April 17, 2014

April 17, 2014

Oatlands Plantation

Does the name “King Carter” ring a bell? He was extraordinarily powerful and wealthy in Colonial Times, hence the royal moniker. He was also a Virginian, so your familiarity with him may vary depending on where you grew up and how thorough your US History teacher was. (House of Burgesses, anyone?) I myself had heard of him only in passing, until I saw a Groupon* for discounted admission to Oatlands Plantation. (As a native daughter of Wisconsin—home to zero plantations—I try to take advantage of these sorts of opportunities.) Oatlands was built by some of King Carter’s descendants, and today is part of the National Trust.

Your first stop is the Carriage House, which now houses the ticket office and a tearoom of some sort. The staff had surprisingly little trouble with the Groupon* vouchers; typically I feel like I’m trying to use counterfeit money when I redeem one of those things. I didn’t stop for any tea, though, since I was underdressed and about 40 years too young. It was no Madam Puddifoot’s.

House tours are given each hour on the hour. We had about 45 minutes until the next one, so we decided to check out the grounds and outbuildings. If you’ve ever visited a large estate, you know that the main house is just the tip of the property iceberg. Oatlands has a couple of outbuildings closed to the public:

But a greenhouse—one of the oldest in America—that’s open:

As soon as I walked in, the lenses in both my camera and my glasses immediately fogged up. It was in the 50s outside the greenhouse but in the 150s inside (approximation). I snapped a few quick shots of the plants before the heat exhaustion could melt the flesh from my bones.

The house itself wasn’t as large as some I’ve been in (it’s not like the guy was President or anything), but it was decent. Our tour guide spent most of the time explaining the men, women, children, seniors, and animals depicted in paintings and photos on the house’s walls. Meh. But what she lacked in Focused Tour Giving Oratorio, she made up for in enthusiasm.

(No pictures allowed in the house due to funky National Trust rules.)

The gardens, though, were my favorite part. Full of hedgerows, bird baths, sundials, statues, and a koi pond. A proper garden, which would be right at home in any Lewis Carroll novel.

NB: Oatlands Plantation is in Loudoun County, one of Virginia’s richest. If you do go, prepare to see a lot of pro-fox hunting license plates and meet people who own multiple horses.

* Technically, Amazon Local. Same diff.

April 15, 2014

April 15, 2014


The spring TV shuffle this year is not just about Mad Men, Cosmos, and Game of Thrones. It’s also about Call the Midwife, Mr. Selfridge, and The Bletchley Circle. That’s right, baby: I’m talkin’ ‘bout some PBS. It’s not just Mr. Rogers and Downton Abbey. (I love Mr. Rogers and Downton Abbey. Please, no letters.)

Let me start with my favorite of the three: The Bletchley Circle. As you may or may not know, Bletchley Park was home to Britain’s codebreakers during World War II. Some of that nation’s greatest minds dedicated their time to man’s greatest achievement: kicking Nazi butt. Fast forward a few years. Four former BP lady codebreakers, who’ve maintained various degrees of contact, come together to solve a mystery. They’re uniquely suited for it; one’s good with maps, another has a photographic memory, etc. Last season involved some of the tensest scenes I’ve seen this side of Sherlock S2. The show also highlights the difference between postwar America (barbecues and lawn flamingos for everybody!) and postwar Britain (tea, tweed, and weariness).

Mr. Selfridge is about the American (!) who moved to Britain (!!) to start one of the very first department stores. Selfridge’s still operates today, though I’m not sure how it compares to the opulence of its 1910s heyday. Because shopping was GLAM back then, people. The guys on the loading dock dressed better than I do. Mr. Selfridge falls rather on the soapy side, though, so I give it a moderate recommend. Jeremy Piven plays the title role, though I can't speak to any similarities between this character and whoever he played on Entourage (Ari?).

