Sunday, 8 March 2015

Book an airplane ticket without screwing something up

I am the self-appointed queen of messing up airline ticket bookings. So, when my partner recently asked me to “triple check” some flights I had found and he had checked and booked, I decided a pre-flight checklist was in order.

I’ll probably devise some new way to screw things up soon, but for now here is my list of ways to avoid known pitfalls when booking flights:

**3/9 Updated with handy tips from my fellow world-travelling enthusiasts**

Additional tip: If you do find something wrong within 24 hours, you can cancel your plane tickets for no charge (I’m pretty sure this works for all airlines; I’ve done it with at least 4).

p.s. here is that link in the above image

Monday, 16 February 2015

How to commute, by foot and train, with a 3 yr old in a historically snowy Boston winter

Just over 3 weeks ago, we moved to a little apartment in Cambridgeport, near Boston, from San Diego. This of course was a shock for many reasons, and the little guy spent the first few days with a stupefied look on his face every time we braved the outdoors. We are an adult-paced 10 minute walk from the Redline train. If the train runs normally, it should take about 18 minutes to get to the UMass Boston stop, followed by another 10 minute walk to the preschool (and then another 10 minutes from there to my office).

So, there’s the setup – this seems reasonable, right?! I had visions of Ryder and I reading books, drawing, and discussing life on the train, and chatting as we walked on either side of the ride. I thought the walking would be good for my lazy bones, which have little interest in surfing in a frozen ocean. I hoped to take advantage of additional bonding time during our commute instead of dropping him off somewhere near home and then commuting alone and being apart even longer each day.

Of course this is not how it works.

Well, first we keep having snow days – six for us in the past three weeks – so on those days there is no commuting at all. The non-snow days, the snow is still there, but theoretically some people have made an effort to dig out sidewalks and the roads are more or less plowed.

Perhaps I should clarify that Challenge A' is getting out of the house

Challenge A: How to get to the actual train

1.    First, the child must be dressed for the weather. This means normal indoor clothing, as I would dress him in San Diego, followed by snow pants, snow jacket, snow boots, hat and mittens. I am much too impatient to let him just get dressed by himself (I estimate this would take between 1-24 hours), so this means struggling down on the floor with a resistant, floppy, 35-lb octopus for approximately 10 minutes (every time we want to go outside…WTF?!). I admit, there are typically some mild threats or bribery involved to get him to either not run into the kitchen after each article of clothing is administered, or not collapse onto the floor while I am trying to get on the snow pants.

2.   Next, you must get yourself, your child, your work accouterment, and the preschool things onto said train. You have several choices:
       a.     Walking: Theoretically, 3-yr olds can walk pretty well. However they have essentially no motivation to walk in a determined manner from one location to the other (unless that location is, for instance, the ice cream shop). Why move forward when one can just stand around and look at things, pick up trash, eat snow, and then sit down and get completely filthy and wet in the slush?
       b.     Carrying: Maybe if you are more fit than I am, you’d be eager to engage in the full-body workout presented by carrying 15 lbs of work/preschool crap and a limp/wiggling 35-lb child encased in slippery outerwear. I, shockingly, am not interested in this option.
       c.     Pulling: After a snowstorm, pulling the child and gear on a sled could be a decent option. It actually takes very little energy to pull 50 lbs of stuff on a plastic sled over the snow. But then there are the overzealous people who shovel and salt their sections of sidewalk immediately – and pulling 50 lbs of crap in a sled over concrete freaking sucks. As does asking the child to stand up and walk for 10 feet on each block, which they will of course refuse to do.
Sledding down the middle of the street is great before it gets plowed
      d.     Pushing: The last option is to use a stroller to push the child & junk to the station. This is also not without its challenges.
                                               i.     Have you ever pushed a stroller through dry sand while wearing ice skates? Neither have I, but I imagine this exercise may require a similar amount of effort to pushing a stroller through several inches of snow, slush, or ice. These surfaces present resistance to the forward motion of the stroller, while providing essentially no grip for your shoes to create said motion.
                                             ii.     Normal strollers with small wheels, as I originally had, are completely useless in the snow, so you must use a jogging stroller. Also, the sidewalks in Boston are old and shitty and cracked, so even without snow to plow through the large wheels will be helpful.
                                            iii.     Jogging strollers have a really wide wheel base, which sucks when people get frustrated by all the snow and give up on shoveling the sidewalks properly, forcing us to walk in the road.
Impassable with a stroller
Challenge B: How to survive the train ride

