LA Review of Books: There Be Dragons

I have said here previously how much I enjoyed Dragon Day, the final volume in Lisa Brackmann’s Ellie McEnroe crime thriller trilogy. This week at the LA Review of Books China Blog, I review the book in more detail:

Dragon Day sees Ellie attempting to stay in the good graces of her biggest — and scariest — client, art-collecting billionaire Sidney Cao, who requests that she investigate a foreign “consultant” whom Sidney suspects is exerting an unhealthy influence over his spoiled 20-something son. Ellie wants nothing more than to complete this assignment with speed and diplomacy, but her hopes are quickly dashed when a young migrant woman turns up dead with Ellie’s business card in her pocket. Maneuvering between the Chinese authorities and the menacing members of the Cao family, Ellie soon finds herself in way over her head as she searches for the woman’s killer.

Read the entire post here.

Posted in Books, China, Writing | Tagged | 1 Comment

Getting Things Done: Knitting Box Edition

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Last Saturday, I looked in my knitting box and realized two things: (1) the same three projects had been sitting in it for at least six months, and (2) all three were thisclose to being finished. If I just sat down and did the simple work that each needed (but which I’d been putting off for various reasons), I could clear out my project box and fill it with something new. I vowed that this would be the week that all three projects moved into the “finished” section of my Ravelry page, and I got to work.

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First up: a pair of “Cozy Little Toes” baby socks that I’d decided to knit sometime in the spring because I had a small amount of Trekking sock yarn left over from a project five years ago and wanted to use it up. This was the project that really should not have been hanging out in my knitting box for months on end; literally the only thing I had to do was graft the toe together on one of the socks. That’s it. Eighteen stitches grafted—under 10 minutes of work—two ends woven in, and the socks were done. Now they can sit in my “I’m sure someone I know will have a baby soon and hand-knit socks are always a good gift” box.

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Next: a pair of adult socks (Susan B. Anderson’s pattern) that I started knitting on a snow day back in late January when our office was closed. Casting on a pair of socks seemed like such a “snow day” thing to do: I remember sitting in my living room with a cup of coffee, knitting and watching the snow fall heavily outside my bay window. It was quaint; I probably Instagrammed it. I decided that the socks would be a birthday gift for my friend Laura, which meant I had about seven weeks to finish them. No sweat: previous experience has taught me that I can knit a sock in under a week. But I very quickly discovered that these socks were cursed.

Not long after finishing the cuff and starting the leg of Sock #1, I realized that everything seemed kind of … loose. Like eighties slouch-sock loose—not really Laura’s style. But maybe it was just my imagination? I kept knitting. (MISTAKE) But by the time I got to the heel, I could no longer deny that something was wrong. Maybe the needles felt kind of thick? I got out my needle gauge and discovered that I’d been using size 2s instead of size 1s, which meant the whole thing was too big and too loose. Sock #1 got ripped apart, set aside while I cooled down, and finally restarted on the correct needles. I finished it when visiting my aunt and uncle in Florida at the beginning of March, meaning I still had just about a week before Laura’s birthday to knit the second sock.

Except … Sock #2 didn’t go much better. I had the right needles, but this time I somehow forgot everything I knew about sock construction and wound up with half the number of stitches I needed for the foot. I can’t explain it. Well, actually, I can (sorry, this is technical): when I got to the point of starting the gusset decreases, I should have checked the pattern to verify that I was doing the correct number of decreases in the right places. But I was watching something on Netflix, and I’ve made at least a dozen pairs of socks before, and I know how to do gusset decreases, so why bother exiting full screen view just to look up the pattern? (MISTAKE) So I knit on, decreasing four times every round instead of two (why I did THAT, I really can’t explain), and soon noticed that the sock progressed from an adult-sized leg and heel to a toddler-sized foot. RRRRRIP.

The socks were not done in time for Laura’s birthday.

