Friday, October 24, 2008

Voting Irregularities

No matter where I look, it seems I am constantly finding things here in Oregon that are totally different than in Nashville. The latest of these irregularities is the way they vote. (Or I guess I should say, "the way we vote." I'm still working on that whole "we" thing.)

In 1998, Oregon became a vote by mail state. It's the only state in the country that conducts elections completely by mail. Do you realize what that means?

No polls. No lines. No machines. And no little sticker that says "I voted" which to me, is a major bummer.

It all started when I received a ginormous booklet in the mail titled "Voters' Pamphlet 1 of 2: Measures". I started flipping through the 150+ page book, wondering why I had received such a thing, and what I was supposed to do with it. Upon further inspection, I realized that it's just an informational tool so I can be more educated about what state measures will be on the ballot. I never received anything like this in Nashville, and now I'm asking myself, "why not?" I mean, what a fantastic idea!

Why is the book so large, you ask? Because it details each measure that will be on the ballot, showing: the estimate of financial impact for each measure, an explanation of how they arrived at said financial impact, the complete text of the measure, and an impartial statement explaining the measure (in layman's terms). It also has 5-10 pages of arguments for/against each measure so you can read both sides of the argument. Anyone who wants to shell out $500 or can get 1000 signatures gets a space in the booklet for their argument. Wowsers! I mean, folks, this is democracy at its best. And I just love it!

A few days later, I received a second booklet, similar in size, titled "Voters' Pamphlet 2 of 2: Candidates". And, yep, you guessed it: same story here. It also has a description of each party platform (which is actually quite interesting). On a funny side note, check this guy out:

I'm pretty sure I would have asked for a retake.

So, let's talk about voting by mail for a minute. My initial reaction was not a good one. I mean, I like going to the polls. There's something symbolic about it. Standing in line has never bothered me much, and there is such a feeling of community when you're surrounded by people all motivated to do their civic duty. To me, voting by mail brings up questions about voter fraud, and it seems to me that it would be easier to conduct some sort of scammy voter operation by mail. But maybe I'm wrong. I must be, otherwise why would they do it?

I'll tell you why. Lots of reasons: 1) It's cheaper. 2) Voter participation is way higher. People with no car (which there are LOTS of in Portland) and people disabilities can vote from the comfort of their own homes, and they can get help reading the ballots. 3) People are more likely to vote on the measures and candidates (other than presidential) because they have time to research them carefully and can make an informed decision. 4) It's easier for counties and polling officials to conduct the elections.

About voter turnout / participation. It appears that Oregon leads the nation in voter participation. In the 2004 general election, voter turnout was 86.4 %, the 2nd highest turnout in Oregon's history. No, that's not a typo. 86.4 percent, my friends. The average voter turnout nationwide for that election was only 55 %. The highest turnout in Oregon history was only slightly more at 86.5 %, for the 1960 election between Nixon and Kennedy. And so far for the 2008 election, ballot returns are already up over 2004 numbers, so they're expecting to set new records again this year (like every other state, I'm sure).

Those numbers are something to be seriously proud of, so I'm pretty much convinced. Especially after seeing all over the news, people waiting for more than 5 hours in places like Florida to early vote. I have a feeling Oregon is going to be one of the few states that can handle the extra turnout. I was watching CNN a few days ago and they were asking people to write in with their early voting stories of woe, when one of my fellow Oregonians said it best, "Last night, my husband and I sat down with a cup of coffee and filled our ballots together in the comfort of our own home. I will mail them tomorrow knowing that my paper ballot says exactly what I want it to say with no electronic glitches or switches. Hooray for the Oregon mail-in vote!"

So, I'm embracing it. Even though I won't get a sticker this time. Of course, I could make my own sticker. That's an idea.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

BFB: Chocolate Scotcheroos

Scotcheroooo-ey goodness
When I was about 7 years old, I choked on a piece of butterscotch hard candy. I mean, seriously choked. There was a heimlich maneuver involved and everything.

I used to love butterscotch, and my grandmother always had a candy dish on her coffee table full of them. They looked so magical... with their shiny, sparkly wrappers and bursting with gold color. They were like little nuggets of sunshine. And apparently, I loved them so much that I got a little over-eager and sucked one straight down my wind-pipe. Yikes!

Anyway, since then, I've kind of had an aversion to butterscotch in general. Not because I don't like it, because I still do. But, an experience like that traumatizes such a young person. So, suffice it to say I had never had a scotcheroo until I found this recipe. And when I was reading the ingredients (peanut butter, chocolate, butterscotch, rice krispies) I thought to myself, "How can I go wrong?" Plus my mom used to make us peanut butter rice krispie treats when we were kids (instead of marshmallow ones). So, I thought these would be doubly nostalgic for me!

I was short on light corn syrup, so I had to mix in some dark.

This is what it looks like when you use a pot that's too small and you can't even stir your ingredients.

Chocolate and butterscotch chips. Yum!

Just press into the pan! No need to turn on the oven!

Chocolate Scotcheroos
Makes about 24 bars

1 cup light corn syrup
1 cup sugar
1 cup peanut butter (I actually think these weren't peanut buttery enough, so I would suggest increasing this to maybe, 1 1/2 cups)
6 cups rice krispies cereal
1 package semi-sweet chocolate morsels
1 package butterscotch morsels
Vegetable cooking spray

1. Measure corn syrup and sugar into large saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until sugar dissolves and mixture begins to boil. Remove from heat. Stir in peanut butter; mix well. Add rice krispie cereal. Stir until well coated. Press mixture into 13 x 9 x 2-inch pan coated with cooking spray. (I sprayed my hands with cooking spray before pressing to keep the mixture from sticking to my hands instead of the pan.) Set aside.

2. Melt chocolate and butterscotch morsels together in small saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly. Spread evenly over cereal mixture. Let stand until firm (or, if you're impatient like me, refrigerate until firm). Cut into bars when cool.

Be sure to check out Amy's Chocolate Scotcheroos too!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Training Day

Justyn and I decided that we want to try running. I mean, like a real race.

I have never considered myself the running type, but I've realized living in Portland, that exercising and being healthy is totally contagious. And, for me that's a good thing, because I've been known to be kind of a quitter when it comes to physical exertion. I feel terribly uncomfortable when I exercise... my hair gets all sweaty around my face/neck, and my face gets all hot and red. And afterwards I always feel like I'm going to pass out. I have a pretty serious fear that I might give myself some sort of heart failure if I over-exert myself. I have no idea what my target heart rate is supposed to be, but I'm pretty sure that mine must get up to like 180 bpm.

Portland has an amazingly large percentage of people that are active. Almost every person you meet is into some sort of outdoor activity: skiing, snowboarding, running, kayaking, climbing, you name it. Which, to me, is kind of odd, considering that Portland is known for having awful weather. Anyway, some people at Justyn's office are training for a half marathon, and he feels left out. The half marathon is in January, so I asked my runner friend Amy if it's possible to train for a half marathon in 2 months (shows how much I know, right?) The answer is a resounding "NO," for those of you who are as ignorant as I am about such things. So she suggested a 5k for winter, and then if it goes well, we'll try for the half marathon in Eugene which happens in May. She also sent me a "Couch to 5k" training plan, and considering we are essentially starting from the couch (aside from some vigorous hiking we've been doing, and 30 minutes a day on the elliptical machine), we decided to go for it.

After a solid week of procrastinating (I'm kind of tired, or it's a little dark, or it's raining, or it's cold, or I have a little headache, or maybe I'm getting sick), we finally got off our rumps to start training. Overall, it went pretty well. I didn't have any problem maintaining the intervals, but I did get super tired after about 12 minutes, and the running portions seemed to get longer. But we stuck with it, and finished our 20 minutes (plus stretching and warm-up, of course). I know I'll hurt tomorrow.

Issues I need to resolve quickly:

Ears - I believe that my ear holes/canals are either abnormally large, or they are aerodynamically shaped in such a way that allows cold air to rush into my ear canal at an alarming rate. The result is that after being outside in the cold (even if it's mildly windy...I promise I wasn't running THAT fast) my ears hurt. Like bad. So, I wonder if I should try earplugs of some sort, or some kind of wrap or hat? Or possibly some earmuffs?

Photo courtesy of

Breathing - I think I'm not breathing correctly when running. I try to time my breathing with my pace... so for instance, I breathe in for 3 steps, and breathe out for 3 steps. It seems to be working okay but I always start feeling a little stitch in my side about halfway in, which makes me feel like quitting. I also breathe through my mouth, which I'm not sure is the right thing to do. I think not, because the inside of my mouth gets all filmy and weird.

Posture - Sometimes I feel like my bottom half is moving at a different pace than my top half, and that it's quite possible that I look like Quasimodo to bystanders. Also, my neck kind of hurts now (about 3 hours after), so I'm pretty sure something weird is going on. I need to run in a mirror, just to make sure I look cool. Because I'm pretty sure I don't.

Clothing/Temperature Control - Tonight when we ran it was somewhere between 55 and 60 degrees. I wore cotton yoga pants, a sports bra/top and a light cotton jacket. I ran the first few intervals with the jacket on, then got super hot and so I unzipped it. Then it proceeded to flap around while I was trying to run, so I tied it around my waist. That wasn't much better, because then it was not only flapping around, but was also hitting my legs at the same time which was super annoying. But, my top half was cooler so at least that part worked out.

Timing - I have a Timex Expedition watch, which I have had for a while (I use it as my 'casual' watch). I have never used it for its functions. It's a good thing. The first week of the 5k training is to run for 60 seconds and walk for 90. My timer only has one setting, so I can time the 60 seconds each time I start to run, but then don't have a way of timing the 90. So I thought maybe the Chrono setting would work, but then I'm having to do quick math in my head and have to look at my watch constantly. Not fun. Not to mention that it is uber-dark where we ran, so I had to also hit the Indiglo button so I could read it. Maybe I need a stop-watch, or some kind of funky running/training device that I don't realize even exists?

I'm telling you all of this because I figure I should just get all my excuses out of the way first. I realize that these things could undermine my goal and I'd rather just get it out in the open. All of that being said, I did feel pretty good afterward. Tired, but good. And hungry.

I hope this doesn't come across as a negative post... on the contrary: my hope is that someone out there reading this will realize that maybe they're not the only ones who have all of these hangups. And then maybe you will get off your rump and start running too!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Can't See the Forest for the Trees

I have a confession... I'm coming out of the closet.

I am a tree-hugger.

And when I say "tree-hugger", I mean I'm a hard-core tree hugger. You see, I have always cared a lot about the environment, even when I was a kid. I remember running back from the mailbox screaming, "MOMMA!! CAN I ADOPT A WHALE???" I felt a strong sense of urgency that if I didn't convince my parents to let me adopt an acre of the rainforest, that the world would come to an end and all the trees would disappear off the face of the earth.

But, I kind of thought it was a phase, and I think my parents did too (or at least they hoped). I did quiet down about it for a while, you know... writing "Stephanie loves Brandon" all over my kitten-covered trapper keeper and competing with my friends to see who could blow the biggest Bubblicious bubble seemed more important once I hit my teenage years. But the flame was rekindled once I became an intelligent, independently thinking adult, and now here I am. I have never really classified myself as a "tree-hugger" until now. I mean, I care about the earth, conservation, sustainable living, etc. A tree-hugger? Nah.... I'm not one of those people that will go out in the forest and strap themselves to a redwood to keep someone from bulldozing.

At least, I wasn't...until I moved to Portland. Since I've moved here, I've discovered that I have a deep love, not only of nature in general, but of trees specifically. I mean, look at this picture, and try to imagine being there in real life:

Now tell me you don't want to hug it. You know you do. The cool, crisp air in your lungs, trees towering hundreds of feet above you, the sun peeking through the branches... ahh... it's absolute heaven. I took that picture on the trail to Cape Falcon, which goes along the Pacific Coast.

It's a nice hike that goes through an old growth forest, and we thought it was a great introduction to the region. I had no idea what an old growth forest was when we first came out... and for those of you too lazy to click the link, it means that it has never been cut. Oregon has a thing for clear-cutting forests, which I'm still investigating, and will reserve judgement until I'm able to do further research. But what I have gathered so far does not make me happy. There's a lot of tree chopping going on around what is supposed to be the Greenest City in the country. Do I smell a dirty little secret? Skeletons in Oregon's closet, perhaps? I don't know... we'll see... give me time and I'll figure it out.

Anyway, back to Cape Falcon, the end of the hike is very get a really nice view of a beach, some surfers, and the Pacific:

Back in our neck of the woods (Portland metro), I can still easily get my tree fix. Washington Park is only a couple of miles away, and it's super accessible because the MAX line goes straight to it. Check out this funky tree that is on the Redwood trail:

There is a slogan here in Portland, that "natives" like to use (if there is such a thing, because most people I've met are not actually from here). It says "Keep Portland Weird." This tree is definitely weird. Weird, but cool. Incidentally, I don't care much for the slogan. I'll have to get into that in another post.

Here's a grove of cedar trees. I think they look like green lace:

So, Washington Park includes Hoyt Arboretum, where there a bunch of different trees you can check out. This one is in my top 3 favorites so far:

This is called a Monkey Puzzle tree. I took this picture from the ground looking up, and you can see why it has earned such a name. I don't know if any monkey has ever actually tried to climb one of these, but I know it would confuse the hell out of me and my brain is way bigger than theirs.

This one was also taken in Washington Park, along the Birch trail. I just love the sun shining through the leaves and how it makes them glow. It makes me happy.

Just looking at these pictures make me less homesick (and of course going out and actually taking them helps, too). That's another reason I know I'm a tree-hugger. If you can't hug your parents, hug a tree. It works, I promise. Then you'll be a tree-hugger too.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Home Sweet Home?

Never rent an apartment you've never seen before.

Wait... what I mean is, never rent an apartment you've never seen before, in a city you've never been to before.

... And don't send them any money either.

How did I come across such invaluable information, you ask? Life experience, my friends. Life experience.

From the time Justyn accepted his job offer, to the time we had to BE in Portland was less than a month. So we really had to get moving. We were both still working (fulfilling our 2 week/6 week notices the company had requested) so we couldn't leave to go find a place. Plus we had to start packing, getting the house listed, sell our cars, etc. So, finding another place to live seemed sort of... secondary... I mean, how hard could the whole thing be, right?

So, I got on the internet and started doing some research. After a fairly short amount of time, I found some good prospects. One, in particular, sounded perfect. It was a 2 bedroom, 1.5 bath with a 2-car garage, and like 1480 square feet. It was within our price range, was right on the river with a view, and the FREE Portland street car was only a block away for Justyn to take to work. We figured we couldn't go wrong. Our house was only 1300 square feet, and since we were going down to one car we figured any extra storage we needed could go in the 2-car garage. So, we sent them a check for our application fee and to hold the place for us.

When we first drove into the city, we figured we should go scope it out and possibly stay there until our furniture arrived. We went to the office to pick up our keys, and they took us over to see it. And, I mean... immediately we knew it wasn't going to work. The layout was more like a townhome (multi-level) which was cool, but the STAIRS. Oh my, the stairs. Did you ever go to like, Mammoth Cave, or Carlsbad Caverns or anywhere like that, where they had the fat man's canyon? The stairs in the apartment looked like this:

And, the whole rest of the apartment was like... small. I mean, really small. I don't know what kind of square feet they're using to calculate apartment sizes here on the west coast, but they ain't the same as they are back home in Nashvull. It was like an apartment made for Minnie Mouse (though I doubt her ears would have fit through the stairwell either). But we're not cartoons. We're BIG people. And we have BIG furniture. We have HOUSE-sized furniture. Our couch wouldn't even fit in the stairwell. So... we go back to the office and tell the lady it just won't work. We looked at a few others in the complex but they really didn't have much for us. Finally the manager referred us to a "sister" property a little further out of downtown, and we went to check it out.

The other apartments were nice...fairly new, very spacious, and right on the MAX line so Justyn could still get to work easily. We didn't have a whole lot of time to search around... I mean, our furniture was already on its way. They say there is a glut of condos in Portland (like every other city...ahem...Nashville...) - so many, in fact, that many have been changed over into apartments because they can't sell. But, we just didn't have that kind of time to spend, plus we were homeless at that point and had to find somewhere for Oliver and our air mattress soon. So, we decided to just rent one for 6 months until we figure out our way around town. So, now here I sit in our 3 bedroom apartment typing my blog (yes, there is a such thing as a 3-bedroom apartment - ha!). It's great, because we have plenty of room for friends and family to come visit.

We called the original property manager back, to thank her for the recommendation and let her know we decided to "stay in the family" or whatever. Then I proceeded to ask when we'd get our money back. Because, part of the appeal of that apartment was a move-in guarantee. You see, if you rent the apartment, move in and decide you don't like it, they give you back your rent, deposit, etc. "no questions asked". Isn't that great? Yeah, it's great if you go ahead and move in, and decide you don't like it. But if you haven't moved in yet, the guarantee doesn't apply. So, we lost a few hundred dollars. We figured we'd just add it to the pile of money we spent coming out here, along with the lost value from all of our damaged furniture. What's a few hundred more dollars at this point?

Moving is expensive, ya'll.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

BFB: Chocolate Pecan Pie Bars

I've mentioned my best friend Amy to you before, and how she has a baking blog. (Incidentally, she also has a running blog if you want to check it out.) Amy and I have been friends for 17 years, since that fateful Burrito Day we shared in the 6th grade cafeteria! About a year ago, I guess, I was complaining to her about my lack of a hobby (an ongoing theme in my life). She said, "You know, you should try baking. It's right up your alley." Baking, as you may know, is a very delicate science. Measurements must be accurate and directions must be followed to the letter. So, I said, "Yeah... you know... that would probably fit into my OCD tendencies pretty well!" Since then, I've been baking more and more, and I do really enjoy it. Now, almost every time I bake something, I think of Amy, and if I have a problem, I think, "What would Amy do?" And if I still don't know... I call her. Missing Amy has been one of the hardest things about moving across the country, so my baking ventures are a way for me to feel closer to her.

Anyway, after I moved here, we thought it would be a good idea for us to do some long-distance, cross-country baking. So, when I was in town last, we picked out a cookbook together, and from time to time we'll be choosing a recipe to make together (but apart). I realize this doesn't have much to do with Oregon, with the small exception that the ingredients are from here, and I'll be baking IN Oregon. But hopefully you'll find something you like and you'll bake it too!

The first BFB (Best Friends Baking) recipe we chose was Chocolate Pecan Pie Bars. Check out Amy's bars here. I thought they were pretty good, but the chocolate really takes away from a genuine "pecan pie" flavor. I think if I make them again I'll leave the chocolate chips whole (not melting them into the syrup). Also, I had problems mixing the crust (not the crust's fault, but more of an operator-type error). I would recommend using a pastry cutter. I halved the recipe since I'm only baking for 2. I'll list the full recipe here, though:

Chocolate Pecan Pie Bars
from Favorite Brand Name Best-Loved Chocolate Recipes

Makes about 32 bars

3/4 cup light or dark corn syrup (I used dark)
3 squares (1 ounce each) semisweet chocolate, or 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 cups coarsely chopped pecans

Bar Cookie Crust
non-stick cooking spray
2 cups flour
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold margarine or butter, cut into pieces
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat oven to 350. Spray 13x9-inch baking pan with cooking spray.

2. First, prepare the bar cookie crust: In large bowl with mixer at medium speed, beat flour, butter, 1/3 cup sugar, and salt until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Press firmly into bottom and 1/4 inch up sides of prepared pan. Bake 15 minutes or until golden brown.

3. Meanwhile, for filling, in heavy 3-quart saucepan stir corn syrup and chocolate over low heat just until chocolate melts. Remove from heat. Stir in sugar, eggs and vanilla until blended. Stir in pecans. Pour over hot crust; spread evenly. Bake 20 minutes or until filling is firm around edges and slightly soft in center. Cool completely on wire rack. Cut into 2 x 1 1/2-inch bars.

Happy Baking!