Friday, March 29, 2013

"They have fat umpires, don't they?"

I was always skinny as a kid. Not just thin, but downright skinny. I didn't even reach 100 lbs until I was a teenager. Even into my 20s I could eat as much of whatever I wanted and not put on a pound. Of course, as many of you probably know, that changes - the part about not adding any weight, I mean. No, changing your eating habits takes longer, and by then extra pounds have usually accumulated. And the older you get, the harder it gets to take it off. So, in some ways I could kind of relate to Losing It by Erin Fry.

Thirteen-year old Bennett Robinson is a big Dodgers fan - in more ways than one. He and his dad watch the games together on their sagging sofa while eating burgers and fries, and both have very serious weight problems. But things change when Bennett's dad suffers a stroke. His mom died of cancer when he was 5 and until his dad gets out of rehab (IF he gets out) he's going to have to live with his pushy Aunt Laura and her family. But Bennett doesn't want to end up like his dad, and a notice on the bulletin board at school about the cross country team catches his eye.

I considered getting this book (which I received from Amazon Vine) for weeks. It sounded interesting and I'm always on the lookout for books for my kids. But it turned out be a surprisingly fun read, and since it's told from Bennett's perspective it makes him very easy to sympathize with. And as if running a mile (or even walking up the stairs!) isn't hard enough for a "fat boy," he's also got to deal with the knowledge that there are serious limits to his father's insurance coverage. Plus, he's uncomfortable having to live at Aunt Laura's house, especially since she's not very supportive of his unhealthy lifestyle. Unfortunately, his best friend, PG, isn't very supportive either when he says he's thinking of joining the cross country team. Oh yeah - there's also Luis, the little punk who's picking on him at school, and Bennett doesn't know how to stand up to a bully. But it's not all bad - there's a really cute girl who seems to actually like him. And it all adds up to an easy-to-read and inspiring story about not giving up - for kids of all sizes. And in some ways it even reminded me of Gary Schmidt's outstanding The Wednesday Wars, although maybe not quite as cleverly-written.

As for me, I'm giving it another try. Losing it, I mean.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Cannon fodder

Although I enjoy reading war histories, I have no romantic illusions about war or the life of a soldier. And once in a while I stumble across books that really emphasize - whether deliberately or not - that war is hell. Yes, there is bravery and heroism, but sometimes it's just death and destruction. The First World War was especially one of those odd contrasts: whitewashed at the time with plenty of romanticism, and yet the reality was so much pointless devastation both of people and the land.

Yanks : The Epic Story of the American Army in World War I is one of those that emphasizes the waste and recurrent futility, although I think it was unintentional. It was written by John S. D. Eisenhower, whose father was later the president, but served under General Pershing after the war as head of the commission for war memorials. As a child, John tagged along with his father visiting the battle sites and he brings this knowledge to the book, but as an Army Reserve general himself, he also brings a general's tactical eye, and this book reads more like a topographical overview of troop movements and battle skirmishes. The focus here is on America's role in the war and he attempts to mix in personal information from ordinary soldiers, but it's minimal and all it does is serve to emphasize the low value placed on human life when it's reduced to numbers, especially by those who fight wars behind the front lines. That's not to say it isn't interesting, and it really gave me a better idea of what was going on. After all, the personal experience of the soldiers only tells one of the stories of the war, and the bigger picture is another of those stories.

Unfortunately, as much as I'd like to think human life was valued more in the next war, The Bedford Boys: One American Town's Ultimate D-day Sacrifice doesn't really support that idea. It was written by Alex Kershaw who has a way of presenting history in a readable way but it's thinner on the technical aspects and heavier on the personal side. He writes of the young men from Bedford, Virginia, who were part of the invading force on Omaha Beach. D-Day was unfortunately one of those situations where overwhelming numbers were needed to break through the German lines. Unfortunately, plans to knock out German defenses didn't go so well and Allied troops walked into a shooting gallery on the beaches. What ensued was a hard fought victory with a high number of casualties - especially for the little town of Bedford. Supposedly this book was the inspiration for the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” but it's also a reminder of the sacrifices we too often take for granted.

Saturday, March 16, 2013


The word "pioneer" has a slightly different meaning for us Mormons who usually think of our ancestors who crossed the plains from Illinois to Utah in the days of Brigham Young when they faced such intense religious persecution. But like the more typical image of the lonely pioneers who settled the West, they also faced a hard and unforgiving land that demanded hard work and more than just a little luck. My own Green family ancestors became unlikely pioneers when they joined the church in their native England and immigrated in the 1850s, crossing the plains with handcarts and settling where they were asked to go by church leaders. For some it was a hard life but most seem to have found plenty of happiness as well.

