Monday, February 29, 2016

365 True Things: 337/Frivolity

I have written before about my guilty pleasure of a pastime: geocaching. Most recently on Halloween (#216), then in September (#180), July (#104), June (#72), and April (#31 and right at the start of this blogging nonsense, on day 9). Oops, I see that one snuck in under the heading "Math" not too long ago as well.

In that first day-nine entry, I mentioned having the goal of filling in my calendar. At that point, I needed caches on seven calendar days of the upcoming year. Not a big deal, but still: I needed to be organized.

Today, 258 caches later, I met that goal.

Now, you may be thinking, so what? Does this matter the least bit?

No, of course it doesn't. Except insofar as I set a goal, and then worked to achieve it. Frivolous though it be. But in the grand scheme of things? Not even worth a mention. is very good about celebrating all this nonsense, with "souvenirs" and beautifully wrought coins and the like. One of this weekend's souvenirs ☝︎ required that we attend an "event"—some get-together organized by a local cacher, to which everyone is invited. (This is a very democratic sport.) I managed to attend three today, morning, noon, and evening. At the first one, which happened to be at the park at the end of our short street, I obtained a hint that allowed us to find a very small cache that has been vexing us for months. At the second, a "flash mob," I had a chance to chat with one of my favorite cachers, Mimring (whose wife now lets him indulge in his hobby but one day a month—though perhaps she gave him a dispensation for Leap Day). At the third, we were awarded with a gorgeous geocoin and pin for our achievement ➚, by a generous local cacher, rainbow_guyz.

I'm not sure why it makes me so happy to have a totally green caching calendar now:

Or why I'm putting rainbow_guyz's geocoin in a place of honor. I guess it's because caching mixes up so many of my joys: it's a game, a treasure hunt, so play (which I can use more of) is a big component; it gets me outside, discovering new and often surprisingly beautiful places; it sends me on quests, whether it's this calendar challenge or solving puzzles or pursuing elaborate trails of linked caches; it's given me some new acquaintances, a few of whom verge on friends; Milo doesn't mind if we have a purpose when we go on a walk (the longer the better).

This will probably be the last time in this blog that I mention geocaching: "frivolity." It's been fun this evening to review the last year's worth of this adventure, as encapsulated in these posts. Thank you for indulging me.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

365 True Things: 336/Movies

Tonight are the Academy Awards. I know three people there: one, Dave ☛, is behind the scenes, ensuring that the videos run flawlessly for the twenty-seventh year in a row; and our friends Brian and Melissa ☟. He is a sound engineer for Sony Pictures, and a member of the academy; plus, his niece's husband was up for an award for best original screenplay for Inside Out. (I'm stealing photos they posted on FB.)

The first time I paid any real attention to the Oscars was in 1969, when Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet was up for best picture. A good friend was madly in love with that movie and sure it would win. Oh, the disappointment—even heartache—when it didn't. What did? Oliver! A musical, for pity's sake. Which I saw later that year in a tiny theater in Munich.

Over the years I've sometimes watched the Oscars, but not regularly, and in recent years not at all. I am, however, always interested the next day to learn what won. Even though best picture amounts to little more than a (political) popularity contest. And the academy itself? Ninety-one percent white; 76 percent male. It's a rigged system. (Never mind the riggedness of getting a movie made in the first place.)

Nevertheless, I generally try to see the nominated movies and talent. This year I've only seen four: The Martian, Spotlight, The Big Short, and Mad Max: Fury Road. Enjoyed them all. I have no interest in seeing The Revenant (even if it wins) or Bridge of Spies (I am simply not a Spielberg fan). I would like to see Room and Brooklyn, but I guess that'll have to be on my home screen. I saw three of the animated features as well.

Last year I saw five of the eight best picture nominees; in 2014, eight of the nine . . . it looks like the last year I saw all of the movies in that category was 2007—back in the good old days when there were only five nominees. Apparently I have some catching up to do.

Or maybe I'll just do a better job this year of getting out to see movies as they arrive on the big screen. It's one of my pleasures, Academy Awards or no.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

365 True Things: 335/Outside

I was feeling blue this morning, so after I finished up a chore or two, I decided to get outside and move around.

The view from the side of the road
First, I hopped on my newly tuned up bicycle for the first time in years and rode up into the hills. I probably should have ridden down to the shore and along the rec trail, an old railroad right-of-way (nice and flat), but I didn't want to fight traffic. Well, the long hill a few miles in was too much for me. I got off my bike, huffing and puffing, and lay on my back at the side of the road, in the shade of a eucalypt. I looked at the blue sky and the wind shaking the tree's leaves, listened to the soughing and rattling sounds, felt the cool air—and gradually my heart slowed to its normal pace. It was so pleasant! I was almost glad I hadn't been able to make it all the way up.

I then got back on my bike, continued the short distance to the top, saw that what came next was a long downhill (which meant a long uphill on the return trip), and decided that was good for my first day back on my bike. I turned around and raced home! So fun! (Next time I will make it to the top without stopping and carry on. I will!)

This park is well loved by mountain
bikers, about which there is a big
controversy at the moment (they are
building outlaw trails). But today, it
was just us hikers, bi- and quadrupedal.
That endorphin-forging interlude was followed by a good hike at a local park as we sought out a few geocaches. It was a beautiful warm day. Yellow johnny-jump-ups and pink shooting stars spangled the trail's edges. We put in about six miles, up hill and down. Milo got to run off leash, and even chase some quail. My knee bothered me some, but so it goes. I don't complain. (Yet.)

Cache site ("Wood Pile")

All that physical activity and outdoorsyness was just what I needed to banish the blues. There is truth to the antidepressant nature of endorphins.

Makes me want to get out again soon. Like, tomorrow.

Friday, February 26, 2016

365 True Things: 334/Papers

I went through a box of my mother's papers today, which had been stored in the garage. Two-thirds of them were old tax returns, bank statements, etc. Easily tossable. But a few folders held things of interest to me, potentially.

Among them old postcards and letters I wrote, in a folder labeled ANNE. The ones from when I was a teenager in Europe writing home are simply cringe-worthy, but later ones from after David and I moved to Monterey are quite interesting. Oh, that's what I was doing then! And clearly, since I was writing my mother, it was stuff other than what I'd squirrel away in a journal. (Which today also read as cringe-worthy, for different reasons.)

I also gleaned that the house my family was living in when I was born was one that my parents had had built! From a kit, so to speak: style no. 402. I had no idea. It makes me all the more sad my mother died before we built this house. She would have had vicarious pleasure reliving her own experience. (And probably sharing her lessons learned, which would not have applied anymore.) But today, it makes me happy to think of her going through a similar process, making similar decisions, dreaming about life in a brand-new house.

Though it also makes me wonder why they moved again. I wonder if my brother knows.

Since I like to document stuff rather than keep it (though I will probably keep these files for a while, and cull them again eventually), I took a few photos of my finds today.

That's my father on the right, in Japan. And a little book of
remembrances from his students, plus four pages of
recollections by a former grad student, signed only as Bob.
It ends: "Ted was a truly decent and honest individual.
He was independent and tough-minded. He fought against
bigotry when bigotry was more fashionable than it is now.
He had an enormous range of interests, from science on the
one hand to baseball, photography, water colors, music
and the operatic arias of Mozart on the other. He was
determined that others should understand the truths he had
learned from a lifetime of scholarship, and he worked
diligently to make certain that they did. Surely that is
the mark of a great teacher." (That was written in 1985;
unfortunately, bigotry is back in fashion. Will we ever learn?)

I was captivated by the IRS stamps here. $3.95. This deed
has to do with the house my parents built on Hanley Lane,
Crestwood Hills, Los Angeles, in 1949 or 1950.
Stamps of postcards I sent during my tenth-grade year, when
my parents left me in Germany. I vacationed in Austria,
Belgium (no postcards from there), and Finland.
A photo my mother had of me in her papers. I remember that
poster of Denmark. I had other travel posters besides.
And all the dolls. I was probably about fourteen here.
In a folder titled "The Writings of Loraine Geissman." It seems
my mother took writing classes. I didn't know. I did know that
she tried writing her memoirs, but she got stuck in a
difficult period in the 1960s, then gave up. I was hoping
to find her reminiscences of a trip to Manzanar.
Instead she left me fictional imaginings. If I can
decipher her handwriting (never an easy task), I will
look forward to seeing what she had to say.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

365 True Things: 333/Rabbit

The view of the ceiling from my seat
We went out to eat this evening, to a restaurant that we visit rarely, and each time say, "We should come here more often." It's called Taste, aptly enough. Pretty much every time we go, I get the same thing: rabbit in a mushroom sauce, accompanied by potatoes au gratin and red cabbage. Rabbit is not just like chicken, but it's closer to chicken in taste and texture than it is to any other meat. I like rabbit.

One of my favorite recipes is rabbit with morels, from the cookbook The Silver Palate. I would include it here, but that cookbook remains in a box in the garage somewhere. Which reminds me: I am going to get started on that. Maybe tomorrow. If I run across the recipe, I'll add it here.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

365 True Things: 332/Bike

I had it in mind to take my bicycle out for a spin this afternoon, for the first time in
. . . I really don't want to say.

Reality ruled against me, however, when the rear inner tube turned out to be shot.

Second best action: take the poor bike in for a tune-up.

At the shop, the technician monkeyed with the left shifter, looking a little worried. The grease had hardened. "But," he said cheerfully, "we'll blow on it, stick some oil in there—I'm sure we can get it working fine."

I'm sure I've posted this photo before,
because I like it. But it fits here!
When I was younger, I did my own bicycle tune-ups. But I never really enjoyed it. All that grease. But not just that. I'm simply not mechanical. Tweaking a screw until it's just right? I'd rather tweak a sentence until it's just right.

So I'm happy to take my bike to a shop where the technicians know what they're doing, do it all the time, know immediately when something isn't right, and know how to fix it.

I'll get the bike back Friday afternoon. Hopefully the weather will hold, and I can go out for a late-afternoon ride. And enjoy the smooth gears, the fast wheels, the wind rushing past.
When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

61 Books (1–10) — updated 2/24/16

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

10. Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (2015) (2/24/16)
I tried to read Eat Pray Love and couldn't get into it. Not because Gilbert isn't a good writer; more likely because most memoirs do little for me. But I enjoy her inspirational speaking, with Oprah on tour, at TED Talks. So I figured this new book had a good chance for me.

I was not disappointed. It's a very easy read. It's chock full of upbeat and inspiring stories. And there are definite moments of wisdom that hit me just right, just now where I am in my (seemingly eternal) quest to figure out what the hell I'm doing.

The main sections, each consisting of numerous brief chapters, deal with what she calls the essential ingredients for creativity: Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, and Trust—ending with a splash of Divinity. As she points out, these elements are universally accessible—"which does not mean that creative living is always easy; it merely means that creative living is always possible."

Here are a few bits I dog-eared, somewhat randomly:

In a chapter titled "Entitlement," she discusses "the arrogance of belonging" (coined by poet David Whyte), "an absolutely vital privilege to cultivate if you wish to interact more vividly with life. . . . [It] is not about egotism or self-absorption. In a strange way, it's the opposite; it is a divine force that will actually take you out of yourself. . . . Because often what keeps you from creative living is your self-absorption (your self-doubt, your self-disgust, your self-judgment, your crushing sense of self-protection." Instead, we must loudly, and constantly, proclaim our intent and entitlement to be creatively engaged with the world—or, even more narrowly, to simply be.

In "Stubborn Gladness," she has this to say about inspiration: "I choose to trust that inspiration is always nearby, the whole time I'm working, trying its damnedest to impart assistance. It's just that inspiration comes from another world, you see, and it speaks a language entirely unlike my own, so sometimes we have trouble understanding each other. But inspiration is still sitting there right beside me, and it is trying. Inspiration is trying to send me messages in every form it can—through dreams, through portents, through clues, through coincidences, through déjà vu, through kismet, through surprising waves of attraction and reaction, . . . through the pleasure of something new and surprising, through stubborn ideas that keep me awake all night long . . . whatever works. Inspiration is always trying to work with me. So I sit there and I work, too. That's the deal. I trust it; it trusts me."

What you produce is not sacred, she writes. "What is sacred is the time you spend working on the project, and what that time does to expand your imagination, and what that expanded imagination does to transform your life. The more lightly you can pass that time, the brighter your existence becomes."

She favors curiosity over passion. "Curiosity is the truth and the way of creative living . . . accessible to everyone. Passion can seem intimidatingly out of reach at times—a distant tower of flame, accessible only to geniuses and to those who are specially touched by God. But curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming, and more democratic entity. The stakes of curiosity are also far lower than the stakes of passion. . . . In fact, curiosity only ever asks one simple question: 'Is there anything you're interested in?' Anything? Even a tiny bit?"

In a chapter called "Hungry Ghosts" (referring to an unchecked ego), she calls ego "a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.
. . . My saving grace is this, though: I know that I am not only an ego; I am also a soul. And I know that my soul doesn't care a whit about reward or failure. My soul is not guided by dreams of praise or fears of criticism. My soul doesn't even have the language for such notions. My soul, when I tend to it, is a far more expansive and fascinating source of guidance than my ego will ever be, because my soul desires only one thing: wonder. And since creativity is my most efficient pathway to wonder, I take refuge there, and it feeds my soul, and it quiets the hungry ghost—thereby saving me from the most dangerous aspect of myself."
And finally, her last chapter is worth quoting in its entirety. It's called "In Conclusion."
Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred.
What we make matters enormously, and it doesn't matter at all.
We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits.
We are terrified, and we are brave.
Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege.
Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us.
Make space for all these paradoxes to be equally true inside your soul, and I promise—you can make anything.
So please calm down now and get back to work, okay?
The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.
9. Marion Winik, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead (2008) (2/20/16)
This series of portraits of people Winik has known or who touched her life in some way, and who have died, is beautifully written. She names these people with labels: The Showgirl (her step-grandmother), The Skater (her first husband), The Bad Influence (a friend of her son's), The Driving Instructor (her father), The Big Sister. Thus we are presented with archetypes who are at once marvelously specific, described with crystalline details. There is even a beautiful description of a house, destroyed in Hurricane Katrina.

The strong point for me of this collection of fifty-one small pieces (only a couple span more than two pages) is the way she attempts to describe the feelings that death leaves us with.

Of The Clown (a short-time lover), she writes: "Perhaps the real memory, the memory I'm still looking for, is not accessible this way [by trying to recall the details]. Perhaps it is heat, pressure, cells. The purple blooms on the morning glory vine outside my window, lit neon by the sun. Already closed the second time I look."

Or this, about The Bon Vivant (the friend of a friend, who had found his mother's body when he was nine, and thirty years later committed suicide himself): "When he left us, it was like taking Saturday out of the week or May off the calendar, and yet somehow we had to get used to it. If anyone knew this, it was [him]. . . . I am sure he was counting on it."

Or The Baby (her first, stillborn): "The only thing I knew was what I'd learned at my job writing computer manuals: when some mysterious awful thing happens and the whole document disappears, you have to open a new file and start over. That is all you can do. Twenty years later, I don't have any better ideas. . . . Don't you see how lucky I was? If I had to lose him, at least it was before I knew him, before all my love poured out of me like milk. At least I could still start over."

Then again, she also says this: "I don't know how the hell we go on, knowing what we know."

This is a short book, a quick read but a rich one. I may return to it with pen in hand and study it more thoroughly for lessons (writerly, lifely) it can teach me.
8. Steve Almond, Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto (2014) (2/18/16)
I am not a football fan. I do not understand the mania that overtakes people when it comes to two packs of oversized men mauling and maiming each other over possession of a ball. There is plenty to not recommend the sport, starting with the 30 percent of retired NFL players who, according to actuarial predictions, will suffer "long-term cognitive ailments"—never mind those who actually die on the field after suffering multiple concussions. The game is vicious, savage, and the fact that some large percentage of Americans delight in watching the gratuitous violence . . . well, it floors me.

Steve Almond, who is a lifelong football fan, wittily and yet with angry passion lays out other reasons football is damaging to the American psyche. One is that it is corporate power at its darkest. Here's Steve:

"The moment football became a business, violence was no longer just a moral problem. It was a money problem.
 "This, of course, is the big dance of capitalism: how to keep morality from gumming up the gears of profit, how to convince people to make bad decisions without seeing them as bad. We have whole industries devoted to this voodoo, the dark arts of advertising, marketing, public relations, lobbying. Every day, an army of clever men and women are devising new ways to get us to enjoy tobacco and animal flesh and petroleum and corn syrup without suffering the harsh aftertaste of guilt, without dwelling on the ethical costs of these pleasures. Oftentimes, you will hear some academic type marvel at the American capacity for self-delusion. Here's our secret: we're soaking in it.
 "I mention all this not just to get my socialist jollies, but to emphasize the larger system within which modern football operates. From the perspective of its governing body, the NFL, the game is a multi-billion-dollar product. And those of us who love it are not innocent fans rooting for our teams to prevail. We're consumers. Our money and attention are what subsidize the game."

And it's not only the fans who subsidize the game. We all do, even if we deplore football. We, the taxpayers, the consumers of modern American culture, build the stadiums for the billionaire owners.

Steve raises other issues as well. For example, do you think it far-fetched to view football as a reenactment of slavery (rich white owners, mostly African-American players with few options for getting ahead), thus reinforcing racism? And what about the expense to high schools and colleges (and again, to us taxpayers, not to mention students pursuing degrees that may actually benefit society)—colleges that serve, in essence, as NFL player factories? Does football give permission for, even encourage, bullying, abuse, and disrespect?

I could go on, but no: if you find this issue of interest, I recommend that you read the book. I'll end with the final words of Steve's afterword:

"Football isn't our destiny. It's not some spectacle we have to stage to keep the seething masses opiated. It's just a game, one we use to find grace and meaning and common ground with other fans.
 "Those are all lovely human pursuits. But they can be achieved by other means, ones that don't force us to crouch behind delusion as we sponsor cruelty, as we squander the human virtue most worth defending, which is mercy."
7. Patti Davis, Two Cats and the Woman They Own, or Lessons I Learned from My Cats (2006) (2/6/16)
The other day I visited the house I lived in from age seven to eighteen (and occasionally beyond, while attending UCLA for BA and PhD), for the first time since my mother died eight years ago. Living there now is Patti Davis, President Reagan's daughter. She is also an author, and she gave me three of her books. Including this one, which I polished off in a delicious half-hour. It features her two cats, Skeeter (now gone) and Aretha (whom I met: she's nineteen), and is delightfully illustrated by Ward Schumaker.

Skeeter and Aretha teach Patti several important lessons, including:

"It's true that love can lead to sorrow and hurt, but avoiding love is never a good solution. Hearts are meant to be open and full, not kept safe behind walls. Pascal said, 'When one does not love too much, one does not love enough.' "
"Change is always hard, but time softens the rough edges and eases the pull of the past. Eventually, we all climb out from under the bed, and even the most unfamiliar places begin to feel like home."
"Be understanding of what others have gone through in their lives, even if it has left them with some odd habits. There is no such thing as normal—we're all a little quirky."
"Not everyone who comes into your life is supposed to stay there. Sometimes you're just a way station. Love them while they are there, love them when they move on, and trust that we all find our true home eventually."
6. Karen E. Bender, Refund: Stories (2015) (1/12/16)
I have a general practice that I'm trying to keep up, of reading at least one short story or essay or cluster of poems every day. I have many, many volumes to choose from (some of which are Best of . . . collections), and my typical approach is to randomly open to one. I get a variety that way.

These past couple of weeks, though, I've been focusing on this single volume by Karen Bender, which was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award. Her writing is strong and rich, her characters believable, the situations an interesting balance of realistic and yet slightly over the top. Money—not enough—is often a theme, or more generally "the space between desire and satisfaction" as Andrea Barrett puts it on the jacket blurb. Bender's view is both bleak and funny, but above all, full of humanity.

I started out flagging passages I especially liked, but stopped about halfway through. By then the overall emotional tenor had hit a steady pitch, so even though the beautiful writing continued, the message was more or less the same: life isn't always easy; connection can be mysterious; disappointment seems always to be just around the corner; life is full of longing. Here are two representative bits:

"They had moved to a midsize city in South Carolina. It was not their first choice, and they did not know if they would ever feel at home there, but they could afford, finally, a small house as well as a car. They had found their own happiness, weighted by resignation: that were who they were, that they could never truly know the thoughts of another person, that their love was bruised by the carelessness of their own parents (his mother, her father); that they would wander the world in their dreams with ghostly, intangible lovers, that their children would move from adoration of them to fury, that they and their parents would die in different cities, they they would never accomplish anything that would leave any lasting mark on the world. They had longed for this, from the first lonely moment of their childhoods when they realized they could not marry their fathers or mothers, through the burning romanticism of their teens, to the bustling search of their twenties, and there was the faint regret that this tumult and exhaustion was what they had longed for too, and soon it would be gone."

Or simply: "What did one owe for being alive? What was the right way to breathe, to taste a strawberry, to love?"
5. Jussi Adler-Olsen, The Keeper of Lost Causes (2007) (1/10/16)
I enjoy a good mystery, and I don't expect too much. This one had an interesting structure; some good characters (the lead duo in particular are a treat); crafty details in the perpetration of the central crime; the resolution was satisfying. I did feel like I was reading a translation (which couldn't be helped: it was, from the Danish). I give it only three stars on Goodreads, though, because of the overall premise: I couldn't quite buy the motivation, after so much time had passed. *Maybe* people carry a grudge for twenty years and then finally act on it, but . . . maybe not, is more my way of thinking: they go off in a different direction to exercise their rage, hurt, and sorrow. And there was a little too much t-and-a. And just two-dimensionality in the characters. But all that said, it was a good mystery--and I don't expect too much! (I gather it is being made into a movie. Yes, it would make a very good movie, I think. Of a certain sort.) Now, on to some literature that has a little more weight.

Oh, and here's the only line I highlighted (I read this one on Kindle): "Nothing in this world was straightforward. Not even springtime lasted; that was the most painful thing about reliving it every year."
4. Paolo Bacigalupi, The Water Knife (2015) (12/24/15)
I don't tend to read thrillers, but I was intrigued by a five-star
review on Goodreads by a reader whose opinion I trust. The thriller
 aspects of this book—torture, sex, rioting mobs, murder, greed, treachery, plot twists galore—I didn't mind because they fit the story line, and of course the genre. But what kept me going was the dystopian futurism of the book, which was very well imagined. It's the American Southwest not too long from now, after the rivers have run dry. Immense towers of bioengineered opulence, arcologies, exist for the "fivers," that 1 percent that can afford to purchase, through either action or cash, watered safety. Everyone else lives in a constant dust storm, clustered around humanitarian wells, struggling to survive. Into this setting comes the rumor of an ancient deed to water rights, control of which will determine the future. I enjoyed the conceit of Marc Reisner's classic, cautionary Cadillac Desert being a keystone of sorts in this 21st-century tale. The Water Knife certainly is a page turner, and the ending worked for me.

You don't read a book like this for the writing per se, but here's a couple of short paragraphs that I liked, in part because they are, simply, true—today, as well as in this frighteningly plausible near future:
"This was never about believing. . . . This was about looking and seeing. Pure data. You don't believe data—you test data. If I could put my finger on the moment we genuinely fucked ourselves, it was the moment we decided that data was something you could use words like believe or disbelieve around."

"She thinks the world is supposed to be one way, but it's not. It's already changed. And she can't see it, 'cause she only sees how it used to be. Before. When things were old."
3. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015) (12/18/15)
I posted about this book as my daily blog entry, but the short version is that although I don't highlight in books, I was wishing for a Kindle version with its highlighting features, because "there were so many passages that went on and on lyrically, beautifully,
passionately, angrily, hopefully, and all sorts of emotionally and
intelligently, that I wanted to keep, somewhere, somehow, so I could reread them and continue to learn from them."
I loved this book. It is a journey into consciousness.

I copied a few passages into the blog, but here's another one that speaks directly to me: "I surveyed the railway schedule and became aware that I was one wrong ticket from Vienna, Milan, or some Alpine village that no one I knew had ever heard of. It happened right then. The realization of being far gone, the fear, the unknowable possibilities, all of it—the horror, the wonder, the joy—fused into an erotic thrill. The thrill was not wholly alien. It was close to the wave that came over me in Moorland [Howard University library]. It was kin to the narcotic shot I'd gotten watching the people with their wineglasses spill out onto West Broadway. It was all that I'd felt looking at those Parisian doors. And at that moment I realized that those changes, with all their agony, awkwardness, and confusion, were the defining fact of my life, and for the first time I knew not only that I really was alive, that I really was studying and observing, but that I had long been alive—even back in Baltimore. I had always been alive. I was always translating."
As Tony Morrison says: "required reading."
2. E. L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1969) (12/13/15)
Back in November, I wrote about some of my favorite children's books. A couple of people in their FB comments mentioned this one. I hadn't read it, figured I should. And so now I have.

I liked it fine. The adventure of running away to the Met and having a mystery to solve is great, and many of the details—like using their violin and trumpet cases as valises, or finding money in the fountain by foot-touch in the dark, or the musty smell of the sheets of the bed they slept in—were wonderful. But some things rubbed me wrong. Like, would a sixth-grader run away just because? That strikes me as something a younger child might do, but not a smart, well-adjusted eleven-year-old. And would a nine-year-old boy really say to his sister, "Claudia, dear, I'm no angel. Statue or otherwise" or "Where, dear Lady Claudia, dost thou expect to bathe"? Even if they are playing Elizabethan gallants. And at the very end, a little twist of sorts: it turns out the lawyer to whom the entire story is directed is the kids' grandfather—this after Claudia just said all their grandparents are dead. Yet I don't recall any mention of estrangement from grandparents. That threw me for a loop. And never mind the coincidence that the running-away story would have a connection to the lawyer in the first place. I don't mind suspending disbelief—in fact, I rather enjoy it—but the story that makes me do so has to be seamless.

Of course, this is a kids' book, from 1969, and if I'd read it as an eight- or ten-year-old (though I couldn't have, since I was 14 when it was published), I bet I would have been sucked in thoroughly and not minded these niggling irritations. It is a good story, and all ends well—and Claudia gets what she wants, which is to go home different.

Here's a passage I liked: "It had been an unusually busy day. A busy and unusual day. So she lay there in the great quiet of the museum next to the warm quiet of her brother and allowed the soft stillness to settle around them: a comforter of quiet. The silence seeped from their heads to their soles and into their souls. They stretched out and relaxed. Instead of oxygen and stress, Claudia thought now of hushed and quiet words: glide, fur, banana, peace. Even the footsteps of the night watchman added only an accented quarter-note to the silence that had become a hum, a lullaby."

1. Colum McCann, Thirteen Ways of Looking (2015) (12/9/15)
A novella and three short stories: about an old man's death, a soldier in Afghanistan thinking of her lover back home, an Irish woman whose deaf adopted son goes missing, and a nun finding salvation from a decades-old horror. Exquisite prose; beautifully wrought characters and emotions. Very impressed. Yes, I will be reading more McCann.

A passage in the novella that I liked: "Poets, like detectives, know the truth is laborious: it doesn't occur by accident, rather it is chiseled and worked into being, the product of time and distance and graft. The poet must be open to the possibility that she has to go a long way before a word rises, or a sentence holds, or a rhythm opens, and even then nothing is assured, not even the words that have staked their original claim or meaning. Sometimes it happens at the most unexpected moment, and the poet has to enter the mystery, rebuild the poem from there."

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

365 True Things: 331/Engagement

The other day I wrote about not liking the word hobby, at least as applied to the things I like to do. But I hesitate to call the things I like to do "passions," either. I enjoy them, sure; but I enjoy doing a lot of things; no one activity outweighs any of the others in my emotions.

My wonderful sister-in-law Patty responded to that post by mentioning David Byrne's observation that what really matters in life is engagement, with our work, with our lives.

That struck a chord, because that's exactly what I enjoy about my "hobbies": they pull me in and I find myself wholly in the moment. It's "flow," as coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (which I have but have never read; perhaps it's time).

I went searching for David Byrne's actual words, which I could not find. But I did find some other pithy quotations of his, which I will park here for my own inspiration. And then, naturally, a YouTube rendition of "Burning Down the House," just because.
Deep down, I know I have this intuition or instinct that a lot of creative people have, that their demons are also what make them create.

I use a stream-of-consciousness approach; if you don't censor yourself, you end up with what you're most concerned about, but you haven't filtered it through your conscious mind. Then you craft it.

I always think the everyday is more relevant than anything too grand because we all have to deal with it.

Having unlimited choices can paralyze you creatively.

Most of our lives aren't that exciting, but the drama is still going on in the small details.

I love getting out of my comfort zone.

I'm very much into making lists and breaking things apart into categories.

To some extent I happily don't know what I'm doing. I feel that it's an artist's responsibility to trust that.


Monday, February 22, 2016

365 True Things: 330/Cats II, part 2 (Java)

I wrote a while back about our kitty Jamaica, a feisty little she-devil. Today I'll write about her Buddha-sister, Java. Or rather, I'll mostly share a few photos and a little story, because the gist of her story is in the previous post.

Though there I didn't mention her general response whenever Jamaica would rush her, hissing and swiping, which was: WHAAAat? I didn't DO anything. Which invariably was true. She'd just be sitting around, being Zen, when all of a sudden the little fury-dervish would try to give her what-for.

And they were sisters!

Then again, they were cats. She-cats.

Here are some photos of sweet, fat Java with her beautiful golden eyes, who in another life may have been a dog (she loved to go for walks with us).

And here's a silly little story I wrote about her.

The Buddha and the Cat

The statue, about a foot and a half high and made of gray stone, rests among red and purple sages and orange poppies and yellow dandelions in the mess of a yard. It is the seated Buddha, the contemplative Buddha, his hands cupped within each other, thumbs curled, his eyes downcast as he ponders the ground before him. Or no, he is not pondering anything, he is simply breathing, in, out, in, gently banishing thoughts as they arise. Watch his chest rise and fall, rise and fall, as the breeze brushes his cheeks. Ants march in a straight line across his field of view, busy about their work. A bird flits to the shallow, tiled-mosaic birdbath a few feet away, splashes. The plants tower over him, pushing in on him from behind. The Buddha doesn’t notice; he is intent on his breath. With each exhalation he feels more serene. Wait, now: what’s that? a thump, solid, on wood. A cat: a black cat with a white flash on her chest, yellow eyes. Round about the middle, she waddles, her toenails clicking on the wooden deck. Her serenity surrounds her like an aura, palest yellow: she does not need to work at it. She moves in a cloud of contentment. Moving directly in front of the Buddha, she sits, throws a rear leg forward, leans and licks—grooming. Now you notice that, despite the riot of plant life, the patch of ground before the Buddha is barer, trampled down: just the right size for this fat black cat. She continues her work, her pink tongue flicking out, then catching and dragging on shiny black fur. She shifts her body, attends to the other leg. She cranes her neck forward and tries to get at her chest. Her belly. Under the tail. One front paw, and the other. When she has finished she sits up straight, wraps her tail around her, and faces the Buddha. Sitting about two feet apart, they gaze into each other’s eyes. The Buddha begins to smile, just the corners of his mouth turning up. A bright poppy bends forward and taps him on the shoulder, prods him on. Go on, let go, it says. Go on, agrees the cat, let go, let it all go. The Buddha smiles with his lips, then grins full on, his white teeth glinting. The cat is still sitting still as a whisper, but—is it your imagination?—it seems also to be on its feet, dancing, a little jig . . . as if with tails and top hat. But no. But yes! The cat frisks and struts and hijinks, even as—how can it be?—she sits utterly still, still as a feather floating on breezeless air. The Buddha can’t control himself now: he is laughing. His belly shakes, his shoulders roll; he throws his head back and delight and merriment flow from his mouth. The cat’s aura has shifted to red, and it seems to overtake the small garden space and hug the Buddha, hug the sages and the poppies and the dandelions, it seems to rise into the air and permeate the entire space. You want to step into it, into that shimmering pink-red, and feel the joy as the Buddha, and now the ants and the birds and the worms and the aphids and even the spitbugs, erupt with laughter. Amid this delight, the cat closes her eyes, oh so slowly. She basks in the day, in the warmth of the sun, in the fragrance of the herbs. Soon she opens her eyes and gazes at Buddha’s face, now still, returned to stone—all reverence.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

365 True Things: 329/Music

Back when I was a teenager starting to get interested in popular culture, I'd read the Los Angeles Times Calendar section on Sundays looking for knowledge, guidance, intelligence. One day I stumbled on an article that presented musical movers and shakers' favorite albums from that year, 1970. (Joni Mitchell was featured, I recall. Mick Jagger too, I believe.) On every other top-ten list was Twelve Songs by Randy Newman.

I've always loved lists; indeed, that article may well be where I got started with this love affair. So I dashed out and bought Twelve Songs. And Randy Newman immediately became one of those desert island performers for me. In fact, if I could only bring one album to that island? It might even be Twelve Songs. 

Side one
  1. Have You Seen My Baby? – 2:32
  2. Let's Burn Down the Cornfield – 3:03
  3. Mama Told Me Not to Come – 2:12
  4. Suzanne – 3:15
  5. Lover's Prayer – 1:55
  6. Lucinda – 2:40
  7. Underneath the Harlem Moon (by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel) – 1:52
Side two
  1. Yellow Man – 2:19
  2. Old Kentucky Home – 2:40
  3. Rosemary – 2:08
  4. If You Need Oil – 3:00
  5. Uncle Bob's Midnight Blues – 2:15
The other night I was working on some tedious editing and David asked if I'd like some music. I hadn't thought of Randy in a while, but I asked for one of the many LPs of his we own. Sail Away came on. Such an excellent album. (Yeah, actually: that would be my desert island album, if I only got one.)

This evening while cooking dinner, we put on a multi-CD set called Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman. So many favorites.

Here's Randy singing "Sail Away" and "I Think It's Going to Rain Today." The first is satirical. He very often writes from a made-up persona's POV. The second has been covered by 68 other artists, including Joe Cocker, Eric Burdon, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Nina Simone, Madeleine Peyroux, and Peter Gabriel.

And here's a short humorous British documentary about him.

We went to hear Randy Newman in concert a few times back in the late 70s/early 80s. Just him and a piano. We knew his songs by heart. I didn't sing along, but I certainly do now when we put his LPs/CDs on. What an amazing songwriter.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

365 True Things: 328/Math

In high school, I enjoyed algebra but not geometry. I loved trigonometry, though I can't tell you what it's actually used for. Maybe I mostly loved using the trig tables: it was like hunting for and assembling pieces of a treasure. In college, I took some calculus: the first semester was all equations, and I did fine there; the second semester was all word problems, and I failed miserably. No one ever taught me how to solve word problems—that is, how to analyze the scenario presented and translate (because it is a matter of translation) the words into equations! Word problems are not intuitive, at least not for me.

I was reminded of this today when I set about solving a "puzzle cache" called "The Man Who Counted." Here's the story (the word problem, as it were), abbreviated:
A ship's captain places between 200 and 300 gold coins in a chest to reward three brave sailors when they return to port. During the night, though, one sailor steals into the room where the chest sits, divides the coins into three piles, and takes his third of the total. One coin is left over, which he throws overboard. The next night, the second sailor does the same thing, followed the next night by the third sailor—both times with a remaining coin being tossed overboard. When the ship docks, the captain takes the chest with the remaining coins to an accountant, who divvies the coins into three piles—and keeps the single leftover coin for himself.
What we need to find is the total number of coins that were placed in the chest originally and the number of coins the first sailor ended up with. These numbers will then be plugged into geographical coordinates to reveal the cache's location.

My calculations for
"The Man Who Counted"
I sat and puzzled over the problem for, oh, about five minutes (patience is not my long suit, especially when it comes to anything more mathematically complicated than balancing my checkbook), then turned to the resident math professor for help. He patiently steered me, and steered me some more, and yet some more. (He also reminded me about the equal sign and working from one statement to the next. I was trying to treat the equations like sentences that needed heavy editing. This did not please the math professor.)

I finally got the answer, and he assured me that I had solved the problem. But it felt a little like those chin-up machines where you can lower the resistance in order to minimize the effort required: you dial in zero resistance and then feel virtuous for doing ten chin-ups. I did not feel virtuous, and I'm not sure I could repeat the process at even 50 percent resistance. (I should probably try. It might be good for me.)

Still, I got the coordinates (though not at first: I'd forgotten one key element in my calculation), and shortly thereafter we went out and found the cache. Victory!

I actually like puzzle caches—especially this particular cache owner's: he's smart and tricky, plus he makes up amusing little stories to go with, about a certain Humphrey Cutherburton Montesque Smythe. Puzzle caches certainly tickle the brain cells. Maybe they're the lazy just-want-to-have-fun equivalent of trigonometry. I keep hoping they will teach me a little more persistence and patience, but so far that's only wishful thinking.

Friday, February 19, 2016

365 True Things: 327/Death/Neighbors

I've just seen that Umberto Eco (84) and Harper Lee (89) died today. At least they lived to fairly ripe ages.

But even before I saw that news, I was thinking about death closer to home: in my own cul-de-sac, in fact.

Our house is at the corner
on the left
It's a little dead-end (not providential, I hope) street of seven houses.

Our neighbor Hal, who lives kitty-corner (house #6, if we're #1) and has lived here since before we moved in in 1990 (and shares David's birthday), stopped by today to tell us that on Saturday he discovered another neighbor who has lived here forever, Orren (#4), dead in his living room. Orren was in his seventies, I'd guess, and not in good health.

Similar can be said for Hal, so on Saturday when the fire truck and ambulance pulled up in front of his house, and we saw his wife, Ferah, standing with a worried look in her driveway, we got worried ourselves.

As the day progressed, I tried to judge the changing number of cars parked on the street, but couldn't determine anything. I started imagining Ferah holding vigil in the ICU.

But then I saw that the car situation stabilized. I saw a mobile pharmacy car drive up (okay, I thought—it wasn't anything major: all he needed was some medicine). And then I saw Hal! In the usual dark blue BMW wagon that he drives for a local car dealer, ferrying people around. Whew! Everything's okay!

Yes, we have a big pine tree,
which currently is vexing a neighbor
not on our cul-de-sac. My feeling?
He knew the tree was there when he
bought the place. But we've also
called a tree guy in to look at
the situation.
Well, not exactly. Not for Orren. Or, who knows? Maybe Orren was ready. 

As you can perhaps tell, we're not especially neighborly. Hal and Ferah are always happy to pick up our mail and newspaper if needed, and we'll stop and exchange pleasantries when we're both in the street, but that's the extent of our relationship. Even less so with Orren.

And the rest of our neighbors, now? I don't even know their names. Though I should know the names of the family across from us (#7), a quiet young couple with two small kids. I'm sure I've been told what his is, at least. Mike? Dave? Something generic like that. He manages a Hunter's Supply store nearby. We always wave when we see each other in our driveways.

Though back to death: three other people in this street have died since we've lived here. Two in fairly short order, some eight or ten years after we moved in: our next-door neighbor, Paul (#2), and his next-door neighbor, Shirley (#3). They were both hovering around seventy, I'd guess. She might have been closer to eighty.

Paul used to stay up most of the night watching westerns on TV: we'd see the flickering light through his windows, and sometimes hear the gunfire. He also loved to mow his lawn—and I'd often see him sitting at the edge of the grass, where it spilled down a bank, using scissors to get at hard-to-deal-with spots. We'd chat. He told us about being an alcoholic, with an alcoholic wife, and finally having to leave her to save his life. I think that was when he moved into our cul-de-sac. He had thick white hair and a rather gaunt face, but a pleasant smile. I was always happy to see him with his scissors, because it provided a quiet chance to check in.

And Shirley: she had long white hair wrapped up on top of her head and drove around in a big blue station wagon distributing food to the feral cats in the area. If we happened to be out working in the yard, she'd always stop and give some sharp piece of advice. One was: "You should stop feeding that cat so much, and then she'd get around to catching more gophers!" And our yard was never tidy enough for her. (It wasn't tidy enough for us, either, but we were busy.)

I believe Paul died of a heart attack in his yard while we were away on a trip: again, Hal found him. Shirley must have passed away in a hospital. I heard she left her house to a religious organization. It long since has been remodeled to something twice the original size, which is now rented out on VRBO. Though sometimes the owner occupies it. I'm not sure what its status is at the moment. Paul's house has been variously rented out. Fortunately, the tenants have always been quiet and keep to themselves. My favorite kind of neighbor.

The last death was of someone whose history on the cul-de-sac I don't even know. It's house #5, up at the end. His name was Jerry, I'm pretty sure. We only ever had occasion to speak with him once, when he came down to our house to . . . ask something? I don't even remember why he came down. He told us he'd been a competitive surfer in his youth, and even in his older age, you could see it: a nice tall lanky body, but with residual strength. He died a few months after our short but pleasant conversation, of cancer. I guess his wife now drives his late-model VW bug; I still see it parked in the drive.

I could ask Hal about all of these people, and would no doubt get a lot more stories (not to mention names). Maybe one of these days I will. Starting, maybe, with Orren. And going back. Neighbors all these years.

So: that's four houses that have seen death since we've lived here. Three to go? I hope not.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

365 True Things: 326/Travel (Scotland)

In 2010 I traveled to Scotland, including the Orkney and Shetland Islands, with a small group of photographers led by night photographer Lance Keimig and his Scots colleague Sam Gardner. It was a wonderful trip, but alas, due to the lack of a map, I have very little idea of where I actually was. Fortunately, I was diligent at the time and attached captions to some of the photos I took and posted on Flickr. Here's a random sample of that magical place, in no real order.

Edinburgh from the castle
Holyrood Park view of castle and cathedral
Stream at our Orkney lodgings, Woodwick House
Gairsay Sound from Woodwick House shore
Ring of Brodgar, Orkney
Waukmill Bay
Kirkwall, Orkney, kirkyard
Kirkwall colour
Swan parents, cygnets, egg
View of Woodwick House from Rousay Island
Sam finding a shot
Lance with his wild rhubarb (which subsequently
became a rhubarb crumble)
Midhowe broch (fortification or manor house)
from ca. the time of Christ
A cottage last inhabited in the 1880s
(and the source of our rhubarb)
Unst bus shelter: famous for its geocache
Kitty dreaming of mackerel and puffins (Lerwick, Shetland)
Lerwick waterfront
Lerwick dockside
Hoswick Gospel Hall
Me in Stromness, Ornkey
(photo courtesy Meg Feemster)