In Memoriam Peter Caws: poetry

Another life-long joy my father introduced me to is a love of poetry. He had a number of poems memorized for his own pleasure, and he’d recite them for us. It may have started as a way to soothe us before we could understand the language, and I think early on I was primarily impressed by the very feat of memory rather than the poems themselves. Eventually I enjoyed hearing them for their own sake, and grew to love some of his favorites as I went on to discover others. I’ve attempted to memorize some as well, but it doesn’t stick without regular repetition.

The poems I remember best from his repertoire were “Sea Fever” by John Masefield; “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by W. B. Yeats; and “On This Island” by W. H. Auden. I’m sure there were others. When he was ill, one way I could connect with him was to read poetry to him, both his favorites and my own. Eventually I switched to amusing poems when the beautiful ones made him too sad; a lot of Odgen Nash delighted him, and no matter how miserable he was, “Spring Comes to Murray Hill” would inevitably make him laugh.

He wrote poems as well – some serious, but mostly delightful doggerel. My most cherished present, from age 8 to age 52, was the annual birthday poem he would write for me. The first one was lost, alas, but I remember that it featured powers of 2 (I was 8 years old that year, on the 8th of the month, and I was born in ’64). Math, wordplay, and parodies are recurring themes, and some feature footnotes. They’re funny and touching, and I cherish them still and always. I wish I had kept better track of them when I was younger – I have twenty-six of them transcribed and copied from all the sources over the years, and I continue to hope others may turn up.

In Memoriam Peter Caws: long multiplication

I love math, and it’s brought me a lot of joy over the years. I vividly remember the mind-blowing moment in high school when the math teacher introduced the unit circle and Pythagorean identities. After we’d slogged through a semester of trig, geometry (my least favorite math discipline), suddenly connected back to algebra (my favorite)! And one of my most satisfying adult experiences was discovering that I enjoyed calculus despite failing it in college the first time around. It was very hard but I earned straight As in Calculus I, II, and III in my 50s (undergrad at UMass, part of a computer science 2nd bachelor’s program).

None of that could have happened without my dad’s intervention in 4th grade, when I just could not comprehend long multiplication. I was on the road to classic math phobia – shared by my mother and brother, so a real possibility. The times table had already thoroughly spooked me, and it didn’t help that I skipped third grade (to this day I say of any gap in my education that it must have been covered in that year and I missed it). I remember being shocked that earlier generations were required to learn up to 12×12, because a hundred combinations already seemed impossible. (I never memorized the 6-7-8 section – I had to argue to get partial credit on my first calculus midterm for having correctly worked a difficult problem until I wrote 7*9 = 64…)

So 9-year-old me is required to know all the integer combos, and now I also have to know when to carry, how to move across the decimal places, and then add it up at the end? I could not handle it. I felt like my brain wasn’t up to it, that it was too complicated to ever understand, and that the people who could do it must have some special ability that I lacked.

I don’t remember asking my father for help. From a very young age I believed, due to a combination of nature (independence, stubbornness) and nurture (sink-or-swim parenting, a semi-feral childhood), that I was supposed to solve my own problems, and if I couldn’t, that was my failure. The notion of being “just a small child” didn’t cross my mind. But either I did ask, or he saw that I was struggling.

Peter worked with me patiently and gently for hours, typically in the mornings before school. The specifics have faded, but I vividly remember his tidy handwriting as he demonstrated the techniques, and most of all his faith and confidence in my ability to master it. He conveyed over and over again that he knew it was hard for me, that finding it difficult to grasp wasn’t a flaw, but that if I gave him my attention and didn’t give up, I would understand it eventually. Many times I broke down in sobs, insisting that I just didn’t and couldn’t get it, but he never lost his cool or threw in the towel.

There’s no memory of when the light dawned, and maybe it was a gradual change, but it can’t have taken very long. From then on I actively enjoyed long multiplication. I was still prone to errors, but I knew and understood how to do it, and it was one of the first techniques I added to my ever growing jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none toolset. Relishing good-enough skills – the ability to do something with a modicum of success if not at a high level – I also learned from him (see the previous post!) I am eternally grateful.

In Memoriam Peter Caws: The Cat Sat On the Mat

One of my most treasured possessions is a thin square-ruled notebook, bound in buckram. It’s a “Glatigny,” a French brand I can’t find anything about, and was originally used by my father for “Notes for New School course 1966-7” (which I don’t think came to fruition?). He removed those pages, flipped it over, and turned it into a reading manual for me. I have only a few memories before I learned how to read, and once I did know how (age 5, probably?) I had my nose in a book pretty much every waking hour, so this manual was a significant turning point in my life. The title page calls it “Hilary Caws’s Reading Book,” but we always referred to it as The Cat Sat on the Mat.

I don’t remember the craving to learn to read (I do remember the satisfaction of making rows of squiggles and calling it “writing”), so I’m not sure if my father created this book in response to my request, or if he thought it was time I learned. I vividly remember the process. Each evening he would draw another page while I watched. He would show me the sounds (the syllable in parenthesis), examples in words (the second line), and then the bit of the story that included the words. The spinning out of the story night after night was part of the fun, but as I recall he wasn’t very happy with the drawing in #8 and felt like he was starting to run out of ideas. Besides, by then I had pretty much caught on – it even looks like I tried to help write the last word of #6.

This memento represents so many of my dad’s qualities. He was a born teacher. He overflowed with patience and creativity and willingness to devote time to help people (of all ages!) learn. He was willing to tackle things like drawing in which he knew he wouldn’t excel (other examples: playing piano, carpentry) but could do a workman-like job – he believed strongly that any human skill could be attempted. He was a loving and nurturing father. He had a wonderful sense of humor and play. I miss him very much and I’m so lucky to have this book!

CityStrides – 100% of Northampton!

(back-dating this post, completed 2/2/2021)

On November 7th, 2020, I completed my years-long project of running every street in Northampton, thanks to CityStrides.

I joined in 2018 while training for the New York Marathon, but since it syncs with RunKeeper, my favorite run-recording app, it counted runs I had in 2015 while training for the Rochester Marathon and so I was already at 18%. I don’t remember exactly how I stumbled on it, but it was connected to working with CommonMedia because that’s where James Chevalier, the creator of the app, was working; I had signed up already when I saw him at a tech happy hour and we talked about it. Having it be something local was completely cool and unexpected.

CityStrides has made running so much more fun! It helped a ton during marathon training when the miles started adding up; the extra motivation to complete streets made the long runs more rewarding. That got me to 76% of the city, pulling ahead of the nearest competitors (#2 is at 65% as of today and #3 is at 49%; I didn’t record where they were then, but I don’t think either of them has been focusing on Northampton). It felt awesome to be in the lead, and I kept plugging away at nearby routes post-marathon, but my normal routine is only about 6 miles for a long run and I soon plateaued at a little over 80%.

My philosophy (even pre-CityStrides) is that I want exercise to be self-propelled, so I strenuously avoid driving to a route. I make exceptions for races, of course, and some of my favorite hikes (especially with friends) require getting in the car, but I didn’t want a single stretch of CityStrides to involve driving, so I didn’t make much progress in 2019. This year I decided to prioritize finishing by biking to the outlying areas, starting with sections near ValleyBike stations and then mixing in my regular bike.

I got a bottle of champagne at the end of October in order to celebrate, with the unspoken hope that we’d actually be celebrating a Biden-Harris victory. On November 7th, after the spontaneous celebrations all over downtown, I rode to North King Street to finish the last segment, Trinity Circle in Laurel Park. As I had suspected from a previous attempt, it turns out to be a phantom section that I had to mark manually complete. But one of the really great things about CityStrides is it’s based on the open-source Open Street Map, so I’m trying to figure out how to report this as a phantom or paper street and make it better for everyone. It’s very interesting that the official Laurel Park map, GMaps, and OSM of this area are all totally different.

I became a supporting member so I could get the instant gratification of uploading and syncing my new runs when I got home, but I’m really happy to do so anyway. It’s a great project and it’s free to use! One of the extra-nice features is that it brings in weather data, which RunKeeper doesn’t. I can look back on a particularly slow run and be reminded that it was 85 degrees with 100% humidity!

Some thoughts on why this was so much fun:

  • Obviously, it got me to explore every single street. I saw all kinds of things I would have otherwise missed.
  • Less obviously, I have memories and associations all over town – the neighborhoods I went to over and over, the little streets that eluded me at first, the places I want to revisit.
  • Seeing the variety of architecture, gardens, wild areas, industrial parks – all delightful. Some of the newer/developer-driven neighborhoods remind me of McMansion Hell, but that’s interesting too!
  • I found new conservation areas to explore, and now I have a secondary goal of tracking all the public trails in Northampton.
  • It helped me enjoy what I don’t have – both in the positive sense, that other people’s gardens and design choices bring me pleasure, but also in the negative sense, that every lawn is one I don’t have to mow, and every soffit is one I don’t have to paint.
  • When traveling or visiting family, picking a running route is (rather, was, and will be again…) an additional small joy. I won’t do much of DC or Rochester etc., but I can at least add a few streets on each trip.

On top of getting all the Northampton hiking trails on my lifemap, I can also set new goals – covering neighboring towns like Hatfield (fewer, longer streets) and Easthampton (tons of streets, accessible via ValleyBike). Years ago I had the vague project of walking every Manhattan street, which I was going to manually map. Once the pandemic is over, I’ll be able to work on that when we visit family.

Carrot cake from Iconica

The time between eating and writing is stretching. I’ve also had two muffins (peach-ginger by Tart from Northampton Coffee, raspberry almond from Sylvester’s) and a scone (maple nutmeg oat from Hungry Ghost) which I didn’t blog. So this experiment is probably drawing to an end, as expected. An important aspect of evolution/maturity for me is to recognize that I have way too many ideas to fully carry out in a human lifetime, and it’s not a failure to start many and only finish a few. But what I might try first is just focusing on cake. When I first had the notion to do something like this, pre-pandemic, I wanted to focus on one type of baked good at a time, starting with almond croissants – like Nosh and Nibble’s ranking of them in the Vancouver area, which I just found – so I could start with cake. We’ll see.

Carrot cake from IconicaI had already had Iconica‘s carrot cake, which they describe specifically as “Carrot Cake w/ Ginger + Walnut: 3 layer; yogurt + honey cake, lemon + turmeric cream cheese frosting,” so I knew it was good. The frosting’s bright yellow color is a little shouty because of the turmeric, but it’s a lovely contrast with the dark brown cake, and as usual it’s not tooth-achingly sweet and there’s just the right amount (nor does it taste of tumeric in a detectable way). Note my slice got a little banged up in transit, plus I’m not a food photographer! Texture great, flavor amazing – I think maybe it’s the honey that lingers as a sort of unplaceable yummy aftertaste? It makes me want more, and I did eat it a little faster than I meant to. But one of the things I particularly appreciate about Iconica’s style of cake is that while they taste super-delicious, they don’t have that extra level of butter/sugar/grease that some “indulgent” baked goods have, and as a result my body has never regretted the eating of them. It helps that the slice is the right size to be a satisfying serving and not a temptation to eat too much. Anyway – high marks!

  • Compared to platonic version – 4/5 (my ideal classic carrot cake has coconut, more raisins, and pecans, but this a 5/5 of this specific style!)
  • Originality: 4/5
  • Value for money: 4.5/5 ($4 before tip)
  • Effort factor (1 = could make in my sleep; 5 = no way would I ever make this for myself): 4/5
  • 6 minutes to eat, 26 to write but there was a whole meta-paragraph!

Red velvet beet cake from Iconica

Red velvet beet cake from IconicaAs I told the Iconica folks, red velvet is not a favorite flavor of mine; I hoped the beet would make it more interesting. I wouldn’t have been able to pick it out, but the texture was not only moist but particularly sturdy – not chewy, yet resistant to the tooth in a pleasurable way. I wished the frosting had been a little more assertive on the lemon front. The cake itself had the classic “I don’t know what this tastes like but vaguely cocoa?” of red velvet cake, which is why I don’t much like it. Not a winner, but at least the beet meant it wasn’t soaked in red food coloring.

  • Compared to a platonic version – 4/5? (hard to say)
  • Originality: 4/5
  • Value for money: 3.5/5 ($4.50 before tip)
  • Effort factor (1 = could make in my sleep; 5 = no way would I ever make this for myself): 4.5/5, grating beets being an especially big nope
  • 9 minutes to eat, 12 to write

Frozen Yogurt Virtual 5K race report – 8/16/2020

I miss races. I miss the camaraderie. I miss the excitement and crowds of the start, the spreading out of the first mile until you start to identify your race “peers,” the spectators whether a scattered few or walls of support, the alternation of exhaustion and adrenaline at the finish. I miss gasping in relief when I come to a stop, cooling down and cheering on the people who finish after, chatting with new acquaintances, milling around where the results are posted. I really really miss the food, which is one of my main criteria for choosing races.

I “ran” the Girls on the Run virtual 5K in June, but it was a race I’d never done in person and the terms were pretty loosey-goosey so I didn’t really treat it like a race, just part of my Sunday long run (love the medal, though!) This one I took seriously – I ran it on the course as I remembered it (took a slightly alternate route, it turns out), and tried to pace myself exactly as I would for a real race, with 50-60% effort for the first few miles ramping up to all-out at the finish. 32:08, about right – I am definitely slowing a bit as I age. Last year I finished in 31:19. Very little to report since I was solo… the weather was overcast and not too hot, so that was nice, and the streets were empty because it was early. A distanced yoga class was taking place on the lawn in Childs Park, which looked like fun, and I saw a few other runners. I was proud of myself for staying mostly as focused as I would during a real race, so it was a decent experience – and of course it supports a good cause – but like many other pandemic-year substitutes, it’s a pale imitation of the real thing. Alas, I forgot they had suggested taking a selfie at the finish which they’d include in a livestream on 8/23 – oh well. I will very much enjoy the frozen yogurt when the coupon comes – I hope it will be GoBerry as usual!

edited to add: A big difference I forgot to mention with running now, of course, is the mask… although I often pull it down if there’s nobody around, I ran this whole race fully masked up to see how it went. It would have been fine except for how damp it gets (this is a two-layer handmade cotton mask – I tried running in a neoprene one and it was unbearable, but haven’t tried a standard medical mask). By the end the mask was actually wet and sticking to my face as I panted during the sprint. If I ever had to be masked for a long race, like a marathon or half-marathon, I’d bring several to swap out.

Southern hummingbird cake from Iconica

Southern Hummingbird Cake from IconicaOooh, a new cake variety – new at Iconica that I can recall, and totally new to me as I’d never heard of it before. Iconica’s description: “3 layer; crushed pineapple, banana, pecan cake; cream cheese custard; browned butter buttercream,” and their promo email explained “the pineapple creates a moist crumb but doesn’t feature as a taste in the cake, itself.” Indeed, the flavor was predominantly banana. I like fresh bananas but I tend to avoid them in ice cream or baked goods. It’s an instinctive aversion which doesn’t make much sense because I usually enjoy the flavor once I’m eating it, and this was the epitome of that intense banana flavor – interestingly, not only the pineapple but also the pecans blended in, contributing to the texture alone. As always, perfect proportions, great slice integrity, and delicious (lovely to look at too – the photo didn’t come out very well).

  • Compared to a platonic version – another holotype! – 5/5
  • Originality: 4/5
  • Value for money: 4.5/5 ($4.50 before tip)
  • Effort factor (1 = could make in my sleep; 5 = no way would I ever make this for myself): 4/5
  • 12 minutes to eat, 22 to write

Chocolate chunk scone from Hungry Ghost

Hungry Ghost scone Hungry Ghost makes my favorite scones, hands-down, but it doesn’t open until 10am these days and when I was working a regular schedule, I would seldom get there before they sold out. Got this one at 10:30 and had it for lunch/dessert – a new flavor for me, not quite as delicious as their rosemary/walnut/currant combos but a classic and plenty satisfying. I love the traditional triangle shape because the toasty points are my favorite bit, and Hungry Ghost always bakes to a lovely dark shade – my mother describes undercooked baked goods as “floppy,” and I join her in abhorring them (although sometimes I can redeem a limp cookie or biscuit in the oven). The texture is also perfect, breaking into craggy chunks without falling apart, moist but still with good tooth, and the cubes of chocolate were a good size.

  • Compared to a platonic chocolate chip scone – 4.5/5
  • Originality: 2/5
  • Value for money: 5/5 ($3 before tip)
  • Effort factor (1 = could make in my sleep; 5 = no way would I ever make this for myself): 3/5
  • 14 minutes to eat, 15 minutes to write – that’s more like it!!!

Pistachio cardamom cake from Iconica

Pistachio cardamom cake from IconicaIconica has five different regular cake flavors, of which I’ve already had four, so this completes the set – and I think it’s my favorite! It’s gorgeous to look at, lovely gold layers with warm brown frosting decorated with whole nuts and rose petals, and it smells wonderful. I bought it early in the day to make sure they didn’t run out but didn’t eat it until later, so I kept sniffing it (I do call myself a “cakesniffer,” which I got from the A Series of Unfortunate Events books but define more descriptively than pejoratively). I’m not very familiar with cardamom outside of Indian cuisine and wouldn’t have guessed its presence, but it might contribute to the almost lemony fragrance (Wikipedia describes it as “intensely aromatic, resinous”). This is part of the challenge I’ve given myself – if I were only eating I’d call it delicious and move on, but trying to figure out why it’s delicious is interesting. As cake it hit every mark: very moist but kept its integrity under the fork, clearly-delineated layers with the creamy texture of the frosting complementing the softly-grainy crumb dominated by ground pistachio, complex flavors, not too sweet, just the right amount of frosting, the perfect serving size.

  • Compared to a platonic pistachio cake – this is my holotype since I’ve never had any kind before! 5/5
  • Originality: 4/5
  • Value for money: 5/5 ($4 before tip)
  • Effort factor (1 = could make in my sleep; 5 = no way would I ever make this for myself): 4.5/5
  • 13 minutes to eat, 40(!) minutes to write