Thursday, December 31, 2009

Morning of New Year's Eve

I spent the morning writing thank you notes etc. while snow fell gently outside my window, occasionally taking a break to read my first-ever John Connolly book, The Unquiet.

After hearing raves about this author up and down the Kintyre peninsula (albeit from Bob and Bill rather than multiple independent sources), I had to give it a spin. I didn't know what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised by the local small-town Maine details -- even though the author was born in Dublin and apparently lives there today. It turns out there were both genre and personal reasons for the New England setting. Mr Connolly explains on his web site how he became familiar with the area:
I had worked in Maine for a time while a student, and returned there after I left college. ... I began writing [my first novel] in about 1993, mainly as an escape from journalism. I told nobody that I was writing it.... I would use the money I earned as a freelance to fund the research, going over to the US for as long as I could afford, then returning home and writing up what I had found. ... I went back to the US in the summer of 1997, maxed out my credit card, left my bills unpaid, and the finished novel was eventually sold in 1998. I couldn't believe it. I still can't.
The main characters were well-drawn and the story well-plotted. Nonetheless, there were a few passages in the book that struck me as a bit pedantic (the author clearly did his research on abusers, and it shows). Still not entirely sure what to make of the "hollow men" -- there are hints at some points in the novel that they are essentially the projections of troubled minds ... and yet they are also "real" in the sense that multiple susceptible people can experience or be aware of them simultaneously in the same way.

It appears that there are at least 8 novels in the Charlie Parker series (not including the novella contained in his Nocturne anthology), and I started with #6. Not sure which one to read next!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Currier Museum of Art

A 35-foot sculpture called "Origins" (by Mark di Suvero) welcomes visitors to the Currier Museum:

Once inside, however, you soon walk by some intricately detailed paperweights from the late 1800's (many them from the 1850's - 70's). They reminded me of the mille fleurs tapestry designs or a calico quilt:

Or even coral reefs:

In the modern art section, I liked Arthur Dove's painting "Sand and Water" from 1928. Viewed from the left, it really looks like he cut and indented a section of his canvass... but it's only paint:

We spent most of our time on the Brett Weston exhibit. Some phenomenal landscapes and nature closeups. They are really beautiful. (I wasn't as taken with the occasional urban shots.)

To my mind, this section of one of his photos nicely captures the recurring motifs of reflection and shadow:
Many of his images are beautifully abstract. This is basically a photo of dune grass growing on a beach (sun coming from the upper left), but in black and white it is difficult to tell the blades from their shadows, creating the appearance of tangled wires:

It reminded me of this drawing by a different artist (I don't remember the artist's name, but the work is called "Les Amis"), from the museum's exhibit celebrating the David and Barbara Stahl Collection:

On the way out of the museum, it had started snowing, and I admired reflections of the Origins sculpture on the slick roads:

Well worth a visit (but hurry, you only have until January 3 to see the Brett Weston exhibit).

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Day

My nieces basked in the affection of two parents, four grandparents, an aunt, and an uncle. I'd given them most of my gifts the night before, so I was not competing for their attention. (I reserved just one gift, a donation of small farm animals to an impoverished family made in the name of my elder niece. With some help from her parents, I think she may be old enough to understand and appreciate this gift, now that she's listened to Little House on the Prairie...)

The little one was intensely focused for a long time on this pop-up fairy tale castle book:

The elder one enjoyed a turn in her own custom-made inversion machine:

This wood sledge is decked out with fresh holly and ivy for the season:

Love, joy, and chaos abounded. What bliss!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve

As always, thinking of others is the best cure for the blues. This year, I signed on for the Angel Tree project and enjoyed the shopping expedition so much that I ended up buying gifts for 4 kids.

On Christmas Eve eve, I headed up north where the snow is sparse but the love is warm. My nieces were asleep (angels!) when I arrived, but the next morning they swarmed me with hugs.

My sister had designed and built a gingerbread castle for us to decorate - quite elaborate even before we put the frosting on!

I got to decorate one of the cottages (mine says "Noel"):

After the gingerbread houses, we went sledding nearby - my elder niece surprised us all by sprinting to the top of the hill and throwing herself onto the sled (tummy down, face first) and down the run.

The little one enjoyed sledding too, but wasn't ready to go by herself. Of course, she'd probably do better sledding alone, since her mom and I both managed to dump ourselves in the snow as we went down with her!!

Their church specializes in getting the parents involved in the Christmas pageant. So (for example) the three kings were really six kings -- three father-son combinations. In the choir of angels, my elder niece was accompanied by a mom angel, and in the rambunctious flock of sheep, my younger niece was attended by a watchful shepherd dad.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Snow Day

OK, so I didn't make it to church today - honestly, I wasn't trying very hard - but I spent a good 2-1/2 hours playing outside in my snowshoes, to a soundtrack (on shuffle) of Christmas music, upbeat dance tunes, and contemporary worship songs.

This was time spent with angels:

and families:

Mostly I just marveled at the beauty all around me in fresh-fallen snow and let joy and wonder fill my heart as I tromped up and down hill, through forest and meadow, making fresh tracks.

In this low-resolution photo, you can't see the graffiti carved into the bark (it says "PATRIOTS"):
A cross-country skier pointed out a pair of cardinals, so I hung around for a while to watch them and their friends:

A quick video:

The pond was partly frozen:

Once again, the waterfowl pay no attention to the "DANGER THIN ICE" signs that are only there for their own good:

This boy clearly got stuck in the Imagination Playground. I hope his dog can save him.

A few pets who really enjoy the cold:
Ah, dragons!!
A few of the dogs I saw out in the snow were having a truly amazing time, leaping about like mad. So cute!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Travelers' Christmas Eve

The Travelers' Christmas Eve service is basically a sneak preview of the real thing for all of us transients who will be out of town on the 24th. This year, we had a good balance of rollicking and sedate carols from the hymn book, and I was just grateful we did not sing all 37 verses of Silent Night.

Our senior pastor decided to link Good Friday and Christmas Eve in his sermon, and he pretty much pulled out all the stops in stressing how different Christianity is from the Platonic idea that the divine is pure spirit, perfection, etc. as compared with the dirty, stinking, rotting flesh of mere mortals. He pointed out that the incarnation is the Word made flesh - the Word made meat, if you will. He noted that the word "incarnation" itself contains the root "carne" or "carnis" or something like that, which is - yes - meat.

So our pastor stressed the meat theme at length. Then he said he and his more delinquent friends at seminary, when they were thinking about the incarnation, referred to Jesus as ... (drum roll) ... God con carne.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Me: So I told him he was not entitled to that information.
Friend: Really? What did you say?
Me: I said, "You are not entitled to that information."

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Today, my sister-in-law challenged me to do the NYT 3-D word hunt. One of my words was "tares", which reminded me of a line from a poem of homonyms: "And a rake may take a rake to tear away the tares."[FN*]  Just free associating with word games and the potential need to defend an unfashionable word such as "tares" to other players if they are not familiar with it.

Of course, no one would question the word "rake" -- it's a long-handled tool American suburbanites use to gather up fallen leaves if they do not have an electrical device to chop up the leaves or blow them onto a neighbor's lawn -- but I got to thinking about how to explain the first "rake" in the sentence quoted above. It's a word that went out of fashion long ago.

A rake is always a man, but not all men are rakes. I think it's fair to say that rakes are part of the subspecies of men known as cads. A rake is, in my understanding of the term, a charming and unfaithful seducer, a man of privilege (almost certainly, a handsome aristocrat).

So not all cads qualify as rakes, either. To the contrary, a cad need not be handsome, charming, wealthy, or well-born. The modern cad can be rather a dismal lot, from all accounts, offering none of the pleasures or accoutrements of an affair (no matter how transitory) with a rake, but only the sordid mess of involvement with an entirely unworthy male.

As for modern American rakes, I'm not sure they exist. We do have an aristocracy of sorts. Someone like Tiger Woods comes to mind: a glamour boy with wealth and fame and good looks. But it seems to me that the rake requires an element of mystery and illusion that is incompatible with text messages and other modern technologies that leave traces of banality everywhere.

FN*: I first came across this poem in a 1924 book called "English for Everybody," without attribution.  The link above is to a California newspaper in 1878 (again without attribution).  However, I've also found a copy of it published in an Australian newspaper in 1873, where it is attributed to "Wentworth."

Saturday, December 12, 2009


I've been seeing the airbrushed faces of Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Hugh Grant on movie posters the past few weeks. The airbrushing admittedly gives them a youthful appearance, but introduces a cartoonish quality to the image. The actors simply don't look real.

Among my circle of acquaintances, people in their 30's and 40's tend to mention, with pleasure, when they are mistaken for 10-20 years younger than they are; conversely they are chagrined when people think they are even 5 years older than they are. As for me, I keep remembering a statement a person made to me in a business setting a few months ago: "You're a very pretty girl." It was said in an admiring way (not condescendingly), by one who clearly intended to flatter. The statement bothered me at the time, and I still haven't been able to exorcise it. It bugs me that this person thought I was so vain that I would be influenced by the compliment (even the word "girl" falsely invoking the youthfulness I've long left behind me). Of course what bugs me even more is the possibility that this person sized me up correctly.

I try very hard not to hold on to the statements people have made (either positively or negatively) about my apparent age, or even to consider whether on balance they have seemed to point one way or another. But why are we so dependent on the expressed opinions of others about our appearance? What is wrong with our culture that we place such a premium on a youthful appearance, an elusive quality that is guaranteed to fade as we march inexorably on to the grave? People dread turning 40, and tell themselves 40 is still young, but why is it so intolerable to be old -- particularly when you consider the only real alternative?

The thing that makes it all so much more bizarre, when you think about it, is that in this culture, with the food and overall quality of life available to our vast middle class, many people are able to retain their strength, their health, and their looks far longer than people in other locations or in other eras. Elsewhere, 35-year-olds who have endured much hardship can look much older than our 70-year-olds. There's something fundamentally wrong here with our values and priorities, and maybe even our frame of reference.

Friday, December 04, 2009


I've been putting off writing this post. OK, not really, but I thought it might be helpful to blog about procrastination in an effort to help purge the demon.

At the beginning of the week, I was very focused and got a lot done. For instance, I'd start heating the water for my coffee and oatmeal, then while waiting for it to reach boiling, I put in my contacts, put on moisturizing sunblock, and got dressed. That gave me time to wash the dishes after breakfast and still be on time for work. It felt really good, like I really had my act together. When I got home after work, I didn't face a sink filled with soaking dishes. Instead, I could make some progress in straightening up and organizing for my guest, preparing items to be mailed back to the retailer, staying on top of the Week 10 readings, etc.

It didn't last long, though. Tuesday night I couldn't get internet reception at home, so I went to the library. Of course after walking all that distance (ha!) I had to muck around on the internet for 1.5 hours and check out three books (two Arsene Lupin books in French, one Alex Rider book in English). The French books do no harm; it's the English-language books that trip me up. I'm never tempted to spend hours reading ahead in a French novel, probably because it's not that relaxing (comprehension requires concentration).

But I couldn't stop myself from finishing the Alex Rider novel in a few long gulps. And it's not really that rewarding; there's not the deep pleasure of a master wordsmith's language and imagery, not the satisfaction of a truly gripping tale (I predicted the major plot twist very early on), and there's not even the excuse that it's educational for me. So the cost-benefit ratio is not so favorable... it is pretty much a naked exercise in procrastination.

What I've noticed is that once I give in to this sort of time-wasting urge, it gets harder and harder to resist any time-wasting activities at all, even when they are not bringing me huge doses of pleasure. (Sort of like bingeing on candy.) It's as if willpower is a muscle that needs to be exercised, and once you let it get out of shape, it keeps getting worse.

The thing is, I don't mind "wasting" time as long as it's enriching my life in some way -- if it's bringing me pleasure, or growth, or something. So I can sit around all day with someone I really care about, not accomplishing anything in particular, and I feel great. Or I can spend hours on a logic puzzle, or on polishing some piece of writing into a perfect gem, or walking in a botanical garden, or hiking from Point A to Point B just to enjoy the scenery... and I love it.

So the question is, why am I putting myself in a situation where I do neither what I ought, nor what I love? I remember someone my freshman year of college talking about that: She said that her grades were bad, but she wouldn't have minded if the reason was that she had a great social life. The thing that killed her was that she had nothing to show for that semester, no deeply meaningful relationships, and no academic success.

One of C.S. Lewis's Screwtape essays touches on this too: Damnation through petty selfish acts that are lost in the shuffle, incrementally, rather than through the big sins that can be a by-product of a life lived to the absolute fullest (and yet are all the more easily recognized and repented by a future saint who will then live life to the fullest for God).

Speaking of which, I'd better sign off or I'll be late for Game Night.