Monday, 29 June 2015

Boston and Chicago

Foreground flowers, background skyscrapers
Chicago skyline
I have three simultaneous blog posts brewing at the moment, not including the usual collection of books I've been reading, and I need to knuckle down. As ever, there's a lot going on that I don't or can't write about, which means I often choose to do nothing at all in the times when there is nothing I must do. Writing and blogging has to take its turn among all the other pressures. But I always seem to come back to it eventually.

The hiatus was caused in part by a big trip to America - the furthest distance and longest duration that I can remember. I can usually manage a week away; this one was just over ten days.

Golden domed building on the Common
Massachusetts State House
First half: Boston, where I stayed with my favourite cousin and his wife (E+L) and three teenage children, all of whom appear to lead a life without a minute's pause except for sleeping, and without direct observation I'm not sure there was much of that. They get home from work and drive up to three children plus friends to many different places, feed and walk the dog, select any number of different dinner options, argue, settle arguments, find lost possessions, buy new ones, plan for the following day/week/month, pack bags for up to three different camp/summer holidays, and even socialise.

Path and flowerbeds on a sunny day
Boston Greenway
Without children my life is comparatively sedate, with the provisos I have mentioned at the start of this post. I get home from work, have something to eat, then read or blog or listen to the radio or podcasts, and very occasionally half-heartedly clean or tidy something. I haven't even been to badminton for a while because I'm trying to fix my tennis elbow. I have been running, but I try to do that in the morning if I can. I could probably fit a lot more in if I had to, but luckily I don't have to.

It's easy to walk around Boston despite my terrible sense of direction, and I wandered about quite aimlessly for much of the time, just enjoying the vibe of a foreign city, On various days I followed the Harborwalk, ate in the North End (alone and with E+L) and at Quincy Market, visited the Museum of Science and the Museum of Natural History (which is in Cambridge on the Harvard University campus), and joined a tour of the Massachusetts State House.

A sculpture of a boat with the harbor and skyscrapers in the background
Boston Harbor
The Museum of Science was no better than OK, and this impression is reinforced by the fact that five days later I couldn't remember a thing that I saw without looking at the website. The best bit was called 'The Photography of Modernist Cuisine' which had interesting pictures of food that were highly magnified or cutaway sections e.g. of food in a pressure cooker or blender. Another interesting bit was all about mathematics, and there were live demonstrations of lightning and a snapping turtle. The Imax film about humpback whales was OK, but the Clam Chowder in a bread bowl and the Boston Cream Pie from Quincy Market were better, and more memorable.

The Museum of Natural History in Cambridge features perfect scientific models of plants and their components made entirely out of glass. They were amazing, and the exhibition was only enhanced by a hugely enthusiastic staff member who provided short talks to the crowds of visiting schoolchildren, and when he wasn't talking to schoolchildren he wandered about murmuring "Glass, it's all made of glass." There was much more to the museum than glass flowers and plants, and their stuffed animals in and out of glass cases were presented very attractively.

On my last day in Boston I headed for the Massachusetts State House. As I approached, it appeared to have a whole lot of police and uniformed troopers around, and then I heard someone's voice thanking us all for attending, and some clapping from the crowd. I'd arrived exactly as a ceremony ended.

It turns out that in late 2014 water works in the building led to the unexpected discovery of a time capsule hidden in the cornerstone. It had been buried in 1795 by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, and its contents cleaned and re-buried in 1855, but since then it had evidently been forgotten. It was opened and found to contain newspapers, coins, a state seal, a page of the record from when the state was a colony and an engraved silver plate. The contents were temporarily put on display in Boston, and the ceremony I had stumbled on (and missed) was to re-bury the box. As the crowds dispersed I did manage to go inside and see the Boston House of Representatives and the Senate as well as hearing a bit about the history of the colony pre- and post-revolution.

I volunteered to do the cooking on my last night, but when L came home she invited me to go out to a film festival, at which point I abandoned the cooking (it was very nearly done) and went out to watch 15 short films and an awards ceremony. L had actually been part of a team that created and submitted a film, but they didn't win anything. She showed me her film, and I thought it was at least as good as any of the winners.

Mirror polished bean-shaped sculpture
Shell Gate sculpture, Millennium Park, Chicago
Second half: Chicago. This was my first experience of Airbnb, where ordinary people offer their houses as accommodation for travellers. It worked really well for me - much cheaper and less formal than a hotel or guesthouse, with the option of using a real kitchen. I chose a place that was a little way out of town, but it wasn't a problem.

As in Boston, my leisure preferences in Chicago included wandering about aimlessly, visiting museums, and food. There also happened to be a four-day festival celebrating all things Puerto Rican in the neighbourhood near to where I was staying, including a parade. I'm not sure what I expected, but after the various floats the parade ended with motorcycles and cars parading past for what seemed like an eternity, revving their engines and spinning their wheels and generally being noisy and unpleasant.

The best museum of the trip was in Chicago - the Field Museum of Natural History, where they have stuffed animals, dinosaurs, and more stuffed animals as well as whole collections that I didn't see, and I spent the whole day there: from 5 minutes after the doors opened to the announcement that everyone should please leave. The explanations and interactive exhibits were well thought out, and there didn't seem to be any school groups, which was a relief. I also confirmed the identities of two animals I'd spotted earlier in the trip - a chipmunk (like a squirrel but smaller with light stripes down its body), and an American Robin (different shape and darker back but with an orange breast).

The worst museum of the trip was also in Chicago - the Museum of Science and Industry, which was very disconnected and too interactive. To get any decent information you had to hang about and watch the videos. The highlights were a hall of mirrors in the form of a maze, and the hatchery where I watched a chick hatch from an egg. Not the highlights I was anticipating from a museum of science and industry. I didn't find the physiology exhibit until it was too late, but I don't think I would have liked it any better than the rest of the collection. It seemed to be designed for people with a very short attention span - I suppose they know their audience.

On my last day I chose local activities - lunch followed by a movie. Not your usual tourist fare, but it's what I like. Throughout the trip the weather was extremely varied, with days of cold rain, as well as humid and overcast but dry, and hot and sunny. As I left for the airport, it was hot, and raining.

Man on motorcycle
In the Puerto Rican parade
I liked Boston more, but that was partly because of my lovely cousin and his family, and partly because the weather, while not perfect, was more comfortable than Chicago. Now it's back to work, and the holiday feeling has already faded away...

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Three notable things last week

Garden border
Back garden, May 2015
Two people I know featured in the news last week. The first was Emma Percy, who hit the headlines by asserting that the Church should feel free to refer to God as a woman. We were at secondary school together, and I met her again a few years ago when she led the memorial service for another schoolfriend's mother.

The second media appearance was by a regular visitor to this blog, known as CERNoise. As the name suggests, she works at CERN and has contributed a guest post to this blog in the past. The Large Hadron Collider was fired up again this week, and is now ready to operate at higher energies than ever before. CERNoise appeared on the BBC Today programme this week (segment starting at 2 hours 24 minutes). Her explanation of the slightly strained nature of her contribution was that it was incredibly noisy in the control room and she could hardly hear herself speak.

The third notable thing was to do with my running. [It occurred to me this week that we used to call it 'jogging' - when did we make that change?] I have an app on my phone that monitors my location, speed and elevation. It is very complimentary about my performance, and tries to find anything to congratulate me for - as well as fastest and furthest in many distance categories it has also commended me on the most outings I have made in a month, number of calories burned, meters climbed and so on.

Anyway, this app - called RunKeeper - also contains a few different training programmes. As I'm planning to Run Forest Run in November, I thought I'd try the plan that offers to help you achieve 10k in under 65 minutes. It is a set of 61 'workouts' over about 4 months at a rate of 4 runs a week. As there isn't a chance that I'll be going out 4 times a week, I have started it already as it will probably take me more like 6 months to get through that many runs.

It starts with shorter, slower runs, but mixes things in an interesting way, giving a bit of variety. The longest run scheduled so far coincided with this week's Parkrun - the regular Saturday morning run that is held every week for all comers. But RunKeeper wanted me to run 8 km, while Parkrun is only 5 km. My solution was to run 3 km from home to the start of the Parkrun - I usually go by bicycle.

8 km is definitely the longest run I have ever done, and it went surprisingly well given that I misjudged the timing/distance a bit and ran for 8.4 km. I was only 40 seconds slower than my best ever Parkrun time!

A couple of weeks ago I volunteered to marshal for Parkrun instead of running, and it was quite entertaining. I went for a lonesome run afterwards, and this is when I realised that after a year, I have actually come to enjoy running - probably because I can do it without constantly feeling like my lungs will burst any minute. So, it takes a year. Definitely worth it.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover

The Miniaturist
by Jessie Burton
"On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. Her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. But Nella's world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home."
This started well - it has been a while since I read a book that felt so much like a novel, set in an unfamiliar place and time with proper characterisation. In fact until I found the summary above I hadn't realised it was in the 17th century; it felt more like the 19th (but that's a small point). Anyway, on the whole it was a good read, my only criticism being that the mystery of the cabinet and the miniaturist was never resolved to my satisfaction; other readers may find the lack of resolution perfectly fine.

Image of the book cover

Paradise Postponed
by John Mortimer

narrated by Paul Shelley
"When Simeon Simcox, a socialist clergyman, leaves his entire fortune not to his family but to the ruthless, social-climbing Tory MP Leslie Titmuss, the Rector's two sons react in very different ways."
I wasn't sure I liked this book when I was half way through, mostly because of the way that he writes the character of the aspiring, calculating and cynical Leslie Titmuss. A perfect politician, Leslie is quite open about how he manipulates the family of the chair of the local Conservative association - for example, he marries their daughter by the ruse of pretending that she is pregnant. The Rector's family is equally well described but slightly more attractive, and the mystery of the will was just enough to keep my interest alive in the face of the unattractive characters portrayed.

Image of the book cover

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

narrated by Simon Vance
"A colonel receives five seeds in the mail, and dies within weeks. A young bride disappears immediately after her wedding. An old hat and a Christmas goose are the only clues to a stolen jewel. These mysteries - and many more - are brought to the house on Baker Street where detective Sherlock Holmes resides."
A nice set of short stories, some well-remembered (the speckled band, the copper beeches) and others I'd forgotten. Have I mentioned that the narrator is rather good? I've listened to only 18 hours of the massive 58-hour set of books; plenty left to enjoy!

Image of the book cover

The Return of the Soldier
by Rebecca West

narrated by Nadia May
"Captain Chris Baldry, a World War I soldier, is sent home with a severe case of shellshock amnesia. Recoiling from the horrors of war and disillusioned with years of superficial married life, his mind has regressed 15 years into the past."
This is a short book, but beautifully and poetically written, The soldier in question has returned from war with shell shock in the form of amnesia, and remembers nothing of the past 15 years in which he lost the love of his life, married a different woman, and had a son who died. His wife is appalled at his wish to be reunited with the woman he had loved before her, not least because she is dowdy and ugly. But it isn't the story that drew me in, it's the gorgeous quality of the writing; words to conjure sunlight, shade, beauty, love and war.

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