Sunday, December 11, 2011

Fake Trees and Real

This is not my family nor my tree. (Image courtesy of

We used the same artificial Christmas tree year after year throughout my entire childhood, dragging its musty box out of the cellar or garage every year and shaping the limbs into verisimilitude before decorating it.

At least we weren't the people with the silver foil Christmas tree.

I swore that when I grew up, I'd have a  real tree. And I did for many years.

The Hat Tree (1981)

At the young-adult flop house where I did most of my young-adult partying, we had a real Christmas tree that we left up for months and months after Christmas came and went.

We did eventually take off the ornaments, then covered it with hats and called it a hat tree.

Happily, though there was plenty of smoking going on around it, this little fire hazard never burned the flop house down.

Top-Heavy Tree (1984)

A couple of years later, I moved west to California and lived in the legendary Casa de Montgomery in Santa Cruz.

It was a boarding house of sorts, with a colorful history. It had originally been an old country estate, later turned monastery, turned mental hospital, turned low-rent boarding house.

By the time I met the Casa, it was a decrepit Spanish-style estate with a long industrial-utilitarian hospital wing extending from it. It had fallen into disrepair and was occupied by university students, aimless young people like myself, divorcees and people or various ages who were on the dole.

When Christmas rolled around, we residents put up a tree and decorated it. But sometime in the night, the tree fell over with a crash, ornamens rolling and pine needles scattering across the floor.

I was very troubled by this at the time, making vague analogies of this event to my lifestyle: top heavy, pretty to look at but lacking in a solid foundation.

That was the same year I went to the beach on Christmas day and made a sandman. California living...

Trees of Life (1990-1996)

When my kids were little, we always had a live tree, which we tried to plant again afterwards, but I don't know if any of them survived the ordeal of being brought into the warm indoors like a pet, then thrust back out into the harsh elements.

Under one of those trees, my partner planted the placenta that had nourished my elder son throughout his gestation. A no-longer-needed organ, full of nutrients that could now nourish that little tree instead.

One of those live trees I kept in its pot on the front porch after Christmas was done and it stayed there all year long like front-porch topiary. When Christmas rolled around again, I pulled the whole tree, pot and all, back inside for decorating.

Snow Tree (2002)

Years later, I remarried, and my new husband, plus his two kids and my two kids, journeyed up Trinity Mountain Road to hunt for our tree, all bundled up for snow.

This was a wonderful, beautiful day which stands out in my memory. So much laughing, snow up to our knees, crisp, bright winter wonderland.

The kids found the right tree, my husband cut it down, and the kids dragged it back to the truck, where hot chocolate in a thermos awaited us.

Sadly, that marriage didn't work out. No one ever really got along. His kids moved out almost immediately, and after that mine went to live with their own dad awhile. And eventually the marriage itself was casualty.

But that day in the snow, we were all together like a real, hopeful and happy family of six.

Simplifying (2007)

One summer, at a yard sale, I found an artificial tree, still in the box, tall and slender, with built-in lights. It was like a miracle: just pop it up like an umbrella, plug it in and voila! The best 20 bucks I ever spent.

We use this tree every year now and cover it in homey Swedish-style decorations. I understand now where my parents were coming from with their fuss-free fake tree.

My elder son, who has his own family now, has a real tree at Christmastime, I noticed. The circle continues...

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Vanilla Tales

Image courtesy of UCLA Biomedical Library, Spice Collection

Once upon a time, vanilla was my term for anything ordinary, mainstream or unembellished. I used the word disparagingly, with contempt for all things that swam downstream or failed to stand out.

But that was before I understood vanilla. Vanilla, my friends, is anything but ordinary. In fact, vanilla is exotic, legendary and downright sexy.

Did you know, for example, that a vanilla bean is the fruit of a gorgeous, curvaceous orchid that only grows naturally in the tropics of Mexico, where it has a delicate, symbiotic relationship with a certain vine and a certain bee?
Image courtesy andesamazon,org
Anywhere else it manages to grow nowadays, it is being pollinated by hand. This high-maintenance substance is the second most expensive spice next to saffron. A single vanilla bean costs about $3 in Safeway, but aficionados can find more affordable options online.
 Image courtesy of the National Museum of Mexican Art
Local legend in Mexico says that the first vanilla orchid sprang up from the shed blood of a heartsick princess. Old medical texts call it an aphrodisiac, and modern science tells us it is possibly even addictive.

Hernan Cortes, image courtesy Wikipedia
Vanilla came to Europe at the hands of a conquistador. It was an adolescent slave-boy who first thought to try hand-pollinating it, thus making it possible for us here in the US to be cavalierly adding it to our cookies and ice cream today.

Last year at Christmas, my sister put a single vanilla bean in my stocking, encased in a small, glass spice jar.
 It took me an entire year to get around to making my own vanilla extract, which I did last night.

Last night was my first tactile, sensual experience with a raw vanilla bean. When I opened the spice jar, the powerful creamy aroma burst into the room and settled in my hands and hair. I can still smell it in my apartment this morning.

I had a wide-mouth jar of brandy, sweetened with agave nectar, ready and waiting when I took the long brown vanilla pod from the jar, marveling at its pliable texture. I split it lengthwise to reveal the dark mass of pulpy black seeds inside.

I dropped the opened bean into the sweet brandy and sealed the jar tight. It's now languishing in the dark cupboard for the next few weeks until it's ready to use.

What I really want to make now is vanillinsocker (vanilla sugar), an amazing substance I discovered in Sweden while making whipped cream for pankakor.

Vanillin socker is strongly aromatic powdered sugar used in baking the way Americans use vanilla extract and the way Germans use vanillezucker, which is vanilla scented granulated sugar.

I recently used the last of the canister of vanillinsocker I brought back from Sweden in 2009 and I'd like to replace it with a natural handmade substitute. So that's going to be my next endeavor.

I'll let you know how that goes.

In the meantime, please read the ingredients carefully on the package of vanilla you are using, whether it is extract, socker or zucker. Avoid artificial flavorings of any kind, which seduce and inure our tastebuds with falsity and aliencate us to the delicate flavors nature has to offer.

Check out the nanofoods section of PBS' "Need to Know" page to see how widespread chemically engineered flavor enhancers are going to be in the coming years.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Someone Else's Dream

(Image "Masquerade" by Thomas Barbey)
Last night I had the strangest dream. I woke up from it sobbing in grief, but it wasn't my dream.

Of course, it was a bubble from my own subconscious, but it's just flotsam, or empathy, for an old acquaintance I spoke with last night on the phone.

Should I tell you my dream, or should I tell you the horrible Job-like story of my acquaintance's life? Let's start with the dream.

The Dream
I was in a hardware store talking with a friendly old man wearing little, round, thick-lensed glasses. He and I traded glasses and I realized I could see through his. We were laughing about that, but I was thinking, "Wow, my eyesight is as bad as an 85-year-old man's!"

Then his wife came up to me then, peered at me closely and said, "What are you, about 50?" All I could say was "No!" but instead of volunteering my true age, I walked away, into the back room and burst into tears.

That's when I woke up crying.

I have always looked younger than my true age. The paradigm I am used to in such encounters is that I volunteer my age and people don't believe me, they think I am much younger.

My mother was the same way, so young-looking she could  get away with lying about her age by 10 years or more. Which she did until the time came when she was prouder of her good health than of her beauty.

Whose Dream It Really Was
This acquaintance of mine is someone I knew in junior high and young adulthood. I lost touch with her or a decade or two and then found her again about three years ago.

I know it's not possible for someone to be cursed, but this woman's life is a string of such terrible stories that it seems almost supernatural.

I do know that we bring many things upon ourselves through the choices we make. And that our attitude dictates how these experiences will be processed into our identity.

Many of the things that have happened to her over the years were her own fault, but the consequences now are so tremendous it seems like overkill, like the Biblical story of the boils and griefs that God and the devil afflicted Job with to test his faith.

Now she lives a quiet life and isn't harming anyone, but her health problems are overwhelming. The latest chapter in her saga is, all at the same time, congestive heart failure, an unsightly skin condition, an antibiotic-resistant staff infection and now, allopecia. Her hair is falling out.

A Wake of Tragedies
Her life history consists of a trail of sudden deaths and suicides in her wake. I could tell 10 tragic stories here, but this post would be too long.

She visits someone, she begins talking to them, she gets involved in their lives and starts giving them her twisted point of view, overriding their own opinions, giving them books to read, generalizing about men, society, politics, religion.

Her views are encased in wry humor, she seems simply edgy, but she is twisting the knife, digging out insecurities, finding evidence to support her view.

If the person she is talking to is vulnerable or wounded (they always are), their hope begins to dwindle.

If they don't get away from her as fast as possible, they soon die, either in an accident or by their own hand. In one case, someone murdered someone else before they committed suicide.

I'm not making this up and I am not exaggerating.I have seen it with my own eyes, over and over. She leaves a trail of death in her wake.

Beauty as a Weapon
Once she was rather pretty, not overly so, but.attractive enough that she made extra money as a prostitute for a few years.

Maybe that is how she managed to do so much damage. Maybe it was hard for people to believe that evil could reside in a pleasant-looking young woman.

Maybe she used her beauty as a weapon so much that destiny saw fit to divest her of it. Life has not been kind to her. What beauty she may have possessed has been stripped away. She looks 20 years older than she really is, her health is failing and her hope is fading.

Left Alone
She has been left all alone with no family, no friends, no lover.She lives alone in a house in the mountains, with no companions, only 3 dogs and a TV.

She has swindled her way into a life without work, but that has left her also without purpose, and her false disability has now become a true disability; now she is not healthy or strong enough to work.

Does evil know it's evil? Because she truly doesn't know. Is she a sociopath? Maybe so. She thinks all these things have happened to her, through no fault of her own.

She is in despair, asking Why? But not listening to the answer.

Seeds of Discontent, Web of Sympathy
Part of me fears connecting with her. My instincts tell me she is dangerous. Last time I went to visit her, my son's terrible accident happened while I was away. Every time I talk to her, seeds of discontent are planted in me.

Yet I can't bring myself to stop talking to her. I feel like I am the last thread that tethers her to humanity. I try to offer gentle advice about doing things differently, changing her attitude, but I see that is not possible.

My suggestions-- move into town to be around people, get involved in activities to make friends, stop smoking, change your diet, take up yoga, get a counselor-- only make her angry.

If I stop taking her calls or if I break our connection, what if she does herself in? Then there would be a suicide in my own wake.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Story of S: Found In Translation

My grandfather (center)
I was never into genealogy; that was my dad's thing, but he somehow managed to get me involved, one way or another, over the years.

Pappaw's WWI Journal
For example, when I was a teen he had me transcribe the little journal my grandfather Edwin Albert Anderson kept while he was trudging across France in the winter during World War I.

I painstakingly copied out those entries, which were terse and unembellished due to my grandfather's absolute physical exhaustion every day. He and his platoon marched miles in the rain and snow, dug miles of trenches, they stopped to get "deloused," they ate, and they slept.

There was no trace of my grandfather's gentle humor in those entries, nothing of what I remembered of my comfortable, smiling blue-eyed Pappaw, who had passed away when I was 7.

The Swedish Patrinymic Naming System
Some other project I did for my dad brought me into contact with the next generations back, Pappaw's parents, Augusta and Adolf Anderson, who came to America in the late 1880s, and their parents, who stayed behind in Sweden, and several generations before that.

And it was there in those records that I discovered something interesting that had a lasting impact on my life: the Swedish naming system, whereby children take as their last name the first name of their father + a possessive S + the word "son" or "dotter" depending on the child's gender. Andersson, Johansdotter, etc.

I looked up from my paper and thought with a smile, my name would be Karol Eddiesdotter.

Then suddenly it occurred to me, "Why is our name Anderson and not Andersson?"

When We Lost Our S
I searched through the records and saw exactly when that S was lost. It was when Adolf came to America. At the time, I thought some careless customs officer had misspelled Adolf's name and that some clerical error had followed my family, generation after generation to this day.

Within a year, I had changed my own name, first informally and later officially, to Andersson.

No one in my family batted an eyelash about this change, no one told me I was being disloyal to my family. To this day, everyone in my family, whose name is Anderson, spells my name Andersson. I love my family for that

But the story doesn't end there.

Lost Name, Found History
Much later, when my feminist principles had been tempered by time, I got married and took my husband's name for exactly 7 years. It was remarkably easy to change my name to his. Just show up at the social security office with a marriage certificate and wham, my name vanished like smoke.

It was during those years that I became interested in my Swedish heritage. It started as a hobby when I returned to college. I needed to furnish a cheap little Victorian apartment that I was going to occupy during the week while I attended school in Arcata. Because I had to furnish the place on the cheap, I patronized garage sales and thrift stores.

I found myself attracted to a certain kind of decor, which I didn't at first even recognize as Swedish kitsch. I would find something cute -- say, a colorful teakettle with "Kaffetaren den basta ar av alla jordiska drycker" (Coffee is the best of all earthly drinks) printed on the side -- and think, "Aw, this reminds me of my grandparents."

Soon my little apartment looked a lot like my grandparents' house, as does my apartment to this day.

Swedish Diaspora
Soon I began to study the Swedish language and culture. It became my hobby. Every time I got in the car to go somewhere, I was listening to audio recordings of Swedish language for beginners.

I also learned about the Swedish diaspora of the late 19th century and the social forces that drove more than a million Swedes (a third of the population) to the US: famine, loss of land, attractive opportunities in America, attractive ads offering jobs, jobs, jobs in places like Pennsylvania and Illinois, where Adolf and Augusta wound up.
Since Ellis Island did not open until 1892, I realized that Adolf and Augusta had entered the country (separately, unmarried, perhaps as strangers) at Castle Garden Immigrant Station.
Augusta made the journey with her younger brother, Algot. The two were coming to join their elder brother Bengt in Illinois.

A Likelier Story: New American Names
I began to see the story of our lost S in a whole new light, as more than a careless bureaucratic misspelling. Instead it probably went more like this:

After an exhausting passage, young Adolf who spoke almost no English was simply given his "new American name," Anderson. Maybe he was even proud; after all he was a young man, full of hope, setting out on the journey of his life.

But Augusta lost more than simply an S. The word -dotter was removed from her name, replaced with -son, which must have seemed odd to her, but then again, maybe exciting too, this new American name.

I have taught ESL and have seen more than half my students assign themselves an "American name." Attached to this impulse are probably the notions of fresh start, new identity, breaking with the past, forward progress and individualism.

The Irony of Going to Sweden without my S
In 2009, I went on a trip to Sweden without my name. It was after my divorce but before I could complete the name change process and regain my name.

Oddly, the process for changing your name after a divorce is much harder, involving $300 in court fees, a legal advertisement in the newspaper for six weeks, then a court hearing, then trips to the social security office, the DMV, the bank, etc.

So I had to go to Sweden with a name that said absolutely nothing about who I am, not only without my precious extra S that identified me as a Swedish American, but without even my Americanized Swedish name.

It was my dad's genealogy projects that allowed me to wind up in Sweden. I was in search of some information for my dad, and the amateur genealogist who translated the parish records for us also hosted my visit there.

He showed me many historical and relevant things that allowed me to understand the emigrant experience. Yes, emigrant, not immigrant, because suddenly I saw Augusta's and Adolf's stories as stories of leaving Sweden instead of stories of arrival.

Found in Translation
Over time, I have formed a special bond with these ancestors I never met, particularly Augusta who fascinates me enough that I have a whole story in my head (part fact, part fiction) that needs to get written one of these days.

The next project my dad gave me felt climactic in a way I can hardly describe, as if everything I had discovered, however serendipitously, led to a single, seemingly modest but deeply meaningful activity.

My dad sent me a letter to translate, a letter Augusta wrote in 1930 to her son, my grandfather Edwin. It was several pages of scrawled, often misspelled Swedish that tested my translation skills. I labored over it for a week, calling on every Swedish friend I had to sort out the meaning of certain phrases.

What I learned was that Augusta was an ordinary woman, a grieving mother whose youngest child had just died in a car accident when she wrote that letter. Her grief is nearly unbearable, though she barely hints at it as she writes matter-of-factly about practical things.

She is a wife trying to make ends meet, missing her other son who lives far away in Texas, sending a sweater to her dear little grandson, my dad.

I know what it's like to worry about your youngest child. I know what it's like to miss your grandchild. I know what it's like to worry about the future.

So in a sense, it was that first colorful little Swedish tea kettle I found on a dusty shelf in a Eureka thrift store led me to my great-grandmother.

And the force of my father's continual interest in family history has kept me safely tethered to my family in spite of distance and time.

It was an odd roundabout journey and it's hardly over.

But that's another story.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Curiosity and Peculiarity

One of the many cabinets of curiosities are Bonnier de la Mosson at the Bibliotèque centrale du Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle in Paris. I want to go there someday.

In all the years since the kids and I wandered through the exhibit called "Strecker's Cabinet" at Baylor University's Mayborn Museum, I have been fascinated with cabinets of curiosity.

In fact, if you've ever been in my home, you will not be surprised to find that I decorated it inspired by this image of a cabinet of curiosity, of the natural-history variety:
Cabinets of curiosity are just collections of odd things, artfully arranged. They were popular in the Victorian period, so sometimes when you see them, they have a decidedly steampunk flavor. Which is all in vogue right now, as it turns out.
Each artifact in these wondrous collections has a tale, no doubt. Each yellowed photograph, each shrunken head, each mystifying contraption tells a story about the wonders of our world, stories that resonated with the original collector, and probably died with him as well, leaving behind even more mysteries.
Imagine a collection of strange photos of children, each shadowy image of unsmiling childhood holding a world of mystery.
Imagine a dreamy writer getting hold of a handful of these odd photographs and laying them out like a deck of cards.

Suddenly a story comes to him, full force, start to finish, replete with plot, climax and dialogue. and not just a scene but a whole story.

That's how I imagine Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children coming into being, and from what I read in the back of the book, I'm not far off from the truth.
What an imaginative story, interesting, surprising and original from the start and becoming more so the more pages you turn.

"What next?" you wonder when you finish it, and you devour every word in the author's acknowledgments, in case another tidbit of the story might be located there.

As it turns out, more tidbits are located there: that the strange photos that punctuate the narrative are real, that those photos, combined with some stories of childhood escapes from Nazi-occupied Poland have inspired this story.

This is an extraordinary first novel, which has not even gone into paperback form yet and already the movie rights have already been sold.

Let me reiterate a point I made in a previous post: if you want a good story, I suggest shopping in the Young Adult Fiction section.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Still a Few Drops in the Well (I Hope)

After watching and listening to 9/11 stories on PBS and NPR for a week, I feel almost guilty to be publishing a non-9/11 post on this day, 10 years after nearly 3,000 people died in a terrorist attack. It's because my own 9/11 story is small and utterly insignificant; I comforted a little crew of children in a tiny rural elementary school in California as we waited for more news. I answered questions, even though I was confused myself. Hardly noteworthy, although like everyone I know, I remember the exact moment I heard the news for the first time.

No, instead I'm here to talk about unfinished writings and a well of inspiration that has become harder to access.

There are no fewer than five unposted posts, still waiting to be edited into publishable form.

Why haven't I posted them? Because they're just too... what? Personal? Revealing? It seems that our thoughts and meanderings are just not always publishable, able to be made public, unless we're political minded (I'm not) or some quirky do-it-yourself-er with a million ideas to share.

But why is it so hard to share lately?

Awhile back, I ran into a guy I see more often on Facebook than in real life, and he said with a sneer, "Your life is an open book." To be fair, this guy is someone with a sneering delivery in general, so it's tough to tell when he's actually sneering.

But it seemed to me his sneer implied that I'm some tiresome oversharer in the vein of this middle-aged returning student I once knew in college who used to simultaneously bore and horrify young students by regaling them with detailed accounts of her hysterectomy.

I ran into another guy recently who critiqued my life for being lived more on Facebook than in the here and now. Of course I have a full and imaginative life outside my time online, but maybe he's right that I spend too much time at the computer, not enough time interacting face-to-face. I do indeed wish I saw my friends more and especially my granddaughter.

When did imbalance of time happen? It was a side effect of grad school, being stranded in front of a computer for months on end researching and trying to write a thesis and dozens of other papers. In those dark times, being able to flip over to Facebook and say hi to friends, ask for quick advice, read about their lives in small manageable pieces, then I felt less alone and isolated.

Of course, the social network is incredibly useful. I'm lucky to have tons of analytical friends who would happily engage with helping me ponder some point in my thesis at 2 a.m. and honestly I don't think I could have survived that last semester without them, accessible only through the medium of Facebook.

The value of the social network can't be underestimated. In fact, that same guy who offered his critiques is unable at the moment to find a job or a girlfriend, in spite of his considerable employability and datability. He might find both if he would just expand his social network. (And yes, I know, the social network extends far beyond social networking sites.)

All this is leading up to a link I want to share, about blogging inspiration running dry and how to rekindle creativity. It's on a blog called Write to Done.

It made me think of the Bitten Apple, so hard for me to update lately, when I find all my own posts so uninteresting, whether they're book reviews, opinions, rants or memoirs. I''m sick of my own thoughts, finding them as tedious as someone else's hysterectomy stories. But I'm going to try to tap into the inspiration again, I promise.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Paradigm Shifts

It's only thanks to Chomsky that I even know the word "hegemony"
This morning, I visited a blog, Sey-Gep Hes, and read a post ("One of the Most Bizarre Cultural Practices in All Human History") that discusses race issues from the point of view of someone who is part Native American.

In addition to having a lot of interesting things to say, the writer was discouraged that he's gotten few responses to his previous post, "Going White," since the stated intention of the entire blog is to find "real dialogue."

So I responded with my views on the relative perceptibility of cultural hegemony to those who occupy the status quo, that it becomes more visible when it is shifting somehow or when one's place within it is shifting.

