Go Cubs, Go...

Generally speaking, baseball season is a thorn in my side. Considering I rely on the Red Line to get to work and back, and the fact that both Wrigley Field and U.S. Cellular Field are located along that route, the six months between April and October are a commuting nightmare. Even though I don't particularly care about the sport, I have to track the schedules of both the Cubs and the Sox so that I don't inadvertently attempt to take the train on a game day. Instead, I have to negotiate a complicated and much lengthier system of bus transfers to travel the measly three miles back to my humble abode. It's frustrating.

Still, ambivalent as I am about the sport, and much as it's impact on my commute vexes me, there is a certain je ne sais quoi about attending games at Wrigley Field. As I've explored in the past, I think there's something about the Chicagocana of it all that appeals to me. So when Dad offered me a set of tickets to tonight's game versus the D.C. Nationals, I decided to take him up on it, and drag along some of my friends for good measure.

Of course, I had to offer a ticket to Mireya, the most loyal Cubs fan that I know. There was no way she could resist the chance to go to her first game of the year, even if she had to cut class to do so. Half of the fun of going to a game with her is basking in her infectious enthusiam, considering the fact that I'm convinced baseball is the world's second most boring sport, after golf.

Sadly, Mireya informed me that Milton Bradley, previously one of the three Cubs players whose names I can remember, was traded to the Seattle Mariners, so now I'm down to just knowing Ryan Theriot and Alfonso Soriano. I may have no idea whether or not he's actually any good, but Soriano's choice of hosiery still makes him my favorite player.

I also brought along Travis and Natasha, neither of whom had been to a Cubs game since they moved to Chicago. Considering they live on the North Side, I think a game at Wrigley is pretty much a mandatory experience.

Unfortunately, attending a night game in April might possibly be an experience left to more dedicated fans than myself. As the temperature plummeted from the daytime high in the sixties to a bone-chilling "feels like" reading of 42 degrees, we were forced to huddle together for warmth. It wasn't quite as bad as the time I stood outside waiting for the Andrew Bird concert in December, but it was still damn chilly. I should have worn more layers...

I'm not sure why I get such a kick out of it when they rake the sand every three innings, but I find it strangely amusing. It's on par with my strange fascination with the Zambonis at ice-skating events. I really don't have any explanation for it, other than my general quirkiness.

Did I mention it was brisk outside? Natasha, Mireya and I spent most of the game from the fifth inning onwards cuddled up and drinking hot chocolate, trying to stave off the bone-penetrating cold. Then the game went into extra-innings.

Ultimately, the Cubs were victorious, for my third consecutive game in a row, which the very superstituous Mireya says means that it's now acceptable for us to regularly attend games together. I think I might hold off on that until the weather warms up, however. I'm not a hardcore enough fan to sit through another frigid night game. I honestly don't know how the Bears fans do it. Those people must be completely nuts...


Happy Blogiversary...

It seems hard to believe, but today "The State I Am In" turns a year old! It's my very first blogiversary! On one hand, it seems like the time has practically flown by, yet at the same time, it's amazing to think how much has happened in the last year. In the past 365 days, I have composed 174 posts, meaning I managed to keep up a pace of writing almost every other day. Not to toot my own horn, but given my track record with maintaining diaries in the past, I am pretty proud of my dedication.

Beginning and keeping up this blog has had a markedly positive impact on my life in the last year. Previously, I was somewhat of a homebody; I would consider going out to take advantage of events happening around the city before ultimately losing my motivation and staying home. Blogging has forced me to get out and have new experiences, and in the process, to expand my social circle by inviting new friends to tag along. So far, "The State I Am In" has followed the trajectory of my new friendship with Lauren, the deepening of my relationships with my coworkers Mireya, Natasha, and Irene, and even my tentative first steps into the world of dating. In fact, "friends" ranks second only to "food" as the most-used tag on "The State I Am In." However, since food is my most frequent topic of conversation, I think it only stands to reason that I would celebrate the occasion of my blogiversary with a cake.

For this special event, I was torn between a new recipe I had spotted in the July 2009 edition of Bon Appetit, and the world's greatest chocolate cake recipe, which I have mentioned several times here and yet never mananged to share. In the spirit of adventure that this blog has inspired, however, I decided to go with the new recipe, and continue holding out on you with regard to my perfect, no-fail, go-to cake. After all, I need to save something to write about in "The State I Am In's" second year of existence...

