"If it's not fun, why do it?"

Baltimore Burns

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chametz, that is. Thousands of Jews raced to the famed Pimlico Race Track today, the eve of Passover, to burn bread, bagels, cereal, crackers, and pizza, boxes and all. City police wearing fluorescent green vests guided the cars into the parking lot and toward available spaces. City Fire Marshals stood by ready to prevent accidents. They even parked a fire truck for children to explore.

Entire families, young and old carry all sorts of containers laden with leavened products, or chametz, which Jews are forbidden to own or have benefit from during the eight-day festival.

People living in neighbouring houses watch the spectacle. Some people avoided the parking lot and parked on the side streets. Imagine the sight of
three white-shirted young men sporting black fedoras emerging from a car. They are carrying garbage bags into the parking lot, joining the throng there. Following them is a young pregnant woman pushing a stroller trailing her husband and a few other children. They nod to and thank the officer guiding them in the crosswalk.

Still, the main event is in the parking lot by the 20-or-so barrels blazing behind safety rails. I feel the mad heat as I toss in a Trader Joe’s bag with my leftover chametz. My bag hits the target and plops into a raging turmoil.

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Other people aren’t as neat about it. All sorts of bread products litter the base of the cans. Since care is taken to not burn plastics, people try to pour cereal into the fires but found the heat too hot to keep their hands there. So the cereal, or bread, pouring out of the plastic bags landed on the ground. I saw one enterprising man spear a bagel through its center hole and toss it back into the fire.

Before I leave I pause to say the formulaic nullification of chametz in Aramaic. These words connect me with millions of Jews throughout history who have said this very same declaration. I am here and now in Baltimore, and I am there and then in Babylon. The year is not a circle. Rather, it is a spiral through time. We celebrate our Redemption from slavery in Egypt on this night. And this day we remove our are puffed up egos burning leavened products. Next year in Jerusalem!

Awkward Geography

Maryland holds the dubious distinction of being the First Candidate for the state with the most “Awkward Geography.” (Hawaii, a collection of islands, doesn’t count.) A spindly, sickly state, Maryland cants heavily to the east—despite Delaware’s rude surgery and squared corner in Wicomoco County. West Virginia bit a huge chunk out its western regions and Virginia eviscerated the center. Even the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., self-aggrandized with bloviators, gnawed a square-edged, thumbnail-sized chunk out of Maryland’s gut.


Map Courtesy of Digital-Topo-Maps.com

Furthermore, the Chesapeake Bay cleaves the east into two cruelly misshapen legs. Some oceanfront beaches tantalize crowds with promise of crabs galore, but sadly, Virginia in a mad coastal land grab truncated Worcester County’s coastline to the south, leaving poor Maryland with a measly 31 miles of ocean coastline.(1)

Then there’s Baltimore, another square-edged nibble into Maryland’s land. To clarify, I mean Baltimore City, not to be confused Baltimore County of which Baltimore City is not a part.(2) Confused yet? I am.

Nicely delineated states like Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico (except the ruffled border with Texas), have beautifully-drawn borders, ruler-straight, and comprehensible. Semi-natural states rely upon natural boundaries such as rivers to define their territory. Iowa, bordered by the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and having horizontal northern and southern borders, pleasantly represents this category.

Poor Maryland. Awkwardly drawn, ripped apart by waterways. It’s a wonder it hasn’t melded with the surrounding states. It suffers from lack of orientation. Is it an east-west state? Or a north-south state? From my perspective, it’s leaning: head at NNW and foot at SSE (as much as a state so oddly shaped can have a head and a foot). It’s like a traffic barrier between the North and the South, hastily erected and somewhat malleable. Here, take another chunk of me.

The Fall Line cleaves eastern Maryland further. To its north and west is the Piedmont region, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Pennsylvania. To its east and south is the Coastal Plain. Baltimore, the jewel, sits on the Fall Line. Then the Chesapeake Bay coastline drips down down down to St. Mary’s County and terminates at the scruffy little islands off Somerset County’s western shore. Awkward. Messy.

Probably the most awkward portion of the geography, Assateague Island is a finger in the ocean. Not even wholly owned by Maryland, this narrow barrier island was amputated by Virginia’s claim. It’s embarrassing enough that Ocean City, that rollicking vacation destination, shares real estate with Delaware. But Delaware is not the bully that Virginia is. For shame, Maryland, for shame.

