Friday, August 26, 2011

Treasure Hunt

Back when I was in high school and early college, there were these things floating around the internet called letterboxes. You went to someone's amateur GeoCities webpage and followed a list of instructions (go to X place and walk 5 paces to the north then turn left, etc) in order to find a hidden box with a piece of paper and pencil or a stamp, and occasionally a treat. Some people got very elaborate and had whole trails of hidden boxes that you could follow even across state lines, each box containing instructions to the next's whereabouts. Some had travel buddies, a stuffed animal or figurine that, if you found it, you were to take with you to the next location and leave it there for the next person to find the box.

Nowadays with the ubiquitous GPS, some enterprising bloke has decided to market this 150+ year old pasttime into the geocache. Geocaching seems, to me, immensely more popular than letterboxing this side of the Atlantic, and if you do a search for your location on the website, you are sure to find a great many coordinates of caches. I am surrounded on all sides. There is even one hidden in the back parking lot of my place of work that I have failed to locate on three separate occasions while being stared at and questioned by confounded coworkers.

Geocaching (or letterboxing) is fun to do when you are bored, feel like exploring new surroundings, or merely want to go on an adventure. It helps to have friends to help you search as some caches are hidden quite cleverly and the coordinates are often slightly less than precise. After searching for four geocaches, I have successfully found two with my roommate Kimmy, who was an avid geocacher in California. 

Evidently, you are supposed to be sneaky while searching for your intended cache, and those who are not searching - innocent passersby, curious store employees - are referred to as "muggles," a term ridiculously stolen from Harry Potter, though it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2003 for a person who has no skills or is without knowledge. Ignorant, basically. (Though I think just to annoy people, I'll pretend it carries its 1920s slang meaning of a certain kind of illegal cigarette.) 

If you haven't heard of geocaching, it's interesting to look into. Who doesn't like a good treasure hunt, after all? Not quite as mystical as fairy doors, but still an enjoyable pasttime. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Berry Pickin' Time

One of the things I missed most about Michigan during my time in California was fruit picking. Southwest Michigan is covered in apple orchards, berry farms, and all manner of fresh produce. I spent many summer days growing up picking blueberries along M-43, and nearly every fall included a trip to one of the local orchards for fresh cider, donuts, and a variety of apples (fuji and macintosh were my favorites). 

Thus, being back in the Mitten, I was determined to pick some fruit. Last year was too hectic to fulfill that wish, but this year has been more settled, so I searched for u-pick blueberry farms in the Ann Arbor area, despite assertions that there were none, and found one quite conveniently located in Dexter, also home to "the oldest continuously operating Cider Mill in Michigan", where I am sure I will head this fall.

My roommate Kimmy had never been blueberry picking, so we planned to go one of my days off. The previous day or so, Kimmy had also pined for donuts, so I also looked up on the internet local bakeries in Dexter and found one downtown. After sadly dressing in blue jeans as suggested by the blueberry farm's website, we headed to Dexter for donuts and blueberries.

Dexter, Michigan is a village located about twenty minutes outside of Ann Arbor. I was led to believe this was far away, but my perception of "far" has been skewed since living in California, and twenty minutes is quite laughable to me now, especially since the drive was pleasant and scenic. Downtown Dexter holds a number of turn-of-the-previous-century buildings kept in good repair and a small park with a Civil War memorial statue that Kimmy adored and snapped a few pictures of. 

After a quick walk up and down the street, we bought donuts and drinks from the Dexter Bakery and sat in the park to enjoy them. The atmosphere was quaint and delightful to Kimmy and me who are used to small town downtowns being decrepit and full of empty store fronts. Downtown Ann Arbor has been quite modernized despite the shops and restaurants being in hundred-plus year old buildings. I'm not sure how they do it, but I definitely have trouble picturing downtown A2 a hundred years ago. Downtown Dexter of Old seemed to come alive before my eyes.

Breakfast eaten and pictures taken, we continued our journey to the blueberry farm, located on a one track dirt path off a dirt road that was off another dirt road. I don't think I've been on a dirt road since I was a child! We collected our plastic buckets from the shed/barn and headed into the rows of bushes...

...and were immediately devoured by mosquitoes.  Horrible doesn't begin to cover it. We forged on and managed to hunt down over a pound of blueberries. The bushes were full of green berries, but those ripe for picking were indeed few and far between. Most were smaller than I was used to getting in Southwest Michigan, but we too them anyway and were quite pleased with our bug-bitten selves. 

A few days later, I washed off a cup of berries from the fridge and made homemade blueberry scones. Kimmy has requested blueberry cheesecake, so that may be my next endeavor. I am mostly pleased with having finally picked them, and haven't really given much thought to what to do with them now. 

Next up! Apple picking. Well, in a few months, anyway.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Urban Fairies

Over at Urban Fairies Operations, dedicated observers have located and photographed numerous fairy doors hidden throughout the city of Ann Arbor (and a few elsewhere). Yes, that's right, urban fairies have taken up residence right under our noses! And possibly goblins, as well. While I was meandering about downtown last Sunday with my roomie Kimmy and my mother, a.k.a. Mom, we stumbled upon three doors and a fairy ticket booth. 

After I told Kimmy about the doors a few weeks ago (I found a mention online, but had yet to see them for myself), she located two while out with a friend. Ever since, I have been on the lookout during my downtown excursions. So while giving Mom a tour of my new city, I was excited to spot my first door at my favorite tea shop in Kerrytown, Tea Haus

Fairy door at Tea Haus on 4th Ave.
"What is it?" Mom asked.

"It's a fairy door!" Kimmy and I joyously answered. 

And then I explained to her what they were, and that they are at numerous locations all over Ann Arbor. 

We next headed over to have lunch at Conor O'Neill's Irish Pub, located near the Ark on Main St. Conor O'Neill's doesn't have a fairy door that I know of, but the Ark does! Kimmy had previously located not only the door, but the fairy ticket booth, as well. (There may be another door inside, but the Ark was closed at the time so we did not go in.) 

Outside the Ark on Main St.
Outside the fairy door, we found a number of small trinkets left as tributes for the faeries that resided within. They looked like wands (Q-tips dipped in glitter). There was an older couple already standing there giving us funny looks, so we told them what we were doing. (Apparently, taking pictures of fairy doors requires explanation.) They were delighted and thanked us, saying they'd keep an eye out for more themselves. When we walked by later, a mother and young daughter had also found the door, and the little girl wanted to leave an offering. 

Fairy ticket booth at the Ark.
"Well, I have a penny," suggested the skeptical mother. The little girl accepted.

My mother has recently taken an interest in making her own jewelry, so I next lead us to the Bead Gallery on Liberty where, you guessed it, we discovered another fairy door! This time it was Mom who found it. And Kimmy uncovered a basket of unpainted, uninstalled fairy doors for sale. Hey, as the old saying goes, if you build it, they will come, right?

At the Bead Gallery on Liberty.
Kimmy and I intend to entice a fairy to take up residence at our apartment. We promise to keep the outside clean and be good neighbors! Our cats are terrible hunters, and I don't think they will be a problem. Besides, if they are foolish enough to bother a fairy, I think they deserve what's coming to them. 

I also really  want to buy one of the Fairy Doors of Ann Arbor posters. They also sell post cards, which I think is a great way to spread this unique part of Ann Arbor with friends and family outside the area. 

So the next time you find yourself wandering Ann Arbor, keep an eye out. That shadow flitting past the corner of your eye might be more than your imagination.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Who Turned Out the Lights?

On Monday, August 1st, at around 7:30 in the evening, I was at work on register one, the express lane. Suddenly, there was a beepy wail, and the lights dimmed. Our faces were illuminated by the glow of our register screens which were puzzlingly still operating. We've had the power flash before, and there is a backup generator to ensure that the registers don't freak out and reset during such occurrences. Still wondering when the lights would come back on, we plodded along with checking out customers.

But the lights didn't come on, the warning beepy wail of the freezers losing their cool continued, and I have never been more aware of the in-store radio than when it was no longer playing. Someone was sent to the front door to turn away new customers, apologizing that our store was without power. And soon, many of us cashiers noticed something amiss with our registers: certain items were no longer scanning, and we couldn't punch in PLUs (those 4-5 digit codes on your produce).

Irritating, yes, but not completely problematic. I didn't realize how many prices of products I had memorized! And people were called up front to become runners, dashing all over the store to find the prices for the items that wouldn't ring up.

And then the registers started to die. I believe mine was the first to go. I had just finished ringing up a young man and the drawer had popped out so I could hand him his change. Unfortunately, the screen went dark just as it was about to tell me what to count back to him, and there was so much going on that I couldn't remember what the total was. I knew that I owed him less than a dollar, so I gave him that much and apologized for the problem. He smiled apologetically himself and wished me luck. Thankfully, the woman behind him was in good spirits, told me not to worry about it, and moved to the next cashier.

About this time, I was due to clock out, but I offered to stay as long as they needed me and joined the runners getting prices. One by one, the familiar hum of technology winked out. More registers died. So many, in fact, that we ended up putting teams together of two or three per station, one to make a list of the items in a person's cart and run around copying down all the prices, another to add them all up together on a hand-held calculator, and sometimes another to bag.

Then a new problem arose. Many people were completely understanding and dug into their purses and wallets for cash, but inevitably there were customers (like me when I'm on the other side of the counter) who didn't have cash and had to use credit cards. And almost none of the cashiers knew how to use a manual credit machine. As one customer put it to me, "Wow, the last time I saw one of those was in an antique shop!"

Strangely, I have used them before, but evidently there are multiple models because I couldn't figure this one out. With the help of a manger, we managed to puzzle it out and get enough information on the carbon copies to punch them all in by hand later when our computers were once again operational. This apparently gave me superior status to the people who had originally been running that "register," because everyone scampered off and left me to take over. (Thanks, guys.) One stayed and became my runner, copying down all of the prices that I then punched into the calculator and copied down onto the handwritten receipts.

I have to say, the customers were blessedly good-natured about the whole thing, and told us repeatedly what a great job we were doing and tried to be as helpful as possible. Two girls even took turns making their own lists of what they were buying while they waited in line to save us time and resources. Until the blackout, I would have called it a slow night, but it took over half an hour to get everyone checked out on their merry, if confused, way.

At quarter after eight, we still didn't know what was going on. One coworker who lives near me texted her roommate to see if our apartments had power (they did not), and another coworker who had come in to shop on his day off reported that the lights were out all the way to the highway. A few people, customers and employees alike, complained that their cell phones wouldn't let them dial out, though those of us on Verizon, at least, had no trouble. One woman told me that every time she tried to call her sister, she got a computer voice telling her that only emergency calls were being allowed at that time.

Since I was supposed to leave at eight, I was allowed to go home after the store was empty of customers, and I promptly opened all of the windows in the apartment in hopes of coaxing in the evening breeze. I managed to read two short stories before the daylight also died, when I switched to watching old episodes of Doctor Who on my laptop, which was mostly fully charged.

By the time my roommate arrived home, I had located my flashlight and a lighter and lit one of my Bath & Body Works scented candles (the apartment smelled wonderful). We were both hungry, but our stove is electric and I didn't want to open the fridge anyway, so we headed to Ypsilanti, where my roommate assured me there was still power. We ended up dining at Sidetrack in Depot Town.

On the way home at nearly midnight, I was happy to see lights on in Ann Arbor. Kimmy and I could not help noticing, however, that people go crazy during blackouts here and try to suicide themselves in front of cars. I don't even know how many people tried to throw themselves in front of her car! Too many. Far too many. Some on bikes!

According to people at work, this is only the second time the lights have gone out like this in the store's history. The first was during the Northeast Blackout of 2003, during which I personally had been delayed an extra couple of days in Northville visiting a friend. Kimmy and I searched multiple times on the internet trying to uncover the source of this widespread blackout, but have come up with nothing. It's as if it never happened! Which makes it even more fun. ;)