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Sunday, July 9, 2017

Best Laid Plants

Contrast the following two pictures from my weekend:

Three large, juicy cucumbers from my balcony plant...

And the puny haul of wineberries I got from the wild plants I walked by today...

It's probably a good thing I don't have to rely on my hunting and gathering skills to survive.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

More Balcony Gardening!

I wrote here last year about my small balcony garden.  Neither my need to create peace around me nor my desire for tasty food has diminished since then, so I'm growing a balcony garden again this year.  I know it is very possible to conduct background research on gardening and plan accordingly, but I've decided to just buy plants that sound tasty to me with no thought to whether my balcony is a good place for them, and just learn from the experience.  Here are this year's lessons:

1.  Dill and bell peppers don't love what my balcony has to offer.  Both bit the dust quickly.

2.  Success can vary widely even among members of the same species.   The basil plant I bought from the farmers market is tall and bushy.  The basil plant I bought from Whole Foods is short, stumpy, and being chomped on by bugs.

3.  Mint has dreams of world domination.  This has actually been a lesson every time I've grown plants on any balcony!

4.  Cucumbers also have dreams of world domination.  We bought a cucumber plant from the farmers market this year when it was still very small.  It is magnificent now and is sending leaves out between the railings on the balcony.  It seems to be attracting a good number of bees, so I'm looking forward to getting fresh cucumbers!

5.  Tomatoes are moody and unreasonable.  I grew a tomato plant on the balcony last summer, and it did fine.  We didn't get a ton of tomatoes, but we got a few, and the plant was tall and healthy.  This summer, three cherry tomato plants died on the balcony.  In theory, at least, they should have been getting enough sunlight because they were in the same place as on the balcony as last year's tomato plant.  I now have a beefsteak tomato plant that hasn't died yet, but also hasn't grown any taller or grown any blossoms.  I'd love to solve this particular lesson/mystery for next year because I was really hoping for a bumper crop of tomatoes.

Basil, mint, and cucumbers are definitely keepers for next summer.  I may try green beans, too.  Anybody else growing a garden this summer?

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Life's Little Triumphs: A Large Company Underpromises And Overdelivers (Sort Of)

This installment of life's little triumphs is pretty overdue at this point.  I've been meaning to blog about it, but this particular little triumph came at a time when I was trying to orchestrate a series of larger triumphs (spring semester final exams, then the GRE, then the start of a challenging summer session), and I've been distracted.  But I think most of us need all the triumphs we can get, so better to write about this late rather than never!

It all started last fall when my old food processor finally bit the dust.  It served its purpose for many years, but was never entirely satisfactory, so I decided to upgrade.  I researched Consumer Reports and settled on a Cuisinart model.  I was very happy when I first used it as it was clear that it was a marked improvement over my old food processor.  BUT!  Not long after my new food processor arrived, Cuisinart announced a recall of millions of its food processor blades.  At that point, I wasn't too concerned because they made it easy to request a replacement blade online.  I requested a replacement blade in December.  Cuisinart didn't provide a time frame for the new blade to arrive, but I decided it might take as long as several weeks since it was right before Christmas.

What I considered to be a reasonable period of time came and went.  I called the recall number in February.  The employee who answered (and who sounded utterly defeated on the phone) told me that they hadn't forgotten about me and that my blade would ship in March.  I decided I could live with that.

March came and went, and my blade didn't arrive.  I emailed Cuisinart in early April.  They sent me a response saying that (a) estimated delivery was "after April," and (b) I could still use all the attachments that came with my food processor except for the recalled blade.

This was not terribly encouraging news to me.  In my mind, "after April" can mean anything from "the blade will arrive in May" to "your as of yet unborn great grandchildren will receive the blade sometime after you're gone."  Also, the ability to use the other food processor attachments is useful only part of the time.  I would no more grate chickpeas for hummus than I would puree potatoes for latkes.

This story ends happily, however, as my replacement blade actually arrived before May, if only by a few days!  Thus, this mildly annoying saga in my life came to an end, I was able to use my new food processor blade in time for pesto season, and now maybe I can give hope to anyone else waiting for a replacement Cuisinart blade.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A Symbol Of Something I Dislike

I bought a calculator the other day.

And not just any calculator, mind you.  It's a scientific calculator, complete with logarithms and trig functions.

I am aware that it's completely possible to find such a calculator online for free.  But I needed a separate calculator for the purpose of taking quizzes and tests.

Yes, my summer is being blighted with math.  Well, I don't want to make it sound worse than it is.  I am taking an intro to speech and hearing science, which sounded pretty innocuous, until the first class when we were presented with a math quiz to see what we knew (remembered?) of various math concepts.  I actually remembered some of the concepts on that quiz, but was faced with the uncomfortable reality that I had forgotten about the very existence of logarithms, and never felt like I had a terribly firm grip on them in the past, either.

In a way, it's funny that it has come down to this.  I felt like high school was littered with classes I didn't really like, but had to take in order to get into a good college.  I took AP calculus my senior year in high school with the hope of placing out of math in college.  Somewhat miraculously, I succeeded in that endeavor, and as a result, spent college taking mostly classes I liked (with a few notable exceptions, of course).  I thought that memorizing formulas and those dreaded logarithms (!) were firmly in my past.  But here I am with math biting me on the behind, after spending my college and grad school years smugly taking foreign language classes.

I'm hoping, perhaps against all reasonable hope, that the math and formulas are front-loaded on the beginning of the semester and will be a distant memory by the end.  But in the meantime, I'm hunkering down with my fancy calculator, and preparing to come to terms with topics I've avoided for years.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The GRE Is Like A Nerdy Prison

I've taken the GRE twice in my life:  once (ahem) many years ago in preparation for the master's degree that I already have, and once this past Friday for the one I am thinking of pursuing.  It turns out that a lot of things change between your early twenties and late thirties, and the GRE is no exception.  It's not that I remember enjoying it the first time around, but it wasn't quite the production then that it is now.

I don't remember a whole lot from my first GRE experience.  No doubt this is in part due to the fact that it was some time ago, but I also don't think it was that big of a deal.  I remember going to a test center on campus and sitting in front of a computer.  I'm pretty sure I had my backpack with me, and that it just sat on the floor next to me while I took the test.  I don't remember any special instructions about what I could/could not wear or bring with me.

This time around, the first thing that caught my attention when I registered was that test-takers were not allowed to wear any jewelry aside from wedding or engagement rings.  This bummed me out because I like jewelry and wearing it makes me feel happier and more confident (not necessarily a bad thing when you're taking a test that lasts several hours and costs $200).  It also brought back an odd memory from middle school.  Someone in a position of authority at my school decided it would be a great idea to bring in a speaker to scare all the students about prison.  I don't know if this had a positive impact on anyone else's life, but it was pretty much a wash for me as the only thing I remember was this person threatening us that if we went to prison, "they" would take away all of our earrings.  This made some sort of impression on me at the time because (a) even as someone who seriously enjoys jewelry, this seemed like kind of a flimsy reason not to cause trouble, and (b) how many earrings did this person think we were all walking around with at any given time?  Most middle schoolers, no matter how disagreeable, are still pretty much under their parents' thumbs, and I don't think very many of my classmates had piercings that would have necessitated wearing more than two earrings at once.

We were similarly forbidden to wear watches of any kind during the GRE this time around.  When you take the computerized version of the test, you can see how much time you have left on the section you're working on, but in my mind, that is very different from knowing what time it is in the world outside of the testing room.  It definitely contributed to the long-haul punishment vibe of the experience.

To top it all off, I had to push up my sleeves to show my wrists, lift up the cuffs of my pants to show my ankles, and turn my pockets inside out before I started the test.  I also was wanded on both my front and back sides before starting the test and after my mid-test break before I was allowed to go back into the room.

Suffice to say, I'm glad to have the experience behind me.  If I do end up doing a second master's degree, I think I'll need to call it quits after that.  In another ten years or so, I fear all the test-takers will be subjected to body cavity searches and be forced to wear identical jumpsuits into the testing room, and I think I'm too old and grouchy to cope with that.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Time Flies...

I can't speak for the rest of the country, but the Washington, DC area is awash in cicadas right now.  I actually don't mind; as far as bugs go, I think cicadas are kind of cool.

The funny thing is, though, that the cicadas we are currently seeing came out of the ground four years ahead of schedule.  And to the best of my knowledge, no one knows why.  Were they having such an awesome time under ground that they lost track of the time?  Or were conditions crowded and awful to the point that some of them bailed years ahead of schedule?

My theory is that the cicadas who came out of the ground early are history or political science buffs who wanted front row seats to the various spectacles currently taking place around us.  I think I would have chosen to stay under ground, myself.  But if my theory is correct, it gives me hope that the cicadas sense that in four years politics will be more routine and normal again.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Random Travel Tip

I unintentionally took a blogging break, thanks to a convergence of a sick kitty and looming final exams.  I've been wanting to write, though, so I'll get back into it with a travel tip I learned on my recent trip to Vermont.

I learned this tip when we were flying out of the Burlington, VT airport, which is a small airport.  In my experience, TSA screeners at smaller airports tend to be more pleasant but less efficient than their larger airport counterparts.  Anyway, our belongings were scrutinized in great detail, making me glad that I arrive at airports early.

At one point, the screener who was swabbing my belongings for explosives held up a bag of trail mix and told me that if we were going to go through security again, she recommended that I remove it from my bag.

"You mean I could put that in the bins with my shoes and liquid toiletries?" I asked.

She gave me a weird look and said yes.  She added that if the screeners could see what it was, they wouldn't have to unpack my bag and everybody could save time and effort.  I can get on board with this plan, particularly considering that most TSA screeners I've encountered are far more talented at removing things from my bags and strewing them about than they are at putting them back neatly.

So, there you have it.  If you're traveling with something that might look sketchy when X-rayed, but really isn't, put it in the bin with your shoes and toiletries.  In addition to the trail mix, we've had the following items scrutinized (not all of which are ones everyone carries, I realize):

  • bags of change
  • blocks of cheese
  • jewelry
  • seed beads
I'll try this myself the next time I travel.  I love experiencing new locations, but don't enjoy flying to them, and I'm happy to save any hassles I can.

Monday, May 1, 2017

A Few Random Vermont Pictures

Here are just a few pictures from Vermont that I like but that didn't make it in to any other posts:

I'm not sure if this is for moose who want tattoos (of what?) or for humans who want to demonstrate their love for Bullwinkle.

Layers of mountains and sky.

Church Street, Burlington at night.

Clear Lake Champlain.

Lake Champlain with ice and birds.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

DC March For Science

One of my friends and I attended the DC March for Science yesterday.  Due to various constraints we had, we decided to attend the morning rally portion, and miss the actual march.  The rally seemed to have a great turnout, and by the time we left, we could see lots of people on the outskirts of the rally and lots of people still in lines to have their bags checked to get in.  I'm not a scientist myself, but I have tremendous respect for science, and wonder why there seem to be people who don't.  Anyway, the speakers at the rally were great, and it was wonderful to see so much enthusiasm.  I took some pictures, with emphasis on the signs I could see from my vantage point.

A number of people were photographing the police horses.

Most people who have had medical care should be able to buy in to this one.

"The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences." Dr. Ruth Benedict

"I'm with her."  There were lots of signs with this slogan and a picture of Earth.

It's hard to see in this picture, but the bottom of the "What a long, strange trip it's been" poster depicts human evolution. I liked the idea, particularly since I'm a fellow Grateful Dead fan.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Car Decal Mystery

Today while I was riding the bus to work, I looked out the window and saw a noteworthy decal on a car in the next lane.  It was a break from the usual political/ideological/sports/stick figure family stickers and decals I usually see.  It had the following simple phrase:  I pooped today.

