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Saturday, December 30, 2017

Cool Things I Saw In North Carolina

Happy holidays to everyone!  We got back late yesterday evening from spending Christmas in North Carolina with my family.  We started out in my hometown of Chapel Hill, NC, and then went to the coast before heading back to Maryland.  As always, I had a great time.  Here are some pictures of cool things I saw.

A twig palace in Hillsboro!

Seagulls have to eat, too.

These Christmas trees will be placed in the dunes to help prevent erosion.

Juniper berries!

My mom said it best: It was a good thing I wasn't wearing flipflops.

This was a lot of fun to watch, but none of my attempts to photograph it really panned out.  The plastic bottle at the bottom of the tank was filled with pieces of apple and served as a sort of "food puzzle" for the otters at the aquarium.  It reminded me of a food puzzle we give to Laila, which is a ball that dispenses treats as she rolls it over the floor.

Even oyster shells can look surprisingly festive.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Pretty Things In DC

We took a walk in DC yesterday to celebrate my first day of winter break.  With all the drama in my work life over the past six months, classes, and grad school applications, I'm very grateful for a chance to catch my breath. 

First we visited the Christmas tree on the Capitol lawn.  I'm always fascinated by the scale of ornament needed for such a large tree.

Then we visited the US Botanic Garden (where we experienced the corpse flowers over the summer) to see what sort of holiday decorations they had.  In addition to Christmas trees and poinsettias, they had a display with model trains running past models of various "roadside attractions" found in parts of the US.  Where else can you see Mt. Rushmore and Mr. Potato Head at one time?

It was also fun seeing DC in the evening.  We got to see the Washington Monument at sunset and the Kennedy Center with rainbow lights.  There is always something nice to see around here, and I'm so glad this area is my home.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Someone Needs To Pull Her Weight Around Here

Cats need their beauty sleep!
Hypothetically, what would you do if you were working from home one day and saw a mouse scuttle across the floor from the kitchen to the coat closet?  What if the member of your household who is responsible for handling such disasters were sound asleep on the couch with her toy mice, paying no attention to the live mouse that was moving about so brazenly?

I hoped Laila would sense something and wake up.  Meanwhile, the mouse kept poking its furry little head out from under the door of the coat closet, and I knew it was just a matter of time before it made a run for it again.

Since watching and waiting wasn't cutting it, I woke Laila up and lured her over to the coat closet with treats.  After she ate her treats, I opened the closet door and put her inside, hoping she'd smell the mouse and be interested.  No such luck.  She backed right out.  I tried a few more times, and eventually gave up and closed the closet door.

I went back to work and Laila got up on my lap.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the mouse poke its head out from under the closet door.  I turned in my swivel chair to try to show Laila.  She looked away.

I tried a few more times, but eventually, the mouse scurried back in to the kitchen.  Laila was blissfully oblivious.  And I have to live with the knowledge that there is a mouse loose in the kitchen somewhere.  Ugh.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The End Of A Cheap, Tasty Era...And Maybe The Beginning Of A New One

One of the amenities of where we live is proximity to a taco truck.  It's about a five-minute walk from our apartment, and we frequently took advantage.  We referred to it as the taco truck, but it had plenty in addition to tacos, including pupusas, fried chicken, and various platters.  It was a reliably quick and delicious meal.  I particularly enjoyed the tacos because they reminded me of the ones I ate in Mexico when I studied there as an undergrad--marinated meat, onions, and cilantro.

This was a Friday dinner favorite, in particular, when we were always tired and hungry.  I took a few hours of leave on Friday afternoon to work on a class project.  I passed by the taco truck walking home, and was crestfallen to see that it had just closed!

We had been bemoaning the lack of additional taco trucks within an easy walking distance of our apartment.  But then we walked by the taco truck on Saturday and saw a sign on it advertising the grand opening of El Rey Del Sazon.  The sign provided a phone number, but no website or other information.  We're hoping this will be taco truck in the same location.  We've just become too spoiled to go back to our pre-taco truck days.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Life's Little Triumphs: YouTube Solved A Song Mystery For Me

I don't know what other people typically use YouTube for (and maybe in some cases, I'm happier to not find out), but I usually use it to listen to music.  Sometimes I pick a series of songs in succession, but other times I just pick one and then let YouTube select what I hear next.  I've found some great new-to-me (but often decades old) songs this way.  But today when I was listening to music over YouTube, what should I hear but the instrumental section at the beginning of a song I've liked for years but knew neither the title or the artist?!

