Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Little River Cafe, Portland

The Little River Cafe in Portland became an unofficial outpost of our conference last week, especially around breakfast time when it filled up with students (like me!) looking to avoid the expensive hotel breakfast buffet.

I enjoy waking up to a cooked breakfast, and it's fun to try out different local variations when I travel. This place had enough variety to keep me happy for the whole conference week: I had three different kinds of pancakes on different days and twice I had poached eggs with potatoes and toast. I'm not yet sufficiently in-tune with US culture to have eggs and pancakes in the same meal, although the option was available.

The eggs were perfectly to my taste, with soft yolks, and the potatoes were cooked with a nice mix of gentle spices. They had three kinds of bread for the toast; I opted for sourdough which was fresh and had just a slight tang of the 'sour' to it.

The pancakes were fluffy and huge, six or seven inches across. I tried blueberry, raspberry, and candied walnut. They were dusted with icing sugar and served with butter and syrup, thankfully provided on the side since I used less than a third of the generous syrup provision and no butter (usually - I tried it once just to see why it was there). The berries were fresh and really juicy.

On Sunday I wanted to eat something substantial enough for brunch to stop me getting hungry at the airport, so I went for the 'Wilamette Scramble'. This was cheesy scrambled egg served on a heap of spiced potatoes and vegetables (broccoli, courgette, onion, peppers), with toast on the side. The vegetables were fresh and cooked al dente, and it was a great meal that filled me up and made me wish I'd ordered it earlier in the week so I could have it more than once.

Another reason to keep going back there was the coffee - tasty, organic, and with free refills across three varieties. I was almost tempted to pop out and grab more coffee during the afternoon break (the conference provided flasks of Starbucks, and I'm just not a fan).

There are tables outside, but my favourite spot was sitting in the window and looking out at the river, while still keeping out of the sun/rain (depending on the day!).

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Chinese Tea in the Chinese Garden

When I was debating whether to visit Portland's Chinese or Japanese garden, one of my friends on Twitter suggested that the Chinese garden would be better, if only because of the tea house and its excellent mooncakes. Well, you all know how much I love a nice cafe, and the promise of a new kind of cake was just too much to resist.

I visited with a couple of friends from the conference, and between us we sampled three teas and two different kinds of mooncake. Mine had a delicious red bean filling - but it was so rich and sweet that I ended up taking half of it back to my hotel with me to finish later.

Sitting in gentle Portland sunshine, sipping tea and contemplating the gardens, was a truly perfect respite from a week of intense academic brain-exercise!

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Portland's Chinese Garden

I didn't realise that when I visited Portland, I'd be able to visit China on the same trip - but stepping through the gates of the Lan Su Chinese Garden, that's really what it felt like.

Since this trip was 90% conference, and only a tiny amount of time for sightseeing, I didn't bring my proper camera. I regret that a little (though it was nice to have lighter luggage), but I still think the garden is better described with pictures than with words. From the moment you step in from the street, you could be in ancient China.

Of course if you look up beyond the Chinese pavillions, you're straight back into modern-day America...

Friday, 24 June 2011

Last Tango In Portland

"I'm faking my way through this," he said, "but would you like to dance?"

Amused by the idea that anyone could be 'faking it' more thoroughly than I was at that moment, I of course accepted, offering caveats of my own: "I haven't done tango before, but I sort of know how to follow."

Even that might have been overstating my case: I did a few ballroom classes when I was a teenager, so I was familiar with the concept, but the class was almost entirely girls which meant the leading/following dynamic was never really established. Most of the time we practised the steps without a partner. And the vast majority of my dance experience is in folk dancing and line dance, where the concept doesn't even apply. But I wasn't about to admit that, and I certainly wasn't going to be deterred by my own incompetence. I'd even packed my most "danceable" dress specifically for this one evening.

I was actually a bit surprised when I first saw on the programme that there'd be tango lessons at the conference dinner. My overall impression of the tango is that it's one of the more "up close and personal" dance styles, which seemed like a strange choice for a professional meeting. (And I'm sure it didn't help that the only tango piece I know well is Tom Lehrer's excellent satire, the Masochism Tango - embedded at the bottom of the post for the benefit of anyone who doesn't know it.)

So on the evening of the dinner, we'd had an introductory lesson for a few minutes (in which we were introduced to some rather less intimate holds lest anyone be dancing with their advisor!) and then we were left to our own devices. All the men I knew had opted out of the dancing, so I'd taken the introductory lesson with the nearest available guy, who thankfully had had prior tango experience. Now I found myself led onto the floor by a perfect stranger, both of us convinced that we didn't know what we were doing.

The instructor had told us that people don't talk while dancing the Argentine tango, but what can I say... I'm a chatterbox, so we ignored that suggestion. And after a few awkward seconds of worrying about posture, and wondering if I really knew what following even involved, and trying hard not to step on anyone's toes, something magic happened: I got caught up in the conversation and forgot all about my feet. It turns out that my body can follow just fine on pure instinct, even if I have no conscious awareness of what's being signalled or how. The clearest example came when my partner apologised for having led some move we hadn't discussed, by accident - and I hadn't even noticed.

During the course of the evening and with a number of different partners, I learnt that my level of dancing ability at any particular second has almost nothing to do with me, and everything to do with some indefinable cues which I can pick up when they happen to be there. When they're not there, I stumble and get my weight wrong and get trodden on.

I also learnt that I rather like the tango (I've been humming the rhythms ever since) and it's fun to try a dance which has a very clear style, but no predefined step sequence. Quite different to what I've done before. I'd definitely like to do it again sometime, and I'd love to learn all the kicks, flicks, and turns that would make improvisation really fun.

Here's a good example of what we didn't look like - I should stress that my dress was also quite unlike this one:

And finally, Tom Lehrer's fabulous Masochism Tango:

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Triathlete In Training

I can't remember whether I mentioned that I'm planning to enter a triathlon in September. I've never done anything remotely like this before. I haven't touched competitive athletics since I was sixteen, and even then I was a sprinter not a distance runner. But this is a very small triathlon with short distances, which should make it suitable for beginners, and a couple of my equally-beginnerish friends are going to enter as well. I have two realistic (I hope) goals: finish the course, and don't come last. Anything else is pure bonus.

At the beginning of the week I noticed that the gym here at the conference hotel has a pool, an exercise bike, and running machines, so I figured I could do some training while I'm here.

First lesson: don't try to swim actual lengths in a pool that's 2ft "deep" at the shallow end. It can only end in grazed knees and stumbling awkwardly as you try to turn around without just standing up. Hmm. So I gave up on the swimming.

I'm doing rather better at the biking and running. This morning I did 15km cycling (36m49s) and 2.7km running (14m58s), and I still felt human at the end of it. Those are the distances I'm aiming for, so it's feeling plausible that I might be able to do roughly the same after swimming as well.

Triathlon has a whole set of challenges that don't affect most race-type events, embodied in the so-called "fourth discipline" of transitioning from one section of the course to the next. This basically means you have to get out of the pool and get dressed as quickly as possible. Which sounds fine until you realise that you're doing it in full view of everyone, and my swimming costume doesn't have anywhere near the level of support I need from a running top. I've heard that you can buy specialist triathlon suits, which I might have to investigate, especially if this is going to be more than a one-off (a matter on which I'm reserving judgement for the time being).

Monday, 20 June 2011

Concrete Curves

Walking between my hotel and the university for last week's conference sessions, the path took me under one of the biggest roads I've ever seen. Or at least, one of the biggest I've seen from underneath. It's quite majestic in an "industrial concrete" sort of way. Of course I had to stop and take pictures.

Meanwhile, from Portland's cable car, you can see what it looks like from above:

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Sleepy In Seattle (Airport)

It's almost 5pm when we touch down in Seattle. Or, as my British-synched body clock keeps trying to tell me, almost 1am.

US immigration is blessedly quick for once, with a really friendly guy on the desk, and then I'm left in the airport with over three hours until my next flight. I confuse the staff by wanting to go to flight connections without collecting any luggage, have my carry-on case tested with some kind of mass spectrometer (anyone know what that's all about??) and head upstairs into the terminal building to find a map.

It turns out that I have to take three trains to get from my arrival terminal to the one I need for Portland. I think that's a personal record for connecting flights, although it's quicker than the time I had to take a coach between Gatwick and Heathrow.

If you've never been, let me tell you, Seattle airport is really gloomy with low ceilings and not enough light. When I arrive, it's also almost deserted. I contemplate the coffee shop (Starbucks, of course) but I had three coffees (not to mention a few glasses of wine) on the flight from London. In the end I settle on a seat right by the gate, where at least there's a panoramic window giving enough light to read.

A little silver propellor plane just outside is also on its way to Portland, boarding now. I ask the lady on the desk whether it will be the same plane on the way back, and she says it will. We get chatting about where I come from, and she tells me about her visit to see her cousin in England, which passes a few minutes in pleasant conversation.

Then she closes her flight, wanders off to do something else, and I settle back into my book.

I read a couple more chapters before I'm disturbed a little later by grunting noises from the other side of the gate. I look up... and then down. A man's arm spreads across the ground, twitching a little. That's all I can see of him past the desk. More noises, more twitches. By this point my heart is pounding and I'm praying that I can remember all my first aid. Is he having an epileptic fit or a heart attack? Will I be able to tell the difference?

I get to my feet and walk around the desk. He's kind of curled up on the floor, one leg out, and the one arm I'd seen thrown out to the side.

"Excuse me," I say, not hopeful of a response. "Are you okay?"

He looks up, surprised. "Yeah, I'm just stretching. Thanks for checking."

I'm so relieved I almost forget to be embarrassed. No first aid required. I don't have to come to the rescue, or call for help on the gate microphone.

"Sorry to disturb you," I say, backing off, back to my seat. "I could only see your arm."

He laughs at that, and goes back to his exercise. I pick up my Kindle and check the time. The little plane should be back any minute.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

'Spring Into Summer' book giveaway hop

'Spring Into Summer' is a giveaway hop hosted by Liz at Coffee & Romance and Karen at Release Notes. 42 bloggers are getting together to offer you a chance of winning book-related goodies (see below for a full list of participating blogs), and I'm giving away a signed copy of my first novel, Rebellion. You can find out more details about Rebellion, including reader reviews, on Goodreads.

Rebellion cover

It's easy to enter - just leave a comment, and make sure I have your email address. The giveaway is open to Europe, US, and Canada.

The blog hop runs 17th - 21st June, and I'll pick a winner at random on June 22nd. Don't miss out on all the other great prizes up for grabs this weekend:

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Writing Under Exam Conditions

My mum recently found some old exam papers from when I was eleven. One of them was a short story, written in forty-five minutes. I think it's the earliest story of mine, of which I have a copy.

"Just go through that door and keep going until you reach the tunnel," whispered Louise.

"I'm scared, Mandy!" Susan was trembling as she spoke.

They had been planning this for months, and now the day had finally arrived. They were all nervous!

Eric Jonson was a mean, cruel old man. He had captured the two sisters, Mandy and Susan, and locked them up.

His daughter, Louise, felt sorry for them. She was helping them to escape.

They had dug a tunnel over the nights. Now, that night, they were going to escape!

"You'll be O.K., just follow me," replied Mandy, "be brave or we'll never get out. Now hurry!"

They crept down the narrow passage, it was rather a tight squeeze, but they managed all right.

"HELP!" screamed Susan, "a spider! I-i-it's massive!"

"Shut up," whispered Mandy, sharply, "You'll wake Mr. Jonson and the whole plan'll be ruined!"

Suddenly, the two girls heard a crash. The roof had collapsed in front of them!

"Turn round, Susan! We'll have to go back!" hissed Mandy.

"Why," inquired Susan.

"The roof's collapsed! Quickly, turn round!"

They did, and soon they came to a solid wall of soil. Louise had already started filling in the tunnel.

"We'll starve to death!" wailed Susan. "We'll starve and the massive great spiders'll eat us!" and with that she broke down into violent sobs.

Meanwhile, at the top of the tunnel, Louise packed the shovel away.

'Daddy shouldn't find out now,' she thought, walking away from the site of the tunnel, and leaving Mandy and Susan trapped.

They tried to dig an exit with their hands, but to no avail. It only made their situation worse!

Eventually, Mandy gave up. She fell into a deep sleep from which she never awoke. A few days later the same thing happened to the heartbroken Susan.

10 years later, Louise found the courage to report her father to the police.

He was charged with the capture and imprisonment of innocent children and jailed for 8 years. When they later found the bodies, he was re-tried for murder and found guilty.

Even Louise hardly cried when she heard he had been jailed for life.

She went to live with her grandparents and was a lot happier than she had been at any other time in her life.


For anyone who's ever wondered when I started writing plots with a high body count... I think this proves it's always been a tendency in my writing! I did get a funny look from a stranger the other day when I was overheard commenting to a writing buddy that "I often kill people I like."

It was very funny to read something that I wrote so long ago, and that I had no memory of writing. I definitely went overboard with the exclamation marks, didn't I?

There was also a planning sheet to help with plotting the story - mine includes such classic lines as "They have not done anything wrong. It is not a proper jail."

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Choc Cherry Coconut Bars

I wanted to try making flapjack with chocolate chips but I didn't really think it through, and when I stirred in the chocolate, it all melted thanks to the warm butter mixture. However, the result was nice enough that I'll definitely do it this way again! I kept these in the fridge, as otherwise they chocolate may melt and they're a little bit soft.

Choc Cherry Coconut Bars
Makes 24

325g (2½ US sticks) butter
150g (2/3 cup) soft brown sugar
70g (1/3 cup) molasses sugar
½ cup maple syrup
200g (1 cup) cherries
200g (1 cup) dark chocolate chips
90g (1 cup) dessicated coconut
700g (7 cups) oats

  1. Preheat the oven to 190°C

  2. Melt the butter, sugar, and golden syrup in a large bowl (quickest way: 4mins on high power in the microwave)

  3. While the butter is melting, quarter the cherries.

  4. Stir about half of the oats, and the coconut, into the melted butter mixture.

  5. Add the cherries and chocolate, and mix until the cherries are evenly distributed. The chocolate will melt.

  6. Add the remaining oats and stir until all the oats are coated in butter/chocolate mixture (i.e. no remaining white patches)

  7. Line a 25x35cm, deep-sided tray with greaseproof paper, and press the mixture into the tray, smoothing with a spatula to ensure approximately even depth.

  8. Bake for 25 minutes, until the top begins to brown (this won't be very obvious since it's already brown with chocolate!).

  9. Allow to cool in the tray until they are set hard enough to cut, then slice up and move to a wire rack to cool completely.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Negative Results

Another week, another conference submission deadline. If I seem busy at the moment, this is why. It's that time of year. Summer in academia: attending one conference whilst preparing a paper to submit in time for the next deadline.

But there's something that's started troubling me, tucked away in the carbon-copy text that always seems to accompany each call for papers:

Negative results should be submitted as short papers.

But why?

Why should the write-up of an experiment be entitled to only half the number of pages, just because it shows that something doesn't work as expected? We're scientists, aren't we? Negative results aren't bad. Indeed, you can often learn more from things that don't work. If something doesn't turn out as the theory predicted, that's probably really important to finding a better theory. It bothers me that big, important conferences are choosing to sideline the issue.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Traditional Fruit Scones

I love scones. Whenever I go out for afternoon tea, I'll look for a good scone as my first preference, only turning my attention to the cakes if I fail to find a satisfactory scone. Fruit scones are my preference - sometimes I'll order a cream tea even with a plain scone, but for me, it's the more fruit the better.

I don't make these nearly as often as I should, I'm sure, considering just how simple they are to make. Nothing beats a warm scone, fresh from the oven, with just a little butter melted inside. It also means I can make them exactly how I want them.

Of course, the fruit is entirely optional, leaving you with a base scone mixture. For savoury scones, miss out the sugar as well, and maybe add some herbs or cheese (I'll probably blog a cheese scone recipe soon, as my husband is a massive fan of cheese scones).

Scones always strike me as a very British thing. Just don't get drawn in by the (very regional) debate about whether you should put the jam on before the cream, or the cream before the jam!

Fruit Scones
Makes 8 medium scones

200g (8oz) plain flour
4tsp baking powder
25g (1oz) caster sugar
50g (2oz) butter
125g (5oz) dried fruit (I used 100g (4oz) raisins and 25g (1oz) candied peel)
150ml (5floz) milk (or water)
  1. Preheat the oven to gas mark 8 (or I use 220°C in my fan oven), and flour (or lightly oil) a baking sheet.

  2. Mix together the flour, baking powder, and sugar (sifting if necessary).

  3. Rub the butter into the flour mixture.

  4. Mix in the dried fruit.

  5. Add milk a little at a time, stirring until there are no dry patches of flour left. As with all baking, the amount of liquid you'll need will depend on humidity, but it's less important to get it exactly right with scones.

  6. At this point, you could roll out the mixture on a floured surface, and use a cutter to make your scones. Typically I just divide the mixture into eight, and roll into rough balls between my hands, but then I like the 'rustic' look.

  7. Arrange on the baking tray (bearing in mind that they'll probably spread a little) and bake for 10-15 minutes.

  8. Allow to cool for a couple of minutes, but serve warm, while they're still perfect. (They will keep for a couple of days, though, if you're restrained enough to avoid eating them all at once.)

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