Getting Toned

So lately I’ve been going to the gym a lot — crazy, I know.

But that’s not what this post is about at all.

For the past several days, our office’s copy machine has been out of toner. It might not sound like a big deal, but as someone who makes about six trips to the copier a day, trust me, it is a huge deal.

So anyway, the new toner finally came in the mail today, and I was just thrilled. I ecstatically skipped to the back room, toner in hand, and began fumbling around trying to get it into the copier. Realizing I had never changed a copy machine toner, I decided I should endeavor to follow the directions printed on the toner compartment door.

These directions were in picture form, but nonetheless they were easy to follow:

1. Shake toner

2. Insert toner into copier

3. Proceed with copying

So, my heart fluttering with anticipation, I vigorously shook the toner cartridge.

Big. Mistake.

Toner flew everywhere — I looked like Wiley Coyote just after he falls into the old road runner TNT trap. I mean, I had toner on my hands, my neck, my face, and all over my crisp, white sweater. Not to mention all over the copy machine and break room. I guess most people don’t get as excited about new toner as I do, because the seal on the toner definitely couldn’t withstand my level of enthusiasm.

Obviously this recalls the Great Ranch Dressing Disaster of 1993, when I accidentally shook a bottle of ranch too vigorously, covered half my plate in dressing, and cried inconsolably.

However, in the years following the Great Ranch Dressing Disaster, I have come to realize that I do embarrassing and clumsy things too often to cry about them, and spent the entire day today laughing at myself.

What a great day! What a great toner cartridge. My life is awesome.

An InGENEius product

Embarrassing fact: I LOVE Skymall magazine. I’m a frequent flyer, and it never gets old — I’m not one of those people who reads Skymall after they’ve exhausted all other options, I tend to pick it up as soon as I’m in my seat, and pore over every page, often rereading it later in the flight. Of course, I never imagined that among the electric nose hair trimmers, tacky garden statues and pet stairsets that I’d find something I needed to buy.

Yet, about a year ago, I discovered in Skymall the dog DNA test. With a simple cheek swab and $70, the product promised to discern your dog’s breeding. Immediately I knew I had to have it. You see, my family has a very cute mutt dog, and her breeding a topic of frequent and bitter debate. Though the pet store advertised her breeding as “chow, lab-terrier,” my father insists she must be half golden retriever, and we have spent several hours a week debating this point for about ten years now.

You can judge for yourself:

$70 is a small price to pay to irrevocably beat your dad in an argument, and so I purchased the DNA kit, hoping for long-overdue vindication.

Finally the kit arrived, and the family gathered around to swab the dog’s cheek. Naturally, we all had to be present to ensure that neither side unfairly tried to skew the evidence.

After a long wait, our results arrived — Chow was the clear winner, genetically speaking. The rest of the breeds the test picked up were Pomeranian and Husky, both of which are related to Chows. That was $70 down the drain.

The last time I was on a flight, I noticed a new Skymall product, or I guess I should say, I noticed that they have repurposed the dog DNA test for humans. A friend of mine has tried the DNA test offered by National Geographic, which she strongly supported, but I have my doubts.

After all, dogs have been much more carefully bred into distinct genetic types, yet this DNA test was pretty useless. I can’t help but wonder how accurate the human test can really be, but it is exciting to think about the future possibilities for learning family history with the swab of a Q-tip.

A Whale of a Good Time!

Those who know me well know that at least 60 percent of my dreams involve marine life, usually whales, and that a common nickname for me by my family is “whale.” So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a lifelong dream of mine has been to go whale watching, and on Saturday, I did!

First of all, what an amazing day, made possible by Monterey Bay Whale Watch, which I can’t praise enough. They have marine biologists on each trip and share tons of information about all the wildlife you see. Plus, the crew was really helpful and took great care of us!

The day started with a delicious breakfast of waffles and strawberries — don’t forget this, it’ll come up later. After a leisurely morning, Jeff and I headed to Monterey and boarded our small whale watching boat, the “Sea Wolf II,” a humble vessel that looked like it had seen better days.

From the very outset, the trip was great. There were several otters in the bay, and though I didn’t get any good pictures, they were approximately this cute:

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The Monterey harbor is just lovely, with lots of boats that look like this:

In addition to otters, we also saw sea lions and seals:

The sea lions had taken over this wall of the harbor and were having a nice old time sunning themselves and splashing in the water.

Once we got into open water, the numbers of cute animals went down, but we still saw some albatross and pelicans.

It took us about forty-five minutes to get out to the whale migration highway, and though the day was clear, there were huge swells. I actually didn’t mind too much, and the pay off was great! We ended up seeing several different groups of whales over the course of the three-hour trip.

All the whales we saw were gray whales, which are no longer endangered and are currently migrating north. Did you know that gray whales only feed half the year? It’s true! Pretty incredible, but they go thousands of miles north to Alaska on empty stomachs!