Tracking down random songs I like has always been a thing for me, and as internet searches have improved, it's become easier.  But I liked this particular song mostly because of the instrumentals, and I never knew a long enough string of lyrics to find it by searching. 

Anyway, if anyone is curious, the song in question is "Steppin' Out" by Joe Jackson, and now that I know the lyrics, I like those, in addition to the instrumental section.  Definitely an unqualified triumph.

Unfortunately, I was also dealing with a mysterious anti-triumph today.  In my opinion, certain annoyances belong to certain seasons.  Heatwaves belong in the summer and blizzards belong in the winter.  Along similar lines, bug bites definitely do not belong in the late fall.  Yet, yesterday, I somehow ended up with two very itchy bug bites on my left foot.  The kicker is that yesterday I was wearing tights, thick socks, and boots, so I don't understand how a bug got anywhere near my foot.  All I can conclude is that either (a) I'm having an extremely delayed reaction to bites I got the last time I wore sandals, or (b) the bugs have decisively outsmarted us and we're all in trouble. 

Wishing everyone a weekend full of triumphs and free of any out-of-season annoyances!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Rudeness Trap

Thursday evening is one of the two evenings per week that I have class this semester.  For various reasons, I've had a longer than usual stretch of time today between leaving work and starting class.  I decided to hole up in the student union and work on a statement of purpose for a grad school application.

I was deep in thought, staring at my laptop screen when two people who appeared to be undergraduates approached me.  After a lead-up of them telling me their names, asking me my name, telling me how random their approaching me was, and admitting that they didn't know whether I was spiritual or not, they cut to the chase and invited me to join them at a meeting of their bible study group.  I had an ironclad excuse not to go:

"Oh," I told them.  "I'll actually be in class when your meeting starts."

But then--and here comes the trap--one of them asked me if I would have been interested in attending if I hadn't had class.

To be clear, I have no objection whatsoever to religious group meetings of any kind.  But it's not really my thing.  I prefer to keep my religious/spiritual beliefs private, and shared spiritual beliefs are not what draws me to other people.  I didn't explain any of this.

"Ummm...." I said.  "Probably not.  But thank you very much for inviting me."

I won't lose sleep over this encounter, but I am sort of wondering what one does in that sort of situation.  Is it a thing now for people to approach strangers and invite them to meetings?  Was there a more tactful way I could have answered the question?  Should we all just be brutally direct in responses to such questions?

Maybe I should just try to look really mean while I'm working in public places.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

What We Eat When Nobody Is Watching

This may be wishful thinking on my part, but I think everyone must like a particular food, or combination of foods, that other people find odd.  The food combinations I like for which I've received the most grief commentary are bananas with cheddar cheese and peanut butter with dill pickles.

I never thought bananas with cheddar cheese was such an odd combination, but my roommates my freshman year in college set me straight on that when they saw me eating it.  And, truthfully, even though it's a delicious combination, I don't know of other people who eat it.

Peanut butter with dill pickles is a slightly different matter, since I know I am not alone in eating it.  My dad eats peanut butter with dill pickles.  I think I had some commentary about that when I was a kid, but it eventually occurred to me that maybe he was eating peanut butter and dill pickle sandwiches because they tasted good.  I was convinced when I first tried a bite.  I also saw an article about peanut butter and pickle sandwiches a few years ago, so I know there are people outside my family who eat them, too!

My latest odd inspired combination, which I finally tried yesterday after wondering about for a while, was peanut butter with Sriracha sauce.  I had it on a rice cake, and the flavor was somewhat reminiscent of Thai food, while being quick enough to put together to provide instant gratification.  Scott witnessed this, and promises he'll try the combination...sometime.  I'm now trying to decide which other unsuspecting friends and family members I should try to bring on board for this strangely delicious snack.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

And Then There Were Tomatoes

I wrote this summer about my (mis)adventures in balcony gardening.  Even though it's technically fall now, balcony gardening season has continued, courtesy of the unseasonably warm weather we've been having.  In my opinion, this is really the only upside to the weather at this point.  This summer was a challenging time for me, and I'm anxious to put it completely behind me and move on to fall.

