I Love 2010...

As I was compiling my year-in-review post for 2010, I cruised back through the last year of posts here at The State I Am In, and was equally struck by the things I did in the past 365 days as the things I didn't do in the last year. I don't have a favorite theater moment, because I only went to the theater once in all of last year, to see Carmen. Although I didn't dislike it as much as I expected to, given my general distaste for opera, I would hardly call that a favorite moment. I don't have a favorite song, because I didn't actively seek out any new music. I didn't try a single new recipe in all of 2010 that wasn't for a dessert, and I didn't start watching any new television shows that I didn't watch in 2009. So, this annual synopsis is going to have to take a different form than the list of likes and dislikes I composed in 2009.

Overall, 2010 was a more insular year for me, in which I focused more on personal growth than the world around me, and although that leaves me a little less well-informed about popular culture, I feel like I've made a lot of progress in placing my life on a positive trajectory this year than in years past. In the past, it was easy for me to distract myself with movies, music, and other pursuits because I was avoiding some of the hard work of personal growth. When I waxed philosophical about my life back on the occasion of my
25th birthday, I wrote about Henri Matisse, and the obsessive editing he conducted in his artistic productions, comparing it to my own life, "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."

In the past year, I've take three major steps towards putting my life on track, so instead of a rundown of my favorite things from the past year, I'm going to write about the three things I'm most proud of starting in 2010:

  • Love -- For the first time, I decided to stop waiting for love to fall into my lap the way it does in movies and books, and actively pursue meeting men, dating them, and finding a relationship. I managed to suppress my fears about putting myself out there and being rejected, and although the path was rocky at first, I now find myself completely in love with an amazing man. Every day, I take time to consider how lucky we were to ever find each other at all, and I am thankful that this was the year I started looking for love.
  • Mental Health -- Back in August, I quietly started seeing a therapist to help me deal with some of the stress and feelings of helplessness that I was experiencing in my daily life. I wasn't sure how to take control of my life, and reach for the things I wanted, and that sense of being stuck was bleeding across every area of my life. I have worked with him on being more assertive about my needs, communicating with others in healthier ways, and establishing boundaries with people. As a result, my relationships are stronger, and I feel that I've made some solid progress in figuring out what I want to do with my career -- a major source of stress in my life for the past three years. I know not everyone "believes in" therapy, but I can feel it slowly but surely helping me figure out the best direction in which to take my life.
  • Health -- Partially motivated by a fear that this might be the last year I had employer-sponsored health insurance, I decided to take responsibility for my health, and take care of a number of lingering problems I had ignored for far too long. I found an amazing primary care physician who I feel I can trust, and who takes me seriously. After years of doctors who told me I was being neurotic with my concerns, it was a relief to find someone who actually wanted to investigate my complaints. It was through her that I found my therapist, and by her that I was referred to the sleep specialist who is helping me conquer the daytime exhaustion that has plagued me for years. Healthcare may have set me back a small fortune in 2010, but I think it was worth every penny.
All things considered, I'm feeling pretty good about what I accomplished in the past year. I feel better than ever about the progress I'm making in my life, and I still managed to get out and explore the city and spend time with the people I love. My hopes are high heading into 2011, and I already have a "to-do" list ready to go. I'm ready to make the upcoming year into another one that I can feel proud of, and to have plenty of fun along the way. Happy New Year!


The First Cut Is The Deepest...

For the first Christmas of our nascent relationship, I was particularly fraught with worry about what to get Justin as a gift. I was so worried, in fact, that I had a discussion with him back in November about setting a price limit on our gift-giving, so that neither of us would be made uncomfortable by a disparity in spending. As is my custom when facing a difficult decision, I asked basically everyone I could think of for advice on the matter, and finally, with some advice from my brilliant aunt, Lisa, I settled on what to get: a cooking class.

