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I have a blog!

I've launched a blog! Will Bike for Change (or Pie!) is a blog focused on sustainable food and bicycling.  I'll still post here occasionally - because I do so incredibly often now - when I want to write about something that doesn't fit in those two categories.  But most of my writing will be over there, as I plan to post once to twice a week.  I encourage you to check it out and tell me what you think!
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    Rage Against the Machine
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Fashion happens every morning when you wake up. - Shalom Harlow

I've always wanted to get a makeover. I've fulfilled that dream, although in a different way than I ever expected.

The desire began around sixth grade, when I realized that not only was I socially awkward, but unfashionable as well. My mom's baggy sweaters and black leggings just weren't cutting it. (I still don't trust leggings.) And yet, I had no idea how to be fashionable. How did anyone know what and why something was popular? I wanted to be Sandy at the end of Grease, with her leather jacket and instant acceptance into the group. But I wasn't even cool enough to be goody-two-shoes Sandy.

Until recently, not much had changed.  There had been some shifts in attitude, but I was never completely satisfied. In high school, I pretended that I didn't care what anyone thought, itself a backlash against standards.  In college, I was fond of Hot Topic, even though it was a bit young for me.  Nonetheless, it was still more adventurous than my church friends and was one of the few times I felt cool. Through graduate school, I was pretty content with my jeans and clever t-shirts. I could do better, but if I was happy, why bother?  Besides, I didn't buy into that consumerist nonsense.

Then came adult life.  I could hold onto my hippie skirts and baggy pants at the semi-casual NYS Department of Environmental Conservation for a while.  But they just didn't cut it in D.C. When your boss is the President in the grand scheme of things, there's a higher standard.  My wardrobe limped through more than a year here, surviving off of hand-me-downs and Christmas presents.  I went shopping a few times, but always walked away frustrated and bitter.   Everything was made in China, and yet was still expensive!  Not to mention the environmental damages.

Nevertheless, I recognized my wardrobe needed desperate help. As a communications person, I realized my visual communication was lacking. My blah wardrobe was making me look younger, less professional, and uncreative.  Unfortunately, I still had no idea of where to start.  I'm not a visually oriented person and choices overwhelm me. Unlike some women who say, “I'll take one of each!” when presented with a multitude of colors and designs, my brain turns off and decides it hates everything. I watched makeover shows like "How Do I Look?" and "What Not To Wear" jealously, wishing someone would pluck me off the street and present me with the perfect wardrobe.  I was willing to throw out most of my work clothes in exchange, but knew I actually wasn't enough of an disaster case to qualify anyway.

My first step towards realizing my style destiny occurred unconsciously.

Mid-way through our first year in D.C., I acknowledged I needed new glasses. I started wearing glasses in my junior year, when I realized I couldn't see the board in chemistry. Like many first-time glasses' wearers, I hated them. They were quite dorky – brown and boring. Since then, I had managed to “lose” them by not looking particularly hard for them. Going to the optometrist, I was determined to buy glasses I liked, not just tolerated. I picked a pair of “hipster-style” black framed plastic glasses with a black-and-white flower design. They were retro, fun, and a little quirky, like me. The glasses ended up having two surprising side-effects. The first was becoming a signature piece for my wardrobe. The art-deco flowers combined with the hipster frames was the perfect combination of old and new, arty-creative and book-smart intellectual. The second was near-miraculous – they made me look good in photographs! I've never photographed well as an adult, always squinting or opening my eyes scary-wide. But the glasses balance out my eyes with the rest of my face. Now, I realize being pleased with myself in photographs gave me the confidence to move forward with the rest of my wardrobe. The photos made me realize I was beautiful enough to give a damn.

The next steps forwards happened at Christmas, with two presents – a pair of Victorian-style boots and “Tim Gunn's Guide to Style.” The boots were the latest in a cycle of several pairs of clunky black shoes. These were different though, because they had some beautiful feminine detailing. The lace-up style reminded me of women in petticoats and corsets, sweeping through the streets of Dickensonian London. They were goth without being too goth, wearable and not overly costumy. I loved them so much that I gave them as a Christmas present to myself. With the glasses, they became a second signature piece. Unfortunately, I was still at a loss as to how to wear them.

I hoped Tim Gunn's book would solve this problem. But although reading it inspired enthusiasm about the opportunities clothes offered me, I was still lost.  I loved that he quoted from Kierkegaard and Roland Barthes, but just wanted to know what looked good on me!  All of his talk of mixing and matching and moving pieces struck despair into my word-oriented soul.

Realizing there was good stuff in the book, but I just wasn't "getting" it, I started searching the Internet for help.  Style.com and women's magazines were useless with their relentless trend-of-the-month focus and bland/unrealistic suggestions.  I needed clothes for work, not cute strapless sundresses or Western clothes!  In addition, I wanted clothes to reflect my own personality, not someone else's.

But I knew I had found something special when I came across Academichic. The blog's authors are three PhD candidates writing about style.  These were my sort of people!  They posted photos of their outfits,
and discussed why they wore what they wore.  Instead of trends, they talked about social context and dressing as expression of one's identity, topics close to my heart.  From them, I found a whole world of style bloggers, humble people who just enjoyed sharing ideas and photos.  Like the Academichics, many of them also talked about the deeper feelings behind their choices.  In particular, I fell in love with the encouraging spirit of Already Pretty, a blog that focuses on the connection between positive body image and style. For her, it isn't about being cool – it's about being yourself and satisfied in your own skin. Truly, that was what I had always wanted. Although she explains things in a simple, easy-to-understand way, I felt like some switch in my brain wasn't turned on to understand it. How could I be so smart yet not be able to dress myself? I was fashion-dyslexic.

I wanted professional help. If “What Not to Wear” wasn't going to come to me, I'd go to them. I found a fashion consultant in D.C. who said she specialized in sustainable fashion. Beforehand, I filled out a questionnaire describing my likes (soft fabrics, fitted t-shirts, jewel tones) and dislikes (pretty much everything else). On the day of, I dressed in a purple sweater and ill-fitting black dress pants, one of my normal but unflattering outfits, to give her a good idea of what I was trying to move away from. I met her in the glass-ceilinged atrium of the National Portrait Gallery, an appropriately artistic setting. As I waited, my shoulders tensed. Jittery, I thought about how I could explain how I like Art Deco's sharp lines and the Arts and Crafts movement's combination of modern and natural materials. But architecture doesn't translate well to clothes (unless you're Lady Gaga). I hoped maybe she could break this code, lift this veil of mystery.

The fashion consultant looked put-together and stylish, the perfect D.C combination of professional power and individual flair. She asked questions about what I wore now, what I was willing to wear, and what my needs were. I answered as best as I could, but could tell all of my responses were negative. I knew what I didn't want, but couldn't articulate what I wanted. She explained there were six different styles most people fall in to – classic, sporty/preppy, “edge” (bit rock-and-roll), trendy, and boho – and asked me which one I was closest to. I wanted to say, “I'm none of those! I'm just me!” but refrained. Instead, I stammered, “Er, I guess a combination of edge and classic?” She wrapped up the hour-long session by telling me she would put together a report and send it to me within a week.

I walked away vaguely disappointed. I hoped she would ask me about my favorite bands, artists, movies. I wanted her to probe my soul, appraise my aesthetic sense, and tell me exactly what would work for me. I wanted her to do as they advertised on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, “like you, but better!” I didn't want to be put in a category; I wanted someone to explain to me how I could dress like me.

Her report didn't change my opinion much. She described my body shape, my coloring, and what fabrics would work on me. She clipped pictures of a number of suits and dresses, none of which were bad, but none of which excited me.

However, I'm not disappointed that I had the session. In fact, it was revelatory. It wasn't anything she said; it was my reaction. None of it was surprising! It was all things I already knew. I was right; I had no reason to be ashamed. My confusion wasn't from a lack of fashion sense; it was a lack of confidence! It was as if a switch had been thrown. No one else could do this for me. If I was going to have my own sense of style, I was going to have to take matters into my own hands.

Once that piece fell into place, so did the other piece of my style dilemma – the ethics. I didn't want to sacrifice my values of sustainability and social justice for a few cute dresses. A lot of the style bloggers I read thrifted many, if not most, of their clothes. I realized that second-hand clothes met all of my non-aesthetic criteria for buying new clothes:
1) Ethically made – fair-trade, small crafter, or otherwise guaranteed good conditions (I don't trust big box stores claims)
2) Sustainable – made from organic cotton, recycled materials, etc.
3) Reasonably priced – I'm cheap
4) Locally bought – even if not locally made, from a local store
So thrifting seemed like a great idea, except that I always had a miserable time finding anything at Salvation Army. The answer came to me from the Express – the free newspaper from the Washington Post – of all things. They had a feature on downtown Alexandria, Virginia and described a number of quality second-hand stores.

I decided I would start my journey with the help of a fashionable friend – Rebecca. I liked how she wore clothes that just seemed to suit both her personality and body shape. She would be a good person to tell me if I was taking the train into crazytown while still being encouraging. Plus, she lives near Alexandria.

The trip went swimmingly. We spent a significant amount of time in only one store, but had incredible luck – two skirts and a couple of dresses for the same price as only one at a “mall store,” much less a Bethesda boutique. Plus, the store played really good music. That day, I realized that good second-hand stores have all of the advantages of boutiques – hand-picked selection, consistent vision, variety of styles – while still maintaining the ethical credibility of thrifted clothes. They also helped me get over my sense of discombobulation whenever I entered a mall store. Because each piece is unique, second-hand stores are much easier to browse. No bringing three different sizes to the fitting room and despairing when none of them fit my body. If one piece doesn't fit, then it doesn't fit and I move on to the next one. Second-hand stores also filter out all of the horrible clothes that sellers create that looks terrible on everyone and no one buys. For it to be in a second-hand store means that someone bought it thinking that it was a good idea. Also, good stores won't accept clothes that are “so last season” and so typically have more classic pieces, not things that are trendy for the sake of being trendy. As I still fail to comprehend trends – and have no desire to now – that helps me out quite a bit.

Considering these advantages, I decided I would try to check out all of the consignment stores I could in the D.C. Metro area to build my wardrobe. Although I wouldn't find something in every store, I had far more success than I ever had going to the mall. This success continued to boost my confidence; I was no longer intimidated when I walked into an expensive boutique. If I didn't like something trendy, that didn't reflect poorly on my sense of style. If I didn't think a $200 for a skirt was worth it, so be it.

During this process, I slowly came to an understanding of my own style. Before going to the fashion consultant, I knew I liked Victorian, science-fictiony, and 1950s-retro clothing. However, I also knew that if I wore most of the clothes I wanted to buy, I would look like I was ready for Halloween. Somewhere along the way, I realized I could buy things that hinted at those ideas, but was still basically modern. I read the blog Science Fiction Fashion and Style and thought of how I could integrate those pieces into my closet. I bought tweed skirts and pair them with dressy tops. I purchased a bubble-looking metal necklace from a local crafter that had an alien feel to it. I bought dresses and skirts with futuristic swirls and oval patterns. I call it “business steampunk with a hint of the Jetsons” (for the 50s retro). It reflects my character, but puts it in the context of work, just as I try to present myself professionally. My personality shines through, but not distractingly so.

My luck even continued with shoes. I refuse to wear shoes that I can't walk in, which has historically limited my selection. I decided I wanted Oxford-style shoes with a heel and happened to find them when looking for formal shoes. On the same trip, I happened to find another pair of high heels that were incredibly cute. My mother was embarrassingly proud.

When I look back on the last six months, I'm also genuinely proud of myself. This process has been about much more than expanding my wardrobe; it's been about increasing my confidence. It's been about silencing those inner critics that sound like the junior high girls of so long ago. I still don't believe clothes make the woman, but they do say something about her. Now I know my clothes say what I want them to about me.
Heart

Wherever we're together / that's my home - Billy Joel

House-hunting will break your heart. If you're lucky, it will also mend it.

When we first started looking at houses, I hoped we would easily qualify for a loan, find a cute little house that would need some TLC, and live in Silver Spring, Maryland. About half of that turned out to be true, but the entire thing was a much more intense process than I ever expected.

Honestly, I don't think I really believed we'd buy a house this soon. When the first homebuyers' tax credit expired, we didn't have nearly enough money and had only lived in DC for a year. Our apartment wasn't perfect, but did we really want to move that badly? So we re-upped our lease.

The discussion started getting serious when they extended the tax credit. When else would we be able to get $8000 back for buying anything? The apartment was also starting to get on our nerves. Neither of us were pleased with its drab blandness, but neither were we invested enough to do anything about it. Being very close to the Metro was great, but if the Metro was delayed (almost every weekend), there was absolutely nothing within walking distance. Lastly, Chris was reaching his apartment-living breaking point. Although our apartment was relatively soundproof, he hates sharing walls with other people. It was time for us to move on. And if we could save the money in time and find a place we liked, why not buy a house?

Unfortunately, saving turned out to be the easiest part. We're pretty cheap. Throughout the fall and winter, we put the same amount we paid for rent into savings. As we had quite a bit in savings already, it added up quickly. Chris's tuition payment for school cut into it significantly, but we still thought we'd have enough to cover the down payment.

Around January, we decided to start looking. After talking to the bank, I called back Eleanor, the quirky real-estate agent who helped us look for apartments. She didn't find the one we ended up in, but she worked terribly hard to get us one that ended up falling through. She was a breath of fresh air compared to the Virginia real estate agent who told us, "I don't really want to do this, I'm just doing a favor for the people who own these places." Before our first meeting with Eleanor, Chris and I discussed our basic requirements. He wanted a detached house. I wouldn't have minded a rowhouse or a well-located townhouse - I always loved the Lark Street brownstones. I wasn't even sure if we'd even be able to find a detached house that was affordable, but was willing to look. Neither of us wanted a condo. To me, the idea of ownership involves being able to do nearly whatever you want, and condos have so many rules that it doesn't seem worth it. My single major requirement was that the house be Metro-accessible, either on foot or by bus. I did not want to buy another car for the sole purpose of driving to the Metro - unsustainable from both an environmental and economic point of view. In terms of location, we agreed that we would limit our search to Montgomery County. I would have liked to live in DC proper for some period of time, but Chris never shared that desire. More importantly, a DC house didn't fit into our long-term plans. We would like to have a kid or two in the next few years, and the DC school district is still very weak despite its recent improvement. Perhaps most importantly, it's unlikely we could find an affordable house that would match our criteria - even the "transitional" neighborhoods are very expensive. Within Montgomery County, we knew Bethesda (our location at the time) was astronomically out of our price range. So we decided to focus on looking Silver Spring (where the zombie walk was) and consider houses in Rockville. Our other requirements were pretty standard: three bedrooms, central air (very necessary in DC), a basement, and 1 1/2 bathrooms.

And so the search began. I quickly learned that there are a lot of really ugly houses in the DC Metro area. I had expected to find a cute little colonial or a Cape Cod. Instead, I saw page after page of 1960s modern split-levels that seemed to take their aesthetic inspiration from the Brutalist federal buildings (like my office). I have to spend all day in one of those - I certainly didn't want to live in one! Nevertheless, we picked a couple that looked "okay" and called Eleanor up. Our first appointment was the weekend after Snowmaggedon. We were scheduled to look at three houses. The first one was totally blocked by snow. The third one had deceptively nice photos. Although it looked lovely online, it was clear from the inside that the builder had not thought through the design at all. The kitchen was huge, but arranged bizarrely. Chris would never say a kitchen was too large, but this was close. The ceiling was made of those horrible tiles you see in office buildings and hospitals. The floor, which appeared to be hardwood in the photos, wasn't even Pergo, but a laminent with a "wood grain" design! The rooms were all awkward shapes and the upstairs hallway had several feet of wasted space that was desperately needed elsewhere. It looked like an architectural student's C-grade project - structurally sound, but ugly and impractical.

But the one in the middle was just right. It was a red-brick colonial that an older couple were selling to move to Florida. It was in a quiet neighborhood, right near a bike path into DC. It was disappointingly far from the Metro and downtown Silver Spring, but the bus stop was only down the block. It needed aesthetic updating, but didn't need any immediate repairs. It was three bedrooms and 1 1/2 baths. It was lovely and just within our price range. For the first time since we started, I could actually see us living there. So we put a bid on it. We worked with Eleanor to put the paperwork together and then sat back, grinning like idiots.

The euphoria didn't last long. Like the first apartment we bid on with Eleanor, the owner had received another offer. They proposed paying full price (we proposed $5000 under), having a bigger down payment, and closing in a mere month. Our bank paperwork wasn't going to be done for another six weeks. There was no way we could compete. We lost the bid.

I was devastated. I had fallen in love with this house. I was constructing futures around it - building the window seat I had always wanted here, hosting Christmas dinners in the dining room right here, putting the kid's crib here. Suddenly, that was all gone. Around that time, I realized that choosing a house is like speed-dating where you have to choose whether or not to propose at the end of the night. You have to do this knowing that you'll never have the chance to talk to this person again - someone's likely to come along and swoop him or her up tomorrow. Sometimes, even when you do propose, the answer is "no." And damn, that's a hard decision to make and a hard no to accept.

Like anyone who has lost something emotionally valuable, I didn't want to deal with the process at all for a few days. I was in almost mourning. I had no desire to start again. Chris wasn't as affected, but he was sympathetic. But the longer I stalled, the more impatient he became.

In the next few days, I picked myself up and started browsing the real estate sites all over again. The cavalcade of ugly houses. Ugh. We looked at a few - a big one in meh shape in a Jewish orthodox neighborhood way out in the 'burbs, an adorable but extremely small and expensive one in Silver Spring, a house in a fantastic location that was literally held together with duct tape - but nothing was appropriate at all. Frustrated, we expanded our search, looking in parts of Rockville the websites didn't bring up. Finding a couple of promising ones, we scheduled another appointment.

The first one was truly hideous. It was in a vaguely shady area and looked a bit run-down from the outside. But the inside was straight-up gross. There was garbage everywhere, and even though the tenant (or owner?) insisted that he would clean up, I didn't quite believe him. I also didn't believe him when he said he'd install the dishwasher, as there was no actual counter-space on which to install it.

The second house was the total opposite in every way. It was much cuter than it had seemed from the photos, and the inside was completely new. Even though the listing described it as being built in the early 1960s, it was clear someone had totally renovated it - new kitchen, bathroom and hardwood floors. And it had lovely touches - a big deck, a large yard, nice molding around the windows. Quite importantly, it also had a great location. (Relative to the other places we looked at, at least. DCers would have a very different definition of "good location.") It was less than a mile from the Metro, about a half-mile to a grocery store, and a mile from the Rockville Town Center, a beautiful new pedestrianized area with restaurants, a movie theater, and stores. It's everything that CCM should have been if Clifton Park's town planners had any sense in them (or possibly just ability to stand up to builders). The house even had a bus stop a few feet from the property line, so if it was raining you could run out right before the bus arrived. It even had a community center down the block and a park across the street! The neighborhood wasn't elegant, but felt like a real community. We loved it. It didn't need work of any sort and was easily within our budget.

