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1. Miss Me?

Hello! I’ve been away. Did anyone notice? What have I been away doing? Well, first, Thursday last week was Bookman’s birthday. He turned forty-eleven, something worth celebrating, eh? So we did. We went out to breakfast at our favorite breakfast place and I baked him a cake. Per Bookman’s request, the cake was chocolate chocolate chip with peanut butter cream frosting. I am not the cook of the house but that does not mean I don’t know how to cook, and I made a freaking awesome cake if I do say so myself. We had a meandering kind of quiet day with a little of this and a little of that. Some of that included packing because Friday morning we flew to Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Bookman’s brother lives there and his niece got married on Saturday. We were very happy we could make it for the wedding. Bookman and I don’t often get to travel anywhere together, our slow times at work don’t exactly coincide and we both work places with a small staff which requires a whole other level of scheduling consideration. We knew about the wedding though since last winter and were able to make sure everything coordinated.

A friend of ours stopped by and took care of Waldo and Dickens. We travel so little, and, as I said, rarely together, that we had never left the cats alone like this before and they are 8-years-old! They survived just fine though. They were a bit mad at us when we got home last night, did the “I’m going to sniff you but you are not allowed to touch me” bit. Waldo is also an expert at making big sad eyes so he mooned around the house trying to look as wounded as possible to elicit sympathy and then not let us touch him. Ah, the cats, they know how to make their people feel guilty. They soon got over being mad though, their desire for cuddles outweighing their resentment. When I woke up this morning I had Waldo snuggled up and purring on one side of me and Dickens snuggled up and purring on the other. Today they have been sticking to me like glue. Bookman and I left for an hour to go grocery shopping and upon our return they tried to play the “you’re causing us trauma” card but they dropped it pretty fast when they realized we weren’t buying it.

It was a good trip. A Beautiful wedding that even had vegan food! And it was great to catch up with Bookman’s family, many of whom I haven’t seen in a very long time. The flight to and from wasn’t completely terrible. The only snag was on our return yesterday. I opt for the pat down instead of going through those full-body x-ray machines. The TSA agent got a false-positive for explosives on her gloves after the pat down. So then she took everything out of my carry-on bag that had just gone through being x-rayed and had passed and tested it all for evidence of explosives. In the bag was a sealed, just bought container of hummus and some pita bread that was going to be my and Bookman’s lunch. Well, apparently hummus is considered a potential hazard and even though the luggage screener had let it through, the TSA agent emptying my bag refused to. When I told her it was sealed and it was my lunch she told me I could go back out of the airport, eat it and then come back in. And go through all this again? My flight leaves in an hour! She was not sympathetic and tossed my hummus in the trash. I suspect after I left she fished it out and had it for her own lunch.

After going through my bag and finding no explosives, the TSA agent took me to a private room and gave me another pat down. I’m not sure why I needed a private room for this because the pat down was exactly the same as before only she used the palm of her hand down the inside of my legs rather than the back of her hand. Bookman gives them the benefit of the doubt and says they are offering privacy, but I suspect it is meant to be intimidating. Of course on the second go-round everything was fine. Except it wasn’t because Bookman and I no longer had any lunch.

Albuquerque airport does not have an abundance of restaurants like the one in Minneapolis does. There was no decent food to be found so we ended up having a big plate of overly priced, greasy french fries for lunch. I have not had french fries in quite a few years and this “lunch” had the curious effect of feeling both like a naughty treat and disgusting at the same time. But between that, some almonds the TSA agent did not deem a threat, and a tiny bag or airplane peanuts, we made it back to Minneapolis a little hungry but not starving.

There wasn’t much time for reading during our stay in Albuquerque but of course I had plenty of reading material! I had my Kobo with several books on it, my iPad with magazines, and I finished reading The Martian by Andy Weir on the airplane yesterday.

It’s nice to be home, sleeping in my own bed that doesn’t sag in the middle, not having to breathe dry desert air and dry, overly air conditioned air, having my garden-gone-wild and being surrounded by brilliant greens instead of the dusky desert colors, which are pretty but don’t exactly satisfy me.

Oh, one last thing! Thursday last week while weeding in the garden around some milkweed and feeling a bit sad about not hosting any monarchs this year, I came upon a big fat monarch caterpillar! It was huge and I suspect, close to being ready to spin a cocoon. I will have to keep my eyes out for it!

Back to work for me tomorrow and back to a regular schedule. Breaking up your routine is good to do now and then, but it is also nice to get back to one as well.

Filed under: Personal

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2. Margaret Atwood Imagines the Future Post-Oil

There are stories in the news all the time about climate change these days. the most recent one, in case you missed it, is how sea levels will likely rise more and faster than previously thought. If you are considering buying beachfront property you might want to rethink that.

But while these stories are shocking and worrisome, for the most part people go on their merry way because they don’t live on the coast or in drought burdened California or any other “threatened” place. Not in my backyard, not my problem. Except it is. If we think the migrant issues in the Mediterranean are bad now, it is only going to get worse. But worse still is so abstract it is hard to imagine. That’s where writers like Margaret Atwood can help.

In 2009 she wrote a piece on climate change for the German newspaper Die Zeit. Now, Atwood has updated the article and the online magazine Matter has reprinted it as It’s Not Climate Change it’s Everything Change. In the article Atwood imagines three possible scenarios, a utopian one, a worst-case one, and a somewhere in between one. They are nothing more than short sketches but it is very easy for the imagination to fill in the details of what if.

And while I would love to be able to go down the road of the utopian scenario, realistically, it is too late for that one to happen. So we are looking at the possibility of worst-case or something short of that. But if anyone thinks the not worst possible outcome scenario is not that bad, you’re wrong. And if you think that daily life as we know it will be pretty much the same in twenty or thirty years, you’re wrong about that too.

The essay isn’t a huge downer though, in typical Atwood fashion, she injects some dark humor into it:

The present governor of Florida, Rick Scott, is said to have issued a memo to all government of Florida employees forbidding them to use the terms “climate change” and “global warming,” because he doesn’t believe in them (though Scott has denied this to the press). I myself would like to disbelieve in gravitational forces, because then I could fly, and also in viruses, because then I would never get colds. Makes sense: you can’t see viruses or gravity, and seeing is believing, and when you’ve got your head stuck in the sand you can’t see a thing, right?

Oh, she is so good!

What Atwood’s essay drives home most, however, is that no matter what future scenario comes to pass, everything is going to change. It will be changing in our lifetime. It will happen whether we want it to or not.

Filed under: Margaret Atwood Tagged: climate change

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3. Creativ Magazine

I don’t often talk about magazines here for no other reason than they are not top on my list of reading material I feel compelled to discuss. Oh I read them, but I’m pretty sure you don’t want to know how awesome I thought the article on building a solar oven in Mother Earth News was. Still, when I got an email offering me a review copy of a new magazine called Creative, I thought sure, why not?

Creativ aims to share the stories of people who are, well, creative. But lest you think it is all about artists and writers, we are talking creative in a very broad sense. So broad that it includes the stories of people like fourteen-year-old Alyssa Carson who decided at the age of three she wanted to be an astronaut and has proven it to be not just a passing fancy. Now a Mars One Ambassador, she is determined to be one of the first humans on Mars. All of her studies are aimed at this goal. Then there are the Australians, Cedar and Stuart Anderson, who created a new and revolutionary beehive. The Flow hive allows beekeepers to harvest honey without disturbing the hive which means no bees die and the hive is left intact so the bees don’t have to waste energy rebuilding it. And then there is book sculptor Emma Taylor who creates gorgeous art from old books.

The magazine itself is beautiful to look at. Thick, glossy paper and page after page of full-color gorgeous photographs. It is a feast for the senses. My only complaint is the stories are too short, I want more! It is inspiring to see and hear about people from all around the world and the creative things they are doing with their lives. It made me want to be more creative.

Creativ has lots of online content and is trying to build a community where people can share their stories. The magazine is available at bookstores like Barnes and Noble and Chapters, through subscription, and online. Take a look if you are searching for a little inspiration. If you don’t find any I’ll be surprised.

Filed under: Books, Reviews Tagged: Creativ

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4. Beans and Hawks

This time of year there isn’t much to do in the garden except weed, water, watch, wait and harvest. Actually, now that I type that out, that’s quite a lot! The harvesting right now is bush beans! Yellow wax beans to be exact, though I don’t remember what variety. Bookman made us a delicious dinner with beans, garden peas, tofu, couscous and a cashew “alfredo” sauce earlier this week. He just made it up as he went along. When I asked him if he’d be able to replicate it because it was so good he said “probably.” That’s the thing with cooks who make things up on the fly, they don’t know what they’ve done half the time so an exact repeat performance is not likely. But he’ll be able to make something close so I shouldn’t complain.

The zucchini has been flowering heavily but there are no zukes on the plants yet. We planted lots of zucchini this year instead of cucumbers. We never have much luck with cucumbers and I can’t eat them (they give me really bad indigestion) so the ones we do get Bookman always has to eat on his own. I’ve been saving up recipes for things like zucchini pickles and zucchini relish and there are the old standbys of zucchini “noodles” and bread. So we are ready for a zucchini bonanza!

The tomatoes are flowering and there are even a few green tomatoes on the cherry variety we have growing. The bell peppers this year were a complete disaster. All the plants we sprouted died and the two plants we bought, one died and the other has two very tiny peppers on it about the size of a big marshmallow and they are not getting any bigger. A gardening friend tells me all of her pepper plants are stunted and only have tiny fruit too. So I can comfort myself and say it has nothing to do with me.

The cantaloupe is vining an flowering like crazy. And I noticed yesterday the pumpkin is starting to vine too. The popcorn has tiny ears of corn on a few of the plants. None of the stalks every got taller than me and I am not very tall! I’m not confident that we will get many ears of corn, but we’ll see.

broad-winged hawk babies

broad-winged hawk babies

The big thing this week are the hawks in my neighbor’s tree. With our handy Birds of Minnesota Field Guide, we have identified them as Broad-winged hawks. Also, it seems there are three youngsters and not just one! Three hawks were sitting on our garden arch at the back of the garden. We thought one was baby and the other two were the parents. Then a fourth hawk came swooping in, much sleeker than the three on the arch, and landed on the power line not far away. Since our identification of them and learning a bit about them, we figure that was mama hawk. Papa hawk doesn’t really hang around much with this species. I managed to get a photo of the three babies, they are nearly as big as the mother but have a fluffier look about them yet (click on photo to enlarge).

This afternoon as I was hanging laundry out to dry, one of the babies was drinking and bathing in my neighbor’s bird bath. It was a rather amusing thing to watch!

We are expecting some hot days this week at or close to 90F/32C. It will make the zucchini, tomatoes, corn and lone okra plant very happy. Me, not so much.


Yesterday I did 56 miles/90 km and averaged 14.9 mph/23.9kph. My goal is 15 mph/24 kph which is a little slow on the racing side of things, but I’m still pretty pleased. I signed up for the Gran Fondo on September 27th. They have the course posted (a metric century!) and it has some big hills in it which scares me a bit. I might have to go drive the route in a car before the race date just to get an idea of what to expect. Bookman will not be joining me for the race but he will be at the start and finish to cheer me on.

I am finding that long rides involve just as much psyching myself up as they do physical exertion. The big hills on my route are mostly between miles 22-30 (km 35-48) and mostly come one right after the other. But there is one steep hill at about mile 40/64 km that I have always made it up but that some days, like yesterday, really kicks my butt. It was warm and humid by the time I got to it, I had been feeling nearly my entire ride like my legs were tired and by the time I got to this last big hill I had convinced myself it was going to be really hard. So it was. For the last month I have been able to make it up this hill without shifting down from my big ring, but yesterday I was so convinced I wouldn’t make it I shifted out of the big ring at the bottom of the hill and ground my way up. So whenI got home and discovered I had almost made my 15 mph average speed goal I realized my legs weren’t as bad as I had convinced myself they were. Then of course I started making up excuses. Oy.

I had company on my ride yesterday for the first 13 miles/21km, a coworker who wants to up his biking fitness joined me. It was fun to have company for that short while (about 50 minutes) and we chatted away the whole time. I think I did most of the chattering as he was working hard after a bit to keep up the pace I was setting. But it was fun for both of us. He plans to join me again, not next weekend because Bookman and I will be attending a wedding, but the Saturday after that.

Bookman and I both registered for the Jesse James fun ride on September 12th. It too is a metric century (100 km) but because it is a fun ride it is not timed and we can take all day to ride the course (as opposed to the Gran Fondo that requires you finish in 5.5 hours). The ride is an hour south of the Twin Cities and the course is over country roads with some lovely rolling hills. It will be good practice for the Gran Fondo two weeks later.

I have a feeling August is going go zooming by. Why not, it seems like the whole summer has been on continuous full-speed. And I still have a chicken coop to build!

Filed under: biking, gardening Tagged: broad-winged hawk, Gran Fondo, Jesse James Days

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5. Sex Criminals, Volume Two

cover artThe first volume of Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky was kind of quirky, fun and original. Jon and Suzie can both stop time when they orgasm. They each think they are the only one. They meet and what fun when they can stop time together. Suzie’s library is being foreclosed on by the bank where Jon works. They decide to “raise” the money by stopping time and robbing the bank. Except it turns out there are sex police, or at least three people who say that’s what they are. The robbery foiled and the police barely evaded, Jon and Suzie find themselves angry and confused.

In Sex Criminals Volume Two, Two Worlds One Cop, Jon and Suzie discover they can be tracked. They become paranoid and pretty much cease having sex. And then their relationship begins to fall apart. Jon sees the head of the sex police at the bank and finds out her real name and address and decides to break into her house. It does not go well. He also discovers one of the other members of the police is a very wealthy man who invests a lot of money through the bank. And suddenly the grace period the bank had given the library is revoked and the bank immediately forecloses and knocks down the library. But they discover another person who can also stop time and has met the “police.” They form a plan. What that plan is we really don’t know because that’s pretty much where this volume ends.

It also ended with me feeling pretty meh about this whole series and doubting that I will even bother with volume three whenever it should be published. After the novelty of the first volume you have to double down and really make an effort to have a good and interesting story because, well, the novelty has worn off. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the story all that interesting. I still don’t know who the sex police are or what they are doing since they aren’t really police at all. The story introduces a couple of new characters and tries to do some character development particularly with Jon, but it just didn’t work for me. When the best thing about the book is the “extras” at the end, I have to say the series is no longer that interesting for me.

And how about those extras? The “Sex Tips” were laugh out loud funny and I kept interrupting Bookman to read them to him. Here is one of my favorites:

Shower sex is great because you can fantasize that you’re having sex out in the rain, but the rain is hot because these are the End Times.


There’s really nothing else to be said about this one.

Filed under: Books, Graphic Novels, Reviews Tagged: Chip Zdarsky, Matt Fraction

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6. The Buried Giant

cover artThere are times when one should listen to critics and times when one should ignore them completely. Trouble is, it is hard to know what time is which. In the case of The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, it got lots of mixed reviews and my general impression ended up being don’t bother reading it because it’s a disappointment. This is mainly because critics accused Ishiguro of attempting to write a fantasy novel and failing at it spectacularly. But thank goodness for the internet and regular readers I trust who defied the critics and loved the book. Now I too can say the critics who panned the book are the ones who spectacularly failed and not Ishiguro.

As a reader who loves a good fantasy novel, I can tell you it is a huge mistake to read The Buried Giant as fantasy. Yes, there is talk of ogres. There is also a dragon. And Sir Gawain plays an integral part in the story. However, the story is more of a fairytale but it’s not even that. Rather, I think it is closer to an allegory, not the kind where you can say the X of the story equals A in real life and Y equals B; it’s not an allegory of equivalents that allows one to draw straight lines, Ishiguro is too good of a writer to do something like that.

The story is set in post-Arthurian Britain but not so long after Arthur that people don’t remember him or what happened. Sir Gawain is elderly but not falling to pieces, just slower and a bit weary. He remains fiercely loyal to Arthur who could do no wrong, which blinds him to the reality of the way things are now. The center of the story is Axl and his wife Beatrice, an elderly couple of Britons living in a small village that is kind of like a rabbit warren. There is a mist over everything, a fog that keeps people from remembering the past. Axl and Beatrice have been married for a very long time and are a devoted couple but they cannot recall when or how they met, what their lives were like before they met each other, that sort of thing. Precipitated by a series of events in their village, Axl and Beatrice decide they are going to go visit their son who lives in a village a few day’s journey away. They don’t know the name of the village or even where it is, they don’t even remember why their son lives there, but they believe if they set out in the direction of the village they will eventually find it.

Their journey is eventful and eventually they end up traveling with a Saxon warrior, a Saxon boy who has been mysteriously wounded and exiled from his village, and Sir Gawain. There are secrets and machinations and betrayals. But Axl and Beatrice move throughout as a steady, calm thread held together by their devotion to one another.

Because this is not a fantasy novel there is no vivid world building. The details are just enough to provide a vague sense of place and your imagination has to fill in the rest. The focus is not on the world but on the people, nonetheless, we don’t even really know what the people look like. I am unable to conjure up an image of Axl and Beatrice in my mind. But I can tell you how much they love each other and that Axl always calls Beatrice “Princess” and Beatrice usually walks in front and is always calling back, “Are you still there Axl?” I can also tell you that they are terrified that when it comes time to be questioned by the Boatman he will not take them both across to the island to spend eternity together because they cannot recall their past. Without memories of the life you have built together, no matter how devoted you may be day-to-day, how do you prove to the Boatman you love each other?

The novel is about love and memory and forgetting. The mist has made everyone forget the past and because everyone has forgotten the past the animosity between Britons and Saxons has also been forgotten. There have been years of peace and prosperity. But the novel makes us ask whether the price is worth it on both the large and small scale. Is it truly peace when the fighting stops because no one can remember what the war was about? Is it really love when you can’t remember the kindnesses, the disagreements, the betrayals, the forgiveness, the moments of grace of a long life together? The story is simple but it raises so many questions that turn it into something rich and deep.

The details are spare and the language itself is spare as well. In fact the language and style are so plain the books reads somewhat like a grade school primer. I exaggerate, but only so you don’t pick up the book expecting soaring flights of fancy, lush and lyrical prose. The language here is grounded, earthy, strong Anglo-Saxon English, an appropriate choice given the story.

I loved this book in case you haven’t figured it out. A great, well-told, thinking kind of story with a beautiful heart. It’s a story for grown-ups, quiet, lived, not flashy and turbo-charged. It left me feeling satisfied and maybe just a little teary-eyed. Don’t listen to the naysayers on this one. Ishiguro knows what he is about. And if you need a little extra push, and haven’t done so already, be sure to read the great conversation between Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman at The New Statesman.

Filed under: Books, Reviews Tagged: Kazuo Ishiguro

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7. Frida Kahlo’s Garden

Today I am feeling a very lucky girl. When I got home I had a book package on my front porch. It was the next review assignment from Library Journal and I am so very excited about it. The book? Frida Kahlo’s Garden. I had no idea Kahlo was a gardener but apparently she was a pretty good one, her and Diego both! How cool is that?

The book was published to go along with a show at the New York Botanical Garden called Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life. The show features Kahlo’s art but also garden displays inspired by her Casa Azul home and garden. I was very lucky a few years ago to get to go to a large exhibit of Kahlo’s paintings. Seeing them in a book is one thing, seeing them in person was an overwhelming experience and a number of them brought me to tears. If I lived anywhere near New York, I’d be making more than one visit to this painting and garden exhibit, that’s for sure! The show runs through November 1st and if you like Kahlo, I highly recommend a visit if you can swing it.

Anyway, the book is a lovely, large, hardcover, lots of photos, essays about Kahlo and her art and garden. I read the introduction and flipped through all the pages and my only critique at the moment is not enough photos of the garden and of the ones there are, not enough big ones in color. But then I am greedy and when I sit with the book for a while and read the essays and look more carefully at the photos the balance might turn out to be just right. I can still want more though!

Yes indeed, I’m a lucky girl.

On a side note, my apologies for not visiting many blogs lately. I have found myself in a really busy patch that I just can’t seem to get on top of. Hopefully it won’t last much longer and I’ll be able to make my usual rounds soon. Until then, bear with me!

Filed under: Art, Books, gardening Tagged: Frida Kahlo

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8. Shedding

Shed before

Shed before

I am so very tired. It has been a full weekend plus hot and yesterday was tropically humid and Friday night we had severe weather blow through which meant not much sleep. I need another weekend!

The main reason I am so exhausted right now is because Bookman and I spent all day working on assembling our new shed! Woo! There has been lots of sweating and swearing I can tell you that. The shed is a kit and everything comes labeled and the holes are pre-drilled. The video shows a happy couple putting it together in eight minutes! It looks so gosh darn easy surely it will only take us a couple of hours. Ha!

We’ve worked on it all day in the heat and we still aren’t done. The walls were pretty easy to put together,

Shed after

Shed after

the roof, not so much. There are a number of places where you have to line up holes blind and you can’t tell if they are aligned until you drill in the screw and the piece stays on or falls off because you missed the hole. What we have left to finish is the peak of the roof, the door handle and locks, and the outside corner finishing pieces. Once we finish the last bit of roof, everything else should be easy, keyword there being “should.” Strike that, as I was writing this, Bookman went out and put in the door handle and locks and the windows and snapped on the outside corner finishing pieces. So all we now have left is to secure those finishing pieces and screw down the peak of the roof. Bookman is an awesome fellow, have I mentioned that lately?

In the garden itself, there are butterflies everywhere, red admirals, monarchs, swallowtails, and what I think was a red-spotted purple, one I don’t recall ever having seen before. It was very pretty with its blue markings on black wings. There are also all kinds of bees and other tiny pollinators everywhere and the size of the dragonflies this year! As big as dragons some of them!

The real excitement for the week though has been the baby hawk that is in my neighbor’s tree. It is flying now and it’s parents force it to practice. They push it out of the tree and it flies down and lands on our clothesline pole. If it doesn’t move fast enough, one of the parents swoops down and gives it a poke to make it fly somewhere else. So then it will land on the roof of the garage of my other neighbor and sit until a parent pokes it to make it fly again. It is all rather amusing to watch. When I came home from work a little after noon on Friday, one of the parents was sitting on my deck railing keeping an on junior in the nesting tree. Parent hawk had just brought junior something to eat and junior was up in the tree digging in. I could not tell what it was eating, my guess is a squirrel. Meanwhile, Waldo and Dickens had spotted the parent hawk sitting on the deck railing and both were plastered to the closed sliding glass door making that weird chattering sound cats make. The hawk is as big as they are so I told them they shouldn’t get too excited since they would each make a very nice meal. Since they are strictly indoor cats, they have nothing to worry about and they can dream of catching and eating that really big bird.

Blvd beauty

Blvd beauty

I planted flax in the garden this year and while it didn’t germinate as well as I had hoped, I still have a nice little patch. Today it flowered. The flowers are pretty little blue things and I had planned on taking a photo but when I got the chance late this afternoon, they had all closed! I’ll see if I can catch them some time during the week.

Bookman and I are really pleased with how our boulevard area in the front of the house is looking this year. It’s a hard place to grow things and I have lost count of how many varieties of plants I have tried and that have failed. The soil isn’t the best, it is hot and dry, and in winter it gets snow plowed up onto it from the street and shoveled onto it from the sidewalk. So you know the plants that end up flourishing there are pretty indestructible. At the moment they are gorgeous shades of purple and yellow in different shapes and colors. A couple of these plants migrated there from other areas of the garden and I doubt I could have planned their arrangement any better than nature herself has done. It is a great joy to come home work at the end of the day and walk by all these flowers and see bees and butterflies having dinner.

The popcorn is tasseling. It is only waist high. I didn’t expect the popcorn to be as tall as the sweet corn

More blvd beauty

More blvd beauty

but it seems a bit short. Nothing I can do about it though. The pole beans I planted to grow up the corn are going to outgrow it and I even chose a shorter variety this year than I had grown last year to account for shorter corn. I’m starting to wonder if it is even worthwhile trying to grow corn anyway. Maybe next year I will just make teepees for the pole beans and grow pumpkins beneath them and leave out the corn. It was fun to try though.

I am suddenly reminded I need to place my order for garlic before the variety I want is all gone like last year. I am very sad about our garlic fail this year. This fall we just have to be careful we don’t overcompensate for not planting them deep enough last year by planting them too deep! Gardening generally has a wide margin of error so when you miss it you really miss it good!

Adventures in Biking

My long bike ride this weekend was quite an adventure! As I mentioned earlier we had severe weather Friday night. Nature threw a party and left the place trashed. We had strobe lightning, a thunderous bass and the rain stick sounded like a waterfall. Saturday weather was forecast to be 90F/32C + with high humidity that would make it feel like 100F/38F. So I left for my ride around 7 a.m. when it was still cool. There was a light breeze and it was really pleasant. I saw right away the storm had left a mess. Just riding down my street there were a couple broken tree branches on the sidewalk and street. During my 55 miles/88.8km I was almost always dodging leaves, twigs and small branches, mud puddles and standing water. I came across seven trees that had fallen across the path. One of the trees Astrid and I were able to walk under as we had about four feet/1.2m of clearance. Two trees were small enough I could pick Astrid up and carry her over them. The other trees required detours. The first detour was through some light underbrush to the train tracks that ran parallel to the path. Not a big deal. Another was walking with Astrid off the curb, carefully around into the street and then back up the curb to the path on the other side of the tree. Another tree there was no way around and I had to backtrack a little along the path and take a nearby street as a detour.

Then there was the huge tree close to mile 21/34km. On the other side of it was where the path crossed the road on either side of the path there was nothing but trees and thick underbrush. The easiest side to get around it required I carry Astrid through the underbrush into a ditch and up the other side through more underbrush and the tops of the fallen tree. There was so much debris in the ditch I didn’t discover it also had water in it until I stepped in it and my right foot up to the arch was soaked. There were people who lived nearby out for a walk gawking at the tree. One of them told me that I’d have to get up a lot of speed to jump over it. We had a good laugh. I think he expected I would simply turn around. I was too busy concentrating so I didn’t fall while carrying Astrid that I don’t know what sort of reaction my bike portage maneuver was worth.

So I carried my Astrid into the ditch, up the other side, through the undergrowth and tree branches talking to her under my breath the whole time, come on Astrid, it’s ok, you can do it. And, good girl Astrid, we’re almost there. When I told this to Bookman he got a good laugh, finding it hilarious I was talking to Astrid as though she were the one doing the work. Well, of course I was really talking to myself but it felt like Astrid and I were working together as a team so addressing her seemed right. Once we got out to the road we surprised the group of gawkers on the other side of the tree who did not expect to see anyone come through it carrying a bike. I pulled a few leaves from Astrid’s spokes and a twig from the chain, we eased across the road to make sure we didn’t get blindsided by a car, and off we went on our merry way, quite proud of ourselves.

By halfway through my ride the fresh morning breeze had begun to turn into a wind. I have learned that if there is a wind while cycling, I will always be riding into it. By the time I was 3/4s through my ride it was getting hot and humid and the wind was making me very grumpy. I was tired and grumbling and just wanted to be done.

Then the wind suddenly shifted direction, an angel began to sing — oh wait that was Elvis on my iPod — and instead of laboring into the wind, it was pushing me along from behind! I shifted up just one shy from my biggest gear and was zipping along at close to 22mph/35.4kph with hardly any effort. It was exhilarating! It lasted for about ten minutes before the wind shifted back around but it was enough. I had found the fun again. I got to go fast, have a rest and even manage to cool down a bit. Those ten minutes were pretty much the best part of the whole ride, enough so that when I got home tired and sore from all the extra work of bike carrying and riding into the wind, after first being glad I was done for the day my thought was, I can’t wait to go again next week!

Filed under: biking, gardening

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9. Reading on Screens

Things have been quiet in the print versus digital debate lately for which I am glad, what’s the saying about beating a dead horse? I do understand that there is still much we don’t know about our brains and how reading online and reading in print affects how we read, what we read and how well we read it and I am grateful that the debate is heading down that river and away from the techno-evangelist’s books are dead digital utopia. But because it has been awhile since there has been anything “out there” about it, someone had to write an update about where we stand just in case we forget. And like a moth to the flame I had to fly right for it.

Everythig Science Knows about Reading on Screens is pretty much a summary to-date. You won’t find anything new or revelatory in the article unless you are one of the few readers in the world who have somehow managed to be disconnected from it all (and if you are that sort of reader, you have my admiration!).

What is most striking about this article is how it proves a number of things about reading on screens that it discusses. Like skimming. The presentation of the article invites it with blurry moving things on the header and cutting up the text of the article. I almost didn’t finish reading the article because all of the moving blurs were giving me a headache! The article quotes Ziming Liu, a researcher at San Jose State University:

Liu noted in his study that sustained attention seems to decline when people read onscreen rather than on paper, and that people also spend less time on in-depth reading. ‘In digital, we can link in different media, images, sound, and other text, and people can get overwhelmed,” explains Andrew Dillon, a professor at the School of Information at the University of Texas, Austin, “These are disruptive activities that can carry a cost in terms of attention.’

Ironically, this falls immediately below one of the big, moving blurry blocks! Distracting, check! Overwhelming, check!

We’ve been trained by internet articles like this one. It isn’t necessarily that I want to skim or that I purposely interrupt my reading with distractions, it’s the way words have been presented on the internet since websites were invented that has made me read this way on a screen. So is it any surprise then when given an article or story to read on a screen even without all of the attendant internet bling that I might read it just as though all that bling were there?

The article concludes:

Despite the apparent benefits of paper, Mangen and other reading researchers caution the screen-reading vs. traditional reading question has nuances that scientists have yet to fully understand. Which method works better may depend on the individual (for example, there’s evidence that for some people with dyslexia, e-readers improve reading speed and comprehension). Ultimately, it may be that both print and screen have unique advantages, and we’ll need to be able to read equally well on both—which means keeping our distracted habits onscreen from bleeding into what we read on an e-book or paperback. And reading researchers have some advice for how to prevent this: forget your smartphone and computer, sit down, and read a book.

Common sense. But I have to stop myself decrying the painfully obvious conclusion because common sense isn’t always a strong point for a good many people I have found, especially those getting grants to study the things that avid readers already know and could have told them without any trouble. Should it ever happen that researchers ask us one of these days about print and digital reading, someone is going to have to pick me up off the floor because I will have fainted.

Filed under: Books, ebooks, Reading, Technology Tagged: print v digital

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10. The Bat-Poet

cover artI don’t often read children’s books, I don’t have children of my own nor do I spend time with people who have children. However, when Carl Phillips in The Art of Daring discusses a few poems by Randall Jarrell and mentioned he had written a children’s book called The Bat-Poet, well, I had to check it out. My marvelous public library had a copy and I requested it immediately. Oh happy day when it arrived and I discovered it had illustrations by Maurice Sendak!

First published in 1964, just a year before Jarrell died at the age of 51, this is a little book that will delight everyone no matter what age. It is the story of a little brown bat “the color of coffee with cream in it,” who spends his days sleeping upside down from the roof of a porch snuggled up with the other bats. One day the other bats move into the barn to sleep but the brown bat didn’t want to sleep elsewhere so he stays on the porch alone. And because he is alone without the warmth of his companions, he begins waking up during the day and noticing things.

Like the mockingbird. The mockingbird sings and sings and sings and can imitate other animals and sounds. The bat is enchanted. He tries to sing but quickly discovers that bats can’t, so decides instead to imitate the mockingbird’s words. And the bat composes a poem:

At dawn, the sun shines like a million moons
And all the shadows are as bright as moonlight.
The birds begin to sing with all their might.
The world awakens and forgets the night.

He is so pleased with himself he wants to share his poem and all he has learned about the

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

daytime with the other bats. But the other bats just can’t be bothered. The sun hurts their eyes. They are too tired. Bats aren’t supposed to be awake during the day.

Disappointed, the little brown bat decides he will share one of his poems with the mockingbird. The mockingbird is so full of himself he has a hard time being impressed, but he does not completely discourage the brown bat’s poetic endeavors. So our little bat goes in search of a new audience and discovers the chipmunk. The chipmunk is at first afraid of the bat but eventually agrees to allow the bat to compose a poem about him and then return in a few days to recite it. Are you surprised to hear the chipmunk is delighted and becomes the bat’s best listener and cheerleader?

I won’t tell you more, you have to get a copy of this book and discover the rest of the story for yourself. It’s a lovely, gentle story about poetry, creativity, and being different. But it does not have a slick moral at the end that slaps you in the face. It is a story written by a poet after all. Don’t worry, our little brown bat doesn’t die, nor is he an outcast or anything like that. Winter comes and he does what brown bats do in winter, hibernates in the barn with the rest of the bats. But it is not a giving in to convention and giving up poetry either, because as out little bat falls asleep he is thinking of the poem he composed about bats that he plans on telling them all when they aren’t so sleepy.

Filed under: Books, Children's Books, Reviews Tagged: Randall Jarrell

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11. Ah Monday

Let’s all pause for the collective groan that is Monday.

Feel better? Maybe some book stuff will help.

First, hop over to Bitter Empire and check out my review of a sweet little book called George’s Grand Tour. The book is about George, eighty-three, and his “young” neighbor Charles, seventy-six, who decide to road trip the route of the Tour de France.

And if that isn’t enough, here are some interesting links I have been collecting.

  • What’s the Point of Handwriting? (via LitHub). From the article: “Unlike digital’s precision, writing is blurry individuality under a general system. But in addition to this, we all have our own personalized understanding of arrows, squiggles, double-underlines and so on—little personal codes we develop over time to ‘talk to ourselves.’ To write by hand is to always foreground an inevitable uniqueness, visually marking out an identity in opposition to, say, this font you’re reading right now.” Now that’s an interesting twist! Giving up handwriting for digital text is giving up something that is unique to each of us. Don’t give away your individuality, grab a pen and start writing!
  • Gods and Goddesses help us all, The Millions has a list of the Most Anticipated books of the second half of 2015. Readers, get your TBR lists ready, you’ll be adding gobs of books to it.
  • Before you put your TBR list away, take a look at Neglected Books Revisited, Part 1 at American Scholar. It being a part one implies there will soon be a part two!
  • And while you are adding books, might as well check out a list by novelist Sophie McManus of 7 Great Books Born from “Catastrophes”. Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill leads the list and I can attest to it being a pretty great book.
  • On the futility of writing (and writing in spite of it all) (via LitHub). From the article: “Were I ever to be asked for a writing tip, something born out of this experience would be my choice: walk into any gigantic bookshop and think whether you can face being one more name lost in this desert of words. If that ideal situation proves too much to bear do something else with your time (it is of course highly likely that if you go around asking for writing tips you will never make it on print).” And, might I add, if you are that kind of person, you probably imagine your book will be displayed on a front table as a bestseller.
  • In The World’s Descent Steve King notes that Harold Bloom turned 85 on July 11th and compares what Bloom believes reading should be with what a few other scholarly types are saying these days. I am not a fan of Bloom’s dogmatism and his anti-feminist rants, but nonetheless I respect the man. How can I not respect someone who cares so deeply about literature even if I disagree with him on a number of things?
  • Nicola Griffith writes The Women You Didn’t See: A Letter to Alice Sheldon. You may know Alice Sheldon better under her pen name, James Tiptree, Jr. It’s a lovely, sad letter.

There you are. I hope at least one of them will go a little way to help Monday be not quite so bad.

Filed under: Links, Reviews

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12. How the Garden Does Grow!

Common milkweed in bloom

Common milkweed in bloom

A hot day today with extremely high humidity makes it an impossible day to garden. Even going out to hang laundry to dry I am soaked with sweat within minutes. In spite of the breeze the air is oppressive and I get hotter and hotter so that returning indoors feels so very good. It is unfortunate to not be able to work outside as there is so much to be done, so many weeds to pull. There are peas to pick as well but it is just too hot. Perhaps later this evening before the thunderstorms arrive there will be a bearable window for pea picking.

All the black raspberries have been picked and we have very full pint. So many have mentioned they had ever heard of black raspberries before and wondered what they taste like. They do not taste like your regular red raspberry, not even close. The nearest thing I can liken their flavor to is concord grapes; sweet but a little tangy too with perhaps a hint of blueberry. How’s that for a precise description? Someone totally needs to hire me to write for their garden catalog!

I’m still picking gooseberries, a few every couple days. I think by the end of the week I will have them all

A happy herb spiral

A happy herb spiral

picked and then it will be time to figure out how to make them into jam. I picked the few remaining red currants and popped one in my mouth to try. They are supposed to be not as tart as black currants. Now I have only every eaten black currant jam and had dried black currants, nothing fresh picked. The red currant was tart but not unpleasantly so. What was a surprise was the seeds. Three or four rather large ones. Currants are small enough as it is, now I find out they are at least half full of seeds inside. The red ones are anyway. I have not yet had any fruit on my black currant. So when jam making with the currants, gooseberries and elderberries, I can look forward to straining out seeds. It had better be worth it!

With this heat the zucchini is really taking off and is covered in yellow blossoms. The cantaloupe is flowering too. And finally the tomato plants we started from seed are growing well. All of the bell peppers, however, are either dead or stunted and sickly looking for no reason that I can figure out. So earlier in the week we cleared the garden space and I planted turnips and some more radishes. Speaking of radishes, one of the varieties I planted this year are purple all the way through, malaga they are called. They grow well and unlike the red ones which have a tendency to split, stay round and firm. They do, however, have a bit of bite to them, not so hot to make your mouth burn but enough to make you take notice. Crunchy and a little peppery, they are marvelous sliced up on a sandwich with tofu or tempeh. I wouldn’t want them in a green salad though, I don’t think they would play well with mild flavors. Of course, you might think otherwise if you are a hot radish fan. Regardless, I highly recommend growing them if you have a little patch.

Are there potatoes under all that straw?

Are there potatoes under all that straw?

The potatoes are also growing like crazy. This is the first time I have grown any so I hope I am doing it right. I keep mounding up straw and the plants keep getting taller and taller and I add more straw. Are there potatoes in there under all the straw? I hope so but I won’t be able to find out until after the plants begin to die back. That doesn’t look like it will be very soon but I can’t say for certain. I just watch and mound up straw and wait and hope for the best. A lot like most things I do in the garden.

Squirrels and rabbits have been a bit scarce around the garden lately. Why? Remember the hawk nesting in my neighbor’s tree? There is now a baby. It can kind of fly between the nesting tree in the backyard and the big oak tree in my neighbor’s front yard. I haven’t managed to see it yet, it is careful to keep hidden in the leaves. I can hear it just fine though. Hawks aren’t songbirds and don’t tweet or chirp. So imagine the sounds you’ve heard raptors make, scale it down and raise the pitch to that of a squeaking door and you will come close to what this baby sounds like. And it being a hungry impatient baby it makes quite a lot of noise! Still, it is great fun having it around and I wonder if the parents will return to nest in the same place again next year. If so, I will have to be very careful that my chickens don’t give the impression of being a good dinner.

Last week we experimentally seeded buckwheat in the sand of the chicken garden. While morning glories and grass

buckwheat sprouting in the chicken garden sand

buckwheat sprouting in the chicken garden sand

have already begun to sprout, I did not have high hopes for the ability of anything desirable to grow in all that sand. But Friday I went out to check and there were sprouts! I watered them, then watered again yesterday, and today they are coming up really strong. Hooray! It’s going to take more than buckwheat sprouts to make the sandbox a garden, but it is a beginning.

We have bought the shed kit we are building for storage of bikes and garden tools and it will be delivered on Thursday this week. It comes with all the screws and nuts and bolts and pre-drilled holes, etc, like IKEA furniture. Bookman and I are actually pretty good at putting together IKEA furniture, how will we do with a shed? It can’t be that hard, can it? Four walls, a roof and a door. Hopefully it won’t take us long to get it all built. Once it’s up, or at least mostly up, I can mark out more areas to sow buckwheat. Stay tuned…


Another crash-free week for me and Astrid. The riders in the Tour de France have not been so lucky. There have been loads of crashes and a number of riders have had to drop out because of broken bones. Yikes! My scrapes are almost all healed and my bruises have turned all kinds of lovely colors and are just beginning to fade. I can wear a skirt again and not make people gasp in horror.

It was a warm and humid day for my long ride yesterday (55 miles/88.5km) so I left a full hour earlier in the morning than usual. I felt really good and was sure when I was done that my sprint intervals would have gotten me personal best times and that I surely had managed to average 15mph/24kph, a goal I have set myself as I have been hovering so very close to it for the last few rides but not quite making it. Well, once my ride data was uploaded I found I didn’t make it yesterday either. Nor did I get personal bests. I did beat my QOM time on my favorite hilly segment by four seconds though so that was something. Still, I was a bit disappointed. Even though I felt good I guess the humidity had more of an effect than I expected. Oh well, there is always next week when I will try again!

Speaking of beer--historic signage along my biking route

Speaking of beer–historic signage in downtown Minneapolis

Have any of you ever ridden in a Gran Fondo? There are three in Minnesota that I have recently discovered. They aren’t exactly races but they are run like races and riders get a tracking chip and are timed. It’s like the chip runners get in their timed “race” events. There is a Gran Fondo in April as part of the Ironman bike ride. There is the Fulton Gran Fondo in May sponsored by the Fulton Brewing company in Minneapolis. The ride is followed by a beer festival and event participants get a coupon for one free beer. Then in September is the Life Time Gran Fondo sponsored by Lifetime Fitness and the Waconia Brewing Company. What’s the deal with bike events and beer? I don’t drink alcohol so I am a bit mystified. Anyway, the September ride is 60 miles/96.5km and I believe one or both spring rides are 100 miles/161km.

The Life Time Gran Fondo is a week after my 62-mile/100km Jesse James Day ride. I am tempted to do it. For my $40 registration fee I get a t-shirt, a beer (or a root beer), live entertainment at the finish line festival as well as a fully supported ride that includes aid stations (snacks!) and bike assistance. Plus, since it is timed, I suspect I will get a ranking among finishers which is very motivating because, as I have mentioned before, I’m kind of competitive. Plus it will give me extra incentive to keep working on improving my average speed. What do you think? Should Astrid and I go for it?

Filed under: biking, gardening Tagged: black raspberries, chicken garden, Gran Fondo, malaga radish

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13. The Art of Daring

cover artWhy is it the books I love the most are the hardest to write about? It can’t be only because I want you to love them too. I was going to say that maybe it is because they are the rich ones filled with lots of good things to talk about but that isn’t always the case, sometimes a simple book can blow me away. Likely it’s some combination of factors I would have to think long and hard about. Whatever the reasons, I loved The Art of Daring by Carl Phillips so much I have put off writing about it for two weeks hoping that in that time I would be able to figure out what to say about it, how to explain the reasons it is so very good and why I loved it so much. But I am coming up empty. If I leave it any longer I won’t write about it at all and that won’t do. So I just have to tell you about it as best I can and hope you can make sense of it.

The Art of Daring is a small book of several essays. I wrote about the first one already in which Phillips discusses resonance and restlessness. He carries these two ideas into the rest of the essays and adds to them thoughts on desire, resistance, loss, love, mercy, and, of course, daring. Phillips is a poet and his writing tends to the lyrical. I know, lyrical nonfiction, not a common thing. He is meditative and circles round and round an idea, looking at it from different angles and in different lights. And then he layers them up and then he digs back down. He does this across the essays so that while each one can be read separately, they are so intertwined it would be difficult to break them apart.

This is a book of literary criticism but it is unlike nearly all you have ever read. Not entirely unique, but definitely not run-of-the-mill. It is not at all academic. It is meant for the thoughtful, general reader. And while Phillips demonstrates and advances his arguments with analysis of poems, what he says can be expanded out to include more than poetry.

And now I want to give you a sample, a quote, but something short won’t convey the full sense of this book. Something longer then, which means I can’t give you several quotes because your eyes will glaze over or you will just skip them. So one quote, but which one? One about uncertainty? Or maybe one about our fragmented selves? A beautiful one about how a poem is a form and act of love? No, while these all tie into the title they seem unhinged without context, so I give you something that reflects the purpose of the book but does not require context:

The deeper one gets into what eventually amounts to a career, the harder it becomes to incorporate daring and risk into it. As in life, if we’re lucky, we grow more comfortable, successful, and accordingly more aware that there is more to lose. So there’s a resistance to changing what’s in place already. Meanwhile, we’re aware also of there being daily less time left, which can bring fear. This issue of time, it seems to me, should spur us on to live even more adventurously — if not now, then when? — but mostly it doesn’t, or so it seems when I look around me. Why risk what it’s taken all our lives to at last get hold of? Or if we haven’t gotten it by now, why try, why bother? And yet for the artist I think an appetite for a certain recklessness is crucial, if the work is not only to extend itself, but also deepen, and meaningfully complicate itself.

Even though I said this is a book of literary criticism, it struck me a number of times while I was reading that it was also a kind of self-help book as you can pick out from the quote. It’s not the kind that tells you how to get ahead or organize your life or lose ten pounds or find your soulmate, it’s much more subtle than that. Because really, when you exam closely the ideas Phillips discusses and how he talks about them, you start to realize that it is about more than reading poetry and literature, it’s about life and how one might go about it. With Phillips it is definitely an examined life but not the kind of examination that keeps one in place. Instead it is one that creates a restless curiosity, a desire to know, a space for uncertainty, a willingness to dare — dare to be vulnerable, to try something new, to reach out past one’s carefully tended and comfortable borders.

I finished the book not only appreciating a particular aspect of poetry and art and literature in general, but also wanting to be more daring in my own life. Because we all are writing our own stories and when it comes to the end, I want to be able to say Wow! That was good!

Filed under: Books, Essays, Nonfiction, Poetry, Reviews Tagged: Carl Phillips, The Art of Series from Graywolf Press

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14. Curiouser and Curiouser

I’m a bit put out at Canada right now. They’ve got some nasty forest fires burning and all the smoke is blowing down here to Minneapolis. It is so bad that when I left work this afternoon it looked like a fog had settled over the city. It also smells terrible. While standing outside for 20 minutes waiting for my late bus, it became harder to breathe and my eyes began to burn. Now, indoors, I’m fine but for a headache that will not go away. The state has declared an air quality emergency and is discouraging people from going outdoors. I like you Canada. You are a good neighbor and I know a number of people who were born and raised Canadian and some of my favorite authors are Canadian. But, really, keep your smoke to yourselves! Get those fires out, won’t you? It’s hard to breathe down here! Your consideration is much appreciated.

And maybe I am only using it as an excuse to put off writing about The Art of Daring by Carl Phillips yet one more day because it is such a good book I don’t know what to say about it. Or maybe it’s just because it is Monday and it was a long and busy day at work following my full and glorious three-day Independence Day holiday weekend. Or maybe I’m just extra tired because Dickens has been an annoying cat lately, yowling at 3 a.m. for attention and even though he doesn’t get any, he keeps trying. I purposely did not have children and have enjoyed many years of good sleeping as a result. Dickens is swiftly reversing this and I don’t exactly know why.

I am behind on my internet and blog wanderings so it is quite possible all of you already heard about the latest development in the Harper Lee Go Set a Watchman saga. Apparently, the manuscript was found in 2011, not last year. And supposedly it was found in Harper Lee’s Safe Deposit box at the bank, not attached to an old manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird in the publisher’s files.

The whole thing just keeps getting curiouser and curiouser, doesn’t it? I’m not sure what to think or who to believe. By a number of accounts, Go Set a Watchman has always been considered a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. Why then, would Harper Lee, who has said she will never publish anything else, want to see this book published? Is she in need of money to pay her medical bills and nursing home care? Are the publishers pulling a fast one? Go Set a Watchman has the most pre-orders of any of the publisher’s books, ever. It is likely going to be a bestseller the day it goes on sale July 14th. Everyone involved is going to make a pot of cash. How much will Harper Lee get of it I wonder?

I have not pre-ordered the book. I have no plans to buy it or wait in line at the library for it. I am not entirely certain I want to read it. The whole thing smells fishy and I don’t feel comfortable reading the book because of that. Maybe one year, five years, ten years from now I will change my mind, but at the moment, I just can’t. Plus there is the hype which turns me off. And then of course, there is the fear that the beauty that is To Kill a Mockingbird might somehow be tainted if this new book is nowhere near as good.

What about you? Do you plan on reading Go Set a Watchman? Did you pre-order it? And what do you think of all the controversy swirling around it? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill and should just get over it already?

Filed under: Books Tagged: Excuses excuses, Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

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15. Mystery Eggs

Why do long holiday weekends go by so fast? Probably because I try and cram so much into them. And did I ever cram this weekend.

The garden is doing great. I picked so many peas this week I couldn’t keep up and had to start freezing them. This makes me very happy because I love peas so much and now even after the peas are done producing I will have some for a little longer especially since I have only just begun picking them.

Black raspberries

Black raspberries

Last week I mentioned the black raspberries were turning red, well, once they go red, they don’t take but a couple days to turn black and ripe. So I have started picking. The netting has done well to keep critters away. I have never had black raspberries before and was expecting them to be a bit tart like the red ones but they are slightly sweet, rich and kind of earthy, if that makes sense. Very tasty. Since this is only their second year there aren’t a huge amount but there will be enough to make into something, so as they get ripe I have been picking and then freezing them. Once they are all ripe we’ll see how much there is and go from there. I like them very much and may just have to plant some more in the chicken garden.

Last week I said I wasn’t going to bother to pick the elderberries but I changed my mind. I picked about a dozen very ripe berries and then froze them. The gooseberries are starting to get ripe and I even have a few



red currents, so I am freezing all of those too. I figure between gooseberries, currents and elderberries I might be able to cook up a tasty bit of jam. Why is it that so many berry bushes have thorns? The black raspberries have tiny ones but they will still get you if you aren’t careful. The current has very tiny ones that are just big enough to get your attention. The gooseberries have big, dangerous thorns that hurt like heck. When I am picking them I sing a little song called “Ouch” over the shrub. It has not yet drawn blood but I suspect it is only a matter of time.

I picked a bunch of radishes this week too. I had some sliced up on my tempeh sandwich today along with broccoli sprouts and a little mustard. So tasty! When picking radishes I realized I have to get better at thinning. I had thinned them but not aggressively enough which means much smaller radishes in spots where they are crammed together. If I had thinned them better I would have fewer radishes but the ones I did have would be much, much larger. I had to thin the beets and I think I did a better job at it. We shall see.

Looks like snake eggs but is really a fungus, darn

Looks like snake eggs but is really a fungus, darn

Here is the garden mystery of the week. Bookman was weeding and found a nest of eggs. They were in an especially sandy part of the garden and all together in a clutch, each one about the size of a walnut. What could have laid them? I investigated. They are white, felt firm and smooth but a little leathery. They look very much like snake eggs. So I did some snake research. Minnesota has 17 different kinds of snakes and of those only nine lay eggs. Of those nine two are very rare. Of the remaining seven because of range and habitat I was able to narrow down the possibilities to two. I decided that it wasn’t a gopher snake because they like to eat rodents, frogs and small birds and our garden isn’t exactly a prime food source for those critters. Squirrels on the other hand… So I decided the eggs must belong to a smooth green snake that solely eats insects, especially crickets of which we have an abundance. I was so excited about the prospect of having snakes in the garden that I’d go out an check on the eggs every evening to see if they had hatched.

Today when I checked on them I discovered that they aren’t eggs at all! It turns out they are a species of fungus called mutinus elegans, also known as elegant stinkhorn, dog stinkhorn, headless stinkhorn and, my favorite, devil’s dipstick. We’ve had the single red fruiting stalks pop up around the garden last year but they are in abundance this year. Turns out the red stalk grows out of the white eggs. When I checked on the “snake eggs” today, there were a number of the red stalks growing out of them. Fungi are good and this one is a rather weird, if rude looking one (Bookman says they look like a dog’s penis, which is true and which also might clue you in on why one of their common names is “devil’s dipstick” wink, wink, nudge, nudge). Still, I can’t help but be disappointed that I won’t be mothering any baby green snakes.

We’ve had a setback with the chicken garden, the area formerly known as garage. Bookman and I went out with rakes to rake up the sand into a pile and get to work on breaking up the compacted soil beneath. It turns out the one place we had dug beneath the sand is just about the only place in the entire area that has actual dirt under it. The rest really is nothing but sand. Well and so, there is more work to do to than previously thought. How does one go about turning sand into soil? One must add lots and lots and lots of organic material. To begin, we set up the old round black plastic compost bin we took down from the main garden last year when we built a two room post and wire bin. Good thing we saved the old plastic bin! We put it in a spot close to where we think we might plant a cheery tree next year. Since our two room bins are full we have already begun adding to the plastic bin.

Before the garage came down I was assuming there would be dirt beneath it that would need help and bought several different annual cover crops. I don’t know if they will grow in sand. An experiment is in order. I marked off an area and seeded some buckwheat. If it sprouts in a week or so I’ll mark off a few other areas and sow more. If the buckwheat doesn’t sprout I have some hairy vetch and winter oats I can try. If those aren’t successful then an inquiry into having topsoil delivered is in order and/or raised bed gardening until the soil in the whole area is generally improved. No matter how you look at it, those chickens are going to have their work cut out for them. Actually, all they have to do is poop, all the work falls to me.

We have the fence installation arranged but the work is 6-8 weeks out on their schedule. In the meantime, we are in the process of ordering the shed kit and arranging its delivery. Then we get to build it. Once the shed is up we’ll start work on the chicken coop. Huzzah!

I can happily report that Astrid and I are crash free this week! My scrapes are healing and my bruises have reached that oh so very colorful stage. It was nice to not add any new ones. It also made for a better ride. I am really liking “my route.” This week I thought I would add a bit more distance but instead decided to keep the same distance but just do some sprint intervals in a great section of trail that is paved, flat, fairly straight, wide, crosses no vehicular intersections for a several miles and is not crowded with slow moving cyclists or people out walking their dogs. It worked out really well and I had fun and was pleasantly tired when I got home. I’m looking forward to doing it again next week.

In spite of the summer warmth, Bookman has been getting out on evening rides with me a couple times a week. As long as he keeps moving he doesn’t overheat and doesn’t feel the fatigue (both are MS symptoms). We have a 22 mile/35 km route we’ve done a couple times that seems to work well for him.

We had been planning on doing the half-century route In October at a ride in Mankato, Minnesota but it is close to an hour and half drive to get there so we decided to do the 60-mile route at Jesse James Days in Northfield which is less than an hour’s drive from us. Plus 60 miles is a metric century so that’s something! They have a 100 mile /161 km route that we will do next year. The Mankato ride offers pie at one of their rest stations which is a great temptation, but the Jesse James ride has free massages at the end. If only there were a ride with pie and a massage that would be be oh so heavenly.

Filed under: biking, gardening Tagged: blakc raspberries, chickens, cover crops, Elegant stinkhorn, Jesse James Days, smooth green snake

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16. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

cover artWhen I began reading The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua, I did something I usually don’t do. I posted how great the book is and how everyone needed to, right then and there, request a copy from the library or buy one of their own. Now that I have actually finished it, I still stand by that assertion.

The book is a graphic novel like no other I have read (which is more than some and less than a good many). Sure the stories are told with great black and white drawings, some of them very detailed like the visual explanation in the appendix of how the Analytical Engine would have worked if it were ever built. Wait, appendix? A graphic novel with an appendix? Yup. And that is just one way this book is different. It also has footnotes and endnotes. In fact, the graphic part of it is almost beside the point. To be sure, the graphics tell a story, but the real action, where all the fun and humor is, is in the footnotes and endnotes. Crazy!

Padua has clearly done extensive research, she even got a scholarly slam dunk by finding a letter in an obscure archive somewhere that settled a dispute about just how much Ada Lovelace had to do with Babbage and maths and the Analytical Engine and computer programming (a lot!). Booyah! And Padua clearly enjoys her subjects as well, expressing great knowledge and affection for them and all their quirks and foibles.

Since Lovelace died when was 36 and the Analytical Engine was never built, Padua takes liberties with the story, moving the pair to a pocket universe in which Ada lives and the Engine is built. Still, she remains true to certain biographical events, even quoting them directly at times in the stories. When she veers far off course there is a handy footnote to tell us so.

I say stories because that is what these are, short stories in graphic form. So we have a story about the Person from Porlock, one in which Lovelace and Babbage meet Queen Victoria and give her a demonstration of the Analytical Engine. Except the Engine crashes, (even when computers were only theoretical there were provisions for what to do when they crashed) and Ada runs off to fix it and save the day while Babbage bores the Queen with stories about how great he is. The Queen, not understanding why the Engine is a useful thing is losing interest until Lovelace’s programming produces a picture of a cat. Heh. Cats and computers belong together apparently. We meet George Boole whose Boolean logic will be familiar to both computer geeks and librarians. And there are often hilarious run-ins with many other famous personages.

One that a good many of you will be familiar with is George Eliot. She and Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Thomas Carlyle and others are summoned for a “mandatory spell-check” of their most recent manuscripts. Lovelace really did theorize that the Analytical Engine should be able to analyze symbols as well as crunch numbers. Eliot’s manuscript gets fed into the Engine but it being her only copy she immediately changes her mind. Thus follows a long pursuit through the workings of the Engine to try and get the manuscript back. But horror of horrors, the Engine uses “destructive analysis” and the manuscript gets ripped to shreds! And then it crashes the Engine. The huge joke at the end of this is that there had been a tussle at the beginning and Eliot and Carlyle got their manuscripts mixed up and it is actually Carlyle’s manuscript on the history of the French Revolution that is destroyed. In real life Carlyle’s manuscript was indeed destroyed. He had given it to his friend John Stewart Mill to read. The only copy. Mill left it sitting out and the servants thought it was waste paper and used it for starting fires. Oops. Carlyle had to rewrite the who book, but personally, from what I have actually read about the incident in other places, it was probably for the best because the rewrite by accounts was better than the original. Still, Carlyle was devastated and I don’t remember if he and Mill continued to be friends afterwards.

Anyway, this is a right fun book. Babbage and Lovelace were real characters even before they were fictionalized in a pocket universe. If you would like a taste of the book including a few stories that didn’t make it in, there is a website! The Science Museum of London also built Babbage’s Difference Engine, the precursor to the Analytical Engine, in 1991 and because of the magic of the internet, you can watch a video demonstration:

Is that thing ever loud!

If you are looking for something fun, geeky, madcap and sometimes just plain silly, you can’t go wrong with The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.

Filed under: Books, Graphic Novels, Reviews Tagged: Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage, George Eliot, madcap adventures, Thomas Carlyle

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17. July Reading

Can you believe it’s July already? I can’t. I was just getting used to June, just starting to feel like I was in the June groove, and now it’s time to move on. I am not ready. Can we turn the calendar back to June 15th please? That should be enough for me to get my fill of June and then when July 1st rolls around again I will be ready. Not going to happen you say? Where’s Marty McFly or the TARDIS when you need them?

Well, let’s barrel into July then. What will the month hold for reading? I get a 3-day holiday weekend coming up for Independence Day. Groovy, some extra reading time.

Even though I have been (mostly) good about keeping my library hold requests down to a manageable number, two books I have been looking forward to reading that have long waiting lines have, of course, both arrived for me at once. I now have to either a) rush through The Buried Giant and Get in Trouble in three weeks, or b) choose one to focus on and not worry about the other and get in line for it again if I run out of time. Choice “b” seems the most likely one I will go with which means Ishiguro’s Buried Giant will get my attention first. I am looking forward to it.

Carried over from last month, I am still reading Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice. I am enjoying it much more than I was before even though I am making my way through it rather slowly.

In June I began reading Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and The Martian by Andy Weir. Two very different books and I am enjoying each of them quite a lot. James manages to be funny and ironic and ominous and can he ever write! I know people make fun of his long sentences but I get so involved in the reading I don’t even notice the length of the sentences. I do notice sometimes the paragraphs are very long, but that is only when I am nearing my train stop or the end of my lunch break and I am looking for a place to stop reading. And The Martian, is it ever a funny book. The book itself isn’t funny I guess, there is nothing very funny about being left for dead on Mars, the character, Mark Watney is funny; humor as survival tool. Weir, I must say, does a most excellent job of writing about complex science in such a way that is compelling and interesting and makes me feel smart.

I have a review copy of a new book called Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor on its way to me. The Emily in question is Emily Dickinson. It’s a novel from Penguin Random House and they are kindly going to provide a second copy for a giveaway. Something to look forward to!

I will also begin reading Elizabeth Bishop this month. I’m still reading Keats letters and biography and poetry but he will get a bit less attention as I start to focus on Bishop. Much as I wanted to like Keats, it seems I like the idea of Keats more than the actuality; enjoy his letters more than his poetry. Not that his poetry isn’t very good, it is, at least some of it because there is quite a bit of mediocre stuff he wrote to/for friends that makes me wonder why I decided to read the collected rather than the selected. Hindsight and all that. But even the really good Keats poetry left me with mixed feelings. I mean, I appreciate it and sometimes I have a wow moment, but it generally doesn’t give me poetry stomach (the stomach flutters I get when I read a poem I really connect with). We’ll see how it goes with Bishop. I have her collected as well as her letters to work my way through over the coming months.

Without a doubt there will be other books that pop up through the month, there always are! The unexpected is all part of the fun.

Filed under: Books, In Progress Tagged: Andy Weir, Elif Shafak, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, John Keats, Nuala O'Connor

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18. The Writing Process

I’m about two-thirds of the way through a book I am reading to review for Library Journal. The book is called J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing by David Attwell. It is a sort of writing biography of Coetzee and is quite good. If you are a fan of the writer, this is one you will probably want to look out for.

I am also still working my way through all the lessons in the James Patterson Master Class.

Over the weekend Patterson and Coetzee provided a fascinating opportunity to glimpse and compared the writing process of two well-known writers. The writing process has always fascinated me. Everyone has one and goes about putting words on paper or computer screen in a variety of ways. Some writers fetishize certain objects —they have to write with a particular pen in a certain color on a particular kind of paper, or while pounding away at the keyboard there has to be particular piece by Mozart playing and there has to be a cup of tea/coffee in a certain mug placed just so on the desk — and claim to not be able to write without them. Some writers need to have a title first, or write the last sentence first or start in the middle or always begin a new project on the same date or sit down to write at the same exact time every day.

The actual writing part though, there are only so many ways a person can go about it, nonetheless, it remains a perennial and dreaded question at book readings, the moment someone in the audience stands up and asks, “so how did you go about writing this book?” What is wanted, of course, is the secret that only “real” writers know. The password, the handshake, the mystery revealed, the drug, the prayer, the key to it all so that said audience member can go home and write that novel they have inside them and make millions doing it. No one wants to hear an author say the truth, I sat down and wrote for six hours every day, seven days a week for four months (or more) and wrote and rewrote and wrote some more and tossed out and started over and wrote some more and rewrote over and over until it was done. What’s an author to do? Tell the truth no one wants to hear or make something up? The third option is avoiding answering the question entirely. I have heard all three answers at one time or another.

Of course in Patterson’s online writing class he has to address the question, he is the teacher and it is his job to explain how to write a novel. Patterson takes the truthful route but at the same time he makes it sound rather easy. To write a novel, one must first write an outline, do not begin writing without an outline, your book will be doomed. For Patterson, an outline is not the kind you had to do in school with the Roman numerals and the letters and headings and subheadings. He means a narrative outline. There are still numbers but the numbers correspond to chapters and basically what you are writing is a summary of the chapter. With such an outline you can work out plot and pacing before you get in too deep. You can find the slow bits and the holes and fix them before they grow out of control. That’s the idea anyway.

And it seems like a good idea that is really useful for a plot-driven James Patterson sort of novel. Heck, it is probably a good idea for a variety of novel types. It is neat and tidy. And of course once you have your outline, you know how you are going to get from point A to B to C. You know what happens in each chapter. All you have to do is fill in the details. Easy!

Coetzee’s approach is so much messier. No outline, just write. Draft after draft after draft. He makes notes as he goes. He changes character names and locations and plot and then he changes them back again and then he changes them again to something else entirely. It is organic and labyrinthine. It is a journey in which the ending is not known in advance, but is rather a sort of quest; a quest for a story, a quest for an answer to a question, a quest for understanding, a quest for any number of things. No bones about it, it is a lot of work.

And I find myself wondering, do the two approaches reflect the differences between commercial fiction and Nobel Prize winning fiction? Could an author whose process is like Patterson’s win a Nobel? Could someone whose process is like Coetzee’s be successful at commercial fiction and spend 24 weeks on top of the bestseller lists? Which comes first, the process or the desire to write a certain kind of fiction? Do people who make outlines naturally make a course for more commercial fiction? Do the messy organic writers automatically find themselves in literary fiction? And what about other kinds of writing, genre and nonfiction in all its variety? Is this a chicken or egg question?

Maybe. Probably. Likely the answer is a combination of all sorts of factors but it is interesting to consider.

Filed under: Books, In Progress, Writing Tagged: J.M. Coetzee, James Patterson, writing process

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19. Frustrations



It doesn’t seem like vacation yet because it has been a usual kind of weekend. Monday morning when I don’t have an alarm wake me up will feel more vacationy.

It is bothersome in gardening how you can do the same thing year after year and one year certain things will do great and the next year it is a complete failure. Take, for instance, last year. All the greens we planted did marvelous. We picked lettuce fresh from the garden for close to two months. The kale went nearly all summer. The mustard seeded itself from the previous year and did great. This year, we seeded fresh mustard and it is doing great. But we decided to branch out in our success of greens and planted, in addition to lettuce, spinach, chard and arugula. None of the lettuce came up. We have one spinach plant. A few chard and arugula. Hardly any kale. WTF?

In addition, nearly all of the sunflowers we sprouted and planted out when they were about four inches tall have been eaten by rabbits. I think we have four of the fifteen we planted. Of the five purple cabbages we sprouted and planted out, one has survived not being eaten by something. Most of the peppers are gone. A few of the tomatoes are hanging in there, stunted and not really taking off, but not dead either.

On the bright side, the comfrey is enormous and we had to cut back a bunch of it which is good, that’s what we want to do.



Comfrey, apart from supposedly being great for making poultices for to heal bruises and sore muscles, is a dynamic accumulator. That means it has super deep roots that pull up all kinds of minerals and good stuff from deep in the soil. When it gets big and starts to flop over, you trim it back and use the leaves and stems around the garden as mulch. Comfrey is like a multi-vitamin for the garden. Today the hazelnut tree was the beneficiary of the clippings. Comfrey also gets pretty purple flowers that pollinators like.

Also doing well is the borage. It has pretty purple flowers beloved by pollinators as well. And all the peas we planted, they are doing well too and starting to bloom and with luck in two or three weeks I will be able to start picking fresh peas. The squash is really coming up well this year. Last year it was so cool and damp we had hardly any at all. And the beans are looking good too. As are the potatoes that I can’t seem to keep mounded up fast enough.

New electrical outlet

New electrical outlet

Also on the bright side are the strawberries. Last year was not a great strawberry year. This year we have been having strawberries every evening all week and they are still coming. Some of them are huge. So along with the frustrations there are consolations. It is hard on a person though when she looks forward all winter to picking a fresh salad every night and then doesn’t get to do it. Perhaps the fall lettuce will do better.

Finally things are happening with the garage demolition. We had an electrician out on Thursday to disconnect the electricity from the garage and install an outdoor outlet on a fence post next to the garage. We will be able to use this outlet to heat the chicken coop if we need to as well as heat the water in winter. We do not have a date set yet for the garage demolition, the electrical had to be done first, but we do have a contractor engaged to do it. We are hoping later this week or next week for that to happen. In the meantime, We cleaned out the junk from the garage today which is not so very much, mostly broken things, pieces of fencing, trellis, wood boards we saved that might be useful that never turned out to be, empty boxes, some old carpet. Everything that is left now are things we plan on keeping that we will have to relocate to our basement or a corner of the garden when the garage comes down and until we get the shed built. Progress!

For the electrical work we learned the wire is buried under the garden and runs from the house to the garage by the

Does the dogwood have to go?

Does the dogwood have to go?

dogwood. We had to give the overgrown dogwood a major trim so the electrician could dig down for the wiring. We cut back half the dogwood and realized, gosh that takes up a lot of space. And now we are thinking we might take it out completely, allow the sunchokes to spread and plant a bit of prairie there instead. Because right behind the shrub is where the chicken coop is going to go. The dogwood is a bird and squirrel magnet as well as a place for rabbits to hide out in. We are thinking that as much as we have enjoyed it, it has become too large and unmanageable and could be a potential problem for the chickens. It’s been a great shrub and I am sad at the prospect of getting rid of it, but it seems like the logical thing to do.

We planted a few last beans today, scarlet runner beans, black beans and Jacob’s cattle beans. We are now officially done with planting until the end of August when we have to figure out fall/winter planting and how to build a hoop house. Won’t that be fun?

Saturday morning was cool with a light rain. I would not be deterred from a bike ride. I got rained on for the first 30-45 minutes. Once the rain stopped, it remained cool and cloudy. This was a glorious thing because it kept all but the serious cyclists indoors. There was hardly any traffic and no one was out walking on the bike paths. Astrid and I did not mind getting a little wet and when we got home later I cleaned her off before putting her away.

Rice Marsh lake

Rice Marsh lake

My ride was 55.8 miles/89.8km. I found some great hills to practice on, a few short and steep and a number of long, gradual climbs. None of these are huge hills though, I live in the midwest where terrain tends to be flat so my idea of a hill is very different from the hills of, say, San Francisco. But hey, I have to work with what I’ve got. My ride took my into areas I have not ridden in yet and I found a pretty nature preserve called Rice Marsh. I don’t think there is actually any rice growing there though. I liked this ride so much for its variety that I think I am going to stick with it for a bit and work those hills and work on getting faster and fitter and this distance. Once I start to feel like it is getting easier, there are many options for adding loops for more hills and distance.

I saw lots of robins and red winged blackbirds, a number of chipmunks too. And a flock of about six or seven gold finches that were hanging out on the trail and all flew up at the same time as I approached, flashing yellow and black. So pretty!

Today Bookman and I went out for a ride together but we had to cut it short because it was pretty humid and warmish and Bookman was getting overheated. With his MS getting overheated is always a potential danger because it causes fatigue and he heats up so fast it is hard to cool off. If it weren’t so humid it might not have been so bad. We were both a bit disappointed but better that then the heat making Bookman ill. We might try again later in the week when Bookman has the day off and this time we will go out very early instead of waiting until mid-morning. Still, we did just short of 21 miles/34km. Not bad for an “off” day!

Filed under: biking, gardening

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20. When Mystical Creatures Attack

mystical creaturesWhen Mystical Creatures Attack! by Kathleen Founds is a book of connected short stories that is hilarious and sad. Or maybe it’s a novel, but if it’s a novel it isn’t a typical one. There are basically three main characters. Ms. Freedman is a young, fresh-faced English teacher assigned to teach at one of the poorest schools in Texas. She is idealistic. She will change lives and save souls through the beauty of literature. Janice Gibbs is one of Ms. Freedman’s students. She is smart but a trouble maker. She has ambition, makes it to editor-in-chief of the school literary journal El Giraffe for a brief time before her penchant for trouble cause her to be removed from the position. Cody Splunk is also a student in Ms. Freedman’s class. He too is smart and in love with Janice who likes him as a friend and enlists him as a companion on a few crazy adventures. Cody also likes to write stories and there is one particularly funny one that takes place in a wax museum.

Janice and Cody’s stories pretty much move forward in time. Ms. Freedman’s move back and forth. We begin in the midst of Ms. Freedman’s unraveling. At first it seems it is all from the stress of the classroom but gradually we discover there is more to it. Janice plays a part in that stress and somehow manages to steal Ms. Freedman’s diary which we later get to read. Whether it is because she feels guilty or she is basically a good kid or a combination of both, Janice becomes a regular correspondent with Ms. Freedman after the teacher leaves in the middle of the semester for a stay at Bridges, a psychiatric wellness center.

Bridges is one of those horrible chirpy places that turns regaining one’s mental health into a capitalist system of earnings and debt. Approved behavior earns points and you can buy things with your points from cookies to release from the program. Other behaviors take points away and Ms. Freedman quickly finds herself in debt for refusing to comply with the sickly blandness and for always referring to her doctor as Dr. Bin Ladin.

Meanwhile Janice is getting into and out of trouble at home, at school, and in the family way. But she keeps in contact with Ms. Freedman and Cody keeps in contact with Janice, all of them trying to save each other without knowing how but doing the best they can anyway. And that is what makes this book so wonderful, it has heart. Despite the quirky, dark hilarity, everyone is reaching for salvation in one way or another, and trying to save others too:

‘Have you been bargaining?’
‘I’m sorry?’
‘I’ve been bargaining. If they find her safe, I have to go say a rosary every day for the rest of my life.’
‘I don’t believe in God.’
‘I don’t believe in bargaining. … I always bargain though.’
‘I thought she could do it. I thought if she tried harder. If I tried harder.’
‘Some things you can’t do by trying.’
‘What else is there?’

Early in the book Ms. Freedman in one of her journaling therapy entries writes about a story Dostoevsky tells in The Brothers Karamazov about a woman who only did one good thing in her life, she once gave a turnip to a beggar. The woman dies, goes to Hell and cries for mercy. Her guardian angel reaches out a turnip to her to see if the one good deed is strong enough to lift her out of Hell. The woman grabs hold and is yanked from the flames. But someone has grabbed her ankle and someone else grabbed the ankle of the other person and so on. The woman looks down and sees the chain of souls. She begins to kick and thrash, trying to get free of them and in the process the turnip breaks and she falls back into Hell.

This story is countered at the end of the book with some revisions. This time a woman gives an apple to a hungry girl. The angel extends the apple to her in Hell, she grabs on and as she is pulled from Hell, someone grabs her ankle and a long chain of souls is formed. The woman sees them all and holds onto the apple even tighter, holds on for all she is worth and Hell is emptied.

The title of the book comes from the first chapter. Ms. Freedman gives the class a writing assignment. The prompt is to name their favorite mystical creature and what they see as the greatest socio-political problem of our time, then write a one page story in which the mystical creature resolves the problem. The chapter is made up of the students’ stories. They range from “How the Minotaur Changed the Legal Drinking Age to 16” to “How the Giant Squid Made Me Stop Being Pregnant” to “How Pegasus Created World Peace.” Writing assignments, therapy journal entries, emails, letters, short stories, even a chapter composed of recipes from the fundraising cookbook of Methodist Women of Piggot, Kentucky (Dark Night of the Soul Food, Render unto Cesar Salad), all serve to tell the story and make you laugh as well as want to cry along the way.

I found out about this book thanks to Tom at Wuthering Expectations. If you are looking for something a little off the beaten path, When Mystical Creatures Attack! is a good one.

Filed under: Books, Reviews Tagged: Kathleen Founds

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21. The Last Bookaneer

cover artWhen I received an email from the publisher wanting to know if I’d like a review copy of Matthew Pearl’s newest book The Last Bookaneer I thought sure! I mean it’s about book pirates and even better it promised adventure in pursuit of a final novel and masterpiece by Robert Louis Stevenson. It seemed like it could be Treasure Island with books instead of gold doubloons.

The elements are all there for a swashbuckling tale. An ailing Robert Louis Stevenson is living in Samoa and reportedly working on a novel, sure to be his last and sure to be a masterpiece. The International Copyright Act of 1891 has been passed and goes into effect on July 1st, a law that will effectively cut off pirating of British books in America. We have two of the last great bookaneers, Penrose Davenport and Belial, each wanting to get their hands on Stevenson’s manuscript and sell it to an American publisher for a small fortune before the copyright act goes into effect and ends their careers for good. A rivalry, a race against time, planning and scheming to get into the Stevenson household and, once the book is completed, steel it and make a getaway. Doesn’t that sound exciting?

Unfortunately, the story plods along and most evenings managed to make my eyes start drooping within ten to fifteen minutes of picking up the book. The biggest problem is the way the story is told. Edgar Fergins, bookseller and former assistant to Davenport is our narrator. He befriends a young railway waiter, Mr. Clover, and begins dropping hints of his colorful past. He even takes Clover to see a trial of a man who turns out to be Belial, Davenport’s rival. But we don’t know this until later, much later. Fergins is helping with the trial as he is an expert in all things bookish including identifying documents and handwriting. When Fergins is severely burned in a fire at the courthouse that destroys all the trial evidence, Clover visits him regularly to help nurse him back to health. During these visits Fergins narrates the final showdown between Davenport and Belial.

It takes a very long time to get going because we are treated to Fergins’ backstory and how he came to be Davenport’s assistant, lots of bookaneer backstory that hints at excitement and treachery but ultimately has nothing to do with the current story. We also get lots of backstory about Davenport, a big, handsome man who fell in love with Kitten, one of the few women bookaneers. She was older than Davenport and also his mentor. Her death torments Davenport and is meant to provide him a brooding, emotional depth that just doesn’t work, especially when we eventually, very late in the book, get the whole story of what happened. It all turns out to be rather anticlimactic. And Belial, we don’t know much about him at all. At times it seems that just when the story is about to get exciting it is abruptly interrupted by Clover asking questions. This is done in such a way that occasionally makes it difficult to tell that it is Clover speaking and not some weird non sequitur.

When we finally get to Samoa and meet Stevenson, he turns out to be a bit of a thin, cardboardy, one-dimensional character. He is called “Tusitala” by the “natives” which means teller of stories. He has a large estate and presides over it and all of his Samoan servants as a benevolent patriarch. The Germans are the ones who first colonized Samoa and the plot gets side tracked with politics and hints of Stevenson supplying arms to the Samoans and fomenting a rebellion against the Germans. There are also mostly naked, beautiful Samoan women, cannibals, heads on stakes and other pointless diversions that sometimes made be feel like I was reading a very bad retelling of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

In addition to attempting to be an adventure tale, The Last Bookaneer tries to provide commentary on copyright law and the book and publishing world, some of it in jest. For instance, we get remarks about bookselling being a dying and unprofitable business. But we also are treated to comforting comments about the joys of reading:

Books could function in two different ways he told me one time, ‘They can lull us as would a dream, or they could change us, atom by atom, until we are closer to God. One way is passive, the other animating—both worthy.’

When it comes to copyright, the bookaneers see themselves as liberators of books, providing access that would have otherwise been denied or at the least, made difficult or expensive. But yet there are authors trying to make a living who are harmed by what the bookaneers do. Even Stevenson at one point in the novel rails against those who have stolen his right to income from his own work. It is an echo of the digital copyright battle happening today with publishers and a good many authors on one side and pirates on the other with the reading public caught in the middle. Perhaps in an attempt at seeing things from both sides, Pearl himself makes no judgment in spite of the novel being about book pirates.

In a sort of afterword, Pearl acknowledges that he did not make up the name of bookaneer. It was first used by the poet Thomas Hood in 1837. Nineteenth century publishers really did hire agents to obtain potentially valuable manuscripts before copyright laws caught up with them. Pearl took the idea and ran with it. Or, tried to run with it but manages at best an awkward, hopping kind of gait. It’s a real shame the book didn’t turn out to be the one I wanted to read. It would probably make a good beach or poolside book, one where it doesn’t matter if you don’t pay much attention, get it covered with sand or splashed with water or fruity cocktail. In fact, it might be really perfect for with a cocktail or two while sitting in the shade of an umbrella, a clear blue sky above and a long, lazy warm afternoon before you. If you feel your eyes begin to droop, let them and enjoy the nap.

Filed under: Books, Reviews Tagged: Book pirates, Bookaneer, Matthew Pearl

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22. Notes from Vacation

Ah, what a wonderful week of vacation I have had. Sadly it all goes by too quickly. There was a lot of time in the garden and a lot of time on my bike and a lot of time reading books and magazines and online articles. I could use another week. Or two!

Monster sorrel

Monster sorrel

In the garden my new favorite green is sorrel. It is a perennial green and I have the tame French variety growing in my herb spiral where it stays compact and tidy. But last year when we dug a place for Amy Pond and discovered just how sandy our soil is and piled all that sand up not far from the pond intending to do something with it and never quite figuring out what, a common garden sorrel planted itself there. I have no idea where it came from, seed dropped by a bird or raccoon or maybe it was already there and grew up through the pile of sand. Regardless, we decided to let it stay. It grew all summer last year and got taller than the French sorrel but generally behaved itself. In spring it was one of the first green things sprouting in the garden. We used it’s leaves on sandwiches as a lettuce substitute.

Having established itself last year, this common sorrel made itself right at home and grew into a huge monster

Tastes so good

Tastes so good

of a plant, tall and sprawling. It got so large I began to doubt our decision to let it grow. But then I found a recipe for sorrel pesto. Bookman made it and we had it on buckwheat soba noodles. It was divine! It had kick. And because we have so much of the stuff there are plenty of leaves for more! I have cut the plant back a little and we have frozen some of the leaves to use later. I hope it keeps growing all summer because I am imagining freezing sorrel pesto to have in the middle of winter. Yum!

We have been eating strawberries from the garden nearly every day for the last two weeks. They are slowly winding down, fewer and fewer each day and smaller than the early ones. The raspberries are beginning to color up a bit though so perhaps in a couple weeks we will have some ready to eat. Which reminds me, I had better put netting over them now or I might never get to have any!

Yesterday evening I pulled the first two radishes out of the garden. Oh radishes, how I love them! These are pink ones, I can’t remember the variety, sorry. But they are mild with just the right amount of crunch and kick to really enjoy sliced up in a salad. I’m hoping the next ones I pull will get sliced up onto a sandwich. I am going to try planting more radishes in some bare places in hopes that I can have radishes all summer long. I usually just do one planting and when they are done I am sad. But radishes grow so fast I should in theory be able to plant them until the middle to end of July. We’ll see if it works.

The peas are looking great and have been blooming all week. How long from flower to edible peas? One week? Two? I have never paid any attention. But I love peas so much and my mouth is watering in anticipation that I will be paying close attention this time. I have also planted twice as many peas as I have in the past in hopes of having an abundance that lasts longer than a couple weeks. I am greedy. Fingers crossed!

What caused the glass to shatter?

What caused the glass to shatter?

There was a mystery that happened during the week. Late morning, I am indoors reading with the sliding door to the deck open to let in the breeze. All of a sudden I hear a crash. Bookman sometimes leaves baking pans precariously perched on the counter and even though he hadn’t been baking anything I couldn’t think what else it could be. I got up to check and discovered everything in the kitchen was fine. But Waldo was puffed up and staring out at the deck. I look out and to my great surprise, the glass in the outdoor table had completely shattered. There was no evidence of what could have caused it. No rocks or dangling icicles. No meteorites. Nearest we can figure is that maybe there was a crack in it we didn’t know about and a squirrel jumped on it and got a big surprise. But we can only speculate.

The garage was supposed to get knocked down Thursday last week but due to a communication mishap it got pushed to Friday. But Friday the contractor called and said a piece of his equipment he needed broke and it has been rescheduled for Monday. However the weather forecast for Monday morning is thunderstorms. Will it be put off yet another day? Stay tuned.


Astrid wounded. You don't need to see my bloody legs

Astrid wounded. You don’t need to see my bloody legs

I was able to get in a few great bike rides during the week. Friday I did the 55-mile/88.5 km loop I had done the week before. It is a good ride, perfect distance with a variety of terrain. Well, part of the ride is on a gravel trail and at the end of the trail by Lake Riley when I was turning off of it onto pavement, my back wheel slipped right out from under me and down I went. It happened so fast I didn’t know it until I found myself on the ground. A nice man walking by came over to check on me and make sure I was ok. I had scarped up my left thigh, my right calf and lost some skin on the palm of my right hand. I had a trail of blood creeping down each of my legs, but while it looked bad, I didn’t feel hurt, just a bit shaken up. Astrid took a wound too. The gear/brake mount thingy on the right handlebar was bent but not too badly and everything was still working ok. So I took a few minute’s breather, had some water, made sure Astrid and I really were okay, determined that we were and off we went to finish the ride.

I had nothing to wipe the blood off so just went with it. And when I got to the hilly segment of my ride I was feeling great. When I got home I discovered feeling great was not an illusion. My hilly stretch is a Strava segment and I had been awarded Queen of the Mountain, meaning I have the best time over that segment than any other woman on Strava. Woo! And that after wiping out.

Do you know what that means? Astrid and I are badass!

I also completed the ride five minutes faster than the first time I rode it. Badass!

And it turns out I did not have to take Astrid in for repairs, Bookman was able to move the gear/brake mount thing back into alignment. I am not happy about having to go back to work tomorrow but at least I will be able to show off my battle wounds. That’s worth something.

Allow me to indulge this just a little longer…

Filed under: biking, gardening

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23. Notes from Walnut Tree Farm

cover artReading Roger Deakin’s book Notes from Walnut Tree Farm was a great joy. The book is composed of excerpts from notebooks he kept during the last six years of his life. He wrote in them almost daily his observations, impressions, thoughts, feelings and doings. So while the book is strung across the course of a year from January to December, the entires are pulled from six years of writing. They are not dated with a year and on any given day there might be multiple entries from various years. It sounds complicated and disjointed but it really isn’t. I had intended to read the book a month at a time, to move through the year along with the entries. But I couldn’t stop reading, I was enjoying myself far too much to be able to dribble the goodness out over an entire year.

Deakin has a keen eye and a great knowledge of the history of the land. He is a fan of the commons and the wild, an advocate for stewardship. He loves cats and birds and holds a great respect for all living things including the insects that make their way into his study since it seems his window screens are either non-existent or of such a large mesh he is guaranteed to be visited by something while sitting at his desk:

I think, yes, it really is another world, this microscopic insect world, a world apart. But almost at once I realize that to put insects into ‘another world’ or ‘a world apart’ is dangerous. In fact it is the rationale for exterminating them with pesticides. If theirs is ‘another world’, it has nothing to do with us. It is unconnected, and, whatever we choose to do to it, we ourselves are unaffected. The very reverse is the truth of course. Unless we realize we share a single world with the insects, and that if we harm them we harm ourselves and the rest of nature, we will end up destroying ourselves — committing suicide, in fact.

I think we are beginning to discover this with the bees and people are starting to speak out about it. But it has taken far too long to get to this place and we have a long way to go. It is easy to feel sorry for a dead honeybee, not so easy for people to be sorry about ants or flies.

If I can be enchanted by my cat, rolling in joy on the brick terrace before me, why can’t I be enchanted by a green shield bug in my vegetable garden, or two ants meeting and exchanging information with a flourish of their antennae? Or the billowing fizz of cow-parsley in full flower?

But Deakin isn’t all nature yes and civilization no, bugs good, people bad. It is possible to have a balance.

I blame the Romantics for all this self-consciousness about landscape and inspiration. Wandering lonely as a cloud may be the last thing you need sometimes. Going round the corner for breakfast in a steamy cafe may be much more like it.

Deakin has much to say about trees. I learned quite a lot about pollarding and coppicing, two things that seem to be a dying art, as is creating and properly maintaining hedgerows. He is also a person who enjoys working with wood and has considerable skill at turning felled trees into bookshelves or even sculptures. He is the kind of person who respects the tree and the wood, which I believe must infuse his work with respect, passion and love.

How wonderful it must have been to be Deakin’s friend and walk with him around his farm in Suffolk and the surrounding area. Deakin died in 2006, but he has left us his notebooks curated into the beautiful Notes from Walnut Tree Farm through which we may walk with him anytime no matter the weather.

Filed under: Books, Diaries, Memoir/Biography Tagged: Roger Deakin

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24. Thrilling! Adventures! Fun!

cover artI have been waiting my turn in the library holds queue quite some time for The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. It is a graphic novel by Sydney Padua. I’ve just begun it and it is so much more than I ever could have hoped for.

It is not your average graphic novel. There is as much text as there are pictures. There are footnotes. There are endnotes. The art is great and the whole thing is absolutely bonkers and laugh out loud funny.

Don’t know who Lovelace and Babbage are? Charles Babbage invented the first computer but for various reasons mostly to do with Babbage, it never got built. Ada Lovelace is the daughter of Lord Byron and the first computer programmer. Lovelace died at age thirty-six. Babbage lived to be a crotchety old man.

After writing a story about Lovelace and Babbage, Padua thought it a real shame the computer never got built and the pair didn’t get to work together for very long. So she went all wibbly wobbly timey wimey and discovered a pocket universe where Lovelace and Babbage built the computer, have thrilling adventures, and, of course, fight crime, because why not? The first adventure has to do with the person from Porlock.

As I said, I have not read much but what I have read has been pure delight and I couldn’t keep it to myself until I finished. So I am telling you about it now. Check your library. If they have the book, get yourself on the list for it. Now. Go. No dilly-dallying.

Filed under: Books, Graphic Novels, In Progress Tagged: Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage

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25. Oh Peas!

First off, it is Pride weekend and is there ever cause for celebration! In case you haven’t heard, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling Friday that makes same-sex marriage a legal right in all fifty states. The court made a good decision for a change and I am so very very happy I may have even gotten a little teary-eyed about it. A big virtual kiss to the five justices who wrote the majority opinion (Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan). Thank you for doing the right thing.

Now, on to gardening.

Yes peas!

Yes peas!

I suppose I should apologize to the rabbits but I am not going to. Turns out they are not the ones who have been eating everything. They have eaten some things like the sunflowers, but they have not been the culprits when it comes to greens. My true nemesis/nemisises/nemisi are slugs! Not the big huge fat ones, but tiny ones the size of the tip of a well sharpened pencil. They look innocuous, like little moist pieces of dirt stuck to leaves after a hard rain. And so I didn’t notice them. But I have been spending time with my face close to the dirt weeding and discovered them hiding in plain sight. But they are so tiny and the plants are growing so fast now they are no longer really an issue. Still, I am not going to say sorry to the rabbits.

The second planting in the polyculture bed is doing pretty well. I had to thin the radishes this week and soon I will need to thin the beets. While thinning the radishes I began to wonder whether the greens were edible. They are! As are carrot greens. Radish greens recipes abound but it seems like they do best in soup and stir fried and as pesto. Carrot tops also make good soup as well as tea and supposedly a really fantastic pesto. Who knew? So now all radish greens are being saved and any carrot greens that might happen will be saved too. And is it me or can anything green be made into pesto? I think by the end of summer I am going to have so much pesto in my freezer it will last me nearly all winter.

Last year I planted parsnips in the polyculture bed. I thought I had pulled all of them out in the fall but it

Parsnip flowers

Parsnip flowers

turned out to not be the case. Parsnips are biennial and flower and seed in their second year. I heard they were great for pollinators so when I saw three or four parsnips coming up in spring I let them go. Now they are really tall and blooming pretty umbels of yellow flowers that pollinators are definitely enjoying. I will allow them to go to seed and then save the seed for the garden next year and see if I get some good parsnips from it.

The peas are beginning to be pickable. I got the first ones today and there will be even more to pick tomorrow and every day or two after that for then next couple of weeks. Yay! It is nice that the peas are ready now just as I picked the last of the strawberries today.

Bookman being silly fixing up the raspberries

Bookman being silly fixing up the raspberries

Bookman staked up and covered with netting the black raspberries. They are getting close to ripe and I don’t want to share them with the birds and squirrels. The birds can’t get them but an enterprising squirrel can get under the netting if it dares. I hope none dare. The raspberries are supposed to be black but they look like they will just be a really dark red. Oh wait, nope. Just did some googling. It looks like they turn red first and then black when they are ripe. Nifty. They are starting to go from green to red. I assume black comes not long after. Will keep an eye out and let you know.

My tiny elderberry bush that I got at the plant sale in May has some berries on it. Not many, less than a



handful. Elderberries cannot be eaten raw, they must be cooked into jam, syrup, or alcohol. There are not enough berries to bother cooking into anything so I will just leave them be this year and wait until the shrub is bigger in a year or two. I got the shrub to plant in the chicken garden but had to temporarily plant it in the regular garden because the garage was taking so long to get knocked down. Now it is so far into the growing season the shrub along with the serviceberry and the prairie rose will stay in their temporary locations until spring next year when I will move them.



Speaking of garage, guess what finally happened? It ended up costing a little more than originally estimated because the concrete slab we also had removed turned our to have wire reinforcement in it. But it is all gone now with only a sliver left just big enough to park a car and on the NE corner is an 8×8 foot square that we will use to build the shed on. It is such a relief to have all of this finally done! Beneath all of that concrete I was expecting gravel and compacted dirt. What is actually there is a 1-2 inch layer of fine building sand. I joked with Bookman that we should forget about the shed and chickens and put up a volleyball net and start hosting beach volleyball tournaments. Not to fear, under the layer of sand is the compacted dirt.

Now that the garage is gone, the next order of business is to have a chainlink fence with a gate installed. That should not be the ordeal that having the garage knocked down was. While that is in process, we will be



raking up all the sand into a neat pile. We will save some to use for the chickens — they will need sand for dust baths — and begin distributing it through the garden. We have plans to turn the polyculture bed into a year-round garden by building a small winter-hardy hoophouse and growing cool weather veg beneath it to harvest when there is snow on the ground (that is the hope anyway). The polyculture bed is a raised bed made of cinderblocks. The sand will go in the cinderblock holes. Sand does not freeze in winter and will serve as insulation. More sand will get spread out on the main garden path before it gets covered over in pea gravel. If there is still sand left after that, well, we’ll worry about it when we get there.

Once we get the sand raked into a tidy pile, Bookman will begin going over the compacted dirt with a shovel and fork to loosen it up. Then we will plant buckwheat as a ground cover and mulch that under in September and seed hairy vetch and oats as ground covers that will sprout first thing in spring. The idea is to keep the weeds down and to improve the soil. Wish us luck!

I am not trying to kill myself, I’m really not. I crashed again yesterday. This time it was totally me being stupid. I was on the last leg of my ride coming from a street bike lane to an off-street bike trail (it strikes me now that I have difficulty with transitions) and hit the curb. The curb has a very narrow cutout that is still kind of high. I have successfully navigated it a number of times and cursed it every time. Yesterday I was going too fast and not paying attention. I missed the cutout and smacked right into the curb. I knew it was going to happen a spilt second before it did. I do not know how to pop my front wheel up off the pavement. I don’t know that even if I did I would have been able to react fast enough for it to save me. Nonetheless, Bookman has promised to teach me how to do this.

So, I hit the curb. The good news is I did not go over the handlebars. The bad news is I still got pretty banged up. Last week when I fell on the gravel I was going slow and the scrapes were pretty minor in spite of the blood, and are actually almost completely healed. Yesterday I managed to scrape my shoulder, elbow, knee and shin. There is quite a lot of skin missing. When I got home I saw my elbow and shin each had a big lump developing. We had no cold packs in the freezer so I used a bag of frozen corn on my shin and a bag of frozen peas on my elbow. This was very effective and the lumps have gone away. The scrapes are tender but they will be healed soon enough. My knee, however, is one very large scab that will take a few weeks to have skin again.

Far from feeling badass, this time around I feel like an idiot. The repetitive motion of cycling is very relaxing to me even when I am working hard up a hill. On the flats, though, I tend to get meditative and have a bad tendency to zone out. This is not such a bad thing on a nearly empty bike-only trail. It is a very bad idea when there is a tricky route change.

Astrid is perfectly fine. Her chain came partly off which panicked me a bit because I do not know how to put a chain back on a bike. But since it was only partially off, it was not hard to fix. Poor Astrid. She’s a trooper she is.

All that happened with less than half an hour to home. And in spite of it, it was a really good ride. I am still Queen of the Mountain on the one Strava segment and I even managed to beat my time by five seconds. Someone else had created a segment within that long segment, a particular hill, and I am sixth overall. Woo! I am a very competitive person, in case you haven’t noticed. I’ve not had anything over which to compete for a very long time (competitive vegetable growing just doesn’t do it for me, I really don’t care who has the biggest carrot) and cycling has awakened those urges. I am not interested in racing though, I am perfectly happy competing with myself and the likely never to meet them cyclists on Strava. It is good motivation and makes me work harder to improve my stamina and strength.

Aside from Bookman teaching me how to lift my front wheel, the thing I am really focused on at the moment is pacing on hills and for distance. I have a tendency to attack the bottom of the hill and then run out of steam about halfway. Same with a long ride, I ride fast early and then the second half is nothing but slog because I have used up all my energy. I read an article in a cycling magazine that says when going up hills to keep a steady pace throughout. Also, shift before you need that next lower gear, not when you find yourself mashing the pedals as hard as you can. I practiced this yesterday and you know what? It really works!

As far as pacing during the whole ride, I discovered yesterday that a mix of music is a great assist. Don’t worry, I don’t put my ipod earbuds in my ears, I am not that dumb and it is illegal. No, I wrap the earbuds over my ears and turn up the volume — musical earrings. Bookman tells me that it isn’t loud enough for others to really hear anything other than a low buzzing sound which is much quieter than the young men on the train who have their earbuds in and the music blasting so loud I can hear the lyrics. So the music mix helps with pacing. I have fast songs and slow songs and somewhere in the middle songs. When the slow songs come up I get to have a more relaxed pace. When the fast songs come up I pedal faster without even having to think about it. When I finished my ride yesterday I was hurting from my fall but I was not really tired like I had been before. So I count this as a big success.

When I ride with Bookman or on a group ride, I do not take music, music is for when I am out alone. Pacing is easier when I am with other people I find. When I am alone I have no one to compare myself to, no outside perspective. The music seems to have solved that problem. Plus, there is no way I won’t get up a hill with Ricky Martin’s She Bangs playing through my musical earrings

Yup, Ricky Martin. I have a number of his songs on my ipod. He is great workout music. Don’t worry I have more current songs too. Walk the Moon is also great and P!nk is always fantastic. And for a slower or more moderate pace Indigo Girls and Sia work pretty well. I have 15 hours of songs on my ipod, I put it on shuffle and let them fall where they may. Except on the hilly sections of my rides, I always skip around and make sure I have a fast beat.

My cycling goal for the coming week? No crashes!

Filed under: biking, gardening Tagged: beach volleyball, Carrot greens are edible too go figure, chickens, crash test dummy, radish greens are edible who knew?, the garage is finally destroyed and now it is on to reclaiming the land from car culture, uncooked elderberries are toxic

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