Saturday, February 25, 2006

Stray Bits

Hi there. Nothing's happened recently, so I thought instead I'd list some things I saw as I was wandering around downtown today.

  • In a cooking/kitchen accessories store: a silver hip-flask fashioned to look like a cell phone. When I picked it up and laughed at it, the woman behind the counter said they'd had another flask that went on a key ring. So much for not drinking and driving. Also, a twisty teaspoon bent so that it will rest (and stay perfectly level) on the rim of the cup.
  • In the wooded grassy area near the bus stop: a Scottie dog wearing some sort of plaid blanket/cape thing, chasing squirrels as far as his leash would let him. Reminded me of when my friends and I were kids and we'd play superheroes by tying towels or blankets around our necks and charging around the backyard.
  • All over town: product placement. Apparently it's en vogue to put emblems or write a product line's name in large letters on women's slacks, at right about the rump area. Today a young lady passed me in sweatpants that had "Penn State" and paw prints on her behind. Another one later on was sporting the word "Juicy." Sigh. I feel old.
  • On the bus: the fellow next to me smelled strongly of lemons, and had the volume on his iPod up so loud I could hear it over what was playing in my own headphones. He'll probably be deaf before he's thirty. The woman in front of me had tri-colored hair: fuchsia, indigo, and bright purple. The baby across the aisle from her was fascinated by it. His gaze didn't waver from the time she boarded the bus to the time his mother carried him off.
  • "Creature of Habit" moment: the bus driver (who's been driving my route for years and years) almost stopped at the place I normally get off, even though no one pulled the wire to request it. He then checked in the rear view mirror to see if I meant to keep on going, or if I was distracted. That's happened, by the way. I recently got so lost in a book that I made an almost complete circle on the bus route before I remembered where I was and what I had been trying to do. Luckily I hadn't been expected anywhere, so it didn't inconvenience anyone but me.

That's about it. Though I've been thinking about the product placement thing some more and it reminded me of an old high school friend. She was rather well-endowed in the mammary department, and she saw a T-shirt in the mall she would have loved to wear, if her mother would have allowed it. In very tiny print right across the bust it read: "Everyone is watching you stare at my chest."

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Playing with Flickr

I got a Flickr account yesterday. I've been carrying my digital camera around with me since I bought it last August. I take pictures all the time, but haven't done much with them except save them on my computer or print them out at the Kodak Picture Maker kiosk in Wal-Mart.

This picture is from last October. The one weekend that wasn't a home football game, the town threw a little party (sort of a "Woohoo! We have the place to ourselves!" kind of thing). They called it Fall Festival. A largish section of one street was blocked off, and things got set up all along it, including a pen containing this pair of alpacas from a local farm. There was also a table for decorating pumpkins and an arts & craft sale farther (further?) on up the street.

I like this picture because it looks like the white one is on the verge of speech. Probably about to say to the brown one, "Do you know why they're staring at us?"

Sunday, February 19, 2006

It’s Murder, She Says!

I spent approximately 6 hours in a downtown café yesterday, plotting a murder.

I thought that might get your attention.

I belong to this rather odd group of people, we call ourselves the Loons. We are a group of civic-hearted, light-minded people who live in (or near) and love the town of Bellefonte. We are trying to do fun and rather goofy things in, around, and for it.

We're new. And that wasn't our original name. It used to be the Hysterical Society, but people kept thinking we were an offshoot of the Historical Society (we're not), and there was a worry that the Historical Society might take offense (don't want to irritate another group trying to do good things for Bellefonte) so we decided to nix it. Then we called ourselves the L.O.O.N.s, an acronym with no name to go with the letters. When asked what it stood for, we'd make something up--never the same thing twice. That joke shot right over a lot of peoples' heads, and I think we're starting to adopt the name "Loons," no acronym, because it doesn't take explaining.

We are the brainchild of the woman I spent most of yesterday with, and even though she might squirm when she reads this (she's one of the two people I know of who do read this), I think even she would acknowledge that she's our de facto head: the Chief Loon. I'm sure she knows if she decided she didn't want to be in charge any more, the whole thing would fall apart.

So anyway, the murder.

