Saturday, June 30, 2007

Two weeks + some styrofoam and concrete + volunteers = two houses

All right, it's a bit more complicated than that, but not much. And it definitely looks like work. Go here to learn what some college students and others have been doing in Armenia. There's a link to a slide show at the bottom of the article.

According to the article, Habitat for Humanity and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are looking at using the technology to build more homes and storage sheds. There's also a mention of negotiations underway to try to have the polystyrene blocks built in Iran.

The Saturday Review of Books... up at Semicolon.

Crater Lake National Park Nature Notes

All of the articles published in Nature Notes from Crater Lake since 1928 are online. It's a pretty eclectic collection of articles.

The website is still under construction, but it promises to be quite an enjoyable and educational resource.

If you've never been to Crater Lake here in Oregon, you're missing an experience, in my book. I'm not saying your life would be incomplete without it (far from it), but it is one of those places that tends to strike people as not what they imagined it would be. And besides, it's a fun drive to get there. (A word of caution: Some of the roads in that part of Oregon - like in my part of Oregon - are seasonal. Especially in winter, you should check ahead.)

hat tip: my husband

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Ooh, well done, Mr. Potts

Phil at Brandywine Books has links to videos of singer Paul Potts, who has burst into prominence in the U.K. (and no wonder). Oh, Bravo. It's been a long time since I couldn't keep from clapping while someone was in the middle of a song. Poor audience manners of me, I know, but...

And how nice to have a really good opera singer who seems blessed with a bit of humility. I don't know about you, but the prima donna routines don't impress me all that much.

Thanks, Phil. Somehow I'd missed this.

Quote of the day

Via Deschamps:

"The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." -- Chief Justice John Roberts

Book note: Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, by Eugene H. Peterson

There's a fairly lengthy excerpt from Eat This Book over at Christianity Today (May 2007), in which the author discusses "a dog-with-a-bone kind of reading," and World War I, and Swiss pastor Karl Barth's influence on author John Updike, and Barth's anecdote about people living in a self-contained world in a warehouse with grimed over windows (people who therefore don't know there's any world but the warehouse world until a child scrapes some grime off and looks outside), and Kafka, and more, rather a lot more actually... and somehow makes it all come together. It took me a while to get into the piece, but I'm glad I persisted. There's lots to think about there.

Much of it is aimed specifically at spiritual reading, but there's also quite a bit about different ways of reading, and of using language, that I think pure secularists might appreciate.

(Speaking of using language: I'm currently reading a book from the 14th century, translated from French into English, but not modern English by any stretch. It's just modern enough I can wade through, with much-appreciated help from footnotes, but in the process of learning to read this dialect I'm, uhm, starting to have archaic words pop into my head when they shouldn't, and occasionally find myself assigning old meanings to words that are still in use but don't mean what they used to, and sometimes I'm having to work at sentence structure instead of just flinging off whatever comes to mind. It wouldn't be quite so much of a problem, I suspect, if what I'm reading were an ugly or dull way of communicating, but it isn't. More on this later, in another post... if I retain my ability to speak in intelligible English, that is. ;)

Getting back to Eat This Book... I'm pretty sure somebody traded in a copy of it at our bookstore, and I only glanced at it, thought 'cute but strange title,' but didn't put any meaning to it. (The author explains the title in the above-linked excerpt, by the way.) So I probably had a copy of the book I could have read, but probably don't anymore, and now will likely have to buy a copy instead of borrowing one from the shelves, which wouldn't bother me a bit, of course, if I didn't remember already having one. Welcome to Bookstore Land, where seller's remorse is a way of life. (I'm laughing at myself here, by the way. In some ways I'm more naturally suited to setting up a library - I wouldn't have to relinquish any books except to criminals or misadventure if I ran a library - but giving people ownership of books has its own rewards. I'm afraid if I were a librarian I'd feel bad about demanding that someone bring a book back after he'd discovered it was more meaningful than expected.)

And... did I just use the word misadventure? Me? Did I mention I'm studying the 1300s right now? Or that I read three books from the 1600s earlier this year? Or that I've dosed up on early 20th century literature lately? Or that a few weeks ago I read something from the 4th century (in translation, of course, but it was still not modern English by any stretch). Bouncing from one century to another like this is certainly expanding my vocabulary. Whether it's expanding it in beneficial ways is another question entirely...

On a more serious note, I've found that it really helps me to read old books now and then. As C.S. Lewis might have mentioned (I think it was Lewis), every era has its blind spots, including whichever era you happen to live in. I don't think you can see your own world as clearly as you ought to, unless you borrow, now and again, the perspective of people who lived in other times, civilizations, and/or circumstances. It helps me, at any rate.

Update: Via the Saturday Review of Books, here's a review of Eat This Book that appeared at Vox Vendsel.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Talking to a fence post

We have a saying in this part of the world, that talking to someone "is like talking to a fence post." In other words, he might as well not have ears since he doesn't seem to hear what other people say. OK, admittedly, in less charitable moments and applications, it also is a way of saying someone seems to have no more brains than a fence post - but nicer people try not to use it that way. In any case, it means that it's almost impossible to hold a conversation with the person. This post featuring a passage from a Shirley Jackson book definitely made me think of it.

'Religion' a la carte

A woman in Washington State recently proclaimed herself to be both an Episcopalian priest and a practicing Muslim (with heightened emphasis on Islam on Fridays, and the Episcopal Church on Sundays, or so it appears) - and her bishop thinks this is an exciting interfaith statement??? To make it even more interesting, the woman recently was director of faith formation at her church. (Pass the smelling salts and a catechism, please. Not necessarily in that order.)

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the two-track priest and her bishop appear to be a bit confused. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, takes it on in a bit more detail here. (Also has links to news coverage.)

It's views and actions like this that are driving not just individuals and families, but whole congregations, out of the Episcopal Church. For more on Anglicans in the United States who refuse to follow the Episcopal Church on its march away from Anglican teaching, see the American Anglican Council website and Anglican Mission in the Americas, for starters.

W. S. Gilbert on Shakespeare

Hmm. I've stumbled across something written about Shakespeare by W.S. Gilbert of Gilbert & Sullivan fame, and I don't know if he's funning or serious, or some combination of the two. (Usually he made serious points by being funny, of course, but in this case I'm not sure.) According to info on this page (which also features links to other short prose by Gilbert), Unappreciated Shakespeare was originally published in Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, Christmas Number, 9 December 1882 and reprinted in Foggerty's Fairy and other tales, London: George Routledge and Sons, 1890.

Absurdistan, etc. (updated)

Via Why is Hollywood Afraid of Abortion? (Albert Mohler blog, June 15, 2007), I've discovered a columnist I've just added to my links list.

Gerard Baker, United States Editor and an Assistant Editor of The Times (aka the London Times), writes a weekly opinion column that is, on the whole, very intelligently written, if the five or six archived columns I've just read are any indication. That's not to say I've agreed with him on all points (we are definitely not of one mind on gun laws, for instance). But he's articulate and forthright. And he has wit. And he seems to be well-informed. And I've felt I've learned a thing or two reading his columns -- always a good thing, that.

Baker's most recent column, Alas, poor Britain. The best name for it is Absurdistan, makes some points about big government, multiculturalism, and a culture of dependence that apply in general, sadly enough, to America as well as the UK, I think. He and I are in pretty close agreement on this one.

Update: Apparently, Mr. Baker's observations on Hollywood tending to steer clear of abortion were part of a mini-flurry of such articles. See No Happy Ending for Abortion, for instance, which includes links, references, to New York Times article, more, in addition to commentary. (Via

Making money with money (serial number edition)

I'm getting better at looking at the serial numbers on bills. Until recently, I had no idea that some people collect dollar bills with "fancy" serial numbers. But go check eBay. It's amazing.

Many of the bills that go to auction don't go for more than face value, or barely more than that, but sometimes something pops, so we've learned to check the bills that come into the bookstore, and also the bills I get in change at the grocery store. We haven't found very many worth trying to auction, but having sold a twenty for twice face value got me hooked.

I'm still a rookie, so haven't figured out the ins and outs and categories yet, but what I'm currently looking for in money that passes through my hands are bills that have years in them (for instance, 19792001), that have the same digit four or more times (25555346 or 23535551, for instance), that feature number blocks in mirror image (for instance, 54322345 or 35644653), bills that don't have any digits that repeat, especially if the numbers are in sequence, (for instance 24358760 might get bids, but 2345678 almost certainly would), bills with only two digits (23323232, for instance), really low numbers (00000007, for instance), or bills that have the same repeated digits front and end (22254222, for instance). There are also bills that supposedly somehow feature "good poker hands" but I haven't figured that out yet. Then there are "lucky number" bills, like those featuring lots of eights. I haven't got those figured out yet, either, not really. (How should I know what someone else considers "lucky"?) Condition also matters, but we've sold some bills in not very good condition to people who apparently really, really wanted a bill with that serial number.

I might caution you that a few of the buyers and sellers in this field seem to be into occult stuff. Not many, but, well, forewarned is forearmed and all that.

As a funny side note, the other day when my husband went down to our bookstore cum gas station, as luck would have it just then a one dollar bill very near the top of the stack in the cash register had what looked to be a pretty good collectible number. A tourist came inside, saw my husband looking at the bill, noticed the serial number, and offered $20 for it. The customer left happy, and we were happy, too. It's a smallish store. Nineteen dollars to the good is nothing to sneeze at. But... after the man left, my husband and our employee started wondering about what had just happened. 'Wait a minute. Wasn't that the man who just paid for gas a couple of minutes ago? Did he pay anything in one dollar bills?' We're not sure, you understand, but we have a funny feeling the man might have paid twenty dollars for a one dollar bill he'd just spent with us. Maybe not. But it's a distinct possibility. But he was pleased as punch I'm told, and apparently had money to fling about without doing harm to himself, and so... we're trying to ease our consciences some by counting it as charity on his part, if, indeed, he did buy his own bill back, so to speak. (And thank you, sir, if that's what you did. Twenty bucks may not be anything to you, but to us it's a blessing.)

Anyway, I don't have any yen to collect bills for their serial numbers, but I'm quite happy to help collectors fill out their collection, if I can. And, besides which, it's a bit like going on a treasure hunt every time I get bills back in change at the grocery store or post office. I put newly acquired bills in a different place in my purse than already-checked ones, and sit down later to go through them. It's a bit of a sport, really. And it costs me nothing. Such a deal.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Corn chips and beginner's luck

A couple weeks ago, looking through this cookbook, I found a recipe for cornmeal tortillas. In short, stir one cup cornmeal into one cup boiling water, add one teaspoon salt (optional), and one tablespoon shortening, then "Shape into extremely thin, flat cakes and bake on hot, ungreased griddle."

This seemed doable, so I made a half batch. Since I was using a nonstick griddle I only used medium-high heat, and since I wasn't skilled enough to make full-sized tortillas I made tortilla chips, shamelessly making them about the same size and shape as Fritos. (Hey, it's a good size.) I didn't make them extremely thin either. (Thinness must also take practice.) But, when everything was said and done, I had the best corn chips I could remember ever eating, and the whole process had been easy, even fun. I dreamed of having people over for Let's Make Corn Chips parties. Hey, even the kids could do it. Such a deal, and it's the sort of recipe a person could memorize, too. Can't beat that.

Fast forward to yesterday. My husband brought home bean dip and so I decided to make homemade chips instead of using the store-bought kind. This time I made a whole batch. Correction, I put all the ingredients for a full batch together, and wound up with not one usable chip. Not one. I couldn't get the dough to work right. When I did get something resembling a chip to the frying pan (I'd decided to use a different pan, one that could stand high heat better), it scorched instead of cooked, so I was left with odd bits of corn goo burned in spots but raw in the middle. I tried adjusting the temperature down. Didn't help. I tried letting the dough cool, to see if that helped. No go. I even tried adding more cornmeal to the dough, to see if that would help. Definitely, it didn't. I tried adding more shortening. Forgetaboutit. After a while, I admitted defeat, while I still had a fry pan left. My husband, generous soul that he is, offered to scour the frying pan for me to get rid of the scorch marks and molecularly-bound corn residue. I shouldn't have let him do it, probably, but I did. (No, ladies. You can't have him. He's mine.)

If I hadn't had that success right out of the starting gate, I'd quit now, at least on this recipe. And, no, I don't know what I did differently, not really. Somehow I got the consistency right on the first batch, and horribly wrong on the second. I guess I'll have to give it another go or two or three, and see if I can't get the hang of it.

Good luck if you try it. That first batch really was fantastic.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

A mother's gain

Follow the link in this short post for a video report from the BBC about some American troops going to the rescue of a woman and her unborn baby in Afghanistan. Well, there's more to the report than that, but the rescue features prominently.

Three cheers for our side. And for the BBC for the report.

A mother's loss

I spent part of yesterday and today sitting vigil with a stray cat. About two and a half weeks ago she brought her two young kittens to meet us -- and also to show them where the food and water dishes were. They were too young at that point to eat solid food, and they toddled more than trotted, but since then they've made great progress. A couple/three days ago they finally hit the mighty leaps and mad dashes stage of kittenhood, and were finally getting good at wrestling with each other. The mother cat started taking them on short parades (there's no other word for it -- she had them in formation), extending their world just beyond the back porch. And then, yesterday we awoke to hear her frantically calling, and only one kitten in sight.

All day she called and looked. Her voice got hoarser and hoarser, until it was unrecognizable as the voice of a cat, until it was low moans and wheezes, and it seemed to hurt her to call. And still she tried to give her baby something to steer home by, something to reply to.

I went on search forays myself, hoping to spur the mother cat into giving me a clue, if she had one, hoping it was just a case of falling down a hole or getting tangled in a brush pile, something that could be handled by a human body but not a feline one. No luck there. She obviously had no clue where the kitten was.

This neighborhood has owls and dogs and raccoons and skunks and tomcats and cars and trucks and pedestrians, amongst other kitten-world hazards. I can hope the kitten went on a grand walk and followed her nose to another friendly house, or else got scooped up by someone who thought she was too cute for words and needed a home. (She was too cute for words, too. And charming, to boot.) But the chances of that sort of happy ending, I know, are pretty slim.

Her mother showed up at our back door for the first time at just about that age, way too young to be on her own, but on her own nonetheless. I like to think it's a case of like-mother-like-daughter, and the kitten just went off and found a home of her own. I rather doubt that, though, since of the two kittens, this one generally stayed closest to mama, and also was the more obedient of the two. Whenever mama meowed the code for 'stop,' she stopped. When mama said 'come,' she went straight to mama. I fear she's met an early death.

Whatever the fate of the kitten, the mother cat was beside herself. She'd drop down now and then to sleep, but I never saw her nap for more than a minute or two, fitfully at that, and then she'd drag her weary body around, crying, and crying, and crying, straining to see every possible movement from where she was off to the horizon, stopping her crying only long enough to listen now and again with everything she had in her. It was heartrending. I'd go out and sit on the porch and let her lean against me as she cried, wishing I could do more, both for her and the kitten. All day yesterday and today, I've stepped outside now and then to look and listen for all I'm worth, but... nothing.

I've tried to pet the remaining kitten, to provide him the comfort his mother can't right now, but the mother cat always moves in, not to protect the kitten but to grab every bit of petting that's being dispensed. She's needy in the worst way. She's hurting in the worst way.

I'm not sure I've mentioned this before, but incidents like this are part of why I went from being 'pro-choice' to 'pro-life.'

Somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that the abortion industry, perhaps without meaning to, treats women as if they have less understanding and imagination, not to mention less capacity for devotion or loyalty, than the average cat, or dog, or horse, or even cow, for that matter. I've seen a pathetically nonathletic pony break down a stall door to get to her foal. I've seen a formerly docile dog turn into a force to be reckoned with, once she got it into her head that she was the first and perhaps only line of defense for her puppies. For that matter, I've had songbirds attack me if I got too close to a nest, and who hasn't seen a mama killdeer feign having a broken wing while loudly drawing danger toward herself and away from her eggs?

And yet we're supposed to pretend that a woman, possessed of vastly greater understanding of cause and effect, of life and death, of possibilities, and blessed (or is that cursed?) with being able to look ahead and to recall the past, and possessing a sense of right and wrong (however mangled and rewired by modern culture) won't suffer after she's cooperated in the killing of her own offspring? That she won't ever know what's happened, or what it means? That she can't understand, sooner or later, that she was that baby's first and best line of defense against all dangers, natural and man made? That she might have lost her child to miscarriage if she'd carried on -- but that losing it naturally and handing it over to destruction are not at all the same thing, one being fighting the good fight, the other being betrayal of someone who was completely at her mercy?

The thing is, being human we can fool ourselves, sometimes for a long while. But, being human, we have dreams and memories and regrets. To tell a frightened or heavily-burdened woman that her best bet is to jettison an 'unwanted' baby to make her own hike easier is cruel, leaving out as it does the long years she has ahead of her, years in which she's liable to learn that she is, after all, stronger than she thought and more adaptable than she knew, and years in which she's apt to see phantoms at playgrounds and graduation ceremonies, and years in which, given half a chance, she'll find that love grows stronger in adversity if watered with nothing more or less than simple loyalty.

And then where is she? A mother, without her child. Knowing and feeling her loss. Because it is a loss, and nothing can change that.

The 'pro-choice' community seems to be fond of spreading the rumor that 'pro-life' people only care about the unborn baby. I'm sure that's true in isolated cases (any controversy draws or spawns a few folks with more fervor than sense, who are blind as a bat to the suffering of people around them, or at least it seems that way to me), but I was pleasantly surprised to find, once I looked, that by far and away most pro-life people are passionately concerned about what abortion does to women. What it does to a woman. (Feminists For Life and Silent No More are just two of the organizations that have women as their primary focus, and most pro-life groups put a strong emphasis on it.) What it does to men, and the health of relationships, and society, and siblings and other survivors is also of concern, of course, but when offered abortion, it's the mother who ultimately decides whether to defend or desert, whether to be a fortress or a trap. And then she has to live with it.

Another fancy bit of disinformation I bought into in my younger days is the assertion that Christianity shuts out women who have had an abortion, because it's murder, and murder is a mortal sin. This is, as I've since found out, turning Christianity on its head. Basic Christianity in its many flavors and translations does consider abortion to be murder (authentic Christianity insists on calling a spade a spade, and no wonder, since Christianity teaches that if you delude yourself on matters of magnitude you're endangering your eternal soul), but Christianity also teaches that even murderers can put their misdeeds behind them and start over with God. (What? You thought prison ministries were just for show? Or for the fun of being chummy with people with a history of violence and deceit?)

Besides which, abortion isn't murder in the usual sense, is it? In the usual sense, you have a murderer who's out there all by himself, making up his own rules as he goes, picking his victim or victims for his own twisted reasons, and running the risk of horrible punishment and severe and widespread disapproval if he gets caught. With abortion, it's too often a matter of a woman getting targeted by sometimes-terrible pressure to go through with a 'termination' whether she wants to or not, being told, oftentimes, that she ought to do it - for her own sake, for her boyfriend's sake, for her parents' sakes, for society's sake, for the planet's sake, for some other cause's sake, for her business colleagues' sakes, what have you, even, God help us, for the child's sake - and that she'll probably be in big trouble if she doesn't do it. And besides which, abortion providers advertise. Openly. And people offer funding to pay for it. Openly. It's crazy. Tee-totally, absolutely, one hundred percent crazy. You might as well hand the woman a formal petition while you're at it: "We, the undersigned, declare you Inadequate For The Task At Hand and think that for you to give birth to this baby would be a bad idea." Sheesh.

A pregnant woman has enough to deal with, it seems to me, without having to fend off people fussing at her to second-guess (and second-guess again) whether she really wants to go through with it.

A few years ago I realized that I'd become part of the problem. Upon getting news that an unmarried couple with financial trouble had just found out they were pregnant, the first words out of my mouth were, "Oh, they are going to keep the baby, aren't they?" And then it hit me. By thinking that way - talking that way - I was helping to put pressure on a woman to "choose" whether to give birth to a baby she was already carrying, and also to justify, if you will, whatever she decided to do from there on out. I vowed not to do that again. Even if I have to force myself to show more optimism than I feel, I have promised myself I will find something more positive to say - "Oh, that's exciting," if appropriate, "Let me know how I can help," if that's better, whatever, just never, never, anything that undermines a mother's faith in herself. Never, never anything that adds to the gauntlet that many pregnant women must endure these days. Not if I can help it. But there's the rub. Popular culture has a horrid tendency to treat a positive pregnancy test as a trigger to sit down to consider whether you want a child after all (unless, of course, you were openly trying to get pregnant, in which case the pro-choice people will probably leave you alone unless prenatal tests come back with results with which they aren't comfortable). It's a poisonous attitude, but it's pervasive enough that sometimes it affects you whether you mean for it to or not.

Sunday update: Last night my husband was startled by a big owl when he stepped outside. I mean a big owl, searching our yard for prey. All day today the mother cat has been furtively watching the skies, and tackling her sole surviving kitten if it tries to venture from cover. It seems likely that the first kitten was taken by an owl, and even more likely that since then an owl has taken a dive at the remaining cats. In general, I like owls. Right now, not so much.

Utopian is just another word for...

Jonah Goldberg, writing at National Review Online, has an interesting (and instructive, I think) piece that begins:

We get the word “Utopia” from Thomas More. It was the name of a fictional island where everything ran flawlessly, everyone was happy and perfect justice reigned for all. He chose the word “Utopia” as a Greek pun, because it translates to “no place.” Today we mostly use the word “utopian” to describe people who think impossible things, like the Pentagon could hold a bake sale to fund itself or that Communism could work if only someone would give it a fair shot.

Oddly, utopianism — the idea that we can create a perfect society — still has a vaguely positive connotation, despite the fact that utopian ideologies were responsible for nearly all of the great mass murders of the 20th century. But Mao, Stalin, and Hitler don’t come to mind when we hear the word “utopian.” We’re more likely to imagine hippies who want to buy the world a coke and sing in perfect harmony.

That’s O.K., because utopianism is usually just a fancy word for idealism. We may never get to the perfect society, but if we don’t have a conception of one, we may lose sight of the path toward the good society (“Eutopia,” or the good place, for those interested).

But what drives me a little bonkers is when people dress up utopianism as common sense...

I'd like to second that last bit.

And, yes, I've been as guilty as the next person of dressing up utopianism, now and then, on this and that, especially when I was younger. I was trained to do that. It was a curse of coming of age in the 1970s. What can I say? (Other than I work very hard these days to not let my mind fall back into 70s-think?)

Mr. Goldberg's article was prompted by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's recent decision to change his party affiliation from Republican to unaffiliated. The latter part of the article looks at not only Bloomberg and his supposedly nonpartisan outlook on life, but... oh... begging Mr. Goldberg's pardon for lifting such extensive quotes, but this, I think, is something more people should consider. It's food for thought, at any rate.

Moreover, political parties aren’t the source of our disagreements, but the vehicles by which we express them. For much of American history, political parties weren’t so ideologically distinct. Some of the most passionate liberals — a.k.a. Progressives — were Republicans, and some of the most ardent conservatives were Democrats. But we still had political disagreements.

Indeed, the Founders didn’t really anticipate parties at all. But they did expect what Alexander Hamilton called “factions,” recognizing that our democratic republic couldn’t work without them. Oh, and every third-grader is supposed to understand that Congress and the White House were designed to compete with each other. Just Google “separation of powers” if you don’t believe me.

Democracy isn’t about agreement, but disagreement. People have different interests and ideals. Getting rid of parties — or “transcending” them — won’t get rid of disagreements. To believe otherwise is the height of utopianism.

Full article here

More on raising boys

Mona Charen, writing at National Review, talks about life with her own boys, and also notes:

Boys and boyishness were out of fashion for a couple of decades, but that is changing. The Dangerous Book for Boys — a celebration of all things mechanical, natural, and adventurous — is flying off the shelves...

Monday, June 18, 2007

Raising boys (in today's culture)

Tony Woodlief has three sons. He disagrees with some of today's academics, and feminist-influenced cultural notions about boys and men. He says, "Raising three sons has helped me appreciate the masculine virtues."

The article includes references to The War Against Boys by Christina Hoff Sommers, Raising Cain, by child psychologists Don Kindlon and Michael Thompson, and Manliness, by Harvey Mansfield.

American lit of the 1920s

Jeffrey Hart, an emeritus professor of English at Dartmouth College, and the author of "Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe" (2001) and "The Making of the American Conservative Mind" (2005), recommends five books from and about American literature of the 1920s (give or take a year or two).

On this day in history...

From a daily email I get from The Scotsman, today's Fact of the Day:
This day in 1846 the North British Railway was opened from Edinburgh to Berwick-on-Tweed. The inaugural train had five locomotives and 28 carriages, displaying - according to the account in The Scotsman - "the flexibility of a silken cord, while rivalling the eagle's flight in speed". Get today's Edinburgh transport news at

Do schools still teach about how railroads changed the world? I mean, the impact was enormous, wasn't it?

Testing, testing

I wouldn't call it a perfect storm of technical trouble by any means, but my computer has started restarting itself now and then, apparently at whim (which wipes out whatever I've worked on since the last save), plus the internet and email connections (and long distance phone connection) have been hit and miss for a week or so now (some days I couldn't get on at all), and then, when I did get on, and managed to log in, and write, those odd extra lines kept showing up in my drafts... and to cap it all off, when, against the odds, I published posts, they showed as published on my dashboard, but they never showed up on my blog. Discouraging, that.

All in all it seemed a great time to take a vacation from the internet, a vacation I enjoyed greatly, by the way.

But, well, here's hoping the worst of the glitches have been fixed in my absence. It wouldn't do to turn into a modern day Rip Van Winkle, or an honorary resident of Brigadoon. Would it? (Some days I can see how a person might be temporarily tempted...)

Testing, testing...

Update: So, I can post, and posts that didn't post before have posted themselves, but now spacing in posts that are already published is going haywire. Yargh.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Don Herbert, aka Mr. Wizard, has died

"Mr. Wizard" helped make science not only fun, but part of my life. He has died at the age of 89.

Martin Weil of the Washington Post, among many others, has more on the man and his accomplishments. Mr. Wizard Studios has a guestbook for people who would like to share their memories with Mr. Herbert's family.

Why expect freedom to come easier to Iraq than the United States?

Nouri Al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, wants a few things to be better understood by Americans, and provides some history lessons - both American and Iraqi - along the way. I yield the floor to the gentleman from Iraq. ("Our Common Struggle," OpinionJournal, June 13, 2007)

Word to the wise: plumbing edition

When in doubt about how long to let adhesive/glue/whatever-it-is dry and cure on plastic plumbing pipes that have just been joined, may I politely suggest that you let it cure a bit longer? Just for good measure?

We finally got someone over to fix a shower that has been dripping and dripping, not from the head but out of one handle. An earlier "fix" didn't last more than a day or two; it had become obvious that what was needed was something more along the lines of an overhaul. It's an old shower, with old pipes and fixtures. It was time.

So, we half-emptied the room adjacent to the bathroom, so the gentleman (who shall remain unnamed) could saw through the wall and take out old pipes and put in new ones, etc., without having to jockey around stuff, and so he'd have plenty of room to lay out his tools and pipes, etc. So far so good.

Our repairman turned off the water heater. Quite unaware of this, my husband used a lot of hot water in the other bathroom. This would be beside the point, but it turned out to be important. Still so far, so good.

We have never had a water shutoff valve in this house, not really. There's one you can reach at one toilet, I think, and there's a rumor there's one inside the wall behind the other toilet, and there might possibly be one behind a nailed down panel for the tub. There might be one for one or another of the sinks around here. Maybe. But for the shower, no. Not even behind the nailed down access panel in the mud room/utility room. To turn off the water to the shower, or anywhere else in here that doesn't have its own valve (or for the house in general), you must (as I understand it) go out and find a special very long rod with a special end and take it to a manhole out front of the house and figure out how to get the manhole cover off and then figure out how to use the fancy, special rod (of which we haven't one ourselves, but would have to run next door to the construction company's shed and borrow their's, if it's there, and if we can find it). And then, at a guess, you have to hope you're turning off your water. (I got checked out on this when we moved in, but obviously I've forgotten some of it.)

No, no, don't get ahead of me here. Our repairman thought it might be nice if we had shut-off valves for the shower, considering how much trouble it's been. Thank goodness for small favors.

So, after much sawing and wrestling and trips to the hardware store and finagling and maneuvering and gluing and tightening here and there, we were getting close. Toward the end, watching him brush the pipe ends with purple something or another before putting them together, I asked him if that stuff needed to sit for a while, to cure or set or whatever. "Naw," he said. (Which is a local way of saying, 'oh, goodness, no.')

You are now invited to get ahead of me here...

He got everything done to his satisfaction, then escorted me around to the bathroom to watch a demonstration of the new hardware. The demo went wonderfully. Very nice. No drips, either. Yay! Plus, the design of the new handle, while tacky-looking (we didn't pick it, the landlord did, out of what he had lying around, I guess), is much better for handicapped use, which is a wonderful thing for our family.

But then he turned the shower off. And seconds later the unmistakable sound of burst pipes and spraying water started on the other side of the wall. "O-o-h," says I, "that doesn't sound good." (Yes, I know, I know. A perfectly brilliant thing to say under the circumstances.)

He ran to the other room, and I followed, more slowly (honestly, you wouldn't think a man of his size and age could have moved that quickly). I was in time to see a surprisingly large spray of just-less-than-power-washer-velocity water hitting the ceiling light fixture, with lesser streams and mists going elsewhere in the room. I had to laugh. Honestly. A Hollywood disaster movie producer couldn't have found experts to have done it better for both dramatic and comedic effect. There is a shelving unit across the room from the plumbing; empty spots on the shelf were staying perfectly dry while stuff right next to the empty spot was getting wet. The cat box was getting its own swirling fog settling down onto it. I kid you not, you couldn't have planned the destruction much better. (Shattering a windowpane or two would have been more spectacular, certainly, but luckily we didn't go there.)

The repairman got the water turned off using the hot water shutoff valve he'd just installed. I did mention my gratitude for small favors, didn't I?

Yes, you read that right, by the way. Hot water valve. It was the hot water pipe that had failed. Which made it suddenly not the least funny, until we determined that, thanks to him turning off the water heater when he arrived and my husband using a fair amount of hot water in the meantime, the water coming out of the pipe was only very, very warm and not hot enough to do damage. (We achieved this partially by accident. If you attempt a similar project, you might want to put something like this into the plan. Just a thought.)

At this point I laughed again, this time at the water all over the floor, and at the dry empty spots on the shelves, and at the idea that we'd been very, very lucky, all things considered. And also because, quite frankly, it was without question one of the most ludicrous situations I'd been in the middle of for a very long time.

I don't own a mop, by the way. This is a house long on carpets (why anybody would put carpet in a kitchen or bathroom is beyond me, or in a dining room, for that matter). The flooded room happened to be the only plain hardwood floor in the house, and was mop-able, but no mop. So I ran for my husband, who had been sick in bed most of the day, and told him what had happened and said we could probably use his help deciding what to try to save first (is triage the word I want?) if he felt up to it, and then I grabbed towels and set to work while the repairman trotted outside and elsewhere to get a mop and mop bucket. Actually two mops. It seemed a two mop job. At least.

In the end, we were very, very lucky. When we'd half-emptied the room to make way for the plumber, we'd done ourselves a favor because there wasn't a whole lot left to move, and much of it was junk or barely better than that. And somehow the stuff that would have been ruined by a thorough drenching managed to get less wet than all that. And because of the shut-off valve, the deluge got stopped before we had a major flood. The floor was wet and then some, with standing water, but it was, what?, a quarter inch?, at a wild guess. (I didn't stop to measure.) Mop-able in short order, if you didn't dawdle, at any rate.

The repairman was a bit surprised by my laughing it off. I assured him it was because the situation was so incredibly ridiculous, nothing more, nothing less, "And besides, what else can we do? Really?" I asked. He didn't have an answer to that. I guess he's not used to people who don't really care about little things like a flood in a utility room/mud room/storage room. (We've lived here a year and a half, and we still haven't settled on what to call that room. Not that it matters.) After what we've been through in the last several years, a flood in the mud room hardly registers. Trust me. You get a bit better at recognizing trivia for what it is after your family battles nerve disease and drastic pain and other such challenges for a while.

When my husband got there (in surprisingly short order, actually), the repairman pointed to me, and exclaimed, 'She's laughing! The place is flooded, and it's the happiest she's been all day!'

Well, no. There's a difference between appreciating the ridiculous and/or being to laugh at oneself or at adversity -- and being happy about what's just happened. A big difference.

He shook his head at us, or rather at the spectacle of two folks just setting to work cheerfully enough, after pipes have burst, swapping silly quips that popped to mind.

He got my husband's attention again, 'Do you know what she said? "Oh, that don't sound good." Water's going everywhere, and she says, "Oh, that don't sound good."' He drew it out, and then repeated it a few times. "Oh, that don't sound good. Oh, that don't sound good." Not mocking, exactly; not quite incredulous, but somewhat amazed, I think. He probably would have sworn in a court of law that what I'd said was "Oh, that don't sound good." Never mind that I'd never say "that don't sound good" or anything like it, except for comic effect. File that away for the next time you hear eyewitness testimony, by the way. Often enough, someone will remember things in his own style instead of what really happened. Try something along those lines as a parlor game sometime, if you don't believe me.

Since my saying "Oh, that doesn't sound good" was, without question, ridiculous, and since the repairman seemed to have discovered the fine and too-neglected art of appreciating the ridiculous, we let it go. (Especially since it was better than what I've heard previous repairmen say when a job went wrong.)

We mopped, we set up fans, we lived with a dining room overflowing with evacuated wet stuff for a couple of days. But everything is more or less back where it was, except for the few things we found that we thought we'd lost in the last move, which are now where they should be.

Admittedly, if years ago I'd been subjected to the same mini-disaster, I'm fairly sure I wouldn't have handled it this well. Age and experience and the gifts of grace all help keep experiences like this in perspective, and give a person strength, too. Thank goodness. And thank God.

Now we've moved on to the adventure of dealing with an very old, worn wood floor that has recently had a hot bath. Mostly it's plain, aged wood, but for variety it still has a bit of finish here and there. After the flood, it got dried soon enough to prevent warping or other obvious physical damage, but it seems a bit bleached or something...

The landlord has offered to put down linoleum. So we have that option if I totally mess up the clean-up. I could live with linoleum. It would be easier to keep clean, at any rate. But, just now, it's not my first choice.

It's too late to warn me not to use any oil on a floor you hope to refinish someday, by the way. That horse left the barn months and years ago with this floor, and I've compounded the problem quite recently, ahem.

My husband has floated the idea of painting the floor. (With oil-based paint, since water-based paint probably couldn't cope with the oil on the floor.) That could be fun, especially if a person got it into her head to not just do a Plain Jane job of it... I'm miserable with stencils, but I could probably still come up with designs of some sort... :) Ooh, that could definitely be fun...

OK, I don't know about you but I think it's high time I did an inventory of all the water shut-off valves I can find in this building. In writing. For memorization, and perhaps for posting somewhere, just in case we ever burst another pipe, or otherwise have an unwanted, unwelcome fountain in a room not set up for one.

Seriously, do you know where your water valves are?

Recommended Reading: Nonfiction

At Books for the Backpack -- Recommended Summer Reading, Albert Mohler suggests recent books on pirates, presidents, the "bomber boys" who manned B-17s in World War II, the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth, and the Six Day War.

How nice to know that I'm not the only one who finds the better books about history enjoyable as well as educational. :)

Addition: For more on men who manned bombers in World War II, there's the 1943 book, We Thought We Heard the Angels Sing, by Lieut. James C. Whittaker, about the ordeal of the men who went down over the Pacific Ocean with Eddie Rickenbacker, and weren't rescued for three weeks. That's three weeks in small rafts in a trackless, tropical ocean with essentially no food or water.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Save lives, perhaps win prizes

Danielle Bean is spearheading an online fundraiser for a maternity home "that welcomes women in crisis pregnancies (regardless of faith), provides them with a safe, secure environment in which to live, and gives them access to the medical, educational, and professional services they need to choose life for their babies..."

And she's going out of her way to make donating fun as well as charitable. (There are reasons her blog is so popular, folks.)

Be sure and check her main page to pick up any updates.

Jane Austen fans, take note

At The Point: Welcome to Lori Smith, Gina Dalfonzo welcomes a new blogger to The Point blog.

The new blogger, it turns out, has been researching Jane Austen for a new book, due to come out later this year...

(That sound you hear is certain ladies at The Common Room, not to mention about 90 percent of the rest of my more-regular readership, clicking across to see what somebody else thinks about their beloved Austen... :)

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Book note: Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life by Robert Lupton

I haven't seen the book yet, but if this interview of the author by Marvin Olasky ("City Smarts," World Magazine, June 9, 2007) is any indication, Lupton's a man well worth listening to. He's learned the hard way what types of charity tend to make things worse, just for starters.

Lupton has spent more than 35 years working with inner city poor in Atlanta.

I highly recommend the article.

What I can't get over is how closely Lupton's experiences seem to parallel the experiences of Edgar James Helms, the founder of Goodwill Industries, and, to a lesser extent, Donald L. Carcieri, who went from serving as program director for Catholic Relief Services in Jamaica to being the governor of Rhode Island.

hat tip: Zoe Sandvig

From The Scotsman, June 7, 1944


It's a bit hard to read, because it's one of those copy-of-actual-page pages, which requires some finesse at scrolling around (and a small dose of patience), but if you like to read 'first draft of history' primary sources, resources like this beat a transcript, in my book.

Cutty Sark damaged by fire, and musings on historical sites

Back on May 21, one of the most famous historical ships in the world was extensively damaged by fire. Via The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh visit Greenwich, 22 May 2007 (Royal Insight magazine, May 2007), here's a link to a page with instructions on how to make a donation to the Cutty Sark restoration efforts if you'd like. (I assume I can't be the only person with a soft spot in my heart for tea clippers? Especially this one?)

The Cutty Sark Trust's home page is here.

As it happens, I identify somewhat with the people who have been lovingly tending the Cutty Sark. Many years ago, I traveled a few hundred miles away from home and dedicated a summer to helping restore a wonderful old opera house that had fallen on hard times. I helped put on stage shows to raise money. I worked backstage, onstage, out in the community. I polished brass. I scrubbed. I swept. I rounded up volunteers and supervised them. I talked to service clubs, luncheon parties, whoever would have me. I bought ads, sold tickets, helped organize a parade, soothed temperamental egos, reassured superstitious ones, met with community leaders. I wasn't the head of the project by any means, but I threw my heart into it. (Side note: Teaching sign language to kids in a cast is a useful way of keeping backstage quieter when enthusiasm and nerves are near bursting in a couple dozen people at once.)

I had taken the job merely as a job, more or less, with the added spice and challenge of getting to work in summer stock theater, which I thought would be a hoot. But, quite unexpectedly, I fell in love with that theater. I was highly enough placed that I had a key, and sometimes at night I'd let myself in and stand on the stage and let my imagination wander over who else had stood on those boards, and what they might have sung, danced, said, acted, felt, done. There was magic there. If you've never been on stage I'm not sure you can understand, not really. (I don't think I could have, at any rate.) And if you've never been on a stage graced by greats I'm not sure I can explain that to you, either. It's humbling, but huge, all at the same time.

I hesitate to say there were ghosts onstage with me, because I don't mean it the way some people mean it. I don't mean actual departed individuals in spirit form, not by any means. But all the same, it was impossible to work there and not feel the past, and feel connected to people long dead, to feel that they had, somehow, left something behind that had become part of the place. Something invisible, but real. That much, I think, is true of many truly historic places. (Mark Mossa touched on something similar, I think, when he posted a comment here about walking past an admired author's house.)

But. A few months after I left, the opera house burned down. I couldn't help thinking that it wasn't just a building that was destroyed, but, to some degree, in some fashion, lingering shadows of the people who'd been in her, too. That's crazy, perhaps. But there it is. There are reasons some people pause at historical spots. Reasons beyond mere curiosity (although I have nothing against mere historical curiosity).

I have no doubt that many of the people who have been preserving the Cutty Sark know what I'm talking about. I'm sure they've felt the presence of the past. I'm sure they know what's it's like to feel that you've been handed a responsibility to help keep one specific part of it properly tended, if you want to put it that way. And so I can't help wishing that they'd been spared this grief, because I know it is grief, not the same as for human beings, of course, but real grief all the same.

I'm not always sure, when something is largely destroyed, how much you can rebuild it and call it what it was. To be honest, I looked at the photo at the Royal Insight site, and thought perhaps the Cutty Sark was lost, and in future we'd have to settle for a replica. Replicas have their place, of course, but...

But then I read this:

Statement From Richard Doughty, Chief Executive, Cutty Sark Trust

21st May 2007 - A fire broke out this morning at 4.45am this morning at the Cutty Sark in Greenwich,which was put out by the London Fire Brigade by 06.28am. The ship was undergoing a major conservation project and everyone involved in the project is devastated. It was a quarter of the way through and so much work has already been carried out. However, 50% of the ship had been removed for conservation reasons,including the masts,the coach house and significant amount of planking,so it could have been a lot worse.

We know that there is major damage to the tween decking and some of the ship ’s iron work has buckled but we have yet to assess the full extent of the damage.

When the original fabric of the ship is lost, the touch of the craftsman is lost, history is lost. To lose the timbers and iron frame of the ship is to lose not just maritime heritage but part of our national heritage. We must save as much as we can and hopefully the fire has left us much to still conserve.

This is a significant blow for us,and a major set back to the people working on the project. It will take us a significant amount of effort and funding to get the work back on track.£25m pounds was needed to preserve the ship; we had £18m pounds raised already and now we are appealing for help close the funding gap and to get us through the crisis and return the ship to its former glory.

One thing is certain - we will now redouble our efforts to save the world ’s most famous clipper ship.It has been rescued twice before,in 1922 and 1953 – this will be third time lucky. Now more than ever the Cutty Sark needs support from all her friends across the world...

Now, let me be the first to say that historical preservation people sometimes (often) get rabid, and trample on the rights of other people (or get government to trample on other people for them), for which I don't think they have any good excuse, regardless of the project. But, according to the website, the Cutty Sark Trust is "an independent charity which owns and runs the sole surviving tea clipper." From that, and what I've seen so far browsing around their website, this group appears, at first glance at any rate, to be a happy exception to that stereotype. (I certainly hope so. I am not an ends justifies the means person.)

For more on Cutty Sark's history, and on collections held in trust by its museum, start here. (For navigational instruments, go here. I'm fascinated by old instruments, aren't you?)

Here's wishing the restorers the best of luck as they move forward on this. Here's hoping the spirit of the old ship still lingers.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Caring about stuff

Robert Farrar Capon has some interesting observations about the value and meaning of possessions, about stuff, and caring, and crafts, and knowing about excellence but not caring enough to bother with the details needed to produce it, and more.

Suzanne Temple shares a lingering, loving look inside her Hope Chest, with Practicality disagreeing with Romanticism as she sorts through what's in there.

Overcoming crime, fatherlessness, and a hurricane's destruction (for starters)

Jamie Dean, writing at World Magazine, reports on Desire Street Academy, which is turning a crime-ridden area around, one young man at a time. And it's doing this despite having been leveled by Hurricane Katrina.

hat tip: Catherine Claire

Book note: Summer at Tiffany by Marjorie Hart

Martha Anderson has read the book Summer at Tiffany, which recounts the adventures of two small town college co-eds in New York City in the summer of 1945, and pronounces it a fun read.

Interesting developments in The Netherlands

Roberto Rivera reports in The Point blog that "an explicitly Christian party" has been asked to join the governing coalition in the Netherlands. Yes, I know, that could mean just about anything.

But add that to what I linked to in the annex a few months ago (Holland's Post-Secular Future, by Joshua Livestro, Weekly Standard, Jan. 1, 2007), and it makes a person wonder if something is shifting over there in Europe. Maybe?

Time will tell, I guess.

Trying to rewrite history as it happens...

I don't know whether to laugh or cry after reading it, but David Frum has an account from Peter Worthington, who was reporting from Cairo at the outbreak of the 6-Day War. It's a gem.

Is disinformation the word I want here?

"Cupboard love"

I was looking something else up in my much-used The Penguin English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, and noticed in passing a bit of vocabulary that could be useful, I think, especially when warning naive young people of the hazards of the big, wide world:
cupboard love noun insincere love professed in order to get something
For that matter, I can think of a few folks who could stand to be reminded that this is a bad thing.

For that matter, I could probably point out some people who apparently have never been told that there's anything wrong with playing people along.


P.S. Cupboard love is hard to say, or at least it strikes me as hard to deliver in such a way that a person who was unfamiliar with the phrase would understand without an explanation. Does anyone know of other words or phrases (suitable for polite company, I mean), that cover the same ground but aren't so vague to the ear?

I've split

So, where have I been this last week, you might ask? (Or not ;)

In short, I've been here in my usual haunts, but largely staying offline again. More computer problems came up, and I went back into quarantine mode.

I went from quarantine mode into split mode. This computer I'm using for email and anything that requires an internet connection. But I now have an old laptop, utterly unconnected to anything else, that I use for pretty much everything else.

I feel a bit extravagant, having two computers, even though the laptop is on the order of a hand-me-down, costing us no more than minor refurbishing. But, oh, it's nice having a computer that's not only exposed to fewer hazards, but is equipped with fewer distractions. Not that I'm not a fairly disciplined person, you know, but... it's easier to be disciplined if you reduce the temptations, of course. (Which is why I'm banning games on the laptop, by the way. Once I get started on Spider Solitaire...)

Speaking of computers, my husband heard recently from a business acquaintance who has been traveling in Latin America. This man took his laptop along for the trip, and said he was amazed at how many places have wi-fi down there. The story I got is that he says that even in a village that had no road to it, they had a wi-fi tower that worked, and were quite proud of it. (Closed circuit for the gentleman in question: if by any chance you'd like to flesh out this story, feel free to drop my husband an email, or leave a comment here, or whatever. I think it's a kick, not to mention interesting, but I wasn't sure how much of what I heard I should share without permission.)

P.S. I was warned that having to go back and forth between two different keyboard set-ups during the course of a day tended to drive some people nuts. But so far I like it. For one thing, it gives my back and arms and hands and neck a bit of a break, changing from one angle to the other. I do have to search my keyboard to find a few control keys now, since they're in different places on the two machines, but that extra step I don't find too bothersome at all. Of course, to be fair, the novelty hasn't worn off yet... Of course, to be really, really fair, I should probably mention that I never seem to remember where most of the control or number keys are on a keyboard, even when I'm only using one machine. The alphabet, shift, space, tab, and most of the punctuation keys I could probably do in my sleep, but the others require a peek. :)

P.P. S. Is anybody else having trouble with spacing when using Blogger? Every once in a while, I'm suddenly getting extra lines between paragraphs. Very strange. (And a bit tedious to fix.) I guess I'm wondering if this is a Blogger problem, a glitch in this particular template, or if it's another specific-to-this-computer problem we haven't rooted out yet?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Dogs of War honored

My thanks to author and well-known dog trainer William A. Wynne, for updating me on the Yorkie Doodle Dandy story, in this comment on a previous post (typos corrected here):

Thank you for your inclusion of Yorkie Doodle Dandy. YDD has quietly produced 6 memorials nationwide and two Animal Planet shows. Smoky the four pound hero is mentioned in over 50 books, and numerous newspaper and magazine articles. A documentary is underway. Most believe this story would make a great film. William A. Wynne Author, owner trainer
The link he provides above includes a nice write-up, and a picture of a memorial featuring Smoky, aka Yorkie Doodle Dandy, sitting inside a G.I. helmet. Among other things, the write-up notes a Veteran's Day 2005 ceremony in Cleveland, Ohio, dedicating one of the memorials.

For what it's worth, I think the Yorkie Doodle Dandy story could be turned into an inspiring and uplifting movie. And I'm looking forward to the documentary.

Previous related posts: Book recommendations from 2005, and Military Dogs Large and Small, Then and Now