No. I’m wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. I spoke too early about border islands being the most awkward feature. I nearly forgot Maryland’s “waist,” a 1-mile wide portion of land in the panhandle. It’s been called a geographic anomaly.(3) With Pennsylvania and the Mason-Dixon line to the north, and the Potomac River to the south, the “waist” claims the town of Hancock and the intersections of Interstates 68 and 70. Awkward 3-state views can be seen from there.

Do you agree? Place your nominations for Most Awkward Geography in the comments. Alas, there is no prize. It is, however, a whimsical diversion on a sunny afternoon in Maryland.


1. Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report for Congress. “U.S. International Borders: Brief Facts,” November 9, 2006.
2. Baltimore City is the largest independent city (i.e., not belonging to any particular county) in the United States.
3. Maryland’s Waist: Narrow Strip is Geographic Anomaly, L.A. Times, October 8, 1987 [accessed April 17, 2016]

Windowsill

Looking up and outside all I see is possibilities.

Sitting on the sofa, glancing outside: the window blinds are open, sunlight illuminates the plants on the windowsill, the sky is blue, and  a mug of coffee steaming on a coaster — life is good.

I woke up. Yikes, those birds are loud!  Look! It’s a whole hour earlier than I’d planned to wake up. Better turn off the alarm clock so it doesn’t startle me later. Don’t want the toes to be cold; slide feet into the fuzzy slippers. My knees creak as I walk across the room. The mirror catches my eye. My hair looks like the rooster’s pride!

I woke up.

I woke up.

The furnace clicks on and the blower purrs warm air. An unseasonable freeze grabbed the region last night. I’m warm and decently clad. Heat some water for the coffee. Breakfast choices? I’ll settle for oatmeal, my old favorite.

Thank you G-d for starting my day with comfort and optimism. Did I ever thank you for the color green? Thanks. And thank you for hair I can simply tame with the pass of a hairbrush.

Starbucks Sentiments

Starbucks for Sale

Post-holiday sale items at Starbucks.

Today at Starbucks the featured Dark Roast was French Roast. Oooh la la! I wish I could bathe in it, breathe it in. Unfortunately, one grande-sized cup has about all the caffeine I can tolerate lest it keep me up all night.

On a frugal (and kosher) budget, a trip to Starbucks entertains me for less than three dollars. I generally order a plain, black coffee and eschew the frillier selections. If I’m feeling adventurous I’ll ask for whipped cream on top, but it dilutes the stark, intense flavor I adore.

One Starbucks is like another, yet different.  The combination of layout, clientele, music, lighting and noise level distinguish one from another. The one I’m sitting in tonight sports few electric plugs. I’ve taken to bringing an extension cord with me, fitted with a three-prong adapter, so I can sit at a table in the middle instead of hunching over a short table near the armchairs and plugs. The employee sweeping up said I’m the first person he’s seen do this. It’s subtle, and I hope nobody complains, or worse yet, trips over the cord.

Tonight, the atmosphere thickens with fog, and water droplets cling like jewels to the tree which is backlit by the parking lot’s spotlights. Feeling sentimental. It’s nearly the end of 2015. I’m reluctant to leave the coffee-infused atmosphere. I drained my second cup (decaf, naturally) an hour ago, but I keep thinking of more tasks to do while I have access to WiFi. Just one more word, just one more check-in. Just one more…

The rain began without my noticing it. I’m in coffee-land, computer-land, blog-land. The customers come and go. I suck the last drops out of my cup and prepare to go home, out of one cocoon into another.

Fall Back

Daylight Savings Time is over for the year. Did the change to Standard Time come easily for you?

In the USA, we turned our clocks back (“fall back” is the mnemonic) last Sunday morning at 2 a.m. Many of us are still suffering from the disruption. Sure, we got an “extra” hour of sleep on Sunday morning, but it is nearly dark at 5 p.m. here in New York City, and my head can’t wrap around the change. Disorientation confuses me. Aren’t I supposed to be asleep about now?

My friend’s baby awoke at 4:53 a.m. today. My friend was not ready to awaken at that hour and was not pleased. She would like the baby to sleep until 6 a.m. The baby cannot tell time, however, and wakes up whenever his body says to do so.  He’s probably thinking, “Hey! Where is everybody? I’m up. Why aren’t they up? Party time!”

