Monday, June 30, 2014

Zen and the Art of Lawn Maintenance

An old-school tool

This morning I was rudely shaken from sleep at an ungodly hour by the hellish drone of an electric mower and the madness-inducing non-syncopation of the electric trimmer being used by some lawn care bandits outside my bedroom window. Trying to describe the noise would be pointless, suffice it to say that if the Amazon Basin were populated entirely by robot insects, it might sound a lot like this.

Certainly, I can see the point of electronic lawn care tools: they do the job fast, which is one reason lawn care bandits use them. The ones my landlord employs to “care” for my lawn wield their tools with impunity, mowing down every living thing within reach of the twirling neon-yellow plastic wire, often leaving shards of it behind among the piles of clippings.

They usually use a hand-held trimmer to cut the lawn, which is the wrong tool for the job: parts are left burned to the dirt; others remain tufts which simply escaped notice. Not content to just cut the grass, they also make sure to reach over to my well-manicured and fenced-in herb garden to buzz-off the chives to the root, probably thinking them a particularly robust patch of grass. The young tree they “trimmed” last year with the edger died. It didn’t require trimming. It did, however, require leaves.

In order to combat this kind of monkey business, I took matters into my own hands and bought an old-fashioned push mower. The one we had when I was a kid was rust brown and didn’t cut; rather, it chewed the grass it stubbornly rolled over, like a primitive cow. This new one, however, has nice sharp blades, and works like a charm. It slices the grass rather than twists it, making a really even, healthy lawn.

But the benefits extend far beyond that. There’s the quiet for one. The savings on electricity and/or gas. The ease of storage. And also the exercise; walking it back and forth in rows allows time for contemplation while engaging in a productive task — much like all of the “primitive” household tasks I enjoy, like cooking, washing dishes, and weeding.

"Push it / push it real good"

It not only makes the lawn look good — it makes the man mowing it look good too. It offers the occasion for romance; you can bring him an ice-cold glass of refreshing lemonade half-way through, which he will accept with a grateful smile, wipe the sweat from his brow, and drink. He will think I am a lucky man, and you will think I am a lucky woman, and life — and the lawn — will be perfect.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Abolishing the Wedgie


It’s so easy to become used to performing simple tasks a certain way that you rarely question them, even if they are not the best way. And even if you do come across a better way, you are so inured to your habitual procedure that you never make that change.

For example: I always used to serve a roast chicken the way I’d seen it done on TV, and the way my Mum did: cut thin slices from the breast until you’re left with ragged ends you have to gouge out with the knife. These bits invariably end up twisted into dry twigs before the meal is over. The legs get the same treatment, with even less satisfying results and certainly more waste. The slices themselves, cut against the grain, either fall apart or dry out. It’s a terrible way to cut a chicken.

Then one day, I saw it done a different way, on a Gordon Ramsey show, of all things. It was rapid, wasted nothing, and looked great on a plate. First, you cut off the legs. You can divide this from the thigh if you like. Then, you slice down along the breastbone to pull away the entire breast and tenderloin in one go. This you can chop into big fat chunky slices, each with its own bit of crispy skin. Finally, you can turn the now completely bare carcass over to pop out each “oyster” of meat from underneath, in their little pockets. Hey presto: no meat left on the bird, and an appetizing, and moist plate of chicken.

Here is the demonstration. Go to the 1:10 mark.

So I started doing that instead.

I can do it in a minute flat.

The same can be said of cakes. Most everyone I know cuts wedges because it seems like the most obvious way to serve portions of a circular object.

But no. There’s a better way.

Watch this revolutionary example of common sense, and you will never make this mistake again.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Facebook Sans

The internet, like any organism, self-regulates while experimenting chaotically, and thus it lumbers forward. Design paradigms go from brand new to ubiquity relatively rapidly, and our eyeballs become inured to a sense of how things ought to look. It’s a right-handed universe, and whole vistas we take for granted and don’t even register become visual and functional battlefields when designers make the slightest change.


Ask anyone what typeface Facebook uses (or Twitter, or Gmail, for that matter), and you’ll get a lot of dead air. This is good. This means the typeface is doing its job, which is to disappear from our consciousness. But the day Facebook (or anyone else) makes a design change — whoa. The whole world suddenly seems out of whack. Ask someone what the new typeface Facebook is officially “experimenting” with and they won’t know; but ask them to describe it, and they might say “blocky,” or “smaller, easy to read.” How does it differ from what it was the day before? We’ve already forgotten.


Facebook has indeed changed their type design; the site is now aggressively sans serif Helvetica small type, regular weight and bold in blue. Except for large headlines from shared news posts; they’re old-school looking, in a deliberately noticeable serif. Does it seems familiar to you? It should. It’s the same type that Google uses, and the same type Twitter uses. The internet hangout has become Swiss. 


Friday, February 7, 2014

Olympic Pins!

Welcome to Sochi Winter Olympics Games!

In honor of this international meeting place of many nations, we expect visitors to make friends here in athletic manner to befit the Games. 

One of the traditions: collect as many different STDs as possible in your stay! 

Sochi Trading Decals are exchanged with goodwill throughout Olympics between many people. Every stranger you meet on the ski-lift and in your lobby has potential for a new type of STD you can pick up. Just ask! They will be sure to engage in vigorous STD swap with you. One person’s STD is another person’s treasure! 

Our robust aim is for you to leave Sochi weighted down with such a variety of odd and colorful STDs that you will amaze your friends and wives back home! Maybe you can even generously provide taste of Sochi experience by sharing your STDs with loved ones so they too can have the joy. 

Your glamorous STDs will hopefully last a lifetime. Perhaps when you travel again you will meet the one who gave you your favorite most memorable STD and tell them to reminisce on the good times. 

Sochi Trading Decals are everywhere — you cannot escape them even if you try so just do it. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Welcome to Sochi!

Welcome to your world-class professional hotel room at the Hotel Matryoshka where our motto is “You will feel like you’re in a very different world inside a world inside a world.”

You will have already noticed some of our world-class professional features including locking doors for which you will be provided with a key as soon as they become available. Here in the “Brightest Spot On The Black Sea” you will find no need of the electric light after dark as your memories of famous Russian hospitality will light your way. We recommend to our guests that they conduct all of their personal business in their hotel room when the sun shines through the window because you will be able to see. For this reason we do not provide curtains at Hotel Matryoshka in order to let you see and be seen. If you would prefer to conduct your perfectly private business in the dark you may request one of our windowless rooms of which we have many for your perusal.

What traveler needs more than a bed at the end of a busy day admiring the local sights? Answer me that.

A word of advice for our foreign guests who require toilet facilities. Please make use of the bathrooms provided at the official Olympics venues which have been made available for tourists and famous athletes, but please also wait your turn with extreme patience as many tourists and athletes also require the facilities from many hotels. Toilet paper can be purchased from any of our convenient autobus stations at the airport.

At the world-class professional Hotel Matryoshka we pride ourselves on the full range of amenities offered to selected guests such as vodka vending machine in every hallway, blankets available upon request, legal cigarettes, fire extinguishers, and gentlemen’s entertainment (ask at front desk).

While in the semi-tropical winter paradise of Sochi we hope you will avail yourself of our highest-quality ice and snow not all of which is man-made all of the time. Please feel free to send your loved ones a wi-fi postcard that says “I wish you were here with me” on the World Wide Web. Yes! The computer is here at Sochi. Internet postcards can be mailed from some of our wi-fi towers which can be found on top of the mountains where you will find yourself.

Thank you for choosing Hotel Matryoshka we beg of you to come back again soon with all of your friends and their families next year and the year after that. No regrets can be found at our venue. All credit cards taken, cash also.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Everyman

Every Saturday I look forward to seven o’clock. Seven, EST, is midnight GMT, which means that the online editions of the Sunday papers become available. There’s only one thing I’m really interested in, however: the Observer Everyman cryptic crossword. That’s the one that appears in the weekend edition of the Guardian, and it’s sufficiently difficult enough to offer a prize for those who send in completed crosswords.

If you don’t know cryptic crosswords, they will make no sense to you. The answers aren’t straight-forward the way regular crossword answers are. That is, the question does not ask a question that produces an obvious answer. Cryptic crossword questions are a refined code whereby a puzzle has to be solved in order to produce, fragment by fragment, a word which is the answer. A good cryptic clue will not only indicate to the experienced solver what the answer should be, but explain how to get there. A good clue will look absolutely impossible while doing that.

If you’ve become familiar with a certain crossword over a certain number of years, you begin to understand the setter’s particular codewords. With the Everyman, for example, certain letters or combinations of letters can be indicated by words such as left (L), church (CH), or worker (ANT). Cryptic crosswords often contain anagrams and parts of clues spelled backwards and embedded in other words. The punctuation of cryptic clues can be entirely incidental. A good crossword takes days to complete, if you can complete it at all. A bad one can be solved in a single sitting.

Most of all, though, a good cryptic clue will provide a measure of reward when solved; like a drug, knowing you got it right and conquered what was, for a while seemingly inexplicable, gives you a mental high.

Before the internet, my parents, long divorced but still friends, and living on different continents, would engage in fierce competition to see who could complete the Everyman crossword first. Although my Dad might seem to have a head start being an early riser and more likely to snag a copy of the paper in Toronto when he went out for coffee than my mother, lying in in London — he was actually five hours behind, given the time zone difference. They would compare clues on the phone, and tease or goad the other into solving clues which had eluded them.

I too, love the Everyman crossword, and not just because my parents did it. I love it for the same reason they did, though: apparently it runs in my family to find the mental stimulation last thing at night soothing. Because I live in Pittsburgh, where getting hold of a physical copy of the Observer is next to impossible, my Dad used to scan his in and email it to me. Eventually, it became available online to download. Then, my parents and I would engage in a devilish triad of one-upmanship; when speaking to my Mom, she’d prod me to give up what I knew of my Dad’s progress and vice-versa. It was our bonding exercise.

My Dad's not with us anymore, but my Mom and I still go at it every week. We may be an ocean apart, but within the world of the crossword, we sit side-by-side. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Bill Keller's "Heroism"

Heroic Measures?

400-odd years ago, John Donne took on a topic that still ignites controversy today: what is the right way to die? And by “right,” I mean socially acceptable, which is to say, most considerate of our friends and loved ones. In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” Donne praises those who are capable of managing their deaths in such a gentle fashion as to make the fact of their passing unclear. Such people are “virtuous men,” who “pass mildly away,” by “whisper[ing] to their souls to go.” Less appreciated by all concerned are those whose passage to the afterlife is a far more tempestuous journey.

Bill Keller, in his NYT article “Heroic Measures,” paints a carefully-phrased criticism of Lisa Adams’s cancer blog which details her battle with metastatic cancer. In it, he sides with those who prefer a model of death managed by palliative care rather than “heroic measures.” He quotes Steven Goodman, an associate dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine, who says that Adams’s blog “shouldn’t be unduly praised” for being an adherent of the “combat metaphor.” Equal praise,” he says, “is due to those who accept an inevitable fate with grace and courage.”

It is clear that Keller’s opinion has been shaped by his own father’s death from cancer, where in England, he was provided with “a humane and honorable alternative” by being “unplugged from everything except pain killers and allowed to slip peacefully from life.” Certainly, Keller sides with Donne here, and why shouldn’t he? No-one wants to see their loved ones suffer in their last days.

But his article has caused controversy because of the implied suggestion that a) the American model of managing death as a kind of “frantic medical trench warfare” is wrong, and b) that people have a choice when it comes to these things. What Keller critiques is an expensive universal protocol that really ought to provide more leeway for dying people to manage their ends — but what gets him into hot water is the notion that individuals can somehow escape the system.

For a start, it’s not always easy or possible for a dying person to think clearly enough to make decisions, especially about something of which they are likely to be profoundly afraid (and afraid of admitting: that they are indeed dying). It’s not easy for the dying person, and it isn’t easy for their family, who are often the ones making end-of-life decisions which err on the side of doing everything they possibly can to extend the life of their loved one, cost be damned. It feels unseemly to think about finances when someone’s life hangs in the balance. Then there is the overwhelming opinion of the medical professionals to whom we turn in search of answers to questions we probably have not ever had to consider. They, too, err on the side of the preservation of life (and the hospital’s bottom line).

Keller cites a study that “suggests that patients given early palliative care instead of the most aggressive chemotherapy not only have a better quality of life, they actually live a bit longer.” While this may indeed be true, what he may not be sensitive to is that for the person with the cancer, all decisions loom like the sword of Damocles over the precariously thin kite-string that has become their life: one wrong decision and whoops! there you go floating into a tree. Deciding whether to have “aggressive chemotherapy” (all chemo is “aggressive,” BTW), or forego it for palliative care is a tough call for those who may have been dealing with this disease for years. Choosing to opt out of the clinical cycle, even if it may provide more time, inevitably feels like giving up.

So much about handling cancer is about attitude: maintaining control over your treatment is seen as being proactive; hopeful; strong — and it will seem odd for someone to make that switch from choosing action to deciding against taking action and leaving one’s fate to the gods.

Susan Sontag wrote artfully of the way in which language and vocabulary has helped shape our comprehension of disease, especially cancer. When one considers the way in which the language of warfare dominates the conversation, it is no surprise that people view cancer as a battleground with winners and losers. Keller’s article maintains this metaphor even while quoting Goodman, who “cringes” at it.

Ultimately, there are no winners and losers when it comes to cancer, and dying. There are only folks standing around, like Donne’s “sad friends,” arguing over how well you went.

Sunday, January 12, 2014


Back when I was an undergraduate, there was a very funny guy who was so deadpan and understated in his humor that you kind of felt guilty popping a laugh when he inspired laughs, and who you secretly thought was a Total Genius in the guise of an ordinary fellow.

Turns out I was right (duh), and in the 20-ish years since we graduated, John Biggs has made a big splash in the tech and online worlds. He still writes, and I love that he has written this lovely novel, Mytro. I also love that he's exploring alternative ways of publishing it.

Check out his crowdfunding campaign and publication options.

Mytro can be found here. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Poem To Celebrate Polar Vortex Day!

The blessed intersection of two of my great loves — poetry and extreme cold weather conditions (writing about them, not being in them!) has produced this rather clunky poem! I couldn't help myself. 

The Polar Vortex

Twas the day of the vortex, and all through the town
Folks huddled in blankets and long dressing gowns
The children were happy and thought it was cool
That safety prevailed and cancelled all school.

Cool it was, to be sure, in fact it was frigid
Things that bend in fine weather now were quite rigid
The taps that had given us hot water galore
Now were iced up, and gave us no more.

Furnaces burned and chimneys they smoked
As we tried to keep warm with the fires we stoked
Ovens were lit and cookies were made
Though some stayed in bed and there they remained.

The sun it shone bright but gave off no heat
The white misty haze on the windows was neat
Breath the cold air rapidly captured
And turned into ice which fell and then fractured.

And even though snow lay deep on the ground
No snowballs were thrown, no snowmen were found
For the arctic blast had turned it all hard
Each snowflake now sharp as hexagonal shards.

Thank goodness the birds have all flown away South
And squirrels and chipmunks all stuffed their mouths
With nuts they had saved when the food was a-plenty
Now that the wind chill’s become minus twenty.

Tomorrow we’ll return to weather more seasonal
When highs of freezing will seem more reasonable
In the meantime be sure to wrap up all tight
So your extremities don’t fall off with frostbite! 

by: Me

Monday, January 6, 2014

Polar Vortex

The English are famous for being unable to conduct any discourse whatsoever without a nod to the weather, and as such they have an entire coded language for conveying weather-related information in such a way as to be comprehensible only to other English people. It wouldn’t do for the foreigners to be given any advantage when it comes to describing current conditions or predicting future ones.

Anyone who has spent any time (at any time of the year) in England will soon surmise that this obsession has arisen from the sheer sameness of the weather; it’s all degrees of the same shade. The jet stream has kept our little island protected from any major atmospheric events which would really challenge the vocabulary.

Looks cold in Fahrenheit

So how would an English person describe the Polar Vortex currently beggaring the American lexicon?

“It’s a bit nippy,” they might say. “There’s a touch of frost in the air.” With air temperatures in the minus teens, they might say it’s “decidedly chill.” The wind drives those numbers down to where it can be “downright brisk.”

You might find yourself advised to “pull your hat tight and button up,” or to “put on a cardie.” If you have a particularly old-fashioned wardrobe you might “doff your woolens.”

Looks even colder in Celcius

Of course, the English language wouldn’t be where it is today if it weren’t for the rapid integration of new words and phrases into the lexicon. An English person might borrow the name for the weather condition and play with it. Thus one could conceive of putting on a nice anorak made from Polar Vortex; having a spot of bother with one’s Polar Vortex in the morning when it won’t start; or it being so cold the air hits you right in the Polar Vortex. A conversation would be so terribly dull that you get sucked into a Polar Vortex, or you could find yourself at the back of a queue so long you have discovered a new Polar Vortex.


The English seek relief from the cold by drinking a hot cup of tea (with a biscuit), wiggling their toes in front of a fire (or two-bar heater), and cuddling up with a hottle-bottle (hot water bottle). A hot bath might be called for.

If that doesn’t suffice, you could always just fly to the Costa del Sol and sip a pint at a bar overlooking the sea.