Thursday, June 27, 2013

Best Children's Books

Several different media sources have released their lists of best children's books, especially because it's summer reading season.  I was shocked when I looked at the list of assigned summer reading books from the school where the kids I babysit go.  I didn't recognize a single title!  I know I'm a generation ahead of them, but when I was in elementary school, we still read classics like "Stuart Little" and "The Borrowers," neither of which were published within 20 years of my elementary school years.  I'm also surprised to see so few of these lists honoring books with main characters who are not white boys.  To be fair, my own list is pretty biased toward characters with whom I can identify, but I think they are such classics that all kids should get to read them, not just girls.  If you have kids, don't let them read Twilight until they've first read these books:

1. Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh - This book is pretty much the reason I started writing

2. A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L'Engle - This book made me feel like I was in my own secret world that no one else could be a part of.  I think I need to read this one again.

3. Matilda, The BFG, and The Witches - Roald Dahl - How could I pick just one Roald Dahl book?  They're all so brilliantly weird and touching, but these are my three favorites.

4. Walk Two Moons - Sharon Creech - It's since been criticized for romanticizing and oversimplifying American Indian cultures, but I still found this a much deeper coming-of-age story than a lot of the others I read at the time.  It felt darker and more grown up.  Creech is a beautiful story-teller and I remember not being able to put it down.

5. Blubber - Judy Blume - A classic.  Apparently it's on the banned books list.  Do I need to say more?

6. Catherine, Called Birdy - Karen Cushman - Gives insight into a girl's perspective of the Medieval period, with some cool/disturbing information about Saints and their deaths.

Each of these books had me reading all night long under my covers with a flashlight.  Being a nanny myself, I'm a little worried that most kids don't lose themselves in books anymore.  But even the kids I work with (who are literally obsessed with and addicted to electronics) get really excited about Roald Dahl.  

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

VanillaPunk's Punk Top Fifteen List

In case you couldn't tell from the name of this blog, I have a pretty strong punk streak running through me.  I spent my teenage years going to shows (not concerts) at local clubs and buying "Punk-o-Rama" CD's at Sam Goody.  I may have owned one of those ball chain necklaces (OK I definitely did) and wore Converse All Stars and dyed my hair a different color every month.  I never destroyed property or got into fights, but I did make a lot of controversial artwork at school (ha). In case you don't have much experience with the genre, or just want to exchange some conversation over true classics and personal favorites, here are my top 15 punk songs that I think everyone should know.  Enjoy!

15. (I'm) Stranded - The Saints

14. Code Blue - TSOL

13. Girl in the Sweater - The Hard-Ons (this isn't actually my favorite song by them, but it's their only "single" type of song and I couldn't find many others on youtube)

12. Another Shot of Whiskey - The Gits

11. Viva La Revolution - The Adicts

10. Black Flag - TV Party

9. What Do I Get? - Buzzcocks (although I really just wanted to put all of their songs on here)

8. Holiday in Cambodia - Dead Kennedys

7. In the City - The Jam

6. Blank Generation - Richard Hell and the Voidoids

5. Born to Lose - Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers

4. Skulls - The Misfits

3. Knowledge - Operation Ivy

2. Ruby Soho - Rancid

1. Judy is a Punk - The Ramones

By the way, I am fully away on vacation right now, so most of my posts until July 13th are pre-scheduled and maybe not as frequent as they were when I was home.  Bear with me!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Jessica the Tattooed Lady Part 3

As promised, I'll share with you the rest of my tattoos (at least the ones I feel comfortable putting on the internet).  Instead of taking new photos, I scoured my computer for the pictures I took after I first got each of these pieces, so that you can see how I changed along with the tattoos.  Spoiler alert: I used to be blond, thin and tan (and unhappy).  I've captioned each picture with the time and place where the tattoo was done as a memory of the places I've lived.

April 2005, upstate New York
my first tattoo, which I claimed was for my grandmother who died the previous Fall

October 2005, upstate New York
outlines of New Jersey and Ohio (where most of my family lives)

April 2006, upstate New York
I drew this myself for my 20th birthday

Fall 2006, upstate New York
for this piece, the artist went around taking pictures of the Catskills and then freehanded the mountains and treetops onto my arm with a special needle... I will probably get this one touched up because it doesn't actually look so great, but I loved how personal and one-of-a-kind the artwork was

Winter 2007, New Jersey
honest answer: I was bored and lonely.  I do collect dreamcatchers though.

Spring 2007, New Jersey
My illustrator friend Lawrence Burns designed and drew this for me!

March 2010, Cochabamba, Bolivia
this is a mask that the men wear during a folk dance called the Diablada, typically performed during Carnaval in Oruro, Bolivia

October 2010, Iowa
and of course you've seen this one

June 2013, New Jersey
and this new one

So even though I have a pretty good number of tattoos, very few of them are large and colorful.  Part of me would like to start filling up space on my skin with elaborate pieces of artwork, but another part of me wants to leave open the option of having a "real" job someday.

Monday, June 24, 2013


I decided that I couldn't go away on vacation with my hair so out of control.  I hadn't had a haircut since December!  I love that my hair grows so fast and that it gets so long, but I can tell that I really need a haircut when it starts getting limp, shapeless, and full of knots.  I still had the remnants of some ombre at the ends, which looked good when my hair was neat, but looked dry and damaged when I let it go for too long.
Here's the "before" shot...
Luckily, my friend Annie is a hair stylist and knows how to cut it exactly the way I like it, even if I don't really know what I want to do with it.  I told her that I wanted the layers put back in and not lose a lot of length, but I needed a style that was low maintenance because ain't nobody got time to blow-dry in the summer.
So it turned out like this:
It looks so much better now.  Shape and body, and it's so much softer.  And I can actually brush it now!  Although I could never make it look as good as Annie did, I think it still looked pretty decent on the second day without any styling or products.

One of the best parts about having a friend cut my hair is that I get to hang out at her place with her adorable lab/pitbull mix puppy!  This dog was so sweet, it almost makes me want to get one.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Bon Voyage Part 2: Books and Music

One of the things I look forward to most about a vacation is having more time to read.  Since I've been to Italy a couple of times before, I will feel absolutely no guilt if I spend a whole afternoon reading at a sidewalk cafe.  Unfortunately, I had my heart set on reading two books in particular and the Universe seems not to want me to read them.  I've been meaning to read The Blind Man's Garden by Nadeem Aslam and Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer, but I really don't know much about their writing and theyr'e sort of best-sellery type books, so I've been saving them for vacation.  My library has both of them and no one had been checking them out, of course until yesterday when I went to go get them.  All three Barnes and Noble stores near me also seem to be sold out of them.  I thought I would finally get them this morning when I realized I could check books out of other libraries in my county, but they're new books and therefore restricted.  I guess I'll just have to wait until I get back to read them.

Instead, I will be reading...
Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson (for which I couldn't find a good picture)
The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

I'm expecting it to be kind of stupid, but I've heard good things about it and it sounds fun anyway.

and then I'm trying to decide whether to lug around my hardcover copy of Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel or pick up Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcon.

Lost City Radio is about a subversive radio station during the dictatorship of a fictional South American country (but loosely based on Argentina and Chile).  It's right up my alley, but...

Bring Up the Bodies is the second book in a series by Hilary Mantel.  I read the first one and loved it, so I can be sure that this one won't disappoint me.  Both books are hardcover, but Bring Up the Bodies is a little bigger.

I am aware that I wouldn't have any of these problems if I had an e-reader.  I could just download whatever books I want right now and never worry about them being sold out, checked out, or too big for my bag.  I just refuse to get one.  I like the feel (and smell) of a real book and the experience of going to the library or book store to go get it.  My life would probably be a lot easier if I just cave in and get a Kindle though.  For now, I'm being stubborn.

Travel music is a little easier.  I have a feeling I'll be listening to a lot of Renato Carosone, even though he's from the wrong region of Italy...

I'm also excited to listen to Surfer Blood on the plane, on train rides, buses, etc.  Their new album Pythons is so good... melodic and summery, but with a grungy, post-punk edge.  Their earlier stuff is a little rougher, which I actually prefer, so I'll probably be reviewing their whole catalog on this trip.  Did I mention they're going to be on the cover of the next issue of XO?!

Of course, there's always my old reliable Lonely Planet travel guides.  I can't go anywhere without one.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Bon Voyage Part 1: Luggage and Packing

My vacation is less than a week away and I've already basically finished packing.  "Why?" you ask.  Well, I'm going to be away for nearly three weeks and the idea of leaving that until the last minute only to find out that I can't fit all of my clothes in my luggage was freaking me out.  Plus, this way I know what clothes I need for my trip and what clothes are left for me to wear until then.  
I decided to invest in a set of Lipault luggage because I'm lucky enough to travel relatively often and my other options were either a gargantuan duffel bag or a backpack (or borrowing an old suitcase from my parents, I guess).  I decided early on that I wasn't going to check anything, so both of these bags can come on the plane with me as carry-ons.  Both are the size of big weekender bags and feel that way if I carry them on my arm, but the purple one also has wheels and a secret compartment for a handle.  The teal bag can then attach to the handle of the purple one and magically I don't have to carry anything.  Carry-on and "personal item."  Done.

Now, I've tested it out, and not only can I fit 20 days' worth of clothes and accessories into these two bags, but I actually have room to spare in the teal bag in case I buy anything while I'm there.  If you want to know how this is possible, you'll have to wait and check out my guest post at Cooking for the Other Half in the next couple of weeks.  Spoiler alert: roll your clothes!  I know you've heard it before, but it works.

Something that everyone needs before embarking on any kind of air travel is a clear, plastic 1-quart zipper bag and little 2-ounce bottles of your favorite liquid/gel toiletries.  I'll also provide tips for packing this stuff in my guest post, so look out for it.  Hint: you can't bring everything you want, so prioritize.  Something that I didn't need was a colorful leather passport holder.  But I wanted one anyway because it's pretty.  So sue me.

Tomorrow I'll focus on the entertainment side of things... which books and music I'll be taking along for the ride.  There are so many things that I need to get done before I leave that it's been making me kind of manic and overwhelmed lately.  I've been trying to find at least one thing that I can accomplish each day and then not beat myself up too much for not getting to the million other things on my to-do list.  I haven't been able to get to sleep at night, but my brain is also not very sharp after I get home from work, so I end up watching the X-Men animated series or one of those stupid wedding shows, which only makes me more anxious because I know there are other things I should be doing.  I think that means I need to start doing yoga again.  Or maybe I should just suck it up and write that article/cover letter/blog post.  At least I'm packed and ready to go!  Right?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


It's my last week of regular work for the year, last week before I go away, and there's kind of a lot going on lately.  But I have had time to do some cooking.  It's one of those things I can make in a big batch in the morning and then eat for lunch and then re-heat (or not!) for dinner.  If it hadn't been so good, there also might have been some left for lunch today as well.  It's sort of a weird Asian fusion noodle stir-fry that is a magnet for whatever vegetables or protein you have on hand.  It's also really easy to make and to customize to your personal tastes.
I had some mismatched ingredients that I wanted to use up... Thai rice noodles with Japanese seasonings and Thai spice.  Whatever, are the food police going to come to my house?  For veg, I picked out some red bell peppers, baby bok choy, white onion, shiitake mushrooms, ginger and garlic.  I chopped and sauteed them in a mixture of sesame oil, tamari, rice wine vinegar, and a generous squirt of Sriracha hot sauce!  I also put some raw shrimp on top to steam while the pasta cooked.

