Friday, November 30, 2007

Pink money

It's that time of year when our Canadian family members make the long journey to the Hood for some Christmas shopping. This time, it's Glen's sister, Clair, and her daughter Cara, who are on their way (and should be arriving tonight), and what should make this trip particularly fruitful for them is that the Canadian dollar is stronger than the US dollar currently. Strength, however, does not equate to coolness. After all, the Queen of England is on a lot of their money, which is pink and other weird colors, and they have one and two dollar coins (the "loonie" and "toonie," respectively), instead of bills, and a two dollar anything is just weird.

Weird or not, Canada is more than okay by me. We we hope to be be receiving a shipment of butter tart shells, some Hostess Hickory Sticks (Glen's favorite, which are unavailable in the States, and happen to be the very first item in the chip area of the Canadian Favourites website (spellcheck, by the way, hates the Canadian/British spellings), and some Vachon Au Caramels (my nephew Aaron's favorite, which are unavailable here in the States, and happen to be the very first item on the Vachon website, possibly some Clodhoppers (everyone we give these to becomes addicted; they're nothing more than small blobs of chocolate covered graham cracker clusters, but WOW, they work), and we hope, some Pamplemousse, a pink grapefruit sparkling beverage which everyone in my family loves. The manufacturer recently overhauled the packaging (old packaging shown here), and it's been unavailable for months. Oh yeah, and I hope to get some Canadian/Niagara region wine, too. Duty-free at the shop at the border. This is my current fav:

In exchange, we'll probably be hitting all of the area thrift stores, as well as many other shops in the area. We hope to have dinner tonight at DeLorenzo's on Hamilton (walking distance), and lunch at Pete's Steakhouse on Sunday. Trenton has a lot to offer. Police Director Joseph Santiago's statement about quitting before he moves to Trenton is a huge insult, and does so much damage to our reputation, so hopefully Council will show him the door soon. But the fact Glen and I have people who will make the 9+ hour drive several times a year, without taxpayers footing the bill for their gas, speaks volumes, too. Hooray for Canadians!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

"The Sin is Not to Try"

Landmines and other unexploded ordnance (UXO) indiscriminately maim and kill people across Southeast Asia, and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is calling on regional governments to redouble their efforts to clean up the devastating waste from decades of war.*

It's the little things in life that mean the most, no? Simple courtesies, respect, and politeness can begin to turn a bad situation around. If Police Director Joseph Santiago stopped saying "Crime is Down," and instead acknowledged the real fears of city residents, it would begin to bridge the terrible chasm that divides the non-criminals who live here.

Glen and I, along with a bunch of other city residents, sat through Santiago's mundane PowerPoint presentation last night, a presentation that included about 30 slides, two of which had some moving text bubbles; it was a presentation that would have been mediocre in 1997, and the director said he was committed to technology, bringing the department into the 21st century. He printed out the slides for council, so I'm hoping Jim Coston will put them on his website because projected onto the big screen in council chambers, the slides were just too small to read, and I have decent eyesight. The slideshow was really just very sad (and boring), especially since Director Santiago bragged about how he incorporated computers into the department when he took over in 2003. He also told us, "The sin is not to fail, the sin is not to try." Problem is, it's unclear what he's trying to do. But, for the record, Crime is Down.

It's just insulting to hear him say "crime is down, crime is down" over and over again, when those of us who live in the city know that we are living in a mine field. If we hole up in our homes, chances are we'll be safe (but it's no guarantee, is it?), but as soon as we step outside, we pray that we don't encounter an "unexploded ordnance" in a hoodie, brandishing a weapon in our direction. Property crimes may be down, but if we go to the store to pick up a sandwich, there's a better chance than ever that four thugs will pull a gun on us, take our sandwich and the remaining $3 we have in our pockets. It's deplorable to hear Santiago say, "crime is down, crime is down," when packs of knuckleheads beat the crap out of mentally handicapped people; carjack young mommies as they lift their precious cargo from their baby seats; and bludgeon to death senior citizens.

The discussion that followed the PowerPoint presentation was a delicious mix of stressful and exciting; I simultaneously found myself clenching, as if to prepare for a bomb to hit, and mouth open, in awe and delight. For starters, council was more or less unified! And more or less mad as hell!

Down the line, in the order in which they spoke:

Cordelia Staton wanted to know why more wasn't being done to combat drug dealing, since "drugs drive crime."

Manny Segura said, "The content of the presentation is not the reality," and went on to describe how he recently helped a crime victim, who ultimately got little help from the officers at the East Ward precinct. "The cooperation with the police is not seen like it was before," he said.

Gino Melone's statements were one of the highlights of the evening, for me. Sometimes I'm not sure where my councilman stands on particular issues, but last night, he did a superb job of not only reppin' the east side, but all of the city. He seemed outright pissed that Director Santiago has been unresponsive to council and citizen concerns, and wanted to know if the director would be sticking around for the public portion of the meeting (I was furiously taking notes at this point, and am just tickled with Santiago's response: "I'll deal with them," is what Santiago said. "I'll deal with them." Good stuff! Santiago was defensively agitated by Melone's statements, and counterattacked that he was available when Melone handed the phone to him on a weekend to talk to a person who had a plant stolen. What? Seemed that the director was grasping at straws.). Ultimately, Melone said he doesn't feel safe, doesn't feel safe for his young daughter, and will only take her to the park early in the morning when he knows no one is around.

Annette Lartigue's statements to Santiago smelled strongly of political posturing, and included intelligent but non-germane comments about the schools; and she suggested declaring official emergency in the city of Trenton; and she implored the director to crack down on packs of kids and loiterers. (This ultimately spawned a bit of conversation about civil liberties, and later, the overcrowded prisons, and the effectiveness of tougher laws, and so forth. Santiago expressed concern about the legalities of loitering laws** -- his department can't and shouldn't enforce potentially unconstitutional legislation; and yet his virtue about the law is ironic, considering his residency in Stirling, NJ, is a violation of a different law.) It was surprising she didn't ask Santiago directly about his residency, considering her position in the papers earlier this week.

Milford Bethea graciously declined to comment, to allow more time for Jim Coston and the public to speak.

Jim Coston said that he placed a call to Director Santiago in August; a call which was unreturned, so Coston asked that his comments, comprised of many yes/no questions, be seen as that returned phone call. This was also a highlight of the evening for me. Coston wanted to know if the new vehicles requested by the police department will stay within city limits, or if they'll regularly leave the city. Santiago responded, longwindedly, that he couldn't guarantee that the cars would stay in the city, but they would be put to good use fighting crime. Coston wanted to know if the position of communications director for the police department (a position ultimately filled by Santiago's friend Irv Bradley, who currently lives in Rahway), was made available to city residents before Bradley was hired. I was unclear on this answer; if anyone knows, let me know. Coston wanted to know if Irv Bradley was planning to move to Trenton, as required by law. According to Santiago, Bradley placed a deposit on a unit in the Broad Street Bank. Coston also brought up the issue of Santiago's residency outside of the city, and said that council should use its powers to remove Santiago if Santiago doesn't move to the city, and Palmer fails to act.

Council president Paul Pintella said that he knows where so many of the city's drug hot spots are, and has witnessed plenty middle-of-the-day open air deals, and wondered if the police saw this as well, and if so, why it's allowed to continue? He also said, inexplicably, given the power of his previous statements, that he'd give the director an "Eight, eight and a half" on a scale of one to 10, for his job performance; he didn't give a 10 because he needs Santiago "to keep reaching."

