Friday, November 30, 2007


For the past two years we have found ourselves in Europe on Saint Patrick's Day: laughing through the world's lamest Big City Parade in London in 2006, and watching zillions of pink-faced fat guys in huge green and white striped, stuffed hats and rugby jerseys bumbling around Rome after the Italy/Ireland rugby game (some even plunging into the Trevi Fountain) in 2007. March is a great time to travel because the weather is nice but the place isn't overrun with tourists yet, so we decided we should make a tradition of our annual St. Patrick's Day Europe Trip. Plus, while we're on the East Coast, we figured we should take advantage of the relative proximity to Europe. So there you have it- we decided on an annual St. Patrick's trip to Europe.

We spent months debating where to go in 2008: the former Yugoslavia was the frontrunner for over a month, but it was too darn hard to plan since no American airlines fly there and since it takes more like 2 weeks to do the place justice. Did you know that Croatia is the "new Prague"? I wasn't even aware we needed a "new" Prague, but I guess if "Prague is the new Paris" then we don't have a Prague so I guess Croatia has moved in to fill that vacuum. Makes sense (huh?)

After ruling out Morocco, Spain, Portugal and Central Europe, we finally decided to go to Paris and Berlin for a little over a week. Paris is Paris- always amazing. And Berlin is apparently "the new New York"- or how people think New York was in the 1970s and 80s, as far as cutting edge culture and avant garde design. All this is background for the most amazing hotel I've ever seen. EVER. Tell me if I'm wrong when I show you this- a hotel in Berlin called the Propeller Island City Lodge Hotel. If you poke around that last link, which is the home page for the hotel part (it's also apparently an art gallery and some sort of performing arts space- I think the owners/designers are also music producers and/or artists), you can click on any of the numbers to see all of the rooms.

But why don't I just take you on a little tour, shall we? Here are some of my faves- I say some of my faves because 100% of the rooms are OUT OF CONTROL BIZARRE. That said, buckle up your seat belts, kids, because it's time for a ride through an alternate universe, brought to you by some wacky Berlin artsy types:

[note: you can click on the bottom right of the home photo for each of these, and see several more photos of each room]

Let's start off slowly, shall we?

SYMBOL ROOM: There are over 300 symbols covering the surfaces of this room. I think it's graphically amazing, but I couldn't help but think how my luggage would be slopped all over the place and really ruin the vibe. Plus, it looks a bit too much like the Riddler from Batman. Next!

FREEDOM: This is supposed to be like a prison cell. Click on the multiple photos and you can see that the window has even been covered by a false wall that has a hole in it, the sole source of light in the room. GROSS. Do you think the toilet is filthy, for the sake of authenticity? I mean, who wants to have the experience of staying in a prison cell and actually have it be clean? Perhaps instead of a mint on your pillow, it sends you home with a nice staph infection, just to keep it authentic. Moving right along . . .

PADDED CELL: Also known as "The room you graduate into, if you are really good, but still imbalanced, after staying in Freedom for a few nights." I love how the TV is carefully worked into the padding- Germans gotta have their electronics available at all times!

UPSIDE DOWN: Can you see that the furniture is on the ceiling, the "view" is upside down photos approximating a topsy-turvy view, and you sleep in secret compartments underneath the freaking floorboards???

COFFIN ROOM: I'm sorry, WHAT? Creeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeepy!!!! I might be able to understand this one if it were a "coffin built for two" to sleep in, but I'm thinking that people who want to sleep in coffins, don't want to do it alone (if you catch my drift) so this one baffles me. 'Nuf said.

CHICKEN CURRY: I can't believe I think this one is uninspired, given that the bed is tucked into the floor, behind a sliding garage door. I guess I just think it has a lame name. Or maybe the artist gets bonus points for making an entire room themed on a spicy dish.

GRANDMA'S ROOM: This room scores for having the balls to put that awful granny picture on the wall. I can't see it, but I'm certain the lady has a nice moustache. This room is cool because you enter the bathroom and shower via the two doors in the armoire. Kind of like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or something.

NIGHTLIGHT: At first glance, this one looks tame, but it actually is quite racy- check out the written description: "The wild brush strokes of abstractly painted murals surround and adorn the mirrored aperture to the goings-on next door - an opened curtain might just invite you to have a look! The bathroom is a gigantic plastic bag - a real sensation!" I love that I now know how to say "my bathroom is a giant ziploc bag": "Das Bad ist ein riesiger Plastiksack"!!

