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other voices

maura @ 8:19 pm

The semester started over a week ago but the combination of Labor Day and Rosh Hashanah means that the public schools haven’t even started yet, not til Monday. So while things are still beginning-of-the-term nutty (enrollment is up! 3300 first year students! nearly 17K total students! CUNY’s tuition is so reasonable! 142 sections of English I! each has one session of library instruction! wheee!), the end of this week was a bit slower with no meetings, so we decided to hightail it to the Catskills for a last-couple-days-of-summer getaway.

Even though we were only going to be away for a couple of nights, we rented a small house on the recommendation of a friend (as opposed to staying in a hotel). In the summers that we’ve gone to the beach we’ve usually rented houses — with both of my sibs and all of their kids a house is by far the most practical option. Beach houses are pretty standard fare: sand-colored carpeting, VHS tapes from the 80s, dull knives in the kitchen, all manner of lighthouse/sand dollar/sailboaty knick-knacks, and leftover laundry detergent from the prior week’s renters if you’re lucky.

This house was different, and not only because it was smaller. This house most definitely seemed more lived-in. There was the usual random selection of books and board games and DVDs, but also a real kitchen with all the tools and cookware you’d expect for someone who actually cooks there. In a beach house the owners typically have one closet or a shed with their own stuff in it (often locked): the drawers are empty, and you have to bring your own sheets and towels. But in this house the owner’s stuff was right there alongside space for renters’ (our) things — two drawers in each dresser were empty, towels were on the (made) bed and extras in the wardrobe.

It was a lovely house and a nice treat to be able to actually cook dinner without having to curse our forgetting to bring some real knives. But I’ve found myself wondering how, exactly, it works with a house like that. Does the owner live there most of the time and just go somewhere else when there are renters? What if renters stay for a week? Or two weeks? And where does the owner go when she’s not in the house? To stay with friends? Does she have another house? There’s the trustworthiness issue too — how can she be sure that everything will be as she left it? There was a hefty security deposit to put down, so perhaps that’s the insurance. And we’re kind of fussy (unsurprisingly) about leaving things the way we found them so no worries there.

More than anything it seemed like this house had more stories in it than other houses we’ve rented in other places. Being surrounded by all of those belongings that clearly belonged to someone who cared about them made it impossible not to speculate about that person and her stories. I’ve also been reading Among Others by Jo Walton (intrigued by Jenna’s review), and stuff being infused with personal magic plays a big part in the book’s narrative, which I’m sure helped me think about the house in that way, too. I should have been finishing Debt; really I am almost halfway and have renewed it twice and I *do* like it, for real, but it’s just so serious and I was on vacation and wanted to read about fairies and interlibrary loan and adolescence instead. I have ’til September 26 to finish Debt, plenty of time, right?


don’t suppose

maura @ 4:16 pm

For some reason when we were in Montreal earlier this summer I started cracking up over the number and variety of “don’t” signs. It’s not like they’re unique to the city or even to Canada — of course there are don’t signs in all places that have: 1) people, and 2) restrictions on said people’s behavior. We have them everywhere in NYC, duh. So why did I find them so funny? I think it was the specificity more than anything — some were so very narrow in their proscriptions. Also sometimes the scale of the images on the signs was…off.

The hotel we stayed in had a very neato outdoor pool on the roof, which of course requires many don’t signs because omg pools on roofs, so dangerous!

Don’t fall on this wet floor because otherwise you will turn into a bird.


Also don’t even think of bringing your sparkly ’50s glassware out here, either broken or whole.


When heading inside, kindly leave your feet outside, thanks.


Montreal is very bicycle-friendly, so don’t even think of locking your moped or motorcycle to this bike rack, yo.


We spent lots of time using the Metro to tool around the city, and of course there are lots of things you can’t do on the Metro. Wheeled recreation of many sorts is right out, especially those rollerblades that are the size of a skateboard. Also you may not smoke your skateboard-sized cigarettes in the Metro station, either.


We spent one afternoon at the Biodome, a combination zoo/aquarium/botanic garden kind of place at the old Olympic center that was just lovely (if frightfully crowded). In the Biodome it’s forbidden for you to use your giant hand to grab (or wave at!) the very small otters. You also may not climb whatever that pile of stuff is.


Adjacent to the Biodome is the botanical gardens, which were huge and amazing and in which we spent probably 4 hours on 2 afternoons and still didn’t see it all. Upon entering the gardens you’re greeted with a plethora of restrictions, including not bringing your dog-sized soccer ball (or soccer-ball sized dog?) with you on your visit, again with the humongous rollerblades (perhaps for normal-sized people with enormous feet?), and please leave your many varieties of human-powered wheeled transportation mechanisms for humans of all sizes, from tiny to giant, at home.


In the pavillion in the Japanese Garden you may not wear Adidas. You also may not consume either soft-serve ice cream or classic popsicles from the ’70s. Nikes and ice cream bars are fine, though.



I was so obsessed that it was contagious. Gus’s grandpa sent me this photo from a trip they took after we went home. As if it weren’t totally obvious, please don’t dance with your refrigerator.


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chutes and ladders

maura @ 5:13 pm

We took a 5-day trip to the northlands to visit family and I’m going to go ahead and call it a vacation. There was one small thing I had to write at the beginning of the vacation, and another time when I had to pop into work email and approve timesheets, but other than that I was pretty good about staying away from work (even the book, about which I feel a little bit guilty but not too much, though I can’t decide if that’s good or bad). Also from twitter and the news: for whatever reason I’ve lately decided that tuning out from them are necessary for a vacation to feel real (not rss, though — if anything vacations offer the opportunity to catch up on nonessential stuff in my feedreader).

While I didn’t set out with it as a goal, it also turned out that this was the vacation of trying to punch my fear of heights in the face. And mostly succeeding!

One day we went to the alpine slide at the nearby ski mountain. Gus has wanted me to go on it with him for ages but I couldn’t face the chairlift, so Jonathan’s always been the slider parent. This year I decided that it was kind of silly for me to continue to be afraid of chairlifts, because alpine slides are really fun (I went on a few as a kid before the fear of heights set in) and I am a grown up. I *almost* backed out at the last minute as we were getting the tickets, but then I bucked myself up and got on the lift.

And yes, chairlifts are still scary to me, even slow low ones that don’t travel a great distance. I was mostly fine while grabbing the safety bar tightly and not looking down and talking to at Gus; these words came out of my mouth: “No, you need to listen to my boring story from my childhood because it’s helping me to not freak out — just smile and nod.” And it was a pretty day, all sunshine and wildflowers and blue skies. But it did seem to take a long, long time to get to the top.

Once at the top there was a weirdly long backup of sliders, and then, the slide, which is still pretty fun and rad, I have to say. Gus and I raced even though you’re not supposed to and I beat him only at the very end, likely because of my superior weight. I’m not fired up to go chairlifting again, but I guess I can do it if I have to.

The next day we went to this treetop obstacle course at another nearby ski mountain (because the ski mountains need something to draw tourists in the off-season, apparently). This place also had a zipline treetop tour, but I voted that down because it still seemed too high for comfort (73 feet!). The obstacle course looked more interesting anyway, and ranged from 5-40 feet off the ground, which sounded more manageable.

The obstacle course was an absolute blast, I have to say. Jonathan totally pegged it when he called it a puzzle for your body to solve. You progress through a course made up of various things to climb, balance on, or ride on (each had a few short ziplines); the easy course was pretty linear, and the more challenging course sort of circular, climbing a bit higher on the trees with each activity. Some obstacles were fun and easy — wobbly bridges or a slack line — while others were really difficult — 5 tires hanging from ropes (the trick is to use your feet like monkey paws and grab each tire to bring it close enough to move to). With few exceptions it was just scary enough to be fun, and since you’re harnessed in and clipped onto a cable the whole time it felt reasonably safe.

Until the end. There were 3 levels on the challenging course, and the only way to get down from the medium-hard level or the hard level was a drop from a tall tree platform straight down. They used this smart belay system that’s all the rage these days — you see them whenever there’s a climbing wall set up at a fair or whathaveyou. The mechanics are similar to a seat belt: there’s a round-cased machine hanging from a tree with a line extended, you hook yourself to to the line and jump, and the line catches you and lowers you slowly to the ground. I watched several people do it and they all seemed okay, even people who were bigger than I am, and then I sort of forgot about it until I got to that platform.

And man, that tree was tall, and the drop, very far. It’s a peculiar experience to force your body to do something that your brain is so completely dead set against, but it was the only way down, so I took a deep breath and jumped. Really it was only a split second, maybe even less, before the machine caught me, and I was surprised to find that the fear evaporated instantly — a wasabi burn rather than jalapeno.

So, if you’re counting: Maura 2, fear of heights 0. In your face, irrational fear!

les tags: , ,

spring break index

maura @ 10:23 pm

Days Gus had off school for Spring Break: 7 weekdays
Days I had off work for Spring Break: 2 vacation days taken

States or state-like entities visited: 3 (Delaware, Washington DC, and New York)
States driven through in transit: 2 (New Jersey, Maryland)

Cousins who were sick during our visit: 1.5 (out of 5)
Immediate family who got sick: 0 (incroyable!)

Plastic eggs filled by me and Jonathan playing the role of the Easter Bunny: 40
Peeps microwaved: 0 (they were chocolate-dipped, too messy)

People sleeping in my mom’s extra bedroom the one night we allowed a sleepover: 4
Times Gus and his cousin woke up (and woke us up): too many to count

Inches of snow predicted for the day we drove from DE to DC: 6
Inches achieved: 4ish in DE, less as we got there, just raining in DC

Days I attended the US Dept of Education’s Institutional Services grants Project Directors’ Conference: 2.5
Times I walked through Dupont Circle: 7
Times the Dupont Circles’ “Everywhere Girl” was in my head as I walked through Dupont Circle: 7

Museums visited by Gus and Jonathan: 4 (Postal Museum, Museum of Natural History, Spy Museum, National Zoo)
Museums visited by me: 2 (Postal Museum, National Zoo)

Sleepy pandas spotted at the zoo: 1, snoozing mostly behind a log
Spazzy Asian short-clawed otters spotted at the zoo: about 12 (OMG so cute and funny!)

Books read by a 6th grader during the break: 2 (Ender’s Game and Animal Farm)
Hours of 6th grade homework that awaited us upon return from parts south: approximately 8
Days until the standardized tests are over: 19

Most surprising (in a nice way) part of the break: watching Adventure Time *live* in the hotel in DC! Very fun.


trips to faraway lands

maura @ 2:02 pm

We took a trip for the holidays, a longish trip to a warmish place, not the usual for us at xmas. It was lovely, which took me somewhat by surprise: as someone who is especially sunburn-prone I don’t tend to seek out sunny places for vacation. But I’ve also become more and more grumpy as I age about winter’s short dark days (even worse when there’s no snow, which is pretty much the whole point of winter), so I was happy to find myself with the opportunity to relax in a warm place with beautiful scenery and few obligations.

I ended up reading more than writing while on vacation. Partly because I was reading a book about Lynda Barry and partly because I’ve been thinking more about zines recently, I’m mulling over making a zine about the trip, though I might cave and just write about it here. Not sure how I would illustrate the zine since I can’t really draw. I could cut pictures from magazines? The only paper magazines we get anymore are the New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, Ranger Rick, and Science Illustrated, which might actually cover it.

Before that, a couple of weeks before thanksgiving, I took the train up to Saratoga Springs to speak on a panel at the New York Library Association annual conference. It was a fun time presenting with some of my favorite folks in the CUNYverse. Because there aren’t that many trains to Saratoga I ended up having to get one very very early in the morning the day before our panel, and took advantage of the travel (and the rest of that day alone in my hotel room) to finish up our book proposal. It’s been so hard to get more than a few hours at any one time to work on the book that it was just incredible to have one whole day — I got so much done!

