Brain Work

i never used to worry about brain cells, but now it seems that if you’re not busy tapping away at puzzles on your phone or tablet you need to be worried about your brain function. like i don’t have enough to worry about already…

i’m not much for games, especially when i have to shell out money to play games and shell out a lot of money to play “brain games”. i tried some of those free on-line games but they just didn’t interest me enough to continue playing. to me, just figuring something out or learning something new is enough of a game. i guess i’m just one of those people who has to have a purpose for play.

as i read more about the concept of “use it or lose it” to improve brain function, i discovered that it wasn’t so much that it has to be math games or even games, it’s just that you have to use your brain to learn something you don’t already know. apparently you can even get benefit from just watching educational videos.

okay, so i could just watch educational videos, but i kind of do that anyway. i was searching for some other way to improve brain function and improve myself. one thing i did was buy spanish language cds to play in the car and attempt to learn spanish. it’s very difficult. funny things is that when i’m asked to respond in spanish, the first thing that comes to mind is german since i studied german for 6 years. but i’m going to keep on going because i figure if i can memorize all the words to some dumb pop song by repetition, i can probably pick up some spanish.

but, i found another activity that enhances my brain function and contributes something to the world and to future generations. it’s working on transcriptions of hard copy documents for the smithsonian institution.

the smithsonian is attempting to transcribe every hard copy document in their archives so that they can be electronically searchable. the word daunting doesn’t even begin to describe this task. so, the smithsonian is asking for volunteers to help with the process.

i hear you… you’re asking how typing can improve anything in your brain. first, take a look at the material listed as projects – it might seem as though you could mindlessly tap that out in a hour but look at the actual written pages and you’ll see how difficult these transcriptions can be. and how fascinating.

the first document i worked on was a field guide of a specific coastal area of maine. the detail that the naturalist included was both tedious and spectacular. consider that when this was written there was no such thing as photography so the naturalist had to account for every sight he saw: plants, water, rock formations, rock composition, etc. – all in painstaking detail.

the second document i worked on was the diary of the daughter from a farming family. i was interested at the word diary, but found that it was less of a personal diary as it was a detailed recording of each day’s activities along with the whereabouts of every individuals associated with the farm. unfortunately, it was less about the mechanics of the dairy farm, which was why i chose the project.

right now i’m working on the log book of negatives for all photos taken of every item or object in the smithsonian, which will likely take some time since there are over 3 million negatives.

here’s the thing about participating in this process: you can devote as little or as much time as you wish. figuring out someone’s handwriting is puzzle solving in and of itself. there are multiple people who participate on a project so you don’t have to complete it all yourself and the home page of the website lists your user id and recent contribution.

you can transcribe from the original written word or you can review and check for accuracy what someone else has transcribed. and, every week or so new projects are uploaded for participation. an exciting one that i missed was a series of letters between prominent contemporary artists, so i’m on the lookout for any more of those.

no matter what subject matter you’re inclined toward, there is probably a project for you. there are scientist’s journals to transcribe, accounting log books for the math hearted, entries in a burpee seed contest, there are projects about anthropology, entomology, botany, history and more. and if you don’t find something you’re interested in, check back in a few days and see what’s new.

who knows, the contribution you make today may serve as the basis for new research decades from now. you’re not just improving your brain, but some else’s too.

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Thanksgiving State of Mind

there seem to be two kinds of thanksgiving people: traditionalists and adventurers. traditionalists want the exact same food each and every year and in fact, spend most of the year dreaming of their thanksgiving meal. adventurers dream up new meals each year with new recipes and maybe even new concepts. i’ll bet most of us are in-between the two extremes and like some things every year while looking forward to some new ideas.

whatever your food type, thanksgiving is one of a few american holidays that all of us can share regardless of heritage or background. in fact, bringing your heritage or background to the thanksgiving meal is what makes it all that much more interesting and delicious.

people who have lived many places across america already know the concept of a making a holiday wherever you are. i only basically lived in states in my life — california and pennsylvania—but at a few addresses in each state. but no matter where i was on thanksgiving, i’ve always been able to make a holiday celebration out of just about nothing.

my first thanksgiving in pa when i couldn’t get back to california, i invited housemates, acquaintances, neighbors and anyone who wanted/needed a place to go for thanksgiving over and i cooked for them. though they were grateful for my hospitality, it was really me who was the beneficiary because all that cooking and fussing for guests distracted me from feeling lonely and homesick.

i met c in september of the next year, so he invited me to his parents’ house for thanksgiving the next year, which is where we have been going for almost all the years since.

the exception was thanksgiving of 2010 when i was temporarily living in texas with our daughter and her husband while she recovered from a bone marrow transplant at md anderson cancer center. c flew down with our other daughter and son so we could all be together at thanksgiving.

l and i decorated with paper turkeys and crepe paper and tried to set a nice table with whatever this and that was in the church supported apartment. we decided that since we weren’t in pa, we might as well change up the meal and go with some local flair. and, since texas is known for bbq, we bought a smoked turkey from one of the best bbq places in tx and made side dishes to compliment the smoked turkey. we made whatever we could in the tiny, scantily equipped kitchen and bought the rest.

the meal was delicious but the fact of us all being together and that our daughter was doing well in her recovery was what made that thanksgiving wonderful. the smoked turkey? not so much.

so no matter what you fancy on thanksgiving – a traditional feast or an adventurous new twist on classics there is only one wish for the day: a holiday full of thanks and good will, delicious food and most of all a moment of reflection.

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Find a Way to Get Your Nom On

it’s not news to say that the british are not known for their cuisine. okay, so that’s changed as london has become more of an international city, but there’s still plenty about british food that begs for help – particularly in the vegetable department.

that said, we had opportunity to sample some pretty delicious meals during our stay in england and scotland and not all of them involved curry.

so you know when you’re going to england that you’re probably going to eat in a pub and the pubs in england center their offerings around five items: fish and chips, sausages and mashed potatoes, a hamburger, a curry offering (usually vegetarian) and a pork or chicken offering. along with your choice you’re going to get chips (french fries) and/or peas and maybe some sautéed mushrooms. you may also get some gravy and if it’s one thing the brits know how to make, it’s gravy.

the other thing the brits are famous for is making just about any or everything into a savory pie. the blackbird pub next door to where we stayed in kensington is very much into making pies, so of course we had to sample one. the pie is a hybrid of an american type pie crust on the bottom and sides, topped with a puff pastry. the dense pie crust is necessary to corral all that gravy, but you’re not likely going to be able to eat it unless you let the grave soak in and soften it. c had a beef pie and i had a chicken pie and they were both freshly made with chunks of meat, vegetables and potatoes in thick, rich gravy. frankly, i was afraid of the beef pie since the brits are so very fond of kidneys and i wasn’t giving them an opportunity to sneak any of that into my food.

besides fish and chips, which are almost always spectacular, one pub we visited served up a mouth-watering sandwich of grilled vegetables and stilton with honey balsamic that i will try to recreate if i can ever get my hands on some good english stilton.

most pubs pride themselves on their homemade sausages and local beers both of which are usually pretty good or very good. we mostly drank fuller’s london pride beer, which would remind most philadelphians of yuengling.

pubs also make wonderful breakfasts and english breakfasts are the kind that will keep you full until dinner. we only had a few of these because… well, just look at the plate and there was far too much walking planned for a day to start it with a breakfast like that.

i mentioned that the english love their peas but a new breed of british chefs is making a version of fresh pea soup with mint that is fragrant, bright and just delightful. the best bowl we had was at harrod’s terrace restaurant.

hamburgers are a big deal in london now and there are a few small chains making “proper burgers”. unfortunately, byron’s, the one place that people were raving about, was experiencing a power outage the night we tried to eat there so we wondered up the street to gourmet burger kitchen. assessment: good old fashioned hamburger. wonderful tasting and properly seasoned/cooked beef, crispy fries, all served up with a cool london pride. There are lots of toppings available, but as i’ve gotten older, less is better when it comes to hamburgers.

the british have always had a love affair with curry, in fact the first time i ever ate curry was in london in 1977, but now you can find all manner of international influences on food in england and scotland. we tried a version of an american steakhouse that was very good, not great, but very good, made better by the fact of sitting on the outside terrace in london’s west end theatre district. we enjoyed afternoon charcuterie in an outdoor café in covent gardens, pretty good brick oven pasta at a hotel restaurant, wild spatchcock chicken with green sauce and a stilton tart with hazelnut and apple salad at harrod’s, and even a lovely roasted chicken from the local grocery store.

much of this was washed down with french or south african wines that were inexpensive but tasted like some of the better california wines we enjoy at home.

