July 31, 2009
The obsession returns from time to time. It's my time.
My artsy fartsy morning desk picture.
Then I got hungry.
(The scarf is actually rolled up on the left into a fat knitting sausage but you can't tell from the picture.)
Sometimes I put down the needles and don't knit again for months. Maybe I'm doing other things, like reading or working or obsessively cleaning the house (depends on my stress level, I suppose.) Then there was that whole two-month addiction to online Boggle. Like everything with me, the desire to knit comes and goes in waves and right now I'm in a tsunami. I wish I could be knitting all the time! Even in my sleep! I'm quite a slow knitter and even by my standards this entrelac scarf has taken me a long time to get through yet I still love love love it and can't wait to finish it and do more.
Last night I even made a list of all the projects I want to make right now while I am gripped with The Madness. I'm pulling all my knitting books off the bookshelf in the office and dragging them to bed with me, to read and fantasize about and I'm staring at the yarn in my stash wondering what I will use for each project. I'm glad that my knitting obsession waxes and wanes because when it starts up again it's all fresh and new once more and everything that bored me three months ago looks enticing and fun.
We've even started a little knitting and crochet group here at work! Yes, that's right, people at Big Corporation, Inc. secretly emerge from their cubicles and offices with furtively concealed yarn and needles and all converge in a conference room and laugh and chat and knit and crochet on Thursdays. And it is SO FUN. The leader of the group is a guy and a banker, so already you know we're in a parallel universe where fun can occur at work, gasp. True.
Last week in our group I showed Corey how to cast on and make the base triangles and the first two tiers of the entrelac scarf and she kept saying, "Is this right? I think I twisted it, it looks all wrong..." and "But how does this work?" and I had to reassure her that if you just follow the pattern it will actually come together and make magic. And she got very excited when it all clicked into place. Entrelac is unlike anything else I have ever knitted in that you really do have to take a little leap of faith when starting ... it makes no sense at first but you just dive in and follow the pattern and it works. Eventually you get the hang of it, but those first few rows are tricky.
Yesterday was fun because I got to teach a coworker to cast on and I felt very nervous about teaching someone something but very excited because she got it. Then later I helped another coworker fix a few stitches that had been purled instead of knitted. I can't believe I know enough of anything about knitting to be able to help someone else but I even surprised myself. I guess I know a few things. Most of the time I focus on how much I don't know and discount what I do know (not just in knitting).
And the next project I'm knitting when my scarf is completed is an actual garment. Corey and I are planning to knit it at the same time so we can help each other and I am very excited, it's a gift for my co-worker who is having a baby in September. Then we have another co-worker who is having a baby in November so if all goes well with Thing #1 maybe we'll move on and knit a Thing #2. Corey picked the pattern and I've already picked out yarn and buttons and it's all very exciting. Knit, knit, knit! When the fever strikes it's so good.
Posted by laurie at 9:24 AM
July 30, 2009
Long day ends with happiness, then shopping
Last night Jennifer and Amber and I met up for happy hour and it was so good to see them, it's been way too long since we all got together and it feels so good to hang out with people who have known you longest and best. There's a comfort level and it is so reassuring. Halfway through I do believe I pulled out my knitting and bragged about it because I still can't get over how awesome my badass entrelac scarf is. Jen and Amber dutifully admired it and we laughed. Before long I will be stopping strangers on the street, people in traffic, anyone, everyone.
After happy hour I stopped by a little yarn shop in the valley called the Stitch Cafe. They're open late on Wednesday nights and Corey had given me a gift certificate at Christmas and it was burning a hole in my pocket (for seven months.) I really just stopped in for needles I need for my next project and of course walked out with a huge bag of delicious yarn.
I've actually shopped in this place once or twice before but now it's under new ownership and they've re-arranged the shop so it looks twice the size, and it's cozy and yet orderly now and just has a really great vibe. You know how you go to some yarn shops and you feel almost like you're intruding? Or how you suddenly feel like a terrible no good bad knitter who isn't good enough to shop there? I hate that. And the Stitch Cafe was the exact opposite of the snooty yarn shop -- I actually met the owner, she helped me with my purchase -- and she was just lovely. She was warm and kind and friendly and helpful. I wish I would have asked her name, I wanted to, but sometimes I am paralyzed with shyness and I get nervous to talk to people and I started sweating which is a bad sign. I hate being socially anxious, it's so stupid and annoying and useless and yet there it is. Sometimes it's so bad I can't look people in the eye, which was kind of happening, but she was nice to me anyway and I really liked talking to her. Oh, and their yarn selection was really good. I spent too much money. I love yarn. And I had a rough day at work so I totally justified it as therapy by shopping.
Wednesday night at the Stitch Cafe.
All in all an excellent end to a tough workday. Good friends, good conversation and then yarn shopping. Can life get any better, really?
Posted by laurie at 10:32 AM
July 29, 2009
Salad #21, two versions
From 101 Simple Summer Salads. # 21. Dice cucumbers (if they’re fat and old, peel and seed them first) and toss with cubes of avocado, a little mirin (or honey, but then it’s not vegan), rice vinegar and soy sauce. (You could mix in a little lump crab meat, really not vegan, even rice, and call it a California roll salad.)
I made this salad with cucumbers from my garden and a delicious ripe Haas avocado. And I added the lump crab meat, though I bought canned white crab since the fresh lump crab meat at Whole Foods was over $14 for a little tiny tub! You could definitely omit the crab, I don't think it added much (unless you want to spring for the pricey stuff, but I was not prepared to make a $20 salad).
This time I learned from my mistakes and made the dressing separately and stirred and adjusted and tasted until it was perfect, then added it spoonful by spoonful to the salad until it was enough. Tamari sauce for soy makes this salad wheat free, and I loved the taste of honey and rice vinegar combined with the avocado it almost gives a smoky taste, delicious.
I had plenty of dressing left over for another salad which I varied with some small cherry tomatoes picked fresh from the garden:
My, what a large cucumber you have.
Honestly, the salad was better without the tomatoes. They just added one too many flavors. But they were so pretty and I'm so proud of my real! red! tomatoes that I couldn't resist.
I am loving these leaf-free salads, they are so much better than a bowl of grass. And even though most people would not consider this cooking, I feel positively gourmet at this point. This is food I could actually serve to other people and not be embarrassed about. Nice!
