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Postcard from New York City

27 Oct

Look up! It's the World Trade Center!

The Boy and I were in New York a few weeks ago for a long weekend. We had a lovely time–saw some lectures, ate some great food, stumbled onto a Korean parade….but there was one thing I noticed: People walk more slowly.

I first spent considerable time in New York in 2003, and even though I lived in Chicago, where people can move pretty fast, New York took that to another level. I had to step up my game, so to speak, just to get down the sidewalk without getting bounced around like I was in a pinball machine.

This year, even though I live in a suburb, I was the one trying to juke around other walkers in order to get where I was going in a reasonable amount of time. These people weren’t all tourists either–there were definitely a lot of native New Yorkers in the bunch.

I blame cell phones. A lot of people were sucked into their phones, trying to read or text or chat or do anything but walk at a reasonable pace. It made walking more than a block in a single stoplight cycle almost impossible.

But then when we did have to stop at a corner, they’d all do that typical New Yorker thing: If you weren’t right at the edge of the curb, they’d cut around you in order to take up that space and get ahead. I had to admire that tactic (and copy it).

Oh, New York, get back on your game–phones are making you lose that bustling vibrancy that makes you feel like such an otherworldly place. Normally, I’d applaud the slowing-down-and-enjoying-life pace, but having your nose stuck in a cell phone isn’t a great way to enjoy life either.

Postcard from New York City

13 Oct

MoMath exhibit on Moebius strips.

Have you ever been really disappointed in a museum? Not a, Man, the Louvre is a crowded place at the height of tourism, disappointed, but a, Oh, there’s a museum about X? That might be cool! Let’s go in!…..30 minutes later….Well, that was a waste of $20.

The Boy and I felt that way after a quick visit to the National Museum of Mathematics in New York City. Taking a cue from the Modern Museum of Art, it’s nicknamed itself MoMath, and I think our MoMath, MoProblems joke was just about the best thing we got out of the place.

We went because we happened to be walking by and thought that a museum about math had a lot of potential to be cool–and the Boy likes math. We had an hour to kill–why not?

When we walked in, we found out that it was just two small floors, which turned out to fit in nicely with the specs of my ideal museum (smallish, and just when you’re about to get museum fatigue, you’ve reached the exit/gift store). Every exhibit was interactive, so there were some kids running around playing with everything. That also was cool and gave the place a lot of energy.

The problem came in with the “so what?” factor. We’d go to an exhibit and try to figure out what we needed to do. Turned out you needed to go to a monitor to pull up information about it. I personally don’t do that well with screens in museums — I get bored with them really easily, and while just playing with the exhibit was fun, I got nothing out of them. The worst was when I rode the bike with square wheels and asked the exhibit minder what the point of it was. She said something about the fact that you can use square wheels if you have the right bumped surface, but there was nothing really mathy in her explanation. I definitely know that there’s math involved with that, but it can’t be math magic or the math fairy waving a wand around. What’s the principle? What’s important about it? What else does it apply to? How do I do that math?

OK, maybe that last one is a little too complicated to show in a museum, but still. Giving me different patterned disks and telling me to cover parts of them to get a pattern mesh just shows me that that can be done. There’s math behind that phenomenon too? Really?

The Boy was also pretty disappointed, so I was comforted in the fact that I wasn’t alone. But maybe the museum ultimately really wasn’t for us. Maybe it’s designed for kids to play around, and for their adults to watch and remember to look up the principles later, if they want to know more about the math involved. Or maybe it’s just really hard to communicate math principles while you’re engaging with them.

Sadly, our experience here also made us leery about going to the Museum of Sex, so we skipped it and just hung out instead. Good choice?

 

Make It With Love

6 Oct

This is a cucumber martini I had in Washington, DC, this week. It was delicious — gin, elderflower, cucumber and black pepper. So tasty!

So tasty that the next night, I talked the Boy into taking me for another. Only this time it wasn’t as good — tasted like it had been made at a sports bar or beer-and-shot place (where you shouldn’t order cocktails).

I understood — the place had been busy, the bartender seemed a little harried. But I also then understood how much of a difference it makes to take a few extra seconds and focus on making the drink in front of you — measuring it out right, shaking it just so, straining it, making sure the garnish is on (I’d had to ask for the pepper the second night, which I wasn’t thrilled about–and neither was the bartender, who had to trek around the restaurant to find the pepper grinder).

It’s that kind of deliberation and focus that makes everything better–not just cocktails. A lesson for everything in life, I think, especially when it’s so easy to be harried and fractured with every other part of life these days.

Of course, as I type this, I’m not really even taking this lesson to heart, since I stopped typing to look at an incoming email on my phone. But I can try to improve, to make what I do cucumber-martini-better. Hold me to that, OK?

The Fine Line

22 Sep
giddy-up!

U.S. President Calvin Coolidge’s exercise horse

This week I have (so far) seen the homes/museums of four U.S. Presidents, four authors and one eccentric art collector. I have learned that the lines between “eccentric” and “crazy” and “collector” and “hoarder” are either “becoming President” or “publishing a bunch of books, at least one of which is a huge success.”

I ponder this idea as I finish eating some leftover mushroom risotto for breakfast because this week I’m storing the delicious restaurant leftovers for three people, two of whom are tourists and don’t wish to eat them (but none of us can let that food stay on our plates). I’m also thinking about where to store the five new books that have entered the house this week. They may be used to finish creating a bedside table for me, as my current next-to-bed pile of books-I’m-definitely-reading-next is getting pretty high.

I hope to publish a book soon. Because I can’t really imagine running for elected office at this point in time.

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Postcard from Vermont

21 Jul

Green Mountain Adventure Challenge #vermonttime

Can you uncover a hidden treasure in the woods of Vermont? The Boy and I thought we could, so a couple of weekends ago we hightailed it up to Dover to participate in the Green Mountain Adventure Challenge.

The challenge runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day and is meant to be something you and another person (or group of people) do in a weekend, but if you don’t get it done in the weekend, you can keep coming back until you finish (or just simply quit).

We got one of the challenge’s travel packages, which included a couple of nights at a local inn–we highly recommend the Cooper Hill Inn–lovely proprietors, comfortable rooms, stunning view, and we were off. Checked in on Friday afternoon and then started the hunt.

The challenge is tough–let’s just get that out there. It’s mentally challenging (I might still be working on it today if it wasn’t for the Boy, since my brain didn’t really think a certain way for the last part of the puzzle). It’s physically challenging.

But it’s worth it.

Friday was a scramble in trying to figure out what we were looking for. We figured out the clue that would set us on the right path, but then we were stumped. Wandered around a field and found nothing. Made a short hike much longer. Went back to the field and paired up with a group that helped us realize just what we were supposed to find, which meant we had to redo that short hike–and the sun was going down.

We drove like crazy and ran through the woods. The Boy lost his glasses at one point, and luckily I found them before it got any darker–or he stepped on them. Found our clue, hightailed out of there. Drove to another part of the area and found some more in-town clues until we realized we’d better stop for dinner before all the restaurants closed.

Saturday was hiking day–we knew we’d have at least one “moderate” hike. Hiking levels always make me laugh–this was hilly, so it wasn’t moderate to me. It was also rainy, so all of the roots and rocks covering the path were pretty slippery. Still, the walk was fun, and the view at the top was foggy, but beautiful of what we could see.

Coming down, we were walking through clouds, which was cool until they opened up, and it started pouring. Tree cover kept us from being completely soaked, but we were definitely pretty wet.

We got to dry off when the weather moved out and we discovered that we had to do another, much steeper hike to reach another clue. Tough, but rewarding, both in the view (this post’s cover photo) and in the physical accomplishment.

Still, by the end of Saturday, we didn’t really know where we stood on actually completing the challenge, and it felt like we weren’t going to finish before we had to leave. Then we saw this on the way to dinner:

Double Rainbow during #vermontime

And knew that we would.

It took a couple more hours on Sunday–and we ended up collaborating with others who were in our same boat–but we finished. We solved it!

I believe that means we get a share in the final jackpot, but honestly, getting through it was reward enough. Plus, we got the reward of a weekend in a beautiful part of the country.

You should try it.

 

 

This Kitchen Accessory Tugs on Your Heartstrings

14 Jul

Last weekend, the Boy and I went up to Vermont (report to come), and on the way we stopped at Saxtons River Distillery in Brattleboro–well, more like, we read about it at the Vermont Welcome Center on I-91, and when we happened to be driving past, we took a hard right into the parking lot.

While the Boy was talking with the owner, I wandered around the shop and saw these cutting boards on a little display with a series of notes telling the story of why a distillery was selling unbranded cutting boards.

The boards happen to the be the work of the owner’s kids, who started selling them because they wanted to get a beta fish and a hamster. “Also save some to pay for our colleges.”

