15 December 2012

Confession

I said I was going to do all this reading

And I still will

But lately I've been watching classic Star Trek.


Any show that puts a horned wig on a puppy and calls it an alien, is my kind of show.

10 December 2012

Something Old for Something New

On Saturday, I went to my first ever legitimate Civil War reenactment.  Silly, isn't it, that as a Southerner and a lover of history, it took me 23 years to get to one?


My dad and I went to the 150th anniversary and reenactment of the Battle of Fredericksburg (we tend to geek out over the same kind of things).  It was an appropriately foggy morning, and the hundreds of onlookers chattered quietly and merrily while we searched for the perfect viewing spot.  Reenactors snapped pictures of each other with smart phones and antebellum ladies carried around fancy DSLRs, using their dress as a kind of pass to get beyond the barriers set up for the audience.

The smartly dressed union soldiers loaded up onto boats to cross the river and the battle began, with the cracking fake gunshots and the booming of cannons, smoke replacing the dissipating fog.  It was lively, children squealed, and as soldiers began to pretend-die, I had a sudden, obvious, and disconcerting thought.

Why do we do this?

Half a million people died in the Civil War.  Families were not just torn apart, but turned against each other.  Death, starvation, and destruction became the norm for many.  Whole states were burned.  Pretend as we might that 150 years is a really long time, the effects of the Civil War are still visible today, at least in the South.

Why would we glorify that?  Immortalize it in yearly reenactments?


I tried to tuck this thought in the back of my mind, as we pushed through the crowd to follow the battle.  It had moved up the riverbank and into the streets.  Then everything paused for a while and we watched some Confederate dead rise again and have lunch.

"What are you doing?"  somebody shouted at them; "The Union soldiers are right over there!"
"We're dead!" One of them shouted back.

The fife and drum corps marched merrily past and at 11 AM, right on cue, the street skirmishes began.  Instead of being pushed back against a hill, as we had been for the first battle, the onlookers crowded along the streets and cheered and whooped and shouted with the reenactors.  Blue, sulfery smoke filled the air and although I wasn't cheering, whooping, or shouting (I've never been one to do any of those), the atmosphere was charged and parade-like, a far cry from the gloomy thoughts I'd had at the start of the battle.

"Go home, Jeff Davis!" one Union officer shouted to the crowd, "Go home, you dirty rebels!"  The crowd, obviously Rebel sympathizers, booed and shouted and laughed back.  The gunshots were ear-ringingly bright and one Confederate took a full five minutes for his own dramatic death in the face of the Union.  Aside from wishing for earplugs, it was fun, like a football game, only - oddly enough - with less antipathy between rivals.

In light of how utterly devastating the CW was, maybe this kind of reenacting - good-tempered, festive, but with just enough fake death to remind you that it wasn't a game - may be one of the best ways to remember it.  It should be remembered, in all its shameful causes and wrenching destruction; yet, we shouldn't live in condemnation of each other for it, and we shouldn't sweep it under the rug.  Reenactments may be an overly light way to address it, and I'm not sure what the participants of the original would think of it, but the CW absolutely should be addressed and remembered.



And that was my first venture into the world of Civil War reenactment.  

29 November 2012

A Short Rant on 3-D Movies

Biblo Baggins smokes disapprovingly at your 3D
You've probably heard all these complaints before.  Railing against how 3D destroys the integrity of the movie, etc, etc.  Suffer my opinions or don't, it's your choice.  :)

I don't like 3D.  The only movies I can remember seeing in 3D are The Polar Express and The Avengers.  The Polar Express is, to me, the type of movie that is appropriate for 3D.  It's animated, not that complicated, brightly colored, and lots of opportunities for cool effects (like the train coming out of the screen).  Yet, seeing it in 3D made me just a little bit nauseous, and I felt like I had to hold my head at a very specific angle to just make the most important foreground objects focus.  It didn't ruin the movie for me, because, again, simple story and animated.  Not the same level of background detail as a live-action movie.  Still, I think I would have enjoyed in more in good old 2D, which looks plenty enough three-dimensional to me.  I never watch a movie and think "I wish the characters weren't crawling across that flat screen, this is just not very realistic."  In fact, 3D seems significantly less realistic than non 3D, in that it is a constant reminder that I'm watching a movie that has special screen effects!

I highly anticipated The Avengers and I went to a 3D showing with a group of friends.  I spent most of the movie wondering what was happening on the 70% of the screen that was dark and blurry and constantly adjusting my head angle so that, once again, the intended 3D objects would be sharp.  I knew the moment the movie was over (actually, probably somewhere in the middle) that I would have to see the movie again in 2D to really understand what had happened.  That's not even a terribly complicated movie, and much closer to the cartoon scale than a lot of live-action films.

I should mention at this point that I have super excellent eyesight, so we really can't blame the focus issues on  that, unless it's actually more enjoyable with worse eyesight.

So what brings up this rant, months after seeing The Avengers and years after seeing The Polar Express?  Well, I just found out (I'd probably heard it before and ignored it) that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is going to be released in 3D.  My excitement for The Avengers pales in comparison with my excitement for this movie (though I feel a good bit more trepidation about it too).  I have been a die-hard Lord of the Rings fan since I first saw The Fellowship of the Ring; not just for the movies but for the whole world of Tolkien's creation.  I'm not going to elaborate on my fandom because you all really don't need to know the depths of my nerdiness.  While I hold the books and the movies in somewhat separate categories from each other, I still expect a certain level of loyalty and excellence from the movies.

3D, in my mind, is a gimmick.  Lord of the Rings needs no gimmicks.  It is fantastic on its own.  Showing it in 3D is like putting plastic pink shutters on Neuschwanstein Castle.

Stop ruining my hobbit movie!

Obviously, I'll see it in 2D.  Obviously, these are all my opinions based on my experiences, and your opinions and experiences may be entirely different.

That was not quite as short as I expected.

Photo source: PC World, incidentally from an article about The Hobbit's 3D release: http://www.pcworld.com/article/2017108/new-3d-tech-in-the-hobbit-risks-backlash-as-film-debut-nears.html 

27 November 2012

SciFi, Whodunits, and Monuments

Source: www.tomgauld.com 
I said I was going to write about books and experiences every week, right?  And then I didn't last week - and now it's Tuesday.  Ah well, if seventeen years of education can't knock the procrastinator out of me, I guess nothing ever will.  I did, however, make a good dent in my reading goal.

I'm still trudging through Hyperion, which is turning out to be one of the weirder science fiction books I've read.  It's good, but I'm not sure I would recommend it.  I'm going to finish it, regardless, if only for "personal research" purposes: How have the styles of classic mid-century science fiction carried over into more modern literature?  What are the tropes, themes, development styles most common in science fiction literature?  At what point did I become such a huge nerd?  (That last one is a joke...I've always been a huge nerd.)

In my opinion, Hyperion is Dan Simmons's vehicle for exploring what an emigrated, interstellar human population would look like, culturally and politically.  It's not a novel idea for a science fiction book (/saga), but I can't complain because I've considered writing about the same thing.

What I did manage to finish, though, is M.M. Kaye's Death in Zanzibar.  I fell in love with Kaye's writing style when I read The Far Pavilions last year, which made it into at least my top ten novels, if not the top five.  Death in Zanzibar is a major departure from her epic historical fiction adventure romances I fell in love with, but still lovely and endearing.  In the vein of classic whodunits, a handful of stylish mid-century aristocrats spend a vacation in a palatial house in Zanzibar; the naive protagonist evades the blame for a murder she didn't commit while trying to find out who the real murderer is.  What makes it such a worthy read is Kaye's vivid descriptions of Zanzibar, based on her own trip there, and her lively characterizations.  You must read M.M. Kaye.  Do it now.  Go to the bookstore and get anything by her.



As far as those weekly "new experiences" goes...the best I did last week was a visit to the Tidal Basin on Thanksgiving Day. I'd been there before, but not yet seen the FDR memorial and the new Martin Luther King, Jr, memorial, which you may recall caused a bit of controversy with a misquote/misrepresentation.  I very much admire MLK, Jr, for his humility and commitment to justice.  His likeness on the monument, in rough stone, stares sternly out above monument visitors with folded arms.  King deserves to be remembered, but in all honesty I'm not sure this monument does him justice.  That said, I don't really have any better ideas.

This post accompanied by tea in handmade Georgia pottery

19 November 2012

An ambitious list

I got a request for at least a partial "to read" book list, and that request is about to be fulfilled.  I should make a disclaimer, though, that this is by no means a comprehensive list of books that I want to experience/have under my belt.  Rather, it's an immediate goal, in an effort to actually get some books read instead of deliberating over which book to read next.  Also, the list is not necessarily in the order in which I will (hopefully) read them.

If you have any opinions or advice about these books, or you think there's another book that I absolutely must read, I would love to hear from you!  I'm content to merely address the anonymous caverns of cyberspace, but I enjoy interacting with you, friends and readers of my blog - mostly because I'm always surprised to find out that it's being read!

Take a deep breath -

Fiction:
Hyperion Dan Simmons (CR*)
And Then There Were None Agatha Christie
The Scar China Mieville
Gone with the Wind Margaret Mitchell
Death in Zanzibar and Death in Kenya M.M. Kaye
Great Expectations Charles Dickens
Brave New World Aldous Huxkey
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick (NYA**)
American Gods Neil Gaiman (NYA)
The Left Hand of Darkness Ursula Le Guin (NYA)
A Farewell to Arms and/or The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (NYA)
Tender is the Night F. Scott Fitzgerald (NYA)
From Here to Eternity James Jones (NYA)
When All the World Was Young Ferrol Sams
Fool Moon: Book 2 The Dresden Files Jim Butcher (NYA)
Earth Abides George R. Stewart (NYA)
etc etc

Non-Fiction:
The Hiding Place Corrie Ten Boom
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy Eric Metaxas (NYA)
The Cross of Christ John Stott (NYA)
The Missionary Call: Finding your place in God's plan for the world David M. Sills (NYA)
Surprised by Joy C.S. Lewis

I could especially use your recommendations for Non-Fiction.  My type preferences for fiction are pretty obvious, but I also really like oddball history books, Bill Bryson-esque.

*Currently Reading
**Not yet acquired...any suggestions for finding cheap books, besides rummaging through haphazardly organized used bookstores or paying high shipping prices through Amazon Marketplace?

17 November 2012

There are no pictures, read at your own risk

Oh...hi...come here often?  I don't.  Let's see, last time I was here I was pondering the complex experience of moving around and traveling and having different "homes."  Since then, I have been:

Trying to get used to living with my family again, after 5 years of only being home for breaks and holidays (it's an adjustment, but also a blessing, and much more fun than being alone)

Looking for a job (huzzah, and it's going so well)

Getting familiar with this quaint little area I live in now that we call Old Town, and occasionally venturing into "The District" to get cultured and sophisticated (The District not to be confused with District 12, 13, or any other Panem Districts)

Even with the job search and trying to get some volunteering going, I seem to have a lot of time.  At first that time was a little bit staggering, especially since there were no overhanging assignments casting shadows of guilt and dread over it.  As I slowly came to realize that all the things I'd mentally listed as "I'll do it when I'm done with school" (i.e. read more, practice more, write more, brush up on Arabic) were now real, physical possibilities - and if I didn't start doing them now I might get a job and forget about them - the sheer volume of possible things I could do with my day precluded my choosing which thing to give a real go at.  I think that's what they call First World Problems.  Poor me.

Then I bought some used books.  I made a list of the books I want to read (it's a really, really long list).  I started a fresh notebook.  I got out my Arabic flashcards.  I went to The Phillips Collection and saw Degas, Monet, Cezanne, Chagall, Picasso.  I went to a free concert.  I started working on a Chopin prelude.  And then I started writing this blog entry.

