Thursday, February 1, 2018

THE NATURE OF THE BEAST by Louise Penny: a chilling conversation

I love Louise Penny's novels about Three Pines, Qu├ębec: a Brigadoon-like village near the Vermont border full of friendship, good food, warm fires, beautiful scenery--and the occasional murder. Penny can terrify you, though more often she makes you chuckle. With a perspicacious eye for character, she can also amaze you with her insights.

I recently came across this chilling conversation in The Nature of the Beast (2015). Retired Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is questioning a physics professor about a suspect, Gerald Bull. The professor speaks first:
"... no one really worked with Gerald Bull. It might start out that way, but eventually you found yourself working for him."

"Were you working for him when he came up with the plans for the Supergun?"

"No. I left when he began using the Soviets as a back door to sell his arms. He wasn't very smart."

"Is that why you left? Fear you'd get caught?"

"No. I left because it was wrong. ... Gerald Bull was the consummate salesman, and completely without a conscience."

"Why did you just say that he wasn't very smart?" asked Gamache.

"He made some stupid choices, like cozying up to the Soviets. He had an outsized ego that told him he was smarter than other people."

No, Ms Penny is not alluding to Donald Trump.

[Hand-colored woodcut, 1523,
for Martin Luther's New Testament]
She most likely wrote this passage in late 2014 before Trump had begun exploring the possibility of running for president. And, while Trump's connections to Russia had been going on for decades, they were not yet a matter of public speculation.

Penny's stories tend to have literary, not political, themes, and this book is no exception. In it she frequently mentions an image from the biblical book of Revelation, chapters 17 and 18: the great whore who--riding a fearsome seven-headed beast--glorifies herself and lives luxuriously, consorts with kings and merchants, helps them become rich and powerful, and deceives all nations.

But don't feel bad if your first thought was that the passage referred to Trump, not the great whore. Feel bad because the two have so much in common.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Trump wall everyone will love

Here's an idea for President Trump and his supporters. Let's build an impenetrable border wall around maybe a third of the United States. Make sure that no immigrants can enter. Make equally sure that no Democrats (or Republicans, for that matter) who favor universal healthcare can enter. Likewise, don't allow any Democrats (or Republicans) who favor gun limitation and regulation to breach the wall.

To live inside the walled paradise, you must be an American citizen who wants to pay for your own healthcare or health insurance with no help from the government, or to go without healthcare altogether. You must own a gun, because only good guys with guns can stop bad guys with guns. And you must be willing for everyone inside the wall to get any kind of weapon they wish to have. Don't worry - since everyone inside the wall will be a Trump supporter too, there won't be any bad guys to contend with. (Pssst - you can keep out people who aren't white, if you wish. I mean, you'll be armed. Heck, you can keep out anyone you don't like.)

Only thing is, you must stay inside the wall. Well, unless you change your mind and unaccountably want to have your guns regulated (or, in some cases, even confiscated) and be forced to buy health insurance. Insurance that would help your neighbor but might never help you! And you'd have to live with all those people you don't like. Some of them don't even speak English! Would you really want to do that?

I mean, look at the financial advantage of living inside your walled community. Treating gunshot wounds costs American hospitals some $2.8 billion a year. That adds up to a lot of insurance premiums. If you choose not to buy health insurance, you won't have to pay a dime of it! But anyway, since you'll all be armed, gunshot wounds won't be a problem. I mean, who would shoot an armed person, right?

And here's the best part - you won't have to pay for this paradise yourself. Tell those immigrant-loving, gun-hating, socialist-healthcare-promoting Democrats (and Republicans) that you'd like your own walled country, and they'll jump at the chance to build it for you!

And then, finally, you can make America - or at least your walled-off portion of it - great again.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017


Ancient Egyptians brought skeletons to their feasts, exhorting guests to drink and make merry while they still could. American Puritans in the 17th century kept skulls as warnings to sober up and focus on the afterlife. Memento mori, the gruesome reminders were called: remember that you must die. People died suddenly, and young. They wanted to be prepared. 

Nina Riggs did not feel prepared when she learned that a small spot in her breast was malignant. Cancer ran in her family: it had taken three grandparents and several aunts, and her mother was in treatment for multiple myeloma. But Riggs was only 37. Her sons, Freddy and Benny, were eight and five; she was not ready to leave them. Merrymaking had its place, but it didn’t address her concerns. And the afterlife, if it existed, was unknowable.

That's how my review of Riggs's The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying begins. It's in the Fall Books issue of The Christian Century, and you can read the rest here for a few more days. After that, the magazine will likely put the review behind a firewall that can be breached only by paid subscribers.

It's a short review; you have time to click and read. Seize the day. Enjoy the now. That's what Riggs advises. In the words of her great-great-great-grandfather Ralph Waldo Emerson, she wanted to be "cheered with the moist, warm glittering, budding and melodious hour that takes down the narrow walls of my soul and extends its pulsation and life to the very horizon. That is morning; to cease for a bright hour to be a prisoner of this sickly body and to become as large as the World."

Reviewers don't always like the books they describe, but I loved this one.

Monday, October 2, 2017

10 reasons I'm giving up Facebook

Some of my friends use Facebook judiciously. Some, like me, spend far too much time on it. And clearly some, also like me, feel worse and worse because of what they see there.

If Facebook is making your life better, far be it from me to criticize. I suspect, however, that it is stripping joy from my life. Here are ten reasons I'm planning to stay off Facebook indefinitely.

1. Time on Facebook is time not reading books.
2. Reading about friends’ lives is great; seeing all the articles they liked, not so much.
3. The barrage of memes, games, quizzes, and “sponsored” stuff continually increases.
4. Call it “recommended for you,” it’s still an ad.
5. Facebook is a rich mine of information for marketers, scammers, thieves, and election fraudsters.
6. Facebook is an ideal platform for liars and haters.
7. Facebook widens divisions and calcifies opinions.
8. It is painful to see friends fall for propaganda from unknown or unreliable sources.
9. It is futile to point out facts to people who prefer ideology.
10. Constant attention to the president and Congress deepens depression. 

I'm hoping that, in the absence of Facebook, I'll spend more time in the physical world, having actual conversations with flesh-and-blood people. I'm hoping I'll pet more living, breathing kittens and puppies, see more sunshine on leaves and lakes, smell more fresh-baked bread, listen to more happy music.

Maybe once I’ve regained Paradise I’ll give Facebook another try: I do love hearing from far-flung friends and seeing pictures of their activities, their families, and their pets.

Meanwhile, I encourage friends and family to stay in touch via phone calls, emails, texts, and actual meet-ups. Then I might never need to imperil my soul by going back to Facebook.

Anyone for lunch?

Thursday, August 3, 2017

RIP editor Judith Jones: She brought us Anne Frank, Julia Child, and many others

[Jones & Child; photo by Boston Globe]
From yesterday's New York Times:
Judith Jones, the editor who discovered Julia Child and advanced a generation of culinary writers that revolutionized cooking and tastes in American homes, and who for a half-century edited John Updike, Anne Tyler, John Hersey and other literary lions, died on Wednesday at her summer home in Walden, Vt. She was 93.
Nearly ten years ago, I reviewed Jones's memoir, The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, in [the late] Books and Culture magazine. Her book is still available, and I highly recommend it--especially if you love books, food, and Julia Child. If you like, you can read my review here.

The NYT obit writer and I chose the same wonderful quotation to end our articles. Here's my version:
Quoting an Italian saying, "At the table one never grows old," [Jones] asks, "Isn't that reason enough to come home at the end of the day, roll up one's sleeves, fire up the stove, and start smashing the garlic?"
Garlic, known universally as the stinking rose. Gather ye garlic cloves while ye may...

Sunday, July 23, 2017

RIP Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, 30 May 2000 (more or less) - 22 July 2017

Tiggy yesterday morning
The rescue ladies weren’t sure we deserved Tiggy.

Her first two years had been rough. Someone had taken her to an overcrowded Chicago animal shelter because, they said, they had “too many dogs.” When the rescue ladies found her there, she was matted and frightened and obese—a common ailment in dogs who have had poor nutrition. Spring her from the shelter, they thought, clean her up, feed her good food, give her lots of love, and she’ll make somebody a nice pet. Ten days later, she gave birth to four puppies.

Well, that solved the weight problem.

Tiggy was a good mom, so good her foster mom, Pat, thought she probably had raised puppies at least once before. And Tiggy was a good dog. Pat adored her. Whoever wanted Tiggy would have to pass a thorough inspection.

Alas, Tiggy wasn’t at her best the day we went to meet her. In just one week she had weaned her puppies, sent them off to college, and had a hysterectomy. And now Pat, her best friend, was letting strange people take her for walks around a huge and frightening pet store. “She’s a very honest dog,” Pat told us, and the hormonally challenged, terrified terrier honestly saw no reason to befriend us. “She’s probably not for us,” I said.

But for a week I couldn’t get Tiggy out of my mind. On paper she was exactly the dog we were looking for: a small but sturdy young adult female of good character. Maybe love at first sight wasn’t required. Maybe she really was the dog for us. I phoned Pat. “Probably not,” she said. “We don’t trust you. This dog needs a permanent home that is totally committed to her. She’s been tossed around enough in her short life.”

“That’s why I didn’t say yes last week,” I said. “I didn’t want to take her unless I was sure. Now I’m sure. If you’ll let us …”

Bless Pat, she let us, despite her misgivings. And Tiggy was a challenge. We named her Mrs Tiggy-Winkle after Beatrix Potter’s eponymous hedgehog, but she seemed to have no concept of names (had nobody ever called her anything?). She suffered from major separation anxiety: if we left her alone in her crate for even a few minutes, she’d get the runs. If we left her loose in the bedroom, she would try to chew down the door (at least that approach removes tartar). Car rides made her sick. She was afraid of brooms. She smelled bad. And that was just the first week.

