strange, I know. The first time I read "Apple vinegar" listed under the drink menu, I did a double take, convinced I was reading the label wrong. However, I tried it and ended up loving it. The vinegar is actually a special drinking variety native to Kagoshima. It's usually diluted with juice or water.

One of my favorite ways to beat the heat was to combine about a tablespoon of drinking vinegar with half apple juice, half Mitsuya Cider (the closest thing Japan has to 7-UP). No matter how tired I was, a chug of my apple vinegar concoction would cause my eyes to pop open.

Dilute as instructed

Recently, I've been experimenting with mixing a teaspoon of the cheap supermarket vinegar with a cup of Arizona ginseng green tea. It's not the same, but I like the zing of vinegar.

I mention all this so that you can appreciate the small slice of heaven I found myself in when my friend, Michelle, proposed a field trip to Taste It! last Saturday.

Taste It! is a small store tucked into a shopping center at the crossroads Bastanchury and Brea that sells infused olive oils, balsamic vinegars, and wines. Like the name suggests, you can taste it before you buy. As I walked in, I saw polished silver vats and beautiful bottles, tufts of bread and little plastic sample cups.

I just wanted to taste them all
 Although I put the oil on the bread, with the vinegar I just tried it directly. Many were thick and sweet as sundae syrups, with that little twang of acid. I fell in love with pear vinegar, and I also bought a small bottle of Bordeaux cherry for my dad. It makes me happy to know there's a place nearby that sells exotic, tasty vinegars. It's one of my strange food quirks.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Weekly Update: March 15, 2015

I'll be brief.

This week, I had four subbing jobs, brainstormed for Counterfeit Diamond, and re-wrote Chapter 5 of Three Floating Coffins. I watched too much Doctor Who on Saturday. Now, it's Sunday, and I'm going to a concert with my friend.

Sometimes at night, right as I'm about to fall asleep, I wake up with the sudden anxiety of being a book publisher and having to market my writing and not knowing what I'm supposed to do. I feel powerless and afraid.

But I have work the next day, so I shove away my anxieties and try to fall back to sleep.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Travelogue: Cerritos Library

Location: Cerritos, CA
Date: Saturday, February 28, 2015
Company: Brea Library Writer's Group (Kaleo, Ned, Christy, Rita, Carol, Patty, Emily)

No matter how beautiful the library's architecture, no matter how exquisite the furnishings, the art, and the displays, in the end, it's the books that get you. As I walked through the Cerritos Library, my mouth dropped open at the grand designs and costly technology, but after a few minutes, my eyes were drawn to the shelves, devouring the titles. Art shouts for attention, but books have more sticking power, for they hold the promise of knowledge, of adventure, of long lost childhood days...

* * *

The first thing that actually caught my attention, after stepping out of the parking lot, was the gnarled trunk of an oak, stooped onto the ground, practically begging me to climb it. So I obliged.

The Cerritos Library was an imposing white structure embellished by titanium sheets stacked like gold brick. This contrasted to library's the soft curves--a theme which, I later learned, would be continued inside. Statues and fountains gathered at its feet. One glance, and we all knew the splendor of the Cerritos Library ground our tiny city library into the dust. 

Then again, the Brea Library didn't come with a $41 million dollar price tag. Nor do we charge $100 a year for non-residence to obtain a library card.

The neighborhood around the library included a sculpture garden, a high school, and Heritage Park, where I used to play as a child. (Heritage Park is an absolutely amazing place. Playground equipment is integrated into historical buildings. I highly recommend it to anyone with kids.) We didn't have time to enjoy the park, but we did stroll through the sculpture garden, which was just across the parking lot.

It took us a half hour, but finally, finally, we stepped into the library. We were greeted by a photography display called "Symphony of the Universe" by Larry Kim. Stark desert boulders stood out amid starry cerulean skies. 

The colors perfectly complimented the full, wall-sized aquarium that heralded the children's section.

"Whoa," I said.

"That was the reaction I was looking for," Kaleo said.

Kaleo and his wife Patty had been here before and would act as our group's guide throughout the day. They began by pointing out palm trees that sprouted around the entrance way. They were real trees but no longer living. They had been dehydrated.

The Cerritos Friends of the Library were having a "sidewalk sale" inside (due to the faint possibility of a drizzle) and had set up long, plastic tables stacked with old books. These tables were about the only cheap furnishing the library had. I was pleased to see their used book selection wasn't much better than ours. Christy cracked up over a book titled Don't Die Broke.

Next to the sale was the Reading Room, a very brown place whose old-fashioned sensibilities deliberately contrasted with the modern look of the rest of the library. The grandfather clock and the newsstand look of the magazine section made me think of the Victorian era. But a second glance had me sensing a subtle Asian theme. The exposed, crossed beams of the magazine stand's roof echoed the structure of a shinto shrine. Jade green lanterns embellished the wood.

After browsing through the used books, we decided to continue our tour by entering the Young Adult section. Although it had been decorated in steel and Art Deco, it strangely reminded me of a 50s diner. The technology room was inspired by succulents, because nothing says teens like ugly potted plants.

Three touch screen computers, each as big as a flat screen TV, were embedded in the succulent wall. There were also apple computers and a table that turned out to be a giant tablet. The tabletop tablet only seemed to have three programs, but we had fun playing around with the 360 astronomy app and indulging in a game of group trivia.

All this was still on the first floor. We had two more stories to go. 

The second floor belonged to the adults. Swoops of glass gave it a vaguely oceanic feel, and plenty of windows made it feel bright and open. For the most part, though, the room was strictly business. It had shelves and computers--so many computers. Research rooms were made entirely of glass and had SciFi names: H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, Aldous Huxley, and, for some reason, Nikola Telsa.

Little corners of beauty met us at the staircase and elevator. Artwork here, a ming vase there, a covered piano. The slitted windows teased us with the view. We made it to the third floor, where they kept the stage for lectures, presentations, and movie nights. Currently, it was home to an orchid show and Hawaiian dance presentations. We stuck our noses in and watched the show. Older women in flowered dresses swayed together and clicked shells in rhythm of the music. We watched for a while and stuck our noses back out.

We climbed down to the first floor, and, completing the circle, entered the Children's Section. (Let's face it--that was the one place we were all dying to see.) Giant books made up the entrance--you had to pass through them to gain entry. But if you stopped midway through the gate, you'd see a bench and a monitor. An invisible camera sent you on a green screen adventure through space, the sea, and an earth ruled by dinosaurs, foreshadowing what was to come. 

Constellations lit up ceiling; a rocket ship waited for lift off.  If you went inside a candy cane striped light house, you could sit and read or stare out the portholes at the fish in the aquarium. A T-Rex skeleton gazed hungrily at the lighthouse. We had to go up and put our hands to the rock its feet were embedded into, and that's where we found sliding square puzzles of various fossils. There would come a time when three of us adults would pore over those puzzles, refusing to give up until they were solved. Proving, I supposed, that you never really grow up.

And that would be the end of the story, except that one member of our group, Rita, was late to arrive. We met her at Chipotle for lunch and then took her back to the library to give her the tour all over again. But this time, when we came to the third floor, the Hawaiian ladies were gone. We stepped inside, drinking in the heady scent of orchids. The door to the balcony was propped open.

Should we go outside?

Tentatively, we peeped out. There were chairs and tables and heat lamps--and another person admiring the view. We took that as a good sign and walked out. The air was slightly chill but clear--clear enough to see the white mountains in the distance. Bushy-headed trees played peek-a-boo with skyscrapers. No telephone poles. Cerritos had installed an expensive underground cable system, so their denizen's wouldn't have their view blocked. Rich people.

Sunlight glinted off the titanium paneling. I followed it around the corner and stared into the library's courtyard. The fountains and statue below were small enough to be a pendant on my necklace. My eyes drifted to a mosaic statue of an open book, pages fanned. I smiled.

When all's said and done, isn't that the reason for the library? 

Friday, March 6, 2015

Weekly Update: 3-6-15 Brainstorming

You do not want to be in the mad torrent of my mind right now. If my brain were a river, it has stopped its steady pulse and plunged into white-water rapids, churning and spitting froth.

I've been brainstorming.

I feel like a mad scientist, throwing chemicals together that exploded into purple smoke. I feel like an artist in a fevor grip, oblivious to the world. I feel like a kid in a library grabbing every book off the shelf, determined to read all of them at the same time.

What I don't feel is particularily productive.

In the real world, I have laundry to do, dinner to cook, emails to send, dogs to walk, jobs to find, bills piling up, and I am supposed to get them done. It seems irresponsible to shove my nagging to-do list aside in order to indulge my whims.

Yet if I don't take this crucial step, my writing will suffer later.

What's frustrating is that it doesn't seem like I have a finished product. Not even a full draft. All I have is horrible scribbles in my notebook.

26 pages of messy blue ink.

Plus 3 more pages of typed.

Seems like I spent the whole week being lazy.

* * *

I was lazy this week. I felt lazy on Monday, when I spent the whole day reading half of Jewels: A Secret History and about a third of A Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of Three Great Cities of Spice. I was lazy on Tuesday, when all I did was watch Dr. Who, in one long marathon.

Then I got less lazy. Wednesday I had a subbing job and was not lazy. Thursday I cleaned, volunteered, and did critiques. Friday I brainstormed The Originals and worked on my blog. Throughout the whole week, I brainstormed for Counterfeit Diamond, the novel I hope to write in April. I have all of March to figure out what to write.

I was pretty disciplined and consistent throughout most of January and February, but these last few weeks seem to have broke that up, allowing for the deluge of laziness and procrastination to break loose.

I think part of that break is feeling overwhelmed by everything I have to do, from the little tasks that nibble away the minutes of my day, to the knotty plans I have no idea how to execute. January and February I worked hard on Three Floating Coffins. Now, I need to figure out Diamond and work on the Originals. My schedule says, I still have to produce a chapter of the Coffins every two weeks, but I'm starting to get bored of re-writing the same thing over and over. I want to work on something new.

And that's only one part of my life.

All right, this is getting too long. I'll end it. But let me just add that last weekend, I took a trip to the Cerritos Library on Saturday and the Bowers Museum on Sunday, so be on the lookout for those travelogues coming up soon.