Monday, May 30, 2011

Light My Fire (The Non-Spork Version)

So I finally came to terms with the fact that I'm living in California semi-permanently and stopped subletting/crashing at friend's apartments... and I've (semi-permanently) settled in a little 1940's bungalow that's so California it hurts. It lives amidst a pack of other bungalows, and each bungalow has a tiny garden-- people compost... people grow vegetables... everyone uses the clothesline to dry their clothes. The rent is cheap and the owners "honestly don't believe there's any lead paint left." Dude, I cannot express to you how much I LOVE this place.

But the one worrisome aspect of my new apartment (is not that the kitchen is so small I can't open the fridge door all the way) is the slight odor of gas that came and went for the first three months of residency... the smell had no correlation to heat or stove or shower... no real centralized point of stink... I would just walk in from getting the mail and go "that's not quite right." I finally called my landlord after a friend confirmed her apartment was the same way-- it was probably the pilot light in my 1940's heating system. A heating system so ancient you have to turn it on with a little key inserted in the grate.

Super high-tech.

So two maintenance men showed up at my little apartment at an obscenely early hour and commenced to light my furnace. Biff looked at it first and exclaimed, "gosh, I hate this model... they must have had a special tool for lighting these things." Chuck looked at it next, "we can probably just throw something down there and it will catch." Biff looks at me "I've seen people do this one... you just turn the gas on and light a match and it goes pfhwhoom (large explosion gesture) and it's all good..." I gave him a look that said "I am tired and that is a terrible plan," and he and Chuck went back to the drawing board. Sadly, the drawing board led them back to the first plan-- turning the gas on and dropping lit things into my heater... Italian flash cards I'd (hopefully) memorized, popsicle sticks they found in the community garbage... coupons for the local grocery store, "one of these things is bound to catch," they said, as my apartment started to smell more and more like a forest fire. Finally, the pilot light caught (a combination of the slow burning popsicle stick and a quarter turn of the gas key). "We'll stick around til the popsicle stick burns out."

Thanks guys.

And there you have it, I have a working heating system just in time for summer.

Monday, May 23, 2011

This is not about Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poetry, but if I tell you what it is about, you won't read it.

This is going to be one of those roundabout posts where I spend several unnecessary paragraphs setting up a single quote. At least I'm warning you this time so you won't be disappointed at the end because you already knew it wasn't working up to much.

My non-poetic interest in Samuel Taylor Coleridge started when I began reading The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, which is the most interesting book I have read maybe ever. I know I say that about all the books I read, but this one is seriously great! It's about the history of science during the Enlightenment, which is interesting because during that period, they were still referring to scientists as "philosophers" and thought that heat was an invisible substance named "caloric" and that electricity was an invisible fluid called "electricity." Basically, if you didn't know what was going on, you declared it invisible and gave it a name. Sometimes it worked out, and sometimes it didn't.

What is also interesting, and more to my point, is how many of the Romantic poets show up in this book alongside the scientists, and how many scientists wrote poetry. Disciplines we now think of as opposites were happily united, as if the poet and the scientist were just different kinds of philosophers. I knew from the one class I took on the Romantics that there was a strong connection between science and poetry during that period, but even so, I was surprised at first how often Coleridge came up in the chapter on Humphrey Davy, the chemist who discovered nitrous oxide. Then I thought about it a little and I realized: nothing makes more sense than Coleridge, famous for his opium addiction, getting to be pals with Davy, who, in the name of science of course, inhaled vast, vast amounts of nitrous oxide. Or as it is better known, laughing gas. Unfortunately, Davy was too busy making himself and all his friends artificially hilarious to realize it would make a great anesthetic, and surgeons went on giving their patients nothing but whiskey for another fifty years. Then they started using ether. Nitrous oxide wasn't involved in anesthesia until 1876. That seems totally ridiculous, but then again, someone only just invented a rib-spreader that doesn't break the ribs, like, last week. Clearly we have some distance to go before we are doing the full-on Beverly Crusher and healing people with a painless, non-invasive magic beam.

Anyway, while I was reading this, I realized I knew almost nothing about Coleridge except for his opium addiction. I know Byron, Keats, and Shelley all died very young, and it seemed likely Coleridge did, too, considering his obvious issues. But in fact, he lived to be 61, which is twice the average age of a Romantic poet. Many felicitations to him for surviving so long, especially since it was not easy. Everywhere I looked, people were constantly referring to his terrible health problems, which they blamed on his being a drug addict. I do not doubt being a drug addict is bad for your health, but I started to think maybe he was getting a bad rap. No one ever said what his health problems were, just that he was always "in poor health." Then they would allude to his being morally and spiritually impaired, as if that could cause a physical ailment.

Well, this kind of mystery DRIVES ME NUTS. I subsequently discovered that Coleridge wrote about his health constantly, and if no modern doctor could diagnose him from what is basically the world's most well-written medical chart, I was going to be very annoyed. During my hour at the reference desk today, I asked myself a reference question, "What was wrong with Coleridge?" and then I set about answering it. Here is what I found out: he got a cavity, or cavities, which gave him sinus infections and also infected his tonsils. His tooth was pulled, but somewhere along the way, the infection very likely got into his bones and gave him osteomyelitis, which means bone infection, which is redundant because I just said that, but I like the word. It reminds me we are probably due for another disease week.

But back to poor, suffering Coleridge: on top of what the first article called "chronic sepsis," Coleridge probably also had something else. This is where it gets slightly confusing. Coleridge had one of two types of cholera, neither of which were really cholera, and neither of which he actually had. Thus sayeth article number two. Though Coleridge was convinced he had cholera, what really caused his symptoms was opium withdrawal; he used to quit cold turkey every so often. The symptoms are the same. I could not convince myself to read thirty-five pages on the effects of cholera, so I must omit the specific details. Let's just say, Coleridge should have either quite the opium altogether or not at all. It would have been much less gruesome.

In regard to the moral matter of becoming an opium addict, if I had terribly painful rheumatism due to an ongoing whole-body infection, starting at the age of 24 and lasting almost forty years, I might treat opium like the eighteenth-century equivalent of medical marijuana, too. Plus, severe pain is a much better reason to trot on down to the Pneumatic Institute every evening and get a noseful of happy-making gas than "science" is. (To be fair to Davy, he really did think laughing gas was curative, and when he finally realized it wasn't, he moved on to more productive work.)

Now we're coming to the part which is the entire point. I could have just said, "This is funny," and left it at that, but I felt you needed to know about Coleridge's personal issues because you never know when you'll be on Jeopardy or something. This is Coleridge's account of his general ill-health, early on, right after he's had a bad tooth extracted. The "it" he refers to in this letter is pain:

"On Friday it only niggled, as if the chief had departed from a conquered place and merely left a small garrison behind, or as if he had evacuated the Corsica, and a few struggling pains only remained. But this morning he returned in full force, and his name is Legion. Giant-fiend of a hundred hands, with a shower of arrowy death pangs he transpierced me, and then he became a wolf, and lay a-gnawing at my bones!"

My favorite part is a shower of arrowy death pangs. I'm sure I would not laugh if he were in front of me, suffering in my face, but a shower of arrowy death pangs. I mean my goodness. You'd think the man was a Romantic poet . . . or on drugs . . . or both.

He admits in his next letter: "I wrote you on Saturday night under the immediate inspiration of laudanum, and wrote you a flighty letter, but yet one most accurately descriptive of both facts and feelings." I believe both claims. It's tempting to think he couldn't have been feeling that terrible if he was lying around thinking, "How shall I conclude my pain-as-military-commander conceit? Ah yes, I think 'his name is Legion' would be dramatically Biblical." I've read a lot about writers, and they all cope with adversity by thinking about either how best to describe it later, or how it matches up with what has been described before. The "giant-fiend of a hundred hands" is a reference to the Hekatonkheires, three giants who, in Greek mythology, helped overthrow the Titans. I admit the allusions do convince me that he was in a whole lot of pain. But I also admit that I laughed. A shower of arrowy death pangs. That is immortal.

The two articles I read, or in the case of the cholera one, skimmed with one eye shut, are these:
  • John D. Rea's "Coleridge's Health," Modern Language Notes, January 1930.
  • G. S. Rousseau's "Coleridge's Choleras: Cholera Morbus, Asiatic Cholera, and Dysentary in Eighteenth-Century England," Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Summer 2003.
Incidentally, cholera morbus, Asiatic cholera, and dysentary are all in the running for Disease of the Year, so if you have a preference I will consider your comment a vote, and also did you catch that clever if disgusting pun? I tell you I am on fire here.

Compost Can Be Art Too

Friday, May 20, 2011

Rush Rhees Tower Tour

There are two times of year that the Rush Rhees Library lets you go up to the top of the building and see the view, and one of them is right before graduation. I was lucky to go up on a day when it wasn't raining and horrible. It did rain on graduation, by the way. Apparently it was the worst graduation weather in like a million years. That's what I heard on Monday anyway when the volunteers were still trying to get dry.

The tower is rather high up and the railings did not seem adequate to me. The view was good, though. I only wish that the majority of the campus wasn't built in the sixties and seventies, architecture's awkward phase.

It is slightly confusing that the river is in three directions. It also runs past the quad in the first picture. You can also see the airport runways in direction. This funny-shaped building is named after Susan B. Anthony. It is referred to as Sue B. I think if we called Frederick Douglass Freddy D. then we could write lovely rhyming couplets about civil rights in the nineteenth century.

The river runs through the background of this picture too, behind the stadium, even though you can barely tell that it's there.

On the way up in the tower I got to stop and watch the carillon lady play the carillon. I didn't realize the campus had a carillon until it started playing as I walked out the door one day. I think it's a beautiful, happy, Christmasy sound, but one of my student workers referred to it as "that creepy Halloween music that plays sometimes," so to each her own. I told the carillon lady that my great-grandfather played the carillon, and she let me into the booth to look at it. She said I could take lessons if I wanted, but I'm not sure I'm coordinated enough. However, if I can get the university to pay for it, it would be fun. I wonder how I can word my application to take carillon lessons so that it sounds like it's necessary for my job. That may take some doing.

Anyway, in case you wanted to know what the view was like from the tower, now you do. It is possible to go higher up, to where the carillon bells are, but it is strictly repairmen-only up there. Unless you are an engineering student who sneaks off during a tour, apparently. Honestly, the inside of the tower is basically just hollow with some enormous steel girders in it, and it is not a place I would want to go climbing around in. The carillon booth is just kind of hanging there in empty space (or at least, that's how it feels). To go higher you have to go up a teeny tiny circular stairwell and after that, it is not clear to me. I'm picturing people hanging onto swinging bells for dear life. It does not appeal. HAHAHA I am rocking the puns this week.

Incidentally, in Googling Rush Rhees, president of the university from 1900 to 1935, I discovered that he had a son, also named Rush Rhees. During his father's tenure, Rush Rhees the Younger was expelled from the university for asking, as Wikipedia puts it, "insolent questions." I would like to know what family dinners were like after that. He moved to the UK, became best friends with Wittgenstein, and ended up at Cambridge, so I guess you could say it worked out for him.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dioramas at the RMSC

The best thing about the RMSC, in my opinion, is the amount of dioramas. I happen to be a sucker for miniatures, but these really are quite impressive. The diorama of Rochester circa, um, The Olden Days (sometimes I forget to read the plaques) perfectly captures the interminable gray hopelessness of midwinter in western New York. I mean that in a good way. It's very artistic!

This is the Erie Canal, which used to go over the aquaduct in the middle of the city. The aquaduct is now the Broad Street Bridge, which crosses the Genesee. When I walked through the abandoned subway, I walked across the top of the aquaduct in the diorama -- Broad Street is on a layer above it. I have absolutely no idea what those buildings are. There was a diagram, but a small child was leaning on it and I thought it would be rude to shove him over to take a picture.

And this is a view down Fitzhugh Street, which crosses Main two streets over from Exchange. I'm pretty sure none of these buildings are there anymore, except possibly for the church on the left. I wouldn't know Fitzhugh Street from any other random street downtown, but GoogleMaps and RocWiki suggest that that church is St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene Episcopal Church, standing since 1824.

But the purpose of including this picture was really to point out the birds circling the steeple of the church on the right. Nice touch.

I suspect this is an early mill at High Falls. I forgot to read the plaque again. I get so excited by the tiny little frozen people! Undoubtedly this mill burned down at some point; such is the fate of all mills.

Interestingly (or not, according to your tastes), there was an exhibit in Rare Books at work where you could go and see a sketch of High Falls from before the area was settled. Oh look, they were kind enough to put it on their website where I can steal it. Voila:

This is cute for two reasons: (1) The artist put himself in his own sketch. (2) The artist is wearing a tricorner hat. What's less cute is that this guy, as I recall, was led to this place by a helpful Native American guide, whose people were soon thereafter cheated out of all their land, bit by bit.

But back in the days before Europeans came and quite literally ruined everything, the RMSC tells us that there was a lot of this going on:

There are several dioramas like these, all of which are really cool, but this is my favorite. I wish I knew who was involved in making it, because I would like to give them credit. These figures are incredibly charming.

These, I think, are Iroquois. Again, I did not read anything. But they're making longhouses so it seems like a safe bet. There are also, among others, Pueblo Indians, Plains Indians, and what I think are Pacific Northwest Indians. I'm confused as to why we have totem poles here when they are apparently a tradition in the Pacific Northwest, but I guess it's possible Wikipedia might be leaving stuff out. You'd think someone with access to nine gazillion reference resources would be able to figure this out, but it's 9:30 and I'm tired.

Lest these lovely dioramas suggest otherwise, I want to reiterate that the RMSC should still be considered creepy by including this . . . lovely creature.

The fact that he is fake and comes with his surroundings attached to his feet means he counts as a tiny little diorama of his own. A creepy one. If you are sensitive to the idea of primitive mammals crawling all over the earth, I recommend skipping the geological history and heading straight for the local history dioramas. They are very soothing.

Monday, May 16, 2011

This is a new game called "RMSC Exhibits: Cool or Creepy?"

The creepiest museum experience I ever had was in the Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh. Do not let the name fool you; it was no place for children. I had gone to Scotland with a friend, who had left early so as not to miss a lecture in York. I spent the extra day by myself in Edinburgh, which was quite a success until I entered the Museum of Childhood. All I can remember now is wandering around the fourth floor of this dilapidated old building that smelled of ancient dust and decaying linen. It was shortly before closing and the building was entirely deserted except for me and the person issuing tickets downstairs. I found myself alone, in utter silence, surrounded by cases and cases of dead-eyed dolls. After a while it's inevitable that you think Wouldn't it be terrible if I saw one blink? And then of course you can't be absolutely certain you haven't. It's one thing to see a single creepy old doll and try to process the fact that the child who played with it already grew up and died a hundred years ago, but to be surrounded by such a concentration of mortality was too much for me and I hightailed it out of there as quickly as if the dolls were actually chasing me, to pull me into the other side of the glass case and make me one of them.

This subsequently became one of my favorite memories of Edinburgh. There's nothing like being scared to death by dolls whilst alone in a foreign country! Except for being scared to death by life-sized human replicas in your local science museum when you are a young child! Actually, I don't ever remember being scared to death in the RMSC, but the creepiness-potential is very high there. Whenever you combine low lights, a low budget, and the smell of old stuff in a bizarre, rambling structure, you have the ideal conditions for creepiness. Some things are outright creepy, like ceremonial masks with four-foot-long noses, and some things possess a more subtle creepiness that accumulates with time: simply the age of certain exhibits creep me out because they are clearly old, and since I remember them from when I was quite young, I can only conclude that I am aging.

Then there are some things that are just inexplicable, like the amount of taxidermy. My friends and I were forced to assume that the driving force behind the founding of this museum was the necessity of housing someone's taxidermy collection. All the exhibits incorporate taxidermy whether or not it is entirely appropriate. The natural history section? Fine. The brief display on hunting in the Native American section? Smacks of "What shall we do with this extra beaver?" but tolerably logical. The raccoon in the rafters in the Underground Railroad cabin? Someone was definitely trying to stow that sucker where no one would notice. And then there are the squirrels. Oh, the squirrels.

This squirrel lives in the tundra. It is being hunted by a pack of the slavering zombie musk oxen that were prevalent in these parts following the last ice age.

This squirrel lives in a northern hardwood forest. It has been here for eight thousand years. It has spent this period evolving a second sense for popping out of garbage cans just as you are passing by, to make you jump. It has also evolved the ability to laugh at you silently.

