Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Three Months In: Progress Report

One fourth. Twenty-five percent. A quarter. A season.

The three month mark passed me by on Sunday, so here is my belated progress report. The challenges in blue are the ones I'm actively working on. The challenges in green are the ones that are completed. The challenges in purple are the ones that I haven't started but are "in the works" or being planned out. My apologies for getting all type-A with the color coding.
  1. Do yoga three days a week.
  2. Give a stranger $100. Film it and post it on YouTube.
  3. Eat 29 cupcakes in 29 days and write a review of each. 
  4. Research and identify 10 procedural reforms that would help move congress and the executive office back to being a government of the people and for the people. Print these 10 reforms on handout cards and distribute to anyone and everyone you know. Post them on your Facebook page and website. 
  5. Travel overseas, ride trains only, and put together a collection of photos titled "Window Seat."
  6. Sit in silence and stillness each morning for 15 minutes before you start your day.
  7. Write and direct your own short film and submit it to a film festival.
  8. Spend one night in a women's shelter, make a connection and offer to take family portraits.
  9. Make and bottle your own wine. Save it for a future birthday.
  10. Lie down on your back in a NYC street and pretend to be a dead bug. 
  11. Write a sad story about a girl who gets the things she always wanted -- on your typewriter.  
  12. Make a conceptual photo series, preferably a book. 
  13. Your 27th and 28th years were characterized by massive life changes that included a move and job change; my challenge is make one more life change. I'm not going to define it, but some suggestions would be: take another step with Austin, get a friend for Dagmar, get involved with something you care about in an incredibly inconvenient capacity.
  14. Take flying lessons.
  15. Do 200 crunches and three 1-minute planks every other day. And assist your scared, almost-grad cousin in finding a job in Atlanta. 
  16. End every day by writing down one positive thing that happened in the previous 24 hours.
  17. Learn how to perform an authentic Japanese tea ceremony.
  18. Get a photo (or photos) into a gallery/showing AND/OR sell one of your photos.
  19. A year-long water challenge: Drink 1 liter of water per day, wade across a stream, swim across a pool, canoe across a lake or pond, and fly across an ocean
  20. Make and bring your lunch 2 out of 5 days a week.
  21. Manifest yourself in an act of humanitarianism that permanently and positively enriches the life of a child. The act may not be accomplished with direct financial, but must involve sacrifice of your time and attention.
  22. Research your Jewish heritage going back at least four generations. 
  23. Pay one compliment to a different person every day.
  24. Raise a basil plant and name it Kyle.
  25. Take an art class and create an original painting.
  26. Keep a Smash Book (scrapbook) for the year.
  27. Write words (the grouping of letters that hints of story and promise), even if it's only one line or thought or idea, in a momentary embrace of lapse of reason, everyday, and incorporate these words into a future novel.
  28. Learn to sew, design an outfit, make it, do a self-portrait in it.
  29. Attend 10 religious services. Record your impression of each.  
  30. Write the first chapter of your first novel and the outline. Submit to a publisher.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

I May Have Some Emotional Issues

I came home this afternoon from a long weekend away to find Kyle, my beloved six-week-old basil plant (challenge no. 24), sad and wilting, on his tiny brown deathbed.

And so, I did what any normal human being with a soul would do. I let my belongings fall to the floor, ran over to him with tears welling up in my eyes and screamed, "Nooooo!"

I really, really wish I were kidding.

I hadn't slept in over 24 hours, which might have been a factor. But the point is, I didn't realize how emotionally attached I could get to a plant. I made something grow. I gave something life. And then I gave it death.

After changing immediately into sweatpants, listening to Elliott Smith on repeat and watering what was left of Kyle with my pitiful, salty tears, I saw a glimmer of green hope. Underneath the cold dead stems were some stems with life still left in them. I pulled out all the shriveled ones, and lo and behold, there were some fighters who had just been buried underneath all of the death. If I had stopped crying for two seconds I probably would have heard their tiny little cries for help.

Brave soldier.

In short, I may have overreacted. As of this moment, Kyle still lives. There may be less of him, but by God, I will nurture the crap out of those soldier stems. They will grow up to be the strong Italian basil leaves they were meant to be, go to a good basil college and have thriving basil families.

And then I will make pesto.

Friday, February 24, 2012

More Smash

The Smash Book adventure (challenge no. 26) continues. My friend Erica (check out her awesomeness called Street Manner here and her equally drool-able Tumblr here) sent me the picture below, and it has inspired me to play around more with different textures for a more tactile Smash Book experience. I'm trying to avoid turning it into a something a fifth grader would put together.

