Talking Metaphysics with Carl Sagan

"Billions and billions," is supposedly how Carl Sagan described the expansive number of galaxies suffused throughout our infinite universe. The catch phrase became synonymous with the popular scientist, who wanted to pique the public's interest in outer space and its mysteries.

Due to the simple reality of my birth date, the odds of me befriending Mr. Sagan before he passed onto his precious cosmos can also probably be summed up with his signature saying. My friend Michael, however, did have conversations with "Carl" about metaphysics. He also turned Sagan's novel, Contact, into one of my most beloved films. And so, I figure, being acquainted with the man who was entrusted with adapting Carl Sagan's one work of fiction into a screenplay, is surely something like knowing Carl once-removed.

Michael was in town this past week putting the finishing touches on the new Harry Potter movie (yes, he adapted that too), and he was kind enough to invite me to join him for dinner at the uber-trendy Asia De Cuba.

Michael himself is a sincere, insightful, understated individual, who dubs places like Asia "scary hip," and when he tells you earnestly that he put a lot of himself in the Harry character of this latest film, you say to yourself, "ahh, but of course, I see it." (I mean, really, don't you see it?)

Before our scary hip dinner (those spikes in my tofu did look formidable) we went to see Anton Chekhov's play, The Seagull, starring Kristin Scott Thomas and that nerdy guy from the British version of the office. It's set in the Russian countryside where the characters fish, wear threadbare overcoats, and shoot seagulls - nothing intimidatingly tony. But the crux of the story dealt with something far more daunting in my mind than entering even the poshest of scenes: the a career of writing. The process, the obsession, the art, the pseudo-art, the curse of success, the curse of failure, the quest for unattainable perfection; everything that goes into making scribbling a profession. It was fantastic.

I heard echoes from my internal dialogue in some of the characters' tirades. Especially in the character Trigorin's description of what it's like to be inside his head:

"Day and night I am obsessed by the same persistent thought: I must write, I must write, I must write. . . . never for one moment do I forget that there is an unfinished story waiting for me indoors. I see a cloud shaped like a grand piano. I think: I must mention somewhere in a story that a cloud went by, shaped like a grand piano . . . But as soon as the thing is published my heart sinks . . . I see every error . . . It is not what I meant it to be."

And seated next to Michael, the rest of what unfolded on stage meant more. Thanks to my apt company, watching something that so intimately dissected the psyche and struggles of a successful writer made it more personal and relevant; something like watching a person's biography with them, but in a more abstract archetypal fashion. He confirmed that Chekhov had captured the emotion and labor and characters that comprise a writer's world, particularly that of playwright, which is what Michael started out as before he delved into movies.

Early that next morning, I sat looking out the window of Kasey's apartment. It was raining softly; water droplets were sticking to the window like overgrown molecules. I felt like one of them. Felt like one of the the billions and billions of particles harmoniously making up the view. When I saw Contact for the first time, I didn't even know who Carl Sagan was, but I remember, so distinctly, "For Carl" appearing on the screen at the film's conclusion. For some reason, those words struck me as powerfully as the film itself had. Never did I think I would meet the man who penned them.

Carl would probably disagree with my rational for feeling awe at this, but I think it falls in line with his own reverent wonderment for the cosmic universe; how we're all here together, connected. And as I sat thinking through all of this, a cloud floated by. It looked something like a grand piano.

Holly Golightly Takes a Yoga Class

If the real-life Anne Spice has a fictitious counterpart, the distinction goes almost incontestably to Holly Golightly of Breakfast at Tiffany's. While Audrey Hepburn did a lovely job immortalizing the character, I'm partial to the original version of the girl found in of Truman Capote's novella. The Miss Golightly he created would have slapped, not stayed with, any sap who had the gall to say "you belong to me." Nor would his Holly have forsaken a new adventure in Brazil for a sedentary life in New York with some ho-hum writer, she would have deemed it a disgrace to lay waste to such a perfectly good free plane ticket.

But for all of the real Holly's carefree brazenness, there is a part toward the end of the the book, just before she jets off for South America, when she catches herself in a moment of fear about living her life through fits of compulsive flitting.

She says, "I'm very scared, Buster. Yes, at last. Because it could go on forever. Not knowing what's yours until you've thrown it away."

I shared this distressed mindset of Holly's when I arrived at my yoga class a few days ago. I'd had a strange conversation before I got there. Not with a pathetic sap, but with a guy who makes most others look like pathetic saps in comparison. If I'd stayed in one place, ever, there'd be no need to have a conversation about distance and all the logistics of it. But of course I never do, and there we were, our once-strong connection so frayed by the adverse time difference that I didn't even have a clear idea as to what he was getting at, or where he was going with the phone call, but it didn't sound optimistic.

I hung up feeling like once again I'd jeopardized something worth having, essentially thrown it away, not intentionally, but by virtue of the way I live my life. I felt like running. I'm good at that. I reluctantly went to yoga instead.

I've taken up bikram, otherwise known as "hot" yoga, while here in London because it's one of my lifetime goals to become one of those serene yogi fanatics. Ironically, yoga is pretty much the antithesis of everything Holly. Bikram especially, is about working through endless repetition and keeping still through a series of balancing contortions, which is none-too-easy when one is slippery with sweat thanks to the one hundred degree heat.

I was having a lot of trouble during that afternoon's session. I was in flight mode, but I had to stay put. More than once the instructor called me out to correct my posture, or to tell me I was balancing on the wrong leg. But I couldn't focus. All I could think about was how, for the umpteenth time, I'd flitted myself into a corner, and I wanted out.

This runaway train of thoughts went on, despite my stationary stance, for over an hour. Then, while coiled in something of a fetal position, the instructor, who rarely says anything that isn't relevant to doing tree pose or the like, started pleading loudly in front of the entire class with a a woman who was getting up to bail from the toilsome sauna.

"Oh please, don't go," he said. "You've only got ten minutes left! This is just when you left last time. Don't go. Stay! Breathe, sleep, whatever. But if you go now, this is when you'll leave the next time, and then the next. You'll go through your whole life not knowing what happens in the rest of class!"

Everyone laughed at the absurdity of the notion. I laughed along with everyone else. But then the relevance and truth of what he'd said came into sharp focus. My thoughts stopped. I sat, curled up in my ball, utterly stunned.

He was right. I've left and I've left, and I haven't stopped leaving. Time after time I've deserted a pressure cooker in preference of fresh air, unapologetically inhaling the coolness of a new untainted experience, grateful that I've cast off whatever it was that I've left behind. It's never phased me, gallivanting from one situation to the next, so easily creating one leaveable life after another, perpetually game for the escapades unknown. But for all of my insatiable craving to conquer uncharted land, staying is my terra incognita. The instructor's beseeching had resonance; if I keep this up, I might go through my entire life having no idea what happens in the proverbial last ten minutes of class.

With renewed interest in tending to my technique, I finished out the remaining poses and guided breathing, which actually tends to be the most enjoyable part of our yoga practice, swelling with a resolute calmness. In the rapturous relief of those last sweltering minutes, I realized I really didn't want to run at all, I was far more enamored with the idea of being steadfast. The thought of making it beyond that point where I normally withdraw was suddenly the scenario possessing the most intrigue out of the infinite number of other unknowns. I left the studio committed to devoting of myself what was necessary to get there. I wanted to find out what happens when you stay.

Perhaps this yoga class signals a turning point for my inner Holly Golightly. The fact that I've unearthed a new-found willingness to persist down a path where I would normally do an about-face bodes well for other aspects of my life. After all, it is believed that even Capote's beloved drifter eventually happened upon a place that she was more content to inhabit than to abandon; surely there's a comparable African hut for me somewhere.

Drink Lilac Money Orange

As in, drink your lilac-colored money, till it's turned orange. Whatever that means to you. It has an abundance of meanings to me. And I thought it would be an appropriate title for this photo montage of the afternoon I spent at Borough's Market near London Bridge. Enjoy.

The bread man.

Still-life inspiring produce.

My kind of delights!

I mean, vegan chocolate hearts? Am I the only one ecstatic at coming across this booth?

A vendor selling nearly everything you could ever want that comes in a bottle.

This shop won't even let you sit for a cup of tea if you're not going to indulge in one of their sweets.

A feast of jam and butter.

Looking out at Boroughs . . . the perch where the shopping excursion ended.

Is This Bohemia?

Kasey took me to Spitalfields Market yesterday, and in addition to some very enticing produce (these tomatoes look downright hallowed), we stumbled across Bohemia, the store. The shopkeeper was hardly friendly (more like frightening), but I'm obliged to take a picture of anything with my blog's namesake.

I look right at home - no?

Unbirthday Girl

The girl looks so much like Alice, it's rather fitting that this year, Kasey's birthday mirrored a chapter from Lewis Carroll's fantastical tale. To start, the fact she was born near midnight in the states, and currently resides in the UK, means that the actual anniversary of her birth comes a day later here than it would at home. It's like a variation on that Chicago song "Does anyone really know what time it is?" "Does anyone really know what day Kasey's birthday is when she's in England?" To address this conundrum, we dubbed both the 19th and 20th days of celebration. But frankly, neither one felt quite right. I can only imagine what it's like for those poor souls born on the last day of February in a leap year.

Rather unwittingly, the theme chosen for her birthday soiree was "Mad Tea," with a color scheme befitting none of than the Red Queen. Tea-lights dotted the room and a teatime banquet was tiered on the table. Tiny curried chicken and egg salad sandwiches were cut into stars and other whimsical shapes. Bowls proffered strawberries, pink and white marshmallows, and, mostly as a question mark, gummy bananas and shrimp, a uniquely British (and utterly odd) candy combo.

Of course at the heart of every proper tea, and certainly every birthday, is a bit of cake. We made ours the crowning point. Kasey and I spent the afternoon creating two delightful confections; a dense, fudgy, chocolate-morsel-spiked cupcake, doubled in weight by a thick swirl of peanut butter frosting, and a buttery white sponge, fragrant with vanilla, fancifully frosted with a sweet buttercream. It was remarked that we'd outdone even the esteemed Hummingbird bakery.

But no birthday claiming parallels with Wonderland could rightfully do so without a bevy of outlandish characters, and (for better or worse) there wasn't an ordinary pawn among us.

The larger-than-life personalities who made up the guest list all attend fashion school with Kasey. Each girl hails from a different country, and it's quite apparent they're all accustomed to being queen. Put all of these abnormally pretty, unusually outspoken, and maniacally styled individuals in the same room and you have a curiously mad birthday tea party indeed.

"Make a wish!" (followed by an abundance of suggestions).

Kasey looking like her sexy Alice self, and me, chiming in as something of the Door Mouse, as we dance to Gnarls Barkley.

Maybe I'm crazy
Maybe you're crazy
Maybe we're crazy

"Off with your heads!" No, actually the giant Alice is just insisting that everyone get up and dance!

"K" is for Kasey and for Kiehl's products proclaiming "WEAR ME!"
She's thrilled to oblige.

Sushi Nouveau and Clubbing Cuckoo

Maybe it was the good karma that comes with an upcoming birthday (Kasey's is Monday), but my sister and her roommates had an unusual number of genuinely attractive possibilities penciled in on their social calendar for Friday night. But after they fielded an invitation that included a dinner reservation at Nobu, there was little need to consider doing anything else.

Apparently, even fashionistas find less allure in the final parties of London Fashion Week when an offer for some succulent sushi is, quite literally, on the table.

From the world of Nobu's low-lit ambiance, we were whisked off to the flashy scene of Cuckoo.

Club on! (Corina was especially enthusiastic).

Of course, anywhere there's dancing, you're sure to find me in the crowd.

Kasey and Marilyn: the perpetually voguing jesters.

Awww, sisterly love.

Our group was all about dancing on the chairs (they're more challenging than tables).

A view during my turn at chair dancing.

Corina presents fire on ice.

You always know just how swish your locale is when you spot the Voss water.

My Hunter S. Thompson photo.

The last poses before our departure.

Last Glance at My Native Expanse

This is the valley I've been looking down into since I was a child. Especially then, I could stare at this view from early evening well into the dark night, mesmerized by the dots of light symbolizing life that would appear; great masses of energy, each one representing, what I thought at the time, were surely millions of lives, rushing about, or merely existing, causing such a stir of twinkling over the landscape in doing so.

Given that I leave tomorrow for parts unknown, and my proclivity for wanderlust in general, it seems a bit counter-intuitive, but I never once wondered what lay beyond this horizon. I was too busy contemplating everything that came before it.

Nothing has changed in this respect. When I glanced outside tonight and saw the fuzzy oranges and pools of blue start to graze the mountains, I breathed a joyous sigh. For a few marvelous minutes, none of my thoughts strayed beyond the view at hand.

When the moment passed, a smile befell my lips and glinted my eyes. And I thanked my life-filled valley for such a beautifully suitable going-away present.

Be My (Early) Valentine

On February 14, I will be on an airplane to London. No doubt, under the right set of circumstances, a transatlantic flight has the potential to be the very height of romance. But unless Cupid has taken up an overactive interest in my love life as of late, a fitful snooze next to a perfect stranger, sharing each other's (and everyone else's) recirculated air, is about as sexy as my Valentine's Day is going to get.

To offset the dreary fate of my actual V-day, everyone is getting sweet nothings from me in the form of heart-shaped sugar cookies (for those of you far away, I'm sorry, the pictures will have to suffice).

It's funny, while I usually make my whole wheat sugar cookies around this special day in February, rarely I am struck by an urge to make them the rest of the year. But a few days ago, without even realizing how near we were to the holiday, I was seized by an overwhelming yen for these delectable sandy cookies with their subtle almond flavor and thick pink frosting. Only after I set about looking for the recipe did I realize the timeliness of my craving. I guess it lends credence to that notion that love floats through the air. Perhaps even in confined cabin spaces overseas.

Whole Wheat Sugar Cookies Recipe + a Caveat

As some of you know, I initially couldn't find my recipe for these cookies, and I never did (yet another casualty of my nomadic lifestyle). What follows is an amalgamation of several sugar cookie recipes, plus my remembrances of the original. Reports are that they taste fine, but I can't guarantee that what follows is exactly what I did when I threw them together.

1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon soda
1/2 cup butter
1 1/2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 cups wheat flour

Cream together butter and sugar. Add and mix egg, milk, and extracts. Mix in remaining dry ingredients. Cover dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate for half an hour. Roll out chilled dough to 1/4 inch thickness. Cut into shapes. Bake cookies in preheated oven at 375 degrees for 7-8 minutes till just oh-so-lightly browned around the edges. Frost! And enjoy!

Homemade Crust: Be Not Afraid

I admit, when first faced with a recipe requiring a crust, no small amount of panic sets in. Like tempering chocolate or tiptoeing around a souffle, turning flour, butter and ice water into something elatingly edible is supposedly a feat so finicky it requires a windfall of luck rarely found anywhere but on the shoulder of a true professional. Usually, before I fully commit to tackling the daunting task, I entertain the idea of picking up something emblazoned with Pillsbury's blue and white logo; a ready promise of ease and success. But then I remember, that somehow, without any recollection of it being too traumatizing, I've done it before, and that the savory bites it imparted were worth it.

So I start slicing butter into flour, and no more than ten minutes later, with a bowl full of smooth dough ready-for-rolling, I think, "Now, what was the big deal about that?"

Honestly, this whole notion of crust being a frightening undertaking is nonsense; perhaps a myth first preached by that dough boy donned in a chef's hat (a reasonable and smart marketing tact from his perspective, no doubt). It may not look as pretty as his, the edges may not be fluted (I, for one, can rarely be bothered with that), but I assure you, the taste is far-superior.

To start you off, I give you my favorite crust recipe, inspired by one of Nigella Lawson's for savory tarts. I used it for the base of a Spinach Pie adapted from a Wild Oats recipe. Enjoy.

Cornmeal Crust

3/4 cups flour (I tend to use a mix of whole wheat and all-purpose)
1/4 cup cornmeal
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter
3-4 tablespoons ice water, or enough to bind

Pulse dry ingredients in a food processor, then add butter, diced into small pieces. Pulse till it looks like breadcrumbs, then add enough ice water to form dough, gently pulsing just till combined. Form dough into a disk, wrap with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Spinach Tomato Pie

10 ounces chopped spinach
1/4 sour cream
1/2 chopped onion
1 cup evaporated milk
2 egg whites
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 cloves minced garlic
3 tablespoons basil
6 ripe cherry tomatoes
1 cup shredded fresh mozzarella cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Fit crust into 10-inch quiche plate.

Mix spinach, sour cream, onions in mixing bowl. In separate bowl whisk together milk, eggs, and spices. Stir 1/3 cup milk mixture in spinach mixture. Mix half the cheese into the spinach mixture. Spoon spinach mixture into bottom of prepared crust. Add layer of tomatoes, and top with cheese. Pour remaining milk mixture over cheese. Place pie plate on baking sheet.

Bake 45 minutes, or until set. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.