Friday, July 31, 2009

"Y'know, Nietzsche says, 'Out of chaos COMES order.'"*

Yeah, OK, Nietzsche--if you say so. But you forgot about entropy. Order inevitably trends back toward chaos.

This has been on my mind a lot lately as I've been painting the upstairs rooms in our house, something I've wanted to do ever since we moved in two years ago. But the chaos of the move was exhausting enough, and the walls were an inoffensive (if muddy) off-white, so the painting got delayed.

Of course, now there's two years' worth of accumulated crap (and dust) that had to be moved out of the way to paint. The prospect of clearing enough space to get a ladder around was way more daunting than the actual painting.

As Jane recently wrote, painting is a bore. I painted houses (interior and exterior) one summer when I was in grad school, and while I'm grateful for the experience--I certainly use the skills I learned there more than those I learned in a lot of other short-term jobs--I was very glad to go back to class in the fall.

It was avocado paint that finally broke me. I was painting an ugly, recycled vanity with some hideous 1970s avocado-green high-gloss lacquer one morning, and just burst into tears. I'd broken up with a long-term boyfriend recently, and suddenly the magnitude of my misery hit me. What was the point of this work? The ugly vanity couldn't be improved with a couple of hideous coats of paint. It should've been kicked to the curb, just like my ex. Needless to say, that was my last day on that job.

Still, I remember the deep satisfaction of other projects, like when a coworker and I spent a week scraping, sanding, cleaning, and priming an old wood-sided bungalow in Clintonville, and the day finally came when we could put the color (pink--yes, pink) on. We did old-school brushwork--no sprayers--so it was slow-going. At the end of the day, we'd gotten about 3/4 of the way through, and decided to finish the rest the following morning.

We'd parked up the street, so had to drive back past the house on the way out. From a distance, we finally got a look at what we'd accomplished--there was only a tiny bit of white primer left exposed in a sea of pink. We whooped in unison.

I get some of that feeling when I paint now. Seeing the transformation in the upstairs rooms has been satisfying, but it's a much briefer feeling, since I then start thinking about how I need to clean before I put the furniture back in place, and retrieve all the things I've stuffed into closets, and do all the other cleaning and organizing I've neglected while I've been painting.

And cynic (or realist?) that I am, I also think about how eventually I'll have to dust the baseboards again, and touch up the paint, get the idea. Entropy.

* Immortal wisdom courtesy of Blazing Saddles.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Just for fun

The children's and YA literature blog 100 Scope Notes recently featured instructions for a meme to create a cover for your debut young-adult novel.

Pictured is mine, the screwball tale of a teenage lion-tamer whose dreams of a career as a Broadway hoofer nearly get derailed when she finds herself caught up in a madcap swirl of lies.

Here are the instructions (those of you who did the "create your album cover" meme that circulated on Facebook" will find these familiar):


1 – Go to “Fake Name Generator” or click

The name that appears is your author name.

2 – Go to “Random Word Generator” or click

The word listed under “Random Verb” is your title.

3 – Go to “FlickrCC” or click

Type your title into the search box. The first photo that contains a person is your cover.

4 – Use Photoshop, Picnik, or similar to put it all together. Be sure to crop and/or zoom in.

5 – Post it to your site along with this text.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Moon-Landing Memories

Just two, and I'll try to keep them short. One: I (very vaguely) remember the moon landing: we were at the neighbors' house, where there was some kind of major remodeling going on and my dad was helping. The tv was outside, and we all got called over to watch it, with the ubiquitous: watch this, and you'll remember it all your life. But I remember being told more than I remember what I was seeing on the screen. I was five.

Two: at the Neil Armstrong parade in Wapakoneta, afterwards. There was a plane (or jet?) flyover of some sort, and they dropped commemorative balloons on the crowd before the parade actually got going. With some urging or prompting from my parents, I ran out in the street to pick one up, like the kids went after candy in the 4th of July parade I went to a few weeks ago. Can't say I recall anything else about the parade; my folks may still have the balloons, as they certainly have other souvenirs.

Drove (or was driven) past the distinctive Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Wapak on family trips many times, but I don't remember ever being inside.

Though we didn't know it (or each other) at the time, Rosemary and I both owned and read You Will Go to the Moon when we were children. I have very clear memories of the torus-shaped space station and the fact that the space travelers in the station were watching a western film projected on a screen.

Haven't been to the moon.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Medieval Mysteries' Sins of Omission

Teaching science fiction and fantasy over the last couple of years, I've come to the conclusion that history is often depicted as a mystery to be solved: what really happened in the past? It's a way of thinking about the past that I can live with in the rest of my working life, too.

Recently, I've had the chance to read a couple of medieval mystery novels—not written in the middle ages, of course, but set during the period. One, Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin, features a female doctor from Salerno, visiting England in the 1170s; the other, A Plague on Both Your Houses, by Susanna Gregory, is set in Cambridge in (as you might guess) 1348, and its protagonist is also a physician, teaching in one of the Cambridge colleges.

Strikingly, both main characters are presented more or less as models of good medical sense—from a modern perspective. The Cambridge doctor, for example, doesn't believe in the efficacy of bleeding patients with leeches, while the Salerno doctor sterilizes things in alcohol. Perhaps relatedly, both show little religious feeling, and the female doctor is decidedly atheistic. It seems clear that both doctors are supposed to serve as protagonists that modern readers can identify with or relate to—they are our tour guides, more or less like us, modern and atheist (or only superficially religious), and they show us around a kind of simplified medieval world.

It's that simplicity of the medieval world depicted that irritates me about these books. In both (perhaps with a single counter-example in each case), religious figures like monks, nuns, and priests are generally depicted as venial, corrupt, hypocritical, and bigoted. The main characters, of course, are models of tolerance: in the Franklin book, the narrative focus begins on a collaborative group of detective figures: single female doctor, married Jewish man, single Muslim eunuch--that's a set of traveling companions you don't see every day, but is it intended to suggest that the book will counter our prevailing assumptions and stereotypes of the medieval world? If so, narrative tolerance is not equally extended to the medieval Christians, I think. In the end, I think the tour guides are too much like us, and the world they show us around is little more than a caricature, with surprisingly little in the way of telling historical detail.

In the end, I can't help comparing these books to Ellis Peters's Cadfael series, where the protagonist was also medically oriented—but his Christianity and his faith was really an essential and defining aspect of his character, even as he broke the rules of the monastery at times. Maybe that's how I can best put my finger on what I'm getting at: Cadfael knows he sins sometimes, but that doesn't make him a hypocrite in the books, it only makes him human. And Cadfael sees others--even the guilty--through that kind of lens as well. These more recent medieval mysteries might have been better off, I think, if they could depict human sinfulness more as medieval folks probably thought about it and see that all-too-human middle ground between sinlessness and hypocrisy. But our tour guides don't seem to see things that way at all in these books.

And maybe that's why I didn't find the mystery in either book compelling: the crimes (and too many of the characters) just don't seem medieval to me, and the motives of the guilty parties just didn't seem historically relevant. These are mysteries set in the exotic locale of the middle ages, but I'm not sure they're really medieval mysteries.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Kids in the kitchen

As Tom has written here before, we watch way too much Gordon Ramsay on BBC America. On The F Word (the "F" stands for food), Ramsay has been mounting a campaign to "get women back in the kitchen." Not out of any sexist belief that they should be there, but because he believes that cooking doesn't have to be complicated, time-consuming, or mysterious to be good.

I, however, am beginning to think that what we really need is a campaign to get kids into the kitchen. Tom and I laughed about this article that claims that three-quarters of children in the UK don't know how to boil an egg, since I boil eggs so rarely that when I do, I have to get out the Joy of Cooking to remind myself whether you put the eggs in the water before the water boils or after, and how long it takes to hard-boil them. But the article makes a good point: lots of kids these days grow up with no experience in the kitchen at all.

I've had firsthand experience with this truth in the last few weeks, as we've had houseguests with kids and visited relatives with kids. The friends who stayed with us have two daughters, ages three and six. We made pizza one night while they were here, and invited the six-year-old to make her own pizza. She looked a little worried until she opined that it was like making the "Lunchables" that are like little pizzas. Later, it came out that she'd never made herself a peanut-butter sandwich. A week later, this scene was repeated as we made pizza with my six-year-old nephew.

After the second experience, I asked Tom how old he was when he started cooking. He said he couldn't remember a time when he didn't help in the kitchen, and that he probably started cooking for himself as soon as he was big enough to reach the stove.

Now, his situation was a little unusual, since his mother has had rheumatoid arthritis since he and his brothers were very young, so the three of them were called upon to help out with household chores early because their mother had a lot of physical difficulty doing them.

But even though I had a very able-bodied mother, I also couldn't remember a time when I couldn't make myself a peanut-butter sandwich, and have clear memories of making simple, cooked dishes like scrambled eggs, grilled cheese sandwiches, and hot dogs by the time I was in first or second grade.

By fourth or fifth grade, I was doing a lot of cooking and baking, as you can see from this well-worn copy of The Cookie Book, which I got through the Scholastic Book Club. (I still maintain it has the world's best peanut-butter cookie recipe, which is why I've held on to it.)

This is not to say that our parents put us in front of the stove and toddled off, cocktails in hand, to play bridge. There was definitely supervision and guidance. When I was probably four or five, I put a plastic pot from my kitchen play set on the stove and turned it on, which resulted not in the delicious dish I'd hoped for, but a stinky pile of melted goo and a stern reprimand. But that experiment was also followed up with instruction about why you have to use real pots and pans on the stove, and an explanation of how the stove worked.

My sister recalled my mother calling home when she had to work late to say "Don't cook!" I suppose Mom feared coming home to a charred shell. But my siblings could all slap something together out of the fridge if they got hungry, and when a parent was home, they could cook.

Consequently, I was a little stunned at how anxious the mere idea of putting sauce and cheese on pizza dough seemed to make these two six-year-olds. And I say this not to cast blame anywhere, but just to raise a question about the state of kids' "culinary literacy" these days. As trendy as organic food, farmers' markets, CSAs, and "slow food" generally are these days, it seems like kids are generally left out of the equation...except in terms of how adults can control their intake of junk food, and improve the quality of school lunches.

But I think the real way to make long-term change is to get kids into the kitchen, and to teach them how to cook! Talk about empowerment: kids who know how to choose ingredients, follow a recipe, and experiment in the kitchen will grow up to be adults who don't have to rely on the processed-food chain.

You say you want a revolution? It starts at the stove.

* * * * *
Photo of my sister Pam at the sink of the apartment she and my brother Phillip came home to here in Morgantown, circa 1954.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Has no one any sympathy for the clown?

I am one of those folks who rarely remember their dreams. I'm sure some Freudian reader out there is already getting ready to reveal what that reveals about me, but I really don't care. I rarely recall my dreams past waking, and I'm perfectly happy with that state of affairs.

When I do remember my dreams, like this morning, they are often science-fiction dreams (although I also had some sort of medievalist dream this morning, in which my colleague Pat featured, though I don't recall any other details). I have a long tradition of science-fiction dreams, usually of the "alien invasion" sort. When I was young, I think they were scary dreams, but I no longer find them terrifying in the least, I think--my memory of most of them is not clear enough to be sure.

But once in a while, I have a dream that is a bit more memorable, or that (when I wake up) I tell it to Rose quickly enough that the retelling makes it stick in my memory. Once, for example, I dreamed I had the Ebola virus. As I told her the next morning, in my dream it really wasn't so bad: all I had were the ubiquitous "flu-like symptoms," and I recovered quickly enough. I'm sure that dream eased me of all sorts of anxieties!

But my favorite dream memory is waking up in the middle of the night one time with the title of this post swirling through my brain. I don't remember anything else, such as what sort of narrative antecedents might have led up to this rhetorical question, but ever since, I guess it's fair to say I've had a slightly different perspective on the life of a clown.

But I've never had another dream of one. As far as I can remember.