What I ultimately produced, after much fussing and dirtying of pans, was a chocolate cake with ganache and praline topping. I started out with basic 9" chocolate cake (which probably could have been improved by using Dutch-process cocoa powder instead of natural cocoa powder, but that's just a personal preference), and covered it with a layer of chocolate ganache which had to be chilled and set before adding a layer of hot praline, straight out of the pan and onto the cake. My track record with candymaking is spotty at best, and I was decidedly trepidatious about the praline, but everything turned out just fine. It may not have been the most attractive cake, but it was quite tasty. In fact, it rather reminded me of a more caramel-flavored riff on Grandma's Texas cake, but since I have never managed to successfully duplicate that recipe, I was relieved that the Bon Appetit recipe came out just as I had hoped, especially for such an important occasion as my first blogiversary. So, let's all raise a forkful of virtual cake to blogging, and everything it has in store for me in the next year of "The State I Am In..."


Isn't It Lovely...

One of the questions I have recently discovered is common when you are dating is, "What are your favorite flowers?" And until recently, I didn't really have much of an answer to that question. Sure, I like flowers; I think they're pretty, but they seem like somewhat of a waste of money because they die so quickly. Plus, in my experience, most men usually only send them as a sort of mea culpa when they have done something wrong, or when they feel a sense of obligation, such as an anniversary or birthday, instead of sending them just to brighten your day. I am far more interested in more thoughtful, personalized demonstrations of affection than in receiving flowers as some sort of hollow gesture.

But, because so many people kept asking me what kind of flowers I liked, I did some research and came up with an answer. I've always liked orchids the best, but I've heard that they are fussy and hard to grow, so I had little interest in receiving one as a potential gift. Instead, I settled upon deep purple calla lilies -- still rare and exotic like the orchid, but without all the work attached. A couple weeks ago, as a birthday surprise, Mom brought me home a potted medium-purple calla lily plant from Home Depot, and since it's a potted plant instead of cut flowers, I've been enjoying its blooms for several weeks now. Even though it's not quite my favorite shade, it's still quite fetching, so I thought I would snap a photo and share its beauty with you.


When It's Over...

There are times in a girl's life when a little retail therapy is in order. A bad day at work? Nothing you can't solve by ogling new handbags. Feeling blue for no reason? A hot new dress will have you feeling like a million bucks again in no time flat. A break up? Now there's an occasion for shoe shopping, which is exactly what I did tonight with Lauren.

Shoe shopping is not unlike dating -- you go out with a general idea of what you are looking for, try on many pairs, and attempt to find just the right fit. Sometimes, you run across something really fun and cute, and you try it on just to see what it looks like, knowing that it doesn't really fit your personality. As much as you wish you could make it work, certain shoes are just meant for other girls. Sometimes you find a shoe that looks perfect -- it appears to offer just the right balance of form and function, but when you try it on and walk around the store for a few minutes, you can start to detect the pressure points that will eventually cause blisters down the line. All you can do is cut your losses and move on to the next pair.

Tonight, Lauren and I made much sport of trying on all the most outrageous and impractical shoes from the clearance rack. At times, I wish I were the kind of girl who could pull off a five inch heel, bedecked with sequins and ruffles. But I can barely stand in such shoes, much less walk in them. Still, it's fun to have an impractical fling here and there, and enjoy the follies of youth.

Please pardon the utter crapiness of this photo -- it's hard to take a picture in a mirror in harsh fluorescent lighting without getting caught by sales associates...

Sadly, things with Zac didn't work out, but, our brief relationship was a good learning experience. I know more about myself, how I behave in a relationship, and what I am looking for than I did a month ago. That's a good thing; as they say though, all good things must come to an end. When that happens, there are always new shoes, and girlfriends to be there for you while you try them on.


Date Night...

Lately, maintaining this blog has turned into somewhat of a chore. As you may or may not have noticed, I've been falling behind on my posts, and not updating as often as I'd like. This is not because of lack of motivation or interesting content about which to write, but rather because my home internet connection was barely functional. For the past couple weeks, I've only been able to get internet access for about five to ten minutes after rebooting the wireless router. Composing a post turned into drafting a few sentences here and a paragraph there over the course of several days. It's been frustrating to say the least. So forgive me, loyal readers, I have not been neglecting you on purpose. Thankfully, however, I am cautiously optimistic that I may have finally remedied the situation, so here's here's hoping that I'll be able to return to writing on a regular basis...