Thrilled that we found another house - a better one, even - I didn't want to take any chances. It had only been on the market for a week, so the seller wasn't going to be desperate. I insisted we bid the full price; I didn't want to lose it over a few thousand dollars. We didn't have to be cheap on this one, so why risk it? We even threw in an extra $100 to make it an even number. That very night, we got together with Eleanor and signed all of the paperwork - liability forms, acknowledgment of lead paint, awareness of the city's master plan - that we already did for the first house. Thankfully, it went much faster the second time. We sent them out again, and waited nervously.

It took a few days for the seller's exceedingly slow real estate agent to get back with us - Eleanor rolled her eyes whenever mentioning him - but when we he did - success! Hallelujah! Now, of course, the process was far from done. We had 45 days from the day of the bid until the closing. During this time, we had to complete all of the bank paperwork, get the house inspected, and have a termite inspection. Not to mention all of the work that goes into moving.

The next month and a half was a blur. The bank, which had been great up until then, became a giant pain. Suddenly, they wanted proof of every single deposit put in our account, including our tax refund which was clearly labeled as from the "US Treasury." They even wanted proof that my parents could afford to pay the money they (very generously) gave us, long after the check cleared! Thankfully, the house inspection went very smoothly, and the seller agreed to give us money to fix the one urgent repair.

The most stressful day post-bid was the day before closing. I took the day off of work and made two major appointments for that day - the insulation people to fix the attic and the movers to transport our furniture. I had made both at the last minute and was nervous that the insulation people wouldn't show up. The insulation assessor had just made her assessment on Friday and had barely squeezed an appointment for us in. Once they actually did arrive, a South American guy and a guy who looked like he belonged in a ZZ Top cover band came in, stuck a huge worm-like tube in our attic, sprayed in a bunch of insulation, removed the worm, and left. I forgot to bring a book, so I sunned myself on our new deck. However, as I was pretty jittery, I probably spent as much time jumping up to look inside as I did actually enjoying the sun. From there, I zipped back to the apartment. As I drove down the street, my breath caught as I saw that the movers were already there. They were supposed to call me before arriving! Arms flailing, I ran over to the van and apologized at a mile a minute. It turned out that they had tried to call me, but had the wrong phone number. Phew - not my fault. They were very friendly and efficient, running up and down the stairs. They delivered it all to the house and moved it a few different times as I figured out where it should go. I had wanted to put the bed and dresser in the bedroom at first, but then realized we wouldn't be able to open our dresser drawers. Oops. When they finished, I examined everything very carefully. Finding a tiny scratch on the dresser, I persuaded them to knock $50 off of the price. I felt very proud.

That night, I felt a great weight lift off of my shoulders. The next day, we met at the title lawyer's office for the final closing. The house's owner was middle-aged but fit - the sort of person you could actually imagine successfully "flipping" houses in his spare time because he happened to enjoy carpentry. While we waited for the lawyers to organize the papers, he told us a lot about our house's previous life. Courtesy of Bing's aerial view, we had noticed that our house was once teal and had a screen porch where our deck was. The seller told us that he ripped down the screen porch because it was held on to the house with at least six inches of caulk. Apparently, whenever it started to crack, the original owner's solution was to pull out the caulk gun. Even more impressively, we recently learned that the original owners raised ten kids in this house! Whenever I feel like this house is small with the two of us, I just need to think of that. Yikes.

We proceeded into the office, which was decorated with a manner of gizmos and toys, catnip to my eternal-10-year-old. Between signing sheet after sheet of paper, I wound up teetering tin bugs and spun silver tops. Truly charming. And just the thing to keep your mind off of the immense amount of money you are signing away. After it seemed like we used a forest of paper, we both signed the very last sheet.

We were done! We owned a house!

There was - and still is - a lot more to do. We've unpacked all of the boxes, but still have paper instead of curtains over our windows and the lawnmower under a tarp instead of in a shed. Eventually, we'd like to finish the basement. But every day, it feels more and more like home. A few weeks after moving in, I went into Rockville Town Square to buy a pair of sneakers at the running store. They happened to be having a community concert with a local band. As I listened to them cover classic rock hits, and watched community members, from little kids to an older black gentleman, grooving to the music, deep in my heart, I knew "I belong here. We belong here." And every day I turn the key in the front door, I feel that just a little bit more.

Photos behind the cut!Collapse )
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    Manic Street Preachers - Me And Stephen Hawking
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Happy Birthday to Meee! - Part II

As it turned out, I wasn't the only one celebrating an important occasion.

I invited Solmaz to the Spy party, but she couldn't come because her parents were visiting. Soon after, I found out exactly why they were visiting - for Solmaz's bridal shower! It was at her apartment, despite the fact that it was a surprise party. Walking in, I met Solmaz's mom, along with a bunch of her friends from graduate school. Nancy, my boss from National Academies, was there as well. For a while, we all sat around in Solmaz's well-decorated living room, introducing ourselves and waiting. And waiting. It soon became clear that Solmaz was not going to show up at the appointed time. A coded phone call from her mom to her dad, whom she was out with, revealed that Solmaz took the idea of shopping for homegoods a little too seriously! It ended up working out well, because Rebecca was held up by tremendous traffic and still arrived before Solmaz.

When Solmaz finally arrived, she was suitably surprised, exclaiming in joy when we jumped out. The party really started. We ate lunch, delicious truffles, and a nicely decorated cake. Because we were running so late, Solmaz opened presents relatively early. She was very pleased with my matching giant coffee mugs from Crate and Barrel. Others' presents were more - awkward. Holding a Victoria's Secret bag, Nancy noted that she bought a "traditional" bridal shower gift. Thankfully, it was a nightgown - not too sexy - but I know I'd still be embarrassed to get that from my boss. Before and after presents, we worked together to create a wedding scrapbook for Solmaz. We were each presented with a scrapbook sheet and pile of magazines to create a collaged page that imparted advice to the newly married couple. It was a very sweet idea, and we enjoyed it greatly, picking out a mix of silly and sincere photos. (There were some very odd food photos.) The whole party had a wonderfully relaxed vibe. It was very much what a bridal shower should be.

Driving back to our house, I got hopelessly lost and ended up being very late. When I got there, Greg B and Christine were already waiting so that all four of us could go into DC together. Chris was just finishing wrapping up yet another birthday cake, this one filled with strawberry jelly and topped with chocolate. We hopped in the car, foregoing the Metro, and sped through downtown DC. Upon arriving at the Museum, Greg, Christine and I jumped out of the car, dodged traffic, and yanked open the door. Between breaths, we informed the front desk staff that our group was there, and really, it would only be a few minutes before we were all present. Rebecca and Eric were there already, and Rebecca's friend Matt was also parking his car. It would just take a few minutes - right? The woman at the front desk rolled her eyes, smiled kindly, and told us we could go upstairs. After some persuading - they don't keep things behind the desk, after all - she even allowed us to store the cake with her. I breathed a sigh of relief and introduced everyone to each other. These sort of events - where you bring together people from different groups - can be awkward, but everyone seemed to get along right away. We followed the rest of our tour group up the stairs and into the introductory room for the "mission." As a step into another country, it was an effective, but I was too distracted by Chris and Matt's continuing absence that I didn't notice much. After the guide's short introduction, we delayed it as much we could - going to the bathroom, making excuses - but they insisted that the group had to start. We begged for amnesty and a few more eyerolls later, the front desk woman said yes, there was space in the next two groups if we didn't mind waiting. Thank God.

We sat down to wait in a booth in the "cafe" (aka cafeteria) area which had been turned into an awkward bar. We were pretty much the only ones there, so it wasn't nearly as classy as I had imagined. Nonetheless, we had cake and a free drink each, and you can't ask for much more. Unfortunately, we forgot to bring anything with which to cut or eat the cake. Thankfully, the bar was willing to lend us a knife and no one objected too much to eating it with their hands. Just as we started eating the cake, Matt finally showed up! He got stuck behind someone in a fender-bender, whom the DC police took their good old time questioning.

After much sitting and talking, our time came up. Once upstairs, we began at a large "steel" door with a peephole beside it. Our guide explained that Latvernia (no, that wasn't the name, but it might as well been) was on the other side of the door. She asked, "Would someone go to the peephole and report what they see?" An ironic hippie dude stepped right up, put his eye to it, and exclaimed, "Holy f***, it's Latvernia!" The guide deadpanned, "Now that we've got the f-bomb out of the way..." Over 18, indeed!

The rest of the tour wasn't as explictive-filled, but it was a lot of fun. We were supposed to be spies in a Middle Eastern country working to track a suspect with a dirty bomb and possible ties to the government. The first task was to "follow" the suspect using a series of video screens and then decode his encrypted "cell phone transmission." We futzed with the knobs and dials like little kids with a toy, and had about the same amount of success. We then crept through a hallway that had a "manhole cover" that clattered quite loudly when someone stepped on it by mistake. That led to the office of one of the bad guys. We were supposed to thoroughly search the space for documents, yet leave it exactly as we found it. I coincidentally had a flashlight in my purse that turned out to be quite handy when we needed to look on the underside of a desk. Other tasks included riding in the back of a very shaky "getaway van" as it wound its way through cobblestoned streets and "interrogating" a subject via videoconferencing. It finished with a debrief of how well our team performed together. We succeeded in the mission, but only received an overall rating of about 70 percent. It made us wonder both how you could get a perfect score and what would happen if you purposely screwed everything up. In my opinion, our group was fantastic. Everyone shared the attitude that it was wicked goofy fun, but that we were also going to work to succeed. As I suspected, this was LARPing with better props and scenery. Maybe if everyone had as much of a laid-back attitude, it might be more popular. I know I had a great time!

At that point, the cake was eaten, the free drinks were gone, and it was getting late, so we each went on our merry way. We brought Greg and Christine back to their car. But before they left, they presented me with two presents, both books. From Christine, the well-reviewed best seller, Like Water for Elephants. From Greg, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Perfect.