This room, and the room next door, definitely play to the voyeur/exhibitionist crowd, but I did a lot of independent research on this place (shocking, I know), and it does not appear to be some sort of weird sex hotel or something. It is in a very small group of "experiential hotels"- not unlike California's kitschy Madonna Inn, and it's funky themed rooms like the Caveman Room.

You have probably guessed from my comments above that YES, in fact, we ARE staying at the Propeller Island City Lodge in Berlin!!! When I first saw the website, I thought it was NOT for us- we're way too square. But then we agreed that we would kick ourselves if we don't stay there. Plus, it's even in our price range. Still, we would have been willing to pay a little extra simply because staying at this bizarre-o hotel will give us fascinating dinner party stories for literally decades to come.

The only downside? I had to ask for a specific room, ranking my top three choices (which is good because you don't want to unwittingly wind up in Freedom or something!), which meant spending hours looking at all those pictures and going through a process something like this: "Will this room give me nightmares, yes or no?" then "Will I feel like some sort of sexual deviant if I stay in this room, regardless of my activities therein?" then "When I explain this room to people, will they think I'm a complete freak, yes or no?" That line of questioning QUICKLY narrowed it down to three.

Can you guess which ones were our top picks? Hint: None are listed above. Try me! Try me! Take a guess!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

P-A in Need of Marketing Makeover

We live about 10 miles from the Pennsylvania border, and every time we drive through Pennsylvania (or "P-A" as 100% of the locals call it) I am astonished at how freaking terrible the local names are. I mean, BAD. Consider these examples, which I've grouped into categories, for your reading pleasure:

Names that invoke the terrible industrial legacy of the down-on-its-luck, "rust belt" state:
Mechanics Grove

Towns with impossible-to-pronounce Welsh names:

Towns with impossible-to-pronounce and/or -spell, hard-on-the-palate (apparently) Native American names:

Names of P-A towns that are just generally ridiculous:

These names are just one more barrier-to-entry that the struggling Pennsylvania economy does not need. What kind of business wants to set up shop in "Tredyffrin" and who wants to tell their friends they are moving to "Grimville"- is that some kind of joke? So I thought it would be brilliant if some of these little towns gave themselves a good ol' California-style image makeover by giving themselves some snappier names. California seems to know that you can make just about anything sound exotic and beautiful just by putting a "San" or, better yet, a "Santa" in front of it, right?

Turns out, I'm not the first to prescribe this for ailing P-A. Check it out: In 1953, the boroughs of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk (GREAT names to get rid of, obviously) merged into one, and took the name of Jim Thorpe. The combined borough is now the county seat of- wait for it . . . Carbon County, of course!

Here's the crazy backstory:
Jim Thorpe was considered to be the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century, excelling in just about every sport and event you can think of. Although he won a boatload of medals at the 1912 Olympics, they were stripped due to allegations that he wasn't an "amateur" at the time (but really it was just about anti-Native American sentiment- did you know that Native Americans weren't US citizens until 1924? and couldn't even VOTE until 1954? WOW. Did not know that.)

Flash forward to 1953, when Jim Thorpe dies, penniless, living in a Lomita, California trailer park. At the same time, his wife hears that these two Pennsylvania towns were down on their luck and looking for a marketing gimmick. Savvy third wife strikes a deal to have his remains moved to newly-minted Jim Thorpe, PA in a snappy mausoleum and voila! A marketing campaign is launched to bring tourism to the former Mauch Chunks.

A Doggie Wonderland in Philadelphia

For a look at John's photos of the Purina National Dog Show in Philly, click here.

This weekend, I joined John for a quick trip to Philadelphia, where he presented the findings of his Masters Thesis research at the annual conference of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies. Little did we know that, right next door to his convention, was a gathering of fluffy goodness, the likes of which you cannot imagine without seeing it firsthand; yes, this weekend, the Philadelphia Kennel Club played host to the Purina National Dog Show. This is no corny local dog parade, this is a Big Daddy Dog Show, the one that is aired after the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on national TV.

It might seem kind of weird that we attended a dog show, but when I checked the "FAQ" online, I read that you were allowed to pet the dogs (with owner permission, of course). I still didn't know quite what to expect from the experience, but for $12 and all-you-can-pet doggies, what did we have to lose? Besides, the newspaper article about the show today indicates that we were in good company- there were over 15,000 attendees!!

All we knew of dog shows was what we'd seen on TV- the big bleachers and formal ring in which dogs are judged by very serious-looking men and women in awful suits/dresses, wearing "comfortable shoes." If that was all it was going to be, that was going to be pretty cool. But little did we know the amazing experience that lay before us . . .

Turns out, the formal dog ring that you see on TV is definitely NOT the coolest thing going on in the Convention Center that day- the judging ring is just the tip of the iceberg, and the real action, if you are lucky enough to get in on it, is the 1,200 dogs representing over 150 breeds, that are hanging out "backstage."

As we entered the exhibit hall, there were about a dozen small, pretty informal looking "judging rings" where various dogs of the same breed were trotting around at various times. But beyond this, the other 75% of the exhibit space consisted of row upon row upon row of DOGS. Each dog and owner is assigned a small space, approximately ten feet wide, where they set up shop: dog, cage, grooming table, comfy beach chairs, etc. Visitors are then able to walk freely among these hundreds and hundreds of dogs and talk to the owners and (for the most part) pet and generally visit with the amazing dogs.

I had worried that the owners wouldn't be so friendly, that they would be more of the "don't touch my high-strung dog, he is WORKING today." While there were a couple people who had just groomed their fluffies and didn't want the blown-out hair tussled, the vast majority of dogs were definitely accepting visitors. What a huge variety of dogs! The American Kennel Club recognizes over 150 breeds, and they were definitely all in the house. From Great Danes to Neopolitan Mastiffs to those ridiculous Chinese Cresteds (the same breed that brought us the perennial favorite World's Ugliest Dog.)

Turns out this dog show is what's called a "Conformation show," as opposed to an agility show or something. Conformation shows seem to simply judge dogs based on how closely they conform to the breed standards set by the American Kennel Club, therefore encouraging and perpetuating purity of breeding stock. This might explain why people were a little more mellow and friendly, since the distance between the dog's nose-tip and forehead (or some other super-specific judging standard) isn't going to change by my petting it that day. That said, I'd say that the dog owners fell (very roughly) into three categories:

1. Joe Average Dog Fancier: this person isn't much different from you and me, assuming you are well-balanced, normal looking, educated and friendly. They go to shows mostly just to educate the public about whatever breed of dog they have found is a great animal. The best example of this type of dog show person is- you guessed it! - the nice guy who had the gorgeous brindle Boxer. He told John he really just goes to these shows to tell people what it's like to have a boxer, what makes a good fit, etc. See? Boxer people rule! Duh.

2. Eccentric (Borderline Dog Freak): these are the people who really look like their dogs. There were some ladies with some funky feathered hats who matched the wispy tailed salukis, and 100% of the Bull Dog owners looked their dogs- portly, middle aged, crunchy-faced. Hilarious.

3. Dog Show Nazi: This is the person better personified by the mega-spaz lawyer couple/Weimaraner owners in the hilarious movie Best in Show: very serious, high strung, don't-touch-my-animal types. We only came across one or two of these types yesterday, but the most extreme example was definitely the super-bitchy Komondor couple who wore stupid matching kilts (apparently the Komondor comes from Scotland) and definitely looked like they were in it for the money (i.e., that they were professional handlers who were being paid by some rich person to show the super fussy dog, and this was "all business" for them).

If you've never seen a Komondor before, they are big dogs that look like a bunch of old mops stuck together into dog-form and they are RIDICULOUS. They BEG to be touched (what ARE they made of? so weird). I admit it was probably wrong of me to do this without asking first, but almost 100% of the dogs were available for petting, so when these people had their dog out, doing final primping before the judging, I reached down to touch it. "DON'T TOUCH HIM. HE'LL BITE!" she barked. Well, guess what? Every first year law student knows that "every dog gets one bite" which means that, once you have a dog with a known propensity to bite, it leaves "domestic" status and moves to "vicious" animal and the courts are supposed to treat it like a lion if it bites you. In short, if you know your dog bites, and it bites me, I get to have your house because you are uninsured and 100% liable for the damage that your known, vicious animal causes.

Sorry for the legal digression, but seriously, why bring an animal that is CRYING to be touched into a room full of 15,000 curious people? On that slightly sour note, I'll end this blog with some words of wisdom: if you EVER get a chance to attend a dog show, DO IT DO IT DO IT! you will be amazed how much fun and how interactive it is. We cut ourselves off after 4 hours!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Binghamton: Capital of the Pierogi Pocket of America!

Sometimes this place just gives me a blog-lay-up. Something so ridiculous and self explanatory that there isn't much left for me to do. Here you go: After months of grassroots campaigning and online voting, Binghamton was officially declared "Capital of the Pierogi Pocket of America" by Mrs. T's, the country's largest pierogi maker (and one of my best friends when I was broke in graduate school and could not afford proper protein in my meals).