That is not to say that I thought Justin
needed cooking lessons; in fact, everything I've eaten that he's made for me has been quite tasty. Rather, cooking is something we both enjoy, and enjoy doing together, so I thought it would be nice to incorporate that into our gift-giving. Also, I've gotten to the point in my life where I don't really like giving gifts of material objects. As evidenced by the Cookie Bonanza, wherein I give edible presents to most of the people on my Christmas giving list, I prefer to give presents that won't sit around gathering dust. I prefer to give people memories instead, whether it be the memory of a delicious cookie, or the memory of a shared experience. So for Justin, I thought the memory of taking a class together, about a hobby we both enjoy, in which we could learn valuable skills to enhance our performance of said hobby, would be a great idea.

With the help of the
Tribune's annual listing of locations in the city that offer cooking classes, I ultimately settled upon a knife skills class at The Chopping Block, a local chain of combination gourmet shops/cooking schools. The knife skills class would strengthen our fundamental kitchen skills, by teaching proper knife care, and hopefully increasing our speed and accuracy while chopping. Since I wanted Justin to have something to open when we exchanged gifts, I ended up taping a description of the class to a plastic knife, placing it in a box, and wrapping it. It still took a bit of clarification when he opened it last week, but thankfully, he was excited about his gift. We went to the class tonight, and both of us enjoyed it.

The first part of the course focused on educating us about the various types of knives and their functions in the kitchen (with a few thinly veiled sales pitches for the featured cutlery, which was available for purchase in the retail area of the facility, with a student discount, no less), and instructing us on the proper way to sharpen, hone, and clean our knives to maximize their longevity. Most of this material I already knew, from my association with Katherine, who once had a job selling Cutco
products and is now an evangelist for proper knife-care, but I was shamed slightly into using larger knives. Apparently, it's common for women to prefer smaller knives than are appropriate for the kitchen task at hand, and I am no different, which is something I'll have to work on.

The second half of the class was dedicated to teaching us proper chopping techniques for common vegetables like carrots, onions, celery, peppers, and herbs, and allowing us to practice for ourselves. For my usual purposes, the ability to chop celery into equally-sized cubes is a bit fussy, but I was enlightened by their advice on chopping carrots -- something with which I've always struggled. However, my main hope for the class was improving my efficiency in cutting onions, easily my most-hated kitchen task, and I'm not sure I learned anything of assistance there.

Nevertheless, it was a fun and educational evening, and I'm happy that I got to share it with Justin.
I would definitely take more cooking classes through The Chopping Block -- they had a great set-up, and the instructor was entertaining and very knowledgeable. Their prices are a little steep, so it won't be something I'll get to indulge in on a regular basis, but the next time I'm looking to expand my culinary repertoire, I'll be sure to think of them.


Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas...

Today, as is our relatively new family custom, the members of the Wyatt clan assembled from across Illinois and Iowa to celebrate Christmas at Seton Hall. It was a day replete with delicious food, fun games, adorable (albeit rambunctious) children, and conversation with family that we do not get to see often enough. Even if the Christmas spirit was still eluding me, it was lovely spending time with my relatives, and I captured the day on film to preserve those precious memories:

We rent a whole banquet hall, yet everyone still manages to congregate in the kitchen. When the cheese dip is there though, who can blame us?

Last Christmas, Mya was only a few days old and I spent much of the weekend holding and napping with her. This year, she was having none of me, but Mom got a chance to hold her.

Dad and I.

Matt is a great sport about playing with the little ones and acting as their human jungle gym every year.

Three generations of feisty, obstinate women. We might not always get along, but our love for one another runs deep.

Although the focus of our celebrations has shifted away from the giving of gifts to family togetherness, Grandma still receives a huge mountain of presents.

Cousin Trista with a captivating headband fashioned from her bingo prize's packaging.

Once again, the attempt at getting all the great-grandchildren in one photo bore mixed results, but they still look cute in their coordinating pajamas from Aunt Brenda. She was inspired by a similar photo of my generation in t-shirts and boxers that were given to us for Christmas by Uncle Pat in the mid-1990s. From left to right: Ben, Will, Mya, Jalen, Avery, Abbie, Braden, and Madelyn.

