Thursday, July 31, 2008

can't get a date

Tuesday I met my friend Leslie at La Colombe in Rittenhouse Square to study French.  Of course, considering that Rittenhouse Square is smack-dab in the middle of Center City's shopping district, the French was merely an excuse.  After the study session, we hit up Anthropologie, where I finally spent 1/3 of the gift card I got for my birthday last October.  What can I say, I'm a hoarder.  

I was also excited to be able to make my way to Trader Joe's, which is just a little Northeast of the park.  I had a very specific mission: to buy dates.  I'm planning on making an appetizer that uses them (thanks for the recipe, Mom!) and figured TJs was a good place to start.  The recipe also calls for pecans, and TJs is a great place for nuts.  However, I was disappointed because the only dates they sold were really gourmet and expensive, and I'm working with a budget here.

Later that night I did some internet research (OK, I googled "Mediterranean grocery" and "Philadelphia") and the first item that appeared was a place right next to Pat's and Geno's!  For you non-natives, those are the most celebrated cheesesteak establishments in Philly, and they are less than a mile from our house.  Alas, Bitar's also only sold really expensive dates.  I kept going to the Italian market, and after poking my head into several establishments, found dates at a significantly reduced price.  Lesson learned: start close to home!

Later that day, Greg and I poked our head in the Italian specialty store at the end of our street.  It opened a few months ago, and we hadn't looked in yet.  Boy, we were missing out.  Sitting at the cash register was a large man with a gold chain and his shirt unbuttoned down to his belly button.  He chatted us up, informed us that everything in the store was straight from Italy, and then made us some espresso free of charge.  I'm convinced it's a mafia front, but the espresso was good, so I'm not complaining.

Monday, July 28, 2008

summer fun: weddings and travel

Greg and I went to a wedding this weekend and had fun dancing the night away.  The bride was Greg's good friend and longtime neighbor Lauren, who he says is responsible for the fact that he passed his high school math classes.  Greg grew up in an almost Norman Rockwell-like neighborhood, where all the neighbors know each other, there's a traditional Christmas party, and you can always run down the street to borrow sugar.  It's an experience far removed from my own (I grew up on the mean streets, baby) and I get a real kick out of hanging out with the neighborhood crew.  

It was also a good chance to spend a little time with Greg's parents before their upcoming trip to Spain and Paris.  They're going to see some friends who they have hosted in the past as foreign exchange students, and about whom the well of stories never runs dry.  Greg and I are super-jealous, but wish them a lovely trip.

However, we do have a trip of our own scheduled for later in August--we'll be heading out to Chicago to see our friends Jamie and Jimmy, as well as to watch the Phillies play the Cubs at Wrigley Field.  (Three guesses as to who is more excited about that.)  

The only problem is that, as the date draws nearer, we are getting more concerned about actually getting there.  You see, we are flying US Air.  

If you have flown US Air before, I probably don't even need to say anything else, but if you haven't, let me clue you in.  DON'T FLY US AIR.  I started regretting my decision as soon as I booked the tickets, but they were so much cheaper that I couldn't resist.  When I have flown US Air in the past, it has almost always been an experience of delayed flights, no communication from the people in the know, lost luggage, and even having things stolen out of our luggage.  Oh yes, and the time that we had to get off the plane after sitting on the runway because the luggage truck had CRASHED INTO the plane while loading the suitcases.

Our fears are only compounded by the sorry state of air travel in general right now.  Andrea's friend Amy recently tried to get out to Indianapolis for a visit, only to be delayed for over 24 hours.  

Sure enough, last night I had an email from Orbitz.  It was very cryptic, something along the lines of this:  "Mr. Gregory James Cesare, your Orbitz itinerary has changed.  Please call this number 1-800-OH-CRAP and enter the following record code: !@#$%^&*()ABCDLKE))*WERNSDLKFNWERS.

