Monday, June 29, 2009

Looking Good!

Let me tell you about all of the compliments I receive when I do triathlons because I'm such an awesome triathlete, or something like that. You should know, by the way, that the photo above is not actually me doing a triathlon. I know you were wondering.

My part of yesterday's Hy-Vee Triathlon in Des Moines was to race 25 miles on my bike between my teammates, Muriel, who swam one mile (which is MUCH further than it sounds) and Laura, who ran six miles (which is every bit as far as it sounds). As difficult as I think the bike portion was, I still believe they each had the harder sport to perform and can't imagine doing either for those distances. While I have been cycling quite a bit as of late, I haven't been training for speed and I've always taken breaks at about the ten to fifteen mile point. For this race, it was all about finishing fast and not stopping. I know, crazy stuff.

As soon as Muriel sailed through the water like a silvery little fish, she ran to me and my bike where she passed on the chip we have to wear in order to be timed officially and I had to run my bike out to the transition gate before I could mount it for the race. Now, most people in good shape would probably not consider the run with the bike to be exercise, but I am not in good shape so by the time I was allowed to mount my Trek Pilot 1.0, I was already pretty winded! Then, BAM, right out of the gate was the first hill, which I had to climb still panting from the run. By the time I finished that hill, I was already cursing the day I was born, and I still had miles and miles of headwind to contend with! I was pretty happy that the course seemed to be flat, until I realized everyone was passing me. Humiliating. I continued on directly into the heavy winds, trying to muster up some positive self-talk like "You're feeling strong!" or "You've got the edge!" but instead I just heard words passing through my brain like "My lungs are killing me!" and "I can't feel my feet!" Without trying, I found myself going slower and slower, losing the battle against the wind. Just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, I saw the hill ahead of me and wanted to cry just a little on the inside. Instead I climbed it, lowering my gears as slowly as possible, doing anything to avoid having to walk up the hill. I've never had to walk my bike up a hill, and I certainly didn't want to start during a race for speed! I made it to the top of the hill, my lungs ready to explode, when I looked up and saw another hill ahead. It didn't seem possible but, sure enough, the hills weren't done with me. Once again, I summoned all the power within me, every last shred of power I could find, and slowly climbed that hill while old men and morbidly obese people passed me by on their bikes. At the top of that hill, I saw that there was another hill and another after that, with absolutely no downhill action that would allow me to gain any momentum.

As I creaked up the next hill, I received the first "Looking good!" comment of many to come from fast, capable athletes passing me. Now, you might think that it is very nice of a fellow triathlete to call out such a compliment during a competition, and you'd be absolutely right, it is super nice and meant to be encouraging. But the dark, ugly truth is that no awesome triathlete would ever call out "Looking good!" to another triathlete climbing a hill using super strength and actually looking good. This compliment is reserved for triathletes, like me, who look like they could be going down any second, like they are on their last leg, huffing and puffing away. So when the compliments started pouring in on those hills from good triathletes around me, I knew I wasn't actually looking good. Ouch.

As I accepted compliment after compliment, it occurred to me that there is one good thing about biking on a windy, uphill course –– the journey back on that same course. On the final four hills going up higher and higher, I just kept telling myself how fantastic it was going to be coming down, and it was. I went so fast on the way down that, for the first time ever, I kicked my Trek into its highest gears. I passed cyclists who had passed me on the way up and I laughed smugly to myself in silent triumph, until I remembered that most of them were doing the entire triathlon themselves and not just the bike portion like me. Most of them had already swam a mile and were probably reserving some of their energy for the six mile run ahead of them. Still, I felt a little better about my situation and, thankfully, didn't receive a single "Looking good!" compliment the whole way back to the finish line. Maybe if I work hard, next year nobody at all will tell me I'm looking good. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

To Laugh Often and Much

I'd never seen Ruthie exhibit any sort of emotion or expression, I'd only seen her constantly grab her oversized spectacles, with lenses as thick as bullet-proof glass, and push them up over her eyes so that she could drink her Boost shake without hitting them with her cup. But today I got off the elevator on the second floor, along with a nurse, and Ruthie was standing there in her usual oversized jumper dress, leaning on her walker, and bawling. Not just crying, her eyes were ringed with redness and snot poured out of her nose as she wailed. The nurse asked her what was wrong but Ruthie isn't much of a communicator so that went nowhere. All we could do was encourage Ruthie to follow us to the dining room where, we assured her, some food would help her to feel better.

