Friday, September 19, 2014

So Much Beer

I am in Minneapolis.  I have been drinking a lot of locally brewed beer.  Beer makes me too sleepy to blog.

I went to a volleyball game that was played on a sand court that was attached to a bowling alley.  This was described to me as "deep Minnesota."  It is a thing here.

The volleyball/bowling establishment had really good wings.  Very juicy and big and cheap.  I like that you can count on the Midwest for really good American food.

Also, there are rats all over me.  And my pants have a huge hole right under my butt, so I have to buy new pants tomorrow.  While wearing my current pants.

Don't worry; the rats are pets.  (And I have dwarf hamsters, Pinky and the Brain, so this does not bother me.)  Their little paws are really, really tickly though.  One of them made out with my toothbrush, so now I have a new toothbrush.  The other one ate part of my water bottle straw, but not a critical part.

They are back in their cage now, which is good, because if they're anything like my hamsters, there'd be poop everywhere tomorrow morning, and these guys can jump onto the couch, where I am sleeping.

That pretty much covers the last two days except that we also stopped by the Mall of America (because Matt is on a mission to find a fall coat) and a thrift shop (for the same purpose).  Tomorrow we will go to another shop in further pursuit of said coat and pants that are not borderline obscene.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Seafood and Chocolate and Trolls (Oh My!)

First stop of the day was Pike Place Market, home of, among other things, a fish stall that is famous for yelling orders really loudly and throwing gigantic fish around.  I only got a very blurry photo of someone catching a fish, so I'm not going to bother posting it, but I think the photos below will give you a sense of the general atmosphere.  If you've been to Philadelphia, it reminds me a lot of Reading Terminal, but with much, much more seafood.  There are also stalls that sell things rather than food, like handmade bags or cutting boards or coasters or little crafts.  There was even what seemed to be a fairy princess stall, where you could buy colorful tutus and hair veil crown thingies.

This piggy bank accepts donations to various charities listed on the plaque on the post next to it.

These are tiny little clay flowers.  I bought one for my office.
We had lunch at the Market Grill, which is inside Pike Place Market.  They offer two types of meals, sandwiches and platters, which include the same serving of fish/prawns/whatever you get (and thus are the same price), but just come in different forms.  I ordered the salmon platter, which got a very interesting spice rub, but was a little bit dry.  I think you can do better.

We followed this up by going to Pike Place Chowder a few blocks away, which was very tasty.  They also use bacon in their chowder, so I guess that is in fact a Pacific Northwest thing to do, even though it's sold as "New England Clam Chowder."  You can get a sampler of four types of chowder, each in a 5 oz. cup.  We ordered the traditional New England, seafood bisque, sea scallop, and market chowder, which changes every day, but today was crab and oysters.  They were all really good, except the sea scallop, which had a little too much dill in it and left you with a weird aftertaste.  You can also ask to taste the chowders in tiny solo cups before you order them, so if you find one you like, you can go all in without hesitation.

Starting at the 11 o'clock position and going clockwise: scallop, seafood bisque, market, New England.
Afterwards, we took the bus to Fremont for a chocolate tour at Theo Chocolate.  We barely made it onto the 4:00 tour in terms of spots available, so if you want to do this, advanced reservations might be wise.  The website says tours are offered on the half hour during the summer, but today, they were every hour, so I'm not sure when the summer schedule ends.  The cost is $10 for an hour-long tour of an honest-to-god chocolate factory (much better than the ride at Hershey Park), and I'm sure you eat at least that much in chocolate over the course of the hour.

The tour takes you from bean to bar, as they put it.  The founder, who had absolutely no connection to chocolate, purchased a boat, sailed out of Florida, and crash landed in South America.  (He did not know how to sail very well.)  He started volunteering around, and wound up at a cacao farm.  He realized that the cocoa industry is the worst thing ever, and wanted to make a change, so he came back to the States and started importing fair trade, organic beans for third-party companies.  This didn't accomplish the kind of scale he wanted, so he founded Theo Chocolate, named for theobromine/theobroma cacao (the scientific name of the cocoa tree).

They are extremely proud of their fair trade certification and their USDA organic certification.  Their ingredients are all normal words you recognize, they support biodiversity in the chocolate belt, and their farmers are all paid a living wage.  They also walk you through the effort involved before the cocoa gets to the factory.  For example, there is no way to automate the harvest of cocoa pods, which are the size of footballs and weigh five pounds, because a single trunk bears cocoa pods in all stages of development, so you need human judgement to leave the younger ones on there while you harvest the ripe ones.  So every cocoa pod that has ever been harvested in the history of the world has been removed from a tree trunk by a farmer with a machete.  That's just the tip of the iceberg, but you get the idea - it takes a lot of fucking work to make a chocolate bar.

In contrast, most other chocolate producers are not bean to bar; instead, they get a half-processed version of chocolate, and then they finish it off with their flavor inclusions.  Much of that half-processed stuff is made from cacao harvested by children and/or slaves.  It is an industry that makes FIFA look ok.  I realize I sound like a Theo Chocolate salesperson, but it helps that our tour guide was clearly very passionate about this company and its ethics.

After the heavy talk, the tour went on through the factory itself, which is full of heavy machinery and thus HOT AS BALLS.  The guide estimated it was about 100 degrees, and told us that during the summer, the workers wear ice vests.  (By the way, this totally blew my mind.  Ice vests are exactly what my life has been missing.)  Their factory includes a confection kitchen, where they hand make everything that isn't a chocolate bar - ganache, Santa Clauses, Millenium Falcons, etc.  All ingredients that are added in are made from scratch.

At the end of the tour, you get a full-size chocolate bar (after having had lots and lots of samples), and of course wind up in the store, where you spend all your money on chocolate.  (Ken, prepare yourself for some ginger chocolate and ganache.)  The confections often cannot be purchased outside their own store, because they have no preservatives and thus no shelf life, but the bars are in all 50 states.  (Not sure how environmentally friendly/sustainable that part is, but I guess they don't mention that for a reason.)  That's a lot of paragraphs, but hey, I really like chocolate, and I don't want my consumption of it to make the world a worse place.

As for the neighborhood of Fremont, it is the kind of place that just has random quirky shit.  See below.

Lenin.  Because why not.  It is originally from Slovakia.
Troll under a bridge.  That's a real VW bug under his left hand.
Presumably, this swing is privately owned, but it's along the sidewalk for public use.
Hashtags everywhere.
We took a coffee break (this was actually before the tour, as was visiting Lenin, but who cares), and I had a cappuccino, but perhaps my expectations of Seattle coffee were too high, because I was underwhelmed, and the place had four stars on Yelp.  Oh well.

This was Stephanie's drink.  I don't like skulls, but this seems difficult to make.
We came back to Conor's and invited over my sister's friend and his girlfriend and played Fluxx, a card game (with its own dedicated deck).  The basic rules are that you start with three cards, and each turn is draw one, play one.  However, the cards you play can add/subtract new rules or new objectives; each card explains its own effect.  (There is no objective at the start of the game.)  You generally cannot expect to know what the board or your hand will look like by the time your next turn comes around, so it is not a strategy game.  It is just silly fun, and the ending is usually sudden, and the winner ends up being kind of random.  I enjoyed it, and a lot of the cards are just asking people to do entertaining things like groaning like a zombie or speaking in a ridiculous accent.

Conor also made some awesome bruschetta.

Now I have to leave for my flight in a couple hours, so I should pack and go to sleep.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Catching Up

Cathy has her boarding passes!  Yay!

On Saturday, we walked around Port Angeles a bit before checking out Lake Crescent, at the recommendation of two Koreans I met on the train from L.A. to San Francisco.  Port Angeles is described in Twilight as the only thing approaching a city in the vicinity of Forks, WA.  This is accurate.  It is also described as being unsafe, and Edward saves Bella from a criminal.  That part seems not so accurate, though I can't really evaluate that with confidence.  (In case it's not already totally obvious, I have clearly read all the Twilight books.)

There seems to have been some sort of sand sculpture event, the remnants of which were impressive, but I've definitely seen better.

It's a bit too backlit, but this is a fisherman who has caught a fish being eaten by a seal being eaten by a whale.

Aside from that, Port Angeles is, well, a port.  So there is water, and it's pretty, and you can see Mount Baker (which I totally thought was Canada and was hoping to incorporate a Palinism, but it's not).

Parking lot for boats!
Lake Crescent is a lake vacation kind of lake.  It's beautiful, but in a calm, relaxing sort of way, unlike the sort of awe-inspiring color and form of Antelope Canyon.  I can see why it was recommended, but it's more of a come-and-stay kind of place than a look-see kind of place.

