Fly Specks

crystals (2) We’ve been having interesting weather this past week. It’s been unseasonably cold – we’ve had highs of -1°C, which is not normal for this time of year – but to make up for it, it’s been brilliantly sunny. The winds have whipped most of the leaves off the trees now, so the light falls through the bare branches, and the brightness is dazzling.

My house faces east, across a small valley, and my spot at the kitchen table looks out through the windows. So this time of year, when the sun comes up over the hills – around 8:30 AM – it hits me full in the face where I sit reading my emails and flipping through my Facebook page. It’s glorious.

But the last few days, it has also illuminated, in full splendour, the specks of fly shit on my kitchen window. That’s right – fly specks, all over the glass. With the amount of canning and food processing we do in the summer and into the fall, the kitchen is usually swarming with fruit flies throughout late August and September. (Important fact I learned in the FoodSafe class I took recently: one of the signs of a fly infestation in the kitchen is that there are a lot of flies. Yup. Aren’t you glad I shared that with you? Now you don’t have to take the class.) And when there’s a lot of fruit flies, they crawl all over the windows. And while they do so, they do – their business. Defecate. Poop. Yes. Now, fortunately, fruit flies being of a rather miniscule persuasion, the little specks they leave behind are also really tiny. No worse than the tiny speckles you get on your bathroom mirror when you stand too close while rinsing your toothbrush. Really, they’re no big deal.

Now, this morning, my daughter decided to take action. She took arms against a sea of troubles (well, okay, she grabbed a bottle of window cleaner and a wad of paper towels), and by opposing, ended them (aka cleaned the fly specks off the windows). And while she was at it, I took down the crystals we have hanging on those windows, and took the glass bottles and ornaments off the window sill, and washed them too.

crystals (3)And here is the thing: as soon as we hung the sparkling-clean crystals back on the window, the kitchen was dancing with rainbows. The little sculpture I have sitting on the window sill over the sink, which is really just an assortment of prisms, a clear acrylic rod, and a cobalt blue marble, stacked for random reflections, suddenly once again threw razor-sharp patterns of light across the window sill.

I had not even noticed how the rainbows and the prism patterns had become dulled. It was only tiny fly specks, wasn’t it? Tiny little translucent-white spots, no big deal. But once they were washed off, the world took on a new sparkle.

crystals (1)I’m sure I don’t have to spell out the metaphor to you – you’re bright enough to catch it without needing the fly specks washed off your glasses first. Tiny spots of fly dirt – the flies that produced it long gone to fruit fly heaven – dulling the brilliant sun’s reflection. A wad of paper towel and a bottle of window cleaner, and the sparkle is back in the world.

Life, the Universe, and Fly Specks. A lesson on a sunny morning.

Jane Austen Centre at Bath Unveils Wax Figure of Jane Austen

I just saw this when I found out about this new book, JANE AUSTEN COVER TO COVER (written by the owner of this blog). I like this wax figure, don’t you? Particularly put side-by-side with Anna Chancellor’s image.


It’s probably safe to say that all Janeites have had at least one moment of curiosity about what Jane Austen looked like. We don’t have much to go on–a dashed-off, incomplete, badly faded watercolor by Cassandra Austen is the only authenticated image of Jane Austen’s face, which has both frustrated Austen fans as well as inspiring them to create something better.

Today, the Jane Austen Centre at Bath unveiled a wax figure of Jane Austen, created by sculptor Mark Richards (the BBC has a shorter piece with a video interview of the sculptor), inspired by Melissa Dring’s forensic painting of Austen, done several years ago also for the Jane Austen Centre. The painting has received a mixed reception from Janeites, and we are not terribly fond of it, but we like this wax figure rather better. In fact, we like it quite a bit.

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Post-Success Depression

You know the Euphoria of Completion? The incredible headrush you get from finishing a huge project, completing an exam you’ve studied for for so long, getting done the program you’ve been working so hard on for the last several years? I certainly do. However, there is also another side to that coin. Sometimes, when you’ve completed a REALLY major project, something that matters to you enormously – then sometimes, you fall off the cliff.

mural (2)It didn’t happen to me this time, thankfully – at least not yet. I finished my Master’s, and published my first book, and (thank God) my head’s still above water. But there’ve been times in the past when I went under just after I had a major triumph. One of them was ten years ago when I finished painting a big mural on my son’s bedroom wall. I’d been wanting to do that for a long time, paint a mural, I mean. I pushed myself to absolute exhaustion doing it, and I was extremely pleased with it when it was finished. And then the waters closed in over my head. I remember driving down the road one day a few weeks later, and thinking the whole world looked like it was behind smoked glass. It wasn’t – visually, it was perfectly clear – but it’s like all the colours were dimmed, sort of greyed out.

I don’t know what your opinion is on religious matters, but whether you do or don’t take them as literal truth, you can still get the benefit of the stories (says the embryonic folklorist). There is one story in the Bible which I really love in this context. It’s the tale of the Prophet Elijah, who spent most of his life fighting with the corrupt king and the worshippers of Baal.

One day, he had a massive victory over them; the biggest success of his career. You’d think he’d be out partying and slaying more monsters, wouldn’t you? But no. He goes into the desert, lies down under a bush, and says “God, I just want to die. Please take my soul.” And what does God do? Does He send an angel with a can of Red Bull and tell Elijah to buck up, pull up his boot straps and his jogging shorts, and quit being such a whiner? Does He dispatch a psychologist to give Elijah some cognitive-restructuring therapy so he can get out of his streak of negativity and start doing some positive thinking? Does He commission His heavenly nutrionists and personal trainers to tell Elijah to stop eating wheat and start a program of daily exercise to purge his body of all this toxicity and get the endorphins flowing? Nope. He does dispatch an angel, it’s true. And what does that angel do? He feeds Elijah. The poor prophet is so exhausted emotionally, his body has just knocked him over; he’s sleeping. The angel wakes him up with a gentle touch on his shoulder, and says, “Eat, man.” He’s got a fresh-baked cake, and a jug of water. Elijah, probably only half-awake (I made that up; it doesn’t say that in the text), eats, drinks, and keels over again. The angel lets him sleep, then he wakes him up again: “Eat, man.”

The story carries on from there with one of the most amazing revelations (it’s in 1 Kings 19, if you want to read it), but that’s not the point I’m after here. My point is that right after Elijah had the biggest victory of his life, he ended up suicidally depressed. And God just let him sleep, and gave him food. He let him sleep.

mural (3)I don’t think I need to spell it out for you. Somewhere I read that depression is our body’s way of saying “Enough already!”, of making us sit still so we stop doing these things that wear it down to a nub, just like fever is the body’s way of killing bacteria so it can heal. Post-success depression, in addition, is the rebound from all the adrenalin we’ve sent coursing through our body so it could keep doing what we wanted it to do to reach our great big goal. There is a point to all this. And we need to be as kind to ourselves as the angel was to Elijah. Sleep, a fresh cake baken over the coals, and a cruse of water.

Life, the Universe, and Post-Success Depression. Look after yourself, my dear.

Scarlet Runner Beans

scarlet runner beansDid you know that the magic beans from “Jack and the Beanstalk” were scarlet runner beans? It’s true, Andrew Lang says so in The Red Fairy Book:

When [Jack] brought [the beans] home to his mother instead of the money she expected for her nice cow, she was very vexed and shed many tears, scolding Jack for his folly. He was very sorry, and mother and son went to bed very sadly that night; their last hope seemed gone.
At daybreak Jack rose and went out into the garden.
‘At least,’ he thought, ‘I will sow the wonderful beans. Mother says that they are just common scarlet-runners, and nothing else; but I may as well sow them.’

scarlet runner beans (1)Of course, you know the rest of the deal: massive beanstalk, Jack climbing, doing a spot of breaking and entering and theft, Fi-Fi-Fo-Fum, giant dropping off beanstalk, happily ever after. Incidentally, the Lang version has Jack helping himself to the giant’s stuff quite rightfully, because he’s really not a peasant at all, but the son of the knight who used to own the castle and was killed by the giant along with all of Jack’s older siblings. Fortunately, the knight’s wife was on a visit to her old nurse in the village, along with Baby Jack. When she got the news about the massacre she just stayed put and pretended to be a peasant until her son was old enough to take revenge on the giant and get the castle back, meanwhile earning their living with her spinning wheel and the produce of the little cow she’d bought. Enter the plot of the story as we know it.

I’m sorry, Mr Lang, that elaborate backstory just doesn’t work for me; part of the fun of “Jack and the Beanstalk” is precisely that Jack is a peasant boy, and not a very bright one at that. Stop making excuses for his B&E and robbery-with-violence; this is a story of a poor little guy defeating a big rich one and making it against all the odds, winning his fortune not because it’s his by law, but because of sheer dumb luck and gutsy opportunism.

However, that’s not really what I was going to talk about – my point today was Scarlet Runner Beans. I love those things, and I’ve planted some every year. I like eating them as green beans, but the problem I have with that is that I hardly ever get around to picking them when they’re still green and tender – I can’t find them in the tangle of leaves, and quite frankly, I’m too lazy to search for them. So I’ve been growing them pretty much as ornamentals. I figure if people grow climbing vines like clematis for their flowers, I can grow beans for the same purpose. And they really are pretty, with their bright red flowers.

scarlet runner beans (2)And then usually, at the end of the season when the vines die off, I find all these plump, dry pods with those funky black-and-purple-spotted beans inside. I’ve been collecting them just to have more to plant the next year, but then this year I got to wondering if you could just eat them as dried beans, like kidney beans or something, and sure enough, according to the Internet you can. I haven’t tried it yet, but I plan to – I got a small bowl full of beans off the four or five bean plants I had, it should be enough for a meal.scarlet runner beans (3)

So, climbing foliage, pretty flowers, tasty fresh green beans, lovely speckled beans, and beans to save for eating in winter. What a great plant. Never mind giants’ castles at the top, there’s enough here to make them worthwhile just like that.

Life, the Universe, and Scarlet Runner Beans. I’ll be sure to save a few for planting next year.

Bye Bye Macbook

macbook (2) My trusty old Macbook packed it in on Sunday. I was all done everything I had to do, including fixing my big fat blooper, and was just about to start beta-reading a friend’s story, when everything froze. So I did a hard reset, and the computer started up with its customary Apple “Brrrring!” – and then nothing. A blank white screen; not even a friendly apple logo in the middle. The fan was still running, but that was it. White screen of death.

Now, it wasn’t a tremendous surprise. In fact, the Macbook had been kind of temperamental for a while, crashing pages, even occasionally freezing (which is par for the course on PC’s but not on Macs), so I had sort of expected it. It was, after all, an old machine. Well, this particular one was actually relatively new to me – I’d only had it something over a year. But it was a hand-me-down then, which was replacing the identical model I had bought myself seven years ago with one of my own paycheques from working at the library. I was so proud of myself – my very own computer. It took me through four more years of part-time undergrad studies, two-and-a-half years of grad school, the writing of three novels, the first four years of my blogging life, and all the editing, formatting and publishing of Seventh Son. I loved that little white machine.

And now it’s, well, a paperweight. And a not very convenient one at that; perhaps I’ll use it as a coaster, instead. A trivet for my teapot. Or it’ll just go to the graveyard of croaked electronics (yes, we do have one of those in the house; it’s a big brown box in the basement). Bye bye, Macbook (sung to the tune of “Bye Bye Blackbird”).

Unfortunately, this is the end of my Mac usage, period. I can’t afford a new Macbook, and besides, Apple has decided to discriminate against DVD watchers (“It’s all online now,” the guy at the Apple Store told me. Pfft – not my DVD collection, it isn’t! Or the free movies from the library, either). So even if I had the lolly for a lovely new Mac machine, I might still get a PC, because I love watching movies on my compy.

In fact, I don’t really have any lolly for a new computer. So I was really lucky that there happened to be a currently unused PC laptop sitting around the house – a fairly newish machine which the resident geeks replaced with the newer, better and more-powerfully-geeky machines they need for their work. So I inherited it. And spent the last few days moving in. I’m slowly getting used to the positions of the buttons on the keyboard; now I hit the left shift key about 50% of the time, instead of typing “\i” every time I look for “I” (why on earth Acer had to make the left shift key a quarter the size of the right one, no bigger than one of the letter keys, and put a “\” key between it and the “z”, is beyond me. It’s extremely irritating).

However, it’s like driving a new car – after you’ve sprayed the windshield a few dozen times when all you were looking for was the switch to turn the lights on, you get used to doing it the new way. And while you can’t rearrange the buttons on the keyboard (more’s the pity), you can set up your desktop the way you like it. So now I’ve got my lovely picture of Long Beach (the Vancouver Island one) put up as desktop wallpaper, have the icons for all my favourite programs arranged along the left hand side of the screen, installed f.lux to adjust the screen brightness to the time of day, and I’m starting to feel quite at home in my new computer.

I miss my lovely white Macbook, but seasons come to an end. For me, Apple season is over – at least the computer kind. The fruit kind is still in full swing; in fact, I have some Macs in the house as we speak. Maybe I should try how one of them combines with a real book?

Life, the Universe, and Bye Bye Macbook. It’s been great knowing you.

Macbook (no, really!)
Macbook (no, really!)

Burg Weibertreu

A friend of mine just posted this CBC article on Facebook: “Wife Carrying Championship: An unusual Nordic tradition returns”. It’s just what you’d think: a race in which husbands lug their wives over a predetermined course. The winning couple gets the wife’s weight in beer, and five times her weight in cash (and a trip to the world championships in Finland). For some reason my man doesn’t want to participate, even though I pointed out to him the serious benefits if we would win (I’m no featherweight). But then, neither of us drinks beer, so it’s perhaps just as well.

However, banter aside, the first thing this news item reminded me of is an old German tale, a story that really happened.

The year was 1140, the place a small South-Western German town called Weinsberg (Wine Mountain – if you look at pictures of the place, you’ll know why it’s called that: there’s vineyards everywhere). The solid castle overlooking the town was held by the Welfs (or Guelphs), who, in this hard autumn, were in a war with the royal house of the Staufer. The Staufer King Konrad III, after weeks of besieging the castle, finally defeated the Welfs in an open battle on December 21, 1140; the starved-out castle garrison surrendered. However, Konrad was harshly resentful that so many of his many good men had been killed by the Welfs on the field of battle; he threatened his revenge: all the men in the castle were to die as soon as he set foot in the fortress. The women, however, begged for their lives; they had had no hand in the bloodshed, they claimed, and asked for free passage out of the castle. The King, being the noble sort, consented, and what’s more, promised they could take with them whatever of their dearest possessions they were able to carry.


Early in the morning, the great castle gates creaked open to let out the first of the women. But imagine the surprise of the besiegers when out of the castle came woman after woman, carrying on her back – her husband.

King Konrad, the story says, laughed, and confessed himself outwitted. He had given his word, and his word he would keep. The women and their “dearest possessions” were given free passage; the faithfulness of the Wives of Weinsberg became legend, and the castle of Weinsberg is to this day called Burg Weibertreu, Wives’ Faithfulness.

I don’t think I ever visited the castle myself (it’s just a ruin today), but I’m pretty sure we drove past it when I was a kid on the way to visit my grandmother. My mother told me the story then, and I’ve loved it ever since. A wife-carrying race to win some beer is a fun thing, but for my money, give me those feisty Swabian women who had the guts to take a King at his word, the brawn to carry out their plan, and their husbands alive and well to show for it. A live husband beats a barrel of beer any day.

Life, the Universe, and the Faithful Wives of Weinsberg. Still one of my favourite stories ever.

PS: Just four more days to the big announcement!

Luddism and Ebook Readers

booksI ran across another one of those articles the other day. You know the ones – “Social Media Are Destroying Our Connections To Real People!” “Computers Rot Your Brain!” “If You Don’t Feel Guilty About Your Use of Technology Yet, Here’s Why You Should!” This particular one is entitled “Science Has Great News for People Who Read Actual Books“, and takes a dig at ebook readers. Granted, this article is a lot better than the last one I read on the subject, which cited a study that said we read differently on a screen than on a page (we skip around on a screen, as opposed to the “linear” reading we do on a static page), and then concluded from that that you shouldn’t read books on your Kindle (because a Kindle has a screen). D’uh. Apparently the authors of that particular article haven’t ever actually looked at an ebook reader, particularly the e-ink ones like Kindle or Kobo – it looks exactly like a paper page, you don’t scroll or jump around visually. Just line after line of text, and then you “flip the page” with a touch of a button or a swipe of your finger.

Anyway, this article I read this morning actually has some interesting info: they’re citing a study that found that paper readers had a better recall of the timing of events in a story than Kindle readers. The researchers speculate that it’s because a Kindle always feels the same, no matter where you are in the story, whereas in a paper book you have the tactile feedback that tells you how many pages are left to read – so you know that when the detective ran across the red herring, you still had half the book in front of you, so it obviously wasn’t close to the end of the story.

Sure, it makes sense. And all those articles do have a point. However, have you noticed something about them? All of those pieces of writing decrying the evils of technology are on the Internet. Guess what? You won’t be able to read that article about the evils of reading on a screen on anything but a screen. That video clip about how social media cut us off from real people went viral – on social media.

There is a certain amount of hypocrisy about all of that, wouldn’t you say? And what’s more, it has an all-pervasive flavour of Luddism. “Everything Was Better in Ye Olden Dayse”, that sort of thing. “If it’s new, and especially if kids like it, it must be bad.” And that’s an attitude that is suspect right from the word Go. I’m all in favour of doing things the old-fashioned way (I made grape jelly without commercial pectin the other day, and was thrilled when it turned out), but that doesn’t mean that the new way is inferior and to be avoided. That’s Luddite alarmism, is what it is.

See, the fact about that article is that while it claims to give “Great News For People Who Read Actual Books”, what it really does is give Bad News to Ebook Readers. It sets up reading on paper as superior to reading on an ereader – and for what? Probably just so that paper book readers can feel smug, and ebook readers feel guilty.

I’m sorry, I have no use for that kind of snobbery. It doesn’t really do anybody any good, least of all us bibliophiles. Of course I love my paper books, I’d never be without them. (In fact, I built me a new bookshelf just a few days ago. No, getting rid of enough books to make them fit the existing shelves isn’t an option. Sorry.) But my Kobo is also a great way to do reading. In a little package the size of a thin paperback I have about 250 books stored – I don’t think I can fit that many hardcopies onto my new shelf, and it’s three feet wide and four feet tall. If I want new books, in some cases I can get them instantly. For example, just the other day E. L. Bates recommended a series I hadn’t read, and when I went on my library’s website, it turned out to have the first of the series available as an ebook. In five minutes I had that library book in hand, even though it was Saturday night and my local library branch wouldn’t open again until Tuesday. Thousands of classics of world literature are available for free from places like Project Gutenberg and the MobileRead website, and many more brand-new books from self-published authors on Amazon and Smashwords.

koboSo stop it with the Luddite reading snobbery already. Ereaders are a fantastic way to get at more reading material, to carry it around with you, to expand your reading horizons. They’re not inferior to paper books, they’re just different. A new way to indulge your love for reading. That’s something to celebrate, wouldn’t you say?

Life, the Universe, and Ebook Readers. Where are you getting your daily reading dose today?

Bear Tales and Business

Steve at computerSteve’s been giving me a hard time for neglecting my blog. I tried to tell him that I’ve had a lot of business lately, so he said he’d write a post himself. “Fine,” I says, “be my guest!” So here he is, trying his hand at blogging. But he kept fussing around with it, and couldn’t figure out the interface on WordPress, so I finally got fed up and said I’d take over again. He looked rather relieved at that, and has gone back to discussing poetry with Horatio.

grape juice (2)So, yes, there’s been a lot of business lately. That’s business as in busy-ness, not biz-ness, you know, with dollars and cents. Figuring out this blog interface thing wasn’t the only issue, although that took a fair amount of time on its own. There’s also been the ongoing harvest – still food to process, dontcha know. I made 18 litres of grape juice from the Coronation grape vine climbing our balcony (32 kg grapes!), and if you’ve never made grape juice, you have no idea of the mess it generates. In fact, I’d never made it in these quantities before, either, and was quite astonished at the resulting blood bath (grape blood, that is). See? grape juice (3)And then, of course, afterwards I had to clean it up, too. Grape juice is incredibly staining – one drop on my light beige kitchen counter, and I’d have a bluish spot forever. I did, in fact, have stains all over that counter for years – not just grape juice and other food substances, but rust rings from where someone left a damp cast iron pan sitting on it for far too long. But then sometime this spring I discovered the secret to rejuvenating kitchen counters: BS.

grape juice (4)No, not that kind of BS. I’m talking about baking soda. Now, that stuff has been my go-to scouring powder for years, but scrubbing the stains on the counter with it had never seemed to do much. Until I discovered the magic trick: time. You make a paste of baking soda and water, smear it all over the stain, and let it sit for an hour or more. Then you can take a sponge or rag, and with the application of a bit of elbow grease the stains quite simply vanish. Voilà, kitchen counters good as new! Which had me quite excited, back there in spring, because the stains were so bad I had already priced out what it would cost to replace the counters. Several thousand dollars, actually. Yes, ouch. Not really in the budget. But then, with a buck or two (if even) of BS, lovely clean counters.grape juice (1)

So there  you have it. Grape juice. Blogging interfaces. Apple butter (thereby hangs another tale – I’d never made that before, it’s yummy!). Dried plums, apples and pears. Grape jelly without commercial pectin. Lots of BS to clean up after it. And that’s just the half of it. So, yes, Steve, I’ve been busy. Hope you’re enjoying your poetry discussions; you’ll have to share them with me sometime.

Life, the Universe, and Business. Nothing a little BS won’t take care of.