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Monthly Archives: April 2014

We All Have Our Limits

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So today I decided to take the plunge and try making fish and chips from scratch for lunch today.  I had the cod, I had some leftover frozen french fries, I had the means to fry things.  I even had malt vinegar.  I picked up a bottle of beer on my rounds yesterday to round things out.

However, cooking for one means that you don’t use a whole hell of a lot of ingredients.  So I only ended up using two ounces of the beer for the batter.  “No worries,” I thought, “I’ll drink the extra.  Hey, warm beer is okay, yeah?”

And thus I sat down at the table just now with a big plate with my fried fish in beer batter, the fries, the bottle of malt vinegar, and the remains of the bottle of beer poured into a glass.  Ate my way through the fish (a little soggy, but I don’t fry things often so I chalked it up to a learning curve), ate the fries (also a little moist, but they were baked instead of fried; stlll good).  I turned to the beer.  And…

….I can’t. It’s still sitting there about 20 minutes later.

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So Early Early In The Spring

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This is why it’s helpful to know a photographer.  I try to get to Brooklyn’s Botanic Garden each spring for some photos; in the past I’ve tried to visit during the Sakura Festival as well, for the prime peoplewatching.  But in recent years I’ve just found myself annoyed by the size of the crowds, and was debating skipping it this year.

But my friend Colin, who lives even closer than I do, tipped me off to their much earlier weekday opening hours; it’s actually open at 8 in the morning Mondays through Fridays, much earlier than the 10 am start on the weekends. “And you have it pretty much to yourself,” he added.  He’d been meaning to get a few photos himself, and I tagged along – and indeed, for two whole hours, we wandered around the early morning garden pretty much all by ourselves, in an orgy of photographyImage

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Well, except for the wildlife.

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Most of the cherry trees haven’t even blossomed yet – the winter’s been brutal – so we hung about in the Japanese garden at first.

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By the time we got over to the biggest tulip beds, a groundskeeper was watering them, so that gave the tulips an extra dewy look –

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The whole scope was impressive on its own anyway.

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Colin had his huge rig he was lugging with him, complete with collapsible tripod, but I was making do with my little digital camera. (He’s the pro, it’s understandable.) But I’d also had a wicked case of insomnia the night before, so we both broke for coffee after only an hour or so, and were ready to leave by the time the crowds started showing up. But not before catching some shots of the magnolias on the way out.

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And I apparently have a thing for architectural detail in the middle of gardens.

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And then one last cherry tree by the exit.

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We actually ended up standing directly under it trying to get “branches-against-the-sky” shots.  While we were there three kindergarten classes from three different schools and speaking three different languages also crowded around us, the kids all looking funny at two grownups standing there with cameras pointing straight up.

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Colin mentioned a long list of errands he was going to be running later that day.  I, however, gave into that other spring indulgence – a nap.

 

Visiting Future Past

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So the 1964 World’s Fair was in New York City, and there is a big push afoot to commemorate the 50th Anniversary this year.  This past week, that included opening up the old New York State Pavilion, which has been sitting in ruins since sometime in the 1970’s.

I’d actually been out to see some of the other World’s Fair remains (shameless plug – I also wrote about them here), and regretted not being able to get into the pavilion, with its weird flying-saucer towers. So when a conservation group announced its opening to the public for one afternoon only this Tuesday, I made the trek to Queens.

….I was not the only one, however.

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That was the line I got into at 11:30 that morning, after following it around the perimeter of the pavilion, 100 yards through a parking lot, over a bridge, and several hundred more yards further through the park and nearly to the street.  People were in high enough spirits, though – I chatted a bit with the guy in front of me in line, who observed that the city was trying to determine whether there was enough public interest in the pavilion to justify restoring it rather than demolishing it.  “Ya think maybe there’s interest?” he said, gesturing at the line in front of us.  The line also moved quickly enough to inspire people to hang in there; as we snaked closer, people also got pictures of the pavilion in the distance, framed by the cherry trees just coming into bloom.

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The line also presented its own people-watching opportunities; I noticed at least five people in vintage garb, from both  of New York’s World’s Fair eras; two women in late-1930’s frocks, complete with hats and silk stockings with seams up the back, and three people who had opted for more of a mid-60’s look.  Completely by coincidence, I’d dressed a bit boho that day, and told myself that I was in costume too, it’s just that I was more Greenwich-Village-folky than Betty-Draper.

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There was even more waiting, we learned, when we got to the head of the line. The organization sponsoring the event was only letting 20 people in at a time – the pavilion is still a bit unstable, they explained, so people had to wear hard hats when they went in. And…they only had 20.  But they were giving out tickets to everyone, so instead of waiting around in an even slower line, once we got our ticket we could sit down, stroll the perimeter of the pavilion, wander the rest of the park, get food, or what have you, while listening for our ticket number to be called.  I’d been on my feet for about two and a half hours already at that point, so I desperately wanted to sit.  After getting food first, however – a couple food trucks sat in the parking lot behind the ticket guy.  But only two trucks.  “Gee, another line,” the guy who’d been ahead of me joked when he saw me queuing up for a hot dog along with him.  I just smiled back grimly; I’d actually wanted to hit the Belgian waffle truck, but that line was even longer, despite the efforts of three very happy-but-frazzled looking servers.

I sat near the head of the line with my hot dogs, to just sit and wait there.  And overheard a bit of a panic amid the organizers; they’d run out of tickets, with a huge line still to go.  “Sorry, folks, give me a minute and we’ll figure out what to do,” said the panicked-looking kid who’d been giving them out.  He grabbed another woman and thrust her to man the line while he made a frantic call to someone in charge.  I overheard her telling someone in line that all of us people sitting there had already gotten tickets and were going to get to go in first, and yes, they did need a ticket because we’d all been in line before them and it wasn’t fair to jump ahead of all of us, sir.  The kid came back to relieve her, telling people that he’d told his boss what the problem was and they were figuring something out.  “….You see that flag there?” he added, pointing at a flag hanging over the pavilion entrance. “That’s the very same flag that was flying at the fair in 1964!”

He was trying to stall. The people in line weren’t buying it.

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By the time I finally got in, the organizers had already extended their “visitor hours” twice. And people were leaving happy, even though they weren’t really allowed access to much of the space inside the pavilion.

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They kept us all in a little space by the entrance; the pavilion was about the size of a baseball infield, and mostly bare.  There were a few photos taken at the fair proper on a back wall, as well as a display chronicling the post-fair life of the pavilion as a concert venue and a roller rink.  The organizers were a team of volunteers who’d also given the whole thing a fresh coat of paint, but had left the old “Skate Rental” sign in place for history’s sake.

The floor itself was the biggest reason we were all confined to one spot.  During the ’64 Fair, there was a mosaic on the floor which recreated the then-current Texaco road map of New York State.  But years of roller skates had damaged the floor, and the roof falling in left the floor exposed and damaged it further; eventually in the 1980’s someone covered the whole thing over, first in fabric and then in gravel, to preserve it somehow while the city figured out what else to do. A few sections of the floor map had been unearthed and put on display, so people could see the detail of the original and the extent of the damage in some places.

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Before I left, I overheard the coordinator telling someone that they’d gotten well over twice their anticipated turnout – 2,500 of us showed up.  And the people who’d missed their chance for tickets got their reward – IOUs for VIP access when they re-opened the pavilion again in a months’ time when the city holds a park-wide anniversary festival commemorating both fairs, with a concert of 60’s music and fireworks in the evening.

I may go back again, actually. I remembered, as I made my way back, that my parents told me they’d made a road trip to see the 1964 fair themselves; they didn’t remember much, maybe a couple of exhibits and the Unisphere.  Doing the math, this would have been when my parents were still in college or barely out of it; thinking about how young they were, and the whole feel of the fair, reminded me just how young and hopeful the country must have felt at that point as well.  We had hope to try great things then; some things we failed at, but some we succeeded, and it was touching to think about that youth and that hope, and I think i’m going to go see that again.

Or, if nothing else, I want to go back and get a damn Belgian waffle this time.

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Travelling While Female

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So there’s a strip from webcomic artist Natalie Nourigat that’s making the rounds, about traveling as a woman; or, rather, about being a woman planning to travel, and getting pushback from people who warn her that it’s not “safe”.

In my case she’s already preaching to the choir.  I never had much fear of traveling, or exploring the unknown; one of my earliest memories was of an incident in my day care when I was four, and the teachers set up a play tunnel in one of the rooms to let us pretend to be “exploring” a cave, just like the child in a picturebook they read us.  But I got so into it that I ended up “exploring” my way out the door, down the hall, up the stairs and into the middle of the administrative offices of the church my day care was in.  One of the secretaries saw me and brought me back downstairs, where it was gently explained to me that I was supposed to be only pretend exploring, and I needed to stay in the day care.  I distinctly remember crawling around in the tunnel afterward and thinking that pretend exploring was way less cool than the real thing.