At Lake Crescent, we saw the second wedding setup that I came across over the weekend.  The earlier one was at another beach also along Olympic National Park.  On Sunday, I saw at least two more wedding parties in Seattle.  So I guess September is prime wedding season in the Pacific Northwest.  I guess you want to do it before the permanent, cold drizzle sets in.

We had lunch at Crab House in Port Angeles, where I had the most flavorless Dungeness crab ever.  Do not go there.

I forget if these were in Washington or Oregon, but along the drive, there are signs reading, "Your Tax Dollars at Work" along with the projected date of completion of certain road repair projects.  I liked that; I'd like to have a sense of what my tax dollars are paying for, and that there is a real plan for them, other than the Second Avenue subway that is never happening.  (It has been "a plan, and occasional construction project, since 1929.")  I would guess that if people know what their money is going to in more concrete terms, they would bitch less about paying taxes.

I also forgot to mention that we passed a Cape Disappointment.  I'm not sure who named this, but they were clearly having a rough day.  Also there are a lot of extremely free-range cows in Oregon.  They have all the range.  Also there was a Chinese station at Olympic National Park that we were receiving from Vancouver, where presumably, people don't peek around the corner if you speak Mandarin.  Also, Oregon has big leaves and tiny pine cones.

Ok, forgotten thoughts section over.

After lunch, we drove to Bainbridge Island and onto the ferry that goes into Seattle.  This was both the fastest way to get to Seattle and the most quintessentially Seattle mode of transportation we could have taken.  If you're going from Bainbridge to Seattle, going in a vehicle is a steal, because you only pay for the vehicle, and passengers don't get charged at all.  So $17.30 covered our minivan and all five of us.  Fares are different in the other direction.  You also want to be port side, or just at the head of the ship, since that's where you'll get views of the city.  There were people who were in tank tops, which was very bizarre to me, as you're crossing a sound, and it's extremely windy and cold.  I'm not sure if they were unprepared, or if these temperatures just aren't cold to locals.  But I'd advise that you bring a jacket.

Attack of the giant Candide
My parents took me to drop my stuff off at Conor's before heading over to Chihuly Garden and Glass/the Space Needle.  Chihuly's glass work is really cool, but having no appreciation for how difficult the glass-blowing process is, it is a very short exhibit, and I think the average visitor probably spends 30-60 minutes there, with 60 minutes giving you a very generous amount of wandering time.  If you have some understanding of the process, I assume the work is much more marvelous and may take longer to appreciate.

We then headed to the Space Needle for a complete panoramic view of the city.  You can buy tickets for Chihuly and the Space Needle together ($34 online), and you pick a time to go up the Space Needle.  Boarding begins a half hour before your ticketed time.  There are general admission tickets available that you can buy there, but I think they are slightly more expensive (just by a dollar or two), and I'm not sure if you would have to wait for timed tickets to board first or how that works.  In any case, it wasn't very crowded, so I doubt it would've made much difference on this particular day.  Our scheduled time was 7:00 PM, which was perfect for this time of year, because the sun set around 7:15.

The sunset was extremely sudden.  From the Space Needle, it goes behind a mountain, and the sun is there one second, and gone the next.  You may be thinking, "Isn't that always true?" but it isn't.  The sunset over the Pacific feels like it takes forever.  It timidly creeps toward the horizon, checks out what's going on over on the other side, and then tiptoes over the edge.  Here, you see the sun get to the peak of a mountain, get out your camera, and then when you look up again, it's already gone.  The party's over, it doesn't feel like saying goodbye, and just ghosts.

This is also a good time because you can catch the beginning of the night skyline a little while after the sun sets.  (You can stay as long as you want until closing, but this way you don't have to be up there for hours.)

My fifth-wheeling days then ended as the parents went off to the airport to fly back home, and I went to Conor's.  I later had dinner at HoneyHole (which is not a brothel) and discovered that Texas may have ruined barbecue for me.  I ordered a brisket sandwich, and it was ok, but it was not amazing.  Maybe I will never enjoy non-Southern barbecue again.  That would be sad.

