The Small Batchelor

June 8, 2018

Sabbatical. The 7th year stretch in a professor’s life. A chance to catch up on sleep, eat healthy, and (more to the point) see my doctors about all of those nagging aches and pains, little and large, that I have been neglecting.

This summer I resolved to do more than the usual amount of light reading so I wandered over to the Manzanita (North Tillamook) library’s annual book sale and grabbed a stack of books. $12. Top of the stack, a 47-year-old ragged paperback copy of The Small Batchelor by P.G. Wodehouse. I had no great hopes or expectations except for this: that this little story would help me start my summer as I had so many times before (see Jeeves in the Offing, Aug 2011) by sliding down a drainpipe, evading the clutches of the law, fruitlessly pursuing the course of true love, only to have all my troubles resolved in the most unlikely way at the last possible moment.

The pleasure of Wodehouse, of course, lies in the language. His words are like the foam on a latte (at least, that’s what I imagine my wife feels as I watch her sip; coffee drinks never touch my lips). Light. Delightful. Mostly air.

Consider: Read the rest of this entry »


Hidden Figures

May 30, 2018

Hidden Figures, the movie, had been fun. The American Dream, complete with heroes, come true. After we saw the film my wife went right out and bought the book. Read it immediately. Told me, “read it!” Or that’s what I imagine she would have told me if she hadn’t spent nearly three decades dusting around my stacks of unread books, magazines, and papers. I think what she actually said was, “are you interested in reading it?” and that’s how Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, found its way onto one of my stacks.

Did I say the movie had been fun? It was exhilarating! And the book’s front cover, which I think had been the advertising poster for the movie, called out to me. Three confident, smart, accomplished, and determined African-American women striding across the NASA seal as a rocket blasts skywards in the background. Who could resist a story like this?

And never mind entertainment. This is history. True stuff. It’s a sad fact that we live in a time when the occupant of the White House tells us that most of the news we hear, that is, any news that doesn’t flatter him or his beliefs in some way, is made up. Well, the stories in Hidden Figures weren’t made up (the movie does take some liberties) and book is a highly readable piece of scholarship containing documentation, names, dates, and locations.

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Zen at War

May 22, 2018

It should go without saying that when you join or start something new, no matter how old and experienced you are, or how long it has been around, you don’t know squat about what you’re getting into. College, love, children. I didn’t know beans.

This goes for religion too. I’ve been a lifelong skeptic when it comes to spiritual matters (thanks, older brother!), so I always figured I couldn’t be fooled because I basically had no interest or faith. And I had tested this theory many times. Growing up in California in the 60’s-70’s-80’s I was surrounded by Hebrew school teachers, Jesus freaks, and New Agers. Ram Dass (then known as Baba Ram Dass) and Werner Erhard each spent several days on my tiny college campus trying to get our attention. But wherever I bumped into a guru, I took a look, pressed my “that’s crazy!” button, and moved on. So I didn’t think I was “joining” anything when I began practicing meditation a decade ago.

Update: Just saw a review for an entire book on this very theme, “Bow First, Ask Questions Later” by Gesshin Claire Greenwood.

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There it is, jumping off the page of “One Good Man,” the last of nine Sherman Alexie short stories in this collection:

“What is an Indian?”

I’ve been asking myself either this question, or others just like it, ever since the third story. I don’t have an answer. I’m not even close. Each story spins me around, leaves me breathless. The question is asked again,

“What is an Indian?”

Years ago I saw “Smoke Signals”. Then I read its inspiration, “The Loan Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” I’ve been a Sherman Alexie fan ever since, buying books for the lovely readers in my family, my wife and two daughters, but not finding, it seems, time to read them myself. They would read. I would buy. Repeat. Finally, I noticed a well-thumbed copy of “The Toughest Indian in the World” lying on my shelf, taking its time so I began carrying it around with me.

Every story was a surprise. Raunchy stories, sweet stories, ghosts and horror stories, family stories, almost always family. Stories filled with truth tellers who spin lies, liars who sliced through the garbage to bare the truth, teasers, drunks, half breeds, and orphans. Seymour and Salmon Boy ran from the international House of Pancakes, never getting more than one kiss and $10 ahead of the law. The “thin white skeletons of one thousand salmon.” Jonah’s nightmare. Low Man Smith rescuing, *** being rescued by ***, a white lesbian flame that will forever burn in his heart. Roman Gabriel Fury sitting down to pee for the woman he loves. The good son who lights his dying, diabetic father’s stash of candy on fire, and then carries him in his arms across the border.

What is an Indian?”

I still don’t know. There is a professor, Crowell, who throws the question at us over and over again, terrifying us.

“What is an Indian?”

The steady repetition finally breaks through my reader’s armor. What is an Indian? What is your original face? What is the Way? What is in Indian? Of course. An Indian koan. Words, thoughts, rationales – all beside the point.

“What is an Indian?” Crowell asked as he stood in front of the classroom.
My father raised his left hand.
“Anybody?” asked the professor.
With his hand high above his head, my father stood from his chair.
My father dropped his hand, walked up to the front, and stood directly in front of Crowell.

Enlightened, enit. Maybe for a moment, but – (there) – I see!

Remembering Ms. Le Guin

February 1, 2018

The Oregonian, 23 Jan 2018

Ursula K. Le Guin, a longtime Portland resident who influenced a generation of writers worldwide and whose name became synonymous with superlative speculative fiction, died Monday at her Portland home. She was 88.

Ursula K. Le Guin was a little bitty person possessed with a gigantic imagination and the words to bring it to life. I heard a reporter say she was Portland’s “greatest author” and I have no reason to argue with that.

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December 6, 2017

It was just a year ago, last Christmas to be exact, that I opened up one of my presents and found Paper: Paging through History by Mark Kurlansky. I think the book came my way because I had requested it. I think I had read the NY Times review, been drawn in by such descriptive phrases as, “The history of paper is a history of cultural transmission, and Kurlansky tells it vividly in this compact, well-illustrated book.” Also, the topic of paper connected with my interests on several levels: biographical (as a high school exchange student in Japan in the 70s’ I spent an hour in the workshop of a famed Japanese paper maker and artist), tactile (I love the feel of paper), regional (paper production has played a central place in the history of the wood and water-rich Pacific NW), and professional (for about half a dozen years I worked with a team of chemists that were trying to find chlorine-free methods to bleach pulp). So I probably sent the link to the Times review to my kids with a note saying, “Xmas is coming. You could get this for me.”

Once I had unwrapped my present, things took their usual course. The book, like so many others in my possession, was inspected, appreciated, and then allowed to lay untouched in the dining room built-in for months. Finally, realizing that I might need to make room for new presents, I picked it up earlier this fall and began reading. And then, for reasons unclear to me, I finished it.

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Morris Dancing for Chemists

December 1, 2017

A couple of years ago I bought a copy of John Cleese‘s “So, Anyway . . .” for my younger daughter. I don’t know if I discovered the following entry on my own, or if she ran across it and dutifully brought it to my attention. Either way, when the dancing shoe fits … dance!

Still, it gave me a moment’s pause to realize that my life (chemistry professor, folk and Morris dancer, pub singer) had been constructed from exactly the nerdy materials that John Cleese chose to mock. What can I say? Had it been me at Cambridge, and not Cleese, I would have been right at home at the Morris Dance stand, the Dancing for Chemists stand (is there such a thing?), and even, God willing, a Morris Dancing for Chemists stand.

Did I  mention that some of my friends say I can sing? It seems I just can’t catch a break.

From “So, Anyway . . .” (chapter 6),  Read the rest of this entry »

A Man Called Ove

November 26, 2017

According to Fredrik Backman, the man called Ove, is mad at the world.

Ove, if he could be persuaded to take any notice at all, would no doubt say this is incorrect. He is not mad at the “world,” only at the annoying creatures in it who refuse to behave as he thinks they should. Which includes practically everyone. Even a cat.

If one didn’t know any better, one might think a person with Ove’s hostile attitude would eventually kill someone, and that is his plan. To kill someone. Or, to be correct in the way that only an Ove would insist on, to kill himself. Ove plans to do this not for the reasons we think (he doesn’t care what we think), and not because of his anger with the world, but for another reason entirely. So he makes one plan after another, only to be frustrated (temporarily) by the annoying creatures who surround him.

Ultimately, this is not a story about anger. It is about loneliness, and how one can be saved from it by simply living, by accepting that one must deal with all of its annoying creatures, even the pregnant woman next door and the men in the “white shirts.” There’s no need to put on a special sweet face when dealing with annoying creatures. Just be yourself, which in Ove’s case means demanding that these creatures behave according to his rules. Don’t drive in the Residential Area (can’t you read the sign?). Learn how to drain a radiator and fix a bike. Drive the right kind of car, a Saab, maybe a Volvo, but never a BMW or a Renault (French car!).

In the end, Ove’s loneliness is defeated by love. Which Sonja, Parvaneh, Anita, Nasanin, Adrian, Jimmy and Mirsad, and many others, could have told him was pretty much there all along, if only he would open his heart.

Thank you, Warren, for recommending this book. Seeing you in Irvine at Thanksgiving reminded me once again why we have been pals for so long. Take care.

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The Hidden Life of Trees

October 29, 2017

How do trees see humans? As clear-cutting maniacs bent on driving native forests to extinction? Or, as angels of mercy, quenching forest fires, watering thirsty roots, and planting future generations?

Questions like these have an undeniably odd quality – do trees even ‘see’ humans? – but the fact that they seems worthy of consideration is testimony to the power of Peter Wohlleben‘s little book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate. One short chapter after another explores the lives of trees from all sorts of unexpected angles: their feelings, how they band together in mutual defense, how they compete, how they raise their young, why they hold on to/lose their branches and leaves, what dictates their growth and death, and how human behavior shapes their lives.

Wohlleben does not regard trees as humans-made-of-wood, but he does not shy away from using descriptive language that positions trees in a web of relationships similar to ours. One of my favorite chapters, “Street Kids”, begins,

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The Sixth Extinction

September 27, 2017

How do I say this?

Elizabeth Kolbert is a national treasure. I had arrived at that conclusion from reading her numerous magazine articles and interviews, but I knew I was really on to something when I mentioned my feelings to a daughter who replied, almost reflexively, “Oh my God, yes!” It turns out that there’s almost nothing as affirming as finding out that some idea you reached on your own is also held by your super-intelligent children. I may be old, but I can still have good ideas! (It helps to ‘share a brain’ with your child.)

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