Speaking of something a fifth grader might put together, here are some of the pages I've been working on:

Quick note about the book in red above. It is a hilarious spoof on the popular grammar book, The Elements of Style. This would make a great gift for any writer in your life. A-ny writer at all.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


I tried to go for a Sasquatch pun but I don't think it worked out too well. Regardless, I am pretty damn proud of today's lunch (challenge no. 20). I can't wait to inhale it later. 10:30 a.m. is a reasonable lunch time, right? On the menu: MUSHROOM SAGE CREAM SAUCE OVER BUTTERNUT SQUASH NOODLES.

I found the recipe here but didn't follow it exactly. Here is my version:

The night before:

Submerge 1 cup cashews in water and soak in the fridge overnight.
Soak 4 cups of thinly sliced mushrooms in the following marinade overnight as well:

1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup sweetener of choice (I actually used grade B maple syrup, but you can use agave or honey)

The next morning:

Rinse and drain cashews. Combine cashews, 1 tbsp lemon juice, 2 tbsp sage (I used fresh sage), about 1/4 cup water (add until you get the desired consistency), and salt/pepper to taste in a food processor (or high speed blender) and puree until smooth and creamy.

Rinse and drain mushrooms. Mix sauce and mushrooms together.

For the noodles, peel a butternut squash and use either a spiral slicer or just grate it (which is what I did). Toss with the mushroom sage sauce.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Blackberry Wine

Challenge no. 9 is to make and bottle my own wine. After doing a lot of research on making my own wine at a winery vs. making my own wine at home, I've decided to go with the latter. Making your own wine at a winery STARTS in the thousands of dollars. It would probably be fantastic, but I can't take that expensive chance.

So, homemade wine. Since obtaining the type of grapes required to make a traditional wine would mean waiting until late summer and then having them delivered, I am going to attempt to make blackberry wine.

The ingredients are more readily available, and if I really wanted to, I could pick my own berries. This decision is partly influenced by some incredible blackberry wine I tasted at Applewood Orchards and Winery in the fall (it's available for purchase here if you're interested).

In terms of ingredients, it's simple: blackberries, sugar, water and yeast. The equipment will be the biggest purchase, but it seems that any brewing store will have exactly what I need.

I found instructions here, but this is one of the many set of instructions I found. There are books I could buy on the subject, but I'm going to just give this one a go and see what happens. If it's an epic fail, then I'll just try again. If it turns out delicious, I won't have to do any Christmas shopping this year.


Monday, February 20, 2012

Five Weeks Old

Happy Presidents Day! I am the president of growing basil. Here is a look at Kyle's progress (challenge no. 24):

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Mash n' Mush

For lunch today (challenge no. 20) I made Rosemary Mashed Cauliflower and Marinated Mushrooms. I'm calling it Mash n' Mush. The recipe comes from Rawmazing. I've been itching to try mashed cauliflower for a while as a substitute for mashed potatoes, and this version turned out excellent. Next time I might try it with cashews (creating a cashew cream and then adding the cauliflower) instead of pine nuts and see what happens. I also want to try a version that incorporates garlic.


3 large portobello mushrooms, sliced 1/3" thick
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup nama shoyu (I just used soy sauce)
1 tbsp agave (I used Stevia)

Mix marinade ingredients, pour over mushrooms, and marinate for at least 4 hours. I marinated mine overnight in the fridge. If you can, stir them occasionally.

1 large head of cauliflower
Olive oil
1/3 cup pine nuts
1 tbsp rosemary (chopped)

Cut florets from the cauliflower and thinly slice. Place slices in a bowl, sprinkle with olive oil, salt and pepper, and toss. Place cauliflower in one layer on a dehydrator sheet and dehydrate for 2 hours at 116 degrees. If you don't have a dehydrator or don't give a crap about eating raw, you can roast them in the oven until soft.

Once done dehydrating, place cauliflower in a food processor along with the pine nuts, about a tablespoon of olive oil, and enough water to give it the right consistency. Puree until smooth. Add the rosemary and blend. Salt and pepper to taste.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Weekly Three

Last month I did a post describing my five daily challenges. Today I thought I'd discuss the three challenges that require my attention on a weekly basis.

There are so many different types of yoga, but I have narrowed it down to the two that I love the most: Power Vinyasa and Hot Yoga. After brief stints with Yoga to the People (cheap and convenient but crowded) and Bikram Yoga Lower East Side (fabulous instructors and a great vibe but expensive), in addition to some at-home yoga, I think I finally found my match.

