Catching up – Quips!

I am alive!  Who would have guessed it?  Not anyone reading this blog.  You would have thought I had finally nailed myself into a coffin with my worsted weight noose, but NO!  I am still here!  I am still knitting and reading, but with this PhD program, suddenly writing isn’t something I really want to do in my spare time anymore.  Which is a pity.  So we’ll have ourselves a little catch-up post here, and then maybe I can keep a little better track of things after that.

So last you heard, I had read The Beautiful and the Damned and it was a stirring experience.  After that, I figured it was time for some comfort food…book style.  So I used the power of my Kindle to find all those wonderful little Arthurian romance/legend novels I loved so much.  I read Persia Woolley’s Guinevere Trilogy, which is a long time favorite of mine.  I found the third book at a library book sale back in late middle school.  The cover was SUPER romance novelly — Guinevere sitting on a throne with billowing red hair, an look of defiance, and full, painted lips with a brilliant velvet dress spilling onto the floor around her.  It was definitely a cover I was embarrassed to be seen with — I think I read most of it at home.  But you know the old saying…regardless of the crazy artwork, the third book is fantastic — the fall of Camelot, with relate-able characters who I really grew to love.   Eventually, I went back to the library and found the first two books, which were fun, too, but the third one takes the cake.  Rereading them again after so many years was comforting and provided a fantastic escape from the stress of starting my graduate education.

I also struck out on new Arthurian territory, with a book called Gawain and Lady Green by Anne Eliot Crompton.  The author has also written an excellent and unique Arthurian legend called Merlin’s Harp, which I devoured in high school.  Merlin’s Harp is a feminist retelling through the eyes of Nimue, but it isn’t easily recognizable as the Arthurian tale.  Not at first.  The main character only hops in on the tale we’re all familiar with every now and then.  Gawain and Lady Green is, as you English majors out there might expect, a retelling of Gawain and the Green Knight.  It’s cute, and also comfort-foody, and unique again — if you don’t know the story of Gawain, you might not recognize the novel for what it is.  But I’m not sure you can only enjoy it if you know the story…I could see many a young adult enjoying this book simply for itself.

I also received a book from meine Mutti-in-law, called Bringing Up Bebe — One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman.  HIGHLY recommend!  Especially if you’ve ever been weirded out by the stress American culture brings into parenting.  If you’ve ever stumbled upon the kind of crazy that only we Americans can come up with on Facebook or blogs — fatwa on [insert trend here], why aren’t you afraid of this?  don’t you realize how your child’s life will be RUINED if they do thing x? — then you know what I mean.  This book is the perfect remedy.  It helped me breath a sigh of relief, that we weren’t raising Patrick like a weirdo — we were kind of raising him like a little Frenchman.  Which he is, to a certain percentage point.  The section on food is fantastic.  I wish I could enroll in a creche and eat like that — amazing.  A really fun read that helped me feel like I wasn’t the only one who thought our society’s expectation that being a mother = living in a constant state of freak-out is a bogus expectation.

Devil’s Advocate: Obviously, if you’re not freaking out, you’re not paying attention.  Am I right, America?!?  Who’s with me?!?  Let’s be sure to stress ourselves out about every feature of our child’s life, because if we don’t, then mass ax-murdering is CERTAINLY in their future.  (Did I conjugate that correctly?)

Then, Christmas rolled around, and I got a couple books for the jolly holiday!  The first one I read was from Drew, a T.C. Boyle novel that took place in our new home.  It’s called When the Killing’s Done and it was excellent.  By far the best of his novels I’ve read.  Subtle themes that progressed as the plot unfolded, characters who were true to themselves throughout, and realistic to boot.  Really excellent.  A literary treat, after all my Arthur comfort diving.  It also takes place in …drumroll… the Channel Islands National Park!  Right across the ocean from us!  And parts of it take place in our HOME — Ventura, Oxnard, Santa Barbara, Ojai — so fun!  Nothing like a book based on where you live to make you feel special.  Of course, almost all the boats in it sink to the bottom of the sea, and it does live up to it’s title, but…it’s still kind of a trip.

Let’s start with that for now.  I’ve got three more books to add, plus the one I am currently reading.  But I think if I don’t publish this post now, it may be the end of poor little Knitquip: the blog.  And I can’t have that.  PUBLISH!

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Castles in the Air by Judy Corbett

Ah, dreams.  The kind of things that keep you up nights, wondering about the future, fantasizing about the excellent romanticism that awaits you, and of course, panicking about what possible eventualities you may not have planned for.  With the boat now purchased and ready to move on to soon, it seemed a good time to finally read this book — Castles in the Air by Judy Corbett.  My mom gave it to me years ago, and Drew read it right then.  I’ve been kind of waiting for the right moment, and this was definitely it

A couple bought a castle for like a nickel and a wish in Wales.  The castle, Gwydir Castle, was falling apart, roofs caving in, gardens in disarray, bats inhabiting — but they set about fixing it up to restore it to its former glory.  The book takes us through their first year or so of work on the castle as they live in it while trying to repair it.  It’s a very sweet retelling of their story, filled with lots of luck and love — kind of a romantic and Romantic tale.  They run a little bed and breakfast out of it now, along with hosting weddings, which you can check out on their website here.

I’d classify this as a great summer read, or a wonderful “beach read.”  SO, since this book was passed along to me with the intention that I would pass it on when I was done reading it, I’ll put it up for grabs right now.  First to put forth their nickel and a wish gets it!

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

After reading The Run Diary earlier this fall, I knew I needed to revisit this one.  I’ve lived in Vegas for almost 7 years now…wait, fact check.  For real?  It’s been 7 years already?  Yep — 7 years.  And now that I’ve lived here, I feel like I know the kinds of things about this city that only “locals” can know.  So it was time to recheck out Thompson’s book — you know, the one from that movie with Johnny Depp.  He’s the old guy who plays Jack Sparrow.

Anyway.

It’s spot on.  I mean, all the drug culture stuff and the crazed stupors are still hysterical and gritty, but what I wanted to see this time is how well does Thompson paint this town?  Does he nail it?  Answer?  Yes.  What’s difficult is that the Vegas Thompson describes is still the Vegas of today — even though Vegas would rather die than admit it.  But it’s true.  The kind of depraved negligence he shows is the way this city runs.  The confusion between whether it’s a city or just a tourist dump is the lifeblood of conversation here.  The city just built a beautiful Arts Center — really, very gorgeous — for shows and for the symphony to play in.  But all the town can talk about is whether it will attract any tourists.  It’s like the entire point of an Arts Center is missed — who cares about the tourists?  That building is for YOU, locals.  Or — Drew’s favorite example — NPR ran a spot for weeks about the possible smoking ban that went something like this: “New York, LA, Paris…what do all these cities have that Las Vegas doesn’t?  A smoking ban.”  Well, I guess that’s true.  Of course they also have a ton of OTHER, more IMPORTANT things that draw the line between actual “city” and…here.

Fair warning.  I know I’m hating.  But this town can’t keep ignoring this stuff.  How much cultural or educational growth can a place have when the best a school can hope for in a partnership is with a casino that has a restaurant called “The Pink Taco?”

But the moments of clarity in between drugged fantasies are worth anyone’s time.  And it is still true that Circus Circus is exactly what the entire hep world would be doing on a Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war.  Again, spot on.

I hope to read this book in another 10 years or so and say, “Wow, Las Vegas is a lot different than it used to be!”  But if it’s already been 40 years….well, I’m not going to slow down through bat country.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

This book took forever.  Not because of the book — oh no.  I started reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma around Christmas.  Then I paused to finish Walking to Canterbury.  Then I got sick, and didn’t want to read at night for awhile…which is really my only opportunity to read right now.  Then I was just plain tired for too many nights in a row, so I didn’t read it then.  Then he started talking about foraging for mushrooms, which I don’t really like to eat, so my interest waned.

BUT!

This book was great.  It doesn’t matter how long it took me to consume it — it was by turns fascinating and revealing.  The idea of the book is that Michael Pollan is going to try to create four different meals — one from all industrially sourced foods, one from industrial organic foods, one from “true” organic foods, and one where he has hunted or grown or found all the foods himself.  The meals are all unforgettable, and I won’t blow it for you by telling you how all of them turn out.  His meals are just a lovely little piece of creative nonfiction.

The real interest in this book comes in the reveals he makes.  About 7 years ago, Drew and I were watching Real Time with Bill Maher, and we laughed at what a fool Bill Maher was.  He was going on and on about how bad corn was for everyone, and how it was killing us, and how terrible it was for our country.  The panel just laughed, and so did we.  Well, Bill Maher, I formally apologize for making you into a Cassandra.  Turns out, he’s maybe right.  Check it out:

A growing body of research suggests that many of the health problems associated with eating beef are really problems with corn-fed beef.  (Modern-day hunter-gatherers who subsist on wild meat don’t have our rates of heart disease.)  In the same way ruminants (cows) are ill adapted to eating corn, humans in turn may be poorly adapted to eating ruminants that eat corn.

———

Pollan talks to a farmer in Iowa about corn subsidies: So the plague of cheap corn goes on, impoverishing farmers (both here and in the countries to which we export it), degrading the land, polluting the water, and bleeding the federal treasury, which now spends up to $5 billion  a year subsidizing cheap corn.  But though those subsidy checks go to the farmer (and represent nearly half of net farm income today), what the Treasury is really subsidizing are the buyers of all that cheap corn.  “Agriculture’s always going to be organized by the government; the question is, organized for whose benefit?  Now it’s for Cargill and Coca-Cola.  It’s certainly not for the farmer.”

———-

He has a biologist friend of his put his meal from McDonald’s into a mass spectrometer:In order of diminishing corniness, this is how the laboratory measured our meal: soda (100 percent corn), milkshake (78 percent), salad dressing (65 percent), chicken nuggets (56 percent), cheeseburger (52 percent), and French fries (23 percent).  What in the eyes of the omnivore looks like a meal of impressive variety turns out, when viewed through the eyes of the mass spectrometer, to be the meal of a far more specialized kind of eater.  But then, this is what the industrial eater has become: corn’s koala (Earlier in the book, he describes what it means to be an omnivore — it means we have choices when we eat, and that can lead to many “dilemmas” about what we are actually going to consume.  The koala, on the other hand, doesn’t have this problem — it only eats one thing.  Like us, now!)

———-

Because of diabetes and all the other health problems that accompany obesity, today’s children may turn out to be the first generation of Americans whose life expectancy will actually be shorter than that of their parents.  (This is shocking…and the biggest reason why having a child makes me want to change my diet even more.  No way is Patrick’s life going to be shorter than mine — not if I can do something about it.  Pollan goes on to list all of the reasons for “humanity’s expanding waistline” but intelligently cuts it down to the real source:  “When food is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it and get fat.”  Which is really all you need to know.)

Pollan goes from industrial farming, where he buys a steer and then works VERY HARD to try and track it down through the system (which proves extremely difficult), to a place called Polyface Farms, which is organic and run by a farmer named Joel Salatin who believes very strongly in his way of life and products.  He introduces Pollan to all kinds of agricultural insights, like this one about soil — “When we mistake what we can know for all there is to know, a healthy appreciation of one’s ignorance in the face of a mystery like soil fertility gives way to the hubris that we can treat nature as a machine.” And finally, in the face of a farm that “feeds itself,” Pollan (and at this point, me the reader also) asks, “All of which begs a rather large question: Why did we ever turn away from this free lunch in favor of biologically ruinous meal based on corn?  Why in the world did Americans ever take ruminants off the grass?  And how could it come to pass that a fast-food burger produced from corn and fossil fuel actually costs less than a burger produced from grass and sunlight?”

As you might imagine, he does answer a lot of these questions.  But the philosophical idea there is a hard one to answer — why do we eat this way?  When we know it’s bad for us, and we know it’s killing us and our children and hurting the environment too — why?  And that, there is no answer for.

The book contains SO MUCH more than I can talk about in one blog post — he talks about vegetarianism, he kills a wild pig for his last meal, he talks about how deceptive Whole Foods is (which we all knew anyway, right?).  All in all, a fascinating read, even if a slow one.  And honestly, shouldn’t a book like this, which ends up giving you faith in the slow food movement be a slow read also?  In a way, it was good to have a long time to really think about the ideas he brought up and the experiences he had trying to trace his meals down the food chain.  I am really struck by how far removed we are from the food we eat — most of us don’t grow it, or hunt it, or even meet the people who grew it or hunted it or found it or created it in a lab.  It’s like magic — it just appears on the shelves or in the cases of your local supermarket.  I’m also struck by how cheap food really is, and how little we spend on it.

But the last little quote I’ll leave you with is just kind of fun — and applies to this blog directly.  Pollan is about to go foraging for mushrooms for the first time, and will soon go hunting for the first time, too: “Isn’t is curious how in so many of our pastimes and hobbies we play at supplying one or another of our fundamental creaturely needs — for food, shelter, even clothing?  So some people knit, others build things or chop wood, and a great many of us “work” at feeding ourselves — by gardening or hunting, fishing or foraging.” Guilty!  I play at self-reliance!  But hopefully, our little family can continue to play at self-reliance in other food ways as well, and then we can stay healthy and only eat corn when it’s on the cob.  With lime.

Walking to Canterbury by John Ellis

Way back when, or, as Spinal Tap would say, “before the dawn of history,” I fulfilled the author study component of my English degree with an Interim class on Chaucer.  I had read bits and pieces of The Canterbury Tales in my survey courses, but I was unprepared for the diligence required when reading in Middle English, but that was tempered by the bawdy, hidden humor of Chaucer’s poetry.  The professor was extremely influential to me, academically and otherwise — she was the kind of woman I continue to aspire to be.  There were only 9 of us in the class, all girls, and our fearless leader helped us to understand Chaucer through the lens of a medievalist.

So a few months after the class, I was spending a lazy moment perusing through the St. Olaf Bookstore, when I came upon this book, Walking to Canterbury by Jerry Ellis.  I didn’t know the author’s name, but after being captivated by the ideals of pilgrimage, I was curious to see what kind of person would try this — a walk from London to Canterbury — in our modern times.

For those of you that don’t know, Canterbury Cathedral is the location where Saint Thomas Becket was murdered by four knights, mistakenly sent by the king, his old friend, Henry II.  After the knights killed Becket, he was declared a martyr and many (thousands? millions, maybe?) made pilgrimages to the place of his martyrdom.  This eventually led to Geoffrey Chaucer writing The Canterbury Tales, a story in which a group of pilgrims are traveling to Canterbury from London, and they each tell a tale along the way.  Enter our intrepid author who decided to make this pilgrimage himself in 1999.

Apparently, I wasn’t as curious as I thought.  I bought the book.  It waited on my shelf through graduation, through my wedding, through two years of teaching in MN, made the move in a cardboard box to Las Vegas, waited on a bookshelf in first one apartment, then a house, where it languished gathering dust for 5 more years, never touched.  I couldn’t ever bring myself to give it away, thinking, “But I AM going to read it someday…” so it would travel with us, making its own mini-pilgrimages from state to state, abode to abode, just biding its time.

Finally, this summer, when we sold the house and moved into another apartment, I had to decide.  Was I actually going to read this book?  Ever?  Or should I pass it along to another reader at my local library?  I decided to give it ONE MORE shot, and moved with the book again, this time promising myself (and the poor book) that I would read it before the next adventure.

And I did!  Promise fulfilled!  It’s probably best, actually, that I waited, because Ellis spends quite a substantial amount of his musing time musing about what life was like in Chaucer’s England.  Lots and lots and LOTS of paragraphs begin with something like this… “Handguns did not exist in the middle ages…” and then he goes on for a few pages on the types of weaponry used in the middle ages, and how the pilgrims might have protected themselves on the journey.  His transitions from narrative to history are weak and nascent — which I didn’t appreciatee now, but would have appreciated FAR less just coming off an extensive month-long study of an author from the time period.

However, what he lacked in eloquent weaving of prose, he made up for in philosophical ruminations.  Part Cherokee, Ellis is constantly discussing his Native American teachings and finding connections with all the people he meets on his trip.  It gets a little “bubble-gum” at times — too much about how we are all brothers, and the past pilgrims on this journey are just like his ancestors, which is true, but he never quite says it honestly enough for me to really FEEL it — but then he has moments of clarity about the time we live in that really strike home:

Often in debt up to our necks and working at jobs that we don’t truly love, we have become modern-day serfs, bowing to a lord whose face we can’t quite see there in the shadows between paychecks.  we just know down in our guts and hearts that something isn’t right, and we dare not talk about it too openly for fear it will become more real than we can dare bear.

That gets to the heart of it, doesn’t it?  Honesty — dark and brutal like that — is what makes me feel a connection to the medieval soul — we have not come as far as we’d like to think.  There is so much beauty in the world, in our lives, and STILL, we are not given enough opportunities to worship, to contemplate, to consider what our lives really mean.

Okay — I’ll back off now.  It was a good read, but I think now its next journey is upon it.  Time for a new adventure, book!  Off to your next reader!  Hopefully they won’t keep you waiting as long as I did.

Maiden Voyage by Tania Aebi

When I was eighteen, I was embarking on the biggest adventure of my life thus far, heading to college, which was about an hour from where I had grown up.

When she was eighteen Tania Aebi began a circumnavigation of the world, embarking on an adventure that would take her 2 and a half years, and segue her into her adult life.

Whoa.

I just finished reading her book about the trip, called Maiden Voyage.  Whether you are into sailing or not, it is worth a read, just to see the power of adventure and feel the vastness of our world.  Ever since Drew and I have been together, we’ve talked about sailing…always in little increments.  First it was learning how to sail — which we’ve done in Marina del Rey, CA with a fantastic class from the Blue Pacific Boating folks.  Then, it was to charter a boat — just the two of us — which we’ve done in the BVI.  If that little adventure was just a taste of what we could have cruising, then sign me up.

Now, Tania did this all on her own.  She single-handed the whole trip, from New York down through the Caribbean, transiting the Panama canal, making the “puddle jump” across the Pacific to the Marquesas and the rest of the South Pacific, down to Australia, back up to Sri Lanka, then through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal into the Med, making her final landfall in Gibraltar and then crossing the Atlantic amid storms and squalls back to New York.  All by herself.  Well, with the help of a cat, named Tarzoon.

Whether you’re interested in sailing of any kind or not, this is a cool book.  It starts a little slow, because, like many books by journalists, she peppers the first few chapters with flashbacks to how she ended up in this place.  Her familial relations are sympathetic for anyone, and her father is a character himself.  (It’s his idea to have her do this, and every time she makes landfall somewhere, his first question when she calls is, “When do you leave?”)

But especially if you like sailing, this is probably a required read.  It’s the kind of book that makes you all that more determined to cruise someday, and to realize that unless you just DO it, it won’t ever happen.  Conditions will never be perfect, you’ll never have “enough” money — you just have to go.  I have yet to visit a cruising blog that doesn’t state that.

It’s true of any adventure, though, isn’t it?  You just have to do it.  You can’t wait for things to happen to you.  Oh yes, readers — the wheels are turning, and soon, very soon, I will make my adventure happen too.  And if I don’t, it will be no one’s fault but my own.   But I’ll settle for less that a complete circumnavigation — maybe just Mexico someday, or Mexico to the South Pacific and back via Hawaii and Seattle. Or maybe even just living on a boat for awhile, do some small cruising on the weekends, just try it out.

Whatever I do, I don’t wish to just envy the adventures of others  — I want to have them as well.  And I’d like my little man to grow up with adventures already behind him, not just waiting on the horizon.  Other people are doing it — why not me?  If you’d like to see some of those other people, check out the blogs listed on the right under “Blogs I Read.” There’s also a great website, where most of these pictures came from, http://www.womenandcruising.com, which has tons of information and testimonials from the ladies who have been there or are there right now.

But, of course, the expert (which I am not) sums up everything I want to say about her book and about any kind of adventures, big or small, when she’s contemplating her return to “civilization” in the Atlantic.

I remembered back to the days before leaving New York, when I worried if I would ever adapt to life at sea on my own.  Having done it, I realized now how much more is possible.  But I could never have known had I not tried.

Now, in the same spot as I had been as a an eighteen-year-old setting off on her maiden voyage, scared and apprehensive of the future, I realized that the future wasn’t something to worry about.  If living at sea had taught me anything, it had revealed the importance of taking each new dawn in stride and doing the best that I could with whatever was presented.

And now, two last pictures that inspire me, and that I aspire to:

Tania now, during a circumnavigation with her two sons -- just the three of them.

Lin Pardey, a total hardcore cruiser, points to land from the boom. I daydream about being her in the picture at least once a day.

King, Kaiser, Tsar by Catrine Clay

SPOILER ALERT!!!!  If you don’t know that the 20th century begins with World War I, don’t read any more of this post!

This book was a Christmas present for Drew many years ago.  We had both read a novel called The Kitchen Boy, historical fiction based on the end days of the Romanov family.  Drew had been fascinated with this time in history long before The Kitchen Boy even came out, but all it takes is a good book to fascinate you all over again.

Ever since he read it, he’s been asking me to check it out.  But you know how it is…there’s always another book waiting in the wings, and it’s difficult to place someone’s recommendation before your own.  This summer, however, with the heat of Las Vegas closing in on us, a book focusing on Russia, Germany, and England and the royal ties between them seemed like a welcome respite.  There’s also nothing like a tragic, Shakespearean historical tale to make you feel like whatever might be bothering you isn’t that bad.

The book is exceptionally readable for its undertaking — the author really tries her best to focus only on the most important players.  Even as a slight German speaker, I had trouble keeping track of all the members of Kaiser Wilhelm’s court — everyone was von ________ern this or zu _______berg that.  Tricky stuff.  So the extra bureaucratic players blended together into two groups  for each sovereign — those that supported monarchy, and those that supported democratic systems.

My favorite picture from the book -- Tsar Nicholas on the left and King George on the right. Look like twins, huh? Would you guess that their mothers were sisters? I bet you would. And you'd be right.

By the end of the book, I really had a handle on the personalities of all three monarchs.  They’re sort of like the Beatles — there’s the quiet one (Tsar Nicholas), the beloved one (King George), and the crazed, autocratic, militaristic one who can’t possibly lose touch with reality because to lose touch would mean that he was in touch in the first place (Kaiser Wilhelm).  I guess Tiger Beat would call him the bad boy.

It’s so difficult to get into the spirit of the times, though.  Sure, through our post-revolutionary eyes it looks like Nicholas should have seen the demise of his reign coming for years, but through the eyes of an autocratic ruler who believes that God has placed the country under his care, and whose predecessors had, for DECADES, survived assassination attempts and revolutions — well, then it’s a little more difficult to see.

Tsar Nicholas, King George, Kaiser Wilhelm

Monarchy had to fall at some point, and it’s the poor luck of these three cousins to be the last ones.  The Kaiser is the most intriguing man here, because you’re never quite sure what he’s going to do next, but you know it’s something crazy.  This book posits that World War I is his fault — and it’s hard to see otherwise — because he felt shunned by England and Russia.  England hurt the most, though — Queen Victoria was his grandmother, and he was always torn between being German or being English.  Willy lives with a paranoia that England and Russia are plotting against him, and so he strengthens his army and builds up his navy as if to say, “Now you HAVE to pay attention to me.”  But the author doesn’t let the other two off the hook — they DID ignore Wilhelm to a certain extent, and could have changed the course of history by not creating an alliance with France that blatantly dismissed Germany…in fact, it was really in case of war with Germany.

The Tsar and his children

So, in conclusion…I don’t know.  To quote Monty Python, “Let’s not bicker and argue about who killed who.”  (That’s a deep cut, if you don’t know the quote.)  It does seem pointless to try to find out who was the first monarch at fault.  What is certain is that it was the perfect series of events to bring about the abdication of two monarchs — Wilhelm was forced to abdicate at the end of the war, and he was exiled to the Netherlands;  Nicholas was also forced to abdicate by revolutionaries in Russia, and the rest of his life plays out much more sadly…whereas it’s difficult to feel sympathetic to the Kaiser, it’s easy to feel sympathy and sadness for the Last Tsar and his family.  George is the only one who made it through the war unscathed, thanks in equal parts to the constitutional monarchy of Britain, which made the war not the fault of the king alone, and to his displayed attitude during the war.  The royal family put themselves on war rations while the war was going on, and made sure the British people saw they were doing it.  His upbringing helped him succeed here where his two cousins failed — Willy and Nicky never knew life without luxuries, but George, who was not the eldest son, had been in the Royal Navy for years, and not just in a non-combat role.

Obviously, I have a lot to say about this book and the history in it.  So let’s just wrap it up — I liked the book.  It was clear, interesting, opinionated, and you can’t create more fascinating characters or situations.  History makes the best books.  I feel bad for all the characters in it, just playing out the parts fate has dealt them as best they can.  And I feel like watching Fall of Eagles again, even though it was campy, 1970s BBC.  Since we’re seeing so many remakes anyway, how ’bout it, Hollywood?  You can’t get a better story than this.

Food Rules by Michael Pollan

So we’re STILL waiting for Centurylink to hook up our Internet in the new pad…I finished Anna Karenina weeks ago, but I have way more to say about it than my thumbs alone can handle. I have a knitting project that’s been awaiting its post since March, but who’s counting?
Anyway, I just bought and read this little “eater’s manual” by Michael Pollan. A tiny little compendium, it contains all the food adages you know to be true, but sometimes are loathe to follow. But with breast cancer in the genes, heart disease and diabetes too, his seven words of advice seem like a good idea: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. The first part is not a problem. The middle part gets me down sometimes, and when you’re a dairy lover like me, the last part is really tough.
But I’m about due for the next step in my food life. Drew and I made some big changes two summers ago, and it had substantially affected both of our weightsfor the better. Then came pregnancy, and now, to quote Jenna Maroney, “it’s like I turned on the eating switch and now I can’t turn it off.”.
Summertime resolution: I’m flipping the switch. I will only eat ice cream at Adele’s in MN and at Taos Cow in NM. Ha!
Hopefully Internet will be working here soon, and I can share my thoughts on sad, tragic Russians.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

First of all, American mothers everywhere need to just calm down.  Deep breaths.  In and out.

Better?

Okay, now we can actually have a conversation here.

Tiger Momming It Up

It’s a fun memoir about all the questions you ask yourself as a mother, all the answers you give yourself as a mother, and all the doubting choruses that can fill your brain as you steam ahead.  I loved this book from the beginning…how could I not?  As I read more and more, I kept bothering poor Drew…”Listen to this!”  “Oh my gosh, can I read you just one thing?”  “Drew– just one more paragraph — check this out…”  So on and so on.  I was in amazement of Chua’s honesty, her philosophies, and the relationships that evolved with both of her daughters.  Striking and amazing — that sums it up.

Here’s the basic run-down of the Tiger Mom concept:

Some might think that the American sports parent is an analog to the Chinese mother.  This is so wrong.  Unlike your typical Western overscheduling soccer mom, the Chinese mother believes that (1) schoolwork always comes first; (2) an A-minus is a bad grade; (3) your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math; (4) you must never compliment your children in public; (5) if your child ever disagrees with a teacher or coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach; (6) the only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and (7) that medal must be gold.

The first shocker of the book was that, after all the controversy I’d heard about, this list didn’t seem crazy or militant to me.  In fact, as I read it a second time, a lightbulb began to warm up in my brain…was my mom a quasi-Tiger Mom?  Wait a minute…I was never allowed to question my teachers or their methods, even if she did.  Schoolwork was her first priority for me.  I always felt the engaging pressure of high expectations.  Although I always knew with certainty that she was proud of me and my accomplishments, I didn’t receive many compliments in the presence of others.  I have vivid memories of other people saying what a nice girl I was, or how talented, and I can see my mom, smiling at the compliment, and sometimes agreeing, but rarely initiating.  Okay, the gold medal thing doesn’t fit, but suddenly I had a very personal reason to give Chua’s thoughts a chance.  Perhaps I was the product of Westernized Tiger Mom parenting…a contradiction in Chua’s mind, but not in mine.  A style of parenting with high expectations for both performance and etiquette, but with a slightly relaxed fit.

Be sure to read the type on the cover...

But I am having trouble summing up my feelings on the book as a whole, because there are so many different ideas and striking chords that I found fascinating…so we’ll just go one by one.

Classical music was the opposite of decline, the opposite of laziness, vulgarity, and spoiledness.

Isn’t that lovely?  Chua insists that both of her daughters play classical music, and classical only because she is invested in the truth above.  This book made me wish I were a better pianist, that I had practiced more, or had more drive in college and continued piano lessons at that point. 

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.

So true.  That’s half of the fun of living — working hard to become better at something, so that you get that rush of adrenaline one day when you realize you’re fantastic.  Then it’s fun.  Being able to sightread piano music now?  Fun.  Working hard to get there?  Worth it — but not necessarily fun.

But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up.   On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.

This is one thing that my own Western Tiger Mom did for me.  There came a time in middle school when I wanted to quit the piano.  At the time, I couldn’t articulate why — I was an adolescent — but I knew I wasn’t improving and I wasn’t getting any enjoyment out of it.  My mom, being smarter than middle school me, knew exactly why I felt this way, and switched me to a new teacher, who became a fantastic musical role-model for me all through high school.  I began improving again, and really enjoying the piano — even if my practicing left something to be desired.  At another point in high school, I also wanted to quit playing French Horn.  Now I can look back on my reasoning and see it for what it was — insecurity, because even though I was a junior, the underclassmen were better than me.  I didn’t like to be out-performed, and it was happening on a daily basis.  But when I asked my mom if I could switch instruments, the answer was no.  She didn’t let me give up on anything, and I am better for it.  Even if I still get out-performed on the Horn.

“Never ever make fun of foreign accents,” I’ve exhorted them on many occasions.  “Do you know what a foreign accent is?  It’s a sign of bravery.”

I don’t think this one even needs any reflection from me.  It’s just a beautiful and TRUE statement.

In the words of Lulu’s violin teacher Mr. Shugart, “Every day that you don’t practice is a day that you’re getting worse.”

Gulp.  This quote made me feel a little sad.  It’s true.  Sadly true.  I am not the pianist I was at the end of high school.  My sight-reading is much better, but my overall technique is poor.  Practicing would fix it.  But I don’t.  This is why I did love teaching piano lessons for awhile — it gave me a reason to practice.  Every time a student missed a lesson, which happened more often than not, I had nothing else to do but practice.  And I had a whole music store at my perusal.  It was fantastic.  I felt my fingers returning to some semblance of their former glory.  But now, 4 years later, it’s gone again.  This doesn’t mean I can’t play — I’m still doing fine.  But I’m no longer as good as I want to be, or sometimes, as good as I think I am. 

I’d made a career out of spurning the kind of Western parents who can’t control their kids.  Now I had the most disrespectful, rude, violent, out-of-control kid of all.

But this quote, out of all of them, was the most honest statement she made in the whole book.  Any parenting style has flaws.  Let me rephrase that: EVERY parenting style has flaws.  As I try to piece together my own parenting style for my son, I find so many contradictory statements — philosophies I agree with, philosophies that I’ll see in hell, philosophies that are just banal and confusing.  All parents believe that if you don’t do things a certain way, your child is doomed either to inanity or to jail.  I’ll admit that even now I feel that way about other ways of parenting that I don’t agree with.  Obviously that person’s child is going to grow up severely troubled.  But not my son — because I’m parenting the right way.  We all feel like this, and in a way, we have to.  It’s so overwhelming, that if we don’t create a shell of self-confidence, we’ll crumble into ourselves.

Monkey Mom!

I would hope that most people, rather than judging Amy Chua or becoming deathly afraid of the Chinese Children Who Will Take Over Our Land, will be able to see this book for what it is — an honest memoir.  And, whatever your beliefs, I’m sure you can see that honesty anywhere is hard to come by these days.

And, since I’m not a Tiger anyway, I guess my son won’t have a Tiger Mom.  He’ll have a Monkey Mom.  Only time will tell exactly what that will look like.  Chua says in her book (even though she prefaces this by saying she doesn’t always buy in to astrology), Monkey people are curious, intellectual, and “generally can accomplish any given task.  They appreciate difficult or challenging work as it stimulates them.” Watch out, son — you are my given task right now.  And I shall accomplish you!  Ha!

But the final word should go to one of the daughters herself.  Be sure to check it out — it really makes all the critics look pale by comparison.

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

Read it.

Should I end the post with that?

No surprise here, since I am a girl — I’ve always loved Cleopatra.  I never knew much about her — Queen of Egypt, lover of Caesar and Mark Antony, asp death — but it never really mattered.  What’s there to know?  It looked about like this in my mind:

Cleopatra asp-ires to become dead.

Apparently it looked that way to the creators of Rome on HBO — which, despite any contradictions this book may have revealed for me in that show’s character development, I still love. I think to most of the world she looks like the picture to the right — a desirous Elizabeth Taylor, haunting the dreams of defenseless Richard Burton, while Rex Harrison presumably is off speaking a song somewhere.

Poor Debbie Reynolds.

But it turns out, according to Stacy Schiff, who rambled through mountains upon mountains for research for this book, that her story was (surprise!) not really like either of these pictures.  It’s a perfect case of history being written by the winners — in this case, Caesar Augustus, a gem of a guy, who took over after Julius Caesar was, shall we say, “removed from office.”  Cleopatra was a ruler of a country, the wealthiest individual of her time, and she was highly educated.  She was probably not a sexual demon hell-bent on ruining the lives of two pure and blameless men.  According to Plutarch and Dio, if you read between the lines — which, in Schiff’s book, it quickly becomes apparent is necessary to actually find out anything about Cleopatra — she wasn’t even that pretty.  Most of her charms came from her ability to judge a person and to use her voice and tone diplomatically, not from sexual acumen.

The book reveals all sorts of untold turns and descriptions of a queen who was royal in her own right, regardless of Caesar or Antony.  She was considered and worshiped as a goddess in Egypt.  She inherited a kingdom that was soon to fall, despite all that she might do to save it.  By the end of the book, I was totally on Schiff’s page.  Cleopatra was amazing — it’s a shame that we let her memory continue to live on built on the shame the Romans created for her.

The end of the book is pretty emotional, too.  I did not expect to feel as much sympathy for Antony as I did by the end, but the poor guy.  He made several mistakes, sure, but towards the end, people kept on deserting him, leaving his camp for Octavian’s, until all he had left were a few servants to help him commit suicide.  And then, after he stabbed himself but missed his heart, they left or killed themselves rather than help him end his life.  The scene Schiff describes of Antony’s death is heartbreaking.  I was reading it during a journal time for one of my English classes, and I will admit that even in the presence of adolescents, I teared up a bit.

All told, the image of Cleopatra that I’m left with looks exactly like the book cover:

Perfect. This looks like the Cleopatra I know now.

Proud, elegant, rich, powerful, and always looking towards the future of her country and her family.  After I would finish reading a chapter, I’d just look at this cover for awhile.  Her diadem, the pearls, the hair…it’s all perfect.  This is a woman who rules a nation and makes no apologies to anyone — even though it meant they would sully her reputation for two-thousand years.

It was also interesting to be reading this book while history continues to be made in Egypt.  I still don’t know much about the current situation, or their recent political scene, but it was fascinating to be reading about the seizure of Alexandria by Octavian and then come across news pieces like this… Looking at the ancient world and the current world together always boggles the mind.  What would Cleopatra think of her country today?  I don’t know.  But I do know what she thought of her country when she ruled — it was worth dying for.

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