Saratoga Springs was quaint and odd and dreamy. I called a taxi and when it pulled up was delighted to find that my cabbie was a lady! The ride was fairly short, maybe 10-15 minutes, and it cost FOUR DOLLARS. 4. $. I couldn’t help myself, I gave her a huge tip and blurted out “you can’t even get into a cab for $4 in the city!” On the cab ride we chatted about the fact that there was no snow at all, nor damage from Hurricane Sandy, that far upstate (this was right after the weird snowstorm). She called me a downstater — not in a mean way! — which I found surprising.

Wandering around the town I came across a carbonated spring and took a picture. Skidmore College is just up the road and I have to say that, now that I’ve been to Saratoga Springs, it brings Steven Millhauser’s writing to a whole different plane in my brain. I mean, of *course* you’d write stories like that if you live in Saratoga Springs. Or maybe you live in Saratoga Springs because you write stories like that? It’s hard to explain, but between the carbonated spring and the huge beautiful public library and the sullen yet charming teens hanging out on the swinging bench in the Ben & Jerry’s parking lot and the carousel on the edge of a pretty park overrun by fat noisy ducks… I could almost see the edges of the flying carpets whizzing by or the dust of the invasion from outer space settling onto the sidewalk.

Anyway, I started writing a blog post on the train on the way up to Saratoga and feel weird leaving it abandoned and unfinished, so here it is:

So much water. The river seems high, seems somewhat threatening now, even though it’s a lovely crisp fall day and the sun shines bright.

I don’t know that I’ve ever taken the train on this route before. This is the way we should have traveled to Montreal last year, but we took the bus instead, silly us. This train goes up up up along the Hudson River. Not through the old brick factory towns in Massachusetts like when we used to train to Vermont. Not through the Eastern cities like when I last took a train to a(n) (un)conference. This route’s all bluffs and cliffs and hills and trees and houses nestled in. And the wide river, I forget how wide it is in parts.

I still feel all kinds of messed up about living near water, the hurricane wasn’t long enough ago, so many folks (esp. in public housing) are still powerless and displaced. But it’s hard not to enjoy a train trip, train travel is just intrinsically delightful, Amor de Dias in my headphones and my laptop plugged in so I can work on the book proposal as the trees fly by. Jonathan called this my traincation, and he’s right.


arrive without travelling

maura @ 9:58 pm

Vacation! We’ve had some vacation so far this summer, and we’ll have some more still. First we made our annual midwest trip, this time with bonus heat! (not that it was any cooler at home) We had a blast over 2 quick days in Chicago seeing good friends and doing fun things. In order, we: ate Chicago dogs at Murphy’s Red-Hots (mmm, celery salt!), enjoyed a BBQ with ex-neighbor Brooklyn ex-pats, ate a maple-bacon donut at Do-Rite, visited the robot library and the Reg, ate garbage pizza at the Med, geeked out on the giant trainset and Tesla coil at the Museum of Science and Industry, ogled the architecture as we drove around, enjoyed a delicious dinner at Lula Cafe in Logan Square, and got our cinnamon rolls and Swedish sampler breakfast on at Ann Sather.

Then it was off to Indiana where we also ate well, including the always delicious Duane Purvis burger (mmm, peanut butter!) with fried mushrooms and a vanilla coke at Triple XXX diner and brisket + ribs from South Street Smokehouse. What is it about traveling lately that food has become such an important thing? I don’t know, guess we’re getting old. Of course it was lovely to see everyone, too.

We left the sprog in the midwest for a bit and indulged in some more food back home, a newish fancy restaurant and an old fancy restaurant, each with good old friends. Plus bonus art! At the Guggenheim, which I’d have sworn I’d been to in the past but when we got there I realized I hadn’t. The building is delightful (semi-circular elevator wow!) and the art was medium-arty, but the Rineke Dijkstra photography/video retrospective was phenomenal and totally worth a visit. We also rode our bikes to Governor’s Island which is easy-peasy on the way there and around the island and somewhat more difficult on the way back, evenmoreso when it’s 90 degrees. The weird park/museum that is Governor’s Island never fails to make me happy, though, so it was worth the uphill homeward trip for sure.

And now we are home and doing home things. Worky working for the adults, campy camping for the kid. We do have some other vacations planned this summer, family stuff to the mountains and the beach. But I am feeling a bit of traveling envy as well. I want to go to the Grand Canyon, to Yellowstone, to Hawaii. To Scandinavia, always, but especially because two books I’m reading right now are set there, and also because Gus has a friend who is traveling in Scandinavia with his family this summer. This is not the summer for long trips, though: I’m writing a book with my research partner about our big project, which is keeping me busy.

But maybe next summer we can do a longer trip. Certainly if temperatures in the 90s is the new normal it would be nice to flee the city, and Scandinavia in the summertime would be even nicer.

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it’s not for anyone but me

maura @ 10:00 pm

Last weekend we took a short + sweet trip down to the DelMarVa peninsula. After we’d had to cancel our trip to the Baltimore aquarium over Spring Break Gus was bummed, so we checked the calendar and arrived at Brooklyn-Queens Day, otherwise known as the first Thursday in June and a school holiday. We decided to yank him out of school for Friday 6/8 as well and bingo, our quick Spring Break replacement trip was set.

It’s been ages since I visited Baltimore. I spent much of my preteen childhood in and around Philly and I’ve always felt warmly about Baltimore, sort of a sympathetic younger sibling feeling. Like so many Eastern working cities it’s maybe not transitioned as well into the post-industrial age as would be nice. Which is why I can’t completely fault the mallification of the Inner Harbor — as much as it’s not my thing by a long shot, it’s good to see the tourist dollars rolling in.

And in and among the malls there’s good stuff for sure. The aquarium was a good time and holds up well to my memories of long ago. As I sort of feared it’s hard for any aquarium to live up to the touching sharks and wading with rays experience Gus had at the Camden aquarium last year (which I don’t seem to have blagged about, mysteriously). But I still think the Baltimore aquarium has a lovely design, with the moving walkways taking you up up up to the rainforest at the top, letting you look down onto the ray tank further below at each floor.

In the big coral reef tank with the ramps that lead you back down there was not one but two puffer fish, one the biggest I’ve ever seen. I love puffer fish (not just because of The Simpsons) and only just this time realized that the reason they’re so easy to love is that they have big eyes that sort of swivel in their sockets like mammal eyes do, not really flat or fishy at all. So kawaii! All of my pictures came out sort of lame, so instead you can look at this one from a cool aquarium we visited long ago in Auckland, New Zealand:

In the jellies exhibit was a type I’ve never seen before called upside down jellies. They all seem to congregate, flipped over, in a pile on one side of the tank. Occasionally a lone jelly would be swimming around, right-side up, which looked super weird in that context. Some were nearly impossibly small, smaller than a ladybug! They were hard to get a good photo of, what with all the undulating tentacles, but I gave it my best shot:


It was a quick trip and of course Gus wanted to get in as much time swimming in the hotel pool as possible, so other than the aquarium the main thing we did was visit some of the historic ships in the Inner Harbor. First up and coolest by a long shot was a WWII sub. So many levers and switches to flip, dials to turn! Also bunks to lie in (kind of icky). And lots of yelling “fire in the hole!” and “dive, dive!” Only later did Jonathan and I begin to realize how creepy it is to imagine being cooped up on a submarine under all of that water.


We also toured the Chesapeake Lightship, and until then I hadn’t realized that lightships basically anchored themselves to a specific spot off the coast and hung out pretending to be lighthouses. The next day we did the restored Civil War ship USS Constellation, which was a bit less fun and more restored-y, though Gus did like swinging from the hammocks where the sailors slept. We missed the Coast Guard ship (walked by it, but no time), and were able to squeeze in a quick walk through the Knoll Lighthouse, a funky flat kind of lighthouse designed to be out in the ocean rather than on the edge of a land mass. Far fewer stairs to climb, but far lonlier, I’d imagine, too.

Rounding out our tourist experience was chain restaurant food and the waves and waves of red-clad Philadelphia Phillies fans seemingly everywhere we turned. The stadium where the Orioles play is quite close to the harbor, and there was some sort of three-day baseball extravaganza happening while we were there. It was kind of surreal and theme-parky at times, esp. since we as a family are so completely unsportsy. Talk about fish out of water! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

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if it’s okay i’m going to the rocky garden full of stars

maura @ 9:08 pm

Okay, the train was kind of a bust on the way home last weekend: we had some mechanical problems, were stuck in Philly for 90 minutes, and ended up having to transfer to another train for the rest of the trip. It was kind of comical actually: on the first train I was in the quiet car and had no seat neighbor, which was brilliant, while on the second train I was on a crowded noisy car. Oh well, them’s the breaks.

I discovered on last weekend’s trip that Amor de Dias is the most perfect train music ever. It’s Lupe from Pipas (a band I lovelovelove) and Alasdair from The Clientele (a band I’m kind of meh about). They are poptastic: quiet and dreamy and just perfect for watching the scenery slip by and relaxing your brain and feeling a little sad about Baltimore but also a little happy about the little bit of snow and the waning afternoon light. Go to their website and listen to Late Mornings right now! (Esp. the ‘oooohs’ that start around 0:57 — so dreamy.)

Today is the first day of the semester. It’s been a long month full of deadlines and much, much busier than a January *should* be, I think. Of course there are always deadlines but I think the busiest bit is past, which seems funny to say on the first day of the semester. But I’m optimistic, and thinking of that train ride makes me evermoreso.


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dispatches from the rails

maura @ 4:12 pm

Look, I get it that lots of people like cars. But those people are stupid. How can they possibly resist train travel? The scenery slipping by, the ability to read/write/nap, and (of late) plentiful electricity and usable-if-pokey wifi.

Yes, there are other people, egads! But there’s something kind of comforting about the we’re all in this togetherness of a train, as opposed to the hurtling by at high speeds in our own personal metal coffinness of cars.

(Though like a good 49% [or is it 51%?] introvert I am wearing my headphones but not listening to anything because I don’t want anyone to talk to me.)

I can see you suckas on the NJ Turnpike right now! Ha! You are not typing on a computer, you are paying attention to the road! And hoping there’s not any early rush hour traffic in Philadelphia! (And if you were me as a passenger, you’d be feeling barfy and carsick probably right now, too.)

I do wish that the tray tables were a bit lower, though. Or that my laptop didn’t run as hot as it does. Makes for toasty knees.

Dear Amtrak, please don’t go bankrupt. Please figure out a way to score a huge investment of funds so you can build more track and speedier trains and make it so I never ever have to drive or fly anywhere east of the Mississippi ever again.
Yr pal,

les tags: ,

bussed out

maura @ 10:26 pm

We’re home today, having only taken the quick trip north. Where quick = the length of time we spent in Montreal, not the length of time we spent on a bus. Lots of sitting, oof.

Tired tonight and lots of TV to catch up on, so please enjoy some of my random photos from the trip!

We stopped at the Duty Free on the American side of the border on the way up, and in addition to cigarettes and liquor there were many somewhat unusual finds:


Who doesn’t love the full set of Lord of the Rings Pez dispensers? Look at that Gollum head!


Enormous candy abounded. I’ve only ever seen a Hershey bar this big at Hershey Park!


Also how would you even eat this gigantic lollipop? Wouldn’t it get all icky before you had a chance to finish it, like Homer’s sandwich? (Okay, how weird is it that I can only find that clip in German? Copyright stinks!)


When we got through Canadian customs we were waiting to reboard the bus near a door with this sign on it. I get that it means first aid, but it *looks* like it means “extra bandage-wrapped hands in here!”


And then there was poutine, and there was beer, and there was great rejoicing. Followed by cafe au lait and tarte de sucre, not pictured here. Candy bars were brought home as well, one Coffee Crisp and one Crunchie for each of us. Heaven forfend we ever move to Montreal because we will clearly become enormously fat!