Sunday, January 29, 2012

January Books & Eats

Read this month: The Nobodies Album, The Alchemist, The Picture of Dorian Gray, A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception and Survival at Jonestown.

And it was a good month for dining adventures...

Traditional Platter at Lebanese Taverna, with yogurt salad subbing for the baba ghanoush. I've gotten this many times... it would be on my Last Meal Request list, if I ever found myself on Death Row. Between us, though, I'd rather just drive to Annapolis.

Cute little individual tiny Brie cheeses from Trader Joe's. These were supposed to be for kids' lunches, but they're alarmingly addictive and I ended up eating four out of the five-pack. In three days.

Chirashi-zushi from Ichiban in Bowie. Sad to say, I've been so spoiled by delicious chirashi that my reaction to this was, "seriously?" I found the assortment disappointing. Still, one could certainly do worse.

The Mitsitam Cafe at the Museum of the American Indian in D.C. offers Native American food and food made with seasonal ingredients used by the indigenous people of North and South America. I'd been eager to go to this place for years-- where else can you get Native American food, after all? This is a "razor clam and pumpkin pie with green onion butter," and it was delicious. I also got to try the "huckleberry fritters with wildflower honey and powdered sugar," which were essentially upscale blueberry pancakes. But tasty!

An original gyro and seasoned fries from Marathon Deli in College Park. I was shamed into going there by friends who couldn't believe I call myself an alumna of UMCP and had never tried it, and I understand why. It was a great gyro.

Hot stone bibimbap from Spa World in Centreville, VA. Not the best bibimbap I've ever had, but good.

Fried dates wrapped in bacon from Jaleo in Bethesda. This was a D.C. Restaurant Week adventure. They were good, but I have to admit my husband's version is better. Sorry Jaleo, but your food was still very much worth the trip.

Also from Jaleo: chocolate mousse topped with chocolate ganache, hazelnut ice cream and glazed hazelnuts. This was amazing. Worth the visit for this alone.

Yes, a Starbucks beverage... this is an off-the-menu vanilla bean Frappuccino with caramel swirls. Maybe I'm late to this party, but I saw someone get one a few weeks ago and had to quiz the baristas to figure out what it was. I really liked it-- very vanilla-milkshake-like-- but I'll probably wait until summer to get another one.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

I Return to My Old Stomping Grounds, Part 1: College Park

You know you've lived in a place a really long time-- either that, or you're as old as your teenager claims you are-- when you give directions according to what the landmarks used to be. I grew up alongside the University of Maryland-- first because my parents dragged me along to their classes (taught or attended), then because we moved to the town next door, University Park. Today I meant to go to Ikea, but I got a little sidetracked along the way. By a gyro. I'll get to that.

Maryland Terpwear and Gifts. Previously: Terp Territory.

All I really wanted was a new "University of Maryland" sticker for the back of my car. For over a year now, ever since an ice storm peeled off part of the existing one, I've been driving around with this sticker that says "UNIVERSIT  OF MARYLAND." There's something very uncomfortable about an English major's expression of college pride being marred by a typo. But every time I tried to buy a replacement, something would crop up. Last time, I was literally half a mile from the store when the school nurse called and told me my daughter was throwing up in the health room. But now my quarry was almost within my reach.

Driving past the old Dollar Theater that is now an Applebee's-- I saw "Inner Space" there-- at the theater, I mean, not at the Applebee's-- and turning left at the old 'Vous bar that is now the "Cornerstone Grill" or some nonsense, I proceeded to make another left just before the old Pi Kappa Alpha house that burned down fifteen years ago and is now a high-rise apartment building, and parked in the strip mall. Oh College Park, how I miss your grungier days and your grungier ways. These students walking your streets will never know what it meant to own a pair of "Vous shoes" designated to walk in the spilled beer and vomit of that establishment. Nor will they see the embarrassing spectacle of the toilet-papered PIKA house, moldering and lacking large sections of paint, as they shop across the street; they will never know the alleged slogan of that fraternity is "PIKA Is The Shit." Instead they live in these glossy high-rises, drinking bubble tea and window-shopping at Game Stop.

The Cornerstone Grill: great-grandchild of The 'Vous.

Finding nothing at the first store I tried, I dashed across Route One toward the Maryland Book Exchange. But first-- sidetracked again!-- I walked past the Bagel Place where Laura and I used to often stop for breakfast on our way to high school. I couldn't resist going inside.

Oh, bless you, Bagel Place. You haven't changed one bit since 1992.

My order number even got a proper Beavis and Butt-head-era snicker out of me.

You see that? THAT is proper veggie cream cheese. None of this "tiny bits of diced vegetable" crap. This is a salad held together with cheese.

At the Book Exchange I found the window sticker that had managed to evade me for so long. It almost got away again; the lines were insanely long with students buying their new-semester textbooks, but I refused to be deterred. If it caused me to get a parking ticket, well, this is College Park, and I'm all about tradition.

While I waited in line, I pulled up my Words With Friends games on my phone. I'm playing against someone I'll refer to only as Famous Best-Selling Novelist. I managed to beat her last time, but this time...

You see my letters there? That's not a game board, it's a yodel. Or perhaps a primal scream. And the Triple Word Score is WIDE OPEN. Sighing, I completed my pathetic turn and paid for my sticker. SUCCESS.

I headed back to retrieve my car; my phone was reminding me that it would be time to meet my mother in an hour, and I still needed to go to Ikea. But food sidetracked me once again.

Curse you, Marathon Deli. Interfering with my desire for Swedish meatballs.

Confession: I had never eaten at Marathon Deli. It was only because I realized my fellow alumni were going to turn me in for this and my degree would be rescinded that I decided to drop in today. And they were right-- it was an amazing gyro. In case you're thinking, "But you JUST ATE a cream cheese bagel"-- I only ate half. And I didn't finish the fries. So there.

Although Marathon Deli has been there forever, I noticed they have a new neighbor.

Is that what all the cool kids are doing these days? Back in my day, we had this:

Okay, it looked a little better back then, but this WAS the Santa Fe Cafe, where everyone went on Saturday nights and had a grand old time. If you walk through College Park you will see there are picturesque low brick walls along the sidewalks; those are for keeping the drunken students from falling into the street. Full disclosure: I never partied at the Santa Fe Cafe. My undergrad career was socially pretty pathetic, which explains why all [ed note: yes, all] of my books include people attending college, teaching at college, wandering around on college campuses, or reflecting on college. Our sublimated desires show up in our fiction, and yes, I confess it, I want to go back to school.

After all that, I hurried off to meet my mother. The Ikea trip never happened; it's sad. But I'll go there next time; it's just past the concrete slab where the strip club used to be, up the road from the shell of the old Sizzler. Turn left.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

I Get Naked

Given how exposed I already feel about, you know, writing a book that causes my own friends to ask what the hell is wrong with me, you'd think I'd avoid going naked in public. You'd be wrong, though; last week I made my first trip to Spa World, a Korean spa in Northern Virginia, about an hour away.

I checked in at the counter, paid out my thirty-five bucks, locked up my shoes, and headed down the hall to the locker room. To understand Spa World, picture a modern-day Roman bath. There's an enormous hot tub/jet-filled pool-- two, actually, because they're segregated by sex-- filled with different "stations" of water jets that power-scrub your body from all different angles. There are cascade faucets as well-- like mini-waterfalls for your shoulders-- and around the perimeter of this central pool sit a selection of even warmer hot tubs and a cold tub as well. There's a showering area, naturally-- required before you get in the tubs-- and lots of Japanese-style scrubbing stations, where you can sit on a little stool, scrub down with a Korean bathing mitt, and rinse off with a showerhead on a flexible hose.

Did I mention everyone is naked?

Women of all ages. Little kids, middle-aged women, old ladies hobbling around as they are led by the arm by younger, equally naked people. Women of all races: lots of the clients are Asian, but there was a very respectable sampling of Caucasian and African-American women as well. Lots of the women there are Russian-- I took two years of Russian, so I could tell what language they were speaking. It was a whole exuberant fun park of naked people.

It took a few minutes of getting used to. But I'd read on the Yelp review that if everyone is naked, it's like nobody is naked, and that proved to be true. Also, my friend C. had visited the place a month or so before me and gave me a full review, which included assuring me that I wouldn't be the chunkiest person there. The holidays, man-- that and a hellish revision that dragged on for almost three months during which time all I wanted to do was eat iced gingerbread-- it all got to me. It really did.

As part of what must be Spa World's hazing ritual, I got into the hottest hot tub alone. It's a pretty small tub. I look up, and this naked woman with sturdy rugby-player's shoulders-- covered in animal-print tattoos-- is climbing in too. As she settles into the water I notice she's got a large tattoo on her calf of two interlinked stick-figure "female" signs. Ha, Spa World, I think. You're going to have to try harder than that. Sitting naked in a hot tub with a heavily tattooed lesbian is nothing to me. Little did I know the place had bigger and better tricks up its sleeve.

Eventually I saunter back to the locker room and dress myself in the desk-issued orange shorts and T-shirt-- a sort of prison uniform for all of the spa's inmates/customers. I make my way into the co-ed sauna section. Now, this is a surprise: not the individual little sauna rooms and stone igloos whose doors line the walls, but the large and open center area, on which dozens of people-- seventy? eighty? -- are lying around on synthetic bamboo mats, watching TV, working on their laptops, sleeping. It's more or less like what McKeldin Mall looks like on a nice spring day at the University of Maryland, but consolidated into a space the size of a high school science lab, and without the frisbees. Feeling a little disoriented, I head over to the bubble tea bar and order a honeydew bubble tea using the locker key that's on a bungee cord around my wrist. They have a nice little system there: you can pay for everything extra with that key, and you only need to see the damage of that once you check out.

The honeydew bubble tea is awesome. I've only ever had bubble tea in malls, and I don't know whether it was low-quality or I've just gotten used to the unique texture of the giant tapioca pearls, but I had fantasies of getting another one for days afterward. In any case, I walked circles around the room as I drank it, reading the explanations outside the various sauna rooms, which I'll get to in a moment. I wish I had photos for you, but for some reason people in saunas don't take kindly to somebody taking their sweaty and orange-clad photos.

There's something vaguely familiar about this place, and it takes me a few minutes to hit on what it is. Spa World feels a lot like the Mormon Temple. No joke: maybe it's the lack of clocks leading to a sense of freedom from time, the people all wearing the same clothing (all white in the Temple, and at the spa, well, you know), or just the general sense of idle relaxation, but it's distinctly there. It's been a couple of years since I had a Temple recommend-- the ID card that gets you past the Temple bouncers-- but I'm quite sure there was no bubble tea bar, hot tub, or cafe serving kimchi and Russian dumplings in the Temple. You can make your own evaluations about which kind of relaxation you prefer.

Around the same time I'm making that connection, I glance to my left and do a double take. That woman, standing right there at the cash register waiting for a smoothie or some hard-boiled eggs, is someone I know from the Mormon church. Not only that, but I named one of my kids after her. I have to stare for a long time, because I haven't seen her or talked to her in years-- she's long since left the church, I have a rather complicated history with her, etc-- and I'm trying to figure out if that's really her or if this whole Temple/Spa World connection is just screwing with my brain. I decide to write it off as "unresolved" and finish my bubble tea.

Then I hit the saunas. Okay, I took one picture before I chickened out. Here it is:

This is in the first "gem room," which is super-hot and is supposed to fill you with "vibrations" from the gemstones lining the walls. And by "gemstones," I mean huge hunks of amethysts, rose quartz, and whatever else they've got there, all arranged inside this stone igloo in amazing patterns. It was really something to behold. I don't know how much the alleged vibrations did for me, but the room was gorgeous. The next igloo was lined in clay, thick swaths of it that dribbled down like tiny stalactites. After that came a series of rooms: the ice room (imagine sitting inside an undefrosted freezer from the 1980s, with the frosty ice on the wall and everything), another gemstone room (this one done in shades of blue), one lined in wood charcoal, and one lined in blocks of rock salt. There's also my favorite, the clay ball room, which consists of a one-foot thickness of small clay beads; you lie down on it, placing your head on one of the little wooden support blocks, and the beads mold to the shape of your body. Does that sound cool? Oh, it is.

While I settled into the ice room, though, I looked up to see the woman I'd spotted earlier staring at me with the kind of expression that must have been on my own face about half an hour earlier. "Becky!" she blurted. Yes, it was that strange. If the Mormon Temple is supposed to make its members think of what it will be like in Heaven, then I must say the similarities keep right on going with Spa World. I can imagine that in the afterlife there's a lot of looking up and feeling alarmed as you recognize the person taking the next seat in the waiting room.

So once I was done making the rounds of the saunas and frightening people, I decided to get some dinner at the cafe.

I must admit I was disappointed by the bibimbap, which is one of my favorite foods in the world-- it needed some bean paste/seasoning in there-- but it was still decent, and the wait for it was even better. The cafe was packed, and I settled in rather uncomfortably at a stranger's table to wait for them to call my number. The guy sitting beside me, a large and gregarious blond man, immediately asked if I was there for the Meetup. When I told him I was not, he pressed a flier into my hand inviting me to the next one. I thanked him before looking at it and seeing it was an advertisement from the Nudists' Society of Northern Virginia (or something like that). "We'd love to have you," he said, and dug back into his rice noodles as he tried to convince the two Russian girls sitting across from him that they should join up, too.

That's never happened to me at the Mormon Temple, either.

After some time had passed, I took another dip in the jet pool and hot tubs. First, though, I needed to digest my bibimbap and the overall mind-warping experience of the place, and then spin my wheels for a few minutes as I narrowly avoided stripping down to my birthday suit again in front of the former Mormon missionary, who was now putting on her makeup and preparing to leave. Thank God from whom all blessings flow that I didn't run into her while we were both naked. Had that occurred, someone would have had to design an award for Most Awkward Reunion Ever and had the mayor of Centreville present it to me on live television. It would have been that deserving.

This was, without question, one of the strangest experiences of my life-- and it would be hard for me to explain, on a public blog, exactly how profound that statement is. And I can't wait to go back. If you happen to see a naked chick in the water with a Paradise Lost tattoo and an excess of iced-gingerbread weight, please pretend you don't see me. I'll do the same for you, and I won't blog it, I promise.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

2012 So Far

The end of 2011 was a little bittersweet. What an amazing year it was for me, between the trips to Tampa and New York City and New Orleans for various writing gigs, the book release, and everything else that made it all a year of wonders. Along with it, though, came the hope that this year would offer similar opportunities, that it wouldn't all just go away. Thus far the new year is off to a delightful start.

My youngest one got a box of 24 cans of Play-Doh for Christmas, but it was the 9-year-old who was very proud to have turned it into this lovely gift. Just behind it you can see, coincidentally, a copy of "The Alchemist," the book I am reading right now. So far this year I have already finished "The Picture of Dorian Gray," a new favorite, and "A Thousand Lives," a narrative nonfic book by Julia Scheeres about the Jonestown cult and massacre. I could barely put it down and flew through it in three days. It was a fascinating read. I'm reading books at an unprecedented pace these days, but maybe it's because I'm procrastinating finishing the book that's due to my editor next week.

This past week also brought a radio interview on a UMass station and a little spike of new Facebook fans, accompanied by glowing comments on Facebook and Twitter. This makes me very happy. Bit by bit, the writer's life comes to me.

Last weekend I took my 9-year-old snowboarding for the first time. Despite the fact that my second novel, "Desperado City," has a protagonist who is a snowboarder, I had never actually been to a ski resort in my entire life. (I didn't need to for that novel-- it takes place during the summer months.) It was a 90 minute drive, but the weather on Saturday was very mild, so once we settled in I enjoyed watching my kiddo on the bunny slope all day while I drank a $5 mocha latte and tried to write on my MacBook. It didn't work at all. I gave up and read "Dorian Gray" instead. My kid had a fantastic time, and that thrilled me.

To start the year off right-- and soothe my nerves from a stressful email exchange at my day job-- I took myself to Lebanese Taverna in Annapolis following a run to Trader Joe's and then to the Amish Market. Even a cursory glance at my Traditional Platter will explain why I'm having such a complex time getting rid of the ten pounds I acquired in the second half of last year, but I justify it by believing there's only but so much additional damage you can do with cucumber yogurt salad and parsley. It's delicious, too. If I am ever on Death Row, for my last meal I will be ordering a Traditional Platter from LT.

And just to drive the point home about those ten pounds and why, my husband and I went out to Jaleo to take advantage of the DC Restaurant Week menu. For about the past fifteen years I have read Washingtonian's "best restaurants" cover stories-- the ones they seem to publish about ten issues of every twelve-- and bemoaned the fact that I can never go to any of those places. But I finally did it-- made a reservation at a place I'd dreamed of trying out for years-- and it was as fabulous as I'd hoped. Above you can see my chocolate mousse dessert with a scoop of hazelnut ice cream and candied hazelnuts, which was so completely delicious I expect I'll be daydreaming about it at random moments for years to come. There are many more Restaurant Week dates in my future, be sure of that.

I hope this year will be one of expanded horizons, new experiences, and at last trying out some of the things I've put on the back burner as I've raised my kids. I wish all of you a wonderful 2012, too.