Sunday, August 24, 2008

Things that go Bump! in the Afternoon

This weekend I went to Wilmington, Delaware, for a meeting related to planning the 2009 USA Dance National DanceSport (ballroom dancing) Championships. I really went because they were having a "thank you" party for the 2008 volunteers, and because I had frequent flier miles to burn.

When I got to Wilmington and met up with the other USA Dance people, I commented to the Competition Chairman (woman) that I didn't know if I was supposed to be at the meeting or not, but I'd like to tag along if she didn't mind. I was a little surprised when she turned to me and told me I am actually a member of the 2009 National Organizing Committee! Good thing I went out for the party :) I guess I'm dense or something. I really get a kick out of organizing dance competitions so this is a nice thing for me.

I funded this trip with a frequent flier award ticket from Northwest Airlines. Right now I'm sitting in the airport in Minneapolis, watching my connecting flight to San Francisco pull away from the gate. But it's okay -- I volunteered to be bumped. Northwest is putting me on the next flight, is paying for most of my dinner, and gave me a $300 voucher to use for my next trip. So it worked out pretty well -- I didn't pay for the plane ticket in the first place, and now they just gave me another $300.

People can complain all they want about the airlines, but if you just stay calm and flexible you can make things go a lot easier -- or cheaper -- for yourself.

Which brings me to a comment on Delta Air Lines. Not only am I traveling on an award ticket, but because I flew on an off day or during off hours or something I managed to get the outbound trip to be first class on Delta without having to spend extra miles. Usually I fly United, and have been in domestic first class on United and US Air this year. I must say, Delta's first class beats the pants off of these other two. It's the little things that count: the cabin seemed cleaner and in better repair, the flight attendants seemed happier and more attentive, the coffee was served in a nice-sized coffee mug, lunch was quite delicious with real butter (United just stopped serving real butter), and there was an excellent personal seat-back video system that allows you to pick and choose what you want to watch, fast forward, pause, and rewind.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Nod in Nevada

I'm back on the dance competition circuit, this weekend competing at the Nevada Star Ball held at the Green Valley Ranch Resort in Henderson (Las Vegas). I'm not usually one to go ga ga over a competition hotel, but this one was really nice. The rooms were large with a variety of well-lit mirrors, including one with a console table in front of it, the perfect height to sit in front of and do hair and makeup. The bathroom was huge, with a very deep tub, perfect for soaking in between or after rounds. I had forgotten I was in Vegas until I had to walk through the casino to get to the very nice and very large ballroom in the "Event Center." On top of all that, the comp was run precisely on-time, and hosted by the lovely and gracious Sue Puttock. I'm already looking forward to going back next year -- and not just because of the hotel, but because I also danced well.

For the first time since I was in Bronze level, I won all of my single-dance events. We were only dancing against one other couple, but still a win is a win and it felt good :) After that came my best round, the DanceSport Series event. We came in 4th out of 5 couples but we took the Tango and Quickstep off the 3rd place couple.

Since my last competition, Desert Classic, I've been working very diligently to improve my Waltz. I've always felt it was kind of messy and lacked impact. The effort has paid off, because in the Scholarship event at the end of the day I danced what I think was my best Waltz ever.

All in all, a good weekend!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Magic of Mayo

I have been a fan of Jamie Oliver's cookbooks ever since I saw his first (and second best, after "Jamie's Italy") TV series, "The Naked Chef." A few months ago I picked up Cook with Jamie as an impulse purchase at Whole Foods, but haven't gotten around to looking at it.

I'm still kind of jet lagged from that quick trip to Finland; I've been waking up at dawn and falling asleep around 10pm. This morning I finally picked up "Cook with Jamie" and started reading. Not too far in I got to his recipe for mayonnaise. It sounded so perfect: I had too much canola oil in my fridge, plus a few egg yolks. These were leftovers from my failed wedding cake project.

Making mayonnaise is extremely simple, but not easy. All you have to do is beat oil into an egg yolk. Simple, but not easy. You have to drip in the oil slowly enough that it and the egg yolk will form a creamy emulsion. As you add oil and keep beating, it's possible that the resulting gel-like substance will "break," meaning it will suddenly turn from a thick creamy spread back to liquid.

I had just read Julie and Julia, the one about the woman who spent a year cooking her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Aside from being in turns hilarious and disgusting, it contained a few cooking tips. When Julie was desperately trying to master mayonnaise, she figured out that the little hole in that cup/plunger like thingy that goes in the top of the food processor is the perfect size for dribbling in oil when making mayonnaise. So, I decided to use Jamie's recipe and Julie's food processor technique.

I started by putting the egg yolk and some dijon mustard into the food processor, and turned it on. Then I measured out a cup of canola oil, and put it in the dribble cup. Magically, the oil incorporated into the egg yolk and a beautiful creamy sauce developed. I was entranced. Jamie's recipe called for one egg yolk to a pint of oil, since I had started with two egg yolks (that what was left over from the wedding cakes), I attempted to dribble in four cups (two pints) of oil. After the second cup, I had a very thick mayo that was getting stiff and globby. I thought that continuing adding the oil would smooth it out, so I forged on ahead with the third cup.

Sure enough, the mayo got creamier -- for about five seconds. Then it all turned to liquid. I don't know if this was because of the oil/yolk ratio, the heat that had built up from the food processor motor, or what, but there it was, a mess.

Fortunately Jamie had advice: don't throw out the broken sauce, start over with a new egg yolk and a couple of tablespoons of oil, and then slowly dribble the broken mayo back in.

It worked! I ended up with about two cups of perfectly creamy mayonnaise. I added lemon juice, salt, and pepper to season it. I put it into a Mason jar, and wonder how long this will last in the fridge?

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Goodbye, Helsinki

All in all it was a very nice trip. Helsinki, while not the most thrilling city in Europe, is very tourist-friendly. It's incredibly easy to get around, the Helsinki Card make sight seeing and transportation quite affordable, and the whole environment is rather calm and relaxing. Would I come back? Probably not, unless it was part of another trip I wanted to make. Helsinki strikes me more as being a great place to live than a place to keep revisiting (like my favorite of favorites, London). That said, I do think that if I ever needed a place to go to get away from accelerated global warming, Helsinki could be a great place to live -- provided I learn Finnish and take sunny vacations in the winter so I don't die of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Next -land on my list? Most likely Scotland, next May.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Nature of Art, the Art of Nature

This morning I walked over to another market hall, this one about two blocks from my hotel. Outside were dozens of fruit vendors, each with piles of berries. I don't think I've ever seen such luscious looking blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries all in one place. Plus there were other Scandinavian berries, like cloudberries and gooseberries. The strawberries were smaller, darker, and more tart than what I'm used to in the US, and had a much more fragrant smell. Cloudberries are vaguely like yellow raspberries, but with sort of apple-ish taste all their own that I later enjoyed in ice cream form. In the market I had another one of those great salmon sandwiches, this one made from cut-up bits of salmon mixed with dill and something called rose pepper. The lady behind the counter explained that rose pepper is not really pepper, but the skin of a berry. It does have a sharp taste, but it's not at all like black pepper, and goes very nicely with the fish. I found a packet of it in a nearby spice stall to try at home.

My first sight-seeing stop this morning was the Kiasma, a rather mind-bending museum of contemporary art. To begin with, the building itself is a sort of sculpture itself. Exhibits flow from level to level, and it's not always entirely clear how to get around and through things. The shape and interconnection of levels in the exhibit space breaks the mold of more traditional museums that feature row on row of gallery rooms. Much of the works on exhibit were video installations. In a regular art gallery, a visitor can sort of 'cruise' by many pieces and form instant impressions of them. The video works, however, have a fourth dimension -- a time element -- that forms like painting and sculpture don't have. So, at each installation the visitor needs to stop and sit for at least a few minutes to get a fuller sense of what the work is about. I found it fascinating, and a bit challenging. How long is long enough to watch a piece? If it doesn't interest me and I decide to leave, will I miss something? It wasn't like looking at a painting and being able to decide if I wanted to keep looking at it or move on.

What I saw yesterday at the Design Museum, and then today at Kiasma, made me ponder of the nature of art, and I came to the comforting conclusion that art can simply just be something that the artist wants to show the world. It doesn't have to be brilliant, original, of a certain style or technique. It just is a manifested idea. Sure, there's a lot more to it than that, but this simplicity is helping me to see a way to get past the huge mental block I've had about creating art.