Overall, it was the most satisfying birthday I've had in a very long time, if not ever. It was wonderful to have an unexpected, awe-inspiring meal with Chris, share Solmaz's joy at her party, and then celebrate my birthday surrounded by friends. I couldn't have wished for anything better.
  • Current Music
    Radio in the car
Heart

Happy Birthday to Meeeee - Part I

I've had a mixed record with birthdays.

As a little kid, I had some great parties, due to Mom's creativity. I remember the art party (using chalk on the basement walls and spin-art!) and the Baby-Sitters Club party quite fondly. In those days, you invited everyone in your class and they had to come whether they wanted to or not. Then, it got a little harder in junior high, when you couldn't fall back on that tactic. But despite having a devastatingly bad 7th grade, my birthday party with the swim team girls (and a few others, like Deb) was one of the highlights. A few of them even got together and thoughtfully bought me a CD boom-box. I don't remember 8th grade (maybe a sleepover with Deb, Liz and Frances?), and in 9th grade, I went climbing with Deb, Andy, and Keith, but it wasn't exactly a party. In fact, the next party I had wasn't until 11th grade, when I could legitimately say I had a real group of friends again. I pulled together The Group, and several other people I enjoyed hanging out with. It was a pretty representative selection of the interesting, weird kids at Shen. We rented a karaoke machine, made fools of ourselves (some without even needing to read lyrics...), and ate a lot of cake. It wasn't the party of the century - for our group of friends, that was Chris's birthdays and Matt's New Years - but it was awesome to celebrate with people who liked me.

Of course, shortly after, adulthood and college struck. I stopped telling people when it was my birthday, so I don't think hardly anyone knew freshman or sophomore year. Either way, I didn't do anything, reflecting how I felt about myself at the time. Junior year was my my 21st birthday, described here. Although dinner with Dad and lively conversation over bubble tea redeemed me from my misery, it still wasn't the 21st birthday people envision. Senior year, I gathered a bunch of people together for pizza at The Chariot (RIP), which was nice, but a little awkward because they didn't know each other. In Oxford, someone bought me a drink and we brought the cake that Chris made down to the common room. Very low-key.

Which brings me to this year. This year, I wanted to do something so fun and goofy that I would need my birthday as an excuse. At first, I considered going to the Pirate bar in Silver Spring, but ended up settling on Operation Spy, an "interactive adventure" at the Spy Museum. I chose it because I love anything that allows you to "act out" a role. As a writer, actually being inside the story is a huge draw. I could easily imagine myself getting into LARPing (Live Action Roleplay), if I knew anyone nerdy enough. But they would have to have a sense of humor about it - there's are too many things in life to take Very Seriously, and your D&D character isn't one of them. This spy experience seemed like just the right balance of funny and cool, especially because if you signed up for a weekend night, it was adults-only and included a free drink. I know I'm shameless even when sober, but drinks can increase social chemistry. I invited people from our weird array of DC-area groups - Greg B and Christine in Baltimore, Solmaz and Rebecca from National Academies, and folks from poker - and sold it as a James Bond-pastiche, while acknowledging how gloriously nerdy it would be.

While planning that shindig, I hinted to Chris that it would be nice if he bought or arranged something for the day of my actual birthday. I've asked him specifically not to buy me presents during my last several birthdays because of financial priorities. Especially in England, I wanted the money to go towards travel rather than more stuff we'd have to bring home. He's got or made cake for me since freshman year of college, but this year, I wanted him to show he had put some additional thought into it. Something a little creative.

The day my birthday arrived, I really believed Chris had forgotten about doing anything. In the morning, he said "Happy birthday" but didn't have a present. I got held up at work and came home frustratingly late, but he said nothing about it on the phone. So I was a little disappointed that when I arrived home, he didn't at least have dinner ready. However, he had prepared gloriously chocolatey lava cakes (by my request), so I hungrily dug in. As I finished licking my fork, he announced, "You should get dressed nicely." "We're going somewhere this late? Really?" I asked, not knowing how to react. But he wouldn't tell me; he just flashed an enigmatic smirk.

Fortunately, I wasn't in suspense for too long. In fact, as soon as we got on the highway and I saw the sign to Frederick, I knew right away. "We're going to Volt?! How did you get reservations? I thought they were booked for months!" I exclaimed. "Not at 9 o'clock on a Thursday night," he nonchalantly responded. Volt is Bryan Voltaggio's restaurant, the runner-up on Top Chef. It's been very in-demand since the finale of the show. (Side note: It's worth checking out the restaurant's website, if for no other reason than the hilariously pretentious photo of Bryan standing in a field of wheat.) After a guessing game, Chris eventually revealed that he had made the reservation only the night before. I just shook my head and smiled.

We arrived at the old red-brick building in Saratoga-cute Frederick a few minutes before nine. We were seated at a little two-person table, and took in the surroundings while the waiter explained that the Chef designed the menu for people to order all four courses. Of course, we took the opportunity for all it was worth and ordered all of them. I ordered the potato-leek chowder, the goat cheese ravioli, the roast chicken (they were out of lobster, and shame on you Bryan Voltaggio for not having a veggie main course!), and the dulche de leche. Once we ordered, we waited....and waited...and waited. Our soup came out in time, but our second course appeared to be taking forever. Since our reservation was at 9, I was already super-hungry and getting antsy. But it was soon clear that something had gone wrong. Bryan himself poked his head into the dining room, looked right at our table and frowned. Never a good sign. A few moments later, our very-starched waiter came out and apologized very, very politely. We received our second course shortly after.

Beyond that little bobble, everything was excellent. My soup was creamy and the scallop in it was heavenly, my roasted chicken was cooked perfectly, and my dulche de leche's cheese cake was sweet and perfectly balanced with the granny smith ice cream. (Unfortunately, Bryan did not change my mind on beets, which I had on the side of the chicken. I really dislike their smell, no matter how well they are cooked.) But the absolute best was the goat cheese ravioli with mushrooms and brown butter. It was a revelation. I closed my eyes and chewed because I wanted to focus all of my attention on it. Where you could have never imagined until right this second that this dish could ever be this good.

Beyond the food, I also enjoyed the entire atmosphere of the restaurant. Everything coalased into a distinct point of view. If I'm going to go to a really expensive restaurant, I want to get an equally full experience from it. I want to be enveloped in that person's entire vision, the way you are in a movie or a play. I want to know the story you're telling. Two weeks earlier, we had gone to the Oval Room, another very fancy restaurant, for Valentine's Day. And it lacked that coherent vision. The food was good, some even as good as Volt's, but the place lacked character. It was very traditionally DC power-lunch white-tablecloth with inoffensive psuedo-modern art on the the walls. It was incredibly quiet, so I found it uncomfortable to talk. The women's bathrooms felt like they belonged in Macy's, but without the couch they usually have. Just blah. In contrast, everything blended perfectly at Volt. Stepping inside, the interior used sharp lines, exposed brick, modern furniture, but all in wood and other traditional materials. The dining room had serene white walls punctuated with bright digitally-manipulated photos of the restaurant's historic building. The waitstaff was dressed to match, in button-down shirts and ties with Converse sneakers. The music was dim, but lively. It sounded as if it could have been picked from the chef's iPod - fun but not too intense alt-pop-rock bands like Vampire Weekend. The food, beyond being delicious, was based on seasonal availability but had avante-garde touches like ginger foam. Everything was a precise balance of old and new, traditional and modern. It's a combination I love, and tend to personally embrace in my own life. So I totally bought into Volt's story.

The only personal disappointment I suffered was entirely my fault. The people at the table across from me asked if they could meet Bryan Voltaggio, and their friendly, young waitress escorted them to the kitchen. I thought that would be super-fun, but I was a little intimidated by our waiter. Eventually, after the main course, I mentioned that it was my birthday, hoping that perhaps he would suggest a trip to the kitchen. Instead, he wrinkled his nose, and said, "That was not mentioned in the reservation. We usually need to know that at the beginning of the meal." Nevertheless, he insisted he would take care of it. As it turned out, that meant not a talk with the chef, but yet another dessert! Mind you, this was already on top of chocolate lava cakes, my own full dessert, and some nibbles of Chris's "textures of chocolate." It turned out to be a set of three different fruity sorbets, which were thankfully quite light and delicious. I still would have preferred a talk in the kitchen, but free desserts are cool too. As if I hadn't consumed enough sugar that night, the end of the meal came with tiny adorable ice cream sandwiches, like macarons with ice cream instead of buttercream. And with your check, they present you with wrapped muffins for breakfast the next day. It was a lovely gesture, but I was glad we didn't have to eat them then.

We left fulfilled, physically and emotionally. We had a wonderful dinner together, talking and sharing food. It was neat to be in a place that respected and appreciated food as much as Chris does and to hear him talk about it from that perspective. And to have it be his present to me - thoughtful and perfectly reflective of what both of us love. With a perfect end to the actual day, I was looking forward to seeing what the rest of my birthday weekend held in store.
  • Current Music
    Pedro The Lion - Start Without Me
Heart

A Long, Cold Winter - Part II

After a week of vacation, it was quite a surprise to get work off again less than a month later. The first week of February, the snow began falling on Friday morning. The forecast was so threatening (more than 8 inches before 5 PM) that they sent all non-essential federal employees home four hours early, so people wouldn't be stuck if the outdoor Metro stations closed. As I walked home from the station, I was already slushing through a couple inches of snow.