First, just in case you aren't on a first name basis with pierogi - or perogi, perogy, pirohi, piroghi, pirogi, pirogen, piroshke or pyrohy- MAN they have a lot of variations on the name! Pierogi trace their roots to the Eastern European/Slavic cultures, so you can imagine I enjoyed them at my favorite ethnic festival- the St. John's Ukrainian festival. As far as "comfort foods" go, they are pretty darn good: typically carbo-laden dough stuffed with buttery mashed potatoes and fried in some fatty grease (butter? bacon? who cares!) but they stuff those babies with all kinds of stuff: cheese, fruit, meat, sauerkraut- YUM!

I have to admit, I was pretty darn excited for Binghamton when we beat out stiff competition- including Buffalo, NY, Clifton, N.J. (never heard of it) and Whiting, Indiana (ditto). The online voting attracted 60,000 votes and - get this- a "controversial endorsement reversal by U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y." according to our local paper. WHO KNEW there were such pierogi politics?? (I bet she endorsed Binghamton until a staffer reminded her that Buffalo, NY was also in the running- gotta love the weird lines that politicians have to toe.)

But something about the awkward name nagged at me- why can't we just be "The Pierogi Capital of America"? Is that too much to ask? What is this "Capital of the Pierogi Pocket" stuff? (Get it? Pierogis are stuffed pockets of tasty goodness? very clever ha ha ha). Something seemed fishy.

Well, it turns out that pierogi consumption in the US is mostly concentrated in a geographical area known as the "Pierogi Pocket," which consumes 68% of all pierogis in the US, and that this area includes NY, Pennsylvania, and parts of several nearby states too boring to list. To honor their most loyal and biggest consumer base, Mrs. T's (based in PA) picks a capital of that region. But wait, it gets worse: Binghamton only gets to claim the title for a YEAR! Mrs. T's is apparently a lot smarter than I am, and they know to rotate the honor to keep 'em paying attention. I knew it was too good to be true!

At any rate, BRAVO for Mrs. T's coming up with such a great marketing stunt. And they give $10,000 to the local food bank, to boot. Such a win/win/win for the community and the company- now where is my "Binghamton: Capital of the Pierogi Pocket" tshirt!!??

p.s. Do not confuse pierogis with "spiedies," which are decidedly less tasty and for which Binghamton is (somewhat) legitimately famous.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

A Primer on New York City's Unique Form of Government

I just want to give everyone a little lesson on New York City, because it seems to simultaneously be the best-known and yest least-understood city in the country. People use terms imprecisely, which doesn't help matters. Worse yet, there is such a strong sense of "neighborhood" in that huge city that the casual observer is misled and confused at every turn. It has taken me, ME- the big political/government wonk- almost 2 years of living in NY state to finally unravel that weird Gordian knot of a city that lies 150 miles downstate.

Here's the deal:

Myth: "New York City" = Manhattan
Fact: "New York City" actually consists of 5 "boroughs": Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and Staten Island. There are about 8 million residents living in these 5 boroughs, any of whom might properly say they are from "New York City."

Question: What the hell is a "borough"?
Answer: A borough is an administrative subdivision of a state. Since each state is free to organize itself as it wishes, "borough" means different things in different states, adding to the confusion. New York State has only the 5 boroughs that make up New York City, and boroughs are not used elsewhere in the state. Alaska, by contrast, uses the term "borough" as other states would use the term "county."

Question: No, really, what the hell is a "borough" and why does NYC have them?
Answer: Try this- think of NYC as "the United States" and each borough as an individual state. This sort of "federalism" is sort of like NYC, with each of the five boroughs retaining a lot of local control over things like land use, and each with its own "borough president" (like each state has a governor), but all falling under the control of a strong mayor (like the President) who leads on issues of importance to the city as a whole (which is why he has power over the school system, hospitals, transportation, etc.)

Just when you said to yourself, "Got it. NYC consists of 5 boroughs, which are like states, but the mayor runs the whole show for all 8 million people on the overriding issues of civic importance," I have to throw in a curve ball, and here's where it gets really screwy: each of the boroughs is "coterminous" (meaning, geographically one and the same) with a county, so NYC actually has 5 counties within it. Even worse- not all the counties have the same name as the borough, but some do. Here:
Question: What did you just say?
Answer: Each of those 5 entities (Brooklyn, etc.) acts like a borough for some purposes (local, municipal stuff) and a county (bigger stuff) for other purposes, and has a separate borough and county government. So if you get arrested in Manhattan for shoplifting, you will be prosecuted by the District Attorney of New York County. But if you want your trash picked up, you could take the matter to your borough president (or your local city councilman, of which there are 51!)

Myth: Manhattan is the most populous part of NYC.
Manhattan is the most densely populated part of NYC, I was shocked to learn that Manhattan, with approx. 1.5 million people, is home to fewer people than Brooklyn (2.5 million) and Queens (2.3 million). Manhattan's population is about 70,000 people/square mile, compared to 8,000/square mile for the City of Los Angeles and about 15,000/square mile for Hermosa Beach.

Myth: New York City is an island.
Sort of true: 4 of the 5 boroughs that make up New York City are islands. Only The Bronx is physically connected to the U.S. mainland.

How come NYC has such a wacky form of government?
This is the $64,000 question and I figured out the answer: In 1898, The City of New York was formed out of what used to be something like 20 independent cities and 4 counties. Brooklyn, for example, was, I think, the fourth largest city in the entire country at the time, which is why it has such a strong historical identity and so many people say the are from "Brooklyn" instead of identifying with the relatively recently manufactured "New York City." (Staten Island, by contrast, was mostly farmland and had only a few thousand people at the time it was folded into the City of New York.)

Now that I've thoroughly confused you, here is a recap of what we've learned just now, courtesy of wikipedia:

"New York City is subdivided into five boroughs, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island. Each of these is coterminous with a county, Kings, New York, Queens, Bronx and Richmond Counties respectively. There are no county governments within New York City for legislative or executive purposes, but there are borough governments composed of a borough president, members of the New York City Council which represent parts of the borough, and the chairmen of the local community boards (see Government of New York City). The powers of the borough governments are inferior to the powers of the city-wide government. The boroughs of New York City are still treated as separate counties for judicial purposes, and for business and legal filings."

All of this just scratches the surface. I've been reading what I call "the paper" (that is, the historic Los Angeles and New York Times, for the past 125 years) for the past few months on this topic, so I'll have to stop myself here because I'm full of so much random information, it starts to get ugly from here on out. :-)

Alpacas: the Windmills of upstate New York?

When we used to drive to Palm Springs in the 1980s, I remember thinking how odd all those "windmill farms" looked along Interstate 10. I vaguely recall understanding that we had to wait in long lines for gas in the 1970s, and that was somehow related to President Carter's administration giving tax credits for alternate energy sources in the 1980s.

As a kid, my gut perception was that those funny windmill farms were the result of some dumb government policy, and that they probably didn't actually do much but serve to make some smart, rich people even richer. I mean, if they were such great energy sources, why wasn't the desert covered with them? Something seemed fishy. And it still does, to me. As an adult, those windmills stand out in my mind as some crazy thing that people do to avoid paying taxes.

Well, I've discovered the Upstate New York analog to the 1980s California windmill phenomenon- ALPACAS!!

Question: How many alpaca farms do you know of, within 100 miles of where you live? Well, our area seems to be flush with them, so I did a little digging to try and explain this fact.

It seems that alpacas- the llama's cuter cousin from South America- offer not only tax incentives, but a bucolic way of life for the retiring baby boomer generation. Apparently, you can retire to a cheap, naturally-beautiful place like Upstate NY, write off your house and property as a "hobby farm," depreciate the livestock and claim your property as some sort of agricultural/farmland, all the while living with these easygoing, low-maintenance creatures. (That was a gross oversimplification but you get the idea.) One website even calls alpacas "a hugable, lovable investment." Another guy says that, while his stocks dried up when the market crashed, his alpacas are still around, keeping him warm.

But here's what else I found: it seems that the bulk of the earnings on an alpaca farm come in the way of breeding and selling to other alpaca farmers. A giant alpaca-ponzi, if you will. There is actually a fair amount of concern that there is an "alpaca bubble" and that, unless the industry and build a much bigger market for the fur/fiber the animals produce, the ride may soon be over.

Alpacas may soon join their friends on the llama, buffalo, ostrich, and emu farms- that is, in retirement from the topsy-turvy world of an entire industry based on an oddity of our national tax policy. (Apparently alpaca meat = not too tasty.) Makes me wonder if John and I will find ourselves retiring to some crazy "killer bee farm" or whatever is the "flavor of the decade" for random tax breaks to build your entire life around!