It was an exhausting, but ultimately sweet day. I wish it were easier for us to find times like Christmas where our family could come together, but such are the realities of life in the modern world. Families are far-flung and burdened with responsibilities, but we are fortunate that we can have gatherings like today's, where almost all of us can be in attendance. I'm already looking to seeing everyone again next year, when our family will be even bigger and crazier than it already is. Bring it on...


Lovely Weather For A Sleigh Ride...

Since we aren't fortunate enough to do our winter traveling by sleigh this holiday season, we've been driving all over the state of Illinois instead. Today, amid the falling snow, we stopped to put gas in the car when Mom spotted this cute little fellow at the gas station and he brightened our day:


I'll Be Seeing You...

When I was but a wee high school student, I did an inordinate amount of handwringing over the decision of which college to attend. Deep down, I knew I needed a change in my life that would not be afforded by going to Northwestern, my top choice school. Northwestern would keep me in the same geographic area, surrounded by many of the same people with whom I had gone to high school. Washington University in St. Louis, which I had only applied to as a back-up school on the advice of my guidance counselor, had the dual advantages of distance, and virtually nobody I knew from high school was going there. I opted for Wash U, but I was terrified. Night after night I would pour my heart out to my parents, fretting that I would be unable to make new friends there, and I would spend the next four years of my life miserable and lonely. They did their best to reassure me, but right up until that first day of school, I was unconvinced.

In the end, I need not have worried. Not only did I make friends, I made amazing friends, with whom I am still close, despite having scattered to different corners of the globe. Although I do not get to see them nearly as much as I might like, I try to see them whenever I have a chance, and luckily for me, Christmas usually affords me the opportunity to visit with my friend, Abel, who returns from Japan every year to be with his family for the holidays. His family happens to live not too far from my grandma's house, where we travel every year for our own Christmas celebration, so Abel and I try to set aside time to catch up.

Every year, it seems hard to believe that so much time has elapsed, but in spite of the time and the distance, we always seem to fall back into an easy rapport. Although I certainly wish I got to see my college pals more often, I am thankful to have such relationships in my life. The chance to reconnect with even just one of them makes my holiday season a little sweeter, and is yet another reason why Christmas is my favorite time of the year.



At long last, the day for which I have been preparing myself for the past three months has come to pass -- after a week of prep work and two solid days of baking, I have completed my 2010 Cookie Bonanza. The seven types of cookies that I tested and tweaked were lovingly crafted in my kitchen and boxed to be given away today, all before eleven o'clock last night. I even had all the dishes washed as well! In the past two years, I've usually stayed up until the wee hours of the morning completing everything, so in some regards, my efficiency this year could be looked upon as a type of victory.

However, it is difficult for me to celebrate a full night of rest, when I could have stayed up late adding an eighth cookie to the lineup, which would have meant that I had outdone myself relative to last year. At least I tied last year's level of production, and I feel like I satisfied most of my goals for this year: I had a good balance of cookie types, including cutouts, pressed cookies, drop cookies, bar cookies, and refrigerator cookies; and I had a good balance of flavors, including citrus, spice, chocolate and peppermint among others. If I had to identify weaknesses in this year's lineup, it would have been a lack of something nutty, something caramel-flavored, and perhaps a sandwich cookie. Still, although I was unable to surpass myself this year, I still feel good about this year's giveaway, which consisted of the following:

I was not quite as pleased with this year's packaging, which came from the Container Store. The festive Martha Stewart boxes that I used in previous years were square, and easier to transport.

Now that I am done, I plan to take a hiatus from baking for the forseeable future. Butter, flour, and sugar have lost all allure to be for the time being, and I'm sure my waistline, and those of my friends and colleagues who have been the test subjects for all my trial baked goods in the last months, will thank me...


Give Peace A Chance...