But they could have been done not long after, except that I was frustrated, and busy with work, and by then I’d missed her birthday anyway, so why not make them her Christmas present instead? I picked Sock #2 up again early in the summer and told myself I should get it done before I left for my trip to China, so I’d come back to a clean slate. And in the week before I left, I quickly and happily knit away—knitting so quickly and so happily that I knit the foot of Sock #2 an inch longer than that of Sock #1. I’ve never measured Laura’s feet, but I’m pretty sure they’re more or less the same size. Too frustrated to deal with fixing my mistake in the midst of getting ready to leave for China, I threw the f%@*ing sock in my knitting box, and there it stayed until this week. On Tuesday morning, I got up early and calmly undid the extra inch in the foot, worked the toe decreases, and grafted the toe closed before I left for work—finally shutting the book on this project, seven months later than planned.

(Laura, if you’re reading this: now you know why every time I see you I say I’ll have your birthday present “next time”!)

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Last: a gray “mistake rib” scarf for myself, begun on January 2 with Madelinetosh yarn that I bought at Loop in Philadelphia that very day. I was so excited about this scarf that I cast it on the same day I bought the yarn. Sounds like I should have gotten it done pretty quickly, right? Because I was so excited? But no. Almost nine months later and the scarf was still on the needles. And really, I worked on it a lot. Any night after dinner when I wasn’t cursing at Laura’s socks, I was watching Netflix and mindlessly knitting the scarf. This scarf has gone with me on every trip I’ve taken in 2015; it should have its own frequent-flyer account. But even though I knit and knit and knit some more, the scarf never seemed to get any longer. Or the yarn never ran out. One of the two. It was clearly a magic scarf that was never going to end, and I was destined to spend the rest of my life in a black hole of knitting.

Except that last Saturday, I looked in the scarf’s project bag and realized that the end was, indeed, in sight. Somehow, I had just a handful of yarn left; the rest of it had all been turned into five feet of tiny, boring, repetitive mistake rib. (Which clearly got its name from the fact that committing to this interminable pattern is a huge mistake.) I worked on it as much as I could during the week and got closer to finishing. This morning, I poured myself a second cup of coffee, turned on an episode of Property Brothers, and completed the last couple of rows as the Brothers transformed a Victorian wreck into a Better Homes and Gardens-worthy masterpiece.

So my knitting box is totally empty for the first time in 2015 and now it’s time to pick a new project. My guess is that it will be something I can finish fast.

Haha. “Fast.” Right.

Posted in Knitting | 1 Comment

LA Review of Books: “Expat Identities”

Following up on my recent LA Review of Books China Blog interview with Shannon Young, I have a new post at the site reviewing How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia, which Young edited:

Many of the anthology’s contributors speak of being changed for the better by their time abroad, but Dragonfruit also includes essays on the difficulties involved in living overseas. Authors write of their struggles to communicate in foreign languages; to feel comfortable in settings where they don’t physically fit in; to navigate romantic relationships with partners who come from other cultures. And while moving to another country can feel like leaving behind “real life” at home, real-life problems — cancer, infertility, marriage troubles — don’t respect national boundaries.

Read the whole thing here.

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LA Review of Books: Q&A with Shannon Young, Author of “Year of Fire Dragons”

I have a new post up at the LA Review of Books China Blog, in which I interview Hong Kong-based author Shannon Young:

Young Year of Fire Dragons coverYoung, however, didn’t originally plan to spend her life writing; she wanted to be an editor. But after graduating from college in 2009, she found many of her plans upended. Publishing jobs were nearly impossible to find in the midst of the economic downturn, her student loans were looming, and she had fallen in love with Ben, a Hong Kong native whom Young had met while on a semester abroad in London. Asia offered the chance for both economic security and personal happiness, so Young packed up and moved to Hong Kong — only to see Ben suddenly transferred to London a month after her arrival. In a new memoir, Year of Fire Dragons: An American Woman’s Story of Coming of Age in Hong Kong, Young recounts the ups and downs of her first twelve months in Hong Kong as she grappled with a life totally different from the one she had planned.

Read our Q&A here.

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Shanghai Snapshots

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What did I do with ten days of vacation in Shanghai?

Well, I spent a lot of that time recharging my batteries—drinking multiple cups of instant coffee and writing or reading in my cozy attic room at the Astor House, marking the passage of hours by the chiming of “The East Is Red” from the Customs House clock tower on the Bund every 15 minutes.

IMG_2937I walked the length of the Bund and back nearly every day, even though it rained just about the whole time I was in Shanghai.

I went to the library did research and tried to figure out what kind of publication my dissertation wants to be. (Articles. I’ve decided it wants to be articles.)

IMG_7780I visited the huge new Disney store in Pudong and got “It’s a Small World” stuck in my head for the rest of the day. I thought the store was disappointing because there didn’t seem to be anything distinctively “Shanghai” about it. Turns out that might be an issue at the Disney Shanghai theme park opening next year, too.

When a typhoon was predicted to hit the city last Saturday, I went to CityShop and stocked up on supplies for a hotel picnic, joining dozens of other foreign women there buying those essentials of cheese, fruit, crackers, nuts, chocolate, and wine in preparation for a natural disaster. (In the city center, at least, the typhoon wound up being nothing more than quite a lot of rain.)

IMG_2962I walked and walked and walked around the French Concession, checking on all my past neighborhood haunts.

I caught up with old friends.

Shanghai food collageI ate all my favorite Shanghai specialties.

I considered going somewhere else for a couple of days—a summer retreat to Moganshan sounded appealing—but decided that after so much time on the move, it was nice to stay in one place.

IMG_2992I got my hair cut by CoCo, my favorite hairdresser—not because she is especially excellent at cutting my hair, but because she’s never treated me as anything but a client who happens to have hair that’s a different color than that of all her other clients. I’ve encountered many stylists in China who seem terrified of taking scissors to my hair, seemingly convinced that it somehow requires specialized knowledge to attempt. CoCo doesn’t bat an eye; she just picks up her tools and gets to work.

And eventually, I decided I was ready to go home. I remembered a blog post that Stephanie Pearl-McPhee wrote earlier this year, in which she realized that she can only take ten days on the road without getting lonely and melancholy. My number is a bit higher than hers, but as my China trip passed its three-week mark, I realized that hotels and restaurants had lost their allure; I yearned for my kitchen and my washer and dryer. After 24 hours of travel (Shanghai to Newark via Los Angeles), I finally walked into my apartment yesterday morning and began the process of reentry. My big suitcase is now empty and stored at the back of my closet; my passport is tucked away in its hiding place; I switched out the renminbi in my wallet for dollars. For the time being, at least, I’m settled in at home.

Until next time, Shanghai.

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Posted in China, Shanghai, Travel | 2 Comments

“Home” Again in Shanghai

Prime walking/mulling/writing/coffee-drinking weather in Shanghai this week.

Prime walking/mulling/writing/coffee-drinking weather in Shanghai this week.

The work portion of my China trip over, I flew to Shanghai on Sunday morning for a week-plus of vacation. The minute I walked out of Hongqiao Airport, everything clicked: I was back in familiar territory—my territory. I jumped into a cab and smoothly gave the driver instructions to get to my hotel, knowing exactly where he needed to go and the best route to get there. As the car jostled in stop-and-go traffic on Yan’an Elevated Road, I looked out over the city and spotted one familiar sight after another. There’s the university where I taught; there’s the block of apartment buildings I lived in; there’s the place with the best wonton soup, around the corner from the archives. It’s been nearly eight months—but only eight months—since I moved back to the U.S., and Shanghai looks mostly the same.

Over the last six weeks, I’ve been on the mailing list for a series of “Tiny Letters” that my Twitter-friend Liana Silva has been writing. One of Liana’s recurring themes is the idea of home—what makes us regard a place as home; why some places don’t feel like home, no matter how long we live there; how we make the transition from residing in a place to regarding it as home. Walking around Shanghai these past few days, revisiting favorite haunts and reflecting on ten years of encounters with the city, one thought has slammed into me again and again: this is still my home.

Or one of my homes, at least, though the only other place that I would put on the same level is Philadelphia, where I grew up and where my family still lives. I spent a decade moving again and again—to Beijing, New Haven, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Southern California, and Princeton—but I don’t associate any of those places with the word or feeling of “home.” I lived in them, but I never really settled in. Shanghai is different. I know this city: not just its street layout or where to go for good Hunanese food, but also its history and its stories and its rhythms and its sounds.

All of this has me reflecting on Jersey City/New York, which are not [yet?] my home. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy and appreciate working in New York, and I’ve been having fun exploring Jersey City over the past few months. But neither of those places has inscribed itself on my brain, my feet, my heart. I’m still getting to know them, and it feels like that process will take longer than it did with Shanghai.

“I can’t understand my life without New York, even though I’m getting better at living away from it,” Liana wrote in her second Tiny Letter, putting into words a feeling that I’ve been wrestling with these past few days. I might live in Shanghai again. I might not. But I can’t understand my life without this city.

Posted in China, Shanghai | 2 Comments

Postcard from Hong Kong

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United Airlines flight 117 begins at Newark Liberty International Airport, 10 miles from my home in Jersey City, and ends in Hong Kong, 8065 miles away. It’s the eighth-longest flight route in operation, and if you’re a restless flyer—and I am a terribly restless flyer—there’s nothing good about it, save the small cup of mango sorbet that follows dinner. I boarded the plane on Thursday afternoon feeling like a normal human being; I staggered off nearly 16 hours later feeling, as they said in Ghostbusters, like the floor of a taxi cab.

But when I did finally deplane … I was in Hong Kong! A place that I love but never seem to linger in very long—and this trip was no exception. I’m here for work. I had a few hours on Saturday morning to wander around before our program got going, so I did a handful of my favorite Hong Kong things:

… walked through Wan Chai and enjoyed the languid pace of city street life on an unrelentingly hot and humid June morning;

… lingered in Pacific Coffee as I staved off a nap with a cup of their brew;

… sat at a tiny table with five strangers and ate an egg sandwich and iced milk tea at the Capital Café cha chaan teng for lunch;

… bought a precious bag of Crispy M&Ms—the best M&Ms, no longer available in the U.S. but still sold in Hong Kong—at one of the 7-Eleven stores that populates nearly every block of the city;

… watched the narrow double-decker trams shudder and jolt their way through the streets, as they have since 1904;

… listened to people speaking Cantonese everywhere I went, often feeling like my Mandarin-tuned ears could almost understand them, but not quite.

And then it was time to go back to the hotel and start working. We leave for Mainland China tonight.

Catch you next time, Hong Kong.

Posted in China, Travel | Tagged | 4 Comments

Let’s Go to the Movies

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After checking out the exterior of the historic Loew’s Jersey movie theater a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t expect to see the interior anytime soon. I knew that the theater screens classic films, but also that it’s closed in the summer due to a lack of air conditioning. I thought I’d missed my chance and would have to wait until the fall to check it out. It turns out, however, that I got to venture into the Loew’s sooner than anticipated: last week, their Twitter feed began publicizing the final screenings of the spring, a Saturday night double feature of Superman and The Seven Year Itch.

I’m busy getting ready for a nearly monthlong trip to Asia that begins this Thursday, so I didn’t think I could spare the time for both movies and decided that since I’ve seen Superman before, I’d go to The Seven Year Itch. But the movie was kind of beside the point (which is good, because it was … pretty awful). I really just wanted the experience of seeing a film at the Loew’s Jersey, even though I knew it wouldn’t be quite like Annie’s first visit to Radio City Music Hall.

Last night, I ate a quick dinner at Deccan Spice on India Street (get the vegetable biryani, it’s excellent) and then walked a couple blocks over to Journal Square to join the line of people assembling in the foyer of the Loew’s. Superman was running late, so after buying my ticket for The Seven Year Itch, I had about 20 minutes to check out the lobby and second floor. The lobby seems to be the best-restored part of the theater, and it’s spectacular.

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Grand staircases on either side of the lobby lead upstairs, where things need more TLC but the dazzling original features are still evident. Although the paint is peeling and the carpet is worn, the building has “good bones,” as they say on HGTV’s renovation shows. Modern multiplexes seem even more bland and cookie-cutter when you compare them to an old theater like the Loew’s Jersey.

The sitting area of the ladies’ restroom

The sitting area of the ladies’ restroom

I was far from the only person wandering around the lobby taking photos—and several people had brought far more elaborate cameras than I did. Clearly, lots of people relish the chance to see a classic movie theater up close.

Looking down at the area just outside the auditorium entrance

Looking down at the area just outside the auditorium entrance

Eventually, the Superman crowd cleared out and the Friends of the Loew’s volunteers began ushering those of us milling about the lobby into the theater itself for the second show. The auditorium is massive, and I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like back in Jersey City’s prime, with every one of the 3,100 seats on the floor and in the balcony filled. (Because it doesn’t meet current building codes, the balcony is now closed.) There were only fifty or so people sprinkled around the auditorium on Saturday night, though that might have been a reflection of the movie being screened—a couple in the ticket line who attend all the Loew’s shows said that the place gets pretty full on Hitchcock nights.

In front of the curtain hiding the movie screen, an organist played for us on the theater’s vintage instrument—possibly the high point of the evening (he was excellent) and far, far better than the commercials and dumb trivia games movie theaters play before the previews today.

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Finally, a Friend of the Loew’s stood on the stage and welcomed us to the theater, followed by the organist playing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” as he and the organ slowly descended below the stage on an elevator. And then the lights dimmed and it was showtime.

So while The Seven Year Itch wasn’t great, I loved the experience of seeing a classic film in a vintage theater. It was also not an expensive night out: movie tickets are $8, and I bought a small box of popcorn and a can of diet Coke for $1 each. Since the movie ended at 11pm, I took the bus home rather than walk, costing an additional $1.50. Not quite the same prices someone would have paid in 1955 to see The Seven Year Itch in its original run at the Loew’s Jersey, but not nearly as pricey as a regular movie theater today. If you’re hanging around Jersey City on a night when the Loew’s is screening a film, don’t miss it.

(And if any Friends of the Loew’s happen to read this … The Philadelphia Story! I would love to see that on the big screen.)

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Two Movie Palaces in Journal Square

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A massive transportation complex dominates Jersey City’s Journal Square, a grotesquely ugly concrete-block monstrosity of the type favored by urban planners in the 1960s and ‘70s. Thousands of commuters pass through the transportation center each day as they head to New York or Newark on the PATH subway trains that rumble underground. Few of those commuters spend any time in Journal Square itself, though. Grove Street, one stop up the PATH line, offers trendy cafes, fitness centers, and shops. In contrast, Journal Square is populated by a grim lineup of Subway sandwiches, Dunkin’ Donuts, a dollar store, and discount clothing retailers. Even the Jersey Journal—the newspaper for which the square is named—has left, moving its offices to Secaucus in 2014. The hopeful banners adorning lightposts that welcome visitors to “The NEW Journal Square” aren’t fooling anyone: Journal Square hasn’t been new in a long, long time.

You have to look back to before the Second World War to find the glory days of Journal Square, when the area—already a transportation crossroads—was also the place to go for shopping, dining, or a movie. Especially a movie: the square once boasted three lavish movie theaters, the kind of elaborate facility known as “movie palaces.” One of the three, The State, is gone. But the other two—The Stanley and Loew’s Jersey—remain, physical testimony to an era when Journal Square was a destination, not a transit point.

I’ve been passing these old theaters for months, riding the bus to and from the PATH station, and finally decided last weekend that I wanted to take a closer look. On Sunday afternoon, I laced up my sneakers, slipped my camera into my bag, and ran (well, mostly walked really, really fast) the two miles down John F. Kennedy Boulevard from my apartment to Journal Square. By the time I arrived there, the thunderstorm that was forecast for late afternoon was sweeping in several hours ahead of schedule, the clear blue skies rapidly giving way to ominous dark gray clouds.

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I approached The Stanley from across the street first, getting a full view of its eye-catching copper marquee, somewhat dull from the shadow of clouds massing overhead but beautiful nonetheless. Movies and stage shows played at The Stanley for half a century, from its opening in 1928 through the day the doors closed in 1978. Five years later, the neglected theater was purchased and turned into an assembly hall for Jehovah’s Witnesses—still its role today. On two occasions (1983-85 and 2012-13), the Jehovah’s Witnesses have organized massive volunteer operations to restore The Stanley, ensuring that the theater retains its original Venetian-inspired opulence, even as its function has changed.

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Continuing down JFK Boulevard as rain drops began spattering the sidewalk, I took refuge under the grand marquee of the Loew’s Jersey. Completed in 1929 (opening day was only one month before the stock market crashed in October of that year), the exterior of the Loew’s is far more ornate than that of The Stanley. Carvings adorn the sand-colored stone façade, an oxidized green statue sitting at the top beneath a stone arch. The old-fashioned ticket booth, now faded to a dull brass, is decorated with scrollwork. A sign posted outside boasts that the Loew’s houses the “Best Movie Theater Organ in NYC Area,” per The Village Voice. Everything about the Loew’s hints at its glamorous red-carpet past.

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But the theater is not fully operational these days. Like The Stanley, the Loew’s saw business dry up in the 1970s as people moved from Jersey City into surrounding areas and began patronizing suburban multiplexes. Closed in 1986, the theater was slated for demolition; only a six-year crusade by a newly formed “Friends of the Loew’s” saved the building, which had fallen into terrible disrepair. But for the past two decades, the Friends have struggled to realize their vision of restoring the Loew’s to its former splendor, a project that has gotten bogged down in battles with the city, which now wishes to bring in a national developer and turn the theater into a concert space. The Friends have fought back, and only last week won a victory in court as a judge upheld their lease on the theater. For the time being, at least, the Loew’s will continue as it is, holding special screenings of classic films. One such screening actually prevented me from checking out the interior of the theater on Sunday: I found that ushers at the door were selling tickets for a showing of a Star Trek movie that would begin shortly. Not much of a Star Trek fan, I turned around and walked across the street to get a closer look at The Stanley.

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I didn’t enter The Stanley, either, though this time the issue wasn’t access but propriety: the Assembly Hall was holding services, and I didn’t feel my running clothes matched up to the Sunday finery everyone walking into the building sported. Instead, I admired the stained-glass panels set into the exterior and the elegant designs above the shuttered ticket booth, snapping a few shots of both as the raindrops suddenly accelerated from a shower to a downpour. (I’ll wear nicer clothes some other time so I can get inside. In the meantime, this news story on The Stanley’s renovation offers great views of the interior.)

Realizing that I wasn’t going to run/walk home, I lowered my head and dashed through the rain across the street into the transportation center, fishing in my bag for bus fare. As the bus emerged from the concrete bowels of PATH Plaza and turned onto JFK Boulevard, I saw the Loew’s Jersey on my left and then, a few seconds later, The Stanley on my right. Dormant during the week, both old theaters had a steady stream of people walking into their doors on this Sunday afternoon—a brief flashback an earlier “NEW Journal Square.”

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Postcard from Citi Field

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I should do this more often.

I spent yesterday afternoon watching the Phillies lose to the Mets at Citi Field. It was my first time to that ballpark, and there’s a lot to recommend it: easy subway access, a great seat for a reasonable price (thanks to Groupon), well-behaved fans, Nathan’s hot dogs, the occasional roar of a plane soaring overhead as it takes off from LaGuardia, orange-and-blue sprinkles on Mister Softee ice cream, Mr. Met (not as good as the Phanatic, of course, because no mascot can be as good as the Phanatic, but an acceptable substitute), and—yesterday, at least—the perfect mixture of sun and breeze.

If only the Phillies had, you know … won.

Can’t have everything, I suppose.

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