You know Call the Midwife is good if someone as opposed to children—both in theory and in practice—can enjoy it. Granted, there are a lot of graphic childbirth scenes. I mean, a LOT. I guess having a baby is hard enough even in modern times. In the East End tenements of 1950s London, it was unbearable. The nuns and midwives of St. Nonnatus house did what they could, though, and the show includes the ups and the downs of that life. One of my aunts is a nun, so I like seeing what convent life is like. It’s also interesting to see how the midwives live; they’re in sort of a dorm setup. And, of course, the patients. Oy, the patients. The patients who range from happy-but-poor to down-and-out. Some make the best of what they’ve got, and others wallow in their misfortune. I was so intrigued by these Eastenders that I read the trilogy of books on which Call the Midwife is based. (Not necessarily the best idea, because the graphic childbirth scenes are even more so in print.)

You may not have the time or ability to watch these shows live. But they’re also put on the PBS website, which is on the very same internet as this blog. You can do this. You have the technology.

March 28, 2014

March 28, 2014


Have I mentioned that I watch Vikings?* I think of it as a happy medium between Game of Thrones and The Tudors, taking the best of both shows. From Game of Thrones, a regal historical setting complete with power plays and violence. From The Tudors, bodice ripping, codpiece ripping, and salacious staring matches. Plus the fact that Vikings airs on The History Channel gives it the sheen of respectability.

The main character is Vikings is a guy named Ragnar Lodbrok. (Be warned: You’re going to encounter a lot of Nordic names. You thought The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was rough. So many vowels, guys. So many vowels.) He apparently actually did live in the 12th century, and you know I love things Based on a True Story. The show’s first season focuses on the conflict between Ragnar and the tribe’s leader (“Earl”) over whether or not to go a-raidin’. Ragnar is pro, the Earl is against. Once Ragnar goes a-raidin’ anyway and returns with craploads of English booty, though, his fortunes—literal and metaphorical—rise completely. Season two, currently airing, furthers the themes of intertribal conflict (Ragnar’s Earl now. Pull quote: “I AM DE CAPTAIN NOW.”) and a-raidin’.

But enough of the plot summaries. Let’s discuss why this show is ÜBER GÜT (REALLY GOOD):

- Medieval Times: not just a restaurant. Quick: How many TV shows have you seen set during the Middle Ages? Not a lot, right? Yet it’s literally a thousand years when people lived and stuff happened. Nothing against shows involving people staring at cell phones or whatnot, but there’s something moving about the days when life was nasty, brutish, and short. In one scene, a woman is asked how old she is. She responds that she doesn’t know. PEOPLE DIDN’T EVEN KNOW HOW OLD THEY WERE BACK THEN. Mind. Blown.

- Badass women. The Vikings were fierce long before Beyonce; you know that from high school history class. The show naturally involves a fair amount of fighting with swords, fists, axes, arrows, etc. However, it’s not just the boys that can take care of business. Ragnar’s wife Lagertha is truly a woman after Eowyn’s own heart. You don’t want to get between her and a sword.

- Clever use of language. Non-spoiler alert #1: The show’s in English. Non-spoiler alert #2: Vikings didn’t speak English. It’s artistic license for sake of convenience, and I completely accept that. Where the show excels, though, is when the Vikings meet the English. In scenes featuring the two peoples, the English characters speak Old English with modern English subtitles. English speakers can pick out just enough words to recognize it, in the way that you can read a teeny bit of the Magna Carta. As a lover of language, I find that fascinating. In these joint scenes, the Vikings speak some sort of Scandinavian language, but more often just glare while fingering their axes.

- Violence and romance in equal measures. The violence is quite violent. The romance is quite romance-y. Something for everybody.

I’m thrilled that this show, about a civilization from a thousand years ago that neither read nor wrote, is finally getting a little press. Well-deserved. Strong recommend.

* Before now, I mean. I realized I mentioned it just then, smartass.

March 26, 2014

March 26, 2014

Beware the Jabberwock, My Son

Whether you love captchas or hate them with the warmth of a thousand suns, they’re here to stay. Partly because they help distinguish us from the robots (FOR NOW), partly because they help the Powers That Be transcribe old books, and partly because I like all my lists to have three points.

It’s fine. Really, it is. Even though some captchas lately have involved numbers rather than letters. Those tend to be even easier because there are fewer numbers than letters, at least in English. Your native language’s mileage may vary.

(Related: On this week’s Brain of Britain, we learned that the number four is represented in Morse code by four dots AND A DASH. I bet Samuel Morse found that effing hilarious. Dick move, man.)

So I’m clicking around Ticketmaster browsing John Hodgman tickets (still undecided) when I get this:

Now, okay. Two can play at this game. And by “game,” I mean “reciting ‘Jabberwocky’ in its entirety.” This was a moment I’d been waiting for since 1995.

(I am also prepared with the first chapter of the Bible book of James, all the US Presidents in order, and the first verse of that Nations of the World song from Animaniacs.)

Those of you also familiar with the poem know that it includes a lot of tongue-twisting portmanteaus. Because I wanted to show our future robot overlords* that humanity still has a thing or two going for it, I tried:

I hoped that my “error” would at least be logged somewhere if not actually reported to the robot overlords.

But “mimsy borogroves” was accepted. ACCEPTED. As if they knew my game all along. As if, had I typed “mimsy borogoves” I would have torn a hole in the Matrix because humans are so fallible the robots have already accounted for our puny, oxygen-dependent, meatsack-operating brains.


* Who are obviously running this whole captcha scheme and possibly the Metropolitan Washington Area Transit Authority as sort of psychological experiements in traumatic stress.

March 25, 2014

March 25, 2014

Ian Fletcher Can't Catch a Break

A few years ago, the BBC aired Twenty Twelve—a satirical look at the machinations before London’s Olympic Games. Even in Britain, and even with the Olympics, the folks running the show are often buffoons. Because it was very much along the lines of Veep or In the Loop, I loved it. In fact, I loved it so much I paid full price in iTunes for it. (Full series on Hulu Plus here.)

The BBC has now spun off some of the TT characters in W1A. Instead of the Olympics, this series focuses on the BBC itself. Think The Newsroom but focused on Charlie rather than Will. Worth mentioning: Hugh Bonneville (aka LORD EFFING GRANTHAM) plays the main character and seeing someone from Downton Abbey using a cell phone is exactly as weird as you would hope.

My favorite character, though, is Siobhan Sharpe, media consultant extraordinaire. I don’t care how amazing you are; if you tell me you work in social media, I pretty much imagine you to do this all day:

Fantastic, okay? Okay? Fantastic.

March 20, 2014

March 20, 2014


A collection of things that I can’t seem to write more than 100 words about…

I present to you the Arizona Diamondbacks’ 18-inch corn dog:

Meant to be shared (note: ha), it’s apparently stuffed with bacon and cheese. It comes with fries, too. Because it wouldn’t be a full meal without the fries, obviously. But don’t mind me; I’m just pissed it’s not an 18-inch cheese stick. Come on, Brewers!

Speaking of baseball (it’s spring now; we can do that), I’m reading The Art of Fielding and it’s turning out to be weirdly reminiscent of my own college experience. Small school in Wisconsin, not much collegiate glory to speak of, etc. Though I’m years late to the party, this one gets a recommend. (I haven’t finished it yet, though, so if it turns out to have a gruesome end I reserve the right to revoke the endorsement.)

Spring also means it’s cherry blossom season here in DC and HERE COME THE TOURISTS. On the plus side, we can see the kite festival and the fireworks from our condo. On the other hand, we can’t see the trees themselves and those are sort of the whole point. I’m trying to calculate a window of time when the tidal basin will be devoid of both tourists AND rapists, and I bet it’ll be something like 5 AM. Argh.

Oh, and March Madness. I submitted three brackets, two of which I created using the CBS Sports auto-picker. Not to rain on your bracketology parade or anything, but c’mon. I overheard someone this week boasting he could name all the 1-9 seeds and was thisclose to responding with “And some of us have a real job.” Because I do all the awards show stuff and people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw EGOTs.

Was SJP’s 73 Questions interview rehearsed? Probably a little. Still good? Oh yeah.

My undergrad alma mater changed its mascot from the Crusaders to the Sabercats and I just can’t. Even if you go with the cultural acceptability logic and throw out the PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE AND ONE MIGHT EVEN SAY IMPOSING Crusader, to go with the sabercat/sabrecat/saber cat/saber-toothed tiger is curious. If you’re going to pick a creature you believe perished in the Great Flood to represent your institution, go with the T. rex. Obviously.

Seriously, though, we gotta find that plane because it is starting to REEK of bad juju. When they announced files had been deleted from the pilot’s home simulator, I started thinking about all the stuff I’ve done/said/possessed that would look pretty suspicious if I suddenly disappeared. Note to self: Don’t suddenly disappear because that underbed box full of small Hello Kitty dolls is kinda creepy.

Facebook friends: The couple who accosted me post-workout in the condo elevator is moving! KARMA. Thank you, universe.

Speaking of neighbors, one of mine occasionally leaves his Army-style boots out in the hallway for a day or two and I’m not sure if he’s expecting treats in them or what. Should I put, like, an orange in there? Does a monkey come by and shine shoes left in the halls? IS THAT A THING OUR BUILDING OFFERS?! IS THAT A THING *ANY* BUILDING OFFERS?!

March 18, 2014

March 18, 2014

Citius, Altius, Fortius, Quietus

Now that I’ve settled into the new place, I’ve started taking advantage of the amenities. Namely, the gym. Though I’m by no means an athlete (or even an “athlete”), I do try to spend enough time on the treadmill each day to get through an episode of QI. Exercising the mind and body, blah blah blah. And America’s rapid decline into obesity means I rarely encounter anyone else.

Until I do.

As with any environment, the gym has its mores. Its social constructs. The rules we all agree to abide by as we put the needs of the many over the needs of the few.* Unless you want to buy your own exercise equipment, and use it only in the confines of your own home, you gotta play by the rules.

Don’t put your junk on the equipment unless you’re using it. I keep walking up to treadmills that appear not to be in use, but that are festooned—FESTOONED—with keys, iPhones, lanyards, and other detritus. Don’t “hold” the machine with your junk, people. Hire a child to sit on the machine until you’re ready to use it, like a civilized person.

Speaking of junk, don’t put your junk on the equipment even if you are using it. And by “junk,” I mean…you know what I mean. Let’s keep everything covered, sheathed, tucked in, and strapped down, okay? This goes for both ladies and gents. Do not subject us to your jiggle.

Keep mirror staring to a minimum. I don’t understand the people who spend more time staring at themselves in the mirrors than actually exercising. Are they searching for a sense of self-worth, or…? Anyway, it freaks me out because it makes me think it’s actually one-way glass and not a mirror and that we’re being observed as part of some social experiment. WHAT DO YOU KNOW? WHAT HAVE YOU HEARD? WHAT DO THEY WANT FROM US?

Also keep chatting to a minimum. As little as I enjoy making small talk with people on elevators, in queues, and at family gatherings, I do it in the name of social acceptability. But when I’m exerting physical effort? It’s not going to happen. I’m wearing earphones for a reason, and that reason is mostly to discourage you from trying to communicate with me verbally. If I could work out with blinders on, I’d do that too. But I don’t have enough inner ear balance for that.

If you want it wiped, wipe it. Though I’m one of the most obsessive-compulsive people I know, I’m not big on wiping the machines before, during, or after use. (Nor do I wash my hands repeatedly or worry about eating food off the floor.) My philosophy: If you want the machine completely germ free before you touch it, douse it and yourself in Lysol.

Caveat exerciser.**

*Maybe Communism gets it right some times, is all I’m saying.
**Exercisor? My Latin is rusty, by which I mean non-existent.