Questions have been swirling around in my mind all day:

  • Did some little kid win this decal as an award for finally being potty-trained?
  • Or is some adult kindly lowering the achievement bar for the rest of us?
  • Assuming that the owner of this decal isn't constantly removing and replacing the decal in response to his/her current defacatory status, could the phrase "I pooped today" be considered a promise to continue pooping on a daily basis?
  • Am I just being extremely insensitive about a constipation epidemic that's been going on right under my nose?
It's terrible to start out the week in such a state of confusion.

Saturday, April 15, 2017


A beautiful eagle standing still!

Toward the end of our time in Vermont, we visited the Vermont Institute of Natural Sciences Nature Center.  Our main interest in going was to see the raptors they had on the premises--they have a program that rehabilitates injured raptors, and they also care for raptors whose injuries prevent them from being re-released.  We turned out to be very lucky.  We had planned a couple of other activities that day, and we were concerned once we headed out from Burlington that we'd gotten too late a start or planned too much.  But our timing was perfect in that we arrived about 45 minutes ahead of raptor feeding time.  So we had some time to wander around the premises, check out the injured songbirds that were being rehabilitated, and then familiarize ourselves with the raptors before their feeding time.  They had a great variety--bald eagles, golden eagles, various owls, various hawks, falcons, turkey vultures, and ravens.  One thing that surprised me was that the raptors came from all over the US.  Another thing I found interesting is that many (maybe even most) of them had been injured in collisions with vehicles.  If I remember, most of them had impaired flight ability, although I think at least one had impaired vision.

At feeding time, a volunteer went into each raptor enclosure in turn and left offerings of dead mice and rabbits.  I expected the birds to make a beeline for the food, but they weren't too interested initially.  The volunteer who fed them said that because it was a warm day, they weren't all that hungry.

About midway through the feeding time, we learned that they were having a special program where they would bring out a few of the raptors who weren't on public display, so we went to see that.  It was interesting to compare to our visit to the Sunkar falcon farm in Kazakhstan.  I remember having the raptors there swoop in on us from overhead, and being concerned that one would land on me and gouge me with their talons.  This time, the birds were carefully tethered to the leather gloves they were perched on so there was little chance of them escaping or causing havoc.

It's sad to think of raptors not being able to return to the wild because of their injuries, but I love the fact that there are so many humans invested in caring for them and giving them the best life possible.  It was fun to get to see them up close.  Unfortunately, as is often the case for animals, they were not particularly cooperative about posing for pictures, although I think I caught the bald eagle at the top of the page in a pretty good moment.

And a sculpture that can't move about!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Lake Champlain Chocolate Factory!

Scott and I first tried Lake Champlain chocolates when we were living in Virginia a few years ago.  A local natural foods store near us carried their Five Star bars, which are miniature candy bars.  They are expensive, but delicious!  For some reason, we ended up looking up the Lake Champlain chocolate factory at some point and discovering that they offer free factory tours.  So when we decided to go to Burlington, VT, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to go.  I checked all the information about days and times for tours, and we made sure to get there a little early because the website said tours were first come, first serve.

Only we got to the factory and immediately saw a sign that there were no tours today.  Scott asked an employee who said that they had stopped giving tours the week before Easter because they were usually so busy.  He told us we were welcome to watch the chocolates being made in front of the glass window and to watch the video that was on continuous loop.

Fortunately, one of the other employees decided that they weren't really that busy at the moment, and came over to explain some of the machines and processes to us.  She also brought us free samples, which, let's face it, are a highlight of going on tours of this kind.

I'm not terribly knowledgeable about factories generally, and I was under the impression that just about every process had been automated at this point, so I was pleasantly surprised to see so many people doing work behind the glass.  The employee who came over to talk to us also told us that this was the only factory for Lake Champlain chocolates, so I was also impressed by the output of a fairly small factory.  Visiting the factory gave me some insight as to why the chocolates are somewhat pricey--the company is paying actual human beings to do a fair amount of the work, and it's a small operation.  I don't foresee being able to buy Lake Champlain chocolates for all of my chocolate needs (ha!), but I can feel happier about the occasional splurge.  This is a lucky thing since we did splurge a bit today, reasoning that there was a much better selection at the factory store than there would be back home.

This was not part of our splurge, but I'm curious which kid will receive this ginormous $99 chocolate bunny.  It seems like it would fuel sugar-induced bad behavior for the next several weeks.  There was also an even larger chocolate bunny that you could buy raffle tickets to win.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Some Days I'm A Disaster

Yesterday, Scott and I flew to Burlington, Vermont!

In spite of my years of practice traveling by air, I did the following ditzy things yesterday, all of which I will chalk up to being tired and hungry:
1.  Almost took the wrong exit out of the National Airport Metro Station, which would have taken me to the wrong terminal in the airport.
2.  Whizzed past the arrivals and departures screens, only to realize that I didn't know which gate I needed to go to and have to double back.
3.  Failed to remove our boarding passes from my backpack until we were right at the security line and I realized I would need them.


I wasn't the only one who was a disaster yesterday morning, though.  TSA was also a disaster, though I think that's a more or less permanent condition with them.  My favorite part of going through security was the TSA agent who was crowing to the world at large about how we needed to put our laptops in a bin by themselves, even if that meant taking more than one bin, while failing to notice that our line had completely run out of bins.  OOPS!

Fortunately, Burlington, VT is not a disaster.  Check out the beautiful view!  And the water fountain shaped like a fish!

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Forgotten Truths About Being A Student

When I started taking classes last semester, I had an idealized notion of the sort of student I would be.  I was imagining taking pages of meticulous, well-organized notes and consistently studying a little bit every day so that there would be no studying time crunches before exams. Post-work exhaustion would never defeat me, and when I needed to study or do homework, I would never be distracted by the desire to go out somewhere or fashion the shiny objects in my midst into jewelry.

Let's just say that while my classes are going well, there has been a gap between my idealized notions and reality.  This gap wasn't as apparent in the fall because I was taking only one class then.  But the difference between taking one class and two classes has reminded me of a couple truths about being a student that I had long forgotten:

When taking multiple classes, one class will be known as The Class That Is Usually Ignored.  There can be a variety of reasons for this one.  If you're working on your bachelors degree, The Class That Is Usually Ignored is often a non-major class that you've been compelled to take to fulfill some sort of general education requirements.  Or you may have one class that's taught by your favorite professor (The Class That Gets All Your Energy), and all the others become The Classes That Are Usually Ignored.  In my case this semester, there is one class in which I have just enough background to get by pretty well.  I do my assignments for that class and study for tests.  But I don't spend a lot of time outside of class reviewing my notes or quizzing myself on the material.  I feel bad about this on a certain level because I find the subject matter interesting.  But my other class, in which I have very little background, is a massive time and energy sink.  An interesting and useful time and energy sink, perhaps, but one that forces an extreme imbalance of efforts.

Finishing something difficult for a class can be amazingly liberating.  You probably don't have to take more than one class at a time to experience this one.  But the class I took last semester wasn't overly challenging for me; my biggest challenge was getting used to the idea of taking classes again.  Anyway, I recently took my midterm in The Class That Gets All My Energy, and was surprised by how free I felt after it was over.  Imagine, I could read a book of my choosing during my commute instead of reading notes and working my way through a stack of flash cards!

For a long time, I thought I was done with my formal education, so it is interesting to go through some of this again.  The good thing is that with a BA and MA (and a good number of years) under my belt, I find these experiences more entertaining this time around.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Slowly Cracking The Code

I made this necklace several months ago.  The design was inspired by the large purple and orange oval-shaped bead.  The bead in question was included as a free gift with a set of beads I had ordered from Z-Beads, and, funnily enough, it found a happy home in a necklace before the beads I actually ordered did!

The construction of this necklace was fairly simple, just stringing with no seed bead weaving or wire work.  But it took me several tries to get it to look the way I wanted.  When I first gathered beads together for this project, I didn't have the round dark purple beads or the tiny silver beads (which you may or may not be able to see in the picture).  When I first strung the other beads together, I thought it looked okay, but I didn't feel like there was any place for the eye to rest.  I added the tiny silver beads at that point to break up the larger beads.  It was an improvement, but then I decided that I needed the dark purple beads to bring out the dark purple stripes in the large bead.

I've been making jewelry for many years at this point.  I remember when I was younger, I ended up with a lot more pieces that were just okay, but weren't exactly what I was envisioning.  Part of the problem in the earlier years was that I didn't always understand what was lacking in the pieces.  If all the beads looked great sitting together, why didn't they look so great when they were strung or woven together?  Even when I did understand what was wrong, I didn't always know how to fix it.  Or--and I know this will sound like a justification for both buying and hoarding beads--I didn't have the materials on hand to fix the problem and became frustrated.

I'm trying to keep this all in mind now as I try to figure out sewing.  I did some sewing as a teenager, and started dabbling in it again a few years ago.  Sewing has mostly been a series of lessons for me so far.  Some of the garments I've made have been pretty wonky looking (zipper insertion is often the culprit in these cases).  Others have looked fine on their own, but did not look particularly nice on me once I tried them on.  (Unlike store-bought clothing, of course, there is nowhere to return handmade clothing that doesn't work out.)  I took a step back recently, though, and made a very simple top with no zippers or buttons to cause problems, and while it is by no means perfect, I'm pleased with how it turned out.  In fact, I'm encouraged enough that I am currently working on a tunic based on the same pattern.

Ira Glass has a wonderful quote that I think applies to almost any creative endeavor.  I like to keep it in mind when something I'm working on isn't quite panning out:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

I take this to mean that after some more time of sewing project lessons (and maybe even a few things I can wear in public), I might develop some sort of intuition for successful sewing, just as I've developed more intuition for making jewelry over the years.  In any case, it's nice to be reassured that a trail of lackluster creations may lead somewhere good.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Happy Pi Day!

Happy Pi Day, everyone!  For years, I've wanted to celebrate this momentous occasion (by adding an "e" and eating pie, not by doing math problems), but it sneaks up on me every year and I don't end up doing anything.  This year, however, Pi Day coincided with a SNOW day in my neck of the woods, so I had some spare time.  To celebrate, I made a funny looking free form tart.

I was happy to have an unexpected day off and an excuse to make a dessert.  I am pleased that the tart I made tasted better than it looks.  And, above all, I am grateful that I am not trying to make a living with a food blog.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

My Dialect Is Deficient!

One of the classes I'm taking this semester is Phonetic Transcription.  I've had some questions about what exactly that means, so in a nutshell, this is a way to represent speech as people are actually pronouncing it.  Instead of using standard spelling, you use International Phonetic Alphabet symbols to represent individual sounds.  As you might imagine, this is a great way to uncover patterns of sounds people might be having trouble producing.

Anyway, we've been discussing vowel sounds in American English recently.  The official line is that dialectal variations are fine, and that no one dialect is superior to another.  (I can say from experience that many people's attitudes differ from this official line).  One feature of my own dialect that has re-entered my mental universe is that I generally do not distinguish between /ɑ/ and /ɔ/.  For people who do distinguish between these two sounds, think about the difference in the vowel sounds in cot and caught.  I've known for some time that I don't usually distinguish between the two sounds (I think ahh... vs. aww... might be the only time I distinguish between the two), but what I didn't realize until now is that I'm not consistently correct about where the /ɔ/ sound "should" be. I don't mind not distinguishing between the two sounds, but for some reason, I find not knowing where /ɔ/ might show up vaguely annoying.

Another thing I've noticed is that while I, like many other people, have tried to rid my speech of certain "non-prestigious" features (see my observation above regarding people's attitudes about different dialects), I have not been totally successful.  For me, the feature I've focused on is distinguishing between /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ before nasal consonants (pin vs. pen is a classic example of this).  I've gotten that particular pair of words down for the most part, but then in class, our instructor mentioned friend as an example of a word with the /ɛ/ vowel sound.  I pronounce it with /ɪ/.  Fortunately, of course, in this case, the difference in pronunciation does not change the meaning of the word.

I'll be interested as time goes on to learn more about which dialectal features are associated with which regions.  I was born and raised in North Carolina, and my parents are from Alaska and Michigan.  In addition to North Carolina, I have lived in Ohio, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Virginia.  And I've also had several stints living in other countries.  I'm curious if my speech fits into a certain regional profile fairly neatly, or if it's a hodgepodge of all the dialectal influences I've had.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Another Aspect Of Insurance To Consider

Recently, I wrote about my experience with health insurance and my concerns about how the laws in the US may change.  As I wrote previously, a lot can go wrong with getting and maintaining health insurance in the US.  My concerns mostly centered around coverage for pre-existing conditions and acquiring coverage that is not provided by an employer because those were the two issues I had thought about the most.  However, when I read this article today, I realized I had neglected to mention another very important issue:  Obamacare's ban on lifetime coverage limits.  The reason why I hadn't thought as much about this issue is simply that I have been very fortunate.  I have never been in danger of my health care expenses reaching some arbitrary limit.

Michelle, the mother interviewed in this article, is one of my colleagues.  I highly encourage everyone to read her family's story.  In a nutshell, her son, who has very complex medical challenges, was born right after the ban on lifetime health insurance coverage limits was enacted.  Had they been subjected to lifetime coverage limits, they would have faced ruinous medical expenses.  Now, of course, the future of all of Obamacare's provisions is very uncertain, including the ban on lifetime coverage limits.

This is an issue that could potentially affect us all.  Life is uncertain.  Just as the door is always open for wonderful things to happen for us, so too is the door open for the most difficult of challenges.  I think societies can be judged based on how they treat their most vulnerable members.  I hope going forward that we will continue to protect those people with complex and expensive medical needs.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Life's Little Triumphs: An Idea From The Internet Worked Out

I experienced a perfect storm of first world annoyances recently:

1.  I really dislike packing my lunch, but I do so anyway for financial and health considerations.  Oh, and because the only place within walking distance of my office where I can buy lunch is a decidedly lackluster cafeteria.

2.  Since I am now taking classes two nights a week, I have less time and energy for pretty much everything.  Making lunch sounds appealing neither when I get home at night, nor the next morning when I wake up exhausted.

Something was going to have to give.  I eat a lot and become "hangry" pretty easily, so I need to pack something substantial.  Now more than ever, that substantial lunch also needed to be healthy; my metabolism is not what it used to be.  Oh, and I'm somewhat of a food snob and likely to dislike frozen meals that could be stockpiled in the office fridge.

Something made me think of those mason jar salads whose pictures seem to be all over the internet.  For anyone who hasn't seen these, the idea is, well, that you pack salads in mason jars that can be shaken out onto a plate when you're ready to eat them.  You take advantage of the vertical space in the jar to pack all of your salad ingredients in layers; dressing goes at the very bottom, and things that will become soggy and gross if left to sit in dressing for too long (like salad greens) go at the very top.  If you consider ingredient placement carefully, you can make several mason jar salads at once on Saturday or Sunday and then eat them throughout the week.

The idea seemed appealing in theory.  But then again, haven't we all seen those wonderful photo spreads of the messy disasters that result from people trying ideas from Pinterest?  I was skeptical.  But I had three nice large jars that previously held salsa, so I thought I didn't have much to lose by trying.  I made packed three salads in jars on a Sunday, and decided I would eat one on Monday, one on Wednesday, and one on Friday to see if they really did remain palatable throughout the week.

To my astonishment, all three salads that week tasted great. Also, the salads were very filling--I didn't have to pack lots of extra things to keep my hunger-related crankiness at bay.

I'm now on week four of eating three mason jar salads per week, which in my mind gives me enough experience to start giving out tips.  These are the conclusions I've reached so far:

1.  I won't lie:  It's a bit of a procedure to put these things together.  I think of it as taking an annoyance that is usually spread out over several evenings, and cramming it into a portion of a weekend day.  That being said, preparing three is barely any more trouble than preparing one.  I think this is the sort of lunch that you have to either prepare multiples of, or not at all.

2.  Unless you want a bland salad, be sure to use plenty of dressing and/or other ingredients that impart a lot of flavor (cheese, olives, etc.).

3.  I've tried both quinoa and brown rice for the grain layer in the salad.  Quinoa tastes better here.

4.  Adding some protein and fat will help you stay full for longer.  I've added avocado, canned tuna, olives, feta cheese, and pumpkin seeds in various combinations.

5.  Personally, I think some ingredients are best added the day you plan to eat the salad.  It's hard for me to imagine avocado improving after being cut up and sitting in a jar for several days, for instance.  Use your best judgement here.

6.  If you have somewhere at work where you can wash dishes, it's probably worth just keeping a plate in your office for salad-shaking purposes.

I doubt that the success of my mason jar salad experiment will set me on a slippery slope of trying Pinterest ideas, but who knows?  If our apartment ever becomes a sparkling clean haven of seasonally appropriate crafts, I'll know how it all started.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Darker Side Of Nature

"Eat or be eaten!"
As Scott and I were walking through a residential section of our town today, we spotted this beautiful hawk by a small playground.  We walked over for a closer look, trying to be quiet, and taking turns trying to get good pictures.  We were surprised at how close we were able to get, until we realized the hawk was standing guard over some hapless dead mammal (a squirrel, I think).  I imagine we had just missed a scene worthy of a nature program on TV.  I enjoyed getting such a good look at the hawk, but it was a reminder of how much of nature involves one critter eating another.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Trump's Executive Order On Refugees

Anyone who knows me well and/or has been following my blog probably has an inkling about how upset I am about Trump's executive order banning the admission of all refugees to the US for 120 days and banning the entry of any citizen of Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, or Iran for 90 days.  This move is both discriminatory and downright mean-spirited.  Can you imagine having fled your homeland, having spent years in limbo, finally having the chance to settle somewhere, and then having that yanked away from you at the last minute?  Even the circumstances that are less extreme are painful to contemplate.  As an American who has both studied and worked abroad, I can only imagine how disruptive it would have been to my life if one of my host countries had suddenly decided not to let any more Americans in when I was on the cusp of moving there.

If we're serious as a nation about keeping people safe and saving lives, we have some pretty obvious places to start that don't involve discrimination based on national origin:  deaths from car accidents (more than 32,000 in 2013), firearm deaths (over 33,000 in 2014), and opioid overdoses (over 33,000 in 2015).

The idea of discriminating based on nationality is ridiculous to begin with.  People are people the world over.  I have traveled quite a bit and have met wonderful (and not-so-wonderful) people everywhere I have gone.  But I could say the same thing for people in the United States.  In fact, I distinctly remember some very notorious homegrown terrorists who were not Muslim:  the Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh, and Eric Rudolph all come to mind.  Can you imagine if American-born white men had come under additional scrutiny because all three of those domestic terrorists were all white men?  Or if we had just declared a moratorium on people having children since our society had raised all three of them?

To be clear, I am against having any sort of list that discriminates against certain nationalities.  But I could also poke plenty of holes in the list of seven countries that has been chosen.  If we are interested in looking at past terrorist performance on US soil by nationality, let's consider the 9/11 attacks.  Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.  Notice that Saudi Arabia is not on the list of seven countries.  Again, I don't want to discriminate against the Saudis, either, but I find this fact interesting.

Here's another interesting hole:  I think Americans are most worried about ISIS and al-Qaida when they worry about foreign terrorism.  Both of those terrorist groups are Sunni, while Iran, a member of the list of seven, is predominantly Shiite.  I would be interested to know why it made the list, aside from general feelings some people have that it is a "problem" nation.

Nicholas Kristof has wonderful column today in which he discusses previous instances of fear-mongering against different groups of people in the US and his father's experience coming to the US.  It is useful to remember that we are a nation of immigrants and that at some point in the past, someone took a chance and allowed our families in. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Back To School At My Age? The Very Idea!

I'm an introvert, so I need a lot of time on my own to recharge from life.  As a result, I'm very protective of my free time, and generally wary of long term commitments that will get in the way of my doing whatever I happen to feel like.

So in a way, it seems crazy that--on top of working full time--I applied for a program, signed up for a fall semester class, and then signed up for two spring semester classes.  I must be a glutton for punishment.

The seed was planted when I was offered my current job and I learned that I would be eligible for tuition remission at the University of Maryland.  At the time, I thought this would just be a benefit on paper because there was no way I was going to stress myself out attending classes on top of working.

But then I started to hear that some of my colleagues were doing just that.  And I started to think that maybe I should give it a try.  I'd been thinking for some time that I'd like to expand my career options, but the timing never seemed right.  And I started to think that the time when you're able to take classes for free may be about as good of timing as any.

So I started taking hearing and speech classes in the fall.  I signed up for one class as a trial run.  The classes I want to take are being offered as a package in the evenings, specifically for the benefit of old grouches with jobs during the day non-traditional students.  The good thing about evening classes is that I don't have to rearrange my work day or risk missing important meetings.  The bad part is pretty predictable:  At the end of a day of work, I just want to go home.

It was hard to get into the right frame of mind in the fall.  At first, every Tuesday evening when class met, I asked myself what I was doing and why I was creating extra work for myself.  Then I started to wonder why I couldn't just learn the material on my own and then take some sort of placement test, as is common with math and foreign language classes.

Gradually, my attitude started to improve.  I realized that even though I probably could have learned the material on my own, taking a class gave me the structure I needed to stay motivated when I was busy with other things.  It also occurred to me that many of my classmates also had jobs, but unlike me, had to work farther from the university and without the benefit of free tuition. 

Spring semester started yesterday, and I had my first class this evening.  I am sorry to see the end of winter break.  Even after I went back to work after the holidays, I was enjoying having evenings free of classes, studying, and homework.  On the other hand, taking classes makes me feel like I'm making progress in life--after all, once you get credit for a class, it's like a box checked off.  On the way to checking off those two boxes this semester, though, I'm sure I will be taking a lot of deep breaths and reminding myself often of why it's a good idea to do this.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

My Health Insurance Story

Having a health insurance story is sort of a US thing.  I think most other countries' health care systems are more streamlined, with longer histories of providing universal, or at least near-universal, coverage.  I remember talking about this issue with some European colleagues when we were in Kazakhstan.  They knew enough about US domestic policy to know that there were problems and controversies in our health care system, but they had never fully considered the ramifications of being a US citizen without health insurance.

Every American has a health insurance story of some kind.  Some people's stories are blessedly straightforward and uneventful.  It is very possible, for instance, to be covered by a parent's health insurance until you graduate from college, get a job with great benefits when you graduate, and stay at that job until you retire.  Other people's stories are straightforward for sadder reasons, as it is also possible to have a job that does not offer benefits of any kind and to simultaneously make too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to buy a private insurance plan.  With all the talk recently of repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA, aka "Obamacare"), I had been thinking of writing about my own health insurance saga for a long time.  Today, when I saw in the Washington Post that 18 million people will lose their health insurance in the first year if the ACA is repealed without a replacement, I decided it was time to start writing.  Here are the major milestones of my health insurance saga so far as a US citizen:

