Thursday, August 28, 2008

Go bananas

The kids went back to school this week. I'm the one having the adjustment problems. I just hate having to coerce their warm, sleepy bodies out of bed in the morning, force something healthy down their throats then throw them into the car for the 2.5 mile drive to school. They approached the first day of school with excited apprehension; I approached it with anxiety.

Every year I shoot a picture of the kids by the front door right before we leave for school. Here's Thing 1 - with her typical level of enthusiasm. Thing 2 was agreeable. Eldest Daughter was unhappy to do this for a second year in a row.

The Return to School means that daily lunches must be packed. And the quest for healthy snacks begins all over again. I like banana bread so we bought bananas over the weekend with plans to make a loaf or two mid week. It's Thursday and the task is not yet completed because it's silly to heat up the kitchen when the thermometer outside still reads in the 90s. It's a good thing we've procrastinated, however, because one of my favorite bloggers just posted a new banana bread recipe. Clearly I'm not the only one with bananas on the brain this week.

I'm especially excited about this recipe because it's Bakesale Betty's. And I worship her shortcakes, which I used to be able to buy at our local Farmer's Market. Bakesale Betty, aka Alison Barakat, is a Chez Panisse alum. Around here, credentials don't get much better than that. I'll let you know how it is.

Banana Bread with Cinnamon Crumble Topping
Adapted from Bakesale Betty and Bon App├ętit, September 2008

For bread:
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 cup mashed ripe banana (about 3 medium bananas)
2 large eggs
½ cup vegetable oil
¼ cup honey
¼ cup water

For topping:
2 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 ½ tbsp. packed dark brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Butter and flour a 9- x 5-inch metal loaf pan.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cinnamon, baking soda and salt.

In a large bowl, whisk together the banana, eggs, oil, honey and water.

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, and stir well. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan.In a small bowl, mix together the topping ingredients. Sprinkle them evenly over the batter.

Bake the bread until a tester inserted into its center comes out clean, about 1 hour, give or take a little. Cool the bread in the pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Then carefully remove the bread from the pan, taking care not to dislodge the topping.

Cool completely before slicing.

Monday, August 25, 2008

What exactly do you do?

Most people know that I work but they don't really know what I do. The suburban mommies know that sometimes I can power walk in the mornings and sometimes I have to race home to get on conference calls or don't drop off at all, having been sporting my fashion-forward headset since 5a. Some days I am in my pajamas until noon and some days I am dolled up and on the road to the South Bay by 6a. Sometimes I sit in my car in the school parking lot scribbling frantically in a notebook while on my Bluetooth. Sometimes I get on planes.

And sometimes the mommies even ask exactly what it is that I do.

The thing is, I do a lot of different things. But mostly they fall into two categories.

1. Consulting - Deliberate Communications. I hung my own shingle nearly ten years ago. Eldest Daughter was a year old and the thought of working full-time and commuting was very unappealing. The Dot Com Boom was in full swing and I had three successful startups under my belt. I began providing marketing consulting services to technology companies and I've stuck with it except for the year I was pregnant with our twins. To me, consulting is a lot of writing and editing of technobabble. I orchestrate product launches, write web content and develop sales tools like brochures and presentations. Sometimes I get tasked with selecting and ordering promotional products like logo'd golf shirts and thumb drives.

2. Publishing - New Year Publishing. My husband and I, along with our friend Thom Singer, started this company three years ago. Thom was an up-and-coming speaker on social networking and we wanted to help him launch his professional speaking career. Three years later we've published six books and Thom is right on course. I am his editor, the person who makes sure his words stand up and behave themselves. We also do credibility press because many people want to be published authors.

I love what I do professionally and am incredibly fortunate to be able to make a living doing what I love. I've worked with some incredible people over the years and many of my clients are now my friends. In many instances, I work with the same people over and over again. I'm always learning new things and I meet interesting people.

