Tuesday, August 26, 2008

4 and counting

Last Sunday Abe & I celebrated our 4th anniversary. Actually, we celebrated on Saturday, because Abe is usually in church-related meetings all day on Sunday so we don't see each other.

We went to the park/lake for a picnic and swimming. We took the back roads home and found a yummy shake stop and got a raspberry shake. We probably would have done other fun things but when we got home we both fell asleep in the middle of the living room floor for a few hours.

Because it's our anniversary I will claim the right to make a few sentimental comments about our marriage.

...okay, I just spent a long time trying to write out said sentimental comments, and I'm not doing so hot...

Instead I'll just say that I am very, very happy with Abe. I'm pretty sure he returns the feeling.

Our picnic.

Us, looking happy at 4 years. Isn't Abe's hair awesome?

Celebrating our beach ball victory. We brought a beach ball to play with in the water. Except that there were constant winds of 30 mph. So every time we tried to hit the ball it would fly to the shoreline and we would have to chase it down and bring it back out to the water. The sunbathers looked at us with pity. We finally devised a game where we stood about 3 feet apart, both facing the wind, and sort of tapped the ball back and forth to each other - basically tapping it forward and letting the wind blow it forcefully back to the other person. We had a goal of getting 20 hits without the ball touching the water. An hour later, in a moment of calm winds, we succeeded.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Anyone need some lemongrass?

We had some shrimp in our freezer that needed to be used, so I looked for a new and interesting shrimp recipe online. I found this recipe for Vietnamese Shrimp and Pork Crepes from Epicurious. After all, with this dish I could use up my old shrimp while only having to purchase a few other ingredients, such as coconut milk, mint, lemongrass, pork, fish sauce, Asian rice flour, and mungbean sprouts. Easy!

So it took 2 hours, 3 mixing bowls, 1 cutting board with a very good knife, a blender, 2 frying pans, and a wok, but on Friday night we enjoyed our first ever taste of Vietnamese cuisine. Or at least, an approximation of Vietnamese. It was quite delicious, actually. I would recommend making this recipe if you want a real food experience. It is not for the faint of heart. I don't think anything featuring fish sauce can be.

Getting ready to put together my crepe. Properly hydrating is very important. 75% of injuries from crepes are caused by inadequate hydration.

With my water levels balanced, I commense crepe making. The first step is to tear off a large piece of lettuce.

Next, carefully place the crepe on the torn lettuce leaf.

Sprinkle some fresh mint onto the crepe. Basil and cilantro can also be used. But don't forgo the mint - I think it is essential to the taste. (Although we didn't use basil or cilantro, so how would I know. But the mint really tasted good. And you can use the leftover mint leaves in lemonade. Looks classy and tastes yummy.)

Wrap the lettuce leaf around everything.

Dip in fish and lime sauce (so good! I promise!) and consume before the lettuce wrap completely falls apart.

By the way. Lemongrass comes in packages of, like, 50 stalks, and I only needed one. So if anyone is in the market...

End of Summer Tournament

Last weekend we had an End of Ultimate Summer League Season Tournament. We played three games to 15, from 10am until 4pm. It was a hat tournament, which means that teams are made on the spot, basically from a random draw (although you can request to be grouped with up to 4 others). Our team ended up being pretty stacked with experienced players, so we went 3-0, and were the tournament champions.

Thanks to Leah, here are some photos from the tournament.

I often clear about 2 inches when I jump to catch the disc.

Abe's ups are obviously more impressive.

Abe in perfect execution of the Flying Ninja.

The league had a burrito, watermelon, and beer party after the game. But I only got 1 piece of watermelon, so on the way home I made Abe stop so we could pick up a watermelon of our own. It was so worth it.

My wounded knee from diving in a dirt patch. I always dive in the exact same spot. This knee is constantly regenerating new skin.

Abe with a similar injury.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Food Solved

In July, I opened up a discussion about meeting some food goals I had set. The goals were to 1) cut down on monthly food bill, 2) get 5-7 servings of fruits/veggies per day, 3) eat less meat, but still have hearty, calorie-filled meals, and 4) come up with an efficient recipe/grocery list management system.

Thanks to everyone for suggestions. Based on those, and some personal R&D, I have come up with some solutions that - so far - have worked well.

The high-level lesson I learned from this food foray was that buying, making, and eating food is a lifestyle. Okay. Not so profound. But still true. I found many, many possible solutions to meet my goals. The best solutions fit seamlessly (or maybe with just a few stitches) into my habits and preferences. That said, just because I do something by habit now, doesn't mean I wouldn't be happier doing it a different way. Some of my food habits were just that - processes that seemed superior simply because they were familiar. Some of my food solutions changed my habits. The trick was making sure that the new habit fit well with the rest of my life.

Because good solutions are relative, my final list may not be very useful to anyone. I've included it at the end of this post, just because I feel like I should. And to prove that I approach the nitty-gritty of life like a systems & process analyst. (Mom, aren't you proud?)

What may be useful are some of the technical resources I discovered on the way to finalizing that solutions list.

Coupon conglomerates

Using coupons really can save big money. But in order to save big bucks, you have to make a big commitment. Coupons come in two forms: manufacturer coupons (coupons from the product makers) and retailer coupons (sales at your local grocery store). You usually get the big savings when you combine the two. Save a $1 off coupon for Kraft mayonnaise until the grocery store puts mayo on sale for $1.50. Then you get the mayo for $0.50. But to do this on a regular basis with many products, you have to snip manufacturer coupons from the RedPlum or SmartSource ads that come in the Sunday paper, save them, check weekly retailer sales, go through all of your coupons to see if there are any matches, pull those coupons and take them with you to the store, and routinely get rid of expired coupons. Big couponers will tell you that as long as you're organized about it, it's not too hard. They're right. But for me it's one of those lifestyle things - I'm just not that interested.

Some interesting web resources are coming out to shortcut this process some.

Pugetsoundgroceryguide is a website where another person does all the work of tracking manufacturer and store sales to alert you to big deals. All you have to do is keep the coupons and find the right ones to bring with you to the store. This site is maintained by a woman in Washington, so is specific to that region and only includes a few retailers. And there is a $1/week fee. I came across other sites in my research - some national - , but unfortunately didn't record the urls.

Groceryguide is a variation of this idea. This site posts the weekly store sales and a list of possible manufacturer coupon matches to those sales. The matches are generated by a computer algorithm rather than a human. Circumventing human capital makes this method cheap, so you don't have to pay for the service, but the matches are not very precise. Also, not all grocers are represented on the site (Kroger, my staple store, being one of them).

If you don't get the Sunday paper, then you can print coupons online. For example, SmartSource, has coupons from the SmartSource ad. Just make sure your grocer accepts printed coupons - not all do. One problem with online coupons is that I'm pretty sure only a few coupons from the ads are actually going online. So if you choose this option, you only have a limited coupon selection. Plus you still have to pay for paper and ink to print.

My favorite site is Shortcuts. This is an AOL service, where manufacturers can choose to put their coupons online, and stores can opt-in to have your store customer card linked up to the coupons. So you can skip the clipping step. The coupons are automatically deducted from your grocery bill when you use your customer card. So far, the sight only has a handful of the manufacturers coupons out there. And only a few stores. But if it catches on, this could be an easy way to save money - just to visit the site once every few weeks and add all of the coupons with a few mouse clicks. Then if you happen to buy those items, you get the savings. I already saved $0.95 this month, without even realizing it. Think of what I could do with those savings: buy a quarter gallon of gas, get 3 candy bars, mail 2 letters, or buy 1 stock in Ford.

None of these websites solve my biggest problem with coupons, which is that usually coupons are for over-packaged food, which I try not to buy very much of to begin with. Except cereal.

Delicious online recipes

I love finding new recipes, and most come from the web: friends' recommendations, searching epicurious.com for Whole Wheat Applesauce Pancakes, blog posts. I was quickly losing track of where all these delicious recipes were coming from. So I started a Delicious (haha) account to bookmark the recipe urls. This application makes it so easy to store recipes - and anything else - , especially if you get the delicious tag add-in on your web browser. Come across a potential recipe, and with 2 clicks, plus a few tag recommendations, you've got it saved and sorted for retrieval later.

Very slick.

My sister also suggested GoogleDocs to save recipes anytime you're online, if you have a Gmail account. Also a good method. It may take a little longer to copy/paste the recipe in a new doc, save the doc, and put it in the right folder, but it makes them very printable and easier to call back because you have the actual recipe and not just a link to the recipe. Links go bad - GoogleDocs has more permanence.

But it does lack that delicious pun.

Simple spreadsheets are awesome

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to organize my recipes. I have several different cookbooks, a recipe card box, and recipes I find online. It was tempting to put together an "Erin's Ultimate Recipes" cookbook that took all the recipes I actually use from those cookbooks and finally have the cookbook to end all cookbooks. But it would be out of date a week later when I discovered a new recipe. Plus, did I really want to spend all that time typing in recipes? No. And that's saying a lot, because I've had a lot of time on my hands lately.

Finally, I realized that the problem wasn't really that I have to switch between cookbooks for different recipes. Once I know what recipe I want, finding it usually isn't a big deal. (This may just be an oddity of the way my memory works. I can also remember obscure freeway exit numbers, but not street names.) But when I sit down before going shopping to decide what meals I want to cook that week, I draw blanks.

So the real problem was knowing what recipe I wanted in the first place. Once I realized this, it took about 20 minutes for me to create "Erin's Ultimate Spreadsheet". The spreadsheet lists the names of about 100 dinner dishes, where the actual recipes are located, and several key characteristics of the recipes (vegetarian, makes portable leftovers so we can take it in for lunch the next day, cheap, etc.). Now when I sit down to make my dinner list for the week, I open up the spreadsheet and quickly scan for ideas. If it's the end of the month and I need some cheap meals, I can sort the recipes by cheap/not cheap. If I already planned 3 meat dishes for the week, then I sort by vegetarian. It's easy to add recipes to the spreadsheet, but even if I never bother to add more recipes, it still works as a great idea generator for dinner.

Screenshot of the beautiful spreadsheet.

Food Goals & Solutions

1. Eat less meat but still get full
-Make more meals that use beans instead of meat
-Eat vegetarian 3x/week
-Create "vegetarian" column in meal database to easily find meatless meals when planning weekly dinners
-Stock good snacks for between meals (granola, for example) and after dinner

2. Eat 5-7 servings of fruits/veggies each day
-Eat 2 servings of fruits with breakfast and lunch
-Keep fridge, freezer, pantry stocked with the makings for fruit/veggie side dishes for dinner
-Eat vegetarian 3/week (see #1)
-Never underestimate the power of a good fruit smoothie

3. Decrease monthly grocery bill
-Use weekly ads to make weekly meal decisions
-Stock up on sale items that I know I use
-Create "cheap" column in meal database to easily find cheap meals to fill out weekly dinners

4. Integrate recipes, grocery list, weekly meal plan into one efficient interface
[After going through a few options, I decided this goal just wasn't working. I wanted a slick computer system for keeping track of all my recipes (with the ability to add new recipes), creating weekly meal plans, and automatically creating my grocery list based on those meal plans. But my all-in-1 solutions all seemed like big time commitments. In the end, I figured out a slick process, rather than a slick program, for doing this.]
-Keep a spreadsheet of recipe names and important characteristics (once I make and like a new recipe, the recipe can be added to the spreadsheet)
-Bookmark new internet recipes on delicious
-Keep running grocery list on fridge b/c I'm almost always in the kitchen when I realize we're out of something (because I'm trying to use it and it's not there)
-Each week write down a dinner list on scratch paper, turn that into a grocery list (consult recipes only as needed - I usually know what ingredients are required for, say, spaghetti), add items from fridge list plus other items (lunch, breakfast, snacks, special events), and write dinners down on calendar for later consulting

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

School Lunch

On Sunday we are going to a potluck dinner. The theme is "Back to School: What you loved and what you hated eating at school." I've been brainstorming possible things to bring.

College classics:
Macaroni & cheese (probably will be over-represented)
Ramen noodles
Instant potatoes
Subway sandwich
Grilled cheese

High school:
Fastfood anything

Elementary/middle school:
Fish sticks
Milk in a carton
Little Debbie snacks
Chicken patties on crusty white buns that get soggy in the middle from the pattie fried grease
School pizza - rectangular, thick & substantial crust
Waffles - I have vivid memories of Waffle lunch days

What are your suggestions/bad memories?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Kirtland Getaway

Last weekend we met up with Abe's old roommate and good friend, Steve, and his new wife, Rachel, in Kirtland, Ohio. Besides being a good half-way meeting point for us, Kirtland was also the early LDS Church headquarters(about 1831-1837). It's a sleepy place, now, but has wonderful historic preservations from the church's time there.

Me peeking into what used to be the church of the Disciples of Christ, a congregation led by Sidney Rigdon, a well-known preacher who converted to the LDS Church (any more noun clauses out there?). This building was actual built after Rigdon left the congregation. We sat outside while Steve's mother, who is an expert in early church history in Ohio, shared fabulous stories with us.

Isaac Morley farm. An idyllic piece of America's heartland. Isaac Morley was a relatively wealthy man, an early convert to the church who was soon asked to sell his farm and serve a mission. His story made me contemplate what faith means in my own life.

Kirtland temple. Plus blue piece of maintenance equipment. The RLDS Church, now called Community of Christ, owns the temple and conducts the tours there. They claim similar roots with the LDS Church, but basically followed a different line of leadership after Joseph Smith's martyrdom. The temple is a sacred place to both religions. It was odd to hear the same story of the church's early days told from a completely different, but still believing, perspective. A cause for more reflections on faith.

When Abe was an Eagle Scout in high school, his big Eagle project was to clean and restore the benches in a small grove outside of the Kirtland temple. This photo is only a reenactment.

We quickly strolled around the historic Kirtland village. This is Steve in peril at the saw mill. It must have been a slow day because we were approached by guides about 10 times asking us if we wouldn't like to watch the 24-minute movie at the visitor's center and take the guided tour.

