Wednesday, April 30, 2008

But It Seemed Like Such a Good Idea...

Somebody, please remind me not to do these things in the future:

Set up a challenge at a blog domain with which I’m completely unfamiliar. This was not a swift move when I’ve barely managed to figure out the most basic ins and outs of the blogging domain I’ve been using for nearly two years now. It’s an even worse idea when one considers the fact that this new blog is going to involve multiple users.
Why It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: I wanted to share the ecojustice challenge with colleagues and friends. I’m not so sure I want all those colleagues and friends reading Telecommuter Talk. I thought it might not be quite as easy to make the connection to the two if one was at Blogger and the other was at Wordpress. I’m probably right, since most of my colleagues and friends know nothing about blogging, but it isn’t fail proof, and I probably could have been just as successful keeping the two separate if I’d just used Blogger. Also, I really do want to learn my way around Wordpress and thought this would be a good way to do so. Wrong: what would have been a good way to do so would have been to create some simple blog that nobody reads meant solely for play and experimentation.

Take a Cat to the Beach: It’s not so much the taking him along on the trip part. He’s a wonderful traveler who doesn’t try to choke himself to death when we put him on a harness, and he loved the hotel room. It’s the mistaken idea that a cat might actually like to, you know, go down by the water the way a dog would, especially when a motorcycle decides to come roaring by at the same time. I’ve seen a cat’s tail double in size, but I think this was the first time I’ve ever seen one quadruple in size, and if you ever wondered what someone’s arms might look and feel like if they’d somehow managed to escape after having been fed to the lions, well, you can ask Bob.
Why It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: Anyone else read any of the Norton books by Peter Gethers? That man (despite the fact he once wrote me a very nice letter in response to a letter I wrote him) ought to be sued for false advertising the way he so blithely writes about a cat who traveled all over the world, basically riding on Gethers’s shoulders most of the time it seems. Gethers must somehow make use of a secret subliminal writing technique that lures readers into believing this is, somehow, something any cat, given enough love, can be trained to do. He doesn’t state it. In fact, he even insists that his cat was perfect, but it’s hidden there somewhere.

Order a 700+-paged trilogy through ILL at my local library: The due date is less then three weeks away. The fine is $1.00 for each day it’s overdue.
Why It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the time: I’m not supposed to be buying books (I have a 4 books-to-read deficit at this point, given my plan to read at least three books I own before buying a new book). My friend raved about this one to me, and he’s never failed me yet, so I was, of course, dying to get my hands on it. My own library system didn’t have a copy of it. This was the only way to read it without buying it. I wanted to see how the ILL system works. Lots of good reasons, really, that all seem absolutely ridiculous as I try to figure out how many pages I need to read a day before this book is due.

Go to the huge Lancaster County library book sale when in four-books-to-read deficit mode. I now have to read a mere 37 books before I can buy anymore (make that 40, because I just ordered a copy of Much Depends on Dinner for the ecojustice challenge). Yes, I bought 11 books. You would have too if you’d seen all those paperbacks for a mere fifty cents a piece (on the first day of the sale, first thing in the morning, no less, when there was still a grand collection. In CT, those kinds of prices didn’t kick in until the third day when the only things left were ancient Harlequin romances and textbooks). Oh yeah, and it doesn’t seem I’m going to be making a dent in that deficit anytime soon when I’m going to be reading a 700+-paged library book for the next three weeks.
Why It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: It didn’t. Under no circumstances whatsoever is attending something like a huge library book sale where paperbacks go for fifty cents a piece ever a good idea for someone like me. Still, I seem to do it every single year. As a matter of fact, Bob and I went to this same sale last year, because he happened to be here for his interview exactly a year ago, and we stopped by it on our way out of town.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Not Quite the Eleventh Hour

But it is most definitely the tenth hour for Kate's April poetry challenge. However, seeing as I warned everybody I’d be posting at the last minute, I figure I’m actually early. Also, I have another excuse: it is not easy instituting an ecojustice challenge. How do all those of you out there who create all these wonderful book challenges ever have anytime to do anything like, oh I don’t know, read, for instance? Anyway, during the month of April, I read:

Sandburg, Carl. Berman, Paul, ed. Carl Sandburg: Selected Poems. New York: Library of America, 2006.

One thing I’ve discovered I love about reading poetry collections is that they’re like listening to albums. That leads me to wonder why I’m so resistant to reading them, since I love and have always loved listening to albums. Poetry collections are similar to albums because you don’t have to love every poem to enjoy them. In fact, there are some you might just plain not like or not get. You read them quickly and see what the next one has to offer. Others, you read and think, “Oh man! That’s just incredible!” And you re-read them. And then, maybe, you even re-re-read them. You wander around the house in search of someone with whom to share their profundity.

Funny, though. That other person just may not happen to think this particular poem is so profound. He or she might pick up the collection where you’ve left it, wondering why you’re making such a big fuss, and be mesmerized by something completely different. I’ve always found this to be the same with albums. Meet someone who says “Abby Road is absolutely my favorite Beatles album.” Tell that someone, “I agree.” Then start discussing the actual songs. Chances are, one of you will think “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is one of the most disturbing songs ever written, while the other one will think it’s one of the most clever.

Before I pulled this collection from the shelf, I knew I was partial to Carl Sandburg, having enjoyed “Fog” when I was a teenager. (I’ve just realized that I keep claiming that I didn’t like poetry as a teenager, had it ruined for me by teachers, and yet almost every time I post on it, I seem to be recalling something from my teenaged years. Maybe I need to re-think the whole “hated poetry as a teenager” spiel.) However, I can’t really tell you if it was “Fog” I so enjoyed or the parody of it my sister Lindsay composed, which was “Frog.” For those of you who may not be familiar with it, here it is:


The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
And then moves on. (p. 22)

Lindsay’s “frog” came on “flat feet” and went on from there.

At that age, I thought of Sandburg as a “modern poet,” and “modern poetry” was the only type of poetry I thought I could stand as a teenager. I defined it as mysterious and obscure and something that did not subject itself to over-the-top flowery language. Modern poetry presented hard facts of life without purposely trying to pull at your heartstrings. (Maybe I’m not so off-the-mark with my hated-poetry-as-a-teenager spiel after all, because it’s quite obvious I hadn’t read much of it if this is what I thought.) You know, modern poetry as a tequila shot, say, and all those romantics and their sonnets as 50-year-old bottles of sherry hidden in your grandfather’s cellar. When I was a teenager, I was doing everything I possibly could to rebel against my genetically romantic and sentimental soul.

I guess I haven’t completely squashed that teenaged notion of “modern poetry,” even though I’ve read enough now to have proven it wrong. Not having read much Sandburg, I automatically assumed he'd be profound, but I didn’t expect him to break my heart. How about a poem that's both profound and heartbreaking? Here’s one that was for me:


I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
I wish you never quit your job and came along with me.
I wish we never bought a license and a white dress
For you go get married in the day we ran off to a
And told him we would love each other and take care of
each other
Always and always long as the sun and rain lasts
Yes, I’m wishing now you lived somewhere away from
And I was a bum on the bumpers a thousand miles away
dead broke.
I wish the kids had never come
And rent and coal and clothes to pay for
And a grocery man calling for cash,
Every day cash for beans and prunes.
I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
I wish to God the kids had never come. (pp. 8-9)

If you have a heart like mine (irreparably leaky these days from having been broken and fixed innumerable times reading such things), you read that poem at least thrice and want to meet that man just so you can say, “I know. I know. I know.” But how can you possibly know? You’ve never met Mag. You didn’t fall in love with her. You don’t have this man’s children. You've got plenty of money for the rent. The grocery man isn’t calling you for cash. You hate prunes. But still, you know.

Or maybe that one didn’t do it for you. Maybe your heart would break for “The Junk Man,” which didn’t do much for me. Or possibly “Francois Villon Forgotten” would send you searching through the house for the nearest pair of ears to listen to you read aloud. I don’t know. You’ve got to pick up the collection and see for yourself. I do dare you, however, to read “They All Want to Play Hamlet” without finding it the least bit profound.

So, how about you? What profound and heartbreaking poetry have you been reading? I'd love to know.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Happy Earth Day!

Happy Earth Day, everyone. The Ecojustice Challenge '08 begins over here today. Please take a look and join me and pass the word on to as many people as you can.


Monday, April 21, 2008

And the Winner Is...

...Stefanie. She, along with others, correctly guessed which of my Seven Weird Facts was not true, and hers was the one that I drew from the hat (okay, it wasn't really a hat. It was just a cup. I'm done with lying). Congratulations, Stef! Please choose a book I've written about somewhere on this blog, and email me the title and your address, and I'll order it for you.

Oh, and for those who'd like a little more detail, no I don't have a problem with mittens at all. In fact, I prefer them when it's really cold, because they keep my fingers warmer. And now the contest is over, I can go comment on everyone's comments.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Magery Allingham’s Sweet Danger

Allingham, Margery. Sweet Danger. New York: Felony and Mayhem Press, 2007.

(This book was originally published in 1933.)

The Connecticut mystery book club will be discussing this book on April 26th. However, I plan to be staring at the ocean, sans computer, gin and tonic in hand, book in lap, in Cape May, N.J. on April 26th. Thus, I decided I’d better read and write about this one now.

First of all, I want to say hurray for Margery Allingham! I’ve been familiar with the name all my life, but (as is the case with so many mystery writers) I’ve never bothered to read any of her works. Secondly, I’d like to say that this book group has gotten off to a great start when it comes to “reading all over the mystery map,” as this book couldn't be more different from the first one we read.

So, why do I say “hurray for Margery Allingham?” Maybe it’s because she has a male protagonist who is unmatched in brilliance (as so many are in these sorts of mysteries), but who is also young. None of this wise, middle-aged, somewhat sexless detective who relies not only on his intellect but also on a lifetime of experience that has taught him what humans are likely to do in any given situation for Allingham. No, in Albert Campion, we have a young man, not yet thirty, just getting his feet wet as far as life experiences are concerned. Campion is a character who is truly playing the game of Life, learning as he goes along, and seeming to enjoy it all immensely (even when he comes dangerously close to losing it all to Death).

Then again, maybe it’s her extraordinarily complicated plot. I have to admit I almost came close to “boo-ing” rather than “hurray-ing” this aspect of the book. I had to keep re-reading pages from the beginning, because I just couldn’t figure out exactly what it was that Campion and his friends were doing when we first meet him through the eyes of his friend Guffy Randall, who comes across them during a stay in the French Riviera. However, by the time I’d gotten to the end of the book to find I’d been led on a romp that included a nearly-impoverished family on the verge of reclaiming a birthright that will certainly secure future generations; brilliant use of mistaken identity; a wonderfully enigmatic poetical clue; a bad guy whose nickname is “Peaky,” because he was “…a most extraordinary-looking fellow with a widow’s peak that almost touched the bridge of his nose, “ (p. 22); as well as a truly mad, mad doctor; all confusion is forgiven. After all, how can a book that provides so many plot elements possibly be anything but confusing? It all comes together in the end, though.

Perhaps it’s Allingham’s ability with description and detail that makes me want to shout for joy. For instance, she’s already told us that Guffy is a snob, and thus, we assume his friends must be, too. However, their snobbishness is beautifully portrayed in this short passage:

A gloom settled over the party. That a man could live for forty years with a cellar full of priceless wine, and drink it, perhaps even – sacrilegious thought! – get drunk upon it, without realizing its value, was, to Eager-Wright and Guffy at least, a tragic and terrible discovery. (p. 84)

Then again, it may be her wonderful sense of humor. I don’t even know where to begin when it comes to describing this. Hers is not a laugh-out-loud sort of humor (thank goodness, as I was reading this book mostly on airplanes), but a subtle, wry look at her characters and their predicaments. She has this beautiful chapter when Campion goes off to visit an insurance agency that could easily be a business located in one of Donald Trump’s edifices today. Quite obviously, Allingham had her own opinions about that sort of overindulgence in business, and she chooses to sneak in her opinions by employing a dark, cutting humor. This same dark, cutting humor also shows up in her characters’ dialogues with each other, such as this one:

“Talking of poetry,” said Mr. Campion, unexpectedly, as the three young men continued thoughtfully across the heath toward the mill, “many a useful thought has burned in verse that Shelley would have spurned. Likewise, the stuff to put your pennies on is not concealed in Tennyson.”

“Interesting, no doubt,” commented Eager-Wright good-humouredly, “but in the circumstances not very helpful. This is no time for blathering Campion.” (p. 95)

It’s funny, of course, in the way Eager-Wright talks down to his friend. It’s also funny, however, because, Allingham and her readers know that Campion isn’t really “blathering.” Plenty of the conversation throughout this book runs along the same sorts of lines.

Then again, none of the above may matter, and it just might be that I’m "hurray-ing" over nothing more than the wonderful character Allingham has given us in Amanda Fitton, a member of the family that runs the Suffolk mill where the majority of the action takes place. She’s bright, strong, courageous (a real fighter), a wise businesswoman, and Campion is smitten with her. One gets the feeling that Campion and his mates would have blundered and all been dead without her, as would her brother. Not only that, but she’s very likeable and very human, the sort of heroine to whom I’m always attracted (and, throughout my life, have wished I could be).

And that’s one way in which this book is so very different from our first mystery, Hammett’s The Glass Key. I have not yet read any more Hammett, but my guess would be that I could read all he’s written and not find a single woman like Amanda Fitton. In Hammett’s world, despite the fact that the two books were written in the same decade, three-dimensional female characters do not exist. They may be physically striking, like Amanda. However, men are drawn to them merely for their looks, no matter their characters, and not because they are also clever and bold, the way Campion is drawn to Amanda. Female characters aren’t the only ones who are different, though. By the end of the book, we know what makes Albert Campion tick, how and what he thinks about many things, much more than we ever knew about Ned Beaumont by the end of Hammett’s book.

Also, the violence in this book is nowhere near as severe as it was in The Glass Key. Allingham’s violence seems almost to have been included as an afterthought, because, after all, one can’t have dead bodies without some violence. Hammett’s book seemed to center around humankind’s natural tendency towards seediness and violence.

(I think I may have just inadvertently described some of the big differences between hard-boiled crime fiction and crime fiction from The Golden Age of British Mystery?)

Granted, at times, Allingham does rely a bit on convenience over credibility. For instance, a character to whom we have not been introduced suddenly plays a key role about halfway through the book. He is later just sort of explained away (perhaps he's someone who has shown up in other books in the Campion series?). Likewise, the mad doctor is a bit of a convenience (not to mention a character who could easily have stepped right out of the collection of Arthur Machen stories I recently read). Nevertheless, this is fiction (and mystery at that) and needs to be forgiven for embracing such conveniences. Besides, nothing in this book could top the sorts of conveniences to be found in G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries.

All-in-all, a fairly perfect specimen of the genre. Oh, and one last question: wouldn’t you love to work for a company called Felony and Mayhem Press? It seems I need to get cracking if I’m going to keep up with all the great stuff they’re publishing.

Friday, April 18, 2008

How Privileged Are You?

I got this one from Charlotte. As is always the case for me with this sort of thing, I find some of these statements very odd and don't think they help answer the main question. First of all, what sort of “privilege” do we mean here? Are we talking economics? Education? Sociologists in our culture would probably argue that we have class systems based both on wealth and on education. Not everyone in the educated classes is wealthy, and not everyone in the wealthy classes is educated. I’d argue there’s a third class system based on race. Still, seems like an interesting exercise, so I’m going to participate.

The original authors of this exercise are Will Barratt, Meagan Cahill, Angie Carlen, Minnette Huck, Drew Lurker, and Stacy Ploskonka at Illinois State University. If you participate, they ask that you PLEASE acknowledge their copyright.

Bold the true statements. You can explain further if you wish.

1. Father went to college – and grad school

2. Father finished college – and was ABD

3. Mother went to college – and grad school

4. Mother finished college -- and grad school

5. Have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor – my father was the first in a long line of attorneys to become a professor. My sister was a professor until she decided to devote herself full-time to art. No physicians, though. No one in our lazy family wants to work that hard.

6. Were the same or higher class than your high school teachers – again, depends on what one means by “class.” Let’s pretend we mean teachers who were upper-middle class or rich, as in the deciding factor for defining “class” is how much money a person has. I really have absolutely no clue. People actually know this sort of thing, or rather, are really paying attention at that age? Many of my high school teachers were nuns. I imagine of the others, some were of the same class, and others weren’t. I do know they got paid a pittance compared to public school teachers, so let’s hope they had some sort of other source of income.

7. Had more than 50 books in your childhood home – had more than 50 children’s books alone.

8. Had more than 500 books in your childhood home – a huge embarrassment to me throughout a good deal of my childhood and teenaged years and one of the reasons I spent more time at others’ houses than inviting them to spend time at mine. Good thing I don’t have kids. I’d be forcing them to live in a house just like the embarrassing one in which I was raised.

9. Were read children’s books by a parent – my poor father must still hate The Owl and the Pussycat, which I made him read over and over. My mother and I read books together well into my teenaged years. I loved sharing that with her.