Here's the plan, readers (hi Mom): I'm going to read at least 600 pages of fiction and 200 pages of nonfiction a week.  I finally have time.  Putting the goal in number of pages makes it sound a little bit like an assignment, and I originally thought to number it in books rather than pages, but since some books are 200 pages and some are 500 I felt like that wasn't fair.  Then I'll write here about one read per week.  I'll do something new every week (I doubt I can run out, there are so many things to do and see in this area) and write about it here.  At least, that's what I intend to do, and maybe since it's not a requirement from an academic authority it will actually be willingly accomplished.  I also have other goals, the accomplishment of which can't really be entertainingly represented here (like, practicing and non-blog writing).  If I'm going to be unemployed, the least I can do is be productive in the things I've been wanting to have time for for ages.

To kick this off, I'm going to do a quick wrap-up of the reading and the new experience, all-in-one, right here, right now.
I didn't read any new books this week.  Oops.  I did start one, though: Hyperion by Dan Simmons.  Maybe by this time next week I'll have finished it.
Two nights ago, we went to the Kennedy Center for one of their free nightly concerts.  The featured musical experience was a New York based band that covers 1960s/1970s pop songs from Pre-Revolutionary Iran. The lead singer wore a slinky blue dress, but her accompanying band, mostly middle aged men, had hair of varying degrees of too long to be socially acceptable for non-musicians, and wore wrinkled suits.  Got to love musicians.  But they were good, because thankfully for musicians, fashion has no direct bearing on talent.  That's a poor write-up of what was an excellent performance, but I've already written so much here and you've probably already stopped reading.

If I can truly stick to my goals, then I will be seeing you soon.

12 October 2012

A very strange feeling

Perhaps those of you who've lived in several different places or abroad for a while will identify with this.  This complete transfer of existence from "Life in Wales" to, quite suddenly, "Life in Virginia", with "Former life in Georgia" and "Former life in Alabama" squished in between the change, has left me searching for a good metaphor to explain the feeling it's evoked.
I toyed around with the idea of "it's like a time warp" when I went back to Alabama to visit "my old college friends", who are not really my old college friends because I only went to college with a few of them and they're all much more than just friends to me.  Even though a lot had changed, it felt almost seamless to slip back into the rhythm of that place and these people, belonging just as much as I ever did.  Much more had changed in Georgia, though, the place of my roots and my family, and life in Virginia is almost completely new (not totally, I've spent a couple months in this area before), so the "time warp" theory just doesn't quite cut it.
But, being a lover of science fiction and all things otherwise weird, I persisted in that vein trying to explain my experience and I think I've come up with a decent metaphor.
Planes and wormholes.  Not the flying planes (though those are fun too), the other kind of plane.  I've been on several different planes of existence - life in Wales, VA, GA, AL, vacation life, and life with my parents - and I've been traveling from one to another via wormholes.  Hence the eye-blinking suddenness of finding myself in each place and it feeling both natural and alien.  I know automatically how to adjust to each, but it always leaves my brain saying, "hey, uh, what just happened?  How did we get here?  What now?"
Yes, it's weird metaphor.  I'm weird.  I feel weird.
Here's a picture of a bird.


03 October 2012

An Itinerant Month

Four countries

Nine airports

Fifteen cities

Three weeks

Four weeks ago, I turned in my master's thesis.  Now, I am sitting on that perfect screened porch in Georgia (my parents' screened porch) while movers pack up all their stuff (and mine, too) to move it to Virginia, and I can't for the life of me figure out where time went.  I have memories like a disorganized box of photos; every once in a while I try to sift through them and process a whirlwind month.

I've had to say multiple rounds of goodbyes, which are terrible bittersweet things, and this week I'll say more, only they'll be hello-goodbyes this time.  I really do feel like a wanderer now, going from house to house and city to city, getting more of a taste for travel and more of a desire for home, wherever that is.

In a last-ditch effort to take advantage of being located in Europe, and a celebration for completing a thesis that I sometimes doubted would ever end, I went to Scotland, Norway, and Iceland.  I expected Scotland would be great - and it was even better than I expected.  I thought Norway would be beautiful - and it was, but I was sick, (thanks, Scotland), so I didn't see much of it.  And I didn't know what to expect from Iceland - but it was absolutely spectacular.

the twisty, turreted streets of Edinburgh


quiet forests in Norway

good grief, Iceland, stop being so epic

It's time to put down roots again, which is always a chancy move, because you never know when you're going to have to pull them up.  Sometimes I think it would be better to stay in one place for the rest of my life, and sometimes I think I just shouldn't even make friends - but I always dismiss both of those options as equally impossible, even if I am a homebody prone to hermit-like behavior.

The Begending.

24 August 2012

A Rant on Popular Literature

I spend a lot of time on Amazon.com, browsing with the same longing as I would in a Barnes & Noble back home, adding items to my ever-growing Wish List of Future Dreams (they just call it a Wish List...I like to consider its deeper significance).  Amazon does its best to recommend things for you to read/buy, and of course they have off to the side their "Top Sellers."  Well, for several weeks now that Top Seller list has been dominated by first one, then two, now three Fifty Shades books.
If you don't know what those are: Fifty Shades of Grey, which somehow started as Twilight fanfiction (I haven't delved into how that happened, don't really want to know), is an erotic novel.  If you want to know the plot, Google it.  It became wildly popular when it came out several months ago, mostly among women, which earned it the description "mommy porn."  It was followed by two sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed.
I think this goes without saying but I just want to let you know that I have not read (and will not read) any of them.  But having seen them on the Amazon Top Sellers list for so long, and being really disgusted at that, I thought I'd check out the New York Times Bestseller list, since that's supposed to be the most legit measure of book popularity.  Well, guess who's in the top three spots on "Combined Print and e-Fiction" (in case you didn't guess, it's the Fifty Shades books). Spots 4 and 5 are occupied by Gone Girl and Bared to You.  The premise of Bared to You is probably pretty easy to guess, and Gone Girl is a mystery, of which one Amazon reviewer wrote "it makes Catcher in the Rye seem wholesome."
All of these novels were written by women.  They're all apparently wildly popular (I'm guessing among women) - in fact, they're the most popular books in America.  And they're all...erm...salacious?  Graphic?  Adult?  X-rated?
Is now an appropriate time for me to despair at the current intellectual state of literate adults and the publishing industry?  I realize that ribald literature has always been popular (hello Canterbury Tales), but I always had this (apparently vain) hope that the written word somehow represented an aspiration to conscientious self-awareness and intellectual betterment.   I have foolishly believed that my beloved medium of literature remained largely separate from the same forces that rule movies and TV, as if the deliberate concentration necessary for reading somehow vaccinated it from becoming junk food entertainment.  Yet it appears that the law of supply and demand works here, too; what people want to buy, they get.
I want to believe that literature can be reclaimed; hundreds of beautiful, intelligent, thoughtful books are published every year, but who wants to spend time with thoughtful intelligence when you can spend it with porn?
The final thing I'd like to do in this post is congratulate the female authors who've written these bestsellers.  Good job, ladies.  Way to win one for the women.  For hundreds of years, men have dominated the authorship of books, but now thanks to you female authors everywhere can be respected for their creativity and intelligence.
/End Rant.

20 August 2012

Wisdom from Ernest

Some of my favorite Hemingway-isms on writing (beware of language).


“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

“Write drunk; edit sober.” 

“The first draft of anything is shit.” 

“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.” 


Source: Goodreads

17 August 2012

The Selfishness of "Brave" (spoilers)

This poster makes me think she's
about to defend family and kingdom.
Spoiler, she doesn't.
I saw Disney/Pixar's latest princess movie earlier this week - which I had much anticipated - and it's stuck in my craw ever since.

If you haven't seen it and you don't want it spoiled, you should stop reading.

I was trying to reconcile why exactly I was so disappointed in it - thinking, surely it's not just because it's not the typical princess love story - when I finally hit on it: Brave is primarily concerned with the rewards of selfishness.

I admit I'm essentializing the story a bit, and it's probably not what Disney intended, but I believe it's the message that shines through.  To understand how, let's recap the movie.

Princess Merida is firey and independent.  When she learns (somehow this is a surprise to her) that it's her role in the kingdom to marry a clan chief's son, she throws a hissy fit, has a fight with her mom, and runs away.  She then purchases a spell that will change her mother so that she herself doesn't have to get married, which of course backfires (as all ill-purchased spells do) and turns her mother into a bear.  The rest of the movie is a mad dash to break the spell, during which Merida and her mom heal their relationship, her mom tells her she's allowed to get married when she chooses to whom she chooses (which is what Merida wanted all along), and the spell is broken at the last minute.  Hooray!

So here's what I got out of it: if you are persistent enough in pursuing your own selfishness - putting yourself above others and risking the safety of others for the attainment of your personal goal - then it will pay off and you'll get what you want in the end, even if you regret a bit the means you took to the end.

What a great moral.  Now let's reflect on some prior Disney animated movies to understand why Brave is such a disturbing divergence from some of the more beloved classics.  Here there be more spoilers (if you live under a rock), so proceed with caution.

Look at Mulan - she's so cool
In Mulan, which is arguably the most comparable to Brave because they both have kick-ass heroines, Mulan risks her life to take her father's place in the Chinese army, risks her life to fire the cannon that buries the Huns and saves her fellow soldiers, risks her life to return to the Imperial City and save not only the Emperor but all of China from the Hun sneak attack.

In Tangled, Rapunzel is willing to sacrifice her freedom and be her Evil Witchy Fake Mom's prisoner in order to save Eugene's life, because she loves him.  Eugene in turn cuts off her magical hair before she can heal him so that the Evil Witchy Fake Mom will have no reason to keep Rapunzel as her prisoner.

In Beauty and the Beast, Belle takes her father's place as the Beast's prisoner, the Beast fights off wolves to save Belle even though she hates him, and then Belle returns to the castle in hopes of saving the Beast from the enemies (the town and Gaston) that she really can't hope to defeat on her own.

The Little Mermaid is a bit more of a selfish story, with Ariel willing to do anything to be human and be around Eric, but when she thinks Eric has fallen in love with someone else, she's willing to let him go and let him be happy - until she finds out that he's actually under a spell, and then she risks her own life and her pact with Ursula to save him.

Then there's the Pixar greats, like the Toy Story movies and Finding Nemo and The Incredibles and Monsters, Inc, and Up, all of which have strong messages of risk and sacrifice for those you love.  I'm still not sure about the merits of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Cinderella,  but I could continue on the theme of learning to put others before yourself in movies like Aladdin, The Lion King, and The Emperor's New Groove, among others.

In light of the standard set up by many (not all, but a gracious plenty) earlier Disney and Pixar animated movies, I think Brave falls short.  I think it could have been so much more, even keeping the focus on the mother-daughter relationship.  I believe the great merit of animated movies - movies that children and adults alike can love - is a story that rings true with an appeal to a higher standard of character.  I never felt like Merida was being particularly brave - I felt like she was being thoughtless and self-absorbed, for pretty much the entire movie.  I realize Disney is trying to make up for the stereotype of Princesses rescued by the Handsome Prince, but Merida is not the kind of character role model I'd want for my children, or really for anybody.

03 August 2012

Thoughts and a dark photo

This week I bought tickets to Norway, Iceland, and finally, home.  I now have a concrete end to a year that, 12 months ago, seemed like an age.



Time is strange, it stretches out before us and crowds up behind us.  It is the long space of self-reckoning and the unnoticeable swiftness of an exhaled breath.  An explanation always sought, never understood.

The above picture is the view from my garden last night.  The moon has always been comforting to me, I'm not sure why; maybe it's its constancy, quietly shining without burning; a guileless silver.  Maybe it's the face - I always thought the face in the moon seemed sad, but that she smiled knowingly through the sadness.

Before I lose myself in personification and a fairy tale...there's mixed feelings, of course.  About leaving.  And there's not a much better explanation that I can give on that front.

But tonight, take a good long look at the moon, and see if she looks back into you.

25 July 2012

Heroes, Episode II

Laura Ingalls Wilder

One of the first (real) books I remember reading was Little House in the Big Woods.  We had all of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, in slightly crumbly, butter-cream colored paperbacks, pages yellowed with age like so many good books - except Little House in the Big Woods, it was of the more modern, shiny-covered variety.

Within the first few pages, Laura was tucked deep in my heart.  She was curious and fierce and a dreamer.  Her stories were wild and unbelievable whilst being plain and earthy.  Most of all, they were vivid and real, and to me she was vivid and real, and so was her family.
Laura (right) with Mary (center) and Carrie

I don't know the extent to which the details of the books line up with the details of Laura's life, but the fact remains that she wouldn't have been able to write them if she hadn't actually lived that kind of life, lived in one of the last pioneer generations.  It was truly a hard life, fraught with failure and illness and uncertainty, but it's what built our country - pushing west to find more room, more land, and hopefully prosperity.  And even though the Little House books are written for children, they don't skip over many of the hard facts.

(For the record, I've seen a few episodes of the TV show.  They didn't really stick with me.)

Laura herself not only lived as a pioneer, but lived well on into the twentieth century, becoming a journalist and writer and even working for the Farm Loan Association.  She went from the world of horse-drawn wagons to one of commercial air travel.  She saw two world wars.

I would love to have dinner with Laura.  I can't, but I can always go back to those crumbly books - which I have refused to let go of and still sit in my old room in my parents' house (now a guest room) - and live a little bit of her life, vicariously, and know the thoughts she chose to share with the world.

Ma, Pa, and the Ingalls girls - I think Laura is directly behind Pa

Images from hoover.archives.gov and www.discoveringlaura.com.  Some information may have been borrowed from Wikipedia...

24 July 2012

Heroes, Episode I

I'm very wary of idolizing people.  We're all broken and flawed.  But through that brokenness, something inspiring can glimmer - like a hint of a secret human destiny - suggesting that we can not only aspire to something beyond our assumed lot in life, but achieve it too.
There are a few of these people - my heroes and heroines - that have helped me believe in that aspiration.
Since today is Amelia Earhart's birthday, and yesterday Sally Ride passed away, I think today will be about the two of them.

I love them both because they both broke into a difficult field previously reserved for men.  They had to be both capable and really smart.  Also, they (along with other pilots and astronauts) pushed the boundaries of what we previously believed humans were capable of.

I've never held the delusion that I could be an astronaut.  I'm not smart enough and, well, like a lot of academics, I'm kind of soft.  So I hold an almost child-like awe for the men and women smart and strong enough to go into space...that's SPACE, folks.  It's like real-life science fiction.

But I do know that I can - and hopefully someday will - become a pilot.  Being a passenger on a commercial jet is pretty tedious (though I do love watching the takeoff and landing) but sitting in the cockpit of a little Cessna or Piper is exhilarating, controlling the means by which humans have actually conquered the sky.  Amelia Earhart was not only a pioneer for women, she was a pioneer for air travel.  She was daring to the end.

So those are my two heroines for today.  Two women concerned with more than societal norms.  Smart, brave women, not perfect, but possessing the guts and determination I'd like to have.  I'd like to be that kind of pathfinder, a bit reckless and willing to at least attempt to do exemplary and audacious things.

18 July 2012

Boats

Here's a boat.


It's in Nyhavn, Copenhagen.

Here's another boat:

It's the Sea Stallion from Glendalough , berthed in Roskilde, though at the moment I believe it's sailing around Denmark.

And here's a few more:


We rowed and sailed the one in the foreground.  Like the Sea Stallion, it's a Viking reconstruction.

I like boats.  Sailboats, particularly.  Using ingenuity and creativity to maneuver the vast uncontrollables of wind and sea to your own advantage.  Not that I've ever been sailing on the open sea, or even sailing for more than a few hours, and never by myself.  I think I would like to, though the thought is somewhat terrifying; after all, wind and sea ARE uncontrollable, and no amount of wood or rigging will bring them under your power.  But I do like the idea.  I think that's why I like planes, as well; both are reminders of both the far-reaching capabilities of humans and our ultimate helplessness at the end of the day.  Perspective.  

I also like the quietness of sailing.

16 July 2012

Be careful of caring

I'll only be here another couple of months.

So I frantically want to capture the smiles and laughs of everyone who is dear to me here now and bottle them for safe transatlantic travel.

"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” - C.S. Lewis

Curse my vulnerable heart.  Should've put it in a box instead of taking it around the world.

25 June 2012

Fresh Coffee and Drums

On Saturday I went to a Refugee/Asylum Seeker event at St. Fagan's open-air museum.  I admit I hadn't given much thought to the situation of refugees until I met some a few months ago, and now it's something I increasingly care about.  I also love the warm, vibrant cultures that many of these refugees come from; it stands out brightly against what can sometimes be a rather dreary context here in rainy Wales (sorry, Welsh friends - I do love Wales.  It's just awfully cold and gray, and a bit formal sometimes).  Saturday was intermittently rainy and characteristically overcast, but St. Fagan's was a lush green and the tent that housed the event was filled with the nutty smell of roasting coffee beans as Almas performed the traditional Eritrean coffee ceremony - washing, roasting, and grinding the beans before finally brewing and serving the thick, sweet coffee.



Modernity means camp stoves and electric grinders

 We stood outside the museum for a while as Max from Liberia played drums, inviting passers-by to give it a try and encouraging them to come by the tent later.  As numbers lagged, we each sat down in turn and tried to drum along.  Max showed me harder and harder rhythms but I kept up ok, though I can't seem to get a very loud "boom" out of the center of the drum head; he told me I needed to cup my hand and that helped a little bit.  "You're good," he said, "Do you want to play again with me later?"  
Can I just tell you now that drumming is ridiculously fun?  Naturally I said yes.  I've tried to play a djembe before but never really grasped it like this before, and I was itching to play more even though my hands ached already.
Back in the tent, a Zimbabwean refugee animatedly told the crowd stories from his childhood, and a Sudanese man sang two hauntingly lovely songs in Arabic, a capella.  Then they called Max up to the front to perform- there were maybe 40 people gathered to watch, I guess, I'm bad at numbers so I could be really off - and he said to me, "Come on - you're playing with me, right?"
So he announced me as his drum assistant and we played together, me on one drum and Max on two.


It was a long day, cool and rainy, but warm and filling nonetheless.  I got to observe most of the time, which is what I really love doing, but I was pushed out of my comfort zone in many ways (not just by impromptu drumming), with delightful results, and made a few lovely new friends.  Also, the food and coffee was delicious.

22 June 2012

Any minute now...

I'm sure you know the song "Down Under" by Men at Work..."Do you come from a land down under?  Where women glow and men plunder?"  Well, this post is not about that song - even though it's a great song.  Naw, Men at Work frontman Colin Hay does acoustic albums now, which I discovered several years ago.  One of the most memorable is "Waiting for My Real Life to Begin". (YouTube it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cvrzqcfv9mY)


Any minute now, my ship is coming in
I'll keep checking the horizon
And I'll stand on the bow

When I awoke today, suddenly nothing happened
But in my dreams I slew the dragon
And down this beaten path
And up this cobbled lane
I'm walking in my own steps once again.

Don't you understand?
I already have a plan
I'm waiting for my real life to begin.


I admit that, against my better judgment, contrary to the knowledge of the things I know to be true, I have lived long periods of my life with this mindset.  That someday soon, next month, six months from now, next year, "real life" will finally begin.  Like I'm waiting for something.  Like I'm just in the first chapter of the book of my life and we're just trying to get all the back story out of the way.
I know that this is a shallow, lazy, and unfaithful mindset, yet I continue to come back to it.  I think Paul hits the nail on the hammer when he says in Romans 7: "For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate...For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out."  That's not an excuse, though - just an acknowledgement that I can do very little, if anything at all, without God's help.  Even now, I am planning and waiting and regarding my present time as just something to "finish up" before the next stage of life, instead of fully embracing the time here as purposeful and God-given.  That's how I regarded last summer, how I regarded the last couple years of college, last two years of high school, etc.  
This post is not going to have a neat, self-revelatory, problem-solving ending.  It's merely a confession.  Maybe you can empathize with it.
In a few months, I will be moving back to the US.  I don't expect that my "real life" will begin then.  It's happening now, and I'm missing it because I'm dreaming about slaying dragons.  (Not literally, I haven't dreamed about dragons in a while...)  
Life is not a dream, and dragons are real.  They just don't always look like dragons.


These Are The Creatures In My Neighborhood

18 May 2012

Unexpected Inspiration

I've added this hastily taken pic of my
guitar to break up the acres of text
I have a folder in my Documents entitled "Creative Writing."  If you're ever on my computer (you creeper), don't go there.  It is a gunky mire of nearly 10 years of creative angst, inflated belief in my own abilities, maudlin drama, and trite ideas.  Every once in a while I go there to remind myself of the creatively productive life I used to have, and how much of that creative product should be flushed down a toilet.  It's seriously scary in there.  It helps make me humble (although the effect usually doesn't last for long).  New files are rarely added these days; most of my productivity that hasn't been sapped into the black hole of scholarly essays goes into songs, which are almost always written in pencil in a small notebook.

I haven't quite gotten a grasp on a good method of songwriting yet.  If I come up with a motif on guitar or ukulele (or piano, when I have one), it will live in limbo for weeks, maybe months, if I don't attach it to something, some words or ideas of varying degrees of permanence.  And when I really get the itch to write a song, well, there goes my whole day, because I will be frustratedly attached to notebook and instrument, playing over and over again and talking to myself and occasionally yelling at a chord for sounding horrible or trite and often throwing down (more like gently setting down, I don't throw my babies even when I'm mad at them) my instrument and saying "I give up!  No more of this today!" until about 5 minutes later, when I realize that I can't just leave it unfinished like that, and I take up the nerve-wracking repetitive process again.  And then I wonder if songwriting is this frustrating for everyone.  I'm fairly certain it's not.

Sometimes words can be the hardest part.  Sometimes the song can't go anywhere without words; words seem to shape the melody.  (I could quote you a few academic sources supporting that claim, and a few more refuting it.  Thank goodness for such a useful degree!)  Words are my most frequent stumbling block, my most obstinate obstacle.

Some madness seized me yesterday, and I ventured into the murky depths of the "Creative Writing" folder to retrieve what is probably one of my least contrived poems, which I wrote in 12th grade.  I know it was 12th grade, because I remember reading in my AP European history book about the Duke of Orleans having issued a poetry contest, where the poems submitted had to start with the line "I die of thirst beside the fountain."  I remember thinking, this is an absolutely amazing prompt, and I wrote a poem accordingly.
Yesterday I pulled up this poem, read it, and thought, that's not terrible.  It's in a pretty regular meter.  It feels like a minor key. And thus began an afternoon of the tortuous process outlined above, and in the evening I had a new song.

I have a love-hate relationship with the songs I write.  I don't know if that will ever go away - maybe it's best that way, if I loved them all the time I might not work very hard to make them better.  And as difficult as the process is, I know the more I write the better, because practice makes better (not perfect, never perfect, just better) in pretty much everything.  Maybe in 6 or 7 years the songs I've written at this time in my life will rest in the future equivalent of my "Creative Writing" folder, to be reevaluated for education, humility, and maybe even inspiration.

17 May 2012

I'm not trying to be eco-friendly, I just want to survive

I wish I was a survivalist.  I've wanted to ever since I read My Side of the Mountain in elementary school.  In case you haven't read it (which would be a true tragedy), the protagonist, Sam, is a boy who runs away to the Catskills, lives in a tree, forages his own food, and trains a wild peregrine falcon.  He was so clever.  (I realize he's fictional.  Fictional Sam was so clever.)  I grew up playing in the woods, hiking and climbing trees, and I can identify a lot of plants, but I know if I tried to live out there, I'd die.  It's humbling, really, to think about how dependent I am.  I've never even been LEGIT camping.  If you're wondering what legit camping is, it's the kind where you hike in somewhere and there's no toilet.
Can I take survivalist classes?  Am I the only one worried by their utter dependence on commercial industry?

10 May 2012

The Beginning of the End

It's weird to think that a year ago I was taking my last undergraduate exam.  Afterward I threw up magnificently for several hours, but I think that had nothing to do with exams and everything to do with eating expired applesauce for breakfast.  It just seems like it was sooner than a whole year ago.  I can still smell the excitement of the end of school, just like every May, but magnified times a billion by the relief of completion.  It's done, 18 years in the making, school is finally done.  Except for some reason I wanted to go back, add some more on top of that.  So instead of breathing in the freedom of The End, I'm trying to motivate myself to finish the last essays before a summer of thesis-writing.  Still, at least I picked a country where Master's degrees only take a year, and in September it will be The Real End, also known as The Real Beginning, when I can't hide behind the comfortable excuse of "Student" anymore.
It's about time, anyway.

09 May 2012

Politics and Protests

When there are people dying without hope, why would I waste my time with hissy fits?

08 May 2012

I should read more

I miss writing.  I think I forgot how.

14 March 2012

Stuff that matters and an unfortunate bit of self-pity

This lone flower in the back garden tells me it's more or less spring.  It's a bit windy and foggy and most days you still need a jacket (at least, I do), but there's enough sunshine and flowers to believe that winter is over.  After all, it is March.  But then I hear that it's going to be 80 degrees Fahrenheit today in parts of Georgia, and shockingly, I want that 80 degree weather!!

In the four years that I lived in Alabama my number one complaint was that it got too hot too soon and stayed hot too late (I guess the tornadoes were kind of a downer, too).  I always say I prefer cooler weather.  I complain about the sticky oppressive heat of the South.  Yet for some reason, I really want it now.  I want to wear cotton summer dresses and sandals, drink sweet tea with buckets of ice, start sweating when I step outside.

I find it truly wonderful that it's so easy to communicate across the globe.  I can Skype my family and literally talk face-to-face!  In fact, last Saturday two really dear friends of mine were married in Alabama; even though they're an ocean away, I got to speak to them on their wedding day and even watch them get married because of Skype!

I'm so happy I got to do this, but it had one unfortunate consequence, and that's that I realized how much I terribly miss everyone, all my family and friends in Georgia and Alabama.  It's almost easier to have less direct contact, because then I'm not presented with the reality that life is continuing and changing back home and I'm not a part of it.  All the little familiar things - the hot weather and sweet tea - are there and I won't experience them.  And the people that are dear to me, they're getting married and changing jobs and making life decisions and I'm not there to be a part of it.

This blog post is part of a self-pity party I've been having for nearly a week now.  I think this is the most homesick I've been since my first few weeks here.  And while I'm having this sudden bout of homesickness, I'm making decisions about possibly staying in Cardiff for another year after I graduate.  What am I thinking???  I'm thinking that I really like Cardiff and God may have sent me here for more than just a master's degree.

This past Sunday, the evening sermon was on Mark 8:22-38.  Mark 8:34-35 says, "And [Jesus] calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, 'If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.'"

"Losing his life" in this passage has two meanings.  1) Literal loss of life - dying for the Gospel if necessary - and 2) Giving up everything, really everything to follow Jesus.  Truly following Jesus means we have to be willing to drop everything to run after him, just like the fishermen James, John, and Peter did when they first met him (Luke 5:1-11).

Listening to the sermon, I thought, "Ok, God, I get it.  I've told you before I'm willing to drop everything to follow you, and now you're giving me the opportunity to put that into practice."  If staying in Cardiff is his will, then I have to be separated from my family & friends back home.  If going back home is is will, then I have to leave those that are quickly becoming dear to me here in Cardiff.  Or maybe his will is for me to go somewhere else entirely.

Regardless, I will never be able to have all the people I love in one place, and they're not mine to hoard anyway.  The pastor quoted Jim Elliot - who was killed for preaching the Gospel - "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose."

As hard as it is to be away from the people I love, I know God is all I need and far more than that.  

20 February 2012

Accidental Adventures

The most beautiful adventures are not the ones we go to seek.
- Robert Louis Stevenson

I suppose I might be a frustrating travel companion, because I like to get lost.  As long as there's no pressing appointment to cloud enjoyment, ending up where you didn't really intend to be, or taking the long way 'round, is often much more interesting.

On a family vacation several years ago, we spent a day in Venice.  My mom took the map from my dad, the Commander, and gave it to me with the task of leading us from the train station to St. Mark's.  I guess she did this because he's not really the stop and smell the roses type, and she didn't want to be marched through Venice.  Also, a lot of the trip had already been spent with my sister and our dad *ahem* debating over the map.  I looked at the map for a few minutes - "yeah we take this turn here - now this way" and then I put it away and started leading us through the city in what I estimated was the general direction of St. Mark's.  We got totally off the main streets, wandered through a lot of small squares and over a lot of little bridges.  I was having a great time.  I'd begged my parents for years to take us to Venice "before it sinks beneath the ocean, pleeeeease!" and here we were, among the quiet and crumbly old buildings, discovering Venice.
I guess I was the only one who thought this was a fun way to travel, because after 30 or 40 minutes of wandering, everyone else realized that I didn't have an actual plan for how to get us to St. Marks, was just "feeling" my way there, and had very little idea of where on the island we actually were.  They took the map away from me with exclamations of annoyance, and in 10 minutes we were in St. Mark's square.
"It's an island," I protested, "we can't really get lost!  Where would we go, the ocean?"

