Thursday, December 20, 2012

Off to Ohio

Tomorrow we're leaving for Ohio to spend Christmas with my family. We did the calculations and determined that it would be cheaper to drive and bring the animals this year, because boarding two pets is quite pricey.  So we'll be packing the cat, dog, and two humans in the car tomorrow morning. With 20 hours of driving (which we'll spread out over two days), we'll be there.

Ada, the Miami dog, is now the proud owner of handmade purple coat that will help her survive the Midwest winter.(Since we don't have a sewing machine, Andrew and I did an awful lot of hand sewing this week).

This trip also prompted us to make a decision that I've been putting off for quite a while. As we've tried to live more frugally, I became aware that our Mini was not a frugal choice, as much as I loved it, and that's pretty much due to it's poor gas mileage. (You can't get great mileage when you're a sports car with a turbo-charged engine, after all).

So, when we take our trip, we'll be travelling in a new (to us) fuel-efficient car. It also happens to have more space and is beloved by Andrew, so it wasn't a total loss to give up my Mini.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Party time

We hosted our annual Christmas party last weekend. Every year, when I plan the guest list, I am grateful that we live in Miami. Since our apartment is tiny, having more than four people in the living room means that everyone is bumping into one another. But because winter is the pleasant season in Miami, we just open up the door and extend the party outside. Unfortunately, this December has been exceedingly warm. It was in the humid, high 70's (24C), which mean that it was rather warm for all the people who wore suits. 

I forgot to take any pictures of the food, but one of the biggest successes was the homemade French onion dip, which continually surprises people who think Lipton instant soup is the only way to make the recipe. I also received compliments on an appetizer of toothpick-skewered Brie chunks and grape tomatoes, served with a oil-pesto dip. The entire preparation took maybe 10 minutes, which seems sort of criminally easy for how much people liked them. The coconut oatmeal cookies, on the other hand, will never be made again; if I don't get at least two compliments on a recipe, it has failed the test.

Three of my closest friends from choir came, and they all wore their finest dressy outfits.

 Phi the cat is the black spot on the black tux. I think she spent most of the party on our friend's lap.
In addition, the dog was magnificently behaved. We've never had a real party since we adopted the dog, but she just collected a few friendly head-pats and then laid down on the floor for the rest of the evening. I am so grateful for all those training classes that Andrew did with the dog. They sure paid off.

Friday, December 07, 2012


To me, one of the best things about working at a university is the almost unfettered access to books. If my university library doesn't have it, they can borrow it from a huge network of other libraries, which includes both university and public libraries. Consider the two books the library just had delivered for me: "The Take-Charge Career Guide for Scientists" and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Hinduism."

The first book is part of my continuing effort to educate myself about what work you can do with a physics degree outside of academia. I like academia very much and I like to think that I have a fairly good understanding of how it works (at least for a relative newcomer to academia). But about 40% of students with an undergraduate or graduate degree in physics immediately go to work in industry. (Thanks, American Institute of Physics, for all your useful statistics) Most professors simply don't have experience with work outside of academia or national labs. (And in physics, we call everything beyond those two things "industry".) So professors don't know what advice to give students about employment, and they often don't even know what kinds of jobs people can do. Whenever I get a chance to go to a talk or read a book about this, I take it, and I hope I'm accumulating useful knowledge that I can pass on.

The second book is because of the Indian classical dance I've been learning for the past few years (Bharata Natyam). The people that I meet in class are all Hindu, and the dance itself is part of Hinduism. I know a lot about Christianity and can fake my way through discussions about Judaism and Islam, but I'm simply lost when it comes to Hinduism. Of course, when I went to the university library it had dozens of books on the religion, but it was all so academic or historical or philosophical that I was lost. I wanted a book at the level that, if it were written for Christianity, would say, "Christians hang often wreaths on their doors or walls during the weeks before Christmas". Basically, I want to know how it's lived day-to-day, so I can understand my friends' conversations, but I also want to know the deeper meaning of some of the things I am learning. And it looks like those embarrassingly-named Idiot's Guides are going to be just what I need.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Giving thanks at Disney

We went to Disney for Thanksgiving. We didn’t actually walk the grounds of Disney World, though, or pay the $100 entrance fee. Instead, we loitered near the entrance for a few days by staying at the Disney campground, Fort Wilderness. I must admit that Disney isn’t the first place I think to take a vacation, even though we now live a mere four hours from Orlando. However, my brother and his family were vacationing for a week at Disney, and the promise of family time at a place that is beloved by my niece, nephew, and sister-in-law was reason enough to go. And we had a blast.

The campground (contrary to what you might expect from Disney) is filled with real dirt and trees and squirrels and raccoons. But there’s also luxury – water and electric hookups at every campsite, and heated bathroom stations (a nice improvement over ‘dig a hole in the dirt’ bathrooms we have when we normally rough it). They also have lots of Disney events: there’s a nightly sing-a-long with  Chip and Dale, followed by an outdoor Disney movie. There’s a communal campfire for roasting marshmallows, and a restaurant where you can drink (very expensive) beer. We watched the nightly light show, when a train of boats with huge lighted screens glides by on the lake which separates the campground from the Magic Kingdom. (See how much I learned? I didn’t know until this weekend that Magic Kingdom refers to the original Disney World, whereas “Disney” is an all-encompassing term for the brand and/or the location.)

My niece Kyla got into the spirit by making her own nature-filled Mickey decoration.
We kayaked through the canals of the campground.

We played pirate-themed miniature golf.

We also froze nearly to death. We shivered through the first night, when the temperatures dipped to into the low 40s. Then we slipped over to a big box store and bought electric blankets for all, which led to camping bliss. I’m starting to see the benefits of electric hookups at campsites after all…

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Fried food makes it all better

We had a day full mundane tasks - choir practice and washing dishes and writing for work. I'm always looking for ways to throw little treats into a day like this. So we had homemade french fries with garlic mayonnaise. We ate them all so fast there was no chance of them getting cold.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Happy Halloween!

You're looking at the full extent of our Halloween celebration this year.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Singing and gardening

     This past few days have been quiet, as I'm resting in preparation for several busy weeks of singing. This coming weekend  my choir in performing Carmina Burana, which means a week of nightly rehearsals. Two weeks from now, we'll repeat the schedule, singing Mahler's Third Symphony. 
     Even if you are not musically inclined, Carmina Burana is super-duper famous. It's been used in movies and commercials galore, because it's filled with very powerful, percussive singing. (Here's a version of O Fortuna, the opening movement. Even better, here's an animated, less serious take on that first movement.) The Mahler symphony is more traditional, and only has four minutes of choral singing in the entire concert. I am still rather nervous about it, as we are singing with Cleveland Orchestra, which is considered one of America's finest orchestras. The Cleveland Orchestra has its winter home in Miami, and they've hired our choir to sing. Last week the Director of Choruses attended our rehearsal and we spent two hours fine-tuning our four minutes of song. It was exciting and terrifying and I am so glad that I am not a professional musician.
     And when I am stressed, I turn to ice cream. In this regard, I am well prepared. I received an ice-cream maker for a gift recently and have three flavors stockpiled in the freezer: strawberry-limoncello (pictured below), fudge-mint, and frozen yogurt. The ice-cream maker was actually part of our budget plan, because I figured out that it's cheaper to buy whipping cream then the super-duper premium ice cream that I love to eat.

     Hurricane Sandy brought us cool weather* and a bit of rain, but its effect was relatively minor.** The cooler weather was welcome on Saturday when we helped out at our congregation's gardening day. The church has five acres, most of which is gardens or wooded areas. I was once again reminded that South Florida is teeming with life (in case the most recent flea infestation hadn't been enough reminder). We hacked down invasive air potato vines and other weeds. Here, Andrew shows off one of the largest plants he took out - a 10-foot tall tree. 

*It's 60F degrees right now! I'm wearing two sweaters. 
**And my thoughts are with everyone on the East Coast right now.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

London in two days

One reason that we had chosen to stay in Oxfordshire was that it was within driving distance of London. London is one of the most expensive cities I’ve ever been in (topped only by Oslo, perhaps?) and we didn’t want to have to overnight in London. Instead, we drove down to Heathrow airport, parked in long-term parking, and took the Tube into the city.  

The red phone booths are so iconic that we actually had to wait in a line of tourists to take our photograph in the booth, even though it was one of dozens that we saw that day. Here, my father takes a trip down memory lane while using a corded telephone.

Buckingham palace was all booked up, so we decided to get our history fix at the Tower of London. I think my parents were a bit dubious about this choice, because the name "Tower" doesn't really describe it well. The true name is "Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress" and if you appended "Founded in 1066, Serving as prison, armory, treasury, royal zoo, mint, and home of the Crown Jewels during the past 1000 years", you'd get a bit more of the flavor.

The Tower of London, looking large and impressive. We took a guided tour, viewed the Crown Jewels, which are as shiny and impressive as you'd expect from a former empire. The Tower also host ravens, which are part of a myth. It is said that when the ravens leave the tower, the kingdom will fall. Nowadays, the clip the ravens' wings to prevent them from flying away. This seems a bit unsporting to me.

There's a large building in the center of the compound, called the White Tower, which was constructed in the 1070's. It's had various purposes, including a royal residence and gunpowder storage. Now it hosts a display of historical weaponry and this oddly delightful dragon.

We also did the London Eye, a giant ferris wheel. (The picture below shows how big the pods are - they hold about 20 people.) You do just one rotation, but the wheel moves very slowly so that it takes about a half an hour. There are wonderful views of the city,

A note about vegetarian food in England: it is rather easy to find veggie options, particularly in the selection of sandwiches and fake meats. I've never seen a country that does fake meats as well as England. And it's very convenient for the restaurants, because all the pub meals (meat, cooked vegetables, potatoes and maybe a Yorkshire pudding) can be made vegetarian by swapping out the real meat for a fake meat. However, I dearly love noodles, so Andrew convinced the family to have lunch in an Asian noodle shop, which made me very, very happy.

Here, I look upon my noodles and tofu with glee. 

We also spent two afternoons on the open-top bus tours. These are a bit pricey, but they're extremely useful for groups. We had 7 or 8 people each day, and keeping us all together was something of a challenge, particularly as one parent or another was always wandering off to take a picture. The tours were a good way to see large parts of the city and not have to continually check if we'd left someone behind.

Monday, October 22, 2012

England, the first few days

(Warning: Vacation slide show ahead. If you don't want to hear about every fascinating detail of my recent trip, check back in a few weeks. Otherwise, proceed with caution.) 

My parents-in-law hunted far and wide to find a house that would hold four couples- them, my husband and I, my parents, and Andrew's sister and fiance. What they found was "the Old Bakery". It was lovely: recently renovated, half-timbered, four-bedroom house with a brick-lined kitchen and beautiful gardens around it.
We didn't manage much on the first day beyond a walk around some gardens, a nap, and a family meal. We were all fighting jetlag, although my father and I have different philosophies. I wanted to struggle through with a short nap, so that I'd fall asleep on time. My father thinks you should sleep as much as you need whenever you are tired. I suspect that part of his philosophy may be based in the fact that he never gets enough sleep at home, either.

Since we were jetlagged, we didn't drink too much alcohol at the start of the week. My parent-in-law had something just as delicious - bottles of the apple juice they bottled from their own trees.
For the first few days, we mainly split along gender lines, which correspond to differences in interest. My mother and mother-in-law both love to garden, so we went to the Botanical Gardens in Oxford. My mother also had a chance to experience a full English breakfast, which involves sausage or bacon (or both), eggs, toast, mushrooms, tomatoes, and beans. As you can see, it's very protein-filled and very filling. I stuck to the vegetarian full breakfast. We also fit in an organ concert in Birmingham and a visit to a wonderful museum exhibit of the Staffordshire Hoard, a collection of gold coins, emblems, and weapons that offers an unprecedented look at English life during the Dark Ages.

Andrew accompanied the fathers to events that I was happy to miss. My father loves motorcycles, and I spent many days in my youth visiting sites like the one below, the National Motorcycle Museum. (The day before they had gone to the races - motorcycle races, that is.) I am utterly grateful that although my husband loves motorcycles, he doesn't make me go look at them.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A house in the country

Usually when I go on vacation, I like to choose one place to stay. When we've gone to Europe in the past, that typically meant that we stayed in a large city where we could depend on public transportation. This was my first trip to Europe where I stayed in a house in the country. In England, my parents-in-law rented a house in Oxfordshire which was large enough for them, my parents, Andrew and I, and his sister and her fiance. This meant if we could drive all over central England, to London or Oxford or Birmingham. In Spain (the second week of our vacation), my uncle rented a hotel/villa which had plenty of room for 7 different couples. These were therefore very different vacations than whatI'm used to. On one hand, I didn't feel like I was really part of the neighborhood and didn't get to experience what it might feel like to live in that area as a local. On the other hand, I got to see a lot more parts of the country then I would normally. Sometimes I wasn't so keen to spend two or three hours in a car on my vacation, but since I was with a big group in each place, I had lots of interesting people to talk to during the drive. And it's great to stay in a house rather than a hotel because you can eat some of your meals at home and lounge around. At the house we stayed at in southern Spain in Andalusia, we spent lots of time lounging on the terrace looking out over the city. Perhaps "city" is that too large of a word for Casarabonela -  while it is technically one of the white cities of southern Spain, but is really a village  of 2500 souls tucked up into the hills.

