Coffee

When I miss my parents, I drink coffee.

I don’t even like coffee. In fact, coffee makes me sick to my stomach. My parents, however, do not make me sick to my stomach.

I am one of those kids who loves their parents. I don’t consider myself to be controlled by them. In fact, getting them to give me actual advice is a struggle. The other day, for instance, I asked my mom if I should get the insured Amtrak ticket. She asked me about what it gave me (not much), before commenting that it seemed like it would be useful in an extremely narrow, and possibly unlikely, set of circumstances. “But,” she added, “it’s only eight-fifty if you have eight-fifty to spare.” She explained that she and Dad never get travel insurance, but some people get it all the time.

My parents are the picture of “letting us make our own decisions.”

I adore my parents. I miss them when they aren’t around.

My parents love coffee. They don’t just love to drink coffee, they love coffee.

A habit in my family is to decide to get into something, to love something. It might be something we think is cool, or something we’ve had passing experiences with. For example, my parents, as long as I can remember, drank coffee. One day, when I was younger, they decided to love coffee. Once the decision was made, everything fell in line with it.

First, they learned about the different types of coffee. They would have at-home coffee tastings. They became familiar with what different coffees tasted like, and which varieties they enjoyed.

They experimented with different ways to make coffee. Different water temperatures, different settings on the coffee grinder, different steeping times.

Then my father began to roast coffee.

The first time he did it, he used the oven. He had purchased raw coffee beans off the internet. Over time, he got good at this and then decided to get a proper coffee roaster instead. For years he has played around with his methods of turning raw beans into something that can be made into coffee. My mom actually makes the coffee. “[She] makes it better,” he said once after dinner.

Combined, as far as I understand it, my parents make great coffee.

I don’t drink this coffee because I don’t enjoy it. When I miss my parents, I get coffee, that I am assured would not be as good as the coffee they make. I sip it and shudder. I smell it, inhaling deeply. I never finish a cup of it.

Sometimes my parents send me the coffee they roast. I love when they do this. I give it to people. No one has actually ever told me if they like it or not. I like to think they do. I hope they do. Most people are struck by the fact that my parents roast coffee. This makes me happy. It’s the one time I feel as though maybe people get a small grasp of how awesome I think my parents are.

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Christmas

This is the story of my best Christmas.

I think it was my super senior year of university when we decided to go to Florida for Christmas. Since becoming “an adult,” Christmas stopped being a big deal for me. The magic of it got lost, I became more interested in the Jewish traditions of my family, and it turned into a time when I ended up not being sure where I was supposed to be. Sure, I liked the lights, the smells, the sitting in the house filled with happy people. I still do. I just haven’t seen a lot of that in the past few years. It’s the bittersweet melancholy of being a somewhat transient twenty-something. However, my final year at university was marked by a holiday of visiting my grandmother in Florida.

Del Ray Beach to be specific. It’s near Boca.

If you can’t tell already by her geographic location, this is my Jewish grandmother. She converted at some point for my grandfather, whose family is “Jews all the way back,” to quote my aunt. I consider myself to be Jewish. It’s an ethic identity I have adopted even though my parents hardly ever bring it up. Celebrating Christmas with my savie (our butchered version of “savta,” as best I can tell) seemed a little strange to me, but it was an excuse to get my mom’s sisters (and associated children) together.

We were staying at my aunt’s house. B, sister one of four, bought the house with her husband. It’s a slightly strange smelling sprawl of tile floors, white wicker furniture, and glass. It -feels- like Florida, with it’s collection of classy family heirlooms and that kind of furniture “real people” from the North East don’t seem to have in their homes. The house, a place with three bedrooms that can arguably sleep at least seven “comfortably” and “not on the floor,” has afforded us the opportunity to visit Savie in a manner that is not unaffordable.

Plus, the residential community has a pool and a hot tub.

We were among the first to arrive on that trip. We all came separately. My brother and my father flew out from Philadelphia–Dad had been doing some work there, I think. Mom came up from Arizona. I came down from Pgh. Mom wasn’t there yet, but Dad, my brother, and I had landed at the airport, and gotten ourselves to the house. We were hungry. It was Christmas day.

In a house devoid of food, on a day with closed grocery stores, we did what any sensible set of people would do: we found a Chinese restaurant.

On the way back, walking, we passed the grocery store. They had, in front, a collection of pungent, drying Christmas trees. The ones that didn’t sell. We stopped and looked at them. As a kid, we had a Christmas tree. It was a small artificial one. One year, we had an even smaller real one, in a pot with dirt in it. By January, we transferred the pot outside. I wasn’t familiar with these “real” Christmas trees.

“Your mom would really like a tree,” Dad said. We talked about it for a minute, looking at the collection of trees, browning, drying, shedding needles like clothes in the Florida heat.

Dad picked a tree and then he and I picked it up. He carried it in his arm and I rested it on my shoulder. The needles cloyed against my skin and the smell cloyed against my nose.

Christmas trees have a smell I was never really familiar with outside of its artificial, chemical form that is connected to candles, cleaning solutions, and car air fresheners. Carrying that tree across the parking lot, large, divided road, and housing development gave me an opportunity to become intimately familiar with it.

Dad found a bucket and filled it with water. We found some rocks to help prop the tree up in the bucket. We set it in the connected living room-dining room and swept up the Hansel and Gretel trail of pine needles.

As people showed up, we put little things on the tree to decorate it. They found presents to put under it. Dad diligently made sure there was enough water and the tree began to look less like it was dead and more like it was dying. We ate our meals at the table next to this tree and looked at it.

We brought Savie over one night and exchanged presents. We lit some candles and prayed, even though Hannukah was over. We took things from under the tree and passed them around the room.

Being a foolish child, I fled early to spend New Years with friends in Chicago, bitterly cold and full of people I no longer talk to. T was there, with me, and I think about her and lament how much I now miss her with the same sort of useless wistfulness I wish I had spent those few extra days with my family. My father disposed of the tree we had stolen before he left.

For less than a week, that stolen tree–a tree that represented, as I understood it, everything Christmas isn’t about–made my mom smile. My dad always says, when it comes to gift giving occasions, that he wants us to take care of ourselves and succeed. That this is what makes him happy. I think it’s true, I think it is what he wants. But sometimes, people give us things that we didn’t know would make us happy, things we didn’t consider. While he never asked my mom to let him make her happy for the winter holidays, I think she gave it to him anyway that year. I think that the fact he provided something for his family, something none of them thought about wanting, he got right back something he hadn’t thought about wanting.

Mongol, 01

After months of considering exactly how to make this work, we made Mongolian food for dinner.

Vegan Mongolian food.

Mongolian food is nothing like those so called Mongolian Grills, where you add various foods to a plate which are then cooked in a large wok. Mongolian food doesn’t have “all those fancy vegetables,” to quote a former teacher of mine. The Mongolian diet, in my experience, is over 80% meat and dairy, and the remaining amount is predominately starches.

One of the pieces are the heart of the Mongolian diet is cүүтэй Цай (suutei tsai), literally milk with tea. It’s also known as “salted milk tea.” The first challenge was to get this down.

There are several websites that explain how to make it. Take one part water and put it in your pot that is on the first. Next, take milk. Proper milk for this is milk that just came from whatever livestock you have, but any kind of milk will do. It ought to have a high fat content. After these get warm enough, add some tea. Most people I saw make it had cloth pouches they would put tea into. This tea, I was told, is some of the cheapest tea in the world. I was also told green tea would be an acceptable analogue. Add salt. Let cook for some time. Do not stir it. Rather, take a ladle and fill it with the mixture. Raise your ladle and let the cүүтэй Цай fall down back into the pot. Taste it periodically. When it tastes good, drink it.

First, we needed a good, thick milk replacement product. Realistically, any unsweetened xmilk would work. (xmilk being my term for ‘non-dairy milk replacement beverage.’ These can be soymilk, hazelnutmilk, almondmilk, hempmilk, oatmilk.) We decided to try it with some homemade cashew milk thanks to our the Acetarium soymilk maker. Cashew milk is pretty creamy tasting.

Since this stuff has a high water content, rather than using one liter of cashewmilk and one liter of water, we used two liters of cashew milk. We let it get hot. We had loose green tea, so we filled two tea balls with it and hung them over the pot using a carefully balanced chopstick. I filled the center of one palm with salt, likely not much more than a tea spoon or two, and added it.

We waited.

I used the ladle we had to mix it. It tasted pretty good, but not quite right. On a whim, we added a spoonful of Earth Balance.

We waited.

I used the ladle we had to mix it. I then raised the ladle, partially full, to my lips and sucked in airy sprittles of this concoction.

And it tasted pretty close. As close as one can make vegan cүүтэй Цай.

I happily sipped a bowl of it while we worked on other steps to the Mongolian meal puzzle.


Recipe

Two liters xmilk (I used cashew)
Two full tea balls of green tea (bags would likely work)
1 tbsp Earth Balance (or similar product)
2 tsps salt (more/less to taste)

Bring the xmilk to a near boil. Add the green tea. You can add it loose if you want to strain it later. Allow this to cook for a while in order to get the green tea taste into the xmilk. Let it be hot, let it simmer, but don’t let it boil. Add the salt and earth balance. Use a ladle to mix it by filling it with the tea and pouring it back into the pot.

Taste it periodically to get a flavor you like.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Before I went to Korea, I drove around the country. I said a long, languid “see you later” to this country and many of the people I knew in it. The day I arrived in Chicago, a straight shot from Pittsburgh, I met up with Theresa. We saw Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

I wrote about it. I have a tendency to do that.

I have very little unique to say about Deathly Hallows, part one. (DH1). This is Yates’s third Harry Potter flick and Kloves’s seventh. Of Kloves’s twelve writing credits (“Part 2” is on this list) three of them are originals. His first three works were his own, followed by the screen adaptation of Michael Chabon’s “Wonder Boys.” And we all know how I feel about Michael Chabon. And Wonder Boys. (<3)

Then Kloves gave himself over to the Harry Potter series. As someone who, in various states of inebriation, will hushedly admit “I am a writer,” I like to think of the power of the person writing the screenplay. I understand that in big budget productions, there are script doctors. There are drafts upon drafts. Someone else might even have handed Kloves an outline and told him to “write the script from that.” I don’t know. Even though I know these things may be true, I like to think that the screenplaywrite is the person who sets the ground work for the magic that becomes a film. They are the first person to imagines how the scenes are going to fit together. How the hero will soulfully look into the eyes of their love interest.

At least, that’s how I think when I write scripts.

After learning that Kloves has been responsible in name for all of the scripts, I looked back on the series and asked myself “how did this happen?”

DH1 is plagued by the same disease of other Harry Potter movies: it feels -rushed-. It feels -forced-. It feels like it wasn’t planned. Rather than attacking the series with a plan, a whole plan, DH1 was looked at as something new and unique. When beginning to work on it, rather than being able to see the threads from earlier in the series, they all needed to be added and dealt with at once.

I am willing to give the team more slack on DH1. There were a lot of new threads to deal with as well.

Trying to fit everything in, even in the time they had, was hard. Important things were cut, and important things were added. In what feels like an effort to placate audiences, to give them as neat a stand alone package as possible (though I still have been unable to find a non-Fan, someone who doesn’t remember the books or hasn’t seen all the movies willing to see DH1 in the name of science), loose ends from previous installments have been left alone. (I could make a list, but it doesn’t seem worthwhile.)

Instead of focusing on adding these lost moments, a lot of screen time is devoted to long shots of the UK in the winter. These are meant to evoke feelings of isolation. Helplessness. Hopelessness. We are supposed to understand that they are alone and have no direction.

That’s how I felt the plot was going.

It is my predilection to enjoy those derelict, desolate shots of cold, grey expanses and falling apart buildings. However, I don’t find these to be acceptable replacements for the plot moving along.

There is a lot of criticism out there about how Rowling tells her stories–how she moves them–and how the movies tell and move their stories. The stories feel as though they were conceived of with an end, and a beginning, but not a lot in between. When faced with the middle, bits and pieces of it fill in and fall into place, and sometimes they don’t at all. The characters searching, with no ideas, for the horcruxes, is how I feel about the plot. When reading the book, I felt as though I was searching for it in each page. Finally, I was lucky when something that was of a magic never before mentioned in the books fell out and made the characters lucky.

One of the things that was, for the most part, great about Harry, and his universe, was that he wasn’t really all that special. Sure, he was the chosen one, but he was chosen. He was chosen by Voldemort to be his enemy. He was a rather normal kid. Often, when Harry did something special, it was quickly followed by someone else doing the same thing. He learned to make a patronus, and people were impressed, but others learned to do the same thing and some did it more quickly than he had. Harry was brave, but he wasn’t especially more brave than other characters. He hadn’t been raised with a deep seeded fear of the villain in the same way everyone else was. He wasn’t especially more “clever” than anyone else. He wasn’t more crafty. That is to say, he didn’t think steps ahead of everyone else. Harry was just a guy.

