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March Update: Year Of Challenges

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Let’s look back in on this.  I admit that my performance in the Year of Challenges has been a little spotty; mid-January threw me a financial curve ball, and February threw me another one – and kept me inside all month.  This past month I was finding my footing at a new job, and I’m still kind of in the “I don’t know what I’m doing and my head is exploding” stage.

But I’m trying:

  • Visit a New Neighborhood: So I finally did this!  I’ve been wanting to check out Flushing, Queens for a while now – there are three “Chinatown” districts in New York, and this is the biggest one.  I originally was planning to eat my way across the neighborhood, but ended up only getting dumplings and going to a tea tasting, each of them in little hole-in-the-wall shops in malls down in basements.

    But the dumplings were at a stall once feted by Anthony Bourdain and the tea tasting was an eye-opening half hour.  It’s in a little cubbyhole of a place tucked into the back room of a mini-mall, a place selling gourmet tea and fancy-pants tea implements.  But for a mere five dollars, the shopkeeper will sit down and conduct a tea tasting with you – pick your choice from the menu, and she’ll sit down with you at a table, letting you smell a scoopful of the dry leaves first and then taking you through a sampling; the tea is high-quality enough that the leaves can be re-used five times, and she takes you through five steepings of increasingly longer duration.  I picked the poetically-named “spring rain in the desert” green tea – and was stunned at the variations in taste that came simply from changing the length of time the tea was steeped.  The first time it was steeped for only a matter of seconds, and I picked up a surprising edamame flavor to it that was gone the next steeping.  It was a gracious and fascinating pause to the day.

    I also had the bonus gift of running into a friend from back in my hometown – a few of us theater kids all moved to NYC at the same time and scattered to our different paths; but every so often our paths cross, like when I was walking up to the historic Quaker Meeting House in Flushing at the precise moment that my friend Dan was walking out after meeting.  After squealing at each other, he snuck me inside for a quick tour.

  • Eat lunch at a restaurant in my neighborhood:  In February I made a point of hitting up a crab place that opened up on my block.  I’m still looking for a place in Brooklyn that does clam rolls, but this made for a good seafood fix.  And this past weekend was a visit to a Vietnamese place which was blessedly a little empty – so no one saw me becoming a stupid doof when I was confronted with Vietnamese iced coffee for the first time. (I had to ask the waiter twice about “how do I work this coffee maker thing again?”…..)  I also got messy and fumble-fingered with their crispy spring rolls – four deep-fried rolls of vermicelli noodles stuffed with shrimp, presented alongside some big lettuce leaves and a sprig of mint for me to further wrap around the rolls as I saw fit.  At least, I’m assuming that I was supposed to wrap the lettuce around the rolls rather than dropping the lettuce on the floor.
  • Reading Challenge: Okay, the Penguin UK site finally posted a list.  And I discovered it in enough time to get through the one for March; a reread of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.
  • Brooklyn Museum’s First Saturday: Big fat goose-egg here this month. Trying again.
  • Chinese Cookbook: This is back!  I found a simple edamame recipe, with the pods spiked with Chinese five-spice powder instead of solely with salt (as is done in Japan), and something called “Russian soup”, a concoction of oxtail and potato with a broth seasoned by ketchup.  Which brings me to:
  • NEW Soup Cookbook Challenge. …I didn’t do this.  New-job head-messery tempted me to hit up Grubhub for more dinners than usual this month, so I didn’t do much cooking overall.  But the cost of those Grubhubs is nudging me back towards cooking, and I’ll be revisiting this; my theater days taught me the value of having something ready on hand when you come home from work exhausted and all you want for dinner is “I don’t care as long as all I have to do is microwave it”.
  • Five Photos every weekend: The weather has sucked.  I’ve only wanted to go outside two weekends.  Leave me alone.  ….April will be better.  Pinky-swear.

Year of the Pig/Year Of The Challenges

Can I show you something a minute?


Know what those are?

Those are fresh pork wontons.

But not just any fresh pork wontons.  Those are fresh pork wontons that were made by my own two reckless and foolhardy hands.


I used a recipe from the cookbook I told myself I’d delve into more this year; there’s also a batch of sauce using the Sichuan chili oil I made the other week to go with them. I made only half the recipe but still have about 75 little nuggets of pork and ginger, most of which got sent to the freezer for longer-term storage and future use.  But one tray of them is waiting for Alex to get home from whereever he is, at which point I will probably jump up grinning at him wildly and say “oh hi great let me turn the water on sit down this will be ready in about ten minutes eat this.”  And best of all, I think out of the entire batch, there’s only one that might have a little bit of a structural integrity and leaking issue.


Behold the rewards of overconfidence, spare time and a $2.99 pack of wonton skins.

Adventures In Condiments

So one of the first recipes I wanted to tackle in the Chinese cookbook was a staple condiment – a chili oil, which is made by simmering dried chilis and a dried whole orange peel in simmering peanut oil.  It’d be shelf-stable, it’s good as a seasoning for dipping sauces for dumplings, and it’d use up some dried Thai chiles I somehow had in my pantry.

The only problem was that I had to actually grind most of the chiles – finely.  Well, that is, the actual grinding itself wasn’t the problem; I have a coffee grinder that I use exclusively for grinding spices (protip – to clean out a coffee grinder, throw in a handful of plain white rice after and grind that into a powder, then dump out the powder and wipe the rest of it clean).  Three passes with the grinder, one handful at a go, gave me the amount I needed.

The problem came with the fact that grinding chiles produces clouds of dried chile smoke as a side effect; and even though I had two fans going and let the grinder sit for a good long moment before opening it, I still ended up coughing and hacking and dry-heaving in my kitchen.

I also came very very close to wiping my eyes with my bare hands.  This is never a good idea with chiles; I once somehow got jalapeno juice up my nose and had to spend the next several minutes with milk-soaked Q-tips shoved into one nostril to quell the fire.  Today I can tell that I somehow must have rubbed the corner of my mouth.

….This chili oil damn well better be good.

Well THAT Was Easy

…So, uh, I think I may have the next job lined up already.  We’ve done the deal verbally, still waiting for the paperwork.

Job hunting is never fun for anyone, but for me it’s especially fraught because the first time I ever really had to devote attention to such a search was right after the financial collapse of 2008/2009.  Before that I sort of stumbled into both a day job and all my theater gigs pretty quickly; my very first post-college job came via a call from my university’s internship office that came the morning after graduation, and I just stuck with the person helming that particular project for the next eight years.  Then I kicked up the theater career and signed up for temping, and got easily placed in spots for about ten more years, with one gig lasting four years alone (and it probably would have gone on even longer if the economy had lasted).  So the first time I ever tried to deliberately look for a job was in 2009, when such a search usually dragged on for months and months while your savings dwindled and your debt soared and you were living on ramen.  That…was kind of a scarring experience.

So I was girding my loins for a very, very lean year while I was searching – only to have this come along in under a month.  And I realized that my last job search was also comparatively quick.  It’s given me food for thought – and the space to dream a little bigger.  I’m still going to stay put at this new place for a good while (even when it’s fast, job searches suck), but I’m also seeing that this is letting me turn my attention back to “hey, you were going to try eating out more” and “ooh now you can get wonton skins, didn’t you want to use that cookbook more?”

Part of the idea behind the Year Of Challenges was just to get myself out and moving around more – because that’s how you find more connections and more things to involve yourself in out in the wider world.   Life doesn’t have to just be a slog to your job and then a slog home, and I had forgotten that.

Case in point – I was looking for a place to see one of this year’s Best Picture nominees, and discovered a little teeny community space up in Greenpoint was showing a couple.  I went out to one last night – it’s a tiiiiiiny theater space, which they also use for art galleries and video gaming contests, with an equally-cozy coffee house as well.  There were only four of us there for the movie, so the guy behind the concessions counter came in to offer us all a free glass of wine as well, for the heck of it.  I was intrigued enough by the space that I chatted with the staff for a few minutes after, even suggesting a couple films.  But it got me thinking, as I was heading home, that if I ever wanted to launch some kind of a local movie event, they might be down with that….

I mean, I’m still a train, two busses and about fifteen bucks in a cab away from doing that.  But the fact that I even was thinking along those lines is a sign of hope that I haven’t felt in a long, long time.

When To Yield To A More Comfortable Challenge

So today is the first Saturday of the month.  Which means that the Brooklyn Museum is going to be doing its “First Saturday” event tonight; the museum will be free all night, and they’ll have lots of special events planned.  This is also something that I was challenging myself to attend each month this year.

I am going to throw in the towel on this challenge for February and blow it off.

Hear me out though. I’ve had something of eventful couple days; my heat failed on me right when the polar vortex was chilling everything down, I’ve had a couple of interesting developments at the old job (upshot: I’m staying on an extra month for….reasons), and I had kinda-sorta-maybe a super promising job lead.  So for three days I’ve been pingponging between confirming details about one job before dressing up to meet someone about another job and then coming home to let in the super before running back out to notarize something and picking up insulating stuff on the way home, stopping at a place to print my resume, and…yeah.

