Monthly Archives: February 2012

Getting down to it

At last! After a string of really challenging Weekly Photo Challenges, we’ve been given an easy one – “Down”.

Looking down from a bridge at Krka Falls, Croatia

Somewhere in the Arizona desert – or possibly New Mexico

Looking down at a cactus –
no, I didn’t want to get closer!

And this is the least impressive of my four pictures,
with the most impressive “down”.
Because we’re looking at the edge of Niagara Falls,
and the water in the top half of the photo is 165 feet / 50 meters
below the water in the bottom half.

Maybe that’s why so few pictures emphasize “down” –
depth does not photograph well.

A few millimeters off the top of Mount TBR

Review – Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, by Alexander McCall Smith

A keeper? Eh, maybe.

I didn’t want to throw it across the room.

Well, maybe, at the very end. More of a gentle toss, really. It’s hard to get worked up about any of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency stories, and that’s a large part of their appeal. As in the other subdued adventures of Mma Precious Ramotswe and her friends and family, nobody is ever threatened with degradation or violent crime. This is a very middle-class, cozier than cozy, series of mysteries; the standard “cozy” involves at least one major felony, generally murder, but as often as not Mma Ramotswe deals with situations that turn out not to be criminal at all. Misunderstandings are common, heartbreak is entirely possible, life isn’t exactly easy, but on the whole Alexander McCall Smith’s version of Botswana is a pretty amicable place to visit.

My biggest complaint about this particular story is that the central problem dribbles away into the desert sands even more than usual for the series. On the one hand, Mma Ramotswe eventually figures out why the Kalahari Swoopers have suddenly stopped winning games, but I had to read and re-read the last few pages several times to notice that she does finally tell Mr. Molofololo, the annoying team owner, what’s wrong. We never see their final confrontation – we only hear Mma Ramotswe telling her good friend Mma Potokwane how it all turned out, as one nugget of news in a conversation where the real interest lies elsewhere.

Will I keep this book? I really don’t know. It’s literary chicken soup, the kind of undemanding read that might be pleasant when you’re under great stress or recovering from the flu. If I had infinite shelf space, it could stay; but I don’t. Maybe I’ll look at the next Mma Ramotswe story to make up my mind.

An alliteration attack

I’ve been amusing myself with Alphabetaphilia over at West Coast Writers. The game is to come up with a sentence using five words starting with the letter of the day – today was “P”, which means that tomorrow is going to be tough, since words that start with “Q” are almost as rare as ones that start with “X”. Silly stuff, and good practice in trying to come up with active, concrete statements even in artificial situations.

But…I think, maybe, it’s….getting out. Taking over. Something – something eldritch.

Because a while ago I started making a grocery list. And here’s how the household needs happened to hit me.

Help.  😉


The current Weekly Photo Challenge theme is a tough one – Regret. I don’t usually take pictures of things that are sad or ugly, but at last I remembered this series of photos. They were taken in early 2009, in Camden, New Jersey; unfortunately, there are still many similar sights not far away. (Camden is one of the poorest cities in the U.S., and it shows.)

This is a shame and a scandal, and certainly a reason for regret. Only a few decades ago, this was a small but adequate home. But during the years that I drove past this intersection on my way to and from work, it was a ruin. This is how it looked in March, 2009; I was afraid at that time that it was going to collapse any day.

Granted, there’s room for a tiny bit of hope here. Over the following two months, someone gutted this house (and the adjoining row houses) and started to repair them. Here’s how it looked by May:

Those yellowish lines near the top of the house are huge wooden brackets to stabilize the brick wall – they extend the width of the house and hook over the firewall dividing it from the next rowhouse* up the street. (The roof was long gone.)

Unfortunately, work stalled at this point. And since I no longer work nearby, I never found out if the project got completed.

Camden. Regret.


*If you’ve never been in the Philadelphia area, rowhouses are basically block-long buildings, usually brick and two stories high, that are divided into subunits twenty or thirty feet wide by brick and plaster firewalls. Each subunit is a separate home. This is the typical form of housing in Philadelphia and most of the nearby smaller cities.

And for a different take on Valentine’s Day –

I can’t resist. Please, please take a look at the Valentine’s post on SPQR Blues today….Ancient Romans and turtles and more!


My husband and I did not have a very romantic Valentine’s Day.

We were on the road before 8 in the morning, struggling through Philadelphia rush hour traffic and then halfway across Pennsylvania to my mom’s house. Of course, in spite of half a dozen conversations about the visit over the past few days, she had forgotten we were coming, so we had to spend some time soothing her.

After that, for a fun couples activity, my husband organized her pill boxes to carry her through the next several weeks while I sorted out her mail and wrote checks. He also got to spend time deflecting her from trying to feed me lunch at 10:30, or otherwise distracting me from getting her bills paid.

And then it was off to her bank and post office and pharmacy and grocery store, with a few quick home repairs to wrap up the visit; then back to New Jersey, hitting the outskirts of Philadelphia just in time for the afternoon rush hour. In short, my husband got to devote the whole day to helping out his mother-in-law; traffic jams on the Schuylkill Expressway were probably some of his pleasanter moments.

And he did it all cheerfully.

There are a lot of reasons I love him, but this is a sample of one reason. He is a genuinely good and giving and patient person.

And you know, that’s pretty romantic.

Paul, will you stay my Valentine?

186 cookbooks – Frijoles borrachos, and more

Rick Bayless’ Mexican Kitchen. Mmmm. All right, I’ll admit it. I have no intention of getting rid of this one, even though the excuse for this cooking marathon is that I need to sort out the cookbooks I don’t want to keep. The only excuse for trying a recipe from Mexican Kitchen is that I’m a completeness geek, and self-indulgent too. So be it.

Anyhow, I’ve been curious about frijoles borrachos – drunken beans. Which, it turns out, are almost exactly the same as frijoles charros – cowboy beans. You just add a slug of tequila to get those cowboys drunk, and we really couldn’t taste the tequila among all the other flavors anyway.

The covered pot contains freshly cooked pintos.

But the other flavors – oh my. Beans have a deserved reputation for being stodgy, not that there’s anything wrong with that in moderation, in the background. Beans with some onion and chopped peppers and bacon and cilantro are ready to party.

And since there’s no point in being just a little Mexican, I included a chile-glazed pork tenderloin, kind of inspired by some of Bayless’ ideas but, really, not up to his authenticity standard. It’s good, though.

You just need some garlic, brown sugar, tomato sauce, ground ancho and chipotle – you see what I mean about being non-authentic. (My fallback authenticity excuse, when pushed, is to insist that whatever I cooked is Authentically Pennsylvania Dutch. After all, that’s what I am; so anything I cook has to be authentic, right? Right?)

So, not totally Mexican. Faster and simpler, though. Cook a chopped garlic clove, 2 teaspoons of ancho and a quarter teaspoon of chipotle in a little oil for a few seconds. (If you like hot hot hot food, use more chipotle and less ancho.) Add two tablespoons of sugar and cook till the sugar is melting. Now stand back – melted sugar is HOT and may spatter – and add about two tablespoons of tomato sauce, to make sure the mixture is loose enough to apply to the roast. Let it cool just a bit (see above; melted sugar is really hot), then daub it over the pork tenderloin and roast for about an hour at 375 Fahrenheit. (A medium hot oven, for you Celsius-minded people. Too cool for bread, a little hot for cake.)

And this is what we had for Sunday dinner.


The critter construction kit

Review – Endless Forms Most Beautiful
by Sean B. Carroll

A keeper? Definitely. And you should read it too.

Okay, you have a cell – just one – containing a bunch of genes. Where can we go from here? More to the point, since we can look around us pretty much anyplace on earth and see a lot of possible end points ranging from humans to nasturtiums, HOW can we get there from here?

For a long, long time, the details were mysterious. Some of them still aren’t clear. But now, by combining DNA analysis and embryology, an overall picture is forming out of the mist. (The “evo devo” of the subtitle is short for “evolutionary developmental biology”. Cute, and much easier to say.)

It turns out that living creatures share an amazing number of basic genes that control how their bodies are formed. Some of these genes are so universal that they must go back to before the Cambrian period, half a billion years ago. Then how can there be so much variety? It turns out that “gene” is biologist-speak for “a segment of DNA that makes a particular protein”, and there are stretches of DNA that don’t qualify as “genes”. What do they do? They control details of when and how specific genes and their proteins become active in the developing embryonic creature. (This, of course, is a horribly compressed version of what “Endless Forms” has to say. There’s more, so much more.)

Carroll shows how the interaction of genes and this “DNA dark matter” works. He also explains how such a variety of animals can be formed by tinkering with reusable parts – the dozens of ways that insects and crustaceans have started from a simple limb with a pincer on the end to build legs and mouths and feelers and gills and wings, for example.

What’s wrong with the book? First, Carroll is a specialist in fruit flies, and it shows sometimes. One or two chapters told me much more than I ever wanted to know about insect development, but even here there were unexpected nuggets of interesting stuff. Second, “Endless Forms” is not an easy read. I don’t think it could be easy and still do the subject justice. Be prepared to spend several weeks on it, and to re-read some parts and think about them before that part of the picture becomes clear.

Overall, though, if you have the slightest curiosity about the “hows” of life, if you aren’t already up to date on the latest in biology, you need to read “Endless Forms.” It’s that good.

Out of the discomfort zone?

Follow that branch??

Years ago, I worked on a college campus near a wooded area full of walking trails. After a while, I started spending some of my lunch hours exploring the trails…which weren’t marked in any way. I suspect they were created with no planning by other people who liked to walk in the woods; in some places, there were “trails” that were so faint you could only see the slight depression in the ground if the sun was at just the right angle to highlight it.

Anyway, on one of my first explorations, I almost didn’t get out again. I walked, and walked, and finally decided I had definitely passed the same trees a couple of times before. So the next time a couple of paths crossed, I took what felt like the wrong choice, and escaped from the woods at last. Later, when I got familiar with the major routes, I realized that I had been walking around and around a loop. (But it was a nice loop, with a swath of ferns stretching downhill from the edge of the path.)

This past week I’ve felt like I was going in circles, without the pretty scenery to make it worthwhile. I’ve been doing pretty well lately finding time to write, even with the necessary several phone calls each day to keep my mother on track. But there wasn’t much time left over. And when you start out with Too Much Stuff and no talent for organization, chaos is never far away. By the end of last week, I could see things were out of control, and didn’t know what to do.

So I did nothing. I spent the first several days of this week neither writing nor organizing, making ineffectual starts on one problem after another and then going off and reading. It wasn’t a comfortable place to live, literally or metaphorically. And yet it was so easy to go on being stuck there, as easy as if it was a comfort zone.

Like being in a maze full of potholes

I’m not as far out as I’d like to be, but by Thursday I realized that I had to force myself to stay in focus on one thing at a time and just go on until I got out of the woods. It didn’t much matter what project I worked on, as long as I kept moving.

Getting out of your comfort zone from time to time is a useful exercise. Getting out of that discomfort zone, by any path that offers itself, is vital.

52 books / 52 weeks – The Book of Dreams

Review: Yume no Hon, The Book of Dreams by Catherynne M. Valente

A keeper? N. O.

A confusing book. I disliked it from the start, but pushed through it on the theory that it might be a literary brussels sprout, not enjoyable but good for me. Unfortunately, I’d say it’s closer to a stale marshmallow that has somehow picked up a vaguely garlicky offtaste.

What can you make of a book that drifts, or lurches, from the story of an old, old hermit woman living in a half-ruined pagoda on a mountain somewhere in Japan to creatively imagined – or is it garbled – retellings of various legends to what seem to be the thoughts and deeds of a conscious volcano? It might be profoundly mystical. It might be the fantasies of a psychotic narrator. It might be an incoherent mess that got way beyond its author’s control. In the end, I’ll vote for “incoherent mess”.

But perhaps I’m just not spiritual enough to appreciate Ayako-the-narrator’s wisdom. Can I find anything specific to dislike, aside from the frequent sadism? There were a couple of things that troubled me. First, Ayako-the-narrator (the hermit woman) is somehow supposed to represent all women – more on this later. In particular, it seems she’s supposed to represent all legendary women or goddesses. Why, then, does she only envision herself as ancient Western or Middle Eastern figures of horror? We see Ayako as Isis of Egypt, Ayako as Tiamat of Babylon, Ayako as Sphinx of Thebes, all of them destroying and destroyed. We never see Ayako as Coatlicue of Mexico or Kali of India or Oshun of the Yoruba or even Amaterasu of Japan. Something’s not right here. A universal figure really ought to try to be, well, universal.

Oh, but how foolish of me! We are told again and again that “all women are one woman.” If the Book of Dreams has any point to make, it seems to be that what happens to any individual, however horrible, does not matter at all.

And This. Is. Nonsense. This is (insert the very worst, most abusive words you know) nonsense. This is just not true. It’s overwrought wannabe pseudo-profundity.

Yume no Hon? Book of Nightmare.