Monday, August 31, 2009


I made a recipe this week that has been in my bookmarked favorites ever since it first came to my attention: pickled grapes. Yes, grapes. Having no experience with pickling anything whatsoever, I was both intimidated (unnecessarily, as it turns out) and intrigued by the concept of pickling fruit, but this recipe falls solidly into a category of recipes that always sucks me in: Things That Are Not What You Expect Them To Be. Savory muffins? Check. Sweet tomato topping? Check. Peppery biscotti? Check, after much difficulty. Pickled fruit? Now, thankfully, check.

The nice thing about this recipe is that it's dead easy. I haven't, truthfully, been cooking much since I returned from Alaska; what with the bike accident, the catching up on everything internet related, and going back to work, I've just been too tired and overwhelmed to do much in the kitchen. It's partially a slight case of food apathy and partially just a shudder of horror at the idea of having to do more than a few dishes, but I've been eating poorly and saying to myself, "Well, tomorrow maybe I'll make something non-frozen..." Gross. Hopefully these little flavor-packed snacks will help to jolt me off my couch and back to my stovetop. I've certainly eaten enough of them to make me want to get back to good food again. They're also perfect for summertime, although Chicago seems to be spending most of it's warm season stuck in either spring or fall this year. Not that I'm complaining, given that I hate humidity on 90-something days, but still. It's interesting to be living for so long in what I consider transitional seasons.


Pickled Grapes

This recipe came to me via Smitten Kitchen, but I believe it's originally from an adaptation from Molly Wizenberg over at Orangette. I made it for a vegan nut cheese party that Rose-Anne set up this week, along with some vegan gluten-free brownie-esque things that also (miraculously, perhaps) turned out well. I've been eating them straight from the jar ever since I brought the leftovers home; the combination of crisp firm grapes and the sweet spicy vinegar-y brine has completely sucked me in. These might make an excellent addition to a summertime salad, or as accompaniment to a cheese platter, or maybe even some sort of tart sweet drink, but they're also absolutely delicious just as they are.

1 lb seedless black or red grapes (or, you know, however many fit in your jar. and I used black seedless grapes)
1 cup white wine vinegar
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick, about 2 1/2 inches (cut in half if using two jars)
1/4 tsp salt

Cut the very tip (the bellybutton, as Smitten Kitchen says) off of the grapes and place the fruit inside a large glass jar (I used an empty pasta jar and it worked splendidly). Stir the rest of the ingredients into a saucepan and bring to a boil; remove from heat and pour this mixture into the jar on top of the grapes. I did this while the brine was still hot, which apparently has a possibility of wilting the fruit, but mine were completely firm and crisp the next day so I don't know. You can cool it down first if it makes you feel better, but the hot mixture helps the flavor absorb faster and didn't seem to harm the grapes. Put the lid on, stick it in your fridge, and 8 hours or more later you can sit yourself down for a unique snack of briny sweet grapes.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

i said tell me what's to come

"If at some future time you sell your life story to a filmmaker who makes it into a feature film, it may have a lot to do with adventures that kick into high gear in the coming weeks."

That's from my free will astrology this week. I'm not the biggest believer in astrology, although I don't look down on those who are--it's fun to think about and I read my horoscope when I remember, but for me it's mostly vague amused curiosity. But this one just makes me tired. I feel like there's plenty of adventure in my life already, at least enough to make me a subplot in somebody else's movie or a series of charming vignettes or something, and I don't know if I'm ready for feature-film status this week.