Wikipedia defines cultural hegemony as ("a philosophic and sociologic explanation of how, by the manipulation of the societal culture (value system), one social class dominates the other social classes of a society, with a world view justifying the status quo of bourgeois hegemony."

Anyway, here is what I wrote:

I completely understand the desire to spark discussion through your blog posts. Your analysis is thoughtful, and because of its length, could seem so thorough that readers may be unsure where to jump in, which of your many points to respond to.

I haven't yet read the original "Going White" post, but my first response is this:

Number of comments is not an indicator of how many sets of eyes read your words, how many minds are now ruminating with thoughts inspired by your thoughts, or how many lives or attitudes shift ever-so slightly as a result of interacting with your writing.

This is the beauty of published writing; it goes out there, for a short while or long depending on the medium, and resonates in ways the writer can't measure or control.

So let me think awhile about matters of race and white supremacy. I'm white and only become aware of it when someone brings it to my attention (the very definition of white supremacy). As an academic, I've thought and written about it in depth, but the nature of hegemony is that it's invisible to anyone who fits the bill.

Therefore, as a white woman, I notice gender issues more than race, the pressure to meet a societal standard and the assumptions I encounter as a woman, the limits and also the advantages of being female in our society.

And as a later-in-life college grad who for the first time in my life has employers vying (with money and status) for me, I am lately thinking about issues social and economic class. As opportunities arise to change my place in the class structure, they bring into focus my class values.

For example, as the question of buying a new car comes up, I notice I'm actually more comfortable with an old beat-up truck-- that actually, in my mind there is higher status in what a beat-up truck says about you than what a shiny car says about you.

And a shiny diamond ring on my finger would mean someone else is taking care of me, when in truth I take care of myself and am proud of that.

Voila, I had no idea until lately that I even felt this way.

So maybe hegemony gets more visible as things change. If white people start talking about race, I think it's an indicator that things are shifting. For example, the formation of a prominent group like the Tea Party seems like an indicator that the white-centric way of life is on the wane.

It took me a long time to start recognizing conservative vitriol as the ravings and gnashings of a cornered animal, but I believe that's exactly what it is.

So in a climate in which attitudes are shifting, at a time when the internet makes self-publishing possible, I think it's very important to have the thoughtful articulate writers like you addressing subjects like race, questioning hegemony and offering insight that allow others to question it as well -- in ways that are significant to them.

Thanks for giving me a chance to think about these things.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Hunger for a Good Read

All I really want is something good to read, but you'd think I was asking for the moon. After dabbling in the precarious stack of books by my bedside, I finally read one that caught my attention, The Hunger Games.

In fact, I then quickly read part two of the trilogy, Catching Fire, and ordered the third, Mockingjay, within minutes after reading the last page.

It seems strange that, after a master's-level study in English, the only literature that can hold my attention is Young Adult Fiction. And apparently the zeitgeist is in agreement, because according to Courtney at Blake's Books in McKinleyville, it's mostly adults reading this trilogy.

While I wait for Mockingjay to arrive, I browsed Blake's literature shelves for something to pacify my mind in the meantime. I rejected book after book with the most curious rationales: too psychological, too didactic, too long, too much of a commitment.

Hidden somewhere between those "too"s is the reason why I and many others are turning to young adult fiction. Like an angst-filled teenage girl, I want escapism from my fiction, a trapdoor to a world other than my own.

But I don't like things that are light and airy; I need to feed my dark side, so I like to escape into grittiness, dystopia, murder mysteries, psychological thrillers-- but they have to be well written.

To be fair, I have to admit I also like falling into lyrical well-written books such as those written by Alice Hoffman (I've read every book of hers) or Lawrence Durell, who writes:
"Perhaps our only sickness is to desire a truth which we cannot bear rather than to rest content with the fictions we manufacture out of each other." (from Clea, one of the Alexandria Quartet)
But there are precious few writers who can engage me, and I fear it's only going to get worse:

I heard a disturbing piece on NPR this morning about Amazon directly publishing Kindle titles and some company called Wowio that sells ad space in e-books. The reporter said, "Americans have accepted the quid pro quo of viewing ads in exchange for receiving low-cost or free content." (I'm paraphrasing).

So now, mediocre authors can easily get published on Kindle, neatly side-stepping any quality review they would have gotten at Random House, etc. And at the same time, Amazon publishing will be motivated to find content--any content--to surround those ads.

It seems literature is headed the way of journalism, where the news is just grey stuff to fill in the space between ads or just sensation to appease the sponsor.

For a reader just looking for a good story to escape to and some decent writing that doesn't jar her sensibilities, this is bad news indeed.

Meanwhile, as YA fiction continues to thrive, this article in the LA Times attempts to explain why adults are turning to YA fiction. One source in it speculates that the reason is that "there's no bones made about the fact that a YA book is explicitly intended to entertain."

And yes, later on, I will read Moby Dick.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Inventing the Future

Image courtesy of
I'm reading Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. I discovered quite by accident that there is a sequel to Oryx and Crake, that that unsettling ending isn't the end of the story after all.

As with Stephen King (sorry, Margaret, for comparing you to such a mainstream author), I have discovered Atwood's formula. But instead of making me lose interest, this discovery has made me see science fiction wherever I look.

While King creates horror by first making the reader completely recognize the characters and setting (thus bringing the unspeakable horror "home," so to speak), Atwood takes objectionable recognizable things from around us and imagines the worst possible outcome-- X, whatever it is, to the nth degree.

In A Handmaid's Tale, for example, she takes government control of women's reproductive systems and says "what if this got much, much worse?" In Oryx and Crake, she takes commercialism and anti-intellectualism and says the same thing.

Reading her work, you suddenly recognize, in case you missed it, that you are actually living in a dystopia. It's right here all around us, fueled by mass media and the information age, and it isn't destined to get any better any time soon. That's Atwood's formula for horror.

I once heard a science fiction author speak and she said "Science fiction is inventing the future." The dystopic subgenre of science fiction, playmate of horror, operates as a warning--- but does anyone listen? Do we have to invent such an ugly future?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Why It Takes Me Awhile to Write a Presentation

Because nothing is simple in my mind. Work assignment: write a presentation.
(Image courtesy of
But first, these types of thoughts have to run through my mind and find a place to settle along with the task at hand.
"We trace the historical development of the business presentation genre over the last century, examine the influence of the PowerPoint software tool, and consider the evolving enactment of the PowerPoint presentation genre in a few organizations.

Drawing on this analysis, we highlight the emergence of what we refer to as corollary genres that challenge our conventional understandings of genres as tightly coupled to particular recurrent situations and communicative purposes.

Our analysis points to an empirical blurring of genre expectations around conventional discursive practice, suggesting important implications for the nature of workplace communication in contemporary organizations."
-- From "The PowerPoint Presentation and Its Corollaries: How Genres Shape Communicative Action in Organizations"

(I include the link in case you are as complicated as I am)

Monday, May 2, 2011

May Day

These little sprouts were hibiscus starts by the time I transplanted them today.
Thank goodness Spring has arrived.

In hopes of Spring, a folded away the down comforter and exchanged it for a fresh cotton quilt. When I pass through the room and see the expanse of this quilt and the sheer white curtains dancing above it in the breeze, I want to lie down and daydream.

In hopes of Spring, I set out for the day in a t-shirt and shorts. By the time late afternoon rolled around, I had to add Uggs to this ensemble. Shorts + Uggs = hope+ reality.

In hopes of Spring, I got on my knees and planted pansies and impatiens, little emblems of instant gratifications as I wait for the herbs in my flowerbed to grow larger. And I secreted bulbs under the ground like Easter eggs to find next spring.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Algebra of Selling Yourself

Image courtesy of
Work is supposed to take up 40 hours of each week, right? We sell 40 hours of each precious 168 hours of our lives in order to survive. It's less than a quarter of our time, so it's not a bad deal really, considering what people once had to do to survive.

Then we sleep, what?, 7 hours a night, if we're lucky and insomnia doesn't plague us. That's 49 hours a week, 30 percent of a week.

Another 5 hours a week getting ready for work, 3.5 hours a week getting to and from work and 5 hours a week having lunch breaks (but because they are surrounded on both sides by work, one can hardly think of them as one's own time). That's another 15.5 hours (10 percent of a week) that belong to work and not to myself.

That's 104.5 hours out of 168 that are not available for all the rest of the things I need or would like to do.

Or, looking at it positively, I have 63.5 hours a week to cook, eat, shop, do errands, pay bills, take walks, call my mom, see my kids, visit friends, write, garden, fly kites, kayak, dance, do yoga and kiss my boyfriend.

The trick is not to be mentally and physically exhausted during those 63.5 hours so that they can be used properly.

At the moment, the problem is that work is nudging out of its 55.5-hour allotment, bleeding by the hour into my "free" time and even into my sleep.

I have to get it under control or I'm going to become like those sweaty guys in bad suits swigging Maalox from their desk drawers.
This week, a crew (including me) from the company I work for is going to a trade show in Las Vegas. Work, already growing beyond its boundaries as I have described, is about to take on 24/7 proportions for an entire week.

By the way, don't let the word "Vegas" sound too alluring; I've been to these events before. They are a series of 15 hour days on your feet answering question after question, walking miles on concrete, smiling when you don't want to, and not being able to shut down your mind for sleeping when you finally get back to your cold hotel room.

When I get home, I intend to find balance.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Rides & Residences

(Image courtesy of Pioneer Valley Local)
Thirty years pass, water under the bridge, then the wonders of social networking allow for this exchange, each colorful term a tiny door that could be opened to reveal a wondrous vista.

She writes: "Did you know several of my stories lately have begun with, 'I once dated a hot-air balloon pilot...' I always have to stop there and let people comment on that notable fact before I can launch into the real story, whatever it is: my aversion to spitting over the side of an airborne vessel, how good Constant Comment tastes early in the morning, or how to pronounce Tulomne."

And he replies: "
On occasions, I still tell the story of dating a woman who, in total earnest, looked me right in the eyes and stated: 'I can't believe that you own a perfectly good 1964 Volkswagon microbus, and you don't even live in it!'"

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Slow Fast Food

Image courtesy of
Well, now that I've revived the blog, I have to decide what to do with it. There are so many directions to go that I just can't decide.

Maybe it could be a spot for restaurant reviews, in which case I should tell you about Naan of the Above in Arcata, where I had lunch today.

It's sort of a stationary mobile restaurant. I mean, it's on wheels like a taco truck but tidier and more colorful. One eats al fresco, perched uncomfortably on lightweight resin patio furniture, trucks blasting by drowning out conversation, wind whipping through blowing the paper napkins off the table.

It's like fast food, except, well, not fast.

And not cheap either, at 9 bucks and change for two samosas and a mango lassi. The samosas were delicious and so was the lassi, but I think the price is too steep. I would like to have tried more things on the menu (like the kheer or the naan), but I couldn't afford it.

The al fresco part sounds nice but the location isn't good. And on a cool day like today, I'd prefer comfortable indoor dining.

And my favorite Indian restaurant remains: Eureka's buffet at Pak Indian Cuisine. Especially the chai, the rice pudding, naan, the chicken tikka masala and the dahl. Sometimes, there's even okra. All you can eat and Bollywood on the big screen: works for me.

If only it was closer to my work.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


After a six-month silence, here I am, back again. With such little activity, it's likely there are no more readers of the Bitten Apple out there.

During this time, I have archived all the posts I ever wrote since the inception of this blog in 2008, saved them all as Word files, began the project of printing them out into book form, for no better reason than a person would have for saving an old journal. For posterity, or something like that. But what happened to the Bitten Apple?

2009 was clearly the its heyday, and 2010 was definitely its year of decline; 91 posts in 2008, 128 in 2009 and 20 in 2010.

You might wonder, did I lose interest in writing? In writing publicly? Did I run out of things to say? To ponder? Not exactly.

It was a combination of things, the completion of a project, life changes. In May 2010, grad school ended, ending also the long, arduous process of researching and writing my graduate thesis. That process was a dark time of enforced house arrest, stuck with an overactive mind and a computer that I dare not stray too far from. I had leftover musings, and they found their way to the blog.

When that ended, it was like the sun came out, like I was set free into the bright sunshine with no desire to devote hours to writing. I fell in love, flew kites, had picnics, partied.

I also job hunted and worked three jobs at once, university teacher on weekday mornings, marketing assistant weekday afternoons, assistant newspaper editor on Sundays. This didn't leave a lot of extra time.

The blog itself became less hospitable. Suffice it to say it became less enticing to share anything meaningful here.

In addition to that, 2010 was a tumultuous year, and my feelings weren't often fit for publication.

Finally, there is the fact (still remaining) that the things that interest me, amuse me and shock me hardly ever seem to coincide with what has similar effect on others. TV annoys me, journalism is in decline, I hate it that NPR reported on which Superbowl commercials were best. I was already a complete grammar nerd thanks to descriptive linguistics, and now that I work for a tech company, I am even nerdier than ever.

So, while there is plenty on my mind, I haven't been sure that sharing any of it here was such a great idea.

I've felt the lack, though, the absence of an outlet, a place to process impressions, a way to add dimension and meaning to the everyday incidents of life.

So I'm back.