The thing is, I think it's harder to be a stay-at-home-mom than it is to work. So many of you are really good at it and I applaud you. But I can't be one of you, at least not now.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Firsts

Eldest Daughter went to Alex for a "real" haircut.

Thing 1 lost her first tooth. I must give up clinging to the hope that she will never grow up and leave me since she also learned to read and swim during this, her sixth year.

I set up my new laptop, migrated all the files and reinstalled all the apps all by myself. This is quite a feat when the majority of people you know work in technology, your father is an IBM retiree, your husband is a CISSP and friendly help is abundant everywhere.

Monday, August 18, 2008

And so a new chapter begins

On Friday we parted ways with our nanny. Rosa was with us for almost three years. That's almost half of our twins' lives. I'm far more traumatized by her departure than they are, at least thus far. We dressed up and took her to a fancy lunch. I brought her back a Thai silk picture frame from my trip and put a picture of her and the kids in it. I went to the bank for a nice parting gift. It's not making me feel any better. As I type this, I'm on the verge of losing it.

It was always the plan to keep her until our twins began first grade. We simply wouldn't need her after that. But I had no idea that the time would race by in warp speed.

My friend Lori, a family court judge and mom in Tuscon, emailed me a post from Penelope Trunk's Brazen Careerist blog early this summer. The gist of Ms. Trunk's post is that celebrities make parenting look easy because they have a well-hidden army of household help.

This was so not our situation. Parenting is a lot of minutia and Dave and I were not too proud to have help as we juggled our work commitments and tried to carve out time to spend with each other, and with the kids individually. Rosa did dance, preschool and kindergarten drop off so our neighbors, and the teachers, mommies and other nannies knew her well. She hosted playdates at our house and at the park. She went to storytime at the library. She'd do the occasional run to the post office or grocery store. One Wednesday I took the kids to a place I'd never been, our local donut shop. The owner greeted them by name and said to me, "You must be their Mom. Rosa's off today?"

I knew she was a catch based on the number of people who tried to poach her over the years. (I confronted one of them at a birthday party. It was ugly.) We will be forever grateful to my husband's colleague, who introduced us.

The thing is, she kept us sane. Three kids. Two careers. She made it all work. And I'm a little scared now.

Fortunately, Rosa's now in a position to work toward one of her dreams, perfecting her English. After a few weeks' vacation "home" she'll take English courses and continue to work for the family we've always shared her with.

Our kids have learned the importance of making their beds, and where their clothes go once they're folded. They know how to empty the dishwasher and put their shoes in the cupboard as they enter the house. They know that brushing their teeth is a prerequisite to coming downstairs in the morning. And they know that Rosa loved them, perhaps as much as Mommy and Daddy.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

School registration

Is anyone else out there utterly exhausted from this exercise?

Today was the day I consider to be the hardest day of the school year -- and it wasn't even a real school day.

Today was school registration. It was the day I learned of my daughters' class assignments and more importantly, learned who else was in their classes and who was not in their classes.

It was a good day, excepting the stress of it all. (And from the looks on the faces of the other parents completing the same exercise, I wasn't the only one feeling the pressure.) Although two did not get the teacher I would have chosen for them, their teacher assignments are just fine and they're all in class with at least one friend. More importantly, my children are not with the class terrors from last year. There will be new ones, of course, but at least we won't be showing up on Day 1 with that apprehensive dread of things to come.

Thirteen more days of summer ...

Monday, August 11, 2008

Top Ten Thailand

1. The Thai hold their king and queen in such high regard that many wear yellow shirts in his honor on Mondays and blue shirts in her honor on Fridays.

2. Bottled water is available everywhere and costs roughly 30 cents. (Tap water is not the first choice in Bangkok.)

3. Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles. Life must be good there. (See my smiling friends, at right.)

4. A 45-minute cab ride across down costs $3 USD.

5. Thai silk

6. Taxis come in all of the colors in the rainbow plus pink.

7. Movie seating is assigned. If you buy your tickets online then there's no need for you to go early. You can also get more expensive seating, if you wish, and sit / lay in a daybed.

