Monday, August 28, 2006

Pssst! America! There is a whole STATE of New York!!

This past weekend, John and I went to the New York State Fair at Syracuse, which is apparently the biggest and oldest fair in the country. Who knew that New York was such a huge dairy producing state?? As I had expected, there were tons of 4-H clubs represented and thousands of "show" animals, punctuated by carnival rides, and all tied together with that great American social glue: FRIED FOODS. (I'll write about that later, since it deserves its own entry.)

It was great to see and touch a bit of nature, like the chicks bursting out of their eggs in the incubator. And there were a surprising number of scary-looking rides, none of which I will ever enjoy because I am so freaked out by the drug-addled carnies that throw those things up on a weekly basis in neighborhoods near you, all around the country (I worked on legislation in California that would have provided much better licensing and regulations for this industry- needless to say, it didn't pass!)

The biggest let-down was the butter sculpture, which, although life-size, lacked detail and interest (apparently I'm a connoisseur of this stuff now). The most pleasant surprise, though, was the Cheese Lady, who was whittling a hunk of cheddar into a "Sponge Bob Cheese Pants" masterpiece when I engaged her in conversation.

I asked her if she had any formal cheese-carving training, or if she was self-taught. Flashing a braces-filled smile, she immediately informed me that she was 1 of only 3 cheese carvers in the country (interesting though profoundly unsubstantiated statistic) and that she, indeed, was from Wisconsin (I had not asked).

Taking another look at her, I wondered if it was hard for her to date: the long weeks on the road, traveling from fair to fair with only the carnies to keep her company, the faint but constant scent of whey on her hands, the cheese bow tie she was wearing, you get the picture. However, a quick internet search tells me that we shouldn't fear for The Cheese Lady, because "she is quite reputable in the cheese sculpting field." (However, I do think there might be some serious competition going on this "field," as I found another website for someone who ALSO calls herself "The Cheese Lady"- for the curious, intrigue lurks around every corner!)

I decided that I was DEFINITELY a city slicker, since I asked not-so-smart questions like, "Do the eggs come out of the chicken that size, and then the chicks grow inside until the egg breaks open, or does the egg come out smaller and grow?" DUMB DUMB DUMB. At least I didn't ask if the bunny laid the eggs (although I have to admit that those Cadbury Creme Egg commercials, with the Easter bunny laying the chocolate eggs, really confused me when I was in middle school.)

Anyway, folks, the lesson of the day is that New York is, in fact, an entire STATE and not just a single, famous city with the same name.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Jewish Cats and Eastern Orthodox Dogs?

Now, I don't know much about pet cemeteries, but we have a little one in Binghamton that actually is home to a couple of extremely famous racehorses (that's a great story, for a later blog entry), so John agreed to play tourist with me and we visited "Whispering Pines Pet Cemetery" last weekend.

I couldn't help but crack up at the religious nature of some of the headstones: Was Buffy the Dog really Eastern Orthodox, as her grave marker indicates? If so, did she attend mass regularly? make holupki for the fundraisers? call bingo on Tuesday nights?

Judging by their headstone, Mazel and Yentl were a most pious pair of Jewish . . . CATS! They appear to have their birth and death dates listed in both the Gregorian and Hebrew calendars. I want to know, who is naming their cats "Mazel" and "Yentl"??

Anyway, I think this all speaks to a greater issue that John and I had just been discussing. The question was: What do you want done with your body and where and how do you want to be disposed of after you die? Do you want a grave? Cremation? What?

Of course, John said he wanted to be buried in a '57 Chevy in Arizona or something ludicrous, but we both agreed that we would be dead so we didn't care: we both wanted whatever would be soothing and peaceful for the living. I think this pet cemetery really drove that point home: obviously, the animals weren't religious, but those they left behind were, and it apparently comforted the living souls to see the religious symbols on their pets' gravestones.

So, as far as I'm concerned, you can put a big fat slurpie machine at my grave if it will make people happy to visit and soothed enough to stay awhile!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Sketchy Scaffolding outside my window

OK, I know this is a crappy photo, but I took it with my cell phone from out my boss' window. It's a photo of the building, parts of which came crashing to the ground last week

The reason it kills me is that I was sitting in his office on a conference call this morning, looking out the window at the building, and realized that the scaffolding (you can see 2 strong vertical lines on the facade- that's the supports-and then the platform is at the top, 1 story below the roofline) is all the way to the top of the building now. The thing is- it looks like they affixed the scaffolding to the very same architectural element that was falling off in the first place!

When my boss noticed that I was glued to the scene outside the window, all I could say was that you couldn't pay me enough to stand on scaffolding that is essentially being held up by 100 year-old gargoyles and ornamental what-nots. I also found out that, because the sidewalks are so old and there are underground vaults below them, they also had to drill down into the street and make sure the footing of the scaffolding was stable before starting at the bottom and jacking the platform up to the top of the thing. It has taken over a week to get up there. The best part was that we could see that the owner of the building was standing up there, 150 feet up. I guess he was trying to prove that it's not dangerous or something.

Fuhget it!

p.s. the streaky windows are thanks to the peregrine falcons, whose nest is 2 stories directly above this window!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Nothin' plastic about the Southern Tier

p.s. this is a GREAT addition, thanks to my brother, Eric. It will get you in the mood for this blog entry:

Having grown up in Los Angeles, I took for granted all the incredibly over-enhanced/nipped/tucked fake looking people. In LA, it seems almost unusual if someone has NOT had any type of surgical proecedure done. Things couldn't be more different in the Southern Tier of New York where we now live.

It really struck me when we landed at LAX in June after being away for about 5 months. We got off the plane and it seemed like the first thing I saw was an apparently "hot chick" (from the back, at least)- very aerobicized tight body in tight black pants with long blonde "hair" (extensions). By all accounts, this was supposed to be a beautiful young woman. That is, until she turned around . . . the HORROR!!!

Not only was she not a hot young thing, but she was approximately 65, overly toned, overly tanned, and appeared to be formerly-Jewish Beverly Hills lady with waaaaaaay too much surgery to give her that all-American blonde look (NOT).

Anyway, I don't think I've seen a fake pair of boobs or a fake nose or suspiciously plump lips since I got here. With the decreasingly expensive cost of surgery, I think it's more of a cultural thing: unlike LA's bizarre focus on looking younger than you are, it seems like age is actually a valued thing around here.

There are several lawyers in my office who are in their 80s and 90s and literally come in every day. I talked with one of them for awhile yesterday and man is he sharp at 92 years old. He fielded several client calls while I talked to him about the old days, like when his father (a sitting New York State Senator) died when he was 15 in 1929 and his whole family had to go to work to stave off economic doom.

I feel like that same lawyer in LA would never make it into the office everyday, not just because it takes so much energy to brave the 405 freeway just to get to work, but because he might literally be seen as more of a slip-and-fall hazzard/liability than the very wise and cool guy he is.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Watch out for falling architecture!

Last week as John was dropping me off at work, we noticed that the adjacent street was closed off: cops, people staring up at the sky, what was up? Did a peregrine falcon chick fall off a ledge onto the sidewalk again? Turns out it was something newsworthy.

Here's the deal: there are 2 turn-of-the-century "skyscrapers" in downtown Binghamton: my own Security Mutual building and the adjacent Press Building. My building appears to be fully occupied- my own firm has been a tenant for over 100 years, and now takes up 5 floors (Security Mutual takes up the other 4 or so). The Press Building on the other hand, while it is certainly more beautiful and ornate, has had a less consistent occupancy. This is leading me to the Big News from last week . . .

Turns out that the street was closed because a CHUNK OF THE ROOFLINE FELL OFF! The Press Building is about 10 stories/150 feet tall- you do not want chunks of debris falling from the top! No one was hurt, probably because it happened at night, but apparently debris fell on a car parked on the street and did some serious damage.

Anyway, if you look at the roofline from my office (or look at the photo posted in the intro), which more at a level elevation to it, you can see that the whole structure of the building is really sagging up there; this wasn't just ornamental gargoyles dropping off or something like that. I don't know how you can fix something as fundamental as the roofline!

The building is absolutely gorgeous and was up for sale for about $1.5 million last year. It caught my eye because I couldn't help but think how crazy it was that someone could own a historic, iconic gorgeous national landmark like the Press Building for about the same price as the average 3 bedroom condo in Playa Vista. Now, however, I can readily see the downside of owning such a structure, and why they go for so cheap: UPKEEP! What a liability a building like that can become.

The poor guy who owns it- who is about my age- had to go on television and give interviews and defend that his building wasn't going to fall on anyone! Makes me wonder if the structure will turn out not to be economically viable and if they might have to tear it down because it costs more to keep up than it's worth. Now that would be tragic for Binghamton.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

"Ethnic Food" revisited: Ukrainian Festival

The long-time reader will recall my horror when I initially arrived in Binghamton and realized that I was going to be completely out of luck as far as getting any kind of Mexican food for the duration of my stay here. Since then, I've learned that not only is there no Mexican food, there is no spicy food of any culture- not Indian, not Korean, not nuthin'.

Instead of focusing on that, I've tried to have a broader definition of what constitutes "ethnic food." To that end, John and I went to a Ukrainian Festival at a local church a couple weekends ago. Now, I always say that Binghamton has tons of ethnic diversity, since we have just about every flavor of white European immigrant you can think of: Italian, Irish, Greek, Slovak, Ukrainian, Russian, and the list goes on.

So I should not have been surprised when John and I were driving around looking for the distinctive onion-domed church in Johnson City when we asked a woman walking her dog, "Do you know where the Ukrainian Church is?" to which she replied, "Which one- Orthodox or Catholic?" Yep, there were 2 Ukrainian churches in the same 1/2 mile area. Anyway, above is a photo of the "ethnic food" we ate for lunch: cabbage and potato pierogies, potato salad, cole slaw, kielbasa, holuptsi (stuffed cabbage)- tasty! But not spicy, and definitely not Mexican food.

What the heck is "Spiedie Fest"??

What in the world is "Spiedie Fest," you ask? Nothing short of the biggest even to hit the Southern Tier of New York each summer. In a county of 200,000 people, with neighboring counties having an even smaller population, Spiedie Fest attracts something like 100,000 people over the course of 3 days.

Let me back up- a "spiedie" is just about the only thing (sadly) that Binghamton can still claim bragging rights about "inventing." It is really just a marinated meat sandwich. Basically, you marinate some lamb, chicken, beef, whatever, grill it on a stick, throw it into some fresh Italian bread and - voila!- behold the spiedie. Grilled onions and peppers are optional.

So about 20 years ago, some of the local spiedie restaurants got together and decided to have essentially a "spiedie cook-off" in a huge park along the Chenango River. Today, it is technically "Spiedie Fest and Ballooon Rally" since there are a ton of balloons of all shapes and themes that also take part. I spent 3 hours wandering around the park on Saturday and was amazed at how many people were there, how many food and craft booths, balloons taking off, etc.

So, there you have it, a "taste," as it were, of Binghamton's local culture- we don't have much of it, so I'm glad that 100,000 people came out to witness it. Oh, and did I mention that a bunch of the American Idol runner-ups performed, as well as a bunch of people I've never heard of? That's BIG NAME TALENT around these parts!

p.s. If you want to see what the locals think about who has the best spiedies in town, here is a link to a discussion on the good ol' "BC Voice" online posting board.