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Five-star read: Unbroken

I just finished — seriously, 15 minutes ago — one of the best books I have read in a long time. And I know it’s only February so this might be a moot point, but easily the best books I have read yet in 2013.

bookcoverThis book was recommended to me many times, especially when I asked friends for nonfiction suggestions for my New Year’s Reading Resolution. I know that it was a NYT bestseller and Time magazine’s Best Book of 2010, but for some reason, I just couldn’t quite believe the hype.

And the thing is, of all people, I should have some personal interest in a biography about a U.S. Army bombardier who, by an unfortunate twist of fate, becomes a Japanese POW during WWII. I lived in Iwakuni, Japan when I was in first grade, as my dad served in the Marine Corps (he still works with the Department of Defense and travels there often). My paternal grandfather served in the Pacific Campaign of WII, and later in the Korean War, with the U.S. Navy. I studied the story of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes when I lived in Iwakuni, and even helped fold paper cranes to mail to her memorial statue in Hiroshima as a peace offering. So. What. Was. Wrong. With. Me?!?! WHY DIDN’T I WANT TO READ THIS BOOK?

I’m only sorry I did not read this book sooner. Yes, it is a military history book in the sense that there is a lot of information about the planes (B-29s) and military tactics of WWII. But it is SO. MUCH. MORE. Specifically, it is the detailed life story of this man, Louis Zamperini:

WK-AV921_COVER__DV_20101110182743If I were to summarize this man’s incredible story to you, it would sound like a cross between Forrest Gump and The Life of PiOnly, guys. It really happened! Louis — or Louie, as he is more often called — not only endures his plane crashing into the Pacific Ocean, surviving for more than a month on a raft smaller than a bathtub with two crew mates (oh, by the way, fending off man-eating sharks along the way), but THEN has his raft shot down by a Japanese bomber. Then endures two years as a POW in Japan, where he is starved, beaten, and tortured to the brink of death. Not to spoil anything for you, but, um, history: the Allies win, and Louie makes it back to the States, where he must face the personal demons of PTSD, alcoholism, and depression and a plaguing hatred for the Japanese.

As the title of the book, Unbroken, might give away, Louie is a victor in all battles.

Louie embraces his mother, Louise, upon his post-war homecoming.

Louie embraces his mother, Louise, upon his post-war homecoming.

Did I mention that in his pre-Army days, Louie broke all kinds of running records, nearly achieved the four-minute mile and competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics (where Hitler personally congratulated him on his athletic finesse)? Did you know he’s still alive and well today, in his 90s? That you might have seen him in, oh, five Olympic opening ceremonies in the past as he carried the famed torch?

I didn’t, but I’m so glad to know Louie now. What an incredible story about the importance of human dignity and perseverance. I was expecting an exhilarating, harrowing survival story, but what I learned is that it takes so much more than food, water, and shelter to remain truly alive.

This quote from the book really resonated with me: “Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it.”

It was so interesting to read about the little ways the POWs kept their sanity and dignity, even by doing little things like stealing pencil boxes or teaching the dumber, unknowing Japanese guards vulgar English. This book also illustrated how sometimes the existence of hope can truly mean the difference between life and death.

To be honest, some parts of the book were very emotionally challenging to get through. In American public schools, much of what happened to the Allied soldiers in Japan and the atrocities commited by the Japanese military and government are not openly talked about, at least in substantial detail. You’d be hard pressed to find a U.S. teenager who could correctly explain the Rape of Nanking as opposed to, say, Auschwitz. I have read numerous fictional and nonfictional works depicting life under the Nazis’ control of Germany and the horrors of concentration camps, but I had no idea just how nightmarishly the Japanese military treated their POWs.

For example, at one point Louie injures his ankle and can no longer contribute to the hard physical labor the POWs endure in coal mines and the like, so “the Bird,” a sadistic camp leader, forces him to tend to a camp pig, forcing him to clean the stall with his bare hands or else endure a brutal beating. Louie is so malnourished he resorts to stealing handfuls of slop from the swine’s trough for extra sustenance. This is just one example of the abuse he endures.

unbrokenNeedless to say, it is hard not to become quite emotionally attached to the book’s heroes. After seeing men at their weakest and most vulnerable, you can’t help but feel you know them most intimately. I cried at several points in the book, like when an American pilot signals to the POWs that the war is finally over and they are free. Oh, and at the above passage. After witnessing so much suffering, it was hard not to share in the soldiers’ elation and joy, too.

I recommend this book to, well, everyone, but especially Americans. Why do we not read these kinds of things in schools?!? It’s hard to read something like this and not care deeply about our country’s history, about the sacrifices of our military and the hardships on the homefront of decades past. What’s even more mind-boggling to me is that this book focuses mainly on ONE man’s story. Just one. One man out of so many who served their countries during the war. It’s hard to grasp the untold stories that were lost forever in men’s unmarked graves.

Also, big, huge props to writer Laura Hillenbrand for tackling this epic of tale. She spent more than seven years on this project, interviewing Louie more than 70 times (in addition to countless other witnesses and sources), and poring over Louie’s pack-rat scrapbooks, one of which weighed more than a whopping 60 pounds. It is quite a feat to compile so much research, so much information, so much history, into one book and make it so readable, so human…and so addicting. It was hard to put this down at the end of my bus rides or lunch hour. Let’s say I pushed back my bedtime a few times to finish this read.  (At one point, I was racing through, thinking “OK, they’ve got to drop the atomic bombs on Japan soon! And then the war will almost be over.”)

Inspiring, phenomenal, amazing. All the cliches apply here, and rightfully so. Do yourself a favor, and read Unbroken. I swear it’s not the military brat in me speaking.

urlP.S. As of December, there is talk of a film adaptation, to be directed by Angelina Jolie. Whatever. Read the book.

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5 things (about life lately)

560379_10151458986121743_1899409956_n(1) Last night, I made Ratatouille a la Remy, just like in the Disney/Pixar film, thanks to smitten kitchen. I am immensely proud of myself and my mandolin for our hard work. Also, isn’t this one of the prettiest dinners you’ve ever seen? It’s really tasty, too. Now I want to try cooking other French-ish things like coq au vin or boeuf bourguinon. I love cooking. Cooking is my favorite.


(2) It’s funny how people always make Christmastime to be all winter-y, dreaming of White Christmases and decorating with snowmen and paper snowflakes, when really February is the dead of winter. And no one wants to go out on their Valentine’s date in 5 degree weather. It’s amusing how quickly everyone’s seasonal love for scarves, hot chocolate, and other warm coziness fades by this time of the year. I’m struggling to remember how deathly hot it was when we moved in at the end of June, when I took two frigidly cold showers a day and pressed chilled Diet Coke cans to my forehead to prevent overheating. (Photo taken from Sean’s office, at Madison & 42nd, overlooking Grand Central Station.)


(3) Central Park in the snow is the most beautiful, happy thing. When we got about a foot of snow on Feb. 9, there were hundreds and hundreds of New Yorkers out enjoying the snowfall. It looked like one of the old-timey Victorian postcards by Currier & Ives, depicting an era when people would go ice skating on frozen ponds instead of man-made ones and used wooden toboggans instead of the colorful plastic ones of today’s age. You know, like this? This was Central Park two Saturday’s ago.

Currier & Ives Central Park 2

It was such a delight to see children zooming around every which way on sleds and inner tubes and their own backs, dogs frolicking, and grown-ups giggling delightedly like children.


(4) I started volunteering one evening a week with the cat rescue organization from which we adopted our dear Ali. Myself and two other volunteers tend to the half dozen or so cats currently living at the UES Petco. We clean up after them, feed them, provide any medications, and love on them (of course!). Petco is a sad in-between place, like a cat orphanage, before cats are adopted or just temporarily fostered. Some of the kitties, like adventurous, not-quite-photogenic Diesel (above, who just went to a forever home this past weekend!) are sweet as can be. Some are problem children, who dump their food face-down into their litter boxes or hiss at all the other cats. The cats cycle out pretty quickly, fortunately, but it means there’s always someone new in transition there and you don’t know how they’re going to act. In case you couldn’t guess, I now want to adopt ALL OF THE KITTIES. Even the problematic ones.


(5) For Valentine’s Day (OK, technically the day after Valentine’s), Sean and I checked out the NYC location of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, which opened in the fall. We went to the original — and only other — location of Beecher’s at Pike’s Place in Seattle on our honeymoon. It was eerie how similar the two locations looked, right down to the milk jug “stools” and the glass walls that allow you to watch employees make cheese on-site. We went to the downstairs “cellar,” which was surprisingly ritzy. They have nice happy hour deals where you can get the “world’s best mac ‘n cheese” for half-price and $6 glasses of wine. It was super-crowded and unorganized downstairs, and while the decor was nice and the macaroni was delicious, as expected, I think next time we’ll just eat in the casual upstairs deli. Same thing, lower price. 🙂

Then we came home and made fancy s’mores on our gaslit stovetop with a s’mores kit I got from the Brooklyn-based etsy shop whimsy&spice. These were a little more “grown-up,” with substantial graham shortbread cookies, maple-infused homemade marshmallows, and extra-fancy Madecasse chocolates.

But yeah, we did celebrate Valentine’s with mac & cheese and s’mores, so we are probably 10 years old, secretly.

P.S. My Valentine’s gift from Sean, which completely broke our rule of “not getting anything seriously nice,” is two tickets to see She & Him on the Central Park Summerstage this July, furthering my Zooey D. obsession. So sweet! I’m already envisioning myself in a flowy sundress and sandals in the NOT COLD.

Check these two cool kids out here. This will be my third time seeing M. Ward live, and you should definitely check out his work with indie supergroup Monsters of Folk. And give a listen to M.’s solo stuff, too.


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NYC gets really hot and other stuff I’ve learned.

I’ve wanted to create a blog for a long time, but it never felt like the right time. But now, just under two months into married life and just over a month after arriving in New York City by way of Texas, I can tell that now is the beginning of something truly new. There’s much to be learned and discovered and shared.

Rather than rambling on with a long introduction–because chances are that whoever is reading this at this point already knows me–I would like to compose a list. The list is most accurately titled “Things I Wish I’d Known Before Moving to New York City But Learned the Hard (Read: ‘Embarrassing’) Way.” To put it simply, Stuff That I’ve Learned in July 2012:

1. Some MTA buses require you to swipe your metro card before you board the bus. Of course, my first encounter with these bizarre buses was a time when I was hurrying, panting to get across the street and catch an uptown bus to East Harlem (my Target withdrawals are really bad, you guys). I had no time to ponder the mysterious metallic objects planted suspiciously near the covered bus stop and posted bus schedule. This resulted in a very bossy bus driver telling a very flustered me that I needed to get off the bus and swipe my card in the machine, push the button, and show her my receipt as proof of having paid. At first, I thought the driver was nice for waiting while I hurriedly acquainted myself with the metro-card-receipt-producing machine. Of course, no sooner had I boarded the bus than she was stomping on the gas, sending me nearly flying into the lap of a very frail old woman. Which reminds me…

2. Old people love to ride the bus during the day. I know this because I don’t have a job here yet (key word: “yet”), so I am prone to meandering around at times when most normal people my age are in an office, slaving away over their 9-5 duties. OK, on second thought, it’s a lot like reverting back in time to being in college, when it was perfectly normal for me to go grocery shopping on a Tuesday morning because I didn’t have a class. So the main people I see out and about are 1) nannies with 2) rich, white babies and 3) elderly citizens.

Anywho, the important thing about knowing old people like to ride the bus is so that you can be prepared to sit next to them at the bus stop or on the bus and witness them do sad things, like try to endorse a check and repeatedly drop the pen with their too-shaky hands or mumble angrily at the bus driver because they won’t wait for an old woman with a cane for more than 30 seconds. I guess the point is I hadn’t considered the fact that older people–and I mean much older people–live here. It makes me feel tired and weak just thinking about what a pain it must be for them to get to the corner store and back.  I’ve never been a fan of nursing homes, but I can’t help but get the impression they would be happier there, playing BINGO and listening to piano covers of old show tunes with their peers.

3. You don’t really need a microwave. No, listen. You do not really need a microwave. In the past few weeks, I have learned that food simply tastes better when you reheat it on your stove top or in your oven. It maintains its original texture better and stays hotter all the way through the food for much longer than microwaved foods. I’m still experimenting with getting oven temperatures and times just right, but I can’t complain about the new system. Plus, that annoying thing where your ceramic bowl or plate gets so hot from the microwave that you can’t even touch it but the food is still refrigerator-cold never happens anymore.

OK, so sometimes when I’m at CVS or the grocery store and see a box of microwaveable popcorn and start to put it in my basket and then realize “Wait! You don’t have a microwave, you doofus,” well then, I get a little sad. Just a little.

4. You don’t really need a dishwasher either. Say whaaaa-? What you do need is warm running water, soap, and an extra heavy-duty scrubber sponge. The thing is, plates, cutlery, and glasses–those everyday things you would ordinarily stick in the dishwasher and forget about–those are the easiest to clean by hand. It’s the pots and casserole dishes with caked-on brownie crumbs and melted cheese and the like that are flat-out obnoxious to wash. But guess what? You’d have to clean them by hand anyway, even with the luxuries of modern kitchen appliances.

Plus, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Dish-washing is my favorite. Not my favorite like Joseph Gordon-Levitt or freshly baked goods is my favorite. Compared to mopping the floors, taking out the trash, and a whole slew of other not-so-fun household duties, dish-washing is my favorite. In fact, at my first paying job at Marble Slab, I once worked a whole week and a half straight of closing shifts with the same three guys and every night I volunteered to wash all the sticky ice cream scoops and empty canisters to avoid cleaning the public restrooms, hosing off the outdoor seating, and mopping the goopy floors. They called me the “dish-washing wench” (lovingly, of course). It sure beat mopping up all the places (hint: places that were not the toilet) where little boys accidentally relieved themselves in the men’s restroom. No. Thank. You.

5. You do need working legs. I thought my legs were just fine until I had to walk everywhere, including down and up three flights of stairs just to do things like check the mail or take out the recycling or do my laundry. Except those last two activities require going down and up four flights of stairs because those activities take place in our building’s basement. Which kind of looks like it could be the setting for a Law & Order crime scene, with exposed pipes and wires and mysteriously pointless rooms, but that’s another story.

I am now a pro at walking in all varieties of footwear. Yeah, I wear flip-flops on the subway. Where rats sightings are known to sometimes occur. Tina Fey, don’t judge me. What I would like to improve, however, is my ability to walk to the nearest subway in my professional, interview-worthy attire and not discover that I am drenched in sweat when I reach my destination. I really need to focus more attention on improving my superhuman, non-perspiring abilities.

6. Wearing ballet flats on a 95+ degree day to walk from your apartment to Central Park to meet a college friend is a really bad idea. Just listen: it’s a really bad idea, OK? I’m not going to go into details here. Yes, ballet flats are still the best shoes out there.

7. The green mailbox-looking things are not for mail. They are for the USPS, but they are not for you, ordinary citizen. Proceed to walk around the block aimlessly until you spot a familiar and friendly-looking blue box. Deposit your Netflix DVDs here, friend, and carry on.

8. All of the groceries cost more. ALL OF THEM. Yeah, so everyone says “New York City is such a great city, but it’s SO expensive!” And you know how much your monthly rent on a 400-square foot one-bedroom walk-up is and go, “Uh-huh.” But then you go to the grocery store, and it’s like you’ve entered a war zone. Everyone must ration everything, or else jack up the prices on preciously scarce butter, sugar, meat, dairy…everything. $7 for a box of Kellogg’s. $6 for Betty Crocker Cake mix. I kid you not. Brand loyalty? That concept is dead to me.

Enter Fairway Market. Fairway Market is like HEB (or your state’s favorite suburban supermarket) and Whole Foods had a love-child. There’s everything kosher/fair-trade/gluten-free/organic/free-range a big-hearted foodie could want, but there’s also Jif peanut butter and Life cinnamon cereal and fat-free Yoplait. It’s more expensive than Texan or Floridian groceries, but it’s not like they’re asking for $6 for a single Lean Cuisine meal (yes, I saw that too…I’m talkin’ ’bout you, Gristedes). You can also sample gourmet olive oils every single time you come just to feel a little vindicated about paying 50-cents more for every item. There’s also an elevator that I like to take even if I don’t have my cart with me just because, um, it’s an elevator. And I sure don’t have one of those at home. I like to revel in the laziness of NOT taking the stairs from Floor 1 to Floor 2.

9. I know I already mentioned the sweating, but did I mention it’s really hot here? Actually, it’s cooled down to a comfortable 80 or so degrees lately, with intermittent rain showers, which I love, love, love, but when we first moved 1,500 miles northeast from blazing hot Texas, we naively hoped it would be the teensiest bit colder here. Ha.

The first two weeks were filled with heat advisories, 100+ heat indexes, high humidity, multiple applications of deodorant per day, and well, sweat. Getting an A/C unit installed in our apartment has been godsend (fact: you can live without a microwave and a dishwasher, but you cannot live without air conditioning), but it’s still important to remember that you can’t just hop in an air-conditioned car and zip off to an inevitably air-conditioned store. You must walk through the heat, sometimes to a place that is fighting a losing battle against the heat. Carry water with you if you’ll be out for a while. Stop caring what you smell like because the fact that the girl next to you on the subway platform is peeling the hair from her damp neck and fanning herself with her Kindle means she probably isn’t so daisy fresh either.

10. There is no Ro-Tel in Manhattan. Or at least on the Upper East Side. I love almost everything else about New York, even the old people on the buses and my three-flight trek to my apartment (free workout!), but this is just not OK. Let the quest for Ro-Tel (or at least a decent jar of salsa) begin!

That’s it for now. As for the name of this blog, it’s my street, so I thought it would be something that would always be sentimental to me in some way. Also, it’s specific to me and easy to remember but also vague enough that stalkers won’t show up at my front door (I hope).

The banner image is an edited photo I personally took at nearby Carl Schurz Park, which is nestled against the East River. The particular courtyard/seating area depicted is my favorite spot in the whole park. There’s a statue of Peter Pan among the rose bushes, which means those benches are just waiting for avid readers to get lost in a good book while sitting on them!

What can you expect to find here? A little of everything, I hope. Recipes, book reviews, NYC finds, ramblings, rants, and raves. Probably a greater emphasis on rambling, knowing the way my writing operates without set parameters or deadlines.

Much love,



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