I walked to and from HoneyHole on East Pike Street, which is pretty lively on a Saturday night, and I think gives a good sense of the city.  I saw flannel, a bubble machine pointed out someone's window just blowing bubbles into the night, a blazer paired with shorts, very colorful hair, groups of people who were not homeless but just kind of on the street (sometimes playing "music"), a drummer using buckets and glass bottles, and someone who I thought was asking for the lollipop that was in my mouth, but was actually asking for my to-go box of leftovers (which I completely forgot I was carrying).  In my defense, he did not appear to be homeless at all, so it just didn't even occur to me that he was asking for food; it seemed much more like he was just a rando who was being really weird.  Anyway, you somehow get this overall sense that the 90s just never left Seattle.

These groups of young, able-bodied, probably educated, not-homeless street people are apparently a thing here.  They panhandle alongside the legitimately down-and-out homeless people, and are generally leading a lifestyle that I consider to be utter bullshit.  If you are choosing to be homeless, and you are asking others for money that you could earn, or food you could buy, you are a dick.  Grow up, get over your free spirit shit, and get a fucking job.

Seattle does not appear to believe in temperature control.  This is not a kind of lifestyle I am comfortable with.  In the few days I've been here, it's been both chilly and unseasonably (and uncomfortably) warm.  The interiors of the buildings I've been in have thus been either chilly or uncomfortably warm.  I do not understand this.  I like the environment, but not that much.  Let me offset my A/C-abusing carbon ass print somewhere else.  Please.

Yesterday, we walked around the city a bunch, coming across a weekly year-round farmer's market with some very tasty looking fresh produce, a public outdoor swing dance event, and Seattle's oldest restaurant, which served me pumpkin bisque in a Pyrex bowl on top of something from someone's grandmother's house.

The big event of the day was Bill Speidel's Underground Tour, which I highly recommend ($18 regular, $15 student, runs about 75 minutes).  It is a much more historical tour than I expected, and it's told in a very engaging and humorous way.  Apparently, Seattle was once built about a story or so lower than its current street level, and was elevated due to problems involving sewage and high tide.  The Underground is a tour of this now-basement level area and goes through interesting bits of the city's history.

These were once skylights but are now in the sidewalks.  So if you see this, you are walking over the hollow Underground.
Yes, this is a kilt store.  It was next to Underground Tours.  Seattle is weird.
After that, we had dinner at Taylor Shellfish Farms, where we tried extremely fresh oysters and geoduck clams (pronounced 'gooey duck,' apparently).  The oysters are kept in tanks in the dining area, so you are perfectly aware that they are alive but minutes before they are served to you.  I don't have a problem with this, but if you would, then obviously do not go there.  The geoduck is also very good.  It is surprisingly chewy, but not in an unpleasant way, and it's sliced very thin, which complements the texture very well.  I highly recommend giving it a try.

We were still sort of hungry after, so we each got a slice of pizza at Mario's, which had been recommended to Conor and Stephanie.  It was advertised as "classic New York style."  It looked like it, but it was bad pizza.  Mediocre at best.  And yet it had 3.5 stars on Yelp and people swearing up and down it was the best pizza ever.  I would definitely increase your Yelp bottom line here.  Mario's also makes drinks, which are also not very good.

Today was a food/nap day.  Lunch was pretty good, but not super remarkable.  Dinner was great.  We went to Momiji for their sushi/sashimi happy hour and got lots of quality fish for very low prices.  The bartender at this place also really knows his shit.  He explained the provenance of china-china to us when we asked (prevented malaria and thus worked into aperitifs) and was very skillful at mixing drinks.  You could tell he has a lot of fun at his job and experimenting with different combinations, and generally takes a lot of pride in his work.  I feel like he's the kind of employee you want to give raises to but never promote, because he's perfectly in his element without having to deal with managerial crap.

On our way to dinner, we passed through the nearby park, and people were playing bike polo.  It's polo (horseback, not water) but on bikes, with plastic mallets and a wiffle ball.  I do not understand how you play this without scraping all of your skin off, but it seems like something Seattle would do.  There are also footprints on the sidewalk near bus stops to teach you dance steps while you wait, which is pretty awesome.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Post Cut Off by Strike

On Friday, we went from Seaside, OR to Olympic National Park in the very northwest corner of the U.S.