8. The Thai love ice cream.

9. Massage is a way of life.

10. It's the best place to have a surgical sex change - both in terms of number of surgeries done each year and services they have to support someone recovering in great comfort.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Wat Pho

We had grand plans for my last day in Bangkok -- we had signed up for a cooking class at the Blue Elephant. But I felt like I'd not had my tourist ticket punched enough so instead we went to Wat Pho, Bangkok's oldest and largest temple and Thailand's foremost center for public education. We took the scenic, and faster, route there (as opposed to taking a taxi) and rode the Skytrain to the Chao Phraya Express, the river bus. The boat took us up the river to within a few blocks of the temple.

Along the way I shot pictures of some of the houses along the river, houses nestled amongst the five-star hotels. Bangkok is a city of contrasts, for sure. Bangkok's population is 9 million so it's chaos, mesmerizing chaos but chaos nonetheless.

In the 1790s Rama I rebuilt the original 16th century temple on the site and enlarged the complex. In 1832 Rama III built the Chapel of the Reclining Buddha and turned the temple into a place of learning. Today Wat Pho is lively, sprawling complex with a dilapidated grandeur. The massage school, on site, is known worldwide. Of course we got foot massages there.


The highlight of Wat Pho really is the Reclining Buddha. It's 46 meters long and fills up the whole wihan. On its feet are 108 mother-of-pearl images representing the lakshanas, the auspicious signs of the true Buddha.

After Wat Pho we had a nice riverside lunch at the The Deck at the Arun Hotel. And then we headed to meet up with Neeracha's family for high tea back at the Emporium.

The trip's closing act was Siam Niramit, a cultural stage show, we saw that evening. It was a bit of Cirque du Soleil in Thai costumes. Interesting and beautifully staged.

And then I bid my friends goodbye (until next month, when I see them back in the Bay), slept four hours and flew home. It was pouring rain when I arrived in Thailand and pouring rain when I left. The 26-hour trip home was uneventful. It had two highlights, however. The first was my husband inside the international terminal at SFO awaiting me with a big hug. And the second was on the flight from Narita to San Francisco. The family sitting across the aisle from me was returning to the US with their newly adopted daughter. She was adorable and they were so happy. I get teary-eyed just thinking about them. They have no idea the impression they made on me!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Pampering anyone?

A trip to Thailand would be incomplete without a day at the spa, which is exactly what we did.

The Mandara Spa at the Four Seasons Hotel is pretty much what you'd expect at a Four Seasons. However, it differed from other nice spas I'd been to in that they put us in a three-room suite, instead of moving us between individual treatment rooms. I indulged in a traditional Thai massage and facial. The massage was great. The facial was nice but I learned that I prefer American-style ones. Who knew? The petite masseuse delivered a punch given her body weight! The venue itself could not have been more beautiful, or more peaceful. I would have photographed every nook and cranny had I had the time! In fact, I would like to have moved right on in!

After our treatments we had tea in the lobby, and watched the Thai police and Secret Service agents prepare for President Bush's arrival, that evening, where he stopped en route to the Beijing Olympics.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

It's all about the food

Let me backtrack a minute. I'm staying at the Emporium Suites, a luxury apartment complex atop a shopping mall / office building. The first seven floors are the mall, the next twenty or so floors are offices, and then there are ten floors of apartments. This is very convenient. In addition to having a movie theater, restaurants, a grocery store and a food court an elevator ride away, there's a spa, gym and pool here. For a city gal like me, this is heaven! And the Skytrain, the metro system, is attached to the mall, too.

I don't remember the food being all that great the last time we were here. The thing is, I don't like Thai food. I love Thailand: the culture, the people, the scenery, the hospitality. But I like my sweets sweet and my savories savory. Coconut in my beef? No thanks! Rice for dessert? Why bother? However, it's different this time. We're doing a lot of eating this trip. Not only do we eat, we talk about our next meal while we're eating the current meal. We plan our daily activities based on what we're in the mood to eat. Apparently this is very Thai. (This is very Jewish, too, actually.) I could devote multiple blog entries just to the available eating options here in Emporium but I'll try to summarize for you.