Posted by laurie at 11:05 AM
July 27, 2009
Salad # 7
Although it appeals to my sense of order and lists, I'm not going to start making salads in exact chronological order from Mark Bittman's recent New York Times article of 101 simple summer salads. Instead I'm going to make them as I have ingredients on hand. For example, right now I have a lot of cucumbers and tomatoes and carrots.
Yesterday's salad was number 7 on the list:
7. Grate carrots, toast some sunflower seeds, and toss with blueberries, olive oil, lemon juice and plenty of black pepper. Sweet, sour, crunchy, soft.
The food processor made quick work of shredding and I have plenty raw carrot shreds left over for another meal or two. The salad itself was tasty despite my culinary error -- I added too much lemon juice and the first salad I made was so tart my ears puckered. The lemon I had was so small that I'd juiced the whole thing and stirred it together with olive oil and black pepper and then added it to the salad without tasting it first. Rookie error. To even it out, I added more carrots/blueberries/sunflower seeds and mixed it with the first batch to tame the lemon zeal, so I had a lot of salad to eat for dinner.
But even with the too-tart dressing, this salad was unexpectedly delicious. I would never have put blueberries and carrots and sunflower seeds together of my own volition, and even as I was making it I thought the combo sounded possibly gross. But it was so good! Savory and sweet and crunchy, all things that I love. Two forks up. Just go easy on the amount of lemon juice you use (this is why I do better with more specific recipes.) (But I try.)
- - -
I'm still working on my entrelac scarf, and I got so much help this weekend...
Frankie sitting on the pattern to be sure it wouldn't go anywhere.
Bob likes to help hold down the yarn.
Posted by laurie at 8:38 AM
July 26, 2009
And so that happened, again.
Last week I started off on the wrong foot. On Monday I was upset all day because I couldn't remember if I had turned off the gas grill. It's hot, you see, and I had planned to grill some chicken on Sunday night to add to my packed lunches during the week but last Sunday night it never cooled down and finally I gave up and went to bed.
I have this thing about starting the week -- if I don't manage to get something prepared ahead of time for my lunches (like wash and cut some vegetables, or make rice, or whatever) then I usually have a week full of eating crap and subsisting on microwaved popcorn and Lara bars. There just isn't time during my workweek to cook much. I commute. It's time suckage.
So on Monday morning, I got up early and went outside and put some laundry on to wash -- the laundry is in the garage -- and then I set about grilling my chicken. And it was early, and I'm not really a morning person by any stretch of the imagination, and when everything was sufficiently charred I took the chicken off the grill and went inside to chop some and pack it up with rice for lunch.
Then I showered and got dressed and did all those morning things and when I was on the bus halfway to work, I started freaking out about the grill. Had I remembered to turn off the gas? I teetered between panic and calm, panic that something would catch fire and then calm because I am someone who turns off the grill, geez.
So my Monday was spend gazing at the clock, wondering if I was crazy, wondering if my house was still standing, and vowing to never again try to be ridiculously productive before work. (Yes, I had turned off the grill. Of course. Thank God.)
This whole affair reminded me all over again of what's challenging about being a Party Of One. After my ex-husband left and then I moved into this little house, I would panic on a regular basis about whether or not I had left some appliance or another turned on, or if I had left a window open, or left the door unlocked accidentally. One day early on in the pre-divorce-mid-divorce crazy days, I worked myself into such a state that I had to leave the office and go to my house and check on something. You wouldn't think it would be that big of a deal to leave work and quickly check on something at home, but the challenge is that I commute on a bus which does not run between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. It's a commuter bus, so it runs early in the mornings and then again in the evenings. So on the day of my panic trip home so many moons ago, I had to pay $73.00 for a taxi to my car which was located at a park 'n ride lot, then I drove to my house where NOTHING AT ALL was amiss, then I drove back into work, poorer and behind schedule and shamed over my crazypants ways.
[Please don't email me horror stories of people you know/heard about/read about online who left their doors unlocked/oven on/etc. It is not helpful. It makes crazy even crazier.]
That is how the sticky note situation started. Once I realized that my panic was largely based on the scary notion that there was simply no one to call to help me, no one to rely upon, no one to remind me to lock the door or double-check the oven, I decided to think not of such frightening things and concentrate instead on sticky notes. I started writing myself post-it notes and leaving them in key places, such as on the door: "Did you remember to lock the door? Turn off the oven? Unplug the hair dryer? Throw salt over your left shoulder and spin three times while chanting lucky charms?" (OK, just kidding about the last one, but really. I am an embarrassment to myself.)
The safety net of having a significant other or roommate who you can call to help with the day-to-day tasks of living was simply gone and I was suspect about relying on myself, shoddy adult that I was. (Am.) When I would have people over I would hide my post-it-note neurotica, but I used that system for well over a year to help ease me into singlehood. There are other re-singled things, too, like not having anyone to pick you up when your car is in the shop, or having anyone to drive you home from the dentist's office while you're doped up on happy gas. Eventually you figure out solutions -- I have -- and the weird feeling of being so alone and dependent entirely on yourself eventually fades and becomes the norm. In time I even realized I am more reliable and easier to talk to and I am a better driver anyway and instead of feeling alone and put-upon, I feel independent and resourceful. Still, I hate those days when I panic and think I left the stove on or whatever. They're not nearly as frequent but they are still awful.
But there is also the small saving grace of strangers. I forget how helpful people can be. Yesterday I got home and it was hot out and I was tired and in dire need of a shower and before I could even get all the way out of my Jeep, my next-door neighbor was walking over to tell me a pipe had started leaking in the front sprinklers so he turned the water off for me. The gardeners came to fix it today and then left and after fifteen minutes the pipe burst forth into a giant geyser, and my neighbor was out his door as quickly as I was out mine. I got drenched turning off the water and later, after I had dried off and changed clothes I went over and thanked him for keeping an eye on my house. I wish they knew how much I appreciated it, being a Party of One and all, but that was a little hard to convey so I just said thank you. He was gracious and his wife said I looked like I had been hit with a firehose and we laughed then I went back in and finished breakfast, not feeling quite as worried as I was last week.
But I'm still not planning to grill chicken before work anymore. Just in case.
Posted by laurie at 1:33 PM
July 24, 2009
Friday, on which I declare victory in the garden
I am SO HAPPY.
This morning I went out back to water the garden and while I was poking around I moved some of the leaves of the cucumber plant vining its way up the trellis, and I saw beautiful, big, glossy green cucumbers resting happily all along the trellis. And right next door in the tomato plant arena there were several actual RED tomatoes!
This morning I had cucumbers for breakfast (I haven't tried the tomatoes yet.) I love cucumbers. I usually buy them organic at Whole Foods and they're eleventeen dollars each, and the skins are sometimes a little tough or bitter. These beauties from my garden are organic, did not cost much at all, and taste so much better! Even the big ones are sweet and the peel is soft and tasty, not bitter at all.
I brought one smallish cucumber and one of the big-big ones to work and sliced them and walked all around the office at 9 a.m. foisting my farm-fresh cucumbers on everyone. People gave me glowing praise for my farmerly skill, and lo, I was happy.
Tonight I'm going to try the tomatoes, which aren't really very pretty but are RED and mine as well, sliced with a cucumber and some red onion. There is a fantastic article right now on the New York Times website listing 101 simple summer salads, and blissful few contain leaves (I am not a fan of green salad, or as I refer to it, "A big bowl of leaves and grass.") Many of the salads call for cucumber or watermelon, two of my favorite foods. I'm excited to try so many of them, especially now that I have vine-ripened tomatoes and cucumbers! I have officially said the word "cucumber" 700 times this morning. Definitely a good start to the day.
I forget how good fruits and vegetables can taste until I eat something right off the vine, juicy and sweet and perfect. It almost makes summer a good season... aside from the complaining I must do about the heat, of course.
Have a great weekend!
Posted by laurie at 9:28 AM
July 22, 2009
At last! Alert the media! The bounty has begin!
That's part of my weekend harvest. All this time there was a HUGE eggplant growing in the raised bed garden and I didn't even know it was there! Mostly because I didn't bother hunting around in between the leaves. And also because I am not a very good farmer. But anyway, this weekend I watered all the plants and while poking around in the garden I discovered hidden pattypan squash, crookneck squash that were small enough to eat (and some ridiculously overgrown gourds), my gigantor eggplant, several perfect cucumbers and a single red cherry tomato. I looked out this morning before work and now there are multiple red tomatoes on the vines, so I have apparently conquered the tomato!
I also picked one ear of corn this weekend to see if it was ready to eat. I half-shucked it for that picture above, then immediately after the big kitchen photo shoot I removed the shuck and corn silk and dropped it into a pot of boiling water. It was delicious! It was a perfectly formed ear of corn, although on a small scale. It was about 7 inches in total length (miniature!) but so perfectly tasty and sweet. I can't tell you the last time I had an ear of corn that was fresh from the garden. It was decadent! Then I picked all the corn and ate it all before the weekend was over.
It was delicious.
The raised bed garden is so huge and lush and green that I am shocked to see in my yard. It's really big:
The cucumber plant is the big vine on the right side there, it's amazing. I can't believe I have such delicious perfect cucumbers this year. And right behind it, you can see the grey-green leaves poking up behind in the picture, is my giant and overgrown and lovely Bonnie "Heatwave" variety of tomato that I bought earlier in the year as a dare to Mother Nature -- even as I planted it I raised my tiny fist of ire and said, I will show you heatwave! I fully expected this plant to expire soon after the first hot weekend, but it has not only withstood several warm Valley weekends, it is actually kind of thriving. Miracle. There are big green tomatoes all over it and I am just waiting for one to ripen (they looked close this morning -- turning almost red!). I plan to wait another week or two and then just throw in the towel and fry up all the green ones. Because that's the lazy and impatient kind of gardener I am. I am practically hovering around it with the cornmeal and canola oil ready to go.
This year I planted two varieties of pumpkin and both are perplexing me. First, my little small pumpkin plant grew two perfectly formed little gourds and then the plant died. The pumpkins are ripe, you see. In July. Did I get the timing off? I'm wondering if I should go ahead and plant another pumpkin seedling in its spot since there are still months and months to go until October.
My two perfect little ripe pumpkins. In July.
My other pumpkin plant is like something from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The vines have moved upwards now, and there are baby pumpkins sprouting from all my hedges. What do I do with these? I can't make anymore pantyhose hammocks, the one I made for the first hedge-pumpkin led to the whole bottom half of the fruit turning mushy. And even if I could fashion the perfect pumpkin hammock, I don't think the hedge could support it. I think these are meant to be huge pumpkins. This is the size of the still-immature pumpkin growing furtively behind the garbage cans:
Hello, big guy!
You can't really tell from the scale of the picture, but I am guessing that still-unripe pumpkin weighs close to 70 pounds by now. And here is the vine taking over the 8-foot hedge:
And there are baby pumpkins sprouting forth all along it. So my options seem to be: 1) Do nothing, let nature take its course whatever course that may be. or 2) Try to maneuver the vines down off the hedges. But these are 10-foot-long mature vines, and they break easily. GAHHHHH. Why is pumpkin farming so fraught with moral ambiguity?
There are also mystery peppers growing in the garden. They were supposed to be bell pepper plants and they must have been mismarked seedlings, because I am getting what appear to be banana peppers and Anaheim chilis:
The herbs are still alive and my Dad's chilis are almost ready to pick. I love my herbs and I wish I were a better cook, or even someone who cooks at all, so I could use them. My favorite herb right now is the delicate, lacy leaves of my chervil. I'm not sure what to do with chervil, but it's so green and healthy and pretty. As for the plants in my Topsy Turvy planters, they have all withered up and crisped and died in the intense heat. It was fun while it lasted. I think I might try to re-plant them with herbs or something come fall, who knows.
And I will leave you with one last picture, my little neglected cactus in the corner is blooming again:
Posted by laurie at 10:14 AM
July 20, 2009
Hibernating for summer
Most people hibernate in winter, but winter in Los Angeles is normally mild and happy and you can walk outdoors without fear of sunstroke. So I hibernate in summer. It's disgusting outside. Indoors it's cool and if you pull the shades down and don't venture out you can pretend you're in snowy Iceland during winter and your only task is to knit and pet the cats.
Actually, I think I knit more in the summertime than I do in the winter. My current hibernation knitting project is an entrelac scarf:
Noro silk garden color 241.
I had never attempted entrelac before Saturday and I'm pretty sure this is the most complicated thing I have yet to attempt (which isn't saying much, it's not really that complicated). The pattern I am using is a free PDF from the web, you can get it here. The pattern itself is really well-written, considering what a hard time I have reading patterns, although I was sure for the first hour that I was doing it all wrong. I figured if I messed up I'd just unravel it and start again. The stitches themselves are easy and if you've ever knit a pair of socks, entrelac will seem familiar to you (mostly short rows, and the same types of decreases, like slip-slip-knit). The only tricky part is figuring out at first where you're supposed to be picking up stitches and which needle you're supposed to be using (by the way, as far as I can tell most of the time you're picking up stitches using the needle in your right hand.) And sometimes you have to knit or purl a stitch even though the live stitch (with the yarn attached to it) is on the left needle.
Sometimes it's helpful to just dive in and figure it out as you go along, which is what I did on this scarf and it worked out just fine. I tried reading all the websites with entrelac tutorials but none of them were dumbed down enough for me, so I just plowed onward and with some trial and error it worked out. The most important skill necessary for me for this project is the ability to pull out stitches without having to unravel the whole piece. But after I had completed about four inches I finally started to get it (I am a slow learner) and now it's pretty easy, I even worked a few rows on the bus this morning. I'm feeling rather impressed with myself!
Oh, and it's Monday. Welcome to the week.
Posted by laurie at 9:45 AM
July 17, 2009
My favorite days are the ones where I get interesting email questions (as opposed to "Will you send me a picture of yourself in pantyhose?"), and lots of people wanted to know the same thing as reader Heather:
How do you pack such a small suitcase? How long is your trip and what do you take in order to take something so small? I pride myself in packing light, but I think you've got me beat. Can you share your secret?
Never in a million years did I imagine I could go anywhere with just a carryon bag. I used to need a sherpa to travel just for a weekend away. When I went to my first book expo in New York City, I took a huge suitcase and had to pay an overweight fee for the bag -- for a three day, two-night stay! I neglected (probably out of shame) to take a picture of my luggage for that trip. Here, however, is what I packed for a trip to Paris with my girl friends back in 2006:
That's a purse, my same old shoulder bag I always use, plus a giant flowered expandable upright rolling bag. It weighed 2,000 pounds. (For all the people who have asked about my shoulder bag, I bought it years and years ago in Santee Alley, near the garment district in downtown Los Angeles, sorry!)
As it turns out, I was NOT the girl who packed heaviest for that trip, though! The honor for most over-packed traveler goes to Shannon:
During my book tour I didn't bother packing light since I had no idea what all I would need or who I would meet or what shoes would make my ass look skinnier. For a trip to Portland and Seattle I took all this:
There's my little Samsonite rolling bag there on the left, along with a Charles David purse which is almost the same size as the boarding bag (!!) and of course a giant, overstuffed suitcase. If I ever had to tour again I would probably do the same and just pack extra wine in the checked luggage. Touring is stressful.
Going from the gigantor suitcase me to the carryon me has been a process. I started before my trip to Rome by doing a trial run -- a month before I was scheduled to leave for Italy, I visited my family in Florida for a three-day weekend and I took a rolling duffel bag (kind of like this one, or close to it) and my shoulder bag. Even though I didn't have any problems with the airline staff, I realized while boarding that the duffel bag was actually a little too big to be regulation carryon size. It fit in the overhead but just barely. And when I got to Florida I was still missing some critical items (contact solution, for one) and I had too much unnecessary stuff, mostly clothing.
For my trip to Rome I just checked a bag. It was my first trip abroad by myself and trying to anticipate my every need was too stressful. A few months later I went to Paris by myself and I took a checked suitcase there, too, and on the way home had to pay another surcharge for the bag since I had bought so many books at Shakespeare & Company that I was over the limit again!
After that, I finally committed fully to the carryon. The trick seems to be going for a short enough time that I can take just what I need and also having one good pair of shoes that I can use for almost every occasion. (I did pack some flipflops for my trip to Hawaii, and I have some ballet flats I sneak in to look dressier sometimes.) I don't pack contingency outfits anymore -- that's the "I don't know if I'll need this but it's awfully cute..." stuff.
Here's what I took on my recent trip to Dublin:
[Rolling bag contents]
1) Four pairs of black trousers
2) One pair of soft yoga pants (good for pajamas and in a pinch, dressed up with ballet flats, they can pass as palazzo pants)
3) Underwear and socks -- just enough for the trip. I don't pack extras since you can easily wash a pair of socks in the hotel sink if you absolutely have to.
4) Five soft layering T-shirts in neutral colors (black, grey, wheat, white)
5) One long-sleeve black T-shirt for layering (good to wear on the plane ride home)
6) Two thin cotton layering sweaters, one black and one dark red.
7) My DKNY sweater wrap, which can be outerwear on a cool day or can be a dressy sweater top. (Here is a picture of it so you can see what I mean -- from the DKNY site, so many variations. I have the merino wool cozy, but that cashmere-linen blend one looks really nice, too. By the way I have had this for two years and it still looks as great as the day I bought it.)
8) Gadgets -- eeePC, chargers, plug adaptors, phone, etc. Most of it fits in the zippered front pocket if my bag. Sometimes I put everything in a clear ziploc baggie.
9) Toiletries. In my TSA-ready one quart clear ziploc bag you will find a small bottle of contact solution, lip gloss, a tube of L'Occitaine hand cream, a tube of the Olay face cream I use, backup contacts lenses, travel-size toothpaste, and a travel-size conditioner. The hotel I booked had great soaps and shampoos (most hotels offer something) and I'm not picky about shampoo. But I am picky with conditioner, so I bring a small 3-oz. bottle of my own.
In addition to the liquids, I also pack a small cosmetic bag with a washcloth (this is something most European hotels have not embraced, and I like it for washing my face), makeup and mascara, a comb, deodorant, toothbrush, earrings and assorted stuff. The guidebook can fit in the suitcase along with a tiny compact travel umbrella and that's about it!
In my shoulder bag I pack my book, notebook, earphones and ipod for the plane, all my personal items (passport, money, medications, aspirin, gum, glasses, etc.), a copy of my flight itinerary and hotel info. Sometimes I bring some super-compact slippers for wearing over my socks on the plane. I keep them in a ziplock baggie. For this trip I subbed in my ballet flats, which I can also wear as shoes for dinner, or anywhere I don't do a lot of walking. Oh -- and I take snacks with me, usually a few Lara bars.
On my trip to Ireland I also brought along a water-resistant coat which I didn't use once! For coats, I don't even try to pack them, just carry them on the plane with everything else. I usually tuck a scarf or two in the pockets or a hat or gloves.
It takes a while to go from super overpacker to small just-enough-packer. And if I were flying nonstop to somewhere and staying for an extended period, I would probably check a bag. The downsides to traveling with just a carryon bag are that you can't bring liquids over 3 oz., you can't bring things like a corkscrew or tweezers, and you are limited to just a few clothing and shoe options.
The upside to traveling so light is that you don't have to worry about losing your luggage. For a very short trip, this is a huge relief. And if you have a tight connection (especially on the way back) you don't have to wait for your luggage to come through customs and then re-check it before boarding the plane to your final destination. And of course you get to brag on your website about how light you travel!
- - -
The other question I got a lot of was this:
Where do you find good deals on tickets?
Not much has changed. I do usually check the airline website that houses my frequent flier program, too, because I often use my miles to upgrade to a better seat. If you're planning on traveling a lot, try to find one loyalty program and stick with it. Even if a flight on my preferred frequent-flier airline is $30 more I'll go with the more expensive fare so I have all my points in one place. Those miles add up!
- - -
Hope you have a great weekend! I plan to join la Soba in some serious weekend relaxation...
Posted by laurie at 10:58 AM
July 15, 2009
It's hard to pass up a sale.
Crowds swarming the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris - February 2008.
Just as some people watch eBay obsessively or read blogs or online news or adult content, or can't go a day without twittering or facebooking or whatevering, my online addiction is travel websites. My name is Laurie, and I'm an addict. Hello, Laurie.
I don't have many vacation days left for the year (and it's only July!) so I had planned to stay here for the rest of the year and save my money and my vacation days in case my parents ever make good on their threat to come west. But on my lunch breaks, I still troll online travel sites like I'm on a bender. I just can't break the habit. And there are so many good deals out there -- LAX to Milan for $628 roundtrip including taxes and fees (I saw that one on the American Airlines website last week, it may be gone by now.) If that deal is gone, no need to fret because as soon as one deal evaporates another springs up. It's amazing. I haven't seen fares like this since right after 9/11 when the SARS scare hit and nobody was flying.
If you have the means this is a GREAT time to travel. Everything is on sale! Just about anywhere you want to go, you can find a deal for it. Now I feel like a drug dealer pushing my addiction onto others. But it's the one thing I love almost as much as staying home. I'm such a homebody, every single time I book a trip I get an instant high followed by an instant shock of fear ... what if the cats get sick while I'm gone? What if something happens to my house? What if there's an earthquake while I'm gone and I can't get back in time? What if my plane crashes? What if the hotel has bedbugs? You name it, I fear it. The exhilarating part is having all that fear and anxiety and going anyway. Ok, "exhilarating" isn't the right word. But you get the idea, I would rather stay home than do anything else in the world except -- every now and then --to run off and catch a plane to somewhere a million miles away.
One of the things I love best about traveling is that it gets me out of my head. I've read that some people feel this way about rock climbing or extreme sports, because you stay completely focused on the present moment, almost like a form of meditation. Traveling is like that to me. You show up in this new place and from the moment the plane lands your brain is focused almost entirely on the pressing needs: Where do I go now? How do I say, "Thank you" in this language? How do I get a taxi? Where is the hotel? How do I get this weird faucet to work? Is the museum on the left or am I on the wrong street? How does this ticket machine work? Is that my bus?
Everyone trying to work the ticket machines, London Victoria station. - November 2008.
And of course, there's the happy feeling of going home again, too, where you love your own bed even more than you did before you left. I get just as excited to come home from a trip as I do to go on one in the first place.
Planning for a vacation is such a uniquely individual experience. I have a coworker who recently went to Paris for a ten-day stay and she had each day mapped out with an itinerary, sights to see, where they would go and eat and visit. I loved watching her plan and I gave her all my books on France (even the fiction books!) and maps and anything I could to help her. I enjoy buying travel books and I have guides to all sorts of places, but I rarely plan anything for my own trips aside from my flight and hotel. I just figure I'll work it out once I get there. When I was married, I used to just book the flight and a rental car and we'd show up and start driving and just stay wherever we ended up, which is how I once drove from Denmark to Poland and back. This method of touristing would drive some people insane, just as I would be miserable on a schedule. Everyone is different.
It is very important to stay hydrated properly when journeying to new places.
I love packing, though. Making my lists -- there are so many lists to make! -- I start off with a list in my spiral notebook of things I don't want to forget ("Make shuttle reservation to airport." and "Don't forget portable alarm clock this time!!!") Besides my passport the most valuable travel essential for me is my little tiny Asus eeePC (here's a link to it on amazon.com -- it's only $299! Crazy!) It has definitely paid for itself in the past two years just from the few trips I've made. For one thing, it didn't cost much to start with so I'm not crazy paranoid something with happen to it when I travel like I would be with my regular laptop. It weighs practically nothing and it's unbearably cute but also very sturdy. It has lived through several accidental falls onto airplane floors and one embarrassing spillage incident in the TSA line. I book a hotel that offers WiFi, preferably for free, and then I use my eeePC to call my parents with Skype and check in, or call my catsitter ("Can you make sure Frankie isn't in the linen closet?"). I've used it to track down my lost luggage in France, look up gluten-free restaurants in London, research yarn shops in Dublin, and find the hours of the museums in Madrid. I'm also a great avoider, so I have no problem bringing along this mini-laptop and yet never once checking email or working while on vacation. And in a pinch I use it to watch movies off a USB drive, so it's entertaining, too.
In the lounge at LAX, waiting. - June 2009.
So there's the little mini eeePC, the iPod, headphones, camera, gadget chargers and converter. A guidebook, a map, sunglasses, or maybe depending on the location a scarf, hat, gloves. I put stuff in a little pile on the kitchen table as I think of it. Packing happens all-at-once, usually the night before I go (why do my vacations always seem to require me to wake at 3 a.m. and be on a shuttle at 4:45 a.m.?) I set out my little suitcase (I found a link to it online! That is the exact one I have, only mine is black. I love it so much that when I was searching for a link for you and saw it was on closeout, I bought this version in brown, too, because I may never find it again and it's the perfect size and it's way ON SALE.) The cats love sitting inside the suitcase while I get out packing cubes and sort through all my travel-size toiletries to find just the essentials. Each trip is different, and kind of the same. Checking stuff off the list as I go.
