Tuesday, August 30, 2011

First waves

We didn't make it to the beach nearly enough this summer, so a couple weeks ago we made time to go. It was a great day (a little overcast in the morning) but the waves were pretty small. Fortunately, they were the perfect size for the girls to learn. And with a little help Kate and Maddie were able to catch their first waves. Haley, too. Luckily I had the camera! Maddie and Jolie tried riding the board together - they did manage to get up several times but I missed getting video of it. Anyway, this is the best I could compile (and make sure you've got the sound turned on).

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Shaking in Pittsburgh

I had to travel to Pittsburgh for business this week, and while I hate being away from my family it was nice to see someplace I'd never been before. And Pittsburgh was a lot prettier than I expected - it's not the "Steel town" it used to be. There are a LOT of trees and it's very green, although I imagine the winters must be pretty hard. I rode the "Incline" - or one of them anyway - which is like a little cable car that climbs up the hillside (like the one at Magic Mountain) - and enjoyed the nighttime view of downtown from the top. I walked around downtown a bit, enjoyed some really good food, and attended a Pirates baseball game.

I was also there for the rare East Coast earthquake on Tuesday. We were on the 19th floor and felt the shaking and swaying pretty well even though it was a couple hundred miles away. Apparently, the Appalachian Mountains are very old and the whole "plate" is fused together, so the shaking traveled longer distances than it would in California where the plates are more fractured. But it was fun to be there for it.

Those aren't real trees - they're "steel magnolias."

A "disco dino," a "ketchup dino," and another - I think he was fossils - in the middle of glass buildings that look kind of like castles.

The lobby of the William Penn Hotel where I stayed.

Old churches are always the coolest thing in these eastern cities.

From my seat at the ballgame - with the Pittsburgh skyline across the river.

A giant statue of Willie Stargell outside the stadium.  If there's one thing ALL Pittsburghers love it's their sports teams.

There's a lot of bridges, too.  And this one was closed to everything but foot traffic for the baseball game.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Red Skies at Night

Here's another great New Wave song from my early high school years that I still absolutely love: "Red Skies at Night" by The Fixx.  Keep in mind that back in 1982 many videos were pretty simple, especially for a new band just breaking onto the music scene.  This was from their first album, "Shuttered Room," which also had the song "Stand or Fall" (which had a much more polished video).  They made it really big the next year with their album "Reach the Beach" with the single "One Thing Leads to Another" which became a top 5 hit in the US.  A lot of their music had a 'Cold War paranoia' theme which was common in the early 80s (maybe moreso among European bands), but I really don't know what this song's about - I just love the way it sounds!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sunshine yellow shutters and a strawberry red door

So, have you read anything by Gary Schmidt yet? I've already recommended The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now as enthusiastically as I could, and if you've read either of those books I know you're looking for more by the author. You might even have already found Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. We listened to the audio book on a car trip and loved it. It's based on real events in Maine and deals with racism and the ugly consequences - so it's a bit serious - but don't think it's not a "nice" story or that there's nothing happy about it. It's the kind of book you'll be glad you read.

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster BoyTurner Buckminster III is the son of the new minister in Phippsburg, Maine. It's 1912 and they don't play baseball the same way as in Boston. Nor do they appear to speak the same language. And as Turner has no friends in Phippsburg, the number at the end of his name starts to feel more and more like prison bars, and he considers "lighting out for the territories." But then he meets Lizzie Bright Griffin, the granddaughter of the preacher on Malaga Island, where lives a settlement of former slaves. Lizzie teaches him how to hit a Maine baseball, how to dig for clams, and how to row a boat. But being friendly with negroes is one of many things frowned upon in Phippsburg, and when some influential town members decide the Malaga settlement must go to make room for a hotel to attract tourists, Turner finds himself at odds with lots of people... including his father.