Monday, August 24, 2009


So. I've been back in Chicago for just over a week, and damn if it hasn't been the craziest time. The day after I got back, last Tuesday, I went out to an event at a bar across town for my friend N. I stayed there until maybe 1:30, and on the way home something happened. I wish I could be more specific, but in all honesty I can't remember what it was, and no, I was not drunk. (It bothers me to have been asked that question so many times. No, I wasn't.) I was on my bike, and the last memory I have is of some sort of flurry of activity in front of me; I thought that it was followed by a run-in with a curb, but I'm no longer sure. The next thing I remember is two people asking me questions, and I remember them helping me lock my bike to a post before they loaded me into a cab and I went to an emergency room. I crashed, or was hit by a car, and hit my head so hard that everything from the point of impact on is one giant fuzzy ball of memory that doesn't have a coherent sense even now, a week later. Whatever happened happened, and if not for the two amazing people who found me I don't know what would have happened next. I lost my glasses in the accident, and had no cash on me; it was roughly 2:30 in the morning by the time I was found (and I should have been home at least twenty minutes before that without incident). I was so disoriented that I don't know how I would have coped if not for the fact that they gave a cab driver money and left me a note in my book with their phone number and a message about where my bike was. I don't know how I would have saved myself.

N came and stayed with me at the hospital until I was declared more or less well and gave me a place to sleep for the night, and Anna picked me up the next morning (after she received my midnight panicked text) and helped me collect my poor wrecked bicycle and delivered me to my doorstep. (I have AMAZING friends, let it be noted.) It seems like a dream, except for the persistent neck pain and the id bracelet I saved from the hospital that identified me as the thirteen-year-old middle eastern boy a few beds down from me. (They also apparently took and kept my license, which I had to return for a few days later, prompting the question: did they have any idea who I was? Scary.) I spent a day mostly in bed, taking lots of ibuprofen and explaining to the people who I had called or texted in a panic the night before (I remember very little of this) that I was still alive and relatively well.

Until today, it was almost a funny story. I downplayed it to myself and others, because the truth was too serious. Just for comparison, earlier this summer I got drunk at a local bar and fell down en route home and ended up with major scars on both hands and one knee; had I not been loosened up by alcohol I suspect I would have broken one or both wrists. A headache seemed like I got off easy. But today I replaced my glasses and took my bike in to the shop, and while I was there it occurred to me: I was probably hit by a car. It is not clear whether I could have caused that much damage to my bike frame by slowly riding into something under my own power. I was probably hit by a car, which either drove away or asked me if I was okay--which I surely would have told them I was unless something was obviously broken--and then drove away. I am so lucky. To be alive, to be relatively uninjured, to have been wearing a helmet (I always do, but still): I am so damn lucky. I could be dead. I could be still in the hospital. My bike could be unfixable. I could be unfixable. I was on the beach tonight, watching a queer guitar circle of my friends singing Ani songs as the sun went down and I dug my feet into the sand, and I was so fucking grateful to be alive. I am so damn lucky.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

"This is about cleavage, not about socks on my arms"

People keep asking me what I did in Alaska, and I don't know exactly what to tell them. "I, like, walked around and did stuff... I wrote. I ate a lot of berries." These answers do not always seem to suffice. I was in Alaska, for god's sake! I should have had giant, bear-sized adventures, at least carnage and stiff winds and maybe have come back with scars or something, apparently. At least that's how I sometimes feel when I try to describe the mostly quiet, mostly restful time I spent with Erica this year. Most of the drama that occurred was self-induced--my losing myself on the one road, Erica and the drama that comes of living in a small community with well-developed gossip channels--or quickly over, like the lead-up to the auction. So how to sum up my trip? "Well, first I helped make a giant sub sandwich out of scrap paper to paste onto an effigy of a local businessman, then I watched My So-Called Life in a loft while the other girls knitted, and I gained an appreciation for both eggs and IPA. Then we hiked up a mountain." There were also push-up bras, my very first quiche, and high-fives with other people's mothers in pizza places over the fact that, having been there a week, we already knew of people simply due to their gossip potential. I went to a two-year-old's birthday party and watched her learn how to blow bubbles (the moment of realization was amazing) and then dance around pantsless with cake on her face. I sang Fiona Apple and Cat Power to myself on trails. I cooked with propane and made myself a fire, something I'm historically bad at. I ate a lot of cheese.

All of these things are true. But it's also true that I spent a good bit of time just staring out the windows, thinking and writing pages in my journal. Erica's cabin is a cozy secluded place at the bottom of a very steep hill; you can walk to the Nenana River within minutes and pick blueberries to your heart's content. She pointed out to me that plenty of people would pay a lot of money to sit in a cabin in Alaska and write, and I tried to take advantage of that as much as possible. I tried to go slow, to let things happen without trying to push them into happening, and I ended up having a great time that way. I used to push my vacations to their limits and generally spent the whole time massively stressed out, and it feels so much better to just let it go. I needed some alone-in-the-cabin time and some drinking-wine-with-friends time and some mountaintop time, and I got all of those.

But I did manage to take some pictures in between. This is more wildlife and mountains and such, and maybe there will be a post later with some flower and plant pictures. (I didn't do as well with memorizing my plant names this year, so I have to do some spot-checking with Erica before I post things.) Anyway. We saw a lot more wildlife than I recorded, but I usually don't get pictures because they're far away and I'd rather watch and actually have the experience of seeing something than spend the encounter fumbling with my camera to end up with a picture of a spot of brown. But I saw a number of bears (all from the bus, mostly sow and cub pairs or trios), the occasional caribou and moose, and a juvenile golden eagle that landed in Erica's yard one night while C and I were making dinner.

A beaver! Make all the jokes you want. We certainly did. This was during an elderhostel hike and the hikers got a huge kick out of this beaver trying to drag an entire branch into an underwater entrance. Then I thought an old man was going to tell me a beaver joke. (He didn't.) Uncomfortable.

A wolf, my first sight of one. I was surprised at how long he looked, how pointed and lean. He walked along the road near our bus for a while.

The view up where we began our hike, just past Stony Dome near mile eighty-something on the park road. We hiked up Gravel Mountain.

I believe this is where we ended up, or one of the places we ended up. It was high and gravelly, big surprise.

Erica, partway up.

Erica in front of Denali (aka Mt. McKinley). The mountain is only seen by something like 25-30% of visitors, but I've seen it all three times I've been here, which is kind of ridiculous. It's a gorgeous accompaniment to a hike.

Denali again, from farther up. I wish I knew how to fix the contrast in such a way to make this come out more, but a picture can't really capture it anyway.

Clouds coming over during my second hike, a short trek up Mt. Healy.

Fireweed, mostly burned out, on Mt. Healy. Erica has a great metaphor about love and fireweed and ephemerality that I wish I could remember right now.

Near the top of where I hiked to on Healy before I got cold and impatient and turned around.
The trail down.

Friday, August 21, 2009

meeting god

Ooh, that last post was number 666. Nice.
Anyway, I'll write more extensively later today (jetlag, an active social life, and a bicycle accident have put me significantly behind on recording my adventures), but first you should all follow this link and check out the extremely hyperbolic post about the man who drove E and I into the park for our main hike. Seriously, it's worth reading. (My favorite line? "Dick Merrill calls the bears with his bus.") That was quite the experience.
As a teaser, here's my own behind-the-head shot of Mr. Merrill. (You can also see a wolf through the windshield, I think.)
More soon!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

the lives that we dream can exist

I will write more about Alaska later, when I have a little more space in my head to think things through clearly. There are pictures to share, funny stories to tell (note: cleavage is involved), mountains, people, and aloneness. I had a beautiful trip.
It takes a long time to get from E's house outside of Denali to my house on Chicago's north side. Last year it took me twenty-two hours and involved at least five different vehicles; this year was relatively painless at a measly nineteen hours of travel time. There was a five-hour shuttle ride to Anchorage, followed by several hours of downtime (I'll admit: I got a little bit drunk at the Chili's at the airport. What else was there to do?) before watching the sun set as I took off to fly to Minneapolis in time to see the sun rise five hours later, and then on to Chicago where I took two trains in order to arrive at my own front door just as a thunderstorm was about to begin. I was exhausted and dirty, too awake to sleep and too tired to think, and so instead of being productive I checked my email.
Facebook may be much maligned but I appreciate the fact that, if nothing much else, it allows us to reach across time and space to occasionally make connections that might otherwise never happen. It made it so that I could receive the following message from a friend that I haven't spoken to since high school, which he has kindly agreed to allow me to share here. I can't adequately express what it meant to me to read this, to feel that sort of line thrown out from a relative stranger, in the aftermath of a trip to a place that always makes me re-evaluate my life and what I love and why. Thank you, Eugene.

Dear Ammie-

I write to you from the little desk among the dirty mountain bikes, new camping supplies, greasy work benches, and myriad bits and pieces eloquently squeezed into the little store I work at and we affectionately call the Willamette Mountain Mercantile.

A little break in foot traffic allows me a moment to check into facebook, and via facebook, your blog.

Thank you for sharing, for writing, for keeping it real as they say. Reading about getting lost on your way back to E's from the Salmon Bake took me back to 2002, when I was camping in the rain after an evening at the Salmon Bake. I cherish Alaska for its lack of human markings, its complete stillness and solitude. It is good that there are a few places left where there isn't a 24 hour store nearby to stop in to for directions.

I went on to read your posts about your trip to Flagstaff, and your reflections on where home is, and what that means to you. Along the way I found the Portland cartoon, and reflected on the similarity between our gender identities, and our human identities as we search for that elusive place called home. It seems that what we're looking for is a place, whether politically or physically, where we are accepted as we are, allowed to be our unique selves, comfortably surrounded by supportive community, yet free to explore our individuality.

I think that as the definition of what constitutes a home shifts, is questioned, is re defined, the definition of love, and of personal identity is intrinsically interconnected and must also shift, and vise versa. It is our challenge, as individuals who don't fit into the old patriarchal heteronormative paradigm to create the lives that we dream can exist, and the language to describe that which we dream of and create. Thanks for pushing that front.

Love from Oregon,

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

two steps forward, one back

The first time I got lost in Alaska was during the summer of 2005. It involved an aborted night at the Salmon Bake--a restaurant/bar/concert venue in Glitter Gulch, the touristy strip of overpriced shops selling shot glasses and tiny stuffed moose dolls near the park entrance--a map that we realized years later had one crucial piece of wrong information on it, and several hours of driving around in the alpenglow looking for an unmarked cabin I'd never seen before. (We actually had to buy gas because we drove for so long.) At the time it was hell, and it was a relative miracle that we eventually found the correct cabin and didn't barge in on some random Alaskan in the middle of the night, but now it's mostly just a funny story that I roll my eyes at when I remember that first ill-prepared and poorly planned trip.

Every time I come back here I feel like I know at least slightly more about what I'm doing. That first time, I came with a denim jacket, a car full of goldfish crackers and peanut butter, no rain or hiking gear, and no concept of the environment, weather, or layout of the area. I remember the incredulous look on E's face when these things were revealed one by one, and I vowed to not repeat my mistakes in the future. When I returned last year I managed to bring hiking boots, a gigantic borrowed rainjacket, and clothes that at least were capable of keeping me from freezing to death; I learned flower names beyond the ever-present fireweed, I hiked significant amounts, and I didn't get lost. This year on my elderhostel hike with E almost everybody I talked to thought I worked here, apparently based on my ability to name berries E had pointed out moments before. I have my own rain jacket, and it fits. I brought layers.

I came later in the season this year, with a vague hope of seeing the northern lights if such a thing came up and with the definite intention of coming to the Denali Education Center's auction, a social event and fundraiser that I've been hearing about for years. Denali is the kind of place where, due to the relatively small pool of people being drawn from, an event like this invariably ends with everybody you've ever met or heard of gathering in the same room and, if circumstances are adverse, staring at each other awkwardly. As an avid people-watcher, how could I resist? And indeed, it was fascinating. At one point I walked out of the building where the live auction was being led--you haven't seen anything until you've seen an energetic auctioneer trying to whip up enthusiasm for a life-sized handmade ceramic chicken that he describes as "rather angry looking"-- and saw at least five people who I knew to be variously interconnected with my friend all arrayed in front of me in a semi-circle. It was like being in a Victor Hugo novel, where at some point every character invariably shows up in the same place and discovers that the evil stepmother has hired the future paramour of the dead prostitute's daughter to hoodwink her adopted father, or whatever, except with hiking boots.

