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Memories and Spice

Posted: February 21, 2019 in Food, Musings
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Taking a little break from travel blog writing to bring you a cheesy, personal post. Enjoy!


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What you see before you in this photo is an empty container once full of cumin powder. Not very special at first glance, but this particular container holds a lot of value.

At this very time six years ago, in February 2013, I was midway through my second year of service as an AmeriCorps*VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) member. I was living in a basement apartment in downtown Albany, NY (perfect for late-night vibraphone practice sessions) and spending my days advocating for refugees and immigrants of the Capital District. I remember this time fondly, feeling very much like I was making a big difference in the community by organizing workshops, running volunteer trainings, presenting benefit concerts, tutoring English language learners, and just generally spreading awareness of the presence of such a large, diverse, and wonderful refugee population in the area. The refugees and immigrants of the Capital Region, and everyone who works so hard to support them, will always hold a huge place in my heart.

At this same time I was attempting to a) Figure out how to spread my SNAP-assisted budget to make it through a month (AmeriCorps members are provided with a stipend that allows them to live 5% above the poverty line) and b) Expand my horizons as a meal-prepper, with my brother hundreds of miles away constantly reminding me that I wasn’t a great cook. To stretch my food budget I often bought things in bulk because of the cheaper unit prices and long-term value, so one day I walked into the local Price Chopper, saw a large container of cumin on sale, and decided to buy it.

If memory serves me correctly, I bought that container of cumin early into my second year of VISTA service. Back then I didn’t have a huge spice collection, so every time I walked into the kitchen it stood out. I often found myself staring at it as I prepared dinner after each day of VISTA service, reflecting on my experiences, the stories of the refugees I was working with, the passion and selflessness of the advocates who gave their time so willingly, and what I could do to make the most of each day of my service term. I had some great, solo reflections there with that cumin bottle, and came up with some ideas that proved to be extremely worthwhile endeavors, such as organizing a benefit concert for RISSE and the decision to start tutoring a young woman from Japan learning English. I was also a little lonely; by that time many (but not all) of my college friends had moved out of Albany, and while I still had people to hang out with, I spent many nights home alone (happily practicing my vibraphone, of course). So…that giant cumin bottle was like an extra friend, who allowed me to vent about/reflect on the day while adding new flavor to my cooking.

VISTA was amazing, but all good things must come to an end. After my service ended I took on a position on as a VISTA Leader, mentoring VISTA members organizing hurricane relief efforts on Long Island. I moved back in with my parents and my cumin came along, but since my mom had her own large spice collection it stayed packed away for the entire year.

Next, graduate school! My VISTA Leader experience came to a close and I moved to Brooklyn, where I would live (and still live) while attending graduate school in Manhattan. Out came the cumin bottle once again, now accompanied by a beautiful spice rack inherited from my grandmother (rest in peace). After a year of not seeing it, that cumin bottle instantly brought back memories of my VISTA life, and of the refugees and advocates I knew and loved. Over the next four years, every time I opened the cabinet and saw it, I would think of VISTA.

It is bittersweet that I have finally used up the last of that cumin. It has lasted so long (I use it often enough, but I am only one person and I like to travel, as you readers know, so it has stretched a long way). I almost don’t want to recycle it, because I love the connection it brings to my refugee work, a hugely inspirational experience in my life which I miss dearly. Ironically, this same week that I am saying goodbye to the bottle, I’ve said hello to some faces from those VISTA days, reconnecting with old acquaintances and learning about updates in their lives. Perhaps reuniting with those people is a sign that I will continue to find ways to keep those memories alive, and maybe even return to refugee advocacy work in the future.

Thank you, shukran, and asante sana, cumin bottle. The memories you’ve brought me will live on.

Adventure Again!

Posted: November 21, 2018 in Uncategorized

Bonjour and Hallo from thousands of feet up in the sky! Right now, I am flying on Icelandair, heading to Paris, France for ten days followed by Reykjavik, Iceland for three. I did not foresee this trip happening so soon after my Semester of Adventures, so how did this happen?

Often, I windowshop for cheap flights on two major websites: Airfare Watchdog and Scott’s Cheap Flights. Each of these sites use an algorithm to search for mistake airfares or similar deals and then send out an email to alert you of anything extraordinary. Well, after returning from my trip I was searching one day and received an email about a deal from Icelandair: Fly to Paris and have a multi-day stopover in Iceland. Plugging in the numbers, I saw that the entire flight would cost $337 round trip – taxes included – and so, thanks to an unexpected bonus received from work and the fact that I have a number of friends in Paris who kindly offered to host me, I jumped on it!

