Thursday, July 30, 2009

Mom's 47th.

Angelica and Shannon came down from the camp on their day off so that we could put together a little party for Mom's birthday. I had just come across a New York Times piece filled with 101 delicious summer salad ideas, and I relished the opportunity to try some out (we made 3, 7, 15, 18, 25, and 95).

Would you believe she's 47? I feel like she hasn't changed since I've known her.

Our attempts to get a self-timed picture.

The strawberry cake was Shannon's masterpiece work. The blueberry muffins were Rachel's. The hummus (and the chopping!) was Angelica's.

See what I mean? Still looks the same. Sans puffy hair.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Possession by A.S. Byatt

Possession is, quite distinctly, impressive. A.S. Byatt constructs an entire fictive romance between two Victorian poets of her own creation and layers it with the intrigues of literary scholars who slowly discover it. She writes the poetry, she writes the clandestine correspondence, she writes the literary criticism, and she weaves it all carefully into the storyline. The novel runs in alternating cycles of multiple plots as the Randolph Henry Ash scholar and the Christabel LaMotte scholar unearth evidence of a liaison between the poets and begin to form one themselves.

In a startling display of metafictive commentary, Byatt brings the field of literary academia to task. She makes asides on the point and thrust of literature. She creates caricatured depictions of biographers and historians and archivists, asking quite earnestly what their purposes are, where they are to find their own identities when they devote so much of their time to preserving and analyzing the lives of others. Deliciously self-conscious and delightfully complex, Possession is a surprisingly intellectual romance.

I didn’t fall in love with any of the characters, but I held them in interested distance. The story garnered my attention at a steady increase as the book progressed. As a partial satire, the novel didn’t woo, but it did entice through suspense. It gained a breathlessness as it went on, an urgency pushing toward an unsure ending. The simultaneous levels on which Possession works easily merit its acclaim.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

On going from Riverside to the river side.

Daniel's family invited me to join them on a weekend trip to the river.

We stayed in Laughlin and spent a couple of days on Lake Mohave. They taught me how to wakeboard. It took me a while, but I finally stood up, and was absolutely delighted at the rush. At some point I may have even got out of that pained crouching position.

We moored the boat in a cove and enjoyed lunch on the lakeshore. Daniel, his brother, and I hiked up on a ridge above our site to enjoy the view.

We also went tubing, which was almost more fun for me, since it required fewer skills.

We floated in the water quite a bit, donning life jackets and just bobbing along at times. The air at midday ranged to an astounding 120 degrees, and the water was a comparatively cool 75. We didn't need towels.

The water was also unexpectedly clear. Little fish darted among the lake weeds.

On our last day, we drove down below Needles and launched into the river proper to float down to a sandbar accessible only by boat.

I was absolutely taken by the bands of color: the middling teal of the water, the deep maroon of the igneous rock that jutted above our heads. Green reeds grew by the river edge and the bright blue sky arched overhead, so you knew by contrast that the water was neither green nor blue but a color all its own. My camera doesn't do justice.

I had an excellent time with Daniel and his family. I never would have wanted it to end, if it weren't for my entire body aching from the wakeboarding...

Monday, July 20, 2009

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard chronicles a year on a creek in Virginia Thoreau-style, discussing life, the universe, and everything (literally) and making a veiled poetic exploration of the relationship between Christianity and the world. She offers no more than brief glimpses of herself, preferring to open up channels of thought to this present circumscribed life in the woods.

Dillard writes in a cascade of complex metaphor, drawing image upon image in oscillating rhythm. At times her breathless enthusiasm is like a nine-year-old’s, spewing facts as she does in boundless joy at knowledge of the natural world (lest this sound like criticism, I gladly admit to doing the same. The nature study class I took this summer offered me endless material to work with). The book is largely observation—observation of the specific life she encounters, and observation of the general nature of life itself. Dillard describes the latent brilliance of nature when she descries a muskrat in her creek: “It changed its course, veered toward the bank, and disappeared behind an indentation in the rushy shoreline. I felt a rush of such pure energy I thought I would not need to breathe for days. . . . The great hurrah about wild animals is that they exist at all, and the greater hurrah is the actual moment of seeing them” (192).

She makes a startling reflection on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: “Most of us are still living in the universe of Newtonian physics, and fondly imaging that real, hard scientists have no use for these misty ramblings, dealing as scientists do with the measurable and the known. . . . But in 1927 Werner Heisenberg pulled out the rug, and our whole understanding of the universe toppled and collapsed. For some reason it has not yet trickled down to the man on the street that some physicists now are a bunch of wild-eyed, raving mystics” (202). The principle states that a given particle’s velocity and position cannot be predicted.

This means that single electron’s path cannot be determined for sure; either velocity or position can be calculated, but never can both be figured out at the same time. And this means that determinism, down to the atomic level, is impossible. As Dillard writes regarding the abundance of parasitic insects, “These things are not well enough known” (229).

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Dusty, crusty, rusty, and musty no more.

Dirty little secret in our house: no one ever, ever, cleans out the cupboards. Okay, it’s probably not just our house, and it’s probably not that dirty in the scheme of things, but sometimes for me it ceases to be little. I can only shuffle unsuccessfully through a drawer that’s 90% lids and 10% containers so many times.

I mean, most people, even in our house, usually have more important things to do than painstakingly match every plastic storage unit with a lid and then retain an alternate, or overextend their shoulders to reach into the dark, useless corner next to the dishwasher to grab that bottle opener that somehow fell back there (and take a picture of the vast expanse of Tupperware? I mean come on, really now). I usually have more important things to do. But sometimes a perfect storm of boredom and the need to be organized besieges me (the last time this happened was the year I had in between high school and college). I just know that no one has touched some of these items since I systematically overhauled the kitchen in 2007 (my innovative locations for the dinner plates, coffee cups, and bowls persist to this day). And, when I have the luxury of thinking so, that’s kind of icky.

This cascade of plastic and metal would be the lids that have no corresponding containers. I found more later. I started in on the silverware drawer, just for kicks. I found the cheese slicer I had been looking for last week. Then, I had to do the utensil drawer next to it, since there were so many crossover items. And since I was doing lid recon, I had to go through the glass jar shelf and then the travel mug/water bottle cupboard. The second collection of glass jars in the cup cupboard necessitated my attention as well, so I just sorted the entire thing.

As I was examining the countertops, I noticed that we had multiple sugar containers and multiple less-than-half-filled containers, so I did some sifting and restocking and created a new staple storage system. Sometimes I think that there is nothing prettier than rice in a clear glass jar. Then I realized it would make more sense, and counter space, if I could fit the waffle iron underneath, so I shuffled pie tins and rarely used appliances until I had the requisite rectangle in that cupboard. I also ran white vinegar through the coffee pot, since there's a good chance that hasn't been done since we bought it. I pulled sections of counter items out and stage by stage wiped down everything.

I had to rearrange the stationery cupboard briefly, consolidating boxes and holders to make room for the straws, chopsticks, and skewers that I sorted out of the utensils. After dinner, as I was breaking down greeting card containers to recycle, I realized I could reappropriate a couple for the junk drawer. I was only going to group a couple of random items in it, but it went so quickly that I soon had the entire drawer in neat quadrants. I swept, wiped down the dining table, took out the trash and compost and recyclables, and I was glad.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Oh, but my lead was so good: "Beautiful days aren't the only thing PLNU and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood have in common."

So freshman year I wrote a story about a 16-year-old student who thought he was the next Mister Rogers. I had asked the newsroom if anyone needed a story covered that week, and the news editor handed me the number of a music professor who had him in class and thought it would make a neat story.

Suffice it to say, I found it hard to corroborate everything this kid said, but Gay Talese had just told me that he never crafted an investigative story whose sources he couldn't talk to afterwards, so I checked what sources I could and said what I knew to be true.

I sincerely suspected he was just a little boy trying to fulfill some sort of odd fantasy, but he did have a set at KPBS and the professors and people he worked with obviously thought he was the real thing.

Well, some more important and surely less gullible people than me were sincerely fooled by him. Charging as much as $300 per ticket, this kid was organizing a supposedly celebrity-filled fundraiser gala in Escondido until some reporters finally became suspicious of him. (Check out where Voice of San Diego linked to my article!)

Scam or delusion, I don't know. But one of the most hilarious things I've ever been remotely involved in, yes. Oh yes.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Summer to-do list.

25. Frame and hang family pictures

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Hey dilly, dilly.

A dill weed has spread its green bursts in our front yard. I went out one morning to peel the sprigs off the stalks and shake the seeds off the ends. The tangy scent stuck to my fingers and filled the air, like the dried dill I'm used to but with a fresher edge, almost intoxicating in its intensity. I gathered my bounty in the early light.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee

An unnamed magistrate in an unnamed remote outpost sympathizes with the native people of the land that his empire is commandeering, and he bears the consequences for his dissent. The novel illustrates the complexity involved in standing against a powerful but wrong-headed entity, the audacity of attempting to defy what everyone else sees as the natural course of history. What is remarkable about Coetzee’s protagonist is that he is not a noble, saintly martyr for a cause, but rather a man whose stance is the product of incidence. He is not always searching for the side of right or crusading for the downtrodden; he has never sought anything more than a comfortable and stable position. But he sees the injustice and dehumanization of the empire, and he cannot countenance it. He falls into the gears of the empire machine but refuses to be crushed.

Coetzee presents a strong indictment of senseless bureaucracy and merciless imperialism. He shows the terrifying results of a society ruled by baseless fear. He deftly imparts a conviction of how essentially necessary justice and humanity are in all political and social intercourse.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Give me an inch, we'll take a yard.

The first week that I was home from my trip, I instituted a compost pile. I was super impressed with the little compost bin that Steph's family kept in the kitchen, and I figured there couldn't be a better way to try and improve our backyard soil.

The finches that used to live in the aviary that my dad had built had been gone for years, so I tilted the thing on its side and started filling it with the weeds that surrounded the area.

I collected all the stones that I found in the dirt and arranged them in a spiral, for no reason, except just to do it. Our yard is just a blank of soil right now, but with the trees that Mom and I picked up this week, and with a few weeks of reappropriated kitchen refuse, we could have something nifty by the end of summer.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

A 20-year-old Canadian nurse cares for a badly burned man in an Italian villa toward the end of WWII. A friend of her father’s and a Sikh man commissioned to clear the area of bombs join them, and their war experiences are woven into the present action in a complex and layered rhythm.

The most striking aspect of the novel is the rich visual landscape it creates. The four gathered in the countryside of Italy have traveled the world, from Canada and India to England and the deserts of Africa. Ondaatje skillfully raises up these wide-ranging scenes in quick stages, alternating through the histories of each character in repeating succession. The English patient’s memories of Africa are some of the most illuminated moments; they put me in mind at times of James Michener’s Afghanistan in Caravans.

While I found the characters fascinating and appealing, I could never quite believe that any of them could ever exist, or at least that such extraordinary people would congregate in such a concentrated fashion: Hana, the nurse, with her fortitude and integrity and endurance; Caravaggio, the friend, an improbably successful thief tapped by the government for intelligence; Kip, the Sikh, precociously successful at understanding and dismantling bombs; and Almasy, the English patient with a preternatural knowledge of the history of the world, a veritable encyclopedia encased in blackened flesh. Would we could all be so lucky to find such a cache of survivors in a rural villa at the end of a war.

The cover depicts a hazy still from the movie adaptation, and so I spent most of the novel trying to determine who the kissing couple would be, who made up the central love story. I was disappointed to find that the relationship between Kip and Hana was secondary; the affair that Almasy recalls from his time in Africa is the pivot. The English patient’s odd dalliance in the desert did not contain immediacy and necessity; it was less a coming together of equals as Hana and Kip’s was and more a mercurial and violent collision. I guess it reveals something about me, that I should find the intercultural understanding and place of comfort that Hana and Kip construct more engaging than the swift and destructive liaison of Almasy. Regardless, the interplay of the two relationships as they are presented incrementally between each other is deeply instructive.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Into the wild. Mostly for the mild temps.

Daniel had a day off, so he joined Rachel and me for a hike up Deer Springs Trail to Suicide Rock in Idyllwild.

The view at the top was spectacular, as always. After my desert adventure with my mom, I was super glad to do a hike that actually involved shade. The balmy mid-80s air was a welcome reprieve from our valley heat.

The hike is worth it almost for the view of Tahquitz Rock alone.

We enjoyed a leisurely lunch and ate up the scenery at the same time. I've done this trail, if memory serves me right, every summer for five years, and I'm always stunned at what is so close to home and yet worlds apart.

There was a fair flow of water running in the creek. Red bits of columbine and snow plant grew nearby.

I bored everyone with my newly gained nature knowledge: seriously, it is cool that some manzanita leaves grow straight up and down so that the sun does not hit them directly.

We had just enough energy to meet Angelica and Shannon in town afterward.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Deserting our routine.

My mom and I decided we wanted a break from our sweaty afternoons at the gym, so we searched for a local hiking trail and found one skirting Diamond Valley Lake.

We went out at the hottest time of day during one of the hottest times of the year, but it was a dry heat. Ha.

We walked something like 5 miles altogether, climbing a little into the hills. The blue of the reservoir peeked out of the browns.

We spotted a giant grasshopper enjoying a meal in the bright sun.

It was dusty and dry, but beautiful little things could be found if you looked for them.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The first Steinbeck passage I've ever wanted to copy down and share with anyone who will read it.

“Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.

“And now the forces marshaled around the concept of the group have declared a war of extermination on that preciousness, the mind of man. By disparagement, by starvation, by repressions, forced direction, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning, the free, roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged. It is a sad suicidal course our species seems to have taken.

“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost” (East of Eden, 131).

Sunday, July 5, 2009

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

My northern California sojourn became even more valuable to me as I read the opening passages of East of Eden. Steinbeck euphorically enumerates the flora of the Salinas Valley: “The tules and grasses . . . lupins and poppies . . . black-centered yellow violets . . . red and yellow stands of Indian paintbrush . . . live oaks . . . five-fingered ferns.” I could see his description because I had seen all of these in real life. One line I took especially as my own: “When June came, the grasses headed out and turned brown, and the hills turned a brown which was not brown but a gold and saffron and red—an indescribable color.” I was with him in the indescribability.

Steinbeck traces the major events of the lives of multiple families that populated the Salinas Valley in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The novel culminates in a fascinating reprisal of the story of Cain and Abel, carrying the metaphorical implications that the title promises.

I’ve read some Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men and The Red Pony, and I could appreciate him, but not to the point that I ever thought I’d actually get around to this one. But it really must be his greatest novel. I was captivated from the beginning. The narrative spans so much so skillfully and expansively. Steinbeck’s characterizations are deep and acute. His enraptured descriptions continue, fleshing out a rooted affinity for his native area that encompasses both its virtues and faults with a steady novelist’s eye. And it was here that I came across the first Steinbeck passage that I’ve ever wanted to copy down and share with anyone who will read it. I'll post it tomorrow.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy writes well. I mean, really well. So well that he can tell an awful, awful story, one of the most awful stories imaginable, and make it something haunting but brilliant. A father and his son trod through a gray and black world apocalypse scavenging to survive on the canned goods they can wrest from a plantless landscape and avoiding all people, the only living things left, because they can and will eat anyone in sight. And that’s it. “Just beyond the high gap in the mountains they stood and looked out over the great gulf to the south where the country as far as they could see was burned away, the blackened shapes of rock standing out of the shoals of ash and billows of ash rising up and blowing downcountry through the waste. The track of the dull sun moving unseen beyond the murk” (12).

The end contains the tiniest sliver of hope but is more destitute inevitability than anything else. McCarthy reveals little of the details, but the antecedents for such a scene are imaginable to anyone living post-WWII. We already possess the ability to reduce the world to nothingness, or worse than nothingness, marginal survival drawn out in the most meager and abandoned circumstances imaginable.

So what is most powerful in this almost prose poem of post-civilization is its immediacy, its possibility. We could destroy the world. Easily.

“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like groundfoxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it” (110).

More subtle, like a lighter shade of gray amid the variegated tones, is the weak but steadfast faith the father, and so the son, maintains in hope and God. He tells his son they are “carrying the fire,” and whether their flame will persist to illuminate a civilization once more (and whether this is even desirable after humans have almost destroyed themselves) becomes irrelevant. They are carrying the fire, and they can do no more, and perhaps no less.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Second novel in my modern-day lit foray.

The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood

Near-future dystopian novel written in the 1980s details a societal reactionary theocratic takeover that, in the name of protecting women, ultimately controls and subjugates them. Admittedly, the new society fetters men as well to an extent. Only those high in power can possess wives. After the chemical war that accompanies the transition into this neo-Puritanism drastically reduces the fertility of the populace, women who can still bear children are classified as handmaidens and, in the great tradition of the patriarchal Old Testament figures, assigned to high-ranking men with infertile wives.

I’ve read most of the major dystopian novels, which is probably more than enough for a lifetime, but I was intrigued by the markedly female focus of this more contemporary one. Initially I thought Atwood might just be angry at all religion, considering it the natural precursor to some sort of totalitarian government such as this one, but as she mentioned asides about Jews and Catholics and Quakers and Baptists aiding refugees or being attacked by the reigning forces, I realized she was targeting a very specific vein of religious thought.

The theocratic hegemony here is led by those who take cursory readings of passages such as those describing the concubines of Abraham or Paul’s instructions to women to keep their heads covered and consider their ignorant interpretation automatically valid. The novel is a striking illustration of what such ultimately damaging views can wreak. It’s an incredibly instructive lesson: We need to look at everything in its context, and we need to recognize that our tradition may have altered and expanded and grown to encompass the new understanding that we have garnered of the nature of ourselves, and of each other.