Very soon, however, we observed small changes. She’d look up when her name was called. She’d agree to stay by herself for fifteen minutes, gradually lengthening the time she could spend on her own without panicking. She’d get excited when it was time to go for a walk (and wasn’t it always time?). The old smell of fear went away. She began offering tentative kisses.

Before our eyes she was turning into a typical little terrier—trusting, curious, impulsive, talkative, eager, playful, affectionate. She started telling us that we were, sadly, rather boring. So we brought her a lovely young cat who, we were told, enjoyed playing with dogs. Mistake! Over the course of a week or two, the two of them started dozens of games, but they couldn’t agree on the rules. Eventually the traumatized kitty found peace with a large, placid dog who never transformed into a guided missile heading straight for her.

Muffin & Tiggy, 2008
In April 2003, we changed our approach and brought her a small dog. Thus began an eleven-year symbiotic relationship. On walks, Tiggy announced every dog we passed; if the other dogs were big enough, Muffin lunged at them. At home, Tiggy learned obedience (loosely speaking) through repetition; Muffin learned by observing which of Tiggy’s actions led to treats. Together, the 12-pound miniature schnauzer mix (Tiggy) and the 10-pound toy poodle mix (Muffin) learned how to occupy the entire vast middle of a king-sized bed.

Muffin died in late 2014. By then Tiggy was 14 years old, losing her hearing, losing her teeth, and losing her compulsion to comment on every passing butterfly—but still eagerly looking forward to frequent long walks around the neighborhood.

In recent months Tiggy slept a lot. In March of this year, she had extensive dental surgery, from which she quickly recovered. But a couple of weeks ago, the problem returned. Something pathological was happening in her jaw and affecting her left eye as well. Terriers don’t like to complain, so we don’t know how much it hurt. But it was only going to get worse, and she was no longer a candidate for surgery.

With heavy hearts, we made the dreaded final appointment with her doctor. We still had a morning to spend together, so I took Tiggy for her last one-mile walk. It was a slow walk, but she enjoyed sniffing the grass (so many dogs!) and touching noses with a neighbor’s baby dachshund. Then to the office of her kindly vet where, at noon yesterday, she “gave up the ghost, and died in a good old age, an old [dog], and full of years; and was gathered to [her] people.”

Yesterday and today, we’ve been going through hundreds of photos and reminiscing about her younger days. There she is, climbing into the dishwasher to be sure every plate is well rinsed. Methodically tossing sofa and bed pillows to the floor. Playing tug-o’-war with David and doing physical therapy exercises with me. Levitating onto tables bearing unguarded food. Arranging pieces of kibble in formations that look like interrupted games of battleship. Snuggling next to many of her human friends. A good dog. An honest dog. A beloved dog.

Rest in peace, little one. Or, if you’d rather, go chase a rabbit. You won’t catch it, but you can run forever. Where you have gone, there are no fences.

Friday, May 12, 2017

How to get perfect avocados nearly every time (public service announcement)

California Girl here. Been eating avocados voraciously for over 65 years. Could have started even younger: some of my grandbabies, as it happens, loved them from the get-go.

Not hard to choose. Not hard to know when ready. Do this and you'll rarely go wrong.

1. Buy only rock-hard avocados. If you need something for today's salad, get something else instead. Ripe avocados in grocery stores are almost always bruised and turning brown inside. Maybe even stringy. Yuck. Bonus tip: Trader Joe's avocados are usually the best. Often the cheapest, too.

2. Let your avocado ripen on your countertop, in a bowl, or in a fruit basket, away from direct sunlight. Sometimes it takes only a day. Sometimes it takes a week. Be patient.

3. Check your avocado daily. To do this, apply very light pressure near the stem. When you feel a little give near the stem, the avocado is ready. Don't wait until the whole avocado feels soft.

4. Eat your avocado as soon as its ready. It will keep till dinnertime, but don't wait another day. As Elvis Presley said, Tomorrow will be too late ... it's now or never.

Avocado hacks
If you wait too long and the avocado is a bit too soft inside for your taste, scoop out the meat and mash it up with a little salt and a squirt of fresh lemon or lime juice (not too much). If you like, you can add finely diced tomato, chilies, and/or jicama. Maybe that's what you'd planned to do anyway. It will be fine.

If you cut too soon, stop cutting! You'll know after the initial stab if there's too much resistance. Close up the avocado, bind its wounds with duct tape (really! I am not making this up!), and leave it to ripen another day or two. There's a good chance it will be fine.

You may also want to check this out:
"How to fix an avocado without drawing blood"