After about an hour, the swells finally got to me, and I got gloriously seasick. Remember how I said breakfast would come up again? Well, it did twice with a vengeance. I actually didn’t mind too much, because it tasted good the second time around — more or less like a Jamba Juice actually — and as Jeff pointed out, the strawberries turned my upchuck a lovely shade of magenta. Plus I’d like to think that the sea creatures got a chance to have a taste of my delicious waffles and strawberries, a rare divergence from seaweed and krill.

Despite the seasickness, I LOVED my whale watching trip, and I think I’ll go again some time. But of course, the next time I’ll take some motion-sickness medications ahead of time to avoid the impressive puke fest that occurred this time. See how much fun were having?

At any rate, I highly recommend everyone try this! Whale watching was so fun, and March is the month to do it. If you go in summer, you can also see blue whales and humpback whales, so get out there!

Hide and Seek

This weekend I indulged finally in an activity I’ve been dreaming about for years — geocaching. Geocaching is basically a treasure hunt game played by geeks with GPS devices, the internet, and a healthy inner child. What you do is go onto a geocaching website and get the coordinates of a treasure someone else had previously hidden. Then, as inconspicuously as possible, you find the treasure using GPS, and log your find online.

Previously, I had dismissed my chances of playing this marvelous game because I don’t have a GPS device, and they are quite expensive. But it suddenly occurred to me that the newer iPhones have GPS, so I commandeered Jeff and his phone for a little trial run on Friday.

To tell the truth, we were quite terrible at finding the treasures, and failed miserably. I think perhaps it works better with a more accurate GPS device, and you also have to consider when the treasures were hidden. But despite my epic fail, I am still irreparably in love with geocaching.

If anyone wants to donate a GPS device/new iPhone to me, I’m totally open to it.

Maddening Matsuyama

Getting out of Miyajima and going to our next destination proved to be quite the hassle. Since it was the Obon holiday season, a huge travel time in Japan, Jeff and I got up early and got to the dock at about 8 a.m. to buy tickets. But, of course the ticket office and information office were both closed. We spent a while communicating with the agents at another ticket office, and found that tickets were going to be about $160 to get to Matsuyama. Considering the journey takes just two ferries, we felt a little ripped off. Complicating matters was that we didn’t have that much cash, and though I have a credit card for emergencies, few places take credit in Japan. So, I walked across the island searching for an ATM, and found only the post office, which opens at 9 a.m., coincidentally the same time as the first ferry left the island, so I walked back to the ticket office, hoping it’d be open. At about 9 a.m., the ticket office still hadn’t opened, so I went to the information center to ask why the first ferry was scheduled to leave before the office opened. The girls there were very confused, called a few people, and informed me that the ticket office was open already. Of course, having sat outside the office for an hour already, I told them sharply that it was not open, and then left. At about 9:30 a.m. a man showed up on his bike and opened the ticket office, but told us the first ferry left at 10 a.m.. When we asked if they accepted VISA, he said “NO, NO, NO” and then sort of laughed like we were idiots, so I walked back across the island, got money, and came back. By this time, two very polite and helpful ladies were working in the ticket office while Mr. Lazybones sat in the back. We got our expensive tickets, got on the ferry and grumped for a few hours.

Once in Matsuyama, we went to the information counter to find out about transportation methods into the city. Sadly, the desk was closed for a break, so we parked ourselves and waited. About ten minutes later, the man came back, and told us that we’d missed the only direct bus going to our destination, which left right when he had been on break. Jeff sort of imploded at that moment, since the next bus was in an hour. But, we took a few buses and subways and finally made it, all before lunch. We grabbed some cheap Japanese curry, stowed our bags in some lockers, and went out sightseeing until our hostel opened.

The main (only) thing to do in Matsuyama is see the castle and take mineral baths. We opted for the castle, which was actually really neat.

The castle is in the middle of the city, on a tall hill, so we rode a tram to the top, where there were views of the whole city. The castle was originally built in 1603, and wasn’t so much a residential castle as one for defense. We toured the interior, where there were exhibits of samurai armor, weapons and art objects from the castle, as well as a history of the castle.

It was blazing hot, but for the ride down we skipped the tram and took the ski lift, because it just looked too silly. As it turned out, it was much more comfortable than the tram anyway!

We grabbed our bags and headed to the hostel, which we had a hard time finding. By the time we were settled, we had very little cash, as the hostel was cash-only and cleaned out what we had after buying our ferry tickets. Of course, there were no international ATMs to be found, so we spent a while looking for a restaurant that accepted VISA, while Jeff declared that he really disliked Matsuyama.

The other big thing to do in Matsuyama is visit the famous public baths there, but having no money, we opted for the free hostel showers instead. We weren’t too bummed either, because when something like that gets famous, it seems the service inevitably goes down, and other travelers confirmed our suspicions.