A beautician had obviously swept through the south end of the second floor, because many of the ladies were sporting new hairdo's, though my compliments seemed lost on them. Katherine especially received a drastic cut, her formerly longish, thinning gray hair now bobbed just above her shoulder. While it softened her look, it did nothing to change her personality. She spent several minutes, her eyes fixed in anger, accusing Anita of several small crimes she wasn't remotely guilty of. "You did it, didn't you? Why don't you just say it? Say you're sorry. Can't you just say it? I bet you won't. You'll never say you're sorry. You've been drinking." The accusations continued without pause, until Anita screamed something unintelligible at the top of her lungs and slapped the table top. Katherine slapped the table in response and the conversation stopped. Trying to change the subject, I asked Katherine if she was hungry. "Who wouldn't be?" she asked me as if it were the silliest question in the world. I suppose when you're dealing with an alcoholic who owes you an apology, like she is, it is a silly question.

When Ruthie finally entered the dining room, I encouraged her to sit down and Katherine even kindly pulled the chair out for her. But by the time I finished my sentence, Ruthie had broken down crying again, tears and mucus flowing from her face and into her hands. I sweetly told her everything was going to be alright and she surprised me and wrapped her arms around me, her snot-covered hands gripping my shoulders. I surreptitiously wiped my shirt off, so as not to offend Ruthie, as if she would have known what I was doing anyway. Rosalie sat across from me while I made her laugh by challenging her to win a clean plate club contest against Mary. Mary is about a hundred years old and can't feed herself, so Rosalie got a kick out of my made-up battle. Wait, I take that back, Mary certainly can feed herself, and tried several times during the meal to do so by flopping her arthritic old hand into her mashed potatoes and gravy and licking her fingers. I went through several napkins attempting to keep her clean but for an old lady, she's greased lightning. As I wiped Mary's hand clean again and Rosalie begged for yet another glass of water and Katherine growled at Anita and Inez flailed her arms about the room in some sort of sign language frenzy, Angie just laughed and laughed and laughed at nothing in particular. I couldn't help but join her, so crazy was the whole surreal dinner hour tonight. Because if you don't laugh at it all like Angie, you'll just end up crying like Ruthie.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Garlic Escapes

This entire month is getting away from me between weekends out of town and bike rides and cooking classes and coughing. But since the season of the unusual garlic scape is so devastatingly short, you have to strike while the iron is hot and put the scapes to good use, which is just what I've done.

Garlic scapes are the pliable green shoots that grow above ground while the garlic bulb grows below. If the scape is not cut from the garlic, the bulb will fail to grow larger. You don't usually find garlic scapes outside of farmers markets and they're only around for a few weeks each year, but they're amazingly inexpensive. The scapes have a milder garlic flavor than the bulb and are good cut up into eggs and salads or blended into light garlic-y dips and spreads. While they will keep fresh in your fridge for a couple of weeks, I can't stand the pressure of seeing them in there every day, so I quickly made them into a simple non-basil pesto. Just garlic scapes, walnuts, fresh lemon juice, sea salt and olive oil whirred in a food processor and that's it! Garlic scape pesto. Please, taste with your eyes.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Bad Lungs in Fresh Air

Being sick on the most beautiful day ever is killing me. I didn't even have the energy to make the short bike trip to the Mill City Farmers Market. Tragic.

But, thankfully, it takes little energy to sit outside and read on the front stoop with a handsome kitty while he basks in the fresh air. It's the little things.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Truth About Campari

Not long ago I reconnected with an old friend via Facebook, a friend with whom I had not talked for the better part of the past nineteen years. She and I had both been living in Cuernavaca, Mexico while students at the U, but upon returning to Minnesota, we naturally drifted along into our real lives, without one another. I wondered about her now and then through the years, remembering fondly the time in Cuernavaca that I convinced her to do her assigned speech topic in Spanish about funeral practices in Mexico, only because every day I passed a funeral parlor on my way to Spanish school and I was dying (pun intended) to go inside! She was in advanced Spanish and was game to try it and we ended up going on a fascinating tour of this neighborhood funeraria, where the proprietor let us see everything, holding nothing back.

With the recent popularity of Facebook, I thought maybe I could find my friend again and I was right. I located her without difficulty and dropped her a long note referring to her by the nickname we had for each other in Cuernavaca, El Difunto ("The Deceased"). She was delighted to hear from me, telling me she had also tried to find me a few times over the years without success. We've now settled into a pleasant Facebook friendship, meaning we don't communicate one-on-one often, but we keep in touch via our status updates and the occasional comment on one another's pages.

My friend has spent the last nineteen years in search of something, but what I don't know. I do know that I am jealous of her attempts to find what she's looking for, which has taken her to lots of cities and towns, ending up in places where she knows nobody but ends up staying a few years before moving on. Currently she is in Tuscany living on a gorgeous rural farm like something out of a Hollywood movie. She's doing physical labor in between weeks where she cannot communicate with anyone. I don't really understand it, but I love it. Just before she left on her most recent month-long sabbatical from communication, she posted on Facebook a status update about her long weekend spent on the Italian island of Elba, which floats serenely between the Tyrrhenian and Ligurian Seas off the coast of Italy. She wrote, "I spent three days here, drinking Campari sodas, swimming in the sea, and eating as much gelato and chocolate as humanly possible." That status update really hit me on some level that I can't explain. Every syllable sounded decadent and hopeful and beautiful and just purely happy. I loved that update and, because of it, became somewhat obsessed about trying a Campari soda.

I wasn't even sure what Campari was, besides some sort of Italian liqueur, but I knew I had to have it just in case it might make me feel, if only for a moment, that I was swimming in the sea off the island of Elba. After work one evening last week I stopped by Surdyk's where I had to ask for assistance in finding it because I really didn't have any idea what Campari was, just that I had to have it. When I saw the bottle I knew I was going to love it because there was no way that something with such a deep, ruby color could not taste like heaven. It looked like sweet grenadine but had gorgeous Italian words on the label, guaranteeing its deliciousness. I had read that orange slices were the proper accompaniment for Campari so I also stopped by Lund's to purchase a fresh orange. When I arrived home I was practically salivating just thinking about the taste sensation I was about to experience, except that I realized I'd forgotten to buy soda. So amped was I for the entire experience that I refused to even open the bottle of Campari that night, I wanted to wait until I could do it right.

A few nights later I finally picked up a bottle of soda and it was time for me to experience Italy without actually going there. I went home and pulled out one of my good Riedel glasses and poured in the suggested ratio of one part Campari to two parts soda, plus an exquisite slice of juicy, sweet orange to garnish. The color of the drink was beyond compare, pale scarlet with a little wedge of sunshine poking out of the center. Stunning. Finally I was going to know how Italy tasted, even if I couldn't afford to actually visit the European island in the sea. I raised the glass to my lips and delicately sipped the ruby liquid until it surrounded my teeth, passed my waiting tongue, and then slowly trickled down my throat. The intense flavor that filled my mouth was, sadly, not so much my idea of Italy as much as it was my idea of Hell. It was bitter and ugly and not even the sunny orange wedge could save it from its own vileness. I can't remember hating a drink more than this. All my fantasies of drinking Elba in that Riedel glass were dashed to the rocks in just seconds. Campari, the death of a dream.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Nose Knows

Since finishing 150 miles on the bike this weekend, I've had the vague feeling that I'm getting sick. That telltale sign, the sore throat, was my first clue, though I bandied the idea about that my throat was just dry, the result of being a mouth breather. But since I'm not actually a mouth breather (I hope), I've had to face the fact that I might just be getting a cold.

My first line of defense when I feel a cold coming on? My homeopathic friend, Zicam, which can be purchased in any major drugstore. Zicam is some sort of zinc remedy that, in theory, wards off a coming cold or, at the very least, lessens the effects of the cold. I've had good luck with it over the years, though I really can't say whether the product was truly helpful or it was all in my head. Either way, it's been my go-to drug when I'm feeling the sickness coming on.

