Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Waning Athletic Ambitions

This weekend, I conquered another athletic hurdle: I swam two continuous miles “open water” in the ocean. This was both a physical and a psychological feat: having not swum more than 3500 yards in a lap pool, where the water is current-free and there is a wall every 25 yards to use for rest or propulsion (pushing off post flip-turn, for instance), I was unsure if I would be physically capable of swimming 3520 yards (i.e. 2 miles) in the choppy, salty, wide-open Atlantic. Granted, I have completed one other 2 mile open-water swim in my life: it was in a lake with my old club swimming team. However, this was about 6 summers ago, during which time I was averaging between 7,000 and 10,000 yards of swimming daily and attending double practices (one at 5 a.m., one at 8 p.m.) three times a week. And I remember that race being extremely exhausting.

The bottom line is that I did manage to swim two miles at Brighton Beach on Saturday and then went back and did it again on Sunday. Therefore, I should feel proud, right? Wrong. Instead, I feel slow and inadequate, since two swimmers I used to handily beat at “distance swimming” when we would convene for “practices” were far ahead of me on these ocean swims. It’s downright embarrassing, considering that both men had more-or-less just learned how to swim, while I was a former college swimmer. (Of course, I did get kicked off the team for being too slow…but I still completed all of the required training and competed for two full years.)

One would think that getting shown up by these swimmers (and consequently feeling slow and inadequate) would make me extra-motivated to work hard to improve. Ordinarily, that is how I would feel. Lately, however, my motivation to do anything athletic has been sub-par, at best, never mind my competitive spirit.

This lack of motivation is particularly worrying, as I need to begin training for the NYC Marathon in a few short weeks. I decided that maybe signing up for a race or two in between now and November 7th (race day) would help. It didn’t. Then I tried signing up for a swimming/running race to increase my interest in cross-training. It hasn’t. Then I thought maybe getting into triathlon training would save what little waning motivation I have left. However, I cannot even get myself to purchase a new helmet so I can ride the bike I have, never mind actually going through with a new racing bike purchase. (I figure that if I don’t even ride my current bike, why should I spend $1,000 on a fancy gizmo I am likely to break or worse: not use?) Plus, the more I think about it, the more work triathlons seem to be. There is so much gear you “need,” and on top of that expense, race entry fees are terribly expensive, and then on top of all of that there is the trouble of getting yourself and all of your gear to the race. I’m defeated just thinking about all of it.

Ultimately, this all boils down to my being tired of sports. “How can she be tired of sports?” you wonder. “She’s an athlete!” I actually wonder the same thing. However, this past weekend, when I went to swim at the beach, I met a slew of other open water swimmers, some of whom were triathletes, some of whom were just training for mere 25 mile swims around the island of Manhattan. And instead of being intrigued by all this talk of swimming and racing, I was just sick of it. I didn’t want to hear about BodyGlide and wetsuits and bodymarking. I just wanted to enjoy the activity for its simplicity—something I seem to be unable to do with any athletic activity anymore.

I am not sure how I will regain my love of athletic competition. I am hoping that marathon training will renew my vigor, but fear of injury is plaguing that enthusiasm from the outset. If even the NYC Marathon—one of the biggest running events in the country—cannot renew my motivation and excitement for running, I may have to try seeking a completely new sport. Perhaps I will look into curling . . . or better yet, power lifting!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: Losing My Cool

Losing My Cool: Growing Up with--and out of--Hip-hop Culture Losing My Cool: Growing Up with--and out of--Hip-hop Culture by Thomas Chatterton Williams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of those "culture" books that everyone who ever believed a black stereotype should read. I count myself in this category. And actually, I think black people should read it, too. Because this memoir is accurate in ways that most "black culture memoirs" are not. It is a forthright, unapologetic, "inside-then-outside" look at what makes a majority (in this case, a black majority) ascribe to a certain set of beliefs and habits. Williams admits that he bought straight into the "treat women like they're dispensable," "money is the goal," and "act like Respect is something tangible that people will can steal from you if you don't defend it with life and limb" ideals. However, he then debunks them as his upbringing and further education open his eyes to the fact that these ideals are passed down from people with whim he has nothing in common (i.e. rap artists and the like).