We're hosting a murder mystery event with a Victorian theme in general and a Bellefonte theme in particular. Bellefonte is heavy into Victoriana, by the way, and its residents are very, very conscious of its history. We're doing this as a fundraiser for another activity that will be coming up this summer, called "Mutts Gone Mad." It's a fair for dogs. We did one last year, and though attendance was light (it was our first), everyone who came enjoyed themselves. But more on that in another post.

Not really knowing how to proceed, the Chief Loon decided to do a little research. She found and read some how-to-do-a-murder-party type books, but the scenes were too heavily scripted. We wanted something more interactive, more of a role-playing game, so we decided to write our own. It's been in the talking/planning stages for a while, and yesterday around 3 pm the Chief Loon and I parked ourselves in a booth at Panera and started making things a bit more concrete.

The event is taking place in what used to be a train station, in the middle of a park in downtown Bellefonte. There are 8 characters and one victim, and after the victim dies, the characters all realize that each of them has a very good reason for killing this person off. They must then figure out which of them did it.

We had to flesh out the characters some more. Up to yesterday, we only had a paragraph about each murder suspect, and we needed to create in-depth back stories for each of them, including a very good reason why they'd want the victim dead. The mechanics of the game also needed to be sorted out--what would happen, in what order, when would clues be distributed, what would these clues look like, and so forth. Besides each participant receiving handwritten notes at specific times during game play, some of the Loons will probably act as a Greek chorus, providing clues in conversation with each other that all the participants are meant to overhear.

We managed to get 6 of these characters done yesterday. We did such complete back story for them, I'm beginning to see this more as a novel than a role-playing game. Who knows? Maybe it will be in time. We still have two more characters to work up. Not sure when that will happen. Next weekend, maybe?

A note to anyone reading this from Europe or Asia -- I know "Victorian" doesn't sound very far back in history to you. But you have to remember, I'm from a country that didn't even exist as colonies much before the 1700s. Anything older than 1900 seems ancient, and if something was around from earlier than the 1800s, it will probably have a plaque over the door proclaiming it as an historical treasure.

It felt good to flex the old fiction-writing muscle again. There were a couple of suggestions I made about characters that had the Chief saying, "Did you really just make that up? Wow."

I hope this is as fun for the people who come play the game as it has been to put together. I have a list of things I have to look up right now: did electric lights in the Victorian era have fuse boxes? When did police in the United States start using fingerprint evidence? We knew that cyanide smells like almonds, but what does arsenic smell like? What was/is the Pennsylvania Bar Exam like? I need to sort out something about military history in the 1870s as well.

Good thing I work at a library and like chasing down arcane bits of trivia.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Adventures in Dining, or: No More Chicken Broccoli?

I decide it's time to go back to the New Chinatown restaurant. I have studied the little take-out menu I took home last time and picked out a couple of possibilities. I will not be done in by a man with a knowing smile or the words, "Hi! Chicken broccoli?"

Prepped, ready, and wearing my game face, I take a deep breath and open the door. The man I'm expecting to see behind the counter isn't there. It's the younger man, the one who seated me last time, and who doesn't know anything about my ordering history. I settle myself into an entirely different booth, and make a show of perusing the menu. I've already decided it's going to be either the Chinese mixed vegetables or eggplant in garlic sauce. I'm leaning more toward the second choice. I've had eggplant cooked a number of ways, and liked them all. My mom does a breaded, fried eggplant that's tasty, and I know I was served eggplant parmagiana somewhere. There's another Chinese place up the street that does something called "Wonderful Eggplant" that's pretty good.

I order eggplant in garlic sauce, steamed rice, and a big glass of diet cola, and settle down with my book (Revenge, by Stephen Fry -- I believe its European title is The Stars' Tennis Balls). As the waiter brings me my drink, a question flits through my mind: why it is that you could throw an egg roll in this town and probably hit a Chinese restaurant? We have at least 5. We're not really that big a town.

A few minutes later, the woman I always think of as "Ma" comes out of the kitchen with someone's take-out order. I don't know whether she owns the place, but she certainly runs it. She is always around here somewhere. I can't tell whether all her employees are relatives, because when not talking to customers they speak in Chinese and I can't tell what they're calling each other. But if body language and tone of voice are anything to go by, she's definitely the matriarch. She sees me and waves.

A bell rings in the kitchen, and she disappears into it, returning a moment later bearing what must be my order.

"Hi, how you doing? No more chicken broccoli?" She plunks down the plate in front of me, along with a little bowl of rice.

"No, I, um. I'm getting kind of bored with it." I'm staring at what she's brought me.

"Ah. Well, enjoy." And off she goes.

It looks like whale meat. Whale meat? Where did that comparison come from? I must be accessing some half-remembered memory from a sixth grade social studies movie about Eskimos. I wouldn't know whale meat if you pointed it out to me. Nevertheless, that is the phrase that leaps to mind: whale meat.

They must have used a whole eggplant. It's in big cubes, and it hasn't been skinned, so it's part black and shiny, part almost colorless. And the garlic sauce has added to the glossiness. It looks...weird.

Well, try it, for pity's sake. Quit acting like such a baby. Plenty of things that look strange turn out to be pretty good. Take caviar for example. I wonder who the first person was caught a female sturgeon, cleaned it, and said to himself, "Mmm, I bet that'd be good on toast." Mind you, I've never had caviar, and I doubt somehow I could make myself eat it.

I take a bite, and immediately wish I was dining with someone. Somebody should at least enjoy this experience. I'm sure the face I'm making is priceless. It's distress. It's an I-can't-spit-this-out-I'm-in-public face.

Have you ever had potato soup out somewhere, or maybe just a soup with potatoes in it? Maybe the soup has been simmering in a pot all day, maybe it was microwaved just after you ordered it (depends upon the sort of place you're in, I guess). Your first taste tells you that the broth is at the right temperature, and subsequent bites are all about the same. It doesn't occur to you that the bits of potato would be any different, right? And all the time, those potatoes are lying in wait, ready to make you cry, hoping you'll be stupid enough to not test them first before biting. Potatoes don't just retain heat, they hoard it.

Guess what? So does eggplant.

It is hot. It is eye-watering, palate-blistering, this-will-scorch-my-throat hot. Radioactive. I take a swig of soda, and that manages to cool things down enough that I can swallow it. I realize it was so hot that I couldn't pay attention to anything else, so I still don't know what it tastes like. I play around with a couple more pieces, opening them up a bit so that some of the steam (or whatever) can escape, and then I try again.

We have a texture problem. The skin is very chewy (just call it tough, why don't you), and the flesh is mush. As for taste...there is none. You'd think with the sauce, this stuff would have developed a garlicky flavor. Nope. Nothing. The sauce is great, though. Goes well with the rice.

I eat a few more pieces, because she's watching me. Probably because I think of her as "Ma," I feel I can't just leave it there on my plate. It would hurt her feelings. So I move it around a bit, trying to hide the fact that I'm mainly eating the rice, and go back to reading my book. All the while I'm watching her out of the corner of my eye. The second she heads back into the kitchen, I take the plate over to the trash can and dump half of it in. By the time she comes out of the kitchen I am back in my booth, looking like I never left. Whew.

When I go up to pay, she asks me how it was.

"It was okay," I answer. I don't say what we both know.

I'd have been better off with chicken and broccoli.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The New (to Me) Library

The public library has a new building. It's been open for six months. Today is the first day that I am near it when it is open, I am not on my way somewhere else, and I have the time to investigate properly. So in I go.

I am immediately confused.

The new building is exactly where the old building used to be, and then some. First, the town made a new borough building. The police station moved into that new building, and then the library packed up and moved into the building the police station vacated. I'm not quite sure how they managed that. It was a much smaller space than the one they'd been in for years. The library lived in the old police station for a year or more while cross-town the old library was knocked down, along with the Goodwill store across the alley. This new building was erected in that space. This is the source of my confusion. I keep looking for things where they used to be, even though I know they aren't going to be there any more.

For one thing, the door is nowhere near its old location. That should be a big clue, shouldn't it? I walk in and gaze about me, feeling a bit lost. It must show on my face, because one of the women behind circulation desk (just inside the door) immediately gives me a map of the place without my having to ask for it. I figure out how to orient myself in the room in relation to the map in my hands, and hope things will start to fall into place.

Children's section is the first floor. Never having been in the old children's section, I decide to skip it and go to the second floor, which is where all the things for adults are.

Wow. Really. I can't remember the last time I've been in a public library where everything matches and nothing's been destroyed or vandalized ("Not yet, anyway," says a tiny cynical voice in the back of my head. Quiet, you). All of the wood is reddish brown, and the furnishings are (I think) Mission Style: very architectural-looking. The lighting fixtures are these big square metal-and-glass things hanging from the ceiling. The walls are creamy white, and the trim is the same reddish wood. The carpets have a pattern in earth tones (same little voice says, "Good for hiding dirt." Well, that I have to agree with), bordered in a rust brown that is exactly the same color as the woodwork.

The study carrels have electrical outlets built into the tabletops, so you can plug in your laptop without crawling around on the floor. There's a rounded area, a sort of a turret, overlooking the downtown area. This area has soft deep armchairs at the windows and functions as a place to read newspapers (apparently, because that's what everyone's doing). A sign in the middle of this area reads "Quiet Zone." Does anyone else remember when the entire library was a quiet zone? There are also signs on the window sills that read: "Please keep the new library looking new. Shoes and feet should be on the floor, not the walls."

There is a globe here that immediately fills me with envy and desire. It's mostly semi-precious stones. The ocean is onyx, and all of the countries of the world are other materials: malachite, marble, quartz, agate, jasper, turquoise, abalone. Oooohhhh, I want this globe. My fingers itch to touch it, and before I can stop myself, I reach out and give it a little turn. It responds with a loud creak that makes everyone else in the Quiet Zone jump and look at me.

"Sorry," I hiss, moving quickly away.

Even with the map they gave me downstairs, it's taking a little while for me to figure out where I am. I can't banish the old library from my mind and replace it with the new one I'm standing in. I keep superimposing the one upon the other. I wander around in the stacks for a bit, hoping this will help me. They put the fiction on one side of an aisle, the non-fiction on the other. The fiction section is larger, and it breaks in what I consider a strange place, picking up again after the shelves with the current periodicals. I move a little further on, past the reference desk, and suddenly I'm in sound recordings.

Language tapes! Cool! I don't remember language tapes in the old library. They must have had them stashed somewhere I never went, or maybe they were behind a reference desk. There are the major languages I'd expect to see--lots on Spanish, French, German, Italian--and then there are some odder, more interesting ones: Hebrew, Hindi, Irish, Tagalog, Urdu, Yiddish. Here's a funky title: Colloquial Estonian -- twenty lessons on two cassettes, and an accompanying book. Serbo-Croation for Travelers, anyone? Then there are recordings that teach English to speakers of German, of Spanish, of Russian, of Chinese. Two different sets on learning to speak with an American accent. I wonder which accent they teach? We have so many.

Well, I finally found the grandfather clock from the old building. I was wondering where they'd put it. It's in a little area in the middle of the Young Adult paperbacks, right up against the wall, overlooking two study tables. As I sit down at one of these tables to scribble some notes on my impressions, the clock strikes four. Still works, then.

The clock is one of the only things in the room that isn't made of reddish wood. It's a lovely old honey-brown thing, a gift from the family that funded the previous incarnation of the library, and whose name is still attached to this one.

The other not-red item is something I'd like to get a better look at, but may have to wait until another time: a chess set. It's in another part of the Young Adult section, and there was a game in progress when I went by it last. I decide to go by one more time, and I'm glad I do. The game has finished up and now I can take a nice long look. The game board is alternating squares of blond and brown wood. Instead of black and white wooden pieces, the chessmen are made of bronze in two different finishes. These pieces are heavy. Substantial. More like playing with sculptures than with game pieces. They're odd, a bit abstract, shapes twisted into not-quite-natural angles. I am reminded of Escher drawings.

Each piece is different, but enough alike that you know they all belong to the same set. The men that perform the same function are similar but not identical. The bishops all have miters, but they vary: one is a little taller, one has a different-looking cross than the others, things like that. The rooks are bizarre combinations of castle and man. The knights all have different helmets. One of them looks like a Conquistador. The pawns all have different faces.