However, the upside of continued balcony gardening has its own very specific upside.  I finally have tomatoes!  After a string of cherry tomato plants inexplicably died over the summer, I tried a beefsteak tomato plant.  It stayed alive, but it took a while before it did anything else, like grow taller or blossom.  However, now it's huge and full of green tomatoes!  Just in time for a first frost (if the weather were a little more fall-like)! 

Eventually, three of them ripened, so I'm happy that we got to enjoy at least a few tomatoes from our plant.  At this point, I'll either be stuck with an extra long summer that refuses to move on (but plenty of ripe tomatoes!), or I'll get my wish for fall weather and learn to embrace fried green tomatoes.

Friday, September 29, 2017

In Which I Struggle NOT To Tell The Truth

I'll get the good news out of the way first:  I'm employed full-time again!  The employer which laid me off in June asked me to return, so I'm back at the same place!  I'm just hoping not to repeat the layoff experience again in a few months!

Since there was about three months between receiving my layoff notice and returning to my office, I have some thoughts on the job-search process.  Chief among those right now is that interviews are the pits.  Of course, when you're looking for work, you want to have them.  But really, they're bad on both sides.  If you're the one being interviewed, you're going to feel anxious and awkward, and then you're going to second guess everything you said as soon as the interview is done.  If you're doing the interviewing, you're trying desperately to fill a position with someone both competent and tolerable, and you have very limited means of determining whether your applicants are either of those.

Unfortunately, the very limited means of trying to learn about an applicant often mean asking questions that are nearly impossible for the applicant to answer truthfully.

I'm going to purposely leave out a lot of details here, but I had an interview for a position for which I felt qualified, but was different in many ways from other positions I had had.  I was surprised when I was contacted for an interview.  During the interview, one person asked me how this position fit into my career goals.  An honest response would have been something like this:

"I applied for this position shortly after being laid off with no warning.  At that time, my goal of having income and benefits overrode any loftier career goals I might have had.  As a plus, this position seemed like it might be pleasant, and the office is close enough to where I take evening classes that work shouldn't interfere too much with my studies.  Otherwise, though, this position has very little to do with my current career field, and probably even less to do with my planned future career."

Obviously, there was no part of this I could have shared with my interviewers.

I don't even remember how I answered the question, but I doubt I was either convincing or credible.  They say practice makes perfect, though, so for any future interviews for positions that are not obvious career fits for me, I'll have to be sure to get my lies straight ahead of time.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Case Of The Missing Mouse

Our resident mouse lover
I've written before about common ground between humans and cats, but I've discovered another similarity!  Much like human children, cats become very attached to certain toys.  And, when said toys go missing, the entire household looks for them.

Before we brought Laila home, I purchased a variety of cat toys including a pair of catnip mice.  These mice were identical, aside from one being beige and the other being gray.  Laila took a liking to these mice, but always seemed to like the gray one better.  (Why?  I thought cats didn't see colors very well).  Her preference for the gray one seemed to grow over time.  The gray one was the one she would pick up in her mouth and meow around when she wanted attention.  It was also the one we would find outside our bedroom door some mornings, when she evidently thought we had slept in too late, and came to meow at us through the door.

When last seen, the gray mouse's feather ears had long been chewed off.  Its fur had developed a coarse texture from repeatedly being held in a cat's mouth and chewed on.  The beige mouse looks quite pristine, by comparison.

However, yesterday afternoon, I realized I hadn't seen the gray mouse in a while.  Laila considers the couch her home, and usually, the gray mouse is right there with her, except when she's playing with it.  I noticed Laila walking around, looking up on the couch, and meowing, so I think she was looking for it.  I figured it had just gotten stuck in the couch cushions, but I've looked pretty carefully and haven't found it.  We've been trying to think of more places to look, but it's hard to imagine where it could have gone.  And we're in an apartment, so there's a limited area to search.  I feel pretty bad about it, considering that it's a well-loved gross cat toy we're talking about.

I'm kind of assuming at this point that it will turn up somewhere, but I'm curious where that will be.  I'm also curious how Laila will react to it.  Will it be a joyous reunion, or will she have moved on to one of the other of her many toy mice in the meantime?

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

I Didn't Have Enough Bad Odors In My Life...

So I visited a corpse flower in bloom!  Corpse flowers are native to Sumatra, but we didn't have to travel that far since the United States Botanic Garden has three of them!  They don't bloom frequently, and it always makes the news here when they do.  I had been regretting the fact that while I've been to the US Botanic Garden several times, I had never been while the corpse flowers were blooming.  This time around, I decided to seize the opportunity.  They didn't all bloom at once, but you can see one in bloom (with the other two waiting to bloom) here.

The experience was somewhat different than I had expected.  With a name like "corpse flower," I expected the smell to be much more dramatic, the sort that hits you like a ton of bricks as soon as you walk in the door.  It turned out that the rotting meat smell was both faint and intermittent.  One of the employees explained that it is energy intensive for the plant to produce this stench, so it doesn't produce it constantly.  She also helpfully pointed out to everyone when it was emitting the stench, and where we could get a good whiff since--let's face it--people come to exhibits like this in part to be a little grossed out.  But, they are attractive plants, even if a little smelly.

Speaking of things that are at once gross and beautiful, we saw this tree on a walk we took later.

I love how the leaves look like lace or filigree.  However, I'm pretty sure they got that way by being chewed up by bugs, which kind of creeps me out.

On a different note, we saw the Hive exhibit at the National Building Museum on Sunday.  Very impressive structures, especially considering they were made with paper tubes!

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Remote Work Mysteries

I've recently started a part-time job, working remotely for an employer in another state.  Most of the other employees work onsite.  I'd never really thought about this, but when you work in the same space as other people, you share a lot of experiences with them, good and bad.  You see colleagues and bosses come and go, you partake in office parties, you complain together about the flickering light in the conference room.  Sometimes, you even get a group layoff experience!  When you work remotely, you don't have these same points of reference.  Messages were circulating recently about a goodbye party for departing colleagues; I never met any of them in person, and I didn't get to eat any of the food.

But the weirdest thing is that in the few weeks I've been doing this job, there have already been two(!) emails about the restrooms.  I don't recall receiving any emails about the restrooms at my previous job, which I held for over a year before being laid off, so two messages in a just a few weeks seems noteworthy somehow.

The first message was to advise us that only employees and authorized visitors were allowed to use the restrooms.  Evidently, random people from the parking lot had been trying to come inside the building to use the restrooms.  (Why?  Are the restrooms in this building really nice, or are they just the only restrooms around for miles?  I need details!).  All of us employees were supposed to somehow fend these people off, and if they persisted, we were supposed to notify the sender of this email so he could deal with them.  (How?  I'm picturing parking lot fist fights that I'll never actually get to see.)

The second message mentioned that the restrooms had been left in "disarray," and that if we needed further clarification on what that meant, we should stop by the sender's office to ask.  I'm so curious about this email, but yet, so glad I don't know what the sender was talking about.  The "disarray" must have been pretty bad to warrant any sort of mention, and the fact that the sender would only elaborate on it in person makes me think it was fairly lurid.

But, since I can neither visit these restrooms nor stop by anyone's office for clarification, the exact nature of the "disarray" will forever remain a mystery to me.

A blurry photo of my distinguished office mate, Laila.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Eclipse-Watching With No Photographic Evidence!

I'm sure few people are unaware at this point of the solar eclipse that could be seen today in North America.  I'm no astronomy buff, and it was impractical for a number of reasons for me to travel anywhere in the "path of totality," but I started to have serious fear of missing out as the eclipse drew closer, so decided to take the afternoon off to see what I could see in my area.

I ended up heading to the roof of my building around the time the eclipse started to be visible here, special eclipse-viewing glasses in hand.  A small group of people were assembled up there, also watching the eclipse.  During part of the time I was on the roof, cloud cover prevented me from seeing anything, so I alternated between reading my book and putting on the special glasses to check out the eclipse's progress.  It was a surreal experience.  Since the eclipse-viewing glasses block out all light except sunlight, it felt like I was seeing the moon against a dark sky while I was wearing them.  Yet, it was the middle of the day.  Attempting to photograph the eclipse was a similarly odd experience.  I would locate the sun in the sky while wearing my special glasses, hold the camera in front of my eyes (thereby blocking my view of everything), take the picture, and hope for the best.  I'm pleased to report that the pictures I took do indeed contain the sun.  However, they all look suspiciously like they were taken on a normal day.

Today was fun, but maybe I'll try to be a little more ambitious the next time a solar eclipse can be viewed in North America.  It would be fun to have an excuse to travel somewhere new (assuming I won't be living in the "path of totality").  I'm sure thousands (at least!) of other people are taking care of photographs, but it would also be fun to take a few good pictures of my own.  It looks like I'll have several years to prepare!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Layoff Lessons

I was laid off in late June, along with a large number of colleagues.  It came as a complete surprise to me, and, I believe, everyone else at my place of work.  I would give serious props to the powers that be for carrying off such a surprise, except that I think planned surprises should always be pleasant.  If you're going to ruin someone's day (and possibly the weeks to come), it's just good manners to throw a few clues their way beforehand.

I didn't feel like writing about this until now, which was a struggle, since it was really the major event of my summer.  But I have a part-time job now, and circumstances seem a little brighter, so I thought I'd share my layoff lessons.  This was my first layoff, and I keep thinking it will officially grant me adult status or something.

  • The first couple of weeks will be taken up writing awkward emails.  I have been truly touched by the number of people who have helped me during this time.  Every single person I've told about my layoff has been sympathetic.  Many friends and colleagues have investigated leads and put in good words for me, and I have been very grateful.  One way in which people have helped has been to give me people to contact about various leads.  So, for the first couple of weeks, I wrote a lot of very awkward emails that I feared came off something like this:  "Hi, You barely know me (or don't know me at all), but how would you like to review my resume/keep me in mind if a job opens up/hire me for a consultancy down the line?"  But, having written a good number of these emails, I believe it is absolutely worth doing.  Everyone I have contacted has been very kind.  One of these emails even led to my current part-time job!
  • Annoyances at home will become more annoying.  Unless you are financially secure enough to take a vacation with no income, you will suddenly be spending a lot of time at home.  Irritations that were once the domain of evenings and weekends will become the bane of your existence all day every day.  Our broken toilet reached nearly apocalyptic proportions in my mind by the time it was fixed.  Even more disturbingly, it was starting to seem like a metaphor for my life.
  • You can never completely prepare yourself for how you'll feel.  Even though the timing of my layoff was surprising, my job never seemed super stable.  At some point, I decided that I was going to stay there as long as I could anyway, and that if I lost my job, I would deal with it then.  But giving myself that pep talk ahead of time didn't spare me from feeling sad and disoriented in the aftermath.
  • Always have a plan for the next thing.  My job had some built-in instability that not every job has.  But I'm not sure how many truly stable jobs there are anymore.  I had decided while I was still working to explore some new career options, and I've written some about the evening classes I've been taking.  I am so glad now that I started taking those classes because in the short term, they've given me something concrete to focus on, and in the long term, they're part of a plan to hopefully have more professional stability.  But it was key that I started those classes while I was still working because I think it would have been much harder to switch focus and come up with a plan right after being laid off.
  • People can help you, but nobody can make it "all better" for you.  My first instinct, upon opening my layoff letter, was to start crying on the nearest person's shoulder.  I think this would have seriously unnerved the person who was sitting closest to me at the time, so it's a good thing I didn't.  But I realized later that what I really wanted was for someone to make everything better for me, but that nobody could.  It's great to reach out to people for help (and to help your fellow laid off colleagues if you can), but in the end you have to make sure you keep moving forward and don't get too caught up in shock or sadness.

Wishing everyone stability in jobs they like!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Read This! The Home That Was Our Country, By Alia Malek

I've never written a real book review before, and I see no reason to start now, but I do want to pass on a wonderful book recommendation for anyone looking for something to read:  The Home That Was Our Country, by Alia Malek.

Alia Malek is the daughter of Syrian immigrants to the US.  In 2011, as the Arab Spring began, she moved to Damascus to reclaim and restore her beloved grandmother's apartment.  Her book combines her own personal experiences and family history with considerable historical and political background on Syria.  This made it an easy, enjoyable read.  I don't want to criticize books on history or politics that lack personal stories, exactly, but those sometimes require concentration that I just don't have with everything else going on in my life.  I was able to mostly read this book on buses and trains, and it made my time in transit seem to go much faster!

Of course, one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much is that I spent a year in Syria.  I loved reading about some of the places I'd been and the cultural practices that I'd observed.  But I think anyone who has been following the current situation in Syria would find this book valuable.  It demonstrates very charming aspects of Syria, without glossing over the terrible things that have happened there (Alia Malek even provides details about how her own extended family was affected by the human rights abuses there long before 2011).  She also provides a insights about both contributing factors to the current situation and trajectories the country may be on.  Best of all, Malek tells stories of Syrians who have tried, often at great risk to themselves, to improve the situation in their country.  For a variety of reasons, such stories are not often covered in the mainstream news, but I think it's very important that people know about them.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Ai Weiwei Exhibit In DC

For anyone planning to be in the Washington, DC area before January 1, there is a great Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Hirschhorn that I highly recommend.  Ai Weiwei created portraits of political activists and prisoners of conscience out of Legos!  Scott and I went to see it a couple weeks ago.  The level of detail was incredible.

As we entered the exhibit, there was a disclaimer sign explaining that the choice of portrait subjects was Ai Weiwei's and to please not be offended with the Smithsonian if you disagreed with any of his choices.  I'm ashamed to admit that I did not recognize the vast majority of the names.  Probably the one that would have been most controversial among Americans was Edward Snowden.  I would not have chosen to include him myself, but I'll have to agree to disagree with Ai Weiwei on that point, just as I've had to agree to disagree with a number of Americans.

Aung San Suu Kyi, possibly one of the most famous subjects of Ai Weiwei's Lego portraits.
One useful feature of the exhibit was a touch screen in each room where visitors could look up information about the people featured in the portraits.  If it weren't for pesky social niceties like needing to share with others, I probably could have spent a lot of time looking people up because I was so curious.  One thing I noticed was that Ai Weiwei included a number of Uyghur activists in his portraits.  Just one more thing for the Chinese government to dislike him for, I guess.  Here are a few more photos of some of the portraits:

Roza Tuletaeva is a Kazakhstani labor activist.  Interestingly, we never heard about her while we were living in Kazakhstan...
Liu Xiabo was China's Nobel Peace Prize laureate who died recently.
Ahmed Douma is an Egyptian activist and blogger who has been imprisoned by three consecutive governments.

The week we saw this exhibit later brought problems with taxes, air conditioning, plumbing, and internet connectivity.  One of the hidden benefits of seeing an exhibit like this is that it reminds me that even a bad week for me is still a cake walk compared to what some people are dealing with.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Least Dignified Kind Of Home Repair

We are currently experiencing plumbing problems.

In this case, "plumbing problems" is a euphemism for "our one and only toilet is broken."

Technically, it is still flushable.  But in order to flush, you have to lift the lid off the tank, pull the chain that has come disconnected from the flusher, and make sure it doesn't slip under the flap as the flap closes.  A lot more trouble than simply pushing the flusher, if you ask me.

This has been a problem for just over a week now.  The bottleneck in getting this fixed is that our apartment complex has none of the needed parts on hand.  These parts have allegedly been ordered, but have not come in yet.

In the meantime, we have also been having problems with the air conditioning.  Every time someone from maintenance comes to look at that, I feel compelled to ask about the whereabouts of the magical toilet part.  And then every time, they go and look at the toilet, and just like that, we're having an actual conversation about the toilet.  I thought conversations about the toilet were supposed to be a thing of the past once I became old enough to stop asking permission to go to the bathroom.

It occurs to me that plumbing problems could be at least a temporary cure for arrogance; it's hard to think too highly of yourself when so many conversations are at least tangentially related to bodily functions.

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!