10. Had lessons of any kind before you turned 18

11. Had more than two kinds of lessons before you turned 18 – swimming, tennis, ballet, and tap, all of which I despised and gave up after a year.

12. The people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively – I promise you, there is nobody in the media who dresses and talks the way I do, and if there were, she’d be someone everyone makes fun of – the batty, absent-minded one who can’t put a simple skirt and blouse together to make them look good and who walks around with runs in her stockings or big black stains on the back of her pants, completely unaware that they’re there.

13. Had a credit card with your name on it before you turned 18 – nope, but as soon as I was 18 and didn’t need my parents’ permission, I went out and got a J.C. Penny credit card just so I could get whatever free gift they were giving away to anyone who opened an account.

14. Your parents (or a trust) paid for the majority of your college costs

15. Your parents (or a trust) paid for all of your college costs -- technically, I guess this means I should have bolded the last one. Why have both questions?

16. Went to a private high school – a Catholic high school. Where I grew up, that was considered a “private school.” In the places I’ve lived since, it’s considered a “parochial school,” and there are big distinctions between parochial and private schools.

17. Went to summer camp -- only day camp. My mother was definitely of the persuasion that kids needed “activities” in the summer, but she probably didn’t want to spend the money on sleep-away camp.

18. Had a private tutor before you turned 18

19. Family vacations involved staying at hotels – every-so-often we stayed in hotels, but we managed to travel all over the world staying mostly with friends and relatives.

20. Your clothing was all bought new before you turned 18 – no, I was the third daughter. I wore lots and lots of hand-me-downs. My mother, being a good Scot, wasn’t about to get rid of perfectly good clothes before getting all she could out of them. We did have a lot of our “good clothes” made for us, though, which made the hand-me-downs doubly horrible, because my mother liked to dress her three girls in matching dresses, so I’d have to wear the exact same dress for years until I finally outgrew the one my lucky older sister only had to wear for one season.

21. Your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them – no, my first car was a hand-me-down that was wrecked by my brother’s friend just before it was given to me.

22. There was original art in your house when you were a child - but not by any artists anyone would have heard of.

23. You and your family lived in a single-family house

24. Your parent(s) owned their own house or apartment before you left home – before I was even born

25. You had your own room as a child – until I was 8, and then my oldest sister got it, and I didn’t have my own room again until she went to college (unless you count a little area at the end of the hall where my mother put up curtains and that had a little crib-turned-daybed and desk until we moved those out and moved my bed into it when I was a pre-teen, and my other sister and I were not getting along well enough to keep sharing a bedroom, as a bedroom of my own. The whole end of the hall was mine. We called it "cozy corner," and every child who ever visited our house always wanted to sleep there).

26. You had a phone in your room before you turned 18 – I wanted one, not only my own phone, but my own separate line, which I offered to pay for out of my own earnings, once I got a real job, but my parents wouldn’t let me get one, because they wanted me to “learn to share.”

27. Participated in a SAT/ACT prep course
-- get this: ever hear of someone who participated in an SAT prep course and then did worse on the test the second-time around? Or who always did better in English than math throughout her school career, but who scored higher on the math than on the English? What I really needed was to be tested for test anxiety.

28. Had your own TV in your room in high school – are you kidding?? Our family didn’t even have a color TV until I was 18. Our television-viewing was strictly moderated until my mother went back to work, when I was in third grade, and then she lost all control, except making sure there were never more than two televisions in the house. One of these was monopolized by my parents, which meant it was usually tuned into such child-friendly programs as the news or opera on PBS. The other one was tiny and not hooked up to the antenna, so the reception was about as reliable as a teenager promising to clean a room.

29. Owned a mutual fund or IRA in high school or college

30. Flew anywhere on a commercial airline before you turned 16 -- when half my mothers’ relatives lived in England, she wasn’t exactly going to take four children under the age of 16 over there by boat.

31. Went on a cruise with your family – again, are you kidding? Spend that kind of money for a ten-day-trip when you could go rent a falling-down old vicarage known as “The Chalet” and live in England for the entire summer instead?

32. Went on more than one cruise with your family – no, but rented more than one old vicarage in England.

33. Your parents took you to museums and art galleries as you grew up – but I much preferred castle ruins.

34. You were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family – nope. My father complained about every penny spent on heat and kept the average temperature in the house hovering somewhere just above freezing. If you wanted to be warm, you had to stay in the living room, where he built coal fires, because the coal was cheaper than firewood.

I don’t know: you tell me. How privileged am I?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Time for My Own Random Bullets

I’ve got lots to post on, including a couple of books and my thoughts on book awards and a new post over at Ian and Emily’s. However, today, I’m taking my cue from others and just giving you some random bullets.

  • Lesson learned this week: I forgot to provide a due date for everyone’s answers to my little competition in my previous post, which was not a smart thing to do, unless I want the contest to go on indefinitely. Even less smart, however, was having everyone provide answers in the comments without providing a due date, because I’ve now realized I can’t comment on anyone’s comments without giving away the answer. Thus, I learned that in the future, I’d better provide contest deadlines. So, those of you who haven’t already given me an answer, you have until Monday April 21st to do so, at which point I will respond to everyone’s comments and announce a winner.
  • Odd one out: I once again realize I am the odd one out in that everyone else in the world hates February, but I hate April. February gets a bad rap. After all, it falls in the dead of winter. It’s supposed to be cold and icy and snowy and generally dark. No one in the northern hemisphere dangles February in front of you with any sorts of promises of nice weather, and yet everyone complains about it as though it’s the biggest back-stabber of them all. April, on the other hand, falls in spring. That vernal equinox makes its appearance at least ten days before the beginning of April every year, and April has the opportunity for 30 days to give us perfect spring weather. Whatever happened to “April showers,” words that conjure up images of pretty little droplets, lightly, briefly, and gently watering all the colorful flowers, not icy sheets soaking mud where one can barely see green shoots beginning to materialize? Granted, I have to say that this month hasn’t been quite as bad here as it typically was in Connecticut, but still, I want it to be warm when it’s supposed to be warm. When the calendar says we’re solidly into spring, it should be spring not early winter. All-too-soon, it will be the dog days of summer, and this is the one time of year when we’re supposed to be able to enjoy temperate weather. April stabs me in the back every. single. year.
  • So close and yet so far: You won’t believe what happened this week. Our church happens to have been founded in the 1700s. The original church is still standing, and we use it on occasion, but it mostly sits empty and unused. Apparently, there have been reports that the old church is haunted, and this news has made its way to a paranormal investigation group that wants to come set up shop, so to speak, with all their “Scientific Equipment” (capital letters are theirs) to see what they can find. This group made a request to do so in a letter to our Board of Trustees, a letter that also assured us that they don't perform exorcisms but do sometimes resort to prayer and the use of "Holy Water" when needed. Unfortunately, our Board is not in favor of such things and voted down the request. Can you imagine? I came this close to being able to observe a paranormal investigation right here in our own church. So, I was right when I started realizing I’d probably have better luck seeing ghosts inside the church rather than in the cemetery. (Anyone want to come join me for a “night at the haunted old church?” I’ve got to get a group together, because I’m way too afraid to investigate on my own.)
  • Warning: Next week, in honor of Earth Day (one good thing about April), I will be setting up the new blog for the ecojustice challenge. Please, please, please join this challenge, and please, please, please spread the word. I want to try to get as many people as possible. I really do believe that together, concerned citizens of the world can make a difference. In fact, I believe they can make a huge difference. Details to come.
  • That’s it for the bullets: funny. I thought I had more random thoughts than this, but maybe they’re all off at a happy hour somewhere or something.

Friday, April 11, 2008

7 Weird Facts about Me Meme

Dear Danny (are you reading him? If not, you should be. He doesn't post frequently enough, but that's probably because he has a life that includes such things as passes to The Grammy Awards and SNL, which you could read about if you were reading him) tagged me for this one. I have to admit that I was absolutely convinced I'd already done it. After all, I'm the Queen o' Memes, always looking for an excuse not to have to post anything too intellectually taxing. But, it seems, after a cursory search of my blog, that I was wrong.

It must be déjà vu. That means if that guy who read my palm a couple of months ago is right, I most likely was the Queen o' Memes in some past life, maybe in some country where such queens wielded great power. (I can see myself shouting "off with their heads!" in response to all those I tagged who chose to ignore the fact.) Either that, or, as Danny noted, this meme just feels eerily familiar, because aren't weird facts about me basically what I write 99% of the time? I had quite a hard time coming up with seven, because each one that emerged at the front of the brain, hoping to be immortalized on screen had to be told, "No, get back down there. You know perfectly well you already had your Immortalizaion Day back in July '06 (or whenever it was)." Anyway, for those of you who just can't get enough weird facts about me, here are seven more:

1. I am borderline germ phobic, which means I can't stand to see people "clean" something with their saliva. I also hate places like public bathrooms, and I hate the fact that we basically have to sit on other people's laps on airplanes these days. However, I also have a passing acquaintance with statistics and know that the likelihood of my catching TB in such places (even from the person three rows up who sounds like he has it) is about as likely as having the Cleaning Fairy decide to take up residence in my home. Thus, my rational side is constantly fighting with my irrational side, which is very annoying. Why can't I just insist we all wear masks and rubber gloves whenever I enter a public restroom or step on a plane? Why can't I yell at the woman who didn't wash her hands as she was leaving the restroom, forcing me to touch that door handle she last touched with her filthy paws?

2. Watching a movie is something I have to convince myself to do. For some reason, I don't ever believe I'm really going to lose myself in a movie the way I do a book, and the first ten minutes of any movie is typically spent wondering if I'm understanding what's going on and if I'm really going to get into it. The rest of the movie is then spent in complete, total, ga-ga immersion. Really. Even those I ultimately decide I didn't like still manage to pull me right into their worlds with them. I think I've watched maybe a total of six movies in my life that did nothing for me. So, why I'm so convinced I'm not going to be grabbed by cinematic magic is a mystery.

3. I'm a fidgeter. I literally cannot sit completely still for more than about ten minutes at a time (and that's a wild guess. It may be much less than ten minutes). As a matter of fact, I can't pay attention to someone who is talking to me as well if I'm not allowed to fidget in some way. I always have a foot that's shaking, a pen or pencil or watch I'm fiddling with, or am shifting positions in my seat, or something. Supposedly, this means I burn more calories than most, but it seems to me I still have to exercise 45 minutes for every ounce of cheese I eat or 4-oz glass of wine I drink if I don't want to gain a pound.

4. I don't like to wear mittens. They make my fingers feel as though they're being restrained somehow, and I constantly feel the need to try to spread my fingers if I have them on. This is annoying now that I'm learning to knit, because it seems to me, mittens are probably much easier to knit than gloves. Then again, at the rate I'm going, I'm never going to graduate beyond scarves, so it really doesn't matter.

5. I hate to be the center of attention except when I'm with a group of very close friends. Throw me a surprise party with ten special friends and family members, and I'll be filled with great glee. But if that surprise party happens to be at a large table at a restaurant surrounded by fifty strangers who are all going to be staring at me, I'll be filled with the desire to flee.

6. I argue with and ask questions of nonfiction writers and journalists when I read them. I rarely make it through a nonfiction piece feeling I believe absolutely everything I just read. Although I sometimes mark up fiction books when I read them, typically I only do that with books I know I am going to write about in a blog post. However, all the nonfiction books I read (except for library and other borrowed books, which is one reason I don't tend to like to borrow nonfiction) these days have pencil marks in them with thoughts, reactions, and questions.

7. I love ghosts and ghost stories, but I don't really believe in them, because I've never seen one myself. Wait a minute, how did that one manage to slip to the front of my brain and onto the screen to celebrate yet another Immortalization Day?

And now, I'm supposed to tag 7 others. I think some of you have already done this one, but I can't remember who has and hasn't. Thus, if I tag you, and you've already done it, I promise not to yell "Off with his/her head!" if you choose not to do it (this time, that is). The lucky seven are: Ian (whom Danny already tagged, so now he's really got to do it), Mandarine, Zoe's Mom, Susan, Eva, Charlotte, and Froshty (who should have been beheaded long ago for ignoring many memes and for being the one who introduced me to slam books). I'd tag Becky and Courtney, too, because I know they both love a good meme, but Becky's going to be gallivanting all over the world for all eternity, it seems, and I don't want to distract Court (too much, that is. She's already been distracted by one meme from me) from her continued political blog post.

And now, for those of you I didn't tag (oh what the hell? For all of you), here's a little game to make this meme even more interesting. One of these seven things, because I'm sleep-deprived and exhausted and just couldn't think of anything you don't already know that wasn't deadly dull, isn't true (hint: # 7, you already know, is true. That means you have a 1/6 or about a 17% chance of guessing correctly). Guess which one it is, leave your guess in a comment, and if you get it right, I'll put your name in a hat drawing. I'll offer to the person whose name I draw the same sort of prize I've offered in the past: a free copy of the book of your choice you've read about on my blog.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Best Picture Ever! (That Never Was) Challenge

A couple of weeks ago, Cam challenged me to write a post describing the best photo ever, which I happen to think is an extraordinarily creative writing challenge (not to mention one that lives up to the name “challenge” in spades). Not only was I honored to have been chosen by her, especially after her extremely eloquent post on her own best photograph ever (a lovely portrait with a great story to match), but very eager to get going on the challenge. I happened to be in Boston at the time and immediately began to think about which photo I would choose. Should I choose my favorite wedding photo of Bob and me (our wedding was the only day in my entire life on which I was the least bit photogenic)? Should I choose some favorite photo from childhood? Should I choose one of the many wonderful shots we have from places like Bonaire? I’d have to go home and search through some boxes and see what I could find.

Then I left Boston after five very intense days of being “on,” sometimes from 8:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. These conferences I attend fluctuate between being extremely invigorating and extremely draining. Being a self-trained extrovert who is a natural introvert, as much as I love all of these people with whom I only get to hang out like this a couple of times a year, and as much as I love to sit in sessions absorbing what all these really interesting people are doing in their science classrooms (and wishing I’d had teachers like this when I was a kid), and as much as I love to brainstorm about how I can turn all this information into books, I can only do it for so long without beginning to feel a little bit like I’m going insane. So, I was teetering on the brink of insanity as I left Boston to drive up to our company apartment in Northern New England where I’d be staying for the next few days while visiting the office.

As I was driving along, one thing I started to think about is that I’ve lately begun to realize how spoiled I was by the Connecticut landscape when I lived there. I remember when I first moved to the state, people would talk about the beach, and having grown up in North Carolina with its beautiful miles of shoreline along the crashing Atlantic, I’d look at them blankly, thought bubbles reading “Beach? Huh?” These relatively tiny patches of sand surrounded by rocks on the Long Island Sound were not beaches. Where were the waves? Where were the dunes? Where was the sense, with so much land all around, that the big wide ocean was endless, that if you weren’t careful when you went gallivanting about in your ship, you really might sail off into a pack of sea monsters before crashing off the end of the world as those old maps predicted? However, I soon came to realize that it didn’t take much to reach the shoreline of the Atlantic in Connecticut, and then one could easily go up into Rhode Island and walk cliffs along the ocean. I also eventually got used to it and came really to appreciate the beauty of the Sound.

Not only did we have easy access to shoreline in Connecticut, but we also had easy access to mountains. One could drive from mountains (granted, not the Rockies, but still mountains. I happen to love the rolling softness of the Appalachians) to the ocean within a matter of a few hours. And then, of course, one could drive up to Acadia, ME, where the mountains meet the ocean (heaven, in other words). Now, I’m living a good three-hour drive from the ocean and discovering I’m missing it terribly, so in my nearly insane state as I was driving along with all these thoughts and thinking about how I’d go walk along the beach after work during the two evenings I’d be visiting the office, I decided why wait? Why not stop off at Salisbury Beach in Massachusetts, get out for a little walk, and then hug the coast for the rest of my drive?

As soon as I got out of my car and began to walk along the sand on this gorgeous early spring day, regretting the fact I didn’t have a camera, I realized that my post for Cam’s challenge was going to have to be about the best picture ever that never was. And shortly afterwards, there it was, right in front of me, no camera in sight to capture it forever. So, you’re just going to have to believe me when I tell you it was the best picture ever.

Imagine it. It’s an old-fashioned print, with white trimming and glossy finish. It was taken with the best camera of its kind, loaded with superior film, so the colors are vibrant, perfectly capturing the colors of the day, epitomized by a clear, crisp blue sky more reminiscent of October in these parts than late March. The ocean, reflecting the sky, rather than being a murky half-translucent green, as it can often be, especially in winter, is deep sea blue. The waves along this part of the coast don’t crash so much as gently roll, but with a little more force than they do in places like the Caribbean. The sand up on the banks away from the water’s edge is bleached white, but down here by the water’s edge, where the picture was taken, it’s a little darker than a golden suntan.

This beach is a beach that allows people to bring their horses to ride. In the picture is a large, glossy Black Beauty of a horse, coat glistening. She’s completely black, except for the area right above her left back hoof, which is a patch of white. The camera has captured her in mid-gallop, her legs bent and spread in perfect racehorse formation, her tail blowing in strands behind her. Her rider is wearing a blue fleece jacket, a black riding helmet, and brown boots. Behind them rise the white peaks of a wave riding into shore to chase them as they focus on whatever goal they seem to be chasing themselves. You stare at the photograph, sigh, and think, “How come I never pursued horseback riding? What could possibly be more fun than galloping along the edge of the shore at full-speed on a Sunday afternoon in the early days of spring?” But then you remember that you walked back up from the beach, over the wooden platform that led to the parking lot, and came upon two women feeding their horses at the sides of their trailer, brushing them, and talking about how much they eat, and you remember, “Oh yeah, I didn’t pursue it, because it’s a lot of work and so expensive.” Nobody else who looks at the dreamy photograph has to know that, though.

Cam challenged two people to describe their best photograph ever, so I’m going to pass the challenge on to two others: Litlove and Hobs, in the hopes they’ll choose two more, etc.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Extremely Random Meme

Hmm…seems this week is going to be a good one for challenges and memes, as my brain slowly turns to mush after being on the road so much. My boss travels what seems like 26 weeks out of the year. I have no idea how she does it. Anyway, I particularly like this meme that I got from Charlotte, because more than any other meme I’ve seen, it most resembles the slam books of my youth to which I once compared memes. But, before reading this drivel, please go read Mandarine's very important post.

1. What is your occupation?

According to the nametag I'm wearing this week, my pretentious-sounding title is Executive Editor, Math and Science for an education publisher. That doesn’t necessarily mean I personally do anything all that important, but I get to work with lots of educators who do, and it’s the most fun and challenging job I’ve ever had. I also happen to be very occupied with such things as reading, cooking, and writing. I just don't get paid to do them (well, technically, I do get paid for reading and writing, but you know what I mean).

2. What colour are your socks right now?

White. (My ten-year-old self would be horrified. For some reason, I despised white socks when I was a kid, especially when I was forced to wear them with a dress, an article of clothing I also despised.)

3. What are you listening to right now?

Hotel doors opening and closing. If you mean what am I choosing to listen to these days when I turn on my iPod/other source of music, that would be:

Audiobook: Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous fun! Two friends of mine recommended this book to me, oh about ten years ago. I have no idea why I've taken so long to get around to it. If you've been thinking about reading it, love philosophy and mysteries, don't make the same mistake I did; it doesn't deserve to wait around for ten years. The audiobook version is extremely well done.

Music: When I was driving up and down the east coast last week, I brought tons of CDs with me, but I seemed to be most focused on Golden Smog. Gary Louris and Jeff Tweedy together? How can it possibly be anything but good? I also listened quite a bit to a great recording from Taizé, which was very calming.

4. What is the last thing you ate?

Some very yummy chicken and bow tie pasta "soup of the day" and a “house salad.” Can you tell I’m on the road?

5. Can you drive stick shift?

I had to learn to drive one when I was sixteen in order to get my license, because it was all my parents owned. I hated it at the time, but am so, so glad it was forced on me, because, otherwise, I could see having to learn to drive one becoming an irrational phobia. (Of course, that might have been preferable to the horrible snob I am instead who doesn’t believe anyone who can’t drive a stick shift really knows how to drive.)

6. If you were a crayon, what colour would you be?

Sea green.

7. Last person you spoke to on the phone?

My boss.

8. What’s your favourite yoga pose?

I don’t really have a favorite pose, but I hate all the warrior poses.

9. How old are you today?

44 years, 1 month, and seventeen days (and I’m still doing slam books. Now that ten-year-old self is extremely happy, but slightly surprised).

10. Favourite drink?

Non-alcoholic: lemon-ginger tea (the more gingery, the better).

Alcoholic: gin (martini with olives or tonic, I’m not picky).

11. What is your favourite sport to watch?

Baseball (preferably live).

12. Have you ever dyed your hair?

Nope, the color of my hair is the only thing I like about it. I’d love to have black hair, but I’d look like a vampire with my translucently pale skin (and not one of those cool, sexy vampires. I’d look like the poor, little waif of a vampire who might as well be fully dead, the one all the other vampires make fun of).

13. Pets?

Excluding my husband, I assume? We have one king of the household cat named Francis (after the Patron Saint of Animals, naturally).

14. Favourite cake?

Chocolate with chocolate icing – with none of this raspberry filling or chocolate mousse or ice cream taking up space where perfectly good cake could be. But coconut is way up there, as well. In fact (dare I say it, because then it might be true?), coconut might actually be surpassing chocolate these days.

15. Last movie you saw?

P.S. I Love You. I love Hilary Swank so decided to watch this one on the airplane. Warning: if you are in the midst of a two-and-a-half-week period in which you have gotten to spend a total of two days with your spouse, and you are not one who relishes the idea of crying in public places where everyone can see you, do not watch this movie on a well-lit plane, no matter how worried you are that you might finish your book if you don't watch the movie, and uh-oh, your other books are up in the overhead compartment, because you forgot to take them out of your suitcase.

16. Favourite day of the year?

Does anyone at this point not know that it’s Halloween?

17. How do you vent anger?

Depends on who you ask. Bob would tell you I scream and yell and cry. I would tell you I raise my voice a little and maybe shed a tear or two.

18. What was your favourite toy as a child?

My stuffed panda bear and my Fisher Price barn with its little people and farm animals and “moo” sound whenever the door was opened (I’m guessing my parents preferred the stuffed panda to the mooing barn door).

19. Autumn or spring?

Right now as it’s springing up all over, I’m tempted to say spring, just like I am every year at this time. However, I know that it’s really fall with its crisp air, brightly-colored trees, sweater weather, and promise of wintry evenings by the fire. Besides, my favorite day of the year comes in fall.

20. Hugs or kisses?

That depends on who’s handing them out.

21. Cherry or blueberry?

Cherry, especially when we’re talking pies.

22. Do you want your friends to respond?

I always want my friends to respond.

23. Who is most likely to respond?

Becky, I think? I’m not sure.

24. Who is most likely not to respond.

Almost everyone.

25. Living arrangements?

I live in the manse owned by my husband’s church.

26. Last time you cried?

See last movie I saw (which is a good thing, despite the embarrassment of crying in public, because otherwise I’d have to embarrass myself by admitting that, shortly before that, I cried when I called Bob in a panic from the huge parking lot about ten miles from my terminal at the Philadelphia airport. This was the parking lot which I’d only found – no thanks to the horribly rude woman manning the short-term parking lot -- by driving around the airport twenty or so times. When I called Bob, I’d just had the third shuttle come by without stopping to pick me up, and I was convinced I was going to miss my flight. I was right. I did miss my flight, but by then, I’d gotten it out of my system and was fine.)

27. What is on the floor of your closet?

Shoes and boxes of stuff waiting around for me to open them and discover what they are (at home. On the hotel closet floor, we have shoes and my suitcase).

28. Who is the friend you’ve had the longest?

That’s a tough question. I have a few friends with whom I’ve been out of touch for ages that I’m sure if I called tomorrow, we’d pick up as if we’d just seen each other last week. But if we’re talking about someone with whom I’ve been in touch, that would be Tina, my college roommate.

29. Favourite smell?

Citrus, but hyacinth is nipping at its heals, vying for the label of “favorite.”

30. Who or what inspires you?

My husband.

31. What are you afraid of?

Pain (both emotional and physical).

32. Hamburgers?

Yes, but, ummm, where’s the question about hotdogs?

33. Favourite car?

I love the look of the Audi TT, but I am extremely fond of both the cars we own right now, a VW Passat and a Toyota Prius (which has been forgiven for not being a stick shift).

34. Number of keys on your key ring?

Funny you should ask just after I practically wrote a post on this.

35. How many years at your current job?


36. Favourite day of the week?

Sunday. I truly try to rest (when I’m not traveling to Salt Lake City, missing flights, that is).

37. How many countries have you lived in?

Two. I wish I could say more than that. Maybe one day…

38. Dream job?

If you’re talking about realistic dream job, I’ve pretty much got it. If you’re talking about unrealistic dream job, I’d love to be a food critic for The New York Times.

Now, if you want to give this one a go, consider yourself tagged.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Two New Challenges

So, I gather some of you would like me to hurry up and write that novel. I just met with a friend in Connecticut yesterday who wants me to hurry up and write that children's book whose plot I've discussed with her. She wants her Emily to be able to read it while she's still a child. I've (sort of) been learning to knit. This is an absolutely crazy month in which I've just been up to New England and back and am only home for three days before I take off for Salt Lake City for another week of conferences. Thus, what better thing to do than to take on two more challenges (especially since I have yet to finish one book for the science book challenge, although I've started The Double Helix)? But I really just cannot resist either one of these two new challenges (maybe I'm a challenge slut as well as a book slut?).

The first is Kate's modest poetry challenge. It's not a difficult challenge at all. In fact it's a perfect challenge for someone who has only started getting her poetry feet wet over the past couple of years. We're just going to post something about poetry (either a critique of a particular poem, or a review of a collection of poems, or something about a poet) sometime during the month of April (you can eagerly await my post showing up at 11:59 p.m. on April 30th). That doesn't sound too difficult, especially since at my favorite bookshop near the office, I picked up two poetry collections on Tuesday: May Sarton and Margaret Atwood. Oh, and if worse comes to worst, I can just change the date on my recent Emily Dickinson post. Everyone's already forgotten it, right?

The next challenge is GREAT fun! It's Ex Libris's Soup's On! Challenge , which involves not only reading 6 cookbooks (something I pretty much do every year anyway) between now and March 31, 2009, but also cooking and writing about at least one recipe from each book. Where else am I going to get the chance to pretend I'm Nigella Lawson or Mark Bittman, cooking away and then sending my articles off to The New York Times? The question is: should I choose really, really difficult recipes, thus resulting in what will probably be funnier posts for everyone to read, or just go with the ones that sound too delicious to ignore? I guess I'll have to think about it as I start reading.

Anyway, I'm hoping some of you other chefs out there will join this challenge. I'm also hoping some non-chefs will join (because I'm sure some more-hilarious-than-I-could-ever-write blog posts would result from all you talented writers out there). Most importantly, I'm hoping everyone will invite me to dinner at their places once the challenge has been completed.

Here are the books I'm planning to read and from which I'll be cooking:

The Best of Amish Cooking by Phyllis Pellman Good, because of my recent move to Amish country
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman, because I'm in love with Mark Bittman, and we don't eat a whole lot of meat in our household
The I Hate to Cook Book by Peg Bracken, because I haven't read it in years, because I'm also in love with Peg Bracken (she's SO funny. If I remember correctly, she sometimes has instructions such as, "Light a cigarette and stare dreamily out the window while meat browns"), and because I want to try adapting some of her "so-1950's" recipes to suit the 21st-century (maybe even turning some of the meat-based dishes into vegetarian ones)
Mrs. Schiang's Szechwan Cookbook by Ellen Schrecker, because I'm tired of not being able to cook Chinese food as well as my husband can, and it's one of the cookbooks his family has always used
Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats by Sally Fallon, because I'm not only into cooking but also into nutrition, and isn't this just such a great title?
The Wonderful World of Indian Cookery by Rohini Singh, because Lancaster County, PA doesn't exactly have a good Indian restaurant on every corner

Stay tuned throughout the rest of the year...