Friday, November 28, 2003

Blackout Friday 

I used to love shopping on Black Friday. In fact, it used to be a tradition for me. When I lived in Center City Philadelphia, I would get up very early in the morning and drive to the Northeast to shop at Franklin Mills Mall -- one of the busiest malls imaginable. They bus people into this mall from all over the tri-state area as though it were some sort of theme park. The hoards arrive in comfortable shoes clutching coupon booklets seeking big bargains. The atmosphere is highly charged with the joyous anticipation of finding the perfect gift.

I didn't even care if I needed to buy anything -- I just wanted to be where the action was. I would spend most of the day people watching. (The other half was spent shoe shopping and eating those gigantic buttery pretzals.)

Living in a mall town has changed all that for me. Now I don’t even like to leave the house on Black Friday unless it’s on foot with a dog attached. Where I live, traveling by car on this shopping spree of a day has become treacherous -- and trying to actually buy anything, a test of patience and endurance. Neither of which I seem to have anymore when it comes to shopping.

That's why I got most of my Christmas shopping done last month. Yes, last month. While the rest of the world was buying Halloween candy, I was buying Christmas presents. Even my husband, who does most of his shopping online these days, was impressed. But in these days of accelerated holiday marketing, where Halloween costumes were placed alongside back-to-school must-haves and Christmas decorations are up in the department stores before Halloween, it was the only sane thing I could do.

I must admit it felt good to kick back and relax today instead of joining the fray on the highways and in the malls. I even took a nap.

So my new nickname for the day after Thanksgiving is "Blackout Friday," a day to blot out consumerism and do something creative with that leftover turkey.
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Thursday, November 27, 2003

I Have It Good 

In the spirit of the day, I spent the morning writing a couple of thank you notes to some of the people in my life who I truly appreciate. I wish I'd had time to write a few more, but there was a veggie tray to make and a dog to walk and a Turkey Day wardrobe to plan, and only so much time to relax and cultivate my attitude of gratitude.

When it comes to friends, I have it good. I have people in my life who make me laugh. I have people in my life who share their sorrows and worries with me (but not excessively). I have people in my life who will listen to me worry about something utterly ridiculous and then tell me it will all be OK (and they are right). I have people in my life who act as gentle guiding forces behind my successes. I have people in my life who encourage my creativity. I have people in my life who, just by virtue of being who they are, make me happy when I am around them. When it comes to friends, I have it good.

When it comes to family, I have it good. I have a husband who has always been my best friend and who has, over the years, taught me what true loyalty is all about. I have a Mom I can go out and enjoy a silly chick flick with and who lovingly took me and my brother on an amazing journey to our Norwegian roots this past summer. I have a brother who is one of the most creative people I know, and who constantly encourages me to be better. I have nieces and nephews who are successful and smart and kind. I have in-laws who have become true friends. I have a Dad who sets the gold standard for courage in the face of medical adversity with his great attitude. When it comes to family, I have it good.

I wish I'd had time to write a thank you note to my family doctor -- so many of my friends and family complain about their doctors that I have come to sincerely appreciate mine. My husband and I can always seem to be "fit in" to her schedule, yet we never have to wait more than a few minutes and she never seems to be rushing us out the door. Her receptionist is both efficient AND friendly, managing the doctor's time expertly. From what I can tell, we have it good.

I wish I'd had time to write a thank you note to my gynecologist (as strange as that may sound). But over the years she's given me excellent care and from what I hear from my women friends, this is not always the case. I might have to make my appointments WAY in advance, but when I get there I don't wait long, and my doctor is cheerful, efficient, cautious, and very smart. From what I can tell, I have it good.

Growing up, we always went around the Thanksgiving dinner table right after grace (while the plates were being furiously passed and the gravy being thickly poured) and said something we were grateful for. Sometimes it was a thing, like a new bicycle or home, and sometimes it was something warm and fuzzy, like the joy of being together. Something that I am very grateful for this year is my new showerhead.

While this might sound like a small, insignificant thing, just think of how restorative a really good shower can be! Some might even say it's better than sex. (Not me, of course -- my husband reads this blog. Sometimes. Every now and then. OK, he's read it once that I know of.) In our twenty years together my husband and I have shared a quest to find the perfect showerhead. We have probably spent more than the GNP of a small nation experimenting with various showerheads. In this house alone, where we have lived for slightly less than eight years, we have had at least 5 different showerheads. My husband, who is not exactly a Mr. Fix-It, can install a new showerhead blindfolded while standing on one leg in less than ten minutes.

We finally found THE showerhead. The one that makes you feel like you are on vacation at a really good resort. The one that makes sweating at the gym feel like a distant memory. Sharper Image's Oxygenics Resort Spa Self-Pressurizing Hand-Held Showerhead is amazing. Try it -- you won't be disappointed.

So on this Thanksgiving, I am most grateful for my new showerhead, my friends, and my family. I have it good. Time to hit the shower!
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Wednesday, November 26, 2003

A Thousand Pardons 

Thanksgiving is a great holiday. One that is uniquely American, and totally (well almost) non-commercial in nature. It's also full of great traditions like getting together with family and friends, overeating with great abandon, throwing the ol' pigskin around the yard, and expressing thanks for all that life brings us.

But one of the most ridiculous traditions of the season has got to be the annual Presidential Pardon of the Turkey. According to a Whitehouse press release, here's how it went:

What is the point of this, other than a photo-op for the President? I think this is one traditional that should be shot and stuffed.
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Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Fa la la la la la la la la 

I sing Soprano II in the Choral Society of Montgomery County. The choir meets once each week for three hours in the local community college's auditorium, and we perform two or three times each semester. We performed at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia last spring, and will be there again this coming spring. Peter Nero and the Philly Pops invited us to sing with them the last two holiday seasons, but we have had to decline both times because of other commitments. Next summer the group will be touring Germany.

Singing in this type of group is a lot of fun (most of the time) and a lot of work (all of the time). In addition to our weekly rehearsals, the advanced choral music we learn requires time spent practicing on our own, plus we have at least one or more dress rehearsals for each concert. We even manage to fit in one or two performances at local retirement centers each season.

And then there are the choir politics and personalities to deal with. If you've ever been in a choir you know that Soprano I's are haughty, Altos are peculiar, Tenors are tenacious, and Basses are jocular. (Soprano II's are perfect, of course, with no outstanding personality issues whatsoever.)

In a choir, where you stand is a BIG DEAL. The front row is the most prized location. Miss a rehearsal and you will surely be standing in the middle of the pack, buried behind tall, haughty sopranos wearing platform shoes. I used to buy into the whole “front row as Mecca” idea until I realized that when you stand in the back row you don’t have anybody singing in your ear, so for me, the back is the new front. (If you get that, you must also know that this season, brown is the new black.)

For those of you who enjoy choral music, our upcoming schedule follows:

Holiday Concert with Bravo Brass
Saturday, December 13, 2003 8:00PM
Program: Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf BWV 226 by Johann Sebastian Bach, Christmas Cantata by Daniel Pinkham, and lots of Christmas music.
Tickets: $16.00 General Admission; $14 Students and Senior Citizens; $10 Children under 12
Call 215-641-6518

Holiday Benefit Concert
With the Philadelphia Young Artists Orchestra
and the Upper Darby High School Encore Singers

Saturday, December 20, 2003 8:00PM
St. Mark’s Church, 1625 Locust St., Philadelphia, PA
Admission is free; but this is a benefit concert for MANNA.
Call 215-563-7308

Come hear us sing and get in the mood for the holidays!
    NOTE: Due to a heavy rehearsal schedule, not to mention Christmas shopping, wrapping, decorating, and baking, I will be taking a break from publishing my blog every single day. For you faithful readers who will pitch a freakin' fit over this, I say "Fear Not!" Muse willing, I promise to publish at least three times a week, despite my backbreaking load of a personal life plus a little work thrown in. Presumably I will return to my daily publishing schedule after the holidays (minus Sunday, of course, due to local blue laws).

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Monday, November 24, 2003

The Exhausting Element of Surprise 

If you've ever tried to put together even a small surprise gathering for somebody, then you are intimately familiar with Sir Walter Scott's famous quotation "Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!" And if you add fuel to the fire by attempting to surprise somebody with an entire vacation, you will surely tell enough lies to send you straight to hell in a hand basket.

Over the past few months I have told my very-soon-to-be-forty-year-old husband a veritable landslide of lies ... a mountain of mendacities ... a whole heap of whoppers ... a -- well, I'm sure you get the picture. On top of that, I managed to coerce family members and friends to fib right along with me. (Happy Birthday, Darling, we've all been talking behind your back and lying to you for months!)

All for the element of surprise.

Thank God I can leave my life of lies behind me now! An intimate dinner party at a local restaurant was held last night and my husband is greatly anticipating his fast-approaching surprise birthday vacation to the hot hot hot sand of South Beach. My pulse has returned (somewhat) to normal, and I even remembered to eat today. (I completely forgot to eat yesterday, which made me very receptive to the Chianti, but not so responsive to figuring out the check!)

As exciting as it was, I am grateful that my feast of fabricated falsehoods, fibs, and farfetched fairytales has come to an end. (Along with my over-indulgence of alliteration, you will be happy to note.) I don't think my heart could have taken another day of the stress.

I have always been attracted to the element of surprise. One April Fool's Day when I was around six years old, my mother covertly watched me as I filled a bucket with water and, using a chair, managed to balance the bucket on my brother's slightly ajar bedroom door. Eight years older than me, he was due home from school any moment. Luckily, the potential disaster was prevented when my mother somehow alerted my brother to the nasty trick when I wasn't watching. A ride to the hospital would have been inevitable since the galvanized steel bucket was very heavy, not to mention rusty.

All for the element of surprise.

I will never lie again. (Unless, of course, you count this one.)
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Saturday, November 22, 2003

A Vine Celebration 

This past Thursday marked the official release of this year’s fresh-off-the-vine Beaujolais Nouveau. I look forward to this day every year, so I celebrated last night by enjoying a bottle with my husband and friends (OK, two, and I have the headache to prove it).

I know that most of the time people talk about wines and the aging process as though they were speaking of the Holy Grail. But I like my wines fresh and fruity and bursting with flavor. I prefer wine that doesn’t attack my mouth with spice or dry it up like an old sock (or taste like one, either). And it’s not that I don’t have a refined palate or can’t appreciate wine complexities; I’ve been to lots of wine tastings and I know my Merlot from my Cabernets. I just have a thing for Beaujolais Nouveau. Besides its drinkability (some say gulpability), part of its attraction for me is its history.

A couple of thousand years ago, Beaujolais Nouveau was the sole province of the indentured grape pickers – their end of the season reward for all of that backbreaking labor in the vineyards gathering grapes for the rich people’s wine. In fact, the wine’s original name was “Servia Potio,” or “Slaves Drink.” I can just imagine the party that took place.

Beaujolais Nouveau gets its name from a town named Beaujeu, located in the southern region of Burgundy, France. The wine, made from Gamay grapes harvested only three months ago and pressed after only three days, can be produced by only a hundred or so wine communes who have the right to use the name “Beaujolais Nouveau.” Beaujolais Nouveau is “released” with much fanfare in France at exactly midnight on the third Thursday in November each year.

Apparently this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau is supposed to be the vintage of the decade, and is causing quite frenzy overseas. According to CNN, in Tokyo, where the wine went on sale at 9 a.m. (their time) November 20th, hoards of people stormed the local department stores to get a taste and buy it by the case. (In fact, Japan is the largest importer of Beaujolais Nouveau in the world, second only to Germany.) In Korea, over a half-million bottles were flown in for the official release!