In fact, once you got used to the world of the books, everything was “just kind of how it is.” I disliked when the mystical (not magical) deus ex machina was rolled out for our viewing and reading pleasure.

This long period of wandering listlessly along unpopulated parts of Britain was not just about the isolation and desolation of their lives. It was about Harry and Hermione.

Harry and Hermione have a special connection. At several points during the series, while Ron and Hermione were mad at one another, Harry and Hermione forged a closer friendship. In the final chapters of the series, we see someone who is effectively an outsider lead a charge against an insular community. Sure, Harry is part of the community -now-, but in some way, he will always be an outsider. He grew up in the real world. And so did Hermione.

When they’re in a coffee shop, Hermione orders a cappuccino. Ron says “whatever she’s having,” in a nervous air that shows he doesn’t understand. Harry orders a drink. We’ve seen him do this before, in the subway of London. His friendship with Hermione, the fact that they, in a way, bonded because of where they came from, is moved to the front line.

While they’re camping, there is a moment when the radio (which, in taking the movie for itself, has a great, if not entirely well explained, role) plays a song. Harry and Hermione are alone. They start to dance. A lot of people say this seen is a play to fans who liked the idea of a Harry and Hermione couple. A lot of people say it’s cheesy and cliche because it’s about how great the moment could be if it had been with someone else.

The moment is about friendship and the temporary joy isolation can provide.

When the two characters dance, they dance as friends. They dance as people sharing the most awful experience of their lives with one another. Hermione herself makes a comment about hiding in the woods forever. These are two kids faced with an impossible task. They are hopeless. In their hopelessness, in their isolation, they find a moment where they force away all of the problems of the world and instead limit their world to the space of their tent where they can dance. They don’t have to worry about saving the world. When the song ends, there is this pause, this realization that that isn’t what is true. There is an awful world to face and they have to face it. This is a visualization of Hermione’s earlier comment about hiding in the woods–that they can’t.

Sometimes DH1 gets a little excessive. As the characters grew up in the confines of the school, they were very much children. In letting them out into the world–even an oddly insular world–they are also allowed to grow up, much like the audience of Harry Potter has been doing. They use the silly sounding magic terms less–usually in reference to the former childish life of the characters. Relationships and responsibilities are handled differently. There’s much more partial and implied nudity. In the theater, when Daniel Radcliff takes off his clothes before jumping into the frozen lake, something a friend referred to as “the moment I could no longer suspend my disbelief,” a woman in the audience yelled “Oh yeah!” Cheering, laughing, and cat calling rose up from the rest of us.

In spite of its “adultification,” Deathly Hallows still appeals to the same part of me Sorcerer’s Stone fulfilled: the part of me that enjoys just liking something for what it is, not what it could be. That likes being entertained. The part that enjoys the suspension of disbelief and fantasy that I could create light or fire, that the good guys can band together to defeat evil, that there’s evil that can so directly be defeated, that there can be happy endings, that people can be cured from anything. That magic exists.

Apples

The Pioneer Woman has a recipe for apple fritters that is really, really awesome. When everyone I know ended up with lots of apples, somewhere I got it into my head that this recipe was The One. I thought about it with limerance. Thoughts I couldn’t stop of these apple fritters danced into my head. I couldn’t stop fantasizing about making them, how they would smell, how great I would look in my apron.

I made some. They were fabulous. I decided I needed to make a vegan version.

It’s almost the same!

# 2 cups All-purpose Flour
# ½ cup brown sugar
# 3 Tablespoons Sugar
# 2-¼ teaspoons Baking Powder
# 1-¼ teaspoon Salt
# 2 teaspoons Ground Cinnamon
# 2 tablespoons flax seed
# 1 1/2 cups Almond (or other) Milk
# 2 teaspoons Vanilla Extract
# 2 Tablespoons Melted Earth Balance
# 2 whole (Granny Smith) apples

Pour a bunch of oil into a pot. Turn it on a low temperature and let it heat up while you do the rest. Mix together everything except the apples. Then add the apples. Drop spoonfulls of the batter into the hot oil (turn up the temperature now). You might want to test the oil to make sure it is hot enough. They will need to be turned over while cooking.