On Sunday, for the one month anniversary of our first date, Zac and I went to see the aptly titled, Date Night. Although comedies of that extraction are not my typical cinematic fare, I'd long admired the comedic stylings of Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live and her work in Mean Girls, while Zac enjoys the work of Steve Carrell. For us, it was a serendipitous choice in casting, so we decided to check it out.

Let me just start off by saying that while I don't dislike comedies, I don't exactly seek them out either. They are more the type of film that I catch while flipping between channels on television. If I'm going to fork over $10 to see a movie in a theater, I want to be emotionally moved. I'm not interested in escapist fare; I would rather have the catharsis of a good cry or the mental stimulation of a challenging subject or message. That being said, I still enjoyed Date Night.

Fey and Carrell played off each other perfectly, and their humor was consistently on point. As a couple, they were believable, and often heartwarmingly adorable in their awkwardness. There was a realness about their on-screen relationship that was truly admirable. The action component of the film (which rescues the film from standard rom-com territory, and provides enough interest to keep your male companion from groaning about being dragged to a chick flick) was well-paced albeit slightly over-the-top at times. Plus, Mark Wahlberg puts in a significant shirtless appearance that isn't bad to look at either, even if his days as a Calvin Klein underwear model are obviously long behind him.

All in all, Date Night might just be the perfect date movie. Action for him, romance for her, and comedy for both. If you are looking for something to do on your own date night this weekend, I have no qualms about recommending this film as a possible diversion for you and your significant other.


Squee! It's Glee...

I first gave Glee a shout-out back at the end of 2009, when I proclaimed it my favorite new television addiction of the year. My gleekdom has only grown since then, and after a long drought, I am happy to proclaim the return of new episodes tonight at 8:28 on Fox. I think you owe it to yourselves to tune in...


Hot Diggity Dog...

It occurs to me that somehow I have failed to mention that I have been on vacation for nearly two weeks. Or a staycation, rather. With my time at the museum drawing to a close in a couple months, I needed to make a serious dent in my remaining vacation time, but a tax withholding error left me too broke to actually travel anywhere in my time off. So I've been biding my time at home, conducting some spring cleaning, relaxing, and spending time with friends. Enjoyable as it has been, I still felt that I needed to go somewhere to give my time off some validation, so I turned to my special to-do list, and settled upon a pilgrimage to Hot Doug's.

As I have mentioned in the past, Hot Doug's is an epicenter of foodie culture in Chicago. It's been featured on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, and pretty much every food publication in the United States. It's kind of a big deal. To say that it's also hard to get to is putting it mildly. The distance and hassle associated with getting there has always been a dealbreaker in my ongoing curiosity regarding Hot Doug's, but one of the perks of spending the week doing household projects with my mom meant that I finally had somebody to go with me who has a car and doesn't mind driving in the city.

Today we made the drive up to the city's northwest side to visit Hot Doug's, so far into the neighborhoods that we actually found free street parking -- something I had long-believed to be an urban legend. Better yet, since it was a drizzly, moderately cold afternoon on a weekday, the line wasn't even out the door when we arrived! We squeezed just inside the door, but I'm still counting it as a victory.

The restaurant was so small I couldn't get far enough away from the wall-mounted menu to capture the entire thing, but here were some of the specials from our visit.

Once inside, the experience was a little daunting. There were so many things I wanted to try, but only so much stomach real estate available to hold it all. The specials list offered a cornucopia of temptations, as did the regular menu, and that didn't even include the game meat sausage of the week and a special "celebrity sausage" -- another special offering named after a famous personality. I was intimidated to be sure. I was also nervous about the actual ordering process.

Forever enshrined on the adjacent wall is this famous-in-foodie-circles quote, often cited by Anthony Bourdain.

From everything I'd read about proprietor Doug Sohn, who maintains idiosyncratic hours at his shop, and does everything on his own terms including serving illegal meat*, I was expecting a gruff, curmudgeonly man to greet us at the counter when we went to order. Mr. Sohn, however, was a complete pleasure. He was warm and patient with us when we still hadn't quite made up our minds about what to order, and were not versed in the proper way to order it. Whereas most Chicago hot dog establishments cater to a loyal clientel who know the ins and outs of their quirky ordering systems and do not take kindly to uninitiated newcomers, Hot Doug's proved to be a refreshing bastion of good service.

My elk sausage, left, and Mom's weisswurst, right. I didn't get a photo of her Chicago-style dog because she started eating it before I could get to it.