some of the most memorable meals we had were in scotland. this is where we enjoyed a small, family owned indian restaurant where we sampled a variety of dishes, each one complex and delicious accompanied by some very good indian beers that are not available in the states.

one huge difference in much of the restaurant eating in england and scotland is that most (if not all) of the food is made fresh. we’re not talking reheated sysco prepackaged here. even a small pub turned out a perfectly executed platter of freshly made scotch egg.

the hotel where we stayed advertised their award winning haggis, and after tasting it, i know why. The ingredients for haggis may sound disgusting, but the final product is a hearty hash with deep, rich flavor that is made even better with the addition of runny eggs.

one of the best meals we had in scotland was at a tiny restaurant called wildest drams on the royal mile in edinburgh. the restaurant is actually down a couple of flights of stairs, through a bar/cellar, then up a couple of flights of stairs to the back of the building. they pride themselves on their fresh, locally sourced game food and they’re excited to share that the chef butchers everything himself. i had fresh caught salmon – scottish salmon is my favorite and c had the fresh killed grouse. the food tasted even better than the pretty picture it looked like.

We had some dud meals, most notably at a restaurant that advertised itself as an “American” restaurant. Think the worst of Applebees and make it even worse. One example: coleslaw with limp cabbage laden with mayonnaise and yellow mustard. Cringe.

What was most delightful about dining in both England and Scotland was that the pace was more leisurely. Maybe that would drive most Americans crazy, but I thoroughly enjoyed taking the time to enjoy a meal.

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Across the Pond — Scottish Edition

sometimes ignorance is bliss. so it was that i went to scotland with very few stereotypes in my head and, from my own observations and experiences, came to the very same conclusions of which stereotypes are made.

my only thoughts of scotland were beautiful landscapes, bagpipes, whisky (spelled the scottish way) and haggis. so yes, scotland is beautiful. the highlands are rather like the pocono “mountains” here in pa, except with lots of sheep.

each mountain is referred to as a munro – after sir hugh munro who wrote up the first list of munros. the scottish are outdoorsy people and hiking is quite the pastime and competitive hiking or “bagging munros”, complete with web sites and maps where hikers can tic off their conquests, is a thing.

we hiked only a short time, but the trails were filled with hikers of all ages with their dogs, which made the hike all that much better.

as for bagpipes and haggis…
well, yes it is not unusual to see and hear bagpipers in scotland and for that matter it is not all that unusual to see men dressed in kilts. it was a little unsettling for us to hear and see bagpipers only because here in the eastern us bagpipes are associated with funerals of either police or fire personnel.

as for haggis, i know it gets a bad rap and i think the scots are in on the joke of how horrible haggis is. okay, so it’s made with some rather unsavory parts of a lamb, which i’d rather not remember especially because i’m not even a fan of the so-called good parts of lamb. but the haggis i had was delicious. think of the very best brown gravy you’ve eaten and add some al dente steel cut oats and some finely chopped onion, carrot and celery and you’ve got haggis. better still, add a poached egg on top and you’ve got some mighty good eats.

but here’s the revelatory part of scotland for me: the scots are an angry people. don’t take my word for it, even a scottish psychiatrist says so.

not to say that our interactions while in scotland were unpleasant – far from it – just that the history of scotland is tied up with anger and slight, battles, revenge, conflict and just a wee bit of drinking. okay, maybe a lot of drinking.

a lot of scottish history is about scottish royal women marrying into other nations, then escaping and returning to scotland to reclaim their rightful throne only to be removed by a male relative (or someone), then marrying an english king but being beheaded by that king then armies of angry scots righting for scottish freedom and more fighting and a whole lot of weapons and… i was kind of exhausted listening to it all.

alongside the scottish crown jewels in edinburgh is the stone of destiny, sometimes referred to as the coronation stone.

this is the stone upon which scottish kings sat to be crowned. and as such, it was the stone that was swiped by the english in some or other conflict with the scots and taken back to england. not surprisingly, it was taken back to scotland by the scots amid bloodshed. then it was swiped again and taken back to england. then there was peace between the two nations and as a kind of sign of unity the stone is placed beneath the throne when a new monarch is crowned in england.

but the last time it was used for the current queen elizabeth, the stone was not promptly returned and the scots will tell you their annoyance about that. so when the new king of england is crowned, you now know that under the ornate throne will be a big, scottish rock, which is surely more comfortable for the royal tush. the scots will likely start demanding the return of the stone soon after the coronation and add each day of delay to their list of grievances with the english.

the scots are a proud people. so proud that they take credit for a lot of inventions and achievement in the entire world, though they bear no blame for any ne’er do wells. for instance, they claim neil armstrong, first man on the moon, but not lance armstrong, cheating liar of a cyclist. they adore sean connery and consider him the only james bond worth remembering.
they brag and laugh that average white band were scots but don’t ask about the bay city rollers.
if you ever saw that movie my big fat greek wedding, then you remember how the greek father was so proud of his heritage that he found a six-degrees-of-separation way to lay claim to everything good in the world. so it is with the scots.

yet i’ll be you’ve never even heard of the kelpies, giant metal horse head sculptures that are a monument to horse powered heritage across scotland. they are magnificent! and yet they didn’t even warrant a stop on our tour and only a few words from our quintessentially scottish tour guide.

with great honor they spoke of both their anger at losing the recent vote for independence and how it was a democratic vote and not a violent clash (although i got the impression that some might have wanted another war of independence).
probably the most intense event of the lead up to the vote was the building of a cairn along the scottish/english border.

this kind of sums up the personality of the scots.

don’t get me wrong, i loved scotland and the scots and i would go back in a heartbeat. but i’m afraid if i stay there too long i’m likely to take up the anger/resentment that lurks just beneath the surface of a sober scot and is easily released with a bit of whisky. and i do like a good whisky.

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Adventures Across the Pond — Piles of Rocks

castles and henges and baths… oh my! a couple of days after arriving in london, we took a side trip to the english countryside where we saw piles of rocks arranged in all manner of configurations.

first stop was windsor castle, 30 miles west of london and the oldest and largest castle in the world as well as the weekend home of the queen. she was not there at the time, preferring to stay at her beloved balmoral castle in scotland. windsor was the castle that had the fire in 1992, which did a significant amount of damage to the property and antiquities inside as well as open up the era of riff raff being allowed inside buckingham palace. the damage to windsor was extensive and the first estimates to restore the landmark were between £40 million and £60 million. here’s the rub: windsor castle, though being the home of the royal family for 900 years, is owned by the british public (the castle, but not the art, furniture and antiquities inside). not surprisingly, helping out an aristocratic family with enormous land holdings, art, jewels etc. and who did not pay any income tax did not much appeal to your average working class citizen of the uk. so, a deal was struck whereby the queen would open up buckingham palace to visitors for a few months of the year whereby a portion of the cost could be recouped by charging visitors £9.75 or $15.55 to peek inside. but hey, it includes a free audio tour. windsor was already open to the public, but an admission fee was instituted. another free audio tour!

not having castles and such here in the states, it was cool to saunter around a real castle. as you would expect, windsor castle is up on a hill, behind high walls and a self-contained village. the building itself is smaller than you would think but the art and craftsmanship contained inside are quite a sight to see. just the china room alone would set your head spinning. since we were on a guided bus tour we were a bit rushed and didn’t get a chance to explore the picturesque town of windsor, but we did see some of the changing of the guard, a once daily event.

next stop: stonehenge. it was the afternoon of the autumnal equinox, a special day at stonehenge. there was a sunrise service, organized by druids and pagans with a smattering of wiccon (i’m not joking) to mark the day when there is an equal amount of sunlight and darkness. here’s a link to some video.

we missed the sunrise service and as far as i’m concerned we could have missed stonehenge altogether. smithsonian magazine published a cover story on new scientific findings at stonehenge, which i read before we left so i was looking forward to the guide talking about the new findings. alas, stonehenge tourist central didn’t seem to either know or care anything about it. in conclusion, stonehenge looks just like the pictures and i would have been satisfied with just driving by it and taking pictures out the window.

not surprisingly in a town called bath there are roman baths which date back to about 70ad. i have to admit that i was the least excited about bath, for no particular reason other than i figured it would not be more interesting than windsor castle. wrong! if you are planning a trip to england, bath is one of the places you should put on your itinerary and maybe even plan to stay for a couple of nights. it’s quite amazing to walk on 2000 year old stones and into structures where steaming waters from the king’s spring still stream into the pools and to learn about the important role the baths played in both roman and english society. you can even drink some of the water, which reportedly has healing powers. not so sure about that, but c and i both drank a cup.