I called the number, and in a reasonable 10 minutes, had managed to connect to a real live person and enter the code (and get dinner on the stove).  20 minutes later, the operator informed me that our flight out of Chicago would be delayed by 2 hours.  As she prepared to dismiss me, I asked, "Will that affect our connecting flight?"  She seemed confused by the question, but eventually managed to inform me that: "Your flight arrives in Pittsburgh at 11:36 AM, and your connecting flight departs Pittsburgh at 11:28 AM."  Long pause.  "And I can tell you that that will be a missed connection."

She put me on hold, I put the phone on speaker, and Greg and I proceeded to eat dinner and watch an entire sitcom before she came back on the line, only to let me know that she had to put me on hold again.  When she finally came back, I was so overexcited to grab the phone that I actually hung up on her.

Jamie, I hope to see you in August, but it's not looking good.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

the great debate




It's time for me to weigh in on another debate on which my opinion doesn't matter at all and is obviously ridiculously biased: Philly vs. New York.

The Philly vs. New York debate is a big deal to Philadelphians; less so to New York.  It's like how the Colts hate the Patriots and the Pats don't even really notice, but at the same time, the Colts don't realize that folks in Jacksonville hate them.  Peyton's like, "Jacksonville?  We play them sometimes."  The point I'm trying to make here is that when there's a rivalry between two unequal players, the smaller fish tends to make more of the rivalry, and that's the sense I get of the Philly/NY thing.  New Yorkers might make a disparaging comment about Philly being the Sixth Borough, but they don't think about it much.  Meanwhile,  Philadelphians are fuming and declaring not only their independence, but their superiority.  (And then, there might be someone out there writing a Lancaster vs. Philly great debate blog entry.)

Well, Philadelphia, I am convinced.  I haven't lived in New York, so I am not terribly qualified to speak on the matter, but I now consider myself a Philadelphian and have compiled a list of reasons as to why Philly is better.

1)  It's a big city, but it's still small.  I live in South Philly, work in Old City (which is as far east as you can get) and go to school in North Philly.  I can easily get to any of these locations in half an hour.  We have friends in suburbs and in South Jersey, and we can get to them (driving) in a half hour.  If you lived in Queens, worked in Manhattan, and went to school in Staten Island, it would be much more complicated.

2)  Underdog status.  Living in New York's shadow, with perennially losing sports teams, a Philadelphian can always claim underdog status and get some sympathy. 

3)  History.  I didn't pay much attention to the historical aspect of Philly until I started doing Ghost Tours (a woman once asked me where the Liberty Bell was and I couldn't tell her) but I'm starting to realize how significant it is that this is where it all started.

4)  Perhaps most importantly, the reason I choose Philly can be best explained by this NY Times article.  It's about people who buy houses and end up having to do a ton of work renovating them, a process with which I am familiar.  I was reading the article and really identifying with it until the story mentioned some of the price tags for these fixer-uppers: $699,000, $770,000 and so on.  Holy cow!  I know it's a cliche to talk about the high price of New York real estate, but seriously.  In Philly, a beautiful condo in the absolute nicest part of town will run you around half a million.  And a fixer-upper in South Philly costs far, far less.  

Saturday, July 26, 2008


And, cockroach.

Friday, July 25, 2008


Yes, that's Greg, my exceedingly handsome husband.  We took this picture during his two weeks between regular school and summer school, during which he refused to shave or, in fact, take part in any kind of grooming at all.

But here's the rub, and this is why I'm posting.  The little old ladies of Mercy Street have themselves a new hunka hunka to keep their eyes on, and they are doing everything short of throwing themselves at him.  Luckily, I keep my man well-trained, so he reports back to me whenever one of them attempts to seduce him.  

Trina* is the most forward, and unfortunately, the most attractive.  Her gray curls are expertly styled, and her muumuus are most fetching.  This was the exchange between her and Greg the other day, when Greg was walking back from his parking spot:

Trina:  Oh, you didn't find a spot on the street?

Greg:  Nah, but I'm not far.

T: That's too bad.

G:  I don't mind.

T:  I bet you don't mind too much, you're too cute!

Hello?  Ladies, he is married!!  The next day, Greg stepped outside and there was a big open parking space in front of our house.  Trina told Greg that if he wanted to go get the car, she would LAY in the SPOT for him to save it.


*Names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

you might be wondering...

...what exactly I've been doing with my time, now that most of the house stuff is done, I'm not in school for the summer, and I only do ghost tours in the evenings.  The idea is that I'm supposed to be spending my days doing things like exercising, learning French for an exam I have to take in the fall, and preparing for the class I have to teach in the fall.  

Alas, progress is slow.  I've barely gotten through the first few chapters of my "French for Reading" book, and I've only read the first few pages of the First Year Writing Program Instructor's Handbook (to say nothing of the actual books for the class.)  Months ago, when the weather was just getting warm and I was spending every moment either writing papers or painting walls, I dreamt about how much I would get done in the summer, how I'd spend the mornings on the French and class prep and spend the afternoons on other projects, like reading for personal and professional edification, finding conferences to give papers at, planning for what happens when I'm done with coursework.  Now that it's turning to the dog days, I'm simply hoping that I'll have been able to do the bare minimum by the time fall rolls around.

With that said, then, what have I been doing?  For one thing, I set up my workspace (pictured above.)  That has to come first, right?  I've also done OK with the exercise in the last few weeks, finally getting comfortable using Temple's gym (which I have free access to.)  I've never been a gym person.  The idea of sweating in front of others, who I imagine to be much fitter, tanner, more beautiful people, is not my idea of a good time.  However, I've found that if I get there early enough, it's not too crowded.  And the guy who is usually on the treadmill next to me has such an overwhelming stench of B.O. dressed with cologne that I feel much less self-conscious. (Horrible but true, and by the way, I have a real soft spot for this guy because he runs at the same miserably slow pace I do.  I don't even mind the smell.)

I've also been distracting myself trying out new recipes, checking out the market, and doing nest-y things like blanching zucchini and freezing it for when it's not in season.  I am aided in these kitchen activities by my best friend, the internet.  Here are some of my favorite websites for recipes and general cooking advice: 

Yes, it's missing an E, I don't know why.  But this blog updates with new entries almost 10 times a day, making it hard to beat for browsing.  They feature recipes, ingredient spotlights, kitchen tour slideshows, and features like "learning to cook without recipes."

This natural-foods focused blog is written by a cookbook writer/photographer, and it's a beauty to look at.  She posts new recipes once or twice a week, and they always look delicious and expand my awareness of healthy ingredients.

My friend Rachel turned me on to this site, and I enjoy the author's (or maybe authors'? Not sure how many there are) sense of humor and writing style.

Since I have no baking experience aside from the cake in the last post, I haven't tried any of the recipes featured so far in this blog.  AND YET, I read it religiously because my witty and lovely friend Abbie writes it, and it is muy entertaining.

If you enjoy reading food blogs, check out kiplog's list of food blogs.  It is tremendously lengthy--back when I "worked" at TV Guide and didn't have anything to do all day, I spent weeks going through each and every entry...and the list has only grown in the intervening years. There's a food blog on here for everyone--vegans, carnivores, people who only eat at restaurants, bakers, even shakers probably.  I enjoyed all the international ones--quite a few from Singapore.

Now you too can spend your days not doing what you should be doing.

Monday, July 21, 2008

busy week

Whew.  It's after noon on Monday and I am still recovering from a somewhat exhausting, but totally fun, weekend.  My parents arrived in town Wednesday afternoon, and we kept pretty busy the entire time they were here, with trips to the Italian Market, cheesesteaks, a birthday party for Greg, a picnic, the Art Museum, ghost tours, and even some handyman stuff.

One of the minor household irritations since we moved in has been the toilet bowl's tendency to rock back and forth when being, ahem, used.  Spending time on the throne, as they say, was nerve-wracking, as any kind of sudden movement could result in the sensation that the entire toilet was tilting on its side and all the pipes attached to it were shifting in the walls.  Luckily, my dad knows his way around toilets, and with a quick trip to Lowe's for a wax ring and some hardware, he had everything under control.  Next time you're in town, come sit on our toilet! You won't regret it.

Greg's birthday party was a lot of fun.  We had his parents and his brother and soon to be sister-in-law over.  I made the Spider Man birthday cake pictured at the top, my first attempt at baking a cake.  Luckily my mom was there to explain what "grease and flour the pan" means. Seriously, I wasn't quite sure.  Greg did some swordfish on the grill which turned out to be very moist and delicious, and Barb brought some asparagus wrapped in prosciutto and provolone. Between all that and my quick and easy paella, and the beautiful flowers Erin brought, we felt as though we were really dining in style.  It surprised Dave, who up to this point has been served pizza pretty much every time he comes by.

Friday, July 11, 2008

the last word on dentists (I hope!)

The only occasion I have had since getting rid of the Neon to regret our one-car existence was riding the subway home from the dentist yesterday.  It was full of happy, shiny people heading to an afternoon Phillies game.  As they chatted and laughed, all I could do was hope desperately that bloody drool wasn't sliding down my numb lips.  

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

the great debate


I'm going to come out with my opinion on this debate right up front so that there is no confusion: I am a TJ's girl.  I have happy memories of stopping by after church when we lived in Southern California circa 1990.  It was always a special treat, and my favorite product was the Hansen's All Natural Peach Soda.  Then, the wasteland years, when Trader Joe's was a distant memory, and the best we could do in Central Indiana was Marsh.  I went away to college on the East Coast, and one day received a call from my mom, who was so excited she could hardly get the words out: "Honey, they're putting in a Trader Joe's near your dad's office!"  I was jealous, but a few years later I got to make a phone call of my own:  "Mom, they're putting in a Trader Joe's--within walking distance of my apartment!!!"  Those were the glory days.

I know Trader Joe's has been criticized as snobby, unnecessary, even expensive.  (See here and here.)  But I'm a sucker, and a fan, and many of their products have a permanent spot in my pantry (their Breakfast Blend fair trade coffee, the roasted tomato red pepper soup, frozen tilapia and crab cakes...).  I find it fairly inexpensive compared to even your standard grocery store, although it can be frustrating if you are simply looking for basic cooking items.  And I will admit that I don't buy their produce because it tends to be subpar.

Being such a fangirl of Trader Joe's, I have always argued with the Whole Foods people, pointing out that Whole Foods can legitimately be called overpriced, and that its patrons are the real snobs.


The other day, coming out of the dentist's office, I needed pita bread and escarole, and figured I could find them both at the Whole Foods around the corner, which would be much easier than making my way to the grocery store near our house later in the day.  And I discovered that, in one area at least, Whole Foods has Trader Joe's beat.  That area is the realm of whole wheat pita bread.

I buy pita bread often, because I make hummus about once a week.  It's a quick, easy, healthy lunch.  When I manage to get to Trader Joe's (now a 10-minute drive) I often linger in front of the pita breads, knowing that the whole wheat is better for me, but also knowing that it will taste like I'm eating a paper bag.  The whole wheat pita I picked up at Whole Foods, on the other hand, was as fluffy and tasty as regular pita bread, and the pitas were bigger as well. (Same number of Weight Watchers points as the smaller Trader Joe's ones, too.)  As reluctant as I am to admit this, it's going to be tough to make myself buy Trader Joe's whole wheat pita bread from here on out.  Luckily, Whole Foods isn't close by, although at my current rate of dental visits per week, I'll be in the neighborhood often enough.

Hummus Recipe:

1 can garbanzo beans, drained, with liquid set aside
4 tablespoons tahini
zest of 1 lemon
juice of 1 lemon
garlic clove
pinch of salt
pinch of cumin
pinch of pepper

Blend together, using reserved liquid to facilitate the blending when necessary.
I prefer it plain, so I avoid flavored hummus, but you could easily throw in the items they use to market all kinds of varieties: roasted red peppers, eggplant, extra garlic, spinach, pine nuts, olives, feta, etc.

