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March 6, 2009

More mail: my brain, your brain, travel and Boggle.

Thank you to all the people who emailed me to assure me you also have weird vague half-memories and that my poor oatmeal brain can stop rotting if I do crosswords. Even if you're just saying it to be nice, I still appreciate it.

Jane M. wrote: I choose not to think that the gray matter is dying. I choose that, since I've lived a long and interesting (giggle, giggle, tee, who am I kidding)life, I have too much stuff to remember. So, I have to let some of it go. Gone are the names of important people in my life, brother, sister, cat, etc. Instead, I shall remember the theme song to Dark Shadows. You're probably too young to remember that soap opera but it was the Twilight series of my day. Gone are the memories of where I'm supposed to be for a meeting today. I shall remember the names of everyone's pet instead of their owners. Sheesh! The brain is a weird animal!

Now that just cracked me up. I personally can remember every word of every 80s song, the names and killer lines of every character in every John Hughes movie from 1983-1989 and I have an encyclopedic memory for commercial jingles.

Of course last week I gave someone the wrong phone number because I couldn't remember my ACTUAL, CORRECT home phone number but whatever.

Ksenija wrote: Hi Laurie! I'm around your age, too, and I tell you what has really had me questioning all my memories lately is signing up for Facebook and having all those people from my past find me...and, um, I didn't realize I went through high school in such a fog, but I just can't remember very many of them. But they remember me? Yikes!

Well that is exactly why I will not sign up for Facebook! Ha! And I can't imagine boring people with twitters ... "I walked into a room and forgot why." "Pondered my cuticle for almost fourteen minutes just now." "Finally broke down and called myself to get my own phone number." Honestly.

Actually, I have an even worse confession about high school memories. Last year my friend Chris (who I graduated high school with) reminded me of "that funny time we were on the bus for a school field trip and Brad said something foul to you and you reached back and slapped him. On the bus! In front of Mr. Chamberlain!" Chris just laughed and laughed. He said some folks from our graduating class get together on a regular basis and often laugh about that hee-larious incident.

And ya'll I could not even remember that event. Seriously. This little piece of historical hijinks which was being retold by my former classmates on a regular basis rang NO BELLS with me. I had apparently pulled a Scarlett O'Hara on a boy in my class right there on the bus on a field trip and yet I had no recollection at all of this momentous event.

HOWEVER, I can remember every word of every song to New Edition's Heart Break album, the first album released without Bobby Brown, featuring such hits as "Crucial" and "If It Isn't Love."

Yeah, I know. So many kinds of wrong.

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Most of the email I've been getting is travel-related. I am so happy to know there are others out there who also get excited talking about travel and dreaming about travel and fantasizing about where to go next. I keep watching fares drop lower and lower (Roundtrip from LAX to Moscow on American Airlines for under $700!!) and I mentally weigh the cost of traveling against my free-floating economic anxiety multiplied by the square root of how much I have to pay in taxes divided by whether or not I think the world ends in 2012. It's hard to say where the math ends up.

Mary S. writes: Next time you get asked about "beginner" destinations for people who haven't traveled before -- in addition to England, Canada, Australia, etc, may I suggest Scandanavia? Norway's required basic proficiency in English to graduate from high school since WWII, and Denmark requires either English or German. I've had the luck to visit both -- didn't get to spend any time in the capital of either, but I'll attest to the friendliness of people in the smaller cities. Aalesund, Norway, and Aalborg, Denmark. Loved them.
Keep up the good work,

Mary, thanks for the reminder! And you are so right -- I LOVED every place I've visited in Scandinavia and it was safe, easy to get around and exceptionally beautiful. I've been to Sweden twice on accident (that long story is buried in this column somewhere) and taken long driving trips through both Norway and Denmark. Skagen, Denmark and Bergen, Norway are two of my favorite places ever. I want to go to Finland soon, it's actually on my Top Five List of Places I want To See Very Soon. That list includes: Ireland, Finland, Chile, Poland (again) and Estonia.

Oh -- Iceland is also one of the best destinations EVER for vacation. And now that their currency is devalued it's half the price it used to be. I recommend going in late June, the weather is perfect but it's not so crowded with tourists yet. And rent a car and drive! It's the most gorgeous countryside I have ever been to in my life.

Janet H. writes: Hi, can you still take knitting needles on planes as airlines are so strict about what can be taken as hand luggage? I'm not a good flyer and knitting would take my mind off the 30,000 ft below me! I enjoy reading your blog. Janet

Hi Janet! A lot of people emailed to ask this same question! According to the TSA website (and all the flights I have taken) it is totally OK to bring knitting needles on a plane, although from personal experience I would only bring wood or plastic knitting needles. Circular needles are good, too, and I usually travel with a small project (in other words, I have never tried to get through security with size 19 gigantor wooden needles.)

You can read the TSA's special page on knitting needles here. Usually I bring wooden/bamboo needles in size 10 or smaller and keep them with my project in a ziploc bag. In the bag I also travel with a very small pair of Hello Kitty scissors (about two inches long all total) with blunt ends, they're useless for any real precision cutting but I can saw through yarn just fine. I have had no problems with them in security. Your mileage may vary.

One word of advice: Don't bring along your best, most expensive needles, even if they are wood. I always travel with a basic pair of $7 clover needles, because if I get turned away at security -- which has not yet happened -- I figure I won't cry over $7. I'm not going to haul around a pre-stamped envelope and I don't check a bag much anymore, so I just hope for the best. It's worked out so far.

Knitting en route to somewhere!

Shelia W. writes: How do you get those knitting needles on the plane, especially if you have a carry-on? I've wanted to bring my needlepoint with me but I figured they'd confiscate my needle/scissors.

Shelia, I looked at the TSA's special page for Transporting Knitting Needles & Needlepoint and here's what it says specifically about needlepoint:

Most of the items needed to pursue a Needlepoint project are permitted in your carry-on baggage or checked baggage with the exception of circular thread cutters or any cutter with a blade contained inside. These items cannot be taken through a security checkpoint. They must go in your checked baggage.

Hope that helps! The TSA has a whole area on their website just for travelers preparing for a trip if you have other questions. And you can call your airlines directly if you have a specific issue, sometimes they have more details. By the way, if you are flying out of an overseas airport you need to check the airport's website to see what they do and do not allow through security (Heathrow especially) because their rules for carryon allowances and prohibited items may be different.

The TSA's list of prohibited items is here for your reference.

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RoseAnna wrote: I've loved hearing about your travels. I love traveling, though strangely enough I hate flying--its very stressful for me. But once I get where I am going I love visiting new places. Reading your travel descriptions always makes me want to visit the places that you write about (I would love to visit Madrid, for example).

But I was concerned when you said that you left your passport in your hotel in a safe. You've probably been alright in the countries you've visited, as you've always picked safe, stable places to go, but I know when I was in Mexico my host family freaked out that I had left my passport at home--and I was just going out to
eat with my host family, who knew who I was and what I was doing in Mexico. They told me I should never, ever leave home without my passport because it was the only proof of who I was.

To be fair, this was toward the end of the zapatista rebellion and the Mexican government was cracking down on suspected insurgents and kicking out a lot of foreigners on the grounds of suspected involvement--but I wasn't in the states where the zapatistas were, and I was just a student, taking classes for the semester at the local university, so it didn't occur to me that I might need it on me to prove my American citizenship etc.

But in a lot of countries, that American citizenship is an important protection, so it's a good idea to have your passport with you at all times. What I was told to do was to photocopy my passport, particularly the page with all your personal information, so that if your passport was lost or stolen you had that to show the embassy to facilitate getting it replaced. And if you have a travel visa for that country, do the same thing with that--photo copy the original and put the photocopy in a safe place, and keep the original with your passport.

Also, I carried my passport in one of those money-belts that go under your clothes so that it was less likely to be lost or stolen.

Anyway, safe travels! May you have many more enjoyable trips and knitting adventures :)

Hi RoseAnna! Thanks for the email.

The passport thing and the moneybelt thing are topics that come up time and time again on travel forums. I think a lot of this depends on the traveler, the place being visited and even the time of year.

When I went to Rome last winter, I was so scared after reading guidebooks and travel forums warning of pickpockets and "roaming gangs of thieving children" that even I got paranoid! But when I got there I realized Rome in February was no more dangerous or risky than Los Angeles at any time of year and I mellowed out. I didn't walk around with a hundred dollar bill to my butt yelling "Victim!" but I wasn't overly paranoid either.

I'm careful by nature because I've lived in this crazyass city for so long. When traveling, I do in any major city as I do in Los Angeles: I carry a purse and keep my hand on it. I travel with a little wallet in an inner zippered pocket and in the wallet I just have my two travel credit cards, a little walking around cash for the day, my list of important numbers and contacts and a photocopy of my passport. This works for me because the one thing I do NOT want to lose is my passport. Last year I FINALLY (!!!) got a decent passport picture that makes me look only semi-portly and I am not letting go of it as it is a vast improvement over my previous picture. Besides, losing a passport is a time-consuming adventure I do not want to experience. To get on the plane and go home you have to be holding that passport!

I know a lot of people disagree with me and my methods of traveling but I just do what works for me. I could never see myself fumbling under my clothes or digging around in a neck belt for money and I personally would be paranoid knowing all that stuff was on my body. To other folks, that's the only way they feel safe traveling. I think people should do whatever makes them feel safest.

And for me, that starts with picking a safe destination to visit all alone. The places I go alone are generally not in the midst of a Zapatista uprising, and in my experience a simple photocopy of the passport will do for walking around art museums and drinking wine at a cafe at lunchtime in most of Western Europe. You do need a passport in some countries for making large purchases on your credit card (which I don't do, being budgety and all) and you need it on your person if you get arrested which I generally try to avoid.

I think it's partly a personal decision and partly a risk-based assessment. I don't travel alone to risky places because safety is always my #1 concern so I am not often in a place where Federalis are stopping and asking for ID. In fact I have never been stopped and asked for my passport anywhere even on my most adventurous travels (lost in Eastern Europe ten years ago, for example.)

So it comes down to personal risk assessment and choice. In my opinion, it's riskier for me to carry around my official government passport all day (in and out of restaurants, museums, metro cars, public restrooms, buses) than it is to carry a photocopy and leave the real document in the room safe or locked in my luggage in a locked hotel room. Your decision will vary based on who you are, where you travel, where you're staying and when you go. Other people may have different thoughts and will do what works for them. Traveling alone presents its own unique challenges and I think each person eventually strikes a balance of common sense and precaution that works for them.

When I'm relating my travel stories they're just my personal experiences, I know everyone has a different way of doing it and all I can speak to is my own experience.

By the way, I also find flying stressful! Knitting helps. I'm usually OK during the flight itself but take-off and landing makes me jittery.

Ruth C. writes: Hi, I have been reading about your travels and I just wanted to give you a warning about hotel safes. The hotel always has a way to get into the safe--they have to in case some dodo forgets the combo they set. I have been told to NEVER use them. Instead, I bought a neck travel pouch and keep extra money and my passport hidden close to my body, under my clothes at all times. Yes, it can get hot in warm climates and my passport looks a little worn. Probably should put it in a small plastic baggy . . . but, I know it's safe. If you set up the strap so it goes through one arm, the strap can be pinned or looped around your bra strap, the bag hangs at your side and is virtually undetectable. Just an idea.

I have been told that depending upon the political climate of the US at the time and the country you are traveling in, a US passport can be a valuable item on the black market and are the subject of theft. That was years ago, but I don't doubt it today either.

Hi Ruth! Apparently the hotel safe/passport topic struck a nerve with folks as I got a fair amount of email about it. My trip to Madrid was the first time I've used the hotel safe, and it was AWESOME. It was a pretty new-looking safe with great instructions on how to use it and set your own pin number and everything.

Here's a picture:


And a close-up of the safe:


I loved it. I used it every day for my laptop, ipod and passport. I had no problems at all and found it convenient and easy to use. Usually I just carry a combo lock with me and lock my stuff in my luggage for the day. That is definitely just as easy to walk off with as the safe key from the front desk or whatever but my philosophy is you do what you can to mitigate risk and then you let go. And I am just not interested in carrying all my valuables on my person in a moneybelt or some necklace thingy. To me that seems way riskier that a hotel safe in a well-reviewed four star hotel -- but that's just me. Other folks wholeheartedly disagree, and they should do what feels best to them.

The way I see it, there's always risk. There's risk in walking across the street in your own neighborhood. Nothing I travel with is irreplaceable or rare or even that sentimental. I mean I would hate to lose my beloved ipod, but it happened once (right here on the bus in good ol' Los Angeles) and I survived. I don't get on the bus every day worrying about losing my ipod, though, or my wallet. If I did that I would drive myself insane.

Everyone has to base their decisions on how they feel about the location, the hotel, the staff, the quality of the establishment, the reviews you've read about the hotel (trust me if someone experienced a theft in their room safe the Trip Advisor forums would alert you to it) and your gut instinct. You also have to consider where you're traveling, the political and social climate and the risk.

I guess I had to make a choice at some point in traveling to either worry prohibitively about theft and fear pickpockets and thieves and miscreants ... or to just take normal precautions and make smart choices and then let go and enjoy the trip, wherever that may take me. After all, I doubt many people living in Paris or Madrid or Rome or Prague or Stockholm walk around all day long in the city wearing their passport and all their money in a pouch under their clothes. I know we don't do that here in Los Angeles. (That begs the question... do people from other countries come to Los Angeles and wear their passports and all their money in hidden pouches? That seems really unsafe to me. But maybe to someone else it's a good idea.)

So as always it comes down to what works for the individual. What works for me may not work for everyone. Also, keep in mind that I'm not out roaming the jungles of South America alone with my backpack and valuables. I was staying in a major Western European capital city in a hotel with heated towel racks and room service and a nicer TV than what I have in my own house. You know?

I'm definitely not a travel expert and I don't talk about my travels for instructional guidance ... I'm just sharing my little personal adventures and taking pictures of exit signs:


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A few knitting questions, too:

Robin asks: HELP! I'm behind on making a birthday present. I want to make a felted bag. Will 100% acrylic yarn work? Or must I use wool? THANK YOU!!!!

Robin, I hate to be the bearer of misfelted news (heh) but you can't felt 100% acrylic yarn. You can't even felt all wool yarns -- superwash wool will not felt, and some wool that is extremely bleached out doesn't felt well, either (take it from someone who tried to felt a white wool bag 12 times.) But on the upside there are tons of yarns out there at your local yarn shop and craft store made especially for felting. The Patons line of feltable wool yarn is GREAT and I've heard good things about Lion Brand's wool yarn, too. Noro is lovely and felts (eventually) and my favorite of all is Patons SWS (Soy Wool Stripes) yarn which is a felting maniac.

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I love your handwarmers (great colors!) and I'm totally going to make some for myself. I hate seaming, though, so I had an idea. Why not knit them in the round? When you get to the thumb just start knitting back and forth, then re-join into a round after the thumb and continue until you're done. I think that would work, don't you? -Alison

Hi Alison! I've heard from many folks who warm their hands by knitting in the round and making lovely tubes and I think it is a great idea. For my first handwarmer project I just wanted to make a pattern so simple that any beginner could do it and sometimes folks get skeered off with knitting in the round, especially for a small piece requiring the DPNoD (Double-Pointed Needles of Death.)

I have had a few folks email me links to patterns with thumbs but the handwarmer I wanted to make needed to be easy easy so any beginner could do it and ALSO made out of my brain (sad and degenerating as it is) so I'm not infringing upon anyone if I want to print it or give it away. Sad to say I have yet to take the time out to pick up my stitches and make a thumb though I hope to get to it this weekend. I'll write that portion up to in a hand+thumb warmer combo pattern when I manage to make a thumb worthy of writing home about.

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So, yesterday Corey and I played Boggle at lunchtime to help my poor foggy brain smarten up and I managed not to embarrass myself after a few games. We played four games and she won two and I won two which is pretty good. I'm glad she's really competitive (and smart) because I have to work extra hard and can't just daydream while looking at the letters. Hence the entire reason for playing Boggle, to keep me on my brain-toes!


That's rice and beans in the middle there that I brought for lunch. It's cheap and nutritious and perfect for bringing to work (it's filling, too). I cook the rice and the beans separate and then when everything is cooked I line up my little lunch containers and fill them up with a scoop and a half of rice topped with a couple of scoops of beans. I can easily make five lunches (and sometimes two extra to freeze) in one afternoon.

I used organic brown basmati rice, though I think plain old organic brown rice would hold up better. Basmati seems a little soft and mushy even though I cooked it according to the package instructions (2 cups of rice to four cups of liquid -- I used chicken broth) and then simmer for 50 minutes.

For the beans, I used two cans of organic black beans simmered with half of a finely diced yellow onion and about four small cloves of garlic run through a garlic press. Just let it simmer until the garlic is mild and the onion is soft. I also added hot sauce to the beans for kick.

Usually I use dried beans which are cheaper and I think they taste better, but canned was all I had in the pantry last Sunday and they cooked up just fine. I figured up the cost once -- making a big mess of rice and beans comes out to about 50 cents per meal, and that's using all-organic ingredients. I can eat rice and beans all week without getting tired of it, it's just such a comforting meal, but I usually make more than I need for lunches and freeze a few servings for future lunches. I try to do this with everything I make -- eat half and freeze half, so that I have variety in the freezer and I can have chili one day or soup the next. So far my two favorite recipes of all time (and they freeze GREAT) are chicken and white bean chili -- delicious!! -- and kale and chickpea stew. The secret to the stew is you have to use a great spicy sausage because it gives most of the flavor to the dish. I use a spicy Italian-style sausage from Whole Foods that has some kick to it and it's the best stew ever.

This weekend I want to find some new recipe to make. I've discovered that if I spend a few hours on Sunday grocery shopping, preparing a meal for my lunches and getting all my snacks and stuff together for the week I tend to have a better, more productive and easy week. And I eat better.

It's a process, anyway. I guess I'll just keep trying and trying again to get healthy until I get it right.

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She can read my mind ... even when I can't!

Posted by laurie at March 6, 2009 7:51 AM