Wednesday, May 25, 2016

In case any other readers are Chicagoans, I thought I would type up a late night, thunderstorm-induced, pre-summer to do list. I won’t get to all of these things but in case you have also spent many summers in Chicago and are looking for something new to do, here are some thoughts:

TO DO: Bike the North Branch Trail, which offers relief from the crowded Lake Michigan trail and ends
at the Chicago Botanic Gardens
Bike the prairie path and end with a beer at Two Brothers Brewery in Warrenville
Drink wine at art gallery openings every second Friday of the month in Pilsen
See the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform live while watching Titanic at Ravinia (!!)
And of course, picnic at the Pritzker Pavilion either for the summer concert series or movies 
in the parkEven better, dance salsa in the park for the summer dance series or rock climb at

GETAWAY: Lake Michigan camping (Sleeping Bear Dunes or Nordhouse Dunes)
Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois 
Red River Gorge near Lexington, Kentucky

EAT/DRINK: For patio dining, there’s Lula Café, Longman and Eagle, Parson’s Chicken and Fish, Big Star, and Happy Village. I’d also like to make my way to the Green Mill. Maybe this will be the year! Though most likey, I’ll be spending my nights in my backyard with a clara con limòn, which sounds perfect too.

Anything else that I’m missing?

Thursday, May 19, 2016

It’s Spring, the season in Chicago where everyone is pining for summer heat but then ends up disgruntled because all we get is rain and a few sixty degree days here and there. I’m not one to complain too much, and so I’m just happy that everything has turned green and I’m able to walk to the neighborhood drugstore at night underneath an archway of newly budding trees.

I’m usually hesitant to use this space to ramble when I have little to say or to share photos of my weekends when the majority of my life is spent at a desk underneath fluorescent lights. But I like the passive voyaging that comes with blogs so in the off chance that you’re interested, I’ll provide an update...

I'm currently: 

reading Bel Canto, surprised to finding myself enjoying being held hostage in South America with an opera singer;

listening to Chance the Rapper's newest mixtape and brimming with pride to see his face all over the city;

checking my bank account to see if I can afford to take up rock climbing (it seems that going once a month as I've been doing isn't very conducive to progress-making);

lusting over Jeanne Damas' style and wondering if I can find similar items at Goodwill;

applying to grants and researching MFAs, which is probably a futile endeavor but one that I figure I’ll do anyway;

and reminiscing about last weekend's trip to Shawnee National Forest. I didn't bring a camera but the drives through overgrown, rural roads and the days spent climbing up sandstone bluffs reminded me of what summer could be.

Hope your days have been (somewhat) sunny and full of promise as well!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

A few weeks ago, I took a solo trip out West. 

I travel alone quite a bit and don't mind the solitude that comes with getting from point A to point B. Planes, however, aren't my favorite mode of transportation so going from my friend's house in Portland to another friend's house in California, I bought, for the first time, a Greyhound bus ticket.

There's too much fluorescent lighting in airports. Too much CNN, too many people pining for an outlet to charge their smartphones. Though to be fair, a Greyhound is not any more romantic of an option. On my fifteen hour bus ride, there were a lot of neck tattoos, men who bent over to get their luggage without sufficient beltage, a woman across from me in grey sweatpants and a matching grey sweatshirt with all of her belongings in a cardboard box. I had an idea of where she came from and when she got off at Mt. Shasta, I wished her luck with where she was going.

Despite the unpleasantness that is America's bus system, I'm reasonably content given a book and a good view. Riding through small Northwestern towns, past creeks and through foothills, I had time to read old editions of Ploughshares and take notes for a short story I've been working on for years, though only seriously for the past three months. I tore out stories in the literary journal that had a rhythm I wish my writing had. I looked out the window a lot and wondered  though there's no use  when my writing would resemble the writing that I kept saving. Writing that accumulates in binders back at home. 

After a week of seeing friends that live across the country in much nicer climates and hiking through what felt to me like summer heat (also rain and hail at one point), I arrived back to Chicago at 5 am on a Sunday morning. Once the post-vacation malaise wore off, I began working on my short story again, finishing the piece and then editing, tweaking, copy-editing, worrying about the underdevelopment of characters, the tone, the mediocrity of it all. But finally, I decided that it's finished. I read it over the other day and thought to myself very briefly, not bad. 