Going into this weekend of baking, I had filled every slot in my line-up except for one -- the chocolate cookie. Last year, I fused the peppermint category with the chocolate one, choosing to bake chocolate peppermint cookies, but this year, I wanted to focus solely on the unadulterated flavor of chocolate for my selection. I thought seriously about going with my chocolate brownie cookies, which are a perennial favorite, but ultimately, I was swayed by my interminable desire to experiment with new recipes.

I didn't even have to hunt through my recipe archives, cookbooks, and magazines to find something I wanted to try; Dorie Greenspan's "World Peace Cookies" have been floating around the food blogosphere ever since I started getting interested in cooking and baking after college. The cookies get their name from the assertion of an early recipe tester that if everyone were fed one of these cookies daily, there would be no more war or conflict, because everyone would be too blissed out on chocolate. Every blogger from here to the other end of the world has raved about them, and I was curious. Plus, as a slice-and-bake cookie, they would save me valuable baking time in a weekend when I was already feeling strained for time.

The cookies were definitely simple enough to put together. In fact, the recipe warned against over mixing, so I just mixed them up by hand with a wooden spoon. While the results were certainly tasty -- an ethereally tender crumb, studded with bits of rich bittersweet chocolate -- I'm not sure they would solve all the world's problems. I actually think my humble brownie cookies, taken from an advertisement for Baker's Chocolate, are more intensely flavored than this wildly popular recipe from one of the world's foremost baking authorities. Sometimes it pays to stick to what you know...

World Peace Cookies
adapted from Dorie Greenspan

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 stick plus 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel or 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into chips

Sift the flour, cocoa and baking soda together.
Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add both sugars, the salt and vanilla extract and beat for 2 minutes more.
Turn off the mixer. Pour in the flour, drape a kitchen towel over the stand mixer to protect yourself and your kitchen from flying flour and pulse the mixer at low speed about 5 times, a second or two each time. Take a peek — if there is still a lot of flour on the surface of the dough, pulse a couple of times more; if not, remove the towel. Continuing at low speed, mix for about 30 seconds more, just until the flour disappears into the dough — for the best texture, work the dough as little as possible once the flour is added, and don’t be concerned if the dough looks a little crumbly. Toss in the chocolate pieces and mix only to incorporate.
Turn the dough out onto a work surface, gather it together and divide it in half. Working with one half at a time, shape the dough into logs that are 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap the logs in plastic wrap and refrigerate them for at least 3 hours. (The dough can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months. If you’ve frozen the dough, you needn’t defrost it before baking — just slice the logs into cookies and bake the cookies 1 minute longer.)
To Bake: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.
Working with a sharp thin knife, slice the logs into rounds that are 1/2 inch thick. (The rounds are likely to crack as you’re cutting them — don’t be concerned, just squeeze the bits back onto each cookie.) Arrange the rounds on the baking sheets, leaving about one inch between them.
Bake the cookies one sheet at a time for 12 minutes — they won’t look done, nor will they be firm, but that’s just the way they should be. Transfer the baking sheet to a cooling rack and let the cookies rest until they are only just warm, at which point you can serve them or let them reach room temperature.


I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm...

Except, not really. Justin has been out of town this week for his sister's graduation, which has left me with plenty of time to hole up in my kitchen, churning out the cookies of this year's Cookie Bonanza. With only my oven to turn to for warmth, I was inspired to create mitten cookies for this year's iced sugar cookie offering.

To be completely honest, I almost decided not to decorate cookies this year, and to produce delicious albeit unadorned sugar cookies according to my favorite recipe from my great-aunt Lois. After going out every night of the week prior to my baking weekend, I was feeling overwhelmed and pressed for time. The last thing I wanted to do was spend my two days fastidiously piping cookies when I needed to be baking, but I knew the assortment would be missing its star attraction without the iced cookies. Their beauty draws the boxes together, and adds the necessary "wow" factor that makes my recipients smile when they first open their gifts. Much as I wanted to make things easier on myself, I just couldn't bring myself to cut corners on something I deemed so important.