Yes, faces. Everything on the board has a face. I wonder if it's supposed to be some commentary on a game about war--admonishing the players not to forget that these are people they're playing with. Each piece is inscribed in the base with the artist's name and what I think must be a series number: Mark Pilato, 6/40. So only 40 of these were made. Gorgeous. After I ask permission from someone at the reference desk, I take a couple of pictures with my ever-present digital camera.

Here are the king and queen of one set, and all four knights together.

It's probably time to go. The library's closing in half an hour, and it's starting to snow. I most definitely will not be waiting six more months before I come back here.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Bellefonte's Bush House Hotel is Gone

The Bush House in Bellefonte just burned to the ground. They aren't sure yet what caused it, but have deemed the building a total loss. No one appears to have been hurt.

The place was an historic building, right in the middle of downtown Bellefonte. When it was built in 1868, it was the second largest hotel in Pennsylvania. People like Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison stayed there. In the 1880's, when the owners decided to fit the place up with electricity and lights, Edison was the one who did the designing. In recent years it was not only a hotel and restaurant, but served as an office building for some of the area's smaller businesses.

I was only in the place once. Last year, a friend of mine decided he wanted to have his birthday dinner in Schnitzel's, the German restaurant in the bottom level. What I saw of the hotel was mainly the lobby, and it was gorgeous -- high ceilings, old Victorian furniture, dark wood. I'm sorry now that I didn't stop to look more closely, and that I didn't have a camera with me.

Another friend has e-mailed me some second- or third-hand pictures of the firefighting. I don't know the woman who took the photos, and I don't feel comfortable posting them without her permission. Let me see if I can sum it up: Twenty fire companies responded, but they just couldn't put the thing out in time. The fire first made itself known about 7 in the morning, and the building was already past help by 9 AM. I can tell by what I've been sent how the place will look the next time I ride past it -- like a rotten, broken tooth.

They're going to do a fire reconstruction tomorrow, to see if they can figure out how this happened. Right now, they're still checking to see that no one got caught in it.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Just did my federal income tax return. They owe me a little over $400. Yippee!

Here I am in my mid-thirties, still using the 1040EZ form. Most of the people I know need accountants, or at the very least Turbo Tax software. They have mortgages, child care expenses, student loan interest payments, all sorts of deductions and income sources to account for. Not me. It's very simple: this is how much I made, that is how much they took, here is what I'm owed. May I have it, please?

Last year's tax return was the most complex I've ever had. I had to use the regular 1040 form, and that was because of one little number. I was called for jury duty, two day's worth. I was paid a total of $18 for my time. There is nowhere to declare that on any form except the 1040 long form. I think there were only five lines that I didn't put zeroes onto, on a form that had 68 spaces for data. This year I'm back to the EZ, thank-you very much, and planning to stay here for a while.

I should probably be responsible and put my tax refund straight into the bank...where it can earn interest...that I will pay taxes on next year. Hmm.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Bee Season

I bought this book a while ago, and found it last Thursday during the whole cleaning thing. It's called Bee Season, by Myla Goldberg. It's about a little girl from whom great things are not expected, until she amazes everyone and wins a school spelling bee, then the district spelling bee, and then the state one. Suddenly she's attracted her scholarly father's attention, and I just got to the part where he's invited her into his study and given her a brand new 3-volume dictionary. He is now helping her prepare for the national bee:

They study for five hours each weekday and seven hours on weekends. It is not about rote memorization. Saul wants Elly to understand these words: their origins, their roots, their prefixes and suffixes. He presents the dictionary as a book worthy of commentary and discussion, a Torah of language.

When Eliza studies, she travels through space and time. In COUSCOUS, she can sense desert and sand-smoothed stone. In CYPRESS, she tastes salt and wind. She visits Africa, Greece, and France. Each word has a story: a Viking birth, a journey across the sea, the exchange from mouth to mouth, from border to border, until æpli is apfel is appel is APPLE, crisp and sweet on Eliza's tongue. When it is night and their studying complete, these are the words she rides into sleep. The voice of the dictionary is the voice of her dreams.

