Archive for February, 2011

Back in October of 2008, at the end of the fall season of environmental education, we threw an end-of-year celebration and staff party that happened to coincide with Halloween. That was the year that I wore my most inspired costume ever: a lampshade rigged up on top of my head. Partygoers were invited to pull the cord dangling by my ear. Nothing would happen.

“Oh dear,” I’d say. “I must be burnt out!”

Speaking of burning out, I was pretty exhausted last week after an epic writing run. So I took Thursday and Friday off and put myself through a strick four-day recharging regimen.

Task One: Read a novel. I chose Swamplandia!, which I purchased even before reading all the media hype because of a loose affiliation with the author. Enjoying a luxury I haven’t taken advantage of in years, I read for two days straight, failing to leave my apartment between 5pm Thursday and 9am Saturday morning. It was total immersion in the hot, humid, mosquito-ridden Florida swamps — the perfect escape from a cold winter of writing in New England.

Task Two: Go on an adventure. The final third of Swamplandia! is a hallucinatory near-death expedition into the swamps. On Saturday I got up early and caught a train out to Ipswich, where I rode my bike out to Crane’s beach. For the first 1.5 hours it was sunny, cold, and beautiful to be walking along the beach. Then I rounded the point and found myself in the salt marshes on the windward side of the peninsula. In the wind it was bitterly cold, I was exhausted, and when I tried to find my way into the shelter of the dunes I instantly lost the trail and got lost in the hills. Sand rose up steeply around me, the wind whipped through the narrow valleys, and slick sheets of ice pooled in the depths. I felt a little bit like the thirteen year old hero of Swamplandia!, lost and exhausted in extreme conditions in otherwise familiar marshland — the precise opposite of the Florida keys.

Task Three: Recovery. I slept for eleven hours on Saturday night and woke up feeling fully refreshed. Then I opened my curtains and saw the snow piling up outside. The solution? Fresh-baked chocolate chip scones, which were remarkably easy and delicious, if I do say so myself. (I will save the recipe for a Food Friday.) These particular scones always remind me of my uncle Mike, who lives in San Jose, California. Mike’s rare visits to the east coast involved massive pillow fights at night, and chocolate chip scones in the morning. This time I shared them with a few friends for an impromptu brunch. Glorious.

Today, I’m feeling refreshed, renewed, and ready to keep writing. Even the worst weather ever can’t put me off.  Plus, I had leftover scones for breakfast.


Not my scones. But don't they look good?

Weather: worst day ever. Thirty six degrees and rain/sleet/horrible.


Hannah: 7 out of 10 on the can’t get out of bed to jumping for joy scale.
Anna:  6.5 in her current caffeinated state, but she has a stressful week ahead of her. “It’s Monday. But soon it will be Thursday!”


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This post is a week overdue, but I hope you’ll indulge me.

I can’t remember ever really hating Valentine’s Day. Most years it’s just a pink and red square on my mind’s calendar. In grade school, I loved buying packs of Valentine’s Day cards, signing my name, and affixing a packet of candy to each note. The school required that if you gave one person a valentine, you had to give one to every kid in the class—a sound policy. But, of course, there were inevitably a few people I thought deserved extra special congratulations for being rad (fourth grade in the 90s, rad = ubercool). Something like these:

So, I’d sort my cards, separate the ones with the best messages and illustrations, and give those to my crush(es). Of course, there were always at least 4 copies of each card, so for every crush that received an accurate message, there were usually at least 2 non-crushes that received exactly the same message. Noting that my system had flaws, I decided to offset this by adding candy hearts to each note. I sorted the candies based on message, shoved the hearts reading “Be Mine” and “Luv Ya!” into my crush(es) envelope(s), and taped them shut so that my plan couldn’t go awry. I figured the killer combo of sugar, pithy declarations, and cartoons would make my admiration clear and my crushes smitten.


But these days when I think about Valentine’s Day, I remember my senior year of college.

Ithaca got thwacked by a massive snowstorm on February 14, 2007. I holed up in my warmly-lit room reading Jane Eyre for class, unwilling to venture into the snow drifts until I had to.

And then a visitor knocked on my door. One of my best friends (and former boyfriend)—let’s call him Q. because it sounds daring and mysterious—knocked on my door with a massive plate of cookies. And not just any cookies—frosted cookies fresh from the oven, sprinkled with mini M&Ms.

While I had been holed up, Q. had been making the rounds, bringing cheer in the form of baked goods to a handful his closest friends. And now, four years later, that’s my most vivid (and default) memory of Valentine’s Day. A day filled with sugary declarations of friendship, not mass market candies.

Weather: Sunny. 34 degrees.


Anna – 7 out of 10 on the “so miserable I can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. Happy memories.

Hannah – ? out of 10.


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Food triggers memories and marks transitions. At some point last October, I realized that my mind was in autumn mode when rather than ordering white wine, I went for red. Shortly thereafter I went on the pumpkin/gourd spree. That was followed by my foray into German and Austrian cuisine, which seemed winter appropriate, but quickly became fried food overkill.

In case it wasn’t already apparent, Hannah and I both love food, which is why we started Food Fridays. Hannah takes joy in creating new dishes and baking sweets. I fail in the food prep department, but excel in savoring new flavor combinations. It’s a win-win, or so I like to think.

This past year I’ve started to fancy myself a food explorer—even if that’s a bit of a stretch. This is not a totally new thought, though. There was that time many (many!) years ago when I ordered sweetbreads expecting something akin to french toast. And that time in Israel I accepted a dish that had been described as “charif”, or spicy. It turned out to be brain. Or, while in Greece, that time when I put my stomach to the test by eating a single, daring bite of kokoretsi, which the EU banned in the 90s. I survived without incident.

Recently, though, I’ve focused on flavors that don’t make people cringe. So this past Saturday I ventured to Gargoyles on the Square in Somerville for a 10-course molecular gastronomy experience. (Of note: it was nearly impossible to find a molecular gastronomy menu in Boston, but the chef, Jason Santos, rose to the challenge.) My father, brother, and I stared slack jawed as course after course arrived. We even took photos.


Clarified Tomato Juice Cocktail

Shrimp Chips and Cocktail Sauce



Lamb Bacon with Coconut and Mango "Egg"

Beet Salad with Vinaigrette in a Pipette and Boursin

Foie Gras. Sadly, I can't remember what else is on the plate.

Pork Belly Soup "Cappuccino"

Calamari Spaghetti Bolognese

Hanger Steak with Dehydrated Mac and Cheese

Ice Cream "Popcorn" with Caramel Snifter

Glazed Donut Pancakes with Oreo Ice Cream


Hannah has discussed seasonal dissonance—that out-of-step feeling when your expectations don’t match up with the weather, like the 60-something degree weather we had today. Now imagine that feeling with food. You eat a bite of something that your mind says is an egg. Instead, you taste mango and coconut. It’s bizarre. And it’s delicious, whether or not you’re expecting the twist. Far, far better than one of those surprise snowstorms in May. And just as good as a spring day in February.

Weather: Unseasonably warm today. 62 degrees.


Anna – 7 out of 10 on the “so miserable I can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. A beautiful Friday.

Hannah – 7 out of 10. February thaw!

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Rating our moods and matching them with a description of the weather was somewhat of an afterthought when Hannah and I started Ditch the Umbrella. We began with a looser formulation of what we wanted this blog to be about, and that mainly relied on self-reflection. But as we’ve written before, it can be difficult to balance insightful stories, impressions, memories, and emotions, and personal privacy. We have no desire to become constant over-sharers.

The mood rating has done a funny thing over time. First, we found ourselves seemingly-endlessly happy. Then we realized our scale must have been slightly off because we rarely judged ourselves to be middling 5’s. We made a course correction and started looking at general patterns.

Ever since it’s become cold and snowy, our moods have dropped. I’ve shed about two points from my summer/fall ratings, and Hannah’s have also decreased slightly. What had originally been an afterthought has actually provided us with a (slightly) more objective view of ourselves over time. And while last winter I didn’t take note of any mood drops, I also wasn’t on the lookout for them.

For me, summer is a time of freedom and exploration, sand dunes and salt water, and friends and weekends in seaside towns. In summer, it’s not at all uncommon for me to walk more than 5 miles, exploring the city and meeting with people. In the winter, I’m much more likely to stay in, watch a movie, and hibernate. Last winter, though, I explored the joys of the season, discovered cross country skiing, and rekindled my love for figure skating.

Somehow, though, I haven’t managed to get to the Weston Ski Track yet this year, and I’ve only skated once. We’ve been hit by storm after storm and I seem to go to meeting after meeting. By the time the weekend arrives, I’m ready to relax, not explore. That adventuresome part of my personality seems to retreat.

Now that I better understand these nuances, I am going to:

  • Join a gym and/or generally increase physical fitness. (Endorphins, yay!)
  • Schedule at least one weekend day in advance.
  • Leave one weekend day less structured. Sleep. Read. Relax. Undertake spontaneous adventures.
  • Play jazz. Loudly.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables (even though winter tomatoes regularly disappoint).
  • Go cross country skiing!

I welcome other suggestions.

Note: I may have to add trampoline dodgeball to my list.

Weather: Sunny, blue skies. 34 degrees.


Anna – 7 out of 10 on the “so miserable I can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. Lots of coffee!!

Hannah – 5 out of 10. Tired.

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When I lived in Maine, I used to work at a public computer in a room that doubled as a science classroom. To keep me company was a wildly beautiful taxidermied wolf which stood guard next to my desk. (Anna is, generally speaking, a more cheerful office mate).

This weekend, I had the chance to talk over Skype with my brother Saul, who is currently studying abroad in ancient Rome. As a classics major, he’s always been a little anachronistic. But now that he lives on a hill overlooking the Vatican and spends his days wandering around in 1500-year-old ruins, he seems to have stepped out of time altogether.

Saul told me that this week marks an important holiday on the Roman calendar. (When we asked whether he would be taking part in the festivities, he didn’t answer). Tomorrow is Lupercalia, the traditional Roman festival of fertility and purification, in honor of Lupercus, the god of shephards, and of Lupa, the female wolf who suckled Remus and Romulus, mythic founders of Rome. (Lupus is Latin for wolf.)

Each year on Lupercalia, the Luperci (wolf priests) would sacrifice two male goats and a dog. Boys representing Remus and Romulus were then dressed in loincoths made of goatskin. They were anointed with goats’ blood and sent running through the streets bearing sacred goat-skin whips that they used to symbolically purify anyone standing in their path. Joyfulness ensued.

At the end of the fifth century CE, Pope Galasius outlawed this boisterous holiday, replacing it several years later with the occasion that we now refer to as Valentine’s day. In the 1500 years since Galasius’ era (and, more specifically, in the 100-odd years since the start of the Hallmark era) that once-cheerful occasion has turned into a bit of a downer.

This year, I think we should all try to find a little perspective. Forget, for a moment, the loneliness and the ugly decorations, the high expectations and inevitable disappointments. And remember that, had you lived 1500 years ago, you could be chased through the streets by half-naked boys carrying wolf-skin whips.

Weirdly warm, 47 degrees and overcast

Hannah: 6 out of 10 on the can’t get out of bed to jumping for joy scale. Tired.
Anna: Out today.

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I grew up in a house full of clocks.

Some of the clocks were more accurate than others. The boat-themed clock on the mantelpiece has been right twice a day for my entire life (an accuracy I can only dream of). The clock in the hall goes irregularly, depending if anyone remembers to wind it. The clock in the kitchen — designed and built by my father — is consistently five minutes fast.

The irony, of course, is that, despite being the daughter of a clock-maker, I have never been particularly good with time. In elementary school I was called in regularly by my teachers for a conversation about tardiness. In college I was regularly kicked out of my Spanish class for arriving late (an injustice, given the 9am class time).

Today, my life requires precision. My alarm goes off at 7am. I leave the house at 7:29 and my train departs at 7:37. I leave the office at 5:10 to catch the 5:23 train and arrive home at 6:00. Russian class is at 6:15; dinners are usually at 7; doors open for performances at 8:30 and shows start at 9.

But this winter, things have been a little more flexible. When I work from home due to snowstorms (as I have several times this month), I suddenly find myself freed from the shackles of a tight schedule. I wake up — sometime before eight. I go to bed — sometime before midnight. I eat when I’m hungry. Leave the house when I’m feeling courageous. Make plans to meet at 7:30ish, or around 9.

It reminds me of the summer that I spent without a clock. It was 2006 and I think that perhaps my watch broke, or I forgot to pack my travel clock. I was working at the Virgin Island Sustainable Farm Institute, nestled in a valley on the west end of St. Croix, with wireless internet but no cell phone reception. There was no electricity in my cabin anyway. Time was always approximate.

That summer I got up with the sun. I worked until it got too hot. Then I hiked the ravine trail down to the beach. You may have thought that this post was about time. But it’s really about choice. Sometimes our schedule is beyond our control. But we choose how tightly we cling to it — just like we choose to be in Boston, when instead, we could be here:

Weather: 15 degrees but sunny.


Hannah: 7 out of 10 on the can’t get out of bed to jumping for joy scale. Happy to see the sun. And I had a productive day yesterday!

Anna: 4 out of 10. She’s tired.

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Early this fall, in a fit of energy, four friends and I set out on a mini road trip. Our first stop was Portland, Maine. There was a cold edge to the air, but the sun was shining, and we were thrilled to be adventuring. There was only one problem: one of our close friends and connector-extraordinaire, D., had just moved across the country. We felt her absence.

It was also clear that, if anything, this was going to be our last blast of summer. That the cold edge was quickly going to become an all-consuming freeze. And that soon enough, we’d be taking day trips to cross country ski, not eat and explore.

Over lunch, someone suggested we band together to throw a party. We could rent a space, invite friends, and convince D. to fly back for the celebration. But when? Our Google calendars were already crammed with back-to-the-grind fall events, then the holidays loomed. So we settled on the worst month of all, the month when everyone seems bored and slightly on edge: February.

Which leads me to this past weekend. Saturday night, it poured, but at the Four Winds, we took little notice—we were laughing and chattering and dancing. I (subtly) put my newly-acquired DDR moves to good use, which proved easy enough thanks to the infectious rhythms created by DJ Face. D. even hopped in a plane, flew 3,000 miles, and joined us for a night of sorely-needed good cheer.

People kept asking why or what we were celebrating. Our answer: excellent friends who make the bleakest of months seem sunny.

Weather: Blue skies and warm-ish. Hopefully the 38-degree temperature will melt the snow and prevent more roof collapses.


Anna – 5 out of 10 on the “so miserable I can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. Back to reality.

Hannah – 4.5 out of 10. Monday.

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You may not have figured this out yet, but one of the many things that Anna and I have in common is a love of food. I love to cook (especially to bake, thanks mom). Anna loves to eat – and to talk, and write, about food.

So here at Ditch The Umbrella, we have decided to make Friday Food Day on our (emotional) calendar. We all know how a well-timed meal can heighten your sense of the season (or transport you to far-away places).  Healthy eating, like good sleep and exercise, is one of the cornerstones of a healthy body and mind. And most days, good food is enough to lift anyone’s mood.

For my first official Food Day post, I would like to invite you to journey with me to a place where the weather report is consistently sunny, and 62 degrees. Tunisia has been in the news lately for political unrest. If, like me, your knowledge of Tunisia’s history and culture is limited, I encourage you to read up on this fascinating north-African country. Or you can do what I did last weekend, and make yourself a variation of couscousi tunisie, a Tunisian stew as heart-warming on a cold winter’s night in Boston as it is on the Mediterranean shore.

With many thanks to Rachel, whose more culturally accurate version of the recipe can be found here.

Vegetarian Tunisian Couscous

Allow 40 – 45 minutes to cook
Feeds 5 people

Ingredients (with transliterated Arabic)

khodra (vegetables)
• 1 onion – DICED
• ½ kromp (cabbage) – THINLY SLICED
• 2 batata (potatoes) – CHOPPED INTO CHUNKS
• 3 sfineria (carrots) – SLICED INTO CIRCLES
• A lot of greens – I used spinach, but beet greens are better. – ROUGHLY CHOPPED
• 3 tbsp tomato paste
• 1 cup cooked fool (fava beans) (feel free to omit. I don’t like them.)
• 2 whole peppers – I used the spicier poblano, but green peppers are okay
• 2 cups couscous – Israeli or not.
• zeet zeetouna (olive oil)
• melh (salt)
• harissa Arabi (a special type of spicy harissa paste used only in cooking. This is essential – although hot sauce is okay.)
• fil fil akhmar (paprika)
• black pepper


1. In a large soup-pan, cover bottom with oil (2 tbsp-ish) and cook onions on medium until translucent.
2. Add 3 tbs. of tomato paste diluted with ½ cup of water. You can dilute the paste before adding to the pan or after, either way works fine.
3. Add potatoes, cabbage carrots, and greens (everything but the poblano chili).
4. Add large pinch of paprika, and pinch of black pepper. Cook for two minutes.
5. Add approximately 5 cups of water. Add the fava beans. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer.
6. Add approximately 1/2 tbs. of the harissa Arabi paste to your liking. Stick to even less for shwaya har (a little spicy) or lean more towards 1 or 1½ tbs. for true Tunisian style, har (spicy).
7. Slit the green peppers (to let the juices in and out), and scrape out seeds.
8. In a small pan lightly coated in oil, pan-fry peppers until they are slightly tender, and slightly wrinkly. Keep them in there for a little longer. Set aside.
9. Cook soup until everything is tender (or for as long as you want – this is soup). Adjust spices to taste.
10. About 15 minutes before serving, prepare couscous according to directions on package. Or, use a steamer and cook directly on top of your simmering soup for a delicious flavor.
11. To Serve: put couscous in a large bowl. Pour two spoonfulls of sauce over and then all of the vegetables. Garnish with the roasted peppers. Serve the remaining sauce on the side for those who like it.

Weather: sunny and 62 degrees! Oh wait, that’s 32.


Hannah: 7.5 out of 10 on the can’t get out of bed to jumping for joy scale. Looking forward to a good weekend.

Anna: 6.5 out of 10, for the same reason!

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My downstairs neighbors must hate me. Yesterday, during a random craving for exercise, I set up my roommate’s Wii, which I’ve never played before, and tried my hand (my feet?) at Dance Dance Revolution. I flailed about the room, attempting to hit the steps, and instead kept getting booed by the Wii for my constant screw-ups. In my defense, it was not at all clear why the game never registered shakes of the left-hand controller, or the right-hand one.

Clearly, I didn’t read the instructions.

Ever since I returned from Europe, I’ve had a case of the fitness blahs.  The food in Vienna, Prague, and Berlin was heavy and oil-laden, and rarely included anything green or brightly colored. It was a relief to fill up on salads in Greece, and the fact that I drenched vegetables in olive oil—good fats!—felt healthy. Most days I spent on my feet, touring museums, exploring alleyways and side streets, or running up 500 steps to “that seemingly-close acropolis over there.”

Now that I’m back and cooped up because of the snow, I’m desperate to sweat and exert myself—not my typical impulse. The sidewalks remain treacherous and barely shoveled. The streets have been overtaken by ice mountains and funny-looking snowmen, like the one below. And running up and down the stairs in my building just doesn’t sound appealing.

Tonight I’ll try my hand at DDR again and hope my neighbors don’t complain. A gym membership now seems essential, so signing up is on my to-do list. Until then, though, what would you do if you were me?

Weather: A slushy, nasty wintry mix. Good thing Punxsutawney Phil didn’t see his shadow today.


Anna – 5.5 out of 10 on the “so miserable I can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. Cabin fever!

Hannah – 4.5 out of 10. She’s cold, even though she has heat.

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