So this morning, when I had the urge to take my first cup of coffee back to bed, I gave in and did so. And stayed there.  I did not get out of bed until about 1 pm and I am still in pajamas three hours later.  Clearly, leaving the house and being social is not something I want to do today.

….I am going to leave the house briefly, though, because I’m going to do something else instead.  Sometime yesterday, as I was in between everything, I had the sudden thought that “….I really want cake.”

More specifically, I wanted to bake a cake.  Not a super-fancy elaborate thing with lots of frosting and filligreed decorations or anything, just….an unfussy, plain cake, something that would last in the house about a week and people could cut slices off casually as the need or craving arose.  Something that can live inside this.


I’ve never had a proper cake tin in my life.  I’ve also never really needed one; but I spoiled myself a little in November, since I was baking a ton for a friend’s Friendsgiving dinner, and went out in search of Things To Easily Carry Cakes In (When You Only Have A Lyft).  The shop I went to had a major sale on proper cake tins, though, and while I would have told you I was getting this “because the handle is practical”, I really got it because it looks so….homey, like it’s the kind of thing that belongs to someone who bakes a whole cake every week just because it’s nice to have cake hanging about the house.

And – well, who says I can’t be that person?  I’ve already been starting to think in terms of simple weekly cooking plans, partly for economy and partly for simplicity; make like a single quiche and a couple of soups to last me all week, and each dinner is just mixing and matching a slice of the quiche and a soup, or a soup and some green salad and bread, or the quiche and a salad….yadda yadda.  For dessert, I was thinking I’d just make do with cookies or some fruit or something.  But…cake would also work too.

So – instead of the Brooklyn Museum, this evening is going to be all about baking something simple and chocolatey and homey and cutting myself off a slice and tucking the rest of it into this and then having that waiting for me as a reward over the course of the rest of this week, and I think I kind of need that.

State Of The Kim: Of Resolutions And Rejuvenation

So I’ve recovered from the employment shock a bit, and I think I’m going to be okay.  I dove into job-hunt mode for a few days and have stashed a whole ton of irons into the fire, I have a bit of a game plan set into motion and I even have the promise of some temporary income streams coming in that will sustain me for at least the next two or three months.  In fact, the prospect of the next two or three weeks potentially being “downtime” actually sounds…attractive, instead of being a cause for blind panic.  I’m still going to be browsing job postings every day, but I’m also going to be going on long walks with my camera, checking out local museums with “free weekday” deals, and Marie Kondo-ing the hell out of a couple closets.

Best of all – since most of the challenges I set up for myself in the Year Of Challenges  don’t involve any cash outlay, I can stick with it. Maybe temporarily tweak a couple of them and make up for it later.

In fact, let’s check in on how I did in January.