"If I go crazy then will you still call me Superman?"

To market, to market, to buy some phat veggies.

The good news:  I got all of the above veggies--broccoli, red onions, lemons, cherry tomatoes, plum tomatoes, cilantro, basil, kiwi fruit, and a jalapeno--for $10.25 on my trip to the Italian market this morning.  And I walked, a mile each way, so I got some exercise in as well.

The bad news:   With apologies to the 3 Doors Down (and if you recognized the post title, you are only half as lame as I am for using it), I found my kryptonite at the market as well.  It was one of those specialty kitchen stores, full of fancy-dan items that will likely only be used for one recipe in your repertoire, like a corn slitter or a Le Creuset Tagine.  This kind of place makes me drool and imagine that I have my own cooking show...perhaps "Nicole's Simple Kitchen" or "The Rice and Beans Hour."  And then I remember that, really, rice and beans is my favorite meal to cook and eat, with fish and brown rice a close second, and that maybe I don't need the set of six ravioli molds or the grain mill with stone and steel burrs.

I did grab a lemon zester, though.  I'll use that a lot.

Here's the website for the store, in case you too indulge fantasies of winning Top Chef:

4th of July/Happy Birthday Greg!

Greg's birthday was July 2, and in honor of the occasion, we decided to clean out the back "yard" and get a grill as his birthday gift.  He already knew that he wanted a charcoal grill rather than a gas grill, which was convenient because the charcoal ones tended to be much cheaper.  We ended up with a pretty basic little number and decided to try it out for the 4th of July.  

Making the occasion even more fun, our friend Rachel came up from D.C., and our friend Michael, who lives in Philly, also joined us.  I marinated a bunch of veggies and fresh fish and made a couscous/mango/lime dish to go with it.  

It turned out to be pretty clear why so many people prefer gas to charcoal.  We're going to have to practice a lot in order to figure out how to get enough heat to really grill, rather than simply warm, the food.  But we played liberally with lighter fluid, and with an assist from George Foreman, we eventually had a pretty tasty meal.

We also landscaped our entire yard for the occasion.

After dinner, we set off for the city's big 4th of July celebration--a free John Legend concert on the steps of the art museum, followed by fireworks.  The concert was good, in spite of the rain, and the fireworks were impressive.  The only complaint I have is that I expected the grand finale to be set to some rousing, patriotic anthem--the Star Spangled Banner, God Bless America, etc., and instead, it was a treacly, boring song I had never heard before--I'm a Red White and Blue American.  Come on, Philly!  Where is John Philip Sousa??

At the end of the night, after standing in the rain for hours, we were pretty beat.  Luckily, I had my ghost tour cape with me to keep me warm.

Monday, July 7, 2008

nightmares in dentistry part two

My temporary crown fell out.  I guess it's not a big deal but I haven't been able to get ahold of the dentist yet.  It's strange having a stump in my mouth instead of a tooth.

Friday, July 4, 2008

nightmares in dentistry

About a month ago, I went to the dentist and learned I had to have a root canal.  This information wasn't really surprising, because over a year ago one of my fillings cracked, and a few months ago it fell out, leaving a giant hole in Tooth 3.  (That's how the dentist and hygienist refer to it.  I refer to it as...well, it would be impolite to say.  Let's just say the adjectives "dirty" and "sonafa" are involved.)

I returned to the dentist for my scheduled root canal last Thursday.  I was very nervous because I hate dental work, but I took a magazine in with me to read during any downtime so that I wouldn't fixate on the pain and terror.  Also, Greg came with me since he was off work.

Things started out OK.  The numbing process involved multiple injections directly into the roof of my mouth, which was painful, but I had been numbed up before and knew what to expect. Then the dentist set up the area (my mouth) which involved clamps and a tiny rubber sheet.  If you've watched hospital shows on TV and can picture the big blue sheet with a hole right over the area to be operated on, that's what I imagine my mouth looked like, just in miniature. Although this was uncomfortable, it was interesting.  So far so good. 

