Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On a stick

I have a terribly busy day today, so I thought I'd celebrate that fact by posting some pictures made by people who obviously didn't share my predicament. These were found pinned to the hallway bulletin board near my office at Australian National University over the summer. One was added approximately once a week, so I can only assume that by now the entire hallway is covered with variations on the critter-on-a-stick theme.

Warning to faculty supervisors: This is what happens when you let your graduate students get bored / give them so much work they feel the need for dramatic levels of procrastination. Don't let it happen to you!

Monday, November 29, 2010

The seatmate conversation

It's back to work here at IPoL, after a fantastic and relaxing Thanksgiving break. Being back to work reminds me that most people in the world don't really "get" what I do. This isn't normally a problem, being as I am usually surrounded by people who not only get what I do, but basically do the same job. But sometimes, when I do need to confront large numbers of non-academics, this fact is driven home to me rather forcefully.

Usually this happens when I'm on an airplane or a train and I strike up a casually friendly conversation with whoever has the wonderful good fortune to be sitting next to me. Oh hi, how are you doing, where are you going, gosh that security line was long, the usual. At some point, of course, the jobs question will come up: "So, what do you do?" There are no good options for how to respond to this. Trust me.

Me: I'm a psychologist.

Seatmate: Ooh, you read minds???

Me: Um, no.

Seatmate: Right, so you're going to ask me about my mother and about dreams and stuff?

Me: Er...not really. I work with children.

Seatmate: Wow, that's great, helping out those poor kids with emotional problems and learning disabilities and all that. Gosh, I just don't know if I'd have the energy to ---

Me: No, actually, I'm not a clinician. I'm a research psychologist. I work with normal, typically developing children. I'm trying to find out how they think and learn about the world.

Seatmate: *blink* *blink* Oh. *puzzled silence*

And that's when it's gone well. Usually, I don't get past the first round of this conversation because, as soon as people hear that I'm a psychologist, they start right in on their personal problems and I can't get a word in edgewise until we've landed in O'Hare and I have to dash for my connection.

Lately, I've taken to avoiding the word "psychologist" altogether and telling people that I'm a cognitive scientist. People still don't know what that is, but at least it sounds vaguely respectable and doesn't engender a host of bad Freudian stereotypes. Or I just stick in my earphones and fall asleep. Humans can be so tedious sometimes, especially when you study them for a living.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Earliest memory

This semester, I'm auditing a graduate-level course on autobiographical memory. A lot of the studies that we're reading as part of the class ask their participants to describe and date their earliest memories, and then use these data to draw conclusions about infantile amnesia and identity formation and suchlike.

There's a lot to dislike about these studies. But when they're not activating my critical-researcher training, they're making me think about how I would respond if I were asked about my earliest memory. This isn't such an easy question to answer. A lot of what we think of as our personal memories are actually not. Instead, they're stories that we've heard so much that we've internalized them, or pictures of us at events that we don't actually remember but feel like we do because the pictures are so familiar. Case in point: There's a famous (well, in the family at least) picture of me when I'm about two years old, sitting in the middle of a mountain stream, laughing my head off. It's a wonderful picture, and it's one of these pictures that tends to get dragged out family gatherings, graduations, etc., along with the story about it: My parents were hiking around Tanglewood on a vacation, and I was so excited about this stream that I toddled over to it and plopped myself down as if there was no place in the world that I would rather be. And probably, at that moment, there wasn't. It's a great picture, and a great story, and something that clearly happened to me. But I don't actually remember doing it. I just remember the story.

Once you eliminate all of the events like that, the things that you know happened but that don't really jog any first-person reminiscence, it's difficult to come up with something that could legitimately qualify as an earliest memory. The best candidate that I've managed to unearth is a brief moment of the first time that I fed my little brother solid food. It's nothing more than a fragment, just a brief sensory impression of the event, but I know that it's real and really mine. I can see our old kitchen, the burnt-orange ovens, the blue walls, and my brother Eliot sitting in his baby swing (or maybe it was a highchair?) with his chubby cheeks all puffed out like a hamster. I have the baby spoon in my hand with some tan sludge on it (mashed bananas? pureed carrots? applesauce?), and my mother has her hand over mine to steady it. I bring the spoon up to Eliot's mouth and try to slide it in, but mostly he just ends up with with tan sludge dripping down his chin.

And that's it. Nothing special, just a completely mundane family moment that for some reason has lodged itself in my consciousness. I don't even remember feeling much about it, aside from maybe some general annoyance that Eliot wasn't cooperating as I was trying to feed him. I also don't remember how old I was, although I can extrapolate: Eliot is three years younger than I am, and if he was at the point of eating solid food, I must have been about four years old.

I kinda like this memory for those reasons --- it encapsulates basically all the canonical characteristics of people's earliest memories. They tend to date from around the age of four, they're mundane events, and they don't have very much detail. I suppose that makes me about average, which normally I would sneer at, but in this case it makes me feel comfortable. Like everything has been going right. Except, of course, that I was left holding a messy spoonful of banana goo.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

TTPMO: Poorly trained waitstaff

Some sneedy whinging to reward y'all for having lived through the Thanksgiving saga:

So you're going out to eat. Maybe you're too tired to cook because you've been in the kitchen for the last forty-eight hours straight, or maybe your parents are in town and you want to take advantage of their generosity, or maybe (as in my case) both. You find a nice restaurant. Nothing too expensive, but not too cheap either --- a place with actual cloth tablecloths and/or napkins, some nice-looking sconces or other decor that didn't come from Ikea, or at least doesn't look like it did. You sit down, peruse the menu, forget to actually make a decision before striking up a conversation with your seatmate, and then have to tell the waiter/waitress to give you just another minute. You put in your order. The food comes. It's tasty. You share a bit around. You argue good-naturedly over who gets the last French fry. You're enjoying yourself.

And then, all hell breaks loose.

Some of you at the table have finished eating. Some of you haven't. The waitress comes over and starts taking the empty plates. I frickin' HATE that.

Do they really not realize how incredibly rude that is? I'm still eating, here! I've got my fork and knife, I'm actively chewing, and someone is clearing off the other half of the table. It's like they just can't stand how slowly I'm eating. Like the fact that I'm still enjoying the meal that I paid for is getting in the way of the rest of their lives. Are they trying to make me feel guilty or something? It's like, "Hurry it along, lady! These guys managed to finish their food in a reasonable amount of time, so what's wrong with you?" Oooh, that pisses me off.

I keep trying to see it from the waiter's/waitress's point of view. I know that they're busy people, and they're trying to keep everything moving forward. But it's not like they really need to chase us off the table, and it's not like the poor Ecuadorean immigrants working at the sink give a shit about how fast the plates get washed. So what's the deal? Is it so bloody hard to wait until everyone is done and then clear the table? You wouldn't want me breathing down your neck while you ate your last bites of dinner, would you?

And another thing, while I'm getting myself all righteously indignant. You know how you tell your wait-person what you want to order, usually going around the table in some kind of logical fashion, and then they write it down on that nifty little notepad? Right, so, said wait-person should be able to figure out who ordered what when they get it from the kitchen. Which means that there's absolutely no excuse for them to come to the table with a plate of food and ask, "Yo! Who ordered the penne?" Seriously. That sort of thing might fly in a diner or a bar or something like that, but in a nice restaurant? Come on. I've even had that happen in a seriously expensive restaurant, and guess what? I never went back.

Finally, just to round out the rant: I shouldn't ever have to be thirsty. I shouldn't be sitting with an empty water glass, ever. If I am sitting with an empty water glass, it shouldn't be that way for longer than a minute or so, and I certainly shouldn't have to flag down my server to fill it. I'm paying them to notice these things, not to be chewing gum and gossiping with the maitre d'.

Well, I guess I've gotten crotchety in my old age. But this is something I've noticed more and more lately, maybe because we cook at home almost all the time and tend to go out quite rarely. This is what makes the difference between a good restaurant and a great restaurant --- not the food, but the service. At Per Se, which granted is at the top of the scale on both, the food was brilliant and the service was impeccable. We were made to feel welcome, never rushed, and my water glass was always full, often without my noticing that it had slipped below the one-third mark. And while it's true that really good food can make up for crappy service, or that thoughtful service can make up for mediocre food, it's also true that crappy service can ruin an otherwise perfectly good meal. Is it so much to ask to have both?

(For more waitstaff pet peeves, see this New York Times blog post.)

