Sunday, December 17, 2006

Friday, December 15, 2006

Aerobics Potluck

For 51 weeks a year, we do aerobics and other exercise faithfully, and in all the ways that it's good for us. But today was the day for Marie's classes to come together, do 30 minutes of aerobics and 30 minutes of Pilates, and then have a potluck lunch! We all feel that we are friends, and in fact were busy greeting those whose schedule varies so we haven't seen them for a while.

First, the exercise:
Then food and conversations. I was terrible: everyone brought wonderful home-made things like chicken salad, noodle dishes, deviled eggs, artichoke dip, spicy shrimp, cookies, scones... But I went to Trader Joe's and got grapes, a cheese log, and crackers. I feel bad. Next year I promise to bake!

I have a lot more photos -- but I tried to be selective.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Ann Arbor Theaters

Ann Arbor preserves two really retro theaters. The State Theater now shows movies only in what was formerly the balcony of a large campus-area theater, and has lost much of its original size and style to the redo. The sightlines are terrible: every seat has an awkward view.

The Michigan Theater, in contrast, represents years of preservation efforts, including repainting the overwrought ornateness of gold decor and installing all-new plush velvet seats. The Michigan shows not only first-run films, but also is home to concerts, film festivals, and other civic events. Its theater organ still rises from inside the floor at full theater-organ volume.

Thus, as in these photos, from the corner of State and Liberty one can see two theater marquees of the most impressively antique variety.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Lancaster, Pennsylvania

We spent Thanksgiving Day with Arny and Tracy in Lancaster, a wonderful historical town. The best-known activities in Lancaster County are touring the Amish farm areas and shopping at the long-established discount malls. Friday morning, we opted instead for a walk in the historic district around town to see the many one to two-hundrend year old houses. These buildings are beautifully maintained and in many cases decorated for the Thanksgiving season.

After the walk we met Miriam, Alice, Evelyn, and Tom and attended a puppet show at the nearby Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Mae's Food Blog

I have now moved all the posts on food from this blog to a single-purpose food blog:

Mae's Food Blog

Monday, November 13, 2006

Language and Linguists

For the last few months I have been following a blog called Language Log. It's written by several linguists. The content is very interesting, and the writers have a good sense of humor. Now I have become so interested that I'm taking their advice on books to read. Fortunately, the libraries that I use have many of their suggestions.

First I read:
The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language
The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language by Geoffrey K. Pullum (he's one of the irreverent Language Log writers). In this book I finally learned the objection to the claim that Eskimos have X words for snow. The questionable thing about this is not whether Eskimos do or don't have a lot of words for snow -- after all, the article points out, even we English speakers have snow, sleet, blizzard, avalanche, flurry, etc. In fact, most languages have a lot of words for things their speakers need/want to talk about.

The author points out that there are many Eskimo languages; it's not trivial to "count" how many words there are for whatever; and so most of the statements are made in total ignorance and lack of any real interest in Eskimos. Or as the author says: "The tragedy is not that so many people got the facts wildly wrong; it is that in the mentally lazy and anti-intellectual world we live in today, hardly anyone cares enough to think about trying to determine what the facts are." (p. 171)

Second I read:
Language Myths edited by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill. This book is a collection of essays by experts on things that many people wrongly or pretty wrongly believe to be true of language. Some of the essays pointed out things I knew; others were quite new to me.

The third book is:
Word Origins...and how we know them
Word Origins...and how we know them by Anatoly Liberman, which describes how word historians work, where they get their ideas, and to some extent, how to tell when someone claims to trace a word's origin but is really only blowing smoke.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Margaret Atwood: The Penelopiad

I have just read The Penelopiad. In it Margaret Atwood amusingly retells the story of Odysseus's faithful wife in her own words. The time is now. The location is Hades, the fields of asphodel. After millenia as a shade, Penelope is still jealous of gorgeous, selfish, vain Helen. She's still angry for a lifetime of mistreatment and increasingly irritated at mythological misinformation about herself. We hear all about the dishonest nature of wily Odysseus, how she often saw through his tricks, and how much less savory he was in "reality" than in Homer's version. As a shade, she knows all about Homer's version and all the subsequent versions.

Penelope doesn't like her life in Hades much; however, she resists rebirth. In contrast, since his death Odysseus has been "a French general, he's been a Mongolian invader, he's been a tycoon in America, he's been a headhunter in Borneo. He's been a film star, an inventor, an advertising man." (p. 189-90)

My favorite quote from poor Penelope: "More recently, some of us have been able to infiltrate the new ethereal-wave system that now encircles the globe, and to travel around that way, looking out at the world through the flat, illuminated surfaces that serve as domestic shrines. Perhaps that's how the gods were able to come and go as quickly as they did back then -- they must have had something like that at their disposal." (p. 19)

It's a good fun read -- far less challenging than many books by Atwood.

As I read I began to think how many authors have loved to retell old stories in new ways and forms: classic stories from mythology, Arthurian legend, Shakespeare, etc. Some retellings are straightforward; others, like West Side Story, reuse the essential plot in modern dress. The best, like Atwood's tale, refocus from the point of view of a minor or underdeveloped character. The goal may be irony, politics, or curiosity.

My mind exploded with examples:
  • Virgil wrote the Aeneid to create a Roman founder myth based in the Trojan war.
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court provided Mark Twain with ironic distance from the follies of his own era.
  • Jean Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea to recreate the first Mrs. Rochester. (She's not the only one to write a story based on this unloved madwoman.)
  • Anita Diamant's best seller The Red Tent tried a historic-anthropological take on women in early biblical times through the character of Dinah.
  • Wicked, first a novel, later a hit musical, devised a new adults-only personality for the Wicked Witch of Oz. (Author Gregory Maguire has subsequently redone several other children's stories in the same vein.)
  • An older Broadway success is The Skin of Our Teeth -- Thornton Wilder mines the Bible. Cute and universal. Now material for high school drama clubs.
  • In a heavier spirit, Par Lagerkvist created an identity for the crucified thief of Golgotha in Barabbas. (I think this blip has left the radar screen.)
  • Aldous Huxley offered a distopian version of The Tempest in Brave New World.
  • And I can't forget Hollywood's homage to Emma, the movie Clueless.

After winning a lawsuit about copyright, Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone -- same story, slave's point of view, Gone With the Wind -- dropped out of sight like a stone. I've never read either book. But I've read/seen all the others on this list. And I know there are lots more, such as at least two more recent retells borrowing characters from Jane Austen novels.

The lawsuit proved that this kind of book isn't a crime. Is it a genre? I don't know.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Armchair travel to Arabian Sands

Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger is widely recognized as a classic of travel literature. Thesiger, born in 1910, spent the late 1940s traveling in the "Empty Quarter" of Arabia with Bedu tribesmen. (He objects to the more common name Bedouin for grammatical reasons.) He spoke Arabic, wore native clothing, rode a camel for days and days across wide stretches of desert, suffered hunger and thirst, hid from authorities who hated infidels, hunted Oryx and other desert animals, and generally enjoyed every minute of his escape from civilization.

"All my life I had hated machines," he wrote. "I did not go to the Arabian desert to collect plants nor to make a map; such things were incidental. ... I went there to find peace in the hardship of desert travel and the company of desert peoples." He committed himself to travel the hard way, without any modern conveniences or conveyances: "Perhaps this was one reason why I resented modern inventions; they made the road too easy." (p. 278)

I enjoyed the details the author presents about the Bedu's powers of observation that allowed them to cross empty desert and find the rare watering places for the camels while avoiding hostile tribes. He describes the uncomfortable posture that one assumes to ride a camel, the way that the meager food is prepared, the occasional rain that created discomfort but which they had no way to capture for drink, the varieties of discomfort from cold, sand, wind, scorpion stings, and more. He told how his companions' view that any guest must be given food repeatedly made him fear as his scanty supplies of flour and coffee were offered to strangers. The variety of each chapter is always a surprise.

I suspect that I am wise to know nothing else about Thesiger than the facts presented in this book. I suspect that an Englishman who loved Arabs so much would be on the opposite side of many political situations from me. Evidence: a map of the Middle East (p. 40) where every country is named except Israel, whose boundaries are recognizable but whose existence is unrecognized. I can make a guess what this means. Thesiger stayed away from global politics. He mentioned the Israel independence war only once, in a rather neutral way, stating that his Bedu had never heard of the Jews at all. So I prefer to seek no further than this supposed neutrality.

The author's overall impression in the final pages of the book: "I shall always remember how often I was humbled by those illiterate hersmen who possessed, in so much grater measure than I, genrosity and courage, endurance, patience, and lighthearted gallantry." (p. 329)

In other words, we have the work of a romantic Orientalist of a type that can no longer sustain reasonable people's credulity. The development of the clash of civilizations, Christian and Islamic, reflected already in the widespread hatred of infidels Thesiger encountered, has changed ones ability to buy this approach. As he wrote, oil drilling and exploration were already certain to change everything for his Bedu companions. It's interesting to see the last gasp of this romantic voyaging.

Arabian Sands: Revised Edition

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Another Hike with International Neighbors

This week we hiked at County Farm Park, near the recreation building where I do my exercise class. About a dozen women participated. The weather and the fall leaves were very beautiful.

I talked to several of the other hikers, and I learned something really interesting from Katie. We were talking about making blogs, and she explained how one enters Japanese characters into a computer -- or a blog. She says one types the phonetic word into the computer (in the Hiragana alphabet). The computer returns the equivalent character (or a choice of possible equivalent character) in the pictorial system. The typist selects the desired character, thus creating a correct version of his or her text. I find this really fascinating.

Note and update: A friend asked about Japanese writing that I mentioned above. Here's a website with a description: Origin of writing in Japan

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Early Snow

Update. As often happens, we came up lucky compared to Buffalo. The snow in the picture was essentially 100% of our snow. After that: rain and a few snow showers, but no accumulation. This morning's NYT (October 13) reported:
"BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -- A rare early October snowstorm left parts of western New York blanketed with 2 feet of snow Friday morning, prompting widespread blackouts, closing schools and halting traffic."

Monday, October 09, 2006

A Week in Fairfax

When I wasn't watching Miriam and Alice, I also spent an afternoon at the National Gallery of Art, especially enjoying the special exhibit “Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris." High point of the exhibit: a stuffed lion attacking an antelope, posed as seen by a taxidermist in Paris years before Rousseau studied jungle creatures in the Natural History museum at the Jardin des Plantes.
On the wall: the magnificent Rousseau painting of the same scene, with the two animals set in a huge jungle of greenhouse plants. For more on this see Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris - The Hungry Lion...

Images from the press (like L'Illustration and Le Petit Journal), postcards, and other source material for Rousseau's eccentric visions also accompanied an amazing assembly of paintings from museums throughout the world as well as in private collections.

Food in Fairfax

Thursday, September 28, 2006

A Walk in Webster Township

Today was my first hike with the International Neighbors Hiking Group. We started at the church on Webster Church Road, walked to Zeeb Road, up to a llama farm, and back to the church. On the way, we saw huge puff balls, and passed by a farm whose inhabitants love to draw murals on the sides of their buildings.

After the walk, the church's gardner -- a friend of the hike leader -- invited us to eat our sack lunches in the garden. From the picnic tables we enjoyed the view of her colorful flowers and vegetables. Her sweet potato plants spread down from their raised bed: the church has a relationship with people from Ghana, who love to cook and eat sweet potato leaves as well as the tubers. Unfortunately the weather has turned very cool, so it was not entirely comfortable to eat outdoors.

The boy scouts have a meeting place nearby. The gardner discovered that the scouts are happy to supply her with labor for building the garden. They have cleared some ground and made wooden raised beds that are thus accessible to visitors in wheel chairs and walkers.

The gardener said that few of the usual visitors are coming now that it's fall, so she offered herbs and flowers to take home. She gave me some marvelously scented basil. Several young women were also delighted with the flowers she gave them.

Here's one more picture by another member of the group:

Friday, September 22, 2006

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Kitchen and Bath Redo

New countertops, tile backsplashes, kitchen sink, stove, dishwasher, and bathroom faucets are virtually complete after almost two weeks of work and no cooking. The new dishwasher is running right this minute, as I have saved up the few dishes we have used during the down time (thoroughly rinsed, I assure you). It's very quiet. I know how to load it because it's just like Evelyn and Tom's dishwasher.

The new smooth-top stove, countertops, and tile backsplash:
The old stove (which wasn't working right) with old countertops etc:The new sink with space age faucet -- the tile color is actually blue with glass tile accents:

The old sink:The new faucets and new tile backsplash in the downstairs bathroom:
The old bathroom setup: