Architecture is important

I just read an article in the New York Times suggesting how to resurrect the grandness of the old Penn Station (A Proposal for Penn Station and Madison Square Garden). If you’ve ever had the misfortune to be in the current Penn Station, you know that any change could only be an improvement.

The first time I took a train into New York, I was probably 12 or 13. It was the week after Christmas, and the last Christmas that I can remember that my dad’s entire side of the family was all together–all the aunts and uncles and cousins. The aunts and uncles and cousins decided to take a day trip into New York, so we drove down to Connecticut, where some other relatives lived (a great-aunt and uncle, I think), and we took the Metro-North train into the city. I was disappointed that the approach to the terminal was made through tunnels and that there were no grand vistas of the New York skyline to be seen. My disappointment was paid back many times over, however, when we disembarked at Grand Central Terminal. The platform was nothing special, but walking up to the main concourse of the station was incredible. It was probably the first time that I’d ever been in such a large interior open space. And there were stars painted on the ceiling! Thinking back, it occurs to me that many of those stars were probably no longer visible at night in New York even when the station was constructed in the early 20th century. Now, I wonder how many people stop to enjoy the view that they never get anywhere else in the city.

My memories of the rest of that day in the city are a haze of department store holiday windows, snow, enormous buildings, laughing with family, and the want to spend more than just a day in New York. But coming and going via Grand Central is firmly fixed in my mind. It lived up to the mystique I had already associated with it and with the rest of the city from books and movies and television. What an amazing gift to be able to come and go daily through such a wonderful space as that!

Eight or ten years later, I took the train again into New York. I was in college now and was going to spend some time with a friend in Brooklyn before we took the train back together to Montréal. I knew that my Amtrak train would leave me at Penn Station and not Grand Central, but can you imagine my crushing disbelief at being confronted with the reality of Penn Station? I distinctly remember coming up from the platform into the claustrophobic crush of those bland, low ceilings and thinking, “Huh. There must be another level up before the main concourse.” Sadly, no. That was the main concourse. I was so very confused. Why would anyone ever want to be in this building? It was so bland and enclosed and so decidedly NOT Grand Central Terminal. I couldn’t understand how such a city as New York could ever have such a rail station as Penn. It seemed a cruel joke. As one architectural historian lamented, “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”

And so it’s nice to read that there are still people who realize the horror of the current Penn Station when compared to what came before, and who hope that we might end that reign of horror in the near future.

If anyone ever tells you that architecture doesn’t matter, please bring them to the concourse of Penn Station, which today looks like this:

Penn Station, Main Concourse

And show them a picture of what this replaced:

Old Penn Station

And ask them which one they’d rather be standing in today.


Food Politics and Gender Politics

I just read a post on Marion Nestle’s blog, Food Politics, about Walmart’s new front-of-package “buy me” logo. Though the FDA hasn’t moved forward on putting together a system of front-of-package labeling to mark healthy and unhealthy food products, Walmart is going for it. The article suggests that the criteria for deciding which products receive a “Great for You” label are actually fairly stringent, which is a good thing.

But that’s not what caught my attention in this post. What caught my attention was the pull quote from the Walmart press release announcing this new labeling on their store-brand products:

Walmart moms are telling us they want to make healthier choices for their families, but need help deciphering all the claims and information already displayed on products…Our ‘Great For You’ icon provides customers with an easy way to quickly identify healthier food choices…this simple tool encourages families to have a healthier diet.

“Walmart moms.” Not, “our customers” or “Walmart families”, but specifically Walmart moms. It may be true that moms are the doing the majority of food shopping at Walmart, but phrasing like this precludes the possibility that anyone else in the family might have opinions or input into food choices. Do “Walmart dads” not care what their families eat? If this were a press release about a new power tool rating system, would we be hearing about what “Walmart moms” think? Probably not.

I get it. I understand traditional gender roles and how embedded they are in our culture. I just wish that they weren’t. I wish that dads were also seen as caring about their families’ health. And I wish that moms were seen as caring about power tool safety. And I wish that gender didn’t play into this at all. I wish that I were reading about “Walmart parents” caring about the health of their families.

Communicating Food

(This is really long, almost 2,000 words. But I have to make up for not posting more often by posting long posts, right?)

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to do with my life recently, what I want to be when I “grow up”. My usual defense for not having anything remotely approaching a career at this point in my life is usually to blame my father. Last time I asked, he still wasn’t sure what he wanted to be when he grows up. And yet, it seems to me that there must be something out there that would satisfy me as fully as when I was in school. It’s true, the thought of going back to school to study history doesn’t hold much appeal to me right now, but I really liked how it felt. I really liked how purposeful it was, how I was excited to wake up every day and keep digging through readings and writing papers. (Okay, no university student is every excited to wake up, but once I was awake and had dragged my ass out of bed and had gotten some coffee in me, then I was excited.)

For the past five years, I haven’t been overly excited. Coffee was cool for a while. This hotel thing is definitely not my cup of tea but it gives me a chance to interact with a rotating cast of characters and it’s certainly clear that I like interacting with people from the safe side of a counter. The one thing that I’ve enjoyed most about all of my past jobs has been communicating information to people, whether it be why a textbook isn’t on the shelf, where a particular coffee comes from, or why Balch Creek is my favorite spot in Portland and why you absolutely must take the five minute bus ride from the hotel to see it.

And then there’s this other passion of mine: food. Even before some people thought I was too young to start cooking (ahem, Mom), I wanted to. My Nana, thankfully, had a more liberal approach to involving children in cooking and I cherished every chance I had to make fresh pasta with her, or sprinkle something into a soup, or lick the cake batter off the mixer.

My first solo forays into cooking weren’t entirely successful. When I was maybe seven or eight, my Nana sent me home with a package of pudding mix. We had made some earlier that day and I figured that having done it once with a steady and experienced guiding hand that I could do it on my own. I burnt the pudding to the bottom of the pot. I’m pretty sure that my mother still has pictures of it. She was not happy. She was also not happy when I served her coffee for Mother’s Day that year or the next. I watched her make coffee every morning. How hard could it be? It turns out there’s a difference between Instant Coffee and Drip Coffee. And Instant Coffee brewed through a drip coffee maker doesn’t taste quite right.

Fast forward a decade or so.

I was getting ready to head off to McGill, where, though I would be living in a dorm, I would only have a meal plan five days a week. This was something that I never mentioned to my mother, who still wouldn’t let me into the kitchen, but it was something that I had discussed with my Grandmother (my dad’s mom; Nana was my great-grandmother on my mother’s side, the Italian side). As a graduation gift, she gave me Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything and told me very mater-of-factly, “If you can read, you can cook.” I was skeptical but it was either take her at her word or live off mac and cheese and pizza two days out of the week. Most university students would eat three meals a day of that and not think another thing about it. I, however, had always been really curious about this cooking thing. And now I wouldn’t have to worry about Mom shooing me from the kitchen.

I started out ever so slowly and probably didn’t really eat too much better on the weekends than mac and cheese and pizza because I don’t have any strong food memories from my first year of university. After that first year, though, I was completely on my own as far as food went because I was living off campus. I was probably still eating a lot of processed and packaged foods, but I was making use of the cookbook. I had given up on trying to keep the dust jacket on the book–a good sign that it was getting used often enough according to my Grandmother.

Initially, I was afraid to cook meat for myself. I had a brain full of imprinted fears of undercooked pork or chicken. Salmonella. E. coli. Food poisoning. Meat was scary! This isn’t to say that I was becoming a vegetarian (that came later). I just wasn’t cooking meat for myself. Eventually, though, I was starting to feel comfortable with the basics of cooking. And I kept looking through the cookbook when I probably should have been studying. And those meat recipes sounded good. Finally, I took the chance and bought some chicken and tried one of the recipes. I think it was some kind of ginger soy sauce chicken recipe. It became one of my standard go-to’s proven by how mangled and stained the page is.

It was a revelation.

The chicken was moist and flavorful and just SO GOOD.

My mother is not a bad cook. I used to think that she maybe wasn’t a great cook, particularly if you were to judge her skills at cooking chicken. It was always dry and fairly flavorless aside from whatever gravy or shake n’ bake or glaze from a pouch might be on it. As I’ve become a more accomplished cook myself and as I’ve learned more about the history of modern American food, I’ve come to realize that she is of a generation that was always scared of meat, always told to cook it till it was good and dead lest it poison you. (If it was so dangerous, why were we eating it?)

Now that meat wasn’t scary, I was anxious to start cooking more for myself. Though I have owned How to Cook Everything for a decade, I have not yet cooked every recipe in it. However, I know that I have looked at and possibly read every recipe. It wasn’t always as easy as macaroni and cheese, but the more I cooked, the easier it became. And the more fun it became, too. Cooking dinner became a study break and so it was a good excuse to find something intricate and involved that might take two or three hours to cook, eat, and clean up after. In fact, now that I think about it, dinner was probably the only thing I took as seriously every day as my classes. Going out on a Friday and drinking with my friends was always fun, but so was staying home and baking a pie.

How to Cook Everything is the most important book that anyone has ever given to me. It’s no longer the only cookbook in my library and it’s not even one that I open very often anymore (I often don’t look at a recipe anymore), but it was my first cookbook and the cookbook that taught me almost everything I needed to know to start cooking for myself. It was the cookbook that gave me the confidence to tackle things like lasagne made completely from scratch and pie crusts and, yes, even beef bourguignon (I had heard of Julia Child but she was just that strange old lady who had a show on PBS that I sometimes saw bits of).

In the decade since I started cooking for myself, mac and cheese has never left my pantry (I’ve moved on, though, from Kraft Dinner with neon yellow cheese to Annie’s Organic Shells and White Cheddar) but lots of other things have entered it: yeast, pimentón, sardines, anchovies, capers, lentils, Swiss chard. None of these were things that were in my pantry when I was growing up. My mother was busy. Both she and my step-father worked full-time. She put a hot meal on the table every night thanks to Lipton noodles or rice microwaved with powdered sauce, Shake n’ Bake, and frozen vegetables. She always tried to include a salad, too. That was usually mostly fresh but we usually drowned it with ranch or creamy Italian dressing. It’s not that they were unbalanced or blatantly unhealthy meals–they were meals based on the meals that my mother probably ate growing up: meat, grain/potato, vegetable.

But times change and my food habits have changed as I’ve grown and learned more. My meals these days are almost always vegetarian. Aside from the mac and cheese, there are virtually no processed or pre-cooked foods in my pantry. I go grocery shopping a few times a week to keep my stocks fresh. I do my best to buy local, organic and in season.

So how does this come full circle back to what I want to be when I grow up?

Every time I bake something, people tell me that I should open a bakery. But then I’d be back to working crazy hours like I was in coffee, and I hated that. Every time I cook something, people tell me I should open my own restaurant. But part of what I love about cooking is getting to sit down and enjoy it with friends around a table, and I couldn’t do that if I were running a restaurant.

But I like talking to people. I like communicating information. I like teaching people things. I like writing. And I definitely like food. There’s probably no clear path here. It’s not as if I can become a home ec teacher (are there any of those left?). The idea of becoming a nutritionist has occurred to me but I’ve yet to explore it very deeply. Plus, the idea of reducing food to its component nutrients drains all the romance from cooking. I wonder if Michael Pollan is hiring for apprenticeships.

If I could design an ideal job, it would probably be something like what I imagine a home economics class might have been like (I know not of such things because they were dropped from my middle school and high school long before I got there). I want to give people what How to Cook Everything gave to me: basic tools to be able to cook for themselves, not to be afraid of food, and to enjoy cooking.

And, sometimes, if you ask it nicely, the Universe gives you a chance to do a test run.

I’ve been bugging the Man for ages about letting me teach him how to cook. He’s finally given in. I realize that this experience will be very, very different from anything I might encounter were I to be granted my ideal job, but it’s a place to start. I’ve also convinced him that we should start a blog to document how things go. He’s just started rehearsals for a show, and so is way too busy to worry about cooking for the next six weeks or so. When we finally do get around to starting, I’ll post the link here, though.

Who knows if this really is what I want to do when I grow up but if I think about the things that make me happy and that I’m most passionate about, it seems as good an idea as any.


Remember when you were in university and you had mountains of papers to write, hundreds of pages a semester, and somehow you just plowed through and did it? And, it’s not that it was easy, but the writing just worked, it flowed, and you got it done. Remember that?

Okay, maybe it wasn’t as easy for you. And maybe I’m remembering it a little more rosy than it actually was. But I really do remember a time when I could just sit down and write. And write. And write. Maybe it was because I didn’t have to come up with topics on my own entirely. If I was taking a class on science in Colonial America, that definitely narrowed down the topics available to me. I still had to decide that I wanted to write about Cotton Mather and his attempts to reconcile Newtonian science with Puritan theology but at least I had somewhere to start.

This whole blogging thing is a little different though. It’s pretty free range. I suppose that is, in part, my fault. I’ve always maintained this as a blog open to whatever I wanted to write about and I’ve never tried to limit it in any way. In the past, I often wrote a lot about politics. But most of those posts weren’t actually my own writing: I was mostly just reposting things that I’d read on other websites. And those posts almost never garnered any comments. My audience, I suppose, was never as politically-minded as I, particularly about US politics, given that the majority of my audience (two of the three of you that I know read this regularly) are Canadian.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and I’m thinking that 2010 is going to be the Year of Me. Rather than writing occasionally here about how frustrated I am about my current situation, I’m going to do what I can to actually change it. I’m at wit’s end about what to do about my job situation, but at least I’m working. I’ll continue to apply for new positions but for the meantime, I’ll be standing at a hotel front desk 30 hours a week. I might as well try to use it. So, hopefully I’ll be writing more here. And maybe by just writing more, about whatever strikes my fancy, I’ll get back into that writing groove. I feel like I’ve said this many times since starting this blog anew almost two years ago. But, damnit, I mean it this time!

Happy 2010!

The Job that Wasn’t, Part Two

So, I have a new job. But not the one I wrote about last time. It’s been a busy couple of weeks in my personal job market.

The same week that I got the offer of a temp position at the organization that I really really really really really want to work for, I had decided that absent any other options, it was time to change things up with my current work situation. For those of you keeping score at home, I’m currently working two jobs, at a coffee shop and at a hotel. I asked my boss at the hotel if the long-standing offer of picking up more hours was still valid. He said it was and though he couldn’t give me full time, he told me that I could have as many hours as I wanted up to a point (about 3/4 time). And he told me that I could basically write my own schedule and that since most everyone else was going to be back in school in September that it was Monday through Friday days that were most in need of coverage. What a luxurious schedule! I’m currently working Thursday through Monday and a mix of very early mornings, mid-days and two days where I work both jobs from 7:30 am until 9 pm or 10:30 pm with a couple hours off in between.

Of course, I knew that working 30 hours a week wouldn’t quite cut it in terms of making ends meet so I asked at another coffee shop if they had any shifts I might be able to pick up and they said that they could work me into the schedule a couple of shifts a week–not a lot, but just what I’d need to be working full time in terms of hours.

So, starting next week, I’ll be working Monday through Friday. I’ll still have two double days, but they’ll be a little shorter and the new coffee shop that I’ll be working at is in the same neighborhood as the hotel so it’ll cut down on my travel time during the day. I also won’t have any early morning shifts. Oh, and did I mention that I’ll be working Monday through Friday? It’ll be like being a real boy! I’ll have real weekends with everyone else!

I had never worked a job that I wasn’t able to have at least one weekend day off until now and, despite the rumors, it sucks. Especially when your weekend is smack in the middle of the week because it puts you completely at odds with the rest of the world. And working early mornings on the weekends means that you’re always turning down invitations to do fun things or accepting them but then leaving at 10 or 11 because you have to get up at 5 the next morning.

I’ll still be looking for something else but I think this will be a good change. I’d grown frustrated at the coffee shop I’m leaving for lots of reasons, not least of which was my schedule, so the opportunity for a change of scenery as well as a change of schedule is very welcome. In the meantime, it’ll give me a chance to get used to what it feels like to have a 9-5ish job (except on those two days I work doubles) and it’ll also mean that I get to sleep in a little later, have weekends with everyone else, and do things like take weekend trips with the Man to exciting places like Seattle and Vancouver and Ashland and Walla Walla. (Walla Walla? Ok, it’s just fun to say. But maybe we’ll have to plan a trip now, just to say we’ve been.)

The Job that Wasn’t, Teaser

I’m starting to like this biking thing.

Funny story: the bike I wrote about last time, I sold it. It was too small for me. But I bought another one that fits me much better.


I just got home from an almost magical bike ride. I was out dancing with the Man and some friends downtown and since I have to work in five hours, I had to leave earlier than everyone else, which was why I’d biked downtown in the first place because I knew it would probably be quicker to get home on my bike than to wait for the bus. Plus, I fit in a pit stop for some fried pie at the 12th and Hawthorne late-night food cart pod. It’s a cool night, a reminder that fall isn’t all that far away. The magical part of my ride wasn’t the vegan breakfast fried pie that I scarfed down but the joy of the silence of the ride. Sticking to the bike routes means sticking in residential neighborhoods and avoiding busy commercial streets. It also means that there are very few cars, but lots of other bikes. Except, it’s dark and so what you see aren’t the bikes but their floating headlights and tail lights. Disembodied blinking white and red spots gliding silently through the darkness between street lights.

I knew that I was going to have to leave dancing early because of my early start at work but I was hoping to be in a somewhat better mood by the time I got on the dance floor. See, I got a job offer yesterday from the organization that I really really really really really want to work for. It was a temp position, but I was willing to take a leap of faith that there would be a permanent position at the end of it. However, I found out today when I went into the temp agency to do my paper work that they were expecting me to start on Monday. This despite the fact that I’m already working two jobs and would have to give two weeks’ notice at both of them. True, I don’t HAVE to give two weeks’ notice but I’m not the kind of person to just walk out of a job and it’s probably not the best precedent to set, especially when one is starting somewhere new.

So, I don’t have a new job to write about because they definitely needed to have someone start in the position on Monday. Still, I feel like it was a good sign and that my job hunt is finally moving towards a conclusion.

You’ll have to wait to hear about it though, because I’m down to four hours and fifty-one minutes before I have to be at work and I need to fit some sleep in there somewhere.

This isn’t the post I was going to write.

Now that we have that out of the way…

I bought a bike.

There is no doubt that I live in the most bike-friendly city in the country, if not North America. Shortly after moving here a year and a half ago, someone asked me when I was planning on buying a bike. I told him that I just wasn’t really a bike person, that I hadn’t owned a bike since high school and that public transit worked just fine for me (especially the expansive and easy to use public transit here). But, I told him, let’s be realistic. Give me a year or two and I’ll probably give in.

In a journal entry from when I first came to Portland on vacation one of the things that I focused on was the number of bikes everywhere. Perhaps what was most striking about it was how utilitarian most of the bikes were. Sure, a lot of them were new and shiny looking but almost all of them had a very utilitarian look to them: trailers, racks, extended frames to carry larger loads, panniers and bags of all shapes and sizes. And they were just…everywhere. Bike racks everywhere. Bike lanes everywhere. Bike racks on the front of every bus. Bike hooks in the MAX trains. Covered bike parking with neighborhood route maps. Secure bike parking at MAX stations. I chalked it up to just one more example of how green and progressive Portland was.

When I moved here, I didn’t seriously think I would last very long without getting a bike despite being a very determined pedestrian and public transit user. And, anywhere I could get with a bike, I could get on public transit. So, my decision to buy a bike wasn’t based on a need exactly. It’s true that waiting for a bus on a weekend sometimes takes longer than it should and that it will take me much less time to go to the grocery store or to the farmers market than it will via bus, but getting a bike wasn’t about time, either. It was deeper than that, more ethereal. I found this video after I decided that it was time for me to buy a bike. One of the women that they interview in the video articulated much better than I was able to why I decided finally to get a bike. Riding a bike in Portland is ‘traveling in the vernacular’. It’s just the way people get around here. We have the highest percentage of bike commuters in the country. And I saw something today about bike jams cropping up around town–imagine! bike jams!

So, I did some shopping around and quickly found a friend who had a bike he never used and sold to me for cheap. I brought it in for a tune-up and another friend donated an old bike bag that he wasn’t using anymore. I picked the bike up from the shop yesterday, installed a rear rack to attach the bag to and plan eventually to get a collapsible basket for the other side to increase my carrying capacity.

It’s been a while since I’ve been a regular bike rider but, oddly enough…it’s just like riding a bike. In fact, I rode to the grocery store yesterday to pick up some pie ingredients and then to the Man’s house for a bbq potluck and to bake the pie (blueberry). It felt good. It was entirely different than taking the bus or walking. It’ll take some getting used to dealing with traffic but I’m sure I’ll get used to it soon enough. One nice thing that I noticed very quickly is that most people will defer to bikers. Obviously, you can’t count on that all the time but I think as long as you stick to the bike routes and lanes, most people get it.

The best part, though, was biking home after the bbq. I’m not sure that I actually saved any time biking home versus taking the bus but it was a much quieter trip. I was biking through quiet tree-lined streets of southeast Portland, the full moon peeking through branches and peering over roofs. There were occasional cars but for the most part it was just me and a few other scattered bikers. Pedal pedal pedal. I was a little out of breath when I got home but it felt very satisfying to carry the bike upstairs and crawl into bed.

The friend from whom I bought this bike had bought it from someone who also wasn’t using it. Hopefully, a year from now, I won’t be selling it to someone else because I’m not using it. If it counts for anything, at least I don’t have a basement where I can stick it away and have it get dusty. My apartment is not huge. There’s really nowhere for it to hide. We’ll see how I feel about riding it in December when it’s 45° and drizzling but even if I’m only a fair-weather biker, it’s better than not being a biker at all.