Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Five Chain Restaurants I Honestly Like

So you've probably noticed that I can be a bit of a food snob. I love upscale, high-end restaurants. I also love funky little inexpensive restaurants. Basically, I like one-of-kind restaurants that you can only find in one location (or in several limited locations).

Needless to say, I spend a fair amount of time bad-mouthing low-to-mid-priced chain restaurants.

This isn't to say I won't eat at chain restaurants; I will. However, if you tell me I can pick anywhere in a certain radius to eat, and that radius contains a unique restaurant or bar found only in that radius, no way am I picking Applebee's (which I really don't like very much at all).

Anyway, after enduring a certain amount of eye-rolling over the years, I have decided to NOT complain about these places and instead put together a list (in no particular order) of low-to-mid-priced chain restaurants that not only will I eat at, but that I actually LIKE.

5. Noddles & Company
For a low-priced lunch spot, you can't beat Noodles. I love everything I have had there. It's quick, it's cheap, and the ingredients taste fresh even if they're not. I have enjoyed pasta dishes from Noodles much more than I enjoy pasta dishes at mid-priced chains that do not specialize in pasta (pasta at TGI Friday's is not worth it. Trust me.) I even enjoy it more than I enjoy pasta from some more upscale places I've tried. My favorite dish on the menu: Pasta Fresca with grilled chicken and extra feta.

Pasta Fresca: this one has parmesan but I prefer the feta option.

4. Chipotle
I first encountered Chipotle when I needed to grab a quick lunch in Chicago. I had never seen one before - we didn't have them in Michigan. I soon wished we did because Chipotle is awesome. Football-sized burritos with your choice of beans, meat, and salsas; quesadillas stuffed to the brim with grilled chicken or steak; decent guacamole...I realize there are other fast-casual Mexican options, but Chipotle blows Qdoba out of the water. Plus, even though it's corporate fast-food, they seem to have a commitment to quality, using smaller free-range farms as meat suppliers instead of factory farms like other fast food outlets. My favorite dish on the menu: Grilled chicken burrito with black beans and medium salsa.
3. Max & Erma's
I am sure if Eric Schultz were reading this blog, his jaw would drop in disbelief, because about eight years ago I professed an intense hatred for this chain. I have no idea what I ate there that inspired this hatred. I started going back to Max & Erma's several years ago when one was opened in the parking lot of the Canton Meijer. My parents enjoy it, so Kristen and I would tag along. I found that Max & Erma's has the best tortilla soup on any restaurant menu anywhere and pretty good burgers to boot. The Third Street Salad/Village Salad with the bleu cheese crumbles, bacon pieces, crunchy almonds and and slightly tangy dressing is awesome, too. My favorite dish on the menu: Cup of Tortilla Soup and Village Salad.

Tortilla Soup at Max & Erma's. This pic does not do it justice.

2.
Zoup
I was addicted to Zoup when I was contracting at the Ann Arbor Pfizer site. Zoup is a midwestern chain - almost all the locations are in Michigan and Ohio with a few in Pennsylvania. Every day Zoup offers ten different rotating varieties of soup along with fresh-baked bread and a selection of salads and sandwiches. The soups range from hearty, stick-to-your-ribs varieties such as twice baked stuffed potato and chicken pot pie (with crusty pastry crumbles on top) to lighter, broth-based offerings such as vegetable with orzo and herbs and chicken noodle. I very much miss the days when I could walk across the street (although crossing Plymouth Road always was a little treacherous) and get a steaming hot bowl of soup for lunch.
My favorite dish on the menu: Macaroni and Cheese soup or Chicken Pot Pie soup.

I miss you, Zoup.

1. Olive Garden
I have a weird and unnatural love for Olive Garden. It begins with their salad and breadsticks and continues through to the chicken fettuccine alfredo or the portobello ravioli. Olive Garden is hands-down my favorite chain restaurant. The aforementioned ravioli is as plump and flavorful as many ravioli I have sampled in more upscale restaurants. Their wine list is pretty crappy, I'll admit, but at least there is more of a selection than at other similarly-priced chains. Olive Garden can, in a pinch, pass as a "nice" restaurant. But only in a pinch - I do still have certain standards to uphold!
My favorite dish on the menu: Portabello Ravioli (but I get it with alfredo sauce instead of the sun dried tomato sauce!)

I don't even like salad dressing but I like Olive Garden's.

Which chain restaurants do it for you?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Why I Love Indianapolis

My internet access is extrememly limited at the moment, but I wanted to give a quick shout-out to the city I am currently visiting, Indianpolis, IN, which in recent years (i.e., since Noe and I became serious) has become one of my favorite cities in the U.S. Here's some reasons why:

Good Restaurants
Indy has good restaurants of both the independent and upscale-chain variety. As much as I preach out against chain restaurants, I have never turned down dinner at P.F. Chang's. This particular visit to Indy included a trip to the Weber Grill, found only in Indianapolis, Chicago, Schaumburg, and...well, I forget the fourth location. The appeal of the Weber Grill is that everything is cooked on giant Weber grills. I had garlic shrimp and they were delicious. Add some French Sauvignon Blanc from the fairly extensive wine list and you've got a meal.

Good Shopping
Sometimes I miss having everyday access to certain stores. The Fashion Mall in Indy satisfies my craving for Anthropologie, Crate & Barrel, and Sephora (among others). Several monogrammed coffee mugs, some Barefoot Contessa cupcake mixes, and a tube of DuWop Lip Venom later, I was on my way.

Tons of Colleges
I like being near a college campus, and Indianapolis has several. In the city limits alone you have Butler and IUPUI. Ball State is an hour away in Muncie. If we lived in Indy, I would be in grad school for sure. Did I mention Letterman went to Ball State and they have good communications, journalism, and PR programs? Who ever thought I would be longing to go to school in Muncie, Indiana...Go Cards!

Tennis is big here.
In the summer, Noe and I went to see pro players including James Blake, Robby Ginepri, and Sam Querrey play in a tournament that was part of the US Open series. We were able to watch them on the practice courts from less than ten feet away. Tennis clubs are in abundance here and tons of people play on leagues of every ability. I would probably still be playing tennis if we lived in Indiana.

As much as I have learned to like Connecticut, I suffer a bit of a setback ever time we head home. It will get worse when we get off Noe's turf and back onto mine (Michigan). However, Noe and I have finally reached a level of contentment on the east coast where a trip home won't send us tailspinning into a three-week depression as it might have last year. We've found a lot of good things where we're at and have definitely learned to appreciate it.

However, if given the opportunity, I can't say we wouldn't move back. We're midwesterners at heart and every trip home reaffirms it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Home Sweet Home

So...I've been a pretty lame blogger lately. But I've been busy. I swear. I've had busines to go on, a house to clean, a family to travel to visit...you know how the holidays are - busy.

Anyway, here I am, blogging from my real hometown - not New London, CT but rather Ypsilanti, MI. For those of you unfamiliar, that's IP-silanti, NOT YIP-silanti. I lived in Ypsi for almost 26 years before moving to Connecticut, so perhaps you can understand why I was a little bit shell-shocked during the first six months of our move.

So here I am back, back in my town that once boasted the high school with no walls. We also boast one of the world's most phallic landmarks, our infamous water tower. Perhaps Ypsilanti's most illustrious accomplishment in recent memory is managing to completely ignore the effort by some idiot to rebrand the town as "Hip, Historic, HIP-silanti." (Don't people understand the minute you label something as hip it is no longer hip? And don't they understand that "HIP-silanti" sounds really, really lame?)

So here Noe and I are, en route to Indianapolis later this morning, where we will stay until Christmas Eve morning and then come back to Ypsi.

Part of the fun of a holiday time layover in Ypsi is staying at my parents' house, usually with a various relative or two from the UP who may be down to pick up one of their kids from the aiport. This year, it was my Uncle Jim and cousin Mary, haling from Hessel, MI (population 300), down to pick up my cousin Jimmy when he flies in from Texas this morning (air force).

So, not only do you end up with seven people staying one not-very-large tri-level, you also have my parents' and sister's menagerie of pets. The seven people share the house with two dogs and five cats, all with extreme personalities and some with personality disorders. In no particular order of preference, last night we put up with:

Faygo, a pit bull rescued from the streets of Detroit and probably the best-behaved dog my family has ever owned. Also note the giant head:

Toby, the Jack Russell Terrier Kristen has been parading around horse shows for the last six years and craves attention and approval from all. He also allows himself to occasionally be stuffed into various articles of clothing, such as puff vests.

Sill, formerly Lucille, the slightly overweight and extremely needy gray dilute tortoiseshell cat that has adopted Noe as her own.


Petey, an extremely nervous and formerly depressed animal who, after being on a variety of medication for the majority of her life, has finally found the one that works: Valium.

Madeline, who technically lives in the garage because she is too destructive to live in the house. Unfortunately, she figured out how to get in to my parents' neighbors house and has continued to wreak her havoc over there.

Foster, who used to be MY cat, but due to his inability to get along with other animals, was left in Michigan when Noe, Ralph, Buns, and I departed for Connecticut. (So naturally I left him at a house with six other animals.) Foster slept with Noe last night, and it was a little rough - Foster sometimes drools and often bites. And I should probably mention that he weighs almost 20 pounds. He's my linebacker.

Last but not least, we have the world's number-one bastard, Junior. Junior started out as an extremely cute, fluffy, blue-eyed orphan kitten in Paul Meyer's barn. After Kristen convinced my dad to let her keep him, he got huge, thinned out, his face grew pointy and his eyes turned yellow. He now resembles a weasel both in looks and temperment.


So now we prepare to depart for Indianapolis, where, after last night at the zoo, a five-year old nephew sounds downright calm and peaceful. I'll continue my blogging throughout the holidays, so tune in for more adventures from the homefront.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

High School High

My ten-year high school reunion is coming up next year, and in light of that momentous event on the horizon, I thought I would post a few fun anecdotes about my high school/high school experience.

Tenth grade had some bright spots.
My habit of wearing second-hand men's shirts was not one of them.

My high school did not have walls.
OK, this is a slight exaggeration - my high school did not have walls upstairs. Downstairs we had normal, structurally sound walls. However, when my school was built (in the '70's), walls were, like, totally out, man. Instead, the planners decided upon a concept called "the great room." In the great room, walls were completely unnecessary. Instead of all that division, you'd have little groups of students scattered here and there, all learning together and in harmony.

I'm not sure how long this concept actually lasted, but my guess would be not very long at all.

By the time I entered high school, the great room was divided into classrooms with the help of wheeled dividers, giving each classroom a sort of cubicle-meets-mobile-home feel. The dividers extended neither all the way to the ceiling or all the way to the floor, meaning that bored students were constantly throwing things over and under them. Also, if a teacher wanted to watch a movie and turn off the lights in their room, inevitably their light switch would control half the lights in the room next to them as well.

As you can probably guess, this made for an excellent learning environment.

My high school chemistry teacher had a bullhorn.
Mr. Krause used the bullhorn to do things such as read out exceptionally dumb test answers and to ask people if they rode the short bus to school that morning. He also invented a card game that involved collecting cards to make compounds, which could be negated if someone held and threw down the "yo' mama" card. The caveat? You had to yell "Yo' Mama!" when you threw it down. Not your mama; yo' mama.

I engaged in a year-long battle with a parking lot monitor.
Yes, my high school had an employee whose full-time job was apparently to make sure no one parked up the hill when they were supposed to park by the football field. Rex (that was his real name) was also in charge of catching potential class-skippers when they made their way to their cars. Rex and I duked it out my senior year when, due to some glitch in the system, I was not assigned an "upstairs" parking spot like most seniors. I happened to have physics class with Andy Newman that year, who had an upstairs spot and then somehow ended up without a car (the details are blurry. I wasn't much for circumstances - I just wanted the spot.)

Rex knew that spot wasn't mine, but once my Ford Tempo was ensconced in my space with my tag hanging from the mirror, apparently there wasn't much he could do about it. So he took to parking his stupid patrol truck in Andy's spot so I could not park there. My solution was to get to school earlier. Rex compensated by taking my spot earlier. On this went for six months until by March, I was the only senior arriving at school a full 40 minutes before the first bell rang.

What can I say? I wanted that spot.

I put my elbow through one of the few walls we DID have upstairs.
I remember this very clearly. I was in speech class in 11th grade. I leaned my elbow against the wall, and my elbow went through it. Needless to say, I was a little surprised. I raised my hand, and the speech teach - Mr. Wood - asked me what was wrong, and I told him I had put my elbow through the wall. He responded by telling me not to worry about it and stapling a piece of brown construction paper over the hole. Problem solved.

We had a safety officer who wore a pair of scissors in a gun holster and drove a minivan he had fashioned into the "safety mobile."
Senior year, he also gave us what might be the best spring break safety speech in the history of high school. He told he knew what we did behind closed doors - how we "sparked those doobs" and "smoked the marahoochie." He also told us he was going to warn us with two words our parents were too scared to say to us, but they were two of the most important words spring breakers could hear..."and those words are PUBIC LICE."

There are many, many more interesting tidbits I could share, but I'll post those closer to the reunion. Did your high school have any weird characteristics or employees?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Why the Motor City Bowl is Lame This Year

Central Michigan vs. Florida Atlantic?

This should have been Ball State vs. Notre Dame, NOT Central vs. Florida Atlantic. Sorry, but I have no interest in watching a team with four losses (including one to Eastern Michigan) take on Florida freakin' Atlantic (6-6).

I had my heart set on Ball State even after they lost to Buffalo (which I still don't really understand). Even after Ohio State got the at-large bid (and ends up playing number three Texas in the Fiesta Bowl - good luck with THAT) and took the Big 10 (Minnesota) out of the picture, there were still more interesting teams (from a Midwestern perspective) left in the race.

Notre Dame vs. Ball State would have been perfect - two Indiana teams on a Michigan field - close enough to attract legions of fans. And Notre Dame may not have been good for the past few years but they still have enough of a reputation (not to mention half the college football viewers in America probably think they are a Big 10 team) to draw a good crowd.

I guess Ball State gets to go play a nice warm weather game in Alabama when they meet Tulsa in the GMAC Bowl. But, quite frankly, they are ruining my plans - and Noe's plans - to watch some quality bowl football live while we're home for Christmas.

I guess I sort of get it, but still...

LAME.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Call Me Totally in Love with Michael Bublé

A few months ago, Amanda asked if I wanted to go to a Michael Bublé concert with her in December. I was vaguely familiar with him, and since I like lounge-y music - and excuses to dress up - I said sure. She then burned me several CDs, which I listened to non-stop for the next several weeks. By the time the concert rolled around last night, I was pretty excited.

We got dolled up and headed out to the Mohegan Sun, where we attempted to have dinner at Tuscany but ended up at Sol Toro due to our lack of reservation (we probably should have thought of that beforehand). At any rate, we settled into our seats in the Mohegan Sun Arena at 7:30, waited patiently through the opening act that we didn't know would be there, and finally, around 8:20, jumped to our feet when the curtain rose revealing "The Boob" (as Mini Deal likes to call him) on stage.

For those unfamiliar, Michael Bublé is a 31-year old Vancouver native of (at least partially) Italian descent who grew up listening to the songs of crooners such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Dean Martin, and Bobby Darin (to name a few). He was heavily influenced by his Italian grandfather's taste in music and especially admired the showmanship of that era's entertainers. According to the bio on his website, Bublé's grandfather helped him get his first gigs - in Canadian bars and hotel lounges - by trading his plumbing services.

Michael Bublé's voice is amazing and very well-suited to the standards that make up the majority of his show. He puts his own spin on every song and does not sound like he is doing Frank Sinatra karaeoke. His band is also incredible - he performs with a full stage of musicians including a piano player, a bass player, an entire horn section, a drummer, and a guitarist. The most amazing thing about his band is they are all as young - or younger - than Bublé. He auditioned them from music schools around North America.

All these young guys combined with all this old music make a great match. Bublé is very much an old-style entertainer - plenty of jokes and commentary between songs - but his sense of humor is definitely that of a 31-year old modern guy. Just ask the poor man in the second row last night - the one that it was abundantly clear had been dragged there by his wife. Bublé also has a keen sense of self-awareness, remarking that he knows his act is not "macho" and remarking that he wish he'd been a hockey player...right before dedicating a pelvic-thrusting version of the Village People's "YMCA" to the men in the audience.

All joking aside, Bublé has a remarkable sense of showmanship. His stage presence is nothing short of fantastic. He interacts with the audience and really seems to enjoy singing his songs, even though he has probably sung them thousands of times. And the energy never lapsed for a second - a nifty feat when the majority of your show is made up of mid-tempo jazz-pop standards. He can even make somewhat cheesy songs like "Save the Last Dance for Me" sound awesome.

(Did I mention that Michael Bublé is also very cute? Because he is.)

I've been to some good shows this year - Tom Petty, The Killers, Duffy - but Michael Bublé takes the cake as my favorite. It's very hard not to feel classy at a Bublé show, even when you're laughing hysterically at a semi-dirty joke. Two seconds later he'll be crooning "Call Me Irresponsible" and you'll be swept off your feet again.

Here is Michael Bublé's "Save the Last Dance for Me" video:

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Life in the Carpool Lane

This week, Noe and I started our newest cost-cutting initiative (which I mentioned in a previous blog): car pooling. While many couples would probably consider saving gas the primary motivation behind such a move, we have a slightly different angle. I only work two miles from our house, so I'm not saving that much gas. What I am saving is $630 a year in parking.

During the summer I was able to ride my bike to work quite a bit, but that's not so practical during the winter. I know the hard-core bike riders are groaning as they read this, but they need to accept that I am NOT a hard-core bike rider and do not have "gear." As in cold-weather biking gear, reflectors to protect me in the dark, or even a backpack to carry my stuff in (this limited me on severely hot days as well since my work does not have showers and I would have to ride in clothes that I could wear all day).

Since Noe has to go through downtown to get to the highway to go to work, dropping me off/picking me up really is a matter of just stopping for a few seconds while I get out of or in to the car. It requires no fancy detours and we don't even really need to leave any earlier for Noe to still get to work on time.

Of course, when I say "we" don't need to leave earlier, I really mean Noe. Since I don't have to be at work until 9:00, I was in the habit of sleeping until 8:15. I have made a few adjustments in my daily routine. This includes showering at night instead of in the morning so we are not fighting for bathroom time as well as resigning myself to the reality that if I want this arrangement to work I need to suck it up and get used to the fact that I am going to be downtown by 7:15 a.m. and that is just the way it is.

It's really not so bad. Right now it is working out well because I have projects to work on while the office is nice and quiet. I could also go to the coffee shop down the street and read my book for an hour or so. And let's not forget quality time online shopping, updating Facebook, and - naturally - blogging.

Plus, Noe makes my lunch while I am putting on my makeup. Awesome!

We're only three days in, but so far this arrangement is working really well for us. Hopefully it will save us some noticeable cash, and hey, even if the monetary savings are minor, at least we're "being green", right? I'll keep you posted on how this works out.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Mercury Rising

You've probably realized by now that I am pretty enamored with my kitties. Although Noe and I both miss Nike, we are delighted to still have Ralphie and Sunny (AKA The Buns), the littermates we got from the Ann Arbor Cat Clinic almost two years ago. These two are our constant companions and often drive us to tears of laughter with their weird behavior or tail-chasing (actually, the tail-chasing is all Ralph - Buns is a bit more dignified).

Ralph and Buns (or Neptune and Venus as they were originally known) were not the only kittens in their litter - there were five altogether (although Noe and I still suspect the gray one was not really part of the family). We picked the two we did because they were pals - Buns protected Ralph because Ralph was tiny and wimpy. But we were sure that all the kittens from the litter would make loveable pets.

So imagine our distress when we heard that one of Ralph and Buns' littermates had been returned to the clinic after almost two years of living in what was supposed to be a forever home. Poor Mercury, their playful orange tiger of a brother, was returned because his family is having issues and thought the environment was too stressful and unstable for him.

Mercury is still adjusting to his new digs in this picture.
Go check him out and see if he would fit in at your house.

When we originally went to look at the kittens, Mercury was very energetic and playful. According to my sister - the adoption coordinator at the clinic - he is extremely smart. His owners said he has learned to come when you whistle for him. If Noe and I were in Michigan we would come take a look at him ourselves, but since we are not, I am asking anyone who reads this blog and is considering getting a cat to please go look at Mercury. This picture is not the best because he was scared when it was taken, but by the time you go see him he should have relaxed into his new surroundings.

Don't leave Ralphie's brother without a home at Christmas! Go check him out.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A+

All right, non-hockey fans. I am officially moving all (well, most) of my hockey posts off this blog and on to a new blog, Double A Hockey. Double A Hockey is a collaboration between myself and Amanda that will focus exclusively on hockey. So, if you don't particularly enjoy hockey posts you no longer have to read them, and if you only enjoy hockey posts you don't have to read about food, cats, dinner parties, and the other random stuff I touch upon in this blog.

Check it out!

http://doubleahockey.blogspot.com/



Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Things I used to like a LOT that I don't really like anymore: Sweaters

(This is kind of the opposite of my older post "Five Things I Like That I Used to Dislike." This post and several future posts will instead be dedicated to things that I used to be really in to but now don't really care for anymore.)

Sweaters

Between the ages of 16 and 22, I apparently decided to invest the majority of my limited income in sweaters. I believe one of my justifications for buying so many sweaters was that a good sweater would last a long time and could be worn for years to come. They do and they can - my favorite red Gap sweater from senior year of high school looks no worse for wear (until I put it on and then it looks a lot worse because I am much fatter than I was then). At one point I was purchasing more less exclusively turtleneck sweaters. My sweater collection grew by leaps and bounds when I had that holiday season job at American Eagle when I was in college and seem to have bought every sweater that appeared in the store over those three months.

Because I bought and wore so many sweaters, people started giving me sweaters. Sometimes these sweaters looked like something I would have purchased, and sometimes the only thing about them that remotely resembled anything I would wear was the fact that they were made out of yarn. And though I had stopped buying myself sweaters sometime around 2003, that did not stop people from continuing to give me sweaters.

Where are all these sweaters now, you ask? Well, they happen to be taking up the entire top shelf of mine and Noe's bedroom closet as well as several gigantic Tupperware tubs in our basement.

See, I have this problem giving away stuff that was given to me to begin with, no matter how apparent it becomes that I am not going to wear it. The ones that I bought either have good memories attached to them or I remember how much I spent on them and hesitate to get rid of them. Most of them are still in really good shape and I would say 75% of technically still fit, so I guess I keep them in hopes that someday I will want to wear them again.

Honestly, though, the odds of that are looking pretty slim. For one thing, most of these sweaters are big and bulky and I get hot too easily. For another thing, they are just not my style anymore, and if I haven't really returned to that look since 2003 it doesn't seem very likely that I will return at all. Lastly, I have lost the affinity for horizontal stripes that dominated my clothing taste between 1999 and 2002 - even the patterns and colors don't work for me anymore.

My goal is to actually get rid of some of the sweaters. I should have done this when we moved to Connecticut, but I didn't (seriously, I really do feel guilty giving away stuff that people gave to me). This year, with the economy being as bad as it is, I am sure that there are plenty of people who good benefit from buying these sweaters at Goodwill or receiving them from a charity. (The fact that they are actually nice and for the most part name-brand probably won't hurt, either.)

Obviously I will keep some of them. I don't HATE sweaters - I just don't want to wear them every single day between October and March like I used to. And I like solid colors and finer-gauge knits now.

And if you were planning on getting me a sweater for Christmas, can you get me just a regular shirt instead?

Thanks.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

If you ain't got no money...join the club.

Money. Who has it? These days it seems like no one has a lot of spare cash on hand. Although I have a fairly steady job at the moment, I still don't have a lot of spending money due to some unexpected car repairs and the every day expenses of being a homeowner in Connecticut.

Noe and I have been discussing ways to save money recently. To some, I'm sure it's pretty obvious how I could build up a cash reserve: Stop buying wine and going to that damn restaurant every week. But I'm not willing to do that. For one thing, I have become much more responsible in my wine buying. I generally only buy things that I taste on Friday nights, ensuring that I do in fact like what I am purchasing and am not gambling on chance. Also, I have quit buying $6.99 Australian Chardonnay just for the sake of having wine in the house. I am buying more expensive wine than I used to buy, BUT I am buying overall less wine and only wine that I really enjoy drinking, so the cost equals out.

As for restaurants, well, that's my luxury spending. Once again, I am spending less, but I have evaluated the situation and realize I can't give it up all together.

Noe and I also face another problem in the fact that we have expensive hobbies. Tennis, skiing, indoor soccer, and kickboxing add up, even after the initial equipment expense.

So what are we doing to cut costs?

For starters, we evaluated our driving/parking habits. I work 2.5 miles from our house - not a huge expense, fuel-wise. However, I have to pay for parking. Parking in the garage attached to my building costs $55 a month. To be fair, some of this is subsidized by my employer. But what about the part that isn't? And what if that benefit gets taken away eventually?

Noe and I decided that starting in December, I will give up my parking pass. The deal is I will find my own way to work - run, bike, or in the event it is truly freezing, go in early when he leaves - and Noe will pick me up at the end of the day (I can't run/bike home because it gets dark at four freakin' thirty out here). This will not cost Noe any extra gas because he goes by downtown on his way home anyway, and should save a little gas money/wear and tear on my car in addition to the parking money.

Second, I have decided to open what my bank calls a "Keep the Change" account. Those who know me personally know that I use very little cash - I have my checks direct-deposited and use my check card for the majority of my purchases. My bank - Bank of America - offers a unique option to people like me who rely heavily on check cards: open a savings account, and every time you make a check card purchase BOA will round up to the next dollar and put that change in the savings account. For example, I buy a cup of coffee that costs $2. 45. Bank of America rounds that to $3.00 and puts $0.65 in my savings account. How does this save money, you ask? Because Bank of America matches contributions 100% for three months and then at a (much) smaller percentage after that. I round up in my check book anyway so I am never dealing with change and always have a little "cushion." I am trading my cushion for free money. Not a lot of free money, but free money nonetheless. This is like lesson number one from Suze Orman - never turn down free money!

As part of the whole "not turning down free money" thing, I started contributing a percentage of my paycheck to my company's 401K program. Why? Because my company offers a match. Giving up that small percentage now will ultimately be worth it because I am making more money in the long run.

We've also taken to looking at Craig's List and Noe's work classifieds for furniture and household bargains. I actually scored a $300 KitchenAid mixer - which I have been wanting forever - for $70! And we went to look at some bedroom furniture (headboard and bed frame) that Noe found that was the same style as a dresser we had already purchased. It ended up being the wrong color, but we are still continuing to scour these sources because you never know when you might find a really good deal.

And as far as personal sacrifice goes, well, I did give up one thing - buying coffee. I only drink work coffee now. No more Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, or Muddy Waters except for the occasional treat. When it came right down to it, I'd rather have a $12 or $14 bottle of wine than three or four cups of coffee shop coffee every week.

Obviously, the big gamble with the potentially big pay off here is the parking. I'll let you know how it goes and meanwhile, good luck finding creative ways to cut costs in your everyday lives!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

On the national stage

The New York Times is surprisingly heavy on coverage of my home state - Michigan - this morning. Unfortunately, it's mostly bad news.

Michigan has been at the forefront of the nation's economic woes for a long time now. In fact, for awhile it was speculated that Michigan was in a single-state recession and that the rest of the nation was just fine, which has obviously proved untrue. Michigan has been plagued by declining American automakers, political scandal in Detroit, and let's not forget the defection of a major pharmaceutical research site not too long ago. Not to mention the fact the Michigan's best and brightest - and many of their subpar - leave the state after college to seek their fortunes elsewhere, deeming Michigan a lost cause.

Perhaps I sound hypocritical pointing this out - after all, I too left Michigan, and while I left to be with Noe one could point out the technicality that I didn't HAVE to leave. Which I didn't. And in addition to wanting to be with Noe, I felt like I could do better job-wise on the east coast. I'm not criticizing anyone who chooses to leave the state - I get it. But that doesn't mean I like myself for it or like watching my home state drown in its misery.

Like her or not - and there are plenty of people in both camps - Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm (pictured above right) is working tirelessly to stimulate an economy that was showing signs of decline before she took office. Whether or not you agree with Granholm's policies or political views, I don't think many can argue the fact that she campaigns hard to try and bring jobs to a state that has long depended on the auto industry and probably should have diversified it's economy a long time ago.

Read all about Jennifer Granholm and her efforts in the article Economy is Only Issue for Michigan Governor. Then check out the New York Times editorial (yes, it's bad enough that the NYT is actually giving us an editorial) Saving Detroit From Itself.

Once you're up to speed on our foundering economy, you get a little treat. The NYT must have wanted to boost out morale a little bit, because the Style section boasts a lengthy article on that magical little place off the highway where Christmas lives year-round - Bronner's Christmas Wonderland. Yes, I'm serious. Bronner's got coverage in the NYT Style section. Check it out in the article Excuse Me, Where's Thanksgiving.

I don't think the Ann Arbor News even has this much coverage of Michigan today.

Friday, November 14, 2008

There's Trouble Bruin...

I didn't want to be Bruins fan. I still DON'T really want to be a Bruins fan. However, the fact of the matter is that it is really, really hard to be an obsessive Red Wings fan in Connecticut. I do not have the time to devote to searching the television night after night hoping to find a western conference game when the eastern conference is playing out before my eyes.

Don't get me wrong - the Red Wings still are and always will be my number one team. But I am being realistic - I am not going to get to watch every game. I am not going to get to GO to many games. And they only come to my seaboard once or twice a year.

But reading scores and blogs and Freep.com from afar doesn't totally satisfy my need for almost constant hockey during hockey season. I'll still do it, but I need to fill that hole in my soul that requires game-watching and screaming at the television and making witty signs out of players' names.

So I've weighed my options. There's really only two teams close enough to physically GO to games (since the Hartford Whalers now only exist in the form of the Carolina Hurricanes). My only options were the New York Rangers and the Boston Bruins.

At least they're both Original Six, right?

On the surface, the Rangers probably would have been the better choice. Most of the time they are the better team. However, the defection of Shanny and the fact that it is much easier to get to Boston than to New York City led me to the Bruins.

The Bruins have not had a lot going for them in recent years...make that recent decades. But coming from Detroit, I have had a ton of practice rooting for losers (hello, Tigers and LIONS). Plus, the Bruins fans have foam claws - and foam bear heads - which are kind of cool.

In addition, the Bruins have a kind of cool lineup at the moment. Besides Tim Fat-Ass Thomas, they have former Red Wing Aaron Ward playing defense (according to some, Aaron Ward popularized the use of the term 'wham!' in reference to sports) and big, bad Milan Lucic, the "Hit Man."


Last night, I joined Amanda - a major Lucic fan - at her house to watch the Bruins slaughter the Canadiens 6-1. (Can I just say that I am thrilled to find a girl besides Mini Wiseman that likes to yell at hockey players with me?) We have purchased tickets to two games and are planning on purchasing at least one more.

I do feel a little like I am cheating on the Wings, but I am justifying it with the fact that I did not pick another Western Conference team to root for (THAT would just be wrong). And it is very unlikely that the Bruins and Wings will meet in the Stanley Cup finals, although stranger things have happened. And even if that did happen, I would obviously be in the Wings' corner.

But for now, over here on the east coast, I'm just going to sit back and enjoy what I've got. Although if I ever say anything along the lines of "That was a wicked cool goal" - or just use the term "wicked cool" in general - somebody please slap some sense back into me.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

RIP Nike

Our cat Nike died this evening. "Our cat" is somewhat of a misnomer - although I have lived with Nike for two years and considered her one of my pets, Nike was Noe's cat through and through. Noe adopted Nike 15 years ago when his sister's cat had kittens. He also adopted Nike's brother Snowball, who died the year before we moved to Connecticut.

Nike missing Noe when he went
to Connecticut a month before we did.

Nike was not always the nicest cat in the world - in fact, she was downright mean sometimes. The first time I ever stayed at Noe's house, she perched on the nightstand and growled at me for several hours. She warmed to me somewhat over two years, but I always felt that it was out of her feeling of inevitability and not necessarily affection.

Nike's "call to prayer."
She liked to sleep like this!

Nonetheless, Nike was a good pet. She was seldom any trouble and she was very social, always coming out to say hello to guests. The fact that that hello was sometimes followed with a hiss or even a bite is beside the point. Nike was a good cat and she will be missed.

Rest in peace, Nike girl.

Buns keeping Nike company
when Nike couldn't move around much.

Buns and Ralph slept with Nike
when she made her "nest" in our room.

That's "Sir Captain Morgan" to you.

Recently I have become addicted to MentalFloss.com. Mental Floss satisfies my need for strange and somewhat useless knowledge. I hope to put it to use while answering "Jeopardy" questions in a room full of people someday, or maybe just to impress friends at dinner parties.

I thought I had hit the Mental Floss jackpot the other day when I saw the article about the weirdest White House pets, but turns out I was wrong. Today I happened across a little article titled "The Men Behind Your Favorite Liquors".

I can not tell you how much it pleases me to discover that not only was Captain Morgan was a real person, but he was eventually knighted.

Enjoy the entire article here: http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/20098

(And try out the Random Fact Generator while you're there!)

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Grecian Delight

For a town that I initially thought seemed short on quality restaurants, New London seems to specialize in quality eating events. From Chilifest in the spring to Oktoberfest and Food Stroll in the fall, I've had plenty of opportunities to satisfy my stomach. And now, I think I have discovered my favorite food-oriented event of all: the Grecian Food Festival at St. Sophia Hellenic Orthodox Church.

Last year Noe and I heard whispers of the Greek festival from the people who were starting to form our core group of friends, but we never got down there. We weren't entirely sure where the church was, we didn't really know people to go with, and we were both still kind of in a funk about moving.

This year, my mouth started watering the minute I saw the banner. There was no way I was missing out again. I marked the days on my calendar to make sure I wouldn't forget.

St. Sophia Hellenic Orthodox Church in New London, CT

St. Sophia does this festival as a fundraiser for the church. All the food products are donated by local stores and restaurants and the food is all homemade on the premises by parishioners. This was the 56th year of the festival, so obviously it works.

Noe and I attempted to go on Tuesday, the first night of the festival. According to the signage, food would be served until 9:00 PM. We went when I got done kickboxing at 7:30.

They had already run out of food.

Rather than be discouraged, this only made me want it more.

On Wednesday, I headed down with my coworker for lunch. We walked into a state of organized chaos. The place was packed.

Allow me to explain the set-up: we are talking about a fairly large church hall with a small kitchen at one end. Near the entrance to the hall are two long buffet lines set up with chafers of food. In between the two lines of tables are two lines of Greek women who attend the church, dishing out the food in the chafers. Diners grab a tray and silverware, get in line, and make their way past the chafers pointing to the food they want. At the end of each line sits a no-nonsense woman at a cash register to take your money. Once you've paid, you can either head to the bar in the little nook to your left to get a soda or some wine, or you can head directly to one of the large round tables crowded onto the hall floor. And no one can get out without walking right by the dessert table lining the wall near the exit.

I had every intention of getting a gyro for lunch, but I was temporarily swayed by the idea of oregano chicken (1/2 a chicken in an oregano and lemon marinade); Athenian shrimp (sauteed with butter, tomatoes and feta and served over rice); and of course, the thick and delectable-looking moussaka with its layers of eggplant, ground beef and Bechamel sauce.

In the end, I just got a gyro.

An example of a gyro;
though not nearly as glorious-looking as the ones I got.

These gyros are not like the gyros you get at food stands at the fair or in late-night diners (unless you have a really good Greek-owned late-night diner). The thin slices of seasoned lamb, fresh lettuce and tomato, slightly sour tzatziki sauce all wrapped up in a fresh, hot pita make for a combination I just can't ignore. Hot and fresh and bursting with flavor (and meat - it's a good sized sandwich) this gyro is worth every penny of the $6.00 I paid for it.

The other food is as glorious as the gyros: Noe's chicken oregano was moist and flavorful and the lemon in the marinade provided a fresh rather than overpowering flavor. The accompanying roasted potatoes with lemon, olive oil and various seasonings are good enough to eat on their own. The Greek salad with stuffed grape leaves and feta cheese topping a combination of vegetables is savory and filling enough to be a whole meal (and the special Greek dressing is amazing). Not to mention St. Sophia's serves some of the best rice pudding I have ever had - exactly the right creamy consistency with the perfect amount of cinnamon.