Almost every morning we woke up at the civilized hour of 8, since the sun didn't rise over the mountains until 8:30. We'd drink coffee on the terrace, and then head out for the day's adventures. In the afternoon or evening we'd be back on the terrace for drinks. One of the group in Spain was a gin and tonic master, and I learned a few secrets from him. One is to roll the lime until it's very soft, so the oils and juice are easily released into the drink. The second is to just use a heck of a lot of gin.

Friday, September 28, 2012


The bags are packed, the animals are dropped off at other people's houses, and there's no more perishable food in the fridge. I'm ready for a vacation.

It seems a bit scandalous to take a two-week vacation in the middle of the school year. I'll be missing group meetings, and I needed to make sure the student that I supervise had enough work to keep him busy. Even more importantly, Andrew is teaching this semester and he had to find someone to cover the twelve hours of class time he'd be missing. But my uncle arranged a holiday in Spain during the quieter, less touristy fall season, and we decided to add on a visit to Andrew's parents in England.

This is the first international trip we've taken since I've had my Kindle, and I'm really appreciating having an electronic reader. I've loaded it up with a dozen library books, and this is the first time our suitcase was decidedly under the maximum weight.

The previous trip to Europe

This trip. 

Tomorrow morning, if all goes well, we'll get off a plane in Heathrow airport and meet Andrew's parents and my parents (who are flying in from Ohio), and then we'll all drive over to a house in Oxford that they've rented. There's supposed to be wifi at the house; if so, I'll be able to post updates from England.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Shopping the past

When my parents called me up and asked what I'd like for my birthday, I told them I'd like some kind of book that had pictures of people from the 1940's or 50's. I'm always looking for collections of pictures showing how everyday people dressed back then, because then I can figure out how to style my hair or purchase modern clothes that fit into that look. My father exclaimed, "I have just the thing!" and he ran upstairs to fetch a Sears, Roebuck, and Co. catalogue from 1949 that just happend to be sitting on his bookshelf. He promised that I could borrow it for a few years, but then he'd want it back. It's a perfect gift, and it arrived in the mail today.

What I most love about this is how it shows that my father can literally "shop his closet," picking out gifts for people from the treasures accumulated during decades of garage saleing. It also demonstrates how my father and I share a love of old stuff. He might collect tractors while I collect hats, but we come from the same stock.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Singing "en plein air"

Singing in a semi-professional choir doesn't just mean that I have singing homework every week, it also means that I get to hang out with lots of cool musicians. And on Labor Day weekend, it meant that I had the chance to participate in a flash mob. (Officially, it was called a Random Act of Culture). To the people standing around in the open-air mall in downtown Miami Beach, it looked like a violintist started playing Beethoven's Ode to Joy. A string quartet soon joined in, followed by a small orchestra, and 80 chorus singers (that would be my group). One stanza later, a jazz band and gospel choir joined in, followed by Afro-Cuban drummers and dancers. The Miami Herald wrote up a bit here. I think a bit of information got leaked to the press beforehand - otherwise I don't know how all the cameras knew to be there at precisely 5:30 pm.

I'm only visible for a moment, at 1:16 in the video:
It was great fun to sing for a a surprised, appreciative audience. Most of the time when we sing, we're not supposed to smile or move very much, because classical choral singers are supposed to blend into the background. We got official permission to show that we were having fun during this performance, and I didn't need much urging.

Three choir members and I try to smile while singing the word "Freude". (Thanks to my friend Jan for the picture.)

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Hiking in the "woods"

  As you might have heard, Isaac turned out to be rather less than a hurricane, at least for South Florida. I know that a number of states have really suffered from it, but we only experienced a few periods of wind and rain, and a bit of flooding. In fact, Andrew and I were driving during the worst part of the storm, because I didn't realize that it was supposed to hit that early in the day. It felt far less dangerous that driving during a big thunderstorm.
  The worst part turned out to be the day after. Our power was out for twelve hours, and since the university was closed, we just sat at home and waited. I can see now why hurricanes can be so awful; even after the storm passes by, you can lose your power for hours days. Someone in our neighborhood had no power for three days, which isn't very good news when you consider that this was only a tropical storm.
  To celebrate the clear weather, we headed out to the great (humid) outdoors. I wanted to use the Labor Day weekend to check out a state park, because state parks allow dogs. We drove a few hours north, which meant that the vegetation was slightly (but sufficiently) different - look at the pine trees in that picture. You don't see trees like that in Miami. Of course, Labor Day doesn't mean it's cool - that won't happen until November, so we just drank lots of water and wore hats and trudged through the heat.

Saturday, August 25, 2012


Hurricanes are a hot topic around here right now. We're all watching Tropical Storm Isaac, and it happens to be the twentieth anniversary of Hurricane Andrew. I can remember Hurricane Andrew, but because I was living in the Midwest, it didn't mean much to me. In Miami, though, it feels like it didn't happen that long ago. When we first moved here, some people remarked on my husband's name, because they had different associations with "Andrew" than we did.

Hurricane Andrew was a category 5 storm when it hit Florida two decades ago, and right now there's only a Tropical Storm Warning and a Hurricane Watch. That's enough to make us double-check our hurricane kits, so we stockpiled some extra cat food, candles, batteries, and fuel for our camping stove. I'm told that what we're mainly preparing for is the possibility of days without electricity, so our general preparations include making sure we have food that doesn't need cooking, spare cash, and enough gas in the car. For me, the spectre of boredom looms, so I made a trip to the library this week, too.

When you're preparing your house, the primary focus is on the windows.  In new or renovated houses, people have hurricane-proof windows; otherwise, they board up or shutter the windows. In the past, our landlord boarded up the windows in our house, but now he has extra shutters, and so he's installing shutters today. The shutter system is quite efficient - you install a long line of screws on each side of the window, and those are left there permanently. When a storm comes, the you place the shutters over the windows and secure them with a series of wingnuts.

So, more or less, I feel ready. The university has already announced that it won't be open on Monday. As an academic, there's always work I can do, so that probably just means I'll be working at home instead of on campus.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


I decided that I would like a bench in my office. Officially, it's to provide seating. But I also think it's nice to be able to nap in your office. The problem is that benches are surprisingly expensive - unless the problem is that I'm excessively frugal. In any case, Andrew went to Home Depot and loaded up the car with wood. He had to put the top down to get it all to fit in.

And in one weekend he built me a bench. The cushion actually took more work than the construction, because I had to find a foam supplier. Voila, office furniture!
Some of my coworkers have said that they plan to sneak in and use it when I'm not around. But I have a defense against that: due to limited space, I made the bench almost precisely my height. Since almost everyone in the U.S. is taller than me, they will be out of luck if they try to sneak their own naps.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Cook and freeze. Repeat.

I've talked here in the past about stocking the freezer with premade meals. The school year is approaching, and even though I don't teach this semester, I know that there will be much less time for cooking. Why? Because dance and choir start up again; a person has to make time for hobbies, you know.

The website that got me started on this project is Once a Month Moms. I use recipes from the vegetarian menu, but not all of them - grilled cheese rolls with American cheese are not exactly my thing. So I make a mix of recipes I find there, and my own, adapted for freezing. The great thing about the website recipes is that they come on a spreadsheet for easy scaling, so I have to do more math for my own recipes.

Once a Month Mom suggests that you can make your month of meals in one long cooking day. This presumes that you shop the day before (which I did). Below, the results.

The proteins: "bacon", "meatballs", and paneer.

My old standbys: roasted vegetable tomato sauce, pumpkin bread, black pepper- cheddar biscuits.

The Indian meal: naan, mango chutney, and butter chickpeas.

Everything else: stir-fried rice packets, spinach-mushroom empanadas, and a dog who was as tired as I was.

The verdict: it took me just a bit longer than one 12-hour day, and it was exhausting. I was on my feet all day long, and collapsed at the end of it. I certainly won't try a whole month's cooking in one day again, and I don't know how these Once-a-Month moms do it. Maybe moms are tougher than me?

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Riding the rails

This weekend we visited the Gold Coast Railroad Museum because they have no entrance fees on the first Saturday of the month. One of my secret frugally-styling tips is that I note all free days for museums or parks on my calendar, and then if I feel like doing something that weekend, I just check my calendar.

Andrew is a big fan of trains, and I am a big fan of history, so it was a fun for both of us even though it was rather hot.

The car I'm siting in here is one of the cars that explicitly shows the evidence of segregation. There were two identical compartments, each labelled with a sign indicating either "White" or "Colored." The White section was always the first one in the car. When the train did its return trip, the car was oriented in the opposite direction, so they just flipped the "White" sign to "Colored" and vice versa. The fact that both groups sat in each identical section, just at different times2 really illustrated the artificial nature of the separation.
I was surprised that every sleeper berth had its own sink and toilet. (You can see part of the metal fold-down sink on the left side of the picture below.) It would be kind of nice to have a sink in my compartment, but I think I would prefer not to have a toilet 6 inches from where I'm sleeping.
There were cars with seats and sleeping berths for one, two, or  three people. Here, you can see that the top berth has been folded down, but the bottom berth (made when the two seats facing each other were folded down) hasn't been made yet. If people truly fit on those berths, then it was clear that they were much shorter and much thinner than we are today. I could sleep on those berths, but I don't think my size is that of an average American any more.