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Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

 

First, many thanks to those who showed interest in my new book, From the Edge (now available via Amazon). If you liked it, please  consider writing a review, as that helps drive its visibility.

Autumn figures strongly in From the Edge, as it is without doubt my favorite season (how’s that for a smooth segue?), so it should be no surprise that I’ve scheduled some time off for mid-October. We’re not going anywhere special—trips during the pandemic still carry too much anxiety—so we’re planning local activities and, as is our habit, we’re over-planning.

The kitchen white board now lists a few museums to visit and a couple of the bookstores we like to hit on stay-cations, but one category has grown out of all proportion to its fellows: Day Trips for Fall Color.

Seattle and the Puget Sound region are blessed in that we actually have four seasons. Much as we joke about us having only three—Summer (three weeks), Smoke (three weeks), and Rain (all the rest)—we really do have a distinct Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. And though we’re known as the Evergreen State, we have many areas of deciduous flora that make for stunning fall color vistas.

In combination, the region and the season have another advantage: variable elevation. Fall colors peak at different times at different elevations, so if (as has happened) our fall vacation arrives and the colors aren’t ready down hear near the Sound, we can drive up into the Cascades or the Olympics, where the colors get a two-week head start. Of course, if it is peak color time here at sea level, we have a great collection of parks and gardens from which to view them.

So, the Day Trips for Fall Color list on the white board includes the near (Kubota Garden, Washington Park Arboretum, Japanese Garden), the close and basically sea-level (the Mountain Loop Scenic Byway, the Whidbey Scenic Isle Way, the Chuckanut Drive Scenic Byway), and the not-so-close and higher elevation (Stevens Pass Greenway, Leavenworth, and if we’re feeling adventurous, the Chinook Pass). It’s an embarrassment of fall-color riches.

More than just driving around to view the colors, though, we like to stop and enter the autumnal world, for there are scents and sounds that only come at this time of year, in leafy places when the colors rage.

There’s the crispness, a bit of sass, that thrives in the morning and evening air. There’s the urgency of chipmunks, seeking oil-laden seeds on which to grow fat for the coming winter. Birds, their feathers adapted for camouflage amid deep summer shadows or against dark wintry limbs, dart about in deep contrast to the bright riot of translucent hues. And the scents! The smell of moisture has returned after summer’s sere mien has passed. The earth-wood aroma of fallen leaves and rising mushrooms are the umami of forest glades. Rivulets and streams chuckle, happy in rebirth, and all around are the tiny paper-rustles of birds searching beneath leaves, the pit-pat of squirrels covering their caches, and the tentative steps of blacktail deer mincing along narrow, leaf-strewn tracks.

Autumn, to me, is a reward. It’s a reward for surviving the busyness of spring and the chores of summer. It’s the year’s twilight before winter’s somnolence. Autumn is the cognac by the fire before I turn in for the day.

And I intend to enjoy it.

k

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Me and My Shadow

There is a man who lives not far from me. He is a quiet man.

Though we’ve met dozens of times, we’ve exchanged perhaps a hundred words, with a “Hey,” a nod, a “Howzit?”, or a wave encompassing our friendly, albeit distant, relationship. He drives a truck, likes to keep it clean, and rain or shine, he would take Rocco—his muscular doggo of high spirits and indeterminate heritage—out on their daily walk around the neighborhood.

For the past decade, Rocco was his constant companion, his shadow, so the day I saw him without Rocco, I knew something was wrong. A mutual friend informed me that, yes, Rocco had passed on a few days prior.

The next months were difficult for this man. His usual reserve was magnified. Meeting him at a gathering at our mutual friend’s place, his standoffish nature was pronounced, as if the company of others was almost painful. His grief was visible, and my heart ached for him.

Last week, I saw him again. He seemed more lively, younger even. He stood taller, and there was a spring in his step.

I waved. He waved back.

“Got a new pup!” he said.

“Wonderful! That’s very good news.”

There are pets, and then there are pets. Some are just a furry member of the family. Others, though, are true companions, and we are bonded, invested, tied to one another.

My wife and I have had a few pets—dog and cat—that never really bonded with either of us, animals that always strove for dominance or remained frustratingly aloof. We loved them, sure, but every day with them was a reassessment of the hierarchy, a test to see whose will was strongest, or simply a fulfillment of duty and need. Others, though, were different; we knew, without doubt, exactly whose pet it was.

Portia is definitely my cat. She follows me room to room, looks to me for treats, comes to me for snuggles and scritches. To her, my wife is merely a backup source of food, warmth, or even (in extremis) cuddles. I know I will outlive this cat (well, I certainly hope I will) and, like Rocco’s owner, I’ll feel the loss terribly when she’s gone, but having her in our lives is so much better than not having her here.

She is my shadow, even in the dark of night.

k

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I’ve had my time on stage: as a musician in large groups, as a conductor, as a soloist. Thankfully, most of my performances received applause and appreciation, but I’ve had my share of jeers, sniggers, and marks low as well as high.

The greatest accolade, however, the most palpable roar of approval ever sent my way, came the day I was wearing a tutu.

It was a lesson in adaptability, a case of accepting the inevitable and changing plans.

(more…)

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It may surprise some, considering past reviews posted here, that I deigned to read James Lovegrove’s Firefly: Life Signs, his fourth volume in the ongoing Firefly series, but I did.

I haven’t been shy with my disappointment in Lovegrove’s past entries (as seen here and here). In fact, my disappointment was so great that I didn’t even bother to review his third book in the series.

Thing is, though, it’s Firefly. I adore the show, the characters, the setting, the language. I’m a Browncoat for life, so I couldn’t not read it.

The book released just prior to this one, Generations, by Tim Lebbon, was an exceedingly pleasant change from Lovegrove, so it was disappointment layered upon disappointment when I learned that yet another Lovegrove entry was on the schedule. (FYI: the next in the series is not a Lovegrove title so, fingers crossed.)

With all that as prologue, I’m sure you’re asking: Why the hell is he reviewing this one?

The answer is two-fold.

First, Life Signs deals with a crucial bit of the Firefly canon: Inara’s terminal illness. As fans of the show, we knew about this part of Inara Serra’s planned story arc—plans cut short by the show’s abrupt truncation—so a novel that deals with that is worth exploring.

Second, this one wasn’t as bad as Lovegrove’s previous work. In fact, for most of its length, it was quite readable. (If you’re thinking I’m damning him with faint praise, that’s not my intent.)

The book is not without issues, but let me start with what works.

As Lovegrove demonstrated in previous books, he is able to evoke the pattern and rhythm of the Firefly ‘verse without reverting to caricatured patois. Rather than peppering us with g-less gerunds (e.g., fightin’ and stealin’), he leans more on the syntax and the language, which makes the dialog—and there’s a lot of it—much more readable. Once we read a few phrases like “I reckon . . .” and “Seeing as how . . .”, the g-less gerunds follow without us having to stumble over all those apostrophes. In other words, here, less is definitely more.

Moreover, his dialogue is exceptionally well-paced, which is good because, as stated, there’s a lot of it. Lovegrove successfully runs scenes of banter between three or four characters with ease, giving us just enough clues as to keep us straight on who’s talking without slowing things down. And though (once again) we have someone monologuing in the midst of a crucial action scene, this time it occurs during a brief lull so, while it’s not the optimal time for someone to explain their backstory, at least it’s not with bullets are whizzing by their heads.

The plot, while wholly improbable—and let’s face it, if you have an issue with improbable plotlines, you’re not a Browncoat anyway—is also straightforward: Inara is sick, and terminally so, but there’s a sketchy doctor who might be able to help, only, ruh-roh, he’s been incarcerated on a prison planet. (I’m not telling you anything that isn’t in the publisher’s blurb.) As expected, hijinks ensue.

The characters—canon and new—are pleasantly fleshed out. With the established characters, Lovegrove goes beyond what the series established, developing them and giving us emotional content that simply must be there, given the plot. (In this, I feel for the bind any author of these books must be in; the novels take place between the Firefly series and the movie Serenity, so with those as bookends, there’s only so much you can do.) For the characters specific to this novel, Lovegrove gives us sufficient context to understand the why of their actions, which was also a nice surprise.

However . . .

I’ve complained of this before, but Lovegrove is not great at world-building. I admit, it’s a pet peeve of mine, and it will not bother many (possibly most), but when (on the first half-page) I read of an alien world that has cicadas singing in the mesquite trees, well, that just seems a tad lazy to me. Even if we stipulate that it was a barren rock that’s been terraformed, who in their right mind is going to bring mesquite seeds and cicada larvae across interstellar space? This laziness permeates the book as much as any of his others. [sigh]

Past the first few pages, though, Lovegrove hit his stride, and I sped through the book. Some of this was illusory, however, as most of the chapters were only two or three pages long, meaning that, with a half-page for chapter header and a half-page (or more) for break to the next chapter, there’s a lot of white space in the book. Well, it’s one way to make your book a page-turner, I guess.

There are clunky bits of writing, mostly due to his use of adverbs. I’m not averse to using adverbs, in general, but Lovegrove often commits Classic Error #2, using esoteric or tongue-tying adverbs. Mostly, it’s fine, but when I hit three words like “despairingly,” “understandingly,” and “languorously” within a single chapter (did I mention how short most of the chapters are?), my mental Adverb-Overload switch flips and I need to put the book down until I reset.

Sadly, though, it’s in the climactic final sequence where Lovegrove (as usual) face-plants. If this was a one-off issue, I would grimace, make mention, and move on, as I did in previous reviews of his work, but this has now happened in every Lovegrove book in the series: to wit, he shows either a stunning disregard or an unforgivable ignorance of how things work, whether it be scientifically*, practically**, or (in this case) both. I mean come on! Doesn’t Titan Books hire editors? Shameful, mostly because they are fixable errors.

In summary, did I like it?

It’s a quick and mostly fun read with a stumbling start and a flawed finish that deals with a crucial part in the life of a beloved Firefly character, so . . . yes, I liked it, in spite of itself. And I will grudgingly (see? adverbs) recommend it to fans of the Firefly ‘verse. It has the standard Lovegrove issues, but it did pull me in for most of its length and, at times, touched my heart.

k

*Newtonian physics and the laws concerning conservation of kinetic energy are tossed out the airlock as Lovegrove misapplies the Kessler syndrome (which deals with space debris travelling at high speeds in low-Earth orbit) to pieces of space junk that are stationary relative to one another. A nudge from Serenity on one rather small piece of space junk would not cause a cascade that makes every other piece of space junk, including much larger pieces of junk, to fly about like billiard balls on a pool table.

**In every aircraft (and, presumably, spacecraft capable of atmospheric flight), the steering yoke adjusts roll and pitch, the rudder pedals control yaw, and the throttle controls the thrust. Anyone who has flown a plane, played a flight simulator, or hell, just been relatively observant when watching film of someone doing the same, knows that if you pull back on the yoke, the plane goes up, and if you push it forward, the plane goes into a dive. In no aircraft does pushing forward on the yoke make it go faster; that’s the throttle. Different thing. Again, where are the editors here?

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I am fortunate. I am fortunate because, once, I was poor.

You learn a lot from being poor. You get creative. Take food, for example.

During times when I struggled to make ends meet, I sometimes modified my diet, experimenting with less expensive substitutes (alternatives like textured vegetable protein) and more economical methods (yes, you can cook pasta with only a bowl and an electric tea kettle, but it takes a while). I learned where to find the best prices for food (including dumpsters behind grocery stores) and learned that when to shop is sometimes as important as where to shop.

When I was studying music in Jerusalem, I didn’t have much income. My scholarship covered my tuition and living quarters, but I still had to pay for food and clothing, books and supplies, transportation and postage and phone tokens. My parents usually sent a monthly stipend, but (adjusted for inflation) it was only about $150, which left me with a lot more month than money. I supplemented this by cleaning houses and playing gigs with the Jerusalem Symphony, but none of that was steady work.

It didn’t take long for me to find that the most economical place to shop for food was in the shuk. The shuk was like a farmer’s market, with aisles of open-air stalls selling fruit and veg and meats and spices, but it didn’t have the artisanal frippery and carnival vibe that permeate modern suburbia’s weekend analogues. No, the shuk was a place where working people shopped daily, filling a mesh bag with produce warm from the sun and bread warm from the ovens, taking it all home for the family meal. Vendors knew their regular customers, greeting them by name or honorific, chatting about current events or family woes, as together they searched for the ripest melon, the heftiest chicken, the most pungent cardamom, the sweetest halvah.

Prices were displayed, sometimes on a board above, but usually written with chalk on small slates propped up behind the stacked wares. As the day progressed, the desert heat intensified, creating a heady mélange of aromas, and the slates would become clouded by half-erasures and rewrites as prices were adjusted downward.

This was the time to shop: toward the end of the day, when vendors were especially eager to sell, sometimes at a loss, rather than cart what was left back into storage, and it was there, at just such a time, that I perfected my haggling technique (posted prices being merely a starting point, a suggestion as to where your journey would begin).

My girlfriend and I, low on funds, were looking for bargains, and the shuk, now in its last sun-drenched hour, was ready to supply them. Some stalls—the baker, the poulterer, the cheese-monger—had already shut down, their stock exhausted or the heat too punishing, but that was fine with us; we couldn’t afford chicken or cheese, anyway, and we could get simit—large sesame-topped loops of bread—from street vendors in the morning on the way to class. And there were plenty of vendors still open, willing to ride it out until closing in the hopes of a few last sales.

We bought a kilo of rice and some of that textured vegetable protein (aka TVP, aka kibble for people), then wandered past burlap sacks filled with nuts and seeds of all colors and sizes, until we came to a spot where the air was redolent with an almost indescribable mixture of warm wood, sweet hay, and a hint of something nearly but not quite citrus: tomatoes.

Two tomato vendors were set up across the pedestrian aisle from one another. One man was fanning himself with his newspaper and the other dabbed at his brow with a paisleyed kerchief. Before each one was a large display tray with a pyramid of deep red, glossy, perfectly ripe, and now fairly warm tomatoes. The prices were about two-thirds of what they had been that morning, but the first vendor had set his per-kilo price several agorot (subunits of shekels) below his across-the-aisle competitor’s.

So I ignored him and went to the second vendor.

We inspected his tomatoes. They were lovely, hand-filling Romas, perfect for a meatless ragout of TVP, to be served over rice, seasoned with wild herbs we’d pick along the road on our way home. I looked at the tomatoes, looked at the slate behind them, then looked at the vendor as I offered him half of his chalk-smudged price.

Naturally, he was wounded by such a paltry sum, but he did knock ten agorot off the price, bringing his price below that of his neighbor.

I shook my head, and walked two steps across the aisle.

The second vendor’s stock was just as good, just as ripe, just as inviting as the first. I offered him the price I offered the first vendor, but he, too, found it much too low. He had children at home, a family to feed. But—and there’s always a “but”—he liked the look of us, so he knocked ten agorot off of his price until he was the cheaper of the two.

I went back to the first vendor, raising my counter-offer, at which he rubbed at the slate and dropped his price again.

At this point, I didn’t have to go back to the second vendor. All I had to do was look over at him, gesture to the first vendor’s slate, and raise an eyebrow.

The second vendor scrubbed and wrote a lower price on his slate.

I looked back at the first vendor. Scrub. New price.

Second vendor, same.

Eventually, the second vendor got down nearly to my counter-offer, at which point the first vendor laughed, put down his slate, and conceded. We went to the winner, bought a kilo, and went home, snagging some wild saltbush and rosemary along the way.

As I said, though, being poor taught me many things beyond how to haggle for tomatoes. I learned how to live within my means, how to budget, and the importance of putting some funds by for the future. I also learned to be grateful for what I did have, rather than fuming over what I didn’t.

Most importantly, though, it taught me empathy for others in similar straits, as well as how easy it is to fall into a bad situation. One accident, one bad decision, and bam! you’re in trouble, trouble that may dog you for years. While I’ve never been completely destitute, I was close enough to see it from my seedy flat in the bad section of town, and I don’t wish that upon anyone.

I’ve tasted poverty; it’s bitter and dry and degrading, and I’ve worked hard to avoid it. But many others are not as lucky as I have been. For myriad reasons, and despite their best efforts, too many families struggle to survive, here in my country and around the world. At least here, where we have the wherewithal to help, we should help, and yet it is so hard to get agreement on this, a matter that to me is a very basic truth.

I wonder if those who complain about our efforts to help those less fortunate, who berate the government’s efforts to address a problem that half the nation seems eager to ignore, who ridicule those who demand a wage that provides them enough for food and shelter, I wonder if those people would benefit from a few months living on TVP and tomato sauce.

k

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I develop software for my living, so all day I’m steeped in high-tech endeavors: data analysis, solution design, use cases, text-based and GUI-assisted coding, iterative testing, etc.

When it comes to actually living, though, I prefer low-tech activities, such as gardening, reading, writing, and working with wood.

But as much as I love low-tech projects, I am not above getting some high-tech assistance, especially when a project is all very new to me.

Enter: the Nerdy Gurdy.

(more…)

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Occasionally, the tyranny of social and news media becomes too much for me to handle.

About ten days ago, I reached my limit, full up to here with the naïveté of the left, the mendacity of the right, the fear-mongering of the media, and the narcissistic selfishness of humanity in general.

I needed a break. From damned near everything. (more…)

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