Sunday, November 28, 2010

Because You Asked about the Line between Prose and Poetry

Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned into pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.

There came a moment that you couldn't tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.
                                         - Howard Nemerov

I heard Billy Collins reading this on KUOW on Monday, because he had been asked this question by the interviewer and because it was – for once – snowing rather than raining in Seattle.  

Just read it through a few times, in light of its title.  If you don't get the shivers, then I don't know what to say to you.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Awww... That was nice.

The Georges & The Jewels.  If you loved Misty of Chincoteague or The Black Stallion as a kid, your kid might just love Jane Smiley's YA novel.  I did.

It's a quiet, horsey kind of book (big surprise), told by Abby Lovitt, a seventh grader from a born-again family that buys half-broke horses and then trains them up for sale.  Set somewhere in Northern California in the somewhat recent past, this relaxed but quick-moving tale rings true:  Smiley's got seventh grade internal naivete and awkwardly orchestrated interpersonal drama pegged, and she clearly grew up riding, just like Abby.  As we enjoy our protagonist's solid decency and quiet observance of the life all around her, we also explore the ways of geldings (Georges) vs. mares (Jewels) with a little bit of horse-whispering along the way. 

My guess is that old forty-something fogeys like me will smile gently and nod, recalling the psychologically complex teen truths and traumas Smiley can conjure, while tweens will see themselves and their friends in these characters so far removed from their own daily lives.

A quick read, this one's bound to get passed around from (would-be) rider to (would-be) rider.  Definitely an unpretentiously pleasant and true-feeling tale.  Give it an afternoon.  I don't think you'll regret it.


p.s. What was my ACTION?  You say.  Well, I made pinecone turkeys.

How in heaven's name does that relate to this book? You ask.  Well, reading about how Abby and her classmate Kyle crafted a clay version of Mission San Juan Bautista for a school-wide CA history project, I waxed nostalgic for the days of dioramas, Crayolas, and Silly Putty.  Neither Abby nor Kyle had much money, so they had to make do.  Hence, I decided to indulge my inner craftinator, but on a budget.  I wanted decorations to freakify the day, to make Thanksgiving edgy again.  And I did myself proud.

Check out yesterday's post to see my creepily fetching gobblers: icons of the day they be.  And happily for all, no actual turkeys were sacrificed at my house this Thanksgiving.

Pedestrian pinecone pop-art or protectors of poultry?  Jury's out.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Fail better. Grateful for the opportunity.

Yup, Beckett's still right:
 "Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better."

Sometimes it's all we can do.

So my Thanksgiving will be small and local.  Going nowhere, but organic, and with pinecone turkeys. 

Thank you to The Compassionate Instinct for better food choices and to The Georges & The Jewels (Jane Smiley, YA horse novel) for the inspiration to get crafty.

I do not know how to calibrate cosmic magic, but I must say that Goethe may be right as well:  When we act openheartedly and with courage, the universe steps up to meet us.

I offer gratitude to all those who've tuned in here, even for a moment.  Please come back, and please help me to create a voice here that elevates you, that compells you to give thanks and to fail better.

Tell me what you need, and I'll do my best to deliver it.  No doubt I'll fail, but rest assured: every day I'll fail better.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Maximum Read.

Sweet read too.  Fast, fast, fast first in this YA series about a small flock of genetically engineered kids out there fighting for their freedom.  No big surprise: Patterson's a master plotter.  Not so much depth of character except for Max (first person'll do that for ya), but maybe later?

L'accion du jour:
Draw'ring.  The voice in my head demands:  some sorta super-birdie must drip from my pen.  Mayhaps I'll conjure a token of thanks for Marnie, the Max fanatic who simply shrieked (in her winningly exhuberant way) when she learned that I wasn't yet acquainted with her fave female superhero.  She's an artist herself,  as well as a writer-reader-athlete-dancer, so I know she'll appreciate an unexpected thank you from last year's English teacher. Shriek-worthy?  Stay tuned...