again, we were on a tour so our time was limited and we were only able to see the roman baths themselves and just a bit of the beautiful town of bath, and exterior of the bath abbey, an example of some of the finest fan vaulting in the world and site of christian worship for over 1200 years. we did drive by jane austen’s house and past some of the other homes in town, examples of georgian architecture, but my literary friends will be disappointed to find out that we did not have the time to download and take the free audio tour of bath as jane austen knew it.

we had just a moment to duck into a pub for a drink and enjoyed a lovely conversation with the barkeep who filled us in on a few bits of local news.

as if there weren’t enough to recommend about bath, the visitor’s site lists top dog walking routes around the town and who’s to argue with a town that on its visitor site lists top dog walking routes?

look for adventures across the pond – part III

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Adventures Across the Pond – Part One

c and i finally made it across the pond (for those of you who are uninitiated that means we visited england and scotland). this is just one of the many trips we’ve been planning for decades, so in a way it’s hard to believe it’s already come and gone.

this was not my first trip overseas – i traveled around europe and england one summer back in 1977 – but it was c’s first trip. with the exception of the obvious landmarks, london has changed tremendously since i was last there. maybe that’s true of most world cities, and certainly it’s true here in the u.s., but i was pretty surprised at the difference in london. of course, 37 years is a long time…

i’m sure that many people would be disappointed to know that a stereotypical “british” experience may not necessarily be had in london any longer. oh sure, there are still pubs a plenty, penhaligan’s is still around, harrods (though owned by qatar holdings) stands grand but covent garden is now just like any us shopping mall and carnaby street is still there but without the famous funky vibe of the 60s. many of the workers and shop and pub owners are russian, ukranian or other eastern europeans and while there is still a strong indian presence there is also an added middle eastern population clustered into obvious ethnic enclaves.

perhaps because of the chunnel or maybe just because of the expanding nature of our world, london is not just pints, tea, biscuits and crisps, there are plenty of coffee shops, patisseries and all manner of similar take-out food joints that dot our own us towns and cities. while you might have guessed that the major fast food player is mcdonald’s, what we saw more often were kfcs, starbucks and subways – and they were always busy. certainly there are many distinctly british retailers, but just about every retailer you see in a major us city is also in london. same for high-end, name brand boutiques. even the styles were just about the same.

we did see a couple of what we called “london girls” – 20-something women with updated throwback styles from the 60s london – ratted hair, hip styles, thick accents, lots of eyeliner and fake lashes carrying lots of bags with treasures from their london shopping trip.

interestingly, american big band and swing music from the 40’s seemed to be the music of choice in hotel lobbies, elevators, restaurants and pubs.

the world is a much, much easier place to navigate, especially where money is concerned. in 1977 there was no euro, so i had to change money upon arriving at each country, and without electronic cash machines, i had to carry traveler’s checks and hunt out a bank or exchange office each time i crossed a border. c and i were only in england and scotland, so we were able to use the pound the entire time, but using a debit and credit card or get a cash withdrawal was just simple. most establishments took our debit or credit card and then asked whether we would like to pay in pounds, euros or dollars.

one wonderful change is that, like the us, england and scotland do not allow smoking on trains or in restaurants, so we were hardly bothered by smokers. okay, so back in 1977 i was one of those annoying smokers…

we quickly got used to the language difference, much to our amusement. no exit signs, just “way out”; chips are crisps, french fries are chips, cookies are biscuits, oatmeal is porridge, elevators are lifts, “th” is pronounced like an “f”, the word “then” is used at the end of most sentences, speaking inflection goes up at the end of a sentence to make every one into a question and the subway is called the tube where you mind the gap. oh, and so here we just order coffee, but there you would ask for an americano, espresso, latte or cappuccino. forget trying to get a brewed decaf ‘cuz it’s all instant.

we referred to ourselves as being from “the states” since our friends to the north and south in north america don’t appreciate the arrogance of calling ourselves americans, but we were always referred to as americans anyway.

probably the hardest thing to get used to was looking the correct way before crossing a street. this is such a problem for visitors in london that “look right” and “look left” with big arrows are painted on the street at many intersections. what i found most startling was to instinctively look at the left side of the front of a car only to find it empty or someone doing something other than paying attention to the road and realize all over again that the driver was on the right. they all looked like phantom cars to me. i’m not sure i ever got used to that.

look for Adventures Across the Pond – Part Two very soon.

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I’ll be traveling for the next two weeks, so in the meantime, please rummage through old posts and see if there’s anything you missed!

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