  • Ages 0-18: Covered by the health insurance my dad got through his employer!  Not every child is this lucky, so this was very good fortune right off the bat.
  • College:  Still covered by my dad's health insurance!
  • Graduate school:  And still covered by my dad's health insurance!  Currently, under the ACA, children can stay on their parents' health insurance plans until the age of 26.  Previously, rules varied.  In my case, I was allowed to remain on his plan until one of the following things happened;  (1) I turned 26, (2) I got married, or (3) I finished or left school.  As it turns out, I did all three things within less than a year, but turning 26 was what happened first.  If I had needed to, I could have purchased health insurance through my university, but it would have taken a significant chunk out of my carefully-budgeted grad school stipend.
  • First job out of graduate school:  I moved to Madison, WI right after successfully defending my MA thesis.  I didn't technically graduate until December of that year, so had some time to frantically look for work before turning 26 that October.  Hard as I tried, it took some time for me to find a job at all, and once I did, it did not offer any benefits.  My parents generously offered to cover private insurance premiums for me until I could get insurance by some other means.  I applied for coverage with a plan that was highly rated in Consumer Reports.  They ultimately covered me, but not before one of their representatives called me to ask follow-up questions from my health questionnaire.  Also, although I was not planning to become pregnant at that time, I was taken aback to notice that this plan provided no benefits for prenatal care or delivery unless you purchased a maternity rider.  Given the high number of unintended pregnancies in the US, this seemed like a disaster from the standpoint of healthy mothers and babies.  It also seemed like a slap in the face for people to potentially pay for this additional coverage and then not end up being able to use it.
  • Marriage:  Covered by Scott's health insurance plan!  His plan was from his university, and it covered us through the remainder of our time in Wisconsin and during a research fellowship Scott had in Israel after that.  
  • First job with benefits:  Shortly after our return to the US from Israel, I got my first job that offered benefits.  I had a number of plans to choose from, and ultimately picked the PPO with the lowest premiums.  I had a longstanding suspicion of HMO's after working in a pharmacy for a few summers during college and seeing some of our customers struggle with their HMO's rejecting medicines of different kinds, so I decided a PPO would be better.  I chose the one with the lowest premiums because I figured Scott and I were young and healthy.
  • Sickness strikes:  Three or so years into the job mentioned above, I started to develop odd symptoms.  I had trouble swallowing.  Then I had body aches all the time.  Then I was always exhausted, no matter how much sleep I got.  Finally, my heart started racing at random times.  When your heart does something unexpected, it brings on a lot of tests.  I had multiple EKG's, a CT scan, and an echocardiogram.  I had to wear an event monitor (basically like a portable EKG that you can use to record what your heart is doing when you feel it doing something out of the ordinary) for a couple of weeks.  I had a multitude of blood tests, and when those started to provide clues, a thyroid ultrasound.  All these tests are expensive, so it was lucky that I had good health insurance.  It was also lucky that I had adequate sick leave and didn't end up losing my job due to the time I had to take off.
         In the end, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto's disease.  This was a better diagnosis than some of          things doctors were considering, but it put me squarely in the dreaded pre-existing conditions
         camp.  No amount of participating in triathlons, eating goji berries, or meditating at sunrise
         will make this disease go away.  Prior to the full implementation of the ACA, private insurance
         plans could have denied me coverage because of this disease.
  • A plunge into the unknown:  A couple years after my diagnosis, I left my job.  This was in part to help Scott pursue a career opportunity, and in part because I had become increasingly unhappy at work.  After leaving that job, I was able to pursue teaching, a new line of work for me.  My new job did not provide me with benefits, but I was able to get health insurance under Scott's plan.  Neither of our jobs at that time were "stable," but I had the courage to leave my previous job and try something new in part because, due to the ACA's prohibition on discriminating on the basis of preexisting conditions, I knew I would be able to get private health insurance if I had to.
  • Kazakhstan:  Our next jobs took us to Kazakhstan, where we were promised free global health insurance.  Unfortunately, in our employer's world view, the US was mostly excluded from this globe; our health insurance would cover only the first 28 days of any visit to the US and only for emergency care.  We knew some of our visits would last longer than 28 days, and I needed somewhat routine care anyway, so we needed to supplement this coverage somehow.  We consulted with an expert, who told us that in NC (where we based ourselves during our time abroad), we couldn't sign up for ACA insurance unless we were physically present in the state for at least 6 months out of the year.  We opted for COBRA coverage from Scott's previous employer.  This was very expensive, and would only last for a maximum of 18 months, but for our peace of mind, we were lucky to have the option.
  • Almost signed up for ACA insurance:  When we returned from Kazakhstan, our 18 months of COBRA coverage was drawing to a close.  We were in a race to either find a job with benefits for at least one of us, or sign up for ACA insurance.  We consulted with the same expert who, upon learning that we were getting job interviews, advised us to wait as long as we could.  Losing our insurance would have been a qualifying event to allow us to sign up outside the open period, so it made sense to wait until closer to the end of our COBRA coverage to see if either of us got a job.
  • A new job with benefits:  One of those interviews panned out for me!  We were slated to lose our COBRA coverage on March 1; I started working on February 29.
Certain parts of my story--most notably moving to Kazakhstan--might be somewhat unusual.  But other parts aren't.  Anyone could have trouble finding a job with benefits, especially when they are young and lacking in job experience.  Also, anyone, no matter how well they take care of themselves, could end up sick or injured and developing a "pre-existing condition."  In some cases these sicknesses and injuries lead to people losing jobs, and therefore losing employer-provided health insurance.  In other cases, they may prevent people from working in the first place.  For that matter, anyone could be laid-off and lose their employer-provided health insurance that way.

I've had advantages that not everybody has had.  I have educated, employed parents who kept me continuously covered on their health insurance until I turned 26.  I have a graduate degree, which opens up opportunities to certain jobs that provide benefits.  Scott and I have been married for ten and a half years, and we have added one another to our employer-provided health insurance during that time.  In spite of that, I spent several months on a private health insurance plan before getting married, and we almost signed up for ACA insurance in 2016 before I started working at my current job.

