2011

2011, a very chaotic year. Even it’s all history now I still have a mixed feeling about it.

1月(January)

It was a long winter in Boston. Snowy and cold, yet I had to drive between the school and students’ houses regardless what the weather was like outside. Every 30 minutes I needed to regroup myself to face a new child’s learning condition and attitude. Too much snacks while driving and too little time to sit down and eat.

2月(February)

A busy month. Due to our trip back to Taiwan and Japan, I had a basically none-stop teaching month for make-up lessons. The desire and excitement of going home  kept me going.

3月(March)

We finally got on the plane to Taiwan for 5 days. Me and Nik went to my older brother’s wedding, a very modern, fun and moving one. Everyone did his part — thanks to my brother and his wife, who were both very good at organizing events — that everyone was smiling when leaving the ceremony.  Then we went to Tokyo–probably there was too much excitement, I was having fever the whole time there. In meiji shrine (明治神宮),we vowed to each other that we will try to work our way back to either Taiwan or Japan. In the afternoon of March 11th, I was having a really bad fever so we went back to the hotel to rest (and eat bento). Then it came the earthquake.

Two days later we got on the plane back to US. I saw lots of fields been flooded.

4月(April)

Back to Boston, back to work. We helped each other facing the reality, yet in our heart something new was developing. Feeling suffocated by the situations at work and at life, we knew THIS (in terms of computing–”this” means the triggered event) will not last long. We started wanting less and longing for simplicity and emptiness.

5月(May)

Put thoughts into action.

After a long talk, we decided to move (back) to Chicago where he is from. We quit our jobs, said good bye to our friends (not that many), and loaded all our belongings into the little Scion. Everything we owned has turn into eight paper boxes, and everything else, we dragged them to the curb, sold them on Craigslist, or donated to Salvation Army. It was our first move towards minimalist style of living.

6月(June)

Moved to Chicago. Living with three cutest cats ever and was the best time so far in this year. My mother/father-in-law kind of “heal” both of us internally with their warm heart.

7月(July)

Not much happened. Days passed like a breeze — by the time I noticed, it already went by . Talked to my mom very often, and she learnt to like internet, started using Facebook and YouTube even started writing a blog!

8月(August)

We bought our first house at Chicago suburbs. It was as if a new beginning, a new start. Nik got a new job, too. Everything was turning better… we celebrated often, that we actually went with our guts for dropping everything in Boston.

9月(September)

My health condition is getting worse and worse. Decided to have another trip back home for surgery and lots of medical exam. Since I didn’t have a job at the time, I left Nik alone in our new house, hopped on the plane back to Taiwan for a whole month of “full body” exam. Spending a whole month in the hospital was painful, but it was great to have some time just hang around my parents.

My high school best friend came to visit me after my surgery. We spent whole day giggling and discussing our life after we apart from each other, and we talked until our eye lids dropped heavier than our thoughts. We constantly talked to each other since then.

10月(October)

Back to Chicago. My newly bought house. Started enjoy the peaceful life of taking husband to work, taking time on breakfast and coffee, while reading blogs for way too long, then baking bread and making dinner and then watching movie till bed time.

At the meantime of my uneventful/peaceful life, I started looking for a totally different career.

11月(November)

Lots of job interviews, and lots of time in front of the computer sending out resume, modifying resume/cover letter, and improving portfolio. Very anxious with the job search, and very clueless when/where I will end up. Started to feel lost and frustrated again, yet Nik helped me to have faith in myself.

12月(December)

Started my first UI developer job in Chicago downtown :) As a classically trained pianist, no one probably will believe this is the career path I ended up–not even my parents. During my teaching years back in Boston, I knew I might need something else than music to survive one day — so I started learning HTML,  CSS  and Javascript by reading books and doing online tutorials. Then it all became  so interesting to me that I was compulsive about (well, almost) every little details of what I am working on — that’s when I know this is the passion I have been searching for for all these years.

Now, January, 2012 — I am glad 2011 has past. Hopefully 2012 is brighter and slightly more stable.

