Friday, February 26, 2010

One-shot reads

This morning when I looked out the window to see that it was snowing, again, and promised to do so all day, I just about lost it. 

We'd finally gotten all the ice off the sidewalks earlier in the week, and I was starting to hear birds singing in the morning, and it's not dark out when I leave work anymore...and then another winter blast.

My primary urge upon seeing the snow blowing sideways was simply to go back to bed, preferably with a giant bag of cookies, and stay there until April.  Or at least all day.

But my thoughts instead ran like this:  I have a stack of midterms to week is going to be crazy-busy...I really need to get back to work on that article...the mailman has to work today, so why shouldn't you?

After an hour or so of feeling guilty, I compromised:  I wouldn't go back to bed, but I would spend the rest of the morning reading Sue Grafton's U is for Undertow, which I'd started a couple of days before.

As it turned out, I couldn't put it down and ended up spending the entire day reading it all, finishing mid-afternoon.

It's been a long time since I read an entire book in one shot, and while it was a guilty pleasure, I had no regrets.  Not only did getting absorbed in the story help me get through a day that started out feeling unbearable, there's just something so meditative and Zen-like about sustained reading like that.

When I posted something on Facebook about having spent the day that way, my friend Mike replied saying he had fond memories of spending a similarly snowy day reading Donna Tartt's A Secret History years ago. 

I, too, remember other marathon reads with great nostalgia:  Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone over a rainy weekend before final exams,  P. D. James' The Skull Beneath the Skin on a cross-country flight.  And of course, countless library books during childhood summer afternoons, which I consumed like potato chips while sitting in the butterfly chair on my parents' screen porch.

So, I thought I'd pose the question:  what books do you all remember reading in one shot?  And what kind of memories get conjured up when you recall that experience?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Carry On, Small Human

Once in a while when I'm teaching, something comes out of my mouth that I actually like. Most of the time, of course, I feel like a juggler, trying to take my own ideas about a work, along with ideas or questions thrown out by students, and trying, at the end of a fifty-minute workout, to get them all in the air at once, hopefully in some sort of pleasing pattern. And sometimes all I can say is that I drop the ball.

Yesterday, wrapping up a three-week, snow-day interrupted forced march through The Lord of the Rings (which can be read in much less than three weeks for pleasure, but can't really be read much faster for a class), I wrapped the whole thing up by suggesting that the lesson it offers us is "Carry on, small human."

Now, I'll admit that, while I quite enjoy Tolkien's trilogy, and it can sometimes put a tear in my eye, I love to read it skeptically and carefully, rather than reverently. So I like to ask students to realize that, of course, Frodo fails spectacularly at his quest, utterly giving in to the evil (if that's the right word) that oppresses him; Sam ends up talking to himself in ways frighteningly like Gollum; and that the quest only succeeds because Frodo, Sam, and Gollum make up an unlikely collaborative trio, one riddled with conflicting motives and drives. I like to point out all the ways that Tolkien suggests that the Ring itself arranges for its own destruction, suggesting that it might not be entirely evil after all. I like to point out that both Gandalf (the White) and Sauron (the Black) move the various characters around like players on a chessboard, and even Gandalf is willing to sacrifice many of them for a purely distractive feint, in a freakishly "end-justifies-the-means" kind of fashion.

And even great victory, of course, is a great loss in the book: magic departs from the land. As Galadriel suggests in what may be the best line in the book, "I pass the test" means "I will diminish." Not only are we all the pawns of vast forces beyond our control, but every victory shall be turned to loss.

And yet the book seems strangely hopeful. Carry on, small human, your burden is great. That may be the ultimate miracle of the book: to make a message like that, "Carry on, your burden is great," seem hopeful, even inspiring.

So I'll carry on, at least for the time being.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Years ago, I tried to make homemade marshmallows, and it was a fiasco.  I have no idea what went wrong, but the final product was inedible.  We regarded it as such an epic failure that once, during a game of Taboo with friends, the word "marshmallows" came up, and Tom's clue to me was "Those things you tried to make that were such a disaster."  Needless to say, we won that round.

When my sister came down to my mom's for Christmas this year, she brought along some homemade marshmallows she'd made.  They were fabulous, which is unsurprising since Pam is the best cook I know.

We brought a big Ziploc bag of them home and have been rationing them out, putting them in hot chocolate--the real kind, with milk, made on the stove.  It's no exaggeration to say that a cup of that cocoa with a couple of Pam's marshmallows has been the high point of many a dreary winter day over the last few weeks.

So, when we got down to the very last one, we decided to make some of our own.  It seemed like a fun Valentine's Day weekend activity, and I was bolstered by Pam's success into thinking that I could do it this time around.

Being too impatient to get her recipe, I went online and Googled "marshmallow recipes."  I went with the one with a photo of marshmallows that looked like Pam's had.  The recipe seemed odd to me--very little sugar (half a cup of sugar and a teaspoon of corn syrup) to a lot of binding material (two packages of gelatin and a whipped egg white).  But we forged ahead.

Well, it was another disaster, as you can see from the photos of the final product:  it looked more like coagulated cottage cheese in the pan than marshmallow.   Gross.

So, I figured, two strikes: that's it for me and marshmallows.  But I got back online and looked up a few other recipes, and discovered that there seem to be two approaches to marshmallow-making:  one with an egg white base, and the other with no egg whites at all, but with far more corn syrup.  I also discovered that the recipe I'd used called for a lot more gelatin, ratio-wise, than most others.

Tom suggested we try again, and this time we went with Thomas Keller's recipe*, and the detailed how-to explanation on the Cooking for Engineers website.   Success!  And vastly easier and faster than the first recipe.

The guy on the CFE site claims that purists believe that egg-white based marshmallows are best.  Perhaps they are, if you know how to make them.  But I'll be sticking with the  corn-syrup version.

Suddenly the rest of winter doesn't seem so intolerable, knowing these are in the cupboard, along with a great big canister of cocoa.

Have a sweet Valentine's Day, everyone.  Stay warm:  use your stove.


  *A couple of postscripts about Keller's recipe:  we only whipped the mixture for 8 minutes instead of 12, as the CFE site suggests.  Also, while Keller's recipe claims to yield "12 large marshmallows" from a 9" x 9" pan, we made ours in a 9" x 13" pan, and cut the slab into at least 36 pieces.  Keller's "large marshmallows" must be the size of bricks!

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Suddenly, this doesn't seem like a joke anymore, but rather like one of the most brilliant inventions ever.

Though frankly, the most brilliant thing ever is these puppies.  Seriously, if you live somewhere where it snows a lot, and you don't have a pair of these, buy some.

White Park, Sunday 7 February 2010

Sunday, February 7, 2010

File under "Better late than never"

In my last post, I mentioned the negatives my dad had been meaning to scan for so many years. 

He was an amateur photographer all his life, but really honed his interest during high school, when his mother (who also loved photography) allowed him to use the lone bathroom in their house as a dark room, doing the processing in the tub.  (This did not go over well with dad's older sister, Virginia.)

The negatives were all shots taken around 1940-1942, just as my dad was finishing high school.  He was drafted in early 1942, but was allowed to finish out his senior year before reporting to the draft board at Fort Hayes in Columbus.  Among the hundreds of images are a couple of shots of the Greyhound buses that pulled into Grantsville, WV, to take all the local boys who'd been called up to Ohio.

While Dad (and the rest of us) had talked for years about scanning the film, it never happened, as is typical with such "One of these days I really oughta" tasks.  When he was in the rehab center, though, he said explicitly, "If I ever get vertical again, the one thing I want to do is scan those negatives."

That was all it took to spur my sister-in-law Suzanne, a computer and Photoshop whiz, to action.  She had been laid off from her job at Ernst & Young a few months earlier, so she said, "I'm unemployed; what else am I going to do?"

Over the next week or so, Suzanne and my brother Mark scanned and archived hundreds of images--the ones they assembled into the slide show mentioned previously.  They didn't quite get to all of them before Dad died, but they've completed them since, and Mark sent a DVD of them off to Bob Weaver, the editor of the Hur Herald, an online newsletter out of Calhoun County, WV.  Grantsville is the county seat, and was, at the time Dad shot the pictures, a fairly bustling town.

Bob's started posting Dad's images on the Hur Herald website, so mostly I'm just writing to cross-post what he's got there.

But the best news to come out of all of this is that Bob also plans to send the images on to West Virginia University's Historical Photographs Collection, which is truly an amazing resource.  I can't tell you how happy it makes me to know that even if we didn't get this task completed in time for Dad to fully enjoy the result, others will for years to come.

Image above:  self-portrait, experimenting with double exposures

Friday, February 5, 2010

I let a song go out of my heart

As the song goes, "Little things mean a lot."  And they can also add up to a big meltdown.

Earlier this week, there was a story on the WVU homepage about "Hot Rod Hundley," a legendary basketball player here in the 1950s, whose number was being retired.  My dad had often told stories about Hot Rod's antics, and when I saw the story, I immediately thought, "Oh, I've gotta send this link to Dad!"  And then, I remembered:  Dad's dead.

A couple days later, I got a call from the "digestive specialties clinic" saying that they were ready to schedule my colonoscopy.  Though I'm only 44, I get the thrill of having this procedure every five years thanks to the fact that both of my parents had (and survived) colon cancer in their late 40s/early 50s.  I realized after I hung up, though, that I can't say my dad survived it anymore, apparently, since the doctors believed that the brain cancer he died of had probably metastatized from the colon cancer he had thirty-five years earlier.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, then, that watching WVU play its arch-rival Pitt on TV Wednesday night kind of put me over the edge.  It was the first time the reality truly hit me:  I'll never see my Dad again.  

Often since his death, I've become conscious of certain tunes being stuck in my head--and not because I've heard them recently, and they've simply gotten lodged there.  These tunes seem to float up from my subconscious, somehow.  On the morning Dad died, it was "When I Look in Your Eyes."  Later, "The Song is Ended (But the Melody Lingers On)."

That these songs would be archived in my brain isn't too surprising; Dad had his own dance band while in college in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and was a lifelong jazz afficionado and musician.  I grew up with this music as a soundtrack, piping through the radio on WOSU's Big Band Saturday show, or from Dad's collection of 78s and vinyl.

When Tom and I first started dating, he was astounded by the fact that I knew all the lyrics to so many of the old standards, but after many years of visiting my parents' house and hearing them continually himself, he's pretty good at recalling titles and lyrics himself. 

I'll never forget the tone of Dad's voice once when he told me about finally discovering a place he could go to hear (and make) music when he was in Army basic training in Texas.  Having been away from home--and his instruments, and the church choir, and whatever other musical outlets he had there--for months, he was, as he said, "So hungry for music!"  In many ways, I think it was the first time I genuinely understood how much music defined my dad--what a near-religious centrality it had in his life.

That was echoed again in his final days, when my brother and sister-in-law created a slide show of some old negatives that Dad had been meaning to scan and identify for a long time, and--almost as an afterthought--added a soundtrack with classics from Harry James, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and others.

We figured out how to connect Mark's mp3 player to the TV in Dad's room at the rehab center, and as Dad watched, I was astounded at his instant recall both of the people in pictures he'd taken sixty years earlier, and also of the title, artist, and lyrics of every single song that played.  When he tired and we got ready to leave, he asked us to leave the music running:  "I'll just drift off on that tonight."

That was just a couple of days before he died.  I'm glad to know that there was music in his life even toward the end of it, and I'm even more glad that even though I won't ever be able to enjoy watching him listen to and play music himself, he's left me with an enormous repertoire of melodies to remember him by.

Sometimes, in my more woo-woo moments, I even think his spirit is communicating with me through some of these songs.  I had one such experience this morning.  I'd actually been dreaming about Dad, and woke up with "Serenade in Blue" stuck in my head, for no apparent reason.  As I lay in bed slowly coming to consciousness, I tried to remember the words...When I hear that Serenade in Blue....da da da da da da da da daaaaa--to you?  Couldn't recall the exact lyrics.

An hour or so later I got in the car to drive to the gym, and turned on the Sirius satellite radio, which was tuned to the "40s on 4" station.  As I turned right onto High Street, what should start playing but "Serenade in Blue"?  I listened, carefully, to the lyrics I'd struggled to recall:
When I hear that Serenade in blue
I'm somewhere in another world, alone with you
Sharing all the joys we used to know
Many moons ago

Once again your face comes back to me
Just like the theme of some forgotten melody
In the album of my memory
Serenade in blue
Whether I choose to believe that there's some kind of supernatural communication happening through the music, or that it's a total (if pleasant) coincidence, or that I'm just in a place where I'm bound see what I'm looking for everywhere, it doesn't matter. The songs make me think of Dad.  They make him live, and they remind me that he lives on in me.  All I have to do is tune in and listen.