Monday, November 17, 2008

Miami Book Fair 2008

Here's my account of the weekend I just spent at the Miami Book Fair with Achenblog friend Seasea. Some of it is in paragraph form, some of it is sentence fragments. Sometimes it deteriorates into a list format. I make no claims for it as literature. But I wanted to share with interested parties who were unable to attend. The book fair was interesting, entertaining and educational in balanced measure. Starting with Saturday morning (although the chronology isn't strictly followed throughout)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Martha Weinman Lear began by saying that "age-related memory loss" is a misnomer because the memories are not lost. The information is still in there, but as we get older it takes longer to retrieve. The three characteristics of memory-related issues in older people are (1) difficulty remembering names [I agree with Dave Barry's assertion that it's not just names, but all nouns] (2) difficulty multi-tasking and (3) slower processing of new information. Lear says it's not just American Baby Boomers who are obsessed with this subject, but people all over the world; it's a very hot topic right now and much research is going on.

One of the chapters in her book is about the things you never forget, and why--that relates to the three kinds of memory: (1) episodic (things that happened to you) (2) semantic (facts, expressed in words) and (3) procedural (how to do things). The third is the most important and you will not lose those memories. For example, you might forget the name of the restaurant where you ate last week. But you probably won't forget what a restaurant is, and you surely won't forget how to eat. So her conclusion is that the brain is constructed in the best way it can be, and you should stop worrying and be happy.

Sue Halpern's book is more research-intensive; she spent a number of years hanging around a specific research facility and she has summarized the recent advances and hopes for the near future in the field of memory. She distinguishes between "normal age-related memory loss" and diseases like Alzheimers, but says anything that aids in memory retention for "normal" people will also help Alzheimers patients because they are also subject to the normal aging process in addition to the disease process.

Halpern, who incidentally is married to author Bill McKibben, made a dramatic presentation of her main point. She said, "What if I told you there is a pill that will enable your brain to grow new brain cells--would you want it? What if I told you it has no side effects, would you want it even more? And would you pay me a lot of money? " (laughter) And she revealed that this miraculous --and free -- remedy is EXERCISE. Numerous studies with animal and human subjects have shown that 45 minutes of aerobic exercise a day has a significant effect on the subjects' performance on memory tests and also the number of new brain cells and synapses that are produced. So, hit the road, people!

As for magic foods, the research on chocolate and red wine is ongoing, but blueberries and walnuts have shown good results already. Halpern stressed that large doses of vitamins and herbal supplements can be dangerous and have not been proven to help. She recommends that you stick to eating healthy food--nobody ever overdosed on walnuts and blueberries.

= = = = = = =

We went to the next session in hopes of seeing Joyce Carol Oates, along with two other authors, but Oates was a no-show, much to the general chagrin of the attendees. We stayed, out of courtesy to the other two authors, and heard them read:

Francine Prose - Goldengrove, A Novel
Patrick McGrath (pronounced like "McGraw") - Trauma: A Novel

= = = = = =

"Words Matter"

Mim Harrison - Smart Words
Ammon Shea - Reading the OED
(Check out Harrison's blog)

Mim Harrison thinks that Americans are smarter than they sound. She loves words (here's one: epeolatry, the worship of words) and believes that we should endeavor to use more variety in our vocabulary. She's not advocating sesquipedalianism, not altogether anyway. Some shorter words meet her criteria as interesting words that she'd like to hear more of; two examples she gave were "pelf" and "screed." Her book is a collection of 500 words which, if we all learn them and use them, will make us sound smarter.

= = =
A riveting speaker, Ammon Shea spoke "in defense of non-narrative prose," pointing out that Jean Cocteau once said, "The greatest masterpiece in literature is just a dictionary out of order."

Shea did indeed read the entire Oxford English Dictionary (21,730 pages). He warmed up for the task by reading Webster's 2nd Edition, a book which he liked so much that he proceeded immediately to read Webster's 3rd edition. He was fascinated by the discovery that those two works were so dissimilar. In 27 years, the number of words went from 625,000 to 450,000, and the definitions, he says, also underwent a significant renovation. I'll take his word for it, for now.

On to the joys of the OED. This work contains about 2.5 million quotations to illustrate the meaning and usage of various words, so that "opens it up" as film directors like to say when they make a play into a movie. Shea testified to the emotional content of the dictionary, inviting us to contemplate the idea that a word can create a feeling, can call up a memory, and the memory of the word can affect the way you view the world. Good example: "petrochlor - the smell of rain when it first hits the earth." That is bound to get an emotional response from you and you will think of it next time you are in a position to smell your freshly-rained-upon lawn. Since you probably didn't know that word before, it also illustrates another point, that if you only go to the dictionary to look up the spelling or definition of a word you already know, you are missing out on a world of possibilities--great words you might never know. Here are some:

bouffage - a good meal
bayard - (a person with) the self-confidence of the ignorant
scrouge - to stand uncomfortably close to a person

Shea said that he was not allowed to watch television as a child and his parents explained to him that reading was a more active pastime which would use and develop his imagination. He found that to be true, and says now that if reading a novel, play or essay uses your imagination, fires up the neurons and activates your brain, reading the dictionary does it even more, because you have to bring more of yourself to the task. As he travels around, people often jokingly ask what will he read next, the telephone book? the railroad schedules? and he said he used to be somewhat offended by that sort of inquiry; after all, the Oxford English Dictionary is hardly to be compared to the telephone book. But as time went on, he met people who did read, for example, railroad schedules, and he came to see that there is value in that as well--if you picture the places you are reading about, imagine yourself going there, making the connections, and so on. He says he has respect for people who derive enjoyment from that.

I have always liked "reading" through the Atlas, and I suppose that is an extreme example of "non-narrative prose."

I'm pretty sure, from listening to him and observing his behavior, that Shea has some mild form of autism, like Asbergers Syndrome or something, that puts him out of the normal range of human psychology (ditto for his readers who sit by the fire with the railroad schedules night after night). I'm very glad that he is able to share his experiences by writing this book and speaking at the book fair. Hooray for (us) abnormals, I say! I loved one particular thing he said about reading the dictionary, which really applies to any reading experience. He said that it "makes us avoid the actual world while at the same time feeling more a part of it than ever."

= = =
The person who introduced Paul Yaeger said, "As a child, he was annoyed by the term 'the three R's' to refer to Reading, Writing and Arithmetic."

Yaeger continues to be annoyed by the misuse of the English language. A meterologist by education, he is irritated in the extreme by the overuse of prepositions on the part of television weathercasters (A cold front is moving "up into the region," or even, absurdly, "on over into the state").

"It goes without saying" that he really hates THAT phrase.

He is on a crusade against the trendy and its flip side, the trite.

Yaeger has a blog, too. He also recommends this group effort language blog whose contributors include Geoffrey Nunberg, one of my favorite linguistics experts.

Saturday night: Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rock Bottom Remainders:

I've never seen so many band members on stage at the same time. I didn't get an absolutely complete list, but here is the general lineup:

  • Mitch Albom
  • Dave Barry
  • Sam Barry
  • Richard Belzer
  • Roy Blount, Jr.
  • Kathy Goldmark
  • Matt Groening
  • Vicki Hendricks
  • Carl Hiaasen
  • Frank McCourt
  • Ridley Pearson
  • Jenine Sabino
  • Amy Tan
  • Scott Turow
  • Steve Watts
The Remainders kicked off with their classic opening song: "If the House is a-Rockin' Don't Come Knockin'."

Mitch Albom did an Elvis imitation. I'll say no more about that.

Amy Tan performed lead vocals on "My Boyfriend's Back" while the backup vocals and instrumentals accompanied in a variety of keys. Most of the time Dave did tell everybody what key the number would be in, but for that one song, apparently the information wasn't entirely disseminated. Oops. Amy apologized and said they hadn't had time to rehearse it. Dave just laughed at her (and himself, and the rest of them--and maybe at us, too, for listening to it.)

Frank McCourt played harmonica and performed vocals on a rousing version of "Don't Fence Me In" and then later did an encore with the Beatles' "I Should Have Known Better."

The band didn't leave out their standards, "I'm in Love With a Proofreading Woman" and Kathy Goldmark's composition, "The Slut Song."

Sam Barry's rendition of the gospel tune "It's Nobody's Fault but Mine" is a favorite of mine and a reminder that the Barry brothers share the burden of having grown up as "preacher's kids." They have my sympathy on that score.

Joining the band at various times were Dave's wife, Michelle Kaufman, and their daughter Sophie (singing "La Bamba" with mucho gusto) and the fiancee of Rob Barry, Laura Schweitzer. Laura's sparkly diamond ring was visible to the back rows as she belted out "I Love Rock and Roll" -- she's gonna fit right in at the Barry house.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Any friend of Cesar Chavez is a friend of mine.

Peter Matthiessen: his new novel is called Shadow Country. It has been criticized as a rehash of a trio of novels previously published, but he said he spent seven years completely reworking the story, which was originally written as a single book. The problem was that the original book was 1,300 pages long and it frightened the publisher, who insisted on breaking it up into three separate novels. Matthiessen wasn't satisfied with the result and now he thinks the final project (at 900 pages) is much better. The committee for the National Book Award agrees; it's on their short list for the soon-to-be-announced 2008 prize.

I was not familiar with Matthiessen's work before but he has been an activist and envionmentalist for a very long time. He's working on global warming issues relating to native people and polar bears. He also advocates for other native American issues, and would like us to join him in pressing for the release from prison of Leonard Peltier. Peltier has been locked up for 32 years; everyone else who was convicted in the 1975 Pine Ridge Reservation incident has been released. It wouldn't be far-fetched to consider Peltier a political prisoner. Even the judge who sentenced him is in favor of releasing him at this point.

When asked during Q&A what can we do about global warming, Matthiessen replied, "I like to think we can all do something. Cesar Chavez, who was the greatest man I ever met, used to say that instead of sitting back and saying 'what can one person do' if everybody did something, no matter how small it might be, we could turn any situation around, eliminate injustice, poverty, pollution, whatever."

After expressing his admiration for Chavez, Matthiessen declared that his "prime enemy in life" is Exxon-Mobil, noting among other things that "they have never paid a cent" in damages relating to the Exxon Valdez disaster.

Then someone asked what his next project would be and Matthiessen said, "Well, it's been 30 years since I cleaned my office, I'm starting on that now." He is also "taking notes" for a new novel but says that at 81 years old he isn't planning any more heavily researched nonfiction projects, because "time is not on my side."

* * * * *
Roy Blount, Jr. -- another word lover: "My mother didn't breastfeed me. I forgive her. Instead of mother's milk, she gave me words."
Blount's book, Alphabet Juice, the Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof, is a different approach to language. He emphasizes the relation between the way we say a word, and its meaning, for example the word "through" -- your tongue starts at the front of your mouth and travels towards the back, while your lips form a kind of tunnel opening shape. "Piss" - just the opposite, your lips start tightly closed and then they part and out streams air, at first quickly and then more slowly and then it stops. The book is filled with observations of a similarly off-beat type; it's a celebration of Blount's delight in language.

Roy Blount story: Barack Obama was a guest on "Wait, Wait, Don't tell Me" before he was a candidate. He talked about being a senator and how he was surprised to find that each senator has his own desk on the Senate floor--also that previous senators had carved their initials into the wood of the desks the way school children sometimes do. Asked whether he would follow the tradition, Obama replied that in view of the fact that he was the only African American senator, he was thinking of using spray paint, instead.

We later ran into Blount in line for crepes, and I took the opportunity to express my appreciation for his performance with the Rock Bottom Remainders. In point of fact, his rendition of "Oh, Boy" was one of the best numbers they did and the one that stuck in my head the next day. He was rather sheepish and said he thought the band had more fun than the audience did, and that he appreciated "being indulged." He agreed with my expressed opinion that the crepes were the best food available at the book fair. (Most of the other choices involved deep frying or sausage, or both.)

One of the fun parts of Roy Blount's presentation was seeing Carl Hiaasen, who shared the stage with him, crack up listening to Roy's stories. The same was true of the Frank McCourt/Dave Barry pairing. Dave was about to fall off his chair at several points. I did not take notes at that event. Dave discussed his book The History of the Millennium (So Far) and later he autographed my copy of it--this is the first personalized Dave Barry book I've ever had, after all these years. Frank McCourt signed my Achenblog Bookbag so now it has four signatures -- quality, not quantity, is what I'm going for.

Carl talked about his golf book, The Downhill Lie, a Hacker's Return to a Ruinous Sport which I have discussed elsewhere. He told all the goriest stories from the book and someone got up afterward and said, "I just want to thank you for your presentation. I've been trying to lose weight, and after those stories (the rats, the toads) I'm going to find it easy to skip lunch today."

* * * * *

What we didn't see:
  • Salmon Rushdie
  • George Hamilton
  • Michael Cunningham
  • Wally Lamb
  • The International Pavilion
  • The Comix Gallery
  • Art Spiegelman
  • Jim Morin
  • Linda Gassenheimer
  • Sister Souljah
  • Senator Mel Martinez
  • Scott McClellan
  • Russell Banks
  • The Write Out Loud Cafe
  • Alan Cheuse

and hundreds of other people and events...

...and, believe it or not, I didn't buy as many books as I had planned. Because I didn't really have time to shop. But we did have a great time.

Aside from the book fair itself, we did a little sightseeing around Miami. Saturday night we sauntered around Bayside Mall and ended up having dinner at the same Cuban restaurant we patronized last year. It's authentic Cuban food at a reasonable price; why go elsewhere?

We stayed in Miami Beach, at a very funky hotel called The Whitelaw. On Sunday afternoon we hopped on the local shuttle bus - for 25 cents you can tour South Beach. We debarked at Lincoln Road and walked up and down the pedestrian mall there.

I went for a run on the beach both mornings we were there. Miami Beach has a great boardwalk, mostly well away from the street traffic. The weather was hot on Saturday but cooler on Sunday--clear blue skies and gentle breezes, nothing at all to complain about.

I meant to take more pictures, but this is all I ended up with--and at least one of these is Seasea's; on Sunday night I commandeered her camera and downloaded everything she had onto my laptop. Did not even give her a chance to refuse. (Thank you, Seasea--and thanks also for coming all the way to the other corner of the country to share the Miami Book Fair with me.)

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sanibel Island

We have just returned from a weeklong vacation on Sanibel Island, a small island off the west coast of Florida, near Fort Myers. Sanibel is a good example of how development can coexist with nature. The island is a protected habitat area and building is strictly regulated. We rode bikes, walked the beach, swam, and relaxed (I had time to work a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle! I was very happy.) I have uploaded some of our photos to my Photobucket site; unfortunately I haven't figured out how to put them in order, and my time has run out for figuring out this computer stuff tonight. So here is a link to the random photos--if I have a chance, I'll reorganize them later. (This sounds just like the way I always used to handle printed photos...)

Some of the pictures are from Everglades City/Chokoloskee Island; we stopped by there on the way to Sanibel. Everglades City is legendary as a smuggler's haven. In the 1980's, illegal drugs were the backbone of the town's economy. In 1983, the DEA staged a massive raid on the little town, arresting nearly every adult male they found (200 people went to jail.) We didn't find any evidence of that history when we drove through; instead we toured a historic general store and enjoyed placid scenic vistas of Florida Bay.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan, in this compact novel, has taken a microscopic look at one evening in the life of two young people, their wedding night. It's impressive how he can maintain the concentration necessary to enumerate the minute emotional details of each of his characters.

McEwan's genius is the ability to define a pivotal event, a moment in time when everything changes. If one person had said one word differently or turned to the right instead of to the left, the rest of time would be altered for everybody forever. He is able to make the reader think that his characters' fates are important, and to let us see the crisis looming ever closer and keep hoping it will turn out for the best--but in McEwan's books, it rarely does.

The suspense in On Chesil Beach is what will transpire when the two protagonists, both virgins, share the experience of their initial sexual encounter. They have very different points of view. The novel is exquisitely detailed in exploring their two viewpoints and making it clear to the reader that the two of them have no insight into each other's thoughts. Their culture discourages them from frank discussions so instead of telling each other about their hopes and fears, they just think to themselves, and the tension builds.

I won't reveal how the story unfolds, but it's not too much of a spoiler to say there's no happy ending--it is pretty obvious from the beginning that unless some miracle occurs these two hopelessly unprepared people with their ridiculous expectations and paralyzing anxieties are bound to misunderstand each other, and destined to hurt each other. A sense of humor might save them, but there is no evidence either has one.

This subject has been treated before but I've never seen it done so explicitly and with such literary skill. The main literary device is the beach as a metaphor. This particular beach where they are planning to spend their honeymoon has the peculiar quality of having pebbles of graduated size--"...thousands of years of pounding storms had sifted and graded the size of pebbles along the eighteen miles of beach, with the bigger stones at the eastern end. The legend was that local fishermen landing at night knew exactly where they were by the grade of shingle." (p.23) The newlyweds picture themselves walking along the beach, observing scientifically, testing the truth of the guidebook that tells the story of the pebbles. That could be their life together, a shared progress through the years, steadily becoming older and more comfortable, growing in wisdom and prosperity, having children, weathering the inevitable storms and becoming stronger for it. That would be the natural outcome of their wedding. Because they are not comfortable with nature, their fate is something else.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Downhill Lie: A Hacker's Return to a Ruinous Sport, by Carl Hiaasen

You might think that the only thing more boring than golf is a book about golf. Especially a book about golf written by a person who isn't good at golf and doesn't even like the game that much. But if the author of the book is Carl Hiaasen, that creates a glimmer of hope that the book just might be somewhat entertaining.

Even though much of the book is a stroke by stroke account of one depressing golf game after another, documenting his lack of progress and his frustration therewith, Hiaasen does intersperse some amusing anecdotes and even manages to wedge in some political commentary:

"It's sobering to contemplate how many bribes have been negotiated in this country during casual rounds of golf. there ought to be a law that anytime a politician and a lobbyist tee off together, the foursome must be rounded out by two FBI agents." (p.119)
What really makes this book worthwhile is its personal tone. Parts of it are presented as actual journal entries, and the overall tone is confessional, full of dramatized self-loathing and Eeyore-like pessimism, made funny with literary skill. Hiaasen's attempts at improving his golf game are also a source of humor--he'll try anything, from a magical pendant to attention-focusing pills (which he keeps misplacing and forgetting to take). He also spends big bucks on books, equipment and lessons, but mostly what he learns is, "when you suck, you suck."

Though he is no big threat on the golf course, scoring-wise, Hiaasen is something of a hazard to wildlife, ironically so, considering his reputation as a nature-lover. He uses his nine-iron to loft bufo toads out of his friend's yard into the neighbor's yard. When rats chew the wiring in his car, he clobbers the whole rat family in its nest with a specially weighted training club. The turtles he beans with errant balls are more in the category of collateral damage, but I still was surprised at his lack of remorse, in light of the fury he has unleashed in his books on habitat destroyers of all kinds.

I've read most of Hiaasen's books and newspaper columns. I have wondered what he is like in real life. This book partly answers the question. Apparently, he is a loner who loves his family. A perfectionist who accepts his limitations. He would be more of a curmudgeon if not for his wife and young son, who keep reminding him that there is fun to be had, and his mother, who keeps him emotionally honest. I predict that he will continue to play golf, even if it continues to make him suffer.

Monday, June 23, 2008

God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, by Adam Nicolson

I have used the Revised Standard Version of the Bible all my life and memorized my Bible verses out of it when I was a child. My only experience with the King James Bible was that we had a big "family Bible" that sat on our coffee table, and occasionally I would leaf through it. It was pretty, but hard to read, both because of the typeface and because of the vocabulary. I was taught that the KJV was an inferior translation because it was derived from earlier translations instead of the Latin and Greek texts. This is the prejudice I held when I picked up God's Secretaries to read the tale of how the King James Bible came to be.

Needless to say, I am less ignorant now that I have read Nicolson's book. The King James Bible did draw on previous versions, but it was put together by a large group of eminent scholars, and they did have the Greek and Hebrew texts as well as the earlier English Bibles. The author does an adequate job of listing and describing many of the people who were involved in the translation that King James commissioned, but there were so many of them that they didn't really have a chance to emerge as individuals in the course of the narrative. I will try to remember that William Tyndale, who produced one of the earlier versions of the Bible upon which the King James version was based, was executed as a heretic before he even finished his translation. I always want to remain cognizant of the blood on the pages of religious history because I believe it is one of our main tasks to be vigilant and steer away from any tendency towards persecution or judgment.

What I like best about God's Secretaries is Nicolson's characterization of the King James Bible itself. He obviously holds it in reverence, and he is not reticent about singing its praises. I came away with a new appreciation for the literary value of this Bible. Numerous examples show passages where the KJV has words carefully chosen for effect, for the rhythm and the majesty of the language. The aim was not just to convey meaning, but to set a tone of authority and grandeur. One of the methods the committee used was that they chose words that carried more than one meaning. This is the Bible as literature, which is appropriate because the message it seeks to convey is not a simplistic one. Here is Nicolson extolling the virtues of the King James Bible, in contrast to a more recent translation:
"...The modern world had lost the thing which informs every act and gesture of...the King James Bible...: a sense of encompassing richness which stretches unbroken from the divine to the sculptural, from theology to cushions, from a sense of the beauty of the created world to the extraordinary capabilities of language to embody it.

"This is about more than mere sonority or the beeswaxed heritage-appeal of antique vocabulary and grammar. The flattening of language is a flattening of meaning. Language which is not taut with a sense of its own significance, which is apologetic in its desire to be acceptable to a modern consciousness, language in other words which submits to its audience, rather than instructing, informing, moving, challenging and even entertaining them, is no longer a language which can carry the freight the Bible requires. It has, in short, lost all authority. The language of the King James Bible is the language...of patriarchy, of an instructed order, of richness as a form of beauty, of authority as a form of good; the New English Bible is motivated by the opposite, an anxiety not to bore or intimidate. It is driven, in other words, by the desire to please and, in that way, is a form of language which has died." (p. 154)
I would have preferred that Nicolson include more specific examples of the translation process, discussing the reasons why the specific words were chosen, including the discussions and arguments. He does have some documentation for that level of detail. Instead he spent more time on the general history of England in the early 17th century, which was too complex to be adequately covered in this limited book. Still, it's a good beginning and I look forward to learning more about the period,when the opportunity arises.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Adventures in Transportation

With my daughter (D) home from college, we have three adults, a van, a car and a bicycle. We all got to where we needed to go this week and here's how it went:

Monday morning, my bike developed a flat tire en route to work. I rode it the last mile on just the tire, no air—this is possible because I have heavy duty tubes and fat tires. Possible, but not recommended. I got to work on time, though. In the afternoon, D picked me and the bicycle up with the van and drove me home. I went to Walmart to buy a tube for the flat tire, but they didn't have any so I drove to the bike shop and bought a premium, puncture-proof tube. Came home and fixed the flat.

On Tuesday, I got on the bike to ride to work, but the wheel was not adjusted correctly and I didn't have time to fix it. My husband (R) gave me a ride to work, I got there on time. I planned to take the bus – actually, two buses -- home. I went to catch the first bus at the end of the day and found that my regular bus stop has been eliminated. I walked a mile and a half (in the rain) to where the second bus could pick me up. When I put my dollar in, driver said the fare is $1.25 now. So it's a good thing I missed that first bus because I only had $2.00. I got home, dried off and changed my clothes. Then I got a phone call from D to tell me the car she had driven to work was not running right, something about the transmission, apparently. I took the van to where the car was, added transmission fluid, and tried to drive it, but it was really bad. I drove in second gear to the garage, left it there and walked home. D drove the van home. That evening, I fixed the bike so it would be sure to be ready to go next day.

Wednesday morning, I called the garage. They said the car needed a new transmission. After discussion we agreed they would install a rebuilt transmission and a new clutch. I bicycled to work; D used the van to get to her job; R worked at home. Wednesday afternoon, I bicycled to the garage, put the bike in the trunk, and drove home.

Thursday, I rode the bike to and from work without incident. D used the car to get to her job. R used the van for his purposes; all systems were normal.

Friday: TGIF! D called me at work at 1 p.m. - R was at the pool and had locked his keys in the van. D was at the house and didn't have a key to the van. I described where my copy of the key was hidden at the house, and explained that the key is a copy and might not work right away (R couldn't make it work last time but I used it to start the van after he gave up on it). D drove the car to the pool, R unlocked the van and drove home.

On Saturday morning, I drove R to the airport so he could catch a plane to visit his older daughter.

We are all hoping that our transportation situation is a little less eventful in the immediate future.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Some Sights from my Commute

Here's a tree I pass every day on my commute--it's a great example of an interesting species. It used to be a palm tree, but a fig seed germinated in the top of the palm tree, grew roots and tendrils that surrounded the palm tree, then proceeded to grow branches and take over, but the palm tree is still alive in there; you can see the fronds reaching up for their needed sunlight, out of the middle of the strangler fig.

After I pass the strangler fig, I am in an upscale neighborhood, home to rich people who keep their lawns nice and live in old, overpriced homes, not McMansions. This one house sticks out like a sore thumb, not because the inhabitants are Republicans--I'm sure that's common in these parts--but because they are radical and tacky about it. Their yard is surrounded by a high wall with a locked iron gate. Their flagpole flies the American flag, the Republican Party flag, the Confederate flag, and a pirate flag. Their vehicles are covered in bumper stickers, which leave no doubt about their ideological leanings:

  • Fairness Doctrine (circle/slash) IT'S NOT FAIR - IT'S COMMUNISM
  • Picture of Hillary Clinton (circle/slash)
  • HRC (circle/slash)
  • NEWT 2008
  • NEWT 08

I've never met these people, but if I ever do, I have something to tell them: It doesn't annoy me if you work hard and smile. Your bumper stickers amuse me. However, I do find it somewhat irritating that you are BLOCKING THE BICYCLE LANE with your big ol' truck:

Thursday, May 15, 2008

People Do Want To Fly

Everybody thinks about it; most people dream about it; some people make it happen for themselves.

Gennai Yanagisawa, 75, of Japan, developed the world's smallest helicopter in the 1990's, and he's planning to fly one over Leonardo da Vinci's hometown.

Meanwhile, Mubarak Muhammed Abdullahi, a Nigerian physics student, built himself a helicopter out of scrap metal and the engine from a Honda Civic.

Helicopters are too tame for fighter pilot Yves Rossy; he has a personal jetpack, like Buck Rogers.

I wish these people well. I understand they are expressing a human trait--three men from three different continents, driven by a desire to defy gravity and soar through the sky. I don't envy them; I'm happy to observe from down below, with my feet on the ground.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

What is the What, by Dave Eggers

I'm really late reading this book. I meant to read it when it first came out, but partly because I had been disappointed by Eggers's book You Shall Know Our Velocity!, I hesitated to invest in What is the What. I have a great deal of admiration for Dave Eggers, however. His first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, really was. So when I saw this book on sale on the used book table for fifty cents, I grabbed it and I'm glad I did.

What is the What is the story of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, Valentino Achak Deng. He's not a hero or a superstar, but he is a survivor and that makes him a riveting subject of this book. Eggers writes the story but it is Deng's life. The honesty comes through and the raw nature of the input, but Eggers adds literary value, the flow of the story and a graceful vocabulary. The Scotland Sunday Herald calls it "a stunning act of symbiotic literary ventriloquism."

The life in question should make any citizen of the industrialized west grateful for our blessings. Violence, deprivation, and displacement add up to a kind of poverty that is hard for us to imagine. Here's an example: After walking all the way across Sudan, a group of boys nears the refugee camp in Ethiopia. At the last village before they cross the river to Ethiopia, some of them, thinking they will be provided for in the refugee camp, trade their clothes for food. As a result, there are boys who remain naked for six months, until a shipment of clothing makes it to the camp. That's a level of poverty I rarely contemplate.

Deng eventually makes it to America but it isn't paradise and he needs all his resourcefulness and persistence to survive here as well.

Here's the story of the title:
"My father stood and began, telling the story the way he always told it.
"--When God created the earth, he first made us, the monyjang. Yes, first he made the monyjang, the first man, and he made him the tallest and strongest of the people under the sky...
"Yes, God made the monyjang tall and strong, and he made their women beautiful, more beautiful than any of the creatures on the land...
"...and whan God was done, and the monyjang were standing on the earth waiting for insturction, God asked the man, 'Now that you are here, on the most sacred and fertile land I have, I can give you one more thing. I can give you this creature, which is called the cow...'
"...God showed man the idea of the cattle, and the cattle were magnificent. They were in every way exactly what the monyjang would want. the man and woman thanked God for such a gift, because they knew that the cattle would bring them milk and meat and prosperity of every king. But God was not finished.
"...God said, 'You can either have these cattle, as my gift to you, or you can have the What.'
"But...Sadiq said, helping out, --What is the What? he said, with an air of theatrical inquisitiveness.
"...Yes, yes. That was the question. So the first man lifted his head to God and asked what this was, this What. 'What is the What?' the first man asked. And God said to the man, 'I cannot tell you. Still, you have to choose. You have to choose between the cattle and the What.' Well then. the man and the woman could see the cattle right there in front of them, and they knew that with cattle they would eat and live with great contentment. They could see the cattle were God's most perfect creation, and that the cattle carried something godlike within themselves. They knew that they would live in peace with the cattle, and that if they helped the cattle eat and drink, the cattle would give man their milk, would multiply every year and keep the monyjang happy and healthy. So the first man and woman knew they would be fools to pass up the cattle for this idea of the What. So the man chose cattle. And God has proven that this was the correct decision. God was testing the man. He was testing the man, to see if he could appreciate what he had been given, if he could take pleasure in the bounty before him, rather than trade it for the unknown. And because the first man was able to see this, God has allowed us to prosper. The Dinka live and grow as the cattle live and grow.
"The grinning man tilted his head.
"--Yes, but uncle Deng, may I ask something?
"My father, noting the man's good manners, sat down and nodded.
"--You didn't tell us the answer: What is the What?
"My father shrugged. --We don't know. No one knows."
Read more about the real-life Valentino and his projects to promote education in Africa at his website.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Shenandoah Hike

The wilderness phase of my mid-life crisis adventure is concluded, and I think it's fair to say it went entirely according to plan. Not Plan A or Plan B or even Plan C, but nothing was completely unforeseen; everything that happened had been prepared for in advance.

My original plan was to backpack the entire length of Shenandoah National Park, following the Appalachian Trail--115 miles--in seven days. I have no excuse for the insane optimism reflected in that estimation of my abilities. Just take into consideration that I have lived in Florida since 1980, and "mountain" has become a rather abstract concept to me. (Although I have actual memories of hiking up mountains in the Rockies and other places.) Somehow I thought the fact that I could walk 20 miles in 6.5 hours in Florida would translate into being able to cover 20 miles a day on the Shenandoah trip. "I'll have nothing to do all day but hike! In twelve hours, surely I can do that." It was obvious from the morning of the second day that it was completely out of the question, so I readjusted my plan, completely stopped worrying about mileage at all, and just hiked every day as far as I felt like going. In the end, I covered about 50 miles in 5 days, had a great time and made memories to keep for a lifetime.

But I'm getting ahead of the story--day one of the trip deserves attention, as it was the most dramatic of all.

I left Fort Lauderdale early in the morning, March 8, hoping to land in Charlottesville at 10:30 a.m. Weather-delayed flights resulted in my not arriving there until 1:45. Rodney from Mountain and Valley Shuttle Service was there to meet me and had brought the fuel for my stove that I wasn't able to bring on the plane. He whisked me off to the park and dropped me off at Rockfish Gap at 3:00. As we pulled up to the parking area, it was raining lightly and there was some snow mixed in, just occasional flurries. I put on my rain jacket but didn't take the time to put on rain pants, as that would require taking off my boots and I was eager to get going. Here's the beginning of the trail:

As I crossed the pedestrian walkway over the highway I looked at the horizon and saw a rainbow--the original good omen, and to say I was in good spirits at that point would be a gross understatement. In fact, I was euphoric, and I set off down the trail determined to go as far as I could before darkness forced me to set up camp.

It was cold--in the 30s--but I was comfortable hiking. I passed several small streams and considered stopping for water but didn't--at that point they seemed to be occurring frequently. About 6:00, circumstances started to converge in a dramatic way. The temperature dropped into the 20s, the wind picked up sharply, and it started to get dark. I had to cross Skyline Drive at Beagle Gap, where there are open areas on both sides of the road. In those unprotected areas the wind was blowing so hard that it literally stopped me in my tracks at times (with the pack on, I resembled a sail more than my normal profile would), and other times I turned sideways to present a smaller cross section, otherwise I would have been blown over. It was so cold my whole face was numb, and my euphoria was replaced with real, justified concern. This was a situation where good judgment was necessary, and nobody was going to help me--nobody knew I was there. I headed for the trees and stopped as soon as I found a marginally acceptable spot. I regretted not having water but that was a secondary consideration. I put up the tent, got all the necessities inside, secured my pack and crawled in for the night. It was dark, 7:00, and it was 23 degrees F. I stayed pretty warm all night, but didn't sleep much. The campsite was on a slope so I was sliding downhill all night, but this was Camp Desperation and I was glad to have met my first challenge so successfully.

Oh, did I mention, I climbed a mountain that day?

Day two, I woke up at first light - 6 a.m., Eastern Standard Time. That's right: even though the U.S. officially started Daylight Savings Time, I opted out. For the duration of my trip I had my own personal time zone. Now that is power.

I was packed and on the trail by 6:40--enthusiastic about reaching Calf Mountain Shelter, where there would be water, a shelter and a picnic table. Just had to climb one mountain to get to it--no, sorry, two mountains, Scott and Calf Mountain. I am going to stop naming every mountain after this, and just tell you now that the trip took me to or near the top of about a dozen mountains and that does not represent the amount of up and down--there are a lot of big uphills that aren't mountains.

The hike to Calf Mountain shelter convinced me thoroughly that I did not have the speed necessary to make the big mileage. And my night with no water convinced me that it was worth the weight to carry a day's supply--after that I always filled up my two one-liter bottles whenever I came to a spring.

I left the shelter determined to "hike until dark" but--

Journal Entry:

...Well, here it is 2:00 p.m. and I have changed my mind, am reevaluating this whole forced-march expedition. Factors: warm sunny weather makes hanging around in camp more attractive (2) mucho pain in shoulders and back from carrying the backpack is making hiking less fun. (3) Found a really nice campsite among the rhododendrons--it's LEVEL unlike last night's hillside bivouac.

So I'm stopped for the night, about to eat some Mountain House scrambled eggs and then read my book for a while.

My shoulders are saying "THANK YOU, THANK YOU"

The next four days went about the same. I enjoyed the hiking and scenery, while dealing with the shoulder pain, which sometimes seemed to be getting better, but never went away. I saw very few people--about seven altogether, all of whom appeared to be spring breakers (guys) except one guy with two dogs who seemed to be local.

On my way down from Hightop Mountain, I met two guys and asked one of them to take my picture--this is not a portrait, just photojournalism, documenting the facts. No primping, no posing.

On Wednesday, my 50th birthday and the main inspiration for the trip, I stood out on a ridge and watched the sun go down, stood there in the silence of the woods until the red gradually faded from the sky and the stars came out one by one. The moon was a little more than a quarter, very bright. I felt perfectly calm and happy.

When I went to bed that night, though, my right calf cramped up with the mother of all charley horses--I've had muscle cramps before but this was in a whole new league. I spent the entire night lying there talking to my leg. I knew it wasn't broken or damaged, just tensed. Some nerve had been overstimulated and reacted by contracting the muscle; it was like the hiccups, only continual.

I had planned to hike one more day and then catch a ride out, but this new development required another plan revision. So I got up Thursday morning, limped down to the highway, and got a ride into town with a nice French Canadian couple. The scenery was gorgeous.

Front Royal is a great town. I got dropped off at the town limits and hiked over to the post office, where my civilization luggage was in General Delivery waiting for me. I made the transition, using the same box to mail my camping gear home. Then took a taxi to a motel, and I was officially back in the world. Time to spring forward.

Two final observations in general about backpacking in Shenandoah National Park:

(1)This was my second time hiking the AT in the park but my first time experiencing Skyline Drive by car and I was surprised to find that the views from the road are about a hundred times better than the views from the trail. So scenery shouldn't be a motivating factor.

(2) The best reason to backpack to a place is that there is no other way to get to it. Our Colorado backpacking trips were always like that. When we got out there, the only people we would meet were other backpackers. In Shenandoah, you can hike 50 miles, arrive at a destination, and meet up with people who walked 100 yards from the highway to get there. That opens up a much wider demographic. This is why I did both my Shenandoah hikes in the off-season--my first one started on Christmas Day 1977.


As you read this narrative, there is one burning question you should have been asking yourself: "What book did you take?" And I have a great answer for you. I took Proust. Swann's Way, the classic translation by C.K. Scott Moncrieff. The reason I took it was that the first section totally captivated me, made me a Proust convert, had me saying that from now on, I'm only reading Remembrance of Things Past, I don't need any other books. That was the section about his early childhood. Unfortunately, the whole middle part of the book is an endless, tedious, repetitious account of friend-of-the-family Charles Swann's obsession with his fickle and heartless mistress. It has its merits but is by no means equal to the promise of the opening pages. By page 50 the narrative opens up more and has some amusing character descriptions. I will certainly continue reading Proust's great work, which is, I believe, seven volumes long.

Interesting that I was reading Proust all week and then the first conversation I had upon reentry into civilization was in French. A surreal touch.

This entry was drafted at Computer Medical Center in Front Royal. The people here are very nice and the use of the computer terminal with internet access is FREE. Did I mention that I love Front Royal?!?!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Falling Man, by Don DeLillo

This is the second book in a row that I read because of its cover. Falling Man, by Don DeLillo has an exquisitely designed jacket. The front of the book is a view of clouds from above, with a blue but nonetheless ominous horizon in the distance. Between the two words of the title, two thin vertical lines reach from the clouds up to near the top of the book. Extended above the lines, the words "A Novel" are printed vertically, in white. The words read top to bottom, so they appear to be falling from the sky towards the cloud floor. All this is interesting, but the clincher is not visible until you turn the book over. On the back, the cloudscape continues but in the midst of it, the tops of the twin towers are emerging. No other buildings are visible, just clouds all around, to the horizon. It's a great picture and very evocative. All kinds of emotional states can come out of it: tranquility, suspense, wonder, dread.

The book itself is less perfect than its cover, inevitably. It represents, presumably, an attempt to summarize or sample the effects of the September 11 terrorist attacks on selected individuals in New York City. It's very jumpy and sketchy, so I didn't have much emotional connection with any of the characters. The best character isn't given any emotional life at all: the performance artist known as "The Falling Man" who throws himself off of buildings and hangs from cables, in the attitude of the man in the famous 9/11 photograph, falling headfirst, wearing a suit, representing all our worst fears, free fall, total loss of control, the terror of impending violent death. The artist takes control of the uncontrollable, defines the indefinable. But he dies, in the end, of heart failure, unrelated to his vocation. He wasn't in control, after all. Nobody is. I don't need a novel to tell me that.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

Last week I found myself at the bookstore, in spite of my resolution to read more library books in 2008. I was just killing time while waiting for someone, not planning to buy anything. But then I saw this book. The cover is very beautiful, a metalic gold and lapiz lazuli butterfly wing on a black background. The title is catchy--it's the phrase that the Qur'an uses to refer to people who are neither Muslims nor apostates; i.e., practicing Jews and faithful Christians. The subject matter includes many of my favorite topics: books, history, the interactions among different cultures. The author just won the Pulitzer Prize for her previous book.

All right, all right, I surrender. But I grabbed the book, took it to the checkout, bought it and fled the store, before I could come across any other irresistible finds.

Without going into a lot of detail, I will just say that the book lived up to expectations. The best thing I can say about it is that it went a long way towards healing the wounds inflicted on my soul by my reading of The Da Vinci Code. It's a kind of antidote for that terrible book--rational where Da Vinci is hysterical, historical where Da Vinci is fanciful, factual where DaVinci is, frankly, full of baloney.

People of the Book has some of the same tone and techniques as Dan Brown's opus, I have to admit: mystery and speculation, sex and violence, feminism and glimpses of cultures sure to seem barbaric to modern readers. But it's all pretty tastefully executed, exquisitely researched and detailed.

. . .

I read to the end, as is my custom. The Afterword supplies all the actual facts that the imaginative novel was based on or inspired by. I had to read the dust jacket to find out that Geraldine Brooks is married to Tony Horwitz, who is the author of one of my most-often recommended books, Blue Latitudes. That's just literary trivia, I guess, no real significance but fun to know.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The library had a whole display of books by and about Dr. King in honor of his holiday last week. I picked up one called A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. I've read some biographies before but never sat down to read extensively King's message in his own words. There's no more powerful way to experience his life, other than to see and hear him delivering the message in person or on film. Having 700 pages of his writings, though, it's more dense, you can see the repetition of the key themes, and the way he phrased the same idea differently over time.

Here's just a sample of how Dr. King thought:

". . . there is within human nature an amazing potential for goodness. There is within human nature somethin that can respond to goodness. I know somebody's liable to say that this is an unrealistic movement if it goes on believing that all people are good. Well, I didn't say that. I think the students are realistic enough to believe that there is a strange dichotomy of disturbing dualism within human nature. Many of the great philosophers and thinkers through the ages have seen this. It caused Ovid the Latin poet to say, "I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do." It caused even Saint Augustine to say, "Lord, make me pure, but not yet." So that that is in human nature. Plato, centuries ago said that the human personality is like a charioteer with two headstrong horses, each wanting to go in different directions, so that within our own individual lives we see this conflict and certainly when we come to the collective life of man, we see a strange badness. But in spite of this there is something in human nature that can respond to goodness. So that man is neither innately good nor is he innately bad; he has potentialities for both. . . .

"And so the nonviolent resister never lets this idea go, that there is something within human nature that can respond to goodness."

Those are your reasonable words for today.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Adventures in HTML

On New Years Day I took a bunch of photos and wanted to create a little narrative with them--but Blogger isn't that good with pictures and captions. So I tried to make a slideshow to post on line. I have been working on it for almost three weeks and it still looks extremely amateurish, but I have learned a lot about sizing pictures and linking one file to another. I'm tired of working on it, frankly, ready to move on to the next project. So, here it is.