The Emporium has a dozen or so regular restaurants interspersed with shops in the mall. And then the bulk of the 7th floor is devoted to food. There are essentially three areas.
  • A high-end grocery store. I browsed it on Day 1 and noticed that the strawberries were imported from Watsonville. They are in the exact same packaging I find at my local Safeway.

  • A take home food section. These are prepared foods or foods they cook up right there for you to take away. Think of San Francisco's Ferry Plaza. Dim sum. Sandwiches. Donuts. Grilled fish. Salads. Sushi. Smoothies. Tea. Greek food. Mediterranean food. Bakeries. Seven different outlets for ice cream. Two for gelato. Japanese food. There were about 25 different sellers within this area. The pictures here are from the take home foods. I bought some of these cotton candy balls for the kids. And the cupcakes here were just as good as Kara's Cupcakes (and almost as expensive).

  • A food court for dine-in eating. The Thais have greatly improved on the American execution of this. Here's how it goes. You walk in and each person in your group is given a bar-coded card. Then you sit down at your table of choice. Your waiter writes your table number on your card. Then you stand back up and walk around and decide what to eat. There's an Italian place. An Indian one. A Thai one. Chinese. Japanese. Frou-frou drinks. Burger King. Sushi. Your card is scanned after you make your choice and then you return to your table. After your food is made, it shows up at your table. And after you're done eating, you take all your group's bar coded cards and pay at the cashier on your way out. The food court at the Emporium was nice. The one at the Central shopping mall was mind-blowing.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Floating food and flowers

On Tuesday we got up at the crack of dawn and took a car ($120 USD for the car, driver and guide for six hours) out to Damnoen Saduak, the floating market located 60 miles outside of Bangkok. This was one of the highlights of this trip.

You've probably seen pictures of this market in Thai travel adverts. This was the way Thais made their daily purchases way back when. We left the hotel at 6:30a and arrived near the market at 8a, then took a long-tail boat to the market itself. The long-tail boat ride was through the khlongs, or canals, and it made me feel like I was on the set of Apolcalypse Now. Once at the market site, we arranged for a small boat to take us through the floating market itself.

These small wooden boats are paddled through the water by mostly women who wear traditional blue farmers' shirts and conical straw hats. You can buy fruit, vegetables and spices there, and souvenirs. I scored my spirit house there! Neeracha bought some kanom buang for herself and mango and sticky rice for the girls. I stuck with my beverage of choice, bottled water.

We left there about 10a, glad to be departing as the tour buses arrived and the market got nutso.

On our way back to Bangkok we stopped at a handicrafts shop / market and watched people carving large wooden elephants by hand and large decorative wall art. They also hand made the Thai rice paper with flower petals that you see everywhere.



Tuesday, August 5, 2008

My love affair with Jim Thompson

This one's for you, Abby and Danielle!

I find fibers just yummy. Put me in a room with textiles and yarn and I am in heaven.

One of the things I just had to do this trip was go to the Jim Thompson House Museum. It's one of the best-preserved traditional Thai houses in Bangkok and one of the finest museums in Thailand. Thompson, an American architect and entrepreneur, is credited with reviving the art of Thai silk weaving. He came to Thailand in 1945 and later on dismantled six teak houses in Northern Thailand and reassembled them in central Bangkok. The house is antique-filled and his art collection spans 14 centuries. Sadly, he disappeared on Easter Sunday in 1967 while in Malaysia and has never been found.

Jim Thompson's Thai Silk Company, however, is alive and well. It has retail shops all over Thailand and even a few abroad now. They are even available at the San Francisco Design Center. After the house tour we took a tuk-tuk over to the flagship store and I demonstrated amazing self-restraint. (As I type this I think Dave has probably looked at our VISA bill online and dismissed the charge as a warm up.) In reality, I probably would have spent more $$ had the strangest thing not happened there. While on the fourth floor, in the bedding and furniture section, a 6 or 7-year-old boy was jumping on one of the display beds. His father was yelling at him to get down and his mother was chasing their other son around the room. The child loved the attention and kept jumping. The reserved and horrified Thai staff looked on in shock. I toughed it out for just a short amount of time before heading down the stairs. Even I can't shop in those conditions.

In the scarves department, a floor below, I was making my purchase when the child appeared again. He was solo this time and was entertaining himself by hurling himself over the stair railing and jumping from one floor to the next, a drop of about 10 feet, to the landing. I've never seen anything like this in public.

Neeracha and I got out of there pretty fast.

One night in Bangkok

Do you remember this 80s song by Murray Hill?

Neeracha's parents were kind enough to watch the kids last night while she, Sean and I went out.

We started with dinner at Breeze, on the 52nd floor of the Lebua Hotel in the Silom district. We dined outdoors (until it began to rain, at which time an army of hip, white-Thai -silk-clad staff moved us and the other diners indoors in record time) and feasted on elegant, modern Asian seafood. The entrance to the restaurant is across a 25 meter glass skybridge suspended above a lily pond. Dramatic doesn't even begin to describe it. Oh. And the skybridge is underlit in soft neon, like the walkway to the satellite United terminal at O'Hare. So we're looking down at frenetic Bangkok and eating an elegant meal. In Thailand, labor is inexpensive. So there was one gentleman whose job it was to stand near the edge of the patio and caution you against going too close to the edge. Another stood at the bottom of the single step leading to the skybridge and held a flashlight to the already underlit step. The service was beyond attentive.

After dinner we hopped into a taxi (orange, I think -- more on this taxi stuff in another post) and went to the Patpong Silom Market, an open-air market in Bangkok's notorious red light district. Dave, Eldest Daughter and I came on our last trip to Bangkok and I was in search of more inexpensive silk pajamas. Patpong is eye opening for sure. The sex industry is alive and well in Bangkok. I found it disturbing but it is what it is -- I am the farang, or foreigner, here. We saw quite a few gorgeous Girl Boys -- I need a makeup lesson from one of them!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Day 2 - Bangkok

I like brunch as much as the next gal. And I've been to quite a few, some Ritz-Carltons, dim sum 'round the world, brunches after weddings ...

Neeracha has long told me that a nice brunch in an Asian hotel trumps everything. So yesterday was her chance to prove it. We met up with her parents for Sunday Brunch at the Sukhothai Bangkok. I was sorry that Dave wasn't with me. From the live music to the made-to-order sushi to the Italian carving station to the Peking Duck to the dim sum to the entire room full of desserts, this was a spread! Bob would have loved every minute of it. There were European, American and Asian specialties, all done very well. The presentation was outstanding. I've posted a picture of the macaroons, which rivaled Laduree, and the inner courtyard of the Sukhothai. Neeracha posted many more pictures of the incredible spread than I did. Go to her blog to see more and find out what she thought of our experience.

The chocolate fondue area offered white, milk and dark dipping options. There were Crepes Suzette and a gelato bar. Truffles. Traditional mango and sticky rice with coconut sauce. I love sweets so the bulk of my caloric intake this day came from creme brulee, tiny lemon tarts and their version of the Oreo. I also did some good damage on the cheese display, restraining myself to only eat the 11 ones there I had never tried.

We were there 2.5 hours. Neeracha and Sean's daughters, aged 8 and 10, were very well behaved. The Sukhothai itself is beautiful -- modern Thai architecture with traditional details. It was quite the international crowd at brunch - many Americans and Australians, with some Chinese and a few Middle Easterners and Europeans. It was great people watching.

After brunch we changed into grubbies, put our jewelry in the hotel safe and took the Skytrain out to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. The Skytrain is the easiest way to get around Bangkok, which has legendary traffic.