There has been a lot of talk recently about repealing the ACA.  There has been talk about replacing it, too, though I have yet to see a concrete plan for how that will happen.  Trump has promised how wonderful the replacement will be.  I hope he is right, not just for the sake of the 18 million people who stand to lose their health insurance right away, but also for the sake of everyone who might need it in the future.  Anyone can experience bad luck, and I hope that people who do can at least have health insurance.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Using Two Large Focal Beads In One Necklace

Sometimes interesting beads sit in my collection for a long time before I figure out the perfect way to use them.  I was given the pair of red patterned African trade beads that you can see in the necklace picture many years ago.  I liked them, but I had no idea how to use them.  They are large and somewhat heavy, which means that if you string them on the wrong part of the necklace, they will make the whole thing hang funny.  They are long, and the ends are not tapered.  This means that smaller beads may be visually swallowed up next to them.  Their holes are very large, which means that smaller beads may be literally swallowed up by them.  So they posed some challenges.  I had originally thought of making two separate chokers out of them, and maybe giving one as a gift.  But I thought that would be too easy and predictable; plus, my selfish nature took over, and I wanted both of the beads for myself.

I ultimately decided the beads would hang best in the front of center of any necklace.  That pointed to a double strand necklace with one bead on each strand, rather than, say, a long single strand necklace with a bead on each side.  I decided I wanted to incorporate bead weaving, but wanted the strength and security of beading wire.  So I stitched four seed bead tubes (herringbone stitch, if anyone is interested).  The two "top" tubes are shorter than the two "bottom" tubes; that is what creates the curve in the necklace.  On each side of the necklace, I partially stitched together the long and short tubes.  That is a detail that isn't very obvious in the picture, but I think it helps to maintain the necklace's curve.

Once I had done all of the seed bead work, I strung everything on beading wire.  I string some small seed beads inside both the African trade beads and the beaded tubes to help keep them centered on the wire.  The blue beads I strung right next to the African trade beads are large enough that they don't disappear into either the African trade beads or the beaded tubes.

Overall, I'm very pleased with how it turned out.  The one thing I'm not as happy about is the clasp.  I couldn't find any two-strand clasps with an appropriately rustic look, and decided my best option in terms of appearance was a toggle clasp.  Two-strand toggle clasps are horribly fiddly when you try to clasp them (I had originally thought it was just this necklace, but I made another, very different necklace with a two-strand toggle clasp recently, and it's nearly as bad).  So if I ever use that type of clasp again, I'm going to be very careful that everything near the bar portion of the clasp is tiny and/or flexible so that it can pass through the toggle as easily as possible.

I'm happy when beads I've had for a while finally find a home.  After recently organizing my collection, I concluded that quite a few beads need happy homes.  With luck, I'll find time to make that happen more often.  I got stuck in a busy rut in the fall and felt too overwhelmed to start anything.  I'm cranky when I don't have a project to work on, though, so I hope my recent reorganization will make it easier for me to find the things I want and start projects I can work on for at least a few minutes a day.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Life's Little Triumphs: Something In My Purse Was Useful!

Laila experiences triumph in the form of an unguarded water glass on the table.

In a time of unusually high uncertainty and political tension, we could all use something positive to think about.  So, I thought I'd write about a minor triumph I had the other day!  If I find myself experiencing little triumphs with any frequency, maybe I can make them a regular feature of my blog.   Anyway, here goes...

Sometimes the drive from North Carolina to Maryland seems to call for junk food, especially of the sugary variety.  Our recent drive back after the holidays was no exception.  We stopped at a rest area, decided that Reese's Pieces looked like the best option, and bought a pack.  But then when we got back in the car, it would. Not. Open.

I was bemoaning our lack of implements of destruction in the car when Scott mentioned that if I could find his work ID in the glove compartment, it might have a pin attached to the back.  Then I remembered that I had safety pins in my purse!

On a certain level, I think I've always been concerned that I would experience a great catastrophe with nothing but my purse at my disposal.  In addition to the safety pins I carry in case of wardrobe malfunction, I have ibuprofen, band-aids, and even a few of my thyroid pills.  Why?  I don't know.  Every time I travel, I probably check my bags at least five times to be sure I have my thyroid medication, so it's somewhat unlikely that I'd end up away from home without it.  Needless to say, most of the time, the crapola useful stuff in my purse does nothing for me but help develop my shoulder muscles from lugging it around.  I'm not sure I have ever actually needed safety pins in all the time I have carried them around.

This time was different, though!  I took one of my safety pins and used it to poke a perforated line along one side of the Reese's Pieces package.  From there, I am happy to report, we were able to open the package and get our sugar fix.

It truly is the little things in life...

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Holiday 2016 Pictures

Happy 2017 to all!  In spite of all the various reasons to feel pessimistic, I hope the year turns out better than many of us think.  In the meantime, here is a quick recap of some holiday highlights.

We spent Christmas (and much of Hanukkah) in NC.  Hanukkah started on Christmas Eve this year, and my mom and I collaborated on a batch of latkes for dinner.  Below is a picture of our Christmas tree.  We are a multi-colored light and eclectic collection of ornament type of family.

After Christmas, we made a family trip to the NC coast.  Fall and winter are my favorite times to go there.  Rather than tanning, I turn a tomato-like shade of red in the sun.  So I prefer to go during a time of year when the sun isn't as strong and I can be comfortably covered up.  It is also less crowded when it isn't hot.

After returning from NC, we went to see the tree at the Capitol.  I am always fascinated by the scale of the ornaments on such a large tree.  Also, nothing says "festive" quite as well as a potato sack!

The fact that I feel well enough to blog on New Year's morning probably gives a clue that my activities last night did not involve getting wasted and puking in a cab on the way home.  Scott and I had a meal of appetizers at home and hung out with Laila.  Much less expensive than many of the other options, and we're both in a position to have a productive day.

Hope everyone's festivities were what the wished for!