I do intend to keep a blog during this trip, but it will be significantly shorter than that of the past, since I will be traveling for only a total of twelve days. As usual I have brought along some work to for school, so I intend to spend some time just sitting in French cafes working and soaking up the sounds of my favorite language all around me.

On that note, I am traveling quite light. Here are some of the items allowing me to fly with carry-on only:

  • Tablet and Bluetooth Keyboard: Instead of a laptop, I’ve brought along an iclever Bluetooth keyboard, which I bought last year on Cyber Monday for $30. This keyboard folds up to the size of my palm and can wirelessly connect to my tablet, essentially turning it into a small computer (at least for my purposes).

  • Travel towel: Instead of a full-sized towel, I recommend investing in a travel towel, which takes up WAY less space in a bag.

  • Blow-up travel pillow: You know those u-shaped pillows everyone brings on planes? Instead of those, I have one that you blow up, so it can be easily stored in another hand-sized case. The covering is soft and quite comfortable; if you need a travel pillow but don’t want to carry around a plush horseshoe, I recommend a blow-up.

  • Travel cubes: I know I’ve mentioned these before, but I can’t stress enough how amazing these are for allowing you to condense your clothing. I have cubes from the brands ebags and Baggail and have been happy with both.

  • Travel backpack: Once upon a time I walked outside my apartment and found a water resistant travel backpack out with the trash (and many other items; I think someone was moving in a hurry). I hadn’t considered buying a travel backpack because they can get expensive, but it’s cool to have one that folds up very small and takes up hardly any space.

These may seem superfluous, but each of these items has proven to be extremely useful both for traveling and at home (I can bring the keyboard and tablet with me to work on the go, I use the travel cubes to store my clothing at home, the towel is great when I swim laps at a local pool, etc.).

Okay, hopefully lots of fun adventures to come. As usual I have half-planned my trip and intend to go with the flow and follow the advice of my friends and fellow couch surfers I meet along the way. Bon voyage!

Greetings, radical readers.

It’s been a long time – too long – since I wrote a post here. Life has been moving forward in a typical American style: Work, eat, work out, see some friends, sleep, repeat. I miss traveling, and as a result I’ve been listening to some travel podcasts, including  The Budget-Minded Traveler. I just listened to Episode 99: “‘It Seems Impossible Until You Do It.’ Moving forward with Erin & Erin Zipperle,” and it inspired me to get back on this blog (plus, I just read an old journal in which I reflected on my primary goals in life: Play music, teach, travel).

As I learned in the podcast, Erin and Erin made a decision to move to Austria three years ago with the goal of shaking up their routine and experiencing life from a new perspective for a few years before returning to the US. They discussed what it was like to return to the US after such a life-changing, mind-opening three years in Austria. As seems to happen to most people (including me), coming back to the US meant a return to “normal;” they found themselves falling back into a typical American routine: Eat, sleep, work, work out, buy stuff on Amazon, repeat. They recognized a misalignment in their life; why does this have to be the routine? They took a hard look at their daily lives and reflected on what they want out of life and whether they were shaping their days to allow for those priorities. They made a plan to begin to “find adventure in our own backyard.” Here are some questions/statements they reflected on:

  • Are we approaching every day how we want to?
  • Do we need to incorporate more fun?
  • We can change our path if we want to (again).
  • “We hadn’t done that because we didn’t have time, but we didn’t have time because we didn’t choose to make it a priority.” 
  • “You can lose track if you don’t reassess.”
  • If you’re not happy about everything, what is the one thing that’s the itch on your back?
  • “Hey, I’m getting into this schedule, and I don’t want to be.”
  • Just stop what you’re doing, reevaluate, and move forward.
  • Challenge yourself whenever you can, even if it’s not abroad.
  • “It seems impossible until you do it.”

I love this. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the daily grind of American life, and while there are positives that result from this routine, I think we all have moments in our days where we can refocus. In particular, the idea of finding adventure in my own backyard stands out. While I do experience many local adventures, I never really think of these as travel, but they are! Thus, I’d like to start a series of short blog entries about my NY adventures (and adventures outside of NY when I have them). Stay tuned for the first entry coming soon!

(Mini adventure: Commuting across the Manhattan Bridge)

New Directions

Posted: July 1, 2018 in Uncategorized

Hello readers!

Summer is in full swing, circus camp starts tomorrow, my apartment feels homey again, and although I miss traveling, I’m enjoying getting to catch up with local friends here in NY. Now it’s time to give this blog a new purpose.

As previously stated, although I’m back from my big trip, I’m going to keep this blog going. I have a couple goals for the upcoming months, and keeping a blog not only of occasional adventures but also of progress toward said goals will be useful. Here are the major topics this blog will cover in the coming months:

  • A  handful of adventures, just to document exciting outings in The Life of Carolyn.
  • Professional Development:
    • Game-Based Learning: The CUNY Games Network is starting a new initiative where members take turns writing blog entries on GBL topics for our website. I have decided I will write mine here and link my blog, so that I can write more frequently about interesting game research I read about.
    • Professional Development: I had an amazing meeting with a mentor last week, and she has inspired me to use this year to develop the skills I want to have when I walk away from graduate school. So, to keep myself motivated, I will post little interesting teaching tips I learn here.
  • Music:
    • I need motivation to write/record/learnmore songs, darnit.
  • 30-Day Challenges:
    • I just listened to an episode of the NPR TED Radio Hour (congrats for winning a Webby Award, even though you were competing against my brother’s awesome podcast, Base Pairs) called “A Better You.” I found every story to be interesting and inspiring in this episode (I generally enjoy self-improvement ideas). Two in particular seemed immediately achievable; Jia Jiang described a project he undertook in which he sought out opportunities to be rejected each day, so that he would not fear failure. After awhile, he found himself changing his entire approach to life, quitting his job, and embracing the unknown. His daily challenge paid off. Similarly, Matt Cutts described how, each month, he gives himself a new challenge, usually involving development of a new skill. Eventually I would like to attempt Jiang’s challenge, but for now I’m going to focus generally on Matt’s.

 

For my first 30-Day Challenge, I’ve decided to address a bad habit I’ve developed and replace it with a good one. I’ve noticed that a) I tend to reach for my phone first thing in the morning and end the day with it; and b) I don’t critically listen to music like I used to. Thus, my challenge to myself is this: Each morning, I will choose a Song of the Day. I will get out of bed, do my routine stretching/exercises, then move to a chair I’ve set up on the far side of my room,, where I will have my phone, iPad, headphones, and a glass of water waiting (important to start the day with proper hydration!). I will close my eyes and immerse myself fully in one song, just a single song for the day. If it’s short, I may listen to it multiple times. At the end of the day I will sit back in the chair, listen to the song again, and then leave my phone and iPad on the chair so I don’t bring them to my nightstand, thus preventing myself from starting and ending the day in front of a screen.

Today is July 1st, so I started with a song I’ve always meant to listen closer to, “American Pie” by Don McLean. Perhaps this may seem like a strange choice for those of you who know my far-ranging music taste, but I’ve overlooked it for so long, so this gives me an opportunity to actually listen to the lyrics, the instrumental riffs, and the general song form. From a songwriting perspective, this has proven to be a useful first choice for my month of song, plus now I will actually be able to sing along with at least the chorus when it gets played!

Alright, that’s all for now. I realize this entry is a little boring, but I wanted to introduce the new directions this blog will take in the coming months before diving deep. Stay tuned for more!

2018 Adventure Summary

Posted: June 7, 2018 in 2018, Adventures, Musings

Hello readers! Whether you’ve read one post or many, thank you for your interest in my 2018 journey. This post serves as a summary of the adventures I’ve embarked on this year, especially for those of you who haven’t been reading but would like to know a bit about my trip. So…here’s a short(ish) summary of my 2018 experience.

Why Did I Do This?

Many reasons:

  1. I am enrolled in a graduate program with an “en-route” Master’s on way to a PhD. It’s been a frustrating ride and I’m still not sure whether this doctorate is right for me. I finished the requirements for the Master’s portion and, after four years in this program, felt like I needed a break. Hence, a leave of absence!
  2. I host couchsurfers in my apartment and love their stories. They are an inspiration, and I’ve been wanting to go on a big adventure for quite some time.
  3. Traveling is a way to expand perspective and reflect. While away, what do I miss about “normal” life? What makes me the happiest on this trip? I was hoping for (and have found) some answers to those questions through this experience.
  4. Why not?!

So, here is a wee (as they say in NZ) summary of my five months of travel, with a couple photos for each place:

  • January:
    • Florida: After subletting my apartment,  I flew to FL to visit my parents, finish my schoolwork, and prepare for teaching online while traveling. I also visited the western “Nature Coast” of Florida for the first time to catch up with some family, see manatees, and kayak. Awesome!19575218_10157116909735299_2834212453498620899_o
    • New York: A quick trip back for the CUNY Games Conference, one of the best conferences I’ve ever been to, which I also helped to organize! 🙂
    • Canada: Next, flew to Toronto to see my friends Amanda, Marlyse, and Eva, plus a weekend trip to Montreal with Marlyse. How I love hearing that Quebecois French.27629240_10104275693862510_8117121442088582198_o
  • February:
    • Canada cont.: Stayed up there through early February, hanging out, working out bugs in my online course, and enjoying time with mes amies.
    • Utah: Next stop, a week in southern Utah with my friends Val and Tracie. I loved hiking through Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks – incredible places, even in the winter. I definitely want to go back there. 
    • Colorado: Two relaxing weeks in Breckenridge with my aunt, uncle, and cousin. I used this time to get my online course working, went snowshoeing with my cousin, did an escape room, and my uncle gave me a ski lesson! 🙂20180222_151617400936593.jpg
  • March:
    • Kansas City: I went here to present at a conference, but it was also a great opportunity to talk to academics in various fields regarding my hesitations about my PhD. Their insights and suggestions were helpful, and I continued to process these throughout my journey. I also met Amber, Jav, Teo, and Mari, a wonderful family and some of my favorite couchsurfing hosts!20180301_220021-1636330712.jpg
    • Vietnam: Met up with Marlyse and her fiancee for a couple days in Dalat, then explored Ho Chi Minh City,  the surrounding area, and the Mekong Delta on my own for the rest of the week. In Saigon I met Quynh, one of my all-time favorite couchsurfing hosts, and began to realize how lucky I was to be able to travel and teach at the same time; in Vietnam the US dollar is so powerful that I could have lived there for months with just the one course I was teaching. I also met some ex-pat teachers and saw how easy it can be to embrace the unknown and accept outside-the-box work opportunities, as they had. And, for the first time in a long time, I experienced what it’s like to be the linguistic minority, relying on the kindness of others to navigate unfamiliar territory and words. 
    • Australia: I flew into Melbourne, then up to Newcastle to reunite with my friend Mike for a few days. We explored the sunny beachside city of Newcastle, went sandboarding, and I was able to get another perspective on the PhD journey (Mike is a post-doc). I also reunited with my friend Aruna in Melbourne. This was a quick trip, just to see my friends en-route to the destination I had my eyes set on.20180317_1557352064470779.jpg
  • Mid-March-Early May: New Zealand
    • How do I sum this up? New Zealand is one of my favorite places on the planet and I had the privilege of spending seven weeks there on this trip. I spent most of my time on the South Island, with a full month in the Otago region and the majority of that time on possibly the most peaceful and fulfilling place I’ve ever stayed, Quarantine Island (a former quarantine station). There I volunteered on a number of conservation-based projects, met wonderful community members, began to learn Flemish, and became a sort of au pair for the incredible kids living on the island, who are some of my favorite people from this entire trip. During my NZ trip I also biked, hiked, kayaked, and camped my way across the West Coast and explored many other towns and cities on the South Island.
    • What did I learn from New Zealand? Mostly things I already knew, but which I felt like I needed to confirm:
      • I am so happy when I am outside, and even happier if I can give back through volunteerism.
      • I will always make music a part of my life, but even without practicing six hours a day and performing regularly, simply making music casually – especially for kids – still makes me happy.
      • Teaching is my passion. Period.
      • I love working with kids.
      • I also enjoy teaching college students online.
      • It’s much more fulfilling to “slow travel,” staying somewhere awhile and getting to know the community, than it is to “fast travel” and spend just a day or two in one place.
      • I met so many people on this trip who left their “traditional” professional paths to pursue more outside-the-box lifestyles/jobs and are much happier. Embracing the unknown is okay.
      • I met one guy who has been traveling and volunteering for two and a half years, another who has been volunteering in exchange for accommodation for three, and many others with similar stories. Suddenly three weeks volunteering for accommodation in the same place doesn’t seem so long…
      • So many other lessons, but I’ll end there.
  • May: Hawaii
    • I spent one week on Oahu/Honolulu and one on the Big Island. I didn’t love Oahu (although I caught up with my old music teacher and partner!), but Big Island was one of the best parts of my entire trip. I met incredible people through couchsurfing, hitchhiked, camped, surfed, snorkeled, and hardly spent a dime. The Waimanu Valley hike is now one of my all-time favorite hiking experiences.
  • June:
    • Florida: I returned to my parents’ place for a week and a half to grade end-of-semester student work and readjust to life in the US.
    • Long Island: Two weeks here to visit friends and family.
    • Brooklyn: Sublease ends, “regular life” returns.

On this trip I traveled with two backpacks and flew carry-on only on most airlines (the secret is packing cubes; they are amazing). Not counting flights and my splurge week with Flying Kiwi, I spent an average of $8/day and was grateful for the kindness and hospitality of everyone I met, many of whom I hope to keep in touch with, and found the clarity of mind I needed to evaluate my position as I return to academia this fall. I’ve lost the worry and panic I was feeling over whether to complete my program, and that stress has been replaced with the comforting feeling that no matter what I decide, there are plenty of cool opportunities out there for me to pursue. This trip was worthwhile on so many levels, and I would repeat it again in a heartbeat. Huge thanks to all the people who were a part of this adventure; I am grateful for each of you. 20180515_124216931416055.jpg

Kia ora from Kaikoura! That actually doesn’t rhyme quite as well as you probably read it to, but I had to write it nonetheless. That Maori welcome is pronounced something like “kee-ora,” if you’re wondering. And hey, check out this cool toilet at my current hostel! 

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Anyway, throughout my journey, I’ve discovered some fun New Zealand quirks, so I’m taking a quick break from my daily posts to share a few with you:

Busses

For those of you in the states, imagine your average MegaBus, BoltBus, or Greyhound journey from one city to another. You get on the bus, maybe you get a quick safety overview, and then you don’t hear from the driver until you reach your destination. Typical for a multi-hour bus journey, right? Not in the New Zealand.

Here in New Zealand, I’ve been traveling from town to town through the popular public bus line, InterCity. When you get on the bus, the driver asks where you’re going and, depending on how full the bus is, might be able to drop you off close to a particular spot in the destination city. Then, as you’re riding the bus, the driver gives a bit of a tour, showering you with fun facts about the history of the area, what it’s known for, etc. as you travel. I learned most of my fun facts about the Otago Gold Rush from riding on InterCity, for instance. After the last fun facts, the drivers tend to let you know that they will now be silent and will check in again closer to the destination. So quirky, so cool!

Toilets

On those buses, you also get to have a brief rest stop at some sort of town with public toilets, and these toilets are a riot. When you go inside, it’s kind of like walking into a low-budget TV spaceship, with lit-up buttons to press at particular times. Need toilet paper? Just wave your hand across the glowing blue light with the toilet paper icon and it will appear. Want to flush the toilet? Wave your hand below the sink to wash your hands, and the toilet will flush simultaneously. Sometimes the toilets even talk to you, telling you when you have locked or unlocked the door, etc. Very impressive in another quirky way.

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Hitchhiking

Totally acceptable form of transportation. Don’t have a bus ticket or a car and need to get somewhere? Just stand on the road and stick out your thumb. Everybody does it!

Sheep

New Zealand has a ton of sheep, and this crazy country loves to laugh at itself for how many sheep it has. Thus far, my favorite example of this was in Dunedin, where the entire city seemed to be attending the Ed Sheeran concerts over Easter weekend (seriously…all the moms chaperoning the kindy (pre-k) visit to Quarantine Island were talking about when they were going, I heard people talking about the shows at multiple cafes and on the buses, and at the Settlers Museum I even heard a very elderly man talking about how much he enjoyed the show. These people just love Ed Sheeran.

Anyway, the best part about the Ed Sheeran craze were the advertisements I saw everywhere for the show, promoting not Ed Sheeran but…get ready for it…Ed Shearing…featuring an Ed-like sheep playing the guitar. Oh New Zealand, you are so sheepish.

Ed Shearing

Time

Kiwis (people who are from New Zealand) have a very laid-back sense of time; you never know when a kiwi will show up (of course, this doesn’t apply to all New Zealanders, but it is a quirky stereotype, hence earning a spot in this post). On Quarantine for instance, I spent an entire afternoon mowing the grass with a push mower. Then, just as the Keeper, Dries – who is Belgian, not a kiwi – was about to leave the island to pick up his kids from school, some locals rode over in their boat to deliver a sit-on mower that wasn’t scheduled to arrive for another two or three days, because they figured they had time to bring it over that day without notice and could give a 15-20 demonstration on how it worked. “I can’t stand kiwi time,” Dries grumbled 30 minutes later as he ran off to get his kids.

Bente from the Flying Kiwi company, who is originally from Germany (and who you will hear about when I get to that part of my trip) said this laid-back attitude about time was at first hard for her to get used to, but now she loves it. When she meets up with her friends back in Germany – who she says always arrive early or right on time – she is now the late one because she has adapted to New Zealand’s casual attitude about time. 

Phrases

Kiwis love to squish together and/or shorten words whenever possible (I’ve been told it’s a waste of air to draw something out with all its syllables, as, according to the kiwis, the Australians tend to do). For instance, a chicken becomes a “chook,” a “cuppa” is a cup of tea or coffee, things are “wee” rather than little or small, and if you go camping on a platform or some other not-completely-wilderness setting you are experiencing glamorous camping, aka “glamping.” Even their own country’s name gets squished together a bit, becoming more like “N’Zealand.” One common phrase is “Sweet as!” meaning something like “awesome!” and there are various terms for a holiday home, called a “crib” on the South Island and a “bach” (pronounced “batch”) up north. For whatever reason, flip-flops are “jandals,” hiking is tramping, and perhaps most mysterious of all, dinner is tea, breakfast can be tea, and tea is tea. Is it time for tea? Ask a kiwi why “tea” is synonymous for dinner however, and they’ll probably tell you they have no idea, it just is (I’ve asked many kiwis, with similar shrugs from all). Tea, tea, and more tea. So, in N’Zealand, you can go glamping and tramping, hang out at your bach, wear your jandals, have tea followed by a cuppa, and watch your wee chook run around. Sweet as! 

Respect for Indigenous Culture

This isn’t really a quirk, but I love how Maori culture is so present here. As one of my couchsurfing hosts explained, people are people. Everyone here sees the Kiwis and the Maoris as New Zealanders, so they treat them all the same (to a point…there is still some segregation, disrespect, and resistance to/ignorance of Maori culture, but nothing like we see with Native American culture in the United States; in comparison the Maori people are treated incredibly well). I wish this wasn’t on my list of quirks, but I don’t know of a place in the world where indigenous culture is recognized quite as thoroughly as it is here in New Zealand. Good on you, NZ.

Conservation

Similarly, NZ seems to put more of an effort into preserving and protecting native flora and fauna than any other country. When you arrive by plane, you need to make sure you have no seeds or anything else on your shoes that you might bring into the country. The Department of Conservation here is making huge efforts to get rid of invasive plants and animals, with a country-wide goal of becoming predator-free by 2050. It’s an ambitious goal, but most of the locals seem to be on board and are doing their part to support it. Very cool.

 

That’s just a taste of the character of New Zealand. Stay tuned for a return to regularly scheduled posts sometime in the next few days. Long story short I’m heading back to Christchurch tomorrow afternoon (eventually looping back down to Dunedin) and will have lots of time to update this blog from Carl and Renee’s house in Christchurch over the next four days (catching up on student grading for my course takes priority when I have internet, hence the slow progress catching up here).  Hey and if anyone wants to video chat, the next four days are good for that too, just let me know! Sweet as! 🙂

“Be careful where you step!” my friends warned as we hiked through Bryce Canyon. The reason? Cryptobiotic soil!

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The darker and more mounded the soil, the older it is. 

So what is cryptobiotic soil? As I learned, the biological soil is made up of living organisms: soil cyanobacteria, lichens, and mosses. Together, these organisms create a soil crust that increases the stability of eroded soil, increases water infiltration (important in areas that don’t get much water), and increases soil fertility (allowing soil that doesn’t get many nutrients to take advantage of those that it does receive).

Cryptobiotic soil takes years, decades, or sometimes even centuries to develop, and its existence keeps the landscape in tact. These soil crusts have existed since before the dinosaurs! Unfortunately the soil is also delicate, easily destroyed by a single footstep. Next time you’re hiking, stay on the trails and keep an eye out for these soil crusts!

For more on cryptobiotic soil, check out this link. 

Leonard Cohen

Posted: January 30, 2018 in Adventures, Canada, Uncategorized

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During our Montreal weekend, my friend Marlyse and I decided to check out the Leonard Cohen exhibit on display at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montreal (MAC). I know Leonard Cohen mainly for his songs “Hallelujah” and “Dance Me to the End of Love,” but it turns out that he is a real cultural icon in Canada, and particularly in Montreal, his native city. We had no idea what to expect at the exhibit, so we only allotted 1 ½ hours at MAC before closing time. When a staff member at MAC mentioned that there were seven hours of material in the Leonard Cohen exhibit, we began to wonder if our brief timing was a mistake.

The exhibit begins with I Heard There Was A Secret Chord, described as “participatory humming experience that reveals an invisible vibration united people around the world currently listening to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah.’” Real-time data shows how many people are listening to the song online, then converts that number into a choir of that many humming voices singing the song. MAC visitors enter what looks like a small teepee with microphones hanging from the top and become immersed in what is at once a physical experience. Sitting in that chamber with a couple strangers as the hums of Cohen’s most famous song washed over us was somehow humbling, intimate, ad moving. I got the impression that this exhibit was clearly a respectful tribute to this Canadian icon, who passed away exactly one year before the exhibit opened.

After the humming experience, we walked further into the exhibit and came across a multimedia experience called Listening to Leonard. On the wall outside of a large room were the names of eighteen Cohen compositions, each of which was covered by an artist or band. Upon entering the room, we were greeted with a surround sound version of “Dance Me to the End of Love” covered by Douglas Dare. Four speakers strategically placed at the four corners of the room caused the music to completely wash over and through us, and on each wall soft lights in blue, red, and gray tastefully offered a visual accompaniment to the music. A dozen or so museum visitors were sitting/lying around the room, many on the comfy couch in the center, with their eyes closed, completely immersed in the music experience. We sat down along a wall and allowed ourselves to become equally immersed. I don’t know how long we stayed there, but all I can say that being in that room was a powerful experience.

In today’s society music has in many ways become part of the background; the ease in which we accumulate music makes us fail to appreciate its importance, and we seldom take the time to truly listen. In this room, it was practically impossible not to critically listen to these reverent covers of Cohen’s music; each chord, lyric, and vocal inflection had a meaning and a message that could not be ignored. I found myself feeling a connection to Cohen and to the other individuals in the room, as we all let the sounds wash over and through us collectively and individually. At some points, only a few people were in the room, and at others, as many as twenty listeners were present at one time. In each situation, I felt the atmosphere change, but the reverence and respect we all had (or, in my case, was quickly developing) for Cohen as an artist was clear. It was like a memorial and a tribute at once. I don’t know when I last listened to music so deeply and completely – if ever – and I very much appreciate having gotten to do so at MAC.

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Experiencing “Listening to Leonard.” The picture does it no justice.

Somewhat begrudgingly, Marlyse and I eventually moved on, realizing our precious time at MAC was quickly coming to an end. As we quickly walked through other parts of the exhibit, I found myself appreciating the intimate layout of the exhibit. In many areas, a little placard described the experience a visitor could have by then entering into a small room. For instance, we walked through one thin, tiny door that led to a small viewing room in which a 20-minute film was playing with/about Cohen. Three pairs of headphones meant that only three visitors could experience the film at a time, making it feel like a personal experience. Now I understand why the museum worker asked us if we still wanted to enter MAC when we only had an hour and a half.

The last part of the exhibit we visited before having to exit was called The Poetry Machine. As I learned, in Canada Cohen is known not only for his music but also for his drawings and poetry. In this room, a 1950s Wurlitzer organ is surrounded by speakers and gramophone horns. A single organ bench allows a visitor to sit at the organ and press keys, each of which summons the voice of Cohen reading lines of his poems. Again, this was an intimate and moving way to get to know the work of Cohen, pressing keys individually or simultaneously to create a cacophonous story of the artist’s work. We only were able to spend a couple minutes in this room, but the fact that we didn’t know what to expect – and the resulting shock and awe when we touched each key – made even those minutes powerfully worthwhile. The Leonard Cohen exhibit will be at MAC until mid-April, so if anyone reading this is able to visit Montreal before then, I highly recommend spending a day here. I wish I could return.

Greetings from Quebec!

Posted: January 27, 2018 in Adventures, Canada, Uncategorized
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My delicious meal accompanied by letters from past diners in the table drawer at Lola Rosa.

Salut tout le monde,

I’m writing tonight from Montreal, Quebec! It’s cold here, but being surrounded by so much French makes up for it. My friend Marlyse and I ate at a great little restaurant called Lola Rosa tonight and seeing the menu written in French and English made it even better. Yes…I am a francophone nerd.

So, my big adventure has officially begun. I’ll write more about why I’ve decided to take the semester off to travel in a later entry, but my trip getting here was so cool that it’s worth a short entry to start things off. Let the adventures begin!

“Eh?”

It’s amazing to think that just three nights ago I was heading back to my Brooklyn apartment after wrapping up the amazing CUNY Games Conference, my head swimming with ideas about games for learning as I crammed four months of clothes into two carry-on-sized backpacks. I kept running my hands through my short hair – eight inches of which I’d chopped off and donated the night before – and reminding myself that although cool things were happening that I’d be leaving behind, this adventure would be worth it. New hair, new ideas, time to go!

The next morning I woke up bright and early, knowing how easy it would be for one late train to screw up my travel to the airport if I didn’t leave with plenty of time to spare (the last time I traveled to an airport, a broken train track resulted in an hour-long detour attempting to catch my plane!). Luck was on my side: Every train arrived early or on time and I wound up at the airport an hour sooner than planned! I was moved to an earlier flight, there was no line for security, and as I walked down the empty corridor to my gate I received free samples of a latte and pastry. Not a bad way to start the day! As I sat at the gate waiting for my flight, the elderly Canadian couple next to me kept saying “Eh?” as they struggled to hear each other, making me smile even more.

Oh Canada, a country I’ve always loved. I’m looking forward to catching up with my “French band camp” friends over the next two weeks and enjoying their wonderful homeland. Allons-y!

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Welcome to Canada, home of “Francais” buttons, ghost Viking ships, unique light festivals, and good friends!

 

The Big Exam Is In 12 Hours…

Posted: January 23, 2017 in Uncategorized

At this time tomorrow morning I’ll be one hour into my exam…aaaaaaah!

I haven’t blogged as much as I’d planned but I:

  • Went upstate for a quiet study retreat for a couple days
  • Wrote ten study songs (six of which are on my YouTube page – search for MsVibesBabe)
  • Studied with a friend
  • Studied almost every day!

Do I feel confident? No. This test feels a bit like Russian Roulette…if I get lucky everything I studied will be on the exam and I’ll make it out alive; if I get unlucky there’ll be lots of information I didn’t study and I’ll fail again. At least this time I can say I’ve prepared a great deal, and writing my study songs has been fun – I even performed them for the kids at the after-school program I work at!

Anyway, here are some random facts I’m trying to memorize tonight:

Conjunto (which means “group” or “ensemble” in Spanish) refers to various styles of Latin American music. Mexican conjunto features the button accordion, bajo sexto, drums, and bass. Conjunto is considered the root of Mexican-American music and is an important part of Tex-Mex identity. It began as rural, working-class music and came to be appreciated by the middle class as well. Considered “folkloric” today, conjunto music is associated with community events and connects friends and family. It also gained popularity through Radio Jalaleno beginning in 1966.

Conjunto is tied to the development of tejano society and musica tejana, described as Texan country music. Accordionist Flaco Jimenez is one of the stars of this music style, and his influence led to a renewal of interest in the button accordion. Today, according to Kathy Ragland, the button accordion is the instrument of choice among Tex-Mex youth (1995).

 

On the other side of the world, dangdut is a form of Indonesian pop music. Originating in the 1970s, dangdut is named after sounds the tabla makes. “The King of Dangdut,” Rhoma Irama, helps to popularize the style in the ’70s and ’80s. This led to a national dangdut craze in Indonesia, with roughly 35% of total cassette sales in the 1990s in Indonesia featuring dangdut music. Dangdut lyrics speak of daily life, love, social/class inequality, and Islam. The music is usually accompanied by goyang dance, and in recent years dances have become more provocative, such as the case with the “drilling” dance. Further, Indonesia experienced “Inulmania,” a phenomenon named after the national rise of dangdut star Inul Daratista. Daratista’s popularity and erotic dancing led to censorship of her television performances and disapproval from conservative Muslim fans of the music style. According to Andrew Weintraub, the case of Daratista demonstrates the body politics and power relations associated with dangdut music (2008).

 

OKAY. There is so much more I need to remember, but I’d rather get a good night’s sleep and hope for the best tomorrow. My study songs have really been amazing in helping me remember information, so I will certainly be singing those in my sleep tonight! Mustering up some confidence…if I believe in myself, I’m already that much closer to succeeding.