Sunday, May 31, 2009

Mario Puzo meets the Hudson River Almanac

5/22 - Staten Island, New York City: If I were a different sort, I might have worried about the catbird's head, left neatly clipped from its torso and lying at the driver's side door of the superintendent's sedan at Fort Wadsworth. Perhaps some Staten Island peregrine falcon was making me an offer I couldn't refuse.
- Dave Taft

Search the Hudson River Almanac archive here.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Jack Reacher, surrogate father

Lee Child’s latest detective novel was published last week. At least 50 have sold at Bookstore C, and our store is the chain’s smallest in the region. I was eager to read it myself but we’d sell out each day before I could grab one to borrow. In the meantime, I discussed the book with customers as I rang up the sales.

Here are sample customer comments:
“Jack Reacher is my dream man!”
“My daughter says Jack Reacher is her surrogate father.”
“I got a first printing, first edition of the first Reacher book just by accident and ever since then I’ve made sure to get a first first. I love the guy.”
“Jack Reacher is the coolest hero going.”
“I love Jack Reacher.”

Well, Reacher is a unique character, I grant you. He’s a military brat and grew up mostly on American bases overseas (his mother was a Frenchwoman his dad met on an early posting). Reacher had one brother, now dead. Reacher went into the service, enjoyed weaponry, and was a military policeman, but was downsized with full retiree benefits after the Cold War ended. Here’s where it gets weird: Reacher has no fixed abode and owns nothing but the clothes on his back.

So our hero: speaks fluent French and has a working knowledge of several other languages. Knows weapons well, even loves certain ones, but owns none. Is smart and well educated, with a trackable past, an income, and ongoing medical benefits. No wife, no ex-wife; no children; no parents, no siblings; no profession or credentialing or ambition or investments; no house, apartment, furniture, entertainment system or passion for Coltrane, books, garden, lawn, church or temple, neighbors, car or other vehicle, dietary fads, interest in cooking complete with recipes, or collection of arcana. Whatever I’ve left out he doesn’t have anyway.

Something I like about Child’s writing of Reacher is that there are no dei ex machina. Unlike Nancy Drew, he didn’t just take a course in scuba diving — he always knew just as much about diving as he needs to for the moment, and it’s marginally more than you and I know. Unlike the unbearable Cornwell’s unspeakable Kay Scarpetta, there is no niece Lucy in her helicopter with the latest in spook gear. Unlike Lincoln Child (no kin to Lee that I know of), Katherine Howe, or a dozen others, no mysterious and inexplicable “force” that appears toward the end and changes the whole equation. If Reacher needs another garment, he gets it at Wal*Mart, an army-navy store, or Goodwill. If he needs something more up-to-date, there’s a Radio Shack or place that sells batteries nearby, wherever you are.

What Reacher does have is: a decent education, a somewhat-but-not-too heroic past, a family upbringing, discipline, honor, and a reputation. People never forget him. In every book he meets a smart, clean, woman-who-asks-no-questions and they have very pleasant (undescribed) sexual interaction; she leaves smiling and so does he. Like Dickens, Child wraps up every plot device tidily. Each piece of equipment that attached itself to Reacher during the book — someone’s leather jacket on a cool day, that Glock he likes — is back in the hands of its owner or otherwise specifically disposed of. If he’s been in trouble with the authorities in the course of the book, he will have embarrassed them enough that they’re just willing to forget him. In the last chapter or two, he will have found a place to shower and shave and change into freshly bought cheap clothes, dumping the dirty ones. You know he’s going to hit the road. And the book ends there.

Child’s prose is brisk or he has the same good editor book after book. I admire his construct. It’s simple and clean. No extraneous characters to follow (no Henry Pitts and his brother William and Rosie the Hungarian restaurateur; no Italian mother who died too young leaving behind a love of opera and some good crystal; no baby Michael who was killed falling out of the crib). No sidekicks — no Doctor Watson and his wandering wound from a jezrail bullet, no Hawk talkin’ ghetto, no ditzy rich mother-in-law Laurel, no drunken pussy-whipped Clete. Just Jack Reacher.

The only loose end is outside the book. What do we think about a young woman who says that Reacher is her “surrogate father”? The books don’t leave me wondering about anything, but that response sure does.

Words from Jimmy Carter

My cousin Tom Kerrigan signed me up for Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac, which I receive in my email every day. These lines from Jimmy Carter -- yes, that Jimmy Carter, I was surprised too -- led off today's mailing.

ABAB CDED FGHG IIJJ is a little idiosyncratic. Couldn't dance to it either. But I like it anyway.

Progress Does Not Always Come Easy
by Jimmy Carter

As a legislator in my state
I drew up my first law to say
that citizens could never vote again
after they had passed away.

My fellow members faced the troubling issue
bravely, locked in hard debate
on whether, after someone's death had come,
three years should be adequate

to let the family, recollecting him,
determine how a loved one may
have cast a vote if he had only lived
to see the later voting day.

My own neighbors warned me I had gone
too far in changing what we'd always done.
I lost the next campaign, and failed to carry
a single precinct with a cemetery.

"Progress Does Not Always Come Easy" by Jimmy Carter, from
Always A Reckoning, © Random House, 1995.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

We are indeed

The Woods post on language brings up a point that several people made to me when I lived in London: Americans seem to live in a more physical world than the British do. (I don't see how that can be true of farmers or doctors or engineers, but it was part of the stereotype.) Since I lived and worked with Brits, I rarely had contact with Americans, but a frequent American visitor was my parents' friend Mr.B.

Mr.B was an MIT graduate, a chemical engineer, had the earliest MBA of anyone I'd met, and was in the OSS during WW2. He was a carbon factor, which means ... well, the way he put it, "Let's say you have some low-sulphur coal in Australia and I know someone in Italy who needs low-sulphur coal. I introduce the two of you and you both pay me."

Growing up around the steel industry, there were lots of engineers in the community. They were people of high intellect, a high level of inventiveness, and a lot of involvement in physical reality. I must have been 30 before I realized that those were not by definition characteristics of grownups in general. I thought everyone's dads were great at figuring stuff out! Mr.B was one such intelligent, inventive person -- great fun to be with, and I often traveled with him out of England.

My London friend Roland had taught Latin and Greek several years at two well-known public schools and was studying for the bar. He, his father, his sisters and his mother were all Cambridge-educated. His father was a prominent civil servant decorated by the queen. They lived in a town house with an embassy on each side. Anyway, I thought, Roland is smart and connected, Mr.B is smart and connected, I'll introduce them. So I took Roland along to Claridge's to pick up Mr.B and go to dinner.

Mr.B had just spent several weeks in Egypt and described the hotel he'd stayed in, a 19th-century palace. As a constant tourist, I was used to carrying a tape measure and sketch book, because you never know when you'll look around a bar in Delft and want to know what size those bricks are. Anyway, Mr.B launched into a discussion of the way the palace stairs sat in the hotel lobby, their location, configuration, and sweep. The height of each riser and the curvature of the lip (sketch book out). The color of the marble and the different marble of the railing, and the railing's bevel (sketching). The shape of the balusters (sketching). The design of the inlays and the colors of their stones (sketching, a look around the room to find a matching color). While he drew in my sketch book he was using his hands to trace designs in the air. It was delightful. This was the way he and I always interacted.

And Roland? His face was shining -- glowing with excitement -- as he listened. He watched me and Mr.B, his face radiant with discovery. "My God!" he burst out. "You Yanks are such artisans!"

Incidentally, on that trip Mr.B brought me a kilo of saffron, welded into a tin. For my artisanal cookery, I guess.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Wanted: an easy synonym for hermeneutic

After reading James Woods’s piece on language, which was recommended to me, I want to throw up my hands and declare that English exists at at least a hundred different levels of familiarity. I cannot possibly hope to rank them. Is it a matter of knowing more words enough to define them for your SATs, to use them into everyday speech, or to use them in formal writing? Presumably some words outrank others. But since most unfamiliar words are unfamiliar because they are, to some extent, someone else’s jargon, not knowing these words truly indicates only that you haven’t had reason to encounter them. There’s nothing in the language Woods describes that marks the user as a better person, a smarter person, or even more of a poet.

You can see where this leaves William F. Buckley, Jr., the pompous prat.

Well, I went through Woods’s piece and made two lists: words I know and will actually use if the need arises — which it rarely does because these are not everyday concepts for most people — and those I did not know before reading his article. Here are the two lists, and those italicized are not recognized by Word spell-check.

Words I know and might actually use: litotes, recrudescence, concupiscence, threnody, quondam, hieratic, florilegium, nonage, echt, oriflamme, gravamen, cathexis, obtund, dyslogistic, saponaceous, benthic, oneiric, deracinated, coruscating, albedo, abscissa, rincon, scree, sastrugi, arête, moraine, cuboidal, copasetic (I’d spell it copacetic), terrazzo, rebar, spavined, withers, sacerdotal, samsara, scrim, fungible, flocculent, aigrette, boiserie, facer, finial, matutinal, moue, ogee, ormolu, scalpel, caryatid, loggia, narthex, parterre, pilasters, squinch. My list suggests interests in architecture and glaciology, which is what I meant by one group’s jargon. Thanks to Christine for sastrugi, which she used recently in her blog. Full disclosure: I have been married to someone who uses gravamen in casual speech.

Why do you suppose Word recognizes terrazzo but not rebar? Terrazzo is out of fashion but rebar is used everywhere.

Words I don’t believe I ever saw before: sabulous, immund, nates, macrobian, venenate, kerf, obelize, eirenicon [google says that there is no such word, but I do know “irenic”], protreptic, barrial, sesquipedality, epyllion, bajada, zugunruhe, banausic, collet, foederati, gammadion, gonfalon, sumpter, sérac.

I have been excoriated (q.v.) for using in general speech milieu and in situ. The latter is in my head because of years as a medical editor, and as for milieu ... well, what other word means the same thing?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

"Let's do the time warp!" offers The Accretionary Wedge

Where and when would you most like to visit to witness and analyze an event in Earth's history? Suppose you have a space-time machine to (safely and comfortably) watch an event unfold; which event would you most like to see? Why? What do we already know or hypothesize about that event that appeals to you, or that you would like to test? What would be the result, the upshot, of knowing more about this event?

The question is asked by The Accretionary Wedge, a flying circus of geology hosted intermittently on different blogs. You need not be a geologist to enter! (And how many times in your life are you going to hear that, eh?)

To see results of earlier questions, go to The Accretionary Wedge. The rules for this one await you here.

I know, I know -- many of my friends and readers are not versed in geologic arcana. but think of this as mental play. I mean, clearly I have a great yen to see the Spokane floods actually happening -- I've blogged about it, walked the empty land alone, dragged my family to Washington State's high desert for no other purpose,and sometimes mull over google's aerial views of the land and marvel over the hard work of heroic geologist J. Harlan Bretz.

Bretz lived much of his professional life before aerial photography. He went against the then-current gradualist grain of the geology establishment to create the flood hypothesis. He did his thinking walking the land, measuring, measuring. Year after year, his entire family moved to the desert for the summer and he set his kids tasks to help him build his theory. He was 96 years old when the Geological Society of American admitted "We are all catastrophists now," and gave him its highest award. He told his son he had outlived all his enemies and had nobody left to lord it over!

I would also like to see what happened when the rising waters of the Mediterranean broke through at the Dardanelles into the Black Sea basin. Bill Ryan and Walter Pittman at Lamont Doherty -- just across the Hudson from where I sit, so I feel kind of cozy about them -- have examined the likelihood of the Black Sea's being created like this. They also persuasively suggest that this particular flood out-flooded every other flood people could ever imagine and thus became the floods of Noah, Gilgamesh, and a dozen other literatures. Just imagine being able to watch it. How did it happen?

It's actually difficult to imagine. There had to be a moment when a land barrier existed between the two bodies of water -- then there had to be a moment when it gave way. Of course there were trickles; trickles happen. But trickles don't last for long. Generations must have watched the level of the Med rising; it was pouring in from the Atlantic through the Pillars of Hercules. Stories must have been passed down in families about the way it used to be, when the coastline was far off and waters were friendly. But how did it change? That's what I'd like to see. Did the land shake for years? How long was it before everyone left the area and it actually gave way -- um, they did leave, didn't they? What did people where Odessa is today hear, what did they see, what did they think, what did they do?

This is a subject of active debate among geologists, and it doesn't matter to me what actually happened. If itdid happen this way, I'd like to watch.

Time machine graphic from Gotham Schools blog. Bretz photo from University of Chicago, where he received his doctorate and was on the faculty.

The 21 Pianos of Neko Case

Singer Neko Case was featured on WFUV recently. It was the first time I had heard her music (which by the way, I really like). In the course of the interview she mentioned that one of the pieces on her new album, Middle Cyclone, was accompanied by 21 pianos!

Where do you find a recording studio with 21 pianos? In this case, it was Neko Case’s Vermont farmhouse. Yes, she has 21 pianos there.

She explained that she noticed, on Craigslist, many people giving away pianos. Most of them are given away for the price of “Just-get-the-thing-out-of-here!” So she kept acquiring pianos, and taking them to the farmhouse, and there they are. She actually owns more, but 21 are tunable.

The sound of 21 pianos is lovely. Lush, magical. Since we’re accustomed to musicians accompanying themselves on multiple tracks, the sound isn’t unexpected. But there’s something in knowing that 21 pianos were played simultaneously — and recorded! — that’s quite wonderful.

It started me thinking about free pianos, though. When I was mismarried to Peter I, we settled into an apartment just downhill from where my Grandma McLaughlin was closing down her house. She had a piano. I was used to having a piano. It was an easy choice, for her and for me. Lubricated by a couple six-packs of Rolling Rock, Peter, his brother Nick, and some other friends got the piano downhill and then up the steps into our apartment.

Grandma dropped by once to visit her piano! Since we had a harpsichord in the living room (Peter had built it), Grandma’s piano was in my office, but that was okay. She knew it had a good home.

Then I left — Youngstown and the marriage — for San Francisco, to join the revolution. The piano certainly wasn’t going to go into my suitcase or my parents’ basement. No family members stepped up to take it. A friend from church, whose husband was an architect in Peter’s firm, said she had always wanted a piano. So off went the piano to the west side.

My dad mentioned a few years later that he had visited Grandma’s piano in its west side home. By then, of course, it was Mary’s piano. Grandma did mention once that she was unhappy that I had disposed of her piano so cavalierly.

When I was older I came to understand just what her piano meant to Grandma. Owning a piano, and seeing that your children took lessons, was to know you had arrived somewhere important. More than that! Grandma’s piano had participated in singalongs and parties. It had been played during wakes. Certainly children and grandchildren had banged on it, but she could also steal time playing it, and take herself someplace very special to herself, and private. Many happy memories had accumulated around that piano. When she passed the piano to me, she was passing custodianship of a precious part of her past.

So when I heard of Neko Case’s 21 pianos, I thought of Grandma’s piano and multiplied its story 21 times. That’s 21 families missing part of their heritage! What a sad reflection on family lore, and the ownership of stuff, and the passing down of value(s).

Saturday, May 23, 2009

On Being Asked for a War Poem (Yeats, 1928)

I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.

My personal wall

Bill Bobbitt, Viet Nam
Michael McLaughlin, Iraq
Baird Mitchell, World War Two
Ken Nervie, Viet Nam
Bill Smoyer, Viet Nam
Jimmy Spencer, Viet Nam

I speak their names out loud so that once again, if only for a second, the earth echoes with the sound: they were here.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
From: For the Fallen, by Lawrence Binyon

Rare book or curiosity?

A Hastings-on-Hudson individual owns W.E.B. DuBois's own copy of The Souls of Black Folk. It's inscribed by DuBois to Hastings resident Kenneth Clark, and by Clark to his daughter. It's an early edition of the 1903 classic -- almost small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, with simple, sinuous ornamentation on a dull cloth cover. And here's the tragedy: smoke and water damage. The owner tells me it's worthless.

Moose Murders and rare books

Thinking a bit more about Louisa’s question, I realized I made the error of assuming valuable books = first editions. Not so! It doesn’t matter what edition a book is, if it’s scarce and the marketplace decrees that it’s valuable. The view of the marketplace is important. There may be only one copy extant of, say, the 1910 Kenyon College yearbook (I have old Mr. Steinfield’s, which is why I bring it up) but if nobody’s going to pay me a lot for it, then it isn’t valuable just because it's rare.

So clearly scarcity counts more than firstness. Thinking of scarcity brings me to Moose Murders, the legendary play that closed on its 1983 first night to some of the worst reviews ever to appear in the English language. (There was something about the play that encouraged hyperbole; critics were trying to outdo each other.) The morning after the night before, Not-Yet-Lydia’s father and I encountered Frank Rich’s Times review and one of us read it to the other.

I have wondered, how many people in New York City today claim to have been at that first night performance? Probably at least twice as many as the theater could have held. A month after that first night and his first night review, Frank Rich wrote another review, which contains this comment: What makes certain bombs into legends? It's hard to say, precisely - they don't wear fur coats. Once it was a mark of distinction for a play to close in one night, but in these troubled times even that phenomenon is a sad commonplace. Some theater people define legendary bombs by the amount of money that went down the drain, or the high caliber of talent expended, or the extravagant foolhardiness of the esthetic mission. Others let Joe Allen, the theater district bistro, be the final arbiter: that restaurant has a whole wall bedecked with posters from a select group of famous turkeys. Whatever the definition, it can't be quantified - a flop just must have a certain je ne sais quoi to rise to legendary status. But what I do know is this: the only Playbill I've saved thus far in this decade is the one from ''Moose Murders.''

So: what remains from Moose Murders is that program. Ten or so years ago, I did see a rare book dealer advertising one for more than a thousand dollars, so clearly notoriety helps too. If Mr. Steinfield had been a mass murderer instead of a kindly Ohio antiques dealer, that Kenyon yearbook might be worth something.

I have read that if all the people who say they voted for JFK in 1960 actually had voted that way, he would have won the election with 80% of registered voters instead of by <.1% of votes cast. Perhaps the ranks of opening night attendees of Moose Murders have swelled the same way.

Speaking of rarities: I could not find John Simon's review of Moose Murders online. Maybe his language scalds the electrons of the internet.

Friday, May 22, 2009

What lies ahead for the Steel Valley

The I Will Shout Youngstown blog has a trailer for a film being released this fall about Youngstown and the Steel Valley.

The trailer moved just a bit too fast, I think -- I'd prefer two or three fewer images and a half-second more to linger on each. Does an outsider register what she's seeing, or do you have to be a native to read each image?

These are dates on which the Steel Valley lost steel company jobs: 8/77: 150 at Sheet & Tube headquarters; 9/77: Sheet & Tube Campbell Works 5,000; 11/79: U.S. Steel Ohio Works and McDonald Works 3,600; 12/79: Sheet & Tube Campbell Works 1,400; 1/82 Republic Steel 2,600; 8/86 300. Bill Lawson, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society, uses the figure of ten thousand jobs eliminated between 1977 and 1981, with unnumbered tens of thousands in related and dependent industries also being lost.

Between 1977 and 1981 the number of personal bankruptcies in the region more than doubled. Alan Auerbach, reporting for the National Bureau of Economic Research, estimated a loss in regional real estate value during those same years of a billion 1980 dollars. Chamber of Commerce hopes that the laid-off workers would be hired by companies moving into the area found some new employment but at markedly reduced wages. In the same report, Shleifer and Summers [that's our friend Lawrence Summers, by the way] comment that these losses to stakeholders did not represent gains to steel company shareholders. In other words, these numbers represent a net loss of wealth to the national as well as regional community.

Even though the economic blow was devastating, there was another, equal loss. Auerbach reports psychological losses. First, individuals lost a sense that there was any real value to working hard for an employer -- because why trust an employer? Second, there was a loss in community as families and neighborhoods split apart in job searches that moved them thousands of miles, away from Youngstown and away from each other. This was not just the case with shift workers. People in suburban schools tell how their social groups shattered as management families were also moved around the country (and note the passive verb -- top management moved heads of family like so many chess pieces).

I know people who believe that no individual has a right to community. No individual has a right to live in Youngstown, to live near family. No individual has a right to live in that house there. And at the level of "that house there" it's an issue thousands of families face today with the mortgage crisis: if you can't pay for that house there, you shouldn't live in it.

And in a perfect world, that's a reasonable argument (in the sense that you can follow it even if you don't agree with it). But in today's mortgage crisis, a lot of the downside has no upside. New houses are being bulldozed because nobody can afford to live in them at the same time that families are being left homeless. And being told, "You do not have the right to live in the same community as your family" raises the question of "Who has the right to create a situation where I can't?" Looking back at the destruction of community that accompanied the collapse of Youngstown's steel industry -- and knowing from a generation down the road that there was no creation of wealth on a scale to approach that loss -- has made me reassess the underlying worldview here.

The excuse for huge economic dislocations has been that overall the greater community benefits by the creation of greater wealth. There is a rising tide that lifts all boats, and even those who are dislocated benefit, perhaps massively, in the long run. For most of us, time moves only forward. We assess our lives today with the thought (perhaps unspoken) that we are 100% alive today, and back then -- whenever then was -- we had a less than 100% chance of getting this far, so by definition we are ahead. We make countless calculations, without defining them or even noticing their existence, that argue overall today is better than yesterday. So future benefits stack up against today's damages, and future benefits win.

Tomorrow's valuable first editions

Blogging about rare American books for Riverrun, Louisa asks: What relatively common books should we be tucking away in our attics to delight the book collectors of 75 years hence?

Oh, what a different world we live in! I have American firsts, with dj, of three Francoise Sagan novels, from the '50s, and they're not worth much. Maybe ten bucks on a good day. If you visit Gordon Beckhorn's bookstore -- just around the corner from Riverrun at the end of the bridge in Hastings -- you'll find "valuable" firsts of in-print detective stories. Somehow the very idea of making this appraisal, and putting dozens of books away in cool dry storage, reminds me of buying, you know, Franklin Mint "investments." Who has enough cool dry space to set aside for 75 years?

Here are some mystery or sci-fi authors, first editions of whose first books are, I predict, gaining in value. James Lee Burke, Lee Child, Neil Gaiman, Sue Grafton, P.D. James, John Lescroart, Laura Lippman, Terry Pratchett, Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson. I'm specifying firsts only of the first, because subsequent titles for those authors would have had much larger first printings. Sue Grafton is translated into 26 languages!

I read somewhere that Terry Pratchett's books used to be the most shoplifted books in Great Britain, and I always tell people that when I am trying to hand-sell them. I would be intrigued by having books signed by both James Lee Burke and his wife, since his hero, Dave Robicheaux, kills off his wives like crazy. Or would Burke be like Roger Tory Peterson? Peterson dedicated his first book to his wife X, his second book to his wife Y, and subsequent books to "my [unnamed] wife" or others.

Firsts by Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, and E.O. Wilson will probably appreciate. Wouldn't it be cool to have their books inscribed to each other? Same with some of those detective writers. Robert B. Parker and Linda Barnes give shout-outs to each other's characters in their Boston-based books. Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini's detectives also refer to each other in their respective series, but Muller and Pronzini are married to each other. Those would both be nice double inscriptions to have, but now that I think of it, all the shout-outs come in later novels that have huge first printings and so probably will never be worth much, inscriptions or not.

I doubt that memoirs appreciate: the first printings are too big. The first time I ever ran a used book sale, there were a half-dozen copies of A Long Row of Candles by C.L. Sulzberger. At least two were inscribed -- the sale was at All Souls Church at 80th and Lexington, lots of well-connected east siders. That title showed up for years at used book sales and remained unsold. There was also a longtime surplus of The Little Drummer Girl -- a stinker by John LeCarre. However, here's a first of the U.K. edition (Gollancz) of LeCarre's Spy Who Came in from the Cold: $3250. It probably helps that it's widely thought of as the best spy novel of all time.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

What a pleasure this turned out to be!

An appointment this evening took me near Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdale's, and Neiman Marcus, so I decided to visit their perfume departments to sniff some scents I had been reading about. It's May, but reviews of Black Cashmere were really tempting. I am told that my taste in scent is skanky, and skank seems to be a significant part of Caron's Yatagan, so I was looking for that too. And while I was there I knew I would buy Je Reviens, which I used to wear constantly although it's not a bit skanky.

Je Reviens was an expensive, even exotic high-end perfume when it was first given to me at 18. (For most 18-year-olds, it competed with Tabu and Ambush, of course, and about which, yuck.) Then about twenty years ago, Je Reviens was repositioned as a drug-store fragrance. Same scent but different marketplace! Then just a few years ago it was repositioned back upmarket ... still the same perfume, although ...

The "although" is because European guidelines are forcing the reformulation of many old fragrances to eliminate some natural ingredients that allegedly stir up allergies. Perfume scientists now can isolate specific scent molecules and create artificial analogs; doing that can eliminate the allergic response, but noses are noticing that it can also eliminate the characters of some scents. But new reviews of Je Reviens say it's the same wonderful smell, full but light enough to wear during a Bookstore C workday.

Well, I didn't find any of them. Since I love/adore/will kill for old Guerlain scents (Shalimar and Jicky especially, sometimes Mitsouko) I went by the Guerlain counter and -- memory having failed me, and what I was looking for being unavailable -- tried a spray of Samsara, which has not interested me in the past. Omigod! Maced? Well -- hit in the face with something hard and sharp and mean-smelling, lemon, maybe? and tarragon. I walked around the store, taking time to see how the fragrance would develop, and finally thought, This is just ghastly, I have to go home and wash. It's a warm night so the car windows were open, and on the way home I noticed the loveliest of scented breezes playing near my face. Could it be the Samsara? It was. It took about 30 minutes to get past that opening blast, but now -- three hours past that spritz -- I am all but typing with my nose welded to my arm where that luscious scent sits.

Oddly, with food I can pick out the ingredients in a smell, but I am not very good at it with perfume. But there's now a base note in this scent that seems a bit old-lady, and I recognize that as the one significant flaw in Guerlain's classic scents: some people identify them with old ladies. Well, it may be that like my Shalimar-wearing Cousin Ethel, they were kick-up-your-heels flappers once and this was their perfume then as well as later. Mmmm, it's not so old-lady as it is sumptuous home with oriental rugs, heavy draperies, and stained glass shades on copper lamps -- also like Cousin Ethel. The base note could be sandalwood. Costly, luxurious, sensual. Also like Cousin Ethel? You heard it here first.

Smells -- even most "bad" ones -- have always delighted me. (There's that skank business again, and speaking of consonants, I can savor, briefly, a skunk smell.) When I was a little girl, I loved -- as what little girl doesn't? -- sniffing the perfume bottles on my aunts' dressing tables. Betsy had White Shoulders (I gag on the memory), Tabu (what was wrong with her?), and Emeraude (that's three strikes). My mother and her sister Billie both wore Joy -- it's a total classic, very green, and I cannot abide it.

Grandma Lydia wore Arpège; I love the stories about Jeanne Lanvin and her beloved daughter. I have read that the little child in the Lanvin trademark is Jeanne's daughter, and this link says that Arpège was created for the daughter's 30th in 1927.

Hmmm ... by 1927 my grandmother was the mother of four daughters; I wonder when she started wearing Arpège, and why. Colette called it the "thoroughly modern" fragrance, and in fact, Grandma Lydia was a thoroughly modern woman.

Are the neighbors complaining about crow entrails? Thoughts on auguries

In Lydia's LiveJournal today, she examines the role (and validity) of child sacrifice to the Greeks and other Mediterranean cultures of the time. Contains astute commentary on parenting practices, role of prophesy in domestic affairs.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Admit it. You've always wondered about cicadas

Why do 13- and 17-year cicadas live on those cycles? Wired Science today tells all. Yes, 13 and 17 are both prime numbers, and that could be part of the story. Very interesting. Did a divine hand do it or did the cicadas evolve that way? (Or was it ... both???)

Do you believe in God? I’ll take either side …

Actually, this isn’t me speaking. It’s an eager UU teenager looking for a discussion! So maybe when I was a teenager, it was me. Now I sit back and listen to the shouting. As an official theology student, I find that the believers accept me as one of them, and I have lost status in the eyes of unbelievers. What interests me about both sides is their total certainty. Which is nothing new for believers! They’ve been killing unbelievers for centuries because they’re so sure of the rightness of their beliefs. In the past, to stay alive, atheists weren’t quick to broadcast their unbelief, but they’re as convinced as believers. In fact, they’re very like each other in their faith.

The faith of the atheist? Sure. Any atheist worth his or her salt will explain, will prove that God does not, cannot exist. Prove. And in fact, so can any Jesuit … and then the Jesuit can turn around with just as many proofs of God’s existence.

So what is this proof business? No matter which way you jump, faith props you up. Both sides often use the evolution of a fly’s eye to prove their points. “It didn’t happen by chance,” say many believers. “No, it evolved that way,” say many unbelievers. (Inset image: Drosophila eye, by Shirin Pocha.*)

In such an exchange, to these unbelievers, evolution excludes God, Q.E.D., and to these believers, God excludes evolution, Q.E.D. Why? Both sides assume definitions, and definitions by definition are limits. To a believer in this scenario I ask: if God can design a fly’s eye, why can’t God create evolution? Of an unbeliever I ask: what, exactly, about evolution excludes God? Each side draws an arbitrary line in the sand. Each side excludes the other — and it’s all based on faith.

*Shirin Pocha took the scanning electron micrograph of the Drosophila eye while a Ph.D. student at the University of Bristol, and wrote, "The structure of the eye, similar to many other insects, is termed a compound eye and is one of the most precise and ordered patterns in Biology.")

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Reckless and indecent

This just in. One of the treasures of You Tube! Thanks to Mark for sending it. The camera does not linger long on Roy Cohn but for several seconds you will see his malign youthful beauty. It's one of life's greatest justices that he grew up to be this creepy-looking guy, whose face would terrify small children. What's the saying -- after 30, you have the face you earned?

Remembering John

A very convoluted process led me to thoughts of John Koning, a college boyfriend. John was hands-down the most intelligent person I have ever known, and also one of the nicest.

John studied physics on full scholarship at Case Tech, back before it became attached to Western Reserve University. After a couple years, he left Case and moved back in with his parents, for reasons that were not clear to me at the time. He attended Youngstown State, having completed his physics major, and thereafter accumulated majors in math, political science, and economics. A standard course load was five classes — John routinely took nine or ten. His accum was higher than 4.0. He was, at various times, assistant editor of the newspaper, editor-in-chief of the yearbook, a member of student council, and fraternity president. The faculty was in awe of him, but he also had the gift of not leaving other students feel condescended-to.

It’s hard to pick something about the world of 2009 and say “John would have loved that.” John would have loved everything about 2009! He would have been a computer nerd extraordinaire, a wizard online. He would have done good, trustworthy things with hedge funds; alternatively he could have been secretary of the treasury. Better than all that, John was such fun to be with: he was funny, with humor that worked at levels both simple and very sophisticated. He was fun-loving and wicked and sweet.

John died in 1974, but despite that, I got hits when I googled him. For one thing, there’s the John Koning Award for players of the game Diplomacy. (The first two Diplomacy Cons were held in Youngstown, in John’s parents’ back yard on South Belle Vista.) He was passionate about Diplomacy, obviously, and created The Youngstown Variant and several rules which are apparently followed even today. (I wonder if it's still a valid tactic to get an opponent drunk and lock him in a closet? It was in the 60s.)

From his mid-teens, he was an energetic sci-fi fan and published a couple zines. For you nonfans (or as they were then called, non-fen) zines were like blogs, only they were sent through the mail. He was the publisher of sTab and a founder of OOPSLA, which apparently has thrived. His copies of the Ring trilogy were first editions.

My parents sent me John’s obituary. He earned a Ph.D. in economics and taught at Northwestern, but apparently he returned to Youngstown to die. John had childhood onset diabetes, and for someone born in 1942 to be diagnosed before 1950 — let’s just say he didn’t make retirement plans.

He was the adopted-after-20-childless-years son of a Dutch Calvinist couple. The Konings lived in a fundamentalist community of siblings and cousins, and the only book his parents owned was a Bible. But they turned the entire top floor of their house over to John, who slept on a cot in the narrow aisles of his own personal library, which filled the entire space. His father and mother protected him, assuring him of years to be exactly who he was, and if one of them could have given him a pancreas, it would have happened in a heartbeat.

John almost reached the age of 32; he outlived the predictions by four years. If he had been born the year he died, he could anticipate a normal life span. For the diabetic born now, "normal" can include not just long life but children. It's our loss that the world didn't get more John Konings.

The Story of Sand: Ripples large and small

Today’s Through the Sandglass blog shows some cigarette cards from about 90 years ago that told the story of sand. Imagine thinking of cigarette cards as the blogs of their day! But since manufacturers were always looking for interesting gimmicks, a series on the history of sand would do. Inset picture: Cigarette card showing ripples from Through the Sandglass Blog.

In addition to being an adorable picture, “Ripple Marks” brought a tantalizing memory. We have all seen ripple marks just like those. At the beach where water has briefly stood, or even at the foot of the driveway when we’ve washed the car. The ripple marks I recalled were those near the “channeled scablands” in eastern Washington state, where water covered the land during and after the Spokane Floods.

The Spokane Floods! As briefly as I can tell it: after the last glaciation, melting glaciers left a vast deep lake, today called ancestral Lake Missoula. At the west end, a plug was created by a lobe of a glacier. During a thaw cycle, lake water would reach a depth of about 2000 feet, and the glacial plug would become weak enough that the flood would push it out of the way and race westward … at about 65 mph (also described as a force greater than the combined force of all the world’s rivers). Inset: a NASA photograph of a mountain wall in the Missoula valley, showing lateral wave lines left by varying water levels in ancestral Lake Missoula.

Freeze-thaw cycles turned every couple decades, and geologists reckon this cataclysm happened fifty or so times. The water’s journey depended on where glaciers currently blocked gorges. Everywhere it ran, it stripped at least a thousand feet of rich topsoil off the underlying rock and then carved the rock. From Spokane to the southwest, the water moved, down the Columbia. It flooded the Willamette Valley, leaving the rich soil behind before finally escaping to sea and carving the river’s deep entry into the Pacific.

I first read about the channeled scablands about twenty years ago and wouldn’t rest until we had taken a family vacation there. It would include four days of Lydia and her dad being bored to tears, while I had perpetual chills down my spine from viewing on every side the true force of nature. The trip’s final thrill came on the flight back, viewing the ripple marks below and recognizing in their hugeness the same energy that creates the small ones, grain by grain, at the beach. Inset image: from Google satellite, showing ripple marks in southeast Washington state. The dark area at the top left and around Rock Lake, bottom right, is scarred by the floods and has no topsoil remaining.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Mother meets Tom Sawyer: Old enough to ... iron

Mira Costa blogged about ironing. Ironing -- what great memories I have of ironing! I had my own little iron and ironing board when I was four or five. Can you imagine? The iron actually plugged in and warmed up. Mother set it up and plugged it in next to her when she ironed. Imagine parents today letting their kids -- um, their daughters -- have something to play with that plugged in and heated up. I thought I was so lucky. My mother kept it tucked away so I couldn't use it unless she set it up for me.

When I was eight or so, one day my mother looked at me appraisingly and muttered (as if to herself) "I wonder ... are you big enough ...? No ... you can't be old enough ..." Her voice trailed off.

"Old enough for what?" I asked eagerly.

"Oh --" (airily) "I was just wondering to myself if you're old enough to learn to iron, but --"

"I'm old enough!" I protested. "And besides, you showed me how to iron when I was little."

She seemed doubtful. "But ironing is hard ... you have to be very careful."

"I can be careful!"

"Well," Mother still hesitated. "You could burn yourself. Or you could burn the clothes!" She warned me that what was burned could not be unburned.

I begged her to let me learn to iron. So right away she started me practicing. That very day I was allowed to let the iron heat up to wool. And I ironed my father's socks. She warned me not to do any ironing when she wasn't home. The next Saturday I reminded her that I was supposed to learn more about ironing.

That second time I was allowed to heat the iron to cotton. But first I set it at wool and ironed Daddy's socks, then let it heat to cotton and ironed my own. I also ironed my underwear, of course, being careful not to iron on top of the elastic, which could burn. Mother showed me how to stretch the curves of the underpants and undershirts over the end of the ironing board so I could reach the narrow parts.

The third week, I did all that and Daddy's undershirts. And the fourth week ...

Ah, the fourth week, I was allowed to do my own dampening! I sprinkled Daddy's handkerchiefs with hot water and folded them up together so I had my own little bundle of dampening in the fridge. I ironed everything else on my list and then pulled the dampened handkerchiefs out of the fridge and turned the iron all the way up to linen. Mother showed me how to pull the edges taut so that the handkerchief stayed square, and never to iron the folds in place, because it would weaken the threads of the fabric.

Some time later she taught me to fold them differently each week so that the fabric didn't get weak, which is what would happen if they were always folded along the same lines. That was probably when I was taught to iron pillowcases. First pillowcases were dampened and held in the fridge, then they were slipped over the ironing board so that the fold would not be ironed in. You do not lay a pillowcase flat on the ironing board and iron two layers at a time because that weakens the fabric at the creases.

Mother and I had embroidered McL on all the pillowcases in a padded satin stitch. The way to make a padded satin stitch stand out is to iron it on the wrong side ("on the wrong side" sounded so grown-up, I loved saying it) face down into a thick folded cloth like a diaper. You want to use a folded diaper and not, say, a terrycloth towel because you do not want to iron the marks of the terrycloth into the pillowcase fabric. (We always had diapers because they were absorbent and lint free, great for dish towels and dust cloths, as well as tack cloths when you refinish furniture. Mother bought them by the gross.)

I had been ironing about a year when I was finally ready to iron a shirt. Mother started me on my own few shirts. Dampened, into and out of the fridge, iron on cotton. First, the collar; iron it in one piece with the collar band, pulling it taut so creases aren't ironed into it. Second, the yoke. Third, the shirt cuffs; make sure that the tip of the iron goes under the buttons. Don't iron on top of the buttons because a) plastic buttons will melt and b) it makes dents in the fabric. Fourth, one sleeve, then the other. Fifth, the front placket -- pull it tight so there are no little creases and then iron the back of it so that's smooth too. Then the button band, and don't forget to iron beneath the buttons. Then the two fronts, and finally the back. And hang it on a hanger. And button the collar so it doesn't droop.

I ironed my own shirts for months before I was allowed near my dad's. And here I met a new mystery: starch. I had really looked forward to starch because it was a pretty light blue and had to be mixed with water in a bucket. The proportions were precise. Mix the starch, get the shirt thoroughly wet, wring it out -- of course, into the bucket -- and hang to dry. Then dampen.

Shirts were really a two-day job because of the starch. But oh -- the expertise that was called on to do them right. By the time I was ironing my dad's shirts, I was about the proudest girl on Poland Center Road. And the pleasure of having all those oxford cloth shirts hanging on hangers around the kitchen! I even ironed the inside of the yoke so the labels would be flat. My dad's shirts came from Brooks Brothers, J. Press, and for some reason, Milton's Clothing Cupboard in Charlotte.

It's amazing to think of the ironing that went on. Not just the socks and the underwear and the handkerchiefs and the shirts and the pillowcases -- but hand towels, kitchen towels, and sheets. In the cellar of Grandmother Findley's College Street house was a mangle. Grandmother would sit at the mangle and do all the flats -- sheets for four beds, eight pillowcases, all the towels and dishtowels. However -- as my mother explained to me -- the folds were ironed in, which meant that the fabric got weak! Believe me, pillowcases in the McLaughlin house lasted a long, long time.

Talking heads tell us that people are going to embrace the old ways. The economy is really changing us down deep, it's claimed. Somehow -- given the invention of polyester and rayon and spandex -- I doubt that ironing will ever again be a skill to celebrate.

But -- I cannot tell a lie -- I do iron my pillowcases. There's a deep sensual pleasure in sleeping on pillows with crisp ironed cases. It's just ... delicious.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Selling out a grand old name

The science blogosphere is buzzing with shock horror disgust about the discovery that publisher Elsevier published a half dozen fake journals. These purported to be genuine, peer-reviewed scholarly journals but were in fact prepared at the behest of drug house Merck as pure propaganda. Found out, Elsevier is said to be conducting an “internal review” of its publishing practices.

Thirty years ago I was an acquisitions editor at a prominent sci-tech-medical (STM) publisher with many journals. This publisher created many of its journals -- which meant it was the copyright holder, and owned the journal name -- and then would look for scholarly societies to adopt that journal.

One key reason for creating, publishing, or owning a journal, especially a multidisciplinary journal, especially one sponsored by a scholarly society, is the calculation of how many products could be advertised to how many markets in its pages. Anything relating to pharmacology automatically has some success because all drug companies are ready to put money into journals. "Journal" implies unbiased peer review.

This was back in the early days of targeted marketing. I created mailing lists of product managers of specific products at drug houses. If I had a peer-reviewed journal article on (for instance) calcium channel blockers, I'd peddle reprints to calcium channel blocker product managers; if their product was mentioned favorably in the article, the company might buy 10, 20, 30, thousand reprints of that article. Income went straight to the bottom line.

We were approached by a pharma company asking us to gather a group of experts for a two-day discussion of X disease. Pharma told us that any fair discussion of preferred treatment for X would automatically feature drug Y, on which it held the patent. After the gathering, we could use the recommended authors to put together a book on the subject, which would sell competitively in the open textbook market but which that Pharma could also buy and give to leaders in that treatment area.

It was win-win for us in other ways. We now had friendly relationships with a dozen leaders in disease X, which had not previously been a house strength. What did the specialists get out of it? They were flown first-class to New York, put up at the Waldorf-Astoria for three nights, ate at terrific restaurants, and met other world-famous specialists. Of course they liked us, and it didn't bother any of them that Pharma underwrote it all.

But consider the ambiguities I describe here. The specialists were specialists because they were knowledgeable. The discussion was guided only in that it focused on treatment of disease X. I did some preliminary research and found that the Pharma was right: any discussion of effective treatment of X necessarily promoted drug Y. And no up-to-date text existed in the field. I (and our company's owners) felt that a clear line existed between what we were doing and having our name -- and integrity -- be bought by Pharma, and that we were safely on the clean side of the line. If the project had not been underwritten by Pharma it wouldn't have happened, and it was a necessary project with a legitimate market.

This is not, of course, what's being alleged about Elsevier. The allegation about Elsevier is that the "journals" were fake, existing only to be Merck giveaways. Well, thirty years have come and gone, and this particular propaganda style has burgeoned and at last been found out. Pharma and leading doctors have been implicated in shading or concealing many difficult truths about treatments and medications. In fact, if you follow the links above, you'll read that the truth about the Elsevier/Merck product came out because of an Australian court case.

Medical consumers (that's you there, with the prescription bottle in your hand, and me) have lost faith in doctors as well as the FDA. Some members of Congress and the Senate are wholly-owned subsidiaries of Pharma. It doesn’t much help to be an educated consumer, because if your education is tainted it might as well not exist.

Why do I say "selling out a grand old name"? Because for a long time there was something of a class system in STM publishing. STM houses whose founders were still alive were the new kids on the block, and there was a little bit of snobbery about them. On the one hand, they tried harder. On the other hand, trying hard might mean they were ethical sellouts.

But, Elsevier! Elsevier was founded in 1880. It took its name from the House of Elzevir, a publishing family during the three preceding centuries. Elsevier did not have a reputation to make, Elsevier was ... Elsevier. Having followed personnel moves in STM publishing for a couple decades, I would like to know who and how many people inside Elsevier were implicated in this ... and I would like to know whether anyone, anyone at all, tried to change some minds. I'm also curious as whether anyone who might have tried to change minds is still inside Elsevier or did management find a way to get rid of them.

"Internal review"? C'mon. This was deliberate management policy, set at the highest levels, with an eye to the bottom line ONLY and in the belief that the hoax wouldn't be found out.

The whole world is in my hands

Yes, there is no end to my power. I have a Blendtec blender!

Last summer, Cousin Manda’s sweetheart bought her a top-of-the-line blender. I’m not sure what brand, but oh! The soups, the purees, the smoothies she turns out with that blender.

During the fall and winter, I twice destroyed the blade in my Waring -- which is fifty years old, but the blades are new. One evening Lydia called, distressed because she had tried to make carrot juice in a food processor and, of course, turned out something fit for the compost heap. She never noticed that I have a juicer too, for carrot juice, with two separate filters to be scooped out and cleaned (more compost), wasting significant carrot fiber.

I yearned and yearned and finally, I decided that even if I have to go about in shoes with holey soles next winter, I really, really want a powerful blender. I studied blender websites assiduously and finally settled on the Blendtec HP3A [1500 watts! 3+ peak horsepower!], which arrived 45 minutes ago.

The Blendtec will make carrot juice (added water is necessary, says the instruction book). It will puree — wait for it — avocado pits! (Do I really want fiber that badly? Am not sure … it seems a little extreme.) I happen to have two avocados on the kitchen table … but I am in no hurry. My banana peach blueberry cherry strawberry almond smoothie is soothing all the rough edges, and I am at peace.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Devil’s Walking Stick or Hercules’ Club? Does it matter?

Not to your average person walking in the woods, no.

Today I explored a Westchester woods I hadn’t been in before, near Pleasantville. About 300 feet off the highway, I encountered this tree. I hadn’t seen one for a couple years, at least — and it's a tree to have nightmares about.

It’s definitely odd looking. A single trunk, at this point less than two inches in diameter, rising to a crown that’s a spray of compound pinnate leaves somewhere higher than six feet off the ground. Fully grown, it might have a whole clump of trunks and rise well over thirty feet. At this stage, it resembles an umbrella.

But it’s one thing you wouldn’t want to grab in an emergency! There are two very similar trees, both called Devil’s Walking Stick or Hercules’ Club. One is a cousin to both rue and citrus (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis), the other (Aralia spinosa) is cousin to ginseng. This far north, the tree is probably Aralia. Both can hurt you!

Look at those thorns! In another months, each of them will be more than an inch long. Yes, they’re on the trunk, too, ringing it in many places. They also grow out of the spines on the leaves and the veins on the leaflets. Wherever you touch this tree, there’s probably a skin-ripping thorn.

Some gardeners actually import this tree into their gardens. In the autumn, leaves of the Aralia — the ginseng — can turn bronze. But it spreads underground, its blossoms are unremarkable, and birds love its berries so it spreads that way too. And as the tree ages, the bark can grow over the thorns, so the trunk becomes horribly lumpy and looks diseased. What’s to like? Aralia creeps me out so much I’m not sure I want to revisit that woods.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A new mother is born, continued

Ever since finding the Osho quote I used on Mother's Day, I have been thinking about the creation of the mother. Since I was an only child and so is my daughter, I don't know this for sure, but I will bet every mother is a different mother to each child. How can that not be true?

A woman of my acquaintance, who was Catholic Mother of the Year, was asked by another acquaintance, "Tell me, if you had it to do over again, would you have eight kids?" And her grim reply was, "No, and I know just which ones I wouldn't have."

When you have a child who coos happily and goes to sleep, aren't you likely to feel different, and be different, from the you whose child is cranky and colicky and wakeful? And that's only the beginning. There's the child whose independence scares you and the child whose dependency bores you. The one who wants to be with you and the one who refuses to be. The one who loves what you love and the one who can't stand it. The one who looks after the baby and the one who leaves him bruised. The one who reads books on how to be an effective babysitter and the one who reads Gossip Girl. The one who breaks bones and the one with unexplained fevers. And on and on.

I recently reread Grandma McLaughlin's autobiography, for the first time in at least twenty years. And it brought home to me how much she loved her children, and how much she knew her children -- even the ones she admitted that she didn't understand.

William & Warburton: Wistaria

Every year I vow that I will photograph my downhill neighbor's wistaria. This family has an extraordinary garden, and bordering it is a wistaria that towers at one end and is trained along the uphill-running fence.

This year, because of rain and fog, the perfect day never came ... and I just realized its time is passing. So here's this year's wistaria before it disappears for good. Soon the Rose of Sharon bushes (currently green blobs along the fence) will bloom up and out and swallow it all!

Ferrets, otters, and sliding

This was on Small Animal Channel:
The ferrets love their tube run more than anything. Each day I wake up and go to sleep hearing little paws running and dooking sounds in the tubes.

The funniest part of the tube run ended up being the 11-foot slope. Every time the ferrets finish in the run and decide to go back down to their cage, they enter the top of the sloped tube and flip over onto their backs to slide all the way down the tube, gaining quite a bit of speed in the process.

When friends and family see the tube run, some think it’s great and others just look at me strangely. To the latter, I just smile and tell them, 'It’s a ferret owner thing.'"
— Todd LaFaille, Connecticut

The bit about the ferrets flipping over onto their backs to slide? It's exactly what otters do -- and otters are big cousins of ferrets. Practically anyplace in the northeast or north central states where you have muddy or icy banks going down to a big enough creek or river, you will find an otter slide. Minks -- another member of the family -- do it too.

Entire otter families will maintain their slides. It's just about the only animal activity known that exists for the pure fun of it -- there's no connection to food, reproduction, or anything else related to survival. Just fun!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A mother's birth

The moment a child is born, the mother is also born. She never existed before. The woman existed, but the mother, never. The mother is something absolutely new. ~ the religious leader Osho

Today was Mother's Day, and I lit the chalice in today's services with this quotation. It focused on a part of motherhood that is often overlooked. It's overlooked in all the sentimentality around Mother's Day, and it's overlooked in the now-you're-going-to-have-a-baby books. I cannot imagine a woman not being changed by becoming a mother. It certainly changed me, and I didn't expect it at all!

Friend-from-kindergarten Marty told me that when she was pregnant, a mother she worked with assured her, "It's like falling in love with a stranger." Not really, Marty herself concluded. "It's like being mugged by your best friend."

In the talkback following today's service, Eric spoke about the birth of his twins. It was very premature, following an extremely difficult pregnancy. Eric and his wife didn't actually know each other all that well when they became parents. And yet, out of nowhere, his wife, the babies' mother, found reserves of psychological, emotional, and physical stamina to be at the hospital every waking hour and to make him do it too. This new mother became an entirely new person because her babies needed her to be that person. And in fact, the children's health today (in their late teens) speaks to the astounding care they received from her during those months in the neonatal ICU.

As new mothers, most of us do not face demands so drastic. The "normal" sweep of new emotions and crushing physical changes is hard enough. A quarter-century into motherhood, what I find miraculous is that mothers are changed most of the time. I believe most mothers do the best we can, and fortunately, most of our children forgive us for what we didn't do well.

My mother and grandmothers had struggles different from each other, and I don't really think my mother ever truly came to grips with motherhood. Nonetheless! Let me repeat the names of my three mothers, and my mother's three sisters, because each became someone different for me: Margaret and Lydia and Elizabeth and Nancy and Betsy and Billie. Inset photo: Unfortunately, a double exposure taken against Florida palm trees on December 25, 1916 -- Will and Lydia one week before Margaret's birth.

Fenway Park still stands

The debacle of Yankee Stadium is — not surprisingly — making waves in Boston, too. Here’s baseball writer Sarah Green in the Harvard Business School Press blog.

Several months ago I was lamented to an old friend, a Yankee fan, about what a pig’s ear the Yankees were making of the stadium move and the prices. I objected — as who in the real world hasn’t? — about Yankee prices, especially given the support the Yankee Organization has received from the taxpayer.

My friend actually denied that the Yankee Organization got any taxpayer money at all. Huh? Blogger Jason, from It's About the Money, Stupid, wraps up a list of woes and includes credited photographs showing the empty expensive seats.

Unlike Sarah Green or Larry Greenberg, both of whose love of baseball and grasp of its minutia are things to marvel at, I am not a Fan. But baseball is the one sport I actually pay attention to. I suspect that's true in many American households. Come to think of it, as I contemplate a move to Chicago's Hyde Park, I have actually been looking at the White Sox website. Chicago has plenty of scandals, but at least the taxpayers don't get their noses rubbed in municipal follies at every game.

I am happy that Richard Brodsky, my local state assemblyman and one of the smartest people in politics, is ruffling Yankee and Bloomberg feathers with his ongoing investigation of this scam. Brodsky doesn't need to invent targets when the city, the state, or an organization as massive as the YO is this blatant. Mike Lupica, an excellent old-time reporter for the Daily News, writes about Brodsky and what the Yanks are doing with our money and our land. And, folks, it IS our money -- and it WAS our parkland -- that the Yankees took.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Loving animals

Loving animals was not a significant part of our household as I was growing up. Oh, we had a dog -- a high-strung puddles-on-the-floor-during-every-thunderstorm cocker spaniel. Her name was Lochinvar, because my mother's ancestrally Scottish family had dogs named Lochinvar for 150 years. But Locky was really my mother's dog, despite having arrived under the tree "for little Diggitt" when I was three.

Duke the Dog accompanied me when I went off in 1970 to see America before it burned, and lived with me on West 81st Street until I moved to London. Katie Cat lived in my London house and gave me my first real experience of an animal's idiosyncracies.

But I am indebted to Lydia's dad for insisting that we get a ferret so our little girl could have a pet. In a household with allergies, cats and dogs were out but he had read that ferrets were allergen-free. So following up an ad in the Pennysaver, he and three-year-old Lydia met some strangers in a parking lot and for $50 received a cage and Ferris (whose name was immediately changed to Ferrous, in honor of the Steel Valley). Inset picture: postcard ferret that looks a lot like Ferrous.

Over the next ten years, we had seven ferrets altogether. Once we started we just couldn't stop! The only thing cuter than one is two. The only thing cuter than two is three. The only thing cuter than three ferrets is four ferrets! Lydia and I used to drop into a pet store in Central Avenue just to look at their ferrets -- as if when we were out on errands, we needed a ferret fix.

The owner asked me one day, "Don't you already have a ferret?"

"Actually, we have four," I answered.

He fixed his eye upon me. "I hear they do best by fives," he said.

Dr. Tepper, the local vet, said to me one day, "You're not the kind of person I would expect to have ferrets, " he said. I asked him what he meant.

"Oh, ferret owners tend to be ... you know, anti-establishment types," he explained. He was too nice to say, you know, trailer trash. Ferrets are not found in upper-middle-class households; probably the stench of the poacher is on them, from Europe, and will never go away.

Ferrets can always be found in the pockets of Dan Mallett, the poacher/detective in Frank Parrish's short-lived (alas!) series of detective stories. Except when he "be thieven or wenchen," as his mother would say. Dan Mallett is without a doubt the most attractive good-and-bad guy in all of detective literature; in the books no woman can resist him and goodness know I couldn't either. He loves his little guys although so far as we know, they are nameless.

The etymology of ferret is Latin or maybe Anglo-French, but whichever word it comes from, the meaning was thief (same root as furtive), and in fact many of our stories about Ferrous, Eric, Popper, Boudicca, LeWeasel, Tequila,and Sherlock come from their thieving. Thieving or not, all our stories relate to their curiosity or sense of fun.

Fun? Once, on the Friday that spring break started, our neighbors were to leave for Paris but a blizzard hit. They couldn't get to the kennel, so they asked us if we could take Charlie the Yorkie overnight and deliver him to the kennel the next day. So Charlie came for the night to a house with four ferrets. They had a field day with Charlie! One after another would creep out with a clear "Let's play!" message. The ferret would run, Charlie would chase, and the ferret would dash into a hole at the bottom of the couch. Charlie would run around to the back of the couch. Then he'd reappear with a great big question mark over his head. Then another ferret would appear and chitter at him, and it would start over. Finally Charlie caught on that somehow ferrets went to a place he couldn't get to ... but it was clearly fun for the ferrets while it lasted. And it lasted for nine days because we never took Charlie to the kennel ... it was just a hoot having him around.

So why do I bring up small animals? Because of this article about veterinarian Dr Chris Carskaddan, whose mission is clearing for entry into the U.S. the pets that our soldiers have adopted overseas. It acknowledges so much: the big acknowledgements are the humanity of our soldiers and the need for us all to be in touch with animals.

And the post several days ago when I included the video of the laughing rats? Terry responded saying that's a good reason for being vegetarian like she is. I'm working on it, folks. Most of the time now I don't eat anything with a face either. I'm not proselytizing; eating lower down the food chain is a greener way to live as well.

Rainy day in Newfoundland

If you haven't visited Bitstop -- a blog dedicated to a photo a day from Karen Chappell, a St. John's photographer -- I encourage you to look at today's offerings.

I love Newfoundland for its land-out-of-time mystery. I could write about it forever and have taken thousands of photographs there myself, which is why I have her link on my own [Hudson and Mahoning valleys] blog. Today's rainy day photographs show that aspect of Newfoundland.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Power Along the Hudson, and Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger’s big birthday party last weekend reminded me one of the best environmental history books I’ve ever read, Power Along the Hudson (E.P. Dutton, 1972) by Allan R. Talbott.

Sadly, its fascinating study was told too soon — before the environmental movement really broke loose — and ends a little too soon, so PAtH is not only out of print but unreviewed on Amazon and almost unavailable from used book dealers. Because the book ends before its actual story concludes, it’s unlikely to be picked up and reprinted by Purple Mountain Press. But if you ever see it forgotten in a bookstore — grab it! Talbott is a talented storyteller, and it’s a spellbinding story.

By “power along the Hudson” the author means, literally, power, as in financial and political power. But that kind of power was largely controlled by the magnates who controlled the supplies of power: of coal, gas, oil, steam, the railroads and shipping lines, and finally, electricity. By the end of the book, financial and legal power have lined up against an expansion of electrical power, as the Rockefellers and their allies, through the creation of Scenic Hudson, challenged ConEd in the Storm King case.In only 244 pages, Talbott tells first the story of how New York (City, mainly) was powered. Where did coal and water come from? [New York City’s water has its own wonderful history.] How did households and businesses manage power? Waste? Coal ash? How did the gas companies move into the cities? Where was oil used? These histories should take many hundreds of pages but Talbott moves economically through them all. Robert Fulton and Commodore Vanderbilt and Robert Moses come and go.

Finally, there’s room for a brief history of Storm King itself: the brooding mountain north of West Point, called Boterberg (Butter Hill) by the Dutch. It was inspiration for generations of poets and painters. Even during the busiest industrial shipping years of the mid-19th century, artists flocked to paint and draw Hudson River traffic at Storm King’s feet.

In 1963, considering New York City's long-term power demands, Consolidated Edison proposed an upriver project. It would create a reservoir on top of Storm King and drill out the core of the mountain for water shafts and turbines; some power lines would tunnel beneath the Hudson and others would line the Valley itself.

Led by some of the Rockefeller brothers, Hudson Valley landed gentry mounted a legal battle again ConEd. It was back and forth through the courts throughout the 70s and ConEd finally abandoned a smaller version of the project in 1979, which is why Talbott’s book ended too soon. The 17-year-long court battle ended with the Storm King decision, now considered the beginning of U.S. environmental law. It was groundbreaking because it gave individuals the legal standing to speak on behalf of the environment. Before that time, natural entities had no legal voice.

A ConEd advocate once jeered, “There never would have been a court case if the place were still called Butter Hill.” Perhaps. But during the 1920s, New York State built a highway across the face of Storm King, which for some years was considered one of the world’s engineering marvels. The Storm King Highway, which takes the driver along the edge of the United States Military Academy at West Point, is a breathtaking drive, although the road is often closed entirely during the winter. There’s something about the mountain’s majesty that transcends its name — although the name doesn’t hurt! Nor does the fact that it faces Breakneck Ridge across the river.

So in its final pages, Power Along the Hudson is the story of the first dawn of the new day of American environmental law. Pete Seeger’s role in it is a whole nother story. Happy birthday, Pete!

Rats laugh too

This brief video is on a blog called This Lively Earth. The video is so incredibly charming I sent it to several friends but think it deserves a home here too.

The transponder used to translate rat sounds into sounds we can hear was designed for bat hunters. Sometimes, during the summer, naturalists down Broadway at Lenoir Preserve have bat nights. They'll take a crowd of people out to the meadow overlooking the Hudson and bring out these gadgets. In the dark silence, suddenly the howls and screeches and hissing of the bats wheeling overhead comes through. It's eerie to think that these almost invisible creatures are darting about overhead surrounded by a racket only they can hear.

Of course, you have to like little mammals to be really sympathetic to the rats (and I can't say my previous acquaintance with rats has been friendly). But when Lydia was growing up, our household had ferrets -- never more than four at a time but over the years, seven or eight. And they definitely laughed and giggled when their tummies were tickled.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Adding "A Mauritanian Minute"

Off to the right, you'll see that I added the blog A Mauritanian Minute. Teresa Winland, the daughter of my cousin Betty Kerrigan Winland, is in the Peace Corps in Mauritania and this is her blog.

Teresa graduated from college a year ago, having worked in women's projects, and went off to Mauritania shortly afterwards. Her PC assignment is specifically to create a center for educating girls. It looks like she's being successful!

Teresa's uncle Tom Kerrigan told me that at first, the girls were very hesitant about coming. Now they are out in the community teaching other girls what they've learned.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Adding the Mannahatta Project to the links list

You'll see the Mannahatta Project link to the right. It's one of the most exciting geophysical projects I can imagine: the recreation of Manhattan Island as it was in 1609!

Mannahatta creators started with the 1782 British Headquarters map of Manhattan island, now archived in the U.K., and worked with GIS to (in a sense) superimpose that map on today's city. It's reckoned to be accurate within 40 meters, which I find just brilliant, given that the amount of 1609 Manhattan never built on in four centuries probably comes down to a matter of square yards.

A reminder to people here in Westchester County: since geologically Westchester and Manhattan are one unit, what you learn about Manhattan will generally apply to our own turf as well. Today there's a one-agricultural-zone difference between the two -- that's why it will be snowing here and raining in the city -- but observations about native plants, animals, and fish will apply here too.

Big Bend fandom

Today's Clade piece is about hiking at Big Bend. Interestingly, Nevada Barr's newest mystery, Borderline, is set in the national park at Big Bend.

The Clade piece is written by Bill W (presumably not the same Bill W who founded AA). Lyrical writing, and another person struck down by love for the desert. Who wouldn't fall in love with a place where both plants and animals have spikes?

Barr's newest just doesn't grab me the way some of her earlier books did; I read A Superior Death (1994) alone in the house, and it ranks right up there with Life's Creepiest Experiences. AND: One of life's creepiest experiences, and containing a thorough explanation of the formation of adipocere, and set at Isle Royale, yet another reason to revisit Lake Superior.

Snark, smirks, and the Great Lakes

This week, the Great Lakes Town Hall website has a quick quiz about the Great Lakes. Biggest, smallest, longest shoreline, etc — just what you’d expect. But it left out one amazing fact about the Great Lakes. I won’t tell you what it is until I finish this diversion.

The anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell (a student of Margaret Mead’s, among other distinctions) called himself a kinesiologist, studying movement in context. You can study movement in context by watching TV or a movie with the sound off, and decipher the unfolding story through the actors’ movements. Birdwhistell argued — contradicting the body language people — that a movement has meaning in context, rather than an absolute meaning.

In other words, yeah, maybe the person who folds her arms as she speaks to you is shutting you out. But that movement could have a different meaning if you look at the entire scene: all the movements being made by all the participants.

Birdwhistell was also a student of faces. He got five minutes of fame on late-night TV explaining his observations, and manipulating his own face into regional configurations. For instance, people who grow up on the southern Great Plains do this and this and this — and, wow: there’s Eisenhower (from Abilene, Kansas). An upper-class Englishman does that and that and that with his eyelids and nose and upper lip, and wow — there’s the Tory then-prime minister of Great Britain. Before the world had heard of Jimmy Carter, Birdwhistell showed us the toothy, ever-smiling face of the southerner.

One night, long ago, with friends in Poland, Ohio, we watched Birdwhistell go through this performance … which he concluded with the face of people “in states bordering the Great Lakes.” The key to the Great Lakes states face, he said, is that “people there smile with their mouths closed so you can’t see their teeth.” We looked around the room at each other — and we were all smiling without showing our teeth! Suddenly the roomful of friends had turned into an anthropological experiment. And I remembered specifically being taught (by my mother and aunts) to not show my teeth when I smiled.

I’ve thought of Ray Birdwhistell often, especially during the last eight years of snark about W’s smirk. I too am at a loss to understand that look (although I associate it with certain upper-middle class women, and it blows me away when I see it on Christmas card pictures), and wish that Ray Birdwhistell were still around to decode it.

Incidentally, in Belles on Their Toes, the sequel to Cheaper by the Dozen, Mrs. Gilbreth is interviewed by someone who refers to her making a “deprecating moue.” “I’ve never made any kind of moue in my life,” snorts Mother.