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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.

les tags: , ,

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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spring broken

maura @ 11:17 am

Spring Break is late ’round these parts — my university follows the public school schedule and while the alignment is super-convenient it does mean that the semester’s usually at least 2/3 gone by the time the break happens, and everyone’s feeling a little frayed. This year wasn’t as late or frayed as last year, but we were all looking forward to a couple of days away. We’d planned to visit my family in Delaware and also spend a couple of days in Baltimore ogling the octopus and chambered nautilus at the aquarium and swimming in the hotel pool, still a huge draw for Gus.

But it was not to be. Late last week the cat got sick (not that one, the other one), and one of the awesome side effects was that he started peeing all over the house. Yay! We took him to the vet and they fixed him up, but they left us with liquid meds to be given twice/day and the warning that it might take a few days for the cat to get completely back to normal.

So Jonathan stayed home with the cats, and I went to Delaware with Gus, and we canceled the trip to Baltimore. I definitely got the better end of the deal — while it’s not exactly restful hanging out with my 5 nieces and nephews, we hadn’t visited since xmas and it was lovely to see everyone. And I didn’t even have to mop the floor once! While Gus was disappointed to miss seeing his favorite marine invertebrates, we’re already scheming plans for a quick trip to Baltimore sometime in the not-too-distant future.

By the time I got back on Tuesday evening I hadn’t really shed the frayed feeling I’d left with. But luckily one part of our original plan still held: for Gus to spend the rest of the week in Delaware with my family, and for my mom to drive him back on Friday. I could have caught up on all kinds of things on Wednesday, but instead I took a vacation day. We went to a new place in our neighborhood for lunch and ate fresh donuts. Then we walked through the Botanic Gardens, where the cherry trees are almost there, lilacs are starting, and no bluebells yet (phew!).

Then on Wednesday night we went to a show! Like young’uns! The Chickfactor 20th anniversary show. It was a 3 night fiesta but even with Gus out of town I knew I could only handle one late night in the middle of the week. We picked night #2, which with the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group and Pipas was the best venn diagram of my and Jonathan’s favorite music of the shows. I ended up wishing I could mix-n-match a bit: I’d take Small Factory from night 1, Honey Bunch from night 3, and while we’re at it, Lilys from the Arlington shows earlier in the week.

The show was amazing, with the Ledge and Pipas as charming and incredible as ever. I’m sure every single person on the Indiepop List has written a better review than I can write, so you should go there to read them. There were lots of folks there from out of town (and from in town) who I hadn’t seen in somewhere around 10 years, perhaps a bit more or less, though I was sad to miss a couple of folks who only went to nights 1 or 3 (I’m looking at you: Kat, Maura, and Kardyhm). There was this moment soon after the Ledge started playing when I looked around to find myself standing next to Jen, Ed, Keith, and Jonathan, and it was the purest essence of nostalgia: suddenly 1996 all over again. I still haven’t quite been able to process those emotions, but I have found myself with the Ledge on repeat in my brain since then, so there you go.

les tags: , ,

give a little whistle

maura @ 11:44 am

I don’t know how we made it this far without Gus seeing Pinocchio, but last night when the video went on he was rapt. It’s been ages since I’ve seen that movie and I’d forgotten how weird it is. IMDB tells me that the movie came out in 1940 which seems about right. The blue fairy has that old-fashioned animated look the way the earlier Disney movies all do.

The plot is just, well, bizarre to today’s kids. I’ve not read the fairy tale in ages so not sure how much of the movie is artistic license. But Pleasure Island? So random! All were aghast at the kids smoking cigars. But Gus wondered what was bad, exactly, about playing pool? He’s been to a few birthday parties at a videogames + billiards place in our neighborhood. And the peals, absolute peals of laughter when the boys get turned into jackasses, and on hearing the word jackass repeated several times. Hilarity for the 9 year old set, for sure (though the 3 1/2 yr old was a bit confused).

Gus was adamant that he would never go to Pleasure Island, no matter how much free root beer was promised. But I wonder whether the moral of the story is even understandable to kids today under all of last century’s trappings. If you skip school you’ll have to sing and dance at the theater and then sleep in a cage? If you get on the boat with the creepy old men and go to the island where you can act naughty all day you’ll turn into a donkey and go work in the salt mines? “Don’t they get salt from the ocean?” asks Gus.

But I guess it *is* handy to know that you can light a fire to escape from a whale’s belly.


up the hill backwards by david bowie

maura @ 8:07 am

On the drive down to our annual beach trip we left early to avoid the traffic and ended up hitting the worst snarl we’ve ever experienced on that route. We stopped at a McDonald’s to meet my mom for lunch because it was too early to check in and everyone was starving. Afterward Jonathan and I went to the grocery store to get started on the shopping while my mom took Gus to get the key and open the house. I tried to drive through as many strip mall parking lots as I could to get to the food store, but eventually I had to go back out to the main road and inch along like everyone else.

At some point while we inched we realized that music could make things better, so I started pawing through the more easily-accessible cassettes and picked my very old (20 years?) yet still perfectly functional Aladdin Sane/Scary Monsters tape. Despite all of the hullaballoo about the impermanence of tapes I still have a pile from as far back as high school that work perfectly well, thankyouverymuch.

The tracklisting was written in my long-ago handwriting, so very legible compared to the scrawls of today. Aladdin Sane in red marker, Scary Monsters in blue. Jonathan had just been telling me a few days ago about an article he’d read about Scary Monsters so that was the logical choice. It is a weird record, partly because of the time (which was what the article was about) – 1980 was in-between for so much music, and for Bowie especially given what he’d done before then. I’d written the dates on the tracklisting, too, because I’m a nerd and like to know those things (Aladdin Sane came out in 1973).

I do like the record, despite its weirdness, and especially the A side. Halfway through I realized that I must have listened to the A side much more than the B, because I was far less familiar with the B side songs. The occasional static and pop from the vinyl (which I still own) is well-preserved on the tape. Now that I’m an old lady I’m instantly nostalgic when I hear those imperfections, despite my own clear preference for digital media: when’s the last time I broke out the turntable? And it was such a pain to have to flip the record over. I’m sure that’s why the A side songs are so much easier for me to remember.


i kissed a girl by katy perry

maura @ 11:49 pm

Jonathan said he’d never ever heard this song and if you’d asked me before I’d have said the same thing, though once I heard it I remembered it. We were at a county fair while visiting family up in Vermont, and for some reason only the Himalayas ride was playing any music. First it was a bunch of Gaga remixes from the first record, then the Katy Perry song came on. J and I were both holding paper plates with the kids’ half-eaten pizza slices on them, waiting as they rode. The kids whizzed around, first forward and then backward. Gus’s hat flew off but we were able to get it back when the ride ended.

The rides were all a little sketchy, just a little bit too Springfield Tire Fire than I’m entirely comfortable with. The kids only wanted to go on spinny rides, which I loved as a child, too. But now that I’m old and crotchety the spinning makes me feel ill, sad to say. So I held the pizza and listened to Katy Perry and thought about all of her many wigs and costumes. Kids today.

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don’t tell me the moon is blue

maura @ 9:54 pm

We’re back from our Midwest getaway. We slept and read lots and indulged in the culinary treats of the region, including cheeseburgers with peanut butter, frozen custard, and ribs. This year’s trip was a bit shorter than usual so we only had time for a quick overnight trip to Chicago, though it was still long enough for duck fat fries and the best dang Swedish breakfast for miles.

On the drive north to Chicago we passed through an enormous wind farm. And I mean enormous: definitely hundreds of acres covered by windmills, maybe more. When you’re in the midst of it the windmills stretch farther than the eye can see, and since the land is pretty flat around here that’s a long way off. I suspect it’s one electric company that owns the windmills (yes, I know I could google it, but I’m trying to avoid the internet when I write) because they seem to be located on many different corn and soybean farm fields. They’re spread various distances apart — sometimes there are multiple windmills in a row, and sometimes they’re more isolated — though all of them are pointing in the same direction.

It’s difficult to get a sense of the scale of each windmill. They’re almost toylike when you first catch a glimpse of the blades in the distance, and grow to truly unbelievably massive when you’re driving right past one. (I tried to get some good photos but the limits of the phone camera + shooting from the passenger seat thwarted the best shots.)



On our way up to Chicago the air was pre-thunderstorm still so most of the blades weren’t turning. But on the drive back south every windmill was working hard to earn its keep. When the angle lines up right and you can see an entire line of windmills spinning they sort of resemble synchronized swimmers in those old movies. It’s mesmerizing to watch the blades turn — I could watch it for hours, I think.

The windmills make the landscape seem somewhat alien, as if spaceships dropped them off and flew away. Maybe I’ve just watched too many scifi movies — with the summer haze they have a floating quality, like the big ship in District 9. Or maybe they hide something larger beneath, like the awful, crappy remake of War of the Worlds. And of course I can’t help but channel the Simpsons: I for one welcome our windmill overlords!

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