I ultimately decided to go with the weekly game sausage: elk with a topping of raclette cheese (a Swiss peasant cheese usually toasted over an open flame and served on bread) and bacon-garlic mayonnaise, and an order of cheese fries. Since it wasn't the weekend, Hot Doug's legendary duck fat fries weren't on the menu, but I'd heard enough good things about their regular fries that I wanted to try them anyway. Mom decided to go with a basic Chicago-style dog from their regular menu, and a weisswurst with mustard and horseradish cheddar cheese.

My elk sausage was meaty and gamey, with a nice snap to the casing, but not quite as flavorful as I would have liked. I also found the raclette to be a little overwhelming, even though it was relatively mild in flavor. There was simply too much of it there. Plus, the heat from the sausage alone wasn't enough to melt it, and raclette is almost exclusively served warm. I almost regret not going with one of the spicier options on the menu -- I suspect I might have found more aggressive flavors there. The fries, while good, weren't as crispy as I would have liked, which might have been attributable to the presence of the cheese sauce, which was rather tasty. Still, I wouldn't choose the cheese fries at Hot Doug's over my all-time favorites from Michael's in Highland Park. The tastiest item that I sampled from our order was Mom's weisswurst; the sausage itself tasted just like the ones I had in Bavaria, mild and herbal, with just the right amount of punch from the mustard and cheese, even if the non-sweet mustard wasn't authentic to the typical Bavarian presentation.

Overall, I was pleased with my experience at Hot Doug's, but I wasn't completely blown away. With all the hype the establishment recieves, and the years I have spent longing to check it out for myself, there was really no way it could live up to my expectations. It was good, to be sure, but not life-changingly good. I would certainly return to try other items on the menu, but I'll have no trouble waiting for the stars to align for someone to drive me there on a weekday so I don't have to endure the weekend line. Plus, for that matter, if I were to schlep up to that neighborhood again, I'd be more likely to first try Kuma's Corner, the legendary Chicago burger joint, which is just a couple blocks away from Hot Doug's. For now, however, that item on my to-do list is going to have to wait...

*When the Chicago City Council banned the sale of foie gras in the city in 2006 citing animal cruelty in its production, Doug Sohn introduced a foie gras-topped sausage that he refused to remove from the menu for the duration of the ban. He is often pointed to as one of the leading reasons that the ban was repealed in 2008.


Alice in Wonderland...

I almost didn't post about this movie, but I have written about every movie I have seen since I started this blog nearly a year ago, and it felt wrong not to mention it in some capacity. It's just that I had perhaps the least visceral response to Tim Burton's new rendition of Alice in Wonderland of any film I have seen in the past year, positive or negative. Despite spending three weeks as the top-grossing film in the country, I just couldn't figure out what all the fuss was about.

In its favor, I will say that I appreciated the framing of the story in this version. In my previous encounters with Alice in Wonderland, I have never quite followed the plot. The story always seemed rather hackneyed, and more of an excuse to string together as many fantastical events as possible. In Burton's film, I found the story to be more streamlined, although the highly implausible ending really irritated me. For whatever reason, I could accept a parade of bizarre occurrences as they played out in the fantasy world of Wonderland, but a fantastical ending in the real world that bookended Alice's sojourn in Wonderland was more than I could handle.

Furthermore, the couture worn by Mia Wasilkowska's Alice was inspiring indeed, but I found her actual performance to be significantly less so. Whether or not the character believed herself to be participating in a type of lucid dream, it seemed to me that she might have expressed some small degree of wonderment at the creatures and situations she encountered. After all, it is called "Wonderland." Also contributing a blithe, lifeless performance was Ann Hathaway. Johnny Depp contributed another one of the quirky turns which he could probably perform in his sleep at this point, and the only performance of any substance in the entire film came in the form of Helena Bonham Carter's overly CGI-ed Red Queen. Simply put, the acting in this film was somewhat of a bore.

I was also significantly underwhelmed by the special effects. Granted, we didn't make it to a 3-D showing of the film, but it seems to me that the effects should have been able to stand on their own, even if they weren't popping out of the screen at me. Not unlike Avatar, in a film with so little else going for it, I at least expect to be visually wowed, and I was not.

Ultimately, I can't recommend Alice in Wonderland on pretty much any level. It might be worth watching sometime if you run across it on television, but it is neither compelling enough to see in the theater, or to put in your Netflix queue. There are much more interesting films with which to occupy your time.


Happy Easter...