One of the things I really like about Thailand is that it's relatively safe, even in the big cities. Street crime is minimal so ditching our jewelry was more about strengthening our bargaining position rather than fear of theft. Bargaining is expected in markets. It makes Neeracha nuts how little I bargain (what's an extra 50 cents to me?) so she mostly negotiates my purchases. It also helps that she speaks Thai and my vocabulary consists of Good Morning/Afternoon, Please and Thank You.

The market is Bangkok's largest, and had 6,000 stalls taking up more space than five football fields. I envisioned an open air market but no, it's mostly enclosed. So it's 90F outside, humid and crowded.

We browsed the animal section (quickly, it made me sad and nauseous) and went into the clothing, antiques and handicrafts areas. I bought a few things for the kids and one piece of art. It was stifling hot and overwhelming. The aisles were narrow, it was smelly and also filthy dirty. I loved every minute of it! Neeracha got the score of the day, a tote bag made of an old rice bag. As much as I wanted one, too, I just couldn't envision when I'd use it since I'd already invested in a very cute pool bag this year.

I'm fairly wimpy when it comes to smells but for some reason, I really enjoyed the strange food smells in the market. Much food is sold there from food stands, both hot and cold. And whiffs of the spicy things I liked although I would never eat them. I hate spicy food. These particular smells made my eyes tear and my heart beat fast and it was a fun, temporary high. (I'm so easily amused.)

We made our way back to the Skytrain station around 6p, walking through a park that reminded me a bit of the Boston Common, and took long showers back at Emporium. We had a late dinner of surprisingly good pizza at Basilico and crashed.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Day 1 - Bangkok

I'm here! The trip over was about as good as it gets. I purchased my ticket through Kayak and ended up on JAL. Wow. It'll be hard to go back to an American carrier after that.

On the flight over I read the second half of The Glass Castle, two issues of People, Real Simple, Architectural Digest and Sunset, and watched 21 and four episodes of Sex and the City.

Random observations:
  • The JAL flight attendants, chicly dressed including hats, were concerned with service, in addition to safety. The food was free, plentiful and edible, and they even gave us those small hot washcloths to clean up before meals. When you ask for water, they offer you the entire bottle.
  • The seats on JAL were the smallest I'd ever seen on a plane. This was fine for petite me but the few taller people on board did not look so happy.
  • The personal entertainment system in my seat had on-demand movies plus video games and a nifty camera that let me watch the takeoff and landing from outside the plane.
  • People wear the strangest things to travel. I was wearing Lucy pants, a t shirt and a light jacket. Other people wore short skirts and spiked heels, and others wore skintight jeans with tube tops. How comfortable could that have been?
  • Moving walkway etiquette is the exact opposite of here. Walk on the left side; stand to the right.
  • The security checkpoint at Narita offered guidelines, not hard and fast rules. They suggest you take your shoes off but do not require it. They suggest you leave your water bottle outside it but do not insist you do it.
  • iPhones are not yet distributed in Asia so using one causes people to stare.
It was pouring rain when we landed in Bangkok, rain like I haven't seen since I went to college in the Midwest. Thunder, lightning, wind, the kind of rain that seems to attack you from all angles. The 747 landed pretty far out on the tarmac. I felt for the ground crew, all dressed up, wearing bright yellow slickers and still drenched, holding umbrellas to form a covered walkway from the stairs to the waiting bus. Apparently most US flights arrive late at night so it took a while to get through customs. And then I hopped into the hotel's waiting car and left the chaos of the airport. The picture above is the view from my room.

I slept four hours, read the Bangkok Post (see very interesting ad from the front page!) then called and woke Neeracha and met up with her for breakfast. The hotel's breakfast buffet is on the 25th floor and has both Western and Asian foods. She ate this rambutan and I had scrambled eggs and pineapple. There's a Starbucks in this building, too, so we got coffee for her husband Sean, who got up a little later. The coffee is all the same but the pastries look even better than the ones at home.