An Annual Analysis

2010 was the year I threw everything at the wall. As much as I enjoy writing for periodicals, there is a tedium that accompanies repetition and so this past year I determined to widen my focus scripturally. I finished and shopped a novel; wrote not one but four installments in an episodic series of fiction shorts I began in the mid-90s; became communications director for Keep Food Legal; and scored a deal for a nonfiction book.

The novel has elicited zero interest, although I did sell one of the short stories. The nonprofit position requires very little responsibility, which is why I’m the ideal candidate. And the book, a biography of a man who was arguably the most successful privateer during the American Revolution, is well underway. Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer will appear on shelves this summer.

I was pleasantly surprised to see traffic here grow by more than 500 percent over 2009. Thank you — I appreciate your stopping by to visit my strange hodgepodge of local reporting, personal commentary, archaeology news, travel advice, and book reviews. Also, a big “Hallo!” to my Dutch readers, “Ni hao!” to the Chinese government (please don’t hack me), and “Pryvet!” to all of you Russian spambots. Happy new year.

Surviving Disney

Because you can drag your kids to only so many science museums and historical sites before they just want to plummet down a water slide, our family recently spent a week at Walt Disney World. My folks took me there twice as a child, yet I enjoy it so much more as a parent. There’s lots to do because — and this is something its detractors never seem to understand — Disney World is a giant playground. As an obsessive-compulsive, I also admire the verisimilitude of, say, a centuries-old facade fashioned from concrete and fiberglass; and logistically, WDW is much, much less taxing than taking children to a city like New York or Philadelphia or Boston. Enjoyable as those places are, I feel the tension easing from my shoulders more so in Orlando.

Nevertheless, Walt Disney World presents one dire peril that must be endured.

The food.

WDW is well-known for serving atrocious slop, particularly at the Magic Kingdom. Disney has responded by including more unfried foods (like wraps) to the menus of the counter-service eateries. And, perhaps to bump up the average, they’ve also added more fine-dining experiences to the parks, but these are useless unless you make reservations at least six or even twelve months ahead of time. Le Cellier may be terrific but I wouldn’t know — like a lot of people, I’ve never passed through its doors.

Having suffered on previous sojourns, this trip I blazed a bold strategy for eating, which, like Arne Saknussemm, I now share with anyone intrepid enough to follow us.

Continue reading “Surviving Disney”

Getting Your 18th Century On

Living in coastal New England is to be surrounded every moment by the architectural and geographic echoes of the colonial era. This year, the family and I took it further by tripping back to the 18th century with several historical vacations. What follows are some tips if you’re planning your own getaway.

Colonial Williamsburg is the Jerusalem for pilgrims of Revolutionary history. The foundation prints weekly calendars, available in the hotel lobbies, chock full of events and presentations. Whatever you do, don’t miss the Public Audience with a Founding Father, which usually occurs at 10 AM Tuesday through Thursday behind the Governor’s Palace. The depth and context provided by the actors (portraying Washington, Jefferson, and Patrick Henry) is amazing.

The website says reservations are required at all of the taverns, though we had no problem being seated at 11 AM at any of the three serving lunch. The food at all of them is fine, though I was partial to Shields Tavern. We found it impossible to get into Christiana Campbell’s without a reservation; you may want to book well ahead of time (like, several weeks ahead of time). I also strongly recommend the Blue Talon just beyond the colonial area. I had the curried goat special washed down with burnt-sugar ice cream and a glass of Calvados.

We stayed at the Williamsburg Woodlands Hotel just north of the historic area, and strolling under the bowers and past the frog pond on your way to 1775 is a pleasant way to begin the morning. There is a serious drawback: the only bar on the premises is a rinky-dink restaurant that’s closed more than it’s open, which nearly gave me a case of the DTs. If you too drink like a Founding Father, you may want stay closer to the taverns or Merchant’s Square.

