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June 28, 2005

Obama speaks

One of the highlights of the ALA conference (and one of the few events or meetings not directly related to my work that I was able to attend) was the opening general session featuring a speech by Illinois senator Barack Obama, current darling of the demoralized national Democratic party. Obama's speech predictably hit on issues near and dear to the hearts of librarians, such as the right to read, intellectual freedom, the USA Patriot Act, and the importance of literacy -- but it was a rousing speech, greeted with enthusiasm from the crowd (there are conservative librarians, but, um, not very many -- and I doubt most of them were among the thousands present for Obama's speech). The Chicago Sun-Times summarizes Obama's speech here.

Posted by at 3:03 PM

Tarmac torture

Having spent a lovely if utterly exhausting (and ridiculously hot) five days in Chicago attending the annual conference of the American Library Association, my colleague and friend Cecilia and I made our way out to O'Hare yesterday afternoon for our return journey to Minneapolis -- an odyssey all by itself, 45 minutes on the CTA Blue Line with luggage. Having arrived at O'Hare, checked in for our flight, and passed through security without incident, we had some food and cold beverages while we awaited our flight, set to depart at 8 PM. All was well, and we expected to be home to the Twin Cities by 9:30.

It wasn't long before the gate agent announced that the flight was delayed because of "aircraft availability." Fortunately, this was supposedly only to delay our departure until 8:30. We assumed this had something to do with the previous flight out of our gate, to Washington DC, which was supposed to depart at 5 but didn't actually leave until 8.

We finally boarded the plane around 8:45, and began taxiing toward the runway. We had been taxiing for what seemed like forever (prompting the nice man sitting next to me to suggest that perhaps we were just going to drive the plane to Minneapolis rather than flying) when the pilot made an announcement: severe thunderstorms in Minneapolis had forced MSP to close: no one was taking off, and no one was landing. We were lucky we hadn't already taken off, or else we would likely have been diverted.

The bad news: we were going to sit in the airplane waiting to take off until MSP reopened -- air traffic control estimated it would be at least an hour. On top of that, the engine had to be shut down in order to conserve fuel, which meant no air conditioning on our jam-packed 737. This on a day where the high in Chicago had been 95 degrees -- and at 9 PM at O'Hare, it was still 85 and sticky.

After a few minutes of this and a near-revolt by the passengers, the flight attendants were finally convinced to serve ice water (although they were sympathetic, and suffering as much as we were, they were concerned about running out of ice and water). This helped a little, but as the minutes crept by, the plane got hotter and hotter. Finally, one of the flight attendants went to speak to the crew, who announced a few minutes later that they could run one engine to supply a little environmental relief. Everyone on the plane cheered.

It wasn't exactly cool after that, but at least it was tolerable. Around 10 PM, the pilot announced that he had some good news and some bad news: the good news was that MSP had reopened and we would probably be cleared for takeoff within about 15 minutes. The bad news: our flight was to be completely rerouted in order to avoid the bad weather. We were going to fly to the border of South Dakota and then turn around so we could approach MSP from the west rather than the east. At first the pilot said we were flying to the "western border of South Dakota," which predictably got a reaction of protest and horror from the passengers. But he quickly corrected himself -- it was really the eastern border of SD. Nevertheless, the reroute meant that our flight time would be increased by about half an hour.

Finally, just before 10:30, we were cleared for takeoff. Considering the massive thunderstorms nearby, the flight was remarkably smooth -- good for me, since I hate and fear flying (although I know how safe it is). We were at the gate just after midnight. MSP was a mess, with planes lined up for takeoff, full of people who were going to be arriving at their destinations sometime in the middle of the night, and thousands of people and bags milling around the baggage claim. John sat an eternity (or so it seemed to me) in traffic waiting to pick me up, and I finally made it home around 1 AM.

The whole experience seemed like a horrible ordeal to me, as well as to many of my fellow passengers. The funny thing is, that although the climate control situation was suboptimal to say the least, we were really only on the plane for a total of about three and a half hours -- not such a long time in the grand scheme of things (just ask my in-laws, who had the grave misfortune of sitting in the middle section of a DC-10 on a transatlantic flight yesterday). But your mental preparedness has a lot to do with your perception of such events, and we expected a quick, trivial, up-and-down flight from Chicago to Minneapolis. What we got was, well, not that.

Cecilia and I thought we were being so smart and frugal by deciding to fly home Monday night instead of Tuesday morning. We saved ourselves one night of hotel expenses after all, even if we did have to skip out of the conference a little too early to hear David Sedaris read late Monday afternoon. In this particular case, we outsmarted ourselves. But we're home now, the conference was good, and all is well.

Posted by at 2:32 PM

June 22, 2005

I do -- not, without a budget deal

With a state government shutdown imminent, couples with weddings planned at Minnesota state parks (including the Fort Snelling Chapel) found themselves in a bad, bad position: high potential for no access to the venue they probably reserved more than a year ago. Well, let it not be said that the governor and legislature can't accomplish anything: at Gov. Pawlenty's direction, the Department of Natural Resources has found a way to accommodate couples with state park wedding plans over the July 4th weekend.

I'm sure all of those families are breathing a huge sigh of relief, and are probably glad they don't have to find a way to make the state reimburse them for their losses should the state parks have been inaccessible. But what I'm wondering is this: assuming there is a government shutdown, and it isn't resolved any too quickly what with the holiday and all, what about couples with state park weddings planned for the second weekend in July? Or the third weekend? Are they frantically calling alternate venues (and all of their guests) trying to find another place to do the matrimonial deed?

This is a great example of the impact when a less-visible, "nonessential" state service shuts down. Libraries (though not to my knowledge facing closure because of state budget woes) are the same kind of thing. People take these services for granted, until they suddenly disappear.

Oh yeah, I just have to make one snarky comment here: the bride-to-be planning to marry at the Fort Snelling Chapel on July 2 says (in the Strib article linked above), "The governor apologized for my trouble." Well, isn't that nice. Is the governor also planning to apologize for the trouble of all of the Minnesotans he'd have lose their health insurance?

Posted by at 10:36 AM

June 20, 2005

Flat tire story, or, What is wrong with people, anyway?

After taking care of a few things yesterday morning, Dr. Dregs and I decided to load up the bikes and venture out to Plymouth for a short afternoon ride on the Luce Line Trail, since we wanted to see how our bikes would do on a crushed-limestone surface with their skinnier tires (this is because we're planning to do some riding on the Mickelson Trail in the Black Hills in a couple of weeks, and we wanted to make sure our tires were up to it). Dregs is still recovering from an ankle sprain, so the plan was to take it slow and easy, and not go very far.

Despite the heat, it was a spectacularly gorgeous day for a ride, and as a bonus, the trail was not that crowded. The bikes seemed to be performing very well on the unpaved surface, and we were pretty happy. After a few miles, Doc Dregs decided to forge ahead a little way. I didn't think he should push it with his ankle, but he wanted to, so he took off while I continued at my leisurely pace. A couple more miles down the trail, I noticed that something felt weird, so I stopped, and sure enough, my rear tire was flat.

I was a little annoyed, but I had tools, a new tube, and a mini pump, so I knew I could fix the tire, given enough time. I took out my cell phone and called John, who didn't answer (he couldn't hear his phone's ringer). I left him a message to let him know why I wouldn't be catching up with him, removed the rear wheel, and got to work. I was in a nice shady spot, but had to work on the edge of the trail, since the vegetation was too tall and thick off the trail.

So here I am, a single woman, sitting on the edge of the trail, bike in pieces next to me. Other cyclists pass me, obviously note my presence, and say nothing. What's up with that? I didn't really need any help, but it seems to me like it's common courtesy to ask. I don't think I look threatening at all -- it just isn't possible they thought I was a thug or a serial killer trying to lure them in (also, this is in the western suburbs a stone's throw from Lake Minnetonka -- not exactly a high-crime area). A family out walking passed, me too -- father and three kids -- without so much as a "Hey, are you okay?" I just don't get it. Finally, a couple of serious-looking cyclists on road bikes did stop and ask me if I needed any help. I didn't, but it was nice for someone finally to ask.

Eventually, John got my message and came back, and helped me finish fixing the tire. We set off for the car, but a couple of miles in, my tire was flat again. That really did annoy me, since I thought I had checked the tire pretty carefully for whatever caused the first flat. Fortunately, we were near a road and only a few miles from the car, so I waited at the intersection while John went back for the car and came to pick me up. Although it wasn't how I intended to spend my afternoon, it was pretty pleasant waiting for him -- it was one of those spots on the trail where if you don't look at the golf course (of the Wayzata Country Club), you can't tell you're surrounded by suburbia.

So anyway, the ride was nice while it lasted, and it was good just being out on such a pretty day, though I could have done without the tire fixing (especially since it didn't work). But why is it that my fellow trail users couldn't be bothered to inquire after my well-being? That's a pretty sad commentary on the state of the world.

Posted by at 11:29 AM

June 18, 2005

Recipe file: Cold sesame noodles

It's been a while since I've posted a recipe, and with the weather (finally) heating up, this seemed like the perfect time to discuss this delicious, cold main dish. I originally saw this recipe several months ago in an issue of Cook's Illustrated. We've made it three or four times, each time varying the recipe slightly.

I've always enjoyed a nice dish of sesame noodles (cold or hot) at an Asian restaurant, but had never even considered trying to make them at home, assuming that getting the sauce right would be more trouble than it was worth. The sauce in this recipe does indeed have a lot of ingredients, but none of them are especially expensive or hard to come by. And it comes together very quickly in a blender or a food processor -- simply pitch all of the ingredients in, and puree.

Prepared exactly as directed, the sauce is delicious and surprisingly complex: the major flavors are of course peanut and sesame, but you can also really taste the soy, garlic, ginger, and brown sugar. It's also very easy to alter the sauce slightly without ruining it. Do you prefer a more peanutty flavor? Just add a little extra peanut butter. Want a spicier sauce? Add more hot sauce. Find the garlic flavor overpowering? Add a little less. The sauce responds extremely well to tweaking.

One other major advantage of this recipe is that you can use either Chinese egg noodles or plain old spaghetti. We've found that spaghetti works surprisingly well in the dish. Just be sure that you cook it nicely al dente, rinse it thoroughly with cold water after it's cooked, and toss it immediately with the sesame oil. The sesame oil, by the way, really enhances the flavor of the dish, besides keeping the noodles from turning into a nasty gluey mass.

The "basic" version of the recipe, linked above, calls for (in addition to the sauce and noodles) shredded chicken, grated carrots, and scallions. We like to slightly increase the amount of carrot, since we really like carrots, and we leave out the scallions, since we are not fans of them. As to the chicken, Cook's recommends cooking it in the broiler, which makes it slightly crispy on the outside while keeping it nice and juicy on the inside. Although we haven't tried it yet, I think this will also work well with shredded grilled chicken breasts (which will solve the problem of having to run the broiler in hot weather). I think it's essential, though, that the chicken be shredded and not sliced or otherwise cut into chunks -- the texture of the shreds really absorbs the sauce, turning the chicken into a fully integrated part of the dish.

Cook's also provides a vegetarian variation of this recipe, which calls for cucumbers and red bell peppers instead of the chicken. Since we love cucumbers and all kinds of peppers, we saw no reason why the dish shouldn't include "all of the above:" chicken, carrots, cucumbers, and peppers. With all of the vegetables as well as the chicken, the dish really stands on its own as an entire meal. We will probably usually make it this way in the future, unless we're planning to serve it to vegetarian friends. Of course, the noodles would also make an excellent side dish -- a great thing to contribute to a potluck picnic.

Finally, there is one last great thing about this recipe: the leftovers can simply be pulled out of the refrigerator and eaten, no reheating required -- ideal for a quick summer lunch.

Posted by at 11:08 AM

June 17, 2005

Bicycle as blank canvas

As I've mentioned on a couple of occasions, I've been having a great time lately riding my bike (and have just started riding to work -- today is the second day I've done so). But a more recent discovery for me is that part of the fun of having a bike is modifying it and personalizing it. My bike is nothing special: a pretty basic hybrid bike. But as I've spent more time on it, it's become clear that some changes were necessary for my comfort over long distances. To that end, I replaced the saddle, pedals, and tires, and did a couple of practical things, like adding a rack so I can carry some stuff with me.

But the basic hybrid handlebar -- calculated to allow an upright riding position, with a pretty extreme rise and sweep -- actually doesn't work well for me over distances of more than a few miles becaus I can't change the position of my hands. I needed something that would let me grip the bars in different places. So I decided to experiment with a "trekking" handlebar, which has a shape that allows multiple grip options. I was a bit wary of making this change myself, but thanks to the wonders of the internet and my firm belief that a bicycle just isn't that complicated a machine, I took the plunge. Here are the results:

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These have helped my wrists immensely so far, which is just what I wanted. But the other thing I love about these bars is how unique they make my bike look. I love the dorky, slightly alien look of the trekking bars, all tricked out in their funky bar tape. The bike is really mine now, tailored specifically to me in a visible way.