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010: A meal in pictures



Porcini and Pecan Pâté
crostini, herbes de Provence olives

Smothered Cornbread
smoky seitan, microgreens, habeñero jelly

Fillet of Butternut Squash
red coconut milk curry, jasmine rice, fried shallots, keffir lime leaves

Carrot Salad
sultana purée, warming spices, Haystack Mountain Queso de Mano

Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée


Chocolate Truffle Tart
Nói Síríus Icelandic chocolate

Almond Frangipane Tart
J. W. Lees 1997 Vintage Harvest Ale macerated prunes


Dinner is served

Thanksgiving 2010
Porcini and Pecan Pâté
crostini, herbes de Provence olives
Smothered Cornbread
smoky seitan, microgreens, habeñero jelly
Fillet of Butternut Squash
red coconut milk curry, jasmine rice, fried shallots, keffir lime leaves
Carrot Salad
sultana purée, warming spices, Haystack Mountain Queso de Mano
Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée
Chocolate Truffle Tart
Nói Síríus Icelandic chocolate

Almond Frangipane Tart
J. W. Lees 1997 Vintage Harvest Ale macerated prunes

Montgomery’s Cheddar
Domaine Jaume Côtes du Rhône La Friande 2009
Corte Gardoni Custoza 2009

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010: Calm before the storm

The cooking is done. The table is set. The seating arrangements are...well, arranged. We're hanging out on the couches (which have been pushed against the far wall to accommodate the tables), watching football with the sound off, chatting about (and drinking) beer. Showers will happen soon. People will arrive soon. Last-minute panic will set in soon. But not yet.

From earlier today:
Dad-in-law sliced the cheese for the top of the onion soup...

...while Mom-in-law ironed our new, super-classy black tablecloths...

...and we shredded carrots...

 ...took the corn muffins out of the muffin tins...

...sliced cheese...

...and whipped cream.

Now, everything is set up in the kitchen, ready to go.

Thirteen people, seven courses, twelve bottles of wine. Two and half hours away. One last deep breath, and then...

Miscellaneous mid-afternoon update

It's stopped snowing.

The squash is baked, the corn muffins (really, "muffins") are made, the cheese is sliced, the carrots are shredded, the table is set...

Oh man, the table. Apparently, it requires four adults and a degree in advanced calculus to get thirteen people to fit into my living room. The original plan was to use our large dining room table plus two folding six-foot tables. Sounds good, right? But there wasn't quite enough room for both of the folding tables before hitting the couch, so maybe we could move the couch against the wall...nope, still not enough room...but if we use only one of the folding tables and then put the leaf in the dining room table..but then the tablecloths won't fit right...well, okay, we could try moving everything against the other wall and putting no one at the head of table...but then the people on the other side can't get out...do we have enough folding chairs...what about turning it lengthwise...watch out for the stereo speakers...

In the end, of course, the original plan was the one that worked. Argh! It's like family therapy, but without the large bill.

But the table is set, and it looks wonderful. Michael and his mother are in the kitchen re-polishing the crystal, and when I'm done here I'll unload the dishwasher and work on slicing some more cheese. Now we just have to figure out where to put the centerpiece. Oh, and figuring out the seating arrangement. And we have to start warming the onion soup, as well as the seitan, and I need to load the gougèes onto a baking tray to be re-warmed...I should probably take a shower at some point...what am I wearing again...?

Man, I love this holiday.

Miscellaneous mid-morning update


Also, corn muffins!

That is all.

Thanksgiving 2010: Dash to the finish

You know it's Thanksgiving when you wake up in the morning and make two frangipane tarts before eating breakfast.

Right now, I'm waiting for them to finish baking so that we can re-purpose the baking sheets for toasting crostini and roasting squash. Michael is pre-soaking some rice in the rice cooker, and as soon as this post uploads, I'm on cornbread duty. Isn't life delicious?

UPDATE: They're done!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010: The home stretch

Wrapping up today; gearing up for tomorrow. We had a lovely dinner a new veggie Chinese place at the edge of Chinatown, then visited David and Julia to see how their newly installed bamboo floor was holding up. (Dusty, if you're wondering. But lovely nonetheless.) Then we headed up to squeeze in a bit more preparation before The Big Day.

Mid-afternoon, Michael made the seitan sauce for part of one of our main courses. Don't worry about his knife skills; the red stuff is smoked paprika.

We both had a great time making and piping gougères. They're so much fun to watch while they're baking because you can see them puff up right before your eyes.

And finally, we stayed up late to finish baking a slicing six baguettes: