Holland Trip Photos

Some of you are aware that I just got back from a two week work trip to the Netherlands.  It was, of course, work, but I managed to fit some fun things in around the edges.  I haven’t even properly looked through my photos yet, but here are a few that stood out as particularly nice.

I was delighted to realize that I would be there in the spring.  I was a little late for prime tulip season, but late-blooming tulips were still going strong.  On my first jetlagged day (the one where I hadn’t slept at all on the plane and was just dragging myself through until it was late enough to go to sleep), I went to Keukenhof, which claims to be the most beautiful spring garden in the world.


A river of mixed tulips.

The enormous fields of tulips that one imagines from pictures of Holland were pretty barren, but there were lots of nice smaller displays.


Tulips in stripes.


Fancy tulips.

In addition to tulips, there was a nice array of other bulbs, and a few pavilions with general floral displays.


I don’t know how they made them do that. Dyed them somehow, I assume.

But even everyday Rotterdam was beautiful.  Green, lots of paths, water everywhere.


I walked along this … linear pond every day on my way to the office.

And I did fit in one other tourist adventure, a trip to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Kinderdijk (kinder-dike), where I did, in fact, see windmills.  I got to go inside two windmills.


The inside of a windmill. There’s a stove/fireplace on the right, and behind that is a bed with just room for two people propped on pillows and a bassinet. It really isn’t any bigger than this.


Fishing basket. And that sailboat in the background is made out of a wooden clog.

I also had a chance to fly to Norway for a weekend and visit friends.  Which was lovely.  And, you guys, Norway is scenic.  SO FREAKING SCENIC!  I have only a handful of pictures from Norway, partly because I was only there for two days, but party because I was suffering from scenic overload and couldn’t choose what to take pictures of.  Also it was large and scenic in a way that’s hard to photograph.




Even the town center was scenic. And very pedestrian-friendly.

And despite what everyone says about Holland being rainy, it was sunny almost the entire time I was there.  Meanwhile, Massachusetts got an inch and a half of rain.


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Rights and Responsibilities

When I was a child, my father was one of the volunteers who worked our local polling place. I remember long afternoons when I was small, sitting behind the tables or playing around the stage, while the neighbor ladies greeted voters and my father worked the machines. There were always snacks, and everyone was cheerful and friendly.

I think it was this, more than any other experiences (such as the substitute teacher who spent an entire morning teaching my class to vote — not, mind you, how to be an informed voter, just how to walk into the booth and flip the levers — early enough that by the time I was old enough to vote, they had replaced the flip-lever machines with electronic ones) that left me feeling that voting was just one of those things that responsible grownups did, like giving blood and contributing to National Public Radio.

Fast-forward to now. There was a primary election last week, my first as a Massachusetts resident. I was going to vote, of course. I’d tracked down my polling place, and found the website that showed me a sample ballot, and read up on candidate statements on their websites. And that’s where I got stuck. I couldn’t see anything notably different about the various candidates by reading their statements, hadn’t been listening to election news (I’d only gotten a radio a few weeks before), and didn’t have any feel for the candidates or the local issues.

So the afternoon of voting day, I wandered around my work, a place filled with educated, intelligent, socially conscious people, and started up conversations.

“Hi, do you have opinions on the election today? I don’t know who I’m voting for yet, and this is your chance to persuade me. I would like to hear who you think I should vote for and why.”

(I realize that there are a lot of workplaces where this would not be appropriate, or where people would not feel comfortable answering this question. Trust me that I felt that it was okay.)

The response was disappointing. I talked to close to 40 people. Of those, a handful were not US citizens, or still registered in their home states, both valid reasons to not have an opinion. A few more coworkers told me that they’d been so busy they hadn’t paid any attention, or that they were procrastinating and had not yet decided either. Only two had opinions beyond, “I have strong personal feelings about Candidate X,” and perhaps three more had feelings for or against one of the candidates in one of the races.

40 people, in a state where most of the decision-making is made in the primary elections, and almost no one knows who they’re voting for (and very few are even voting at all). And before those discussions, I would have described my coworkers as more politically active/interested than most people in the general population.

There you go, folks, representative democracy at work.

I don’t really know what’s wrong, or how we fix it. But maybe we should spend more time in our own backyards before we rush out to fix the problems of the world.


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Vingnette from the Life of a Tech Minion

Perhaps two months ago, some of my coworkers and I took a day to accomplish various chores at work’s new location.  After lunch, Erebus declared that it was time to learn to install security cameras, so Tyro — the new hire (even newer than me!) — and I trailed along to be educated.  Erebus explained how to pick a good location, then demonstrated the procedure for us:

“Drill the guide hole first, then switch the drill to a low setting so you don’t strip the plastic, and put in the plaster anchor.  Then you can mount the base; two screws are usually good . . .”

Camera installed, he handed us each a box with a camera and a couple of screws and anchors, and left us with the ladder.

Now, I don’t like ladders.  I’m not especially fond of heights at the best of times, and ladders, even durable, sturdy, not-terribly-tall ladders like the ones we use at work have not historically fallen into my category of “the best of times.”  Nevertheless, Erebus expected us to get up on that wobbly thing and drill holes in the wall, and I wasn’t about to be a wimpy terrified girl, not in front of my all-male tech gang.  But I let Tyro go up to do the first camera.

He climbed up three rungs, and I handed him the drill.  “Now,” he said, “I’ll just have to pretend I’m you.”

Me?” I said, flabbergasted.  A thousand objections clamored through my mind, racing past each other so fast none of them made it out my mouth.  But I don’t like heights.  But you know I’ve never installed a camera before.  But I’m wearing a skirt!  (In my defense, I hadn’t known it was installing-cameras day.  And I was also wearing a perfectly respectable set of leggings.)

“Of course,” said he, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.  “You’re an intensely competent human being.”

And, well, after that, I couldn’t show weakness, could I?


I will add that the camera installation was uneventful; I didn’t even need the spare screws.  And I’ve become a lot more comfortable up on ladders, between installing and maintaining cameras, and running ethernet cables above ceiling tiles, and searching for “biscuit drops,” ceiling-based ethernet ports.  I’m even in charge of the camera system now (though of course Erebus still knows more about it than I do).

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Why don’t they have gardens?

“In America, it is normal to have few children, yes?”

I nodded.

“Why don’t they have more?”

I considered the question.  How was I to explain the demographic shift to my Zambian friend, a woman who at 26 had three children already, who was sharp as a tack but had only her grade 12 certificate, who had probably only been outside of Zambia once in her life?

“Some do.”  It seemed only fair to start there.  “But in America, it is very expensive to have children.  Most people choose to have only one or two, which costs less, and then put a lot of effort into making sure they do well.”

“But how is it expensive?”  Unspoken in the air between us hung the idea that having children is not that difficult.  And in Zambia, children are a source of labor, an extra pair of hands to cook or clean or work in the field.

“Doctors are very expensive.”  I fumbled for words.  “And clothing.”  I knew that having children is expensive, but struggled to come up with concrete examples that would make sense in this context.  “School fees.”  School supplies were like school fees, yes?  “Someone to watch the children if both parents work.  And in America, food is expensive.  My mother spends as much money on groceries in a week as I spend on everything in a month here.”

She stared at me, completely shocked.  “Why don’t they have gardens?”

I thought about it, taken aback by the question.  I had always thought of Zambia as barren and dry compared to the eastern seaboard of the US, less fertile, unfriendly, a place where a garden had to be hacked out of dry ground by dint of sheer labor — and yet it was true: many Zambian families grow a huge percentage of their own food.*  How could my green and fertile US be so unproductive in comparison?  I tried to explain the work involved, that even with a garden, Americans can grow only a portion of their own food.  It didn’t even occur to me to talk about growing seasons, or about the differences in the ways Americans and Zambians eat, or that most Americans probably wouldn’t know how to cook produce from their own garden even if they had one, much less what to do with grain.