After the auction was over E and I headed to the Salmon Bake for more revelry, or something. The Bake and its apparent rival, Panorama Pizza, run shuttles down the highway every hour to cut down on drunk driving; we made it out at about 12:30, and after several more beers and an ill-advised (aren't they always?) shot of whisky, I wobbled over and told E that I was heading home with or without her. I made it onto the shuttle, and this is where things began to circle around to where I'd been four years before. The driver hadn't heard of the well-known restaurant by E's house, and instead dropped me off at a highway milemarker maybe a half-mile away; it was dark, I was rather intoxicated, and I was unsure which direction was which. I knew I wasn't far away, so I blindly picked a direction and set out with my headlamp trained at the ground, figuring if I hadn't found her driveway by the next milemarker I'd turn around and head back. There's only one road; I'd find it eventually.

The thing about being lost here is that, much more so than in a city or town, there are few reference points for outsiders. Despite the fact that there are few streets to choose from and a limited number of doors to try, the landmarks that people from non-rural areas use to find their way--say, street signs and house numbers and a gas station with a light on where you can ask for directions--are not always there, are not the givens they are in my everyday life. This became abundantly clear to me as I stumbled down the dark highway, waiting to see anything that would remind me of where I was, or at least tell me whether I was heading in the right direction or not. But there was nothing. It was three in the morning, it was dark and there was nobody awake anywhere near me, and even if I called E there was no way I could tell her where I was. I was on my own, it seemed.

I eventually got picked up, less than half a mile away from E's house, by the Panorama Shuttle. The driver's girlfriend was the girl I'd done a shot with earlier, naturally. He dropped me off at the right driveway ("Of course I know E! Three driveways down from the restaurant, right?"), and I, because it was that kind of night, lost my headlamp as I exited the van, slurring my thanks yet again. E lives at the bottom of a steep hill with no lights whatsoever, and even drunk I knew I couldn't make it down alone without a light. And so I sat on her landlord's steps underneath a motion sensor light, waiting for her return, coughing hard and crying just a little bit from aftershock as the rain started to come down in earnest. It was like a story a twelve-year-old girl with knowledge of alcohol and rural Alaska would write.

Eventually E came home and we made it down the hill and drank tea and talked about boys until four in the morning and I peeled off my dress and announced that I had to go to bed. The next day she went off to deal with very nice but unfortunately timed tourists for way too many hours, and I took a three-hour nap and wrote in my journal until I regained my composure. We had dinner that night, and by then it was already a funny story. I always have a day here where I feel so out of place, so foreign and unknowledgeable and helpless, that it lowers my spirits and makes me feel flat and useless. The evolution is in the recovery time; as soon as I can laugh at myself, I know it will be okay and that I'm getting better all the time. Maybe next trip I'll manage to avoid getting lost at all, or at least I'll be laughing even as I stumble away from wherever I'm supposed to be going.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

away we go

So. I'm off to Alaska--where the temperature is apparently ranging between 24 and 75, which has led me to pack way too many clothes--for the next twelve days or so, and I'll have limited internet access so the relative silence on here will be continuing. Lately I've just been out of words, so at a loss for what to talk or write about, and I've been trying not to let it bother me too much and to just wait until it passes. I think this trip is exactly what needs to happen right now; I've been feeling a little disconnected, a little less maniacally joyful lately, but I'm imagining that when I return I'll be back to my cheesy wordy ways. So wish me luck, cross your fingers that I can make it through the next twenty hours or so on minimal sleep, and I'll see you in almost two weeks, a little dirtier and with a giant smile on my face.

Saturday, August 01, 2009


Since I seem to be completely out of words, and since I also seem to have perhaps left my camera battery charger in Arizona and so can't yet upload trip pictures, here is a comic from one of the zines Lauren sent me from Portland. (Just click to see a larger version where you can actually read the words.) I'm leaving for Alaska in about five days, and I'm feeling not only unprepared but like I've agreed to do far too much in that time period. Time to go bake something and work off some of that excess angst.