Meanwhile, I’m thinking, “It’s only 10 p.m. Why am I getting sleepy?” Although I’m a night person, this change disrupts my system. I awaken in full sun again, having just gotten used to the darker mornings. I watch the sky darken from my office window before I’ve left work. I don’t know whether to nap, eat, or crawl under the covers for the night when I get home.

Why has the length of daylight savings time creeped to become longer and longer? It used to be six months. “Check your smoke alarm batteries when you change your clocks.” That made sense when we changed the clocks every six months. Now it is eight months of savings and four months of standard. How many battery checks are ignored in April because it’s too soon since the last one in November?

I’m going to sleep now. Set the alarm, go to sleep, wake up, have coffee, go to work, have more coffee, leave work, eat dinner, go to bed. I’ll get used to it eventually… about the time we need to “spring forward” and change the clocks again.

Bicolour Ladders

Bicolour Ladders pattern sample

Bicolour Ladders pattern sample in Day Glo Green and Army Olive. © JustHavingFun

Sometimes you just have to do it even if it isn’t perfect.

I was itching to knit again in a big way. My last project was completed over a year ago! I’d been diddling around with swatches (test squares) using all sorts of yarn on all sorts of needles for several different patterns looking for the right combination that would propel me into the “zone.” I gazed at patterns on Ravelry.com until my eyes bugged out. I tried to match the types of yarn in my stash with patterns for which I had sufficient yardage. Yawn. Socks? No, that didn’t feel right. A sweater? Not enough yardage. I longed to knit but nothing spoke to me.

Knitting has two basic stitches: knit and purl. Gauge and pattern determine if the project will succeed. Gauge relates the number of stitches across to the number of rows in a particular pattern using a particular size needle and yarn. Two knitters using the same equipment can get different gauges due to variations in how they knit! The typical “knit” pattern (called “stockinette”) requires you to knit across one row, turn the work around, and purl across the second row. There’s a flat side and a bumpy side. Then you count the number of stitches and the number of rows in 4″ x 4″ area and that’s your gauge. Easy peasy. Patterns are like recipes, written in abbreviations or charted, and keep you on track. If you consistently make your stitches with the same tension, it is likely the project will come to look like what it’s supposed to look like in the size it’s supposed to be.

I can knit. I can purl. I can do stockinette squares. So I swatched.

Ugh! So many times my gauges did not even approach the designer’s requirements! My stitch counts exceeded the recommended number for the patterns so I changed needles to adjust the stitches per inch—didn’t work. The lovely Rowan yarn seemed too dark; the fluffy Knit Picks yarn was too thin. I didn’t have enough of the tweedy yarn from England to do knee socks, and I’m not quite skilled enough yet to use the unspun Plötulopi from Iceland I’ve been saving. That’s when I put it down and waited.

I even tried crocheting a yarmulke (kipa; skullcap) for my son. As I’d crocheted lace when I was younger, I was not afraid of this task. But yikes! I couldn’t see the stitches!! My 30-year old eyes were much sharper working with white cotton, and working with black crochet cotton and a teensy steel hook was madness!!!

But I was itching to knit. The idea buzzed around in my mind like a mosquito seeking fresh skin. Knitters reading this are nodding. They know the feeling.

Mon Tricot Knitting DictionaryI decided to just do it. Starting was hard. I swallowed, took a deep breath, and went to the yarn stash. It wasn’t going to be perfect. It wasn’t going to be the dream project I’d wanted to do with the lovely yarn in my stash. Oh no. With my fingertips I teased out the fugly yarn I’d inherited from my sister Michele. Acrylics. Oddball colors. Strange textures. Lumpy ends. I decided to do what all knitters must do eventually; I started a stash busting project. I picked up my 40-year old copy of Mon Tricot Knitting Dictionary that my sister loved to snitch from me and found a stitch pattern that required a multiple of 6 stitches plus 5. I cast on the unusual number of 29 Day Glo Green stitches while squinting. Then I proceeded to knit.

Did you know that people advertise for volunteers on LinkedIn.com? I saw an ad for some organization requesting knitters to make scarves and hats for charity. A light bulb lit up in my mind. I could have my yarn and knit it, too. Although I was uncomfortable knitting this combination, I was more uncomfortable not knitting.

Hence, I’m stash busting.

To get in the zone, I had to get out of my comfort zone. I simply had to move where I saw no room to go forward. I needed to circumvent my usual route, the safe, comfortable path, and go outside the walls of perfection. Surely this scarf will win no prizes when it’s finished. My stitches are neat and regular but aside from that, the colors clash and the pattern is bumpy on the other side. Someone will wear it, though. It will be warm. It will be made with love. It will scratch my knitting itch. It’s an experiment, a new beginning. I will knit on the subway and get odd stares or elicit conversation. I will knit in the pizza shop after washing my hands to while away the time until my next appointment. I will traipse these sad skeins of yarn throughout New York City while I eyeball a good place to sit and knit. And knit I shall.

These bicolour ladders will let me climb to a new, sublime place where I can be my imperfect self, working toward a higher goal, and getting some good knitting time while doing it. Plus, I’ll use up the ugly yarn and not have to look at it ever again!

Autumn Beauty

W. 187th Street stairs, looking east.

W. 187th Street stairs, looking east. © JustHavingFun

The autumn colors sing to my soul! I am certain this peek into the Creator’s paintbox carries me through the gray winter. It feels like fall came late this year. But while last week the temperatures were in the 40s, today it’s expected to hit 75. Crazy! I broke out my jacket, though, and put my sandals under the bed. The toes are getting cold so I know the oppressive heat is over. Gearing up now for the frigid winter seems more real day by day.

Speaking of crazy, there’s a certain pleasant vibration in my head that’s caused by the look of yellow maple leaves against rain-darkened tree trunks on a gloomy day. It puts me in mind of a long ago leisurely drive in the country near Poughkeepsie.

Brilliant gold maple leaves against dark branches.

Brilliant gold maple leaves against dark branches. © JustHavingFun

The day started off as if it had a headache. First the sun came out, then it ducked behind clouds. A wind blew up and fallen leaves swirled like dancers. The sun’s rays through the clouds highlighted odd sights off to the side of the road: a patch of late-blooming chrysanthemums, a kitschy mailbox, a faded American flag left over from July 4th, nude fields, homes festooned with carved pumpkins. I drove over the crest of a hill and lo, ahead of me, was a spectacular stand of maple trees limned against the gray, brooding sky—a vision so powerful so as to remain with me these thirty-some years!

Enjoy the autumn. Savor the crunch of leaves underfoot. Cherish the colors. Memorize the scents. This may be your own dramatic memory in thirty years!

Hidden Gems

Man-made crystal specimen

This specimen is man-made but oh, what glory! © JustHavingFun

Why would crystals like these exist deep inside the earth? Hidden, secret, rare… perfect. I can appreciate them on so many levels. Their beauty is undisputed; they delight the eye. Their chemistry is exquisite; they reveal the order of the universe.

Red stones in the corundum family are rubies, and anything else is a sapphire. While pure corundum can be colorless, sapphires might be blue, green, yellow, orange, pink, purple or even show a six-rayed star. Only a tiny atomic change, the inclusion of the element chromium, makes a deep blue sapphire become a red ruby.

Carbon lacks the sparkle of diamonds. Coal. Graphite. Soot. Yet tons of pressure and kilocalories of heat create diamonds, harder than any other natural rock or mineral. Quartz crystals emerge as gems (amethyst and topaz) or captivate us as clear crystal spears. People carve and polish it into a crystal orb and divine the past and future in its depths.

The hardest carbon is diamond. Science explains its allure: the high refractive index allows light to bounce around within the cut and polished stone and sparkle in myriad colors as no other gemstone.  De Beers coined the phrase “A Diamond Is Forever” in 1947. They created a lust for diamond engagement rings like never before in history.

But isn’t a diamond just a rock?

Minerals

Minerals” by Eric Hunt, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Why are some crystals needle-like and others cubic? Why are some embedded in volcanic rock and others, geodes, inside hollow nodules? Why are opals iridescent yet moonstones glow? Knowing the chemistry explains some details but it doesn’t explain my captivation. Wonders beyond wonders.

