Monday, December 31, 2018

The Spiritual Psych Lab

I was amazed to hear a coworker, the lead cashier, tell a customer the other day that working at our thrift store was "stress free."
(The customer had asked what it was like.)

I added, laughing, "It is wonderful here, but I do scream sometimes."

The cashier looked confused. "The customers?"

"No," I said, "it's all the STUFF."

Stuff like donations of boxes full of moldy books do get to me sometimes. But actually, even more, it's my coworkers.
Or, more accurately, it's me.

The week after Christmas, I'd spent hours weeding Xmas crap that the Housewares Ladies were going to box up and save to put out again next year––after it didn't sell this year, even at half-price.
A bag of battered old pine-cones someone had priced $2.99?
I put most of it in the dumpster.  

I was trying, and failing, to convince the manager we should price all the remaining stuff 50¢ per item, and I said in frustration, 
"Are people brain damaged??!?"

Great, I immediately thought, I have hit a new low.

In fact, some of my coworkers are literally brain damaged, one way or another. A couple of the ladies have a touch of dementia, for instance, and do things like price and put out one-time-use food containers.

Others are just damaged. Old, poor, missing teeth, missing family, and wounded in various ways. "I'd rather get beat up than shot again," one of them announced the other day.
The cashier who said our workplace is stress free comes from a country at civil war.

I'd asked several of my coworkers if they'd gotten anything good for Christmas.
I stopped asking after five of them told me they'd gotten nothing, except what they got from work. (One of the managers gave everyone something she chose specifically for them. A big bottle of whiskey for a drinker. I got a pair of tiny, pink bicycle earrings, which I love.)

And here I come swanning in with my bright ideas. 
They ARE good ideas, objectively speaking, but they don't necessarily fit. Good ideas that don't fit aren't good ideas.
And when they don't fit... 
Well, I'm getting to see myself at my worst!

I catch myself and apologize (the manager brushed my outburst off, "It's normal"), but man oh man, I am no angel of acceptance and understanding.

I truly don't understand how a lot of my coworkers make decisions, even when I factor in cognitive biases.
Why do the ladies think it's a good idea to save rejected Xmas decorations for next year, when we don't have the room, or the staff to handle it?
We didn't even get out on the floor all the Xmas donations we'd saved throughout this year!

If I ask, they cannot tell me. They think I'm weird for asking.

I can guess at some of their motivation--they come from a generation that abhors waste, for instance. 
But the sheer inefficiency and illogic of the operation boggles my mind.

However, that's my problem, and I want to shed my outrage:
the social good the store does is HUGE (including providing work, paid or unpaid, to people who aren't wanted elsewhere), and that's way, way more important to me than if we waste time and effort on storing broken tchotchke.

A couple weeks ago, Big Boss called the first staff meeting we;ve had since I started seven months ago. I'd hoped we'd talk about merchandising, but we spent two hours mostly talking about how to be kind to difficult customers. 

Everyone had stories to tell. Me too. For instance, I'd washed a homeless guy's feet in the mop room because when he was changing into the free boots I'd given him, his feet gave off a gagging stench. Actually, I didn't tell that story because washing feet is too Jesus-y of an example, but we've all have done things like that. 

The guy who'd said he didn't ever want to get shot again, one tough dude, said proudly, "What other store would let a guy come in off the street and sit on a couch and read a book for hours?"

All of my coworkers believe that we should be kind, and kinder--that was no more up for debate than the belief that we should save last year's Xmas ornaments.


So. You know it's not enough just to think, "I'll just change x, y, z about myself––snap, like that!" 

I went into this job intending to look upon it as a spiritual psych lab, a place to practice dealing with conflict, being kind, etc.
And it really is practice, like Hanon's Exercises for the Virtuoso Pianist: "for the acquirement of agility, independence, strength and perfect evenness".

Today, New Year's Eve day, I am going to practice saying to myself, "with precision, very distinctly," what my coworker said:
"It's stress free!"

And sing to the tune of "Let It Snow," let it go, let it go, let it go-oh-oh!

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Seventies Books Display

At work, I'd been saving donated books from the 1970s for a while now. I put them all out yesterday.
Selection below.

Seen altogether, they really do catch the decade, from macrame to microwaves; transactional analysis to body building; folk music to feminism...

They're interesting, but I wouldn't want any of them. I'm curious to see if they sell. I priced everything 99¢ each.

I like making displays, but I'm not setting books and things aside anymore--there's not the room, and it takes time from all the many other things I need to do to keep the books section in trim. 
In fact, my New Year Resolution for work is to "price and put out". 
I'll still make displays, but only from what's on hand.

Rescue Reindeer

Walking through the parking lot at the thrift store, I heard a tiny voice.  "Help me!"

I went inside and got a bucket of hot water and a pair (pair?) of vintage mechanical ice tongs.
A bath at home restored Tiny Reindeer, who has happily joined the other Xmas decorations.

Last night I was reading a book on collectors. I'm not really a collector––(a major benefit of working at a thrift store is I get to enjoy things, but don't have to keep them)––but I do share some similarities. Still, I was surprised to recognize one of the reasons collectors give for collecting things: 
they feel sorry for left-behind objects!

Not Too Bad... As Bad Goes

The other night after work, I ate at the White Castle across from the K-Mart where the bus lets me off.

I almost never eat there––it's pretty disgusting (cold surfaces with a light film of grease, and you don't want to go in the bathrooms).
However, I had eaten nothing all day but leftover grocery-store Xmas cake and mini–Tootsie Rolls at work,
[New Year's Resolution: STOP THAT!
I had nothing at home except cold roast potatoes and a generic breakfast cereal called Corn Biscuits (basically Corn Chex, not too bad with bananas, if you have them, which I didn't), and I remembered that last spring White Castle served pretty good black bean burgers.
(I'm not vegetarian, but the meat at White Castle was definitely murdered.)

They don't serve black-bean burgers anymore. "They're seasonal," the server told me. [???]

Now they have something called an "Amazing Burger––Plant Based." Or, is it the Awesome Burger? Anyway, you can get cheese on it, but if not, it's actually vegan.
It's meant to taste like a burger, and I tell you, it's much, much nicer than their actual burgers. No gristle!

Also, their crinkle-cut fries are the best fast-food fries, IMHO.
I take some teeny-tiny sliver of hope for humanity from the fact that a place like White Castle offers a vegan burger. 
All the packaging, (I used five ketchup packets with my fries), etc., I'm sure it still has a plenty big carbon footprint, but less than meat. I hope. 
Even if we're doomed, it makes me fond of my species to see us make some effort to slow down impending disaster.

Also, the Awesome Burger actually tastes pretty good. Pairs nicely with Tootsie Rolls!

Today I am going to the grocery store to buy REAL FOOD.

Friday, December 28, 2018

More... Curious Donations

UPDATE to my collection of curious donations to the thrift store.

The two books, below, represents the most baffling donation yet: 
a whole box of broken, deteriorated old paperback bestsellers, some of them nibbled along the edges, each one individually wrapped in a tied plastic bag.

Beat-up book donation are common enough, like this Reader's Digest compilation below, but they've never before come wrapped.
Vintage Reader's Digest Condensed books like this one ^ (abridged popular works published from 1950–1997)) have beautiful covers. 
I put them out––the intact ones––for 33 cents, thinking someone might want to make book art with them.
Or, who knows, . . . read them?

Another donation with a handwritten note, below––
I love these (and I love this camel)––explaining that this German Christmas decoration came "from Aunt Caroline and Uncle Herman", and in "2008, at this date, object must be over 140 years old."

I'm going to stop noting unintentional food donations after this entry (unless it's unusual). It's all much the same: 
Someone was packing up after a garage sale or a move and left half-eaten food in with their donations, like this corner of pizza, below.
(Funny how it's color coordinated with the objects.)

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Movies I Walked Out Of: Fastest Yet

I spent most of yesterday, Christmas Day, with Mz. 
For a late breakfast, we had scrambled eggs and toast made in her new toaster (I'd gotten it at the thrift store), which she'd left here. Then we walked around the lake and went to see a new movie--
Vice about vice president Dick Cheney.
In record time, it joined my list of Movies I Left.

It starts with a notice, yellow words on the black screen:
This is a true story.

Then, below it, come the lines, something like:
At least as true as it could be, given that
 Dick Cheney is the most secretive politician ever.

And another line:
But we tried our fucking best.

OMG. Is this supposed to be daring and clever?
Are you twelve? Or, do you think we are (twelve, not clever)?

I turned to Mz and whispered, "Is this going to be a bad movie?"
She said, "Let's wait and see."

Four minutes later, she whispered, "Yes, this is a bad movie,"
and we got up and left.
We hadn't even finished our popcorn.
During that five minutes, another banner came on the screen: 
"Watch out for silent men. They wait, they listen, and then they strike." --Anonymous

You just made that lame quote up! 
And there was an almost constant voice-over, explaining everything. It was very odd. Everything signaled that this movie was badly made, despite a stellar cast, who I was almost sorry to leave.
The thing that made me eager to leave was that awful things flash on the screen with no warning. For instance, Cheney is walking down a hall and you see a second or two of a naked prisoner cowering (in Abu Ghraib?). 
Administering random shocks is not a substitute for story-telling.

I don't think I've ever walked out of a movie so quickly.
We looked up reviews afterward, and lots of people confirmed that the movie does not get better after five minutes.

We went back to my place, ate leftover pot roast (even better the next day), and watched an episode, "The Sound of Her Voice" (1998), of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It came recommended on a "Best of DS9" list.

Most of the episode is simply different crew members talking (on "comlink") to an offscreen starship captain who is marooned alone on a barren planet. She has enough air to survive five days, and it's going to take our crew six to reach her, but they try anyway.

Dr. Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig), talks with the marooned captain

They, and we, never see her face.

Like most of Star Trek, this episode looks kind of cheap, the acting is uneven, and it's not particularly well written––but it has a gripping central idea.
It provided such a contrast to Vice
a good story, simply told, wins by a mile over high-production quality and flashy editing.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas Eve

It's Christmas morning now, and I'm washing last night's dinner dishes in shifts: the wine and water glasses are drying while the plates soak in the sink.

This is the tenth Christmas Eve, I think, I've made dinner for friends. 
I use my mother's super-easy, fail-proof Pot Roast Recipe:

1. Sprinkle Lipton's onion soup mix over a chuck roast

2. Add potatoes and carrots, and a bottle of cheap red wine

3. Bake in a covered pan in a 275º oven until you can pull the meat apart with a fork (about 4–6 hours).
I love making Christmas Eve dinner for friends, but I was unexpectedly sad yesterday afternoon that I didn't have anyone to make the dinner with

I usually am more than happy to be single (really!), but yesterday I longed for someone else to share my life. Specifically, I mourned that there was no one to make green beans. 

You know how easy it is to cook green beans--I could have made them myself, but I just couldn't bring myself to do ONE MORE THING.
I felt very sorry for myself until the guests arrived, and then I had a wonderful evening. I didn't serve anything green at all, but as Mz said, "It's all about the roast."

Below, me, bink, Maura, Cathy, and Mz opening presents:

Monday, December 24, 2018

Playing with the Dragon

"Snowballs? Mary rolled her eyes. 
What would her child think of next?"

I seem to be moving into rescue art (for the prevention of cruelty to animals in art), as well as rescue stuffed animals. 
(See also my rescue matador.)

Last night I adapted this Ethiopian Coptic Christian hand-painted diptych that I got from the thrift store:
now St. George and the dragon are playing with baby Jesus, instead of George lancing the dragon through the mouth.

The diptych is small––each wooden panel would fit in your hand.
The miraculous snowballs are vintage, decorative pin heads. 
I carved holes for them to rest in, so they are 3D but not sitting on the surface of the panels.

As I worked on this piece, I thought of how wise the Dalai Lama's advice is, to consider staying within the religion you were born into, rather than converting to another. 

I'd been baffled when I first read that advice. (It's just a suggestion, not a rule. Like staying with a person you married, there are limits to this being a good idea!). Potentially, it has a lot going for it. 
I've come to feel, for instance, that you have more license to mess with your birthright than with something you chose (toward which you might feel more like, Who am I to mess with this?).

Along those lines, I have an easier time choosing whether or not to put my feet up on my family's furniture--and to accept the consequences, whatever they might be.

I was enjoying that familiarity as I changed this panel. 
I would NOT adapt the icons of another religion: 
I wouldn't trust that I understood fully enough what was negotiable and what was not, even, I suspect, if I'd converted to that religion––at least not for a good, long time. 

Anyway, sticking with my culture's religion has paid off for me:
 I'm perfectly comfortable depicting Saint George changing the dragon through loving play rather than through violence. 

(Or, as Art Sparker implies, perhaps it's the other way round: the Dragon changed George...)

Saturday, December 22, 2018

2018: My Photo Year in Review

Some Photos of My 2018
  5th Annual Photo Review

February: me, nervous near the edge of the Grand Canyon, on trip with bink

Winter 2018 Stuffed Animal Rescue: 
Squash the Squirrel, Before and After

March 25, 2018: with bink (& Capt. Kirk!) at the State Capitol, March for Our Lives, in support of kids calling for end to gun violence

April: Texas Library Assoc. Convention, Dallas
I sign my fandom book and speak about history of toilets book

 Springtime with Penny Cooper & Red Hair Girl

June: I become Custodian of Books at the thrift store;
Below, right: The Big Boss

Sister working on our Lady of Shalott re-creation, #toyphotography

August: Sewing lamb liver for haruspex divination, 
for Latin teacher Amy P.

October: At Duluth's indie bookstore

 Sister (seated), me, & bink, making costumes for the Orphan Red dolls at my place

Halloween, Marz & Julia

December: with Santa and John

Remembering my father (below, left, Vietnam protest, 1967) 
& mother (below, right, in tan jacket, Gay Pride, 1977)

Friday, December 21, 2018

Pigeons on the Asphalt

I woke up feeling leaden, but my mood lifted as soon as I left the house. Walking to the bus stop, I remembered I've been meaning to start photographing the huge parking lot that's on the way.

People hate this parking lot. It's an entire paved half-block, in front of an old supermarket that's been closed a couple years and a thriving K-Mart.

I see why people think it's ugly, compared to, say, a green park. 
But I like it. It's one of the few large open spaces nearby where you can see the sky, and it has its own ecosystem: people who hang out there and, especially, flocks of birds--mostly pigeons and seagulls.

The expanse of asphalt makes me think of the grey sea.

If I could write like Melville, I would write about this parking lot.

Let's see...
[quick google]

A-ha. Yes. Here, the third paragraph from Melville's short story, "Benito Cereno":
"The morning was one peculiar to that coast. Everything was mute and calm; everything grey. The sea, though undulated into long roods of swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter's mould. The sky seemed a grey mantle. Flights of troubled grey fowl, kith and kin with flights of troubled grey vapors among which they were mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms."

Here's a photo from this morning.
I think the pigeons are very fine.

Sleepy Solstice

All is well. It's Solstice! I love my job!
My friend wrote a good, long response to my apology yesterday.  
But I feel like a grumbly sleepy bear, and I really don't want to bike to work in this gray, 23ºF morning. My bike's snow tires make it even less appealing--the added grip means they're slower and harder to pedal.

I want to be at work, I just don't want to have to get there.
I don't want to bus or walk either, but those are my (affordable) options.

I'll bus.
It takes twice as long as biking, because it goes down a busy street and stops at every corner, but I just don't have the oomph to head out into the wind.

I don't have the oomph to write a more interesting blog post in the meantime either. But I figure this represents the sort of everyday grumble you get when you live with someone:
"I don't want to _________ [fill in the blank with some required daily activity]!"

So I'll leave it.

Yes. So... Happy Solstice, everyone! I'll pick up speed once I get going.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Scraping the Cheese

A couple nights ago, I came down hard on a friend who sometimes uses a phrase, online and in person, that I dislike.

It doesn't matter what the phrase is. 
It is loaded––it makes the speaker sound superior––but it's not something that causes harm.

In other words, I wasn't being a social justice warrior.
Not that I approve of call-out tactics. I don't! 
But I don't even have the [flimsy] excuse that I was acting in the cause of justice. 

No, I was being mean.

We were out with a couple friends and my friend said this thing, and I jumped on it. Rather, I jumped on my friend.

I made it sound like I was making an intellectual point about communication choices. While that was possible, in theory––[the usefulness of the phrase is debatable]––I knew even as I was doing it that, in fact, I was being a jerk because I was personally annoyed.

I had a terrible emotional hangover all the next day.

Only this morning did I get it together to write an apology.

I'm writing about this here because I want to set my intention not to do that again. I don't do it often, but I have done it before, and hurt some feelings. 
I don't like myself when I do that.
I think--I hope--it'll help me change if I understand the mechanism behind my mean behavior.

First, it was a matter of timing. 
I had let my annoyance with the phrase, and my friend for using it, build up over time. I'd told myself it didn't matter, when the case was that I didn't want it to matter, because I didn't want to deal with it.
This is bad policy.

I know I do better, am kinder and clearer and cause less (or no) harm, if I speak up in good time. If I don't, I get resentful, and resentment is like a spot of mold on cheese: it grows.

So--that's my first intention: 
cultivate practices (memory, bravery, perspective, curiosity) that help me to deal with the unpleasant thing in good time.

Then, and this is trickier, I see that my behavior perfectly fit my childhood training.
That's trickier because that training is the underlying condition--the cheese on which mold grows. (Does that metaphor work? I mean, if you live on cheese, you can learn to watch for and scrape off mold, but you can't eliminate cheese itself.)

My parents could be merciless toward people who made mistakes--mistakes that bugged them, anyway.
They acted toward the offending person as if the person had committed a mortal sin, and they, my parents, were the guardians of purity.

Literally. My mother once quit a publishing job over house style about commas. She acted as if she'd struck a blow for civilization and she was the superior party for, as she put it, not suffering fools.

She was right about the commas, but she was wrong in thinking she was avoiding annoyance (and fools) by cutting herself off from a certain group of humans.

We humans are annoying. All of us. 
But, we are the cheese.
I mean, if you cut away all the cheese, you have nothing.
And my mother did eventually end up so hollowed out and alone, taking her own life appeared to her preferable to carrying on.

My father cut people off too, for offending him. Silence was his tactic of choice. 

When I was a young teenager, during the lead up to the Iranian Revolution, I said something [uninformed] about how bad the shah of Iran was. My father, a professor of political science, froze me out for an evening. 

Eventually he explained the larger situation, that the religious fundamentalist Khomeini, who was worse than the shah, was waiting in the wings. 
But education wasn't his first response. Punishment was.
(God, that's weird to look back on.)

My father did a lot better than my mother did, sitting alone with his cheese. Toward the end of his life, he said he was happy with his life, and I believe him.
But I don't want to be like him.