Of course we couldn't leave without some pastries; problem was, we were too full to eat anything. Luckily, St. Sophia's provided the perfect solution in the boxed pastry assortment: for $7.00 we got a container with several of the Greek butter cookies, bakalava, walnut cake, and more.

Box of dessert: too full to east it there? Take it home!

I am so sad this food festival is over. I can not believe I have to wait another year to eat this food again. But when I bite into that first gyro next year, I know I'll think it was worth the wait - it's that good.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Long Goodbye:
An Unwelcome Guest, Part Two

When I left for work yesterday morning, our slithery little visitor from the day before was still enjoying his toasty-warm spot on my kitchen counter. When I came home from work, lo and behold, he was still there, this time seemingly trying to poke his head through the air holes.

I have to admit, he was starting to grow on me just a little. He was sort of cute when he was enclosed in Tupperware.

Alas, while I was at my Thai kickboxing class last night, my snake-hunting kitten (OK, he is technically a two year old cat) discovered where we put his new toy. He started poking around the container. It was only a matter of time, Noe figured, before the container ended up on the ground, potentially with its lid dislodged.

Ralph and Buns study their pet in his makeshift cage.

"Hello in there! Want to come out and play?"

And, Noe speculated, we didn't really know how to feed this tiny, tiny snake. Even a cricket seemed like it would be a sizable meal for him (and where were we going to get crickets in November, anyway?)

So - after allowing Ralph and Buns a moment to say goodbye - Noe set our little house guest free in our front flower bed, where he slithered off under the Japanese maple and has not been seen since.

I am sure this is for the best. Even though I was starting to think he was cute, I would have found an empty container and a snake on the loose in my house a lot less cute, indeed.

Last moments in Tupperware

Happy trails to you...
Hopefully we will NOT meet again in my house.

Monday, November 3, 2008

An unwelcome guest

I was in my kitchen, taking the foil off a hot pan of lasagna (yum) and waiting for the other two thirds of the trifecta to arrive so we could watch our DVR-ed episode of TrueBlood, when I heard Noe talking to Ralph.

"What are you looking at, Ralphus?" he said.

I paid no mind. Ralph often finds weird little odds and ends to play with and spends an inordinate amount of time staring out windows at squirrels, dogs, and other cats.

Then I heard Noe go "Oh, my god! Come here! Look what Ralph's got!"

Slightly annoyed - I was trying to get dinner out of the oven and ready to serve before the girls arrived with wine and side dishes - I put down my oven mitts and walked into the living room, where I found Noe giggling and Ralph batting around a snake.

Yes, that's right. A snake. In my house.

I was not even remotely inclined to giggle.

Our unwelcome visitor.
In all honesty, this picture is pretty true-to-size. He was not large.

This may seem weird - after all, I have touched several large snakes, skinks, and lizards at the aquarium, and I handle raw fish on a weekly basis. But something about the idea of that four-inch garter snake in my house was very unsettling.

"Get it out!" I responded.

Instead of getting out, Noe poked it. Ralph batted it. I stood there yelling at the two of them and they - both of them, man and cat - just played with the damn thing.

The snake, to his (her?) credit, didn't really do any slithering or any other snake-like things. His back end was bent at a weird angle - I think perhaps Ralph bit him or tried to pick him up - and he was probably in shock.

Kind of like me...shocked at finding a snake in my house, where it definitely does not belong.

"Noe, take it away from him!" I snapped. I was getting exasperated. So Noe took it away from Ralph, who made several attempts to bat it out of his hand in the process.

Only Noe did not take the snake outside, as I had intended him to do. He put it in a Tupperware contained and poked holes in it so the snake could breathe, with Ralph meowing at his feet during the entire process.

"Noe, get rid of that thing." I had had it by now.

"I want to show the girls!" was his reply.

I want to show the girls. Because most girls want to see a snake in someone's house. Honestly, this was like a little kid who picks up worms on the playground.

The girls arrived not five minutes later, and Noe showed them the snake. (Luckily the girls had seen garter snakes in houses before and were not totally disgusted, although I was mortified.) After they congratulated Ralph on his hunt, I politely asked Noe to take the snake outside while I opened the wine. Instead, Noe put the Tupperware container in a warm spot under a light on the counter so the snake could warm up.

That damn snake is still sitting in a Tupperware container on my kitchen counter. It had better be gone by the time I finish this post.

Perhaps I will just put it outside myself.

Exhausted Ralph after the hunt.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

You know that I'm no good.

I love Halloween. I am sure this surprises pretty much no one, seeing as how half the clothes Amanda, Katie and I traipse through New London in would probably be called "costumes" by most people. Last year Noe and I had just moved to Connecticut when Halloween rolled around, so we didn't go to any parties or dress up at all. This year was an entirely different story. (Of course, it also helps when Halloween falls on a weekend.)

This year, I wore what may be my favorite Halloween costume ever: I dressed up as Amy Winehouse. The scary thing about my costume is that everything I wore - aside from a ratty black wig pinned into a beehive and the scores of fake tattoos - is stuff I actually wear in real life. After seeing these photos, I assure you that I will never wear these articles of clothing together in a non-costume situation.

Amanda was a great Marylin Monroe, and Katie completed the trifecta as a witch - ironic, since she's probably the nicest of the three of us. We hit Rob's party first, then headed to our favorite bar in New London, Hanafin's. By the time we got to Hanafin's, the party was in full swing. The addition of the new digital jukebox allowed us to play our favorite songs and effectively turn Hanafin's into a dance party (never mind the lack of dance floor).

It was a GREAT night. Here are some pics of our costumes:

Halloween Trifecta: Marylin, Glinda, and Amy Winehouse

Civil war soldier, Winehouse, and Glinda at Hanafin's

Dancing to "Don't Stop Believing" -
We are pointing to "South Detroit" on our hands

They tried to make me go to rehab,
but...well, you know what I said.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Dinner and a show

In addition to being my favorite season in general, I think fall is also my favorite time to eat. Everything just tastes better. Plus, that chill in the air puts me in the mood to drink spicy red wines and eat heavier, richer foods like stuffed pastas or to cook with fragrant fall-like herbs such as sage (does anything smell more like fall than sage?) - not to mention all the glorious things you can make with pumpkin.

We've definitely been doing some good eating this fall, from the New London Main Street Fall Food Stroll to dining at G'vanni's in Boston with Sophie. However, I think I ate my favorite dish of the fall (so far) last Saturday night at the MGM Grand at Foxwoods.

Amanda and I were headed out to the Duffy concert. For those of you unfamiliar with Duffy, she is another retro-sounding UK-born and bred singer in the vein of Amy Winehouse (only Duffy isn't crazy). I don't like her quite as much as I like Amy, but definitely enough to go see her in the MGM Grand's new theater with the comfortable seats and excellent acoustics.

Of course, Amanda and I celebrated the occasion by wearing 60's-inspired clothing purchased at various thrift stores. In addition, we decided that as long as were were hauling ourselves all the way out to Foxwoods, we deserved a nice meal. Craftsteak was unfortunately out due to budget constraints (someday I will make my pilgrimage to worship at that altar of Tom Collichio) but Michael Schlow's Alta Strada was definitely in the running.

Michael Schlow is a Boston-area chef specializing in Italian cuisine. The restaurant itself looked sort of like everything in the MGM Grand - modern, dimly lit, lots of dark wood and brushed steel but still somehow managing to look "warm." We were very pleased when the host showed us to an excellent corner booth instead of one of the tiny two-top tables in the middle of the floor (I'd like to think it was the outfits).

For some inexplicable reason I wanted white wine. Sadly, I am not incredibly good at navigating an Italian wine list - Amanda, Katie, and I have been drinking a lot of South American, Spanish, and French wines lately. I was unfamiliar with pretty much everything on the list. I settled for a glass of Foradori “Myrto” Sauvignon Blanc. It was decent - lots of flavors going on, softer citrus than I initially expected, and kind of a mineral-y taste in there - but would not rank amongst my favorites.


Due to time constraints, we skipped appetizers and went straight for the the entrees. Both Amanda and I were in the mood for pasta. After perusing the menu, I selected the Ravioli Gnudi with Tomato, Italian Bacon and Sage Brown Butter. (I know, I just ate ravioli with a sage and burnt butter sauce in Boston. But this was TOTALLY different - trust me.)

The waitress explained to me that the ravioli gnudi meant "naked ravioli" - as in, not really ravioli at all. She explained that the dish was actually the ravioli filling, formed into balls. This sounded intriguing, and everything in it sounded tasty, so I considered myself warned and ordered it anyway.

The dish arrived and looked as described - six or seven balls of ravioli filling - cheese and spinach? - cooked just enough to be warmed through and to hold their shape, resting delicately in a light brown butter sauce with only a whiff of sage wafting away from the plate. Cherry tomatoes and delicious smelling Italian bacon completed the dish.

If you think this sounds glorious, well, you should have tasted it. It was amazing. First of all, I love almost anything that comes in a brown butter sauce and this was no exception. The little bits of bacon added just enough complexity to an otherwise simple dressing. The tomatoes had a delicious roasted flavor, and the ravioli themselves were so satisfying that I did not at all miss the pasta pouch one would normally expect a ravioli to come in.

Amanda's dish was also prepared in an interesting manner. The menu described it as cavatelli with broccoli, chilies, and several other ingredients, which it was. However, instead if being sliced up and tossed with the pasta, they broccoli, chilies, etc were ground up into a sort of pesto and tossed with the pasta. It had a delightfully chunky texture and fantastic flavors. The chilies provided a little interesting heat at the end of every mouthful without making the dish overly hot.

We both ate every bite and were way too full to even look at dessert. It's a good thing Duffy's sound is kind of mellow and lounge singer-esque, because I am not sure the two of us could have stood up to dance even had we wanted to (although the middle-aged drunk women in the crowd had NO trouble dancing, they may have had a little harder time with the "standing up" part).

Duffy sounded great and looked great - we were only twelve rows back, so we had a pretty good view of her and the band. If you'd like to check her out, here is the URL to the video for Duffy's most recognizable song, "Mercy" (unfortunately, the embedding feature for these videos has been disabled): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KE2orthS3TQ

All in all, we had a delicious meal and a great time. I can't wait to dress up and head out to our next dinner-and-a-show casino adventure, which will be Michael Buble in December!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

(Not Quite) Lazy Sunday

I love carving pumpkins. Noe and I had our second annual pumpkin carving party, and here were the results:

Amanda's Count von Count and Kevin's Headless Horseman

Noe's Skull

Jason's tiny creepy pumpkin and Katie's wolves

I carved a kitty pumpkin, of course.

In other news, I (well, Noe) finally hung up the Charles Hull prints that Noe and my mom got me for my birthday at the art fair in Mystic (I had been lusting after these since Noe and I saw them at the art fair in Westerly.) Here are the awesome prints in my kitchen:

Yeah, that pretty much sums up Sunday. I'll write a belated blog about Saturday (Alta Strada and the Duffy concert - both fantastic) tomorrow.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Here's Lookin' at You, Kid.

I love dressing up, and I love parties, so naturally I was way into John Felty's Casablanca-themed birthday party last night. Katie cooked us an amazing dinner of lamb, chicken, squash, potatoes, and green beans; John opened some very good bottles of wine; and several of us sported movie-inspired costumes.

John was Rick Blaine incarnate in his white Oscar de la Renta dinner jacket (which he got on Ebay for a great deal) and black bow tie. Amanda and I chose to go the Ilsa Lund suit and hat route. I scored an excellent 40's vintage suit that afternoon at Peacock Feathers but was unable to find an appropriate hat, so I substituted with a beret. Amanda's hat looked like Ingrid Bergman could have worn it on the set.

We had a great time eating Katie's delectable cooking, playing Guitar Hero, and of course, watching Bogie and Bergman steam up the screen. Here are some pictures - in the spirit of the movie, I turned them black and white:

John and Amanda

Queuing up to fill our plates

John's house is more of a wine joint than a gin joint.

I tried out D-Train's Indiana Jones hat as a substitute for the beret.

The best-dressed people I know:
Me, Katie, John, Amanda, and Kevin (not in a period costume)

We walked around town in these outfits before the party.