This is a new stage in our life, and a new year. I know new challenges are coming but I think I am,  (a deep breath), ready.

[ Cooking Mama ] Saag Paneer and Red Bean Rolls

This week I couldn’t really execute my “cookbook-cooking” project ( checking out one  cookbook from the local public library and design two weeks’ meals around it) because Nik made a giant serving of Indian food last weekend and we have just been eating leftovers the past 3 days. That was his first attempt to make Indian food and it turns out to be very good, except he didn’t believe that the recipe only calls for 3 whole cardamom pods but decided to put 9 of them. (So in every 4 bites you are destined to spit out some hard pod shells. ) Lesson learned, I say.

Last night I made my favorite Red bean rolls again. In Taiwan, this is the kind of bread people typically expect from a local bakery. Kind of like a baking 101.

I don’t know why Azuki red beans are not as popular here in US. Although every time I recommend it to my American friends, it usually has very positive response. I guess this is another regional food/culture/climate thing.

Anyway, this time I use Carol’s recipe instead of my mom’s. Overall it is very successful and I am very happy with the texture. However, the recipe is not very sweet–if you have a sweet tooth like me, you probably want to add a bit more sugar.

Carol , whom I don’t personally know, is a very popular blog writer in Taiwan. She published 4 cookbooks so far and each of them has been a great hit on the market.

I don’t personally trust whatever press say until I actually try the thing. In this case,  the recipes are actually really good! In Carol’s books there are always clear and thoughtful step-by-step instructions and pictures for each recipe. Not as powerful as videos but tempting enough to make me think by following these steps I will be able to reproduce whatever delicious thing I want in my kitchen.

*These books are all in traditional Chinese. I wish one day there is an English version.

[ Cooking Mama ] Brussels Sprouts Gratin from “5 Ingredient Fix” cookbook

I’ve recently started a new project (yes, another one)- for the good of Nik and my health and the fun of cooking — I decided to pick up one cookbook and try several recipes from it every two week. My first one is Claire Robinson’s “5 Ingredient Fix.”

The first time I saw Robinson’s show on food network, I was very intrigued by her simple cooking style. Married to a meat-loving veggie-hating American,  I have always wanted to cook more western style food but have been so intimidated by those recipes that call for a long list of ingredients. This book kind of opens the door to western home cooking for me, and  even though sometimes all those 5 ingredients that I need for a recipe are all NEW to me, most of the stuff in this book is still really easy to make and kind of fool-proof.

Brussels Sprouts Gratin

Ingredients:

  1. 1.5 pounds of Brussels Sprouts
  2. 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  3. 3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
  4. 2 cups milk in room temperature
  5. 1 cup grated cheese (she used Gruyère, but I changed it to parmesan cheese)
  6. salt and black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400F

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the Brussels sprouts and cook 5~7 minutes, until bright green and beginning to soften; drop into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process.

Make the sauce by melting the butter and flour together in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring, until smooth and bubbling, about 1 minute; slowly whisk in the milk and continue to cook, whisking frequently until think and creamy, 2~3 minutes. Add 3/4 of the cheese and stir until melted and smooth. Season the sauce well with salt and heavily with pepper.

Halve the Brussels sprouts through the core and put them in an even layer in a 2-quart baking dish. Pour the sauce over the sprouts and evenly top with the remaining cheese. Bake in the center of the oven 10~15 minutes, until golden and bubbling on top.

~~~~

I have also added Pierogi as the carbohydrate part of the meal. The Brussels Sprouts turns out to be awesome, very creamy and flavorful. The Pierogi was pan-fried to a crispy crusted awesome bulbs. The whole meal was a success and gave me lots of confidence.

Morning Discovery

 

Here are two things I found really useful and can’t wait to try:

Stylebook is a closet managing app. You can upload your whole wardrobe into your iphone, mix and match the items and store outfits to your calendar. The background removing function and the intuitive drag and drop make the app seems very easy to use. Too bad I have a 1st generation ipad so I won’t be able to try this, but it looks like a good little helper for people who have iphone. Please, developers of Stylebook, make an ipad version!

Japanese Style Bread, which uses Tangzhong method, has always been my favorite kind of bread. This is the kind of bread we eat in Taiwan almost everyday, and it’s extremely different from western style bread. Tangzhong bread has soft and fluffy texture, whereas western bread usually has a chewy and dryer internal part with a crisper crust. Because the Tangzhong bread is so moist and fluffy, sometimes even buttery,  we don’t usually need to put butter on the toast. The texture even stays the same when you put it in the fridge. Anyway, this bread makes me homesick!

Yesterday I was finally able to do crane pose and one leg head stand. Because I have really thin upper arms so I have been having a hard time to do crane pose. There are many ways to go into crane pose and the easiest way is from squad position.It is really important that you look up, tuck your knees into your armpit, and think about going forward. It’s not an easy pose but it’s really fun…..keep on practicing!

My 30 by 30 challenge has began……now!

Finally, I am ready to start this! I spent one hour yesterday taking pictures of my 30 items and couple hours today to put together a little poster for myself for this challenge.

For people who have never heard about “30 by 30″, it is a challenge conducts/created by blogger Kendi. The first time I came across this challenge I was very intrigued and excited about her idea of 30 by 30 (read her ideas here.) Basically you pick 30 items out of your closet, and then make 30 outfits out of these 30  items. Recently I joined this challenge hoping to find my own style. Everyone can try!

I made 2 extra goals for myself besides the 30 outfits part: finding 10 business attire outfits and explore different accessories. Finding 10 business outfits simply is for me to get the most from this experience. At the end of this whole thing, I need to be able to know what works together and what doesn’t then put them on in 5 minutes.

Another goal I have set for myself is exploring accessories. Believe or not, I own zero belt, zero necklace, bracelet or any other accessories besides bags and shoes. I have never understood the importance of jewelry until recently. This will be a perfect chance to exercise my sense of selecting personal accessories.

I actually had a hard time to find 30 items out of my closet. We threw out most of our cloth when moving, so these 30 cloth are actually almost all I own.However, I am not going to buy any new cloth during the challenge. It is more about understanding the potential of each garment  instead of expending the size of the closet physically. No matter what, this will be fun!

Life in 8 boxes and beyond

We did it!

Yesterday me and Nik finally managed to move into a hotel from our apartment. In couple days, we will be heading towards Chicago and start a new life over there. For many reasons, we decided to use this as an opportunity of downsizing.

The day before we leave, we threw away at least 12 garbage bags of stuff (Yes, those durable giant black garbage bags), in addition to whatever we have given away. All the books were donated, all the furniture were sold on craigslist and all the CDs are burned into our iTunes then sold to Newbury Comics. The whole process really takes about one month and at the end, we downsized our stuff into 8 boxes and two suitcases of cloth: 2 boxes of kitchen-wares, 3 boxes of music scores, 1 box of bathroom stuff, 1 boxes of office supplies, 1 box of random goods and each of us own one suitcase of cloth. All of them are now stuck in our little Scion xD.

There are many conflicting thoughts going through my head when going through our belongings. I did have to stay focus on a couple of rules to defy the feeling of nostalgic and being wasteful. If the item “pass” my examination, it will deserve a stay.It’s sort of like firing an employee (even though I have never fired anyone): you evaluate his/her contribution and future cost of maintenance.If it is reasonable, stay; if not, bye-bye. Now, here are the aspects I look at when deciding if I am going to keep an item or not:

#1 Functionality:

We decided that functionality will be one of the most important features of our belongings. Every item should have multiple functions. For example: Swiss Army Knife.

Instead of a full drawers of tools, we only kept Nik’s Swiss Army Knife. It’s an embodiment of the life we want: compact, functional and has clean-cut design.

Things we throw away that don’t fulfill this requirement: pineapple corer, fruit slicer, steamer (we are looking to buy an all-in-one stove), etc.

#2 Space:

Anything that takes over too much space has to go. I have always admire some people’s organizing skill, but I could never stop questioning : wouldn’t it be easier just throw those things away? Hiding them in drawers beautifully will not enhance the function but reduce the times you use them. If you have a huge collections of CDs and books like me all hide in the drawers, it’s better off to digitalized them and sell/donate the physical version. The content is the value, not the beautiful cover and plastic jewel case.

#3 Design and Quality:

I always count design as part of the value. Personally thinking, if one thing is designed well, it will exude a sense of harmony and serenity; If a thing made of very good quality, it usually doesn’t need too much decoration to disguise. Never be too caught up by the decoration, but pay lots of attention in the quality. More over, if you already find serenity in your heart, you won’t need to much accessories to improve your life.

#4 Compatibility:

One thing to keep in mind is high compatibility. This usually is about clothing: for example, a natural brown color belt has higher compatibility than a bright red belt. Keep items that will work great with each style in each season. Even though it was quite easy for me to clean my closet, it wasn’t easy for me to see how the items I kept will work with each other. Recently I signed up for the 30 by 30 challenge by Kendi, not only because I have always admire her style but also I am hoping to search for my own style through this challenge by utilizing my cloth and accessories smartly. Btw, I will start my 30 by 30 challenge when I get to Chicago this Wednesday. Can’t wait!

Right now, everything I own is in my car. Although it’s not as mobile as I wanted to be, it is closer than before. I feel proud and shameful of myself at the same time: I am proud of being able to execute my desired lifestyle but at the same time, I feel guilty about the amount of stuff I had to throw away to achieve that goal. At least right now, I am back to a good start. I hope we can maintain this amount of belongings or less.

Minimalist on the go

I have always wanted a simple life that fills with memories and stories, which I can treasure no matter where I am. However, while accumulating memories I have also accumulated too many objects around myself.

We live in a consumer world. Buying things has becomes the easiest, fastest way to solve problems. If a watch is broken, we buy a new watch. If a plate is chipped, we buy a new plate. Buying a new thing has become way faster than repairing the broken ones. However, not too many of us are big “givers,” we all thought that once we have time we will fix everything. Therefore, there are things coming through the door, but there is hardly anything going out of the door. The amount of stuff simply gets bigger and bigger years after years.

I was not an exception. I treasure memories that associated with the items I own, and I buy things in order to make friends. Four years in college, I accumulated 25+ boxes of books and 500+ CD. Longing to make friends in this foreign country but barring by the language ability, I turned into books and music which not only comfort me but also make me look like I “fit in” this society. I dreamed that someone would appreciate my taste of books and music, and I would start making some friends from there. To me, buying books and CDs was the solution to fix my problem. And I was a books/CDs hoarder.

Now I think of it, I really should have gone out and tried to meet more new people. Opened my heart and listened to what other people are talking about, interested about. That, might be a better solution than buying things and hoping someone will secretly notice how unique I am based on what I read and listen.

My observation about people around me proves my point. People now are a lot less welling to sit down and figure out the problem, especially abstract problems. One of my family friends channelled her energy towards buying designer items after splitting with her husband, and she spent $14000/month on stuffing her closet; one of my family members buys a new piece of furniture almost daily after retiring. The feeling of emptiness in their heart makes their mind unease and makes their life clotted.

So how should we confront with our problems more directly? How to stay calm and see the answer? These are questions too big to answer, but I have couple thoughts:

1. One strong core.

