Sunday, May 30, 2010

Home territory

Border guard: "Hello!"
Good morning, good morning! Good morning, good morning to you!

I hand over my passport: ".... hi."
Why are you so cheerful?

Border guard: "Thank you."
This passport is so full of stamps and stickers you are probably some form of crazy international spy set on destruction.

I smile politely.
The fact you are so nice is unnerving me.

Border guard, handing back passport: "There you go!"
But you're on our side so whatever.

There's something wonderful about your own border.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Best laid plans

MEOWOWOWOWOW It's so hot! I'm burning! BURNING! My fur is going to fry! MRRRRRRROOOOOWWWWW

Well, it wasn't as if I didn't agree with the sentiment. The temperature was in the 30s (centigrade, I've reverted back to metric and y'all are going to have to roll with that) and the car had become a bug-shaped greenhouse. Nevertheless, my flight was in four hours and the furry Houdini who had already escaped her carrier once to be chased around the basement was going to the cattery.

Five minutes later we were on the road and the carrier on the floor beside me had gone completely silent. This probably had a lot to do with the apartment only being marginally cooler than the car. Ahhhh air conditioning! By the time we reached our destination, however, the memory of the too hot apartment had entirely vanished and we were back onto the topic of the torture I was putting her through by this sadistic car journey from hell. 

Did I mention the cattery I put my cat in is called "Cat Castle"? And that I find this slightly embarrassing? Unfortunately, I am incapable of relaxing on my time away unless I know my cat is in the lap of luxury. Next time, I tell the still protesting kitty, you go to the conference. I'll stay here.

From the cattery, I was taking a cab to the airport. At least that was the master plan, somewhat scuppered by the fact the taxi company had forgotten my reservation. Half an hour later, a freshly dispatched cab appeared.

"What time is your flight?"

"7:30 pm. I was looking to get there around 5:30."

"Oh, that's not going to happen! Ha ha ha."

I didn't know whether to feel peeved or amused that he didn't even pretend to be apologetic. I regretted not accepting a juice box from the cattery. It would be good to chew on a straw round about now.

"... so we were up north, cleaning out a shed and making a huge bonfire of all the trash when this huge bear lumbered out of the woods...."

Well, the cab ride might have been longer than I was planning, but it had high entertainment value .

".... and he was like RAWWWRRRRR."

My phone slid to the floor and I had to dive for it. Regardless of the situation, it is a trace surprising when your cabbie emits a gut wrenching growl. Evidently though, this enthusiasm was exactly what was needed and we arrived at the airport around 5:40. It transpired the flat-rate on the website was out of date and I had to pay an extra $7 from what I was expecting. I didn't quibble; that story was totally worth it.

"See you kiddo!"

You know what? I'm not even going to go there.

Inside the terminal, I arrived at the desk to check in:

"The flight is delayed, it will now leave at 9:15 pm."

So much for running late. This now meant it was likely I was going to miss my train I'd booked a ticket on the other side of the pond. Ho hum. I sauntered through security.

"You're flying to Manchester? You've been selected for a secondary security inspection."

.... were those two things linked? Well, it wasn't like I didn't have time. I put my hands into my pockets and then allowed a swab to be run over the top of them. Inspecting the result, I could only hope that cat hair wouldn't clog up their machines. Allowed to continue on my way, I mooched through the airport shops and bought a juice box; the desire to bite a straw was still strong. Said straw turned out to be shorter than its juice box and disappeared into its interior never to be seen again.

I frowned and looked around; one of these shops sells aspirin, right?

Monday, May 24, 2010

The future's bright, the future's amythst

I admit I am probably not on a psychic's top 10 favourite people to walk through their door. Not because I am intent on exposing their art as fiction, but because I lack the common neuroses that normally drive individuals into their curtained centre of operation. I am unplagued by relationships past, feel good about my job and positive about the future. Plus, I went with a close friend and comparing your secret and private fortune is hardly to be encouraged. However, it was the combination of all these good vibes that made the prospect of visiting a psychic while in New York City a truly humorous and enticing prospect.