Gary Schmidt has the most amazing and beautiful way with words. He can put you right in his character's shoes, make you feel their pain, and their happiness. You can smell the salty breeze and see the sun shining on a beautiful summer's day. Like I've said before, these are the kind of books that really strike a chord deep down and you feel a real concern for the people in the story. So, do yourself a favor and pick up one of Mr. Schmidt's books - you'll be glad you did. (And you'll probably start looking for the rest of them.)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Notes from the garden - soil

I think the biggest reason my vegetable garden isn't more productive is the soil. I've read that good soil should have about 5% organic matter and mine's nowhere near that (many western soils only have about 1%). The easiest thing to do is dig in bags of organic soil ammendments, but that's also probably the most expensive way. Nonetheless, I added 8 large bags this Spring (and about twice that last year) and some places are a little better, but it hasn't made enough of a difference.

Last fall and in between plantings I dug in as many leaves and kitchen scraps (plant matter only, of course) as I could. They seem to break down pretty fast but I'm still not seeing much visible improvement so I'll keep doing that each fall. I never have to mow the lawn (one of the perks of your wife running a landscaping business) but I'd like to get my old mower running again so I can chop the leaves up first. That way they should break down faster.

I'm also trying composting again. I tried a compost pile in Utah, but I don't want an unsightly pile in the yard.  Besides, it took forever, and I wanted to see if I could speed it up. I've read about compost tumblers that promise perfect compost in 2 weeks but they cost $300 to $400 - and if I were going to spend that much I might as well spend it on bags of soil ammendment. (Also, I'm a little suspicious of the claims those companies make.) So I found a basic plan online for making one, and with a trash can, some scrap wood and pvc pipe, and a few hours one Saturday afternoon I made my own.

The stand holds the trash can up so I can turn it around once a day, mixing everything inside. The pvc pipes, which run through at different angles, break everything up and have slits cut in them to allow oxygen to mix in when it tumbles. Unfortunately, I used pretty large pipes which seems to dry it out faster, so I've covered some of the ends. The lid stays on even when it's upside down. And it's on the south side of the house where it gets plenty of sunshine to help heat it up. It's not as pretty as a commercial one, but the price was right.

It all breaks down to a lot less volume than when it went in.  And I've decided I didn't need all the pipes - just turning it over mixes everything just fine.

The only problem is that it doesn't seem to be working much faster than an ordinary compost pile. I think part of the problem is that I didn't chop up the leaves that went into it initially. I also think the carbon/nitrogen mix wasn't ideal, so adding nitrogen fertilizer has helped. Also, since it's a pretty small volume of material it might not be heating up as much as it should. But kitchen scraps that get added in quickly biodegrade and disappear, and I've had no problems with bad smells. I'll keep working at it to figure out how to make it decompose everything quicker. It probably won't add a lot of organic matter to my garden, but it's something. And besides, it's recycling things that would otherwise just go in the trash.

I guess this is the downside of using a plastic trash can.  I leaned on it a bit when the plastic was especially warm and soft.  I'll have to figure out a way to fix it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Writers on writing

Since I wish to be a writer I'm often interested in what published writers have to say about writing.  I recently read this in the "acknowledgements" of a book where the author was thanking all those who helped her:

"It takes a village to make a writer.  I'm one of the lucky ones who has always known writing is what I was meant to do.  I arrived at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, at the age of fifteen, typewriter in hand, and wrote for nearly twenty years straight without earning as much as one cent.  Only at the age of thirty-four did things shift for me, and I've earned my living as a writer ever since.  I say that for all of the writers following in my footsteps.  Don't give up."

And who'd have thought anyone was still actually writing by hand?  This author is thanking someone who typed it all up for him:

"I wrote the drafts in longhand on the blank back sides of junk mail, sometimes late at night, when the slant of my scrawl defied translation."
-- Joseph J. Ellis, author of First Family: Abigail & John Adams

Friday, August 12, 2011

Charles who?

I'm feeling bummed out that I missed backpacking this year, especially after listening to friends talk about their backpacking trips this summer.  Everyone says it was amazing to see the incredible amount of water in the rivers from the heavy snowfalls.  Oh well - next year schedules will work out better - and I might as well review a book about an explorer who really went out into the great unknown... and saw a lot of water.

Every school child knows of Lewis & Clark, right? But what about Charles Wilkes? Who is Charles Wilkes, you say? Well, he was the leader of the U.S. Exploring Expedition (also known as the Ex. Ex.) from 1838 to 1842. What?!? You've never heard of the U.S. Exploring Expedition? But it accomplished so much:
  • Confirmed the presence of Antarctica as a continent at the bottom of the earth and mapped 1,500 miles of its coast.
  • Charted 800 miles of coast in the Pacific Northwest and 100 miles of the Columbia River.
  • Mapped dozens of islands in the South Pacific, and some of those maps were still being used a hundred years later during WWII.
  • Brought back 40 tons of scientific specimens which included: 4,000 ethnographic artifacts; 50,000 botanical specimens including over a thousand living plants; and thousands of birds, mammals, fish, coral, insects, etc. (much of which became the foundation of the Smithsonian).
  • Collected a tremendous amount of information and data on the diversity of people and places, languages and customs, and scientific observations.
Pretty impressive, huh? But, you might ask, how important (or interesting) could the Ex. Ex. and Charles Wilkes have been if they've been almost completely forgotten? It’s like going to the Moon and not telling anyone. Maybe there's a reason no one bothered to remember (and it's not because Wilkes was humble!).

Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 [Hardcover]But of course, someone has bothered to remember (and write about it). Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 by Nathaniel Philbrick is an outstanding and very readable book that tells the strange story of the Ex. Ex. and its even stranger commander.

Charles Wilkes was a young and inexperienced lieutenant with "an aching need for praise and control." His insecurity "drove him to astounding accomplishments" but also made him his own worst enemy when it came to his relationship with his crew and officers. Upon the return of the Ex. Ex. numerous court martials ensued, becoming a huge embarrassment to the government. Washington politics played a part as well, as the government failed to give Wilkes a promotion that would have given him the authority necessary to command such an important expedition. It didn't help that Wilkes returned a year late and the new administration wasn't eager to report the successes of the prior one. So, the government decided to brush it under the rug and hope for all the ugliness to just go away.

But fortunately, Philbrick didn't ignore it and he does a good job of analyzing the relationships between Wilkes and his men. And the account of Wilkes' time atop Mauna Loa was pretty inspiring. I only wish the scientific accomplishments had played a more central part of the narrative and had been explained better. There's also a lot of nautical terminology which was hard for a landlubber like me to follow. Still, it’s a very interesting bit of history, and the next time you see a map of Antarctica look for a part called Wilkesland, and now you'll know who named it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Frodo lives

I first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was a teenager. I still have those paperbacks on my shelf, some a little more worn than others. They still have leaves pressed between their pages – green in the beginning and turning orange and red as the story progresses. And when I re-read them a few years ago it took me back to those teenage days as I sometimes read them under a back yard tree in the summer shade or the autumn sun. But reading them took me much further than my youth; it transported me to another world – the world of Middle Earth. That's the power of a great story.

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort."

J. R. R. Tolkien was born in South Africa but grew up near Birmingham, England. His father died when he was three and his mother when he was 12, but he was strongly influenced by her Roman Catholic faith. His love of poetry and northern European languages and mythologies became a guiding passion that directed his life – from Oxford through the French battlefields of WWI and back again. But Tolkien is known best for his books, and I love the fact that The Hobbit began as a story for his children. It was only when he shared his writings with some friends (like C. S. Lewis) that it eventually was published and he was asked to write more about hobbits – both by his publisher and his new fans!