Unfortunately, when Williams' story moves out of the realm of his "black culture" life and into his "newfound revelations," the book gets very tell-y: less showing and more explaining which, in turn, makes it more boring. By the end of the book, I truly considered skipping the last few chapters and in fact did skip the epilogue. There is nothing novel or interesting about someone writing, "I decided to cast aside my economics major--which I had only chosen because I imagined I could earn shitloads of money on Wall Street--and pursue philosophy because economics bored me to death and I found philosophy stimulating. I am so enlightened!" In fact, that sort of self-congratulation is annoying, because it assumes no one else has ever come upon such a revelation. Likewise, his epic decision to "defy stereotypes" and travel to France comes across as equally annoying.

Still, Williams' analysis of black culture and what creates, perpetuates, and limits it is on the mark. I think this memoir is worth reading, if only for that reason: we all need to understand each others' motivations and preconceptions, whether we agree with them or not. Understanding is the first step to appreciation and a necessary component of coexistence and, perhaps, change.

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: The Daughters

The Daughters The Daughters by Joanna Philbin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Dealing with issues like families, boys, and fashion, The Daughters is a very typical YA novel. The characters are stock, and the emotions expressed throughout the novel are even more cookie-cutter. Excitement = "Oh my god!" Worry = "Uh oh." Anger = "He's such a jerk!" The only vaguely intriguing character in the whole novel is the photographer who "discovers" Lizzie, and she is unlikely to play a prominent role in the series.

Perhaps I am merely too old to appreciate these sorts of YA novels, but I have read other books for this target audience (e.g. The Hunger Games) and found them deeper, more meaningful, and ultimately more compelling reads than The Daughters. It will likely be a successful sell to 8-12 year old girls, but I will not be on the waiting list for book two.

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Friday, June 18, 2010

How to Do a Relationship . . . Backwards

My relationship started out typically enough, I suppose. Boy meets Girl; Boy and Girl become friends; Boy dates other girls. Slightly less typical were the next stages: Boy neglects Girl because of school/current girlfriend/etc. and Girl gets angry, but things eventually smooth out. Girl develops a crush on (and is rejected by) Boy's Best Friend. Finally, Girl and Boy graduate and move to different cities.

Then, Boy's girlfriend breaks up with him.

This is the point at which, in any ordinary Boy-meets-Girl story, Boy and Girl suddenly discover they have been perfect for each other all along and start dating. Or maybe they try out casually dating and discover that they are a perfect match. However, for R___ and myself, there was no instant enlightenment, nor did we have the opportunity to "date casually," seeing as we lived in cities 4.5 hours apart. Instead, we started communicating more regularly over the internet and visiting one another under the pretense of being friends. Which we were . . . for a little while.

I don't know if I would necessarily recommend the following chronology to anyone wishing to start a relationship, but this is what led me to where I am today:

Note: insert bouts of worry and elation wherever applicable.

  • We find excuses to invite one another to visit.
  • I begin sacrificing sleep to stay online at night a little longer.
  • We make out . . . and then reassure one another that we have no interest in dating.
  • We find excuses to invite ourselves to visit.
  • We sleep (literally) in the same bed.
  • I stay up even later to talk online at night. I am now averaging 4 hours of sleep per night.
  • He finally forces a confession of out of me. I am more worried than relieved.
  • We establish that we dating long-distance is not an option and therefore leave our "dating status" contingent upon whether or not he gets a teaching position in NYC. Now I am more relieved than worried.
  • We hold hands in public for (probably) the first time.
  • He gets the job.
  • He moves in . . . for the summer . . . .

And the final misplaced step in this relationship progression:

  • He takes me shopping to ask for my input on his clothes.

I was pretty much flabbergasted when he asked me to take him to Macy's last weekend. If my opinion on clothing matters to him, you know this is serious. Proves there is no real reason to go by the book, right?

How to Do a Relationship

As most of my close and even casual friends know, I have never officially had a boyfriend before. Therefore, this whole “dating exclusively” thing is completely uncharted territory for me. Granted, there is a basic protocol that most people follow:
  • Boy meets Girl (or vice versa—but for the sake of this example, let’s leave Boy first).
  • Boy asks Girl out on a date.
  • Boy and Girl kiss.
  • Boy and Girl decide to become exclusive.
  • Boy and Girl move in together.
  • Boy and Girl get married.
  • The End.

