Category Archives: Life reflections

The Monday Book: Race to the Pole – Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Jack is the guest reviewer this week –

This is the story of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the south pole in 1912.

Scottgroup

I started reading this and almost immediately thought I wouldn’t like it!

Fiennes is clearly an upper crust member of the British establishment with an inflated sense of his own importance. All through the book he compares himself to Scott and a goodly part of it is about his own travels to the south and north poles.

But despite all that he managed to suck me in!

Fiennes really did do good research and approaches the more contentious issues very fairly. He also goes outside of the central story to get different points of view. This was also where I had some questions, though. Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian, beat Scott by a month to the pole and is presented here as somewhat devious and a bit of a cheat. I see here Fiennes buying into the old story of the ‘above board’ British against those dastardly foreigners.

What is also well explained is the context of Scott’s doomed attempt – British exceptionalism, Government under-funding, class divisions, civilian/service divisions, limited meteorological knowledge etc. What also comes through clearly, though, is Scott’s abilities as a leader. He made difficult decisions, led by example and persuaded his team to incredible feats of endurance!

So my take away from this book is that Scott really was a doomed hero and Fiennes is a bit of a narcissist!

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Unner ablow the Grund

Jack gets comfortably under the wire for a change –

So, here I am working in the front yard regularly as we get into spring and summer and I keep seeing this odd circular grey cover of some kind in the ground. It looks like it might be over a valve or a meter for water or gas or maybe something electrical.

pot1

I look at it from time to time and puzzle over it. It has four small holes that might be for screws holding it down. But they’d be full of dirt so not much chance of unscrewing it. Maybe I could get a lever under the edge to see if it would come up? But what if it really is containing something important that I might break?

It sits right next to one of our inherited ‘Narnia’ style lampposts and I wondered if there was some kind of connection. But the power cable to the lamppost, which had run along the side of a now departed fence, completely bypassed the mysterious cover.

I continued to step gingerly round it over the weeks, puzzling and debating.

As I dug a trench to bury the lamppost cable I kept pondering but couldn’t confidently come to any conclusion.

Examining the object I was able to decipher a manufacturer’s name – time for Dr Google! All I could find was that they were best known for making garden pots, planters and hanging baskets. Now it was time to post pictures on Facebook to see if anyone else could help. The suggestions ranged from a pot stand to a cover for a water quality analyzer!

Still nervous I decided to see if I could gently raise it enough to see if there was anything underneath. Grabbing my trusty spade I set to! Yes – it did extend quite a few inches down into the ground. I was able to finally get a grip under the edge and lever it up and out. What emerged was a shallow dish that what I think must be a water receptacle in which to sit a planter. Why it had been turned upside down and pressed down into the ground I have no idea. There was nothing except the ground under it!

pot2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My takeaway from this?

Google and Facebook sure make life complicated at times –

But congratulations to our friend Annie Jane for getting it right!

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The Monday Book: VINEGAR GIRL by Anne Tyler

This week’s review comes from crowd favorite Paul Garrett –

anne tyler

Dr. Battista, an obscure researcher of autoimmune disorders, has been slaving away in obscurity, almost forgotten by his employer, Johns Hopkins University. Now he feels he is on the verge of the breakthrough he has been searching for all his professional life. There is only one problem: Pyotr, his research assistant and right arm is about to lose his visa and be forced to return to the Eastern European country of his birth. Dr. Battista is terrified that all his work will go down the tubes (pun intended? Maybe, maybe not.) without Pyotr there. He hatches a plan to save his project and his lab assistant. All that has to happen is for Pyotr to marry Dr. Battista’s daughter.

Nobody thought to ask his daughter.

Kate Battista is a tall lanky girl approaching what used to quaintly be called spinsterhood. Almost thirty with no love interest and no prospects, she spends her days gardening, working as a teaching assistant at a preschool and looking after her widowed father and younger sister. She is awkward socially and has a habit of saying exactly what is on her mind, to the detriment of her relationships with just about everybody, especially the parents of the little crumb crunchers who are entrusted to her care.

Anne Tyler’s novel Vinegar Girl (Hogarth, 2016) Is a nod to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew as the poor and equally awkward Pyotr, along with the help of his boss try to woo the standoffish Kate.

Tyler is one of the few authors (along with Kurt Vonnegut) who can make me laugh out loud.  Her tragicomic style is on full display as the characters careen from one mishap and plot twist to the next.  The rehearsal dinner scene alone makes the book worthwhile.

Unlike in T.C. Boyle’s preachy Tortilla Curtain, Tyler avoids the controversies of the American immigration system, preferring to stick to the Shakespearian template and leave the intellectual heavy lifting to others.

This is a small volume for Tyler, but she manages to pack it full of her normal cadre of oddballs, miscues and mishaps. The story ends with an odd (for today’s audience) soliloquy on the plight of men in society.

The book’s brevity may be the only drawback, as Tyler felt the need to add an extensive epilogue. Brief or not, Tyler fans won’t be disappointed.

 

 

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Money, Money, Money – – –

Jack gets over the line with time to spare – –

caveat

I’m a real curmudgeon right now! Because we moved house we have also changed banks and that meant carefully checking that all automatic payments got changed over. That proved very difficult as some were obvious but many weren’t! Being paranoid about such things I ran both accounts on the overlap and kept checking the old one in case I’d missed anything.

Lo and behold –

We had a problem in the new house with our thermostat so I googled to find advice which took me to a website called ‘Just Answer’. For just five dollars they would fix the problem. They didn’t fix the problem but what they did do was lock me into a monthly twenty-eight-dollar subscription whether I had any other questions or not!

The only reason I discovered Just Answer’s cunning ruse was because I was checking the old account.

Because I was in that mode I asked Wendy about a medical bill we had for six hundred dollars, so she phoned her insurers and found it was a ‘mistake’.

But there’s more – –

Wendy has been selling stuff on E-Bay and was surprised by her latest bill from them. She checked her account and found that if your item doesn’t sell, they automatically re-list it and charge you for both. Worse still they continue re-listing and charging unless you cancel.

I’m still not convinced I’ve caught everything on our old bank account –

Then there’s Verizon, who sent us bills that included third party services we neither needed nor asked for!

There’s some sneaky folk out there that have probably gotten a big bonus for their sneaky ideas, folks. Caveat emptor.

Sometimes, even when you don’t caveat, you still have to emptor!

 

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Wendy and the Furries

big bad wolfThe National Rural Health Association held its annual conference in Atlanta (that most rural of American localities) this year. On Tuesday we started lamenting the state of rural health infrastructure and planning our dire futures.

On Wednesday, two giant skunks appeared in the lobby of the hotel. Whispers rippled around the place: the furries were coming.

The 800 attendees of the health conference divided: a third of them googled furries, a third fled to their rooms, and the rest staked out seats at the bar and watched the luggage parade.

More than 6,000 furries descended. The number of sparkly unicorn heads on luggage carts, the inflatables trapped inside plastic, eyes always looking out with pleading expressions, and the unflappable Atlanta red cap bellmen, pushing carts with dignity as leopard tails fell over the sides, moving little pink fuzzy claws just before they got trapped in the wheels. Oh, the photo opps.

 

 

That was nothing compared to Thursday night in the bar–and the lobby, and the restaurant, and the main plaza, and the escalators…

 

Turns out, furries are really nice, ehm, people? If you ask they generally enjoy having their photos taken, or saying a few words to friends back home who love their particular species. Witness Mr. March Hare, who waved to my friend Willie, the first woman I know to decorate her kitchen using an Alice in Wonderland theme.

Friends back home who know me as that nice buttoned-up author who crochets and rescues cats, and doesn’t make trouble for the neighbors, sent polite private messages when I began posting Furries on my FB feed. A fellow musician and Rennaissance Faire enthusiast summed up the gist of these, “Umm, Wendy, did you go there on purpose?”

 

 

 

 

 

toucansFalling into the furry convention also coincided with my birthday. Friends had promised to take me to the Atlanta aquarium, but we just parked ourselves ringside and watched the lobby fill with fur–and scales, and a trio of inflatable toucans (maybe?) who stole the show. From Facebook, friends flung advice: Give them cookies! They love cookies! Don’t step on their tails, they get surly. Don’t worry, they only bite if you ask nicely.cookie furry

 

 

And the furry jokes, which we will gloss over. These came down to a bunch of friends asking, “But what is the point of this” with others more in the know sending some iteration of “cosplay with benefits.”

I knew about furries peripherally, because Jack and I play Celtic music, because of being at book festivals where cosplay might come into view, and because some of the crocheting I do has been, I think, bought by a furry or two who didn’t self-identify.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But I never got to meet any before this weekend. We had the time of our lives, my friends and I, watching the furries walk past the erstwhile posters intended to save the world with their statistics and dire warnings of hospital closure. Which will save the world first, do you think, people trying to get stuff done, or people trying to make sure everyone has a good time?

A partnership would have formed if we could have found him in time: one furry was dressed as a large mammal (authorities differed as to lion, wolf, or dog) in a doctor’s coat, complete with stethoscope. The Virginia delegation hunted him after our awards ceremony for a photo opp, but alas it was not meant to be.

Gracias, furries, for reminding us that having fun is healthy. And, well, fun. We had the time of our lives, watching y’all possess and enjoy that hotel. Thanks! Have a cookie.60197676_2540615052616210_5072177147590737920_n

 

 

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Fire, Fire,Burn – – –

Jack makes it across the line again –

Fires

Wendy and I decided we needed a fire pit in our back yard. So I surveyed the area and decided where it should be. The only trouble was that a pile of brush gathered by our predecessor was already there. So off to confer with Dr Google about the easiest way to build a fire pit and what do about that brush.

It turned out that there was a state-wide ordinance in place that between February and April you can’t burn garden stuff before 4 pm or after midnight. We were still in April at this point!

I wandered out again around 5 pm and looked at that pile of brush while aware of the lighter in my pocket. Could I? Should I? I wondered afterwards if that’s how arsonists feel. Are they overcome with the desire to just see flames? Something outside of me took over and I set the brush afire!

As I watched it my first thoughts were whether the neighbors would complain or even phone the police.

fire

But then I was transported back to another place – my childhood.

I remembered sitting in front of our coal fireplace gazing into the flames and being sucked into another world, while listening to favorite programs on the radio – Dick Barton, Special Agent; The Goon Show; Around the Horne – – –

My Dad was an expert painter and decorator and specialized in faux wood-graining and marbling. He made his own crayons from simple ingredients and dried  them beside the fireplace. Along with the smell of them drying came back the memory of the fish ‘n chip van outside sounding it’s horn and the smell of lard over that other open charcoal fire – – –

Do we have an old memory of the fire ceremonies that heralded the approach of spring and the new harvest? Is that why fire fascinates us so much?

I wonder!

 

 

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The Monday Book: Life without Parole – by Victor Hassine

Jack’s guest post is actually the Monday book so could be on time or not –

life without parole

I have been a regular monthly visitor to our local Federal Penitentiary for nearly five years. Each time I visit with two inmates for around an hour with each and we talk about all sorts of things.

But the hardest thing is to get any idea of their everyday lives before and after the visit!

I got some idea from ‘Orange is the New Black’ by Piper Kerman, but that was from a woman’s perspective. However Wendy gave me Hassine’s book and that really opened my eyes. His experiences were in a state prison but I’m sure they would have been much the same in ‘the pen’.

‘Life Without Parole’ is a series of essays or interviews by an inmate sentenced to life in 1981 who was an educated and thoughtful man. He documents his experiences over time, his conversations with fellow prisoners and his observations on the culture of prison life.

Hassine makes no attempt to excuse his crime or to suggest he doesn’t deserve his punishment. He simply relates his life behind bars.

This book spares nothing and describes a desperate and harrowing world that I have had the tiniest glimpse of. Hassine doesn’t try to excuse either himself or any of his prison community, yet draws us in and shows us a parallel world that ‘there but for the Grace of God’ any one of us could only too easily be part of!

His analysis of the various problems with the prison system is scholarly and erudite and makes for gripping reading. Each chapter features an introduction written by eminent criminologist Robert Johnson, and the book is divided into three sections: Prison Life, which introduces readers to the day-to-day aspects of Hassine’s life in prison; Interviews, which presents a series of candid interviews with Hassine’s fellow inmates; and Op Ed, in which Hassine addresses some of the most significant problems within the current prison system.

The author was an Egyptian born immigrant to the US and a law school graduate. He died in prison in 2008 under unclear circumstances although it seems likely he took his own life following an unsuccessful appeal.

I can thoroughly recommend this book, which is now in its fifth edition, to anyone interested in prison life.

 

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