One thing I learn from doing Yoga is no matter how complicated the poses are, you need to have a strong core. Core, doesn’t necessary mean abdominal muscles here, but a sense of stability. If your legs are wabbly, you will never be able to crescent lunge with a back bend; if your abdominal muscles are weak, you won’t be able to do head stands; if your mind is not focused, you won’t feel the flow. Start from one little thing and make it strong, then once the sense of stability sink in you will feel impenetrable. Then gradually you will build a solid base for yourself to climb higher, live better, feel nicer.

2. One Focus.

Since little, my parents always tell me that I need to focus on what I am doing. However, they gave me too many tasks at once to focus on: I need to focus in piano lessons, cello lessons, dance classes, exam studies, abacus calculation classes, calligraphy classes and Go classes. My concentration is always the target for blame when my grades are not as good as expected. This has a huge impact on my life: I have always had a guilty feeling when my mind wonders while doing works, but I never analyze the reasons. I would force myself to focus, again and again, by drinking coffee or bribing myself, and it makes me feel frustrated about myself.

Ironically, when I first decided to get rid of all my “focuses,” it was the first time that I feel finally I fortified the quality and duration of my focus. It’s better to only live in the present: don’t think about what you are going to do the next hour or tonight, but instead, focus on the thing you are working on right now. You will find it more gratifying than longing for a better future. One thing at a time, even in your mind.

3. One ending.

I tend to be very creative and easily excited by new ideas. That say, it is easy for me to start something but hard for me to end it well. A perfect chinese to describe me: 虎頭蛇尾.

To avoid this, it takes some disciplines. I have to set a clear goal in everything I started, and only if I reach that goal I can move on to something new. This makes me really focus during work (because I want to do always do new things and get rid of old ones) and keep me efficient.

4. One Person

“Everyone is an island.” Even though I like the movie “About A Boy(where this phrase is from),” I still feel deep down there is solitude in every human’s existence. In order to have a simple life, we need to be able to be comfortably alone. A strong mind will not need others’ approvals but rather rely on self-reflection. I am not saying you should be stubborn, but rather you need to talk to yourself and understand yourself before searching for others’ advice. The truth is, deep down in your heart you know what you are searching for and what’s that you want. It is important to give yourself some time and energy to talk to yourself. Admit your true intention.

5. Simplicity.

De-cluttering my life/trim down my belongings is probably the best thing I have ever done to myself. Once I have a deeper understand about what my basic needs are, the essential stands out from the rest of the stuff. I did have a hard time when going through the cloth, therefor me and N decided to use a “suitcase” method: each of us took one suitcase and packed 2 weeks of cloth in it , and then started living with only the cloth from the suitcase. It helped me decipher what are the ones I really wear and what are the ones I only wear in my imagination. Of course, the later ones goes to donation or consignment stores.

To me, the best thing about decluttering is regaining the space around myself. I feel ignited by the air around me, and I feel calm and strong. I do not need all the materials to help me to live as I wanted; and I do finally feel like I am part of the world because I know who I am. That feeling is great.

The Blacklist of Accompanist Repertoire

Reading a post like this reminds me a lot of bittersweet memories while working as a staff accompanist in NEC. It  still gives me a chill when I think about some of the pieces, not only because how hard they are but also how little time I was given to prepare. Although I grew up listening to lots of violin and cello recordings, my knowledge of the instrumental repertoire is only tip of the iceberg. Since I have a tendency to say Yes before even knowing what level the repertoire is, through out the years of accompanying I have stumbled into so many scary, murky puddles. When you are sight-reading a piece, the last thing you want is constant meter changes and key changes. However…That, is usually the case. I have always believed that I have very good work ethic as an accompanist: I prepare for rehearsals, get to rehearsals early to warm up and ready to go and use rehearsals for ensemble issues rather than my personal practice time. However, there are still cases  I just can’t achieve that. Therefore it really is a good idea to have some kind of “blacklist” of repertoire, not saying that everything on the list is not beautiful but everything requires a huge amount of energy to be in shape, so that I can think twice before accepting the gigs:

Note: Most of these rep are orchestral reductions.

Violin:

Korngold Violin Concerto (I love this one! But I only had one day to prepare for a recital. It takes me whole day …)

Barber Violin Concerto 3rd movement (super fast running notes)

Viola:

Hindemith Viola Sonata (Lots of chords)

Clark Viola Sonata (lots of running notes and fast color changes)

Cello:

Tchaikovsky Rococo Theme and variations (Rhythm)

Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 (Notes-wise: not hard, Rhythm: quite annoying )

Dvorak Cello Concerto

Clarinet:

Copland Clarinet Concerto (Notes-wise: not hard, Rhythm: quite annoying )

Weber Clarinet and Piano Duo (not really as hard as I thought… just lots of scales.)

Of course I will keep updating my list. Sure the list will expend!

Good Restaurant Standards

I have been watching a little bit of Kitchen Nightmares lately. Not really a fan of the drama, and can’t stand the yelling and acting in the show, but I do learn a lot about how a restaurant works from Ramsey the chef businessman. From service to restaurant managing to the atmosphere, the differences between a good restaurant and a bad one can manifest in many different ways. It was obvious in the show that why the restaurants were running out of business.

However, when I look back to my experience, I really was taking everything for granted. As a costumer, when I enter a restaurant, I never assume anything bad–instead, I trust that everything was “inspected” by the some government health department officials, that the chefs are trained, that the food is cleaned and prepared well, that as long as everyone else is eating, I am safe, too. I never assume a restaurant to be mediocre or bad before I walk in. Every restaurant is “maybe” very good until you try it.

That’s the kind of attitude that I think why yelp is so popular in these days. People are hunting for good restaurant, to be a place that boost up their social life or a place to create good memories. People walk by a nice looking restaurant, wondering if it is good, so went online to search what other people need to say about it and if it has the information that they are looking for, then go on and try out the restaurant. I think, everyone is sort of on a quest to find a good and memorable restaurant in every cuisine. I came from a family that eat out on weekends a lot, so my parents are always hunting and exploring for good places to eat. That got me to have a habit of collecting my favourite restaurant of each cuisine when I move to a new place.

So with such a positive mind-set among customers, why are some restaurants still falling apart? The show gets me to think, why certain restaurant I went back again and again, and why some restaurant I never went back again after the first try?

The word is standard. Set your standard high, no matter how many competitors you have. My “good restaurant standards” break into couple parts:

1. Fresh food. Fresh and steamy hot food is of course the key thing to make a restaurant success. Food temperature is very important to the sense of freshness of the food. If a salad is too cold, then it taste like it’s been frozen for days. But if it’s too warm, it has this weird soggy texture. If a grilled fish is not crispy, hot outside, juicy and moist inside then it doesn’t give a sense of freshness. So yes, food temperature and freshness are very important to me.

2. The smell of the restaurant. There is a reason why I don’t go to Chinatown here to eat, because of the smell of the restaurants disgust me. A lot of them have this bleach smell that makes you feel like you are eating some corps. A lot of chain restaurants in US don’t have this problem at all…I don’t know where the chinatown restaurants get those smell from.

3. Cleanness. No need to say anything of this. Just make everything clean, no flying insect, thanks.  One time I went to a japanese restaurant in AA and found a caterpillar in my food, blending in with all the greens. I asked the owner to come and showed her the bug, and she said “well, it has lots of protein” and refused to give me a new dish. That was when I started boycotting the restaurant for 6 years and never been back again.

4. Parking or accessibility. Somehow this is quite a factor to us. If a restaurant is very good, but has only street parking, we will only visit it on “special occasion” because we don’t want to worry about parking while  we eat. And yup, we are usually too lazy to walk.

5. Service. I usually don’t care much about service since I preferred to be left alone normally. As long as the waiter/waitress don’t bug me all the time, I will give them good tips. Over certain threshold, the more they bug me, the less tips I usually give them. In other words, a good one will tickle you on the right spot, but a bad one just rubs you the wrong way.

6. Atmosphere. I love dining in certain places simply because it’s quite atmosphere. In general, I hate to eat anywhere I can’t hear what my friends are talking about, like places you have to shout to each other “WHAT?” “WHAT DID YOU SAY?” That, is just unappetizing. A good meal should be filled with soft talks, a little bit of clinking noise from utensils and plates, and maybe some very soft background music.

I think Gordon Ramsey really stresses the importance of these points in his show and I totally agree with him. He helps those restaurants to raise the standards they’ve lost and the confidence to face us costumers. From a costumer point of view, these are also the reasons why I revisit certain restaurants again and again but I don’t go to others.