Then I sat there, mouth open as far as I could get it, for two hours.  Drool began collecting in the back of my throat, and swallowing was difficult because I imagined my tongue somehow getting in the path of the drill, leading to bloodshed and a future without being able to speak or lick ice cream.  Eventually the dentist realized I was drowning in my own saliva and put one of those suction things in.  Although I was developing lockjaw, I thought things were going surprisingly well.

Then the dentist told me my root canal was so bad that she would have to close me up and send me to a specialist.  This is where I almost started crying for the first time, because of the wasted terror and the giant bill I knew a specialist would involve.  Luckily, she called in the senior dentist and he figured out whatever was confusing her, and she told me I wouldn't have to go to the specialist.  At this point, I was elated, and I loved the dentists and wanted to hug both of them.  But I couldn't because I was still trussed up like a roasting turkey.

Time went by.  At about the two and a half hour mark, the root canal proper was finished.  [Any descriptions of actual dentistry in this post, by the way, are based on my conjecture.  I don't really know anything of the process.]  The dentist had cleared out the decay and inserted multiple little plastic toothpicks into my mouth, I assume to serve as fake roots.  She then went in with a burning rod, I imagine to burn the tops of the toothpicks together and make it secure. 

It was right here that everything went to pot.  The dentist did not realize that she was resting the burning rod on my lip.  I did realize that I was suddenly feeling intense, burning pain.  I halfheartedly waved my hand, figuring she would realize her mistake and move the rod any second.  But the pain got worse.  The rod didn't move.  I started to panic, and tried to scream, but of course I couldn't make a sound, except perhaps "urgle urgle!"  I started thrashing.  She noticed.  She realized she was burning me and moved the rod, with the slightest hint of an apology: "Oh, whoops."  

My heart was pounding, and I felt I had just lived through one of those nightmares where you see something bad coming towards you but you can't run or scream.  I tried to breathe deeply and relax, but I was getting seriously worked up.  I managed to get a tenuous grip on reality and continue to sit calmly in the chair.  The dentist began taking molds of my teeth for the temporary crown, and I could tell the end was near.

However, the experience would not be complete until I had been utterly humiliated.  At about the 3.5 hour mark, the numbing agent was beginning to wear off for the second time.  I felt a little more than I had earlier, but it didn't hurt, so I just went with it.  At one point I must have winced, and the dentist realized I was less numb, so she grabbed the giant syringe again.  As she began the round of injections, my mind took leave of my body.  I knew the shots into the roof of the mouth were coming and I knew they would hurt.  She must have seen me getting nervous, so she asked, "You don't feel this, do you?"

Yes.  I felt it.  And it hurt like a Tooth 3.  That she didn't realize I was in serious pain made me panic again, and this time I couldn't control it.  I started crying and drooling and trying to sit up and making really loud "waauuugghurrgle gurrgle" noises.  I knew I looked like a fool, but that just made things worse.  The dentist and hygienist sprung into "Oh no, we're dealing with a crazy person" action, pulling clamps and pins out of my mouth.  They returned me to a seating position and plied me with tissues and a glass of water.  I tried to drink but my mouth was numb, so the entire gulp dribbled down the front of my shirt, leaving me soaking wet and completely embarrassed.  

After I calmed down, they finished up pretty quickly and sent me out front to pay the bill.  When I saw Greg standing there holding a beautiful flower (pictured above) I started weeping again, and ran straight into the bathroom.  Eventually I composed myself and we went home, with a stop at the pharmacy for hardcore painkillers.

I'm doing fine now, but I have to go back for "tooth lengthening"--I'm not sure what that is but the dentist said it involves sutures,--a filling, a cleaning, and replacing the temporary crown with the permanent one.  Part of me figures it can't be any worse, but the other part of me knows that it can.