With this in mind, I headed to the meeting point for my afternoon bus tour to the Nuuksio National Park, located about 25 miles from Helsinki. The Finnish countryside in this area looks a lot like where I grew up in New Hampshire, but with no real mountains, just hills. The tour group walked through the forest for about an hour, passing along small lakes, until we ended up at a small resort where we had coffee and fresh-made bread and butter. Some people went swimming on the lake at the resort. I stuck my feet in and it wasn't cold but it did have a lot of organic matter floating in it that made the water kind of blackish.

I realized that the light slanting through the trees and making patterns on the forest floor reminded me a lot of how the light came into that Russian Orthodox church I visited on the first day. I started seeing the mosses and leaves on the forest floor as carpeting, and the patterns of the leaves and sunlight on the floor as similar to stained glass windows, and tree trunks as being like structural columns. The forest suddenly seemed very artistic in an architectural sense. I tried to capture this in a photograph:

Later on, at the lake, I was intrigued by the green lily pads on the black/blue lake. I've always been fascinated with patterned rugs and ornate floor tiles, and thought I'd try to picture them as something on a floor. I also played around with color saturation in Aperture, and basically pushed the greens up very high because I liked the shade and because I wanted to make them start to look manufactured rather than something organic:

On the way back to Helsinki I considered heading over to the zoo once I got back into town, but when all was said and done I was just too tired to do anything more. Tomorrow will be a very long day traveling back to San Francisco, and although I haven't seen everything there is to see in Helsinki, it was just time for me to stop.

Friday, August 1, 2008

A Market, Finnish Design, and a Sea Fortress

The weather report called for showers today, so I planned to make it an all-museum day. After browsing the Old Market Hall and eating a delicious rye-bread-and-smoked-salmon sandwich for breakfast, I headed to the Design Museum. This month they featured a brilliantly humorous and thought-provoking collection of young Finnish artists who use a variety of mediums. The displays included clothing, oil paintings of traditionally-garbed Finns skiing with Elvis, videos of ravers (including a DJ dressed as a starfish), sculptures made of piles of pillows, and samples of gorgeous glassware. After that, I realized it wasn't going to rain, so I went back to my hotel to pick up my camera, and headed to Suomenlinna, a "Sea Fort" (Naval Base) on a large island a couple of miles from Helsinki.

Walking around on the island on a gorgeous summer day makes it tough to picture what that place was really like when it was in use. The Swedes built starting in the 1700's to keep the Russians at bay, but the Russians captured it (along with the rest of Finland) not long after it was completed. Over the years, it degenerated into a sort of garrison to park young men while serving out their compulsory military service. At one point doing the Crimean War the British sailed up to the island, ready to bombard it with their newer and more superior artillery. The people of Helsinki spent a few days taking all their valuables out of the city, thinking at least if their homes were flattened their belongings would be spared. When the fighting started, the people shortly realized that the conflict was confined to the British fleet and the Russian garrison, so they dragged out sofas and tables and chairs and sat on hilltops watching the fireworks.

Although the Russians didn't have very advanced weaponry in the fort, they were still able to put up a fight by sending ships out toward the British to launch fireballs in an attempt to burn the fleet. After a couple of days of this, the British turned around and left. The Russians later installed better cannon, just in case they came back. I'm sure I've forgotten major points in this history, but it was quite interesting to realize that Western Europe has been trying to contain the Russians for centuries, that fear of Russian military might and presence wasn't just a Cold War thing.

The island itself is lovely in the summertime, and many people were out there having picnics and swimming because the afternoon was warm and sunny. Despite the extreme pleasantness of it all, I could not stop thinking about what it must be like in the winter time. They say it doesn't snow that much in Helsinki because of the moderating effect of the Baltic Sea, but still what with stiff onshore winds, many hours of darkness, and temperatures commonly below zero, I just cannot imagine living there. There are a decent number of people living on the island year-round, it's so popular that when last winter eight accommodations opened up, nearly 200 applications were file for each place. I walked around a good portion of the island until dark clouds piled up and it started to thunder and lightening. By the time I got back to the ferry I was quite wet, but it was kind of nice to be walking in the rain since warm summer rain is rarer than rare in San Francisco.

I dried out by riding the clean and comfortable 3T Tram on its figure-eight route around the main part of the city. Helsinki strikes me as being very pleasant and comfortable and livable. The public transportation is so good that many people don't own cars.