Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Luck and Global Climate Change

Even if I weren't studying luck this year, I would have found it a strange coincidence that I read Kurt Vonnegut's Hocus Pocus and Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes from a Catastrophe during the same week. I didn't think the 1990 Vonnegut novel (not one of his best; Cat's Cradle is just too excellent, but very good none-the-less) and the 2006 journalistic account of climate change had anything in common when I picked them up in our book room. In fact, I picked up the Vonnegut just because it had so little in common with Field Notes*. Then BAM! Both books are chopped full a quotes and luck and life and we are responsible for the state of the environment and WHAT IN THE WORLD AM I GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?
Of course, I haven't figured out the latter yet. Much as I like to think that being a biology professor can help, I read the finals from last week, and if the global responsibility message stuck as well as the content facts I presented, well, I'm an abject failure. And I'm taking off for a long distance drive across the country tomorrow. So I'll ask you to help me figure out what I can do about it and what you are doing as well. We must do something. Of course China must also do something, but it is irresponsible, if not outright wrong, to do nothing to solve a problem just because others are making it worse. In the meantime, I leave you these quotes.

The 2 prime movers in the Universe are Time and Luck. (H.P. p. 21)

So what indeed! The lesson I myself learned over and over again when teaching at the college and then the prison was the uselessness of information to most people except as entertainment. If facts weren't funny or scary, or couldn't make you rich, the heck with them. (H.P. p. 67)

She said, moreover, that perpetual motion was possible, if only scientists would work harder on it. (H.P. p. 130)

Bergeron's epitaph for the planet, I remember, which he said should be carved in big letters in a wall of the Grand Canyon for the flying-saucer people to find, was this: WE COULD HAVE SAVED IT BUT WE WERE TOO DOGGONE CHEAP. (H.P. p. 143)

The earth is a twitchy system. It's clear from the record that it does things that we don't fully understand. And we're not going to understand them in the time period we have to make these decisions. We just know they're there. We may say, 'We just don't want to do this to ourselves.' If it's a problem like that, then asking where it's practical or not is really not going to help very much. Whether it's practical depends on how much we give a damn. (Robert Socolow in F.N. p. 143-144).

Q. "How worried should we be? " A. "How lucky do you feel?" (The New Scientist as reported in F.N. p. 187).

Luck and resourcefulness, are of, course, essential human qualities. (F.N. p 187).

We're going to need both to keep this mess from being a horribly bigger mess than its already going to become. And yes, I know it snowed in New Orleans this week. That does not mean that this is not a problem.
*I've read surprisingly few books about global warming. I'd like to believe it's because I've seen the evidence. With a clear cause, a demonstrated mechanism, and clear results, I've not doubted that CO2 emissions can lead to a change in global temperature. But really, it's that the bad ones offend me and the good ones depress me.
Graphs from Davies, a forestry company's website. They are based on ice core data from antarctica.

Wicked or just out of luck?

I just finished reading Gregory Maguire's Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.

It was much better and much less fun than I had anticipated. The book takes itself very seriously. This is a family drama and psychological case study that happens to take place in a fantasy land. Fortunately, Maguire did his homework. While it has been years since I read the Oz books, I know them beyond the Wizard, and I was impressed to find information about tiktokism, Dr. Nikidik and the geography of Oz consistent with my memory. The discussions of good and evil, family and obligation, timing and the soul can be a bit much, but some are genuinely thought-provoking and while there is plenty of preaching going on, the take home message, that there is more to situations than one person can see, is made without preaching. Altogether, a much more complex, compelling story than I expected.

As far as being less fun than I expected: well, this is a book with lime green edges to the pages. A giant fanfare of a musical is based on it. I expected light-hearted. I expected silly. It isneither. I have not seen the musical, but it is almost certainly not based on the book. The premise of the book would make an outstanding musical. The book itself is trying to be a soulless place where nobody ever ever breaks out is song. Well worth reading, but not with the expectation of a goofy romp.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Britches Update

Three weeks in I weighed in at -3.6 pounds this morning. Only one of the three weeks have I come close to my 70,000 step goal. All of the usual excuses apply: cold slippery dark weather, travel, end-of-semester craziness and a yucky cold. This week I'm going to make it despite the weather and the finals.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Knock on Wood

I've always shied away from blaming bad luck as a causal agent. I've lived with and adored black cats, have no problem with 13, and cannot see how a tails up penny could possibly hurt my fortune. Bad things obviously happen, but they just happen; good things are luck or of God.

Yet I do not like to tempt fate. I really do knock on wood when I predict something good is going to happen (and I have a very brief flashback to my dancing days with Happy Cricket and our "Knock on Wood" dance). So join me in tapping on my oak door frames as I mention that this year finals week is going to go smoothly.

My first year teaching my grandfather died during finals week. Last year I had a miscarriage and surgery. Finals begin on Monday and this year I am going to grade exams, bake cookies, shop for Christmas presents and clean my house. That's all. Knock.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Prairie Dog Hits Both Coasts

Prairie Dog made it to the Pacific Ocean in Washington State last week. The Little Lion was a bit disappointed to find that going to the beach in November in her home state was not like going to Maui in March, but altogether my parents, the Mister, my brother and family, Prairie Dog and I had a good time. Of course, neither the Mister nor I took any photos, so you'll need to make do with images from the Prairie Dog's summer trip to Atlantic Canada.

The bridges in Washington are impressive compared to those in central WV, but prairie dog had been more impressed by the Confederation Bridge linking Prince Edward Island with New Brunswick.

Waves were much higher on the Pacific, but tidal changes more impressive at the Bay of Fundy.

Wines were tasty on both trips, with Prairie Dog here pointing out two critical lessons I should have learned before Nova Scotia. I don't like sparkling reds and I don't like sparkling wine from a can. A nasty head cold kept me from fully appreciating the wines last week, but Prairie Dog definitely liked the Oregon sparkling and special Thanksgiving Pinot Noirs.

Finally, the Prairie Dog was thankful on the Pacific trip because nobody trapped him in a lobster trap. Meanwhile, I was thankful to have a family I want to spend time with and the ability to spend some time with them, if never quite enough.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Too big for my britches

This is not about conceit. This is literal about not fitting into my pants. This is not about being pregnant. This is about being fat*.
As it is snowing giant flakes right now, I thought I should wear a pair of my warmer pants this morning. While I could zip them up, when I did ghastly mounds of flesh extruded from the waistband. It was not pretty. I weighed myself. Also not pretty.

In past years, my college has had a workplace fitness program to encourage employees not to gain weight over the holidays. Apparently it is not happening this year, but I clearly need some external motivation to do something about fitting into my pants. If I weigh less than I do now when I return for second semester, I will use the money I would have needed for new pants and treat myself to a pedicure and make a $50 donation to Feeding America (formerly America's Second Harvest) to help those who food issues are far different from mine. If I don't, I buy pants and still make the donation.

I'm asking help for two ways: 1) exercise with me and don't encourage me to overeat over the holidays and 2) encourage me by agreeing to help increase my donation to Feeding America if I succeed (something like $1 for every week I reach my goal of 70,000 steps or a $10 donation if I make my January goal). Feeding America is a great organization and I would love to think that I can somehow eat less so that others can eat more. Talk to me about the possibilities (even you lurkers).

The starting weight is 0.0 pounds.

*This is also not a call for you to tell me that I look fine. I know I look fine. I know that my blood pressure is good and that I exercise enough not to be terribly unfit. I know that my family will love me regardless of my size. I also know that this size is bigger than I have been in my life and I do not want to keep it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Heirloom, Hellion, Earthman and Buster Midnight: Book Update

In my reading memoirs, this season might go down as "the fall I read Pride and Prejudice for two weeks straight" (which is saying something, because I re-read all the good parts in one evening). If I try harder, I can recall more of the books I've read recently, but by next year they will largely be forgotten, with the exception of The Professor's House, which received its own post earlier.

The Essential Earthman by Henry Mitchell is a collection of gardening essays for the D.C. area. It's fabulous because it is specific, opinionated and the gardening advice is spot on. It's also frustrating for the same reasons, as well as being 25 years out-of-date. I found myself wondering what good is it to read a witty comparison of rose varieties for D.C. gardens when I desire no more roses and could not acquire the listed cultivars if I did. And then I'd encounter gems like this:

If I may venture one suggestion to the May-struck gardener it is this: do not
allow the total space occupied by irises, peonies, roses, poppies,
forget-me-nots, violas, clematis and other glories of late May to occupy more
than 63 percent of the space. Unless, at an absolute maximum, they are allowed
to occupy 76 percent. It is unthinkable that they should in any case hog so much
as 94 percent of the arable area. Usually.
and know that I was listening to a kindred gardening spirit* and read on. Mitchell reminds me, in many ways, of the Scottish gardeners I worked with at Threave. That is mostly, although not unequivocally, a good thing. The book is highly recommended for Molly and any lurkers who garden in the mid-Atlantic region.

Tim Stark is a gardener as opinionated as Henry Mitchell, and perhaps as good a storyteller, but I had problems with Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer. I could never figure out just what Stark was trying to do. He might be trying to serve as the Anthony Bourdain (Kitchen Confidential) of the truck farming world, or the Amanda Hesser (Cooking for Mr. Latte). He might be trying to catch the "my parents made me crazy and now I'm a name-dropping foodie" wave or take full advantage of the locavore moment. If he's trying to do those things, he largely failed. I'd far rather read Bourdain, Hesser, Reischl, Pollan or Kingsolver. Still, he's succeeding at something. I read the bulk of the 227 page book in one sitting and while I only left with two concrete thoughts ( 1) I will never be a commercial farmer at any scale and 2) there are now five more restaurants on my fictitious list of the places I must eat at in New York City when I have unlimited money for a food trip there), I enjoyed it far more than that. Maybe I just wanted more about the tomatoes and fewer disjunct but overlapping "This American Life" pieces. I'd like you to read it and tell me your thoughts, but I'm not sending you out to buy it.

I had the feeling that Stark assumed his readers were provincial New Yorkers and he was out to shatter our stereotypes by suggesting that the people who drive tomatoes in from Pennsylvania are people too. A very very different book, Christine Flynn's Hannah and the Hellion suffers from a similar problem. The author of the Silhouette Special Edition from 1998 seems to want to shatter stereotypes of small towns (one can find romance in a small town! not everyone in a small town is nice!) through a story which relies on more stereotypes (in a small town everyone knows everyone and opinions cannot change). Still, it was fun reading for an afternoon and if any of my readers is near a library sale at which they could buy a bag of assorted trash romance for a buck, I'd be grateful as my supply of such pulp is running low.

Stereotyping of the audience seems to be a common problem in my recent reading. The narrator of Sandra Dallas's Buster Midnight's Cafe starts out the book mocking reporters who come to Butte, MT to interview the locals, "then they go back and write us up like we're cuter than a bug in lace pants. Local color, it's called." At the end of the first chapter, when it became clear that Sandra Dallas (who lives in Denver) was going to use a down-homey cuter than a bug in lace pants narrator to add local color to the whole book, even when the narrator mocked the practice, I cast the book aside for a few weeks. I returned to read it quickly and found it overall charming with an interesting unresolved plot twist and an unexpected punch at the ending. I've read several of Dallas's other books (Persian Pickle Club, Alice's Tulips, Diary of Mattie Spencer) and liked them all more, perhaps because of the quilting connection. Still I'd recommend Buster Midnight for my mother, Prairie Quilter, and Lindsey and I'll read Tallgrass someday.

"He think someone might mistake him for a cowboy. But anybody who knows cowboys knows yellow scarves are bad luck," (pg. 5)

*If anyone has digital photos of my peony parties, I would love them. Such an image was supposed to go here, but I appear not to have any.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Lucky Numbers

I don't have lucky numbers.
When a friend posted Lucky 13 about voting 13th at her precinct last week, I totally sympathized about clinging to anything that might assure us that the presidential election would go as we hoped (it did). Her comment, however, reminded me that I haven't addressed lucky numbers at all this year, (super-auspicious August 8 2008 passed without a peep on this blog), because, well, I don't have lucky numbers.
Which is odd, because I have lucky colors, a lucky hat, lucky pre-game and pre-test rituals, a lucky dress and lucky foods. I wrote about lucky coon dongs and certainly don't believe in them, and I can always pick more favored numbers. In much the same way that, while there is only one NFL team I care about, I can, after a quick perusal of the standings, always state which team I want to win any game, I can tell you that I like even numbers over odd (except for 7s in the units place); I'm fond of numbers in the forties; I dislike threes; and primes and squares are somehow dear to me, when I can remember them. If you asked "47 or 63?" I would answer, unequivocally, "47". But do I think that 47 is luckier? Hardly. It's just better.

I'm fond of geeky number coincidences. I turned 19 on the 19th in 1991. I thought it impressive when my group of friends in Scotland turned 23, 29 and 31 in the same year (how often do four people turn three different prime numbers?). I married the Mister on the 9th of July 2005 (9-7-05) which I thought was lucky because I figured he'd be more able to remember our anniversary with such a nice sequence, but he just pointed out that Americans put the month first.

So, I wouldn't apply the word "lucky" to the signing of the Armistice at 11 am on the 11th day of the 11th month 90 years ago*. But it is important. Thanks to all the veterans who may be reading this. Whatever day it is, I'm lucky to live in a country where there are men and women willing to serve.

*And after your two minutes of silence at 11:00 am on 11/11 may the Karneval celebrations begin at 11:11 on 11/11.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

"Better Luck Next Year"

Baseball and gardening share a season and a set of emotions. This year by August I had pretty much given up on both. The Rockies and Royals were bad, the squash beetles had spread whatever disease causes cucumbers and zucchinis to wilt over night, the tomatoes were sickly and the deer had discovered they like chili pepper plants.
September brought renewed excitement. The Cubs really were going to make it to the playoffs. Dill and basil plants were furiously producing new leaves and the okra had started to develop.

For October, I pinned my hopes on some upstarts. The volunteer tomatoes were completely disease free and laden with green tomatoes, and why not support the awful to great underdogs of the Rays?

And then it is was over. There is something very final about the first frost. The green tomatoes were not canned as tasty condiments. The single eggplant from the entire crop dangled unfilled on the plant. The basil was black. The okra plants themselves were too slimy to pull. The World Series ended without a victory for the Rockies, the Cubs, the Royals, or even the Rays. In both cases, it is all over.

Until next year.

Next year there will be peas and spinach and onions galore. We'll plant spring and fall greens. We'll start lots of bulb fennel and shallots and kohlrabi and leeks. We'll improve our defense with a better deer fence. We'll deter the squash beetles by not letting even a single volunteer gourd grow. I'll make pesto over and over again. They'll be so much bounty we'll need to buy a pressure cooker.

The Rockies will pitch better. The Royals will hit better. The Cubs will win some in October. Mom will weep because the Cubs should have done it once while Grandpa was alive. We'll surely have better luck next year. Next year will be the year it all happens.

But then what will we hope for next November?
*Photo of our neighbor's silver maple tree which was pollarded into this back in September.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Omamori: Lucky Objects and the Luck of Friends

I have a new omamori hanging on my wall. The little packet of good luck, about 1 x 2 inches, looks much like the pictured one from wikipedia, although the pictured one is for good luck in studying and mine is for good luck in marriage. While she was at the Todai-ji temple complex in Nara, Japan (which includes the largest wooden building in the world with the largest Buddha statue in Japan; all you can read more about here on Abby's blog), my friend Abby picked this up for me.
Such an object leads to many lines of contemplation. Obviously, I could investigate the history of omamori and mention omamori etiquette (apparently one does not ever open it, because that would allow the luck to escape, and, while luck does not expire, if I needed a new one, it would be proper for me to return this one to the shrine). I've been wanting to start a series on lucky objects. The general Chinese and Japanese fanaticism about luck and superstition is also certainly worth exploring (a result of lacking a fanatical religion? an artifact of sales to tourists? something necessary in high population densities?). And I'm intrigued by Abby's comment that she bought me a omamori for good luck in marriage, "Not that I think you need it," and my reaction, "even those of us fortunate enough to be married to The Mister (or someone else equally appropriate) need all the marriage luck we can find." But what strikes me most about the packet of luck from Abby has nothing to do with little red objects, Japan, or marriage, but rather the wonder of friends.

It overwhelms me a friend researching cnidarians at a remote lab in Japan would put extra effort not only into finding me a lucky object, but finding me the right lucky object ("I didn't want to give you a random one like the one you buy for good luck on tests"). This is a friend who I knew in grad school for two years and may not have seen in the three years since she left Kansas. Yet I'm not surprised she found me a cool object. I'm just overwhelmed by how lucky I am to have made such friends and how lucky I am to have kept such friends.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Stick Bug Sex

I was lucky in having gorgeous fall weather for ecology lab today, lucky that one of my students noticed this pair, and lucky that they were still going strong half an hour later when I returned with the camera.

The insects, of course, are getting very lucky.
The lighting was the only unfortunate part of the whole incident, and I feel prurient enough with this quality of images; imagine if you could see any better where he is sticking that stick.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Is "unlikely" the same as lucky?

I gave an exam today with population growth problems. The answer to the first problem was 245. The answer to the second problem was -254. I made up all of the numbers and didn't know the answers before giving the test. While I could have figured out that 0.53x800x(1-800/2000) was the inverse of 0.53x800x(1-800/500), the likelihood that I would arbitrarily pick three numbers (800, 500, and 2000) that would give identical inverse results is well, statistically very very unlikely.

Meanwhile, the chem prof. did a demonstration in which 1 g of something led to 1 L of gas (or .1, I forget), a situation which only occurs under specific temperature and pressure, which he was not controlling. Also very very unlikely.

So maybe it's my day to buy a power ball ticket. Yet somehow, having done something statistically improbable with numbers doesn't make me feel particularly lucky at all. Lucky must be more than unlikely.

But is does make my grading one step easier.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Our Rodent Friends

As to the goings on of our rodent friends: In August, all of our newly ripe grapes were on the vine one evening and gone the next morning. We believe a groundhog to be the culprit.

We left town on a Friday when this beaver dam was half built. It was complete by Sunday and completely gone a week and a half later.

We had a good chestnut crop this year which the squirrels seem to have taken advantage of, as there are nothing but spiked shells left for the humans.

The chipmunks have not learned to fear Mr. Splashy Pants, and she has not learned they exist, but someday she'll notice and stalk them, just as diligently as she hunts the bees in the gomphrena.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Growing like a whale

Well, Mister Splashy Pants isn't weighed in tons yet, but she has grown considerably since this photo was taken. She's just as cute but can jump much higher now.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

MBiL: Indie Boys are Erotic: I Know I'm the Lucky One

I've previously mentioned how I don't want this blog or this luck resolution to turn into a tacky recounting of how fortunate I am. I've also previously mentioned that my sibs-in-law are one of the truly luckiest encounters of my life (seriously, I could explain The Mister, the Mister's parents and my parents based on genetics or sound decision making. That my brother [MB, long story] and My Brother in Law [MBiL] could turn out to be adult friends and marry people I would want as friends [MSiLs are way cool*] is just lucky. And I think they would all like each other as well; among my favorite wedding photos it that of MSiL [Mister's side] talking to my niece [my side] in German in preparation for her big flower girl moment**).

So, disclaimers having been made, I declare: I am so lucky! MBiL made me a compilation CD of literal luck songs including tunes from as diverse of artists as The Moldy Peaches ("Indie boys are erotic/ makes my eyes bleed/ tight pants are exotic/ some loving is what I need"), Freedy Johnston ("I know I'm the lucky one."), Chuck Berry and Warren Zevon. Of course, the CD was tucked in a box of funky Japanese stuff (MBiL recently spent a month working in Japan) and the Mister assumed it was a CD of Japanese music for his birthday and just tonight mentioned that we should listen to this lucky CD that I didn't know existed. It's fabulous. More on lucky music later, but for now, thanks to MBiL. You and deine Frau are a great lucky "But wait, there's more" bonus of life with the Mister. Someday we'll even talk to you regularly.

*Nerdy ecologist aside: one of my students recently answered on a test that a characteristic of the Boreal Forest Biome is that it is "very cool"; ever since I have wanted to use the phrase "cool like the boreal forest".

**This is not the photo I was referring to, but it would have been taken at the same time. I'll claim that because MSiL is also a professor, I don't want to "out" her on the internet as a relation of mine, but it's really because I can't quickly find the correct photo.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Lucky Professor's House

As mentioned in the previous post, sometimes you need a certain book, but frequently you don't know what book you need. Maybe it's just my heightened awareness, but this year I have felt particularly lucky about reading the right books at the right time.
Last weekend that meant walking into our book room and noticing Willa Cather's The Professor's House for the first time. It was lucky timing, because I was feeling gloomy about grading my first big batch of tests (I have 15 students who answered that there are 10 or fewer cells in a tiger!) and I encountered Professor St. Peter, who would "willingly have cut down his university work, would willingly have given his students chaff and sawdust-- many instructors had nothing else to give them and got on very well-- but his misfortune was that he loved youth-- he was weak to it, it kindled him. If there was one eager eye, one doubting, critical mind, one lively curiousity in a whole lecture room full of commonplace boys and girls, he was its servant."

Professor St. Peter was a necessary reminder that students have always been lackluster and university life has always been full of silly politics, but that's not why he was teaching in 1920 and not why I'm doing it now.

As for the book as a whole, I loved it. I don't know why. Plot-wise I can't decide if I think there's too much going on or not enough going on. I found Death Comes for the Archbishop altogether a much better book. Still, Willa Cather charmed me with her fantastic descriptions of the midwest and the southwest and college life, and I plan to read more of her.
Photo of the side door to this professor's house, taken in early July to be a contrast to the June flood photos.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Reading Therapy

Anna Quindlen's One True Thing includes a fantastic scene in which a counselor prescribes Wuthering Heights to a teenage client*. The scene had very little to do with the rest of the book, which I have mostly forgotten, but I have always loved it because it suggests that someone else takes the therapeutic powers of reading seriously.

I thought of this recently when a dear friend in the midst of a necessary but ugly break-up called from Borders needing book suggestions. I was momentarily stumped, so suggested Cloud Atlas as interesting and demanding full attention, but wasn't satisfied because it doesn't have all of the escapist qualities I think a book to be read during a "no-win in the short term" life situation demands. I later suggested Birth of Venus, East, Inkheart and The Blue Sword. I wanted to suggest Twentieth Wife, and Trickster's Choice but could not in any way remember the titles.

As a result of this discussion, I have started to make a list of books to recommend for various situations. I'd love to hear your suggestions. What do you read for different life troubles?

For ordinary work ills, colds, or days when things are not getting done as they should be, I'm all for trashy romance in the bathtub (alas, here I have neither bathtub nor source of trashy romance). The goofier the better: The Last Viking about mousy prof. falling for Viking who washed up next to her house is way better than attractive modern woman falling for attractive modern man stories.

For physical problems and general blues, I'm for the comfort of books I know well. I read The Blue Sword last week when I couldn't stand straight with back pain, and have read or skimmed Anne books, Charlotte's Web, Harry Potter, The Phantom Tollbooth, Chronicles of Narnia, and The Lord of the Rings at down times in the past year and pretty much every year.

In airports I prefer fast-paced novels of the places I'm visiting, but if I can't find that, then a far-fetched book like The Eight or The Time Traveller's Wife is my choice. Of course, an airport book must not be something I've read before, so neither or those will do again for me.

For real issues like a romantic break-up, the book cannot be too romantic, too short, too long, or something I've read before. I have no idea why I had it on hand unread at the time, but the first time I read The Blue Sword was when I was dumped long distance in 1994. Aside from being too short (I supplemented it with Maniac McGee), it was perfect for the situation. I note that I have no such books on hand now, so the Mister can't dump me anytime soon.

Let me know your choices.

*This use of Wuthering Heights fit perfectly with my freshman English teacher's warning that to find Wuthering Heights romantic, one must read it when one is a sixteen year old female. Having tried to read it at 10 and then at 23, I think I agree with him, and probably would have liked it at sixteen.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Literary Tourism in Atlantic Canada

On our recent trip, I looked around Summerside, Prince Edward Island, and wondered how much it had changed since Anne Shirley was the high school principal. The fact that Anne, being fictional, had never actually taught in Summerside bothered me very little. I still wanted to see Windy Poplars and figure out which one of the islands in the distance was Flying Cloud.

Visiting Prince Edward Island was my first real foray into literary tourism and I realized I didn't know how to go about doing it. I gushed at the red soils and birches and spruces and white sands because Anne's enthusiasm alerted me to look, but then what? Would I feel any closer to my favorite character if I went on "Lake of Shining Water Paddle Boats"? Did I really want a young woman dressed as Diana Barry to invite me for tea with red currant wine? Should I eat at the grand old Dalvay by the Sea hotel because Anne once elocuted there? Green Gables Golf?

In the end, I read the first three Anne of Green Gables novels right before we left (and had read most of the rest of the series in January), visited Green Gables, part of Prince Edward Island National Park (where we walked through Lover's Lane and the Haunted Wood, saw the house, watched a puppet show* and drank raspberry cordial), drove by Dalvay Hotel, and otherwise just thought about Anne. While at Green Gables, I was shocked by how well the place matched my vision of it. Parks Canada should be commended for this, but most of the credit is due to Lucy Maude Montgomery who described the world of Prince Edward Island with such accurate detail that it fits 100 years later and historians could easily replicate the scene. If planning a visit to Prince Edward Island, it is really worth reading the books

I've never read a book so exactly at the right moment as I did with No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLleod. I was on the ferry from Prince Edward Island to Pictou, Nova Scotia as I was reading about the landing of the the MacDonalds in Pictou in 1779. That evening, on the west coast of Cape Breton, after watching a "family ceilidh" run mostly by MacDonalds, I was sure the island lighthouse discussed in the book was the one right out my motel window. The fictional action had taken place 50 years prior to my being there, but I felt right in the middle of it. I think I would rank No Great Mischief as a great book even if I was not right there then, if I hadn't visited Toronto and Sudbury last summer, if I hadn't lived in Glen Coe and if I didn't have an inkling of Scottish history. However, I'm postmodern enough to believe that what I brought to the reading experience makes a difference. I brought a lot of scattered knowledge and left with far more. Highly recommended for anyone travelling to Cape Breton or Scotland, and overall recommended for anyone willing to see the history of a people through the saga of one family.

Fog Magic, a 1942 Newberry Honor Book by Julia L. Sauer, prepared me for the mists of the Nova Scotia coast. The Mister was surprised to find southern Nova Scotia enveloped in fog in the summer. Based on my reading of one short children's novel, I knew that it was more common in summer than winter on the Digby Neck. The book is sweet but refreshingly not simple. Issues are never resolved, the fishermen barely eek out a living, the threat of war hovers, and yet childhood is still full of wonder. A fine read.

What prompted the idea of literary tourism (apart from going to PEI, where it is hard to avoid Anne stuff), was a book given to me for my birthday, Novel Destinations: Literary Landmarks form Jane Austen's Bath to Ernest Hemingway's Key West by Schmid and Rendon. Unfortunately, the beautiful book is too fragmented to sit down and read and too dispersed over the world to be of much help in travel planning. Still, it is worth flipping through to see if a planned vacation takes you near a favorite author's summer residence or what about Prague has changed since Kafka's time.

*the Mister and I try to fit at least one puppet show into all of our travels. We managed two on this trip. The Green Gables puppet show was awful, but amusing, and the Fort Louisbourg show included a singing cod fish, which makes it hard to beat.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Clever and Assorted Books

After reading this post on Wuthering Expectations, I decided I should become more of a specialist reader. Then it occurred to me that I already have a hodge podge of specialties (luck, rodents, YA fantasy, food and plants, more about them later). After that it occurred to me that I don't take the time to read through my eclectic pile now and I specializing would require more time and fewer books, moreover, there are enough focused and neurotic readers in the family already. I'll remain the dabbler.

So, this post is to catch up with some of my reading that doesn't fit under a category. Late in the spring I read Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road without any expectations. Given to me without comment by the siblings-in-law, I was surprised to find an adventure novel written with a wide-ranging vocabulary, twisting sentences and characters simultaneously complex and caricatures. I liked it, probably all the more because I started listing words I needed to look up on the very first page. If Chabon hadn't added a silly afterward as to why, he, a great literary man, would write an adventure story, I would have liked it even more. That Chabon felt he needed to justify the book diminished it in my eyes, yet I still recommend it and will probably read The Yiddish Policemen's Union one of these times.

I read David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas because I was told to by "books i done read". I don't know the author of books I done read but I generally like her taste and I love her book reviews, so if you are wanting some suggestions, check out her site. Cloud Atlas is a story within a story within a story. At some point I was very fearful that it would all turn out to be just a story that someone made up. The thought then made me laugh because, well, that's exactly what novels are. All of the overlapping stories are made up by David Mitchell and the result it good. There were times I thought Mitchell was trying too hard to be clever, but in the end, I wanted the Mister to read it right away so we could talk about it and I thought I should flip back through to figure out what I missed, because I'm sure there was lots. Many of my readers will enjoy it and I'm sure some of you will love it, but I couldn't pick out who, for sure.

While I felt both Chabon and Mitchell were out to demonstrate that they were clever, well-read and in command of the language, sometimes self-consciously and snobbishly so, John Steinbeck wrote Travels with Charley as someone who long previously proved he could write and was now just out to relate an adventure. Travels with Charley is probably the most well-written road trip book I've read (to tempt me to add Grapes of Wrath to my list, it would have to be). For many of us wanderers, the introductory descriptions of wanderlust are well worth checking the book out from the library. The trip itself, a journey across the states with a poodle, falls short on adventure and scenery, but the themes of homogenization and racism made me laugh and cry at how much had changed since 1960 and how little.

Finally, back in May I read 2 more of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books and they remain recommended fun reading.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

No Lucky Quitter

I nearly returned Jackie Collins' Lucky after the first night of reading it. I couldn't stand the style or the characters and didn't give much of a hoot as to what happened to the gorgeous divorced-from-the-husbands-they-married-at-16, coke-snorting rich girls and their married lovers. But I don't like to quit books (perhaps why I don't start that many books I'm not going to like) and felt it would be somehow unlucky to quit the book Lucky during my year on luck. So I continued reading and Collins' words sucked me into the soap opera world of the early 1980s and suddenly I stayed up late last night to finish it.
I had never previously read Jackie Collins, or any of the writers I've assumed are similar: Danielle Steele, Sidney Sheldon, V.C. Andrews, Joan Collins, Barbara Taylor Bradford, and I really thought I could handle a Hollywood-laced beach read. After all, I read and enjoy bodice rippers and have encountered plenty of escapist plot-driven pulp, from chic lit to action mysteries and don't consider myself surprised by convenient sudden deaths, implausible sudden stardom or oral sex. Still, I had never read anything quite like Lucky, and didn't know quite how to take it until the Mister commented it was just a soap opera with extra sex and violence: way to many characters, tons of beauty, incredible fast plot twists, and short chapters further divided so that only one-half to three pages is ever spent on a scene.

Not recommended unless you're into that kind of thing, and even then this is probably way outdated.

Classes start tomorrow, but I'm hoping to take some time to write about the books I did enjoy this summer as well as post some photos of our great trip to the Canadian Maritimes. In the meantime, I'm sharing the 27 cents of luck we found Friday, the fantastic fortune I recently received, "You will be surrounded by true friends" (thanks to all of you for making it come true), and a question: does looking like Jackie Collins does at 70 involve deals with the devil or just a fleet of human specialists?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Lucky to know him

The Mister's paternal grandfather died a week and a half ago. Without denying the sadness of the loss of a family member from our lives, which I just don't feel like blogging about, I must point out how genuinely lucky the Mister and I have been in the area of grandparents. I'm grateful that I had the chance to drink wine with the Mister's grandfather in New York and eat fried chicken with him at the Brookville Hotel and hear his stories about rodeos and pig roasts. I'm glad that the Mister had the chance to meet my grandfather and hear his advice about where to stop for pie on road trips. While the Mister and I only met one of the other's grandparents* we each knew all four of our own, which is very fortunate. All eight are now gone and sadly missed as individuals, but their spirits and personalities remain much alive in our families.
Hugs to all of the Mister's grandfather's family and friends.

*which still makes me sad because my maternal grandmother would have loved the Mister and joked with him in a way that my grandfather never could.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Higher Power of Lucky

And even if you carry a survival kit around with you at all times, it won't guarantee you'll survive. No kit in the world can protect you from all the possible bad things. (pg. 80)
Even though the controversy surrounding Susan Patron's Newberry Award Winning The Higher Power of Lucky centers on the use of the word "scrotum"* what I found shocking was the raw honesty. Bad things happen and no kit can protect you.

I'm not sure how well this book will age, as part of its appeal is just how current it feels, but for now I highly recommend it for those who are ten and encountering the injustices of the world and those much older than ten who need a fun reminding that childhood can be simultaneously wonderous and terrifying and certainly unfair.

*It is weird how, despite knowning about the scrotum debate, it still startled me to run into it right there on page one.

Friday, July 18, 2008

"It's a great honor to be named after a famous whale"

Mr. Splashy Pants is not only the name of our little (and quickly growing; only three days since those puff-ball photos!) female cat, but also the name of Greenpeace's most famous whale. While I'm unconvinced about the resemblence, I relented on the name as the Mister was insistent upon it for either cat or future kid.

Red is a color of good fortune

and I happen to be entranced by it these days (as mentioned previously). The beetle is a milkweed beetle on our Asclepias incarnata, like Monarch Butterflies, they can handle the toxins in the milkweed and become poisonous themselves.

Wife Like a Marmot, II

Since Mr. Splashy Pants erased this review her first night here, I'll start over discussing Three Cups of Tea.

"She was very beautiful," he said as they lay looking at a Milky Way that was so
dense it covered them like a shawl. "Her face was small, like Jahan's, and she
was always popping up an laughing, like a marmot."

So Pakistani Balti man Twaha describes his first wife on page 120 of Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin's extraordinary Three Cups of Tea. The book, describing how a failed attempt on K2 led to the Central Asia Institute and its attempts to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, is not about marmots, or rodents of any kind. However, like Nick Hornsby's discussion of sugar mice in Fever Pitch, this line spoke to me. It takes a certain amount of experience with marmots to understand what a great compliment it is, but anyone reading can grasp its sweetness.

I've spent a fair amount of time in the last month trying to figure out what makes this book great. My father hurried and finished it while he was here in May so that he could leave the book with me (my mother had already read and recommended it). The Mister picked it up the day after I finished it and read the first half in one sitting. The Mister's father read it over two days while he was here. The Mister's father was particularly interested in the descriptions of Pakistan. He had been there in the 1980s and found the portrayal of the landscape and the people consistent with his experience. None of the rest of us have any experience in the area. None of us know enough about the climbing community to know anybody whose name was dropped* except Sir Edmund Hillary. The book is not a "feel good" book. The plot, as it were, involves lots of bureaucratic and logistic frustrations, which generally don't make for a page turner. Yet somehow it is a great book.

I credit author David Oliver Relin for the book's greatness. Greg Mortenson, the book's subject, has done fantastic stuff, but writing a biographical call-to-action that doesn't end up beatifying the subject, preaching, or just becoming boring, takes great literary talent. Relin works wonders with Mortenson's story without making a reader notice the writing at all. A great feat.

Plot wise, I would have liked this book far more if it didn't need to bring up 9/11, the Taliban and the invasion of Afghanistan. This speaks more to my desire to wish away the last eight years of US history than any legitimate criticism of the book. Of course, I also know a book about building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan would never have been written without the current terrorist angle. In any case, don't expect many marmots, but do read this book.

*I've come to realize that knowing names of food writers and a few gardeners can make you feel like an insider when reading Calvin Trillin or Ruth Reichl and like an outsider when trying to read about climbing or Arsenal football or discuss anything with anyone other than my mother.

**More money goes to Central Asia Institute if you buy Three Cups of Tea from the official website I've linked. I'll also happily pass around this well-read copy.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"What sort of people walk door to door giving away cats?"

asked the Mister this evening.

Apparently the kind of person who think we'd be suckers for a little kitten like this. There's a little more to it than that, but not much. A woman I've never seen before knocked on the door with a kitten, claiming her grandmother had told her we were looking for a kitten, I awakened the Mister so he could politely decline and now we have a very small cat. (photos of Mr. Splashy Pants discovering the reclining rocker which would definitely squish it, asleep in my hands, and with the Mister's hand for scale).

My wife was like a marmot

Cat or I just erased this post. .. . watch this space for a review of a great book that includes marmots.

Further Prairie Dog Adventures

While the Mister's parents were here for a pleasant visit over the last week, Prairie Dog saw some new sights in West Virginia. Not only did he ride a steam train to the top of Bald Knob (2nd or 3rd highest point in the state) he went to the bogs at Cranberry Glades and saw orchids and very very small sundews. He saw Rhododendron maxima, the state flower of West Virginia in bloom near the Falls of Hills Creek. Prairie Dog is already stuffed, so he didn't get overfed on restaurant food and crazy-complicated (tasty, but not quite worth making four cake layers, a custard, a soaking syrup, a filling and a buttercream for)coconut cake, but I did.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Lucky Sugar Mice

What happened was, Chris Roberts bought a sugar mouse from Jack Reynolds ('The
Rock King'), bit its head off, dropped it in the Newmarket Road before he could
get started on the body, and it got run over by a car. And that afternoon
Cambridge United, who had hitherto been finding life difficult in the Second
Division (two wins all season, one home, one away), beat Orient 3-1, and a
ritual was born. Before each home game we all of us trooped into the sweet shop,
purchased our mice, walked outside, bit the head off as though we were removing
the pin from a grenade, and tossed the torsos under the wheels of oncoming cars;
Jack Reynolds would stand in the doorway watching us, shaking his head
sorrowfully. United, thus protected, remained unbeaten at the Abbey for months.

NickHornsby, FeverPitch, pp.109-110.

The opening of the best chapter I've read about luck all year, in a book I was not reading with thoughts to luck, and in it sweet rodents that are lucky. Reading this passage felt like a not-very subtle sign from God.
Alas, even the most obvious signs can have cryptic
meanings and I have yet to properly interpret God's lucky rodent message.

The Magic Garden

A Sylvan Grove Public Library copy of Gene Stratton-Porter's The Magic Garden last due to the library on October 23, 1959 made it to my hands recently. Published in 1926 (two years after Stratton-Porter had died, according to her wikipedia article) the book reminded me of an awkward cross between Sabrina (the rich people on Long Island movies, not the teenage witch) and The Pilgrim's Progress. Romantic, moralistic, high-handed and far-fetched, I first thought The Magic Garden was an excellent choice purely as a foil for the near-contemporary The Blue Castle, which seems incredibly modern and well-crafted by comparison. Two days after reading it, however, while I still think that it has issues (lots of them), I've found myself picking it up, re-reading pieces and crying over characters, so it can't be all bad. Of course, the first hint that it wasn't all bad was that the garden scenes are botanically correct and Stratton-Porter isn't afraid to use "calyx" and "syringa:" in a children's book. The author, it turns out, was also an acclaimed naturalist with her own wetland preserve.
While nothing like the garden of the title, I found the pictured woodland to be magically brimming with mountain laurel when the Mister and I hiked through last weekend.

Friday, July 4, 2008


Without some white and blue, it would be silly it call it patriotic, but red does seem to be the dominant color around our garden at the moment. The cardinal flower (thus far elusive to photograph) is red. Red red red. And the poppies are less orange than the photo suggests.

Without belittling our problems or the greatness of other nations, I do feel lucky to be an American. Happy Independence Day!

Some aliums that strike me as floral fireworks.