We aren't very big on Easter in our family. Sure, when I was a kid, Mom would dutifully fill plastic eggs with candy and hide them all over the house -- often so well that we'd still be finding them weeks later -- and there was always an annual Easter basket full of exciting toys and goodies. One year, when the holiday fell near my birthday as it did this year, Mom even threw me an Easter-themed birthday party complete with a decorated Easter tree, individually-sized Easter egg cakes, and an egg hunt. But in more recent years, Easter has sort of fallen to the wayside in our family's holiday landscape. I blame it on lack of religiosity.

In lieu of celebrating, we typically commemorate the passing of the day with a traditional viewing of Jesus Christ Superstar, or at least a listening to the soundtrack. I have yet to find the occasion that cannot be improved with the introduction of musical theater, and even if the faithful find it to be sacrilegious, I find that the addition of rock opera to be just the motivation I need to sit through the story of the Passion. So far, I haven't been smote from the heavens...

This year, I decided to capitalize on the arrival of Easter as an excuse to bake more cookies. I found an Easter egg cookie cutter on sale a few weeks ago, and I had been holding it in reserve just for this occasion. Even though I was busy with my birthday, and a few projects around the condo, I made a point of making these cookies. This time around, I forced myself to experiment with new patterns, and while some of them were more successful than others, I was pleased on balance with the results.

Mostly, I was annoyed that I couldn't realize my intended color palette of pastel green, pink, and yellow. I had the wrong color of green food coloring for this project, and I accidentally made the pink too vibrant. Ever since my first batch of Valentine's Day cookies, I haven't been thrilled by the pairing of the pink and purple produced by my gel food coloring set. Something about the combination causes the purple to look more grey than I would like. Still, every cookie decorating opportunity provides a chance to expand my skill set, so from that perspective, I think it was a successful project.

Ultimately, this batch of cookies provided another illustration of the benefits of having a boyfriend, particularly one with a family bigger than my own -- a place to dispose of excess cookies. As I may or may not have previously mentioned, I don't actually like to eat sugar cookies myself; I merely enjoy the challenge of baking them. Hence, whenever I make a batch, I need to find a place to get rid of them. In the past, I've included them in my Cookie Bonanza, sent them to relatives, and sold them at a bakesale. This time, the spoils went to Zac and his family, who, I'm told, enjoyed them and even took them along to a family Easter gathering. I'm just glad they found a good home...



Twenty-five. For some reason, it's a hard number to wrap my mind around. For the first time I can remember, I wasn't eager to celebrate my birthday this year. Besides the fact that I thought it would be awkward to force my new boyfriend into meeting all of my friends simultaneously at a big party, this year I found greater appeal in quietly celebrating one-on-one with various friends. Yesterday I met Irene for a stroll around the Cultural Center (from which none of my photos turned out, or else I would have posted separately on that), I had dinner with Lauren, and today, I spent the day with Zac, visiting the Art Institute. I wanted to catch their new temporary exhibit: Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917.

I am not a particular fan of Matisse's work, and as such, although the exhibit held some interesting pieces, I was not especially moved. What I did find interesting about the exhibit was its focus on Matisse's working method -- for each canvas and sculpture, Matisse would work and rework the concept, applying layers, scraping the surfaces, removing compositional elements, constantly second-guessing himself until he arrived at a result with which he could be satisfied. Today, on the occasion of my twenty-fifth birthday, something about his process really struck a chord with me.

When I was younger, I had a bulletin board in my bedroom where I pinned various fortunes from fortune cookies, and other inspiring quotes and maxims that I had come across. One that I enjoyed the most stated, "Life is a work of art, created by the one who lives it." For Matisse, the creation of art was not a simple process of vision and realization; instead, it was a laborious process of constant re-evaluation and change. I am beginning to realize that life is the same way.

At twenty-five, I am not where I thought I would be; I always imagined I would have figured out my career, be living a more independent life, and possibly even be married by now. Life had other things in mind, but I take solace in the steps I have taken in the past year to come closer to actualizing those dreams. Life at twenty-five isn't what I envisioned, but my expectations have changed as well. Like Matisse, I am working on adjusting and honing my situation to get where I want to be, and like any artist, I am taking satisfaction in the act of creation, not just the finished product.

So here I am, poised half way between twenty and thirty. The whole "halfway to thirty" thing is a little scary, to be sure, but on balance, life is good. It's a work in progress, and I'm learning how to be fine with that. So on that note, Happy Birthday to me...