As a proud upstate New Yorker, snow doesn't bother me, unlike many residents of D.C. Whenever there's a hint of snow in D.C., people get freaked out and wipe the store out of toilet paper and bottled water. (Toilet paper - really? Do you think you'll be stuck for months?) So Chris and I figured we'd skip poker, hang out inside and wait it out. Then, in the middle of my Wii Fit routine, the power flickered on and off. I was most annoyed; the Wii had lost track of my progress. Then, it happened a half hour later...and then again...and then again. We quickly realized it was serious and started scrambling for candles. It was already past 9 PM at that point, so it wasn't too long before we gave up reading and went to bed.

The next morning, we woke up fairly late and noticed two things - that the apartment still lacked power and was distinctly colder. We hadn't noticed it during the night because Chris insists on having a million blankets on the bed. But as we got up, we realized the consequences of lacking electricity. They are much more than simply no computer or TV. No hot water. No heat. For who knew how long. Considering that we didn't get our power restored yet and we were supposed to get another foot of snow, our power probably wasn't going to get fixed any time soon. Ugh.

Our worst fears were confirmed when we turned on the radio. "300,000 without power in the D.C. Metro area. We'll continue to push the utilities until they tell us when they're restoring your power!" Fantastic. Thankfully, the radio turned out to be a saving grace. When I received it from the Sheas for Christmas, I said, "Oh, that's neat," but never expected to use it so soon! A hand crank radio with a flashlight, it was our only connection to the outside world. It allowed me to jealously listen to reporters yelling about the Dupont Circle snowfight. If only we had such luxury to play out in the snow... The radio was also equipped with a cell phone recharger, but no matter how much I cranked, it needed a lot more power than I could provide.

The rest of the day was spent waiting and watching the temperature drop. Chris pulled out the kitchen thermometer and we'd check it every once in a while, seeing if it had gone down a degree or two. We dressed in layers upon layers, including fleece long underwear and even winter hats, but the cold still crept in. I had almost as much on as at the Inauguration, which was much colder, making me wonder how I managed to survive that. As we couldn't take showers, we felt grimy too, which only made it worse. Thankfully, we could at least use the gas stove. We made oatmeal for breakfast, canned soup and baked beans for lunch, tea and hot chocolate to drink and more hot liquids for dinner. It was like camping in our apartment!

To stave off the boredom, we read (I finished off Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close), and played Fluxx and chess. Always listening to the radio in the background. It was too cold to just sit around and chat, as we love to do. You needed something to keep your mind off of the discomfort, the underlying anxiety, the worries of when things would return to normal.

Around 4 PM, we finally left the apartment to wander outside. We would have gone earlier, but the idea of getting wet and cold without a way to warm back up seemed like a really bad plan. On the other hand, we knew that if we ever wanted to leave before spring, we needed to clean off the car. And we wanted to see what the rest of the neighborhood looked like, to see how other people were dealing. So we suited up and went for a walk. It was dream-like. The trees were weighed down with pounds of snow, some of them with branches touching the ground. Snowbanks reached my head. People were walking in the street because the sidewalks were blocked. Groups of people were aimlessly wandering around, being too bored and cabin-feverish to stay inside. Obviously, there was no traffic. We spoke to one guy who was absolutely convinced that Pepco, the power company, would come to the rescue and restore our power if our condo management called them. "This many people without power and it's just one little fix .. ." he said, as if it was that simple. I replied, "Yeah, but they're restoring it to the NIH (National Institutes of Health) and hospitals first." He didn't look particularly convinced. Of course, there were also lots of people cleaning off their cars. Apparently, it's a very common practice in Maryland to clear off everything except your roof, totally reversing all of your work as soon as you start driving. I wanted to help, but what did I have to offer? We had no shovel of our own, no heat, no electricity, nothing to give. There was an apocalyptic feel to it all and I felt helpless.

Eventually, we made our way back to our own car. With some struggle, we cleared the snow off, trying not to throw it in front of our neighbor's car. Unfortunately, as there wasn't much of anywhere else to throw it. We were incredibly grateful that the tree branch that broke off right over our car barely missed it. We had just spent several hundred dollars to fix a rattle in the engine, so that would have been the last straw.

Back inside, we managed to make dinner without opening the fridge, because we wanted to keep everything from going bad for as long as possible. We went to bed shortly after, hoping that when we woke up, the power would have returned. Expecting the worst, we piled almost all of the blankets we had on the bed - sheet, Hudson Bay wool blanket, comforter, fleece blankets, and the heavy duvet to top it all off. I felt buried alive; Chris loved it. But what choice did we have? Who knew what temperature it would be in the morning?

46 F, as it turned out. Dear Lord, it was cold. Thankfully, it turned out to be a sunny day and the bank of windows in our living room served us well, bringing the temperature up to the mid-50s. Beyond the temperature, we also had a purpose that day, a destination. We were going to a Super Bowl party at Greg B's and Christine's house that night. Normally, we would have never gone in that weather. But they said we could stay overnight with them afterwards, and I couldn't imagine anything better than being somewhere with electricity, heat and hot water. It was just what we needed to stave off despair. Chris had vowed to bring fancy chili (beef burgundy with beans and extra spiciness) and God damn it, he wasn't backing down! By that point, the electricity had been down for so long that everything in the fridge was going to go bad anyway, so opening it was fine. (The meat was fine because it had been frozen.) I sat in the sun and read while Chris bustled around the kitchen.

Finally, around 2 PM, we headed out. We figured it wouldn't be too difficult because we lived right off of the Beltway and Greg and Christine live right off of another huge highway. Although most neighborhood streets weren't plowed, ours were because our condo community (Parkside) had its own set of small plows. The Parkside roads were fine, and the road connecting Parkside to the Beltway was about as good/bad as one could expect. What surprised the crap out of us was the Beltway. Here is a four lane highway, the vehicular lifeblood of DC, and three out of the four lanes had 6 inches of snow on them. Packed down 6 inches of snow. Yikes. Needless to say, we drove very, very slowly. And it didn't get any better when we got on I-95. The apocalyptic nature of the storm only continued, as we passed abandoned cars buried in drifts. Where did these people go? What happened to them? Were they okay? But it was too late for us to do anything about it. The best we could do was take care of ourselves. Not that we could prevent other people from doing stupid things. There was one car whose driver was obviously frustrated by the slow speed and kept weaving back and forth across the two middle lanes blanketed in snow. I was happy he didn't skid out and take us with him.

After all of that, we finally got into Baltimore, which seemed to have more streets plowed than DC did. Our only remaining problem was that we had to find a parking space. In our seemingly hopeless quest, we drove up one street and missed the snow-covered sign that indicated it was one-way. It was quite a surprise when a small snowplow started coming towards us! In slight panic mode, we attempted to make a three point turn - right into a snowbank. Of course. We gestured to the plow driver that we were confused and very, very sorry. He just rolled his eyes and yelled out the window, "Hey, I'm paid by the hour." Lacking any snow implements except a scraper, I lamely tried to clear snow from the tires with my hands. Thankfully, Baltimore residents were better prepared than DCers, and a couple of guys with shovels came to our rescue. With some digging and pushing, we managed to back the car up, turn it around, and eventually find a space.

We were thrilled to finally arrive at Greg and Christine's door. Glory be, there were friends and food and heat and electricity! After brushing off our clothes and thanking them for their hospitality, we immediately asked if we could borrow their bathroom (separately, mind you!). I don't think I've ever enjoyed a shower more. Then, I borrowed Christine's computer, so I could get the feeling that there was still a world outside of Maryland. Sadly, we still had one more task to be done. We needed to get - pizza. So Greg and Chris took our car while Christine and I valiantly protected our parking spot. They took forever! After that, we thankfully didn't have to venture out into the snowy wasteland the rest of the evening. We watched a pretty good Super Bowl with them and their next-door neighbors, ate Chris's delicious chili, and played Rock Band with Greg B late into the night. I turned to be surprisingly good at rapping!

The next morning, we woke in a building with heat, something we had learned to not take for granted. We hung around the house for a while longer and kept checking the computer to see if they restored our power. When Christine left to make a sales call (snow wasn't going to stop her), Greg, Chris and I headed over to one of their favorite sandwich shops. We trudged through the sloppy snow, trying our best not to step into knee-height piles. On the way there, we ran into Greg's friends, who were digging out their own car. The place he brought us, Beach Bums, was an adorable little local shop decorated with a summery beach theme. Among the cardboard flip flops and cartons of ice cream, it felt like a futile, but best-effort, fight against the cold.

Thankfully, by the time we returned to the apartment, Pepco's online map showed that they had finally restored power to our area. Hallelujah! We drove back via a much less snowy highway and arrived home safely. Compared to that ordeal, the rest of the week was nothing. Sure, we didn't have the Metro, but hey, we could sit around comfortably! Nevertheless, I was still extremely thankful when the Metro reopened on Friday. I had a serious case of cabin fever. But we could proudly say that we survived the great Snowmageddon of 2010.
  • Current Music
    James - Laid
Heart

A Long, Cold Winter - Part I

Now that daffodils are sprouting, it seems that I can definitely say we survived the D.C. Winter of 2009-2010.

The winter started out normally enough - cold and wet. We went home to New York for Thanksgiving after going to Aunt Linda and Uncle Rick's house last year. We had a lovely time, all gathered together at the Sheas. I truly am ever grateful that our families get along as fabulously well as they do. Chris' aunt and uncle came up too, and we had another rousing game of Apples to Apples after dinner. Then, the long drive back - oh, holiday traffic, how you vex us so!

Shortly after, the snow started falling. And never really stopped. The snow in December introduced me to the concept of the adult snow day - the federal government can close? really?? - a concept that I grew extremely familiar with over the next month. But the first snowfall wasn't too much of an inconvenience beyond delaying the start of a volunteer project for a second (and indefinite) period of time. I was just happy I didn't trudge into D.C. and then stuck one Metro stop away from ours, which closed after about 8 inches of snow had fallen. Missing work for one day was like a vacation more than anything else.

Christmas was a reprieve from D.C., but not from the fluffy white stuff. Of course, White Christmases in Clifton Park are not unusual and the snow didn't hamper our travel plans, so I didn't mind it too much. It always makes everything look so lovely. In terms of celebrations, we reversed Christmas this year. The last few years, we stayed over with my parents on Christmas Eve and then went to the Sheas, where we had Christmas dinner. In contrast, this year, Mom decided she would host Christmas dinner. As my parents had never hosted Christmas for anyone but the three of us before, she was rather nervous (even if she wouldn't admit it). On Christmas Eve, the house was all a hustle and bustle. Chris helped Mom quite a bit in the kitchen, while I unhelpfully sat like a lump on the couch, watching Anthony Bourdain's holiday special ("Force feeding geese doesn't hurt them!") with Dad, who slept through half of it anyway. I did make myself somewhat useful by decorating the Christmas tree, which I had promised to do the day before. However, I kept getting a little out of the spirit because of the oh-so-Christmasy Jethro Tull that Dad kept selecting on the TV music channel!

Christmas morning was relatively unhurried at the Sheas, as I knew my parents were busy getting ready. There were all of the Shea hallmarks - cinnamon buns, orange juice, and a tremendous pile of boxes of all shapes and sizes under the tree. I did feel a little bad because Chris had a stack of presents for me, but I had nothing for him at his parents' house. I bought him a few larger presents, all of which I had left at my parents' house by mistake, whereas he bought me a bunch of smaller ones because he loves the look of a "cascade" of presents. Nevertheless, we both received quite a lot of nice presents at the Sheas, and of course, even more at my parents' house. In particular, we received Wii Rock Band and Wii Fit from my parents, drastically expanding the usefulness of the Wii, which we received from them last Christmas. Also, sitting on my parents' hardwood floor, I realized that if we have hardwood floors in our house (which of course, I didn't know about at the time), we will make sure to have lots of pillows to sit and lean on when opening presents. Keep things nice and warm.

After opening presents, Christmas really kicked into high gear, as Mom and Chris finished up the food and waited for the Sheas, including Chris's Aunt Pat, to arrive. Aunt Pat wasn't going to come at first, but decided to drive up after much needling and encouragement from Melissa and Chris. For dinner, we had an Italian extravaganza, with chicken Parmesan, eggplant rollatini, and two different types of lasagna (veggie and meat). Naturally, we ate ourselves illy, as if we were Tiny Tim, previously surviving on crusts of bread. A delicious mix of veggies, cheese and pasta. Dinner was followed by a smorgasbord of desserts. Mom made several types of cookies, lemon lush, and dessert bars. Mama Shea brought pie and even more cookies! It would have made a Victorian child die in delight.

We finished with a rousing game of the traditional pastime, Catchphrase. It's this little electronic gizmo that pops up with a word you have to help your team guess. Thankfully, Dad played much better on Christmas than he did the night before. Then, he was on my team against Chris and Mom and the best he could do for several of them was "I dunno" and a shrug. On Christmas, he proved he could do better, both helping people guess several and getting a few himself. Even Aunt Pat laughed a lot, even though she was a bit nervous coming over.

The rest of the week we spent hanging out and going out with our friends. New Years was fun without being overly eventful. We got in on a package in Troy with Greg A, Dave and Stephanie. It was at the Marriott with a bar, and included a buffet dinner, drinks all night, and a hotel room. We were actually part of a much larger party that we glommed onto because Greg's friend-of-a-friend knew the bar's owner. Seeing how "sports bar" the place was, I was a bit skeptical at first, but we ended up having a good time. The only weird thing was that we somehow got carded by police/security after we entered! The bar staff pointed people out to them that they thought had questionable ID and I think the security people got confused. After a bit of examination of my Maryland ID, they gave it back and all was well again. I drank Pinto Grigio and Riesling all night, which keeps me happy without feeling nauseous. We met Greg's friends-of-friend, who were good-natured and interesting to talk to. It was the second time I had ever met Stephanie, but she was great fun to hang out with. At midnight, we blew horns and rattled noisemakers and yelled quite a bit. It was lighthearted fun. The place started clearing out not long after, so we headed up to the room around 12:30. We briefly considered hanging out with other people in the larger party, but it seemed like it was winding down when I stepped in their room, so we quickly abandoned that plan. Instead, we returned to our own room, which we were sharing with Greg. Sadly, the deal was only for two rooms, and Dave said, "There's no way in hell we're sharing a room." So much for New Years romance. It didn't really matter anyway, as Chris promptly fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. So I stayed up and talked with Greg, which was really cool. It's so rare that I hang out with my high school friends one-on-one, and Greg's always been someone I've been able to have in-depth, honest conversations with. We talked a lot about relationships, along with some goofy stuff, until about 3, when we were both too exhausted to stay up longer. The next morning, Chris and I were awake enough to drag ourselves downstairs to the breakfast buffet, which was surprisingly good for a hotel buffet. After a long night, I think I would have died without some food. Plus, it was definitely healthier than the year we went to Bombers for breakfast (and much more drama-free).

On the drive back home to D.C., we visited with my extended family in New Jersey. My Dad's Mom is in her late 80s and I like to see her whenever I can. As usual, she fed us entirely too much, and then we talked and talked, especially once Aunt Patty, Uncle Brian, and Sarah arrived at her house. I'm so glad I come from a family who loves to converse, to tell stories. I can't imagine anything worse than family gatherings where you sit around and stare at each other. We stayed over at Aunt Linda and Uncle Rick's house, which allowed us to wish them a Merry Christmas and exchange gifts. Generously, they gave us a $100 gift certificate to Volt, the restaurant in Frederick, MD, run by Bryan Voltaggio, the runner-up on last season's Top Chef.

Driving home was, as usual, miserable. But the traffic was expected and we got home safely, so it all worked out. Little did we know that we would be dying to get out into the car soon enough.
  • Current Music
    Fleet Foxes - Heard Them Stirring
Heart

It was no surface but all feeling / Maybe at the time it felt like dreaming

Whenever I mention that my favorite band is terribly obscure in the U.S., the person I'm talking to inevitably says, "What's their name? I bet I know them." Then, of course, when I say "the Manic Street Preachers," they'll say, "Oh. I've never heard of them." But on a chilly night this past fall, I was surrounded by Americans who would not only know who I was talking about, but be able to recite their entire discography.

When I became a fan of the band, I never expected to be able to see them in concert. When they toured while I lived in England, I figured it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. We went to London, it was a very good show, I got to meet them in person (!), the end. Very lovely. So when Ilya told me they were touring in America, I was simultaneously shocked and thrilled. The chance to see them again? In Philadelphia? I'll be there!

To compensate for the concert being on a weeknight, I took a half-day off work to leave early and come in late the next day. Taking the train from Union Station, I alternated between writing, sleeping, and being sheerly excited. I met Ilya at the train station, where he showed me his (relatively) new Hyundai, one of his two "hot Asian girls" (the other being his girlfriend!). Considering our shared love of music, the last time I saw him was also at a concert, appropriately.

We headed over to the venue, World Cafe Live. The space must have been much stranger for them to perform in than for us to watch. At the turn of the last decade, they played at one of the largest stadiums in the UK to a sold-out crowd. In contrast, World Cafe Live made Saratoga Winners seems spacious (although this place was far cleaner). It was a step up from the concerts I went to in the now-departed Noyes Student Center at Cornell only in that it was an actual venue, with food and a bar. It was cute in its smallness though. When we got food, we could actually still see the opening band despite sitting down.

Unfortunately, the opening band was awful. The Manics' opening band last time was a bit dull, very young emo-ish, but these guys were just dumb. They had a song comparing women and weed and determined weed was a superior option. Thankfully, they were done quickly, leaving me to finish off my crab cake sandwich and wait in excitement for the Manics to come on.

As we waited, the venue began to fill up, with more and more people staking out their places in front of the stage. It was obvious from the start that this was a very different crowd than the one in London. The crowd in London was energetic, with everyone seemingly pleased to be there. But there were definitely some people who thought, "Oh, the Manics? They had that song from a long time ago - you know that song? Yeah, sure, I'll go see them." Interested, but not enthused. (There were also a couple of very rude people who I found annoying.) On the other hand, everyone in this crowd was absolutely passionate about the Manics. Many of them probably thought that they'd never be able to see them live. We waited in eager anticipation, like kids on Christmas Eve.

Finally, they made the waiting all worth while. With James Dean Bradfield (yes, his real name, isn't it rock star?) at the mic, guitar in hand, Nicky Wire on the bass, and Sean Moore hidden behind the drum kit, they launched into the iconic first notes of Motorcycle Emptiness. "Culture sucks down words..." James cried, as sincere and cynical as he was 17 years ago when they released Generation Terrorists. From that electric beginning, they launched into "No Surface, All Feeling," one of my favorite songs. The intimate surroundings perfectly matched the song's melancholy musings on youthful passion and love shared by friends.

Then they switched to a couple of newer songs, maintaining the intense energy. James jumped and spun wildly all over the stage, swinging his guitar in time with the rhythm. Nicky alternated between doing high scissor-kicks, grinning in an intensely goofy manner, and intently focusing on playing his bass. Nicky's gotten a lot better at playing his guitar over the years - in the beginning, he was known for being a fantastic lyricist but terrible instrumentalist - but Ilya and I still poke fun at how hard he seems to be working to get the notes right. While transitioning to "La Tristesse Durera," about the loneliness of WWII veterans, James described their diction on that album as "very German." As Welsh accents are very unfamiliar to many people, even some British, I'm sure many listeners didn't notice! Nonetheless, it's a deeply empathetic song that makes teenagers care about people they might never have thought about otherwise, and I was so glad to hear them play it. Another new song followed, with the eminently sing-alongable chorus "Mummy, what's a sex pistol?" Then "Let Robison Sing," which was the song I chatted up the Welsh historians about at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, followed by a searing version of "Faster," about furious mania. "Faster" is one of those songs I turned to when I felt particularly dark about the world and myself. Just listening to it reminded me of sitting in my bedroom at Alpha Zeta. I think playing it was a specific tribute to Richey Edwards, their long-gone rhythm guitarist who disappeared without a trace over 10 years ago. His lyrics, from a notebook they found shortly afterwards, made up all of the songs on their latest album. Moving into the flip side thematically, they then played "Enola/Alone," which is about feeling terribly isolated but needing to reach out despite yourself.

Somewhere within those songs, James' guitar went incredibly out of tune, forcing him to spend quite a bit of time between songs fixing it. Thankfully, I could actually understand the on-stage banter this time. While he was futzing with it, someone yelled "Cuba!" where the Manics have performed in the past. They allegedly got their live concert DVD's title from a conversation they had with Fidel Castro. They said their music was going to be quite loud, and he said, "Is it louder than WAR?" In response to the fan, James smiled and shook his head, saying, "Don't say that in this country. We had to rip those pages out of our passports before we got to Immigration!" As he continued to fiddle with the strings, he asked, "So do you want to hear a little Philadelphia Freedom?" The crowd was amused but not supportive, so I sadly didn't get to see the Manics cover Elton John.

After a new song (Ilya's favorite off of the album, if I remember) and two of my favorite songs ever ("From Despair to Where" and "If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next"), everyone except James left the stage. In their absence, he switched to acoustic guitar and launched into the Manics most pretty/sad song, "This is Yesterday." Never has lost innocence transitioning into despair sounded so lovely. Then, much to my surprise, he launched into "Masses Against the Classes," normally a rocker. The acoustic version removed the loudness, but none of the venom, making it an ironic, almost silly but quietly nasty song. It was hard to judge the level of sincerity, bringing the entire song's meaning into question. That combination of brutal honesty and self-awareness of their own ridiculousness has been something I've always liked about the Manics. On one hand, they fiercely believe in whatever they are saying at the time. On the other hand, they know that may change tomorrow. As they've always said, "We reserve the right to contradict ourselves."

The rest of the band returned for a big, full version of "Send Away the Tigers," followed by the electric-tinged "You Stole the Sun from My Heart." Then a lead-in I didn't recognize (a cover), into the song that best captures their once-youthful anger, pride and cynicism: "Motown Junk." Absolutely blistering. "Stops your heart beating for 168 seconds / stops your brain thinking for 168 seconds." Within all of this intensity, the Manics did stop again to exchange a bit of fun conversation. At one point, Nicky said, "There's a hot, sweaty, sexy mess up here," to which James replied, "Well, it's not me." Later on, James called Sean "a beast" on the drums. It was hard to see his response, as he tends to get a bit lost behind the kit.

Another one from the new album and then they finished with 3 iconic songs - two early ones and their most famous of all. First, "You Love Us," another one full of malice and fury, then "Little Baby Nothing," a softer, almost pop-like song about child prostitution and exploitation of women. That song epitomizes their love of highlighting the pain of the continually oppressed and downtrodden. That theme continued in their closer, "A Design for Life," a rousing bar song about the co-opting of the lower class culture in Britain by trendy "lads."

For a few moments after they finished, we stood there mesmerized , letting the experience wash over us. As we walked to the door, Ilya commented, "Richey missed a really good night." "Yeah, he did," I said. After a second, he added, "Unless he was here." Misunderstanding him to be referring to a ghost, I said, "Well, that would be creepy." Looking at me oddly, he said, "If he was in the audience," and I immediately understood what he meant. I think every Manics fan - and the band themselves, of course - know that Richie is dead, but secretly hope that maybe he just ran away from everything and is living happily in disguise. He certainly wouldn't be recognized in Philadelphia. "Yes, maybe he was," I replied, with a sad smile.

We walked out into the lobby, and Ilya looked like he was going to leave. I pointed out that it was still quite early and it was likely the band would be greeting fans, especially with this devoted crowd. If he wanted to get something signed, he could get it from the merchandise table. I already had a signed CD from the last concert, so I was going to try to get a photo. Standing in line, waiting for Ilya to buy the LP, I received some reward for my hard work with a paint pen. For the last concert, inspired by classic Manics DIY shirts, I created a t-shirt with glitter paint that says, "Words are never enough." I used glitter paint specifically because the lyrics following that line are "Only cheap tarnished glitter..." As we stood in line, a lady passing by asked, "Oh, is that from the song?" I said, "Oh yes, I made it myself!" It was a rather odd question to ask - where else would it be from? - but I appreciated that someone did notice it.

We headed to the backstage door the most awkward way possible, down a dodgy fire escape. But our interest paid off - they were there! The bus was parked out back, and little clusters of people were gathered around Nicky and James. Even though Ilya had joked for years that he would kick Nicky in the shins if he ever met him (because of his extremely delayed stated opposition to the Iraq War), it was obvious that wasn't going to happen. He was thrilled as anyone else to have this opportunity. We went over to Nicky first, in his military jacket and matching tight pants, surrounded by a gaggle of girls (and a few guys). He has to be the only cross-dresser considered a sex symbol - he wears it so well. In some ways, he reminds me of Tip from Skin Horse. As we were waiting patiently, two guys next to us kept complaining that the more giggly girls weren't "real fans." I wanted to say something to them but I just rolled my eyes and muttered to Ilya. I hate when people claim others are fakers. Eventually, we got close enough to ask for a photo, and Nicky was so sweet. When I asked, he said, "Of course!" and put his arm around me. How many people can say they've been hugged by their favorite rock star? Just after taking the photo, a car came down the back alley, causing everyone to scatter. Nicky exclaimed, "Manics running wild on the streets of Philadelphia!" He looked so sincerely happy about it all - smiling, taking photos, shaking hands, answering questions (even the personal ones), laughing, signing memorabilia. He was having as good of a time as we were.

Having gotten photos and signatures, we moved on to James. He emanated a bit more rock-star cool, but was still smiling and more than willing to talk to fans. Interestingly, despite being the lead guitarist and singer, he had a slightly smaller crowd than Nicky. I mentioned that I had attended a concert in England and was so glad to see them in America, something I never expected to happen. He nodded, said he was glad we could make it, and posed for the photo. Then there was only Sean, who was nowhere to be found. But I had a plan. Boldly, I asked the manager who was standing in front of the bus (and who a fan was harassing for an autograph) if Sean would be willing to have a photo taken. He said he was in the bus and he would ask. And miracle of miracles, Sean came out! He didn't look quite as enthused as Nicky or James - he's much shyer than either of them - but was willing to pose. Unfortunately, none of the photos came out well because of the lighting. But just having the experience of talking to them and getting the photos taken was worth it.

Having seen everyone, we walked back to the train station. Ilya waited with me until the next train came, and we talked about all sorts of things, including writing. Then, while waiting on the platform, I ended up talking to a fellow fan who was also heading back to DC. I had a lovely conversation with him that kept me awake on the whole ride back.
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Even though I had already seen the Manics in concert, it was a thrill to see them again. The space and the crowd were ideal, intimate without being cramped. Despite the smallness of the crowd, the Manics themselves were enthralling, so full of energy and joy. And experiencing it with Ilya, who introduced them to me, was gratifying. It was, without a doubt, my favorite concert ever.

Photos behind the cut...Collapse )
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    All Manics, all the time
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"Barbara, we're coming to get you!" / "Lisa, you're killing me!"

My high school friends introduced me to the fine art of the bad movie. Ever since the first party I attended with them - Ed's birthday party in 11th grade - I've watched a series of memorably horrible films. Starting with Castle Freak, we viewed everything from City of the Walking Dead ("And the nightmare became reality!") to Dracula 3000 ("I'm a sex bot" - then the spaceship goes boom) and laughed and Mystery-Science-Theatered our way through them. Inspired by these great times, I participated in two things in the past couple months that drew on bad movies for their inspiration.

The first was the Silver Spring Zombie Walk just before Halloween, which I just happened to hear about from a local blog. The basic premise of a zombie walk is that people dress up as zombies, walk through the streets of a city and growl "Braaaainsss!" I dressed up as a punk zombie, with my black-and-pink Hot Topic dress and plenty of green/brown/white makeup. Chris dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, with lots of decaying-looking makeup. We considered creating fake blood with corn syrup and food coloring, but decided against it on the grounds of creating a mess. Christine drove down from Baltimore, and also became zombified with our help.

We all then headed over to the dive-ish bar in Silver Spring where all of the zombies were meeting. We had trouble finding it at first, because there was no sign on the door, just a set of wooden stairs leading down to a basement. Appropriately horror movie. The bar itself actually turned out to be rather charming. Small, with low ceilings, it was decorated with Christmas lights and had a great jutebox, as advertised. It reminded me in some ways - the intimacy, the neighborhood feel, the crampedness - of some of our favorite Oxford pubs. Tonight, the place was absolutely packed with zombies. There were zombie brides with rotting gowns, zombie prom queens covered in blood, several doctor zombies in scrubs, a nattily dressed gentleman zombie, zombies with gaping facial wounds, and many, many others. Once we vacated the bar to actually start the walk, there were even more. There was one particularly clever guy who was collecting signatures for brain donations upon death. Carrying around a clipboard and politely harassing pedestrians, he seemed like a particularly bloody mall survey worker. Perhaps he should work with Lurch for the Cure next year. There were also several little kid zombies, accompanied by zombie parents. Super cute. Chris and I decided that we were certainly going to traumatize our children by dressing them up as zombies and bringing them to the walk if this tradition continues that long.

I spent much of our time at the bar looking for my friend Rebecca, who I met at the National Academies. She is the only person I have ever met who could possibly rival Mark for horror movie fandom. She has pictures of classic movie monsters framed on the walls of her apartment! (They're really cool.) Knowing that she would definitely be into such a thing, I invited her to meet us at the walk. Unfortunately, her and her two friends went to dinner beforehand and I didn't have her cell phone number. While I was looking for her outside, I ended up walking behind a local TV news reporter doing a spot on the walk. Oops. We also watched zombies fake-attack several cars and a fire truck on the way back to the firehouse, which the firefighters didn't seem to think was very funny. Thankfully, the police keeping watch seemed pretty okay with the whole thing, so long as no one did anything obscenely dumb. In our quest to look for Rebecca (and because the other bar was really crowded), we ended up going into the pirate bar across the street. Yes, Silver Spring has a zombie walk and a pirate bar. This town being cheaper than Bethesda isn't the only reason we want to move there. The pirate bar was pretty hilarious - everything was themed, the waiters and waitresses were all dressed as if they walked off of the set with Johnny Depp and the drinks were all quite fruity and involved rum. Unfortunately, the line at the bar there was even worse than at the first bar, so we headed back outside. I'd like to go back for my birthday though.

Finally, the walk was about to begin, with about 400 zombies participating. We found Rebecca (appropriately outfitted in a What To Do in Case of Zombie Attack t-shirt) and friends just before then and so were able to lumber together through downdown Silver Spring. We walked along slowly, with our arms out in front of us, groaning "Braaaaaaaains!" We started squashed together on the sidewalk, but then spread out once we got to the pedestrianized shopping area. On the one corner were guys fake-threatenly wielding baseball bats. I pretended to attack them, then backed off and fake-attacked again when they were distracted. Hilarious. As we passed by the toy store, a lady held a rubber brain above her head, waving it. Naturally, we all gravitated towards her. As the crowd approached, she tucked the brain behind her back, smiled, and shut the door of the store behind her. We all let out a collective groan and moped off. It's amazing how many different emotions one can express through the word "Braaaains...." It was also shocking how many people were gathered to see us. Along the pedestrianized part of the town, there were large crowds on both sides of the walk watching and laughing. I lunged at several people, including some kids who thought the whole thing was the funniest thing they had ever seen. We even went up to the windows of restaurants and growled at those dining inside. It's truly astonishing how completely ridiculous and shameless you can be when you're in costume. It's why I love being in costume - you're outside yourself, you're not held accountable in the same way for being silly, you're a character.

The walk ended at the AMC Classic movie theater, where they were showing Shaun of the Dead. Appropriately, the organizers of the walk were dressed as Shaun (with his cricket bat) and his friend Patrick. While we waited for the movie to begin, we watched a couple of zombies throw a rubber brain around the theater. One particularly athletic zombie at the front of the theater actually took a flying leap for the brain, caught it, and then crashed to the ground. Perhaps there could be a zombie football league? Watching the movie was great too, because everyone booed every time they killed a zombie, in addition to the usual laughs.

The other event we attended wasn't horror-movie themed, but it was definitely bad - a midnight movie showing of perhaps The Worst Drama of All Time, The Room. The Room is a drama written, directed and acted in by Tommy Wiseau. Who is Tommy Wiseau? Hell if anyone knows, apart from this movie. Apparently, he came into a good chunk of change, decided to fulfill his dream of making a movie, rented a billboard on Sunset Boulvard for more than a year, and showed it at Cannes. Unfortunately, for Tommy, he is truly awful at all three of the roles he took on. The script is absolutely nonsensical, the sex scene is one of the least sexy things on earth and is repeated again shot-for-shot later in the movie, the camera is frequently out of focus, the movie randomly changes locations, people wander in and out for no apparent reason, the dialogue is something no one would ever say (and not in a clever way), and it is never clear during the entire movie what room the title is actually referring to. This movie is just indescrible; you really do have to watch it to understand. Between the sheer terribleness and the director's blind faith/self-promotion, this movie has actually become a major cult film. It's better than Rocky Horror because at least Rocky Horror was trying to be funny. We had watched in a couple times with our friends at home, and gloried in its badness. But when I saw they were showing it in an actual movie theater, there was no question we would be attending! Because I knew how much Greg B. loves The Room in a perverse way, we invited Greg and Christine along.

Watching it in the theater was the most entertaining experience I have ever had in a movie theater. (Although the Sing-a-long Sound of Music is up there.) People who had watched the movie many, many more times than we have, had clearly come up with standard responses to certain lines in the movie. During one of the sex scenes, when the main female character says "The candles, the music, the sexy dress," they yelled "What candles? What music? What sexy dress?" Whenever the mother comes on screen, who mentions she has cancer once in the movie and it never mentions it again, we all yelled "Cancer!" On one of the many, many random pans over the Golden Gate Bridge (yes, we get that the movie is supposedly in San Francisco, thank you), we yelled "Go, go, go, go!" and then cheered once it reached the end. And whenever the spoon decorations that are randomly in the background appeared on screen, they threw plastic spoons at the screen - unfortunately, hitting other members of the audience. The only thing that was missing was someone throwing around a football in a tuxedo. Besides the group responses, it was also encouraged to yell random stuff at the screen whenever something particularly stupid happened. I yelled whatever comment popped into my head - it was fabulous! Greg and Christine had an equally good time – Greg said it was one of the most amazing experiences he has ever had.

And the theater manager promised even more. He said that they were going to show it once a month at midnight until Tommy Wiseau actually attended. There's a question and answer with him as an extra on the DVD and watching it, you realize that he has no idea why people enjoy this movie so much. One of the questions is “Should everyone see this movie?” He answers, “No, this movie is not for everyone. But all Americans should see it twice.” What? Although at this point, he does seem to understand that people don't think it's a great drama, because it's advertised on the DVD as a “black comedy.” Currently, he shows up for question and answer sessions during screenings in L.A. Seeing him in person would be truly a treat. I think it might be the one thing that might get Mark to come visit us in D.C.

The culture that's grown up around these films is really fascinating. Later, Rebecca and I were talking about the re-popularizing of zombie films, and thinking that perhaps it was because of our current culture of fear. When it feels like The World is Ending via climate change, terrorism, or that meteorite the Discovery Channel special keeps telling us about, it feels good to watch a movie where the world really is ending and then be able to walk away from it at the end. And zombies have that terrifying absoluteness to them that other threats lack, combined with the personal ability to at least do something about it. As for the really bad ones, I can't exactly pin down what really attracts me to them. The horrifying bad ones are more ridiculous than just plain old Roland Emmerich style popcorn flicks, too much so to be escapist. Mystery Science Theater 3000 is beloved, but much of that is the snarkiness of the puppets, which is lacking when you're watching the films by themselves. Some of it is superiority, the fact that we clearly know more about storytelling and moviemaking than these people, but not all of it. The rest may come from our appreciation for the sheerly absurd. It's the same characteristic that compels us to love Monty Python. When a moviemaker clearly does not mean for that bit to be silly, it comes across as even more patently ridiculous. And then when a lot of people share those same feelings and experiences around the movie, it creates a community of sorts, where there's a shared understanding. Whatever it is, we had a good old time participating in the world of the cult movie.
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The salt, salt smell of the thick sea air / And the smooth round stones that the ebbtides wear - Geo

Cape Cod Vacation

Day Four

The next day, we did the one singular thing that I absolutely wanted to do on this trip - take a whale watch. When I was in third grade, I took a trip to Boston with my mom's school, where we went on a whale watch and saw a huge pod of dolphins jumping alongside the ship on the way back. That same year, we travelled to Homasassa Springs, Florida, where I saw wild manatees face to face with only a small layer of glass separating us. That year, I decided I was going to be a marine biologist in the summer and a famous writer in the winter. Considering that I now do science communication, I think I've gotten almost as close as I can to that dream, even if I would like to spend more time outside. Not bad for a third grade career option. On this trip, I did get to fulfill some of my love for large aquatic mammals, but I also learned that perhaps it's best that I didn't pursue the marine biology part.

My stomach had been bothering me some the entire trip. Because of this, I made sure to buy Drammamine at the little shop next to the whale watching office. Unfortunately, I don't know how much it helped. As soon as we got into deeper water, past the calm waters surrounding the Cape, I felt sick to my stomach. I never thought I was actually going to throw up, but would have gladly if I thought it would help. (It wouldn't, I'm sure.) It didn't help that we were on a rather small boat - better to see whales with - and had some fierce winds. I hoped that perhaps it was the moving forward that was doing me in - it had to improve once we stopped, right? No. No, it did not. When we finally stopped, the wind rocked the boat back and forth so fiercely that you would slide across the deck as it tipped without something to hold on to. Standing on the sides, where there was the best view, was impossible for me because they both kept rocking up and down like some horrible pirate carnival ride. Ugh. To stay in the middle of the boat, I planted myself on the bow, feet wide, leaning up against the top cabin. That way, I had the best views while minimizing the rocking as much as possible.

However, I had about as great of a time as possible, considering my physical state. Thankfully, the rest of the trip didn't disappoint. There were plenty of whales! And we actually saw much more than spouts and backs, as you often do. Several of them got quite close to the boat. Many of them fluked and some raised their flippers, pounding the water. We had several times when there was more than one whale near the boat, swimming around. When that happened, I ran as best as I could from side to side, just to catch a glimpse. My heart raced as I did it, and it wasn't from exercise. I just find them so fascinating and beautiful. I also had a pretty neat conversation about whale biology and what scientists know (not much) and don't know (a lot) with the on-board biologist. If I had to trade feeling sick for seeing whales, I'd still pick the whales.

Here are a couple of the best photos I got:Collapse )
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    TV in the background