Posted by at 12:08 PM

June 12, 2005

Ow -- but in a good way

Today, finally, as those of you in the Twin Cities know, was a gorgeous, sunny, rain-free, not-too-humid day -- one of the few we've had in the last few weeks. I was determined not to waste the weather and get out on my bike. Dr. Dregs couldn't join me, since he had to work at Lake Harriet (also, he just gave himself a nasty ankle sprain by falling down the stairs. It could have been a lot worse, but he's definitely off the bike for a while).

So I thought I'd give Andy a call, so I'd have someone to ride with. He was already out riding with Danielle, but luckily, he had his cell phone, and they were headed in my general direction. They stopped by to pick me up, and we rode down to Fort Snelling. We stopped for a while at the swimming beach, which was mysteriously almost abandoned despite the unbelievably gorgeous day. We had a nice wade, and enjoyed watching the flora and fauna of the lake. After riding to the "end" of the trail through the park, we turned around and headed north. Andy had to head home, since he was on a temporary reprieve from housecleaning out of the goodness of Becka's heart, so I left them at 38th and Hiawatha and returned home to take care of a few things and have some lunch.

By this time, John had already been at Lake Harriet for a couple of hours, and I had planned to head over there to keep him company. So I got back on the bike and made my way south to the Minnehaha Creek trail, and rode over to Lake Harriet. After a short rest and a bit of chitchat with John, I moved on, over to the west side of Lake Calhoun, and then onto the far western end of the Midtown Greenway.

I decided to head west. The Greenway turns into another trail that runs all the way through St. Louis Park and Hopkins, where it joins up with the north and south corridors of the Southwest LRT Trail. Through the inner 'burbs, the trail is not exciting: it's flat and not especially scenic. But the asphalt is super-smooth, and because of the lower crowd level, it's a lot easier to get a little speed going (when I say "little," I mean little -- anything more than about 10 MPH is speedy for me. But around the Lakes, it's tough to go even that fast because of the crowds).

I decided I had had enough when I got to The Depot, on the trail at 169 and Excelsior Boulevard. I took advantage of a nice shady picnic shelter, where I took a break before heading back east to the Lakes. I got back to the Lake Harriet Bandshell in time to hear most of the Minneapolis Police Band's concert. The crowd was very appreciative.

Today's ride wasn't that exciting in and of itself (though the jaunt down to Fort Snelling with Andy and Danielle was pretty fun, if brief), but it's a bit of a landmark for me, since I rode about 36 miles today. That's the first time I've done more than about 25 in a day. This is nothing compared to what other cyclists do, but it's a personal milestone that I'm happy to have reached. I'm tired and a little sore, and I may be stiff tomorrow, but I feel pretty good otherwise.

Posted by at 10:00 PM

June 11, 2005

Behold the power of cheese!

Ahh, a match made in heaven! Star Trek:The Next Generation veteran Jonathan Frakes (Will Riker, for those of you who aren't up on your Star Trek cast members) will be directing the sequel to last fall's made-for-TV The Librarian: Quest for the Spear, which is apparently set to air in April 2006. That's a long time to wait for another fix -- but I'm in luck, because the original movie is now on DVD. Life is good.

Posted by at 10:09 AM

Things I don't understand, #476

Although it makes me want to chuck the TV out the bedroom window, I inevitably wind up watching a few minutes of one of the network morning shows each day. You know -- Good Morning America, or Today, or whatever the heck CBS calls their show. Usually, spending a little time with one of these shows makes me feel angry, depressed, and insulted, but I watch anyway. I attribute this to my weather obsession: I will sit through ten minutes of inane chitchat and hyped-up human interest garbage to hear the daily weather forecast.

Virtually everything about these shows is annoying (if not actually nauseating), from the lame semi-scripted banter between the hosts, to the syrupy, drippy piano music that underscores each day's tragic story of a courageous survivor with a surprise happy ending. But the thing about these shows that I really don't get at all is the omnipresent wall of screaming people waving handmade signs standing outside each show's studio. It's usually the weather guy who has to make conversation with these people, letting them yell into the microphone for a few seconds about their Aunt Beulah's 85th birthday, or their cousin Joe's college graduation.

Why do people do this? What's the appeal? Just imagine yourself on vacation in New York (unsurprisingly, these people seem to always be tourists, never locals). You have a week or two to see one of the greatest cities in the world, and you decide that what you really want to do is to get up before the crack of dawn one morning so you can stand outside a TV studio (possibly in inclement weather) waving a paper sign, hoping the weather guy will talk to you? I just don't get it. Is there something going on here that I don't know about? Are these people actually extras earning a paycheck? Your explanations are welcome.

Posted by at 9:52 AM

June 8, 2005

Powerless

Last night was a big thunderstorm night in Minnesota. I'm no good at sleeping through storms (I have major storm phobia due to childhood tornado trauma), so as soon as it really started in, I couldn't sleep. Shortly after 4 AM, wind, torrential rain, and thunder woke me, and I noticed in a moment of panic that the power was out. Now, since I also have a mild fear of the dark (I like to attribute this to the fact that I have terrible nightvision and really can't see at all in the dark), this freaked me out. I dragged John, the battery-operated lantern, and the weather radio to the basement, where we sat for about half an hour waiting for the worst of the storm to pass. The power and the phone line were both still out. After a round of calls to Xcel and Qwest to report problems they no doubt already knew about, we went back upstairs to bed. Xcel's automated message cheerfully informed us that our power should be back on by 8:55 AM.

So we weren't too suprised to find the power still out when we woke up. We were both exhausted, and since I've been recovering from a cold, we knew we needed to sleep longer. Got up shortly after 9 AM, and still no electricity. Qwest called to inform us that a tree was down in our alley, and had taken a power pole with it. Sure enough, a tree was blocking a large chunk of the alley, and power, phone, and cable lines were strewn across the alley and the nearby street. While walking the dog, I watched a Qwest technician move the phone and cable lines so a neighbor could back out of her garage without running over the lines, which had come down directly on her garage roof. Fortunately, the power lines weren't in her way, since the Qwest tech wasn't about to move them.

Trees and branches are down all around the neighborhood. Our neighbors across the street lost a large willow tree in their front yard, the trunk of which had snapped in two. The top of the tree occupied most of their front yard and part of the street, and took a big section of their picket fence with it when it fell.

The helpful Qwest tech also let us know that Xcel estimated it would be "a day or two" before power was restored to our block, since they were so backed up. So we spent a chunk of the morning trying to rescue some of our perishables, getting milk and juice into a cooler and making arrangements to stash frozen food at a friend's house. And all of this without coffee!

Fortunately, Xcel now estimates that our power will be back on sometime this afternoon. Here's hoping that's accurate...

Posted by at 1:14 PM

June 3, 2005

I'm not blogging, so what am I doing?

A short (?) list:

  • Riding my bike (frequently with John and Andy). During the week, I try to fit in a couple of short rides on the trails along Minnehaha Creek and around Lake Nokomis. On the weekends, we've been checking out trails a little farther from home, including the Luce Line Trail, the Gateway Trail, and the Southwest Regional LRT Trail. We're planning many more trail excursions, and when we spend our week in the Black Hills in July, we'll tackle portions of the Mickelson Trail.

  • Speaking of bikes, I keep meaning to ride mine to work, but haven't managed to drag myself out of bed early enough to do it yet. Maybe next week.

  • We've also been trying to convince Lando (Dog Dregs) that swimming won't kill him. He's been for several walks around Lake Nokomis, where he's brave enough to splash and wade, but not to actually swim. This dog is built for swimming (he's mostly labrador retriever, for deity's sake -- complete with oily, water-repellent coat and webbed paws), but he's afraid of it for some reason. He does seem to be getting braver, though...

  • Acquiring a new grill, assembling same, and experimenting with its capabilities. Finally, we have a large enough charcoal grill (after many years with a trusty, but small, Weber kettle) that we can make something resembling real barbecue. I'm also hoping to try smoking salmon soon.

  • Reading Kitchen Confidential, finally (I know everyone else read it two years ago). It's vulgar in a not-always-funny way, and I don't really like the way Bourdain (chef and author) depicts himself, but most of it is interesting and frequently hilarious -- so I find it worthwhile. A good, fluffy summer read.

  • Getting ready to get ready to redo the upstairs bathroom. The existing tile floor is literally in pieces, and the pink wall tile also has to go. The bathroom also has the original toilet from when the house was built in 1946. We have convinced (with some bribery) our kind and generous friends Andy and Becka, who have more than a little bit of experience with this sort of thing, to help us (also, Becka's dad is an architect, who is available for emergency phone consultation should it become necessary). Have I mentioned how much we love them and appreciate them?

So there you have it. In case you were wondering. Which you weren't, but now you know anyway.

Posted by at 11:37 AM