I cooked the noodles most of the way through.  The trick to non-mushy rice noodles is not to actually boil them.  Heat the water almost to boiling, then add the noodles and turn off the heat.  Stir the noodles in the hot water for a couple of minutes to soften them.  Then, I pulled the noodles out of the pot with some tongs (although a slotted spoon would have worked fine) and put them into the pan with the vegetables, shrimp and sauce with a tiny splash of the cooking water.  I turned off the heat in the pan and poured everything into a large mixing bowl.  I stirred the noodles into the sauce/veggies/shrimp mixture and let the noodles absorb all of those flavors.  Meanwhile, I scrambled a couple of eggs in the pan and sprinkled those on top of my noodles in the bowl.  Finally, I garnished with some chopped green onion and dug in.
"the colors, Duke, the colors!" ("I'm colorblind, kid")
Bon apetit!  I also inexplicably added a few splashes of coconut milk to my dish while it was still hot.  It tasted pretty good, but makes no sense culinarily.  Absolutely not necessary.  Come to think of it, some toasted peanuts would have been pretty good in there, too.  Maybe some pineapple.  But let's not get carried away.  Or do... it's your dinner.  It's kind of like a homemade version of Mongolian grill, except with mixed cuisines.  Between all of the vegetables and good sources of protein, one bowl kept me full until I got home for dinner at 7:30.  It's not authentic, nothing fancy, but it was TASTY.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Boyfriend's Birthday

I have to warn you that I'm about to get all sappy and braggy in this post and it may be annoying to some.  However, I feel that it is necessary to give credit where credit is due and my boyfriend really is the best (in my humble, unsolicited opinion).

This past Friday was my boyfriend's birthday.  It was kind of a big deal birthday (his 30th), but we didn't make a big deal out of the age.  I did try my best to make him feel special and highlight how happy I am that he's here on this earth and in my life.  I was in kind of a dark place around this time last year and everything changed once he and I started dating.  Men (or really, people in general) probably shouldn't get any kind of award for being decent human beings, because it should really just be expected of everyone not to be manipulative or emotionally abusive in a relationship.  Unfortunately, before S, I hadn't really ever experienced this level of comfort, mutual respect, love and security.  Aside from how well he treats me (because, again, that should just go without saying), we have very similar values, dreams for the future, and views on money/family/etc.  We'd both rather be at home with a book than out among the crowd, but also want to see/know/taste/experience everything that life has to offer.  This makes for a very stable, yet exciting, life together.
To celebrate, I bought him some fun gifts that remind him of childhood but are allegedly intended for adults -- most importantly, a realistic Star Wars lightsaber replica (above, right).  I also took him out to dinner at a local restaurant called Pairings, which we'd never tried but heard good things about.  It's one of those places that makes everything from scratch and uses as many seasonal ingredients from small farms as possible.  We ordered tuna tartare and a cheeseplate (not pictured) as well as seared halibut and dayboat scallops with spring vegetable risotto (above, top left) and folded pasta sheets with braised pork shoulder (above, bottom left).
putting his new toy "adult collectible" to good use, torturing the cat
All in all, I think the day was a success.  He made me feel really special on my birthday (the whole week of my birthday, in fact), so it was nice to be able to return the gesture.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Color Me Confused

Apparently this has gotten media attention before, so I've just been out of the loop (maybe because I don't shop there anymore), but I just noticed that Forever 21 prints "John 3:16" at the bottom of all of its shopping bags.  Maybe the store is called "Forever 21" because they believe in eternal life.  A company representative has said that the Bible verse appears on bags as a symbol of the owners' "Christian faith."  I wonder how they reconcile their faith with all of the butt-skimming skirts they market to preteens.  And isn't there something about not stealing in the Bible?  Apparently the company owners didn't get the memo or they wouldn't condone stealing designs.

I don't know how many of you have read William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, but James Franco saw fit to put it on film.  How this will work out, I have no idea.  In case you're not familiar, this is one of the chapters:
And no, this is not a book about a family of fish (not literally, anyway).  Here's the trailer:

I'm not even sure what he's making it look like, but the majority of the value in the book is in the inventive writing style, not the story, so I don't know how he's going to capture that.
James Franco, you may be overstepping your boundaries on this one.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Anti-Workout Exercise

Now that I've completed the zombie 5k, I'm getting really excited about my usual summer activities (as well as a few other ideas I might have to start doing regularly).  Here are 11 ideas of fun things you can do any day of the week, especially with a few friends, to replace a regular workout without feeling like "ugh I have to go work out now."  Taking the stairs instead of the elevator and parking farther away from your building are good lifestyle boosts, but they don't burn enough calories or work enough of your muscles for you to stop doing other kinds of exercise.  These activities, on the other hand, definitely count as exercise!  Just try to do them for at least 30 minutes.

