Saturday, February 23, 2008

Three Small Books

While crawling through Our Mutual Friend, Vertebrate Biology (Will the fish never end?) and Plant Physiology (Photosynthesis was so much easier when the photosystems were 2 big black boxes. Now they're 50 known reactions with at least that many little black boxes in between.), I've managed to finish three small books.
The Mister and I celebrated our "Ginger Valentine's Day" this year, so I gave him a picture book about a cat entitled Ginger. It's sweet as far as books of 50 or fewer sentences go.

T. Davis Bunn's short novel The Quilt is an uncomplicated reminder to pray. I read it at the right time and found it enjoyably charming. At most other moments I would find it preachy and full of forced homeyness. I think Prairie Quilter would find it the same way. Sandra Dallas's quilting novels are much more fun and Madeleine L'Engle is much more interesting about the power of prayer.

Not surprisingly, I found Michael Pollan's newest book In Defense of Food, great. It's not as interesting as Omnivore's Dilemma or Botany of Desire as there is very little investigation* involved, but has a clear and well-supported thesis. As far as thinking "real food" is the way to go, I'm definitely already part of the choir, so I have a hard time assessing if this book would convert anyone. I was at-first defensive about Pollan's anti-nutrition stance, and pointed out when he started using nutrient arguments late in the book after mocking them early in the book, but then he admitted this failing and I conceited by the end that his arguments over all are sound. Pollan also has a pretty good understanding of his audience. I was amused at how very close he came to writing, "Yes, it is a big problem that there are people in this country who cannot afford even the cheap food available at supermarkets, but if you are reading this you have enough money to shop at a farmer's market, so don't even bring up prices of produce as an excuse for eating overly processed junk."

While I think this is a book that everyone should read, how highly I'd recommend it depends largely on what one is looking for. Mom needs to read it for the same reasons I did, an overriding interest in being well informed in the subject of food and health. I'd recommend it to my sibling and Purple Glove Wearer because they've read other works on food and appreciate clearly articulated argument. For people looking for an interesting read, Animal Vegetable Miracle is more personal and thus more controversial, Omnivore's Dilemma is chop full of much more fascinating, if less easily applied, information.

*My view on how much new information this book presents may be distored by the fact that my secondary expertise (after plant ecology) is food-plant-nutrition connections and the history thereof. Pollan's history of nutritional quackery in the US is based largely on works I've read for my cold cereal thesis or food and culture colloquia. Still, much of Omnivore's Dilemma was new to me, and very little of In Defense of Food was.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Lucky Valentine's* Water Heater

Our water heater had spewed water in December, stopped, and started spewing again at the end of January, at which point we disconnected it until it could be fixed (and, as our water heater is upstairs, the spewage had some distressing consequences for the ceilings and our life downstairs).

Last Saturday the friendly retired-maintenance-man father-of-a-work friend had the part we needed. He and the Mister installed it, only to find it the wrong size. After running to the hardware store, they found the correct sized valve did not stop the problem. It was 4:40 on Saturday in a small town where nothing is open on Sunday, but we managed to buy a hot water heater at the hardware store moments before it closed and had it installed by 6:30.

My friend felt that this was incredible unlucky: what we thought to be a $15 and few minute project ended up taking hours and $200 and ten-year-old water heaters aren't supposed to go.

I viewed this as extremely lucky. I never thought we'd actually fix the water problem on the first try and doubted we'd succeed without calling in expensive out of town experts. In a town without a plumber, we found someone willing to help us see the project through and teach us how to do it ourselves. My friend has the hardware store on speed dial and they were willing to stay open to sell us one. We caught the problem before the tank completely cracked and spilled rusty water everywhere. The hardware store had a reasonably priced water heater that fit in stock. My friend even had a great steamer-vac she was willing to let us use to clean up. And now we have hot showers!

This makes for interesting thoughts on the interplay between luck and optimism, and the two different definitions of optimist. My friend is a true optimist by the "one who usually expects a favorable outcome" definition and unlucky things are always happening to her to prevent these favorable outcomes.

On the other hand, I do not expect favorable outcomes, and in respect to what will or could happen in the short term, tend to be pragmatic, if not all out pessimistic. Therefore lucky things are always happening to me. And, as I am an optimist by the "a person disposed to take a favorable view of things" definition, I think that bad things "just happen" and that things that allow me to deal with the bad things are good luck or God. So I end up being a lucky, much-blessed person. And clean these days.

*I'm quite willing to view anything new in mid-February as a Valentine's gift. While I was hoping for a dishwasher, a water heater is almost as romantic.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Anything made with love is lucky

Thus, this skinny-beach towel shaped blanket I knit for Kaliel, a very special young person, will be lucky.

If I campaigned, am I still popular?

Last week I was elected to a four year term on the Board of Governors of the Society of Self Fellows. A year ago, I would have considered such an election extremely unlucky: it would mean that somebody had thought I was too much of a chump to refuse four years of working for the Society and he was right. However, when I was nominated this year, I realized that I genuinely wanted the position. The young Society is still searching for an identity, but currently has a great board with real ideas; I'd like to contribute but know that I would never make it to the annual meetings (in Kansas during the school year) if I weren't actually on the Board. So I accepted the nomination, figuring it would be uncontested as in years past.
Then, to my great surprise, the ballots came out. Five nominees for one position. Three of the others candidates are friends. So I campaigned. Admittedly, this was pretty low-level campaigning (I sent an e-mail to all of the voters on my party e-mail lists , reminded them to vote and told them that I actually wanted the position.) but likely the first time anyone ever campaigned for a Board of Governors post in this society.

I won, which I feel is pretty lucky, given that most of the nominees would do a good job and most of the voting members would recognize that. But winning would have been luckier if I hadn't e-mailed my friends.
Does luck really play any less of a role when one works toward something? Are completely unforseen events really luckier?
Am I popular if I campaigned?

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Wrong Sized Books

A totally petty but real gripe: 7 inches is too wide for a paperback novel that one reads in bed, and I read novels in bed. Other than that, I found The Valley of Secrets by Charmain Hussey to be an enjoyable, if somewhat preachy, read. Sunflower Spinner had chosen it as a gift for me because it contained a list of scientific names at the back. I'm a sucker for young adult fantasy and books with plant lists, so for me the combination worked. Others less interested in gardening, Amazonian flora and teenagers who manage to do everything on their own, probably won't appreciate it, but Tucson Trekker, Sunflower Spinner and several of the GBK should enjoy it.
In other book news, I've started Dickens' Our Mutual Friend , and, at 907 pages the paperback is just too long for holding open, which has made me wish for the short serials of the original publishing. Thus far, as with early in any Dickens I've encountered, I am entranced by the characters but completley unsure as to whom I should be paying attention.

Fully catching up with the last several months, I re-read most of the Anne series just to have the cathartic experience of sobbing when Anne's first baby died. (I can't imagine that I have many readers who don't know whether they are Anne of Green Gables fans or not, but if you are among them, you should find out.) I thought I might be re-reading A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond, but as I read it became clear to me that I had never read this before, not even in third grade. I was surprised to find Paddington was a real bear (I had always envisioned him a teddy bear, like Winnie the Pooh), surprised to read over and over about "darkest Peru", and surprised that the thing that intrigued me the most was figuring out what kind of bear Paddington could be. I didn't read any sequels, although the Mister owns many. I also picked up Marilyn Clay's Bewitching Lord Winterton and couldn't figure out if I were rereading it or reading it for the first time for almost half of the book. Of course, I knew exactly what was going to happen, but knowing the plot of a Zebra Regency Romance doesn't indicate one has read it previously. It wasn't until I knew she was about to hit the good guy with a skillet in the dark that I was certain I had actually read it.

Stepping into the world of luck

I've been contemplating all the things I could post about in my initial explorations into luck and find myself surprised by how many there are. They include:
  • a fortune cookie follow up
  • lucky pennies and the silliness of the "heads up only" school of thought
  • red for the Chinese New Year (and "Wear Red Day")
  • luck being of the devil (I honestly had never considered this before.)
  • my lucky objects
  • how the Mister and I certainly didn't sweep away our good luck by cleaning when the lunar New Year actually arrived, and temporarily without hot water, have not washed it away much either.
  • the superstitions of scientists
  • rat symbolism
  • wow, the internet is full of weird stuff. The Penny Preistess Answers Your Questions ?, indeed.
  • the distinctions between luck, coincidence, fortune, faith, fate, God's will, magic, superstition, wishes, charms, hope, work and belief.

While I I envisioned myself learning about specific good luck traditions (e.g. pennies or red), I find myself pondering the last point a great deal these days. I hope to keep you posted on what, if anything, I figure out. In the meantime, I'd be interested in what luck means to you, relative the the rest of the terms.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Three-Glass-Breaker Party

I'm pleased to report that this year's groundhog party was a great success, despite us managing not to play pin the shadow on the groundhog. Attendance was low, partially due to "crud" that we blame our students for passing around, partially due to many concurrent obligations and in one case due to the friend having previously been invited to another groundhog day party! Despite the small turnout, we had a very good time and copious quantities of blue groundhogs were consumed.

In my book, all parties are lucky because they force me to clean the house (an all-day operation yesterday for both of us) and because they allow me to bring out silly and sentimental stuff. In this case, I had Chinese good luck wall hangings from my host family in Taiwan in 1989, Chinese objects from my parent's stay in Nanjing, bright orange dipping bowls I inherited from my neighbors, hedgehog napkins from a best friend, new partyware from prairie quilter, and tasty Christmas present treats (including sugar mice that the six-year-old loved, much to his parent's chagrin) beyond the usual groundhog tattoos and drink umbrellas.

We ate jiaozi which are lucky for the new year because they are little moon bundles of prosperity, along with sesame candies and various sweets in order to have a sweet new year. One attendee brought oranges (from her parents from Florida) having researched that oranges are the proper treat to represent a prosperous and plentiful new year. This struck me as particularly lucky because it indicates this woman is the kind of person who will look-up odd-ball traditions for a party (and she wore her red silk pajamas commenting as she walked in, "red is the lucky color for Chinese New Year") and could become a real friend. She also guessed the last snow would be in exactly six weeks because Freddie (WV groundhog) saw his shadow. Perhaps she'll turn out to be a kindred spirit, and definitely someone to talk to about luck and fate.

Because we were celebrating the upcoming new year, we discussed Chinese zodiac signs. Learning that a friend is a fellow rat (but not my age) explained a great deal about her. I almost burst out, "No wonder you are constantly justifying your choices [marrying and having a baby immediately after finishing her masters and currently not working with a six week old baby] acting weird about jobs and status, and apologizing for references you don't get: you're 23!" I don't like falling into the smug elder role, but I am in this case. I think I can better accept youthful insecurity than just plain insecurity.

Late in the evening (or early in the morning), three glasses were broken. One beloved blue wine glass went down when a woman elbowed the glass while her husband was holding it. Impressively sharp elbows. One martini glass and one whiskey glass toppled and shattered with a bunch of mini-candy canes. Somehow I think that breaking glass is auspicious. This may have something to do with Jewish weddings or German polterabends, may be from Huey Lewis and Billy Joel* songs, or may be from The Mister breaking a glass at the first of my parties he attended (about our fourth date) and commenting, "It's not a party until someone breaks something." This statement, along with his smooth cleaning up of the glass, completely endeared him to Tuscon Trekker, my roommate, who was known for dropping dishes. It was also repeated at our wedding when our one of our glorious two foot tall champagne glasses snapped.
Three glasses broken: it was a good party.

Still, I missed all of you.

*"I like the sound of breaking glass. If you don't believe me, why did you ask," from "I know what I like" and the intro to "You May Be Right" includes a fabulous shattering before, "Friday night I crashed your party, Saturday I said I'm sorry."

Last year you could apparently learn to make jiaozi like those pictured at the Asian Cultural Center of Vermont.