When my son was assigned to read books by Willa Cather I figured it might help if I read them, too. O Pioneers! is the first in Cather's "Great Plains" trilogy, and is about the Bergson family of Swedish immigrants in Nebraska around the turn of the century. The oldest daughter, Alexandra, is tough and serious, and her father leaves her in charge of the family homestead on his deathbed instead of her brothers, Lou and Oscar. She later proves her smarts in the midst of a drought when most immigrant families are losing their farms. Although her brothers want to sell the land, she notices rich men buying everything cheaply. Instead of selling, she proposes they borrow money and buy more land, and eventually they become well-to-do farmers. Even then, her brothers continue to be scornful of her ideas.

A recurring theme of the book is relationships. Alexandra feels a relationship to the land, even if it's not always a loving one. She understands that the life of a farmer isn't easy and can be harsh, but she also sees and feels its beauty in a way others don’t. On the other hand she's not as comfortable socially and is neither a warm person nor good at reading people, sometimes with grave consequences.

But even when her relationship with Lou and Oscar deteriorates, she remains loving and protective to her youngest brother, Emil, the baby of the family. As the family prospers, Alexandra saves him from a life of backbreaking labor and provides for him to get an education. But Emil’s situation is complicated by the fact that he's in love with the beautiful and beguiling Bohemian girl Marie Tovesky. Unfortunately, she impulsively marries the intense Frank Shabata, and although their relationship is limited by her marriage they continue to pine for each other. Another less romantic relationship in the story is between Alexandra and Carl Linstrum, a neighbor whose family left during the drought, but who later returns to visit.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this story, especially at the beginning (the ending got a little… well, tragic). With the emphasis on the land I was reminded of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. Wang Lung also had a connection with the land, although slightly different from Alexandra, and both have to deal with troublesome relatives – Wang Lung’s sons and Alexandra’s brothers – who have less esteem for the land and become overconfident in their prosperity. Both the sons and the brothers marry women who desire a softer life and enjoy social prominence. Likewise, Alexandra’s farming success as a woman in a “man’s world” reminded me of Bathsheba Everdene in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, and Alexandra’s brothers are condescending toward their sister even though she’s the primary reason for their affluence. Both stories also share an admiration for the beauty of the land.

But the tone of O Pioneers! is reflective of the flat land of the Great Plains as well, being sometimes spare and harsh. Dialog is often plain and unpretentious, and characters are described more by their actions than their words and thoughts and Cather resorts to stereotypes with some. In fact, she waxes poetic mostly when describing the land, whether a beautiful misty morning with ducks swimming on a pond or the bitter wind of winter trying to blow the awkward human habitations off the plain. And for most of the book that’s what held my attention, and I ended up reading it in just a couple of days. It was the ending that left me feeling less satisfied than I had been, but maybe I’ll read the next in the series – if for nothing else than to help my son with his schoolwork.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Is there life out there?

When I was about 7 or 8 years old my parents bought me a telescope. It wasn't very powerful but it was good enough for viewing the moon, and I spent many a cold evening outside watching it rise over the mountains. And maybe that's one of the great things about being a kid - you can be interested in so many things and there's always something new and exciting to learn. But it isn't an interest I've pursued much since then. Yes, I still love to look at the stars - especially if a friend has a really great telescope - but my little binoculars are all I have. And yet I'm still interested enough to read books and articles about space exploration.

You might be forgiven for thinking that Destiny or Chance Revisited: Planets and their Place in the Cosmos by Stuart Ross Taylor is about astrology and fortune-telling, but this excellent book really is about the stars and planets. More specifically it's about the possibility that there is intelligent life (kinda like us, but hopefully more intelligent) out there. And it's a topic that's frequently in the news lately as we see more and more stories about astronomers discovering new "earth-like" planets as they scan the heavens. A problem, Professor Taylor says, is defining what "earth-like" actually means.

This is a good primer on what we know about the universe, which is largely limited to our observations of those planets nearest us - and what we see is a whole lot of variety. None of the 8 planets in our solar system are alike, and astronomers aren't finding a lot of planets elsewhere that resemble them. In fact, the conditions we find nearest to us don't appear to be normal or ordinary elsewhere. Taylor discusses the composition of the planets and the current theories on how each was formed after the Big Bang. He discusses a broad range of things like comets and asteroids and orbits and tilts (and lots of other stuff that was a bit over my head!) and it was fascinating to read.

