Salem Sunrises

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Friday was a rubbish day in many ways. Rubbish weather (after an unseasonable spell of blisteringly beautiful sun), rubbish people, rubbish work, rubbish commute (both ways). I wouldn’t have thought it judging from the striking sunrise for which I had to stop in the middle of work and snap a photo or two:

Maybe it’s good for balance. I am living in Salem, after all, where when one isn’t having their palms crossed with green to tell you that line on your hand means you’re going to marry a handsome dark stranger, they are preaching to you about balance in nature and blah blah Tom Brady effigies.

With that in mind, conversely, it makes sense that on a day like today, when I realized that I’ll have way more money than I thought to spend on vacation in England next week (because I forgot to factor in my paycheque I’m getting while I’m there), I wake up to a sinus-destroying, black and white and royal blue behemoth of a cloudy, pressure-laden “sun”rise (really – spot the sun):

The Hidden Perils of North Shore Winter Weather

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It’s getting colder, wetter, windier and colder. As I type, I can’t quite feel much sensation in my fingers, and I long for the days of my overheating laptop. To slog through these Dickensian conditions until my campaign for a state-wide paid hibernation is both put forward and taken seriously, I distracted myself by considering the following weather hazards this time of year.

Umbrellas

Might sound obvious, but only good for rain. In New England, wind often accompanies rain, rendering the use of an umbrella completely um…useless. If it’s blustering out, what is the point in carrying an umbrella at all, besides giving your upper arms a good workout? It just becomes a weapon against yourself – you can try to clutch it with both hands and keep it still, or hold it close to your face to try to block the gales, but it will try to lure you into oncoming traffic every chance it gets.

You won’t be able to tell until you get outside, but gauging the strength of the rain versus the strength of the wind is your best way to tell if it’s worth wearing a hoodie (or this) instead of wrestling with that infernal bumbershoot. Otherwise, it’ll keep smacking into your face and the resulting concussion will have you hallucinating taunting choruses of “why are you hitting yourself? stop hitting yourself!” while you try not to look like an incompetent fool to anyone with a stronger brolly.


Puddles

They are deeper than they look. Be wary of large cars, trucks, minivans, Escalades and basically, ANY American car, the drivers of which all feel it’s their duty to suddenly speed up and plow straight into that rank water, splashing you to the bone. If it’s raining, has rained, or is threatening to rain, avoid the edges of pavements at all costs, don’t wear white or anything that needs to be dry-cleaned, and walk as far inside the pavement as you can. Scale-walk against the wall of a building 1980s cop-style, if you have to.

As Salem is quite flat, it’s prone to flooding, so the slightest dribble of rain transforms most grassy areas like the Commons into a giant moat. So, if you live here in town, you can head over to the Fool’s Mansion, pick up some Renaissance-themed clothing and act out your favourite medieval legend. Given that I’m in a country that likes to call football soccer, I’ll no doubt be adapting my beloved Robin Hood into the lesser-known version, where the commie bastard finally gets his comeuppance.

Snow

It might look pretty, but it turns to ice very fast, and becomes hell to walk on, drive in, fly through, or ride the trains in. Much like black ice on the roads, you won’t see the sneaky little bugger that slips you up on the pavement, either. Walk in fresh snow and don’t cross anywhere that doesn’t have a timed pedestrian crossing. Motorists are more important than you, and will become impatient if they have to wait at a regular crosswalk; this will encourage you will hurry to cross and you’ll slip and fall. Don’t. Make them wait while you take your sweet time crossing and can only blame the 20-second crosswalk crossing time for your long crosswalk crossing time.

Cold

Here’s how to dress: Scarf layered over your normal clothes, then winter hat, then second scarf wrapped around neck and anchoring hat inside. One pair of gloves, then a pair of thick handwarmers to cover. Two pairs of tights and a pair of slipper socks, then knee-length boots, OR a pair of tights under a pair of trousers. Yes, you are going to have to dress the way homeless people do in the movies, or like Joey in that episode of Friends:

 

Don’t even think you will ever get away with wearing one layer of anything from November to May. To avoid looking like a homeless person, use pieces with clean lines, key fabrics, and refrain from pissing yourself to entertain passing strangers for a dollar for crack money.

Hail

The first time I ever experienced hail, I was a tiny little child in primary school and I cried. I understood what it was (it is England, after all), but a lot of the other kids were freaking out and saying that it hurt, so the peer pressure got to me and I wanted to fit in. Also: it did hurt. It interrupted a Madonna sing-a-long I had instigated and I was finally starting to fit in. It was one of those schools that switched up the entire class population every year, so you could never really forge lasting friendships, so the Madonna sing-a-long was a key moment in my friend-yoinking skills. And then that fucking hail came and decided to…hail on my parade. Horrible, icy little bastards. Mother Nature’s best weapon against mankind, hail is the non-sissy version of snow, and no amount of church bell-ringing and canon-firing is going to stop her from pelting you with ice like a bitter, misunderstood frat boy.

Sleet

That mutant freak between rain and snow, its whimsical approach to the six states of matter means that you truly have no idea what to expect – ice, snow, or nothing at all. The Weather Channel calls it a “Wintry Mix”, so they can fuck off for making it sound like a Christmas selection box. It is not like box of chocolates. Although…you do never know what you’re gonna git.

Despite all potential hazards of the above, Massachusetts is not a state of wusses. While in England, schools have been closed due to extreme winds and the lightest flakes of snow shut down entire stretches of motorway, you will still be expected to come into work unless your house is completely submerged in whatever weather is threatening you. According to one of the (sane) shuttle drivers, the last major MBTA disruption was in 1978, during a massive snowstorm. And when they mean massive snowstorm, they weren’t just showing off, because it murdered 100 people and caused over $50 million in damage. So even if you have to ski to work, you are still going to have to make it in, because everyone else paid good money for their snow tyres and they aren’t going to let them go to waste when there’s plenty of puny pedestrians they can drown in tyre-induced snowdrifts.

The Fear of Turning on The Heating in Massachusetts

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Last night, I had a dream that my roommate had a bulbous, rubbery, steam-powered, steam-emanating steampunk clock hanging on the wall. It looked a bit like an Adipose. I was so freezing cold that I decided to carefully take it down and put it on the right-hand side of the air mattress. I was fully aware that the steam might have been dangerous, but in the dream I was so cold and my sinuses were so congested that I didn’t care. It took a minute for me to get the thing to stay upright (it was kinda floppy – shut up), then I lay back down, pulled all four blankets over my head and tried to enjoy the heat.

What felt like seconds later, I woke up, feeling cheated that this dream had everything depicted exactly to the letter, from the placement of that one Target bag with the various toiletries, to the colour of the air mattress. I woke up to a leaking face (eyes, nose, soul) because the drafts were actually gusting through what looked like a window, but wasn’t acting like one.

I had placed the air mattress directly in front of the radiator, thinking that the closer I’d be to the heat, the warmer I’d feel. This is wrong. The radiators are directly under the window, which blows in cold air much faster and at much greater volumes than that tiny little radiator can eke out. So not only do they cancel each other out, but the window’s cold air takes the radiator’s heat, bitch-slaps it, insults its mum and then leaves a flaming bag of dog poo on its doorstep.

My roommate keeps the thermostat at 61F. I assumed that was a large number, but still never having bothered to learn the conversion from Celsius in my head, I thought nothing of it and went to sleep. Only I couldn’t.

I recognize the difference of warmth between sleeping on a soft, thick mattress at knee-level and sleeping on a plastic air mattress (while still extremely comfy) at Talus-level. And I have fallen sick(er?) again, so maybe I’m not the best gauge for temperature. But I recall staying with her for a week or so a few years back – same time of year, same air mattress – and I was nowhere near as cold. In fact, it’s colder here than where I was before, and I was moving from there to escape the cold!

I wondered why she kept the heat so low when in England, most people I know keep it between 18-20C (64-68F), or even up to 21C (70C) when it’s extra cold. I thought it might have been because she grew up in a colder climate than this (gorgeous NY state mountains), but my husband, who has lived in New England his whole life, always dictates that we try to keep it maximum 68-70F.

I then remembered that, during my previous stay with her, she said that her gas bill was over $200 (£127) a month. To get it to just 16C in the winter, she has to pay that muchOutrage! I remember the first apartment the husband and I got, with “new efficiency windows” that were designed to hold in heat so the bills would be low, but the first gas bill I got was over $380 (£242). Converting it to pounds looks like it lessens the blow, but Americans view dollars in the same way Britons view pounds – there’s a 99p store and there’s a 99 cent store. The values are appreciated in the same way. Would you fucking pay almost £400 a month just to HEAT a tiny, tiny 2-bedroom FLAT?

My father lives in the UK, in a 5-bedroom, two-floor home which also has an attic. The rooms are fairly large, and for his gas and electric COMBINED, it comes to less than £80. Yep, utilities are cheaper in the UK.

Here, in the summer, if you have an air conditioner on, be prepared to face up to $120+ a month, and if you’ve got a tumble dryer and washing machine, expect to add an extra $70 a month on top of that. I’ll say it again – this is an outrage!

So why are gas and electricity so expensive in Massachusetts? The first time I rented an apartment here, the landlord said “call Keyspan to set up the gas, and National Grid to set up the electricity”. I just did as I was told and thought nothing of it – had no idea how expensive it would turn out to be. It even gets Martha Coakley mad.

The prices were enough to turn me off the companies entirely, worse so when National Grid ended up buying out Keyspan. Whatever, they bought another company. I’d go somewhere else! It’s the reason that websites like Uswitch and Moneysupermarket exist. Well, I went to a website called MxEnergy, who supply gas in my area, and entered my potential zipcode. I got this:

It’s somehow telling me that my zipcode has already been reserved for another gas company? It was probably a glitch. So I went on the company’s online chat and virtually spoke to a lovely lady called Carolina, who told me this:

So there you have it. It doesn’t matter what energy supplier I choose, the “delivery” will always be through National Grid, because they “own” the lines and meters…?!

National Grid themselves have even addressed this complete lack of choice by spamming search engines with pages talking about how they actually do offer a “choice” of companies. How exactly is it a choice when my money will still be going to the same company? It’s like being given a used pink pacifier to suck on and being told it’s not a pink pacifier, it’s a giant blue gummy bear lollipop.

In the UK, there are a ton of gas and electric suppliers, and they all have to compete with each other to get customers. How do they do that? By lowering their fucking rates. There is also not one company who automatically get “dibs” on all the fucking power lines and meters – it’s the gas company that YOU CHOOSE (at least as a homeowner) to give your money to.

I would like this for Christmas, please.

When a company like National Grid imposes a monopoly of not only gas but also electricity, it’s not exactly a healthy market. And they can do as they like and charge what they like, because there is no-one there to stop them, no-one to stand in their way, and no-one to offer an alternative. They’re sitting pretty. And it doesn’t matter whether you have forced hot-air vents, electric radiators or space heaters or normal gas radiators – it’s still expensive to run, and your money is going to go to the same company. You can pretend it says “My Little Pony Gas” but at the end of the day, it’s a company that’s still owned by National Grid, a company so greedy they had to monopolize both gas and electricity.

In my opinion, 61F (16C) is just a little bit too cold for my liking, but not uncomfortable. You can get used to the temperature – bundle up in comfy blankets, flannel sheets and fleece pyjamas – that’s what the snuggliness of winter is all about. It’s the drafts, though – they’re just so unpredictable. And after the first night here where I killed a huge spider (and thought about leaving its carcass on the wall as a warning to its mates), it’s discomforting to wonder whether or not it was actually a draft.

Typical English repression dictates that if something makes you feel uncomfortable, you must suffer through the discomfort and avoid bringing it up, whether it’s something as small and relatively insignificant as this, or something actually detrimental to yourself (like a shark attack or a deficiency of Nutella). If I want the heat as high as I want it, I’ll just have to get my own place. It’s like when you’re in a car and the person who’s driving gets to pick the music. Although I really hope she’s not hiding some Michael Buble fetish.

Much like healthcare and  higher education, heat is expensive, and rightfully so, because they are all privileges; luxuries, if you will. The easiest way to stay warm over here is to do it on the cheap – fill up on Twinkies, Devil Dogs, peanut butter and fast food to create a snuggly, toasty layer of excess fat. Try to be creative if it’s already winter, so you can put on the weight as fast as possible. You can brush your teeth with milkshakes!

Wind

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No, this isn’t a post about farts. It’s also not a post about the local creepy, top hat-wearing, face-tattooed perv by that name who tries to feel people up at laundromats (reasons 1, 2 and 3 why you should never go into a laundromat).

Scotland wasn’t the only place battered by gale-force winds today. This morning I had to use my twig-like legs to stop the wind from careening me into the path of passing cars. I probably looked drunk. At least I wasn’t on a flimsy bridge trying to cross the Charles River like the last time it was this windy. For a job interview last year that turned out to be in the opposite direction.

My roommate owns her own condo, and it’s much closer to the water than the last place in which I was staying. That might have something to do with the severity of the wind, but having to walk against it all the damn way to the train station was a battle I did not want to face after grossly oversleeping (i.e. waking up after the sun) this morning.

The bitter winter wind, blowing over a range of snowy summits to the north, almost flayed the skin from our faces.

Jane Eyre, Chapter vii (Charlotte Bronte)

OK, so my journey to the train station to a fairly cushy job cannot be compared to the horrors of Lowood, but we did both drink coffee. But it proved how insufficient everything I was clothed in was against this weather. It was if I was wearing nothing at all.

I learned the hard way that you really have to dress like a damn skier here. Everything should be windproof and light layers. Scarves should be twofold. If you have gloves, wear one pair of normal, finger-fitted ones, then wear a pair of mittens over the top. Keep your sinuses warm – one of those long animal hats will do the trick, and I can testify that the official Harry Potter hats are fairly snug, but if you’re worried about looking like a twat, then you can fuck off and freeze to death. This is New England, not a fahkin’ fashion show.

Sunglasses are also a year-round necessity. They’re not just for summer glare or to protect your eyes from shrapnel dislodged from eye-level speeding trains (I’m not kidding – watch out for the trains heading to Rockport; every single last one of them will give your skirt an atomic wedgie and disembowel your umbrella). They are to protect you from the wind actually trying to bitch-slap the tears from your eyes. Don’t even bother doing your hair (although it’s good for a Pocahontas moment) or makeup before you leave the house. This is why you see so many people applying their mascara on the train.

On the subject of trains (because I love them so), don’t be fooled by the clattering cacophony in the distance when it’s 8.06am. That’s not the 8.06am train, because that usually swans in at 8.14am (when the next train is due). It’s the wind rattling on the roof – the only piece of shelter at the train station looks like something a homeless man would have fashioned out of melted 1950s diner trashcans and some olde English radiators. Literally a tin roof. The wind is a heartless bitch trying to trick you, because if she can’t fart you into the Charles River, she will fool you with her crackhead sense of humour into thinking you might escape her aerodynamic bullying on an MBTA train that would logic-defyingly turn up on time.

So the next time you’re watching a horror movie and someone says “it’s just the wind”, it fucking well IS the wind. The wind is out to get you!

How to Stay Warm in an Air-Conditioned Office

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I am not used to the cold, either indoors or outdoors. I have only worked in one air-conditioned office in my entire life. At my last job, you got a dinky little fan in the summer which had open blades and plugged into your USB slot. It didn’t hurt if you caught your hand in it. Yes, I caught my hand in it. Deliberately. Repeatedly.

It’s comfortable enough without the A/C on in the winter, and if it ever gets too stuffy, open a damn window instead of recycling everyone’s germs. The weather isn’t even that bad at the moment (well, until next weekend – see above), so I will be an even bigger cow when it starts to snow.

Surviving the A/C is actually much easier in the winter, since they tend to turn it down a bit. But Massachusetts is just close enough to New York that everyone is snobby yet liberal and stylish, but close enough to up North that they talk really funny and have a down-to-earth, “you asshole” way of saying “hello”. Therefore, it’s cold – so very cold – in the winter, and yet everyone still has to be stylish. Thankfully, there are ways to survive this corporate idiocy of always having cold air blasting through our systems to lower our morale.

The following are a list of tips I accumulated myself from myself:

  • Down plenty of hot beverages and hot food. If it’s not hot, then zap it in the microwave, even if it’s meant to be served cold. Don’t underestimate the tastiness of nuked chocolate cake and fresh blackberries.
  •  On the subject of food – when consuming something hot, try to create a hot draft of air by protruding your lower jaw and exhaling the hot steam emanating from the food towards your face. If you already have an underbite, you’ve saved valuable energy already from not having to fashion it yourself.
  • Find discreet ways to keep warm while still looking nice and corporate: try headbands made of wool; ear muffs to match your hair colour; hand warmers that stop just below the mid-point of your fingers (much in the way that pulled jumper sleeves do); two pairs of tights (a smart pair over a woolly pair); a heavy scarf that can be worn as a smart shawl
  • Hold food in your hand while eating. Any warmth helps, and it’s better than blowing hot air into your hands every few seconds.
  • Frequent hot drinks = frequent toilet trips = frequent trips to an area with no air conditioning. Toilets never have an a/c blasting. Also, the fecal contaminatants from years of improper office loo cleaning render this a haven for heat.
  • Don’t make a mistake of sitting near a window, cat-like, ready for sunbeams. First of all, remember this is New England (there is no sun). Second, windows are prime spots for a/c vents.

  • Declare yourself eskimo. This will warrant a significant yet convenient cultural wardrobe change
  • Walking around will get your blood moving, so think of reasons to walk to the printer for important document revisions, such as that comma you put in that paragraph, but then changed your mind about, but then you changed your mind again.
  • Think fitted layers, not necessarily just one comfy, thick, soft but baggy sweater. That cold air is going to get you no matter what.
  • Wear long hair down; cut layers and fringes to use your hair as a stylish winter hat. If you are a man, then tough titties.
  • Bring in one of those microwaveable oat stuffed animals things that keeps you warm (the ones that can also be cooled to use for hangovers).

Contrary to popular belief, cold weather does actually play a part in both developing and prolonging a cold or viral infection. Of course, it’s worsened by the fact that, during the cold winter months, people are going in and out of the cold, sharing confined spaces with others, and more people are in schools/work etc, so there’s a better opportunity for the virus to be spread. Especially by those disgusting people who do not wash their hands.

There are too many important holidays (Thanksgiving; Christmas; my birthday; New Year’s) to be thwarted by a virus that you can’t even see, so the best defence is a good defence.

The upside of the a/c is that the gentle whirring is soft enough to lull you to sleep when no-one’s around, and loud enough that you can eat moderately-textured food items without sounding like a pig.

Ignore the previous statement if you do not work in a cubicle. I’m still sick, so I am going to use the typical New England remedy of whisky and yelling at people. Now excuse me while I sneeze the sky:

Weather: Rain

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What is it about the weather here that it has to present itself in two polarising extremes and has to be so unbelievably violent, regardless of the temperature, humidity or time of year?

In the summer, it can be blisteringly hot or humid to the point of suffocation. There’s a quote attributed (correctly, for once) to Mark Twain stating, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes”. Over here, it can be bitterly cold, swelteringly hot, pissing down with rain and heaving down with snow – sometimes in the same month.

November is one of those months. Having experienced highs of 0C AND 22C in the short span of a week, it’s enough to make flu season pack that more of a punch. New England bodies can’t reconcile the stark contrasts of weather with their wardrobes, so rather than wearing lots of light layers, it’s better to wear one or two great big fat layers so you can shed just the one if the weather steers towards the comfy side.

Currently, the big weather bitch is rain. In October, we had sunny sun AND a snowstorm, and last November snow was the big one to watch. After some flooding a few weeks back, it’s rain’s turn. The weather forecast said “Heavy Rain and Wind”, and The Weather Channel doesn’t tell lies:

it's deeper than it looks...

It’s a common thing to have to cross several mini-moats to get to the train station. With the extra weight and wind resistance from your heavy wellies, you should probably add an extra ten minutes to any pedestrianised commute. Anywhere.

Except for the day before Thanksgiving, when the car parks all look like this:

This time yesterday, that car park was packed more than it’s ever been, so it wasn’t all commuters. People taking the day off work before and after Thanksgiving to give themselves a long weekend that we enjoy every month in the UK.

Not that the road was devoid of cars. You see, when it rains, there’s an unwritten rule that states that if you’re in a car, you MUST obey the speed limit up until the point of a large puddle, at which time you plow straight through it and violently submerge any passing pedestrian. Like me. After said pedestrian has issued the customary greeting (“oh, you f***ing c**t!!”) pretend to ignore them and drive off. If you don’t, your licence will be revoked and wolves will jacknife your tyres. This works best if you have an obnoxiously large, fugly truck. Like this bitch:

you know what they say about women in white vans...

As a pedestrian, you do need to be prepared for this weather. Do not think that your awesome yet clearly child-sized Doctor Who Cardiff Exhibition umbrella (which you did not realize was child-sized until today) will cut it with this weather. You need a good, strong, golf-style umbrella with a wind-proof lining, otherwise you will be spending most of your time out in the rain playing tug-of-war with the wind. And you’ll get soaked. Incidentally, my light-up umbrella has survived hurricanes, so it’s functional as well as completely effing awesome.

A waterproof jacket would be nice, but then so would waterproof trousers and a waterproof face. Don’t even bother this time of year; unless you can get one of those ones that looks like a sleeping bag with a furry hood, focus on warmth instead of dryness. If your bag isn’t waterproof, you’ll be focusing your keep-dry efforts towards a good umbrella investment anyway.

Wellies are key. Make sure they’re at least mid-calf high,  You will also need a bag to carry your “proper shoes” because whether you work in a freezing cold office or a high-trafficked clothes store, you are not going to be comfortable carrying out your job in those non-breathable, tall, thick, plastic clown shoes.

A hairbrush, either in your bag/pocket or at your work, is essential. This is not the wimpy English rain you might be used to. This is proper, roidy, rage-y, ice-hockey fan-rain. This rain doesn’t fuck around. You will look like you have been proverbially dragged through the proverbial hedge in the proverbial backwards fashion, so best make yourself look presentable. Side note: don’t even try to bother thinking about straightening/styling your hair. Bang it under a hat and just leave.

Prepare your umbrella-swishing-finishing moves: embarking the train/shuttle/bus is like a competition for the best seats. Whoever gets on first, gets the pick of what’s left. Don’t lose by being a wuss! Shake that umbrella off as fast as you can or sacrifice dry clothes for a non-shaken wet umbrella leaning against your knees so you can get that best seat. While waiting for/queueing to get on the train, if you have a wide enough umbrella, you can use it to flank standing-space-stealing hopefuls and block them from trying to get on before you.

Make sure your bag is organised. You do not want to be balancing that humungous umbrella on the inside of your elbow while you use both hands to fish around in your Mary Poppins’ carpet bag to find your work security pass, mobile phone or car/house keys and you angle your arm just the wrong way and…rain pouring off the brolly down your neck. If your bag doesn’t have many internal pockets, consider getting one of these.

Beware of leaves. Salem has a lot of cobblestoned and brick-tiled pavements. Fallen leaves turn to mulch, which is slippery enough. Add tons of rainwater and mud from other people’s shoes and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. This time of year, the streets are covered with huge piles of them, which will eventually turn to huge piles of slippery mulch. Watch out!

The aforementioned puddles can also be an unknown hazard, particularly where the pavement or grass is uneven/hilly anyway.. Even though this isn’t a specifically New England thing, remember, they are not always as shallow and harmless as they look: