Category Archives: Essays

Notes from the Tardy Front

[I wrote this as an exercise last year and I kind of liked it. That’s all. Ain’t that what blogs are for?]

TARDY
My mother reports that I arrived in this world one and a half weeks past due, at 11:00 am on a Saturday. This is the time I’ve awoken, sans-­alarm clock, for as long as I can remember. In middle school, my friends changed the meaning of “EST” to mean “Ewing Standard Time,” which averaged 30 minutes behind the clock time of whatever time zone myself or one of my parents occupied. From that first dance recital onward, I’ve told my family that events start an hour before they actually do, and I’m aware and grateful that my friends do this to me. One time the priest at the 65­-parishioner church in our 900-­person town made a pointed sermon about being on time for God, very obviously not to looking in the direction of the pew where my mother and our brood had shuffled to fifteen minutes into the service. Because, you see, it’s inherited. I am a late person in a long line of late people. On behalf of multiple generations, let me beg your pardon.

I know the arguments, they are solid. Tardiness is evidence of a lack of respect. If you make someone wait for you, it means you don’t care about them. If you can’t get off your butt or stop what you are doing ten minutes earlier, you clearly think your time is worth more than everyone else’s. It’s hubris, disregard. It’s all the things that break personal bonds and endanger the social order. Except, it’s not. Not really.
The problem is not the respect between the late and the on­ time. Given the choice, I would not select living in a state of perpetually asking forgiveness. I left Catholicism when I left my little hometown, much for this reason. There is no satisfaction in crashing through a door, being greeted with annoyed stares and eye rolls. I know, I know it’s the worst.

So why, the earlies ask, why don’t you just not be late? Well, I’ll tell you.  Continue reading

Lent

I’m giving up booze for lent. Rather, because I have a job that requires me to make and taste cocktails (recipe development and quality control–it’s real) and occasionally taste new booze that reps bring in, I’m giving up drinking whole drinks for my own enjoyment. Taking a break, just ’cause. Less of a total chemical break than a routine break–going to try to find some other activity on which to spend those nighttime hours. It feels important to change up the old routine now and again, and doing something to adjust my metabolism as winter slides into spring feels right.

Why now? Well, it’s somehow easier to explain to people that you’re taking some time off the sauce because of the 40 days and nights Jesus spent fasting in the desert, resisting temptation to make himself comfortable with his divine magic powers. Easier to say this than to say you just want to. Plus, it gives a solid time frame, and I always like a deadline.

If I really examine it, abstaining for lent feels appropriate for a more nebulous reason. A foggy sense of comfort located somewhere in my Catholic childhood. I haven’t been to mass outside of a wedding in probably 20 years (sorry Mom). I find it difficult to participate in a community that defends ingrained sexism and turns a blind eye to abuse to protect its own. I’ve always been bad at orthodoxy–any system that tells you not to question it immediately requires investigation. Not to mention the Catholic church hierarchy’s roots in the Roman imperial system, its role in various wars and genocides, etc. We all have our unsavory ethnic histories to contend with, some of us worse than others. The best we can do is keep our eyes open to history.

Still, as a kid, I loved my religion. Here’s what they don’t tell you when ex-Catholics talk about sadistic nuns and styrofoam-y communion wafers: the stories are magic. At eight, nine, ten years old, you’ve accepted that Santa Claus is a metaphor, that Narnia is fiction, that you’ll never meet a hobbit. But every Sunday a group of bona fide adults confirmed that once upon a time, an angel told a 14-year-old she was going to change the world. That a working class guy from a podunk town brought his friend back from the dead and told everyone that love was where it was at. And that in the ensuing centuries, saints miraculously survived mortal wounds, killed dragons (yes! dragons!), levitated and bilocated. We sang in a minor key about glory and honor and spoke invocations in unison. There were pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners. I was lucky enough to grow up in a parish with a very progressive priest, who allowed Altar Girls before Altar Girls were a thing and who loved the music of Godspell. Sometimes he would tell us to go outside and be grateful for the daffodils instead of listening to a long homily. The building itself was small, but ornate and full of fascinating statuary. It really brought that extra dimension of … whatever it was to our little town.

It wasn’t until I hit puberty and realized what the catechism’s teachings on gender and sexuality were REALLY saying that I fell out of love with it. The more I learned about the world, the less in touch the church felt. So I got confirmed, I sang in the folk group, but I did so in the spirit of obligatory participation. And pancake breakfasts.

I haven’t observed lent for years but now seems as good a time as any. As a kid I used to try every year to give up chocolate, a proposition that typically lasted about three days until I broke down in a pre-adolescent withdrawal rage worse than from nicotine. But I’m doing this, because I think ritual has meaning. I don’t know what that meaning is, but it does.

Like: How my best friend is Jewish, absolutely don’t-even-talk-to-me-about-Christmas Jewish, I’m-going-to-spend-these-holidays-with-the-family-I-can-only-sort-of-stand Jewish, because that is her culture. It’s her upbringing, an essential part of her identity. It is the fire she carries forward, and even the annoying rituals bring comfort. She has also been an Atheist for something like 20 years. There is no conflict. Maybe you don’t need a deity to have a religion.

I think it might be possible to be religious, but not spiritual.

It reminds me of how many wine sellers and growers talk about Biodynamic farming.  Some are true believers, others don’t swear by the power of the moon and the earth as a single organism, etc., but they know that if they follow the principles and rituals, plant on the right days, fertilize the right way, that their wines come out great.

As my non-believer doctor father told me once: even if it’s psychosomatic, it’s still working.

 

Lemme talk about pisco for a sec

We went to Lima last week. I’ll probably write something about it at some point, after I’ve had time to digest the last of the ceviche and the feelings and stuff. 

What I want to talk about now (for a change) is booze. [Obligatory food-and-drink-piece-meaningless-generalization]: Thanks to the cocktail resurgence of the past 15 years or so, people seem more than ever to be up to discovering new liquors. Gin is showing its boundless flavor possibilities, fruit and herb liquers are gaining traction, tequila and Irish whiskey have emerged from the ghetto of shooters with strong showings as delectable sipping and mixing spirits, mezcal has gone from scary-worm-booze to delightful artisanal tipple. It only makes sense that pisco, the unaged grape brandy that is the national spirit of TWO South American countries, would come on board. 

Some of the good stuff. Pisco puro quebrantas.

National Tresasure

Brazil has the caipirinha, Argentina has Fernet and coke, and Peru has the pisco sour.  Chile also has the pisco sour, although the spirit is different, and the drink recipe is different, and there is all this contention over who invented it, but you know what? I only went to Peru. And I prefer Peruvian pisco, it turns out. Peruvians are hard-asses about pisco production: it can only be made from eight types of grapes, it has to be made without adding any water, meaning it’s once distilled to proof. THIS MEANS that pisco from Peru is all grape juice; fermented into wine and then distilled ONE TIME into a clear eau-de-vie (or aguardientes) that lands…BOOM…into the bottle at around 80 proof. 

Think about it this way: vodka is generally distilled five times. This makes it the most neutral of neutral spirits, taking out all the “impurities” (aka things that impart flavor) through a shit-ton of boiling and condensing. Whiskey is distilled two or three times and aged in wood casks to add flavor and color (I like to think of brown spirits as wood-infused. In a good way.). Pisco gets one trip through the still, then rests in non-reactive containers. So all you’re tasting is the grapes and the yeast. Depending on the grapes used and the production style, it can be super clean and silky or it can be real fiery or flowery or funky. The best part about all these intense regulations is that by law, you can’t add a bunch of fillers or artificial crap into . Pisco is just pisco. 

So?

I mean, there is the uncontestable pisco sour. Persian limes (special limes), egg white for froth, a little sweetness, and the fiery aguardientes have been making this drink a bar staple since the 1800s. One of a few origin stories for the cocktail centers around the historic Hotel Bólivar in central Lima, which today makes a version with pisco macerated with coca leaves for a distinctly vodka-redbull-without-the sugar-headache tingly feeling. [NOTE: despite unrefined coca’s complete illegality in the US, I like to quote author Mark Adams from his  travel memoir Turn Right at Macchu Picchu on its potency: “coca leaves have about the same relationship to cocaine that Sudafed cold tablets have to crystal meth.” We were perked up, but nobody wanted to talk ecstatically to strangers and dance on tables all night. The leaves lent an herbal note to the sours that, combined with the silk of the eggwhites and the quebrantas burn, was exceedingly pleasant. 

Coca Sours at Bolivarcito in Lima – breakers of language barriers

 You can get a pisco sour just about anywhere that serves alcohol. We had one at the coffee shop. We had one at the cevichería. We had one at the sushi resto and the club-y bar. The sour is frequently accompanied on menus by the Chilcano–a long drink with lime and ginger ale/beer over ice (mule style); and the Capitán, a short, stirred drink with sweet vermouth and bitters (Manhattan style).  However, having the privilege of drinking at some of Lima’s most interesting bars and restaurants, all I wanted was to see what the mixologists were up to. 

  

Clockwise from top left: Shilico from ámaZ, Tobaco y Chanel and Capitán Cacao from La Barra, pisco puro (neat) from the very puzzled waiters at the sushi spot, Edo.

We went to Ámaz early on, which was good, because it was fantastic, but also bad, because I really had no idea how fantastic until I’d had some time to decompress. The Amazonian food menu has had people cooing for some time, but the bar has all the fixings to make a cocktail snob go all squishy with excitement. My selection: Shilico — Pisco, camu camu, bianco vermouth and Aperol. Translation, respectively: 1) the national spirit, 2) Amazonian berries, 3) the forgotten (and subtly tastiest) vermouth, 4) Campari’s more easy-going cousin. Boom. Pow. What. Up.  

At La Barra (the casual-ish arm of the sooo famous Astrid y Gastón) we had a twist on a capitán with punt-e-mes and creme de cacao (a liqueur that seems much more at home in South America), a gin and tonic with melting spun sugar and lavender ice cubes, and a rum drink with tropical fruit and honey served in a maté gourd with a metal straw and a side of burning pipe tobacco for el nariz. Fricken wonderland. 

Every other place we went, I kept trying to try new piscos, just for sipping–a habit that my Peruvian hosts found funny and a little worrisome. The neat pour does not seem as pervasive as it is stateside, but I’m thinking with the rise in popularity of satiny and aromatic mosto verdes, this might change. But what do I know. I was only there for a week. 

Yeah, but soooo?

Lima’s bartenders have shown that pisco is mixable in just about every way you can think. Long drinks, short drinks, infusions, flaming theatrical pieces.  They have the heritage and the raw materials. And with the investment-backed juggernaut of Pisco Portón pulling a Jameson on the marketing landscape, I have the feeling you’re going to see more and more pisco in US bars. Which is exciting. Because it’s an approachable white spirit that’s more interesting than vodka. Don’t argue with this. It is. 

So go drink some fricken pisco. Here are a couple I like that you can get in the US: 

Capurro – a legit Peruvian pisco available mostly (I believe, somebody correct me if this is wrong) as an acholado or blend. I like blends. It means somebody really took the time to think about how it should taste.

Campo de Encanto – Puro? check. Acholado? check. Multiple grape varietals? Indeed. This stuff is pretty sweet. 

Any other recs? LMK. 

How to Yelp Like a Human with Empathy

 

The problem with Yelp is it’s so personal; reviewers only think about themselves: “I don’t think anyone should go to this restaurant. It’s the worst.” There’s just not enough empathy to think about how other people might experience it. It’s only from their lens. Also, Yelpers don’t have any professional protocol. They sit down and say, “If you don’t do this, we’re going to give you a bad Yelp score.” We’re like, what the fuck?

David Chang, Momofuku Chef/mastermind and lover of burritos.

Sure, there are some valid, non-hateful reasons to look at a restaurant’s Yelp page. Paraphrasing Chang: it is great for finding an address, but any chef worth his kosher salt wouldn’t give a Yelper’s dramatic recounting of his or her tragic date night a second thought. My professional opinion as a server is that Comments are the worst part of the Internet, and Yelp is all Comments, all the time. And I have almost-successfully trained myself not to read the comments, on YouTube, on the NYTimes site, and in life.

The problem is, however, that review sites are likely the first or second search result that appear when you search for a restaurant or type of food in your area. Which means restaurant owners and managers read these comments like it’s their job. ‘Cause it is.
Continue reading

On Hotels and Motels

[Attn: This is a post that I drafted while we were driving across the country to our new life here in LA. You know, like FIVE months ago. But like fine wine or Muppet movies, some things get better the longer you forget that you started them then discover them when you open your blog’s full desktop version for the first time since February. So, ahem…]

This looks legit.

In theory, I like to travel. I do love me a camping trip. However, when vacationing in civilization, the question of accommodation has always been sticky.  The whole hotel room thing gives me the heebie-jeebies, whether it’s the Motel 8 off Route 40 in Amarillo or the W in Manhattan.

No doubt the one end of this spectrum of fear stems back to one childhood vacation with my parents, who were partial to hauling the three of us kids (likely around six, eight, and ten years old, at the time) off on “educational” weekend trips to whatever low-budget colonial reenactment sites and sports halls of fame lay within driving distance. They way I remember it, we would drive until our parents got tired, then crash at the nearest hotel/motel with vacancy. No reservations, no booking websites, no screening reviews. This was the 80s and we were a young family on budget adventures.

One particular trip to Cooperstown or Amish country or whereever, all five of us stayed in one motel room that smelled like a cave and required us to share towels. My brother, already approaching six feet tall at ten years of age, stayed on a perilous wire cot contraption at the foot of the bed my sister and I shared. No one got much sleep and the halls of baseball history or whatever the next day were made claustrophobic with our crankiness. After we came home, it was discovered that we’d picked up scabies from the unwashed linens.

Most of the other family vacations I can remember involve renting cabins or sleeping in tents.

On the other end of the scale, there are the Radisons and Fancygams of the world that employ people just to stand around in case you need to flick a booger or something. Which, though I can see the theoretical appeal, make me very uncomfortable. Luxury hotels and fine dining restaurants feel like traditions founded to cater to folks who had servants at home, so they could enjoy the comforts to which they were accustomed, e.g., having people pick up after you, easy access to swimming pools and masseurs. To me, the modern luxury hotel feels like a trip to Downton Abbey, where you may rent a whole household staff by the night and push them around in a frenzy of fantasy power. You had valet parking as your chauffeurs, bellboys as your footmen, concierges as your  Carsons. Which, in theory, sounds kind of cool, I suppose, but honestly, I’ve always been more comfortable as staff than boss. Having other people in my personal space makes me squeamish, and having people offer to do things I could very easily do myself gives me a vague post-Catholic shame that ruins everything.  I can never, ever stop thinking about all the strangers who came to this VERY ROOM to have “exotic” sex with their spouses or mister/esses, and it grosses me out so much I want to sleep on top of the covers.

Continue reading

LA vs. NYC: Epic Throwdown for Ages and Times

*By your mother, who wants you to move home and meet a nice man/girl to settle down with.

Anyone will tell you, these two places are polar opposites. Actually: everyone, it seems, wants to tell you. You cannot move from one coast to the other without choruses on either side chiding you to make the call: which one? Which do you like more? What kind of a person are you, really? Well, I’ll tell you.

Polar opposites. Literally: One of the earth’s magnetic poles is located in an illegal casino for rats and cockroaches located at the base of the antenna of the Conde Nast building, the other one at the corner of Hollywood and Highland, masquerading as a man dressed in a bedbug-infested Cookie Monster suit.
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30-year-old Wisdom for 20-year-olds

Dear friends and cousins born in the 90s,

Congratulations on graduating high school. As you look forward to starting college or career during the greatest economic uncertainty anyone but your great-grandparents can remember, it’s got to be a little daunting.

Some people would lump you and I into the same generation group, but we both know that there are some irreconcilable differences in our experiences. I ironically listened to the Sex Pistols in high school, you ironically listened to Journey.  My parents were just starting to dabble in attentive child-rearing in their post-hippie 1980s lives; you were most tightly scheduled, supervised kid on the block. We both grew up with the Internet at home, but your devices are smaller, cooler and more adaptable.

No matter.  There are still many, many things I feel qualified to tell you about, advice I wish someone would have given me when I was striking out into this crazy-changing world with no life experience to back me up.  I don’t know if it will help, but in the words of Uncle Bill, I’d like to offer a few simple admonitions for young and old.

1. When moving to a new place don’t become romantically involved within the first ten days. Particularly with anyone you share a laundry room with.

2. Casual sex is exciting, and not always a terrible idea, but don’t do it with anyone too annoying to eat breakfast with. Sleeping with someone you don’t even like makes you a jerk, can get you a stalker. Which sounds glamorous but is actually no fun.

3. Get used to using condoms and don’t wait to be asked.  I know the sex ed you received consisted of some nuns showing you barbie dolls with fake HPV lesions drawn on them with red sharpie chanting “bad! bad! bad!” but condoms really do work for most things.

4. Respectable drug dealers should be named after an insect or arachnid. Distrust pushers named “Brad.” Try out new substances in the comfort of your home. Stay away from opiates as a general rule. If you start craving something, stop immediately, seek assistance.

5. If you are compelled to use or drink before going to work/class, you officially have a problem. Shotgunning booze with water will not make you less drunk, will save your head in the morning. If you’re contemplating cheap tequila, you’re already over the line.

6. Go to class. It’s hard, nobody is breathing down your neck anymore, but self-discipline is one of those things you have to train for.  Might as well start now before you’re sucking away your sick days having Ferris Bueller moments at 26.

7. Get a credit card but don’t use it.  Purchase one pint of ice cream with it per month and pay the balance off entirely. Do this for as long as you can hold out without accruing revolving debt. Hide it somewhere you won’t remember when you’re drunk. Good credit history is more valuable than actual dollars when it’s time to apply to graduate school.

8. The best cure for drama is work. Heartbreak, turmoil, frenemies gone wild? Masturbation addiction? Get to work. Write that paper, do your reading, clock into your double shift at the Home Depot. Just keep going. You’ll make money and it’ll help you move on.

9. Do not believe people who say you can sleep when you’re dead. This is false.

10.  These are not the Best Years of Your Life. No amount of money in the world could induce me to relive ages 18-25. You’re still not really sure of what you really want to do, what you actually want out of life, what you’re capable of.  You look to others for examples and guidance, but nobody can really tell you because everything from media consumption to job skills is excruciatingly individual now. The only thing you can do is hold onto your friends and keep working.

Believe me, though: it’s so worth it. Nobody ever told me how much more interesting and fun it is to be an adult than to be a child. Sure, you have to worry about rent, health insurance, your carbon footprint, surviving in the decline of an empire. But once you figure out how to cover the basics there’s this amazing freedom in taking care of yourself. You need to be responsible, sure, but that includes the responsibility of making yourself pancakes for dinner or having sleepovers whenever you damn well feel like it.

Being a grownup is an excellent and wonderful thing. I know you’ll make the best of it.

xo,

Hope