As it turned out, the mittens were definitely the way to go. I only needed to make two colors of icing, as I did the final detail work using red store-brought royal icing (achieving a true red in homemade icing is just too difficult to bother with, in my humble opinion), and I was able to execute simple yet attractive geometric motifs, since the cookies did not have to be representational. One of my great joys in cookie decorating is experimenting with new patterns, so these cookies allowed me to play to my strengths and enjoy myself in the process. I was glad that I went through the effort of making them, and I think they will make a stunning focal point for this year's Cookie Bonanza.



Although I am a huge fan of Andrew Bird's music, I must confess, I am not very into music in general. When I go to a concert, I want to hear the songs I've come to love from an artist, not new material they're working on. So when I went to see Andrew Bird tonight in a revisiting of last year's holiday Gezelligheid concert concept, I was a little disappointed to discover that he is working on releasing a new album (which would otherwise be something to celebrate), as it meant that he did not perform a single piece all evening that I recognized. Don't get me wrong, I was still impressed with his use of elaborate musical looping and layering of sounds, and his set was still enjoyable.

The same could not be said for the opening act, experimental jazz guitarist Jeff Parker. When he first went on stage, I was under the impression that he was tuning his guitar. After several minutes, it became clear that the random noises and series of scales were in fact, his first "composition." (The very fact that he considered his pieces "compositions" and not songs, was not a good sign to me, in itself.) I suffered silently through the first composition, pondering if perhaps it was just too high-brow for me, when Darrell (with whom I had gone to see the show) leaned over and whispered to me, "It is clear that Andrew Bird hates his fans, and this is how he's choosing to tell us." I felt a little better knowing I wasn't alone in my perception of Parker's wretchedness, but it was still an incredibly long 45 minutes to sit through to get to the main event.

Even though I wished there would have been more opportunities to sing along in my head to Andrew Bird's music, I'm still glad I went to see this year's Gezelligheid show. For me, it was more of an amuse bouche than a musical meal unto itself. Now I'm looking forward to the his upcoming release, so that I can learn all the new material and be familiar with it when he tours to promote the album. Hopefully, that concert will be something to look forward to in 2011.


Christmas Time All Over The World...

So much of the holidays is about tradition, and the comforting repetion of time-honored rituals that draw people together based on their shared histories and experiences. Lately, however, I find that the same traditions that usually bring me so much joy around Christmas time have been feeling more like a burden. To be completely honest, I've simply not been feeling the Christmas spirit this year. I've been going through the motions, waiting for my usual sense of excitement to kick in, and I've managed to capture a glimmer here or there, but for the most part, I've just been faking it.

When it came time to head to the Christkindlmarket for Lisa and I's annual photo-op in front of the Daley Plaza tree, it was just another item on my seasonal to-do list. Tonight, after we dutifully captured a perfect image, Lisa confessed to me that she wasn't particularly in the mood to consume our usual German holiday treats, and I was secretly elated. I quickly suggested that we head to our favorite Chinese restaurant instead, and she readily accepted. In place of a traditional European Christmas, Lisa and I opted to celebrate the holiday in a way more in keeping with Jewish tradition -- by consuming Chinese food. It may have been an oddly international Christmas mash-up, but it felt right to us, and in the end, celebrating the season together is more important than how we choose to do it.


Incense and Peppermints...

There is truly no rest for the wicked. After baking and cooking for two straight days to host a cookie exchange for my friends, I find myself closing out the weekend by gearing up for the flurry of baking that is my annual Cookie Bonanza giveaway. I've almost settled on a final lineup, and tonight it was time to get started on the cookies that can be baked in advance using my favorite technique of freezing portioned-out cookie dough to be baked when needed. Tonight's efforts were focused on peppermint chocolate chip cookies, a variation on standard chocolate chip cookies that uses peppermint bark instead of chocolate chips.

