Thursday, August 03, 2006

Moving Slowly

Last Friday, I kidnapped my friend SWW. Her husband helped in the crime—he told her a wonderful lie to get her to my house (that ECG and I were eloping! Oh my!), and he had even packed her suitcase and a tasty lunch without her knowing. When SWW and her husband arrived at my house early Friday morning, she learned the truth: she and I were about to adventure to and from the Bay Area via Amtrak’s Coast Starlight.

It takes over 11 hours to get from Los Angeles’ Union Station to Oakland’s Jack London Square when the train is moving along at its scheduled clip, which it never is. Driving to the Bay Area takes well less than half the time of a train trip. Why bother taking the train?

Let me answer by flashing little images of what happened to SWW and I on the way up the coast. We had two seats next to the stairs on the top floor of one of the coach cars, which meant we served as hostesses to everyone who entered our part of the train. We could greet each passenger as s/he climbed the stairs. SWW naturally draws people towards her; she’s kind and friendly, and people want to talk with her. One of the people who chatted with SWW asked us to play a joke on his wannabe actor son, with whom he’d been traveling for 21 days and who had begun to irritate him to high heaven. She happily obliged, commissioning me to be her wing-woman. We ended up feigning a celebrity sighting, swooning over the offending son, and acquiring a signed picture and hand! The wannabe actor and his prankster father seemed delighted by the performance, for very different reasons.

In the observation car, we had the chance to see a pod of dolphins playing near the shore, shooting straight into the air, silvery arcs of marine joy. We enjoyed this sight with a loquacious abuelito and two of his grandchildren. When abuelito accidentally left his beer at his former seat as he moved to sit next to us, his grandson called after him, “Abuelito, you left your vitamins.” And later, in the lounge car, we sat with Larry, the lounge car attendant (with a very expressive voice—the way the man said, “Try my special cinnamon rolls,” wooo-heeee!) and two conductors as we slowly enjoyed a bottle of wine and our dinners. Each man told us the story of how he ended up working for the trains; each had come from very different backgrounds. One of the conductors told us about his stepson’s first broken heart, and as he told the story, his eyes filled with tears over his stepson’s pain. Larry told us about his own son, now getting his MBA, but who had already been written up in Fortune. Back at our seats, the man sitting behind us told us about the 40-foot sailboat that he and his wife had just bought. He was getting off the train at the same stop as us. His new sailboat waited for him in an Alameda marina. He planned on sailing it down the coast this weekend and meeting his wife in Orange County. Clearly, he could not wait to get on the boat. Everyone had love to share.

The train trip allowed us to soak up the beautiful landscapes that California boasts, and it gave us lots of time to tell each other stories. We were able to read, nap, and talk on our cell phones. Taking the train allowed us a very full 11 plus hours. Sometimes, moving slowly is the best way to get the most done.

We had a very adventurous weekend exploring San Francisco and Alameda on foot and ferry, two other wonderful forms of slow transportation. Our hosts, my childhood friend CD and his boyfriend, provided relaxed, comfortable hospitality. The only time we moved quickly during the whole trip was when CD drove us around Oakland to show us his office and some of his projects. He drives a classic old BMW that is so much fun, but also just a bit rickety. Rocking along in it, we flew by the temple of the Oakland Latter Day Saints, a building CD classified as representative of the architectural period he called, “Late Wizard of Oz.”

SWW’s surprise birthday train trip represents what I love most about summer: having the time to actually live. During the summer, even when I can see the end in sight and I haven’t accomplished as much as I’d like to, I still feel the freedom to read, to putter, to have real conversations without time constraint, and to work on a schedule that isn’t fettered by bells and periods. I can even sleep in on a weekday if I like, and when I sleep in, I can still take the time to make breakfast. Imagine that, making breakfast—a real breakfast, mind you, not just cereal—on a weekday. That indeed is the joy of summer slowness.

Summer Slow Scones
ECG and I had the hardest time getting out of bed this morning, but I wanted to make breakfast despite our tardy rising. The peaches on the counter were calling my name, and I needed to make something to celebrate their incredible summer-ness. These scones, which I adapted from King Arthur Flour’s online recipes, feature not only peaches but also cardamom, my family’s favorite spice. They are delightful, and don’t take too long to make, even if you have the luxury of a slow morning.

You will need:
2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 tablespoon baking powder
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces
2 large eggs
1/3 cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup diced peeled peaches (about 2 small peaches)

To make the scones:
Preheat your oven to 375°F. Line a large baking sheet with a Silpat or parchment paper.

With a fork, whisk together the flour, salt, sugar, cardamom, and baking powder in a large bowl. Cut in the butter however you like, with a pastry cutter, two knives, or just your fingers. After your mixture of butter and dry materials begins to look like a mixture of sand and gravel, stir in the diced peaches.

In a separate bowl or cup, whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, and the almond extract. Stir this mixture into the dry ingredients, mixing until just combined. Do not beat or over mix, otherwise you’ll have rocks instead of scones. Drop large blobs of the batter (a little over a half-cup each) on to the Silpat or parchment paper. You should be able to make six breakfast-sized drop-scones with this batter. Place the pan in the oven and bake for 17 minutes or so, or until you begin to see the slightest toastiness on the craggy peaks of the scones.

And just so you know, if you have a morning ahead that isn’t so slow, these freeze well. You can freeze leftovers and reheat them in a toaster oven or conventional oven for a slow-morning breakfast on a fast-morning day.