This probably isn't the best introduction to the subject and I found I had to go slowly and frequently re-read pages to understand. Taylor often uses terms that aren't included in his glossary in the front of the book, and sometimes they aren't even explained at the same time he first uses them but much later on. And it was irritating that he begins many sections with quotes that are only attributed in the endnotes of the book - I wish the author's name and maybe even the date had been included with the quote for context (the notes in general seemed thin). But that sounds like I'm complaining more than I am and honestly I enjoyed this book and found it very insightful. (In fact, the ideas and concepts were so awe-inspiring that I was embarrassed to think of the hours people - not me - waste watching something so stupid as "reality television"!)

As for the question of whether or not intelligent life can be found elsewhere; I have my own opinions but they're based on my religious beliefs - something Professor Taylor is especially derisive and condescending about. Initially I was rather offended, but there was much to learn from his book even if his faith in admittedly imperfect models and ever-evolving knowledge left me shaking my head. Most eye-opening, however, was his conclusion that intelligent life on earth (us) was the result of so many "accidents" (his word, not mine) and chance events that the chance of such randomness occurring elsewhere is essentially zero. His "impressive" list of accidents includes:
  • the size of the material that formed our solar system was ideal so that only one sun formed
  • the size of Jupiter (and that there was only one Jupiter) shielded the earth from continual bombardment of comets
  • the 500 ppm of water on earth which was "accidentally contributed by icy planetisimals" made plate techtonics and continents possible, and allowed for the formation of granite and ore deposits (which enabled advanced technology)
  • the collision that formed the moon, creating the ideal rotation (24 hour days rotating forward, not backward) and a tilt that provides seasons
  • that same collision also removed any thick primitive atmosphere
  • the asteroid that closed the Age of Reptiles and allowed for the rise of mammals
  • and many more...
And if so many (dare I say "miraculous") accidents are the reason we're here, doesn't that leave open the possibility of a Creator? Perhaps a Creator who knows the principles of science and physics better than we do? And if there's a Creator, isn't it possible that we're not alone?

(I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

Monday, March 4, 2013

The proper care and feeding...

As a continuation of prior posts describing carnivorous plants, the following is for anyone interested in growing them, because if you've ever bought a Venus flytrap you've probably also watched it die. Even though they're often sold with houseplants, they have different requirements. But if you want to try it (again?) here's some general tips based on my experiences and what I learned from books and others:

  • Water – Carnivorous plants (CPs) are native to wet, boggy areas, so they prefer to be much wetter than regular houseplants. Sarracenia (American pitcher plants) and sundews should even be left standing in water frequently. But tap water will probably have too much dissolved solids (aka "hard water") and added chemicals such as chlorine which will kill the plants. (Water softeners that add salt to the water will kill your plant even faster!) Instead, buy distilled or RO (reverse osmosis) water from the store (be careful not to get "mineral" or "drinking" water). Or you can collect rain water as long as it's not too dirty or oily.
  • Light – Sarracenia, most Drosera, and flytraps do best with full sun. Nepenthes and most Pinguicula will prefer some shading. My plants did better outside (in spite of the low humidity - see below) where they usually got several hours of direct sunshine. A bright windowsill will also work, but be aware that temperatures can get high when the sun is shining on your plants.

  • Humidity – Most CPs grow in humid environments which makes it a little harder here in dry Western deserts. While I did what I could to keep the humidity around the plants higher (like keeping them out of breezy areas), Sarracenia, flytraps, and some sundews seemed to manage in spite of it. Nepenthes (tropical pitcher plants) however, need high humidity and won't form pitchers without it so you'll need something like a greenhouse or a terrarium with lights.
  • Soil – Carnivorous plants are native to poor soils, so regular potting soil won't do. Long-fiber sphagnum moss (not green or sheet moss) is probably the best and may even start growing, but peat moss mixed with white silica sand (the kind used for sandblasting) at a ratio of 1:1 or 2:1 peat/sand works well (Perlite can be substituted for the sand). The aim is to have a low-nutrient but highly water-retentive soil. If you want to try a Cobra Lily only use sphagnum.

  • Pots – Plastic pots with drainage holes are the best because they don't dry out as fast as clay pots or leach salts. Put them in extra-deep water saucers to keep the soil wetter. You can also grow several plants together in one large pot.
  • Feeding – CPs usually catch plenty of bugs on their own, especially when grown outside. You can give them the occasional bug, but don’t overdo it. And never feed them anything like hamburger! Fertilizers aren't needed and would likely be fatal to the plants.

  • Dormancy – Temperate (non-tropical) plants like Sarracenia, flytraps, and many sundews need a "rest period" each year, similar to trees stopping growth during winter. If they don't get it they'll eventually die. Sometimes just moving them to a cool and shady spot (or maybe a garage) during winter works. I found it difficult to keep plants dormant for long inside the house and the Sarracenia usually started flowering by the end of January, but it seemed to be enough.

If you have questions feel free to ask. And some time I'll review some books about CPs.