I first stumbled upon this concoction a few years ago, when Dad re-gifted a batch of his corporate gifts (presents sent from businessperson to businessperson around the holidays in an effort to keep their names in front of prospective clients, or as an additional thanks for services rendered) to me, as he is often wont to do with any food-related items. That particular year's assortment included a box of peppermint bark from Williams-Sonoma. Not being much of a candy eater (I'm much more often attracted to salty snacks when I'm in need of a nosh, and my Halloween candy almost always went bad before it got consumed when I was growing up), I found myself in search of alternative uses for peppermint bark, when I came across a suggestion in what was one of my then-favorite food blogs, 101 Cookbooks. That first year, I used the recipe listed on the blog, but the cookies it yielded were harder than bricks, and the author subsequently updated to a recipe she liked better herself. However, the idea for the cookies was a solid foundation; definitely an idea worth revisiting later.

When I discovered the joys of the New York Times chocolate chip cookie recipe (the subject of my first real post here at The State I Am In) about a year later, it was my natural inclination to consider using it to make the cookies if I came into the possession of more peppermint bark. As soon as Christmas rolled around, I diligently waited for a sale at Williams-Sonoma to pick up a box, and a batch of these cookies became a holiday tradition. They were included in my first Cookie Bonanza back in 2008, and in subsequent years, I began stocking up on peppermint bark on the day after Christmas, and freezing it until the next year. I also flirted with cheaper peppermint barks that didn't come from Williams-Sonoma, but were largely unsatisfied with the results. Less expensive brands seem to fall apart when broken into suitably small pieces for baking, but the dark and white chocolate layers of the Williams-Sonoma bark adhere quite nicely to one another.

These cookies are simple, and freeze gloriously, making them a welcome addition to my Christmas baking agenda this year. If you find yourself in the possession of a corporate gift, or some good homemade peppermint bark you're keen to dispose of, feel free to bake up a batch of these cookies; you definitely won't regret it.

Peppermint Chocolate Chip Cookies
adapted from the New York Times
17 oz. all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter
10 oz. light brown sugar
8 oz granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract
1 1/4 pounds peppermint bark broken into small pieces (I tend to use 1 pound of bark and a 1/4 pound of regular chocolate chips, to avoid opening two boxes of peppermint bark)

1. Sift flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside.
2. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low, add dry ingredients and mix until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Drop chocolate pieces in and incorporate them without breaking them. Press plastic wrap against dough and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. Dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.
3. Portion out dough into 2 5/8 oz. balls on wax paper-lined baking sheet and freeze until needed. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 and thaw dough in the fridge prior to baking.
4. Place six dough balls on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and bake until golden brown but still soft, 16 to 20 minutes. Transfer sheet to a wire rack to cool.


Cookie Monsters...

Forgive me readers, for I have sinned -- I threw a party today, and completely forgot to take a single photo. I'm going to blame it on having too much fun to take a break for photography. Nevertheless, I decided this year to turn the cookie exchange I hosted last year into a holiday tradition, and I invited my friends and their significant others (the better to gobble up cookies) over for a baking-themed fete.

I did try to scale back a bit from last year, when I was left with a daunting amount of leftovers, so I only baked two types of cookies, the chocolate thumbprint cookies I tried back in September, and the peppermint meringues I played with during last year's holiday season. I also scaled back my savory hors d'oeuvres to include frozen mini-quiche, a cheese plate, and my go-to homemade finger food -- a variation on pigs in a blanket consisting of andouille sausage with fig preserves, wrapped in puff pastry. To round out the offerings, I whipped up a batch of mulled apple cider, for which I never have a concrete recipe, but which always seems to turn out fine regardless. After all the baking I do, which requires a certain amount of precision, it is tremendously gratifying to make something that is both delicious and flexible.

My guests brought an equally impressive array of treats. Lauren brought her famous pfeffernüssen, Jane baked chocolate biscotti with Mexican spices, Taryn went for something a little different with peppermint brownies, Ashley made chocolate raspberry cookies, Mireya and her sister brought mint chocolate cookies, and Amanda created some very popular chocolate peppermint sandwich cookies rolled in crushed peppermint. Clearly, there was a bit of a chocolate peppermint zeitgeist, and a preponderance of chocolate cookies in general. This must be what happens when a group of women is asked to bake. Sometimes stereotypes are rooted in fact...