1.   Get on the train. This doesn’t work well when the weather throws everyone into a tizzy and the MBTA reduces its schedule: fewer trains + more riders who don’t want to walk or drive = you will only get on the train if it happens to stop with the doors directly in front of you, and only if you then you just shove yourself and your giant jogging stroller on while making everyone else mad.

2.   Try not to immediately die of heat stroke on the train. After bundling for freezing temperatures, cramming yourselves like sardines onto a heated train is somewhat unpleasant. It’s helpful if you can maneuver enough to remove at least a hat or mittens from yourself and the child, and/or unzip your jacket.

3.  The child will rather quickly tire of being strapped into the stroller surrounded by legs, and will request with increasing volume to get out (though there is nowhere to go). Bribe the child to stay quiet until the train starts to thin out with food, toys, your phone, or whatever else will entertain him briefly in this hellish situation.

4.   When the train thins out and you get to move from blocking half the doorway to blocking half the aisle with the giant stroller, do so and sit down. Allow the child to escape the stroller for the final few stops, but note that he will expend much energy trying to get off the seat he requested and sit or lie on the filthy floor, slick with melted snow. Throw all hopes of bonding over books, etc. out the window immediately.

You’ve made it to the other end of your train commute! Now it’s just time to repeat Challenge A for the morning, go have a full day at work, and do it all over again in the evening! I highly recommend bringing some sort of sweet treat (cookies, etc.) to get both yourself and your child through at least the first stage of the trek home with mild sugar-induced happiness.

(Note, I will not even mention Challenge C: scraping up the energy to enthusiastically play with the child, make dinner, etc. instead of just collapsing onto the couch for the evening).

What are you waiting for? Come join me in the Northeast, preferably right before several extreme record-breaking snowfall events!
Ryder is becoming quite the iPhone photographer, chronicling our walk in the street to the train station

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

How to sound ridiculous

My friend Vanessa visited us with her two small kids in October, and pointed out how ridiculous we actually sound as parents, when we stop to think. While trying to teach our children proper civil behavior, we seem to constantly use the phrase “We don’t [insert horrifying behavior here].” Vanessa’s favorite example was “We don’t lick food off the walls!”

 I recently flew with Ryder from our home in San Diego to our new home in Boston (I start teaching Monday at UMass Boston). He was a wonderful little nugget on the flight, more or less, yet I still caught myself using the dreaded “we don’t” phrase. Here are a few choice examples of ways I make myself seem insane to any normal bystander:

 “We don’t put our feet in food.”

 “We do not lick public seating areas.”

 “We don’t wipe boogers on the wall.”

 “We don’t carry the potty around the house.”

 “We do not eat food from under the couch/table/car floor/seat cushions/floor of the airplane/terminal.”
We don't pick gum off the underside of chairs!
 “We do not eat playdoh.”

 “We do not paint our hair/the furniture/our clothing.”

 “We don’t throw food on the floor.”

 “We don’t kick the seat in front of us.”

 “We do not scream indoors!”

 I’m curious to find out what comes out of my mouth when I start commuting by train with Ryder each day, from Cambridge to UMass.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Should you renovate a house?

We've now been renovating our house for more than a year. At least it is now functional, and we are living inside of it instead of in a trailer in the yard. We have two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom that all work. The living room and dining room are also more or less functional, though they are also used to store construction materials so aren't all that welcoming. We have no heat, and there are so many holes in the walls and subfloor that cold wind and spiders rush in when they like. But, we have new windows and the outside of the house has just recently been finished so we can make it through the rainy season without the inside being destroyed. 

Before we bought the "house" (maybe a better term would be "roof" or "skeleton of a shelter"), lots of people warned us that we didn't know what we were getting in to. But we thought: we can finally afford to buy a place in a nice neighborhood, and by putting in sweat equity, we'll be sitting pretty in no time. How hard can it be?
All surfaces will become coated in to-do lists and receipts
Are you also considering buying a fixer upper? Do you envision yourself renovating the house with your own two hands? Before you go ahead, consider these questions:

1. Are you a contractor, or do you desire to become one? Do you even know what a contractor is?

2. Do you have a burning desire to spend most of your time and money at Home Depot? 

3. Are you afraid of power tools?

4. How do you feel about going shopping for supplies wearing your pajamas, tattered rags completely covered in paint, and/or with a healthy sprinkling of drywall dust in your hair?

5. Do you have a small child? Is that child technically trained in power tool use yet?

6. Do you prefer to spend your weekends relaxing at the beach, or shoveling raccoon nests out from the crawl space before tiling the shower?

7. Are you good at making decisions? For example, do you confidently order food at a restaurant, shop for clothing, and book your vacation flights without constantly changing your mind and second-guessing your decision? Or do you waver until the last moment, at which point you ask someone else to decide for you, and then immediately veto whatever option they chose? 

8. Do you have enough savings to spend 1.5 times what you predict on your renovations? 

9. Do you have enough funds to throw in the towel and hire a contractor?

10. Are you afraid of heights?
I credit my time at Circus WOW in Wollongong for (thankfully!) alleviating my fear of heights
11. Do you have a day job?

12. After a typical day working at said day job, do you typically feel like drywalling a ceiling, or watching football and drinking beer?

13. Are you considering entering into this fixer-upper purchase with another human being who is not your clone? Do they sometimes have opinions that differ from your own?

14. Do you have lots of handy family members who are willing to spend their hard-earned time and money helping you fix your house?

No matter what you answer to any of these questions, let me sum it up for you: run away now. As fun and romantic as it sounds to buy a house and renovate it just to your liking, it's too much! There are too many inane and also difficult choices (square or rounded corners on the electrical plates? what color for the stucco, which will last 30 freaking years?), it is too expensive, and it takes too long. And, life is just too short.

Though, it's pretty satisfying when things go from (left) to (above)

Friday, 14 November 2014

Are you a resource-destroying nutball? A short quiz

   1. Do you turn on the kitchen faucet for ambience while cooking?

  2Do you light the burners on your stove and then go for a run?

  3. Do you irrigate a yard comprised entirely of concrete?

  4. Do you run the laundry machine while empty?
  5. Do you leave all the lights on and turn the thermostat to 80˚F when you go on vacation?
  6. Do you buy things at the store and then throw them directly in the garbage?

If you answered “no, of course not!” to all of these questions, congratulations! You are probably not intentionally destroying the planet. Let me introduce you, however, to a person who might think differently.

This has nothing to do with the story, but don't get me started on these puppies
A few days ago, I stopped with my 3-yr old at a shopping center nearby and popped in to get an ice cream. It was a nice sunny day, so we sat on the tailgate of our truck while R. enjoyed his rainbow sherbet. In the row of cars behind us, I kept being distracted by a man pacing around behind his car and having an animated phone conversation. The conversation was punctuated now and then by mild swearing and energetic gesticulation, usually followed by a quick pivot before the speaker stomped off in the other direction. From what I could overhear, the conversation consisted of one long rant about something work-related. I felt sorry for his colleagues. 

We had been sitting and enjoying the sun and ice cream for about 10 minutes when I realized that this guy had his car running the entire time we had been sitting there. My eavesdropping suggested that the conversation was not going to be wrapped up anytime soon, so I did what any normal conservation-minded person might: I picked R. up on my hip, stomped over to the guy, and interrupted his phone call.

Me: There is no point polluting the air by running your car when you aren’t using it.

Guy: [To me] Huh?
[To phone] Hold On.
[To me, after looking up] The sky looks pretty damn clean to me. Besides, this is an eco car.

Me: Ok, but it doesn’t run on nothing. It’s called climate change.
[Side note: I am not, apparently, very eloquent when confronting someone]

Guy: Oh. Well, whatever. Would it make you happy if I turned it off?

Me: Yes.

Guy: Ok… [complete with a “you-are-a-psycho” eye roll]

Me:  Thank you very much.

Guy: Are you married?

Me: Yes, and I have a kid. [Obviously, considering the creature eating ice cream on my hip]

Guy: Wow, lucky him!

I assume this last part of the exchange was meant to be sarcastic – perhaps he was hoping I would say “no” so that he could say something like “well, duh. You are a meddling bee-atch, guys don’t like that.” Oh well.

So, perhaps this person wasn’t intentionally burning fossil fuels for no good reason, he just didn’t think about it. But there is no good reason to waste resources – we use enough of them living our lives (yes, I do turn the lights on at night, and take showers and heat my home occasionally).
What a fantastic use of fossil fuels! Heat up the planet more quickly by directly burning fuel when no one is around to be warmed by outdoor heaters; just use them to up the ambience at your pool! Woohoo.

I regularly see similar incredibly wasteful activities all around – restaurants that burn outdoor heaters out on the sidewalk to attract customers, although no one is sitting outside; seemingly thoughtful parents idling their cars for 20 minutes outside the school waiting for their kids; businesses that blast air conditioning or heat yet leave the doors wide open (I’m looking at you, Home Depot). Must people really have a Styrofoam cup on top of their plastic cup full of iced coffee, complete with plastic top and plastic straw, Dunkin’ Donuts? Could they not, if they really need it, use one of those stupid paper sleeves to protect their precious fingertips from getting too cold?

Usually these days, I don’t say anything when I see egregious planet-destroying activities – perhaps I had enough old dudes yelling at me to mind my own business, the Bible says we are allowed to destroy everything, etc. when I was younger and more vocal (I still remember two such interactions very distinctly – one with a diver obsessed with getting as many “bugs” as possible, and one with a cattle rancher who thought the planet was created specifically for us to use up). But I think this must stop. We have to start pointing out ridiculously wasteful activities when we see them, or they will continue and this planet will not sustain us for any longer.

End of rant.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Go Outside

I’m now in my second month of the job I’ve spent about 11 years training for: I’m an assistant professor at UMass Boston (I'm only counting the years after which I'd decided I wanted to be a professor - not the preceding decades). I’m completely thrilled and also terrified (do I really know whatI’m doing?). These competing emotions have driven me to spend practically every possible moment hunched over my computer, reading and writing and thinking and reacquainting myself with old data and looking for grant opportunities and figuring out what I need to buy to set up my lab and planning new projects and choosing a textbook for next semester and planning upcoming classes, and…phew. It’s exhilarating and wonderful, but also dizzying.

The one thing I haven’t done enough of is be outside, looking at the study system I care most about: the ocean. Today on my way to the office, I was making lists in my head of what today will entail, when the view from the bus stopped me. Boston harbor is a calm sheet of molten metal reflecting the sun hiding behind wisps of thin clouds. The harbor islands look almost surreally shrouded in mist, like something from a fairytale movie. Instead of walking to my temporary office, facing a cinderblock wall with no natural light filtering into the cubicle, I came down to the Harbor Walk ringing the school.
I think I'll just make a little office right here, thank you.

 Here, I can see gulls lazily drifting on imperceptible currents, wading birds looking for snacks on a sandbar slowly being exposed by a falling tide. Tiny waves from boat wakes jostle dark and glistening kelp fronds that cling to the steep rip-rap wall of granite buttressing the fill material on which the University is built. I can see through the water closest to the edge, shallow dark sediment with white shapes dotting the surface – shells? On top of a granite block holding a safety chain along the edge of the rip-rap wall, the remains of a crab are strewn; evidence of what those birds are looking for on the sandbar.

It’s surprisingly warm for a place that by some accounts will be covered over by a glacier 37 feet thick in a few months (I think New Englanders thrill in trying to scare people like me, with no real experience living in snow, away from here). Being outside in the sun and the fresh air is not just uplifting – it also reminds me why I care about this thing called the “environment.” And why I got into this career in the first place – to help other people understand what they are looking at when they go outside, with the hope that this will spark them to care deeply enough to help protect it. I also try to do my part to protect the environment through better understanding how the natural world works, and how humans are unraveling the normal mechanisms.

So I propose: whatever the weather and whatever the location, go outside today and look for something that startles you or intrigues you or otherwise makes you care a little more about this beautiful planet. 

And then go vote