Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Last Minute Halloween Ideas

 Yes, Halloween is tomorrow.  But, that doesn't mean it's too late to get into the spirit!  Here are two craft ideas that are super simple and that you can execute very quickly!  One is a twist on the usual pumpkin-carving, and the other is a sparkling addition to a table top that doesn't have to go away with Halloween - it might even look great on a Thanksgiving table as well.  Enjoy!

Black Pumpkin Carving (and a bonus recipe)

Black craft paint
Paint brush
Knives of various sizes

For Seeds:

Paint your pumpkin black.  Yes!  All the orange you can see, cover with black paint. 

Let the paint dry.  Once dry, use the chalk to outline the face you want to carve into the pumpkin.  I am not adept at knife skills, so my pumpkin faces only have straight lines.

Cut off the top of the pumpkin.  Using your hands, a spoon, or an ice cream scoop, remove the flesh and seeds from the insides.  If you want to toast the seeds, you can separate them from the fleshy bits.  Don't worry about being too thorough at this point, but if you can make two piles (one flesh + seeds and one just flesh with no seeds) it will help out later.

Cut the face out.  You will probably need to touch up the black paint after you cut the pieces out.  Look how the orange of the inside stands out against the black!  It adds a bit of contrast that makes the face really pop during the day, and makes the face stand out even more at night when the black pumpkin fades into the darkness of the background.  Spooky!

I like to use Alton Brown's pumpkin seed method, and this is it.  If you separated the seeds to toast, you can put them into a bowl and fill with water.  The water will help you further separate the seeds (which rise to the top) and the flesh (which sinks).  

 Pull out all the seeds and place them on a lint-free towel.  Dry them as thoroughly as you want - ideally, you would leave them out overnight because the drier the better, but you can use your discretion and work with your own timeline. 

Heat a large skillet over medium heat.  Add a tablespoon of oil and then enough seeds to cover the bottom of the pan in a single layer.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Toast, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes or until your seeds look toasty.  Remove to a bowl, cool and eat.  Yum!  You can also add other spices if you want - paprika is good, or cumin, or red pepper flakes, or a combination.

Sparkly Mini-Pumpkins

Bag of miniature pumpkins and gourds
Spray glue

This craft is super incredibly easy - so much that it probably doesn't even need a tutorial.  But I am endeavoring to start writing tutorials, so, why not?

Hold the pumpkins from the bottom and spray the top with glue.  Sprinkle the glitter over the top.  The glitter will stick to the top and somewhat down the sides of the pumpkins.  Turn the pumpkins upside down to remove any non-stuck glue.  Voila!  These look pretty spread around with candles to reflect the glow.

Bonus tip:
Soak your mini pumpkins in a combination of 1 tablespoon of bleach with 1/2 gallon of water to help prolong their life.  You can also brush this solution onto the cut edges of your pumpkin and all over the inside to prevent mold there too and elongate your pumpkin's life.  Just don't get any bleach solution on the seeds because you don't want to eat it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Two Tastes.

Been reading a few books about tastes and food memories and its inspired me to write some of my own.  At this point I can't really design a recipe (I can follow one to great result, but not create one), so I'm not really in a place to have a 'food blog' of the recipe type, but I do like to write about food.  Like many things, I think eating is often about both the food and the surrounding events and feelings.  If this is interesting at all, I'd recommend Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain and Toast by Nigel Slater, who are both actual writers who sometimes write this kind of thing really, really well.

Fireman's Festival fried fish and french fries
It is one of the best times of the year.  At the end of the street I live on: a carnival.  A scrambler, a giant slide, a ring toss, bingo.  Lining the alley between the field and the police station: food stands operated by locals.  Funnel cake.  Italian sausage.  Hamburgers.  Lemon shake-ups.  All made by people once a year.  Not by restaurants and chefs, or even professional cooks, not by traveling carnies, not by food vendors, but by fireman and church ladies, probably the exact same way they've been making them for 40 years.  There are no fancy oils, no fusions, no mis en place or food handling posters.  There is a lot of laughing and talking to the passers by, who undoubtedly know the cooks.  I take my $5 straight to the fish fry and the french fry booths.  I cannot wait for the fries to cool so I repeatedly burn my tongue and lips on hot oil as my teeth snap the shoelace-thin browned shell and steam snakes out with the fluffy insides.  After the initial bites I douse them with malt vinegar and pump on Heinz ketchup from a giant can, warm from being in the sun all day.  I carry my food to some bleachers nearby so I can free my hands from having to hold two red-and-white paper boats filled with food.  Fish sandwich now, no trace of frying oil but crisp and flaky, between a sesame seed bun.  Tartar sauce oozes out from the bite and plops onto the paper boat.  I forget the rides and the games and the band crooning "Rock Around the Clock" and eat with total concentration.  It is to this day that I have never tasted fries or a fish sandwich so perfect.

Christmas Duck
Christmases when I was young were glorious affairs, not so much because they were fancy but because they were a childhood dream.  At the time my family was large, with aunts and uncles on both sides, two sets of grandparents, my own married parents, a few cousins, and an overabundance of cats, and everyone came together for Christmas.  Having got church over the night before at an eve service, I got three Christmas celebrations - one at home with my parents and brother with pancakes or eggs and fruit and cookies for breakfast, one at one set of grandparents' house for a quiet lunch of soup and sandwiches and cookies, and one at another set of grandparents' house for a buffet dinner overflowing with dishes and cookies.  There were many cookies.

Everyone in my family is always doing something.  TVs are always on.  Someone is cleaning something and someone else wants to show you an article they found in the paper and someone wants to try something on and someone is building a fort behind the couch.  Someone is always in the kitchen, cooking, drinking tea, watching TV.  There is very little sitting around relaxing.  Holidays were, if nothing else, an amplification of that spirit.

My grandma's house was cozy, with dark wood, old fashioned wallpaper, Victorian-esque furniture covered in cat hair.  She always tried to clean but it never managed to get done in time.  There was a great big fat tree in the sitting room laden with legitimately antique ornaments and tinsel that went down just far enough to be out of cat-reach.  My grandma herself buzzed around the kitchen for the majority of our visit, hopping from oven to toaster oven, shouting not unkindly to my grandfather to check on a thing or do a thing while she did another thing.  The upright mixer never shut off.  Despite valiant efforts few people could help her.  Grandma was of the generation and type of person who never wrote anything down as far as a recipe goes and couldn't really tell you what to do.  Grandpa could help because that's just how they were together.  I was often underfoot trying to hurry the preparations, just on the verge of passing out with anticipation because supper wasn't done yet and we couldn't open our presents till after people ate, and people eat forever. 

A crescendo to the flurry of activity.  Everyone carries things into the dining room, where a massive wood buffet squeezed in next to an even more massive round dining room table, doubtless a decorator's nightmare in that it took up 80% of the room.  Cozy.  I was much then as I am now - if there is a buffet I want some of everything.  Of course then I did not have quite an expansive of a pallet as I do now.

This was the year that there was ham, of course, but also duck.  I had never had duck.  Had never seen duck dead and dressed out.  It looked like a small, auburn chicken.  I would have it!  I was warned that it might not be what I expected.  I would have it!  They ate it in all the Christmas movies (chief among them A Christmas Carol and The Little Princess and the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, where maybe neither actually featured a duck eating scene but I was pretty sure about they ate it). And so my mom cut for me a slice of duck.  Duck, however, is not the same as a chicken.  It tastes so much more like duck than chicken tastes like chicken.  Oil oozed all over my tongue.  Red gaminess meant chewing and chewing and chewing some more.  I did not finish the duck.  Among all the food, no one noticed the sliver of meat pushed to the side next to a pie crust and a sprinkling of peas, and this was not a clean-your-plate type of family.  I am not sure if it was cooked poorly or if I just didn't know what real meat tasted like, but it was many years before I would eat duck again. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Month of Yoga: Week 1

The yoga place across the street has a new student special, where you can do 30 days for $30.  I signed up for the class with the intention of doing yoga each (or nearly each) day for 30 days, and seeing how I feel physically, mentally and emotionally after.  I ended up not doing any sort of 'before' to which I could measure an 'after', but I figured I would have some thoughts about it anyway - which I do!

Of the first seven days, I did yoga six (one day I was too busy - oh the irony!).   The first three days were rough.  I'm just terribly out of shape since the move - I have done little more than walking around (up hills, the dog, etc. but it's definitely not much), and have crammed myself in a UHaul and worked from home in probably not the best ergonomic conditions (for example, my desk chair arrives tomorrow, finally - although some days, I did work standing up which is even better than sitting).  Consequential, muscles are tight enough that now I know what they mean when they say 'screaming pain'.  I often had to back way off of postures I used to be able to do with no issues.  My shoulders in particular are so tight that one teacher asked me when I had my shoulder injury (I have had none).  I am also much weaker than I used to be - holding some arm, ab and leg posters ended up with much more shaking and counting the seconds instead of the breaths until they were over. 

How terrible it feels, and how easy it is to become out of shape compared to how hard it is to get into shape!

The last two classes showed some physical progress.  While I'm sure I wasn't actually more flexible or strong, I did feel much less resistant.  The final class of the week was a restorative/yin type class. Normally I like the intensity of a vinyasa/ashtanga class, but there was something about the week and the move and the rainy-ness of the night that convinced me to do a more contemplative practice.  Turns out it was just the ticket to be holding fewer, gentler poses for longer periods, and it was soothing to my mind to have the teacher work in some spiritual/intellectual study with the physical.

Speaking of the spiritual/intellectual, trying to quiet the mind in meditation at the end of the session got easier too as I stopped resisting the moves.  One day we did a guided meditation that was particularly good, and the last night was very peaceful.

When I was at the last boot camp I did, the instructor would talk about how he keeps in shape so that he can do whatever he wants to when the chance arises - he can go hiking or swimming, he can run a race next weekend if he feels like it.  And that's also what the instructors in the Buddhist pod casts I listen to also say - that we practice quieting thoughts and becoming mindful so that when situations arise where it is easy to lose track, we can stay centered.  And that's, of course, why practice - 'the harder you work, the luckier you are.'  This is one way I think about yoga, that helps keep the focus on the practice instead of a goal (weight-loss, some bliss experience - which, while nice things that would be great, don't help experience the moment): maybe that I am practicing for the sake of practicing, growing for the sake of growing, and then, it expands to fill everything.


Side note.  It is something I've learned from improv and yoga and various other outlets that you should not hold back from giving everything you can and doing the best you can, which for various reasons people do, and lead by your shining example.  I think it's also maybe even more important to do what you can even when you now it's not as good as you want it to be, as everyone else wants to see, because when other people see that, they can understand that it's not the only excellence that matters, but also the practice.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

I liked it, but what was it?: Some Thoughts on Directing Pocketful of Posies

 Photo by Steve Rogers

“I’ll play it first and tell you what it is later.” - Miles Davis

“It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take things to.” – Jean-Luc Godard

Apologies about the spacing issues.  Blogger isn't letting me correct them.

All right, this is a long time coming.

A few weeks after Pocketful of Posies closed, I was sitting at a bar with one of the cast members.  He said something to the effect of, “You know, I was pretty sure this show wasn’t going to work and might even be bad.  But then, in the end, it was amazing.”

I had those thoughts myself.  Are there directors that don’t?  Are there people who are creating something and have no moments of doubt, no times when they panic that they’re not executing their idea properly or communicating right, and that if they did communicate it right that it was a terrible idea to begin with?  With Pocketful of Posies, I had started with something relatively obscure, made it even more obscure, then asked people to go on a journey with me with very few guideposts and nothing but trust.  My thankfulness for a willing cast and audiences cannot be understated.

About a year before the show, the artistic director of Gnap! proposed that a female company member direct a feminist improv show based on some foreign films from the 60’s, including “Celine and Julie Go Boating” and “Daisies”.  Films that few people I know have seen, belonging to a genre that not too many more people know a lot about.  I, however, am into all those things, so I jumped at the chance.  Women!  Comedy!  French New Wave!  Psychaelia!  Yes…and then I sat down with it, took a good look around, and realized I had no idea what to do going forward.  Gnap! traditionally does narrative shows.  How to make one out of these non-narrative sources?  How to create a format from a genre that intentionally subscribed to no format?  How to get anyone to understand and care? 

To make something out of this disparate set of stuff, I went to the basics.  What is there about New Wave that I could set up as a guide?  Some history: New Wave filmmakers were rejected traditional film forms and rebelled against their reliance on plot.  This is old-school, they said (I paraphrase), keeping the genre of film linked to the genre of the novel.  Film is a different medium, and could be used to create a different experience.  They sought neither to mesmerize the audience with narrative images, nor to encourage the audience suspend their disbelief, but rather made films identified the essential elements that were the film-y-ness of films.  They let the audience be involved in and aware of the process, the glory, and the agony that was movie-making.  They made movies to celebrate what was unique about  movies.  This, more than the specifics of the source material, even more than the very lose idea of a feminist adventure, is where Pocketful of Posies came from.  What if I did that with improv?  What if I stripped away the expectations of the audience and the cast and left only the bare bones of the form?  What if I subverted the expectations of improv to celebrate improv?  What if anything really could happen?

Exciting.  This is the kind of thing that really gets me going.  So now, New Wave improv.  Not a point by point show set up like a specific film or films (which not too many people in my target audience would clearly identify, which is not how New Wave filmmakers made their own movies).  Nope.  I was going to give an improv audience the experience of the New Wave aesthetic captured within the genre of improv.  So… that helped?  It got me ready to create.  I have done all the major improv styles that I know of – short form, Harold and the children of Harold (living room, deconstruction, sliding doors, etc.), narrative.  I love them all.  They all exist in Austin.  I was going to combine them into something that used all of their beautiful bits and pieces to make a new thing, under the very loose heading that we’d follow a pair of female friends on an adventure.  Fingers crossed, time to jump, the net will appear (right?).