I was happy to convene my friends around my table to celebrate the holiday season with piles of delicious treats. After all, for me, the spirit of Christmas can be found in experiences shared with friend and family. Somehow, I managed to make it all the way to the end of 2010 before having a party, but I was reminded of how much I enjoy entertaining and playing hostess to my friends. Perhaps throwing more parties could be a New Year's resolution that I wouldn't mind keeping in 2011...


Intelligent Design...

Ever since my visit to the Art Institute with Joy last year, in which Joy shared her infectious enthusiasm for industrial design, I must confess that I have been paying more attention to how the things I encounter in my daily life are designed, and whether their functionality is enhanced or diminished by the aesthetic concerns that went into their making. Which is why, when I spotted an abandoned coffee cup in the sink at work this week, I couldn't help but scratch my head:

I mean, I know this is a novelty promotional mug, but honestly, who looked at a coffee cup and thought, "This container for hot liquids that sits near my computer is too stable. What this needs is wheels to help it move around more easily"? This cup seems like a disaster waiting to happen, and I don't blame its owner for putting it out to pasture in the office kitchen. I'd want it as far from my desk, and my lap, as possible...


A Christmas Wish...

To be loved is a privilege and prize equivalent to being born. If you're smart, you pause regularly to bask in the astonishing knowledge that there are many people out there who care for you and want you to thrive and hold you in their thoughts with fondness. -Rob Brezsney

I saw this quote a few days ago, and it made me think of my friend Natasha, who is going into the hospital today for the first in a series of treatments associated with the stem cell transplant she is receiving to try to put her lupus into remission. Natasha has been struggling with a flare-up of her lupus for all of this year, and I sincerely hope this transplant will restore her health. It is my Christmas wish this year for her to get better, and for anyone reading this to keep her in your thoughts and prayers. I know she'll be in mine...


Black Swan...

Finally, now that winter is upon us, it is time for Hollywood to start releasing their serious, Oscar-contender films, after a summer of blockbuster action movies and other lighter fare. I probably enjoy watching stuff blow up as much as the average woman (but certainly not as much as the average male), but winter is definitely my favorite season for cinema. My "must-see" list is growing longer by the day, but this weekend I carved some time out of a busy weekend schedule to see my first movie of Oscar season: Black Swan.

I feel like I've been a fan of Natalie Portman's for ages, but I think her role in Garden State, one of my favorite movies, was what really endeared her to me. Ever since, I've tried to either see her work while it's still in theaters, or I've added it to my seemingly interminable Netflix queue. Hence, I saw the previews for Black Swan, I knew right away that I wanted to see it, even though the atmospheric clues contained in the trailer indicated that the film was much scarier than my typical taste. I try to stay very, very far away from horror films. I might like a good cry from a movie, but I have enough anxiety problems without having to seek out extra sources of fear in my life. A suspenseful murder mystery is about as much as I can handle.

Black Swan was indeed a bit of a horror film, but the horror was more of a psychological bent than a traditional slasher film. Through much of the film, it was difficult to tell what was real and what was imagined, and most of the truly frightening moments came from either real or imagined mutilations of the main character's body. I don't know that I ever really frightened by the film, but there were definitely moments when I found myself disturbed by the images on the screen. Even though many of these moments were unpleasant to see, I still came away from the film impressed by the cinematography and the director's use of hand-held video cameras. The movie was visually stunning, even if it was sometimes hard to look.

I was similarly impressed by Portman's performance in Black Swan. The role was definitely darker than many she's taken in the past, and I was glad to see her stretching herself as an actress. Although I am hardly a fan of the ballet, to an untrained eye, Portman did a laudable job imitating the work for which ballerinas spend a lifetime in training. She seemed far more convincing than many other actresses who have attempted to tackle ballerina roles in the past (see Julia Stiles in Save the Last Dance.) I wouldn't be surprised at all to see her garner an Oscar nomination for her work in this film.