David Barton Gym at Astor Place impressed me from the beginning. This gym is beautiful, high-end, and incredibly unique. It's like if Studio 54 came back as a gym run by gay goths. Trust me, that would make sense if you've been there. The whole place (4 floors) is dimly lit, which I love. It was uncrowded despite the prime time I visited, and what? Is that a DJ? Playing a pumped-up version of the True Blood intro song? Where do I sign? The yoga studio is in the gym, so I don't have to separate my gym and yoga memberships. And the yoga room is gorgeous. Candle-lit at all times. Smells better than fresh laundry. I could barely walk for three days after my first Power Vinyasa class there, so I'm also confident that it's challenging enough.

I've talked about some of my lunches here and here and here. I plan on making more of these meals post-worthy and making more of an effort to "cook" rather than just "assemble." Last week I finally got a food processor, so I feel like I just unlocked a new cooking door. Next up (maybe even this week): Mashed cauliflower and marinated mushrooms. A ridiculously healthy version of steak and potatoes.

Someone once told me that planks get easier the more you do them. LIES. For me, they're getting harder. Why is this? I'm angry. However, I have noticed that my core is stronger. I can do some ab moves that were near impossible before. When I'm feeling ambitious I add some side planks. Still waiting on that six-pack though. Shy little muscles, those abdominals.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Saluting Shorts

In my opinion, challenge no. 7 (write and direct your own short film and submit it to a film festival) is by far the most ambitious. This one has been looming over me for quite some time, and though I have some ideas floating around in my head, I needed some inspiration. So a few days ago I went to the IFC Film Center to watch the Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts to get an idea of how high the bar is set.

I thought all five films were strong, though I wasn't blown away by any of them either. Here are nominees (you can read up on each of them here):

My pick: Tuba Atlantic. What I think the Academy will go for: Raju. Best use of a time machine: Time Freak.

For me the challenge of this challenge is not writing a good story. I have enough practice doing that on a daily basis. Where it gets hairy is bringing that story to life. Each of these films had a crew of fifty+ people working to make them great. I have to write a script that's good enough to peak the interest of DPs, editors, actors, sound engineers, etc. and make them want to be involved.

Think I can do it? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Hitting the Gym

Challenge #25 is to take an art class and create an original painting. Come March 10th, I can cross this one off the list. I've just signed up for the Intro to Watercolors class at the Brooklyn Artists Gym. I chose watercolors because I love the delicate nature and soft lines and tones that this particular style lends itself to. BAG had good reviews on Yelp, my go-to feedback site, and their payment methods don't involve any arms or legs. I also chose this particular class because it seems to be one of the few that give you the freedom to paint what you want. Most of the others I found have everyone in the class painting the same thing, like a vase of flowers or some kind of landscape. Not really my thing.

Keep in mind that the only thing I've ever painted are my apartment walls. I have never in my life stood in front of a canvas and created art. While they say that "all levels of experience are welcome," I doubt they are prepared for the mind-blowing kindergarten-level skills I will be bringing to the workshop. I'm hoping that I'll be so bad that they think I'm good and I'll become some kind of accidental abstract watercolor genius, in which case you are all invited to my exhibition at MOMA in 2013.

I will share my final piece here on the blog. In the meantime, please enjoy these inspiring watercolor pieces that I find to be stunningly beautiful. Click on any of the images for their source.

Brigitte Bardot

Watercolor as website design

Thursday, February 9, 2012

M Update + Very Special Recipe

My tutoring sessions with M (re: challenge no. 21) have been going extremely well. This girl is SMART. When she focuses. And she's been focusing on a consistent basis. This success may have something to do with the fact that she is in love with me. The violence I witnessed towards Victor (read up on that here) has given way to an incredibly sweet personality. And the best part is, now she listens to me. I no longer have to chase her around the room, which means we are moving through lessons at record speed. Aside from the rocky start (in which I was afraid for my life) this is how I imagined tutoring to be. I'm starting to think that "making a difference in a child's life" is possible.

Here is a note that she wrote to me at the end of our session today:
"Dear Noel, I like you being my reading partner all day today and you lief I be sad all day."
Translation: "Dear Noel, I liked you being my reading partner all day today, and when you leave I'll be sad all day."
Okay, so she's not the best at spelling and grammar, but we're working on that! The point to take away here is that I am pretty much the best tutor ever.

And so I leave you with this gem, a recipe for "Chicken Drink with Bones" that M was kind enough to share with me:
  • Chicken
  • Rice
  • Carrots
  • Mayo
  • Ketchup
  • Mustard
  • Collard greens
  • Milk

      "Mix it up and drink it. It has bones in it."

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

I Am a Sewing Machine

The first part of challenge no. 28 is to learn how to sew. My grandmother, the sewing guru that she is, was kind enough to give me one of her smaller machines, this Project Runway edition by Brother:

My first sewing project had to be a simple one. I found a tutorial (here) that seemed to be within my realm of capabilities. Then I skipped on over to Mood Fabrics and happened upon exactly what I was looking for. A classic wool fabric with an interesting chevron pattern.

But the first hurdle I had to get over was threading the machine. On a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 represents simple things like "breathing" and 10 represents difficult things like "juggling poisonous snakes while climbing Mt. Everest naked," threading my sewing machine was about a 9.5. It took me way longer than it should have, but I did it. I threaded the s**t out of that machine.

Then the sewing began. I sewed like a champ. I made a beautiful throw for my mom's birthday gift, and I couldn't have been prouder of myself. You would have thought I solved the country's debt problem.

My mom sent me these pictures of the throw after it arrived. Please note that the very first thing she did was give it to the dogs.

 Pooh modeling the throw.

Look at those edges! I did that!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Exit (Peacefully) Through the Gift Shop

This past Sunday I attended my third religious service for challenge no. 29 (attend ten different religious services and record your impression of each). The lucky religion was Buddhism. I chose the 10:00 a.m. service at the Mahayana Temple in Chinatown NYC. Again, I must begin by saying that I am Buddhist newbie, and this is my humble depiction of one service, so forgive any uneducated bits. If I offend any Buddhists, you can retaliate with violence.

Oh, that's right. You can't.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by a large bin of fortunes, rolled up like tiny scrolls. They request that you donate a dollar for every fortune you take. I have no complaints about the fortune I chose. Except for the "try hard" part. That just seems like a lot of work.

The decor was absolutely refreshing. The bright colors (mostly reds, yellows and oranges) and fresh fruit piled before the temple were beautiful. Thirty-two framed prints lined the two main walls, depicting moments of Buddhist history. A simple sign that read "NOBLE SILENCE" was one of my personal favorites. Obviously there were numerous Buddhas to be seen. But it's the enormous gold Buddha inside the temple that draws tourists. There were people who came in and out just to take pictures of it during the service, despite signs that asked them not to. It's just too hard to resist a giant gold Buddha.

Emo Buddha.

Giant gold tourist-attracting Buddha.

The table in the picture above ran down the center of the room and sat twelve on each side. It was full of Buddhists in black robes, save for the one monk dressed in a yellow robe. We took a seat in one of the chairs up against the wall, facing the table.

The service itself was wall-to-wall prayer, chanted hypnotically and 100% in Chinese, stopping only to move around to a different part of the temple for varying types of prayers. While everyone chanted, the monk in yellow led the service. Drums and bells (and the occasional gong) could be heard all the way through. Many times I simply closed my eyes and enjoyed the sounds and smells (incense and citrus mostly). Normally I find incense overpowering, but something about the incense at Mahayana was different. It had a mild smoky scent that I loved, rather than being overly "flavored," if that makes any sense. Pun!

My favorite part was when everyone at the table got up and started walking slowly in a circle around the temple with their hands in prayer position, bowing every time they came around to the giant Buddha. It looked like the most peaceful conga line ever, so we jumped in. It gave me a chance to see all of the historical prints and clear my mind a bit. Like walking meditation.

Overall, I really enjoyed this service. The people were nothing but kind and helpful. They invited us to lunch downstairs afterward, and one of the elderly attendees gave us a book about Buddhism. I wish I could talk more about the message, but from what I can tell, it mostly revolved around praising the different Buddhas and asking for wisdom and understanding. There was a prayer for the deceased, one for incense, and an offering of food.

Did I mention that Mahayana has a gift shop? It does and we went there. We purchased three Buddhas to remember our experience. As I learned, there are many different postures a Buddha can take, each representing a different event in the life of the historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama). But In Mahayana specifically, Buddha is the true nature of all beings, so in a sense, everyone is Buddha. Yeah, it's a bit confusing.

According the gift shop employee, the two gold ones below represent travel and money (the fat, laughing Buddha emerged from Chinese folklore in the 10th century). The larger red Buddha is a more somber statue, meant for blessings and deep meditation.

I am going to invite the red she-Buddha to my morning mediation sessions per challenge no. 6.

In conclusion, my peek into Chinese Buddhism was a fantastic experience. I might even go back. And not just for the free lunch.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The CCA's

I've always wanted to watch an award show that was hosted by Christopher Walken. So from this point on, read in his voice.

