Thursday, July 24, 2008


The theme this summer with my friends has been bicycles. It seems like everyone has either bought one or is talking about how much they need to get one.

One of my roommates is a cycling fanatic. I’ve never seen first-hand anyone with such passion or expertise for them. He owns at least 3 that I know of. And they’re not your Wal-Mart brand bikes either. His most recent purchase is a fold-up bicycle that was hand-made in England with customized features.

So I’ll admit that the constant enthusiasm for bicycles has rubbed off on me and I started to consider the idea of cruising around the city. While I’m perfectly happy using the subway and not really looking to be a serious cyclist, I figured it would be a great way to explore the boroughs of NYC. It’d be perfect for getting to places that aren’t easily accessible by train and as I’d travel to those destinations, I’d be above ground soaking in the environments. The alternating grimy, white tiled stations and black, soot-ridden tunnels of the MTA can get monotonous.

Also it would be a great way to get around quickly. On the first decent summer day, my friend and I walked from my Park Slope apartment to and over the Brooklyn Bridge, which while perfectly enjoyable, took about 4 hours. Fast forward a few months to when my roommate and I cruised the same path via bicycles in about 30 minutes. I was amazed at how the surroundings looked so different from this perspective.

Convinced that it’d be a good investment, I set out to a bike shop with my expert roommate. I recall having plans with a friend later that day and texting her that I was shopping for a bike but should be able to meet her in an hour or two. It should be a breeze to find a decent bike with the approval of my roommate, I thought.

How naïve that seems now. I ended up spending a good 3 to 4 hours in that store, test riding at least 6 bikes. And I didn’t even walk away with one of them. I had no idea how similar the experience was to buying a car. It’s a serious purchase and finding the right one was a nuanced affair. After all, if I was committed to dropping the amount of cash for this, shouldn’t I find one that’s just perfect?

The bike shop employee was great and helpful and I was surprised at how she nonchalantly suggested that I should take any of their bikes out for a test ride. So I hopped on the first one and was about 2 blocks away before I realized that I had no idea what the hell I was doing.

Now, everyone knows the cliché “You never forget how to ride a bike” and it’s true, but after 15 years of not being on a bicycle, I was pretty damn shaky. A few blocks further, my body had recalled some of the motor functions necessary to propel me in a somewhat normal fashion, which allowed me to realize that I’M IN THE MIDDLE OF FUCKING SOHO. Could there be any worse location to try to re-acclimate myself to riding? Between the narrow, cobbled streets, the psychotically aggressive cab drivers, and the gawking, meandering hordes of tourists, I felt every thing around me was a potential death trap.

It was then that I also realized I hadn’t been provided a helmet.

Things weren’t really working out for me here. I thought back to my last bicycle. I was 12. It was a Huffy or some equivalent kids brand. Fixed pedal, no brakes and no gears. I hadn’t been on a bike since then. So I was in essence, really learning to ride an adult bike for the first time. On the streets of Manhattan.

My Huffy was much lower to the ground, where I was in more of a sitting position and could extend my leg down to the ground for balance. But on these test bikes which were positioned higher, I had no idea at first how to start and stop on a bike without getting off.

And I don’t recall ever having to dodge heavy traffic or pedestrians in my youth. Being so close to speeding cars was a bit unnerving at first. I fully realized how scary riding around in the city could be. I had a flashback of riding my Huffy on my street. I literally only rode it on the sidewalk of my street. My parents forbade me to wander out of my neighborhood so I would ride from one end of the street, turn around, ride to the other end, and then repeat. I’m kind of mystified now as to what kind of entertainment that provided me. I wonder if any neighbors observed this behavior from their windows and thought to themselves “What a poor kid. Can’t even leave the street.” Either that or “Why is this idiot just going back and forth endlessly??”

Cut to the present, I’ve finally purchased a bike. A used one. Decent, not great, but perfect for what I need it to do. I have much more respect for cyclists in the city. When I first moved to New York I was driving a bit and had such animosity for walkers. Then as a walker hated drivers so intensely. And in both scenarios, loathed bicyclists. They were reckless and you never saw them coming. But now I see it from their side more clearly. It takes a bit of courage to throw themselves into such a hazardous situation, and at such speeds.

It’s all still very new to me. Dallas wasn’t exactly a bike-able town, what with the expansive suburban sprawl and the crippling heat. So I don’t feel I was adequately trained to deal with potholes, car doors, jaywalkers, double parked cars in the bike lane, squeezing between tight gaps at stop lights, construction zones, and basically being hated by every living being I come across. I’ve already hit a car and been thrown completely off my bike. That was by week 2 with a bike.

Despite all this, I’m loving it. It’s also great to hear how the city is working to support the cycling community. Bike lanes are being added constantly and there’s even rumors of some sort of shared bicycle system. Not sure if that will lead to anything significant but the sentiment is appreciated.

It’s another reason to love New York. With the increasingly alarming oil situation and everyone’s obsession with going green, the city allows me to feel like I’m doing what I can to make myself less damaging to my surroundings. I take the trains everywhere, I recycle, I use a cloth shopping bag, my bookbag is even made from 100% recycled materials, and I grow my own food. Okay, that last one was a lie. It’s probably the one thing that I’d like to do that I can’t in New York.

In the end, I’m glad I made the bicycle purchase. It helps me feel that I’m doing more right in the world than wrong. Although I’m not really getting rewarded with that bike seat, because my ass kills.

UPDATE: I guess I spoke too soon about a NY/bike love-fest. Gothamist points to a video of a NY cop decking a cyclist for what looks like no apparent reason. Ouch.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Professor and the Madman

Wow. The Dark Knight was one of the few movies in recent years that had excited me enough to warrant me seeing it on opening day. That anticipation was paid off in spades.

Heath Ledger was transcendent in his role as the Joker. His interpretation and depiction of the insane villain was one of the most enthralling I’d ever watched, which makes his passing all the more tragic. Sadly, before this I’d never paid much attention to him as an actor. Working with Mel Gibson in The Patriot sort of condemned him for me.

The Joker has always been the definitive adversary to Batman. I once found that puzzling. Here you have a hero steeped in dark, serious, noir stylization, yet he gets paired with a (frankly) hokey concept villian. Think about it: the “world's greatest detective” faces off against a man with a giant, red-lipped grin in a purple suit using killer hand-buzzers and acid spewing flowers?

Batman has been developed over the decades into a meticulous strategist, utilizing technology and science to overcome anyone he faces. He’s bested seemingly more powerful characters, even Superman when such clashes occurred.

So I had assumed that the Joker’s pairing with Batman as an unfortunate result of the campy tone that dominated the 70’s comics, culminating in the Adam West television series.

It wasn’t until I read the graphic novel, Arkham Asylum, that I began to understand the Joker’s potential as a valid antagonist. Even while purchasing the book, the book store employee commented that this was the first story that ever made her frightened of the Joker. I had only been drawn to the book because of it’s artistic, collage styling and poetic narration which was completely different than the typical comic fare.

The story places Batman, trapped in the insane asylum where all of his captured villains have broken free and taken over. The Joker was featured sparingly, but just enough for me to realize that the guy was seriously homicidal and insane.

Which is why he is the perfect foil for Batman, the Yin to Batman’s Yang. The Joker has no rhyme or reason to his actions. He breeds in chaos and madness, not for money or power or comic book typical world domination aspirations, but simply for chaos and madness. He is the complete antithesis of Batman, the detective who believes that there is always an answer through science and logic.

For a well done documentation of the Joker’s many incarnations check out this write up on Comic Book Resources.

As for the rest of the movie, I will agree with other reviews that this is one of the best comic book movies ever made. Unlike X-men or Spiderman, this movie is steeped in realism. There’s no need to suspend belief so that men can cling to walls or shoot laser beams out of their eyes.

Although I felt the last act started to get convoluted and faltered a bit, the movie as a whole was gripping. I felt tense with anticipation throughout the whole film. There were a few gripes here and there, but minor. I wasn’t a huge fan of Maggie Gyllenhaal but she was light years more tolerable than Katie Holmes.

Aaron Eckhart's portrayal of Harvey Dent was well done. I enjoyed the build up of his character and how it mirrored Batman's role in Gotham. The filmmakers seemed to fully understand how his role poetically fit in with the theme of the story. I was thinking that they were building up his character for the next sequel so was surprised that it was paid off in this film. Maybe because of that expectation, I felt that it was a bit rushed and shoe-horned in. The development of Dent’s story was well handled but I think that the result was a letdown and not executed as perfectly as it could have been. The main antagonist of the film was the Joker and it was obvious to me that this hurt Two-Face’s tragic resolution. I applaud the filmmaker’s ability to intertwine the two villains’ stories though.

It was a great match of villains story-wise. Two-Face’s back story is so explicit that it took nearly the entire film to depict. Whereas the Joker had no real insight into his progression. As another masterful move, the filmmaker’s heightened each character by contrasting them with each other. Two-Face has always been propelled by his origin: a great hero that has fallen so far into evil. The Joker's motivations are based on madness that he needs no history, and in the many decades since his introduction, still has no definitive origin.

There will be the inevitable comparisons to all of the previous Bat-films. I have to say that as a kid, I loved Tim Burton's movies, but can admit today that they haven’t aged well at all. The visual style he created still appeals to me, especially the depiction of Gotham City so I kept wanting to see parts of it in Nolan’s films. But I also realize that the current films are much more grounded in our reality and that a realistic city backdrop fits in visually. Danny Elfman’s score in the Burton films is still iconic Batman for me. Otherwise, Nolan’s films surpass the previous attempts in every way. I didn’t even bother with Batman and Robin so can’t comment there.

The story with The Dark Knight is still Heath Ledger’s amazing performance, which will unfortunately be forever linked with his tragic death. If he winds up getting nominated for an Oscar (which I think he should) I can imagine there will be chatter about it only be spurred on by his passing. That will be very upsetting because I can’t recall in recent history such a powerful and mesmerizing performance.

Bravo, Heath.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Wind wind scenario

I was intrigued by French designer Philippe Starck’s unveiling of the personal windmill earlier this year. Details and technical specifics are pretty sparse as of now but they’re set to go onto the consumer market as early as this September.

The design is unquestionably elegant, but again many people are wondering how exactly it works. The price tag is around $600 and is touted to provide as much as 60% of the energy needed in a typical household. At this point, anything that promotes green energy and frees consumers from overloaded electric companies is welcomed.

I wonder if it’s size will allow it to be applicable to urban dwellers or if it’ll require some serious yard/roof space to dedicate to this device. I would think that it has to be a progression from the giant wind farms consisting of fields of towering windmills. NPR produced an interesting story on the farms and their affects on the local population. I particularly sympathized with the elderly man proclaiming that he can’t sleep anymore due to the noise produced by the spinning blades of the 20 story tall structures.

Even if Starck’s machine fails to make an urban impact, NPR also reports on Chicago’s attempt to place wind turbines on top of its skyscrapers as a space-conserving solution to increasing power consumption issues.

I’m thankful that green energy has become a larger priority over the years. It certainly feels as if we’re working against the clock now.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Food for thought

I love food. I love tasting new dishes. I love talking with friends about what they eat. I love cooking. I love watching cooking shows. I wander around in gourmet grocery stores with the same lust that I once had for toy stores.

That wasn’t always the case. There was a time when my mom would have to basically force feed me. I wouldn’t be allowed to leave the dinner table until I begrudgingly finished off every single grain of rice. This was in high school.

I used to bemoan the fact that someone hadn’t invented some sort of tablet to swallow that would supplant the need to eat anything for the entire day. “Imagine how much time and energy would be saved if we didn’t have to focus on eating three times a day,” I would fantasize to myself.

I consider my dad to be the biggest eating enthusiasts. Any family event or celebration would inevitably be centered around food. Wedding... Big ass feast. Birthday... Fancy steak house. Sunday... Korean Barbeque. Nothing pleased my relatives more than sitting around a large round table and devouring a menagerie of dishes.

But I couldn’t escape fast enough. Eating was the biggest inconvenience in my life. My friend’s dad once commented that I eat like a bird: “just enough to fly”.

There were a few things I did enjoy, such as McDonald’s and Pizza. But those preferences may have had more to do with the perks, like the toys that came along with Happy Meals or playing video games after choking down a few slices. Junk food and ice cream were typical fares I would tolerate. One vivid memory I have is my youngest uncle teaching me the ritual of finishing a helping of potato chips was to lick the salt and oil off my fingers and then wipe them off on my tshirt underneath my armpit. Needless to say my mom was quite horrified to observe this behavior.

Then something happened over time. I OD’ed on instant ramen in college, fast food take-out didn’t taste as good anymore, and the visual of pools of oil on top of my pizza started to turn my stomach.