This squirrel lives in an orange box, where it is ALWAYS WATCHING.

Were there other animals, you ask? Why, yes; the RMSC is a veritable zoo of death! Among my favorites, there is this beaver

who looks as though he would happily invite you over for a spot of tea and a nibble of something because he is feeling a bit eleven o'clockish, and by the way have you seen Mrs. Tiggywinkle yet today only his waistcoat needs starching before dear old Toad gives his soiree this evening. In all sincerity, I really don't believe beavers were anatomically intended to lean in quite that way, as if they are having a chat with the neighbor.

Then there is this lovely specimen, whom I accused of having no beak, but in fact they all look like this; their beak is sort of hidden in their feathers. What you may think is its beak is a twig in the background. To all appearances it really is beakless, which is quite unsettling.

Oh, I just realized we are supposed to be playing a game. Squirrels: creepy, creepy, creepy. Beaver: more hinky than creepy. Parrot: creepy. Underwater organisims?

Totally cool. However, assortment of old shoes in the local history section?

Creepy. Old shoes come in a close second after two-hundred year old dolls on the scale of creepy things. When they are two-hundred-year-old children's shoes, they're tied. (HAHAHAHA.)

The Native American exhibit is creepy because of its uncanny familiarity, like all things that surface from way, way back in the mists of your childhood. This is a replica of Tadodaho, Onondaga chieftan, who was physically twisted and had crazy hair, and was believed by his people to be a sorcerer. He stood in the way of Hiawatha's attempts to negotiate peace between all the Iroquois tribes; every time Hiawatha held a council, one of his daughters died. Eventually, Hiawatha combed the snakes out of Tadodaho's hair and untwisted his body, and he became a great leader. The leader of the six nations of the Iroquois is still called Tadodaho.

Exhibit: creepy through no fault of its own. Tadodaho: cool.

You may think the next one deserves to be categorized as creepy, but that would be a mistake. It is undoubtedly cool.

It is a tooth-studded belt made by Alaskan Eskimos. Let's have a close-up:

Before we jump to any horrified conclusions, I'm pretty sure these are baby teeth. But they must be the baby teeth of the entire community collected over many years, because it is a rather long belt.

Most everything else was cool, which is why I will save it all for another post. I do have two last creepy things to share before I go, however. This actually goes beyond creepy and, in my opinion, beyond horrible:

This is an orange flavored HotLix "with cricket." Second ingredient: "cricket." Why would you buy this? Why would you sell this? Why would you make this? These are the questions we asked ourselves, except for Matt, who has apparently always wanted to eat a chocolate-covered grasshopper. The second creepy thing is of course Matt:

This was a temporary exhibit. Nobody knows of what.

Curiously, what I remember finding genuinely creepy in the RMSC did not creep me out at all this time. The local history section is full of life-sized figures set up as if they are going about their day. A lady is buying something at the general store; a dentist is yanking a boy's tooth, much to his distress; Hiram Sibley is sitting in his telegraph office growing an ill-advised beard. There is nothing creepy about it, which makes me wonder why, in my memory, this exhibit is completely different. I remember wandering through a large, deserted room at the end of a long hallway -- not unlike being on the fourth floor of that Chucky museum -- and passing by all these caged figures, who would move in the corner of your eye. Then again, I also remember them being mannequins, which they clearly were not. I'm beginning to think I prefer museums to be creepy, and will create creepiness when I find it lacking in reality.

That having been said, there were several witnesses to the fact that if you shut yourself in the closet of the Underground Railroad cabin, you could hear a telltale heart thudding all around you. RMSC: Creepy.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


One thing I have not yet figured out how to fix on this stupid blog is making pictures fit the width of the main text. These are being cut off on the right. But they look dumb when they're smaller. I'll have to work on that. In the meantime, if you like cherry blossoms, click on the images to see them in their natural (large) state.

These cherry trees line the quad that I walk through on the way to the library. They're blooming late this year and are just in time for graduation, which would be lovely if it weren't almost guaranteed to pour that day. Every time I get near a graduation, it rains. Sorry, kids.

Monday, May 09, 2011

I never liked ants on a log, but I have all this leftover celery.

Fun facts:

1. This is not horrible if your ant-to-log ratio is somewhere around 370:1.

2. After you eat this, you will hear Raffi singing in your head.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Is it just me or do the hedgehogs look Vulcan?

I have put up a new header for spring, since it has finally arrived on the east coast (more or less). If this were an accurate depiction of this spring, it would just be blue. For water. Because we have been having some kind of freak monsoon. That certainly would have been easier. You would think by now I could draw a hedgehog. They have a simple shape and all you really need to recognize one is its little upturned nose. But I had a dreadful time creating anything that didn't look like an ROUS. And now when I look at it, I realize I got the ears wrong somehow. Perhaps I should add in a tag line about living long and prospering. At least they lean towards Vulcan and not Ferengi.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Kristin Lavransdatter and A Novel Bookstore

As I mentioned a few months ago, I have been making a special effort to read more translations. I recently finished two, A Novel Bookstore (which is French) and Kristin Lavransdatter (which is Norwegian). Both, coincidentally, came to me by way of my grandmother, who has good taste.

Kristin Lavransdatter takes place in Norway at the end of the thirteenth century, and follows the rather checkered life of Kristin Daughter-of-Lavrans. I can't be much more specific because it covers her entire lifetime and the plot is a bit diffuse. It is remarkable in many ways, of which I shall pick three and sum up:

1. It is the most lifelike account of life that I've ever read. There are no ridiculous coincidences, laughable plot twists, or miraculous saves. It meanders along just like life does, and sometimes things happen and sometimes they don't. The characters are consistent even as they evolve, and their behavior is utterly believable.

2. It is the most historically accurate book I've ever read. Or so I strongly believe; I am not an expert in medieval Norway so I can't swear to it, but it seems awfully well-researched. I was also extremely impressed by Undset's representation of the medieval mind. The difference between Sigrid Undset and other historical fiction writers like, oh, I don't know, let's say Dorothy Dunnett, is that Undset's characters definitely have never heard of Freud, and Dunnett's have. Obviously they make no overt reference to him, but their awareness of their own psychology is, I think, very modern. It is very difficult to put yourself in a historical mind, and Undset did it without ever faltering.

3. It won Sigrid Undset a Nobel Prize, in spite of the fact that she is a woman and it is entirely about a woman. These days, if you write fiction about a woman, and she has a family, it is called "domestic" and you can expect very little attention even if you are very good -- if you're a woman yourself. When men do it, it's "insightful." So I was pleased that in 1928, the Nobel Committee was wise enough to recognize that it is not just a technical masterpiece, but an important story. I would have said the odds of that happening were very long. But that is what an accomplishment it is.

The other book is A Novel Bookstore which could not be more different. It is a much lighter and shorter read, with a more focused plot. It's about a group of people who love good novels so much they decide to open a bookstore that only stocks books they deem to be "good." There is a vicious backlash from a surprisingly large number of people who find this to be unacceptable snobbery, including publishers, other booksellers, newspapers, and writers whose books were not chosen to be in the store. Basically, this book agrees with everything I have ever thought about the book-publishing and book-selling business, so I 100% loved it. Also, it was very satisfying to be in a world where good books are a life-or-death issue.

The best parts of the book are about the logistics of setting up the bookstore. That may sound boring, but it was like being in on the thought process during the creation of the best bookstore that could ever be imagined. Needless to say, I was enthralled. My favorite part is one character's manifesto about the importance of good books:

"We have no time to waste on insignificant books, hollow books, books that are here to please.

"We have no time for those sloppy, hurried books of the 'Go on, I need it for July, and in September we'll give you a proper launch and sell one hundred thousand copies, it's in the bag' variety.

"We want books that are written for those of us who doubt everything, who cry over the least little thing, who are startled by the slightest noise.

"We want books that cost their authors a great deal, books where you can feel the years of work, the backache, the writer's block, the author's panic at the thought that he might be lost: his discouragement, his courage, his anguish, his stubbornness, the risk of failure he has taken.

"We want splendid books, books that immerse us in the splendor of reality and keep us there; books that prove to us that love is at work in the world next to evil, right up against it, at times indistinctly, and that it always will be, just the way that suffering will always ravage hearts. We want good novels."

We also want more translations.