Overall, although I was impressed with Black Swan and I would pronounce it a good movie worth the time and expense of seeing it, I'm still not sure if I actually enjoyed it. I think it is easier for me to appreciate it for its artistic merits. After all, after leaving the theater and taking the time to digest what I had seen, I still can't be entirely sure what happened during the film, as the main character's perceptions clearly couldn't be trusted, due to her mental illness. Her story was compelling and dynamic, but ultimately murky. If you have the mental energy this holiday season to tease out the meaning of the plot, then by all means, head to the theaters to catch Black Swan, but if the Christmas season has you frazzled, you might be better off at home with a DVD of something from the summer...


Blinded By The Light...

Generally speaking, the holidays are a time of traditions. Year after year, we repeat a series of rituals that have personal, familial, or religious significance to us. As much time as this occupies, it can be hard to make space for new events in an already crowded field of commitments, but this year, there was one thing on my Chicago to-do list that I felt I needed to squeeze into my holiday agenda -- the Zoo Lights at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Each year, the zoo puts up a vast quantity of Christmas lights and opens its doors to the public after hours to display them. Admission is free (though parking is not), and patrons are treated to a glorious holiday illumination, along with the chance to glimpse the animals in a new way. Nocturnal animals come to life in the evening, and other animals snooze away in an adorable fashion. I had never been to see the Zoo Lights before, and I was determined to scratch it off my list in 2010.

Justin and I went together, and Mother Nature smiled upon us for our visit, bringing an end to a day of snow just in time for us to get an unobstructed view of the lights. The snow may have made for treacherous walking on the zoo's sidewalks (presumably they were not salted because the chemicals would be bad for the animals if they leached into the soil?), but it was still fun to stroll around in the brisk night air, taking in the festive lights with my sweetheart. Of course, it helped that I don't mind the cold; besides, it just gave us another excuse to hold hands.

The lights were far more impressive than the other display I've seen in Chicago, at the Botanic Gardens. There were far more lights at the zoo, and I appreciated the childlike explosion of color that characterized their style. In fact, there was something about the landscape that made me feel as if I were walking through a Dr. Seuss book, in the best possible way. I know this month is busy for all of us, but if you're in the city and you have a spare evening to indulge your inner child, I highly recommend making a trek out into the cold to catch the Zoo Lights while you still can.


On The Beach...

For the second year in a row, as the lowest person on the totem pole in my department at work, I got appointed to serve on the Peer Recognition Committee. This year, we decided to totally eschew a live performance in favor of a series of digital media presentations themed after reality television. We opted for three videos, patterned after Project Runway, American Idol, and The Real World, which allowed me to stay out of the majority of the presentation by staying behind the camera. However, for our fourth segment, we chose to rely upon the skills of another committee member, Jessica, who is a new hire in the photography department. We chose to make a photo montage inspired by The Amazing Race of our committee "on location" at the North Avenue Beach, engaged in wacky race-like activities.

We started off with what was supposed to be a potato sack race, but because potato sacks could not be sourced within our zero-budget means, we had to employ garbage bags from the museum. Since we did our photography on a frigid December day, there were at least very few people using the Lakefront Trail for biking or jogging, so our little spectacle had very few spectators.

The plastic bags were a less-than-ideal solution, as they tore easily as we attempted to hop along the beach in them.

Our second activity was a three-legged race, but we forgot to bring any rope with us, so we had to utilize more garbage bags to bind our legs. I was paired with Rachel, the latest hire in the museum's development department, and we did not win in our event, though we made a valiant effort. Mostly, we were just cold and eager to finish and head back to the relative warmth of our offices.

At the very least, we were blessed with sunshine for the afternoon. The whole experience would have been infinitely less pleasant if it had been snowing. As it was, it was almost fun. We all got a good laugh out of the experience, and it was nice to have a break from our daily routines. Ultimately, the photos will be paired with silly captions and set to the inspirational tones of "You're The Best" from The Karate Kid. At this point, all that's left is to pray our coworkers appreciate our sense of humor...