Obviously, this is a simplified version of a long and ordinarily complex story. Maybe Girl asks Boy on the date. Maybe Boy and Girl don’t move in together before marriage. Still, intuition tells us where these events would or would not occur. Boy and girl might hold hands in public before becoming exclusive; but probably not before the first kiss (unless there is some sort of religious stance at play, permitting hand-holding but not kissing). They almost certainly wouldn’t sleep in the same bed before the first date, barring any drunken frat circumstances.

I, however, defy tradition.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: The Penelopiad

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (Canongate Myths) The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While I do not know much Greek mythology, I am an absolute sucker for "retold" fairytales. Consequently, a "retold myth" is right up my alley--so long as the original myth is explained. Which, in The Penelopiad, it most certainly is.

Margaret Atwood does an admirable job of introducing the story of The Odyssey right up front: her narrator, Penelope, explains what the "typically believed" story is, so she can spend the rest of the novel debunking it. Her narrative voice is both distinct and believable, and Atwood's telling of the story aligns so well with The Odyssey that it's a wonder no one has tried to tell that myth from the wife's perspective before.

What makes The Penelopiad particularly unique and interesting, however, is the way Atwood intersperses chapters of Penelope's narration with Shakespeare-esque interludes by "The Chorus," i.e. the maids. In some chapters, they "sing" verses of witty, sardonic poetry to further elaborate on whatever event Penelope has just told. In others, they play direct roles in imaginary events, such as in the trial scene at the end of the book.

Atwood is an excellent storyteller, and The Penelopiad illustrates her versatility as a novelist. She can write futuristic novels about imaginary worlds, such as The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake. She can write make historical events come alive in novels such as Alias Grace. And she can retell myths to make us wonder who told the original story and why we did not question it until now. The latter is what she does in The Penelopiad, and she does it well.

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Too Hot to Handle

This is the most unusual case of sexual harassment I have ever seen: Woman Fired Over Looks.

Who ever heard of a woman being too hot for her job? Usually, men are thrilled to have an attractive female working in the cubicle next to them. Sure, it might be distracting, but from what I understand, this is usually a welcome distraction! And come on: if a guy cannot control his lust long enough to get some work done, then he's the one who should be fired.

While this is a bizarre instance of reverse-discrimination, I worry that it will give people one more excuse for why they were either fired or didn't get the job in the first place. Just imagine all the women who will now be claiming, "I was too hot, so they wouldn't hire me." (Barring the snaggle tooth and five chins, she might be right!)

Fortunately, I don't think this will ever become a problem for me. I am the girl who wears corduroy skirts, flip flops, and mismatched cardigans to work every day. On the rare day I wear high heels, no fewer than five colleagues ask me if I am going somewhere special after work. So I doubt I'm too distracting . . . unless my colleagues are actually consultants for Tim Gunn.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: Turtle Feet

Turtle Feet Turtle Feet by Nikolai Grozni

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Major theme of the book: finding oneself and meaning in one's life. Who can fail to relate to that?

Moreover, Turtle Feet is a well-written memoir with a suitable ending--sounds like my ideal book. Ultimately, however, it came out to be a somewhat interesting, somewhat enlightening, and also somewhat repetitive and forgettable book. The "supporting characters" are more interesting than the narrator, and because the narrator's reactions to these characters are predictable as well as predictably told, the reader never really laughs out loud at any amusing anecdotes, nor are we able emotionally connect with the narrator.

Nevertheless, the book is well written and one of the more thorough and candid accounts of monastic life I have read. I did enjoy it in spite of its lack of compelling storytelling, and I would recommend it to other memoir-lovers, as well as those interested in the rites, rituals, and lifestyles of any extremely religious devotee. Basically, try Grozni's writing before you pick up anything by Elizabeth Gilbert.

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Sunday, June 6, 2010


Last summer, I attempted my very first urban gardening experiment. My goals were modest, as I only tried growing three plants: cilantro, basil, and a tomato plant. The cilantro, I tried to grow from seed. Unfortunately, the seeds never sprouted no matter how much (or little) I watered them, so eventually I dumped the soil and chalked it up to bad seeds.

The basil, I purchased as a small starter plant from the Greenmarket in Union Square. Initially, it flourished quite nicely . . . until one day it decided to dry up, lay down, and die. (More specifically, its stalks began to turn brown from the soil on up. I tried giving it more water, but to no avail—my basil plant kicked the can. Or perhaps “pot” would be better terminology, in this case.)

The tomato plant was also purchased from Union Square, and consequently started out with promise. As it grew bigger, I transplanted it and staked it so that by mid-July it looked like I might actually get some tomatoes . . . until my neighbors ran over it with their car. Undeterred, I tried tying the plant upright again and coaxing it back to health. To reward me for my efforts, my plant yielded one red, ripe tomato . . . which—since driving over it with their car clearly hadn’t been enough—my neighbors promptly stole right off the vine. (Read my account of the whole episode here.)

This summer, I decided that due to my dismal track record, I would simply try to grow the same plants again. If met with success, I may consider branching out next summer and growing something crazy like . . . broccoli or green beans! This summer, however, I chose to repeat last summer’s regimen with one slight alteration. I planted the remaining cilantro seeds, bought a basil plant at Union Square, and (here’s the change) took several baby tomato plants from Dan’s garden rather than buying one at Union Square. Not much difference, but a difference nonetheless.

This time, the successes of my herbs reversed. Currently, the cilantro seeds are sprouting quite nicely (thus debunking my initial claim that it was the seeds that failed the first time. In hindsight, I think perhaps I planted them too shallowly. Unfortunately, there is no way to know). The leaves on my basil plant, however, are beginning to turn a bit yellow. In an attempt to save what is truly my favorite herb, I broke it into four sections and transplanted them into a larger pot. Fingers crossed.

Unfortunately, while my herbs may at least survive for a season, it seems I am just not meant to yield a successful tomato crop ever. When I first planted the little stalks (in a nice neat row, I might add, in one of those rectangular planters), they started growing just fine. Then, however, their leaves started turning yellow. I made a concerted effort to water the plants more, and even made plans to buy some plant food. They were already receiving ample sunlight, being arranged outside my kitchen window on my fire escape, so I was certain that wasn’t the problem. As it turns out, sunlight wasn’t the problem; their location on the fire escape was.

I have never thought of cats as a menace to outdoor plant life. Granted, my cat Twinkie used to occasionally try to eat the leaves of our houseplants, but I have always assumed that stray cats have more pressing matters to attend to . . . like foraging in garbage cans or fighting rats or avoiding traffic. Furthermore, the backyard behind my apartment building is full of overgrown foliage, so while I have seen a number of stray cats basking in the sunlit grass from time to time, I have never thought of them as anything more than cute, unfortunate creatures. That is, however, until the incident with my tomato plants.

As I stated before, my tomato plants’ leaves began to turn yellow about a week or so after I planted them. Additional watering wasn’t helping, so I was just about to buy plant food in hopes that maybe the soil I had purchased to pot them was merely inadequate, when it happened. I arrived home from work one night expecting to go through my ritual of checking my plants’ soil for dryness and watering them accordingly. As I slid up the screen of my kitchen window, I noticed that a few tomato plants were missing. Glancing further down the trough, I saw that quite a bit of soil had been shoved out of the planter at the far left end, and stringy white roots were strewn about. All that remained of the tomato plants was one small stalk with a few limp leaves, lying on its side in the middle of the mess.

The crime: tomato plant homicide.

The culprit: stray cats.

Needless to say, I took the one sad, lonely remaining stalk and propped it up in a mug with some soil. This is my final attempt. If I cannot keep this last plant from ravaged, foraged, or otherwise destroyed, I will not attempt to grow tomatoes again until I am living in a quaint suburban home with a neat little garden that I can fence in with netting, chicken wire, or even barbed wire if I so choose. Neighbors and cats beware: I might not have a green thumb, but all it takes to build a good booby trap is a little creativity and a thirst for revenge.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Yellow Bag, Reinstated

While I posted numerous good-bye pictures on Facebook, I neglected to write a blog post when my old friend, my mainstay, my signature yellow backpack vanished from my life. Long story short, its zipper broke, and when I went to return it to LL Bean (they have a lifetime guarantee), I discovered that they no longer make my backpack in yellow. I even included a note saying that if they couldn’t replace the backpack exactly, including color, could they please fix it and return the old one to me, but alas, to no avail. It was replaced by a very functional but not-quite-as-meaningful blue backpack, which I now carry.

Today, however, a new yellow bag entered my life. As a member of the Nike Pack, I frequently fill out surveys and perform other marketing/research-related tasks to help them develop products and monitor trends amongst active runners. Sometimes, as a result of performing these tasks, Pack members receive “swag.” We don’t choose what we will receive, but in the past I have received a zip-up jacket, a T-shirt, free entry to the 10k Nike Human race, and—my favorite—the Nike Plus Sportband (i.e. running watch).