Also at the historic Kirtland village. Attempted "American Gothic." So close, yet so far. Abe is holding the pitchfork in the wrong hand. He also looks too Asian. My head is at the perfect "slightly askance" angle, but turned the wrong direction. Oh, and I'm smiling.

This is my favorite picture. I call it "Erin finally figures out that the camera has a close up feature that focuses a close up image and blurs the background so she can take a nice picture of a bug." It's a cicada.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Reciprocity of the Rugged Individual

While walking to the bus stop this morning, I noticed the rows of garbage cans and recycling bins out by the garage area. A hand-written sign taped on someone's personal recycling bin read: "Please do not put any more trash in our recycling bin. The only plastics that are currently picked up by curbside recycling are #1 and #2."

I laughed at the message, and then felt sad. Here's the story I had come up with. An unlucky condo owner keeps finding non-recyclables in her bin, which she is tired of re-sorting to the garbage can. She suspects one of her neighbors, who share the garage row with her. She wants the misfit bottles to stop, but she is uncomfortable with seeking out and directly confronting the woefully misinformed culprit. She comes up with the brilliant solution of posting this polite, informative notice.

Why did I find this funny? Well, if my blog is any evidence, I find most things in life funny. Also, most acts of passive-aggressive problem solving are pretty funny, at least when viewed from the outside. The educational line at the end is especially endearing - let's not just treat the symptom, let's cure the disease.

But it is also sad. In an American Lit class years ago, we talked about Rugged Individualism - the iconic American standard of self-reliance, personal freedom, and survival in the free market. But taken too far, the rugged individual is just lonely.

I suspect that when recycling bin lady runs out of eggs, she does not pop next door and ask to borrow one. Instead, she makes the 3 mile drive to Kroger's to buy another dozen. When she goes on vacation, she does not ask her neighbor to collect her mail, but instead has the post office stop delivering. She can survive on her own. She does not want to indebt herself to the charity of others. She does not want to burden.

But how long can you think that way before you impose those same views on others? Oh, we don't need to help the neighbors bring that new furniture in - they probably just want to do it on their own. We could have them over for dinner, but it might be an imposition - they probably have plans, other friends to entertain.

When we decide we don't need someone else, we also decide that they don't need us. And so we live apart together. And replace relationships with silent signs on our recycling bins.

Monday, August 11, 2008

What will we do tomorrow night, Brain?

Try to take over the web.

Inspired by Sherry's recent forays into web design, I decided last week that it was finally time to take control of my web presence. I've been tracking my Google-ocity for a while. A few years ago the top hit for "Erin Gong" was a small literary journal at BYU, promising a full-text link to a short story I wrote and got published there. Not bad.

But several months later, I was humiliated when the first result on the Google ego search was an spelling error message: "Did you mean Brian Gong?" No. I certainly did not. Brian is Abe's uncle, who has a great publishing repertoire, work accolades, and - apparently - web position.

Thanks to my recent affiliation with the University of Michigan and activity on heavy-weight social networking sites (Facebook, LinkedIn), Google no longer thinks that my name search is simply a keyboard blunder.

Instead, I am rivaled by another Erin Gong. I didn't think it was possible. How many Erin Gongs do you know? Last year a Chinese girl received lifesaving treatment in the U.S. A YouTube video tribute to her is still #1 on the hit results for Erin Gong. [Warning: resist the urge to google Erin Gong and click on said video. This will only exacerbate the problem. It is a sweet film of photos, scriptural passages, and uplifting music. There. Consider it watched.]

So I have spent (or sunk) the last week into building my own personal website in hopes that it's page rank will be enough to combat the forces of obscurity.

Check out my 20 hours of hard labor at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~egong/. It has no content. None of the links work. And I'm still trying to figure out how to upload RSS feeds on the right hand side of the page.

Good thing I'm unemployed.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Addendum - Monkey Sighting!

I forgot about this, relevant to the last post. When in DC a few summers ago, we were walking down the street across from the White House and saw a life-size sock monkey sitting on a park bench. I surreptitiously took this photo. We then saw the sock monkey move its arm.

Dictionary: Monkey Around

Definition: To incessantly give your sister or daughter obscure gifts involving sock monkeys.

I don't know who in my family decided I should be a sock monkey hobbyist. But several years of gift-giving later...

Starting at the top, from left to right: "Sock battle" t-shirt (sock monkey vs dragon puppet), sock monkey frog, Sock Monkey Dreams: daily life at the red heel monkey shelter, fuzzy monkey socks, Tony Millionaire's Sock Monkey comic book, sock monkey note cards, Crocheted Sock Monkeys.

May I emphasize the obscurity:

from the sock monkey comic book

And sometimes creepiness:

from the crochet book. Have you ever seen such sinister socks?

Conspicuously absent from this collection, you'll notice, are any actual sock monkeys.