  • Visit a New Neighborhood: ….Er, I haven’t just yet.  I may save the “January” plan for the first week of February to distract myself from the first couple days of “oh crap I don’t have a job to go to today”.
  • Eat lunch at a restaurant in my neighborhood:  I think I can be excused this. I may also have to put this on hold for a couple months, and double up when I’m in funds again. But there’s a fish sandwich place that opened up on my actual block last week that I have my eye on as the first visit.
  • Reading Challenge: now, this is interesting. I initially signed up and planned to do the Penguin Books UK Classic Reading Challenge, thinking that there was going to be a specified list of books they’d mapped out for the month.  But when two weeks elapsed and I never saw any notice about that, I finally just scoured my own bookshelves and gathered a little stack of Things I’m Meaning To Read and dove into that instead.  But then just when I was finishing the first book….I finally got an email from Penguin, with January’s title on their Classics challenge.  And….so I read both.  I think I may just keep going at that rate – one from my own stack, then one from Penguin.  This first month, the first book was Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis – an unusual construction, sort of like a cross between Memento and Benjamin Button, but with Nazis.  (I have made total hash of that description, but trust me, it’s applicable.)  Penguin suggested Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! which was…alright, but a little too hand-over-heart embrace-the-salt-of-the-earth for my taste.  But – that’s double the success rate on the reading challenge.  Go me!
  • Brooklyn Museum’s First Saturday: Yep, did that. Didn’t avail myself of any of the special events they have each time, but I rarely do anyway; I tend to prefer to visit some of my own favorite corners. Although I was drawn to a couple quirky things on display; there’s a retrospective of the museum’s feminist art collection there, and one of the pieces was a series by the artist Wendy Red Star, who found a series of five photos taken of Crow tribe chiefs in the 19th Century at a time when they were visiting Washington DC to negotiate land rights. Wendy Red Star’s work is a series of extensive notations on each photo, describing some of the symbolic elements of each chief’s attire and giving details about their lives.
  • Chinese Cookbook: ….So, I’m cutting myself slack on this for this month. My grocery list for the next few weeks is going to have to be trimmed and simplified, so I don’t quite have the money to spend on some of the specialty ingredients I’d have to buy for this (a shame, as I had my eye on making wontons).  However, there are some recipes that can be made using regular supermarket fare, and I just need to find those and then re-launch.  However, I have another cooking challenge I’m going to add to make up for it:
  • NEW Soup Cookbook Challenge. I also have another overlooked cookbook, this one concerning simple seasonal soups; it’s written by an actual monk, sharing recipes from his own kitchen at his actual monastery, so there’s also an intrinsic frugality there.  I’ve used this one a little more – but there are still quite a few recipes I’ve never tried.   So I’m also going to dive into that one over the course of the coming year.  Brother Victoire-Antoine also helpfully organizes the book with a separate chapter for each month of the year, so I can keep track.  (Coming up in February: mostly bean and vegetable soups, mostly French.  I’m down.)
  • Five Photos every weekend: Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.  We’ve had a couple of BITTER cold weekends, but I’ve still stuck with at least picking up the camera and trying to find photo material indoors.  Also, I’m not so hung up on the “five photos” part as I am on the “every weekend” part; one weekend I only took three photos, but at least I took photos.  Last weekend I also signed up for a “photo walk” with a local photographer and birder; it was a friendly group of people who’d gone on walks with him before, and me, so the focus was mostly on people just diving in and taking pictures.  Exactly what I needed.  He led us on a ramble through some of the residential back corners of Coney Island, finishing with a stroll down the boardwalk back towards the subways. And I found a wealth of subjects…
  • Hike: According to my Fitbit the walk around Coney Island Creek counts as a hike, so there.
  • Craft Projects: I finished something!!! I have been working on a throw blanket for a couple years now; I’d had the yarn salvaged from a more complicated throw blanket kit I’d purchased some years ago, started, and decided I didn’t want to fiddle with it.  But that left me with a couple oddball balls of yarn that wouldn’t really work in other things; it’s a weird sort of fuzzy yarn, really lightweight and fuzzy, so not suitable for a garment. But the quantity was just enough for a simpler lap blanket, which is finally done and gracing the living room. img_5439

Whither WadsWords: The Year Of Challenges


You will recall that I’ve been trying to figure out what I can do with this here blog once I roll out the Movie Crash Course into its own home (that should happen within a couple weeks, and I’ll post reviews in both places for the first couple weeks or so to encourage people to follow me over there).  I’d decided to set up some self-challenges to get myself to just plain do more this year; I’ve felt like things are a little off-balance for me.

I have the beginnings of a plan in place.

  • I will visit one new neighborhood in this city every month.  This is getting back to the old “Neighborhoods New York” challenge that I set for myself at some point and have been woefully neglecting.
  • I will eat out (a lunch on a weekend) at one new-to-me restaurant in my neighborhood each month.  There are scores of gorgeous restaurants in my neighborhood which I’ve never tried out.
  • I will try to take at least five photos every weekend with my beautiful and glorious new camera.  Granted, I have to figure out how the blasted thing works first, but…yeah.
  • I will do the Penguin Books UK classics reading challenge (one classic book a month), and maybe one other.  This is on top of my existing book club, which should be interesting.
  • I will complete about half of all of the unfinished craft projects I have lingering in the house by the end of the year.  I have a lot of lingering knitting and decoupage ideas sitting in dusty corners, and a couple of tired old things that I have been meaning to spruce up…it’s time to finally do it.
  • I will hike once a month.  New York City is loaded with hiking trails in its furthest corners, and when I exhaust that, then the Hudson Valley is only a short jaunt.
  • I will attend the Brooklyn Museum’s First Saturday event every month.  Brooklyn Museum plans all kinds of wacky special events each Saturday, but for me the appeal is the free admission; if none of the events speak to me, I can just slip off to some of the other galleries and wander a little.
  • I am still deciding the speed and rate and frequency, but: I will try more recipes out of this gorgeous cookbook.  I got it a while back and have used it exactly once; it’s a gorgeous deep dive into the various regional cuisines of China, with an eye towards “what is actually achievable for a Western Cook”.  The author doesn’t “Westernize” the recipes, from what I’ve seen, she simply focuses on including mostly recipes with ingredients you can actually get in your average supermarket.  ….Alex has already expressed great interest in helping eat the results.

So there it is.  I have a review in the works for the latest movie, but this is also a point of focus.