I’ve been thinking about that conversation a lot recently.  The area of Somerville I moved to has some sort of industrial past, and between that and generations of lead paint on the houses, the soil test from our garden that we sent off to the UMass Soil Testing Laboratory came back with a lead level more than ten times the recommended level, on the high end of the “Children and pregnant women should not interact with the soil” range.

I look at the cheerful garden my upstairs neighbors have planted, and hope that they take the copy of the soil test I gave them seriously enough to not feed those vegetables to their grandchildren.  At the same time, every time I walk past the cheerful childish handwriting on the sign that reads, “Eat your vegetables!” I am sad to crush that enthusiasm.

How would I explain that to my Zambian friend?  “Where I live now, there is poison in the ground, and we cannot eat anything that grows from it.  We must buy new soil from a store, and containers, and carry them to our house on my bicycle or on our heads, and even then we will have enough for only a few plants.  Likely it will cost as much, if not more, than just buying the vegetables from a store.”

I’m not even sure she would believe me.  And why should she?  Surely it’s a crazy way to run a world.



*And many Zambian women grow a surplus of produce to sell at market.  Not farmers, not devotees, just women with a big garden and good source of water, and maybe a lot of kids to help out.  (In fact, one of the books I read before going to Zambia indicated that in some regions there is a linguistic difference between mwafwamu, farming maize to sell to the government or companies, and cultivating sorghum and other crops for family consumption, a distinction that could lead to statements like, “Women don’t care about farming, they just want to cultivate sorghum.”  It’s not something I specifically noticed, but it would not surprise me if a similar distinction existed in Tongaland.)

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Trials and Tribulations of Moving to Boston, Part II

I opened the last box last week (and promptly shoved it back under my bed again, but baby steps), so it seems an appropriate time to finish the story of the epic Road Trip to Boston.

We embarked about when I’d intended to Saturday morning, leaving behind a muzzy, just-arisen Octopus Library.  (We nearly left without seeing her at all, since I didn’t want to wake her up, and had in fact gotten so far as to determine the the door would lock behind us, so we could in fact leave on our own.)  The drive out of town was uneventful, interrupted only by a brief and abortive stop at a gas station — we drove off again without getting any gas, because it seemed expensive, despite Octopus Library’s advice that gas was cheaper in town than it would be for a while.

I’d gotten the hang of the truck, more or less, and we made decent progress along the coast.  Presently we turned inland, and began seeing signs for our next turnoff, the Merritt Parkway.


Cue a discussion of whether we were, in fact, a commercial vehicle.  It was a truck, yes, but a small one, and didn’t have a trailer, just a back end.  Furthermore, we still had neither map nor functional GPS, and the directions told us to take the Merritt Parkway.

“This can’t be a commercial vehicle,” Isaac pointed out.  “You don’t have a license for commercial vehicles, and you don’t need a special license to drive this.  So it must not be a commercial vehicle.”  This was a sound argument, and anyway, I didn’t know how else to go, so we took the turnoff and hoped that any early-morning cops would be convinced by either logic or a couple of pitiable disoriented young people.  And resolved to keep a close eye on the bridge clearances.

The bridges were disconcerting, because they were much lower than anything we’d seen previously (with the exception of one really low one in Octopus Library’s town, but the first time we’d driven under that one it had been almost-dark and the end of a long day, and I hadn’t realized how low it was, so it’s a good thing it wasn’t another foot or so lower), and (I eventually concluded), only the first bridge (and any subsequent lower bridges) after an entrance ramp had signs.  They were all fine, if a trifle nerve-wracking.

The nerves were not helped by the elderly gentleman who shook his finger at me as he passed us.  “It’s not a commercial vehicle!” I wanted to tell him.  “It says so on my driver’s license!”  Still, I felt terrible conspicuous, especially when we stopped for gas (which, incidentally, cost more than the first stop that morning, where we hadn’t gotten any).  At that stop I also gained a bit more empathy for the New Jersey full-service gas station guy, since the pump kept clicking off at random intervals, generally not more than 15 seconds apart.  It was horribly annoying, but we eventually got the tank filled and escaped the station without generating a posse of angry locals demanding that we stop driving a truck on the Parkway.  Still, I breathed a small sigh of relief when we eventually got off the road without further incident.

If you’re curious, the optimal place to get gas on a trip of this nature is in far-northern Connecticut, or in the suburbs just south of Boston.  Central Connecticut is apparently only surpassed in price by southern Connecticut, but we were worried that the MassPike would be more expensive (it’s not).

After far too many hours, we started seeing signs for Boston.  Another hour or so beyond that, we were looking for our turnoff.  I was ready to stretch my legs and not drive the truck for a while.  I was ready for lunch.  I was ready to arrive.

We hit the first traffic that day about five minutes later.  It wasn’t awful, just some construction and a detour.  We entered Boston proper and started to see signs for Somerville.  “Hallelujah!” I declared.

I turned left onto an unlabeled street that was probably the one we wanted, and found that I was being funneled into a pretty riverside drive that declared, NO TRUCKS.  A loopy U-turn later, and we managed to find the pretty riverside drive we wanted, and were looking for Plympton Street.

And looking.  And looking.  I was pretty sure we’d gone more than half a mile, but I hadn’t seen any signs for Plympton Street, and none of the streets we’d passed looked big enough to have been Plympton Street.  (In retrospect, that was my first mistake, assuming that Plympton Street would be bigger than an alley.  Or no, my first mistake was assuming that it would be labeled.)  We went a few more blocks anyway, hopefully, looking for Plympton or some other largish likely-looking street.

After all, we were supposed to take a right on Plympton, drive a few blocks, and then take a left on Mass Ave.  I’d been on Mass Ave, and knew it to be a proper street of a street.  Surely we could pick it up a few blocks later.

Third mistake.  The road we eventually took curved and meandered, and did not encounter Massachusetts Avenue.  And did not encounter Massachusetts Avenue.   . . . And did not encounter Massachusetts Avenue.

Knowing what I know now, this would have been the time to turn around and try again for Plympton Street.  Knowing what I know now, we’d already passed the point of no return, and it was no longer possible to get to Plympton Street.

But we didn’t know, so when we quite conclusively did not encounter Massachusetts Avenue, but did come to an option to take Route 3 towards Somerville, I took it.  Things looked quite promising for a while, but then we stopped seeing signs for Somerville and decided we must be inside it — but nothing looked familiar.  We presently came to the Red Line station one stop west of mine, so I turned right.  NO TRUCKS, declared the street, a block or two after we’d gotten onto it.  Ooops.

We drove for a while, then turned right again (NO TRUCKS), because the station is a bit north, too.  I hoped to cross some familiar street, but didn’t, so we stopped and asked for directions.  (Not to my house, to my local T station cum square.  It isn’t remotely square.)  This street was one way, so we headed back up the next street (NO TRUCKS) and found the street we’d been on before, and kept going the way we’d been going.

In this manner, and several more NO TRUCKS streets later (one of the signs did eventually say OVER THUS-AND-SO TONS), we found the local square, which is a six-point intersection that someone stepped on several times and then scraped off the bottom of their shoe, and I successfully navigated us through it.  Then, in a comparably herculean task, Isaac got us back on the directions, and a few more streets (NO TRUCKS) later, we pulled up into my Reserved-For-Moving-Truck parking space.

We were an hour later than I’d told Calliope we would get there, and still arrived before her and her mother.  (But not so much before that they weren’t twiddling their thumbs until we got back with the keys.)  The move-in was not entirely uneventful. (The bathroom still wasn’t completely finished, and we discovered that three of the wooden pegs of the Incredibly Heavy Ancestral Table were broken, that the futon I’d been going to sleep on was mildewed and damp, and spent way too much time driving a large truck around Boston and surroundings.  But the truck got returned, the contractor eventually showed up, the table has been fixed, and I have a bed.)

I’ve learned my lesson: don’t drive in Boston without a navigator, a map, and a GPS.  If possible, don’t drive in Boston at all.

And I did eventually find Plympton street the other day, while walking near Harvard.  I didn’t see the sign, but don’t doubt that it was there: NO TRUCKS.

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Trials and Tribulations of Moving to Boston

Friday morning.  The boxes were packed, the last stuff had been carried down from my room (almost), and my worldly possessions were piled into a rectangular section of floor, waiting to be loaded into the van.  My wonderful librarian showed up to drive me to the UHaul place, and we headed off to North Philly.  (Yes, I know that there are closer UHaul places.  UHaul told me to go to that one.)

We arrived at THRIFT STORE on Luzerne street to find a lot of UHaul signs surrounding an unprepossessing warehouse.  It wasn’t open.  Okay, they opened at 10am; maybe it wasn’t quite ten yet.  Some more people arrived and hung out waiting for the store to open, and eventually a woman came with keys. 

The guy in charge of UHaul rentals wasn’t there yet, so we sat in the chilly hallway and shivered and chatted.  Presently it became clear that the UHaul guy wasn’t going to show up for a while, and also that there wasn’t a van for me to take; was it all right if they gave me a 10′ truck, instead?  I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of a larger vehicle, but more storage space was not unwelcome, and anyway, what was I going to say, “No, I will sit here until you give me a van”?  I had a vehicle to pack and upwards of three hours to drive, and it was already 10:30.

Driving home from North Philly was . . . harrowing.  It was not so much that the truck was large and unfamiliar (it was) or that I had no sense of where the right side of the vehicle was (I didn’t), as that North Philly has an interesting approach to rules of the road at the best of times, and any time you are driving a UHaul truck is not the best of times.  However, no pedestrians were run over, no bicycles were mowed down, no cars were hit, and no random stuff made contact with the truck.  But I perhaps did not arrive home in the best frame of mind to park a truck on a relatively narrow street with no assistance, and caused a minor traffic jam until my family figured out what was going on and came outside to help flag.

Loading the truck went excellently.  I had four marvelous people helping to carry stuff, we were done in two hours, and, in fact, if I were to identify problems, the greatest one would be that the assistants could carry boxes faster than I could figure out where to put them (since my oh-so-careful Furniture Tetris plan had been upset by the addition of about a foot of space in several directions).  After lunch, I made my last sweeps of the house, we stuck a few more items in the back of the truck, and Isaac and I clambered in and headed off.  Truck spacing relative to road width was a lot easier with a passenger to provide feedback, and I got enough of a sense of the mirrors to begin to judge for myself.  We took Route 1 north.

One realized exactly how many potholes there are in a road when driving a truck containing everything one owns.  It’s also a good way to figure out just exactly how long a road is.  It was only 2:30 in the afternoon, but traffic was already pretty dense, and as I commented to Isaac, taking Roosevelt Boulevard out of the city is a really excellent way to be entirely ready to leave.

And that was before we almost had my first serious accident with a crazy driver who’d confused the definitions of “cut in front of” and “sideswipe.”  (May I remind you that I was driving a 10′ truck?  Admittedly, not the world’s largest truck, but considerably bigger than a compact car.)  Apparently he wanted to get to the laundromat.  I laid on both brakes and horn, and he lived to do his laundry.

It was with a good deal of relief that we reached the Pennsylvania Turnpike and left the state.  New Jersey was uneventful, aside from our foray into a rest area.  Since I was, technically, driving a truck, we took the “trucks” section at the divide, and found ourselves in an alternate universe full of absolutely enormous vehicles and very few parking spaces.  Eventually we decided that there weren’t enough buses for anyone to mind if we parked at the very end of the line long enough to use the restroom — and realized while walking to the building that the Trucks Universe was distinctly lacking in gas pumps dispensing anything other than diesel.  After a bit of investigation, we decided that a small section labeled “do not enter” would allow us to cross over into the cars side, and this was the last rest stop in New Jersey, and I wanted to buy gas before we left.