The hostel may have been my least favorite hostel, including Chinese hostels. Of course, the hostel shower just had to be absolutely ghastly, even after a day spent sweating in the 100 degree heat. It was actually worse than my crazy water heater in Beijing, and may have been the worst shower I’ve ever taken. For starters, the shower water worked like a park bathroom sink — every time you pushed the button, the water lasted for 20 seconds. That wouldn’t be so bad, except that the water never got hot. Oh well, I got clean in the end, and the cold water was refreshing. I went to sleep at about 11 p.m., as did the other two girls in my room. However, a fourth girl came in at about midnight, and rustled around with her bags and went in and out of the room until about 1:30 a.m. Then, the same girl’s phone alarm went off at 5:10 a.m., and she continued snoozing it and letting it go off every ten minutes until at least 6:30 a.m., when I left the room. I guess she is NOT familiar with hostel etiquette or the dangers of provoking strangers who may or may not have weapons under their pillows.

At any rate, Jeff and blew out of town, fully ready for a slightly better travel day elsewhere. Perhaps somewhere with ATMS…


In what I can only assume to be a response to the riots in Xinjiang, China blocked Facebook at around 7 p.m. tonight. Even during the Tian’anmen anniversary, while Youtube, Twitter and Hotmail were blocked, Facebook survived. I wonder what changed.

I guess I’ll have to start being a lot more productive now. You’ve crossed a line, China!

The deserted city

In the run up to the Olympics, the Beijing government did a whole lot of “restoration” of historic tourist sites. In the case of Qianmen (前门), this meant razing a large swath of historic hutong, building a large, historic-looking shopping street, and raking in large sums of tourist money.

Except that the money never rolled in.

Saturday I visited Qianmen for the first time since I was in the area visiting a museum. Of over 100 large, beautifully built shops and restaurant spaces, eight were open. Of course, there were still crowds of tourists, because if the government deems something a tourist spot, the tours companies are pretty much obligated to go. The result: hundreds of tourists wandering down a completely desolate street, all wondering “why am I here?”

Although some businesses had signed on to open up in Qianmen, almost all have pulled out and moved to other areas.

So, what was once a vibrant neighborhood with local homes, shops and historically significant buildings, is now a no-businessman’s land of empty buildings. Though these buildings are quite pretty, it doesn’t really justify the incredible waste and reckless prospecting by the government.

The only exception to the lack of notable businesses is the newly opened H&M store. H&M is pretty much my favorite store, but it doesn’t redeem Qianmen.

As I said earlier, the question on everyone’s minds was “why am I here?” A few years ago, the answer would have been that Qianmen is the historic business district of imperial times. Because it was located just south of the gates to the Forbidden City, it was the place where members of the court went to unwind, do some shopping, visit bars and frequent brothels. In later years, it housed some of the oldest stores in Beijing.

These days, the answer to that ever-pressing question: To witness yet another prospecting failure of Beijing. Cheers!

The Unappealing truth

I have three vegetable peelers:

The first veggie peeler came with a knife set. The set included three knives, a peeler and a small cutting board for 35 kuai, so I wasn’t expecting much from it. It at least took off skins plus chunks of flesh, but more because of blunt force on my part than it’s own merit.

Needless to say, I thought I could trade up, so I went to the market and bought the most expensive peeler there (about 8 kuai). Since there aren’t any recognizable brand names — miss those Oxo Good Grips kitchen utensils! — when in doubt, pay more. If possible, this peeler was even worse than the first one. The pivoting head made it impossible to aim, and it wiggled all over my vegetables, hardly removing any skin at all.

But it’s number three that finally made me crack. I bought number three at HEC, the restaurant supply store. Figuring all their peelers would be decent since they supply the pros, I got the second-most expensive peeler. It was about 4 kuai, and the most expensive one was over 30 kuai. When I got home, I was barely able to contain my anticipation of using it to easily peel several pounds of potato for potato leek soup. I took up my first potato, and slide the peeler along the skin — and nothing came off. I mean, the peeler didn’t even make a little slice in the skin. It grazed off of it as as if I was attempting to peel the potato with a kitten. Frustrated, I pushed harder, angling the blade more — still nothing. Finally, close to rage, I dug the peeler in and liberated a chunk of skin plus a large hunk of potato.

Disgusted, I threw the disgraced peeler in the trash, and moved on to my tried and true method of peeling veggies:

About a minute later, I pulled it out of the trash, penitent, took a picture, and promised myself to blog about my wayward peelers.

That’s one thing about China — you really can’t take shortcuts we take for granted in the States, and the weirdest things give you a new perspective on life. It’s actually kind of liberating to realize you don’t really need all those fancy tools and premixed foods; all you need is patience and elbow greese. It surprises me how many recipes call for premade ingredients that I just can’t get — premade doughs, cake mixes, spice mixes, bread crumbs… the list goes on and on. But it’s been really fun experimenting with the abundance of fresh ingredients I can get. I’ve made homemade apple sauce, bread, pasta sauces, whipped stiff egg whites without a mixer (admittedly poor Jeff did the heavy lifting on that), made my own chilis and curries — and it’s all been a really fun adventure. I don’t even mind peeling my veggies with a knife, with the exception of apples, whose round shape is the devil’s work.