Luggage sitting on the hotel room floor in Madrid. This rolling carryon bag is much smaller than a standard bag and fits really well on the plane. I take a shoulder bag, too, and I'm done. - February 2009.
There's another list, too -- stuff I have to do before I can safely leave. Arrange everything with the cat sitter, leave her a note (I am ridiculously overprepared), set out all the food and supplies enough to feed eleventy hundred cats, unplug this, set that, do this. And above all, I have to clean the house. I can't leave with a messy house! It's some weird combination of superstition, OCD and not wanting my cat sitter to think I have dustballs the size of compact cars. So the weekend before leaving I start cleaning, vacuuming, dusting, tidying everything up. And when I come home I am always so happy to see such a clean house.
Bob on the bed.
I can't believe I wasted so much time worrying that I would never travel again after my divorce. Going alone seemed impossible back then (lots of things seemed impossible.) Since starting all this solo roadtripping I've made odd discoveries, each time refining what I want or where to go. For example, now I know a trip of more than four solid days in one place will make me lonely, so I take short vacations. I like to hear a familiar voice, and I like the feeling of not being irrevocably loose in the world, so I call my parents at least once when I'm away. They're always happy to hear from me and the details of wherever I am, it's nice. I tuck a book in my purse before leaving the hotel room to see the sights so that I can read and peoplewatch alone from a table. I go to the grocery store wherever I visit and buy water and wine and look at what people are putting in their baskets. I get up early and wander the streets before they get crowded. I try to take at least one picture before and after to bookend the trip, maybe a shot before I get on the plane and later, as I'm on my way home, a picture of the taxi or the airport or the waiting area.
And when I went to Hawaii over the holidays last year I discovered I had made an error in judgment, that location and timing are important factors when traveling alone but for different reasons than I expected. That was when I learned I should be careful not to pick places that are full of honeymooners and retirees and families at the peak of togetherness-time who stare at you for being the only person eating alone. The stares were not that bad, really, it was the comments (you know how people can be. Funny.) So, it's better for me traveling solo in a big city, or maybe just far away, but definitely not in a resort during a major holiday. Good to know!
And I started out traveling with a big suitcase and have pared it down to just a little pile of stuff on wheels. If that isn't a parallel with my life, I don't know what is. The places I have visited alone so far have been familiar, at least in the way cities in Western Europe are all sort of familiar. Maybe next year I'll try something new -- or not. There are no rules. It's not a test or a competition.
Whenever I get cold feet (usually right before the plane takes off) I remind myself that nobody ever rests on their deathbed thinking, "I should have spent more time at home watching TV." You don't have to go far to feel like you've traveled. The whole experience -- finding the ticket, booking the trip, making a list, packing, buying a map, getting ready, getting on the plane -- takes you out of the everyday and into a new frame of mind.
Anyway, if you can, this is a good time to snap up a cheap ticket to somewhere, anywhere, everywhere. And you don't even need a travel partner! I have found that a good book can be an excellent dinner companion in any situation.
Vacation, just after ordering dinner.
Posted by laurie at 2:06 PM
July 13, 2009
Still Life With Hat on Bus
I saw this woman get on the bus and she was wearing the coolest knitted hat:
That was the best shot I could get without looking like a creepy stalker. I hate my stupid camera, blurry blurry and it totally ruins my psycho paparazzi shots of hats and moving cars and so on. This is the best I could get in closeup:
Looks like a self-striping yarn knitted in maybe a knit-3-purl-1 ribbed pattern? The ribbed pattern was continued all the way through the decreases. And it wasn't a form-fitting hat, more like a beret. I think I could find a way to change up the chunky beret pattern, except it wouldn't be chunky, and it would be ribbed.
I smell a project coming on.... although why anyone is wearing a knitted hat in Los Angeles in July is a mystery unto itself.
Posted by laurie at 8:07 AM
July 10, 2009
A breath of fresh friday
Recently a competitor in the financial world re-designed their logo. Yesterday morning our Creative Services director came in and told us it was now visible on the competitor's website and we were all looking at it on a monitor and I said in my customarily reserved and professional manner, "It looks like an ad for tampons!"
And everyone was silent for a minute, because tampons aren't something normal banky people talk about in the office. And then finally everyone laughed and agreed that it did make them feel a little not-so-fresh. Hah! I felt victorious. Truly, I did. Victorious!
And thus ends another week in which I am shocked not to be fired. Well, then again, the day ain't over yet.
- - -
So, I think that just admitting that I have a July issue was kind of cathartic. Afterward I felt surprisingly less gloomy. It helped that I got several emails from others who confessed to hating July, too, or August, and one person candidly shared with me her deep loathing and abject fear of October. So thank you for that! Misery loving company and all. The more the merrier! Or gloomier!
But it's not misery, really, just July. Ever onward July. I have been doing a little summer knitting, a luxe Noro silk garden scarf in plain old garter stitch. But I've done it up in an oversized scale, very wide (I cast on 55 stitches) and using a size 15 needle. I've paused on it for the time being while I finish this book I'm reading (The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million) because I am not one of those crazy multitaskers who can read and knit. The very thought gives me vertigo, and envy.
Noro silk garden, color 246.
I also got lots of emailed book recommendations from others out there who share my obsession with WW2/Holocaust/European Occupation literature. Sometimes people I know talk about going back to school and wonder out loud what they'd go back to study. I would definitely study history. Not because it has any applicable use in my life or to make a career of it, but just for the sheer love of it. Why does everything have to be useful? The cats for example. They are not useful at all, except for loving and pooping and laying on my legs but I can't imagine being without them.
On Wednesday I complimented my friend Corey on how well she was handling a sticky situation with someone and then I said, "I wouldn't have handled it as well. This is probably why my closest friends are cats."
I think I may have turned into one of those people who likes animals more than people ... and yet I am strangely not bothered by this. Next I will be covering my outlets with tin foil and talking into my shoe.
- - -
So far the entire harvest from my vegetable garden is the following:
One pattypan squash
Both have already been eaten and enjoyed. I thinly sliced the squash and dipped it in milk, then rolled it in a cornmeal breading and panfried it like you would okra or green tomatoes. It was deliriously delicious. (My recipe for fried okra is here, and the recipe for fried green tomatoes is here.) I am still eagerly awaiting the first red tomato. Still waiting. Waiting. Waiting!
I also need to call my dad and ask how you know corn is ripe enough to pick. I think mine is getting close but I'm not sure. The ears are firm, I guess, I'm not really used to feeling up cornstalks. It is amazing how little attention I paid to the delicate details of vegetable gardening while I was growing up. My dad would tell us when to pick things and we'd pick them. The cornsilk at the top of the corn ears has started to turn beige, but a medium sand-beige, not yet a rustic brown or mellowed ochre, it's more a hex value C4C4A1. (Perhaps proof I have been spending too much time working on branding a newer, even beiger version of financial online services?) (But at least it doesn't look like an ad for feminine hygiene products. I mean really.)
Have I told my graphic designer joke yet?
Q: How many graphic designers does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: A lightbulb? Does it have to be a lightbulb? Can we go with a candle, maybe with a flickering light? Or a lantern? Why do we have to go with a lightbulb? I was thinking more along the lines of an open road, with clouds and a desertscape. Who came up with this crappy lightbulb idea? It was marketing, wasn't it?
Anyway, I want to pick the corn in my personal backyard cornfield before the raccoons discover it. One night a few weeks ago I was coming home late from work and it had gotten dark already, just past dusk, and as I turned onto my street my headlights illuminated three very large furry raccoons crossing the road. They were huge! And they raced across my little street and climbed up a big tree. THEY CLIMBED UP A TREE, people. Three gigantic furry raccoons the size of overstuffed footstools shimmied up a TREE.
Now when I go for walks I am always looking up above me, trying to make sure one of those huge examples of urban wildlife doesn't drop down on me all George-of-the-Jungle style. Creepy.
- - -
This week has just been so long, and I am relieved it's Friday. Tomorrow morning I have to go to the dentist, and then check my mail and go to the grocery store and then for the rest of the weekend I plan to do nothing that requires me to leave my house, which is the perfect weekend. Read, do some laundry, make a big dish of no-fail brown rice, water the plants, stay home, follow the cats around with my camera. I love weekends that don't have deadlines or 300 to-do-list items.
Posted by laurie at 10:37 AM
July 9, 2009
July, the reject month
I'm not sure why but July is a down month for me. And it's weird, and I think this may be the first time I've even admitted it out loud. Some people abhor February, and some people loathe January, but who dreads July? It's summer, after all, and it's not full of the anxiety of the holidays or the letdown of the beginning of the year. But for whatever reason July is not my favorite month.
I try really hard not to be depressing or negative. I try, and sometimes I fail. Have you ever noticed that as soon as you say anything even remotely not-happy, people immediately chime in with all the ways and reasons and whys that you should feel the exact opposite? I noticed this years ago, when I was going through my divorce. I would be sad, or upset, or just down, and someone would say, "People have it so much worse!" or "Well, just be thankful you had four cats, not four kids!" or whatever. And I would stare at them dumbly, blankly, because there is nothing to say to that. It puts you in the unenviable position of having to either defend your unhappiness or deny how you feel. So it's best to keep your mouth shut, just don't say anything.
Writing it down is the best. I like to write in my spiral notebooks, filling up pages and pages. It gets it all out of the inside and makes it less messy or important or pressing and no one is there to tell you that people have it so much worse, or that you should be happy, or how you are full of nonsense and bullhockey. It gets exhausting knowing people always have something to say about everything! I prefer keeping it in spiral where no one can read it, no one can say squat, it's no one's business. I don't know why people feel compelled to tell you what to do, give advice. These are things I think about in July.
Last July I watched a lot of TV and drank a lot of wine, which didn't help. It just made me more morose. This July I'm not drinking at all and instead am spending the evenings reading, because nothing transports you or makes you get out of your own head and into someone else's like a book. It's like having a conversation with the author, and it's my next favorite therapy after scribbling in notebooks.
Right now I'm reading The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, which isn't exactly light reading but it's about the one subject I could study until the end of time and never get tired of it -- those years in Poland (and in all of Europe, though Poland is a particular draw to me) when the second world war happened. I get stuck on little things, like where did all the silverware go? Did someone just move into the house of a family who had been taken away? and the author of this book seems just as obsessed with those questions as I am. His writing style is a little frustrating even for me, and I love a good comma splice. But the story is compelling and has kept me wrapped up for days.
Next on my list is The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Built a Village in the Forest, and Saved 1,200 Jews. The Bielski brothers are the real-life men at the center of the movie Defiance, which I watched on the plane back from Dublin. The next day I ordered the movie and all the books about the Bielskis off amazon.com. As I was watching the movie I was trying not to cry and make a scene on the airplane, and at the same time I was thinking, Liev Schreiber, so hot! With a gun! Fighting bad guys! So, anyway, I really liked that movie.
Speaking of amazon.com, they recently dropped the price of the Kindle to $299, and I can't tell if I'm truly tempted or just having gadget wanderlust. The comments are still broken, so I can't ask you if you have a Kindle and love it or if you want one, too. I'm not sure I'm ready to give up paper, though. I love books, love the way they feel in your hand (I love adding my post-it-pen stickies to pages or in some books, highlighting pieces I want to remember.) But the idea of being able to download a book right-here right-now on impulse is very appetizing. And the one thing I own more of than anything else is books, and books must be stored and stacked and when I ever move, I'll have to move them all, too. The Kindle keeps all the books in one tiny space. But even though my books definitely add to the stuff quotient in my tiny house, there's something comforting about having all of them nearby. I'd rather get rid of pots and pans I rarely use or knick-knacks or even shoes than part with my favorite books.
So that's what's happening in my July. I forgot to water the plants this morning. It's hot. I couldn't sleep last night and feel asleep an hour before the alarm went off. The cats are on a diet and hate me. My car wouldn't start on Monday and I was late to work. Blah blah blah. Clocking time until August. Or sometimes I'm just clocking time, and simultaneously wondering why it went by so fast. That's the whole problem with July!
Posted by laurie at 9:28 AM
July 8, 2009
One size fits all vowels
Posted by laurie at 8:50 AM
July 7, 2009
I love the smell of helicopters in the morning
The sound permeating downtown Los Angeles today is helicopter. Helicopters are ringing the skyline, hovering above, it's eerie. Like a scene out of some bad movie.
I decided to wait until after the closed the 101 (!!!) at rush hour (!!!) and the 101/405 interchange (only the busiest freeway exchange in the entire United States) at rush hour (!!!) before deciding finally to take the Orange Line to the Red Line and by then it was late enough that the crowds had thinned out.
I did see two guys in the 7th Street metro station wearing the glitter wristbands and felt a little jealous. At least they were going off to do something interesting, and not sit in a beige office and stare at a computer. And now I have to stay late because I came in so late. I'll admit it -- I signed up for the ticket lottery but didn't win. Must be the newspaper ink in my blood, but I can't bear to miss a great story.
But of course it's just another day at the office today for me. I'm not sure why, but I find the subway depressing. There's something grim about it, all those people sitting there, and always at least two of them (sometimes more, a group) making too much noise, wanting people to look at them and pay attention to them (but if someone stares or makes a comment, they're ready to mouth off, fight). Or the crazy people, which this city has in droves. And I always feel like I need a shower after I get off the train and out of the station, every station smelling like a mixture of pee and body odor and chemicals.
So I was relieved when the doors to the subway opened at my stop and I got off and then I saw the guys with the wristbands and as I walked up the stairs to the platform above, I saw a little knot of boys waiting for the blue line train. One of them was dancing and moonwalking and people clapped. I clapped too. He was pretty good, actually. They were all wearing Michael Jackson T-shirts and carrying flowers and candles and stuff. Then I walked to work.
Tuesday in Los Angeles.
Posted by laurie at 10:37 AM
July 6, 2009
Go big or go home (I vote for home)
Everyone in the office is talking obsessively about the Michael Jackson memorial tomorrow. More specifically, everyone is talking obsessively about the traffic situation. A lucky few (I hear) are going to try to work from home, although we don't have a work-from-home corporate culture around here, and judging from the way people look at you when you ask if you can try this "telecommuting" it seems to be synonymous with "spending the day turning tricks out on Venice Boulevard." Which is an office no-no.
So mostly people are discussing various modes of transportation based on where they live and what painful options are available. Helicoptering in seems to be the best option, but they've closed the airspace above downtown to all but news choppers and I'm having a hard time hitching a ride with the local networks. Canoe or sailboat might be a good second if only the L.A. River weren't just a paved sewage canal.
Just for once I wish that someone would pick someplace else other than downtown Los Angeles for their memorials, their riots, their protests, they May Day melees. What about cute downtown Pasadena? I bet that would make an excellent protest spot! Plus they have good shopping nearby! Or maybe one of the beach cities, like Palos Verdes. I hear it's Very Verde! Go have your traffic-snarling crazy-making party there next time. We are tired here in downtown. And we're not sure how much longer we can keep complaining.
Posted by laurie at 10:42 AM
July 3, 2009
It's still alive, and that is a triumph. Although my pumpkin is in fishnet pantyhose.
When I got back from my trip I was happy to see that the garden was still mostly alive. Last weekend, though, it turned HOT hot hot here in the Valley and I watched in futile pain as my plants withered and crisped under the 100-plus degree heat. Water restrictions, you are evil! (I did sneak out and dump some water on the saddest wiltingest plants but the sprinklers can only be set for Mondays and Thursdays.)
My main casualties have been the topsy-turvy planters. Here is my wilty, yellowed, brown, limp Roma tomato:
To show you all is not lost, however, check out the raised bed garden which has gone BONKERS:
When I got home a few tiny tiny little baby yellow squash I had left on the vines before my trip had morphed into gnarly big gourds:
The best part of my garden is the crazy pumpkin patch and cornfield, a little lost corner of my garden that has turned into the funniest thing I have ever seen. Just looking out my back window and seeing CORN growing in and amongst the Jurassic-sized pumpkin vine is hilarious to me.
Real corn cobs!
The pumpkin plant is doing wild and wacky things. For one thing, it is the hugest plant I have ever seen in my entire life. It has sprouted such long tendrils and vines that it's at least 50 feet long from end to end. There is a big yellow baby pumpkin growing in a random spot behind the garbage cans, some 25 feet from the actual roots of the plant:
And then while I was gone the vine somehow climbed up into my very large, dense back hedge and started sprouting pumpkins midway up the shrubbery:
And it's a really pretty, lovely, perfect little pumpkin, and I didn't want to lose it...
So when there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now. Yes there are two paths you can go by but in the long run, do like us professional gardeners do and wrap it up in your old fishnet stockings:
Oh who am I kidding, I had no idea what to do with it and I just used whatever I had close by for cutting up and wrapping around the pumpkin and securing it to the sturdier branches. And Lord knows with it being the scorching depths of summer no pantyhose -- not even of the fishnet variety -- will be touching my body so they may as well be useful in the garden.
Still, I have yet to get one single ripe tomato from my garden this year! I have plenty of green tomatoes everywhere, but nary a ripe or even ripening tomato in sight. For the long holiday weekend I plan to hang a new bird feeder out back (the last one buckled under the weight of my apparently well-fed local blue jays) and hang up a pretty little hummingbird feeder I found on sale a while back. And then I am going to stay indoors where it is cool and air-conditioned and drink cocktails flavored with my bumper crop of mint:
Happy July 4th weekend!
Posted by laurie at 8:46 AM
July 2, 2009
Always with the resolutions
On New Year's Eve and again on my birthday I make resolutions. One set of resolutions is for the new calendar year and usually involves a list and revisions and sometimes even sub-headings and font changes. The other is for my birthday calendar year which happened last month, and that resolution is usually just one or two things, generally meant toward self-improvement or becoming a marginally nice person. Anyway, my recent birthday resolution was a good one but has been harder to keep than I thought.
I resolved that once a day (at least on days when I drive) I will actively allow someone else merge and/or change lanes in traffic.
This sounds silly and kind of empty to some folks. I know. Before I moved to Los Angeles "merging" and "making a lane change" were not life or death situations. But come here and visit and then you will re-think my resolution, and maybe you'll decide it is even damn near angelic of me ... especially after you try merging from the 405 onto the 101 and then getting all the way over to the right to exit at Coldwater. At rush hour.
Try it, I'll wait.
So that was the resolution I made. Then just last night I was driving home and some jerk tried to squeeze in in front of me in the 18-inch space between me and an SUV and I was so mad and I yelled, "You BLEEP, I already let my one person merge today!" and then I thought, wow. I really needed to make this resolution.
Posted by laurie at 8:32 AM