That training is a lot harder to undo.
But I can set my intention and say (again, again, again), I want to do it differently.

Like Richard Feynman, in the talk I wrote about yesterday, I can raise this question with an open spirit of inquiry: 
How could I do it differently?

Could finding out even be . . . fun?

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

A Thing I Loved Reading

I. First, a couple bookplates

These were mounted in books donated to the thrift store––I wish I'd been photographing bookplates all along, and noting the date of the books they are in.  
These are very Rockwell Kent-y, I'm guessing the 1930s.

Oh! Turns out Rockwell Kent designed hundreds of bookplates, though not, I think, these? Here are a few on Pinterest.

II. "Fun to Make"

After stewing about not reading novels much anymore, I was wondering, what do I love to read?

I was extra happy to read something that made me happy, so I can say: THIS:

 "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom", a transcript of talk about making things tiny, given by physicist Richard Feynman in 1959.

"Why", Feynman asks, "cannot we write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica on the head of a pin?"

To begin with, the question itself is fun, almost silly––and understandable to nonscientists (like me). 
Like good questions do, it has enormous extension.

Feynman didn't have an exact answer––it wasn't an "I'm going to tell you how" talk, it truly was an invitation to enter into the question. 
He set forth a few possible solutions (save room by encoding the alphabet as dots and dashes that carry bits of information...), 
and a few hurdles--including, how to lubricate tiny working machines.

He finished by setting a wager with scientists to  make a working motor no more than 1/64 of an inch on all sides.
Famously (so the book says––I didn't know anything about it), Feynman paid on the wager twenty-six years later.

I could understand almost everything––not the science, but the overall ideas––because he puts it in everyday terms:
"How many times when you are working on something frustratingly tiny, like your wife's wrist watch, have you said to yourself, 'If only I could train an an to do this!' What I would like to suggest ins the possibility of training an ant... What are the possibilities of small but movable machines? They may or may not be useful, but they surely would be fun to make."
Of course we have these tiny machines now––I had my gallbladder removed by some such thing––but it was his idea that they'd be fun to make--even if useless--that made me so happy.

Here's a PDF of it as originally published in Caltech's Engineering and Science, 23 (5), pp. 22-36:

I read it in a paperback book of collected essays: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (Helix, 1999).

Monday, December 17, 2018

Oh, Henry

Toy army guys, reimagined by me and given to a friend, who sent me this nice photo of them set up in her kitchen.

(I need to find a way to melt army guys besides holding them over a gas flame on the stove. Stinky! Boiling water might soften them enough to re-mold?)

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Chaucer Colors

I found a word my phone's spell checker doesn't know: Chaucer.

After I took a photo of myself with the beautiful squash, veg & rice I just cooked––my first meal on my new stove––I saw in my photo stream that the colors were like the bright, fun 1950s end-papers of Tales from Chaucer I snapped at work yesterday.

It is my intention with my new stove & fridge to COOK BEAUTIFUL FOOD. I make efforts in this direction every so often, and sooner or later I fail . . . but I am not done trying.

I was a little alarmed by my cholesterol readings a couple weeks ago, but the doctor sent me a message explaining them further. She wrote, "Your cardiac risk is VERY low--you don't have to worry about your cholesterol."

And I was, like, Don't tell me that!!! I was all set to make Dramatic Changes

I want to make them anyway though––because I want to. I mean, if I had a personal chef, I'd never request the diet I actually eat.
I would request roast squash with sautéed greens, brown rice, and fresh ginger soy sauce.
 Which is what I just made.

P.S. The outside of the Chaucer book was dull and damaged. I set the book up so the illustrations showed, and it sold within the hour.  ($1.99)

Left Behind

The guys who delivered the new stove took away the old one--except for the burners and their valves, which they left lying on the back porch. 
I picked them up to take to recycling, and they appeared to be sentient beings. (Birds?)
They can stay with me.

Perhaps I will give them some sort of wire plumes––they would attach easily in the little holes where the flames came out.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Distressed (Not Distressed)

I am not distressed, I'm happy to say. 
The sky is blue (finally!), my new gas stove is hooked up (finally), and I found out the thrift store is closed December 24, to give us all a four-day weekend.

My downstairs neighbor is singing LOUDLY (as is his wont), "It's gonna be a bright, bright, bright, sunshiny day!" 
[Johnny Nash, "I Can See Clearly Now", on youtube]

I've mentioned that I rescue distressed fabrics from the recycle bin at work.
Here is Julia (looking uncharacteristically like a 1970s knitting model), wearing a rescue sweater a couple days ago––green Shetland wool with big moth holes, the best for visible mending. She is patching it with blue wool:

And here are the Orphan Reds with a faded doll blanket. (A lot of the fabrics for their outfits are thrifted too.)
I love the soft old blanket, even though the fragile fabric pulled apart in spots when I washed it. But I had to wash it, it was so fusty:

On my days off, I really want to work on restoring some bears.
But first I HAVE to clean my place, which looks like a tornado came through.

Thursday, December 13, 2018


Everything was going smoothly, and then yesterday: bump, bump, bump.
By the evening, I felt like I'd fallen down stairs, emotionally.

Oddly, my neighbor Scott did take a nasty fall, for real: in the dark early evening, he had stopped to lean on a fence around a construction site, in order to respond to a text. The fence was not anchored––it was merely a suggestion not to go into the site––and he took a bad fall. Luckily he didn't break anything.

With me, nothing's exactly wrong... Some annoyances are even for the good---such as tearing up my kitchen corner (I live in a small one bedroom) to receive a NEW STOVE & FRIDGE!!!

I am, in theory, over the moon, but in the flesh, I am jangled. The guy who was going to hook the stove up to the gas line couldn't come last night, so he'll come tonight...
Meanwhile, everything's still out of place this gray morning.
(Bright spot: I have already hung my 2019 Star Trek calendar.)

I do LOVE my new fridge!
 My old one was an ice-age behemoth. This is the first morning in a couple months the milk for my coffee wasn't an ice-slushy.
And the new one's so quiet! 

I woke up this morning, however, to see I'd left the mayonnaise sitting out. (The capers too, but there's no way they're going bad in a hundred years.) I'm not too worried about food safety, and my apartment is quite cold overnight, (temps were in the teens (F) last night), but it was drilled into me as a child that eating warm mayonnaise will kill you, so I'm throwing it out.
Just another little annoyance.

One annoyance I brought entirely upon myself.

I post on the thrift store's Facebook page almost daily. The post from yesterday disappeared last night. I lay awake fretting about who might have removed it---top candidate is a certain someone in corporate, a woman I dislike without even knowing her.
She's a real person, but for my purposes, mostly she exists as a rancid figment in my head.

This morning, the post is back. (This has happened before--some glitch on FB's side, I think.)

Never mind.
Good thing I hadn't fired off an accusatory email in the middle of the night, LIKE I CONSIDERED!

I have to laugh:
if I had any illusions (I didn't), this proves I am still far, far from being the patient, accepting type I keep thinking I'm going to turn into...

These are all minor, but on top of everything, I was inexplicably sad. I went out for a beer after work and actually shed a few tears of sadness––very unusual for me.
There are always a million things in the world to be deeply sad about, but I almost never cry. The source of the tears was a mystery to me.

Last night I realized, of course! This week is the anniversary of my mother's suicide in 2002.
I'd recently been thinking how removed her death feels. Sixteen years ago. Maybe this year, I'd thought, I won't even register it.

But I've noticed before, when the Earth tilts at this angle, and the light shifts just so, my body remembers.


P.S. Thank you, Michael, for quoting in your comment, "There's a certain Slant of light", by Emily Dickinson--it's perfect. 
I put the whole poem in the comments, or it's online here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Orange Books

I put out new (used) books on display, and yesterday it happened that several covers were orangey, so I rounded up some more orange/red covers. (We have been grey and cold here for weeks.)

I'm posting this extra large, so you can see the titles:

We've been getting some great book donations--not just  unread newish books, but--even better--first ed. paperbacks, like that old Fran Lebowitz, which sold immediately, as did an old paperback of Tom Wolf's Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, and the collected writings of Ho Chi Minh...

I think --no, I can see, that a lot of visitors to the books area are my age--I owned that ed. of Metropolitan Life. Maybe they did too.

Monday, December 10, 2018

"Stupid people who gain power are never stupid about threats to their power."

"[Voltaire] so much enjoyed vexing stupid powerful people that he kept forgetting that stupid people who had gained power were never stupid about threats to their power.
Each time he poked the silly tiger and the tiger clawed back, he was genuinely shocked.

--Adam Gopnik, "Voltaire's Garden: The philosopher as a campaigner for human rights," New Yorker, March 7, 2005

The setting of the quote:

"It was at this moment of delight and apparent retreat, of affable manners and simple living, that [Voltaire] began the series of crusades that eventually blossomed into the human-rights campaigns that came to dominate the rest of his life.
It would be nice to say that Voltaire was a courageous man whom no amount of comfort could seduce. The truth is that, as his friend Condorcet wrote sadly, he was easily terrified, and often a coward:
'He was often seen to expose himself to the storm, almost with temerity, but seldom to stand up to it with firmness.'
And, of course, no man of fewer sublime feelings has ever lived; he was baffled by religion and spirituality, materialist and carnal to the core.
"What motivated him, then, to start up?
Partly it must have been that he so much enjoyed vexing stupid powerful people that he kept forgetting that stupid people who had gained power were never stupid about threats to their power. Each time he poked the silly tiger and the tiger clawed back, he was genuinely shocked.

"And then there is a kind of egotism so vast and so pleased with itself that it includes other people as an extension of itself. Voltaire felt so much for other people because he felt so much for himself; everything happened to him because he was the only reasonable subject of everything that happened. By inflating his ego to immense proportions, he made it a shelter for the helpless."

A Few Thoughts on Not Reading Novels

When I was a little kid, out in the car with my father, I used to marvel that my father could predict when a red stoplight was going to turn green.
When it dawned on me he was watching the other set of signals change from green to yellow, it was like finding a key to solving the world:
Look for the patterns.

I've been thinking about why I stopped reading novels in my forties, some dozen years ago. 
I still read some, but I used to read nothing but. 

I bet someone has written an incredibly insightful, spot-on essay about this––publishers know it's a predictable shift in reading patterns––but I want to try to figure it out for myself. 
So, I'm going to launch into it here.
(I've been musing on it for a while, so these aren't entirely new thoughts, but I haven't written them out fully before, so this is somewhat preliminary.)

I'm pretty sure it mostly has to do with me being old(er).
I have seen the patterns laid out in novels many times before. Often, I am either too bored, too critical, or too emotionally frazzled by real life to enjoy reading them again.

At any rate, it's not novels that have changed, it's me.

I used to read novels for entertainment. 

Much entertaining fiction stopped working for me. When I was a teenager, I read Gothic-y romances, for instance. I loved Mary Stewart! 

That was the first fiction I remember failing due to plot fatigue.

It seems predictable that people would tire of these formulas, but there's a pleasure in them too: romance and crime/mysteries are the top selling fiction genres. But I can't get into them.

Then, authors sometimes (often enough) get behavior and motivation wrong--just a little, which is all it takes to ruin a story. 
I recognize this more easily, being older: "That character is false."

I can't stand to read Charles Dickens anymore, for instance. Some of his characters--especially his women--are so ill formed, I just can't overlook it.

I suppose I'm becoming Charlotte Bartlett! 
In Room with a View, Charlotte Bartlett, the annoying older chaperone, says dismissively of a young man, "I have met the type before."

When I was young, I thought she was a killjoy. 
And she is, but, she's also right--because she's old and HAS met the type before.
How long are Lucy and the young man in question, George, going to be happy, after their marriage? (NOT that Lucy'd have been happier with her first choice, Cecil.)
But then, E. M. Forster has written a comic novel, not a tragedy.

I used to read novels for education. Why do humans do the things we do?
Not such a mystery at almost-sixty.
Human behavior is complex, and I'm still interested, but for years I've turned more to neurology and social studies (including economics) than tales of personal experience.

I used to be very interested, when I met people, in their personal stories, and I notice I'm not so much anymore.
Partly this is because I learned that people are not their own best interpreters. 

I wanted people to explain their political beliefs to me, for instance. Not what their political beliefs were, but WHY they believed them.
It's a rare person who can do that. Novelists are people too.

I used to read novels for escape. Take me away!
I don't feel that need so much anymore. 

I sleep a lot--that shuts down the circuits better and gives me time to process the stimulus of the day.

I used to read novels for emotional experiences.

Now, I don't want to put myself through that wringer. I've had plenty of it in my own life--I wouldn't choose it for entertainment's sake.

I started to read Madame Bovary last year. Right away, it was great! When Charles Bovary meets young Emma, she's darning a sock (darning!), and he sees drops of sweat on her bare shoulders.

"She worked with her head bent down; she did not speak, nor did Charles. The air coming in under the door blew a little dust over the flags; he watched it drift along, and heard nothing but the throbbing in his head and the faint clucking of a hen that had laid an egg in the yard. Emma from time to time cooled her cheeks with the palms of her hands, and cooled these again on the knobs of the huge fire-dogs.
"Some flies on the table were crawling up the glasses that had been used, and buzzing as they drowned themselves in the dregs of the cider.  "
Oh my God. Those details--the way she cools her palms on the metal... TOO REAL! I can't stand to go on: I know how it goes, in the novel, and in real life.
I don't want to watch Emma drown in the dregs of cider.

I can't stand to watch Humbert Humbert destroy Lolita again, either, even though the writing is sublime.

And so on.

So--ha! Am I saying either the writing is too poor--I can't suspend my disbelief, or I lose interest--or it's too good, and I can't bear it?
Maybe so.

A Few Novels I Love

I do still read novels, here and there, and I still love some novels I first read decades ago.

Some fiction I've enjoyed recently, I've enjoyed for the nonfiction in it. A River Runs Through It, for instance.

The self-destructive brother? Yeah, yeah, I have met the type before.
But I knew nothing about fly fishing. I would not have read a how-to nonfiction account of it, but
I loved reading about that in a fictional setting!

Then there are novels that tell a story in an unusually honest way that cuts through a common myth--and tell it well.

Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson (first published in Holland, 1947), about a Christian couple hiding a Jewish man, who dies of natural causes, and the couple has to dispose of his body--really about the daily annoyances of doing the right thing. 

Similarly, I  have never read anything like the amazing novel Life with a Star, by Jiri Weil (Czech, first published between 1945-1948).

Based on the author's real experience, this novel is about the daily annoyances of hiding from the Nazis. The protagonist, a Jewish man hiding in Prague, almost gives himself up to a round-up for transportation to a concentration camp ... for the relief of getting it over with! to set down the heavy burden of freedom, and to join everyone else. 
So human! 

There's a rare person, who knows that and can convey it:
I don't want to be free:

But... he does choose it.

The author did not go on to have a happy life, but he did survive to write this book, and others.

And, is it too flippant to say I was happy to see he had a cat?  >

Jane Eyre.

I reread this a few years ago, and it was an entirely different book than the book I'd read when I was twelve. Then it was about an unloved, almost unlovable girl who finds love––a Gothic romance, in fact.

Now it was.... mmmm... almost, like, A Guide to How to Become an Artist When Everything, Really Every Thing, Is Against It.

I suppose it's like Life with a Star,  come to think of it: a novel based on the author's lived experience of how much bloody work it is to choose freedom.

When I was young, I thought Jane should have stayed with Rochester, despite finding out about his secret wife. It took me several readings over many years before I saw what her choice meant.

I think it's hard for some modern readers like me to see, because social standards have changed so much, and Jane is being true to a standard that is out of fashion.
But it's not the standard she is being true to, it is her self.

The happy ending is, sadly, a bit of untruth. There was no conventional happy ending for Charlotte Bronte, anymore than there was for Jiri Weil. 

Maybe they had some happiness in having written a true novel?

Isn't it pretty to think so?

Heh--and there's a reason to read novels--for the sentences!

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Tower of What I'm Reading

This has been missing from my life for a while now: 
a big pile of books to read or browse for fun––and, key, ones that I don't have to return to the library
(I spilled coffee on a couple of them and didn't have to worry about fines.)
And I don't have to read any of them at all, unlike the wonderful but required-reading books I used to pile up when I was editing or writing nonfiction for teens.

You can see I have no Central Reading Plan--I randomly chose these books, half from work,  where I will eventually return them (though the coffee-splashed ones will have to go on the 33¢ shelf).

I have, however, recently adopted a plan to pick up Newberry Medal books, awarded "for excellence in American children's literature", when I come across them at work.
When You Reach Me (2009), by Rebecca Stead, on top, is one. It was disappointing, like a good cake with a wet, fallen center: the central plot point (a mysterious writer needs a girl's help) is weak and wobbly. It seems to me he could have done what he needed to do without her.

I also read Newberry winners Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book (2008), which is lightweight but which I enjoyed––it doesn't pretend to be more than it is, a graveyard frolic, with a message that growing up means leaving things behind––and Miss Hickory, (1946, by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey), whose message bothered me:
Miss Hickory's nut head is eaten, and she's supposedly better off NOT THINKING SO MUCH. 

Oh, also Walk Two Moons,(1994, Sharon Creech), which also was disappointing. Among other things, the girl has a great-great grandmother who was Seneca Indian, but the girl is so entirely separate from any Native culture, it's just an embarrassingly meaningless feature.

Come to think of it, my guiding principle is The Pleasure of Finding Things Out--not necessarily facts, you know, but ... um, finding out what's inside someone's head, or what it ... smells like.

The book that stands out in this regard, by far, is the novel Troll: A Love Story, by Johanna Sinisalo (2000, translated from the Finnish).

I don't have much patience with fiction anymore––after reading nothing but for thirty years, the stories became over-familiar, the errors glare, and I tend to wander off, halfway through.

And then I read something unexpected like this. It reminds me of eating cilantro for the first time--I thought it tasted like underarm odor, in a good way. How can that be?

The story is, on the surface, about a man who adopts and becomes enraptured by a young, wild troll. But it's weirder than that--it's about the power of scent and wildness... 
Like, do we love the scent of books because they were once living pine trees, which we have cut down and pulped?

Publisher's Weekly good review says, "Sinisalo's elastic prose is at once lyrical and matter-of-fact, but this is not a comfortable novel."

Pair with the also-not-comfortable story of feeling more akin to moss and mushrooms than to trains, planes and automobiles, the 2018 Swedish film Border, (Swedish title, Gräns), from a short story, newly released on its own--cover below.

P.S. I was excited to borrow the graphic novel Berlin from bink (on the rec of Orange Crate Art), but the 3-in-1 volume is too heavy to hold and read on the couch, so I haven't started it yet.