So I somehow didn’t notice any of the messages people give to women who are planning to travel.  We’re going to unfamiliar territory!  We could get robbed! Or kidnapped! Or assaulted or….well, anything can happen!   But…those are all things that can happen to women in their home cities too, so…why is traveling that much  more dangerous?

Even if we’re not doing anything especially risky, people warn women about solo travel.  When I was in my 20’s I went on a spontaneous road trip to surprise a friend working at a Renaissance Fair in Massachusetts.  Even pre-Internet, I was easily able to book a hotel nearby, find a car rental place that would rent to someone under 25, and get a ticket for a bus to the car.  On the bus ride up I struck up a conversation with the young woman in the seat next to me, and when she heard that I was going alone and that my friend didn’t know I was showing up, she was shocked.  “You’re traveling alone?” she asked.  “No one knows you’re coming?  Aren’t you afraid something will happen to you?”

“…No?” I said, honestly baffled.  The way she was reacting, it was as if I’d said I was hiking across Nepal in a bikini; but there is vanishingly little to fear in North Carver, Massachusetts, so I just plain didn’t get why she thought I should be afraid.

There’s a definite double-standard at play.  The kinds of risks women face when traveling are no different from the ones men face, but we don’t ask men whether they’re afraid if they say they’re going to be hiking the Appalachian Trail or going to Paris for a week or what have you.  But women, we do.  Not that there aren’t risks unique to women – I know my brother and I have both looked into trips to other countries, but his travel research generally doesn’t include “how to deal with street harassment in [country]”.  But there is street harassment everywhere, so staying home wouldn’t exempt me from that anyway. So if I’m going to be facing street harassment no matter where I am, why not go be in another city once in a while?

And there’s something else about risk anyway – risk is not guaranteed to happen. When we look at a risk, we focus on the worst possible outcome. However – we overlook the fact that everything turns out okay the majority of the time anyway.  Looking back on some traveling I’ve done, I realized I’ve done some profoundly risky things:

  • I let a guy in a bar in Wicker Park, Chicago pick me up and went back to his apartment to make out.
  • I went to Italy despite not knowing any Italian.
  • I crossed 4 districts of New Orleans on foot alone in search of food when the streetcars shut down during Mardi Gras, and then recrossed two more on foot again looking for a cab to go home.
  • I got lost in Kansas during a road trip, pulled over in a town where the population was only about 325 and went to check into the only hotel in town – with a front desk clerk that actually leered at me when I said I was alone.
  • I hiked in the desert of Utah in July at mid-day with only a 16-oz bottle of water.
  • I ate in a really dodgy kebab place in Cork, Ireland.

A couple of those things were profoundly dumb. I realize that. But here’s the thing – not only did I survive, a lot of those risks were also things that lead to some of my best travel stories.  That walk through New Orleans lead me to finally ask a cop to recommend me a restaurant, and he not only gave me a recommendation, he gave me some official New Orleans PD Mardi Gras beads.  And then when I was trying to find a cab, the same damn cop ran into me again and gave me a free ride back to my hotel in his squad car.  As for the guy in Chicago – he fell asleep within three minutes, so I was left to find my way out of his apartment building and out to find a cab on my own. But I did so, within a block.

HIking in Utah?  Getting into and out of an airconditioned car kept the worst heat danger at bay, and the only heatstroke symptom I suffered was a split-second hallucination of hundred-foot tall flaming Hebrew letters adorning one of the cliffs in Arches National Park (at which point I promptly returned to my car, drove to the visitors station, bought a half-gallon bottle of water and drank the whole thing in one go).

Not knowing Italian? Most people spoke enough English to deal with me.  The one person who didn’t gamely tried using hand gestures, and so I got to see someone tell me “hot chocolate is a seasonal beverage and so we don’t serve that in spring” entirely through using charades, which believe me was seriously fantastic.

The creepy hotel guy? I told him I was meeting my fiance in town, and that leer was all that happened. That town is also where I discovered my all-time favorite small town newspaper headline: “Tractor Accident Sends Local Man To Witchita.”

The kebab place? I wasn’t alone anyway – I was staying with my dear friend Cliona, at her parents’ house. I did get food poisoning and ended up getting sick at about 2 that morning, but Cliona and her mother played nursemaids, and it was one of those food bugs that hits you hard for a couple hours and then clears up, so short of the embarrassment borne of accidentally mooning them both during one of my sprints to the bathroom, I bounced back.

Those are all stories that I would have missed out on if I had let anyone dissuade me from being daring and taking risks while traveling.  There are maybe one or two I would think twice about today; but even then, if things had gone worse, I did and do know enough about self-defense and risk assessment to get myself out of trouble.

So – there isn’t any reason why women need to worry more so about risk than men when traveling. And so – to paraphrase Nourigat – maybe I could have died, but at least I sang “Moon Over Bourbon Street” on Bourbon Street first.  And I’d rather have had that.

The Week Of Finishing

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I’ve been feeling a bit unmoored recently; mainly because I’m er, “between day jobs”, so to speak, but I suspect there’s more to it than that.  So this morning I came up with an idea which I’m trying to convince myself will help.

I am going to Finish Things.

I have a backlog of projects I’m in a half-finished state with – craft projects, house projects, a couple writing projects. And since I’ve got more free time than usual these days, I’ve decided that I need to buckle down and finish as  many of them as possible during this week, or make as much great strides as possible to finishing them.  What I need is accomplishment and completion.

And thus I have declared this The Week Of Finishing Things.  I will knit that one last sleeve on that sweater.  I will finally install the shelf I got for that cupboard.  I will finally clean out the entire hall closet rather than just taking out a few things, looking at the rest of it and saying “ugh” and shutting the door again.

All this week!  Cheer me on!  There will even be pictures!

Crooked Pickles

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For a few months in high school, I worked at my town’s McDonald’s.  One night, our manager was in her office while the rest of us manned the fort; little did we know, she’d come to work in a bad mood, one that got worse as she sat in her office.  After a couple hours of going over books as her mood deepened, she finally came out to check on us.  And as it turned out, the first two workers she saw were also our two biggest slackers.  Which made her mood worse.

“Steve!” she suddenly barked at one, making us all jump.  “Steve, quit standing around doing nothing, I told you that checking the bathroom every couple hours was your job! And Laurie – look at those napkin containers, there’s a totally empty one sitting there. You should be filling those!”  She was on a tear, seeing problems everywhere and scolding us. “Kim, your line is too long!  People don’t want to wait!  And Lisa, there’s a spill by the shake machine – when is someone gonna mop that up?  And Ken, you need a hat on so your hair doesn’t fall in the food, how many times have I told you that!  And Phil – ”

She stopped short.  Phil, who’d been making up a line of burgers, looked up at her, startled.  ….Phil wasn’t actually doing anything wrong.

They looked at each other a few confused seconds.  Finally, the manager mustered all the dignity she could manage and said, “Phil, your pickles aren’t straight!”  And then she stalked back into the office and shut herself in for the next few hours.

I’ve been in a pickles-aren’t-straight mood all afternoon.  I head up to the Botanic Garden, on a traditional Easter errand; but rather than reveling in spring Easter cheer, I was glum.  There were flowers, sure, but not enough because it was still too cold.  There were adorable kids running around, but they were all loud and in my way.  There were happy people, but there were too any of them and they were taking too much time lingering over looking at everything and always getting in my way taking pictures and talking too loud and there were too many of them in line when I went to get myself food.

What I’ve learned of this kind of mood is that it really can’t be helped.  It’s not about anything around you, it just is.  Sometimes you just feel like your skin is a thin shell covering over something boneless and squishy, and the only way you can process anything you see is as a threat to your calm.  The best thing you can do is just ride it out.

I left the garden and stopped by a fabulous ice cream place.  Splurged on a large dish.  Came home, and felt no guilt about curling myself up back in my shell, babying myself a little, and waiting for the pickles to straighten out.

Your Weird Fact For the Evening

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I’ve always been interested in science.  Particularly natural science – my favorite books as a child weren’t fairytale books.  They were the books from the old and outdated set of natural history books published by Time/Life my parents had.  Mind you, I never wanted to pursue science as a career – just reading about it was enough.  Because there are just so many things you could hear  about that will blow your mind.

For example.

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Meet the parrotfish.  These guys live around coral reefs, grow to about a meter long, and have a beak-like mouth that is strong enough to bite through rock.  In fact, that’s what they eat – not the rocks, but the algae growing on them.  And the animals inside coral skeletons.  But rather than fussing around with trying to maneuver the coral polyps out of the reefs, or lick the algae off the rocks, they just take a whole chomp out of the rocks and reefs, like they were apples.

Their stomachs are powerful enough to digest the algae and animals inside the rock and coral – and in the process, their stomachs grind those chucks of rock and limestone from the coral down fine; and so what they end up passing is a very fine, soft sand.  And that sand builds up around the reefs – and over time, sand from scores of parrotfish has found its way onto the beaches of tropical islands around the world.

So what this means to us is – if you’ve ever been to a beach in the Caribbean, and marvelled at how soft and fine the sand was – it’s because you were actually walking in parrotfish poop.