With Zicam, one must face that there's no looking cool since it requires you to stick a goober-y gel swab up inside your nostrils that then somehow passes the gel into your system through a form of black magic. Fortunately, I gave up the idea that I look cool long ago and happily shove Zicam swabs up my nose throughout the day, warding off the evil that lurks in my body. So imagine my surprise today when, sitting at my desk, ready to finesse another gel swab up my honker, my coworker Liz started reading aloud from a news story on the internet. "Consumers should stop using Zicam Cold Remedy nasal gel and related products because they can permanently damage the sense of smell, federal health regulators said Tuesday," Liz laughed, practically choking on her glee, knowing full well that I was fiendishly using Zicam to battle my cold demons. So that was that, my love affair with Zicam was over. What if I were to continue using it and lose my sense of smell? How could I get through life without smelling the citrus-y joy of a lime? How could I risk missing out on the scent of my ginger perfume? What sort of life would it be without smelling Aveda products? It's no life at all, people, it's no life at all.

I drove home from work, angry at the world, lamenting the fact that I would now most likely be inviting a cold into my soon-to-be phlegm-filled sinuses, and all because now Zicam has the power to make me lose my sense of smell permanently. As I walked into my tiny home, my 24 pound cat had just dropped a fat one in his litter box. The odor seized my entire body and I shuddered, wondering how something as cute as my kitty could create something so foul. Suddenly I found myself lunging toward my work bag where my remaining Zicam swabs sat awaiting their fate in the garbage and I shoved them, one by one, up my nose, begging nobody in particular to be one of those Zicam victims left pathetically without a fully operational sense of smell.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Another Weekend, Another 150 Miles

The MS150 just keeps showing up in my life about this time every June and I just keep going back, and I don't even know why. I mean, there's the opportunity to be part of a group of people raising millions of dollars each year to fight this insidious disease. Yes, there's the opportunity to meet new people and make new friends among the 3200 riders annually. Okay, there's the chance to spend the weekend with old pals and laugh your ass off the whole time. Then there's the fun when drinking beer and sharing vulgar jokes with like-minded people. Of course, there's the good time you have running into old friends from high school and catching up. And, certainly, there's the good you do for your body by biking 150 miles, all the way from Duluth to the Twin Cities over the course of two days. But otherwise, I cannot think of a single reason I keep torturing myself like this every year.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sea Salt Eatery

Just my luck, it seems, that when I make outdoor plans, it always rains. Perhaps it's my imagination, but I don't think so. So it was with some trepidation, and ultimately extreme delight, that tonight I made plans to meet up with my triathlon girlfriends while the sun was shining and the birds were singing and even all those usually noisy little kids were cute as buttons. 

We met up at Sea Salt Eatery, a casual little fish restaurant ensconced in the park building at Minnehaha Falls. You stand in line to order and then find a plastic table and wait for the staff to call out your name and carry out your delicious food, served on plastic plates and with plastic utensils. The place was started by a couple of guys who have put in many years working at the Twin Cities' most celebrated fish supplier, Coastal Seafoods, and serves everything from oysters on the half shell to shrimp etouffee. Along with awesome seafood platters they serve several Summit beers on tap, as well as some other great selections, and wine, too. The place is a little slice of plastic heaven.

Tonight I tried the daily soup special, which was really more like a stew after it was poured on a bed of rice, but it would have been great either way. It was a Thai Pineapple Red Curry Shrimp Soup and came loaded with giant mushrooms and baby corn and red peppers. The pineapple was canned and it really would've sung with some fresh stuff, but even that fact couldn't ruin it. Eating spicy shrimp outside in the sun with a side of the tastiest calamari around along with a Bell's Oberon from the tap, all while laughing with good friends, made me think that perhaps, just perhaps, my luck is changing.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Don't Mess With the Big Guy

Ninety-nine percent of the time my chubby kitty is a true pussycat, sweet as a marshmallow and oozing love to our visitors like his fur to my couch. But when he doesn't feel it's time to come back into the house on a warm, sunny day, don't even try. Hakeem will give you the evil eye and lay down like dead weight on the sidewalk. I just poke him in the wide, furry belly with a stick, encouraging him to go inside, while the neighbors look on curiously. 

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Only in Minnesota

Maria and I loaded up our bikes on the back of my Saturn on Friday and headed up for our annual 70 mile bike ride in the Brainerd Lakes area, organized by the Paul Bunyan Cyclists. A friend of mine, Megan, and her hilarious family are nice enough to allow us to stay at their Gull Lake cabin every year and we all wake at the crack of dawn (or 6:00am, but that's close enough) and head out on what I consider to be a very hilly course. But when Maria and I arrived early Friday evening, we found that we had beaten Megan and her family to the cabin, so we felt we had no choice but to hit the Quarterdeck, a bar and restaurant on the same lake, for a beer or two while we waited. 

The Quarterdeck is a quaint little place filled with decor I'd describe as Country Fishin'. Lots of hand painted plaques adorned the bar with pithy sayings like, "Fishing...A Jerk on One End of the Line Waiting for a Jerk on the Other." The bar was separated from the dining room by a row of cabin screen doors and the pine walls were covered in oars and bobbers. You know what I'm talking about - my kind of place. Maria and I ordered Blue Moons and the bartender went on and on about how everyone is crazy for this "new" beer. I didn't have the heart to tell him Blue Moon isn't even remotely new, but I was happy that more people were able to enjoy it now that it had reached outstate Minnesota.

While we chatted we asked to look at the menu, just for future reference. Chicken, nachos, sandwiches and a Friday Fish Fry made up pretty typical offerings. But a few unusual things did catch my attention. The best part of the menu was the section entitled "For the Lighter Appetite." Here one would usually expect to find perhaps cottage cheese and peaches, a hamburger patty, a light tuna salad, or maybe an open-faced sandwich served with fruit. Not at the Quarterdeck. Here on Gull Lake, "For the Lighter Appetite" means Roast Beef w/Gravy, 8 ounces of Chopped Steak, and my personal favorite, Beef Stroganoff. Don't fail to notice in the photo that items from the "For the Lighter Appetite" section of the Quarterdeck's menu all come with baby red or mashed potatoes, vegetables du jour, cole slaw AND popovers with honey butter. I can't imagine what you'd get if you were feeling more than just a bit peckish! And don't even get me started on the incorrect use of the word "Calve's" when referring to the liver dinner. 

The second best part of the menu was called "The Best of the Land and Lakes." I get it, a local riff on Surf & Turf. Cool. Except that crabs and scallops don't come from lakes. I couldn't resist giving the super nice and fun bartender some guff for these menu gaffes. I called him over and pointed to the shrimp selection on the menu and asked him what lake they pulled the shrimp from for their Shrimp Scampi. He laughed and said he doesn't write the menus and Maria told him not to listen to anything I say because I'm a jerk. But not the kind waiting for a jerk on the other end of the line, just a flat-out jerk.

The joke was on me because yesterday's 70 mile bike ride was fraught with cold and wind and hills and I ended up with a raging, phlegm-filled cough that hurt my lungs along with extreme muscle aches that continue today. It's true what they say, karma is certainly a bitch. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Thwarting Flatulence

I don't have much of a green thumb. It's not that I kill stuff, it's just that I never really try to grow anything. I'm too big a fan of instant gratification to enjoy the painfully long process that is entailed by growing plants. But each year I give something small a try and this year is no different. I'm being smart about it by choosing two herbs so hardy that it's almost a challenge to kill them. I hope those aren't famous last words.

In the orange pot is that delicious miniature pine tree known as rosemary, delicious in breads and on meats. In the white pot you see epazote, a Mexican herb typically used when cooking beans, both to add an earthy flavor and to help remove one of the less savory aspects of eating beans. Yes, I'm talking about flatulence. Everyone should appreciate epazote, even if they don't necessarily know why. 

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Dirty Joke

Gudrun grabbed her floppy right breast through her paisley pattern blouse and shook the aged body part at me, laughing wildly and speaking in her native Swedish. At the care center last week, it seemed like she was sharing a funny joke and that the punch line was the breast grab, but I can't really say because I can spend an hour straight feeding Gudrun and not understand a single word she's saying. Hopefully she doesn't know that I don't understand, I try to respond with a reaction that seems like it might be appropriate for the given situation. I pepper my "conversations" with Gudrun with lots of comments like "that is so true!" and "you've got to be kidding!" Apparently last Wednesday I unknowingly responded in the positive to her when she said, "Want to hear a dirty joke?" Considering what happened, I will be rethinking my conversation strategy this week.