J.R.R. Tolkien (Christian Encounters Series)Tolkien is frequently called “the father of modern fantasy literature,” but in my opinion, his books transcend mere genre. I tried reading other "fantasy" books but couldn't get into any of them (I've never even been able to finish The Silmarillion). And that wide appeal, according to author Mark Horne, is part of what makes The Lord of the Rings such a powerful story.  Rather than being overtly religious (as Lewis' Narnia series was), it presents the struggle between good and evil and leaves the reader to “apply” it as they will. Tolkien was devoutly Catholic (and felt that LOTR was very "Catholic"), but disliked the idea of pushing his beliefs upon his readers.

For several years now I've had a couple of books about Tolkien on my to-be-read list, but somehow they never seem to percolate to the top. So when I saw J. R. R. Tolkien (Christian Encounters Series) from Thomas Nelson Publishers (I received the book through their blogger program) I knew it could fit into my reading schedule. My foremost concern was that it might be overbearing or preachy, but to Mr. Horne's credit, he is as modest as Tolkien was. He never assumes too much or overstates the role of religion in Tolkien's life, but explains perfectly how the books were influenced by his faith. And if there's any fault in this short bio, it's that it's too short – 130 pages just doesn’t seem enough.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A silent explosion

The bombing of Hiroshima is one of the most controversial subjects of WWII. You don't have to look hard to find internet forums with heated arguments for and against it. Did it shorten the war and save lives? Did Japan deserve it? Was it necessary? Were there other options? I've already recommended Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima by Stephen Walker as excellent reading, and my personal feeling is that bringing the war to an abrupt halt saved many lives - especially American lives, but Japanese, too. I don't believe anything but a real-life demonstration would have convinced Japan's military government to surrender. Yet I also feel very sad that it had to come to that – that many innocent people had to die to demonstrate the futility of continued fighting.

HiroshimaHiroshima by John Hersey was first published in 1946, very shortly after the bombing. This simple little book recounts the experiences of six civilians in Hiroshima who survived the atomic blast on August 6, 1945. Few residents recall hearing any sound from the explosion, just the bright flash and the shock wave. Even those who died soon after most often did so in silence. The book tells what those 6 were doing that morning, what happened when the atomic bomb exploded, and how they coped in the hours, days, weeks and months that followed. The final chapter returns 40 years later to follow up on the rest of their lives.

I'd heard rave and almost reverential recommendations of this book and wondered if my thoughts would be changed by reading it. The text is mostly straightforward and seemingly neutral in its judgment; it reports that most Hiroshimans did not blame the US for the bomb, they just wanted to get on with their lives as best they could. It is not until the very end that it seems to take on an agenda, and while I found the initial part of the book fascinating and compelling, the follow-up chapter was disappointing. It isn't especially graphic or horrific in its account, but does portray what ordinary Japanese experienced, and made me feel extremely grateful that such weapons have not been used since 1945.

This is a worthwhile book for anyone interested in the subject to read. But I would urge you not to read with the intent to fortify your opinion either way - the book's focus is much too narrow for such - but to read it for the history and human experience it reports.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Pioneer Day in Utah

Since the boys were attending Especially For Youth (EFY) at BYU in Provo, we all drove up the weekend before and were able to spend Pioneer Day in Utah.  For those who don't know, Pioneer Day is July 24th when they celebrate the arrival of Brigham Young and the first pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley.  In Utah it's almost as big as the 4th of July, and we kind of miss it.  So Jamie thought it would be fun to visit "This is the Place State Park" (that's what Brigham Young said when he looked over the valley as they came through the mountains) and we took Ben S. with us.  And this little park (which is run by the State, not the Church) features a bunch of historic pioneer buildings - some originals that were moved from various places around the state and some rebuilt to match historic buildings.

Looking out over the valley.

For some reason we thought it would be funny to take pictures of the boys with outhouses (but I'll spare you more than just one photo!).

I'll bet the pioneers couldn't have gotten an ice cold Diet Coke from the General Store like we did.

Yes, we made them pose for lots of pictures.

What, you didn't know the pioneers had a petting zoo?