Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The importance of books

I've just finished a wonderful book called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It was written largely by the former lady, but when she became ill her niece took over to make the changes the editors were wanting. Alas, Shaffer did not live to see the book appear on American bookshelves, as it came out in July, 2008, and she died in February of that year. Such a shame that she didn't see it become such a big success, since she worked on it for many years. A glaring example of the importance of deriving satisfaction from a process, (see Note of Aug. 19, 2008) since you may not have the opportunity to enjoy the result.

Given that the book did come out in 2008, those of you who read new books when they're still new have probably already read it. I almost never read books when they first come out, except for Robert Parker and Dick Francis mysteries, and now both those gentlemen have died, so there won't be anymore new books from them.

But back to TGLAPPPS. It's a book that manages to be charming and amusing -- sometimes laugh-out-loud funny -- while relating the horrors of Nazi occupation for the inhabitants of Guernsey Island, in the English Channel, during the Second World War. It's written in the form of letters, a format I usually tire of quickly, but here it's quite successful, after the first few letters. A London writer who is undergoing the tiresomeness of going 'round for book signings to publicize her book receives a letter from a gentleman on Guernsey, who is writing to her because a book he has come into possession of, and that has made a great impression on him (the writings of Charles Lamb) had her name and address in the front. She is so charmed by the letter she replies, and ultimately gets drawn into a correspon-dence with not just him, but various other of the Islanders who are all members of the...you guessed it...Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

The letters are a delight. Not only do you come to know these people (including the London author) very well through their letters, but you learn a few things you may not have known about a few authors. And about how important books can be to people. And oh yes, you learn about what life was like under German occupation.

This book brought home to me in a new way the different kinds of deprivation that the war inflicted on people, perhaps the most devastating being the food shortages (in places where they were not also enduring bombing raids, and Guernsey was not bombed). Eventually no butter, no sugar, no tea, no salt, never mind the big stuff like meat. (The GLAPPPS came into being as the result of a highly ingenious method the Islanders developed of overcoming the Germans' system of keeping tabs on all livestock.)

On Guernsey they were also forced to see their lovely little island torn up by German fortification efforts, and forced to witness the working to death of slave laborers who were brought in to do the work. Those who felt a wrench of pity for the prisoner-laborers could find them-selves in big trouble if they tried to help them, as was the case with a major character in the book, who never actually "appears," though she is referred to by and has a big impact on virtually all the other characters.

The book is an informative and entertaining little gem. I encourage you to read it.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Looking for an explanation

Why can't things be the way they're supposed to be? Why are so many events/situations/purchased products/people not quite as they should be? Why is perfection such an impossibility? We all know that it is, but why?

Turns out there's something wrong with my new lawn mower (besides the fact that I don't have the correct instruction manual for it). A knob that holds one part to another part keeps coming off as I'm mowing. This is the third thing that has been not quite right about this "purchased product"-- the first having been that Lowe's sold me a lawn mower without an instruction manual, the second, that they then supplied me with the wrong manual. This is a long way from perfection.

And now I have to take the damn thing back, which makes the situation painfully far from perfection. Roll it out my basement door, around to the side of the house, up the slope to the driveway, fold the thing up, heft it into my car, make the 20 minute drive to Lowe's, heft it out of my car, do my share of waiting at Customer Service (I already did a lot of waiting when I went back for the manual which turned out to be the wrong manual), with who knows what outcome, since this was the last one of this model they had.

I did at least get my lawn mowed. Took three days, about 40 minutes each day, since my stamina is almost non-existent, and since the grass was so high, and on the second day so wet, that I had to take a stroke back for each stroke forward, in order to get it all. But you know, except for the damn knob that I kept having to go back and look for in the grass when I would realize it had fallen off again because the handle had started coming apart again, I was really pleased with the thing. Cordless electric is definitely the way to go. But now what's going to happen?

And then there are my new curtains. You remember the bathroom curtains Cozy Cottage was going to make for me? They were ready in only a week, rather than the two the woman had thought it would take, and they're very pretty -- the fabric goes just fine with my bathroom decor, which I'd been worried about -- but they're too short. In this case, the answer to why something isn't perfect is: I screwed up. My length-wise measurement was off by half an inch. But actually there's one other thing that's "not quite right": the hem is too wide. When we were discussing how I wanted the curtains made, and the woman said, "And you'll probably want a five or six inch hem, to give it weight," I was taken aback -- that seemed mighty wide to me -- but I figured she was the expert. But as it turns out the curtain is so small, because the window is so small, that the wide hem is notice-ably out-of-proportion.

So I've decided I have to take the curtains back, too. Have her increase the length, and narrow the hem, undoubtedly for an additional charge. What price the urge to perfection.

Oh, but it's so gorgeous in our neck of the woods now. The faint green haze that could be seen in all the trees a week ago has been replaced by lush green foliage. The trees are back! The green is back! All the lilac bushes are blooming! We've had temperatures in the 60s, and low humidity. If you don't look too closely, this is perfection.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Oh, that maintenance

I'm so happy! I did it! Actually, I did several things. First I made the difficult decision to actually spring for a lawn mower. I didn't really want to do this. I hate to mow the lawn. It does not fit my self-image. None of my self images, not the Struggling Writer one, or the Starving Librarian one, or the Delicate Flower one. When Micheal and I lived in southern Louisiana, in the big, beautiful brick house out in the country with the acre of lawn, I often had to mow the lawn -- on a riding mower, no less -- because M. would be off-shore for at least three weeks at a time, and the growing season in southern Louisiana does not permit any lawn to go three weeks without being cut. And I would feel so mortified, riding around on that damn miniature tractor, with the occasional car/pickup/18-wheeler flashing by on our country road.

So, I didn't want to have to buy a lawn mower, and spend an hour or so every week or so mowing the lawn. But neither did I want to drop $50 every time I had someone do it, as I have had to do in summers past. I either tended to go too long between "haircuts," resulting in a really shitty looking lawn too much of the time, or if I left it up to the "barbers," found myself having to pay for a weekly haircut, which I simply could not afford.

Then there was the question of what kind of lawn mower to get. I saw some on sale at the local hardware store (which as a matter of fact was the impetous for my beginning to seriously think about this), but not knowing the first thing about lawn mowers, didn't know whether these were a good value. I did contact the fellow who volunteers to mow our lawn at the library, to see if he would be willing to go with me and check them out. He has mowed my lawn for me once (we lugged the library's mower to my house so he could do it), and now I told him that if he were interested, he could mow my lawn occasion-ally for pay. He seemed interested in the second proposal, and indicated his willingness to help me mower-shop, but that was the last I heard from him.

There was also the fact that I didn't really want to have to deal with a gas mower. Getting gasoline from a service station, making sure the mower has enough fuel, and...most of all!...having to pull that damn starter rope to get it going. I've never had good luck with those things, yanking and yanking away, getting nothing but sputtering for my efforts. When Micheal and I lived in Abilene, and had a smaller lawn to mow than the one in Louisiana, we also had an electric push mower. This was great in terms of starting -- just plug it in and turn it on -- but keeping the cord out of harm's way was a big drag. So now I was thinking how I would really prefer to have an electric mower, but really didn't want to have to fight with an extension cord.

Well, my lawn was starting to look like an absolute meadow; I knew I had to take some kind of action, either call the professional barbers, nag at Earl to help me pick out a mower, and then get him to use it, or at the very least get one that I, in a pinch, could use myself. I knew that, whatever a mower might cost me, it would soon pay for itself, in money saved from paying professional barbers (even if I paid Earl, he would take no more than $20 from me, still a savings).

So I started calling around, asking if places had electric mowers. The fellow at Sears, the first place I called (after the hardware store, which had only gas-powered), said, "Plug-in or cordless?" and my ears perked up. "There are cordless electric mowers?" "Yep." So I got the price there (a little steep), and after that, all my calls were for cord-less electric mowers. And I finally found one that was $70 cheaper than Sears' version, at Lowe's. And I went and bought it, and lugged it home, and then called when I discovered there was no instruction manual (I had purchased a display model, as it was the only one at that price left, but I was assuming there were instructions tucked in there somewhere, which proved not to be the case), and I waited three days for the manual that the fellow I talked to said he would send me, and then I went back to Lowes, demanding a manual, and finally getting one for what I suspected was the newer model, which proved to be the case, but even so I managed to figure out what was what with my model, and get the battery charged, and get the thing started, and darned if I didn't get my entire front lawn and part of the back mowed this afternoon, after I got home from work.

The Delicate Flower did it!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The devil's food

Alas, I fear I am addicted to ice cream. I've always liked ice cream -- who doesn't like ice cream -- but it was never that big a deal to me. Except for the old-fashioned, everybody-takes-a-turn-at-the-churn homemade stuff. That, I always absolutely adored (especially peach), and when exposed to it would eat a sinfully large amount. But I don't think I've been exposed to it since I left home at 18.

In the last few months I've noticed that even unspectacular, supermarket ice cream has become quite a big deal to me. As in, I find myself wanting to have some every night of my life...and frequently having some. And not just a little bowl. I've caught myself eating half a small carton in one evening, and then finishing it off the following evening. Like somebody finishing off a bottle of scotch in two nights!

This is definitely not a positive development, for a number of reasons. It's very fattening, and this girl who was as thin as Twiggy in her youth, has been about 30 pounds overweight for...five years? All sorts of wearing apparel no longer fit. The last thing I need to be doing is adding weight.

Also, I'm hypoglycemic, which means I'm supposed to avoid sugar. I have tried eating no-sugar-added ice cream, but besides not being as satisfying, it's full of sugar alcohols, and I'm not sure that that's so much better. And milk does not really set well with me: the combin-ation of sugar and milk almost always produces unfortunate internal consequences within a few days.

So why have I suddenly become addicted to this thing that is not good for me? Well, why does anybody become addicted to something that isn't good for them? Because it gives them something they need. Alcohol makes a lot of people feel like they are cool, clever, can do anything. Cigarettes initially make people feel cool, properly rebel-lious, part of the in-crowd; later the damn things help them keep their nerves under control, keep them, as a smoking friend of mine said, from killing people. Drugs enable people, however briefly, to escape their wretched or boring and empty lives.

With ice cream, well, it's undeniably comfort food. When you're eating it, nothing makes you feel happier. And I reckon I've been craving a little comforting. Or maybe, a whole lot of comforting. My life is so very far from being what I'd hoped it would be, and in the last couple of years I've had to face the fact that circumstances and my own limitations will probably keep me from making it the way I'd hope it would be. Jezze, you've got to have a little respite from that thought. I've never been into drugs, or excessive use of alcohol. Or shopping -- another escape-from-unpleasant-reality for some people Let's see, what else is there? Ah, yes, Ben and Jerry's Vanilla Caramel Fudge ice cream. Or their Cherry Garcia. Or Haagen Dazs's French Vanilla.

But don't blame me. The devil made me do it.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


I just watched a fascinating and exciting program on NOVA, Mount St. Helen's: Back from the Dead. All about how Nature reasserted herself after the devastating eruption of May, 1980.

Part of the program had to do with the eruption itself, and with the smaller eruptions that took place over the next few years (of which I was unaware -- I don't think the media was paying much attention, since those weren't cataclysmic eruptions). Although I already had a general idea of the mechanics of a volcanic eruption -- magma being pushed up from deep underground by pressure, until the pressure is so great the magma escapes through the surface, becoming lava once it reaches the surface -- it was interesting to learn that what provides the umph to the kind of eruption at Mt. St. Helen's is water in the magma, that has becomes gas as the result of the intense heat. Actually, it seems incredible that there could be water down there in the first place...wouldn't it be too hot, I'm thinking? And where would water be coming from, 62 miles down?

The program didn't go into either question, but the good ol' Internet has informed me that water arrives deep underground when (for example) the Pacific tectonic plate is pushed under the North American plate, taking with it the water that was on top of and in the interior of the layers that are pushed down. As soon as that water hits the high temperatures of the lower depths, it becomes gas, moving up with the magma toward the surface, miles above, and contributing mightily to the ultimate bang when the surface breaks open. You could say the volcano is breaking wind!

The geologist manque in me finds all this fascinating. But what really gets me is the idea that the earth is just going about its business of evolving, just as it always has. Plates moving -- accompanied by earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions -- causing land masses to move, inch by inch (looking at a world map you can see so clearly where South America at one time fit into the crook of Africa). These things have always happened, but now human beings are witness to their happening, thanks to the fact that there are now so many of us, living absolutely everywhere, and thanks to instant communication and satellite pictures. And because there are now so many of us, living absolutely everywhere, we are often inconvenienced by these happenings -- witness the devastation caused by the 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia, the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chili, witness the massive shutdown of air transport with the eruption of the unpro-nounceable volcano in Iceland. But that is not the earth's concern; it is simply following the laws of its nature. As far as the earth is con-cerned we might as well not be here. And we mites (as humanoids are thought of by an alien entity in a Star Trek book I read recently) on its surface just have to run for cover when necessary. (And praying to the gods to keep the volcano from erupting ain't gonna help, either.)

There was again seismic activity at Mount St. Helen's in 2004. No eruption, no lava flow, but what the geologists call "spines" of lava were pushed up through the floor of the crater. This was truly fascinating, since in a very short period of time they were able to see these huge rock formations appear where none had existed before. But the gas that produces an explosive eruption has apparently dissipated. Until the next batch of gas-laden magma makes it slow but sure way to the surface...in 200 years? A thousand?

The earth is a hard taskmaster, but it certainly is interesting.