According to local Beaujeu lore, Beaujolais Nouveau must be drunk before Christmas. Guess I better get back to it!
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Friday, November 21, 2003

Friday Five: Take Five 

  1. List five things you'd like to accomplish by the end of the year.
    • Pay off my Christmas shopping bills.
    • Send out a dozen query letters to magazines.
    • Get in a regular habit of going to the gym three times a week.
    • Spend some quality time with my nieces and nephews.
    • Unclutter my office.

  2. List five people you've lost contact with that you'd like to hear from again.
    • Dr. Queeney, my college English professor.
    • Kristy Posey, a friend I met on Semester at Sea in the Fall of 1980. I've looked, and I can't find her anywhere.
    • My Grandma Anna
    • My Grandpa John
    • My Aunt Vivian

  3. List five things you'd like to learn how to do.
    • Become an expert with Macromedia Studio MX.
    • Thread my serger in under ten minutes.
    • Speak fluent Norwegian.
    • Sew well enough to not throw projects across the room when I get frustrated.
    • Think before I speak.

  4. List five things you'd do if you won the lottery (no limit).
    • Hire very smart people to invest wisely for me so I would always have plenty of money.
    • Buy a home on the ResidenSea and never stop traveling the world.
    • Pay off all of my family's and friend's mortgages, college loans, and all other bills and create generous college and/or trust funds for my nieces and nephews.
    • Buy a villa in Italy with lots of land near a tiny village with really good restaurants.
    • Give back, somehow.

  5. List five things you do that help you relax.
    • Soak in the hot tub.
    • Walk.
    • Eat.
    • Get a massage.
    • Read.

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Thursday, November 20, 2003

Gutter Ball 

I grew up in a bowling alley.

Maybe that is a small exaggeration, but I did spend many of my formative years in one. My mother managed the local 32-lane bowling alley for almost 20 years. Some 18+ retired years later people still approach her in the grocery store, asking if she was the "bowling lady." Somehow she remembers every one of them, along with their brothers, sisters, parents and best friends. It wouldn't surprise me if she remembered some of their rental shoe sizes.

Despite having such strong roots in bowling, it was a surprise even to me that I actually tuned into the PBA Greater Philadelphia Open this past Sunday. Growing up, the television was on for every single bowling event being broadcast. On the torture scale of things, it wasn't as bad as watching golf, but it was up there. With only one TV in the house, televised bowling is probably one of the main reasons why I am able to focus on reading despite a TV blaring in the background.

I tuned in this past Sunday for three reasons: 1) my Mother reminded me to, 2) an old friend was bowling in the tournament, and 3) my husband decreed that I had to remain in the house to get over whatever it was that I was under the weather with last week. So I was bored. Bored enough to watch a little bowling on television. Very little.

Currently ranked 26th this season (not so good), Parker Bohn III cut his teeth bowling at the same lanes I grew up in. He was a few years younger than me, but light years ahead of most kids his age when it came to his passion for bowling. I think he spent almost as much time at the bowling alley as I did when we were growing up. His parents were bowlers, too, and they were friends with my parents, so we ran into each other a lot. My mother helped nurture his passion for bowling, as she did for most of the young people there, and they've remained friends over the years.

Parker has won over 29 PBA Tour Titles over the span of his career (very, very good), and so far this year has earned close to $90,000 bowling. (That sounds high, but not when you compare it to his 1999 bowling income of $232,500.) Typically, he has a bowling average of around 220. Unfortunately, he wasn't "on" this past weekend, and you could see it in his disappointed face. It was tough to watch him roll a first game of only 166 (especially remembering that was once my own average). My mother was heartbroken and insists that she will never tune in again when he's bowling because she's afraid she jinxes him!

Televised PBA events have changed a lot since I was a kid. The cameras get so up close and personal with the bowlers, it's kind of disturbing. Who wants to see bowlers' nose hairs? And the sound seems so invasive -- you can hear the guys breathing and muttering under their breath. Bowling fashion has changed as well. Erik Forkel, who was in the match against Parker, bowled wearing dark Wayfarer sunglasses -- he's like the Fonz of bowling, minus the hair.
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Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Time's Coolest Invention of the Year 

Time Magazine recently named the iTunes Music Store the "Coolest Invention of 2003".

This comes as no surprise to me, since my iPod and I remain inseparable (2701 songs and counting), and I’ve had to institute a monthly cap on my iTunes spending sprees. (See my "What’s On YOUR iPod" blog from 9/15/03.)

But the announcement did make me curious about what other things Time has designated as "cool" in the past couple of years.

In 2002 a few things got the Cool nod from Time, the strangest of which (to me, anyhow), being freeze-dried tomato juice containing a strain of E coli bacterium. (Yes, the same E. coli known to cause violent diarrhea and death.) An Arizona State University biologist named Charles Arntzen had been working for years to create this potent juice mix. Drinking a glass of the reconstituted juice apparently acts as a vaccine against E. coli by priming the immune system to recognize and fight off the real thing. While I don't know that I would call this exactly "cool," I do understand the potential for greater use in third world diarrhea-prone countries.

Also getting the Cool vote in 2002 were Cool Mint Listerine PocketPaks. Apparently over 100 million of these things were sold the first year they came out. Personally, I think the little suckers are revolting, but I will admit to their being handy. The thin little melt away strips never fail to get stuck on the roof of my mouth (no matter how hard I try to keep it on my tongue) and I find that sticky sensation maddening. Luckily, it only lasts a few seconds. The strips are handy, though because they do seem to offer a breath-freshening (although bracing) punch.

Birth control devices got voted into Time’s Cool Inventions list in both of the previous two years. In 2001, NuvaRing (a thin flexible plastic ring that women insert like a diaphragm once a month) was highlighted, and in 2002 OrthoEvra (It's a thin patch about the size of a matchbook needs to be changed weekly) was featured.

Who knew birth control was considered cool?

Japanese toymaker Takara’s invention, Bowlingual also won the Cool designation from Time last year. This silly little thing is supposed to help you communicate with your dog. I am all for communicating with my dog (CALM DOWN ALREADY!), but somehow I don’t think that attaching a radio microphone to his collar and checking the readout on a handheld receiver is going to help me figure out what he really wants. Besides…I already know what he wants: a cookie. It’s that simple. No radio frequencies necessary.

Despite Time's failure (in my eyes) to recognize COOL in previous years, I think they came up with a winner this year. I can think of nothing more cool than my iTunes/iPod combo.
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Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Insomnia is My Friend 

Insomnia and I go way, way back.

I think I was around thirty years old when we first met, but I don't believe we got really chummy until my forties. Since then we've shared a rock-solid, devoted relationship. Wasn't it Woody Allen who said "Love is to suffer."? That is the kind of beautiful bond I have with Insomnia.

But I digress.

As I write this, it's 5:30 in the morning. Insomnia's siren call gently nudged me out of bed about an hour ago. Thank goodness, too! I'd been sleeping since 2 a.m., and Lord knows I wouldn't have wanted to overdo it.

Who needs sleep, anyhow? It's highly overrated. Having a well-rested body, along with all that clear thinking, safe driving, and competent decision-making could only lead me down some dissolute path, I'm sure. And just think of all the nightmares I am avoiding by embracing Insomnia instead of resisting her advances. (No more giant armadillos breaking into MY house in the middle of the night!) And to put the head on my beer (cream on my yogurt?), my creativity never fails to soar after a night in Insomnia's loving arms.

Like any writer, I keep a notebook and pen next to my bed for those frequent nighttime flashes of brilliance. When Insomnia visits, I will often discover sweet little inspirational love notes left behind in my notebook. A couple of weeks ago I found an entire sonnet titled "Ode to Insomnia." I would reprint it here, but it didn't make a whole lot of sense, nor did it seem to follow true sonnet form. (The iambic pentameter was a dead giveaway.)

A few months ago, right before hitting the hay, I read an exhaustive article in Philadelphia Magazine about restaurateur Neil Stein. After a decade long hold as Sovereign the of Philadelphia restaurant scene, all of his restaurants (mostly fancy seafood joints) are failing miserably, and he's gone into bankruptcy. (Apparently he's a real wiseass, too, and not very likeable from what the article said.)

That morning, when I peeked in my notebook, I came across an entire board game that I'd apparently designed in the middle of the night. It was called "Find Neil Stein's Money."

I'd even drawn out the board itself. It was in the shape of a fish, and I'd put in the start and finish boxes, and even written most of the individual square contents. The goal of the game was to find out where Neil Stein lost his money, and win it for yourself.

I am finally getting sleepy now -- figures -- the sun is up.

Insomnia is my friend. And with a friend like that, who needs Ambien?
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Monday, November 17, 2003

Dear Santa, 

Forget the lavender body lotion, forget the warm sweater, and forget the fancy kitchen doodad, here’s what I REALLY want for Christmas:
And that’s all I really want for Christmas.
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Sunday, November 16, 2003

My Own Blog Blue Law 

When I was growing up in New Jersey in the 60's and 70's we had these "Blue Laws" designed to make Sunday’s more relaxing (at least that is how I look at them now). There were bans on all sorts of activities, like buying booze or cars, going to the movies (at least that's what my parents told me), and other retail shopping. I remember when I worked as a cashier in the local Pathmark grocery store that the soft goods section of the store was blocked off on Sundays, as we were not permitted to sell those items. I believe the ban included stuff like cosmetics and OTC medicines, socks, and maybe hardware.

I don't think any of those laws are still in effect any more, but I’ve decided to institute a Sunday Blue Law of my own by making Sunday a no-blogging day. My original goal when I started this column was to blog for thirty days straight, and I have now more than doubled that. I have been having fun and getting positive [mostly] feedback from readers. So I am feeling pretty good about the whole adventure. I think I’ve earned a weekly day off.

That doesn't mean I will never ever blog again on a Sunday, after all Blue Laws were designed to be broken, weren't they? But from now on I will be taking Sundays off. I may also decide to take Saturdays off as well...

Have you ever wondered where the term "blue laws" originated? Writing about this today got me to thinking about it, so if you are curious too, here are some links that I dug up:

Reader's Companion to American History

Snopes Urban Legend Page
According to Snopes, the whole theory that Blue Laws got their name from the color paper they were printed on is false.

While researching this topic, I also stumbled across a related topic: have you ever wondered why adult films are referred to as “blue” movies? It stems from the term “blue laws!” You can read more about that here at the Ask Yahoo page.

Happy Sunday!
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Saturday, November 15, 2003

Why I Love My Mac More Than My PC 

In addition to being "under the weather" this week, I have had the added joy of experiencing major computer snafus with my Windows 98 PC.

geekygURL that I rightfully claim to be, I am not a "hardware person" when it comes to Windows PCs, and I don't think I ever will be. I cut my hardware chops on a Macintosh, and I have never been able to come to grips with why the Windows operating system has to be so freakin' complicated. The whole idea of the Windows Registry just gives me a headache. It's not that I haven't tried to get better with PCs, I just think that part of my brain is wired differently -- the Apple way.

My PC was having trouble shutting down, having trouble starting up (Safe Mode was becoming my friend), wasn't playing any sound, and couldn't connect to my printer. Sigh. Despite several hours on the phone with Gateway this week, I could not get things running right. (With the exception of the sound -- I did get that back.)

So I finally decided to farm out the troubleshooting work, and went to a local PC guy. (Actually, he was nice enough to come to my home office and pick up the computer, which was great since I still wasn't feeling too hot.) He returned it the next day, having backed up my data files, upgraded the operating system to Windows XP professional, tripling the RAM, and put in a new 60G hard drive and a CDR drive (I'd previously had read-only capabilities). I felt like I was getting a reborn computer, and the cost was reasonable.

However, I am still having a couple of problems -- most notably with the absence of any sound. I also can't sync my Palm, despite having downloaded the new software. And there are some software issues I need to iron out. Sigh. I am sure I will figure it out eventually (or the PC guy will help me).

I have rarely ever had these types of problems with my Macintosh.

But for now, at least I am back up and running (mostly).
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Friday, November 14, 2003

The Friday Five (Adjectives) 

Oooh goody, the Friday Five for this week has been posted! This week's questions are very short, thank God -- because I am still under the weather and not feeling like an extended stay at the keyboard!

1. Using one adjective, describe your current living space.

2. Using two adjectives, describe your current employer.

3. Using three adjectives, describe your favorite hobby/pastime.

4. Using four adjectives, describe your typical day.

5. Using five adjectives, describe your ideal life.

Geez -- this wasn't as easy as I thought it would be!

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Thursday, November 13, 2003

Under the Weather 

Woke up this morning feeling really crappy. Fever...sore throat. Yuck.

There is nothing like feeling under the weather to make me appreciate my normally good health.

Did you ever wonder where the term "under the weather" comes from?

The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson had this to say on the matter:

Salty Dog Talk: The Nautical Origins of Everyday Expressions by Bill Beavis and Richard G. McCloskey had this to say about the phrase:

'Nuff said...back to bed.
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Wednesday, November 12, 2003

One Year Off from Exercise 

Outta shape, outta my mind – what was I thinking?

I used to be a bit of a gym rat. I took step classes and high-low aerobic classes, participated in all-day charity workout events, did the weight machine circuit, and even tried racquetball, spinning, and kickboxing. In fact, at one point in my gym-nauseum, I had totally convinced myself that it was just easier to go to the gym every single day. I was in decent shape.

But then I started walking to support breast cancer causes and I quit the gym. Just went cold turkey one cold February day. I had committed to doing the Avon 3-day, 60-mile walk for breast cancer, and as such, I needed lots of time to practice walking – way more time than I’d figured on, actually. So, beginning with pink-cheeked February 3-mile jaunts to sweat-infused August 16-mile marches, I walked.

It was fun, despite July and August’s insistence on nothing but heat and humidity. I met some pleasant people, saw lots of early-morning critters, battered my cellulite into submission, and had excellent muscle tone. I raised just over $7300 for the event (over 10 million combined with my fellow walkers), camped in 33-degree temperatures, showered in trucks and peed in way too many porta-potties. It was a great experience, so I promptly signed up to do it again, thereby successfully avoiding the gym for yet another year of walking.

Training for the second event was a bear. Been there, done that. Yawn. There’s only so much getting up at 5:30 a.m. on the weekends and walking for 4-7 hours a body (or a spouse) can take. My walking buddies had changed, and when you spend that much time walking with people, you’d better like them. A lot. It was more difficult to raise money because I had to hit up the same people I did the previous year. So, all along I was just not that “into it.” But I did it anyhow, always keeping in ming the charitable reason behind all the energy being expended.

Then, disaster struck the very first day of the walk: 3000+ walkers spent from 5:30 in the morning to 3:30 in the afternoon in the steady, chilly, NY October rain. We overtaxed the county’s emergency services to such a degree that the remaining two days of the walk had to be cancelled for our own safety.

While hundreds of walkers surrounding me in the food tent were hugging and crying over the cancellation, I was experiencing a totally different set of emotions.

I was never so relieved in my life.

Yes, I was disappointed. But relief was my overriding emotion. I don’t think I have ever felt more miserable in my life than that day. Even my underwear was soaked and wet. I was shivering from the cold despite the two space blankets I had wrapped around me. The campgrounds were a muddy, mucky mess. I lessened my disappointment by reminding myself that the point of the walk was to raise money to support breast cancer causes, and we’d accomplished that (over 7 million dollars worth that year). But the truth was that I never before wanted to be home in my own bed so badly in all of my life.

It was such a bad experience that year that I decided not to sign up for the next year. I also put off returning to the gym, or doing any other activity that could possibly be even remotely recognized as exercise for an entire year.

I don’t recommend it.

I have recently returned to step classes, and wow…am I out of shape. My get-up-and-go has all but left the building. It’s a struggle not only to keep up with the choreography but also just to catch my breath! Where I used to take great pleasure in “taking it up a notch” by kicking higher and adding bounces, I now have to settle for pride in simply making it through the class. Even the abdominal portion of the class has become abject terror for me. I never knew my face could get that red.

But I have confidence that it will get easier with time. I will get stronger. Breathing and bouncing will become effortless (OK, maybe that's stretching it a bit). I will soon be able to cha-cha, do a 6-step mambo, and a full reverse with the best of them. And hopefully, I will no longer avert my eyes in embarrassment from my instructor during abs work.
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Tuesday, November 11, 2003

The Friday Five 

OK, The Tuesday Five
The Friday Five is a meme/blog has been around for about two years. Every Friday, a list of really important Earth-shattering questions is posted on the website and hundreds of bloggers from all over the world answer the questions within their own blog. So basically, it's a blog to stimulate bloggers into blogging. Gotta love that.

And yes, I know it's Tuesday. But I liked last week's questions, so I am posting my answers even though it's not Friday.

1. What food do you like that most people hate?
Pasta Puttanesca.

2. What food do you hate that most people love?
Breakfast cereal.

3. What famous person, whom many people may find attractive, is most unappealing to you?
Peirce Brosnan.

4. What famous person, whom many people may find unappealing, do you find attractive?
Harvey Keitel.

5. What popular trend baffles you?
Parent's reluctance to say no to their children.

Oops, guess I got a little carried away...sorry 'bout that.

Geez, I can't wait until THIS Friday's questions.
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Monday, November 10, 2003

Real Simple = Real Silly 

I apologize in advance to all of this magazine's rabid fans out there (and you know who you are), but I think Real Simple Magazine is just plain silly.

OK, I admit it, I do not actually subscribe to the gorgeously glossy magazine itself, but thanks to America Online’s partnership with Time (the publishing entity behind Real Simple), I get to read witty excerpts from the magazine each day on my AOL Welcome page. In fact, I actually chose to add these comments to my Welcome page when I customized it upon upgrading to AOL 9. Silly me.

Whenever I get around to reading these excerpts, I am almost always struck by the sheer vapidity of the advice they contain. Today's article on “10 Surprise Uses for Your Microwave” (subtitled “Make the most of this versatile kitchen appliance”) made me laugh out loud. Can “Cook Your Vegetables” and “Decrystallize Honey” really qualify as “surprise” uses for your microwave? How about “Soften Brown Sugar” or “Partially Cook Foods for the Grill?” Isn't this what a microwave is for? Am I the only one who read the manual?

I can only imagine the author’s original query letter pitching the article to the editor:

How lowbrow will this magazine go? I think I am going to pitch a few article ideas to them myself:

OK, obviously I remembered to take me sarcasm pill this morning. And since I have now guaranteed that Real Simple Magazine will never hire me as a writer, I simply must go read their article on “How to Load a Dishwasher.” (And no, I did not make this title up.)
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Sunday, November 09, 2003

RSS = NQSSS, Part 7 

(Really Simple Syndication = Not Quite So Simple Syndication)

A Better RSS Validator

It's a geekygURL's prerogative to change her mind.

In Part 4 of my continuing serious of articles about RSS, I strongly suggested that you validate your RSS code on a regular basis. So, taking my own advice, that is exactly what I did this morning.

Only my RSS wouldn't validate. And the UserLand Validator that I'd previously suggested was no help at all in trying to figure out why my file would not validate. It did tell me that I had an unclosed ITEM tag, and the approximate character number the error occurred out. But the character number was something like 10765 -- way too high a number to allow for finding the error by counting the characters. (In the site's own defense, it DOES tell you that its error results will be vague. Go figure.)

After trying to parse the code with my own eyes, a process that was not only time consuming, but a true waste of a precious Sunday afternoon hour, I finally decided to -- insert big DUH here -- see if there was another validator out there somewhere that might be more helpful.

Mark Pilgrim and Sam Ruby's Feed Validator was just the answer. It was able to tell me exactly where my problem was by showing me the contents of the actual line. So all I had to do was use my text editor's Find command to locate the line in the file. Turns out it was not even an unclosed ITEM tag, but simply a misplaced angle bracket that had occurred as a results of copying and pasting.


Another RSS lesson learned.

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Saturday, November 08, 2003

Blinded by the Moon 

Were you there? Did you see it? Everybody who's anybody was there...the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, and the Earth...

My husband and I just got in from watching tonight's Total Lunar Eclipse from the back yard. Eclipses happen when the Moon and Earth fall into line with each other and the Sun. In tonight's case, the Earth moved into a direct line between the Moon and the Sun, stopping all light from reaching the Moon, hence the 20 minute (or so) blackout. Very cool.

My cheeks are rosy and my fingers are typing rather stiffly thanks to the frosty temperatures. My husband's telescope let us get up close and personal with the Sea of Crisis (AKA as the Man in the Moon's right eye) and Tycho (the youngest crater visible to the eye -- a mere babe at 190 million years old). I didn't know these facts a mere two hours ago, but thanks to decent Internet search techniques, I was able to find a great map of the Moon to quench our curiosity with.

The Moon through the telescope was so bright I felt temporarily blinded each time I stepped away from the lens. The non-eclipsed portion of the Moon looked as though it had an electric blue halo surrounding it. I thought I was imagining things, but my husband said he could see it too. Just before the Moon was almost totally eclipsed (a few minutes after 8, here) it seemed to turn reddish brown to the naked eye. I read that this has something to do with the total effect of clouds and haze elsewhere around the globe.

I also read that there are a loads of legends associated with eclipses. In Tahiti, for instance, eclipses have been interpreted as the lovemaking of the Sun and Moon. (How sexy is that? All that heat!) In India, however, eclipses are considered inauspicious and people are conditioned to believe that sexual encounters will end in disaster.

Think about it: a Lunar Eclipse always occurs at night (duh), during a Full Moon, and eclipses -- just like lovers -- always occur in pairs. A Lunar Eclipse takes place two weeks before or two weeks after a Solar Eclipse. (In this case, the Solar Eclipse is coming up two weeks after, on November 23rd, so if you missed it this time around, mark your calendar.) Maybe it is this coupled combination that romanticizes the event.

Works for me!

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Friday, November 07, 2003

Alma De Cuba Es Excepcional 

What an amazing dinner I had tonight – one of those rare fine dining experiences where everything comes together just right. My husband and I, along with our dearest friends, went to Alma De Cuba (1632 Walnut Street, Philadelphia). From start to finish, it was exceptional. I’d eaten there with a friend once before, so I had an idea of what to expect, but it’s always a pleasure when a restaurant is consistent.

The space itself captures the spirit of what I imagine Cuba could be and perhaps was once. All three floors of the restaurant radiate a rich red sexy aura. The lounge on the first floor has a captivating bar faced with a multi-colored red glass mosaic that seems to glow from within – it’s hard to take your eyes away from it, no matter who you are dining with! Instead of framed artwork on the lounge walls, black and white photographs are projected onto the whitewashed walls; the effect is mesmerizing. The second and third floor dining rooms have dark mahogany floors and glowing candles on every table. The back room of the third floor, where we were seated, is surrounded by light boxes that project a breathtaking panoramic image of tented tobacco fields.

Best of all, the service was way above par (especially for Philadelphia) and the food was both different and delicious.

Our friends loved their shared appetizer: Paella Ceviche Mixto, which was a mix of seafood served in a pale yellow saffron-lobster sauce. If you’ve never had a ceviche before, it is a variety of seafood (in this case calamari, octopus, shrimp, scallops, and mussels) that is “cooked” by marinating it in lime (or sometimes another acidic citrus fruit, such as lemon). In other words, it’s not sushi, but it hasn't been cooked traditionally, either; the effect is very fresh tasting, silky fish. The portion was a good size and easily shared by two wee Scottish folk.

My husband chose Anticuchos for his appetizer and was obviously quite happy with it, as he never even offered me a morsel until all that was left was the sauce! So, while I cannot speak from personal experience, I can tell you that it consisted of three different meats on skewers (one each of beef, chicken and chorizo, which is a spicy sausage). The beef was cooked in a chimichurri sauce, the chicken had a Cuban-style barbeque sauce called Panca on it, and all three skewers were presented in an ultra-cool martini-style glass, with a sauce the menu called “papas a la huancaina” (potato puree spiked with chilis and perhaps queso fresco) in the bottom.

I thoroughly enjoyed a Mojito Martini, a delicious cocktail consisting of mint soaked rum with limejuice served straight up and ice cold. I also got to sample a Mojito Classico that our server mistakenly brought me (but graciously left behind for sampling) – it was good, but very sweet with an overwhelming syrupy mint flavor. I preferred the Martini.

Throughout our meal, the service was flawless. Our server was well versed in describing the food, wine, and cocktails and gave excellent suggestions throughout the meal. We were never without water or clean silverware, and every time one of us got up to use the restroom, we returned to the table to find that our napkin had been refolded and placed beside our plate. Crumbs were removed between every course. (And we all liked the wonderful thick, soft disposable guest towels in the restrooms!)

For my entrée, my girlfriend and I both took the server’s advice and tried the Beef Tenderloin. We were very happy. The presentation alone was gorgeous (a butterflied sirloin served atop perfectly grilled asparagus), but what was really special was how tender the beef was and how perfectly the spicy crab dressing and ancho basil chimichurri went with it. Both of us enjoyed every mouthful, as was evidenced by our bare plates at the end of the meal.

My friend’s husband tried the Duck Combo. This dish consisted of marinated Muscovy breast served over a watercress salad with an almond flatbread served on the side. The server suggested that the duck was best served medium (instead of medium well, as first requested) and once again, her advice was good.

In my opinion, my husband ordered the best entrée of the evening (I always want what’s on his plate, no matter how happy I am with my own): Lechon Asado. This was crisply roasted pork with a sour orange mojo sauce (I tasted garlic and cumin along with the bright flavor of the sour orange), served with rice and beans and sweet plantains. The last time I’d eaten here, the presentation for this dish was in a gigantic bowl, which made the dish seem less special and more like a casserole. They have since changed the presentation, with the generous serving of pork and plantains separate on the plate and the rice and beans elevated in a small oval dish – much nicer.

I couldn’t resist a Café Cubano at the end of the meal – I am enamored with this pre-sweetened, rich espresso drink. I always get the decaf and it’s always delicious. (Despite it being decaffeinated, I suspect it’s helping me stay up late to write this review!) We also split two desserts. The Creamy Old-Fashioned Tapioca Pudding was served ice cold (just the way my husband likes it) in a fresh coconut alongside of chewy oatmeal guava bars. What I really like about this dessert is that they use the large tapioca pearls, which gives it a great texture. We also tried the nights’ dessert special: a dangerously rich chocolate torte with a melted dulce de leche (caramel) layer topped by a smooth chocolate ganache. Unbelievable; thank goodness the four of us shared two desserts!

As far as the cost, nobody in their right mind would consider it inexpensive, but at $300 for dinner, a bottle of wine, a couple of cocktails, coffee, and dessert, and the amazingly fine service, the experience was worth every penny.

Can’t wait to go again.
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Thursday, November 06, 2003

The Red Suit Diary 

Everyone has defining moments in his or her life. One of mine happened many years ago when I was working at a design/printing company. It was autumn of 1984 and I had just been promoted to the manager of the company's typesetting department. This being my first real job after college, I went out and bought a new suit to celebrate my raise in pay and world status. It was a bright red skirt with a single-breasted jacket that fit me just right and made me feel both professional and pretty. I even found pumps the exact same shade of red.

Feeling pretty was not easy for me. I'd graduated only a year or so before with a BA in Pasta and Cookies and a minor in Beer and Potato Chips (some people work their way through college -- I ate my way through college) Athough I'd since lost my freshman 15, sophomore 6, and senioritis 7, the skewed self-image remained (as did the unmentionable junior year poundage). So it was nice to put on a new suit and feel great.

The Monday morning that I wore my new suit for the first time was a magnificent September day; the sun seemed to be shining a little bit brighter than usual, the birds were providing standing ovation performances, and the dazzling fall leaves were cha-chaing in the breeze. Getting to work early to begin a new project, I parked in my favorite shady spot on the far side of the empty parking lot opposite my building. I was practically giddy with happiness about my new suit and the bouncy step in my stride probably showed it.

As I made my way across the parking lot, I noticed a homeless women with a shopping cart coming towards me. She was old and dirty and pushing her cart along very slowly. From what I could see, the cart was full of filthy blankets, dirty coffee cups, and rags. I considered pretending that I'd forgotten something so I could return to my car and avoid having to pass her or even look at her, but at the last second I didn't.

As we walked closer to each other, she stopped suddenly and gazed at me, giving me a full once-over. She smiled a craggy, broken-tooth smile, and looking me right in the eye, said, "My, don't you look pretty today?" Slowing my pace momentarily, I looked into her sparkling mocha-flecked eyes. "Thank you," I sputtered, returning her smile and feeling a little bit like I'd just been blessed by the Pope. Then she went her way and I went mine.

And I haven't been the same since.

That morning as I went about my work, I gave myself a talking-to. I saw what a critical, judgmental person I could be sometimes and vowed to get better about it. It seemed as though I was constantly scanning people and assigning labels to them: fat, bony, wrinkly, ugly, etc. Very little of my subtext was positive; probably because of my own self image issues. Not a nice thing to recognize about yourself. I was truly horrified that when I spotted the woman, I'd actually tried to plot a way to avoid her. Instead, she ended up making my day and changing my life.

A transformation of this kind was not going to be easy, so I made a game out of it. From that day forward, I challenged myself to look at people in a new light. To mindfully practice focusing on the positive and being blind to the negative. This shift in focus could be something as simple as as noticing how nicely a person's scarf accented her hair, or detecting the love in a father's voice as he comforted his child, or even just appreciating somebody's craggy, broken-tooth smile, sparkling mocha-flecked eyes, and kind words.
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Wednesday, November 05, 2003

RSS = NQSSS, Part 6 

(Really Simple Syndication = Not Quite So Simple Syndication)

Seven RSS Resources You Shouldn't Miss

I have been getting good response to my series of articles on RSS (Really Simple Syndication). As such I thought I would share my seven favorite resources with you.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Vetting Out the Vote 

In the middle of casting my vote for local government offices today I realized that I mostly vote against individuals instead of for their opponents. Unfortunately, I guess I look at it as choosing between the lesser of two evils. Perhaps it's the era I grew up in with its preponderance of negative campaigns and their constant airing of dirty laundry. It always seems that by the time it comes to Election Day, I end up disliking everybody who's running, and voting for whoever I find less distasteful.

But at least I do vote.

I have never been fully comfortable with this responsibility, but I try to take it seriously. I read the voters guides, I show up, I push the buttons. I accept the consequences.

Yet, I am still a little uncomfortable with voting. Part of it has to do with my penchant towards seeing both sides of things and therefore never being able to come clean as a staunch Democrat or a staunch Republican. In the end I vote for (or rather, against) people, not parties. Something many martinet party members would positively gasp at. Sorry.

I've always harbored an inclination towards becoming politically involved in some way, but when I see the messes that so many politicians get themselves into, the very idea of being under that kind of public scrutiny scares the crap out of me. I think it takes a very brave person to put him or herself into that position in the first place -- to take a stand, to (ostensibly) want to make the world a better place.

And that's why I will continue to vote. Democracy in action.
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Monday, November 03, 2003

RSS = NQSSS, Part 5 

(Really Simple Syndication = Not Quite So Simple Syndication)

Another RSS Aha Moment: Using Escape Characters

While scouring the Net for more info on RSS I came upon an informative article by Stephen Downes titled "How to Create an RSS Feed With Notepad, a Web Server, and a Beer." In addition to enjoying Stephen's kindred wit (seemy Chicken Soup blog where I suggest a highball), I finally found the missing ingredient for polishing up my RSS feed.

Here is a pertinant excerpt from Stephen's article:

Even though my RSS file was validating fine, it wasn't until I started looking at the feed through a news aggregator (in this case I used Bloglines.com) that I even noticed that all of my apostrophes were coming out as weird characters. The validator belched on the ampersands, but didn't let out a wimper about the apostrophes.

There are more Escape Characters used in HTML than Stephen's article covers, but the characters he discusses are certainly the most prevelant. For a list of other escape characters, see the Breaking Par Web page on the topic.

Now I am a regular "escape" artist.

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Sunday, November 02, 2003

Hidden Mickeys 

One of my favorite things to do while wandering about Walt Disney World is to search for Hidden Mickeys. Hidden Mickey’s are Disney Imagineer’s way of leaving their mark on their creations. A Hidden Mickey is a likeness of Mickey Mouse concealed somewhere within in the design of a Disney attraction. Most often, a Hidden Mickey takes on the silhouetted shape of Mickey’s head and ears (one large circle with two smaller circled on top in the appropriate place).

Here are a few pages that have pictures of Hidden Mickeys:

While I was at Disney last month, I met the author of a new book available on the topic. Steve Barrett, author of the recently-published “Hidden Mickeys: A Field Guide to Walt Disney World's Best Kept Secrets” just happened to be standing next to me while we were waiting to meet Deb Wills, the force behind the All Ears Net -- Walt Disney World Information Guide, and we struck up a conversation. His book offers six different scavenger hunts for tracking down Hidden Mickeys – what fun! The scavenger hunts come complete with clues, hints, and points to be scored. Steve actually moved to Florida from another state to be closer to Walt Disney World, and says that there isn’t a week that goes by that he isn’t somewhere on property.

In my experience, lots of Hidden Mickeys can be found just by staying alert while waiting in lines for the attractions, so this can be a fun way to make the waiting time pass by more quickly. I have found that I can sometimes get a bit obsessed and start seeing Hidden Mickey’s everywhere (there's one in my cappuccino right now!). But I am not the only obssessive Mickey hunter. Disney Magazine features a monthly photo sent in by readers that depicts a “Serendipitous Mickey” – in other words, a Mickey that sorta shows up outta nowhere. For example, you take a picture of somebody and when you get the print back there happens to be a couple of road signs or part of a poster behind the person’s head that makes their head form the familiar Mickey silhouette. Or you take a picture of a flower and when you look closely at it, there is a perfect Mickey there that you hadn’t seen before.

Here are a few sites that explore the topic of Hidden Mickeys:

Happy hunting!
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Saturday, November 01, 2003

Summer's Last Tease 

Traditionally, this weekend’s weather should be cool, crisp, sweatshirt and jeans weather. Paradoxically, the forecast calls for shorts and t-shirts. Summer’s last teasing caress before the absolute awfulness of winter weather sets in.

[Lamenting, whiney voice] Why, oh why do I live someplace where winter exists? I truly detest it. I hate the chill wind and the soaking rains and the snow (except for maybe the first snow of the season which somehow manages to look fresh and magical even to me). I loathe getting out of a warm bed in the morning. I am tired of having to hose off a muddy dog after a walk in the soggy park. I can't stand wearing four layers of clothing just to stay warm.

I want to live someplace where the sun shines warmly all year-round. Where I can live in shorts and t-shirts and Birkenstocks in the daytime and throw on a light sweatshirt for the evening. Where I can sleep naked! One day...one day. [Large sigh]

[Strident, determined] I plan on taking full advantage of this tantalizing last taste of summer by spending as many of the sunny hours outside as possible this weekend. I will skip the gym and walk outside in the fresh air. I will finally clean up my garden and trim my hedges. I will take the dog for an extra long trip around the neighborhood.

So much for a weekend of sewing.
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