Friday, August 31, 2012

New thing #41: Paint Creek Trail

At the trail head
One of my friends inspired this New Thing by asking me if I'd ever been on the Paint Creek Trail. Since this was another spot I've always meant to visit, I was glad to meet her there one evening after work. We found great parking spots next to a big hedge behind a restaurant at the north end of the trail, which starts out in the heart of the Village of Lake Orion. I was a little surprised at how many homes back right up to the trail at this point. We might have given off a little Creeper vibe as we passed by and checked out their back yards, noticing if they had mowed their lawns or if they needed new kitchen curtains. But soon the paved trail gave way to dirt and we had left the village behind. We finished our warm-up and started running at an easy pace. This is a great path to run on - narrow but well maintained, hard packed and level, very scenic as it follows Paint Creek - and bonus! There are bathrooms along the way! The only problem is the trail is really busy, with a steady stream of kamikaze bicycles that whizz past you at full speed. Happily, most of the riders yelled "On your left!", which provided enough warning for us to get out of their way. There is also a spot with a big warning sign telling you to watch for wayward arrows from the nearby archery range. Interestingly, I only noticed the warning signs posted for people heading south. I guess you northward-bound hikers are expendable.

We ran for nearly 3 miles, feeling pretty athletic until we realized that the whole way had been down hill. So we walked the return, allowing us to really enjoy the natural surroundings. We passed fields of wildflowers going to seed and crossed over mossy ravines. The creek criss-crossed the path several times, with sets of steps that invited you down to splash in the shallow water before it meandered out of sight. Benches were strategically placed for those who wanted to rest and watch the birds. At one point we noticed two new-century hippie chicks exiting one of the many side paths running perpendicular to the trail and figured we must be near a party spot. I couldn't see anything through the trees, but eagle-eye Kim noticed some graffiti. We decided to check it out so we turned down the next side path and found this fun and funky art explosion sharing the space with Mother Nature:

We made our way back to the main trail and continued towards the village. I was busy casting one eye to the sky in case any disgruntled Archers were hiding in the woods, when we heard a really strange noise coming down the trail behind us. It was a girl cruising by on an Elliptigo, one of the coolest things I've seen in a while. I have got to find a place that rents these!

Dusk was approaching by the time we got back to our cars, but there were very few bugs and the weather was so perfect that it didn't seem possible that an hour and a half had gone by. The Paint Creek trail is definitely a place to visit again.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

New thing #40: Voilà! Soufflé

One of the things on my short list when I started this project was to channel my inner Julia Child and make a soufflé. I really want to be a better cook than I am, and this seemed like a nice challenge. I was tempted to make a chocolate soufflé, but I decided to stick to the classics instead. I had this recipe, and what better way to honor a traditional French dish than with a mixture of Italian and Swiss cheeses?

Senior was out of town, but both The Boy and The Girl were home on a weekday night. This is a rare occurrence and deserving of a special occasion meal. Unfortunately I didn’t have most of the key ingredients. I headed out to the grocery store, but I don’t seem to be physically able to enter a Kroger without filling a cart. By the time I got home it was after 8:00 pm and both had eaten. Undeterred, I got out my utensils, put on a fancy polka-dotted apron (really) and pre-heated the oven.

Soufflés are actually pretty easy to make! It’s basically a white sauce with cheese and eggs. My Food Network addiction finally paid off as I had no problem thickening my sauce, grating the cheese, separating and tempering egg yolks and beating egg whites into beautiful tall foamy peaks. Everything folded together nicely, and in less than 20 minutes I had six ramekins ready to go in the oven.

I reminisced while I cooked. My mother’s mother was a home economics teacher, but she was not the warm fuzzy type that liked to cook with her grandchildren. My strongest memory of her is being told to get my hair out of my face. Mom cooked to please my father, who felt that salt was the only necessary seasoning. Spaghetti sauce was a can of undiluted condensed tomato soup, salad dressing was defrosted lemonade concentrate, and casseroles were barely tolerated. Now, sometimes meals were more exciting. At least once a summer my dad would bring home live lobsters and we’d feast. On occasion we ate stuffed beef heart, venison stew, and roast duck. But a typical dinner at our house was plain meat, boiled potatoes and frozen vegetables all cooked into submission and served swimming in butter and salt. It's no wonder that exotic foods would become a passion in my adult life.

My creation
Since I’ve never eaten a soufflé, I had no idea how they should look on the inside or how they should taste. When the timer went off, I took one out of the oven to check for doneness. The Girl and I dug in our spoons, but the middle hadn’t set. She accused me of trying to give them salmonella, and The Boy refused to even try it. But after another five minutes they were done and beautifully tall. We admired the golden brown crust. We poked them and watched them deflate. We entertained ourselves by calling out "Ermahgerd! Serfler!!" The only part we didn’t really enjoy was eating them. 

Basically, a soufflé tastes like eggs. Hot, cheesy, kinda wet scrambled eggs. It would be a great choice for a Sunday brunch or as a light dinner with a salad and a glass of wine. It was not a great choice for college-age kids who had already filled up on cereal and Sweetarts, and were on their way out for the evening. Nevertheless, my inner Julia was satisfied.

Friday, August 10, 2012

New thing #39: Fit body wrap

Fit body wrap review from an actual consumer: A month or so ago I snapped up a Groupon offer for a 60-minute Fit body-wrap session, where "clients cloak themselves in a soothing wrap that aims to burn up to 1,400 calories while administering infrared heat to quell aches, relieve pains, and detoxify the body". Sounds awesome, right? I pictured myself in a beautiful spa-like setting, sipping Chardonnay and listening to soothing music while attentive spa boys swathed me in soft linens that had been soaked in aromatic herbal concoctions.

The "spa" had a funny name - it was a "Hair and Skin Center". This probably should have been my first clue. I arrived for my appointment in a driving rainstorm. The office was located in one of those cozy brick office parks that looks like a condo association, complete with decorative window shutters and trendy landscaping. I was the only sucker client in the waiting room. A friendly receptionist had me fill out a short, intrusive medical form then led me to a small beige room to wait for the expert staff who would begin my treatment. There was an exam table along the far wall, which was covered with what I can only describe as a human-size insulated lunch bag. The rest of the room was pure doctor's office decor. The 
only spa-like touches were a calla lily print in a gold frame and two fluffy pillows covered with a blue towel . A big white floor fan was set up near the exam table. 

The "expert staff" turned out to be the receptionist, who had now donned a white lab coat. She handed me a package containing a giant plastic bodysuit complete with attached booties. I shook it out and held it up. Made from a flimsy, transparent waxed-papery material, it would have been a perfect fit if I was seven feet tall. Next she gave me a small can of iFit spray.  I was supposed to apply it liberally to my 'problem areas' before the treatment to jumpstart the fat-burning process . I looked dubiously at the tiny little can, then at the size of my problem areas, then back at the can.  Meanwhile she set the controls on a monitor that was attached to the exam table. The system would pre-heat the human-size insulated lunch bag to optimal temperature, and then hold the heat during the 60-minute session. She ran through a short list of instructions and left, promising to be back in ten minutes to see how I was doing.

I quickly stripped down and doused myself with the contents of the can of iFit spray, about enough to cover my kneecaps.  It smelled exactly like Febreeze. Then I dressed in the giant sandwich bag suit, slid my arms into a pair of insulated cuffs, and crawled into the giant lunch bag. There were two flaps at the top of the bag that I never could quite figure out. I put one over my shoulder and stuck the other somewhere by my right ear, then laid back and waited for something to happen. It didn't take long for the lunch bag to reach optimum roasting temperature. After a few minutes I noticed a faint, vaguely familiar rubbery smell. I realized that I had forgotten to take a Band-Aid off my heel, which was now melting into a permanent blister barrier.

Where is my spa boy?

Thirty minutes later the tech stuck her head in the room, apologizing for forgetting about me. By now I was feeling really sweaty and quite relaxed. I handed her my cell phone and asked her to take a picture for my blog. Then she shut off the lights and left me to finish roasting. Just as I was feeling woozy enough to start hallucinating, the monitor beeped and I was done. I climbed out of the lunch bag and stripped off the now-sticky sandwich bag suit. They didn't have shower facilities so my only option was to stand in front of the fan while using the towel to dry off. They did offer a much-appreciated array of deodorant and body spray (a choice between two scents, Monkey Chow or Fermented Soy), and bottled water to drink. I got dressed and fluffed my sweaty hair in the reflection of the glass covering the calla lily print.  Back in the lobby the receptionist/technician was busy with a pharmaceutical salesman, so I waved and headed out to my car. 

On the positive side, my skin felt flushed and was a flattering rosy tone, which lasted until I stepped outside back into the rain. I also felt really relaxed and flexible thanks to all that moist heat. And although I didn't feel any more fit or toned, I did see a change when I stepped on the scale. I had gained two pounds. 

So, the moral of this story? Be open to New Things, but always read the fine print on a Groupon.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

New thing #38: Zhujiajiao neighborhood

My co-workers took me to the town of Zhujiajiao, a beautiful, ancient river town and popular tourist spot on the outskirts of Shanghai. It was a great trip and we got to experience a lot of fun things - riding a canal gondola, burning incense in a temple, watching a paper cutting demonstration, releasing tiny fish into the river for luck and strolling through a market full of strange sights and smells. But the thing that made this trip most memorable was when we missed a turn and ended up wandering in a small old neighborhood bordering the river.

We were on our way to take a tour of a historical old post office, but since we couldn't read the Chinese symbols on the signs, we walked right on by. The shops and businesses gave way to a residential area that seemed to be lost in time.
Every few hundred yards an ancient stone bridge arched high over the water. I hiked up to take some photographs from the crest of one bridge, pausing to let a woman pass by. She was returning from the market and was loaded down with three large plastic bags stuffed with goods, a short walking stick and a bright yellow box from the bakery. She was dressed in a straw hat and layers of clothes, inconceivable in the 98-degree heat and humidity, and bright pink sneakers without laces. She marched up and down the narrow stone steps cut into the bridge, around a corner and out of sight in the time it took me to snap a couple pictures.

We passed several people busily going about their chores. A boy, about ten years old and in need of a haircut, was standing on one of the many access steps on the other side of the river, lifting a homemade net out of the water. It was made of a large blue piece of cheesecloth attached to bamboo crosspieces, and tied to a long pole with a shiny ribbon. I think he was catching small fish for the tourists.  A little further along we saw two women sitting on another set of steps. One had slipped off her sandals and was relaxing. Her small gold earrings glinted in the sun, and her hair was held in place with bobby pins. Everything about her was neat and tidy except that both her knees appeared to be scraped. The other woman was rinsing out towels that she had carried down to the water in a big red bowl. She was one of the few women we saw wearing pants, allowing her to squat so low towards the water that her knees were the same height as her shoulders. She wore a wide brimmed straw hat tied under her chin that completely hid her features, and worked quickly and efficiently. Nearby, a third woman in a loose brown blouse was sweeping the sidewalk with an old straw broom. Like most of the people we passed by, they ignored us, perhaps used to Westerners prying into their lives. 

As the river bent away from the neighborhood the streets got narrower and more crooked. Two-story houses with simple furnishings stood with the front door propped open to attract a breeze or a neighbor in the mood for a cup of tea. Cheery paint on the windows almost camouflaged the bars stretched across the openings to prevent unwanted visitors. In one house an old woman sat just inside the faded red doorway. She had fallen asleep in her wide wicker chair while reading, still clutching two or three sheets of white paper in her hand. Several more sheets rested on a low wooden bench in front of her, held in place by a small pink paperweight. A sheer white curtain blocked the rest of the cluttered room from our view as we tiptoed by. We continued on past short, narrow alleys leading back between the houses to paved courtyards choked with grass. Two chairs sat side by side in one alley, facing in opposite directions. An elderly woman seeking respite from the sun occupied the chair closest to us. Her weathered arms and legs led me to believe that she was used to working outside. She was wearing a blouse and skirt in contrasting floral patterns, a typical fashion choice for the area. She appeared to be staring blankly at the wall in front of her as she leaned on her cane. I thought she might also be asleep, but as we passed by she tapped her cane impatiently on the ground between her feet. 

Once we reached the main road we knew we had gone too far. Nearby, two men relaxed at a street side cafe beneath a small iron windowsill that wept rust stains down the whitewashed wall. The older gentleman had a happy gap-toothed grin. He was dressed comfortably in a white undershirt and plain gray shorts, and his feet were bare. His companion had just finished telling a story and was sitting with his hands clasped in front, his quiet demeanor offset by the loud mismatched floral shirt and shorts he wore. They sat in sturdy chairs made of bamboo lashed together with cloth, resting their tea and bok choy on a small table while they shared a laugh. We paused to show them our tourist map, pointing out where we wanted to go. In a short time we had directions back to the marketplace, delivered in the universal language of pantomime and smiles.