What’s fantastic about Strawbery Banke is that it isn’t frozen in one period. Rather it shows the Portsmouth, New Hampshire neighborhood of Puddle Dock throughout its lifetime, from 17th-century settlement to 20th-century slum. The Shapley-Drisco House is a duplex with one side depicting a 1790s general store and the other a 1950s family home, complete with flickering television set and ash trays aplenty. Another building is furnished as a World War II-era grocery, ration lists posted on the wall. Kids should check out ye olde toys and games in the Jones House.

There’s only one restaurant on the premises plus a summertime ice cream shop, but being in the heart of Portsmouth means you don’t have to go far for great food. For breakfast, run — do not walk — to The Friendly Toast on Congress Street and order the pumpkin pancakes with Raisinets. For lunch I recommend RiRa Irish Pub in Market Square. History buffs may also want to visit the home of Declaration signatory William Whipple on Market Street.

And because our family just can’t get enough tricornes and sedition, we stopped at Old Sturbridge Village on our way home from Portsmouth. Whereas Colonial Williamsburg excels at recreating the climate of the Revolution, OSV complements it by exhibiting what folks did when they weren’t loitering in the colonial capitals debating taxes and insurrection. The working sawmill — slowly but persistently cutting a tree into planks with every turn of the water wheel — fascinates me. There’s also a cidery, a print shop, a shoe shop, and more.

When I was a kid, my family made a point of eating at the nearby Publick House whenever we passed through, a tradition that continues with my own peeps. The Oliver Wight Tavern, located at the entrance to OSV, is very good as well. The massive gift and bookstore adjacent to the restaurant always sucks us in for at least half an hour.

As the Marquis de Lafayette might have said, Bon voyage et bon chance.

Jackson Don’t Surf!

The WSJ on “the fitness rage of the summer:”

In lakes, rivers and bays where the surf is never up, Americans in skyrocketing numbers are standing on boards and paddling, a balancing act that strengthens the muscles of the legs, buttocks, back, shoulders and arms.

“Stand-up paddle surfing is a valuable new form of cross-training, in part because it’s so low impact,” says Cindi Bannink, a triathlon coach in Madison, Wis.

For an industry long dependent on California and Hawaii, the trend is rapidly forging new sales territories. “Suddenly, our fastest-growing markets are places like Chicago, Boise and Austin, Texas,” says Ty Zulim, sales manager for Surftech International, a surf-board maker and distributor based in Santa Cruz, Calif.

For years I dithered over buying a canoe or kayak until finally, this past May, I pulled the trigger on something else entirely: a Versa Board.

The manufacturer, LiquidLogic, advertises the Versa Board as a hybrid kayak/paddle board, though it might be more accurate to describe it as a stand-up kayak. It’s hollow and made of polyethylene, just like a sit-on-top kayak, with more of a prow and keel than a surfboard. It also has a retractable skeg to help you maintain a straighter course and avoid fishtailing. But it’s also much flatter than most SOTs with barely any gunwales.

Regardless, the end result is stand-up paddle surfing — and I love both the Versa and the sport.

My indecision over whether to buy a canoe or kayak hinged on several factors. I wanted a vessel light enough to port without the help of another adult but also large enough to accommodate my two peeps, each of whom weighs about 50 lbs. I also wanted something that would be equally at home in the salt marshes and creeks near my house and off the beach in Long Island Sound. I’ve done canoeing and kayaking, often in salt marshes, and enjoy them equally. Canoes can accommodate people and gear, but are notoriously susceptible to waves and difficult to re-enter (or even launch) in swell. They’re also awkward to move about on land alone. Kayaks are a better option for my conditions, but are limited in the number of riders who can hop aboard. My best choice for a kayak was to buy a two-person SOT and then try and squeeze my extra son onboard. But I hesitated, unsatisfied.

Then, back in the spring, I was at the beach when a young couple appeared, walked down to the water, launched a pair of paddle boards, and proceeded to serenely paddle across the cove. The third option struck me.

SUP is a phenomenal workout for arms and shoulders but especially the core. As the trainer above notes, it’s very low impact — you’re so distracted by the scenery and getting to where you’re going that you don’t realize until the next morning how sore your muscles are. It’s easy on the back too, unlike kayaking. Whereas in a kayak all power comes from arms, shoulders, and back, on a paddle board the torque of the stroke is diffused throughout the body, easing the strain. And, again, it’s the best core workout I’ve ever experienced. I’ve always had a weak middle without any definition to my abdominals. That’s changing.

