28 July 2008

3/4 an ear of corn, the size of 1/2 a toenail, a portion of a meme

Charlotte did a Forty Things Surprise on her blog today. I don't have the energy to think creatively right now. So here are a few of my responses that I could give. The missing ones might have been more clever, more surprising, if my motivation for writing right now wasn't so large that it could take up about 1/2 as much space as my small toenail.

1. My uncle once: told me about liberating Buchenwald in April, 1945. He cried telling me about this. His daughter thinks that it was the only time he had ever talked about that experience. I wish I hadn't been so young and immature at the time and had made better notes, even if they were only mental notes.

7. There’s this girl woman I know: who is a cancer survivor. I admire the courage disguised beneath her everyday life.

And just so you don't think all of my answers would be so serious:

8. Once, at a bar: someone threw a punch. The man in front of me ducked. I was hit. I threw my beer at the puncher and slapped him across the face. The entire bar broke into a fist fight. I kicked off my heels and ran. It was a dive bar; I was overdressed having just previously attended a charity fundraising event for the zoo. Only black eye I ever got in a bar. It was 20 years before I went to another zoo fundraiser. There is no correlation there. I've never been back to that bar. My husband goes there all the time. It's really a mellow laid-back place -- allegedly.

12. Next time I go to church: will be tomorrow so I can leave 11 3/4 ears of sweet corn in the refrigerator for someone to pick up. (I couldn't make this up). Some day I'll write about my grandfather teaching me how check corn for ripeness -- it would explain the missing 1/4 cob.

21. I have a hard time understanding: how people can go through life without being compassionate.

22. Take my advice: always remember to never say never -- or always.

32. The world could do without: poverty, famine, hunger. And celebrity magazines. Not that those things are anywhere near equal.

35. Paper clips are more useful than: staples. I can never find my stapler. There are always paper clips on my desk.

36. If I do anything well it’s: sleep, according to my son. When he was 6, he completed a questionnaire about his family. He said my hobby was sleeping. My mother, who had supervised his homework that evening, made him erase it. I told her it was better than if he had written sleeping around. Mother didn't like my comment. Child didn't like being told to fix his homework. (He didn't).

37. And by the way: I wish I knew what the last 3 items on this meme were, but I doubt that I would have completed them. You can find the other 27 items at Charlotte's Web.

23 July 2008

Words on Wednesday

Another word game this week:

Found here, with new words appearing each Sunday.

There are no rules to this game.

A free association list of 10 words. Read; react; write!

  1. Flicker :: photos

  2. Styling :: haircuts

  3. Episode :: two-year old meltdown

  4. Sexier :: desirous, wandering heart

  5. Studious :: contemplative, library, quiet, solitude

  6. Mushroom :: fungus lady at the farmer's market

  7. 8 minutes :: time to get back to work

  8. Bald :: eagle, mountain, head

  9. Immunity :: immigration policies; sanctuary

  10. Sectioned :: bleachers WTF? Why did I think of that? At least I've been honest with this, writing the first thing I think.

Found via this blog.

Another item of worthy wordiness: this week's topic at A Word A Day (AWAD) is words about words and language. Upon glancing at the subject line of my Word A Day email yesterday, not reading closely, I thought the word was catechesis. Funny since the word was catachresis. If you don't know Anu Garg's A Word A Day, check it out. Join over 640,000 word lovers from more than 200 countries who receive AWAD daily and know that the New York Times got it right when it wrote that AWAD was "the most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace."

21 July 2008

Summertime, Ponds, Reflections

Over the weekend, we celebrated a friend's birthday by attending Symphony on the Prairie, the annual summer offerings of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, performed at Connor Prairie Farm, a living history museum. Like most summer outdoor symphony concerts, this series is mostly pops, with a little classical music. It is a very casual atmosphere, with picnic baskets, fireworks, and a few mosquitoes. My music purist spouse doesn't care too much for outdoor concerts; he doesn't like it that the crickets don't pay attention to the conductor. Me? For an occasional summer evening, I find it a relaxing way to spend a few hours with friends.

In browsing through the program, before the lights went down (that'd be the sun), I found two quotes about summer, both that I have read previously, but was delighted to come across again:

"Summer afternoon -- summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language." -- Edith Wharton

"In summer, the song sings itself!" -- William Carlos Williams

I complain too much in the summer about the heat. Where I live, if the temperature edges past 80-85, you can safely bet that the humidity will be over 90%. There is no such thing as 'dry heat' in the Midwest. Yet, the longer hours of daylight, the flowering gardens, even the occasional pesky mosquito, seem to inspire a slower pace. Despite the heat, I do like summer. "Summer afternoon" are two beautiful words, especially if they are lazy summer afternoons where all obligations are put aside for at least a little while so you can hear summer sing.

I picked up a book today that has languished on my bookshelf for about a year, Philip Gulley's Porch Talk. It is a collection of essays by Gulley, a Quaker minister, who writes in a humorous, down home style. I first read Gulley for a book discussion group a few years ago, and was prepared to detest him. I was sure that it would be overly sentimental drivel at best, or worse: sermonizing. But, what I found is that while his Quaker philosophy infuses every page of his essays, his essays are not chances to preach, but opportunities to brighten up corners of the world, in spite of the darkness that may be there. Sometimes his essays are not those kinds of enlightening opportunities, but just a few pages that will make you laugh.

In "Pond Life", Gulley writes about his desire to bring a little bit of the natural world to his yard by building a pond. As a pond owner, I could predict the direction this essay would take, so I began reading with a smile in place.

'Let's build a pond', I suggested to Joan. 'We could fill it with fish and water lilies and have a little waterfall and listen to the gurgle of water. It would be just like living beside a mountain stream.
We read a book about goldfish and koi and how not to kill them, then spent a tidy sum of money buying a dozen fish to stock our pond. We followed the book precisely, gradually acclimating the fish to our pond, fine-tuning the pH balance to provide the optimum environment. The third morning, Sam rushed in the house to share the happy news that our fish knew how to swim on their backs. The second bunch of fish lasted nearly a week before a wandering herd of raccoons eviscerated them. The fish that replaced them died of a gruesome fungus, and the batch after them was a midnight snack for a great blue heron
-- pp 29-30, Porch Talk: Stories of decency, common sense, and other endangered species, 2007

I remember our first fish. As I was trying to empty the bag of water & fish into the pond, I dropped it. One fish flew through the air and smacked its head on rock. The other flipped onto the driveway and was washed downhill by the accompanying water. Both survived for a few seasons, but, that first day, after the gentle sedative, placed in the water for the trip home, wore off, I'm sure they wondered what sort of partying they had done the night before. I still have a few of my original fish, although the koi, which had grown from about two inches to 12 after 4 years, went fins up during a particularly cold snowstorm last year. Looking in the pond the other day I noticed there there were some fry; two little gold guys flitting around between the rushes, trying to stay hidden and out of the way of the big fish while still grabbing at pieces of food floating on the water.

We've seen animal tracks on the ice in the winter, leading directly to the air hole in the ice. Blue herons live nearby and I'm sure that they and other fisher-birds have enjoyed sushi served from my pond. We've fought string algae by floating pantyhose filled with straw in the filters, rigged strange apparatus with netting to capture leaves in autumn, and have tried to figure out sources of leaks. Still, I find it pleasurable to sit on the porch, or near an open window, to hear the water gurgle down the stream into the pond. I've often thought that tinkering with the rocks lining the stream must be similar to maintaining a zen garden; each movement of rock alters not only the flow of the water, but the sound as the water cascades over the small waterfall. That sound fills the space around you and quiets a busy brain.

Gulley jokes about the work of maintaining a pond, but he also writes about the emotions that the pond evokes. His pond reminds him of summer days as a child spent near a pond with his best friend. But it also reminds him of the death of his friend and the possibilities that died with him.

Sometimes, while sitting by my pond, I think of Tim and our pond life. I think of the wife he never married, the children he never had, and it occurs to me that, although some things (houses, fields, lakes) diminish over time, other things (loss, grief, the heartbreak of lives cut short) do not. There is much good to recollect while seated by my pond, and much sorrow too, and sometimes they are one and the same. pp. 34.

Gulley writes about ponds, tooth fairies, life, death -- even taxes. His essays are quick little bites of reflection. I think I'll keep Porch Talk on my desk for awhile so that I can quickly sample an essay whenever I need a five-minute respite from workday worries. I think it may be similar to listening to my pond.

20 July 2008

Becoming Human Together

It is an old story
But one that can still be told
About a man who loved
And lost a friend to death
And learned he lacked the power
To bring him back to life.
It is the story of Gilgamesh
And his friend Enkidu.

Gilgamesh was king of Uruk,
A city set between the Tigris
And Euphrates rivers
In ancient Babylonia.
Enkidu was born on the Steppe
Where he grew up among the animals.
Gilgamesh was called a god and man;
Enkidu was an animal and man.
It is the story
Of their becoming human together.
-- Gilgamesh: A Verse Narrative

Copyright, 1970, Herbert Mason

What else would the oldest known narrative be about but the full range of emotions: love, hatred, fear, arrogance, joy, determination, survival, friendship, death, grief. These are the emotions that make us human. Gilgamesh is the story of how we experience these emotions.

I knew little about Gilgamesh before I read it this week. I knew that was considered one of the oldest narratives. I knew that it had a story of a great flood in it. When my son went to sell his copy after completing an AP Lit class 2 years ago, I pulled it out of the pile, and promptly forgot about on the shelves. When I opened it recently and read the first lines, I was captivated.

On one level, you can read Gilgamesh as a fairytale, an epic, or a myth. It can be read as a tale of hubris, with a fall and a recognition of one's own mortality told through the story of an arrogant king who meets, fights, and then befriends, his equal, but, in his headstrong desire to be triumphant, brings about his friend's death. It can be considered a story of a journey, with the hero, in typical epic fashion, learning a truth through his quest. Or, one can view it as the timeless and universal story of how grief can change one's life.

After Enkidu's death, Gilgamesh grieves for his friend. He wants to fight the course of fate, to change the outcome of his life so that he may continue to have the presence of his friend. Without it, he is not sure how he can go on.

Reading of Gilgamesh's desolation, I thought of a modern description of grief, Auden's poem, Funeral Blues:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

There were no phones or airplanes in ancient Mesopotamia, but Gilgamesh would have understood that Enkidu was his compass, his "working week and Sunday rest", and like the speaker in Auden's poem, he wanted everything to stop because of his grief. Gilgamesh, experiencing grief for the first time, feels that his sorrow is different from others. "The word Enkidu/Roamed through every thought/Like a hungry animal through empty lairs/In search of food. The only nourishment/He knew was grief, endless in its hidden source/Yet never ending hunger."

Gilgamesh's grief is what keeps him going in his quest to find a way to defeat death and bring his friend back to life. When he finally finds it, he is joyous and refreshed. But when he leaves the plant of eternal life alone for a few minutes, a serpent smells its fragrance and devours it for himself. Gilgamesh knows that this is the end of his quest and is filled with the sorrow of defeat. He returns to Uruk, fearful that people will not remember his friend. Gilgamesh recognizes that his pain is his own. He looks at the city walls and is awed by his people's achievements and he goes on, despite his personal sadness.

Grief is overwhelming, and friendship is personal and intimate. When we first encounter grief we want everything to stop -- clocks, telephones, barking dogs, life -- because everything has changed. We look at the world with different eyes because things are radically and irreversibly changed. And yet, eventually, we go on, somehow.

Love and Sorrow makes us human. Grief is private and universal. It is why the epic of Gilgamesh, written 2150 BCE, is relevant today.

16 July 2008

Words on Wednesday: Writing Prompt

I stumbled across this site recently. One Word presents daily a single word writing prompt that is revealed when you press the Comment button. There is a 60 second timer that gently chimes (so much nicer than a clanking buzzer or gong) when the time has elapsed. Unlike timed standardized tests, you get to finish the sentence you're writing before posting.

I have used this recently for two purposes:
1. It's a good warm-up exercise before one starts to write.
2. Although it's only a minute, it's a great way to procrastinate while at work!

I don't spend too much time looking at what others have left. Like my own quickly jotted notes, most aren't very complete, and some are painful (or painfully boring) to read. I like this site and think I will continue to be a regular visitor for my daily one word dose.

Several months ago, I decided to start an occasional post on words, language, and writing on Wednesdays, that day chosen for the obvious reason of the alliterative sound of 'Words on Wednesday'. But, I haven't followed through with that idea and, in fact, have only posted on Wednesdays four times this year. Only two of those posts were even remotely about language and writing. Maybe, the occasional -- okay, I'll be truthful: sporadic -- Words on Wednesdays will appear with a bit more frequency in the future, but no promises! I have at least one post perculating about playing word games like Scrabble.

15 July 2008

Three Beautiful Things

Unexpected joys of summer:

Fresh Watermelon. Lovely taste. Slicing this juicy melon reminded me of my grandfather teaching me how to slap melons in the market to tell if they were ripe. Finding a seed in this seedless melon made me smile.

I like watching blue dragonflies flit from plant to plant around my pond & porch. I am not a good enough photographer and I don't have the right equipment to capture the graceful ways his wings flap, making blue arcs across the garden. Maybe there isn't a photographer or camera that could capture his true beauty. Part of the pleasure of watching them, I think.

I am awed by spiderwebs, especially when they catch the last few drops of rain.

What three beautiful things did you hear, see, say today?

Into the Wild (Follow up for LitLove)

In the comments on this post regarding Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, Litlove wrote:

That's a very interesting review, Cam, on what is clearly an engaging book. For some reason I was most intrigued by your comment that the mistakes Krakauer made weren't important, unless in a theoretical discussion of truth and veracity in biography. I found that an interesting thing to say about a work of non-fiction, and biography in particular where extracting the 'truth' of the situation is supposed to be paramount. I wondered if you might say a bit more about why the inaccuracies didn't matter?

I understand why one would question why I didn't think that alleged mistakes by Krakauer were important. So, at Litlove's request, I will expand on that thought.

First, I think that truthfulness and factualness is important in biography and memoir. There have been several uproars in recent years regarding some authors bending of the truth in order to make a memoir more interesting. In some cases, what was presented as facts were so stretched as to be yarns completely woven from whole cloth. It probably isn't even necessary to mention specifically James Frey's Million Little Pieces as an example, so loud werer the outcries over the fabrications in that book. A Million Little Pieces spawned a million comments over the internets and other media, and I don't intend to delve into that topic here, other than to state that I do think that it is important to report facts as accurately as possible, although I realize my previous comment may lead one to assume that I don't think it is necessary, except in a theoretical way.

However, the issue that I have is with some commentaries that I read (after reading the book, and, unfortunately, I didn't save links or references to quotes), which suggested that Krakauer was sloppy in his conclusions regarding the death of Chris McCandless. McCandless died of starvation after living in solitude in the Alaskan wilderness for over 100 days. Some believe that he accidentally ate too many of the mildly toxic seeds of the wild potato plant, or had carelessly mistook the similar-looking but more highly toxic wild sweet pea as being the edible wild potato. Krakauer suggests that it was a mold that grew upon the seeds that he ate, rather than the seeds that brought about a metabolic condition that allowed the weakened McCandless to starve.

Is Krakauer stretching here to make his conclusions about McCandless hold true? Perhaps one could argue that. However, I think his discussion of the actual causes of McCandless' death would not weaken his argument if excluded. If anything, Krakauer's lingering questions about the death support that argument that Krakauer was determined to figure out the why of Chris' death, more than the how. One of the ideas countering the McCandless myth is that he had a deathwish and went into the wilderness to die. Krakauer's work doesn't support this idea of a suicidal journey; it earnestly tries to defend the opposite.

But, little is known about the days McCandless spent in the wilderness. He had no contact with any other human being, and left only scanty notes and a few photographs. Any story about his life in the Alaskan wilderness would have huge gaps without some suppositions. The root cause of his death will remain a mystery. His mental state and his intentions for going into the wild will never be known.

Why do I think that it doesn't matter? As I wrote in my first post, I think this book is as much about Krakauer as it is about McCandless and other young adventurers like them. Krakauer makes no attempt to hide his involvement in this story. Although he never met Chris McCandless, he felt a strong affinity for him, felt that they were driven by similar motivations. Krakauer even devotes two chapters in the book to his own adventure attempting a solo climb of a mountain known as The Devil's Thumb. He uses these chapters to draw parallels between his life and desires and McCandless.

I knew that people sometimes died climbing mountains. But at the age of twenty-three, personal mortality -- the idea of my own death -- was still largely outside my conceptual grasp. When I decamped from Boulder for Alaska, my head swimming with visions of glory and redemption on the Devils Thumb, it didn't occur to me that I might be bound by the same cause-and-effect relationships that governed the actions of others. Because I wanted to climb the mountain so badly, because I had thought about the thumb so intensely for so long, it seemed beyond the realm of possibility that some minor obstacle like the weather or crevasses or rime-covered rock might ultimately thwart my will.
. . .
It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it. When I decided to go to Alaska that April, like Chris McCandless, I was a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to an obscure, gap-ridden logic. I thought climbing the Devils Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, of course, it changed almost nothing. But I came to appreciate the mountains make poor receptacles for dreams. And I lived to tell my tale.

As a young man, I was unlike McCandless in many important regards; most notably, I possessed neither his intellect nor his lofty ideals. But I believe we were similarly affected by the skewed relationships we had with our fathers. And I suspect we had a similar intensity, a similar heedlessness, a similar agitation of the soul.

The fact that I survived my Alaska adventure and McCandless did not survive his was largely a matter of chance; had I not returned from the Stikine Ice Cap in 1977, people would have been quick to say of me -- as they now say of him -- that I had a death wish. Eighteen years after the event, I now recognize that I suffered from hubris, perhaps, and an appalling innocence, certainly; but I wasn't suicidal.

At that stage of my youth, death remained as abstract a concept as non-Euclidean geometry or marriage. I didn't yet appreciate its terrible finality or the havoc it could wreak on those who'd entrusted the deceased with their hearts. I was stirred by the dark mystery of mortality. I couldn't resist stealing up to the edge of doom and peering over the brink. The hint of what was concealed in those shadows terrified me, but I caught sight of something in the glimpse, some forbidden and elemental riddle that was no less compelling than the sweet, hidden petals of a woman's sex.

In my case -- and, I believe, in the case of Chris McCandless -- that was a very different thing from wanting to die.

--Into the Wild Chap 15, p151, 155-6.

I think these paragraphs are at the heart of this book. It is the desire, the compelling urge, to "steal up to the edge of doom and peer over the brink" that is central to this book, not the medical reasons why McCandless perished by starvation.

14 July 2008

40 Words

What to do when you have writers' block? Why, a meme, of course. But not one that I've been tagged with (because that one is thwarting my writing efforts too).

Here is one I found at BookieWookie.

Questions to be answered with one word only - and no word can be used twice.

1. Where is your cell phone? Purse
2. Your significant other? Smart
3. Your hair? Graying
4. Your mother? Octogenarian
5. Your father? Deceased
6. Your favorite time of day? Late-night
7. Your dream last night? Voyage
8. Your favorite drink? Coffee
9. Your dream goal? Published
10. The room you’re in? Messy
11. Your ex? Unsettled
12. Your fear? Sickness
13. Where do you want to be in 6 years? Retired
14. What you are not? Neat-nick
15. Your Favorite meal? Chicken
16. One of your wish list items? Peace
17. The last thing you did? Email
18. Where you grew up? Midwest
19. What are you wearing? Shorts
20. Your TV is? Hi-def
21. Your pets? Fish
22. Your computer? Company-owned
23. Your life? Work-in-progress
24. Your mood? Relaxed
25. Missing someone? Nope
26. Your car? Volkswagen
27. Something you’re not wearing? Shoes
28. Favorite store? None
29. Your summer? Rainy
30. Your favorite colour? Blue
31. When is the last time you laughed? 10 minutes ago
32. When is the last time you cried? Forgotten
33. Your health? Good
34. Your children? Joy
35. Your future? Unknown
36. Your beliefs? Spiritually-based
37. Young or old? Middle-aged
38. Your image? Intelligent
39. Your appearance? Average
40. Would you live your life over again knowing what you know? Absolutely!

13 July 2008

Reading Notes: Into the Wild

Into The Wild, Jon Krakauer, Villard Books, 1996, 207 pp.

Recently, I was thinking about how to answer the question: What type of non-fiction books do you like to read? My initial response was: The kind just like Into the Wild, which I had just completed, although I had to ponder what exactly that type was. In a few adjectives: riveting, novelistic, informative, thought-provoking. Perhaps thought-provoking is the most important. And, like a good novel, the characters have stuck with me for several days after finishing the book. Why were people so taken with Chris McCandless? What motivated McCandless? What did McCandless really learn on his journey into the Alaskan wild? Is there some American ideal that grabs hold of people and drives them to search out the yet unexplored areas of our world, or is it a desire to grapple with living on a precipice of death? Furthermore, while Krakauer has a point of view, I wondered about that perspective, questioning how much of Krakauer's work is about him, how much was supposition, how much was really about McCandless.

I have not seen the Sean Penn produced movie adaptation of this book, nor had I heard of McCandless, the 20-something college graduate who gave away his money and, after being a vagabond for a few years, literally walked alone into the Alaskan wilderness where he died a few months later. I also didn't read the introduction before I read the book, in which Krakauer writes that he was so taken by this story that "a dispassionate rendering of the tragedy [was] impossible". No small wonder, then, that I thought several times -- even before I read Krakauer's account of his trying to climb Devil's Thumb in Alaska as a young man -- that this book was as much about McCandless as it was about Krakauer and, perhaps, all who are called to test their mettle in the wilderness while questing for some sort of personal or spiritual truth.

Krakauer provides insight into McCandless' character in chapters that deal with his family, his two year trek across the American West, and through interviews with people who knew McCandless in school as well as after he gave away all of his belongings, renounced his family and began using the name 'Alexander' as he roamed around the West. There are also chapters about others who have mysteriously left civilized society to live in wilderness areas, whether desert or tundra, who like McCandless eschewed the trappings of wealth, who sought a transcendental-like experience. They left to find themselves; in some cases they did. Some died doing so.

McCandless was taken with Thoreau, with Tolstoy, and, according to Krakauer, Louis L'Amour's portrait of the West. Krakauer touches upon McCandless unhappiness with his family, and, while he suggests that one cause was McCandless' judgmental assessment of his parents' relationship , which began as an adulterous affair, he ultimately doesn't discover why McCandless was so harsh in his assessment of his parents' life and material success. Several of the people that McCandless spent time with during his journeys are described in the book. All of them told Krakauer how smart McCandless was, how caring, and how much they cared about him. But, none seemed to be able to pinpoint why. Two of them even said that they lost their faith (in mankind, in a God) because of Chris' death. That is a powerful influence and it remains a mystery to me, after reading this book, why.

Krakauer devotes a chapter in this book to his obsessive -- and almost deadly -- quest to climb a formidable mountain in Alaska when he was in his early 20's. Despite the odds and the undeniable fact that nobody had been able to traverse the face he wanted to climb, he was convinced that he could do so -- and that he must. In his attempt he came face-to-face with the very real possibility that his situation was precarious, that he not only would he not be able to successfully climb Devil's Thumb, but also that he might die in the attempt. Even if he returned safely to his base camp, he knew that a few errors might have meant that he would not be rescued before he succumbed to hypothermia.

Krakauer's belief is that McCandless was not intent on suicide and that his death was neither a result of stupidity or careless denial of the dangers that he faced. Rather, he writes that McCandless made a few seemingly minor errors that cost him his life. Had he done a few things differently, he would have walked out of the Alaskan wilderness and had stories to tell.

But, would Christopher 'Alex' McCandless have done anything other than tell engaging stories of his escapades living alone for 4 months? Would he have laughed death in the face? Would he be a hero for having done so? Or, would there still be those who would think that he was a fool for taking the risks that he did? Would some think him mentally unstable for having done so? Perhaps he would have walked back into the woods at a later time and made the same mistakes that led to his starvation in a place so remote that there were none to help him.

Since completing Krakauer's book, I read that Krakauer was incorrect with some of his facts and conclusions about McCandless' death. I'm not sure that matters, other than in a theoretical discussion of veracity in memoir and biography. I've also read that McCandless' wilderness shelter -- an abandoned Fairbanks city bus -- has become something of a tourist mecca. Even more than I don't understand McCandless' motivations, I do not understand why some would want to venture into the wild on the Stampede Trail to see a rusted bus where a young man died.

I find Krakauer's description of McCandless and other rogue adventurers interesting to read, but I wish that there were clearer answers as to what he was searching for. I'm not sure that Krakauer knows either, and maybe that is the point. I understand the desire to go live in the woods beside a pond, but, ultimately, the pond can be as inprisioning as society. I don't think that Chris McCandless was a hero, and I don't think that he was courageous for living on his own in the wilderness. Nor do I think that he was a fool for doing so. To be able to confront our demons is the thing that is courageous. I'm not sure that it takes solitude in the wilderness, living on the edge of survivability, to contemplate one's life and come to terms with one's values. I think it is just easier to not consider those things when you don't disrupt the status quo.

I wonder what McCandless would say about those who have made him into a hero. I think he would think that it is bullshit. But, I also wonder if he realized that to live with people one needs to forgive them their shortcomings. Maybe he did; maybe he didn't. If he was an avid reader of Tolstoy I wonder what he thought of the opening line of Anna Karenina: All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way"

Like the happy families in that famous opening line, McCandless remains an enigma.

10 July 2008

Summer Pleasures

Lovely Lily of Blog posted recently about summer pleasures. One of hers is iced coffee. One of mine: Iced Sun Tea.

In this case, black current, brought to me by a friend on a trip to Russia, purchased in duty-free shop in Hamburg, with Finnish wording on the Lipton package. I was amused by the package; love the tea.

I'm particular about how my tea is brewed and rarely buy iced tea in restaurants, particularly now that so many places where I live (not even in the South) serve that beverage abomination known as Sweet Tea. Unsweetened tea is a 'special request'. Ugh! Sun tea, more accurately cold-brewed tea, is a simple pleasure. I don't make mine in the sun; just place the tea into cold water and let it stand for about an hour. Watching the tea slowly sink to the bottom of the pitcher can be mesmerizing, if you're in one of those "don't have anything I really want to do right now" kinds of mood.

Even though I don't make Sun Tea outside, I think of this as a summertime pleasure. It is light and soothing and feels appropriate for the season. After I snapped this picture, I realized how perfect this picture was. Unintentionally framed in the picture is one of the tiles in my kitchen. With the flash from the camera a reflection was created resembling a sunset with a palm tree superimposed on the glass. What could be more summer-like than that?

The tile, actually, is of a May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum). One of the first things I noticed when I looked at this house was the hand-painted tiles in the kitchen. The owner explained that all of the represented flowers grew on the property. At closing, she gave me a book used by the painter for most of the tiles.

Thinking about summer pleasures and iced tea, made me realize how these tiles are one of those everyday pleasures in my home. They make me smile. I haven't seen wildflowers in the woods to match each of these tiles, although some, like the may apples make their appearance each year. Some I know would not be classified as wild because they are not native plants. Still, the tiles remind me that hidden in the woods throughout spring, summer and fall are little blooms that, when stumbled upon, will make me smile.

What do you see every day that makes you smile?

Blue Violets; White LadySlipper
Marsh Marigold;
Eastern Trout-Lilly;
Red Trillium


If you know the names of those I haven't identified (2nd, 3rd down on right), please let me know. Also if I've identified any incorrectly.

07 July 2008

Red City -> Blue City

2004 RED

2008 BLUE

Visual evidence of change in political contribution patterns in one metro area.
Map grabbed from Huffington Post.

See campaign contributions in your area here

06 July 2008

Reading Notes

Off the Deep End, W. Hodding Carter, Alqonquin Books, 2008, (Advanced Reading Copy).

I received this ARC back in April as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. The description of the book sounding interesting: middle-aged man decides to train for the Olympic Swim team, in part as a way "through a midlife crisis". When the book arrived, there was a note that one chapter was missing and would be send later. The book was published 2 weeks ago, but I haven't received the pages yet. Since the Olympic swim trials were this week, I decided to read this without the remaining pages. I'm not sure what has been left out -- given the publication date, it doesn't seem likely to have been an epilogue stating whether Carter made the Olympic team -- but I'm not sure that the book would seem any more complete had the absent chapter been included.

This book is very uneven: there doesn't seem to be a coherent arrangement to the chapters and the timeline is unclear. Some of the chapters were published previously. Those that haven't been appear less polished. I realize that this is an ARC, but it seems to me that more substantial editing would need to happen. I'm not involved in publishing, but I always thought that ARCs were 'almost ready' for publication and that any substantive editing would have already occurred. Perhaps I'm wrong with this book.

Carter adopts a self-deprecating sense of humor in this book, but the book doesn't seem to have an overall consistent tone. The result of the humor, then, reads more like arrogance than self-deprecation. I think that Carter wants the reader to see that he did have a certain amount of arrogance to think that he even had a chance to make the Olympic team, but I was left wondering if that really was his point. The approach of the book is also unclear: parts of it are memoir, parts training guide, parts sports travelogue when he writes about swimming from one Virgin Island to the next, or participating in an 8 hour swim around Manhattan. The audience isn't clear. Is he writing to swimmers? If so, then he shouldn't have included some of the explications about the sport (pool size, standards, etc.). But, if he wasn't intending to target swim enthusiasts, why did he go into such detail (and assumptions) about certain swim personalities, not just on an Olympic level that a casual observer of the sport might know, but on the regional Masters level.

Overall, I found the book disappointing. It could have been so much more. Carter did not qualify for the Olympic Swim Trials. Despite the flaws of the book, I wish that he had. Along with Dara Torres, it would have been quite the story for 2 40-something swimmers to leave younger contenders in their wake.