Living on my own was a big factor. Spending my own hard earned money on groceries rather than, say CDs, meant that I valued the food much more. I slowly learned to appreciate the effort in cooking. I also noticed how watching friends resort to a dinner of chips and salsa upset me more than I ever thought it would.

There were of course bumps along the way. I once cooked pork chops for my then-girlfriend, proudly presented it in front of her, only to have her exclaim “Where are the sides? The vegetables?! We’re just going to have meat?” It had honestly never occurred to me before what the concept of a balanced meal was.

Moving to New York City also was another integral influence in my foodie progression. Due to crippling poverty at the time, Food Network was an invaluable (and somehow free) source of entertainment. Although whenever Rachel Ray would show her aggravating grin, I’d turn to Friends reruns on the WB. Grrr, just the thought of her again makes me want to punch her in the face. Although I never tried to emulate any of the meals on the shows, I noticed I was absorbing all kinds of tidbits and info that they dished out while preparing the meals. I watched just about every program on that channel with enjoyment. But Iron Chef is just too stressful for me. I notice my hands clenched into fists as I watch the frantic slicing and dicing.

During this time, I also discovered how this city is not geared for people to cook at home. Restaurants literally line every single block. Grocery stores are few and far in between. Even then, the quality of the food is questionable, and the temperament of the employees makes the notion of shopping nauseating. On top of all that, the kitchens in apartments are ridiculously small. Many times in my first apartment, I’d have to prep one part of a recipe, clean up in order to have room to prep the next part, clean up again and then cook. I only really noticed this issue when I went back home to visit family in Texas. The island counter in their kitchens would be the size of my entire kitchen area.

Along the way, I developed an interest in finer things related to cooking, mainly using better ingredients. I realized that the little things go a long way in turning a decent meal into a great one.

One of the things I looked forward to going back to Texas was visiting Central Market, an upscale grocery store, so that I could stock up on bulk spices. Is that totally geeky or what? I also bought a contraption that houses herbs in the fridge and keeps them fresh two weeks longer. Complete dork? Check.

While I’ve become steadily more comfortable with cooking, I’d hardly boast being any good at it. It doesn’t seem to come naturally to me. Unlike some of my friends who can adventurously whip up improvised concoctions, I need the reassurance of a recipe. Even then, I have to be very organized about my prep work. I once tried to wing Chicken Fettuccini and nearly had a heart attack trying to manage pots and pans on all four stove burners.

I was also lucky enough to find A., who is a food enthusiast that probably rivals my dad. In her, I found a buddy to indulge in all our appreciations. We’d spend lunches together describing the previous night’s dinners. And actually be interested in it. We’d go to Whole Foods and she’d gush over the fresh cheese section. I’d drool over the crab cakes.

We’re such dorks that we’d text each other what we’re having for dinner. And the other would text back and excitedly ask for more details.

For example...
My text: Just made wild swrdfsh n portugese sauce 4 dinnr!!
Her reply: Yay! Is it amazing???

As with everything in New York, no matter how intense one’s obsession is, there’s always someone else that takes it to the next level. Not just aficionados but any aspect of food has been scrutinized. Vegetarians, vegans, fair-trade activists, co-op members, restaurant critics (professional and the internets kind), local-vores. It’s amazing. And 10 years ago I wouldn’t have understood any of it.

But now I do.

I realize that eating (and cooking) aren’t just a chore, but a means for people to connect with each other. Think of all the social interactions that revolve around a meal: catching up with friends, special occasions, family barbecues, and of course dating.

This past Thanksgiving I ended up hosting dinner for all of my friends who weren’t going home for the holiday. There was something very satisfying about having a bustling kitchen crammed with my friends. Not everyone knows what they’re doing exactly, but everyone contributes and there are smiles on every face. I’m lucky enough to have a place that has become a hub for many friend dinners and I’ll treasure the fond memories they bring.

You couldn’t get that with a food-supplement tablet.

So tonight’s menu: Chimichurri Marinated Beef Flank Steak with Bell Peppers, Onions and Yellow Cucumbers over Jasmine Rice. Mmmmm!

(Amazing photos are taken from 101 Cookbooks, which continually has the most tantalizing food photos I’ve ever seen. I drool over my keyboard everytime.)