In the first update, they’d ended up buying gerbils (and thank you for the help, customers); however, gerbils need ongoing care, so they’re still selling the boards to pay for their upkeep. Then in the second update, disaster! While they’re still trying to earn money for college, they need to replace one of their gerbils because their cat killed it. “So we need to buy a new one. Also buy a new lid for the cage.”

How can you not want to help?

The owner told us the backstory–The kids want extra pets, but the household rule is that they’re going to have to pay for them. He actually cuts the boards because the kids are too young to work the saw, but they attach feet and put on the finish. The gerbils are fun, but they like to chew on things and are masters of getting out of their cages, so that’s how one of them met an unfortunate end with the cat.

The cutting board itself is quite nice (cherry wood) and is a decent size–and when I use it, I think of these kids and their quest for pets (and college). Makes me smile thinking that I’ve helped a little bit–and I’ve helped a parent teach his children a good lesson about work and money, which will definitely help them in the future.

 

Postcard from Ohio

16 Jun
Pressed Penny machine in an Ohio rest stop along I-90. What a monstrosity! Click through to find out why!

What’s wrong with this picture?

Oh, Ohio.

I used to look forward to finding a great pressed penny machine at your I-90 rest areas. But this? This newfangled “penny press” machine? No.

First off, it’s electric. What a waste of energy. Traditional pressed penny machines with a hand crank don’t need electricity–people make them work! Do these break down more (I’m sure there’s got to be some issue with active kids overturning a handle until it breaks, but still)?

Secondly, pressing a button and watching the machine do its thing is boring. Part of the fun of the machine is getting to make the penny yourself. Not that you have a ton of control over what it looks like, but it’s a lot of fun to crank that handle and see what comes out. Sometimes the penny comes out long, sometimes it’s fat. It’s always a surprise. Passively watching the machine work disconnects you from the process. The penny becomes something you gather, not something you’ve made.

Thirdly, it’s a buck. I realize that pressed penny prices for the most part haven’t changed much over the years — most machines are two quarters and one penny, except for those lame machines that are four quarters, or even worse, the machines at Lincoln Park Zoo that are five quarters, one of which is pressed. Why do I want a pressed quarter? It doesn’t fit into a pressed penny wallet! A quarter is actually useful to buy other things!

At any rate, it’s expensive for a tiny souvenir. I get that people might have a dollar in their wallet versus 51 cents, but still. If pressed pennies are going to cost a dollar, that’s something I might take a pass on–well, actually, I did. My philosophy has always been that whenever I see a pressed penny machine, I get one design. If I don’t like the design (“lucky penny” and “I love you” designs are lame in my book–a pressed penny should say something about a particular place), or by some fluke, have all of the designs, I skip the machine. Driving across Ohio, I should’ve picked up three or four pennies. Instead, I got one, because only saw one design I liked enough to spend a dollar on. Who’s losing here?

Let’s not make this a trend, Ohio. Modernity isn’t always progress. Other owners of these machines, you’re on notice.

Your pal,

Jill

Postcard from Niagara Falls

12 May

If you find yourself traveling in the Buffalo area, you might think, Hey, maybe I should duck over and see Niagara Falls while they’re so close. And that’s a good thought to have — they’re pretty spectacular. But if you’re not from around the area and trying to find parking, you’ll probably end up in the official State Park parking lot, which costs $10.

Seems like a decent chunk of change to go glance at some water, right?

Not to worry! The State Park parking lot gives you 20 minutes of free parking, which is plenty of time to get a Niagara Falls experience.

Take a parking ticket, and park in a spot that gives you easy exit access. This is important because if you’re running short on time, the last thing you want to do is coast through the parking lot and get stopped by tons of cars pulling in and out of parking spaces.

Now, you book it.

The main access to the Falls is through the visitor’s center. Walk in and go down the stairs that are either on your right or left. Avoid the store at the bottom and walk to the back and out the door. Viola! The falls are right there!

Head over to the railing and look to the left. There’s the falls! Marvel at them, wonder what they look like from the Canadian side (sorry, but they’re better), take some pictures and selfies. Head back quickly–your 20 minutes are almost up and you want to be able to walk like you’re a normal person and not on some non-existent Amazing Race.

That’s it. Head back in, avoid the crowds, head back up the stairs and out of the visitor’s center. What? You wanted a souvenir? Pull four quarters and a penny out of your pocket and make yourself a pressed penny (I know, pressed penny aficionados. Four quarters). The machine is downstairs, next to the door that goes out to the falls. You’ll have time for that.

Once you’re out of the visitor’s center, start walking quickly back to your car. Check your parking ticket–are you still in your 20 minute window? Good! Don’t even bother trying to pay for parking. Even if you’re under 20 minutes, the machine will try to tell you that you owe money. Don’t let it confuse you.

Get back to your car–even if you have to run at this point–and hightail it to the gate. Stick your ticket in the card reader, and congratulations, you’ve just gotten a free quick side trip to Niagara Falls.

 

Getting Culture Where You Can

5 May

When you travel a lot, it sounds impressive. But ask anyone who does some heavy-duty travel, and they’ll tell you it’s not vacation. For whatever trip you’re on, you’re in _______ most of the time–and “_____” is not the pool, or a theme park, or a museum, or the beach. It’s usually an office or a conference room–or in my case, some sort of sporting venue.

I’m fortunate enough to have gone to Argentina, but the majority of my time there was spent here:

In terms of roller derby venues, this one was cool. This room was the handball/futsal part, which connected to a cafeteria and a weight room, other class- and exercise rooms. In the courtyard, girls took roller skating lessons. There was a restaurant and an outdoor seating area that abutted a tennis court. But back to my room for the weekend. For watching derby, it was great because you were above the action.

Still, 75-80% of my week in Argentina was spent here, which means that my exposure to “what is Argentinian” is mostly limited to my hotel room, my walk to and from the venue, and the venue itself–and don’t get me wrong, the venue gave me an interesting insight into some aspect of Latin American culture, as I had a heavy duty conversation about bidets while I was there and that’s something I really don’t think about in America. My narrow window notwithstanding, if I’m to get a feel for the area, it’s likely going to be through food.  Food’s a lifeline to understanding culture, and as I love understanding how other people live (and if they do life better than I), I needed to eat like they did.

Now, Argentina is known for its delicious empanadas. I myself happen to make a decent empanada. I have my own recipe–it’s really the only one I’ve developed so far–and the Boy loves it. It’s not a traditional Argentinian recipe, but I have to say, it’s pretty darned good. Problem is, I like them with cheese, and the Boy doesn’t do dairy, which means there’s a lot of separating going on in our kitchen.

Enter my Argentinian empanada take out experience. On the last night of the tournament, several of us got an empanada delivery of a mix of varieties. With it came the above cheat sheet to tell you which one was which, and then a light bulb went off in my head. Why not fold my cheesy empanadas differently?

This past weekend, I made a big batch–some to share with friends, and some to eat at home. Some with cheese, some without. Since I’d been exposed to different folding techniques, I knew that I could develop my own folding code for home use, and man, did it ever make a difference in calming down some allergy nerves.

All I can say is, thank you, Argentina.

Postcard from Argentina

28 Apr

A couple of weeks ago, I got to go to Argentina to teach an officiating clinic and officiate at a tournament. Argentina hadn’t been high on my list of places to visit, though the Boy and I often joke that we are Argentinian because we tend to eat dinner around 9 or 10PM. But I didn’t really know why else one should go to Argentina–and from what I read, there’s not much touristy about Buenos Aires. You really go there to live it.

This is also fine with me, as when I travel, the ratio of museum visits to everyday activities skews heavily toward the latter (if you pit a high quality museum against a trip to Carrefour, 9 times out of 10, I will pick Carrefour. That 10th time I’ll visit the museum out of guilt). But it did very much make for a lot of pre-trip confusion and concern about what it is that I’ll actually do with the couple of days I had off–and because my Duolingo lessons had focused heavily on horses and military titles, I wasn’t quite convinced that I’d be able to figure out much.

Needless, to say, I had a lovely time, although I just barely scratched the surface of a complicated part of the world. I stayed in Vicente Lopez, a nice suburb of Buenos Aires, but did spend a bit of time in the city too. But “nice” is relative, and Vicente Lopez–to me, at least–was a good example of the juxtaposition I felt was likely a characteristic of this area. Nice houses and apartment buildings lined dirty streets with randomly patterned cracked sidewalks. A fantastically huge park with a great walking/biking path and playgrounds and fitness stations and more butted up against a river full of trash.

But for all the layers of pollution and graffiti, there was also inventive, colorful art and architecture that I’d randomly come across, when I was not looking down trying to avoid the piles of dog crap dotting the sidewalks. This element of surprise and discovery (along with a late dinner hour) really made this place captivating–and one I’d like to revisit.

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