The sign outside the door advertised a reading for $10. Of course, once inside, we were told that this was only for a face reading of your personality and really what we wanted was a palm reading for $25 or, more likely, a tarot card reading for $65 and probably a crystal ball gazing for a couple of hundred. We originally opted for the palm reading but eventually allowed ourselves to be talked into a combined offer for palm + tarot cards.

My palm, I was told, predicted a long life and a happy one. It portrayed me as a cheerful, kind individual who said things to people's face and not to their backs. Well, flattery will get you everywhere and I am blogging; I say things to everyone's face. In the world. I was also told this would get me into trouble and wondered vaguely if this resulting post would cause me to be sued.

We then moved on to the tarot cards. To my disappointment, my psychic did not read the cards per se, rather she placed them face up on the table and claimed to "draw energy" from them to give me my fortune. This was the point when I started seriously disappointing the poor woman.

Attempt #1:
"I see there is a past relationship that you cannot stop thinking about. Who is that man?"

"Um. Well, I don't actually know. My last relationship finished a while ago and I really wasn't that bothered."

Attempt #2:
"You wake up feeling very lethargic and you feel you have made bad decisions in the past."

".... Not really. I'm really pleased with the way my career is going and the changes that have happened.... I woke up slightly hungover this morning?"

The woman's eyes narrowed. No love issues, no career issues. A happy, optimistic customer. This lead to really only one obvious conclusion...

Attempt #3:

"I sense someone is very jealous of you. I see a woman with black hair."

My eyes slid to the right. I couldn't help but notice that the other psychic had black hair. Still, I did know one person who was pretty irritated at me for no decipherable reason. She doesn't have black hair, but you know, it was a good try and I was impressed by the logic: Your life seems to rock. Therefore someone probably hates you. It could be me or my friend over there.

At the end, I was allowed to ask two questions of the cards. I scratched my head:

Q: "I travel a lot. Do you see me ever settling down?"

A: "Yes, I do. But not this year. This year is a good one for travel."

Good line to throw at the girl with the British accent in New York. I had to give her some credit for using her head.

Q: "Do you see me getting married?"

Well, doesn't everyone ask that question?

A: "I see you meeting your life partner in 2 - 3 years from now."

2 - 3 years? Well, there's no point in dating anyone I've met recently then.

A: "You will also have three children and be very happy."

.... Three?!

In the back of the room behind a curtained partition a small boy starting screaming his lungs out. The psychic turned to bellow at him to shut up.

.... Happy?!

I shifted in my seat. As we drew to a close, the woman told me she wanted to give me a stone. By "give" I mean "sell at an exorbitant price". Apparently, I was lacking amethyst in my life and I should keep a stone close by me at all time to give me energy and protect against jealousy. I should also tell no one about it.

.... Oops.

I was sceptical and declined. She dropped the price. This protection, she insisted, was essential. I lifted an eyebrow and turned to my friend who was also just finishing.

"Have you just been offered a stone?"

"Yes. I was thinking no."

Psychic: "How about just $10 for the stone?"

I considered it. "Well it would make a cool souvenir."

My psychic looked askance, but the other one smiled and agreed. In the end we gave in and I purchased a small lump of amethyst, my friend a rose stone. We then took them over to a jewellery making shop in Brooklyn and turned them into pendants. Were we ripped off? Of course! These stones cost about a $1 on the street. Do we have the most awesome memento of our crazy psychic trip? Yes. Yes we do.

Psychic reading: $45
Protective stone: $10
Memento of crazy psychic trip with childhood friend: Priceless

As we wound wire around our rocks, my friend and I compared our futures. They were incredibly similar. Clearly we were really twins separated at birth.

In conclusion, my friend declared: "This trip has saved me so much money!"

I stopped winding wire and looked up. "Saved?!"

"Yeah. She said I was to have two boys. I only want a girl, so there's no point in having kids at all. They would have cost me loads!"

JFK airport when I finally ended my trip was in carnage. I collected my boarding pass to discover yet again, I still didn't have a seat. But this time, THIS TIME, I had an amythst power necklace. What could possibly go wrong?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Arts life

"So, the cast are all on stage, but they haven't got their lead role; apparently, she's left with her boyfriend. The director turns to the audience and says, 'We're sorry, the play is canceled; you can get a refund at the door'. But then, a girl puts up her hand and cries, 'Wait! I've seen this play ten times because I have the same name as the star! I can totally do her part!'. The cast discuss it and ask, 'What if she can't act?' but then they point out the other girl couldn't act either, so what's the harm? The kid is pulled on stage and, with the help of stage prompts, she gets through the whole part. Everyone is delighted, especially since her father is a baker and the actors all want pies."

And so went my lunchtime conversation at the American Academy of Arts & Letters. This 250 member organisation supports the creators of the arts, for example, writers, composers and visual graphic producers but not performers. With the size of the establishment fixed and every appointment being for life, the only way a new member can be appointed is in the wake of a death which, as also came up at lunch, should probably result in a homicide investigation surrounding each new face.

In case it was not entirely obvious, I was there to cheer on a friend who was receiving an award for her composition, rather than for recognition of the great American novel which I'd been keeping numb about. Prior to lunch, we started the event with delicate h'orderves and I eyed the crowd over a wine glass, comparing it to my more usual haunt at astrophysics conferences. In place of jeans with the occasional button down shirt, I was surrounded by smart suits and dresses. If that was disconcerting, it was totally overlooked by the guys on mutant segways. Well, at first they were normal wheelchairs, but to bring their occupant up to eye level, these robotic transporters rose up on their back wheels in a way that looked frankly dangerous. They could even roam about like that. To me, it seemed one step away from a Gundam suit.

Moving onto lunch, I sat next to a writer who had recently converted the children's book "Gina Farina and the Prince of Mintz" to a stage production. I still have no idea if what he was telling me was part of the plot or a real event. Despite its different clientèle, there were decided similarities in the stories circulating the table with my own discipline. There was the eminent composer, for instance, who placed a CD on an LP record player and complained in disgust at the screeching noise it produced as the needle carved up the disk. This was only marginally worse than a nameless professor scanning overheads to use them in powerpoint presentations. Except, well no; the latter does actually work.

The fellowship my friend was awarded was created by Charles Ives, the inventor of life insurance who made his fortune and then turned his hand to composing. Perhaps the awards were funded out of his own policy upon his death; it is unknown. What is known is that he never attended one of his own premieres. Allegedly, he couldn't stand them and refused to listen to a first performance of his work even on his death bed where the likelihood of him hearing a later version was rather low.

At the ceremony itself, I clapped, cheered and freaked out the person next to me by admitting what I did for a living. Oh, and I introduced myself to Meryl Streep and shook her hand. Just thought I'd throw that in there.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A love story

USA border control. I'm going to come right out and say I don't like 'em.

We have a relationship that goes back some five and a half years (with one casual encounter prior to this). Some might even consider it semi-serious, especially if you view my move to Canada as a way of spending more time with them. They, however, have denial issues. No matter the frequency of my visits, they refuse to acknowledge that I have ever passed this way before and behave as a jilted lover with a vengeance fetish.

This time, our date took place at the Niagara border on the way to Buffalo airport. I had driven that way twice previously but, out of caution, had allowed an extra hour for bad traffic or a queue at the gate. However, once I had skirted the school buses piled up outside my house, neither of these concerns manifested themselves. The drive was easy and the bridge over to the USA entirely empty. Well, we had been winning the hockey; why would anyone go that way?

What I had not allowed for was the time required to get a visitor visa. The I-94 slip is valid for three months and the last two times I had driven over the border, I had one that was in date. But come on; it's a one page slip that they deal with in five minutes at the airport. How long could this seriously take at the much quieter land crossing?

The answer, it transpires, is 45 minutes.

It also costs $6 USD. I guess the cost is including in your plane ticket when you fly. While not exactly a substantial sum, the problem with requesting USD from people who are in Canada is .... Yeah. I had plenty of CAD but no USD. Well, OK, I had $1. It seems to me that it would make more sense to accept Canadian dollars at the Canadian border but no, apparently not. Fortunately, they do accept credit cards. I waved VISA then I left, now eying the clock.

Almost directly after the border is another bridge. It's a toll one. Did I mention I had no USD? It was possible that the amount they wanted was only $1, but there was no sign before the one and only turn-off before the toll booth, so I couldn't risk it. I pulled into a small gas station and ran my debit card through their ATM. Then I put my foot on the gas, staying slightly behind the guy who obviously was speeding and looking decidedly less innocent than a bright yellow VW beetle.

The bridge toll, incidentally, was $1.

I arrived at Buffalo airport exactly an hour before my flight. In theory, I was fine but I still had to park and I'd been caught out before by over zealous airport attendants. Not waiting for the shuttle bus, I cut across the grass to the terminal, rushing in to find it ... complete deserted. Like really, it was quite eerie. The check-in desk was devoid of human life, but I talked to a machine that printed me a boarding pass but refused to assign me a seat number. Ominous. Was departures empty because everyone was in fact flying to NYC and my flight was packed? I took my ticket and hurried to security.

.... it was also empty.

Seriously people, what do you know that I don't? Feeling like the lead in "28 days later", I pushed my bag through the x-ray machine (this was at least manned) and went and got a sandwich from the food court. Everyone smiled, everyone was nice and everyone was not a passenger. Hmm.

Arriving at my gate, I found three other people there. Somewhat reassuring. I passed my unassigned seat boarding pass to the airline steward at the desk. He frowned and went to his computer to print off a new one. It also had me on the reserve list. The steward raised his eyebrows and tried again. Same result. It appeared that despite this flight being seemingly empty, the computer was determined that I would stay behind. Perhaps it found an empty plane aesthetically pleasing. Perhaps it was in a love affair with the US border control too.

Two phone calls later and I do now have a seat. We will see if it's on the wing.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Roll to me

I have always found feet a disappointment. I mean, they work and everything but life is so much more exciting when you have alternative transportation as footwear. It seems I am not alone in this desire and with the snow and ice gone, many Canadians have switched blades for wheels. Skaters pass me on the way to the University, around town and along the tracks surrounding the lake. Since I possess a pair of roller blades (two actually, for various reasons) I am totally up for joining them ... except for the fact I haven't the foggiest how to stop.

On ice, the sharp sideways pivot hockey stop can bring you to a direct halt almost instantly. On wheels, such a maneuver would result in full body contact with the ground which, while technically fulfilling the intended purpose, lacks a certain something. This restriction is reflected in the rules of roller hockey where the game is played four-on-four, rather than five-on-five, and with no off-side rule. Recreational skates have a back break, but how do you use this without falling on your arse?

This issue is exasperated still more by the difference in intended skating location. In the rink, if I didn't stop I ended up crashing into the barrier or a member of (hopefully) the opposite team (did I take out your ringer? My bad). Here, I would likely end up sprawled in the middle of the highway. Not cool, free health care or not.

There was really only one thing for it and I signed up with a competitive roller blading guy who was offering lessons in Toronto. The class I joined was for beginners and he did warn me over email that they might not get onto stopping in the first lesson. But, he said (and I quote):

"I can make you more confident and stable so stopping won't seem quite as important."

Yeah! If I'm confident I can just go play chicken with those cars! Bring it on! .... I dug out my helmet and pads from the basement.

There were five of us in the class ranging from raw beginners to people lacking in confidence and needing a bit of advanced instruction. It was actually very good and I learnt a bunch of techniques for stability over rough surfaces. I also found that I could stop slowly; when approaching a wall, I stepped inwards to slow myself down. One of the other girls in the class noticed and commented:

"You stopped. How did you do that?"

".... I don't know."

"I think you know more than you realise."

Possibly she was right and it's probably likely that a few years ice skating plus a few more on quad skates helps with the learning process if not technique. I am still, however, going back next week. Life is full of surprises, but I'd rather mine didn't involve a dog's leash (horror story from our instructor), a small child armed with a bicycle (horror story #2) or a large truck (what I'm trying to ensure isn't horror story #3).

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Canadians, it transpires, have a similar stiff-upper-lip attitude to weather as their British counterparts. Given their notorious winters, this perhaps isn't surprising and the upshot of this truism found me in ankle deep wet grass, weighing up whether it was really needful to remove my hands from my jacket sleeves as the other team came up to bat. I would have been feeling less hard done by if every day when I wasn't outside, it hadn't been gorgeous sunshine. For the last four weeks, mind. Still, I could hardly complain; I am British after all. I was also keeping a wary eye on a flock of geese that seemed to have taken over the right outfield. I found this somewhat unnerving since rumour had it that, should these fowl be involved in play, there would probably be two loosing teams.

By the time we had reached the forth innings, I had concluded there must be a more civilized way to settle our differences. A coin flip perhaps? I was even prepared to weight the coin to allow for their indecently competent first baseman. A friend suggested we put in an offer of 12 to 14 and call it a day. Admittedly, it would have been rather generous to us but then it was our suggestion. Instead though, I was left to peer through the netting and wonder why the umpire had not invoked the mercy rule as the other team went on a batting spree. The answer to this turned out to be because the man in question had a second game after this one and wanted company while he waited. As a result, we played all nine innings although our sodden score sheet is only testimony to about the first six. After that, it was home runs from everyone all the way....

..... >_> ..... <_< .....

There is nothing water resistant to prove otherwise.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


First softball game of the season after, uh, two practices one of which I didn't make. But I was unperturbed; I had all that extensive rounders experience under my belt and well, I promised nuffin' when I was conscripted for this team. I felt I fulfilled this obligation when I showed up with a glove stolen from my office. It was a great start.

The team we played were from material engineering. This, someone suggested, surely meant they were unlikely to be any better than us. That cheerful, brash assumption transpired to be entirely false. The game is governed by basic projectiles and as physicists we could all calculate the ball's trajectory to within three decimal places. Unfortunately, as engineers, our rival team could actually hit it to within 1.  It was revealed somewhere around the fifth innings that the other team has actually won the league last year. The person with that knowledge had kept numb on the subject until he thought it might sooth our lack-of-home-run pride.

Nevertheless, the weather was warm and it was great to be outside. I discovered that catching with a GIANT HAND is not easy. For a start, I really had no idea where the extent of this mutant appendage was, so getting the ball to hit the glove centre was hard going. It was also difficult to bend the glove, so the ball tended to drop from it rather like a marshmallow from the mouth of a stunned spectator. After determining this, I was put to be a rover (woof!) which involved standing between the diamond and out field where most balls that come your way will be rolling.

About half way through the game, someone asked if us on the bench wanted to know the score. We all cheerfully declined. I did hit the ball when I batted though. That was almost useful and I felt cool baseballer on TV.

I need a cap.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Free food

So All true, in case anyone was in doubt. My group meeting today can be summed up by the reoccurring theme presented in this strip:

We had gone down to our usual location of the second floor coffee room in the science building to find the scant remains of a pre-Chemistry lecture snacks. Evidently, the speaker had been someone important since the nibbles had consisted of prawns, olives, good cheese and a variety of raw vegetables with dips. We concluded from this two things:

1. Firstly, the Chemistry department had too much money and Physics should either raid it or grass them up to the Dean.
2. We had to devour the remains before they were cleared away.

A couple of the grad students went to work filling their plates but had to up the pace when a guy appeared pushing a trolley to wheel the dishes away. A basket of crackers, plate of cheese and a pot of olives was swiftly secured for our group meeting table which we had safely surrounded. The rest of the discussion then went like this:

Student 1: "I need to calculate the full width half maximum of this graph."

Student 2: "Hmm, crunchy."

Student 1: "..... I have crumbs on my graph."

When people stopped eating, our adviser declared the meeting over.