Though what I like most about it is that it's done.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

A few years ago, I started documenting the books I finished, mostly because I felt like if I did all the work to read them, I wanted something to show for it - at least for my own eyes. An acknowledgement of how I spent my time. I made note of the ones that I particularly liked, and since I’m not quite sure what this space is for, I thought I’d write down my recommendations from the past year here.

But once I saved images of the book covers and looked at them consecutively, I thought it wasn’t worth a post. These names are well known names, and as a writer, I should be recommending the small press wonders, the undiscovered classics. But then I read this piece On Pandering and it literally absorbed me whole. Why didn’t I want to post the books I liked reading? Because they are not obscure? Or because these books are marketed to a certain crowd (females), and there's a lot of pastel on the cover?


This is, perhaps, a female-centric selection but regardless, these books (mostly memoirs) are filled with inventive and beautiful writing that's no less serious or hard-hitting than Philip Roth or Johnathon Franzen or whomever. I thoroughly enjoyed them and hope you do too.

Meaty – Samantha Irby writes about growing up parentless, living with Crohn's disease, and other generally messy topics. The book is refreshingly honest and funny, without any vague, subtle literary humor, which I never really like (Irby writes many of her jokes in all caps).

M Train – I can’t even recall what this book was about. Drinking coffee mostly. And watching crime shows. There’s a chapter on Patti Smith’s love for her late husband that I reread from time to time.

A House of My Own – A memoir of sorts about living a literary life, living in the cross-section of borders, and being a woman (specifically, a woman who never wed). After many years writing fiction, Sandra Cisneros finally puts together a collection of essays. I definitely recommend reading through.

The Lowland – Though her short stories are unbeatable, this Jhumpa Lahiri novel still sticks with me. Her writing is mesmerizing and enjoyable.

The Empathy Exams – I read this book per late David Carr’s advice, and it ended up being one of my favorites of the year. Leslie Jamison pushes the boundaries of what essay writing can do, with incredibly articulate and calculated prose. She explores different ideas of pain and empathy through a wide range of topics such as the reality of Morgellons disease, running ultra marathons, and having an abortion.

The Unspeakable: And Other Topics of Discussion – Another essay collection I enjoyed. Meghan Daum does a nice job of writing personally, but never solely for the sake of nazel-gazing.

Between the World and Me – So this one is kind of a no-brainer, considering the year this book had. It’s a quick read, which led me down a Ta-Nehisi Coates rabbit hole on Youtube after finishing. This book also added James Baldwin’s classic "The Fire Next Time" to my must-read list for next year, which I think makes it worth the read alone.

Caramelo – I love reading long, ornate pieces of fiction every now and then. One of Sandra Cisneros’ masterpieces, this book chronicles the unique history of a Mexican-American family, fast forwarding and rewinding, going across the Mexican border and back.

Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish – So, this is sort of niche book to put on the list but for any intermediate Spanish speakers out there, I recommend this one. Informative, engaging, and well written, it’s the only time I learned how to speak Spanish from reading a book.

She Left Me the Gun: My Mother's Life Before Me – A disturbing memoir from British journalist Emma Brockes. I was in awe of the book the whole way through, mostly due to the subject matter but also due to the way in which the details were unveiled.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

(Cont. from last post)

Composting – This year, I started vermicomposting (composting indoors using red wiggler worms) and have to admit that harvesting the compost can be labor intensive. Like all projects, it’s a process that takes tweaking so perhaps I still need to get the hang of it. Regardless, I’m happy to learn the science (and art) behind composting and incorporate it into my kitchen habits.

For apartment dwellers who are looking to compost but don’t necessarily want a hands-on project, there are plenty of services that will pick up your compost for a fee. Though it costs money, the added plus is that municipal composting facilities allow meat, fish, and dairy in the bin, further reducing the amount of waste you throw away. Personally for my next apartment, I’m going to look into buying a compost bin on Craigslist if I have a small backyard. This method just calls for throwing your compost in, adding some leaves or grass clippings on top, and stirring every once in a while to keep it aerated, which seems easy enough.

Cleaning products – I do most of my cleaning with vinegar, baking soda, castile soap, and essential oils. You can find various recipes on the internet but here are roughly the recipes I use:

All purpose cleaner: 1/4 cup castile soap with 1 quart of water in a spray bottle. Add a few drops of tea tree oil. This can be used on tabletops, kitchen countertops (granite included), and bathroom surfaces.

Window cleaner: Mix 1 part water with 1 part vinegar. Add essential oils if desired. Use an old newspaper to wash the mirror for a smudge-free shine.

Floors: Mix 1 part water with 1 part vinegar. Add essential oils if desired.

Bathroom disinfectant:  Again, mix 1 part water with 1 part vinegar in a spray bottle. Add essential oils if desired. Spray on bathroom surfaces and let it sit. Wipe down with a sponge or toilet bowl cleaner. Sprinkle baking soda on surfaces that need scouring and scrub with a sponge.

Drain cleaner: Pour a half-cup of baking soda down the drain then add a half a cup of white vinegar. Wait ten to fifteen minutes. While waiting, heat a tea kettle full of water until boiling. Pour the boiling water down to drain to flush the vinegar and baking soda through. I tend to do this every time I clean the bathroom because I find that it does a better job of preventing clogs than unclogging them when the drain is full or blocked.

Thrifting – This year I moved into my new apartment and had to stock up on kitchen and household items so the place wouldn’t feel bare. Heading to the thrift store every other week was incredibly helpful during the process. I have been thrifting for clothes for a while but I find that home goods are much more abundant at your neighborhood Goodwill. Glasses, coffee mugs, jars for bulk storage, ceramic pots for plants, crock pots, cookbooks, and artwork were all fairly easy to come by.

I think in order to get items you actually enjoy, you have to go often, with an astute eye regarding what it is you are really going to use, and browse without any one item in mind. It may seem strange to buy items that you eat and cook with used but I found cleaning tricks on the blog Heart of Light, which puts my mind at ease about purchasing secondhand. Helpful tips: if you purchase clothes or sheets, put them in the dryer immediately. The high heat kills all bedbugs. 10 minutes will do but you can go for 30 if you want to play it safe. If you purchase dishes or cookware, soak them in the sink for 30 minutes in a 10% bleach solution. Afterward, wash normally. This sterilizes the dishes and makes sure they're good and clean before using.

Bags – Due to freebies and giveaways, I’ve collected reusable grocery bags without really trying and make a conscious to take them before going grocery shopping. For day to day to purchases, I avoid plastic bags by putting a Chico bag in my purses. You can purchase sets of four here or here. Or if you don't want to make the purchase,  throw store-given plastic bags in your purses and bags for everyday purchases. It's better to reuse them over and over rather than recycle, especially in Chicago where the plastic bag ban made plastic bags thicker but just as disposable.

Laundry – I wash my laundry with cold water and use whatever green laundry detergent I find at the store that's available in bulk. I recently bought a drying rack and plan on air drying my clothes, like I did when I lived in Honduras and Spain, though we'll see how long this lasts. I know many eco-friendly blogs suggest making your own laundry detergent but I don’t do that, nor do I make my own hand soap or dish soap. I buy them because there are so many brands (Mrs. Meyer's, Method, Honest Company, 365) that do the job. If you worry that these products are just green washing, install the Good Guide app or the EWG's app and check how clean any product is before purchasing.

Changes I still want to implement – Mostly small things like using handkerchiefs instead of Kleenex, buying tea in bulk, purchasing reusable ziploc bags and Bee's Wrap for food storage.

So there are my tips, if you’re into that kind of thing. Of course, there are other ways to advocate for the environment. You can vote in local and national elections, donate money to organizations who are working on systematic changes, volunteer to help change local systems, sign petitions, and organize. There are other habits to consider looking at too; mainly, meat consumption, driving, and flying - all of which i do occasionally.

If you are interested in living low-impact (or lower-impact), I recommend The Carbon-Free Home, which I like many reasons. One, it explains projects for apartment and home dwellers, diving into both small, doable projects and larger ones. Also, it gives sensible advice, explaining how small changes like living in closer proximity to things you need, hanging your clothes up to dry, and insulating your house may have a greater impact than the expensive, flashy ones (i.e. installing solar panels).

Post script: Recently, I watched Michael Pollan's Cooked on Netflix, his docu-series urging people to return to the kitchen for the sake of their health and the health of the environment.  While it was cinematically beautiful and educational, I also found it a bit holier than thou. I don't prescribe to Michael Pollan's make-everything-from-scratch ways. That seems exhausting and honestly, a bit inefficient. I love a pot of homemade beans, simmered with spices thrown in. I also love canned black beans when I need to whip up something quick. Which in a way, sums up my take on it all. I'm not ayurvedic or zero waste or even a vegetarian (though kudos to those who are) but I believe in doing what you can, in the ways that are best suited for you.

Or, as Tim Mazurek of Lottie and Doof so brilliantly says, we are not flawless! See here: