Sunday, November 18, 2012

Zurich surprised me

Within an hour of arriving, I saw horse meat for sale. It was one of many offerings on a wall of cured meats, mostly containing beef and pork and also chicken bites (that looked the least appetizing).

The yogurt selection is amazing, naturally. I can't wait to stock up when I know for certain that we have a fridge in our room and have located a spoon. For the time being, I settled for a raspberry lassi, partly because no spoon is required and also because lassis are delicious. This one did not disappoint. And I picked up a bag of gingerbread flavored potato chips because how could I not?

When there is an up escalator vs a stair case, just as many people walk up the stairs, even carrying rolly bags.

I will never, ever fully comprehend why Europeans choose a standing table over a sitting table when there is no price difference. And please don't tell me that it's a cultural thing. I'm aware of that. What I'm saying is that I will never understand it.

Zurich has really surprised me with how cute it is. The old city is vast and there are plenty of other areas that are full of winding cobblestone streets, too. I always thought it was just a business center with a fancy shopping area. We happened upon the shopping area, which is basically a Rodeo drive but in much older buildings. And then we delved back into the little winding streets.

I do love a country in which various types of cheese are considered dinner entrees. We had fondue one night and raclette the next. And the day before I left home I put away an entire container of chèvre because I was afraid it would not keep until we return. In googling to find out what the people at the table next to ours were doing when they dipped their bread into a small glass before dipping it into the fondue, I learned that it is kirsch (as we guessed) and there is a reason they were drinking black tea along with their white wine. Oops... a little late for us...

Fondue is not just for tourists in Switzerland. At the cheese store, there are several varieties of grated and mixed cheese. I do love a country that takes cheese seriously.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Traveling abroad with an iphone or ipad

It took me years -- seriously YEARS -- to figure out how not to pay an arm and a leg to use my iPhone when traveling out of the US. It can cost a lot of money if you don't prepare your phone and your plan properly, so I'm going to share with you what I have learned.

First of all, if you have an iPhone, you cannot live without your iPhone, so the concept of only using wifi while you're traveling is ridiculous. So, don't listen to those fools who say "simply turn off all data roaming unless you have access to wifi!" Those people probably have Blackberries. (Obviously, do your best to find a hotel that has free wifi so that you can surf like mad when you're in your hotel.)

You can use data, but it will cost you a small amount of money (and come on, you have an iPhone already; you can afford to spend $30-$60) and you will need to ration that data. It's really hard, I grant you, to not check Facebook, CNN, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and whatever else you're addicted to every 5 minutes. But I have found -- and I know this is going to sound crazy! -- that not being able to check my phone more than a couple times a day is actually conducive to enjoying my vacation more.

Step 1: Add international features

I don't know how it works on Verizon's website, but on AT&T's, under the Wireless dropdown, there is an option to Add or Change Services. Click on that.

Scroll down to International Features and then scroll to the bottom of that section until you see the international roaming data info. I find that 120 MB is doable for a week if you ration.

Also in that International Features section you can add on international roaming messaging (not international long distance -- that's for sending from the US to other countries), but, if you are lucky, all your friends and family also have iPhones and so you can text them for free from anywhere in the world. If you text other poor souls a lot, you might want to add on that feature for $10/month. Here's more info on the cost of those plans and what it costs to text and send photos via text when abroad.

As for voice plans, I'm not an expert on that since I rarely use my phone for actual phone calls when I'm traveling except maybe to make a dinner reservation or two, so I always just pay for the cost of the call. There is a bunch of info on voice plans, here, though, if you need it.

Step 2: Ensure the international plan covers the whole pay period

This is the tricky part and where I have gotten stumped many a time. When you sign up for 300 MB of international data, to get the whole 300 MB, you will need to apply the plan to your whole pay period. So, if your pay period starts on the first of the month and you add on the plan on the 10th and then you go away from the 15th to the 30th, and you don't backdate the international plan, you will only get 20-ish days of the data plan, ie, 2/3 of the 300 MB that you signed up for. This can work to your advantage at times, but for this, it does not because you want the whole 300 MB. So, you must ensure that the international plan is applied to the whole pay period.

You can ensure that by signing up for the int'l plan in advance of the billing cycle during which you will be traveling. Add on the int'l plan during the pay period prior to your trip and you will be able to select the following pay period when you go to add on the int'l plan. Or, you can call 800-331-0500 and simply ask the customer service agent to backdate the plan for you. I'm not sure what the cut-off date is, but early on in the billing cycle you can backdate the plan yourself. I'm 2 weeks into my cycle right now and I am unable to backdate it on the site. I'll check back periodically and update this if I find out more details on that.

Step 3: Calculate how much data you are using

Just before you turn off your phone when you are on the plane on your way to your fabulous foreign destination, go to Settings -- General -- Usage -- Cellular Usage. Click Reset Statistics. While you are on your trip, check this screen frequently to keep track of how much data you are sending and receiving. It's pretty reliable.

Step 4: Turn off all unnecessary data suckers

Under Settings -- General -- Cellular, turn off Data Roaming. On this same screen you may want to also turn off the other items that are using cellular data, such as iCloud docs, iTunes, etc. (Note: you may need to turn this on again periodically if you need to look something up, but it's best to keep it off when you aren't using it.)

Under Settings -- Mail, Contacts, Calendar, click on Fetch New Data and switch Push to OFF. Then change the Fetch option to Manually so that you have to manually pull in new emails. You can then wait to do that when you are in a location with wifi. And if you need to look something up in an email that you already downloaded, you can open up the email app and look at the email without all your new emails downloading automatically.

Turn off all alerts or at least most of them. I don't want to miss out on the CNN breaking news alerts, for example, so I keep those on, but I turn off notifications that it's my turn in Words With Friends. Go to Settings -- Notifications. Click on the items listed in Notification Center and change to Off.

If you really want to conserve data, you can turn off Location Services located in Settings -- Privacy. Or, instead of turning off the data for all the apps, you can just turn it off for the ones you don't use often and leave it on for the camera, Yelp, and maps, for example. According to the interwebs, the location services itself doesn't use a ton of data, but why not turn it off anyway? That's my philosophy.

That's it! Have a fabulous trip! And relish the fact that you can't disappear into your tiny pocket computer during every moment of downtime. You may even find it to be a wonderfully novel experience reminding you of the good ol' days and you may think you will surely keep this up at home. (You won't, but that's okay. That's part of why we travel.)

Just one more thing. Not to confuse you, but I did mention above that sometimes you don't want to backdate a plan add-on. For example, you may want to add on a mobile hot spot for an hour. You certainly don't want to pay for a whole month's worth of hot spot use. It requires some math or if you're not a fan of math (like me) then you can just turn it off again a couple days later and assume that was plenty of time to include the amount of megabytes you used.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Number form

The brain sure is a mysterious thing. We can go pleasantly along throughout our lives thinking that the perfectly normal ways in which we make sense of the world are the same ways everyone else does, only come to find out that hardly anyone does it that way. Seeing number forms is one of those instances. When I happened upon that blog post today, I said a big "ah ha!" because I had tried Googling what I see before, but to no avail. I mean, how do you google, "sees numbers in brain"? If only I had thought to search on "sees number line," I might have happened upon the Wiki page.

But I didn't know before how to name what I was seeing because what I see is not so much a line as a... I don't even know what to call it. Yes, it is a line, but I move along it. There are distinct corners at 100, 1000, 2000, and 1970. It's hard to map it out two-dimensionally because I don't know what viewpoint to do it from. I see it from above as if I'm flying directly over it.

The line itself is sort of a nothingness on a black background. It's like looking into a void where just the numbers are. I don't really like it in there. Surprise, surprise, I'm not a fan of math at all. 

The reason the number line actually causes me trouble with math is the corners. Numbers between 1 and 100 are easy. (The bend at 20 doesn't cause a problem for some reason.) I can figure out 72 minus 37 pretty quickly. But 137 minus 72? So much harder because in my mind I have to turn the corner of 100.

Same goes for figuring out how long ago something happened if it happened before 2000. There is such a distinct corner at the year 2000. It's similar to the one at 100.

Wow, describing this really does sound crazy! 

I included an image of a calendar year in the drawing as well because I also "see" that, but I'm not sure if it's the same thing.Along with the seasons, I picture the names of the months and their weather and the holidays.

So, how do you see numbers, if you see them at all? If you don't see them, can you explain what that's like? I can't imagine NOT seeing them!

I wonder if this is related: To learn and retain a new word, I need to know how it's spelled. In other words, I need to be able to visualize the placement of the letters before it will make sense to me.

Monday, October 8, 2012


What is left to write by hand? There's an app for nearly everything and for most of those things, I have tried out the app. The grocery shopping app is waaaaay too much trouble for something so simple. But reminders apps are great. A piece of paper won't beep at you at a certain time reminding you to pick up the dry cleaning.

I have gone back and forth over the years on keeping paper journals. Right now, I'm all about the electronic. I can type up not for public consumption journal entries on my phone while leaning against the doors of a subway car. But I can't write those entries by hand while standing up. For some reason, things tend to become clear for me when standing on the subway like they do for others when they are in the shower. When I'm in the shower in the morning I'm too groggy and all I can think of is, "did I wash my hair a minute ago? I already forgot."