I had such an incredible cast.  They came from all the improv styles and everyone brought something completely wonderful.  The analytical plot-makers.  The beautiful characters.  The intellectual commenters who clarified ideas.  The theme-guided move-makers.  The sillies.  And, to top it all off, they were all willing to do this crazy thing that had next to no structure!  The plot-makers learned theme-moving.  The theme-movers learned to be protagonists.  Everyone got to be erudite and silly (sometimes at the same time).  They brought their own thing and mixed it up with the other things.  The whole was even greater than the sum of its parts.  And we used everything.  The show had the loose structure, the larger conventions of New Wave films and of improv, but mixed linear-focused with thematic-focused structures.  Shows broke out into short-form games to emphasize themes, to help the plot, to just have fun.  Much to my delight and surprise, every single show had audience involvement.  We had talked about breaking the fourth wall, about monologues and takes to the audience, but without making audience members feel on the spot.  For the most part I think that was accomplished (although it’s hard to tell for sure if anyone was made uncomfortable).  But even I was surprised how each week the audience became an active part of the show not only by cast encouragement but also by more organic responses to the energy.  

Each week the show got better.  It took a while to get everyone on the same page - I would say, the entire time of rehearsal plus the opening weekend.  I was asked many questions about how to emotionally connect with such an intellectually-based show.  Create a character with wants and needs, and the show will happen around it.  There was anxiety about not having enough of a linear story, and contrasting anxiety about not being willing enough to let go of that same thing.  My advice to this was always the same – you do what you do, and let them do what they do, and from that, this show will come up.  You may not think it makes sense from the inside while it is happening, but in the end it will come together.  The audience builds connections and the others are there to catch you.  There is a delay between those two particular concerns is a pit of despair – there is a) everyone on board with executing a specific structure and joyfully working in that, and b) everyone trusting each other, the show, and the audience completely enough to let nothing but characters and ideas happen long enough for those to become a whole.  Between the two there is a place where nothing happens but confusion and chaos because there is neither enough structure nor enough letting go.  Fear will mess you up every time, make you try to force things to happen instead of letting them happen.  Fear was happening to me, too.  It was at this point when both the cast I and I were possibly thinking something along the lines of ‘OH  MY GOD WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN THIS COULD BE THE WORST THING EVER LET'S CHANGE EVERYTHING NOW’.  I had to stay the course.  I'd seen the flashes of what I wanted in rehearsals and I knew it was there, and I (for my own mental well-being and the future of the show) had to hold on to that and act like I had no doubts.  And then… the click.

Opening was a little bit of crazy-town, creating no small exuberance but left some cast and audience thinking “That was fun, but…what was it?”  The second week the cast settled into the show and some tweaks were made – the  click- and by the third and fourth weeks, it had hit the sweet spot.  The last weekend of shows was wonderful.  It was all there, all of the elements, all of the trust - it was like that darts game Cricket.  We'd hit all the elements individually and gotten all the other points, and then finally we hit the bullseye over and over to win.

People ask me, “Did that show look like what you wanted it to look like?” and I can only respond “I didn’t know what it was going to look like because it could have looked like anything.  If you want to know if the show felt like what I wanted it to feel like, then yes, it did.”  It was funny, it was tender, and it was alive.  I go back and forth wondering if I should have put show notes in the program to explain more to the audience what it was all about, but in the end I’m glad I didn’t.  Part of the idea was for people to experience that night’s show experience, to be embraced by the warm hug of improv.  I think explaining too much would have lost that possibility - would have given the audience the guidelines that I specifically didn’t want them to have.

Did I succeed?  Ultimately, for the goals I had for the show, yes.  Always there are sayings and the idea that art should push you, scare you, take you places you've never been before.  I've been doing improv for 12 years and I'm not really nervous on stage anymore.  Sure, sometimes there are butterflies, but it's more excitement.  Directing Pocketful of Posies was the first time in my recent memory that what I was doing that scared me and pushed me to try to be better - better idea-making, better collaborating, better encouraging, better organizing, better clarifying, better leading.  The response I got from cast and audience leaned towards this: “This show reminded me that in improv, everything is possible.  This show reminded me to enjoy the playing and the process.  This reminded me why I watch/perform improv.”

I mean this with my whole heart and vision - I couldn’t have asked for anything better than that.