Thank you all for coming to the First and Last Annual Cupcake Challenge Awards. This is a very special evening that a lot of talented cupcakes have been waiting for. Cupcakes are delicious. I like the ones with a surprise in the middle. It's like, your eating a cupcake, and then, BAM! An extra delight. As if cupcakes weren't delightful enough. Cupcakes are like little unicorns.

(awkward pause)

Oh, we're starting now? Okay. We're starting now.

Maple Pecan from Butter Lane
Runner up: Green Tea from Spot Dessert Bar

Doughboy Bake Shop

The Red Velvet cupcake from La Delice Pastry Shop

Banana Cake from Butter Lane
Runners up: Pistachio cake from Pinisi, Peach Cobbler from Molly's

The Casablanca from Sweet Revenge
Runners up: Earl Grey cupcake from Tu Lu's, S'mores cupcake from Dessert Club Chikalicious 

The Cake Batter cupcake from Molly's
Runner up: The Black Bottom cupcake from Cocoa V

The Chocolate cupcake with vanilla frosting from Cocoa V
Runner up: The Earl Grey cupcake from Tu Lu's

The Chocolate Souffle cupcake from Kyotofu
Runner up: The Peach Cobbler cupcake from Molly's

The Chocolate cupcake with vanilla frosting from Cocoa V
Runner up: The Black Bottom cupcake from Cocoa V

Banana cupcake with Maple Pecan frosting from Butter Lane

The Peach Cobbler cupcake from Molly's
The S'more cupcake from Sprinkles
The Cake Batter cupcake from Molly's
The Pistachio cupcake from Pinisi
The Green Tea cupcake from Spot Dessert Bar

Oh, and there's the ADAM AWARD. My friend Adam requested that I name a cupcake award after him, so I'm giving it to the cupcake that most resembles him. Congratulations, Vegan Boston Cream Pie cupcake from Lifethyme Natural Market!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The End of the Cupcake Extravaganza

Here they are, the last seven cupcakes to find a home inside my belly. I can officially cross "eat 29 cupcakes in 29 days" off my list. I do not recommend any of you do this.

Farewell, sugary prison! Stay tuned on Monday for the First and Last Annual Cupcake Challenge Awards. Sponsored by fat.

Day #23 (Jan 29, 2012): The Carrot Cake cupcake by Dessert Club Chikalicious

Beside the fact that the name of this place is stupid, this was a very good cupcake. Delectable cream cheese frosting. Nice touch with the crumbs on top.

Day #24 (Jan 30, 2012): The S'mores cupcake by Dessert Club Chikalicious

Total letdown. I want s'mores, not marshmallow plopped on top of dry, bland cake. Give me graham cracker. Give me chocolate. Give me that burnt marshmallow flavor. S'mores fail.

Day #25 (Jan 31, 2012): The Earl Grey cupcake with lemon buttercream by Tu Lu's Gluten-Free Bakery

Like the Casablanca cupcake from Sweet Revenge, this cupcake sounded amazing on paper. But unfortunately, the cake didn't live up to its Earl Grey promise. And the icing was like eating lemon-flavored butter. Seriously, take a stick of butter and put some lemon zest on it and you have Tu Lu's lemon buttercream.

Day #26 (Feb 1, 2012): The Chocolate Souffle cupcake by Kyotofu

Somewhat of a departure from what I've been eating during this challenge. Imagine the lightest, fluffiest brownie in the world. Now shape it like a cupcake. That is the glory that I tasted. I enjoyed every bite and didn't even miss the frosting.

Day #27 (Feb 2, 2012): The Key Lime cupcake by Two Little Red Hens

This one gave me the burst of key lime flavor and tartness I was looking for, and I was surprised by the spongy angel-food-cake texture of the cake. It was a little rich, and the thing had to have weighed two pounds from the dense filling, but they definitely got the flavors right.

Day #28 (Feb 3, 2012): The Pumpkin cupcake by Doughboy Bake Shop

A simple, well-done cupcake. The cream cheese icing was spot-on, and the cake was light and not too muffin-y. If you're itching for an amazing pumpkin cupcake, this is your place.

Day #29 (Feb 4, 2012): The S'more cupcake by Sprinkles

Now THIS is how you do a s'mores cupcake. Sprinkles does a far superior version of the S'mores disaster from Dessert Club Chikalicious. Buttery graham cracker crumbles on the bottom, perfect chocolate cake, burnt marshmallow icing. Bonfire worthy. Also worthy of being the last cupcake of this challenge. Are you curious as to what talented chef whipped up this delicious treat? Boy, I sure was: