30 March 2009
Penitentiary Life, Week 2
Then last Wednesday, we spent the day at Graterford, which is Pennsylvania's largest maximum security prison. It is located about thirty-one miles outside of Philadelphia. We met an inmate - a "lifer" - who had started out at Eastern State back in the late 1960s, and then had a tour of the facility with the Superintendent's Assistant. The person who had been running our training said that we were making the trip for a few reasons. First, to see a currently active maximum security prison; then to see how we thought it compared to Eastern State; and, finally, he thought that by talking to an inmate, and seeing how the prison was set up, it would remind us that the inmates are actual human beings with feelings and thoughts.
It was really interesting, but also very depressing. The look from the outside was just plain old dismal, though it is in a very bucolic setting. But the green grass and sunshine are suddenly interrupted by a tall, gray, concrete wall, and signs warning you of all of the things you can and cannot do upon entering the prison. We were all signed in by one of the Corrections Officers, and then our tour guide took us to the room to talk to the inmate. He was probably about 60 years old, and has been in prison for approximately forty years, and will be there until he dies (in Pennsylvania, a life sentence equals life without parole). He had started serving his time at Eastern State, and it was fascinating to hear him talk about the place when it had been operating as a prison. Of course, time and distance probably made a lot of it seem better than it actually had been, but we had lots of chances to ask him questions, and he was very willing to answer them. He told us that he knew that it was entirely his own fault why he was there, and he deserved to be in prison for his crime (murder), but that every single day he realized that one second of stupidity put him there forever. He talked about his victim's family, and his own family, and how he really doesn't know his children at all. You could have heard a pin drop, he had everyone's attention so thoroughly!
Then we had our tour, seeing the cellblocks, shops, exercise yards, followed by lunch. (Note to self: Prison is not the best place to be for a good vegetarian meal.) We got to go into an empty cell to get an idea what the size of it was for two inmates (can you say claustrophobic?). We were then planning to leave, but had to stay an extra half hour while the guards' shift change took place. I was more than happy to finally be out of there!
I cannot imagine in my wildest dreams why, if you even ever just saw the place, you would ever in the universe think of committing any crime ...
The rest of the week was more information, some safety and security drills, an operations test (once again, I did OK), and a scavenger hunt. For the scavenger hunt, we were teamed with another person. It was fun, though we were running around in the cold rain, which was not all that pleasant.
Friday, I had originally planned to go to see Franklin at Loop, where he was signing his book, It Itches. Then I noticed on our training schedule that we had a Full Staff Meeting to attend that didn't start until 5:30 p.m., so I was kinda disappointed, thinking I might not make it. I didn't, but it turned out that it was all OK. The "Full Staff Meeting" was actually a little "graduation" ceremony for us, where we got our staff IDs and keys. There was champagne (and soda for those who didn't want to imbibe), and a toast to the 2009 season. But what made it all better than the best was that this all took place in the central guard tower of the penitentiary, with an amazing view of Philadelphia! Even though it was slightly cloudy, it was clear enough to still see for quite a few miles. I borrowed a camera and took some pictures, so if I get the copies, I'll post them here. It was one of the coolest things EVER!
So tomorrow, I will be released on an unsuspecting public for my first day as a tour guide. Hopefully it will not be too cold, since at the moment, I only have a short-sleeved uniform shirt to wear. The "season" officially starts April 1, but tomorrow is a free preview day - I guess equivalent to a dress rehearsal for a play.
Who knows what I will tell people when they ask me questions??! Hopefully, something with at least a kernel of fact involved. :-)
And, since I haven't had a post with a picture for a while, here's one of Jetsam and GK, right after GK had jumped up on the couch while Jet was sleeping. As you can probably guess from the body language, it didn't end well ...
28 March 2009
March Book Report
For my final entry in the Well-Seasoned Reader Challenge, I read Edith Wharton's Italian Backgrounds. This book has been on my bookshelf for a number of years, and I was always going to "get around to it," and this challenge presented the perfect opportunity. The title was originally published in 1905, and it details Wharton's visits to Italy.
I had a hard time getting into this book, since I have never visited Italy, and right off the bat she is describing places in minute detail that are not ones familiar to me. A couple of times I even considered stopping, but decided to see if things improved, and they did. Her descriptions of Venice, Milan, and Rome were more interesting and entertaining to me, mainly just because I was more familiar with those towns, from reading and learning about them in school. The final portion of the book is the one I particularly enjoyed, as Wharton discusses how Italian artwork is completely related to, and reflective of, the area of Italy where it was created.
I would recommend this book, especially if you have just visited Italy, or are planning to go soon. I hope someday to pick it up again and see how well it holds up based on actually visiting some of the places she describes.
From Wharton in Italy, I ventured to England during the year of the plague (1666), with Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks. Having read another of her novels, March, I was curious to see if I would still find her writing interesting and evocative.
The main character in the novel is Anna Frith, a widow who at the beginning, has two young children, and is working as a housemaid for the town's minister and his wife. When a tailor moves to town from London, the minister suggests that Anna could take him in as a boarder to earn some extra money. Everything goes well, until the tailor suddenly becomes terrifyingly ill and dies. As several of those he has come into contact with also die, everyone begins to realize that the plague has arrived in their small town. The minister makes the suggestion that the town agree to quarantine itself from the rest of the world until the danger of infection is over. He manages to get most of the townspeople to agree, and they embark on a year of loneliness, sorrow, suspicion, and despair.
I thought this book was pretty amazing, though I know that others reading it thought it was just too depressing. Once again, Brooks' writing pulls you in, and makes you believe that you actually know the people in the story. Anna's journey from housemaid to healer is at the crux of the book, but many of the characters are so well developed that she is not the only one that you get to know intimately.
Having said all of that, I was disappointed in the ending. To me it didn't fit in with the rest of the story, and just seemed like one of those instances where the author decided that she needed to wrap things up quickly, and just went with the first ending that occurred to her.
I would still recommend the book, though.
Not so much the next book I read, The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday, by Alexander McCall Smith. This is the first book I have read by this author, and I picked it up because I had read a positive review of it recently. In this story, Isabel Dalhousie, the owner and editor of a literary journal who lives in Edinburgh, is asked to help clear the name of a doctor whose reputation has been ruined due to a scandal involving a drug trial.
We also meet Isabel’s lover Jamie, who is also the father of her young son, and who is considerably younger than Isabel. This causes her no end of worry, though he seems devoted to both of them. There is also Isabel’s niece, Cat, who owns a local deli, and used to be romantically involved with Jamie.
I wanted to like this book, but as far as I’m concerned, it just never took off. None of the characters were particularly appealing to me, and there didn’t seem to be much of a plot. Though I enjoyed the descriptions of Edinburgh, there was nothing else that really grabbed my attention. By the end of the book, I was trying to figure out how this was supposed to be suspenseful, and wondering what the point of the book was in the first place. I guess if it is supposed to be a narrative of a slice of time in the characters’ lives, it does the job. But my first thought when I finished reading the last page was, “Why was this book written?” I had kept going, thinking that there would be a point where things all started to fall into place, but if they did, I missed it.
It also really annoyed me that Isabel spent so much time worrying about whether or not Jamie really loved her, was going to stay with her, found her interesting and attractive, etc. Once again, we have a supposedly independent, educated woman, who seems to worry primarily about a man. I got really sick of that whole thing by about the third chapter.
This was a quick read, so at least I didn’t spend a whole lot of my time reading it.
The final book for March was Crucible of Good Intentions: Eastern State Penitentiary, by Norman Johnston. Yes, it was a reading assignment for my new job, but it was nonetheless very interesting. The book was published for an exhibit in 1994 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, called "Eastern State Penitentiary at Fairmount: Crucible of Good Intentions."
The book is a brief yet detailed history of the Eastern State Penitentiary, from the concept of a "penitentiary" in the late 1700s, the opening in 1829, until its closing as a prison in 1971. There are descriptions of the physical area, as well as details about the lives of the inmates, wardens, and a discussion of whether or not the original philosophy was relevant then and now.
Eastern State was influential not just for its philosophy of reform and rehabilitation, but for its physical design as well. At this point, there are approximately 300 prisons worldwide who have adopted the radial design as an efficient method of tracking the behavior of prisoners.
If you have an interest in historical architecture, social history, criminal justice, or Philadelphia history, I would recommend this book. I think it provides an excellent overview of the place itself, but also how it was a reflection of the times throughout its existence.
22 March 2009
Penitentiary Life, Week 1
Believe it or not, there was even some knitting-related information during the week. When Eastern State was first opened, the philosophy behind it was that every person had an "inner light," and could be reformed if they had enough time to meditate on their wrongs, and be sorry for them (the "penitent" part of the word penitentiary). The way they hoped to accomplish this was by having each prisoner be in a cell alone (before solitary confinement was considered to be punishment), where he would have time to think about why he was there.
As part of this practice, the prisoners and the guards were forbidden to talk, sing, hum - well, you get it, it was supposed to be as quiet as possible. We learned that the prison guards wore wool socks over their shoes so that they wouldn't make any noise walking through the corridors. Interesting, but it also got me to thinking about how quickly the socks were probably worn out. The floors in the beginning were bricks, so it wasn't like today when we wear socks around the house, and are on carpeting or hardwood floors. Plus, if your socks were over your shoes, they were even getting extra wear and tear on the inside.
Which also led me to think that it was likely the prison guards' wives who had to knit their socks for them. They must have had to really crank them out. If it is true that sock-knitting machines did not show up until the later 1800s, it wouldn't have been likely that you could head over to ye olde general store and buy a 3-pack, like you can today. I also doubt that prison guards were paid well enough to be able to afford to hire someone outside of their family members to knit their socks.
This whole concept has really taken a spot in my brain lately. Then on Thursday, we were supposed to bring something from home and give a 3-5 minute presentation about it, so that the instructors could get an idea of how well we could do speaking in front of a group. I decided to take in double pointed needles, since I suspected that few people would have any clue what they were, or how they were used. And I thought it fit in nicely to the whole sock-over-the-shoe thing that I kept thinking about.
Besides the previously mentioned knitter and spinner, no one had a clue what they were. I passed them around, and talked about them, and you should have seen the looks on their faces - it was like I was standing there cooking bacon on my head or something! I had also brought a sock-in-progress so they could get a true visual of how double pointed needles might look while in use. I could almost literally see the light bulbs go on over their heads as they "got it!" To be honest, it was pretty cool - they had all kinds of questions, and were very enthusiastic.
But I still keep thinking about the socks worn over the shoes, on the brick floors, and how much more work that must have made for the knitters in the guards' families.
It makes me appreciate even more the fact that I can knit socks just because I like to knit them, not because someone is counting on me to do it!
18 March 2009
I had a great birthday weekend (and since it will be on a Sunday next year, I still have a weekend birthday coming up!). Saturday, The Tim took me out to lunch, and later we had a piece of birthday cake (we skipped dinner, since lunch was both filling and late in the afternoon):
Pretty fancy, huh? The Tim is more creative with his frosting methods than I am, and always makes the cake look extra special. This is dark chocolate frosting with crystal sugar sprinkles, and the cake was vanilla-chocolate marbled cake. Yum. Sadly, it is now gone, since we finished it last night as part of our St. Patrick's Day celebration.
And wow, the kitties must have saved their allowances for a long time to be able to afford to buy me this birthday present:
I had seen this book, but hadn't really ever looked through it. I have decided that even though I am unlikely to ever knit most of the patterns, there is a lot of inspiration and ideas to be had from it. I also like that she (Nicky Epstein) includes some history of knitting in the various places she talks about in the book.
Even though my birthday is now past, and so is St. Patrick's Day, I still have something to look forward to, since tomorrow is St. Joseph's Day. Do you remember what that means?
17 March 2009
Happy Saint Patrick's Day!
14 March 2009
13 March 2009
An Auspicious Friday the 13th
Fortunately, I was able to spend Mondays and Tuesdays since the beginning of February working at Rosie's, which allowed me to buy yarn vicariously by selling it to others. (Win-win.) Though I wasn't making very much money, it was helping out - as it was better than nothing, and it made me get out of the house and participate in the world.
Alas, dear reader, that job is now also ended, as my life has taken another unusual turn. This morning began my first day in prison. Actually, not in prison, but in the penitentiary.
Eastern State Penitentiary, that is!
Today, Friday the 13th, I started my training to be a tour guide at the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, here in Philadelphia. I will be working there full-time during the "season" which runs from April through November. The site is a National Historic Landmark, and rather than being all spanking-new-renovated, it's a ruin.
Eastern State is an imporant part of history, because it was at the time of its opening in 1829, considered to be a radical place. Because it was a "Penitent"-iary, the idea was that those who spent time there would do their penance, and be rehabilitated into society as contributing and upstanding citizens. It remained open until 1971, and was not designated a historic site until 1994.