Before we left Seaside, we headed to the beach, since we were staying only a few blocks away.  Given that this is the Pacific Northwest, going to the beach does not exactly mean tanning in your bikini and surfing in the ocean.  The water is very, very cold.  But it is still a beach, and it is the ocean, so it's very pretty, and there are lots of sand dollars.  You have to go out to a sandbar to get the complete ones that haven't been cracked and eaten by birds, which we learned by asking this woman who had four shopping bags full of them (to sell).  She kindly gave each of us one for free.  They're pretty grey and have other discoloration when you first pick them, so the stores bleach them to get them really white.  It is kind of sad, because I think the ones that are whole might still be alive, and I feel like either being soaked in bleach or choking on air is a really bad way to go.

We drove a bit up 101, which hugs the coast in some parts, and then stopped in Long Beach for lunch.  The welcome arch says it's the world's longest beach, but I'm not sure what counts as beach, and how Long Beach is the world's longest.  Surely there are longer continuous coastlines than this beach.  There was also a sign that said no driving on the beach, but there were several cars parked out on the sand, so I'm skeptical of these signs generally.

We had lunch at Castaway's Seafood Grille, which was very good.  They have award-winning clam chowder (with bacon!, which seems to be a thing in this area), and their seafood is steamed and soaked in butter.  If you happen to be in Long Beach, I would eat here.

We then made our way to Olympic National Park.  This park is kind of annoying, because unlike the other national parks we've been to, the road makes a loop around the park, with forks coming off of the loop, but none of them connect to each other inside the park.  The loop is extremely large, so it would take probably 4-5 hours just to drive around it without going into any of the forks, which is where the good stuff is.  We didn't end up seeing that much here, because of timing, daylight limitations, and distance.

I did, however, notice that Forks, WA was on the park map.  I know that place.  I know it from Twilight.  I also see why Bella hated it when she moved there.  I could not conceive of living in such a small town.  They need vampires in real life just to spice things up a bit.  So I looked up if there were crazy Twilight things to do (like the Sex and the City tour in New York).  Lo and behold, it was the annual Twilight WEEKEND.  Apparently, they pick the weekend that is closest to Bella's birthday and hold a four-day affair.  It took me a while to find the events, but once I did, I was pretty impressed.  The weekend is run by the local chamber of commerce, and their events are all supporting local businesses or charities.  The tie-ins to the book's plot are not that strong (understandably), so they hire local people to portray characters.  All events are free, except for the ones where a meal is provided.  I liked that it wasn't money-grubbing just for the sake of money-grubbing.

On the other hand, there were several purely Twilight-themed stores, and the beach that we went to to catch the sunset/observe a Twilight fan gathering from afar had a sign saying, "NO vampires beyond this point," so people are definitely capitalizing on their own.  The gathering, which was toasting 'smores over a "bonfire" (it was very small), was unsurprisingly almost entirely female.  I was a little afraid to converse with anyone, because in 2014, anyone still coming here is a die-hard fan, but I did overhear someone mention that they had a bunch of nearly identical photos from "last year."  I'm assuming that either these people live very close by, or that they are crazy.  Alternatively, perhaps this event has created some kind of annual community that people really look forward to, like summer camp.  That would be impressive.  Also scary, because that just means people will unite and bond over any goddamn thing.


Sorry for creepy flash.
Going on a complete tangent, why do people think that if a book/TV show/movie is over a certain number of years old, then a "spoiler alert" is unnecessary?  Are spoilage and age not completely unrelated?  If I'm reading Little Women for the first time, it shouldn't matter if I'm reading it in 2014 or 1881.  The fact that I don't know the ending, that I am still in that once-only phase of discovery before I know what happens and will then always know what happens, is the thing that makes a story spoilable.  Not whether I was alive and read it in the first few years of its publication.  I think the only time you can "spoil" something and it's forgivable, is if you reasonably assumed that someone knew the ending to something because it's a well-known historical event, or the story was so popular that the ending became widespread knowledge or a common pop culture reference.  Examples would be Titanic or the Sixth Sense.  I assume that people know how those movies end.  But otherwise, it's not like you can tell a three-year-old Santa isn't real and then defend yourself by saying, "Oh, but that lie is so old; it's not exactly a spoiler."  You have spoiled their childhood.  Forever.

Now I have to call Air France because the French pilots are on strike, and Cathy is stuck in Greece.  The fact that I find this unsurprising is not a great reflection on France.  I will add photos where the brackets are and finish things off later tonight.  (Added.)  (To be clear, Cathy is a highly competent adult, but the phone number isn't working from Europe.)