They're turning this into a movie, and I hope they do it justice.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Cleaning Game

I came home last night to an unwelcome message on my door. The complex's office was notifying me that sometime between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. today, maintenance would be by to install a new smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector, in accordance with some state law that got passed about all apartments needing to have them.

I'm not irritated about them wanting to keep me safe. I already have a smoke detector--more like a heat detector, really. I've never seen it respond to smoke. Opening the oven door if I'm checking on something I'm baking sets the thing off. So does boiling water. So does opening the bathroom door too soon after I get out of the shower. It makes an earsplitting noise, and while I know that's the point, it's aggravating because it's doing it for no good reason. And it frightens the cat. I usually end up waving a towel at it yelling, "shut UP!" until the air around it cools down a little.

A carbon monoxide detector sounds great, though, especially considering last year they replaced my electric heating unit and the water heater with a set that uses natural gas, so carbon monoxide could be a possibility if the thing isn't working right. I think.

No, the thing that made this news unwelcome was that some stranger was going to be in my apartment. I hate being reminded that I don't have the only key to this place, and that the people who have the other one could show up any time they wanted. I only get told they're coming out of courtesy. I don't think I can tell them not to. Also, as I mentioned in my first post, I am not the world's best housekeeper.

That's the major issue. After I read the note I took a look around the apartment, and suddenly I was ten years old again with my mother standing in the doorway of my bedroom, hands on her hips, disapproval oozing out of every pore. Like Bill Cosby, I have a mother who is an authority on pig sties. Sigh. I was going to have to clean up a bit.

I decided it would probably be more productive to go to bed early and get up at the crack of dawn to clean until it was time to go to work, rather than clean a little bit at night, go to bed, and lie awake fretting about how much I'd left undone. So I went to bed at 8:30 and got up at 3 this morning (oy!), dressed, overcaffeinated myself, and worked at straightening up until it was time to catch the bus at about 7:20.

Delilah (my cat) was completely confused and suspicious. I usually only get up that early when I'm traveling somewhere, but there was no suitcase in evidence. She decided to supervise. Much more interesting than going back to sleep.

The procedure went something like this:
  1. Identify an area that needs attention. Grab a trash bag and set it up so that it's open and easy to dump things into.
  2. Sort things in this area into three categories: Keep, Toss, and Unsure. Remove cat from trash bag. Throw contents of "Toss" into trash.
  3. Remove cat from space left by the "Toss" pile. Sort through the "Unsure" pile, and ask oneself whether these items are really necessary. Decide they aren't. Remove cat from trash bag, throw contents of "Unsure" pile into trash.
  4. Remove cat from space left by "Unsure" and "Toss"piles, replace with the contents of the "Keep" pile. Repent of some of the things thrown away and remove them from the trash--along with the cat.
  5. Repeat steps 1 through 4 until bag is full.
  6. Take bag out to dumpster (making sure the cat isn't in there). Upon return, look at apartment and realize it doesn't look all that different. Start over again, and be more ruthless about the "Toss" pile.

I really hate cleaning. It doesn't help that I've lived in the same teeny apartment for 12 years, and I have accumulated a lot of junk over that time. I really need to move to somewhere larger, but every year when that lease addendum shows up I look around and think, "Moving means packing. Ugh. Oh, just one more year," and sign the addendum.

On the positive side, the place is a little more tidy. On the negative side, it's only a little more tidy.

Also on the positive side, this activity afforded Delilah hours of entertainment. She loves the Cleaning Game. She forgot the second half of this game, though: spending the rest of the day cooped up so that she wouldn't get stepped on or accidentally let outside by the maintenance men. Believe me, I'm hearing about it now. It's a good thing I don't speak Cat, or I might get my feelings hurt.

And, one more positive, I found some things I thought I'd lost for good. But since the object of this exercise was not to Get Organized but simply to Get Things Out of the Way, I'm pretty sure I've hidden a few other things from myself. I probably won't find them until the next time maintenance threatens to come calling.

I should probably take this opportunity to start organizing the place for real: take it little bit by little bit, and really truly find places for everything. Maybe I'll do that.

Tomorrow. Right now, I think I'm going to bed.

Happy Groundhog Day.