After completing a number of tasks, I received notice that I should expect a “thank you” package in the mail. Unfortunately, Nike had my old address on file, so the package went to my old Jersey City apartment and I didn’t get it until today.

When I opened the FedEx box, it was love at first sight. A stunningly yellow duffle bag! I could not have asked for anything more appropriate. I guarantee, I am the most appreciative recipient of this bag, and that it will be used most by me. It’s no LL Bean backpack, but I now have the most stylishly “Allison” duffle bag I could ask for.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Greyhound Gripe

I am typically an adamant champion of public transportation. The NJ PATH train makes it tremendously convenient not only to get to work every day, but to get into the city, as well. Without the NYC subway, I wouldn’t be able to go from Chinatown to Harlem and then back down to Battery Park all on a Saturday. (Because if I drove, I would undoubtedly spend three-fourths of my afternoon looking for parking in Chinatown and would therefore never make it to Harlem or Battery Park at all.) And affordable bus transportation is what has made my various trips to and from to Boston, Washington DC, and Philadelphia possible.


Usually when you purchase a ticket—whether it be an airplane ticket or a movie ticket—you expect to get a seat. The logical assumption is that once all of the seats are bought, the vehicle/event is “sold out”; consequently, you will have to purchase a ticket for another time or day to make your trip or see your movie. Buses should be no exception.

Usually, they aren’t. Over the past few years, I have ridden on a number of bus lines on a variety of trips: Boltbus, Megabus, Apex (i.e. Chinatown) bus, Beiber bus, and, of course, Greyhound. Of the companies I just mentioned, 4 of the 5 ticket the “normal” way: selling tickets for a particular day/time until the bus is full, and then forcing patrons to choose another day/time if they want to ride that bus line to a particular destination. Greyhound, however, sells tickets indefinitely. That is to say, they sell tickets all the way up until the bus departs, regardless of how many were bought or sold.

What does this mean? This means that if you are travelling on a remotely popular weekend (i.e. within two weekends of any conceivable holiday), or if you are travelling to an even potentially popular destination (e.g. any East Coast city with a population greater than 300,000), you had better get to the bus station well before your departure time. Because if you don’t, someone else will most certainly be there and ready to steal your seat.

Case in point: this past weekend, I travelled to Syracuse. I took New York Trailways, which is a bus line that operates in conjunction with Greyhound. In order to assure that I’d get a seat on the 1:30pm bus, I had to get to Penn Station by 12:00pm, meaning that I had to leave work at 11:30am—an hour before the office closes. Then, I had to wait for an hour and a half (note: behind ten people who had already arrived and were waiting in line in front of me) to get on the bus and sit for another five-and-a-half hours, making the total travel time for my bus trip seven hours.

Arriving an hour-and-a-half early for a flight makes sense: you have to check in, maybe check a bag, go through security, and find your gate in what probably is an unfamiliar airport. However, arriving an hour-and-a-half early for a bus is ludicrous unless you’re hoping to catch a standby seat on an earlier bus. Which brings me to the pinnacle of my infuriation at Greyhound’s stupid first-come first-serve policy: there are always people waiting standby to get on a bus. Or at least in New York City, there are. I have never once stood in line for Bolt or Megabus and not seen a separate line of at least seven people trying to buy their way into a seat someone didn’t show up for.

If you are a standby passenger and you get a seat on a bus you only fleetingly hoped to ride, you will be ecstatic. I have been this passenger a few times, and on the rare occasion I manage to catch an earlier bus, I immediately think “I am definitely riding this line again!” However, Greyhound’s policy inevitably makes for unhappy customers. If you buy a ticket for a certain time/date, stand in line, and are still in line when the bus is declared full, you will be infuriated at having planned ahead and bought a ticket for a bus you aren’t even going to ride. And chances are, the next bus will not show up for at least a few hours. I have lived in fear of this after almost missing my bus to Pittsburgh about a year ago.

Luckily, Greyhound is no longer the only bus line that goes anywhere. Upon arriving in Syracuse, I glimpsed a big blue-and-yellow double-decker Megabus pulling out of the lot. Next time I make that trip, I will most certainly be riding Megabus.