Pushing past my ineptitude toward brilliance: Max-worthy for sure, and sweet.

p.s.  Another card in the stack (pebble in the pond?  feather in the cap?) of evidence to prove my theory:  the best YA novels nowadays are penned by folks who cut their teeth on adult novels.  This one's pure page turner, but cunningly so.  So: Patterson, Alice Hoffman, Jane Smiley, Orson Scott Card, Neil Gaimon, Terry Pratchett: just a short list of bestselling adult authors who've turned their superior narrative talents to the YA market.  Maybe this trend's resurgence started with Sherman Alexie, no?  Anyone offering additional title suggestions?  I've got a Jane Smiley in my pile...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Simple Gifts.

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.

-          Elder Joseph, 1848

Friday, November 19, 2010


        My shopping expedition: a complete bust.

What happened??  After pondering my "rules" and setting what I thought was a generous budget of $50, I decided against traveling to Freddy's because it's about 15 miles away, as opposed to 1 mile for my local grocery store and then 2 miles for Trader Joe's.  Transportation via car = greenhouse gasses.  So...

Stop #1: At my beautifully maintained, locally-owned and operated grocery store: only a few items are marked for point of origin, even the produce in the organic section.  I compared a few items: price for organic produce is generally 3X non-organic produce, some of which IS labeled: Grown in Mexico or USA or Northwest.  Sigh.  I bought a northwest grown onion, plus a USA grown sweet potato and cilantro.

On to TJ's: Much more affordable organic fare, but next to nothing is labeled with its origins.  It's all distributed through CA, but that doesn't mean it was grown there.  In fact, the only choice I could make in terms of point of origin was:  Organic walnut halves (from Uzbekistan) OR California Walnut Halves.  I chose the latter, because I figure that walnuts grow in shells on trees, so the organic element probably isn't as important as it would be on row crops, and clearly the shipping energy impacts would be much less from CA than from Uzbekistan.  Reasonable logic or irresponsible leap toward nationalistic pride? 
And it's this kind of quandary that makes shopping with compassion such a minefield. 

Here's my original list, coded like so:
   * =  fit all of my criteria
   # = fit at least one of my criteria.
   V = vegetarian.  wasn't in my criteria, but helps the planet and all beings

# organic black beans V
# sweet potato V
# onion V
cilantro V
almond flour V
# walnut halves V
green chilis V
frozen dinners V
pumpkin butter V
mache V
greek yogurt V
reduced fat celtic cheddar V 
almond milk V
can of cat food
pot stickers
TOTAL: $38.
Items on my list that I didn't purchase:
Thin bars (no way to know where all those ingredients came from - ditched 'em)
salami (decided that it didn't fit my criteria at all!)

But, wait, you say:  There aren't any items with stars.  What??  Indeed:  I bought absolutely no items that fit all my criteria. 


Must sit and ponder what to do next to get me closer to my goal. 


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Fred Meyer and Pollan-anna.

I'm going grocery shopping in an hour at the local "they've got EVERYTHING" grocery/department store, Fred Meyer, and for once I see exactly how I have to act.  I've got to clarify my own food ethics and then see if I can live by them today.

Quick backstory:  Any interview with Michael Pollan's going to be a good interview.  So what could he possibly have to say about The Compassionate Instinct?  Absolutely nothing.  The fact that the editors put this interview into this particular book shows their utter lack of relevant content. 

And yet: This piece struck me as more enjoyable and action-inspiring than virtually anything else in the book so far.  Why?  Michael Pollan knows his complex topic - food systems and how choosing our food relates to our ethics - better than just about anybody, and he can convey his knowledge to us with clarity, humor, and an utter lack of preachyness.  He sees food choices - and I suspect all our day-to-day choices - as opportunities to clarify and exercise our own particular ethics.  And, as he says, in what other realm do we get to vote for what we believe in three times a day?  This strikes me as absolutely right, and I gotta respect him for not prescribing a view, but instead illuminating the complex repercussions of our choices.

What struck me after reading this interview was that I'm not entirely clear about my own food ethics right now.  Am I more about humane treatment of animals or about habitat conservation?  Sustainable farming methods, organic farming methods, or local farming?  Personal health or economic & environmental well-being for all?