1. Laser Tag - doing this today with my boyfriend and the kids from work!

2. Sports (soccer, tennis, etc.) - S has agreed to play tennis with me regularly, but I really miss having more friends who live in the area so I can play games of pick-up soccer at the park

3. Camp Games (capture the flag, manhunt, scavenger hunts, etc.)

4. Elementary School Gym Class Games (SPUD, steal the bacon, relay races, etc.)

5. Exploration (hiking, canoeing, biking, etc.)

6. Swimming- it doesn't have to be a fancy pool.  Lake, ocean, river, pond, resevoir (as long as it's legal), just swim!

7. Yoga - about to refill my class card at my favorite yoga place.  I need that hour or so of relaxation, but who knew that Vinyasa also burns up to 7 calories per minute?

8. Dancing - one of my personal favorites, sometimes it was hard for me not to start dancing around the track at the park while listening to my cardio playlist

9. Being a Kid (playground, sidewalk chalk, jumping rope, running through the sprinkler, etc.) - again, those damn monkey bars...

10. Roller or Ice Skating - just like these people...

11. Go for a Walk - with someone you like, or alone.  It's a great way to have some quiet time.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Jessica the Tattooed Lady, Part 2

I went back to Anchor Tattoo Company to have my new piece colored in, so now all that's left is the healing process!  Take a look at this beautiful work...

skull done, blood seeping through

I think I'll call her Ruby

It's like he was painting on my skin

those amazing feathers

This is definitely my favorite tattoo so far.  I have very few pieces that are so colorful, certainly nothing as detailed as this.  The artist, Dave, and his apprentice were really fun to work with (and have great taste in music, by the way) and the whole experience just could not have been better.  If you are planning to get a tattoo for the first time, I don't recommend something as big and detailed as this... some people came into the shop asking for very elaborate pieces on their rib area (extremely painful) for a first-time tattoo and Dave wouldn't even do it.  However, once you've gotten used to being under the needle, both you and your artist will enjoy the tattoo more if you let them use their skills as artists by designing something original.  And don't make the mistake that I've made over and over again -- don't go to the first place you see.  Shop around for the right artist who shares your vision.  This is going on your body forever and being tattooed is a very personal thing, so you need to feel some level of trust with the person who is doing it.  Last, don't be cheap.  The saying goes, "good tattoos aren't cheap and cheap tattoos aren't good."  If it's so important to you that you want to permanently ink it onto your body, then it should be important enough to save up for.  No one is going to do their best work if they're not being well compensated for their time and effort.  For the sake of comparison, this piece cost $300 and for that price I had 100% of his focus the whole time I was in the shop, and he obviously gave me the best work he could do.  This sounds self-explanatory, but it's actually one of the rare occasions that I've gotten excellent customer service from a tattoo shop (hence the need to look around for the right place).  That being said, I love body art and am already planning my next piece.  Will definitely go back to Anchor Tattoo!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

My Fair Lady

It's the season for street fairs and church carnivals, especially in the various ethnic communities of the northeast.  Greek festivals, Italian feasts, the Puerto Rican Day parade, Portuguese fairs, etc.  I partook in the Feast of Saint Anthony at a local church this weekend as a sort of preview for the bigger (and better) "Italian Festival" that I've gone to in my hometown since childhood.

I probably don't need any pizza since I'm about to go to Italy, but the quality of this brick oven pizza (on the street!) surprised me so much that I had to try it.  
There were clams as well.  Absolutely perfect, refreshing, delicious clams.  They weren't very photogenic, however.

Poor S played this air rifle game three or four times, getting closer and closer to winning each time.  On this try, he only missed one little tip of the star at the top, but "almost" only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades (or so the saying goes).

We didn't actually play the "money wheel" and I'm not exactly sure how it works, but it seems like the quintessential symbol of fairs and carnivals to me.

I'm not stupid enough to go on any of the rides, but they're a necessary part of the experience anyway.

This type of thing shouldn't seem so novel to me.  I'm about to spend a whole summer playing these games and eating these foods, but they make me happy every time.  It feels like being a kid on summer vacation.