Plan-gone-awry is a familiar theme when you travel.  When I went to Israel (see actual recap here, here, and here) we got lost in Old City Jerusalem on the first night.  That time, it was not my fault and I was not terribly pleased, because we had literally arrived just a few hours earlier and I was exhausted.  Nevertheless, in retrospect I don't regret seeing the back-alleys of the Old City at night.  And nothing says team-bonding like getting lost together.  Later in the trip, in Haifa, we tried to go to the Elijah caves (see 1 Kings 19:9-18).  The taxi driver took us to the Jewish site of the caves, though, and after seeing them we decided we'd also like to see the Christian site, since that was where we'd intended to go.  Several of us thought it would be fun to hike up to the top of the mountain (Mt. Carmel).  It wasn't a long hike, but it was fairly straight up, and over 100 F (38 C).  Pouring with sweat, we stopped halfway and read from 1 Kings, looking out over the Mediterranean.  

The view from Mt. Carmel.  Later we swam in it.  Worth it.

One week ago, my friend took me to nearby Caerphilly, with the intention of having a coffee at a burger shack on the top of the "mountain" there (I put mountain in quotes because while lovely, it's small).  But we missed our bus stop and ended up down the mountain in the town of Caerphilly.  We took a brief look at the castle there, then decided to walk back up the mountain in order to save our bus fare for the return trip.  Like I said, not a big mountain, but it was muddy, and neither of us were prepared for a muddy hike up a mountain, and it took us a good bit longer than anticipated.  It was cool and windy, but we made it to the top, triumphant, and could see all the way back to Cardiff Bay.  When we tried to catch the bus back, we found that the bus stop didn't have a timetable, and as we stood in the fading light on the side of the mountain wondering when the bus would come, it began to rain (something else we hadn't prepared for).


The bus eventually did come, but I guess if we'd gotten off at the right stop in the first place and known when to catch it back, the story of our day would be a lot less interesting.  The same goes for the above stories.  "We went to Venice and it was nice." "We went to Israel and it was nice." "We went to Caerphilly and it was nice."  When plans go awry, stories are born.  Now, the stories of my travel-gone-awry are barely even mildly interesting - they're best in my memory, not in the retelling.  But when I recall the best, funniest, most riveting stories I've heard, from family and from friends, something always goes wrong in order for the climax to come about.  And what about the best books you've read - they'd be pretty boring without a few twists and turns along the way.  "And Frodo rode atop the giant eagle right into Morder, whence he dropped the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom from above, and thus Sauron was defeated."

Of course we don't wish for things to go wrong, or for our paths to be diverted.  In case you haven't noticed, I'm turning this into a metaphor now.  Get it?  Story = life.  Sometimes things don't go the way you plan.  Sometimes things go really wrong, and it's way worse than missing your stop or getting lost in Jerusalem at night.  But sometimes something bigger is at stake than our plans, or our comfort.  Maybe something is to be learned, something is to be done, something is to be changed.  Our adventure is real, and while we may just be in the thick of it now, someday eternal retrospect will help it make sense.  

11 February 2012

I dislike coming up with titles

Once you've not blogged for a certain length of time, it's hard to get back into it.  You open a new post, type in a few words, and realize you have (1) nothing to say or (2) too much to say.  What's relevant and important changes the longer you leave your blog untouched.  Usually this is as far as I get.  I read what few words I've written and think "ugh, I don't want to say that"; erase and shut my laptop, wondering what kind of significance my life has if I can't write about it.  (Writing about my life, whether privately in a journal or online in a blog, has for me been a constant method of self-assessment and mental cohesion.  Being unable to draw a narrative or interpretation from what happens to me/what goes on in my head is disconcerting.)
If this post makes it from the draft posts to the blog, it will be a miracle.

I'll try broad and unrelated points.  The storyteller in me will just have to swallow the fact that they're relatively unconnected.

Everybody's all 'oo Ireland is so pretty'. What about Wales?
Wales is, quite simply, beautiful.  It's beautiful when the sun shines but also when it's been raining for days.  It's still odd for me to not be living smack in nature, but I at least have a view of neighbors' gardens from my window and occasionally get of out town to the wilder parts of the country.

Speaking of the neighbors' gardens (see, I'm trying to connect things and make logical segues), I have new neighbors because I moved.  My new house is smaller and farther away from the university, but you could also say it's cozier and encourages more exercise.  It's nearer to some of the international communities and I love walking down the road and hearing so many different languages and smelling a delicious variety of foods.  I often hear Arabic, actually, which only serves to remind me how little of it I remember.

I went home for Christmas, which was wonderfully rejuvenating.  I don't think I realized how run-down I was until I got home to where I was comfortable and familiar and without obligation.  You may hear exciting and glamorous stories of studying abroad or moving abroad, but my immediate experience was that it's not easy and it's not glamorous.  Particularly when you're inexplicably ill for the first three months.  I'm grateful, though, that so far I've been back a month and am currently still healthy (please pray that continues).

I originally began to write here about what all I'm grateful for, but it quickly turned sappy so I erased it.  The reason I don't like to say sappy things is the sappiness - the triteness, the I've-heard-this-kind-of-thing-before - undercuts the huge significance and serious meaning that I'm trying to express.  I'd rather not say something than have you underestimate its huge importance.  Maybe I'm in the wrong, acting that way.

Just know this.  Nothing I have, did I earn.  Nothing I have, do I deserve.  Everything I have, is more beautiful and perfect than my own desires could have created, even when I gripe about it or take it for granted.

I encourage you to examine your own life and see if this is true.