To make better choices, I really do need to prioritize a bit.  So:
1. Starting today, no exceptions to the "no factory farmed proteins" rule.  I'm actually about 90% on this already, but let's go for 100%.  If I'm going to purchase a non-veggie protein, then it's got to be not simply organic or "cage free", it's got to be demonstrably humanely raised. 
2.  I'll choose locally farmed, organic produce whenever possible, because that uses less fossil fuel for transport and supports a local, living economy. 

So then, if those are my newly-focused rules, what could be an actual plan for when I'm standing in the produce section? 

How about this?
a.  Set a reasonable budget for food I want to buy.
b. When at the store, gather the items that are locally, organically grown and humanely farmed first.
c. Approximate how much of my budget I have left, adjust, and get as much of the rest of what's on the list as I can afford.

OK:  Freddy's, here I come!

P.S. To sample Michael Pollan, just try Michael

Monday, November 15, 2010

Pay It Forward = Pollyanna?

We'll see.  Because I'm thinking that my actions for the rest of the week will keep focus on gratitude practice, with the added step of "paying it forward". 

                                                 (Isn't she fabulous?)

The Compassionate Instinct connection:  According to researcher Robert A. Emmons, when people keep a gratitude journal - even just five entries per week - they're not only more likely to express feelings of happiness and contentment, but they are also more likely to be reported as helpful and kind by their friends.  Apparently, his study's been replicated with similar results.  Also, when Emmons performed a similar study on folks with neuromuscular disorders, the ones who kept note of their gratitude reported better sleep and more positive emotions overall than control groups.  That "paid forward" to their spouses and significant others because participants seemed outwardly happier. 

So, I'm going to keep tracking my gratitude.  (It helped a lot this morning to have written my thanks for the kitteh's can-do attitude:  "No toys?  No problem.  I'll just play in this pile of papers over here.  Or with this curtain. That pen looks fun too!  Ooh!  Box o matches!  Sa-wweet!  And this table leg!  And - look! - there's my tail..."  Then, when he proceeded to plough through every loose item in the house and then gnaw on every plant, I could assure him "That's not acceptable!" and clean up after him with a bit more equanimity.)

But why the extra step of  "paying it forward" consciously?  If Emmons's research is right, won't it just naturally emerge?  Well, if my mission is to create a better life for myself and all beings, I'm not taking any chances.  I've heard/read from multiple sources that it takes at least 30 repetitions to create a good habit - I tend to think it's often even more than 30 - and at least triple that number of repetitions to break a bad habit.

So I'd better get cracking! I'm going to make a point of expressing thanks directly and truly watching others' behaviors with compassion so I can find a way to make a positive impact on their days.  Seems a tad Pollyanna-ish, but I'll see how people respond, and whether I feel any happier as a result.  Or sleep better. (Now that would be worth the effort.)

Let you know how it's going later in the week.  I'm thinking that I'll write again on Wed., and post to my other blog (Gift/Gratitude Happens - link to the right) tomorrow.  Hope to see you then!
p.s. Quick note on reading practice:  The book's articles are still, for the most part, pretty lifelessly written and often sketchy about interpeting data and applying research findings to broader contexts, but keeping notes with the twin lenses of "What do I have questions about?" and "How might this apply directly to me at work and at home?"  has helped make reading it a reasonably worthwhile experience.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

© Mary Oliver. 

Mary Oliver won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for her book of poems American Primitive. The Harvard Review describes her work as an antidote to "inattention and the baroque conventions of our social and professional lives. She is a poet of wisdom and generosity whose vision allows us to look intimately at a world not of our making.
Want more? Try  Then buy her books.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


That should be
his middle name.

Right now, he's purring away, head resting on my laptop's touch pad, cosied up between me and my technology.  And me?  I'd rather spend an hour retyping his 'edits' than dump this warm mess of contentment off my lap...

So here we sit, smack dab in the middle of a mutual oxytocin-fest.  Is this "love hormone" - the first synthetically synthesized hormone, and the one thought to be involved in emotions as diverse as mother-child bonding and anxiety - driving my creeping affection for the cat and his apparent attachment to me?  Is my current calm, as proposed in both The Compassionate Instinct and Nova's recent episode on dogs, a largely biological process offering me stress reduction while making his basic parasitism seem less, well, parasitic? 

I feel like my feelings for him are genuine.  A sort of mildly maternal approval plus a true appreciation of this particular feline's uniquely doggish disposition and overall good manners. But what about him?  He sure seems to evince a decided predilection for my lap.  Does he like me, or just my body warmth? Possibly he's just angling to ensure that the hand that feeds him keeps on feeding.

And suppose we grant that he's enchanted with me personally.  If he's capable of affection, is he also capable of empathy or compassion or even simple sympathy? 

According to some of the writers in The Compassionate Instinct, apes are, so maybe it's not such a stretch?  Many primates engage in conciliatory behaviors after a fight, and chimps have been known to pat friends' backs seemingly soothingly in times of trouble.  And of course we've all seen Wild Kingdom shots of baboons or gorillas grooming each other fastidiously; some biologists interpret this as purposeful bonding.  But are the groomers feeling anything like affection for the groomees?  Are the back-patters truly empathizing with - or even feeling sympathy for - the pattees?  How can we know when we're seeing human-like emotions expressed and when we're merely projecting?

So the cat returns me to the book. And I'd like to simply accept all the "science" noted there, because I'd like to think that empathy is experienced by all those animals I myself admire or enjoy.  But the initially intriguing animal research referenced in many of the articles keeps getting muddied by some seriously sketchy interpretations and leaps of logic that continually favor the notion that primates, at least, have a "compassionate instinct".  I'm only half-way through the book, and - as I've noted - I'm jumping around from essay to essay, following my fancy, so maybe I've just landed on the less-persuasive articles.  So far, though, I'm not convinced.

Hope springs, and I'll let you know how it all pans out on Monday.


Friday, November 12, 2010

A Quiet Day, Cat Sitting

My actions for today, based on The Compassionate Instinct:
* Go back to writing 1-3 items/day in a gratitude journal.
* Consider/contemplate how I can weave techniques for cultivating empathy and spreading compassion into my new business ventures.  Make a tentative plan, or at least weave that focus into my mission/purpose.

Cross-species Empathy Opportunity.
Today a friend offered me the chance to act compassionately toward a member of the feline tribe:  She found a beautiful young siamese mix and has been caring for him until she can find him a permanent home.  However, the li'l guy needs to go to the vet today, get his shots, and get neutered, and he needs a warm place to recover.  My friend's inundated with errands, some of which include schlepping her cat-hating poodle around town, so I agreed to pick up the recovering kitten from the vet and take care of him until tomorrow afternoon. Why not?  Practice must help, no?  And clearly her compassion rubbed off on me in this case.  Theory from the book pans out in real life.  Who'da thunk it?

Hasta Saturday...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Missions Accomplished!

a. Cool GoogleMap #1 begun. (see link at top right)
b. Reading strategy for The Compassionate Instinct decided:  Hopping around as interest leads me, and taking notes as I go.

Next action: Create a menu that complements the book we're discussing. So:

Which snack foods are most compassionate?  Vegan menu?  Foods that are delicious yet contain no calories and thus demonstrate compassion for our group members on the day before Thanksgiving?

And shall I name each appetizer after an affirmation, as they do at the Berkeley Gratitude Cafe?
* "I am gorgeous, inside and out" = almond merange cookies with chocolate ganache filling OR
* "I radiate stalwartness and decency" for the daikon 'crackers' with miso-tahini and kalamatas OR
* "I know when to cut corners but not quality" for the Trader Joe's mini sweet potato tartlets

Thoughts, anyone?

Time for an extra hour of reading - Heady/heavy stuff.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

One Step Up and Two Steps Back

Development Number Uno:  The pigeon guy is a hoot! 

I'm sitting in the parking lot of the gym with 20 minutes to spare before class, so I figure I'll pick up the phone and try Billy again.  This time, he picks up.

- Hello, Billy? 
- (cautiously) Yes...
- Hi. My name's Laurie and I live in Bellingham too.  I just read a book all about Pigeons, and it was so interesting that I wanted to find out more about it.  So I looked up pigeon racing in Whatcom County on the web and your name was in some of the articles...
- Oh.  Yes?
- So I was calling to see if I could come out and check out your set-up in person, just to see what it all looks like.
- Oh.
- Do you do that sort of thing?
- Well, yes, I guess so.  Yes.  I do.  And where are you exactly? 
- I'm in town.
- Can you have pigeons there?
- I think so... I've got chickens, so I don't see why not.
- Oh.  Well.   I guess I could show you around a bit.  Sure.  I know somebody who's got 'em out near Yeager's - best racer in the state - so I guess you probably can too and... Are you familiar with pigeon racing around here?
- Well, no.  Not really.
- OK.  So I can tell you a little bit right now.
(And here's where the pigeon-enthusiasm really ramped up.  I didn't have to say a word for the next ten minutes...)
    Did you know that we're part of a Concourse that stretches from here down to Tacoma?  No?  Yes.  Let's see: It's Seattle, two clubs in Tacoma, Mt. Vernon - Arlington really, Snohomish, and of course here...
     And, see, we've got an 'old bird' and a 'young bird' season and all the clubs in our Concourse paid for a Release Truck and we've got GPS bands for our birds that we put on before the race, and then the Liberator drives the Release Truck out to the Release Site - maybe it's 90 miles or up to 600 miles! away - and then the Liberator makes sure the conditions are good and then let's 'em go and then we wait for 'em. 
     My young birds came in first one time in the whole Concourse - 90 mile race and they were goin' 75 miles an hour!  Amazing!  And they didn't even want to stop! They just circled and circled above my house, didn't even want to come down!  It's really a sight to see, them circling and circling, just wanting even more...
     And you know, if you held one of these birds up against a regular pigeon, well, they're like a marathon runner.  Streamlined.  Made of muscle.  Just not the same.  You'd feel it right away...
     And we're getting the the young kids into it now too; did you go to the county fair this year?  No?  Well, our new 4H kids had a great exhibit, you know?  Did a terrific job.
    Takes some time, though, this sport: You gotta fly 'em once, twice a day.  So it's a commitment, but the kids really seem to like it...
     And, by the way, if you decide you want to give it a try, we could probably get you started with a couple of birds for free, no problem...

And so flew the fastest - and most exhuberant - 'conversation' of my week.
I smell another fabulously eccentric Whatcom County experience on the wind...

Development Numero Dos:  Map it!

     After less than a week, I can see where this experiment is currently leading: toward kismet-driven connections among a wider and wider circle of fascinating people I would never otherwise have met.  So I'm thinking that some sort of map would help us track our experiment here.  (This idea occurred to me while in relaxation pose at the end of my Bodyflow class.  Luckily, I've taken to carrying my journal with me, plus scrap paper to catch such whims before they vanish, so I got it down as soon as I sat up.  Yay! A sure sign that I'm a writer again after years focused on other people's writing.)

So. I've backed up to get some perspective.  My two next steps:  
1.  Figure out how to make an interactive map.
2.  Figure out a strategy for reading The Compassionate Instinct for book group.  It's a compilation of some 30+ articles on the subject... Should I read from cover to cover, trying to get to all of it, or should I bop around from interest to interest and perhaps read fewer articles but take notes so we have more to talk about? (Did I just answer my own question?  What do you think?  Tell me!)


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Allow me to do a 180 on Guernsey

I finished it this morning, and here’s the verdict:

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is a book you want to unwrap on Christmas morning, then go eat your iced butter cookies in the shapes of Santa and his reindeer for breakfast, then bring your cup of cocoa into the living room in front of the fire and settle in for an all-afternoon read. 

Once the story shifted to the islanders and away from the cheesy-obvious love story, an actual fictional world got created and peopled with quirky and admirable characters that felt like friends after a time. 

Definitely a fine read for a rainy day too: humor + a predictable plot = comfort.  History + pathos = satisfaction of a sort.

This book won’t rock your world, but it’s still worth reading.

Actions for today: 
·         Resolve not to judge a book by its cheesy title (the whole Potato Peel Pie part was entirely too cutesy and in fact just tacked on – to connote accessibility for ladies who won’t read something that seems too intellectual, no doubt), and
·         Write 10 times in my journal:  "If someone of good taste recommends a book, go ahead and read the whole thing before you judge it."
·         Call Mom and thank her!


p.s. Check out my blogs of 11/6  and 11/8  to see how much - and why - I disliked this book at first...

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Semi-Rhetorical Question

If you petition the Muses of the Interwebs for their cyber-support, will they magically make a blah book better?
What I found out about Charles Lamb.
       He's the Charles Lamb who co-wrote Tales from Shakespeare – that illustrated children’s book so beloved of my buddy Matt.  And Lamb penned the epigraph for To Kill A Mockingbird, “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once”. 
      Two degrees of separation X 2 = Muses intervening?

So a wish plus 10 minutes of research changed my mind: 
I read the e-articles on Lamb with relish; had I not begun this book, I wouldn’t have cared a whit. And now I'm thinking about a friend and a favorite writer: All's OK with the world.

Maybe we're looking at a better book than I forecast.  Maybe we're not going to be stuck with a Cinderella story and Juliet won't wind up with Sidney in the end.  Even so, will we take a progressive twist on a destructive fairy tale or just a short meander sideways along the same ole Prince Charming path? 

Either way, I'm ready to read again. Thanks, Muses.


Pretty interesting bonus info for lit. lovers:
      Charles Lamb lived in London/Edmonton his whole life and Coleridge was his best friend.  His sister Mary stabbed his mother to death (mental illness ran in the family), but eventually came to live peacefully with him for decades.  She co-authored the Shakespeare book and together they held salons for the famous authors, dancers, and actors of the time.  Lamb too had a pen name (Elia), so that’s a parallel w/Juliet, and he stuttered, as does Farmer Dawsey.  Another potential parallel?  He was a well-respected author, but always unlucky in love: He pursued one woman in his youth and another at age 44, but both rejected him. Prediction Question:  Will somebody die of strep after they fall down in the street and cut their face?  He did.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

How It Happens

The sky said I am watching
to see what you can make out of nothing
I was looking up and I said
I thought you
were supposed to be doing that
the sky said Many
are clinging to that
I am giving you a chance
I was looking up and I said
I am the only chance I have
then the sky did not answer
and here we are
with our names for the days
the vast days that do not listen to us

 — W.S. MERWIN, poet laureate of the United States and author, most recently, of “The Shadow of Sirius,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2009

Enjoy your extra hour of day.  Want more?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Cinderella with the Potato Peeler in Guernsey?

I friended Blechman on Facebook.  I got Jerry's phone number. 
Now:  I call, and I wait.

And read.  My mom’s rec:  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  It's an epistolary novel - like Les Liaisons Dangereuses or Frankenstein, authors Shaffer and Barrows employ a compilation of fictional letters to move the narrative forward. 

So far: In January 1946, journalist Juliet Ashton, a.k.a. Izzy Bickerstaff, sets out into the English countryside on a book tour for her collected WWII humor columns.  Early on Juliet bemoans her inability to find Mr. Right, conveniently ignoring the fact that she's ably protected and coddled by her adoring publisher Sidney and pursued by dashing American newspaper tycoon Markham Renalds.  She charms all her folksy audiences with her sly wit and recklessly slapstick responses to perceived slights.  Meanwhile, a farmer in Guernsey finds an old book with Juliet's name in it and they strike up a correspondence about their shared love of its author, Charles Lamb.  Soon, Juliet gets an uber-lucrative new writing gig: produce an extended essay on the philosophical merits of reading.  She simply must bring farmer Dawsey and his rural literary society into her article... Man #3.  Chick lit. formula #27: too many men.

Empathy/Attention Steps:  Although the book's a breezy read so far, it's tough for me to build sympathy for this protagonist.  It's like a YA chic lit piece: Juliet's attractive, witty, charmingly unpredictable, and drooled over by just about every guy she meets, but she's still troubled by low self-esteem.  She doesn't notice the boy next door who is clearly her perfect match ('he completes her'). 
     So my empathy task is to consider that this formula works to sell books, and to attempt to find compassion for those who see themselves in Juliet.  They probably don't have the boy next door OR the popular dude OR the gorgeous bad boy as options, so living vicariously helps them get through the lonely days.  Or they're young yet and still hoping against hope that our world is a place where, without even trying, the quirky good girl attracts the good guy, that harmlessly-loyal-and-self-deprecating-yet-gently-funny genius who turns out to be the sexy, gorgeous Prince to carry her off into the Sunset on his White Steed. 
    But I'm not bitter.
    So how do I reconcile my disdain for the soul-destroying Cinderella story with my reading task? 

Curiosity Quick-Steps: How far is Guernsey from London or Bath, and what does it look like?  Did it figure prominently in WWII?  Who's Charles Lamb?  Will knowing about him unlock subtle allusions in this novel?

To Do's:
*  Research Charles Lamb, Guernsey, and literary societies during WWII - both here and in there.
*  Write a lonely spinster a letter. 
*  Deal with my Cinderella story issues.

Ta for now,

Hey! You!  What are you reading?  Are you taking another step?

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Pigeon House, The Mall, and The Interwebs

So here's what happened when I visited the nearby pigeon house: Nada. 
Disturbingly out-of-place and culturally confusing front yard extravaganza:  Still there.  Pigeon loft:  Gone.  Home-owners: Not home.  Sigh.

BUT, as I drove from the ridgeline toward the mall (errands, not recreation) I did, however, wax rhapsodic when a beautiful flock of 30-something assorted pigeons soared right over my car and onto a nearby phone wire.  Coincidence?  I like to think not.  And only 2 miles from my house, no less.

So my theory of suburban vs. urban pidges: shot.  New theory:  Pigeons love shopping.  Be it strip mall or ‘destination department store’ or city center:  They gots ta have stuff  and that’s why they congregate.  Reactions, anybody?

Next, to the interwebs!
Back home on Google, I quickly zeroed in on our regional hobbyists’ hang, the North Cascade Invitational Racing Pigeon Club.  From there, it was a short cyber-leap to and a feature on a guy named Billy, local breeder and aficionado, and his wife, Gina.  I watched the short video, read the article, and jotted his phone number.  He’s a former beekeeper too, so I’ve got an inside angle and I hope he’ll give me an interview and a tour…

Today I read Ch. 13, 14, & 15: “The Breast Farm” about squab production in South Carolina (raising baby pigeons and then butchering them for their itty bitty meat is exactly as gross but train-wreck fascinating as you’d think), “The Main Event” chronicling the most extensive annual pigeon race for lofts in NY,NJ, CT, and Long Island and for which Orlando, the main racer we follow throughout the book, has spent the year training his young birds, and finally “They Had No Choice” about a dinner at London’s House of Parliament to celebrate a new monument honoring all the animals – including messenger pigeons – who have served Great Britain in war. 

Questions:  What’s one to do with this new appreciation for a much maligned species?  How do I extend the understanding to other animals I’m likely to scorn?  Say, slugs or hobo spiders or earwigs?  Or Steller’s jays that drive me nuts? 

Action Steps:
* Call Jerry Guilmette to see if he’ll let me tour his coop. 
* Visit Blechman’s website (, and write the author an email of appreciation for his strong writing that made a potentially dull topic utterly fascinating.

Tomorrow:  A new book for the weekend!  

What do you suggest?  Write me a comment!


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Can Pigeons change the world?

OK, it's Day One.  And another unlikely day of winter sun here in the Pacific Northwest: richly angled beams slant in through the plum tree's half-naked branches, little Coco from next door races around at my feet flashing whatever cute she can muster in a frenzy to be petted, and with another 2 chapters of Pigeons under my belt, the morning opens up before me.  Ah, the glamorous life.

So.  To the experiment! 

I'm starting in the middle of Pigeons by Andrew Blechman.  So far, it's an utterly engaging book, and it's all about, well, pigeons.  Who'da thunk?

Today I read Chapters 10 and 11: "Great Expectations" and "The Old Bird's Birds". 

The jist.   (Summarizing is one of the few tried-and-true, research-supported, time-tested methods for increasing understanding and making learning stick, so I'm gonna practice what I've preached to my students and DO IT now.)
Ch. 10:  Pigeons are navigational wunderkinds whose abilities at "homing" still elude full understanding, even after some serious pondering by current neurobio wonks from Cornell. 
Ch. 11: Pigeon racing has recently risen to an astonishingly lucrative $$$$-making sport in Japan and Taiwan while declining in places like the U.S. where less messy leisure pursuits (e.g. video gaming and blogging) reign supreme.  Pidg-knapping has gone viral in parts of Asia, and in Belgium the company "Natural" racks up cash as the emerging global dominator of all products pidgeon.

Curiouser and Curiouser (a nifty idea or fact or three):
Did you know that racing pigeons find their way home through a still-mysterious combination of vision (they navigate in part based on the position of the sun and use local landmarks to guide them when they get to familiar turf), magnetism (cells in their upper beaks sport iron, so they can actually get where they want to go blindfolded if they have to), and hearing (they can sense the wind rising over a mountain range hundreds of miles away, so if their beaks are on the fritz, they can still get pretty close to home)? 
I didn't until this morning.  Guess I need to cultivate a little more respect for the miraculous in these dully pedestrian birdies from now on.

Questions:  Do pigeon racers or fancy breeders rock on right here in Bellingham?  Or do our local eagles and hawks prevent men from indulging their bird racing whims?  Are chickens the uber-suburban-rural birdies while pigeons rule the cities like Vancouver & Seattle? 
Can a fascinating book, so engagingly crafted, well-focused, and funny, but clearly limited in scope, actually change my world?

Action Step Ideas:
a.  Take a walk up the street, over the interurban path through the wetlands, and onto the suburban circle street that overlooks the San Juan Islands.  Stop at the funky house with the huge white laughing buddha across from the grey cherubic boy who pees a fountain alongside a cement St. Francis blessing the koi pond under the gushing waterfall covered in netting to repel racoons in the front yard.  See if there are still bird coops in the backyard and if those still contain pigeons.  Strike up a conversation with the house's owner if so (or even if not!).
b.  Do a little research on the interwebs... Whassup with pigeons in B'ham?  How can we enjoy and support these modest yet miraculous birds?  Hamsters want to know!

I'll check in with y'all tomorrow to let you know how it all went down.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Today it begins. Join me.

So here's my grand experiment:  I'll spend a year reading consciously, and then acting that very day on what I've been reading.  All genres welcome.  Book group reads and solo reads.  Self-help, novels, business books, short stories, essays, poetry.  All of it.

My premise: 
     Reading doesn't have to be a passive experience, the purely intellectual reception of someone else's words: In truth, it never is.  Book conversations don't have to stop at "liked it/hated it" or at gossiping about characters as if they're our neighbors or even at discussing the literary merits of the writer's choices or the symbolic resonances of a text. 
     Instead, we can choose to move our experience of reading toward richer connections between what we read and how we see the world, and we can then take simple, specific actions in the world, compelled by our own evolving vision. 
     In other words, my premise is: Attention + action creates the world we experience.  Add in compassion and we can create not just any world, but a better world for all beings.  And we can use our love of books to spur it all on. 

So that's it.  A grand yet simple experiment in reading for a better world. 
My minimums:
*  An hour per day of reading plus writing to reflect
*  An action per day that arises from that reflection

I'm bound to read anyway, so I'll simply try to make it count in ways I haven't before.

I hope you'll join me.


p.s. Not buying it?  Just a tad curious how all these platitudes play out in a modest life in a small town?  
Catch me here tomorrow.  I'll begin, and then we'll see.

And, hey!  Surprise blessing:  A young stag just stuck his nose through a gap in our fence to gaze at me.  The slant of sun lit up a foot or so of new velvet antlers above his big muley nose and warm brown eyes.  He held me in his sight for a moment or two, then gently pulled back and strolled away. The chickens cackled nervously as they do every time they see a deer.  Already life is full. 
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