I'm glad the internet did not become so pervasive until I was out of college because up until that point my friends and I still wrote each other lots of letters. I still have some of those old letters. Surprisingly, none of my friends want their letters back and I'm unable to throw them away. I would want my letters back if anyone had any I wrote to them long ago. The letters from old boyfriends are mostly ridiculous, though. Those I did throw away.

A letter from my great Aunt Helen
My first pen-pal was my grandma. Somewhere at my parents' house I have a few of the earliest letters she wrote me. She carefully wrote them out in print so that I would not have trouble reading them.

My grandma is 102 years old and my mother and her brothers finally had to move her into an assisted living situation this past spring. Things have been going downhill since then. She's no longer able to write me back, but I try to write as often as I can. I tell myself I'll write her every week, but how quickly a couple weeks go by before I realize I haven't written her.

It's strange writing to someone knowing they can't write back. I'm used to asking questions in letters, even if I don't really expect specific answers. There is no replying to anything mentioned in the other person's last letter. There is merely following up on something I wrote previously. It feels self-indulgent or something. I probably would not keep up with writing to her so often if my mom didn't tell me that Grandma appreciates my letters very much. So, I keep it up.

I have a young pen-pal of my own now: my friend Karyl's daughter, Grace, who just turned 8 on Sunday. Bit by bit her letters back to me are getting longer. Even though she will have grown up always having a computer at her disposal, I hope she'll continue to take pleasure in letter writing. And I hope that she meets other people -- young people -- who enjoy it as well. Here's hoping!

Monday, October 1, 2012

As it turns out, I really like LA!

When a person from the East coast reads reviews of California's Mexican restaurants and sees some mediocre reviews, the translation is basically: "this food is still waaaaay better than any Mexican you'd get at home. And it will be a quarter of the price." Even the ubiquitous roadside stands are better than 95% of the Mexican food available in Manhattan. Ah well. That good food is not completely globalized is one of the main reasons I am compelled to travel as often as I do.

The one type of food that is more prevalent than Mexican in LA is donuts. Donut stands are literally in every single strip mall, no matter how small the mall. You simply cannot drive for more than 5 minutes without seeing yet another independent donut shop. All of them appear to have been in existence for at least 60 years and many are open all night long. On our last night as we were driving through a sketchy looking neighborhood after midnight, we decided to pull into one of these little donut holes in the wall and see what all the fuss is about.

A hand printed sign on the wall said that if you sat for longer than 15 minutes, you'd be kicked out. And the smell of freshly fried donuts was in the air. The man working behind the counter said freshly made crullers would be ready in 2 minutes if we wanted to wait. It is no exaggeration that that was one of the best donuts I ever ate. What IS LA's obsession with donuts? I searched on Google, but all I'm seeing is lists of the best ones. Yes, but WHY? If you know why LA is obsessed with donuts, please let me know. I'm curious.

What were we doing out after midnight, being the old fogeys that we are? Well, we had spent several enjoyable hours at the Comedy Store. It was open mic and here is how the end of that experience went down:

It was midnight on a Monday at the Comedy Store. As you can imagine, the crowd was small. It was open mic night so there had been some good comics and some duds, but we were having a good time, which was why we'd stuck around for several hours. Anyway, this guy gets up and he sits down on the stool and gets right up at the edge of the stage and starts telling this long thing that i can't even call a joke about Batman. It's going nowhere, but we're riding it out because it is amateur night after all.

And then he gets pissed because no one is laughing and he yells, "you're the worst fucking audience! It's just a bunch of dudes out there and you still don't like my batman stuff!" And I threw up my arms and yelled, "hey! I'm right here!" Now, keep in mind that there were only 8 people in the audience and he could totally see me.

He says "what?" And I say "there ARE women here!" So then he starts going off on me, saying who the fuck do I think I am, saying that he's going to be playing a sold out show in Portland and when he saw this audience and was like, shit, I don't need this crap. By this time the audience IS laughing and he says "they're laughing at YOU!" And I just shake my head and people around me are saying "no, we're not; she has a point. The batman stuff isn't funny."

And then the talent wrangler yells from the back of the room that this same thing happened the last time this dude came on and the comic gets really angry and just berates us all for the rest of his time slot.

So, that was interesting. Also, the MC had encouraged talking up, which I certainly wasn't planning on doing until this jerk heckled the audience, for crying out loud.

Monday, July 30, 2012

What do you suck at?

I've been thinking for a while of starting back up with the blogging and using prompts to do so. This is an easy one, so here we go. Danille LaPorte wrote a post today about the things she sucks at*. She says:
When you cop to your shortcomings a number of wonderful things can happen. You become more accessible to the people around you, you invite other people to step up and shine, and you create space for support to come into your life — you actually don’t have to be awesome at everything. Go figure. Mostly, when you approve of your weaknesses, you give yourself permission to pursue your genius.
Here is what I suck at: 

1. Like Danielle, I suck at brainstorming in groups.  I don't think well under pressure and I don't feel comfortable shouting out half-baked ideas that may or may not stick. I like to mull things over and craft them carefully and then suggest them.

2. I suck at learning when it involves being told how by someone else. That stresses me out and instead of hearing what the person is saying, I start to just hear "words words words." I learn best by reading the manual, the textbook, the how-to guide.

3. I suck at numbers and money. I could not tell you how much I make. I  know roughly, give or take a couple grand, but I have no idea of the exact amount. I just don't remember. It's a number and therefore it falls right out of my brain. I think I remember what we paid for our condo, but I may have that wrong. It's a number. It just doesn't stick. I have learned tricks for certain things like figuring out the tip. (Even I can figure out 10% and double that. Usually.)

4. I suck at concentrating when there are any distractions at all. I cannot simply tune out a TV, a radio, a conversation, gum smacking. Even if I have zero interest in what I can hear, I am unable to ignore it. So, while some people like to work in cafes because the hum of activity is like white noise to them, to me that is not an ideal environment at all. I need absolute silence to concentrate.

These are some difficult things to admit to! All of the things I suck at are considered faults in many circles. But why? Everyone cannot excel at everything. Why not just concentrate on what we're good at and admit that we need help with the other stuff?

Some may consider these things character flaws, and maybe they are, but I prefer to think of them as what makes me the person I am. I am fairly honest about these "flaws," except for the first one, perhaps, in a work setting. Not being particularly good at group brainstorming is not something I choose to advertise at my job, but certainly when I am in a situation where it must be done, I do my best. And the rest of the time, I delicately avoid putting myself in those types of situations.

The difficulty with "flaw" #2 is that people who learn just fine orally can't comprehend that others do not learn best that way. So, they often tend to continue to teach in such a manner, despite my best efforts to ask them to pleeeease write a how-to guide also or instead. If they want to talk me through it, fine, but then for the love of god, please write a how-to guide also.

I am very lucky to have a husband who manages our money for us. At the beginning of our marriage I was patently against him doing so because it seemed like an affront to feminism. But guess what, it has nothing to do with feminism. He happens to be good with math and numbers and all that crap and I am not. It's not because I'm a girl. It's just the way I am. I admit it! It's so much easier now that I admit it. (I didn't use to.)

Unfortunately, one aspect of my job involves liaising with the editors who sit around me, so on one hand it's useful for me to hear their chit-chat, but when I need to concentrate, boy do their conversations drive me up the wall. But thank goodness for Spotify. If I need to tune them out, I just listen to classical music (no vocals, of course).

(*The grammar of this phrase bugs me, but "at what do you suck" does sound pretty clumsy, so I'll let it stand.)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Notebook free

For a number of years I was obsessed with using a particular notebook. I would order them in bulk and I would get antsy if I was nearing the end of my last one and I hadn't procured more of them. The Ampad Project Planner was the ideal notebook because of the column of white space down the left side of every page. Not only is this a great area in which to doodle, it is also excellent for going back and adding notes about notes I had already taken.

I stick to my assertion that I'm not a particularly organized person, but in an attempt to keep myself organized, I had a system where I would highlight information pertaining to various topics that I knew I'd need to reference again in the future. The topics I highlighted were various types of meetings, instructions on how to do new tasks, etc. This method involved going back over my notes with the highlighters, keeping track of numerous notebooks, and remembering which notebook contained which important data. And then interspersed among the important data that I referenced over and over were mundane notes that I had no more need of after the day I wrote them.

So, this method was far from perfect. But it's the logical way and the method most people use, right? When I show up to a meeting, everyone shows up with his or her notebook to doodle in... er... take notes in.

I've had an iPhone for several years, but I never thought to use it for work. That is, until I got an app for taking notes on the iPhone, the iPad, and on any number of computers. I use the desktop version of the app during the workday for things like taking notes during conference calls, saving off various bits of information that came to me in different formats so that they're all in one place, and keeping a master list of bigger projects I'm working on. I have folders where everything is filed, but it's not even that big of a deal if I don't put a note into a sub folder since everything I type in the app is searchable. And to think I used to wish my notebooks were searchable!

I first started using the app to save off information not related to my job. I have a folder for home ownership in which I put the names and numbers and notes about people I've called to come work on our condo. I have a travel folder in which I put notes about places where I want to go. I have a shopping folder in which I save gift ideas (photo, info, and URL) and things I might want to / need to buy someday. I have a recipes folder that I populate using my laptop while reading Bon Appetit. When I see a recipe I want to save, I find it on their website and then copy the content into a note in the app, photo included. I also have saved in there the directions on how to use our rice cooker because it's ridiculously complicated and neither of us can ever remember how to use it nor where the directions are stored.

Not only can I include text and photos from websites, but I can also add scanned images or photos. In my shopping folder, for example, is a phone pic of the types of video tapes that Jeff is always asking me to pick up for him at B&H.

I have chosen to share the recipes folder with Jeff. The app is free and I have not come close to using up all the space I am allotted. I could envision using the shared folder feature much more robustly someday. 

Before I totally gave up on using a notebook at work I worried a little bit about the security of my data. What if there is some disaster that causes all my data to be erased? I suppose that is a possibility, but then again notebooks can get lost or stolen. And notebooks are not backed up on multiple computers like my notes are that I create in the app.

So anyway, I'm not here to promote any particular app and there are various ones that perform this function. So, I will just say that I use Evernote and I'm sticking with it because it's the one I started with. I have heard good things about Springpad and it seems to get a lot of good reviews (although I think it's more slanted toward the visual whereas Evernote is more slanted toward text plus visuals). I suggest you research note-taking apps and see which one appeals to you if you are interested in going notebook free.

The next time I attend a meeting that lasts longer than an hour, I'm going to bring my iPad and my wireless keyboard and take notes that way. I bet I'll get some curious looks, but my notes will be searchable and instantly shareable.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Conquering email

I started to type this up as a series of Facebook posts, but I realized that I have quite a bit to say on this topic, so I believe it merits a blog entry.

I recently figured out on my own how to separate out my to do list from my email inbox. I was a little worried that it's a bit too time consuming, but now that I have verification that it's a good system, I will fret no longer.

The article does not expressly state this (probably because it's not written exclusively for users of Outlook), but it's very easy to drag and drop an email into the Tasks pane, turning it into a task. I then edit the task as necessary. 

And if there is a series of actions involved or some follow-up calls to be made before it's completed, I simply edit the task and add that info in at the top. I then drag the original email to a folder called Tasks To Do so that when I need to follow up with the requester, I know where to find the email.  

Then what do you do with the emails, you might ask. Do you just delete them? The task is done, so why not, right? No! Accountability, people! I have a terrible, awful, no good memory, which is why I started journaling, and is also why I save a record of every task I complete. If I'm asked a couple weeks later if I did something, I very well may not remember, even if I did do it.

Another Lifehacker article suggests employing a folder called Hold:
...a temporary holding pen for important messages you'll need quick access to within the next few days. If you're waiting on someone else to get back to you with crucial information, or you're maintaining a thread about a time-sensitive topic, keep it in the Hold folder. ... Examples: a FedEx confirmation number for a delivery that's on its way, or a message from a co-worker that says, "I'll get back to you Tuesday re: The Big Project."
That's a new one for me. I think I'm going to start employing that. I normally just keep those in my inbox and they annoy me because they just sit there and then they fall beneath the fold and cause clutter. Hold folder it is!

The rest of that post is about putting everything that's done into one big Archive folder, which I think is going to cause a big headache later on that can easily be avoided with a bit of one-time organization.

Email yes, desk not so much...
I have about 20 folders in Outlook that are saved onto a shared server NOT my own hard drive. (As you can probably guess, I learned that the hard way.) Some are on specific projects/tasks (like app, intranet, redesign, social media). Others are more just buckets of places to save things off: Eloqua FYI, how to, personnel (promotion or re-org announcements, etc. that I may need to refer to later on).

I also have a Done folder with sub folders containing the most common types of tasks I complete. This may seem excessive, but I always have a record of what I have completed.

I suppose you could just save off everything into one massive archive and search for it, but more often than not, I need to browse the folder containing the bit of info I'm seeking. Plus, I set those folders up years ago and they have barely changed, so it's not like it's a huge imposition to archive an email into the appropriate archive folder.And if a project ends, I can simply save that whole folder off into an Archive folder.

What is amusing about all this organization, of course, is that to look at my desk at work you'd be shocked to learn that I put this much time into organizing my email in-box. But believe me, if I could Shift-Ctrl-V each receipt, menu, and print-out someone gave me that has notes scribbled on it, I absolutely would.

Next up, I will talk about how I've stopped using a notebook at work.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Unofficial study

For as long as I can remember I have struck up conversations with strangers. More often than not, I get a disinterested response and I regret opening my mouth. And yet I continue to do it. I can't help it. I see something unusual happen on the street that a passer-by witnesses as well and I am compelled to remark on our joint experience.

Maybe it's my southern upbringing that leads me to instead of being wary of strangers to look to them as potential conversation partners. I should conduct a study of whether chats with strangers are more likely to be fruitful in Virginia than in NYC.

A study I have conducted in great detail is of chivalry. There is not much chivalry to be found in the NYC area.

Case in point: I have devised a system for getting the best standing spot on my commuter train. It's only a 22-minute ride and I sit all day long so I don't mind standing at all; in fact I enjoy it. But I prefer to lean against the door instead of hold on to a pole so that both my hands are free to hold my book.

I could rush onto the train when it arrives in the station and hope to get a spot against the door on the opposite side of the car. But instead I hold back and get on last so that I can lean against the door I enter.

Almost always it's no problem at all to board last. Until today. A man stood aside and motioned for me to enter the train before him. It was not his plan to lean against the door. He was just being chivalrous. He entered the car after me and took a spot a few feet from me. I leaned against the door.

A few moments later I tapped him on the shoulder and said, "So few people are actually chivalrous anymore -- like you were. You see, I have this system, which works because everyone rushes onto the train car..." And I told him my system.

He smiled and said he was glad it worked out and we both went back to reading our books.

Just before his stop he tapped me on the arm and said, "thanks for telling me about that. You really made my day."

And that, my friends, made MY day.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Submerging the chatter

I recently learned about a Buddhist meditation technique called vipassana, which is basically saying to yourself over and over what you are doing at that moment. It can be used when doing walking mediation. So, you can say "walking walking walking" as you walk. You can also say "looking" or "seeing," whichever word works for you. I prefer "looking" because it's when I'm noticing something in particular. It's a more active word than "seeing," at least in my thinking.

When I'm done looking at a particular object I go back to saying "walking." Sometimes I change it up and I say "feet feet" and center my concentration on my feet. I notice how my feet strike the pavement, whether any part of my toes are feeling rubbed by my shoes, the sound of my footfalls.

Speaking of noise, I also really enjoy switching it up to "listening listening." I have discovered that when I focus on listening with an open mind, the world around me sounds different and I hear all sorts of things I'm not sure that I would notice otherwise.

I really like the effect these techniques have on quieting the chatter in my head. On one hand, I wish I could simply turn down the chatter and be done with it. But I can't make that happen without assistance right now. And it turns out that this type of mediation turns those voices right off.

Apparently some people who practice this meditation will allow their thoughts to wander and then they will simply silently chant "thinking" when they notice that happening. That doesn't really work for me because when I'm doing this exercise I prefer to not allow my mind to wander. So when it does I calmly steer my thoughts back to the chanting right away.

Vipassana is so effective that I can do it almost anywhere and even better if I'm able to close my eyes.

I was on the train headed to Brooklyn yesterday evening and there was a lot of chatter. So I closed my eyes and checked in with various parts of my body. I silently spoke to each part of my body and focused on how that body part felt. When I got to body parts that felt like they were not calm, I stopped on them and I spoke gently to them. "Forehead, I get that you're tense right now. Do you want to try relaxing a little bit?" That sort of thing. I have never spoken to my body like that before, but at the time it just seemed like a good idea.

I have to say: it REALLY worked. I opened my eyes after a little while and felt completely relaxed and no longer tense in any way. I calmly looked out the window then and saw my local stop whizzing by. While in my trance, I had missed the announcement about the train switching from a local C to an express A. Damnit! All sense of calm disappeared in an instant.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Vietnam, briefly

I wrote this over the course of a 5 day trip to Saigon.

Jeff and I have decided that it's like finding a 4-leaf clover if we spot 5 people riding a scooter. So far we've only seen 4 at once and some unusual loads including: a tree, 100 balloons, a bookshelf, 4 large bags of coconuts, 8 wooden folding chairs, 6 milk crates full of bottles. 

All adults wear helmets on mopeds, but kids do not. Just hats. Hardly any local women wear skirts. I suppose this is for practical reasons given the main mode of transport. The daily uniform for many older women seems to be pajamas. I guess that's the local version of the leisure suit. 

The CDC says to avoid street food, but we've chosen to ignore this advice. So far so good. We've had some incredible soups costing about a dollar a piece. 

Per Anthony Bourdain's advice we also went to "snail street" and had delicious seafood at an open air restaurant called Lucky. I'd never had cockles before so I wasn't sure if the fact that none of the shells were open was a bad sign. They tasted so good, though! And neither of us got sick so who knows. I guess we got lucky! Beers there were $0.50 a piece and we sat at a kids table on kids chairs just like all the locals. 

Gambling on cards is big here. Seems to be popular with all ages and is even done at family gatherings. 

Nose picking in public is rampant. 

Update: I saw two motos carrying 5 people and one with 6! Three adults, 3 kids. 

We took a day trip to the Mekong Delta, which was super touristy. I can't really say it was worth it, especially when we heard from some Australians that on the Cu Chi tunnels tour they got to shoot AK-47s. I didn't want to do that tour because I knew I wouldn't want to crawl through narrow underground tunnels. Oh well. 

People do still wear the conical hats, although mainly just people working outdoors.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Out of the comfort zone

On Sunday I went on the treetop walk at MacRitchie reservoir. The portion of the walk in the trees is pretty short (although quite picturesque) and the rest of the walk is uphill on the way there and downhill on the way back. Needless to say, my calves are killing me. It's a good hurt, though.

There is so much to hear in the forest. I wanted to just stand still and listen at times (and rest!) but then a group would come along behind me being so loud, one even carrying a radio. I can't understand why you'd want to bring your own soundtrack to a tropical forest.

At one point I had paused beside a freshwater stream and two British women came along. One saw a bug and screamed and then the other screamed. Instantly the noise in the trees around me picked up to a much more intense shriek. It was like all the insects and frogs and whatever else were complaining about the ruckus. After the women passed by, the wildlife quieted back down.

When walking around Singapore there is a little moment every time I spot another white person and I know it's not just me because I have noticed many whites looking right at me, almost quizzically. I know they are thinking the same thing I am: where are you from and how did you wind up here? This gaze is held even longer when the encounter occurs outside of touristy areas.

Note: this is not the case if the whites are carrying maps in their hands. It's only when each white person clearly knows where she's headed and is wearing business attire (ie, not a tourist, although I have caught tourists looking at me with the gaze). It's not like there are so few whites, but we're definitely in the minority. And it's not even as if the others are American!

It's a strange thing. It's one of those things that's difficult to describe and you won't entirely believe me until you are in a similar situation.

It's the same way you can tell someone that it takes living in another country for at least a couple months to really appreciate that you are really and truly an American. So many of us believe that we don't belong in the US, that we're European, especially, at heart. But if you ask most anyone who has lived abroad for some time they will tell you that it was a wonderful experience and it was a bit of reverse culture shock to come back but they did realize they are American through and through. Try it. Ask around. There will be exceptions, of course.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

My motto is to try anything once

Christmas is huge in Singapore even though only half the country is Christian. Equally big is Chinese new year, which is coming up next week. Various celebratory foods and clothes, mainly for kids, are for sale everywhere.

I pass a construction site on my way to the train every day. When I came home at 9pm last night, I heard clanging and banging in there. I wonder if it's being worked on all night long.

Yong Tau Foo
This morning I took the small road next to the building as usual. A forklift zoomed by and a cherry picker was slowly maneuvering into place. Several men were walking across the road carrying heavy loads. I asked one man if it was still okay to go that way. He nodded in the affirmative and pointed the way. I walked quickly beneath the cherry picker and made my way to the station. I guess the onus is on the pedestrian to determine if it's safe to walk there?

I am in love with Australian nectarines. Oh man are they ever juicy and sweet. So far every day I have eaten two for breakfast along with some sort of soft bread thing from a bakery. The bakeries are everywhere. They sell these soft breads with a variety of toppings such as ham & cheese or coconut cream and chocolate sprinkles. My favorite so far have been the cheesy ones because they're a bit salty.

Would you guess that dried figs are good? I would not but I took a chance. And they are very good! I guess they are what's in Fig Newtons, but I'm not particularly fond of those, I think because they are too cakey.

I really miss knives. It doesn't help that often the chicken is hacked into pieces that include bones. And yet one is expected to dissect it with a fork and spoon.

The other day I got a soup at a place called Yong Tau Foo that was very delicious. You pick out the ingredients with a pair of tongs and then the proprietor puts them into a noodle soup for you (after you choose which type of noodle you want). There's no meat, just seafood, tofu and vegetables. I thought it was pretty great but come to find out this is a style of soup and there are way better stands that sell it. I can't wait to try the best one.

Beef stew
When I told my trainee (a Chinese Singaporean) that I liked the soup he replied, "Okay only lah." That means "meh" as best as I can tell. Or, in other words, he doesn't think much of the soup place I went to. Singaporeans say "lah" a lot. It means pretty much anything and is perhaps akin to the Canadian "eh?"

The other day I went to the Hungry Hippo for lunch with some coworkers. We sat down and a waitress brought menus and took drink orders. Today I went back because I was told the the beef stew special on Wednesdays is not to be missed. I sat down in the corner and proceeded to be ignored. I finally flagged down the waitress. She said "you sit here?!", laughed, and walked away. Frustrated, I got up and walked to the cashier. "I'd like to order the beef stew to stay." "Do you have a table?" "Yes!" "Well go sit down." I have no idea what I did wrong there but so what because that beef stew was indeed to die for.


In 2010 I did a 365 photo project where I managed to take photos 350 days out of the 365. In 2011 I made a more ambitious attempt to record a short video every day. That wound up being simply too hard to accomplish, so I gave up. I missed this challenge, so this year I'm trying something new. I'm doing a photo collage every day. So far, I'm really liking this challenge, but I'm only a week in (I started a couple days late). The idea is to have the photos be more a day in the life sort of snapshot. Stay tuned to see how it evolves.


Entries on my previous month-long stint in Singapore start here.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Escape to Indonesia

I took a ferry over to Batam, Indonesia, on Saturday. The boat sped between the huge oil tankers anchored around Singapore Bay.

Tree house room
Shortly after arriving, I saw a giant lizard crossing the road right in front of the taxi! The driver had to stop the car so that the huge lizard could waddle across the road. I thought was a Komodo Dragon, but apparently they are quite rare and that is unlikely.

I stayed at a resort with 8 rooms, one of which is the tree house room. I decided to splurge and stay in that one and I'm so glad I did. The bed is suspended from the ceiling and I was rocked to sleep. I'm not sure it would be as enjoyable with two people making it rock every time one person moved, however.

I got a deal on a couples spa package so instead of 3 hours of spa time I got all 6 hours. This may have been a tad too much spa time, but I can't say I regret it at all. On Saturday afternoon I got a Balinese massage, a facial, and a scalp massage. The scalp one is meant to do something for your hair. I don't know if it did, nor do I really care because the real reason I chose it is was for the washing and massaging.

On Sunday I had a shiatsu massage, a hot compress massage and a body scrub. I had never had shiatsu before. I'm definitely a fan of it now. It poured that day so instead of getting a tour of the island, I was taken to the mega-mall. As you can imagine, it's all relative just how mega it is.

The Indonesian rupiah coins feel like play money. I think they might be made of plastic. At an actually mega grocery store in the basement of the mall I bought a sackful of tasty snacks that cost me $3.50 US. They sell dourian cookies. I wonder if it's illegal to bring dourian cookies on the train in Singapore like it's illegal to bring a whole dourian.

At a traffic light in Batam there were signs that count down how many seconds are left before it changes red and green. So useful!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Settling in in Singapore

Takeaway boxes are cardboard with a big sheet of plastic laid inside. You then wrap it around the food. This is probably less likely to leak than those stupid styrofoam containers. 

I am staying in a sort of compound in a condo that has seen better days. The plus sides are that there are 4 pools on the compound and a private washer and dryer. And the condo has 2 bathrooms, which is certainly a luxury, although not so much until Jeff arrives. I wish I had brought my running stuff because there is a trail as well. I thought I was kidding myself in thinking that I'd spend any time exercising. Hell, I probably still am. 

There isn't a lot near the compound except for a small hawker center (8 stands), an even smaller hawker center (3 stands), a small grocery store, a yogurt store that has not yet been open, and a bread store where I bought a package of chocolate bread (hot dog buns with a little bit of chocolate sprinkles and cream inside). Everything looks the same around the compound. Two of the three times I went out I walked exactly the opposite direction I thought I was going.

At the hawker center last night was a family with 3 young kids and a woman who must have been the auntie (nanny). The parents were rather manic while the auntie was completely calm. The father told her to grab a high chair for the youngest child, which she did. The toddler refused and she put it back. I guarantee the auntie knew it was fruitless. I know the culture of having a live-in nanny in a tiny apartment is the norm here but I still have a hard time accepting it. 

I learned yesterday that men are called uncle, no matter the age of either party. I gather it's instead or "sir" and no doubt less formal. 

The commute to the office is about 45 mins -- a bit more of a hike than the 20 mins it took when I stayed in a hotel right downtown last time. 

No one would ever try bubble tea on looks and description alone. I'm thinking you have to be told it's good by someone you trust. I ponder how gross tapioca pearls look every time I eat them. 

Christmas music is still playing all over Singapore. It's January 2nd. How long will this go on?! Enough already!

Pedicures are not cheap here. I guess the nail salons know they'll always be in demand in a place where it's always summer. I was handed a magazine to read while I got my calluses soaked off (magical! But the product would set me back $50 so I'm not sure I'm that desperate to soak them off myself at home). I read a magazine called Her World, which is published here in Singapore. The ads feature primarily white women, though. One for Lancôme described a special formulation specially for Asian skin, alongside a photo of Julia Roberts. 

I walked all over the Ion Orchard mall this evening searching for the sushi place I fell in love with last time. I finally found it and naturally it was not as good as I remembered.