Sunday, February 28, 2010

Remarkable Creatures

Neither prehistoric creatures nor strong-minded independent women are unusual or surprising to us in our current time period. But the remarkable creatures of the title of Tracy Chevalier's latest novel are just those two life forms: prehistoric marine animals and the fossil hunting women who first discover them. Remarkable Creatures is Chevalier's sixth published novel, although only the second one I have read. I loved Girl With a Pearl Earring, and can't imagine why I stopped reading her after that.This book gripped me from the first page, and didn't let go until I finished it several nights ago. Even Apolo Ohno and Lindsey Vonn couldn't tear me away from the spell of this story. For maybe the first time in my winter-Olympics-loving life, I watched the athletes with one eye from time to time, but my real attention was on Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot as they dug and toiled on the beach at Lyme Regis, then toiled even more fiercely to have their discoveries acknowledged by the "learned gentlemen" of their time. Their time being partly the Georgian Period and partly the Victorian, hardly good years for outspoken intelligent women. Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859, twelve years after Mary Anning died, but as Ruth Padel says in her enthusiastic review of the book in The Guardian:

New life is formed from extinction and death," wrote Darwin in 1838, in a private notebook. Some 20 years later, he based The Origin of Species on the fact that fossils document a continuum of life forms, demonstrating that millions of species died out as others took their place. A generation earlier, however, when Tracy Chevalier's rough-petticoated heroine was pulling out of cliffs in Lyme Regis the evidence that would go into this insight, nobody wanted to believe that God did not, as one of Chevalier's characters puts it, "plan out what He would do with all of the animals He created.
On the book's website the story is summarized quite briefly thus:
In 1810, a sister and brother uncover the fossilized skull of an unknown animal in the cliffs on the south coast of England. With its long snout and prominent teeth, it might be a crocodile – except that it has a huge, bulbous eye.

Remarkable Creatures is the story of Mary Anning, who has a talent for finding fossils, and whose discovery of ancient marine reptiles such as that ichthyosaur shakes the scientific community and leads to new ways of thinking about the creation of the world.

Working in an arena dominated by middle-class men, however, Mary finds herself out of step with her working-class background. In danger of being an outcast in her community, she takes solace in an unlikely friendship with Elizabeth Philpot, a prickly London spinster with her own passion for fossils.

The strong bond between Mary and Elizabeth sees them through struggles with poverty, rivalry and ostracism, as well as the physical dangers of their chosen obsession. It reminds us that friendship can outlast storms and landslides, anger and and jealousy.
So, yes, that's sort of a fossil version of the story, but if that was all I had to go on to entice me into reading it, I might not have done so. This summary doesn't give the reader any idea of the richness, the historical texture of the novel.  So many strands of what was happening in science, in religion, even in literature (Jane Austen is briefly an offstage character), are woven into the tapestry of this story, yet it remains vibrant and alive, never stuffy nor boring - as historical novels can often deteriorate into being. Chevalier's forté is taking historical events and characters, then using her own magic as a writer to put them into novels.The bones of her stories are factual, but the magic lies in the way the author can imagine the characters' interior life, motivations, emotions, interactions. Spend some time exploringt the book's website, a rich resource, read Padel's review linked to above, and see if this doesn't sound like maybe your next read.  I promise it will be an engrossing one. And I intend to put Chevalier's unread novels into my library queue at once.(Cross-posted from Quid Nunc?)

Saturday, February 27, 2010


This letter appeared in the local paper today. This is his opinion. I don’t think the Tea Partiers are quite that strong. It appears that the one thing many of the groups agree on is that they don’t agree with each other.


So, a guy in Texas burns down his house so the federal government won’t get it, and rams his plane into an IRS building, killing a federal employee. In his suicide note he states “violence is not only an answer it is the only answer.” The Austin police chief assures us “there is no cause for concern.” The Homeland Security Office is investigating an apparent isolated incident. The media report that a man with a “grudge against the IRS” flies his plane into the IRS building. One week later the story is nowhere to be found in the media.

Meanwhile the Tea Party movement is gaining strength. In Idaho, Tea Party folks are joining the Friends of Liberty coalition that includes Glenn Beck’s 9-12 project, the John Birch Society, Oath Keepers, a new player in the militia movement, and Arm in Arm, a local group in the coalition that is organizing for possible civil strife by forming armed neighborhood groups. Loose alliances are being formed all over the country, with some groups stocking up on ammunition, gold and survival foods.

Sarah Palin calls for a “Revolution” at the national Tea Party convention, while a Republican candidate for the US Senate in Indiana, Richard Behney, assures his followers that if the 2010 election does not turn out right “I’m cleaning me guns and getting ready for the big show. And I’m serious about that and I’m sure you are too.”

I feel so much safer knowing this guy wasn’t some Muslim Terrorist.

Pete Mandrapa

According to a source on the web the Republican Party in Indiana has disavowed Mr. Behney’s statement. The guy is a minor candidate who probably won’t get the party nomination, but if his name was a little different, and his skin a little darker, you can bet that statement would have been front page news all over the country and headlining on Faux News all week long.

On a happier note. The Aryan Nations hate group was bankrupted out of Idaho several years ago and has been looking for a place to light ever since. The self proclaimed head of the group, Paul Mullet, has fastened his beady eyes on the John Day area in Harney county in Eastern Oregon. With sixteen percent unemployment and property values in the cellar I guess they figured we’d welcome just about anybody with a check book.

It took less than a week but the city of John Day and the neighboring towns of Canyon City, Mount Vernon and Prairie City pulled in their welcome mats so fast he hasn’t even been able to find a realtor to work with him. There’s already been one well attended protest rally with more information meetings planned. Mr. Mullet states that his group still plans to relocate to Oregon. He can buy the land but if no one in the area is willing to deal with them it’s a long way to the nearest grocery store. One thing Eastern Oregon has lot a of is miles and miles of miles and miles.

There is some sanity left in the world after all. I’ll take all I can get.

Update: Found a story on the web after I posted this. Mr. Mullett is claiming that the good folks of John Day are discriminating against them. I've always found it interesting that those who discriminate are quick to accuse other folks of discriminating against them. :-)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Are We What We Eat?

This is a cross-posting from my own blog Quid Nunc?  I've gotten two responses there, but I think a lot more people read this blog, so I thought I'd give it a try here.  The two responses I got were interesting, and I know there's a lot more great ideas on this subject out there.  

Just want to point out for those of you who may be unfamiliar with Deborah Madison, that she has a little article in the current AARP magazine bearing the title of her latest book: What We Eat When We Eat Alone.
The subject of the book, and the article, is what Madison calls "personal foods" and describes her own in this lovely paragraph: 
Weird foods notwithstanding, when Patrick and I started posing the eating-solo question to friends, we discovered that most people have one or two dishes (what I call "personal foods") that they cook for themselves alone. Personal foods do more than satisfy hunger; they nourish us in a deep and even spiritual way. My personal food is toasted rye bread covered with a thin layer of cheddar and marmalade, a treat my grandmother enjoyed daily with a cup of dark tea. We shared this toast when I visited her as a child, and I've always been drawn to its pungent flavors.
One of the reasons Deborah Madison has become my food guru shows up in the above description - she recognizes and is not afraid to talk about the "deep and even spiritual" dimensions of food. Her cookbooks speak to that need within us all to be nourished by what we eat at exactly that deep and often spiritual level.

Deborah's  husband Patrick's personal food is shown, in an improved form over the Arkansas original, in the photo: grilled pimento cheese panini, which the couple sometimes has for dinner, with a glass of French champagne.  My current eat-on-my-own food, what I often have for lunch before leaving to teach my afternoon class, is a flour tortilla with strips of roasted green chile, a shredded Mexican cheese sprinkled over them, then grilled in the toaster oven until the cheese melts and I can smell the chile.  It's a sort of quesadilla, I guess, though much less trouble to make.  I don't know how spiritually fulfilling it is, but it's mighty good, and keeps me going through an afternoon of trying to get across the difference between direct and indirect objects to my adult ESL class.

Anyone have some personal or solo-dining favorites to share?  I'd love to hear them.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Late February

We want it to be spring
Right now
The backyard birds and I.
Birds gathered in this cold
At suet blocks
Flocking on feeders
Feathered knots of hunger,
Desperation, greed.
    At the kitchen window
    Though warmed by coffee,
    Wool socks, silk underwear
    I too am desperate,
    Empty, hungry, cold.
    Waiting for something I cannot find
    In a bag of black oil seed.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


Maybe it’s just me. But, the company that makes Glad freezer bags is running a commercial right now that I find, well the word offensive might begin to describe it. Unfortunately I haven’t found a copy on the net anywhere. A word picture will have to serve.

Ms. Suburban Susie Sunshine walks up to the meat counter and orders “four pounds of sirloin, but just wrap two because I’ll end up throwing the rest away anyway” or words to that effect. WTF???????

The marketing geniuses that came up with this piece of crap go on to inform the viewer that the average food waste in this country is five hundred pounds per I’m not sure what. Is it per person, per household or are they lumping all the food wasted in public and retail kitchens together with the rest of us?

In any case, I’d love to know who’s throwing out my share. Most of what goes out of our kitchen is peelings and trimmings. And most of that gets mixed with composting base and ends up in the garden. We draw the line at potato peelings though. Growing your own is great, but spuds in the flower beds are a real pain to deal with because no matter how hard you try you NEVER DIG THEM ALL UP.

I don’t know, maybe the current crop of commercials are being designed by computers or something because most of them don’t make much sense anyway. But, this one is so low, it reaches a new high. In a country that has at least thirteen million hungry children, the idea that any food is wasted is troubling. In a world where millions live with hunger on a daily basis; I guess it’s a good thing the hungriest probably won’t see our commercials. And, as an extra added attraction, when or if you throw out a couple of pounds of meat because you didn’t store it properly in the first place you’re not only wasting the meat you’re wasting the resources it took to raise the blessed discarded two pounds of sirloin in the first place. Fertilizer, water, grain; it all joins that cut of meat in the garbage can.

I know that people in marketing departments live in their own little worlds; I’m not sure this group is even in the same solar system.

Cross posted in Walking With Hope.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday Photo

For years I've watched the Westminster Dog Show on television. I look forward to it every February. This year, I went into Manhattan with Joel and met a friend and attended the first day "Best of Breed" judging at Madison Square Garden. It was so enjoyable to watch, and I was particularly delighted as a "herd" of Old English Sheepdogs were paraded out They bring to mind a group of big fuzzy teddy bears.


I've posted an entire slideshow of photos from the show at my blog here.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Friday Photo

On our one-day vacation in Astoria today, I was on the look-out for a candidate for "Photo Friday." Wasn't having a whole lot of luck until after dark, on our way out of town toward home. There it was, the glowing beacon perched on the hill above the city: The column.


For those of you unfamiliar with this wonderful and unexpected work of architecture, here is what "Wikipedia" has to say about "our" column:

The tower was built in 1926 with financing by the Great Northern
Railway and Vincent Astor, the great-grandson of John Jacob Astor, in
commemoration of the city's role in the family's business history. The Column
was dedicated on July 22, 1926. The first Community Antenna Television (CATV)
System in the United States was built in 1949 utilizing the column. In 1974,
the column was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The murals
that make up the column were refurbished in 1995 and a granite plaza was added
in 2004.

The 125-foot (38 m)-tall column stands atop
600-foot (180 m)-tall Coxcomb Hill and includes an interior spiral staircase that leads to an observation deck at the top. The spiral sgrafitto frieze on the exterior of the structure is almost seven feet wide, and 525 feet (160 m) long. Painted by Electus D. Litchfield and Attilio Pusterla, the mural shows 14 significant events in the early history of Oregon with a focus on Astoria's role including Captain Gray's discovery of the Columbia River in 1792 and the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

Designed to resemble the Roman Trajan's Column, the Astoria Column was built of
concrete and has a 12-foot (3.7 m) deep foundation. Built at a cost of
$27,133.96, the tower has 164 steps to the top, where there is a replica of the
State Seal of Oregon.

And, the way--I have climbed the spiral staircase that winds up the center (a few years the daylight.) All hundred-and-however-many steps. The view from the top is incredible...but that's a picture for a different day. Anyhow, it looked very cool in the dark...

Monday, February 15, 2010

Something In The Air

It's just mid-February, there was frost on the truck windows this morning, and it's only forty degrees and overcast right now - but....I have been out there watering my rosebushes with freezing cold water from the rain barrels, accompanied by a talkative chickadee who almost came to my outstretched hand; and there's that certain something in the air that for the first time this year whispers...spring is on its way. More storms will surely blow in from the Pacific, bringing snow to the mountains, icy precip here in the valley, cold nights and mornings, but this week it's going to reach nearly sixty for daytime highs and the sun is supposed to shine.  Time to get some lettuce and mesclun seeds into the ground.  That whisper in the air is almost never wrong.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day!



The snow is melting; there's still quite a bit left on grassy areas, but no trace of the magic that was there when I woke two days ago. It's time to look forward to spring, so when I went to Central Market and saw one of my favorite harbingers of spring, pussy willows, I bought a bunch, and for Valentine's Day, a bunch of pink tulips too. This was money well spent: I smile every time I walk into my kitchen and see them.

A lot of women (and most of the men I know) hate Valentine's Day. It's sort of an odd day. It's supposed to be a day when lovers express their love for each other. I think that everyone who celebrates it with that in mind enjoys Valentine's Day; but for many people, Valentine's Day has become a day when men give gifts to women, and women give...well, whatever the gift inspires them to give, I guess. That's more than a little twisted.

I decided when I was very young that I wasn't going to sit around waiting and hoping for things to happen; I was going to take charge of my life. To that end I was on my own in Chicago when I was 17; I learned to drive at 30; I finished college and went on to grad school in my 40's; and part of that early decision is why I found myself getting divorced at 50. When I was younger, taking these steps was sometimes frightening but usually exhilarating, but as I get older, I find that a lot of the time what it actually entails to take charge of my life leaves me feeling like Sisyphus; especially when it comes to big things like refinancing the house, or buying a new car, but also for more mundane things, like realizing when the power went out during the snowstorm two nights ago, tripping a smoke alarm upstairs, that turning the thing off in the dark was up to me, and only me. I can laugh now at the fact that I managed to get the thing off the ceiling and remove the batteries while standing on a step stool in the dark, using my cell phone for light, but it didn't seem so funny at the time.

So, being the independent, take charge sort of woman that I am, I decided a few years ago that if Valentine's Day is a day for lovers to express their love for each other, then maybe those of us who aren't in a relationship on Valentine's Day should use it as a day to express our love for ourselves; to treat ourselves to some things in which we might not otherwise indulge ourselves. The first year I did this I wanted to commemorate it, so I bought myself a beautiful pair of garnet and pearl earrings. Since then I've kept it simple.

Tonight, wearing those earrings, I'll pour myself a glass of wine and make myself a really nice dinner: grilled scallops; a salad of mixed greens with chevre, walnuts, strawberries and blueberries, tossed in a raspberry vinaigrette; and for dessert, a bunch of grapes with two cheeses, white stilton with lemon, and brie.

If you're in a relationship, use this day to celebrate your love for each other, and if you're alone, don't miss out on the opportunity to use it as a day to celebrate your love for yourself. Happy Valentine's Day!

A Valentine From One Woman Of A Certain Age To Her Friends

I'm not sure you will understand this as a Valentine, gentle readers - so I feel a word of explication might be needed.  It is a Valentine to help us all remember that, past "the chains of flesh and time," the girls we once were are still part of us, that Elvis still has us in mind when he sings Love Me Tender, that this is a day to celebrate the love, the life, that remain; that, "until the last dance" we are still very much here.

Nearing Menopause, I Run into Elvis at Shoprite,

near the peanut butter. He calls me ma'am, like the sweet
southern mother's boy he was. This is the young Elvis,
slim-hipped, dressed in leather, black hair swirled
like a duck's backside. I'm in the middle of my life,
the start of the body's cruel betrayals, the skin beginning
to break in lines and creases, the thickening midline.
I feel my temperature rising, as a hot flash washes over,
the thermostat broken down. The first time I heard Elvis
on the radio, I was poised between girlhood and what comes next.
My parents were appalled, in the Eisenhower fifties, by rock
and roll and all it stood for, let me only buy one record,
"Love Me Tender," and I did.
     I have on a tight orlon sweater, circle skirt,
     eight layers of rolled-up net petticoats, all bound
     together by a woven straw cinch belt. Now I've come
     full circle, hate the music my daughter loves, Nine
     Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Crash Test Dummies.
     Elvis looks embarrassed for me. His soft full lips
     are like moon pies, his eyelids half-mast, pulled
down bedroom shades. He mumbles, "Treat me nice."
Now, poised between menopause and what comes next, the last
dance, I find myself in tears by the toilet paper rolls,
hearing "Unchained Melody" on the sound system. "That's all
right now, Mama," Elvis says, "Anyway you do is fine." The bass
line thumps and grinds, the honky tonk piano moves like an ivory
river, full of swampy delta blues. And Elvis's voice wails above
it all, the purr and growl, the snarl and twang, above the chains
of flesh and time.
                                                                                                  -Barbara Crooker

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Book Club Redux

Just a postscript to my request for people's experiences with book discussion groups. (And thank you all for your input.)  We neighborhood ladies got together last night, some of us - the communication was via email and it looks like not everyone reads theirs faithfully - for a planning session for our incipient group.  It was quite pleasant and relaxed, and I think I will enjoy an opportunity to meet like this once a month.  One of the members, Paula, was part of a group in Colorado for many years before she moved here, and she was a good resource and guide for the rest of us, who are neophytes.  She and I were the only ones who came equipped with book suggestions, so we only chose the first book, for our March meeting, the epistolary novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  This was one of Paula's suggestions, and one I have heard mentioned from others as quite a good read.  It is not one I would have chosen on my own, but it's a time and place that I do find interesting.

I know something of the history in which the story is set, the German Occupation of the Channel Islands, from a PBS presentation on Masterpiece Theatre, Island At War, several years ago,   I've read other books set in these Islands, starting with two by one of my favorite childhood authors, Elizabeth Goudge:  Island Magic. and Green Dolphin Street.  One of Elizabeth George's mysteries was also set on Guernsey, and maybe even one of PD James' Adam Dalgliesh mysteries.  In any case, it's a location that calls to me, one I hope to visit while I can still walk the cliffs and beaches.  So, despite my fears that this one is perhaps sweeter and more sentimental than I would normally choose, it's now in my library queue.  A lot of other people have it in theirs too, so I only hope we'll get it in time for us both to read it.

Something I found interesting last night was the complaints from the other women present about not having anyone to discuss a book with after they read it. Every woman there has a living husband.  Don't husbands (men) read?  Do women only read chick lit that their menfolk won't touch? Here is where Gail and I have a wonderful advantage.  We pretty much read the same books, eventually anyway, and always discuss them with each other.  Our women friends also read many of the same books, NOT what is generally thought of as "chick lit" either, and when we get together we often have a lot of informal book chat.  It will be interesting to see how formal book chat differs.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

To Book Club or Not To Book Club?? That Is The Question.

I'm looking for some experiential commentary here, maybe even some advice.  At our neighborhood Thanksgiving gathering (This is a very chummy neighborhood. We had a gigantic Thanksgiving potluck at the Millers' the Sunday before the actual holiday, with a turkey deepfrying on the patio, one roasting in the oven, aall of us bringing various dishes, wine, and so forth, while footballs games blared on TVs in both living and dining rooms.) some of the women in the 'hood began discussing getting a book club started amongst us.  Our oldest and dearest neighbor died soon after the New Year, and at her memorial gathering the topic came back up again.  This morning I had an email from one of the main suggesters of this book club idea, with everyone's email addresses and a request to send our favored days/hours to have an organizational gathering and get this show on the road. So, Looks like it's really happening.

Okay, so here's the deal - Neither Gail nor I have ever belonged to a book club of any sort.  We are constant readers, always have at least one book going at any given time, and a long queue waiting in various piles around the house and at the Public Library, but we've never done any organized group discussing of what we read since we were in college literature classes a thousand years ago.  We feel a little resistance to reading something a book group chooses, rather than what we ourselves choose to read.  On the other hand,
 we like our neighbors, know this would be a good way to get to know some of them on a less-superficial level, and maybe read outside our comfort zone.  Or not.  So, here's my question to the women in this group blog and any readers who visit  - have you ever belonged, or do you now belong to any sort of book club?  What has your experience with this been?  We can't be the only sixty-something year old women in America who've never belonged to a reading club, can we?  Help us out here, I'm really asking for some indepth thoughts on this subject.  (Photo: Our hall bookshelves.)

Friday, February 5, 2010

Friday Photo (Photo Friday...Whatever)

I haven't had enough of a brain to actually write something, but when I saw Mary Ellen's picture, I knew I had to at least cough up an image for "Photo Friday..."

And here it is:

sandstone eye for j

Last weekend, I carried my camera to the beach and just took pictures of anything that struck my fancy. And I saw this lovely formation in the side of the sandstone cliff. The colors are wonderful...I want to decorate my bedroom with them.

Anybody else have a picture to share (it's still Friday somewhere...)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Friday Photo Time

I put this photo, in a smaller version, in my second Quid Nunc? post on our trip down to Bosque del Apache to see the wintering Sandhill Cranes.  But it's just such a spectacular image, that I wanted to do it justice on its own.  After heavy rains, a very muddy day, the large-bodied birds left clear masses of tracks on the mud flats and roads (Photo credit goes to Julia Osgood.) 

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Had a squirrel at the feeder this morning that was either a newbie or felt like trying a new way to access the sunflower seeds. Not necessarily this squirrel. The other one was hanging by one foot from the hummingbird on the crook and apparently using the front paws to pull the feeder closer and chowing down. Lost his grip, managed to get up top, was startled by a passing car took off and then came back.

The second time he shinnied up the poles and tried the direct approach; hanging onto the poles below the humming birds and reaching for the feeder with the front paws. And this where I wish I could have gotten the shot. Squirrel is stretched between poles and feeder, hanging on for all he’s worth. The poles were wet, the feet went slipping down the pole and squirrel went flying, Finally seemed to say the heck with it and went back to square one. Hanging from the roof of the feeder by the hind legs and stuffing his little cheek pouches. So funny, but almost impossible to get the shot.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


To shamelessly entice you to visit my blog, Quid Nunc? and read my two-part post on our trip down the Rio Grande to visit the wintering Sandhill Cranes, I offer you this poem by Judith Roderick, from her book Poems From The Cranes Two.  

Crane Calls

Crane calls.
My heart
My eyes
The skies,
Spotting short,
Undulating flight lines,
Long necks
Preceding long trailing legs.
They come
Gliding over me.
I am engaged,
What century is this?
What lifetime is this?
I am so grateful
We are