Sunday, December 30, 2007

The South Shore Line--Back from Chicago

I spent three days in Chicago this week, enjoying the Science and Industry Museum, biting my tongue repeatedly in the obligatory stop at the American Girl Store (the only time I long for my daughter to be older is when I'm near this store), and meeting long lost friends from Utah who now live up north of the city. I don’t like driving into the city, but I really hate to pay an additional 45 bucks a day for parking at a hotel that is already over priced, so the train is my best option, especially when you can get anywhere via public transportation. When I tried to get a ticket a few weeks ago, Amtrak was sold out so I decided to try another option, driving to South Bend and taking the South Shore Line into the city. Below is my description of the trip back to South Bend. This is a first for me (catching the train from South Bend). A number of years ago, when living in Utah, I’d flown into South Bend—to do something at Notre Dame University and was impressed to learn that from the airport one could also catch a train into Chicago. What a novel concept—linking together various forms of transportation. I think San Francisco recently extended BART to the airport. Why can’t cities have the foresight of South Bend? The photo was taken through the dirty window of the train, near Hudson Lake, Indiana.

We wait by the tracks at the Van Buren Station. Salt that has liberally applied to melt the ice, cracks under our feet as we walk back and forth across the platform, trying to stay warm. The concrete shows signs of age as do much of the station; rust and decay have over taken too many years of little maintenance. The salt, while a safety measure, will only hasten the decay. It’s cold, but not bitterly. At least the wind, from which this city is famous, isn’t blowing. Soon, through the tunnel in the distance, you can see the train snake its way toward our platform. People began to come out of the station and join us on the platform, waiting to board the South Shore Line.

We all climb on board. This is only the second stop of the run, but already the only seats available are those facing backwards. I stow our luggage overhead and pull out a copy of Richard Ford’s Rock Springs, and plop down, watching the tall buildings and parks and museums fade away as we pass the McCormick Place and New Comiskey Park, now known as U.S. Cellular Field, a name that just doesn’t seem right. Soon, we’re in the tenements, high rise housing projects that are surrounded by boarded up warehouses and depilated factories. I wonder why it is that I, who have a nature dislike for cities, have fallen in love with Chicago. Maybe it’s because I know from Chicago I can quickly retreat home, even though such a retreat, whether by train or on the highway, will take me through the less desirable sides of the city and tempers my desire to return.

After the stop at Kensington, the line turns east, with stops at Hegewisch and Hammond and a host of other places as we pass the mills at Gary. Along the way, old boarded up buildings and small bars with a car or two out front dot the landscape. There’s snow on the ground, but not enough to truly cover up things and transform the landscape. This could be a setting for a Tom Waits song or, if it was out west, one of the vignettes for the hopeless characters in the Richard Ford book I’m reading. Leaving industry behind, the train picks up speed, running through the sand dunes along the lake and then into the hardwood swamps and fields of cut corn, their stubble sticking up out of the snow. But all that is short-lived as the train slows down and the conductor cries out, “South Bend.” We re-enter an industrial zone then ride beside the runaway till we arrive at the station, affixed next to the airport terminal. Covered in snow and ice, my vehicle awaits in long term parking.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas Post

Years ago I had a cat. Her name was Happy (one day I’ll have to tell her story). She loved climbing the Christmas Tree. One year, I think it was the year before her death; she got tangled in wires and jumped from the top of the tree. This was at 3 AM. I woke to a fierce growl, and then a bang as the tree hit the floor, breaking ornaments. Happy screeched and ran, dragging the light cord across the living room. I don’t think she ever toured the tree again. For this Christmas day, in honor of Happy, I’ll take you on a tour of Sage’s tree, telling you about some of my favorite ornaments. Maybe later (or next year), I’ll show pictures and tell stories of all the ornaments my mother made and/or purchased for me. That’s another whole collection and an era that has now gone by.

The Boot: This ornament was a gift from a man that I met in Pennsylvania while hiking the Appalachian Trail. He had retired to Florida but was spending time day hiking on the AT. He had been carving one of these boots and told me that if I made it to Katadhin in Maine and sent him a post card with my address, he’s send me one of his carved boots. This ornament has been on Sage’s tree for twenty years.

The Canoe: I was given this ornament six or seven years ago. If you’ve read much of my blog, you’ll know why it’s on the tree.

Lighthouses: I have a number of lighthouses on the tree. I’ve tried to limit the lighthouses to ones I’ve actually climbed which include both the Cape Hatteras and the Bald Head Island Lighthouses in eastern North Carolina.

Bald Head is the island at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. I also have some Michigan lighthouses on the tree.

Boy Scout Ornaments: I used to receive a Boy Scout ornament every year from a former boss and long time friend. Ron was the Scout Executive for the National Capital Council in Washington, DC and the council would produce an ornament every year. This is the last in the series, one done by the council after his death and shows a picture of the cottage named after him. Ron died of brain tumor in 2005.

Violin: This is my daughter’s. She has been playing the violin since she was four and now has a “Hannah Montana” guitar to learn how to play.

Vacation Ornaments: There are many different bells from various places. The first bell I purchased in Yellowstone National Park back in 1989.

The Chateau Lake Louise ornament came from a stay there in the fall of 1995.

There are also a set of tropical birds from Honduras. These are glass and it seems that there is one fewer every year!

Another set of ornaments are from places I’ve lived: Ellicottville, New York.

Cedar City, Utah is home of the Utah Shakespearean Festival.

And now, thanks to a wrong turn off the Indiana turnpike, I’m in Michigan (that’s a mitt carved out of a Petoskey stone, which has some special meaning to the folks in this state—maybe Murf or Karen can you explain)

My sister has given me a set of sand dollars ornaments she’s made.

Merry Christmas to all of you!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Around the World

It’s been a while since I posted a puzzle picture (the last was of the Edmund Fitzgerald back in 2006). Things have been busy and stressful and I haven’t done much blogging, but one of the ways I work out my stress, especially when the gym is closed for the evening, is to do a puzzle. Of course, I’m not sure I reduced my stress by trying to work this size of a puzzle on a table that not quite large enough (each of the corner pieces hung off the edge and once the dog’s tail cleared off an entire section). But last night I finished—a trip around the world. There are 36 different cities represented in this 1000 piece puzzle (the 1000 Places to See Before You Die folks published this puzzle). Anyone want to see how many cities you can get right? There were several surprises for me. (If you take me up on the challenge, start at the top left and work across and then down, like you’re reading a book--thanks Murf for correcting me as I don't think I have many native Hebrew readers.) You can click on the photo to have it blown up to super-size. I’m sorry the picture isn’t the best. I may try photographing it again with some daylight adding to the mix and if I get a better shot, I’ll change photos.

Weather Update: The wind has been blowing crazy since about 3 AM (that's when the dog first woke me to inform me of the problem). I got up at 5:15 and it was 50 degrees outside. It was warm yesterday (in the low-40s) and with all the rain, our snow is now gone. Overnight, the temperature actually went up. But we’re in a winter storm warning and sometime this morning, the temperature is to nosedive and the rain is to become snow and between noon today and tomorrow morning, we’re to get our white Christmas. I’m hoping we get enough to ski on, but ain’t holding my breath.

Thinking of others: This is the season to think about others and at least three of the regular folks whose blogs I read are going through tough times. Kontan lost her dad and step-father this fall and this past week, Bone's mother had a stroke and Dawn lost Dakota, her loving beagle. Say a prayer or send a good thought in their directions.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Getting Ready for Christmas

Life is hectic; why does Christmas have to come so near to the end of the year? I’m trying to track down the last of my gifts for the holidays. If you were a member of my staff, this is the kind of gift you’d be receiving tomorrow (I got the shipment in last week. The Moravian cookies are wonderful. They’re from Old Salem (now a part of Winston Salem) and are paper thin and stored in a wonderful tin box. My favorite is the Walnut, but the Ginger, Sugar and Lemon Cookies are also really good. For the nuttier staff members, there’s fruitcake. I know, make your jokes, but you can’t find anything any better than a Southern Supreme Nutty Fruitcake (they’re like the ones my great-grandma made). They’re baked in Bear Creek, North Carolina (better have a good map to find it) and are wonderful. No, they’re not soaked in brandy (but my great-grandma didn’t soak hers either). What do you have to do to finish getting ready for Christmas?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Look around my library

A few months ago, Deanna (Friday Night Fish Fry) invited me to join Shelfari—a place where you can put your book titles and reviews online. Over time, I’ve added to the list of books I have there (over 300) and have finally gotten around to posting it onto my sidebar (I had to upgrade the blogger template to do that). If you are like me and like to look at other people’s libraries, I invite you to come on by. I don’t have anywhere near all my books online (and I'm surprised that quite a few of my books I can’t find on Shelfari), but what I have will give you an idea of some of the stuff I read. Enjoy, and let me know if you get a Shelfair site. Click here or hit the sidebar.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Deep Survival: A Book Review

Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why (New York: W. W. Norton, 200), 324 pages.

Drawing from his vast experience as a reporter of natural disasters, an acrobatic pilot, a prison guard, his family, literature and philosophy, Laurence Gonzales sets out to discover what traits are needed to survive a disaster? Why is it that someone lives while someone else, who would seem to be even more qualified to survive, dies? Looking at climbing accidents, hikers lost in the mountains, those adrift in life-rafts on the sea, and airplane crashes, Gonzales finds that the one who survives is often not the one who was most prepared. In his book, he integrates personal stories of survival with current research on how the brain works and processes information, especially looking at the relationship within the brain between cognitive functions and emotions. Both play a role in survival and need to be held in balance, for the extreme of either position (too emotional or too logical) often proves fatal.

This book is sprinkled with tad-bits of wisdom. “Fear is good; too much fear is not.” The survivor must know and understand his condition. He or she often fights fear with dark humor, laughing at the hopeless situation they’re in. Humor then becomes the balance between the cognitive and the emotional. One trainer taught his clients: “Fear is like fire. It can cook for you. It can heat your house. Or it can burn you down.” (41) Yet fear can also be addictive, “it can be fun and make you feel more alive.” (49) Prayer plays an important role. Quoting Peter Leschak, ‘Whether a deity is actually listening or not, there is value in formally announcing your needs, desires, worries, sins, and goals in a focused, prayerful action. Only when you are aware can you take action.” (180) Gonzales reminds his readers that the human being can endure much more than we think we’re capable of enduring. He quotes from Dostoevsky’s Memories from the House of the Dead, ”Man is a creature who can get used to anything, and I believe that is the best way of defining him.” (215) Gonzales gives this definition of survival: “Survival is nothing more than an ordinary life well lived in extreme circumstances.” (240)

Gonzales spends a chapter talking about the role memory plays in survival situations. We all have brain bookmarks (somatic markers) that help us quickly recognize both fear and pleasure. These bookmarks can both help us survive (by realizing the gravity of the situation) or cause us to stumble (by causing us to make bad decisions in the hopes of quickly getting back to where we are comfortable). Gonzales gives several examples of people whose bookmarks for the pleasure over road their rational senses and caused them to make bad decisions. One example involved climbers coming down from a mountain in bad weather. The desire to be in the lodge was so great that they moved too quickly and got into trouble. Another example is a scuba diver who has a feeling of suffocation and pulls the regulator out of their mouth when under water. A third example is the naval pilot who losses his focus and his only thought is to be back safe on the ship, which causes him to ignore warnings and to abort a landing. Survival of a life-threatening situation can actually become addictive, which can create its own problems. The true survivor enjoys the challenge, but also knows the danger.

Gonzales devotes a great deal of space showing how we all map our world. For the most part, this is a good trait, one that helps us make sense of our surroundings. The problem arises when our map is faulty and we tend to make our surroundings jive with our mental map instead of taking in new information (I know the camp is right over the next hill). When our maps are wrong, we need to realize it and not just react. We have to shift from emotional to cognitive action. Other common traits of who survive is that survivors are rule breakers (whose those who cannot break the rules have the most trouble) and they are also those concerned about others (helping others caught in the situation or wanting to live to see loved ones left behind).

In his last chapter, Gonzales outlines twelve things he seen survivors do:

1. Perceive, believe (look, see, believe)
2. Stay calm (use humor, use fear to focus)
3. Think/analyze/plan (get organized; set up small, manageable tasks)
4. Take correct, decisive action (be bold and cautious while carrying out task)
5. Celebrate your successes (take joy in completing tasks)
6. Count your blessings (be grateful—you’re alive)
7. Play (sing, play mind games, recite poetry, count anything, do mathematical problems in your heard.
8. See the beauty (remember: it’s a vision quest)
9. Believe that you will succeed (develop a deep conviction that you will live)
10. Surrender (let go of your fear of dying: ‘put away the pain’)
11. Do whatever is necessary (be determined, have the will and the skill). Know your abilities, but do not under or overestimate them.
12. Never give up (let nothing break your spirit).

I enjoyed this book and think it has a lot to offer. Gonzales has a talent for weaving good stories with scientific knowledge and theory. This book isn’t a how-to manual for survival, but in a way it is a manual on how to fully live life. As the author states on the last page: “We can live a life of bored caution and die of cancer. Better to take the adventure, minimize the risks, get the information, and then go forward in the knowledge that we’ve done everything we can.”

For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Wrap-up of my trip to North Carolina

It was mid-afternoon when I left Harkers Island. Driving south, parallel to the coast, I go through Beaufort and by the state port at Morehead City, through Jacksonville, passing the tattoo parlors and topless bars that line the highway which skirts Camp Lejeune, then down Highway 17 to Wilmington. When we first moved to the coast, this was a two-lane road. Then, about the time I got my driver’s license, they updated the road to a three-lane highway, the center being a passing lane shared by each side. There were some head-on wrecks and at the time, my dad wondered if it had been designed by an Undertaker. Today, it’s four-lanes and mostly a divided highway with cars speeding in both directions. That’s not the only changes. Gone are the old rusty tin shacks where, in years passed, you could buy fresh shrimp, oysters or collard greens. Gone are the little gas stations at crossroads, with their Coca-Cola chest coolers and screen doors advertising Sunbeam Bread. Now, multi-colored convenient stores with shaded gas pumps dot the highway. Also gone are the large sections of forest. The pines that exist are now in plantations, which grow a hybrid version instead of the traditional long-leaf pines. The remaining long-leafs now stand sentinel around colonial-styled homes. The few ancient live oaks left, with their beards of Spanish moss, serve as decorations for entrances to housing developments. There’s been a lot of change since I was a kid.