Paddle boarding can be tricky. Offshore, you need a good pair of sea legs, and I’ve had several rough moments when the chop has swamped my Versa. The toughest is when the swell hits on the beam, as is often the case when I’m paralleling the beach — and this in the relative calm of the Sound. The Versa is perfect for my needs, but if you intend to spend most of your time on open water and you’re not packing 50 lbs. of chicken nuggets and chocolate milk fore and aft, you may want to buy a more traditional board. It’s instructive that the photo accompanying the Journal story shows Laird Hamilton and his daughter paddling on a river, not offshore. Ditto for Gerry Lopez in this New York Times article.

Paddle boarding is receiving crazy amounts of media attention these days. It deserves it. If you’re on the outside looking in, go get yourself a board and paddle. The water’s great.

FDA Asks the Questions We Already Know the Answers To

Even with a scheduled appointment to give blood today, I still had to wait over a half an hour just to begin the interview process, which itself takes another 15-20 minutes. Ridiculous, I thought. What’s the point of having a bar-coded donor card if me and other regular donors still have to answer the same 40+ questions about our entire histories? Why waste so much time when they know the answers I’ve given every previous visit? It’s not like the hot-tub time machine has whisked me to sub-Saharan Africa for tattoos, prostitute sex, and dura mater transplants. Why not confine their queries to the past 12 months and get to the leeching?

“Because the FDA is retarded,” said the phlebotomist. That’s a direct quote.

According to her, the FDA requires the Red Cross to ask the same questions every time you donate even though they also order them to keep a database of donors containing your answers. The phlebotomist said she had likewise challenged the repetitive questionnaire during her training courses, but the FDA demands that everyone who walks through the door be treated as if he or she is a first-time donor. That’s why the process takes so long.

I Never Donate… Wine

Bela Lugosi's dead.A group of Democratic senators, led by John Kerry, are requesting the FDA overturn their lifetime ban on accepting blood donations from gay men. The ban was established in 1983 to prevent the spread of HIV infection through the blood supply. The FDA states the ban also prevents the spread of hepatitis as gay men have a higher rate of infection than the general population.

One website commented on the matter, “If you’re gay, you can’t donate blood. It’s illegal.”

Technically, no. The act of donating blood while gay is not illegal. What is illegal is for the donation center to knowingly accept blood from donors who meet certain criteria issued by the FDA. From the FDA website:

FDA requires blood centers to maintain lists of unsuitable donors to prevent the use of collections from them.

This may be splitting hairs, but if the act of donating or attempting donation was criminal, local jails would be bursting not only with gay men but with many other altruistic offenders as well.

I’m O negative, the universal donor, so my blood is a hot commodity — so valuable I have to give it away for free! — and I donate fairly regularly because that’s how my species reproduces. When you donate, you first have to answer a lengthy and tedious verbal questionnaire not only about sexual behavior, drug use, blood transfusions, tattoos, piercings, and hepatitis, but also about brain-membrane transplants, living and eating meat in the British Isles (worries about mad-cow and Creutzfeldt-Jakob diseases), travels in Africa, Lyme disease, and — most terrifying of all — Babesiosis, which one phlebotomist/Countess Bathory described to me as a “super Lyme disease” prevalent in southern New England. Answering yes to some of these questions may result in temporary deferrals from donating; others will ban you permanently. None will result in arrest. The worst that could happen is if you lied and then perjured yourself by signing the paperwork.

Also according to the FDA, the questionnaire filters out “approximately 90 percent of unsuitable donors,” though of course only a portion of them actually have dirty blood. The FDA is discriminating against whole swaths of people based on their experiences, not just gay men. This suggests to me the nation’s blood supply isn’t in dire straits as we are sometimes led to believe.

As a universal donor, you can see how my blood is doubly desirable because of my wholesome clean living. I’ve never gotten a tattoo, never banged another dude, never traveled in sub-Saharan Africa, never lived abroad…

Jeez, my life is really boring.