These gifts from on High can remind us of the Order in the universe. Things don’t happen randomly. These wonders were emplaced for us to find, study, and rejoice in.

The lessons I glean from my fascination with gems, crystals, and mineral specimens parallel my determination to live a life of happiness:

* Looking within hidden places for treasure just might reveal some.
* Adopting minute changes can make grand differences.
* Embrace everlasting truths for what we value can be capricious and trendy (they are just rocks, after all).
* Enjoy the beauty and sparkle while you can.

Chipper thoughts

Chipmunk scampering down pin oak tree.

Chipmunk scampering down pin oak tree. © JustHavingFun

Chipmunks scampered busily around the base of a tall pin oak in Central Park. Acorns dropped steadily as I watched them run across the grounds, up and down the tree. I’ve never seen so many chipmunks all together out in the open!  I’m used to seeing a single chipmunk darting across my path while I walk on a wooded trail. To see this group of at least a dozen at a time was quite a treat. I couldn’t catch them with my camera; they ran too fast!

Not a squirrel was in sight. I wondered if a chipmunk posse had chased them away. I imagined gangs of wild chipmunks intimidating the rodent population of Central Park. They’d be wearing little fedoras and spats à la 1930s gangsters.  “Beat it, fur face,” the tough one would squeak menacingly in a Bronx accent. ”Dis here tree is our turf.” A mini-drama would ensue: nuts flying, fur bristling, little squeaks erupting like machine gun fire.

Marauding chipmunks? Menacing squeaks? I think it’s time for coffee!

Happiness is My Choice, 10

There’s a lot to be said about the practice of contemplation and self-improvement. In these days between the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur—the so-called Ten Days of Repentance—we turn our thoughts toward our actions and character traits which have allowed us to act in a particular manner. This period is a time for appreciation of our freedom to use our wills for good or for selfish ends. We don’t flagellate ourselves when we find ourselves lacking; rather, we contemplate the means to change ourselves for the better.

I liken this week to an employee performance review. Like the yearly progress assessment, we review our success in achieving goals set in the previous season and we formulate future goals. Where do I excel? How can I parlay this strength toward future endeavors? Where can I be better? What tools can I use to improve what is sub-par? Have I failed utterly in any area? What is taking me off track? And if I just can’t proceed in that positive direction yet, what is holding me back? On Yom Kippur, we give a full accounting to the Boss and state how we may improve ourselves toward fulfilling the Company’s goals.

Rather than castigate and flagellate myself for perceived imperfections, I can choose to look at this annual review as an opportunity to learn more about myself. Others may quake in their shoes, fearing punishment and retribution, but I choose to take the opportunity to reboot myself as it were, and get a fresh start.

Rabbi Ezra Schwartz reminded us on Rosh Hashanah that we are not bad people. We just need improvements.

Improvements. This thought makes me … happy. Otherwise, I would be so despondent all of the time, wallowing in guilt and unhappiness for my failures and inconsistencies. If I could not take the opportunity to move on from today into an improved tomorrow, I would feel like the executioner’s sword was inching closer and closer—sure doom—defining my fate. We have so many characteristics that make us who we are. Some are expressed at the wrong times, others are not expressed often enough. Our characteristics are many, like the seeds of the pomegranate which—once you find them and use them—can be a delight for the eye and palate.

Instead of facing severe punishment, we are given a chance to take our measure accurately, and alter the pattern. The Hebrew word middah (מִדָה) literally means “a measurement,” and also refers to character traits. How poorly clothing would fit if the tailor could not make adjustments to the pattern. So, too, we are given the ability to contemplate the pattern and adjust the reality. We are given a new chance at life, forgiveness, and our eyes are opened to our true characters!

Yeah, it’s scary facing our shortcomings. I don’t like admitting where I’ve failed, fallen short, not risen to the moment or shown the darker side of myself. but rather than quake with trepidation, I’m calculating, building, planning, adjusting. I’m using my Ten Days of Repentance to adjust the template and shift the pattern.

Hope! Everyone gets a second chance; not everyone can use it properly. I’m taking this opportunity to increase my internal awareness and assess how good it can get. This is my choice, leading to happiness.

For all of my friends and not-yet friends, I wish you a meaningful period of contemplation, leading to a fulfilling Yom Kippur/Day of Atonement, to be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year!

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