Our basic introduction today included a chance for us to have a tour like those we will be giving. At one point, when we were in the central area, our guide was talking about how Eastern State's radial construction (like spokes on a wheel with a center spot) became a model for other prisons, and he said, "It was similar to the design of the panopticon." At which point, I thought, "Franklin?" and then realized he meant "the panopticon," not The Panopticon ...
In any event, I consider this to be a lucky Friday the 13th for me. I have a full-time (albeit temporary) job, and unlike the penitentiary's former residents, I get to go home at the end of the day!
12 March 2009
Lights, Camera, Action!
What book do you think should be made into a movie? And do you have any suggestions for the producers?
Or, What book do you think should NEVER be made into a movie?
08 March 2009
A Walk through the Neighborhood
One way you can always tell when there is a nice break in the cold weather is the return of sidewalk tables at the local coffee shops, restaurants, and the little French cafe.
Though Doughboy was disappointed as we walked by that no one offered him a taste of their breakfast croissants ...
Then on to Fitler Square for a picture by the fountain, and a good roll on the bricks (you'll be glad to know that I refrained).
Next: the dog park! Such excitement! Doughboy found many friends here. The picture on the left shows his new buddy Connor, the Irish Wolfhound, then the fuzzy black thing is the back end of Doughboy, and the pup in front goes by Abby the Labby.
In the picture on the right, you can see Connor and Doughboy in an activity that is apparently much more fun than it looks to be. They would do this Follow the Leader thing back and forth, one way with Connor leading, and then on the return trip, Doughboy would be in front. Occasionally the other dogs would stop, look at them, and you could see them thinking, "WTF?"
From there, we walked towards the Schuylkill River Banks Trail. On the way, we saw this interesting wrought-iron railing. I like it because it's green, rather than the usual black.
These next two pictures I took while we were resting on a bench after walking on the trail for a while. This one is the Walnut Street Bridge, with the Old Post Office, and a newer building, the Cira Centre, in the background.
This one is more at trail level, showing the river, and if you look very closely, a lone fisherman sitting in a chair hoping to catch something. Personally, I would not want to catch anything from the Schuylkill River ... but there are usually people fishing there, who I imagine would think my knitting was weird, so to each his own.
From the trail, we headed home, after stopping at Metropolitan Bakery for a doggie treat (not that we spoil Doughboy or anything).
Here is my favorite picture from the walk. It was taken while we were sitting on one of the trail benches, enjoying watching the world go by. In my pictures folder, this is called "Happy, drooly, blurry."
Simple pleasures, right?
06 March 2009
This morning, I had a dentist appointment. I've had a sore tooth for a few weeks, but I hadn't gone to the dentist because I wanted to wait and make sure I would be covered under The Tim's dental insurance. Otherwise, I knew that it would cost approximately $478,933.00 just to walk in the door to the dentist's office (give or take a dollar).
So I got in the dentist's chair, and told him what the problem was. He determined that I needed x-rays. Then he did a hot/cold test. At this point I began to seriously reconsider my decision to see a dental professional, because to be honest my entire mouth now hurt more than the tooth had ever hurt. Then he looked at the x-rays, consulted with another dentist in the practice, and told me that I would likely need to see an endodontist, either for a root canal or to have my tooth pulled.
To my dentist's credit, he had his office call the endodontist's office to see how soon they could take me. Lucky me - they said to come over right away. So I walked the two blocks to the other office, with my teeny toothy x-ray of the sore tooth (#18 for those of you who number your teeth). Upon arrival, the person at the front desk told me that she had called The Tim's insurance, and they did not have me listed as receiving benefits. Sigh. I tried to quickly calculate how much it would cost to walk through the door of the endodontist and decided I couldn't count that high. I suggested that she call my dentist's office and talk to them about the insurance. She agreed, and gave me paperwork to complete.
(Tee-hee. Next to the questions 1. Have you ever had surgery? and, 2. Do you take any prescription drugs?, there was a single line to fill in. As if.)
Apparently the dentist's office assured them that I did in fact have insurance coverage, so I was ready to go. Wherein the endodontist - who I'm pretty sure was not old enough to shave yet - came in, and decided a) I needed x-rays, and b) he would do a hot/cold test. I mentioned that I'd already had both things at the other office, and did he not have the teeny toothy x-ray I had brought with me? Yes, but he wanted to check a few more teeth, so both would need to be repeated.
In the end, he determined that my last tooth on the lower left side was partially cracked. If the entire tooth had been cracked, I would have to have it pulled, but since it was only partial, he told me that he could "save the tooth." (He seemed pretty darn excited about this. Like he was part of Greenpeace or something.) And so we moved on to the root canal, after much injection of novocaine to make it numb.
Once he was finished, he gave me instructions and sent me home to "take it easy." The front desk informed me that with the insurance, I only needed to pay 20% of the $976,663,322 it cost to visit an endodontist.
On my way home, I stopped at the bookstore to alert The Tim to the whole insurance issue. He offered to buy me a tea or coffee, at which point I realized that I had left my wallet at the endodontist's office. So I went back and retrieved it (the receptionist was *very* annoyed because I don't have a cell phone and therefore she couldn't contact me right away), and headed home.
Finally, I was safely in our house. At which point I tripped on the steps going upstairs to change my clothes. I was sure that a cup of tea would make it all feel better. Except I burned my hand pouring it. Then Tess threw up.
After a nap, I was left with a REALLY sore jaw. Then I found this in a Google image search, called "middle-aged woman with toothache"
At least I look better than she does!
I think ...
04 March 2009
February Book Report
Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, by Julie Powell, was an enjoyable read. It was second on my list for the Well-Seasoned Reader Challenge. The book details a year in the life of Powell, who decided that she would try to cook all of the recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Powell herself admits that she was not a great cook in the first place, but once she decides to take on this adventure, she throws herself into it wholeheartedly. It's often a necessary release from her daytime job as a secretary in New York City for a government agency overseeing plans for a memorial of the September 11 attacks.
With her cookbook in hand, and the support of her husband, she does manage to accomplish her goal. Though her friends and family are puzzled by her activity at the beginning, by the time she is finished, they have become her biggest supporters.
Powell writes in a pretty conversational style, and is good at describing the different types of foods that she does not just get introduced to, but that she has to cook in a specific manner in order for the recipes to be successful. I liked the fact that she was not always enamored of Julia Child, or of individual recipes or ingredients; it was refreshing to me that she was not a blind follower, so to speak. Her writing allowed you to understand her frustrations, successes, and the obligation she began to feel towards her "Bleaders" (the name she gives her blog readers). You can see her changing throughout the book, not just personally, but in the way she looks at the world and her friends and family.
Having said that, some of her descriptions of her friends and family seemed forced at times. I am the first one to admit that my own stories about my friends and family strike some as possibly made up or based on an event that I have then added to, and I can tell you that is not the case for me - I couldn't make that stuff up if I tried! But Powell's friends and family (well, her brother in particular) seem extremely quirky, as if they are setting out to be quirky - you know, it's a conscious effort on their part. I found some of them particularly annoying for this reason. Since they were not the focus of the book, they only appeared at times, which was fine with me.
I found a lot of her descriptions of food preparations so well-written that they made me slightly nauseous! In particular, reading about her adventures making calves' feet gelee, and cooking (well ... killing) lobsters, nearly caused me to stop reading.
The only thing about this book that puzzled me was how Powell and her husband managed to afford the expensive and/or exotic ingredients for Child's recipes. Her descriptions of their jobs does not make it sound like they were raking in huge salaries, or even that they had some kind of cushion in the form of a bank account or family money they inherited. I know that even basic ingredients on special at the grocery store can often leave you making choices of what you really need as opposed to what you would like to be able to buy. And she was doing all of this in New York City, which has a variety of places to shop, but is not an inexpensive place. This is the same kind of question I had about Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love, though she does mention that she had some savings that she used for her world tour of self-discovery. So maybe I am just one of those people who have no sense of adventure, but I will admit that I kept wondering about the financial aspects of Powell's project throughout the book.
I would say that Julie & Julia is entertaining. I am sure that there are those who would be offended by her frequent use of the f-word, but in reading the book it was clear that it was part of her conversational speech, rather than something she added to the book for shock value. If that particularly bothers you, you may wish to choose something else. I just kept reading, and am not sorry to have made it to the end with her.
I have decided to offer the book to anyone who might be interested in it. Send me an e-mail or leave a comment by Saturday, March 7. If more than one person is interested, I'll pull a name out of a hat (or a bowl, or some other item, but you get the idea).
You too could be a winner!