Book Report: Wild

Wild-Book-Cover-Reese-WitherspoonSo my book club finished with this memoir over 2 months ago. And I read it along with them, after picking it up in an airport shop. (I know, how much more cliche could I get?) But despite the enormous amount of time it took me to finish Wild, and the lag time between then and now, it still resonates with me, which I think really says something about how good it is.

If you haven’t seen the Reese Witherspoon movie version (and I haven’t), the general story is this: Girl loses mom. Girl loses husband. Girl starts on a self-destructive spiral. Girl randomly decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, thousands of miles from the California desert up through the rainy Northwest. Girl faces numerous “are you kidding me?” obstacles and cheats death multiple times. And as you’d guess, girl discovers along the way why she is making this journey, and where it will lead her.

I didn’t want to get too specific because there are so many gems of moments and vignettes along the way. What I can expound upon is the quality of the writing. Since Hollywood had co-opted the book, I figured it was probably just pulp nonfiction. So I was amazed by how well-crafted it is—not just the storytelling, though that is excellent too (save for the ending, which felt rather flaccid and tacked-on to me). It’s just as much the words Cheryl Strayed chooses, and the way she weaves them into a splendid tapestry. I really respected her as a writer, and part of the reason I dragged my feet (no pun intended) was that I truly didn’t want the book to end.

Lots of things in life are like that. But sometimes they slip away, despite our best efforts. And we struggle to make what meaning we can of them.

Not all of us are going to hike a long and unforgiving trail to find our path in life. But we change, and we can all benefit, every now and then, from time away from our reality and our obligations. So yes, Blog 5B is going on hiatus. (What, you mean it wasn’t already on hiatus, given the ridic length of time between posts?) But I may jump back on the trail again, when I feel ready and if I have something worth saying. If I do, I hope to share the walk with you again.

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… and I feel (not quite) fine

I don’t know what spirits comprise the end of the world. But I do know what it tastes like.  And that is, surprisingly sweet and pretty for such desolation.

Yesterday, two of us summer babies who went to college together met up in Baltimore for lunch. After strolling the Inner Harbor and shooting down all the noisy, crowded chain places, we ended up at Family Meal, a smart restaurant apparently helmed by a “Top Chef” alum. For having that kind of pedigree and quality, the prices were pretty respectable.

This being summer Restaurant Week in Baltimore, there were deals galore. I enjoyed a supple gazpacho with watermelon (didn’t seem particularly melon-y, but hit the spot on a hot day) and a roast beef sandwich (some of the most melt-like-butter roast beef ever) with adequate fries for $15. Worth a return visit for sure.

But what sold me on the place was the drinks, at a time when I needed a good buzz more than anything. The list of $5 shandies included something called The End of the World which I ordered because, well, how did they read my mind? I wish I remember what was in it besides Allagash (the other reason I ordered it because, duh, Allagash!).

It was soft and pink and foamy. It was sweet without being syrupy or sickly. It was like sipping a cloud or a lotus smoothie. I didn’t get the drunken high I had been craving, but instead fell into a mild reverie. Which, in the end, might have been a better bet, considering all the driving I had to do afterwards.

At any rate, if this is what the end of the world truly tastes like, order me another, and another, and another.


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Book Report: Common Prayers

0618257330Alternate title: “Not Another Book on Interfaith Stuff!”

When I stumbled upon Harvard theologian Harvey Cox’s Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christian’s Journey Through the Jewish Year at Big Blue Marble Bookstore, it was the answer to a prayer I didn’t even know I’d made.

You see, I’ve read quite a few books on Judaism, enough that I feel fairly culturally literate with the religion (if still very, very far from being able to parse Hebrew). And I’ve talked to plenty of folks who are Jewish, interfaith, or converted, often finding their perspectives illuminating. But what I hadn’t realized I needed was a narrative—the story of someone else confronting this beautiful, maddening, awe-inspiring religion from roughly the same background I was, and trying to find points of departure as well as similarities.

Cox structures Common Prayers, as the title says, as a stroll through the Jewish holiday calendar as well as other lifecycle events (death, marriage, birth, and coming of age). Along the way he throws in Kierkegaard, Melville, Pope John Paul II, and a host of other philosophers, religious scholars, clerics, and cultural touchstones as ways of building connections between the two religions. For the most part he stays in plain-English territory, but every now and then (such as when the Passover section veers off into an extended meditation on Jesus) I kind of nodded off at the academicism.

However, there were lots of moments where I silently rejoiced that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way: puzzlement at scheduling the Rosh Hashanah new year celebration before the Yom Kippur day of reckoning, appreciation for the grace of death and funeral rituals, simultaneous confusion and fascination toward the way the Shabbat service is structured. Reading the book was in many ways talking with an older cousin who had been down the same rarely trod path I find myself exploring, and getting a healthy dose of whys and wherefores to ease my passage. For instance, having not yet been to Israel myself, I found Cox’s explanation of the complicated nature of Jerusalem really intriguing, answering many of the questions I’ve always had about why that sacred ground is so fiercely claimed by different faiths.

Of course, the chapter on marriage was familiar territory, and I sympathized with the struggles that Baptist-raised Cox and his Jewish wife had in building a solid union. (Not to mention a wedding.) I would love to hear more from him, or Nina, on that topic.

I can honestly say that I learned something valuable every time I pulled out this book during a workday lunch. Not only that, I looked forward to the experience, born of insight and delightful writing. I would definitely recommend Common Prayers to anyone who is new to Judaism and trying to figure out how best to relate to it.

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Hot town, summer in the city

And it’s not just the back of my neck that’s feeling dirty and gritty. How have you been weathering the heat wave that’s been smothering much of us for most of the past few weeks? The Boy and I have tried a few things:

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She’s billed as “the only elephant in the world you can walk through and come out alive!”

The Shore
A daytrip to the Jersey Shore was just what we needed on one of the stuffiest of stuffy days. Surprisingly, despite not leaving until after 9 a.m. on a Saturday, we encountered almost no traffic, unlike last year. Impressions of Atlantic City: Forget about finding free parking; the boardwalk isn’t as magical as I thought it would be; Gordon Ramsay’s tourist-kitsch pub is decent but as overpriced as you’d imagine; and slot machines that don’t take coins ain’t no friend of mine. Before tooling back home, I dragged us down aways to Margate, just to see Lucy the Elephant. (So worth the trip!) We camped out on the beach for a little bit afterwards (as a NYer, I’m always shocked when going to the beach involves no dip into the wallet for admission or parking!), with blazing-hot sand and ice-cold water. (No wonder there was no traffic … the ocean was simply too cold for most folks.) The whole visit, the sun beat down strongly and temps were in the upper 80s, so I’m not sure if we escaped much of whatever Philly had that day, but it sure was nice just to ditch town for a few hours.

Manayunk Arts Festival
If it’s gonna be hot outside, you might as well enjoy it. So this weekend, with some friends and their toddler, we braved the crowds and enjoyed a stroll through the massive Manayunk Arts Festival. The quality of the art was really good—on par with what we saw during a visit to Aspen a few years ago—although I wasn’t checking prices. (A few too many jewelry booths for my taste.) I was surprised there were so many vendors offering free samples. And going on the earlyish side meant that the crowds weren’t too choking. We ended up splurging just for delicious froyo (they even do shakes!) at Whirled Peace, and spent a luxurious half hour in the air conditioning of Hidden River Yarns, while The Boy’s friend hemmed and hawed over what to get for her next project. All in all, it was a fun experience and I’d definitely go back again.

Bredenbeck’s Ice Cream
We hit Bredenbeck’s, which I’ve been wanting to try since we moved here, after some savage storms blew through the area and pushed most of the heat and humidity out. (And after a healthy dinner of tuna lettuce wraps!) Much to my disappointment, it wasn’t that different from your average ice cream joint, and the prices were really steep. (Over $5 for 2 scoops—who does that?!) The Boy’s mint chip was fine but not so mind-blowing that it justified the price tag; and my little homemade chipwich was OK, but the ice cream–to–cookie ratio was sadly lacking and left my hands all sticky. Consensus is that we can do better for ice cream; but I’ll still leave the door open to trying Bredenbeck’s baked goods.

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A most triumphant evening

80s movies = rad.

Science = way cool.

80s movies + science = !@#$’in awesome.

So it was that The Boy and I (well, mostly I) donned our best oversized, novelty button–bedecked jackets; friendship pin–bedecked (mock) Keds; Madonna-esque armful of bangle bracelets; and side ponytail; for Science After Hours at the Franklin Institute this past Tuesday. (Oooh, shenanigans on a school night!)  We’d never been to Philly’s premier science museum before, and I’d say this was a most excellent introduction.

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He blinded me with science. (I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it … I mean, it was an 80’s night!)

The theme of the evening was, as you might have guessed, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. (Which, happily, Netflix allowed us to indulge in by way of prepping for the event!) Although the movie’s heavy on history, there’s a fair amount of science to be had in it too. (The Boy was struck by how they were essentially traveling in a TARDIS, and by how well Bill S. Preston, Esq., was able to wrap his head around the vagaries of time travel.)

I won’t give you a laundry list of all the different things saw and did, but suffice it to say that the bulk of them were amazing and fun. (OK, not so fun when I got selected to be Galileo, complete with rank-smelling fake beard, for the comedic “talk show” improv.)

  • The Boy tried out virtual reality goggles. (I was a little too afraid of motion sickness)
  • We conducted electricity, just like ol’ Ben himself
  • We saw a sound wave come to life via a Rubens’ tube (too bad the device was out of juice by the time the good part of “Bohemian Rhapsody” kicked in)
  • We enjoyed a lot of the everyday Franklin Institute exhibits, from the walk-through (not for claustrophobes!) virtual heart, to the earthquake jenga, to a fascinating display on how advertisers and marketers manipulate the brain
  • Of course we had to do the trivia (this round, on name-the-century and time-travel movies), and scored pretty well (shakes annoyed fist at the difference between the posters for Hot Tub Time Machine and Hot Tub Time Machine 2)
  • At our last stop, the “Freudian slip” table, a group of us were challenged to remember a list of words related to sitting and things on which you sit without artificially inserting the not-included word “chair” (I did it!)

We didn’t even get around to seeing the museum’s ballyhooed special exhibit on Genghis Kahn, but did get to see the very excellent barbarian himself walking around (perhaps sampling some of the Mongolian vodka on offer?), as well as everyone’s favorite philosopher, So-crates.

I’d say this was easily in my top 10 list of experiences here in Philly so far, and am so glad we went. Of course, we’re eager to get back to the FI again, just to explore the parts we missed. Maybe you can join us? In the meantime, be excellent to each other … and party on, dudes!

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How did you celebrate National Burger Day?

Which was allegedly last week. (Another one of those made-up holidays? Yup, probably. But it worked.)

We ended up at Sketch Burger, a funky little joint down in Fishtown, Philadelphia’s next up-and-coming hipster hangout. (Kind of like Logan Square in Chicago?) Multiple reviews cite it as one of the best burgers in the city, so it seemed like the best place to celebrate the day.

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Sketch Burger … it’s a magical place

First off, the atmosphere. The walls are almost entirely covered by—you guessed it—sketches. (There are paper and drawing/coloring implements on the tables for everyone to craft a masterpiece.) Most of them are actually quite good, and most involve burgers in one way or another. Gazing at them all and trying to ID the characters portrayed (lots of Bob’s Burgers family members, naturally) was an amusing way to pass the time until our burgers arrived.)

Between the artwork and the artfully conceived dishes, it reminded me a little bit of my favorite sandwich place from college. And what finally arrived at our table was worth the wait. I opted for a plain ol’ burger with cheddar, while The Boy went with one of the specials, some lemongrass-turkey burger concoction. His was a bit more flavorful than mine, but as burgers go they were solid, well-charred, and of good quality. The sweet potato wedges were perfection, and the BBQ dipping sauce we chose for them had a nice kick to it.

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Shredded lettuce aside, we quickly became fans

By meal’s end, we were far too stuffed to try any of Sketch’s many milkshake varieties, or the multiple sweet baked things peeking out of apothecary jars in an old bookshelf. But that’s all the more reason to go back. Maybe you’ll come with us next time?

P.S. How could I forget the waitress who, after we left, chased halfway down the block with the $20 bill that had fallen out of The Boy’s pocket? Bonus points for kindness and honesty!

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Thanks muchly, near-capacity zoo parking lot!

Because without you, we wouldn’t have had to change our plans and spend a really enjoyable afternoon at Valley Forge National Historical Park.

It’s hard to believe that this thing I’ve read about in history books is so close to where I live, and also hard to get over how big it is. (3500 acres, if Wikipedia is to be believed)  GoogleMaps set us at the far end of the park, and just getting to the Visitor Center was about a 10-minute drive.

But first, we stopped at Washington’s Headquarters, for a thorough grounding in what made Valley Forge the place where the Continental Army wintered in 1777-8, and lots of interesting facts about the first Commander-in-Chief and his entourage. (Accidentally feeding my Alexander Hamilton fever!)

Washington slept here. For reals.

Washington slept here. For reals.

Touching the actual bannister that George and Martha did, and seeing where they and their compatriots slept and worked, was pretty cool. But the highlight of the visit was encountering actual humans who were able illustrate the dry facts—the park ranger who spouted Revolutionary War trivia like other guys spout sports statistics, and the two storytellers who briefly brought episodes in the site’s history (the prowess of the Oneida men who fought alongside colonists, the role that Baron von Steuben played in whipping troops into shape) to vivid—and humorous—reality.

I feel you, bored kid … once upon a time I was you.

I feel you, bored kid … once upon a time I was you.

There is way more to Valley Forge than we could explore in a few scorching-hot hours. (For starters, running trails! Birding!) But I think The Boy had as great a time as I did, and we’ll definitely return. And as a footnote, it was especially meaningful to be there on Memorial Day, to honor those without whose sacrifices our country literally wouldn’t exist.

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