I stop and pick up some barbeque for dinner, along with cole slaw and hushpuppies, and arrive home a little after dark. I relieve my brother and for the next three days am responsible for Mom. It’s a role that I’m not use to and I immediately find out that no only will I have to take care of her, I will also have to watch over her dog that appears to have the runs. The little mutt (he’s actually some special bred) is named Prince… He doesn’t look like a Prince, but the last dog my parents have had (a collie) was named Prince and my father thought that keeping a dog of the same name would help my mom. But when I ask Mom about the other Prince, she doesn’t remember the dog even though at the time he’d gotten out of the fenced backyard and was struck by a car in front of their house, my mother called me balling over the phone. I cleaned up the dog’s mess, washed my hands, and then we ate dinner.

The next morning we’d planned to go to Pinehurst to see my grandmother (father’s side), who still lives by herself and also to give my mother a chance to see her sister. Getting ready was a challenge as I tried to make sure my mom had everything she needed for the overnight stay. I asked her to get a change of clothes; she came back with a dressy suit. I told her that we weren’t going formal, so she came back with a sweatshirt. I told her that was probably too hot. She came back with a blouse that seemed more appropriate. I sent her back for slacks. It was weird realizing that she wasn’t quite sure what was going on, and I felt like I was dealing with my daughter when she was about five or six.

We loaded up the car, putting the dog in his carrier, and I drove the familiar way, through town and across the river and up along the south banks of the Cape Fear, through Brunswick, Columbus, Bladen, Robinson, Hoke and finally Moore County. Most of this use to be tobacco and peanut country, but every time I make the trip, there are fewer and fewer curing barns and those are the newer bulk barns. Much of the tobacco land is now planted in cotton (or in corn by farmers hoping to cash in on the ethanol boom). Along the way, I was hoping to find some boiled peanuts, which are only available during and right after the harvest. After making several stops, I finally found an old gas station in the town of Dublin that had a few bags left in their drink cooker. Boiled peanuts are wonderful and I brought a three pound bag, heating up a few in their microwave to eat on the drive.

We got to my grandma’s early in the afternoon. She’d fixed dinner: pork chops, cornbread, collard greens, homemade apple sauce, three-bean salad (my grandmother forgot that I’m the one who hates green beans) and left-over pumpkin pie. It was all very good after I picked the green beans out of my salad. We spent the night at grandma’s, watching antique shows on TV before bed.

I offered to make breakfast the next morning. Grandma agreed, and then started showing me where things were at. She got out eggs and sausage and canned biscuits from the refrigerator.

“What?” I asked, “Canned biscuits?”

“They’re pretty good,” my grandmother insisted.

I refused to have anything to do with it. “I’ll make biscuits,” I volunteer, thinking that breakfast at grandmas had to have homemade biscuits.

“When did you learn how to make biscuits?” my grandmother asked.

“I learned from you, when I was about 14,” I told her.

“We’ll that’s good, ‘cause I don’t make ‘em from scratch anymore.”

So I got busy and made a pan of biscuits, fixed eggs, sausage, grits and coffee. We had us a real southern breakfast.

Later that morning, I walked down behind her house to Joe’s Fork, a small creek. When I was a kid, the beavers had dammed up the creek in several places, creating nice ponds for fishing. I love this country—the Sandhills. Tall long-leaf pines, interspersed with blackjack oaks, their leaves looking like mittens for a giant. (see photo) There’s American holly and red cedar and growing high in the trees along the creek are clumps of mistletoe. I couldn’t find any beaver, but was surprised to see a golf course maybe 100 feet from the creek on the other side. I’m sure the ground-keepers kept the beavers out of the creek, as the last thing they’d want would be an unexpected water trap.

We later visited my aunt and cousin, then drove back to Wilmington. The next day we drove out to the beach and did a bit of shopping. My sister came down to take over, and on Thursday morning she and my mom dropped me off at the airport.

It was good to be back in the South and back home for a few days. But every time I go I get a sense of loss. I’m sure this is heightened by my mothers deteriorating condition.

Other stories from this trip:
Catchin' Blues
Camping on Cape Lookout

Friday, December 07, 2007

3 Word Wednesday: A Nevada Jack Rant

Bone’s Three-word Wednesday writing assignment this week is to come up with something using the following three words. I assigned the task to Nevada Jack. Sorry that he’s a few days past deadline, you just can’t find good help these days. This week’s words are: absent, notebook and persuade.

The primary season is coming soon, yet for the most part, the candidates have been absent from Michigan. We’re not overloaded with TV ads trying to persuade us to vote for this or that candidate. There are no reporters running around with notebooks, asking folks on the street questions of national importance such as what we think about Edwards’ hair cut or Mitch’s underwear. There are no candidates dropping dollars into our struggling state economy, tipping the waitresses and kissing the babies. All this is happening because the bright minds in our state legislature decided to usurp the political process and schedule an early primary on January 15. This is before the “legal” date for primaries and caucuses, as set by the two major political parties. The parties want to protect the two states known for their corn or granite to get first dibs on selecting the next President. In a state where there is absolutely no bi-partisan effort to balance the budget, we’re hearing lots of bi-partisan rhetoric citing reasons why Iowa and New Hampshire shouldn’t have a lock on being first. It's being fought out in the courts right now and it seems as if it's on again/off again, I can't keep it straight. But if the courts allow the primary go forth, we’ll have a primary election with little campaigning and the possibility that our delegates to the national political parties won’t be certified!

Enough ranting—it’s snowing and time for a long winter nap…

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Sick Puppy: A Book Review

I decided to move this book out of its “queue” and review it earlier so I can lend the book out. This is the second Hiaasen book I’ve recently read. I reviewed the other book, Skinny Dip, on Saturday.

Carl Hiaasen, Sick Puppy (New York: Warner Books, 1999), 513 pages.

Twilly Spree is a young, unemployed, multi-millionaire living off his trust fund and spending his time harassing litterbugs and developers. One day he happens to run across Palmer Sloat, a lobbyist who seems to think the state’s interstate highway is his own personal dump. Soon, and unbeknownst to Palmer, Twilly is on his tail. He dumps trash in Palmer’s sports car, kidnaps his Labrador Retriever name Boodle and renames him McGuinn, finds himself enchanted with Palmer’s lovely wife Desie, and sets out to destroy the lobbyist’s current project—a state funded bridge to aid the development of Todd Island.
This book is filled with interesting characters. Robert Chapley, the developer who hires Palmer to help him develop the island (at the state’s expense), is a man obsessed with Barbie dolls. This obsession started with him playing with his sister’s dolls and as an adult takes a new twist as he, now with money, sets out to have the real thing. He finds two tall young women from Eastern Europe, Katya and Trish, entices them to move in with him and with the help of a plastic surgeon, begins their transformation into real live Barbies. Chapley’s demise at the end of the book comes at his attempt to obtain a rhino horn, the powder from which his Barbies believe is a great sex drug.

Another interesting character is Clinton Tyree (Skink), an ex-governor who lives off the land in the middle of the Everglades. The current governor seeks his help in finding the eco-terrorist that’s sabotaging the Toad Island project. In the end, Skink and Twilly join forces in bringing about the end of the Todd Island project. The finale occurs on a private game reserve where Chapley is hunting a live rhino. In the party is the current governor, a member of the state legislature, Spree and a couple of guides. The rhino (named El Jefe) is on his death bed, but when Spree’s dog breaks lose from Skink’s hand and charges the rhino, biting its tail, the beast comes alive. Chapley misses his shot, the bullet striking Sloat’s gun, ends up impaled on the rhino’s horn. Sloat, his rifle ruined, is trampled to death by the beast.

As this is my second Hiassen book that I’ve read, there seems to be some patterns to his characters and plot. In both Skinny Dip and Sick Puppy, at least one character has an inheritance large enough to allow them to pay their way as they try to right wrongs. In both books, one of the main characters is a puppet for a more powerful person (Sloat works for Chapley and in Skinny Dip, Chaz worked for Red). In both books, the good guys get off easy; the bad guys get their due. The powerful figures in both books have hired goons that do their dirty work: however, the thug in Skinny Dip changes his way while the thug in Sick Puppy ends up on the wrong side of a bulldozer. Finally, there is a loveable dog in each book. Even with the similarities, I enjoyed both books.

A Side Note: Hiaasen talent is to make unbelievable characters believable. The exception in this book is Estella, the call girl who only does Republicans. I can’t imagine tightfisted Republicans paying good money for sex when they’ve been screwing the entire country for free for the past dozen years. But then again, after Bush, I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a tightfisted Republican.

A Side Note #2: Twilly reminds me of Hayduke in Edward Abbey’s novels. Both are essentially eco-terrorists, the difference being that Twilly has money and enjoys a more active sex life than Hayduke. Hiassen seems to relish in the sex lives of his characters and this book is “adult oriented.”
For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Sunday Scribblings: A Sunday Morning Walk

"Walking my mind to an easy time…"
-James Taylor, “Fire and Rain”

I haven’t done a “Sunday Scribblings” in a while. When I read Guatami’s blog, I saw that today’s topic is “walking,” I knew I’d have to write something. After all, I’ve done my share of walking. Often, I walk the mile into town. I also often walk to my office. Other times, I go for longer walks, the Appalachian Trail being my longest. Then there’s the John Muir Trail and a host of smaller ones, like the Ruby Crest in Nevada, the Laurel Highlands in Pennsylvania, the Uwharrie in North Carolina, portions of the Finger Lakes in New York and the North Country Trail here in Michigan. And of course, there are others too. But after thinking about all my hikes, I decided to write about an early morning walk I took the last time I visited one of my old haunts, Virginia City, Nevada. The first photograph is a copy of a slide that I shot back in 88-89 when I lived on the Comstock (Virginia City). The second, taken in 1989, was of the bartender at the Silver Dollar Saloon. I’ll have to see if I can make some copies of the many slides I have of Virginia City, taken from the Combination Shaft. I also need to see if I can retake the first picture (of the wildflowers) as it appears my copy is a bit out of focus.

I can’t believe it’s been this long, but the last time I was in Virginia City was in the Spring of 2000. Then, I’d been nearly a dozen years since I’d lived there, and it was kind of on a whim that I decided to take off from San Francisco where I was engaged in research and head to Nevada for the weekend. I’d told no one that I was coming to town and got there late Saturday afternoon and checked into the Sugarloaf Motel. That evening I walked through town, stopping for a drink at the Union Brewery. The last time I’d been in town it was closed. Rick and Julie, the proprietors when I lived here, had split up years earlier. The Brewery, now under new management, felt more like a bikers bar than a local hangout. I went next door to Muldoon’s and ordered a hamburger. The last time I’d eaten there Norm was still the cook, but I’d heard he’d succumbed to cancer. I stopped in a few shops, finding a few folks I knew, but I now felt like a stranger. In the early evening, I walked out to Boot Hill and through the various cemeteries: one for the Masons, one for the Firemen and a third for the Catholics. It dawned on me that I probably knew as many people buried under this hard ground as I did in town. Then, after darkness had descended, I walked back through town, stopping for another beer at the Silver Dollar. I couldn’t remember the bartender’s name, it was French and we use to talk about literature. When I described him, I was told he too had died. Sad, I headed back to my room, called it an early night and was in bed before 11.

Sitting on the east flank of Mt. Davidson, morning seems to come early to Virginia City. I woke at first light, before sunrise, and decided to give the Comstock another try. Dressing, I pulled on my boots, grabbed my camera and stuck a water bottle in my coat pocket and headed out to see if the surroundings had changed as much as had the people in the town. I walked down to D Street, headed south along the tracks of the Virginia and Truckee, till I got to where the siding used to cut off to the Combination Shaft. Then I hiked along the old bed to the head frame that straddles a shaft which once dropped nearly 3000 feet under the surface. When I arrived, the sun was still below the horizon, but its rays were striking the top of Mt. Davidson, some 1600 feet above the city. As the sun rose, its rays descended further down the mountain, till the city bathe in warm light that reflected off the glass windows. This was a magical time. I pulled out my camera and shot a scene that I’d never tired of photographing, the city in the background, St. Mary’s of the Mountain in the center, with the gallows frame over the shaft in the foreground and off to the side.

As the air was still cool, I decided to start hiking in order to warm myself up. I headed east, along an old road, out to Flowery Cemetery. Unlike the main cemetery on the north side of town, there are no elaborate gravestones here; this was a pauper’s graveyard. As I kick around through the graves, I come across a rock path. Following it, I visited the Stations of the Cross. Then, out on a ledge, I come to the white picket fence around the grave for Julie Bullete, Virginia City heroine prostitute who was murdered in 1867. Legend has it that she was buried here because as a prostitute she wasn’t allowed to be buried in the main cemetery, but the truth most likely is that she’s buried here because like most women in that profession, she was poor. It seems odd that her grave would be so prominent, in a location that it can easily be seen through binoculars from the porches behind the businesses on C Street, but that’s because this isn’t her real grave. No one is sure exactly where in the cemetery she was buried, but back in the 1960s, some of those with tourist interest in the community decided she needed a grave that they could point out from town. Every year or so, someone comes out and whitewashes the picket fence, so her plot remains visible to the throng of tourist who stream through the city every summer.

Leaving the graveyard, I continue to head east, walking through pinions and junipers, the sage and rabbit brush, passing along side a ventilation shafts for the Sutro Tunnel. The tunnel was an ambitious 19th Century project, in which a drift (a horizontal mine shaft) from the valley to the east was dug into the mines under Virginia City, a feat which helped drain the mines as the water didn’t have to be pumped all the way to the surface. Along the way, several jack rabbits jump up and dart away. There are still a few spring flowers in bloom, mostly lupine and paintbrush. Gradually, I drop of the side of the hill, down into Six Mile Canyon near the base of Sugarloaf, an outstanding geological feature, probably the core of an old volcano. I cross the small creek and stir up a coyote, then turn west and head up Seven Mile Canyon, toward the Geiger Grade. There, just below the road to Reno and north of Boot Hill, is the old Jewish Cemetery. Not much remains, but a simple wood Star of David stands above the small fenced plot. I pause to look around, then head south, cutting across Boot Hill and back into town. I stop at the Wagon Wheel for coffee and pancakes, before heading back to my room, where I shower, clean up, and get ready for church.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Skinny Dip: A Book Review

Carl Hiaasen, Skinny Dip

Warning, Carl Hiaasen can be dangerous to your health. Let me explain. I listed to Skinny Dip on my Ipod, mostly while working out at the gym. There is nothing more dangerous than being on a bench, with a bunch of weight over your head and your arms beginning to fatigue, and then be hit with one of Hiaasen’s incredibility funny lines. Numerous people wanted to know what I was listening to and one guy said that he’d never seen anybody have a much fun as I was having at the gym. Yes, I enjoyed this book.

Skinny Dip begins with Dr. Charles “Chaz” Perrone throwing his beautiful and rich wife Joey off the back of a cruise ship. It’s the last night of their anniversary cruise. Far from land, there is no way she could survive both the fall and the sharks, or so Chaz thinks. But Joey does survive, clinging to a stray bail of marijuana. She’s picked up by Mick Stranahan, a retired cop who lives on a deserted island. With Mick’s help, Joey decides she’ll let Chaz think she’s dead while she torments him for all he’s worth. As her pranks play out, a detective who main preoccupation (other than his pet snakes) is to get back to Minnesota and away from the crazies in South Florida, also gets on Chaz’s tail. But he can’t prove that Chaz threw her overboard, and in the end is satisfied to know that justice is being carried out although not through the court system.

In trying to cover his tracks, Chaz sets out to kill two other people, his mistress and his boss’ thug. In both cases, he thinks he’s done the deed perfectly, only to find out that they’ve survived. Chaz is 0-3 as a murderer and must known the fear Pilate and the Roman soldiers felt. Every time he thinks he’s gotten rid of a problem, they’re resurrected.

One of the classic scenes in the books is following Joey’s funeral. At this point, all but a few think Joey’s body has been lost at sea. Joey has a trusted friend attend the funeral dressed as a slut and then, acting grief struck, has her to hit on Chaz. Sure enough Chaz follows her home like a dog in heat. After a number of drinks, she suggests he go into the bedroom while she “freshens up.” In a scene reminiscent of Scrooge in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, Joey then takes over, causing her inebriated husband to think he’s seeing ghost and to flee the house in fear.

Chaz is a biologist in name only. Although he works for the state, his real employer is Red Hammernut, a large scale farmer who needs Chaz to fake water samples so he can dump his fertilizered run-off into the Everglades. Red assigns a “body guard” to Chaz, a man who’s got a bullet in the butt and who snoops low enough to steal morphine patches off dying patients in nursing homes. He also steals highway crosses that have been put out by families who lost love ones in accidents, planting the crosses in his own back yard. In the end, after befriending one of the patients, Red’s thug has a “conversion” and gives up his more crooked ways.

This is an adult book (ie, there’s lots of sex). It's filled with lots wacky characters. In the end all the good guys seem to get hooked with a partner--Joey and Mitch, Joey's brother and Chaz's former mistress, the thug and his nursing home friend. Hiassen neatly wraps up the book, only leaving us to spectulate as to what happened to Chaz (hinting that his outcome was probably not good). I’m not sure what took me so long to get around to reading Hiaasen. My sister recommended him to me some time ago and Diane has spoken highly of him in her blog. Although funny, Hiassen’s goal is more than entertainment. He wants to raise awareness of the ecological damage being done to Florida. This week, while flying home from North Carolina, I began reading another of Hiassen’s books, Sick Puppy. It’ll go in my list of books to be reviewed. After that, I’m sure they’ll be more, but there are so many authors to read...

For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Catchin' Blues

It rained Sunday morning and the wind continued to howl as it had done since I’d arrived at Lookout on Friday. Gathering under the tarps we drank coffee and traded stories. I asked my Uncle L if he remembered the fake graveyard he’d created when I was a kid. I’d remembered correctly that he and his friend had used temporary grave markers they’d found in a junk pile on in the edge of the woods behind the church’s cemetery. He’d told me the people buried there had been too poor to afford a regular tombstone. This morning he told me the reason he and a friend had created the place had been to scare another boy. As L took the boy out to see the graveyard he’d “discovered,” his other friend hid under a pile of thick leaves. When they were in the middle of the cemetery, L’s friend jumped up from the leaves, creating a vision of a premature resurrection of the dead. The other kid, feeling doomed on the Day of the Lord, ran home. We told some more stories and joked about the weather and how it could be worse. After all, it could be snowing or sleeting or instead of a gale we could have a hurricane. On the other hand, it could be warmer with no wind and the mosquitoes so thick that we’d think we were reliving one of Pharaoh’s plagues. As fun as this was, I had no desire to spend my last day on the beach huddled up telling stories. After finishing the last of the coffee, I pulled on my hip boots and donned my rain jacket, grabbed a medium sized rod and a couple of Hopkins' spoons (a shinny metal lure) and headed out across the dunes to the beach.

The wind had shifted and instead of coming out of the north, it was coming from the northwest, blowing sand inches above the surface at a 45 degree angle to the surf. Although it still wasn’t ideal, the slight shift in the wind direction meant I could at least cast into the surf. The waves were foamy and the rain and spray reduced visibility to maybe a mile. I waded out into the water, to where the waves swirled around my calves, and made my first cast. The heavy spoon flew deep into the water, beyond the breakers. I retrieved it fast, yanking it every few turns, so that it skimmed across the top of the waves. The Hopkin Spoon is one of the most un-appetizing lures on the market. It’s essentially a piece of long metal (I was using a four ounce variety) pounded flat and with a triple hook on the end. It’s pulled fast through the water, hoping to get a fish on a non-discriminating diet to eat before looking. As a kid, I remember an old man telling me he’d lost his only Hopkins one morning when the Blues had been running like crazy. He took a flat metal bottle opener and wired a hook to the end and cast it into the surf and continued to catch Blues.

After about a dozen casts, I got a strike but missed it. As I continued to casts, I noticed a number of gulls and pelicans hovering over the surf about a hundred yards north. Occasionally one would dive down and come up with morning breakfast, a sure sign that some sort of fish were congregating. The birds would be after small fry, the same sort of fish that would attract Blues. I started making my way up the beach toward the birds, casting occasionally.

As I got closer to where the birds were making a fuss, I noticed there appeared to be a deep hole just offshore, hollowed out by riptide. I cast out into it and started yanking the rod and retrieving it fast. It didn’t take but a second before I felt the tug on the line. I yanked the rod back hard to set the hook and began to fight to reel the fish in. As he got closer to the edge, I backed up onto the sand and pulled the fish out of the water. He wasn’t huge as Bluefish go, but was one of the nicest Blues I’d catch that morning, maybe two pounds. It took me a second to get the hook out, with all three of the hook’s barbs piercing into both the top and bottom of his mouth. One has to be careful with Bluefish, as they have sharp teeth. Many times, fishing for flounder with a live finger-size mullet, I’ve seen a bluefish hit the bait and in one swift bite cut the mullet in half. This is not the type of mouth I wanted to stick my finger. Bending down over him, I got my out my pliers and went to work. When done, I tossed him up on the hill, waded back into the water and resumed casting. A few minutes later, I caught another, this one around a pound. I threw him and all the smaller Bluefish back, or at least those whose mouths weren’t damaged by the triple barbs of the hook. Bluefish aren’t the best kind of fish to freeze, so I didn’t need any more than we’d eat that day. They’re best roasted on coals at the beach. The second best way is to flay and skin them, then fry ‘em up. I continued to catch Blues, and missed a few, some getting them to the edge of the surf before they got off the hook. At one point, I caught three fish in five casts. I kept reeling ‘em in and after catching nine, two other guys fishing a quarter mile north came down to see what I was using and asked if I mind if they joined me. They hadn’t caught a thing, but soon after casting into the same area where I was fishing, they too started catching Blues.

My arms were getting tired, but I decided that I wanted to at least catch the limit which was 15. When the birds were out, I’d cast and generally bring in a fish or two. When the birds stopped hovering, I’d rest. After I caught 16 (which is legal as the limit only applies to those you keep and I’d only kept four), I called it a morning and headed back to camp. I’d had so much fun I hadn’t noticed that the rain had increased and the wind was picking up. It was time for lunch (Bluefish). Then I had to pack up. It was going to be a rough boat ride back to Harkers Island, where I had left my car.

Cape Lookout Lighthouse
Sunrise at the surf (taken Saturday morning)
Dad fishing in the surf (taken Saturday morning)
Wind blown sand around a Welker Shell

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Camping on Cape Lookout

I haven’t been online much since getting to North Carolina late last week. I hope to catch up with you all later, but it’ll probably be after I get back home. Here’s the story of the first part of my trip.
Friday was a travel day. Surprisingly and unlike my experiences with airlines this summer (in which it took longer to fly than to drive or take the train), my flights were smooth and on time. As soon as I got to Wilmington, I dropped off my excess luggage at my parents home, had a quick lunch with my brother and mom, then headed north to Harker’s Island where I met my dad. He ferried me over in his boat to the fish camp on Cape Lookout. He, along with my uncle and my uncle’s brother-in-law, had gone over early that morning to set up camp. As I got to the marina, the moon rose. It was a day before full and had a ghostly appearance as it climbed above the horizon, partly veiled behind high level clouds. As the sun was setting, we quickly stowed my gear in the boat and I pulled on hip boots and a rain jacket for the rough trip across the Back Sound and through Barden Inlet, to Cape Lookout. The ride was choppy but as we were running with the wind, it wasn’t nearly as bad as he had been for my dad when he came across to get me. We got to camp about the time dinner was fixed. After eating, I headed out to the beach. The moon was now high, its light shimmering across the water. After walking on the beach a ways, I came back, had a nightcap, and then went to bed early.

The next morning, the wind was blowing even harder than the night before. The marine weather forecast called for winds 20-30 knots for the next two days, with rain moving in Saturday night. That morning, my dad and I tried a bit of surf fishing, but the wind, blowing straight out of the north and parallel to the surf, made it impossible to keep a line in the water. We tried plugging, but after about an hour with no luck, we gave up. I hiked around, looking at and photographing the lighthouse. I already have a collection of photos of this lighthouse (which you’ve seen if you’ve read this blog for any time), but what’s wrong with a few dozen more?
After lunch, we decided to try fishing along the leeward side of Shackleford Banks, another deserted barrier island inhabited by wild ponies. As Shackleford runs east to west, we stayed in close to the shoreline where we avoided the rough water and was somewhat protected by the wind. The four of us in two boats spent three hours fishing, catching enough Bluefish for dinner. Clouds were rolling in as we worked our way across Lookout Blight, back to the camp. Clouds shrouded that evening’s sunset and moonrise. As the rain began, we huddled under tarps and told stories and drank whiskey till bedtime.

It was raining even harder Sunday morning, but I went fishing anyway (I’ll write more about that later). Sunday afternoon, after a long bumpy boat ride, I changed into dry clothes and headed to Wilmington to relieve my brother who was taking care of our mom.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

I'm Out Of Here!

I’m out of here in the morning—flying to the Great State of North Carolina. I plan on doing some surf fishing, some walking on the beach, some reading, and mostly spending some time with my parents. I may post while traveling. We’ll see, it depends on internet connections and whether or not my muse decides to join me for the trip. If you want to reach me, you can always email at sagecoveredhills [at] Whatever happens, I need the break even though part of it will be bittersweet as I need to see first hand how my mother’s illness is progressing. Hope you all had a great Thanksgiving; here, we got our first dusting of snow for the season last night!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Eatin' Cheap

When I was in grad school, I learned to eat cheap. One of my favorite dishes was to fix a big pot of beans and rice—which would last me a week. Economical and nutritional, such a fare wasn’t for everyone. But I got by and occasionally I still find myself longing for a pot of beans. This weekend I didn’t have to cook for anyone but myself and decided to make a pot. I’ll be eating them at least a meal a day for the rest of the week. Here’s my recipe (remember, everything is approximate).

-one pound of dried beans (red beans, pintos, navy, experiment with different varieties)
-ham hock (optional)
-2 cups of rice
-24 ounce can of stewed tomatoes (not really optional, but I didn’t have any this time!)
-a couple of onions, sliced
-Garlic, diced
-½ a cabbage sliced
-Variety of spices like oregano and basil
-Hot sauce

Wash and then soak beans in water for an hour. I fix my beans in a pressure cooker—small red beans can cook in about 12 minutes at 10 pounds of pressure. If you are using a ham hock, put it with the beans in the pressure cooker.

Afterwards, add rice, tomatoes, onions, garlic, cabbage and spices. Add liquid (you’ll need to make sure there is enough liquid to cook the rice, at least 4 cups plus the juice from the tomatoes. Guess on how much juice you have from the beans, then add enough to make the difference or drain the beans and add 5 cups of water plus the liquid in the tomatoes). Bring to a boil; turn down to a medium low flame and cook, stirring regularly, till rice is done. Serve with bread (or if you want to be fancy, fix up some of Sage’s cornbread), along with plenty of hot sauce.

Note on using a pressure cooker: The pressure cooker is a useful kitchen tool, but you must learn how to use them safely for they can be dangerous. Once mastered, pressure cookers cook food much quicker and with much less energy. If not for the pressure cooker, you’d be cooking the beans for hours. In my list of favorite pots, my pressure cooker ranks right behind my cast iron skillets and my wok.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Eatin' Oysters

I couldn’t find a digitally saved picture of the sound near where I grew up and where oysters are raised, but this shot of Cape Lookout is of a similar terrain (with the addition of a lighthouse). The small tidal creeks in the sound are perfect breeding grounds for oysters. The second photo shows two types of oyster knives, presented on the traditional oyster shucking table cloth (that is if you don't have a table built just for the purpose, out of tin roofing).

My mouth began to water for a juicy oyster after reading about having ‘em on the half-shell in a restaurant review by Kelly the Culinarian in her blog. Kelly had stopped by my blog yesterday and so I returned the favor and was reminded that by this time next week, I may be enjoying some good Carolina oysters. I just hope the weather has been cool enough for the season to open. The idea of eating oysters in the months in where there is an “r” (September-April) appears to be a thing of the past, perhaps another example of global warming. You want the water to be cold enough to deter bacteria before you indulge in the delicacy. Growing up where I did, oysters were a stable. We always had oyster stuffing at Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s Eve just wasn’t right without steaming a bushel. One New Year’s Eve, when I was living in Western North Carolina, I’d come home from Christmas with a bushel of oysters for a New Year’s Eve party. We were eating steamed oysters outdoors; the party was at my uncles. I almost broke a tooth when I bit into a beautiful black pearl. At the time, I thought that if anything came out of the date I had for the evening, I’d have the pearl made into a necklaces. Well, there wasn’t any spark there, and soon we were dating other people although we remained friends, which was a good thing according to my uncle who wasn’t sure what to make of the lady who could eat as many oysters as us guys (normally the women-folk stayed inside while the guys when outside to steam oysters and washed them down with some sort of alcohol). I’m not sure whatever became of my pearl.

I’ve even eaten my share of oysters raw, including times when harvesting ‘em, I’d take a nice oyster, swirl it around in the water to wash off the mud, then pop it open with an oyster knife and enjoy. That said, being landlocked like I am now, mine’s one of the few homes in the Upper Midwest to boast a set of oyster knives. With that in mind, let me share with you a story that may cure your desire ever to eat a raw oyster.

Eatin’ Oysters

I was at a conference down in Florida when I was working with the Boy Scouts. One evening, another guy and I had gone out to a bar. It was a nice place that had a patio built out over a lake, somewhere north of Gainesville. I don’t even remember the name of the guy I was with, but he was from East Tennessee. Seeing they had oysters on the half-shell, he confessed he’d never tried them. I ordered a dozen and told him I’d share, that he should have the experience. The waitress brought out the platter, oysters nicely presented on ice, with sliced lemons and some horseradish in a dish in the center. The first one, I slurped down, without any condiments. Then I showed how he could put horseradish or lemon juice or hot sauce on the mussel, before eating. After I’d consumed about half the platter, he decided he’d try one. He popped the oyster in his mouth, started gagging, and immediately spit it back into the shell. I encouraged him to try again and he did, pulling enough horseradish on it to clean not only sinuses but also a clogged drain. He then chased it with a beer, forcing it down. “That’s enough,” he said, “I can now say that I’ve eaten an oyster.” I went on to eat the rest, leaving the one partly consumed oyster sitting on the tray.

In the bar were others who were attending the same conference, including one of our colleagues, a first-class jerk. I think he was from New Jersey. I may be wrong but with his manners, he couldn’t have been a native southerner. For those of us who sat in the back, this guy became the blunt of all our jokes. He knew everything, or so he thought. He continually vied with the instructor to teach the course and we joked about why, if he was so damn smart, he was even in our class. Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly happy that evening when he walked over to our table and greeted us like we were his long lost friends. Standing by our table, we didn't offer him a seat, he spied the one lone (regurgitated) oyster. Without asking and before we could say anything, he reached for it as he proclaimed his love for shellfish. Then, in one motion, he slurped it down. We burst into laugher and right then, I knew there is a God and that sometimes we do get to experience justice here on earth.

Friday, November 16, 2007

3-WW: New Years Day 1987

Every week Bone has a 3-Word Wednesday writing assignment. The goal is to write something using his three assigned words. Lately, every week, I've lost a two letter grades by turning in my work on Friday! This week, our words are: icy, pause, and train. I tried to recreate a train ride from North Carolina to Pittsburgh, back when I was in grad school. The photo was taken from the third floor apartment, looking east. Enjoy (I may have to come back and proof this better!).

New Years Day 1987

Soon after getting checked in by the conductor and shortly after pulling out of the DC Station, I headed to the lounge car for a beer and a sandwich for dinner. In a corner booth, a card game was being played by several obnoxious guys who were already intoxicated. I sat down at the only open seat, at a table where the conductor was doing some paper work. We exchanged greetings and he went back to his work and I began eating and looking out the window, watching the dropped crossing gates and the city fly by. Leaving DC, the tracks snaked along the Potomac. The icy winter mix that we’d been experiencing all day had changed to big snowy flakes by the time we reached Harper’s Ferry. After finishing my sandwich, I pulled out my book and began to read the few pages I had left, all while downing another beer.

The guys in the poker table in the corner kept hollering and then one of them told a racist joke. The car attendant came over and told them they’d been inappropriate and needed to return to their seats. When they asked for another beer to take with them, he refused, saying they’d had enough. The game broke up and all but one walked away. He got louder, shouting obscenities and racial slurs. The conductor immediately stood up, supporting the attendant and calling the calling on his radio for the other conductor to the car. I wondered if I was going to witness my first mobile bar fight, as the three men, the drunkard on one side, the conductor and attendant on the other, appeared to be locked in a stand-off, waiting for someone to blink. The man was told again that had better go back to his seat or he’d be removed from the train. He refused and sat back down in defiance. I’m not sure who made the call, perhaps the other conductor who stood in the back of the car. A few minutes later, at a lonely rural road, the train came to a stop by the dropped crossings bars of a rural road. Next to the crossing bar was a police cruiser, its spinning lights cutting through the night. The attendant opened the door and two sheriff deputies entered the car, spoke briefly to the conductor, and then to the man’s amazement, told him he was under arrest, cuffed him and led him away. The conductor made a call from his radio, the whistle blew, and the train jerked forward. From then on the ride was quiet.

The day, cold and gray, had started early as I’d boarded the Silver Star in Southern Pines. I’d spent New Years Eve with my grandma, barely making it till midnight, going to bed as soon as Dick Clark finished clicking off the seconds of 1986 at Times Square. Boarding the train, I was seated in a coach that I soon learned had a malfunctioning heating unit. Everyone was cold and the attendant had given out every blanket he had. I pulled my sleeping bag from my backpack and sat down, sliding my legs into it. My eyes alternating from the barren winter landscape outside to the pages of the Bridge over the River Kwai. In Raleigh they tried to fix the heating unit, and again in Petersburg, but in both cases, as soon as we were running, the unit kicked out. The train, having been filled with folks heading home for the holidays, had no seats in the other cars. That afternoon, I napped, warm in my bag, as the sleet and freezing rain began to pound against the window. There wasn’t a second to pause when we to Washington. We were late and had to immediately board the Capitol Limited for its run toward Chicago. Winded, I was at least pleased to find a warm coach, one whose heating system worked.

After my light dinner and the evening entertainment, I’d returned to my seat. The train crossed over the Appalachians and began the downhill dart through coal towns nestled along the Youghiogheny. The snow piled up. When we stopped at the little hamlets, folks getting off the train would leave footprints in the powder as they head toward the station or awaiting cars. Some looked around, as if waiting for someone who wasn’t there to greet them, a lonely feeling I thought. As the tracks approach Pittsburgh, running through the Monongahela Valley, flames could be seen coming from the few steel mills which were still operating, their red glow cutting though the darkness. A few minutes later, we pulled into Pittsburgh. As I got off, I wonder if I’ll have a ride, if Rusty has been able to make it through the snow to pick me up.

Sure enough, Rusty was waiting in the station. Pittsburgh had received nearly a foot of snow, but he was use to driving in it. The roads were vacant as we drove through town. Once we got back to the school, I dropped my bags in my apartment, pulled on my boots and headed outside. It was early in the morning, January 2nd, but I couldn’t sleep. Outside something magical happened. The dreary day had been transformed and now, at night, the snow added a cheerfulness to the air. I walked along, enjoying the left-over Christmas lights piercing the darkness. I was home.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Top Ten Indulgences

  1. Yes, it’s that time of the year. The trees have dropped their leaves and they now wait by the street where, once the grass is good and dead, the city will come around and pick ‘em up. You may notice below that raking leaves isn’t one of my top ten indulgences… It probably makes Murf’s list, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t make Ed’s list…

    My Top Ten Indulgences

This meme has been going around. Both Kevin and Jadedprimadonna have posted their list, so I thought I might give it a try too.

1. Chocolate Oatmeal No-bake Cookies. I can make ‘em myself or by them at a local cookie bakery.

2. A good soak in a Hot Springs. Sorry, hot tubs just don’t do it; I’ve been spoiled by spending too much time out west and whenever I return for a visit, I have to find a spring to soak in. Favorite hot springs: a. the spring just south of Muir Beach, north of San Francisco, right on the surf. b. Lava hot springs in Idaho. c. The springs in the Black Canyon, south of Boulder Dam on the Arizona Side… This bring up the question, what am I doing here?

3. Puzzles. There is something about completing a puzzle and working on puzzles is one time my mind seems totally free. Currently putting together a puzzle of the top 30 must see cities of the world.

4. Sitting by a roaring fire and either chatting or reading a book. This can be in the living room or out in the wild.

5. Backpacking and camping by myself. I occasionally like to go out solo, to spend the evening and morning in silence, taking in the changes of the hours, during this time I often journal and read the Psalms, and it becomes a spiritual retreat.

6. A good massage, ‘nuff said

7. A variety of good quality beers and liquors from which to choose. Right now the fridge has the following: several bottles of Arcadia IPA and Starboard Stout, a couple of Bells Porters, and a bottle of Lion Lager (from Sri Lanka). In the liquor cabinet, I make sure that I have at least one bottle of each of the following: George Dickel, Flor de Cana (7 yr old rum for Nicaragua), and Glenfiddich. And to nip any comments from Murf in the bud, I’m currently drinking ice tea.

8. Ice cream from either Mootown (a nearby dairy) or Plainwell (a nearby place—in the other direction, where they make their own ice cream).

9. A familiar book of poetry

10. An afternoon nap, in the hammock if the weather is warm and the mosquitoes are also napping.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Kite Runner: A book review

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner (New York: Riverhead Books, 2003), 371 pages.

Several years ago a friend suggested I read this book. After finally getting around to it, I wonder what took me so long. The Kite Runner is beautiful yet painful, hopeful yet ominous. Set in the United States and Afghanistan, the novel tells the story of Amir and his childhood friend Hassan, as well as Amir and his father’s story as they escape the nightmare that followed the Soviet invasion in the late 70s and built a new life in America. Hosseini explores themes of childhood friendship and betrayal, the relationship between sons and fathers, and the dangers of an excessive religious state. Through it all, the reader experiences the changes in Afghanistan over the past four decades.

Amir, whose mother dies at birth, is a privileged child. He is a Pastun, one of the ruling tribes of the country and a Sunni Muslim. His father is rich and proud and Amir grows up never being able to live up to his father’s standard. He finally does something to gain his father’s praise, the winning of winter kite fight (where hundreds of boys fight with their kites till only one kite is left). But unfortunately, on the heel of that victory, due to fear, Amir fails to come to the rescue of his friend Hassan, who is brutally raped by another boy because he’s of a different tribe.

Hassan, the son of Ali, Amir’s father’s servant, is a Haaras, an ethnic minority of Chinese descent. They are also Shi’a Muslims, so Hassan’s oppression is two fold. He is both an ethnically and religiously a minority as well as being poor and illiterate. Yet Hassan is fiercely loyal to Amir, which only inflames Amir’s shame. Finally, Amir concocts a plan to drive Hassan and Ali away from his family. Soon after that, Amir and his father flee to Pakistan and later as refugees to the United States where they start a new life. Now poor, they work hard. But through it all, Amir’s guilt and shame haunts him. In the end, this drives him to return to Afghanistan, following the take over of the Taliban, to rescue Hassan’s son. On this trip, one see’s the brutality and the hypocrisy of the Taliban, as his old childhood nemesis is a Taliban official.

Shame can destroy us and can also drive us to do good deeds, as Hosseini shows. Shame finally forced Amir to face up to his fears and to risk his life to save the son of Hassan. Shame also drove Amir’s father to build an orphanage (that was destroyed in the fighting). We’ve all felt shame and also betrayal, although hopefully not to the extent of those experienced by Amir and his father in Hosseini’s novel. Although there is much pain in this book as evil is exposed, even in the characters we love, Hosseini also shows that redemption is possible. I strongly recommend this book. I listened to an unabridged version on Ipod, but then brought the book and read large sections of it. Hosseini is a talented storyteller.

For other book reviews by Sage, click here.

For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Memories as a Ham Radio Operator: A 3WW Post

Bone’s 3-Word Wednesday assignment for this week is to write a piece using the following words: Compensate, Modern, Radio. I thought back to my experiences in school as an amateur radio operator.

I’m not sure all the reasons I got so interested in Ham Radio. Perhaps it was because I was small and there was little chance of me playing sports once I got to junior high. To compensate, I decided to excel at something else. A man from our church, who only had daughters and perhaps to compensate for that, offered to teach my brother and me about radios. His having daughters my age also peaked my interest and I jumped at the opportunity. Once a week, we’d met at his house, and sitting around the dining room table, we’d work on Morse Code for fifteen minutes. That was easy ‘cause I’d already learned Morse code and semaphore, the consequence of spending too many days grounded in my room. After a code session, he’d pull out some paper and for another fifteen minutes, we’d have a math and drafting class, learning how to slice the PIE formula and the meanings of various electronic symbols. Then he’d take us out to his “shack,” a small white wooden building out back by a persimmon tree. The place was crammed with electrical parts and all kinds of radios and test equipment. Here we learned the purpose of resistors and capacitors and how to solder. In time, we built a power supply that was designed to take AC current and, after running it through some kind of bridge, convert it to DC. Then we started building a transmitter, using a 6146 tube. When finished, this transmitter was able to put out 60 watts of power. It was a simple machine, utilizing crystals to control the frequency, meaning that if you wanted change frequencies, you had to pull out one crystal and replace it with another. I had three crystals, two in the 80 meter band and another in the 40 meter band. This was fun; soon I’d learned enough that we passed the test and received my novice license, which arrived about the time we’d finished building the transmitter. It couldn’t have come at a better time as I was in the eighth grade and not doing particularly stellar in school.

Winter nights, as the sun set, the 80 meter band would come alive. The cold air gave the long wavelengths great bounce off the ionosphere. Every day I’d rush home from school and be ready to be online before dusk. It was exciting to hear that first “CQ” of the evening, a call from operator looking for someone with whom to chat. I’d tap out his call letters a couple times followed by “de” (from) and my call sign, WN4YGY. Soon, we’d be exchanging information about our location and age and the weather.

Although my brother (the one who is now a mechanical engineer) eventually passed his test and got his license, the radio bug never really bit him. Maybe this was because I was always online. Since we shared a room, it would annoy him when I would get up at 3 or 4 AM and pull on a headset and fire up the radio, no one else in the house could hear except him. Using CW (code) I enjoyed talking (via code) to folks on the West Coast as well as in South America and Europe. Each new state or country was like a conquest and over time the wall behind my radios were covered with post cards from other operators I’d communicated with from around the world.

The most exciting period of time was when I was online and an emergency net was called to relay messages from Central America. It was right around Christmas 1972, the same Christmas that Mark had been killed in an accident. An earthquake had hit Nicaragua and for hours I monitored traffic for messages were coming to North Carolina. Although I never had traffic sent my way, I felt as if I was a part of something big, especially when I saw the devastation on the morning news. This was the same earthquake that my hero, Roberto Clemente, the slugger for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was killed in a plane crash while on a humanitarian mission. Death seemed to be all around me that year, but it was also enlightening to watch history unfold.

In time, I lost interest in the hobby and by the time I started college, I was no longer logging on regularly. For a time, I played with low power equipment and purchased a small 2 watt transceiver that ran on a six volt battery. Using a portable long-wire antenna, I would take this unit camping with me. But in time, I lost interest even in that. The radios I was working with, which seemed so modern, was really behind times as everything was shifting to transistors and eventually to pre-wired boards. Sometime in college, I gave all my equipment to the man who had helped my brother and I earn our licenses and went on to other hobbies.

Addendum just for Murf: Amateur Radio operators are often known by a series of words based on their call sign. The ending of my call letters, “YGY,” got converted to “young girls yell.”