I wish council pressed Santiago more about the residency issue, though there is part of me that feels that we should be able to live where we want to live. But I also think following rules and laws and our job descriptions are not optional. If Santiago actually lived in this city — in fact, if we had more police officers living in this city — it would only help to improve the quality of life. Right now, we don't even have foot patrols (at least in our parts), and it feels that the department is very separated from the residents, and while all the officers I've encountered have been great, this separation doesn't allow officers to know who the real problematic people are, it makes it difficult for them to understand the nuances and rhythms in a neighborhood, and it make the residents less trustful of them.

While I can't really fully grasp why city council — as a body — has only been Mayor Palmer's rubber stamp and pocket book recently, instead of the representatives of the citizens, I was heartened to see their collective and individual reactions to Santiago's presentation, his lack of availability, and his lack of forthcoming with and/or understanding of the real public safety details in Trenton. I hope this isn't "too little too late," but rather marks a significant change on council, and if political aspirations provide some fuel for that, I've got no problem with it, as long as it helps to improve Trenton.

Director Santiago said, "What we're doing in Trenton is not being done anywhere else," and he said it in a way to indicate that his team is doing good stuff for the city, but he cited no sources, no crime-fighting models that other police agencies are using successfully. So after sleeping on it, I'm left with a feeling that he and his team of "experts" are just making stuff up as they go, and that's why it's not "being done anywhere else." They're making up new acronyms for old tactics that haven't been working, instead of looking at nearby and extremely functional New York City, a huge city with a record low in violent crime.

The public was invited to speak, and the comments were varied. There were some who found sympathy for Director Santiago, saying that Trenton's problems existed long before he came to office, and are indicative of poor parenting, and that's not the police department's fault. It's true, so I can't disagree with that, and at the same time, I cannot excuse Santiago's disregard for the details of his own job description, I cannot excuse the fact that the citizens of this city have been kept almost entirely in the dark about crime, and I cannot excuse his dismissive attitude. In fact, Glen and I noticed Santiago and Assistant Business Administrator Dennis Gonzalez giggling during the public portion; he spent a good deal of time on his PDA during public comment as well. It was a long, heated meeting, and if Santiago wasn't at the center of it all, so what if he had a laugh or two, or sent some text messages to a family member or colleague? But he was the center of the meeting, and those actions do not inspire a sense of concern for the public, a public he is paid (very well) to serve. If you want, you can look up Santiago's salary (or any other public official's) here.

Some other public comments:
"Bulldoze Walnut Avenue and start over again."
"The police department needs more dogs. The criminals aren't afraid of us, or council, or the police, but they are afraid of dogs."
"Maybe we should stop having baby showers for young girls in the school cafeteria, and instead send them away, like we used to do."
"We need more black police officers."
"The black leadership has failed the youth in Trenton."
"Instead of calling me to attend your press conferences, call my next door neighbor" (referring to the mother of four miscreants).
"I'm tired of hearing about the rights of these kids. What about my rights?"

I didn't agree with every single comment, but I absolutely understand the frustration of the people who live in this city. One resident even suggested "taking matters into his own hands," to help improve his quality of life, and while I don't know what he implied specifically, I do know that regular citizens can do so much to effect change, and I hope we all keep talking about it, keep pressuring our officials to do right by us. We all share a degree of responsibility in the success of our community. Hopefully, we can see our way through the mine field one way or another without much more damage to life and limb.

*I'm not trying to make light of the landmine situation in Southeast Asia. It's tragic. Read more about it here.

**I'm certainly no fan of loitering thugs, in fact, I hate them. But I also understand that the social dynamics in this world make it very difficult for groups of teenagers and young adults of any color, but specifically black teenagers, to go hang out at the mall (for instance). And no offense to our fine history, there's just not that much for kids to do in this city, day after day, week after week (though I believe that to be a problem of all kids in all walks of life; they all feel there's nothing to do. But here in Trenton, there are fewer typical social outlets). The loitering laws in our country are unconstitutional, which, in theory, I understand. But in practical reality, it can be a freakin' drag when there are 8 thugs hanging out on the mailbox in front of your house. Santiago mentioned a way to combat this problem, legally, by invoking our right to public passage. Four or more people constitutes an obstruction of public passage, and apparently the police can act on this.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

I was wrong,
and it's oh-so-right!

Sometimes it's great to be wrong.

Glen and I wanted to have breakfast this morning at Café Olé and were totally bummed out, but not entirely surprised, to find it closed today. We're hoping for the day when all of Trenton's restaurants are busy enough and the surrounding areas are thug-free enough to warrant them staying open late, and on both weekend days, and, especially, over holiday weekends.

So, we ate outside the city this morning, and it was good, but not the experience we had wanted. As we headed back toward home, we were thrilled to find the tamale lady outside of the Red, White, and Blue thrift store! I called my sister Jenny, who has not been able to get tamales off her brain since we first stumbled upon the tamale lady a few weeks ago. Jenny was so excited that she placed a hefty order and agreed to meet us back at our house within an hour to pick up the goods.

While the tamale seller was getting our order ready, I mentioned to her husband that I had thought his wife was only going to be selling her delicious food that one weekend, a few weeks ago. And told me that from now on, the tamales, and salads, and tacos and atole would be available — weather permitting — outside the Red, White, and Blue on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. AND, they'll be promoting tamale-love outside of the Selecto supermarket on Broad Street on Sundays.

How awesome is that?!

Jenny and two of her children, Aaron, and Emma, arrived a short time later, and even Emma, the baby, got in on the action: she grabbed a little taquito and made short work of it. We had a nice visit for a couple of hours (Emma got to play with the cats and Aaron got to take some photos), and then Jenny loaded up the kids and a huge bag of tamale-and-taquito goodness, which, I'm sure, other members of her family are enjoying right now.

So, I'm so happy to have been wrong about the tamale lady's availability. This approach to dining — that is, woman with large coolers and thermoses of food on the side of the road — may be a new trend. And, bonus: her hours of operation are no worse than many of the other food vendors in the area.

Now, go get some tamales!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


City council approved a contract last night that would provide wireless internet throughout the city, which, if the communications firm can uphold its end of the bargain, sounds pretty cool. But it won't affect my life too much because I have my own wifi already, and because when I leave the house, I need to get the hell away from my technology. If the city gets wifi, it probably won't affect too many other people in the city either, since they're either like me, and already have their own access, or they live below the poverty line. But I like the forward-thinkingness of this plan, because someday, maybe a huge percentage of the city's residents will not be too poor to own a computer.

It's easy to think about the individual people who make up city council. I know I do. A lot. But tonight, after a glass of wine, and knowing there are no deadlines for the next couple of days, I started to think about council as an organism, in and of itself. A living organism, like a cat. Or a squid. Or a wallaby. The Organism Council would be pretty high up on the food chain, but not at the top, only because there's too much chatter and noise going on inside of the collective head. Too much distraction. And right now, I feel a bit lower on the food chain too: relaxed from my wine, numb from a busy week of work and holiday preparation, and my reluctance to get used to the time change and all the darkness that comes along with it. Right now, all of that is causing me to debate with myself about whether I should tidy up the kitchen to get ready for tomorrow, or maybe have more wine and watch the hockey game with Glen, or have more wine and not watch the hockey game and blog instead. So, I sympathize with council, at least right now. I mean, I'm TIRED, I don't want to spend any more time in the kitchen. And, for whatever reason, that little tiny black thing on the TV screen in the other room is just way too hard to follow right now. And the wine tastes yummy and the glow of my computer is addictive!

There are a lot of things wrong with this city: our crime cameras are a joke; the only footage caught on camera is coming from regular citizens, and since there are only 37 of us with cameras, that's not saying much. Ordinances aren't getting enforced. The mayor is running off to the far corners of the country because of his "responsibilities" to the Conference of Mayors. There aren't enough cops on the street. Maybe crime is down, but it's still rampant. The city is like the state of my kitchen right now: a total freakin' disaster, but it's too overwhelming for me to think about for too long. So, I'm sitting here, writing...and drinking wine. I'm being productive, after all!

So, at least at this moment, I can understand why, when the city is such a mess, council would approve a contract for something that a) may not ever work properly, or b) won't be relevant until a few years has gone by. After all, the mere act of voting is progress, and that has to feel good, when so little progress is actually happening outside of council chambers.

I am gonna hate the mess in my kitchen tomorrow.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Hooray! Crime is Down!

The CQ Press Annual Safest/Most Dangerous Cities report is out, and Trenton has, at least on paper, seen some improvement. This story has been covered by the local newspapers, and my fellow bloggers have offered their thoughts about it too, so there's not much left to say. Except, to me, that report is irrelevant.

The numbers may show "improvement," but each of those numbers represents a horrible, life-altering event for real people, right here in our community. We can all chant "crime is down, crime is down" and come to believe it, just as the mystics chant "OM" and find inner peace, but violent crimes continue to happen all the time. Crime is Down, Crime is Down, but citizens are left to figure things out on their own based on the sounds of sirens and mothers wailing, and bits of crime scene tape left behind, outside their doors. Crime is Down, Crime is Down, but that doesn't bring back 84-year-old Jerry Eure, or 17-year-old MacKenzie Paul, two people whose lives were cut down too soon. Crime is down, crime is down, but two families in less than one week — the same week that report says Crime is Down in Trenton — have entirely new, gut-wrenching realities to accept. We have a problem with crime in Trenton.

Enough of the chants, and the reports, and the statistics, positive or negative. Let's get more policemen and women on the streets, now. Let's keep the citizens of Trenton informed so we can do our part, too.

By the way, the official Trenton Police Department crime map has still not been updated on the city's website. Crime is Down, so no need to post it?

Stalking the Tamale Lady

Quick note: I wanted to write this post as a means to encourage people to question their own ideas about immigrants, but I realize that we're all grown adults with our own opinions, based on our own life experiences, and I didn't want to come across as a pompous ass, so I'm going to let the story speak for itself, and just say that I've just found that if I'm friendly, the people I encounter, regardless of background, will generally be friendly in return. I've found that if I go out of my way to speak to someone else, they will generally do their best to communicate with me. In English. Even if English is not their first language. By saying that, I'm not condoning illegal immigration; I'm just saying that those of us born here could probably do a bit better job as ambassadors; and that while lousy, disrespectful people exist in all walks of life, most people are decent, and fully legal, and so happy to share their food.

My sister, Jenny, along with her kids, came out to Trenton two weeks ago to go thrift store shopping. This may sound like no big deal since thriftin' is something Glen and I do on a regular basis, and we always take our guests to our thrift haunts. But Jenny's got five kids, and a big, comfortable house, and generally has a "if you want to see me, come TO ME" attitude, which I'm happy to do, because she's awesome, and the kids are awesome, and they have a big comfortable house with plenty of room for me to sit. So, it was a bit of a victory to get her out of her big comfortable house, and into, of all places, The Hood, and to — no offense to anyone — some of the edgier neighborhoods, because that's where the thrift stores are.

That thrift haul was satisfactory. I found several more beautiful hand-crafted coffee mugs to add to my cabinet of other beautiful, hand-crafted, abandoned-at-thrift-stores-for-no good-reason-I-could-see coffee mugs; and Jenny found a lot of perfect quality, name-brand clothing for her multitude of children. But what made that visit remarkable was the presence of a Mexican woman in the parking lot, selling handmade tamales, taquitos, open-faced tacos, and ensalatas made with unfamiliar vegetables/vegetable combinations, and a warm, luscious drink called atole, which she made from rice and sweetened condensed milk* and garnished with a hit of cinnamon.

It was a chilly, damp day, and curiosity got the better of Jenny and some of her kids. Aaron and Megan are slightly more adventurous eaters than are the other kids, but I don't think Jenny or the kids would mind if I mentioned that they are more of a meat-and-potatoes kind of family. So, their interest in this — no offense to the chef — roadside/parking lot ethnic chow was a pleasant surprise. None of them had ever eaten anything like it. Within a few minutes, we had a plateful of each of the food items the Mexican woman was offering. The tamales were a huge hit, even with Aaron, who isn't so much picky as he is just plain never hungry (how I wish that for me!), but he really loved the little taquitos (taco rolls).

The Mexican woman and her husband, who was assisting her, were so helpful in explaining what was in each dish, and how it was made. They even gave us free salads and drinks — which may not sound like much — but these cups of atole were big, warm, celebratory beverages; a drink for the soul, as much as the body. The heat warmed my chilly hands and face, and filled my belly, and evoked for me thoughts of loved ones, and twinkling lights on a Christmas tree on a snowy night. I am an adventurous eater (as long as mayonnaise does not factor in prominently), but I have never had anything like atole; Megan loved it too. The salad was a jubilation in and of itself: it was striking purple, courtesy of the beets, and punctuated with jimaca and cabbage and green beans, and other vegetables I'd never know to combine (until now). And it was just simply fantastic.

So we ate on the side of the road, damp and cold, but voraciously.

Jenny asked me to ask the woman — because I have an ability to comprehend English of non-native speakers — where she'd be the next day. It turns out, she was planning to come back to the same spot on Saturday, and then on Sunday, she was planning to sell her deliciousness outside a south ward plaza on Lalor Avenue. I got the impression that this was a one-time weekend for the woman, and not her job, to make tamales (and more) and sell them on the side of the road, but for some reason, Jenny didn't believe me.

We ate well past the point of being full because the food was just so good, so appetizing that it was difficult to stop. But we eventually had empty plates, and so we drove away, thrilled to have stumbled across this bonanza, but sad, too, that we may never find anything like it again. We hit a few more thrift stores, and then called it a a day. As Jenny dropped me off, she asked how to get back to where the Mexican woman was selling her food, because she wanted to pick up some tamales for her husband. Turns out, though, by the time Jenny went through again, the woman and her tamales and humongous thermos of atole were gone; so gone, in fact, that no one would have ever known she was there.

Jenny and I talk nearly every day, and nearly every day last week, we talked longingly about the Mexican woman's tamales — which were the hit of last Friday for Jenny and two of her children. The tamales were exotic, and yet had all of the properties of some of our family's comfort foods. I scoured my international cookbooks and looked online for tamale recipes and Jenny and I discussed whether or not we should have a tamale night in the coming weeks. We both enjoy cooking, but we wondered if we can do this fine pre-Colombian tamale tradition any justice, as it's not part of our heritage; not that lack of heritage has stopped us before. We've both dabbled in cuisines of far reaches of the planet, quite successfully, but it was only after much research and many taste-testings. There's something ancient and almost mythical about the tamal (singular without the "e" from what I hear), that warrants further investigation before we start cooking. Understanding the history and tradition, I believe, will yield a more delicious item. (Read more about wonderful tamales here.)

Jenny agreed. She asked me if I had plans for this past Friday, because she wanted to come back over to find the Mexican woman, because she couldn't stop thinking about the tamales; she needed to sample more of them before she tried to make them on her own. Again, this is a big deal, because for my whole adult life, I have been the one to visit my family members. And since Glen and I moved to Trenton, we've been doing far more visiting than we had before.

I told Jenny that our chances of finding the woman selling tamales were nil, but Jenny wanted to try. We started out with a visit to the thrift store where we first found the woman. She wasn't there. We scored more clothing and hand-made mugs, so that was good. Jenny asked me how to get to the south ward shopping center the woman had mentioned; we went there, and didn't find her. We did find a really jam-packed second-hand store, so the ride over wasn't totally without purpose. We combed the side streets, stalking the tamale-maker. But it was over. We shared our feelings of loss and decided the best bet was to hit Tortuga's or Frontera's or whatever it's called, for Mexican food.

I'm referring to the establishment on the corner of Clinton and Beatty avenues, and using both names not because I'm trying to be a smart-ass, but because the sign says, at least as of Friday, "Tortuga's," but the menu says "Frontera's." I'm just not sure what the actual name is, and maybe the owners don't know either; regardless, it is pretty freakin' awesome. I debated whether or not to take Jenny to Chapala Dos, which is also delicious, and has the recent distinction of being the site where three people were run-over by an angry intoxicated guy. I chose Frontera's/Tortuga's not because I was worried we might get run over in front of Chapala's (more people DON'T get run over, every single day, you know?), or even because I was worried Jenny would come to her senses and wonder how the hell she wound up in Trenton, when she could be comfortable in her big house, with me over there, instead of at an establishment that was the site of horrific personal injury and some bad press, but simply because I had to choose one place or another, and I knew for a fact that Frontera's/Tortuga's offered tamales.

Aaron was not with us this trip; he was out with my other sister, Karen, who called us to see if we were successful in stalking the tamale-monger. Karen had tried to take Aaron to lunch, but he refused to eat, because he was hoping his mother would return with some food from the Mexican woman on the side of the road. That hit Jenny hard. She really wanted for herself a homemade tamale from that woman, but more importantly, she really hated to let Aaron down.

As we drove down Clinton Avenue, we saw a guy and a grill on the back of his pick-up truck, selling BBQ to what looked to be a very hungry crowd. Jenny was driving, and slowed almost to a stop, to debate whether or not to try roadside BBQ, knowing it was probably a one-time deal, like the woman selling tamales. With some regret, we decided to keep moving to Frontera's/Tortuga's, for the sole purpose (for Jenny) of consuming tamales, a new and exciting food which she wanted to learn more about.

Jenny ordered a combination platter, and received a tamale and a chile relleno, Now, a quick aside, the chile relleno is also relatively new to Jenny — back in April, we found ourselves in a family-style restaurant in Colorado, with a huge, diverse menu, and I had ordered the chile relleno, and she had ordered chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy. I had to swap dishes with her — that's how much she loved the chile relleno. It is a delicious, though deadly food item: a mild poblano pepper (usually) is stuffed with cheese, and then — hallelujah! — deep freakin' fried.
One very fine-looking chile relleno.

I, too, got a chile relleno, because I had to. And even though it was stuffed with meat, in addition to cheese (Jenny was familiar with the cheese-only variety), I was very happy. Very, very happy. Frontera's/Tortuga's chicken is probably THE BEST I have ever had. Jenny was happy, overall, though she would have preferred to have found the woman on the side of the road. Megan, my niece, was with us, and she told the waiter that his was the best food she had ever had. The man serving us was so hospitable and gracious: he listened attentively to Jenny lament the failure to find the Mexican woman, which resulted in our visit to his establishment. She talked about how her young son, little skinny, uninspired-with-most-food items, Aaron, loved the little taco roll-ups sold by the woman on the side of the road. The man serving us said they didn't really have anything like it on his menu, but he would be glad to make us some to take home for Aaron. How cool is that? He came back a few minutes later with three beautiful, golden, deep-fried taco roll thingies, which I hope Aaron enjoyed later in the day.

Despite our different backgrounds and politics and philosophies on life, (most notably for me, within my own family) food allows us to bond, to find common ground. Jenny and I have been talking about this, partially because she and I are on completely different ends of the spectrum politically, and yet, when we really talk — often over food, or conversations that start out about food — we find we have way more in common that we would have thought. She suggested that maybe we're all getting used by politicians: we're getting pigeon-holed into one box, one side or another, based on a few issues; issues that allow us to demonize "the other side," but really, we're completely missing the big picture. We're forgetting our shared values, and we have a lot of them.

So, I'm hoping that Jenny will come out again soon, and we can drive around, to look for the tamale lady. We probably won't find her, but along the way, maybe we'll see that guy with his grill on Clinton Avenue again, or who knows, maybe we'll find someone with a giant deep fryer offering fish and chips on his porch?

* I've since read up on atole, and most recipes I found call for cornmeal, ground into a liquid, and warmed, with no dairy. I'm hoping to try that someday too.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Remember this?

"When I got down here,
I started asking questions.
I asked about crime rates.
They didn't even know what they were.
Two years ago, they didn't even have
a daily crime report.

I asked if there were gangs in Trenton.
They said no."

~Joseph Santiago, Trenton Police Director, 2003

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The City's Crime Map

It's been a week since the police held a news conference to respond to Jack Knarr's story in the Trentonian about the department's underreporting of crime in the city. The police told the crowd (and the public, since the crowd was made up of reporters and civic leaders) that they would a) be more forthcoming when reporting crime, and b) make a weekly crime map available on the city's website. Oh yeah, they actually said that they HAD BEEN making a weekly crime map available, but we know that's not the case.

I'd forgive that, if they actually updated the crime map on the website. The term "weekly" is somewhat subjective, since there are seven days in a week, and I don't know which one of the seven marks the beginning or the ending of a weekly cycle for the police. But it's been more than a week, for any one of the days, and there's no new map on the city's website. We haven't forgotten about it.

We had a homicide in the West Ward this week; a family is devastated and a community is left reeling by the senseless murder of 84-year-old Jerry Eure, Sr. Also, the police department was very busy on Sunday with a variety of crimes. But the days leading up to Sunday, as well as the days before Mr. Eure's murder seemed to be quiet. At least nothing was reported in the papers. I suppose it could be that there were no significant crimes on those days — I certainly hope that's the case — but it just strikes me as suspicious, in light of the press conference, the lack of a new map on the city's website, and the reputation that some of our city leaders have as punitive and vindictive.

If I'm missing the boat on this, please let me know. In the meantime, if it was an oversight, I hope the city's crime map will be uploaded soon. Citizens who attend CPAC meetings get to see these maps, but only once a month. And because of work and family commitments, lack of transportation, and health issues, not everyone can attend, nor should they be required to. But the more information that's available to the public makes for better citizens. We need to know about the crime in Trenton, so we can do our part to make our neighborhoods better.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Superlatively Angry

Trentonian reporter/columnist, LA Parker, wrote an article last week about the woes of the city, and concluded that folks in Trenton need to practice safer sex and if we stop procreating so much, we wouldn't need more police officers. Again, I am befuddled by my lack of complete disagreement with Parker. I think he tries WAY too hard to make connections between incongruent issues (like cops and birth control), but I think I understand what he's saying: people need to take more ownership of, and responsibility for their own fate, their own success, and their own happiness. Decent advice, no?

While I don't understand why he needed to talk so much about the police to make his point, I do see it. What I got stuck on, though, was his second paragraph, which happened to be his second sentence, too:
"Since this column is not nationally syndicated (yet), just call me the most angry black man in these 7.5 square miles called Trenton."
My mind went back to grade school grammar lessons, specifically, to the one on superlatives. English is a particularly difficult language to learn, because there are so many exceptions to the rules. For instance, you have the tricky "good/bad" trios: good, better, best; bad, worse, worst. But not all superlatives are irregular, though; sometimes we just add an "-er" or "-est" (or "-ier" or "-iest" to the end of a word, and call it a day. For instance, the tomato pie at X's is tasty. But Y's is tastier, and Z's is the tastiest.

But it still can be tricky. Some words take modifiers like "more/most" or "less/least" in front of them to compare degrees of coolness or lameness. For example: the tomato pie at A's is delicious. At B's, the pie is more delicious, but C has the most delicious tomato pie.

So, LA's proclamation that he is "the most angry black man" in Trenton — the city he does not call home, but does spend considerable time in, as he works here — sounded off to me, especially since just few short words earlier, he used the term "angriest" to describe Malcolm X.

I like the mechanics of language, and I don't mind when writers bend and/or break the rules on occasion, as long as it's obvious they know what they're doing, so I wanted to see if "most angry" was an acceptable use of the phrase, based on Parker's intent. So I looked through my grammar books, my AP Stylebook (and Libel Manual), and surfed the web for answers. While LA may have been better off using the word "angriest," it does seem "most angry" can be appropriate. But I'm not here to defend LA Parker. What started out as a bit of research to prove him wrong, even in a very small way, was more or less unsuccessful, but in the process, I stumbled across something interesting.

When I typed the terms "angriest" and "most angry" into my search engine, Google spat up a result for a Men's Health Magazine article, which ranked the nation's 100 angriest (they used the -est ending) cities in 2006. Absent from that list was Trenton, NJ, though there were other NJ cities that made it.

You can read the whole article here if you want.*

(From most to least angry cities)

1. Orlando, FL
2. St. Petersburg, FL
3. Detroit, MI
4. Baltimore, MD
5. Nashville, TN
6. Wilmington, DE
7. Miami, FL
8. Memphis, TN
9. Jacksonville, FL
10. St. Louis, MO
11. Chicago, IL
12. Tampa, FL
13. Jackson, MS
14. Albuquerque, NM
15. Charlotte, NC
16. Dallas, TX
17. Houston, TX
18. Tucson, AZ
19. Indianapolis, IN
20. Wichita, KS
21. Birmingham, AL
22. Providence, RI
23. Durham , NC
24. Altanta, GA
25. Washington, DC
26. Denver, CO
27. Philadelphia, PA
28. Baton Rouge, LA
29. Fort Worth, TX
30. Phoenix, AZ
31. Lubbock, TX
32. Cleveland, OH
33. Greensboro, NC
34. Cincinnati, OH
35. Arlington, TX
36. Los Angeles, CA
37. Buffalo, NY
38. Grand Rapids, MI
39. Boston, MA
40. Columbia, SC
41. Tulsa, OK
42. Aurora, CO
43. Seattle, WA
44. Sacramento, CA
45. San Diego, CA
46. Montgomery, AL
47. Raleigh, NC
48. Yonkers, NY
49. Oakland, CA
50. Fort Wayne, IN
51. Newark, NJ
52. Las Vegas, NV
53. Columbus, OH
54. St. Paul, MN
55. Charleston, WV
56. Kansas City, MO
57. New York, NY
58. Oklahoma City, OK
59. Toledo, OH
60. San Antonio, TX
61. Riverside, CA
62. Modesto, CA
63. Louisville, KY
64. Honolulu, HI
65. Richmond, VA
66. San Francisco, CA
67. Bakersfield, CA
68. Spokane, WA
69. Milwaukee, WI
70. Jersey City, NJ
71. Lexington, KY
72. Little Rock, AR
73. Lincoln, NE
74. Billings, MT
75. San Jose, CA
76. Hartford, CT
77. Minneapolis, MN
78. Boise, ID
79. Anaheim, CA
80. Norfolk, VA
81. Austin, TX
82. Fremont, CA
83. Fresno, CA
84. Anchorage, AK
85. Cheyenne, WY
86. Rochester, NY
87. Madison, WI
88. Salt Lake City, UT
89. Omaha, NE
90. Pittsburgh, PA
91. Colorado Springs, CO
92. El Paso, TX
93. Sioux Falls, SD
94. Des Moines, IA
95. Burlington, VT
96. Portland, OR
97. Corpus Christi, TX
98. Fargo, ND
99. Bangor, ME
100. Manchester, NH

As I scanned the list, and read the article, a couple of things hit me: Maybe no one in Trenton responded to the Men's Health survey? But more importantly: if people are pissed off in Manchester, New Hampshire, maybe we, as a society, really like the idea of being angry? It made me think of another article I read recently in Utne about anger. I won't be able to do the article justice by trying to sum it up on my blog, so read it. But, the basic gist is that maybe, in the last few decades, as it has become socially acceptable to get in touch with our feelings, we linger at anger; maybe anger is more acceptable to share/express than say, vulnerability? When you're late for work, for instance, it seems more legit to have a story about the idiot who cut you off on the road and then drove really slow (which is just a fact of life, especially here in the northeast), than it is to admit when you looked at yourself in the mirror before you left, you hated what you saw, and it made you go back to your closet and change 20 times.

Anger is complicated. Of all our emotions, it's one of the scariest (in its pure form), and unlike other emotions, does so little to affect change, but it can, sometimes. Sometimes anger helps us find answers and become stronger in the face of a bully. But more often, anger alienates friends and loved ones, embitters our spirit, and erodes our dignity. And so, after my curiosity about grammar morphed into a curiosity about the psychology of anger, I wonder — without judgment and jokes — why LA Parker is, or would want to be, the angriest (or most angry) black man in Trenton? I know he'd like to see improvements, particularly among the black community, but I wonder if "most angry" is what he needs to be, when there is already enough unwarranted, reactionary anger, thanks to so-called "respect" or lack thereof. Here, in Trenton, anger gets people shot in alleys and on their porches and in their cars. I don't have the answers to this mess that young, black kids are in today. I'm sure it's part of a horrific cycle that started with slavery, and found its way through cultural alienation, which fed addictions and crime. These young kids come from a long line of people who were pushed to and kept at the fringes of society, who were told over and over that they didn't count, and they didn't matter, and that now it is manifest in these kids: they believe it. They hate themselves, and so they kill each other. No one else seems to care, so why should they? But having some insight as to why this might be happening doesn't provide any answers, it doesn't make the streets safer, it doesn't save lives. So, mostly, it makes me sad, and sad doesn't help anything either.

I think what might make people angry is that we'd like to believe that we have control over our lives (especially at this particular time in human history with the advances in technology and medicine and communication and philosophy, etc.), and that we have the ability to influence others. But we don't. We can make certain decisions that take us down one path or another, and usually things do go more less according to plan. But sometimes, they don't, for a whole variety of reasons that don't make sense and/or are totally random. It is easier to express our anger at the brutal chaos and our impotence to change it, than it is to accept it; it is easier for us to act out in anger, than it is to pick up what we have left and cherish it.

Human nature is messy, and at times, angry. And sometimes we need to be royally pissed off; but more often, we don't. Unfortunately, right now, it's really cool to be angry, which is quite possibly the root of many of our problems. Hopefully, over time, we'll begin to focus on why we're angry (fear, vulnerability, lack of hope, etc.), and maybe that will help us more productively solve our problems. Maybe. I really don't know.

* If you go to the Men's Health page, you'll see there's also a link for an article about stupid cities: 1 being the most intelligent (based on number of universities, number of college degrees per capita, creativity scores, etc.) and 100 being the stupidest. Trenton is also absent from this list, which is kind of distressing: we are too stupid to make it into not one, but TWO Men's Health surveys. Newark made it to both lists, though. It was #97 in the list of Stupidest Cities, with a big ole F, which is pretty lame, but not as lame, I guess, as not even making it into the Top 100. I wonder if Newark Mayor Cory Booker demanded an apology? After all, he made Barry Melrose, an awesomely mulleted hockey announcer, apologize for his comments about the area of Newark just outside the new Devil's arena (Melrose said, "Don't go outside if you have a wallet or anything else, because the area around the arena is just horrible," WHICH IS TRUE. Get a grip, Booker. This is New Freakin' Jersey, and we're dangerous. We may not like it, but we can admit it, for crying out loud. The only reason Melrose apologized to you is because he's Canadian, and Canadians apologize. It's what they do, even though they have nothing for which to be sorry. Read more about Cory Booker being a big baby over at The Bald, The Fat, and The Angry.)

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Shots Fired

I was interested to hear the details of the news conference yesterday in the basement of the police department. Officials were responding to Trentonian writer, Jack Knarr's Tuesday story about how the police department is under-reporting crime in the city. Those of us living in the city suspect this may be true. I personally suspect it's true: I put together a weekly map of violent crime, only using what's been reported to the papers, and on occasion, I will include credible tips from the community. When I see more crimes from my window than I do reported in the paper, I know something's terribly wrong.

It seems particularly hateful for a Johnny-Come-Lately like me to keep track of crime in this city, especially when officials claim "Crime is Down," but unlike the mayor and the police director, I actually LIVE in this city — with no regrets, mind you. Sure, overall, in the world, considering how many people now live on this planet, I do think perhaps crime is down, statistically, in the world. There are lawless pockets of our globe, and there are some ugly wars going on, but I think we live in a friendlier, more intelligent, more aware, more responsible world than folks of generations past. But looking at Trenton from an outsider's point-of-view, Trenton looks like a failed state: The population of Trenton has decreased. People have moved away. The birth rates are down. Services are not always provided. There's been a sharp economic decline. The surrounding municipalities have stepped up patrols on our borders. Our elected representatives have not been representing us, but rather, providing the rubber stamp of approval for a self-serving mayor who thinks he's above the law. And given our size and population, crime is NOT down.*

The picture I just painted of Trenton seems bleak, but I know that nothing is given, nothing is permanent. I enjoy a bit of risk, and I dunno, life in the suburbs seems so sterile and empty. There should be more to life than that. So, regarding Trenton, things can change for the better; and I feel that good people here far outweigh the bad ones. We have a rich and colorful history; we're well-situated geographically; and I hope, I hope, I hope there's no where to go but up. But moving up requires honest, respectful assessment of our woes, and crime is one of our biggest. I work on the crime map because, in my opinion, an informed populace is a strong one. Information helps us to be more aware of our surroundings. Information encourages us to speak to one another, and hopefully EVERYONE knows we're talking; everyone being the officials who are keeping us in the dark, as well as the criminals who commit their deviant acts in our neighborhoods. It gives us fuel to speak in unison, and a whole bunch of voices saying the same thing are hard to ignore.

So. The news conference. Apparently all of us in the city — residents and newspaper reporters alike — have somehow missed the fact that the police have been posting their crime map to the city's website. I've spent A LOT of time poking around the city's somewhat counterintuitive site, and have never seen the crime map before, and I don't believe it has ever been posted before, hm, maybe yesterday. It's apparent that this city isn't super web-savvy. And, for the record, the city's website was down all weekend, because, it seemed, the city failed to renew the registration. Anyway, I was interested to see this week's police-issue crime map; it looks similar to ones I have seen, on occasion, at my CPAC meetings (East Side, yo). My first reaction was, "Whew, I'm glad the cops are releasing this stuff now, because it takes me hours to make my own, and I'd rather be doing other things."

Here's the city's map for this past week (click to enlarge, if you'd like).

Here's my map for this past week (again, click to enlarge, if you'd like).

This map is also available on the Trenton's Crime Stopper page, the Villa Park Civic Association's website,
and the Trenton Speaks Forum (in the "Police Blotter" folder).
I also deliver it via email on Monday nights. If you'd like to sign up for the list, please email me.

Remember, I'm getting my details from the paper, and I'm only tracking the physically violent crimes, that is, the crimes against other humans, not property crimes. It doesn't appear the city tracks everything, but it tracks non-violent stuff like burglaries, which is good. I wouldn't have minded tracking burglaries, too, but there's almost nothing in the papers about them, and I'm more concerned about safety.

But as I compared the two maps, my sense of relief turned to angst. We knew last week was a busy week for criminals. I marked 11 violent acts on my map, which is more than usual. I wasn't overly meticulous when counting the little icons on the city's map, and counted over 20 violent acts, including a sexual assault. A lot of the reporters at the city's papers have been on autopilot for a long time -- and some of it isn't their fault, as the industry changes, and their employers stop supplying basic tools like writing implements -- but I KNOW that if that sexual assault, and aggravated assaults, and robberies were reported to the press, those stories would have appeared in print. The lack of forthcoming on the part of the top brass at the police department and city puts us all at risk. It's deplorable.

It also seems the police didn't map the two shootings on Klag Avenue, and one of the many "events" over in the warzone that is Hoffman/Oakland/Edgemere/Stuyvesant/Hermitage (possibly the 11/3 "shots fired" where police recovered a shotgun?). Why?

From more technical standpoint, there are no specifics on the city's map either. The specifics are what takes me so long, and I feel it's critical. Everything is in the details. I'm a woman, so I'm thinking about that unreported sexual assault that took place over near S. Broad and Dye streets. There are no details. Did a woman get raped? A child molested? Was it a family member attacking another family member, or did someone get assaulted by a stranger on the way home from the train station? When did it happen? Some information would be helpful.

Yeah, it's scary stuff, but we're adults, and we can handle it. We're here because we're committed to the city. Since I've lived here, I've been very pleased with the officers I've met in meetings, and on the street. I hope the police department continues to make these maps available to the public; I hope they're expanded to include details. I'm hoping the community and the police can work more closely in the future, and that the community begins to toughen up on its own against criminals. There are plenty of non-police solutions to some of our crime, but having all of the information would certainly help.

* I just want to say, as much as I wish it were true, I detest hearing the crime is down mantra. I can only speak for myself: I am a logical, level-headed individual. I don't make stuff up. I don't overreact. Many people in this city share those characteristics. We are a good bunch of people. So, in my mind, there is only one translation for the "Crime is down, Crime is down, Crime is down" chant coming out of the mouths of officials. You have really been saying, "We don't care about your opinion. You are insignificant. You don't matter." That is appalling.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Butter Tarts,
from my residence in Trenton

So much interesting news today in Trenton – Election Day – and while I'd love to weigh-in, I'd only be echoing what my fellow bloggers have written, so I'll leave it with this: I like change, and hope Trenton sees some soon; our leaders have tried (and probably will continue to try) to marginalize us into silence, and I'm hoping to see some improvements.

On a more personal note, on Sunday night, Glen whipped up 5 dozen Butter Tarts for his Monday Night Hockey Buddies. We decided to document the preparation process so we could share his Tarts with the community, if only in the smallest and/or most torturous way. They are all completely raisin-free! And the Hockey Buddies loved them, and who can blame them? (Note: click on any picture to enlarge to show texture; it will increase the Butter Tart Drool Factor, though.)

Canadian Tart Shells are ready for a fill.

Glen's vintage MixMaster has been busy!

Getting filled up...

An army of Butter Tarts awaits the oven.

How awesome does THAT look?

The feeding frenzy awaits...

I had hopes when I set out with this blog to keep a Trenton spin on things, and I realize sharing photos about Glen's Butter Tarts is a stretch, especially since not a single ingredient for these tarts came from Trenton: the shells were imported from Canada, and the other ingredients came from one of those big boxy warehouse stores. I'm not proud of that. But when one bakes tarts as often as Glen does, one can use a bulk bargain every now and then. He went through a bedroom pillow's worth of brown sugar in the matter of minutes, for crying out loud! But it's worth it. So, to maintain the Trenton angle, I want to remind you these were baked in our Trenton domicile, where we spend the bulk of our time, without any kind of ordinance mandating that we do so. Imagine that! Living in Trenton without legislation requiring it!

I like to write about food periodically because I like food a lot; and for awhile, we had the bounty of the summer, in which we were able to prepare and eat foodstuffs grown in our Trenton backyard, thus giving me something else about Trenton to blather on about: the soil here is some of the best in the county (do city officials think I'm a hater for praising our soil?). Now is a great time to split your perennials, fertilize your lawn (if you have one), plant new trees, and amend and correct the pH of your soil (have a soil test run through Rutgers/Mercer County Extension; it's cheap and helpful) by adding organic materials so you can grow great produce next year.
[Blogger's note to my fellow Trenton bloggers, and anyone else really: I have discovered in recent weeks that food content increases blog readership. It's certainly not why I do it, since I didn't even make the connection until yesterday. I just love food. And I love sitemeter, too. Don't you? I got a lot of hits on a cucumber soup recipe I posted when my garden was producing tons of cukes. I also get surprising traffic thanks to the Google search term "Mike-Holmes-Shirtless." You may recall, I droned on some weeks ago about how cool it would be if Canadian renovation man, Mike Holmes (who happens to look nice without a shirt), came to Trenton to help fix things up. By the way, I think Mike has gotten too big for his Carhartt overalls, though he still looks good in them, and even though his ego has grown, his heart is still in the right place (in that shirtless chest), and certainly couldn't hurt if he came to Trenton to renovate.]
Speaking of produce, we found one lone jalapeño growing in what's left of our garden, over the weekend. Glen picked it, and requested that we use it in a meal. Jalapeños are so versatile, but what does one do with ONE? I evaluated the contents of the fridge and kept focusing on a mostly intact, fresh head of celery, hating myself for buying celery and consuming only a few stalks before it turns into a smelly, slimy, blackish-brown glop. I couldn't let it happen again. It's finally getting cold, which gives me a legitimate excuse to make soup, so I did what I always do: I sautéed the vegetables, in this case, the celery, chopped up; added garlic, some salt and pepper, and the solitary jalapeño, and then puréed everything in the blender. I added chicken broth and milk until I liked the consistency, and put the mixture back on the stove to simmer. I didn't really know what to expect, since I didn't follow a recipe. But Glen really liked this off-the-cuff creamy celery soup – he's a vocal guy, and doesn't mince words when he doesn't like something (you may recall my post last week about Glen's assumptions and opinions about food). He liked it so much, that he's excited we'll be having some more with dinner tonight, along with some pot pie I made as well, which isn't really true pot pie; the qualities that make a pot pie officially a pot pie are discussed on my friend Bill's (formerly of Trenton) blog. But it's still pretty damn tasty, and was made right here in my kitchen in Trenton, NJ, a kitchen in which I happily spend a lot of time (without police protection!), unlike some other "residents" of Trenton who live, in say, Sterling, or Stockton, NJ.*

Current mood: : Annoyed with Angus, the cat who came with the house. He's grooming his genitalia while leaning against Glen's keyboard. My restored music is playing on Glen's computer, and the space button, which keeps getting pressed, pauses and starts the music. He is also randomly hitting the down arrow keys, which cause songs to skip. And then pause when he hits the space bar again.

* Not that there's anything wrong with owning multiple homes, or commuting to a different municipality to work. But isn't the whole point of being an elected official in a municipality about civic pride? You run for office in your own town, and if you win, you govern and help improve your own town, and you go home at night, to your own home in that town, content in knowing that you have done what you feel is best for your own town. Isn't that supposed to be how it works?

Monday, November 5, 2007

Just wondering...

Check out other vintage Mercer County postcards here.

If the Trenton school board decides* to tear down the landmark Trenton Central High School, at its November 26th meeting, how long will it be before a new high school crumbles into the ground? The existing high school is in rough shape, but was made well. Generally speaking, new construction just does not compare to the stuff built 75-100 years ago. If the school board says it can't find enough money to renovate the high school, how will it find the dough to provide for the maintenance needs of a new building?

Please renovate.

* Since the school board members are appointed by the mayor, is the board really autonomous? Can it make its own decisions?

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Aaron, the Photographer

My sister, two of her young children, and I jumped in the car and headed to Denville, NJ, to visit with my grandmother, 89, recently. She has a small space, and my nephew, Aaron, 6, may have been a bit fatigued from the long drive, and felt particularly bored when we arrived at Nana's place. He was pacing about, wondering when the excitement would begin, unaware of the rules when visiting with grandmothers and great-grandmothers.

I offered my camera – which, I know is crazy. Aaron is 6, and the camera is pretty flipping sweet. Not that Aaron isn't pretty flippin' sweet. You know what I mean. It's nuts, to hand over a piece of expensive equipment to a bored child, I know, but I trust him. He's careful. So far. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

So this will be a reasonably short post. We had a very nice visit, and Aaron took 322 pictures (thank goodness we've entered the digital age, no?), mostly of light switches and knick-knacks around my grandmother's place. He also did a series of everyone's feet, including his own. I'm not going to post mine, even though I was wearing sandals and I'm proud that my toenails were nicely trimmed: my feet, completely unbeknownst to me, were really dry.

Nana's feet
(please don't tell her about this picture)

Aaron's foot

Aaron, impressed with his photo essay on feet, which he could see taking shape on the view panel on the back of the camera, decided he wanted to do noses next. This did not fly, since a 6-year-old jamming a camera in your face is far more intrusive than a 6-year-old crawling around on the floor with a camera taking pictures of feet. Even though permission was denied for his second clever photo essay, he asked me to take a picture of his nose. It's amazing how much hair a 6-year-old has jammed up there.

Aaron's nose
(If you really want to see the hairs in fine detail, click the picture to enlarge.)

Maybe he'll get to finish the nose essay sometime during the month. I'm sure you can't wait to hear about it.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Buzz & Hum

I was listening to an interview yesterday with a man named Toby Lester, a contributing editor at Atlantic Monthly, who mapped all of the ambient sounds in his world: the buzz of the fridge, the fan inside the computer, the dial tone of the phone, and so forth. He figured out the exact pitch of each sound, so that he could determine what chords were constantly playing in his background. He did this in different locations around his home and office, and discovered that while some of the chords created by these background hums and buzzes are pleasing major triads, others were minor, and some were augmented; basically, to the human ear, those chords are typically interpreted as "sad," and/or "distressing."

That's incredibly nerdy, and yet, really interesting, too, given how we humans respond to sounds around us. I imagine some sounds -- the cry of a baby, the howl of an animal, the crackle of fire, for instance -- create the same basic set of responses in each of us, because of the shared stuff that's written in our DNA. The desire to create, or at least listen to, music must also have its roots in our DNA, since humans do it so well. While there must be some slight variation in human interpretation of different chords in music, it's pretty safe to say that ultimately, some songs sound sad, others sound triumphant, and others are so incredibly dissonant we just want to turn them off; music is the stuff of emotions, and that's pretty universal stuff.

If I heard the interview correctly, other than Lester's mapping of the sounds in his world, it doesn't seem that there's been any formal scientific study in the area of what these "ambient chords" are doing to our moods. So, what if you're in factory with an ambient major chord playing in the background, and the thump-thump-thump of the machinery provides a nice rhythmic companion to that happy sound? Or, what if -- gasp -- you're stuck in an office with a background chord with an augmented fourth? Do these sounds, when "positive," contribute to productivity, or when "negative," do they exacerbate a hostile work environment? It seems totally plausible, doesn't it? Pause for a minute and take a listen to the sound your computer is making; your HVAC unit; your fridge, microwave, fluorescent lighting. Listen to them together. How does it sound?

{take a minute to listen!}

To give this a Trenton spin, it makes me wonder what sorts of ambient sounds (underneath the noise pollution!) are present in the different offices around the city. Off the bat, I'd reckon that there must be terrible background chords in the various offices around town, given the level of crankiness, and general unresponsiveness. There are two well-known city officials that I keep thinking about, with regard to their ambient noise. Is Mayor Palmer in an office with a buzzing light and a hissing heater and a whistle outside his window that's creating a mixed-message chord that's making him feel so exuberantly egotistical that he doesn't have to listen to anyone else, all the while prodding him to get the hell out of the city each night?

Also, I can't stop thinking about the ambient noise surrounding Captain Paul Messina. I've heard that the Captain wasn't always the way he is, that is, hmmm, newsworthy, that he's become more newsworthy over the years. Maybe a move to a new office or cubicle brought about a relaxing chord that made him sleepy. Maybe if Captain Messina is in a different place or on a different shift there are different appliances/equipment running that might produce chords that agitate and/or enrage him. I'm not saying that anguishing and/or relaxing chords are the reason why things are the way they are over at the police department, but it's something to think about, isn't it?

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Dia de los Muertos

La Ofrenda

I get paid for working at my computer, from home, which is awesome because I don't have to deal with annoying coworkers who hang out by my desk for way too long, whether or not I have work to do, and I don't miss the smelly coworkers (I've had some), or the troubling office politics. But it gets lonely sometimes, and, more importantly, the boundaries between work and play are often blurred, and the result is way too many hours in front of my computer. This includes time spent blogging, which is simultaneously never enough, and entirely too much.

Because I work from home, I have a lot of computer gear, including two large (gigabytage, not square footage) external hard drives. One of them, dubbed the "Penalty Box" by Glen, died the same day my dog, Lacey did, and as such, only registered in my brain as annoying background noise.

So, as I settle into my new Lacey-less routine (which is difficult: I expect her to get underfoot when Glen hits the truck alarm, and I wonder why — if only for a split second, every damn night — why she hasn't come for dinner, or come to bed, that sort of thing, except that sort of thing happens about every 20 minutes of every day. It's hard to retrain your heart and synapses after fifteen years of habit and friendship), I've thought about the contents of that particular hard drive, and initially, it didn't seem to be such a big deal because I thought I only had a zillion or so of my fonts stored on that drive. For reasons too mundane to document, I had copied all one zillion of the fonts to my internal drive about a month ago. So, when the Penalty Box crapped out, I figured "annoying, but no big whoop."

A few days later, I realized, oopsie, it was big whoop, when I thought about updating my iPod. The Penalty Box stored all of our music and videos. I wanted to vomit. Glen wondered why I had turned green. He said, "We can just re-rip our CDs, right?"

"Uh. No," I said. "Remember back in May when I decided it would be a good idea to sell all of the CDs on eBay for some extra dough?"*

"[Expletive deleted]," he said.

"I know," I said.

"You didn't sell ALL of the CDs, did you?"

"No, we had a couple of non-paying bidders, and some didn't even sell."

He went to look at the box and discovered what I already knew was true: it contained, for the most part, only the promotional CDs he received while working for Sony. Stuff like Greatest Hits of 1972, and Greatest Hits of 1973, and Greatest Hits of 1974, and so on, right up through Greatest Hits of 1986.**

I wasn't a big fan of the greatest hits of any of those years, and I hated them even more since they potentially represented all that was left of our vast music library.

Years ago, I had — despite my background in other areas — landed a job at MicroWarehouse, Inc. in Lakewood, NJ, as a member of their technical support team. I don't mean to toot my own horn, but I was good at that job. Really good at it. I had a knack of troubleshooting computer problems, and that's haunted me ever since, because now some people (I'm not naming names), continue to call to ask me for advice, when really, all they need to do is a) not give up so quickly; b) listen better, because they generally call me about the same damn issue over and over and freakin' over again; and c) maybe realize that they are incompatible with life with a computer, and should stick to, instead, pen and paper.

I have resurrected my share of dead hard drives before, so I thought I could fix the Penalty Box. But before I even got started, I had a sinking suspicion I'd fail: I could hear that the drive inside was just not spinning. I did attempt a few things, just to see. I connected it to different computers (we have several), I used a few software-based utilities to try to recover the contents. But alas, mechanical failures don't lend themselves to software-based remedies. Computer technology has changed so much since my MW days, and I just didn't feel comfortable cracking open the case and performing surgery. Although, we might yet. But not yet.

After several resurrection techniques failed, Glen, the expert researcher, came back with a couple of ideas:

1) Freezing the hard drive...yes, in the freezer.
2) Forcing the iPod to mount as an external drive.

Both techniques are outside of my geeky comfort level, but I enjoy a bit of risk, periodically. The risks associated with freezing the drive seemed too dire: I cannot get my brain around how this works, but geeks the world over swear by it. But, from what we read, it only breathes about a half an hour's worth of life back into the drive (sounds like a TV show that was introduced this season), and that wouldn't be enough time to copy our music library. Too scary.

Forcing the iPod to mount as an external drive seemed sensible, for sure, but it's far trickier than it sounds, since Apple has the iPod coded up the wazoo, so that it doesn't mount in any traditional sense at all, not without some programming. And plus, the software on the computer, associated with the iPod, automatically grabs hold of the iPod, and will — unless this and that are checked in the preferences — erase its contents, and update it with the music library on the computer. And in my case, that library contains only the ghosts of songs. And since I had honest-to-goodness real songs on the Pod, I had to be careful about hooking it up to the computer.

So, everything had to be just right, AND I had to learn a bit of unix coding to force my computer to show the "invisible files" (which are PROLIFIC and EVERYWHERE).

Long story short, as much as I may curse my computer for taking over my life, my addiction paid off: my music library has been restored.***

Today is Dia de los Muertos; a joyful Mexican holiday, in which the souls of our deceased loved ones visit with us. I would gladly trade my music library, in return for their ability to stay. But I suppose that's not possible.


* I love eBay, and have sold a lot of different stuff. We had a lot of CDs taking up valuable space, and since we added an iPod to our family of electronics, and I had a back-up of everything on the Penalty Box, I figured it was okay to let the CDs go. Aside from not making another back-up of all of our music, selling the CDs on eBay was overall, irritating. I did wind up making a couple hundred bucks, which doesn't come close to what we invested in the CDs, but I'm okay with that. More importantly, a couple hundred bucks didn't come close to paying for our time to get every single friggin' CD mailed out to all the winning bidders. I tried to be optimistic, figuring the positive feedback would be a good thing, but learned that people buying cheap CDs on eBay leave feedback a lot less often regularly than people buying something far more obscure.

** If you want any of these CDs, let me know.

*** There were a few more steps involved, but I didn't want to go full-on geek. If you find yourself in this unfortunate situation, send me an email.