That worked just fine — until we were pulling out of the rest stop and I realized that the gas tank didn’t seem to be any fuller than when we’d entered.  By the time Isaac confirmed that the fellow had only put a gallon of gas in the truck, we were already heading back to the highway, so we made some grumbling comments about mandatory full-service gas stations and headed over the bridge to Manhattan.

Which was . . . nowhere near as bad as I expected, considering that it was now 5pm on a Friday night.  The roads were even worse than Philly (the whole trip, we could tell when we entered cities by the way the roads deteriorated), but aside from a few slowish miles, we got out of NYC much faster than I expected to, and spent a very pleasant evening with my friend Octopus Library (not her real name).

And that’s when I realized that my passport was still in Philadelphia.

To be continued . . .

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Professional Skills

One day in my last few weeks at my previous job, I was sitting on the windowsill and knitting during the first-period Microsoft IT Academy class.

“Ms. Miriam?” called Miss Confident.  “I have a question.”

I hopped off the windowsill and came over.  “Sure, what’s up?”

“Is it bad for a student to date a teacher?”

I’d been expecting something relevant to the class.  A question about protecting computers from natural threats, maybe.  But her screen showed that she’d finished the current activity, and this question surely fell into my purview of Postsecondary and Professional Skills.  “Ah . . . yes, it is bad.”

“But why?”

I pondered the question a moment.  How best to explain that instinctive, gut-level reaction?  “Well, if you had a job, would you date your boss?”

“Sure, if he was hot.”

Cue another moment of flabbergasted silence, punctuated by a forceful image of my friend Operafloozy flailing her arms and yelling, ‘Power dynamics!  Power dynamics!’

After a moment, I managed, “No, don’t date your boss, either.”  Clearly that angle was not going to work.  “It’s a bad idea.  Relationships can get really complicated when one person has that kind of power over the other . . . the teacher could get fired.”

I realized that the gal next to her was also keenly fascinated by the conversation, and just as baffled by this hash of an explanation.  I might as well draw her in.

“Okay, suppose that you and S are taking a class together, and you’re sleeping with the teacher.  You both do a project, and you get a good grade on it and she doesn’t.  She’s going to think that you got a better grade than she did because the teacher’s getting into your pants.  You see?”

Nods, with the beginnings of comprehension.

“Or suppose you and the teacher get into a fight . . .”

Class was moving again, and I slipped back to my windowsill.

I don’t know if it was enough.  It at least gave them something to think about, I hope.  They’re smart kids; maybe they’ll figure it out without painful interludes of personal experience.

This is one more example of something that naturally to me.  I don’t remember anyone teaching me that romantic relationships and professional relationships tangle easily, the way I remember learning to tie my shoes.  It feels like something I’ve always known, though I’m sure I must have learned it at some point.  Maybe I picked it up from reading lots of military sci-fi with strong female characters.  Or maybe just from watching and listening to the adults in my life.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had as a child, when I was trying to explain to a classmate that I didn’t know how to jump double-dutch because no one had ever taught me.  “Well, when did you learn?” I asked her.

“I didn’t.  I was BORN knowing it,” she told me.

I was pretty sure she hadn’t been born knowing it, but how do you argue with that?

It’s akin to culture, I guess, the things we learn from our parents and our communities, without even knowing we learn them.  Green means go.  Heat rises.  Red means stop, or love, or blood, or fire.  A house looks like a pentagon with one door and one window.  This is how you turn the wheel to parallel park.  This is how far away to stand for a conversation between strangers, and how loudly to talk.  Sleeping with your professors is a really bad idea.

And what do you do if you didn’t learn those things, or the things you learned are different?

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