Monday, October 19, 2009

Seasonal Reading

On the day of the dead, when the year too dies...
Cader Idris, by umbrellasheep

There are certain books that are forever linked in my mind with specific seasons. It's October again, and as I do every year, I'm rereading Susan Cooper's The Grey King.

Set in late October in the mountains of northwest Wales, The Grey King paints its scenes with Cooper's typical precision. One of her most striking gifts is the ability to integrate the minutiae of time and place into her stories so that the land and the seasons become characters in their own right. Take, for example, a passage from The Grey King:
... he peered out at the little grey town as the windscreen wipers tried in vain, twitch-creak, twitch-creak, to banish the fine misty rain from the glass. Deserted shops lined the little street, and a few bent figures in raincoats scurried by; he saw a church, a small hotel, more neat houses. Then the road was widening and they were out between trim hedges, with open fields beyond, and green hills rising against the sky: a grey sky, featureless with mist....

Rhys turned the car inland, towards the mountains, and almost at once Will had a strange new feeling of enclosure, almost of menace. The little road was narrow here, like a tunnel, with its high grass banks and looming hedges like green walls on either side. Whenever they passed the gap where a hedge opened to a field through a gate, he could see the green-brown bulk of hillsides rearing up at the grey sky. And ahead, as bends in the road showed the open sky briefly through the trees, a higher fold of grey hills loomed in the distance, disappearing into ragged cloud. Will felt he was in a part of Britain like none he had ever known before: a secret, enclosed place, with powers hidden in its shrouded centuries at which he could not begin to guess.

Stone hut in Snowdonia, by magnuscanis

I don't know when I first read the books in the Dark Is Rising cycle, but now I can't see the trees changing colors without wanting to reach for The Grey King, just as the smell of pine needles and the metallic tang of snow makes me wish to curl up with The Dark Is Rising (book 2 in the series).

Cooper is one of the rare authors who uses her setting as something more than just a frame on which to hang her narrative. Like a candle in a dark room, she picks out elements of beauty from the treasure trove of British and Celtic legends, yet leaves a sense of infinite mystery hanging just beyond the light. The world her stories inhabit seems to exist long before and long after her characters come to life.

Two of the five books in Cooper's young adult fantasy cycle received Newbery nods. In the hands of a lesser author, they might have been reduced to narrow cubbies like "action-adventure," "neo-Celtic Arthurian fantasy," or the dreaded "bittersweet coming-of-age story." The Dark Is Rising books both inhabit and transcend these genres; they are true classics.

What books do you read every year, and when?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Anne and Laura

A bedroom in the original "Green Gables"

I’ve recently started rereading the “Anne of Green Gables” books. Maybe I was inspired by a Facebook meme asking me to list the 15 books I’ll never forget. Maybe “Green Gables” is my official summer reading, infused as it is with memories of Junetime PBS pledge drives and afternoons too hot to do anything but read.

I think the real reason, though, is that I’m getting married in seven weeks. The “Little House on the Prairie” and “Green Gables” books shaped my ideas of womanhood like no other books I’ve ever read. As I prepare for my wedding, I revisit these touchstones of my girlhood to remind myself who I used to be and learn again who I am.

What strikes me now is how different they have appeared to me as I’ve grown. Following Anne and Laura in their journeys to adulthood, I can trace the evolution of my own attitudes toward adulthood and marriage. When I first read them, I was nine or ten or twelve years old and they embodied everything I wanted to be. I, too, was precocious, dreamy, gawky, the smartest in my class. Of course I dressed up as Laura Ingalls Wilder for Halloween! My life, I thought, was on an orderly path to a career in teaching, qualified independence, and the inevitable wedding to my Gilbert Blythe or Almanzo Wilder. Since there was no romantically-charged academic rivalry between me and any of my classmates, I figured the Almanzo model—quietly heroic, plainspoken—would be my fate.

After a few years at my feminist-leaning all-girls Catholic high school (yes, they do exist!), my opinion of the Green Gables and Little House books was entirely different. My readings of my childhood favorites were tinged with contempt; Anne and Laura forsook promising careers to get married and… that’s it? They quit? Just to spend all their time worrying about jam and babies? They might have been good enough icons for, say, the unenlightened 1950’s, but surely the late twentieth century needed feminine examples better suited to reversing millennia of male oppression.

I didn’t read Anne and Laura’s stories for many years after that, thinking that I’d left them behind. Then I met Tony. Our courtship was uneventful except for the remarkable serendipity of our first meeting—not storybook material at all. In the weeks and months leading up to our wedding, we talked about the future: careers, houses, children. I was surprised at the desires I found myself expressing, incompatible with the relentless ambition I once believed to be my duty as a Western woman.

Now, as I read their stories again, Anne and Laura’s choices don’t seem like inevitable defeat at the hands of the patriarchy. What stands out are their rebellions, the fierce spirit that inspired them to strike out on their own in times when women still depended on men for their livelihoods—and then to negotiate marriage on their own terms. I’m reminded that while a wedding may be the end of one book, it is the beginning of another.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Laundry Day

While Tony slaved away at 14-hour days at his company's conference in San Francisco, I decided to surprise him by doing the laundry. All of it. At the same time.

Understand, we have a washer-dryer in our penthouse urban paradise. It's small, meaning that I have to wash the bedclothes one sheet at a time, and so slow that a full cycle of regular clothing can take up to two and a half hours and still be damp at the end. The fact that this sort of arrangement is ubiquitous in Europe (at least according to our landlord) is small comfort. Though we manage to keep up well enough with our day to day needs, you can imagine how the nonessentials pile up. Add to that the magnificent wedding shower gift of new sheets and towels, and our situation had become dire.
So I rented a station wagon (!!!) from Zipcar and threw ginormous bundles of laundry down the stairwell. Linus, who had already suffered through the trauma of Tony's 4am departure, was convinced that I was packing up and leaving him forever and began a howling fit commensurate to his grief. (Nothing in this life is always sunshine and puppydogs. Not even puppydogs.)
It took 4 giant washing machines, three and a half hours, and one emergency trip to the ATM, but we finally have clean sheets again. Sometimes the suburban life is very appealing.

(Ed.: Sorry for the repost. Mobile uploading didn't go as I planned)

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Power of the Mocha

Tony, enjoying a mocha at our favorite coffee shop (where everyone really does know our names). It's the only thing that makes him human in the morning.

It has long been our habit to compete with each other in making absurd puns using the word "mocha". Typically we select a theme such as slogans (in mocha we trust), Christmas carols, or hymns (what a friend we have in mocha!). Then the last person to dissolve in helpless laughter is the winner.

I like our rituals.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Making subway rides go faster

Behold my latest effort: socks. The yarn is that niftiest of inventions, self-striping sock yarn (who knew?). It is handed down from a friend who had to give away some of her stash when she moved into a smaller apartment. The delicious irony? Tony and I now live in the same size apartment, two floors up from her. Yes. They are small.

My needles are US size 1 -- just about the thinnest you can get -- and are made of bamboo. They are light and flexible; using them is like knitting with toothpicks. The stitch marker that mark sthe beginning of the heel section is actually a light bulb-shaped paperclip. Ah, electric industry swag.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Where I stand on the risk ladder

On April Fool's night, Wednesday, April 1, Tony came home from work and began to rearrange our living room for his weekly poker game. He slid the sofa into the kitchen, carried the coffee table into the bedroom, and extracted his motley collection of folding chairs from the corners they inhabit six and a half days a week in our tiny apartment. Suddenly his phone rang, flashing my name. He picked it up: "Hey." A strange voice answered: "There's been an accident. You're going to have to go to the hospital." What happened, Tony wanted to know, which hospital? "I'll call you back."

At the same time, I was stretched out on the side of a rain-slick road, trembling from shock and fear and cold, feeling my way around the holes in my memory. I had awoken to lights and strange faces in my eyes. They wanted to know what day it was. My lower lip was swollen and sticky with blood.

In the month since crashing my 150cc motorscooter in the warehouse district near Gallaudet University, I've tried to stitch together my patchwork memories. Based on what I remember and what the paramedics told me, I think I lost traction on a right-hand turn and panicked, slamming on the rear brakes. Braking in the middle of a turn is one of the worst things you can do on a motorcycle. Instead of laying the scooter down on the right side and collecting a few bruises, I caused the scooter to flip violently to the left, throwing me off to land on my face (judging by the gouges on my helmet) and slide down the road. The paramedics told me with some admiration that I must have practically hydroplaned on the wet street.

I don't know how long I was unconscious; I don't know who called the ambulance. When I woke up, my helmet, jacket and gloves had already been removed and my jeans were soaking wet. The paramedics, jolly and gentle, put a plastic collar around my neck and strapped me to a board for the ride to the hospital. With effort, I told them Tony's phone number from memory and insisted repeatedly that they had to call him. I tried to tell them that it was poker night and someone with a car would be able to give him a ride.

The paramedics left me in the hospital waiting room, still immobilized in the stretcher. I never learned their names.

Uncontrollable shivering. A desperate need to use the bathroom, followed by a near-disaster when my left leg collapsed as I tried to stand up. X-ray. CAT scan. Tony arriving with dry clothes. Nothing broken, though my left knee was swollen and my left calf hurt so much I couldn't bear to have it touched. Going home on crutches at 2am.

A month later, I can once again walk and turn my head and lift my left arm above shoulder level. There's an unexplained achy lump in my left calf, which might be a blood clot, a torn muscle, or a knot that never loosened. I'm still waiting to hear from the doctor.

Tony and my family weren't surprised that I was back on my scooter the next week. Others marveled that I had the courage to ride again, but here's the thing: when you choose to engage in potentially dangerous activity, you decide how much risk you're willing to take. Then you live with that decision. I spent a lot of money on good riding gear and everything that I bought did the job that it was supposed to do: the armor in my jacket prevented me from dislocating my shoulder, the chin bar on my helmet kept my face in one piece, the gloves ensured that I still have skin on my hands.

I knew what I was getting into. I may never look at turns the same way again, but the crash hasn't changed my attitude toward riding. That's life: you pays your money and you takes your chances.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Turn and face the strange changes, Part 1

Dear Friends and Fans,

I've been meaning to send the Official Meganomics Update for some time, but I kept delaying my efforts because several major life issues were still in flux, and I wanted to have something concrete and certain to write.

After three months of apartment agony, Tony and I have finally moved. We rent a top-floor apartment in a condo building that, like so many ambitious condo projects in DC after the economic downturn, has been converted into rental units. It has many luxury yuppie fixin's like granite countertops, a balcony, and one of those nifty kitchen sink faucets that pulls out and converts to a sprayer (whee!). We are very happy with it (the animals are unanimously in favor of the sunny south-facing balcony), and we anticipate staying here for a while. The only drawback is that the downstairs neighbor complains that she can hear Linus's toenails clicking through the hardwood floor, but clearly she's deranged because Linus is perfect in every way. I'm just glad not to be moving every six months anymore!

Linus works on his tan