Archive by Author

Drive Like an Asshole

1 Sep

[[It’s another busy week in Bika Land. I regret that I did not have time to doodle illustrations for this post, so please do me a favor and imagine a lot of MS-paint style drawings of cars and stick figures with extended middle fingers. Thanks!]]

Winning

The most important thing to remember when you’re on the highway is that driving is a competition. The most straightforward way to win is to maintain control of the leftmost, or fastest lane. Moving to the right for any reason other than to perform a last-second highway exit is a sign of weakness.

How do you know you’re winning? Look to your left. Is there a lane? Move into it. Repeat as necessary until you are in the fastest lane. Protip: Using your turn signal while Winning is also a sign of weakness. Avoid using them at all costs or the other drivers on the road WILL laugh at you.

It is not necessary or even desirable to be the fastest car. What’s important is only that you are in the fastest lane. In fact, it’s dangerous to go over the speed limit, so you should keep 1-2 mph under unless it begins to rain. Rainwater cushions the air and makes it safe to add 20+ mph to your maximum speed.

BFFs: Winning ALL the Lanes

A variation of Winning, the BFF is one of the few maneuvers that can elevate a right-lane driver to a Win. There’s something magnetic about a bluehair chugging along in the slow lane, unable or unwilling to push the speedometer over 45. If you knew what pity was, you might feel it for the slow car; content yourself by matching speeds with your new best friend and creating an effective passing block. If you control the left lane and there is no one in front of you, you are the winner. Your new BFF is a free ticket to a long-term Win.

Style points: Finesse Maneuvers

Once you’ve mastered Winning, there are several optional tactics you can try, either singly or in combination. A well-played traffic combo can earn you a technical win with far more flair than a straightforward leftward lane-change.

Cuddlebots

Any vehicles that maintain 0.7 car lengths or more between themselves are signaling a Cuddlebot maneuver. Move into that empty space and fill the void in their big greasy machine hearts–be the cheese in their sandwich, the creme filling in their cookie.

Clipper

Don’t get right-lane cooties if you can avoid it. At highway exits, cut across the right lane(s) at the last possible second. Multiply points by the number of lanes crossed at once; triple points for clipping the front bumper of a right-lane vehicle as you cut them off.

The Moses

When there are exactly three lanes, forgo the Win by camping the center lane. Lock your cruise control in at 15 mph below the speed limit and watch as traffic parts around you like the Red Sea. Variation: On two-lane highways, drive in the median. Turn signal use is optional–keeping other vehicles on their toes is a critical part of Winning at traffic.

Altercation

18 Aug
It’s a little after midnight and I’m full of antihistamines. They make me sleepy, so I start getting ready for bed. Cell lights up–it’s an old friend who’s been sending texts to my landline for the last 6 weeks and only just realized why I haven’t answered. He’s fine after rolling his truck, but his passenger took a beating. Broken ribs, punctured lung. They let him out of the hospital after a few days, but the trauma is going to stick with my friend for a long time. They’re like brothers, and he has a tendency to beat himself up when he falls out of the protector role, intentionally or otherwise. At least they caught the motorcyclist who caused the wreck and fled the scene, small comfort though it is.

Dozing between texts as we go back and forth, I’m losing the battle with sleep. I start awake with the ping of a new message, then slip back into La-La Land until I hear a sound through the north wall where the head of my bed is just a few yards from the neighbors’ house. Actually it’s a lot of sounds. Maybe a raccoon knocking over trash cans? Except we don’t have raccoons, and our trash cans are plastic. Maybe someone’s taking a baseball bat to a car. Maybe it’s a gun. Whatever it is, I’m suddenly wide awake.

Hold on, I text my friend, and wake up my husband who fell asleep on the couch while watching Star Trek. I tell him there’s a ruckus outside. Maybe I’ll go out and check. It’s quiet now, I have a flashlight, and I’m not afraid of noises in the dark, right? Except I know I’m not going out there unless I feel a whole lot safer than I do right now; self-preservation ranks pretty high where my thought processes are concerned. I flip on the floodlights outside, front and back, so I can peek through the blinds. I slip on some sandals. Then there are gunshots, and I realize not all of the floodlight on the front lawn is mine.

In roughly half the time it takes the police to fire off a six rounds in our front yard, my husband goes from “Yeah, a girl is scared of noises, I’m going back to sleep” to “Hey maybe it’s a good idea to stay low to the ground for a while.” Bathed in flashing lights I watch one side of the standoff through a corner of the front window. There are shouts, then a khaki blur shoots past the back doors as they pursue someone into the woods behind my house. In a minute I’ll think about how I hope nobody was hurt, but right this second the only thing going through my head is how it’s a good thing my husband cut the grass recently–it might’ve been harder to reach top speed on an overgrown lawn.

Things quiet down fast after that, but the lights stay bright all night. A baby cries, police take statements. An ambulance pulls away without turning on the sirens. There’s no need for them–we live on a quiet cul-de-sac, and it’s late. Adrenaline keeps me up another hour so I reach out to my friends. It’s nice to remember they are there, to say hi and give them virtual hugs.

In the morning we check on the neighbors. It’s odd sometimes, the things that let you know something isn’t right; today there are more than twice as many vehicles parked outside their house as on a normal morning. They tell us it was a home invasion, that the first sounds I heard came from someone pounding and kicking at their door. The second were shots fired through, then the subsequent forcing of said door. Third were shots exchanged with the owner of the house. We talk to his wife, but can’t talk to him–he’s in the hospital with a gunshot wound to the face. He’ll be okay, but goddam. They tell the story by rote, because god knows they’ve told it many, many times in the last ten hours or so.

When we offer a hand, they ask for help barring the front door while they run out on an errand, because their locks are busted. Hubby disappears into their home with a 2×4 and a handful of nails and I, needing some quiet chore to do while absorbing all this information, pick over our basil plants to make sure they don’t go to seed early…

And inadvertently stand on an anthill. Ow. But hey, it’s no bullet to the face.

Living here sure has been exciting, but it’s definitely time to go. Anyone want to come over and help me pack faster?

Packing

11 Aug

Moving sucks. You have to pack boxes, scrub every surface, and hope someone thinks your house is swell enough to buy, for a price that will just barely cover your mortgage and expenses. (If you get less, you’re in the hole for a house in which you spent 10 years trying to earn a miserly amount of equity. Grats!) You write lists of things you need to do before the big day, your husband laughs at you with a high note of frustration in his voice and says “you and your lists!!” and it’s enough to drive you to drink (more than you already do).

Did you know that the top of a white kitchen cabinet will turn the color of dusty chocolate if you ignore it for ten years? Who thought it would be a good idea to make cabinets that don’t go all the way up to the ceiling, anyway? I refuse to look up there. Dust bunnies have lived long lives and died there, pasting themselves to the finish and leaving only the memory of sticky brown oblivion. (I can see you cringing over there, Claire.) It’s so gross.

My hands smell like bleach all the time now. The insides of all those once-icky cabinets and drawers are sparkling clean and half-empty. Unnecessaries have been packed in boxes with neat labels that announce what’s inside. I’m sure at some not-so-distant point in the future that orderly labeling system will disintegrate and I’ll wind up throwing the rest together in a big jumble, writing question marks all over the boxes with a red Sharpie.

"What's in this box, Bika? A toaster and a fish and a 400,000-count box of tampons? A garbage can and a crystal goblet and six live doves?? Go ahead, guess. I DARE YOU."

I will write on my boxes MISC, the dirty word of every legit–and therefore implausible–organization system. (Naturally neat people don’t need systems to tell them that ‘miscellaneous’ is the devil, because they already know. It’s in their tidy goddam DNA. The people most in need of an organizing system, those are the ones with a misc drawer. And a misc box. And a misc cabinet, bag, pouch… if they have a container, they have another one like it that is for misc. That’s just how it works.)

In defiance of my hoarding tendencies (which are minor, I might add. Moderate at worst. Am I being defensive?) I made a big pile of stuff to feed the yard sale. It’s funny how the utility and sentimental appeal of any particular item diminishes once you realize you’re going to have to pack it in a box. The teddy bear as old as me, he can go in the box. The lamp with beaded fringe that’s been bent since the day we got it because I knocked it off a table, not so much. It’s a good thing I hoarded all those little round price stickers from the last time we moved. (Not a hoarder, not a hoarder, not a…)

As a dyed-in-the-wool procrastinator I’m having to work my ass off to overcome self-start deficiency, and it’s a lonely job because I don’t have family to bribe with beer and barbecues. Where we’re going, I could have all the encouragement I’d ever want. That in itself is a good enough reason to move there, if you ask me. (“But Bika, if you weren’t moving there, you wouldn’t need the help to move there.” NO. This is not Bika-approved logic.) Now that’s been said, I took a break from this packing/cleaning fiasco to write this post and I’m due to get my sorry ass back to work. Wish me luck.

Writing Collaborative RP

7 Aug
When I started gaming I had no idea what it meant to roleplay. My husband (NOT a roleplayer) chose an RP server, explaining that RP populations tended to be nicer and more mature. I was clueless. Eventually it was explained to me that shouting LOL out-of-character in public areas wasn’t quite in the spirit of roleplay; I asked around and found lots of people who were willing to show me the ropes so I could fit in (or at the very least not make an ass of myself). It was fun to interact with other players in character. After the novelty of stabbing WoW baddies wore off, roleplay kept me in the game.

At first I was terrified to share my stories–what if my writing was awful?–but after spending time with encouraging RP communities and reading what they wrote, I screwed up the courage to try my hand at storytelling. Five years later, I’ve churned out hundreds of pages’ worth of fiction, most of it story RP that I post to guild forums or personal blogs. I work alone on stories about my own characters, but when other people’s characters are involved, I prefer to write together 1) to make sure I’m not putting words in their mouths or making them act in ways they wouldn’t otherwise and 2) because collaborative writing is a bucket of fun.

[Collaborations can range from serious to super silly.]

If you’ve never tried it, you should. Most everyone has a Google account, and it’s easy from there to start a gdoc to share with one or more friends. It saves automatically every few seconds as you write so you’re not likely to lose anything in a computer emergency, and there’s a chat feature built into the window, so you can talk to everyone who has the document open. If you enjoy talking to the people you’re working with, you can fire up Ventrilo (or Skype or whatever else you use for VoIP) and do the talky-talk there.

When more than two or three writers are involved, it can be difficult or even impossible to schedule joint writing time. Gdocs are good for that. Everyone involved can work on the story when they have time, and leave notes for the others in color-coded text at the top or bottom of the document for the next person who comes along.

[Here’s what can happen when five people write a single story. It’s chaos, but it’s fun chaos.]

Once you’ve got a huddle of writers together, decide on your setting. Maybe you already know your characters are all sitting in a pub together. Perhaps they’re traveling through a dense jungle in pirate country, or fighting a monster (or amongst themselves). A scene might open with something as simple as someone putting out a kitchen fire because he didn’t know it was time to flip his pancake.

Alternatively you can start by deciding what events unfold in your story. Sometimes you’ll know exactly where you want the story to end, and you’ll spend most of the scene writing your characters from Point A to an agreed-upon Point B. It’s especially important if you’re telling a story that is part of an overarching plot. If you’re just writing simple interactions and vignettes for character development, you and your writing buddy can make it up as you go along and see where it takes you.

Of course, if nothing of interest happens in the story, you’ll wind up with a piece of writing only you and your friend will ever want to read. If it’s slow, insert a random interruption and see how your characters react. This is akin to throwing a stick of dynamite in a duck pond–you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but you’re pretty sure it’s going to be a sight.

I was a shy writer when I first started collaborating. The innocent blank gdoc in front of me was intimidating when that blue bar in the upper right corner broadcast that CEILING WRITER WAS WATCHING ME WRITE, word by agonizing word, through every backspace and mass delete. If you’re self-conscious, ease into the process by agreeing to alternate lines or whole paragraphs with your partner. If taking turns while no one is looking doesn’t quite do it for you, try writing your parts in another document and paste them in when you finish.

What’s important about the story you want to tell? Don’t be shy, discuss it with your collaborator. Communication is key. Whatever you come up with, it’s sure to be a great writing exercise. Just don’t be bad like me and toss in lines like “Take me now, you big stud!” at inappropriate or super-serious places unless you’re pretty sure your writing buddy will pee her pants laughing.

Have you ever written a collaborative story? Tell me about it! If you haven’t, grab your bestie (good God did I just say that? I think I did) and give it a shot. It’s a hoot.

Pasta with Red Clam Sauce

27 Jul

I had a cioppino last summer that was so tasty and full of seafood, I still daydream about it from time to time. I dig the hell out of a seafood-tomato flavor combination, but cioppino seems like a pretty daunting (and expensive, if you use good seafood) recipe, so I started satisfying the craving with a simple dish that my boys love as much as I do: Clam sauce. Not only that, it’s stupid easy to make from pantry staples, and it’s cheap. This recipe makes four generous servings for around $1 each. Fast food seems so expensive and inadequate after eating a bowl of this stuff.

Pasta with Red Clam Sauce

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

3-6 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

1 sweet red chile, chopped (optional)

1 28-oz can petite-dice tomatoes

1 10-oz can whole baby clams -OR- 2 6.5-oz cans chopped clams

1-2 Tablespoons fresh flatleaf parsley or basil, chopped

1 tsp coarse salt

freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 lb dry pasta

Put olive oil in a heavy pot over medium to medium-low heat. Crush and peel garlic while it heats up; cut in half if the cloves are big, then put in the oil. Cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic is lightly browned and fragrant. Add chopped red chile, if using, and cook for 1-2 minutes more.

Add the tomatoes and bring to a low boil; meanwhile, strain clams, reserving the juice in a measuring cup or other narrow container. (If this seems like a superfluous step, bear with me: I hate biting down on the grit or sand you invariably find in clams, and that’s why I don’t just dump the cans directly into the pot. This technique works great.) Rinse the clams well with running water to wash out any sand that might be mixed in with them, then add them to the pot. Then tip the reserved clam juices into the pot, taking care not to disturb the sediment that settled into the bottom of the container while you rinsed the clams. Sand is heavier than water, so it will have sunk to the bottom, making it easy to keep out of your sauce-just toss the dregs down the sink.

Add herbs, salt and pepper to taste. If you’re like me and have low-sodium vegetable bullion cubes, you can add one of those, but it’s not really necessary. Simmer in a covered pot or set in a 350 degree oven to keep hot while you prepare the pasta.

Fill a separate pot with salted water and bring to a boil, then add pasta. Cook for 2-3 minutes less than the directions call for, because the pasta will cook the rest of the way in the slightly soupy clam sauce, which gives the pasta more flavor and an almost silky texture. Drain the not-quite-cooked pasta and stir it into the sauce, then cover the pot and simmer for another 3-5 minutes until the pasta is tender and has absorbed most of the liquid.

Serve with a garnish of fresh basil leaves and fresh grated parmesan, if you have it.

Pesto al Best-o

19 Jul

 

Summer, I love you. Even though you’re hot, sweaty, buggy and riddled with deadly sunshine, you make basil possible. Even when it’s my black thumb trying to grow the stuff. Now that the plants are all bushy and sweet-smelling, I’ve started to harvest bunches of the stuff for daily cooking.

I grew that, can you fricking believe it? Go me! That’s how much basil fits (loosely) in one of those paper sacks you used to take your lunch to school. This is one of those rare times I wish the internet had smell-o-vision, man. Sweet, spicy, sunny basil. Yum.

Garlic, pine nuts and romano cheese. It’s like a beige-y foodgasm.

Crush garlic with the flat side of your knife. It makes the cloves way easier to peel.

Rinse your basil and put it on a cutting board, unless you’re fortunate enough to possess a nice food processor. A mortar and pestle is a more traditional way of doing it, I hear, but I don’t have one of those. I have a blender, and I didn’t really want to make green soup.

…at least, I didn’t until I started chopping.

I chopped…

…and chopped some more. Green soup was starting to sound pretty appealing.

10-15 minutes later I said “screw this” and decided it was fine enough, thank you very much. Then I grated the cheese.

…and chopped some more.

Extra virgin olive oil, you ain’t foolin’ anyone.

If you could smell this, you’d be impatient trying to chop it up by hand, too.

Cook your favorite pasta (in this case, “favorite” meaning “the last box left in the pantry”) in salted water. The salt helps flavor the pasta, so add plenty of it.

Reserve a bit of the pasta water, in case you need to add some to the dish. While the pasta boiled, I saved some of the pesto itself in a tightly sealed container in the fridge and used it through the next week, adding it to sauces and mixing it with mayonnaise for sandwiches, or with butter for a super garlic bread.

When the pasta is al dente, toss gently with pesto and eat.

I love adding green peas to the pasta water a minute or two before it finishes cooking. The sweetness of the peas goes great with the salty, herby-sweet spice of the pesto. It’s delicious and very forgiving, too. Don’t sweat the quantities, just add a little of everything and bulk up on your favorite ingredients.

 

 

This Month on Netflix

13 Jul

If I’m going to watch an embarrassing amount of Netflix, I may as well share the good stuff, right? Without further ado, here are my picks for July:

Movies

  • Kick-Ass

I am SO glad that my son didn’t watch this show with us. The first act was jam-packed with lessons in what kids should not do if they want to live to adulthood. The geeky star of the show made a pretty hilarious accidental superhero, but by the end the REAL hero kicked my teeth in with her awesomeness. Violent but sorta lighthearted, like Batman on Prozac. 5 stars.

  • Exit Through the Gift Shop

A surprising documentary on street art. Thierry Guetta, amateur filmmaker, is the embodiment of obsession; Banksy, the infamous street artist who encourages him, comes to regret doing so. The whole thing almost feels like a setup to one heavy joke. I laughed, so it must have worked.  4 stars.

TV

  • Bones

Do you enjoy watching socially handicapped people interact with the real world (and each other)? Do you secretly wish that you, too, could be a brilliant anthropologist/bestselling author? Do you like a little conspiracy theory with your murder, a little art with your science, and a little romance with your mystery? I wasn’t sure about this series at first. There were some dialogue cliches that made me pause and say “…really?” A few corny exchanges in the beginning wasn’t quite enough to turn me off to the show, so I tried a few more episodes and soon became hooked on the characters. Maybe I’m weird, but I like seeing the many various geek types interact with jocks and normals. 4 stars.

  • Rescue Me

(Caveat: I’m only about two seasons into this show, but I can say it’s worth watching up to that point.)

One phrase from the show sums it up: “There is no rock bottom for you, is there?” Characters who are simultaneously likable and extremely unlikable careen toward the lowest common denominator as fast as they can dig down to a new one, relentlessly crashing into each other in their tumble to the absolute bottom. Do not watch if you are offended by vulgar language or uncomfortable with sex scenes, depression, substance abuse or controversial topics; if racial epithets make you queasy, sexism makes you froth at the mouth, or seeing dead people makes you cringe, this is not the show for you. That said, it’s a very darkly entertaining series, if trainwrecks are your thing. 4 stars.

  • Veronica Mars

We found this one on instant streaming and literally overnight, it was removed and put on the DVD-only queue. I felt both sad and horribly cheated, because damn, that was a fantastic show. We watched five or six hour-long episodes in a row that night, if that’s any indication of how much we liked it. Veronica Mars is an incredibly resourceful and clever girl. Witty and willful, she maintains a strong front in spite of some really torturous personal disasters. She’s my hero, and I’m buying the DVDs as soon as I get the chance. 5 stars.

  • Dexter

Dexter makes me uneasy. Dexter’s relationship with his girlfriend makes me uneasy. The whole SHOW makes me uneasy. It’s creepy, gory and violent, and strangely enough, I found myself kind of understanding–if not precisely rooting for–a psychopath. Empathy for a sociopath? What a bizarre feeling. I can safely say it made me think. It got a little weird by the end of the second season and I haven’t seen the rest (it’s not on instant streaming yet), but it was definitely worth watching at least the first season. 4 stars (5 stars for Season 1).

  • Kitchen Nightmares

Gordon Ramsay whips bad kitchens into shape in his usual verbally-abusive manner. Colorful language and lots of “what the hell were they thinking,” conflicts between chefs and desperate attempts to woo customers. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Your results may vary, but if you like Ramsay, it’s a pretty safe bet. 3.5-4.5 stars, depending on episode

Family shows

  • Phineas & Ferb

There’s a very strict formula for each episode of Phineas and Ferb, but the stories are always uniquely imaginative and fun. The plot is predictable, but the details aren’t. Tons of great original songs in every musical style you can think of. The writers really do a great job and the singers are awesome. Good show to watch with your kids! 4 stars.

  • Peter and the Wolf (2006)

This quirky, spooky animated adventure is only 32 minutes long and set to the classic title score. There isn’t a single line of dialogue, but the characters are very expressive. My kid was glued to the screen and I loved it, too. 4 stars.

Didn’t make the cut:

  • Hoarders. I watched one episode out of curiosity, as a look into the lives of people with serious behavioral issues. It was sad and frustrating to watch, and after a while I just felt like a voyeur watching something that really should remain private between patient and health-care provider. 3 stars.
  • Kyle XY. I found out later it was a family channel series, which explained the simplicity of plot and made the mature content seem even more awkward. Now, I have no objections to mature content in YA material. Young adults have to deal with sex, drinking, drugs, and other difficult subjects in their lives and I think it’s good for them to see how others cope. But presented in an oversimplified, awkward and often cliched format, it just felt wrong. I didn’t really like a single character. Inconsistency, one-dimensional characterizations and bad acting made me stop caring what happened after the first couple of episodes. 2 stars, barely.
  • Parking Wars. Why is this a show? Watch parking enforcement patrol the streets and get verbally abused by the people they ticket! Woo. Oh look, there’s a boot on your car! It combines all the fun of a parking ticket with all the excitement of waiting in line at the DMV. 2 stars.