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Updated: 2014-10-28T08:36:43.104-04:00


2009: The Year in Books


This has been a busy year, as evidenced by the lack of activity around here. We took a fabulous two week vacation over the summer and had a really amazing time in Ireland. In my mind, that sort of represents the end of my blogging: after two weeks away, it was hard to get back to the computer.

Photo by SodaBoy

However, looking at my archives, that's not entirely true -- I have been more or less absent all year. One benefit of blogging less is reading more, at least compared to some years. Without further ado, I present the list of books I read in 2009:

  • Hoot [fiction] by Carl Hiassen
  • Fieldwork [fiction] by Mischa Berlinski
  • Scarlet Feather [fiction] by Maeve Binchy
  • The Hour I First Believed [fiction] by Wally Lamb
  • The Islandman [memoir] by Tomas O’Crohan
  • Baby Proof [fiction] by Emily Giffin
  • The Watchmen [graphic novel] by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
  • Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood [non-fiction] by Taras Grescoe
  • McCarthy’s Bar [travel] by Pete McCarthy
  • The Way That I Went [non-fiction] by Robert Lloyd Praeger
  • Catherine, Called Birdy [fiction] by Karen Cushman
  • Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life [non-fiction] by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Terror on the Burren [fiction] by Re O Laighleis
  • Frog Haven [fiction manuscript] by Mary Stebbins Taitt
  • Digging to America [fiction] by Anne Tyler
  • Budding Prospects [fiction] by T.C. Boyle
  • How the Irish Saved Civilization [non-fiction] by Thomas Cahill
  • Jaywalking with the Irish [travel] by David Monagan
  • Good Omens [fiction] by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
  • Adirondack Peak Experiences: Mountaineering Adventures, Misadventures, and the Pursuit of “The 46” [essays] edited by Carol Stone White
  • Cannery Row [fiction] by John Steinback
  • Mt. Everest: Confessions of an Amateur Peak Bagger [travel] by Kevin Flynn
  • Northanger Abbey [fiction] by Jane Austen
  • To See Every Bird on Earth [non-fiction] by Dan Koeppel
  • Handle with Care [fiction] by Jodi Picoult
  • Jaguar: One Man’s Struggle to Establish the World’s First Jaguar Preserve [non-fiction] by Alan Rabinowitz
  • Parable of the Sower [fiction] by Octavia Butler
  • Storkbites [memoir] by Marie Etienne
Happy New Year!! And happy reading in 2010...



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Carl Sagan - 'A Glorious Dawn' featuring Stephen Hawking (Cosmos Remixed). Many thanks to melodysheep for the amazing tribute.

Summiting Whiteface


Whiteface and Esther are the northern-most of the Adirondack high peaks, set well apart from the rest. Due to that separation, Whiteface is easy to identify from a distance, especially given the distinctive slides, ski slopes, and castle-like structure perched up top. On the Saturday morning of our climb, we picked it out on the drive to the trailhead without those giveaway landmarks: it was the one entirely ensconced in clouds. We parked at the ASRC just after 8 am, and after a few minutes of last minute gear shuffling, we set off. SodaBoy has long been adamant in his refusal to climb a mountain that can be driven up, so I enlisted Nadine as my hiking partner for the day. With a few high peaks under her belt already, I thought she might be susceptible to gentle persuasion, and she took the bait hook, line, and sinker. Having climbed Esther in 2007 from the same trailhead, I knew the trail starts rising very steeply just past White Brook, and continues straight up for nearly a mile, the type of steady ascent that results in much profuse sweating. With that knowledge, I didn’t layer up much at the start, just a short sleeve wicking shirt with it’s long sleeve mate on top. Still, the air temperatures had not yet reached 40°F, and the first few minutes of the hike are downhill. It was cold! A shivering Nadine may have been re-considering her decision to join me at that point, but I gave her a fleece-lined wool hat from my pack, and that helped a bit. Plus the ascent of Marble Mountain was just as I remembered, and once we’d been at that for a few minutes, all sensations of coldness quickly faded. The hat went back in the pack, along with my long sleeve wicker.We reached the waypoint of Marble Mountain around 9 am, and found some new cairns leading to the junction with the Wilmington Trail. But before moving onward and upward, we took a break to soak in the views from Marble Mountain. The clouds hadn’t burned off yet and were still socking in some distant peaks, but we were low enough to be under them and could see sun shining down in the valley. Although the views were lovely, we didn’t stay long, as the wind was whipping fiercely, making our backs contract in painfully icy horror whenever the sweat-soaked shirts made contact with skin. [Wicking fabric is great, but it has limited powers when squished under a backpack; there‘s just no place for the moisture to go.] View from Marble MountainHappy to have the most grueling part of the hike behind us, we continued the ascent. After reaching the plateau of Lookout Mountain, we started to see little bits of ice littering the mossy forest floor adjacent to the trail. By this time the clouds had burned off to a beautiful clear blue sky. Nadine spied a balsam spire coated with ice, and we deduced that the sunshine was melting the ice enough to drop it off the trees. Oddly, this made us giddy with joy, and we scooped up handfuls of the stuff and took lots of silly pictures. Little did we know the icy splendor that awaited further up. Balsam Spire, Covered with Ice We soon got our next taste of the development that makes Whiteface so different from the other high peaks, encountering a freshly cut downhill ski slope. The Olympic Regional Development Authority recently expanded the existing multitude of ski slopes onto Lookout Mountain, and the red-marked Wilmington hiking trail crosses over the intermediate level Wilmington ski trail. Let me just say that downhill ski trails are not particularly attractive without a forgiving layer of snow, and leave it at that. Further along the trail, a large clearcut was visible to the east, so we picked our way over to have a look. It was the triple chairlift providing access to the trail we’d crossed, along with the expert level Hoyt's High trail. We basked in the sun briefly, and even found a thermometer hung on the snow-making equipment that showed the temperature to have finally reached exactly 40°F (albeit in the sun). Map of the Whiteface Ski T[...]



SodaBoy got carded today... while attempting to purchase cream soda. Snerk.

That is all.

Summiting Wolf Jaws


It was 8:30 on the Friday morning of Labor Day weekend when we set out from the parking lot. The beginning of the hike from the AuSable Road trailhead is utterly incongruous with virtually any ultimate destination that can be reached from there, as private lands belonging to the Adirondack Mountain Reserve/AuSable Club must be crossed to reach state land. We powered through the first 0.7 mile along the dirt road, through a golf course, past the tennis courts and clubhouse, and finally, past the beautiful “camps” of super-privileged club members. Approaching the gatehouse, where non-members such as ourselves (i.e., hiker trash) must normally check in with the club ranger, I heard distinctive laughter. That is J, I announced to SodaBoy. J&S are friends from the Granite State, who were to be joining us at our campsite that evening, but whom we hadn‘t expected to see until after our big hike. We knew their plans for the day involved hiking with their friend Mountain Man, whom they’d stayed with the night before. We spied J in the back of a pick-up truck parked by the gatehouse. When they saw us waving, he and S jumped out, and we all exchanged hugs. Mountain Man, whose family belongs to the club, told us to hop in the back of the truck, and they’d drop us off down the Lake Road. So our hike started with a 0.7 mile walk along one road, and then a 0.7 mile ride along another. We hopped back out of the truck along the Lake Road at the footbridge that leads to the 0.45 mile connector track, which crosses the East River Trail before terminating at the Canyon Bridge. After crossing the AuSable River, we got on the West River Trail, and followed that until the intersection with the Wedge Brook Trail at a small, but lovely cascade. By now it was 9:30 am. The next 1.6 miles up to the first junction between Upper and Lower Wolf Jaws took 2 hours. It didn’t help that SodaBoy and I were both recovering from bad colds that had afflicted us the week before. I felt virtually normal in every regard except a lingering cough, which continued to plague me throughout the weekend and made breathing a bit more difficult than normal. But I was not to be deterred. We headed left to tackle Upper Wolf Jaw first, since it was further away, both from our location at the trail junction, and from civilization in general, meaning that it would be easier to summit Lower Wolf Jaw another day if we couldn’t make both as planned.We quickly reached the Wolf Jaws col and the junction with the Range Trail, with official DEC signs indicating that it was 0.9 miles to the summit of UWJ, and 0.5 miles to the summit of LWJ. It was on that section of the popular Range Trail where we met our first other hikers since leaving the West River Trail, passing two parties headed out after several days in the backcountry. the Wolf's Tooth false summit, photo by SodaBoyMoving forward, we gained the height of the false summit (a tooth in the Wolf’s Jaw). I was fully expecting this extra bump from reading trail guides and trip reports in advance, but even so, was a bit surprised by the size. Climbing up, it looked almost as big as either Wolf Jaw. Past that, the trail dipped down 100 feet or so, and then made the final summit approach.Upon arrival, we had the summit to ourselves. We dropped our packs, and peeled off our sodden wicking shirts and damp socks, draping them on balsam to dry in the sun. We then enjoyed our picnic lunch, sandwiches made en plein aire from whole wheat bread and slices carved from a block of extra sharp cheddar, with sides of nuts and a bit of dark chocolate. During our meal we were joined by another friendly hiker, who was traveling alone and had a fun ritual of photographing a little toy pig on each of his summits. We were also joined briefly by a man hiking with his teenaged daughter and her friend, but that group also moved along fairly quickly. We would later see both parties again on the trail to/from LWJ. lunching atop Upp[...]

Walking to Winslow Homer


This afternoon SodaBoy and I walked over to the art building at Hometown University to see the Winslow Homer exhibit. The art is one of the great things about living in a college town; last year there was a Michelangelo exhibit to enjoy. I can't wait to see what the feature is next year.

On the Fence

The exhibit was very interesting and well-thought out. There was a large assortment of framed pages from newspapers showcasing his illustrations, a few tiles, and a small collection of of original drawings and paintings. The exhibit was arranged chronologically, providing an overview of Homer's influences and focusing on major inspirations like Houghton Farm.

Warm Afternoon

While I enjoyed the exhibit overall, I will confess a wee bit of disappointment not to see more of his Adirondack work. This is undoubtedly my own personal bias, influenced by my love of the Adirondacks, and perhaps felt even more strongly than normal, as I am still basking in the glory of being up there last weekend.

If you are in the Hometown University area, or will be here before October 11, definitely stop by to see the Winslow Homer exhibit. It's well worth the visit.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Photos courtesy of the Hometown University website, on the "press" page for the exhibit.

Silly Sign Saturday: The Tree ID Edition


SodaBoy and I were hiking a few weeks ago when I spied this sign ahead down the trail. I'm always excited to see signs labeling plants.

(image) However, closer inspection revealed this particular sign to be an exception to my rule. This tree is decidedly not an American beech (Fagus grandifolia); rather it is a red maple (Acer rubrum). It's true that young trees of both species can exhibit smooth grey bark, but any resemblance ends there. The two have many easily distinguishable features. For example, beeches have alternate ovate leaves, while maples have opposite palmate leaves. What makes this especially sad is that we were hiking in a state park. Oops.

(image) Click here to see my earlier foray into silly signs, inspired by Murray over at Signs of the Times.

Friday Flower Blogging



Eco Canteen: Stainless Steel Water Bottle


A few months ago I was contacted by Trish at Eco Canteen, who offered to send me a stainless steel water bottle to review, and I eagerly accepted the mission. See, I have been a regular user of re-usable water bottles since the early-mid 90s. I don't think bottled water in the ubiquitous disposable form that is so popular now was even conceived yet, but I loved the portability of beverage on demand. I was an undergraduate at Small Green College at the time, where such practices were standard. Every incoming freshman was issued a re-usable coffee mug; students typically attached these to backpacks with carabiner clips to cart around campus.At that time, I used the re-usable water bottles primarily for hiking and camping. I started with Nalgene, that indestructible standby. I will confess to harboring nostalgic feeling of fondness for Nalgene to this day, regardless of the whole BPA ickiness -- that came much later. In the illustration below, you can see my original Nalgene water bottle (third from the left). I don't know exactly when I got it, but I do know I drank from it 24/7 during my five week summer session in 1995 at Remote Biological Station Accessible by Boat Only.Note: one additional water bottle is missing from this photo,as I forgot to retrieve it from its station on my bedside table.The larger size Nalgene water bottles fit perfectly into the front pockets of field vests, and I spent many a happy summer tromping around in the woods, drinking 2-4 quarts of water a day. The small Nalgene bottle fits perfectly into an ordinary coat pocket, and can be easily smuggled into theaters or sporting events, sparing the indignity of overpriced disposable beverage. It got so I was using re-usable water bottles constantly... not just while hiking or out and about, but while sitting on the couch or using the computer.Eventually the growing buzz about the health hazards of BPA became too loud to ignore, and I broke down and bought a few Siggs. I like the Siggs, I really do: they come in a wide array of fun colors and patterns, and are equally as functional as my old Nalgenes. However, I retained the old bottles, BPA and all, because I simply could not afford to replace them all at once. Siggs are mighty expensive, and on a hot day in the field, I might easily drink four quarts of water. Then, from a post and discussion over at Crunchy Domestic Goddess, I learned that Sigg aluminum bottles are lined with a proprietary epoxy, and that they aren't recommended for the dishwasher. Sigh. The offer from Eco Canteen came less than a month later, so I was ecstatic. Eco Canteen bottles are made from food-grade stainless steel: no BPA, no aluminum, no epoxy. Yes, the offer came in early February; I am terrible for just getting this review up now. However, in my defense, I thoroughly tested this bottle. It has been used in just about every capacity:Hiking - At a county park, a state park, a state wildlife management area, an experimental forest owned by Small Green College, and mushroom hunting.Walking - In the woods behind the house, and around Childhood Village with the parentals.Business Travel - A four day trip out of state, and a day trip to state capital for an agency meeting.Around the house - While computing, watching tv, reading, and gardening.The water bottle has held up to every possible use. I love that it can safely be used in the dishwasher. I've scrutinized the water bottle for faults, but honestly came up short. I got excited once when I noticed a wet spot on the car cushion where it was resting, thinking it was leaking and I'd finally have a more balanced review. Alas, it was user error; I hadn't tightened the cap all the way. I recommend this product with no reservations about the actual water bottle. Eco Canteen sells the water bottles from their website for the very reasonable price of $9.95 each. Howev[...]

The Taste of Spring


SodaBoy and I went mushroom hunting this weekend, to a place I had collected morels last year while delineating wetlands. It is a very remote place, accessed by turning off a rural country road onto a seasonal dirt lane that looks more like an ATV trail. Of course we saw wildflowers: Canada violet, Viola canadensisHowever, I stepped out of character and didn't photograph many. The blackflies were just too damn vigorous. Whenever I stopped and crouched in the shrubbery, I got bled. I knew how bad the bugs would be, from my stint there last year, so I insisted SodaBoy wear my headnet. I did fieldwork in Minnesota after all; my tolerance for such things is higher than most. He was skeptical at first but easily convinced by the swarms. When we got to the spot where I'd collected the morels last year, we didn't find any, but kept looking. It is such a remote area I wasn't 100% sure we were in the exact same place. We kept thinking, they could be anywhere. Then we found something else, not the yellow morels I've collected in the past, but a different species of morel altogether: half free morels. Apparently these are also known affectionately as peckerheads. I always slice morels in half before cleaning them, as it makes them easier to clean. With all the rain we've had recently, though, this batch was very fresh: only two slugs in the whole lot. The other benefit of slicing them in half is you can see inside the stem to better verify that it hollow. This is quite important, as morels should always have a hollow stem. There is a species of false morel that is superficially similar to the peckerheads, but it has cottony white fibers inside the stem (among other differences). After I rinse morels, I always soak them for a while. This helps loosen up any dried soil or sand particles. Some people soak them in salt water, as it helps kill any remaining insects, but I rarely add much. I am afraid of over-salting and ruining the fine flavor. After their swim, I rinse the morels one last time, then pat them with a clean dish towel to soak up some of the water. I sauteed these ones with butter and garlic. While the pasta was cooking, I wilted fresh local spinach into the mushroom-garlic mix. And for once I managed to snap a photo before we devoured them.[...]

Woodland Sampler II


roundleaf violet, Viola rotundifolia

Carolina spring beauty, Claytonia caroliniana

American toad, Bufo americana

bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis
amongst wild leeks, Allium tricoccum

Woodland Sampler


sharp-lobed hepatica, Hepatica nobilis var. acuta

common garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis

eastern leatherwood, Dirca palustris

trout lily, Erythronium americanum

This Town's Not Made For Walking


Tonight is my last night in this hotel room in the bustling sprawl of a town named for the nearby estate of First Leader, outside of Capitol City. Not that I’ll have time to tour the mansion or the gardens, or to go into the heart of the city and see any museums or monuments. We are here for a job, and having completed it today, will spend all day tomorrow driving home.

I like traveling, and traveling for work is no exception. It gives me an opportunity to see new places, to do different things, to meet interesting people. However, if there is a drawback to business travel, it is the tiny taste, the cruel tease. I have never spent time in this area before and it certainly seems worthy of dedicated exploration. We drive by the signs, but there is no time for touring. This afternoon we finished up a little earlier than expected, and returning to the hotel, my co-worker declared his intentions for a nap before dinner. It was 65 degrees and sunny, and even though we’d been outside all day, when I walked into my dark and stuffy room, it didn’t seem right. Every cell in my body screamed to go back outside. So I decided to go for a walk.

Four miles later, I’m back to the hotel room, and feeling a little better about being here. This town is just not made for walking. The hotel is on a busy four lane road, with a constant roar of traffic. I took the first possible side street, and finding no sidewalks, turned into a residential neighborhood at the soonest opportunity, looking for lighter traffic. Many streets ended at cul-de-sacs, with fences preventing foot traffic through to adjacent neighborhoods (and no dead end signs to warn the casual passerby). Sidewalks were almost entirely lacking. Except for a friendly woman walking her small dog, I saw no other pedestrians.

As much as I long to see the sights, I wouldn’t want to live in a place where roaring automobile traffic is the only means of conveyance, where pedestrians have been entirely squeezed out. Call me crazy, but I like to walk.

'Tis the Season


(image) I disdained the umbrella on the walk to the bus stop this morning, lifting my face to the light rain, which almost felt warm. A carry over from yesterday, perhaps, for yesterday was a glorious spring day, sunny and warm and filled with birdsong. I was practically skipping along the street on my walk home, eager to change into jeans and take a walk in the woods, to pull some weeds and dried vegetation from the greening flower bed. Imagine my joy when I spied the neighbor's red maple! I've been watching that tree for weeks now, watching and waiting.

Yesterday was the day I'd been looking forward to: my first budburst observation of the season. Having tracked the phenology of this tree last year, I knew it would flower any day now, but that just heightened the suspense. When it comes to spring flowers, I'm like a kid counting down to Christmas. That makes Project Budburst so perfect for me. Whee! Someone cares about the tree I saw flowering!

Project Budburst is designed for anyone and everyone to participate. The target plants are common and easy to identify, and the site provides lots of great resources to help the novice. And you need not be surrounded by nature, as many common landscaping plants are included. Even denizens of the most urban areas likely see a lilac bush or street tree regularly. For returning budbursters, the website offers some major improvements: on the results page, you can download data reported last year, and see the 100 most recent reports mapped in real time. If you like gardening or wildflowers, or just get geeked up on little changes in your outdoor world, I encourage you to check it out. Is anyone else out there playing along?

In My Garden


(image) The big leaves are daffodils, of course, while the small leaves are garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata). This is a weeding battle I can never win: I knock it back every growing season, but every spring is just the same -- like I never pulled a one.

Willow Sky


We live in the city, but our backyard abuts a hilly urban woodlot. It is not a pristine wilderness by a long shot; portions of the area were graded for a street that was never constructed, yet is still depicted on some maps of the area. This means stripped top soils, compacted subsoils, and lots of invasive species. Still, we enjoy our little woods: it is where we walk the cats; where mayapples and wild geraniums grow; where we see the first robins of the year.3/14/2009I almost always carry a camera with me on these walks, even though I'll frequently return without taking any pictures or with only lackluster shots. I am working on that, taking more photos, trying to train my eye to see the beauty in the mundane. One photo I seem to shoot repeatedly, especially this time of year, is of willow branches against the sky. When I download the camera, I breeze right by the photos, never finding them terribly interesting. And yet I take the same photo over and over and over. Witness:2/24/2008 2/1/20092/28/2009It was last weekend when I really noticed this strange recurring pattern, and started trying to figure out the reason behind it. One theory I came up with dates back to my childhood. When I was 7 or 8 years old, my family had to leave a rental house we'd all loved. My parents bought a new home in a growing subdivision, the kind of place where the sum total of landscaping was one stick tree in the front yard, along with two squat bushes, one on either side of the door. Of course they immediately set about changing that, planting oak and birch and hemlock, catalpa and dogwood and spruce.Entranced by the magical rooms the drooping branches can create, my sister and I lobbied hard for a weeping willow. We were utterly unconcerned by the fragile, messy nature of large willows, but ever practical, my parents demurred, instead opting for honey locust and cedar, crabapple and horse chestnut. Could my photographic loyalty to this same boring picture date back to my unmet youthful yearnings for a backyard willow world? I've been mulling this over for the last week, and oddly the process of analyzing the mystery has caused me to photograph the tree less -- I didn't take pictures of the tree on any of my three most recent walks (yesterday, Monday, or Tuesday).Ultimately, I decided the appeal is almost entirely in the bright colors. Woods are generally pretty monochromatic places this time of year, with various shades of brown bark and brown mud. No greens yet, no flowers, and the lovely white snow has all melted. The potential energy in those willow branches just screams against the blue sky. Yellow! Life! Like the robin, it's another symbol of what is to come. Here's a sneak peak from last year, what we have to look forward to in just a few short weeks: 4/20/2008[...]

Welcome, Harbinger!



More Glum News


We had an office-wide meeting yesterday, never a good thing in this economic climate. I had been hoping it would simply be to announce the layoffs that occurred last Friday, so folks who weren't there at the time could hear the official rendition. No such luck. Instead we learned that the company will no longer be paying for our parking expenses. Our office is downtown; there is no free parking anywhere even remotely nearby. Apparently the passes the company has been buying for us in the garage across the street cost $75/month, and if we want to continue parking there, we now have to pay ourselves.

Effective immediately.

So starting today, I'm riding the bus. I actually enjoy riding the bus, and find it much less stressful than the idea of carpooling, which I'm also contemplating. However, the bus fare is $40/month out of pocket that I wasn't spending last week. [I have fuel efficient car, and a short commute, so only use about one gallon of gas a week getting to and from work.]

And the most depressing thing? The bus company has announced plans to raise fares in the beginning of May, and to simultaneously cut back on services. Of course my route is one of those slated to be eliminated. I will still be able to catch a bus, but will have to walk much further to get to a stop, and will have to pay $60/month. I have a feeling carpooling will look a lot better come May.

Where Mayapples Grow



O Happy Day!


We do not have a TV in our office, and my work computer doesn't have speakers, so I had little hope for watching the inauguration. However, early this morning, one of the partners sent around an email letting everyone know she got the internets streaming to the big screen monitor in a conference room. She invited all who were interested to come and eat lunch together while watching the ceremonies. Of course, by 11:30 am when we showed up with our brown bags, all the news sites were crashed with the rush of eager viewers. We finally got a spurty feed from MSNBC to come in intermittently, and plugged in an old analog radio.

But nobody cared about the logistics... it was just so fantastic to be listening to President Obama speak, watching hope light up the faces around the table, and knowing that faces were lighting up with hope all around the world.

Just Another Day


I work in the private sector, for a small business. Martin Luther King Day is one of many federal holidays not recognized by the company, so today was an ordinary work day for me. It's a long cold stretch between New Year's Day and Memorial Day, let me tell you. But that's besides the point... What I noticed today is how spooky it is working downtown on a holiday.

The only thing missing was the tumble weed. No school buses on the drive in, no traffic at all downtown, no pedestrians waiting at the crosswalks. Plus I got a spot on the third floor of the parking garage, which is practically like getting a spot on the first floor, since the bottom two levels are reserved. [I normally park on the fifth floor.] Our office was bustling as always, but we might have been the only ones in the building, the only ones on the block.

Speedy Delivery


When we applied for our passports, Helpful Postal Clerk seemed surprised by how far in advance we were applying. With our trip is still many months away, there was obviously no need to pay extra for expedited processing. So it was a huge surprise when SodaBoy called me at work this afternoon with the news that our passports had arrived in the mail today, just nine days after we originally submitted our paperwork.

Apparently having my surname spelled wrong on my previous passport and using it to travel to Soviet Russia wasn't as much of a problem as I'd feared it could be. [I enrolled in Russian language classes the first year they were offered at my high school, and ended up being selected to fill the shoes of another older student who was supposed to be participating in the exchange, but couldn't go. My parents rushed me down to the state building, but my last name was missing a consonant on the first passport I was issued. We sent it back dismayed, only to have a second arrive mere days before my departure, this time with an extra vowel. What did I do? Practice signing my name wrong, of course.]

Luckily, this minor youthful discretion did not seem to cause any problems, and all names spelled correctly this time around... on my passport anyway. Unfortunately for SodaBoy, my passport curse seems to be infectious. His name and birth date are correct, but his sex is indicated as "F," and clearly that won't do. When he called me, he had already determined he has to send the passport back with a photocopy of his drivers license to show proof of gender. I couldn't resist offering another suggestion for photocopiable evidence.

And the birth certificates? They did not arrive today, but as promised, I am not panicking. Like Mom to Baby J noted in her comment, the literature indicates they will be mailed separately.

The Passport Process


SodaBoy and I went to the mall yesterday evening, for what will hopefully be our last visit there for a few months at the very least. I am always happiest to avoid the place altogether. Yesterday our mission was simple: passports. Even though we both have expired passports, it has been too long for them to be considered simple renewals, and we had to start the process from scratch. We'd picked up the application forms previously, so we could have them all filled out when we arrived, and hopefully streamline the process.

However, when we sat down yesterday afternoon to do our paperwork, we discovered more information is required than we remember providing in the past. Parents birthdays were easy enough, but SodaBoy and I both stumbled a bit when it came to our parents birth places. We knew the general areas where our folks were born, but weren't certain if they were born in the small towns where they grew up, or the nearby bigger cities where the hospitals are located.

So we starting placing phone calls, and it was a few hours before we tracked down all the pertinent data. Hence the need for the trip to the mall, to get to the post office and accomplish the goal of getting the passport applications completed. See, the post office branch located at the mall has extended hours compared to all other branches in the area: it is open evenings and weekends, even Sundays. I would even go so far as to say it would seriously rock, if only it wasn't located at the dreaded mall.

The line was super long, and super slow. Several people had called in sick, stranding one sole postal clerk to staff the entire branch alone. I have decided postal workers get a bad rap. This man was practically a saint, he was so calm and patient. With his help, we accomplished our goal! The application process is complete... now we just have to wait for the passports to arrive in the mail.

The only part that was a little weird is that they kept our birth certificates, to be returned with the passports when they arrive in the mail. SodaBoy and I each only have the one copy of our birth certificates, and mine is the original, with the raised seal and real signatures. I feel vaguely bereft without it -- hopefully it will all work out, and I won't need it in the interim. To quote the hilarious Lanes123, I'm sure it's fine.

Translation: I won't start panicking for at least a month.

2008: The Year in Books


Every year on New Year's Eve, I post a list of the books I've read that calendar year, and every year, the list seems to get shorter and more pathetic. I used to read way more than this and I enjoy it so damn much; seeing my slide into illiteracy actually makes me a bit sad. I need to find a way to allot myself more time to read in 2009. So I'm going to post this list, thin as it is, to keep myself honest. Here are the books I read in 2008:

  • Windfalls [fiction] by Jean Hegland
  • Remains of the Day [fiction] by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • The House on Mango Street [fiction] by Sandra Cisneros
  • Girls in Trouble [fiction] by Caroline Leavitt
  • Chrysalis, Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis [non-fiction] by Kim Todd
  • The Wonder Spot [fiction] by Melissa Bank
  • The Stand [fiction] by Stephen King
  • Lost Mountain [non-fiction] by Erik Reece -- See my review here, and find links to numerous other reviews over at The Blogging Bookworm.
  • Messenger [fiction] by Lois Lowry
  • In Defense of Food [non-fiction] by Michael Pollan -- I won this book from a giveaway over at Crunchy Chicken. Thanks again, Crunchy!
  • The Back Road to Crazy [essays] edited by Jennifer Bove
  • For Love [fiction] by Sue Miller
  • Bait and Switch : The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream [non-fiction] by Barbara Ehrenreich
  • The Road [fiction] by Cormac McCarthy
  • When You Are Engulfed in Flames [essays] by David Sedaris
  • An American Childhood [memoir] by Annie Dillard
  • Coming Back to Me [fiction] by Caroline Leavitt
  • Silence of the Songbirds [non-fiction] by Bridget Stutchbury -- I read this book based on Hugh's excellent review over at Rock Paper Lizard.
  • The Midwife’s Apprentice [fiction] by Karen Cushman
I highly recommend Lost Mountain for anyone looking for a captivating non-fiction read; Remains of the Day was the fiction stand-out. What about you? What were your favorites reads of 2008?

On Opting Out


Every year my company hosts a minimum of two or three separate Christmas parties. There is the formal affair, which is held a few weeks beforehand, at various fancy off-site establishments, with staff from both offices. It is the one time a year when everyone meets face to face, and after two years, there are still unfamiliar faces. Then on the last day before the holiday, each office has a Secret Santa potluck. When the sign-up sheet was posted in the kitchen last year, I casually ignored it. I am generally opposed to Secret Santa type gift swaps on environmental grounds. In my experience, people are buying for recipients they don't know very well, with spending guidelines that pretty much guarantee that everyone just trades crap that no one wants. But my boss who organizes the party is really into the fun social aspect of it, and when she came around to my desk with sign-up sheet I succumbed to the pressure. It turns out the culture of this particular gift exchange leans even more heavily towards useless garbage than most. The gifts are supposed to be stupid, or comical, or humiliating. [An example is a whole line of "Boss Lady" toiletries someone purchased for one of the partners last year, which was all packaged in pink, but had a manly scent. Racy calendars are also a recurring theme.] Because it was "secret," I wasn't exposed as the guilty party, but the gift I purchased, a Rishi fair trade organic tea gift set with a ceramic diffuser, was roundly dismissed as being "too nice." It must have been a new person. Luckily there were several of us new people, including my recipient, who seemed quite pleased with her gift. She came and thanked me privately later -- she figured out it was me because there aren't many of us tea drinkers there, plus the aforementioned newbie failure to buy a gag gift. The funny thing is, she had drawn my name, and bought me organic lotion and lip gloss, another gift dismissed as unworthy by the old timers. This year I decided to opt out. With several successful performance reviews under my belt, I figured I should have enough personal capitol and recognizable value by now to escape the obligatory gift exchange. I still brought a dish to pass and attended the party, socializing and watching co-workers open their embarrassing gifts. It was much more enjoyable for me this year without the stress of the dreaded gift exchange. As the party was wrapping up, the partners passed out merit-based bonus checks, a welcome uncertainty in these times. [My company has not been immune to this economic downturn: our health care rates will skyrocket in January, and several co-workers have been laid off or had their hours dramatically cut back.]Most staff leave shortly after the party peters out, but I returned to my desk for another hour and a half of work, trying to wrap something up I am scheduled to work on next week. When I was leaving at 5:30 pm, the only other people left were partners. As I was putting on my coat and getting ready to leave, I went around to say goodbye and personally thank each partner. I was in Party Organizer Boss's office when Boss Lady Recipient Partner came in with her coat to say goodbye, too. We all ended up walking out together. They started lamenting how there seemed to be less participation this year in both the Secret Santa and the potluck. Since they knew I didn't participate in the gift exchange, but the food all gets lost togeth[...]